Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Cultural Ambassadoring is Hard

Mrs. Yid and I are in the South hanging out with her family and relatives. Tonight we celebrated Hanukkah. Afterwards, my father-in-law, Habakkuk, and brother-in-law, Be'or, took me aside.

Habakkuk: You know, Friar, next time you explain something like this, it would be really nice if you didn't...

Me: Have so much detail?

Habakkuk: Make so many cynical side comments. Like about the oil miracle probably not happening.

Be'or: It's sort of like someone explaining Christmas to you and then immediately telling you there's no Santa Claus.

Touché, boys.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Mistaken Identity

Perusing Shmuley's blog to check out his parsha insights led me to yet another post from him about Toldot. Not surprisingly, Shmuley takes the traditional line about Jacob being Mr. Fantastic and runs with it, going so far as to use him for a model for all people brave enough to stand up and confront evil in the world.
There was Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, and Aaron, to name but a few.  However, only Jacob was given a second name by God himself, which was the name “Israel.”
Um, why don't "Abraham" or "Sarah" count? Hello?
Jacob was the first to directly engage the forces of evil and to dwell in the midst of imperfect, immoral societies, in an effort to elevate them from their degraded way of life. 
Wow. Sorry to butt in, but I have to say, when I look at Toldot, Jacob's behavior doesn't exactly strike me as the "elevating" type.
Our initial insight into this characteristic that would define his entire life, is seen from his actions regarding the first born blessing that his father Isaac had intended for Esau, Jacob’s wicked older brother.  Here there was a great dilemma facing Jacob.  Would he be willing to secretly dress himself in his sibling’s best garments, place sheep’s wool on his arms and neck to appear hairy like his brother, and try to convince his blind father that he was Esau, all in order to receive this unique blessing?  Or would he sit back, let his corrupt brother be blessed with even more power, and rationalize to himself that it was really in God’s hands what would occur?
The spin here is really quite impressive. Let's imagine this a different way: "Would he be honest enough, upstanding enough, and frankly, bad-ass enough, to beat up a nun and steal her clothes in order to steal her paycheck from the Pope? Most people draw the line at nun-beating... but when evil's involved... all bets are off!"

Sorry, where were we? Oh right, Shmuley's ode to lying, thieving Jacob. Back to you, Shmoo.
Jacob had to make a potentially life threatening choice.  If things went wrong, he risked being struck by a potentially unstoppable curse from a powerfully spiritual prophet, namely his father Isaac, who was not aware of the true character of Esau.  Jacob also risked having this emotionally unstable, bloodthirsty brother walk in on him after having just finished a hunt, with sword and bow still in hand.  Jacob knew that even if he left from his father’s presence that day unharmed, he would likely be pursued with a lifelong hatred from his now enraged, humiliated brother.  Furthermore, Jacob’s plan of action would involve morally questionable activities, that when applied correctly could be justified, but when used for the wrong purposes, constituted the antithesis of God’s will.  He would have to deceive his father, to tell him untruths, and to steal a blessing meant for his own brother.  The easiest course would have been for Jacob to take the path of pacifism.  “I will sit back, I will not act, and I will not risk any action that could compromise my present status as a moral being.”  But Jacob chose the opposite.  He went down a path that is not clearly defined and that is morally ambiguous.  One that might invoke condemnation from his peers, and that required finely nuanced deliberations that not everyone would be privy to.  It was this moral courage that Jacob summoned that made him great.  
HUH. Not really sure what to say here. Are we sure we're reading the same book?

From here things get really fun as Shmuley compares Jacob to Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill and Harry Truman. Because why not, really.

It's not that Shmuley has no leg to stand on, it's just that his approach really rubs me the wrong way. As much as I've been bashing Jacob, I definitely think, as with the other patriarchs, that there's great lessons to be learned in his character and story. But whereas my approach is to look for flaws in the Torah's characters, which reflect the flaws and doubts of real people not only living right now, but also back then, Shmuley, as many traditionalists tend to do, takes the complex and extremely human characters of the Torah and buffs and shines them until you can barely recognize them as human at all. Shmuley's gloss on Jacob comes from a place of profound certainty and rectitude, whereas I claim him as an example for the rest of us-- of how an incredibly imperfect man can grow.

The best example of where Shmuley and I part ways is when Shmuley starts talking about visiting South Africa:
When I was visiting South Africa with my wife a number of years back, I sat in an audience of 400 people listening to a talk given on Robbins Island, by a panel discussing the topic of apartheid and reconciliation.  One of the men who spoke was a former white police officer, who said that during apartheid, he had once been sent to a black township to quell a riot that had broken out.  He described how he took a completely innocent mother and her children, put them in a house in view of everyone, and burned all ten of them alive.  This ended the riot.  Afterward, the South African justice system at that time sentenced him to seventeen years in jail for those murders.  When apartheid ended, Nobel Prize winner Bishop Tutu organized a system that allowed some of those imprisoned to confess their crimes, express remorse, and be free to go.  This white police officer obviously took up this offer.  After being released from jail early, he now had decided to spend his time speaking and trying to encourage reconciliation between blacks and whites in South Africa.  At the end of his speech, the 400 people in the audience filled the room with thunderous applause.  Actually, it was 398 people applauding, for my wife and I sat there silent.  When the noise had died down, I stood up, pointed at the speaker, and declared before everyone there, “You sir are a murderer!”  I went on to blast this perversion of justice whereby a person could merely apologize, verbally, and thus be exculpated from spilling innocent blood, especially that of children.  At that time one of the speakers in attendance replied that I must be saying this because I was Jewish, and that the Jewish religion didn’t have a well defined concept of forgiveness.  I responded to him that he was very mistaken, and that the Jewish religion has at its center the concept of forgiveness and indeed three separate words for forgiveness, selicha, mechila, and kaparah.  But forgiveness must be earned, and no person has the right to absolve someone of an injustice on behalf of another person.  How would they feel if someone who murdered their family was released from prison because he said he was sorry?  This idea of unregulated pacifism and forgiveness, even to those who commit the most heinous of crimes, is not what the bible aims to teach us.
The irony here is striking. Could not the very same type of accusations be leveled at Jacob? Could not Esau be held up as a classic example of a wronged victim whom others have been more than willing to shove aside in the name of "forgiveness?" Yes, Esau eventually forgives Jacob in the Torah, but his story and voice are mostly silent, and rather than considering events from his point of view, the lion's share of classic Jewish tradition has spent its energies exhaustively cataloguing (or outright inventing) various reasons to "explain" why Jacob was really good and Esau really evil. Over the centuries, have the sages not perhaps been a little too eager to forgive Jacob on behalf of Esau, without necessarily caring about whether Esau was truly given full recompense by his brother? No one dares point the finger at Jacob, calling out with full righteous indignation, "You are a liar and a thief!"

Shmuley is convinced that Jacob is the ideal archetype for being a prophet for truth and righteousness:
our forefather Jacob taught us that only by challenging evil and standing up for what is good, can peace be brought to the world.  Abraham and Isaac worked diligently to disseminate the knowledge of God, and yet to a large degree they still lived apart from the uncivilized masses.  Once he arrived in Canaan, Abraham spent a brief time in Egypt and the territory of the Philistines.  Yet overall he kept his distance from the corrupting outside culture.  He would pray for Sodom and Gomorrah from afar, but would not dare live there.  Isaac, even more so, secluded himself from the outside impure world.  In fact he never left the borders of the future land of Israel his entire life.  It was only Jacob who was required to leave Canaan and live in a foreign land for an extended period of time.  First he dwelt in Aram Naharaim with his wicked uncle Laban for twenty years.  He then returned and chose to dwell in the fields of Shechem adjacent to the natives in the land.  And finally, he lived the last seventeen years of his life in Egypt.  Jacob’s consistent willingness to put everything on the line for the future welfare of the Jewish nation, and his very direct confrontation with evil, gave him the privilege of God’s chosen nation being named after him.  
The problem with this, for me, is that it misunderstands Jacob's fundamental character and utility-- he is not a prophet, he is a wanderer. He is not a missionary so confident in himself that he has nothing better to do but lecture others on how to live (does he ever do that in the Torah?); he is a physically and emotionally wounded man struggling with his doubts, demons and past. Jacob's primary lessons are not directed outward, like a prophet's, but rather inward, as a model for personal teshuvah and improvement.

For me, the value in Jacob's story lies not in the fact that he is so great (he's not), but that he comes from such a dark place and through continued struggle is able to better himself. Rather than mis-casting him as an example for great leadership, I think he is better seen as a model for honesty and open assessment of one's own faults and shortcomings.

