Monthly Archives: March 2007

The Circumcision Debate

This entry was posted in Life on by .

Last month, I went to the bris of a colleague’s newborn son, and I was reminded how difficult these lifecycle rituals are for me. Gathering friends and family to welcome a child into the community is, of course, a lovely thing.

But the all-too-chipper mohel, cracking jokes, scalpel in hand, in front of a table of smoked fish was all-too surreal. When the deed was done, the baby screamed, jubilation ensued, and cream cheese was shmeared.

Let’s be honest, all the new research on AIDS prevention aside, this is one intense ritual.

I should be clear: I’m not against circumcision. But it does freak me out. We can, in theory, initiate a newborn baby boy into the Jewish community in any number of ways. And we do it by cutting his privates. We mark the body in the most serious way possible. This from a community known for its cerebral — disembodied — inclinations.

All of this is by way of saying that you should read Amy Odell’s Jewess interview with Dr. Ronald Goldman of the Circumcision Resource Center. Goldman is definitively anti-circumcision, and while I’m not directing you to him in support of his ideas, I don’t think honest discussion about the topic would be such a terrible thing.

There are noble religious/health reasons to circumcise a baby. But pretending it’s a simple prelude to bagels — and, eventually, bar mitzvahs — might not be in our best interest.

Posted on March 30, 2007

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

Is Patrilineal Descent Next?

This entry was posted in History, Practices on by .

A very interesting letter to the editor in this week’s Jewish Week raises a fascinating question: With gay and lesbian students now accepted into Conservative rabbinical schools, what will be the movement’s next “big issue”?

David Londy — a Reform rabbi — thinks he knows:

Instead of being innovative, the movement and the Seminary seem only reactive, following the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College and Hebrew Union College in admitting openly lesbian and gay rabbis now (RRC in 1984 and HUC in 1989) and women rabbis in 1985 (Reform in 1972 and Reconstructionist in 1974).

Obviously, the next issue will be patrilineal descent. Reform and Conservative authorities have affirmed its legitimacy. In 10 years, Conservative Jewish scholars will be writing papers, utilizing historical studies already in existence, to affirm patrilineal descent as a legitimate halachic option.

I’m not sure which “Conservative authorities” that “have affirmed its legitimacy” he is referring to, but that’s neither here nor there. Londy is not being cynical in suggesting that the Conservative movement’s legal innovations can be seen as a sort-of time-released Reform. He’s simply describing the facts on the ground.

And, of course, the question of patrilineal descent is so interesting because, from a Jewish legal perspective, it likely has more traditional precedents than the case for gay ordination.

In making its appeal for patrilineality in 1983, the Reform movement cited several very real biblical and rabbinic antecedents.

Both the Biblical and the Rabbinical traditions take for granted that ordinarily the paternal line is decisive in the tracing of descent within the Jewish people. The Biblical genealogies in Genesis and elsewhere in the Bible attest to this point. In intertribal marriage in ancient Israel, paternal descent was decisive. Numbers 1:2, etc., says: “By their families, by their fathers’ houses” (lemishpechotam leveit avotam), which for the Rabbis means, “The line [literally: 'family'] of the father is recognized; the line of the mother is not” (Mishpachat av keruya mishpacha; mishpachat em einah keruya mishpacha; Bava Batra 109b, Yevamot 54b; cf. Yad, Nachalot 1.6).

In the Rabbinic tradition, this tradition remains in force. The offspring of a male Kohen who marries a Levite or Israelite is considered a Kohen, and the child of an Israelite who marries a Kohenet is an Israelite. Thus: yichus, lineage, regards the male line as absolutely dominant. This ruling is stated succinctly in Mishna Kiddushin 3.12 that when kiddushin (marriage) is licit and no transgression (ein avera) is involved, the line follows the father. (MORE)

So is Londy’s prediction correct? What do you think?

Post some comments, folks.

It’ll be interesting to have this conversation on record — to revisit in a decade.

Posted on March 30, 2007

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

Passover Fun Roundup

This entry was posted in Holidays, Practices on by .

