A photograph of an opened Torah scroll, housed at the Glockenglasse Synagogue

Parshat Va’era, or, Biblical Criticism and the Redactor’s Amnesia

I’m back! Did you miss me!? ;-)

Despite the purported break that comes with the new year, it’s been busy in these parts. I have a longer post coming out later today, but in the meantime, I’ve got a shorter comment on this week’s regularly scheduled Torah portion, Parshat Va’era.

Where are we in the story in this portion? Moses, we are told, has encountered Yahweh in the desert and made some initial forays into Egypt to try to free the Israelites. We are also told that these efforts have failed. And then we come to this passage, at the very beginning of the portion:

And God spoke to Moses, and said to him, “I am Yahweh; I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob as El Shaddai–but my name, Yahweh, I did not make known to them” (Ex. 6:2-3).

(“Hey, Humanistic Jew,” you’re thinking, “why uppercase ‘God'”? Because it’s used as a proper noun in this context.)

Now, there’s a problem here. The statement in verse 3–“but my name, Yahweh, I did not make known to them”–isn’t true!

Continue reading

A three-cornered road sign, with a black question mark in the middle and a red border around the edges of the sign.

The Blog Awakens

It’s been a while since I posted! It has been busy around here: between regular work, days off from work running around with Humanistic Jew, Jr., prepping for the two classes I teach at a local university, leading a Hanukkah celebration, being a rabbinical student, co-editing Humanistic Judaism, and trying to generally spend time with my family, I just haven’t had a ton of time to write.

And then, as I was falling asleep last night or waking up this morning (it’s all a blur), I thought of this goofy idea for a blog post. And so, without further ado:

I’ve not mentioned it on the blog, but I’m a big Star Wars fan. I don’t do cosplay (dressing up as characters), go to conventions, etc., but in many other respects, you know, yeah, I’m a fan. (I’m even officiating a Star Wars-themed wedding in March of this year. Can you say that your work required you to read comic books?!)

(SPOILER ALERT for “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” and the “Star Wars: Vader Down” comics from Marvel)

Continue reading

Wood Dreidel. Imma Marín's private collection.

The Irony of Hanukkah Ascendant

I’ve posted an awful lot about Hanukkah on the blog over the last couple of years. I have an outsized affection for the holiday generally, I suspect. Not unhealthily outsized–I’ve not festooned the HJinI household in silver-and-blue tinsel and lights, put up a Hanukkah Harry lawn ornament, and issued cheesy holiday sweaters–but, you know, I like Hanukkah.

Wood Dreidel. Imma Marín's private collection.

Dreidel–symbol of assimilation? By Marionaaragay (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

More than that, I just find the background and its subsequent history fascinating. A lot of that has to do with Hanukkah being one of the very few Jewish holidays for which we have an awful lot of really rich source information from relatively close in time to the events that gave rise to the holiday. With all that stuff–so much more than we have for many other holidays–there’s a lot more complexity that comes through the historical record.

One of the more interesting aspects to me–and I’ve posted about it before–is the tension of modern Jewish life celebrating the Maccabees versus the Maccabees as they were. But a lot of that writing has been about the history behind Hanukkah.

Today, what I find myself particularly enjoying is the irony of the celebration itself.

Think of the traditional story of Hanukkah: the evil king tries to force Jews to abandon Judaism in favor of idolatry. A brave band refuses, fights back, and wins freedom for the Jews. They send the Greek king and his assimilating Jewish flunkies packing. If you’re not doing the theologically cleaned-up version of all this, you think Yahweh made this happen. And maybe you talk about the oil lasting eight days. Nes gadol hayah sham, and ta-da! Hanukkah, which we now celebrate by buying cheesy sweaters at Target, marketed alongside cheesy Christmas sweaters.

No, I really haven’t bought any cheesy sweaters. I promise.

