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.

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

Tisha B’Av and Secular Humanistic Judaism

Photograph of Francesco Hayez's painting,

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

This year, Tisha B’Av, which commemorates the destruction of both the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem, begins on the evening of July 25.

The core concern of Tisha B’Av is not merely commemorating the Temples’ destructions; it is beseeching Yahweh to restore the Temple through, for example, the recitation of the book of Lamentations, which focuses on the sinfulness of Israel and asks for restoration:

Cause us to return, O Yahweh,
To you, and we shall return;
Renew our days, as of old. (Lam. 5:21)

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If You’re Going to Use the Text, Use the Whole Text

In late July/early August, I’ll be in Farmington Hills, Michigan, at the Birmingham Temple for an IISHJ rabbinical program course on congregational management. One of the books rabbinical students have been assigned to read is Hal Lewis’s From Sanctuary to Boardroom, which is a kind of survey of leadership approaches with a Jewish…bent? Tilt? I’m not sure quite yet.

I’m not especially pleased with the book. And since part of what displeases me locks into this week’s regular Torah reading, well…blog post!!! Or as Christoph Waltz’s Nazi says in a negotiation with American soldiers in “Inglourious Basterds,” “Ooooooh, that’s a bingo!!!”

So, what’s my problem? One might think it ironic for a humanistic Jew, but it comes down to fidelity to the text.

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James Tissot's "Two Priests Destroyed," depicting the deaths of Nadav and Avihu (image from Wikipedia)

What Can We Do with the Holiness Code? A Humanistic Jewish Reading

James Tissot's "Two Priests Destroyed," depicting the deaths of Nadav and Avihu (image from Wikipedia)

James Tissot’s “Two Priests Destroyed,” depicting the deaths of Nadav and Avihu (image from Wikipedia)

(Warning: this is a long read.) The Torah has lots of laws. Lots of them. And in the traditional Torah-reading cycle, we’re neck-deep in them.

These laws make using the Bible today more than a little problematic.

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Photo of train tracks leading away from the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration and death camps; flowers bound in a white-and-blue striped ribbon have been placed on the tracks.

Reflecting on Holocaust Theology

Photo of train tracks leading away from the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration and death camps; flowers bound in a white-and-blue striped ribbon have been placed on the tracks.

Leaving Auschwitz – Creative Commons License

I’ve chosen the picture for this post carefully, because it shows the train tracks leading away from the main station at Auschwitz-Birkenau II.

It’s been some time since I really wandered around in the philosophical mire on the blog. But, sure enough, that time has come again. It’s also been a while since I nudged at any of the high-voltage lines that mark the boundaries of acceptable Jewish discourse. I’m doing that today, too.

And so I lead with this warning: if you don’t want to have your notions challenged concerning how American Jews should integrate Israel and the Holocaust into their identities, or if you’re likely to be offended if I do challenge them, you won’t want to read this.

You’ve been warned. Because for many years, I have thought that liberal Jewish life in the United States has been rendered pathological in its centering on the Holocaust and Israel. (If that sentence gets you mad, maybe you want to take a breather before continuing to read.)

Now, then…

Prof. Shaul Magid (hail to old IU!) published a book review at the Tablet Magazine website titled, “American Jews Must Stop Obsessing Over the Holocaust.” Seth Mandel gives a not-too-coherent response at Commentary to what he characterizes as Magid’s not-too-coherent essay. Mandel relies upon Paul Johnson’s history of the Jews and the idea of historical reflection to argue that survival is its own rationale.

And, of course, all of this comes on the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.

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Photograph of the "heads" side of a penny, highly oxidized so that the copper has turned from red to green

Sometimes Bad Pennies Have Good Sides

To make sure I read a least a little Hebrew every day, I subscribe to a Kitzur Shulchan Arukh Yomi service. Each day (except for Shabbat and certain holidays), I receive a text message designating a passage from the Kitzur Shulchan Arukh, an abbreviated quick-reference guide to the everyday aspects of halakhah (Jewish law) as they might confront an observant Jew living in the mid-1800s in Eastern Europe. (In case you’re wondering, the messages double-up on the day before Shabbat or holidays with similar restrictions.)

I don’t ordinarily read the entire passage; I didn’t do so yesterday, either, but that is because the first couple of paragraphs caught my attention and I just didn’t move on from there. And I think that text provides some nice ideas for our own time.

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Picture of Yahrzeit Candle customarily lit on the anniversaries of loved ones' deaths.

Baruch Dayan Emet? Try Again.

Picture of Yahrzeit Candle customarily lit on the anniversaries of loved ones' deaths.

Yahrzeit Candle customarily lit on the anniversaries of loved ones’ deaths.

It is customary among many Jews when hearing of another’s bereavement to say “Baruch dayan emet,” which translates to “Blessed is the True Judge.” (That judge would be Yahweh.) It comes from the blessing that halakhah requires mourners to recite upon hearing of the death of certain relatives: baruch ata adonai eloheinu melekh ha-olam, dayan ha-emet (“Blessed are you Lord our God, King of the Universe, the True Judge”).

For some, giving a condolence with baruch dayan emet is a reflexive thing; for others, it’s a consciously Jewish response to bereavement.

It’s also a very problematic thing to say.

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“It’s a Trap!,” or, How the Torah’s Narrative Blames Joseph for the Israelites’ Slavery

Well, it’s been a bit of time since I did a post on the weekly parashah. Let’s break that trend.

This week we have Parshat Vayigash, the second-to-last Torah portion in Genesis. Vayigash starts with the story’s big reveal: Joseph yet lives. His brothers and father come to Egypt to live during the famine.

Hooray, right? Well…there’s this, in Genesis 47:19:

Buy us and our land with bread.

It turns out that the Joseph story puts the narrative’s enslavement of the Israelites at Joseph’s feet. Surprised? Read on.

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2 Maccabees in Greek

Humanistic Hanukkah!

Hanukkah starts in a couple of weeks. And so, too, will start (actually, this already started) the observations that Hanukkah is a minor holiday downplayed by the rabbis, etc.

Fine, that’s all true.

And, being the contrarian I am, I think we should play it up–especially in the Humanistic Jewish world.

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Who’s Your Daddy?

First, I hope those who celebrated Thanksgiving had an enjoyable holiday. If you haven’t read it yet, I posted a pre-Thanksgiving piece. I think it’s worth a read, though you may disagree. (If so, tough patootey, I guess.)

On to other things, then.

The Torah portion this week continues on with the adventures of Jacob and Esau–and adds in the adventures of Leah, Rachel, Bilhah, Zilpah, and Laban. There’s a lot of interesting narrative that deals with the complications of dealing with fathers.

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