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Samson Raphael Hirsch removed Kol Nidre from the Yom Kippur service one year, in hopes of minimizing anti-semitic rhetoric surrounding the prayer and the belief that it authorized Jews to behave immorally in business. He immediately decided this was a mistake and brought it back the following year, but it's fascinating to me what the boundaries of 'reform' were in the mid 19th century and how they're different from what contemporary Orthodoxy considers legitimate as topic of potential halachic reform. It's unthinkable that an Orthodox figure today would contemplate removing such a central prayer from the Yom Kippur liturgy. On the other hand, there are things we do today in a Modern Orthodox synagogue in terms of approach to texts and scholarship, not to mention womens' involvement, that Rav Hirsch would have found unthinkable.

Even more striking is the story of early 19th century Saxe-Weimar, which sought to encourage Reform Judaism for various political reasons. For a fifteen year period from the late 1830s to about 1850, they forbid prayer in Hebrew- to the delight of the most radical Jewish reformers and the agony of the rest of the Jewish community. Which reads to me as the Chanukah story in miniature. I think I mentioned in my last post on the book that Meyer's position seems to be that the story of the rise of Reform Judaism is inextricable from the story of Jewish emancipation in Western Europe, and large parts of Western European Jewry existed in a sort of suspended half-emancipated state in the early 19th century where religious reforms were newly possible, but they represented an actual zero-sum game because they were dependent on state support. Berlin had a single synagogue for its 3000 Jews, and it was actually illegal to have an alternate house of worship, so when the traditionalists were ascendant the reformers had to have secret illegal prayer services and when the reformers were ascendant the same was true for the traditionalists. And mind you, both were competing against the third option- Jews who didn't care about religion either way and if it got too hard would happily convert to Christianity for the economic benefits, which of course was the state's plan all along. It seems like after the 1848's pan-European upheaval, political conditions improved enough that Orthodoxy and Reform could uneasily coexist, and that's when the denominational split as we know it today more or less began.

I've read before more social-history-oriented accounts of the battles between Orthodox and Reform, but they tended to be at such a localized level that I hadn't understood the consequences of these battles in their greater context. Still, I find myself wishing for more of the social history kind of stuff than Meyer is interested in providing. He discusses polemics back and forth about decorum during prayer services- typically the Reformers favored a more orderly, Christian-style prayer service and the Orthodox a more unruly, chaotic prayer, or so I'm given to understand, but he doesn't supply a lot in the way of details about the actual experiential differences. A contemporary Orthodox shul is more likely to have a lay chazan, and to have different people praying at different volumes and different paces at the same time as the chazan, but it does not strike me as the kind of chaos that would spur the Reformers' outrage- I can't tell if this is because I am used to it, or if it's because contemporary Orthodox prayers have also gotten more orderly as a response to popular preference in the past two centuries.
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Posted this on facebook a couple weeks ago; I saw something the other day on Dreamwidth that made me think it probably was worth posting here too:

The secret reason I'm not okay with everyone cheering on the punching of Nazis is because lots of the leftists cheering the punching of Spencer are fond of calling Zionists Nazis. Where by Zionists they mean Jews.

So when I say "I'm worried about who gets to decide who is a Nazi and can be punched," I mean "I'm worried they're going to punch my family." When I say "I'm worried about the unforeseen consequences of mob justice," I mean "I'm worried about anti-semitic pogroms."

I'm testing out this idea of not talking in code. We'll see if it's a mistake.
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Hundreds of Jewish umbrellas came out today, braving the hail and the sleet and the cold, to Battery Park, overlooking the Statue of Liberty, to say that Jews understand our moral obligation to help refugees and not deny them safety. To commit to continue fighting against Trump's hatred. To speak about our love and connection with the Muslim community. To remember the past and pray for the future. And to say that we were strangers once, in the land of Egypt, and because of that it is a mitzvah to love the stranger.

(better pictures, not taken by me)
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I get great benefit from the Orthodox Union, including but not limited to its kashrut cerrtification, and I am a part of several communities that provide funding to and work closely with the Orthodox Union. I've been part of Orthodox Union sponsored youth groups and participated in a number of Orthodox union sponsored events as an adult. I generally have supported their lobbying efforts in Washington on a wide range of issues related to the Jewish community, and their outreach efforts to provide Jewish services to Jews in localities that cannot sustain a dedicated synagogue.

And so when I say that the Orthodox Union's recent ruling on women acting on clerical roles in OU affiliated synagogues seems ill-thought, you should read that as my feelings being a lot more extreme than that and being moderated only by my deep and longstanding admiration for the institution.

I'm presently in the middle of reading Rabbi Ethan Tucker and Rabbi Micha'el Rosenberg's new book Gender Equality and Prayer in Jewish Law, which I've literally had pre-ordered on Amazon for two years. I will have more to say on this subject when I've finished reading it.
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I've started reading Michael Meyer's Response to Modernity, his attempt at a history of the entire Reform Movement in Judaism. I'm only thirty pages in and it is fantastic, but also tantalizing. I feel like I want to read a whole book about every two pages of this book. (This is partially because I am still in the 1810s, when the history of the Reform movement was essentially intertwined and indistinguishable from the history of Haskalah and other Orthodox reform movements.)

Topics I want to read whole books about now:

-Jacob Emden and 18th century Anti-Sabbateanism (Was that actually a thing? A hundred years after his conversion and death, people still thought Shabbetai Tzvi was Moshiach?)

-Moses Mendelssohn (everything I've read about him is hagiographic and notes the fact that all of his grandchildren ended up Christian as some sort of ironic footnote, but Meyer represents him as a more confusing figure who used his tremendous reputation for scholarship to direct the public discourse, but ultimately set a path for disciples who repudiated his fundamental principles while speaking in his name and citing his precedents.)

-Eliyahu Baal Shem (Ancestor of Emden and not at all related to the story, but the offhanded reference made me curious to look up his Golem legends)

-Napoleon's Sanhedrin

-The history of Jewish emancipation in Western Europe ( so far much of Meyer's story seems more like Reform Judaism began as a political movement than a religious one)

-Ashkenazim vs. Sephardim in early modern Jewish Amsterdam
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Not in God's Name by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks

I found this book sometimes interesting and thought-provoking, but more often I found it frustrating. I didn't read the whole thing, though I did read large chunks of it and after a certain point I started skipping around to read chunks of different chapters to sample as much of it as I could take. It's Rabbi Sacks's effort to talk about a lot of related issues involving the intersection of religion and militism, and there are so many different topics and so many different ideas and Rabbi Sacks as a moderate traditionalist is trying to navigate such a precarious middle ground that it feels like every chapter contradicts the chapter before it.

Rabbi Sacks's chief argument is, perhaps, that religious violence is not the result of particularism, of sectarian identification, but of the warring impulses of particularism and universalism. It emerges when a particular sect with its particularist ideology decides that it has the moral imperative to impose its ideology on others. He claims that this is a natural consequence of theological dualism and suggests that the Jewish form of monotheism was introduced as a competitor to this dualism, to the idea that the Other is the Enemy. Also, I think, that anti-semitism exists because of the threat this ideology poses to dualist sects.

But then he waves away the violently dualist passages in Torah in a sloppy and inconclusive chapter called "Hard Texts" in which he says that the Rabbanim always understood these violent passages as not really impelling violence (which is mostly true), but doesn't offer a compelling alternative explanation for why these passages are violent, simply claiming that people in the Biblical era were more violent and needed this violent language in their holy texts for some reason.

I wanted more from Rabbi Sacks. I made a similar argument a few years back with regards to Artscroll's choice to render 'thy two breasts' in the Song of Songs as "thy twin tablets of Law". It's fine that two thousand years of religious tradition understand this text as metaphorical, but it's important to recognize how metaphors work in Judaism. We recognize that there is something to be taught from the p'shat, the literal meaning, even though as a matter of practical halacha we don't observe the p'shat. Rabbi Sacks does not offer a convincing reason why there are Biblical exhortations to genocide, even though they are not observed, and I think it weakens his overall case for Jewish theology as uniquely suited to being an Or LaGoyim.

On the other hand, I don't know any thinkers offering better explanations for these verses. There may just not be a good answer to this question.
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[personal profile] brainwane asked for me to talk about "The extent to which various grocery stores and restaurants do or do not cater to your food restrictions."

So I should stipulate that I do not have any food allergies, and so in this context 'food restrictions' means "The extent to which I keep kosher". And for the clarity of those who don't know much about the laws of kashrut, that this is not quite the same as just saying "I keep kosher." There are many different ways to keep kosher. There are a few reasons for this:

1)The modern food system is complicated.
2)Jews like making things complicated.
3)Not all Jews agree on the specific details of the laws of kashrut.
4)Not all Jews trust all other Jews, or all other people in general.
5)Some Jews take extra precautions in their eating practices that are not strictly required by Jewish law, in order to be extra certain that they don't accidentally violate the laws of kashrut.

These things are interconnected. In a sense, kashrut is pretty simple and straightforward. There aren't really that many main concepts. I think I can cover pretty much all of them in a few lines:

1)Only certain animals and parts of animals can be eaten, and those animals must be killed and processed according to certain ritual procedures.
2)Anything grown in the earth can be eaten, but if it was grown in Israel certain percentages must be committed to Temple use and cannot be eaten.
3)Unkosher foods ritually contaminate the vessels they are contained in under certain conditions.
4)Dairy and meat cannot be mixed.

There, that is all of kashrut while standing on one foot. As I said, in a sense it's pretty straightforward. But the modern food system is complicated. If you're just buying vegetables straight out of the ground, there's no question of what's in it: Dirt and insects and pesticides and vegetable matter, and that's it. You clean off the dirt and insects and pesticides and you make sure there weren't any tithes involved and you're fine to eat. But so much of the food we eat is processed, and there are so many ingredients involved and so many different kinds of cooking vessels involved. To determine whether unkosher animal byproducts have been introduced could be a difficult challenge.

Could, I say! Doesn't have to. Theoretically, there's a principle in kashrut called bitul, which is a little technically involved but says that if a nonkosher ingredient is less than a sixtieth of the total volume of a food mixture, it's nullified by the vast bulk of kosher food. Some people take this approach to the kashrut of processed goods- if there isn't something obviously unkosher on the ingredients list, they'll eat it and assume if there was anything unkosher it's nullified by bitul. Orthodox Judaism in the post-war era, generally speaking, does not take this understanding of bitul, though. Their sense is that bitul requires that the unkosher ingredient be added by accident, and so in the case of industrial processes with each ingredient carefully added, nothing can be nullified. As a result, a huge and complicated industry has grown up of kosher certification. Ingredient lists are scrutinized, industrial processes are supervised by trained workers, and in theory if there is kosher certification on a food item it means that somebody with Rabbinical training is keeping an eye on the whole process to make sure the food is legitimately kosher according to Orthodox standards.

But which certifications a given Orthodox Jew holds by comes down to items 2, 3, 4, and 5 on my list. Some Jews won't eat food certified by certain certification organizations because those organizations observe a less stringent interpretation of certain kashrut rules. Some Jews won't eat food certified by certain certification organizations even though they observe the same kashrut rules, because they don't trust the certification organization to be honest and thorough. As a result, there are hundreds of different certification authorities and if you really want to dig into it, you have to educate yourself on the differences between them. To make matters more confusing, outside of New York State there are virtually no secular legal structures imposed on the labeling of kosher products, so anyone can stamp a K on food and declare it kosher without any supervision. (The community tries to pass warnings along when this happens, but transmission is not always perfect)

Personally, my general approach is to say that for my purposes, the purpose of kashrut certification is to keep the food providers honest. As long as someone is willing to sign their name to assert that the food has been supervised according to Jewish law, I will eat it. I mostly don't even bother keeping track of the various kashrut organizations, except in a general way, as I feel that the presence of a certification stamp is sufficient. The only exception is of a few certification authorities that I know will cause problems if I serve their food to other Orthodox Jews: Virtually no Orthodox Jews will eat Hebrew National food, because it is not glatt, an added stringency in the examination of slaughtered animals to find defects, and because some of them don't trust the Rabbi doing the certification. I have no problem with eating Hebrew National food myself, but I don't buy it because it would be inconvenient when hosting others.

