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The holiday season's been going pretty well. I went home to my parents for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. The services they've been going to for high holidays for the past several years moved to a newly built building after years of renting out a school cafeteria. It's still a bit of a schlep- about a two mile walk from my parents' house. Consequently we did not go to services for Mincha/Maariv on Rosh Hashanah, and on Yom Kippur I parked myself at the local library on the break between Mussaf and Mincha, because while I don't mind walking 4 miles on a chag, 8 is a bit much, especially when fasting.

For Rosh Hashanah, my sister and her husband came as well, so my mom had her full house back, which made her both happy and stressed out. There was this whole drama about the beds- my sister told my mom that if she was going to come for the holidays, they needed a bigger and more comfortable bed. Musical beds ensued- my sister's old bed moved to my brother's room, my brother's old bed moved to my room, my brother's couch was thrown out, all of this activity happening on various Sundays before Rosh Hashanah to make sure things would be ready for my sister and her husband. But in any case, it was a good time spent with family, and the prayer services were valuable as well as a time to take stock of where I am in my personal life and my spiritual life.

I started building my sukkah on Sunday- my brother came over for an hour to help with the two person parts of the job. I was way less stupid in my design this year and so it's actually a freestanding, reasonably solid structure, though still full of intense reminders of its own impermanence. Building a sukkah remains my favorite mitzvah that we actually carry out (My favorite mitzvah, full-stop, is v'asu li mikdash, for similar reasons). I'm really glad I now have my own backyard to build one in.

I went to a shiur on Sukkos last night and we talked a lot about a disagreement in the Gemara between Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Eliezer about whether the sukkah symbolizes the actual booths the Israelites lived in in the wilderness of Sinai, or the Ananei Kavod, the Clouds of Glory that surrounded and protected the Israelites in their wanderings. The question seems to be about the degree to which the holiday of Sukkos emphasizes either the impermanence and uncertainty of our lives or the way that our relationship with God offers a counterpoint to that uncertainty. Obviously, it's about both, but which is primary?

I think my favorite observation at the shiur was that the chuppah and the sukkah are sort of matched opposites- the chuppah has a closed roof and open walls, the sukkah has an open roof and closed walls. The speaker didn't quite get anywhere with this parallel. He said it had something to do with embodying Avraham Avinu's constantly moving, evangelical lifestyle and I'm not sure what that means, but I feel like it has to mean something more interesting than that. Perhaps it's getting at two sorts of tensions between stability and movement: The chuppah represents a time when you give up some of your freedom to change your life and promise to provide a comfortable home to a partner and a new family. So the transition is from impermanent walls to permanent roof. Sukkos is a time when you have a comfortable home that you are forsaking for a week to remind yourself that you need to embrace change, so the transition is from permanent walls to impermanent roof. I think there's something in that.

So I suppose the answer to Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Eliezer's argument is that, as usual, they're both right. Which part of the symbolism of the Sukkah matters more will depend on what life stage you're in. And that the point of Sukkos is that they're both right: Sometimes change is a good thing, sometimes you need to appreciate what you have. Sukkos is designed to let you consider both possibilities at once.
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Listening to the West Wing Weekly podcast, I'm up to 2x3 The Midterm Elections and one of my least favorite scenes in the West Wing, when President Bartlet 'dismantles' Dr. Jane Jacobs's homophobia.

Good. I like your show. I like how you call homosexuality an abomination.

I don't say homosexuality is an abomination, Mr. President. The Bible does.

Yes, it does. Leviticus.


Chapter and verse. I wanted to ask you a couple of questions while I had you here.
I'm interested in selling my youngest daughter into slavery as sanctioned in Exodus 21:7.
(small chuckles from the guests) She's a Georgetown sophomore, speaks fluent Italian, and
always clears the table when it was her turn. What would a good price for her be? While
thinking about that, can I ask another? My Chief of Staff, Leo McGarry, insists on working
on the Sabbath, Exodus 35:2, clearly says he should be put to death. Am I morally obligated
to kill him myself or is it okay to call the police? Here's one that's really important,
'cause we've got a lot of sports fans in this town. Touching the skin of a dead pig makes
us unclean, Leviticus 11:7. If they promise to wear gloves, can the Washington Redskins
still play football? Can Notre Dame? Can West Point? Does the whole town really have to be
together to stone my brother, John, for planting different crops side by side? Can I burn
my mother in a small family gathering for wearing garments made from two different threads?

I know I've complained about similar rhetoric before. The argument is this: There are things in the Bible that a modern religious person doesn't observe. This abrogation means that any parts they do still observe are inherently hypocritical, because if they claimed to follow the Bible they would follow the whole Bible.

