Friday, March 21, 2008

Easter Crap Round-up

I do sure love Easter, that special time of year for Jews where everything just gets awkward. I recall fondly watching Easter specials on TV with my brother, Deacon Yid. Our favorite ones were the cartoons where Jesus was white, blond, thin, and uber-Aryan. All the Jews around him were considerably browner. The Apostles and other proto-Christians also tended to be browner, but usually had better noses. The BAD Jews, well, you never really needed any help figuring out who they were- their noses usually looked like they doubled as clubs, and for some reason they often seemed to be surrounded by piles of coins, even when it wasn't the "30 pieces of silver" scene. Strange.

Shiska Girlfriend and I were discussing some of the weirder paradoxes of Easter this morning- like why Christians call today "Good Friday" but act sad. It seems like these are contradictory- either you're happy Jesus died so you can all be saved, hence, Good, or you're sad because he died horribly and are SAVING the Good times for Sunday, in which case- it's not good. Simple, no?

The answer, of course, is no. And to punish me for even presuming that I could ever understand how this Easter shit works, the gods of the universe (and internet) sent me various weird shit, mostly, not that surprisingly, from the masters of brain pain at WorldNetDaily.

Let us begin with our old friend Hal "all references to oil in the Bible talk about bubblin' crude" Lindsey (maybe he's talking about this?). Hal thinks its cool (or weird, or neat, but most likely divine evidence) that Jesus became so famous while being such a nebbish in life.

Jesus was born in a stable in an obscure village named Bethlehem. He grew up in another obscure village known as Nazareth. He never traveled more than about 200 miles from His birthplace. He was not known beyond Nazareth until He began His public career. And that public career only lasted three short years.

His profession, prior to what he called his life calling of saving men from their sin, was a carpenter. During his life, He never ran for public office, yet hundreds of millions have followed Him over two millennia. He never wrote a book, yet hundreds of thousands have been written about Him. He never became the patriarch of a family, yet untold millions consider themselves His children. From the time he began publicly teaching, he never had a house. He was never formally educated, yet He confounded the most brilliant sages of His time. He never commanded an army, yet his teachings have captured the hearts of mankind for more than 2,000 years.

He also, like, never wore shoes. But I heard most of his followers DID wear shoes! Truly, a man of contrasts.
In short, none of the characteristics associated with some of the greatest men of history such as Pharaoh Ramesses II, Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon, Cyrus the Great of Persia, Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, Napoleon, Fredrick the Great, Charlemagne, etc., are associated with Jesus.
Paul Bunyan, Gandhi, Captain Crunch... None of them had homes, either. I never realized how many people were just like Jesus.

At the end of his earthly life, some believed that He was the long-awaited Messiah that Israel's prophets predicted would come. But the religious leaders of Israel condemned Him as a false prophet and a blasphemer on the grounds that He claimed to be the Son of God, thus making himself equal with God. So Jesus was condemned for claiming to be exactly what the Hebrew prophets predicted the true Messiah would be.

Well, except for the fact that the Prophets didn't say that the Messiah would be the Son of God. Also, the whole "list of qualifications the Messiah has to do in order to be considered the Messiah." Also, none of this "second coming" crap. Other than that, totally.

Humanly speaking, there is nothing about Jesus that explains the fact that, 20 centuries after His birth, He stands as the most influential figure who ever existed in human history.

I've been saying this for years. The Vikings were much cooler.

The one event that changed it all was this. Jesus hurled a challenge at His bitterest enemies that what He claimed and taught would be proven true when He would be raised bodily from the dead on the third day.

His cowering and disillusioned disciples suddenly became bold as lions and fearlessly proclaimed that they were witnesses to the fact that they saw him bodily alive after the third day. More than 500 of Jesus' followers were immediately transformed and never changed their witness to the fact that they saw Him bodily alive and talked and ate with Him. Most of these suffered terrible martyr's deaths. But not one recanted of his witness.

Well, at least, not one you could ever be bothered to write about. Come on, you guys are still digging up lost GOSPELS for God's sake- don't act like the entire history of ancient Christianity is known, documented, and established.

It is an undeniable fact that the calendar by which the civilized world marks the passage of time dates to the birth of Jesus of Nazareth. Even though Jews and Muslims use a different calendar, they still have to deal daily with the BC/AD calendar.

Yeah, so there!

Frankly, I've never understood this argument. The Western world follows the Gregorian calendar, originally established by and for Christians. This no more proves Jesus' divinity than the fact that English is the most spoken language indicates that God loves the UK. Plus, given population (and economic) trends, it seems perfectly likely that at some point, the focal point of the world might shift to a non-Christian superpower like China or India. Also, dates to his precise birth? Really? Prove it.

There are many paradoxes about Jesus. But perhaps the greatest is what a Jewish prophet named Isaiah predicted about him 750 years before he was born.

That really says it all, doesn't it?

(Background on Hal's favorite text here.)

Next up is Tom Flannery, who apparently wrote a slightly longer version of a evangelical tract you might find under a park bench, or stuck to a subway pole. Basically, Tom claims that Jesus was foreshadowed all over the Old Testament.

Not ONLY is Isaiah 53 often interpreted to refer to Jesus (a trend Tom continues here), there's also more!

the animal sacrifices instituted by God in the Old Testament foreshadowed Christ's substitutional death. As we are told in Leviticus 17:11, "It is the blood that makes atonement for the soul." In Exodus, we read that God used the shedding of the blood of spotless lambs in the Passover to save His people and deliver them from bondage. In the Gospel accounts of the New Testament, we read that Jesus was the Lamb of God whose precious blood was shed at Passover for the salvation of all men who would ever trust in His sacrificial death for them. Through Christ alone, we are saved and delivered from the bonds of death to live forevermore.

Man, it sure is lucky the Gospels didn't go with Jesus' original nicknames and call him the Platypus of God, or the Correction Fluid of God. Kudos to whoever caught that one in editing.

God also gave a vision of Messiah's substitutional death to King David, who wrote Psalm 22 from the point of view of Jesus on the Cross about 1,000 years before the fact: "I am poured out like water, and all My bones are out of joint. ... They pierced My hands and My feet ... they divide My garments among them, and for My clothing they cast lots ..." and so on.

All of the prophecies of Psalm 22, like those of Isaiah 53 and many others throughout the Old Testament, were fulfilled in the death, burial and resurrection of Christ as recorded in the New Testament by men whose lives were radically transformed by these events and who died as martyrs rather than retracting their testimonies.

Ok, first of all, the fun part about prophesy is that you can interpret it to mean anything. For instance, let's take the case of someone horribly wounded in the Civil War- they could have been hit by canon or rifle fire, (bones out of joint- check, hands and feet pierced- check). Their comrades would then traditionally divy up their gear (bye, clothes!), and any fluid in them would certainly have been poured out or otherwise removed. And they may or may not have died from their injuries. Using this criteria, Isaiah could just as easily be talking about Stonewall Jackson.

Second, almost every religion has had martyrs (maybe not the Scientologists... yet). Does that mean they're ALL true? Or does martyrdom just indicate that someone really, really, believes something strongly? Hmm...
The Old Testament also contains numerous stories that uncannily foreshadowed significant events in the life of Jesus, including His substitutional death and bodily resurrection. For instance, the Genesis account of when God commanded Abraham to take his beloved "only son" Isaac, the "son of promise," up on a mountain and sacrifice him (Genesis 22).
Except for Ishmael. And the six other sons with Keturah. Whoops.

When Abraham had Isaac on the altar of wood and was about to obey, God stopped him and revealed a ram whose horns were caught in a thicket (a crown of thorns).

Or, is it trying to show that Jews like mutton (Hillel sandwich?)

Abraham loosed Isaac and used the ram with the crown of thorns as a substitutional sacrifice as directed by God, just as Jesus wore a crown of thorns and was a sinless substitutional sacrifice on a mountain for each one of us on the wooden altar of the tree, or cross.

What does something being used as a sacrifice have to do with the sacrifice itself being "sinless?" What if the ram had stolen another ram's sheep? That's theft and coveting and adultery. And why assume that it's a direct link between, "Sacrifice Ram" and "That dead guy over there totally counts as a sacrifice, Big Guy. Just so you know, there's mine for this year." That's like saying you can tithe lawn clippings instead of dollars to your church because they're both green.

The Old Testament states that "cursed is anyone who hangs on a tree," and Jesus literally became our curse upon that tree, the curse of our sin, and paid for it in full there.