Here are some great sites to get your kids or students excited about Passover.

  • Babaganewz has a terrific magic trick, fun seder games, ecards (frogs and locusts!), Passover Jewpardy, mad libs, a memory game, a video game, a Darfur reading, and the four questions in many languages.
  • ChabadKids offers a How To Passover feature, as well as arts and crafts, recipes, music and video, stories, and games.
  • Torahtots has greeting cards, coloring pages, and some fun games that can be printed out.
  • Kids Domain provides arts and crafts, coloring pages, mazes, and recipes. 
  • suggests some Passover children’s books.


Posted on March 28, 2007

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

Meir Soloveichik on Interfaith Dialogue

This entry was posted in Beliefs on by .

This month’s issue of Commentary includes a lengthy essay by Meir Soloveichik, in which he rejects theological interfaith dialogue. Soloveichik supports the attempts to improve interfaith relations, but suggests these interactions be limited to the social realm.

In this, Soloveichik reaffirms the position of his great-uncle, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik — the most influential figure in 20th century Modern Orthodoxy. While citing the elder Soloveitchik, Meir Soloveichik mostly appeals to a more popular work: Strangers and Neighbors: What I Have Learned about Christianity by Living Among Orthodox Jews, written by Maria Johnson, an Oxford-trained Catholic theologian. In this book, Johnson discusses her appreciation for Judaism and Jews — while holding fast to her own orthodox beliefs.

To support his position, Soloveichik takes on a few of the most renowned Jewish theologians of the last half-century: Abraham Joshua Heschel, David Hartman, and Yitz Greenberg. Soloveichik quotes Heschel in presenting a paradigmatic liberal, theological worldview shared by these three thinkers:

The ultimate truth is not capable of being fully and adequately expressed in concepts and words. . . . Revelation is always an accommodation to the capacity of man. No two minds are alike, just as no two faces are alike. The voice of God reaches the spirit of man in a variety of ways, in a multiplicity of languages. One truth comes to expression in many ways of understanding.

In other words: Absolute truth is inaccessible to humans who have finite minds and perspectives. While Heschel, Hartman, and Greenberg would defend this as both true and properly humble, Soloveichik rejects it as wishy-washy relativism:

Rabbi Greenberg insists that his approach does not “dilute Judaism’s independence or collapse the distinctions between Judaism and Christianity.� Nor, he writes, is he endorsing relativism, but rather “an absolutism that has come to recognize its own limitations.� But if this is not relativism, what is? A defining feature of any faith is its claim to be truer than any other. Proposing that it gut itself of that feature, retaining only its attachment to “the kind of life we lived along the way,� is akin to asking it to cease to exist as a faith.

Here, I think, Soloveichik is severely mistaken — and I’ll limit myself to his critique vis-a-vis Greenberg, with whom I’m most familiar.

Greenberg is a pluralist, but he is certainly not a relativist.

Soloveichik believes in an absolute: that his interpretation of Judaism is the one, true right way to view the world. But Greenberg also believes in an absolute: Humans were created b’tzelem elokim, in the image of God, meaning they have infinite value and worth. For Greenberg, the ultimate goal of life (and Judaism) is to cultivate the dignity that humans, therefore, deserve.

For Greenberg, a violation of tzelem elokim is wrong. It is not a “relatively” viable option.

Indeed, it is on this point that, in my mind, Soloveichik’s arguments crumble. For Soloveichik, it’s okay for your children to spend time with children of other religions as long as they know that their friend’s religion is ultimately wrong. Here he quotes Johnson’s approach to parenting:

I’d imagine they say what I’d say to my [own] children if the nice family down the block were Mormons. I’d say, “They’re great kids, and I’m really glad you’re friends. You’ve probably noticed that they go to a funny church and they have some odd ideas about God. If they tell you stories about an angel called Moroni or somebody called Joseph Smith and some tablets, you can just tell them that we’re Catholic and we don’t believe in that. Don’t argue with them; it’s really important to them, and we don’t want to hurt their feelings, but just between us, it’s pretty silly.�

Of course, we can — and do — associate with people who are different than us without denigrating them, but it seems utterly divorced from reality to assume that this can happen as a general rule. We’re supposed to tell our kids that everything their neighbors believe about the nature of life is “silly” and expect them to grow to respect them? Can you dignify someone’s tzelem elokim while at the same time (profoundly) looking down on the values they most cherish?

