Friday, April 11, 2014

Innovative Seder Ideas - updated

In 2010, I wrote what ended up to be our most popular post, especially around this time of the year. Innovative Passover Seer Ideas.

Over the years, people have left comments with other good seder ideas, and I just added one more. Check it out.

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Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Fleetwood Mac and the Seder

The rock/folk band Fleetwood Mac has an interesting elaboration on the exodus from Egypt. Rabbi Adlerstein at Cross-Currents has posted his annual shiur (or talk) about Passover. These are always interesting. He comes up with Passover insights from a variety of sources that are not just smart and clever and insightful, but also that are not well known.

In one drash, he discussed the idea of the exodus from Egypt being solely the result of divine love. (I won't elaborate; listen to the lecture). This reminded my of Fleetwood Mac's absolutely beautiful and haunting song "Gypsy" which is partially about the death of Stevie Nick's close friend. One verse is

And the gypsy that remains
Faces freedom, with a little fear
I have no fear; I have only love.

Several years ago, I heard that song on the radio just before Passover, and ever since, I have thought of those lines in the context of the Exodus. (You have to get a little postmodern here; Stevie Nicks certainly was not thinking of the Exodus.)

Fear and love are not typically contrasted with each other. Fear and courage, perhaps. Or love and hate, or love and indifference. But fear and love do contrast with each other nicely.

People faced with an expansion of freedom often react with "a little fear." Perhaps not a lot; freedom is a good thing and cause for celebration. But the freedom also raises the troubling question of what to do with one's life. That requires choices, priorities, and wisdom. Before that, the slavery and narrow places had at least provided structure, albeit at a great personal cost.

The children of Israel seem to react to their freedom with fear. At the Sea of Reeds, they ask, "Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you brought us to the desert to die? What have you done to us by bringing us out of Egypt?" (Exod. 14:11.) They complaint about the food and water, and then build the golden calf. They incessantly whine and complain. And that attitude might have been caused, at least in part, by the fear resulting from not really knowing how to lead a free life.

Both God's response and the freed slaves' response could be the last line of that verse. "I have no fear; I have only love." God freeing the slaves was a manifestation of his love, as was the later giving of the 10 Commandments and other rules. And one principle the freed slaves could use to structure their lives was to emulate this love: try to take the morally correct action and help others, and in doing so, lead a meaningful and thoughtful life. I imagine both God and the slaves singing the last line in harmony.

Pharaoh also has a Fleetwood Mac song. : )

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Thursday, April 3, 2014

Women and Tefillin - Two Views of Halacha

R. Mayer Twersky has written a very clear and informative critique (reposted at Cross-Currents) of the decision to permit two Orthodox girls to wear tefillin. (See my previous post and links there for a discussion of the underlying events.) R. Twersky's essay nicely reflects the traditional Orthodox approach to halacha. R. Adlerstein at Cross-Currents called it "magisterial" and correctly noted, "Ultimately, it is not about women or tefillin - it is about the very nature of halachic process."

R. Adlerstein is exactly right. There are two basic approaches to halacha, and the choice of approach largely dictates the result in this case. (There is a similar dichotomy in American law.)

R. Twersky makes three main arguments: (1) almost 500 years ago, a key rabbinic figure (the Ramo - R. Moses Isserles) held that women could not wear tefillin, many great thinkers have agreed since then, and only a really great rabbi could change that now, (2) halacha should not give way to contemporary mores and social beliefs, and in any case (3) women who want to wear tefillin may be sincerely but are ultimately misguided by the false philosophy of egalitarianism adopted by Western culture and liberal branches of Judaism. The underlying premise of these claims is that the earlier rabbinic decisors have pretty much figured out God's will in making these rulings, and it is the height of arrogance for the rest of us to think we know better. The result of this approach -- for better or worse -- is a very static and unchanging set of rules and practices.

The alternative view of halacha is more dynamic. It gives weight to past decisions, but allows contemporary rabbis to change the rules where it is appropriate. Of course, figuring out "where it is appropriate" is often difficult. The process is interesting.  These decisions often get made at the local level first. Great rabbinic thinkers, ordinary people, and everyone in between debate the wisdom of these practices, and through this dynamic process, some practices change, others remain constant, and others still remain normative practices that are sometimes not followed by some people. The process is messier, but -- again, for better or worse -- is more dynamic and flexible.

