Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Source of Values and Virtues

A common critique of more liberal ideas of Judaism is that people make up their own definitions of goodness and other values, "pick and choose" freely, and essentially do what they want without any constraint or boundaries. If values are not directly derived from God, this argument goes, then maybe Nazis or racists or murderers are right. The only proper source of values, this argument continues, is God's commands.

In the previous thread, Moshe asked in a comment: More fundamentally, I would ask you and Jason how do you know, and from where do you derive, your ideas as to what is "good or sensible"? Why, for example, should I be in favor of, say, equal rights for woman, if I am male. I assume he was starting down this path.

There is much to be said in response, and my co-bloggers Steve and Diane have written about this topic more extensively in earlier posts, but I want to focus on one problem with this claim: its incompatibility with the Torah itself.

When Cain and Abel came along, God has issued only one command: don't eat from the Tree of Life. And presumably, this command was rendered moot by the expulsion from the Garden of Eden. After Cain kills Abel, God asks him where Abel is. Cain then disingenuously asks, "Am I my brother's keeper?" God responds, "What have you done? Your brother's blood cries out to me from the ground."

God's response presupposes that Cain has some knowledge of right and wrong. God did not say, "I commanded you not to murder." Instead, God vividly appeals to Cains sense of empathy, shame, and horror. And this response presupposes that Cain has -- or should have -- a sense of empathy, shame, and horror, and that this sense is part of the foundation for his belief in right and wrong.

Similarly, Noah is described as "righteous in his generation". But what on earth could "righteousness" mean here, in the absence of any detailed instructions from God as to how to behave (other than the now moot instruction regarding the Tree of Life)? The answer is that righteousness means righteousness, and it exists independently of any divine command.

But perhaps the clearest example comes from the story of Abraham arguing with God over Sodom and Gemorrah. After God announces that he will destroy the city, Abraham asks if he will really destroy the city if there are 50 righteous people in the city. Abraham then says to God "חָלִלָה לְּךָ" / "chalilah l'cha" / "shame on you" to do this thing. Abraham then asks "Shall not the judge of all the earth do justly?"

Now if justice or righteousness were derived solely from divine commands, then Abraham's question would be completely foolish. God would of course be acting justly because anything that God does is definitionally just. Abraham's impudence -- saying "shame on you" to God -- would not only be foolish and disrespectful, but completely incoherent. But it is not. Justice exists independently of divine commands or actions, and Abraham holds God responsible for apparently acting unjustly.

The Torah (as well as common sense) presupposes that we all have an idea of goodness, regardless of whether God has issues specific commands.

So the answer to Moshe's question is that I get my ideas of what is good and sensible from the same place that he and everyone else does. I have certain ideas of what is good, including ideas regarding human dignity, happiness, empathy, concern for others, and avoidance of harm, pain, and misery. Of course, we can argue about where the edges are, which concern takes precedence in difficult cases, and what the ultimate source of these values are. But there should be no dispute that goodness exists and is a coherent concept, even in the absence of a direct divine command.


Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Combing Through Medieval Syllogisms To Find Gems That can be Laboriously Related to the Present Human Condition

Jason GL left a really thoughtful comment on the previous post about meaning and counting the omer. It nicely captured the problem that we modern Jews face. It also prompted an extensive conversation with Mrs. Bruce on how Judaism is and is not meaningful. I thought Jason's comment deserved its own post. First his comment, then my response.

Hello! I enjoyed your post. I am a consumer protection lawyer living in San Francisco, and I am a Jew. At various times I have been strongly involved with the Conservative movement, the Renewal movement, and a nondenominational community synagogue. I am currently experiencing what is usually called a "crisis of faith," but I prefer to call it a crisis of doubt, as it's not the faith that's bothering me.

I like your explanation of tradition, and I agree with you that traditions are created by the people who participate in them. No doubt the technique of counting from 1 to 49 was as unneeded to the rabbis of the Roman Empire, with its geometers and its mathematical calendars, as Pirke Avot's injunction to "ration your drinking water" is to people who live on America's eastern seaboard, with its ecologically sustainable, essentially cost-free tap water. The ancient rabbis clearly added new layers to prehistoric Judaism; there is no reason why it would be *wrong* for us to add our own layers to the late-medieval Judaism that we have inherited.

My concern is that such a project might not be worthwhile. You've put the essence of the problem far better than I could: An impoverished religious core is often surrounded by religiously peripheral - albeit important - issues like cultural Judaism, support for Israel, the Holocaust, anti-semitism, and social action.

