Category Archives: popular religion

Korach & Moses’ Meritocracy

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

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

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

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

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Exorcisms of Personality Traits and Hidden Scandal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Modern Exorcism: Trading Autonomy for Demonology — Joseph Laycock

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright © 2010 Alan Brill • All Rights Reserved

Wild Strawberries for Tisha B’Av

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright © 2010 Alan Brill • All Rights Reserved

God is Back- John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge Part I

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eating out and religion

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

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

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

Response by Rabbi David Bigman and others to Elchanan Shilo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shilo’s Response to Rabbi Bigman

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

PS If you are in Teaneck, ir hakodesh this Shabbat

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

Suburban Religion: The Divine Commodity-Skye Jethani

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oslo Conference and Catechisms

I had a conference in Oslo this past week and had planned to blog from there but there was not enough stable wifi. i did not get a chance to post “be back soon.” And I have learned that no one has time for blogs on the day before a holiday. I will give conference details in the next post(s) but a few random thoughts.

I stayed in the same retreat center where the Oslo accords were signed. There was an eerie little shrine to the signing with a group photo of a very happy smiling Rabin. (I wanted to do a Yom Yerushalayim posting from there.)

I was in Oslo itself for their national day when they became independent from Denmark a hundred years ago. However, their rabbinic leadership have been four generations of Melchiors. (The current rabbi of Oslo is MK Melchior’s son.)

For a sense of the Jewish community in Denmark before WWII, I recommend “A Rabbi Remembers “ by Marcus Melchior ; translated from the Danish by Werner Melchior. New York : L. Stuart, c1968. Most people read the memoir for the Holocaust sections; I read it for its portrayal of Western European Orthodoxy. Where a kid who has only had Jewish catechism classes decides he likes synagogue life and wants to become a rabbi. He goes to the Berlin Orthodox seminary where he learns Talmud for the first time as part of the preparatory program (2 years) and then enters the seminary program. One does not get an image of the seminary as a hotbed of academic scholarship, more synagogue skills and high church sermonics. Even when Rabbi Marcus returns to Denmark, he writes that he is little interested in teaching and more interested in the synagogue aspects.

We can use a study of Western European Orthodoxy- a great PHD topic–where congregants only knew Judaism from the catechism they studied during religion time in public school (1-4 periods a week) and then may have also had to take a course on creating a Jewish home before they married. There are many of these catechisms and reflect different concerns than our usual casting of Germanic Orthodoxy in terms of ideological classes.

The Evangelical Habitas or how to be Orthoprax

Here is a link to a cute video on how to be an Evangelical. It is similar to the books and spoofs on how to act and speak yeshivish.

However it is quoted on a religion blog to discuss how religion is learning to follow set patterns of speaking according to its habitus (in Bourdieu’s sense) rather than its doctrines. Meaning a year in Israel is about learning to speak a certain way. Now, that is not the end of the story. The blog has a commenter

While it is worthwhile to consider the extent to which a cult, sect, denomination or ecclesia can be identified by its various styles of habitus, it is also useful to consider the concept of “ortho-praxy.” Every collectivity, sacred or secular, has its subtle aspects of orthodox social action (social behavior, G. H. Mead).
Ortho-praxy (orthopraxy) is a concept frequently used in the study of religions and spiritualities, including comparative religious studies as an inter-disciplinary field and the sociology of religion as a section of the ASA.

The way he is using the term orthopraxy in a GH Mead sense is as an acquired was to speak and conduct social interaction. People we call believers are those who have learned to have the correct acquired way to talk. The one who learns catch phrases like “baal teshuvah” “your not yotze”“it is against the mesorah” “it is a kiyyum” “one has to do teshuvah” are the orthopraxy, since they have correctly learned how to practice a way of speech. On the other side, those who stop speaking like that and don’t accept that way of labeling are not the orthoprax since they are no longer speaking correctly.
From a sociological perspective, Orthoprax is not about keeping halakhah but about acting and talking like a believer. Those correctly acculturated are orthopraxy, those who stop speaking correctly even if they keep halakhah would not be orthoprax. Skepticism, rationality, liberalism or disinterest all cause one to speak differently to other people. When discussing Evangelicals, researchers like John G. Stackhouse, Jr. consider orthopraxy part of the correct beliefs, when one no longer believes then one is not orthoprax.

May it be a Tikkun!

Overheard snippet:

Someone BT Yeshivish age 60 broke something valuable and they said:

“May it be a tikkun!”

My question is what happened to the traditional “May it be a Kapparah!”??
The traditional formula is about the need to pay for one’s sins, there has to be an expiation by transferring the punishment onto the inanimate object.
What does the new phrase mean? A tikkun is a positive act or something redemptive or restorative. Have we lost the sense of needing expiation for sins? Have we lost a sense that everyone has to pay dues or accept a certain amount of loss? Do we think everything we do has a positive force? Has the liberal language of tikkun olam finally become traditional? Thoughts?

Key findings of the Avi Chai report on young Jewish leaders

Here is a sense of the ideology of the leaders of the new organizations and they will someday head the established ones.
Any trends? Is it what you expected? Notice the day school graduates did not remain Orthodox, so that Orthodox who have the Avi-Chai definition of leadership remains at the 10% mark. We expected already the lack of Antisemitism as a drive and a lack of us-them relationship with the world. So this means that those of you under 40 who do have the us-them divide may feel alienated from the community’s leaders.

Key findings of the Avi Chai report on young Jewish leaders
By Jacob Berkman · April 12, 2010

A team of six researchers studied Jews between the age of 22 and 40, who serve as Jewish leaders, which they defined as those who have spearheaded new Jewish initiatives, direct existing mainstream Jewish organizations or somehow are thought leaders or activists on Jewish endeavors.The researchers interviewed some 250 leaders across country, but claim to have identified more than 3,000 who might be considered young Jewish leaders.

Among the key findings

* They do not feel threatened by Antisemitism.
* They prefer to reject us-them relationships with non-Jews and want to be inclusive of non-Jews in their programing.
* They hold strong views on the organized Jewish community and need for new ways of organizing it and are critical of federations, traditional synagogues and agencies that engage in protective activities.
* While many believe that most young Jewish leaders totally buck the mainstream of Judaism, the report suggests that a large segment actually involve themselves in those organizations such as Jewish federations, Friends of the IDF and AIPAC. “It’s not true they want nothing to do with traditional causes, especially those who are economically secure and relate to the networking core of traditional Jewish organizations.”
* Around 40 percent of Jewish leaders attended day school, only 10-11 percent of those are Orthodox.
* Two thirds attended Jewish summer camps.
* Half have spent more than four months of study in Israel.
* They believe that Jewish peoplehood means the celebration of diaspora Jewish culture that is rich, diverse and inclusive.
* Most do not see Israel as central to Jewish identity and peoplehood, and there is a broad range of how much criticism about Israel they can tolerate.

On a similar note we have to congratulate Rabbi Ari Weiss of Uri L’Tzedek who won a Joshua Venture Grant. Uri L’Tzedek is defined as created to “engage, empower, and inspire the American Orthodox Jewish community to enact social change both within and beyond its own communal borders.” For the other 2010 winners- here. For past years- here.

Sermon Coverage

Many people I know have long wished for coverage of sermons. Not rabbis submitting what they think is a good dvar Torah, but how things are being presented in the pulpit. We all compared notes how 9/11 was dealt or not dealt with in the pulpit, and how the elections spilled into the pulpit. But it wold be nice to have regular coverage of how the pulpit rabbis actually discuss issues from the pulpit. How they choose their words? How do they frame the issue? Do they connect it to a Biblical typology? Do all American issues become connected to Israel? Do they see the financial scandals as a need for mussar? Do they refer to other Rabbis? When do they take responsibility rather than blaming others?

Here is a nice piece bemoaning the same thing from the Catholic side and how a priest has to choose his words in his sermon.

To mention or not to mention?
from GetReligion by Mollie

One of the biggest holes in religion news coverage is treatment of weekly worship. Regular worship is one of the most common expressions of religious activity. Much more important in the life of the church than, say, politics. But it doesn’t seem to interest reporters terribly much. So I was pleased to see the angle that Washington Post religion reporter William Wan took with his latest: “As Easter nears, priests struggle with how, whether to address church scandals.”

“I wanted to be careful to say it well, to say it right,” Enzler said. The first version was too heavy on apology. “You want to admit that the church isn’t perfect, but the last thing you want is to add fuel to the fire,” Enzler said.

This was the crux, he realized, in which the church found itself: It needed to admit missteps, but worried that by doing so, it would fall prey to the accusations of its critics.

With almost four decades in the priesthood, Enzler recalled that some of his most powerful sermons were ones in which he let down his guard and became vulnerable with his flock. By sharing his struggles, he thought, his parishioners could see the true heart of the church and its priests. They, too, struggle at times with mistakes. They, too, agonize over how to fix them. They, too, need grace and prayer.

Anyone have any important sermons to discuss? How did your rabbi deal with the bombardment of continuous scandals of the last few years? Did they take responsibility, did they minimize it, or did they try and change anything? Or did they possibly use the scandal for another purpose like showing the importance of their precious community as a bastion in the storm and the need to contribute to their building fund?

Jewish respect and admiration for Muslim religiosity

Here is something from last week by Zvi Zohar, Jewish respect and admiration for Muslim religiosity

A full English translation of the original account is here. The original Hebrew article, with extensive footnotes was “An Awesome Event in the City of Damascus” in Tolerance in Religious Traditions (Shlomo Fisher ed., 2008).

Here I consider one such source, found in the writings of Rabbi Yitzhak Farhi of Jerusalem (1782-1853). It tells of a relationship between two outstanding men in late 18th century Damascus: a great Sufi sheikh and the Chief Rabbi of Damascus.
One of the two heroes of Farhi’s tale, the Sufi sheikh, attained great mastery of the Seven Wisdoms, i.e., the body of universal human knowledge. Since a person’s perfection is contingent upon mastery of these wisdoms, the sheikh was more perfect than all the Jews of his generation, with the exception of the rabbi of Damascus, who was his equal and even slightly his superior in the realm of universal wisdom.

But the Seven Wisdoms are of course only one aspect of religious perfection: the highest form of religious accomplishment is the encounter with God and closeness to Him. In this realm, the realm of religious-mystical experience, it emerges quite clearly from Rabbi Farhi’s account that the sheikh was on a higher level than the rabbi. In that account, it was the sheikh who guided the rabbi along the paths of mystical experience, by way of the garden and the pool, until their joint entry into the Holy of Holies to encounter the Divine Reality reflected in the holy name YHVH. The words on the golden tablet they gazed upon were: “I envision YHWH before me always”. This formula is to be found in every synagogue. Yet as related by Farhi, the one who actualised the promise born by this verse, the person who was indeed able to envision in his consciousness “He Who Spoke and the universe was created”, was not the Jewish rabbi but the Muslim sheikh.

At the end of their joint journey, the rabbi shed copious tears, acknowledged the sheikh’s advantage in this crucial realm, and concluded: “It is becoming upon us to do even more than that”.

Rabbi Yitzhak Farhi, addressing his audience in Jerusalem and the Ottoman Empire in the fourth decade of the 19th century, presented the Sufi sheikh as an ideal spiritual figure reaching the greatest heights of awe of God.
And above all else, there are shared elements and a partnership in the mystical experience itself—and in the joint focus of this experience: “He Who Spoke and the universe was created”. Not a Muslim God, and not a Jewish God, but the God of all existence, the Creator of all.

* Zvi Zohar is a professor of Sephardic Law and Ethics at Bar Ilan University, a Senior Research Fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute of Advanced Judaic Studies in Jerusalem. A full translation, analysis and discussion of Rabbi Farhi’s account will soon be published in Jewish Studies Quarterly under the title “The Rabbi and the Sheikh”.
Read Full op-ed Version here.

Update: I received a comment of Islamaphobia with an IP number from the Israel Tel Aviv Ministry-of-finance. Dont they at least tell people not to make such statements from work? Or at least not in English?

Three Guideposts on a Thursday

Last Thursday, I received notice about three events that will define modern Orthodoxy more than things that people are shouting about. A Mekhon Hadar lecture on Halakhah, Aliza Hausman on Memoirs of a Jewminicana, and Orthodox outreach as fun.

The first email I received was that Mekhon Hadar was webcasting the shiurim of Rabbi Ethan Tucker on the core issues of Halakhah. According to my reliable inside source, more women from the Stern learning program (GPATS) are attending or involved with Hadar than with Maharat.. Women don’t need to be debated about they can just opt out. Hadar does not worry about the Agudah or about the RCA or the RA nor even about blogs. The question will be how many men, especially graduates of the new hesder programs they will attract. How many gen y’s will find this the answer for our times?

The first lecture was all about the need for commitment to halakhah but without sectarianism. Tucker said regardless of who was appropriate for the nineteenth century, in our age we should choose Rav Bamberger over Rabbi S.R. Hirsch in working with the entire Jewish community instead of creating a sectarian enclave. We already survived the onslaught of modernity, we do not need to be sectarian anymore. He gave three reasons for giving up sectarianism: (1) It creates a distorted halakhah, shielded from the lives of real people. It considers the lives of real people strange and answers questions that fewer and fewer care about. (2) It writes off most Jews. It does not trust their natural intuitions and there is major gap between the people and an idealized halakhah. [This should probably be broken into two reasons- AB]. (3) lt lets secular Jews off the hook. But in real life, even the secular have a stake in the halkhah through marriage, conversion, and fluidity of lives.

Halakhah must be real life not ideal projection or ideal people. The Rabbis of the Talmud recognized the big gap between an ideal and after the fact-bidieved. This is in contrast to the second temple sectarians. We need to avoid constructing a halakhah that can only be followed by a small group. We should not glibly write people out. Short term sectarian success will lead to long term irrelevance
The question is how many will opt out of the modern orthodox debates in order to join this approach.

The second was about the Teaneck performance of Aliza Hausman, Memoirs of a Jewminicana as a women’s only Rosh Hodesh group (I know it was not really Rosh Hodesh) at the local reform Temple. Outside of East Coast enclaves, modern orthodoxy has large numbers of Jews by choice, people who affiliate from diverse ethnic backgrounds, couples where one of the spouses converted, and people who discover their Judaism after long and interesting journeys. The question is how much will these diverse eclectic orthodox communities see themselves as separate from the provincial enclaves and how much will the provincial enclaves reject the actual demographics of the community? As I told someone who is a macher at one of the local orthodox shuls and who agreed with my question because his Midwest hometown has this eclectic demographic- So why did your NJ shul not sponsor the evening? and he said your right we need to start.

The third item that came to my attention on Thursday morning was the WSJ article on the new YU Rabbi doing outreach in the bay area. What stuck out was the emphasis on fun, fun, fun. I have noticed that quite a bit in recent modern orthodox shul and kiruv events, we are fun. They are not promising meaning in life or Torah, but fun. Will modern orthodoxy take on the persona of Southern Methodist University, football, cheerleaders, and tailgate parties, God and beer? I have seen posters that say we not like the others that are no fun, we are the fun group. Will those who want learning seek it elsewhere? Will this approach lead to success of places like Hadar for those who want learning? The article states “there is room for having fun.” The next day, she joined about 50 people who watched the Super Bowl on the synagogue’s 110-inch screen. Super Bowl parties, a Chanukah gathering with a keg for adults

The new rabbi also adopts elements from the Chabad and Aish playbook: “he had put together a beginners’ service for the High Holidays. Last fall, he opened a preschool across the street from the synagogue to help bring in families.” And like Chabad and Aish he envisions our Judaism as practiced today as the same way as Moshe practiced his Judaism.. “It’s an ambitious mission trying to bridge the gaps between the outside world and making the religion—the way it was practiced 3,000 years ago—more relevant.”

Time will tell how these elements define the community. But they are some of the current issues.

Copyright © 2010 Alan Brill • All Rights Reserved

From conservative anti-intellectualism to liberal anti-intellectualism

Taken from an emergent Church blog in which the author is frustrated by the new form anti-intellectualism of the emergent Church. It is no longer the right wing rejection of college,liberalism, and ideas, rather now it is a new liberal anti-intellectualism. Does it ring true about Jewish circles? Can one only preach to the choir for a short time before it is anti-intellectual? Does communal experience and anecdote trump coherent articulation among modern Orthodox Jews?

From conservative anti-intellectualism to liberal anti-intellectualism:
This one has me the most frustrated. I was drawn to the emerging church conversation because I saw vigorous questioning and thoughtful exploration… And certainly there are several young, postmodern emerging/emergent theologians who are making rigorous arguments and thoughtful claims. But I’ve become more and more concerned at a creeping anti-intellectualism among some of the loudest voices who rest on rhetorical questions, anecdotal evidence, and communal experiences over philosophical and theological articulation and argument. This, I believe, follows from the previous inversions because your don’t have to really say anything or land anywhere because we are all merely in an endless conversation. Essentially, everything is a rhetorical display without any real substance. And really, you can only score so many rhetorical points before you are only preaching to the choir (which is a form a fundamentalism itself, is it not?). I have been a part of numerous conversations that only go so deep before an implied anti-intellectualism takes over.
When a certain form of radical questioning takes the well worn paths of protestant liberalism, or mirror forms of Hegelianism, it does not good to just assert that “we” aren’t doing that old thing, you have to actually show how things are different, you have to defend and articulate what is going on.
This is the role of an ‘organic theologian’, to both articulate within a community what is happening, and express to larger communities why it makes sense. To only do the former without the latter is to perpetuate a fundamentalism on the other side of the equation. Hence my claim of an inverted anti-intellectualism. Fundamentalist, Evangelicals, Hippies, the Seeker-Church, and now many Missional/Emergent types play this card as a way of calling into question the power of the establishment. Now I’m not saying there aren’t issues of power going on, but have faith in your ideas and practices, show the world, make your case, and make a difference. Don’t just claim that the powers are keeping you out without even actually making an argument so saying that others won’t understand. Taken from here.