Saturday, November 7, 2015

How Should a Person Be?, by Sheila Heti

When I was a small boy, my father told me that it was important for a person to be able to laugh at himself. On my first day of school, the teacher gave us all name tags. On my tag, which she  pressed to my small chest, she spelled my name wrong. All during recess, I walked from child to child, pointing out the misspelling and laughing at my own name.

I couldn't understand why all the children running and shouting and playing dodge ball thought I was the weird one. I was doing what's important, after all.

Sheila, the viewpoint character in How Should a Person Be?, is in her twenties, but she's still trying to do what I did at age six: find out what's important to do and do it. Her rules don't include "Be able to laugh at yourself." If they did, perhaps this book would never have been written! Instead, she's trying to create something important, and she thinks that you judge how important a thing is by how intensely it makes you feel.

It takes a masochistic relationship with a man, the prospect of ruining her best friendship with a woman, and discarding mementos of her childhood to make her realize that there is no one way a person should be, and that she doesn't have to be a leader to be important. Each person is uniquely valuable, even Sheila.

I could sympathize with her desire to feel everything intensely, even if it hurts. That's what my early twenties were like too. And sometimes you have to cross boundaries and do ugly things just once, to find out what it's like. I also loved the way Sheila recognized people spewing theories as "just another man in the world who wanted to teach me something." It led to her realization that she had become that guy--like me on the playground, trying to show I could laugh at myself.

All through the book, however, as a feminist, every time I read about her wanting to be used by her sex partner, Israel, I wanted to shake her. Don't you know, I said in my head, that women and men already went through all that, so you don't have to? (And as a fellow Jew: what is up with naming the guy Israel when your Jewish identity shows up in the way you speak and the metaphors you use throughout the book? Seems like some unopened baggage there, still.)

So, I ended the book thinking that all the really interesting parts of Sheila's story begin when this book ends. I don't know whether that's a reflection on the book or on me. I'm glad I read it, just as I'm glad I lived my young adult life. And I would never want to do it again.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Social Issues and Torah: Torah Based Responses to Homosexuality

I am not an Orthodox Jew, so my approach to Torah and sexuality is very different, but I found this blog entirely worth reading.

Social Issues and Torah: Torah Based Responses to Homosexuality: As a person with a commitment to fight prejudice and committed to living my life based on an orthodox interpretation of the Torah this is a ...

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Was there an exodus?

"The book of Exodus claims that the God of Israel overmastered Ramesses the Great by several orders of magnitude, effectively trouncing him at his own game." So says Joshua Berman, professor of Bible at Bar-Ilan University and at Shalem College in Israel,

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Welcome to My World: Wrestling with Rebels

The Torah portion that Noah Carton-Smith spoke about at his bar mitzvah today at Temple B'nai Brith has fascinated me for years. You can read five of my earlier posts about it at:

Welcome to My World: Wrestling with Rebels.

Two years ago, my bat mitzvah student Abby Kehoe (may her memory be a blessing) said:

"The rabbis often filled
in gaps in the text of the Torah by writing their commentary or stories known
as midrash. And so, I decided to write this midrash, trying to explain why
Korah revolted against Moses."

Once, in the land of
Egypt, there was a young boy named Korah. 
He had the difficult life of an Israelite slave.  One hot, sunny day, he saw the taskmaster
beating a slave, which was not uncommon. 
Suddenly, a peculiar thing happened. 
While Korah watched from the shadows, a young man ran up to the slave
and the taskmaster, and killed the taskmaster. The young man happened to be

Korah was in awe.  If
only I had that power, that control,
thought.  Having no authority as a slave
made him fume.  After the Israelites
escaped Egypt, his hunger for power only grew stronger. He was seen as noble in
the community, but that wasn
t enough. He decided to
gather followers, and rebel against Moses and Aaron.  He blamed them for acting too holy.  Very soon after, he and the other rebels

Some said that slavery
made him bitter.  After the difficult
life of labor, he wanted some respect, some power.  Others said he was envious of Moses and Aaron
s authority.  But in one thing the community was
certain:  he wanted leadership.

Saturday, June 6, 2015

These Little Lights of Mine

How can a religious person be a scientist? How can a scientist be a religious person?

     In today's Torah portion, Be'haalotcha, there's a description of the menorah. Not the Chanukah menorah, with its eight branches: that came many hundreds of years after the biblical story. No, what we're talking about here is the menorah of the mishkan, the traveling sanctuary, and later of the Temple in Jerusalem. It had seven branches: three on each side, one in the middle.

     I was very interested to read the commentary in the Etz Hayim translation of the Torah that says:
...the six branches of the m'norah represent the several scientific and academic disciplines, whereas the center stalk represents the light of the Torah. Secular learning and faith are not rivals; each has its own concerns and addresses its own set of questions. They shed light on each other and and together they illumine our world.
     I was particularly interested that the source of this insight was given as Rabbi Isaac Luria, the founder of a major branch of Jewish mysticism (the Lurianic Kabbalah). If Luria, the mystic, could recognize the worth of secular science, it is amazing to me that any Jew could try to shut it out.

     So I was sad when I listened to the story of Shulem Deen, a former New Square Hasid, as told on the NPR podcast Reply All. He bought a computer back in the days when a free America Online disk came with the package. By going onto the internet, he learned things he never imagined--like how Reform Jews think, for a start! And he ended up being expelled by his Hasidic community, which saw him as a source of a freethinking contagion that might spread.

     To my mind, this attitude toward secularism is the flip side of the New Atheism, as expounded in the writings of people like Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins. The ultra-Orthodox forbid the study of secular science. The New Atheists do a cursory study of religious texts to find apparent absurdities without making any attempt to understand religious teachings in context. Neither can abide the other, and both treat the other as a threat.

     If only all religious people could value science as much as Isaac Luria did! (And many of us do.) If only all scientists could understand the religious imagination and the scientific spirit of investigation as both answering the human need to seek meaning in the universe. (And many do.)

     The desire for meaning is like the shamash, the extra candle on the Chanukah menorah. It kindles our curiosity and our sense of wonder. It is the source of both science and religion, which are candles of different colors that belong together.