This is a really stupid argument. Christianity explicitly rejects some of the Hebrew Bible's obligations. It's not hypocritical for them to not observe these things, it's inherently doctrinal, and it could even be argued (as I've sometimes been forced to, because sometimes Christians do weird and offensive things with Jewish ritual) that it's hypocritical if they DO observe those things. The Christian Bible says that Christians do not need to keep kosher. It's right there in the text!

And even things Christians do still observe that are mentioned in the rant are not necessarily observed in the Biblical way, on purpose! Jesus doesn't condemn the idea of the Sabbath, and Christians do observe a Sabbath, but Jesus condemns the idea of putting people to death for breaching the Sabbath. So Christians have a much more relaxed approach to the Sabbath than Jews do. Again, this does not make them hypocrites. It means they ARE observing their religion.

This infuriates me particularly even though I usually don't care all that much if Christians are revealed as hypocrites, because this argument is the classic anti-Judeo-Christian argument: Ostensibly directed at Christians by people who don't bother to distinguish between Jews and Christians. Jews have our own approaches to difficult passages in Tanakh, but generally we don't believe that the ritual law has been abrogated. We think we still are obligated in most if not all of the things Bartlet mentions as absurd rituals. Orthodox Jewish farmers in Israel, to this day, don't plant two crops side by side in a field. And though we don't have the executive ability to carry them out, most of the stoning laws Bartlet mentions are still technically on the books.

And Orthodox Jews generally still believe we are obligated in the prohibition of et zachar lo tishkav, no matter how difficult that may be to reconcile with modern ideas about love and sex. But it's not like the fact that I don't eat shellfish is what allows me to hate gays without hypocrisy! That's the frustrating part of this argument for me. If you accept it, you seem to be accepting the idea that IF Christians hadn't abrogated parts of the Torah's ritual law, they'd be free to consider homosexuality an abomination. But the people who are making this argument clearly don't believe that. They believe that considering homosexuality abominable is evil and homophobic regardless of whether you eat shellfish. So people making Bartlet's argument are making an argument they don't actually believe to try to trap religious people with sophistry.

So when you're criticizing Christian homophobia, or Jewish homophobia, try to do it with an argument that you actually believe, and which actually engages with Christian or Jewish doctrine rather than with your imagined fake version of that doctrine. Ask a Jew how they reconcile Veahavta lereacha kamocha with the idea of telling your neighbor they can't marry the person they love. Ask a Christian how they can send their churchmates to abusive conversion therapies when Jesus preached kindness and humility and not judging the sins of others.

But don't ask them these things because they're traps you're seeking to catch them in. Ask them because religious people have thought about these questions and we have answers to them, answers our critics often refuse to listen to, and because the conversations about these questions are worth having and worth struggling with. These are hard questions that challenge our faith, and serious theists ask them. Serious atheists ought to, also.

And what frustrates me most about this scene, why it's one of my least favorite West Wing moments, is that President Bartlet, deeply Catholic, who once considered the priesthood, must have some answer to these questions that isn't dependent on taking Catholics to task for eating shellfish. This scene is profoundly out of character on a theological level for the man delivering it. And I don't like when President Bartlet lets me down.

Edit: Thanks for comments- I will not be able to respond until after Rosh Hashanah at earliest
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Kosher USA by Roger Horowitz

This book was so much fun to read, and so illuminating. [personal profile] brainwane- I think you'd find it interesting as a supplement to my past answers about kashrut.

Horowitz's previously books have been investigations of the world of the modern American meat industry generally, and at the prodding of his family he turned to look more specifically at the kosher food industry and its evolution over the last century in this book. It features a chapter on the history of Coca Cola's kosher certification, a chapter on the history of Manischewitz and Kedem wines, a chapter on the story of Oreo's becoming kosher, a couple of chapters on the kosher beef industry, and all of them explain so much about things I've sort of halfway absorbed through a lifetime of consuming kosher food products.

There's this constantly devastating paradox of American Jewish life at the center of Horowitz's book: In order to make inarguably kosher food accessible to Orthodox Jews at reasonable cost, the majority of the people buying it need to be non-Jews. The further from this condition a particular foodstuff slips, the more the foodstuff will become inaccessible to Jewish consumers. The closer to this condition a foodstuff is, the cheaper and more plentiful it will be to Jewish buyers. And there are synergies to this process, because the food chain is complicated and interconnected, so if more processed foods have supply chains that are completely certified kosher, it means there are more input ingredients being used incidentally in other products that can then more easily and cost-effectively be certified kosher.

