Monthly Archives: February 2011

Reb Yudel, Ethan Tucker, and Dan Bern

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

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

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

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

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

From the “Front Page Article”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They spoke German
Hated Germans
Confusing times

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

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

The Bible as Guidebook for Daily Life

Back in 1995, I began to notice that people who had attended day school became to sound like Evangelicals in that they were referring to the Bible, Talmud, and halakhah as directly accessible to the common sense reader and that the Jewish texts answer questions of daily life. In 1998, I specifically remember someone making a cultural argument from the Jewish sources that had no connection whatsoever to the traditional interpretation and his claim of direct access to the truth through his reading. It was a pre-blog era but it needed to be noted then. In the subsequent decade this grew into an avalanche in the community.

Increasingly, one heard pithy wisdom like the Torah teaches “God helps those who help themselves’ and that God wants one to achieve ones best or that the Torah has answers to the challenges of life. Now there is a whole bookcases in the seforim store of watered-down easy answers from a Torah perspective.People treat them as Jewish philosophy.

There are two elements here. People want to Torah to offer wisdom for everyday life. They do feel a tension to all the castles in the air and abstract answers found in the traditional commentators. They never really wanted that much Talmud or Nachmanides on the Torah. So they found a Torah that speaks to them directly. The second element is that Torah is not in the hands of those trained in rabbinic interpretation, rather is available and close to all.

The New Republic reviewer is as clueless as usual about the Jewish community and thinks Jews never speak like this, but they do. How did the community get here? As a tentative observation
(1) The pop-psych books produced by the Engaged Yeshivish and kiruv world speak like this and make one feel that Torah feels your pain and answers daily life.
(2) The natural needs of suburbia for a moral instruction manual and self-help work. Jews responded to the same needs. This ignorant drivel was actually seen as the most real and relevant and was appreciated by a broad spectrum on the traditional side of the spectrum
(3) The widespread gap-year in Israel empowered people to speak in the name of Torah, but they don’t really relate to agricultural and sacrificial world of the Bible and Mishnah, nor the jurisprudence of the halakhah. Students stopped saying that they know nothing, rather they now have all the ready made answers.
(4) It was the great era of the cultural wars and one needed talking points from one’s own tradition.

The Rise and Fall of the Bible: The Unexpected History of an Accidental Book
by Timothy Beal Houghton (Mifflin Harcourt) 256 pp.,
that the Bible was “the go-to book for any serious question we might have, from sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll to heaven, hell, and why bad things happen to good people.” The Bible was “God’s book of answers, which if opened and read rightly would speak directly to me with concrete, divinely authored advice about my life and how to live it.”

The Rise and Fall of the Bible is Beal’s attempt to shatter this popular understanding of the Bible as a combination of divine instruction manual and self-help book. While there is no denying that the Bible remains central—Beal quotes polls indicating that “65 percent of all Americans believe that the Bible ‘answers all or most of the basic questions of life,’ ”—he notes simultaneously that Americans are surprisingly ignorant of what is actually in it.

“More than 80 percent of born-again or evangelical Christians believe that ‘God helps those who help themselves’ is a Bible verse,” he writes. Less than half of all adults can name the four Gospels; only one-third can name five of the Ten Commandments. In his own experience as a college teacher, Beal says, students “come to class on the first day with more ideas about the Bible derived from … The Da Vinci Code than from actual Biblical texts.”

What explains this disparity between Americans’ absolute faith in the Bible and their evident ignorance of it? To Beal, the problem lies with the notion that the Bible is “a divine guidebook, a map for getting through the terra incognita of life.” For as soon as you open it and start reading, it becomes troublingly apparent that the Bible is no such thing. It does not offer answers to problems, especially not to twenty-first-century problems.
Depending on where you read in it, the Bible might give the impression that it is mainly composed of genealogies and agricultural regulations.

The gulf between what readers expect to find in the Bible and what they are actually given produces a kind of paralysis, Beal explains. “For many Christians, this experience of feeling flummoxed by the Bible … [produces] not only frustration but also guilt for doubting the Bible’s integrity.” The Bible-publishing industry feeds on this anxiety, he argues, by endlessly repackaging the Biblical text in ever more watered-down and over-explained forms.

What troubles Beal about these publications is not just the way they dumb down the Bible——but the way they translate and interpret the text according to an undeclared social and political agenda. Read the rest of the New Republic Review here.

The Origins of Jewish Mysticism Peter Schafer – post #1

There is a new book by Peter Schafer of Princeton University The Origins of Jewish Mysticism (Princeton UP, 2011) in the book he traces Jewish mysticism from the Bible to the Heikhalot in about seven stages of development.

The Origins of Jewish Mysticism offers the first in-depth look at the history of Jewish mysticism from the book of Ezekiel to the Merkavah mysticism of late antiquity. The Merkavah movement is widely recognized as the first full-fledged expression of Jewish mysticism, one that had important ramifications for classical rabbinic Judaism and the emergence of the Kabbalah in twelfth-century Europe. Yet until now, the origins and development of still earlier forms of Jewish mysticism have been largely overlooked.

This post was originally going to be a summery of his approach and his periodization. Instead, I have been hijacked by Schaffer’s agenda of demolishing the Jerusalem School of Kabbalah Studies. I am posting this material not to indicate that I agree with his critique but to note that this will be an topic in upcoming months in the review literature. Not all of these critiques are original to Schafer, but he seems to have gone out of his way to collect them.There will be follow-up post(s) on the more substantive elements.

1] On Idel’s Method

In fact, despite his rather moderate and modest definition, Idel’s phenomenological approach runs the risk of dehistoricizing the phenomena it is looking at and establishing an ahistorical, ideal, and essentialist construct.The most recent example of this approach is Idel’s Ben: Sonship and Jewish Mysticism (London: Continuum, 2007). It offers many new and creative insights, but methodologically it presents a breathtakingly ahistorical hodgepodge of this and that, quotations from many different periods and literatures, pressed into scholarly sounding categories such as “apotheotic” and “theophanic” but in fact lumped together by sentences like “Let me discuss now …,” “Let me/ us turn to …” (the preferred phrase), “Interestingly enough,” “I would like to now address,” “In this context it should be mentioned,” and so forth. Constantly arguing against the usual suspects who, in his view, impose a wrong and simplistic logic on the texts, in this book Idel has developed his method of leaps in logic and intuition to the extreme. For a critique of Idel’s approach, see Lawrence Kaplan, “Adam, Enoch, and Metatron Revisited: A Critical Analysis of Moshe Idel’s Method of Reconstruction,” Kabbalah 6 (2001), pp. 73–119, and see furthermore Y. Tzvi Langermann’s critique of Yehudah Liebes, below, n. 94.

