Monthly Archives: October 2006

Kosher Halloween

This entry was posted in Holidays on by .

Growing up, my family never celebrated Halloween, so I have no emotional attachments to the day and few thoughts about whether it’s good or bad for the Jews. But for those who want a glatt kosher trick-or-treating experience, MyJewishLearning has two new articles on evil spirits for the yarmulka set. In the first, Jay Michaelson looks at Jewish traditions about demons, dybbuks, and golems. In the second, Jill Hammer explores the changing identity of Judaism’s most well-known demon: Lilith.

Want to read more about Jews and Halloween? Here are a few articles from MJL and beyond.

- Collecting Candy on Halloween, by Michael Broyde

- Scary Characters from Jewish Legend, by Yosef Abramowitz

- Making Peace with Halloween, by Rebecca E. Kotkin

- A New Jewish Take on Halloween, by Judy Epstein

Posted on October 31, 2006

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I Hate You More

This entry was posted in History on by .

Oy!!!

From the Jerusalem Post:

37% of Israelis say that the haredim are the most hated group in Israel, according to a new study conducted by the Gesher organization ahead of the memorial day for the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin.

Some 15% said the same of new immigrants from former Soviet Union countries, while about 13% said that settlers in the West Bank and the former Gaza Strip settlements were the most hated.

Note the language. The study did not ask people which group they hated the most, but rather which group they thought was the most hated, i.e. which group they thought other people hated the most. What could this possibly teach us? The Post takes a misguided stab at sorting this out:

Because the respondents were asked to say whom they believed to be hated, rather than whom they personally hated, the numbers reflect not only the opinions of Israelis who dislike certain groups, but also those of Israelis who feel disliked.

But this is ridiculous. The poll absolutely does not reflect “the opinions of Israelis who dislike certain groups” since anyone, even the most love-filled person in the world can answer the question: Who do you think is the most hated group in Israel? I’m all for emotional honesty, but I really can’t figure out what this poll could possibly teach us. Isn’t it possible that everyone polled named their “group” as the most hated. If this is so, then the poll could merely show that people tend to think they are part of a hated group and could tell us nothing about Israeli society as a whole.

Assuming the Gesher that produced this study is the same Gesher that promotes religious-secular dialogue, it would seem that the study was supposed to highlight inter-group strife. But phrased the way it is, it doesn’t. It just highlights its own stupidity.

Posted on October 31, 2006

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Imminent Holy War

This entry was posted in History on by .

The fight over Jerusalem’s gay pride parade just intensified. Apparently, Jerusalem Police Chief Ilan Franko met with Ultra-Orthodox leader Yitzhak Tuvia Weiss on Sunday to discuss protests promised by the latter’s constituents.

YNet quotes the Kol-Haredi phone hotline (which provides news to the Ultra-Orthodox — presumably for those without televisions or radios) as reporting that:

“The spiritual leader was clear. We will not give up. We will not come to any dialogue or negotiation. We’re talking about our souls and our obligations to oppose such things and erase this abomination from the holy city, Jerusalem…

…we understand that Franko has the power to cancel the parade if he feels that there is a danger to human life. This is what we are trying to make him understand – there is a danger and there will be a holy war on this issue.”

I can’t find a record of the Hebrew original, so I don’t know what term for “holy war” was used, but it would be interesting to know whether a traditional, halakhic (Jewish legal) concept is being invoked here. In threatening violence against gay pride marchers, are these Haredim relying on an ethical position embedded in Jewish law? Or is this “holy war” a religious innovation of sorts, an extra-legal response to an ethos they reject?

Of course, this intellectual curiosity shouldn’t overshadow the horror of this situation. Whatever your feelings about the pride parade in Jerusalem, it’s never pleasant to see one set of Jews declaring holy war against another.

(For some background info on gay life and issues in Israel, see Lee Walzer’s article on MJL.)

Posted on October 30, 2006

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Encyclopedia Judaica Redux

This entry was posted in General, Texts on by .

The Encyclopedia Judaica was published more than 30 years ago, but it remains one of the most comprehensive and reliable sources of information on Jewish history and religion. Still, the explosive growth of academic Jewish Studies in the last few decades — not to mention the march of history — guaranteed that a new edition would be needed at some point. Apparently, that some point is now.

JTA reports that a new edition of the EJ will be available on December 8. In addition to the 2,700 new entries, approximately 11,000 entries have been updated.

It will be interesting to see what was and wasn’t changed and how certain political issues were covered, but perhaps, just as interesting to see who will pay the encyclopedia’s $1,995 price tag.

