Tish’a B’Av (and counting)

I had planned to post yesterday for Tish’a B’Av. I started writing a post, but the draft didn’t save, and by the time I noticed the draft hadn’t saved, it was too late in my day to start again. It was going to be a barn-burner, too, an approving response to Rabbi Michael Lerner’s article on Salon.com, and his subsequent post at the Tikkun Magazine website, about how Israel is destroying Judaism as he knows it.

But then the draft didn’t save. (Side note to the WordPress admins: why is it easier to create a post where there won’t be an automatic save of the draft? Not a very friendly feature, I think.)

So here we are, Tish’a B’Av (and counting). (Using the Hebrew number isn’t going to get any search engine hits.)

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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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Think

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:

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Sometimes, the Truth Hurts. Can You Handle It?

Jay Michaelson of The Forward has a recent editorial, How We Know the Bible Was Written by Human Hands. In it, he reviews three recent scholarly works regarding the formation of the Hebrew Bible–the composition of the texts, their sources, and the canonization process. (I’m not 100% impartial to the review, as I studied a little bit with the author of one of the books discussed, but I’ve not yet read the books themselves.)

Michaelson is, I think, correct that the truth matters. More crucially, he notes that the truth hurts. There’s one problem with his thesis: no one knows it!

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Is Unity a Pipe Dream?

I deeply appreciate the work of Rabbis Without Borders. My attendance at the Fall 2013 student retreat was a tremendous experience for me. And I truly do want to see more cohesiveness in the Jewish community.

But.

The RWB blog on MyJewishLearning.com has a post wondering about whether Jews can unite. Its starting point is what’s dominated news in the Jewish community: the Bring Back Our Boys effort in the wake of the kidnapping of the three yeshiva students near Hebron. And let’s be clear: whatever your position on Israel, the Palestinians, the settlements, SodaStream, PCUSA’s divestment decision, or anything else, kidnapping students is a horrendous thing to do and not something that will resolve anything.

But reading the RWB blog post, something else drew my eye. Continue reading

Parshat Korach, Humanistic Judaism, and a Grand Reveal

This week, the traditional Torah reading cycle brings us to Parshat Korach, the biblical tale of a rebellion within the Israelite camp which included Korach, a member of the Levites, and 250 other leaders of the Israelites.

The short version of the story: Korach is angry that he and others didn’t have the priesthood opened up to them, he objects that the entire people is holy, and he challenges Moses and Aaron. Moses says, in essence, (1) Don’t be mad at Aaron, and (2) You would presume to challenge the divine plan!? As a Levite, you’ve been given privilege already–how dare you ask for more!?

Botticelli's Korach - Image obtained from Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Korach_%28parsha%29#mediaviewer/File:Korah_Botticelli.jpg)

Botticelli’s Korach – Image obtained from Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Korach_%28parsha%29#mediaviewer/File:Korah_Botticelli.jpg)

The result? Competing offerings are made near the Tabernacle, and the earth opens up and swallows Korach and his followers. Continue reading

The Child Who Can’t Ask

Just to have a rhetorical pivot point, I’ll rely on the trope that comes up in so much Jewish literature about individuals with special needs: we have to address Judaism to those who don’t yet know how to ask.

I know, I know, it’s hackneyed by now to keep going back to the four children of the Passover Seder. I did it anyway. But I do so with a particular point I want to make–namely, that liberal Judaism is far too verbal. Continue reading

Starboard, ho!

In a recent post on his blog, Emes Ve-Emunah, Rabbi Harry Maryles reflected on some of the accelerated rightward shift of haredi streams of Judaism:

Why do I care about what the Charedi world is doing? As I said they are the dominant culture in Orthodoxy now and their increase in numbers outpace any other branch of Orthodoxy. But even more than that, extremes when incorporated wholesale into communities eventually become the norm. Just look at mixed seating at weddings. That used to be the norm. Now it is considered to be a less than Tznius event. Some Charedi leaders will not even attend such a wedding!

I understand that in some communities these extremes of Tznius are the norm… and probably have been the norm for many decades or perhaps longer. Meah Shearim and Bnei Brak come to mind. But what is the norm for them was not the norm for everyone else in Orthodoxy. Until it was… and is!

Now, first, I’m not about to say that Rabbi Maryles and I are anywhere near on the same page on most things; he’s very firmly an Orthodox rabbi, and I’m very firmly not Orthodox. (I’ll avoid going, yet again, into why I think the ability to use the label “Orthodox” is a dumb concession on the part of liberal Judaism. Sometimes we’re just stuck with the words we have.) And whatever the Orthodox world is going to work out for itself, will happen.

I’m more concerned with what the increasing rightward moves in the Orthodox world–both in terms of population and halakhic output–mean for those of us who aren’t part of that world. In the event you think this isn’t actually a thing to worry about, let’s dredge back up our old whipping boy, the Pew study. Continue reading