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.)
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.
To make sure I read a least a little Hebrew every day, I subscribe to a Kitzur Shulchan Arukh Yomi service. Each day (except for Shabbat and certain holidays), I receive a text message designating a passage from the Kitzur Shulchan Arukh, an abbreviated quick-reference guide to the everyday aspects of halakhah (Jewish law) as they might confront an observant Jew living in the mid-1800s in Eastern Europe. (In case you’re wondering, the messages double-up on the day before Shabbat or holidays with similar restrictions.)
I don’t ordinarily read the entire passage; I didn’t do so yesterday, either, but that is because the first couple of paragraphs caught my attention and I just didn’t move on from there. And I think that text provides some nice ideas for our own time.
Yahrzeit Candle customarily lit on the anniversaries of loved ones’ deaths.
It is customary among many Jews when hearing of another’s bereavement to say “Baruch dayan emet,” which translates to “Blessed is the True Judge.” (That judge would be Yahweh.) It comes from the blessing that halakhah requires mourners to recite upon hearing of the death of certain relatives: baruch ata adonai eloheinu melekh ha-olam, dayan ha-emet (“Blessed are you Lord our God, King of the Universe, the True Judge”).
For some, giving a condolence with baruch dayan emet is a reflexive thing; for others, it’s a consciously Jewish response to bereavement.
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.
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.
(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.
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.
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.)
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.