Of course, that would require admitting that the Patriarchs are far from perfect-- and that the point of having these details be in the text is not for us to rationalize or justify them, but learn from them.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

That time I wrote that paper about Jews

When discussing Toldot I mentioned an old college paper I wrote about Jacob and Esau in the Midrash and Zohar. Just for chuckles I went traipsing through the dark digital wastelands of my hard drive to bring back this priceless jewel from my student days. Here are some of the choicer tidbits:

Fun with Sefirot:

Isaac is identified with Din, but Rebekah is identified with Shekhinah, “softened” with Hesed (Love), Abraham’s Sefirah. Isaac is “severe Judgment”, but Rebekkah is described as tempering him: “Rebekah issues from the side of severe Judgment, but she withdrew from among them and joined Isaac; for although she issues from… severe Judgment, she is mild Judgment.” (Zohar) The last line of the page is particularly significant: “If she had not been mild, the world could not have endured the severe Judgment of Isaac.”The implication here is fascinating; it seems that without Rebekah’s moderating influence, Isaac could have become as bad, or even worse, than Esau.
...within the Zoharic cosmological system of the ten Sefirot, Isaac is symbolized by the Sefirah Din, Severe Judgment, whose color association is red. Similarly, Esau is always identified with red in rabbinic literature. The Midrash uses the following description: "He was red, his food red, his land red, his warriors were red, their garments were red, his avenger will be red, clad in red." (Midrash Rabbah) 
Here is where we begin to see the violent de-legitimization of Esau. The Midrash associates the color red with war, and connects Esau’s redness with his violent behavior... [In Kabbalistic commentaries on the Zohar,] Esau, identified with the liver, is actually accused of needing to sustain himself with blood, both spiritually, as a violent warrior, as well as, apparently, in terms of physical nutrition. Esau is thus turned into a cannibalistic and vampiric figure; he is, literally, demonized.
Discussing the womb-fight:
...[There is a variant midrash stating] that the brothers’ dispute [in the womb] involved proxy fighters, their respective guardian angels. Esau was allied with Samael, and Jacob with Michael (who, incidentally, was responsible for saving his father Isaac as a boy, by substituting a ram for Abraham’s sacrifice). The tradition goes on to say that Samael went so far as to attempt to kill Jacob, and it was eventually necessary to for God to convene a heavenly court to arbitrate the dispute between the angels (we are not told who won).

...[Here] we see a direct Midrashic association of Esau with Samael (showing that the connection was not something invented by the Zohar). This relationship is teased out even further through Midrash relating to the twins being born with their respective “signs”. Jacob is described as having been born circumcised, a sign that he was particularly special and holy (some other Biblical figures with the same distinction include Adam, Seth, Enoch, Noah, Shem, Joseph, Moses, Samuel and David). Esau, on the other hand, in addition to being born hairy (including a full-grown beard), with all his teeth, and being “blood-red, a sign of his future sanguinary nature”, is born with the mark of a serpent, “the symbol of all that is wicket and hated of God.” (Ginzberg)
At the end of the day, Jews just don't like hunters:
Both the Zohar and the Midrash identify Esau as a hunter on multiple levels. One Midrash commentary associates the term as having a spiritual dimension: “Both [brothers] were hunters of men, Esau tried to capture them in order to turn them away from God, and Jacob, to turn them toward God.” (Ginzberg) Esau is portrayed as hunting men in various ways- through physical violence, as he does with Nimrod; through the spiritual component, by trying to “hunt” men’s souls, and, lastly, through intellectual deceit. Esau deceives his father into thinking him pious, and there is even a Midrash that, in an interesting twist on the verse, “Isaac loved Esau because he had a taste for hunted game” (Gen. 25:28), says that he actually serves his father non-kosher dog-meat. We see hunting and trapping going from mere physical descriptions to immoral activities, which can in turn be plugged into the Sefirotic system, emblematic of the seduction and deception of the “left side”.

Oh, for the days when I had that much free time.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Parsha Post: Toldot

(Question to the readers- I'm experimenting with a new style on this second Parsha post. More of a thematic riff and less point-by-point of things I think are weird. Let me know if you think one works more than the other. Or maybe you don't care about any of this and think I'm wasting my time. That's fine to say, too. Never let it be said I'm not open to criticism.)


I'm very biased when it comes to Toldot. For a college class on Jewish Mysticism I wrote a paper analyzing historical attitudes toward the brothers Ben-Isaac and, well, suffice it to say midrash and the Zohar are not very kind to ol' Esau. As always, I have very mixed feelings when it comes to midrash. On the one hand it can be a wonderful way of digging deeper into something, but on the other hand it often comes across as commentators bending over backwards to justify or rationalize pre-existing attitudes or conceptions. This gets particularly loaded once Jacob becomes an analogue for the Jewish people, and Esau becomes similarly identified as a stand-in for Rome, or Gentiles in general. The more symbolic the two brothers are, the more justification needs to be provided to explain why Jacob is seen as so good and Esau so bad.

The Birthright

Artscroll cites the Talmud saying that the birthright episode occurs in the context of Abraham's death and that Jacob's lentils are intended as a mourner's meal for Isaac. Artscroll says, "On that very day, Esau's sinfulness became public knowledge." It does not explicitly explain what that sinfulness was but suggests that Esau was not mourning his grandfather as he should have been. "Esau went about his evil business as usual, uninvolved in his family's bereavement." This would be more convincing if there was anything remotely hinting at him being sinful in the text. Hertz's apologetics are a little more extensive: "In primitive times, the head of the clan or the firstborn acted as the priest. Esau's general behavior hardly accorded with what was due from one who was supposed to serve the Supreme God; and Jacob suspected that his brother did not value the dignity and privilege of being the firstborn as they should be valued." Hertz goes on to call Esau "a true sensualist," noting that "the spiritual inheritance of Abraham... was not worth to him as much as a dish of pottage." By contrast, EH quotes R. Soloveitchik, who attempts to locate some justification for Esau's inability to value his birthright. Soloveitchik suggests two possible reasons for Esau's behavior: his physical hunger may be so overwhelming that he cannot think in religious terms, or the hunger may also be an indication that he "lacks a sustaining faith to give meaning to his life," particularly at moments of struggle or hardship. "He is weary of the pointlessness of life and the inevitability of death." This is a clever way of linking back to Esau's role as a hunter. As opposed to the "traditional" gloss which sees Esau's hunting as proof that he has a violent or bloody personality, Soloveitchik wonders whether a continual exposure to death may have been detrimental to Esau's spiritual development (or, possibly, whether a lack of faith from an early age coupled with regular killing may have led to the ancient equivalent of spiritual depression).

The Blessing

While the birthright episode shows Esau as kind of dumb and Jacob as resourceful, the blessing is the point where Jacob (and his mother Rebecca) explicitly conspire to steal from Esau. It's a pretty uncomfortable moment, and I've never been able to swallow much of the rationalizations explaining why Esau was so awful he didn't deserve the birthright, or why despite the fact that Jacob is a thieving jerk he's really Mr. Fantastic.

Artscroll and Hertz both lay the responsibility for Jacob's theft on his mother Rebecca, noting that she had been given prophecy that "the elder shall seve the younger." Hertz says, "Knowing how attached Isaac was to the elder son, she must have felt that it would be useless to try and dissuade her husband from his intention [to bless him]. She, therefore, in desperation, decided to circumvent him." Artscroll adds, "[because of the prophecy that one would be superior,] any plan Isaac might have to enlist them in joint service of God could not succeed-- but he had not been authorized to convey this to Isaac. Her only alternative was to deceive Isaac into blessing Jacob." This reeks of bending over backwards to me; it's more honest to say (as the EH and TMC do) that Rebecca and Isaac each had favorite sons, and that Rebecca was backing her favorite, not throwing in this totally extra-textual bit about how God swore Rebecca to secrecy so she's incapable of talking to Isaac about how Esau is a jerk and Jacob is the best think since sliced lentils. Artscroll continues to lay things on quite thick by calling Jacob's theft "his personal Akedah... because, as the Sages derive from Scripture, Jacob personified truth and the blessings would be ratified by God... But his mother was commanding him to secure those blessings by deceiving his father! For Jacob to do so was totally against his nature." Really? Because the only other episode the text mentions of him before this is him ripping off his brother, so I'm not sure where you're getting this. Various critics have gone so far as to identify Jacob as an explicit "trickster" character, something the text alludes to in Esau's wordplay when he curses his brother.

I have to say, within the confines of the text, Esau doesn't seem all that bad to me. He reads as self-centered and perhaps impulsive, but I just don't see the evidence to support all the interpretations that make him out to be sacriligeous, violent, or downright evil. If anything, these strike me as retroactive attempts to justify Jacob's repeated thefts from Esau, which can only really be explained (much less made defensible) if one argues that Esau was somehow unworthy of his birthright or his father's blessing. In the parsha, however, Esau reads as more clueless than malevolent, and Jacob comes across to me as not noble but a bit of a schemer, trying to exploit his brother's and father's weakness for his own benefit.

What's wrong with Isaac?

