Monday, January 30, 2012

Privileges of the Majority

Peter Beinart had an interesting post about American Jews' religiosity, in which, among other things, he noted that American Jews tend to vote liberal because statistically, "U.S. Jews practice their religion far less than their American Christian counterparts."

I think this also ties in with why American Jews have traditionally been wary of people being or becoming "too" religious. Part of this is that there can often be a correlation between personal religiosity and carrying that over into the public sphere. Particularly in America, people tend to be very bad about keeping their personal faith off of others.

This often seems to be something that's very hard for non-Jews, particularly Christians (even "cultural" ones), to understand. I once had a very animated discussion with a college friend about the issue of prayer in public schools-- and even though she identified as a religious minority (Unitarian Universalist), I found it very hard to communicate the discomfort and frustration that that issue, and ones like it, raised in me. Since she still very much associated with the majority culture, it was hard for her to understand how threatening or offensive the idea that we are a Christian nation, or an inherently religious nation is, when you're in the minority.

For a religious minority with a long history of persecution, I feel that Jews are particularly sensitive to issues of majoritarianism, and it's part of the reason so many Jews on the more liberal/secular end of things are so cagey about bringing religion into public discourse. As soon as we start having a more religious public society, we inevitably get into the dicey questions of how and what to include and what to exclude. Frankly, it's something that is hard to do well.

Things also aren't helped by the fact that as the evangelical population in America has become more vocal  in their religiosity and desire for a more publicly religious society, it becomes increasingly clear that they haven't worked out all the sticky parts that would come with this new dynamic-- and particularly, what acceptable roles for non-Christians would be in a "Christian" country. One place this has popped up is with Mitt Romney's candidacy.

While I have little in common with Romney politically, it's been rather disconcerting to see the evangelical Republican population publicly debate whether his faith should prevent him from being "allowed" to be the GOP candidate. There's an incredible amount of hubris and privilege present here that for me, really exemplifies why I and so many other liberals, particularly liberal Jews, much prefer to have an American political sphere that is as secular as possible.

First example comes from the Christian Post, where columnist Jim Denison felt the need to defend the argument that candidate's faith should be a consideration by voters.

are there religious commitments that affect these "pivotal points" to the degree that they should be considered by voters? I believe there are. My position does not relate specifically to Romney and Mormonism; it applies to any candidate from any political party.  
Let's consider some examples. Ronald Reagan was shot by John Hinckley nearly 30 years ago. If he had been a faithful Jehovah's Witness, he would have died – his church's teachings would have forbidden the massive blood transfusions that saved his life. In 1991, President George H. W. Bush was diagnosed with hyperthyroidism, which caused a rapid irregular heartbeat and atrial fibrillation. Drugs were effective in returning his heart rhythm to normal. If he had been a practicing Christian Scientist, would he have refused medical treatment? Do we want presidents whose lives could be endangered by their religious beliefs? 
How would a Sunni president have prosecuted the war in Iraq? Would a Shiite view Iran more sympathetically? Would a chief executive who was a Tibetan Buddhist be more sympathetic to the Dalai Lama in his ongoing conflicts with the People's Republic of China? 
Admittedly, none of the current presidential candidates espouse religious commitments so contrary to mainstream America. But would their policies be influenced by their religious beliefs? I would hope so.

And this is an area where we have a foundational disagreement. I want elected officials who either share my political philosophy, or at least have a view of government, country and society that won't be actively harmful to them. Their religious beliefs are far less important to me than their political beliefs, and it doesn't particularly matter to me what they are as long as they don't impair their ability to do their jobs well. And I don't really buy Denison's claim that he really wants all presidential candidates to make decisions based on their religion regardless of whether he agrees with those beliefs.

Would Mormonism's distinctive beliefs influence a Romney or Huntsman administration? Would evangelical commitments affect Rick Perry's presidency? Would Catholic moral positions gain consideration in a Gingrich or Santorum White House? Would Baptist convictions influence Ron Paul's policies? Do the United Church of Christ's theological positions alter Barack Obama's worldview and leadership? 
You and I may disagree on the answers to these questions, but we should agree to ask them.

First, this is really funny given how irritated conservatives got when liberals bashed Bush for saying God talked to him and gave him foreign policy advice. Second, sorry, no. Asking random questions to yourself is not a particularly useful activity, and given Jim's stated beliefs and biases, it comes off as poisoning the well. This is like all those people who kept questioning Obama's patriotism or eligibility but claimed they were "just asking questions." If you're curious about the effect Romney's faith might have on his administration, do some journalism. Don't just sit around going, "Hey, Mormons don't drink, do you think he'll repeal the 21st Amendment?"

Second example is from old friend Dennis Prager, playing, of all the things, the role of sage voice of reason. He can do this, he informs us, because,"as a Jew, I have no religious pony in this race," though he does want us to know how awesome Christianity and Mormonism are.
I believe that American Christianity has been the greatest force for good in the modern world and that evangelicals are at the core of America’s backbone. And I have enormous respect for Mormons. 
As he so often does in his columns, Dennis doesn't believe in showing examples or anything, he just states the facts and moves on before anyone can argue with him. A sort of drive-by op-ed, if you will.

Dennis has three take-aways he wants evangelicals to know. First of all, Mormonism isn't a cult, because Dennis says so.
Over the course of time, as a religion establishes itself and its members act more or less like members of the older religions, the charge is usually dropped... After nearly 200 years, Mormons are an integral part of American society, with impressive reputations for family life, integrity and other values. The “cult” label just doesn’t seem appropriate.
Got it, Christians? It used to be a cult. Now it's cool. Get with it.

