More science and religion news today:
For the fourth time in eight years, the Kansas Board of Education is preparing to take up the issue of evolution and what to teach — or not teach — public school students about the origins of life.
After victory at the polls in November, a moderate majority on the 10-member board in the central U.S. state plans to overturn science standards seen as critical of evolution at a board meeting on Tuesday in Topeka. (MORE)
In light of MJL’s new Science & Judaism section, the case of paleontologist Marcus Ross is worth noting.
The New York Times reports:
There is nothing much unusual about the 197-page dissertation Marcus R. Ross submitted in December to complete his doctoral degree in geosciences here at the University of Rhode Island.
His subject was the abundance and spread of mosasaurs, marine reptiles that, as he wrote, vanished at the end of the Cretaceous era about 65 million years ago. The work is “impeccable,” said David E. Fastovsky, a paleontologist and professor of geosciences at the university who was Dr. Rossâ€™s dissertation adviser. “He was working within a strictly scientific framework, a conventional scientific framework.”
But Dr. Ross is hardly a conventional paleontologist. He is a “young earth creationist” â€” he believes that the Bible is a literally true account of the creation of the universe, and that the earth is at most 10,000 years old.
For him, Dr. Ross said, the methods and theories of paleontology are one “paradigm” for studying the past, and Scripture is another. In the paleontological paradigm, he said, the dates in his dissertation are entirely appropriate. (MORE)
Some people consider Jonathan Lethem a Jewish writer because he’s Jewish (or half-Jewish, at least), but I’m not not going to go there to justify blogging about his recent Harper’s essay “The Ecstasy of Influence.”
This may be a Jewish-interest blog, but it’s also my blog, and Lethem’s essay — which deals with plagiarism, copyrighting, and most importantly, the nature of influence and inspiration in art — may be the most brilliant piece of writing I’ve read this millennium.
You’ll need to schedule some time to read it, it’s 11,000 words long, but there’s a surprise ending that makes it all worthwhile (and if you just skip to the end, you won’t really get it). The essay begins by deconstructing the novelty of one of the 20th century’s great novels:
Consider this tale: a cultivated man of middle age looks back on the story of an amour fou, one beginning when, traveling abroad, he takes a room as a lodger. The moment he sees the daughter of the house, he is lost. She is a preteen, whose charms instantly enslave him. Heedless of her age, he becomes intimate with her. In the end she dies, and the narrator — marked by her forever — remains alone. The name of the girl supplies the title of the story: Lolita.
The author of the story I’ve described, Heinz von Lichberg, published his tale of Lolita in 1916, forty years before Vladimir Nabokov’s novel.
But aside for being a profound rumination on the complex genesis of art, Lethem’s essay also forces us to consider what it means to live in a late-capitalist age in which we assume everything in the world is — or could be — owned.
Think copyright is simple? Consider this:
The Walt Disney Company has drawn an astonishing catalogue from the work of others: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Fantasia, Pinocchio, Dumbo, Bambi, Song of the South, Cinderella, Alice in Wonderland, Robin Hood, Peter Pan, Lady and the Tramp, Mulan, Sleeping Beauty, The Sword in the Stone, The Jungle Book, and, alas, Treasure Planet, a legacy of cultural sampling that Shakespeare, or De La Soul, could get behind. Yet Disney’s protectorate of lobbyists has policed the resulting cache of cultural materials as vigilantly as if it were Fort Knox — threatening legal action, for instance, against the artist Dennis Oppenheim for the use of Disney characters in a sculpture, and prohibiting the scholar Holly Crawford from using any Disney-related imagesâ€”including artwork by Lichtenstein, Warhol, Oldenburg, and others — in her monograph Attached to the Mouse: Disney and Contemporary Art.
This peculiar and specific act — the enclosure of commonwealth culture for the benefit of a sole or corporate owner — is close kin to what could be called imperial plagiarism, the free use of Third World or “primitive” artworks and styles by more privileged (and better-paid) artists.
Lethem’s essay is available in its entirety here. If it doesn’t blow your mind, I’ll refund your money.
The title of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance’s 10th anniversary conference (held this weekend in New York) was Passion and Possibility: ×•×—×™ ×‘×”×?.
This title was meant to reflect the belief that feminism can lead to more passionate observance of Judaism for both men and women, but it also reflected the entire atmosphere of the conference, from the excitement of those who had traveled far to experience a community of like-minded people to the innovative ideas about spirituality, halakha (Jewish law), and community presented in the sessions.
