Sodomy on the Loose in Florida

by William Friedman

“This was the sin of your sister Sodom . . .”

If you’re familiar with the way the Biblical story of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah is used in America nowadays, you’d probably complete this sentence by saying “homosexuality.” But the story, which we read this week in Parashat Vayera(Genesis 18:16-19:38), never clearly spells this out. Last week, when we read about Lot’s decision to live in Sedom (Hebrew for Sodom), the story was foreshadowed: “The people of Sedom did evil things and sinned greatly against the LORD” (Gen. 13:13). And this week we read: “The scream of Sedom and Amorah [Hebrew for Gomorrah] was great, and their sin extremely severe” (Gen. 18:20). But the Torah is pretty sparing with the details of their evil and the severity about their sins. More »

The Terror and Joy of *Feeling*: Channah’s Legacy for our Spiritual Activism

Editor’s Note: Following yesterday’s post by Sarra Alpert, here is another piece about the Rosh HaShana Torah readings, re-visited as we read those passages again this coming Shabbat.  This piece was given by Mary Otts as a derasha at the Mishkan Chicago community.  –aryehbernstein

by Mary Otts

As a child, I spent lots of time on my knees, glass rosary beads floating over my fingertips, staring at paintings of saints on the walls of holy buildings. Prayer smelled like the incense wafting through the cathedral and sounded like the reverberation of the kneelers being dropped onto the tile floor. While my mouth moved—still moves—effortlessly around the words, “Hail Mary, full of grace,” this Mary was distracted by a clumsy inadequacy around what it was I was really supposed to be doing in these moments.

Many years later, I’ve found G!d in the hum of the Bet Midrash, in the gentle correction of my chevruta, in the letters of the Gemara, in every single time someone who thought they couldn’t learn Talmud is empowered into finding their place in our Tradition. I find joy in P’sukei d’Zimra, community when we stand together during the Amidah, and revelation in the melody of Eitz Chayim Hi, but prayer—that magical thing that is supposed to happen in between the lines of liturgy—prayer is hard for me still. And, yet, particularly this past summer, I have needed to pray. More »

Earning Egalitarianism

Leading tefillah for the first time is scary. Countless bar mitzvah boys, and increasing numbers of bat mitzvah girls, experience this fear as part of a rite of passage; facilitating  a community in prayer marks their coming of age, their full adult membership in this community. Despite my familiarity with traditional Hebrew prayers and innumerable hours spent in shul, however, I did not lead any element of tefillah, nor did I read from the Torah, until I was seventeen — three weeks ago.

Growing up in a Modern Orthodox community and attending Modern Orthodox day schools, I was given tremendous gifts of Jewish literacy. I can read Biblical texts and accompanying commentaries. I can look up and understand halakhic rulings. With the help of a dictionary or two, I can make my way through a page of Talmud. But these skills did me little good in the synagogue. At prayer, I was a silent observer, able to mutter liturgy quickly and fluently, but never with the knowledge, confidence, or — most importantly — the opportunity to lead.

As I began to move in the world and become active in creating Jewish spaces, especially as I agitated to ensure that egalitarian tefillah was provided in as many contexts as possible, my inability to serve as a shlichat tzibbur or to leyn became a serious hindrance. I could plan a prayer service, but not lead it, coordinate leyners but not read from the Torah myself. This surprised people; I seemed, apparently, to be a person who is comfortable and competent in Jewish leadership positions, so how could I be neither in the synagogue?

I’ve always been a nervous performer. For as long as I can remember, school plays and class presentations were a source of terror. As I have grown older, I’ve become confident presenting about World War I to my history class, happy to announce a club meeting at morning announcements in school; the vestiges of my stage fright, however remain. I still opt out of plays, preferring to applaud my friends from the audience, and when asked to speak in front of large groups, I often demur. This anxiety carries over to tefillah — though I am fluent in the prayers, the thought of leading them alone prompts trepidation.

Ideally, membership in a community requires participation. Investment in a shul or a minyan asks one to step up, to take on a role in facilitating services. But is this a necessary prerequisite for egalitarianism? Should I have to participate in them to ensure that there are services which meet my basic moral standard of treating me like a person? This has been a dilemma of mine for the past year, as I press for egalitarianism but could not act out those principles myself.

On one hand, if I want a certain type of prayer community, it is my responsibility to create it. I cannot simply sit and wait for others to carry out my values in any context, but all the more so religiously. On the other hand, however, my commitment to egalitarianism is as an issue of fundamental equality. Must I be shul-competent to earn the right to a prayer service in which I am counted and treated as an equal adult Jew? By what calculus does one earn accommodation of her moral principles?