Even (especially!) liberal Jewish leaders fret persistently about assimilation. Yet what are our Hanukkah celebrations, really? A winter holiday where we light candles to fight off the dark near the solstice. A kind of gambling game adopted from Germans, who in turn adopted it from the Irish or British in late antiquity and transported it to continental Europe. Now, gifts, though that’s not “original” to Hanukkah.

These are all things done mostly at home. Unlike Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the daily schedule is basically unaltered. Even in the Orthodox world, work continues, school continues.

In other words, Hanukkah–the anti-assimilation holiday–facilitates Jews being pretty much like their neighbors.

Isn’t it ironic? Don’t you think?

IMG_0036

Maccabees, Shmaccabees

Hanukkah starts in just a few days. (If you’re in Indianapolis and are interested in cultural alternatives in Jewish life, consider coming to the upcoming Havdal-ukah event!) Last year, I shared some thoughts I had at the time about Hanukkah, and suggested that what we miss in modern celebrations is that the thing that most makes our own time similar to Jewish life in the Maccabean period was the sheer diversity of Jewish life then and now.

This year, I want to take a closer look at what I think liberal Jews, in particular, need to keep in mind about the history of the Maccabean revolt and how that should play into Hanukkah celebrations.

To cut to the chase for those who don’t want to read on: we aren’t the Maccabees, we aren’t their heirs, and our holiday celebration should reflect that.

Continue reading

Eight colorful Hanukkah candles, lit, against a dark background

Havdal-ukah: A Humanistic Havdalah and Hanukkah Celebration

Eight colorful Hanukkah candles, lit, against a dark background

By אליעד מלין (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

After the seriousness of my last post, it felt like it was time to have a little fun. And, of course, Hanukkah is coming soon!

I posted a few resources last year, including this post with humanistic blessings, some thoughts about Hanukkah for humanistic Jews, and some general resources on Hanukkah for secular and humanistic Jews.

BUT…

If you’re in the Indianapolis area and you’d like to come to a Humanistic Jewish Hanukkah celebration, have I got the event for you! Havdal-ukah!

Why Havdal-ukah? Because it’s Havdalah (the end of Shabbat) and the seventh night of Hanukkah wrapped up into one package! We’ll do a brief Havdalah celebration, light our menorahs (you can bring your own!), have latkes and other treats, and learn a little about the meaning of Hanukkah for modern (especially secular and humanistic) Jews.

So come on out! We’ll be meeting at 4:00 p.m. on Saturday, December 12, 2015. The Church Within has graciously allowed us to use their space at 1125 Spruce Street, Indianapolis, in the historic Fountain Square area. You can RSVP on Meetup.com or Facebook and get a notice when there’s a change.

The Bone in the Butcher’s Neck

For a while now, I’ve held back on making a comment about an article in Tablet Magazine. The more time I spend thinking about the article, the more I feel that it’s necessary to write something about it. It first appeared around Yom Kippur in the wake of the disputes over refugees from Syria. In the wake of the attacks on Paris, I was drawn back to this draft post.

Here’s the article I’m responding to, by Liel Leibovitz. It’ll open in a new tab or browser window. Go ahead and read Leibovitz’s article. I’ll be here, waiting. (You do have to read it to understand what follows.)

You’re back? Good.

Continue reading

Photograph of face of Lenny Bruce, an American Jewish comedian

…And I Feel Fine

It’s the end of the world as we know it!

Oh, so many things in the Jewish communal world to think about over the past week. Let’s tick them off, one at a time:

All the panic makes my heart just go pitter-pat. I don’t even know where to start. (The section titles here are from REM’s “It’s the End of the World (As We Know It),” so now you can learn some of the lyrics!)

Continue reading

Abraham, Robert Frost, and Kol Nidre

I’m back! Did you miss me?

First, what have I been doing? Well, the holidays completely wiped me out. Rabbinical classes at IISHJ started up again, and then we moved offices at my job, so it’s been a busy month or so.

