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Minor high holiday sermon gripe - The Phantom Librarian
Spewing out too many words since November 2003
fernwithy
fernwithy
Minor high holiday sermon gripe
Well, between Rosh Hoshana and Yom Kippur, I joined a large Reform Temple. I'm glad of it. Everyone seems nice, and services were lovely.


But I had to walk out on a sermon before I started arguing with the Rabbi in the middle of it.


First, it's not unusual for people to wander out during a long service--go to the ladies, whatever. I don't think my protest was especially a pointed one. Just a preventative measure before I blew my stack.

Okay. The loopy left politics, I was prepared for. In Reform Judaism, "Lean left" is the eleventh commandment, so I was prepared for anti-Iraq and pro-gay marriage sermons from the bimah. I don't like politics at the pulpit--something about someone telling me that G-d wants me to vote Kerry that rubs me the wrong way--but I've more or less resigned myself to the fact that if I'm going to belong to a synagogue, I'm going to have to deal with that, as that's the currently trendy approach. And since I'm in the distinct minority, it would be presumptuous of me to try and force a change in what's working for everyone else. And everything else pretty much works fine for me as well.

What I was not prepared for was an out-of-the-blue slam on my blood ancestors, and one that was based on a very bizarre notion of them at that.

I mean, I suppose I should be used to slams on the Puritans. It's de rigeur, which usually amuses me in Boston, since it's still so blatantly a Puritan city in everything but theology, but this time, for some reason, I just wasn't emotionally ready for it.

The gist of the sermon was that there are two strains of messianism, apocalyptic and restorative. (Comparative religion major Fern: Both are apocalyptic, the latter rather post-apocalypse, but that's a minor quibble; I'll use the definitions of the rabbi giving the sermon.) Restorative messianism is all about building a perfect world before asking G-d to step in, it's about social justice and other sorts of warm-fuzzy concepts. Apocalyptic messianism is all about rage and thinking that the world is headed for a final destructive battle, which will occur when all is in wickedness.

The latter, he informed us, was our Puritan strain, which was the evil side of the American character which needs to be defeated.

Heh?

Okay, so my inclination is to say that there's a time for both rather than suggesting that one be rooted out, but that wasn't what made me furious.

The Puritans did many unpleasant things, but by the man's OWN definition, they're restorative, not apocalyptic. Their whole point was that they were trying to build a City of G-d, to perfect the world. They weren't waiting for an apocalyptic battle, and they certainly were not about rage and anger. They were about attempting perfection.

By doing things like, say, telling people what G-d thought they should think about contemporary trendy issues.

But, no. We can't have that. We can't look at them as people trying to do what they thought was right and trying to build a perfect society, because that's what the Good Guys (tm) do, and everyone knows that Puritans were the Bad Guys (tm), so let's just warp their cultural history so that it fits whatever the officially designated Bad Guy happens to be.

You want to complain about the witch trials? Be my guest (though don't try to palm it off as persecution of Wicca, as it was largely totally contained within the Puritan community). About the religious requirements for office? I'm all over it, as were their more immediate descendents, who rescended it quite a long time ago.

But let's get two things straight:

People who have twenty-one kids in a family (as a Puritan ancestor of mine did) aren't anti-sex.

And they did not stockpile weapons for some coming conflagaration. They thought they were the elect and their job was to create a godly city on Earth. Restorative messianism, to use the rabbi's phrase. Might there have been a handful waiting for a war? Possibly. But it certainly wasn't a mainstay of Puritanism.

The opposite of "Puritan" is not "loving and tolerant" but "Cavalier"--the people who came to a different part of the country for the sake of making a profit rather than conducting a religious experiment. It's not ironic that Boston, a Puritan-founded city with a Puritan culture, is constantly espousing social justice causes (even when I disagree, I recognize that people mean their positions idealistically, which is one of the many reasons I love the city)--it's the result of the very Puritan culture that the rabbi was deriding. We're still trying to build the perfect City of G-d; we're just arguing about what exactly that means, and have taken to using different terminology.