First, what the hell are you talking about? Second, it looks like the verse from Deuteronomy is referring to people that have been HUNG from trees. Like, hangman's noose, style. Not nailed to a piece of wood.

Ow, ow, ow.

Last is this wank-fest from Slate by James Martin, which starts from the assumption that Easter is totally not commercialized, never will be, and says its because Jesus' death is "challenging." Ok, I'll bite.

Sending out hundreds of Easter cards this year? Attending way too many Easter parties? Doing some last-minute shopping for gifts to place under your Easter tree? Getting tired of those endless Easter-themed specials on television?

I didn't think so.

Sigh. Let's try this slowly.

1. Go to a toy store or a Pharmacy.
2. Look at all the Easter crap.
3. Turn on your television.

4. Now shut up.

Unlike Christmas, whose deeper spiritual meaning has been all but buried under an annual avalanche of commercialism, Easter has retained a stubborn hold on its identity as a religious holiday. This is all the more surprising when you consider what an opportune time it would be for marketers to convince us to buy more stuff. Typically arriving around the beginning of spring, Easter would be the perfect time for department stores to euchre customers into buying carloads of kids' outdoor toys, warm-weather clothes, and summertime sporting equipment. And while Christmas is forced to contend with Thanksgiving, New Year's Day, Hanukkah, and Kwanzaa, there is little holiday competition around Easter time.

Yes, poor oppressed Christmas, always getting overshadowed by Kwanzaa. Are you high? And if you think there's no commercialism surrounding Easter, maybe you should try a Google search. Fine, there's only 1 million to Christmas' 3 million, but that's hardly "un-commercialized." Grow a clue.

Martin's primary thesis is that Easter is bloody and therefore impervious to gussying up.
Despite the awesome theological implications (Christians believe that the infant lying in the manger is the son of God), the Christmas story is easily reduced to pablum. How pleasant it is in mid-December to open a Christmas card with a pretty picture of Mary and Joseph gazing beatifically at their son, with the shepherds and the angels beaming in delight. The Christmas story, with its friendly resonances of marriage, family, babies, animals, angels, and—thanks to the wise men—gifts, is eminently marketable to popular culture.

Family? Sort of. I guess it's very relatable for families where the father has been cuckolded but decides to raise the kid as his own even though he clearly isn't.
On the other hand, a card bearing the image of a near-naked man being stripped, beaten, tortured, and nailed through his hands and feet onto a wooden crucifix is a markedly less pleasant piece of mail.

Only if you focus on the bloody part! If the Christmas moment everyone decided to depict was the actual point of birth, no one would want to see those cards, either. ("Look, the Holy Mother's Birth Canal!") Similarly, Easter is quite easy to represent saccharine-style for those with an iota of creativity, with or without Jesus. (And btw, some people make bloody Jesus cards, too.)

No matter how much you try to water down its particulars, Easter retains some of the shock it had for those who first participated in the events during the first century. The man who spent the final three years of his life preaching a message of love and forgiveness (and, along the way, healing the sick and raising the dead) is betrayed by one of his closest friends, turned over to the representatives of a brutal occupying power, and is tortured, mocked, and executed in the manner that Rome reserved for the worst of its criminals.

Worst criminals? Crucifixion was a standard execution technique applied to commoners:
Under ancient Roman penal practice, crucifixion was also a means of exhibiting the criminal’s low social status. It was the most dishonourable death imaginable, originally reserved for slaves, hence still called "supplicium servile" by Seneca, later extended to provincial freedmen of obscure station ('humiles').

The two guys on either side of Jesus were thieves. It's not like they're giving him lethal injection with a golden needle.
We may even sense resonances with some painful political issues still before us. Jesus of Nazareth was not only physically brutalized but also casually humiliated during his torture, echoing the abuses at Abu Ghraib. In 21st-century Iraq, some American soldiers posed prisoners with women's underwear on their heads as a way of scorning their manhood. In first-century Palestine, some Roman soldiers pressed down a crown of thorns onto Jesus' head and clothed him in a purple robe to scorn the kingship his followers claimed for him.

Wow. Ow. Die.

Martin concludes by arguing that Easter challenges audiences differently than Christmas.

Even agnostics and atheists who don't accept Christ's divinity can accept the general outlines of the Christmas story with little danger to their worldview. But Easter demands a response. It's hard for a non-Christian believer to say, "Yes, I believe that Jesus of Nazareth was crucified, died, was buried, and rose from the dead." That's not something you can believe without some serious ramifications: If you believe that Jesus rose from the dead, this has profound implications for your spiritual and religious life—really, for your whole life. If you believe the story, then you believe that Jesus is God, or at least God's son. What he says about the world and the way we live in that world then has a real claim on you.

Except that if you follow the WHOLE story of Christmas, Jesus is no less God's son then than he is at Easter. By contrast, if you decide he ISN'T God's son, (i.e., you're just "celebrating his birth", or "remembering how he died,") that can apply equally to both holidays, too. It's no more a leap of faith to declare him the offspring of a Virgin-Diety loveshack episode than to say he became a zombie in the spring.

Finally, I'm also annoyed with this other wanker at Slate, also writing about Easter (sort of):
In the earliest expressions of their faith that we have, Christians claimed that Jesus' resurrection showed that God singled out Jesus ahead of the future resurrection of the dead to show him uniquely worthy to be lord of all the elect. However, the paradigmatic significance of Jesus' resurrection was also very important for early Christians.

One word, bozo: Lazarus.

Argh. All my griping aside, Happy Easter to anyone who celebrates it. Not my thing, but that's ok.

Just... please don't tell me you think these guys are representing it right.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Language Politics

Chancellor Angela Merkel caused a minor firestorm in Israel by planning to address the Knesset in her mother tongue- German.

Israel Radio reported Shelly Yachimovich, of the coalition Labour Party, said she would stay absent from the speech to the 120-member Israeli parliament because it was "insensitive" toward Holocaust survivors to hold it in German, "the language of their torturers - SS officers, camp commanders and the Gestapo."

Germany is a "friend of Israel," but the feelings of the survivors should be taken into consideration, said Yachimovich, the daughter of Holocaust survivors.

Two lawmakers of the opposition hard-line Likud party and two of the ultra-right, religious National Union also said they would boycott the address, with three saying they would stay absent and one, Arieh Eldad of the National Union, announcing he planned to walk out of the room in protest.

No word yet on how many actually stayed away. Am I the only one annoyed by Yachimovich's presumption to speak for the supposedly offended survivors? Maybe I'm just too cynical, but seeing as how there are presently none in the Knesset (AFAIK), I wouldn't have minded seeing how some people that actually lived through the Shoah feel about this. I do feel bad for Eldad, though I'm not sure I agree with him about declaring the language permanently verbotten:

One Knesset member, Arieh Eldad, who lost two grandparents and other relatives in the Holocaust, said: "German was the last language my grandmother and grandfather heard before they were murdered.

"The execution orders were given in German... I plan to stand up and leave."

(Not to nit-pick, but there were also execution orders given in ENGLISH during the British Mandate. Will leaders from the US, UK, and Australia be banned from speaking in their lingua franca from now on?)

Quibbling aside, Eldad's certainly got more sympathy from me than his fellow MK, certified wacko Uri Ariel:

MK Uri Ariel was also against allowing Merkel to speak German at the podium: "I don't think that on Shabbat, when we read the parasha about what Amalek did – and they are Amalekites – they are the father of the Amalekites…six million…

"It's all well and good that Germany changed its ways, and there are important things in the political and security sphere that they should be praised for, but to go back to the reptiles and to be wusses…what's the matter? What happened to us?

Does anyone know what this guy is talking about? Someone please help me. (Incidentally, Ynet, this is a really crappy attempt at quoting someone. A better, but clipped one, is here.)

Incidentally, while Eldad may have a long-standing grudge against the German language, he should keep in mind that even though it was the language the Nazis used, it was also the language spoken by many of their victims (even more, if you count Yiddish):

MK Yohanan Plesner (Kadima) responded to the debate saying: "My grandmother and grandfather were refugees from Germany, from the oppressive regime. The German language was not heard in their house because it was the language of the oppressors. I understand where MK Eldad is coming from. This wound is still open.

By contrast, one of the shuls I go to occasionally was founded by refugees from Berlin, and they all speak to each other in German (of course, a lot of them also go back and visit, so maybe they're more forgiving than most).