Until I actually started reading the chumash regularly, I never realized just how minor a character Isaac was. I had some awareness that I didn't know much about him, but since I knew he was a patriarch, I assumed that he did, well... something. But it turns out, no, not so much. His role, compared to his father and grandfather, is strangely muted. Mostly he just retreads old ground. Some commentators, particularly among traditionalists have read this as a positive, demonstrating Isaac's fealty to his father's traditions and value as a "link in the chain" between the generations (also in the process, IMO, seeing themselves as Isaac's modern-day descendants). But while following your father's traditions is well and good, the fact that Isaac is so passive, particularly when compared to his father, does beg some explanation. The EH comments on Isaac's "blindness," saying that various classical commentators saw this as a reference to the lack of clarity he showed in his treatment of his two sons. "Because his loved and envied Esau, he was blind to Esau's faults." (Thought: by the same token, he was perhaps blind to Jacob's good points?) One midrash says "Isaac's judgment is clouded by Esau bringing him his favorite foods." Another connects Isaac's blindness to the Akedah years earlier when he glimpsed "the light of heaven... Isaac was never able to see events on earth clearly after that." The EH glosses this as saying that after seeing heaven, "Isaac was naively blind to lying and deceit on earth. He could no more recognize the transparent lies of Jacob than he could recognize the unworthiness of Esau."

The TMC attempts a psychological view, noting that Isaac's parents were extremely strong personalities and that he was born in the midst of their old age, and notes that Isaac's wife Rebecca is explicitly used as a replacement for his mother. Isaac is always dominated by more aggressive personalities around him. However the TMC also claims that "Isaac is old, but not senile... throughout the episode he is subconsciously aware of Jacob's identity. However since he is unable to admit this knowledge, he pretends to be deceived... he wants to be misled, in his heart he has long known that Esau cannot carry the burden of Abraham... Weak and indecisive man and father that he is, Isaac does not have the courage to face Esau with the truth. His own blindness and the ruse of Rebecca come literally as a godsend... Note that Isaac does not reprimand Jacob, for how can he, who has deceived himself be angry at deceit? In a sense, no one, not even Esau, is deceived, for he too knows that Jacob and not he is the chosen one." This is an interesting explanation but still leaves us with the problem of Jacob's theft, which the TMC, to its credit, notes: "the problem of Jacob's morality remains the same, for Jacob believes that he is deceiving his father and he acts on this belief."

None of the liberal commentaries mention it, but I also have to wonder whether the Akedah could have had a profound influence on Isaac's personality in another way, too-- rather than "glimpsing Heaven," Isaac might have glimpsed the possibility of his own terrifying death-- at the hands of both the Earthly and Heavenly fathers who were supposed to love and protect him. Perhaps the "blindness" Isaac experiences is a result of trauma. Perhaps Isaac is passive because he is a broken, or at least very meek, personality, and this helps explain his attraction and tendency to defer to people with stronger wills than his own.

Why do we like Jacob, again?

Looking at just the text, I find it very hard to find anything very positive about Jacob here. As a character, he's coming off as fairly contemptible. There may be all sorts of nefarious things Esau has been doing in his free time, but the Torah doesn't tell us about any of them, and so while Esau may not be the ideal person to carry on the family business of being the Chosen People, at best the whole scenario comes off as incredibly dysfunctional. There's also the problem that if Jacob is supposed to be so awesome, he should theoretically have some more skills at his disposal than merely jerking his brother around. Maybe call a family meeting? Try an intervention? For all of Jacob's allegedly great attributes, he seems to mostly be good at taking advantage of others. He doesn't even try to explain himself to his brother, instead he runs away. While there may be some self-preservation logic to this, it comes off as rather cowardly, and particularly low when the dispute is with his own twin brother. Jacob is not acting like someone wise, pious, or, I have to say, all that trusting in God.

Maybe I'm a bit of a softy (or too much of a contrarian), but when I read the part about Esau crying for Isaac to bless him too, my heart hurts a little. It's a masterful bit of storytelling that provides some fascinating insight into the Torah's views on human relations. We may be forced to accept (for whatever reason) that Esau was somehow unworthy of his birthright (another hint of democratic or meritocratic leanings in a time when birth order was extremely important to social standing), but unlike Ishmael, who is always presented at a distance, the Torah is not afraid of showing us Esau's pain, and of forcing us to sit with it. The fact that he may be imperfect or the wrong son to inherit the blessing does not negate his suffering. It's not really what we would think the Torah would choose to do with a typical "bad guy," and reminds me more of tragic King Saul than say, an outright villain like Moses' Pharaoh.

I'm not the only one with strong feelings about Toldot. Even Shmuley got into this one.

Was Jacob Guilty of Deceiving His Father?

Spoiler: Shmuley claims no, even while actually admitting yes. Way to be, Shmoo. (Actually, the whole thing is quite similar to the TMC essay glossed above, though in typical Shmuley style it goes on several rambling trips into pop culture, and of course, a good book plug.)

Next time: I dig up that old Zohar paper and a good chuckle is had by all (at either my brilliant insights or painful academic writing, take your pick).

*(Sources: Five Books of Moses, by Prof. Everett Fox, Five Books of Moses, by Prof. Robert Alter, Torah: A Modern Commentary, by URJ, Etz Hayim, by JTS, Soncino Pentateuch & Haftorahs, by R. Hertz, and the Artscroll Tanach, by R. Nosson Scherman.)*

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Tis the season to be pissy

Am I the only one that doesn't take my culture war punditry cues from the post office?

Dateline 2009: A youthful Obama was still being accused of being a foreign-born Communist Jihadi sleeper agent. Nancy Pelosi was enjoying her term as Majority Speaker of the House, and Lady Gaga and Katy Perry had yet to go completely crazy.

And somewhere, in some distant corner of the internet, a conservative crank named Samuel Blumenfeld was getting his undies in a bunch over offensive postage stamps. And by offensive, I mean that they weren't Christian.

They've issued stamps for Secular Humanists, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, two Islamic holidays and, lastly, Christmas. Sorry, Buddhists, no stamps for you, at least not yet. Back in the old days, the Christmas stamp was the only stamp issued for Christmas, the joyous festival that celebrates the birth of Jesus Christ all over the globe. 

According to Dr. Sam, postage stamps were one of THE definitive markers of how amorphous and degenerated American society had become. And while he was irked that so many non-Christian holidays had gotten in on the stamp action, he was magnanimous enough to permit Hanukkah stamps. (Given that Blumenfeld is a Jewish convert to Christianity as well as a writer for the John Birch society, I suppose that's rather big of him.) 
Now, of course, Hanukkah, the Jewish festival of lights, just happens to coincide with the Christmas season, so the Hanukkah stamp pictured with a menorah seems appropriate. After all, Jesus was Jewish.
Big sigh of relief, right? Well, not according to Tzvi Fishman, who seems determined to give Blumenfeld a run for his money in the big crank contest this year.
Hoop hoop hurray! America and Canada are putting out postal stamps for Hanukah! Hoop hoop hurray! What a proud day for the Jewish People! What a great achievement! How proud we all should be that our gentile masters have allowed us a miniature stamp commemorating Hanukah! 
...In the tsunami of impurity and spiritual pollution that is Christmas, the Jews have been given a tiny little stamp, much like a rich landlord tosses a scrap of food to his dog. This December, in the sea of Christian symbols, Christian mangers, Christian Santas, Christian bell ringers, Christian advertisements, Christian store windows, Christian floor displays, Christian commercials, Christian TV shows, Christian office parties, and Christian messages of Christian saviors and goodwill to men, the Jews will have a stamp commemorating Hanukah. Halleluyah!
...Wake up, my friends. You may say that all the unholy decorations and stories of Jesus don’t bother you, but it isn’t true – their messages seep in like deadly poisons, reducing Hanukah and the GIANT ETERNAL TRUTHS OF TORAH into a tiny stamp. That’s right, my friends. In the incessant bombardment of Christian culture, Diaspora Judaism is reduced to stamp-size Judaism.
So, the Christian Jew is mad because the multicultural stamps show how dramatically Christmas is being pushed out of American culture. And the Jewy Jew is annoyed because there's so much Christmas in American culture that any dinky Hanukkah stamp is a tiny drop in the bucket.

I love it when crazy conservatives collide.

Friday, December 02, 2011

Parsha Post: B'reishit through Chayei Sarah

Who is Wise?

Not me, but here are some interesting tidbits I've come across since Simchat Torah.

(Sources: Five Books of Moses, by Prof. Everett Fox, Five Books of Moses, by Prof. Robert Alter, Torah: A Modern Commentary, by URJ, Etz Hayim, by JTS, Soncino Pentateuch & Haftorahs, by R. Hertz, and the Artscroll Tanach, by R. Nosson Scherman.)


Song of Lamech (Gen. 4:23-24): "I have slain a man for wounding me/ And a boy for bruising me./ If Cain is avenged sevenfold/ Then Lamech seventy-sevenfold."