Elie Holzer, a co-founder of Shira Hadasha minyan in Jerusalem, espoused this idea of feminism enriching Jewish life in his lecture about developing meaningful prayer. He discussed ways that feminist theories can be used to improve the entire community’s prayer experience. For example, a feminist rethinking of power structures may change the way a community envisions roles such as rabbi and chazzan, giving more autonomy and responsibility to the individual congregant, which will in turn enrich his or her prayer experience.
The question of using feminism to do more than just include women spilled over into my lunch conversation, where a group of Orthodox women scholars who are in congregational and educational positions normally filled by rabbis discussed the possibility of starting an organization to exchange ideas and network, somewhat like the Rabbinical Council of America.
While all the women scholars were enthusiastic about the idea, they disagreed over whether the organization should include men or not. Some felt that the first priority was to fill in the gap left by the lack of community for women scholars, while others felt that any dialogue would be enriched if both genders participated.
During the hour before lunch, conference goers had a choice of nine different sessions, but all focused in one way or another on agunot. Agunot are women whose husbands have refused to grant them a Jewish divorce, thus making it impossible for them to remarry.
This phenomenon is an extreme example of the fact that Orthodox men have much more power than women in divorce proceedings according to Jewish law. Unlike in past conferences where sessions on agunot were mixed with sessions on other topics, this organizational choice forced all those who attended the conference to confront the problem of agunot. It worked; I attended a session about agunot for the first time ever and heard a thought-provoking presentation.
But during the question period, a man innocently asked how many women are affected by this problem. A woman attending the session attacked him, accusing him of trying to minimize the plight of agunot. This exchange reinforced my belief that the agunot problem, while horrible and heartbreaking, affects only a tiny fringe of our community, and is simply pushed to the forefront by overly emotional activists.
On the other hand, perhaps I simply prefer to focus on what is positive while ignoring serious problems. Are the agunot activists getting carried away with their passion, or are the rest of us getting distracted from an important topic with all the attractive new possibilities?
For those of you who don’t always remember to check our homepage every Monday for our latest content, we’ve introduced our latest e-newsletter, This Week on MJL. It will feature our weekly homepage articles, as well as some weekly highlights from the blog and the rest of the site.
If youâ€™d like to subscribe to this e-letter,Â or any of our other subject-based e-letters, click on â€œRegisterâ€? (if youâ€™re not signed into the site) or Edit Profile (if youâ€™re already signed in), and check the â€œThis Week in MJLâ€? e-letter box, and click â€œUpdate Profile.â€?
For me, this week has yielded some very productive thinking about Israel and Zionism. In addition to the blogging and blog-reading about the AJC article, I’ve been reading Mordecai Richler’s amazing memoir This Year in Jerusalem, which includes many reflections on the writer’s early years in the Zionist youth movement Habonim.
Then, yesterday, I was in a wonderful class given by Rabbi David Gedzelman on the Zionism of A.D. Gordon and Mordecai Kaplan. One quote from Kaplan is worth sharing in full, especially at the end of a week in which our thoughts about Zionism and Israel have been muddled in contentiousness and controversy.
But the quote is also important because it speaks to the ubiquitous Jewish continuity debate, as well (this week manifested in the reports about Steven M. Cohen’s new study on intermarriage/in-marriage).
From Kaplan’s A New Zionism (1955):
Zionism, as a movement to redeem the Jewish People and regenerate its spirit through the reconstitution of Jewish Peoplehood and the reclamation of Eretz Yisrael, has to meet the following requirements: (a) it has to foster among the Jews both of Israel and of the Diaspora a sense of interdependence and a process of interaction; and, (b) it has to give the individual Jew the feeling that participating in that interdependence and interaction makes him more of a person. Thus is Zionism to make the Jewish People a means of salvation to the individual Jew. To become that kind of a People is what the Jewish people has to live for. Otherwise its collective survival would become an end in itself. No society which makes survival and end in itself is capable of surviving severe crises…
After the class, I — half-jokingly, but definitely half-seriously — suggested to David that we recite this last sentence at every Jewish organizational meeting that relates to the question of Jewish continuity. (BTW: The bolds in the Kaplan quote are mine.)
…to Ben Yehuda Street?
HOP! is available in the United States as part of a Dish Network Israeli channel that also features many other types of Israeli programming.
Don’t have satellite TV? No problem! Click here for an archive of Rechov Sumsum clips, featuring such favorites as Moshe Oofnik and Kippy ben Kippod.
And don’t forget to visit the HOP! website, with lots of free Hebrew-language games and cartoons for your little one.
