Monthly Archives: December 2010

Pope Sylvester did not create known Anti-Jewish legislation

“Distance yourself from a false word,” (Exodus 23:7) “A man shall not lie to his friend.” (Lev. 19:11)

For the last two years, I have been forwarded by many people a complete fabrication by a frum website that generally circulates BS and falsehood without any leg to stand on.

The deceitful website says:

“Sylvester,” was the name of the “Saint” and Roman Pope who reigned during the Council of Nicaea (325 C.E.). The year before the Council of Nicaea convened, Sylvester convinced Constantine to prohibit Jews from living in Jerusalem. At the Council of Nicaea, Sylvester arranged for the passage of a host of viciously anti-Semitic legislation. All Catholic “Saints” are awarded a day on which Christians celebrate and pay tribute to that Saint’s memory. December 31 is Saint Sylvester Day – hence celebrations on the night of December 31 are dedicated to Sylvester’s memory.

I dont know where to begin. Sylvester was too ill to attend the Council of Nicaea. No, he did not convince Constantine to ban Jews from Jerusalem. Nicaea was not about anti-Jewish statements- it was when the Church changes their calendar so that Easter did not have to be calculated by means of contact with Jews to find out when they were celebrating Passover. Here are the decrees of Nicaea.

There are no records to prove his created anti-Jewish legislation and no historian claims it. For the little we know see James Parkes, The Conflict of Church and Synagogue page 186
For the up to date bibliography,see Paula Fredriksen & Oded Irshai, Christianity and Anti-Judaism in Late Antiquity Polemics and Policies, from the Second to the Seventh Centuries. The anti-Jewish decrees were by Constantine. As far as we know, Sylvester did not convince him of anything and power was vested in Emperor.

There is a medieval “Forged Canons of Nicaea” where in some versions Sylvester is credited with decreeing that Jews and Christians should not share bread or eat together. For a version that does not attribute it to him.
That decree was also not by Sylvester and actually suggested by the very anti-Jewish John Chrysostom and not made legislation until the 7th century and widespread in the middle ages. On this topic, see David M. Freidenreich, Sharing Meals with Non-Christians in Canon Law Commentaries, Circa 1160-1260: A Case Study in Legal Development It is similar to the ways that Second Temple and Talmudic law does not allow Jews to eat food prepared by gentiles or to eat their wine, cheese, bread et al, or to eat with them.

We had enough real and deadly Anti-Jewish legislation and rabid hatred of Judaism without making things up.

For more Forgeries about Sylvester, see Silvestri constitutum which do include a story of his contact with a Jewish sorcerer.
In the medieval Christan The Golden Legend, a book of medieval tales- the source of many Ashkenaz Jewish tales- there are legend of how Sylvester slays a dragon and staged a public medieval style disputation with Jews.

The origins of the January 1st festivities go back to the Roman era. Sylvester and Constantine, still living in a pagan world, would have condemned the celebration as a pagan practice. It only became part of the West later when the original Roman practices were lost. Since the celebration of St Sylvester day was done in a morning mass it had little to do with the midnight celebration. A mass offered at midnight would already have been for the next day, the St. Basil day. Calling the evening festivities by the name of Sylvester was widespread in Eastern Europe. When and why Eastern European counties started calling the evening festivities by the name of the Saint and was it based on a medieval Italian locution is beyond the scope of this blog post.

The false frum blog also has false stories of Julius Ceaser, which I did not bother to refute.

The frum website is also responsible for circulating the completely incorrect statistics predicting Haredim to multiply with simple geometric growth like Drosophila and liberal Jews to cease to be. Those statistics are entirely false and not based on anything actuarial or use of any valid method. I wish a frum actuary or statistician would just post the refutation already. I am not the statistician to do it.

There needs to be a Jewish Snopes just for that website. Last year, when I first received the Sylvester story, I goggled to see if there was any immediate source to forward people. Instead, I found people trying to rewite wiki and online Roman histories using this false source as a valid source.

Robert Wuthnow on the Midwest

I am a big Robert Wuthnow fan for his analysis of the American ethos and American religion. He and his team of researchers keep putting out great books. Today, whether you call it fortuitous or providential, I received an email announcement that Robert Wuthnow will release his new book on the Midwest in Jan 2011. The book is on the general ethos, he will probably issue a book on the religion of Midwest in 2012. So, after giving “AS” a chance to view the Midwest as declining compared to the East and allowing others to offer a personal nostalgic look, let us turn to the data and use that to try and analyze where Midwest Jewry is going

The book is called Remaking the Heartland: Middle America since the 1950s. As in many of his other books, he starts with the 1950’s and 60’s and then gives the changes of the 1980-2010. Most people and most textbooks still view social change as forever wedded to the issues of the 1950’s.

His current work shows that people have stereotypes of the Midwest and people need to stop looking at the decline in farming and rust belt industries. Now it is booming due to avionics, fiber-optic communications, finance, medical technology, and bioscience. There are new suburbs. And new meat packing towns made up of immigrants

What does this mean for Judaism? First, whoever gets to the new suburbs with new congregations wins. Most of the Orthodox neighborhoods are not in the new suburbs and exurbs. This is also true about the data from the Census. Open your synagogues in the new carpet-bagger suburbs in Texas of transplanted Northerners and over time they will fill up to capacity. (Who will win by opening first:Chabad? Aish Hatorah? Reform? Renewal? Lakewood Kolel?)

Second, the fields of avionics, fiber-optic communications, medical technology, and bioscience are not emphasized back East. I do not think a researcher in fiber-optics will in any way feel inferior to the lawyer or radiologist of the East Coast. The East coast may need to lose it pride. But the image of midwest Jewish shop keeper is over.

Third, Wuthnow’s point about the complexity of the meat-packing towns was shown in the Potsville case. The Orthodox Jews who move out there to supply the ever increasing need for kosher meat will not be the same sort as those interested in bioscience and they wont live in the same towns.

So does this data change anyone’s comments on Centrism in the Midwest? What narrative would you create for this vision of the midwest? Are doctors who come for the medical schools leaving because they want Torah or because they want kosher restaurants?

One things is certain: The same way Centrism created doctors in Teaneck who drink dry wine and ignored the small towns and elderly shop keepers of the North East and Bronx, the new narrative will be entirely about those in the new suburbs of fiber–optics and medical research and it will ignore Detroit, Cleveland, and all the Jewish shop keepers. Does this effect anyone’s comments about the Midwest?

Several of the commenters mentioned that the community was not divided in clear denominations when they were growing up, Can anyone remember the moments that created the labeling? Which Rabbis? Which events? Who tore it apart and in what year?

From the introductory chapter of Wuthnow’s Remaking the Heartland: Middle America since the 1950s

During the half century that began in the 1950s, the American Middle West— Iowa, Kansas, Nebraska, Minnesota, Missouri, North and South Dakota, Arkansas, and Oklahoma—underwent a dramatic social transformation. The region’s population grew at only half the national rate. More than three thousand towns declined. Agriculture suffered from adverse weather and wild market fluctuations in the 1950s, experienced worse conditions in the 1980s, and became far less significant to the region’s economy.
But the heartland was far different in the early twenty-first century than predictions of its demise had suggested.

Stereotypes of a benighted hinterland had been replaced by images of hospitality and ingenuity. The region’s elementary and secondary schools were among the best in the nation. Its commitment to public higher education consistently ranked high. Without any of the nation’s largest cities, the region was known for innovative medical research and bioscience technology. It hosted some of the nation’s largest businesses and had become a magnet for sprawling exurban commercial districts and housing developments.

Retailers in small towns lost business to franchise outlets in regional centers.

Surely the region was remaking itself, they argued, by importing cheap labor to work in conditions reminiscent of The Jungle and with ethnic tensions as the expected result. But the restructuring of agribusiness proved to be a more complicated story.