Now, to return to [personal profile] brainwane's question, virtually nobody running a grocery store knows any of this, so it's pretty much on the Jewish consumer to know the meaning of labels and how to handle purchasing accordingly. And that's fine, that's just how it is. Reading the language of kosher certification symbols is something Jewish children are taught very young, because young kids need to have it explained to them many times why they can't just eat anything off the shelf.

The bigger issue when it comes to grocery stores is stock availability. I have it fairly easy in Central Jersey, with its large Jewish population. Several major supermarkets in towns with particularly large Jewish populations have, in the past decade, built out larger kosher sections. Shop Rite calls its special kosher section in some of its stores "The Kosher Experience". There are also dedicated kosher grocery stores- I'm lucky enough right now to live in walking distance to one. But even the supermarkets in my area that don't particularly cater to Jews at least tend to have a small kosher aisle. It's actually jarring when I'm on vacation to go grocery shopping and realize that's not the norm everywhere, and to find a greater fraction of even the not-specifically-marketing-to-kosher-people brands do not have any certification. But even in Central Jersey, I often have to do a cycle of several supermarkets to find all the kosher products I want. I don't think that's a particularly Jewish phenomenon, though- most people I know have that weird item they like that they only stock at the slightly further/more expensive grocery store, necessitating a rotation of grocery store visits.

Feelings about things like the Kosher Experience are a little mixed in the community. On the one hand, it brings supermarket convenience to us, and supermarket pricing. On the other hand, this works against local smaller Jewish businesses like kosher butchers- There basically aren't any around anymore. So, you know, globalization as usual. I'm generally pretty pro-globalization, but it's undeniable that it has costs. Something like three quarters of kosher meat for the country was produced at a facility in Iowa, and when that facility was shut down for labor violations and tax fraud, it was a massive disruption in the availability of kosher meat.

Also, slowly taking the place of local kosher butchers and specialized kosher food stores is the Internet. I haven't really much taken advantage of this, but I know people who order meat from online kosher meat providers that specialize in odd cuts or types of meat that don't make the cut at the new supermarket kosher sections. It is definitely a thing and I'm sure will become more of a thing over time.

[personal profile] brainwane, was that anything like the answer you were expecting?
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The Obelisk Gate by N.K. Jemisin

If anything, better than the Hugo Award winning first book in the series. It's middle booky in that it doesn't advance the plot too quickly toward the climax, but the introduction of Nassun's story gives the book just enough forward momentum and the story of everyone figuring out how to fight against the Season is gripping from beginning to end. And the character depth is just brilliant. Essun is once again fascinatingly bumpy and complicated, but Nassun's epiphanies about her mother and father and in Schaffa her new ersatz father are what charge the book with meaning, for me.

Tefillin by Aryeh Kaplan

A short book I got for a quarter at the library book sale, but a startlingly powerful and moving book nonetheless. Kaplan pairs good mechanical explanations of the process of wearing tefillin and praying with straightforward, plain English summarizations of abstruse Kabbalistic understandings of Tefillin. Kaplan sees tefillin not as a metaphor, as metaphors have limits and limitations, but as the perfected (or perhaps just perfectable) physical embodiment of the idea of Judaism's connection to and responsibility to God. We wear them, he seems to be saying, because the mitzvot exist as a way for us to perfect ourselves and repair the world, and the tefillin are a tool for making that process physical. The next time I wore tefillin, that made a huge difference in how I interacted with them.

I don't think this book would say as much to people who don't already have physical experience with wearing tefillin. I don't think this book would have said much to me when I was first wearing tefillin. But Kaplan brilliantly gives deeper meaning to the physical experience of wearing tefillin.

And then Zadie Smith and Michael Chabon put out new books the same week! My two favorite active writers!!!! I'm currently starting on Swing Time.
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Maimonides by Abraham Joshua Heschel

Translated from the German by Joachim Neugroschel, this is an early work of Heschel, written when he was 28 and living in Berlin in 1935. That... is an astonishing fact to recall as you read, and think about the questions and dangers to his community that Heschel was grappling with as he tried to provide context and meaning to the life and works of the Rambam.

Heschel's biography is primarily informed by the primary sources- Rambam's own writings about this life, as well as what can be inferred about Rambam's life from his theological and philosphical writings. He pulls a little extra detail from the writings of Yehuda HaLevi and Yosef Ibn Aknin and some of the Rambam's other contemporaries, but not a whole lot. The biography is therefore, on the whole, a direct intellectual conversation between Heschel and Maimonides, both giants of Jewish philosophy. That is something to treasure.

Heschel is extremely interested in Maimonides's wandering, how he went from Spain to Morocco to Israel to Egypt, fleeing Islamic persecution and seeking a stable, safe Jewish community, and at the same time trying in all of his sojourns to offer meaningful and pragmatic spiritual succor to the Jews living under pressure. It's a tradition he links to Rambam's father, Rabbi Maimon, who wrote a powerful letter providing halachic cover to Jews forced to pretend to be Muslims and only practice Judaism in secret, against hardliners in the Jewish community insisting that only those who risked martyrdom by openly practicing Judaism were offering valid worship to God. Rambam picked up the responsibility when his father died, engaging with splinter sects and messianic cults in a desperate and important effort to hold Jewish unity against the siege of Almohad persecution. Just imagine Heschel reading these texts in 1935 and thinking about their applicability to his own situation, how to create a viable Judaism in response to the rise of Hitler and the Nazis! How just three years after he published the book, the Jews of Berlin would see a pogram as bad as anything Maimonides ever saw, how he would lose most of his family to the Holocaust over the next decade.

Heschel sees in Maimonides's teachings a very clear response, and it is the response that informed the rest of Heschel's own life: Torah education and the spiritual exploration it fosters is the reason man was placed in the world, and it is the great protection of the survival of Judaism and the Jews. Maimonides, in both Mishneh Torah and Moreh Nevuchin, as well as Iggeret Teiman and his responsa literature, was creating the pathway for Jews to survive in spite of the persecution of the Almohades. Heschel reviews all of this literature in detail and in context. Earlier this year I reviewed Seeskin's A Guide for Today's Perplexed, which offers an interpretive gloss on Moreh Nevuchin in an explicitly modern philosophical language. Seeskin is asking how to understand Maimonides in the wake of Kant and Hegel and so on. Heschel is interested in understanding Maimonides on his own terms, in relation to medieval philosophy generally. This is, generally speaking, a less useful approach to engaging with the philosophical message of Maimonides, but it is a much richer approach to engaging with Maimonides as a person and as a leader. Heschel's biography of Maimonides is a thrilling guidebook to thinking about how to keep Judaism thriving.
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Janky as hell, after two failed designs and bad weather pushed me to the time limit. But it stands up, mostly! Chag Sukkot Sameach!
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A little more about the Shacharis minyan I go to Sunday mornings...

The shul I grew up with was, for the area, an old shul. It was founded in the early 1900s, when Eastern European Jews who'd come to New York in the First Wave were starting to move out of the city proper. There was the town it was founded in, which over the next fifty years became a small but significant manufacturing center, and there was farmland all around in every direction. It was an Orthodox synagogue, more or less, but Orthodoxy meant something a lot different back then before the War. It was the only synagogue, is more to the point, and people davened there regardless of how observant they were. In the 1920s, as the Jewish community grew, they moved to a bigger building: a fussy, idiosyncratic building that could be radically reconfigured as the community needed for different functions.

The community grew, and Judaism in America changed- in the 1950s, the shul hired a new Rabbi who was from the first class of the new Beis Medrash Govoha in Lakewood, NJ- the earliest post-war establishment of organized Charedi Judaism in America. Ironically, though BMG would ultimately become one of the major forces moving Orthodoxy rightward, the Rabbi who went to my shul went with dispensations from BMG to make allowances for the lack of observance in the community- over time, my shul's identity became blurred, a synagogue with a brilliant, well-trained Orthodox Rabbi and a mostly non-Orthodox congregation that nonetheless refused to affiliate officially with either the Conservative or Orthodox movements. In the '70s, as the farmland turned into suburbs, larger officially affiliated Conservative, Orthodox, and Reform shuls opened in the adjacent townships, drawing members from my shul.

But my shul still had history, it still had a strong sense of community, it had character, and it still had a brilliant Rabbi, who served the community for almost fifty years. He performed my bris and my bar mitzvah, and then when I was a teenager he retired. The shul then ran through two Rabbis in the next five years, losing members by the score the whole way. When I was away at college the shul folded. It formally merged with a Conservative synagogue a few towns away, but it sold its building to a Hispanic church and it distributed its remaining assets not only to the shul it officially merged with, but to the five or six other shuls, of all three denominations, its members fled to.

And since then, its members daven all over the place, or they've lost shul affiliation altogether, and mostly I see them on the occasion of a shiva minyan when an old member dies, but the people who ran the morning minyan were able to get the Jewish county Federation (an umbrella organization that runs charitable community services and distributes money to other Jewish community organizations) to let them use their building for a daily prayer service during the week. So this small group of people- we struggle to get a prayer quorum on time most days, unless someone has a yahrzeit and puts out a special call- reunites as a minyan in exile to keep this community alive.

When I daven there, I'm usually the youngest person there by thirty years, and most attendees are even forty or fifty years older than me. It's a wonderful group of people of diverse religious beliefs and life experiences- college professors and a judge, and electricians and construction workers, most of them retired or working reduced hours. We've all known each other for decades - even me, I've been davening in this minyan with these people since I was thirteen, I was the only kid who stayed on and kept davening there after bar mitzvah, and we're comfortable yelling at each other and bickering with each other and teasing each other.

And I don't know how long it will last. The shiva minyans for old members grow more frequent, and the minyan is in a tenuous condition where if it loses three or four regulars that might be enough to end it. it won't be the end of the world if it does end, either. This is not a "Minyan Man" scenario where losing the minyan means people won't be able to constitute a minyan if they need it. Everyone in the minyan has an alternative minyan that is probably closer and more convenient and integrated into their full-time synagogue that they could go to instead. We choose to daven together instead, to temporarily reconstitute a vanished community. It'll be sad when it falls apart.
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An NYC community venue I've gone to a number of times for the New York Review of Science Fiction book reading series, the Brooklyn Commons, hosted a 9/11 Truther for a lecture last night. That's bad enough- Trutherism is completely untethered from truth and spreading lies about an event as personally painful as 9/11 is pretty morally awful in my book. But the particular Truther they hosted is of the sort who blames a Zionist Jewish conspiracy for causing 9/11. And who may also dabble in a little Holocaust denial on the side. When confronted about this, the Commons doubled down, issuing a letter defending their decision on the grounds that they don't vet speakers, and arguing that giving a space to racists is important because it teaches people the valuable lesson that racists exist- all the while continuing to claim the Commons was a 'progressive' space.