2] On Liebes

For a devastating critique of the school of “Jewish thought” in Jerusalem – its neglect of history as a discipline and its exclusive reliance on “parallels” (maqbilot) – see Y. Tzvi Langermann, “On the Beginnings of Hebrew Scientific Literature and on Studying History Through ‘Maqbilot’ (Parallels),” Aleph 2 (2002), pp. 169–189. Reviewing Yehudah Liebes’s Torat ha- Yetzirah shel Sefer Yetzirah (Jerusalem: Schocken, 2000), Langermann concludes that Liebes “merely juxtaposes the sources; rather than constructing arguments, he relies on innuendo. Although he sometimes explains why he believes that a certain parallel is or is not significant, Liebes applies no consistent method of analysis to the parallels adduced” (ibid., pp. 177 f.). “Nevertheless it seems to me that Liebes’ exclusive attention to maqbilot – along with his obliviousness to the limits of this method – stems from the relative neglect of the particular demands of historical writing” (ibid., p. 188).

3] Against those who emphasize vision of God

Contrary to the prevailing trend in research on Jewish mysticism (or even in Qumran scholarship) I contend that the vision of God plays a strikingly marginal role in the Qumran texts and much less of one than in the ascent apocalypses, where the vision at least is the goal of the ascent (although its details often remain rather vague). I demonstrate that in all of the analyzed texts, the visual aspect of the enterprise is almost completely neglected.

4] Shiur Komah as magical and originally angelic

My analysis of the respective texts in the Hekhalot literature goes against the grain of the thesis inaugurated by Scholem and accepted by many scholars, namely, that the mystic’s vision of the gigantic body of God serves as the climax of his ascent.
I hold that what is at stake here is not the dimensions of God’s body but the knowledge of the appropriate names attached to the limbs of God’s body and, consequently, the magical use of these names. Furthermore, I argue against the suggestion made by Scholem and others that the Shi‘ur Qomah traditions are essential for the Merkavah mystical speculations, that they are a particularly old layer of the Hekhalot literature, and that they emerged out of the exegesis of the biblical Song of Songs. Finally, I compare the Shi‘ur Qomah traditions in the Hekhalot literature with some related evidence that has been adduced from Jewish, Gnostic, and Christian sources, and I propose that it was originally angels in the Jewish tradition to whom gigantic dimensions were attributed. Only when the idea of vast angelic dimensions was usurped by the Christians did the (later) Jewish traditions – as they are preserved in the Shi‘ur Qomah – transfer these gigantic dimensions to God and claim that they were suitable for God alone, and not for angels or other figures that might dispute God’s position as the one and only God.

5] Mysticism is not a reaction to the halakhah- contra Scholem

only when the Halakhah becomes too rigid (this is the underlying premise) is it time for mysticism to break through and inaugurate a new era. As has been observed by several scholars, this definition of rabbinic Judaism is in itself problematic. To portray rabbinic Judaism as entrapped within the rigidity of the Halakhah and therefore in need of the liberating forces of mysticism smacks ominously of certain Christian prejudices. Also, if mysticism is a reaction to rabbinic Halakhah, one would expect the emergence of mysticism to occur at the peak of halakhic development (let’s say with the appearance of the Bavli) and not at its beginnings (with the appearance of the Mishnah).

Do Jews want Jewish criminals to repent?

Here is the latest column from the Evangelical leader Richard Mouw, president of Fuller theological. He asks why we do not do outreach in prisons? And why we do not worry about the souls of our sinners? Any thought?

Why Don’t Jews “Evangelize” Jews?
from Mouw’s Musings – The President’s Blog by support

Bernie Madoff finally gave a public interview of sorts recently. Basically, he argued that bankers and others in the financial world were complicit in his crimes. I have nothing interesting to say on that subject, but the very occasion of his speaking out raised an important question for me: Who is talking these days to Bernie Madoff about the state of his soul?

My Jewish friends—especially rabbis and others who are serious about their faith—resent the way evangelicals go about “Jewish evangelism.” This is a big subject, and one we don’t often address calmly in our interfaith dialogues. And while I have my own criticisms of the way we evangelicals have sometimes gone about our witnessing about Christ to the Jewish community, I also have serious questions for my Jewish friends about their own views about “Jewish evangelism.” To put it bluntly, I wonder why they are not showing a deeper concern for the souls of those folks in their own community who by any Jewish standard are clearly wandering from the paths of righteousness.

Bernie Madoff is a case in point. He has done horrible things, engaging in a long-term deceptive project that has brought misery to many Jewish lives. It seems to me to be clear from a Jewish perspective that Bernie Madoff should repent of his sins and make a public confession. And—even if he cannot do the Zacchaeus thing, making restitution by repaying his victims fourfold—he can at least let them know that he is profoundly sorry for his sins and is praying for his victims’ well being.

Is anyone in the Jewish community talking to him about such things? Am I wrong in thinking that this kind of “prison ministry” is as much a Jewish obligation as it is a Christian one?

Here is my challenge to the Jewish community: If they don’t go after the likes of Bernie Madoff… do they have any objection to our doing so? Can’t we agree on at least this minimal attempt at “Jewish evangelism”?

It’s Over!

How long is an era? When the old seem untenable? After the enlightenment, Jews felt that the prior era was over. When the 1960’s came, people proclaimed a new liberal era that evolved beyond the past. When the 1990’s came, religious conservatives had a triumphalism that the past was over. Here is a two minute clip from the show Portlandia that mocks this sense that one must be the new. The clip makes fun of hipsters and technology junkies but works for many who think they are the whiggish conclusion or evolutionary end.

Two views on Abortion

Yesterday, I received two views on abortion within an hour of each other. I found the juxtaposition disturbing. In the first, Dr. Bernard N. Nathanson an abortion advocate who in the 1970’s repented of his ways by becoming an anti-abortion advocate and converting from Judaism to the Catholic Church. In the second, a copy of Rabbi Aviner’s know position that abortion for birth defects is fine. I am not sure why it bothered me so much. I know that there are rabbinic positions against abortion and I am not advocating that. There was something in Aviner’s tone that made the Nathanson story more poignant. Maybe it was his eugenic vision of producing strong vital large families. I know that Modern Orthodox rabbis regularly permit abortion for medical reasons. My nagging question is by what criteria? What is their view of science, the nature of the soul, sanctity of life? I do not think they answer just by legal formalism, but is there vision of the meaning of it all?