These religiously peripheral issues, however important, have not in any way forced the Jewish tradition to engage with either the scientific or the social-scientific revolutions. Our tradition is badly, badly out of date. For all that we (or some of us) have learned to welcome people of all genders and sexual orientations into God's sanctuary, I am not aware that we have any modern traditions worth mentioning.

By "modern traditions," I mean traditions that depend on and reflect the state of the world as it has changed during and after the Enlightenment. I studied with a great rebbe who is a living testament to the power of prayer to transform and improve one's psyche. Power, though, is not the same thing as efficiency. Why take twenty years, an unrelentingly intense effort, and hours of daily devotion to do what can be done in a hundred hours of cognitive-behavioral therapy? Why comb through medieval syllogisms in the hopes of finding gems that can be laboriously 'related' to the present human condition when every day a new issue from a journal on neuroeconomics or neuropsychology is published that reveals empirical *evidence* about the human condition?

If, for whatever reason, you see such projects as inherently valuable, I wish you well. It's not my intent to dissuade others from updating old traditions. But (and it breaks my heart to say this) I can't see wanting to teach these traditions to my children in any great depth, or even wanting to renew my efforts to live by them. The traditions have plenty of use -- but what is their advantage? In a world where we all may choose our affiliations and our commitments, why re-commit to Judaism?

Again, this comment really hit the nail on the head. Any modern and thinking Jew must face this "crisis of doubt" head-on. (Non-modern Jews can be oblivious to the modern world, and non-thinking people can avoid facing pretty much any problem, at least until it clobbers them.) I cannot offer a comprehensive response, but I can offer quite a number of things that have worked for me. (In fact, this blog is an elaborate attempt to deal with exactly this problem.)

1. Some preliminary thoughts. I would take science off the table completely. I accept the idea of non-overlapping magisteria, and if one wants answers to empirical questions, turn to science. And do so without even attempting to correlate it with religious thought. I am always amused, for example, by people who attempt to show that the creation stories in Genesis line up somehow with a modern account of cosmology. It was interesting to me when I was 20, but now these attempts are just amusing and perhaps a little sad.

The same goes for history, archeology, and social science, with the caveat that parts of the Bible are historical documents.

2. For me, religious thought is about values. Traditional Jewish law, stories, and rituals are the first word in Judaism, but are certainly not the last word. Instead, they are the beginning of a long "great conversation" that has come down through the ages. Some parts of this conversation are quite deep and meaningful today and are worth studying. I think the traditions involved in counting the omer are a good example of that.

Other parts of this conversation -- and Jason put it well -- require "comb[ing] through medieval syllogisms in the hopes of finding gems that can be laboriously 'related' to the present human condition." Exactly. Cut those combing sessions short.

Others just seem completely irrelevant today. For example, the precise details of the laws of sacrifice just seem tedious, boring, and a little gross. At a higher level, several things are interesting about the sacrifices. There are different sacrifices for different purposes (sin, thanksgiving, etc.). These are communal affairs. (As my rabbi put it, you cannot sacrifice an ox and have 1200 pounds of roast beef that need to be eaten by tomorrow without inviting a few of your friends -- or perhaps the whole town -- over to share.) But some of the details of how to do these sacrifices are quite far from the present human condition.

But as I have previously argued, there is a lot of low-hanging fruit here. If a Jew just did the easy and meaningful stuff (at least easy and meaningful after a little learning), I think he would have a moderately observant lifestyle. Certainly more observant than most contemporary Reform and Conservative Jews, although less observant than most contemporary Orthodox Jews. The existence of the obscure, difficult, and seemingly meaningless -- and I agree there is a lot of that -- is no reason to avoid the rest.

3. Judaism is a communal affair. (Although this is perhaps belied by the fact that I am now writing about Judaism late at night, by myself. Mrs. Bruce and the kids are asleep.) The enterprise Jason described -- reading a text, relating it to the modern condition, reading scientific literature, engaging in therapy -- is a rationalistic, scientific, intellectual, and usually solitary activity. But joining a community is a very different type of thing.

Interestingly, the book of Ecclesiastes is quite cynical about most human activities. But one of the key activities omitted in the book is being part of a community, having friends, and helping others.

4. Judaism is often counter-cultural. For example, American culture highly values freedom of speech. It is a protected constitutional right (and one that I have defended on appeal several times), and "expressing oneself" is widely viewed as a valuable activity. But Judaism disagrees. A Jew is often obligated not to say certain things, and the extreme individualism of expressing oneself is tempered to a large degree by things like modesty, humility, and consideration of others.

I think this clash of ideas and ideals is a good thing. American freedoms force American Jews to examine Jewish ideas from a different perspective, and Jewish values force American Jews to critically examine American freedoms. We gain a deeper understanding of both by critically examining each in light of the other.

