The Bone in the Butcher’s Neck

For a while now, I’ve held back on making a comment about an article in Tablet Magazine. The more time I spend thinking about the article, the more I feel that it’s necessary to write something about it. It first appeared around Yom Kippur in the wake of the disputes over refugees from Syria. In the wake of the attacks on Paris, I was drawn back to this draft post.

Here’s the article I’m responding to, by Liel Leibovitz. It’ll open in a new tab or browser window. Go ahead and read Leibovitz’s article. I’ll be here, waiting. (You do have to read it to understand what follows.)

You’re back? Good.

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Photo of train tracks leading away from the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration and death camps; flowers bound in a white-and-blue striped ribbon have been placed on the tracks.

Reflecting on Holocaust Theology

Photo of train tracks leading away from the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration and death camps; flowers bound in a white-and-blue striped ribbon have been placed on the tracks.

Leaving Auschwitz – Creative Commons License

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.)

Now, then…

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.

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Picture of Yahrzeit Candle customarily lit on the anniversaries of loved ones' deaths.

Baruch Dayan Emet? Try Again.

Picture of Yahrzeit Candle customarily lit on the anniversaries of loved ones' deaths.

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.

It’s also a very problematic thing to say.

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What if? A long-form, humanistic think-piece for Elul

We’ve come into the month of Elul, the lead-up to the High Holidays in the traditional Jewish cycle of the year. Elul is traditionally viewed as a time for repentance, which Jewish tradition understands as not only seeking absolution but for making changes to avoid ever again committing the sins of the past.

A podcast I listened to recently tied in nicely to one of the ideas that comes with Elul: thinking about the value of what we do.

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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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Atheist? Humanist? Tolle, lege.

This book review on Slate.com is an essential read if you’re an atheist or humanist. Why? Because it points out some of the very problems that inhere in the Four Horsemen’s approach to the subject of religion. I’ve written about this before. The Slate piece is simply timely in pointing out some of the snarkiness and mean-spiritedness that’s coming along with “New Atheism.”

So, tolle, lege.

(P.S.: “Tolle, lege.” is what Augustine of Hippo reported hearing at the moment of his conversion experience to Christianity. It means “take it up and read.” I use it here in sincere irony.)

Of Rights, Wrongs, and Rights

It likely comes as no surprise to members (and observers) of the secular movements in the United States that the secular and humanist world is in the midst of no small uproar over the results of the Hobby Lobby case decided recently by the U.S. Supreme Court. Due to my work and the ethical obligations that come with it, I won’t be commenting on the case at all. You’ll have to go somewhere else for that analysis. (Same for same-sex marriage cases, and really pretty much any case.)

But the secularist community’s response to that case does prompt this post. Specifically, I want to return to something I wrote about briefly some months ago: the secular movement’s apparent allergy to religion.

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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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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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