Kerem, David Stern, and Lawrence Kushner

When I turned to read this week’s Forward, I found a banner advertising the current issue of the journal Kerem. I used to receive Kerem in the 1990’s because my name was on some mailing list, but I was glad that it came because I always found it thoughtful and well edited. The journal sought to capture how people experience their Judaism. It was part dvar Torah, part first person narrative, part poetry, part midrash, and part liturgy. It stressed creativity and the renewal of Rabbinic life. I thought that it had ended in 2001 and had no idea that it put out four issues in the last decade. Well it is still around and promises greater web presence.

Here is the editors comments from this issue.

When we first founded Kerem in 1992, we aimed to address a striking paucity of journals reflecting upon the ways we think, live, and practice Jewishly. We envisioned Kerem then — as we do now — as a figurative vineyard (hence its name) whose fruits could be tasted and savored both immediately and over time. The varied genres assembled in its pages — divrei torah, rituals, mediations, midrash, fiction, poems — we hoped would both stimulate and serve as a resource. Over time, we added other features that enhanced our mission: art and photography,music.
Read the rest

They are offering some of their archives for free. They should really open it all up because no one buys back issues anymore, especially if one has access to an academic library.

Here is one of the free articles from the archives, an article by Professor David Stern from U of Pennsylvania explaining the history of vidui as the contingent combining of alternate texts of the vidui along with a narrative that such contingency precipitated his loss of faith. If the words of a prayer are only for the sake of an acrostic then every word does not count. This negates the preciousness of every word that he was taught in Yeshiva. Stern offers a nice parable he found in a kabbalistic prayerbook for the alphabetical form.

David Stern “ABC”S of Confession”
And now comes the other confession, the story of how I lost this perfect, innocent religious faith. It happened with a small, almost trivial, realization. As a born academic, I often tend to overlook the obvious. Sometime after I left the yeshiva, one Yom Kippur, as I was beating my breast
and repeating the Viddui, I realized that the Ashamnu was an alphabetic acrostic. Now, most people have probably always known this, but I hadn’t. It never even occurred to me. When I did see it, the recognition came as a crushing revelation, a terrible blow to my perfect religious faith.. It felt almost like a betrayal.

For all the time I had been reciting this prayer I had been assuming not only that every word counted, but that every word was there to cover a different kind of transgression, to make us confess and acknowledge a different species of shortcoming or sin. And now I realized that this was not so—that the reason you had bagadnu after ashamnu was not because devastation led to betrayal or that these were even different types of transgressions, but because you needed a word for sinning that began with a bet. And the same with gimmel for gazalnu, and so on.

To be sure, an alphabetical ditty is not one’s ordinary idea of a speech or an address to another person, but in that little mahzor of mine from my yeshiva days with a commentary on the Viddui there is a remarkable passage — quoted from a book called Sefer Etz haDaat Tov, The Book of the Tree of
Knowledge of the Good — that explains why the Viddui is in an alphabetic acrostic. The explanation is presented in the form of a parable about a king who had a terrible argument with his wife and banished her to a distant land. As the days of her exile in that land lengthened, the poor consort grew increasingly unhappy. What did she do? She returned to the king’s palace, took up the harp which the court musician had played on their wedding day, and she played it while weeping and lamenting, ever so plaintively, Thus and thus I rebelled against you, thus and thus I sinned against you. Finally, the king’s mercies were aroused, and he remembered the joy of his youthful love in the days of their marriage, and he took his consort back.

The meaning of this parable is clear: the king is God, the consort is Israel, the place of the consort’s exile is the place of our exile, and the harp is the letters of the Hebrew alphabet with which God composed the Torah that He gave to Israel on the day that He took Israel as His bride on Mt. Sinai.
Those letters now compose the Viddui that Israel makes to her estranged God. But as the parable makes clear, that Viddui is not a mere confession of sins. It is Israel’s love song to God, an artful, strategically conceived apology intended to win Him back, a siren’s song of apology whose real goal is to bring the redemption — as the Sefer Etz haDaat Tov concludes, bim’heirah b’yameinu, amen, kein yehi ratzon — speedily in our days, amen, so may it be His will.
Full version here

Another gem in the archives is this interview with Lawrence Kushner, one of the architects of the new Reform movement of the 1980’s and 1990’s. His first pulpit was as an associate to the outspoken Arnold Jacob Wolf in Chicago. The interview captures the gems from Arnold Wolf’s mouth about the rabbinate.

What are some of the things you learned from Arnold Wolf?
First, that you can survive in the rabbinate by telling the truth–not only in private, but also, and maybe especially, in public, no matter how embarrassing or frightening or funny your words may sound. Religious institutions are by nature prone to self-delusion, so a rabbi has a special responsibility to avoid sweet, platitudinous, feel-good talk and to speak with the candor of blunt, everyday language.

I also learned that a rabbi must not curry favor with the prominent or the wealthy–nor, on the other hand, with the modest or the weak. Therefore: no obsequiousness, no politicking, no baby kissing.

Another thing: the rabbi shouldn’t take himself or the congregation too seriously. “We are the wise men,” Wolf liked to say, “–of Chelm.” In an era when many rabbis wore black robes, had reserved parking spaces, confused their titles with their first names and in some cases actually had portraits of themselves hanging in the foyer, Arnold Wolf’s congregation called him “Arnold.” He worked without a secretary, and routinely confessed his mistakes from the pulpit.

And how did this go over with the congregation?

A lot of people were convinced the whole thing was an elaborate Machiavellian manipulation. They were wrong. Arnold Wolf demystified the rabbi-congregation relationship. He advised other rabbis to think of the congregation simply as the place where they worked, and not to hesitate to ask about such “mundane” considerations as the working conditions, the hours, the salary, the vacation. He would caution me against using the phrase “my congregation.” As he liked to say, “I only work here. Otherwise, I’d probably daven at a little Orthodox place downtown.”
He believed that rabbis didn’t own their congregations and shouldn’t try to run them. The congregation is owned by its members, the people who pay for it. It should never become an extension of the rabbi’s ego. Arnold believed that congregants should be free to make their own decisions, and that the rabbi shouldn’t even attend board meetings. He once went so far as to say that how a congregation gets and spends its money is none of the rabbi’s business–and I think he’s wrong about that. The rabbi’s business, he insisted–and continues to insist–is to teach Jews what he knows about how to grow in the service of God, and then get out of the way while they figure out for themselves how to make it all work.

Kushner’s next congregation was typical of how mixed in observance American congregations were in the 1980’s. Now everyone has been sorted out like metals, glass, and paper in a recycling bin, but thirty five years ago you still found congregations where some wanted Reform, some wanted Orthodox, ans some wanted Conservative.

What was in Sudbury when you arrived?
Chaos. A congregation of a hundred households had recently been through some major battles. Should the temple be kosher? Should it be Reform, Conservative, or unaffiliated? They had affiliated with the Reform movement a year before I arrived, but it was an uneasy truce. Of the 66 members who attended the meeting, 5 had voted for Orthodox, 11 for Reconstructionist, 19 for Conservative, 23 for Reform, and 8 for None of the Above.
The impasse was resolved when someone moved that the congregation should affiliate with the Reform movement, but would retain a kosher kitchen and observe the second day of Rosh Hashanah. They then hired a twenty-eight year-old rabbi whom they hoped would be suitable.

Kushner’s religious observance and experimentation with what works in observance created a broader spectrum of observance within Reform. He was also part of the generation that got rid of the organ high church and replaced it with the guitar, removed responsive readings, and brought in neo-Hasidism and niggunim.

Has your own religious observance changed much over the years you’ve been here?

In the years after Solel I was on a traditionally observant track, culminating in a couple of years of strict shomer Shabbos [Sabbath-observant] and strictly kosher. But I came out the other side. I remain very respectful of traditional observance, but I no longer think it’s the way for me, and I suspect it’s not going to be the way for many other Jews. Kashrut as it’s currently practiced is putting itself out of business.

Because it’s so extreme?

Yes, because no matter how kosher you are, there’s always someone who won’t eat in your kitchen. I’d like to see a reasonable standard of kashrut defined for liberal Jews. There is more than one way to be a serious and observant Jew

Was this something you learned at Solel?

No, Solel did responsive readings too. I thought they were dumb, and finally I said to myself, I’m a rabbi, I don’t have to do this. I feel the same way about the sequence of the wedding liturgy.

So what do you do about it?

I do a wedding in two acts. First we all gather around a big table, and the cantor or I will teach everyone a wedding niggun. And, as an inducement to get people to join in, we announce that we won’t bring in the bride and the groom until everyone is singing. We read and sign the ketubah, and then we have the bride and groom speak to one another publicly. It’s very powerful, and people usually cry. Only then do we erect the huppah at the other end of the room. It’s all intuitive. I don’t believe liturgy should require explanation.
Full Version Here

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