The Infinite Depth of Judaism (in Israel)

Make sure you also check out my Instagram feed from the past couple weeks and the Israel 2019 story highlighted on my profile. Thank you to my hevruta partner Michael for the picture of me studying a text.

As my final blog post of my 2019 Israel trip, I’d like to philosophize about two points, both related to this trip and related to my Jewish experience beyond this trip. First, that Jewish knowledge is seemingly infinite makes an inability to truly master it a “feature, not a bug.” Secondly, and necessarily following from the first point but more visible in Israel, there are infinite shades of religiousness, which sounds obvious but is often not.Much of the past couple years has been spent stressing that I will not master all there is to know in my short few years of school. Do I need to take more time in school? Am I just hopelessly incompetent? These thoughts play on my anxiety. Learning at Pardes, though, where to goal was not to master anything for an exam, I still felt this way. Even more, I found my fellow students and even teachers had gaps in what they knew. Sometimes they knew things I didn’t know, but there were still things they didn’t know. I learned the Talmud is the longest ancient text by far, and that not even Rashi mastered it well enough to be the actual author of all the material we think of as “Rashi” in Talmud commentary. The great sages were always debating and, in the reports of those debates, coming from places of imperfect knowledge and acting in error.

I‘m starting to think that this that this is the whole idea. Jewish life and learning is supposed to humble you. It’s not supposed to be something you can master. Mastering a certain subset well enough that I can serve a congregation professionally, well, I may be getting there. But feeling like I have unquestionably mastered everything I might need? Not going to happen, not because of some problem with me particular, but because I am just one person, imperfect compared to the aggregate of our tradition’s wisdom, which is still imperfect compared to all the wisdom that could be known.

Someone pointed out it’s like a driver’s license. You get a license when you know enough to drive on your own. You keep becoming a better driver for years and need to keep practicing it for a lifetime.

An idea that might not seem related is the range of observance that exists in Judaism. There is religious vs. secular; certainly that’s how things are often framed in Israel. It’s easy to feel that one is secular compared to the religious people who observe “all” the mitzvot; that the men with black hats and payot are a different category from me entirely. Except, it’s not like that: Jewish life and learning has no end for everyone.

One way to explain this could be to point out that, when you’re among Orthodox Jews in Jerusalem, it’s obvious that even Orthodoxy has so many divisions and Orthodox people are people who have all the regular range of people and personalities you find in any population. You could look closely and notice that there are different types of hats and jackets and facial hair, different standards of modesty for women, different ways of studying and praying.

The other way to explain this is: there’s all type of people going to Burgers Bar in the Old City and having a hamburger. Or some have schnitzel. It’s not like the Orthodox Jews in the Old City only have a pure spiritual experience and that every action they take is some Orthodox practice that secular people don’t do. People are excited to be out at night in the city and having a hamburger with their friends or family. Meanwhile, secular people, in Jerusalem or in Tel Aviv, are excited to be out at night in the city and having a hamburger with their friends or family. Maybe one hamburger is kosher and the other is a cheeseburger. Still, it’s easy to pay attention to the differences between people, but of course people have much more in common than different. And if you think about it, this even is true about practicing Judaism, especially among Jews in Israel. Secular cultural Jews still end up doing mitzvot and religious Jews aren’t perfect. Honoring your father and mother is a big commandment, but it’s not like you can ask someone if they keep this mitzvah and know if they’re “religious” or not.

Why Jewish Learning? Why in Israel?

For the trip to Israel I’m on now, to complete my iFellows experience, I chose to engage in Jewish learning. Why travel all the way across the world to go to school?

I’ve never before done extended Jewish learning for it’s own sake, like in a yeshiva (at type of traditional Jewish school). Pardes isn’t exactly a traditional yeshiva, and two weeks isn’t exactly extended, but it’s still a pretty good experience. There are some things that are different about traditional Jewish learning than about regular academic learning, even in an ordination-oriented Jewish graduate program like I’m in back at home.

Traditional Jewish learning is essentially a spiritual practice. The idea isn’t that you study something so that you know it; or at least, that’s not the reason to continue in study. I’ve been studying Tractate Nedarim, a section of the Talmud about making vows which is mostly irrelevant to modern life, even modern observant Jewish life.

