Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Authoritativeness versus Accessibility

(Or, Orthodox vs. Open-Source?)

I've been reading an interesting book about major Orthodox publisher Artscroll, whose publications have become ubiquitous throughout the Jewish world. While Artscroll books (which are mostly in English) are quite widespread among the Modern Orthodox community, the author, Jeremy Stolow, has some very interesting statistics indicating their growing "market share" into non-Orthodox populations as well. He even goes so far as to link new Reform and Conservative publications directly to Artscroll's increasing popularity among their congregants:
ArtScroll books are praised as instructive, meaningful, authentic, and even empowering. Its enthusiasts thus claim that an "ArtScroll revolution" has facilitated an unprecedented degree of access to Jewish knowledge and confidence in ritual performance among English-speaking Jews, forming a readership that extends from the erudite to the culturally illiterate and that transcends the traditional markers of institutional affiliation or local custom. At a further remove, ArtScroll has precipitated a reaction among its competitors that one is tempted to describe as an "ArtScrollification" of the Jewish liturgical field as a whole: most notably, with the recent publication of Eitz Chaim (the new Conservative chumash, designed explicitly to "respond" to ArtScroll 's success), and Mishkan Tefillah (the new Reform siddur, which incorporates many design elements, editorial structure, and instructional material found in ArtScroll). 
At first I thought this was just hyperbole, until he cited quotes from those movements' own rabbis admitting that part of the motivation to put out those publications was to counter Artscroll's popularity.
Movement rabbis acknowledge that a main impetus for commissioning the new commentary, titled “Or Hadash” and set to be released April 15, was the growing phenomenon of Conservative worshipers using the popular Orthodox prayer book put out by ArtScroll/Mesorah Publications. The trend certainly irked many Conservative leaders, who concluded that the increasing popularity of ArtScroll was not a function of its ideological bent, but the desire of many Conservative congregants to have a prayer book that offered them more than a flowery translation of the Hebrew text.
...“I’ve been using ArtScroll for about 12 years,” said Steven Rothman, a third-generation Conservative Jew and a member of the ritual committee at Temple Beth Zion-Beth Israel in Philadelphia. “I wanted something with commentary. But the problem with some of their commentary is that it is coming from a strictly Orthodox point of view. I would like to see commentary from a Conservative point of view.” 
Rothman told the Forward that he is excited about the upcoming release of “Or Hadash.” Along with “Etz Hayim,” he said, the prayer book represented a newfound, and long-needed, willingness on the part of Conservative movement leaders to tend to the intellectual and liturgical needs of their followers. “They are finally answering some of the questions about what it means to be a Conservative Jew,” Rothman said. “I’m very pleased that the Conservative movement is opening itself up intellectually to the lay person. That’s not always the way it was before.” 
...“It’s clear that many congregants have been complaining to us for a long time that they have felt a real lack of ability to grab hold of a lot of the prayers,” said Rabbi Jerome Epstein, executive vice president of United Synagogue, the movement’s congregational arm. “Some have felt that the ArtScroll really provided them with information that they needed. But its approach doesn’t represent what we are or what we stand for.”
This, I think, is a key point that many Artscroll triumphalists often overlook. There is no question that some Jews are attracted to Orthodox texts because they see them as an authoritative voice over Conservative or Reform ones. But my impression is that a large number may also simply be reaching out to sources like Artscroll because they are offering information they want and have had a hard time finding elsewhere-- and not necessarily because they're craving an ideological purity that can only be found in Orthodoxy. In the case of Etz Hayim, the willingness to engage with a lay congregant-- to wade into the issues of commentary and interpretation and to lay out exactly what the Conservative approach or approaches are to the text, not only helps inform people about possible interpretations, but also specifically about what the Conservative movement has to say about it.

