“You shall teach them to your children” – Deut. 6:7

So, as the father of a child and, as you’ve no doubt noticed, being of somewhat philosophical bent, I’m given to regularly regret exposing my son to Veggie Tales. In the event you haven’t been exposed to Veggie Tales before, describing it as “Bible stories enacted in somewhat parodic manner by talking produce” makes it sound way more absurd than it really is. They are usually smart, well-done productions.

They’re also very (from the humanist Jewish perspective) Christian. (I’m sure there are Christians who think the Veggie Tales folks are heretics. But I’m not so worried about that–they’re definitely Christians to me.)

In any case, I first saw Veggie Tales stuff while I was in grad school, lo so many years ago, and enjoyed them. So, we got some DVDs for my son when he was little, and now Veggie Tales videos are part of his cyclical shift of stuff he likes to watch. (He’s autistic, so we’re still watching things now that we watched five years ago. At least he’s consistent!)

I now have the opportunity to appreciate the irony of me being, well, me, and having exposed my son to Veggie Tales. What did he say first thing in the morning when he woke up two days ago? “Hurt, give it to God.”


Which ties nicely into this post on Kveller.com, a site about Jewish parenting: http://www.kveller.com/traditions/Jewish-Living/is-my-toddler-more-jewish-than-me.shtml. Needless to say, I feel the author’s pain a bit, and this is a thing I worry about even more because I’m just not sure how to communicate about religion to an autistic child–especially since where we as a family sit on the Jewish spectrum is hard enough for people who know what they’re doing! And, sadly, there are really almost no resources on having these kinds of discussions with an autistic child that don’t immediately assume that God puts autistic children in churches (or synagogues, I guess–but I’ve found precious little about Judaism and autism in the same place) to show other believers how to reach out to the least among them.

And so I have a child who, through no fault of his own–indeed, entirely through my fault–uses God language when I would not. And I’m stuck.

This is all made more ironic by some moves I’ll be making in the next few weeks. But keep posted for that.

August and Everything After

Hopefully after next week I’ll be able to write more openly on the blog about who I am/why I’m writing/what I’m doing. (Thus, the title of this post.)

Aside from the chaos of ordinary life (and, let’s be clear, it is chaotic right now), I’ve spent some time thinking more about the balance among the secular, humanist, and Jewish pieces of things. And while I recognize the importance of reason, observation, fact, etc., in the mix–I don’t think you arrive at the positions I’ve arrived at without these–I continue to be concerned that the secular and humanist portions of things are, to be blunt, off-putting to outsiders.

This isn’t to say that I reject the principles; rather, we need to do better at the branding of things if we want to be truly attractive to those outside our community. The problem we face by emphasizing reason, fact, observation, science, etc., is that we make humanism too hard, and that risks losing people who would at least be allies.

It’s difficult to be humanist as humanism is presented and as it exists. I think Epstein backs into this insight in Good Without God when he discusses what he expected to find as opposed to what he actually did find when he traveled in Taiwan and China, namely, that people who were ostensibly Buddhist were not actually focused on the formal teachings of Buddhism as we learn them in religious studies classes. It’s not that those individuals didn’t self-identify as Buddhist, at least in a nominal way–it’s just that they lived differently, secularly.

Circling back to humanist Judaism, I wonder if we face a problem that might, in some ways, be similar to that faced by Reform Judaism in the early- and mid-1900s.  As envisioned, Reform Judaism was difficult in the sense that its leaders and its early adherents were often Jewishly well educated and knew, often intimately, what they were rejecting. Later generations did not.

If history is repeatable here–and that’s not necessarily a given–my concern is that humanist Judaism might be “too hard” for many people unless we can moderate the need for the level of education required to sustain things. At the same time, the difficulty associated with humanist Judaism might be a deterrent to new members because while humanist Judaism’s approach to matters of observance quite nicely comports with how most modern Jews live their lives, the intellectual demands may not play so well, and the humanistic emphasis on reason, etc., may heighten this difficulty.

I have no solution to this problem, if it exists; just another thing for me to think about in August–and after.