Alter reads this as a poetic fragment from a now-lost part of Hebrew oral tradition that the Torah's audience would have been familiar with. He notes that it sounds rather like a "warrior's triumphal song, cast as a boast to his wives." He suggests that Lamech "is saying (quite barbarically) that not only has he killed a man for wounding him, he has not hesitated to kill a mere boy for hurting him." EH takes the song less literally, seeing in it more of the kind of gladiatorial boasting from warriors or champions about to engage in combat. Lamech brags "that he does not need divine protection because he can defend himself with the new iron weapons of war. He places his faith in the power of technology." Per this view, Lamech is not a bully, but a mighty warrior whose skill is such that whereas his opponents can only bruise him, the same blows from him result in death. Somewhat similarly, Hertz sees it as a triumphant ode to industrialization and the creation of weaponry, "as mentioned in the previous verse." (This would make more sense except that the previous verse is talking about Tubal-Cain being the father of iron weapons, not Lamech.) As part of this gloss, Hertz connects Lamech's superiority in arms to the Cain reference, as well: "If Cain, though unarmed, was promised a sevenfold vengeance on a foe, I, equipped with the weapons invented by Tubal-Cain, will be able to exact a vengeance very much greater!" Artscroll, ever ready with the hard-to-swallow midrash, offers up the old "blind Lamech shot Cain" story from Rashi. In this interpretation, Lamech's song is a plea for forgiveness from his wives: "If the punishment of Cain, an intentional murderer, was delayed until the seventh generation, surely my punishment will be deferred many times seven because I killed accidentally!" I have to say, it's fascinating to watch the meanings of a few lines of text be interpreted so drastically differently. (While I don't buy Rashi's explanation at all, I am intrigued by the similarities between a blind Lamech shooting an arrow and killing Cain and the Norse story of Balder and Hoder. Cross-cultural exchange?)

Nephilim & B'nei ha-Eloheim (Gen. 6:1-4): Fallen angels and demi-gods? Now we're talking! Alter suggests they could be left-overs from pre- or un-Hebraic pantheons. Hertz gives an entirely different gloss by reading the Nephilim and "Sons of God" as being a reference to the godly descendants of Seth interacting with the "Sons of Men," that corrupted, descendants of Cain (or perhaps the "Sons of Men/Mighty" being rich and powerful nobles taking wives from common people). Both interpretations, Hertz says, indicate the failing morality of the time and necessitating the Flood. Artscroll follows the interpretation of B'nei Elohim as being nobles, citing Rashi as the source.

Lech Lecha

Abram's Rambo Moment (Gen. 14): Alter notes the shift of Abram going from being an important figure in his own story to suddenly becoming a "major player" on an international political and military stage-- something which is essentially confined to this single chapter, after which the narrative shifts back to Abram's personal story and that of his relationships with God and his family. Could this be an attempt to expand the scope of Abram's story? Alter notes that several of the kings mentioned in this section match up with historical records, so that element of the story has at least some basis in fact. Artscroll says this chapter shows Abram's "physical courage in battle" and EH notes that he is a "decisive, courageous and skilled battle commander"; perhaps this is an attempt to make him more well-rounded? While it's cool to think of Abraham as a macho man, I also have to wonder whether a wandering shepherd would really be all that likely to know about battle tactics. Hertz has nothing particularly noteworthy to say about Gen.14 other than to make a swipe at his favorite target, Bible critics: "This chapter does not fit in with any of the so-called 'sources' of the Bible critics; hence their determined attacks on its veracity." That's showing them, Rav!

Who is Melchizedek's God? (Gen. 14:18-20): We know he is the king of Salem (Jerusalem), but details are sketchy. He gives a prayer to El Elyon, who could either be referring to the Hebrew God, or El, one of the Canaanite Sky Gods. The text doesn't say, so people have interpreted it both ways. Hertz says "the Ras Shamra tablets show that it was quite a familiar appellation of Deity in pre-Mosaic Canaan," which he uses to conclude that "Melchizedek was evidently a convert of Abraham's." Not sure how you made that leap, but ok. Artscroll says that "The Sages" (I love them!) identified Melchizedek as Noah's son, Shem, Abraham's 9th-great-grandfather. (Chronology: who needs it!) Artscroll adds that Ramban said that Melchizedek was called "a priest of God, the Most High because unlike priests of the other nations who served angels, Melchizedek served Hashem." Again, possible but definitely not provable. R. Kook cites a midrash saying that Melchizedek (Shem) was God's original intended priest but that when he blessed Abraham before God, he lost his mandate (is someone insecure?). Kook extrapolates this midrash to focus on character traits of the two men:
Shem was called Malkhi-tzedek, literally, "the just king." He stressed the trait of tzedek — justice and worthiness. Abraham, on the hand, excelled in chesed and kindness. He sought to reach out to others, to influence and help them even beyond what they deserved.
Kook argues that Shem and Abraham offer two different models of God and religion. Shem's vision of God is beyond human accessibility, hence the need for a priestly intermediary. Abraham's view of religion is that all people are made in God's image, and therefore have the ability to access God already. The only need for a priest is to purify and atone for the people's transgressions. In other words, Abraham's priests have to do a little leg work but the end goal is still individuals interacting with God, whereas Shem's model is more Catholic in focus: all emphasis is on the priest with none on the people. (I'd be more convinced by this if there was any justification for it in the text.) EH admits that no one has any idea who this Melchizedek guy is, which is honest if not particularly enlightening. Alter notes that by borrowing the phrase in his address to the king of Sodom, Abram "elegantly co-opts" Melchizedek for Hebrew monotheism. (It wasn't just Abram; over the generations, ol' Melchi has gotten co-opted multiple times over, by the rabbis, the Essenes, the Kabbalists, the Christians, and even the Mormons. Lucky him.) The biggest surprise here is from the Reform TMC, which "adopts the interpretation which is also favored by Jewish tradition: Melchizedek and Abram worship the same God." I suppose they're entitled, but this seems like a pretty odd place to just take something on random faith based on no good evidence. Have you guys been reading Artscroll again?

Who was Hagar? (Gen. 16):

Hagar's title is usually translated as maidservant or concubine, but EH and Alter note that Hagar is Sarai's property, plain and simple. This is interesting both in terms of showing more of the social dynamics within Abram's household (which raises some questions about the nature of all those "servants" we've been hearing about), as well as for the notable fact that this is one of the only times  in the Torah (AFAIK) that a subservient or underclass character is given agency as well as narrative power. The focus of the chapter is mostly confined to Hagar, and it is through her perspective, not Sarai's, that we hear about the women's quarrel, Hagar's flight, and her experience with God's angel as well as God himself, who she gives a new name, El-Roi, which could be read as "God who sees Me". Compare this with, say, Abram's servent Eliezer, who gets such little screen time that his most famous moment in the Torah may not actually even involve him. It's easy to see how Sarai might be feeling pushed out of her rightful position as the matriarch of Abram's household; at this point in the text, Hagar certainly seems like she's being placed on equal footing with Sarai-- a point Alter underscores by pointing out that the critical word in verse three, usually translated as: "gave [Hagar] to her husband Abram as concubine" is not actually the Hebrew word for concubine, pilegesh, but 'ishah, woman-- "the same term that identifies Sarai at the beginning of the verse." Do I detect a tiny seed of Liberation Theology here? Is the text suggesting that humanity and dignity remain the same regardless of social status? It's certainly an interesting coincidence that the primary struggle of the chapter is Sarai trying to enforce her superiority over Hagar-- a superiority undermined by the text itself! (Also look back to Hagar's name for God- he sees her, even though she's someone's slave. Neat stuff.)

The text doesn't offer very much background on Hagar, though some of the chumashim do try. EH and TMC both note the similarity between Hagar and the Arabic word hajara, meaning "flee" or "emigrate," suggesting both a different origin for Hagar as well as a hint to how she wound up in Canaan. Artscroll takes a different tack, going with a midrash attributed to Rashi claiming that she was the daughter of Pharaoh: "After seeing the miracles that were wrought on Sarah's behalf when she was abducted and taken to his palace, he gave Hagar to Sarah, saying, 'Better that she be a servant in their house than a princess in someone else's.'..." The midrash strikes me as a little silly (I notice Pharaoh didn't offer to become Abram's slave along with his daughter) but does offer another interesting add-on to the idea of doubles and inversions: Hagar is Sarai's slave, but she in her own way, she is also a princess-- not unlike Sarai/Sarah, whose name means "my princess"/"the princess."

Sarai's treatment of Hagar (Gen. 16:1-9):

Many of my chumashim mention Ramban's commentary that "Sarai our Mother acted sinfully in ill-treating Hagar, and also Abram in permitting it; therefore God heard her affliction and gave her a son who became the ancestor of a ferocious race that was destined to deal harshly with their descendants." I like that Ramban recognizes that Sarai committed a sin in how she treated Hagar, though it strikes me as odd that rather than ending her suffering, God explicitly tells her to go back and submit to Sarai's abuse, the implication being that her "reward" for this will be Ishmael's own mighty line. Ramban's drash is also impressive in noting that Abram was also responsible for the deteriorating relationship between his wife and concubine. Abram is criticized by Sarai in not standing up for her, and rather than comfort her, or speak to Hagar, he essentially says, "Do what you want, keep me out of it"-- which not only reads as a bit cowardly, but also a cop-out, particularly since he is the focal point of the love/status triangle! (This comes up again in Va-Yera, when Sarai kicks Ishmael out and Abraham feels bad but does nothing.)

