Monthly Archives: October 2008

Eruv: The Next Generation

This entry was posted in Beliefs, Practices on by .

Technological artist Elliot Malkin isn’t a stranger to religious art. While still a student at NYU, he designed Crucifix NG, a subaudible pulse which uses human bodies to transmit the Lord’s Prayer. Also, when asked in an interview what he thought of televangelists, he said, “I think they’re new media artists, probably the most successful new media artists.”

Malkin took his inspiration for his latest project from what my friend Rob calls a “magic Jewish fence,” or an eruv. Here’s a slide presentation of his Eruv Project from the recent IDEA Conference in Chicago. I’ve never actually heard a halakhic ruling on whether lasers count as valid eruv extensions, and if only judging by his pronunciation of the word “eruv,” Malkin probably hasn’t, either. But it’s really interesting to see him wrestle with the legal issues and the intellectual concept of extending the boundaries of a house.


The Eruv Projects, IDEA Talk, Part I from Elliott on Vimeo.

Posted on October 27, 2008

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From Keggers to Kosher

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I’ve been meaning to post this for a while, and thought it might be a fun video for you to watch over the weekend. My friend Danny Greene, who works for Current TV, put together this video a few months ago about his former college fraternity brother who surprised his friends by becoming ba’al teshuva after college. Enjoy!

Posted on October 24, 2008

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From the Academy: Benjamin Sommer

This entry was posted in History, Texts on by .

In this installment of “From the Academy,� Dr. Benjamin Sommer, Professor of Bible at the Jewish Theological Seminary, tells us about his current research and academic work.
sommer_b.jpg
I just finished a book, The Bodies of God and the World of Ancient Israel, which will be published next year by Cambridge University Press.In it I describe an ancient Near Eastern perception of divinity that shows up in certain parts of the Bible, according to which a god (or, in its biblical version, God) differs from a human because a god can have more than one body, each one located at some specific place on earth or in heaven.

As a result, a god (or God) has a fluid self that is quite unlike the self of a human. The dominant strains of biblical religion rejected this understanding of divinity, which I call “the fluidity tradition,” but it is still found in some biblical texts, especially in Genesis, Exodus, Hosea, Isaiah, and some psalms.

Later Jewish and Christian thinkers inherited this ancient way of thinking, so that it shows up in the doctrines of sefirot in Kabbalah and the trinity in Christianity.

I spent eight years working on this book, and they were wonderful, eye-opening and stimulating. The topic appeals to me because it allows me to address several types of religious questions.

Modern biblical scholars often claim that the religion of the Hebrew Bible or Tanakh is quite removed from what we know as Judaism. Some biblical critics, both Christian and Jewish, take what I think is an immature delight in trying to show that the Tanakh really belongs to the cultures of the ancient Near East and not to Judaism.

In this book, however, I show that it is precisely when we recover a lost ancient Near Eastern way of perceiving divinity that we recognize a deep continuity between the Tanakh and later Jewish thought. We also notice the deep roots of some kabbalistic ideas in earlier Judaism, not only in rabbinic literature but also in the Tanakh itself.

(In this regard, my project is a footnote to and extension of the lifework of Moshe Idel, who has done so much to demonstrate the ancient rabbinic origins of basic ideas found in medieval Jewish mysticism.)

Further, the topic of this book forces me (and, I hope, my readers) to examine something that many modern Jews don’t really want to talk about: God.

I point to a bizarre, perhaps primitive conception of God which is likely to make many Jews feel uncomfortable — even those Jews who feel okay admitting that there is a God and that Judaism is really all about God.

The book requires me to ask basic questions about the nature of biblical and Jewish monotheism, since the belief that eyn lo demut haguf v’eino guf, that God has no body, has become almost synonymous with monotheism for us Jews.

For Maimonides and other medieval Jewish philosophers, the denial of God’s corporeality was a crucial aspect of monotheism; a God with a body was a God who could be divided into parts, and not a God who can be called “one.�

For these thinkers, the internal Jewish polytheism implied by the belief in a physical God was even more objectionable than the belief in many gods. But what I show in this book is that the biblical authors who believe that God has many bodies in fact are monotheists: they believe that Yhwh/Hashem is the only being with unalterable power in the universe.

For these ancient Israelite authors the multiplicity and fluidity of God’s bodies allow us to realize how different Yhwh is from all other beings in the universe, whether humans or angels or ants. Oddly enough, then, the aggressive anthropomorphism of these biblical authors leads them to their very thorough-going monotheism.

Finally, I loved writing this book because I have a dual view of myself as a scholar. I aspire to be an academic historian of ideas and also a theologian; I hope to speak both as a professor and (please note — “and,â€? not “but alsoâ€?) as a Jew. This book allows me to express both sides of myself, because the ancient texts I examine prompt me to ponder some explicitly theological questions:

What does the way of thinking I uncover in parts of the Bible have to say to modern Jews who accept as their scripture texts that contain some really weird ideas? What aspects of God does the fluidity model help modern Jews to see that they would otherwise miss?

