Friday, November 18, 2005

Yitzhak, I Vass only following ordersss!

I believe this week's (or maybe it was last week's, I've been on the road) parhsa contains the story of the Akedah, one of the most disturbing stories in the whole Tanakh, and one, in my opinion, without any redeeming value. Why was it included? Waht were the authors of the Bible trying to say by writing such a tale?

My attention was caught during Rish Hashanna, when I had occasion to read the commentary on the subject contained in the High Holiday Prayer Book translated and edited by Morris Silverman. This is the original "Conservative Mahkzor" that so many of us grew up with. For years, I had read this commentary, but this year, it suddenly leaped out of the page and punched me in the face:

The sounding of the shofar .. is a reminder of that implicit obedience to God which was revealed by Abraham and Isaac. The theme of the Akedah ... was intended to arouse God's compassion for Isaac's descendants and to inspire us to deeds of sacrifice. Religion consists of those aspirations for which we are ready to sacrifice comfort, position, and even safety. We do not truly live our ideals unless we are ready, if necessary to die for them.

And what noble aspirations was Abraham willing to sacrifice for? What ideas should we die for? Rabbi Silverman also does not elucidate. He goes on with a whole paragraph about how this story shows that Judaism abhors human sacrifice, and then concludes with a praise of the concept of martyrdom:

There is not a single noble cause, movement, or acheivment that does not call for great sacrifice and martyrdon. [!] Liberty, science, truth, -- all have exacted their toll of heroes. The people of Israel have been the very symbol of martyrdom on behalf of freedom, justice, and truth.

If that's the case, this whole exercise was really a test of Isaac, not Abraham.

As for Abraham, the only "noble" ideal here being tested is that of obedience, not "liberty," "freedom," "science," or even "truth." Now obedience is sometimes a useful quality and may be needed on oaccasion in order for people to accomplish things, but I believe that it always need to be offered conditionally. All authority to demand obedience is contigent, even, as far as I'm concerned, that of God. Even an organizaton like the U.S. Army requires soldiers to disobey their superiors if issued an illegal order.

Abraham was tested and shown that he was willing to commit an act that God, presumably finds abhorrent. And then God blesses him for it!

It shows that not only did Abraham fail the test, but so did God.

And Rabbi Silverman was clueless about its meaning. This is especially true becuase Silverman wrote his notes in 1939, a period when the folly of considering obedience a virtue was manifestly evident:

"Ve vere only following ordersss, after all..."

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

The real problem with the Conservative movement

May not be its ideological basis, but rather in the sociology of its organization.

In response to my crack at "rabbi" Jack Wethieber at JTS, who thinks that Conservative Jews need to become fundamentalist sheep if they expect to preserve Conservative Judaism, Ben Sorer Moreh Makes the follwoing comment:

As an ex-Ortho, I see the liberal movements' inability to remain relevant or (perceptibly) accessible to a larger population to be a serious challenge to their future. The Os, to their "credit" have a sense of mission. Chabad sees a (existing or emerging) community where there are some Jews (e.g., North Williamsburg or Hoboken) and decides that they're gonna weave themselves into the fabric, make themselves visible, relevant and (raise enough funds elsewhere to be) affordable. The liberal movements take years to build expensive synagogue centers (Meir Kahane called them "mausoleums") for "themselves." Now that all sorts of people (Jews included) are buying homes in Harlem, wanna bet who's gonna be first to open the "next" shul there?

I think Ben's money quote is toward the end whe he talks about the expensive synagogues. I know some folks who have a C shul with 100 families that they run on a budget of less than $200,000 a year. Rented space, part-time rabbi, members do all the work, including leading most of the service. They get a crowd 50-100 almost every Shabbos, higher than average shabbos and kashrus observance than most C shuls, and one friend who goes there, who, alas, recently lost a family member, was astounded that they had no trouble rounding up a shiva minyan for him.

He also says that the lcoal USCJ office doesn't know what to do with a congregation like them and is alwys trying to get them to expand, start a building fund and a religious school and become another "typical" C-nagogue. But why should they? They are providing the religious life their members need at a fraction of the cost of a conventional syangogue. Dues are still <$1,000 per family (lower for individual members), and non-members can buy High Holiday tickets for <$100. A Conservative community with 10 C-nagogues like that one would be 10 times more vital than one with a single 1,000 family monstrosity, in which the shul management has to suck up to the big donors just to raise enough money to maintain the property. Of course, with such smaller shuls, it would be harder for the C rabbis to get their 6-figure salaries.

