Monthly Archives: October 2007

Interview with Merle Feld

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I recently had the opportunity to interview poet and educator Merle Feld, author of A Spiritual Life: Exploring the Heart and Jewish Tradition. Her book recently came out in a revised and updated edition that includes a readers and writers guide.

LKG:

61488_cov.jpgHere’s an excerpt from your most famous poem, We All Stood Together:

My brother and I were at Sinai
He kept a journal
of what he saw
of what he heard
of what it all meant to him

I wish I had such a record
of what happened to me there

Since the first time I read this poem, I’ve definitely thought of your poetry as a form of contemporary midrash. As a young woman it really freed me to look at the untold stories in the Tanach, gave me a peek into the authentic experience of women living during that time.

Reading a spiritual life, however, I notice that the bulk of your poetry is much more personal. And yet, as you go from community to community, these very personal poems are allowing others to deepen their own spiritual lives. This is the very reason that you created the reader’s and writers guide for the new edition of your book–to facilitate these types of encounters with your text. I find this fascinating–has the story of your spiritual life itself become the midrash to be interpreted?

MF:

Lili, this is such an interesting question. In all the work I do*, I see the stories of my own experience, my feelings, questions, sorrows, fulfillment, as an invitation – to readers, to audiences, to my many students – I am extending a hand, I am trying to encourage you to see your own life as sacred, as worthy of self-examination and reflection. One former student from years ago, now a highly successful rabbi herself with a large loving following, said to me when A Spiritual Life was published, “This is a gift, you give so much of yourself to others, you give so deeply.”

In the way I wrote this memoir, I don’t see it as egotistical – after all, a memoir can be “look at me and all the important things I’ve done” – no. Mostly A Spiritual Life is about what I’ve felt and thought, how I’ve struggled to make a meaningful life and especially how I’ve struggled to value myself and be empowered to live fully. But I see the purpose of sharing personal stories and poems as all being in the service of supporting the development of the reader. I strive to establish a really deep place as the place that it’s worth talking from – that’s the place I write from, and I’m trying to inspire readers and students to go to that deep place within themselves, to have the courage to do that, to do that work, to find their own authentic voice and to speak, write live, from that personal authenticity. And also to be in their communities and out in the world relating to others in that daring and true way.

Yes, you’re right, that’s exactly why I created the Readers and Writers Guide for this new book – I chose seven themes that were very important to me, that constitute the substance of the book, and the Guide helps readers focus on these themes, use the questions I provide to open conversations and deepen the level of intimacy and meaning in their book groups, adult ed study classes, in their havurot or synagogues. Readers can also use the Guide to focus their own personal journaling, exploring the feelings and the issues of these poems about our ordinary lives that are anything but ordinary when you stop to really look and listen – so much holiness there in our everyday lives, waiting to be noticed.

*My work for many years was with a very diverse, widely ranging constituency; now I focus on teaching rabbinical students (Conservative, Orthodox, Reconstructionist, Reform and nondenominational) to develop writing as a spiritual practice – that’s a story in and of itself! Continue reading

Posted on October 22, 2007

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Good for Israel. Good for the Jews?

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Last week the Cornerstone Church of San Antonio held its 26th annual “Night to Honor Israel.” With more than 6,000 in attendance, the church raised more than $8.5 million dollars, $6 million of which went to aliyah organizations.

The church is led by Pastor John Hagee, a familiar face on the pro-Israel Evangelical scene. As reported by the Jerusalem Post:

Despite its focus on Israeli culture and Jewish history, the Night to Honor Israel was aimed squarely at Evangelicals. There was no better reminder of this than the “Song of Zion,” a history of the Jewish people told with video, live music and interpretive dance.

According to the presentation, today’s Jewish state is but a continuation of the Israel of the Old Testament. The country it describes is romanticized and biblical, all beards and harps and attractive dancing girls in flowing robes and sparkling tinsel breastplates. It jumps suddenly from exile to return to exile, presenting the Holocaust and the rebirth of the state as but the most recent phases in that cycle, the one the sole cause behind the other. It ends on a high note in 1948, with an Israel that is strong and secure. There is no mention of wars or conflicts or politics. (MORE)

There was a Jewish presence at this event. Daniel Ayalon, Israel’s ambassador to the United States, accepted a check on behalf of Nefesh b’Nefesh, Dennis Prager was the keynote speaker, and representatives from the Jewish Federation of Greater Houston attended along with local Jewish leaders.

There is little doubt that the money donated provided essential support to Israeli organizations.

But is mega-philanthropy from a mega-church and mega-Christians good for the Jewish people?

Posted on October 22, 2007

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A rabbi, a philantropist and, a professor walk into a room…

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Sounds like a bad joke?

It might as well have been one last Thursday at “A Debate on Jewish Values.” Hosted by NYU’s Bronfman Center and the Jewish Values Network, Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, Michael Steinhardt, and Noah Feldman “faced off” against each other on what are Jewish values and what is their place in the 21st century.

Each speaker began with a 10-minute remark on what they thought were Jewish values. Boteach read from his latest book (don’t forget the website, new organization, or bobble heads that he also promoted) his acronym for seven core values: DREAMS.