So, surely I’m coming late to the party

So, surely I’m coming late to the party on this, but I’ve been reading Greg Epstein’s “Good Without God.” (Yes, I’ve already read Ron Aronson’s “Living Without God,” and I’ll get to Alain de Botton’s “Religion for Atheists” eventually, but I’m busy reading some other materials, too. Yes, I love how Hitchens writes, no I don’t love what he says, and I find Thomas Nagel more intriguing than Dawkins and Harris.)

B’khol zot, as they say, I think Epstein hits the nail on the head when he identifies a division between religion and belief, and points out the need for humanists to have rituals. What I worry about is, as you’ve probably noted if you’ve read prior posts, the prospect of ritual feeling contrived.

But I think I’m gradually coming to the conclusion that I’ll need to figure out a way to get over this concern. There are certainly aspects to ritual that arise, for lack of a better word, “organically.” But at some point, someone must have, say, gotten a bunch of people to agree that the Shema has to be recited, or that the text of the various versions of the Amidah should be what they are. For heavy in biblical imagery and language as the Amidah may be, it’s not strictly speaking in the text of the Tanakh.

I think the challenge for me, then, will be to understand how to reduce the dissonance that comes with new rituals. That seems like a worthy challenge.

Halakhic Cargo Cult?

Driving into work today, I was listening to yet another podcast episode of classes on the Mishneh Torah, and the class is (or the recordings are) discussing some very early chapters discussing the foundations of halakhic observance–specifically, the commandments that require individuals to love and fear God, and what it means to do so. In explaining what it means to love God, Maimonides sets forth the prevailing view of the composition of the universe in his time, with the earth suspended in the middle of a series of nine concentric spheres, in which are lodged various celestial bodies (i.e., the moon, the sun, planets, constellations, etc.).

The rabbi teaching the class acknowledges that this is really not an accurate view of the universe, but that the view of the universe we have should make us that much more appreciative of God, because look at how complex it is!

I’ll set aside the tangled questions of modern science, intelligent design, and the accuracy of the Bible’s account of history. (The rabbi teaching the class moves seamlessly from talking about the big bang to assuming the biblical flood occurred about 3500 years ago, which is kind of whiplash-y.) Listening to these classes brings to mind a question that also troubled the students in the class: Maimonides was wrong about the science, so was he wrong about other things? The rabbi said, no, the science isn’t there to prove the law, but rather as an illustration; halakhah is one thing, the science another.

On the one hand, this is probably right as far as it goes–but I hesitate to take it too far, because it seems to me important to recognize that in some ways, individual pieces of knowledge in different subject areas are somewhat interdependent. We risk behaving like a cargo cult if we strip from our understanding of one area of knowledge the other areas that underlay the one.

So I think it’s important, as a humanist Jew, to stop and look at the ideas that appear before me and ask: can this make sense without the conceptual basis that underlay and gave rise to the idea? That is, is the idea independently valid apart from its conceptual basis–or will I be like a cargo cultist, turning knobs on a radio and expecting an airplane to land, without knowing how any of it should actually work? And after making that decision, supposing the idea stands on its own, ought I still adhere to it?

It’s a challenging question for a humanist Jew. Because even rejecting revelation as the source for things like kashrut doesn’t necessarily mean we are free to stop recognizing those practices in at least some contexts–because they remain practices that are culturally integral to Jewish identity, if not to the actual practice of most modern Jews.

And now we’re back, or, “Witchcraft”

Here I am, back to thinking about liturgy and ritual.

I’ve been thinking about liturgy, practice, and taboo quite a lot these days as I consider what lies ahead for me.

I’ve mentioned before that I grew up in a Conservative synagogue, studied at some point in preparation for Conservative rabbinical training, and am on a decidedly different path (though it is strange that some things old are becoming new once again for me; that’s something I’ll discuss as the time becomes right). My humanistic Jewish identification has made things interesting for me in dealing with my prior engagement with Judaism, as I suspect what I would do looks a lot more traditional than what many other humanistic Jews would do in terms of practice, liturgy, etc.

