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Archive for November, 2010

Warning: Rambling aimlessness ahead.

A big part of my journey has been struggling with my personal identity, my sense of who I am or will be as I move along this path. On one hand, I’ve pretty much embraced the label “Jew” and find myself thinking of myself as jewish already; the only caveat I find is my own ignorance. I feel Jewish, whatever that means; but I am a mere babe in terms of learning and practice. For me, that’s a good thing. It points to a road ahead of learning, exploring, growing, and moving toward a meaningful, ethical life. It seems clearer and clearer that I haven’t ceased being me, my ancestors and family haven’t disappeared, my aesthetics and morality and desires are still there; in short, I’m still me. Just me and Jewish.

There is a communal form of identity work, however, that is still troublesome for me. It is not unique to Jews, but I’m just having to deal with it in my new Jewish community.

A basic mode of community building that is relatively universal (I use that word advisedly) is that of working out meaningful boundaries, drawing cultural in/out lines. A common way groups do this is by building a kind of knowledge of the Other, the outsider, the Not-I. This knowledge of the Other is usually more mythical than empirical. Sometimes there are touches of experiential truth in this knowledge, but most often the experiences are already interpreted through the perspective of the Self, the We, and are often already inaccurate.

At its worst, this kind of identity work creates us/them distinctions that justify violence—pogroms, inquisitions, holocausts. At its most benign, it draws light social boundaries that can separate or distinguish at key moments and in key social spaces.

Although I know rationally that this is just simply something that human groups do—everything from Americans vs. Muslims (in the popular consciousness of the War on Terror) to internecine battles over arcane distinctions between death metal and lyrical death metal—I find that both my personal ethics and my education make it highly visible and highly vexing when I’m in a social situation where its actually happening. I understand this behavior in my sociologist brain and can see the behaviors with an interested detachment. In fact, I can even point to some important benefits of this kind of identity work, especially for minority groups.

But when I’m sitting in the middle of it, I get impatient with it very quickly. I realized tonight that I have two separate difficulties with this boundary drawing identity work: on one hand, it is usually anchored in ignorance of the Other (or reduction or oversimplification or willful misrepresentation, etc.), sometimes relatively harmless, sometimes full blown lies; and on the other hand, I have a deep ethical objection to it, as it’s hard for me to see an ethical way to exclude through misrepresentation, myth, or misinterpretation. Even as I write this, I am thinking of a hundred objections to my own objections, and maybe I’m not expressing this accurately, but I have a visceral ethical objection to doing identity work in this way. Even though I recognize that my lone objection is not going to change 6 billion humans’ behavior (and acknowledging that I may engage in it myself).

Part of this comes from growing up Mormon, in a community that, although it sees itself as essentially American, also sees itself as the set up against the rest of the world (Gentiles…yes, Mormons adopted this Jewish language in the 19th century from the Hebrew Bible).  And it comes from my rejection of the idea of a “chosen” people or a “special” individual of any kind in my early 20s. My own values revolve ideas of the value of human beings without regard to race, class, gender, religion, etc., and so I balk at efforts to make substantive distinctions. Having said all that, I realize there is some irony in my choosing as a spiritual home a religion that has been isolated and oppressed for nearly 2000 years, so community boundaries are often front and center in any conversation about Jewishness. And I should also stress that like everyone I often fail to live up to my ideals in this regard (e.g., I often get really pissed at all the straight people in the Castro).

The other part of impatience (and sometimes anger) comes from a character flaw of sorts: I do not suffer fools easily. I don’t mind people’s ignorance (and in fact am painfully aware of what I do not know), but I despise when knowledge (false) is used as a tool for social ends (boundary drawing). It makes me squirm.

Tonight I got into a conversation with a few friends about charity and chesed, something I’ve talked about here in a previous post (and a bit of a pet peeve of mine). The conversation was mostly fine, until it derailed into “Christians are…” and “Christians believe…” versus “We [Jews] are” and “We [Jews] believe”. I spent many years (a couple decades) immersed in Christian history and doctrine. Like any massive ancient culture, Christianity is diverse and complex and simple to be constructions just don’t work. My problems with the conversation were many, from simply false ideas to ideas produced through perception bias to the irritating need to build up Judaism by bashing Christianity. [Again, I know that this is a common social practice and nothing unique or bad about my friends, and Christians and Jews have been doing this to each other for a couple thousand years.]