Then, last weekend, I went to the board meeting for the Society for Humanistic Judaism. I’m not a board member per se, but was there in my capacity as co-editor for the Society’s journal, Humanistic Judaism. (I’m new–so new, that the first issue I’ll have been involved with isn’t due for publication until January.)

All of this means that I’ve not really done a heck of a lot of thinking about other things. But the Torah portion for this week, Vayeira, actually includes pretty much all of the material I discussed in my sermon in Tucson, Arizona, for the Rosh Hashanah services I led for the Secular Humanist Jewish Circle there. Below, then, is the text I wrote for the sermon. The actual delivered version was not slavish to this text; I might make the audio of it available at some point, though I’m not in a terrible hurry to edit that much audio.

So, here’s the text. You’ve been warned: it’s long. Hopefully I’ll be back soon with other stuff!

….

A little after the shofar’s blasts—those shrill, piercing tones, calling us to hold ourselves accountable for the prior year—we shared a reading of Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken.” It’s a fixture of high school literature classes. And it is perhaps one of the few poems known widely among generations of Americans of many walks of life.

But for all its notoriety, it turns out that the poem has been a little …misunderstood.

The British newspaper, the Guardian, ran a story about four years ago that looked into how the poem came to be in 1913. And I’d like to tell you a little bit of that story.

Robert Frost was a struggling writer who just couldn’t make a go of it in the American literary scene. So he moved to London. Remember, this is before the careers of Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Steinbeck, Williams, and other 20th century greats. London was, if you wrote in English, pretty much the literary place to be.

While in England, Frost met a poet named Edward Thomas. The two would go on walks in the woods together from time to time.

As it turned out, Thomas was indecisive when he got to a split in the path. He would hem and haw about which road to take. The beaten path?, or, as Frost put it, the road not taken. Keep in mind that it didn’t really matter which way they went. They would always end up at home.

Finding this at once amusing and perhaps a little annoying, Frost wrote a poem jabbing at Thomas’s indecision over this inconsequential choice.

The problem, as it happens, is that the only person who got the joke was Frost.

The poem was published, and Frost rocketed to literary fame. He returned to the United States for a time to do a literary tour and readings at American universities. Largely because of “The Road Not Taken,” people took Frost to be a very serious poet. And they took his poem to be a very serious comment on the importance of individualism.

Moving to London had exactly the effect Frost had hoped for his literary career.

Frost’s fame did not, however, come without consequences. You see, there was one other person who took the poem about Edward Thomas’s indecision very, very seriously.

That person? Edward Thomas.

As it happened, Thomas was more than a little insecure about his indecisiveness generally—forks in the road aside. And by the time Frost’s poem become popular, it was 1915. Thomas was British, and World War I had already begun swallowing millions of men of his generation.

German Zeppelins were already floating over the English Channel. It really was possible for bombs to fall on London.

Thomas was already insecure. And, in the midst of an unprecedented threat to England from abroad, Frost’s perhaps not-so-gentle nudge was the straw that broke the camel’s back.

Thomas joined the army.

He was killed in battle two years later.

As we opened our service, we lamented that the year past was over too fast. We feel pressure—so much pressure—to decide now, to speak now, to do something. NOW.

How often do we hear, “Act now—tickets are going fast!”? Or, “I need this now”?

Very much in this vein, Thomas took Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” to be an instruction to choose. NOW.

This Week

It’s been quiet here at the blog. Something that doesn’t get mentioned about the Rosh Hashanah-through-Simchat Torah rush? It takes a toll on the people doing the rushing for their communities. Add onto that some physical relocation at work and various other things happening over here, and I’m pretty wiped out. There’s just not been much extra energy for writing.

And what energy there might have been has been a little bit more diminished watching events in the Middle East.

I have no solutions for that. For various reasons, I’m not going to stake out a position on it here. I trust you can find your own resources, and form your own opinions. I’ll only say, at this point, that I hope we see at least a diminution in suffering soon.

I’m sure I’ll be back with something to say here soon, as always happens when I say I have nothing to say. Until then, wherever you are, stay safe.