Thank you so much, Raffi, for continuing this conversation with me. I respect the thoughtfulness and passion that you bring to your relationship with Israel.’
I work very hard (as I’m sure you do) to ensure that my halachic practice reflects my values. I am not always successful, but I try. Text helps me explore what my values are, and how they define my practice. Both Masechet Pesachim and Rav Ovadyah Yosef’s teshuva give voice to what many American Jews have forgotten is a possibility: We can live religiously authentic, meaningful Jewish lives without a direct relationship with the modern state of Israel because our redemption is not about Israel.
American Jews and Israeli Jews are, simply, different. Look at central coming-of-age experiences: Non-Chareidi Israelis come into adulthood through military or national service, while (and this is a generalization) the American Jewish coming of age experience involves a college education. Religious American Jews subdivide based on praxis and attitudes towards gender, while religious Israeli Jews subdivide based on praxis and attitudes towards Zionism. With different sets of values, shouldn’t our halachic practice also be different? Neither geographic practice needs to be defined as better or worse. They’re just different. We can use differences in Ashkenazi and Sephardi halacha as a paradigm. Each community defined their practice based on their geographic and sociological norms. We can do the same. Israel should not dictate my religious practice, and vice versa. More »
My latest post on Justice in the City.
It seems that every third line in any debate or speech by any candidate or advocate of public policy is about money. About the so-called bottom line. Who can and who cannot balance a budget? Who should and who should not pay taxes and how much taxes? What can we as a State, as a Nation, as a society afford to spend money on? Defense? Education? Poverty relief? How do we make these decisions? The overwhelming talk about the bottom line has been crowding out the conversation we should be having—a conversation about values and about justice.
Its not that the economic strictures of budgets or revenues are not important. We all live in a world in which the government cannot supply services—from defense to preschool—without paying for them. However, the economic voice should be neither the first nor the loudest voice in the conversation.
It seems that spokespeople (and just people) advocating for any cause are more and more frequently framing their advocacy in economic terms. “If everybody has access to preventive care the state saves money on emergency room visits.” “Preschool programs are a big factor in keeping kids off the street and out of jail—which ends up saving the country a bucketload of money.” “The death penalty costs way more than Life Without the Possibility of Parole.” We have monetized our morals.
So what else is there to say about Mitt Romney’s tax returns? I would suggest that we could learn at least two things from them. First, on a personal level, it seems that Mitt and Ann Romney are very generous people. They donated $4.02 million in charity in 2011 (out of $13.7 million of income) and $3 million in 2010 (out of $21.7 million in income). If these figures are accurate (and there is no reason to doubt them) the Romneys donated almost 30 percent of their 2011 income to charity, and 14 percent of their income in 2010. That is a sizeable chunk of their income donated to charity.
A large percentage of that money went to the Mormon church, which supports political activities that I think are appalling, however, giving that large a percentage of one’s income to charities is still a laudable thing.
The second thing that we can learn is that this display of personal largesse and philanthropy reinforces the wisdom of the Rabbinic tradition which demands that poverty relief should be a function also of municipal institutions. continue reading here and then come back and comment.