If this were possible, I think Greenberg might not have a problem with Soloveichik’s theology, but the greatness of Greenberg’s theology is that it’s deeply rooted in real human encounters. His interfaith work was inspired by his realization that Christian theology paved the way for the Holocaust. Centuries of demonizing Jews theologically, eventually led to one of the most extreme violations of the image of God in human history.

Soloveichik’s theology is based on the assumption that we can love and respect people who we think — literally or figuratively, take your pick — are going to hell. Greenberg’s is based on the assumption that we love and respect people who we value. Which is true? I know what I think.

Posted on March 27, 2007

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

In Your Inbox

This entry was posted in History on by .

Throughout the month of March we’ve been highlighting Jewish Women’s Archive’s This Week in History, a unique feature that highlights the accomplishments of American Jewish women.

Jewish Women’s History month may be coming to an end, but the learning is just beginning.

Sign up for your own weekly This Week in History emails from JWA.

Posted on March 27, 2007

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

For Mom’s Sake

This entry was posted in Culture, History on by .

The fourth issue of Guilt & Pleasure is now out, and at first glance, it seems as good (and good-looking) as the first three. That is, unless you’re Shalom Auslander’s mother.

The journal has a hilarious — but fundamentally serious — essay by Auslander that explores a predicament many of us are in: struggling with the Jewish community’s paranoia about anti-Semitism, while also struggling with the rise in actual anti-Semitic incidents (the latest example being the recent report on the Canadian situation).

Auslander navigates these issues with his signature edgy, personal voice. His specific problem: If anti-Semitism really is ubiquitous, then his mother was right.

For Auslander, nothing could be worse, so he ends the article with a plea to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Mel Gibson, and Hassan Nasrallah .

Think about that the next time, fellas — the next time you organize a “Did the Holocaust Really Happen?� conference, the next time you deface the Holocaust Memorial in Brussels, the next time you throw a Molotov cocktail at the Jewish center in Baltimore — think about my mother, at home, reading about it in the newspaper, tutting and shaking her head and veyzmeering and saying I told you so.

Does anyone really want to live in a world where my mother was right? I know I don’t. More importantly, I couldn’t, because you’d kill me. You’d kill all of us. And then who would run Hollywood?

Just kidding.

Please help.

A PDF of the complete essay is available here.

Posted on March 26, 2007

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

Major Merger

This entry was posted in General on by .

Big news from the West Coast. The University of Judaism and the Brandeis-Bardin Institute are merging and forming a new entity: the American Jewish University.

LA’s Jewish Journal reports:

The University of Judaism (UJ) and Brandeis-Bardin Institute (BBI), two Southern California institutions that for the last 60 years have educated and inspired Jews of all ages and affiliations — and that have both at times struggled through financial and leadership troubles — this week will announce that they have merged into one entity, to be known as the American Jewish University.

With two campuses, a roster of about 15,000 students and a remarkable range of educational, experiential, cultural and political offerings, the American Jewish University instantly becomes one of the largest and most unique Jewish educational institutions in the country.

The merger allows Brandeis to expand an educational mission that for years has been stagnating under the weight of financial insecurity and struggling lay leadership. It also allows the UJ to reintroduce itself to a local community that can’t seem to shake the image of UJ as a lower-tier university affiliated with the Conservative movement. As American Jewish University, it hopes to emphasize its pluralistic identity and the non-academic educational and cultural offerings that in fact form a much larger part of the institution than the graduate and undergraduate schools. (MORE)

Posted on March 26, 2007

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

Ritual Contamination and Liberalism

This entry was posted in General on by .

David Klinghoffer’s latest assault on liberalism — published on — is an attempt to frame liberalism in terms of materialism and materialism in terms of the biblical idea of tumah, ritual impurity.

