Now that the election season is heating up, once again the question will be asked, what does the Jewish community want? How will they vote? What will they base their choice on? If you listen to the polls, the pundits and the politicians (and many of the putative spokespeople for the Jewish community) the answer is simple: Israel. However, the question needs to be asked: is this the right answer? What should Jews care about, as Jews?
If by being Jewish one means connecting oneself to the wisdom of the Jewish tradition one would find that Jews who put social and economic justice at the heart of their concerns are tapping a deep vein. When God informs Abraham that God is going to destroy Sodom, Abraham challenges God: “Will the judge of all the world not do justice?” Speaking of Sodom, the prophet Ezekiel understood their sin as “She and her daughters had plenty of bread and untroubled tranquility; yet she did not support the poor and the needy.” Jeremiah channels God saying: “but let him who boasts boast in this, that he understands and knows me, that I am the LORD who practices steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth. For in these things I delight,” from which Maimonides, the great 12th century Spanish Jewish philosopher and jurist, understood that the true goal of the religious and philosophical path—beyond even knowing whatever it is that one can know about God—is to practice love and righteousness and justice in the world. More »
Following Earth Day it seemed appropriate to share that Academy-ward winning actor Russell Crowe will star in director Darren Aronofsky’s (Black Swan) feature film about the biblical boat builder, Noah. The film will be released spring 2014. Crowe’s depiction of Jewish detective Richie Roberts in American Gangster keeps coming to mind, how he was such an everyman. Now he’ll get to be an ish tzaddik tamim haya b’dorotav(A righteous man in his generation). Exciting. Hunky. Noah. I can’t wait for the musical. I wanna hear Crowe say, “I’m on a boat!”
“The news prompted the “Basic Instinct” writer to allege in a letter posted by the Wrap that Gibson, who was to produce and possibly direct the film, never wanted to make it because, as Eszterhas said of Gibson, “You hate Jews.”
Purim is upon us. Remember Purim? For those not in the know, Purim is the next in the order of Jewish holidays which fit the meme: “they tried to kill us, they didn’t, lets eat,”—though Purim adds “and drink,”—a lot. Most Jews who celebrate Purim remember it as the story of the evil Haman who bribed the buffoonish King Ahaseurus to kill all the Jews in the Persian kingdom as a result of his rivalry with the Jewish courtier Mordecai. The story is situated in the second or third century BCE in Shushan the capital of Persia. According to most scholars the story is a myth. However, like all myths, the story seems to reflect a deep truth and it has resonated with Jews over the centuries since it reflected the fact that in many countries over time Jews had been threatened with extinction by a variety of satraps and princes and ministers and so on, and had survived against all odds.
The Purim story (told in the biblical Book of Esther) is also different insofar as the Jews not only survived but they fought back and killed those who would have killed them—and their wives and children. This fantasy of revenge must have resonated deeply for a Jewish community in the many stations of the diaspora in which they were powerless against the actual enemies who wished them actual harm.
There is however a different reading of the Book of Esther which offers the Purim narrative as a darker story which poses a different set of questions. The key to the story is a statement by a Rabbi who lived centuries after the story might have happened, in the place that it was supposed to have happened—Persia. Before we get to this statement I will summarize the story itself for those whose biblical knowledge is a bit rusty. More »
In what seems like a development only possible on the satirical pages of the Onion, Mel Gibson’s Icon Productions has just unveiled plans to co-finance a new film about Judah Maccabee, with Joe Eszterhaus of Showgirls fame onboard as screenwriter. This is too good to be true. I mean, who better than Mel Gibson, the man who boldly asserted that Jews are responsible for all wars in the world, to capture the quintessential epic military struggle of Jewish national religious pride versus the lures of assimilation?
Well, time will only tell what choices Gibson will make, but if he sticks to my above plan, we’re going to have something even greater than The Passion of the Christ (2004). Or, as Reb Yudel puts it, “If Gibson’s Hanukkah film succeeds, can his Tisha b’Av blockbuster be far behind?”
