Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Performance Art and Jewish Spirituality: Some Insights into Leading a Seder

A seder, whether it takes place on Passover or Shabbat or any other time, is not merely a banquet. First, let me clear away a couple of misconceptions. A lot of Jews when they think of the seder as only referring to the Passover Seder. A seder is a meal which is distinguished by a number of distinctive prayers and rituals which highlight a special time and theme. The Sabbath meals, especially Friday night, can be considered as seders. Jews have marked seders on many other holidays such as Rosh Hashannah, Tu Bishvat, and Purim. The Passover seder is the most comprehensive and in many of its aspects is governed by Jewish law.

One of the most distinctive ways of Judaism is to transform a banquet, a feast of delectable foods, into a religious experience rich with meaning and a sense of community. But there is not one way to run a seder, contrary to the approach taken by the editors of the "Maxwell House Haggadah". Noam Zion in his leader's guide to the Haggadah, A Different Night deals with the issue of how to approach a seder. He brings a debate from another field of human endeavor as a way of understanding how we might approach the way we experience a seder.

One of the reasons that many seders fall back into being family banquets is that we have misconceived what a seder can be. Is it a rigid order of rituals? Do we merely 'go by the book'? The passage below gives us some helpful metaphors with which to understand a seder and to begin to see it again as religious experience which is shared by everyone around the table. One of Judaism's great gifts is to transform eating activity into a moment of communal and spiritual awareness. This may repoint the way for us on how to sanctify those gatherings around our tables.

"The leader of the seder is similar to the conductor of an orchestra and the Haggadah is the musical score. What is the approprieate relationship to the maestro to the masterpiece to be played? How much freedom should be allowed in adapting the music to the audience's needs? Is the Pesach seder meant to be a jam session or a Bach Fugue?" Zion then brings a remarkable passage from another field which suggests how a seder can be conceived.

"There has been a general tendency to passivity on the part of people as an audience for art; they have been receptacles for workd developed by others-the artists. A form of specialization emerged-specialization in all the fields. Over the centuries artists have become specialists for the people. They expressed the highest and deepest felt essences of a culture; they painted for the people, they made music for the people, they built buildings for the people. This created a dichotomy whose results are all around us. A dichotomy betwen the act of art and the act of life; between the score-maker and the scored-for; between the technician and the layman. It is a dichotomy which did not exist in traditional cultures where all the people were artists, nor does it even exist among children."

"In the realm of music, a score can either control or allow leeway. The difference, however, is enormous. In the older music, scoring devices were used to control, with precision, the the notes and true intervals played by the performer. A Bach score is Bach and not something else. It communicates exactly what Bach had in mind and controls what the performer does." "The newer musical scores on the other hand are not devices for control in the same way. They communicate an idea and a quality-what emerges is soemthing both more and less than what was intended. The hand of the composer lies less heavily on the performer."

"It is the performers almost more than the composer who make the music (an approach, incidently, dating at least back to the beginning of jazz). The inevitable question that arises is: Whic is better,that the composer control what we do or that we ourselves play a major role in determining our own music? Each performer must determine this answer for her or himself."

"We are searching for ways to break down this dichotomy, for ways to allow people to enter into the act of making art, as part of the art process of open ended scoring devices which will act as guides, not dictators. These kinds of scores have the built-in possibilities for interaction between what is perceived beforehand and what emerges during the act. They allow the activity itself to generate its own results in process. They communicate but do not control. They energize and guide, they encourage, they evoke responses, they do not impose."Lawrence Halprin, "RSVP Cycles".

Yom Hashoah and Human Nature

Today we observe Yom Hashoah-Holocaust Memorial Day. It is a day not only to think about the past, but to reflect on the tenuous present. Why does the genocide in Darfur go on unabated? Why does a national leader openly deny the holocaust? Why does the same anti-semitic fervor that gripped the Nazis overflow in so many parts of the Arab world?

The Jewish calendar's holidays and sacred occasions can be seen as a calendrical debate on human nature. Shabbat and the pilgrimage festivals leave us with a sense of the joy and goodness of being human. Tish a Baav and Yom Hashoah remind us of the evil in human beings. Typical of Jewish sensibility both types of observances are embedded in the rhythims of a Jewish life so no one can make an absolute claim that we are either angels or devils. A Jew must be an optimistic realist. That is why we must have Shabbat and Yom Hashoah, Succot and Tish a Baav.

Monday, April 17, 2006

Some Reflections on My Passover Seder with my Autistic Son

I have an autistic son. His name is Moriel. Moriel is an 18 year old who is very lovable because he likes to play games. Once you understand that he is playing games you can connect to him by joining in his game. One game he loves is "Win the Championship High 5". Mori loves the sensation he receives from a vigorous high 5, the one you might get after winning the superbowl or the worldseries. Giving him a strong and enthusiastic high 5 always transforms his face into a broad smile. He will hold his hand out in the air and all you have to do is swing your own hand in an arc so that your palm lands squarely in his palm. Since Mori does not speak, this 'game of champions' is one of the way I know I can make him happy.

Mori has another game which I did not realize was a game until recently. The doctors think that Mori has Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. Persons with OCD need to control their environments more than others. In Mori's case he likes to have people sitting near him to maintain a certain posture and keep their hands and arms in a specific places in relationship to him. So if I move my hand from my knee to place it on my hip, he will take my hand and put it back on my knee. It is very important at this moment that I keep my hand on my knee.

