Mimi Arbeit is a Ph.D. student at Tufts in Child Development, where she studies adolescent sexuality, sexual health, and sexual violence prevention. She is a freelance sexuality educator and also works locally to promote and strengthen sexuality education in public schools.
Jewschool: What’s the intersection of progressive values, sex ed and Jewish identity for you?
Mimi Arbeit: Progressive values, sex ed, and promoting healthy relationships is at the core of my Jewish involvement. My commitment to feminist and queer values is central to who I am as a person and the work I try to do in the world. I became involved with Judaism as a teenager, but departed from Jewish spaces in college when I realized how much the tradition clung to harmful gender norms and patriarchal practices. For years, I didn’t know what to do. Jewish community can be beautiful and powerful, but I needed a Jewish community in which I could bring all of my passions, and in which my own desire for personhood and my commitment to building a better world would not be eclipsed by a reification of problematic Jewish traditions. The communities I found in Boston allowed me to be a part of exploring the kinds of Judaism that hold more possibility for me – especially the Moishe Kavod House, Keshet, and JewishBoston.com.
JS: Before writing at The Debrief, you wrote a blog called Sex Ed Transforms. What can we find there?
JS: What’s been the most difficult topic (you can name a few) you’ve handled at The Debrief? What’s your favorite?
MA: The Debrief is a sex, dating, and relationships column posted every Wednesday at JewishBoston.com. I love facilitating this space in which I can invite other community members to share their stories, questions, and reflections, either by name or anonymously. I am honored every time people choose to share their stories with me, and I am deeply moved by what they express.
I am always looking for new story ideas and new contributions, so I encourage readers to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org anytime.
JS: What do you think is the current state of the conversation about sex in Jewish communities? Why do you think it is what it is? What advice would you give to folks who want to change the status quo?
MA: I can only hope to learn that a wide variety of dynamic, engaging, critical conversations about sex are currently taking place in Jewish communities worldwide. But I also know that many Jewish communities are not having such conversations. I think we are held back because we are nervous, embarrassed, ashamed, afraid, or we don’t know the words to use to express how we feel. We try to say what we think we are supposed to say, and we try to do what we think we are supposed to do, and when we say or do something different from what’s expected of us, we too often get told to stop.
If we want to change the status quo, and I certainly do, we need to start with deep sharing and listening. Really taking risks to hear each other, understand the complexity of our own and each other’s lived experiences, ask caring and probing questions of each other, and speak. Share. Try to explain even when none of the words we know feel quite right. Name that – say that none of the words feel quite right, and commit to speaking and listening anyway.
With the foundation of a community committed to listening and speaking, speaking and listening, we need to pursue conversations that are inclusive of all voices. Wait, not only inclusive, but structured through a model of equity. Working to merely include marginalized voices will still leave those voices marginalized. We need to find a way to actively structure a new conversation about sex and relationships with people who have previously been marginalized now at the center. As part of that process, we will need trauma-informed ways to talk about sex. So many members of our community are survivors of sexual trauma of different forms – more people than we even realize. When we talk about sex, it can be a wonderful and positive part of our lives, and it can also be a place of violence and violation. We need to find out how to talk about all of that.
JS: What, for you, is at stake in this work?
MA: Acceptance. Humanity. Connection. The possibility of a life lived honestly and powerfully. World peace.
The tagline of this year’s Jewish Feminist Alliance (JOFA) 8th annual gathering on Dec 7-8 has sparked a conversation: “It’s not just for feminists anymore.”
Long time JOFA supporter Jennifer Moran’s Facebook feed blew up when she posted this status: ”Just received an ad for the 8th International JOFA Conference, which proclaims, ‘It’s not just for feminists anymore…’ How I wish that I could convince my fellow women’s rights activists to stop disparaging, diminishing, or distancing themselves from feminism.” Others wondered if JOFA’s mission had changed, if social norms in the Orthodox community had led JOFA to shift its recruitment strategy away from the “radical” notion of feminism.
What’s the motivation behind this tagline and what’s happening at the conference? We spoke with Sarah Blechner, Marketing Chair for the upcoming conference. Blechner was raised in an Orthodox feminist household and has attended JOFA conferences since she was in high school.
Jewschool: What can we expect from this year’s JOFA conference that’s different from previous years?
Sarah Blechner: Whereas many of the past conferences have focused on the Orthodox community writ large, this year, while we will still be tackling those large, community issues, we are also talking in a much more personal way than ever before. We are really looking forward to bringing many of the “big” issues down to an individual level and discussing how many of these issues impact the everyday, the individual, and the quieter moments. More »
I’m always intrigued when individuals or groups of people who are meticulously observant of some law system – particularly Halakhah – perceive themselves as not observing something even though they understand it to be the law. They are quite observant in general and they acknowledge that the particular practice is the law, but just don’t do that practice. Often, I find that if these people are really listened to and empowered with legal language, they turn out to possess some insight into that law. It’s not that they randomly disregard it; it’s that they intuit that the law is being misinterpreted or misapplied, that it shouldn’t actually be understood as the law, and that if the halls of interpretational power had better-constructed avenues of access, such that more diverse vantage points and experiences were represented, communal perception of Halakhah would be much different.
