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On the Meaning of Mimouna

Ten years ago, Yigal Bin-Nun wrote a sensational article in Haaretz הארץ on the origins of the Moroccan Jewish post-Passover festival of Mimouna. In the article, Bin-Nun speculates that Mimouna was a Judaized festival originally derived from local customs celebrating gods of Fortune. I wish to present an alternate thesis which provides more of the Jewish context for Mimouna within the mytho-historical arc of the Exodus narrative. . . . → Continue reading: On the Meaning of Mimouna

The Mythic Arc of Predatory Desire in Jewish Legend: primary sources on the origin and end of predation

In advance of this year’s Hazon Food Conference I’ve prepared a source sheet packet containing text arranged to elucidate what I’ve called the Mythic Arc of Predatory Desire in Jewish Legend. . . . → Continue reading: The Mythic Arc of Predatory Desire in Jewish Legend: primary sources on the origin and end of predation

Wherever I live, that is my ‘Homeland’ — a Response to Zionists on the Jewish and Christian Right

For the last several years I’ve become concerned with a movement on the right, an alliance between Christian Zionists in the U.S. and Israel’s Likud party-flavored right-nationalist Zionism. Something I heard Sarah Palin say back in 2009 in an interview with Barbara Walters raised my eyebrow and Jeffrey Goldberg at the Atlantic was quick to . . . → Continue reading: Wherever I live, that is my ‘Homeland’ — a Response to Zionists on the Jewish and Christian Right

A Simplified Summary of Public Domain Status for Creative Works in US Copyright Law (excluding audio works)

A Simplified Summary of Public Domain Status for Creative Works in US Copyright Law (excluding audio works) – Aharon Varady (CC BY-SA)

Among the many things I do in my work for the Open Siddur Project, I create digital copies of works in the Public Domain. These copies then serve as the basis for . . . → Continue reading: A Simplified Summary of Public Domain Status for Creative Works in US Copyright Law (excluding audio works)

Uncle Isak’s Story: A young man journeys down an endless road… (from Fanny & Alexander, 1982)

A story told by Isak Jacobi (Erland Josephson) in Ingmar Bergman’s FANNY & ALEXANDER (1982-1983). . . . → Continue reading: Uncle Isak’s Story: A young man journeys down an endless road… (from Fanny & Alexander, 1982)

Levi, the Leviathan

About ten years ago, at a Jews in the Woods gathering nearby the Pearlstone Retreat Center in Maryland, I offered my first shiur on biblical mythology and on the Leviathan and the Behemoth. (I subsequently wrote up some of what I talked about in several posts back here and here and here on the Omphalos, . . . → Continue reading: Levi, the Leviathan

גְמַ׳׳ח | A Short Reflection on the Roots of the Federation and G’milut Ḥasadim

I was incredibly honored to have been invited by the Jewish Federation of Cincinnati to speak this evening at their 120th Annual Meeting. Long-lived community bodies can seem to be just part of the landscape, as old as the mountains and somewhat inscrutable, so it seemed appropriate to me on the event of an . . . → Continue reading: גְמַ׳׳ח | A Short Reflection on the Roots of the Federation and G’milut Ḥasadim

where grass can never be called straw

A poem for Nissan, and an everyday reminder.

מצרים לא יכול לִמצוֹא במפה מצרים לא יכול לִמצוֹא באטלס לצאת ממצרים היא כל יום לצאת ממצרים היא קפיצה נפשית

אנו חיים בעולם של חלומות ועלינו להתעורר את עצמנו למקום חדש פראי ופתוח בתוך רחם פראי לִמצוֹא לא לבד אנחנו ברחמנות בתוך המקום שבו הדשא . . . → Continue reading: where grass can never be called straw

Mechon Hadar is Open

From 2009-2010, I was a fellow of Yeshivat Hadar in the pilot year of its first year-long program of study. A couple months ago, Rabbi Jason Rubenstein, Dean of Students at Yeshivat Hadar, asked me if I would consider reviewing Mechon Hadar’s new website. At the Hadar reunion earlier this year, Jason had provided a . . . → Continue reading: Mechon Hadar is Open

