Archive for the ‘Jewish Life’ Category

During one of my frequent visits to Tablet: A New Read on Jewish Life, I came across this article, entitled When Anti-Circumcision Turns Anti-Semitic. The article is interesting, discussing whether certain cartoons produced by the anti-circumcision movement in the Bay Area are Anti-Semitic – Marc Tracy thinks that they are and convinced me. One of the comments to the article particularly interested me:

This should not even be allowed on any ballot measure as it will be deemed illegal as it interferes with seperation of church and state. it will never see a vote. I am very liberal and this is just a ballot hatred. Tis is not what san francisoc is about. It’s disgusting!

Typos aside, this brings up a very interesting question: is outlawing circumcision constitutional? As I frequently find with “core” American political dogma (in particular relating to freedom of speech, religion, etc.), there is significant confusion about what the precise parameters of our “rights” are. For example, this commenter believes that a ballot measure outlawing circumcision would interfere with the “separation of church and state.” The separation of church and state is found in the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States and reads that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof….” Of course, some intermingling of church and state has always been permissible in the United States – the best examples are blue laws. Additionally, the United States gives billions of dollars in tax exemptions to religious institutions exempting contributions to churches (and other houses of worship). Interestingly, because of the structure of the tax exemption of contributions to churches, they cannot endorse political candidates – another example of the government intermingling in the “god business.” Finally, several states maintain “Kosher Laws,” including New York, and at least 16 other states define the term “kosher.” In Miami-Dade County, Florida, it is “unlawful to offer any food product for sale which is falsely represented to be Kosher”; in Broward County, Florida, “sellers of kosher food [must] hold a Broward County Kosher Specialty Regulatory License.” Of course, thousands of municipalities, quasi-governmental agencies, and both federal and state governments display religious artifacts during the month of December – typically Hanukkah menorahs, X-mas trees, and nativity scenes.


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Gil Student distinguishes between “two kinds of Jewish liberals”:

Some believe that ideologically liberalism is the best approach for the country and its people. Others are liberals for pragmatic reasons. If the government leaves everyone alone, it will also offer Jews maximum freedom to live Jewishly.

This distinction is important, he argues, because it reflects the reason one cares about politics to begin with. “Is it protection of your community or general society?” Gil’s point is well-taken because it reflects different approaches to politics among Jewish political and religious leaders. But at the normative plane, the notion of a pragmatic-but-not-ideological liberalism is incoherent.

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The Jewish Mother

Jewish identity is determined by matrilineal descent. One is Jewish if his or her mother is Jewish (save conversion). Whether a person’s father is Jewish is irrelevant as to Jewish identity. As R. Meir Soloveitchik points out (the article was originally published in Azure), matrilineal descent is both halachically and historically puzzling.

[Matrilineal descent] seems inconsistent with the rest of Jewish law, in which it is almost always the father’s ancestry that is determinative. It is the father, and only the father, who determines a child’s status as a priest or Levite, a member of the tribe of Judah or of Benjamin, a descendant of the Hasmonean house or the Davidic. Genealogy, indeed, is determined by the father regarding all categories except the most important: Whether a child is Jewish in the first place. . . .

The matrilineal principle is puzzling not only from the perspective of Jewish law, but from that of Jewish history as well. In The Beginnings of Jewishness, Harvard scholar Shaye Cohen points out that “throughout the ancient world the parent who mattered was, of course, the father. The children born of a marriage are his children, not the mother’s.” Aeschylus, Cohen points out, epitomized this attitude when he wrote that “The woman you call the mother of the child is not the parent; she is merely the nurse of the seed that was sown inside her.” “What, then,” asks Cohen, “are the reasons for the rabbinic matrilineal principle?”

One of the most popular explanations asserts that paternal identity is less certain than maternal identity: Since we are more likely to know who the mother of a given child is, we are best off relying on her for definitive lineage. But as Cohen observes, this explanation fails for two reasons. First, the rabbis looked to the mother’s lineage only with regard to Jewishness; if parental certainty were the central issue, then we would expect to see the matrilineal criterion for other questions of lineage. Second, the rabbis gave the mother legal standing to determine the identity of her child’s father even in cases where paternity is the defining element. . . . [W]hen paternity is uncertain, and we rely on the mother’s testimony or location, it is never the mother’s lineage that becomes definitive. Ultimately, Cohen says, the academic historian cannot explain matrilineal descent by appealing to any ordinary historical or social factors. Though “it is easy to believe” that rabbinic Judaism, in insisting on the matrilineal principle, “must have been compelled by some societal need,” nevertheless, Cohen concludes, “there is little evidence to support this belief.”

