Digging Your Own Graveyard Book

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When you’re an observant Jew and you have more than a passing interest in the non-observant world, it can cause more than a passing clash of values.

The Graveyard BookFor instance, Neil Gaiman, my favorite author in the world*, is doing two readings of his new, beautiful novel The Graveyard Book in New York and Philly — both of which fall on Rosh Hashanah. From his journal, you can see this isn’t the first time it’s come up.

When I was twenty years old and pushing it, I might have hopped a fence or two. Now that I have a baby, it’s not quite that simple. (I’ve read the manuals where you strap the baby to your back and keep her from the barbed wire that way, but that never ends up working in practice.) Mr. Gaiman, who, as in his writing, manages to infuse that extra snatch of creativity into everything he does, is reading a different chapter each night of his tour, effectively turning it into a marathon live event.

Here’s the question, however: would it be a violation of Jewish Law to listen to a recording of Mr. Gaiman — who, according to Wiki, is Jewish — having read on Rosh Hashanah? Factors involved:

  • Neil Gaiman is Jewish.

  • The recording engineer, or whoever it is who hits the button, may or may not be Jewish.
  • I am probably going to waste at least a portion of our Tuesday night Rosh Hashana dinner (cousins-in-law’s house. you know how it is.) contemplating whether I should sneak out the back and make it to a reading.
  • No less amazing, the formidable performance poet Daphne Gottlieb — who, btw, made a cameo appearance in one of Lemony Snickett’s A Series of Unfortunate Events books — is also going to be doing several readings on the East Coast that week. She’s brave and daring and confessional, and it’ll be great to put you into a Rosh Hashanah mindset. But I’ll probably miss that, too.
  • Halachic innovators, what do you think?

    * – yes, I know I say that about half a dozen people. but i really mean it this time (and with lydia millet, too).

Posted on September 26, 2008

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10 thoughts on “Digging Your Own Graveyard Book

  1. The Doctor

    I don’t think Gaiman’s religion or the recording engineer’s religion matters. All that is between them, their concience, and God. It’s not an issue for you.

    If your issue is to boycot anything that comes about as a result of a Jew violating a mitzvah, then prepare to go without a lot of things [for example, Einstein, Teller, Oppenheimer, Fermi and company weren't observant and worked on Shabbat. Prepared to go without an allied victory in Japan using atomic weapons?]

    I would say if you’re not in walking distance of Neil Garman, don’t listen to him on Rosh Hashanah; I might even say “Neil, couldn’t you have looked at your schedule more closely?” But not listen to a recording later? The violation of the holiday is his, not yours!

  2. matthue Post author

    No, no! Sorry for being too obscure — my issue wasn’t whether *he’s* doing a wrong or right thing. My question is, as an observant Jew myself, am *I* allowed to benefit from the work that was done — and can I watch the videos??

  3. The Doctor

    That’s my point. To boycott this video because he filmed it on Rosh Hashanah seems to me to be cutting off your nose to spite your face. The logic that says you can’t profit from another Jew’s transgression seems bogus to me; especially since Mr. Gaiman is not an observant Jew and it’s not a transgression from his POV and therefore not a deliberate violation in the same sense it would be if the Rosh Yeshiva of YU did this…

    I believe the Talmud talks about the difference between putting down a gangplank to leave a ship on Shabbat vs walking down a gangplank someone else had put down. Perhaps the logic of this could be extended to this situation: it is not a transgression for you to view this video, regardless of whether it was a transgression for Neil to make it…

  4. The Doctor

    Plus, it’s not a sin to read out loud on Rosh Hashanah…if you worry that he drove there that’s a different issue but you may assume, if you wish, that he walked there after services and took a boat down the coast of NY up the Delaware to Philly and walked to the bookstore. If you can assume a transgression, why not assume a non-transgression [the concept of "benefit of the doubt" is mostly not used in Judaism, but I think it's time has come...]

  5. The Doctor

    1) As I alluded to before, avoiding the “fruits” of violation of Jewish law seems to me to be counter-productive. You’re not going to change the behavior of a non-observant Jew, who doesn’t see what s/he is doing as wrong, and you are perhaps punishing yourself for the behavior of others [surely not a Jewish value]. To take an extreme example: if you discovered that Leonard Bernstein had spent some time on a Saturday in composing music for West Side Story, would it be justified to deny yourself the joy of listening to his music?

    2) Reading out loud is not a violation of any laws regarding Rosh Hashanah. Let’s presume that the recording engineer was catholic. Neil Gaimon reading out loud in a bookstore is not a violation of Jewish law. If he stops during the video to autograph, that’s another story…and it’s in the finest tradition of rabbinical argument to say “perhaps the engineer was not Jewish.”

    3) Along the same lines, you could say “perhaps Neil Gaimon walked from his home, or hotel, or from shul, to the venue for reading, and perhaps the door was manual and not electric.” For all you know, his reading in NYC did not violate any precepts of banned behavior on a holy day. And you could presume he then walked to a dock, got on a ship and cruised down the Jersey coast to Philly and walked to the next venue. We do an awful lot of negative presuming in Judaism when judging the behavior of others; is it not just as valid, and perhaps more in the spirit of Jewish fellowship, to make a positive presumption?

  6. The Doctor

    4) I seem to recall a rabbinic parable about how if someone lays down a gangplank and you walk off the ship on Shabbat it’s okay, but if someone puts down a gangplank for your benefit it’s as if you did it yourself and it’s a violation. The intent of this video was to allow people who could not make it for any reason to be able to experience the reading; it was not done specifically for those who were observing the holiday. Does the same logic apply?

    For me, personally, I would have no issue watching this video. Now if it was a Rosh Yeshiva, who was deliberately going against his own stated beliefs to do this reading [rather than someone for whom these restrictions hold no meaning] I would have a much bigger issue, since the intent is much different…

  7. The Doctor

    I meant more of a personal boycott; whether you personally would refrain from watching a videotape made on rosh hashanah by a jew. Some people would do that, and I am unconvinced of the logic of it.

    I’ve come a long way over the years in terms of what I will and won’t do on a given day;I probably wouldn’t have scheduled this reading on this day if it were me; but I have no issues with someone else doing it and I see no problem with “benefitting” from it. That’s just my take…

  8. clara1

    Thanks Doc,

    You showed/told me things that I didn’t know I didn’t know. As a convert, there is so much to learn; and even though I converted thru the Reform, I read a lot of Orthodox (when I can understand it). I just started rereading a book I read a couple of years ago about conversion and it’s like reading a new book.

    Clara

  9. matthue Post author

    Wow, thanks for your analysis! In case you were confused, I wasn’t calling for an actual boycott — I can think of way more presidential candidates deserving boycott, plus (if you couldn’t tell) I’d probably throw myself in front of a sword for Mr. Gaiman — but just musing on how my own religious levels have reestablished themselves over the years.

    In any case, here’s a totally different way to look at it. If you’re an observant Jew and, as I do, feel uneasy about going into a bookstore on the anniversary of Creation, you can check out the reading in retrospect at his website.

  10. matthue Post author

    From both ends — I’ve been doing this kind of thing for years, and it’s great to hear a new analytical voice tripping over the same issues!

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