Ultimately, my desire to be fully literate in the language of the synagogue won out over my fear of performance, and I’ve now led weekday maariv and mincha. I was spurred to learn to leyn by a friend who simply insisted that I do it; the expectation that I needed the skill to be a full member of my Jewish community was a new one, one that every Orthodox bar mitzvah boy experiences. Every time I do it, it gets easier. I have not resolved my internal conflict — I still don’t believe that I need to earn the right to egalitarian tefillah, but now I am more competent to create it.

The creation of a truly egalitarian community requires the community to internally encourage and expect women, who are often raised without the skill and comfort with liturgy and Torah reading that our male peers have, to learn (and then teach) these abilities. Egalitarian communities must offer women education paired with expectation. One does not need high-level musical skill to lead weekday mincha. Leyning is, for many people, not as hard as it looks. There must be a balance: one should never have to earn her place in the synagogue, to be treated as full member of the community, through liturgical skill. But women are shortchanged when we are not expected to attain the skills and literacy that almost every observant thirteen-year-old boy learns.

Avigayil is a senior at the Hebrew High School of New England. She is a Bronfman Youth Fellow for 2013, a Rising Voices Fellow, through the Jewish Women’s Archive and Prozdor, and an alumna of Drisha’s Dr. Beth Samuels High School Programs. She maintains a personal blog at theprocessofthetaking.blogspot.com. Follow her on Twitter at @avigayiln. – See more at: jewschool.com/2014/03/24/31822/every-time-a-woman-is-seen-in-tefillin-or-tzitzit-the-jew-at-prayer-in-the-common-imagination-becomes-more-fluid-2/#sthash.MDuInwYE.dpuf
Avigayil is a 2014 graduate of the Hebrew High School of New England. She is an alumna of the Bronfman Youth Fellowships and The Jewish Women’s Archive and Prozdor’s inaugural class of Rising Voices Fellows, as well as Drisha Institute’s Dr. Beth Samuels High School Programs. Avigayil plans to spend the upcoming academic year studying at Midreshet Ein Hanatziv, after which she will attend Yale University.
Avigayil is a senior at the Hebrew High School of New England. She is a Bronfman Youth Fellow for 2013, a Rising Voices Fellow, through the Jewish Women’s Archive and Prozdor, and an alumna of Drisha’s Dr. Beth Samuels High School Programs. She maintains a personal blog at theprocessofthetaking.blogspot.com. Follow her on Twitter at @avigayiln. – See more at: jewschool.com/2014/03/24/31822/every-time-a-woman-is-seen-in-tefillin-or-tzitzit-the-jew-at-prayer-in-the-common-imagination-becomes-more-fluid-2/#sthash.MDuInwYE.dpuf

“But Korach’s Children Did Not Die” — On Collective Punishment and Spiritual Creativity

As increased attention is being paid to the problematic incarceration complex in the United States, especially in light of Michelle Alexander’s sobering book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, policy makers, social service providers, educators, and law enforcement officials are also considering the vertical effects of criminal stigmatization on the children of the incarcerated.  Last year, Sesame Street even saw fit to release a segment on its web site about children with incarcerated parents, which aroused ire from some observers appalled that this normalized criminality.  Though it is unclear that children of incarcerated parents engage in any higher levels of criminality than their peers, stigmas often cling to such children from the outside.  In that context, it is instructive to consider a brief, four-word aside in this week’s Torah portion.  In the context of a  census taken after two brutal acts of Divine carnage, the Torah matter-of-factly claims  (Numbers 26:11),  ”And the children of Korach did not die.  וּבְנֵי קֹרַח לֹא מֵתוּ.  Why didn’t they die, why might that surprise us, and why does the Torah bother to mention it?  More »

Skirts in Context

This is a guest post by Avigayil Halpern.

One of my most vivid memories from elementary school is obstacle courses in gym class. Riding on small, flat, scooters and propelling ourselves with our hands we would wind our way through a series of foam pads and balance beams in relay races, an activity that I found more fun than the usual sports activities. I don’t remember these races for the fun, however. On a regular basis, my skirt would catch in the wheels of the scooters as I raced my peers through the obstacles, and this is what sticks in my head.

