Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Summer cleaning

...Of tabs, of course. Here are some things in the news I've been meaning to comment on but haven't.

- Prophecy of Diamonds keep Israeli firm digging

In 1999, Taub founded Shefa Yamim, which means "bounty of the seas" in Hebrew, based on a conversation that took place 11 years earlier in Brooklyn, New York between the late Rabbi Menachem Schneerson and the then mayor of Haifa. The dialogue was caught on video. 
"The uniqueness of Haifa is that it has a sea and it has a valley -- and in the valley are precious stones and gems. The holy one, blessed be he, did a wondrous thing, he concealed them in the depths of the earth," the rabbi told his visitor.

I can't decide whether it's sillier to go digging for diamonds based on a single conversation with the rebbe, or drilling for oil based on a fundamental misunderstanding of Hebrew vocabulary (hint: shemen =/ naft).

- Jack Wertheimer still pissed about all Jews who aren't him

what manner of shortsightedness accounts for this refusal to see, first, Jews as a people with its own interests and, second, the reestablishment of a Jewish state as a singular theological event of our times. As our religious thinkers shift their gaze to “the universal condition,” who will tend to the condition of the Jewish people? Who, if not rabbis, will develop a Jewish, rather than a universal, theology for an American Jewish population that lacks religious mooring? 
...The point is not to cower in fear but to think beyond the moment, to identify specifically Jewish interests, and to formulate strategies in furtherance of those interests—precisely the agenda eschewed by the new American Jewish consensus and its cosmopolitan mission. So, much of Jewish life in this country continues to oscillate between high-minded invocations of the need to repair the world and endless rounds of catering to subjective tastes and whims disguised as self-validating beliefs...
As usual, my issue is less with Wertheimer's facts than with his interpretation and tone. By carping about the social mores of American Jews (he calls them the "new 10 commandments") and suggesting that they have sacrificed all focus on specific Jewish values, principles or interests for popular culture, Wertheimer comes across as superior and snide. In framing the views of some as representative of the whole, he appears intellectually dishonest. And while he spends lots of time criticizing others for not thinking "beyond the moment," nowhere does he step up to the plate and articulate exactly what some of those specific Jewish interests might be, or offer some practical examples of people doing Judaism or Jewry the way he wants to see it. Is that because it doesn't exist outside of his head, or because it's more fun to complain about everyone else doing it wrong?

- Surveys say things about stuff!

Apparently people in charge of communal hand-wringing are going to town on the news that, surprise surprise, the Orthodox birthrate is increasing. More troubling is that Reform and Conservative numbers are dropping. Eventually I may need to update my graph. On the plus side, though, several commenters have noted that what this really demonstrates is a chance for people closely involved in these movements to work on making them more relevant to their members, as well as potential members. Whether this winds up increasing the numbers or not, it will ultimately be good for the movements.

-  New Conservative teshuvah focuses on Shabbat & tech

The results of several years of work, Nevins’s ruling is a technical examination of Halacha and technology. For many decades, rabbis banned electricity on the Sabbath because they thought it violated the Torah’s prohibition of fire. But in his teshuvah, or legal responsum, Nevins argues that new gadgets like iPhones and e-readers violate not the Torah’s ban on fire — no sparks are set off by turning them on — but its ban on writing and recording. 
These electronics, Nevins said, are more complicated than their on/off switches. A cell phone records the time a call is placed and the length of the call; an Amazon Kindle allows its user to type notes into the text. And computers are constantly capturing user data. By utilizing our gadgets, we are “working” even when we don’t realize it. “For me it feels effortless and like nothing is happening,” Nevins said, “but a lot is happening under the hood.” 
What’s more, these technologies violate the notion that the Sabbath should be both a time to rest and a time to keep it local. “Contemporary families spend much of their time together focused on individual electronic devices. Faces lit by glowing screens large and small, ears attached to headphones, they busily interact with friends and strangers across the world while making minimal contact with the people around them,” Nevins wrote. “Shabbat can and should be different.” 
Though many Conservative Jews don’t observe the Sabbath, Nevins said that his teshuvah is more than a thought experiment, and that it will guide the policies of camps, schools, synagogues — and individuals — about electricity usage on the Sabbath.