I suspect that one fascinating example of this is the laws of yichud, the restrictions on men and women from being physically alone together, in private. My anecdotal perception is that in much of the modern, observant world – let’s say, people who pursue higher, liberal arts education and work in the general workforce while maintaining life practices of mitzvot – yichud is not at the top of the halakhah heap. Even people who do observe sexual prohibitions that are counter-cultural in their integrated world still often disregard yichud. More striking, they’ll sometimes make fun of it, telling dinner party stories about that baal teshuvah friend who was staying with a family for Shabbat and kept clandestinely going down to open the front door whenever the dad went out, and then the mom would close it and wonder how it got open, hahahaha, isn’t that ridiculous how frummies can get out of hand (say the people who send someone down every 10 minutes to look for the late guest, because of course they – we – won’t press the buzzer on Shabbat).
That’s interesting to me. People of this sort will generally construct their lifestyles around a deep commitment to halakhah, sometimes at great sacrifice; they would find it small-minded, offensive, and perhaps anti-Semitic for someone to mock their practices; they don’t dispute this particular practice’s identity as a halakhah, yet they consciously do not observe it and sometimes mock those who do. What’s going on there? More »
In Jewish law, Abortion is not considered murder until quite late in the pregnancy – in fact, until the head crowns. While that is the case, abortion was not to be done lightly – not because it was murder, but because the fetus is considered a part of the mother’s body, and one may not mutilate a healthy limb.
Perhaps it is partly for that reason that the squabbling over abortion which sometimes dominates so much of American political blather didn’t seem to have made many inroads to Israel. Perhaps it’s only because children are much more part of daily life in Israel – they are cherished communally in way that they aren’t here. Or perhaps it was just another women’s issue which has been buried in the swamp of we’ll deal with that later, right now, we have a war to deal with. Why, yes, I am being a bit sarcastic.
RIght now there are so many mattersof democaracy and freedom on which Israel is moving backwards, that it’s difficult to keep track of them all. On women’s issues, in particular, Israel has lagged behind the US – the usual saying is “by about 25 years.”
But on reproductive rights, the discussion seems to have been missing at least partly because, while technically legal, it is quite arduous to actually obtain an abortion, and nearly impossible for married women. In fact, women seeking abortion have to navigate some rather arcane process of approval from a committee, a social worker, a technician who shows you ultrasounds – and apparently married women rarely, if ever, receive approval. As the author here says, “we stayed silent when signs reading ‘The Jewish womb belongs to the Jewish people’ were hoisted.” Yes, indeed, instead of the fetus being a limb of the woman, apparently the woman is actually a limb of the state.
But in any case, the struggle over women’s ability to obtain an abortion has begun getting a lot more press recently. Apparently fake-clinics, modeled on those supported by the American Christian right have begun aggressively advertising in Israel. Efrat, the name of the main one of these organizations, has been not only advertising aggressively, but has also apparently taken it upon themselves to track down pregnant women and dissuade them from getting abortions. Creepy stalker much?
Well, now Efrat is also featuring rather prominently in a tragedy that has Israel suddenly paying attention to the issue.
A teenage boy, 18-year-old Raz Atias, was killed in a standoff with police who were trying to prevent him and his pregnant girlfriend from committing suicide. Police had found Atias and his girlfriend outside of Jerusalem, with Atias holding a gun to his girlfriend’s head and threatening to kill her and then himself.
The details of the incident are still not entirely clear, but the girlfriend’s sister reported that members of the Israeli anti-abortion organization Efrat had visited the pregnant teenager in the hospital to “brainwash” her against having an abortion, which led to significant emotional turmoil for the young couple.
As far as I’m concerned, the entire struggle just goes to underline what I’ve said for a long time: the hareidim don’t follow Jewish law – they have a reactionary social agenda. And they are willing to make up any kind of nonsense and call it halacha to expand it. So much so that they don’t care if they have to borrow from the more reactionary parts of Christianity to do it.
This is a guest post by The Neo Nazir, a nomadic Jew who spends zes time worrying that the US might actually elect Santorum and that ze and everyone reading this post will be hurled into a den of wild, indigenous mountain lions, only to be devoured limb by limb.
Newsflash! Orthodox Judaism is not the bellwether of queerness. Given Orthodox Judaism’s official position on non-heterosexuality, one hardly expects Orthodox communities to offer a fully understanding dialogue on homosexual identity. But today, even the orthodox are realizing that they can no longer simply sweep LGBTQ issues under the rug.
