Photograph of face of Lenny Bruce, an American Jewish comedian

…And I Feel Fine

It’s the end of the world as we know it!

Oh, so many things in the Jewish communal world to think about over the past week. Let’s tick them off, one at a time:

All the panic makes my heart just go pitter-pat. I don’t even know where to start. (The section titles here are from REM’s “It’s the End of the World (As We Know It),” so now you can learn some of the lyrics!)

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No, We Shouldn’t Start Writing Midrash Again

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.)

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Wait and See

JTA has an article that R. Jeffrey Fox, the rosh yeshiva of Yeshivat Maharat (which ordains women under the title Maharat, rather than as rabbis), is going to issue a responsum (in Hebrew, a teshuva–an answer) on the question of whether a male rabbi must be present in the mikveh during conversion ceremonies. His answer–to cut to the chase–is no, a male rabbi need not be present. This all comes in the wake of the voyeurism accusations against Rabbi Barry Freundel in Washington D.C.

I’m still waiting.

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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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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

Starboard, ho!

In a recent post on his blog, Emes Ve-Emunah, Rabbi Harry Maryles reflected on some of the accelerated rightward shift of haredi streams of Judaism:

Why do I care about what the Charedi world is doing? As I said they are the dominant culture in Orthodoxy now and their increase in numbers outpace any other branch of Orthodoxy. But even more than that, extremes when incorporated wholesale into communities eventually become the norm. Just look at mixed seating at weddings. That used to be the norm. Now it is considered to be a less than Tznius event. Some Charedi leaders will not even attend such a wedding!

I understand that in some communities these extremes of Tznius are the norm… and probably have been the norm for many decades or perhaps longer. Meah Shearim and Bnei Brak come to mind. But what is the norm for them was not the norm for everyone else in Orthodoxy. Until it was… and is!

Now, first, I’m not about to say that Rabbi Maryles and I are anywhere near on the same page on most things; he’s very firmly an Orthodox rabbi, and I’m very firmly not Orthodox. (I’ll avoid going, yet again, into why I think the ability to use the label “Orthodox” is a dumb concession on the part of liberal Judaism. Sometimes we’re just stuck with the words we have.) And whatever the Orthodox world is going to work out for itself, will happen.

I’m more concerned with what the increasing rightward moves in the Orthodox world–both in terms of population and halakhic output–mean for those of us who aren’t part of that world. In the event you think this isn’t actually a thing to worry about, let’s dredge back up our old whipping boy, the Pew study. 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

This, I love

Rabbi Natan Slifkin blogs over at Rationalist Judaism. Rabbi Slifkin is an “Orthodox” rabbi with an interest in science and rationalism, sort of in the Maimonides vein. I don’t always like or agree with what he says–I think there’s just too much contortion necessary to reach the reconciliations he does. (See this post from Freethinking Jew for more than I’m willing to put into words on that topic at the moment.)

In any case, Rabbi Slifkin has this gem on his blog today. I’m not so much focused on the absurdities of the yeshiva system in Israel or the U.S. (though, let’s be clear, it’s absurd in so many cases and so many ways). But sometimes–sometimes–one just has to enjoy a little schadenfreude.

So here’s your daily dose.

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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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Bloodline B.S. and Halakhic Hysterics

The opening paragraph to an article on the YNet site reads:

In the next generation, a significant part – which may even be the majority of ‘US Jewry’ – will not be Jewish according to the Halacha, in light of the growing dimensions of intermarriage throughout the past few decades.

Delight in the scare quotes–‘US Jewry’–and enjoy the derision and condescension that shines through this article. And, while you’re at it, note the slight of hand YNet plays, saying that the diagnosis comes not from some Orthodox authority but from a scholar at Bar-Ilan University.

Let’s break this down a bit, shall we? Continue reading