Incidentally, I vividly recall dragging a date to a Sunday matinee screening of his last Jew epic in 2004. We paid for two tickets to see Dirty Dancing: Havana Nightsin the hopes that our tickets wouldn’t profit Gibson’s film, but later, a friend in the industry explained to me that films only benefit from concession stand money, not from actual ticket sales. Alas. The film itself wasn’t particularly noteworthy, aside from its curious subtitling choices. While Gibson promised to cut out any direct implication of the Jews in Jesus’ crucifixion, the English subtitling did not always match the Aramaic dialogue onscreen. (I attended a high school which forced us to learn Aramaic. Now on facebook, I smugly resent that under the languages option, there is an “Aramaic of Jesus” and not also an ‘Aramaic of Rabban Gamliel.”) We, along with busloads of young Christian children, some of whom were as young as four years old, proceeded to watch what amounted to two full hours of Jesus being beaten to a bloody pulp. ::Spoiler alert:: Jesus is killed.
If you’re not familiar with Storahtelling, they’re a ritual theatre company, focusing on bringing the Torah, and Judaism, to wider audiences, making it more accessible and relevant today. I didn’t crib that from their mission statement, so allow me to excerpt it here:
Storahtelling restores the Torah Service to its original stature through a revival of the lost craft of the Maven, the traditional storyteller who translated the Hebrew Torah into local language. Rooted in biblical text and ritual practice, Storahtelling uses dramatized interpretations, traditional chanting, orginal music and live interaction to bring Bible off the page and onto the global stage.
The event was great, celebrating Storahtelling’s “b mitzvah,” which, as founding director Amichai Lau-Levie explained, is a “bar mitzvah, a bat mitzvah, a b mitzvah inclusive celebration for all genders.” And what a b mitzvah it was! Storahtelling turned 13, honoring their founding director, their incoming executive director and members of the board.
But what’s a b mitzvah without a little Torah? Jackie Hoffman, Jewish actress and comedian extraordinaire, studied with the Storahtelling staff, learning the Torah parsha that would have been her bat mitzvah parsha when she was a girl (raised Orthodox, Jackie didn’t have the option). She tackled a topic that many shy from: the rape of Dinah.
She broke the story up, making it more palatable, relevant and interesting. She interspersed chanting and discussion – with a healthy dose of humor, of course. (Amichai gave the English translations to Jackie’s Torah chanting on the fly.)
With more than a little (much appreciated) feminism flavoring her words, Jackie gave voice to Dinah. Dinah, the central character of this story, does not have any of her own words in the Bible. So Jackie, channeling Dinah, asked why the women of the Bible were too often chattel, to be swamped and shared amongst the men. She set the scene: Dinah had “two Jewish mothers. Think about that for a moment. And 12 stinky brothers.” She asked why Dinah’s mother was so willing to marry Dinah to the man who had raped her. (“Was she so desperate to see her daughter married, she’d ok a man who would defile her? Oh wait, that’s my mother!”) And she might have relished in her telling of the circumcisions of the men of Shechem: “They were in penis pain for three days!”
But it was an impromptu statement after she finished (and after she accepted her present from the “Sisterhood,” two gay Storahtelling staff) that summarized Storahtelling’s work so perfectly: “I’m a person who hates everything, and I dug this experience hard.”
And that’s just it. For Jackie, it was about bringing in some feminism, giving voice to the silent and suffering Dinah, and wrapping it all up in some jokes. For others, it might be highlighting gay characters or interfaith families, placing the Torah stories in contemporary settings, drawing and singing and acting the stories… bringing them to life. If you have the chance to get to a Storahtelling event], I highly recommend it.
*The only thing that would have made this night better? Had I gotten my photo taken with the hilarious Jackie Hoffman. And had she performed her Shavuot song, just for me.
All of this had me re-reading all of HP. Re-reading it, combined with my slightly unsatisfactoryrecent experiences in a couple of different New York City prayer communities had me giving serious consideration to a big new project. I’ve also been thinking about less than a year from now when my NJ chavurah is not going to be an option for me every week.
HP paints such a perfect picture for me. The only place I’ve ever been (not that I don’t know of others) that lives up to BZ’s vision of Stage 3 pluralism is Kol Zimrah. KZ meets once a month and only on Friday nights. But I want what is on offer at KZ every Friday night. And then I want it again in the morning. And I want it in a daily minyan. And I want it on holidays. This is a tall order.
So this week, I began starting to think toward creating one more element of this.
For some, like me, what draws them to KZ is the pluralism. I like the singing, but I like the ideas more. However, most of the people who come are probably more drawn in by the singing and spirited atmosphere. The spirited singing is thanks to two liturgical developments. First, we can thank some Medieval Kabbalists for giving us Kabbalat Shabbat. And second, we can thank Shlomo Carelbach for giving us some great tunes to make Kabbalat Shabbat a fun, engaging prayer experience. In essence, KZ without a Carelbach Kabbalat Shabbat would be a shell of itself.