Incidentally, I find this kind of interesting- and ironic:

The strongest Israeli opposition to the notably close political, diplomatic and cultural ties with modern Germany has, in the past, tended to come less from Jews of German origin than from those whose families came from Poland – such as Mr Eldad, who refuses to buy German goods or visit Germany.

Dr Lars Hansel, director of the German Konrad Adenauer Stiftung in Jerusalem, said last night that its polling indicated elderly German Jews in Israel who had lost "big parts of their family" in the Holocaust were strongly in favour of close ties with modern Germany – while younger Israelis showed relatively little interest in Germany or the rest of Europe.

So, German Jews like Germany, Polish Jews have mixed feelings, and young Israelis could give a shit.

Boo to Haaretz, incidentally, for totally screwing up Eldad's quote- it was his grandparents, not his parents, who were killed by Nazis. (Look out! Zombie Lehi!)

Anyway, I would be more sympathetic to Eldad if he didn't have a history of politicizing language for his own isolationist agenda. Like in 2005, when he complained that Arabic still has official status as one of Israel's national languages, and denied that English had any semi-official status.

Eldad also condemned the fact that Arabic remains Israel’s national language alongside Hebrew. “They simply erased English when the British left and left Hebrew and Arabic,” he said. “It needs to be made clear that the official language of the State of Israel is only Hebrew. The Arabs now seek to add a crescent to the state’s national symbols in their struggle to erase Judaism from the State of Israel.”

He made a similar stink in 2006 over a proposal to print road signs in English only.

"The status of English as official language was annulled after my father and his friends managed to kick the British out of here," Eldad told the transportation minister. "I'm certain you heard about it, it happened in 1948."

Hmm. Not to detract from Eldad's "sarcasm master" buzz, but maybe he could benefit from a refresher course in Israeli language laws. English was never taken off the list of official languages; rather, its priority as THE official language was revoked. Apparently English isn't allowed to be used in the Knesset, but it is mandatory for most schools and universities. If that isn't a working definition of semi-official, I don't know what is.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Yiddish Literary History is not the thing to argue with me about

I feel bad for spoiling one of Holy Hyrax's first posts with a mini-flame war in the comments section. HH had a great point about how the Haredi world now, just like then, fails to understand that it is its inability to react to innovation or perceived threats with anything other than retreat and regression that causes (and caused) it to lose adherents. I added that this is particularly striking when you look at the history of secular Yiddish (and Hebrew) writers and artists in the 19th and 20th centuries, so many of whom (especially the writers) tended to come from educated (read: Orthodox) backgrounds. Sholem Aleichem and Nachman Bialik, for instance, were both child prodigies in Talmudic studies, and Aleichem even served as a government rabbi for a few years in the Ukraine.

Then a serial commenter named Daganev writes back:

The only [artist or writer] I've heard of who was "great" was Marc Chagal.

Jews didn't become "great" in the arts until hollywood.

As someone who's done a lot of research on Yiddish modernism, this pained me a little.

That's a really sad commentary on how white-washed modern Jewish history has become (and I've encountered the same views from non-Orthodox people, too). There were many famous Jewish artists, poets and writers, especially in Yiddish.

You should read more. Modern Yiddish literature was blossoming in Eastern Europe before the Nazis killed everyone or scattered them around the world. A few names to get you started.

The masters: Peretz, Aleichem, Mendele Moykher Sforim

2nd generation: Markish, Grinberg, Kulbak, Asch, Shapiro, Leivick, Halpern, Fefer, Kvitko, Grade, Sutzkever. And of course, the Singer brothers. (You've never heard of I.B. Singer? Really?)

Dag ain't impressed. Or, apparently, convinced I know what I'm talking about.

Yeah.... In your small isolated world those were great people.

Nobody else thought so though.

In the Isolated world of Cheredi Judaism those were "great writers"

Which was my point that you missed.

Ow. Yes, apparently knowing about a subject makes you live in a "small, isolated world." This despite the fact that all of the above were household names for decades in Poland, Ukraine, the Lower-East Side, London, the USSR, and Israel.

If I could offer a suggestion- it may not be the best idea to argue about the popularity (much less existence) of modern Yiddish literature to someone who came *this* close to going to grad school for 20th century Jewish history.

Actually, friend, the Haredim didn't think any of those guys were great writers- they thought they were horrible heretics, especially since so many came from "respectable" backgrounds. It was everybody else- the millions of secular Yiddish-speakers around the world- who loved and read them. Aleichem is still remembered as the Jewish Mark Twain. I.L. Peretz and his students, including Sholem Asch, had major literary tours across Eastern Europe and were mobbed by crowds wherever they went. And I.B. Singer won a freaking Nobel Prize. I'm sorry your knowledge of modern Jewish history is so lacking (yes, Virginia, there were people in the old country that weren't religious AND didn't feel guilty about it!) But I actually do know what I'm talking about on this one, and the fact that you don't isn't proof that I'm making the shit up.

The sad truth is that people don't know about the Yiddish modernists today, not because modern Yiddish literature wasn't important or popular, because Yiddish as a language and literature was exterminated during the Shoah. Any of the writers lucky enough to survive found that their audiences hadn't. People are throwing away thousands of Yiddish books every day because no one can read them.

But at the time, they were famous- and in a highly literate and "cultured" society, no less, which put a lot more emphasis on art and literature as both ideology and entertainment than we might think today. These guys were the rock stars of their time. That's not a myopic look in my presonal fishbowl; it's the objective truth.

Anyone interested should really try to read some of their books, or some of the history. Sniping, backbiting, sabotaging, all with a lot of artistic talent and pretension mixed in. I prefer the autobiographical stuff, myself (this ain't your grandpa's shtetl).

That must be it

There's been a lot of wanky theodicy around lately. As always, there are the people that are disgusted by any attempts to say God is causing terrorism (or anything else bad) to punish the Jews, and the people who, desperate to make their theology make sense, not only defend people who make such arguments, but also go five steps farther. This leads us, in turn, to rehashing the ultimate theodicy.

My Rosh Yeshiva [Yeshiva principal; head teacher] once said the following in a shmuz [talk] regarding the Holocaust: Many Gedolim [sages; leaders] made what seemed to be wrong decisions regarding the war. Does that mean the Gedolim were wrong? Obviously not. He gave the following mashul [explanation]: When someone needs to punish a flock of shep, the first thing you need to do is blind the shepherd. Otherwise, he can lead the sheep past the danger.

The same thing applied to the Holocaust: Hashem [God] needed to punish Klal Yisrael [the people of Israel]. Therefore, he had to “blind” our shepherds, the Gedolim, and take away some of the Ruach Hakodesh [Holy Spirit].

The same thing may be happening now. Hopefully, it is part of the Chevlei Mashiach [birthpangs of the Messiah], and means Mashiach is coming soon!

Remember one thing: even if this is true, that the Gedolim are being “blinded” by Hashem, we still must listen to them! We don’t know for sure, and even if they are blinded, what chance do we have making decisions on our own? A blinded shepherd is better than no shepherd at all!

Of course. That makes perfect sense. Especially if you have a stick shoved through your temple.

The ironic thing is I don't agree with the politics that drive this guy to need to explain away his rabbi's "blindness." But to have to contort your mind in so many ways to rationalize the fact that rabbis are fallible human beings? That's just kind of sad.

Monday, March 10, 2008

And Another

New post up at Too Cool for Shul. We finally got around to seeing a new place, with predictably amusing hijinks ensuing.

Now by popular request featuring more Shiska Girlfriend, who seems to slowly be coming around to this whole blogging thing.

Sunday, March 09, 2008

A slow evolution

I've been doing some reading about the processes of change among the different Jewish denominations. It's interesting to see what decisions influence what changes, and at what pace the denominations move to adapt to each other.

Take the issue of ordaining female rabbis. Apparently the Reform movement was kicking the idea around all through the late 1800s (and vetoing it through the first few decades of the 1900s), but took another 100 years for it to come into practice with Rabbi Sally Preisand, who was ordained in 1972. I had vaguely heard of R. Preisand but was surprised to learn that right behind her, nipping at her heels, as it were, was a Reconstructionist Rabbi, Sandy Eisenberg Sasso, ordained just two years later. It took 11 years after Sally Preisand for the Conservative movement to follow suit, a process which some feared (and others threatened) would split the movement. For the most part, this did not happen. And even though there is presently no widespread move towards ordaining women rabbis in the Orthodox world, it too has not been immune from the shift. Since the 1970s, there has been a dramatic increase in the quality and diversity of educational opportunities for women, something that I would say must be partially read as Orthodoxy's attempt to negotiate a middle road between not actually ordaining female rabbis (too goyish!) and not overly pissing off/alienating women and the feminist-inclined in their own camp ("I can read Hebrew better than you, I can understand Talmudic argumentation, so remind me again why I can't study Talmud?")