The challenge faced by Orthodoxy is that many Orthodox Jews accept, at least to some degree, some contemporary ideas that are in conflict with (or at least in tension with) traditional Judaism. These include ideas regarding egalitarianism (as to non-Jews, women, and perhaps gays and lesbians) and the benefits and reliability of science. This sometimes makes it difficult to follow decisions made or practices established hundreds or thousands of years ago by people who did not share these beliefs, or even consider them. Resolving that tension is often difficult, especially within a traditional Orthodox framework.

The challenge faced by liberal Judaism is how to convinces its members to follow (or even care about) a liberal approach to halacha. After all, if Jewish law represents antiquated practices based on erroneous understandings of history and science as well as social beliefs that offend our deeply held modern sensibilities, why should anyone care at all about what traditional Judaism claims? (I think there are good answers to this question, as I am discussing on this blog.)

But it is largely this prior choice of which approach to halacha to follow that determines how one comes out on the issues like whether women are permitted to wear tefillin.

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Wednesday, March 5, 2014

More Archaeological Evidence Regarding The Date The Torah Was Written

A recent article provides a list of 50 people mentioned in the Bible who are actual historical figures and whose existence is supported by independent archaeological evidence.  (The article is from Bible History Daily, linked to by Mosaic Magazine, based on an article in Biblical Archeology Review.)  These people include rulers or officials from Egypt, Moab, Aram-Damascus, Assyria, Babylonia, Persia, and of course rulers and other officials from both the Northern Kingdom of Israel and the Southern Kingdom of Judah.  What is striking about this table is the date range that these people lived.

The earliest is King David who reigned from 1010-970 BCE and the latest was Darius II who reigned from 425-404 BCE more or less.  I charted the distribution of dates that these 50 people started their reign or other activity:




(I set "mid-century" years at year 50, "early" century years at year 75, and "late" century years at 25; the difference of a few years one way or another does not matter for these purpose.)

This distribution shows that almost all the people mentioned in the Bible for whom there is independent historical or archaeological data confirming their existence lived between 900 and 500 BCE, with only two people living slightly before this period.  This is exactly the time modern scholars believe the almost all of the Bible was actually written, including the Torah.  (Some parts were written later.)

Interestingly, the one person mentioned in the Torah for whom there is some independent historical or archaeological evidence is "Balaam son of Be'or."  (See Numbers 22.)  In the story, King Balak hires Balaam to curse the Israelites, but Balaam blesses them instead.  This happened towards the end of their 40 year journey in the wilderness, or sometime between 1200 and 1500 BCE, depending on how one dates the Exodus.

But the archaeological reference to Balaam is much later.  In the Deir Alla inscription (found in Jordan in 1967), "Balaam the son of Be'or" is mentioned in a story written on a wall in an ancient building.  The story is dated to about 840-760 BCE, right in the middle of the same time period that all other historical Biblical people were mentioned.  The story of Balaam is different than the one in the Book of Numbers, and of course this might be a reference to a different person.  But the point remains that all the archaeological evidence, albeit imprecise and uncertain, keeps pointing toward this same time period.

What do we make of this?  The statistical argument is pretty compelling.  There are numerous historical figures mentioned in the Bible who lived between 1000 and 500 BCE, and no historical figures mentioned who lived before that.  To be fair, we may find archaeological evidence one day that does verify the existence of some earlier people mentioned in the Bible.  But the huge number of later historical figures, and the small number of earlier historical figures (currently 0) strongly support the claim that the Torah was written in the later date range. 

This is not overwhelming by itself, but when coupled with all sorts of other internal and external evidence indicating a later authorship date, it all becomes very compelling.

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Thursday, February 27, 2014

A Religious Understanding of Judaism - Introduction

Many Jews do not think of themselves as "religious."  They consider a "religious" person to be supernatural, mystical, non-scientific, and perhaps a little nuts.  If religious means that, then I agree with them.  But I don't think it means that.  Instead, a religious understanding of Judaism is one that focuses on the traditional religious elements of Judaism:  God, the Torah, mitzvot, and holiness.  These certainly can be seen in supernatural, mystical, non-scientific, nutty ways, and in fact often are.  But I think they are better thought of in much more pragmatic, serious, rational, and empirically grounded ways.