5. Judaism is often fun. Best example: sukkot.

* * *

Jason's other point is also a good one. There have been surprising few interesting and valuable post-enlightenment traditions that we have developed. Perhaps the bat-mitzvah is one (and egalitarianism in general). A participatory and engaged seder might be another. I think this is largely due to the inherent conservatism of Judaism as it is currently practiced. This might change as time goes on.

* * *

In short, I cannot point to a single thing that makes Judaism meaningful to me. But I find that there many smaller things collectively that add up to a pretty meaningful Judaism.


Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Counting the Omer - The Creation of Meaning (Part 6)

In previous posts, I discussed the murky historical origins of counting the omer and Shavuot. I also discussed how this is reflected in textual ambiguities and confusion. In this post, I would like to examine how people have come to create meaning for this ritual. This historical gloss---wholly apart from any underlying original meaning of the ritual---is in fact what most of us who count the omer experience when we count the omer.

Various midrashim (and later the Zohar) state that the Jews had descended to the 49th level of impurity in Egypt. Another midrash (Ecclesiastes Rabbah 3:11 and Song of Songs Rabbah 2:5, included in Bialek's Sefer HaAggadah, p. 78, no. 25) states that the Jews could have received the Torah on the day they left Egypt, but they were physically weak and needed a few months to recover. In both cases, they needed spiritual or physical healing, and this took place during the time between Passover and Shavuot, or during the omer-counting season.

This idea gave rise to the kabalistic tradition of assigning the seven lower sefirot (or emanations of God) to each of the seven weeks and days, giving 49 combinations. The details of this idea are pretty well known and covered in many places on the web. Aish HaTorah has a good explanation. The basic idea is that just as the ancient Jews spiritually improved themselves from the degradations of slavery to the holiness of a people ready to receive a direct revelation from God, we too can improve ourselves during the omer-counting period.

This is actually quite a useful activity. I have had some great conversations with my kids about real examples of the omer count of the day (one of which---pertaining to a baseball game---I recounted here). And I have had some more serious adult discussions and introspections about the different sefirot.

But there is an important aspect of all this that should not be overlooked: it has nothing to do with the original understanding of counting of the omer. No early text mentions the sefirot or anything similar. These are all later creations that were linked to the counting of the omer, and because of their cleverness, wisdom, and utility have become widely accepted.

There are many other examples of this. For example, Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has a thoughtful discussion of how the omer counting reflects two different ideas of time: cyclical time and linear time. (Joni Mitchell picked up on the same theme, more or less, as I discussed here.) Like most of Rabbi Sacks' commentary, this one is really insightful. But it is an analysis that is prompted by the omer counting rather than solidly contained within the omer counting.

One final example. Pirke Avot is a volume of the mishnah with collection of wisdom sayings. Pirke Avot 6:6 states that "Torah is acquired through 48 things" and then lists 48 character traits, such as "study, attentiveness, orderly speech, an understanding heart" etc. Rabbi Noach Weinberg, the Rosh Yeshiva of Aish HaTorah, picked up on this idea and linked it to the counting of the omer. He called it the "48 Ways to Wisdom" and this set of teachings is one of the central study units of Aish HaTorah. Each of R. Weinberg's "ways to wisdom" is a contemporary version of the methods of acquiring Torah from Pirke Avot 6:6. These can be studied, one at a time, during the omer counting period. The webpage with all the information is here.

R. Weinberg developed a smart and useful set of wisdom ideas, and this is and well worth studying. But a few aspects of this stand out for our purposes here.

The first one is the discrepancy in the numbers. There are 49 days of omer counting but only 48 methods of acquiring Torah. R. Weinberg neatly solves this problem with "Organization" as the 49th way: review what you have learned, memorize it, keep it in a logical order, etc. And there is a 50th one of the 48 ways as well: "gratitude" on Shavuot itself.

But a more interesting issue is the differences between Pirke Avot's 48 ways and R. Weinberg's 48 ways. Many of these are the the same, and R. Weinberg simply elaborates on Pirke Avot. For example, the first method of acquiring Torah is "study" (or "talmud"), and R. Weinberg's first way to wisdom is "being aware every minute," which is a form of studying life itself.

But in several instances, R. Weinberg reverses the plain meaning of Pirke Avot. For example, the 14th way of acquiring Torah in Pirke Avot 6:6 is "a minimum of business activity." This method of acquiring Torah is followed by five other "minimizations": a minimum of preoccupation with worldly matters, a minimum of indulgence in worldly pleasure, a minimum of sleep, a minimum of conversation, and a minimum of laughter. These six collectively paint a stark image of a Torah scholar: minimal involvement in worldly affairs and pleasures, and instead long hours studying Torah. This is how great Torah scholars become great Torah scholars, but this is not a message that will sit well with Aish HaTorah's key target audience: non-Orthodox Jews who are thinking of becoming Orthodox. Americans are not into austerity.