This is all interesting to look at because it suggests the model for future issues. Take homosexuality. Again, we have Reconstructionist and Reform leading the way, letting gay students into their seminaries back in the late 1980s. As before, it has taken the Conservative movement longer, this time about twenty years, to come to similar conclusions- though, again, there is a lot of talk about this potentially splitting the movement, and the decision by the American wing to allow the ordination of gay rabbis seems like it will take a while to gain full acceptance among its counterparts in the UK and Israel.

But what's really fascinating is to look at how these questions of law and ideology influence things like political positions. The Reconstructionist and Reform movements were vocally supporting same-sex marriage as early as 1992 and 96. A recent article chronicling the latest salvo in the marriage wars in California focused on the religious movements involved, and which side they came down on:

On one side are the Mormon church, the California Catholic Conference, the National Association of Evangelicals and the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations. They describe marriage between a man and a woman as "the lifeblood of community, society and the state" and say any attempt by the courts to change that would create "deep tensions between civil and religious understandings of that institution."

On the other side are the Unitarians, the United Church of Christ, the Union for Reform Judaism, the Soka Gakkai branch of Buddhism, and dissident groups of Mormons, Catholics and Muslims. Saying their faiths and a wide range of historical traditions honor same-sex unions, they argue that the current law puts the state's stamp of approval on "the religious orthodoxy of some sects concerning who may marry."

Notice anything? The Conservative movement stayed out of it. Didn't want to take a side. It's kind of sad, but understandable. Given the trend for the Conservative movement to act slower (perhaps, in their minds, rightfully slow) on issues relating to social change, so it might have been too much to expect them to come out swinging for same-sex marriage so soon after finishing the last major battle over whether gays and lesbians can even become rabbis.

But then I spotted this:

Los Angeles — In 2005, when a Jewish gay-marriage activist first pressed California rabbis to sign a statement supporting full marriage equality for gays and lesbians, only a handful of Conservative rabbis lent their names. Over the course of the past two months, however, more than a dozen Conservative rabbis here have signed on to a growing list of clergy who support gay marriage in the civil realm.

What changed in between was the December 2006 decision, or teshuvah, by the Conservative movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards to allow gay and lesbian clergy and same-sex commitment ceremonies — a decision made after 15 years of rancorous argument about the issue. As a result of that long-simmering debate, observers note, Conservative rabbis, many of whom were previously uninformed on issues of gay rights in the civil sphere, did their homework and read up on the issues. Others who may have already supported gay marriage finally felt freed up to express their views publicly.

...In Massachusetts, an anti same-sex marriage amendment was roundly defeated in 2005, and again in 2007 at the state legislative level. Rabbi Menachem Creditor, a former Bay State Conservative rabbi who in June of last year became rabbi of Berkeley synagogue Congregation Netivot Shalom, helped organize rabbinic efforts to defeat the Massachusetts bill. Three years ago, 97 Massachusetts rabbis signed a public advertisement opposing the proposed legislation. But according to Creditor — who founded Keshet Rabbis, an organization of Conservative rabbis who support gay and lesbian equality — only seven of those signatories were Conservative. Following passage of the law committee decision in December 2006, Creditor said, many more Conservative rabbis signed their names.

Elliot Dorff, the rector of Los Angeles’s American Jewish University and a co-author of the rabbinic opinion that opened the doors for gay and lesbian clergy and same-sex unions in Conservative Judaism, said the scientific evidence that the opinion presented, showing that sexual orientation is not a choice, has been a key factor in swaying rabbis. Before the hard-fought opinion passed, Dorff said, it would have been far more difficult to convince Conservative rabbis to rally behind the cause of same-sex marriage.

I guess the desire to have the rabbi find a good match trumps the squick/halacha factor!

I have to say, I'm encouraged by this. I don't need Conservative Judaism to be a clone of Reform or Recon, but to see that there is a pattern of having CJ lean the direction of its liberal counterparts when it comes to progressive change, at least on a basic, human equality level... I see that as all for the good. And, again, as the other movements take positions, the Orthodox world modifies some of its own, albeit in different ways. (Who could have predicted this twenty years ago?)

I predict that the next big question will be about intermarriage, patrilineal descent, and so on. I think CJ is content to let patrilineal descent remain their "dividing line" relative to Reform for a good while, unless something big happens to change that. And, most likely, they will find a way of dealing with the issue that at least gives more face value to halacha than Reform's "screw it" position (perhaps continuing some of the practices they already have, like formal conversion of patrilineal-descent children at or before Bar/Bat Mitzvah age). But CJ has demonstrated over the years that fundamentally, it is more interested in seeing what halacha can permit and coexist with, as opposed to shut out. I would say that is what fundamentally distinguishes it from Orthodoxy, and that is why eventually CJ will wind up figuring something out that will probably be more, not less, inclusive of the intermarried and patrilineals.

A final thought: if R. Roth resigned from the Law Committee over ordaining gay rabbis, god knows what he'll do if they decide to allow mixed marriages. Presumably it will involve fire.

Saturday, March 08, 2008

Haveil Havalim # 157

Over at My Shrapnel. Check it out. Many thanks to Gila for linking to my post on the ongoing "Who is a Jew" discussion/war (and while you're there, be sure to read some of the other, less curse-filled posts regarding the issue). The one thing that was a little shocking was being referred to as a Reform Jew, since I've never really thought of myself in those terms. I grew up with Reform Jews, but it never seemed to be a label I was particularly interested in adopting. Yes, they were more religious than me, and more knowledgeable than me (at least then). But it never seemed like what they were doing was all that exciting or meaningful, and I guess some of that bias is still with me (spending college years among an eclectic mix of Conservative-ish Jews probably didn't help this.)

I suppose for a long time it would have been accurate to say that "the synagogue I don't go to is Reform," and in some ways maybe that is still true. But I'm enjoying sampling the smorgasbord of what non-Orthodox life- Reform and beyond- has to offer. On the other hand, after getting a sneak preview of it the other night, I can very easily see myself using Mishkan Tefillah for the rest of my life.

I still think I'm RW Reform more than anything else. But as those divisions keep changing and morphing (more on that later), who knows how much longer those terms will be relevant or significant.

Anyway, hop to it. It's good.

Friday, March 07, 2008


Three of my mother's four grandparents were from Poland. One family, who I will call the Gs, came from a middle-sized industrial town in central Poland. Over the years I have learned a lot of interesting tidbits about all my relatives, including the Gs, who are particularly fascinating because they are the family I can trace the farthest- back to my 5th great-grandfather, born c. 1770, which for everyday Ashkenazim (that is, not related to any rabbinical or famous dynasty families), is pretty good, especially since that's around the time Jewish surnames started becoming standardized and it's probably damn near impossible to go back farther. (Most of my other branches, my comparison, can only go back to my 2nd great-grandparents.)

Anyway, I've done pretty exhaustive research on the Gs, and I've always tried to cast a wide net, to try not to let any potential connections get away (like the time I found some relatives in the old country mentioned on some totally unrelated people's Ellis Island records). But some branches, even within the Stein family, I've been a little lax on. So lately I tried to correct that by taking another look at some of my g.g.grandfather Stein's in-laws (who are still my blood relatives through their sister).

Now, one of the things I should mention is that over the years I have kept a running list, compiled from a number of sources, mostly Jewishgen and Yav Vashem, of relatives living in Europe during the Holocaust. A famous Jewish genealogist (I can't remember which one) has a great line in talking about the myth that there are Ashkenazi Jews in America who "didn't lose anyone" in the Holocaust: "If you go back far enough and start tracing back down, you find someone who was there." That is basically what happened with me. My mother's grandparents had all immigrated from Europe, her parents were born here, and there was never any discussion or hints that the family scope went beyond that. She once told me that she had just assumed they all came from small families.