Edge cities were not expected to emerge in the Middle West to the extent they did in the Sunbelt and on both coasts, but they did appear and increasingly became symbolic of the Middle West’s new role in the national economy. By 2005 there were ninety-five independently incorporated edge cities with at least ten thousand residents within twenty miles of the region’s eight largest cities. More people lived in these suburbs than in those large cities combined.

Those employers were the principal architects of the region’s new emphasis on avionics, fiber-optic communications, finance, medical technology, and bioscience.

The Manhattan Declaration and Apple Apps

These past few weeks there has been a little drama being played out that may effect religious texts on the web and Orthodox Judaism.

In Nov 2009 a group of conservative Catholics intellectuals and clergy issued the Manhattan Declaration on the nature of marriage.
It was designed to serve as an ideological and philosophic document for conservative Church reform and education. While acknowledging that “Christians and our institutions have too often scandalously failed to uphold the institution of marriage,” the group rejects same-sex marriage. The declaration states that opening a legal door for gay marriage would do the same for “polyamorous partnerships, polygamous households, even adult brothers, sisters, or brothers and sisters living in incestuous relationships.”

Apple has rejected twice an application to produce an APP for the document since they consider it harmful and hate speech toward same-sex marriage. Will this now cause a ripple for other apps? Would an APP for YUTorah be allowed if they know what if there? How about responsa or Rabbinic literature? There is plenty in contemporary rabbinic literature that would be just as against diversity and accepting the other. If this goes to court, there will be plenty of Amicus Curiae Briefs and could set the lines for relgion and the internet. Thoughts from a Jewish perspective?

Apple Says “No” to Manhattan Declaration App 2.0
December 23, 2010
We received notice from Apple last evening regarding their rejection of our resubmission of the Manhattan Declaration iPhone/iPad app to the Apple App Store. This is an appalling response from Apple. Nearly 500,000 Christians have signed the Manhattan Declaration including representatives from many major Protestant denominations, leading Catholic Bishops and leaders of the Orthodox Church.

Apple is telling us that the apps’ content is considered “likely to expose a group to harm” and “to be objectionable and potentially harmful to others.” Inasmuch as the Manhattan Declaration simply reaffirms the moral teachings of our Christian faith on the sanctity of human life, marriage and sexual morality, and religious freedom and the rights of conscience, Apple’s statement amounts to the charge that our faith is “potentially harmful to others.”

AS on the Midwest (Guestpost)

It seems AS is on winter break and home back East for a while. He has given me lots to think about the Midwest and Orthodoxy. There is much here to discuss. Do I have any Midwest readers (besides Evanston) to collaborate? Any Thoughts?

Here is the Guest Post by AS

Because you asked….since moving west of the mid Atlantic Appalachians for the first time in my life and as a result becoming a bit of an unwitting anthropologist, I offer the following: I quickly noticed that the East Coast elitist narrative (which I have realized surrounds explicit intellectual and tacit economic aspirations) does not resonate in the Midwest on almost any level (just to take one trivial example – East Coast transplants find it crazy that the centrist school curriculum is at least one year behind the east coast schools they went to in Limmudei Kodesh curriculum, the natives don’t notice the difference). And aside from some ardent but not very ideological Zionism there is nothing to take its place.

Centrist communities are very much in decline by most metrics from the rust belt to Chicago and many are and have been trying to import East Coast products to compensate but with limited long-term success thus far. The only Centrist narrative I can detect is still very much the immigrant success story: they came from Europe, they became American, and they remained Orthodox. But that is a given for those who are two generations removed – it is not the story of their lives. There is no master narrative of Centrist Orthodoxy to provide the building blocks for Centrist/MO identity formation.

As a result a lot more people gravitate to the Lith. Yeshivish circles (if they grew up frum) or the BT Aish or Lubavitch circles if they did not – not for ideology, but for a more robust narrative that actually talks about God, and popular religion that more easily provides a large variety of spiritual engagements for different tastes. Challah baking, inspiring talks simulcast around the world, tehilim groups, school plays, quasi hassidic tisches, chavrusas with full time learners, weekly halakha sheets that give easy entree into the world of chumrot, stories about sephardic miracle workers, shiurim about how mitzvot are magical, Torah as a series of simple moral lessons.

So my guess is that Centrist shuls turn to popular culture in an attempt to add more to the religious smorgasbord hoping that given that all the other stuff is pretty much spoken for, this will appeal to the people who want shul to be a continued affirmation of their American identities, the only centrist narrative that is yet discernible. I think that you will find that most of their appropriations of popular culture play on distinctly American themes or react to the ways in which the American identity has become problematic.

The most interesting to me has been the idea of shul as a refuge for men, maleness and the besieged American male ego (this is especially true for members of the decimated Midwestern middle class – East Coasters tend to forget that there were actual Centrist true middle class communities where most of the members lived comfortably on single income blue collar jobs or small businesses, and there were only a handful of professionals). The result is a flourishing of men-only programs, some official some not. Men seem to gravitate toward shiurim for men, some offering cigars or single malts (and of course kiddush clubs), father-son learning, men only leisure activities organized by the shul, and a variety of men’s sports leagues organized by shulgoers. Shul is marketed as a place where you can comfortably seek out a fraternal and masculine identification which you can no longer get at the workplace and which in mass popular culture is almost always presented as sophomoric testosterone-fueled self-parody.

For someone who grew up with an elitist narrative (perhaps a particularity extreme form, where nearly everyone in your shul had semicha and an advanced degree) , and will admit that it is still very constitutive of my religious affiliation, this is pretty bleak. Centrism here provides no compelling story and is now struggling to fill in the gaps left over by streams of Orthodoxy that have done a better job of presenting an appealing popular religion. And if not for its unreflective quasi religious Zionism, it would be even weaker.

In sum my verdict is that Centrist Orthodoxy writ large does not provide a framework for a flourishing of popular religion, and perhaps has not since the early 60s. The result is that there are few building blocks for many second, third and fourth generation Centrist Americans Jews to form the stable religious identities necessary to maintain their communities.

The elitist narrative will still work for some of the people – certainly for many of the kids attracted to some of the old overseas hesder yeshiva programs and some others who have spent a year or two in Israel and now feel that they have got it. They probably do learn better than they ever did in high school. And they will likely be attracted to the shiurim that play on their strengths and ignore their weaknesses – that at least is what I witnessed over the course of 8 or so years in and around YU.

Is there a point in bursting the bubble? Do you put them in a room with an English speaking bochur from Chevron so that they can see what someone their age could achieve in learning if they did almost nothing else? Is it worth pointing out that the spiritual satisfaction they ostensibly get (or are told that they get) from learning a number of hours a day will likely not carry over once they start working the hours necessary to pay for day school tuition?

Centrism needs a narrative that is triumphant yet grounded. For an older generation it really was enough that you became American, helped build a synagogue and day school, and most of your kids remained religious. But centrism today requires a narrative that holds its own against hareidi themes like rebuilding what was lost in Europe, the self-evident authenticity of its fundamentalism, or of everyone, even the little people having a role to play in a larger elitist story. But aside from those three necessary components I cannot flesh out the story. (maybe we need centrist focus group researchers asking questions like: what are you proud about in your Judaism; how do you see yourself as distinct from other Orthodox groups; what would you tell your kid if they asked you… etc?)

As far as economic aspirations: you have to remember that this region has had a massive exodus of young college graduates for richer pastures. For those that stay thee are clearly different economic aspirations. You don’t need to go to a top law school or get a job in finance. The cost of living is much lower resulting in lower tuition. A successful professional can pretty easily be a sole provider. And there are more blue collar workers and tradesmen who are Orthodox than I have seen in any other region (compare to New York where the Orthodox who were not college educated went into small businesses and real estate). There is also a suspicion of East coast elitism – not the Tea Party kind, but more of a “stop telling us how we are screwing up all the time” fatigue. In the Centrist community there is also a wariness of rabbis and educators who come from the East and are perceived as seeing it as a stepping stone to bigger and better things.