Israel, from â€œBurn the Lycraâ€?:
The problem is basic: Israel cannot yet come to terms with seperating religion from state. Until it does that, we will have a problem with religious nutcases thinking they can get away with spraying women with paint if they think they aren’t dressed right.
Rivkah7, from â€œTeaching Children about the Holocaustâ€?:
I am struggling with how to teach my children ( ages 10 and 8 ) about the Shoah. My mother and grandparents survived, but most everyone else died. I want my children to know what happened to their family, to their people, to the world. But I also feel, as a mother, a strong need to protect them from the horror of those events, from the loss of innocence.
AlexUtiug, from “Growing in Mitzvotâ€?
Doing acts of kindness, including visiting the sick, should not be something one decides to do in order to do a “mitzvah”. We should not think about “deciding to add this mitzvah” when it comes to doing such things: it’s supposed to be like taking shower: yes, there are commandments regarding bodily cleanliness, but these are ones that should be coming from inside your soul.
Â Add your own responses to these threadsÂ if you’d like, or start a new discussion on our discussion boards.
As I mentioned yesterday, Alvin Rosenfeld begins his essay “Progressive Jewish Thought and the New Anti-Semitism” with several harrowing pages on the state of Muslim anti-Semitism. From there he, commendably, suggests that criticizing Israel’s policies in the West Bank and Gaza is “in itself, not anti-Semitic.”
What is anti-Semitic? Questioning the very genesis of the State.
Here Rosenfeld raises a point that’s very much worth sitting on. He correctly points out that for many on the Left, the problems with Israel have less to do with 1967 (i.e. the West Bank and Gaza) and more to do with 1948 (i.e. the very creation of the State). Thus he begins this section of the article with his first “progressive” Jew, Jacqueline Rose, who he quotes as writing “the soul of the nation was forfeit from the day of its creation.”
I’ve never read Rose’s work, but assuming the quotes Rosenfeld takes from her are representative, I think much of the critique he levels against her is justified. “We take Zionism to be a form of collective insanity,” writes Rose, and indeed, statements like this do echo with bias other than political justice and academic rigor.
Similarly, I’ve never read the work of Michael Neumann, but Rosenfeld seems justified in calling him out, as well. Writes Neumann, “we should almost never take anti-Semitism seriously and maybe we should have some fun with it.” The quotes from Rose and Neumann feel like they’re launched with aggression and hate, and though I would need to read more, Rosenfeld does lay the groundwork for an anti-Semitism charge against these Jews.
But back to Rose’s first point: 1948. From my brief interactions with those affiliated with “the international Left” who work on Israeli/Palestinian issues, Rosenfeld’s diagnosis is correct. They are not, ultimately, concerned with the West Bank and Gaza, but see the creation of Israel as part of a colonial enterprise that gave Arab land to white Europeans.
Of course, the problem with this position isn’t that it’s an outright fabrication (clearly, there’s at least a little truth to it). The problem is that it’s an utter simplification, and I would venture to say, the only categorical sin in discussing Israeli/Palestinian issues is transforming an unfathomably complicated conflict into something simple and obvious. So let’s go back to Rosenfeld’s paradigmatic progressive quote. Jacqueline Rose: “the soul of the nation was forfeit from the day of its creation.”
Looking at this idea honestly, I would say: Certainly it wasn’t forfeit. But was it compromised? Surely. What nation state comes into existence with a clean soul? Without blood and suffering? Would Rosenfeld object as vociferously if Rose claimed that the soul of the United States was forfeit from the day of its creation? But, of course, its soul was tarnished, too. In fact, I would venture to say that the Native American blood that fertilized our freedom and liberty has left the United States with a soul exponentially darker than Israel’s.
Israel’s genesis did not occur in a universe of absolute justice, many people — Jews and non-Jews — suffered for it. But that doesn’t mean its genesis was not justified.
My point: Rosenfeld and Rose suffer from the same malady: simplifying the infinitely complex. Rose seems to be the greater transgressor in this match-up, but ultimately Rosenfeld’s article — for all the truth mixed into it — fails on this account, as well. If ever there were a topic that needed all of our capacities to make distinctions, it’s this one.
The Six Points Fellowship, which will offer 12 New York-based artists a $25,000 stipend, up to $20,000 in project support, and a community of fellow artists doing work with a Jewish focus has just announced its 12 fellows.
Congratulations to those selected and kudos to Six Points director Rebecca Guber, UJA, JDUB Records, Avoda Arts, and the National Foundation for Jewish Culture for supporting such an exciting initiative.