June 12, 2005
Oy. Just as things settle down enough for me to start blogging more, we get another holiday, Shavuot, known to many of you as the Feast of Weeks. No blogging until late Tuesday. For those of you who'd like more than an introduction, Yeshivat Har Etzion in Israel has a Shavuot Journal worth checking out.
Jews were commanded to count seven weeks from Passover to another holiday known as Shavuot, literally "weeks." The holiday also commemorates the anniversary of the giving of the Torah. We read the Book of Ruth, as well as a mystical poem that nobody understands, called Akdamut. The hardier souls relive the excitement of the night before the giving of the Torah by staying up all night learning.
Passover and Shavuot are connected by the counting of the weeks in-between, indicating a spiritual connection between the two as well. If Passover represents freedom, Shavuot and the giving of the Torah provide the structure essential to keeping that freedom from degenerating into anarchy.
I've always made the comparison between Isaiah Berlin's "freedom from" and "freedom to" from his famous essay, "Two Concepts of Liberty." (Microsoft Word Doc). The one prevents other men from interfering in my life. The other provides me with the means to exploit that freedom. Either alone is subject to abuse, but together they allow a meaningful life.
Similarly, although not identically, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik describes in his long essay, "The Lonely Man of Faith" argues that there are two parts to man: Man who works and Man who seeks redemption. We must be both. I see Passover as enabling the first, and Shavuot as enabling the second.
See you Tuesday.
May 24, 2005
"Judaism is Wrong"
National Review Online has published a remarkable piece of religious over-reaching. It's entitled Judaism is Wrong On Stem Cells, a truly breathtaking pronouncement, no matter what the stakes and no matter what the religion of the pronouncer.
I freely admit that I have no idea what Mr. Cohen's Jewish affiliation is, that is whether he considers himself religious or secular, Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, somewhere in-between, or somewhere else entirely. None of the points I make below judge in any way his Jewishness or Judaism, his religiosity, or his knowledge of Jewish soruces. I can only address the arguments offered in the piece. So this is offered in the spirit of debate, and not personally.
Donít assume that the OU speaks for all Orthodox Jews. Itís big, itís influential. Agudah is to its right, and the Rabbinical Council of America is to its left. Hereís the RCA statement on stem cell research. I couldnít fund an Agudah statement, but this is the closest I could come. I wouldn't characterize either of these as, "full steam ahead."
And donít assume that the OU (or the RCA) wonít come out with a statement opposing the creation of embryos solely for research. Judaism draws distinctions based on the reason for doing something all the time. Rabbi Jack Breitowitz, a very well-regarded expert in halachic matters draws this distinction. Meir Soloveitchik, a young man but from a very prominent rabbinic family, recently published an article making more or less your argument (the latest issue of the RCAís Tradition).
I don't know that the OU has come out in favor of research cloning. I certainly couldnít find anything online that clear-cut. Certainly the RCA at least seems wary of it. Personally, it worries the hell out of me. That said, even if the OU supports research cloning, why is their position disingenuous? NR argues in favor of parental notification Ė on narrow grounds pertaining solely to that issue Ė when it actually supports much broader restrictions on abortion. (I support greater restrictions on it myself, although I take a Jewish rather than a Catholic position on the matter, as Iím sure Mr. Cohen does, too.) The OU is addressing the matter at hand.
The fact that is that Orthodox Judaism is still working out its response to many medical issues, stem cell research among them. Frequently these responses work from analogy to previous technology, frequently they look for overriding principles. Orthodox Judaism works within the bounds of halacha, and frequently those lines have been drawn before. Many of the medical ethics issues arise from end-of-life questions, and there are clear Halachic definitions of death that need to be considered. Rabbis Ė Orthodox rabbis Ė will come to varying conclusions on many of these questions. The issues he raises will come into play. They may not be dispositive.
The difference between Rabbi Breitowitz and Rabbi Soloveitchik, and the NRO piece, is that their discourses are grounded in Jewish sources and Jewish law. National Review frequently argues that leftist Catholics are simply not arguing from Catholic sources with respect for Catholic principles and Catholic reasoning; rather they are arguing from secular liberal principles, seeking to impose them on their church. NR is right. It's jaw-dropping that they would publish something that looks like itís doing something very similar with respect to Judaism.
National Review doesn't have an anti-Semitic bone in its body. It need make no apologies and it needs no defense on that score. It publishes articles of Jewish interest - David Klinghofer comes prominently to mind - seeking to explain Jewish issues to a broader audience. Mr. Cohen himself has published a essay in First Things that attacks the issue with much greater subtlety and insight.
