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entries tagged with: Tzvee Zahavy


Charges hurled back and forth after Teaneck’s municipal elections

Accusations of anti-Orthodox and anti-Semitic incitement cast a shadow over last week’s Teaneck municipal elections, and one township council candidate found himself at the center of the storm.

An article in the May issue of the Englewood-based Jewish Voice & Opinion alleged that Joseph Steinberg had a close political relationship with current council member Barbara Ley Toffler, who, the article alleged, has an “anti-observant animus, verging on outright anti-Semitism.” The article quoted an anonymous source who cast Steinberg as Toffler’s surrogate. These allegations, Toffler suggested to The Jewish Standard on Monday, contributed to Steinberg’s failed run.

“Joseph was in a very awkward position,” she said. “You have to make a connection with the different groups in town, but I do think it contributed to him leaving enough of the community very, very unsettled about who he was.”

Joseph Steinberg ran for Teaneck’s township council and lost, amid allegations that he is anti-Orthodox.

The article pointed to a 2007 column in The New York Times by Peter Applebome called “Our Towns; Proudly Diverse Teaneck Is Forced to Re-examine Its Assumptions.” Applebome quoted Toffler as saying, “People worry that there’s a group that wants this to become an Orthodox community like some of the ones in Rockland County. This has always been an incredibly diverse community, and from my perspective, I don’t want it to become any one thing.”

Jewish Voice editor Susan Rosenbluth wrote in her May issue that Toffler “never apologized for her suggestion that observant Jews were trying to take over Teaneck and turn it into ‘Monsey’….”

In defense of her article, Rosenbluth told the Standard that Steinberg had refused to condemn Toffler’s statement, which she said, would never be tolerated if it had been about the African-American or gay communities.

“Diversity is a wonderful thing, but to say that because Orthodox people are moving into Teaneck that they’re trying to take over is outrageous,” she said.

Toffler told the Standard that she had alluded to the village of Kiryas Joel, a Satmar-run community in Orange County, and not Monsey.

“This whole thing was a nightmare for me,” she said. “I feel terrible for the Steinbergs.”

Steinberg condemned the Jewish Voice article and its impact on his campaign when he spoke with the Standard on Tuesday.

“The whole article had absolutely no merit in any way with regard to me,” he said. “Anybody who knows me and knows Barbara as well would see the same article and dismiss it. The issue with the article is most people in town do not know me. It caused confusion or contempt where there shouldn’t have been any.”

A few days before the May 11 election, Steinberg e-mailed an “Open letter to Teaneck’s Orthodox Community,” denouncing the article’s claims about him and labeling it part of a “smear campaign” that had created a “chillul HaShem,” a blaspheming of God’s name. He wrote that because the article relied on an anonymous source, it fell under the category of lashon hara, deceitful language.

“It was precisely this type of behavior that the Talmud says brought about the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple, and led to nearly two millennia of exile and persecution,” he wrote. “The damage that has been done to the reputation of our community will last well beyond this election, and those who were involved with the current smear campaign owe an apology not only to me, but to the entire Jewish community.”

Rosenbluth defended her article against that accusation.

“When we’re talking about somebody who is running for public elected office … it is not lashon hara to report the truth,” she said.

Rosenbluth would not reveal the identity of her anonymous source, but said she knows the source personally.

Many people felt that Steinberg was Toffler’s surrogate, Rosenbluth said, and if he had won she would have had an ally on the council. If he lost, she added, Toffler could claim she had supported somebody from the Orthodox community.

“From that perspective I think Mr. Steinberg was naïve,” Rosenbluth said. “And I’m willing to give him his naïveté.”

Tzvee Zahavy, a Teaneck resident who runs Tzvee’s Talmudic Blog, endorsed Steinberg on his site after the article and e-mail appeared. Another blog, Teaneck Talk, reposted the Jewish Voice article as well as an e-mail attacking Steinberg’s financial expertise. That e-mail circulated before Steinberg’s and prompted his response.

“Teaneck politics are junior high school quality,” Zahavy told the Standard. “They are characterized, unfortunately, by some people in our community stooping to rather immature tactics. I think Joseph was above that and, unfortunately, didn’t want to get down to that level. It’s like any other game; you’ve got to play at the level the others are playing, and they’re playing at a very low level in Teaneck politics.”

