Traveling reminds us that the old is distinctive and the new melds together. I had never been to Thailand, or indeed to any country in Southeast Asia. As the bus rolled through the streets, nothing in the facade of the 7-Eleven convenience store or the crushed muddle of Bangkok traffic proved startling.
As an old Yiddish saying has it, Jews are like other people, only more so. The Pew study of Judaism in America reminds us of this truth. Although startling to some, the rise of orthodoxy is to be expected. In a world in which traditionalism/fundamentalism is growing in Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and other faiths, Jews do what others do and turn forcefully to more orthodox modes of faith and worship. This is not a phenomenon peculiar to Jews, but a worldwide wave.
Many Jews will point to the Hebrew word het for sin, which is an archery term, and insist that Judaism teaches that sin is just “missing the mark.” That simplification does a grave injustice to the Jewish tradition.
Last week I penned a column about a Bar Mitzvah party video that had been circulating on the Web. I was incensed not only at the video, but the currency it had achieved, making it appear that this was a paradigm of Jewish celebrations.
The egregious, licentious and thoroughly awful video that is circulating ‘celebrating’ a Bar Mitzvah contains so much that is offensive that it requires restraint to hold oneself to three ways in which this display slaughters the spirit. Still, in the face of excess what could be more appropriate than abstinence? So here are only three of the worst things about this travesty:
Rabbis don't make it a practice to attend church. When I read that Rick and Kay Warren would be returning to Saddleback after their son Matthew's tragic suicide however, I resolved to go.
Attitudes toward same sex marriage in Judaism have undergone a dramatic change in the last quarter century. The prohibition recorded in Leviticus 18 has been affirmed by some, negated by others and reinterpreted by still others. Did the Torah intend loving same sex relationships? Did it understand homosexuality as a fundamental orientation rather than a choice?
A generation comes and another goes: True enough, but not all generations are alike. Experiences shape some in ways that are unrepeatable. Gil Glazer, Jona Goldrich, Max Webb and Parviz Nazarian are part of a unique generation.
Every disease is a social disease. When a person is diagnosed, his or her family, friends and community are involved as well. The shock moves through a widening circle, and the questions are always the same: How do we react; how should we react? Will I say the right thing; is there a right thing to say? Should I call, buy a gift? The questions and uncertainties pile up because every serious disease is a social disease.
Lance Armstrong proved surprisingly poor at backpedaling. His stone-faced, reluctant regret made many who watched the interview wonder if this was an illness. Why did this man mow down associates, besmirch employees, lie, cheat and bully his way to the top of a sport he is now insouciantly tearing down around him?
At first it is an anguish so deep that it destroys faith in life. We are witnesses to pain and loss so immense that to yearn for a resting place, to find anything good or hopeful or healing, feels like a betrayal. In the face of such tragedy, do we seek out sparks of hope because we are healers or deniers?
Each time I officiate at a marriage, I perpetrate a small fraud. I read the ketubah, the marriage contract, in its original Aramaic and then I read the “translation."
Rabbis Daniel Gordis and Rabbi Sharon Brous are both friends of mine, good friends, long time friends.
Every now and then we forbid certain things to certain select individuals: Boxers may not use their fists in casual fights; CIA agents may not write freely of their personal experiences. I think it is time for a new restriction: any mention of Hitler, the Holocaust or gas chambers should be legally forbidden to manifest idiots.
We are grateful that our nation is founded on the highest principles of freedom and resourcefulness and creativity and ever renewed strength. And we understand that those worthy ideals stand alongside the commitment to compassion, to goodness, our sacred covenant to care for those who are bereaved and bereft, who are frightened, who are hungry, who are bewildered and lost, who seek shelter from the cold.
When the Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad compares Israel to a cancer, I take it personally.
For nearly two millennia politics was poison for the Jewish people. The principle aim in understanding the machinations of power was to make oppression less onerous. Great swaths of tradition that spoke to the exercise of power lay mostly unexplored. Today there is a resurgence of interest and I would like to highlight three crucial lessons from the anomalous historical experience of Judaism.
Rabbi Isaac Luria, one of the greatest of Jewish mystics, would walk in the hills of 16th century Safed and point out to his students the souls of the dead, often standing on their graves. In the same city at the same time, the great legal scholar Joseph Karo, author of the Shulchan Aruch, the great code of Jewish Law, was composing another book dictated to him by an angel.
Surely the most unpromising premise for a film ever conceived is this: Nine and one half hours of people speaking in languages you do not understand about mass murder. Yet “Shoah” offers an experience unlike any other film, and its creator has written a memoir introducing us to the extraordinary man responsible for its existence.
Peter Beinart’s new book showcases its deepest flaw on the very first page, courtesy of his grandmother. From her home in South Africa, she says to her American grandson who is boasting about his country, “Don’t get too attached. The Jews are like rats. We leave the sinking ship.”