I think there are two reasons to do Jewish learning. First, there’s the learning method of chevruta: learning in pairs, in the study hall (beit midrash, literally “house of seeking”—love that!). Learning forces you to engage with another person. While the word “chevruta” is related to the word for “friend,” it’s not all about being chums. Looking at Jewish text forces you to actually engage in discussing a challenging issue with another person. It forces you to pay closer attention to what is actually in the text. Essentially, it’s learning how to listen.

Secondly, Jewish learning forces you to engage in disagreement. Most traditional Jewish learning is the study of gemara, the core of the Talmud that is the record of ancient rabbinic disagreements. Rabbis (like Maimonides) since have codified Jewish law, taking out the disagreements, but it’s the machloket (disagreement) we’re studying. This teaches you how to disagree. You can learn about disagreements over nedarim (vows) that don’t really matter but then take those skills in engaging with challenging people and ideas to other areas of life.

In fact, at Pardes, being a not-entirely-traditional-Yeshiva, I’m also taking a class in constructive conflict that mixes traditional learning with psychology and modern media. (They actually have a whole curriculum on it you can buy.)

So, why do this in Israel? It seems like an obvious place to do Jewish study in Jerusalem. I could have done it elsewhere. But I think that Jersusalem is a place where every type of person who takes Judaism seriously congregates, and studying Judaism doesn’t have to be a counter-cultural act. It just seems to be in the atmosphere. I get to see the rhythms of the Jewish calendar on the street, see different types of religious Jewish people praying in different ways. I even got to stop in a much more traditional Yeshiva. Ultimately, the atmosphere of learning in a traditional Beit Midrash is just amplified by doing it here.

Thinking About Religious Pluralism

This past weekend turned out to be quite the pluralistic Jewish experience in Israel. I started out at the Kotel on Friday moring; found my way to some very liberal, somewhat liberal, and secular expressions of Judaism in Tel Aviv; and ended up Sunday night (okay, Sunday is not officially the weekend in Israel) in Meah Shearim (arguably the most religious Jewish neighborhood in the world)!

I didn’t plan it that way. I just had things I wanted to do and experience in Israel, and not a lot of time to do them. And maybe I’m weird: I collect Jewish experiences like other people collect souvenir spoons. I like them all. I like praying in the Orthodox men’s section of the Kotel; I liked going to Beit Tefila Yisraeli, the very liberal (almost secular) service held along the ocean in the classy Tel Aviv Port shopping area. I most liked going to a little Masorti (Israeli Conservative) synagogue, Kehilat Sinai, near my hotel in Tel Aviv. Sometimes I enjoy a bit of secular Israeli culture. I appreciate how the charedim (ultra-Orthodox) live.

What I find challenging is that not everyone is like this. It seems like more people have their way of doing thing that they think is right, and are somewhere between hate and indifference on how they respond to other levels of religiosity; they don’t find it an interesting experience in quite the way I do.

The question, then, is, so what? There are really two ways to approach religion.

There is an inward facing approach. Some people want to do what they thing is the right thing to do and not pay much attention to what anyone else does. People want the prayers to be said in their synagogue, the food to be prepared in the right way at home; or, for that matter, they don’t pray or keep kosher and don’t really think much about that other people do.

The outward facing approach wants to change the world. Religion is a source of moral teaching and the whole point is the make the world a better place.

The outward facing approach definitely resonates with me, although as a pluralist I don’t care exactly how you practice religion or even if you practice anything that looks like a traditional religion, but I want it to be available as a technology for improving the world. I want to teach and see more people finding value (and values) from religious tradition, and I’m happy to participate and serve in any Jewish community except the one that thinks it has nothing to learn and no need to grow. This just seems to be some innate orientation of my personality. I want to see religious groups grow and change to get their sacred message out there more and more.

But I might be totally wrong. There is certainly a traditional way to look at Judaism where God asks me to do mitzvot. As long as I can find a minyan that does things my way I don’t need to care how many people are on the beach (or even at a different synagogue) instead of in synagogue on a Saturday morning. This isn’t my outlook, but it is an outlook I encounter often enough. In contrast to above, it’s that a religious group needs to keep what it considers sacred and preserve it from change and outside influence. I can’t say for sure, but I think this might be a more common view of religion.

