A few weeks ago, I wrote about super-atheist Richard Dawkins’ assertion that the move from polytheism to monotheism shouldn’t necessarily be considered progress. I agreed that there’s nothing fundamentally more rational about monotheism, but shared Rabbi Yitz Greenberg’s thoughts about how (despite what you might think) pluralism is a natural outgrowth of monotheism.
Well, Rabbi Greenberg just emailed me some additions to his thoughts on the primacy of monotheism, and I’m posting them here for your reading pleasure:
I want to add one more comment about polytheism. The problem is not just the idea of multiple Gods but the implications drawn from their existence. The universe is perceived as a realm with independent and conflicting forces ruling different parts of it. In the clash of these forces with each other humans are frequently trampled or used and abused. Nor is there any dependable natural order, but rather there is the arbitrary and unpredictable outcome of conflicting forces, which are indifferent if not hostile to humans. The moral economy that flows from this is that humans cannot look to nature as dependable or as a place of order or as a place of moral order. Rather, they must scramble to find a safe place. Typically the way to do this is to get behind one God or another and bribe or pay their costs and their demands so that you will at least get the protection of one or another or of some collection of Gods. This evokes such things as child sacrifice and other forms of resorting to magic or formulas that can control the Gods and manipulate them so as to escape the unrelenting pressure, hostility or crushing power.
By contrast, the monotheistic vision of an orderly nature also suggests that there is a dependable natural order. This provides space for human dignity and humans to know that if they operate reasonably the universe will respect them. This also implies the ability to study, use and reshape nature, which paves the way for scientific attitudes and practices. This also (particularly as Torah understands the aftermath of the flood) says that humans can depend upon nature and that this gives them the margins of security to live a good life out of choice/love rather than fear. This includes the right to disobey God without risking catastrophic punishment. The Noahide covenant says that God pledges to honor and respect the natural order. Humans are summoned to join the covenant but they will never again be coercively punished, i.e., forced into obedience.
The New York Times has released its annual list of the Top 10 books of the year, and Gary Shteyngart’s novel Absurdistan was one of five works of fiction selected. While I still favor Shteyngart’s debut — The Russian Debutante’s Handbook — Absurdistan includes both profound hilarity and profound brilliance.
Absurdistan follows Misha Vainberg, the son of a Russian Jewish oligarch, who, while trying to get back to the USA (where he studied at a Midwestern liberal arts college), gets caught in a former Soviet republic that has deteriorated into civil war. The best — and most important — part of the book is a section called “A Modest Proposal,” a grant application for a Holocaust museum that Misha writes for one of the groups fighting in the war in order to garner them the support of American Jewry. It is, perhaps, the greatest satire of the American Jewish community’s preoccupation with continuity — and victimhood — ever written.
The Forward excerpted “A Modest Proposal” back in April, and you can read it here.
Other Jewish-interest books to make the Times list of 100 Notable Books of the Year:
- Collected Poems, 1947-1997, By Allen Ginsberg
- Everyman, By Philip Roth
- Intuition, By Allegra Goodman
- A Woman in Jerusalem, By A.B. Yehoshua
- The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million, By Daniel Mendelsohn
- Prisoners: A Muslim and Jew Across the Middle East Divide, By Jeffrey Goldberg
- Sweet and Low, By Rich Cohen
The Jewish Press just published a poignant (and sad) letter from an Orthodox Jewish man about his struggles with homosexuality. His main point: Though he fully believes that homosexuality is prohibited, he disagrees with those who claim that gay men can be converted to heterosexuality.
Believe me I understand fully how much any frum [Orthodox] man with homosexual desires wants the hope of a “normal frum life” with a wife and children. And I understand first hand the enormous pain of having to accept that sometimes Hashem [God] says no. But I would rather live my life honest with myself and the situation Hashem placed me in than risk building another world of lies â€“ and devastating another woman.
I donâ€™t know if you will publish this â€“ especially because I’ve essentially advocated a life of loneliness and celibacy for men with homosexual tendencies. At the same time I want to make it clear that I am not advocating an acceptance of a gay lifestyle on any level by the frum community, nor suggesting any “wiggle room” when it comes to a lav [prohibition] in the Torah.
Looks like American Jews aren’t the only ones who spend the aftermath of an election counting how many Jews were voted into office. Apparently, they do the same thing Down Under.
From the Australian Jewish News:
FOR the first time in more than 75 years, at least two Jews will serve in the Victorian Government, with the fate of a third still hanging in the balance.