Posted on October 30, 2006

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Rabbi Sacks Weighs In

This entry was posted in Beliefs on by .

Thanks to Cross-Currents and Hirhurim for pointing out Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’ article about Richard Dawkins’ atheism in The Times of London.

It’s worth reading Sacks’ short piece in its entirety, but let me just highlight one aspect. He begins his comments with the following story.

“DO YOU believe,� the disciple asked the rabbi, “that God created everything for a purpose?�

“I do,� replied the rabbi.

“Well,� asked the disciple, “why did God create atheists?�

The rabbi paused before giving an answer, and when he spoke his voice was soft and intense. “Sometimes we who believe, believe too much. We see the cruelty, the suffering, the injustice in the world and we say: ‘This is the will of God.’ We accept what we should not accept. That is when God sends us atheists to remind us that what passes for religion is not always religion. Sometimes what we accept in the name of God is what we should be fighting against in the name of God.�

Sacks’ words here reflect a fundamental tenet of his theology: Difference is not a problem, it is a necessity. People have different inclinations and talents and that’s a good thing, because it keeps all of us honest. Though Rabbi Sacks has been criticized for his views on non-Orthodox Jews, in an interview I conducted with him last year, he seemed to extend this appreciation for difference to Jews, as well.

If Hashem only wanted hasidim he would have sent us a Satmar Rebbe, not a Moshe Rabeinu. And some people give by their learning and some by their davening [prayer] and some by their hospitality and some by their philanthropy. We can only approach Hakadosh Barukh Hu [God] as a total community.

And that includes atheists.

Posted on October 27, 2006

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On Polytheism (More God Delusions)

This entry was posted in Beliefs on by .

“It is not clear why the change from polytheism to monotheism should be assumed to be a self-evidently progressive improvement.” So writes Richard Dawkins in Chapter 2 of The God Delusion. And while his snide tone continues to annoy me, he’s got a point.

It was a truism of my Jewish education that monotheism was the fundamental and most significant of Judaism’s innovations. Belief in one God was supposed to be more rational and more sophisticated than belief in many. But why? Is the existence of several supernatural beings really less likely than one? Additionally, one might argue that polytheism is a healthier religious attitude for contemporary times, as it might support democratic, pluralistic societies more so than monotheism. If there’s only one God then (perhaps) there’s only one truth. If there are many gods, well then, the very idea of difference, of multitudes, is divine.

So what’s so great about monotheism? I’ll let you chew on that and, hopefully, suggest your own opinions, but my teacher, Rabbi Yitz Greenberg, argues, that pluralism is actually a natural outgrowth of belief in a single, absolute God. How so? Because if God is absolute, God is the only thing that is absolute. Everything other than God, everything human — including human statements about God and paths to God — is, therefore, fundamentally imperfect and relative. Everything in the human realm is, at best, a partial truth. So pluralism prevails and claiming to have a monopoly on religious truth is actually idolatrous.

Posted on October 26, 2006

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No really, what is a Jew?

This entry was posted in Life on by .

Imagine if right before your bar mitzvah you were told that — despite the invitations in the mail — you had to change the venue for your Torah reading. Now imagine that the reason you had to change the venue was because you might not be Jewish. And imagine that the reason you might not be Jewish is that your circumcision might not be complete. It’s an unlikely and unfortunate story, but according to the Australian Jewish News it happened to a boy from Sydney last week.

The details are a bit unclear, but from what I gather, something like this happened: The boy’s mother was originally not Jewish. She was converted by a Progressive (the Australian version of Reform) rabbi. The boy was circumcised as a baby, but the mother wanted him to, now, have an Orthodox conversion. The usual conversion process includes immersion in a mikveh and, for a circumcised boy, a ritual drawing of blood. So before his bar mitzvah, the boy from Sydney went to the mikveh and when the rabbis were getting ready for the ritual drawing of blood, they noticed that the boy’s circumcision was incomplete. (I can only guess what this means.) The rabbis recommended additional circumcising (under anesthesia); the boy’s mother was horrified; and the bar mitzvah was moved across town to the Progressive Temple.

This is not a classic “Who/What is a Jew?” question, but rather, the less classic, but more and more common: “No really, what (the heck!) is a Jew?” This is one of those cases that makes you really scratch your head.