Actually, their extended families were all quite large- particularly if you go far back enough and trace down. The Gs were a special case: the first ones that came to the U.S. in the late 1890s were successful enough that they were able to bring over an entire immediate family- four brothers, one sister, their spouses, their children, and a few miscellaneous cousins, to boot. For whatever reasons, though, (and there were probably many) most of their cousins, the bulk of the family, stayed put. And they perished.

So I actually have two lists- I have the list of people whose deaths have been documented- years, places, means- Auschwitz, Treblinka, Gross-Rosen, Buchenwald death march, the ghetto, the forest... gas, shooting, lethal injection...

But there's another list, which in some ways is substantially worse. And that is the list of relatives whose fates remain unknown. We just don't know. We don't know if they survived, we don't know if they died. We don't know how, or when. For all we know, they might have died years before the Nazis stepped foot on Polish soil. Some of the older ones on my list, certainly, probably were not around when the Holocaust began. But I also know that there were some 90-year-old Jews in Poland in 1941. And so until I know otherwise, those names, as improbable as it seems, will stay there.

Genealogy can be rewarding but also arduous. There is something exhilarating about finding a new branch of relatives you didn't know about- but this excitement turns bittersweet when you start doing the math and realize that the children whose births you've just uncovered would have been teenagers or young adults in the 1940s. And you don't know- may never know- what happened to them.

Last week, though, something different happened. I was trying to find out more about my g.g.grandmother Leah's family, which I will call the Bs. Leah had three brothers and one sister (two others died as infants). I was looking through everything I could find: Polish business records from the 1920s, Yad Vashem records and lists of the 1940s, anything I could think of. I knew her younger brother Levek had a wife and three children. I knew there was a family there. Five people hadn't just disappeared. There had to be something.

And then, amazingly, there was.

Not in Nazi records. Not even in Polish records. Ellis Island, 1890s. They made it. They left. They survived. 50 years before the madness came, they were already an ocean away, in safety. Levek became Leo and died at age 75 in 1941, the same year the Nazis invaded his home and started killing his relatives. The great irony: America saved him, but he didn't live any longer than his cousins.

But there was one very important difference. Leo's children lived. Both his sons, and probably his daughter, too, married and had children of their own. And their children and grandchildren are still with us, running around somewhere in Boston or New York or maybe somewhere else by now.

The most moving line in Schindler's List for me is not the Talmud quote, "He who saves one life saves the world entire." It's the line a few minutes later where Schindler is sobbing, saying he didn't do enough to save more Jews. Yitzhak Stern approaches him and stares into his eyes. "There will be generations because of what you did," he says.

There will be generations. There will be a continuance. The line, the family, will go on.

I can take five more people off one list, and add them to another. And even as my "Death Confirmed" and "Fate Unknown" lists hurt, I can take solace from the fact that they are finite. The three children that came to America and never knew the Nazis' rule, whose children were allowed to live their lives and continue the family... that will go on. And that is priceless.

News Flash: Media is Slow

Jewschool notes that the Forward is reporting on a not-very-new phenomenon of kosher cheeseburgers. So did the NY Post, who quotes "some blogger" (giving no source or anything, not very nice, but par for the Post) giving the following quote:

One Jewish blogger sneered, "I think the idea of it is atrocious . . . You could find a way to kosherize everything, but if it wasn't created kosher, leave it alone. You managed without it for the past 5,768 years. Don't start now."

I thought this moronic comment sounded familiar, and wouldn't you know it, I was right. Yes, not only is this quote incredibly stupid, it also turns out that it's almost four months old. Wow, the reporting talent here is just amazing, and oh-so-timely.

Someone really needs to give some of these journalists a whack. Preferably with something rolled up.

Still, we should never shy away from giving stupid credit where stupid credit is due. "ayiddele," whoever and wherever you are (probably somewhere in Brooklyn, I'm guessing?), take a bow.

Names of the Dead

The names- and ages- of the yeshiva students killed yesterday have been released:

The fatalities were named as Yochai Lipschitz, 18, of Jerusalem; Yonatan Yitzchak Eldar, 16, of Shiloh; Yonadav Chaim Hirschfeld, 19, of Kochav Hashahar; Neriah Cohen, 15, of Jerusalem; Roey Roth, 18, of Elkana; Segev Pniel Avihayil, 15, of Neveh Daniel; Avraham David Moses, 16, of Efrat; and Maharata Trunoch, 26, of Ashdod.
Children. Freaking children.

As I said in a protracted DovBear thread yesterday, what really kills me, as someone who works with children, is the idea that THEY have been the ones to suffer so much over the past several decades of craziness for the decisions and beliefs of their elders. I look at this attack and am disgusted and sickened. But in my attempt to feel something of what those children's families are going through, I also realize that I can be no less moved by stories like this.

I understand defense. I understand retaliation. But there's something about dead and suffering children that seems to make politics rather facile.

In the meantime, we are left to digest the news that the attacker was from East Jerusalem, and may have known his victims (this story is still being debated; the yeshiva denies it. In any event, it underscores the fear and paranoia that each attack, particularly by Palestinians working in Israel, or Israeli Arabs themselves, impresses upon the Israeli populace). Jerusalem has always been a thorny issue regarding any Palestinian state, but this underscores the fact that, even within the same city supposedly under Israeli sovereignty, there is still "enemy territory." What will the next few months bring to Jerusalem in the way of security, I wonder?

Even semi-notable voices on the left are outraged:

Last week, when Israeli forces drove into Gaza, and some 120 Palestinians were killed, many of them were gunmen, but with children making up another sixth of the total, one grieving father spoke with quiet eloquence, saying "Other places in the world, when this happens, there is a great outcry. When this happens here, the world is silent. No one cares."

He's right. The world has grown content to let Palestinians die. The reason is not simple callousness. And it is not, as Hamas proclaims to its followers in Gaza, that the Jews control the world media and world finance, and thus Western government as well.

The reason is terrorism.

The world has grown weary of the Islamist's creed, that only the armed struggle can resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and that the only proper resolution is the end of Israel.

Even the Israeli left, which for decades championed the Palestinian with courage and determination, has, in large part, had it with the Palestinians. The reason is terrorism. The reason is murder. The reason is that the rulers of Gaza are people who see an intrinsic value in the killing of Jews for the sake of increasing the number of dead Jews in the world. .

As for myself, for the first time, I think I am starting to understand the argument behind "transfer." I still think it's a bad idea, a simplistic idea ("No Arabs no terror"), and an idea predicated on the idea that human rights are something you give lip service to, not actually believe in.

But the basic premise of "how can we live next-door to people who want us dead?"... I'm starting to understand that. Which I find very sad, if not a little scary. (Even more so, the thought that maybe some derivations of that idea actually do make some sense- though, of course, it would make more sense if there weren't tons of pockets of Israelis in the West Bank surrounded by oodles of Palestinians, quite a few of whom probably would like to do them harm.)

If that's a problem for some people, I can only offer my apologies. I'll take the flak, but all the thank yous should be sent to Ala Abu-Dhein.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Even-handed... to a point

I like to think I can be even-handed about all this Middle East stuff. But even I have my limits.

The reporter describes the scene, describes a man who just murdered a bunch of college and high-school age kids in cold-blood, and then finishes by referring to, "the so-called terrorists."

Sorry lady. This time, it is clear-cut. There's nothing "so-called" here.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Mini-Post up

at Too Cool For Shul.

Spread the word.

WND changes its name

To Weird Nutcase Patrol (they can still keep all their monograms, but they have to add a line under the D)

A few of the wackier tidbits from the past week or so:

- First, Hal Lindsey uses cloning to talk about Biblical eugenics.

At the rate human knowledge is expanding, it won't belong before the brain's electrical impulses can be captured and imaged the way a hard drive is today, in effect, storing "you" in a digital format.

Actually I'm pretty sure that's nowhere close to correct.

And it won't be much longer after that before some whiz kid figures a way to transfer that image.

Add cloning to the mixture and the result would be a form of immortality. One could theoretically clone endless "blanks" of oneself and, barring violent death, live forever. It might be expensive, but how much is too much – if the alternative is death, anyway?

Hal, you really need to stop watching reruns of Star Trek Deep Space 9 at 3 am before your columns are due.

But it gets better.

And then there is the possibility of endless cloning. Again, no reason to replenish the earth, and whatever the child of a clone might be, he would not be in the strictest sense of the word, "human." (If there really were no difference, there'd be no word for "clone.")
How would we tell? Would it really matter?

