On Carlebach

For as long as I can remember, Carlebach tunes have sparked fire in my soul. It might even be fair to say that those tunes taught me what my soul is and how to find it.

I knew that Carlebach was just a man. I’d heard funny stories growing up about the time that my proper, timely and tone-deaf British grandfather had co-officiated at wedding with Carlebach. As I grew older, I learned about Carlebach’s darker side, but I didn’t give it much thought. It was just another factoid cluttering my brainspace. His music was close, and those stories were far.

Until a few years ago, when I encountered a victim of Carlebach for the first time. She was someone I had known for a few years, and a lover of the arts. I floated the idea by her of bringing Neshama Carlebach to campus for a performance, and she blanched. I had expected enthusiasm– how many times had we had all-male Jewish musical groups on campus? Neshama’s music is amazing! What’s not to like? And then she told me her story. I started reading, and found stories of many others. 

Since hearing her story, I have struggled with Carlebach. Recently, as scandals about Cosby have resurfaced, some have tried to compare the two, and ask whether art can be detangled from artist. To me, though, Art and Artist are different from Torah and Rebbe.

Rebbes are, themselves, Torah. When the Talmud tells us about Rabbi Akiva following Rabbi Joshua into the bathroom or Kahana hiding under the bed of Rav, it shows us that our Rebbeim are supposed to live Torah, that our Rebbeim are supposed to be Torah, and that we are supposed to be able to learn just by watching (BT Brachot 62a). Rabbis are and must be role models.

Naturally, we cannot expect our role models to be perfect. Indeed, it is their imperfections that make our role models accessible. But there are limits, and one of those limits is abuse. Rabbis who abuse cannot be our role models, and if they cannot be our role models, they cannot be vessels for the transference of Torah. And so, I will never study or share Carlebach’s Torah.

But the truth is, there’s a lot of Torah out there– and my life will not be long enough to read and study everyone anyways. This is not a tremendous loss. The music, to me, would be. What to do about that?

There is a difference between Torah and music. Putting it simply, the origin of tunes doesn’t seem to matter so much. We sing Maoz Tzur to an old German folk song, and the tune for Hatikvah derives from a piece of 16th century Italian music.  It would never occur to me to go ask for halachic advice (or even life-advice) from a composer. We would never cite a Rashi without saying “and Rashi says…” but we nearly always sing tunes, except for Carlebach, without recognizing their composers.

The tunes live on beyond their creators, and they take on the meaning that we give to them with our own iterations. Especially when we sing them in prayerful settings, tunes are not important as musical compositions. They are important as spiritual experiences. We, not the composers, are the curators of our spiritual experiences. A niggun sung in solitude is different from the same niggun sung with a few friends is different from the same niggun sung with strangers or a crowd. A niggun with people who harmonize is different from the same niggun in a room of people chatting. It’s not just the tune, it’s the people, their attention, and their spiritual energy.

It is with this in mind, that I put forward the following suggestions: let’s not have a “Carlebach Tefillah,” but a “Musical Tefillah.” The composer doesn’t matter. And maybe you’ll find a tune by somebody else that you want to introduce. When we sing Carlebach melodies, and someone asks “who was that by?” let’s consider saying something along the lines of: “it’s not important” or a more explicit “someone we don’t talk about.” Keep the art, reject the artist.

Feel free to post feedback or further thoughts in the comments below.



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“People” and Being Needed at Minyan

“We just need three more people and then we’re good to go. Reuven– will you lead Mincha? No? Shimon? Great. Oh and Levi, Yehuda and Yissochar just walked in!” Most people who attend a daily minyan knows what the count to ten is like. And most female regulars have become jaded enough not even to notice the slip. We didn’t need three more people. We needed three more men.

Alan Krinsky, in an article posted recently on the Jewish Ideas and Ideals site, raises one objection to this phenomenon.

what message does this send, particularly to our daughters? Is it not suggesting that girls and women are not really people–because if the minyan requires people but only men are eligible to be counted, then it would be a quite logical inference to conclude that girls and women are not really people, or at least are not fully persons or humans, as men are.

Avigayil Halpern responded, writing:

The problem with saying “We need two more people to make this minyan!” is not that it ignores the presence of women in the room. The problem is that in that prayer community, women are not people, and that is what enables the wording in the first place. The issue at hand is not the assumption that men are the default; it is that men are the default.

