Whose Torah?

At first glance, it seemed like a great read. Straightforward writing, accessible style, six chapters each dealing with a different topic in progressive Judaism. Unfortunately, by the time I finished the introduction, I already had a list of complaints. But I was willing to give the benefit of the doubt that author Rabbi Rebecca Alpert would address my concerns in the chapters. Alas, she did not.

“Whose Torah? A Concise Guide to Progressive Judaism” purports to make use of “illuminating readings of sacred texts to unpack the most important social and political issues of our day – race, war, gender equality, social justice, sexuality, and the environment.” Instead, the chapters provide unfounded statements, without proof or citations as back up. Take this gem from the chapter on sexuality:

“Divorce was always an acceptable practice in Jewish law, so it was not difficult to accept serial monogamy as a norm. Single adults having sex is considered appropriate and even desirable for their mental health. Masturbation is assumed to be a normal part of sexual experimentation. Teens are taught about and encouraged to participate in safe sexual activities, provided they treat the partners they choose with respect. The laws of family purity are no longer practiced, and so menstrual rules of intermittent abstinence do not govern sex within marriage. Gays and lesbians also are respected, and liberal Judaism has begun to tackle issues related to bisexual and transgender Jews.”

Grandiose statements? Yes. Are we to believe that Judaism, as a homogeneous behemoth, is unilaterally in favour of serial monogamy (for the unknowing, that’s going from one monogamous relationship to the next, usually with the connotation that these relationships are all long-term, and usually with the additional connotation that there isn’t much/any break between each), masturbation, and respect of gays and lesbians? In that last statement, it read as “[In the undefined Judaism as a homogeneous whole,] gays and lesbians also are respected, [and only] liberal Judaism[, unlike the Whole of Judaism] has begun to tackle issues related to bisexual and transgender Jews.” This, of course, is not true. Not all Jewish communities or denominations are respectful of gays and lesbians; not only liberal communities, but also “traditional” and Orthodox communities have begun looking at issues related to bisexuality and transgenderism. It is not my intention to nitpick this one sentence; it’s just an example of the flaw to this book. Statements need proof – any high school or college student can tell you that.

Also from the chapter on sexuality:

“The ancient textual tradition forbids many sexual behaviors and relationships that are common and acceptable in today’s society while allowing some now forbidden. Although ancient Jews practiced polygamy and prostitution and accepted sexual encounters between unmarried men and women and oral and anal sex within marriage, they prohibited many other sexual practices that are commonly accepted today, such as masturbation, homosexual relations, sex before (and outside of) marriage, romantic love, and sexual relationships with non-Jews.”

(NB: This is copied verbatim, grammatical markings included. I did not omit any of the much needed commas or semi-colons.)  Jews prohibited romantic love? Really? And how can ancient Jews have both practiced/allowed “sexual encounters between unmarried men and women” while also prohibiting “sex before marriage”? Unfortunately, the other chapters were just as generalizing.

It’s disappointing when liberal, progressive Jews fail to make their arguments. There is so much to work with in our texts to back up many of the progressive statements Alpert wants us to engage with. But she just doesn’t make a case. I want proof, both of the conservative “way things were” statements of yore (and today) and the progressive readings or opinions.

Available in bookstores now, “Whose Torah” is probably not a book for Jewschool readers… It may be a suitable read for those just starting to realise there’s a way to engage with progressive notions, but have not yet done any reading, engaging with ideas, or research.

If you want to kiss this sky, better learn how to kneel…

In a course at the U of North Texas, R’ Geoffrey Dennis asked his students to offer a kabbalistic commentary on U2′s mysterious ways. He’s posted some of the choicest bits over at his blog.

Johnny take a dive with your sister in the rain
K.Gr. – Water = Divine experience.
A.D. – Go to the waterside and pray. The Shekhinah will reveal the hidden to you and your soul will awaken.
W. Got – [Into] the feminine side of the Sefirot power.
K.F. – Let [God's] glory fall on you; dive as deep as you can.

