Of Sex, Leprosy of a House, and Humanism

(NOTE: The following was the script I prepared for delivery as a d’var Torah, aimed at folks who had never encountered Humanistic Judaism before, at a special Humanistic Jewish Shabbat service I led at Sixth & I Synagogue on April 27, 2018. As it happens, I forgot to print my talk, and delivered substantially the same talk – but not in these words. So, here’s the prepared speech that went…sort of…undelivered.)

If you follow the Torah reading cycle – and actually, even if you don’t, because it turns out calendars don’t ask for our opinions – this week is a double Torah portion: Achrei Mot and Kedoshim.

Achrei Mot and Kedoshim are usually pretty high up on the list of Torah portions that, if you’re having a bat or bar mitzvah, you really don’t want to get. They’re not quite as apparently boring as last week, when there are multiple chapters on what to do about leprosy. There’s even a process for what happens if your house gets leprosy!

Even if they’re not as weird as all that, this week’s Torah portions aren’t exactly the easiest topic-wise, because they touch on all manner of rather adult topics: other than setting up the process for Yom Kippur, these portions spend a lot of time talking about forbidden sexual relationships.

In fact, when you double-up Achrei Mot and Kedoshim, you double-up how much time you spend reading about forbidden sexual relationships. I mean, sure, there’s also a sort of affirming chunk in Leviticus 19 that seems to restate some of the really basic, “everyone agrees murder is bad” rules. Do we really need both Leviticus 18 and 20? Do we really need to read twice about the people you’re not permitted to have sex with?

But, I’m actually sort of excited to talk about this section of the Torah. As seemingly weird as some of these laws are, they’re actually really important – even if you don’t follow any of them. Continue reading

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Interior photo of the synagogue in Oni, Georia; facing wooden pews in multiple rows, ornate columns, and a raised dais.

“Inclusion and the Soul of a Synagogue”

A quick note: I’ve recently had an article that was printed in the Autumn 2017 issue of Jewish Currents published online. Entitled “Inclusion and the Soul of a Synagogue,” you can read it here.

Photograph of a long wall, at least three times as tall as the people walking next to it, trailing as far as the eye can see, with Jerusalem on one side and the Palestinian town of Abu Dis on the other.

Marking the Boundaries

Maverick Rabbi Breaks Ranks Over Intermarriage” shouts a Times of Israel title. “The Problem With Rabbi Amichai Lau-Lavie’s Intermarriage Proposal,” teases the op-ed in the Forward. “On Marriage and Covenant” comes forth from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.

Yet again, the Conservative movement thrashes about, trying to figure out what to do about…well, any number of things. Continue reading

Photograph of Francesco Hayez's painting, "The Destruction of the Second Temple"

The Confession of a Tish’a B’Av Truther

Tish’a B’Av (or Tisha B’Av, or Tisha Bov, or…) will soon be upon us, on the evening of August 13. I’ve previously discussed the holiday a bit, and so I won’t revisit the basics here. (Revisiting the basics, especially how the holiday is viewed from a Humanistic Jewish perspective, is what the first of those two links is for. The second link is sort of connected to how the rabbis of the Talmudic period understood the causes for the destruction of the Second Temple, which to some degree plays into their understanding of Tish’a B’Av.) And perhaps the word “truther” in the title of this post isn’t the best description for what I’m about to say, but hey, we all need a little clickbait in our lives.

Photograph of Francesco Hayez's painting, "The Destruction of the Second Temple"

Francesco Hayez’s “The Destruction of the Second Temple”; from Wikimedia Commons

So, here’s the thing. We continue, into the 21st century, to commemorate with some form of lamentation (pun intended) the destruction of a building that literally enshrined a view of the Jewish people and, for that matter, the entire universe that clashes with our modern conceptions of these things. We don’t generally think that the large-scale slaughtering of animals, scattering their blood on a stone altar, burning some of them whole and only parts of others, and pouring wine or meal or honey on an altar effect atonement.

And yet we mourn the loss of that sacrificial cult.

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A photograph of Shmura Matzo - matzo baked specifically to stringent Jewish legal guidelines

A Convenient Jew

I don’t do politics here, but I do worry about Jewish identity here. I put that disclaimer in

A photograph of Shmura Matzo - matzo baked specifically to stringent Jewish legal guidelines

Shmura Matzo – Creative Commons Licensed Image

because I’m going to talk about a political person, but not a political issue.

I encountered someone’s opinion on Bernie Sanders’s perceived authenticity as a Jew that, frankly, has me uncomfortable–not for its political content, but for its take on what it means to be Jewish.

On a Facebook post on a friend’s wall, a friend of this friend said that Sanders always seemed to be a “convenient Jew.”

This critique, for some reason, just struck home with me. I mean, it’s a logical fallacy wrapped in a larger one: whether he was or was not correct isn’t affected by the sort of Jew he is (that’s the “big” logical fallacy–an ad hominem argument), but there’s also the suggestion that Sanders isn’t Jewish enough (that’s a “no true Scotsman” fallacy). It’s that second one–that maybe Sanders isn’t Jewish enough–that struck me.