Still, at the end of the day I think many liberal Jews, particularly those who, like me, were not born into a specific movement and whose denominational affiliations and identities are more fluid, are less interested in establishing or even explicating specific ideological boundaries than in just getting some good nuts and bolts information, which we can then use to draw our own conclusions.  Personally, my lack of Hebrew skills-- but interest in having access to traditional texts- has meant that I've had to invest a fair amount of effort to find resources that reach my needs. Sometimes Artscroll has filled that niche (I used their Schottenstein Talmud quite often in various Jewish studies classes as a source for midrash), and for that it should be commended and given credit. However my gut is that a lot of liberal Jews who use or have used Artscroll or similar texts (including my Conservative shul's Reconstructionist rabbi) are most interested in what Artscroll can do rather than what it specifically says: Artscroll remains a good, solid resource to help bridge the gap between a desire for information about traditional Jewish theology and practice while still needing explicit instruction. However what that tells me is that the real market is not in polemics or apologetics, but good old information: in a nutshell, it's the open-source mindset.

What is open-source? Generally it refers to the philosophy or approach of having open access to technology, often with the ability to copy, modify or transfer it. The "modification" element is challenging when applied to Judaism (there was a book a few years ago that actually used the term  "open source Judaism," which I find a little problematic by its implications). That said, I think what we're seeing here is definitely connected to the effects that open source has had on popular culture. These days many people, particularly young people, approach information as something that should be open and accessible to anyone that wants to see it-- and this in turn leads to a lowering of hierarchy. Even in non-Orthodox Judaism, the communal values are very much clustered around who has the most information and knowledge. This then leads to a huge gap between those who know a lot and those who don't-- and the ones without a lot of education or knowledge therefore get to a point where either they start to lose interest or opt out, or they find ways of gaining access to the information. That's where open source Jewish texts-- not necessarily "open source Judaism" comes in.

As more movements and independent writers start opening the tradition up and making it accessible to less Jewishly literate Jews, I think ultimately we'll find a larger segment of liberal Jews who, if given the opportunity, are interested in taking Judaism more seriously and grappling with it in a more authentic way-- because they won't be operating from an all or nothing, "Orthodox or secular" binary. Having the ability to access Jewish tradition on your terms, whether it be through the siddur, text study, or other forms, is incredibly empowering as well as challenging. Now that you've read the parsha, what do you think about it? Now that you know what your prayers mean, what do you intend to do with that knowledge? What does a liberal Judaism informed by regular or semi-regular Talmud study look like? When liberal Jews are confronted with the knowledge of what their tradition says, they by necessity are required to start becoming more engaged and more authentic-- not more Orthodox, but more informed. "I don't know" is no longer an excuse.

With the advent of accessible-- but hopefully still authentic-- Jewish texts, we in liberal communities now get to start having some of these conversations. And funnily enough, in a real way a lot of this is thanks to Artscroll- for inspiring or attracting its readers, for irking its competitors, and for inspiring more of us to wrestle with our tradition-- but on our terms and its, not theirs.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Come on down to Crazy Town

I don't visit WND much anymore, mostly for my blood pressure. The few times a month I traipse back, hoping against hope they may have become more sane (ok, not really), I get a stark reminder that they're not just conservative, they're downright nuts.

For example: WND's editor, Joe Farah, likes to tout how much he's a real Christian and believes in Biblical prophecy. He also has a major Judeophile crush on us Hebrews. He also is a complete business huckster who never passes up a chance to plug whatever new thing he's selling.

Cue this monstrosity:
Sept. 17, 2001, marked the beginning of the economic calamity associated with 9/11 with the lowering of interest rates by the Fed resulting in the collapse of the stock market. Seven years later, on Sept. 29, 2008, the next big stock market crash followed – bigger than the previous one – resulting in an economic crisis that continues to this day. 
What does all that have to do with today, Sept. 15? 
It’s Sept. 15 on the Gregorian calendar, but it is Elul 29 on the Hebrew calendar. And both of those previous economic calamities occurred on Elul 29.

Ok, who's been talking to Farah about the Hebrew calendar? Clearly someone told him about that silly (and debunked) tradition that everything bad happens on Tisha B'Av, and now he's rolling with this mishegoss.

