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

Yom HaShoah and Amalek

One of the nice things about being essentially skeptical is that I don’t take a prooftext as a definitive answer. One of the bad things about being essentially skeptical is that when a prooftext is adduced as a definitive answer, I sometimes want to hit my head on a desk.

Unfortunately, prooftexts on Yom HaShoah turn out to be no exception.

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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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Credibility

Rabbi Gil Student has a post at his Torah Musings blog about the recent release of an issue of Tradition (a scholarly journal from the Rabbinical Council of American, the major Modern Orthodox rabbinical association) dedicated to analysis of the permissibility under halakhah of “partnership minyanim,” that is, minyanim that follow the requirements of halakhah as to gender roles but that allow women’s leadership in certain parts of the service.

Simply put, the opinion of the writers in Tradition and in other related documents is that partnership minyanim are not permissible. Continue reading

Why a Manual for Creating Atheists Isn’t

I’m hoping to publish in another forum a more detailed review of Peter Boghossian’s A Manual for Creating Atheists, so my comments here will not be especially comprehensive. But I was, in some important ways, rather disappointed with the book, and I want to express a bit of that disappointment here.

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Constructing a Pitch for Humanistic Judaism – Part I – Rationalism and Mysticism

(This is the first in a series of posts on my thoughts about pitching–both as a public proposition and in a more musical sense–Humanistic Judaism. This post will discuss what I think the challenge is Humanistic Judaism faces in gaining traction among American Jews. In the coming posts in the series, I’ll think a bit about how we might do that, and how we might pitch Humanistic Judaism outside our own circles–particularly since Americans don’t do doctrine much in their selection of a religious community.)

(Note that while I am a rabbinical student at IISHJ, I’m speaking here for myself–not the school, the Society for Humanistic Judaism, or the Association of Humanistic Rabbis.)

Last November (it seems like ages ago, so much has happened!) I went to a retreat for rabbinical students that was sponsored by Clal‘s Rabbis Without Borders. (Many thanks to Rabbi Chalom at IISHJ for encouraging me to go.) Students from various denominations and seminaries attended–Yeshivat Chovevei Torah (an “Open Orthodox” yeshiva), Jewish Theological Seminary and Ziegler (Conservative-affiliated schools), the Academy of Jewish Religion (nondenominational), HUC-JIR (Reform), RRC (Reconstructionist), ALEPH (Renewal) and IISHJ.

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Words have meaning

Jason Torpy, a board member of the American Humanist Association, in response to media coverage of the atheist church in the UK writes here about the use of “religious” or “spiritual” language. He argues that humanists are a bit too sensitive or “allergic,” as he puts it at one point, to innocuous or apparently inoffensive uses of religious language.

I appreciate his misgivings; I share some of them. But I don’t share all of them, and, more importantly, Torpy’s writing gives no real guidance on what might be acceptable or not.

For example, he points to a Franciscan blessing, “May God bless us with enough foolishness to believe that we really can make a difference in this world, so that we are able, with God’s grace, to do what others claim cannot be done,” and says that you could make the line more humanist–but why bother, because the God stuff doesn’t really make a difference.

Except that it does. That language matters because it attributes to someone else responsibility for the subject’s success or failure to do “what others claim cannot be done.” Indeed, on the language of the blessing, it is only because of God’s grace that “what others claim cannot be done” can be done.

Why, then, is that Franciscan blessing any more acceptable to Torpy than the “In God We Trust” slogan or the “under God” language from the Pledge of Allegiance? These are both invocations of God to which Torpy objects.

(For what it’s worth, Torpy’s distinction appears to be a willingness to accept some religious language unassociated with the “culture wars.” But his reading of the Franciscan blessing makes even this principle troublesome because his approval of the line is essentially that it’s not really religious.)

Humanists and atheists (these are not identical categories) are often far too quick to reject the value of many religious and spiritual forms and uses of language. But whether rejecting or accepting, the rationale for doing so should be clear and not based merely on what one finds personally inoffensive or not troublesome.

Procedural vs. declarative Judaism

If you don’t listen to the New Books Network podcasts, you are really missing out. Get thee to thy preferred podcast app and subscribe!

One of my favorites from the network (and I subscribe to a bunch of these) is the New Books in Big Ideas podcast. The most recent of these is a conversation with A. David Redish, author of The Mind within the Brain, which discusses the various kinds of memory and cognition, decision-making processes, and the problems that may arise with all these.

During the podcast, he and the host, Marshall Poe, discussed procedural vs. deliberative (also known as declarative) cognition and how these affect decision-making processes and human behavior generally. Prof. Redish mentioned that you learn to do new things–basketball was the example, but there are others–through a process that initially engages the deliberative/declarative systems but then moves toward ingraining those things into the procedural systems of the mind.

It was a fascinating discussion, especially because I really have very little background in psychology. (Come on–I went to grad school for religion, law school, and worked in IT. Something had to give! I also know very little about art, for what it’s worth.) And it got me to thinking about what my misgivings and comfort levels are with traditional prayer in a less traditional Jewish context, and why halakhic observance (or heck, remembering that I don’t actually want to eat very much meat) is so difficult for newcomers.

