Monthly Archives: December 2006

Spiritual Technologies

This entry was posted in Beliefs on by .

Ira Rifkin has an interesting article in this week’s Jewish Week about the Tiferet Institute’s recent conference on Kabbalah for the Masses.
Rifkin notes that the most notable participant was the Kabbalah Centre’s Rabbi Michael Berg. Kudos to the conference organizers for finding a way to engage and debate Berg and not just ignore him.

One of the major topics at the conference was the ways in which Kabbalah should be studied by non-Jews.

Rabbi Schachter-Shalomi noted that Jewish Renewal has always borrowed “spiritual technologies from other traditions?” so why shouldn’t non-Jews borrow from Judaism? “HaShem speaks through other people and to other people also,” he said.

The primary dissenter on this point was Rabbi Moshe Genuth.

Rabbi Genuth, director of Toronto’s Ba’al Shem Tov Center, came as a disciple of Rabbi Yitzchak Ginsburgh, a Lubavitcher-Chabad Hasid who has aroused controversy within that movement – not least of all because his Website calls him “the world’s foremost authority on Kabbalah.”

Kabbalah, said Rabbi Genuth, is for Jews alone. “The Jewish people are the bride of the Almighty…and in the end you don’t let anyone into your bedroom.” Teaching gentiles Kabbalah “is like a couple exposing their most intimate secrets to the world.”

Posted on December 29, 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

Fly Frum

This entry was posted in General on by .

The Israeli airline Israir is trying to capitalize on the Ultra-Orthodox community’s disappointment with El Al.

JTA reports:

Israir announced that on Thursday it would install a Torah scroll aboard one of its planes as part of efforts to accommodate religious passengers who want to hold prayer services midair.

Canonist was up on this a week ago and has an image of a Hebrew Israir ad with the tagline “Torah Bashamayim He,” which literally means “Torah is in the sky,” but cleverly alludes to the Talmudic tradition of “Lo Bashamayim He” that the “Torah is not in heaven.”

Posted on December 28, 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

Literary Feuds

This entry was posted in Culture, History on by .

On the Daily Shvitz yesterday, Elisa Albert referred to an amazing article from the New York Times last month about the death of the literary feud. The heavyweight champion of this sport, of course, was Norman Mailer.

In “Evaluations — Quick and Expensive Comments on the Talent in the Room,” an essay in his 1959 collection “Advertisements for Myself,” Mailer offered a no-holds-barred assessment of his peers. Saul Bellow, he said, wrote “in a style I find self-willed and unnatural,” while William Styron, though immensely gifted, would be more “potent” if he showed “the moral courage to write a book equal to his hatred and therefore able to turn the consciousness of our time.” J. D. Salinger? “No more than the greatest mind ever to stay in prep school,” a writer he couldn’t see “soon emerging on to the battleground of a major novel.”

I’m currently writing a column for the Jerusalem Post about Norman Podhoretz’s Making It (which will celebrate its 40th anniversary in 2007), and in re-reading the book, I was also reminded of these feuds: the aggressive intellectual jousting at the center of the New York literary world (what Podhoretz calls “the family”) that surrounded Partisan Review and Podhoretz’s Commentary in the 1950s and 1960s.

In Making It, Podhoretz writes:

To be adopted into the family was a mark of great distinction: it meant you were good enough, that you existed as a writer and an intellectual. But once adopted, you could expect to be spoken of by many (not all) of your relatives in the most terrifyingly cruel terms. They would rarely have even a grudging good word to say for anything you wrote, though they would at least always read it, and they would attribute the basest motives to your every action.

Indeed, Podhoretz was ushered into the circle after publishing a thrashing of Saul Bellow’s otherwise-heralded The Adventures Augie March. And ironically, Mailer’s negative review of Making It in Partisan Review initiated his feud with Podhoretz.

Posted on December 27, 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

If Tony Blair is an Octopus

This entry was posted in Beliefs on by .

I only just stumbled upon Terry Eagleton’s review of Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion in the London Review of Books (thanks to Cross-Currents).

You should read the review if you’re still interested in Dawkins’ strident case for atheism, but also if you’ve never read anything by Eagleton.

A few years back, I did graduate work at the University of Manchester and attended Eagleton’s lectures, which eventually served as the basis for his After Theory.

Eagleton is a renowned cultural theorist, but his wit and charm — and the care he took in his lectures’ prose — were nothing I’d seen from a scholar of his caliber.

Much of this will be apparent in his review of Dawkins, who he takes to task for criticizing religion from a position of ignorance.

The Jews of the so-called Old Testament had faith in God, but this does not mean that after debating the matter at a number of international conferences they decided to endorse the scientific hypothesis that there existed a supreme architect of the universe – even though, as Genesis reveals, they were of this opinion…

Dawkins speaks scoffingly of a personal God, as though it were entirely obvious exactly what this might mean. He seems to imagine God, if not exactly with a white beard, then at least as some kind of chap, however supersized. He asks how this chap can speak to billions of people simultaneously, which is rather like wondering why, if Tony Blair is an octopus, he has only two arms.

