Reb Yudel, Ethan Tucker, and Dan Bern

Reb Yudel formerly of the JTA is now back in journalism at the Jewish Standard. Besides his articles and the sidebar to the article, Reb Yudel has a corresponding blog where he gets to put the interesting stuff that does not go in the mail article.

This week his article was on Rabbi Ethan Tucker. But in his blog he got to ask a few interesting questions.

Q: What are your favorite halachic works?
A: Yosef Karo’s Beit Yosef. It is amazing in its ability to gather everything together. And the modern day analogue, the collected writings of Ovadia Yosef, is simply amazing. I love both of them in being able to see in them the full picture of what goes on halachicly.
The Aruch HaShulchan is also a masterful attempt at synthesis. That’s another one of my favorites.
Finally, a very obscure one I was introduced to by Rabbi Ovadia’s writings, Erech Lechem by Rabbi Jacob Castro (ca. 1525–1610). He went and made little glosses on the Shulchan Aruch, often kind of correcting for what he thought was the Rama’s overstepping in certain areas.

How is Mechon Hadar different than the Pardes Institute?
Some of the things are similar. A lot of faculty who teach here studied there. Some students studied in both places. Both Pardes and Mechon Hadar create a culture of Torah being exciting and relevant and a critical part of the contemporary Jewish conversation, and capable of shedding light on important issues in the Jewish community. Both have co-ed bet midrash.
At Mechon Hadar, one of values is complete and total equal participation of all the men and women who make up our community, whereas in Pardes the core minyan is not egalitarian.
Another distinction is that Pardes sees itself as a pluralistic institution that doesn’t take stands on the interpretation of halacha and doesn’t have expectations of it students, whereas Hadar has an expectation of its fellows of shmrat mitzvot, of observance, that assumes a normative vision of Jewish life. Someone who comes as as a fellow is expected to be living out daily life of Jewish commitment. The basic elements of shmirat Shabbat, kashrut, regularly giving money to tzedakah — Our fellows spend three hours one afternoon a week visiting the sick– all the various aspects of a life lived in the presence of Torah, a Torah that commands and directs us. Part of being a fellow in the yeshiva is being in the minyan for tefilot three times a day.”

It’s an interesting set of distinctions, and it points to the failure of using a single “left-right” religious spectrum to categorize contemporary Judaisms. Is Hadar more “left” for being egalitarian? Or more “right” for demanding minyan attendance?

From the “Front Page Article”

Tucker acknowledges the good and important work that denominational organizations do for the Jewish people, but says that “denominational labels threaten to make Torah sectarian. I think the Torah paints on a broader canvas. The Torah is the property of the entire Jewish people and speaks to the entire Jewish people. That means that all Jews, irrespective of their background, have the right to demand that the Torah speak to them and address who they are and give them guidance based on the lives they actually lead. It also means that the Torah commands and has expectations for all Jewish people.”

Reb Yudel a life long Dylan enthusiast has found a new focus on singer –songwriter Dan Bern.

Dan Bern can’t escape the Bob Dylan comparisons:
Songwriter who plays guitar and harmonica, solo or with a backing band – check.
Sardonic songs about love and ambiguous relationships – check.
Lyrics ripped from the headlines – check.
Name-dropping of cultural icons – check.
Small town Midwestern Jewish upbringing – check.
Lyrics that aren’t always fit to reprint in this paper – wait, that’s the ghost of Lenny Bruce, whom Bern also channels.
And where Dylan’s Jewish identity has been obscure – he changed his name, after all, from Robert Zimmerman to the decidedly un-Jewish Dylan; publicly embraced Christianity; and now attends Chabad on Yom Kippur – Dan Bern never hid from his Jewish heritage.

In one song he has played in concert but not released (Bern’s 18 albums include only a fraction of the more than 1,000 songs the prolific songwriter has composed), he sings with a twang:

I nosh me a kishke with grits and cole slaw
I blow that ol’ shofar on Rosh Hashana
I sing from the Torah while my dog chases wood sticks
The neighbors don’t like it, but they all are nudniks I’m a Jew from Kentucky that’s what I am
The good Lord foresaw it with his infinte plan
Wherever I wander
Wherever I roam
Forever a Jew with Kentucky my home

Actually, Bern, who lives in Los Angeles, is a Jew from Iowa, where he and his sister were the only Jewish kids in their school. His parents were Jews from Europe. His mother left Germany on the kindertransport; his father fled Lithuania in 1939, one of two survivors of his family; the rest were massacred with the other Jews of Lithuania in 1941. The couple met in Israel in 1950, before moving to Iowa where Bern’s father, a classical pianist and composer, taught music.

As he sings in a song addressed to his sister: You explained me to our parents
English wasn’t their first language

They spoke German
Hated Germans
Confusing times

In “Lithuania,” he summarizes the lesson of history’s shadow:

I saw my dad tell jokes, and teach me how to laugh,
Thirty years after his parents, brothers, and sister were
all shot,
Murdered in the streets of Lithuania