Both the EH and TMC have some interesting linguistic insights. EH says the Hebrew verb used in the text "implies that Sarai subjected Hagar to physical and psychological abuse." TMC also calls Sarai's treatment of Hagar "abuse," with the deliberate goal of driving her out of the household, and notes that "the term for afflicting Hagar... is also used for Pharaoh's afflicting Israel in Egypt." There's only one problem: EH and TMC don't agree on what the verb is! (EH: va-t'anneha, TMC: inah). Help from Hebrew speakers, please?

Hertz stops short of calling Sarai's treatment abusive, saying merely that she "probably imposed harsh tasks on Hagar," and adds that most women would have had similar frustrations if their servant had been "disrespectful and ungrateful." It may be my 21st century anti-slavery bias here, but it's hard for me to feel all that sympathetic to Sarai.

Artscroll has nothing more to say about Hagar here. That brilliant princess midrash took up too much space on the page. Yeah, that was worth it.

Chayei Sarah

Getting the band back together (Gen. 25:9): "[Abraham's] sons Isaac and Ishmael buried him in the cave of Machpelah..."

Just like that, Ishmael's back in town? Seems like there's some story missing here...

TMC says that "the two brothers seem to live in harmony" after their parents' deaths. EH goes further into psychological territory, citing the Talmud's claim that "Ishmael changed his ways as he matured... he seems to have forgiven Abraham for having been a less-than-perfect father. Isaac too seems to have come to terms with his father's nearly killing him on Mount Moriah. Might these reconciliations have occurred in Abraham's lifetime and be the reason for the Torah's describing him as 'contented' in his old age?" The EH asks some interesting questions, but they seem to be reaching a little on this one, particularly with where they go next: "Can we see this as a model for family reconciliations, forgiving old hurts? And can it be a model for the descendants of Ishmael and Isaac, contemporary Arabs and Israeli Jews, to find grounds for forgiveness and reconciliation?" Ok, guys, seriously... it's ONE sentence, without ANY detailed description. Calm down. I thought you were supposed to belong to the historical school or something.

Hertz is the most conservative with his interpretation: "At the graveside of their father, the half-brothers were reconciled." Surprise, surprise, I like his best.

Don't get me wrong, I'm all for happy endings in the Torah... particularly given some of the Jerry Springer back-stabbing going on in the last few parshot... but let's try to rein ourselves in a little bit, please. The liberal chumashim need to stop trying to out-Artscroll Artscroll.

Tomorrow: Toldot.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Doug Giles gets things wrong-- world is shocked!

In related news, gravity still makes things fall down.

First off, a disclaimer: I am about the biggest non-activist you are likely to find. I can't stand rallies, dislike crowds in general, and generally prefer a calm conversation to shouting slogans any day of the week. I also am rather skeptical about Occupy Wall Street-- not because its general principles are necessarily wrong, but simply that I don't think drum circles really accomplish anything. Capitalism may have some major problems, but it's what we've got to work with, and I'd much rather see passionate young people working to help others than yelling about how we need to tear it all down, man.

That said, as part of a silly attempt to mock the OWS protestors, Doug Giles inadvertently winds up making their points for them.
from an earth angle, you are truly the fortunate ones and have hit the lifestyle lotto. Trust me, there are stacks of people from developing countries who would love to have what you ingrates whine about. Just ask an illegal alien.
Giles' whole article can be boiled down to: you live in America, hippies! You have clean water, working toilets, electricity, and food. Most of the world would kill to be in your shoes!

To a large degree, he's right, of course-- however that entirely sidesteps the point that OWS is making. The issue is not that the OWS are Christ-like refugees, it's about the comparative power and wealth inequality that exists in America. It's about pointing out that within the same country, there are some pretty major disparities. That's what the 99/1% mantra refers to. Saying, "to the rest of the world, the 99% is like the 1%" doesn't change the disparity; all it does it show that in a world where millions of people don't have clean water or toilets, the fact that corrupt business executives have bidets made of solid gold or go into convulsions when someone threatens to tax them for buying a new yacht or private jet is beyond gauche, it's downright obscene. You think you're scoring a point against OWS, Doug, but what you're really demonstrating is that the richest 1% and their defenders in the US really have no leg to stand on when it comes to complaining-- about pretty much anything.

Yes, I feel lucky to live in this country. I'd much rather live here than, say, Chad. But there are some serious issues happening right now with American society and culture, and the economy is a huge part of it. I was raised upper middle-class and went to private schools my whole life. I'm educated, my family is reasonably wealthy, etc. Since graduating, I've been stuck in a go-nowhere job for four years. I have friends who are in their late 20s-- privileged, educated, hardworking people-- who are still living in their parents' basements. They're being turned away from jobs they apply to because they're vastly overqualified for them. We are perfect examples of how the American economy continues to squeeze the middle-class into oblivion. At this rate, I'm probably not going to be middle-class. I'm probably going to be working poor. I've come to accept that-- but if someone with my education and background is facing the prospect of living poor, imagine what people who didn't have my privileges are going through.

An entire generation of Americans are finishing school, trying to join the work force, and getting the door slammed in their collective face-- and all the while, we keep hearing the super-rich screech about how unappreciated they are anytime someone talks about regulating the business sector or raising taxes on the only people that seem to be able to afford it. I'm not saying I want a Communist state, but clearly something isn't working here. 

Sorry Doug, pointing out that other countries and other people have it worse is not an argument, it's a distraction. And it's a bad one, at that.

Bibliogestions: Godwrestling

Godwrestling was a bit of a head-trip for me. Part memoir, part midrash, part quasi-history of 60s and 70s social activism and the havurah movement, it's got a lot packed in there. Arthur Waskow is a good writer whose greatest strength-- and at time, challenge-- is his almost naive enthusiasm and passion in applying religious ideals to the contemporary stage. Sometimes this seems to border on the nutty, like when he gets involved in trying to apply the biblical concept of "Jubilee" to the American economy as a way of promoting economic justice. Still, if the worst thing you can say about a liberal rabbi is that they take Judaism too seriously, that can't be too bad.

While the memoir parts were interesting (and some were definitely more topical and relevant to today than others), for me the real draw was more Waskow's perceptive take on Torah characters and midrash. Waskow has a way of articulating, and meditating on, the real human dilemmas that come up in the biblical text, problems that pose genuine problems for modern Jews who want to take Torah seriously but can't check their brains or consciences at the door of the Beit Midrash. I particularly enjoyed his take on the rebels of Genesis-- not the celebrated rebels, like Jacob, but the scorned ones: Cain, Hagar, Ishmael, Esau. When Waskow writes about these characters, people who really suffer and who we do not have happy endings for, you get a real sense that he takes these stories seriously-- that he is troubled by these accounts and that he is unwilling to either ignore them in favor of prettier ones, or create silly apologetics to justify them.

Within this process, I think, lies the real magic of twentieth and twenty-first century Judaism, particularly of the non-Orthodox variety. Waskow and his havurah companions show a model in which people from a whole range of backgrounds can take Judaism seriously, and ask deep, difficult questions about the tradition-- even becoming angry or confrontational with it-- without throwing up their hands and walking away from the whole glorious mess. (One intriguing section documents Waskow's community, Fabrengen, reacting to the cultural shift, among Jews and non-Jews, towards long-term relationships as opposed to marriages. Rather than bemoan it or excuse it, they proceed to examine various relationship frameworks within halacha and how they may be adapted to the present-day, to formalize, if not sanctify, relationships that were previously unknown in Jewish law.)  Considering the "hippy-dippy", anything-goes reputation that Jewish Renewal sometimes has among other denominations, it was refreshing to read such thoughtful-- and sincere-- engagement with Jewish tradition from some of its major thinkers.

While Waskow's work and ideas are thought-provoking and inspiring, they're also instructive in demonstrating some of the weaknesses of the Jewish counter-culture of the time, and to a degree, Jewish Renewal itself. One gets the sense that in their incredible optimism about changing the world, Waskow and his compatriots let their hearts soar beyond where their heads-- or feet-- could keep up. Most of Waskow's circle, including himself, come across as dreamers, not necessarily doers. (The parts of Waskow's narrative that traipse into weird touchy-feely psychological areas don't help.) Principles are great, but it takes an incredible amount of work and dedication to create something that can perpetuate itself. To a degree, a lot of the havurah crowd come off more as self-centered dabblers trying to find themselves than people who have the discipline to make their convictions work in the real world.