So how will they react to WINGS? On the one hand they are probably desperate to revitalize shuls that may be slowly shrinking. On the other hand they don’t have the cash to blow on certain kinds of programs and they probably feel that people like Steve Weil, despite his Midwest cred, is now thoroughly out of touch with what goes on in flyover territory.

Twenty Somethings- Lost?

Here is a notice from an upcoming conference at Fordham. The topic speaks for itself and the Jewish community would have much to learn by analyzing the similarities and differences. Any thoughts on the loss of the Twenty-Something in Judaism from this program?

The first major difference in the way they run a conference that I notice is that Fordham is bringing in to speak the best experts in each field, the ones that wrote the definitive books. Centrist Orthodoxy only brings in people within that community who are at least temporarily approved. So they have the experts in popular culture, Centrism only brings in those who have read the books of the experts.

Another difference is the role of the empirical data. Centrism at best will bring in someone who did a minor study without controls and non random sample. At Fordham, the bad news empirical data is placed front and center. There is an issue to talk about. They actually mention that religious kids are hooking up.

Finally, a more subtle difference is that Centrism uses a model of deviance, similar to Dobson. If there is a problem in a child, then it was the fault of the parents or the educators. Centrist social psychology stacks the deck in favor of the perfection institution, it was just a deviance in the implementation. Here the model is social trends and autonomous choice. (I may fiske the recent Azrieli survey on parenting as an example).

But then I realized that this is not fair. They Catholic seminaries are not taking in this data or having this discussion. Rather, it is University in the hands of the University Professor laity that is having this discussion. I suppose if the seminaries wanted to know something they would also invite an acceptable clergy who was in the audience and not one of the actual speakers.

When evangelicals make these lists of why 20 somethings are not affiliated, they also include provincialism and lack of culture. These are not current Catholic problems, but they are Centrist problems.

Twenty-somethings raised as Catholics are swelling the ranks of the religiously unaffiliated. Even those who continue to identify as Catholic are regularly absent from the pews and are likely to judge faith less important in their lives than did their parents and grandparents. Yet many twenty-somethings hold traditional beliefs about God, prayer, and life after death; many express spiritual yearnings and the desire to serve.

This two-day conference will examine the lives of young adults and their relationship to the Catholic Church—or the lack thereof. From sexuality to spirituality to service, the conference will present the data, and explore the issues, obstacles and opportunities that mark the fraught relationship between twenty-somethings and the church in today’s cultural, economic, and religious contexts.

The speakers include leading experts and practitioners: James Davidson, Robert Putnam, Melissa Cidade, David Campbell, Carmen Cervantes, Donna Freitas, Colleen Carroll Campbell, Tom Beaudoin, Rachel Bundang, Bill McGarvey, Marilyn Santos, Tami Schmitz, James Martin, Robert Beloin; and twenty-somethings themselves

Friday, January 28, 2010, 6:00-8:00 p.m.
Twenty-Somethings: The Known and the Unknown
What the data shows about young adults and the church

Saturday, January 29, 2010, 9:30-5:00 p.m.
9:45 a.m. Session I
On Your Own?
Student loans, job searches, finding friends and housing, the parish and social scene—a look at the economic, career, social, and religious challenges twenty-somethings face. What are the implications for religious communities?

11:00 a.m. Session II
Sex and the City of God
Hooking up, casual sex, cohabitation, later marriages, and same-sex relationships are cultural realities for twenty-somethings. How does this affect young adults’ ties to Catholic communities, teaching, and values, and their own desires for lives of integrity and wholeness?

1:00 p.m. Session III
Frenemies? Popular Culture and Catholic Culture
The complex encounter between church and culture: How do twenty-somethings navigate the varied terrains of church culture and popular culture? How does the church engage the media-saturated, sensory-charged, and socially-networked lives of twenty-somethings?

2:00 p.m. Session IV
“I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” Yearnings of the Spirit
Prayer, preaching, service, Scripture, liturgy, sacraments: what do twenty-somethings seek and where can it be found?

3:15 p.m. Session V
An Inconvenient Church: Reasons to Love or Lose Catholicism
Live From New York: What twenty-somethings are saying about the church.

Full Schedule and Announcement Poster.

Ronit Meroz-Who wrote the Zohar?

I know I am behind on posting about some of the new works on Kabbalah. In the meantime here is a nice video interview with Ronit Meroz about her forthcoming book about the various strata in the Zohar. She states that the texts of the Zohar were written between the 11th and the 14th century, layer upon layer, each generation adding or taking out what they wanted. she claims that the manuscripts show that there were many things called Zohar.
Meroz places the first texts in Israel in the 11th century, those texts were reworkings of Rabbinic ideas taken a little further. The early drafts were not mystical yet, rather more mythic versions of Rabbinic statements. Here is an 18 page taste of her book from an earlier article. (Whatever similarities her view has to Emden and Sde Hemed would need to wait until the full book comes out.)
For the alternate view, see my post on Daniel Abrams, who claims the Zohar was never a book until created by the printers.

Notice how she changes the question when the interviewer asks: Is it worth it [to spend a decade looking at 1000 manuscripts]? Is it interesting to do this?

(h/t Yosef Rosen).

Rav Aviner- Democracy as the Will of the Jewish People

Here is statement from Rav Aviner issued on Friday. Can we use this to test EJ’s desire to use Rawls? How would you solve this statement of Rav Aviner?

I am not interested in the halakhic or politics aspects. I want a continuation of the discussion on the use of Rawls. Hartman preached pluralism of as the solution, Menachem Kellner makes an ahistoric typology between rational Maimonideans and irrational racist Halevi followers. Rav Aviner defines democracy as the will of the people and the fulfillment of ideals in a Platonic state way. He does not know that here we define democracy as civil liberties, civil right, representation democracy or minority rights.

Rav Aviner on… Without Loyalty There is No Citizenship
[Be-Ahavah U-Be-Emunah – Shemot 5771 – translated by R. Blumberg]

Question: A law has been proposed in the Knesset that any non-Jew who wishes to receive citizenship in our country must swear a loyalty oath: “I declare that I will be a faithful citizen to the Jewish state, and I undertake to respect the country’s laws.” Is this law appropriate?

Answer: Obviously, I don’t deal with laws and jurisprudence, but with the Torah. And so, here is how things look according to the Torah:

1. It is halachically possible for a non-Jew to live in the Land of Israel. The Torah allows for a ger toshav, or resident alien. The Poskim [halachic decisors] write that even in our times there is room for a status similar to that of the resident alien (see Rambam, Ra’avad, Kessef Mishneh). In other words, it is possible for a non-Jew to live in the L and. Yet there are two preconditions to this, one moral and the other political.

2. The first condition is moral: undertaking the seven laws commanded to Noach, the foundations of human morality, by virtue of which man is called man. True, some take the lenient view that it suffices for a non-Jew to undertake not to worship idols, and such was the ruling of Maran Ha-Rav Avraham Yitzchak Ha-Kohain Kook (Mishpat Kohain), and our Rabbi Ha-Rav Tzvi Yehuda Kook (Sichot HaRav Tzvi Yehuda – Eretz Yisrael). After all, this is the Land given to Avraham, who fought against idolatry. Hence it cannot be that somebody who goes against this should live here. Therefore, this is not the place of the various types of Christians, and of various pagan faiths from the Far East. By contrast, Islam is not idolatry.