Announcing his new book in a hucksterish email to J street members, Peter Beinart details the truths vouchsafed to him and his fellow enlightened acolytes. A brief sampler:
In a moment of unwarranted despair, the young Keats wrote his epitaph: “Here lies one whose name is writ in water.” Yet creative geniuses achieve such immortality as human memory bestows. Those who exalt them disappear. The poet endures; the critic is destined to be forgotten.
In his brilliant history of early modern England, “The Ends of Life,” historian Keith Thomas quotes a translator named George Petrie who wrote in 1581, “The only way to win immortality is either to do things worth the writing, or write things worth the reading.” Christopher Hitchens is, by this reckoning, twice immortal.
This week we observe the fast of Tisha B’Av, commemorating the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem.
The world is rich in ability, awash in talent. But, though we use the word with abandon, genius is rare.
Dona is a 14-year-old boy in Port-au-Prince. When his mother was pregnant with him, she hid in fear from his father. In time, he found her and insisted she have an abortion. She refused. They fought, and she ran.
Elie Wiesel often recounts the tale of Rabbi Moshe Leib of Sasov, who needed a miracle. His predecessors had gone to a particular spot in the forest, lit a special candle, said a certain blessing and were able to evoke a miracle. Throughout the generations, much had been lost. Now the poor rabbi no longer knew where in the forest one should pray, no longer possessed the special candle, did not even know the secret blessing. What he knew was the story. Dear God, he prayed, the story must be sufficient. And it was.
What Atlantic writer Jeffrey Goldberg has called "Operation Desert Schmooze" continued at the White House yesterday. A group of some 150 people, mostly Jews prominent in their fields, gathered for the latest volley in the Obama charm offensive. This was the first White House event in honor of Jewish Heritage month which -- it may have escaped your notice -- was in May.
It might have been a grotesque scene out of a Dan Brown thriller: In the middle of the day, Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh was murdered by a 26-year-old Moroccan Dutchman named Mohammed Bouyeri. Bouyeri shot Van Gogh, then slit his throat with a machete. After the murder, he affixed a five-page note to his victim by plunging a smaller knife into his chest.
Where do we, boots thick in the modern muddle, turn to understand our faith? Some traditionalists stand athwart the contemporary world and insist that ancient convictions and practices are all that is required; new knowledge does not demand a revision of tradition. Others, surveying a world in which social hierarchies are gone and religious traditions develop historically, where we have learned that different traditions have similar stories and powerful insights and science has upended many classical convictions, are persuaded that we must understand Torah in a new way.
The classic Taoist text teaches: “Thirty spokes meet together in a single hub. The wagon’s usefulness depends upon their nothingness.” Everything depends upon the space between the spokes.
Their day begins at night, they show a certain aversion to the sign of the cross and they dress in black. Of course, I am talking about Jews.
Who believes that the 13-year-old standing before the congregation is really a man or woman?
Why do we read the Bible? For religion to be sure, but also for politics. After all, unlike the New Testament, which was written in the era of Roman rules and did not have to offer prescriptions for governance (the Romans handled all that), the Bible was a manual not only for individual piety, but also for setting up a society. What does it teach that the surrounding worlds did not know?
Benjamin Disraeli was born Jewish, baptized as a boy but (mostly) considered himself to be Jewish. He famously proclaimed to Queen Victoria -- who began by hating him and ended adoring him -- that he was the "blank page" separating the Old and New Testaments.
Belief is not a static illusion to be knocked down at the introduction of a new scientific hypothesis or discovery. Faith is an orientation of soul, a posture toward God's universe that finds expression in many religious traditions.
For we have in our midst an essayist with a slightly more down-home American tang (Max Beerbohm was essentially, quintessentially, British). Joseph Epstein combines that Yankee brio with a Yiddish wit and an elegant erudition that recalls Beerbohm. He is funny, he is wise and you ought to be reading him.
Cline's book is a dispassionate recounting of the central issues that preoccupy scholars and pseudoscholars of the biblical text.
By the age of 26, Winston Churchill had fought in several wars, become a hero by daringly escaping prison during the Boer War, been elected to Parliament and written several popular books (including "My Early Life," which dramatically recounts his escape). Already he was well on his way to becoming what we now know him to be, the most extraordinary character of the 20th century.
Zachary Karabell offers a different perspective on the question of Islamic rule in his history, "Peace Be Upon You: Fourteen Centuries of Muslim, Christian, and Jewish Coexistence in the Middle East" (Knopf, 2007).
Shysters chase ambulances; critics chase influences. How to characterize this Chandler-Babel stew? Let's try the Hollywood idiom. "The Yiddish Policeman's Union" is Woody Allen meets Cornel Woolrich. No, better, deeper: S.J. Perelman meets Y.L. Peretz meets Harry Turtledove. Martin Amis meets Stanley Elkin who is chatting with Sholom Aleichem about Jorge Luis Borges.
Atheism has become chic. In itself, this might be a helpful thing, after all faith, like every other system, strengthens itself by intelligent challenge. But too much of the contemporary attack on religion is just that -- an attack fueled by grievance and not by careful consideration.