In some ways, I suppose this echoes my larger bias/issue with Jewish Renewal as a movement: it seems very hard to nail down exactly what it is about, as well as what it actually does as part of implementing its program. It all seems to come down to creating good vibes and participating in some ephemeral "mystic"-ness. Even if some of that may feel appealing, at the end of the day I want a Judaism that touches me intellectually as well as emotionally, and my impression, at least, is that Renewal seems to swing too far over on the pendulum.

Despite my criticisms, I found myself happy for people like Waskow and his friends at Fabrengen. While their movement may not be my cup of tea, I admire their passion for Judaism and desire to engage with it in modern, even controversial, contexts. At its best, when it's working, liberal Judaism can, and in some regards, should, have a radical edge-- though I think it's to Renewal's benefit that it has had a few decades to help its founders mature and develop (and to help them better and  their ideas and create some stable institutions to spread their message).

Whatever faults Waskow may have had at the time, it's clear that he was-- and still does-- take his Judaism seriously. Regardless of whether you agree with him 100% ideologically, in a time of great Jewish alienation, people needed men like him-- and still do.

Monday, November 28, 2011

What makes a good Bar Mitzvah gift?

Help me out, readers. I have three b'nai mitzvot happening in the next few months. All are Reform relatives, and all boys. I would like to straddle the line between "something with at least some Jewish content" and "something they might actually like." To date, the only gift I have found that seemed to even approach this golden mean was this book-- which I've already given to cousins on one side of the family so I can't really get away with it again.

Any suggestions?

Shop Jewish?

I got an email a while ago from an online Judaica shop (for the record, they were sending me email as early as Halloween telling me to make sure I got started on my Hanukkah shopping early!) encouraging me to "Shop Jewish" this Hanukkah season.
This year, especially, where you shop matters.

If you are buying gifts this year: please shop your synagogue shops, corner Judaica stores, Judaica shuks, and online at [X]. We are small businesses, enhancing the Jewish experience in meaningful ways. 
If you shop this Hanukkah: Shop Jewish.
I must admit to being a little taken aback by this. I'm familiar with the value of trying to help a fellow Jew make a living, but there's also something a little uncomfortably ethnocentric (to say nothing of chutzpahdik) about encouraging someone to patronize your business because you're both from the same ethnic group. (To their credit, they also suggested going to other Jewish businesses. Looks like I'm going to have to google my closest Judaica shuk.)

Apparently this one shop is not alone in doing this. There's also a related version of this being run as an attempt to counter anti-Israel boycott campaigns, too.
Although there have been other so-called “buy-cott” campaigns to counter BDS efforts, organizers believe this will be the largest recent effort to promote Israeli goods - and one they hope will be repeated and expanded in years to come.
“The promotion of Israel products isn’t just economical, it’s psychological and political,” Zelazny said. 
“People see that Israel isn’t isolated; you see the breadth of creativity, the range of products from food to high-tech. People don’t think of Israel in that sense. There are really some amazing food and consumer items. 
“Instead of buying excellent Chilean wine, they can buy wine from Israel. We want people to next time not buy shoes made in Italy, but in Israel."
I think the Buy Israel campaign makes more sense if you have lots of money to blow on luxury items and you're trying to decide between status symbols that are basically interchangeable (should I get shoes from Italy or Israel? Wine from Chile, or Israel?). It doesn't really work if you tend to buy specialized items. (Example: I have terrible feet and the only orthotic shoes that work for me are made in China. It doesn't matter how nice Israeli shoes are; unless they can do what my Chinese ones do, I'm not switching. By the same token, since my Chinese shoes are really expensive, I am not in a position to buy wine from either Israel or Chile.)

I'm not sure how I feel about the Shop Jewish concept. As a young and semi-idealistic consumer, I certainly understand trying to be thoughtful about where your dollars go and who you give your business to (if Jeff Bezos ever becomes a jerk it will be a big challenge to stop using Amazon), but while I can relate to shopping your values, "buying Jewish" is not in itself a value that I share. I suppose I agree with the general principle that if you're buying a Jewish ritual object, it's probably nice if you can buy it from a Jewish manufacturer/seller. But honestly, these days so much commerce happens through a computer screen that the idea of making a purchasing decision based on the seller, as opposed to the item, is a challenging, and somewhat foreign, concept.

It also contrasts with a vaguely democratic consumer ethic that I inherited from my parents. Generally, the principle was that you decided what you want, and then you went wherever you had to to get the item. The biggest priorities were whether they had what you wanted and if it was a good price. We didn't boycott certain stores or exclusively privilege other stores; we went to whoever had what we wanted at a price which was reasonable. Basic free-market.

Now that I'm older and looking at the past twenty years (particularly in light of the present economy), it's becoming clearer that availability and price are not and should not be the only things to pay attention to. If the only bottom line is getting your stuff, then smaller business can't compete, and then you wind up losing all your local small businesses and are stuck with major chains. (Again, this is easier with face-to-face transactions, like groceries, but harder with "pleasure" items, such as books.)

That said, it's still difficult for me to shift my growing economic awareness to accept the idea that if I'm buying someone a gift for a Jewish holiday, my priority should stretch even further and privilege a Jew over a non-Jew. I think part of that is that while I can appreciate making selective economic decisions to support businesses you agree with, "Buy Jewish" suggests that the priority is making sure that a Jew-- any Jew, potentially-- gets my money rather than giving it to a Gentile. That's not how I operate. Inasmuch as ethics play a role in my consumerism, it's in trying to give my money to the least evil groups around with the lowest amount of financial sacrifice from me. Whether or not they're Jewish doesn't enter into it.

The "Shop Jewish" mantra particularly fails for me because of where I live (we have three Judaica shops in the city that aren't shul gift shops-- one is at the JCC, one is at Chabad, and only one which seems to actually have any potential) and what I choose to buy. When it comes to myself, my Jewish tastes (usually book-focused) are extremely eclectic-- to the point that a standard Judaica store usually either doesn't have things I'm looking for or only has them at cost-prohibitive prices. By contrast, when buying for other people (except for Mrs. Yid), I tend to almost never buy anything with Jewish content, because most of my friends and family aren't interested in that. Adding "Shop Jewish" to the list of priorities (along with "decent price", "right item" and "not an evil company") starts making the whole process a lot more complicated. Am I supposed to order my comic books through Eichlers? Should I buy my brother a new camera from B&H in New York and spend twice as much rather than get it on Amazon?

As mentioned before, I also feel that putting the emphasis on the seller and not the products is largely contrary to the present economic model put in place via the internet. It seems more suited to the age of the general or department store than online sellers. In an era where most commerce is not face-to-face, it's hard to encourage people to only buy from a certain group of people. (Even if you decide you do want to shop Jewish; how am I supposed to tell which sellers are Jewish and which aren't?) By contrast, if your starting position is, "I must Shop Jewish this Hanukkah," and you only look at Jewish websites, then I suppose you have more control... but you're also putting a lot of limitations on yourself and taking a big risk of not getting what you're actually looking for-- and there are lots of smaller merchants (Jewish and non-Jewish) that probably won't get your business because you're starting with the bigger names.

While I understand the impulse behind the "Buy Jewish" or "Buy Israel" campaigns, I think, as always, the devil is in the details. The concept might be decent, but I think there needs to be more clarification to get me on board. If it's about trying to find companies that share your values, fine. If it's about trying to support Jewish businesses during Jewish holidays, ok. But just telling me to "Buy Jewish" because Jews should give their money to Jews... that one doesn't work for me.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Bibliogestions: Maimon's Autobiography

I just finished reading the autobiography of Solomon Maimon this past week and while it had some interesting bits, I wouldn't say it left me all that satisfied. This may be due to the fact that reading about a philosopher instead of reading his philosophy may already be a potentially flawed exercise, and that I am not particularly interested in philosophy per se. Despite those misgivings, I was eager to read about Maimon's life if only to get a better sense of what 18th century Jewish Europe was like. Unfortunately Maimon kept butting in, and not really for the better.

The most interesting elements in the book were Maimon describing his family and early life. Since Maimon had such a contrarian personality, reading about rural Jewish life through his very modern and rationalistic lens makes for an interesting historical travelogue-- with an informed but distant guide. (The section on Maimon dabbling with secret Kabbalistic societies, as well as him attempting to explain the Hasidim/Mitnagdim disputes for an outside audience, are pretty entertaining) While Maimon is clearly not neutral about his childhood or community (I've seen quotes from this book offered up on antisemitic websites as "proof" about how corrupt or illogical traditional Jewish life was), I do think it's a useful counterpoint to the nostalgic rose-colored glasses that still seem to get applied to traditional Jewish shtetl life in some circles. Reading Maimon reminded me of something Abbot Yid said years ago about reading Barbara Tuchman: "Until I read A Distant Mirror, I had always thought it would be cool to live in the Middle Ages. Once I found out what it was really like, I was glad I hadn't been there!" Reading about all the struggles, sacrifices, and hardship that Maimon and his friends went through just to say, learn German, or study the natural world, makes me incredibly appreciative that I was not born a few hundred years ago in a traditional Jewish community, where, I have no doubt, I either would have been pretty bored or run out of town. (Also fascinating were the snippets demonstrating just how powerless the people-- Jews, peasants, etc, were against the gentry and nobles of the period. These guys could literally act with impunity-- and did.)