3. The political precondition is that the candidate must accept the state’s authority (Rambam, Hilchot Melachim). This is something obvious and logical that exists throughout all the nations of the world. Certainly, somebody busy destroying our country and killing us cannot live here. That goes without saying.

4. Let’s just point out that there is no racism in either of these conditions. Racism is a biological doctrine that distinguishes between races, but within the Jewish people there are Jews from almost all of the races, whether they were born Jews or converted.

5. All that said, the idea of a Jewish-Democratic state can find expression, but note that I place the word Jewish first. In other words, there is room for democracy on condition that it does not contradict Judaism. That is certainly how things must be. After all, this is the State of Israel, or, in the words of Theodore Herzl, “the state of the Jews”, in both Hebrew and German, or, “the Jewish state”, in Yiddish and French. This is a Jewish state, and not a state of all its citizens.

Certainly, democracy, i.e., the will of the majority, cannot force an immoral or antinational law. Examples would include a law that would force Shabbat violations or a law that would decide to erase the State of Israel and make it part of the United States. Even the philosopher Plato described an idealistic democracy aimed at the general good as an organism and not just a utilitarian gathering of individuals. Certainly there are timeless ideals that transcend the law. After all, a nation is not built solely on economics and security, but on ideals and history as well.

To cut a nation off from its history, from its soul, is an immoral act, and the most antidemocratic act there could be.

Let us support real, exalted democracy: responsibility and loyalty to the Nation down through the generations

I repeat I am not interested in politics or the halakhic status of Christianity. I want a Rawlsian discussion. Or do we need the basics of Locke? Should we be pushing Rav Hayyim Hirschenson as one who saw the need for democracy? Is this just a problem of Israel not having a constitution? Would Habermas or Charles Taylor work better in Israel were we allow the voice of non-democratic positions a say in the public discourse. We are speaking to a group that does not realize that Plato is seen as the opposite of the democratic society.
From a politic perspective see Jeffrey Goldberg article from this morning “What If Israel Ceases to Be a Democracy?”. Can we create a Judaism with some of Locke, Rawls, or any other democratic thinker?

Religion and popular Culture : Rescripting the Sacred

Some further reflections on popular culture. Those of my readers who are working on the same project, if you use this blog, then cite it.

This continues the six prior posts (1) Cruise Ship Synagogues, (2) Suburban Religion, (3) Christian Rock and Kiruv (4) Popular Culture and Judaism (5) Disney-ization of Faith (6) The Divine Commodity

Today we will look at the book Religion and Popular Culture : Rescripting the Sacred by Richard W Santana and Gregory Erickson 2008. The major claim of the book is that we understand religion through its contemporary pop culture and laity driven versions. A Feldheim book or a blog or an experience from Israel determines what a text means.

The United States is the world’s primary creator and exporter of popular mass culture and arguably one of the most religious countries in modern history. As a result, the coexistence of American religion with popular culture has created a fertile yet caustic environment for new religious belief structures, new texts, and new worldviews that are uniquely American. This work considers ways in which American television, advertising, music, and video games have played a significant role in creating, representing, and influencing contradictory religious identities. The authors examine three distinct segments of popular culture that “rescript the sacred.”

What they mean is that people understand their religion though the popular culture interpretation. TV, movies, novels and blogs now serve as the official narrated version for the religion means. They serves as a new scripture.

This creates a huge gap between the official interpretation and the popular interpretation. Popular religion gives its order and meaning and shows the tension between the religion of the ordinary person and the theologians priests and other religious professionals. There are learned presentations of the doctrines and practices, yet for many believers the most important parts of religion are those offering emotional security and personal relationship. American religion is bi-directional between popular and established religion. Lay people interpret the faith in its unique ways and influence the clergy.

M Lawrence Moore has suggested that our post-secular era is an era of the commoditization of religion. (see Oliver Roy in prior post)

According to the authors, America as a religious or Biblical culture that does not actually read the bible- they understand it through the Da Vinci code, Purpose Driven Life, Left Behind, Joel Osteen, TV, and famous preachers. Even when people go to ear famous preachers they actually spend most of their time with the side shows like the children’s show where Biblical figure as superheros defeat evil villains of secular culture with priestly magical garments. The Bible becomes objects and forces of power mightier than a sword. There is action and heroic virtue but not textual significance. They don’t get their power from reading the Bible but from its power. If you have faith or commitment then you vanquish your spiritual enemies.

The authors stress that popular religion is the religion of the laypeople By definition, they treat popular religion as having an extra institutional status, non-elite practitioners, immediacy and informality. It draws on behaviors both participant and observer recognize as religious even if not condoned by the religious elite. (p. 18) Focus on what people do and not what they think- blurring of sacred and profane- it surrounds us in everyday life.

The lines in America between religion and popular culture blur in ways “that leave scholars dizzy.” Paradoxes resolve themselves in ways that are not ordinarily obvious. (Think of the person who works in a corporate cubicle and defines work as cognitive, so religion is his emotional redemption. So hearing a rock star in shul is emotional and therefore Rav Nachman and Roger Daltry both say the same religious message to oppose his workplace rationalism.)

You cannot say they don’t understand the text correctly, famous case of experts saying that Waco Branch Davidians did not understand the Book of Revelations. You cannot tell pop culture Orthodox that they misunderstand the halakhic world. They have already reached a point where there were rabbis and authority figures who supported their opinion.

They think Biblical history is the most important event in world history but they interpret it through pop culture. Modern version of story is more real than the original.

Popular culture rescues religion from the bonds of the institutions that one grew up with. The bonds of the pulpit rabbi and HS rebbe and places it in the free floating experience of the year in Israel as one’s emotional retreat.

Any thoughts on applying this to Orthodoxy?

Reason and Tradition in Maimonides according to Jonathan Jacobs

I did not post the Ngram, but in my playing with it I discovered that Maimonides went through a cultural peak in the 1990’s, the way Buber did in the 1960’s. Maimonides’ Guide has entered the canon on many college campuses as part of the general education requirement
To serve these new readers, there is a new book by Jonathan Jacobs of Colgate University, entitled Law, Reason, and Morality, in Medieval Jewish Philosophy. The book places Saadyah Bahye, and Maimonides into the context of Aristotelian tradition as part of an undergraduate philosophy curriculum. The book has not come into the library yet, but the author just published a nice article on the role of tradition in medieval Jewish thought.

Kant declared that rationality meant autonomous reason, if something was know by means of tradition then it is not rationality. Gadaemer returned the respectability of tradition. Here is an article discussing tradition in Saadyah Bahye, and Maimonides. What makes the article interesting is that it does not get involved in history or ideology. Jacobs does not concern himself with Islamic theories of reliable traditions nor with connecting Maimonides to any modern movement.

According to Jacobs, there can be good reason to follow tradition even if we don’t personally know the reason. Moderns care about choice, volition, and decision. Since the Torah is rational and there are reasons for the commandments and Torah is know by reason, we can follow the tradition .trusting that we will see the rationality.

For the medieval, rationality develops over time. All three monotheistic regions share the belief in reason and we all accept tradition. Not Talmudic, Patristic, or Hadith interpretations but tradition that the Biblical faith with its doctrines and observances makes sense. Each particular tradition teaches a universal truth and we can only learn universal truths by means of being in a tradition.

It would be worthwhile to compare this presentation of Maimonides to the Haredi and Centrist uses of Maimonides. For Maimonides, tradition is not an end in itself or about authority or to use tradition to exclude positions. Tradition is individually a moment of one’s education and in community the bearer of universal values. Because of the need to grow in rationality, we temporarily accept tradtion, like medicine.

Jonathan Jacobs. The Review of Metaphysics. Washington: Sep 2010. Vol. 64:1; pg. 55, 20 pgs

Maimonides (and other medieval Jewish thinkers) regarded tradition as an ethical and intellectual resource keeping us directed rightly, and also substantively perfecting us. Tradition sustains continuity with the past and connection with roots, and it is a guide into the future. Tradition sustains faithfulness to normatively authoritative origins and also supplies guidance for how to carry on leading well-led lives.