Let her talk about the things you can’t explain
J.P.H. – The esoteric.
V.I. – Donkey drivers and women can reveal things that are profound, even thought they don’t seem important.
C.D. – A tzadik or rebbe is required to talk about the things you [the hasid] can’t explain yourself.
K.F. – Find the meaning, keep asking questions.

Anybody got any other pop songs with obvious kabbalistic imagery? YehuditBrachah once told me that “Ain’t No Sunshine” by Bil Withers is about the departure of the Shekhina.
Full story.

Mishegas, Jewish Learning Edition

  • There’s an exhibit up at the Yeshiva University Museum called “Printing the Talmud”; their website features video footage of all different sorts of Jews getting their study on–from the Bratslav Yeshiva and Pardes today to Lithuanian and Polish yeshivot from the 1930s. It’s pretty awesome.
  • Limmud LA is coming up soon–February 15-18. Register now!
  • In case you haven’t met it yet, Hebrewbooks.org has a mind-boggling amount of seforim available.
  • RRC gets its own YouTube channel.
  • Aish now makes house calls.

Mezuzah-waving tree-humpers round-up

Other than the media sensation of Israel’s cars going electric, a few other environmental Jew-news mishegas:

The Inner Journey: The Significance of Torah

Editor’s Note: This is the third in a series meant to both present excerpts from the introduction to a new book — The Inner Journey: Views from the Jewish Tradition — as well as spark discussion among Jewschool readers about the nature of Jewish tradition. The first two excerpts are here and here. We encourage you to read on to see the excerpt and share your comments.

The Jewish people have a love affair with the Torah. The Torah is not
simply the Five Books of Moses, or even the entire Bible. More
correctly, it is the whole gamut of Jewish teaching and wisdom
contained in the written law (Torah sheh B’chtav) and oral law
(Torah sheh Ba’al Peh). While Torah has all too often been
translated by the word law, its literal and etymological meaning is
more appropriately translated as direction, instruction and teaching.

The Torah is the prism through which one strives to understand the
significance of one’s self, the Jewish people, the world and the
Divine. It is that body of teaching that transforms Jews into seekers
of the truth that permits them to connect as a self to their people,
to the cosmos, and to the Divine. It embodies an ethic that directs
behavior toward all human beings, other creatures and the environment.

One sage goes so far as to say that for the sake of the study of
Torah, human beings were created. But what is of interest here is
that Torah must be received and understood in our own unique way.
Rabbi Jose’s statement, (Pirke Avot 2:17) “…What knowledge of
Torah a man acquires is personal to himself. It cannot be inherited
or bequeathed.”

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IPCT meets George Strombouloupolous, “Canada’s Letterman”

Get Paid to Drash Righteous

The AJWS has just created an opportunity for fledgling writers/teachers of Judaism to bring the holy down–for cold, hard, cash. It looks like a great opportunity–try to get in on it while you can!

American Jewish World Service (AJWS) is delighted to announce the launch of the AJWS Dvar Tzedek Torah Commentary-Lisa Goldberg Memorial Writers’ Fellowship. This Fellowship will provide five individuals with the opportunity to write for the AJWS Dvar Tzedek, a commentary on the week’s Torah portion that relates to the Jewish imperative for social justice. By using traditional and contemporary exegesis, Fellows will craft each Dvar Tzedek to inspire Jewish engagement in global justice efforts. The Dvar Tzedek is published on the AJWS Web site and sent via e-mail to supporters across the country. It is also syndicated on other Web sites, including MyJewishLearning.com.

Each Fellow will write approximately 10 Dvar Tzedek commentaries between September 2007 and September 2008 and will receive an award of $2,000 as well as a one-day training seminar and ongoing guidance from the education and communications staff at AJWS.

Please visit www.ajws.org/parshah to download the application and view previous Dvar Tzedek commentaries. The application deadline is July 1, 2007. Please direct all questions to Sarah Margles at smargles@ajws.org.