Now, there are Protestant sects in which what he defined as "apocalyptic messianism" is a major factor. They pop up whenever things start to feel frightening and unbearable, when change is happening too fast and people need time to catch up. But Puritanism was not one of those sects. I know that people not brought up Protestant have a hard time sorting between Amercan synod Lutheran (Fern's birth religion, English Evangelical movement), Missouri synod Lutheran, Southern Baptist, Methodist, Congregationalist, etc, but please. There are some marked differences and it would be a good idea to learn them before speaking publicly on the subject.

If you're going to insult my ancestors, then get it right. Kthnxbai.
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Comments
mamadeb From: mamadeb Date: September 25th, 2004 08:14 pm (UTC) (Link)
Also, um.

Neither are precisely the Jewish definition of Messianism, either. There's also the school of "When God is good and ready, or thinks we're ready, or whatever His timetable is."

Defining one religion's concept by another religion's concept (and setting up a strawman at the same time - poor Puritans!) is really not a great idea.

And, for the record. Politics have no place during d'vrei torah. Even if I happen to agree with them - because others will not.
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: September 25th, 2004 08:42 pm (UTC) (Link)
Neither are precisely the Jewish definition of Messianism, either. There's also the school of "When God is good and ready, or thinks we're ready, or whatever His timetable is."
Right. One of the surprisingly attractive things about Judaism to me is that the question isn't of the pressing importance that people on the outside of it assume. Some things are left to G-d. It's not our job to bring the Messiah or cause the apocalypse, but to be good to one another and to G-d.

And, for the record. Politics have no place during d'vrei torah. Even if I happen to agree with them - because others will not.

I agree. That's why it took me so long to join a synagogue. As it happens, I tend toward the Reform approach culturally and ritually (sort of; I converted in college with a Rabbi who referred to himself as "Reconformodox" and disliked the separation of the movements rather intensely), but the extreme regularity with which politics are addressed on the bimah bugged me enough that I was definitely looking at other options... including when I agree. It's one thing to say that Torah enjoins us to care for the Earth and be good stewards; it's another to say that we should vote against Bush because of the Alaskan oil business. (That specific one, I hadn't heard, but it's an example.) Now, in an informal discussion, where everyone is maybe trying to address the subject of stewardship and what it means, I think the Wilderness Drilling question would be valid for study, and might be an interesting argument, actually. (I love Talmud-style arguments, just love them. And that would fit in as a sample case on stewardship, with different rabbis arguing different angles on it.)

But standing up there before the open Ark declaring a particular position to be the properly Jewish one?

Nuh-uh.
mamadeb From: mamadeb Date: September 25th, 2004 08:49 pm (UTC) (Link)
This is when I get to be annoyingly like my husband.

Right. One of the surprisingly attractive things about Judaism to me is that the question isn't of the pressing importance that people on the outside of it assume. Some things are left to G-d. It's not our job to bring the Messiah or cause the apocalypse, but to be good to one another and to G-d.

There is always the Exception to the Rule called Lubavitch, who do believe we should be actively bring Moshiach. But how do we do it? By performing more mitzvot and encouraging others to do so. This still doesn't fit into either of your rabbi's definitions of Messianism - it's creating a situation where the Messiah will come. And boils down to obeying the Torah, which boils down to what you said, more or less (defining "good to Gd" as obeying His commandments.)
rikibeth From: rikibeth Date: September 25th, 2004 10:00 pm (UTC) (Link)
I dunno -- seems to me like "performing mitzvot and encouraging others to do so" is a low-key approach along the Building the City lines that Fern said.

A snippet from the opening bits of Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy is coming to mind. You know, the bit about the girl in the small cafe in Rickmansworth.

"And this time, nobody would have to get nailed to anything..."

I'm overtired and rambling. But -- if there is a big difference between "doing mitzvot and encouraging others" and the more formal legislative attempts (just a more vigorous form of encouragement?) -- please, please explain to the overtired desk chair philosopher.
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: September 26th, 2004 12:24 am (UTC) (Link)
Basically, it's a question of the congregant being allowed to judge issues for himself or herself--if the congregant decides, after reflection, that Candidate Zero is the most in tune with Torah, then it's conceivably a mitzvah to work his campaign, and I wouldn't have a problem with a rabbi saying, "Examine the election, look at the issues, and choose the candidate that expresses your moral bearing." (Or on a referendum question, the answer that reflects said bearing.) The problem comes when the rabbi informs the congregation not what his own personal choice is (he's a person with the right to make that determination on his own, and I don't see a need to be secretive about it), but What The Jewish Answer To The Issue Is, and if you're going to be holy, you must come to "X" conclusion. I could see "Jewish approaches to the question," covering it from several sides and leaving it up to congregants which thread of tradition they find the most meaningful. But we're not a religion that has, in the past, been given to espousing a single point of view on questions. (Not for nothing is there the fond joke, "Two Jews, three opinions," to which some have of course appended, "And if it's two rabbis, make it thirty.") Lots of opinions are great. A single one, not so much.
mamadeb From: mamadeb Date: September 26th, 2004 05:43 am (UTC) (Link)
Depends on how you define mitzvot. The popular definition is "good deeds", and in that case, yes, what your saying makes sense.