Teach me your Open Source Torah, on one foot

American Jewish World Service does important work, so when a site they built for educators and learners to access Jewish sourcetexts on social justice and other important activities disappeared overnight due to what appeared to be a domain registration lapse, I was motivated to write an essay on how organizations can appreciate their websites as more than “proprietary and Copyrighted marketing assets to better leverage their brand.” eJewishPhilanthropy, a well-read blog popular among Jewish professionals published it this morning. Here’s a snippet: . . . → Continue reading: Teach me your Open Source Torah, on one foot

Making oneself into a Maqom Hefker (an ownerless place): On the Economy of Sharing Torah, Dimus Parrhesia (freely and openly)

Last year, I was interviewed by Alan Jacobs for the Atlantic Magazine on the potential and promise of an open source Judaism. This year I was privileged to write an essay for the Sova Project, a project that is considering the structures and processes of a sustainable society through the lens of biblical, prophetic, and rabbinic Jewish values and practices. In the essay I try to pose many of the same concerns from the perspective of community professionals: scholars, artists, and educators: “Those of us who make a living as crafters, educators, and servants of the Jewish community: how do we feel about sharing our work? I mean, really sharing? When, in working with Torah, I create a lesson plan or feel like I have some brilliant insight or analysis or make a translation, how do I give it, release it to the world at large so that my work can spread through adoption, adaptation, redistribution (and attribution)? Further, what are my anxieties and vulnerabilities in sharing my Torah? What honestly are my desires, aspirations, and needs? How, through my method of sharing, can I satisfy and reconcile these concerns?” In wrestling with these questions, I wanted to bring attention to an important orientation that guided Talmudic discourse in Torah — that of dimus parrhesia, a Greek term for a cultivated attitude towards sharing ideas, freely and openly. . . . → Continue reading: Making oneself into a Maqom Hefker (an ownerless place): On the Economy of Sharing Torah, Dimus Parrhesia (freely and openly)

All Streams, One Source: Shesha and the Mystery of the Four-headed Shin

A Midrash of the Jews of Yemen dating from the 13th century provides the following explanation for the mystery of the four-branched shin. There is one “head” for each of the following facets: cogitation, imagination, memory, and estimation.[1]paraphrasing Midrash haBeur, translated in Yemenite Midrash: Philosophical Commentaries on the Torah, edited by Y. Tzvi Langermann, p. 242. Additionally, the midrash provides the following astrological explanation for the three and the four branched shin appearing together on the tefillin shel rosh: together their seven heads make up the seven visible wandering stars (i.e., the planets), whose celestial powers in Jewish cosmology must have one root in the mind of G!d. . . . → Continue reading: All Streams, One Source: Shesha and the Mystery of the Four-headed Shin

“Tu biShvat” vs. “Tu b’Shvat”: Orthography and Presumptions of Authority in Jewish Environmental Education

Nigel Savage made public this week his reply to Ben Dreyfus[2]For more on this, see here, here, and here and others concerning Ḥazon’s orthography of ט״וּ בִּשְׁבַט as Tu B’Shvat rather than Tu biShvat. Given the seriousness of the environmental and food justice issues that Tu biShvat gives voice to, it’s important to recognize that this earnest if seemingly comical debate isn’t really about romanization of Hebrew anymore. It’s a question about Siaḥ (שִׂיחַ — discourse), the roles of Jewish education, and the goals of Jewish educators. . . . → Continue reading: “Tu biShvat” vs. “Tu b’Shvat”: Orthography and Presumptions of Authority in Jewish Environmental Education

Great Nature and the Gematria of Elohim

Petru Moldovan writes, “Idel notices that in “Ghet ha-Îemot,” Abulafia had used for the first time the gematria combination: Elohim = ha-Teva. To Abulafia, Elohim is the act of Creation, and not its agent, as this name is the same with nature, and the gematria combination should not be understood as a simple linguistic pun, but as a way of considering the identity of nature with the divine, just as Maimonides had suggested it in the “Guide.” . . . → Continue reading: Great Nature and the Gematria of Elohim