So, great, you might say, the primary tactic if you want to make kosher food cheap and available should be to convince non-Jews to eat kosher food! But Horowitz records a competing dynamic, which is this: When a foodstuff can be produced, at varying efforts, to satisfy people with different levels of kashrut stringency, the most stringent standard tends to drive less stringent standards out of the market. This is because the less stringent people will eat either food made to the less stringent standard or food made to the more stringent standard, and the more stringent people will eat only the food made to the more stringent standard, and in most cases the producer only wants to make one product that the most customers will buy.

This is why glatt meat has largely driven nonglatt meat off the kashrut market, and why Orthodox hecksherim grace tens of thousands of processed foods and Conservative hecksherim barely any, and why there are hundreds of mevushal wines and barely any non-mevushal wines. And taken to an extreme, this process competes with the tendency of producers to compete for the non-Jewish market, bifurcating the product line into the much cheaper non-kosher version and the much more expensive or bad tasting stringently kosher version and eliminating the non-stringently kosher version capable of competing on price and taste with the non-kosher version. So you have a tension between this dynamic, which can result in kosher products designed only for Jewish consumption at an exorbitant markup, and the first dynamic, which tends to result in kosher products designed primarily for non-Jewish consumption that are cheaper and of generally higher appeal. Horowitz has a particularly great diversion into the history of how Manischewitz wine began to market itself primarily to an African-American audience because of the chance discovery that Concord grape-based sweet wines taste similar to scuppernong grape-based sweet wines popular in the Deep South, and how this enabled Manischewitz to massively gain market share, but ultimately created a wedge that allowed Kedem to steal Jewish market share by marketing imported dry kosher wines and trying to figure out flash pasteurization techniques to make Mevushal wine taste marginally better.

The other interesting story Horowitz tells is about the way government regulation of food has interacted with the kosher industry, sometimes to the benefit of Jews and sometimes to the detriment, sometimes the same regulations! The same New York State kosher enforcement division that, with industry cooperation, minimized fraudulent kosher food and protected the food safety of New York Jews for decades eventually became a corrupt tool to enforce stringent Orthodox industrial hecksherim on those seeking to use local Rabbanim to certify small kosher businesses.

I was fascinated in particular by Horowitz's passage about the way increased record-keeping imposed by the FDA on large food businesses for health safety reasons allowed the Orthodox Union to establish computerized kashrut tracking systems and massively expand the reach of OU kosher certification. It's such a neat story. In general the role of government regulation in Kosher USA is really ambiguous- good when it works, but just as often seen justifiably as an unwitting threat to the Jewish community- as when he discusses the role of new ethical slaughter regulations in the 1970s on raising the price of kosher beef.
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Meeting Ann Vandermeer at Worldcon re-energized my desire to write a commentary on her wonderful Kosher Guide to Imaginary Animals, laying out the actual halachic sources for her conclusions about the kashrut of unicorns and chimeras and so on. I've been going through the relevant sections of Masechet Chullin and SA Yoreh Deah and the Rambam's Mishneh Torah to get back in the feel for the work, and I keep encountering a sort of fundamental problem with the effort that I'm going to need a general solution to.

There are several places where the commentators conclude that some ecological or anatomical niche must be completely filled by known animals based on the Torah. For example, the only animal mentioned in the Torah as having split hooves but not chewing its cud is the pig. Therefore, concludes Rabbi Yishmael, if you encounter an animal with split hooves and you know it's not a pig, you can be confident it's kosher.

These sorts of rules are important because the Rabbis were trying to develop a taxonomy that allowed unschooled people to easily determine the kashrut of animals without performing complex dissections and weighing fine anatomical distinctions. The Rabbis wanted easy rules, so that you could look at an animal and instantly tell if it's kosher. They're based on the idea that the Torah's listings of animal types are exhaustive, or in some cases that the Rabbis' knowledge of animal types is exhaustive 'based on a tradition'.

This starts to become a problem if imaginary animals are considered. A half-goat/half lion creature is probably not kosher, because the lion part is a predator, but it might well have split hooves and chew its cud. On the other hand, it's doubly excluded from existence: First, by Rabbi Yishmael's rule, and secondly by the Rambam's rule in Mishneh Torah that a kosher animal is biologically incapable of having offspring with an unkosher animal. So saying, fine, stipulating that the goat/lion is imaginary and this is a hypothetical, is it kosher? is tricky since one reason it's excluded from being kosher is BECAUSE it's imaginary and thus someone applying kosher taxonomy can assume it doesn't exist.

