All Quiet on the Western Front

I’ve been a bit silent over here. I’m still lurking about; just busy reading for rabbi school, doing research for papers for rabbi school, looking over edits for a book review, and various other things. I’m sure I’ll pop in with something substantive here any day now; there are a lot of thoughts floating about in my head, but there remains some organization to do (and some sleep to get).

And on Israel, as I’ve said, I’m remaining silent. My concerns remain, for the moment, tied to the sheer level of human wreckage–death, destruction, and physical and emotional trauma. I’ll say no more beyond that.

Menachem Av to those for whom it is meaningful.

Of Pills and Panic

It’s astonishing just how finely tuned our brains are–and how small changes in what goes into our brains can change so much about how and who we are.

Back in late April and much of May, Secular Jew, Jr. (“SJJ”) was hospitalized twice in pediatric “stress center” units. “Stress center” is the euphemism du jour for temporary place to put people with acute psychiatric symptoms that cannot be managed at home and that may be resolvable without permanent institutionalization, usually due to substance abuse or severe depression. SJJ is not yet even a preteen, and most of the kids in these units were teenagers, so these were really very extreme places for SJJ to be. But after two stays, in the course of less than a month, the issues SJJ was experiencing seem to have boiled down to medication issues; medications were removed, SJJ stabilized, and things seemed pretty okay.

Until yesterday. Continue reading

On the Worrying Economics of Torah Observance

Tablet Magazine recently ran a story about the rising costs associated with maintaining Orthodox-level Jewish observance (the article focuses on Toco Hills in Atlanta, a heavily-Orthodox suburb). From food to housing to education, the article notes, it’s always been costly (when compared with how others fare) to be strictly Torah observant. It’s expensive to keep kosher in a manner that will pass muster in those communities. Housing costs get driven upward because of the need to live within an eruv (a legal fiction that defines a kind of private space in which the laws for carrying items between public and private spaces on Shabbat do not apply) or otherwise be within walking distance of a synagogue. And public education simply “won’t do” because no one teaches Torah and Talmud in the public schools.

(“Legal fiction,” by the way, does not mean that something is false. It means that the entity, concept, etc., is created by a legal enactment because it would not otherwise exist. Your Latin lesson for today: “fiction” comes from the same Latin verb–facio–as our words “fact” and “manufacture.”)

You could say many things about the economic circumstances at work here. It’s possible, for example, to “blame the victim.” I won’t do that here, and wouldn’t do so in any case. My concern is a systemic one.

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It’s just a commandment

I’ve spent some amount of time thinking about (male) circumcision. It’s a fraught topic; some regard it as barbaric, some as hygienic, some as a sacred sign, and still others as a foolish impairment of sexual pleasure. I’m not well-informed enough to sort out the validity of the various back-and-forth claims about the hygienic aspects of circumcision, nor capable of investigating the sexual health perspective. What is “barbaric” largely depends on the culture that issues the judgment, though a circumcision performed by a clinician seems a bit different from one performed with metzitzah be-peh (a practice where upon circumcision by a mohel, the mohel draws the blood off orally).

But I can evaluate it from a Jewish perspective, and from a Secular Humanistic Jewish perspective, at that. And sitting down and thinking that out led me to a new view on the subject of male circumcision.

My result: “it’s just a commandment.” And that conclusion is interesting to me.

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A quick note on Israel, etc.

I haven’t posted much on Israel, the two Palestinian boys (one murdered, one beaten), the current exchange of fire between Israel and Hamas, etc. I won’t post much on that, for a few reasons.

First, there’s no piece of this that isn’t heartbreaking to me. I have my own opinions on the matter. But I find it difficult to move past that to articulate much else that hasn’t already been said, or that I wouldn’t disagree with myself later.

Second, I occupy a privileged position. That is to say, I live here (in Indiana), not there. I don’t live in Israel, or in Gaza, or in the West Bank. I’m in the cheap seats; I don’t like to write posts from the cheap seats. And I definitely don’t like to write posts from the cheap seats when the matters are of such great significance as this.

Finally, work gets in the way. I don’t feel at liberty to discuss political matters–because I understand myself to be legally bound not to do so. So I don’t, and won’t.

I expect, then, that this will be my last post on the matter. Not because I’m not thinking about it or worried about it. But because it is, for me, literally unspeakable.

Atheist? Humanist? Tolle, lege.

This book review on is an essential read if you’re an atheist or humanist. Why? Because it points out some of the very problems that inhere in the Four Horsemen’s approach to the subject of religion. I’ve written about this before. The Slate piece is simply timely in pointing out some of the snarkiness and mean-spiritedness that’s coming along with “New Atheism.”

So, tolle, lege.

(P.S.: “Tolle, lege.” is what Augustine of Hippo reported hearing at the moment of his conversion experience to Christianity. It means “take it up and read.” I use it here in sincere irony.)

Of Rights, Wrongs, and Rights

It likely comes as no surprise to members (and observers) of the secular movements in the United States that the secular and humanist world is in the midst of no small uproar over the results of the Hobby Lobby case decided recently by the U.S. Supreme Court. Due to my work and the ethical obligations that come with it, I won’t be commenting on the case at all. You’ll have to go somewhere else for that analysis. (Same for same-sex marriage cases, and really pretty much any case.)

But the secularist community’s response to that case does prompt this post. Specifically, I want to return to something I wrote about briefly some months ago: the secular movement’s apparent allergy to religion.

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True confession: I love The Blues Brothers. The first movie, not the second one. Does anyone actually like that one?

In the original movie, there’s a scene where Jake and Elwood go to recruit Matt “Guitar” Murphy for the band and his wife musically and …gently?…discourages him. (Aretha Franklin is, as always, fabulous.)

So, why bring this all up?

The song is called, “Think.” And the movie takes place in Chicago.

And I was just in Chicago. At a talk that has everything to do with thinking: I attended the “CRASH” lecture that Rabbi Benay Lappe of Svara delivers just before the beginning of each new go-round of the Svara Beit Midrash.

Svara, by the way, means (in part) thinking. (See what I did there? Chiastic parallelism–one of the patterns of construction in Biblical Hebrew poetry.)

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We Can Do Better Without It

Rabbi Laura Duhan Kaplan, writing at SophiaStreet, has a post prompted by the deaths of Eyal Yifrach, Gil-ad Shaar, and Naftali Frenkel.  (I’ve previously posted about this here and here.) In her post, Rabbi Kaplan argues that theodicy helps respond to suffering. She briefly catalogs the weaknesses of theodicy. For brevity’s sake, we will say that the basic problem with theodicy responses is that they have to contend with logical contradictions inherent to understanding God as all-powerful, all-present, and all-knowing, and yet allowing evil into the world.

She turns at the end of the post to say that yesterday, she would have thought these responses to be useless. Today (in light of the three students’ murders), however: Continue reading