I was planning to go to a NYRSF event there tonight, with an awesome guest list including Keith DeCandido, Steven Barnes, and Emily Perrin-Asher to talk about Star Trek on the 50th anniversary of the first episode airing. I'm torn, but I've decided not to go. On the one hand, the organization that runs the NYRSF readings is not anti-semitic, not at all affiliated with the Truthers, and has condemned Brooklyn Commons for hosting this speaker. And I've been going to NYRSF events for more than a decade, they were one of my first entrypoints into organized SF fandom and I don't want that to be ruined because of decisions made by people they don't have direct control of. On the other hand, they rent the space from the Brooklyn Commons and so my money if I attended would be going ultimately to the group that has condoned and welcomed this vile anti-semite, given him this platform within my own community.

A friend of mine organized a protest at the venue last night. I wish I could have joined, but I already had plans- the whole situation came up suddenly. And the whole situation makes me sick. It's bad enough to combat anti-semitism in the general world, but when it creeps into your own communities, that's a whole additional level of difficult.

Tonight, [personal profile] freeradical42 and I are just going to watch Star Trek TOS episodes on our own instead.
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The summer I was fifteen, I went as an observant Conservative Jew to an Orthodox Jewish summer camp and came back wearing a yarmulke and tzitzit on a daily basis. I passed it off to my parents tacitly as some sort of conversion that'd happened at camp, but that wasn't really accurate. Jew camp was thoroughly ridiculous, in fact, but I didn't reveal most of the horrors to my parents until many years later. The basic principle of the camp was that all morning we studied Talmud and all afternoon we played sports and all night we did whatever the hell we wanted without supervision as long as we were awake the next morning for Shacharis davening. It was a strange unbalancing combination. It was an interesting experience for a few weeks, but it was exhausting and confusing and most of the time had very little to do with Judaism. One night those of us who were actually asleep at 3AM were awakened by our counselors- someone was friends with the dude responsible for closing the Baltimore kosher Krispy Kreme and had managed to score all of the leftover donuts from that night- several garbage bags full. They spread the garbage bags out on the hood of someone's car and urged all of the campers to eat as many stale donuts as they could. It was an incredibly surreal experience that did not bring me any closer to God, needless to say.

The truth is I'd been contemplating making some shift of the sort for months if not years before I went to camp- camp gave me an excuse and an impetus to make the shift. I found Conservative Judaism an uncomfortably tenuous place to be- I believed in Hashem and believed that at Bar Mitzvah I'd been obligated in Hashem's commandments, but I wasn't exactly clear on what Conservative Judaism said that obligation looked like. Conservative Judaism's answers to how to resolve the tension between modernity and traditional Judaism did not satisfy me and even in cases where today their answers do satisfy me, my teachers in Conservative Judaism often failed to do a good job of publicizing those satisfying answers. (Part of the problem, looking back, is that most of my teachers in Conservative Judaism weren't actually Conservative Jews. For want of qualified staff, my Hebrew Schools often hired a)Orthodox Jewish teachers and b)Secular Israelis who could teach Hebrew. Neither was equipped to intelligently articulate the philosophy and praxis of Conservative Judaism. But that's neither here nor there.) I was looking for an approach to Judaism that offered a deeper connection to Mesorah and I was looking to make a commitment to it. But I've never been the sort to make a blind commitment. I research and I research and I think and think, and then I jump. The jump I made that summer was in the aftermath of a long and serious negotiation with my faith, and the reality is that I'm still negotiating.

One of the things that was important to me in this negotiation with Modern Orthodoxy was making sense of Judaism's ideas about science. I already knew at 15 that I was probably going to end up a scientist or engineer- After those three weeks at Orthodox Jewish summer camp, I went straight to three weeks at a summer camp (CTY) where I studied number theory all day. I was (and still am) a giant nerd, an intellectually curious, skeptical, omnivorous bibliophile, and a strong believer in the scientific method, and I needed reassurance that there was a place in traditional Judaism for those parts of me. And people have a sense that religion and science are things in tension with each other, and there are reasons for that. Not always good reasons, but sometimes they are good reasons. They're fundamentally epistemologically different approaches to the world, and while I don't think that means you can't use both approaches, it does provide an explanation for why they might see the world differently. It is not, in fact, easy, to hold two visions of the world in your head at the same time. It's much easier if you can reconcile the two approaches so they're both seeing things the same way. You will find Jewish scientists on the Orthodox Right who say things like "People ask me if it's hard to be a scientist and an Orthodox Jew and I tell them No! When I'm doing my scientific work, I apply the scientific method. When I think about God and our place in the universe, I turn to Judaism." It does not strike me as being as easy to compartmentalize as that, for many reasons.

One of the texts that was really important and influential to me on this nebulous journey we might hyperbolically call a teenage religious epiphany was Gerald Schroeder's The Science of God. I've recommended the book to a number of people since then, including [personal profile] marginaliana. I sent her a copy for Yuletide bookswap, after she asked me how I thought about Creation and entropy, but I realized I hadn't actually read the book myself since I was 15 and my thinking about religion and science has changed considerably since I was 15, so I figured I ought to revisit it myself.

And, well, I can see why the book mattered to me at 15, but I am not the same person anymore, and the book does not well-serve the 31 year old me.

Schroeder's basic question is this: Genesis describes a particular story by which the World was Created. Many of the particulars of this story do not match the conventional presently dominant scientific narrative of the origin of the universe and the Earth. How should a religious person who wants to hold by the dogma that the Bible is unerringly true understand the tension?

And his basic approach to resolving the question is twofold: First, he asserts that the ancient Rabbis understood the narration in Genesis not literally and not as a metaphor, but as a sort of coded explanation of true events. And second, he asserts that if you can decipher the code, scientific revelation never contradicts Biblical revelation, and in fact affirms the hidden wisdom of the Torah and it's worldview.

I have less problem with the first prong of his approach than the second. It's pretty obvious if you spend any time learning traditional Jewish approaches to Genesis that most Rabbis don't expect you to read Genesis literally, but that if you start reading it metaphorically you're veering out of theism altogether. Which does not necessarily make such an approach non-Jewish. Obviously that kind of metaphorical reading is how observant Reform Jews tend to approach Genesis, though not exclusively, and I don't presume to speak to their theology. It also sort of appears to be how Ibn Ezra reads Genesis, if you take the ibn Ezra at face value, which is probably a bad idea since ibn Ezra is smarter and cleverer than you. And it's worth noting that there are some who do read it literally- the Lubavitcher Rebbe is noted for the claim that the dinosaurs may have been planted by Hashem to look older than they are, apparently as some sort of test of faith. There is a strand of tradition in Judaism particularly aligned with the Kabbalist/mystical tradition, in opposition to the rationalist strand, that believes that God miraculously maintains the universe from moment to moment and that because of the nature of this miracle, any effort to study archaeology or history or cosmology is useless. Schroeder barely acknowledges this tradition, but that's fine, most Jews I talk to on a regular basis usually don't either.

But the second prong is problematic to me. Schroeder uses as his proof texts of the Rabbis' wisdom a number of quotations from the Talmud, and from Nachmanides' (Ramban) commentary on Genesis. There is a confidence in his writing that suggests he's got an absolutely clear comprehension of these texts from the religious side, and he's using this comprehension to share the wisdom of the Rabbis with the reader. At fifteen I swallowed this up fairly unquestioningly, not because I felt Schroeder was some unerring Torah scholar, but because the interpretations he was placing before us seemed like fairly straightforward Torah interpretations.

But let me share with you one of the first things Nachmanides says in his commentary on Genesis. He's asking a question about the commentator Rashi, because Rashi famously opens his own commentary on Genesis by saying that it is puzzling that the Torah begins with Genesis, since there are no commandments in the Creation story, and the Torah is ultimately a vehicle for delivering the commandments to Israel. Nachmanides objects, since clearly if one knew for certain that Hashem created the universe in miraculous fashion, it would have an impact on their observance of the commandments, so why is Rashi puzzled? His answer is that Creation is a mystery and the narrative in Genesis does not actually explain it, and so therefore Rashi's question pertains- given that the Genesis account fails at its ostensible purpose, why open the Torah with it?

And one can question it, because there is great need to begin the Torah with "In the beginning God created" for it is the root of faith; and one who doesn't believe this and believes that the world is primordial is an apostate and has no Torah whatsoever. And the answer, it is because the work of creation - it is a deep secret - is not intelligible from the verses, and will not be understood by its students except through the received tradition up until Moses our Master from the mouth of God [lit. "The Strength"], and those who know it are required to hide it.

So I'm more than a little skeptical of Schroeder's assertion that Nachmanides's interpretation of Creation aligns with science's interpretation. Supposing it were true, it would actually mean Nachmanides failed at his purpose, which was to offer religious insight into the message the Torah was providing in Genesis while hiding that which he was obligated to hide about the true nature of Creation. Nachmanides explicitly says that he is not offering a scientific explanation of Creation!

But that's sort of a meaningless speculation without actually looking at what Schroeder's project means for his analysis of the scientific data. And here it gets a lot messier. The problem is exactly why the book was so useful when I was 15. I said to [personal profile] liv that The Science of God is Jewish apologetics, which does not work the same way as Christian apologetics does. Schroeder teaches a Judeo-scientific approach by way of the Ramban, but his main purpose is not to create a book teaching the teachings of the Ramban.

Schroeder's real purpose is to offer a Jewish counterpoint to secular atheistic popular science books- Hawking's A Brief History of Time, Gould's Wonderful Life, Weinberg's The First Three Minutes, Dawkins's The Blind Watchmaker, and so on, not to offer the answers to the deep questions about Creation and its nature. The '09 edition that I'm reading now actually has substantial updates to add to the list of atheist popular science books he is parrying, including Dawkins's noxious The God Delusion.

And when I was fifteen, that's exactly what I needed, because those were the books I was reading, and I needed something in conversation with them. I was reading Gould and listening to him lay out this flimsy, speculative mechanism by which he thought evolution occurred and thinking "That doesn't quite add up," and I was looking for other ways to think about the bigger questions we grapple with when we think about the origin of humanity and our place in the the universe because Gould and Dawkins and Hawking weren't giving me what I needed. But most of the Jews I was talking to weren't giving me the answers I wanted, either. Most of the Jews I was speaking to about these questions weren't scientifically trained and they couldn't recognize the problems I was having with Gould and Dawkins and so on, so they couldn't articulate for me the appropriate Jewish counter-arguments. Schroeder at least was, more or less.

There is a dogmatic certainty in the writing of these materialist secular scientific giants that the gaps in their scientific knowledge will be filled with more and more materialist interpretations of nature until all the gaps are closed, and I found this faith wanting. But there's a trick Dawkins in particular pulls- he fills his works with so much legitimate evidence that it almost papers over the giant gaps in his knowledge. So a Jewish counterargument against Dawkins that I find worthwhile has to acknowledge and accommodate all legitimate evidence, while still finding value and truth in whatever it is the Torah says. And while rejecting all the clear nonsense Dawkins is pitching.

Now that I'm much more experienced as a scientist I see the flaws in those popsci books as scientific literature much more clearly. I therefore don't find refutations of them very interesting on their face because I recognize that disproving arguments advanced in popular science books is not equivalent to disproving the latest scientific theories, and furthermore, that disproving scientific theories is something that scientists do. It's epistemologically part of the process of doing science, it's not epistemologically part of the process of pursuing God. Seeing Schroeder pick up a particular oversimplified argument from Dawkins and knock it down is not a very fruitful exercise for me. I could do it myself, and have. But it doesn't say anything about the nature of God's universe to do so. But I guess it was a stepping stone to where I am now. Which is a deep, powerful uncertainty.