AJWS is an international development organization motivated by Judaism’s imperative to pursue justice. AJWS is dedicated to alleviating poverty, hunger and disease among the people of the developing world regardless of race, religion or nationality. Through grants to grassroots organizations, volunteer service, advocacy and education, AJWS fosters civil society, sustainable development and human rights for all people, while promoting the values and responsibilities of global citizenship within the Jewish community.

Generation “Moshiach”

At the nexus of brand marketing and contemporary Torah Judaism you will find this blog, where I ask the question, “Who is Moshiach’s target market?”

Jewish tradition is replete with phrases regarding the generation to which Moshiach will come. The generation to experience the Messianic transition is to be “(brazen-)faced as a dog”, is to “thirst for the words of G-d”, and so on. Today, our classification systems are less likely to offer an animal analogy as they are to rely on psychographic, consumer research, or demographic data.

I proffer that Web 2.0, social networking, and social marketing — buzzwords which are becoming the lifeblood of the new marketing arenae — provide a uniquely pro-Messianic environment.

So who is Moshiach destined for? The collaborators, the individualists, or the workaholics? The “early adopters” or the “echo boomers”?

Baruch Hashem for BrandWeek.

Bar Ilan Database Online For Free Trial Period

Very exciting–the uh-may-zing Bar Ilan University Jewish text database, featuring just about everything you could think of and a lot of stuff you couldn’t, is free and online for the time being, anyway.

Check it here.

On Macs, it works with Firefox but evidently not Safari.

(Thanks once again to Dr. Aryeh Cohen for the heads up.)

Flinging open the doors to our beit midrash: the potential for integrity and new beginnings in the Conservative movement

[Thanks to BZ for encouragement posting this, originally given as a dvar torah Friday night.]

In my Talmud class this semester, we are studying tractate Brachot (Blessings), chapter four. In it (27b to 28a), there is an intriguing story about Rabban Gamliel, the great leader of the beit midrash, the house of study of the rabbis, right after the fall of the Second Temple.

So, Rabban Gamliel is not such a pleasant guy. He runs a tight ship. He does not allow multiple rulings in his beit midrash, at least not when the disputed one is his. He sometimes likes to humiliate his peers to make them recant their disagreements with him.

He especially has it out for Rabbi Yehoshua. One day, when Rabbi Yehoshua disagrees with him, he makes Rabbi Yehoshua stand up in front of everyone and deny the disagreement. He then makes Rabbi Yehoshua stand for the rest of Rabban Gamliel’s lecture. Just stand in the front row, in front of everyone, as an example. At this point, the other rabbis in the beit midrash have had enough. It is time for a change in leadership. It is time for a coup. They stand up and stop the lecture.

The rabbis argue amongst themselves over who will replace Rabban Gamliel, who will have enough yichus because their good family name will speak for them, or who has money so that they can be called before Caesar. Who will be impressive enough to represent them to the world. They choose a successor. This is not the most remarkable part, though.

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Tikkun Leil Rabin

In Israel, the anniversary of Yitzchak Rabin’s assassination is usually marked with commemorative ceremonies. While ceremonies can be nice, they can’t do much more then recall a date, and perhaps make us feel a little sad. While that is important, ceremonies quickly become trite, they don’t interest most people, and they don’t do anything to answer the underlying flaws in our society that allowed the murder to take place.

If ceremonies don’t work, what other options are there? Many, including Amit Gevaryahu, a frequent contributor to the comments here, have likened Rabin’s murder to the biblical murder of Gedalyahu ben Achikam. If they are similar, then perhaps a fast day would also be the best answer here? However, in that same article Amit recognizes that despite having a fast day commemorating his own death, most people do not know who Gedalyah was, or why he was killed. Fasts quickly become only nuisances. Another problem with marking Rabin’s death with a fast day is that even if it is done well, fasts create mourning and sadness, and while appropriate, I think a good response will do more then make us cry.

This year, Mimizrach Shemesh – The Center for Jewish Social Justice Leadership is sponsoring a night of learning, a Tikkun Leil Rabbin at centers across the country. At Hebrew University, Hillel is hosting a program on October 31 that will include a lecture by Dr. Micha Goodman titled, “Social Justice Leadership in a Time of Crisis,” followed by Jewish text study and discussion.

