Sunday, February 23, 2014

Creating Judaism: a review

Creating Judaism: History, Tradition, PracticeCreating Judaism: History, Tradition, Practice by Michael L. Satlow

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I have always told my friends that in important ways, Judaism is not a religion: it's a lot more than that.  Satlow helps me explain why.  Jewish communities have lived in nearly every country in the world, for thousands of years, and they lived in ways that bear only a family resemblance to each other.  Even today (as the first chapter shows), American Judaism and Israeli Judaism look starkly different. What is "Judaism"?

Historically, Satlow says, what has held these diverse communities together is a lively and heated conversation about three things: Jewish identity (what it means to be a Jew, who is and who's not); relationship to sacred texts (the list of which has changed over time); and practice.  Jews don't have to believe the same things, which has shocked many members of other religions.  Satlow tells the story of the Calvinist Dutch government in the 17th century tolerated Jews but tried to enforce their own idea of what all Jews believe!  Within the Jewish fold,in the Middle Ages, Maimonides listed 13 principles of faith.  Today we sing them but we don't study them. 

It was only in the 19th century that Jews began to define their differences along ideological lines, and that has led to the different "movements" and in fact to "Judaism" as we know it today.  Even then, Satlow makes the point that the founders of the Reform, Conservative, and Modern Orthodox movements all kept kosher and wouldn't have any trouble sitting down for dinner at one another's tables.  That has changed--but still, you cannot tell much about the everyday life of a Jewish "lay" person by asking him or her what "kind of Jew" he or she is.  You would have to watch them from day to day.

I found this book fascinating because it showed me how Jews have always been influenced by the trends in the larger culture in which their communities were situated.  Because we live in the early 21st century, the book is particularly interesting when it shows the ways that Jewish and Muslim currents of thought flowed in and out of each other.  In the Muslim world in the 8th century, people were arguing about whether only the Qur'an was holy or whether the hadith, a set of traditions about Muhammad and his circle, should also be studied like sacred texts.  Muslims considered the Torah sacred, although some thought the Jews had a corrupted text, and many believed the rabbinic interpretations of the Torah (in the midrash and Talmud) had distorted the truth given to Moses at Sinai.  Look at the Jews in the same time and the same place, and you find many of the same arguments.  The Karaites wanted to get rid of the rabbinic commentary and go straight back to the Torah.  Meanwhile, the rabbis were working to recognize the Talmud (the work of earlier teachers, from the 2nd through 6th centuries) as equally worthy of study as the five books of Moses--and for a time, they succeeded as the Muslim scholars did with the hadith.  This is a very different conversation than went on in Christian lands at the same time, or ever.

Creating Judaism is not a perfect book.  It starts out strong and straightforward, but in later chapters it tries to cover too much ground too quickly and falls into the academic habit of referring to history instead of explaining it.  Still, it is a perfect book for right now.  It shows how we can recognize that our most cherished beliefs are historically and culturally relative and still continue to cherish them, which is the only honest way to be part of a religious community in the 21st century.

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Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Star Trek Economics


Today, while shoveling, I heard Paul Ryan condemn Obamacare because it would give people more freedom to choose whether or not to work, and how many hours.

When I came in from shoveling, my sister Yael Fischman had shared this article with me about an economy where no one actually has to work.

I want to live in the Federation!

Saturday, January 25, 2014

The Novice's Tale, by Margaret Frazer: a review in brief.

The Novice's Tale by Margaret Frazer

The coziest of cozies, since it's set in a cloistered convent, yet this book manages to touch on Chaucer, Henry VI, the laws of entail and of marriage.

It also introduces an unique detective, Dame Frevisse, the hosteler (guest accommodator) at the convent of St. Frideswide's, who is good not because she is innocent of sin but because she knows herself.  I am looking forward to reading more of this series.