But to the book!

Schroeder tries out some old chestnuts from the book of bad arguments for theism. Quantum mechanics, says Schroeder, proves that miracles exist! Why? Because one of the elements of some parts of the theory of quantum mechanics is apparently 'effect without cause', which he says is the definition of a miracle. But this is only true of some of the interpretations of quantum mechanics, while others preserve locality and causality. And in any case it's a baldly presumptuous linguistic game- the sort of 'miracle' quantum mechanics implies has very little to do with the sort of miracles the Bible treats with- the parting of the sea in Exodus, or the stopping of the Sun, in Joshua, or the swallowing of Korach in last week's Torah portion.

To a certain degree I'm being too hard on Schroeder. He's making a qualitative argument in a popular theology work, and if I were feeling more generous I could say that his point here is the same as the point he makes more effectively about the Big Bang Theory: Until a revolution struck the mid-20th century astrophysics world, the scientific consensus was toward a steady state theory that the universe had always been in the basic form it is now. However, the Bible and its believers firmly claimed that the Bible argued that the universe had a Beginning. Now, via a 'new convergence' (his term, not mine, definitely not mine), the Bible and science have come into qualitative agreement that there was a Beginning- and it is the scientific world that has shifted.

Similarly, we could say that Schroeder's point with respect to quantum mechanics is not that quantum mechanics is miraculous in the same way as Elijah being carried to heaven in a chariot of fire, but that science until recently always claimed that causality was inviolate, that cause always preceded effect, whereas believers in the Bible insisted that there mechanisms by which effect could happen without cause, i.e. miracles. However, by the same 'new convergence', the Bible and science have come into qualitative agreement that causality is not inviolate. This is a much flimsier argument, though, and the original argument about Beginnings, which I just defended as being well-sounded by Schroeder, is rather flimsy and qualitative to begin with. There is the fact that the assertion about science and steady state hypotheses is less storybook-true than the theists would prefer, and there have always been 'scientific' theories about a beginning to the universe. I put 'scientific' in quotes because the problem for Schroeder's triumphalist narrative of science converging on the Bible is that until the 20th century there was no significant scientific evidence either for or against a Beginning of the universe, so any so-called scientific theories were just speculations with little basis. Even worse, there's the fact that seeing as many scientists, albeit with no real evidentiary basis, supposed the steady state hypothesis to be the truth, several great Rabbis, most famously Maimonides, tried to do what Schroeder attempts in The Science of God and reconcile the Bible with the steady state hypothesis. And likeweise in the centuries before the 20th, the majority of scientists were theists and believed in miracles, so it seems silly to claim a new convergence on the idea of cause not following effect as a vindication of the Torah over scientists.

Schroeder's problem gets even deeper when he leaves physics and moves on to tackle a proposed Jewish scientific approach to evolution. At least with physics, the basic effects are more or less understood in a quantitative way. There's a clear scientific consensus about the things he is talking about. Everyone agrees that the equations of relativity work in a specific way. The problem with evolution is that Schroeder is trying to prove that science agrees with the Bible, when science isn't even sure what it thinks!

It's inarguable that there are species that once existed and no longer do, and that these species have familial similarities with currently living beings that suggest that species change over time on a geological scale. It seems likely that one or some of the to this point poorly understand mechanisms of genetic mutation drive these changes that lead to speciation. But how this happens is not clear. Those Christians who argue against evolution in a scientific register make the argument that whole complex biological systems would seem to have been required to develop all at once, as it's implausible that partially developed versions of such systems would offer fitness advantages, an argument called 'irreducible complexity'. Schroeder is not interested in arguing against evolution, thankfully, or I would throw the book across the room. Irreducible complexity is a stupid, qualitative, sleight of hand argument. It looks at something really complicated, acting by mechanisms that we don't understand, and it concludes without evidence that since it can't figure out the mechanism, there must be no mechanism. Irreducible complexity is not something to place faith in. But it has a certain air of plausibliity to it. The truth is that we DON'T know where the human eye comes from, what kind of evolutionary mechanism might have had to occur for it to happen and how many steps there were along the way. And the plausibility of the irreducible complexity argument is a problem for Schroeder- if scientists cannot explain how these systems developed, how can he show that the scientific truth of how evolution works is in agreement with the Bible's description? Schroeder's general solution is to go through the counterarguments against all the current tentative hypotheses, as if to show that since none of them are right, the ultimately-to-be-discovered true explanation of evolution will necessarily have to agree with Genesis, since there is no known unresolvable incompatibility between the inarguable facts of evolution and the Torah, and in fact that the order in which God is described as creating different sorts of creatures in Genesis is in at least rough alignment with the current fossil evidence about the origin of species.

But this is much harder to show than Schroeder would like it to be, for all the reasons that Rabbi Natan Slifkin's books show so well- definitions of species and categorizations of species are not indisputable scientific truths, they're fuzzy categories applied by taxonomists for convenience. And this is both true in science and in the Bible, which each use different taxonomic categories because of their different purposes. In one notable place of conflict, Schroeder dispenses with the difficulty posed by Genesis 1:20 with a single sentence. Per NJPS: "And God said: 'Let the waters swarm with swarms of living creatures, and let fowl [עוֹף] fly above the earth in the open firmament of heaven.' " But this is too early, right after the appearance of liquid water, for birds to have evolved. Schroeder easily resolves this problem by retranslating עוֹף as 'flying creature', a translation he says is uncontroversial among Rabbis since צִפּוֹר is the true word for 'birds'. The truth is more complicated: The language the Torah uses does not align with modern scientific taxonomy, so it's not so simple to say that the Bible does not use עוֹף in the more specific sense. As R' Slifkin points out, as far as the Bible is concerned, winged creatures fall into only two taxons: kosher winged creatures, and unkosher winged creatures. Any further granularity is unnecessary. The idea of 'species' is not really in the picture. The idea of distinguishing between the dove and the bat by one of them being a mammal and one of them being an avian is not worth considering. This is not because the Torah is unscientific, it's because the Torah is not a 21st century science textbook! Most of the places where עוֹף is used in the Torah use the word as a figurative language where it doesn't matter whether it means bird or just winged creature, like several places in Daniel. So Schroeder could be right. But עוֹף is used in Leviticus, like in Leviticus 7:26, "And ye shall eat no manner of blood, whether it be of fowl [ עוֹף ] or of beast, in any of your dwellings." In that verse, clearly it must be referring to birds more or less as we currently understand them, since it's talking about the laws of kashrut and non-bird flying things are not kosher, so nobody would possibly think the verse is suggesting that you would consider eating the blood of generic winged creatures. So while resolving the scientific discrepancy as Schroeder does is possible, it is not incontrovertible the way he suggests it is.

Beyond the argument for alignment, Schroeder attempts, even less successfully in my opinion, an argument against 'randomness' in evolution. I put 'randomness' in quotes because it remains unclear to me exactly what principle Schroeder is objecting to, other than pure materialism in general. According to Schroeder's 'randomness' paradigm, every time a DNA transcription error occurs, it is like a four sided coin is being flipped. Some almost completely hypothetical number of such coin flips must go in the correct way, over a certain period of time, for new biological pathways to be installed in a genome. I don't think this is the right way to think about evolutionary statistics, as I've said before. The probabilistic alternative isn't no change, it's a different change.

That is to say, suppose we play a game with a four sided die. I tell you, "If it rolls a 4, I'll give you a Hershey kiss, if it rolls anything else, nothing happens." That's the game Schroeder is imagining. Now suppose we play a different game: I tell you "If it rolls a 4, I'll give you a Hershey's kiss. If it rolls a three, I'll give you a Mounds bar. If it rolls a two, I'll give you a bag of M&M's. If it rolls a one, nothing happens." That's the game as I see it. The probability of getting a Hershey Kiss is the same in both games. But the meaning of getting a Hershey Kiss is different. If you start with the end result: I have a Hershey kiss in my hand... then you can calculate and say it's a fairly improbable event. There was only a 25% chance of it happening. But if you asked what the probability of something happy-making happening was, it's 75%. The difference is considering the possibility of other different but positive outcomes.

Both Schroeder's arguments on the Big Bang and evolution are buttressed by the book's biggest and most notable construction, which is to use General Relativity and a 'universal' non-Earth based frame of reference to construct a relativistic time clock for Creation. Essentially, if you plot the temperature of the cosmic background radiation on a polar natural log plot with the time constant being the expansion rate of the universe, you get the time dilation of time on Earth relative to time at the beginning of Time itself. This works out to roughly six logarithmic time half-periods. Depending on how you calculate the expansion rate of the universe, obviously, which is in some dispute, so it could be five and it could be seven, I guess. Each of these successive time periods is roughly half the length of the previous, in the Earth's current relativistic frame of reference. The result is that if you call each of these periods a 'Day' for Torah purposes, each successive day is zooming in closer and closer on the story of Earth and humankind. (In a really weird moment, Schroeder says "I do not claim my calculation is any more accurate than +/-20%", which is weird because what is he asking you to believe? That when Hashem composed the Bible, what was actually meant was "And it was evening, and it was morning, Day 1 +/- 20%""??? More likely he's asking you to take on faith that since his calculation came close, as science refines its calculation of the age of the universe it will get closer and closer to his cosmic clock, but this is the same problem I complained about with Dawkins and Gould. Being close but not quite there sometimes means you're close to true understanding, but it sometimes means you're missing some important factor. In my lifetime as a scientist, I have been off by 20% for some pretty colossally important reasons.)

Schroeder uses this idea of a cosmic relativity clock to claim that the various events that happen on each Genesis Day align with the events that scientists believe happened in each time period. The similarities he finds are compelling and fascinating, but not convincing, because the science is not certain enough for it to be convincing. Scientists think that life appeared about 500 million years ago, based on radiation dating of the earliest fossils and hypothesizing about the nature of the origin of life. This aligns with Schroeder's clock reasonably well, but this scientific idea is based on us not finding earlier fossils and not finding any calculation errors in our radiation dating, and all sorts of assumptions that are not set in stone, as it were. Darwinian gradualism, which scientists now think is generally implausible, was a plausible interpretation of the fossil record as it stood when Darwin was writing, and it is the quite-recent discovery of further components of the fossil record that has cast doubt on the idea of gradual evolution. Furthermore, there are some types of creature that because of body type cannot be discovered in the fossil record- our knowledge of their evolution is much weaker. If the science refines its calculations and pushes some events out of one period into the next, is Schroeder going to be sunk on his reliance on in-progress science? Defenders of Genesis's primacy can't be dependent on the latest science. They can point to it to show it holds no contradictions, perhaps but they can't assert it as a truth on its own because it's built on assumptions and suppositions. Schroeder's cosmic clock is not a dependable proof of Hashem's creation, just a cute game to tease people with.

And furthermore, have you tried reading Nachmanides's commentary on Genesis? It's incredibly hard to read and interpret and most of the time I have no clue what it's saying. If you actually read Schroeder against Ramban, as I did this time, you realize that what he's pointing to as uncanny similarities with the scientific narrative are small sections carefully selected from the account. That's not an accusation of deceitful manipulation on Schroeder's part, mind. He uses all the comprehensible parts and his translations seem reasonably fair to me. It's just that so much of Ramban's understanding of Genesis is not part of Schroeder's schematic, because so much of Ramban is abstruse metaphysics pointing toward, apparently, the hidden Torah of Genesis he's not allowed to discuss. Much of the Ramban's commentary on Genesis, Artscroll's Ramban Chumash refuses to translate because it considers it to be Kabbalah not meant for the common reader. It's hardly worth the effort of keeping it secret, though, because when I try translating it on my own it makes no sense to me. One wonders if in a hundred years, with advancements in cosmology, a new generation of Schroeders will be struggling to explain how those incomprehensible Kabbalistic passages correlate to the new theory of the start of the universe.