Dr. Bernard N. Nathanson, a campaigner for abortion rights who, after experiencing a change of heart in the 1970s became a prominent opponent of abortion and the on-screen narrator of the anti-abortion film “The Silent Scream,” died on Monday at his home in Manhattan. He was 84. . Dr. Nathanson, an obstetrician-gynecologist practicing in Manhattan, helped found the National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws (now NARAL Pro-Choice America) in 1969 and served as its medical adviser.
After abortion was legalized in New York in 1970, he became the director of the Center for Reproductive and Sexual Health, which, in his talks as an abortion opponent, he often called “the largest abortion clinic in the Western world.”
In a widely reported 1974 article in The New England Journal of Medicine, “Deeper into Abortion,” Dr. Nathanson described his growing moral and medical qualms about abortion. “I am deeply troubled by my own increasing certainty that I had in fact presided over 60,000 deaths.”

His unease was intensified by the images made available by the new technologies of fetoscopy and ultrasound.
“For the first time, we could really see the human fetus, measure it, observe it, watch it, and indeed bond with it and love it,” he later wrote in “The Hand of God: A Journey from Death to Life by the Abortion Doctor Who Changed His Mind” (Regnery Publishing, 1996). “I began to do that.”
In addition to the 60,000 abortions performed at the clinic, which he ran from 1970 to 1972, he took responsibility for 5,000 abortions he performed himself, and 10,000 abortions performed by residents under his supervision when he was the chief of obstetrical services at St. Luke’s Hospital in Manhattan from 1972 to 1978.
He did his last procedure in late 1978 or early 1979… and soon embarked on a new career lecturing and writing against abortion.

“The Silent Scream,” a 28-minute film produced by Crusade for Life, was released in early 1985. In it, Dr. Nathanson described the stages of fetal development and offered commentary as a sonogram showed, in graphic detail, the abortion of a 12-week-old fetus by the suction method.
“We see the child’s mouth open in a silent scream,” he said, as the ultrasound image, slowed for dramatic impact, showed a fetus seeming to shrink from surgical instruments. “This is the silent scream of a child threatened imminently with extinction.”
Supporters of abortion rights and many physicians, however, criticized it as misleading and manipulative. Some medical experts argued that a 12-week-old fetus cannot feel pain since it does not have a brain or developed neural pathways, and that what the film showed was a purely involuntary reaction to a stimulus.

Dr. Nathanson earned a degree in bioethics from Vanderbilt University in 1996 and that year was baptized as a Roman Catholic — he described himself up to that time as a Jewish atheist — in a private ceremony at St. Patrick’s Cathedral by Cardinal John J. O’Connor, the archbishop of New York.

About his baptism, he said, “I was in a real whirlpool of emotion, and then there was this healing, cooling water on me, and soft voices, and an inexpressible sense of peace. I had found a safe place.”
“He was a pro-life prophet,” Father McCloskey said in a recent Register interview. “He saw the whole culture of death coming, and knew that abortion was just the tip of the iceberg.”

Testing a Fetus for Abnormalities:
The Responsum which Hangs on Hospital Walls
[Shut She’eilat Shlomo vol.2 #312]

Question: Should older women be counseled to have a prenatal exam to reveal an abnormality with the fetus? If a problem is detected, what benefit is there if it is not permissible to have an abortion? Furthermore, since these exams can endanger the life of the fetus, is it permissible to check if the fetus has an abnormality?

Answer: 1. It is a good idea to have this exam, since either way – if the exam is positive and there is no problem, the pregnancy will continue with calm and contentment for the benefit of the mother and perhaps also for the benefit of the fetus. If, however – G-d forbid, the exam is negative and there is a problem, they can turn to a rabbi and ask him if it is permissible to abort in such a case. If he rules that it is permissible – since there are cases where it is permissible, and indeed abortions have been performed in practice by the rulings of great authorities – the parents can responsibly decide what they want to do. If they decide to keep the child, it will be out of free will, and they will accept him lovingly with a full heart, and they will raise him lovingly with a full heart.

2. Regarding man interfering with Hashem’s actions, there is absolutely no interference here. Everything is included in the light of Hashem which illuminates the path of the scientific intellect of man, which acts in a manner permissible according to the word of Hashem, which was revealed to us by Moshe Rabbenu. If this were not so, all medicine and all science in general, would be invalid. And on the contrary, wisdom gives strength to the wise man.

3. Regarding the claim which is heard against abortion being permitted according to Halachah, that it prevents a soul from entering the world, we do not engage in the hidden in order to decide Halachah.. On the contrary, the Halachah must be decided according to what is revealed to us and our children for eternity, and anything which is intended by the Halachah is in any case intended by the secrets of the Torah which are more hidden. If according to Halachah there is room to perform an abortion, we rely and trust that this soul will find a correction in other ways and the hand of Hashem will not shorten.

4. Regarding the test being dangerous, besides the fact that there are tests which are devoid of any danger, such as blood tests; according to Halachah, it is permissible to enter into a remote chance of danger when there is a need, such as making a living – engaging in a profession which has a certain danger involved in it or for a mitzvah. Endangering oneself in a minimal way is called as “an infrequent damage” in Halachah. This is the law in our case, since giving birth to a disabled baby can sometimes destroy an entire family, and all the more so when we are discussing the danger of a fetus which is yet to be born.
We must certainly clarify, however, if it is permissible to have a test with a minimal chance of danger. It does not make sense to enter into details here, since Blessed be Hashem, science continues to advance, and in each individual case, one must take counsel with a G-d-fearing doctor and with an halachic authority.

5. The last is the most precious. The reality is that many women, who are not young, refrain from becoming pregnant, even though they very much have such a desire, because of a fear of giving birth to a disabled baby, and they live with a broken heart. When an halachic authority permits, and even encourages them, to arrange a prenatal exam, and also promises that in the case of a problem, G-d forbid, he will stand by their side in finding an halachic solution with responsible thought given to the effects on the family, this will take a huge burden off of their heart, and they will give birth to more children who will fill their lives with joy and happiness, and add more servants to the world for the sake of increasing the sanctification of Hashem’s Great Name.

Rock & Orthodoxy Part II

It seems the topic of Rock and Orthodoxy is on people’s minds. I think people want it discussed and are thankful for the chance. Similar to the interest in Yoga & Judaism, we do not usually directly discuss the conjunctives.
I received from Jon his appreciation of heavy metal. For interested, here is a summary article with bibliography of some of the heavy metal and relgion issues. Here is more scholarly study of heavy metal and Church showing the limits of integration and a sharp section on the difference between outreach and institution, Christ and the Heavy Metal Subculture: Applying Qualitative Analysis to the Contemporary Debate about H. Richard Niebuhr’s Christ and Culture

Here is Jon’s email to me.

What role does popular culture like heavy metal play in your life?