Within a few generations, the human race would be hopelessly contaminated, assuming there were any meaningful human reproduction at all.

"Meaningful reproduction?" First these Christians are mad because people aren't having sex for reproduction, now they're mad because cloning will make reproductive sex less meaningful. Geez, for a bunch of prudes you guys sure are mighty interested in what's happening in people's bedrooms.

According to Genesis 6:1-6, the "sons of God" intermarried with "the daughters of men" and produced offspring that Genesis calls "giants" and "mighty men of renown." Genesis 6:9 records that Noah was found to be a "just" man and "perfect in his generations," i.e., untainted by the hybrid genes introduced into the human bloodline. Genesis 6:12 says that by this time, "all flesh had corrupted his way upon the earth."

God saved Noah and his family alive and destroyed the hybrid population by sending the Flood.

Yeah, that was close. Wouldn't want any giants or mighty men around screwing up our super-selective bloodline. (Get your butt back in the cage, Yao Ming! No reproduction for you.)

As surprising and painful as it may be, it turns out Hal is actually kind of right on this one- "kind of" being the key term.

Ginzburg's Legends of the Jews has the text:

Chiefly the fallen angels and their giant posterity caused the depravity of mankind. The blood spilled by the giants cried unto heaven from the ground, and the four archangels accused the fallen angels and their sons before God, whereupon He gave the following orders to them: Uriel was sent to Noah to announce to him that the earth would be destroyed by a flood...

The funny thing is, the midrash seems to place most of the blame for the fallen angels "falling" in the first place not on their own corrupt nature, but rather on the fact that the "daughters of men" were hussies.

Naamah, the lovely sister of Tubal-cain, led the angels astray with her beauty, and from her union with Shamdon sprang the devil Asmodeus. She was as shameless as all the other descendants of Cain, and as prone to bestial indulgences. Cainite women and Cainite men alike were in the habit of walking abroad naked, and they gave themselves up to every conceivable manner of lewd practices. Of such were the women whose beauty and sensual charms tempted the angels from the path of virtue. The angels, on the other hand, no sooner had they rebelled against God and descended to earth than they lost their transcendental qualities, and were invested with sublunary bodies, so that a union with the daughters of men became possible. The offspring of these alliances between the angels and the Cainite women were the giants, known for their strength and their sinfulness; as their very name, the Emim, indicates, they inspired fear. They have many other names. Sometimes they go by the name Rephaim, because one glance at them made one's heart grow weak; or by the name Gibborim, simply giants, because their size was so enormous that their thigh measured eighteen ells; or by the name Zamzummim, because they were great masters in war; or by the name Anakim, because they touched the sun with their neck; or by the name Ivvim, because, like the snake, they could judge of the qualities of the soil; or finally, by the name Nephilim, because, bringing the world to its fall, they themselves fell.

So all this suggests that the root cause of the bad genes infiltrating the human genepool actually came from Cain's very own- and very human- descendants. Interesting.

- Next up is Pat Boone, who is taking a page from his pal Chuck Norris' playbook and deciding to brush up on his "Witch of Endor" impression. Except unlike Chuck, who used his necromancy powers to find out who the Founding Fathers would have voted for, Pat just cranks out a masturbatory conversation with Thomas Jefferson. (Hint: It's been done, Pat. Stick to singing, or whatever the hell it is you do.)

A few gems:

"It's hard to say exactly, Mr. Jefferson, but we have teacher organizations that make the decisions about what will be taught, and what won't … and they've decided that their new ideas of what America ought to be are more important now than how we actually came to be a free and independent democracy."

First of all, it's totally reasonable that educators be part of the process of determining teaching material- who else should decide, Pat? You? Second, new media and technology are actually making American history (even the selective examples you cite that only involve wig-wearing white men) more accessible, not less. Ever hear of the History Channel?

"You're telling me that the teachers of today find our intentions, our sacrifices and our purposes of so little consequence that the younger generation doesn't need to know about them? How do they expect to preserve what we created? What will be their guide?"

"Oh, their newer ideas, more recent philosophies, what other countries and societies are doing. One of our most recent Supreme Court justices – a woman, which might surprise you, Mr. Jefferson – actually suggested we should learn from legal decisions and positions in Europe and try to conform to them."

"In Europe? Don't they realize it was precisely the conformist, humanist, even dictatorial philosophies of Europe we wanted to be free of? That America was intentionally founded on unique precepts that could guarantee the God-endowed rights of man and not dictate them?..."

First of all, the Founders were cribbing plenty from European counterparts and predecessors like Locke, Rousseau and Paine, not to mention stuff like the Magna Carta. Second, I don't see how you can praise the inventiveness and creativity of the American Revolution and the Constitution and then pooh-pooh "new ideas." What the hell, Pat? Like all the good ideas stopped after 1776? Isn't that why we have amendments?

Pat goes on to have Tommy talk about various issues relating to the establishment clause. No surprise, they totally agree on every point. Shocking. What is interesting is that Pat is totally silent about Jefferson's other most well-known work besides the Constitution and Declaration of Independence- the Jefferson Bible. Must just be an oversight.

- If you can stand it, there's more. Chuck Norris claims Oprah is deliberately promoting some random weirdo and his psuedo-religion during spring as a way to undermine Easter. As if people selling me gigantic bunnies and eggs in February weren't doing that already.

I completely respect everyone's First Amendment rights to choose their religion of choice. But I also recognize the First Amendment rights to speak freely against what I and so many others deem as errant and spiritually unsafe. We can all agree to disagree agreeably, but that doesn't turn an aberrant spiritual opinion into almighty religious truth.

With this live webcast running through the very heart of one of Christendom's most sacred seasons of the year (including Lent, Palm Sunday, Easter and Pentecost), the queen of daytime talk is preaching from a primetime pulpit, from which she is heralding to the world community, "Get ready to be awakened!"

But is it merely a coincidence that Winfrey's and Tolle's spiritual quest aligns with this special religious time of year? It is yet one more evidence of the paradigm shift in our culture from its moral absolute and Judeo-Christian basis to a relativistic worldview in which anything goes and everything is tolerated.

There are no moral absolutes, Chuckie. Just like there's no such thing as Judeo-Christianity. Or a good episode of Walker: Texas Ranger. But I digress.
Like most self-help spiritual texts of this type, it is a blend of half truths and half fabrications.
Like say, faith healing? Or do you mean the prosperity gospel?

Chuck concludes with the famous quote from C.S. Lewis about how you can't cop-out and call Jesus a great teacher. You can only say he was God (or Messiah, or God and Messiah, or the Messiah and some kind of mini-quasi-God), a liar, or crazy. Of course, this sort of "deep" argumentation only works for people that actually feel some sort of obligation to portray Jesus as a good guy. (Incidentally, had he been totally nuts that still wouldn't be HIS personal failing, per se- people can't necessarily control their own mental illness.)

Personally, I have a different view: Jesus, if he was historical at all, was probably a teacher with some radical ideas who cribbed from earlier Jewish teachers (cough cough Hillel), and over time, his followers distorted his image- and message- to something pretty different.

-Lastly, WND's co-editor David Kuppelian wants us all to know that America is under attack. By liberals? No. Muslims? Nuh-uh. Communists? Wrong. No, Dave knows that all these things are just distractions. The biggest threat to America right now is... witchcraft.

That's right, and, surprise surprise, Dave's not down with the witch-crowd:
Most readers, I suspect, are slightly relieved to hear that the "Wiccan Rede" ["An it harm none, do what you will,"] prohibits witches from harming others – although the "rede" (or rule) is more akin to the '60s hippie counterculture ethic ("Like, I can do whatever I want, dude, as long as it doesn't hurt anyone else – you dig?") than the much nobler Golden Rule.
Funny, it makes me think of the Hippocratic Oath.

Dave's journalistic integrity comes out in other subtle ways:

what about spells and magic circles and strange rituals?

You mean like speaking in tongues? Or exorcisms?

"OK, whatever," you might well say. "But where do the moon-lit sex orgies fit in?"

What's this "you" stuff? I'm not the sex-obsessed, culturally insensitive douchebag you seem to think I am, Dave. Besides, plenty of other religions think sex is not just not sinful, but also emulates the divinity of creation- the Kabbalists in Judaism, or certain groups of Hindus come to mind.
So, what seems to a mere muggle (that's "Harry Potter" lingo for a non-magical person) as just a chance to have sex in the woods, to a Wiccan has a much more sacred purpose – that of unifying and integrating the practitioners' inner selves through the union of opposite polar energies. And if that isn't highfalutin enough for you, one Wiccan website explains the Great Rite as "the opening of the gateway to the womb of the Goddess that the Self may be reborn."