The Sign of the Twins: On the Reconciliation of the Divine with its Likeness

Jeff Anshalem writes, “On Shabbat Ḥol Hamoed Sukkot we read of the giving of the Ten Commandments on Mt. Sinai, seemingly a strange choice for Sukkot, but the Maor VeShamesh explains what’s common to both: unity. Unity between us, symbolized by the joining together of the Four Species (Vayikra Rabbah 30:12), evokes unity between us and G!d.” . . . → Continue reading: The Sign of the Twins: On the Reconciliation of the Divine with its Likeness

Rosh haShanah la’Behemot: A New Year’s Day for Domesticated Animals

One of the most delightful things I learned about Judaism growing up was that rabbinic Judaism had not one, but four new year holidays (according to the Mishnah Seder Moed 1:1). There’s the well known and widely celebrated Rosh Hashanah La’Olam — for the World — an annual commitment to maintaining and sustaining creation through the beneficial work of our activities, and through repairing ourselves and our manifold relationships within the work of creation. (This occurs on Rosh Ḥodesh Tishrei.) There’s the fairly obscure Rosh Hashana La’Melakhim — for Kings — an annual commitment to our calendar founded upon a society of justice. (This occurs on Rosh Ḥodesh Nissan.) . . . → Continue reading: Rosh haShanah la’Behemot: A New Year’s Day for Domesticated Animals

More on the siaḥ of suaḥ: numinous conversations of trees and other vegetation

While working on some curriculum for the Teva Learning Alliance this summer, I was introduced to the Tseno Ureno, an amazing medieval commentary on the Torah by Rabbi Yaakov ben Yitsḥak Ashkenazi (1550-1625). Here’s Rabbi Yaakov Ashkenazi on Deuteronomy 20:19 — כִּ֤י הָֽאָדָם֙ עֵ֣ץ הַשָּׂדֶ֔ה. This is the verse from which the mitzvah of bal . . . → Continue reading: More on the siaḥ of suaḥ: numinous conversations of trees and other vegetation

On the Interconnectedness of All of Life: An Ecology of Oneness in the Tanna d’bei Eliyahu

I want to share one of the most beautiful Jewish ecology quotes I learned while reading through the curricular material while teaching at Teva Learning Center in (now Teva Learning Alliance) in the fall of 2010. The quote: “The whole world of humans, animals, fish, and birds all depend on one another. All drink the earth’s water, breathe the earth’s air, and find their food in what was created on the earth. All share the same destiny.” It was so beautiful I wanted to do some fact-checking to determine if this was a literal or a more creative translation and also to understand its context. Some detective work was in order. The source on the sheet I found it said it was from Tanna Debe Eliyahu, an early collection of midrash completed in the 10th century. . . . → Continue reading: On the Interconnectedness of All of Life: An Ecology of Oneness in the Tanna d’bei Eliyahu

Variations on a pedagogy for teaching bal tashḥit: on the mindfulness of plucking leaves

Last year, while preparing the text of Gale & Goodman’s popular seder for Tu Bishvat, The Trees are Davvening, I came across an important and fairly modern story that testifies to important Jewish values of bal tashḥit (not needlessly wasting or wantonly destroying) in the context of our relationship with non-human life and nature. The problem I immediately encountered was one of attribution — the story featured Rav Avraham Yitzhak Kook (1865–1935), the first Ashkenazi chief rabbi of the British Mandate for Palestine, while the story as I remembered it featured the fifth and sixth rebbes of ḤaBaD. The story in The Trees are Davvening quoted verbatim the story as recounted by Rav Aryeh Levin (1885-1969) in A Tzaddik in Our Time: The Life of Rabbi Aryeh Levin, p.107 by Simcha Raz (Feldheim 1975). . . . → Continue reading: Variations on a pedagogy for teaching bal tashḥit: on the mindfulness of plucking leaves

On Potters and Potlings (or On turning forward with one’s head turned backwards)

A few weeks ago I was asked on the (Star) Trek Jews list what the Jewish concept of t’shuva means… here is what I wrote for someone who might know very little about Jewish thought and philosophy. I think I would have liked it to have more quotes from sources, TaNaKh, Talmud, and other scholars, . . . → Continue reading: On Potters and Potlings (or On turning forward with one’s head turned backwards)

Let the mountains sing together with joy!

