Monthly Archives: May 2007

A Domestic Jewish Agenda for 2008

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Jewish Funds for Justice asks: If you could talk to the presidential candidates, what would you tell them?

Jewish Funds for Justice, the only national Jewish organization solely committed to fighting the injustice of poverty in America, is giving you an opportunity to express your own domestic Jewish agenda to the candidates.

You preference five issues out of the ten they have chosen: child care, civil rights, education, environment, health care, housing, immigration, Katrina/Rita, seniors, and wages.

After the votes come in, JFSJ will calculate the top five issues and send a letter to every presidential campaign asking the candidates how they will address these issues. Candidate responses will be posted on the JFSJ websites.

What does JFSJ hope to achieve with this innovative project? The Jewish Week reports:

“We wanted to give the average Jew a role in shaping the domestic Jewish agenda for the 2008 elections,â€? said Mik Moore, the public policy director of the group…“While there are a lot of Jewish organizations that get to sit down with the presidential candidates and tell them what they want, or what they think the Jewish community wants, for a lot of Jews those meetings aren’t representative of their interests.â€?

Domestic issues, he said, have gotten “short shrift� as more and more candidates focus on the big-ticket issue of Israel and as more Jewish organizations shift to an agenda heavily skewed toward international concerns.

For more information, or to vote, click here.

Posted on May 14, 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

Online Voting

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Mixed Multitudes is a finalist for Best New Blog in the Jewish and Israeli Blog Awards.

Click here to vote in the finals.

Thanks!

Posted on May 10, 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

Israel and the Diaspora

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From “Rosner’s Domain”:

Dear Daniel,

My question to you is this: what will be the role of Israel in the new era of Judaism you described, and isn’t it a problem that half the Jewish people can’t connect with the other half because of language?

Thank you,
Martha
New Jersey

Dear Martha,

I’ll start with your second question. There are certainly “connection problems” in the Jewish community, but language isn’t one I’m terribly concerned with. When in Jewish history has the entire Jewish people spoken a single language? Perhaps at one point we all spoke Aramaic, but that age is long gone.

There are many things that unite all Jews, but there are a heck of a lot of things that differentiate us from each other, as well. This is a fact. Is it a problem? Sometimes. But sometimes difference can be productive. Which brings me to your first question.

Israel is interesting because in some ways it is a model for a democratized Judaism: every day, non-rabbis – political leaders, business leaders, secular and religious – make decisions that impact the fate of the Jewish people. In this sense, Israel is a paradigm for what it means to empower all Jews to shape the future of Jewish life.

On the other hand, Israel has a more entrenched religious leadership, a leadership that is empowered by the State with control over ritual, lifecycle events, personal status issues, etc. So when it comes to the “religious” realm, the Diaspora is a stronger candidate for democratization.

So, in a sense, Israel and the Diaspora have a lot to learn from each other in this area. This is how it should be. Democracy is, first and foremost, rooted in the understanding that not everyone has the same values and opinions. If we all believed the same thing, there’d be no need to vote, no need to protect minority rights, etc. Difference is not a problem. When we confront difference, we see ourselves more clearly, who we are, what we do well and not so well, what we can do better. Difference keeps us honest.

Thanks for the questions,
Daniel

Posted on May 10, 2007

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Do we need rabbis?

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More from “Rosner’s Domain”:

Dear Mr. Septimus,
Do you think Jewish Americans know enough about Judaism to make their own judgment without rabbis? Most of the people I know – even the more knowledgeable Jews – don’t have the necessary skills (they know very little Hebrew, for example). What makes you think this can work?

And by the way, do you think knowing Hebrew is important at all?

Thank you for your comments.

David Blumberg, LA

Dear David,

In response to your questions, my initial reaction was to soften my stance and reassert that I’m not calling for a total eschewal of rabbinic leadership.

But the more I thought about it, the more I realized: we do rely on rabbis too much.

This is true across the Jewish religious spectrum. In many Reform and Conservative synagogues, the rabbis are the only members who engage Judaism on a day-to-day basis, so when it comes to holidays or lifecycle events, they’re called upon to run the show and make all the Jewish decisions.

But think about the situation in certain Orthodox communities, where the idea of daas Torah gives rabbis authority over social and political matters, in addition to ritual. Consider this: In all likelihood, the contemporary Orthodox community has the most educated laity in all of Jewish history; Torah study has never been so ubiquitous and universal.