The truth as I see it is that the Torah is its own greatest defender. The words of Genesis have an evocative power that speaks to me and testifies to its own truth, and that is the truth I see echoed in the commentaries of the great Gedolim of Jewish history, of Rashi and Rambam and Ramban and Rif and Ibn Ezra and so on. All the answer Ramban need have provided to Rashi's question, if you ask me, is that the Torah began with Genesis to prove that God's creation matters. To tell us that it is a challenge to all Jews to try to ask questions about God's universe, and to wonder where it came from and how it came into being. The Torah is blessing scientific pursuit and linking it to the mitzvot. Reading further into the words of Genesis is worthwhile without having any expectation of revelation of the great secrets of the text. Still, fifteen year old me appreciated that Schroeder made the effort even if he didn't really get anywhere solid. Thirty one year old me wonders how he got as far as he did without questioning the effort.

Ultimately, what Schroeder reassures me of is not that Nachmanides's evocation of Creation is convincing or accurate, but that there is a plausible reconcilation. I don't need the specific reconciliation. I've never needed the specific reconciliation- God as Jews understand God is not a falsifiable proposition. But the ideas Schroeder lays out, though I don't believe them, suggest that at least a similar approach might actually be accurate. Or not, I don't really know where science will go in its explorations of God's universe.

So going forward, when friends ask me for books to read about Judaism and science, I do not think I will continue to recommend The Science of God. I think instead I will invite them to join me at a bar over a beer to talk about Judaism and science. I am in a place right now where I don't have all the answers, but I think that might be the more productive way to advance the conversation.
seekingferret: Photo of me with my 2012 Purim beard, with stripes shaven into it. (Default)
Women Who Would be Rabbis by Pamela Nadell

It's an academic historical survey of the American history of the movement to ordain female Rabbis, mostly covering the conversation in the Reform (and reforming) communities, with a late detour into the Conservative Movement's parallel debates and a small appendix asking about Orthodoxy.

As a work of scholarship, it is thorough and well researched, with some sixty pages of endnotes testifying to the depth of Nadell's search for relevant documentation. Her research takes her as far back as the 1830s and 40s all the way up to the ordination of Amy Eilberg by JTS in the mid '80s. And as a work of reconstructed historiography it is an important work, pointing to the repeated pattern in the history of the struggle for women's ordination to forget its forbears, whom Nadell labels with the term 'proto-Rabbis'. Because the thing that emerges as Nadell takes you through the history is that nobody the media ever labeled as 'first' was ever in any true sense 'first', at least without qualifications. Before Priesand and Eilberg became the first women ordained, respectively, by the Reform and Conservative rabbinical seminaries (and Hurwitz by an at least putatively Orthodox rabbinic seminary), there were a number of women, both among those who attended those seminaries on a non-Rabbinic track and those who did not attend the seminary but were possessed of considerable Jewish education for other reasons, who received some or all of the education of a Rabbi and performed some or all of the roles associated with the Rabbinic profession and may have at least informally been assigned the title of Rabbi or at least spiritual leader.

I did feel that Nadell, though she develops this point extremely effectively from a purely historical point of view, does not delve deeply enough into the theological reasons underpinning some of this confusion, which she seems to assert as mainly the result of sexism (I don't mean to say that she is simplistic in this regard. Nadell's discussion of sexism as a complex social force in American life is quite thorough and historically attenuated.). But Nadell's term 'proto-Rabbi' is ultimately confused, I think, and it may lead to confuse the reader to a certain degree.

What Nadell's excellent book is missing is any thought to the primary question "What is a Rabbi?" I think this is especially important because the answer to this question evolved significantly over the course of the time period Nadell surveys.

The first 'proto-Rabbi' Nadell uncovers is Ray Frank, dubbed in the Jewish media 'the girl Rabbi of the West'. A gifted preacher with minimal formal Jewish education, she spoke compellingly from the pulpit of a number of Jewish congregations in the Western US in the late 19th century, but made no claim to ordination. Frank herself looked back to Rashi's daughters and Miriam and Devorah and the Maid of Ludmir for examples of female leaders of the Jewish people. And I think that exactly points to the problem with the idea of reading Frank as the first proto-Rabbi. Women have always been Jewish leaders, though never with the title of Rabbi. But what is a Rabbi?

The reality that Nadell butts up against is that the responsibilities and training of a Reform Rabbi are very different than the responsibilities and training of an Orthodox Rabbi, and the responsibilities of a Reform Rabbi a hundred years ago were very different than the responsibilities of a contemporary Reform Rabbi, so asking whether women should be Rabbis is not asking a single question, it's really asking a few dozen circumstantially different questions about how and in what conditions a woman can be called a Rabbi. I think generally when people and the media labeled a particular 'proto-Rabbi' as a Rabbinical or pseudo-Rabbinical figure, what they were actually identifying was that the person in question was performing some or all of the tasks that a comparable male Rabbi- of that era and denomination!- would be expected to perform. But this is not necessarily the same thing as being a 'proto-Rabbi' because that seems to require that the male Rabbinate was not a moving target, that gradually the roles women served were more and more 'Rabbi-like' over time, which I do not think is precisely the case.

My own post on the most recent RCA resolution against female ordination speaks to further theological difficulties in the question. Are people really fighting over the function, or the title, or both? Sometimes Nadell engages with these questions, but too often she takes a step back and looks at other societal factors that she seems to think the theological questions the authorities are discussing are proxies for, resulting in fairly sparse and unsatisfying discussion of the actual responsa literature. The theological questions sometimes are proxies for these societal questions, to be sure. She is convincing when she can point to responsas in which rabbinical figures worry about pregnancy and marriage prompting students the seminaries have invested time and effort in to leave the rabbinate, and discussions where people worried about the general capabilities of women to perform rabbinical functions- evidence that sexist societal attitudes about women were (and still are) inflecting the debate about the place of women in the Rabbinate.

But sometimes that's not enough of an answer. One of the 1920s students at Hebrew Union College who sought a Rabbinical ordination if she completed the curriculum, Dora Askowith, ultimately was rejected for failure to complete the second year Hebrew examination, despite otherwise exemplary coursework and research. Nadell assesses this as a sexist failure of the system, noting that other male students might have similarly struggled with the Hebrew curriculum, but they at least knew that if they managed to complete the examination, they would likely receive ordination, whereas Askowith ultimately used it as the reason for dropping out of HUC. And this is no doubt true, but by focusing on the societal issues Nadell obscures the subtle but important practical religious problem, which is that the Hebrew curriculum was probably a more important part of the HUC curriculum in 1920 than it probably is today, because to a greater degree than today graduates of HUC were being sent out to effectively be the only Hebrew-speaking Jew in communities with far less Jewish learning than most practicing Jews have today. HUC required the Hebrew examination because in order to send out its students into the field as it was currently constituted, HUC needed to make sure they were prepared in this area. We can criticize the structural sexism that made it more difficult for students like Askowith (who went on to have a long, successful but undistinguished career as a Jewish history teacher at Hunter College and a more distinguished career as a leader of Reform Jewish institutions) to pursue the Rabbinate, but it's less clear to me that we can criticize the sexism of demanding that women achieve the same requirements as the men.

On the other hand, Helen Levinthal succeeded Askowith a few years later at HUC, fully completed the academic coursework the same as any Rabbinical student, but was unable to receive ordination because of the refusal of the faculty, so it's certainly possible to argue that since even had Askowith completed her coursework she would probably not have been ordained, the roadblock posed by the Hebrew examination was of a fundamentally different character than the challenges imposed on male students.

Nadell shows that again and again, from men who 'in principle' had no objection to female Rabbis, the demand was placed on the first women who would become Rabbis that they be exceptional women, capable of by their visible capability and competence proving any criticism of them unfair. She tries to show that this represented a double standard that kept otherwise deserving women out of the Rabbinate by making the criteria to ordain women impossibly high. Sometimes this is convincing; other times it is less clear to me that the 'double standard' isn't actually a single standard that the female student failed to attain, for a variety of reasons including family obligations, financial difficulty, a sense of isolation engendered by being the only women in school, other competing academic demands, and others. You can make the argument that in recognition of these barriers, someone seeking to bring about true equality should make allowances for women by easing the requirements, but this is not always a wholly satisfying argument.

Likewise, Nadell mentions but doesn't really engage with the distinction between the 'private ordination' received by Regina Jonas and the seminary ordinations received by Priesand, Eilberg, et al. From her position as a contemporary Reform Jew, Nadell wants to read seminary ordination as the real, legitimate ordination that nobody can argue with, since Reform Judaism currently is a movement with a pretty strongly centralized ordination authority. But I think this stands in contrast not only to the more diffuse ordination authority of contemporary Orthodox Judaism, but also to the more diffuse ordination authority of early Reform Judaism, which had multiple streams providing its corps of Rabbis- multiple affiliated and partially affiliated seminaries, as well as defections from Orthodox- and Conservative- seminary trained Rabbis, as well as Rabbis who received private training and private ordination in an era where that sort of direct teacher-to-student ordination was more commonly accepted, though not always without controversy. I think it likely that the merger of the different Reform seminaries and the greater central guidance over the Rabbinical institution made it more likely for an eventual female ordination to happen, and more likely, when it did, for it to be globally accepted by the Reform community without the kind of schism that greeted previous significant evolutions in the Reform practice. But Nadell is so interested in situating the struggle within women's history that she doesn't pay enough attention to situating the struggle with Jewish history.

All that said, this was a fascinating book that I'm glad to have read. And obviously relevant to the interests of some of my readers, if they haven't already read it.
seekingferret: Photo of me with my 2012 Purim beard, with stripes shaven into it. (Default)
I heard belatedly about director Jonathan Munby's Merchant of Venice, with Jonathan Pryce starring as Shylock, playing a one week stint at the Lincoln Center Festival. It was originally created for the Globe Theater and is apparently now on tour. I did some looking at reviews and saw only good things, and particular notes about some additions to the text I was curious about, so I decided I wanted to see it. By the time I looked, there weren't many seats left. I was left with the choice of spending nearly a hundred dollars for seats all the way in the back, or one fifty for fourth row orchestra seats, and I decided to splurge since it seemed like a fairly small marginal increase- if I was already in for a hundred dollars, might as well make sure I got choice seats. I'm not sure I've ever spent so much money on a theatrical performance, and I instantly to a certain degree regretted it. It is not the kind of money I normally spend and to do so on a play I have such deep, complicated feelings about was a significant risk for that kind of money. Still, it was a staging I didn't really want to miss.

Munby's major question on Merchant is: How can a play so terribly racist be read as a comedy in today's age? His answer is: It shouldn't be. And yet unlike Darko Tresnjak's magnificent transformation of the play into a tragedy, into Shylock's tragedy, Munby commits fully to the text of Merchant as a comedy. Instead of working against that clear intention, he works it against the audience. The persistent question Munby poses to his audience is: "Why are you laughing? This isn't funny!"