Second, evangelicals need to get over labels.
in the view of most evangelicals, if people wish to believe in the divinity of the Book of Mormon and the prophecy of Joseph Smith, that is their business, but to call these and other distinctive Mormon beliefs “Christian” bothers many evangelicals. Of course, Mormons respond that a religion that calls itself The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, can hardly be dismissed as non-Christian. But it is not my interest here to adjudicate this debate. I only wish to offer one reason that evangelicals might be disturbed by Mormonism calling itself Christian.
Well, that wasn't very decisive. Not taking a position on something? Live and let live? It looks like Dennis is getting all wishy-washy and liberally in his old age.

Last, Mormons can still be conservative without being evangelical.
Traditional Jews and evangelical Christians have quite different theologies, but they often have virtually identical values. (That is why this Jew is so supportive of evangelicals and why evangelical Christians syndicate my radio show.) Conservative Catholics and evangelicals differ on theology but share virtually every important value. The founders differed on theology but rarely on values.
A- Duh?
B- Nice weaseling by Dennis here. I know he went to Yeshiva day school, but he just had a column on how he isn't Orthodox, and he's publicly spoken about not keeping kosher. Exactly who is he kidding with this line about being a "traditional" Jew? Dennis is a liberally observant Jew with conservative politics. "Traditional Jew" implies something very specific, particularly to a non-Jewish audience, and it seems misleading.
C- Have you read anything the Founders wrote? They totally had different values, that's why they had different political parties!
D- I like how Dennis, judgmental crank par excellence, is telling the Christian right that they need to get over themselves and ratchet their righteous indignation down.

Last example comes from WND writer Jane Chastain, chastising her Christian brethren for their anti-Romney fears.

For too long, people of faith, and Christians in particular, have been lulled to sleep politically by anyone who claimed to be a member of the “right” church. He or she, in effect, had their religious ticket stamped. We elected them, hit the snooze button and they robbed us blind. How is that working out for you? 
...It wasn’t that long ago that many Protestants were afraid to vote for a Catholic for president for fear that the pope would be the de facto ruler of the country. Now, we are hearing the same kind of thing about Mitt Romney and the LDS president or prophet of the church. 
Another concern is that a Mormon president may mean more Mormon converts. Was there a surge of Catholic converts after the election of JFK? 
...There is no perfect candidate in the Republican field. However, short of a brokered convention, one of the four men still standing will be the GOP nominee. Let’s not rule one of them out simply because he is not a member of our faith.

Like Dennis, Chastain makes decent points here, but for me what's amazing is that these arguments have to be made in the first place. No kidding, you should elect someone who shares your values, even if you don't overlap with them 100%! That's how voting works. That evangelical voters are struggling with this just illustrates how much majoritarian privilege they are used to holding. It bothers me as a Jew that these folks are so culturally sheltered that the concept of voting for a non-Christian has never even crossed their minds before.

I guess it's nice that evangelicals are having these discussions, but for me it also shows just how large the gap is between my cultural and political experiences and theirs-- and the fact that this makes them so uncomfortable underscores why, for me, a specifically "Christian" America is one I do not want to live in.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

A Tzimmes in a Teapot

As a general rule, Jesus is not a particularly well-understood figure in Judaism. Since the topic dovetailed with my undergrad thesis, I spent lots of time examining Jewish attitudes towards Jesus in college-- ranging from the medieval polemic Toldot Yeshu, to philosophers like Profiat Duran, Jacob Emden and Moses Mendelssohn. I also looked at Enlightenment and Reform thinkers like Graetz, Geiger, Kohler, and the rabbis Wise (I.M. and Steven), as well as Yiddish modernists like Melech Ravitch, Itzig Manger, Peretz Markish, Abraham Sutzkever, Lamed Shapiro, Zalman Schneour, H. Leivick, Sholem Asch, and even Uri-Zvi Greenberg, all of whom incorporated depictions of Jesus into their writing at various points.

So when I hear that Shmuley Boteach has a book coming out about how Jews should relate to Jesus, forgive me if I'm a little skeptical already.

It's not that the topic should be off-limits. It's that Shmuley is neither a scholar, nor a historian, nor, indeed, even a philosopher. He is a salesman, a popularizer. These things can be fine, but when the "products" you decide to sell are people's deeply-held beliefs, it can lead to a volatile mix-- just ask Sholem Asch, who got tossed out of the Yiddish canon for his series of Christian novels. This is also not helped by the fact that Shmuley is one of the Jewish world's most self-aggrandizing and least humble personalities (also like Asch!), a man who never met a media outlet he didn't like, and who can't write an op-ed without either name-dropping a celebrity friend he hangs out with or trying to sell his new book, TV show, or half-eaten sandwich.

Simply put, Shmuley is not the right person to try to market Jesus' Jewishness. And all the more so since he apparently knows very little about the field he is purporting to comment on. As fellow Judeoblogger Izgad points out, there has been a ton of scholarship on "the historical Jesus" over the past 100-plus years, from both Jews and Christians. And unless new material is discovered, at this point it's frankly rather hard to draw any new conclusions about Jesus' identity or ideology without just making stuff up. The Gospel accounts are often vague or contradictory, and their value as reliable evidence is already questionable. Shmuley mines Haym Macoby at length and casts Jesus as a patriotic Pharisee, but it's not the only conclusion one can draw. One early Reform intellectual, I.M. Jost, saw Jesus as a brilliant man trapped by Pharisee culture, which he secretly despised. Heinrich Graetz, by contrast, thought Jesus was an Essene operating on the fringes of rabbinic Judaism. (Most Reform thinkers followed Abraham Geiger's idea that Jesus was a principled Pharisee fighting Sadducee literalism and corruption, a theme echoed by Asch in his novels.)