According to one ancient Jewish tradition, the custom of not eating meat on Shavuot celebrates the vow God made with Noaḥ and his children on Mt. Ararat. Although the vow was witnessed by Noaḥ on Ararat, because Noaḥ’s descendants continued to eat the flesh of an animal with its blood, a suitable partner to the . . . → Continue reading: Let the mountains sing together with joy!

Metaphors Liberate Us

In an age when the possibility of living in the land of Israel is no longer an abstract yearning, at a time when Jerusalem is rebuilt (with a soon to be active light rail system!), and after nearly 2000 years without the physical presence of a Temple nor the daily ministrations of priesthood . . . → Continue reading: Metaphors Liberate Us

With Heine at Lorelei

At 161st Street and Grand Concourse in the Bronx, there is a highly ornate fountain named Lorelei located in a rather lonely park dedicated to dead poets. Inscribed at the base of Lorelei is the name and visage of a man — once upon a time, Germany’s favorite Romantic poet. Hitler tried his best to . . . → Continue reading: With Heine at Lorelei

The Talmud on the Virtues of Robots and Cats

A few days ago Engadget blogged a story originally reported in the Israeli print media that a local family was surprised to discover that their Roomba had ingested a dangerous poisonous snake (Vipera palaestinae). (Within a few days, the story was echoed by Gizmodo, Boing Boing, and Jewschool.)

In so far as . . . → Continue reading: The Talmud on the Virtues of Robots and Cats

Post-PresenTense

Fellow Omphalos gazers might wonder what I’ve been doing. And not just in the sense of, “Hey I’m wonder what Aharon’s been up to lately.” Well, after two months of productive work on the Open Siddur Project as a fellow with the PresenTense Institute in Jerusalem this summer, I spent a month in Philadelphia before . . . → Continue reading: Post-PresenTense

Open Siddur at PresenTense Institute Workshop

Regular readers (hi mom!) were disappointed when I didn’t post the last two months. Forgive!! Drama was afoot. I got involved in a relationship with a lovely young woman and I began to find a foothold in the world of Jewish social entrepreneurship.

Happenstance the first: a creative project I proposed to the summer bootcamp/workshop . . . → Continue reading: Open Siddur at PresenTense Institute Workshop

Reality and Hallucination: Towards a Talmudic Ontology of Consensus (by way of demons)

In his 1978 essay, “How to Build a Universe That Doesn’t Fall Apart Two Days Later“, Philip K. Dick wrote, “Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.” This ontology is challenged by a syndrome recently brought to my attention in a recent post on boingboing.net, “Hallucinations . . . → Continue reading: Reality and Hallucination: Towards a Talmudic Ontology of Consensus (by way of demons)

We are the music makers

In the film Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory (1971), after Willy Wonka (Gene Wilder) proudly describes that in his lickable wallpaper “The snozberries taste like snozberries!”, an exasperated Veruca Salt snidely objects, “Snozberries? Who ever heard of a snozberry?” Willy Wonka grabs her mouth and explains “We are the music makers, and We are . . . → Continue reading: We are the music makers

The Collected Calypsos, Sayings, and Songs of Bokonon

From Kurt Vonnegut’s novel, Cat’s Cradle (1963). Found on the internet, and rearranged chronologically. . . . → Continue reading: The Collected Calypsos, Sayings, and Songs of Bokonon

Hobbits, Jews, and Romantics in the Woods

Just a few notes on the film Defiance. My housemate and I caught a free screening courtesy of gofobo.com and the Ritz East. The film is based on the 1993 book by Nechama Tec, Defiance: The Bielski Partisans, and it is an excellent story told well. Had it been a fantasy written by Tolkien it . . . → Continue reading: Hobbits, Jews, and Romantics in the Woods