And yet, a few weeks ago, a group of rabbis, led by Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, decided to establish a court that will grant kashrut certificates to women’s clothing stores that sell clothing in line with the rabbis’ standards of modesty.

You asked if I think Jewish Americans know enough about Judaism to make their own judgments without rabbis. My answer: When it comes to the interaction between laypeople and rabbis, there are power dynamics at play that have nothing to do with knowledge. Jews in Rabbi Elyashiv’s community may be the most knowledgeable in Jewish history, but for the first time in Jewish history, they will not be entrusted to make their own decisions about clothing.

The bottom line: I’m not saying we should dissolve the rabbinate. Rabbis who serve their communities with love and wisdom and help their congregants live more meaningful lives are doing holy work. But I still believe people want and need to take more responsibility for the direction of their individual Jewish lives and the Jewish community, generally.

Do American Jews know enough about Judaism to make their own judgments without rabbis? The better question is: Do they care enough?

(As for your question about Hebrew: Of course, it’s important. But I don’t think it’s a prerequisite for engaging Judaism.)

Thanks for the questions.

Posted on May 9, 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

New Left-Wing Arab-Israeli E-Newsletter

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From JTA:

A liberal think tank is launching a daily e-mail bulletin on Arab-Israeli relations. The Washington-based Center for American Progress launched its Middle East Bulletin on Monday, saying in a release that it is “dedicated to addressing America’s interests in pursuing sustainable peace agreements between Israel and the Arab world.”

The bulletin will go out three times a week and primarily feature news and opinion pieces from the Internet.

A Forward story last week described the initiative as an attempt to counter the influence of the Daily Alert, an e-mail briefing run jointly by the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations and the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.

Critics have said the Daily Alert skews rightward and ignores stories that contradict its arguments. For example, it took months for the Daily Alert to include stories acknowledging the failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

Click here to sign up for the Center for American Progress’s Middle East Bulletin (scroll down to the bottom right)

Click here to sign up for the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish American Affairs/JCPA Daily Alert (top left)

While you’re at it, why not sign up for MyJewishLearning.com’s e-letters? If you’re already subscribed to some of them, you can always add more, like our new Recipes and This Week on MJL e-letters.

Posted on May 8, 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

More Democracy

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Since my initial post on Rosner’s Domain about the internet and its role in helping to democratize Judaism, there’s been some back and forth. Here tis:

Dear Daniel,

Your response was insightful and very convincing on a technical level – online Judaism will change “religious hierarchies and leadership structures.” You failed to explain, however, why it is good, or necessary, to change those hierarchies. How will this make Judaism more appealing, or better, than it has been for centuries?

Best
Rosner

Dear Shmuel,

I’m glad you asked the question in that way because, I think, the democratization of Judaism can make Judaism both more appealing and better.

Why will it be better? Because Judaism will be richer, deeper, and more meaningful if it is shaped by a diverse group of people. I have a lot of friends who are male rabbis, but there’s no reason why they should be capable of forging Jewish life on their own. If Judaism is shaped by a multiplicity of voices, then it will resonate more broadly.

Why will the democratization of Judaism make it more appealing? Because choice and autonomy are the hallmarks of modern living.

If Judaism is to be more “appealing” for modern Jews, it must be self-made to a certain extent. Again, I don’t want to overstate things. Tradition, religious authority, precedent: these are all important. But in a world in which identities are, to a certain extent made-to-order, it’s important that Jews feel like they have a role to play in the shaping of their Jewish lives.

Daniel

Dear Daniel,

So, in this world of a more democratic Judaism, how will the editor in chief of MyJewishLearning be able to separate the insignificant from the meaningful, the worthy of the readers’ time from the sheer nonsense? Education is always about hierarchy. If your job is to tell me what’s important to learn – but you don’t have any rules, or hierarchy to build on – how will you do it?

Rosner

Continue reading

Posted on May 8, 2007

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Democratizing Judaism

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This week I’ll be the featured guest on Haaretz‘s Rosner’s Domain, hosted by chief US correspondent Shmuel Rosner.

I’ll be answering questions from Shmuel and Haaretz readers all week.

The first question, from Shmuel, referred to an article I wrote about MyJewishLearning, in which I suggested that a vibrant Jewish internet (and a vibrant MJL) could help “change the very fabric of the Jewish community.”  Shmuel was curious how a website could do this.