It's a shame that - nuance - isn't in display in NRO.
April 11, 2005
As part of my preparations for Pesach this year (Passover to many of you), I've been reading through the Mishnah related to the holiday. The Mishnah is the earliest written codification of the Oral Law, and forms the basis for the Talmud. The Talmud occupies a more central place in Jewish life, with its legal, theological, and philosophical debates, but it would also draw me away from my primary purpose here: focusing on the holiday.
I'm always amazed at how much of our current practice is rooted directly in the Mishnah, written 1900 years ago or so, and practiced for hundreds of years before that. Almost the whole of the Seder, for instance, is laid out in the last chapter. Unlike so much of the prayer service, which succeeds a Temple Service it can't hope to replace, the Seder really is a continuous link back.
I'm sure I've written about this before, but the moon is also a link back. The sun, when it shows up, looks more or less the same every day. The sun is linked to the seasons, but yesterday is proof that the seasonal weather doesn't always provide reliable visual clues to the past. Sure, you might say "the sun rose in that spot on the horizon 2000 years ago," but I suspect that resonates better with most Druids than it does with us.
Judaism uses a lunar calendar, though, which means that the moon looks the same on Seder night as it did on the night of the Exodus. (It's true for every holiday, of course.) When I'm out on a driving trip, I sometime play the "first white man to see this" game, imagining what that might have been like. Looking up at the moon on Seder night is a lot like that.
April 05, 2005
Orthodoxy and Public Policy
The current issue of Tradition is devoted to Orthodoxy and its role in influencing public policy. Meir Soloveitchik, who carries a heavy burden with that last name, contributes a short essay about bioethics. In light of the Terri Schiavo case and the discussion of the "culture of death," his quoting of Rabbi Norman Lamm's investiture address at YU is worth reprinting:
That learning must be more than knowledge, that it must enhance life, was expressed in a startlingly poignant way by the Zohar (a major Jewish mystical text -ed)...The Biblical Tree of Knowledge, it taught, possessed within it yet another tree...the Tree of Death. When man combines knowledge and life, he is capable of suppressing the Tree of Death. But if he pursues knowledge alone, unconcerned...with human compassion and love and gentleness - he releases the noxious Tree of Death in all its many and ugly manifestations.
Soloveitchik goes on to give a number of examples of medical technologies that might be permitted purely on a cost-benefit basis, in terms of the lives they might save, but which are or ought to be forbidden on public policy grounds.
While organ sales are clearly forbidden even halachically, other technologies are less obvious. Unimplanted embryos have no status in halacha. But creating them for the sole purpose of harvesting their stem cells cheapens our respect for life. The strict rule of halacha can and should be tempered by considerations of what kind of society would result.
It's a fascinating article, rigorously argued, by the latest Soloveitchik generation, working on getting his sea legs.
March 25, 2005
Purim and Anti-Semitism
Christians, especially religious Christians who are involved in their church,
From a Christian point of view, of course, the relevant issue is how the
Posted by joshuasharf at 02:58 PM
Jewish Law on Terry Schiavo
Some have asked what the Jewish take is on Terry Schiavo. As usual, the Orthodox Jew looks to Jewish law or Halachah, first for an answer, and then for guidance. In this case, there's an answer.
Under Jewish law - which obviously doesn't apply to Christians living in a country of secular laws - clearly forbids removing the feeding tube. If someone is alive, even if he is severely incapacitated, you can't do anything to hasten his death.
Terry Schiavo simply does not meet the qualifications for being dead. She's not even close. She's not brain dead. Her heart and lungs are still functioning. She's just severely incapacitated. She may or may never be rehabililtated.
Now, just because you can't hasten death doesn't mean you have to endlessly extend physical function. There is always the option of not beginning certain treatments in the first place. Thus the critical importantce of a living will. About a decade ago, the Rabbinical Council of America approved a living will that conforms to Jewish legal standards, acceptable to American courts.
The question of life-saving, or even life-extending medical technology is a difficult and complex one, subject to many distinctions among physical states, measures required, relationships to the afflicted, and so one. Under Jewish law, though, this isn't a hard case at all.
From a personal point of view, I find it horrifying that we're dehydrating a woman to death, and Dickensian that our legal system can't get itself sorted out long enough to prevent it.
Today is the celebration of Purim, much beloved by Jews, virtually unknown by the outside world. In a nutshell, it celebrates the story in the Book of Esther. In machinations worthy of any oriental court, the Jews of the Persian empire (which is pretty much all the Jews, at that point) manage to survive a plot to kill them, engineered by Haman.