So maybe what we need to create is the same kind of big singing, big fun prayer experience on Shabbat morning.
Luckily, much like Kabbalat Shabbat, we have hefty section of psalms to sing in the morning too! P’sukei D’zimrah usually gets shafted in shul. Most people don’t even show up until its over. It’s also long, so if we actually sang all of it, we wouldn’t be done with services until it’s time for Minchah.
We’ve got tunes for all of these psalms, but some may not work for the kind of spirited experience I’m talking about here. Especially if Carlebach (or Carlebach-esque) music is what is needed, we’re in trouble. For Psalm 150 and for 92 and a few others, we’ve got no problem.
But for some pslams, this will take some work. I chatted with Russ, our chazan (OK, our JTS student chazan, but he’s our chazan) at Chavurat Lamdeinu here in Jersey, about it this morning. I’m a bit melodically-challenged sometimes, so the obvious hadn’t occurred to me. Russ pointed out that Carlebach (and others) have a gazillion nigunim out there that could be laid on top of some of these psalms. This will take some work, but it’s doable.
Of course, as others have pointed out to me as I’ve rambled about this idea off and on this week, there are also some significant practical challenges here. Getting a minyan together on a Shabbat morning is harder than on a Shabbat evening because you need a Torah. You also need people to read Torah. This stuff is infinitely surmountable, but it’s there nonetheless.
The biggest challenge would be time. At its fullest, by my count, P’sukei D’zimrah includes 16 full psalms, the entire Song of the Sea, two prayers and a whole host of ancillary biblical passages. This is a more than twice as much material as Kabbalat Shabbat, which only has 8 psalms and a few extra piyutim/songs (usually between one and three songs, though it depends on who you talk to).
So there would probably need to be cuts. Personally, I’d probably start with the ancillary biblical passages, but I wouldn’t want to make these decisions alone anyway.
There would also have to be some discussion of how to do the rest of the service, with very careful attention paid to the requirements of Stage 3. Issues like the number of aliyot and the triennial cycle would certainly be up for discussion. Other parts of the service would need discussion too, such as the Amidah, where a Heiche Kedushah (leader does Amidah aloud through the Kedushah, everyone continues silently on their own, no leader’s repetition after) would probably merit discussion. And Birkot Hashacar etc, despite being a favorite of mine, would probably be right out because that can all be done at home before arriving or individually by people who arrive early.
That’s about as far as my thinking on this has taken me so far. Thoughts, anyone? Who’s with me?
Aside from the occasional women’s Torah commentary, Jews mostly just have commentaries with no special emphasis or purpose other than to commentate.
But I was in a bookstore today and was struck by the incredible proliferation of weird Christian bible commentaries, or study bibles, as most were labeled. I wrote down some of my favorites:
The Urban Devotional Bible
James Earl Jones Reads the Bible (audio book, appropriately reading from the King James Version)
The Bible in Varsity Colors (I’m in Austin, TX, so I assume the bright orange of the cover was intended to be burnt orange, though it clearly was not )
God’s Game Plan: The Athlete’s Bible
AXIS: A Study Bible for Teens
The Teen Study Bible (is AXIS the evil version of this one?)
The Word of Promise Next Generation New Testament Dramatic Audio Bible (this one was read by an “all-star cast” including the likes of Sean Astin, the black kid from High School Musical and an old American Idol winner)
The Rhyming Bible
The Adventure Bible
The Maxwell Leadership Bible (is this like the hagadah?)
God’s Word for Students with Stylish Prism Cover
On the one hand, I found most of these rather laughable. On the other hand, I found myself wondering seriously if we Jews are missing out on something here. Is the fact that we don’t have all of these specialized biblical commentaries just a function of our relative market share?
Upon setting out to write this dvar Torah, I had grand visions of talking about the halakhic status of coed toilets. If a woman is ritually unclean, how can other members of her family use the same toilet, for example?
There was going to be a blow-out Foucauldian analysis of the halakhic sources, followed by a lengthy exegesis on Melanie Klein’s partial object; Kohut’s narcissistic transference, and Freud’s paranoia “syllogism” as taken up by Lacan. And then the ground-breaking revelation that we have been/are currently/always will be sinning.
It was going to be fabulous.