"Mitzvah" means "commandments" - the Law as set forth in the Torah. Many, although not all, *are* good deeds, and many good deeds are mitzvot, but the two are not interchangeable.

As an Orthodox Jew, I follow a proudly legalistic religion.
rikibeth From: rikibeth Date: September 26th, 2004 07:46 am (UTC) (Link)
Actually, I was thinking of the "commandments" aspect of it as well. I do remember that much from (Conservative) Hebrew school. I suppose my question was more about the degree to which the "encouragement" was carried -- to pick a commandment at random, at one level you personally seek out clothing free of mixed fibers, at another you're reminding a companion as you go shopping together, but it could be taken all the way to trying to pass secular legislation to ban the manufacture, importation, and sale of mixed-fiber clothing entirely.

I suspect the Puritans would find the last approach terribly familiar. And, if they cared to admit it, so would the modern champions of social justice causes.

Does the "encouragment" school of messianic thought encompass secular legislation, or is it supposed to be entirely individual?
mamadeb From: mamadeb Date: September 26th, 2004 08:08 am (UTC) (Link)
We're working on a level between the entire country and the individual - it's the community, and there are community wide mitzvot. Witness the joint confessions of Yom Kippur.

At least outside of Israel, the primary problem is keeping secular law from interfering with mitzvot, not creating secular law for our convenience. We don't want unnecessary autopsies, we don't want to embalm our dead, we *do* want to circumscize our sons and have properly slaughtered meat. We fight for exceptions in the first couple of places because secular law requires these things; there are countries who have banned ritual slaughter and/or infant circumscision or who want to.

These things are scary.
cheshyre From: cheshyre Date: September 28th, 2004 06:27 am (UTC) (Link)
Our rabbi actually went into this in her Rosh Hashonah sermon.

There are two similar words with very different meanings.
  • In Hebrew, mitzvah means commandment -- something one is officially required to do.
  • In Yiddish, mitzvah means good deed -- something nice to do, but not mandatory.

    And nowadays, we seem to swap the definitions interchangeably, leading to a great deal of confusion.

    It was an excellent sermon, IMO, and I thought xiphias was going to blog it at some point. She spoke about how many Jewish practices and mindsets were in fact antithetical to common American beliefs and practices, and how to reconcile those or whether we could or should.
  • scionofgrace From: scionofgrace Date: September 26th, 2004 08:32 pm (UTC) (Link)
    Neither are precisely the Jewish definition of Messianism, either. There's also the school of "When God is good and ready, or thinks we're ready, or whatever His timetable is."

    This also happens to be a lesser-known school of thought among Christians. I do not believe that we can create a perfect society on earth, given our nature, but I don't think anybody will be ready when the Apocolypse really comes. When the Lord is good and ready, we'll be gone.

    It's not our job to bring the Messiah or cause the apocalypse, but to be good to one another and to G-d.

    ::nods::

    It's one thing to say that Torah enjoins us to care for the Earth and be good stewards; it's another to say that we should vote against Bush because of the Alaskan oil business.

    Got in a discussion about this sort of thing today, actually, though it came from a different subject. My friends and I came to the conclusion that we as a people are inclined to make all manner of rules to govern us as a whole, whereas the Lord has laid out some things as black and white and some things as depending on our own lives/personalities/situations/cultures. So when we're told to be stewards of the earth and care for it, people interpret that different ways and insist that their way is the only way.

