Category Archives: popular religion

Korach & Moses’ Meritocracy

Guest Post by Rabbi Avraham Bronstein
Rabbi Bronstein serves as North American Development Executive for Ohr Torah Stone. From 2006-2011 he was Associate Rabbi of The Hampton Synagogue. He tweets at @AvBronstein and launched a new blog, cloudpulpit.wordpress.com, where the following is cross-posted.

This is an adaptation of a sermon I delivered last week at a modern orthodox synagogue in the greater NY area. It is reworked slightly to include some material from other discussions and talks from Shabbat and beyond, and also eliminates some of the sermon filler. In conversation, I found that many people saw Korach as a sort of spiritual socialist, sort of a classic cold-war era sermon topic. I tried to make the discussion more contemporary.

Imagine a nation run as a meritocracy, where leaders rose to the top as they proved that they were brighter, more motivated, more assertive — true “leaders,” in every sense of the word. Things started well – there was a period of rapid growth and development, and everyone seemed to be sharing the rewards of the superior decisions and leadership that were coming from what was, by now, a trusted elite. Then, from out of the blue, something went very wrong. The leadership made a terrible collecive mistake, an epic misjudgment so out of line that the people assume they were collectively guilty of criminal negligence, if not outright corruption. As the grim, full reality of the disaster sets in, it becomes clear that all of the previous gains have essentially been erased, and the whole generation itself will go down in history as a wasted one.

Now imagine that, through it all, the meritocracy remains intact. The same leaders remain in charge, demanding the same levels of trust and of faith as though nothing had happened, with no effective safeguards in place to keep it from happening again. We would naturally expect the rise of popular movements to voice the people’s loss of confidence in the failed status quo. The truth is that this scenario actually happens quite often. In 2010, their motto was, “Don’t tread on me.” In 2011, they chanted, “We are the 99%.” And in last week’s Torah Portion it was Korach challenging Moses, insisting that “the entire community is holy, and God rests among them, so why do you lord yourself over the congregation of God?”

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Exorcisms of Personality Traits and Hidden Scandal

There was an article in last week’s SIGHTINGS about exorcism and sexual orientation.

Those who seek a rational religion decry exorcism as the height of superstition, they say that they are nonsense and this should be obvious to all. But to academic students of religion, exorcisms are easily explained as the intersection of two principles: externalization and anxiety. Whereas the modern era especially the 20th century glorified the autonomous self those who turn to exorcism externalize their problems.

In the 16th and 17th century, with the fall of the medieval world- faults were projected externally. In the late 20th century, externalization as demons returned
What happens if there is a personal problem that needs to be dealt with. If one cherishes autonomy then changing ones actions requires a Freudian insight, an existential acceptance of one’s actions, a behavioral stopping of harmful behaviors. But many in the last few decades do not find comfort in the concept of autonomy- they want to put themselves into the hands of a higher force – think of 12 step or Belevavi Mishkan Evneh- many figures in 21st century piety teach that one is to relinquish autonomy. If one does not accept responsibility for one’s faults then one projects it externally as a demon.

The second factor is the anxiety of what cannot be expressed in ordinary words because of social constraints. In the 16th century sexual sins such as adultery and sodomy with boys could be expressed in an exorcism that in an embarrassing confession. Today, there are many topics like sexual orientation that cannot be openly discussed in religious circles and exorcism steps in to fill the function of allowing one to speak about those off limits topics.

On the topic, I highly Michael Cuneo, American Exorcism: Expelling Demons in the Land of Plenty, (Broadway Books, 2001).

So what about Rav Batzri’s exorcisms in Israel? The first one from a decade ago was entirely a staged act but it showed that people in development towns did not think they could be responsible anymore nor that the State of Israel would solve their social problems. His second mass public exorcism showed the end of autonomous modernity for his followers. And it showed that his followers were burdened with more social problems than they could discuss. The more recent one on a phone call to Brazil where he said “demon leave” was not a joke or irrational. There was a need for an externalized sin to be brought to light.