Rabbi Weinberg deftly handles this problem. For example, he recasts the first method "minimizing business activity" as "Apply Business Accumen To Living." He starts off by noting briefly that we need to work to earn a living, but we should not overdo it and should also work to acquire wisdom. After this initial nod to the original text, he then notes that we can use some of the tools of business to do so. The rest of the article is a elaboration of these tools: operate efficiently, commit to goals, etc.

He does the same with the other minimizations. Instead of minimizing pleasure, we have Harnessing the Power of Sex (in the context of marriage) and The Use of Physical Pleasure. A "minimum of conversation" becomes The Art of Conversation. And a "minimum of laughter" becomes Laugh at Your Troubles.

I certainly do not have a problem with any of R. Weinberg's teachings here. They seem wise to me, and in many ways fit more comfortably with my worldview than the original Pirke Avot teachings. I am not a hedonist, but I am not ascetic either. I simply note here that several of R. Weinberg's ideas are not quite the same as the original teachings in Pirke Avot, and do not have any inherent connection with counting the omer.

This is not a criticism. R. Weinberg and R. Sacks and the kabbalists did what Jews have always done, and in fact have done it better than most Jews. They created new ideas full of wisdom and insight and linked them to existing ideas or ritual---here, the counting of the omer.

The meaning or importance of counting the omer does not lie in its original context. Best that I can figure, that original context was a way of setting a late-spring wheat offering relative to the date of an earlier early-spring barley offering. That does not carry much significance for me, a lawyer living in Los Angeles in the 21st Century. The importance lies in the layers of meaning that subsequent generations have added to this earlier ritual: the bridge between freedom from slavery celebrated at Passover and the holiness required for the giving of the Torah celebrated at Shavuot, personal growth and spiritual improvement and wisdom, and God and godliness refracted through 49 separate paired combinations of seven aspects of God and godliness, and themes of historical and cyclical time.

At the beginning of this series, I noted that many Jews have problems with relevance and authenticity. I think counting the omer shows a way around this problem.

Counting the omer seems to be inherently irrelevant: counting to 49 one day at a time. The best argument for its inherent irrelevance is that no one other than Jews does this. But the relevance of a mitzvah like this comes from the inherent importance of the ideas and themes created over time and associated with this mitzvah.

The authenticity of the ritual comes both from its relevance and its long historical tradition. People do not passively receive and understand a tradition; they also help create it. The great thinkers that have come before us have developed some pretty great ideas, and those ideas have become part of Judaism, regardless of whether they were there initially. (We also have had some terrible ideas that have been discarded along the way in the gale of creative destruction.) These all are an authentic part of Judaism.

Here is my humble addition to counting the omer. I told my kids that if we counted all 49 days without missing one, we could go out for ice cream after Shavuot. My older son stopped counting somewhere in the 30s, but I finished last night and my younger son (whose bedtime is before it is completely dark) finished this morning. We did it.

So in addition to relevance and authenticity, counting the omer---properly construed---also involves ice cream.

Chag sameach.


Monday, June 6, 2011

The Historical Confusion - Counting the Omer and Shavuot (Part 5)

In the previous post, I discussed the textual confusion about the date of the omer-counting and Shavuot. The historical record is similarly muddled. Let's start with what the Torah says about the date of the giving of the Ten Commandments and then see how early Jewish communities understood this

The Torah never states the date of the giving of the revelation at Mount Sinai. The Torah explains that the Exodus from Egypt took place on the 14th day of the first month. (Exod. 12:17-18.) After crossing the Reed Sea, the Israelites went to Elim (Exod. 15:27), then to the "wilderness of Sin, which is between Elim and Sinai, on the fifteenth day of the second month." (Exod. 16:1.) ("Sin" is a Hebrew word, not the English word.) After an indeterminate stay, they then went to Rephadim. (Exod 17:1.)

Exodus 19:1 then states, "In the third month after the children of Israel were gone forth out of the land of Egypt, the same day came they into the wilderness of Sinai." It is not clear what "the same day" of a month means, although it arguably means the first day of the third month (later called Sivan). They then camped before Mount Sinai for some indeterminate amount of time (Exod. 19:2). Moses speaks with God (Exod. 19:3), then speaks with the people (Exod. 19:7-8), and then speaks with God again (Exod. 19:9-11). God tells Moses to tell the people to ready and on the third day, he will come down. (Exod. 19:11.) It is not clear from the text how much time this camping, and speaking took, but in any case the people do what they are told, and God appears on the third day. (Exod. 19:16.)