    Ah the joys of human nature.
    riah_chan From: riah_chan Date: September 25th, 2004 08:28 pm (UTC) (Link)
    I am very happy that politics are generally not preached in my church... the leaders urge us to be involved, pray about it, and vote our consiousness. (The only time that we hear about politic-type things at church is when it is a moral issue that the church is for or against and there is something going on... like about two years ago, they had a vote for an ammendment to the Nevada state constitution defining marraige as between a man and a woman and we were encouraged to vote for it.)

    Puritans were people trying their best to do what they thought they were supposed to do... they may not has always been right but they tried. I probably would have walked out too.

    Riah-chan
    fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: September 25th, 2004 08:58 pm (UTC) (Link)
    (The only time that we hear about politic-type things at church is when it is a moral issue that the church is for or against and there is something going on... like about two years ago, they had a vote for an ammendment to the Nevada state constitution defining marraige as between a man and a woman and we were encouraged to vote for it.)

    Heh. That's exactly what we were instructed to join the interfaith community to defeat--protest to support equal marriage rights.
    azaelia_culnamo From: azaelia_culnamo Date: September 25th, 2004 08:45 pm (UTC) (Link)
    :( I hate when that happens. I think a lot of people read books like "The Scarlet Letter", and "The Crucible," and think, "All Puritains were bad."

    Well, if you're going to look at those books.... look at The Scarlet Letter: Hester Prynne, who was actually a strong character that redeemed herself, was a Puritain. As for The Crucible... first, the play had little to do with the actual event. Second, there were also some characters who were good in that, too.

    If you ask me, people need to get over the past. *Everyone* probably has an Ancestor that did something wrong. And to dismiss all Puritains as stuck up is, in my opinion, ethnocentric and biased.

    naomichana From: naomichana Date: September 25th, 2004 09:16 pm (UTC) (Link)
    Well, if it's any consolation, my rabbi interspersed All But Telling Us To Vote For Kerry with a brief paean to Spinoza as the patron saint of detaching God from the "medieval perspective" of "fear." Which... um... okay, see... I can't decide whose name is being taken worse in vain. That is, I don't think she's read any Spinoza, but I know she hasn't read any medieval Jewish theology beyond the occasional bit in a traditional prayerbook (at someone else's service, 'cause we don't use them) in about thirty years.

    I should really be less cranky hours after the end of Yom Kippur, shouldn't I? Ah well. :) Anyway, much as it pains me to admit this, most rabbis are lousy historians and incredibly bad at the history of Christian theology. I can think of individual exceptions, of course, but look at the curricula for the major U.S. rabbinical academies sometime and draw your own conclusions.
    fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: September 25th, 2004 09:32 pm (UTC) (Link)
    Eep.

    Well, maybe we can get Spartina in here to comment on misunderstanding of the medieval world in general. ;)

    It's unfortunately not limited to the rabbinate. Very few people have much understanding of religious history, because it's not taught in school, and because people have never learned how interesting it is, they don't opt to take it in college. I mean, it's an interest of mine, and I only have a kind of cursory knowledge because it was haphazard. It's such a shaping force in human history--I really think it needs to be more addressed in standard history classes.

    I'm mostly in a good, clean mood. I just had to get that one bit of anger off my chest, because I was also exhorted to pursue justice, and I thought it was a bit unjust. I do plan on actually writing a somewhat calmer version of the above rant to the rabbinate at the Temple, so they know what the problem was, as it's not fair to just accuse them behind their backs when I'm sure it was a perfectly honest blunder.
    ladyelaine From: ladyelaine Date: September 25th, 2004 09:17 pm (UTC) (Link)
    I don't like politics at the pulpit

    Political activism is the one thing I really dislike about my own church.

    though don't try to palm it off as persecution of Wicca, as it was largely totally contained within the Puritan community

    Contrary to Wiccan revisionist history, Wicca did not even exist back then. It was invented (not brought out into the open--flat invented) by Gerald Gardner in the (I think) late 1800's. And though modern witches like to get in on the persecution complex by talking about ten million of their spiritual ancestors being killed in the "Burning Times," the latest research has the number in the thousands across Europe and America; and most of the victims were done in through either politics or--get this--ergot, a rye fungus that makes folks crazy.
    mafdet From: mafdet Date: September 25th, 2004 09:31 pm (UTC) (Link)
    Antonia Fraser talks about the witchcraft persecutions in Britain in her book "The Weaker Vessel." It had a lot to do with social tensions (at that time the rich were getting richer and the poor a lot poorer) and most of those who were killed were old, poor, homeless women. The old village systems of care were breaking down and no-one wanted to be responsible for these women, hence the witchcraze.

