Monthly Archives: February 2010

Zayin Adar

I wanted to get this post in before Purim changes the mood. I went to a Zayin Adar dinner and expected to come home with lots of vignettes of how modern Orthodox Jews view death as about the living and not about a journey into the afterlife. Instead I sat next to an RCA committee member who just spoke about the Rabbah troubles and kept using in every sentence the words left, right, and center.

The one thing that did come up, which surprised the younger RCA Rabbi was that before the recent re-establishing of local Chevra Kadisha, the tahara and burial needs were taken care of by various old-time Jews of less than stellar reputation looking to make a buck. The sort of bottom feeders looking to take advantage of people’s grief. They did the traditional ritual as Jewish reverends offering people the old customs.

Rabbi Zohn,
who is one of the leaders in the reclaimed Chevra Kadisha, wrote:

Prevalent in many other communities was the Chevra comprised of those people who could not make it in the business world, who found a way of making a dollar by doing a job no one else would do. They commercialized the Chevra. Their concern was not the respect for the work they were doing, and if necessitated by time or convenience, the Tahara would be done quickly, without sensitivity, without any real standard of excellence. Their purpose was served as long as it was done and they were paid, and the service was provided to the basic satisfaction of all.

I was looking more for a discussion of how modern Orthodox books said we know nothing about the afterlife when the very nature of the rituals of tahara and Chevra Kadisha are based on Hibbut Hakever and the needs of the soul as it journeys through its purification to get to heaven, as described in Maavar Yabok. How we have replaced discussion of the soul and hibbut hakever with new this-worldly understanding of avelut. Also from Rabbi Zohn:

A second accepted Jewish belief is that while the soul departs from the body upon death, it nevertheless remains nearby, fully aware of what transpires to the body and around it. This contradicts the oft-cited belief that funerals are for the living. In fact, the dead are very much “present” at their funeral.

Since most rabbis are trained to ignore the traditional 16th-18th works of the journeys of the afterlife- the actual basis of these rituals, but at the same time have little Talmudic resources on the topic, they tend to have to rely on their conflicting intuitions. I wanted some stories of how contemporary rabbis use analogous thinking to create new practices. I have older stories but I wanted some new ones.

For some of the traditional practices in English- Here is DHL dissertation from HUC by Rabbi Steve Moss that translates many passages from Maavar Yabok. It is 300 pages so be prepared before you print it.

In general, here is a great collection of sources on late 20th century issues.

Here is a great collection of first hand stories of Chevra Kadisha work and even better tahara stories

I want to compare the ritualism of Tahara to our discussion of the Tu Beshevat Seder. What are the issues that mitigate against the tradition? I will probably return to these issues again, but in the mean time. (1) Our medical and hospital model of death- the tradition was hospice and then taharah by the same people. (2) our lack of ritual sense (3) Our treating the death as about the mourner (4) Our rejection of Jewish teachings on the afterlife (5) Our security at home- where Tu beshevat can celebrate our eating but death is not part of our lives (6) The general denial of death in the community. What else?

For a sense of the baroque era ritualization- from the taharah process.

As the clothes are cut away (the body is at all times partly covered to protect its modesty), one of the participants recites Zechariah 3:4-5: And He raised his voice and spoke to those who were standing before him, saying, “Remove the soiled garments from him” And he said to him, “Behold, I have removed your iniquity from you, and I will cloth you in fine garments.”

In Zechariah, the prophet is having a dream-vision where he sees Joshua, the High Priest of his time, being tried in an angelic court. Joshua is clothed in filthy clothing, symbolic of the spiritual corruption that threatens the disintegration of the sacred community of Israel. In the midst of the trial, God graciously intervenes and declares Joshua fit, having endured the ordeal of exile, and ready to take on new, priestly duties. The angels strip him of his outer garments in a gesture signifying his spiritual purification… his soul has been cleansed, even as his material covering is cleansed – also indicating that sin, like the garments, are incidental, not integral to who he is.

By reciting these verses while stripping the body (perhaps in dead the body itself is the covering that is removed, revealing the soul beneath), the Chevra Kadisha is acting out a memesis of Zechariah’s vision. We become the angels preparing the dead for his/her elevation to a new and holy state. The deceased is Joshua, sullied and stained by transgression in life, undergoing the ordeal of death, but now he/she is readied by us to take a new form, a new role, to become a being akin to the priesthood.