Frankly, the Gospels are just not all that clear. You can read Jesus any way you want to and find textual evidence for it-- that's part of the reason why there are so many Christian denominations in the world. One quick example is Jesus' Sermon on the Mount. In it, he says that he has not come to abolish the law-- and this claim is backed up within the sermon, as he procedes to create various fences around the Torah, just like the Pharisees did. On the topics of murder, adultery, oaths, and divorce, his pronouncements are far stricter than the Biblical prohibitions or rabbinic interpretations of the day. But at the same time, some of his reformulations of other themes are either more liberal than standard Pharisee teachings (kashrut being one good example), or so radically reformulated that they can't really be compared (loving your enemy and an eye for an eye come to mind). And elsewhere in the Gospels, we see Jesus doing various things that are clearly at odds with Jewish law, such as violating the Sabbath to pick food. He doesn't really justify himself there or clarify why he's doing it, he just does it.

When you look at his actions, the conclusion seems to be that when it comes to Jewish law, Jesus is (by Pharisee standards) inconsistent. Some things are very important, and some things aren't important at all. Does that make him beyond the pale of Judaism for his time period? I'm not knowledgable enough about second Temple-era Judaism to comment, but I sure do wish that when talking about the "historical Jesus" more people would take the time to read what the Gospels say he did and said, as well as get historical context about the mileu he lived in, so they can understand what was and wasn't controversial about what he was doing, instead of reading him through historical prisms from 2000 years later.

And this leads us back to Shmuley. At the end of the day, though I would prefer Shmuley stop writing books altogether, and certainly about topics as dicey as these, I find it absolutely laughable that segments of the Orthodox community sees Kosher Jesus as such a threat that they are banning people from reading it or wringing their hands that now evangelicals will think they've got a rabbi on their side. Evangelicals have been pushing Jesus on us long before Shmuley and if they're expecting an uptick in saved souls thanks to this book, I think they'll be disappointed. Besides, Shmuley lives for publicity and it's a particularly bad move to give him any excuse to claim his new "groundbreaking" book is making him the target of persecution. If you're going to talk about his book, talk about why it's either bad scholarship or extremely obvious marketing pandering.

At the end of the day, the Jewish community have to figure out what it is they don't like about Shmuley and his book. If it's that it's a crappy book, and that there are much better-- and substantive-- things to say about the topic, that's one thing. If it's that they're personally not interested in it, that's fine too. But if part of the backlash to this is that they're worried people are going to convert over it, I would say calm down and give your fellow Jews some credit. Even if that was his goal (and it's clearly not), Shmuley simply isn't that good a writer.


If people are interested in getting a more scholarly Jewish view of Jesus, or of actually "building bridges" between Jews and Christians like Shmuley says he is, one good resource to check out might be this book. I haven't read it yet, but I'm intrigued. God knows it's got to be better than Kosher Jesus.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Time to take your meds

Remember Larry Klayman? The Jew so super patriotic and Zionist he doesn't know what citizenship he actually holds? He's back, and once again he's only too willing to have other people carry out the crazy ideas he's come up with... and deal with the messy consequences.

Yes, Larry, like many of us, has a problem with how Iran does business. Larry's solution, however, is blunter than most:

Uh, come again?
The Islamic Republic of Iran is and has always been the major problem and danger in the Middle East and internationally. 
"Always" is a really interesting choice of words, Larry, given that the Islamic Republic of Iran isn't even 35 years old. Just as a reference point, Israel had fought four of its five wars before Islamic Iran ever existed. It must have been comforting to know that all those other wars were just practice.
Iran will within months acquire atomic weapons that can be delivered through missiles, as well as planes and ships, and has threatened – in the face of increased sanctions – not only to annihilate Israel and attack us too, but also to set ablaze the Strait of Hormuz, which is the gateway to oil shipments from Middle Eastern producers throughout the world. This would cripple the world’s economy and send us into an irreparable depression. Iran’s threat is a declaration of war, and we must now respond in kind with massive force!
I don't disagree that Iran's leadership trends towards the nutsy side and that I'd rather they not get nuclear weapons (or frankly any weapon improvements, thanks), but I'm a little unclear about what's suddenly changed that makes Larry think that the time for an Iranian D-Day has suddenly come.
The immediate need to destroy the Islamic regime once and for all is heightened by what is going on in neighboring Iraq...Iraq is now becoming “greater Iran.” Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, even by the admission of the liberal New York Times, “is moving to consolidate authority, create a one-party Shiite dominated state” and in effect throw his lot in with his Shiite brothers in Tehran – the neo-Nazi mullahs who not only threaten and are thus far succeeding with world conquest in the name of Allah, but also torture, maim and murder their own people to hold on to total power. So now Iran and Iraq will essentially be one big terrorist state – with tremendous wealth, thanks to their huge oil resources and revenues – bent on successfully waging Islamic revolution not just in the Middle East, but worldwide.
Larry, you're giving Iraq's Shiite leaders way too much credit here. If Iraq is eventually going to become Iran Jr., it's going to take a lot of internal infighting to get there. In the meantime, this is really just a bunch of hysterics. Also, I'm pretty sure the theological/political goals of Shiism are much more focused on fighting with Sunnis as opposed to waging global Islamic revolution against heretics. This makes sense, given that Shiites only number 10-15% of the global Muslim population. As the underdog, most observers think that a politically dominant pan-regional Shiia movement would be much more likely to try to flex their muscles and settle old scores with various Sunni regimes than go after us Satans of Various Size. Don't get me wrong; I'm not saying I want any radical Muslims to have the bomb, but when you talk about global Jihad, generally speaking, you're talking about Sunnis, not Shiia. Get your facts straight before you start building your Ahmadinejad bunker.
The radical mullahs in Tehran are a scourge that must be destroyed. To allow them to exist one minute more would be tantamount to reliving the mistakes that led to the rise of Adolf Hitler, World War II and the Holocaust.
Hey, remember that time you kept saying you were Israeli when you weren't? Yeah well, all this Godwin rhetoric is making you look even dumber than that.
Importantly, an increasing number of Iranian-Americans now understand that war with Iran will entail significant civilian casualties in their native country. And, while many Iranian-Americans still have loved ones there, they are increasingly willing to accept the consequences of all-out war with the Islamic regime... This is the most evil regime since the Third Reich, and it must be expunged now before it is too late.
Full stop Captain Crazy-Pants: exactly how many Iranian ex-pats support dropping a nuclear bomb on Iran? Did you ask any of them? Did they know this is what they were agreeing to? Saying, "We really need to remove the mullahs from power," or "Ahmadinejad has got to go," is not quite equivalent to your ever-so-precise, "Nuke 'em all!" proposal. Seriously, Larry, how were you not embarrassed to submit this to your editor with your name on it?
It is indeed sad that it has come to this. If Presidents Clinton, Bush and now Obama had had any foresight, a nuclear attack on Iran could have long since been averted. Much like taking out a small lump in a cancerous female breast, the operation could have been simple and done with. Now a total radical double mastectomy is required. 
I love how when you can't decide which atrocious comparison to make, you go with both. Classy.
Obama and Hillary Clinton are traitors, and they are probably bribed to the hilt by Iran, but that does not relieve the rest of us from demanding action! We cannot allow for the rise of another Hitler-type regime at this time in world history.
Really, bribed by Iran? How high are you, Larry? Honestly, I don't feel comfortable with you even being in the same state as a nuclear weapon, much less dictating what our military policy should be with them.
There are enough problems that confront us, and we must NOW take drastic measures to remove these vile and evil Islamic terrorists from the face of the earth, if for no other reason than to allow us to deal with other matters and get on with business.
Remember folks, according to Larry the best way to deal with a problem is to nuke it. It's the same approach I take with teaching: if a kid doesn't understand something, I run him over with my car. Hey, if Larry ever gets tired of being an op-ed hack, I think he should try being a marriage counselor. Something tells me he'd be great at it.

Friday, January 13, 2012

So confused

What kind of bizarre alternate-universe have I stumbled into? Dennis Prager wrote an article for the Jewish Journal explaining why he's not an Orthodox Jew and it actually... makes sense? I feel ill...

given that I believe that the Torah is from God and that the Jews are the Chosen People, and because I have values similar to Orthodox Jews, I am often asked why I am not Orthodox. My standing-on-one-leg response consists of three Hebrew words: Yom Tov Sheni. That’s not my only reason, but it’s shorthand for rabbinic law not changing. 
The Torah commands us to observe Passover for seven days — an important number, since seven symbolizes Creation — but the rabbis added a day (Yom Tov Sheni) for Jews living in the Diaspora, because at one time Jews outside of Israel were not certain of the calendar. Though we have been certain for thousands of years, the added day has remained (though there was never a day added to Yom Kippur, which leads one to believe that the calendar was always known). 
...we have long been in a period in which rabbinic, that is, man-made, halachah just cannot change. We are told that we are not on the moral or spiritual level of previous generations (I have no idea on what basis this claim can be made — the generation that was present at Sinai was on a considerably lower level than many Jews today) and that there is no halachic authority that would be able to change halachah (which simply restates the problem).

My God, I actually... agree with Dennis Prager. Someone take my temperature, I must have caught some terrible disease from my students! One of the bad ones, no doubt, like Brain Leprosy.

But surely there's got to be some explanation, some assurance that the world still makes sense? Let's see, here's a recent article he wrote for WND...

Only a fool believes that all those with whom he differs are bad people. Moreover, just about all of us live the reality – often within our own family – of knowing good and loving people with whom we strongly differ on political, religious, social and economic issues. 
That said, I have come to believe that the more committed one is to leftism, the more likely one is to become meaner.

Hey look everyone, Dennis is back!

Thank Gob, Dennis is still a twit and still believes that you can yell about people being mean and making huge generalizations one minute, and then use one or two examples to make sweeping generalizations about people the next... and that this is all logically consistent.

leftism fills many of its adherents with contempt and hatred. It takes a person of great character and self-control to continually imbibe and mouth the mantras of the left – that everyone on the right is sexist, intolerant, xenophobic, homophobic, Islamophobic, racist and bigoted – and not become a meaner human being. If I believed just about everyone with left-wing views was despicable, I would be meaner, too. 
In a previous column, I wrote about Thomas Friedman making one of the classic anti-Semitic libels when he wrote that the reason the Senate and the House gave Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu standing ovations was because “that ovation was bought and paid for by the Israel lobby.” 
How does a Jew write an anti-Semitic libel? Because he’s on the left.