Tonight in the Chicago area, a controversial event originally scheduled for early January, will be held at Congregation Or Torah, a large modern-Orthodox community in Skokie, IL. This event, sponsored by a number of major Chicago-area Orthodox synagogues and a local Chabad community, will attempt to broach the subject of homosexuality in the Orthodox community, featuring two out-of-town speakers, described by the event’s promotional blurb as “two of the world’s leading authorities on the Torah’s perspective on homosexuality,” Rabbi Dr. Barry Freundel and Rabbi Chaim Rapoport. More »
A little tempest in a teapot has apparently hit the ranks of the Conservative movement about the cover of the latest issue of Kolot (The Conservative Movement’s now-integrated magazine, including more or less all the different arms of the movement that used to have separate magazines).
The Jewish week showcased an internal spat between Kolot and some selected women rabbis who objected to the most recent cover which features a picture of two female arms holding hands whilst wearing tefillin. More »
Over on Salon, Tracy Clark-Flory declares that sexlessness (or at least articles about it) are officially a trend. Which strikes me as funny, because the article just below that one in the queue is all about the rise of non-monogamy (which together with Dan Savage’s proclamations that people should consider non-monogamy and today’s JTA headline that an Israeli group of Orthodox rabbis (c’mon, you knew this was coming!) is trying to bring back polygamy (a trend that even the Torah implicitly warns against while not forbidding) definitely qualifies as a trend.
So what to get to first? I’m impressed by the ridiculousness of Erica Jong’s complaint. I’m not sure why Clark-Flory concludes that her complaint is that technology has taken over for the actual messiness and intimacy of sex – from what I can tell, her real complaint is that this younger generation prefers monogamy and childrearing to the raunch that she claims her generation championed. Look at the utter condescension: More »
I know everyone wishes that we’d just stop talking about thisalready and technically, what I’m about to mention isn’t strictly a Jewish matter, but there was an interesting link on BoingBoing this morning regarding reporting on the sexuality of, let us say, well-known figures (since the person mentioned there isn’t precisely what one might think of as a celebrity).
The point being made is that it’s not quite as simple as whether or not one’s sexuality is a private matter – rather that by agreeing to not discuss it, “the press” is actually enforcing the idea that gay sexuality is bad, that the very hint of a partner of the same sex is akin to pornography and is a discussion of sex, rather than simply talking about normal and natural parts of an individual’s life – and in fact, in my opinion, that’s exactly how the conversation about Debbie Friedman shook out: dlevy expressed sadness that she hadn’t been able to live her life in a way that everyone else (straight) does, where she talked about her family (partner) held hands in public, etc, and everyone else started screaming about how she has the right to keep her sex life private and who cares as long as she doesn’t scare the horses in the street,which was precisely missing the point. The original post is here, but IMO BoingBoing sums it up clearly and nicely.
This Following Torah commentary was written by Rabbi Andy Shugerman of Aventura, Florida. Andy is both a graduate and current employee of JTS as their development Rabbinic Fellow. The following Dvar can also be found here.
Commonly found in coroner’s offices across North America is the following motto: “We speak for the dead to protect the living.” Ancient and modern biblical commentators have taken a similar stance toward the rape of Dinah and its aftermath. A close examination of Genesis 34 and contemporary responses to its narrative will show how one of the Torah’s most troubling passages can inspire us to take action. We must, in the words of Proverbs 31:8, “speak for those who cannot speak for themselves.” We must address similar injustices in today’s society in order to protect the living.
Chapter 34 of Genesis laconically opens with the rape. Verse one tells how Jacob’s and Leah’s only daughter “went out to visit the daughters of the land.” The next verse immediately reports that Shechem, a Canaanite man, “saw her, and took her and lay with her by force.” The next fifteen verses describe how Shechem, infatuated with Dinah, enlists his powerful father Hamor to “get me this girl” by brokering a deal with a speechless Jacob and his enraged sons. The brothers assent to Shechem marrying their sister only if he and his clan circumcise themselves; otherwise, they “will take our daughter and go” (34:17).
As shown above, among the various motifs in Genesis 34 is the repeated use of the Hebrew verb root LaKaCH for “get” or “take,” and three of its eight appearances figure prominently in the narrative’s closing verses. Three days following the mass circumcision, Dinah’s brothers Shimon and Levi “took each his sword” (34:25) to slay the townsmen and then “took Dinah out of Shechem’s house and went away” (34:26). After the other brothers “seized . . . all that was inside the town and outside” (34:28), the action concludes with Jacob’s furious reaction to his sons’ rampage, to which they reply, “Should our sister be treated like a whore?” (34:31).