What Jewish ideas does it force Jews to recognize that they might prefer not to think about? As I address these questions in the last chapter, I begin to speak both as a historian of religion and as a committed Jew who hopes to contribute something to the ongoing development of Torah.

My bedrock assumption as a biblical theologian is that every passage found in Jewish scripture is there to teach us something. We have the right to react to what is in scripture; we have the right to disagree with it; but we have no right to ignore it.

What once was Torah in some way always remains Torah; supersessionism is not a Jewishly valid option. Consequently, a Jewish understanding of God that does not reflect the fluidity tradition is a defective one. Without necessarily accepting the fluidity tradition in its entirety, modern Jews ought to see what this tradition has to contribute to our own attempts to know God.

These contributions include an emphasis on the idea of sacred space (since some places on earth are metaphysically different from others, having once housed God). They also include a critique of the idea of sacred space (since a God with many bodies has been in many places, so that no one space, not even Jerusalem, in uniquely holy).

Both ideas are crucial for modern Jews.

The centrality of sacred space is important for many Jews on the left, who fail to acknowledge the holiness of the Land of Israel as a crucial aspect of Jewish belief. The relativizing of sacred space, on the other hand, is important for certain Jews on the right, who need to hear this critique lest they continue to promote their idolatry of the Land of Israel.

Another implication of the fluidity tradition has to do with our closeness to and distance from God. A God with a body is very clearly a person and not a philosophical abstraction.

This is a God whom we can love and be angry with and speak with, a God with whom we can have a relationship, because a being with a body is a being like us. An embodied being can be wounded and can change. In short, the embodied God is the personal God of our father Abraham (and of Abraham Joshua Heschel).

The God with many bodies is all this, but that God is also radically different from us. A being with one body, like you or me, is by definition limited. But the one Being with many bodies has no limits. The God described in the biblical texts I examine, this God with many bodies, can rise above God’s own physicality. This God remains woundable and alterable, but also omnipotent.

The perception of divinity I explore in this book points towards God’s freedom, even as it expresses Yhwh’s grace — more specifically, Yhwh’s desire to become accessible to humanity. This conception renders God an unfathomable being, but nevertheless one with whom we can enter into dialogue. This understanding of God matters to a modern Jewish theology, as do the ancient texts that disclose it.

Posted on October 24, 2008

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Gay Marriage: Jews vs Mormons

This entry was posted in Culture, History on by .

An email from the usually-hilarious San Francisco-based comic Heather Gold (who, by the way, you can see live on Margaret Cho’s current tour) takes on a serious tone: California’s Proposition 8, a bill to illegalize gay marriage, is encountering a massive push from members of the Church of Latter-Day Saints.

Number of Mormons in California: 761, 763 (2006 #s)

Number of Jews in California: 999,000 (2001 #s)

The Mormon Church is about to change the California Constitution on November 4th to overturn my Jewish wedding because I married a woman (with my parents’ blessing in case you’re curious).

The Mormon Church will only make their religious doctrine our secular law because people who aren’t gay aren’t that involved right now.

The main argument for Prop 8 is that civil legal inclusion of marriages like mine offend certain believers’ Christian doctrines. Therefore the Constitution must be changed to exclude gay people from the civic marriage laws for everyone.

gay marriage in california, courtesy of heather goldHeather also pointed out an article which alleges that Mormons have funded 77% of Prop 8 campaign financing. Her thesis point is interesting — that among Jews, we focus on our deeds, our actions, and how we treat other people, while Mormons are more concerned with enforcing their religious rules.

It’s interesting to examine, both as a ranking of religious doctrine in life, but also as a matter of priorities. Of course gay marriage is something that the more fanatical sections of both religions are against — but, at least in Heather’s estimation, Judaism puts other people’s autonomy above our own, while those who are angling to vote “yes” on Prop 8 are, irrelevant of anything else, putting their own faith in front of somebody else’s.

Posted on October 24, 2008

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The Big Schlep is lame

This entry was posted in Culture on by .

Back in 2000, the Baha Men came out with their hit single, Who Let the Dogs Out. Man, that song was catchy.

Being the (un)trendy teenager that I was, I was happy to find out that I had a new catchphrase.  I didn’t really know the right context for it, but i knew it had to enter my vocabulary nonetheless.

Then one day at shul, I was talking to an old man at shul who asked me who actually did let the dogs out.  The song was ruined for me forever.

Old people ruin jokes and pop culture for everyone.

When I saw one of my favorite comedians, Sarah Silverman come out with her hilarious pro-Obama/Get Out the Vote video, The Big Schlep, a couple of weeks ago,  I thought I was in heaven. Young, edgy politics? I’m sold.

Well, right now, all I can say is sell, sell, sell. The establishment (because I’m such a hipster) has ruined Sarah Silverman and the Big Schlep. If I have to read one more article from some middle aged journalist writing an article about the effect of the Big Schlep (like this one or maybe this one), I’m going to vote Libertarian.