Again, acknowledging that this identity work that my friends were engaged in is perfectly normal (statistically not morally) human behavior, I just had to ask myself, is this the best we can do? Is there no other way for we Jews to assert ourselves or to build a Judaism that we are proud of and that is meaningful to us than in this kind of Us/Them myth building? Is there no way to make a meaningful contribution to the world without making the contrast with a biased view of Christianity? To be honest, I don’t know if that can even exist, from the minority position, where Christianity is so dominant culturally. Yet I have to believe that there is a way to generate identity without othering the Other, without making shit up and repeating misunderstandings and misrepresentations. Are there ways of speaking about “us” in terms of who we are, rather than who we are not?

One of the things that I love about Reconstructionism is its exploration of a universalist strain within Judaism, the idea that YHVH is a universal presence and Judaism is just “our” way of relating to it, both ancestrally and in the present. That framing seems to be much more fruitful, ethical, and open, more appropriate and workable in a pluralistic, diverse, multiethnic world. A kind of Judaism dedicated to easiness with itself, knowing itself without having to define itself in the negative.

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Apparently, Orin Hatch (R-Utah) has written the lyrics to a Hanukah song. Reading the article about the blessèd event caused more than a little consternation on my part. Mormons have an odd cultural affinity for Jews, partly because of the location of the most esoteric of Mormon doctrines and temple rituals in Kabbalah (see here); partly due to Mormon mythology, which places Mormons in the House of Israel (and assigns each Mormon to a tribe); and partly because of Utah/Mormon history, complete with an “exodus” from Illinois, a “moses” in Brigham Young, and a new “god-given desert homeland” in Utah. I’m sure that my own Mormon upbringing in no small part has led to my path into Judaism as an adult. It comes then as no surprise that Orin Hatch wears a mezzuzah around his neck or that he “loves Jews”.

What disturbed me, however, about Mr. Hatch’s song was how thoroughly Mormon it is.  In a sort of naive, clueless way that marks Mormon social behavior (cultural isolation has its price), he reproduces Mormon musical, lyrical tropes for a song about Hanukah. The result is sickening (to me). Perhaps you would have had to have been raised Mormon to hear the mormonness of the lyrics, but this sounds like every smaltzy Mormon song I’ve ever heard in its earnest innocence and manipulative sentimentalism. Unbearable.

Eight Days of Hanukkah from Tablet Magazine on Vimeo.

To make matters worse, the article about Hatch’s song repeats all the exact pieces of modern Jewery’s use of the Maccabee story in precisely the unhistorical way that grates on my last academic social scientist nerve.

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There are moments when the psychic and spiritual violence I have experienced in my life reappear. Heart races, adrenaline pumps, emotions explode. I don’t know why this still shocks me when it happens, but I find myself having out-of-body experiences, watching myself react in fear and anger at moments when I had expected to have a good handle on a situation. I had gone into Monday night’s hebrew/judaism class relatively excited for the discussion, because I knew we would be tackling the texts of Leviticus that prohibit sex between men. I had read Rabbi Greenberg’s book, an extended midrash on the text, wherein he argues that the text really forbids penetration of another man; and I’d read Rabbi Noily’s essay on the Hebrew of the passage. So I was coming in confident in my exegetical foundation for the discussion. What I was unprepared for was feeling like I was being assaulted over and over again by the conversation.

As an educator who often discusses difficult topics (e.g., Rwandan genocide; rape within American slavery; etc.), I have a deep ethical awareness and vigilance about the effect that those kinds of conversations can have on students whose own lives or personalities make them vulnerable to a kind of emotional or psychic violence that, although unintended and invisible, is nonetheless real. I found myself on the other side of that problem this week, where it felt like I was being beaten and abused by the conversation. I have complete trust in Rabbi Noily, and do not believe that she or any of my classmates intended any harm. Yet I was harmed, violated by the conversation.

Before tackling the Leviticus pieces, we split into chavrutot to discuss two passages, one from Genesis and one from Judges, that have been used for nearly 2000 years as justification for the murder and repression of homosexual men and as evidence for the sinfulness of homosexuality. The two stories contain much that our modern ethical sensibilities balk at, not least of which is the fact that the two householders in the stories both offer their virgin daughters as substitute offerings for the men the mobs want to rape.