I’ve worn skirts to school every day since first grade. The skirts/school connection is so strong in my mind that I have had nightmares about accidentally showing up at school in a pair of jeans, the Orthodox day school girl equivalent of the showing-up-at-school-in-your-underwear dream. It has been such a part of the natural order of my world that back when my skirt got caught in the scooter wheels, I shrugged and pulled it out again, calmly, accepting that the dress code would make me fall a little behind the boy racing me from the other team.  More »

Can Women be God’s Servants? A response to Rabbi Aryeh Klapper on Gender and Tefillin

by Raphael Magarik

Raphael Magarik is a PhD student in English at Berkeley and a friend of Jewschool.  Check out his site for more. –aryehbernstein

I come late to the current conversation over gender and tefillin, and we have already heard plenty from other men already on the subject. That said, I thought I would share a quick reaction to R. Aryeh Klapper’s response to my teacher, R. Ethan Tucker.

I have several local disagreements with R. Klapper. For instance, when he claims the Talmud did imagine women wearing tefillin, he over-reads Bavli Eiruvin 95-96. There the idea that women are obligated in tefillin is introduced only as a dialectical, logical hypothetical. Elizabeth Shanks Alexander, who analyzes the Eruvin passage very closely, concludes, “ideological concerns about gender are not responsible for the creation of a position allowing women to wear tefillin.” The position (attributed to R. Meir), which she notes had no practical ramifications, “grew [instead] out of interpretive pressures forced by the Bavli’s academic agenda.” That explains why, as Tosafot and David Weiss Halivni ad loc note, the position directly contracts an explicit anonymous Mishnah, which we usually attribute to R. Meir.

The latest, anonymous layer of the Bavli, the so-called “stamma,” collates widely disparate materials and weaves them together dialectically. The editors express many radical or fanciful ideas which reflect its aesthetic of abstract argumentation—not serious halakhic proposals. Perhaps R. Klapper is not as enamored of academic interpretations of the Bavli as I am and would prefer not to dismiss any line of the Talmud as formal dialectics. But it is telling that he later suggests that those who hold that women are obligated in tefillin “are behaving like ‘outsiders, who transgress the words of the sages and do not wish to interpret Scripture as they do.’” Apparently, R. Meir’s is now the way of outsiders. Or more likely, when push comes to shove, R. Klapper does what we all do. He discounts the Stamma’s move in Eruvin.

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MK Dr. Ruth Calderon: The Knesset’s Guardian against Bittul Torah

“We all are sinners, won’t you send us to Bible study faster/Your hypocrite-esque reaction a blasphemy”

–Kendrick Lamar,  “Rigamortus”

Get ready for the strangest 45 seconds of your day.  #whatthewhat

This happened today on the floor of the Israeli Knesset.  MK Dr. Ruth Calderon (Yesh Atid) completed a speech with an unhinged, unprompted, upbraiding of young men in ultra-Orthodox (Hareidi) dress for coming and observing Parliamentary sessions from the visitors’ gallery instead of learning Torah.

A few key Hebrew phrases:

*Hillul Hashem — a desecration of God’s name, i.e., terrible public behavior by someone clearly recognized as Jewish, that brings disgrace to the Jewish people and their God

*Talmid(ei) Hakham(im) — Torah scholar(s)

*Bittul Torah — “wasting Torah”; it means slacking off when you could be learning Torah; this is the ultimate insult in the yeshiva world, what overbearing rabbis and sanctimonious veteran students accuse younger students of doing when they have a casual conversation.

*Hareidim — Ultra-Orthodox Jews (literally, “quakers”)

Here’s my translation of the clip:

“The last thing I want to say in the 27 seconds that I have [left] is this daily hillul hashem of people dressed like talmidei hakhamim who sit here, up in the gallery, slacking off, without a book, hour after hour, it drives me out of my mind!  It shames the dress of a talmid hakham, it shames the value of bittul Torah, and I request of you, either bring books, or go to the beit midrash and learn.  Thank you.”

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Parashat Hayei Sarah: Hebron, City of Refuge, where Violence Goes to Die

This Shabbat, Jews the world over read Parashat Hayei Sarah (Bereishit 23:1-25:18), opening with the detailed narration of Sarah’s death and Avraham’s negotiated purchase of the Cave of Machpela from local Hittites as a burial ground.  Thousands of Jews will converge upon the contemporary city of Hebron, for a sort of annual, National-Religious Woodstock packing in with the several hundred Israeli citizens who have maintained a settlement there since the first few refused government orders to leave after Pesach of 1968.  This festival takes place annually on this parashah, which is seen by the organizers as the proof of the sole and eternal Jewish ownership over Hebron. The basic thrust of the Torah at the heart of the claim is something like this:  Avraham bought this land for a lot of money before lots of witnesses and the Torah is the contract to it.  Therefore, it’s ours, always.  Others who may reside here — ie the Palestinians — are trespassers.  This argument justifies the violence to which the 177,000 Palestinian Hebronites are regularly subjected.