I’m not sure if one of these approaches ought to be at a higher level than the other. I’m not sure if they can coexist or which approach better lets us coexist but as far as religion goes, this is not a new issue and so probably not one that we’ll tie up with a bow in a generation. I tend to root for my pluralist outward-facing outlook but I’m also pretty sure this is a place where I should be humble about being sure I’m right about anything. Fortunately this is my blog, i.e., it’s a space where I can write about stuff I’m experiencing that isn’t completely settled.

What do you think?

Back in Earthly Israel

I’m back in Israel. It takes a few days to adjust. I have affection for and familiarity with it, but it is a foreign country.

There is in Judaism an idea of Jerusalem shel maalah and Jerusalem shel matah—heavenly and earthly Jerusalem. I’m back in earthly Jersualem. There are all these little things to figure out. For example, unlike anything I’d ever encounter in Boston, I’ve been warned the Israeli police have been actively ticketing jaywalkers at an intersection near my hotel.

It’s summer, it’s dry, everything outside is hot and dusty. I’m not spending this trip in the center of the city but in a more regular neighborhood marred by traffic and litter and utilities and all the other evidence of humans living in cities that is hidden away when you go to Disneyworld or some other touristy or wealthy area.

Back home, Israel is a talking point (whatever side of “the issue” you’re on); when you get here, it’s just a place you’re visiting.

It’s the little, earthly things that are different. The app to get a taxi here is Gett, not Uber, and that’s new since last time I was here, and I didn’t understand how the payment worked, and the driver got annoyed at me. Sometimes people think Israelis are rude or trying to rip you off but I’ve been here enough to know that’s not the case, but the social norms are still foreign. The driver seemed to be annoyed that he was holding up traffic, which was actually nice compared to American Uber drivers who have no problem blocking the rest of the street while waiting for their customer so they don’t jeopardize a review… it’s just different. Not a big deal, figured out now, but when you touch down in a foreign country and aren’t part of an organized group, suddenly you have to think about stuff you never have to think about: how to order a coffee, whether or not you’ll understand the person at the store well enough to actually get the thing you wanted to order. 

The use of English in Israel is funny. I speak enough Hebrew that I’m not obviously a tourist; some people will hear an accent or see that I have US credit card when paying for something and talk to me in English but it seems to be more based on the temperament of the person in the store. And the things that are in English seem to often be that way because it’s trendy. I was walking around a shopping mall, and there was a lot of English, not in a way that was helpful to foreigners but because stuff with English is foreign, as in, good. I mean like a restaurant name in French or Italian seems fancier in the States… a restaurant name in English seems fancier in Israel.

A long time ago it became a thing to call native-born Israelis “sabras,” based on name of a cactus that was prickly on the outside and sweet on this inside. That applies to Israel as a whole, really: the sidewalk outside is hot and dusty and inside the place you are going, it is cool and clean. There is, maybe even, something Jewish about this: we don’t big build cathedrals to look good from the outside, we make sure the people have hospitality inside. I don’t want to generalize too much about a whole country; people are people, and people in Israeli are mostly trying to be helpful and do the right thing just like anywhere else in the world. Maybe the electric plugs are different, but I can’t help feeling that there is still something about being in the Jewish state that matches with my Jewish values: still a little less capitalism, a little more sense community, people celebrate the same holidays. They sell the good glass Shabbat candle holders at the convenience store.

My view in Jerusalem so far has been less Kotel and Dome of the Rock than average apartment buildings with TV antennas and water heaters on the roof. But some of the trees have pomegranates growing on them!


Over the past year-plus I’ve been privileged to be part of the iFellows, a “master’s concentration in Israel Education” run by an organization called the iCenter.

iFellows is a program open to Jewish education, communal service, and ordination students from most of the schools offering such programs in the United States. It also includes as participants shlichim (emissaries), Israelis working in diaspora Jewish organizations. The program consists of three seminars over the course of a year, work with a mentor over the course of a year, an analytical paper, a practicum, and a trip to Israel. I also receive credit for an elective towards the Master’s of Jewish Education degree I am working on from Hebrew College. Almost all of it is paid for by the iCenter’s donors, including travel and lodging for the three seminars in the Chicago area. There is a stipend provided towards creating your own Israel experience.