It's nice when the universe makes sense...which, of course, means Dennis doesn't.

A Conclusion/Hypothesis: Could it be that Dennis adjusts his op/ed persona to match the forum he's being printed in? So Dennis is slightly more reasonable, for instance, when writing about Jewish pluralism to a Jewish audience, but when writing for political readers, feels free (or required) to let his stupid all hang out? So many questions...

Thursday, January 12, 2012

WND suffers from a dangerous irony deficiency

It's no secret that WND is no fan of the gays and their marriage. And, like all good conservative rags, it considers part of its dedication to honest journalism to be exposing all the evil instances of the gay lobby pushing its agenda on innocent and wholesome American activities, be they school (how dare schools teach about gays!) sports (how dare the Chicago Cubs say they welcome all their fans!) or that most hallowed of American literature, the noble comic book.

Wait, say that last part again?

That's right, WND is up in arms because the "all-American" comic book Archie is having a gay wedding. Not only a gay wedding, a gay, interracial wedding. Also, one is an Iraq war vet. (Wait, how can WND not like this?)

ACLU has praised the Archie move, saying it reflects diversity and stuff. Conservatives are mad because, well, let's listen:

“It’s unfortunate that a comic book series usually seen as depicting innocent, all-American life is now being used to advance the sexual revolution,” Peter Spriggs of the Family Research Council told Fox News. “I think whatever boost in sales might come from the novelty or curiosity factors will be more than offset by the number of both kids and parents who will be turned off by this storyline and its obvious social and political agenda.”
There's no question there's an agenda here, but the reality is that most comics (or books, or movies, or TV shows) have an agenda. If you think Superman or Batman don't have agendas, you're not paying attention.

Also, while it's true that historically this comic tended to be pretty wholesome, I wonder if folks like Spriggs would be choosing it to be a rallying cry for how gays are ruining comics if they knew a little more about Archie's creator, Dan DeCarlo.

DeCarlo had, shall we say, a bit of a compartmentalized personality. Oh sure, he's most famous for Archie and his pals. But before that commercial success, he was known for a slightly different theme in his works...



Yes, before his breakthrough with the Riverdale gang, Dan DeCarlo wrote and drew such innocent all-American works as Millie the Model, Sherry the Showgirl, and "America's Darling Dim-wit" My Girl Pearl. He seemed to really have a thing for showing young ladies in various stages of undress.

If you look carefully, I'm sure Archie afficionados will recognize DeCarlo's signature faces at work in his early strips. Why look, this extremely perky nurse is a dead-ringer for that sadistic millionaire-ess, I mean, hardworking capitalist Veronica.

And this creepy slobbering kid is clearly Archie's evil identical cousin.

So yes, there may be a point here about the dicey issues of mucking around with an artist's characters after their death (I don't look forward to the inevitable day when Uncle $crooge competes in a break-dancing competition) , but don't act like a gay wedding in Archie is inappropriate because it somehow tarnishes DeCarlo's pure family-friendly vision. Considering that most present-day conservatives finding DeCarlo's old work from the '50s and '60s would want them banned if not burned, they should really just be happy that all the participants in this gay wedding are clothed.

Tuesday, January 03, 2012

A conversation

Blog friend Antigonos wrote in:

Dear Friar Yid,

Every time I want to comment, after writing all my profound comments, and clicking "Post", Blogger informs me I can't comment unless I open an account with them. Since I have one already, this is a problem. Moreover, Blogger erases what I've just written!

So I have to write to you directly.

As regards your post about differences in siddurim, there are several reasons for this. Eastern European Jews did not [and do not] all use the same nusach. There are differences between Nusach Sefard [NOT Sephardi] and Nusach Ashkenaz. One of the biggies is in the responses of the Kedusha on Shabbat Shacharit and Musaf, but there are a lot of little ones, which may account for some lines being included and others left out. [Just to complicate things, my local shul davvens Ashkenaz for ordinary Shabbatot, but Sefard for hagim. Why? "That's the way my father did" is the answer. You would think that now that there is an official Nusach Israel, we'd use it, but no]

The "savri" introduction to the Birkat Hamazon is used when three adult males are benching together. In fact, the introduction becomes more and more elaborate as the number of men reciting Birkat Hamazon increases. The Artscroll siddur explains this, although not why it is so. In fact, the Artscroll siddur is a good reference work for comparison study, with standard Orthodox explanations and many of the halachot associated with davvening. [The use of "Hashem" for God drives me crazy after a while, but I think that's because one of Israel's loonier pop groups used the term in a rock song] The Birkat Hamazon, btw, also has variant lines between the nusachim, in this case between the Mizrachi and Ashkenaz versions.

As to the Song of Songs, the rabbis had a tough time deciding whether to put such an obviously erotic book into the Tanach at all. They weren't alone in insisting that it was an allegory: the Catholic Church insists that it is a dialogue between Christ as bridegroom and the Church as bride, and religious orders such as the Carmelites who tend to mysticism use it a great deal to symbolize the relationship of the soul to Christ. Yes, to us it all seems rather absurd. I'm sure that, at bottom, the rabbis knew the real meaning of the book: after all, it is recited on Friday nights when married couples perform the mitzvah of having relations if they can.