In this and the next few posts, I would like to offer my own religious understanding of Judaism.  I realize this is somewhat chutzpadik -- I am not a rabbi or academic or religious scholar. But I have been seriously reading and thinking and arguing about this issue for more than 30 years.  I have a religious understanding of Judaism that works for me and I think might work for others.  So for what it's worth, here goes.

As noted above, a religious understanding of Judaism involves four related ideas: God, Torah, mitzvot, and holiness.  Since so many people tune out once these topics come up, I would like to be by exploring why that is.

I think the popular conception of these ideas is that they are just not worthy of serious thought.  Many people don't believe in a supernatural God, don't know much about the Torah apart other than it contains primitive myths (creation, flood) and odd rules (no shrimp?  no bacon?), and think of holiness as some sort of ancient spooky magic spell cast on people or objects.  Not only that, but the people who do call themselves "religious" seem not just mistaken or misguided, but often ignorant, close-minded, and sort of silly. I would like to unpack that in some detail, and see if my religious theory of Judaism can avoid ignorances, closed-mindedness, and silliness.

There seems to be two general sets of problems with religion.

First, many religious theories rest on unknowable or unsupportable or unbelievable factual assertions or normative claims.  If a typical religious Jew (of any denomination) starts explaining his religious understanding, he or she would probably offer a set of unknowable or metaphysical claims and a set of normative goals, and then reason from there:  God is like this, and human nature is like that, and these ancient historical events occurred, and we need to try to have a meaningful life, and therefore we should all do or believe X and Y and Z.

When I hear that sort of argument made as an argument to be more religious, I am slightly amused but mostly annoyed.  The general problem with this type of reasoning is that the fact and metaphysical claims are usually unknown or unknowable (or when they are known, they are false).  The normative claims are often trivially true or very vague.  So these types of theories tend to be persuasive to people who already believe them, and no one else.  A religious understanding should not rest on a complex set of unbelievable or implausible claims; if it does, it seems silly.

There is a second type of silliness:  incoherence.  To be attractive and persuasive, a religious understanding must be coherent.  It must be internally coherent in that the relationship between the four key religious components -- God, Torah, mitzvot, and holiness -- must make sense.  And it must be externally coherent in that the relationship between Judaism and the other knowledge must make sense.

Let me offer two examples of these sorts of problem, one from Orthodoxy and one from liberal Judaism.

Orthodox Judaism is for the most part internally coherent.  Its basic believe is that God (as traditionally understood) literally appeared at Mt. Sinai and gave the Torah and its mitzvot.  We should follow them for that reason.  The main problem seems to be that one has no way of verifying its factual claims, many of its normative claims seem problematic, and it is often externally incoherent with other things we believe to be true.

Liberal Judaism has the opposite problem.  It tries to avoid the external coherence problem, but in doing so often creates internal coherence.  Most liberal understandings of Judaism are unable to connect up the pieces in a persuasive or coherent way.

For example, take the relationship between God, Torah, and mitzvot.  If the Torah is not literally from God, why should we obey its commands?  This is a well-known and well-discussed issue, and I think there are good answers, but many Reform and Conservative theories of Judaism do not offer persuasive explanations.

For example, I once heard Rabbi Eric Yoffie.  In trying to explain Reform practices, he said that he thought sometime happened at Sinai, without explaining what exactly he thought happened.  That seemed like an absurd way to duck the issue.  What was that something?  If it was divine revelation, than Reform Jews should do their best to follow halacha, even a liberal understanding of halacha, to follow this divine will.  Given that premise, one should not, for example, lead a self-defined non-halachic movement of Judaism.  On the other hand, if it was something other than divine revelation -- a national experience, a mythic memory, a volcano, a mass delusion, whatever -- than why privilege any traditional belief or practice?  They may be good reasons for (say) keeping kosher or building a sukkah, but these reasons probably have nothing to do with the unknown "something" that happened at Sinai.  And of course there are plenty of good idea and actions that are not part of Judaism.  Claiming that "something" happened at Mt. Sinai does not create a coherent relationship between God, the Torah, and mitzvot. 