As for Jewish education, the community would do fine with independent Jewish schools that would have combined day school and afternoon school programs. It might ensure higher quality teachers for the supplementary schoo, becuase a community school would be a larger school with more resoruces. Let the large donors contribute to the schools, rather than to congregations. In fact, the little liberal "shtieblach" could rent space in the school buildings.

Ben is right. C needs to reach out to the unafilliated, and do so in a way that doesn't require the unafilliated to start having to spend a lot of money to be part of a Jewish community.

Monday, November 14, 2005

Toby Katz is at it again

Thanks to Dov Bear, we are able to again feature the works of LForD special guest commentator, Ms. Toby Katz, today talking about tortured "feminist" collecge professors with an agenda:

Ms Katz is answering the alleged questions of a college student:

"We are studying “texts of terror” which outlines women who were mistreated in the Torah.

4 females we came across were Hagar, Tamar, Levite’s Concubine, and Jepthah’s daughter. I would like to know—if Judaism is one of the most “accepting” and “pro female/equality” religion why there are stories about women being brutally raped, or thrown to be ‘known’ as is said in the Torah as sacrifices by fathers, and spouses?"

Ms. Katz then goes on the answer the question regarding Hagar by regurgitating Rashi's spin; that Hagar deserved what she got, and Sarah was blameless. (Totally ignoring, as one of the commentors points out that the Ramban, another traditional Torah commentator, criticizes Sarah's behavior quite severely and suggests that becuase of the way Sarah treated the Egyptian Hagar, Sarah's descendants were destined to become slaves in Egypt.)

However, not only did Ms. Katz fail to discuss the other 3 women mentioned by the alleged letter writer, she failed to even mention a 5th female mentioned in the Tanakh and ignored by the alleged "lady college professor."

I am, of course, referring to Bilaam's Ass.

Hmm, on second thought, perhaps some feminist college prof isn't going to use such terminology to refer to a female human, but the "ass," I'm referring to is of the equine variety, that is, an ass of a donkey sort. Now our rabbi taught us that the mesorah teaches us that the reason why Bilaam owned a female donkey was because, well, Bilaam was a bit of a pervert, and used the donkey in a manner that cannot be described on a family blog. I regret to say that our rabbi didn't give us chapter and verse of the source of that little gem. Those sorts of rabbinical comments are part of the reason why I still attend services, despite my growing apikorsus.

But Ms. Katz, could, indeed answer a question about that incident quite well, as it involves the usual traditional Jewish demonization of goyish religious leaders (unless they're right-wing King James Bible-thimping Calvinist Christians). (Frankly, I think the whole Bilaam story is bogus -- Why doesn't God just let Bilaam curse Israel until he's blue in the face, and then when nothing happens to Israel, this is proof that goyish religion is false?)

However, a little later in the comments sections, methinks Ms. Katz's real agenda is somewhere besides explaining traditional Jewish interpretations of the Torah text:

Anyone who majored in English or history before circa 1980 has no idea—literally, no idea—how bad things have become, how tendentious and politicized the teaching of the liberal arts has become in the typical American university.

Goodness me, Ms. Katz has an axe to grind! Surprise, surprise. It's those evil feminazi liberal arts secular humanist college professors, especially the "lady" professors who are distorting the Bible. Frankly, I don't buy it. I don't doubt that there are a few off-the-wall feminists and post-modernists out there, but I don't think that the off-the-wall stuff is typical. I have a kid in college, she shows me her lessons. Believe me, the stuff in her literature classes is no different than the BS I had to endure in my pre-1980 University experience, and history is taught in a "scientific manner," which means that traditional Jewish midrash, having no basis in reality, is not generally covered.

In fact, I wonder if Ms. Katz is actually answering a real letter from a real student, or whether the whole exercise was a straw-man, in a manner similar to the source of the letters in the Penthouse Forum. (Alert! Link has adult content.)

In other words, she's not defending the honor of the Torah, she's using it to beat on feminist "lady college professors."

The source of all Evil -- A surprise ..or not?

(Based on a d'var Torah for Parshat Bereishit, a description of which I heard second or third hand.)

God tells the man: eat the fruit and die!

2:16 And the LORD God commanded the man, saying, Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat:
2:17 But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.

A little later:

3:6 And when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree to be desired to make one wise, she took of the fruit thereof, and did eat, and gave also unto her husband with her; and he did eat. "And he did eat."

3:7 And the eyes of them both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together, and made themselves aprons.

As the SAB points out, in 2:17, God tells Adam that if he eats the fruit, he will die. But Adam eats the fruit, and he doesn't die, he lives another 900+ years.

So it seems that the "original Sin" was not Adam and Eve eating the fruit, it was God's lie to them.

In fact, if God can't even follow His own commandments ("Thou shalt not bear false witness") then why should we?