    There is a book by Marvin Harris (a cultural anthropologist) called "Cows, Pigs, Wars and Witches" with a chapter on the witch persecutions. Very briefly summed up: The 16th-17th centuries was when capitalism was getting off the ground. The rich were getting richer, the poor much poorer. It suited those in power to focus the anger of those who were getting poorer on "witches" - poor, old women and sometimes men - rather than who was really screwing them over.

    And while I don't agree with Ronald Hutton on everything he wrote (I believe that there were matriarchies, and female deities, just not a monolithic, monotheistic Goddess religion; and even Hutton doesn't say that matriarchies never existed, just that we can't prove that they did) he did nail the rise of Wicca as created by Gerald Gardner. I do not know where I heard this (not Hutton) but I swear I read that Gardner got some of his "Wiccan" rituals from an old Boy Scout manual.

    Of course, whether or not Wicca is ancient or invented in recent times isn't really relevant to those who practice it. If it works as a spiritual path, then that's all that matters.
    ladyelaine From: ladyelaine Date: September 26th, 2004 05:09 am (UTC) (Link)
    Of course, whether or not Wicca is ancient or invented in recent times isn't really relevant to those who practice it. If it works as a spiritual path, then that's all that matters.

    Yeah, I think that's true of any religion.
    mafdet From: mafdet Date: September 25th, 2004 09:23 pm (UTC) (Link)
    Whatever happened to "separation of church and state?"

    Anyhow, while the Puritans were by no means perfect they weren't as awful as they are made out to be. You are right that they weren't "anti-sex" per se - they believed that sex ought to be confined to marriage, but once you were married, it was your God-given duty to make lots of whoopee (and reproduce). I read of a case where a wife demanded a divorce (annullment really) from her husband on the grounds that he never had sex with her, and it was granted. According to Antonia Fraser, the Puritans were one of the first Westerners to espouse the cause of free choice in marriage (as opposed to completely arranged marriages). This wasn't because the Puritans were diehard romantics, but because they felt that arranged marriages where partners did not love, or at least like, each other, caused adultery. Better to let young people choose their own spouses (within reason, and contingent on parental approval) so they would stay faithful.

    And did I mention that something like one-third of Puritan brides were pregnant on their wedding day? Having sex with one's fiance was not exactly encouraged but as long as the two people got married it was tolerated.

    As for the Salem witch trials: Wicca had zippo to do with it, even though there's some modern-day Wiccans in the town who milk it for all it's worth. There was no "Wicca" then. There was Tituba, who was an Afro-Caribbean woman who was one of the first victims of the witchcraze. She may have been practicing ritual magick, but she wasn't a Wiccan. And the trials were really about rivalry between the new minister and one of Salem's leading families.
    arclevel From: arclevel Date: September 25th, 2004 10:03 pm (UTC) (Link)
    A touch OT, but I was reading a book about Puritans a while back that suggested that Puritanism was one of the only religions (or at least branches of Christianity) in that day to actually suggest that sex was a *good* thing. They were strict by today's standards, but they were pro-sex within marriage, whereas contemporary religions considered sex a necessary evil for procreation.
    scionofgrace From: scionofgrace Date: September 26th, 2004 08:38 pm (UTC) (Link)
    I believe the original Lutherans were pro-marital sex. Martin Luther was pretty hot on his wife, at least. :-)
    arclevel From: arclevel Date: September 25th, 2004 09:45 pm (UTC) (Link)
    I certainly sympathize with your difficulties in matching a synagogue with your politics -- tweak the religion and invert the politics, and I've had the exact same problem. Politically, I'm left-moderate, and I'm pretty left-wing on most social issues. Theologically, I'm fairly conservative, and prefer the types of church that tend to have right wing politics. In some cases, this is blatant and from the pulpit; in others, it's simply assumed among the members.

    A few days ago, I actually asked a former pastor to take me off the church e-mail list. It was getting to the point where most of the messages brought up the issue of gay marriage, and the positions stated in them went from mildly irritating to making me flat out mad. That and other political issues are regularly brought up in the announcements in services, though not generally in the sermon.