So, a ton of people smearing burned palm leaves on their foreheads, that's fine, and a bunch of other people going without food for a day or bread products for a week, that makes perfect sense, and Hindus can worship cows and Buddhists can believe in reincarnation, and Mormons can baptize the dead by proxy, but if you have hanky-panky in the woods, your religion is suddenly off the "quasi-legitimate list?" It must be nice to have such clearly defined standards. As a good Christian, I'm sure Dave's come from the Bible (maybe even that stupid Geneva Bible his website has been hawking since last year). Now if only he'd be kind enough to point me to the "no sex in the woods" commandment.

Dave also doesn't like Wiccan spells, suggesting they are silly, arbitrary, and useless. No word on whether he intends to hold other forms of prayer to the same standard.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

This is sad

And laughable, and pathetic, and a whole lot of other things, too.

In recent years, the state’s Chief Rabbinate and its branches in each Israeli city have adopted an institutional attitude of skepticism toward the Jewish identity of those who enter its doors. And the type of proof that the rabbinate prefers is peculiarly unsuited to Jewish life in the United States. The Israeli government seeks the political and financial support of American Jewry. It welcomes American Jewish immigrants. Yet the rabbinate, one arm of the state, increasingly treats American Jews as doubtful cases: not Jewish until proved so.

More than any other issue, the question of Who is a Jew? has repeatedly roiled relations between Israel and American Jewry. Psychologically, it is an argument over who belongs to the family. In the past, the casus belli was conversion: Would the Law of Return, which grants automatic citizenship to any Jew coming to Israel, apply to those converted to Judaism by non-Orthodox rabbis? Now, as Sharon’s experience indicates, the status of Jews by birth is in question. Equally important, the dividing line is no longer between Orthodox and non-Orthodox. The rabbinate’s handling of the issue has placed it on one side of an ideological fissure within Orthodox Judaism itself, between those concerned with making sure no stranger enters the gates and those who fear leaving sisters and brothers outside.

...Today the meaning of being Jewish is disputed — a faith? a nationality? — but in Israeli society the principle of matrilineal descent remains widely accepted. Sharon’s mother was Jewish, so Sharon knew that she was, too. And yet it seemed impossible to provide evidence that would persuade the rabbinate.

Sharon left the office infuriated. Her mother was Jewish enough to leave affluent America for Israel; her brothers had fought for the Jewish state. Now, she felt, she was being told, “For that you’re good enough, but to be considered Jews for religious purposes you’re not.”

This is also the logical result of allowing an increasingly conservative (and apparently somewhat xenophobic) minority unbridled power over state institutions. In a pluralistic Israel, like in plenty of other Jewish communities around the world, it wouldn't MATTER how Jewish one's mother was (or wasn't). If individual people want to do background checks or stigmatize Jews because their credentials aren't good enough for them, fine, let them. But it's absurd that in a country where the vast majority of citizens are not anywhere close to Orthodox, Orthodox laws should dictate government policy. How can Israel credibly claim to be anything close to a "homeland" for the world's Jews when it is bending over backwards to disenfranchise so many of them? And for what? It's not like most of the politicians actually believe in (or care about) halacha. It's politics, pure and simple. It's the deadly weakness of the parliamentary system that gives disproportionate strength to smaller parties, thereby allowing them to hijack national policies. And it's the historical failure of countless Israeli governments to stand up to the Orthodox minority and draw their lines in the sand. The founding fathers of Israel could laugh in the face of five enemy armies but cowered under their desks when men with black hats and beards came around.

I want to stress that I do not hate the Orthodox. I admire the strength of their beliefs and think that some of their values are laudable (and brave and decent people like R. Seth Farber, mentioned later in the article, have a special place in my heart and in heaven). But halacha is NOT the law of the land of Israel, and the mere preferences of one group of Jews should not be the deciding factor of who gets to be counted. And it is this perception of a total unwillingness to compromise, as well as an encroachment on the personal lives and dignity of others, which is going a long way towards harming the image of the Orthodox among other groups of Jews, in Israel and abroad. If the Orthodox activists have their way, not only will large portions of people who presently identify as Jewish (my own cousins included) be cut off from the supposed Jewish homeland because their mothers aren't of the right "tribe" or their rabbis aren't from the right denomination, so will people like myself, Jewish on all sides as far back as we can trace, who don't have "sufficient" documentation:

“He ended up being my husband,” Suzie said with a laugh. He wasn’t Jewish, a twist in the story line. They left Israel together to wander through Europe and married in a civil ceremony in England. Those details would later loom immense: Had he been Jewish, had they married in Israel, she would have had a ketuba, or religious marriage contract issued by the rabbinate, for her daughter to show years later.

...The main function of the rabbinic courts is divorce, also a purely religious process in Israel. A secondary function is providing judicial rulings on whether a person is Jewish. For that, the main clientele is immigrants from the former Soviet Union. A fairly standard procedure exists for them. It includes examining Soviet-era documents, like birth certificates, that list a citizen’s nationality. (In the Soviet system, “Jewish” was a nationality, parallel to “Russian” or “Uzbek,” listed in everyone’s official papers.)

At the court, Sharon told me, the clerk who opened her file told her to bring her mother’s birth certificate and her parents’ marriage certificate. “I said: ‘But my mother’s birth certificate doesn’t say “Jewish.” It’s from the United States. They don’t write that. And the marriage license — they had a civil wedding.’ ” After she waited hours to see a judge, he told Sharon to return with “any document that would testify to her mother’s Jewishness.” She asked a court official if a letter from a Conservative rabbi would solve the problem. Her mother has a cousin in Florida who is a rabbi, son of the uncle who originally sent Suzie to Israel. No, the official said, “that won’t help. It has to be someone Orthodox.”

See, my parents don't have a ketuba, either. They married in a civil ceremony, and even though the person that officiated was a cantor (a first-cousin once-removed, actually), apparently HE isn't good enough because he didn't belong to the right denomination!

This is, pure and simple, lunacy. To all the aliyah-pushers out there who keep saying that us Diaspora Jews are somehow defective because we aren't "going home," how are we to react to this? I could break up with my non-Jewish girlfriend, go to Israel right now, as a "full-blooded" Jew according to the strictest halachic standards, and I might STILL be discriminated against because I don't have the right credentials! (Or maybe not: we have Hebrew tombstones and some Ellis Island documents that say we're "Hebrew"- but there's no Orthodox connection! A shanda!)

Who the hell are these bozos to make these calls? Did I miss a memo or something? The best part is that all of these hurdles are just to get to the point where one can be married in an Orthodox ceremony by an Orthodox rabbi, neither of which I have any interest in. It just keeps getting better, doesn't it? (Breaking news- the Orthodox rabbinate in America has just been informed it gets to be "kosher" again. And all it had to do was lick the Chief Rabbis' boots. Truly, a victory for all!)

Sorry, folks, but this isn't democracy. This isn't Zionism. It isn't humane or respectful, either. This is the Talibanization of Judaism and Israel, and it's disgusting. And if this is the realization of Herzl and so many others' dreams, it's no dream I want any part of.

Hat-tips: DovBear and FailedMessiah.

Pass me some more of that good old time religion

We've all thought it from time to time- what if Moses was just high? It could actually explain a lot.

But I'm a little confused why all of a sudden there are a bunch of articles about this one psychology prof at Hebrew U in Jerusalem who apparently has come up with a unified "Tripping Moses" theory- which happens to be basically the same one that every single kid (Jewish and otherwise) thought of back in third grade. But the prof's written a "study" about it, so I guess he now gets to be the center of attention for it as though he's actually come up with something new. Lame.

Shanon presents a provocative theory in an article published this week in the philosophy journal Time and Mind. The religious ceremonies of the Israelites included the use of psychotropic materials that can found in the Negev and Sinai, he says.

"I have no direct proof of this interpretation," and such proof cannot be expected, he says. However, "it seems logical that something was altered in people's consciousness. There are other stories in the Bible that mention the use of plants: for example, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in the Garden of Eden."