I LIKE the Artscroll editions, even when some of the rabbinical commentary verges on the absurd. I hear the new Koren prayerbooks, with translations and commentary by the British Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, are very good. The classic Orthodox approach has got to be the benchmark by which all the other streams of Judaism are measured. I think I've written this before. I can remember when my mother, who was an on-again, off-again Reform synagogue member, "discovered" Havdala in an adult education course. She'd never ever even heard of it. This is one of the big reasons I have relatively little time for Reform: reinterpreting Havdala, yes -- even writing a modern version, but not junking it altogether. The function of Havdala is marking the boundary between sacred and profane time, just as lighting Sabbath candles does. The Reform does seem to see that they have been throwing the baby out with the bathwater, and are backtracking on this, to a point, by reintroducing "quaint" customs--but after 3 or 4 generations grew up without the slightest idea of them, it is a struggle.

Do you know the Yiddish meaning of "friar" [freier]? It means "a sucker". Did you intend your soubriquet to give that impression? I don't think you are one.


Hi Antigonos,

First of all, thanks so much for your comments! I appreciate you sharing your thoughts.

Regarding Blogger and its mysterious ways, I must admit I'm a little stumped. When I comment in Blogger, I get a window that looks like this:

If I'm logged in under a different account (like my home email), I always just click on the Name/URL option and it lets me write my e-handle in manually. Some readers like Conservative Apikoros also use the "Anonymous" option and then sign their replies with their name. Do you get a different window?

Thanks for your notes about siddurim and the Birkat. I understand some of the rationale but I guess I'm still just slightly irked that the Conservative movement dropped the ball on this one. I have an old Artscroll siddur lying around and it's a good idea to grab it for some comparison study; if it's got anything, it's got commentary.

Ah, the Song of Songs. Yes, while I'm sympathetic to the inclination to try to improve on the pshat by adding some extra levels of meaning, at a certain point I think the rabbis doth protest too much-- and Artscroll's "translation" has that in spades.

I have heard good things about Koren, too. My dilemma is that since our Hebrew reading is still in baby step mode, I'm having a hard time justifying getting a siddur that neither Mrs. Yid nor I will be able to use. Hopefully at some point down the line we won't need transliteration, but that day isn't here yet.

I agree with you that throwing babies out with bathwater is generally a pretty terrible idea; but given that it's now several generations since Reform struck out on its own and has been steadily making its way back to some form of ritual awareness, if not strictly observance, it's hard for me to bash them too hard. All the Reform services I've been to have seemed to take Havdalah pretty seriously and everyone there seemed to know what it was. I think that though specific liturgy may still be hazy, the general knowledge level about ritual has gone up since the heydays of High Reform. Obviously it's not perfect, but it's better than it used to be. (Mrs. Yid and I tend to prefer fairly traditional services, albeit in egalitarian settings.)

I've heard the Freier=sucker line before, but my understanding is that that's the Israeli gloss on it. The Yiddish meaning, as I originally read it in Robert Eisenberg's Boychicks in the Hood (one of the first books on Judaism I found as a teenager) was "an uninvolved Jew," that is, not Reform, not Conservative, just "free," unaffiliated. In fact the precursor to this blog was a series of mini-essays I wrote in college (most of which never saw the light of day) that I had some grand plan of self-publishing as "Letters from a Freier Yid" about why so many Jews, especially young folks, were staying unaffiliated in the Twenty-First century. As I became interested in blogging, I also decided to change the spelling to be a little less jarring on the eyes. And, wouldn't you know it, there was already an English version for me to co-opt.

Though it's been over ten years since I first read Boychicks (agh! time!), I'm still unaffiliated with any particular movement, and, from an Orthodox POV, still "frei," in both the sense that I am not particularly observent by Orthodox standards, and that I don't consider myself to be specifically "obligated" by halacha. I see it as more of a cultural inheritance to be accessed as the want or need arises.

Ironically, in the Israeli context in which a freier is someone that stands in line, follows rules and generally does what they're told, yes, I would be considered a freier. For me the 614th mitzvah is "thou shalt not be a jerk in public." One more strike against aliyah, I suppose.

Monday, January 02, 2012

My own dose of Mussar

I've been blogging for almost six years now, and no one knows more than I do that the quality and focus (and schedule!) of the writing tends to be rather uneven. It's always nice to see comments because it shows that some people out there are actually reading. There are tricky things about blogging into the abyss, as it were, because it's hard to tell who's coming to visit and what people are interested in reading. There are days where I get page views but am unsure what people are looking at. And for a while, there's been a strange quirk in Blogger that causes automatic back-links to me whenever I (or a reader) clicks on a post from my blogroll, which unfortunately (and to my continuing embarrassment) causes it to look like I'm spamming people randomly when really I'm just reading their posts. (Anyone who can help me disable this will get many karma points from me. Pleasepleaseplease.)

Once in a blue moon I'll get a lot of visitors over a few days, and that's fun. And sometimes comments I leave on other blogs help cultivate a slightly wider readership. (Remember that winter I guest posted on Dovbear? Yeah, I'm not surprised). Over the years, I've gradually started to find my voice as less of a political blogger, and more of a muser/raconteur. I appreciate the loyal readers I have because I know exactly how eclectic my writings are, seeing as how they rocket back and forth between history, politics, and increasingly, Judaism-- not just "Jewishness" but actual Torah. If big boys like Dovbear and FailedMessiah are the Kings of the Judeosphere I see myself as a member of the extremely petty nobility.