Example: a kippah. Many humanistic Jews would not wear one in any situation, because the point of the thing is to show respect for the God of Israel. I don’t think I’ll be in that category, not because I think there’s a need to show respect vertically, but because i think it helps, for me, to mark off time where I’m directly engaged in Jewish tradition. To do otherwise would, for me, feel uncomfortable (though not impossibly so–I’ve not worn a kippah lighting Shabbat candles in quite some time).

On the other hand, I would find it difficult to enter a synagogue–any synagogue–without slipping a kippah on my head, but the discomfort in doing so feels different to me. That is, if a building is a building is a building, which I recognize, then why the discomfort in entering certain buildings without a kippah? The answer for me is, I think, “simply taboo.” (Now get your witchy fingers out of my hair, Old Blue Eyes.) That’s probably my own issue to work through.

An issue for me and many other humanistic Jews to work through? Getting people in the doors and comfortable. And I think this means adapting pieces of the traditional liturgy so that the Jews we’re thinking belong with us–Jews whose beliefs and practices most closely comport without our own–are comfortable coming in and adjusting to services.

I’m very attached to the traditional liturgy and its melodies; I’m at least as likely to be humming some piece of the traditional Shabbat service (morning or evening) as I am to be humming a Springsteen song or a TV theme song. And I think others are, too, at least insofar as they expect to hear certain melodies and words in order to feel at home.

So, at least for my purposes, I’m thinking of adapting things to make them work for me and my family, because lighting candles without something to say is weird, I can’t say the traditional thing, and I don’t like the alternatives I’ve found.

I’m certain I’ll have more thoughts on this over the coming few weeks as I get a bit more exposure to some things. Hold that thought–I’ll be back around to this.

Radio Free … Judaism?

I’ve been up since about 3:30 (autistic kid FTW!), and so I’ve been reading blogs, Twitter, etc., since about 5:30 this morning. I’ve recently begun looking through the Chabad Sociologist blog here on WordPress (thanks for the follow!), and read the most recent guest-post, which is about the power of a menorah lighting to bring the writer and her daughter more closely into the Jewish orbit, specifically through the Chabad movement.

One of the author’s great complaints about what she called the “reforming” congregation (with which she would ostensibly have been more comfortable) is its cost structure–and we need to face the fact that our synagogues have become very, very uncomfortable for many of us in this regard. I wouldn’t venture to guess whether more people would be affiliated if it didn’t at least feel as though synagogue attendance required some kind of payment. I understand the need for ongoing support, of course; but I don’t see why we need membership applications that require tax disclosures, sliding fee scales based on household income, “scholarships” for those who can’t afford the often-steep pricing of synagogue membership, etc.

Coincidentally, I’ve recently re-listened to a podcast sermon by Rabbi Adam Chalom of Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation, entitled “Free Judaism.” Rabbi Chalom discusses freedom both in terms of (here comes my techie past) “free as in beer” and “free as in speech”: that is, free of cost and free of constraint. I think we need to exercise both kinds of freedom to take control of Judaism for the future.

How would we do this? I think we could start by addressing how we view and do Jewish–both in terms of practice and in terms of picking leaders. I think these are both tied, at least in part, to the economics of being Jewish.

Simply put, it’s very, very expensive to train a rabbi. In the major “liberal” Jewish movements (Conservative and Reform Judaism, I’m looking at you), rabbinical training usually requires a college degree with significant background in Jewish studies (e.g., you already know Hebrew and you’ve probable done significant Talmud study at some point) and then you spend between four and six years of full-time graduate-level study before ordination.

What does that cost? (Use Google. I’m not going to tell you.) How much of that is necessary for the kinds of “services” the average “liberal” Jew requires in a lifetime? I can appreciate the value of extensive Talmud and codes study for the most traditionally-minded congregations. But if you don’t actually accept the normative authority of those documents, what the heck are you requiring that much Talmud study for when you’ve got people who really need the kind of pastoral care that Christian seminaries train students for?

I don’t wish to downplay the importance of solid grounding in using traditional texts and understanding Jewish history–I’m carrying around an M.A. in this stuff, after all–but I think we need a different focus to make Judaism affordable.