Teaneck Mayor Kevie Feit, whose term on the council ends on June 30 and who did not seek re-election, blamed people on both sides who, he said, “play up the differences between the Orthodox community and the rest of Teaneck.”

“Joseph is the type of person and the type of candidate who is trying to show it’s possible to move past that,” he told the Standard on Tuesday. “Certain people didn’t like that because it goes against what they’re trying to accomplish, which is to show it’s always ‘us versus them.’”

Steinberg placed sixth out of the nine candidates running for the four open seats. Though dismayed by the outcome, a week after the election he spoke about moving forward.

“I hope that the situation created by the negative activities during this election season will serve as a catalyst for positive change,” he said. “As I mentioned throughout the campaign, we must bring an end to the divisiveness in town that continues to waste our collective time, money, and energy.”

Councilman Elie Y. Katz, who won re-election last week, said he hoped people judged the candidates based on who they are and what they could do for the town.

“We’re a community,” he told the Standard, “and the only way to have better working relationships is for everyone to understand each other and try to work together and communicate with each other.”

Feit echoed Katz in a call for unity.

“We all want the same thing and the sooner we start working together,” Feit said, “the better off we’ll be.”


A multiplicity of voices

The six archetypes you meet in the prayer book

Tzvee ZahavyLocal
Published: 02 October 2011


His traits: Studies Torah; an organized record keeper; knows the rewards for keeping commandments; a private person.

His God: Writes in a book who shall live and who shall die.

His High Holy Days Prayer: Unetaneh Tokef, the liturgy of the record book of life and death.

His Daily Prayer: the Sh’ma.


His Traits: Formal, political, public.

His God: Is interested in the priests, Temple, Jerusalem, the sacrifices of the high priest.

His High Holy Days Prayer: Yom Kippur Avodah, the poetic depictions of the service of the priest in the holy of holies in the Temple.

His Daily Prayer: the Amidah.


His traits: Showy and artsy; performs from and parades with the Tanach, the Hebrew Bible, in the synagogue.

His God: Is interested in hearing readings from the books that He inspired, and the ancient traditions, their sounds, and movements.

His High Holy Days Prayer: Musaf Rosh Hashanah: chanting the verses from the Tanach in the Malchiyot, Zichronot, Shofarot sections, and the accompanying sounding of the Shofar.

His Daily Prayer: All of the Torah and Tanach passages in the services


Her traits: Tuned in to this world and practical; finds lovingkindness for herself and for all persons.

Her God: Wants her to recite her blessings which trigger mindful meditations; wants her to bestow and seek compassion.

Her High Holy Days Prayers: Those that seek and foster compassion — Kol Nidre, Selichot.

Her Daily Prayers: blessings and the Birkat Hamazon, Grace after Meals.


Her traits: Flighty and dreamy, head in the clouds.

Her God: Surrounded by Angels, lives in the heavens.

Her High Holy Days Prayers: Kedushah, Kaddish, introduction to the Unetaneh Tokef.

Her Daily Prayers: The Kaddish.


His traits: Competitive and self-confident that we Jews are number one.

His God: His God is number one, soon to the champion over all the other Gods.

His High Holy Days Prayers: the Aleinu and the many other Rosh Hashanah declarations that God is King and will reign over the world.

His Daily Prayers: the Aleinu at the end of every service.


A multiplicity of voices

A guide to understanding Yom Kippur eve prayers

In “God’s Favorite Prayers,” Tzvee Zahavy dismisses a four-fold division of Jewish prayers, which goes like this: “Wow! Oops! Gimme! and Thanks!”

That characterization — which comes from a 2009 New York Times Magazine article — might at first glance cover the standard varieties of prayer.

But it fails the test of Yom Kippur.

Sure, the theme of Yom Kippur is, to put it a bit crassly, “Oops!” Yet Kol Nidrei — the formal annulling of certain vows that technically is recited immediately before the start of Yom Kippur — is not exactly a guilty plea. (That does come later, in the Al Chet, the confession of sins.)

Nor do the Selichot prayers that precede the Al Chet, which center on the repetition of God’s attributes of mercy, fall into that rubric.

Zahavy’s approach, however, explains both elements of the Yom Kippur service.