I think that this Torah argument is pretty peculiar:  even if the Torah is accepted as a legally-actionable historical record of contract law, it’s entirely unclear why it would preclude any future contract transactions in the area; or why the purchase of the Cave environs would be taken to cover a whole, much larger, metropolitan area 3500 years later; or why all future descendants of the purchaser would be equal and exclusive inheritors to that plot; and by “all future descendants” we mean the descendants of one of his sons, Isaac, and not the other son, Ishmael.  I would like to explore a richer and fuller picture of the legacy of the city of Hebron as we have learned it from the Tanakh and our Sages.  This piece should be viewed as a part of a larger effort called Project Hayei Sarah — a several-years-old initiative of a number of Torah educators disturbed by the disgrace done in the name of Torah that is today’s Hebron — to teach a more responsible and truthful Torah about this historically rich city.

The 35th chapter of Bemidbar legislates that six cities be appointed as cities of refuge, three cities on the east side of the Jordan River and three on the west side of the Jordan.  Open to Israelites as well as for resident aliens, these six cities were to be a refuge for anyone who kills someone accidentally, so they could to flee there and be safe from vengeful relatives of the victim. More »

Conflict and its Discontents: Revisiting the Mitzvah of Rebuke for the Therapy Generation

“Perpetrators, we can point ‘em out/So if you’ve got something on your mind, let it out!”

–Beastie Boys and Nas, “Too Many Rappers“, 2009

We find ourselves on the cusp of Tisha B’Av, our day of national grief and anger over homelessness, exile, and abandonment, and our day of painful soul-searching over our complicity in our plight.  The Shabbat before Tisha B’Av, we always read the beginning of the book of Devarim, which is, at its core, a book of educational rebuke of Israel as they prepare to enter the land and assume political responsibility and sovereignty.  The core midrashic work on Devarim, the Sifrei, glosses phrase after phrase of the first couple of chapters of the book with the explanation that the proper way to read or stage Moshe’s words is as words of rebuke – divrei tokhekha.  This moment is ripe, then, to explore one of the Torah’s most difficult commandments– the mitzvah of rebuking one’s neighbor.

“Do not hate your kinsfolk in your heart; rebuke – really rebuke your comrade; do not bear sin on their account.  Do not take vengeance or bear a grudge against your fellows; love your neighbor as yourself:  I am YHWH” (VaYikra 19:17-18)

We live in a conflict-averse world.  Progressive communities, especially, often put a premium on everyone being comfortable, sometimes using the language of “safe space” not to enable the voiceless to air their rebukes, but to prevent anyone from having to be rebuked.  In that context, we should be jarred by the Torah’s words:  true rebuke is necessary for the purpose of generating love, safety, and trust, of disengaging us from the hostility and distrust that produce alienation and violence.  The Sages highlighted how crucial it is to persist in this core mitzvah of confrontational peace-making, insisting that the doubled language (“rebuke, really rebuke/hokheach tokhiach“) teaches that one must continue to rebuke the person four, five, or however many times are necessary (Sifra Kedoshim 2/BT Arakhin 16b).  Lest we adopt a flip attitude, and think that rebuking is as simple as “saying what I have to say”, the Sages warn us gravely that we are not fulfilling the mitzvah if we humiliate the other person, and that this is what the Torah means by adding “do not bear sin on their account”.  If you feel hostility, rebuke them to make peace, but don’t embarrass them.

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Hallel on Yom Ha’Atzmaut: Maintaining Distinct Identities

This guest post by Eliana Fishman is part of an ongoing dialogue, which starts with the original post by Eliana Fishman and continues with the response by Raphael Magarik.

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.
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What is at stake?: Elections, budgets, ethics

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.

continue reading here then come back and discuss.

On generosity and justice

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.

What Wieseltier Said

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 »

Should we be saying Kaddish for the Jewish Left?

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’s Adam Kirsch and Jewish Ideas Daily‘s Alex Joffe could barely contain themselves.

Something, however, is seriously off here.

(read the rest at Justice in the City then come back here to discuss)

The “Jewish” Vote

(x-posted to Justice in the City)

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 »

Vide Ante: Generational Identity Crisis and Joseph Cedar’s Footnote

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.
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The “Citizens United” decision and the Image of God

x-posted to Justice in the City


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 »

“Occupy Wall St.” and the Path of the Righteous

(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 »