Monthly Archives: November 2006

Karaites at the GA

This entry was posted in Beliefs, History on by .

Our homepage this week features an article about the Karaites, a sect of Judaism that rejected the authority of the Talmud and served as a significant foil for the rabbis of the early Middle Ages.

It makes sense, therefore, that this article is in our Medieval History section. That is, it made sense until last week, when I met a representative of the Karaite Jewish University at the UJC General Assembly. The man (an affable gentleman whose name I’m forgetting) had a booth at the “Marketplace of Jewish Ideas,” where he handed out flyers for the “University” and a 48-page informational book called “As It Is Written: A Brief Case for Karaism.”

The material is fascinating, as is the KJU website and the website for their umbrella organization, Karaite Jews of America, which includes a FAQ with ritual tidbits like this literalist reading of kashrut:

The Issue with Milk and meat is very Simple, In the torah Abraham Cooked meat and Milk and offered them to the angel; From here we know that milk and meat are not prohibited.

But perhaps most fascinating is the fact that representatives of American Karaism were at the GA at all. It wouldn’t have been at all obvious to me that the GA would allow the Karaites to have a booth. Nothing is more “mainstream” or “establishment” than the GA, and back in the day, the Karaites were the ultimate “other.”

Sure, they’re not terribly threatening now, but in the 10th century the Karaites were exponentially more of a threat to Rabbinic Judaism than Jews for Jesus could ever be. In many ways, the Karaites were the prototypical Jewish heresy.

But this may be the point: this isn’t the 10th century and heresy isn’t something Jews speak about much today. The Karaites can be granted a presence at the GA because they’re not considered threatening, and aside from their small numbers, this may be attributable to the fact that they’re, fundamentally, a religious organization. As their literature says: “Karaites deny the supreme authority of the Talmud and other Rabbinic sources, as we view them as man-made additions to the word of Hashem.”

A lot of topics are discussed at the GA, but I can tell you, “the word of Hashem” is not one of them. Theology is largely a non-issue for the UJC bunch. And apparently, so are the Karaites.

Posted on November 21, 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

Jewcy: The Early Reviews

This entry was posted in General on by .

Jewish bloggers have written their first reviews of the recently launched Jewcy.com and they’re not being generous.

- Ariel over at Blogs of Zion writes:

The artwork is amazing — the content, well, not so much…I don’t really care whether Jews are at the top of the evangelical movement, or what a porn-star’s mother says about her choice of a career. Moreover, I don’t see why answering the question as to why Israeli’s are pricks is “what matters now” as the Jewcy tagline claims.

Steven I. Weiss from Canonist is even harsher:

The press release, and the site, announce a slogan of “What matters now.� Well, not Jewcy, that’s for sure.
Sure, there are the items you’d expect, from the blatantly ignorant, the blogs that seem more masturbatory than informative, and the first person pieces that laboriously detail the lives of people you couldn’t care less about.
And the stuff by writers from whom you’ve learn to expect good things feel like toss-offs. Lauren Grodstein’s got a relatively interesting story about how Jews are perceived…from 1998. Somehow, even Neal Pollack’s stuff isn’t all that great there.

Jewlicious, commenting on an earlier Jewcy beta site, opined:

In the meantime, in terms of content, Jewcy looks like it’s going to provide much of the same old same old.

And on the comment board at Jewlicious, Jewschool’s Mobius chimed in:

eh, i saw the beta a while ago. i’m not impressed. in fact, i’m so unimpressed that i don’t even consider it a threat.

they say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. if people are biting you, it means you’re a step ahead of them. jewcy may have a budget that i don’t, but they don’t have any original ideas (and they also clearly have no design sense or technical know-how), which means they’re destined for failure. which is sad because… what a waste of money i could’ve put to better use.

And then tempered his response with another comment:

jewcy means well, and i don’t really have any ill will towards them.

Now I’m all for an honest dialogue about a project’s merits and deficiencies, but my Psych 101 radar tells me Jewcy’s peers may, indeed, feel a bit threatened.

