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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A photograph of an opened Torah scroll, housed at the Glockenglasse Synagogue

Hypotheses, Theories, and Biblical Criticism, or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love “Higher Antisemitism”

(Warning–this is not a post written for the linguistically or intellectually faint-of-heart. If you’re a casual reader, you’ve been warned.)

In response to my post a couple of days ago about the implications of biblical criticism for Jewish thought–which was itself a response to Jay Michaelson at the Forward–the Society for Humanistic Judaism in its Facebook feed asked when a hypothesis becomes a theory. I’ve been mulling that over a bit, and came belatedly upon TheTorah.com‘s meme about what biblical criticism is:

Bible Criticism – From TheTorah.com

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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

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

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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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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“Freedom!,” or, my newly traditional bent

As most of us no doubt know, Hanukkah (I use the NY Times’s spelling of it for sake of my spellchecker) is coming to a close. (No, not Thanksgivukkah–because I like Thanksgiving way too much to blend it in with anything else. And also, I love Thanksgiving, but eight days of turkey is almost too much for me.)

As we got ready to celebrate Hanukkah, on kind of a lark I started to read the laws for the holiday in the Kitzur Shulchan Arukh. (For rabbinical school, we were reading the laws on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur at the time, so I was already carrying the book around.) For those unfamiliar, it’s a Jewish legal code from the mid 19th century that is aimed at just the average (traditionally observant) Jew who wants to observe Jewish law and needs a relatively plain-language guide to doing so. It’s not generally used to reach new rulings as it’s not particularly detailed in terms of rationale and sources, but it’s pretty useful for day-to-day issues. For Hanukkah, it has information about things like what order to put the candles in and light them, what a Hanukkah menorah should look like and be made of, where it should be placed, how long the candles should burn, what blessings to say, who says them and when, etc. (It’s actually more involved than you would realize.)

Reading it, I realized that one of our menorahs was not, according to the Kitzur Shulchan Arukh, kosher. That particular menorah has its candles in a circular shape–which is fine–but did not have all the candles except the ninth “helper” (shamash) at the same level. You see, the menorah goes up in sort of a spiral, so that each candle is higher than the next. According to the Kitzur Shulchan Arukh, the eight candles of the menorah should all be level.

Now, this is an interesting dilemma for a humanistic Jew. Well, maybe not really, because we don’t recognize halakhah as binding for religious purposes. But we do recognize the cultural value of the observances, and that holds sway in deciding what we do.

So it still left me with the question: what to do? Should we use that circular menorah (which is beautiful), or do something else?

We ended up using a more traditional menorah. The circular one is part of the holiday display we’ve set up at my office, and it actually goes quite well there.

So, where am I going with all this?

Mrs. Secular Jew pointed something out to me that I hadn’t quite noticed myself. I’ve become more traditionally “observant” since coming to a place where I understand that I am–and have for a long time really been–a humanistic Jew. We light candles for Shabbat consistently when we never did before; my menorah decision was different than it would have been in the past (when I would likely have cared more that the circular menorah wasn’t kosher); and other smallish things have trended more traditional than they would have in the past. Some of this is modeling behavior or the result of spending more time thinking about Jewish things than I have for a little while–so, the natural consequence of embracing the Jewish part of things, particularly as  a result of rabbinical study.

But that’s not all that’s happened. Coming to the understanding of where I am in terms of a Jewish identity–that I really don’t think halakhah has any divine component to it, that it’s not really binding–freed me up to make decisions without the “baggage” (sorry–it’s just the best term I’ve got) that comes from feeling like doing a thing means doing it right or just not bothering.

In a sense, this is the flip-side of the old saying, “If you’re going to sin, sin boldly.” Not being paralyzed by the necessity of doing it right, I find myself able to just do the thing. So, in talking about Hanukkah in the really limited way I can with our son, I don’t feel that I have to pitch only the “appropriate” message about it.

And so, given his communication difficulties, and the limited extent to which any nine year-old–of nearly any cognitive or communicative abilities–can wrap his head around such abstract notions, it was effective this year to explain only one thing about Hanukkah.

That Hanukkah is about freedom.

As the lights fade from the menorah on the last day of Hanukkah this year, a warm chag sameach to you.