A more recent example of this same well-worn debate comes from a blog exchange.  In a blog post in the Time of Israel called "Why Reform Judaism doesn't work, won't work and how to fix it", the author -- a former Reform Jew who is now Orthodox -- attacked Reform Judaism for not believing in the divinity of the Torah and the obligation to follow Jewish law. "When you take the heart and soul out of Judaism, all that’s left is an empty shell and that’s why Reform Judaism doesn’t work and won’t work. It’s not real and Jews sense it."

Another blogger "Religious and Reform" who posts on the Jewish Journal's blogs, took up the challenge.  She responded with "Why Reform Judaism Does Work" (and a follow-up post).  She believes in God, she explained, but does not think the Torah was literally dictated word-for-word by God.  But where does that leave the Torah in her religious beliefs?  Here's her explanation.  "Personally, I believe the scholars who composed the Torah were trying to record what they understood to be the word of God from Mount Sinai. Unfortunately, these scholars had their own biases and agendas, so it’s possible not everything is written down exactly the way God would have written it, had God been the direct author."  But despite these problems, "the Torah includes timeless wisdom, worthy of study, which is relevant to our modern day lives in countless ways."

I happen to agree with her, sort of.  But her defense of her position fails pretty badly.  If there really was a divine revelation at Mt. Sinai, it is not at all clear that these "scholars" -- the early Torah authors and redactors -- were in fact trying to record their understanding of the word of God from Mount Sinai.  That might have been part of it, but their "biases and agendas" were most likely directed toward trying to understand the calamities that befell the people of Judea just before, during, and after the Babylonian exile, preserving founding myths and other stories, and consolidating political power.  (One could take David Weiss Halivni's approach, decide that we have an imperfect Torah but one that is still pretty good, and then try to diligently follow halacha as traditionally understood.  But that is not where she is going here.)  Alternatively, if there was not really a revelation at Mt. Sinai, it is not clear why the Torah contains such great wisdom.  If it did, it would simply be human wisdom, and it would probably just be one of many sources of such wisdom.  There would be no need to venerate the Torah and its mitzvot the way we do.

I'm not critical of her beliefs or practices, and mine are probably similar to hers.  But her explanation of these beliefs and practices -- her religious theory of Judaism -- does not coherently explain the connection between God, Torah, and mitzvot.  As such, it is unlikely to convince anyone else that this it is a path worth following.  (To be fair, she was not trying to convince anyone, but simply explain to the first blogger why his attack failed, at least in her case.)

So where does this leave most Jews?  Orthodoxy seems odd and based on false empirical premises, and liberal Judaism seems internally incoherent.  So a huge number of American Jews simply don't take Judaism seriously as a religious enterprise.  Instead, they think of Judaism as cultural, a way of celebrating lifecycle events, a way to teach small children basic ethics, but nothing that a self-respecting intelligent adult would take seriously.

The Pew Report demonstrates that the number of Jews who adopt this position is large and growing, and those Jews disproportionately have children or grandchildren who do not identify as Jewish in any sense

I think there is no reason to avoid a religious understanding of Judaism.  God exists, but not necessarily in the way most people think.  In any case the precise details are both unknowable and irrelevant.  The Torah contains divine wisdom, but again, not in the way most people think.  The mitzvot should always be followed, unless they shouldn't.  And we all seek, value, and experience holiness, or kedushah in our everyday lives, just not in the way that most people think.  And these ideas do not clash with our understanding of the physical universe, science, common sense, or history, and they all hang together in a much more coherent way that most people believe.  In the next several posts, I will explain these ideas in greater detail, starting with my religious understanding of God. 

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Monday, January 27, 2014

A Wise and Thoughtful Orthodox Response to Two Women Wearing Tefillin

Rabbi Harcsztark is the principal of SAR Academy in New York, a Modern Orthodox high school. He has permitted two young women whose own practice was to wear tefillin while davening to do so in the school minyan. This prompted the usual and predicable responses. Right-wing commentators explained that the sky is now falling.  The next thing ya know, boys will be cross-dressing and eating treif, while guitar-strumming tambourine-clanging lesbians will be leading the davening. Left-wing commentators agree, argue that this is all good, but claim that we need more. All women should be permitted to wear tefillin to help break down the hegemony of a male-dominated hierarchy.  Or something like that. I try not to read this stuff. But what few people have focused on is the subtlety and wisdom of Rabbi Harcsztark's actual decision. Rather than engaging in broader culture wars, he focused -- oddly enough -- on the welfare of these two young women and his school community.