Israel, and specifically my first visits to Israel in high school and college, were a major influence on my Jewish life and activity. So, I wanted my current program of study to serve the Jewish community to include an Israel component. On the other hand, one of the reasons I chose to attend Hebrew College’s cantorial school is that it didn’t require me to spend a year living in Israel, which would be too disruptive to my family. Being able to participate in iFellows, with a trip to Israel seemed like a good compromise.

Throughout the course of the program, though, it was so much more than a trip to Israel. One of the biggest benefits of the program was being able to develop personal relationships with students at other Jewish education and rabbinical/cantorial schools. It was a great chance to learn from them, network with other people similarly working to serve the Jewish people, and expand my knowledge of the Jewish world.

The program was also a way to develop further as an educator and leader, outside of Israel. The iCenter takes an approach of education as a primary goal (as opposed to advocacy on specific issues) and that resonated with me. My mentor, Dan Tatar, helped me work through lesson plans for classes I was teaching during the past year and asked me be a group leader in a singing event. The paper I had to write and practicum, for which I gave a short recital and talk about Israeli music, were experiences beyond what I would ordinarily have gotten through my cantorial school curriculum.

Finally, it gave me more perspective on Israel. What I realized the most is all the issues which lead to debates are even more active issues in Israel itself. It can seem on social media that Israel is a monolithic thing and people outside it can debate a certain policy or social issue. But really, all those issues are much more real inside Israel itself. It’s easy to get upset on Facebook that “Israel” is doing a certain thing I don’t agree with, but what I realized after exploring some of these issues further, including with Israelis, is that on pretty much every issue is complexity and different sides to the issue within Israel itself (the same as with any issue here).

Today I am starting on the final part of my iFellows experience which is the trip to Israel. The stipend doesn’t totally cover my expenses, but it makes it much more affordable. Since I’ve never done extended Jewish study in a traditional way (like in a yeshiva, as opposed to an academic institution) and since I’ve been hearing for years about Pardes which offers that type of study in English in Jerusalem, I’m headed there right now. As a final component of my iFellows requirements, I’ll be documenting on this blog my experience.

Oh, and one more benefit of iFellows: after flying to Chicago three times I’ve learned a few things about flying. Like, a shirt with pockets is really helpful when stuck in coach and not able to reach your bag. And that TSA PreCheck is totally worth it.

Blogging from the bar in Heathrow on my way to Israel!

Hallel v’Zimra in Chicago

I was fortunate to be able to attend a conference titled “Hallel v’Zimra: Jewish Liturgical Music, Present + Future” in Chicago over the past few days organized by the Mordecai M. Kaplan Center for Jewish Peoplehood. It was in Hyde Park, a little neighborhood dominated by the University of Chicago, which hosted some of the programs along with two local synagogues, Rodfei Zedek and KAM Isaiah Israel (the latter of which is across the street from Obama’s Chicago house!).

The highlight of the conference was a concert which had so many of the leading synagogue musicians working today: great cantors like Alberto Mizrahi, Azi Schwartz, and Benjamin Warschawski; innovators like Joey Weisenberg, Yoel Sykes, Deborah Sachs Mintz, and Josh Warshawsky; and everyone in between. (Personal achievement unlocked: one of these artists gave me a CD when I was chatting with him after the concert, like I’m an influencer now!)

If I had to pick one thing, the conference was about answering the question: what’s the job that prayer actually does for us, anyway? (And by extension, what’s the job of a cantor?)

One theme that came up is the need to meet people where they are. (Not unlike what I talked about in my last blog post.) One speaker humorously noted that certain communities seem to want to be bored. That’s what’s comforting for them. My question is, if that’s what a community wants, why not give it to them? (I think there are probably reasons not to; it would be an interesting exercise to spell them out.)

Another theme is that of process vs. product, and that other “p” word, performance. Is the important part of this field all the work we do within the community to teach and give spiritual leadership (“process”) or just what we present on the bimah (“product”)? What’s the right balance between how we sound and how we feel? How do we inspire people not just when they’re hearing us, but into ongoing spiritual practice?