I think I have two general options for these rules: One is to disallow them as part of the game. In other words, say that since the game is hypothetically assuming imaginary creatures are real, we necessarily understand that any halachic principles based just on the knowledge that they're not real are not in effect. This seems like the most reasonable option, but at the same time rejecting fundamental kashrut rules from the Gemara feels like it kind of messes with the game.

The other general option is to try to taxonomize the creatures according to existing halachic categories, that is, to identify by fiat any clearly nonkosher animal that defies halachic taxonomic principles as belonging to some actual halachic taxon. Thus, some clearly unkosher animal with cloven hooves must necessarily be a pig for halachic purposes.

A third option that may be available in some circumstances is to create a distinguishment to avoid the dilemma. For example, a dog's paw has some sort of division, too, such that some commentators argue that it is like the pig in having a cloven hoof but not chewing cud. But most Rabbis distinguish the dog's foot as not being the sort of cloven hoof intended by the Torah, and thereby avoid contradicting Rabbi Yishmael's rule. Similarly, in the case of a half-horse/half-fish creature that might plausibly have the simanim of a kosher sea creature, I might conclude that the half-fish part was necessarily from a fish whose scales are not proper scales, in order to sidestep some of the halachic difficulty posed by Rambam's rule.

I may also mix and match these principles and not use one approach exclusively.
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As I mentioned a while ago, after much anticipation, Rabbi Ethan Tucker and Rabbi Micha'el Rosenberg's book Gender Equality and Prayer in Jewish Law came out earlier this year. This book, in draft electronic form, has been much circulated among Open Orthodox connected people, so I've been hearing people talking about it for years. I read it and digested it slowly, because it's dense and thematically challenging, but finished it sometime during my travels last week.

The book is not prescriptive at all- it's not p'sak, an authoritative ruling on the questions it asks. It's a review of the halachic questions involved in a)Can women lead a prayer service? and b)Can women be counted as part of a minyan prayer quorum according to Orthodox Jewish law? It's not a simple question, and Tucker and Rosenberg write carefully to force the reader to think through all of the implications of the question.

In particular, Rabbis Tucker and Rosenberg take care to make sure halachic decisors do not reach the right end (which for them is clearly a reformulation of Jewish ritual practice that creates more space for women to participate equally) for the wrong reasons. For example, some prominent halachic decisors offer rulings that appear sympathetic to the egalitarian position, but which emerge from sexist understandings of a woman's capabilities and role in the community. One might be tempted to say "Oh, the Ran says this is okay, he's a Torah gadol, we have support to do what we're doing," but if holding by the Ran's position means affirming a sexist idea about women, that may undermine the egalitarian effort altogether.

Or a leniency on letting women participate may implicate other unintended consequences we wish to avoid. For example, such a leniency may exist in a statement about the participation of both women and minors in a service- we may wish to let women participate but continue to limit the participation of minors, and using this particular leniency would not allow us to do this.

A third set of such cautions applies because many of the restrictions Rabbinically applied on female participation in prayer services are in the name of kavod tzibbur- the honor of the synagogue community. This is a general sense the medieval Rabbis had that allowing women to lead services diminished the honor of the synagogue for some reason- there are various post-hoc theories about what the reason is, whether it's because it makes the men of the congregation seem uneducated, or because women are seen as inherently sexualized and impure, or something else. There is also a long body of Rabbinic literature that says that a community can waive a restriction about kavod tzibbur because of some other conflicting communal need... i.e. if a community only has nine men, some Rabbis say that they can waive kavod tzibbur in order to fulfill the minyan with a woman as the tenth. But, point out Rabbis Tucker and Rosenberg, waiving kavod tzibbur involves acknowledging the dishonor inherent in the act you're allowing. Thus to an egalitarian it's much preferable, though halachically more difficult, to establish that the act involves no breach of kavod tzibbur at all rather than waiving concern for kavod tzibbur. They offer some suggestions toward this end, arguing for example that women in the secular modern world are expected to participate equally in social institutions so that actually excluding them is a greater desecration of kavod tzibbur. This answer is not responsive to the medieval commentators who seem to think that the status of women as violating kavod tzibbur is not dependent on community context but is inherent in the shape of God's universe, but this position is clearly not uncontested.

I think I emerge from the book no more certain how the halacha should play out, but more certain that Orthodoxy needs to work harder to involve women in ritual. And I appreciated the way Rabbis Tucker and Rosenberg challenged me to think about the halacha in new ways and in deeper, subtler contexts. It's an unquestionably brilliant and important work.
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"In fairness, the Jews ARE terrible."