Once I presented some of the 16th century texts in a Shabbat class. The editor of the Jewish Week who was in attendance said that he was an exorcist because he brought topics to light that the community would not articulate. (He had recently published his article on Lanner.) In many ways he was indeed an exorcist, at least from a functional point of view.

But now blogs are filling the second of these two functional variables. Since the American orthodox community cannot openly discuss lack of belief and lack of observance, nor can they discuss the religious implications of molestations, or sexual and financial scandals, they can do so anonymously on blogs. For those without the computer savvy, an exorcism performs some of same functions as a confession or scandal blog. Even if you do not accept the “magical” aspects of an exorcism, the functional elements are quite rational.

(On externalization – Some in the community project much of their personal anxiety onto Israeli politics. As one local rabbi said before a yom tov: I know that many of you are not sad when your parents die and it is easy to push mourning off for after the holiday, on the other hand many of you cannot stop your angry and mourning the situation in Israel. But this is another story.)

Here is this week’s Sightings on the topic showing that the difficulties for Pentacostals to deal with sexual orientation leads to exorcisms.

Modern Exorcism: Trading Autonomy for Demonology — Joseph Laycock

Last month, a feature in the online magazine Details told the story of Kevin Robinson, a gay teenager from Connecticut. Brought up in a Pentecostal household, Kevin first came out to his family when he was sixteen. His mother, refusing to accept homosexuality as a natural sexual orientation, convinced Kevin to undergo a series of exorcisms to expunge the demons that church members believed were causing his homosexual desire. After the tenth exorcism – which was particularly brutal and degrading – Kevin and his mother finally came to accept his sexual orientation. Now twenty, Kevin still expresses difficulty reconciling his faith with his gay identity.

Numerous modern “deliverance ministries” perform rituals to cast demons out of homosexuals. Last June, a shocking youtube video of such an exorcism by Manifested Glory Ministries attracted national news. In the video, charismatic prophetess Patricia McKinney discerns that a teenager has “a homosexual demon.” What ensues is a frantic twenty-minute ordeal during which the teen writhes on the floor in a near seizure. Church members eventually induce vomiting by squeezing the boy’s abdomen. Vomiting, interpreted as evil leaving the body, has become the sine qua non in the cultural “script” of modern exorcism – a practice that is, needless to say, highly controversial. Even Christian ministries who preach that homosexuality is a lifestyle choice and a sin have censured these exorcisms, arguing that they are dangerous. And the majority of gays who undergo these rites are minors, leading some to suggest that this is a form of child abuse.

But exorcism is actually on the rise and may be more common in America than ever before. In 2008 the Pew Research Center found that seventy percent of respondents believe that demons are active in the world.

The Ritual Romanum, written in 1614 under Pope Paul V, consolidated popular forms of exorcism into a formal rite. This brought exorcism under the direct control of the church hierarchy and in the modern era the rite increasingly became a relic.
However, in the 1970s, there was a resurgence of exorcism and quasi-exorcism among evangelical Protestants and charismatic Catholics. These modern practices, often called “deliverance ministries” rather than exorcism, usually occur outside of ecclesiastic authority.

Until the twentieth century, the quintessential case of possession was…an alternate personality, a total lack of socialization, and supernatural abilities.

Instead, they are usually aspects of the person’s normal personality that are deemed demonic. McKinney explained, “You have the alcohol spirit. You have the crack cocaine spirit. You have the adulterous spirit. Everything carries a spirit.” David Frankfurter describes demonology as “the mapping of misfortune onto the environment.” Any trait or behavior including homosexuality, eating disorders, and infidelity can now be attributed to demons rather than natural proclivities or rational choice. Indeed, this seems to be the most appealing aspect of deliverance ministries: When all behavior is ascribed to the influence of demons, there is no one who cannot be exonerated.

While researching his book American Exorcism, Michael Cuneo encountered women whose husbands had diagnosed them as having “a demon of willfulness.” He was even diagnosed as harboring demons himself. Within this system, humans seem to lose all autonomy; instead, individuality is entirely the product of the various demons possessing us.

But “outsourcing” our inner struggles to exorcists comes with a cost. By forfeiting responsibility for our behavior, we also forfeit our right to define ourselves as individuals, and we become vulnerable to the abuse doled out by Kevin’s last exorcist. Perhaps this exchange, in which both responsibility and autonomy are forfeited, is the true “deal with devil.”