B’yadeinu ohr va esh | In our hands are light and fire

It is the eighth and final day of Chanukah, Chag Urim, festival of lights. It is the day after the world comes to grips with the latest horrible spasm in the terrible saga playing out between Israel and Hamas-led Palestinians in Gaza. Gershom Gorenberg of South Jerusalem, always conscious of terrible ironies, shares this:

Last . . . → Continue reading: B’yadeinu ohr va esh | In our hands are light and fire

Banu choshech legaresh

Ari, at his serendipitynow blog, points out this article at Haaretz on the naked bigotry the Muslims of Yaffo (Jaffa) recently endured at the hands of right wing Israeli extremists (of the national religious settler variety). Yaffo is a mixed ethnic Jewish and Arab town in Israel just south of Tel Aviv, a place that . . . → Continue reading: Banu choshech legaresh

Ḥanukah: Sukkot Sheni and the Brumalia

With the dissemination and availability of 2 Maccabees (preserved in the Catholic and Orthodox Christian cannons), more Jews are learning that the eight day festival of lights originated as a renewal of the eight day festival of Sukkot. That essential Fall pilgrimage and fertility festival (which included the joyous water-drawing festival, Simchat Bet haShoeva) was . . . → Continue reading: Ḥanukah: Sukkot Sheni and the Brumalia

The Longest Darkest Night of the Year

Although the significance of Ḥanukah is masked by both its commercialization (in competition with Christmas) and its status as a “minor” or post-biblical Jewish holiday, there are important reasons to believe that it is ancient, poorly understood, and quite deep.

Before he passed away this past year, Rabbi Zelig Scharfstein of blessed memory, taught me . . . → Continue reading: The Longest Darkest Night of the Year

Lingle and Boxer Spar for McCain and Obama

Hawaiian Governor Linda Lingle and Californian Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA) debated each other this past evening while representing John McCain and Barack Obama respectively at A Presidential Candidates Forum: America in the World – Friends, Foes, and the Future. The debate between the two Jewish politicians was organized by The Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) . . . → Continue reading: Lingle and Boxer Spar for McCain and Obama

The Eye that Blinds

Years ago on mog.com, I wrote about Claus Cordes’ cover art for Klaus Schulz’s 1983 album Audentity, the new wave punk slit glasses shown in the film Big Trouble in Little China (1986), and the specialized glasses worn by Geordi La Forge, the blind engineer played by LeVar Burton in Star Trek: The Next Generation . . . → Continue reading: The Eye that Blinds

On Mind Flayers and the Faith of our Fathers

Isaac S. and I were talking role playing and the biological basis of behavior for Mind Flayer society again this past Shabbat when our conversation meandered into the ever fertile field of movement ideology and identity politics in American Modern Orthodox Judaism. (In hindsight it seems appropriate we were taking a stroll through Spring . . . → Continue reading: On Mind Flayers and the Faith of our Fathers

You Don’t Mess With the Samson

I promised myself that I would not think too hard about You Don’t Mess With the Zohan, Robert Smigel and Adam Sandler’s comedy film this summer. But alas, reading about the story of Yiftach in the haftorah reading this past shabbat, I couldn’t help but think of the context of Zohan within the context of . . . → Continue reading: You Don’t Mess With the Samson

Jeer at them

Yochanan Lavie, who regularly reads and comments over at failedmessiah.com, recently shared this poem inspired in general by the sickness and evil near the root of Aaron Rubashkin’s animal slaughtering and meat processing factory in Postville, Iowa, and specifically by Rubashkin’s use of PR flacks, paid industry “representatives,” and the Orthodox establishment to shill for . . . → Continue reading: Jeer at them

Zer Presence

Besides working through the problem of what is meant by being asked to worship an invisible, non-verbally communicative superbeing (who is yet imagined to be present, personal, and ready to intervene), my next most-difficult problem when conforming the god of my imagination with the god of Jewish liturgy has always been how to avoid thinking . . . → Continue reading: Zer Presence

Cain and Abel

From her yeshivah digs in Jerusalem, Gella Solomon (of Nogah Chadash) writes to me of an aggadic commentary she’s recently composed on the story of Cain and Abel (or transliterated, Qayin and Hevel). Her midrash, narrated by Cain is deeply humanistic — Cain expresses himself and his experience of fratricide in human terms that easily . . . → Continue reading: Cain and Abel