There's a fair amount of Jewish history packed into this story, and it represents the prototypical pattern of anti-Semitism. Jews follow our own religious laws, which gets held against us. Some people will extend personal grudges against individual Jews to the whole people. Jews who manage to "pass" can come in very handy at key moments, but tend not leave much of a personal Jewish legacy.
In a fit of justice, Haman ends up being hung on his own gallows. (Those of you who are not Jewish, but who have heard the Southern expression, "Hang him high as Haman," now know where that came from.) And in a phenomenon unknown until about 1948, the Jews actually organized militarily and defended themselves against the planned pogroms.
Since it's one of the books with a happy ending, the holiday is an extraordinarily festive one. We dress up in costumes, hear the Whole Megillah read out loud, give small gifts and food baskets, and in olden days, would write "U Can't Touch This" on the local Russian Orthodox churches. And then spend the day packing.
Nowadays, congregations and shuls put on "Purim Spiels," which make fun of more or less any institution. Religion is too often associated with a relentless earnestness, and it's good to get away from that from time to time.
I realize that today is also Good Friday, which must cause tremendous cognitive dissonance for our Messianic friends. It's a quirk in the calendar appropriate for some other post, and it happens very rarely. I want to extend appropriate Easter wishes to the Christian readers of this blog as well, especially now that the Church has stopped blaming me personally for the weekend's events.
Just remember that, if you happen to drive through a Jewish neighborhood and see people celebrating, it's not all about you.
January 31, 2005
Ward of the State U - IV
Ah, it gets better. It turns out that DU has access to an extended academic database, where I can limit my searches to refereed publications. There, I did find one other pre-tenure piece, bringing the total to two, I believe. Possibly three. (Note that the stated publication date on the UCTP site is 1991, making it possibly one of the sounds, reasoned arguments that earned Mr. Churchill his tenure.)
What really caught my eye, though, was "Deconstructing the Columbus myth: was the "great discoverer" Italian or Spanish, Nazi or Jew?", which made it into Social Justice, Summer 1992 v19 n2 p39(17).
The question of Columbus' possible Jewishness nonetheless remained intriguing, not because I held it to be especially important in its own right, but because I was (and am still) mystified about why any ethnic group, especially one that has suffered genocide, might be avid to lay claim either to the man or to his legacy....
This is, not to put too fine a point on it, garbage. It practically qualifies as an intellectual landfill all on its own.
There was a point in time, back when I was growing up, that certain Jews felt it necessary to try to prove Jewish connections to as many Western figures as possible. As the song says "But what kind of nut would you have to be/ To borrow a ship and put out to sea/When you don't know what's on the other side". Say what you will, it takes a special kind of courage to point your ship towards the open sea at a time when everyone else is creeping down the African coast, afraid that their ships will spontaneously combust when you get too far south. Freberg was making fun, but my guess is that we learn more from his history than from Churchill's.
As for his understanding of Jewish theology, the concept of "chosenness," and practically every event in Jewish history since 1933, he's got enough problems in his own field before venturing out into that world. I'm sure he doesn't get out much, but he might have taken in a high school version of "Fiddler on the Rez." You know, the one where Tevye looks up at God and asks, "Couldn't you choose someone else once in a while?" Chosenness isn't a virtue, it's an obligation. The hostility of the Nations is a biblical concept, and goes back just a wee bit further than even Columbus.
As for Zionism, it's an idea with many currents. But in its dominant form in the 1930s and 40s, its purpose wassn't to exempt Jews from history - we'd had quite enough of that for a few millenia, thank you very much - it was to mainstream Jews back into history.
Most Jews I know are perfectly comfortable calling Darfur a "genocide," far more comfortable than the UN is, for instance. It's the term "holocaust" that we want to preserve as evidence of a unique event. The costs of not doing so were on display in last week's London Auschwitz commemorations, as Muslim organizations variously declined to participate, objected to the whole thing, or did go based on the notion that other people died too, so it was ok to look past the Jews. Someone who's immoderately protective of ethnic identity should certainly be sensitive to others' history being stolen.
January 25, 2005
Today is the Jewish holiday of Tu B'Shevat, or literally, "The 15th of Shevat." It marks the legal New Year for Trees. Jews aren't allowed to harvest the fruit of new trees until the trees are 4 years old, so this is the milestone for counting a tree's age.
Over the years, Tu B'Shevat has been associated with the Zionist movement (especially with the JNF's famous blue boxes for planting trees in Israel), and with the environmental movement.
