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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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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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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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

Yom HaShoah and Amalek

One of the nice things about being essentially skeptical is that I don’t take a prooftext as a definitive answer. One of the bad things about being essentially skeptical is that when a prooftext is adduced as a definitive answer, I sometimes want to hit my head on a desk.

Unfortunately, prooftexts on Yom HaShoah turn out to be no exception.

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Hyperallergenic

So, I’ve been a bit lax in posting recently. In part, I’ve been busy with various other things–Passover, classwork, grading student papers, working, parenting, etc. But in part, my podcast consumption has been down. I usually find something of interest in podcasts, but I just wasn’t listening to them as often because, during the winter, it can be hard to concentrate on driving safely and on keeping continuity of attention on the podcast. With winter mostly over, though, I’ve got a bit more mental bandwidth during commutes, and podcasts are coming back into the listening diet.

I subscribe to a number of podcasts–lots of New Books Network podcasts, some Jewish-oriented ones, some humanism-oriented ones. I try to enjoy what I find, but in the humanist-oriented podcasts, especially, I find this difficult because much of it is shrill and self-congratulatory.

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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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Words have meaning

Jason Torpy, a board member of the American Humanist Association, in response to media coverage of the atheist church in the UK writes here about the use of “religious” or “spiritual” language. He argues that humanists are a bit too sensitive or “allergic,” as he puts it at one point, to innocuous or apparently inoffensive uses of religious language.

I appreciate his misgivings; I share some of them. But I don’t share all of them, and, more importantly, Torpy’s writing gives no real guidance on what might be acceptable or not.

For example, he points to a Franciscan blessing, “May God bless us with enough foolishness to believe that we really can make a difference in this world, so that we are able, with God’s grace, to do what others claim cannot be done,” and says that you could make the line more humanist–but why bother, because the God stuff doesn’t really make a difference.

Except that it does. That language matters because it attributes to someone else responsibility for the subject’s success or failure to do “what others claim cannot be done.” Indeed, on the language of the blessing, it is only because of God’s grace that “what others claim cannot be done” can be done.

Why, then, is that Franciscan blessing any more acceptable to Torpy than the “In God We Trust” slogan or the “under God” language from the Pledge of Allegiance? These are both invocations of God to which Torpy objects.

(For what it’s worth, Torpy’s distinction appears to be a willingness to accept some religious language unassociated with the “culture wars.” But his reading of the Franciscan blessing makes even this principle troublesome because his approval of the line is essentially that it’s not really religious.)

Humanists and atheists (these are not identical categories) are often far too quick to reject the value of many religious and spiritual forms and uses of language. But whether rejecting or accepting, the rationale for doing so should be clear and not based merely on what one finds personally inoffensive or not troublesome.