In one of Silverman’s bits that is far too inappropriate to post on this blog in full, she says that if you have to explain a joke, it really isn’t that funny. Well, the Big Schlep is officially lame in my books.

Posted on October 24, 2008

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Keeping Kosher Chaos

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There are a dizzying array of symbols found of food packaging that indicates something is certified kosher.  Everything from the standard OU, to something as mysterious as a K-Dairy inside a tiny outline of Texas, or a little picture of a lion lying in front of a tablet-shaped thing that says Tri-Sulom.  tri sulom kosher kashrutSometimes you can find a food with a weird symbol on it and not be sure that it’s telling you something is kosher, or if it’s just a packaged food covered in weird hieroglyphics.  Today I was over at kosher-ny.com looking at a kosher restaurant and noticed a little ad for an online service that will let you check a teudah (certification) online or on your PDA if you know the Universal Kosher Database number.  I wasn’t able to find out how one would decipher what the UKD is on any given product, and anyway the UKD only includes products that have an OU.  So–what’s the point of looking something up on the UKD if it has an OU?

Thinking about this made me think about what it was like to keep kosher in England and Ireland, where kashrut is a whole different cricket game. In the UK they generally don’t have symbols on packaging–instead everyone gets a handy little Kosher Food Guide that lists all of the kosher products for sale in Britain.  No word yet on whether the “Universal” Kosher database includes England.  My guess is not.

Posted on October 24, 2008

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Happy 1940

This entry was posted in Culture, History on by .

MJL’s latest biography tells the story of Eliezer Ben Yehuda, the father of Modern Hebrew. So determined to bring Hebrew to the religious population of Palestine in the early 20th century, he, along with his wife, dressed up as ultra-Orthodox Jews–peyot, sheitels, and all–in order to relate to the community.Eliezer Ben Yehuda, Hebrew

The only problem? Ben Yehuda was vehemently opposed to religion, with as much fervor as he was a nationalist.  Everything he did was an attempt to further Zionism. A recent Forward column explains:

Yet when Ben-Yehuda began publishing his weekly Hebrew newspaper Hatsvi in Jerusalem in the autumn of 1884, the date on its first issue was, “Friday, 5 Heshvan, 1816 years since the destruction of the Temple, 5645….” He replaced a chronology that started with God’s creation of the world with one that started with the loss of Jewish political independence in antiquity. (MORE)

Ben Yehuda dated all of his papers relative to the Roman conquest of Jerusalem in 68 CE.

So at this time of the year, it’s only fitting, in honor of Mr. Ben Yehudah, to wish you a Happy 1940!

Posted on October 24, 2008

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Healing Havdalah

This entry was posted in Holidays, Practices on by .

What are you up to on November 8? Depending who you are, either celebrating, stewing, or plotting revenge against fraudulent voting booths/elderly Jewish neo-Nazis in Forida, most likely.

bonfire, courtesy of WikipediaLimmudLA is planning a giant bonfire on Dockwiler beach in Los Angeles that night. As the event page says, “The etiquette of the evening is that we will not cheer for the winner or lament for the loser. We will not speak publicly or even whisper between us to make anyone feel that they voted the wrong way….We will celebrate Havdalah together on the beach and sing our hearts out. We will then break into small groups on the sand for a Torah-inspired learning session about healing community differences.”

The location alone — “where the 105/Imperial Highway meets the beach” — makes me get nostalgic for Los Angeles. (I’ll actually be on a plane to LA that night, en route to the AJU Celebration of Jewish Books, so burn some wood for me.) On our site, we talk about the idea of Havdalah as bringing a drop of Shabbat into the week, and there’s nothing these next few weeks are going to need more than some good healthy helpings of Shabbat. If you’re around Los Angeles, you should definitely drop by.

And, like all Limmud ideas, this is viral, so if anyone is planning another convocation of this sort (or gets spontaneously inspired to), let us know.

Posted on October 24, 2008

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And the Grammy for Best Yiddish cover goes to…

This entry was posted in Culture on by .

You might know Amy Winehouse as that very talented, but troubled singer from England. If you don’t, you are in the same boat as Nelson Mandela (Gordon Brown, the Prime Minister of England, had to explain Winehouse to Mandela after she made quite the impression to him at his 90th birthday party).

What you might not know is that Winehouse is a Jew. I mean, not the one that you’d want your son to marry, but a Jew nonetheless.

This guy, though, might be the only Jew who is proud of her. Check him out as he sings Winehouse’s hit single, Rehab, in Yiddish.

Posted on October 23, 2008

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Win $500 At Interfaithfamily.com!

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Head over to Interfaithfamily.com to take a survey about your Hanukkah/Christmas celebration plans and you could win a $500 American Express gift card.  Pretty cool, eh?  Take the survey now!

Posted on October 23, 2008

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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