Monday, December 9, 2013

On the Bimah and Off Broadway

Bravo's Andy Cohen and his bar mitzvah tutor Yitz Magence
It's been nineteen years since Rona's uncle, Dr. Jacob S. Rosen, passed away.  We will be lighting a yahrzeit candle Friday evening to mark the anniversary of his death. 

And I will be remembering a story that Uncle Jack told me.

Like me, Uncle Jack was a bar mitzvah tutor.  Sometime in the 1960's, someone showed him an album cover.  Two Jewish guys singing their hearts out.  Uncle Jack recognized the one with frizzy hair as one of his bar mitzvah students.

"That Garfunkel kid," he said, "always, he had a sweet voice!"

When I read this morning's Boston Globe article about a television star tipping his musical hat to his own bar mitzvah tutor, I smiled.  For me, it was a tribute to Uncle Jack. 

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Joseph, Jonah, Miriam, and Nelson

Some weeks in shul, I don't hear any cogent words about the Torah portion.  But today at Temple B'nai Brith, reading Parshat Vayigash, I heard at least three wonderful thoughts.

The Torah Portion

Parshat Vayigash brings the story of Joseph to its climax.  When he was young, his brothers sold him into slavery, but he rose to become the leader of Egypt, second in command to the Pharaoh.  At this point in the story, his brothers have come to Egypt three times, twice seeking food in a famine, the third time accused of stealing from the Egyptian leader whom they do not recognize as their brother. 

Joseph has threatened to keep the youngest brother (Benjamin, the son of Rachel, who was Joseph's mother too) in prison forever.  An older brother, Judah, offers to take Benjamin's place, to keep their father Jacob from dying of grief for his favorite remaining son.  Moved to tears, Joseph reveals himself.  He tells them that not they but God sent him to Egypt so that he could do good, and he gets Pharaoh's permission to invite them to bring the entire clan to Egypt to settle.

Today at shul, the twins Jonah and Miriam Freed Boardman celebrated their b'nai mitzvah.  Each said something penetrating about the story.

Three Interpretations

Jonah pointed out that even though the Egyptians regarded the children of Israel/Jacob as barbaric, in the midst of a famine, the Egyptian government invited the Israelites in and made them welcome.  Contrast this to our government, he said, which has been doing so much to turn immigrants and refugees away at the door!

Miriam called our attention to the name of Serach bat Asher, Joseph's niece, one of the only women to be mentioned in the list of Jews who came down to Egypt.  What was so special about Serach?  The text gives no clue, but as usual, that was no bar to the rabbinic imagination.  The rabbis came up with three midrashim about Serach:

  1. She was the one who broke the astonishing news that Joseph was alive to her grandfather Jacob.  He had been mourning Joseph for years, perhaps decades, and even good news might have shocked him and even killed him if not for her gentle manner.  As a reward for caring for her aged grandfather, she was granted a miraculous old age...and lived all the way until the time of Moses.
  2. Serach was the only one who knew the code word that God had given the Israelites to recognize a true prophet.  She vouched for Moses to her people.
  3. Before he died, Joseph arranged to have himself embalmed and made his people promise to take him back to the land of his ancestors.  Four hundred years later, during the Exodus, they had the chance to keep that promise--because Serach knew where Joseph was buried.
Miriam (the namesake of a prophet) reminded us that even a generation ago, she might not have been allowed to celebrate becoming bat mitzvah along with her brother.  With her words of wisdom, she brought women's voices back into the story...including her own.

In response, our congregation's senior leader, Phil Weiss, compared Joseph to another prisoner who rose to leadership: Nelson Mandela.  Like Joseph, Mandela refused to seek revenge on his oppressors.  He and Archbishop Tutu set up commissions for truth and reconciliation instead.  As a result, South Africa still faces many problems, but solving them will not take divine intervention, nor the death of the firstborn.  In this way, Mandela was greater than Joseph.  Joseph left Egypt in a feudal state.  Mandela left South Africa a democracy.