But fear not! Joe doesn't actually think that something terrible is going to happen just because it's Elul 29.
The good news is that today is not a Shmitah year on the Hebrew calendar. 
On Elul 29 on Shmitah years, the financial accounts are wiped away, debts are canceled and the land is to be given a Sabbath rest, according to Deuteronomy 15:1-2 and Leviticus 25:3-6, with Elul 29 being the last day of the civil calendar year.
Hold it right there, Joe! I know where you're going with this, and... NOOOO.
The next Shmitah year will end Sept. 13, 2015. And, because of the unprecedented popularity of the No. 1 bestselling Christian book in America this year, “The Harbinger,” and the No. 1 bestselling faith movie in America in 2012, “The Isaiah 9:10 Judgment,” some people are already marking their calendars.
Are these by any chance the same people who bought TVs and computers before Y2K expecting all the credit card records to be wiped out?
Jonathan Cahn, a messianic rabbi and author of “The Harbinger,” and the narrator of “The Isaiah 9:10 Judgment,” is the person who first noticed that America’s two great financial shakings occurred on successive Hebrew Shmitah years following the 9/11 Islamist terror attacks on the U.S., the key to the series of limited judgments the author sees as a result of America’s turning away from God just as ancient Israel did before the dispersion.
Of course he does. 
“A clear pattern has been established,” says Joseph Farah, producer of “The Isaiah 9:10 Judgment.” 
Of course you are!
“I don’t believe it’s a coincidence what happened in America on Elul 29 in 2001 and 2008. It would be foolish to ignore the possibility that a greater judgment might be in the works – especially if America continues to move away from God and His Word.
Almost as foolish as reading an ancient legal procedure meant to promote economic justice and early land management as a financial curse sent by God for not voting Republican?

If that doesn't convince you that God's about to kick some ass, fear not! The messianic rabbis also have the stars on their side. They think.

It’s also worth noting that Elul 29, 2015, represents the eve of the Feast of Trumpets or Rosh Hashana at sundown. An unusual astronomical phenomenon, a blood red moon – or tetrad – is expected to occur that evening, according to NASA. The Feast of Trumpets begins a period known by Jews as “the days of awe” that lasts through Yom Kippur a week later. 
Hebrew roots pastor Mark Biltz of El Shaddai Ministries in Washington state noted several years ago that a cluster of tetrads will occur in 2014 and 2015 – all of them on Hebrew high holidays. There won’t be any more for the rest of the 21st century. 
Joel 2:31 says: “The sun shall be turned into darkness, and the moon into blood, before the great and terrible day of the LORD come.” Other biblical references can be found in Acts 2:20 and Revelation 6:12.
Ok, first of all, the ancient prophets weren't super savvy about the natural sciences. Hell, the rabbis of the Talmud who came along thousands of years later still thought that salamanders were made from fire and that lice came from sweat. Just because Joel talks about the sun going black and the moon going red doesn't mean he's predicting tetrads. And besides, why focus on the moon? Why not scream doomsday every time there's an eclipse? At least then the law of averages might be more in your favor. I'm sure there's bound to be some terrible things that have happened on eclipses over the years.
Whether or not anything significant occurs of a prophetic nature Sept. 13, 2015, Farah said he is immensely pleased with the documentary treatment of the message found in the best-selling book “The Harbinger” by Jonathan Cahn, which has remained on the New York Times bestsellers list for all of 2012. 
“If you haven’t seen this movie yet, I urge you to get it, screen it with your family, show it to your friends and arrange church viewings,” said Farah. “This is the most important project I have been involved in through my 35-year media career. This is a message, I believe, God directed me to be involved with for a time such as this.”
Nice covering your butt there. "The apocalypse and/or total financial ruin is going to happen in three years, so buy all my crap talking about it. Then again, it could totally not happen, but you should probably buy my crap anyway just to be safe." Well played. Oh, and something about shmitah. And tetrads.