He opens the play with an introductory masque, singing, dancing, music and drums, the revelry of a Venetian street carnival. (There is brilliant music throughout the production, with a wide range of meanings.) The actors don't just dance onstage, they dance into the aisles, egging on the audience, and then they start to clap. They clap in rhythm with the drums, the clapping spreads from actor to actor and then, with encouragement from the actors, it spreads to the audience. It built and built, filling the theater, until two Jews, Shylock and a companion, clad in red caps marking them as Jews, blundered through the carnival by mistake. The music stops. The revelers, led by Antonio, spit on and then savagely beat Shylock and his coreligionist. The very same revelers the audience was just clapping along with!!!! (I was not clapping along. The audience participation bits throughout the show did not work on me. I do not identify with the Venetians. I stand with Shylock.) Watching the Venetians beat Shylock was the first time this play made me tear up, but it was not the last. It was just so visceral, watching a Jew beaten on stage for the amusement of the Christian heroes of the play. This is not ancient history, you know. At intermission the couple behind me was reading from the program a small historical note about Elizabethan anti-semitism and snickering. One of them said to the other "It says the Elizabethans were anti-semitic. No shit!" it was such classic New York liberal superiority. I wanted to turn to them and say "21st Century Americans are anti-semitic, too! No shit!" I restrained myself.

Later, Shylock's servant Gobbo grapples with whether to steal from his master the Jew. A devil sits on one shoulder, an angel on the other. Gobbo pulls two people from the audience and brings them on stage to pantomime as the devil and the angel. He enlists the audience to take their behalfs, playing up the comic bawdiness of Gobbo and his ridiculous call and response games until half the audience is cheering for Gobbo to steal from the Jew without realizing it. (I realized it. The audience participation bits did not work on me. I stand with Shylock.)

Again and again, this was Munby's solution to the problem of the play's comic racism- to trick the audience into laughing at it and then pull the curtain back and reveal what they'd just laughed at. But I was never laughing, so I just had the uncomfortable feeling throughout of watching an audience all around me laugh at anti-semitic jokes. Jokes at my expense. It was... revealing.

Merchant is not only the anti-semitic Shakespeare play, though. It's also otherwise racist! People forget that in Morocco's scene there is Portia's infamous line about his complexion, that Aragon's scene is just a long series of ethnic jokes... Munby didn't seek to undermine these scenes at all. He played them as ethnic comedy, as they are written, and I suppose he trusted that the lesson he was teaching in the scenes about the Jews would echo into these scenes, or perhaps he thought a few jokes about savage Africans and fussy Spaniards were funny, or perhaps he just needed to beef up the comedy for his finale to land as hard as he wanted, but I wanted more from these scenes.

What of Shylock? Pryce's Shylock was good, but not great. He was a nervous creature, much abused and much suffering from the abuse, but I actually believed in the negotiation scene that when he spoke of the pound of flesh as his 'merry bond', he meant it. There was little sinister, manipulative intent, little of the chessmaster. This was a reactive Shylock. Pryce and Munby's interpretation of this scene seemed to be that after repeated insulting of Shylock by Antonio, Antonio has the temerity to actually ask a favor of Shylock, and yet even as he asks the favor, Antonio cannot disguise his hatred of Shylock. Shylock sees this, sees how in the midst of begging a favor Antonio cannot resist throwing Shylock's Chumash to the ground and calling him the devil, and sees an opportunity to turn the tables. Not to kill Antonio, but for once in his life to get to laugh at Antonio, rather than the reverse. Refusing interest, demanding a pound of flesh as bond, it is not bloodthirst but a calculated insult of Antonio's worth as a man and a merchant. Only after Jessica's betrayal is Shylock reduced to nothing but vengeance. His kinsman Tubal feeds him this vengeance as an antidote to his grief over losing his daughter: With every yet more sorrowful detail about her departure, Tubal soothes Shylock's fraying nerves by reminding him of Antonio's poor business fortunes, reminding him that at least he will gain his petty insult on the evil merchant as consolation. Except that as Shylock's worldview warps, he no longer sees it as just being an insult. He wants blood. He wants this horrible Christian society that he is trapped in to inflict punishment on Antonio by its own rules, in lieu of restoring Jessica to him.

Jessica's relationship with her father is strained but heartfelt. It is clear that growing up without her mother in the house of Shylock was not easy for her, that she is not leaving for Lorenzo entirely because she loves Lorenzo, but because she knows it will hurt her father. In their opening scene, they bicker at each other in 20th century Yiddish theater Yiddish. (I'm unclear on the historical accuracy of this. Well, okay, I'm half-unclear. I am sure that two Venetian Jews from the 15th century would not talk in 20th century Yiddish theater Yiddish, but I'm not sure if they would have spoken a German-inflected Jewish dialect, as the staging suggests, or if they would have spoken some form of Judeo-Italian, or if they as Northern Italians would have spoken some combination of the two. I just don't know enough about the historical linguistics.) Shylock is trying to impose rules on her for her own safety, but because of who he is, because of the distance between the two of them, he cannot explain himself to her, only order her around. She resents the unexplained restrictions, resents her Jewishness, her Otherness.

But kinship is not all that binds Jessica to Shylock, and it is not all that she is surrendering in joining Lorenzo. Much is made in the later Belmont scenes of Jessica's struggle to adjust to being a Christian. She doesn't know how to act, she doesn't know how to move, she doesn't know how to talk like a Christian. The second act opens with a dance sequence, in which Lorenzo gives her a crucifix necklace to wear and then tries to teach her Christian dances and she struggles and fumbles and ultimately is supplanted by her mistress Portia, who dances effortlessly with Lorenzo as Jessica looks on in frustration. Every time Portia addresses Lorenzo and Jessica, the actress emphasized a distinct pause between addressing Lorenzo and Jessica, a pause clearly intended to Other Jessica. The difference is not just about faith. In becoming a Christian she is asked to give up her culture, too, and learn a new one. I'm not sure if this was intentional, because it seems too subtle a gesture, but the first time Lorenzo gives her a glass of non-kosher wine, she holds it for a minute and then returns it to a table untouched, as if she is uncomfortable with the idea of for the first time drinking unkosher wine. She can shed her faith, but this cultural tradition of being careful about food dies hard. In her next scene we see her drinking, adjusting.

And at last we reach the finale. the much-talked about Coda which reviewers coyly mentioned as the standout feature of this production. Shylock is humbled and humiliated, his daughter's seducer Lorenzo and the hated Antonio to split his fortune, and he to be forcibly converted. When Jessica hears the news, she is brought to her knees in agony and repentance, singing in Hebrew the words of the daily Vidui confession of the Shemoneh Esrei. Pardon us, our Father, for we have sinned; forgive us, our King, for we have transgressed; for You are a good and forgiving God. Blessed are You, Hashem, gracious One who pardons abundantly. At last she feels the call of her heritage, which she has surrendered with little recompense. And then her Hebrew prayer of penitence is drowned out by Christian chanting, as Munby shows us Shylock's baptism. At last, there is no more laughter, no more comedy. The weddings and the happy endings for the Venetians are drowned out by Shylock's misery. And once more, for perhaps the fourth or fifth time, the production reduced me to tears.

Was it worth the money? I don't know. It was powerfully, effectively staged and moving. I love the context that the ending gave to the story, and am glad I got to see Munby's thoughts on the ending and on the idea of racist comedy generally. But it was painful getting that reminder of how differently I see the world than non-Jews, painful seeing all the places they laughed and I wasn't laughing. In the courtroom scene... How can you possibly laugh during the courtroom scene? They offered Shylock double his original 3,000 ducats and he hesitated for a comic moment, caught between his avarice and his wrath, and the audience laughed. The audience laughed at the idea of a Jew comically trapped between his moneylust and his bloodlust! (I didn't laugh. I stand with Shylock.) 21st Century Americans are anti-semitic, too! No shit!

I stand with Shylock, and that is sometimes a difficult thing to do, because he is a caricatured monster from a long bygone era's deepest fears. I do not stand with him because I long to hold in my hand a pound of Christian flesh, or else three thousand ducats plus interest. I stand with him because Shakespeare sometimes manages to make him look like a member of my family, and I stand with him because my family have all vowed together never to forget what it means to be a Jew.
seekingferret: Photo of me with my 2012 Purim beard, with stripes shaven into it. (Default)
Liberty's First Crisis by Charles Slack

A good if sometimes slightly weirdly paced book about the passing of the Sedition Act of 1798, as I continue to stubbornly not watch or listen to Hamilton but read all sorts of interesting books about the early days of the Republic. This one was alternately bleak and terrible and hilarious...

You'd get scenes where Benjamin Bache, Philadelphia printer and favorite grandson of Benjamin Franklin, got thrown in prison for badmouthing the President in a newspaper, and then died of Yellow Fever before he could ever go on trial, leaving his indebted newspaper to a wife already struggling with several young children.

And then you have Luther Baldwin, proudly of Newark, NJ, even back then a bastion of true American Heroes. Baldwin was a spy for Washington during the Revolutionary War, sailing up and down various waterways sabotaging British boats and passing information to the Continental Army. After the war he went into business as a river trader. And then we get to the moment when he displayed his true American heroism. Luther Baldwin was drunk one morning, as one does, and John Adams, President of the United States of America, was travelling through on carriage to the accompaniment of a cannon salute. Irritated by the noise, and needless to say, drunk as a skunk, he observed that he wouldn't mind if someone shoved one of those cannonballs up Adams's arse. Someone overheard this comment and reported him to the US Attorney for New Jersey, who sent him to jail on Sedition charges.

Both of these stories, actually, are equally terrible. It's just that one of them is also incredibly funny. In Slack's even-handed approach to a topic where it is easy for us to kneejerk against the suppression of civil liberties, he argues that the problem was that there were no real meaningful precedents for the kind of freedom of speech the First Amendment promises. The line it draws in the sand was previously unheard of, and everyone was still trying to figure out what it meant. The Federalist's defense, flimsy to modern ears, was that they were merely imprisoning people for statements that in that day's England would have resulted in gruesome execution.

Slack sees the Sedition Act as an early experiment in the limits of American free speech, an experiment that ultimately helped to destroy the Federalist Party and create negative precedents that still serve as vital warnings for us. But he also points out that some of the 'heroes' of the fight against the Sedition Act were unlikely heroes, and some were arguably not heroes at all. Some of the targets of the Federalist crusade were irresponsible journalists heaving poisonous and untrue statements at politicians who were barely managing to hold a fragile young country together. Should they have been more responsible? Of course. Is throwing unfiltered bile at one's political enemies the most productive way to solve America's internal disagreements? Of course not. But suppression of their speech and imprisonment of their supporters is not the American solution to this problem and should never be the American solution to this problem. We are a nation founded on the idea that with as many different viewpoints as we hold, it is better for the government to protect our individual freedom as citizens than to try to protect our national freedom as a community. This is ultimately a harder idea to accept than it would seem at first. There are always temptations and reason to suppress speech one disagrees with and finds hurtful and damaging. But it is the plain truth as I see it.

Somewhere- A Master by Elie Wiesel

Like everyone I know in the Jewish community, I was deeply saddened by the death of the great Elie Wiesel. I've been listening to people share stories and remembrances for the past several weeks, and it inspired me to read another one of his books.

The truth is I've always thought Wiesel was at best a mediocre writer, and Somewhere- a Master does not change this opinion. The prose styling is awkward and repetitive, his topics jump all over the place without apparent reason. This feels like an insensitive thing to say in remembrance of a great man shortly after his death, but there's a reason I am revisiting his writing now in remembrance in spite of the fact that I don't really admire his writing. It's because I do so admire the man.

What Wiesel's books lack in storytelling knack, they make up in courage. Wiesel was one of the bravest men of the 20th century, whose unflinching honesty is apparent in every page he labors to share with his readers. He is not writing because he's good at it. He is not writing because he wants to. He's writing because he feels an obligation to risk himself by sharing of himself with the world.