The rabbinic tradition is that the revelation on Mount Sinai occurred on Shavuot, which was 50 days after the second day of Passover, or (after some arithmetic, left as an exercise for the interested reader) on the 6th of Sivan. But as noted in earlier posts, this does not directly follow from the text. Shavuot in the Torah is an agricultural holiday and (unlike Passover) is not linked at all to the
revelation on Mount Sinai (0r anything else, for that matter), and in fact its date---seven weeks and one day after "the shabbat"---is also not clearly specified.

Given this, it is not surprising that there were early alternative traditions as to this date and the dating of Shavuot. The book of Jubilees was probably written in the second century BCE. It begins, "And it came to pass in the first year of the exodus of the children of Israel out of Egypt, in the third month, on the sixteenth day of the month" that God tells Moses to come up to Mount Sinai. The book later put Shavuot in the middle of the third month (and states that Isaac was born on this day): "And she [Sarah] bare a son in the third month, and in the middle of the month, at the time of which the Lord had spoken to Abraham, on the festival of the first fruits of the harvest, Isaac was born." This puts Shavuot 10 days later than the traditional rabbinic account, and thus the counting of the omer began 10 days after the traditional day, or on the 25th of the first month. Apparently, the author of Jubilees used a solar calendar where days fell on the same day of the week, and the 25th of the first month was the Sunday after the last day of Passover.

The later Christians adopted a similar understanding, putting the holiday of Pentecost at 50 days after Easter. Counting Easter Sunday as the first day, that put Pentecost on a Sunday, seven weeks later. But in the conventional account, the first Easter was the Sunday after the first day of Passover which was on Thursday night / Friday day, not the Sunday after the last day of the 7-day Passover week, as suggested by Jubilees.

The Talmud contains a debate regarding this issue. In Menachot 65a-66a, the Mishnah describes an elaborate procedure for the barley offering, and then asks why this procedure was necessary. "Because of the Boethusians who maintained that the reaping of the omer was not to take place at the conclusion of the [first day of the] festival." (The Boethusians were a sect that was related in some way to the Sadducees.) Thus, the Boethusians, like the Christians, placed the beginning of the omer counting on the Sunday after the first day of Passover, not the day after the second day of Passover.

The Gemara then picks up on this debate. One foolish old Boethusian (described that way in the Talmud) offers a silly argument for Shavuot being on a Sunday (and thus "the shabbat" being on Saturday), and R. Yochanan ben Zakkai responds by calling him a "fool" and offering a weak but possibly sarcastically made argument. The Gemara then offers four other arguments for "the shabbat" being the second day of Passover, none of which are very persuasive.

The obvious dispositive counter-argument is that if Shavuot had in fact commemorated the revelation at Mount Sinai, then it would be on whatever day the revelation at Mount Sinai occurred. If that was on the sixth of Sivan, then that's when it was. But no one in the Gemara makes this argument, presumably because the Boethusians either (1) did not believe that Shavuot commemorated the giving of the Ten Commandments, or (2) did not believe that the date was the sixth of Sivan.

In Louis Finkelstein's book "The Pharisees", he picks up on this debate. (Chapter VII.B, pp. 115-118.) He notes that "nothing could be more trivial than such a debate" and correctly explains that "[t]he Biblical verses in Leviticus which give the provisions of the law are concededly ambiguous." He then notes that the Pharisees linked Shavuot to the revelation at Sinai. They were more separated from agriculture than the Sadducees and more interested in history and the Law. The Sadducees, on the other hand, did not believe the holiday had any historical significance, and they were more attuned to the agricultural aspect of the holiday.

The historical upshot is this. Neither the fixing of the beginning of the omer counting (and equivalently, the date of Shavuot) or the link between Shavuot and the revelation at Sinai are based on the text of the Torah. Both were the subject of considerable debate in the period before the Talmud was written.

One can certainly believe that there was a reliable unbroken oral traditional going back to Sinai that established both the relevant dating and the link between Shavuot and the revelation at Sinai. But if one does not believe this, then it the holiday must have evolved in the thousand years before the Talmud was written. The holiday initially began as an agricultural festival, vaguely set at 50 days after an initial barley offering. The omer counting was either just a way of establishing this date or perhaps required actual counting. But over time, the date became fixed, the actual counting of days became required, and this agricultural holiday was linked to the revelation at Sinai.

In future posts, I will look at how Jews have created more layers of meaning attached to the counting of the omer, including most importantly the mystical sefirot.