What are our gaps from this way of thinking? How would someone armed only with halakhic thinking deal with it? Do we still like drama and ritual or must everything be didactic?

Here is a wonderful Reb Zalman article on the topic trying to reclaim the tradition. (plus his usual detour through the religions and psychology).
Copyright © 2010 Alan Brill • All Rights Reserved

Post-Orthodoxy Contest and Masekhet Purim

I have been requested by a reader to run a contest on “post” for Purim.

Can we create a typology of all the new forms of Orthodoxy?
Define what characterizes these new “post” parts of the orthodox community? Don’t forget to give your definitive subjective opinion on whether these new ideologies are good for Orthodoxy?
Did I leave any new denominations out?
And we already know that we cannot compare THE NEW YORK POST Orthodoxy to The JERUSALEM POST Orthodoxy except in their politics.

Define these ten new groups in comments- best answers win, and will be posted.
Post- it Orthodoxy
Post-impressionist Orthodoxy
Post-tramatic stress disorder Orthodoxy
Post-nasal drip Orthodoxy
Post-apocalypse Orthodoxy
Post-hoc Orthodoxy
Post–haste Orthodoxy
Post-partum Orthodoxy
Post-prandial Orthodoxy
Post-meridian Orthodoxy

“Masekhet Purim”, a humorous parody of the Talmud, is believed to have first been written in the first half of the 14th century by Kalonymus ben Kalonymus. It later developed into several different versions.
Here is a copy but without the funnier Hagadah le-Lel Shikurim. Let me know if someone finds an online copy of the Haggadah and selikhot for Purim.
UpdateHere is the Kol Bo L’Purim with the Kiddish, hagadah, selichot, teshuvot, akdamot, and more. Download it- It is only 31 pages and bring it with you on Purim

Duties of the Heart

Luke Timothy Johnson, Professor at Emory, has an article in the current issue of Commonweal on the current battle between those who have an external religion and those who have a religion of the inner experience. Johnson considers the external religion as politics, conformity, social control, and a negative force if it is not connected to the experiential religion. He concludes that if external religion is only concerned with the activities of this-world, then secularism does a better job of creating a this-worldly humane society.

Is his observation an eternal tension of the inner duties of the heart and the legalistic duties of the limbs or does his formulation offer something new? Is this just Bahye’s Duties of the Heart or is he responding to the pressing issue of our time? Can he cure the community’s  over-riding concern with self- definition through conformity and social control? (Ignore his formulation using the word experience in our post- linguistic turn and construction of the self era; the article can easily to rewritten for our current terminology)

Dry Bones Why Religion Can’t Live without MysticismLuke Timothy Johnson

The great religious battle of our time is not the one being waged between believers and unbelievers. The battle within each of the three great monotheistic religions is between the exoteric and esoteric versions of each. In my view, the contest is already so far advanced as virtually to be decided.

The exoteric focuses on external expressions of religion. Its concern is for the observance of divine commandments, the performance of public ritual, and the celebration of great festivals. In its desire for a common creed and practice, its tropism is toward religious law, and it seeks to shape a visible and moral society molded by such law.

The esoteric, in contrast, finds the point of religion less in external performance than in the inner experience and devotion of the heart; less in the public liturgy than in the individual’s search for God. The esoteric dimension of religion privileges the transforming effect of asceticism and prayer. The esoteric element in religion finds expression above all in mysticism. Mystics pursue the inner reality of the relationship between humans and God: they long for true knowledge of what alone is ultimately real, and desire absolute love for what is alone infinitely desirable.

Less visible but no less significant is the negative effect on the exoteric when the esoteric life of individual transformation goes unacknowledged. A system of law unconnected to inner piety is simply an instrument of social control, a form of politics pure and simple. Whether it be an Islamic court issuing a Fatwah to punish someone who has insulted the Prophet, or the Vatican removing a theologian from a university faculty on suspicion of an inadequate Christology,

Islamic fundamentalism echoes Christian fundamentalism in this respect, demanding an absolute outer conformity to specific points of belief and practice, while paying little explicit attention to the intricate and difficult process of individual sanctification.