Somewhere- A Master is a collection of stories about 18th century Hasidic rebbes, part of a larger project on Wiesel's part to set down an oral history of the Hasidic cultures lost in the Holocaust. I've heard all these stories before- not all these specific stories, no, but basically I've heard all these stories before. I will hear them all again, because B"H the Jewish oral tradition has started up again. B"H we tell stories of Jewish leaders in shul every week, in divrei Torah and at tisches and onegs and farbrengens. B"H Hitler didn't win, but Wiesel setting the stories down, ploddingly, earnestly, and insistently, is an act of defiance that resounds. The book is a monument, one that doesn't necessarily benefit from being read, but its mere existence matters. Elie Wiesel mattered, and his loss is a shattering one to the Jewish people, but the Jewish people will survive in part because of what he wrote and what he said, and because of the determination he made that since it had to be said, he would be the one to say it.
seekingferret: Photo of me with my 2012 Purim beard, with stripes shaven into it. (Default)
I got an odd comment on an old fic yesterday.

The fic, "Jamie and Every Shapiro in Washington Heights (and one Shiksa Goddess)", was written for the [community profile] purimgifts exchange several years back. I have discovered to my dismay that it is not uncommon to receive odd comments much later on fics I wrote for that exchange- [community profile] purimgifts is a venue where I feel comfortable writing stories that more deeply, but also more allusively, invoke my Jewish identity and experience, because the audience for [community profile] purimgifts has much more shared context in terms of lived Jewish experience than the general fanfic reading audience. But stories from the exchange are then archived on AO3, so down the line my stories get discovered by other readers who do not share the necessary context to see what I am doing in these stories, and so sometimes I get odd comments, and sometimes I get upsettingly clueless comments.

"Jamie and Every Shapiro in Washington Heights (and one Shiksa Goddess)" is a story inspired by a single lyric in the off-broadway musical "The Last 5 Years" by Jason Robert Brown. In the song, "Shiksa Goddess", the male romantic lead Jamie enthuses to his new lover that one reason he loves her is because she is not Jewish and he- a secular Jew from Spring Valley, NY- is full of anxiety and self-loathing about his Jewish identity and the pressures it imposes upon him. In a litany, he talks about succumbing to the pressure to date Jewish women:

I've been waiting through Danica Schwartz and Erica Weiss
And the Handelman twins
I've been waiting through Heather Greenblatt, Annie Mincus, Karen Pincus and Lisa Katz
And Stacy Rosen, Ellen Kaplan, Julie Silber and Janie Stein
I've had Shabbas dinners on Friday nights
With every Shapiro in Washington Heights

The names were chosen by JRB for a particular resonance- these are Jewish-sounding names of a very specific sort, the kind of names common among secular Ashkenazi Jews of JRB's generation. Shapiro is a very common Jewish last name, and it struck me that the idea of actually imagining Jamie on a series of successive Shabbas dates with dozens of women all named Shapiro was a fun way of taking a funny line and extending the joke.

The names of my Shapiros in the story follow similar form to the names in JRB's original litany. They are, to my ear at least, Jewish sounding names. They are not necessarily Biblical names, not necessarily names that are exclusively Jewish names, but they are names that in my intuition the kinds of Jewish girls Jamie would be dating would have. But they are very carefully chosen. Each in its way, I think, tells a story to people who have enough shared intuition with me about Jewish names.

In one such joke, perhaps a little too allusive, I named one of the girls Mary Shapiro. There is nothing, per se, wrong with the name Mary Shapiro. There is in fact an extremely well known Jew, the former chair of the SEC, named Mary Schapiro. It's just that Mary is the name of Jesus's mother and it is for that reason generally considered a goyische name. Many Jews would hesitate to give their daughter the name Mary. But there's nothing wrong with it, it's just a little odd. However it's something that to a Jew obsessively anxious about his Jewishness and what it means in the way Jamie is, would register as strange and worth comment.

And so Jamie, who is a giant ass, starts to dig himself in a hole. And it gets worse as I comment on another form of name anxiety in the Jewish community, which is for people given the sorts of secular Jewishy names I've been talking about to resolve their own name anxiety by taking a more Jewish name, as an announcement to the world that they are Jewish. This is typically but not always accompanied by a change in Jewish observance- when several Reform or Conservative friends of mine with Americanized names became Orthodox, they asked to be called by their Hebrew names.

So Jamie's friend who introduced Mary Shapiro to him was named Becca, and my intention was to suggest these two secular Jewish girls who grew up together with their awkwardly-somewhat-Jewish names and as adults they are dealing in different ways with their name anxiety and their Jewish identity anxiety more generally. Becca has become more observant and has asked to be called by her Hebrew name Rivka, but Jamie is an ass and Jamie's self-loathing Jewishness cannot deal with people becoming more observant as he is drifting away from whatever faith he had, so Jamie keeps calling her Becca, even though he must know it is an insulting thing to do to refuse to call someone by their chosen name. And so I think a bit of him enjoys the fact that Mary Shapiro is named Mary, that she has this name that almost tries to camouflage her Judaism, even though it fails. He admires her name, but because he admires it, he obsesses over it, bringing the conversation back to it again and again as it becomes more and more awkward and insulting.

I don't plan to respond to the comment "what does mary shapiro mean" on AO3, because there is too much to say and no guarantee the commenter will understand any of it. Purimgifts stories are written for Purimgifts because the people who do Purimgifts will appreciate them. But I wanted to say something in response to the comment, anyway. To remind myself that even though I sometimes get clueless comments, there was an original audience for this story and they appreciated what I was doing.
seekingferret: Photo of a button saying "Yes You Can Argue with Me" (argument)
Posting here because digging any deeper in the original facebook thread would not be productive, but I still need to work this out and want to hear opinions.

A Facebook friend (The best friend of someone I am actually friends with and therefore someone I have spent a considerable amount of time with, but not someone I think I would ever hang out with without her best friend. And thus someone I feel ought to know a little bit about how I think, but who I'm not sure I would actually call a friend.) posted a link on Facebook to a petition calling for the removal at his next election of Judge Aaron Persky, the judge responsible for sentencing in the case of the Stanford rapist, Brock Turner. Many people think that the sentence issued was unreasonably light, and that Judge Persky exhibited a bias toward leniency because he sympathized with the rapist rather than with the victim.

In general, I am sympathetic to the idea that we should apply pressure on various structural parts of the system that tend to enable rape culture, but for a very specific reason I wanted to be more cautious here. There is a principle in Jewish law called mesirah which holds that when the secular legal system in which Jews are living is in some ways unjust and biased against Jews, Jews should not report other Jews to the legal system. And Aaron Persky has a name that suggests that he is almost certainly a Jew (I have not found conclusive confirmation anywhere online, however). So I wondered aloud in a response to the facebook post whether it was appropriate for my facebook friend to make such a call, or whether she should have considered mesirah, if Judge Persky is Jewish. Facebook is a bad place for asking such questions- it was interpreted as me suggesting that my facebook friend definitely SHOULDN'T have shared the petition, which was not my intention, especially since I don't know for sure if he's Jewish. But I remain, nonetheless, uncertain about whether I think she should have given it further consideration.

It's important to recognize where the principle of mesirah came from and what its limits are. Mesirah developed because often in the long history of Jewish coexistence with non-Jewish nations, the secular legal systems have been unjust and unfairly biased against Jewish participants. And in particular, in many nations at many points in history (some times in Tsarist Russia, some times in the Ottoman empire, some times in the Babylonian empire, many others), the ruling class has tried to assert control over the Jews by rewarding Jews who informed against other Jews. Recognizing that participating in unjust legal systems would only bring about further injustice, the Rabbis sought to limit participation to minimize injustice, and in particular to minimize the sorts of injustice that turn Jew against Jew in service to those with anti-semitic agendas, and create the false sense that Jews are disproportionately responsible for criminal behavior.

There are those in modern times who have used mesirah to shield criminals from the American legal system, and in general I think that's inappropriate. We've seen cases where Jewish groups shielded communal authority figures who abused children from the secular authorities, and I strongly feel that this was a violation of Torah ethics. And I think most in the Modern orthodox world today agree- we feel that the Barry Freundels ( of the world should face the American legal system, which is a flawed legal system but which is generally fair and generally based on just principles. But I do have the sense that there are times when the American legal system treats Jews unjustly, and in which therefore mesirah might apply. And elections, subject to the whims and biases of the general public, might be one of them. Two years ago, the highest ranking Jewish official in Congress, Eric Cantor, lost a primary challenge against a Christian minister whose campaign included accusations that Cantor spent too much time talking to Wall Street bankers. Elections can clearly be subject to anti-Semitic influences.

[I should also say that the conclusion that mesirah applies does not necessarily mean that for a non-Jew to take the same action would be anti-semitic. Mesirah is about Jewish circumspection, it's about us saying that we judge there may be a risk of injustice toward a fellow Jew if we publicize the Jew's actions, but it doesn't mean we're denying those actions were wrong. Mesirah also makes more sense in the context of a Jewish community with its own robust internal regulatory systems that is capable of enforcing its own punishments on members, for this reason.]

Mesirah is a dangerous principle that needs to be carefully limited. It would be just as damaging to Jewish safety if non-Jews got the sense that Jews were hiding our crimes from them, and furthermore it would be far more damaging to the Jewish community if Jews felt that they could get away with crimes because other Jews wouldn't report them. But it's worth worrying about because anti-semitism is real and dangerous. If you're Jewish, odds are you get access to a Jewish weekly with its cheerful delivery of the anti-semitic hate crime of the week- a stabbing, a shooting, a synagogue burning, many of them far too close to home. We are intensely aware of how precarious our existence always is. In the past few weeks we've been hearing about something which seems relevant to my concern about blaming Judge Persky, the alt-right's new "Coincidence Detector" app ( ) which highlights Jewish names on webpages to suggest that Jews have been somehow responsible for any bad news in the article. Jewish safety is closely tied to the ebb and flow of anti-semitism and we have enough trouble without making it worse ourselves.

So I think a balancing act needs to take place. American culture is pretty badly broken when it comes to sexual violence and particularly sexual violence directed at women. My facebook friend accused me of failing to empathize with Brock Turner's victim because I do not have a daughter. I do not have a daughter, but I do have a sister and a mother and other women I care about. And perhaps more importantly, I have friends who have been sexually assaulted, and ex-friends who have committed sexual assault. I try to be aware of the shape of the problem, that sexual violence is an omnipresent pattern in our social discourse. I recognize that the system is often skewed against victims and that this is a problem that demands our attention as a society to fix, urgently. I'm aware that there are narratives about the type of people who are rapists and that these popular narratives can poison justice, and that a large part of the reason why this case has been so publicized is because of our sense that the reason the unjust result emerged is because the rapist didn't look like the popular image of a rapist. I recognize the importance of sending the message that using these popular images of a rapist to guide our judicial process leads to injustice. I recognize the importance of making it clear that being drunk is not an excuse for sexual assault, and making it clear that the person convicted of rape should not be considered the one paying an unjustly higher price than their victim.

