Friday, December 31, 2010

Limmud Conference and Mash Ups

In his book, The Age of the Unthinkable, Joshua Cooper Ramo explains that we live in an age of ‘mash-ups’, one of unexpected combinations of things, whether that be Islamic terrorism and jet airplanes, or hedge funds and home mortgages.

I thought back to Ramo’s mash-up phrase yesterday evening, as I sat listening to ‘Pharoah’s daughter’ in concert on the last night of the Limmud UK conference.

Because what way better to describe the phenomenon if not by Chasidic melodies being sung in Yiddish, Hebrew and English by a woman playing the oud, backed up by acoustic guitar and beatboxing, or sessions discussing Sukkot and Halloween, or Rabbi Akiva and Omar from the TV show ‘The Wire’,

While slightly less 'mashed up', the sessions I presented at Limmud focused on delegitimization of Israel, the political process with the Palestinians, leadership and identifying adaptive challenges, and the theological significance of the Shoah.

They were well received, and I was pleased with how they went.

But maybe for next year I should learn how to play the oud and beatbox...


Wednesday, December 22, 2010

10th Tevet and the Theological Significance of the Shoah

Last Friday was Asara BeTevet, the Fast of the 10th Tevet, which marks the beginning of the Babylonian siege of Jerusalem that ultimately led to the destruction of the first temple. Following the establishment of Israel, an argument ensued between those who wanted to fix the date as also representing a "general kaddish day" for victims of the Holocaust and those who claimed that the Holocaust deserved its own unique day of memorial (which is where Yom Hashoah comes in).

The disagreement is not solely a question of semantics. Instead, it touches on whether the Holocaust is simply one in a long list of tragedies to have befallen the Jewish people throughout the ages or whether it constitutes a unique historical and theological event.

In the Shiur, we looked at traditional and modern sources in order to better understand this issue. Covering Fackenheim, Berkovits, Arthur Cohen, Primo Levi, Kalnymous Kalman Shapira and others, we touched on whether the Shoah can be viewed within the classic framework of why bad things happen to good people, whether each generation has its own 'Auschwitz problem', and to what extent the idea of rejecting God is within the Jewish tradition.

We also began to investigate how post Holocaust theologians attempt to recreate new language (Fackenheim's '614th Commandment', Levi's 'Shema', Wiesel's 'new Bereshit' and Cohen's 'Red Sea of evil parting time and space') in order to try and come to terms with an event they see as unique in Jewish history.

Click here for the
source sheet, here for the audio recording (right click to save and download.)

Monday, December 06, 2010

Chanukah 5771: Wars, Lights and the Merging of Religion and State

While emphasizing different aspects of a festival to maintain its relevance has been a mainstay of Jewish tradition for over two thousand years, Chanukah has seemingly had more facelifts than Cher.

Chanukah’s initial origins lie in the Maccabean military victory over the Seleucid Empire which returned Jewish sovereignty to the land of Israel for approximately a century.

Later, when Jewish experience was primarily characterised by exile and powerlessness, this military aspect was downplayed in favour of the miracle of the oil, which inspired people to maintain hope for a brighter future even during the darkest of times.

For hundreds of years, Chanukah was primarily about this ‘spiritual’ miracle. Yet the onset of Zionism began a search for a new Jewish prototype - one closer to the fearless bronzed and broad shouldered poet-worker-revolutionary of Amos Oz’s Tale of Love and Darkness than the concealing and cowering Jew of Bialik’s City of Slaughter. Desperate to find such warrior Jews in the annals of our history, early Zionist thinkers returned the Maccabees to the role of military heroes and redefined the festival as that of celebrating the courageous battle against the odds to restore Israel’s political sovereignty.

Contemporary opinions of Chanukah continue to be mixed. Some see it as an environmental holiday which promotes conserving energy sources and reducing our burning of oil while others focus on the importance of opposing ‘Hellenist’ thought (which, based on one’s political opinions, could be anything from supporting the peace process to sending one’s children to the army). Donniel Hartman meanwhile, understands the challenge of Chanukah as sustaining different features of one's complex modern identity at a time in which we live in both the metaphorical Jerusalem and Athens.

Yet a recent work trip focusing on the question of conversion in Israel, coupled with several comments by apparently well respected Rabbis, raise another potentially relevant contemporary meaning of Chanukah.

Despite their military prowess, the Talmudic Rabbis are ambivalent towards the Maccabean dynasty, due to the fact that in addition to serving as priests, the Maccabees also took the kingship for themselves, thus unifying political and religious power in one group.

Judaism is against such a combination, believing that a separation of powers (traditionally between the king and prophet but later between the king and priests) was the best way to check absolute power and maintain authentic service of God. As Irving Greenberg writes, “Some moral and religious compromises are inescapable in the process of government. But when religion and state are totally identified, compromises turn into corruption because there is no independent channel of criticism and renewal. Religious concerns would inevitably be mixed up with pure political interests of the ruling group, to the detriment of both religion and government.”

So as people continue to discuss whether the Maccabees are closer to religious fundamentalists, French revolutionaries, modern day IDF soldiers, or proud Jews fighting a battle against an aggressive secular McWorld, and as the official Rabbinic establishment does more to spread disillusionment with religion and God than perhaps any other body, it’s worth remembering how our tradition critiques the merging of religion and state, believing that it ultimately leads to corruption of both.