I do not want an "us" and a "them." If you are not really ready to be part of one community, which means to have friends, to marry, to rejoice together, to grieve together, then all I can tell you is you should find another place. But I think that you are, I hope and pray and believe that you are.
"Betraying Spinoza: The Renegade Jew Who Gave Us Modernity": Traditional Judaism feared and distrusted this child of the enlightenment. Although prominent Jewish thinkers, from Moses Mendelssohn to Solomon Maimon to modern Zionists, have claimed him as their own, every deliberation on Spinoza wonders -- is he a Jewish thinker?
The Haggadah tells us "you were strangers in the land of Egypt." Here is the interesting thing -- because we were strangers, we are supposed to learn not how the Israelites should have acted, but -- how the Egyptians should have acted. We are supposed to learn how not to oppress others. Don't treat others the way we were treated.
In early November, I spoke at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. The topic was "The Future of Conservative Judaism." I prepared for the talk by asking colleagues, friends and congregants to define Conservative Judaism in one sentence. It was a dispiriting experience.
"It is not in our hands to explain the prosperity of the wicked or even the sufferings of the righteous." So said Rabbi Yannai in the Mishna some 2,000 years ago. The Talmud (Kiddushin 39b) insists "there is no reward for mitzvot in this world." We have had a long time to read and understand the Book of Job, and we know that the calculus of reward and punishment is more perplexing and agonizing than we can know.
Than we can know, but not, apparently, than Rav Ovadiah Yosef, a former chief rabbi of Israel, can know. Rav Ovadiah is an ilui, a genius of halacha.
His memory is astonishing, his range remarkable. Unfortunately, his theology is appalling.
I have never been to the Kabbalah Centre, never studied with one of their teachers, and cannot comment on their practices. My sole direct exposure was to watch a videotape produced by the center, "The Power of Kabbalah: A Documentary," from 1996, in which they claim, among other things, credit for producing the Oslo accords -- credit which they may be presently inclined to disavow. But no matter. I spent an infuriating hour reading "Becoming Like God" by Rabbi Michael Berg. If I can succeed in persuading one person not to buy this confused, contradictory, intellectually disreputable and Jewishly perverse volume it will be well worth the exasperation.
"I heard the rabbi is dying of brain cancer."
That was the word flying around the shul. I should have expected it. Rumors were rife, and they were uncomfortably close to the truth.
Last Oct. 23, I was speaking at the University of Pennsylvania, to inaugurate the new Hillel building on campus. At dinner, I sat beside my parents.
As I spoke, I felt a little strange, nervous and hot. I had trouble keeping to my train of thought. It occurred to me that I was coming down with a cold.
As I sat down after my speech, my father asked, "Is there anything wrong?"
"No," I said, and that is the last thing I remember.
As this Jewish year begins, we are once again assailed by the din of seemingly monumental events: the war in Iraq, the decision about our state leadership, the peril in Israel, the crises of human rights, environment, scientific progress and ethics.
There is no better place to understand the powerful forces and fault lines of American identity than Washington. I arrived in the evening at Dulles Airport, and my cab driver, I soon discovered, was Iranian. As we drove, he told me his life story: He had been an ambassador to Moscow under Khomeini, the man who "ruined my country."
How did he feel about being in America?
Why don't Jews accept Jesus as the Messiah or son of God?
Growing up in Philadelphia, I attended Akiba Hebrew Academy, a private Jewish school. In 11th grade, a Southern Baptist preacher came to speak to our class. He looked around the room, and with a kindly smile said, "You seem like nice boys and girls. But I must tell you that unless you change your ways, you are all going to hell." I admired his honesty, but not his theology. I spent the next hour trying to think of a question that would stump him. As the class was ending, I raised my hand.
In the late Middle Ages, some Jews first banned and then instigated the burning of the books of Maimonides, the greatest philosopher Judaism ever produced. The book burning of 1232 was one episode in a controversy that lasted for some two centuries. The fight was not over Maimonides as an individual, for all agreed he was a great scholar and a pious man, rather the dispute centered on his incorporating Greek learning into his philosophy. Maimonides revered Aristotle; he called him "the philosopher." His opponents attacked him and the intellectual battle raged.
Each stage of life has its characteristic depressions and delights.
We were together in a small room, about 10 of us. Four of us were from Sinai Temple in Los Angeles. I stood with Jimmy Delshad, our temple's past president; his wife, Lonnie, and Temple Treasurer Kam Hekmat, as well as two members of an L.A. fact-finding mission, David Rubin and Dr. Mark Barak. We were bending over the scroll of a Torah, along with five rabbis, all dressed in combat fatigues. Each rabbi was scrutinizing it with an erudite eye.
Today you die. No one pronounces that horrible sentence on Yom Kippur, but it is true. Yom Kippur reenacts death. We wear white, like the shrouds we will one day be buried in. We do not eat, wash, procreate; we are as corpses. We recite the "Unetaneh Tokef," filled with graphic, even gruesome images about our death.