I was surprised how much of this teshuvah reflected my and Mrs. Yid's "no-screen" thoughts, albeit more within a halachic framework. Given that many people seem to be agreeing with the basic premise that unplugging from technology may be a good way to create some balance in your life, it will be interesting to see whether the idea of using Shabbat as a vehicle for this voluntary abstention will gain traction, and if so whether it will lead people to taking further steps, either in observing Shabbat or other Jewish practices.

- Last, Tzvi managed to last a whole month and a half at the Jewish Press before he started pimping his Tevye book, again. I wonder how many e-papers need to ask him to stop before he'll accept that no one is reading this?

In Tzvi's typically humble fashion, here's the title for his first Tevye post:

Possibly the Greatest Jewish Novel Ever Written

Tzvi, you need to stop writing that your Sholom Aleichem rip-off is the best Jewish Novel ever. Or failing that, just stop writing.


Anonymous said...

I can't decide whether it's sillier to go digging for diamonds based on a single conversation with the rebbe, or drilling for oil based on a fundamental misunderstanding of Hebrew vocabulary (hint: shemen =/ naft).

Um, while I agree with you about these jokers, it turns out their Hebrew vocabulary is not the problem. The Hebrew word for petroleum is not "shemen" (which refers to stuff like olive oil), but rather "neft."


Friar Yid said...

I thought that was the point I just made: shemen and naft/neft are not the same word.

Garnel Ironheart said...

> Nevins argues that new gadgets like iPhones and e-readers violate not the Torah’s ban on fire — no sparks are set off by turning them on — but its ban on writing and recording.

I'm surprised they keep writing "teshuvos". For one thing, everything seems to get decided by a RA vote so why bother producing so detailed an essay? And second, 95% of Conservatives don't keep Shabbos in more than a cursory fashion so who's he writing for?

And besides, his entire thesis has been dealt with a couple of decades ago when computers first appeared in hospitals. The questions as to writing and recording are already on file.

Get it? On file!?

Friar Yid (not Shlita) said...

Hi Garnel,

There are definitely some ironies in the story, as well as some interesting (some would say troubling) social indicators about where the median of Conservative observance has shifted to these days. At the same time, I think it's encouraging/admirable that RA members do seem to believe in their process enough that they feel compelled to make the arguments for why something is or isn't halachic within their movement. Lastly, whether it gets CJs to "keep Shabbos" or not, the fact that R. Nevins is at least speaking to the discrepancy-- and specifically focusing on an activity that is ubiquitous among most people, including CJs-- is an excellent example of the Conservative movement working to meet its congregants where they are and try to connect with them on something relevant. Modern and Post-modern Jews do not respond to blanket bans, edicts or asifas. If you yell at them or guilt them into doing something, they'll either tune you out, or increasingly, just stop attending your shul. That said, I think more people are becoming interested in trying to integrate a halachic (or quasi-halachic) perspective into some aspect of how they live their lives, though not to the extent of the Orthodox (I fully realize the pitfalls and criticisms that could be made of this approach, though I maintain it's better than nothing). So the Conservative movement, and to a degree the Reform as well, is in the middle of trying this delicate balancing act of speaking out on these tensions and discrepancies, of providing honest information, without also coming across as "demanding" specific behavior. Which I think is a much better place for liberal Judaism to be than merely, "We're all one with the universe, let's sing kumbaya, have a group hug and go volunteer at a soup kitchen." (Not that there's anything wrong with that, of course.)

So yes, I see this teshuvah, and the kavannah behind it, as definite positives. Whether anything comes of it, of course, definitely remains to be seen.