Bayamim HaHem Bazman Hazeh – In those days, at this time…

Previous Chanukah Posts

2010: Chanukah: Between Athens and Jerusalem (Shiur)

2008: Chanukah and the Kassams

2008: The Strong always in the Hands of the Weak

Between Judaism, Hellenism and Peace

Sunday, December 05, 2010

Conversion, Mamzerut, and the Relationship between Religion and State

Last week, as part of our monthly Jewish-Zionist training component, the analysts at Reut left the confines of our ‘tank’ and travelled to Jerusalem to learn more about the issue of conversion in this wonderful country.

While these training days are generally refreshing, we returned physically and emotionally exhausted. The gap between being legally Jewish under the law of return (one Jewish grandparent) and halachically Jewish under the Rabbinate (Jewish mother) has led to a situation in which over 300,000 Israelis approaching marriageable age are unable to marry in their own country.

While this existential time bomb continues to tick meanwhile, the official Rabbinate focuses on narrow readings of law rather than the unity of the Jewish people, the national religious community is too meek to step up to the plate, and the secular majority has failed to design a relevant, convincing alternative definition of what it means to become Jewish in the 21st Century.

The week before our trip, the Jerusalem Post ran an article about a couple whose child is considered a Mamzer (offspring of an adulterous relationship) due to her being born within 300 days of the mother's divorce from her previous husband. Despite the fact the mother separated from her husband ten months before conceiving with her new partner, an archaic Israeli law from 1965 (the Bastard Clause) means this child is blacklisted and will have serious problems marrying when she grows up.

The official state position on both these issues is particularly upsetting as several Halachic ways to resolve the problems exist. The Rabbis of old actively neutralized the problem of Mamzerut, sometimes even ruling that pregnancy can last twelve months rather than nine (a legal fiction that made the newborn the first husband’s child and thus ‘kosher’). Similarly, there are several Halachic ways to resolve (or at least alleviate) the issue of conversion, if only there was the political and Rabbinic will.

The problems of the current implementation of Halacha reminded me of two articles written by Yeshayahu Leibowitz a few years after the State's establishment.

Better known for his fiery 'right wing' comments about worshipping God or his 'left wing' statements on the IDF and the future of the territories, Leibowitz's position regarding Halacha in a sovereign state is essential reading.

In the first, written in 1952, he argues that the Torah needs to be extracted from the artificial exilic greenhouse environment in which it was cultivated for hundreds of years in order to become capable of being lived by the total community of a modern state.

In his second, written seven years later, Leibowitz argues that ‘releasing religion from its integration in the political-secular system is the most effective way to strengthen religious consciousness and its influence on the public.’

And as our trip wore on, and we continued to argue over how the State - our state - could desert hundreds of thousands of its own citizens (who it decided to bring here in the first place), I began to imagine the journey Leibowitz may have undergone – from an initial belief in Halacha’s potential for relevancy in a new sovereign reality, to ensuing disappointment and call for its complete separation from state institutions.

And it made me feel that Leibowitz’s positions are the only choices remaining for us today.

Halacha can either renew itself by digging deep within its core values and becoming relevant and compassionate for a time and place in which Jews have full responsibility for all aspects of society. (Leibowitz 1952).

Alternatively, if Halacha (or those who deign to speak in its name) proves incapable of this, if the state’s official religious leaders continue to insist on interpreting the myriad of Jewish sources in the strictest, narrowest possible way, if they continue to insist on making things harder rather than easier, it will lead to the ultimate separation between religion and state (Leibowitz 1959)

It’s one or the other, relevance or disappearance. And if those preferring the former don’t raise their voices soon, we will ultimately have to settle for the latter.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Vayeshev / Chanukah: Between Athens and Jerusalem

This week we looked at three stores from Parshat Vayeshev which reflect one core difference between Athens and Jerusalem, and provide provide a contemporary message for Chanukah.

In each one of these stories, clothes are used to deceive. Yaacov mistakenly thinks Joseph's bloodied coat means he is dead. Yehudah mistakenly considers Tamar a prostitute. Potiphar's wife uses Yosef's garment as false proof to convince her husband that Yosef has been disloyal.

Unlike Greek culture which focuses on sight (statues, painting, architecture, sculpture, sport etc), Jonathan Sacks argues that Judaism focuses on sound. In fact, this idea - that we experience more fully using our ears rather than eyes - is also reflected in Malcolm Gladwell's book Blink, in which he explains how putting up screens for orchestra auditions immediately led to a change of hiring practices. As Gladwell explains, "Clearly what was happening before was that, in ways no one quite realized, the act of seeing a given musician play was impairing the listener's ability to actually hear what a musician was playing."

We concluded with a beautiful story in which God teaches Eliyahu that He is not be found in the extremes (fire, earthquake, wind) but rather in a Kol Demama Daka, a short, still voice (the sound of silence). The exchange provides another example of how we find God through listening rather than seeing.

Click here for the
source sheet and the audio recording (Tel Aviv Shiur) (Jerusalem Shiur)

Chanukah Sameach