Rabbi Harcsztark wrote a detailed letter explaining his decision. It is worth reading. He begins by noting that these young women have a real and demonstrated commitment to wearing tefillin as part of their davening, and that his focus is on their welfare and the halacha, not the broader political issues:

Both students, in their respective ways, have shown real commitment to this mitzvah. Since their bat mitzvah, they have been taught, in accordance with their family practice, to daven each day with tefillin. For me, this was a question of whether I could allow a young woman to practice as she had been taught - to daven each and every day in a meaningful way wearing tefillin as an expression of her עבודת השם. I felt that my responsibility was to consider the person before me and the halakha, before considering the political fallout of the decision.

Shocking.  He then explained that (1) halacha permitted but did not require women to wear tefillin, and (2) it was not the school's practice for women to wear tefillin. But he then permitted it for these women in this context.
As such, I granted the two girls permission in the context - in a tefilah setting - of a group of girls who were supportive of their practice. I felt it appropriate to create space at SAR for them to daven meaningfully. I explained this to our students in this way: it is a halakhically legitimate position despite it not being our common communal practice.

But this ruling is limited:
I did not, in so doing, create new policy nor invite any female student who wanted to don tefillin to do so. These are girls who, I believe, have been מוסר נפש (for a teen to get up at 6:20 each morning is meaningful commitment) for this מצוה.

He then spoke with each grade, emphasized that this was not a practice he was promoting or advocating, but was committed to not excluding people with different but halachically permitted practices.
I told my students (and I went to each of our four grades for a community meeting to explain the decision - as well as giving two faculty shiurim for staff) that I am not committed to the idea of SAR girls putting on tefillin. I am not encouraging our girls to do so. But I am committed to having our boys and girls be able to daven in the same shul where a woman might be doing so. That when they see something different, even controversial, before deciding in which denomination it belongs, they must first take a serious look at the halakha and ask their Rabbi whether there is basis for such practice. I suspect that I would not differ much regarding normative halakha with most people in our community. But I would differ strongly with someone who thought this was cause for that person to be removed from the community - or that such practice could not be supported within the community shul.

I'm a little puzzled by the controversy. Rabbi Harcsztark's decision was narrow and nuanced. His ruling fell within the four corners of traditional halacha, but he permitted these two young women to deviate from his community's traditional practice for the benefit of their spiritual development and the continuation of their family practice. He based his ruling on his own specific and detailed knowledge of them and of his community.

The narrowness of the ruling seems to me to be quite prudent and quite appropriate, and its hard to think of this as the camel's nose under the tent. I don't see how this controversy is any different than a rabbi making a lenient ruling for a particular family regarding (say) the kashrut of a chicken or family purity or sukkah walls when someone else might reasonably disagree and make a stricter ruling.

Interestingly, another Modern Orthodox high school, Shalhevet in Los Angeles, was confronted with a similar issue. A female prospective student asked Rabbi Segal, the head of school, if she would be permitted to continue her practice of wearing tefillin at school davening. He considered her request, and after reviewing the relevant halachic literature and consulting with his rabbis, he ultimately decided not to permit this, but would allow her to daven at a nearby synagogue or at home instead.

Rabbi Segal, like Rabbi Harcsztark, reached a different conclusion. But he did so with regard to his community, although it looks like he had much less knowledge about the particular young woman and her own practice. (She was a prospective student, and he presumably did not have a longstanding rabbi-pupil relationship with her.) At a different time and with a different student, perhaps he would reach a different conclusion, just as Rabbi Harcsztark would presumably reach a different conclusion with different students.  Apart from the members of the particular school communities, I don't think the actual decisions require comments from outsiders, any more than than a decision about the kashrut of a particular chicken requires comments from outsiders.