Jewish philosophers’ repeated reference to Deuteronomy 4:6 and what it says about the importance of understanding the commandments – “observe them and do them, for this is your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the peoples” – is indicative of the importance of the exercise of reason in fulfilling the commandments. Bahya ibn Pakuda wrote,

if you are a man of sound mind and understanding, which qualify you to verify the traditions passed down to you from the prophets concerning the roots of religion and the origins of the acts of worship – then you are obliged to use your faculties in order to verify things both logically and by tradition.

Saadia held a similar view and he argued extensively that the rationality of Judaism could be shown. He wrote:

Moreover, in support of the validity of these laws, His messengers executed certain signs and wondrous miracles, with the result that we observed and carried out these laws immediately. Afterwards we discovered the rational basis for the necessity of their prescription so that we might not be left to roam at large without guidance.

The Introductory Treatise to The Book of Beliefs and Opinions is largely devoted to just that issue and he shows how, with regard to one major concern after another, Judaism can be interpreted in terms of rational considerations.

The strong rationalistic current in medieval Jewish philosophy is distinguished from other forms of rationalism by the way in which it acknowledges that our rational comprehension needs to develop over time, through practices required by tradition.
This bears some likeness to the Aristotelian notion that good habits and dispositions are necessary for attaining sound ethical understanding. The Jewish view differs in regard to the relations between understanding the world on the one hand, and excellent practice on the other. It also differs insofar as the Jewish view has a genuinely historical dimension. The enlargement of understanding is a process occurring in the history of a people and not just in an individual’s maturation and reflective sophistication.

We can now begin to see important differences between the Jewish understanding of tradition and its role, and Aristotle’s understanding of habit, understood as sustained, regular practice, transmitted across generations, and its role. Aristotle’s ethical thought takes habit to be of the first importance, but habit – while it is strongly relevant to tradition – is not the same as it. Tradition is often transmitted by habituation, but tradition is much more than a means of transmission. It can also be the substance of what is transmitted.

In the early portions of The Book of Beliefs and Opinions, in discussing epistemological matters, Saadia noted that the authenticity of religion is attested by the senses and “acceptance is also incumbent upon anybody to whom it has been transmitted because of the attestation of authentic tradition.”29

As for ourselves, the community of monotheists, we hold these three sources of knowledge to be genuine. To them, however, we may add a fourth source, which we have derived by means of the [other] three, and which has thus become for us a fiirther principle. That is [to say, we believe in] the validity of authentic tradition, by reason of the fact that it is based upon the knowledge of the senses as well as that of reason.30

There is no conflict between the givenness or the certainty of revelation and the extensive role of human beings in elaborating and applying what is revealed. The Law speaks through not only the extensive reasoning and argumentation of the rabbis who originated the tradition but also through one’s own reasoning and understanding. In studying Torah one learns strategies of inquiry and argument, not just a fixed code. Moreover, such study includes multiple perspectives, contested interpretations, and enduringly hard cases. The wisdom that would be deployed by someone faithful to the Law would involve knowledge attained in experience and it would involve the cultivation of discerning perception, attention to ethically relevant features of persons, acts, and situations, knowledge of the Law in its complex multi-dimensionality, and knowledge of the ways in which its elements fit together.

There are at least two important observations to make about this. One is that the particularism of a tradition need not be at odds with the objectivity or universality of values it inculcates. The concrete details and specific requirements and practices of a tradition can be the way in which people learn universal values and become habituated to acting on them. A corollary to this is the important moral-psychological fact that the acquisition of values tends to occur in and through experience and contexts thickly textured with certain perspectives, practices, aspirations, and so forth.

Cruise Ship Synagogues for Orthodoxy

A half-year ago, I posted about suburban religion and its turning of the house of worship into a cruise ship. Well now the OU has officially designed a entertaining Orthodoxy with all social events on board.

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

It is a continuation of Disney-ization of Faith:magic moments, theme park, kitsch, and entertainment.

If you google “Synagogue Transformation” you see that it was the buzz word for the last decade in liberal congregations. The successful STAR (Synagogues: Transformation and Renewal) brought in a variety of parallel programs called The Synaplex Initiative. Similar efforts were done by Synagogue 3000 and the United Synagogue. But they claimed to be doing something new. Here we have the OU claiming that turning the Orthodox synagogue is not a new act or transformation “rather to inspire a shul to become what it always was supposed to be.”

The director states “If there’s a book out there that relates to synagogue growth in any way, I’ll read it,” This means, and the language of this announcement shows, that he read all the books by the liberal movements and the Mega Church Evangelicals.
Shavuot night moves from an evening of Torah study to a midnight BBQ, one creates a Menorah Building Contest, a Latke Cook-Off; and a great debate on the Maccabees.

Or one creates a Rock and Roll Shabbaton as the director of Wings does. (flier)
Who Roger Daltrey of THE WHO
Joshua Nelson Rock Gospel Chazan
David Fishof – Producer of VH1 Rock N’ Roll Fantasy Camp
Elan Atias – Lead Singer of Bob Marley and The Wailers
Ellen Foley – “Paradise by the Dashboard Light” Co Singer
There will also be a Comedy Shabbaton in the upcoming weeks.

I guess this is what an Orthodox Synagogue was “Always supposed to be.” This will be the new model of Centrist synagogue, more like the entertainment mega-Church.


Just as synagogues provide the spiritual means for their congregations to soar, the Orthodox Union, in one of its newest and most ambitious initiatives, has established the WINGS program to guide the synagogues themselves to rise to new heights. WINGS… is an acronym for “We Inspire New Growth Synagogues,” with “new growth” referring to shuls of any age or size, as long as they have the outlook and attitude to be inspired – and to soar.

“The title ‘we inspire’ is meant to reflect just that,” declared Rabbi Shlomo Einhorn, the rabbi of Manhattan’s West Side Institutional Synagogue, who is Project Director of Wings. “We’re not claiming we can transform a shul, but rather to inspire a shul to become what it always was supposed to be.”

In the five years since he arrived at the West Side Institutional Synagogue, Shabbat morning attendance has increased from 12 to over 300. “It’s been going amazing there,” Rabbi Einhorn says. He came with the background to build a congregation. “I’ve been watching rabbis and shuls since I was a kid, observing what shuls do wrong and what shuls do right,” he explained.

Rabbi Einhorn has supplemented his first-hand knowledge with intensive study. “If there’s a book out there that relates to synagogue growth in any way, I’ll read it,” he says, adding that he’s already read more than 1,000 books on the subject. “The content of what I give comes from taking a lot of time listening to a lot of shuls, hearing their struggles and their challenges, how they face them and how they respond to these challenges.”

For example, for each holiday WINGS compiles a listing of best practices. For Chanukah, suggestions included a Family Friday Night, a Carnival, a Creative Menorah Building Contest, a Latke Cook-Off; and a great debate on the Maccabees.

This is all connected to the book HOLY IGNORANCE By Olivier Roy, which was reviewed by Alan Wolfe in today’s NYT book review. (subscription required). Roy claims that today’s Evangelical and Orthodox religions are themselves secularized into the consumer market. No one is going back to the Bible rather into ever newer consumer cultural forms. Much of Centrist Orthodoxy is moving forward by ever greater identification with consumer religion. True frumkeit will be determined by whether one takes part in these cruise ship entertainments.

Every winter Fox News, seeking to stir up anger through the land, uncovers evidence of a war on Christmas. Secular humanists ignorant of religion and hostile to its traditions, someone in the studio will declare, want us to say “Happy Holiday” or give Kwanzaa equal standing. But Christmas, as its name suggests, is about Christ. These enemies of Christianity will stop at nothing to get their way. Not even Santa Claus is sacred to them.