To understand the principle of matrilineal descent, then, it is necessary to look beyond historical or sociological factors. I will propose here a theological explanation of the matrilineal principle, and show that far from being inconsistent with the rest of Jewish law, it follows from a proper understanding of the nature of Jewishness. Indeed, the principle of matrilineal descent lends insight into the Jewish view of parenthood, and even of the nature of religion itself.

He proceeds to describe the rabbinic conception of motherhood and its relationship to the central motif of family in Judaism. It’s a clever, innovative approach and one that, I think, goes a long way towards explaining this halakhic-historical anomaly. It’s hard to summarize or to excerpt key passages because he builds on several halakhic and midrashic ideas so I highly recommend reading the whole thing. Ultimately, R. Soloveitchik concludes that matrilineal descent stems from the family-centric nature of Judaism, in contrast to the faith-centric approaches of other religions.

[B]ecause Judaism involves the election of a natural family, it is Jewish women rather than men who serve as the foundation of our familial faith. If, despite disinterest and disregard for one’s heritage, a Jew cannot sever his or her bond to nation, family, and covenant, it is because the Almighty guarantees, to paraphrase Isaiah, that a mother cannot forget her child, nor refrain from having mercy on the child she bore, and that God, therefore, will not forget Israel either. Anyone born to a Jewish mother is bound, by her motherly love, and by God’s motherly love, to the Jewish family and to every other Jew. The centrality of mother-love in Judaism thus means that all Jews are linked by familial ties that can never be undone. Born into a Judaism that is not just a faith but a family, we are all joined for eternity to God–and to each other.

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Jews Have Six Senses

Touch, taste, sight, smell, hearing . . . memory. While Gentiles experience and process the world through the traditional senses, and use memory only as a second-order means of interpreting events, for Jews memory is no less primary than the prick of a pin, or its silver glimmer, or the taste of the blood it pulls from the finger. The Jew is pricked by a pin and remembers other pins. It is only by tracing the pinprick back to other pinpricks – when his mother tried to fix his sleeve while his arm was still in it, when his grandfather’s fingers fell asleep from stroking his great-grandfather’s damp forehead, when Abraham tested the knife point to be sure Isaac would feel no pain – that the Jew is able to know why it hurts.

When a Jew encounters a pin, he asks: What does it remember like?

Jonathan Safran Foer, Everything is Illuminated

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There are some comments that one hears throughout life that one knows, intuitively, to be profound and important, even without completely understanding them at the time.  I heard one such comment the other day while listening to a lecture by R. Yoel Bin Nun, an Israeli Bible scholar.  He tells the same story in an article he wrote on the Biblical meaning of the word “Emunah.”  I’ll copy the Hebrew below, with a rough translation.  In the spoken version he added some background on the poet in question, saying that he came from an assimilated family and only became religious after the Holocaust.  He was in the Bergen-Belsen camp.

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Religion of Poverty

The trend in charedyism is to prohibit everything. This disturbing inclination has now made communal sustainability unviable. I mean sustainability literally; first we prohibit fish, then vegetables, of course education, now investing. I don’t care how many children are born a year in Mea Shearim and Boro Park, in ten years they will all be suffering from self-imposed starvation. This will fundamentally reverse the demographic trend of the last 20 years moving our community to the back to the left. The chumra meme is an epidemic that will only die when it kills its host, like any other hostile virus.

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I have always lamented (to myself, at least) the lack of Jewish fantasy books. A Jewish C.S. Lewis, who could express the values, stories, and symbols of Judaism in the language of allegory and fairy tale would be a powerful inspirational force. Personally, I loved the Narnia books growing up. People talk about the Christian allegory of Aslan, his death and resurrection, but there are many other valuable themes that permeate the series that are not strictly Christian. I was enriched by Lewis’ presentation of human nature, of morality and virtue, and of faith and loyalty in the face of uncertainty (this recurring theme in particular is very powerfully presented in many of the books). Throughout the series there are little nuggets of moral lessons woven beautifully into the story. Not to mention the sense of wonder and of the numinous that the books impart. So it would have been fantastic to have a Jewish equivalent. It turns out this author asked himself the same question – why is there no Jewish C.S. Lewis or Tolkein? Read the article here. His thesis is quite interesting. Before I read it I half-expected it to be somewhat triumphalist, but overall it’s a very objective analysis. Some highlights: (more…)

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