Copyright © 2010 Alan Brill • All Rights Reserved

Wild Strawberries for Tisha B’Av

I just received an email that Drisha will be screening and discussing the Ingmar Bergman film Wild Strawberries at 4pm on Tisha beAv. I take this as another indication of our relating to God as a therapeutic deity.

In the 1970’s Conservative congregations spoke of Jewish history and the Holocaust on Tisha Be-av. Reading of Josephus and Ghetto diaries. During this time period, Rav Soloveitchik spoke of the ontic catastrophe of the destruction of the Temple and the existential state of acquiring emotions in a case of “old mourning” and turned it into a day of shiurim on mourning and the mikdash.
Flashy Rabbis gave lectures on “why do we still mourn now that we have a state of Israel?”

By the 1990’s Centrist Orthodoxy used the talks of Rav Soloveitchik to speak of Jewish History and the Holocaust, or discussing the halakhot of the land of Israel. Holocaust films were shown and protests are held at the UN and embassies. The halakhic God of Lonely Man of Faith gave way to a God of History, Land, and War.
On the more yeshivish side, there are lectures on hastening the geulah- either through not talking lashon hara or not doing any of the activities that hasten it.

In the last few years, there has been a shift to the brokenness of the world. Renewal announcements ask: How do we deal with the brokenness, trauma, and injustice in the world. Yeshivish announcements offer sessions on the destruction in our lives and restoring family and teens in trouble. And now Drisha is leading a discussion about Wild Strawberries, a movie in which the protagonist a retired medical professor sees his life as loveless and without meaning. He is haunted by memories, brought on by dreams and by people he meets, about the chances for love, family, and forgiveness that he messed up. Tisha Be-Av is a chance to undo psychic damage.

One path that is not being continued is the Tisha BeAv rally held several years ago in Jerusalem in which Rabbis Lichtenstein, Cherlow, Lau, and others as an occasion for justice. They denounced the lack of in Israel of worker’s rights, the human trafficking, the oppression of the poor, of the Arab other, of unfair business practices. The event did not have continuity. (Can someone send me the links from Haaretz, Ynet or the speeches?)
Rabbi SR Hirsch also emphasized the ethical since the prophets denounced Israel for its immorality.

As a side topic- Here is Reb Shlomo from 1992 asking for intimacy with God, to heal from the pain of the Holocaust, to rebuild the Temple. It’s longing is palpable.

It is possible to do everything G-d wants you to do and not to be intimate with G-d. You know, beautiful friends, Mount Sinai is where G-d told us what to do. But Jerusalem, the Holy Temple, is where we are intimate with G-d. The Holy Temple is the headquarters for being close to G-d and to each other. But when the house is destroyed, there is no place to be intimate anymore. And gevalt! Are we longing and crying to be intimate with G-d, with every Jew, with every word of the Torah, and, one day, with the whole world…On Tisha b’Av the Messiah comes. On Tisha b’Av until the Six Million you only heard the sound of the destruction of the Temple; you could not hear the footsteps of the Messiah. Today, the voice of destruction gets further and further away, the voice of the coming of the Messiah gets closer and closer. Let it be this year that the whole world will be fixed and G-d’s holy intimacy comes back into the world and into our lives. You know, beautiful friends, I’m so proud of our moshav and our shul because they are filled with prayers, with so much dancing and joy, but also with so many tears begging G-d for intimacy with every word of the Torah with every Jew, with every human being, with all of nature. I have a feeling it will be this year.

Shlomo offers an undifferentiated healing love- primordial and oceanic.
Viewing Wild Strawberries offers self-scrutiny of one’s wrong choices and how does one let go of hindrances that prevent healing. One sees that one’s choices are the cause of one’s meaninglessness, therefore a person needs to take responsibility, a therapeutic mussar.

Updated- One week later Drisha sent out an announcement that they will be showing a Holocaust movie and not Wild Strawberries.