Kol Nidrei, he says, is a legal document, and that reflects the archetype of the Scribe. “The lawyer cares about words, cares about writing. When a lawyer is writing a legal brief, he has to really concentrate on the logic of it from beginning to end.

“When we walk into shul on Yom Kippur, there are lots of things we could say, but we start out with this statement that all of the vows that we’ve made are null and void,” he says. (See Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman’s op-ed on Page 18 for another view of Kol Nidre.)

Understanding that the legal language of Kol Nidrei is a form and a style, says Zahavy, enables one to look into the deeper question of what is the prayer’s meaning.

“We are entering into Yom Kippur, when we are going to really try to have compassion upon ourselves for being sinners, for having shortcomings, for not achieving the perfection we ideally would like to achieve.”

“The Kol Nidrei is a very legal sounding way of saying that you have permission to change your ways, to be compassionate, to forgive yourself. Then you can go on to the different levels where you’re asking forgiveness of God and asking forgiveness of your fellow man,” he says.

“It’s an articulation, in a legal way, that we have the power to nullify the vows of the past and the vows of the future. We have this permission. We say that everyone is granting us this permission — the ‘court’ above in Heaven and the ‘court’ below of our community — we’re together with everyone who had shortcomings, that have failures.”

“It’s the beginning of our important spiritual work.”

The Selichot prayers, he says, reflect a different archetype, that of the “Meditator.”

He notes the repetition of the Selichot, which return again and again to a refrain of the “Attributes of Mercy.”

“Why do we repeat it over and over? We say it multiple times on Yom Kippur Eve. Many people say Selichot early in the morning for the whole month, or they’ll recite them in the synagogue the Saturday night before Rosh Hashanah. Why are we repeating these phrases over and over?”

“When you look at the repetition, you’ll see that the key words invoke all those elements of compassion that we’re trying to grab on to so that we can renew ourselves with regard to our inner being, our relationships with our community, and our relationship with God.”

Zahavy says that while American culture has the notion of compassion, a lot of which comes from far eastern Buddhist idea of meditation, “these things are foreign to most Jews. I’m of the opinion that this is not foreign at all, that it’s right there repeated in prayers over and over again. In reciting Selichot, we are trying to break through to compassion; compassion for ourselves, for our fellow Jews, and then reaching out in that sense of compassion and seeking God’s help in achieving that state of compassion.

“Because if we don’t achieve compassion, we’re going to spend the next year without having moved forward. Anger, disappointment, feelings of lack of self-worth, all the things that overwhelm people can really be moved aside by the proper understanding of compassion, of loving kindness and of mercy that comes from God, that comes from the soul, that comes to you in ways that are jumping out of every page of the prayer book, certainly on Yom Kippur,” he says.


A multiplicity of voices

Local author’s new book explores the inner workings of Jewish prayer

Do not be fooled by the rows of black Hebrew letters into thinking the machzor, the High Holy Days prayer book, speaks with one voice.

Tzvee Zahavy imagines a machzor (or siddur) where different prayers — or even different passages within a single prayer — are printed in different colors to highlight the different voices that, he believes, make up the liturgy.

“It’s not just one unified symphony with one orchestra,” he says.

In his new book, “God’s Favorite Prayers,” Zahavy picks out six “archetypes” reflected in the prayers. The different archetypes reflect different ways of relating to God.

They have different physical postures. They have different ways of connecting to God. And they express themselves in different parts of the prayer service.

Zahavy begins by describing the “Performer,” who can be seen when the prayer book has us repeating — performing — biblical passages. The quotations from the Bible that are at the heart of the Rosh Hashanah Musaf services are emblematic of this aspect of the prayer book. The Performer has us connect to God by reciting God’s favorite passages as part of the service, or by reading from the Torah — the act at the center of the Shabbat worship service.

Not all recitations from biblical texts reflect the Performer, however, says Zahavy.

Notably, the readings from the Torah that constitute the Sh’ma reflect a very different mode of prayer.

For one thing, the most ancient rules of Jewish prayer — those found in the Mishnah — mandate a specific kind of intention for the Sh’ma, debating when one must focus and when one can return a greeting during the recitation.

Digging deeper

Zahavy could not understand this.

“Why speak about greetings when you are talking about focus? What more were they telling me by framing the rules as they did?” he asked himself.

He found the answer when he was writing at his computer and his wife came in to tell him her plans for the day.