In fact, that rhetorical question in the passage’s final verse encapsulates the concerns of the male personalities in this story. After Shechem inexplicably ravishes Dinah, he seeks to acquire her in a way that would dignify the coerced intercourse of their initial encounter. Her brothers, on the other hand, desire retribution for this “outrage . . . a thing not to be done” (34:7) that has turned their sister into a sex object. In Shechem’s eyes, Dinah is an item for negotiation; for her brothers, she represents a defilement and a cause for revenge.
According to this literary analysis, one can see how Genesis 34 presents its violent narrative of the loss and repossession of power, property, and honor. Amidst all the explicit atrocities, though, perhaps the most subtle tragedy is the way in which both Dinah’s virginity and her voice are stolen from her. Not once does she speak in the entire chapter, nor do any of the men ever address her directly. Unfortunately, many ancient and medieval rabbis add insult to her injury, as they place the onus for the rape on Dinah and/or her mother Leah. For example, Genesis Rabbah 80:1 assigns moral responsibility to both Dinah and Leah, for “a woman is not immoral until her daughter is immoral,” as Leah herself “went out to meet (Jacob) like a harlot.” This type of moralistic comment may have been intended to protect women from exposing themselves to danger, but it unfairly assumes that either Dinah or Leah could have prevented what occurred.
Instead of blaming the victim, the action-oriented divrei Torah of two female colleagues have articulated a fresh approach that has affected me deeply. Rabbis Arielle Hanien and Sharon Brous have both spoken about the rape of Dinah, in particular, and the difficult passages in the Torah, in general, as requiring a visceral reaction from contemporary audiences. We are meant to feel disgust and horror in reading these verses; indeed, those emotions make this difficult text sacred if we pay attention to our discomfort and act upon it. According to my colleagues, we are uncomfortable precisely because we know that these kinds of violence persist in our world today. We can neither ignore the plain meaning of the text or its striking context in our broken world. Instead, Rabbis Hanien and Brous would exhort us to hear God’s voice calling us to action through this and other challenging narratives that disturb.
To place this perspective in dialogue with current events and advocacy efforts, consider the following passage from Randy Gener’s article “In Defense of ‘Ruined’” in this past month’s American Theater magazine about one of the most produced and most troubling plays on stage this season:
This tradition of objectifying women during conflicts . . . has stepped up to new levels: Fighters have systematically used rape and murder in the former Yugoslavia, in Rwanda in the 1990s, and currently in Darfur with the intent to eliminate ethnic groups and to induce forced displacement. The prevalence of rape and other sexual violations in Eastern Congo has been described as the worst in the world. Women, children and even some men are being attacked by multiple assailants, often in public and in front of their neighbors. Even the United Nations’ peacekeeping forces have been accused of rape. Sexual violence wasn’t recognized as a war crime until June 2008 when the UN Security Council passed Resolution 1820, a small step toward ending what Jan Egeland, the former humanitarian affairs chief, described as “one of the biggest conspiracies of silence in history.”
As Gener describes, Lynn Nottage’s play Ruined has received critical acclaim and large national audiences even though—or perhaps because—its pervasive subject matter, sexual violence, is such a taboo for conversation, let alone performance. Nonetheless, the fact that the play won the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for Drama attests to the public’s need and desire to hear these stories. Will we similarly examine cases of rape among male inmates in American prisons or cases of American servicemen sexually assaulting their female colleagues on military bases and in combat zones? What of the ever-expanding problem of human trafficking in industrialized countries, including the United States and Israel?
This Shabbat, let us follow the example of these women rabbis and artists who have spoken for Dinah and for others who could not speak for themselves. We must unravel other “conspiracies of silence” by bringing new attention to bear upon the persistence of sexual violence in all forms in the twenty-first century. Let us passionately question and courageously embrace the parts of our tradition and our world that challenge us the most. May we thus realize the full message of that passage from Proverbs 31: “Speak up, judge righteously, champion the poor and the needy . . . for the rights of all the unfortunate.”
Most of the world is perfectly fine with Pamela Anderson taking off her clothes. I admit I am. So are most of the Israeli men oggling her figure while the blond bombshell visits Israel this week as a judge on the Israeli version of ‘Dancing with the Stars.’
One might assume correctly that Israeli Hardeidim would feel otherwise, and indeed when Anderson visited the Kotel she managed to cover herself appropriately enough not to rile its self-appointed guardians.
But Anderson’s agenda in Israel was not limited to television appearances. She is an advocate for PETA’s anti-fur efforts and as luck would have it Israel’s Animal Welfare Law bans the import of real fur products.
The catch? The bill has been stymied by United Torah Judaism’s MK Moses, a Shtreiml-wearing Belzer Hasid. Shtreimls are those funny looking fur hats worn by many men in several hasidic sects. And many a hasid is loathe to set aside their beloved head pelt. So what if its 90 degrees in the shade in Mea Shaarim? It would be sacrilege to shun the shtreiml.