Is the cantor of the future just a specialization of rabbi? Or, as Cantor Matthew Austerklein suggested, is the rabbi the keeper of the oral tradition and the cantor the keeper of the written one? It’s counterintuitive that the cantorate is not about oral communication, but I feel that model resonates. What sort of cantorate is needed for the contemporary age (that is different from a few generations ago)?

What’s the job of prayer? Few non-Orthodox Jews today pray as fulfillment of an obligation. My teacher Rabbi Ebn Leader surmised that it’s hard for Jews to talk about God since the Enlightenment because we still associate it with being back in the ghetto. Rabbi Miriam Margles said that being human is hard. I tend to agree that prayer is our most time-tested technology for dealing with that–and any twentieth-century optimism that humans had solved the problem of life being hard, has faded away in the twenty-first.

The most interesting session I attended was about music therapy and the neuropsychology of music. Watch the video below to see, in an fMRI, your brain reacting in sync with music. Favorite melodies affect dopamine, even as they can be woven in new variants. Jewish nusach is a musical tradition that has figured this out already, organically. Liturgical music has the power to heal, and we already knew this. That’s certainly at least a big part of its job. It’s not a surprise that the evidence supports this.

The Tango Brain 2: Encephalic Aviation from Petri Toiviainen on Vimeo.


We’re half way there
Livin’ on a prayer

–Bon Jovi

I’m halfway through cantorial school.

I know about variations of Kaddish I never knew existed, tricky pronunciation issues in Biblical Hebrew, and the difference between Mishna and Midrash. Sometimes it feels like the more I learn, the less I know; I’m merely learning the outlines of thing that will take me more time than I have to truly master. I’m too far along to be an amateur, but not quite qualified as a professional.

The biggest thing I may have learned so far is how to listen. Part of this is technical, musical: getting better at singing in tune, knowing if an interval is a major third or minor sixth, hearing the voices of the congregation as I’m leading them. A bigger part of this is learning how to listen to what people are saying: students, colleagues, teachers, even friends and family. It’s been suggested that, as Jewish clergy, we learn this by listening to our texts, and by discussing them, especially in chevruta. My core beliefs about religion, politics, being a good human being haven’t changed so much as how they come through in relationship with others.

Not long ago, someone asked me what type of music I like to make. I didn’t have a good answer—whatever time I had for music, was the music that my teachers wanted me to learn. In the next half of cantorial school, I hope to do more to find my voice—to find my own personal brand of music-making that can give the people I am listening to, something to listen to. 🙂

Sometimes the journey feels like a hike across a valley; I’ve started to climb to the higher peak on the other side. Original photo caption (source): Avalanche Lake (Glacier National Park, Montana) sits at the mouth of a classic U-shaped, glacially-carved valley. NPS Photo/Tim Rains.


My High Holidays Learning Experience

As you know from my last post, I find the High Holidays challenging. This blog is supposed to tell you something about my experience going through cantorial school and I so I want to be open about some of the specific challenges this year.

This year was musically challenging. In cantorial school there are two types of people: those with a strong music background who want to use that in service of the Jewish prayer; and those with a strong background in Jewish prayer who want to get their leading skills up to a professional level. To be clear, these aren’t rival groups; we’re great colleagues because we’re all trying to get to the same place, but for each of us there are different skills we need to develop to get there.

While I’m squarely in the second category (lots of Jewish prayer experience, trying to level up as a musician) I found myself working in a choir with musicians who had more formal training and experience than I did, and getting left behind in following the music. I felt a little bit like the second grader who is learning to decode and insists they can read all of Harry Potter.

As a prayer leader, I have two types of experiences: great experiences, and great learning experiences. I’m not just throwing out euphemisms to say that this was one of the latter: I have a much clearer picture of where I need to go and what I need to do to get there, in terms of work and getting feedback from my colleagues. And unlike the second grader mentioned above, I have the learning and study skills (I’m actually have material from my current education class about how humans learn open in another window!) to work on it.