One of the tricks of procedural memory/cognition is that it engages the dopamine feed into our brains, which is why athletes talk about disengaging your conscious thinking and talk about being “in the zone.” My experience with the traditional prayer services is like this–I can get “in the zone” where I’m executing (in a technical manner) and feel really comfortable. But that doesn’t happen when I stop and read the words.

Actually, it does–but it engages the “in the zone” feeling for reading and translating Hebrew, rather than the “in the zone” feeling for reciting the prayers. The problem, of course, is that when I’m in the Hebrew zone, I remember that I don’t actually agree with the contents of the prayers. And I think this explains why I and others sometimes feel uncomfortable with the different liturgical approach of Secular Humanistic Judaism. (In my rabbinical school class a couple of weeks ago, Rabbi Chalom explained this as we’re damned if we do and damned if we don’t–people don’t actually agree often with the content of the prayers, but they refuse to allow change.)

This actually has me feeling pretty optimistic about my own ability to adjust out of the unease I feel with some of the liturgical challenges of Humanistic Judaism. Eventually, I realize, I’ll “get there.” The challenge will be making myself practice differently until what is deliberative becomes procedural.

I think many of us approach Judaism this way generally. “Why do we do it this way?” “We’re used to it.” “That’s absurd, don’t you think?” “Sure, but it’s how we do it!”

That covers a wide range of issues; in the liberal Jewish movements, we all “know” that many of the biblical texts aren’t literally true. Yet Rabbi David Wolpe (a Conservative rabbi) got in some trouble at a Passover seder when he said something like, “The Exodus didn’t really happen,” and was upbraided not because the audience disagreed, but because they just didn’t want to hear it in context–like that’s dirty laundry we ignore in public.

So the challenge for many of us will be, in the future, shaking up that procedural memory. Seems like it will be an interesting challenge.

Plasticine prayers

So, I mentioned at some point on the blog that I’m a rabbinical student here. The current rabbinical seminar centers on the Jewish calendar, holidays, liturgy, etc. Among the items discussed last week was Shalom Auslander’s short story, “It Ain’t Easy Bein’ Supremey.” In it, the protagonist creates two golems using instructions in Kabbalah for Dummies, and chaos ensues. Interspersed throughout the story are excerpts (translated into English) from various traditional Jewish prayers, with “Epstein” (the protagonist in the story) taking the place of the name of God.

It’s a hoot, though not for the religiously faint of heart (that’s true for a lot of Auslander’s writing). We used it in class as a way of leveraging into thinking about what prayers say and what, as Humanistic Jews, we should say in liturgical texts, because integrity of thought and speech is central to the movement’s self-definition.

This, plus reading for the next class session, brought me back around to thinking about the language of liturgy. I’m still unsure about how I think we should approach dealing with traditional texts and melodies from a humanistic perspective. One thing I liked seeing was a few texts from HJ services that recognized past practice and prayer, then turned to what we now say. But I’m a history buff (ask Mrs. Secular Jew in Indy about that), so that would appeal to me. And, of course, you can’t stick a “this is what we used to say” prefix onto everything–it’s not as though the reasons for the musaf service in traditional practice are persuasive for a humanistic Jew. (Heck, it’s not even persuasive for plenty of folks in the Conservative movement!)

Nevertheless, after seeing a number of HJ liturgical texts, I still think I would like to see a bit more in the way of adopting traditional forms into HJ liturgical practice. I’m not sure what that would look like–I actually rather like the adaptation of Shalom Aleichem that I’ve seen in HJ texts–but I’m sure I’ll continue to ponder this as time goes on and as I have more reason to communicate with other Jews about what I’m up to.

Dox populi

Vox populi vox dei – “the voice of the people is the voice of god.”

Unfortunately, the way we study Judaism hasn’t quite caught onto that. Or at least, so it appears from this article on The Forward’s website. To make a long story short: a conference at Tel Aviv University that discussed global Jewish practice largely disregarded Jewish practice among half of the world’s Jews–those here in the U.S.

From the author’s report, it sounds like the conference was very focused on “Old World” practice. And she takes the conference–and academic Jewish studies–to task for this.

I’m not sure that this assessment is completely true–I’ve been exposed to many scholars, at least here in the United States, that focus on the American Jewish experience. And, historically speaking, there’s a lot more water under the historical bridge in “Old World” Judaism than in American Judaism.

But to the extent it is true, I wonder to how much it has to do with a selection bias that exists in some respects among scholars of Jewish studies. Many–most?–come to Jewish studies as a discipline because they are already sufficiently engaged in Jewish religious life that there is a bias toward acceptance of traditional sources of religious authority. But as the recent Pew study (there it is again!) confirmed, American Jews don’t largely accept, for practical purposes, those sources of authority as binding upon their spiritual lives.

So I wonder if there’s a sort of impedance mismatch between what scholars are interested in and predisposed to study on the one hand, and what America’s Jews are doing and thinking on the other. And this is troubling if you’re concerned about continued Jewish engagement, because the results of scholarship (as much as we might want to draw on it to develop Jewish identity) may not engage the concerns of the “Jew on the street.”

Perhaps scholarship needs to remember that “vox populi vox dei” principle–or, perhaps we should recalibrate to examine “dox populi”: the belief of the people. Full stop.