By at least the third century C.E., the sin of Sodom was interpreted by both Christians and Jews as male-male sex, the desire of the mob to have sex with the male guests of the righteous hosts. God’s punishment for that sin was a fiery, sulfury death. From “sodomite” as an epithet for me and my kind, to “sodomy” as a legal designation for acts punishable by death as recently as the mid-19th century, to “sod off” still in common usage in British slang, the power of this myth has moved through time and informs millions of angry religious anti-gay activists in America today, from Focus on the Family to the Orthodox Union to the Mormon church.

In my chavrutah, and in the large group discussion, this history and mythic reading of the text was either ignored or silenced. When I tried to talk about it, I was told curtly that “that’s not what that passage even means”, as if their personal reading of the text magically erases the past 2000 years or the present hatred and fear of gay men. Understandably, the women wanted to talk about the chattel status of the virgin daughters in the text; but seemed unwilling (or unable) to make the connection of sexism and homophobia. In a classroom setting where I’m the teacher, for some reason I am usually able to maintain a bit of distance and guide conversations in certain ways. But in this setting, it felt like I was made invisible, that the evident homophobia of the passages (or at the very least the centuries of homophobic interpretations of the passage) was just swept away as incidental or unimportant. Again, I don’t think the silencing was on purpose; but it was the effect of the conversation.

When we drew back together to discuss Leviticus, the process continued, with people offering their readings of the text and with the elision of the meaning and power of a text that commands that men who lie with men be put to death as mere “misinterpretations.” Although I actually found the Rabbi’s read of the text compelling, listening to people discuss the value and moral insight of a text that calls me and people like me ‘abominations’ worthy of death to be nearly unbearable. And not one person—not a single one—condemned the obvious message of the text or the 2000 years of violence that flowed from it.

An acquaintance of mine from an online ex-mormon community I used to participate in became so livid with me a few years ago that she left the community for nearly two years. The argument was about the nature of child molestation, age, and sexual attraction; my argument was from an intellectual parsing of the social rules of sexuality and the biology of attraction. It had the effect on her of affirming her worst experiences of patriarchy and religious abuse. I do not think to this day that the substance of my arguments was bad, nor do I think that my intentions were wrong; but that really doesn’t matter when the person in front of me was suffering because the content of the conversation was doing violence to her. I do not know how to negotiate such troubled ethical waters, and I do not blame or condemn the people in my class for the discussion they were having. Yet I cannot and will not deny or elide the pain and excruciating memories that the conversation evoked.

Rationally speaking, the Rabbi’s reading offered an interesting perspective. She argued that the cultural context of Leviticus was a world in which penetration was always an act of domination and was by definition unwanted; therefore, penetration was seen as an act of violence by definition. Given that the most likely direct meaning of the two Leviticus verses are prohibitions against penetrating other males (most likely anally, but also perhaps orally), in its context it is reasonable to read the text as part of a larger moral theme in the Holiness Code against harming others. [It must be noted that this is part of a larger patriarchal system where women, in their abject status, are appropriate objects of penetration; so by extension, the Holiness code is actually forbidding the making of a man into a woman by penetrating him. Again, the interrelationship of homophobia and sexism.]

The apex of the Holiness Code in Leviticus 19 contains a core of ethical commands that resonate powerfully with me, and which most historians agree formed the basis of both Pharisaical teachings and the teachings of Jesus: protect the weak against the powerful and love other humans as you love yourself. So Rabbi Noily’s read is that for Jews of the post-return Mediterranean world, not penetrating another male (i.e., not making him into a woman) would be a law against domination and unethical power.

Although rationally (and ethically) I like the ideas and ethics of that reading, my experience of her reading was of having been erased from the text and from history. How easy it is for the process of midrash and interpretation to disconnect from history and context of the teachers and students. One student was excited to use this reading as amunition against her fundamentalist family; but without understanding of the dominant and dominating interpretations of Leviticus within Christianity, without the full understanding that this is a complex and somewhat of a hopeful reinterpretation that flies in the face of the self-evident meaning of the text (male-male sex is an abomination and you are commanded to kill anyone who perpetrates it), there is simply no way that that reading can work in the political-religious context of today’s homophobic America (including the thousands of dollars the Orthodox Union raised for Prop 8).

Paul Ricoeur defines myth as

…not a false explanation by means of images and fables, but a traditional narration which relates to events that happened at the beginning of time and which has the purpose of providing grounds for the ritual actions of men [sic] today and, in a general manner, establishing all the forms of action and thought by which man [sic] understands himself in the world. (quoted in Idel, 21).