My answer has to do with the fact that I see the internet as, fundamentally, a democratic medium. If it can help facilitate a democratization of Judaism — a good thing, in my mind — then it can help transform the Jewish community.

MORE…

Posted on May 7, 2007

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Satire and the Shoah

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My Holocaust, Tova Reich’s satirical novel, was published last month to rave reviews. Cynthia Ozick struck first, writing an extended blurb in which she called the novel “a ferocious work of serious satiric genius.”

She continued: “I believe it to be one of the most penetrating social and political novels of the early twenty-first century, next to which the last century’s Animal Farm is a mere bleat.”

My Holocaust tackles the commercialization and exploitation of the Holocaust with over-the-top characters who violate political correctness (and common decency) at every turn. (In the Holocaust Museum’s visitors’ book, a tourist writes: “I enjoyed it very much, thank you for making the Holocaust possible.”)

Sounded right up my alley, frankly.

But it turned out otherwise.

The book was lauded in the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, even Entertainment Weekly — but I hated it. Mind you, I almost never say that about a book. It’s hard writing novels, and of course, the only thing worse than a bad book is a malicious review. But because the book has been so widely praised — and by luminaries like Ozick — my negative two-cents can’t be too significant.

Of course, I also began to wonder: How is it that everyone loved a book that missed the mark so badly for me?

I discuss the book and some of my thoughts about it in my latest column for the Jerusalem Post, but in short: the book was too cartoonish for me. It’s so outlandish, so over-the-top that it seems firmly rooted in some alternate reality. It’s satire, of course, and I understand that, but, as I write in my column: “no matter how bombastic, satire must be tethered to the real world in some way. It must reference a reality we know in order to enlighten us with its absurdist twists.”

The Jewish American use — and misuse — of the Holocaust is ripe for satire, and yet somehow Reich’s prose doesn’t ring true.

Of course, I’m perfectly open to the possibility that the book is great for some people and just didn’t work for me, but it seemed to miss the mark so much that I began to wonder: Is it safer to love this book?

despite all the novel’s heresies, lauding the book may be the easy option. We want to believe that Reich has transcended political correctness and revealed new truths about human motivations, because if she hasn’t, she’s taken hutzpa to an altogether new place.

MORE…

Posted on May 4, 2007

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The Ellenson Challenge

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In this week’s Forward, David Ellenson, president of Hebrew Union College, recounts two recent events in which Israeli Orthodox rabbis have severely demeaned Reform Judaism.

The first is the well-publicized case of former Sephardic chief rabbi Mordecai Eliyahu who recently joined a long line of Orthodox rabbis blaming the Holocaust on liberal Judaism.

The second is the case of Rabbi Michael Boyden, a Progressive rabbi whose son was killed in southern Lebanon in 1993, who was asked to recite a prayer at a public ceremony on Yom Hazikaron, only to have the invitation rescinded following pressure from a local Orthodox synagogue.

But Ellenson doesn’t only condemn these events. He calls upon Orthodox rabbis of good conscience to condemn them with him. And he gives his Orthodox colleagues a precedent:

In July 1860, a group of zealous Orthodox youth in Amsterdam entered an assembly of the Shochrei Deah, a Reform group, and stoned the liberal rabbi Dr. M. Chronik, almost killing him…

Rabbi Esriel Hildesheimer — then head of an Orthodox yeshiva in Eisenstadt, Hungary, and later destined to become founder of the Orthodox Rabbinical Seminary in Berlin — did not hesitate to condemn these youth for their actions, and he stated that such a deed constituted an act of hillul hashem, a “profanation of God’s name.â€? …

Hildesheimer circulated among Orthodox rabbis in various lands a petition that stated: “We, the undersigned, have read with great sorrow the announcement about the unrestrained disturbance in the synagogue in Amsterdam. We declare that this sad episode is opposed to the commandments of Judaism.�

Will any Orthodox rabbis take up Ellenson’s challenge?  I know what I think.  And I’d love to be proven wrong.

Posted on May 3, 2007

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Chabon’s Sigh of Relief

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Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union was officially published on Tuesday, and the book has already received its first award of sorts: a good review from the New York Times’ Michiko Kakutani.

Kakutani is a notoriously critical critic, but the truth is, I don’t think I’ve ever disliked a book that she’s liked, which leads me to believe that she’s picky and nit-picky, but not necessarily malicious.

If you’re in the mood for some more Chabon, check out the interview that Todd Hasak-Lowy did with the author on JBooks.

Posted on May 3, 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

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