For years I would go along with this, but recently I have tried testing Mori by moving my hand off my knee repeatedly after he places it back on it. I noticed that he smiled broadly as I kept on removing my hand and he kept on putting it back. At that moment I realized that he was playing a game with me. I learned his rules and once I knew them I could play with him over and over. All games have rules and in Mori's case he makes them. I had to learn the rules of his games in order to play them.

This insight I bring to running a seder. Baruch Bokser, z'al, my teacher of Mishnah, wrote a marvelous book on the Origins of the Seder. He quotes an anthropologisst's observations about the nature of a Passover Seder. "Formal public ritual is like a game that everyone agrees to play. The participants consent to abide by the rules of the evening and to let the decisions concerning their own actions be taken out of their hands and placed in the Haggadah's program.

For the success of the game, they allow themselves to be freed fro the evening from the mentally divisive process of decision making, which focuses the mind on ideas in opposition, and also tacitly agree to ignore the personal matters and status considerations that separate individusl in nonritual time. In relaxing the barriers that divide people mentally and socially, the focus of the evening now may be socially shared ideological considerations and not private concerns." p. 81

The seder has its own rules, its own world. To make it come alive you have to allow yourself to enter its world. Of course every seder leader must interpret that world to the participants and that is precisely the art of running a seder. The great challenge of running a seder is to keep the private and physical concerns of those attending in the background so that everyone present can fully play the game. That is why I think a seder has to be highly interactive, improvisational (following Maimonides teaching on doing something different), and multi-sensory.

Everyone must be invited into the game which is meant to teach us once again something that unites those present at the seder. At second night seder I experienced the joy of my son, Moriel, attending most of the seder. He was surrounded by loving family and friends, and several others who had never been to a seder.

It was my opportunity to welcome them and him into a timeless game that the Passover seder presents to us. He did quite marvelously with the help of an aid and his brother who sat at his side. He played the role of the 'child who does not know how to ask' and he played it beautifully. His non-Jewish aid who had never been to a seder was greatly moved by the whole experience. Of course, the haggadah, anticipates a person like Mori at the seder and the rules of the seder game demand that you make the experience accessible to this person as well. So we sang, and we told stories, and we ate the symbolic foods in the most playful manner and so fulfilled our obligation to see ourselves as going out of Egypt.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

In Every Generation

Something for your Pesah Table.

As I was running around getting ready for my seder I glanced at a New York Times article, "Seeking Ancestry in DNA Ties Uncovered by Tests" DNA. The article mentions the story of John Haedrich, a gentile who is using genetic tests that point to a 'genetic Jewish identity' to gain Israeli citizenship under the 'law of return'. He may challenge the law in Israel, arguing, "Because I was raised a gentile does not change the fact that I am a Jew by birth."

This fascinating story is great discussion fodder for the Passover seder. I recommend that you read the portion of the article around the passage of "In Every generation"-Bechol Dor vador. In that passage the haggadah emphasizes the marker of a Jew as being one who identifies with those who left Egypt. Here are some questions to consider.

With the reality of geneitc testing for ethnicity does Jewish identity through being born of a Jewish mother make sense?The Haggadah suggests that being Jewish is a matter of buying into the narrative of leaving Exodus? Do you think that is still true or relevant? Should Halachah on Jewish identity change due to advances in genetic testing?What is the impact of having a definition of Jewish identity that is based on genetics or birth? Would it be better if Judaism was based on choice?

These questions should stir up the knaidelach. Have a good discussion. Share with me your answers.

Hag Sameah, Happy Passover
Rabbi Dov Gartenberg

Wednesday, April 5, 2006

Hartman Leadership Seminar Update: 4/5/06

To Participants in the Hartman Long Distance Seminar on Religion, Ethics, and Violence

From Rabbi Dov Gartenberg

Re: Upcoming Beit Midrash Session and other announcements

1. Upcoming Beit Midrash Session:
4/8/06 at 3:30-5:00pm on Shabbat afternoon at the Beit Midrash of Rabbi Dov Gartenberg, 3827 NE 90th St. Seattle, WA 98115

All participants are invited for a supplemental learning session with Rabbi Gartenberg to discuss issues raised in the Hartman series and to prepare the texts for the upcoming session. At this Rabbi Dov will recapitulate the essential points of Moshe Halbertal's last presentation and will lead a discussion on the far reaching implications of it. We will then look at the texts for David Hartman's first session (see below). Enoy a relaxing and learning oriented conversation with some pre Pesah refreshment. Please bring your studybooks. Please rsvp if you are coming to rabbidov@panimhadashot.com.

2. Next session: 9:00am on Sunday, April 23rd at the Federation Board Room. Rabbi David Hartman, founder of the Shalom Hartman Institute, will teach on "The Limits of Religious Authority".

3. Save the Date: Donniel Hartman will be in town on Friday morning, 8-9am on May 12th at the Federation Board room to speak to Hartman participants and prospective students on 'Standing Before God', the theme of next year's seminar. This will be an opportunity to give Rabbi Hartman feedback on this year's seminar. Please rsvp with rabbidov@panimhadashot if you plan to come. More information will be forthcoming.

4. Registration to the Israel seminar is still open. Please contact Rabbi Gartenberg if you are interested. Please do not delay your registration.

Hag Sameah,
Rabbi Dov Gartenberg