Recently, we've developed a pleasant, cheerful custom of the Tu B'Shevat seder, a festive meal loaded with mystical overtones. There's no set liturgy for it. There's nothing particularly halachic about it. It can feature different groupings of fruits and nuts, different mixtures of red and white wine (or grape juice, for that matter). I would argue than in a religion that has an authentic ritual for everything, part of the Tu B'Shevat seder's popularity comes from its freedom to invent.
December 21, 2004
Medved, Boteach, and Me
Clay refers you back to Charles Krauthammer's column today about secularization and, as Jimmah would have put it, the Inordinate Fear of Christmas. It's part of the growing understanding that religious Jews and religious Christians have more in common, socially, than they do with their secular counterparts.
This isn't a call for any sort of syncretism. Although religiously, the twain shan't meet, politically and socially, there's a lot we can accomplish. There's also still a lot to work out, and a lot of maintenance to be sure that what has been worked out, stays worked out.
A couple of weeks ago, Rabbi Shmuley Boteach and Bill Donohue, a prominent Catholic lay leader, turned Scarborough Country into he Western Front, circa 1916. The two are friends, but got into it over an assertion by Boteach that Hollywood was poisoning American culture, and a agreement by Donohue that "secular Jews" there were responsible.
Rabbi Boteach went nuclear. Now, he's not Christian-baiter. He argues in the current Jewsweek that we need to stop tearing each other apart over religious displays. But the fact is that Donohue's reference to Jews, while technically correct, is completely irrelevant to his argument.
Yesterday, Michael Medved had him on his show to debate whether or not the Rabbi had overreacted. When Medved agreed that, sadly, too often secular Jews did seem to be leading this charge, Boteach was astounded. I called in trying to square the circle, suggesting that yes, as an Orthodox Jew I was embarassed that so many Jews, like those named Streisand and Dershowitz and Paul Newman were on the wrong side of this.
The fact that secularists wield such power is an American problem. But the fact that they are disproportionately Jewish is a Jewish problem, something that Donohue needs to butt out of.
If Jason Whitlock can admit that blacks in the NBA have a problem, then I don't think it's too much for us to admit that Jews are disproportionately represented in the ranks of secularists. Not to do so smacks of wanting it both ways - look at all the Jewish doctors, Nobel Prize winners, conservative columnists, but what, us, secular?
The reason that so many Jews are secularizers (as opposed to just plain secular), is that we don't like being killed, ghettoized, or proselytized. The law and society will stand up for us in the first two cases, and it's up to us, as Jews, to build a Jewish society that can stand up to the last.
Too many falsely believe that the way to stand up for their Jewishness is to marginalize Christianity.
The sad fact is that they've been given this leeway in large part by well-intentioned Christians. Eager to avoid giving offense, Christians both zealous and more relaxed have essentially said, "OK. We don't want to offend you. You tell us when we go too far." This system works when people assume good faith on each other's part. It's built to handle the occasional school choir leader who insists on Christmas Carols as the price of participation. It means that I as an individual can draw lines with missionizers. It was never meant to swing the entire legal structure of the country into action to make most people self-conscious about their religion.
The system also only works if Christians like Bill Donohue do a little self-examination, too. Because if the deal isn't meant to deal with Jews' self-image, then it is meant to deal with how the majority sees us.
The problem isn't one of being offended, or of Donohue stirring the Jewish Collective Memory. The reason this is a problem is that when Donohue says, "secular Jews," there are too many people around who will forget the "secular" and remember the "Jews." Those people may cut the Boteachs and the Medveds and the Sharfs of the world a break today, but they'll forget those distinctions soon enough. There aren't, and won't be, enough of them to rerun Nuremburg, but Jewish life in this country isn't good because it isn't Nazi Germany, it's good because it is 21st-Century America.
This topic could fill libraries and probably has. I will almost certainly revisit it in this space. And while there's always the chance that in 20 years, whatever I'm writing now will look remarkably prescient, there's also the considerable risk that it will look tragically naive.
It's up to us to decide which happens.
December 13, 2004
Happy Chanukah - VII
December 11, 2004
Happy Chanukah - V
After a day off for Shabbat, we're back.
Just a quickie - about the Jewish notion of time. One of the blessings we say when lighting the menorah reads, "...Who performed miracles for our Fathers in those days, at this time." One might think that just means Winter, or on this calendar day, but Matis Weinberg makes a deeper point about the Jewish notion of time, contrasted with the traditional Western view.