And so it would seem that Anderson’s efforts to try and convince the Haredim holding up the bill to give up their shtreimls are for naught… Doubly so because if anyone is going to avert their eyes and ears from the charms of this shalicha, its Hareidim.
There are of course a multitude of other sorts of fur hats worn as well, notably the spodik, worn mostly by Gerers. The Gerer Rebbe, however, issued a chumra on the purchase of actual fur spodiks, as they are a sign of ostentation. Gerers wear phauz fur spodiks. Say that ten times fast…
So there is precedence of adopting altern-hat-ives among hasidim. If she really wants to get the Hasidim to take off their fur, Pamela should maybe offer up the possibility of dressing tznius all the time… Or better yet, threaten not to and to parade around the Kotel again. The Hareidim would of course have a predictable response, but it might also have an unintended consequence- thousands of Chilonim thronging to the Kotel…
Honoring movers and shakers doing good work on behalf of (or for) the Jooz in the areas of:
Social and economic justice and do-gooding
Peace (in Israel and elsewhere, except Iceland)
Jewish culture (whatever that is)
Spirituality (‘specially the touchy feel-y sort)
Inclusivity (Pluralist, Racial, Gender and all that ‘faggy’ stuff)
Media (it is the message after all, liek this blog)
Other things we hate but have to include.
Step one: We announce the contest and make it sticky on the site. (check)
Circulate it via email, blogosphere and intertubes. (need your help here)
Develop snarky but slick logo that looks Obama-esque (uh, check?)
Step two: Nominations accepted via form submission on the website
Post facebook event/app/group/widget to redirect voters to jewschool.com
Be sure that heads of major Joowish organizations and entities iz nominated.
Also, anyone with a huge email/twitter/facebook following…
Note that femalez iz welcome to apply but will not be winnerz
(cuz they iz too stoopid… naw, cuz they all already iz heroz- hi mom!)
Step three: Inform all nominees they are finalists. Because they are all special.
To be named a 36, they must encourage their supporters to vote for them
(and be popular).
Votes are accepted via hosted form, which collects their name, locale,
Announce winners of the cheerleading squad via press release, youtubz
Compile voter list into email database and announce winners via email list
Solicit their financial support, just for shirtz and gigglz
Use the email list for our own purposez: to give all teh kittehz cheezburgerz er- Kosher tofu-parve cheezburgers..!
Muuuuhahahahahaha!!!! I eatz it up. I laffs at u. More »
Salon reports that on Tuesday, the Working Group Against the Trafficking of Women pulled a stunt in Tel Aviv intended to jolt people out of their stupor about sex trafficking in Israel, and ultimately to get enough signatures to push forward a measure that would criminalize johns.
Although here in the states, I’m generally inclined to avoid clipboard holders (I’m perfectly capable of finding my own petitions to sign, thank you, and generally opposed to giving out my name and address to random people on the street whom I have no idea if they really represent the organization they state), this would probably grab my attention:
Activists lined up seven women like merchandise in the window of a shop in Tel Aviv’s Dizengoff Center mall. A sign above them read, “Women for sale according to personal taste.” Haaretz reports that some “were made up to appear as if they had been beaten, and all had price tags that listed details such as age, weight, dimensions, and country of birth.”
It hasn’t been a secret for some time now that sex trafficking in Israel is an enormous problem. Way back in 2005, a report was issued by The Parliamentary Inquiry Committee, headed by Knesset member Zehava Galon of the left-wing Yahad party, which commissioned the report in an effort to combat the sex trade in Israel. Findings showed that some 3,000 and 5,000 women were smuggled to Israel annually and sold into the prostitution industry for about $8-10,000 American dollars, where they are constantly subjected to violence and abuse. Two years before that Israel passed a law that would allow the state to confiscate the profits of traffickers, but watchdog groups say it is rarely enforced.
This law would be different. In 1999, Sweden took the same approach advocated by this new measure, and criminalized johns; trafficking has since been significantly reduced. A report in July of this year, published by the government of Sweden evaluated the law’s first ten years and how it has actually worked in practice. It states,
street prostitution has been cut in half; there is no evidence that the reduction in street prostitution has led to an increase in prostitution elsewhere, whether indoors or on the Internet; the bill provides increased services for women to exit prostitution; fewer men state that they purchase sexual services; and the ban has had a chilling effect on traffickers who find Sweden an unattractive market to sell women and children for sex. Following initial criticism of the law, police now confirm it works well and has had a deterrent effect on other organizers and promoters of prostitution. Sweden appears to be the only country in Europe where prostitution and sex trafficking has not increased.