So Leon Wieseltier got a little pushback for his review of The American Haggadah in the Jewish Review of Books. To recap: In the review, in addition to criticizing the translation and the commentaries (except for Rebecca Goldstein’s commentary), he also went to town on the cultural and linguistic illiteracy of American Jews. In any event, Wieseltier gives again as good and better than he gets. His style is pedantic, rude and snobbish, but some of his points are spot on. What do you think? (The letters he is responding to are here. You might want to read them first, but I’m not sure its necessary)
I am sorry if I ruined anybody’s Pesach. The eight days are hard enough without such polemical nastiness, I know. I had hoped to welcome the New American Haggadah to the world, not least because its editor is (or perhaps was) my friend, and its translator, with whom I have enjoyed cordial relations, seemed well equipped for his task. But I take these things—Hebrew, English, my duty as a scholar, my duty as a critic, my duty as a Jew—very seriously, and in my view the fault for any unpleasantness lies not in my insistence upon demonstrating the inadequacies of this Haggadah but in the inadequacies themselves. Presenting a new version of a central text of Judaism, and making large claims for its superiority to previous versions, is not a trifling matter, and the standard by which it must be judged is not Maxwell House, unless of course everything Jewish is to be prized mainly for its ethnic cuteness. Nathan Englander is no more “defenseless” than any writer or translator who puts a book before the public. Indeed, too many American Jewish readers are defenseless against his mistakes and misrepresentations. More »
Michael Walzer’s book In God’s Shadow: Politics in the Hebrew Bible makes a slightly controversial though eminently plausible argument. The book is an interesting analysis of the politics of the Bible by a political scientist, who is not a biblical scholar, but has written an important book on the uses of the Exodus story by liberation movements (Exodus and Revolution). After all the caveats, Walzer’s central claim is that the Bible writes in the tension between being born into the covenant, and affirming the covenant or taking it on of one’s own free will. This is the central theme of the Bible, and not any specific manner of governance. There is no room, according to Walzer for politics in the Bible, since all authority ultimately rests with God. There is also no call for communal action. The Bible, according to Walzer has an anti-politics. Isaiah, for example, rails against those who would ignore the widows and the poor on their way to the Temple, yet he does not try to organize the poor or lobby the priesthood. Or when Ezekiel castigates Judah for rehearsing the sins of Sodom—the sins of hoarding their riches and not sharing them with poor—he is not looking for a legislative or political remedy—he is channeling God’s rage at injustice.
It is an interesting book, and Walzer recognizes and notes all the difficulties in making specific claims about a text whose interpretation has been contested for centuries. He notes the usefulness of the scholarly and traditional interpretive literature for understanding certain questions, but not others.
Walzer apparently reprised the gist of his argument at a YIVO conference on the demise of the historical partnership between Jews and the left. Some on the right trumpeted Walzer’s presence as a final sign that there is no basis in traditional Judaism for a politics of the left. Walzer, after all, is the long-time editor of Dissent and a social-democrat—and he is claiming that the left-Jewish alliance is as a castle on sand. Check-mate. There is no, nor has there ever been a basis for leftist politics, for social justice advocacy grounded in any traditional Jewish textual framework. The Tablet’sAdam Kirsch and Jewish Ideas Daily‘s Alex Joffe could barely contain themselves.
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 »
In the 1920’s, Soviet filmmaker maverick Lev Kuleshov demonstrated how the juxtaposition of distinct, isolated filmed images can suggest psychologically-charged narratives: for example, a shot of a relatively ‘neutral’ gazing face followed by a shot of a bowl of soup leads viewers to understand that the person in the first shot is hungry. This all-important editing technique in cinema routinely forces us to forge narrative meaning and continuity by connecting isolated images and scenarios. It takes a particularly gifted filmmaker to transcend and even reverse such a tendency in the process of creating dramatic tension.
Such a filmmaker is Joseph Cedar, who most recently directed the dark comedy Footnote. At the very start of the film, the audience is required to interpret the context—in this case, the induction ceremony of the Israeli Academy of Arts and Sciences scene—based on the face which confronts us, and not vice versa. Via a tight medium close-up shot, we are introduced to Uriel and Eliezer Shkolnik, a son and father situated side by side amidst the assembled crowd. We later learn that have both spent their professional lives as academics. Uriel ultimately disappears from the frame (as we soon learn, from the off-screen dialogue, to ascend to the podium and accept the honour of his induction to this society), but the camera remains fixed on the singularly disturbed visage of his father. As we watch Eliezer’s almost haunted, blank expression, which suggests a deeply repressed quiet fury, we also listen to Uriel’s acceptance speech, in which he relates an anecdote from his early childhood involving his father. Read or heard in isolation, the speech would most likely appear benign–even gracious. However, as we absorb the tortured, humiliated look of defeat fixed on Eliezer’s face as the camera gradually positions him in the frame’s center throughout this long take, and as we listen to the polite collective laughter punctuating Uriel’s clever moments of public oratory, it is nearly impossible to not interpret the son’s words as anything but the severest cruelty. More »