Seen in this light, the exoteric may appear to have won, yet its victory may only be prelude to the defeat of the tradition as a whole by secularism.

If religion is for this life only, then it must compete on an even plane with other worldly ideologies. And it is not unthinkable that such ideologies can offer a better and more humane society than that proposed by a religion that has been emptied of the transcendent, and lacks any room for the spirit that soars toward God.

Johnson loses me in his description of Judaism as not having this tension because we Jews follow the heikhalot texts, Ashkenaz pietism, kabbalah, and ecstatic Hasidim. Anyone know a Jewish community that fits his description?  Anyone know where we can return to follow Eleazar of Worms quest for the Divine will? Anyone teaching Heikhalot when they teach Mishnayot?

Of the three great monotheisms, Judaism has proved most successful at harmonizing exoteric and esoteric expression. The masters of the heavenly throne-chariot were among the greatest scholars of the early rabbinic tradition, and demanded of the mystic the punctilious outward observance of Torah. The medieval German chasid Eleazar of Worms (d. 1230) declared, “The root of love is to love the Lord. The soul is full of love, bound with the bonds of love in great joy. The powerful love of joy seizes his heart so that at all times he thinks: How can I do the will of God?” Similarly, practitioners of Kabbalah from the twelfth to the twentieth century assumed as the ground for their speculation a total immersion in the practices common to the community of faith. The early Hasidic movement aroused concern for its apparently antinomian tendencies, yet quickly became integrated in the exoteric tradition, and is found today among the strictest of observant Jews.

List of Top Relgion Blogs

People regularly ask me what I read on the Web for these Evangelical, Catholic and Muslim trends.  The SSRC just published a study of the top relgious blogs, where most people are getting their information, which gets the most hits, and which have the most authority. For those looking to to expand their blog horizons, it is worth looking at the list. The article itself is less interesting for those already online.

Here is a list of the top blogs with one line descriptions and links.

Here is a discussion of how to judge what is on top- authority, hits. But at he bottom it has the blogs arranged by topic: Academic, Cultural, News, Political. It also has a list of which blogs get the most comments.

Review of Zolli’s Il Nazareno

A review just appeared in Italian, and is online in translation, by the Jewish Historian Anna Foa of “Il Nazareno” by Rabbi Zolli.  Jews do not usually want to discuss the case of the Chief Rabbi of Rome who converted to Catholicism after the war and became Eugenio Zolli. The review attempts to situate his views within trends in Jewish scholarship and what was being taught at the various seminaries and Jewish academies. Unlike the German Jewish authors (geiger, Buber) and later Israeli authors (Klausner) who painted Jesus as a liberal Jew, Zolli stresses the discontinuity of the two faiths. Christianity as forgiveness and love.

“All by myself, I read the Gospel, and experienced measureless delight. What a surprise I received in the middle of the green lawn: ‘But I say to you: Love your enemies.’ And from the height of the cross: ‘Father, forgive them.’ The New Testament really is a covenant… brand new! Everything in it seemed to me to have an extraordinary importance. Teachings like: ‘Blessed are the pure of heart’ and the prayer from the cross draw a line of demarcation between the world of ancient ideas and a new moral cosmos. Yes! Here there arises a new world. Here are delineated the sublime forms of the Kingdom of Heaven, of the persecuted who have not persecuted in return, but have loved.”

On the other hand, he warned the Jewish community of Rome of the true treat of the Nazis and wanted to declare a total state of emergency and the Jewish community leaders did not see the need. “One cannot deny that the measures he suggested — such as the closing of the temple and of the oratories, the general alarm, and many other things — would have saved the lives, if not of all, of very many Jews.”

Full version of book review

Interview with the editor

The rabbi who studied Jesus by Anna Foa

The book “Il Nazareno” by Eugenio Zolli appeared in 1938, published by the Istituto delle Edizioni Accademiche in Udine. Israel Zolli, who would later become Eugenio, was at the time chief rabbi in Trieste, and had not yet become – as he would a year later – chief rabbi of Rome in the place of Rabbi David Prato,

Seven years later, in February 1945, causing great scandal in the Italian Jewish world and a great stir in the non-Jewish community as well, Israel Zolli converted to Catholicism, taking Pope Pacelli’s name with baptism, and thus becoming Eugenio Zoll.