Your life is a mess. You’re tired of the routine, you’re constantly craving more of what you’ve already attained, and you find true satisfaction in nothing and in no one. Well here’s the quick fix: 1. Plan an expensive get-away. 2. No, actually, scratch that—plan three expensive get-aways. 3. But it’s not just the location that’s getting to you. You’re also sick of your significant other. So dump the schlub, give no real reason for your decision to break-up, and then… 4. Swear with almost-compelling adamancy that you’re not looking to be in a relationship— 5. then sleep with a string of people who look nearly indistinguishable from your former sig-o. The key here is that they all must be young, virile, and totally whipped. 6. All the while, make sure not to deny yourself any culinary pleasure. 7. Gleefully declare your independence from weight concerns, as you claim to gourmandize your way around the world, eat more—while still fitting magically into your ever-expanding wardrobe of size 2 sartorial splendor. 8. Seek counsel from at least two oppressed Third World women who are visibly ‘ethnically Other.’ 9. But in the end, make sure that it is you who gives them advice. After all, what are you if not the paragon of discipline, self-control, and loving-kindness? 10. Find yourself…in the arms of a ruggedly handsome Brazilian.
Summarized (in case we’ve lost you already): Eat without gaining weight, pray without believing, and love without…well, loving. In case you have not sacrificed 133 minutes of your life watching the film adaptation of Elizabeth Gilbert’s best-selling Eat Pray Love (which I have not read), the 10 rules outlined above will help you attain enlightenment, according to the film’s impeccable logic. Writing a review of this film, pointing to its almost laughably offensive hypocrisy and disturbingly classist, racist, and sexist messages, is like shooting fish in a barrel, and many have beat me to this task already. Instead, I want to reflect on the larger trends that this film and the book upon which it is based represent and how we can use Judaism to deal with some of these cosmic issues that the EPL cult supposedly tackles and resolves.
In this month of Elul, leading up the earlier-than-usual battery of Jewish holidays this year, we are charged with the task of intensive cheshbon nefesh, a kind of introspective reflection on our actions over the past year. In the current climate of crassly classist and gender-coded self-help quick-fixes, traditional Judaism offers us a much-needed antidote to the kind of ‘me first’ mentality of NSA new-agey spirituality that this film so strikingly emblematizes. EPL has to be one of the least Jewish films out there: despite the protagonist Liz’s insensitive and exploitative treatment of most of the other characters in the film, never once does our well-fed world-traveler express any genuine remorse for her cavalier treatment and attitude towards others. Perhaps most notable in Liz’s string of careless actions towards others is her bizarrely under-explained, sudden, seemingly arbitrary abandonment of her spouse at the very outset of the film. While classically “Jewish guilt” can be stretched to unhealthy limits, at the very least it affirms that which is most essentially human about us—our ability to feel, our ability to be accountable to others.
In Avot d’Rabbi Natan, chapter 41, we are told that we should regard even the slightest wrong we commit against another with utmost seriousness; whereas we should not dwell on the good deeds we have performed for others. This is a near 180 reversal of the EPL approach which dangerously conflates boundless personal enlightenment with boundless self-entitlement. In the EPL film, protagonist Liz Gilbert’s single outward act of kindness to others –the scene in which she ‘selflessly’ emails her friends, appealing to them for donations to help a natural healer and her daughter build a house in Bali—is piously prefaced by Gilbert’s self-righteous declaration that this request comes in lieu of her annual birthday celebration. The dramatic montage that follows of her friends receiving the email appeal signals to us that this Liz’s ultimate moment of enlightenment; this is her defining moment of ‘giving,’ Beyond the obviously paternalistic quality of the rich-white-woman-saves-the-struggling-natives, this scene smacks of the kind of crass, self-congratulatory armchair philanthropy that lulls people into self-righteous complacency: ‘I’ve written the check; I am now absolved of further responsibility towards my fellow humans.’
Real loving-kindness involves a long-term investment in the sanctity of the Other. And no, not just that supposedly ‘significant Other’—rather, the acknowledgement of all other people as significant, and the realization that we must invest in them not only materially, but also personally. The way to grow with others is to take responsibility by being present in their lives. What Liz lacks is a sense of rootedness, the sense of unity upon which community is based. All of Gilbert’s globetrotting points to an inability and lack of desire to commit to other human beings and forge authentic relationships.
Again, it is entirely unclear what exactly propels Liz to leave her husband at the outset of the film—all we’re told is that ‘things can’t continue this way,’ although we see nothing particularly alarming onscreen. In fact, what we see is all fairly typical and benign; Liz and her adoring husband are engaging in light banter. All we know is that Liz cannot handle her life as it is any longer. What present-day in-vogue spirituality misses is the point that one can actually discover boundless meaning in the routine of real, mundane life. Patience and forbearance might be considered passé, but it’s the real deal.