The more important related issue for me -- and other non-Orthodox Jews -- is how can we encourage people to wear tefillin in the first place, not how to we discourage a subset of people who find it meaningful from doing so. Tefillin is a very strange mitzvah, and I find it both odd and brilliant that the Chabad Rebbe picked it as the mitzvah to focus on in Chabad's outreach programs.

This topic is timely.  Yesterday, I taught my my 12 1/2 year old son how to put on his new tefillin. And this coming Sunday, February 2, 2014, is the Conservative Judaism's World Wide Wrap, a day where many Conservative synagogues have some sort of event teaching about tefillin. I'm going to mine.  I would encourage anyone interested to attend and learn about tefillin.

I don't have any great insights into tefillin. For better info, google around or go to a World Wide Wrap event on Sunday. But I do have one less-than-great thought regarding the oddity of tefillin. When you put them on, you look like a deranged Martian, with boxes and straps and knots and all sorts of crazy things. There's no getting around that. But just go with it. Once you accept that fact, it makes it a lot easier to get past the oddness and focus on the mitzvah itself. It's even pretty cool


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Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Important Tu B'Shevat Update

My wife just made what is perhaps one of the most important halachic rulings ever. Since chocolate is made from cacao beans, which grow on cacao trees, one should have chocolate on Tu B'Shevat. This insight could singlehandedly revitalize Judaism.

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Tuesday, January 7, 2014

The Demise of Non-Religious Judaism, As Explained 60 Years Ago

In 2013, the Pew Report showed that Jews who identify as non-religious Jews tended to have children or grandchildren that did not identify as Jews as all.  This was similar to the findings of the NJPS in 1990 and 2000-2001 about "cultural Jews."

About 60 years ago, Rabbi Jacob Agus argued against a similar cultural conception of Judaism.  His observations were astute and prescient.  Agus was looking forward, while the Pew Report and NJPSs were looking backward, but their conclusions are the same.  And Agus's sharp writing is well worth reading today.

Here's the context. One hot topic then, as it is now, is why should a Jew follow halacha, or Jewish law.  Orthodox Judaism has a simple answer:  mitzvot are literally God's divine commands.  Following halacha is literally following God's will.  Reform Judaism (which defines itself as a non-halachic movement) also has a simple answer:  one shouldn't.  Or more precisely, one should follow general ethical rules because they are applicable to everyone, and Jewish ritual rules only if they are personally important or meaningful.  In either case, halacha might be interesting or informative, but is not binding.  Both movements easily answer the question.

But Conservative Judaism has no such simple answer.  Unlike the Orthodox, most Conservative thinkers accept the conclusions of modern historical, textual, and archeological research and do not believe that the Torah and the oral law are literally words from God.  And unlike the Reform, they do claim that halacha -- liberally interpreted -- is binding.  These two claims present an interesting theoretical issue.  If halacha is not a literal divine command, why should it be followed at all?  In the words of the great thinker HaGaon HaRav HadGadol HaDor Ricky Ricardo, "Luuuuuucy, you got a lot of explainin' to do."

A lot of Conservative thinkers have written about this issue, with varying degrees of persuasiveness.  Rabbi Elliot Dorff has compiled the writing of many of these thinkers from the past 100 years or so in a fascinating book called The Unfolding Tradition:  Jewish Law After Sinai.  (Page citations here are to this book.)  Most of the writers are Conservative, but he also included excerpts from writers who are Reform, Orthodox, and other.  There is a lot worth discussing in this book, and I will be blogging about it in upcoming posts.  But let me start with Jacob Agus's insight.

Agus was responding to Mordecai Kaplan, who had argued that people of any society engage in the "folkways" of that society to remain as members of that society.  And Jewish law is simply one of the folkways of the Jewish people.  It is just what Jews do.  They keep kosher, and go to synagogue on Yom Kippur, and put on tefillin, etc.  And Jews, to remain Jews, should follow these folkways.

There is much to criticize in Kaplan's justification for obeying halacha and doing mitzvot, but Jacob Agus offered a particularly powerful, insightful, and dead-on accurate critique.  Agus first noted that the term "folkways" seemed both romantic and scientific, but was actually a particularly bland and sterile way of thinking about Jewish law.