The central dilemma of Maimon's life and the book is that he is a person with rather modern opinions and interests but who is not living in a modern time: he does not have either the intellectual or social freedom to do what he would like, and so his whole life is a series of struggles trying to find the best environment to try to live the way he wants to. Once Maimon decides he can't confine his mind to Talmud study and concludes it's against his principles to lie about his beliefs, he basically removes any possibility of him being able to life peacefully in any religious Jewish community.

One thing that came up for me reading about Maimon's childhood was, again, how the traditional Jewish emphasis on education created a sort of double-edged sword. On the one hand, it encouraged intellectual accomplishment and provided an avenue for precocious or intelligent young men to become socially successful and esteemed. On the other, it was basically crossing its fingers that, once having exposed its youngsters to the world of the mind, that they would be content to remain within the confines of what was acceptable to think, study, or explore. Over and over again, throughout Jewish history, we have cases where some of our best and brightest wind up not being contained by "mere" Judaism, and so they leave in search of something more. It was happening back in Talmudic times with Elisha ben Abuyah, it happened with the Yiddish modernists like Sholom Aleichem and H. Levick, and it happened with Maimon, too. For some people, the intellect can be a Pandora's box.

While at some times Maimon is reasonable and clear-headed, he has a tendency to come across as obnoxious, particularly when describing his interpersonal relationships. He can never let anything go, has a terrible time getting along with people, and seems very focused on issues of status and propriety. There are many sections of the book, particularly in the more cultured cities of Western Europe, where he continually gets entangled in various intrigues and feuds among the intellectuals and philosophes. Between his spats with the Jewish community, the intellectuals, and his continuous poverty, it's very easy to feel sorry for Maimon. At the same time, though, it's clear that he is an active agent in mucking up his life (the concept of learning a trade or earning a living never seems to occur to him), and any sympathy quickly dies in light of how he treats his wife and children, whom he essentially abandons in Poland once he decides to undertake the life of a philosopher. If Maimon was living in poverty in Berlin, we can only imagine how difficult things must have been for his wife (an agunah) and kids, whom he does nothing to help support. In the end Maimon comes across as a tragic but also deeply selfish figure.

One thing the book left me contemplating was how lonely Maimon seemed to be (at one point he even comes close to suicide). While people can-- and have, and will-- debate the pros and cons of various movements or sects all day long, it seems that one of their primary purposes, and benefits, is that they offer community to fellow travelers. Reading about Maimon's life in an age before there were heterodox movements in Judaism, before the "cafeteria" was open for business, really helps me appreciate that today the Jewish landscape is much more diverse and varied, and that whatever faults may lie in these modern movements, at least they give people the option to find like-minded friends and support-- something Maimon never really had.

Condensed Stupid

According to my many hypothetical readers, the only thing more irksome than reading longwinded stupid commentary on the internet is reading my longwinded commentary on the longwinded stupid commentary. I aim to please, so here's some silliness I read recently, now in fun bite-sized form:

1- Dennis Prager wants you to know that the best way to become an educated human is to listen to conservative talk radio:
The intellectual input [a full-time mother] can find is likely to be greater than most women (or men) find working outside the home. There is a reason that about half the audience of my national radio show is female – they listen to talk radio for hours a day and broaden their knowledge considerably...  
I am syndicated by the Salem Radio Network. My colleagues are Bill Bennett, Mike Gallagher, Michael Medved and Hugh Hewitt. Two of us attended Harvard, one Yale and one Columbia. One of us taught at Harvard, another at the City University of New York. And a third teaches constitutional law at a law school. 
In addition to reviewing the news and discussing our own views, we all routinely interview authors and experts – left and right – in almost every field. The woman who listens to us regularly will know more about economics, politics, current events, world affairs, American history and religion than the great majority of men and women who work full-time outside of the house.
Wow, with such an impressive collection of minds, it sounds like Salem Radio is the one who should be creating their own private university, not ol' Dean Beck

2. In the course of continuing to pimp his "so awesome people refuse to pay money for it" novel about how the Diaspora is terrible, Tzvi reminds us of that fun bit in the Zohar about reincarnation and rolling through tunnels.
“Come and see, it has been established that all of the dead of the Land of Israel will be the first to rise to resurrection, because the Holy One Blessed Be He will shed upon them the spirit of life from Above and grant them renewed existence. Regarding them it is written: “Your dead shall live” (Isaiah, 26:19). This refers to the dead of Eretz Yisrael who will rise to life first. 
“In contrast, what follows in the verse, “My dead shall arise” (Ibid,) refers to the dead of the others lands. Of them it is not written that they “shall live” – rather they “shall arise.” The spirit of life will only enter their bodies in the Holy Land of Israel, and for that reason, regarding those who die in the Diaspora, it is not written “shall live,” but “shall arise.” Therefore the dead of the Diaspora will arise without the spirit of life, and then they will be made to roll in underground tunnels all the way to the Land of Israel, and only there will they receive their souls, and not while they are in the Diaspora where the impure rule of the Sitra Achra (Other Side) holds sway, so that they will be resurrected only in Israel in the fitting manner” (Zohar 131A).
Now, Tzvi, if you were writing about interesting things like that in your books, instead of putting in weird stuff about the Baba Elazar (sorry, "Saba Yosef") using his magic powers ( the "wireless Google Earth" in his head) to peek in on the narrator's wife sleeping with their neighbors, maybe I might actually read one.

3. Chief Sephardic Rabbi Shlomo Amar, faced with some hard questions about the state of the rabbinate, conversions, and marriages in Israel, decides that the best tactic to take is to pretend that he lives in fantasy land. For instance, the rabbinate is apparently super-duper awesome:

"Beautiful work is being done with conversions; there are no unnecessary stringencies and no unnecessary leniency, and there also is beautiful work being done in both the army and in the civilian sphere. It is getting better and better, toward the positive side. And the Rabbinate is gaining even more strength. 
...I will say outright, and you have my word on this, that the Rabbinate is excellent, and the religious court judiciary is excellent, much better than what was the case many years ago. It is getting better and better, including also the way in which it relates to the public. 
"We have a very strong disciplinary religious court and when there are complaints, that is where they are referred. In the religious courts, of course, there is an ombudsman who is impartial, who does not favor anyone. Things are going very well there, and every complaint is handled very seriously by the religious court judges, believe it or not. Everything has changed. The secular male lawyers and the female lawyers admit that the work in the religious courts now bears no resemblance to what used to be the case. 
...every person who loves Israel and who loves our people wants to see a settled and secure people: He wants to see security placed in the hands of the security people - not in the hands of private people; medical services offered in an organized manner, and also the Rabbinate and the services of the Rabbinate organized in a proper, official way. 
...There is an organized Rabbinate, there are organized religious courts that are well arranged. They now set the pace for the religious courts outside Israel. There are a great deal of obstacles. There is no doubt there are many people who are hurt. Sometimes there are injured parties from this side who cannot accept the realization that they did not take the right path ..."
By contrast, anyone that says the rabbinate is a bureaucratic, politicized mess is either misinformed, power-hungry or a troublemaker:

"...there are people who want to run the world themselves. It is hard for them to come to terms with the fact that they are not running the world. There are people who make their living from there being X number of women who are refused a divorce." 
...Ever since Moses our teacher there were those who disagreed with him, and it is written: 'The sons of Korah died not' [Numbers 26:11]. Korah died, but he's got descendants. There will always be disagreements. And no one who comes to disagree says that he wants the kingdom. He says that everyone in the entire community is a saint, why are you being arrogant, why not give them good service? If they come, they'll check it out, they'll bring their allegations, and they'll see that, thank God, the religious courts give excellent service. The same is the case for the Rabbinate, and if there are any 'instances,' we are prepared and we will take care of them. We have proved ourselves." 
The opinion of the chief rabbi did not change at all when he was asked to comment on a completely different group, that of the rabbis of the Tzohar organization, who still highly regard state religious authority and are not prepared to break away from the Chief Rabbinate. Regarding them, as well, Amar said that they are the descendants of Korah, filled with "an inclination to argue."
Got that, anyone who's ever had a bad experience with the state rabbinate? You're all crazy. Or descended from Korah. Take your pick.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Glimpsing the End

Growing up I knew my grandparents were different from other kids'. The grandparents I saw on TV were friendly and spoiled their grandkids. They were always around for family occasions and holidays. Grandpas told their grandkids stories or helped them build things or play while Grandma plied everyone with assorted baked goods.

I came into the world already two grandparents short. The one who were left had suffered plenty of damage long before I was born. Zayde was a ghost and Bubbe was... well, she sure wasn't a TV grandma. She was definitely into crafts but what had started as a pretty normal "knit sweaters and socks" kick eventually morphed into crocheting ladies' hats from supermarket bags and making bookmarks out of cardboard and her old pantyhose. I guess when you're an artsy type and you live through a Depression it becomes hard to throw stuff away.