Before and after Yom Kippur we wish each other an easy or meaningful fast, as we have greetings for other days, as we say “how are you?” and expect the answer to be “fine” (or better). This positivity has a purpose–I know I always feel a little better myself when I answer “how are you?” with an enthusiastic “great!”–and I think there’s also a time for acknowledging things aren’t always easy. Without that acknowledgement, we can’t ever support each other when things aren’t going well. That why I wanted to write this here. Yom Kippur, too, is a time to acknowledge our mistakes. And while I don’t think that needing to work on my sight reading is exactly a sin against God, or something that Yom Kippur atones for, it is a good time to refocus on what I need to work on professionally and academically in the coming year. Despite the liturgy, I don’t believe the gates are closed.

The Thing about the High Holidays

The Jewish High Holidays are such a strange and challenging phenomenon. Hundreds of people pile into synagogue, dressed in uncomfortable clothes, sitting uncomfortably close together, challenged to find parking. Even those of use who are familiar and comfortable with synagogue rituals find that we are in a different place that is not familiar. Not to mention with the holidays coming during the bustle of the start of the school year it’s hard to concentrate on religion. Those of us in careers outside of school seem to have an uptick in professional crises and those of us whose careers are in the synagogue sure do.

Ostensibly were are to be thinking about repentance, about sin and trying to be a better person. But I look around the room and wonder how many people are thinking about that. Maybe they’re thinking about family, and tradition, and those are good things, but not actually the theme of the holiday. What do people get out of these holidays? What obligation have they fulfilled? I spent the morning of Shabbat Shuvah, the Saturday between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur at Shir Hadash, at a small Reconstructionist congregation and we actually discussed this: how people seem to feel that have fulfilled some obligation just by attendance for these few days. But is what Judaism asks really just to show up for the family tradition? Isn’t it asking us to truly reexamine our lives? Maybe even reexamine those very traditions we might be following yet not letting them newly affect us?

I have this idea that High Holidays could be more like a workshop in how to be a better person. We’ll keep the liturgy on hand as a reference, to prevent us from getting too caught up in faddish self-improvement, but run things differently: discussion groups, break-out sessions, inspring presentations, shared meals and drinks as part of the actual event. I’ve seen plenty of once-a-year conferences that manage to break up the day and serve lunch. It’s not as if there is no option to staying in our seats for hours, paging through liturgy few understand, and going home hungry. You’d come out of Rosh Hashanah inspired by the plans you’ve made; and ten days later— which is just enough time to realize sticking to that diet or not fighting with your spouse over that same thing is not going be easy—you come back to really recommit, taking your work so seriously this time you skip lunch without even noticing.

As we enter Yom Kippur, here’s the traditional greeting: G’mar Chatimah Tovah. May your fate be sealed for a good year to come.

It’s About Time

It’s about time I write another blog post here. It’s been almost a year.

But really, it’s about time management. Last year was a whirlwind. Lots of new classes, skills, jobs, experience, schedules. More than I could really do. It was kind of like: just say “yes!” to everything and see what sticks. Keeping up a blog, didn’t stick so much. What else was I doing: A cantorial soloist job. A teaching job. Singing in choirs. Singing solos. Re-learning to play guitar! Modern Hebrew. Biblical Hebrew. Mishna, Talmud, Nusach. Being a parent and a spouse (and a son and an uncle, etc.). Getting a new haircut. Freelance tech work. Services, conferences, concerts, shows. The summer was eight weeks of intense classes with no time to review, followed by driving 5,000 miles just for the fun of it. Oh, and I was in the hospital for pneumonia last year, too!

It was a lot of great experiences, but there was little I did as well as I could.

This year, my second year being back in school, I’m going to recommit to trying to do things better. I’m still going to do a lot, but maybe a little less, maybe not as much of it all new. There are 168 hours in a week, and I’ve thought about how many hours I need for different things. I need to account for sleep, because I fall asleep every night if I want to or not. And hopefully some healthy cooking and exercise, because those things get skipped too often despite best intentions.

And practice and studying. I need to get great, or at least really good, at the things I’m learning. There’s a place for surveys of knowledge, and that was last year; this year I need to see what I can master.

Also, my watch broke last summer. So I also need to fit in my schedule at the end of the summer a plan to get it fixed. 🙂