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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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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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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Atheist? Humanist? Tolle, lege.

This book review on Slate.com is an essential read if you’re an atheist or humanist. Why? Because it points out some of the very problems that inhere in the Four Horsemen’s approach to the subject of religion. I’ve written about this before. The Slate piece is simply timely in pointing out some of the snarkiness and mean-spiritedness that’s coming along with “New Atheism.”

So, tolle, lege.

(P.S.: “Tolle, lege.” is what Augustine of Hippo reported hearing at the moment of his conversion experience to Christianity. It means “take it up and read.” I use it here in sincere irony.)

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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Musings on Historical Approaches to Judaism and Problems of Is and Ought

DovBear has a discussion on his blog today about the implications of a “rational and historical” approach to Judaism. He quotes a question posed about the practice of tikkun leyl Shavuot–staying up all night on erev Shavuot to study–and whether, if someone will be exhausted and “lose Torah” as a result, it is better to “quit while you’re ahead” or stay up all night. The response to the question says, essentially, tikkun leyl Shavuot is only about 500 years old and its origin story with Rabbi Joseph Karo (author of the Shuchan Arukh) is sort of dubious, and none of the rishonim or Talmudic-era rabbis did it. So if you’ll “lose Torah” by staying up all night for the tikkun, the quote says, it’s better that you sleep your ordinary schedule than try to stay up.

DovBear doesn’t particularly agree with this (I’m soft-pedaling his response a bit).  Continue reading

Hyperallergenic

So, I’ve been a bit lax in posting recently. In part, I’ve been busy with various other things–Passover, classwork, grading student papers, working, parenting, etc. But in part, my podcast consumption has been down. I usually find something of interest in podcasts, but I just wasn’t listening to them as often because, during the winter, it can be hard to concentrate on driving safely and on keeping continuity of attention on the podcast. With winter mostly over, though, I’ve got a bit more mental bandwidth during commutes, and podcasts are coming back into the listening diet.

I subscribe to a number of podcasts–lots of New Books Network podcasts, some Jewish-oriented ones, some humanism-oriented ones. I try to enjoy what I find, but in the humanist-oriented podcasts, especially, I find this difficult because much of it is shrill and self-congratulatory.

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Jewish Food and Humanistic Ethics

Rabbi Adam Chalom, rabbi at Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation in the Chicago area and dean of the U.S. division of IISHJ, posted this entry about the Jewishness of food as well as fasting. As I “turn[ed] it and turn[ed] it” (Pirke Avot 5:22) in my head, as well as other Humanistic Jewish writing about the status of issues of food and kashrut, I was reminded of a discussion I had in graduate school with one of my professors about the effect of the laws of kashrut on non-Jews. This conversation stuck with me, and I’m going to reflect on that and the ethical problems associated with maintaining kashrut.

(For my more traditionally-oriented Jewish readers: by now, you must have figured out I’m more or less a raging apikoros; I’d have to be to cite Torah and Talmud to reach the results I do. You won’t like what’s after the jump; I think you need to hear it, but you’ll likely disagree. I’m not picking a fight; it simply is what it is.)

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Autism, inclusion, and theodicy

(I will freely admit that this post is largely an emotional reaction. Tough. Go read something else if that bothers you.)

The “Daily Reyd” feature at Rabbi Gil Student’s Torah Musings blog has a link to an article at the Orthodox Union’s website. Titled “The Gabbai With Autism: A Living Lesson In Inclusion,” the article talks about Eli Gorelick, a young man with autism who serves as one of several gabbaiim in his congregation.

I will first say that the synagogue’s ability to adapt to Eli and to effectively welcome him to lay leadership is–or should be, anyway–a model for inclusion for those able and willing to serve with accommodation. I have no quibble at all with any of that, and it’s precisely that kind of thing that we’re missing in so many other places.

My problem, of course, is going to be the theodicy piece. Eli’s father is himself a rabbi, and when one of Eli’s siblings asked his father why God made Eli the way He did, the answer was, “Hashem wanted us to do chesed for Eli.”

And that, dear reader, is when I decided it was time to take the day’s lunch break.

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