"Hey Facebook friends, it's been fun watching you guys argue about whether the Jews should be able to exist in public all week. Can y'all go back to posting pictures of cats now?"

"To play devil's advocate, the Jews ARE terrible."


Edit: I worry my sarcasm is unclear. This is not a dialogue- all four of these messages are posts I considered making and resisted.
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At the end of the story of Korach ben Itzhar, the cousin of Moses who leads a strange rebellion in Numbers 16, Moses says

Numbers 16:29-30If these men die the common death of all men, and be visited after the visitation of all men, then the LORD hath not sent Me. But if the LORD make a new thing, and the ground open her mouth, and swallow them up, with all that appertain unto them, and they go down alive into the pit, then ye shall understand that these men have despised the LORD.

'Make a new thing' is a doubled use of the same Hebrew root letters, and that root is the root used in Genesis 1 to describe God's Creation of the world, so trying to preserve some of the sense of the Hebrew we might render it 'Create a creation'. Which is terribly infelicitous, so.

There is a debate among the more philosophical commentators about the nature of miracles. Rambam holds that God set in motion the natural laws of the world- physics, in a nut shell, and then because God is the Unity at the center of creation, God is able to alter those natural laws to effectuate something outside of them. Ramban, instead, holds that all of creation is constantly and miraculously being instantiated by God and that what seem to be miraculous violations of the natural laws of physics are just naturally within God's power. Both Rambam and Ramban are incredibly subtle and complicated thinkers and it's hard to say what either meant. It's possible this is not a debate and that they're truly in agreement. I do not claim to understand their teachings, which is why this post. But let's assume this is a debate as at least a starting axiom.

There's a third position, one which is at the same time even more naturalistic than Rambam and less, or which may be what Rambam is actually saying, I'm not sure. And it derives from this moment in the story of Korach.

Pirkei Avot 5:6 : Ten things were created on the eve of the [first] Shabbat at twilight. And these are they: The mouth of the earth [that swallowed Korach in Numbers 16:32]; and the mouth of the well [that accompanied the Israelites in the wilderness in Numbers 21:17]; and the mouth of the donkey [that spoke to Bilaam in Numbers 22:28–30]; and the rainbow [that served as a covenant after the flood in Genesis 9:13]; and the manna [that God provided the Israelites in the wilderness in Exodus 16:4–21]; and the staff [of Moshe]; and the shamir (the worm that helped build the Temple without metal tools); and the letters; and the writing; and the tablets [all of the latter three, of the Ten Commandments]. And some say, also the destructive spirits, and the burial place of Moshe, our teacher, and the ram of Abraham, our father. And some say, also the [first human-made] tongs, made with [Divine] tongs.

This is a really complicated Mishna that I don't understand at all, but it seems clear from the fact that the first item on the list is the mouth of the Earth that it's the phrase "Create a creation" that is the source for this logic. (I don't have the sources for all of the other things in this Mishna. I think the fact that the other two mouths are mentioned sbusequently suggests that the Earth-mouth is the source for all three of those. And I'm pretty sure there's no Torah source for the bit at the end about tongs, which is why it's just part of the 'and some say'... all that is purely Midrash Aggada) The Mishna is saying that Moses asked God to invoke a miracle of creation and this mouth that had been created at Creation and set up to swallow Korach swallowed up Korach. And it raises a lot of questions. It seems to be a response to this question of the nature of miracles, and its answer is in one sense more naturalistic than the Rambam: Not only is the world run according to natural laws set in motion at creation, but even things that apparently work outside of the laws of nature are actually naturally set in motion at creation as part of a special step in creation that took place Bein Hashmashot of Erev Shabbat.

Yet this is a hugely problematic theory for Jews because it seems to propose a completely deterministic universe where an intervention like the Earth swallowing up Korach for sinning against Moses and God can be preprogrammed as part of creation. If this is the case, where is free will? Where is Korach's ability to choose on his own whether or not to sin, if this preprogrammed miracle Earth-mouth was created as part of the Creation of the World?
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Rabbi Joseph Dweck's lecture on male homosexuality and Torah

Rabbi Dweck's Sefaria source sheet

Rabbi Dweck's subsequent clarifications on his lecture

Presented without specific comment on the content (I am prepared to discuss the content privately if asked). I don't agree with everything Rabbi Dweck teaches here, I don't disagree with everything Rabbi Dweck teaches here, but I admire him greatly for the bravery and kiddush Hashem of risking his career to move this conversation forward in our community. And the fact that these teachings could ruin his career breaks my heart, because there are too many lives at stake in this conversation. The Orthodox community needs to be more honest with ourselves about that.
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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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