I am very excited about this initiative, and plan on being there Tuesday night. Rabin’s death was a direct result of the misinterpretation of Torah, and one of the most important things we can do to atone for the crime is to fix those errors. Engaging torah in a positive discussion of what it means to be just, of what it means to be a leader, and of what it means to be Jewish, is precisely that antidote. Torah was perverted and tragedy resulted, please God, an honest relationship with Torah and open discussion will lead to blessing.

Tshuvah, Tefillah, Tzedekah

I just put up a little musing on the problematic theology of the Unetane Tokef on Jerusalem Syndrome. If you’re interested, feel free to check it out here.

The Struggle of Contradiction

Blessed are you, YHWH, our God, King of existence, King of all Earth, who sanctifies Israel and the Day of Remembrance.

The central blessing of Rosh Hashana brings into focus one of the holiday’s central contradictions. We stress God’s universal sovereignty by doubling the reference to God’s kingship, and by moving from the regular, abstract King of existence to the specific, more tangible King of all Earth. Yet, at the same time we recall our specific relationship with God.

This contradiction is not limited to that one blessing. The entire holiday presents the tension. Tomorrow, the day the God created the world (or humanity) is the same day that so many of us go to synagogue and proudly identify as Jews. The other special prayers of the day continue the same theme. The prayer of remembrance recalls that God knows all, and never forgets anything. We declare that all actions and thoughts, of all people, of all existence, are recorded for God and are present continually to God, and yet we in the same prayer ask God to remember specific events, specific actions, and most importantly, the specific covenant that binds us, the children of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, to God.

Beyond the liturgy, the center of the entire service, the shofar, exposes all of the facets of the contradiction. The simple horn’s blast recalls so many different images. It is the shofar that awakens us, as God’s original call awakened Adam and Eve in Eden, and it is the shofar that calls all of existence to judgement. It is the shofar’s sound that makes us dream of the great horn that will once again be blown for all humanity when we reach the Messianic age. However, it is this same shofar that recalls Isaac – bound and prepared for sacrifice, and it is the same shofar whose bellow brought our people to attention at Sinai.

Tonight, as we, and all of the Children of he who struggled with God and Humanity, gather to crown God as King, let us continue the struggle. While we wrestle with understanding creation, the creator, and all creatures, let us continue to wrestle with who we are as Jews. What does our heritage, our covenant, our mission mean? How can we be different when God is equally the king of all people? What value can this gift have when people across the world continue to suffer? When even the existence of the angels can not be justified, how do we make meaning of our own being?

Let these questions and more be in our hearts, let us all be inscribed in the books of life, happiness, mitzvoth and Torah, and let this be the year when the Great Shofar will be heard, and God’s name in all its glory and majesty be known throughout the world.

Lebanon Through the Lens of Tisha B’Av

Aryeh Cohen, Associate Professor of Rabbinic Literature at the University of Judaism, offers a salient commentary on Tisha B’Av this week on Radical Torah:

Lamentations Rabba, the Rabbinic exegesis and amplification of Lamentations — the sad and haunting elegy we read on Tisha B’Av — begins with an odd and compelling comment. The opening words of the scroll are “Eichah yashvah vadad/Woe is she who sits alone.” The Rabbis however read the etymological affinity of the opening word to the shorter word “eich/how” in order to picture God asking the question: “How do people mourn so that I may learn how to mourn?” Citing verses from the Prophets and Psalms as prooftexts, the midrash relates the way in which God’s angelic court teaches God how to mourn. This is the cosmic shift which signals the beginning of Exile: God’s learning to mourn. The God of the Rabbis is not the avenging God of Isaiah and Jeremiah. The God of Exile is a more humble God, who learns to sit, and cry, and grieve.