As a regular minyan attendee and an Orthodox woman, it happens that neither of these issues particularly trouble me. Minyanim provide me with the opportunity to stand before God in community and in prayer– which itself is a uniquely personhood-affirming activity. My community, this quorum of Jews gathered here, enables me to give thanks and register complaints before my creator. To experience and give voice to a holiness that I could not have achieved on my own. Every day I am grateful for a tradition that asks me to structure my life around a communal conversation with the Divine.

I just wish that the “ask” were stronger. That’s why I wish I were needed. I wish I were the one that everyone was waiting for, because being needed feels great. When a meeting can’t start without you there, it feels good. If people are waiting for you, you matter to them. You’ll hustle a little bit, so as not to let them down.

As mornings get darker and darker, it’s hard to get out of bed for minyan. If I were needed, I would hustle. There’s a big difference between being needed and being noticed. It’s nice that people notice when I’m there, but nobody’s experience depends on me.

I know it has its drawbacks. Some of my college friends hated being dragged out of bed by minyan phonecalls. There’s a certain shame in being the tenth man to walk in when everyone is waiting at yishtabach. But that shame is a sign of communal expectation– if nobody expected anything from you, you would never feel the shame of letting them down. Perhaps shame, or the threat of it, can sometimes be helpful. Communal expectations and the threat of shame hold us accountable to do things that are difficult or inconvenient, but that we really wish we could do. This same philosophy of accountability is what lays behind Weight Watchers meetings, for just one example.

It wouldn’t take much to make women feel needed at minyan. Stay tuned for my next post, which will have some practical suggestions. If you’re worried that you’ll miss the post (seeing as I post kind of irregularly, sorry), feel free to subscribe to this blog by putting your email address into the box on the right.


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Women of the Book

My teacher Rabbi Jim Ponet once wrote about Simhat Torah:

In an age of gradual digitalization and virtualization of the reading experience, an age that weans us slowly from the touch and fragrance of magazines, journals and volumes, students here and around the world will soon remember and reenact once again what it means to love a book — not merely a printed folio edition, but a parchment scroll hand written by a scribe who devoted a year to the project.

Imagine: a professor of physics dancing with an early edition of Einstein’s “Cosmological Considerations in the General Theory of Relativity;” a philosopher whirling with Spinoza’s “Ethics” or Kant’s “Critiques;” a political scientist dancing a tango with Machiavelli’s “The Art of War;” classicists giving legs to Homer, Horace and Ovid. Ah yes, and a troupe of economists dancing with Malthus, Milton Friedman, Galbraith and Marx. A supply-side waltz, a revolutionary polka, an unemployment-deficit-downsizing ballet. Book and reader merge, as author and book merge, a Dionysian bookishness explodes for a moment, and we are all once again people of the book.

The Torah scroll is our book. We labor over it; we dignify it; we consume its content; we treat it like a king. And on Simhat Torah, we love it in the way that human beings show love: physically.

Beit Hillel just came out with a statement encouraging women to dance with the Torah on Simhat Torah. I have never attended a Simhat Torah service where women did not have the opportunity to dance with a Torah scroll, though I hear they exist. (I wish they didn’t.)

Instead, I’ve seen communities where women are hesitant about dancing with the Torah. It’s heavy. You’re supposed to dance in the middle. You can’t be anonymous while holding it. You’ve never held a Torah before.

In many Orthodox synagogues, Simhat Torah is the only time that women interact with Torahs. It’s also the only time that women are doing anything ritual where some people are doing one thing (holding the Torah in the middle) and others are doing something else (dancing around it.) The rest of the year, synagogue for Orthodox women is remarkably egalitarian– no leadership roles and no honors for us. We’re not used to it.

But perhaps it is fitting that Simhat Torah is different. While our synagogues have changed little, our Torah study institutions have changed a lot over the past 50 years or so. Through increased learning opportunities, we have become women of the book. It’s not enough, in our tradition, for people of the book to show love for the Torah through study and creativity. We are a combination of mind and body, and we love the Torah with both. On Simhat Torah, we honor each other with the opportunity to dance with our most beloved Jewish object: the book that makes us women of the book.

So this year, when someone offers you the opportunity to dance with the Torah, step out of your comfort zone and take a whirl. Match your emotional love with the physical.

And then afterwards, do the opposite: make a promise to yourself that this year you will dance with the Torah more often. That you will work harder to find study opportunities which light up your eyes. Let it be a reminder that we shouldn’t just be kov’ot itim l’Torah (people who make time to study Torah), but joyful and energetic lovers of Torah.