Actually, as the brilliant French social scientist Olivier Roy points out in “Holy Ignorance,” it is those defending Christmas who are not being true to their traditions and teachings. There are no Christmas dinners in the Bible, which is why America’s Puritans, strict adherents of what that venerated text offers, never sat down by the raging fire awaiting St. Nick; indeed, they briefly banned Christmas in Massachusetts.

Yule as we celebrate it today owes more to Charles Dickens than to Thomas Aquinas. Our major solstice holiday is what Roy calls a “cultural construct” rather than a sectarian ceremony, which explains why Muslims buy halal turkeys and Jews transformed Hanukkah into a gift-giving occasion. Mistakenly believing that Christmas is sacred, those who defend it find themselves propping up the profane. The Christ they want in Christmas is a product not of Nazareth but of Madison Avenue.

Over the past few years, a number of theories have been offered about the rise of fundamentalism. Roy proposes the most original — and the most persuasive. Fundamentalism, in his view, is a symptom of, rather than a reaction against, the increasing secularization of society.

EJ and Rawls

EJ the important blog commenter sent in the following guest post. I will offer a little intro on Rawls and then blog his comments. This is one of the pillar’s of EJ’s thought along with certain parts of Lacan. A yearning for a more Rawlsian halakhah.

The Harvard ethicist John Rawls was required reading in ethics, politics, law school for decades and was treated as open of the starting positions for political and juridical discourse. He offered a humanistic Kantianism based on equality, fairness, and justice. For many, it was a natural synthesis with Telshe, Brisk, or Maimonides. Rawl’s Theory of Justice (1971) was based on defining justice as treating others with fairness. Fairness was to be decided from what he called the “original position,” one makes decisions without knowing where in society one would fall. One created abstract principles of fairness not knowing where you would be in society. (For Kant, transcendence means beyond what our faculty of knowledge can legitimately know).

John Rawls’ Method

We are to imagine ourselves in what Rawls calls the Original Position. We are all self-interested rational persons and we stand behind “the Veil of Ignorance.” To say that we are self-interested rational persons is to say that we are motivated to select, in an informed and enlightened way, whatever seems advantageous for ourselves.
To say that we are behind a Veil of Ignorance is to say we do not know the following sorts of things: our sex, race, physical handicaps, generation, social class of our parents, etc. But self-interested rational persons are not ignorant of (1) the general types of possible situations in which humans can find themselves; (2) general facts about human psychology and “human nature”.

Self-interested rational persons behind the Veil of Ignorance are given the task of choosing the principles that shall govern actual world. Rawls believes that he has set up an inherently fair procedure here. Because of the fairness of the procedure Rawls has described, he says, the principles that would be chosen by means of this procedure would be fair principles.

A self-interested rational person behind the Veil of Ignorance would not want to belong to a race or gender or sexual orientation that turns out to be discriminated-against. Such a person would not wish to be a handicapped person in a society where handicapped are treated without respect. So principles would be adopted that oppose discrimination.

Likewise, a self-interested rational person would not want to belong to a generation which has been allocated a lower than average quantity of resources. So (s)he would endorse the principle: “Each generation should have roughly equal resources” or “Each generation should leave to the next at least as many resources as they possessed at the start.”

John Rawls’ principles of justice.
Rawls argues that self-interested rational persons behind the veil of ignorance would choose two general principles of justice to structure society in the real world:
1) Principle of Equal Liberty: Each person has an equal right to the most extensive liberties compatible with similar liberties for all. (Egalitarian.)
2) Difference Principle: Social and economic inequalities should be arranged so that they are both (a) to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged persons, and (b) attached to offices and positions open to all under conditions of equality of opportunity.
Source here
For those who want more – here is the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy on Rawls.

EJ’s post

I find these five ideas useful in stating my moral complaints against certain types of Orthodoxy. I could probably organize a moralizing blog explaining why and how Jews are screwing up their future by everyone trying to get an edge on the other guy.
(1) endorsement of a morality defined by interpersonal relations rather than by pursuit of the highest good; (2) insistence on the importance of the separateness of persons, so that the moral community or community of faith is a relation among distinct individuals; (3) rejection of the concept of society as a contract or bargain among egoistic individuals; (4) condemnation of inequality based on exclusion and hierarchy; (5) rejection of the idea of merit.

Enclosed are 3 recent examples where I try to adapt Rawls in a comment.

1…R. Maryles…If you want to give up racism you have to give up the idea that others exist for the sake of frum Jews. Let’s not even talk about blacks…you don’t even see the 12 million Jews who are not Orthodox as ends in themselves. Their tachlis is to become frum through kiruv. As Rashi says, God created the world bishvil yisrael shenikra rashis, and yisrael in your theology equals Centrists..

Human beings don’t exist for the sake of confirming anyone’s beliefs. They are ends in themselves and are to be treated as such.
I can’t say this Kantian idea is the correct hashkafah, that’s for rabbis to decide. But if you reject this idea, if you believe the world is structured as a hierarchy, to the point where this hierarchy is an adequate reason for acting, then you have no systemic grounded way to confront racism.

2…R. Maryles…Hillel said, “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow.” Many here seem to agree they don’t want Lubavitch mucking about with their own kids or with other kids from their stripe, like the bocherim in YU. The solution is not to turn around and do something that Lubavitch will find unpleasant.

A group proselytizes when they think the children are a davar shel hefker, i.e. the parents do not have the exclusive right to raise their children in accordance with the parents ends and values. Orthodox hold it is a mitzvah to be mekarev non-orthodox kids; they and their parents are tinok shahnishbas and because of their ignorance of the truth, the parents have no legitimate say in how their children should live. Centrists also feel they have a right to be influence young charedim to become more centrist…go to work, join the army, get a secular education. Charedim, rosh yeshivas feel it is OK to turn MO students into Charedim. But when some group like Lubavitch feels they have the hegemonic rights of turning klal yisrael into Lubavitchers, and then come into Centrist or Charedi communities, many, maybe most, are up in arms. You don’t die from a contradiction, so maybe this is just the way it is.

This entire mess comes from treating people as means. Each and every person and certainly each and every Jew is an end in himself, and his freely chosen values ought to be respected. When two people meet, each viewed as an end in themselves, kiruv is not unidirectional. Like all human interactions both parties can change. ”

3…XGH… This is how I see your problem. You are caught between two poles, neither of which are acceptable. You feel Torah is not real in some common sense plus empiricist conception of the real. Take that as a starting point. You also feel Torah is not imaginary, it’s much more than a novel by Dickens. How to take hold of the middle, what Lacan calls the symbolic world, the world of society, law, tradition, language. These are social constructs. Even if not real-real, they are kind of important. Try not paying your taxes or lying to the bank. We live in this symbolic world. Death, physics dog shit (to use some of Lacan’s examples) are real, but who would want to embrace only this world.

So the task is how to make a symbolic world, like the world of Judaism, justified in some transcendental way, or noumenal way? This was in effect Kant’s problem about morality. All through the 19th century Jews remained neo-Kantians, the most famous being Hermann Cohen, the subject of RJBS’s dissertation. Today Rav Kook, pantheism, Rav Nahman, Art Green, and kabbalah are in, Kant is out of favor.

An article that I found moving, and is in a Kantian mode is this one about the young John Rawls and his religion. The Christian part is clearly marked and not essential. Even without knowing much about his ideas, I think it can be understood.

Elmer Gantry on PBS 9PM

If you have never seen the movie Elmer Gantry, and live in the NYC area then get offline and watch the movie tonight (Saturday Dec 25th) on PBS at 9PM. It is the classic tale of the end of the third great revival and turn toward secularism of the 1930’s and 1940’s.