There was once a healthy and interesting conversation in this country about the relationship between religion and democracy. Not the specious bombast of the Rick Perryesque “America is a Christian country so we should be able to hate anybody we want and celebrate Christmas” kind of conversation. Rather a conversation about the roots of democracy and the relationship of democracy to the authoritarian reigns—political or religious, monarchic or ecclesiastic, and usually an admixture of the two—which preceded democracy. The move to democratic politics, according to many thinkers, retained the theological structures, if not the faith of their predecessors. In a way, democracy is a kind of secular mysticism. It is grounded in the belief that, according to the ancient maxim, vox populi vox dei, “the voice of the people is the voice of God.” That is, authority is grounded in the decisions of the people as a whole, which carries an authority beyond that of any individual, and does not rest in any token, singular, individual whether king or cleric. More »
(cross posted to Justice in the City) After a few persistent weeks of peaceful non-violent protests, the “Occupy Wall Street” folks or the “99 percenters” as they are beginning to call themselves, are appearing on the radar of the mainstream media. After a few days of lazy journalistic descriptions of the protests and protesters as disorganized and unfocussed some reporters and columnists are beginning to ask what these protesters want. One of the more interesting answers to the question was given in an interview conducted by Ezra Klein of the Washington Post with David Graeber who was one of the initial organizers of the protests. His answer was that the protesters, rather than making specific demands of the existing institutions (which created the income inequalities and precipitated the financial meltdown and yet were still in their offices controlling vast amounts of wealth) were attempting to “create a vision of the sort of society you want to have in miniature.” This raises the question: What is the society that we want? What would a just society look like? At this moment, it seems to me, there is no more important question to ask. As it happens, this is precisely the question I seek to answer in my book “Justice in the City” — and since that book is not yet out, I will attempt the short form answer here. 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.
So the world didn’t end yesterday. To be fair, they weren’t actually predicting the end of the world until October 21, at the conclusion of five months of torment for those of us left behind. Yesterday was supposed to be only Judgment Day. But that didn’t happen either.
Of course this is all nonsense, but we can check their math and see whether it is at least internally consistent nonsense.
Let’s start with the year:
According to the tract explaining the calculations, the world was created in 11,013 “BC”, so we are now in the year 13,023 from creation. (It’s one less than you think because there was no year zero; 1 BCE was followed immediately by 1 CE.) The biblical flood occurred in the year 4990 “BC”, 6023 years after creation. God says in Genesis 7:4 that the flood will come in 7 days, and since one day to God is like 1000 years to us (they cite a New Testament verse for this, but we have the same idea in Psalm 90:4), this means the world will be destroyed 7000 years later, which comes out to 2011 CE.
I was baffled at how they arrived at this year count in the first place. According to the Jewish calendar, we are now in the year 5771 from creation, and the flood took place in the year 1656 from creation (4115 years ago, or 2105 BCE). While the exact count of the number of years from “creation” is somewhat controversial (particularly at the interface between biblical chronology and real history), counting the years in Genesis from creation to the flood is very easy, since we have a detailed list of how long each ancestor lived before the next generation was born. Assuming they’re reading the same Bible (and I just checked the King James and the numbers are the same), it’s hard to see how the totals could be off by so much. At first glance I thought they were just applying the same principle that 1 day to God is 1000 years to us, so the six days of creation would add an extra 5999 years (subtract one because, according to the rabbis, humans were created on Rosh Hashanah of the year 2, so creation began on 25 Elul of the year 1). But that can’t be it, because the time from the end of creation to the flood has to be much more than 24 years.
So I did some googling and it turns out that they get this chronology based on a general principle that a generation is a lifespan, so in these biblical genealogies, we can assume that the son was born in the year that the father died. For example, since Genesis 5:11 says that Enosh lived 905 years, they ascertain that the time from Enosh’s birth to his son Kenan’s birth was 905 years. Thus they completely disregard the explicit statements in Genesis 5:9-10 that Enosh lived for 90 years and then fathered Kenan, and then lived 815 years after that. By this method, they arrive at a stretched-out chronology. If they hadn’t done this, then the 7000-year anniversary of the flood wouldn’t take place until 4896 CE, so the end would be far from nigh. More »
After you watch the video you should read the whole issue—which is about metaphor in all its religious and linguistic complexity. (Okay, some of its complexity.) For JSers keeping count, Danya Ruttenberg has a piece in the issue, as do I.