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Minyan Scoring and Pick-up Minyanim

I recently started playing a game where I give scores to the minyanim I attend. Here’s the scoring system that I’ve worked out so far:

+10 points for having a women’s section set up before I get there.
-100 points if there is no women’s section at all.
+5 points for places that don’t have one but recognize my presence and set one up, even if that makes me feel like an intruder. (Points can be awarded or deducted based on the graciousness of the setter-upper.)
-5 points if the women’s section feels like a sardine can.
-7 points if I had to kick men out of the women’s section.
-2 points for each man who takes a phonecall in the women’s section in the middle of davening.
-2 points for every pair of men or women who have a loud conversation right near the women’s section during davening.
-5 points if I cannot hear the shaliach tzibbur from the women’s section.
+3 points for every other woman who is there.
+2 points extra per woman who is there and not saying Kaddish.
+5 points if there are siddurim easily available to the women’s section.
-5 points if not.
-5 points if the women’s section is full of junk.

Many minyanim do not score very well by this system (here’s an article written by a friend about these issues)—but it also helps me to appreciate when they do and to make jokes when they don’t. It’s a great conversation starter for later in the day. “I was in Midtown at Mincha time today and I attended a minyan that was a total 11—they had a great mechitza, they even put out cookies, and I was so excited about it, but then two men took phonecalls in the women’s section!!” The Shacharit minyan I’ve recently been attending scores about a 40 every day. A blessing.

In many ways, the worst minyanim are “pick-up minyanim.” These are the minyanim that happen in airports and at weddings. The Maariv at the end of some Orthodox event where the host announces that, “someone is saying Kaddish. Are there ten men who can stay to make a minyan?”

I should caveat that these minyanim are also the best. They are a beautiful recognition of, “I am standing amongst adult Jews and we, together, have a responsibility to pray at this time.” They are freeing and convenient—it means that people who prefer (or need) to pray with a minyan can still attend events and travel.

But they are also the most exclusionary to women. Nobody ever expects that a woman might want to join these kinds of minyanim. They almost always score a -15 or worse: -10 because there is no comfortable place for women to stand, -5 because it is almost always impossible to hear the shaliach tzibbur.

That’s not to say that I haven’t done it. There’s even photographic evidence, below. I’ve joined minyanim at weddings, at restaurants and in airports. I stand to the back or to the side, far enough away that the closest man to me doesn’t feel like I’m intruding on his space, but close enough that I can sort-of-kind-of hear the shaliach tzibbur. It always feels uncomfortable, but I like to pray with a minyan too.

Here's me davening with an airport pick-up minyan a few years ago.

Here’s me davening with an airport pick-up minyan a few years ago.

So, what to do about it? A few simple suggestions for your next pick-up minyan:

If you are a man:

  1. Assume that women might want to join your minyan. Invite women to pray with you.
  2. When setting a location, suggest that “men stand over here and women stand over there.” This seems a little bit awkward, but it’s a way to ensure that women have a place to stand.
  3. Make sure the shaliach tzibbur knows to be loud—that women who are standing apart are also attempting to hear and respond to the prayers he is leading.
  4. At weddings, don’t have mincha just be part of the chatan’s tisch. Have it in a space that welcomes women as well, and make sure that women know about it. Or perhaps have two minyanim, one that the chatan attends and one that the kallah attends, in their respective pre-bedekin locations.

If you are a woman:

  1. Decide quickly whether you want to join. Try to stake out a location before people have fully gathered.
  2. If you know the person putting it together, maybe ask, “where should I stand”—so that people know you are trying to participate.
  3. Be sensitive to the other people there, but don’t second-guess yourself. Go for it! Don’t be apologetic about wanting to pray with a minyan. Why should you awkwardly pray alone (often behind a pole somewhere, in my experience) while others are gathering to pray communally?
  4. If it’s your event (wedding, etc) plan in advance so that there’s a place for you and other women to daven comfortably.

Relatedly, if you are looking for other Minyan games:
Last year a few friends and I wanted to incentivize timely Shacharit attendance. We created a game we called “Minyan Golf.” In golf, obviously, you want as few points as possible. Each player got 1 point for coming late and 4 points for missing a day. We played on teams, so that teammates would pressure each other to come on time. A more serious version of Minyan Golf might include an incentive beyond just “points.” Maybe the losing team would have to buy baked goods for the winning team every Rosh Chodesh, or something like that.