Recreation in a certain sense, I guess. Something to do. If I watch a movie or tv, it’s because I need a break from more mentally exhausting pursuits. That’s the role of popular culture in general, for me, but for my part I’m not the heaviest participant in popular culture. Heavy metal in particular is music, so it plays a deeper role than most pop culture, and it provides for the sort of vicarious expression that art generally does.

How does it relate to your religiosity?

That’s an interesting question. With regard to pop culture in general, not much. I think even if more of my time was spent on things that could be called pop culture, it wouldn’t have very much of a relationship with my religiosity. I think pop culture and religion don’t have a lot of common ground to begin with – not because the Torah forbids it, or because pop culture encourages activities that are assur or something, but because the attitudes of participants in each have very little to do with each other. Religion demands service and engagement, whereas pop culture is a place for detachment and having the culture serve you. Regarding to your rock ‘n roll Orthodoxy posts and such, I’d be one of those people who worries that Orthodoxy is being watered down and made less meaningful for the next generation.

With regard to heavy metal music specifically, there’s a more complicated relationship. There’s a greater possibility for common ground than with pop culture in general, insofar as someone who listens to music seriously is engaged by it, and does not listen detached from it. But the music itself speaks to an aspect of the human condition that probably aren’t too compatible with religiosity – depression, anger, arrogance. The music I listen to more or less often changes with my moods, and sometimes I consider the possibility that my listening to metal more frequently indicates that I’m in a less desirable spiritual state – but leading into the next question, I don’t think stopping the music is going to do anything more than generate frustration.

How would you want educators and rabbi to treat, or relate to, your musical taste?

Not to. I can’t remember a specific instance of a rabbi and/or educator telling me that I shouldn’t listen to certain kinds of music. The most I can think of is a vague semi-formed memory of middle school – where we had more yeshivish rabbis and educators – and some teacher hinting that certain kinds of music aren’t ok Halakhically. But if I’m not just making the memory up, I never paid it any attention, because it sounded like one of those machmir things that I didn’t grow up doing anyway.

Before I had a chance to post Jon, I received a new article by Mordy published in the Forward on Matisyahu, wanting him to be more Philip Roth than Jewface/blackface.

Why Matisyahu Is More Interesting Than His Music

The first Stubb’s album came out right after his debut “Shake Off the Dust… Arise,” when his music was still predominately and ostentatiously Jewish. His big single, “King Without a Crown,” namedropped Hashem and Mashiach. It was arguably all downhill from there…“Live at Stubb’s” came close to capturing what Matisyahu originally had going for him — an exciting melaveh malka show and a demo tape where he spit an exuberant early version of “Close My Eyes.”

Slate’s Jody Rosen accused him of the simultaneous crimes of Jewfacing and Blackfacing..

For those of us less than impressed with his music (indie tastemaker website pitchfork put him on a list of “15 Worst Releases of 2005”), this background religious psychodrama was always more interesting than the records themselves. His lyrics may have been upbeat reggae-praise-hymns to God, but he always seemed uncertain. In a 2006 interview with the Dutch magazine Revu he looked depressed and exhausted and answered a question about whether religion makes him happy with, “No, it does not.” If anything, the admission made him seem more Jewish than ever, like a hasidic reggae version of Philip Roth’s Seymour “Swede” Levov in “American Pastoral.”

Now, ignoring the platitude that you can’t go home again, Matisyahu has tried to do just that on “Live at Stubb’s Vol. II.” The album opens with “Kodesh,” where Matisyahu rhymes, “Soar into shamayim where the angels call in love / and the glory of Hashem fits like a glove.” This is much more explicitly Jewish material,

At the conclusion of “Time of Your Song,” Matisyahu repeats the line, “You might get caught in a temple of doom.” It is sung buoyantly, without a trace of self-consciousness or fear, and will do nothing to convince you that it is worth your time to pay attention to Matisyahu’s music again. It may, however, convince you that it’s time to pay attention to Matisyahu himself — the character and persona always more interesting than the music.

Unlike Drake, or Bob Dylan, Matisyahu’s Judaism will never seem light and comfortable. The day his oblique lyrical references to his spiritual conflicts become explicit is the day I’ll be back onboard. In “American Pastoral,” Roth writes, “The fact remains that getting people right is not what living is all about anyway. It’s getting them wrong that is living, getting them wrong and wrong and wrong and then, on careful reconsideration, getting them wrong again. That’s how we know we’re alive: we’re wrong. Maybe the best thing would be to forget about being right or wrong about people and just go along for the ride.” Read more

Middlebrow 19th Century Orthodox Literature

Jonathan M. Hess, Middlebrow Literature and the Making of German-Jewish Identity. Stanford University Press, 2010 was reviewed when it came out by a literature professor Ritchie Robertson (St. John’s College, Oxford) and I originally did not take much notice. But having just read the book, I found it a gold mine of information on the cultural world of German Orthodoxy. The entire last chapter is on the popular middlebrow books written by Rabbi SR Hirsch’s daughter- Sarah Guggenheim and those by Rabbi Markus Lehrman.

Robertson wrote:

As German Jews, from the eighteenth century on, entered the world of German culture, they became strongly attached to the literature of the Enlightenment and classicism (Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, Friedrich von Schiller, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe), which often expressed universal and humane ideals and were central to _Bildung (cultivation). Indeed, as David Sorkin argued in a landmark work of scholarship (The Transformation of German Jewry, 1780-1840 [1987]), their continuing attachment to Bildung while the Gentile society around them lowered its cultural standards made them, without realizing it, a distinctive subculture that was only nominally assimilated.
Hess recognizes the need to complicate the outdated German binary distinction between “high” literature and Trivialliteratur.Middlebrow literature is situated between the two

Hess’s approach is well illustrated by his first chapter, on the nineteenth-century German-Jewish historical novel. [The second chapter is on] the “ghetto novel,” pioneered by Leopold Kompert, aimed to reach two audiences. In writing about the enclosed Jewish communities of Eastern Europe that were on the verge of dissolution, Kompert wanted to awake among his Jewish readers nostalgia for their own past and an appreciation of the often tragic conflict of tradition with modernity. Among his Gentile readers, he wanted to arouse sympathy for Jewish communal life and for the tragic isolation experienced by those who first broke away from it.

[The third chapter is on ]The self-appointed guardians of Jewish literature, such as Ludwig Philippson, were ambivalent about another genre, that of romantic fiction. Continuing the eighteenth-century polemic against undisciplined reading, they denounced such books as inducing the spiritual equivalent of curvature of the spine.

Literature is naturally subversive: it questions and undercuts the simplistic ideologies for which people try to instrumentalize it. By that standard, the fiction of orthodoxy discussed in Hess’s final chapter is barely literature. He reveals a lost continent of fiction which tried to show that orthodox Judaism was compatible with modern Western culture. This genre was founded by Sara Hirsch Guggenheim, daughter of the leading neoorthodox rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch. To enforce its message that orthodoxy is the key to happy family life, it defines itself against the classics of high culture, deploring the temptations to immorality offered by Heinrich Heine and Schiller, and isolating itself firmly from the literary mainstream.
Read the full Review here.

When I actually read the book, I found an enlightening, funny, and highly critical analysis of Orthodox popular literature and may be first time that Bourdieu and Baudrillard were used to discuss Orthodoxy. I gained lots of little tidbits about the journal Jeshuran and the Orthodox world of it readers.

Mordechai Breuer wrote about orthodox middlebrow literature “By reading classical drama and modern novels in their armchairs people imagined that they were full-fledged participants in German cultural life.” (cited on 167) Hess’s attitude toward Orthodox literature expands this statement.People may affirm high culture but are really formulating a particularistic derivative version. They carved out a minority niche within a contemporary field to give Jews a means of acquiring cultural capital that was necessary for social integration. The literature was an imagined identity of “a harmonious union between modern culture and a self-consciously orthodox Judaism” built on differentiation of themselves from those orthodox who did not read the middlebrow literature. (167)

The middle class life of a blissful marriage and financial success are credited to keeping the traditional practices.

Hess points out the self-serving hubris in Orthodox statements that reveled their self-perception in which they thought that Orthodoxy allows one to offer critical assessments of the greatest authors in literature unavailable to public at large. In their mind, they thought that the secular world only takes the worst of the romantic authors but Orthodoxy is uniquely situated to appreciate the best. Orthodoxy was situated to exist in perfect harmony with German literature in ways that the broader culture could not.

Orthodox fiction portrays itself in its introductions “orthodox fiction harbors the potential to be an art form superior to European high culture.” (185) In self-praise the orthodox protagonists are shown to know Schiller while the reformers are counterfactually portrayed as mixing up Goethe, Shakespeare and Schiller. Reformers are characterized as following the ignoble characters in literature while orthodoxy learns from the noble characters. Rabbis in the stories can always quote the best of the high culture even as they are warning people not to let it lead people astray.

Most minority literature seeks to reframe center and periphery and extol the virtues of the periphery. This literature “enshrines itself as the epitome of high culture in its own insular sphere, with grand gestures that were of little interest to the non-orthodox- and that would have alienated non-Jewish devotees of Schiller, Heine, and other classical writers.” (188)

The long shelf life of this literature shows that these tensions continued for many decades.

Despite proclaiming its superiority, the orthodox literature was clearly derivative from secular works And the fact that the audience did not mind that the works were unoriginal copies shows that this literature led few back to the original classical works. They were proud to be derivative because it showed that their own works expressed the classical sentiments in an orthodox manner better than the originals. Their works were derivative in borrowing plots, themes, and subject matter and most in the community thought that it was a good thing because it made the community aware of these important literary plots and themes.In their mind these Orthodox works looked and read the same way the classical works did.

It created a simulacrum as described by Baudrilliard of being a secular fiction when in reality it was entirely orthodox. “Needless to say, there never was an orthodox Anna Karenina or Madame Bovary.” (192) A self-conscious embracing of orthodoxy becomes a panacea to all social ills and social tensions and commitment to orthodoxy concurrently offers the simularcrum of possessing secularity and secular erudition.

“Triumph without Battle: The Dialectic Approach to Culture in the Thought of Harav Soloveitchik”

A few weeks ago there was an announcement that the 2003 Van Leer conference on Rav Soloveitchik was finally published by Magnes Press as

רב בעולם החדש

Rabbi in the New World: The Influence of Rabbi J. B. Soloveitchik on Culture, Education and Jewish Thought Edited By Avinoam Rosenak and Naftali Rothenberg

The book is entirely in Hebrew.
The table of contents and introduction are available. (in Hebrew)

More important from my perspective is that my article has finally appeared. It is in Hebrew.
“Triumph without Battle: The Dialectic Approach to Culture in the Thought of Harav Soloveitchik” – Soloveitchik Article 8 בריל

Yair Lorberbaum at Davar

I gave a run down of what actually was taught and discussed in an earlier post. He did not present his books.
For those not familiar with his work. Lorberbaum has his doctorate in Jewish thought from The Hebrew University of Jerusalem and is a professor at Bar-Ilan University’s Faculty of Law.

His book: Image of God: Halakha and Aggadah [Hebrew] Schocken: Tel Aviv and Jerusalem 2004 His recent book is: Subordinated King, Kingship in Classical Judaism, Bar Ilan Press: Ramat Gan, 2008 (forthcoming in English: Continuum [2011]).

His first book showed that the mythic ideas of the Talmud about the human person as literally the image of God in which the human was also in the physical image of God and that human were raised to a divine status. In turn, these ideas were continued and developed in diverse ways by Maimonides and Nahmanides.

From a review by Joshua Kulp

The central thesis of Lorberbaum’s book is that according to the rabbis, the meaning of imago dei is that there is tangible divine presence within every human being. This concept impacted primarily upon two areas of halakhah: the death penalty and procreation. Since humans are physical representations of God, execution is equivalent in some ways to deicide. Conversely, procreation is strongly mandated because it increases God’s physical manifestation in the world by creating more vehicles in which to embody God’s presence.

Importantly, as “images” of the divine, human beings function as icons in a manner similar to the way idols function in the pagan world; they draw God’s presence into themselves, blurring the borders between representation and form. Finally, the drawing of God’s presence into the human body dictates that human beings are embodied with significant theurgic powers.

God’s presence in man pertains, according to the Tannaim, to all the components of his psyche, as to the physical ones” (Image of God, p. 19).

A central image that nurtures the halakhic process and provides a basis for the tangible bond between God and man is the “King and His imagery” model. Thus, for example, the midrash from Mekhilta de-Rabbi Ishmael:

How were the Ten Commandments given? Five on one tablet, and five on the other. By writing “I am the Lord your God,” and opposite it, “You shall not murder,” Scripture states that if anyone sheds blood, Scripture regards this as if he diminishes the image of the King. This is comparable to a flesh-and-blood king who entered a province, and portraits of him were set up, images were made of him, and coins of him were minted. Some time later, his portraits were overthrown, his images were smashed, his coins were canceled, and thus diminished the image of the king. So, too, if anyone sheds blood, Scripture accounts it for him as if he diminishes the image of the King, as it is said [Genesis 9:6]: “Whoever sheds the blood of man … for in His image did God make man” (Image of God, p. 301).

Lorberbaum takes note of the manner in which a single idea is explicated in different circumstances, thereby functioning as a sort of curator of works of art whose depth is realized when they are placed one next to the other. This is a breathtaking act, that enables us to follow the series of interpretive processes from which the Rabbis’ worldview was built.

The book ends with a chapter that describes the transition from the focal point of sanctity in the Temple to the conception that man is the location of the current domicile of the Godhead on earth. This process, that began in the early Pharisaic literature, intensified upon the destruction of the Temple: “Although God had left the Temple, He did not desert the earth. To the contrary, in many senses He is much closer, because He is present in man (in every man), who is made in His image” (Image of God, p. 468).

The second conclusion is halakhic. In one of the key sentences in his book, Lorberbaum argues that the idea of the image of god is not the personification of God, but a claim of the divine dimension in man. Patently, any fundamental myth (whatever it may be) does not exempt us from the mission, the Sisyphean effort, to establish the image of God in man in our actions: in the activity of educators and medical staff, who cope on a daily basis with the patient’s flawed image of God; in the courts, the media, the army.

His forthcoming book Disempowered King Monarchy in Classical Jewish Literature studies the conception of kingship, and its status, powers and authority in Talmudic literature. The book deals with the conception of kingship against the background of the different approaches to kingship both in Biblical literature and in the political views prevalent in the Roman Empire. In the Bible one finds three (exclusive) approaches to kingship: rejection of the king as a legitimate political institution – since God is the (political) king; a version of royal theology according to which the king is divine (or sacral); and a view that God is not a political king yet the king has no divine or sacral dimension. The king is flesh and blood; hence his authority and power are limited. He is a ‘subordinated king’.

Facebook killing Synagogue?

Many attend synagogue for social reasons such as to see their friends and catch up on community news. Our Modern Orthodox synagogues were designed with Durkheim in mind. Here is an interesting thesis that the gen y is not leaving because of shallowness and hypocrisy but because they have an online community. The loss of third spaces is also relevant. The rise of religion in the last decades almost killed the Moose lodge, the Freemasons, and the bowling league.

The difference between Generations X and Y isn’t in their views of the church. It’s about those cellphones. It’s about relationships and connectivity. Most Gen X’ers didn’t have cell phones, text messaging or Facebook. These things were creeping in during their college years but the explosive onset of mobile devices and social computing had yet to truly take off.

So why has mobile social computing affected church attendance? Well, if church has always been kind of lame and irritating why did people go in the first place? Easy, social relationships. Church has always been about social affiliation. You met your friends, discussed your week, talked football, shared information about good schools, talked local politics, got the scoop, and made social plans (“Let’s get together for dinner this week!”). Even if you hated church you could feel lonely without it. Particularly with the loss of “third places” in America.

But Millennials are in a different social situation. They don’t need physical locations for social affiliation. They can make dinner plans via text, cell phone call or Facebook. In short, the thing that kept young people going to church, despite their irritations, has been effectively replaced.

Sure, Millennials will report that the “reason” they are leaving the church is due to its perceived hypocrisy or shallowness. My argument is that while this might be the proximate cause the more distal cause is social computing. Already connected Millennials have the luxury to kick the church to the curb. This is the position of strength that other generations did not have. We fussed about the church but, at the end of the day, you went to stay connected. For us, church was Facebook!

The pushback here will be that all this Millennial social computing, all this Facebooking, isn’t real, authentic relationship. I’d disagree with that assessment. It goes to the point I made earlier: Most of our Facebook interactions are with people we know, love, and are in daily contact with. Facebook isn’t replacing “real” relationships with “virtual” relationships. It’s simply connecting us to our real friends. And if you can do this without getting up early on Sunday morning why go to church? Particularly if the church is hypocritical and shallow? Why mess with it?

Why are Millennials leaving the church? It’s simple. Mobile social computing has replaced the main draw of the traditional church: Social connection and affiliation.
Here is the full post at Experimental Theology.

Here is the h/t at Mirror of Justice, which added:

To the extent that this argument has merit, I’m guessing it holds more truth for Protestants than for Catholics. In general, my experience of Protestant churches is that the churchgoing experience is more social, especially for young people, than the experience at most Catholic churches, where the experience is more centered on the individual, and where folks tend to flee as soon as Mass is finished (or sooner, in many cases)

More on Yair Sheleg’s New Book

Back in Sept, I announced with a long blog post the new book from Yair Sheleg, From Ancient Hebrew to New Jew: The Jewish Renaissance in Israeli Society. Haaretz has a thoughtful review of the book by
Hagai Dagan is the head of the department of Jewish thought at Sapir Academic College. Dagan finds himself stuck between the masses who prefer TV to spirituality and this elite that is highly individual. Dagan also notes the fundamentalism and delusions of changing the world resting not far below the surface. And to his credit Dagan also noted how similar this Sheleg is to Schweid’s vision of what would happen.

although in some ways I am part of the Jewish renaissance described by Yair Sheleg in “From Ancient Hebrew to New Jew,” his book did not make me happy. The question is, why?

Sheleg divides this trend into two sub-trends: the cultural one, which is expressed principally through study of texts in different learning communities; and the spiritual one, which is expressed in various Jewish “New Age” dynamics, including neo-kabbala, neo-Hasidism and the coming-of-age route that leads from India to the Samarian hilltops. Both trends are distinguished from the familiar denominational frameworks existing here (Orthodoxy and the Reform and Masorti movements ),

Secular Jews, for their part, continue to maintain a secular lifestyle, but in their consciousness they are now more religious, Sheleg finds. These are not only people who are avowedly secular who are enriching their world with study of Jewish texts, but also secular “praying communities” that exist outside synagogues, and so on. In that sense, Eliezer Schweid’s diagnosis in his book “Judaism and Secular Culture” (published in Hebrew by Hakibbutz Hameuchad in 1981, but absent from Sheleg’s bibiliography ) is unfortunately coming true.

In Israeli society, and in the division it offers between cultural and spiritual people, the cultural group is more elitist, smaller in number and older, while the spiritual group represents a mass phenomenon.

The main weakness of the cultural-elitist trend stems from the fact that it remains limited to a small number of people, and is unable to offer a sufficiently attractive alternative to the entertainment offered on Channel 2 and Channel 10. The masses, in the final analysis, prefer the “Big Brother” reality TV show to the primeval Big Brother who emerges from the ancient pages of the Talmud.

The spiritual trend actually manages to attract masses of people, but just outside the door crouches the danger of religious-political fundamentalism, which develops out of a yearning for simplicity and a return to the mythical-primeval.

When he describes the neo-Bratslavers, for some reason it’s important to him to mention various jokes that have become connected to their mantra, “Na-Nah-Nahm-Nahman.”

It turns out, then, that Yair Sheleg sees our little Jewish renaissance as the starting point for a message for all of humanity. No less. By doing so he returns to the vision of Ahad Ha’am (Asher Ginsberg, a pre-state essayist and Zionist visionary ), who saw Israel as a spiritual center from which the Torah would go out to the entire world.

And now to return to the question with which I began. If the trend described by Sheleg is so good, why doesn’t it make me happy? The fact is that the processes discussed by Sheleg are taking place alongside a constant decline in the number of students of Jewish studies in academic institutions. Apparently people want Judaism for themselves, but are less interested in Torah or Jewish studies.
Full version here.

Rock & Orthodoxy

In a prior post, I asked Jon the following questions. He never responded but I did receive the following from a reader for posting.

>As a side question(s):What role does popular culture like heavy metal play in your life? How does it relate to your religiosity? How would you want educators and rabbi to treat, or relate to, your musical taste?

My answer to your question is, in retrospect, quite a big one. I’ve loved music since I was a kid. I even remember exactly where I was and at what age when I discovered the Ramones; it was the beginning of July 1988, not yet 11 years old; I know this because it was on the Sunday of my sister’s shabbos sheva brachos, where we had gone to a hotel in the Catskill’s and there was a TV in the room. I saw the movie “Rock n’ Roll High School.”

Through all this, I turned bar mitzvah, put on a black hat, went to [redacted yeshiva], where I stayed for 7 years, and lived a more or less double life. By day I was a yeshiva bochur, by nature fairly conforming, and by night I would hole up in the dormitory with my illegal walkman and listen to the very exciting early 90s music scene. I must stress, again, that I was a sincere and decent yeshiva bochur. I woke up, went to minyan, davened sincerely, learned Gemara, Rashi and Tosfos yeshivish style. I just happened to love rock and roll. By the time I was 17 or 18 I had developed a real tayva to see bands, and I began to secretly go to concerts (sometimes with friends from within the yeshiva – I wasn’t the only one – and without).

I actually have an awesome memory from 1997 or 1998, which was right at the start of Williamsburg becoming a hipster scene. Until that point I had only been going to shows in Manhattan, at the Academy, Roseland Ballroom, or if I was in a sleazier (and cheaper) mood, at CBGBs, the Continental and Coney Island High (of these only Roseland and the Continental are still open – I feel old). But on this occasion I went to see Sonic Youth performing somewhere in Williamsburg, which at the time meant only Chassidim and Puerto Ricans to me. I remember milling around in the room, and all of a sudden – I made eye contact with a guy I know only by face, who was in my yeshiva too. He must have been about 27 or 28. Perhaps a BT? But the thing is, I was wearing a baseball cap (yeah, of course I looked like a yeshiva bochur in a baseball cap) and he had a beard, peyos, and a yarmulke, in this crowd of proto-hipsters (people were still wearing flannel then). We both stared at each other, probably thinking “Oh, crap.” I had never come across anything like it. I didn’t know the guy before, and I didn’t know him afterward.

Blah, blah, blah – I grew out of being yeshivish and am still Orthodox, at least theoretically. I’m fairly observant, and I sure do learn a lot. But having years of reflecting on it, I realize that my great love for rock and roll played no small role in my evolution, because it was a constant, graphic proof to myself that I was incapable of swallowing the dogma wholeheartedly. I really, really tried to. I even have a specific memory – a funeral of all places – of being part of a crowd of hundreds of guys wearing black hats, and feeling almost euphoric. It felt like being a part of Something. I really tried to be a good yeshiva guy, and to grow up to be a good yeshiva man. But this slight deviation was a wedge and opened the door fairly wide. I’m sure of it. I guess my choice was to consider myself a mumar leteyavon, or refuse to see that what I was interested in was really no different from eating a cheeseburger. This was a patent disagreement with the rabbis, was it not? I was allowing myself this, and there went yeshivish Orthodoxy for me.

I do not think that the same would have occurred at YU. There seems to be a greater taking pop culture with ease. People do go to rock concerts without loss of faith. YU produced bands that imitate Coldplay and Green Day. They see less of the tensions and contradictions. This may be a real dividing line between Yeshivot and YU. Some at YU may have compunctions and feel it is entirely treif but the community as a whole does not. YU baby booomers still rock to Springsteen’s concerts. There was a culture of rock around the station WYUR and Vin Scelsa’s first hero of rock was a YU student. Now, there are even rock and roll shabbatot. For public performance, the lyrics are cleaned up but the original watching of gangsta videos to produce a clean version occurs naturally.

I also feel that some of my posts are getting sucked into the loss of faith confessional vortex of this era. It seems the web pulls one in. I do not get long emails on my posts about Maimonides or Zohar.

Gabba Gabba Hey

Orthodoxy as popular culture via Certeau

Michel de Certeau (d. 1986) was Jesuit monk, historian and philosopher whose work is essential for conceptualizing religion within everyday life. His scholarship on mysticism and religious polemics offers some of the most fruitful for understanding of Hasidism, Mitnagdim, and Neo-Hasidism, or the in-between groups within Orthodoxy. I will limit my discussion here to those points important for the understanding of popular culture.

In one of his talks given to an intellectual group of clergy debating ideological issues of the age, a European Catholic version of the Orthodox Forum, where the debate was how much pluralism can the unified teachings of the Church bear? As in the Jewish community, the papers addressed the matter from the perspective of liberal and conservative, specifically how to increase pluralism within the Church or how to set limits to the pluralism? Certeau undercut the discussion of the forum by arguing that pluralism is everywhere. Everything that goes on in the practice of everyday life is interpreted differently by everyone—the fishmonger and the lawyer, the bishop and the doctor, all people hear things differently. The average person, the teenager, the householder, the senior citizen, the high school teacher, the doctor, and the lawyer each create their own version of the Church’s teaching.

To apply this to the case of the Orthodoxy, Certeau would emphasize how Rav Soloveitchik means different things to different people. Most of us are used to the debates about Rav Soloveitchik and revisionism, situating the diversity on a left and right spectrum. Certeau would undercut this and looks at the reception of Rav Soloveitchik from a real life perspective.

To illustrate, I will take a real life example, a local New York high school gave its students a short essay written by Rav Soloveitchik on the axiological importance of Torah study in our lives. As homework, they had to answer questions about how to apply that essay within their lives. So, one student, showing commitment to Torah study, started to paint signs for his youth group, another spent time each day on AskMoses the Chabad question and answer site, another studied with diligence Akiva Tatz’s books, another read frum message boards on the web, one downloaded Torah shiurim on mp3’s, and another worked on a video for their NCSY region, others spent extra time on their Navi class where literary approaches to the chapter were emphasized. None of this plurality relates to the left-right divide or can be directly found in Rav Soloveitchik’s words.

According to Certeau, the religious person can cull the products of the community and adapt it to her own life and worldview, thereby Rav Soloveitchik can be combined with the twelve steps, kiruv, neo-hasidism, sports, and be seen to support Artscroll, Hatam Sofer, Kahanaism, and the internet.

For Certeau, the understanding of culture is the understanding of consumers and how they poach. Culture is also about the operational logic of disguise and survival against a background of obligation and orthodoxy. Certeau is interested in how we use objects—not how the original intent for which they were created for to us. For instance, Certeau is interested in how people buy books just to have them on the shelf, or to make a polemic point, or to show allegiance. How people misquote them just as much as what it says in the book. Do we give the object privileged space? Do they subvert their meanings? A common practice is to harmonize the given book with whatever a person is actually interested in or actually uses in her life.

When Certeau looks at everyday life, he looks at activities of resistance and evasion and how people resist under the radar by means of tactics. An example of a tactic might be something as mundane as using office supplies for personal purposes or IMing at work. They are committed to work but their heart and mind are elsewhere.

In Certeau’s gaze, he would see students who may be committed to study Talmud yet are successful at evasion of the very activity to which they claim to be devoting their efforts. They may start the morning learning by talking about their dates, the entertainment they recently attended, and sports scores. They also know that if they play along enough to cover the Gemara, they will be left alone to deal with their own path where they can concentrate on Neo-Haisdut, kiruv, current events, the seforim sale, or the MCATS. They can spend seder uploading to the web reverential pictures of the roshei yeshiva, sending Twitter messages about what they are currently learning, or collecting all the political and polemical comments made by the Rosh Yeshiva. They can reminisce about the popular culture experience of the gap year in Israel. Or they can enter into a language weave of steig and stark by focusing on how they dress, their props, and the books on their shelves, rather than the content of the Talmud. Each of these is a tactic of evasion that simultaneously evades and supports the system.

These activities have no clear authority or no proper location. Rather, they are opportunistic moments that we use to construct our days that let us survive. According to Certeau, all institutions, books, and ideas are now conversations and everyday practices. Certeau focus on space, not time or ideas, to explain everyday life. He uses the metaphor of the fishwife going to market and walking through the streets of Paris in order to opt out of the grand metaphors about history, ideas, and social change. For Certeau, everything is a network and everything has potential to contradict everything else without upsetting the public confession.

There are a variety of sources of knowledge that continuously undercut the main narrative. Certeau makes the point that the ideas get played out so radically different in the real life that it becomes hard to talk about the ideas. Every work has multiple receptions in society that are incorrigible. Storytellers have no power in the hierarchical religious system, but they gain authority that people use in their personal narratives. Other tactics to undermine include calling something a “secret” because secret knowledge gives us status, this works also for religious experience. Singularity is also a good tactic—if you make something “different” then you can opt out as well. Mystics and pietists are masters of this. Hecklers have amazing authority without power.

In his theory, it is important to note when the personal overrides the supposed orthodoxy. Someone may have heard a rabbi give a proper lecture on a topic but a story by lay preacher or a Neo-Hasidic tale may speak to their personal narrative in a stronger way and the religious person lets the story overrides the formal teaching. If asked if one followers a Rosh Yeshivah, a person can give a resounding 100% “yes” answer of obedience. But Certeau would observe when you discuss the details with the person they may give complete deference to the personal meanderings including what he reads on a blog, a weird singular halakhic opinion they once heard, his high school rebbe, Artscroll, his NCSY advisor, or something in the name of Rav Moshe Wolfson. In all of these cases, there was no rationalization for the contradictory harmonization but natural evasions that create their own authority. In addition, Certeau shows that when a religious person is asked about compliance with a religious principle they may also refer to a different question, the way he is dressed, a class he attended, an event in the news, something he just read, tell a story and never return to the original question.

From Certeau’s ground level vantage point, high culture reveals itself as subject to the same cultural forces as popular culture. Ideological products become excorporated into daily life, meaning incorporated along with the distortions and evasions generated by fears, desires, distortions, pragmatic decisions, and misreadings of daily life. Popular culture is the paradigm by which people can deal with high culture products that are out-dated, oppressive, or out of touch with experiences or aspirations.

Orthodox Changes of Observance

From the late 1970’s until this decade Orthodox synagogues with highly diverse levels of observance slowly reconfigured as institutions proclaiming that they are entirely observant.
In the 1980-1990’s, there were several demographic studies done of important synagogues which show that the observance level was not as high as proclaimed. From a sociological perspective, especially using Chicago frame analysis, whoever belongs to an institution defines the institution. However, these studies were greeted in the Centrist press as flawed because by definition someone who is non-observant is not a follower of Orthodox ideology. They confused ideology and demographics.

However, greater than the confusion of disciplines was their blindness to their supersessionalsim- they assumed that everything was going to change for total observance and ideological consistency. In their mind, synagogues will no longer have diverse observance patterns except for a few elderly congregants.

Here are two recent conversations – both conducted by FB chat. (That itself is a change.) They seem to imply otherwise.

Chat #1 with a young gen y-millennial.
Him- My crowd predominately stayed Orthodox. We are not ex-orthodox.
Me- Would you fit into my category of post-orthodox?
Him- No, we dont fit in. We have found our place and are clearly part of Orthodoxy. We have our niche. However, we are not very observant and dont keep very much.

There are younger yeshiva educated groups out there that are comfortable to say that they are Orthodox and still say that they are non-longer observant of many of the Shabbat restrictions, they no longer keep kosher out of the house, and no longer daven or put on tefillin.

Chat #2 with a RWMO father of many adolescent children- older gen x—-lives in RWMO or even Yeshivish neighborhood–and is friendly with the RWMO online web ideologies.

Him- can you please be part of my project to foster Jewish commitment? (I am vague on purpose)
Me- Yes, I am in. There is a great need in the community.
Him- Yes, I know there is a need. I have four non-shomer Shabbos sons at home.

I was not paying attention at first and continued to chat about the project. A quick check of the FB pages of the kids show that they list their religious affiliation as agnostic (or worse) and that they love heavy metal and Eminem. They are not becoming Conservative, they have no interest in LWMO, they are not feminists, or interested in Debbie Friedman. The synagogue they do not attend is RW Orthodox. A demographer would count them as part of their current synagogue, showing that the synagogue has a less than perfect observance level. The synagogue they affiliate with when they grow up will probably be Orthodox out of habit, filial allegiance, and nostalgia.
The mixed observance congregation, which never really left, seems to be returning.