I don’t know how those six letters translate to seven values, because he only made it through the first two before running out of time.

Steinhardt faired even worse, only getting through one of his six values before 10 minutes was up, but was granted a few extra minutes to finish.

Feldman smartly passed on listing and instead expressed that the core of Judaism is the struggle to reconcile laws from the Torah with the “good faith” and values needed to live in a modern society.

What was most striking about the whole night was the sheer amount of predictability. Boteach, being a TV star and “America’s Rabbi,” preached (literally preached) about the need to bring Jewish values, which have been borrowed by the other Western religions, back to foreground of Judaism. Jews must spread their messages to the secular world.

Steinhardt, being an self-proclaimed atheist and a key funder of Birthright Israel, put Jewish values aside to note the approximately 12 million non-Orthodox Jews who need support and outreach (Oddly enough, he was speaking to a predominantly Modern Orthodox audience). He believes issues with conversion, marriage, and definitions of Judaism scare away far too many of them.

Feldman, being an astute legal scholar and key writer of the Iraqi constitution, was interested in placing Judaism in context of modernity. He frequently came back to the analytical process of bringing these two movements together… And defending his article from the New York Times Magazine this summer against all of those Modern Orthodox Jews in attendance (see above).

What it comes down to is that for those of us who live and work in the Jewish world, we’ve likely read dozens of articles and books from Boteach, and seen clips from his shows. We’ve also likely heard Steinhardt give this exact same speech dozens of times. And we’ve also likely read Feldman’s article as well as a seemingly endless amount of subsequent commentary.

This has led me to craft my own theory on the longevity of the Jewish community. It’s because we say the same thing over and over again. Case in point: the annual cycle of reading the Torah.

And many of today’s most esteemed leaders and thinkers are known for speaking on the same topics from the same perspective each time they speak. While it does establish consistency, it becomes frustrating for those of us who have heard it all before and are seeking out new thoughts and viewpoints.
But at the same time, as I observed at the NYU event filled with college freshmen, there are people in our community to whom these messages are new.

NBC had a great slogan a few years ago to promote a season of reruns: “If you haven’t seen it, it’s new to you.”

And that might be the most Jewish value of them all.
For some more comprehensive coverage check out Jewlicious.

Posted on October 22, 2007

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Condemning Violence

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Several blogs have picked up the Haaretz report about 5 ultra-Orthodox men who apparently assaulted a woman and an Israeli soldier on a bus on its way to Bet Shemesh.

The incident began when the five men asked the religious woman to move to the back of the bus to prevent males and females from sitting together in public. When she refused, they beat her and the male soldier who sat next to her. “

Yitzchok Adlerstein over at Cross-Currents should be particularly commended for asking the Orthodox community to condemn such actions. (I say “Orthodox community” because of the context and the fact that Rabbi Adlerstein is an Orthodox rabbi.) He also invites laypeople to take a role in pressuring the rabbis of Bet Shemesh to sign a petition condemning this type of violence.

However, I’m a little bothered by Rabbi Adlerstein’s stated motivation:

Verified or not, I can tell you who is interested in the story, and who picked it up right away: the Muslim media. I have seen with my own eyes the output of one Muslim listserv under the appropriate enough title “5 ultra orthodox Jews beat the hell out of woman in public.�

When the Neturei Karta rashaim gave succor to Ahmadinejad, there was a huge show of revulsion from all – and unexpected – parts of the community. Even those who shared NK’s radical anti-Zionist platform drew the line at offering aid to the enemy. There is no reason to believe that the Muslims who circulated the story are our enemies. But there is also no way that the story will not propagate itself virally, and quickly fall into the hands of our enemies, who will joyfully point out to the world that in the much-vaunted Israeli democracy, elements every bit as primitive as themselves have free rein.

Again, I very much appreciate the note of critique, but something about this rubs me the wrong way.

Why should religiously-inspired violence be presented as a public relations problem? Do we really need an added excuse to condemn this type of behavior? Shouldn’t ethics and morality and the sanctity and integrity of Judaism be enough to mobilize our outrage?

Posted on October 22, 2007

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Change at Commentary

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Commentary has announced that New York Post columnist John Podhoretz will be its next editor. Podhoretz will be only the fourth editor in the magazine’s history, and he happens to have the same last name as the magazine’s second editor.

Podhoretz will take over from Neal Kozodoy in January 2009.

The official press release is here. For a respectful, laudatory look at the change, see the NY Sun‘s coverage. Otherwise, check out Gawker.

Posted on October 19, 2007

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Elie Wiesel Digs Jesus

This entry was posted in Beliefs on by .

Last night, Elie Wiesel began his lecture at the 92nd Street Y with a few words about Jean-Marie Lustiger, the French Cardinal who died this past summer.

elie_wiesel_125.jpg Lustiger was, of course, born a Jew, and he was hidden by a Catholic woman during WWII. He later converted to Catholicism at the age of 13. Lustiger’s continued identification as a Jew has been well reported, and kaddish was recited at his funeral.