Ariel says he doesn’t “really care whether Jews are at the top of the evangelical movement, or what a porn-star’s mother says about her choice of a career.” But that’s just a personal preference, not a comment on the quality of the content. I found both articles interesting, well-written, and not at all obvious. Canonist seems to think the evangelical article is blatantly ignorant, but without any explanation why, those are empty words.

Does Jewcy have what to improve? Sure. But if you’re not willing to cut the new kid some slack and let it grow into itself, at least provide more than a flip opinion (“I don’t really care”) or hard-core dismissal (“blatantly ignorant”).

(In the interest of full-disclosure, like Steven over at Canonist, I also wrote a piece for Jewcy that may or may not be published and the porn-star interview was written by my good buddy Arye Dworken, but still…)

Posted on November 20, 2006

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Happy Birthday, Don

This entry was posted in Culture on by .

Today is author Don DeLillo’s 70th birthday. Sure, he’s not Jewish and — as far as I can remember — has written only one significant Jewish character (Murray Siskind from White Noise), but he’s one of America’s great novelists — and probably my favorite — so I thought the occassion worth noting.

Interestingly, DeLillo was the first American writer ever to receive the Jerusalem Prize, awarded biennially at the Jerusalem International Book Fair to an author whose work promotes the “idea of the freedom of the individual in society.” Previous winners include Bertrand Russell, Borges, Simone de Beauvoir, and V.S. Naipaul. (Incidentally, the two award recipients after DeLillo were both American and both Jewish: Susan Sontag and Arthur Miller.)

My column in next weekend’s Jerusalem Post will include a more detailed Happy Birthday summary of DeLillo’s career and significance, and I’ll post a link to it when it’s published. In the meantime, after the jump, I’ve pasted an article I wrote for the Post a couple of years ago for the 20th anniversary of White Noise.

Continue reading

Posted on November 20, 2006

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Leo Baeck on God, Halakha

This entry was posted in Beliefs, Practices on by .

In anticipation of Leo Baeck’s 50th yahrzeit on Sunday, I’d like to highlight a few other aspects of his thought. Baeck was, in many ways, a prototypical product of Classical Reform Judaism. His religion was, to its core, Ethical Montotheism — and both of those words were key for him. Baeck was very much a theist. In The Essence of Judaism he wrote:

Some Jews seem to think that Judaism is completely contained in its ethical commandments and that the belief in God is a mere adornment. A grosser superficiality could not possibly be inflicted on the Jewish religion.

And for Baeck, God is not merely an absract idea. God is a being that commands — and demands.

The more thoroughly man realizes that God commands, the more conscious does he become of his freedom. Man then understands that he has been created for freedom, that good is a matter of the will and that he is free even before God.

This is a highly sophisticated and nuanced idea: the notion that we recognize our ability to act — our sense of agency — by internalizing commands. According to Baeck, our actions gain meaning and resonance when we realize that we are asked to act, that we are commanded to excercise our will. In a sense, “being commanded” is more important than the commandments themselves.

But Baeck does not totally eschew halakhah, traditional Jewish law. Here Baeck deviates from Classical Reform Judaism, and here we see two of Baeck’s most remarkable characteristics: his humility and perspective.

Continue reading

Posted on November 17, 2006

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Borat’s a Muslim!

This entry was posted in Culture on by .

The Letters section has always been my favorite part of Jewish newspapers, and the Jewish Week isn’t letting me down. Today’s issue includes a letter that suggests that Borat is actually a Muslim conspiracy to malign Jews. Here’s a taste:

I have seen the film called “Borat,” and I am appalled and disgusted by it…

I’ve been told by various people, authoritatively, that this man, this “Sacha Baron Cohen,” is English, he is Israeli, he is Orthodox, he is a Sabbath observer.

What I think is that this Borat/Cohen is an anti-Semitic Muslim who uses the Jewish persona as his excuse for disseminating the worst anti-Semitic venom since Hitler.

Why would the Jewish Week publish this letter? To show that there are conspiracists among us? To present the anti-Muslim view that this is a real anti-Semitic movie? While the letter doesn’t reflect well on its author, right now I’m thinking it looks even worse for the paper that printed it.