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Synagogue Sounds

I’ll never forget my experience at about 3AM one morning, the summer before my senior year of high school. It was our last night in Israel, and we were spending it at the Kotel. The other folks on my program were from all different denominations, we had been going to summer camp together for our whole lives, and this was the end. The girls gathered in a circle on the women’s side to sing the niggunim we had learned together over the years. In the middle of our first song, the ultra-Orthodox women there came over and started yelling at us in Hebrew. “The voice of a woman is erva! You cannot sing here! The men will hear you!” We were women. We were not to sing.

I am far from the only Orthodox woman who has had an experience like this. We have all been silenced in our prayers. We have all been taught that the model of female prayer is a silent one—the prayers of Hannah, who mouthed the words with her lips.

Maharat Rachel Kohl Finegold published an interesting piece today about women singing in synagogues. She wrote:

I cannot speak for other women, but I can tell you why I don’t sing. It is not a halachic reason, but a musical one: I can’t sing in the men’s key!

My experience is very different. I have little problem singing in men’s keys, in part because I am blessed with a versatile voice and in part because I prefer to harmonize anyways. The truth is, when I feel at home in a synagogue, I sing with gusto. I’ve found that my enthusiastic singing is contagious and encourages the people around me to sing along. Anyone who comes to Yale for Shabbat finds that the Friday night singing in the Orthodox minyan is often given its power by the women’s section.

At Yale over the past two years, people looked to me to pick good keys for Shabbat zemirot. I have female friends who hold similar roles in other college campuses, and who have even taken on somewhat official roles as seudah shlishit song leaders. The keys in which I started songs work for both men and women—and they’re the same keys that I inherited from the men who played this role before me. Men and women both are capable of starting songs in keys that don’t work for other people (or even for themselves), but practice and a bit of a musical sense really can make good key choices possible. I’ve seen it. At the same time, I do not object to any of Maharat Kohl Finegold’s solutions. I have seen women lead tunes “from behind” during Shabbat and selichot services at my beit midrash in Israel, and it works quite well.

While  Maharat Kohl Finegold’s answer to ‘why don’t the women sing?’ is not true for me, it certainly is true for her, and I’ve heard the same response from others. They feel empowered enough to sing, they are singing, and nobody hears them because they cannot project in male keys.

But what I don’t understand is this: they’ve been singing in those male keys in shul their whole lives. If the women around them had been harmonizing, they would have picked up a harmony in their key. One that they could sing loudly. And if you don’t believe that people can learn harmonies, check out this wonderful Israeli satire on youtube.

Beyond that, I find the female silence most noticeable in the non-singing parts of services. While many men hum or chant all of the words out loud, you almost never see women praying like that. And no purely musical explanation can account for it.

I think the problem really is one of confidence. It’s not that women feel comfortable singing and just aren’t. It’s that their mothers don’t sing, and their mothers didn’t sing, and their mothers barely came to shul at all. Almost nobody is modeling this kind of davening-out-loud in our women’s sections, and we still live in an Orthodox world that teaches women (whether explicitly or implicitly, correctly or incorrectly) not to sing around men.

Change is possible. I’ve seen it happen at Yale. I’ve seen it at partnership minyanim. I’ve seen it in my synagogue at home to a certain degree. We just need to start davening-out-loud, and when other women haven’t yet joined in, give them a week or a month or a year. Yes, it’s difficult. Nobody wants to draw attention to themselves during their prayers. Davening-out-loud is not about attention. It’s not about distracting the people around you. It’s about energetic, tuneful prayer. These kinds of adjustments take time, but synagogue sounds are part of our Jewish inheritance. They are ours to claim, contribute to, and pass forward.


I feel strange publishing a piece on this kind of subject during such challenging times in Israel. To compensate,  here’s a Dvar Torah I will be delivering this Shabbat about how we might think of the tribes of Reuven, Gad and half of Menashe as a model for thinking about the responsibilities of diaspora Jewry towards Israel.

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Publication and Publicity

Publish or perish. A rule that my professor-parents live by. In the world of academia, if you cannot publish, you cannot get a job. You can barely get a lecture gig. You might have a PhD, but you cannot prove that you have contributed to the trove of human knowledge—and that’s what matters.