But lest I ever get too full of myself, I have the trusty Blogger stats system to keep my big head in check. For instance, did you know Blogger can track all your referring URLs? My top ten referrals were:

1- Dovbear, who will do just fine without another backlink
4- A martial arts forum discussing the ancient art of Abir, Warrior Fraud
5- Jackb, from back when he still had a blogroll

And the rest appear to be spam sites. Go team!

Hang on, there's more! There's an Audience section, too. Sweet. Now I can see where my adoring public comes from.

Apparently I'm slightly big in Brazil. No clue why.
Ok, now according to Blogger, my top audience country is the US (no surprise), followed by the UK, Germany, Canada, and... Japan?

Then the Netherlands...

Then Russia...

And then Israel?


Hey Israel, get with the program! I read your blogs! What happened to mutually beneficial agreements?

Seriously, this past month I got more visitors from Pakistan than I did from Israel.

That sound you hear is my head exploding.

How is that even possible? The only post I ever wrote on Pakistan was about how ridiculous its government acted after "discovering" that Bin Laden had been hanging out there for ten years. I've been complaining about Israel off and on since I started this silly thing. When I first started blogging, the majority of my posts were about Israel. (Remember the time I made fun of your currency, Israel? Why no love?)

Whatever, that's fine. Let's finish by looking at the top keywords that bring people to my corner of the internet. What pearls of wisdom are you, my great audience, seeking that you only seem to be able to find here?

That stupid wrinkly dog picture gets more interest than me.


Fun with the Wife

Continuing our ongoing efforts to be crowned Leitzhanei Ha-Dor, Mrs. Yid and I have recently been reading some Artscroll books. Well, to be more precise, books about Artscroll. Yep, all two of them.

While paging through these (and getting plenty of chuckles along with groans), I decided that for our Shabbat study session this week, Mrs. Yid and I should take a look at Song of Songs.

"The one with all the sex?" she asked.

"Not according to Artscroll!" I said.

"Oh Lord."

Yes, for those who don't know, Artscroll's approach to the Song of Songs is somewhat unique. You see, the Song of Songs is, for the Tanakh, somewhat graphic. And there's a longstanding Jewish tradition that it's meant to be read allegorically as a love poem between God and Israel, not two lovers. Fair enough, I can understand that approach. But what Artscroll does really takes the cake. Rather than argue for why it should be read allegorically, they treat it as an accepted fact.

To both the Sages of the Talmud and the classic commentators, it was clear that Song of Songs is an allegory... Its verses are so saturated with meaning that every commentator finds new themes in its beautiful and cryptic words. All agree, however, that the truth of the Song is to be found only in its allegory. That is why, in the interest of accuracy, our translation of the Song is different from that of any other Artscroll translation of Scripture. Although we provide the literal meaning as part of the commentary, we translate the Song according to Rashi's allegorical translation.

At this point Mrs. Yid actually got mad. "Artscroll! What are you doing? How can... how can they even pretend to have any intellectual honesty anymore?"

I read through some of their translation, and it was pretty entertaining. I particularly like the part where "my nard gave forth its fragrance" becomes "my malodorous deed gave forth its scent as my Golden Calf defiled the covenant." Another good one is when the line about breasts gets glossed as being about the Ark of the Covenant: "The long staves of the Ark pressed against the curtain that separated it... in the Tabernacle, causing breastlike protrusions on the other side..."

I think the whole thing is funny, but Mrs. Yid was quite bothered by the sheer force of double-speak. She says she may have to consider an Artscroll boycott in our house. (But then how will our kids learn good middos?)

Sunday, January 01, 2012

Liturgical grumbles

Mrs. Yid and I spent a week over the winter holidays (and I have to say, now that we don't have cable it's quite nice not to have to hear about people going into conniptions over the term). The first few nights of Hanukkah coincided with our trip and the in-laws decided they wanted us to feel welcome, so there was some interesting cross-cultural stuff happening. Habakkuk originally wanted to make me a wooden menorah but that fell through, so we wound up making a "beer-norah" out of old bottles and filling them with oil.

Anyway, the point of all this was that since I wanted to be inclusive too, I decided it was time to order more benchers, those little prayer/song books Mrs. Yid and I have come to rely on over the years to help us through Shabbat. USY's B'Kol Echad has been our go-to for a long time, and when I went online to get some more, I was pleasantly surprised to see that after 20-plus years, they had come out with a new edition. I ordered some and have been going through them since they got here. Here's a review:

Pros: The text is clearer and crisper, both in Hebrew and English. There also seems to have been a real effort to consolidate or re-order certain prayers to limit the amount of page-flipping required when you're during the middle of a prayer. Some of the transliteration also seems to have been updated to contemporary standards. The biggest structural change is that Havdalah has been moved to the back of the book, I guess in keeping with the idea that you're going to progress through the book linearly. I was expecting it at the front where it used to be, but it's not a big deal, especially now that I've started using my favorite book accessories to find my place. I like the color of the new cover, but Mrs. Yid doesn't care for the artwork, which she says makes her think of a piano workbook.