I think we also need that change in focus to make Judaism free as in speech. Rabbi Chalom’s sermon discusses the idea that Judaism is what the Jewish people have made of it. I think he’s right, but I think we need to train for that, as well. And we need to begin to recognize, at the level of Jewish community leadership, that not all rabbis are the same, and that’s okay. That’s what we want. Some of those leaders will innovate, some will conserve, and that’s what needs to happen to make Judaism interesting, dynamic, and (for crying out loud!) attractive!

Do you speak my language? No Vegemite sandwich.

And with that flippant little title, to serious business about language games.

I’ve recently begun listening to a podcast on Maimonides’s Mishneh Torah from the rabbi at the Pacific Jewish Center (which bills itself as “The Shul on the Beach”), and finally wandered over to the shul’s website and the rabbi’s blog when I had a little time before a hearing. The rabbi, Eliyahu Fink, seems at least somewhat on the not-so-right-wing-end of traditional Judaism.

(I don’t really like calling it “orthodox Judaism,” let alone “Orthodox” with a big O, as I don’t agree that there is specifically one form of “right belief.” Nor do I think orthopraxic is quite right–because, again, of the normative implications there. Flame away if you like–I’ll just moderate your comments–though to be fair, I don’t have a big audience.)

In any case, the Mishneh Torah podcasts are incredibly interesting, and Rabbi Fink’s blog posts are interesting as well. Reading that led me to Professor Alan Brill’s also-fascinating blog, “The Book of Doctrines and Opinions,” which posted an interview with Tamar Ross, who teaches Jewish philosophy at Bar-Ilan University. Professor Ross is working on a theological approach to allow traditional Jews, who ordinarily accept the idea of Torah mi-Sinai (“Torah from Sinai”) view of revelation of the written and oral Torahs, that will allow some…modification?…of the idea in light of the results of biblical criticism.

Part of Professor Ross’s discussion involves the idea of the language game in Wittgenstein’s work, part of it involves Maimonides’s discussion of religious language and Torah imagery as “necessary truths” to allow people to speak about God and Torah, and part of it involves Rabbi Avraham Kook’s idea of progressive revelation. It’s interesting.

It’s not necessarily convincing to me, however. I don’t agree with Rabbi Fink’s take on it, which is that it’s not particularly useful for many people–I think it fits rather nicely in the more traditional ends of the Conservative Movement, for example, though I do agree that it probably wouldn’t suit those farther down the spectrum.

My objection is that it’s just too mushy. The position Professor Ross takes is, it seems, partially this: we have to respect the results of criticism, but what we’ll say is that scripture is revelation, just not actual speech–since, of course, we know from Maimonides that divine speech per se didn’t happpen–and so our subscription to faith is something of a language game. (This reminds me of MacIntyre’s choice of Thomist Aristotelianism because, eventually, you have to make a choice of some kind.)

But acknowledging that you’re playing the language game brings significant normative implications when you’re talking about a religious system.

Part of what comes with the language game is a claim about reality: the thing in itself has nothing to do, really, with the name we give it. So what does it mean if we say that we can play a language game with religious concepts like revelation? I’m not sure we can in the way Professor Ross wants to. Shifting the “meaning”–that is, the underlying concept to which the word “revelation” points–seems like a clever trick more than a real grapple with the underlying problem of what Torah mi-Sinai really means.

And it’s what Torah mi-Sinai really means that is the problem. Even supposing you shift the referent from literal spoken Torah to something like what Professor Ross is up to, you haven’t really addressed the problems posed by the old or the new referent, namely, that revelation (if it happened) didn’t happen that way.

What’s the normative implication of this? If you ground your notion of obligation to act upon the literal truth of a means of revelation, and that account is capable of being undermined, what portion of the obligations must you now consider optional? To the extent portions of your normative expectations depend upon material later determined to be compromised by scholarship, do those expectations fall away?

The problem, I think, is that you have to pick a version of scholarship to go with, and scholars can be wrong. Responsible scholars would likely acknowledge that nothing is certain–the explanations are simply the best ones they are able to offer.

That is, in the end, I think the problem is not scholarship–it’s revelation. But that’s a different matter altogether.