A volume about Jesus Christ written by a prominent rabbi, then, destined a short time later, in spite of this book and the vague whiff of heresy that surrounded him for many years, to become the leading rabbi of the Roman Jewish community.

Is the book a prefiguring of the author’s later journey, an anticipation of his subsequent baptism? Or does it reflect a journey of exegetical studies, with attention to the figure of Jesus Christ, undertaken by much European Jewish exegetical thought beginning in the second half of the nineteenth century?

The rabbi from Trieste writes about Jesus and about relations between early Christianity and the rabbinical culture of the time with accents and ideas not dissimilar from those of his teachers at the rabbinical college of Florence, Chayes and Margulies, and raising far less serious controversies than Joseph Klausner’s book on “Jesus the Nazarene,” which at its publication in Hebrew in Jerusalem in 1921 was attacked by both Orthodox Jews and Christians…

This area of study was very popular with Jewish scholars all over Europe, and in particular with those from Germany, heirs of the Science of Judaism and linked with the reformed currents, which strongly emphasized the Jewishness of Jesus and highlighted the correspondences between rabbinical Judaism and early Christianity. But it was also a favorite of Christian scholars, especially Protestant ones, in nineteenth-century Germany, in the setting of the school of Tubingen and of the later schools of liberal theology, and was assimilated, at the beginning of the new century, by modernist Catholic scholars.

Italian Jewish culture did not share this attention to the historical figure of Christianity, to the Jewish categories of its preaching, and to its Jewish roots in general.

History – the Orthodox Way: Without Causality and with Presentism

Here is a good article that I missed when it came out and it does not seem to have gained notice of the Jewish education circles.  The article is about a Lubavitch girls school, but most of the observations that I excerpted apply equally well to Modern Orthodox students on both college and graduate level.  In addition, the article is on the Holocaust but can apply equally well to most other issues in Jewish history.  I have found students unable to apply any causality to the Middle East, to modern religious movements, or anti-Semitism.  I have also found students who treat theological statement of Rabbis or Rabbis working out theology as if it was real history. Theological statements about halakhah are used as causality for events. The lack of social science thinking about Judaism is wide spread despite the required Jewish history in high school. Absurd forms of presentism are acceptable for debate. This article harshly calls this accepted orthodox approach narcissistic, social isolationism, moral arrogance and religious triumphalism. Any thoughts?

Simone Schweber, “Here there is no why”: Holocaust education at a Lubavitch girls’ yeshivah. Jewish Social Studies Volume 14, Number 2, (Winter 2008) 156-185

Numerous authors have elaborated the discourse of the Holocaust’s unintelligibility, expounding on the Shoah’s unspeakability, unimaginability, and fundamental unknowability… Few, however, have considered the disciplinary limitations of such a theoretical position. The stance of unintelligibility may work for literary theorists and cultural critics, but it hardly aids educators. What might it mean, for example, to teach toward unintelligibility? Can one teach despite, through, or with a Warumverbot? [Asking why is forbidden]

When I set out to study the teaching of the Holocaust at a Lubavitch girls’ yeshivah in the Midwestern United States, I was not aware, naïvely perhaps, that a Warumverbot could serve as a pedagogical platform. How might students who believed in divinely driven history, for example, understand human perpetrators? When would contingency trump eschatology and vice versa?

First, as a result of the culture of argumentation, the students’ presentist orientations toward history surfaced. Because they thought of their religious dictates as being ahistorical or transhistorical, they could argue over whether it was “okay” for Jews in hiding to recite Catholic prayers; their investment in prayer and religious obligations trumped historical circumstances in their understandings of the Holocaust. Second, because some of the girls thought of Jewish teenagers as being basically the same across time and space, they could argue over why European Jewish teens would return to their homes. The girls’ assumptions about Jews, in other words, were personally based (and similarly presentist). In most public or Christian school contexts where the Holocaust is taught, Jews are easily exoticized, but for these Hasidic girls, Jews were noticeably normalized.