Posted on December 26, 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

Rabbi Nevins Reflects

This entry was posted in Beliefs, History on by .

This week on MyJewishLearning, Rabbi Daniel Nevins reflects on his role in the Conservative movement’s recent debate on homosexuality and halakha. Rabbi Nevins co-authored the responsum that allows for gay rabbis and commitment ceremonies.

Nevins writes:

My “ah-hah” moment came a few years ago when I was studying daf yomi, the daily Talmud page, and came back to a passage I hadn’t thought of in this light before. In Tractate Brakhot 19b there is a discussion of human dignity–kvod habriot–and its legal implications.

As I looked up parallel sources and then later applications of this concept in halakhic sources, I realized that this might be the key to the conundrum: How to be inclusive and sensitive to human dignity, while still being authentically halakhic? (MORE)

The responsum in its entirety (it’s 55 pages including notes) can be found here.

Posted on December 26, 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

On the Tenth Day of Hanukkah…

This entry was posted in Holidays on by .

What happens when Christmas and Hanukkah don’t coincide? Simple. Extend Hanukkah! It seems many of us have adopted the model of a holiday “season,” eschewing the specifically prescribed dates.

I was invited to two Hanukkah parties this past Saturday night, the 9th night of Hanukkah, and Hanukkah was noted at JDub Records’ Jewltide Saturday night (the LeeVees performed) and Sunday night, the 10th night of Hanukkah (latkes were served — along with egg rolls).

Posted on December 26, 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

Trouble with Comments

This entry was posted in General on by .

It’s come to our attention that some of you have had trouble logging into Mixed Multitudes in order to post comments. If this happens, please let me know ASAP. We don’t want to miss out on hearing from you.

You can email me with problems at daniel@myjewishlearning.com.

Posted on December 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

The Rushkoff-Beery Debate

This entry was posted in Beliefs on by .

The Ethics of Our Fathers famously defines an “argument for the sake of heaven” and an “argument not for the sake of heaven” by giving examples of both. The arguments between the ancient scholars Hillel and Shammai were for the sake of heaven; while the arguments of Korah and his cronies were not.

But what was the nature of these arguments? What made one “holy” and one not? My understanding of this has always been rooted in another question about this text: Hillel and Shammai were two opposing people/schools. So shouldn’t the Mishnah’s second example have also included two opposing sides — Korah and Moses? Korah and his cronies weren’t arguing. They were on the same side.

I’ve always understood this to mean that an argument for the sake of heaven is one in which the two sides recognize each other. Any argument in which two people honestly engage the other person, in their full humanity, is an argument for the sake of heaven. But when you start to fetishize your own position and, in the process, lose sight of the human being on the other end, your argument is not for the sake of heaven, and according to the Mishnah, it will not reach a constructive outcome.

For the past few days, Douglas Rushkoff and Ariel Beery have been conducting a debate in the comments section of this blog. Has it been an argument for the sake of heaven?

Ultimately, I think it has been, though most of it has detoured through places other than heaven. I encourage people to read through the thousands of words written. (And I thank both Douglas and Ariel for writing.) While you’ll find a fair share of petty squabbling, you’ll also find two people who care deeply about two very different visions of Judaism.

The first few posts are mostly jabs, but the real work begins here, where Beery rejects a humanistic universalism, opting for a “healthy particularism,” thus getting at the crux of this debate. Beery is a particularist; Rushkoff a universalist.

Perhaps most interestingly, Beery acknowledges that he privileges a certain Torah ethos over the later ethical preaching of the prophets:

Your emphasis on social justice seems to me–and correct me I’m wrong–more concerned with enacting the abstract calls of Amos amongst the nations than taking care of the family of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Seemingly inspired by Isaiah, you yearn for an age of universal Humanity–eternal social justice.

Now I’m not sure what the later prophets were smoking, but it sure got them to see crooked at times.

Everyone has the right to build their own theology/philosophy from their own sources, but rejecting a foundational branch of Jewish literature and thinking should be problematic for someone trying to get to essence of Judaism, which Beery seems to do later when he writes that the core of Judaism is: “the Jewish People, and the importance of a strongly knit community.”

Certainly there is precedence for this kind of thinking, but I do not think it is primary in Jewish history. For most of the last two millennia, I would say the core of Judaism was fulfillment of the commandments in the hopes of making it to the World to Come.

So for the sake of heaven (or, for heaven’s sake!), I would like to see Beery elaborate on how he justifies Peoplehood for the sake of Peoplehood (i.e. a strongly knit community) as the core of Judaism. And, perhaps more importantly, is this really the end game? Is the goal of Judaism to create the most perfect particular collective?