My thoughts have often turned to this wonderful midrashic passage over the past week, as we edge towards Tisha b’Av, and Israel edges toward — what? Tisha b’Av commemorates a string of tragedies which, according to traditional sources, were brought about by Israel’s failures — the infidelity of the Golden Calf, the lack of trust of the spies, the idolatry of the First Temple, the baseless hatred of the Second Temple and on. And yet, it is God who learns how to mourn. It is God who contracts and humbles God’s self. Standing on the edge of Canaan, Moses warns the people of Israel. “Beware that you do not become so proud that you say to yourselves, ‘My own power and the might of my own hand have won this wealth for me.’” (Deut. 8:17)

Continue reading…

Amalek’s Big Toe

A few months ago, Rabbi Jack Riemer decided that Islamo-Fascists are an incarnation of Amalek.

Last week, Rabbi Marc Gellman made a similar declaration in his Newsweek column. It turns out, according to Gellman, that Amalek utilized the same tactics as Hezbollah:

What made Amalek so dastardly was that unlike any other enemy who attacked the Israelites fleeing slavery in Egypt from the front, Amalek attacked the rear. This meant that his soldiers could kill women and children, the elderly and the infirm and in so doing avoid engagement with the soldiers at the front. In this way he could produce maximum carnage and maximum terror.

Of course Deut. 25:17-19 instructs us to remember Amalek for a good reason. Sayeth Gellman:

I believe this is because the planned and plotted slaughter of innocents even during wartime cannot be condoned and must be remembered as a bright moral line which can never be crossed.

Sorry. I have a bullshit meter that buzzes whenever someone uses the Torah to score political points. But maybe that’s just me. Perhaps the Amalek label is appropriate here.

[Don't worry. Newsweek's erudite readers bash Gellman plenty in this week's Letters to the Editor.]

CFS for Artists to Contribute to Women’s Torah Project

Just passing along the info, y’all. I don’t know any more than what’s below.

CALLING JEWISH WOMEN ARTISTS
“Women of the Book: Jewish Women Recording, Reflecting, Revisioning”

Community artist and Torah scribe, Shoshana Gugenheim, in partnership with the Women’s Torah Project of Kadima Reconstructionist Congregation in Seattle, WA, is seeking Jewish women artists to contribute to the creation of “Women of the Book,” a midrashic (interpretive) scroll based on the form and content of a traditional sefer Torah (Torah scroll). In the spirit of the Jewish scribal tradition, this scroll will be created on 62 sheets of parchment created by 62 artists from around the world and sewn together as is a traditional sefer Torah.

This is an international, collaborative art installation inspired by, and in conjunction with, the historic scribing of the first sefer Torah by women. The midrashic Torah is each artist’s personal interpretation, in visual imagery, of the text of the first Five Books of Moses.

Women of all denominations, secular and religious, are invited to join. Chosen artists will select one of 62 passages in the Torah to use as a basis for their creative interpretation. They will be provided a standard-sized piece of claf (parchment) upon which to work. The 62 completed parchment panels will be bound together into one scroll, which will be exhibited in galleries, museums, synagogues and other institutions worldwide.

To learn more about Kadima and The Women’s Torah Project please visit: womenstorah.com

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Happy New Year!

My chavruta [study partner] and I recently completed Masechet Megillah (one of the tractates, or “webs”, of the Talmud). We’ll have a formal siyum sometime this summer in NYC, and you’re all invited.

On the penultimate page, there’s a timely section that relates to how we prepare for Shavuot. The general topic is Torah readings for various times of the year. (This is the primary source for the holiday Torah readings that are read to this day.) Rabbi Shimon ben Elazar brings a tradition that Ezra established that we should read the curses in Leviticus 26 before Shavuot, and the curses in Deuteronomy 28 before Rosh Hashanah. Sure, enough this is what we still do: our calendar is rigged so that Parshat Bechukotai (containing Leviticus 26), which we read last week, always comes up about two weeks before Shavuot, and Parshat Ki Tavo (containing Deuteronomy 28), always comes up two weeks before Rosh Hashanah.
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Schorsch Blasts Conservative Movement in Outgoing Remarks

If you’re not interested in the Conservative Movement, feel free to skip this one. But for those who are, read on about soon-to-be-ex-Chancellor (as of June 30th), Ismar Schorsch.