The story shows:
Uneducated outreach working making up the tenets of faith as they go along.
They are good at outreach but never studied in a seminary and do not have real ordinations.
The hypocrisy of financial, sexual, and criminal scandal among those preaching.
The emotional manipulation of the masses and peoples lives.
The egoism and narcissism of those involved.
It also show the complacency and acquiescence of the Established churches who should have know better.

For my Jewish viewers notice the shifts in preaching from New Thought to Methodist to pure emotionalism and ask yourself where a given Jewish kiruv organization fits in. New Thought is the secrets and powers of faith, Methodism is the regular public Bible reading and the emotional manipulation speaks for itself.
What one wont get from the movie and book is an sense of the grappling and loss felt by the ordinary believer. It is not about the struggles of living with the realization of chicanery, anti-intellectualism, and manipulation. The story is only about the self-aggrandized rise to power.

The original book was 460 pages and was scandalous when it came out in 1927, the movie used only 100 pages of the book and by the time it came out in 1960 was noted more for its acting than its social criticism. Go read the book- It is one of the classics of 20th century relgion.Elmer Gantry ranked as the number one fiction bestseller of 1927, according to “Publisher’s Weekly”.
For a complete copy of the book for those who read online- see here.

From wiki
Lewis did research for the novel by observing the work of various preachers in Kansas City in his so-called “Sunday School” meetings on Wednesdays. He first worked with William L. “Big Bill” Stidger (not Burris Jenkins), pastor of the Linwood Boulevard Methodist Episcopal Church in Kansas City, Missouri. Stidger introduced Lewis to many other clergymen, among them the Reverend L.M. Birkhead, a Unitarian and an agnostic. Lewis preferred the liberal Birkhead to the conservative Stidger, and on his second visit to Kansas City, Lewis chose Birkhead as his guide. Other KC ministers Lewis interviewed included Burris Jenkins, Earl Blackman, I. M. Hargett, and Bert Fiske.
The character of Sharon Falconer was based on elements in the career of Aimee Semple McPherson, an American evangelist who founded the Pentecostal Christian denomination known as the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel in 1927.

On publication in 1927, Elmer Gantry created a public furor. The book was banned in Boston and other cities and denounced from pulpits across the USA. One cleric suggested that Lewis should be imprisoned for five years, and there were also threats of physical violence against the author. The famous evangelist Billy Sunday called Lewis “Satan’s cohort”.

Baylor professor wrote a book a few months ago connecting Elmer Gantry to today.

Public fights over the role morality and churches should play in American life. Vocal evangelicals tripped by personal scandals. Heated debates over science versus religion, definitions of obscenity, a presidential candidate’s religious faith.
Welcome to — the Roaring Twenties?

As current as many of those topics seem today, they were equally vibrant in 1920s America, said Baylor University professor of history Barry Hankins in his new book, “Jesus and Gin: Evangelicalism, the Roaring Twenties and Today’s Culture Wars.” published this month by Palgrave McMillan.

“After a period of about a half century, from the 1930s to the 1980s, when religion was viewed more as a private, individual concern, I wanted to show how similar the place of religion was in the public arena in both the ’20s and now,” he said.

Try former baseball player Billy Sunday, whose dynamic preaching style and pop culture sensibilities packed his revival tents and tabernacles in the 1910s and 1920s. Or female evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson, whose dramatic stage presence and radio preaching drew thousands each week to her Angelus Temple in Los Angeles, including Hollywood actors and filmmakers seeking to learn from her style.

Today’s religious-flavored debates over abortion, science and intelligent design, homosexuality and morality in media had equally emotional counterparts in 1920s fights over Prohibition, the teaching of evolution, fundamentalism and book censorship.
Hankins said a popular misconception of the 1920s is that fundamentalism and conservative Christianity were defeated in the public arena in controversies over Prohibition and the1925Scopes Trial concerning the teaching of evolution. “(Fundamentalists) didn’t disappear. They were vigorously building Bible colleges and mission programs in the time between the 1930s and 1980s,” he said.

Likewise, viewing the Scopes trial as a fundamentalist-vs.-science battle overlooks the effort by liberal Protestants in that decade to discredit fundamentalism as preachers like Harry Emerson Fosdick argued faith and science could be reconciled.

Eliaz Cohen in Translation –Hear O Lord: Poems from the Disturbances of 2000-2009

After the second intifada, I was in Israel for a round of conferences, and as usual I buy the various local Hebrew papers for Shabbat. In one of the papers, there was a write up of a young poet Eliaz Cohen (b. 1972) of Kibbutz Kfar Etzion, a student of Rav Druckman, who wrote poetry. The article emphasized his then new poem Shema Adonai, which is a lament and proclamation to God that He is bound to the people Israel even as its blood is shed in the bombings. The article noted how the poem was read in some synagogues that year because it captured the mood of the intifada, that God should remember the committment of his people. The article also mentioned his early work Nigi’ot Rishonot (2000) on the tension, desire and distance of observing the laws of Niddah. I was hooked and started collecting his works, learning about the unavailability of contemporary Israeli poetry in America, and which select Israeli book stores carry new poetry. So, I was delighted when I received notice that a volume of his poems translated into English was about to appear Hear O Lord: Poems from the Disturbances of 2000-2009 (Toby Press, 2011).

Eliaz Cohen is part of a new generation of religious poetry writers. When the New Religious Zionists turned in the 1990’s toward individualism and the self they emphasized creative writing, poetry, and film. Think of the products of the Maaleh film school. Creative writing is considered a religious activity for the religious Zionists since poetry comes from the Jewish soul. This romantic individualism is even acceptable in many Charedi Leumi circles and among settlement hilltop youth. Rav Shagar z”l includes among his disciples several poets. However, self-expression in the back of beis medrash is not the same as good poetry. Eliaz Cohen has honed his skills to excellence against Yehuda Amichai and Mahmoud Darwish, Uri Zvi Greenberg and unnamed collections of American free verse. He is an editor of the “Mashiv Haru’ach” journal of poetry and author of four published collections of poetry.Cohen was the recipient of the “Prime Minister”s Award” for literature in 2006

Cohen is a second generation settler and committed to Jews living in the entire Biblical land. But wants to do it, seemingly integrated into bi-national landscape. He has an entire cycle of poems on the pain of the disengagement from Azza and imagines his own Kfar Etzion being evacuated. He dreams about reserve duty and the Utopian or apocalyptic life in the settlements, consisting of Palestinian refugee camps, suicide bombers, dangerous missions, and an elusive hope for peace. He stresses his knowledge of Arabic and interconnections with Palestinians

Cohen uses the language of Biblical verses, midrash, and the liturgy stretching them to new contemporary usages. Cohen emphasizes the commonplace tragedy amidst the cycle of life. He sees the transitory nature of things that seem permanent and which the transitory nature is itself permanent. He has a series actually called “Poems written in Sand” capturing the ephemeral quality of life in Israel. He rewrites classic Israeli songs like Bashanah Haba’ah and Eli, Eli she-lo yiga-mer le’-olam into meditations on the transitory nature of things. The Hebrew poems are well served by the translator,Larry Barak, especially the addition of the adjectival richness of English.

Here are three stanzas of a three page poem about the pain and loss of army duty in Lebanon

With Me From Lebanon
(a memorial poem)

Every one has his own Lebanon
a handsome dead soldier carried on my shoulders
I brought
with me from Lebanon.
His names mumble to me I do not want to remember
his face

why has your face darkened Lebanon the dawn does not rise caught
in the fog lowering a curtain on memory, a heretic flash.
Sitting in a patrol jeep long flexible legs gathered to
the deer-like body of a good Ashdod boy.
Doing a radio check with God.
God come in, over.
After havdalah he makes me coffee. Infantry instant.
The difference an instant makes?!