In response to Beery’s points, Rushkoff is happy to acknowledge that this is, indeed, the crux of the debate here: universalism vs. particularism.

There are those of us who are more comforted by Isaiah’s universalism than God’s promises to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacbo. And even if we start thinking about the latter, we focus on “light unto nations” and all that Jews-helping-the-others part.

Ultimately, I have more questions for Ariel than Douglas for two reasons: (1) I also lean toward the universalist approach — though I’d prefer to call it the messianic approach, i.e. the dream of redemption for all of humanity; I don’t really understand what’s good about community for the sake of community — without any higher mission (2) Douglas acknowledges the privileged place, from which he writes:

So, in the luxury of 21st Century America, I write books inviting intellectuals to consider Judaism as something other than a reason not to inter-marry, as something more than a real estate document, or as something more than the thing they believe they left.

In the end, though, I appreciate both writers, because they’re addressing the issue that I raised that started this whole debate: The dearth of ideas in the Jewish world; the amount of time we discuss demographics at the expense of mission and purpose. The Rushkoff-Beery debate could certainly have been more civil, but I think it has, ultimately, advanced the conversation. And I’m thankful for that.

(BTW: This post is by no means meant to be the final word. Everyone should feel free to continue to chime in.)

Posted on December 22, 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

Conservative Rabbis Explain Themselves

This entry was posted in Beliefs, History, Practices on by .

This week’s Jewish Week has two letters from rabbis on the Conservative movement’s Law Committee, explaining their recent votes on homosexuality.

Rabbi Adam Kligfeld who voted for both the Roth “anti” responsum and the Dorff-Reisner-Nevins “pro” responsum had this to say:

I did indeed vote for both the Roth and Dorff/Nevins/Reisner papers, which do indeed contradict one another, because “it was important for me that change happen as a result of a majority of the committee.”

Deeper than that, my double vote reflected not only the robust pluralism of the Conservative movement and the Law Committee itself, but also the very real pluralism of my own neshama. I take very seriously the Talmudic idea that two conflicting opinions can, simultaneously, have halachic legitimacy.

Meanwhile, Rabbi Leonard Levy tried to explain his take on reparative therapy:

Homosexuality is not a uniform phenomenon; there are wide variations in the possible causes and manifestations of same-sex attraction and behavior…

My responsum on the subject for the Conservative movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards upholds the traditional prohibitions and outlines programs of public education and individual counseling to ensure that our people who feel same-sex attraction have access to accurate information and expert advice appropriate to each individual’s particular situation, while ensuring all a welcome place in our communities.

Posted on December 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

Herzl’s Christmas Tree

This entry was posted in Holidays on by .

Christmas is approaching, which means it’s time to make jokes about Chinese food, going to the movies, and how guilty we feel liking all those pretty lights.

Let’s face it, more American Jews think and talk about their Jewish identity during Christmas than, say, Shavuot. Does that make Christmas a special day for Jews?

Well, yes. Sort of. And this is nothing new. If you haven’t yet, make sure to read Joshua Plaut’s fascinating article about Jews and Christmas. Among Plaut’s historical tidbits are these about Theodor Herzl and Gershom Scholem:

The Viennese socialite Fanny Arnstein, a co-founder of the Music Society of Austria, was among the first Jews to introduce a Christmas tree into the home, an act also practiced by none other than the father of modern Zionism, Theodor Herzl. Indeed, after Herzl completed his seminal book on Zionism in 1895, Vienna’s Chief rabbi visited him at his home during the month of December. This historically significant meeting took place with a Christmas tree in view.

In Berlin, the great scholar of Jewish mysticism, Gershom Scholem, grew up in a home that celebrated Christmas “with roast goose or hare, a decorated Christmas tree which my mother bought at the market by St. Peter’s Church, and the big distribution of presents for servants, relatives, and friends…An aunt who played the piano treated our cook and servant girl to ‘Silent Night, Holy Night.’” (MORE)

When you’ve read Plaut’s overview, check out his companion piece on Jews and Christmas in Eastern Europe, which describes customs like card playing and reading The Tales of the Crucifix.

Over the centuries Jews developed customary Christmas activities. Certain East European Jews covertly read Ma’se Talui (The Tales of the Crucifix), a secret scroll containing derogatory versions of the birth of Jesus. Such legends are part of a genre of Jewish legends called Toledot yeshu (History of Jesus). These legends first appeared in Hebrew in the thirteenth century (with possible earlier renditions written in Aramaic) and circulated in different versions throughout the Middle Ages. Toledot Yeshu describes Jesus as the illegitimate son of Mary by the Roman soldier Panthera. According to these tales, Jesus’ powers derived from black magic, and his death was a shameful one. (MORE)

One thing is pretty obvious from Plaut’s survey: Apparently it was hard to find a good Chinese restaurant back in the shtetl.

There. I made my joke. Now can you please pass the egg nog?

Posted on December 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

Privacy Policy