On the Jewish calendar, the period of time between 9 Sivan and 16 Tammuz is nothing special — it (along with the period from 25 Tishré through Shabbath Sheqalim, on or right before Rosh Hodesh Adar II) might be termed “Ordinary Time“.
This time period is about to end — Tuesday will be 17 Tammuz, which begins the whole season of Three Weeks of Rebuke/Destruction, followed by the Seven Weeks of Consolation, and then the holiday season of Rosh Ha-shana and Yom Kippur (solemn) and Sukkoth and Shemini Atzereth (joyous).
But, almost at the very end of this Ordinary Time, there is a notable date: 15 Tammuz. More »
The March/April 2010 volume of Tikkun had a roundtable on God in the twenty-first century occasioned by the publication of Art Green’s new book Radical Judaism. I was asked (along with fifteen other thinkers) to contribute to this roundtable. We each had 750 words. My contribution is here:
The God of a Talmudist
by Aryeh Cohen
The practice of Talmud — the documentation and interrogation, reading and constructing of legal difference and distinction — is not mythic storytelling, but it is grounded in this mythos. This practice, which splits hairs and has caused the hair-pulling of many mystics, is exactly what Akiva taught. The practice is grounded not only in the mythic encounter of Moses with God and Akiva but in Creation itself. Creation is separation and distinction — light from darkness, upper waters from lower waters, land from sea. This is the practice of law — distinguishing categories, creating new categories, creating the world of pure and impure, forbidden and permitted, just and unjust. It is in the practice of the shakla ve-tarya (the give and take of legal and intellectual discourse) that the Kingdom of Heaven, the province of the just and The Just, is created. The God of a talmudist, or at least this talmudist, is the God that generates and is claimed by law, the God that is implicated in and is therefore open to be judged by the categories of law writ large. Read the whole piecehere.
The idea: A site to host the development of “open source” curriculum for learning how to learn Talmud and other texts in Hebrew/Aramaic.
The need: There are few if any curriculae which are targeted at the student who wants to start a serious learning practice, or for use by teachers who want to initiate students into a serious learning practice. There are many, many sites for introducing the unaffiliated and the uninterested. However, the interested and affiliated who want to take their study practice one step up are in a bind. This is especially so for those who don’t live in a major urban center. Moreover, teachers in day schools and the growing number of community high schools who want to up their game and teach on a higher level are also in bind.
The project: The web site would be a collaboration between Jewish educators and web designers. Tools would be developed that would allow educators to collaborate with each other across geographical boundaries on curriculae and methodologies.
Obstacles: Years ago when I was the chair of the Rabbinics Department at the Ziegler School, I wanted to start a conversation about teaching Talmud in the original languages to adults on a graduate level. I discovered that there was almost nothing published on the subject. There was one article by Dr. Marjorie Lehman of JTS in the Journal of Jewish Education. The situation has improved somewhat. A conference was convened two years ago at Brandeis University to address the issue. Some more articles have since been published. However, when a teacher, pressed by time and not compensated for creating curriculae on her own, wants to teach Talmud to her tenth grade class, she is back with her Talmud and nothing else. (The level of compensation for most Jewish educators at all levels is a stain on the Jewish community and an insult to Torah—but that is a rant for another day.)
What I suggest is that the ability to collaborate—either to have a great idea and put it up to allow someone else to develop; to step into the middle of the process and add a twist which will make it better—will spread the work out and also keep the means of production in the hands of the workers. Credit for the work will be assigned to those who do the work and not to the institutions who benefit from it.
Process: While the curriculum will be “open source,” in that permission will be given to modify, add, etc. to the educational products in process, there will have to be a screening process for collaborators to avoid the wikipedia fallacy, otherwise known as the blind leading the blind. Those who collaborate will have to have been trained and perhaps credentialed in recognized ways so that there is a serious element of quality control.
As an example of the type of curriculum I am referring to, I am appending here for download, a pdf textbook that I created several years ago for Kiddushin 29aƒƒ—the discussions dealing with the obligations of parents and children. This curriculum has been used successfully in various different high-school and graduate school settings by several different teachers, and, not to sound like the bitter old man that I am, I should have been well-compensated for developing this—but I harbor no illusions that that will ever be the case. So I present it here in its uncompleted form as an example of the type of curriculum that could benefit from further development by qualified collaborators. (If you are interested in exploring the curriculum, you must download it to your computer and open it with Adobe Reader or the full Acrobat, otherwise most of the functionality won’t be available.)