The Labor Partyâ€™s Marsha Thomson, the former minister for information and communications tech-nology, and Upper House newcomer Martin Pakula both had convincing wins at Saturdayâ€™s state election…
What’s behind this political Jew-counting? Is it tribal pride? Or does it come from a view that Jews are a special interest group? Or is potential Israel-support what’s really being highlighted? In this case, the latter certainly seems to be part of it:
Among her Jewish communal ambitions, Thomson, whose parents married in Israel, said she would like to increase her involvement with the National Council of Jewish Women and WIZO, and work with the State Zionist Council of Victoria. She visited Israel for the first time earlier this year.
No matter how much Jews hate to hear the “dual loyalty” accusation thrown around, voting in a domestic election with another country in mind is seriously complicated. I’d love to see some honest communal dialogue about this.
Is Michael Richards Jewish? That’s the question that was on too-many Jews’ minds after Seinfeld‘s Kramer went on his recent racist tirade. Now we have the answer, and its almost as strange as the incident itself.
Howard Rubenstein, who was hired as Richards’ publicist, told JTA that Richards has not formally converted to Judaism but that some of his mentors were Jewish and he “adheres to Jewish philosophy.”
Adheres to Jewish philosophy? How exactly do you do that? There’s only one thing that’s not ambiguous about this statement: Howard Rubenstein is definitely Jewish.
Good book criticism has been virtually exiled from the popular press, and the New York Times Book Review — which still has its fair share of cultural cachet — might be the most egregious transgressor. Most reviews in the Times are little more than glorified book summaries with a thumbs up, a thumbs down, or even more frustrating, an ambiguous thumb, along the way. The New York Times Book Report may be a more appropriate title.
My philosophy of book criticism: Reviews do not need to give over the entire scope of a book (in fact, Times summaries are sometimes so detailed it’s a wonder anyone wants to read the books afterwards); rather, a good review should highlight one (or two or three) particularly notable aspects of a work and use that as a starting point for a conversation that engages something outside the book itself. Good criticism should use books as a segue into a larger cultural conversation.
I’m bringing this up because two weekends ago, the Times bucked its own trend and published a wonderful piece of literary criticism: Walter Kirn’s review of Bill Morgan’s The Somewhat Private Life of Allen Ginsberg and Ginsberg’s Collected Poems, 1947-1997.
Kirn’s analysis of the great Jewish poet (and the relevant new books) is poetic in its own right. The very first paragraph tugs us into the Ginsberg Galaxy and opens us up to the possibility of actually rethinking a man whose work we’ve already thought so much about:
Gay, in the lotus position, with a beard, wreathed in a cloud of marijuana smoke and renowned as the author of a “dirty” poem whose first public reading in a West Coast gallery was said to have turned the 1950s into the ’60s in a single night, Allen Ginsberg embodied, as a figure, some great cold war climax of human disinhibition. Ginsberg, the hang-loose anti-Ike. Ginsberg, the Organization Man unzipped. The vulnerable obverse of the Bomb. He had the belly of a Buddha, the facial hair of a Walt Whitman and — except for the ever-present black glasses that hinted at a conformist path not taken — he was easier to imagine naked than any Homo sapiens since Adam.
Perhaps the Times should do more of these multi-book reviews. Perhaps there’s something about this approach that frees the writer from focusing on the minutia of a given book and instead encourages big-picture thinking and larger cultural connections. In fact, publications that still feature good criticism often take this approach (see for example, Dale Peck’s strangely insightful review essay of several new books about American Idol and reality TV in The Atlantic.)
Whatever your thoughts about this, you should read Kirn’s review. It provides profound insights into the life and work of the most unlikely and unruly of modern Jewish prophets.
This morning, I blogged about the poetry of Taha Muhammad Ali and his translator, Peter Cole. In July, I wrote a profile for the Forward about Peter, his wife Adina Hoffman, and Ibis Editions, the small press that they run. There’s something wrong with the link on the Forward‘s website, so I’m posting the article here. (Actually, I’m posting the original version I submitted to the Forward – the director’s cut, if you will.)
Found in Translation
By Daniel Septimus
From the Forward (7/14/06)
Nestled between Arab East Jerusalem, the ultra-Orthodox mecca of Meah Shearim, and the cafes and pubs of Zion Square is the neighborhood of Musrara. Musrara is a borderland of sorts, a crossroads of ethnic, cultural, and religious identities. It’s no surprise, then, that Musrara is home to Ibis Editions, a small book press specializing in literature of the Levant, works that blur the boundaries between time, place, and language.
Ibis is the brainchild of poet and translator Peter Cole and his wife, the writer Adina Hoffman. Since 1998, the American-born couple has published works of Hebrew, Arabic, French, and German in English translation. Their backlist includes writers largely unknown in the English-speaking world (Dennis Silk, Ibn Arabi, Ahmed Rassim), as well as obscure works by well-know writers (the essays of Haim Nahman Bialik; the poetry of Gershom Scholem).