Case in point: even the National Geographic-quality cinematography, with its wide lens doting lovingly on EPL’s glamorously sun-soaked characters and sweeping, exotic landscapes and, bursting with exuberantly lush colour, still fails to make us love the film or the figures portrayed therein. In this film, everything—and everyone—is relegated to the status of ambient scenery…a Potemkin village populated by poorly developed stereotypes. Despite a good chunk of the film taking place in India and Indonesia, we are basically spared any unpleasant and ‘unpalatable’ scenes of actual poverty and suffering.
It’s 133 minutes of tantalizing culinary, spiritual, and pseudo-sexual foreplay. Nothing ever really materializes, except for the sheer ubiquity of the material forces driving the ‘action’ (if you can even call it that). Set against only the most breathtaking of landscapes, we watch Robert’s character shamelessly indulging in an endless parade of epicurean delights, nearly interchangeable, conventionally attractive young men, and more generally, snorting up the cocaine of petty affirmation through the regurgitation of self-help platitudes. EPL, with its ‘money and men can cure all’ approach is panglossian at best, and is inhumanely narcissistic at worst. In this past week’s Parasha, Parashat Ki Tetse, we read towards the beginning of the portion of the sin of gluttony (Deut. 21:20-21); a gluttonous son technically qualifies for death by stoning. Indeed, death by stoning would have made the film considerably more interesting.
One of the more amusing points of the film, which is replete with instances of consoling consumption and too many delightful moments of conspicuous product-placement to mention, is when Liz seeks “whatever” (let’s just call it that, since her Self seems like a lost cause) at an Ashram, and is told she can purchase a “silence” tag at the bookstore. Even the choice to remain silent must be purchased! Indeed, instead of appealing the Master of the Universe, we are advised to whip out our MasterCard.
Interestingly, God is never really mentioned in the film. Only at one point, when Liz first decides to “pray,” does she sort of address ‘God,’ but, like everything else in the film, “God” here functions ornamentally, much in the same way as all of her beaus blend into the landscape as figures she uses instrumentally, solely for the purpose of her immediate personal edification and comfort. Clearly, Liz’s ‘prayer’ is more a signifying act than a genuine appeal or promise for anything. Indeed, that very brief ‘prayer’ scene typifies today’s NSA spirituality.
According to an April 2010 article in USA Today, a whopping 72% of the members of generation Y in the U.S. self-identify as “more spiritual than religious”: a diffuse, general sense of “spirituality” seems to prevail among the younger generation. Exactly what such figures mean is an interesting question. Perhaps young people, jaded by the perceived hypocrisy of societal institutions involved in questionable military adventures abroad and failed economic and social policies at home, wish to avoid the stuffiness of institutional structure as they seek personal meaning. This avoidance of established institutions, while perhaps explainable, is, nevertheless, regrettable. While more structured and specifically religious forms of meaning-making can be stifling, this is not the time to abandon all forms of committed/practice-oriented devotion. If anything, the young have the potential to infuse these older traditions with a new, updated kind of meaning and help build a form of worship and practice that is better attuned to the needs and desires of today’s meaning seeker. But practice-based, community-oriented religion has received an unnecessarily bad rap these days.
Don’t get me wrong—spirituality is a beautiful thing in its genuine form. But every intention needs a structure—a calendar and a location—and most importantly, a community. As social animals, even the seemingly solitary act of self-improvement relies heavily on our interaction with others. Admittedly, at a certain point, it is difficult to draw a line separating ‘religion’ and spirituality.’ Ideally the two converge to create the ultimate meaningful devotional experience. In a way, the two share many of the same potential dangers: exploitative leadership, false promises, extortion of money, and so on. But in today’s cult of “take time for You,” these dangers seem to proliferate with the false comfort of ‘all you can eat’ spirituality that cuts you off from any real sense of empathy, participation and activism.
Is Javier Bardem holding a banana? Really??
Getting back to the film for a moment though: even in her supposedly most vulnerable moments in the film, there is something decidedly smug about Liz’s spiritual odyssey, which culminates in a neatly-resolved scene where she pursues a relationship with yet another attractive man. Having found ‘love’ (or at least lust), Liz’s journey comes to a eminently photogenic close. As we move through the month of Elul, it is critical for us to keep in mind that true seeking never finishes in a Hollywood ending, but rather, is more challenging and also more beautiful and infinitely more subtle.
As we reflect on the past year and plan how we can create more genuine religious (or spiritual, if you like) experiences in the year to come, remember the words of André Gide who said, “”Believe those who are seeking the truth. Doubt those who find it.”
If you are a facebook user, you’ve likely received some sort of hack invitation recently to join or ‘like’ a page entitled Fact, all girls tell these 10 lies to men when they are cheating. (Note: the males are men while the females are girls.) Even if you have not seen this page on the internet, you still have an opportunity to engage in cultural myth-making vis-à-vis women’s chastity with this week’s Torah portion.