Copyright © 2010 Alan Brill • All Rights Reserved

God is Back- John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge Part I

Here is the first of several guest posts by diverse authors. This one is by Benzion N. Chinn, former student, who is an ABD in Jewish History at Ohio State. He generally blogs at his own blog Izgad. He reviews God is Back: How the Global Revival of Faith is Changing the World by John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge, which is one of the best introductory books on religion of the last few years. The book written by two journalists from the Economist who provide an easy to read overview of the current state of religion. They show how the secularization theory is dead, but without the technical details of Peter Berger, Jose Casanova, or Talal Asad. The book presents the role of religion everywhere in our lives. Unlike 25 years ago., religion now seems to be a factor in everything. Rather than the ritual, myth, symbol, and mysticism of older studies of religion, this book provides insight into topics of current interest such as religion and politics, religion and violence, religion and media. They view the current champion as the evangelical model that mixes free-enterprise, self-help, and family life. Benzion N. Chinn offers his review in two parts. The first part of Chinn’s review here is a general overview of the book and the second part is on its application for Modern Orthodoxy. So be patient for the second part.

In the course of studying the contemporary religious resurgence, we must step back and review the Enlightenment ideology its presumptive attractions and strengths as well as its defects and disadvantages. If Schleiermacher aimed to reconstruct theology in the wake of the Enlightenment, today we need to reconsider the Enlightenment in view of recent religious developments. They include liberal theology as well as a variety of neoorthodox and existential ideologies. The return to religion may to some extent be rooted in and related to the inadequacies or oversimplifications of earlier thought.
One corollary of this development would be that we should seek to engage not only people who are formally in the field of religious studies but religiously committed people who are reflective and articulate and who would be able to describe in general nonconfessional terms the nature of their commitment, the meaning and impact of their religious experience, the views they have of secularism or other antireligious ideologies. (Prof. Isadore Twersky, Random Thoughts)

The traditional narrative of the Enlightenment was that the Enlightenment came in and defeated the forces of “superstitious” religion. Such a narrative still retains a certain cultural currency (particularly in the hands of the like of Richard Dawkins), but fails to offer a convincing explanation as to the continued success of organized religion in the United States and, even more devastatingly, the role that religion is playing in the modernization of the developing world. I have no reason to assume that John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge were familiar with the work of the late Prof. Twersky, but their book, God is Back: How the Global Revival of Faith is Changing the World, is certainly an admirable attempt to carry through precisely this charge. It offers a narrative that covers both the Enlightenment encounter with religion and how it continues to play itself out today. Furthermore, the book both challenges the traditional Enlightenment narrative of religion and seeks to understand religion by engaging in a dialogue with its modern practitioners.
The basic narrative of God is Back is one that should be familiar to students of American religious history. While in France (and eventually Western Europe as a whole) a radical version of the Enlightenment, which saw modernity as being in opposition to religion, triumphed, in the United States it was a moderate Enlightenment, which saw religion as the natural ally of progress, which proved dominant. Because of this, today Christianity remains an active force in American politics, while Western Europe has become a collection of post-Christian countries.
This does not mean that the United States was founded as a Christian country. The authors are careful to debunk that myth to show that, in the eighteenth century the young United State was not that different from Western Europe in terms of religiosity. It was plausible that the situations could have been reversed. As to why this did not happen, the authors argue that the lack of strong State supported churches created an opening for niche churches and the sort of religious innovation necessary to thrive in the open climate of modernity. A religious free market forced clergymen to actively seek congregants to fill their pews by catering to popular needs. As the authors openly admit, this thesis comes from Tocqueville; they are merely updating it for the twenty-first century.

While the authors spend the early part of the book giving an overview of the diverging histories of religion in the United States and Western Europe, the most worthwhile part of the book is when the authors move away from the United States to places like the Philippines, China, South Korea, and Nigeria as they struggle to embrace modernity. This path to modernity is increasingly not one of secularization, but on the contrary an embracement some pretty conservative brands of religion. I particularly recommend the anecdote in the introduction, describing a home bible study and worship session by a group of middle-class Christians in Shanghai.