All night the fire burned consuming the cedars of Lebanon
identifying Danoch by the white teeth of his smile

This one came out the day of the bombing of a Passover Seder in 2002 and became emblematic of the event.

A Palestinian Passover
Until when will the evil not pass over our homes
look, we have already anointed the entrance with blood
each man enwrapped in his ancestral home, we cried out
in human silence

look, our four cups are filled
with flushed boiling wine
our tongues have become tongues of fire
like a slaughtered lamb

if our head is also bowed – and sadness surrounds us
let us flare up:
lush Jews burn well
and what will remain of us until the morning?
An empty chair. In the courtyard of the church of the dead messiah
waits for the Rais to be released
to come and redeem
I see him as before, Ishmael mocking
on that night
there is no house in the holy land where there is not
now he adds another measure
to the bowl of blood
soon will be baked the bread of great affliction
of both nations

This poem appeared in the holiday supplement of the newspaper “Makor Rishon” which came out on Passover Eve 2002. On that night the horrendous Seder night terrorist attack at the Park Hotel in Netanya took place. Less than 48 hours later I was on a tank preparing for battle in Nablus.

In this one, as in many of his other poems, we see Cohen wanting to be like his role model Amichai capturing the tension between the natural and the historical memory. A bloody universalism bespeaking religious symbolism tussling with the beauty of life.

Snow on bleeding Jerusalem
as though bandaging her wounds
all rests in tranquility now
filling the cracks of yearning in the Wall
children in your streets, Jerusalem
the sons of Isaac and Ishmael
are staging white wars
(and their blows are soft)
even the pigeons are hurrying today
cooing because they have found new footprints
on the way leading up to the Gate of Mercy

I am not sure that I need him to be Amichai since I already have Amichai. Instead, I need him to expand the language of religious Jews. To open up new religious insights via Midrash or human experience. I did not include excerpts from his long Midrashic poems, which would not work well in this terse blog format. But here is his rereading of Abraham covenant of the pieces with God. These are the exquisite pieces that easily translate into class discussion of modern midrash.

Among the fragments of the bus and your burnt
Jews I make a covenant with you saying:
to your seed you gave, your seed who shall be counted and numbered
according to the multitude of suffering and wrath
like stars ignited before their fall
(O who will be able to bear the wish)
to your seed now an old man forgetting his glasses
(which are on his chest or his forehead)
and unable to return to the agreement or to
those words of the play
Among the fragments of the bus I make a covenant with you saying:
do not slaughter the bird

This next poem Ultrasound is closer to his poems from Negiot Rishonot, Cohen uses the Biblical imagery from Exodus to apply to a very personal situation. I think he captures well the way religious imagery actually enters the minds of young couples fresh from Yeshiva when starting life.

“And all the people saw the sounds”
look, we do too: a tiny heart dancing in red and blue
the spine a pearl necklace
(or sun rays)
five fingers searching
and five more
the sex organ is hidden
(in any case we didn’t want to know)
something is trembling inside us
wanting but unable to touch

And finally, the sort of poems where he becomes personal about life, love, and poetry.

And at night
I hide poems in the secret parts of your body
(like notes in the Wall)
a breeze caresses us healing limbs weary
from labor and pregnancy.
Soon it will be morning
the children will come in under the covers
and find the poems

From an Haaretz interview,

Eliaz Cohen was 7 years old when his family moved from Petah Tikva to Elkana in western Samaria. He later studied at the Or Etzion hesder yeshiva under Rabbi Haim Druckman. For nine years, he has been leading creative writing workshops in Gush Etzion and for the past four years has also been working as a social worker in various institutions. His first books of poetry caused an uproar. “Mehumashim” (“Pentagons”), published by Tammuz, was essentially constructed as an encounter between his personal biography and the weekly Torah portions.

His second book, “Negi’ot Rishonot” (“First Touches”), contained an erotic tension that some of the religious public found difficult to digest, while his most recent book, “Shema Adonai – Poems from the Events of 5761-5764,” has been interpreted in part as an alternative prayer to the traditional prayers. For example, Cohen offers a version of the familiar “Travelers’ Prayer” written in the singular instead of the plural. In this book, Cohen also holds a kind of dialogue with God, a dialogue that contains a broad spectrum of emotions, including, at times, defiance and anger. After the book was published, Cohen lost his job as a social worker in one of the well-known ultra-Orthodox boarding schools in Jerusalem’s Geula neighborhood.

From the start, Eliaz Cohen and his colleagues were banned from some of the yeshivas, but their pioneering work paved the way for others who wished to express themselves in this manner. Cohen was moved to write “Hazmana Lebekhi” (“Invitation to Cry”) out of “existential anxiety,” he says. Some of his relatives personally experienced the fall of Gush Etzion in 1948. He says that, in light of the anticipated evacuation, this poem and other such poems by him and his colleagues are filling a fundamental void in Israeli culture.

“There’s a pathology in this culture, that turns its back on everything that is supposed to be derived from the Jewish fate,” he explains. “It has directed all of this repressed pain toward identification with the other, with the Palestinian who is perceived as a victim, who is a product of our story. I also see the direct relation between our independence and their nakba. The question is how much you allow yourself to undermine your narrative. I long for the day when the ruling elite in our culture will show the same openness toward us as we have shown toward it, both in the last issue of Meshiv Haruah about the disengagement, and in previous issues.

“Over the years, playwrights, poets and cultural people have scolded us: `You’re settlers! How dare you write poetry after you’ve devoured two Palestinians for dinner?'” Cohen says. “As they see it, there couldn’t possibly be any art coming from the right, since we’re busy killing Palestinians all day long. I’m purposely exaggerating, but this is definitely the feeling that has been blowing our way for years. As I see it, when my friends and I write about a settler who is experiencing existential distress, whose friends are being killed, who loses almost his whole family and is now about to be evacuated, it’s more authentic than a famous poet who tosses a sock filled with money and medicines over the separation fence.”

More poems the Gush Etzion site.
More at a poetry site
And even more From PBS

As a side note, the author of the introduction David C Jacobson is working on the following book:
Beyond Political Messianism: The Poetry of the Second Generation of Religious Zionist Settlers
Coming to Terms With a Religious Upbringing: Yoram Nissinovitch (1965-), Naama Shaked (1970-), Shmuel Klein (1971-), Eliaz Cohen (1972-) Avishar Har-Shefi (1973-), Nahum Pachenik (1973-), Sivan Har-Shefi (1978-), and Elhanan Nir (1980-)

Go Buy the Book. If you want to comment, then comment on poetry not politics.

How do you spell חֲנֻכָּה?‎

Since everyone was more interested in חֲנֻכָּה‎, than Halakhah or Kabbalah, here is the chart. I started with all 13 possible spelling and kept the ones that moved off the bottom axis. Here we have two major contenders since the 1930’s. No major change from the EJ in the 1970’s. The question is what happened in 1930 to change the preferred spelling from Ch to H. And what happened to make Channukah with two n’s the preferred spelling of the 1940’s. Click on Chart to enlarge.

How do you spell קבלה?

Here is a history of how to spell קבלה. Notice the changes of the spelling and recent vintage of our current spelling of kabbalah. Most spell checks still use cabala. It seems that the publication of the Encyclopedia Judaica in 1971-2 changed the spelling to kabbalah. What other words did the EJ change? Qabbalah has still not caught on and cabbala has declined. Also notice the interest in the esotericism of the cabbala as a subject between 1810-1840. Click on the chart to enlarge.

Thanks to Yosef Rosen and Satya of Berkeley for the above chart.

Update- Here is one for halacha, halakhah, halachah, and halocha. The scale is smaller, before 1925 there were basically no references.