Bubbe had never been a good cook, either. She spent most of her adult life with severe GI problems which it took several decades to realize were caused by a gluten allergy. By the time I was born she had been living on her own (and only cooking for herself) for about ten years. Any possible culinary skills were long gone. The most complicated thing I ever saw her eat was a tuna fish sandwich on rice cakes.

Bubbe is neither particularly warm nor open, particularly when it comes to family matters. Predictably, this has led to a fair amount of tension over the years as I've continued to be interested in the family history of both her and my grandfather, a man and period she was never too keen to talk about.

Still, despite all her crotchetiness, a part of me did always believe Mama Yid when she'd sigh, shake her head and say, "I bet she'll outlive us all."

In the past few months, that white lie has been proven false. Bubbe has gone from being almost entirely self-sufficient in her Florida apartment to suffering significant brain damage, and is now living in a full-time nursing facility in LA. She can't walk; she's lost dexterity in her hands; she can't even go to the bathroom on her own. According to relatives on the ground her recurring mantra has become "I just want to die." The last few weeks have seen even more deterioration: apparently now she's attacking the staff and screaming that they're trying to hurt her.

We've gone from imagining her living well into her 90s into wondering whether she'll make it another few months to her last grandchild's Bar Mitzvah.

Mrs. Yid's father Habakkuk works in end of life care, so he and her have some strong opinions about this sort of thing-- opinions which I, for the most part, share. If Bubbe is suffering and has no real chance of "recovering," much less having any kind of quality of life she wants, I think it's appropriate to start considering palliative options or even hospice. Of course, this is made more complicated by the fact that there are four siblings-- plus an extra few in-laws all trying to talk, coordinate and convince each other of what the right thing to do is. This is not helped by the fact that none of the siblings like each other all that much-- to say nothing of their feelings towards Bubbe.

I want to be there with her-- but at the same time, I don't. I'm worried I'll regret not going to see her, but the idea of going is also pretty frightening.

The whole thing is very sad. I know that nothing I do is going to change the outcome-- Bubbe might go soon, or she might live on like this for several more years. It's hard to figure out what would be optimal. I suppose that if the way she is now is the best she's going to be then, as uncomfortable as it is to contemplate, I suppose, for her sake, I'd rather she go quickly.

But I have to confess that I'm a little scared about how I'll feel when she does.

Despite everything, she's the only real grandparent I've ever had. Though we aren't super close (no one in my family really is), it's scary to contemplate how things will feel without her-- how we'll all deal with it, and how we'll honor and remember her.

Friday, November 04, 2011

Celebrating Superficiality

As a liberal Jew in his late twenties who grew up in California, I am contractually and culturally obligated to be non-judgmental when it comes to anyone else, particularly anyone else's religious practices, and particularly anyone else who is a Jew, and particularly anyone else who is Jewish and more liberal than me.

That said... there are a couple of stories, both from the Forward, that have come across my e-desk that strike me as just plain 'off'.

The first one was back in July when a female artist wrote an ode to her new creative business enterprise, which combined her love of gluing random bits of broken pottery with her talent for making people uncomfortable. Presenting the Mosaic Urn.


For years, I’ve been designing mosaic art objects in the French style known as pique assiette, nipping dishes into tiny shards and combining them to create one-of-a-kind tables, vases, picture frames and candlestick holders. Some months ago, I turned this into an online business. While working, I watch cable news, so my background noise is a parade of political scandals, financial frauds, and national health care and unemployment crises. 
In the early 1970s, I became a comedy writer. I was now inspired to use mosaic to express political satire, finding red, white and blue plates with flag images for what I called my Breaking News Series. I assembled pictures of my bêtes noires — Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann, John Edwards and John Ensign, Kenneth Lay and Bernie Madoff, the National Debt Clock and corporate logos. To add bite, I’d set the mosaics on cremation urns. 
I submitted one such urn to an edgy Brooklyn art show. At the opening party, I watched guests studying the piece, identifying the right-wingers to one another as if it were a party game. Photos and text inserted into the mosaic made a cutting political statement, but I began to consider whether the aesthetic might have a wider — and more functional — application. With this process, I could animate an urn for actual usage that would visually tell the story of a life. It would be highly personal and have a celebratory quality. 
A few months ago, as I was setting the table for dinner, I surprised myself by blurting out: “You’ll be most affected by this, Nick. Would you prefer that we be buried or cremated?” 
He shot me a puzzled look. “Uh, any reason you’re asking?” 
“How about I make urns for Dad and me? I can cover them with fun photos — family vacations, birthday parties, graduations,” I said. 
He didn’t answer immediately. 
“They’ll be pretty and about life!” I urged. “I’ll use our dishes. It’ll remind you of the dinner table.” 
It felt like forever before Nick said, “Sounds good.” Martin remained silent, which I interpreted as enthusiasm.

And now she's selling them online and somehow convinced someone at the Forward to let her write one big advertisement for her kooky home business based on the premise of being Jewishly edgy, or something. Also I like how this started as personal art, morphed into sneering political "satire" (Get it? It's Sarah Palin on an urn!) and now has transcended its humble beginnings into being creepy, inappropriate burial accoutrements. Bra-va, I guess?

Here's the thing: I respect that this lady has made a choice in a way that feels meaningful to her. At the same time, her attitude about the whole thing, "Check out this cool thing I came up with to hold your ashes! Ain't it cool!" to be quite off-putting. My father has mentioned he will probably want to be cremated, and while it isn't my cup of tea, I know that I'm much happier with the idea of scattering someone's ashes than keeping them in an urn that looks like a kindergartener's collage project. Maybe I'm just a fuddy-duddy, but to me it feels really inappropriate to try to make someone's urn "pretty" or "remind you of the dinner table."
Some who believe that death requires a somber approach question my upbeat spin. I explain I hope a beautiful urn that honors memories of a loved one can take some of the sting out of death.
Here we have a critical point: for me the idea of trying to "spin" death does not remove the sting. Death is supposed to have a sting. That's part of it. It doesn't mean you need to go into full on ashes and sackcloth, but I don't think "upbeat" is the way to go, either. It's not about being "somber" specifically, but it's about taking the moment seriously.

So that was July. Now this week we have this woman, who wrote an article high-fiving herself for only going to shul to get free food.

I’m one of those synagogue goers who arrive pretty much just in time for the “Amen!” as we raise our mini plastic cups of wine before elbowing our way — er, gently sauntering over — to the food. My timing is never quite exact, of course, so there are days when I get there and my fellow congregants are still singing “Adon Olam,” the last song of the service. I’m happy to sing along — in fact, I like it if I’m in time for Kaddish and the announcements; makes me feel very much a part of things. But for shallow, antsy and kind-of-cheap me, going to synagogue means going to lunch with friends, there, in the social hall. 
And how important is the quality of that lunch? Let’s just say that a tray of hummus and carrot sticks makes my spiritual aura shrink to the size of a store-bought gefilte fish ball. You could pierce my soul with a toothpick. But a glistening mound of bar mitzvah lox — the Holy Grail, as it were, of Kiddushes — maketh me skip through the Valley of Death and cartwheel over to the scallion cream cheese. It restoreth my soul and maketh my kids a lot happier about my bringing them along, too. In fact, it getteth them psyched to come again, the way a random shower of slot machine nickels getteth bubbe back to Atlantic City. And I know that I am not the only congregant who peruses the synagogue calendar to see who has a great big spread — er, great big simcha — coming up, and precisely which Saturday we are talking about. 
My worry, of course, is that the Divine One is probably not thrilled with the attendee who arrives when the audience is filing out of the theater. Come to think of it, the rabbi probably isn’t, either. But I do believe there is something more than just lip service (and Tam Tams) being offered when a congregant arrives in time only to eat and shmooze. And, I am glad to say, some folks agree with me.

The writer then goes on to quote various people who have written various things about kiddush. No introspection, no thoughts on other ways she expresses her Jewish identity, other approaches she could use to get something out of the service, nothing. She's a Bagel and Lox Jew by self-definition, and she's proud of it, thanks very much.

I understand that this is this lady's reality and I... suppose I admire her willingness to be honest about it? And while I don't think she necessarily should be embarrassed about this, I really don't understand the mentality which says this is something to celebrate, rather than wrestles with. I don't understand the thinking that says, "Yeah, I fully admit I just show up to get free food, and these are the values I'm passing on to my kids. That food is awesome." To say nothing of the fact that the writer's behavior-- both barging in late, as well as adopting a "schnorer" attitude to her fellow congregants-- strikes me as just plain rude.

It's one thing to acknowledge one's imperfections in a public forum as a way of calling attention to things you have to work on and areas where you can grow. It's another to use them as a platform for advertising how awesome, enlightened, or creative you are and suggesting that people should follow your example.

Sometimes I just don't get people.