The term "folkway" evokes the romantic admiration for plain people . . . . It is idyllic, almost pastoral in its connotations, redolent of fields and forests, of pre-citified, even if not of pre-civilized existence.  But, even while it thus echoes the cravings of romantic nationalist, it seems to speak in the scientific accents of the anthropologist . . . and the modern American sociologist . . . . (pp. 164-165).



[T]he term 'folkways' can hardly be regarded as offering an adequate concept of Jewish law in our life.  . . . [A]s a contemporary philosophy, it is sadly inadequate.  Primarily, it lacks the moral quality which alone evokes a sense of obligation and feeling of consecration." (p. 165.)

Agus then argues that Kaplan's claim reduces to simply following the past for its own sake, and this is simply misguided nostalgia.



Why should we strive with might and main to preserve folkways?  Their importance is supposed to reside in their inherent appeal and charm, not in any axiomatic claim to loyalty.  Is the nostalgic reverence for parental practice to be glorified as an absolute imperative?  Such a consummation would indeed offer a strange climax to the great adventure of Judaism, which began with a revolt against established customs and parental mores, as expressed in the command given to Abraham, "Go, thou, from thy land, the place where thou wast born and from the house of thy fathers."  (p. 165.)

This is just foolishness.

[This] would be interpreted as the senseless stubbornness of a clannish people, fanatically isolating itself from the ways of the world, forebearing all mundane goods and spiritual values for the sake of mere tribal customs.  Is the ardor of tribalism so beautiful a phenomenon, when we observe it among backward people of the globe, that we should be tempted to reinterpret the Jewish past or reconstruct the Jewish present by means of it?  If today, we should see a people tenaciously clinging to its folkways to the point of sacrificing fortune, well-being and even life itself, in an environment where larger horizons, broader loyalties, and a fuller life is possible, we should unhesitatingly condemn them as being both monstrously foolish and bitterly reactionary. (p. 165.)
And the kicker, anticipating the Pew Report by more than 60 years.

The idea of clinging tenaciously to folkways, regardless of their intrinsic charm and worth, could only appeal to a transitional generation that lost the purpose but retained the sentiment of group survival, remaining, for no good reason that it could give, morbidly sensitive to the specter of the melting pot. . . . [W]hy should we expect our children, who are likely to outstrip us in worldly wisdom, to fall victims to these delusions.  (pp. 165-166, emphasis added.)

Ouch.  That's not just good writing; it's exactly what happened.  The Jews who practiced non-religious Judaism in the 1940s and 1950s were indeed a "transitional generation that lost the purpose" of Judaism.  They disproportionately had children who lacked their "sentiment of group survival," and they in turn had children who disproportionately did not identify as Jews at all.  Agus's rebuttal to Kaplan described the next 60 years of the American Jewish experience.

As I have argued earlier and earlier than that and even earlier that that, I think the key insight of the Pew Report and earlier NJPSs is that cultural and non-religious Judaism are on their way out.  Jewish culture, without its connection to Judaism as a religion, is disappearing.  Jewish culture is certainly changing American culture; cute Yiddish expressions and delis and Seinfeld have all become mainstream staples of American culture, just as many other cultures have effected American culture.  But only a religious Judaism (orthodox or heterodox) can survive as a separate institution in the long run.

I will be blogging about the ideas of some of the thinkers in Dorff's book in upcoming posts, as well as some of my ideas, regarding this religious understanding of Judaism.  Stay tuned . . . .

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Thursday, December 26, 2013

Blocked Comments - Disqus, Firefox, and Avast

I was unable to see comments on Firefox, but was able to see them on other browsers. After poking around the web, it looks like Avast Anti-Virus software blocks Disqus comments in Firefox.

You can tell if you have this problem if you don't see any comments and there is no number before "comments" after each post.  If you have this problem, do the following.

Update to the latest version of Avast. (Right-click on the icon in the toolbar and go to 'update'.)

In Firefox, click on the Avast Online Security Icon (upper right corner). Do one of the following:

- Slide the "Social Networks" switch to "allowed" (to the left to make it red)
- Slide the "Social Networks" switch to "blocked" (to the right to make it green) AND slide the Disqus switch to the left to make it red.

Comments should now be working, and you should now see a number before "comments" after each post.


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Sunday, December 22, 2013

Christmastime for the Jews - SNL

One of the funniest "Jewish" Christmas songs / videos around.

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