But I worry about presenting the message that it is Jews who are responsible for this crisis in American culture. This petition against Judge Persky is the first time I have seen a targeted campaign against a specific, named judge for ruling leniently in a sexual assault case, and a part of me suspects that this is because of his name. [There are other reasons, assuredly. Judge Persky's personal biography shares significant overlaps with Brock Turner, and I think it's also true that a lot of the reason he's been personally targeted is because of the sense that it was this personal, specific empathy for the defendant that led to the lenient sentence. That there is a specific, if not proveable, at least arguable narrative case to be made that Judge Persky showed preferential treatment because he recognized himself in Brock Turner, and that we find this an unsettling display from our legal system to see our judges favor people who are like themselves. And perhaps, too, it's just a matter of a cultural tipping point being reached for this tactic, and Judge Persky just happened to be the judge overseeing the first case of this type to hit the news in this era of new awareness about the problems our legal system faces in dealing with sexual assault cases.]

So I don't know where I stand, other than that it was wrong for me to try to weigh this question on Facebook, which is a terrible venue for serious debate. Probably I don't think my Facebook friend did anything wrong, though I could wish for evidence she'd at least struggled with the question. And I'm curious to hear what others think of the question. [BTW, totally fine if your answer is, "Nope, you're wrong and this whole post is just rape apologetics." If that's what you think, I'm open to hearing it and considering it.]


Jun. 14th, 2016 11:07 am
seekingferret: Photo of me with my 2012 Purim beard, with stripes shaven into it. (Default)
I participated in my shul's Tikkun Leil Shavuos again this year- a program designed to assist in the communal tradition of staying up all night on the first night of Shavuos, studying Torah. There are shiurim from various Rabbis and scholars, food and caffeine provided, access to sefarim, access to people to learn with. It's a very good time, if you are a Bible-nerdy Jew. The program drew about a hundred people.

I attended two shiurim and spent most of the rest of the night reading Rabbi Natan Slifkin's new Torah Encyclopedia of the Animal Kingdom, which is a pretty excellent work of scholarship on mentions of animals in Torah.

The first shiur was from the shul's Rabbi, and it was titled "Making Judaism Great Again". It was a sort of hashkafic survey of traditional Jewish approaches to questions about Democracy and elections, starting with the question of whether traditional Jewish can support democracy at all, given the mitzvah in Deuteronomy to establish a melech in Israel. He started with Rambam's clear assertion that appointing a King is a mitzvah, but quickly moved to post-Enlightenment thinkers like the S'fas Emes and Rav Kook who found ways to understand a democratic government as viable within Jewish thought. The S'fas Emes says something like (all assertions I make in this post have the caveat that I am writing from memory two nights after I learned this stuff at 2 in the morning) "I have seen countries that would have fallen apart without a strong monarch to lead them, and countries that would have been torn to shreds if you tried to impose a monarchy on them." Rav Kook, trying to essentially invent from scratch a religious Zionism compatible with the secular Zionism that had taken over the land of Israel, argues that in the absence of a monarch, the Torah obligations and powers given to the melech fall to the democratically elected leadership... in other words, that the secular authority of the Knesset and the Prime Minister is Torah-derived. So we get to a place where Torah scholars accept that democratic authority is a theologically acceptable substitute for monarchy, and in some cases may even be a mitzvah.

He then moved on to the case of American democracy, which poses slightly different questions as Jews are living in a non-Jewish society and one might think that Jews should withdraw and only participate in their own communal governance. So he brought a letter from R' Moshe Feinstein arguing that it's actually an obligation, the mitzvah of Hakarat Hatov, to participate in American democracy by registering to vote and voting, because of our gratitude that America's bill of rights so strongly protects our right to practice our religion. In an alternate approach to the same question, R' Joseph Soloveitchik argues in his famous essay "Confrontation" that the obligation to participate in American democracy is not a Jewish, religious obligation but rather a human obligation as part of an American Jew's dual consciousness.

And he concluded with a series of thoughts on what criteria a voter should use to elect representatives. There is a consistent thought in the early Haskalah thinkers that the consideration should be to elect representatives "Shem Hashamayim", in the name of Heaven, which is vague and ill-defined but seems to mean that the representatives should be acting in the interest of the people and the greater good rather than their personal gain. I raised the question of whether this precluded 'tactical voting', voting for a candidate you judged didn't represent the best ability to act "Shem Hashamayim", but who was more likely to win and was superior to the other likely-to-win candidate. People seemed to think this approach probably was, in fact, compatible with "Shem Hashamayim", which we concluded was outcome-driven rather than about a specific moral principle. But though the Rabbi specifically noted that he was precluded from making any endorsement, he concluded with a line of thinking on Pirkei Avot and mussar that seemed to me to be directed against Trump, noting that per Jewish moral thought, one who publicly humiliates his enemies is considered as a murderer. A line of thinking I definitely agree with, as I am not constrained to avoid making political endorsements.

The second shiur was a detailed practical analysis of the kashrut issues raised by Starbucks. This was fascinating. In the early days of Starbucks' growth, they mostly served beverages, most of which were certified kosher, so the folk wisdom that circulated in the frum community was that it was acceptable to get drinks at Starbucks, as long as you didn't eat the limited baked goods. The ground has unfortunately shifted underneath us rendering that folk wisdom a little out of date. Starbucks now serves hot meat sandwiches involving non-kosher meat, and the dishes used to cook these sandwiches are washed in the same hot water that is used to clean some parts of the coffee makers and blenders. The laws of the transfer of tumah (ritual impurity) from vessel to vessel are incredibly complicated and my understanding of them is limited, so it was very educational to go through the very specific example of how Starbucks cleans dishes in context of the laws of tumah.

The ultimate conclusion is that in Starbucks kiosks where they don't serve sandwiches, pretty much everything is still fine to drink, except for frappes, which use an unkosher base. In full service Starbucks, only the Espresso machine and the hot water tap for tea are not at all suspect. However, the Star K endorses a 19th century leniency with respect to coffee that says that since the problem of Starbucks dishes is based on a safek, a hypothetical, not actually observed situation in which a meat dish and a coffee maker part are cleaned at the same time, and since in general no goy is going out of their way to put anything unkosher into unflavored coffee, it's okay to assume that the coffee maker is not tamei when you are travelling and limited in access to other sources of coffee.

Since I am not a coffee drinker and only drink tea in Starbucks, this doesn't have a huge impact on me either way, but it was really interesting to work through the logic.

And then I read Rabbi Slifkin's book, which was terrific. I expected based on my past knowledge of Rabbi Slifkin that there would be a greater focus on the minutiae of identification, since that's the controversial stuff he gets into fights about online all the time, but while there was certainly a robust section on identifying each animal, that wasn't the point of the book. The meat of the book was in analysis of Biblical symbolism involving animals, and using zoological and historical knowledge of these animals and their interaction with people to delve deeper into the meaning of these metaphors. So he talks about how when the Bible mentions bears it often uses the figure of the mother bear bereft of her cubs, and he explains based on zoological observation of mother bears what the import of this metaphor is, how bear cubs are tiny and helpless and mother bears forge a deep bond with their young while protecting their helpless cubs for as long as two and a half years, often giving up as much as forty pounds of weight to feeding their cubs. I really enjoyed my reading and look forward to continuing to delve into this work.

And then at the strike of 5AM, we said shacharis, in one of the weirder davening experiences of the year. Since everyone hasn't slept, we had to have a 'designated sleeper' to recite Birchot Hashachar and the rest of Pesukei Dzimra, a fact that reinforces my longstanding point that the reason I won't change from saying "Shelo asani Isha" is that the Birchot Hashachar is a very specific sequence commemorating waking up, and tampering with it messes with its integrity. And "shelo asani isha" is not about inequality, it's about urination, just as "she'asani kirtzono' is a slightly more delicate euphemism for that same urination.

The weirdness continues as our 5AM 'vatikin'-ish davening is probably the fastest davening of the year, since everyone wants to get to sleep. Despite Hallel, a layning, a haftarah, several extra piyutim for the chag, and mussaf, we did all of Shacharis in an hour fifteen. Which is crazy. And then I schlepped home and slept. A lot.
seekingferret: Photo of me with my 2012 Purim beard, with stripes shaven into it. (Default)
There are a few basic rationales to the Levitical prohibitions at the end of this past week's Parasha Acharei Mot and continuing into this week's Parasha Kedoshim.

Vayikra 18

1 And the LORD spoke unto Moses, saying:
2. Speak unto the children of Israel, and say unto them: I am the LORD your God.
3 After the doings of the land of Egypt, wherein ye dwelt, shall ye not do; and after the doings of the land of Canaan, whither I bring you, shall ye not do; neither shall ye walk in their statutes.

The first rationale is to say that the actions prohibited in the ensuing verses are on their face evil, immoral actions. In this rationale, the fact that the Egyptians and Canaanites perform these actions is proof of their immorality. The Israelites are not being prohibited from doing them because they are what the Egyptians and Canaanites do, they're being prohibited from doing them because they are sinful actions and the reason the Egyptians and Canaanites are being mentioned is because the Torah is also providing the rationale for the Exodus from Egypt and the establishment of the Israelite nation- to bring the Israelites out of a land of evil and temptation and allow them to construct a nation of priests and sanctify Hashem's name.

The second rationale is to say that the actions prohibited are not, on their face, immoral, but they are immoral because they are the habitual actions of the Egyptians and Canaanites, who are immoral because they are idolaters and do not worship Hashem. Therefore, Israel is proscribed from performing these actions in order to distinguish itself from the idolatrous nations of the world and establish itself as a separated, holy nation of priests.

The third rationale is to say that the actions prohibited are not, on their face, immoral, and are not even necessarily immoral when the Egyptians and Canaanites perform them, but they are immoral when performed in the context of the idolatrous rituals of the Egyptians and Canaanites. If this were the rationale, then we might even go so far as to say that it might be permissible for Israel to perform these actions in non-ritual contexts, or we might say that it might be permissible for Israel to perform these actions if was living in the midst of a nation that did not use these actions as part of idolatrous rituals.

And a fourth rationale is that there is no explained rationale, that even though the Torah offers some linkage between these prohibitions and the Egyptians and Canaanites, there is in reality some deeper hidden rationale which only Hashem knows. The reason to observe these prohibitions, then, is only in service to Hashem, whose omnipotence and omnibenevolence is our guide as Jews.

I do not think one must necessarily pick one of these rationales exclusively. Some of the Levitical prohibitions in question make more sense using one rationale than another, while others might be justified under more than one rationale.

For example, the prohibition on tattoos lends itself rather nicely to the third rationale, and it's possible to read the Rambam as endorsing it, and a liberal thinker trying to stretch normative halacha might even argue that some of the prohibitions on sexual relationships (including the prohibition on homosexual relations) are only forbidden in the context of idolatrous fertility rituals and temple harlots, but it's harder to read the prohibition on adultery in this light, especially in context of the Sotah law.

But I think probably much more important than the sort of rules-lawyering that the third rationale allows in some cases is to think about the difference between the first and second rationale in terms of how we think about these laws. Because especially in Kedoshim, a lot of the ritual prohibitions are sandwiched between what are more clearly moral prohibitions. Prohibitions on idol worship and soothsaying are set alongside exhortations to take care of the poor, the handicapped, the disadvantaged in all corners of life.

If we operate by the first rationale, then both kinds of law in Kedoshim are really the same kind of law- prohibitions on us doing the immoral acts of the Egyptians and Canaanites. If we operate by the second rationale, then there are two kinds of laws here in Kedoshim, laws prohibiting immoral behavior and laws prohibiting behaviors merely because they are stained by association with immoral behavior.

I do not think one of these two rationales is morally superior, but I do think they are significantly different ways of looking at the structure of Acharei Mot/Kedoshim, and correspondingly, they are significantly different ways for us to think about our performance of these Mitzvot.


seekingferret: Photo of me with my 2012 Purim beard, with stripes shaven into it. (Default)

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