Thursday, May 19, 2011

The Textual Confusion - Counting the Omer and Shavuot (Part 4)

As noted in earlier posts, the Torah itself indicates that Shavuot is an agricultural holiday commemorating the wheat harvest and involving a grain offering. However, the later rabbinic literature links the holiday to the giving of the Ten Commandments (or perhaps the whole Torah) on Mount Sinai. This claim is found nowhere in the Torah or any early literature, and the precise date of this event was disputed from an early period. Let's review the facts and then figure out what to make of them.

As noted in the second post in this series, Shavuot is 50 days after the day after "the shabbat" after the barley offering. One key question is what does "the shabbat" mean here. The answer gives us the date of Shavuot, or if we know the date of Shavuot, reasoning backwards will give us the date of "the shabbat."

"Shabbat" usually means the seventh day, sundown Friday night through sundown Saturday night. But in some contexts, it means a generic day of rest. For example, later in Leviticus 23 (the chapter mentioning the counting of the omer and Shavuot), the Torah calls Yom Kippur a "shabbat shabbaton" or a "sabbath of complete rest." (Lev. 23:32.) Similarly, Leviticus 25 discusses the sabbatical year, where no planting or sowing is permitted and the land is to rest. God commands that the land will keep a "sabbath" (Lev. 25:2) and calls it a "shabbat shabbaton".

Back in Leviticus 23, there are three holidays mentioned before the omer-counting passages. The first holiday listed is shabbat, and it is decreed to be a "shabbat shabbaton." (Lev. 23:3). The second holiday is Passover, and it is decreed to be a "mikrah kodesh" (or holy convocation) and no work is permitted. (Lev 23:7.) Importantly, even though no work is permitted, the day is note called a "shabbat." The third holiday is the seventh day after Passover, and this too is called a "mikrah kodesh," no work is permitted, and is not specifically called a "shabbat." (Lev 23:8.) Then the counting of the omer and Shavuot passages noted earlier occur (Lev 23:9 ff), and this counting is to start the day after "the shabbat". Which one?

There are three possibilities: (1) the normal Friday/Saturday shabbat, (2) Passover, and (3) the seventh day of Passover.

As a simple matter of textual interpretation, the first argument seems the strongest. After all, shabbat is the only day that is specifically called "shabbat." The second best argument is the third one. The holiday where no work is permitted that immediately precedes the omer counting command is the seventh day of Passover. The one the rabbis went with, Passover itself, is the weakest argument, at least as a purely textual matter. But of course there is a lot more to understanding the meaning of this passage than simply interpreting an ambiguous passage, and the historical tradition is quite important. I will look at that next.


Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Creating Authentic and Relevant Meaning

In re-reading the last two posts, I realized that I never explained my basic point. Here it is.

The (simplistic) Orthodox world view is that God wrote the Torah and commanded the commandments. Our job is simply to decode the text, follow the oral law, and do the mitzvot. We might have some discretion in borderline or ambiguous cases, and there may be some complexity in the particulars of tough cases. But for the most part, the general approach is all very straightforward.

But that is not the way it actually works in practice, or the way is has worked in history. The act of not only figuring out exactly what a mitzvah entails but figuring out how it is meaningful and important involves a lot of judgment and discretion, and often a lot of creativity. We have several thousand years of people creating these idea, acts, interpretations, and discussions, and then reacting to others. It is a rich tradition.

Authenticity involves learning about this tradition, then doing mitzvot (or even sometimes changing mitzvot) in light of this tradition. That type of authenticity is equally available to Orthodox Jews and non-Orthodox Jews.

Relevancy involves an evaluation of mitzvot or texts in light of that tradition. This requires some flexibility and even playfulness with the texts, the mitzvot themselves, and even the ideas behind the texts. This is not some wacky left-wing New Age idea --- it is exactly the approach taken by the Talmud, the midrash, the kabbalists, and even contemporary Orthodox rabbis.

So far, I have claimed a lot more than I have proven. But rather than discussing all this in very general terms, I thought I would discuss it in light of a particular mitzvah, counting the omer. So stay tuned ....


Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Inauthenticity, Irrelevancy, and Counting the Omer: The Basics

In the first post on this topic, I laid out two basic problems that liberal Judaism seems to have. Jewish practice either seems to be irrelevant (or insignificant or unimportant), in that there does not seem to be much benefit in doing it. Jewish practice also seems to be inauthentic, in that we do not take seriously the traditional claim that God literally commanded us to do these things by speaking commandments on a mountain 3,400 years ago. That leaves non-Orthodox Jews in an intellectual mess, to say the least, and the result is what we often see in non-Orthodox synagogues: low levels of observance, knowledge, practice, and most of all enthusiasm.

