A Simple Kind of Man

This week is, as far as I’m concerned, momentous. The Torah portion under the traditional reading cycle brings us to Parshat Toledot, which marks the Torah’s transition in Genesis to narrating stories of Abraham and Isaac to the stories of Jacob.

That’s not what makes it momentous to me. Rather (and here I let slip my age), twenty-five years ago, I chanted part of this parashah at my bar mitzvah. At the time, I could chant the Hebrew from memory but didn’t understand it; now, I can understand the Hebrew but I don’t remember the tune.

You didn’t come here to stroll down Memory Lane with me, though. Instead, I’ve got a d’rash for you involving the story of Jacob and Esau.

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It’s Negotiable

Wow, we’re getting busy here at the blog!

Actually, I’ve been sitting on the topic for this post for a while; well, not a while, but for a little over a week. But it was in the mental background on some of the other recent posts.

I’ve written before on the Akedah, the story in Genesis 22 that purports to tell of Abraham’s near-slaughter of Isaac because Yahweh said so. (On a related note, we really should be careful of what we think is happening when we hear voices in our heads.) Last week, Rabbi Hannah Dresner wrote a post at the Rabbis Without Borders blog on the Akedah; the post is titled, “God Likes a Counter-Offer,” and views the story of the Akedah as acquitting Abraham of his near-sacrifice of Isaac because he makes a counter-offer in the form of a ram caught in a thicket.

I don’t think the plain sense of the narrative there supports this view. It extends the version of events Rashi and other commentators provide about Abraham forestalling Yahweh’s overtures to sacrifice Isaac by “playing dumb.” It’s a midrashic approach–and that’s fine. But let’s admit that the text doesn’t quite portray that episode as a negotiation.

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Judaism as Je Ne Sais Quoi

(This weekend, IISHJ is holding a colloquium on the future of Judaism at the Birmingham Temple. I can’t be there due to a business trip; I’ll be in Dallas at a convention. But in the spirit of the colloquium, here’s my feeble attempt at figuring out exactly what Judaism is. The short answer is: “I know it when I see it.” That not being good enough, I’ve written this. In addition, congratulations to Ed Klein and Susan Averbach on their upcoming rabbinic ordinations during the colloquium. Mazal tov to them both!)

Last week, I responded to the idea that we should focus on how people “Do Jewish” as a way of getting past essentializing labels like “What shul do you go to?,” and I ended with the note that ideas matter. I want to attack the problem of Jewish identity from the other direction.

Ideas aren’t enough, either.

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Asking How You “Do Jewish” Isn’t Enough

Rabbi Ben Greenberg has an article at the Rabbis Without Borders blog about Jewish identity and whether, when we ask about someone’s congregational affiliation, we are asking the wrong question.

On the one hand, I agree with him: “Are you ______?” and “Which synagogue do you belong to?” are essentializing, unhelpful questions in many cases. Asking how you “do” Jewish may be a better place to start.

On the other hand, I cannot agree with him on his premise for the question, because he writes out portions of the Jewish community.

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No, We Shouldn’t Start Writing Midrash Again

R. Eliyahu Fink of the Pacific Jewish Center argues for just that, calling the recent movie about Noah directed by Darren Aronofsky a modern midrash for its filling in of gaps in the narrative and its addition of new shades of meaning to an old story.

The core of R. Fink’s concern is that the body of interpretations called “The Midrash” in the Modern Orthodox world has gotten too small and hidebound. I agree with R. Fink that there is a problematic tendency to treat as effectively canon medieval and earlier biblical commentaries. I am not, however, sure that the proper remedy is to write new midrash. (Setting aside that his suggestion implies that the spinning of midrash has somehow stopped; I don’t think he means that, and I don’t think that has happened in any event.)

(Warning: this is a bit of turgid post, language-wise. It’s a lot of thinking “out loud” about relatively wonky stuff. Just, you know, hold tight. Inspirational stuff comes at the end.)

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On the High Drama of Torah Cantillation – Simchat Torah 2014 / 5775

I’ve posted before that I think there is a place for Simchat Torah in humanistic approaches to Judaism; the SHJ thinks so, too, of course. I’m just a lot more of a nerd about subversive readings, and so my own approach is very history-nerd-ish.

One aspect of Simchat Torah–and in fact, of the public Torah reading generally–that I think is particularly interesting is the performance of the reading itself. I think the way public Torah reading is usually done in synagogues is pretty much the opposite of how it was “supposed” to be done (that is, how Jews of Late Antiquity and the early Medieval period envisaged the affair). And the reading of the opening chapter of the book of Genesis, which occurs on Simchat Torah as the annual reading cycle is completed, is an excellent way of leveraging into that vision.

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A Humanistic Rosh Hashanah Round-Up

Rosh Hashanah starts at sundown on Wednesday this week. I’m likely to be occupied with other items this week (not the least of which is two days of continuing legal education in a facility that charges about $40/day for “real” WiFi) and thus won’t end up with an original, dedicated Rosh Hashanah post. Instead, I’ll provide links to materials from others in the Humanistic Jewish world (and some of my own), as I know this would be a helpful consolidation of resources for some of my readers who have looked for resources but sometimes find their searches coming up short.

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More musings on justice

It’s kind of amazing how quickly it feels like we get to the end of each year’s Torah reading cycle. (Cue old-man voice yelling at kids to get off my lawn.) This week’s parasha is the double portion Nitzavim-Vayelech. We’re nearing the end of Deuteronomy, and we are only a few weeks away from starting all over again at Genesis 1:1.

Deuteronomy is a mixed bag in terms of general reading interest. Sometimes it’s a slog, reciting in no particularly obvious order various legal provisions. But Nitzavim, in particular, has some of the most used (abused?) verses: Deuteronomy 30:9-20, part of the book’s beginning-of-the-end oration.  Continue reading

Why or why not?

Tablet Magazine ran an article earlier this week that I suspect drew quizzical looks from readers. Titled “Black Jewish Temples Get Their Own Prayer Book, After Nearly a Century,” the article is as much a short history of the Black Israelite movement as it is about the siddur itself.

Let’s bracket the kinds of historical concerns that we might bring into play discussing the Black Israelite movement. They’re not relevant to this post, because what I want to talk about is one reaction I saw on Facebook to the article. That reaction (paraphrased): “why do Black Israelites need their own siddur“?

The answer: because liturgy matters. Continue reading

What if? A long-form, humanistic think-piece for Elul

We’ve come into the month of Elul, the lead-up to the High Holidays in the traditional Jewish cycle of the year. Elul is traditionally viewed as a time for repentance, which Jewish tradition understands as not only seeking absolution but for making changes to avoid ever again committing the sins of the past.

A podcast I listened to recently tied in nicely to one of the ideas that comes with Elul: thinking about the value of what we do.

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