Last Thursday, Rabbi Dr. (or just “Dr.,” as he seems to prefer) Ismar Schorsch delivered the keynote address at the 112th JTS commencement. This was Dr. Schorsch’s swan song, his opportunity to address the faithful after having served as the titular head of the Conservative Movement for twenty years. His speech was breathtaking, though, unfortunately, not in a positive sense. Dr. Schorsch delivered a speech full of veiled and not-so-veiled insults to the very people he was addressing– the students, families, scholars, and clergy of the Conservative Movement. I wish I could post a transcript here, but it hasn’t been made public. Here are some highlights, with the caveat that everything not in quotation marks is how I remember it and not necessarily a direct quote.

Dr. Shorsch’s speech began with an anecdote about this year’s students at JTS that led him to the following conclusion: Today’s generation has no interest in wrestling with difficult texts or in deep scholarship. According to Schorsch, this generation refuses to delve into anything dense or complicated, shying away from texts that require hard work and deep thought. This is a particular travesty since true spirituality comes from academic study, particularly the study of history. (Schorsch is a trained historian.) The audience was more subdued than I would have imagined after Schorsch had just insulted his graduating students, but all around me I did see people whispering and shaking their heads.

Schorsch then talked at length about spirituality, which he called the “aquifer” that feeds and supports halakhic observance. (I see this relationship as precisely opposite, but that’s not surprising). Again, he seemed to be talking primarily about a spirituality gleaned from academic study and spoke against the contemporary focus on music as a source of real spirituality in prayer. Bizarrely enough, in the course of this discussion Schorsch very explicitly and very publicly tore apart the Etz Hayim Humash. Its editors and authors, he declared, had thoroughly “eviscerated” the JPS Torah Commentary that it was based on and de-scholared the whole enterprise. The only “true spirituality” to be found in Etz Hayim, he claimed, was in selected footnotes and essays from the academic commentators, not the rabbinical commentators. All in all, I think Schorsch ranted about Etz Hayim for at least five minutes. I haven’t used Etz Hayim enough to assess his claims, but it was crazy for the outgoing head of the Conservative Movement to heap such public scorn on a publication whose tagline is “a publication of the Conservative movement, produced through a joint venture of The Rabbinical Assembly, the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, and The Jewish Publication Society.”

My favorite line of the whole speech (favorite mostly because I can’t believe someone said it in public and at a graduation no less) was a stinging rebuke to this generation of (and here I quote) “pampered and promiscuous individuals who scorn all contemporary norms.” Again, it was unclear whether Schorsch was referring to his students, to Conservative Jews, or to Jews in general, but it was wild.

But this was the general tone of Shorsch’s speech. The clear underlying message was 1) the Conservative Movement has gone to the dogs, 2) it’s everyone else’s fault but his own (he blamed the students, the rabbis, Etz Hayim, new liturgical music, etc.), and 3) the only thing that will save the Movement is not a clear-eyed evaluation of how the Movement got into this mess or an openness to different approaches to Judaism and Jewish education or a sober acknowledgement of contemporary realities such as intermarriage or an embrace of this fuzzy-wuzzy musical sort of spirituality, but rather a return to “our glorious past.” By which I gather he meant a return to the Conservative Movement’s academic heyday, and not a return to the shining and glorious 1950s-on era of sterile suburban synagogues, organs and choirs, Jewish illiteracy, disaffiliation, and disaffection.

A final anecdote: At the end of Schorsch’s speech, a highly-placed employee in the JTS development office was asking nearby attendees what they thought of Schorsch’s speech. In response to one person’s answer that Schorsch had been insulting and demonstrated how out of touch he was, this person replied, “I know. We saw an advance copy of his speech and we asked him to tone it down. But I think he actually ratcheted it up.” This reply was punctuated by lots of regretful, disbelieving shakes of the head.

Schorsch’s whole speech was quite a performance. Did anyone else experience it differently? Or have thoughts about what was driving it?