Sunday, September 02, 2012

Nobody's Perfect- but some folks try harder

A recent comment on Dovbear from SJ perked my interest. SJ was trying to fight the perception that the GOP is anti-women or anti-gay. Rather than point to the increased visibility of minorities and women in GOP leadership roles, though, SJ decided instead to go on the attack by posting a couple of links to op-eds bashing Democrats for not being as inclusive as they claim to be. Compare this to an op-ed from some Montana paper taking liberal pundits to task for demeaning the presence of black, Latino and female speakers at the Republican convention:

The parade of accomplished minority and women speakers at the Republican National Convention truly stood out, particularly because of the  alleged Republican “war on women” theme and relentless accusations of Republican racism. 
But sure enough, there was no shortage of critics showing dismissive regard toward GOP speakers...
...Proof is in what people do, and it was Republicans who put these people in office and at the convention podium. People should believe what they see, yet they continue to hear things like this from Democratic National Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz: “I think we believe that women can see through that nice shiny packaging that the Republicans have been putting out there, through to what’s inside, which is really a disaster for women’s future, extreme policies.” 
OK. Republican policies are fair game. But diminishing the women who were featured at the convention as “shiny packaging”? With language like that, just who is waging the “war on women”? 
... The prize for insulting, obnoxious temerity goes to Los Angeles Times columnist David Horsey, who essentially accused Republicans of resorting to tokenism — and worse — at the convention. 
“It would be easy to dismiss this as tokenism and window dressing — which, of course, it is — but there is something bigger behind it,” he writes. “Republicans truly believe that a rising tide lifts all boats, and that the best thing a poor Latino or an unemployed African American can do to better his or her condition is to vote for a party that intends to let rich people keep more of their money. Showing off all those non-Caucasian officeholders is a way of saying to skeptical minority voters, “These guys have chosen the Republican path and just look where it has gotten them!”
Tokenism, it seems, suggests unworthy people who were plucked off the street and put at the podium as props. But that simply wasn’t the case. Many of the minority and women speakers named above are accomplished leaders, and in some cases, rock stars in the Republican Party. They deserve to be featured, rather than dismissed as being somehow illegitimate or unworthy.

Here's my take: The difference between the parties on sexism and homophobia is that the Democrats rhetoric/ideology aspires towards an ideal (gender and orientation equality) that their actions fall short of. The GOP's actions, by contrast, seem to be more or less aligned with their general philosophies on those issues: some Republicans accept gays on pragmatic/libertarian grounds (though many don't), and women, while valued, seem to be seen by many in the party as supporters, not leaders.

This is borne out by statistics: In this Congress, female Democrats outnumber Republicans 2 to 1. In the last Congress, it was closer to 3 to 1. Of course, numbers aren't everything, but they seem to show that in the GOP, women are either not encouraged to seek political leadership roles, or not seen as having the same abilities/qualifications as men (Remember that Pat Boone article that said any time women were elected to office it was because there were no competent men around to do the job?)

This doesn't mean Republicans necessarily "hate" women, minorities or gays or that Democrats are incapable of being sexist, homophobic or prejudiced. However, the disparity does suggest that there are some real limiting factors keeping women from being as successful in party leadership-- and I'm going to go out on a limb here and say this is true by, let's say a hundred-fold, for gays.

That doesn't mean that the speakers at the convention are deficient or unqualified-- but you'd have to be living under a rock to claim that tokenism-- or window dressing, or pandering, take your pick-- isn't at work here. It's at work with the Democrats, too, of course-- I'd say it's become a ubiquitous element of American politics these days. At conventions, on political ads, at debates, you always hear about these random people whose stories and faces are meant to exemplify an entire class of constituents to convince women, minorities, hunters, military supporters, teachers, small business owners, whoever, that this candidate, this party, really understand and care about you, YES, YOU! It's unabashed showmanship, and the fact that minorities were being paraded around to be seen and counted at the convention exemplifies the exact issue the GOP is trying to fight: the perception that it's the party of old white men. The existence of minorities within the party is a good thing, but until they become unremarkable, until their race or gender clearly isn't a major factor in picking them to speak at conventions, the GOP still has a lot of work to do. That's not the speakers' fault-- it's the party's.