Perhaps fortunately for you, Masechet Niddah, Masechet Khullin, and Masechet Keilim (11:2) took me to school. Once again. We can use the same toilet as someone who is ritually unclean because the toilet is “מחובר לקרקע” (it is connected to the ground)—this is the loophole. (For those following at home, this is the same term used in reference to mikvaot, or ritual bath pools.) Furthermore, I learned that in our times–i.e. post-Temple times–we are all tamei met already, and thus this is a non-issue.
Now that we’re all breathing comfortably…
I will tell you, instead, about how I first learned about sex. (What does this have to do with tazria metzorah, you ask? Just wait. You’ll see.) More »
There is no more persuasive a proponent of the coherence and relevance of the Bible than Judy Klitsner in her new (new-ish, I’m a little late on the review here) book, Subversive Sequels in the Bible.
The premise of the book is that when the Bible appears to repeat a story or contradict one narrative with another, it is making a point or offering a new, equally valid read of the same issue or situation.
Subversive Sequels is a remarkably lucid, clear, easy read. Despite being relatively short, it is packed with creative, original, mind-blowing reads of of stories both familiar and obscure. The book will be accessible to any reader, regardless of prior knowledge. For those familiar with the Bible, it will be a refreshing way to revisit familiar territory. For those new to Bible study, it will provide the most engrossing intro possible.
In each of the first five chapters, Klitsner explores a biblical story and in the second half of the chapter explores a second story, which serves as a subversive sequel to the first.
In my favorite example, Klitsner explores the Tower of Babel. Her conclusion, the same reached by many classical commentators, whom she consults quite a bit, is that the sin in Babel was the oppression of the nameless citizens of Babel. Closely examining narrative styles, specific words and phrases, Klitsner demonstrates pretty convincingly that the story of Israelite slavery in Egypt is a subversive sequel to Babel. In Babel, God acts to end the oppression. Through the example of the remarkably named midwives (compare with the completely unnamed citizen-slaves of Babel), the sequel encourages us to take matters into our own hands and act to end our own oppression.
The book is pretty much the greatest thing ever. So go read it. It’s gonna make you say “Wow!” more times a day than you’d expect.
An Israeli archaeologist said Monday that ancient fortifications recently excavated in Jerusalem date back 3,000 years to the time of King Solomon and support the biblical narrative about the era.
If the age of the wall is correct, the finding would be an indication that Jerusalem was home to a strong central government that had the resources and manpower needed to build massive fortifications in the 10th century B.C.
Just dig a little deeper, however, and the plot thickens even more. The researcher in question is Eilat Mazar (above), an old school Israeli archaeologist whose essential goal is to prove the historical veracity of the Bible. She’s made no bones (sorry) about this over the years. In a 2006 interview with Moment Magazine, she made this very telling comment:
One of the many things I learned from my grandfather was how to relate to the biblical text. Pore over it again and again, for it contains within it descriptions of genuine historical reality. I work with the Bible in one hand and the tools of excavation in the other. That’s what biblical archaeologists do. The Bible is the most important historical source and therefore deserves special attention.
The only problem with this is that the Bible is not a history book – it’s religious literature. There certainly may be kernels of historical fact to be found in these narratives, but I’d say it’s exceedingly problematic for an archaeologist to assume ipso facto the historical veracity of the Bible. Mazar’s comment that she works with a Bible in one hand and her tools in the other speaks volumes about her fundamental bias.
It’s also noteworthy that Mazar worked until recently for the Shalem Center, a partisan Israeli think-tank. Among other things, the Shalem Center believes archeology should support “the claim that the Bible can be viewed as a work whose historical narrative is in large part accurate, and (strengthen) the ancient connection of the Jewish people to the land of Israel.”
It’s striking to compare Mazar’s approach to that of Israel Finkelstein, who comes from a new school of Israeli archaeologists who are aren’t driven by political ideology and are willing to go wherever their research takes them. In a nutshell, Finkelstein and his colleagues have argued convincingly that it’s impossible to say much of anything about ancient Israel until the 7th century BCE (around the time of the reign of King Josiah). This casts doubt on the historical veracity of the Biblical narrative from the period of the Patriarchs/Matriarchs through the reigns of David and Solomon. These claims have largely been accepted as normative by most mainstream archaeologists outside of Israel.
If you are interested the current thinking of Israeli researchers who are unfazed by nationalist bias, I highly recommend Finkelstein’s 2002 book (with Neal Asher Silberman), “The Bible Unearthed.” Also check out this 2001 piece from Salon, which explores the deeper socio-political implications of Israeli archeology.