Looking for an opportunity for full time study in an egalitarian setting? Yeshivat Hadar in New York City offers a chance for both summer and year ’round study for women and men to study together – and you even get a living stipend. I’ve been to a bunch of classes, lectures, and more than a handful of weekday services. It’s quite an eclectic bunch of of students – and their teachers are excellent. Want to learn more? Check out this Wednesday night’s event – in person or online.
The Cairo Geniza: Crumpled Papers, Revolutionary Prayers
A Taste of Yeshivat Hadar — open to all
Considering applying to Yeshivat Hadar’s 2010 Summer or Full-Year Program?
Interested in experiencing learning at Yeshivat Hadar and asking your questions?
In December 1896, Solomon Schechter traveled to the “Ben Ezra Synagogue” in Old Cairo and discovered 200,000 Hebrew manuscripts, some from as early as the 9th century. Among them were alternative liturgies that will astound those used to the standard Ashkenazi prayerbook, including alternate versions of the weekday Amidah. In this class, we will study how crumpled papers in a forgotten attic can change our understanding of prayer.
“We are all mediators, translators.” -Jacques Derrida
There have been three distinct moments since I began learning in the Jewish legal tradition that have significantly altered my perspective on the goals and intent of what we apply the blanket term, Halakhah. It is something that I struggle with on a daily basis and has a direct effect on my faith, my practice and my identity. More »
This summer, I’m studying the evolution of the Haggadah with Rabbi Reuven Cohn through a Hebrew College Online course.
In coming to understand some of the choices made in the development of the Hagaddah, we have journeyed through several different sections of the Talmud, getting to know some of the players who pop up in our seder. Tonight, I studied Brachot 27b – 28a, which relates the story of the impeachment of Rabban Gamliel from his post as Rosh Yeshiva (head of the Jewish learning institution).
Embedded within this story (towards the top of 28a) is a baraita that took my breath away. The day that Rabbi Elezar ben Azaria is installed as the new Rosh Yeshiva, the entrance restrictions Gamliel had placed, barring many students from the yeshiva, were lifted. (These restrictions are summed up as “All students who aren’t the same within and without may not enter the house of study.” Cf. the comments on David A. M. Wilensky’s post below about tzitzit to see how this kind of policy is still crippling to those seeking to find their place in Jewish observance today.)
There’s an incredible influx of students to the yeshiva once this entrance requirement is loosened – the sages tell us that more seats needed to be installed to accommodate all the new students. The Talmud records a debate of whether there were 400 or 700 new students. The Talmud also notes that in the first day of learning under new leadership, the entire slate of halachic disputes to be discussed is resolved — learning in the new atmosphere is more productive.
Impressed? So was Rabban Gamliel. Seeing the sheer number of new recruits rushing to learn Torah, he despairs:
What if, heaven forbid, I kept the Torah from Israel?
Powerful stuff, no? This is the preeminent Rabbi of his generation wondering if his insular approach to Jewish learning and Jewish community put up a roadblock between the Torah and the Jewish people.
To drive the point home, the Talmud goes on to relate the story of Judah the Ammonite, a ger (“resident alien” – a non-Israelite, non-idolater living within Israelite community) who wishes to marry a Jewish woman (and thereby “enter the congregation” – i.e., become a Jew). You may recall that the Ammonites and Moabites are forbidden from marrying Jews way back in Deuteronomy 23:3. Long story short, Gamliel loses the argument and Judah is admitted. The Talmud privileges opening the community to those who seek to learn over a Biblical prohibition. There’s a lot of reasoning about why this prohibition doesn’t apply any more – I don’t mean to oversimplify. But the overwhelming message to this entire section is clear. Don’t keep the Torah from Israel. Don’t define “Israel” so narrowly that you inadvertently keep the Torah from Israel, either. Don’t let one authority silence the debate and discussion in the study house that will open access to the Torah for so many more.