“Just a minute,” he heard himself saying. “I do want to hear what you are saying. Please just let me concentrate to finish writing this paragraph.”

“I understood a lot at the moment that I said that,” says Zahavy. “It became clear to me that, when the rabbis spoke about focus — kavvanah — for reciting the Sh’ma, they used a model of concentration that was familiar to a writer — to a person who is engaged in textual work, to a scholar sitting at his desk and trying to think through his complete thoughts.”

Thus was born the archetype of the “Scribe.”

Seen as a prayer of scribes, other aspects of the Sh’ma began to make sense. The prayer is recited seated, the position in which a scribe writes. It talks of reward and punishment — in ancient times, the scribes were the accountants. And it focuses on those mitzvot of mezuzah and tefillin that are the craft of the scribes.

A third archetype is that of the “Priest.”

The Priest’s religious concerns naturally focus on the Temple and on sacrifices.

One of the Priest’s starkest distinctions from the Scribe, however, concerns concentration and posture. In contrast to the Sh’ma, recited sitting down, what Zahavy identifies as a priestly prayer, the Amidah, is recited with what Zahavy calls “a martial kind of self-possession, standing with erect posture, feet together. The person reciting the prayer needs to bow at the proper intervals, in keeping with his martial drill.

The obedient guard

“Like a palace guard, the Priest archetype who is engaged in prayer is militarily focused on the prescribed activities. He obeys what he is commanded to obey and deliberately ignores all other noises or intrusions into his material context,” says Zahavy.

The three other archetypes Zahavy describes are that of the “Mystic,” whose prayers often relate to angels; the “Meditator,” whom Zahavy sees as focusing consciousness through blessings over food; and the “Celebrity Monotheist,” who rejoices in worshiping God through the one true faith.

Zahavy developed the ideas behind his book when he was asked to teach a liturgy course at the Jewish Theological Seminary a couple of years ago. His studies of the prayer book go back to his childhood, as the son of the rabbi of several Manhattan Orthodox pulpits; to his studies at Yeshiva University with Rabbis Joseph B. Soloveitchik and Aharon Lichtenstein; and to his academic work where, as a professor of Jewish studies at the University of Minnesota, he investigated the historical origins of the prayers described in the Mishnah and Talmuds. He published translations of the Jerusalem Talmud tractate on prayer, Berachot. And he speculated on the possible origin of prayers in competing priestly and scribal circles of pre-talmudic Judaism.

When he set out to teach and explore the prayer book, however, he rejected both the theological and historical approaches. “Teaching liturgy means you have to teach what it is, how it works, how is it dramatic, what does it articulate as part of the Jewish soul,” he says.

He feels his approach “heightens spirituality by seeing more sharply the elements that are in the prayer book in front of us.”

“God’s Favorite Prayers” is not simply a book about the prayer book, however. It is in part a spiritual memoir and autobiography.

Spiritual odyssey

“Just as the midrash presents stories of rabbis to make important, deep theological points, I present my own spiritual odyssey, the interactions and anecdotes that I have had with rabbis and spiritual people,” he says.

For Zahavy, discovering the archetypes — what he calls, “the six people you meet in synagogue” — has had an impact on his own spiritual life.

“It has made my prayers more meditative and immediate and in the moment,” he says.

“We have to get over the idea of davening without a break, without punctuation, trying to finish as fast as you can without really reflecting deeply. We need to make sure that we stop and see the themes of our services — and of our own spiritual needs.

“Boredom is not possible for me as I open the prayer book, because whenever I open it I am looking to see more nuances, looking to see where is the scribe, where is the priest, where is the meditator. Why are we talking about angels? Obviously, we are in a mystical mode! It makes me pay attention to every aspect of the prayer book,” he says.

Zahavy is convinced that the prayer book, with all its facets, reflects the genius of the Jewish soul.

“We were blessed with different geniuses who created the structures we have in front of us,” he says.

“What troubles me is that when you daven through the siddur really fast so you can get home 10 minutes faster, it’s kind of like going through the Metropolitan Museum of Art and seeing how fast you can run through the Impressionist rooms, still seeing every one of the Impressionist masterpieces, but trying to save five minutes. When you run through the machzor or the siddur, you’re going through the great masterpieces of the liturgical expression and you’re trying to save five minutes. Something better can be accomplished,” he says.

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