Behemot and Bahamut

The umbilical cord of my omphalos winds its way back in time to the blessings of my mother and father, but also inwards and outside-of-time, stretching into a womb land that is all myth and dream and imagination. With some effort I can follow my way back into this makom, this space and hopefully return . . . → Continue reading: Behemot and Bahamut

The Two Lovers

On this trip, I had the pleasure of sharing a day trip between D.C. and N.Y.C. with a friend of an acquaintance. As it happens, by which I mean, by the tender coincidences blessed upon me in the happenstance of creation, this fellow, Eli K-W, also happens to love Jewish myth and has lately been . . . → Continue reading: The Two Lovers

Blacks, Jews, and the Post-Racial Candidate

This week I’m in New York City for the New Voices Conference in Independent Jewish Student Journalism. “Blacks, Jews, and the Post-Racial Candidate” was the subject of last night’s (May 28) panel discussion at the Center for Jewish History (CJH).

Moderated by Marissa Brostoff (New Voices contributing writer), the panel consisted of Sam Freedman (Columbia . . . → Continue reading: Blacks, Jews, and the Post-Racial Candidate

On Frida Kahlo’s Jewish Identity

Frida Kahlo’s genealogy, at least on her father’s side, was finally established by historical researchers Gaby Franger and Rainer Huhle for their book on Guillermo Kahlo’s photographic work, >Fridas Vater: Der Fotograf Guillermo Kahlo (2005). The historians learned that Guillermo Kahlo was the scion of a long line of German Lutheran Protestants. Left uncertain was whether Frida’s Jewish ancestry was 1) via her paternal grandmother, Henriette Kaufmann, 2) via crypto-Jewish roots on her mother’s Spanish-Mexican side, or 3) a complete fiction. Personally, I’ll take Frida at her word. As cruel as it seems to me for an art exhiition curator to ignore Frida’s Jewish identity, it seems even more obnoxious to question it. I imagine that Henriette Kaufmann’s family was Jewish and hailed from Arad, not very distant from my own ancestral roots in Nagyvárad, Transylvania. . . . → Continue reading: On Frida Kahlo’s Jewish Identity

Seven Kings

In the beginning, there were seven kings

One created a kingdom of earth and became suffused with it. One created a kingdom of one and hid himself in it. One created a kingdom of love and filled it with two and a challenge to entice them. One created a kingdom without number and became lost . . . → Continue reading: Seven Kings

An introduction and archive for Piyutim (sacred Jewish musical poetry and song)

An introduction to Piyutim (piyut.org.il)

A piyut (piyutim, pl. hebrew) is a sacred musical poem, sung as part of a communal prayer service but just as often after a good meal with friends and family. I was raised with these songs and tunes, learning a new one occasionally while eating as a guest at someone’s . . . → Continue reading: An introduction and archive for Piyutim (sacred Jewish musical poetry and song)

From Moineşti

Moineşti (pronounced MOI-nesht) is a small city in north-eastern Romania, in the Moldavian region, and in the county of Bacău. According to Wikipedia,

The name is derived from the Romanian word moină, which means fallow or light rain. Moineşti once had a large Jewish community; in Jewish contexts the name is often given as . . . → Continue reading: From Moineşti

Rejoining Tetragrammaton

Here is one more attempt at trying to explicate the mystery of Leviathan and Behemoth. This is a work in progress, but for those among you interested in myth and esoterica and/or Judaism, you may forgive its rough edges. Writing this took me most of yesterday evening and much of the morning, a work that’s . . . → Continue reading: Rejoining Tetragrammaton

Mardi Gras and Purim

This year, the Jewish holiday of Purim is on March 12th, which is so close to Mardi Gras (Feb 28th), the parallels are impossible to miss. I experienced Mardi Gras in Lafayette and Kaplan, the latter, far enough into the countryside where you can still find the vestiges of some extremely old traditions in practice. . . . → Continue reading: Mardi Gras and Purim

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