Posted on November 17, 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

Jewcy is Born

This entry was posted in Beliefs, Culture, History, Texts on by .

There’s a new kid on the Jewish media block. This week, while the older generation was in LA listening to Israeli politicians thank them, the next generation was launching its latest attempt to engage Jewish life with some sophistication and style: Jewcy.com.

Jewcy is a sort-of Slate for Jews, focusing on thought-pieces with an intellectual/cultural bent. But what really sets it apart is its technological ambition. Jewcy President and Editor Tahl Raz maps out the Jewcy plan in his first editor’s column:

Jewcy is basically an online ideas-and-culture magazine. But it’s a magazine born of and for a time when technology has made personal expression far easier and far more democratic. The site attempts to integrate original top-down editorial (hatched, crafted, and made pretty by terrific writers and editors and artists in the traditional production process) with content that users generate with the new tools of participatory media, such as blogs, comment sections, wikis, and forums.

The jury is definitely out on whether the Jewcy experiment will work, but Tahl is one of the smartest folks I’ve met in the Jewish/media world, and he’s got a rare and much-needed eye for quality. So we’re rooting for it…

Posted on November 16, 2006

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God at the GA

This entry was posted in Beliefs, History on by .

I heard God mentioned approximately 26 times at the GA and all 26 came during the same speech: Rabbi Naomi Levy’s pre-Olmert address at yesterday afternoon’s plenary.

The rare bit of God-talk got off to a strange start. Because of a technical glitch (possibly having to do with the teleprompter), Levy was standing at the microphone for several minutes looking befuddled — if amused.

But once she got rolling, Rabbi Levy brought God into the building with such vigor — asking for protection and peace and hope — that more than anything, it accented how much religious and spiritual language was absent from the rest of the conference.

In truth, the setting — the size of the stage, the dramatic zeal — gave Rabbi Levy’s prayer a mega-church feel that seemed a bit removed from Jewish religion and spirituality, too, but the “God” part was undeniable.

Now, I’m not surprised that a meeting of the organized Jewish community was so devoid of religious content, and I don’t have a strong opinion about whether this is a good or bad thing. But I do think it proves that the “Jewish” in “United Jewish Communities” does not refer to a faith, but rather to some sort of social/ethnic collective. Which, again, is neither fundamentally good nor bad. But it is interesting.

Posted on November 15, 2006

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Bibi’s Coke

This entry was posted in History on by .

On Monday, at the United Jewish Communities General Assembly, after Benjamin Netanyahu finished his Iran fright-fest, veteran Canadian politician Irwin Cotler took the stage and for the most part followed Netanyahu’s lead. Cotler also warned of Iran’s nuclear plans, citing their “state sponsored genocidal intent.”

A former McGill University law professor and an expert on human rights, Cotler suggested bringing the Iranian government before the international criminal court, referencing an international law that prohibits not just genocide, but genocidal incitement.

After Kotler’s speech, a friend from Montreal marveled at Cotler’s hawkish rant, noting his liberal predilections. Indeed, the only sign of Cotler’s liberality was his brief appeal for alternative energy, though the environmental reasons for this were even briefer. Rather, Cotler claimed that every $1 rise in oil prices yields $1 billion in oil sales for Iran.

Where did Cotler find his conservative streak?

To be fair, Cotler has always been vigilant in the fight against anti-Semitism, so seen in this context, his Iranian concern was not out of character. Still, the fierceness of Cotler’s rhetoric was surprising and, perhaps, could be attributed to the audience — meaning, what Cotler assumed the audience wanted to hear.

But I couldn’t help wondering: Did Cotler catch his hawkishness from Bibi’s Coke?

During his speech, Netanyahu made a production of his request for a Diet Coke. An emissary eventually delivered the beverage, and Bibi drank from the cup, but it wasn’t replaced before Cotler’s speech. A few minutes later, there was Irwin Cotler drinking a half-empty Diet Coke.