What exactly does that mean?

I think, picking away at the paint on the statement, what we’re really talking about is something like this: Sanders’s statements on Israel (the comment was in response to an article on Sanders’s statements on fatalities in Gaza) aren’t…something (?) or something enough (?)…and so Sanders’s Jewishness is a thing that’s convenient to trot out when it serves his purposes, but otherwise is not important to him.

That definition makes it so that Jewish identity’s primary arbiter is not the sum of one’s attachments and actions. It’s…something else. A demand that a Jew in public life be loud and proud about her or his identity? I’m not sure.

But ignoring the whole person’s attachments and actions with respect to Jewish life is a problem.

Secular Humanistic Judaism has long held to the following definition:

In response to the destructive definition of a Jew now proclaimed by some Orthodox authorities, and in the name of the historic experience of the Jewish people, we, therefore, affirm that a Jew is a person of Jewish descent or any person who declares himself or herself to be a Jew and who identifies with the history, ethical values, culture, civilization, community, and fate of the Jewish people.

See http://www.shj.org/humanistic-jewish-life/issues-and-resolutions/who-is/

If you meet this? You’re good with me. And we ought to be opening the gates wide, mindful that it will soon be Passover: “All who are hungry ― come and eat. All who lack ― come celebrate Passover.”

All the rest is commentary.

And if this makes me an INconvenient Jew? Well, I’m good with that, too.

(Also: I’ll mod the living beeswax out of your political comments on this post. I’m not having a political discussion here. To paraphrase Lesley Gore (also Jewish!), it’s my bloggy and I’ll mod if I want to.)

(Tapping) Testing. Sibilants.

Is this thing on?

Hey! I’m back! Again.

Seriously, I’ve been very, very busy. Sorry about that, but job, other job, editing, weddings (including officiating a Star Wars-themed wedding!)–I’m a busy person.

I came across something on Tablet that I thought was interesting. Mark Oppenheimer, who has written at some length on religious issues, particularly on Judaism and on the secular movement’s apparent issues with sexism, has a review of the late Edgar Bronfman’s book, Why Be Jewish?. The review is interesting in its way–it compares Bronfman’s book with two others bearing the same title, one by Meir Kahane and the other by David Wolpe. I suppose if you were looking for a study of the “Why should I be Jewish?” genre it would be a good place to start. (Spoiler: there really aren’t any books in this genre that I would give to someone who asked, “Why be Jewish?,” and I get the sense Oppenheimer wouldn’t, either.)

But what I found particularly useful is Oppenheimer’s characterization of what it means to be a Jew–that it’s a sort of family status.

But the Jew, as opposed to the Jewish person, is simply a member of this family that was, according to Kahane, chosen by God and given the Torah at Sinai—the family that, according to Bronfman, somehow kept its identity over millennia and developed a rich heritage worth perpetuating. Neither understanding of my family story satisfies me perfectly, but I think they are onto something. They’re mishpochah. Not Jewish, but fellow Jews.

What Bronfman feared, Oppenheimer suggests, was that Jews would become “Jew-ish” rather than “Jewish”: someone who is a Jew and is perhaps peripherally associated with the family, but not involved in or with it.

It strikes me that there’s something to this family analogy that I like better than others.

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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!)

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The Forward Falls Behind…Again

Last week, the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College announced a policy change, stating that they would no longer refuse admission to qualified rabbinical students who were married to or in long-term domestic relationships with individuals who are not Jewish. (Here’s the press release.) RRC was characterized as the first such institution to make a decision like this; I suppose this is true, since IISHJ, where I am a student, has never had a policy precluding admission of rabbinical students married to or in relationships with non-Jewish partners. So we’ll call RRC the first to rescind the prior, exclusivist policy.

This week, The Forward has run an editorial by its editor-in-chief, Jane Eisner, decrying RRC’s decision. Over in Humanistic Judaism World, we’ve had our fun poking at RRC for thinking itself first, and now at The Forward for getting bent out of shape. But I think it’s a good time to 1) blog again, and 2) actually address some of Eisner’s arguments, since Conservative and Reform clergy have started to make statements in support of Eisner’s missive. (Warning: logical fallacies are laid bare ahead. Also, if you think intermarriage is bad, you’re really not going to like what I have to say.)

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On Second Thought

I said here (in a comment to the repost of Rabbi Adar’s blog post responding to my prior post, which in turn was a response to a post of hers) that there is no real dispute between Rabbi Adar and myself over sacrifice vs. trade-off.

Upon reflection, I think that’s not entirely true, but not for the reasons either of us discussed in our posts (which I think sort of turned into an example of “things rabbis do in Talmud and midrash”).

The difference on our positions stems from a in baseline set of conclusions about what’s actually happening in Jewish tradition. If you ever wondered, “Why not just be Reform, Humanist Jew in Indianapolis?,” well…you’re about to get part of the answer.

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