Ibis emerged out of a Jerusalem literary scene, which, aside from Cole, included Silk, Harold Schimmel, and Gabriel Levin. Their writings and translations featured prominently in Ibis’ first run of books, but since then, Cole and Hoffman have extended their reach.
“In the lousy political context, we felt a push to make Ibis more explicitly a press for translation,” said Hoffman, “but we also wanted to bring together other work from this part of the world, not just Hebrew or Jewish, but Arabic literature, a book like the Ladino one on our most recent list.”
Thanks to Jewschool for highlighting this amazing video of poet Taha Muhammad Ali at the Dodge Poetry Festival earlier this fall. The video includes Taha’s poem “Revenge,” read in Arabic, followed by Peter Cole’s remarkable translation.
I recommend watching the version without subtitles, since you’ll hear Peter read the English version anyway, and there’s something magical about Taha’s voice even though (for most of us) the words are indecipherable.
A little background: Taha is a Palestinian poet who fled his village in 1948 for Lebanon, eventually returning to Israel and settling in Nazareth. He spent his life running a small shop, selling trinkets to tourists. Over the years, he educated himself, teaching himself English, reading the Arabic classics, and writing stories and poetry. He was never one of the more well-known Palestinian poets as he’s not a “protest poet,” and his poetry is not explicitly political.
I discovered Taha last May when I was spending a few weeks in Jerusalem and discovered that I lived across the street from Peter Cole. Peter is a well-known poet in his own right, as well as an award-winning translator of medieval Hebrew poetry. Peter and his wife, the writer Adina Hoffman, run a small non-profit book press called Ibis Editions, which publishes “Literature of the Levant,” (mostly) works of Hebrew and Arabic translated into English (and packaged beautifully). Ibis has also published obscure works by important Jewish scholars, including the poetry of Gershom Scholem and the essays of Haim Nahman Bialik.
Peter and Adina do amazing work, but nothing seems to excite them — or move them — more than speaking about Taha. When I saw Taha and Peter read together in September I understood why. Taha is one of those people who you just know is living life on a frequency that most of us can’t touch. Despite the difficulties of his childhood and adulthood, despite the fact that he’s an old man already, there’s an incredible life-force that bursts through him (watch in the video how he can’t keep still as Peter reads his translations).
For me, one of the interesting subtexts here is Peter’s role in disseminating Taha’s work. Before Ibis put out Never Mind: Twenty Poems and A Story, there had never been an English-language book of Taha’s poetry. Now Taha is reading at the Dodge Poetry Festival, and last month, Copper Canyon published a new edition of the Ibis book. Taha’s work is haunted by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but reading (and listening to) his profoundly humane work and knowing that it has been eased into the world through the poetic midwifery of Peter Cole — an American Jew who lives in Jerusalem — makes me think that good art really can help save the world.
The Jerusalem Post reports:
Rabbi Eliezer Yehuda Waldenberg, one of the most respected halachic authorities of the modern era and a trailblazer in the field of Jewish medical ethics, passed away Tuesday at the age of 89.
Waldenberg, who served on the High Rabbinic Court together with Rabbi Ovadia Yosef and Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, was the unofficial rabbi of Sha’arei Tzedek and was perhaps best known for his controversial halachic opinion on abortions.
In an opinion that sparked a caustic response by Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, Waldenberg ruled that it was permitted to abort a baby even as late as the seventh month in cases when the embryo suffered from Tay-Sachs, Rubella and even Down Syndrome.
It’s Thanksgiving reading time. And for us at MJL, that’s got to start with David Koffman’s fascinating article about the shockingly long history of the theory that Native Americans are from the lost tribes of Israel. Bet you never heard about this historical event:
A curious incident that drew considerable attention and “proved,” at least to some, that Native Americans had ancient Israelite origins unfolded when tefillin (phylacteries) were “discovered” in Pittsfield, Massachusetts in the early 19th century. Their discoverer wrote that this “forms another link in the evidence by which our Indians are identified with the ancient Jews, who were scattered upon the face of the globe, and to this day remain a living monument, to verify and establish the eternal truths of Scripture.” (Read more)
Another article worth checking out: Rabbi Michael Broyde’s “Is Thanksgiving Kosher?”.
Want further Jewish Thanksgiving reading? Here are some other sources:
- Ideas for enjoying a Jewish Thanksgiving, By Julie Hilton Danan
- Thanksgiving and the Jews: Pennsylvania, 1868, American Jewish Historical Society
- Give Thanksgiving a Jewish Flavor (includes recipes), By Linda Morel