With all the talk of nuclear holocaust, I appreciated the comic relief. Believe me, major global politicians sharing germs before thousands of people is funnier than you might think.

Posted on November 15, 2006

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Dogma & Intolerance

This entry was posted in Beliefs on by .

This week, MyJewishLearning looks back on the life and thought of Leo Baeck, a theologian whose name graces many institutions and buildings, but whose actual writings are vastly underappreciated. Baeck died 50 years ago this month on November 2, 1956 (Heshvan 28 in the Jewish calendar — which this year falls on Sunday, November 19).

Baeck was a progressive rabbi who made his mark in pre-WWII Europe before spending the last years of his life in England. He conceived of Judaism as, essentially, ethical monotheism, though he had a very subtle and sophisticated appreciation for aspects of traditional Judaism, as well. For an introduction to Baeck’s work, read Matt Plen’s new article on MJL.

I first read Baeck’s work as a 19 year-old, but his masterpiece The Essence of Judaism is still one of my favorite works of Jewish theology.

In the Middle Ages, Jewish thinkers compiled lists of Judaism’s creeds, the most famous being Maimonides’ 13 Principles of Faith. But modern thinkers, beginning with Moses Mendelsohn, de-emphasized Jewish dogma. Like his contemporary Solomon Schechter, Baeck was one such theologian.

Baeck saw Judaism as, fundamentally, a religion of action, not a religion of belief, and for him, this positioned Judaism to be a more open and tolerant faith, as well as a more activist one. In The Essence of Judaism he wrote:

Every system of thought is intolerant and breeds intolerance because it fosters self-righteousness and self-satisfaction — it is significant that the most ruthless of inquisitors have come from the ranks of the systamatizers. Fixing its focus of vision at a certain definite range, a system cuts itself off from all outside of that focus of vision and thus prevents the living development of truth. On the other hand the prophetic word is a living and personal confession of faith which cannot be circumscribed by rigid boundaries; it possesses breadth and a freedom carrying within itself the possibilities of revival and development.

And further:

Men can persuade themselves that they fully possess the Word and still more the Creed. Against this tendency to complacency, the religion of the deed is a counterbalance, for in it the ideal can never be realized.

Baeck’s humanism was prescient. His theology guards against the types of fundamentalism — from all religions and ideologies — that are cancers for the world today. Baeck’s thought can be a tikkun, a redemptive remedy for these trends.

Posted on November 14, 2006

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Bibi Speaks: Are You Scared Yet?

This entry was posted in History on by .

Former Israeli Primer Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was the featured speaker at this afternoon’s UJC General Assembly plenary, and judging by the applause he received, his apocalyptic message was sufficiently scary.

Toward the beginning of his speech, Bibi articulated his assessment of the current Israeli/global political predicament with a refrain he repeated at least four times during his address: “It’s 1938, Iran is Germany and it’s racing to arm itself with nuclear weapons.” In case his warning of a future Holocaust wasn’t clear enough, Bibi concluded his speech by reading remarks written by Churchill in 1935.

Other points made by Netanyahu:

- Iran is following a genocidal path similar to that of Nazi Germany in its two step approach: (1) Slander and vilification of the victim (the Jews); (2) Habituation (i.e. getting the international community used to its aggressive postures)

- “If only you listened to me before…” — That’s not a direct quote, but Bibi cited his prediction from the early 1990s that terrorists would attack the World Trade Center. (Apparently, he wrote this in a book, though I haven’t seen the source myself.)

- This is a direct quote: “The Holocaust taught us that no one will defend the Jews if the Jews do not defend themselves.”

- Finally, Bibi was perhaps the only speaker on Israel that I’ve heard at the GA who did not totally conflate anti-Israel rhetoric with anti-Semitism. According to Netanyahu, Israel is being targeted by Iran as the first — but not the last — in a series of Western enemies. The fact that Israel is a Jewish state seemed secondary for Bibi. In his words: “It wouldn’t make a difference if it was Belgium there.” Meaning, any Western democracy in the Middle East would be targeted by Iran.

Posted on November 13, 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

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