The rule does not apply to Orthodox clergypeople. Jewish clergy, ideally, serve a number of different roles. They must be able to provide pastoral care and spiritual guidance. We ask them to teach our children, lead community service initiatives, and fundraise. They manage shul politics, balance the budget, and more.

However, we also ask our clergypeople to be scholars. And inasmuch as they are scholars, they must abide by the scholarly rules: publish or perish. Publish because that is what it means to be a scholar, charged with promoting and preserving the Torah.

Of course, not every member of our clergy needs to be an excellent scholar. A great communal leader may very well be a totally mediocre scholar. But the royalty of Orthodox clergy are outstanding scholars to boot, and it’s high time that women joined those ranks.

The Jerusalem Post article announcing the new book of responsa by women ordained at Midreshet Lindenbaum seemed to me pretty off point when it veered into a discussion about the importance of this book. They quoted Rabbi Riskin in saying that:

“Women naturally bring to halacha an emotional sensitivity which is a very important aspect of our oral law,” he said.

“The oral law was given within the context of God’s revelation of Himself as a God of love and loving kindness and compassion and patience,” he continued, emphasizing the importance of bringing such attitudes into the modern conversation on Jewish law by empowering women in the realm of halacha.

First off– I have found that men can be plenty emotionally sensitive. The publication of this work is not novel because it brings a compassionate voice to the world of Halachic literature. That voice is there in the literature already, and if we can’t find it, that reflects poorly on us as readers.

This publication is momentous because of what it means for the standing of these ordained Orthodox women. Primarily, it means that these women are published scholars. They have joined the world of creative, productive and glossy-bound Torah scholarship in a way that other ordained Orthodox women have not. This is ordained Orthodox women achieving new heights– and that alone is cause for celebration.

And of course, the content of the work might be important too, but the Jerusalem Post decided not to tell us much of anything about that.


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Hospital Hugs: A Need for Female Clergy

I’m writing this blogpost from my father’s hospital room at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, MA. As most of my readers know, my father collapsed and was hospitalized the day before my college graduation. Thank God, his condition is improving steadily.

If I’ve learned anything from this experience, it’s all of the clichéd things. Human beings, even those who seem like forces of nature, are profoundly fragile. I’ve spent a lot of time recently thinking about the blessing of asher yatzar. My primary conclusion: every word of it is true.

בא”י אמ”ה אשר יצר את האדם בחכמה וברא בו נקבים נקבים חלולים חלולים. גלוי וידוע לפני כסא כבודך שאם יפתח אחד מהם או יסתם אחד מהם אי אפשר להתקים ולעמוד לפניך. בא”י רופא כל בשר ומפליא לעשות.

Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the Universe, who formed man in wisdom and created in him many orifices and cavities. It is revealed and known before the throne of Your glory that were one of them to be ruptured or blocked, it would be impossible to survive and stand before You. Blessed are You, Lord, Healer of all flesh who does wondrous deeds. (Koren Sacks Siddur, 5)

But when we come face to face with this fragility, how do we deal with it? Well, everyone deals with it differently. I deal with it differently by the day.  But no matter how I’m feeling, I could pretty much invariably use a hug. When the world seems fragile and off-kilter, hugs help me feel secure and grounded.

I love hugs. I could write a whole blog post just on them. But let me just say this: a primary and under-discussed reason why the Orthodox community needs women in our clergy is for hugs. Luckily, I have all some female Reform and Reconstructionist Rabbi friends who have been able to supplement. But I don’t think that most Orthodox women in my situation would be able to say that, and I think they probably would want hugs too.

Now, clergy-people are not the only ones who are able to give hugs. Of course. However, family members are not the best hug-givers in these situations. These kinds of hugs needs ‘givers’ and ‘receivers’; they’re just less good when both parties are playing both roles.

Friends can give hugs too. But friends just aren’t around as much. If you asked me whether I wanted you to visit, I probably would have said “no,” or even more likely, ignored your text/email. I only started seeing friends again in the past few days, to be honest. 

Unlike friends, Rabbis often don’t ask before they show up. They just come, and if you don’t need them, then they leave. Chances are that you needed them, and you just didn’t know it. That’s how I feel every time a Rabbi shows up. On Friday, a hospital chaplain showed up and sat down next to me. I motor-mouthed at him for like 45 minutes. (Turns out I was kind of lonely.) But the point is that clergy are uniquely positioned for hug-giving because they’re around when nobody else is there. 


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