Rather than blaming assimilation, secular Jews, the advent of Reform Judaism, Zionism, Zionists, or the lack of or dedication to a Jewish homeland—all of which are common refrains in Israeli haredi materials—these girls located the root of persecution in envy. In response to the interview question “Why were Jews persecuted?,” each of the other four focus students supplied an answer that involved jealousy or difference… Because chosenness bounded the girls’ historical meaning-making, other victim groups fell out of their Holocaust narratives…. Hashem used the Holocaust as testament to both the endurance and enduring nature of the Jewish people…. By contrast, later in the unit, when they read about Japanese-Americans being interned in camps, a student asked, “What did they do to deserve that?”

Although Mrs. Glickman taught about the Holocaust during her secular studies block, she taught about it as a religious event. She did not include miraculous stories that so frequently populate Hasidic sources, but her course relied on the miraculous as explanation; for much of her Holocaust curriculum, rational explanations for events were not proffered.

The special status of the Holocaust in their classroom deprived them of basic historical understandings. None of the girls at the end of their unit knew about the history of antisemitism, the reasons Germans voted for Hitler, or the ways perpetrators were socialized. None could answer even basic historical questions like why the Holocaust occurred without resorting to all-encompassing theological rationales.

As I see it, Mrs. Glickman taught toward fundamentally narcissistic ends: she did not expand the girls’ notions of others, of otherness, or even of Jewishness itself

Moreover, in considering Nazi behavior to be abnormal, unknowable, and unable to be investigated, Mrs. Glickman fed the girls’ moral arrogance and religious triumphalism. Not only did the girls believe themselves to be incapable of compromising behavior, but they could not deign to discuss it even in others. The starkness of the moral divide… reified the girls’ righteousness and supported their narrow-mindedness. In the process, the contingencies, complexities, and even overly simplistic explanations that sometimes masquerade as history were occluded, rendered invisible to these girls.

Mrs. Glickman’s Holocaust education thus did not serve to complicate the girls’ worldviews but rather to narrow their world’s vistas and support its moral simplicity, religious clarity, and, ultimately, social insularity. Rather than opening up moral questions, Mrs. Glickman’s pedagogy closed them down.

Simone Schweber is the Goodman Associate Professor of Education and Jewish Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She is the author of Making Sense of the Holocaust: Lessons from Classroom Practice (2004) and, with Debbie Findling, Teaching the Holocaust (2007).

Copyright © 2010 Alan Brill • All Rights Reserved

Islamic-Jewish Fatwa

A mid 14th century manuscript from Grenada offers a theological dilemma posed by an unknown Jewish author to the renown Muslim jurist of Granada Abu Said Faraj ibn Lubb al Shatibi (d 1381).  The Jewish questioner assumes the Muslim is a follower of the Asherite doctrine of predestination. The questioner also assumes that the Muslim position is that we have free will to either choose Islam or make the wrong choice. The Jew asks the logical question of Islamic predestination: If all people are to freely choose Islam in order to allow for human responsibility, then if there is also predestination does that not mean that God ultimately determines his religion; and in the questioners case God chose him to be Jewish. The questioner asks: Why is God displeased with his Judaism if it was God’s will? The manuscript was brought to light and translated by Vincent Cornell and Hayat Kara and translated by the former. [i]

Oh scholars of religion, a dhimmi of your religion

Is perplexed. So guide him with the clearest proof:

If my Lord has decreed, in your opinion, my unbelief

But then does not accept it of me, what is my recourse?

He decrees my misguidance and says, “Be satisfied with your fate.”

But how am I to be satisfied with that which leads to my damnation?

He curses me and then shuts the door against me. Is there any

Way out at all for me? Show me the outcome?

For if, oh people, I was satisfied with my fate,

Then my Lord would not be pleased with my evil calamity.

How am I to be satisfied with what does not please my Master?

Thus, I am perplexed. So guide me to the solution of my perplexity.

If my Lord wills my unbelief as a matter of destiny,

How can I be disobedient in following his will?

Do I even have the choice of going against his ruling?

By God, cure my malady with clear arguments!

[i] Vincent Cornell, “Theologies of Difference and Ideologies of Intolerance in Islam” in eds. Jacob Neusner and Bruce Chilton, Religious tolerance in world religions (West Conshohocken, Pa: Templeton Foundation Press, 2008) 274-296.