I claimed in the first post that there is at least one way out, and I would use an odd and under-appreciated (and under-practiced) mitzvah---counting the omer---to illustrate this. In this post, I would like to explain the basics of counting the omer and its Torah origins. I will discuss the historical evolution of both the mitzvah itself and ways of understanding its significance in later posts.

The mitzvah of counting the omer is straightforward. After reciting a short single-sentence blessing ("Blessed are you, Lord our God, who sanctified us with His commandments and commanded us to count the omer"), Jews count the days and weeks, from the second day of Passover to the day before Shavuot. For example, on the second day of Passover, we recite the blessing then say "Today is the first day of the omer." The next day, "Today is the second day of the omer." On the seventh day, "Today is the seventh day of the omer, which is one week of the omer." On the 23rd day, "Today is the 23rd day of the omer, which is three weeks and two days of the omer." We continue until we reach 49 days. The next day is Shavuot.

Not very complicated. Here are a few additional rules. We should count the omer at night. Someone who forgets to count the omer at night can say it without a blessing the next day, and remains on track. But if someone forgets to count for a full day (that is, skips one day of counting completely), that person can continue to count, but without saying the blessing.

Aish HaTorah's website has a good page on the basics of this mitzvah.

This mitzvah is not complicated, and can be done each night in about 15 seconds. Non-Orthodox Jews cannot claim that the mitzvah is too difficult or complicated or onerous to do. The problem is that it seems silly.

Before jumping into the problem of significance, let's take a careful look at the historical origins of the mitzvah. And this requires a little bit of elaboration about Shavuot.

The mitzvah of counting the omer comes from the Torah. In Leviticus 23, God tells Moses to tell the children of Israel about several biblical holidays. After Shabbat and Passover (on which Jews are commanded to do no work), God then explains that when the Children of Israel enter the land of Israel, they should bring an "omer" of the first reapings to the priest as an offering. (Lev. 23:9-10.) (An omer is a unit of measure of grain.) After some instructions about this (Lev. 23:11-14), the Torah then explains the counting:

"And you shall count unto you from the day after the shabbat [ha-shabbat], from the day that you brought the sheaf of the waving; seven weeks shall there be complete; even to the day after the seventh week shall you number fifty days; and you shall present a new meal-offering to the Lord." (Lev 23:15-16).

Deuteronomy contains a similar description of the counting, and explicitly identifies this second holiday as Shavuot. After discussing Passover (Deut. 16:1-8), Deuteronomy explains:

"Seven weeks shalt thou number to yourself; from the time the sickle is first put to the standing corn you shall begin to number seven weeks. And you shall keep the feast of weeks [hag shavuot] to the Lord your God after the measure of the freewill-offering of your hand, which you shall give, according as the Lord your God blesses you." (Deut. 16:9-10.)

Just to clarify: the word "shavuot" literally means "weeks" and is related to the Hebrew worked "sheva" which means "seven." So Hag HaShavuot literally means the Festival or Holiday of Weeks, and this comes from the fact that it occurs seven weeks after, . . . well, something.

These two passages from the Torah raise (at least!) two important questions. First, what day does the counting start? Leviticus says it is on "the shabbat". Does this mean a regular Friday evening and Saturday day Shabbat, or does it mean more generally a day of rest? And if so, which day of rest? And Deuteronomy says from the time the sickle is first used, but what day exactly is this? Second, once we figure out when it starts, do people have to literally count (that is, say "one", "two", "three", etc., on each day) or is this instruction (count 49 days) just an elaborate way of setting the date of Shavuot as 49 days after the starting point. I will cover those next.


Tuesday, May 10, 2011

The Two Foundational Problems With Liberal Judaism (And the Solution)

Liberal Judaism is stuck between two foundational intellectual problems: inauthenticity and irrelevancy. They usually manifest themselves in an attack from the right and an attack from the left. I do not think the problems are intractable. But rather than arguing in generalities, I will take a ritual that is easily subject to both of these attacks---counting the omer--- and see if we can not only defend against the attacks but show how counting the omer can be meaningful and important, regardless of its historical origins.

Here's the basic problem. Liberal Judaism generally accepts the conclusion of modern Bible scholarship that the Torah was written well after Moses and by multiple authors. In doing so, it rejects the traditional historical claim that the Torah was literally written by God. It adopts a more flexible approach to halacha and rituals, and in doing so runs into two quite serious foundational problems.