I understand that according to Orthodox halakha this boy is not Jewish and according to Progressive halakha he is Jewish. But halakha aside, how much do we privilege the existential experience of Judaism? Meaning: this boy was circumcised (albeit incompletely) as a Jew, he studied for his bar mitzvah as a Jew, he obviously considers himself a Jew, and God knows he was traumatized as a Jew. Somehow, I can both accept that some Jews don’t consider him Jewish and, at the same time, feel there’s something strange about saying he’s not Jewish.

Ultimately, I guess, it comes down to how concerned we are with having a single, unified, easily identifiable Jewish people. But this already might be unrealistic. Which, again leaves me scratching my head. So really, what is a Jew?

Posted on October 26, 2006

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The God Delusion

This entry was posted in Beliefs on by .

When I woke up last Saturday and saw the New York Times Book Review, I couldn’t help wondering: What would Rabbi Lookstein think? Featuring Richard Dawkins’ attack on the creator God on the day Jews around the world would read the creation story!

Ironic or not, reading Jim Holt’s review of The God Delusion on Shabbat Bereshit was a nice bit of synchronicity. So I thought I’d roll with that and, over the next week or so, dip into Dawkins’ defense of atheism.

Dawkins begins The God Delusion by framing it as a sort of self help book. It’s purpose: to “raise consciousness to the fact that to be an atheist is a realistic aspiration, and a brave and splendid one.” Dawkins seems to believe that there are millions of people who would “come out” as atheists if only they thought it was okay (he actually explicitly compares his mission to the gay rights movement), and he wants to give encouragement and support to these folks.

Dawkins points out correctly and appropriately that there’s something odd about the fact that it’s virtually impossible to be an elected official of any significance in the USA and be an avowed atheist, but I’m skeptical as to whether the level of discrimination he believes exists actually does. More importantly, Dawkins seems intent on conflating theism with religion. That is, for him, religion is defined, first and foremost, by an affirmation that God exists. And I’m not sure this definition works for Judaism and Jews. I’ve written about thinkers and trends in Judaism that downplay the centrality of God elsewhere on MJL, but my issue with Dawkins here is more practical than theological.

Later in his book Dawkins discusses the Ontological argument for God’s existence, which attempts to prove God’s existence from the very fact that we can conceive of God. (Something like: “I have an idea of a perfect God. Existence is a characteristic of perfection. Therefore, God exists.”) Like Dawkins, this proof never really resonated for me, but I do think that an Ontological proof for “a Judaism without God” is viable.

The proof: I know Jews who live meaningful Jewish lives without thinking much about God, therefore one can be a Jew and not think much about God. Mind you, I’m choosing my words carefully. I’m specifically not using the term Jewish Atheist. But not because I think they don’t or couldn’t exist, but rather because most Jews I know — whether they ultimately believe in some sort of God or not — don’t put God on the top of their list of Jewish concerns (that spot is usually reserved for “community”; “tradition”; “meaning”; “spirituality” and the like). I’m not saying this is good or bad, right or wrong, just that it’s true. And if belief in God is not the necessary essence of Judaism, how relevant is Dawkins’ analysis?

In other words: Richard Dawkins’ has diagnosed Jews with God Delusion, but it might be worth getting a second opinion.

Posted on October 25, 2006

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Welcome to Mixed Multitudes

This entry was posted in General, History, Holidays on by .

MyJewishLearning.com was created to be a comprehensive source of Jewish information and in the past few years we have initiated this project by posting 2,500 articles and features. Total comprehensiveness is impossible, of course, so we continue to add content that will help you in your Jewish study and lives. But while Jewish learning is timeless, it should also be timely.

Recently, MJL has tried, more than ever, to create homepage content that is immediately relevant. This week’s lead, for example, marks the 50th anniversary of the Sinai Campaign. Last week, Jessica Kraft examined the life and work of Hannah Arendt, whose centennial is being commemorated this month. But sometimes world events aren’t in synch with editorial calendars. Sometimes, we at MJL want to explore issues more immediately than we can in our regular articles and features.

These factors have inspired us to create Mixed Multitudes, MyJewishLearning’s first blog. Here we will explore issues in Jewish life and learning in real time. Any theme related to our seven topic areas—History & Community, Holidays, Lifecycle, Daily Life & Practice, Texts, Ideas & Beliefs, Culture—is fair game. And in the open, democratic spirit of the internet all (or, at least, most) opinions and perspectives are, too. So welcome to Mixed Multitudes. We hope you enjoy our multitudinously mixed thoughts and opinions more than you enjoyed the multitudinously mixed nuts your crazy great-aunt gave you last Hanukkah.

Posted on October 25, 2006

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy