THAT’S THE TITLE OF A provocative but understated op-ed today on the Jewish Telegraphic Agency website, and it’s a point of view with which I find myself agreeing: that if one sees Judaism as only an excuse for right action, and ignores its religious and intellectual aspects, one is shortchanging both oneself and any interesting sort of Jewish future. (“Tikkun olam” = “rectifying/repairing the world,” a qabalistic doctrine which has been a big focus for Jewish leadership and study since the 1970s.)
This shortchagement is not new; people (including me) are always trying to “define” Judaism: is it a Faith? A Folk Tradition? A People? An Intellectual Puzzle? A Way Of Life? The answer, of course, is that it is all of these and more. And one of its most important qualities is that it fosters, in the diligent, a different way of thinking than the Aristotelian two-value logic on which most of Western Culture is based — a way of thinking that seems to me better suited to the complexities, complications and contradictions of modern life.
Mr. Alperson is more worried than I am about assimilation (after all, he’s a Jewish Professional), but his piece is definitely worth a read: http://www.jta.org/news/article/2011/07/27/3088736/op-ed-judaism-is-more-than-tikkun-olam. (Also referred by the always-interesting Jewish Ideas Daily website: a rousing cry to study the Mishna independently of the Babylonian or Jerusalem Talmuds which are derived from it (http://thetalmudblog.wordpress.com/2011/07/28/protestant-mishnah/). It’s still a good world, where websites and debates like this can exist.)
THIS IS ONE OF THOSE blog posts where the writer tries to predict, dreads to inspire, hopes to distance himself, and wonders if.
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FOR MY NEXT TRICK, I will attempt to adapt 1st-century Judaism for 21st-century Americans.
Yesterday, the 17th of Tammuz, marked the 1,941st anniversary of the breaching of Jerusalem’s walls by the Romans (and the 2,597th anniversary of the same action by the Babylonians). For traditional Jews, 17 Tammuz begins the annual semi-mourning period of the Three Weeks, which culiminate in a commemoration of the Temple’s destruction on the 9th of Av, colloquially known as Tisha B’Av (this year, August 9).
For untraditional Jews, it’s a time of wondering why traditional Jews are so upset over something that happened so many years ago — and deprived us of nothing more than the old-time religion of animal sacrifice. But let’s look past the sheen of nationalist memory and peer into the realm of psychological function.
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or, There and Back Again Without Leaving
(BECAUSE OF WORDPRESS, I’M REPUBLISHING this 2002 piece — it works better as a “post” than as a “page” — and although my kippa-wearing has become a bit less pronounced of late it still reflects my approach to finding a place in Judaism. If you’re not hot for apologetics or manifesti, you have my permission to read something else.)
Despite that I’ve worn a yarmulke most of the time since 2000, I don’t define myself as Orthodox. Or Reform. Or, for that matter, as Conservative, Reconstructionist, Renewal or otherwise adjectivally Jewish.
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WHEN JERRY GARCIA AND GENE Roddenberry died, I shed actual tears. Although I didn’t know either of them personally, they had both played important roles in my life — Jerry taught me to dance, Gene taught me to dream — and because of their role in the culture at large, their deaths were like the shutting of a communal door.
There’s a similar circumstance in this week’s Torah portion, Chukat, which notes — among other incidents — the deaths of Moses’ siblings, Miriam and Aaron, themselves beloved by their community. Think what it must have been like for the Israelites: smacked out of Egypt by the back of God’s miracle-hand, given a new constitution beneath a thundering mountain, then doomed by ingratitude to wander the desert for 40 years. Moses, Aaron and Miriam were all the leadership they knew: Moses the mysterious, whose face glows when he talks to God; Aaron, who loved peace so much he’d even tell fibs to achieve it; Miriam, the wise woman whose portable well enabled life in the desert.
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(IN FACT, THE WHOLE “REASON” I “am” “religious” in the first place is only due to a direct perception that the Universe is, in some essential and indescribable sense, alive and conscious. I can’t help seeing that, feeling a part of it, and celebrating.)
(Also, as much as I love science, I’m more fascinated by rituals and customs, folkways, manners, stories, legends, myths, folklore. I see religion as structured spirituality, and its practice one of many attentive arts of living. And I like the perspective of participating in something bigger, older and more continuous than I am. I guess that’s one reason why some people play music or build stuff or deeply study anything.)
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THERE’S A PLACE — CHELM IS its name — where all the inhabitants are so open-minded that they tolerate any behavior whatsoever from anyone they deem open-minded as themselves. It’s a nice place to visit, but I hope never to have to live there.
From the post title, you can guess where I stand on San Francisco’s proposed anti-circumcision measure, which would criminalize the act if performed on anyone under 18 and disallow religious exemptions. But considering that Matthew Hess, the fellow behind it, is the same fellow behind the eye-washingly anti-Semitic “Monster Mohel” comic book, I feel I know as much about his motivations — and defenders — as I need to.
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Neal& Ann’s Torah Study
Saturday, May 21, 2011 10 am-noonish (RSVP)
Torah Portion: Bechukotai (Deuteronomy 26:3-27:34[end])
Haftarah: Jeremiah 16:19-17:14
LET’S BE HONEST: THIS WEEK’S Torah portion is not a favorite of many, containing as it does a long string of violent curses brought down on the hearts and homes of those who reject Torah.
It’s grim stuff, even for the rabbis who ordained that this part be read quickly and quietly. And it makes us uncomfortable on several levels: the specificity, the cruelty, the seemingly primitive tit-for-tat which embodies, for many of us, the worst aspects of religion. It’s tempting to ignore, delete, or gloss over this bit of text and read only the “good parts” (whatever that may be to each of us). Read more »
…IS THAT HIS COMPOUND WAS built in the shape of what some would call “Greater Palestine,” with his house corresponding to the location of Jerusalem. (This comes to me from to the French website JSSNews, by way of YNet, by way of The Tablet, which latter is recommended daily fare.)
I stress that this is a rumor only
(like the time in high school that I convinced someone that Ronald McDonald was portrayed by an African-American actor — which was repeated to me later in the day), and doesn’t really seem to fit with what we seem to know thus far about Mr. Bin Laden’s motivations. But as rumors go, it’s worth passing along. (AS A RUMOR.)
TUCKED INTO MY GREAT-GRANDFATHER’S BIBLE is a yellowed sheet of paper containing the flavor of living tradition.
In short, it’s my mom’s recipe for knubel borscht (pronounced “k’nubble”): beef simmered in beet soup and garlic. That’s it: three ingredients, plus heat and time. Perhaps in part due to its simplicity, or that I’ve been eating it for most of my childhood Pesachs, knubel borscht is satisfying on a soul level. It fills the house with a scent at once sweet and savory, fruity and meaty, and which may in fact prove to be the smell of Gan Eden should the requisite air-sampling technology be designed and utilized.
The recipe originally comes from “the old country” (in our case, my Polish g’g'father or his Romanian wife); the original calls for a large pot, 5 quarts of borscht, 7-1/2 pounds of bone-in chuck roast with a packet of soup bones, and a large head of peeled garlic. Add everything together, simmer three hours or more, skimming off the foam; serve on plate and in bowl.
For our Seder Monday night, I created a lower-portion variant which is just as pleasing in all the essentials and doesn’t really suffer for the lack of soup bones. Four ingredients counting the pan:
9″ Pyrex baking pan
1 pound brisket
Quart of borscht
Head of garlic
Heat oven to 375 degrees. Peel and chop garlic. Put brisket in pan fat side up (trim excess fat first). Sprinkle garlic on top, pour over borscht, seal with aluminum foil. Three hours later, you’ll need a knife to cut through the aroma and open the oven. Put the meat on a plate, the soup in a bowl, and revel in the small blessings by which G?d or the quantum membranes thereof sustain and nurture the world.
1. THE FOLKS AT WHOLE FOODS’ Sonoma branch were trying to do the right thing. Last week, I noted that their refrigerated Passover display contained some sixers of He’Brew Beer (unaffiliated with but heartily endorsed by Metaphorager.Net). Fermented grain being Passoverly inappropriate, and wanting to save the store some face, I mentioned this to one of the managers (“This isn’t offensive, just incongruous to knowledgeable shoppers.”). As of yesterday, the beer is now gone — but the other freestanding display now features cocktail rye breads and two boxes of hamantaschen.
(I love hamantaschen, which are poppyseed-filled Purim cookies. I love them even more on Purim, which holiday occurred two weeks ago. But I really love the human impulse to make the customer comfortable, even if we don’t know what her comfort level is.)
2. If you’re in the Sonoma area tomorrow, join us for “painless Torah study” (no experience necessary) from 10 am to noonish. Our portion is Tazria (Leviticus 12:1-13:59; Haftorah: II Kings 4:42-5:19). Call 707.933.9430 for directions.)
3. I am way pleased to announce that PunkTorah.Org has published one of my divrei Torah at http://punktorah.org/dvar-torah/ (the one titled “D’var Tazria & Itchy Skin Diseases”). PunkTorah is what you get when young people play in the vast Jewish landscape with today’s tools, yesterday’s texts and eternal enthusiasm. (They have an online minyan, or prayer meet, three times a day!) Nachum-Bob says “check ‘em out.”
“Yom Kippur brings the joy of teshuvah; Purim the teshuvah of joy.”
(TO UNDERSTAND THIS, YOU NEED to know that this was my response to Rabbi David Wolpe‘s Facebook post this morning. “Every Jewish holiday has its partner,” he said, and asked what ties together Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, and Purim, which begins Saturday night and celebrates a thwarted plot to kill the Jews of Persia.
(R’ Wolpe’s favorite equivalence is from R’ Jack Riemer: “On Purim we put masks on; on YK we take them off.” Purim, in other words, is about the teshuvah (repentance, or transcendence) of illusion. But Jews have been pondering this relationship for centuries. Purim is a very boisterous holiday where people dress up in outlandish costumes and drink until the lines blur between friend and enemy. Yom Kippur is a solemn accounting of mistakes and deliberate errors.
(My favorite Chasidic view of all this is that Yom Kippur (which some interpret “Day Like Purim”), as a day of teshuvah through forgiveness, is even happier than Purim: “How not, when all our sins are forgiven?” So my answer: that as intense teshuvah brings joy, intense joy brings teshuvah.
(But you knew that, right? Happy Purim/Chag Purim Sameach!)