He claims that Jews think of time not as a line, but as a spiral, coming around to the same place on the X-Y plane every year, but with a different Z. We are different each year, but the time is the same. The time is special, and in fact, Weinberg claims that the time of year for events has been set up far in advance. It's when the People and the Moment meet, that something, like Chanukah, or the Exodus, happens.
Weinberg, by the way, is brilliant, and I can't really do his ideas justice here. If you get a chance to read his Torah commentary, or his unfinished Patterns in Time set, one on Rosh HaShanah, one on Chanukah, you should do so. He draws in ideas from Western culture, as well as Jewish tradition, and he's really an original thinker in an area that, after 3000+ years, doesn't produce much originality.
December 09, 2004
December 08, 2004
Happy Chanukah - II
This is the second night of Chanukah.
As mentioned before, Chanukah is about the struggle between Judaism and Greek Culture. But what exactly was it in Greek culture that was so objectionable?
Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, one of the luminaries of modern Orthodox Judaism, wrote a book, Halakhic Man. It's a dense book, quoting with equal ease the Talmud, later rabbis, Kierkegaard, and Shakespeare. Rabbi Solovetchik received a degree in Philosophy from the University of Berlin; he was clearly no intellectual shut-in.
In it, he compares two aspects of human nature, the "Dignified Man," the man of work, the man who dominates nature, and "Religious Man," who shrinks before God and His infinitude. Judaism seeks a synthesis of the two, Halakhic Man. Soloveitchik's argument is that man's soul can survive neither the self-abnegation of Religious Man nor the self-aggrandizement of Dignified Man. Halakha, Jewish Law, is an attempt to connect the finite & tangible with the infinite.
Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein, one of the current leaders of Modern Orthodox thought, suggests that Greek culture wasn't wrong, it was just too one-sided. It emphasized Dignified Man at the complete expense of Reigious Man. Judaism was attempting to restore the balance.
In a lecture delivered 30 years ago, long before the current Culture Wars were well-understoof, Rabbi Lichtenstein articulated the faults in Greek culture: a determination than the earth existed for Man, that Man could completely understand and control the universe, and that man is the measure of all things.
Judaism takes a different view. Man is, in some sense, in charge of the physical world. But the universe should be a source of awe, not self-satisfaction. One can understand, but should approach the examination of creation with the proper respect for Creation.
It was this sense of balance that Judaism was seeking to restore.
November 30, 2004
This Era's Esau
Mixing religion and politics for this one. Jews divide up the Five Books of Moses into weekly readings, or "Parshas", and we complete all five books each year. These do not correspond to the chapter numbers you may be used to; those were added by later Christian commentators, and it's interesting to see where they differ. Often one line that marks the beginning of a numbered chapter is actually the last line of a Parsha. At some points, I'll probably post something a little more extensive on those differences.
This past week's Parsha has something particularly relevant to Israel's situation today.
The reading is called "Vayishlach," after the first distinctive word in the section, and comes from Genesis. It's the section where Jacob, having married, is getting ready to head back to Canaan. Later on, during the night before his meeting with his estranged brother Esau, Jacob wrestles with an angel. The match is inconclusive, although Jacob's survival is considered something of a victory.
One particular interpretation of the events is striking. Jacob asks the Angel his name, and the Angel refuses to answer. In fact, tradition has it that the angel is the Satan, or accuser, the eternal enemy of the Jewish people. (Satan acquires other characteristics later on, in Christian theology, but those obviously don't concern us now.)
When Jacob is asking for the Angel's name, he's really asking for some hint as to his identity, his mission, and how he might defeat him. The Angel, by refusing to answer, is saying, "it doesn't matter." And the fact is, anti-Semitism has taken all sorts of forms, embedded in all sorts of religious and political ideologies, having in common only their anti-semitism.
The trick, the problem, is in recognizing the current threat. Now it's Islamofascism, but the institutions, and the "community leaders" are often slow to pick up on this, feeling more comfortable instead in confronting threats that they're already familiar with.
A case in point. The local head of the ADL out here wrote a letter to the local Jewish newspaper warning us to be on the lookout for a regional Nazi organization with delusions of grandeur, including plans to infiltrate the political parties and local governments.
Mr. DeBoskey seems to have missed the fact that anti-Semitism has already found a home in one of the major political parties, and that it comes not from the Right, but from the Left. In the meantime, we've got radical Muslims prowling the streets of Gaza and the West Bank, being funded from Riyadh, armed from Cairo, and called heroes in Turtle Bay.
There's a war on. It's a shame Mr. DeBoskey insists on fighting the last one.