Wiesel and Lustiger were friends, and in struggling with the nature of Lustiger’s Jewishness, Wiesel decided to research the first Jewish convert to Christianity: Jesus.

What did he learn? According to Wiesel, Jesus was a passionate, interested, relatively normative Jew — a spiritual seeker, who had issues with the corrupt status quo. It was Paul and later Christian leaders, Wiesel asserted, who turned Jesus into the ultimate Jew-foil.

Hardly original or shocking. And probably not worth the $35 admission charge.

Perhaps most strangely, Wiesel never returned to discuss Lustiger. How did Jesus’ Jewishness affect Wiesel’s view of Lustiger’s identity? Was the lecture alluding to the possibility that an individual Christian could still be a good Jew?

I don’t think so. In all probability, Lustiger was merely a segue, not the actual topic of conversation. Which is disappointing, because then the question remains: What do we make of Lustiger’s Jewishness? What did Wiesel conclude about that?

Posted on October 19, 2007

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Faithbook

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I’ve recently stumbled across the blog Faithbook, a relatively new project (started this spring) of “On Faith,” the Newsweek-Washington Post joint religion blog.

Faithbook (it sounds like Facebook for a reason) is a collection of six college students blogging on religion:

Campus Catholic: A grad student from my alma mater, Medill (nee the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University, covers her life “as a student of religion, a roaming Catholic, and an eyelash-curling, high-heel wearing, wanna-be mystic.”

Chutzpah Chronicles: A junior at Boston University who considers herself “a young urban Jewess.”

Latter-Day Chase: A sophomore at the University of Utah, who sees himself a “progressive spiritual naturalist, and a nontraditional LDS/Mormon member in Utah.”

Lox and Vertias:Written by a junior at Yale University, Lox et Veritas is a pun on the Yale motto, Lux et Veritas, meaning Light and Truth.

Salaam Chicago: A Pakistani-born, Chicago raised student at DePaul University who is involved in the interfaith movement in the Windy City.

Southern Skeptic: A junior at Virgina Tech who details “his experiences as an inquiring mind in both the Middle East and Southwest Virginia.”

Posted on October 18, 2007

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Gaza and the West Bank

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-The Palestinian Authority is paving a four-lane highway inside Israel’s sovereign territory. You’ve never heard of this? That, says Yossi Beilin, is exactly his point. (Ynet)

-As the olive harvest season is set to begin, many Palestinian farmers are unable to get to their fields, because the separation wall has been built between them and their land. (The Jerusalem Post)

-Moshe Feiglin, one of Likud’s leaders, opposes any Israeli entry into Gaza unless it is “with the intent purpose of declaring Israeli sovereignty there, encouraging the Arabs to emigrate from there (they want to leave anyway), and rebuilding the destroyed communities of Gush Katif�. (Israel National News)

-Although the West Bank outpost of Nofei Nechemia has been denounced as unauthorized and illegal, Michael Freund argues that it is the sort of place Israel needs “to recharge its Zionist batteries�. (The Jerusalem Post)

Posted on October 18, 2007

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Deconstructing Black Bar Mitzvahs

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Apparently Paul Marx decided to answer my burning question from yesterday, “What is a black bar mitzvah?”

With an op-ed in The Forward, the professor explains the serious need for a rite of passage for teenage black boys, combating the problem of, as he states, “shootings and murders of young blacks by young blacks”:

In 1966, a black man who gave himself the name Ron Karenga invented the seven-day festival of Kwaanza. By celebrating black Americans’ African heritage, Kwaanza was intended to be a more meaningful African-American alternative to Christmas.

Among the seven principles to be celebrated during the seven days of Kwaanza is that of Kuumba. Its principle is that blacks should do as much as they can to leave their community more beautiful and beneficial than they inherited it.

Here, then, is an opportunity for creating a rite of passage for black boys — a rite of passage that can have a lasting impact, as many a young Jewish man can attest to.

In the remaining days of the year that follow Christmas, Kuumba should mark the passage of black boys into manhood — responsible manhood. A serious ceremony should be held that honors every boy who turned 13 during the past calendar year.

A series of ceremonies should be held in neighborhood meeting places, such as churches, schools, clubs and restaurants. The high point should be a formal initiation and the plentiful giving of gifts. (MORE)

Posted on October 17, 2007

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Do I have to stop blogging about him?

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The truth is out. J.K. Rowling finally admits to the not-so-veiled Christian imagery that pervades the Harry Potter series. The resurrection of Harry (um, spoiler alert?), good versus evil, and the use of biblical quotes are just the tip of the iceberg.

But that doesn’t make the books’ main religious theme Christian. As Rowling notes, the most important part of faith and religion in the struggle to believe:

The truth is that, like Graham Greene, my faith is sometimes that my faith will return. It’s something I struggle with a lot,” she revealed. “On any given moment if you asked me [if] I believe in life after death, I think if you polled me regularly through the week, I think I would come down on the side of yes — that I do believe in life after death. [But] it’s something that I wrestle with a lot. It preoccupies me a lot, and I think that’s very obvious within the books.” (MORE)

Wrestling with faith and God?

I’m glad to see that we’re back to Judaism.

Posted on October 17, 2007

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