Cons: I think the biggest overall issue I have with B'Kol Echad 2.0 is that it isn't sure what it wants to be or who its audience is. The USY director says in his introduction that "For a number of years we knew that BKE was in need of revision. Many of the songs we sing today were not in the original edition, while others were rarely used." That may be true, but all the things that irritated me had to do with prayers, not songs. I think the BKE editors couldn't decide whether they were trying to be more traditional or more accessible, and speaking for myself, the end-result is more frustrating than anything else. Here are some low-lights:

  • Adding bits to Kiddush
2.0's Kiddush now has stage directions: First there's "Vayehi erev vayehi vo-ker," which it faithfully translates as "There was morning, and there was evening." And that's fine. But then further down they have "Savri maranan" popping up repeatedly-- with no translation and no explanation! I had to go onto just to figure out what this is. (Of course, in typical Chabad fashion, their link, while interesting, did not actually answer my question about what the words meant.)

This brings up two issues: First, if you're going to have something on the page, why not translate it? What's the point of having it there if people don't know what it means, even if it's a short snippet? Why not err on the side of being more rather than less accessible?

Second, I can understand liberal Jews taking things out, but what's the rationale behind Conservative Jews putting things in? I assume this is the "more traditional" version of the prayer, so this makes me wonder: had Conservative Jews taken these bits back in the 80s and their re-inclusion is a way of being more frum? Or were they always saying it but the original editors neglected to write the directions in, so this is meant to be more a more explicit for prayer leaders? Was this meant to be a solution to a specific problem, or was it a stylistic choice? There's lots of questions here and zero answers.

  • Deleting bits from Havdalah
This was actually was the catalyst for this post: Mrs. Yid and I were doing havdalah using BKE 2.0 and we got to the end. In my 1.0, there is one last line before Shavua Tov:

"Yom pana k'tzeil tomer, ekra la-Eil alai gomer, Amar shomeir, Atah voker v'gam laila."

And in 2.0, this line is gone. No explanation, no nothing. I've been doing it one way since college and now 2.0 has harshed my havdalah buzz. After havdalah, I compared editions and realized that in 1.0, the line was there, but again, with NO translation! (A similar screw-up had been in 1.0's version of Bashana Haba'A-- three stanzas in Hebrew, four in English.) Then, I did some googling and discovered that this extra line isn't actually in the formal Havdalah prayer at all! AGH!

After looking around the web for a while I finally found the translation and the reference, but still had no idea why it had been tacked onto Havdalah (other than it being about night-time), and whether this was a Conservative thing, a recent thing, etc.-- to say nothing about why the 2.0 committee had decided to take it out. More research led me to discover that the line is actually part of a medieval hymn, Hamavdil, that's traditionally sung after Havdalah, but I don't know why the 1.0 editors opted to just take one verse from that hymn and sandwich it into the actual prayer.

  • Some things haven't changed-- and not for the better
As in BKE 1.0, there are both a complete and abridged version of Birkat HaMazon. However, as in 1.0, there is still no explanation of what you're skipping when you opt for the abridged over the original. Since they've kept the odd narrative convention of sticking in "some people add" in various places, I don't understand why they didn't take the whole Grace After Meals and just indicate which parts are, per their interpretation, optional.

Regarding most of my critiques, the editors would probably say that most Conservative Jews are familiar enough with these prayers that they don't need extensive explanations, or even everything to be translated. They've got a standard minhag and this fits in with that. Fair enough, but given that the national trend is for Jews to be less Jewishly educated, and that the bencher (like the new Conservative machzor) is supposed to be totally transliterated-- at least partially, one would assume, to help reach out to a wider audience-- I don't understand the logic behind going with less, rather than more, information. If I'm trying to use your books as a resource, I'd much rather you make it easier for me to use and know what I'm doing.

Final thoughts

Thinking it over, I guess I've been spoiled by my newest Judaica, particularly Siddur Eit Ratzon, which assumes that its audience is curious but not necessarily super-knowledgable about liturgy, and therefore has lots of information explaining the prayers and the editor's decisions. The assorted liberal chumashim I've been using for parsha study, particularly the RA's Etz Hayim, have also been pretty good with that. For lack of a better term, they feel very "open source."

I think there's an growing interest about liturgy among engaged American Jews, which is at least partially why there's an increased demand for transliterated materials (again, see the Conservative machzor). It's not just about being able to "follow along," but also to engage with the text.  I compare it to an engineer wanting to take a machine apart to see how it works. Ironically there seems to be some awareness of this trend in 2.0 through its use of citations showing where various prayers or quotations come from-- but this seems to misunderstand what people actually want or need. I'm much less interested in the precise textual citation for the blessing over children than I am in knowing what I'm saying and why when I say Kiddush, Havdalah, or Birkat HaMazon. This is like if instead of letting me open the machine to see the insides you point out the label that says it was made in Taiwan. Not helpful. When the RA published its machzor-- at the same time as this bencher, incidentally-- it went to great pains to say that they were trying to reach a wider audience. It's disappointing that its new bencher seems to be missing that vision and is structured as if its only readers are going to be kids at Camp Ramah.

On the one hand, it's nice to be familiar(ish) enough with Hebrew liturgy that this is even an issue for me, considering how foreign and inaccessible Hebrew prayer was when I first started going to shul. But now that I know enough to be curious about Shabbat prayers and want to learn more about them, I'm struggling with finding tools that will let me open the liturgy up to better understand it. I don't think I want to go with "the most traditional version" of something every time but if my only other options are to skip things entirely (Reform) or abridge things without really knowing what I'm doing or why (Conservative), I don't see how I'm ever supposed to become educated enough to make my own decisions about prayer. BKE 2.0 is fine, but the more I notice various inconsistencies, the more I suspect I may need to look for some better benchers.

How about it, readers? Any book suggestions? Am I over-thinking this too much?