If there is one central thesis at the heart of this wide ranging discussion of religion it is more than just that organized religion is here to stay as an essential part of the modern world, it is that there is a distinctively American brand of religion that is winning in the battle for the soul of modernity. This is no longer just in the United States; the American model is sweeping across the developing world and is even making inroads in the secular bastions of Western Europe. The basic features of this model are, despite a conservative exterior, a move away from top down hierarchal structures, emphasizing hard theology, toward social communities, with an emphasis on personal experience and growth. This is not just Christianity we are dealing with; the authors spend much of the later parts of the book charting how this model has moved into Hinduism and even Islam.  The authors, furthermore, consider the implications of this shift for the future of Islamic relations with the West. Could it be that American style religion, as opposed to American bombs and American style secularism, will be what brings down radical Islam?

The success of this American brand of religion, across confessional lines, is not contrary to the narrative of modernity or peripheral to it, but at the heart of modernity. Modernity has given us choice, but at the same time has disrupted traditional values and community. It should therefore be no surprise that there would be an attraction to a system that offers a surface reaffirmation of traditional values, the sort of community that modernity leaves wanting, all while allowing one to enjoy the freedom, independence and personal choice that are the fruits of modernity. In the struggle between religion and modernity, the American model allows one to eat one’s cake and have it to.
God is Back offers a general picture of the issue, which, while not particularly innovative, offers a readable and much needed statement as to where we are at today in terms of religion and modernity.

Eating out and religion

New York magazine listed how much people spend per month to eat out. The highest rate in the city was singles nightlife Chelsea-Clinton: $754–$2,398. If we look at some neighborhoods with large numbers of Jews, notice the differences:

Upper West Side: $709–$1,056
Williamsburg-Bushwick: $56–$80
Borough Park: $116–$193
East Flatbush–Flatbush: $48–$237
Bronx- Kingsbridge–Riverdale: $300–$444

For comparison purposes it does not matter if the Hasidim or the Hipsters of WIlliamsburg are at the high end becuase either amount is below Boro Park. Do people regulate their eating out based on their religion or does their available income determine their religiosity? Does eating out as part of one’s life change one’s religion? Why does it line up so predictably? What is the correlation of religion and dining out?

Response by Rabbi David Bigman and others to Elchanan Shilo

Elchanan Shilo’s piece garnered several responses. – teguvot
For the original post of Shilo- see here.

Rav David Bigman, RaM at Maaleh Gilboa stated his reservations as follows:

The problem presented in the article is important and the discussion is critical from a personal, religious and national perspectives. The older common halakhah is fading away before smaller individualized forms of halkhah to which people cannot relate. And we have to get beyond the all or nothing approach.

But Bigman completely disagrees with Shilo’s disregard of halakhah and his wanting to change the status of halakhah.
The religious Zionists who live in a wider society have presented it all or nothing. On the other hand, the totalizing society of Haredim when you observe them first hand don’t actually live according to the halakhah

Our poskim have lost a sense of normal life, work life, army life. They do not relate to the customs by which people arrange their lives and only view things through an ideal halakhic lens. (Bigman relates a story of yihud in an army situation.) We have lost the distinctions of Biblical law, rabbinic law, minhag yisrael, and custom. We need to allow different levels. We should not reject the halkhic norms but maybe seek a more intellectual reading of the sources. We need a more living and relevant halakhah.

We don’t need a new system. We need the new generation of rabbis who will be relevant. We need to train rabbis to confront the other and appreciate any connection to Judaism.

Some letters- praise Shilo. One letter written by a dat”lash, morid kipah said that he found the article just the help for clarifying his life. There was a screed by Dov Landau crediting Shilo with causing all evil in society -supporting the Clash of Civilizations, Post-Modernism, the breakdown of society, and uprooting any and all Torah values. (If he could he would have also credited him with the Asian Tsunami and all disastrous events in Gaza.)

Shilo’s Response to Rabbi Bigman

When you enter the halakhah one can soften the law only here and there and even then only a little bit. There is not as much flexibility in the law as you credit. And that ordinary people cannot wait for new generation of rabbis. Ordinary people work below without waiting for miracles from above.