The acacia tree also has psychedelic properties, Shanon says, which the Israelites could have used. The acacia is mentioned frequently in the Bible, and was the type of wood of which the Ark of the Covenant was made. According to Shanon, he drank a potion prepared from a species of acacia while he was in South America, which caused similar experiences to those produced by the ayahuasca.

You know, I'm pretty sure my desk is made of cherry wood. That doesn't mean I spend my free-time turning it into smoothies.

Yes, apparently psychoactive plants grow in the Middle East, which is interesting, but far from definitive. I guess for me the problem with Shanon's theory is that it doesn't tell us anything new or particularly useful- especially since the entire community of Israelites would have had to be consuming the substance as well (or enough of them to sway the others into going along with the mass "vision").

I can't decide if this reminds me more of the theory that the Salem Witch trials can all be blamed on ergot poisoning, or of how one time a friend of mine was giving a drash at a hippy-ish shul about Moses at Sinai. IIRC, my friend mentioned a Midrash that says the people saw the letters of the Torah flying around. My friend said this was meant metaphorically, but some random schmoe in the audience countered that "clearly" it was a vision brought on by hashish, and used his floor time to add (presumably to whatever agents of "the man" were listening) that the ancient cultures weren't so prudish about drug use. Well said, doofus. Now take off that damn pakul, you look like an idiot.

Hat-tip: Rafi G at DovBear

Mishkan T'Fillah finally appears

That's the rumor, anyway. Apparently some copies of the new Reform siddur have filtered their way out west, and are finally getting to see the light of day.

The good:

Laid out almost entirely in a two-page-spread format, “Mishkan T’filah” is the “high-def widescreen” of prayer books. Right-hand pages contain prayers in Hebrew, along with transliteration, English translation and footnotes. Left-hand-side pages contain alternative readings and related commentary.

Every page has a “pull-down” menu in the upper corners, in Hebrew and English so readers always know exactly where they are in the service.

Unlike “Gates of Prayer,” which leaves out the matriarchs and refers to God as “He,” the new siddur is gender-inclusive. Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah all get props in the Avot v’Imot prayer.

Some of the language retains the lofty elegance of the old Union Prayer Book, but much of it is modern and poetic.

One Shabbat evening prayer reads in part: “Lend us the wit, O God, to speak the lean and simple word; give us the strength to speak the found word, the meant word…”

And smack in the middle is the Sh’ma, spread over two pages in ornate Hebrew calligraphy (reserved only for the most sacred objects).

The siddur also reinstates techiyat hameitim, the prayer for the resurrection of the dead, something unimaginable in previous Reform siddurs.

TV comparisons for a siddur? I can't wait to see what metaphors these guys break out to talk about the Bible.

The bad:

"I had concerns about the formatting of the text and the small font size,” said Kory Zipperstein, Rodef Shalom’s worship committee chairman. “It didn’t seem to progress in a linear fashion. Some older members of the community were not at all happy with this new prayer book.”

Rabbi Stephen Pearce of San Francisco’s Congregation Emanu-El also had a few gripes. “I do not love the book,” he said. “The language is at times child-like. It is hard to maneuver the pages. Constantly having to call out page numbers interrupts the flow of prayer.”

...[Barak] has a few bones to pick. “It would nice if the cantorial [directions] were more indicated,” she said. “And as for responsive readings, they didn’t do it consistently. I really do love the call and response tradition in Jewish prayer.”

Oh, and one more thing. Barak reports that “everyone is making remarks about the weight of the book.”

By that she means the physical weight. “It’s extremely heavy,” she acknowledges.

That's a good point, especially since CCAR is also putting out a copy in large-type, which is probably even more gigantic. Let me tell you, I know old Jews and while they don't mind fasting to the point of passing out Yom Kippur, spraining a wrist trying to hold a damn book is a whole other story.

The miscellaneous:

And then, to satisfy cantors, “Mishkan T’filah” includes an extensive selection of songs and hymns, more than 100 for every conceivable worship or simcha setting. Also included — at Barak’s urging, is “America the Beautiful,” a song she likes to sing in services close to Thanksgiving.

One thing “Mishkan T”filah” does not include: any instructions. No responsive readings in italics, no “sit” or “stand” commands. For that sort of traffic control, clergy and congregants are on their own.

Meh. I think I'll live without explicit stage directions. America the Beautiful I could take or leave, but it will be cool to have a song section (one of the things I like about Temple GLBT, which, incidentally, I owe at least one new post on).

Lastly, the interesting: it's not just Reformies who like the new book.

In 2006, Menachem Creditor proofed some early drafts of the book. Creditor is the rabbi at Netivot Shalom, a Berkeley Conservative synagogue, yet he thinks highly of “Mishkan T’filah.”

“It’s a very inviting text,” he said. “Part of what sets it apart from previous [siddurs] is its willingness to engage in classical language and its attempt to become a more standardized prayer book for Reform Jews. I see this as a real triumph for the Reform movement."

The Conservative movement’s siddur, “Sim Shalom,” was first published in 1985 and has been revised twice since then.

I'm not quite sure how I feel about the article including a random quote from an Orthodox rabbi (relevance?) but since he doesn't use it as an opportunity to bash anybody, I think I can live with it:
The Orthodox movement uses a variety of prayer books, such as those published by Artscroll, the siddurs of choice San Francisco Orthodox shul, Adath Israel. Rabbi Josh Strulowitz jokes that his siddur hasn’t been revised in a thousand years.

“What might change is the commentaries on the [Torah],” he said. “They might modernize the translation or occasionally add something new, like the prayer for the state of Israel, but nothing groundbreaking. That’s a big part of what we are. We modernize the interpretation and understanding, but we don’t change the text.”

That 1,000-year reference is not arbitrary. It wasn’t until the 10th century C.E. that the prayer language found in most siddurs became fixed. For centuries prior to that, prayer was led by the shaliach tzibur — or messenger of the community — who provide the voice of public prayer, sometimes extemporaneously.

Hmm. Could that be a hidden dig at the rabbi? Nah. Couldn't be. They leave that stuff to folks like me.

I'm glad R. Strulowitz is good-humored about this (as opposed to some Orthodox triumphalists I could name), but I still can't help but wonder if an article about a largely Orthodox issue- like an eruv or shmitta- would have included a token quote from a Reform rabbi. Oh well. Diversity and all that.

Monday, March 03, 2008

Memo to Bill O'Reilly

You want to talk about Nazis? This is what the Nazis did. This is why there's no comparison between Ariana Huffington (or the idiot that wrote the stupid Nancy Reagan comment in the first place) and actual Nazis.

On a recent visit to j.’s office, the strikingly tall, thin retired software engineer from Saratoga gently unwrapped a gift jewelry box and deftly pulled out a gold cross the size of a silver dollar. On its ornate face, numerous pinhole-size black diamonds encircle a swastika centerpiece.

But it is the text hammered on the reverse side — “Von Juden Bar,” or of the Jewish bar — that is most remarkable and revolting.

Let the full meaning of those words sink in for a minute. If the cross is authentic, it was made from melted-down gold teeth yanked from the mouths of gassed Jews, and from the gold jewelry pried from their hands and necks.

“This is one of a kind. This is history. I’m holding the German concentration camp Bergen-Belsen in my hands right now,” Peterson said.

This is a German medal made with Jewish teeth — how outrageous is that?” he continued. “This is an Iron Cross given to SS soldiers for bravery — well, not bravery, for all the atrocities they committed. This is not necessarily the fun part of history, but it is history. This medallion captures so much.”

...“Here’s another item I bought that if I tried to sell on Craigslist, it would make your customers vomit,” he said, referring to j. readers. He displayed a handwritten invoice from Frederico Conc. The invoice was several pages long and listed many items, including a bill of sale for two lampshades and a wallet, all crafted from human skin.

And this is why you're a moron.

Edit: It looks like some Jewish folks are finally getting sick enough of O'Jackass trivializing the Holocaust that they're going to do something about it. I look forward to seeing the carnage unfold.

"The terrorists want a Democrat in the White House!"

Not all of them, apparently.

Presumptive Republican presidential nominee John McCain has enjoyed strong support from a lobbyist group that backs the Kosovo Liberation Army despite allegations the KLA is a Muslim terrorist group with ties to criminal drug networks and al-Qaida.


Man, Al-Qaida likes Obama, the KLA likes McCain, and the Vagina Monologue crazies like Clinton. I guess Nader really is the only sane choice (hey, he's got a better chance than Huckabee.)