A nice new index of Biblical art is online now, thanks to the Tali Education Fund. It’s not the first-ever of its kind, of course, and there’s nothing technically amazing here, but its organization–by subject, artist, medium, etc.–is useful and will hopefully be a boon to teachers and others looking for one stop shopping on “visual midrash.”
Arurtz Sheva, the news service of the West Bank’s settlers says:
In a powerful echo of the Biblical story of the patriarch Abraham, a Mumbai doctor smashed his father’s idols and eventually decided to become a Jew in the Land of Israel.
Abraham was born Vagirds Frads to a Hindu cleric who worshipped idols, and a mother who prepared food for them. As did the Biblical Abraham, young Vagirds could not understand how his father could honor a man-made statue, nor why his mother would cook for them. “Sometimes I eat it in secret,” he confided…
What’s wrong with this? Special Thanksgiving Turkey points to the first person who gets it right.
For those of you in the city alleged never to sleep, Purim comes early this year with the New York City Opera‘s production of Esther, an opera by Hugo Weisgall that had its world premiere at NYCO in 1993.
May I interest you in a promotional video?
The opera wraps up its run this week, so if this tickles your fancy, don’t wait to get your Persian on. Just do the divas a favor and leave your graggers at home.
The Israel Defense Forces’ chief rabbi told students in a pre-army yeshiva program last week that soldiers who “show mercy” toward the enemy in wartime will be “damned.”
Brig. Gen. Avichai Rontzki also told the yeshiva students that religious individuals made better combat troops. Speaking Thursday at the Hesder yeshiva in the West Bank settlement of Karnei Shomron, Rontzki referred to Maimonides’ discourse on the laws of war. That text quotes a passage from the Book of Jeremiah stating: “Cursed be he that doeth the work of the Lord with a slack hand, and cursed be he that keepeth back his sword from blood.”
In Rontzki’s words, “In times of war, whoever doesn’t fight with all his heart and soul is damned – if he keeps his sword from bloodshed, if he shows mercy toward his enemy when no mercy should be shown.”
Whatever else we might think about Maimonides’ (or Jeremiah’s) words, we are certainly free to debate their academic meaning. But when they are uttered by the Chief Rabbi of the IDF to future Israeli soldiers, words such as these are much, much more than merely academic. More »
And speaking of said overlap, there’s also In the Beginning, a Hebrew Bible fanworks fest, coming soon to an internet near you. This one challenges fanfic writers to write “fanfic” about the Hebrew Bible… or, what others might call midrash. Pieces will be published beginning October 2nd, but until then the site gives some background to the project.
I meant to post this before Rosh Hashannah, but apparently StorahTelling held services in a winery? Maybe this makes more sense for those of you who live in New York. If this piques your interest, they’ll be back for Yom Kippur – more info here.
My facebook feed before the holidays was abuzz with discussions of this article from The Forward, decrying the lack of family-friendly policies in the Jewish professional world.
DailyKos posted this video today, poking fun at Arizona State Sen. Sylvia Allen (R), as she speaks at the Senate Retirement and Rural Development Committee meeting.
First of all, let’s give her the benefit of the doubt, and assume that she’s just a lazy Creationist, rounding up to 6,000. (We all know the earth is actually only 5,769-years old.)
But here’s the real concern:
This Earth’s been hear 6,000 years — and I know I’m going on and on and I’ll shut up — it’s been here 6,000 years, long before anybody had environmental laws, and somehow it hasn’t been done away with.
She’s falling back on a still-lazy belief common amongst a certain subset of neo-con Christians: that because G!d created the earth, everything has been, and will be, provided for us. If those same Christians believe in the end times, they feel no pressure to protect the environment now, because the world’s supposed to end soon anyway. I’m glad Jews don’t have that same mentality. (Nor do all Christians; remember when the Vatican added polluting the environment as a sin?)
But here’s the real shortcoming of her statement. Allen claims that there weren’t any environmental laws for the last 6,000 years. I call foul. It doesn’t take too close a reading of the Bible to find many references to our responsibility to the earth, nature, and animals; heck, the land even gets its own sabbath. Yeesh.
Remember that “modern haggadah” of the Passover story, told via a facebook feed? It was a cute graphic, but what’s coming today is much more exciting:
From 11:00 – 12:30 California time, Jewschool’s own Balaam’s Donkey will be joining the other key characters of this week’s parsha (next week’s for some folks) to create a collaborative dialogue on Parshat Balak via Twitter. The characters will be played by a group of students at Brandeis Collegiate Institute.