    When I considered joining the church I'm at now, one of the few church-specific questions I asked was about politics. He said that they encouraged their members to be active and at least vote, but they didn't "officially" endorse any specific positions or candidates, and they avoid talking politics during the service because they don't believe it's the place for it. I joined the church. Not a coincidence.
    lazypadawan From: lazypadawan Date: September 26th, 2004 09:15 pm (UTC) (Link)
    "Puritanism" in the modern context dredges up images of prudish, repressed, strict, fanatical people and examples such as the Salem witch trials or Cotton Mathers' crackpot sermons do a lot to uphold that image. But they were one of many Protestant movements all over Europe that were populist (i.e. take out church/gov't hierarchies and leave it to the community) and thought by leading hardworking, humble lives they could bring about heaven on Earth. The Puritans in particular were pretty idealistic. They saw settling in America their opportunity to create the City of God, something that wasn't possible in a similar experiment in Holland nor in England where they were persecuted (it was illegal not to belong to the Church of England).

    As for Wicca, it's indeed a modern religion. The practice of casting "spells" and the tradition of "wise women" coming up with medicines and potions are pretty old, but they are not a religion onto itself. Someone mentioned Tituba in relation to the Salem witch trials. It's almost a certainty that as an African she would have been practicing Yoruba, from which voodoo, candomble, and santeria originated.

    From what I understand, liberal politics and Reform Judaism go hand in hand. I'm Catholic and it's weird because even though most people think of the Catholic church as way conservative, the truth is aside from the headline issues, most of the American clergy is quite liberal on many other things. This leads us to be utterly confused, hence the Catholic vote is split 50-50 ;).
    From: (Anonymous) Date: September 27th, 2004 08:21 am (UTC) (Link)
    Shloz here, cashing in on this discussion, being Orthodox - and Israeli to boot.

    To start on a lighter note: if you went Orthodox, you might have a better chance of at least hearing your own politics... :p

    I can see how you don't want to hear anyone preaching about how G-d, or Judaism in this case, *requires* a specific political platform. It doesn't make sense to us that with so many people, and so many opinions (the Talmud's quote is: "just as [people's] faces are different, so are their opinions (or personalities) different"), that only one could have Divine endorsement. Especially when we're talking about such mundane things as the US presidential elections.

    On the other hand, I think there's a problem in expecting a rabbi not to at least try to find a "Jewish" take on... everything. I think Judaism, especially Orthodox (go with what you know), makes the point that *everything* we do in our lives should be part of doing G-d's will. It's not just go to synagogue, observe Shabbat, learn Torah, and afterwards have a good time. Life itself, and therefore everything associated with living it, is G-d's will - he created us, didn't he? When looked at that way, there should be a "Jewish take" on anything we do, in theory, even politics, and a responsible religious leader should try to discern it. In such context, separation of "church" and state is not fully applicable in Judaism.

    But of course, the Oral Torah, being Oral, is G-d's word transmitted specifically through the human prism, which means that you can get a veritable spectrum of different perfectly reasonable, yet diametrically opposed, views out of the same Torah. Hence much of the Talmud is arguments of principle and of detail.

    So what to do? The way I like best is to try to emulate Torah itself - find a message that is clear form the Torah, but that doesn't exclude other possibilities. The beauty of the Torah, and the element of Divine truth in it, IMHO, is its many layered messages, and multiple contexts. I think the main point is to agree that we are all consciously trying to fulfill G-d's will as we understand it, and then even disagreements are all kept in that context. When comes to actual policy, well the Torah was the first to support the rule of the majority, provided that the majority was not in open contradiction of the Torah. And always, make it clear that you are giving your take (or whoever's take it is) on the word of G-d.

    About restorative messianism - a clear example to me is the Religious Zionist movement. It views the establishment of the State of Israel as a step in fulfillment of the prophecies of redemption, and believes in actively participating in this redemption by strengthening the state and helping bring the Jewish people back to their home. I am proud to consider myself a restorative messianist in that context. However, in Israel many people don't distinguish between the different types, and lump it all together as "messianism" which is usually associated negatively with the more apocalyptic trends.

    G'mar Tov and Hag Sameach!
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