PS If you are in Teaneck, ir hakodesh this Shabbat

Rabbi David Bigman will be at Davar on Shabbat June 4 & 5, 2010
8:15am schachrit, kiddush after laining, lecture #2, musaf
The Discrepancies in the Law of the First Born: Dealing with Biblical Criticism with Sincerity
7:15pm mincha, seudah shelishit, lecture #3, mariv, havdalah
Changes in the Procedure of Divorce: From Scripture to Talmud

Suburban Religion: The Divine Commodity-Skye Jethani

A few years ago, I was asked to teach the beginning of Rav Dessler’s Miktav MiEliyahu whee he discussing the purpose in life. They did not know what they were asking for, and they had never read it, but they knew it was an important book. As we were reading it, they all remarked how it cannot say the things it does- for it invalidates the suburban trajectory of their lives. By the end they did not want to continue, they preferred something more relevant to their lives. Rav Dessler was known to be anti-bourgeois and the sharpness of his thought has receded into memory. Recently, people have however been turning to R. Itamar Schwatz (belevavi mishkan evneh) who screams out for people to abandon their cell phones, suburban homes, and nice clothes and flee into devotion toward God. A shock treatment to remember what life in this world is all about-service of God. But not everyone is ready for such shock treatment.

How do you tell such people that they do not get the world-to-come simply by paying a mortgage in a religious neighborhood? How do tell them that it is not just where you once upon a time learned but also what you study now? Rav Nahman of Bratzlav mocks the material life in his story “The Master of Prayer” But what if one is not looking for reductio ad absurdum, rather insight?

American society has also been witnessing preachers who are questioning the religious value of suburban life. One of these is Skye Jethani The Divine Commodity: Discovering a Faith Beyond Consumer Christianity .

Americans live in a consumer-driven society. We are consumers. This is our world, and the ethos of the corporate and consumer dominated life has been with us and expanding for well over 100 years. Consumers R Us.

However, there is a difference between being a consumer and having a worldview of consumerism. Consumerism is “a set of presuppositions most of us have been formed to carry without question or critique” (12). It has become the subconscious framework through which we view everything, including God, the gospel, and the church. In Jethani’s view, “it is competing with the kingdom of heaven for the hearts and imaginations of God’s people” (12).

For Skye Jethani, the concept of imagination is key. “Learning to see the world as it truly is—saturated with the presence and love of God—should be the essence of Christian discipleship, or what many call spiritual formation” (13). However, the church is failing to provide an alternative vision that will captivate the hearts and minds of consumers and break the chains that bind their imaginations. Instead, churches are catering to consumers without challenging the worldly assumptions that leave them undernourished and anemic in their faith.
What are Skye Jethani’s complaints about consumerism? How does this worldview stunt our faith?

• It commodifies God. God is not the Holy One any longer, the Great Mystery, but one who nicely fits in with our desires and politics. We value him for what he can do for us.

• It moves us to construct our Christian identity from the brands we consume rather than from what God has done for us in Christ. Christians buy Christian, and thus are Christian. Image is everything.

• It leads us to seek transformation through external “experiences” we consume. This has led to a whole new kind of church and ministry: “And the role of the pastor, once imagined as a shepherd tending a flock, now conjures images of a circus ringmaster shouting, ‘Come one, come all, to the greatest show on earth.’ In Consumer Christianity, the shepherd becomes a showman” (75).

• It has turned the church from an “ocean-liner” designed to move people from point A to point B (connecting people with God), to a “cruise ship” that is, in itself, the destination. One need never disembark because it contains everything the Christian life has to offer.

• It leads to a faith that is insatiable, unable to delay gratification, and averse to suffering.

• It causes us to segregate ourselves from others who are not like us, and to gather in homogeneous communities, causing us to miss the gospel call to a unity that rises above human divisions.

• It moves us to choose lifestyles of guarded isolation and individualism and miss out on the gospel call to practice hospitality, especially toward those we would never naturally associate with.

Is he right that we have become a homogeneous pleasure cruise ship? Have we converted God into a kitchen deity serving human needs? Has outreach and spirituality turned into a form of entertainment? What is the alternative to a fixed commodified faith?