The religious right argues this type of Judaism must be inauthentic. If liberal Jews do not believe in the literal historical truth of the foundational story of Judaism---God gave the Torah to the Jews on Mt. Sinai---then nothing solid remains of Judaism. Under that view, the Torah is just a bunch of stories and laws written by ordinary people a long time ago. There is no compelling reason to do any of it. Sure, it might contain some wisdom or good ideas here and there, but Jews cannot take it too seriously if they do not believe that God told us to do these things.

The non-religious left makes the opposite argument. Jews should do certainly do the parts of Judaism that are "good" ideas, like don't steal, be nice, and give charity. But one should do them because they are good ideas, not because Judaism says to do them. And there is no reason to do the "bad" ideas, or the "neutral" ideas, or most rituals. That knocks out things like keeping kosher, fasting on Yom Kippur, and putting on tefillin. And once a Jew does the good practices because they are good, and avoids doing the other practices because there is no reason to do so, there is nothing left of Judaism. Thus, the non-religious left argues that Judaism is irrelevant.

This is the scylla and charybdis of liberal Judaism: inauthenticity and irrelevancy. And these two manifests themselves in much of liberal Judaism. I attend a Conservative synagogue, and I certainly see both of them. Many Jews my age (mid 40s) simply opt out of many traditional Jewish practices. They do not keep kosher, attend synagogue, celebrate many holidays, daven, wear tefillin, etc. The attitude of many of my friends is simply that it seems irrelevant, sort of silly, and a little strange to do these things. After all, God did not literally said to do these things, and there just does not seem to be a good reason to do so. And when they do do these things (for whatever reason), it lacks authenticity. So someone might to go synagogue (say, for a bar-mitzvah), but will not feel elevated by the davening, does not know what the Torah parsha says, and does not expect these things. They feel a little like a religious tourist, watching and even going through the motions without really participating.

The result is what we see in the Conservative movement. Synagogue membership is declining, and adults who were raised Conservative become less religious and unaffiliated with a synagogue (in lots of cases) and Orthodox (in a handful of cases).

The solution to the twin problems of inauthenticity and irrelevancy is (not surprisingly, and, in fact, definitionally) authenticity and relevancy. The issue is how to achieve these.

For liberal Judaism to be relevant, Jewish practices and beliefs must reflect divinity (however understood), elevate us spiritually, help Jews live much deeper and richer lives, and contain some insights into life that are not generally available in secular culture. And to be authentic, it must not be dependent on the historical origins of the Torah, but on how it has evolved and been interpreted for the past 3000 years, regardless of its historical origins. Jews must be able to feel fully engaged when doing these things.

I think that Judaism for the most part meets these challenges. The problem, as I see it, is that most liberal Jews lack even the most basic education about what Judaism is, and this ignorance is too often (but fortunately, not always) fostered by ineffective religious schools. The problem is not inherent in liberal Judaism itself.

I have detailed some general thoughts on these ideas in many other blog posts. But rather than arguing from a general level, I thought I would take a particular example of a simple mitzvah and show this works in practice. My example is counting the omer. In the next few blog posts, I will explain the mitzvah itself, it biblical and historical origins, and its subsequent history. In doing so, I hope to show how this seemingly odd mitzvah is highly relevant to life and how liberal Jews can authentically count the omer.


Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Fun With Google Stats

The online comic strip xkcd sometimes includes funny charts and graphs showing the number of google hits for variations of a phrase or sentence. For example, "x bottles of beer on the wall" shows a spike at x=100. I figured I would try a few Jewish themed ones just for fun.

Here is the chart for "When is x" where x is a Jewish holiday. (This might vary by time of year, which would explain the current Purim spike.)

"n branched menorah"

"Jewish x" for different family roles and occupations.


Monday, January 3, 2011

Egalitarian Weddings and Evolutionary Halacha

Ben Z at Mah Rabu has an interesting five-part series of posts on his egalitarian wedding (Part 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5.) In short, he took three things quite seriously: the traditional Jewish ideas and rituals of marriage, contemporary gender and sexual-orientation egalitarianism, and pragmatic reality. He then reshaped some of the rituals and ceremonies and ideas of the traditional marriage.

This is an important project for several reasons. If a contemporary and more liberal view of halacha is to evolve and emerge, some people have to take it seriously. Perhaps some of these innovations will become widely accepted, perhaps they will be rejected outright, and perhaps they will be modified or supplanted in some way. But this on-going dynamic process is itself important to keep traditions relevant and meaningful in light of serious contemporary challenges.

I am not a fan of change for change's sake. But marriage might be a good place where some change is warranted. The traditional Jewish non-egalitarian view of marriage is not the way most Jews view their marriage or live it. Ben Z. has taken an important and thoughtful step here, and it is worth reading.