In biblical times, there was a different kind of over-the-top forum for humiliating public disclosure, equally intrusive, but with much higher stakes: the Temple in Jerusalem. Indeed, if you skip ahead to Chapter 5 of Numbers, you can read first-hand of the kind invasive intimidation tactics routinely used to “deal with” women whose husband’s suspected them of marital infidelity.
Because such a spectacle is better seen than described, I have taken the liberty to sketch out this rather involved procedure (see below). Interestingly, the text does not include any kind of formal questioning about the suspected woman’s partner(s). Considering how terrifying and demeaning this whole ritual must have been to the accused woman, one can rather safely assume that the desired effect was that she buckled under pressure and disclosed her tawdry secrets, if, indeed, such secrets existed.
The isha sota (or ‘deviant woman’) episode is disturbing on so many counts; one barely knows where to start working through these issues. If the woman proves innocent, she must resume her marital life with a man who has caused her such shame (if this is the case, the man is expected to give an offering as well—but this is only a gesture to God, not to his wife whom he falsely accused). If she is guilty of the charges, her “stomach distends and her thighs sag.”
Fast-forwarding to the Haftorah (Judges 13:2-25) which accompanies this week’s Torah portion, where we read of Manoach who, interestingly, appears suspicious of his wife when she comes to him and reports that an unnamed man appeared before her when she was out in the field all by herself and announced that she would soon become pregnant. While Manoah’s suspicions do not appear to reach the level of jealousy described in the Torah portion, he does insist on seeing the “man” himself. Particularly interesting with regard to this tale is that the son born to this couple as a result of the aforementioned annunciation is a strapping young fellow whose thunderous passion for the wrong woman leads him to his undoing.
What is to be learned here? One should exercise restrain not only in one’s actions, but also in one’s judgments of others.
Click on thumbnails for full-sized images, a step-by-step instruction on testing your woman:
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 »
We are writing to inform you about some unfortunate news. Namely, a very part-time employee of the Chicago Jewish Day School has been arrested on the charge of transporting child pornography. No students, parents, or other staff of the school are involved in this event. More immediately, this person’s schedule in our building meant that he had absolutely NO contact with any Emanuel students.
B’H, I’m glad that in this CJDS case none of the kids were involved. Both of these people were on the periphery of Jewish schools to the extent that nobody suspected anything. So it’s got me thinking: how do day schools, or for that matter, camps, synagogues, federations, or youth groups avoid having our youth unknowingly involved in some aspect of kiddie porn?
Are there source or secondary texts in our tradition that deal with sexual crimes against children? No pun intended, even on erev Purim, but school me.
Some of us know Avi Fox-Rosen for his klezmerish work. Some of us may appreciate his whimsy. Some of us just like bikes and others (of either sex) may like hot girls. And then there are furries. But I digress.
Here is something yummy and fun for all of us. Because it’s ADAR!
Avi Fox-Rosen’s CD Release Party is Wednesday June 3rd @ Union Pool, Williamsburg, BROOK-LYN.
It sucks when Jews commit a hillul hashem and the news picks up on it. We all suffer, especially if they’re observant and it smacks of hypocrisy.
But what about when it’s a poseur?
Amidst the feel-goods about IsraAID and JDC helping out on the ground in Haiti comes a story of a shady character named Jorge Puello. He’s a “legal advisor” to the 10 missionaries accused (and now cleared) of smuggling children into Dominican Republic. He’s also wanted in connection with a human trafficking scandal that spans Central America. He reportedly ran a brothel out of his home in Miami, luring Caribbean women with promises of modeling work only to traffic them into the sex-trades. It gets stranger. Puello apparently served a stint in jail for narcotics, served in US Army Intel, and worked for Homeland Security. Is nobody doing background checks anymore?
Oh yeah, and there’s this: he sports a beard, velvet kippah an claims to be ”president of the Jewish Communities of Dominican Republic.”
About four years ago, he emerged in Santo Domingo saying he wanted to establish a Sephardic Jewish community. Cerminara and Ana Puello said everyone in their family is Catholic and that Jorge Puello’s converted on his own. “He is Jewish by conviction,” she said. “He practices the religion and believes it in his heart.”
The Dominican Republic is home to about 50 Jewish families, a tightly knit and low-key community that includes Sephardim and Ashkenazim, and some had doubts about the new arrival, said Isaac Lalo, secretary of the Centro Israelita de Republica Dominicana, the main synagogue.
“This guy has nothing to do with our community,” Lalo said. “Sephardic Jews don’t just set up a community out of the blue.”
WTF?! Like we don’t have enough Madoffs in our midst, people gotta pose as us and do their evil deeds?