10 responses to “Reb Yudel, Ethan Tucker, and Dan Bern

  1. Upon some reflection it seems to me that a latent pragmatics underlies Ethan Tucker’s hermeneutics. It is a pragmatic approach which I find undervalues process in favor of preordained conclusions, much like a Bush era signing statement. In this case Tucker has taken a much commented upon (if less than fertile question) called “is there an ethic outside of Halacha” in its classic iteration of “what would R Aharon do on a desert island? What would R Amital do?” Rather than parsing multiple sources, Tucker will use his knowledge of Shu”ttim to load the dice and mine for a certain conclusion which reflects preexisting values. This smacks of disingenousness first, because Tucker is patently taking advantage of his greater facility with Shu”ttim than his interlocutors to make a faux “slam dunk” case wrapped in a full blown jargon of authenticity. Second, because it conveniently plays upon his interlocutors’ lack of familiarity with a great(er) variety of texts, also a polyphonic cacophony, which scream the opposite conclusion. From Zoharic animadversions to goyyim to the Talmud’s own discussion of what makes Torah something that people will see and think “that is a cool way to live” (Astrology) the texts go from palimpsest or metaphysics down to a very flat neo-liberal vision. That very neo-liberalism forms the crux of a second nascent criticism, perhaps more Marxist. Namely, that going to the Schechter of Bergen County and telling them that Torah does not only belong to TABC does not mean reclaiming Torah for “the Jewish people.” On the contrary. The message is, this is not just for one group of rich people. Even your slightly different group of rich people can get behind Torah. Now, if the Torah demands a vision of radical gender (and let’s throw in racial) equality, we might ask, what demands does it then make for social egalitarianism, income inequality etc? Is the Torah only another bludgeon to be joined to feminism in extracting rents from normativity? Is Torah another closed circuit of self justifying discourse which allows us to congratulate ourselves on meeting some self imposed demands? All we know from Tucker is that Torah, like DE Shaw: “do[es] not discriminate …on the basis of race, color, religion, gender, pregnancy, national origin…, sexual orientation, marital status, disability, or any other category protected by law. Note that for us, this is more than just legal boilerplate. We are genuinely committed to these principles, which form an important part of our corporate culture, and are eager to hear from extraordinarily well qualified individuals having a wide range of backgrounds and personal characteristics.”

    Anyway if a pragmatic hermeneutics leads there, why not skip the extra reason called Torah and seek employment at one of the area’s many fine financial and legal firms? By the way (paging Saadya Gaon) how did they manage to discern these eternal truths absent divine revelation?

    • … It was just a talk for some high-school kids.

      • I the four articles as an opportunity to attack the programmatic vision as articulated in multiple forums and constantly reiterated by Tucker including in this talk. I do not think that is unfair.

  2. So you are claiming that the pragmatic methodology presupposes a pragmatist moral epistemology – in which case who cares what you do with some old texts? Well, maybe the same reason that a Dworkin cites precedent.

    Or, maybe abandoning the language of halakhah means abandoning a form of life associated with it?

    What are you suggesting instead; that texts should extract something from us, not just the other way around?

  3. Thanks for making me clarify. This is exactly the point I think I need to elucidate most. I think that the one reason too many problem is relevant here. In other words, if what I said about a pragmatic methodology leading to a moral epistemology is true, then why take the Torah detour?

    I hear the question about forms of life associated with Halakha, but isn’t Tucker trying to open up just those forms of life? Is that not what he means when he says Torah demands something of everyone?

    I think maybe I think these texts are so rich that their applicability is maybe not going to be something quite so simple as not smoking on Saturday. It might be more a work of appropriation like Heidegger’s discussion of fallenness or Gelassenheit. These are models that kind of come to mind, I am not sure about my hermeneutics and its political/real world implications.

    Maybe I would say to Tucker: I personally am not committed to apply these texts one way or another. But in raising the stakes of your feminism by marrying it to Revelation, it raises the question, why stop there? Why hem in the radical critique at gender roles and not have a full blown social critique? Why does it map so neatly to corporate speak and PC speak and that kind of utterly banal use of language? Does all this make you question this marriage of revelation and God to feminism and faux egalitarianism?

  4. I would argue that the same issues apply to Charedi thinkers except in reverse. They constantly change the tradition through the addition of new strictures that are designed to show how much more frum the true frusters are. One need only look at outcomes to know that this is true. There are Rabbis like Rabbi Tucker whose outcome may be loaded from the start to look for egalitarianism in the Torah. There are also Rabbis for whom a strict interpretation of anything is also a foregone conclusion.

    People who can truly be objective are few and far between. It seems to me that God created the world with diverse human beings. He therefore wants diversity of thought.

    • I do not think this maps onto strict or lenient. I am with Ethan Tucker when he says that he is not just a meikeil. I think it maps onto neoliberalism and thus I wonder at revelation’s new role as the handmaiden of neoliberal values. Maybe there is some sittlichkeit they are extracting from Torah– Why it is so deracinated….yelamdeinu Rabbeinu.

  5. I think that we should distinguish between laws that Hadar might find morally troubling (e.g. not counting women for a minyan or not saving the lives of gentiles on Shabbos) vs. other laws (e.g. Kashrus, Shabbos, Yom Kippur) which are just inconvenient. They do require adherence to the latter among their community.

    I think Chakira & AS are making most of this overly complicated.

  6. I have often felt that talking to Hadar types can be like talking to charedim. It’s obvious to them that they are doing the right thing, have picked the right battles, and have chosen the path of virtue. Each speaks as if their lifestyle is self-justifying, ultimately tracing back to God in some loose way, resting on many unspoken assumptions that would be easy to challenge logically, but difficult to challenge vis a vis my specific interlocutor. There is a similar emunah peshutah.

  7. Another distinction is that Pardes sees itself as a pluralistic institution that doesn’t take stands on the interpretation of halacha and doesn’t have expectations of it students

    My understanding of Pardes is that this is not entirely accurate: while it is correct that Pardes doesn’t place expectations on what its students do when they’re outside of the building, it doesn’t claim to be pluralistic (though you have to be paying very close attention to catch this), and it does promote a particular approach to halacha as normative (though it doesn’t enforce it).

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