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

What kind of justice do you pursue? Thoughts on parshat Shoftim and textual adoption.

Remarkably quickly, it seems, we’ve marched through the traditional Torah reading cycle and are several parshiyot into Deuteronomy. This week’s traditional cycle takes us to parshat Shoftim, which starts us off with the appointment of judges and the necessity that they blinker themselves as to the status of the parties before them.

Like many other parshiyot, Shoftim has lots of little verses (or parts of verses, anyway) in it that are often cited as grounding the principles of liberal Judaism in the Torah. And I and many other lawyers have often pointed to Deut. 16:20–“Justice, justice shall you pursue”–as a lodestar. (I put that verse in my law school application essays, and Mrs. Secular Jew gave me a gift with that verse on it–it’s one of the Mickie Caspi pieces.)

But perhaps we’re too quick on the draw. Continue reading

Tish’a B’Av (and counting)

I had planned to post yesterday for Tish’a B’Av. I started writing a post, but the draft didn’t save, and by the time I noticed the draft hadn’t saved, it was too late in my day to start again. It was going to be a barn-burner, too, an approving response to Rabbi Michael Lerner’s article on Salon.com, and his subsequent post at the Tikkun Magazine website, about how Israel is destroying Judaism as he knows it.

But then the draft didn’t save. (Side note to the WordPress admins: why is it easier to create a post where there won’t be an automatic save of the draft? Not a very friendly feature, I think.)

So here we are, Tish’a B’Av (and counting). (Using the Hebrew number isn’t going to get any search engine hits.)

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On the Worrying Economics of Torah Observance

Tablet Magazine recently ran a story about the rising costs associated with maintaining Orthodox-level Jewish observance (the article focuses on Toco Hills in Atlanta, a heavily-Orthodox suburb). From food to housing to education, the article notes, it’s always been costly (when compared with how others fare) to be strictly Torah observant. It’s expensive to keep kosher in a manner that will pass muster in those communities. Housing costs get driven upward because of the need to live within an eruv (a legal fiction that defines a kind of private space in which the laws for carrying items between public and private spaces on Shabbat do not apply) or otherwise be within walking distance of a synagogue. And public education simply “won’t do” because no one teaches Torah and Talmud in the public schools.

(“Legal fiction,” by the way, does not mean that something is false. It means that the entity, concept, etc., is created by a legal enactment because it would not otherwise exist. Your Latin lesson for today: “fiction” comes from the same Latin verb–facio–as our words “fact” and “manufacture.”)

You could say many things about the economic circumstances at work here. It’s possible, for example, to “blame the victim.” I won’t do that here, and wouldn’t do so in any case. My concern is a systemic one.

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It’s just a commandment

I’ve spent some amount of time thinking about (male) circumcision. It’s a fraught topic; some regard it as barbaric, some as hygienic, some as a sacred sign, and still others as a foolish impairment of sexual pleasure. I’m not well-informed enough to sort out the validity of the various back-and-forth claims about the hygienic aspects of circumcision, nor capable of investigating the sexual health perspective. What is “barbaric” largely depends on the culture that issues the judgment, though a circumcision performed by a clinician seems a bit different from one performed with metzitzah be-peh (a practice where upon circumcision by a mohel, the mohel draws the blood off orally).

But I can evaluate it from a Jewish perspective, and from a Secular Humanistic Jewish perspective, at that. And sitting down and thinking that out led me to a new view on the subject of male circumcision.

My result: “it’s just a commandment.” And that conclusion is interesting to me.

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Think

True confession: I love The Blues Brothers. The first movie, not the second one. Does anyone actually like that one?

In the original movie, there’s a scene where Jake and Elwood go to recruit Matt “Guitar” Murphy for the band and his wife musically and …gently?…discourages him. (Aretha Franklin is, as always, fabulous.)

So, why bring this all up?

The song is called, “Think.” And the movie takes place in Chicago.

And I was just in Chicago. At a talk that has everything to do with thinking: I attended the “CRASH” lecture that Rabbi Benay Lappe of Svara delivers just before the beginning of each new go-round of the Svara Beit Midrash.

Svara, by the way, means (in part) thinking. (See what I did there? Chiastic parallelism–one of the patterns of construction in Biblical Hebrew poetry.)

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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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Sometimes, the Truth Hurts. Can You Handle It?

Jay Michaelson of The Forward has a recent editorial, How We Know the Bible Was Written by Human Hands. In it, he reviews three recent scholarly works regarding the formation of the Hebrew Bible–the composition of the texts, their sources, and the canonization process. (I’m not 100% impartial to the review, as I studied a little bit with the author of one of the books discussed, but I’ve not yet read the books themselves.)

Michaelson is, I think, correct that the truth matters. More crucially, he notes that the truth hurts. There’s one problem with his thesis: no one knows it!

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Parshat Korach, Humanistic Judaism, and a Grand Reveal

This week, the traditional Torah reading cycle brings us to Parshat Korach, the biblical tale of a rebellion within the Israelite camp which included Korach, a member of the Levites, and 250 other leaders of the Israelites.

The short version of the story: Korach is angry that he and others didn’t have the priesthood opened up to them, he objects that the entire people is holy, and he challenges Moses and Aaron. Moses says, in essence, (1) Don’t be mad at Aaron, and (2) You would presume to challenge the divine plan!? As a Levite, you’ve been given privilege already–how dare you ask for more!?

Botticelli's Korach - Image obtained from Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Korach_%28parsha%29#mediaviewer/File:Korah_Botticelli.jpg)

Botticelli’s Korach – Image obtained from Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Korach_%28parsha%29#mediaviewer/File:Korah_Botticelli.jpg)

The result? Competing offerings are made near the Tabernacle, and the earth opens up and swallows Korach and his followers. Continue reading

Program Review: Fundamentals of Talmud

It’s been a little while since I’ve posted a book review; it will likely still be a while longer, not because I’m not reading books, but because I’m not reading things in which I have enough expertise to provide a useful review. But I do retain an interest in studying rabbinic texts, and I’ve always been intrigued with how we can teach people to work with them. So I do have a review for you in that vein.

R. Ayson Englander, presently a sofer stam in Baltimore, developed a program called Fundamentals of Talmud while working as an educator in various schools around the country. I’m always interested in how independent Talmud study skills can be taught to those without ready access to chevruta (partnership-based learning) and/or in-depth, in-person learning opportunities, so I decided to give his program a look after seeing it mentioned in a conversation thread on the “Mi Yodea” area of StackExchange. (For those unfamiliar, StackExchange was developed in part by Joel Spolsky of Fog Creek Software, and is a kind of peer-rated discussion exchange, divided into particular topics–many of them not at all STEM oriented. Mi Yodea is aimed at Torah-observant Jews.)

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