The piece is particularly shoddy, especially when he goes through specific liberal positions and tries to articulate how they are functions of this (depraved) materialism. Below are Klinghoffer’s words, with my responses.

The understanding of liberalism as the political expression of materialism will be familiar to many political conservatives. I first heard that formulation from Michael Medved, who laid it out in detail in a speech. But the Bible made the same connection millennia ago. Virtually every liberal position on a hot-button issue can be explained this way. Some lefty views emphasize, as Hirsch put it, the “powers of the forces of nature.�

Gay marriage: The implicit justification for this insists that gays are in the grip of nature. They have no choice about their sexual behavior. So let’s endorse their love in civil law.

While, natural sexual proclivities are not irrelevant to the conversation, it is not the “justification” for gay marriage. Isn’t this an equality issue? If heterosexuals are allowed to choose one loved-one to get health insurance and tax-breaks and hospital visitation rights with, so should homosexuals.

Abortion: Here it’s women who are supposedly in the grip of nature, specifically sexual desire. The lady made a mistake and got pregnant. Liberals believe she can’t be held responsible for this, as denying her an abortion would do. The solution to unwanted pregnancy is a material one (ten minutes of vacuuming the uterus) over a spiritual one (taking responsibility for the outcome of sexual intercourse).

First off, it’s notable (and disturbing) that Klinghoffer seems to believe that unwanted pregnancies are always a woman’s “mistake.” What about rape? Broken condoms? Two very different things, certainly, but accounting for them would have at least made Klinghoffer sound less misogynistic.

Gun control: A gun isn’t a force of nature, but it’s treated as if it were one. If this particular material object is found in the house, we are virtually compelled to abuse it, endangering ourselves and others. The only solution is to restrict gun ownership.

Death is bad. Violence is not ideal. Are those liberal values? There are libertarian reasons to reject gun control, but saying that liberals support gun control because they believe we have no agency over our animalistic bodies is (or, I think, should be) obviously absurd.

Global warming: We are in the grip of a vengeful, enraged nature! “Angry nature is holding a gun to our heads,� as the magazine of the Sierra Club warns.

The entire fight against global warming is predicated on the assumption that humans caused it and can take steps toward remedying it. And if I wanted to play Klinghoffer’s game, there certainly are spiritual values at stake: The health of our (or God’s) planet. Are the renunciation of potential death and destruction liberal values?

Affirmative action: Racial discrimination, whether favoring a minority or not, is based on the assumption that people are trapped by naturally-determined limitations associated with their skin color.

I thought it was based on the acknowledgment that certain groups have been historically underprivileged and discriminated against.

I don’t always find Klinghoffer’s writing so obviously problematic (I blogged about an article I disagreed with, but somewhat appreciated, a couple of months ago). But, I have to admit, sometimes he makes me nostalgic for the days when Dennis Prager was everyone’s favorite Jewish conservative.

Posted on March 23, 2007

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 Safran Foer Haggadah

This entry was posted in Culture, Holidays, Practices on by .

The Forward‘s got the scoop on novelist Jonathan Safran Foer’s next writing projects. The first is a continuation to his vegetarian activism:

Over the course of 2006, Foer spoke to specialists in biology, farming, ethics and nutrition as he drove around America visiting farms of all shapes, sizes and smells, those ranging from the small-scale organic to the industrial and downright toxic. He is chronicling his road adventure and the ecological crisis he observed in a new nonfiction book that looks to be a sort of muckraking cross between Edward Abbey and a modern version of Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle.”

The second is a new kind of Passover Haggadah:

“Passover is the jewel in the crown� of Judaism, Foer said, arguing that we don’t hold “capital J� Jewish books like the Haggadah to the same literary standards as “lowercase j� books, like a Philip Roth novel, when we should.

“There’s no reason we can’t make this book as good,â€? he said. “The themes are so important, so relevant, so exciting. The stories — everybody knows the stories, [from] the 10 plagues to the parting of the Red Sea. They have so much resonance, and this is an opportunity for artists to do something with them. The Haggadah begs us to make it new.” (MORE)

Posted on March 22, 2007

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