As a former literary guy (two bachelors degrees in literature), I am completely down with interpreting and reinterpreting texts. I love the long tradition of many ancient religions of various peoples in different times and places remaking the myth to meet its own needs. It is, in a great sense, why my friend Mira says that Hebrew and Torah are alive, not dead traditions. But my experience of trying to understand and interpret these key (for me) texts in Tanakh highlighted a major problem: Sometimes the myth cannot be salvaged. Sometimes the current needs, current understandings, current desires are just too different; the past’s myth too starkly unethical, too potentially violent for restoration.

If myth provides the foundations for thought and action in the world, what do you do with a myth so tainted by the patriarchy of its inception and so burdened by 2000 years of use to violent ends that it seems irredeemable? Is reinterpretation of a relatively reified text enough to get us out from under the weight of its origins or past? If our modern ethics have put us in a place where seeing people as they are, outside of halakhic, priestly requirements, is the foundational imperative, if protecting the weak against the powerful is really the ethical center, what do we do with a myth whose very core creates the social system that produces the weak in the first place?

For now for me, re-reading, reinterpreting this passage is insufficient. My wrestling with Torah and tanakh will have to include the ability to insist that the text can simply be wrong on its face. A mature spiritual life must allow (perhaps it even demands) making strong moral stances against tradition. Perhaps part of the holiness of Torah is that challenge to be a moral person in contradisctintion to the Book itself.

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Tonight’s post is more practical than reflective: What to do between Dec. 1 and Dec. 25 as a Jew?

Since I haven’t believed in Christianity for over a decade, and since I was raised in an alternative religion that didn’t really observe the full range of traditional Christian holidays (really, most American evangelical religions don’t observe the vast majority of traditional Christian holidays anyway, so there are millions of Americans in that boat), I didn’t really think that my path into Judaism would bump up against anything important on the calendar. Anita Diamant’s book for people choosing Judaism spends a whole chapter on the dynamics of Christmas, which is such a huge piece of the American (Christian) psyche.  I read her book last Spring, and didn’t really think much of it.

Now I’m here on the threshold of winter holiday season and suddenly I find myself very upset about Christmas. In fact, I feel a deep powerful urge to sing Jingle Bells and smell pine boughs. I’ve been surprised at my born-Jewish friends’ antipathy toward Christmas. But I get it: From a minority position, it can feel like a massive imposition or assertion of the dominant culture’s privilege in the world around you. But as someone who was once a Christian, it just feels banal (not dangerous or imposing) to me; and as someone who is culturally curious and expansive, it just reads like a cultural practice to me. On an intellectual level, I understand my friends’ hatred of Christmas. But I don’t feel it.

Do I have to hate Christmas to be a Jew?

When I was in graduate school and was self-consciously trying to de-Jesus my life, I spent a couple winter breaks reading histories of Christmas, folklorists’ and historians’ best guesses for the origins of some of the practices. I was pleased to find a thoroughly hybrid, mish-mash of Roman, near eastern, and northern Germanic and Celtic, and even a bit of Persian practices all rolled into this mid-Winter festival. I found (and find) that I am for some reason strongly attracted to the old Germanic religions and old pre-modern, pre-monotheistic nature-observant practices. [In fact, one of the things that is so attractive about Judaism is that a lot of those pre-modern, agricultural, nature-worship elements are evident in the texts and practices; I love them.]  Over a few years between finishing my master’s thesis and passing my doctoral exams, I developed a set of personal practices for Midwinter (solstice) that included some deeply personal moments of reflection, more meaningful gift-giving, and symbolism of hope for a renewal of life. I had blended my personal practices easily with the dominant ones around me. And I had come to see the common experience of a winter holiday in many cultures around the world as a sign that living through the receding sun had inspired our many ancestors to celebrate in the darkest of days.

Now Hanukah is just around the corner (Dec. 1st this year) and suddenly I’m facing my first real dilemma in this process: What to do for the holidays? I don’t mean where will I go or what will I eat…I mean really what will my home practice and personal life look like? There are several interlocking problems, some easier than others to resolve.

First, my parents still expect me to show up for Christmas Eve and Christmas day, to exchange gifts, and eat a gigantic meal, and generally party with the family. This was actually the easiest part of the holidays for me to work out. Diamant suggests that mixed-faith couples simply celebrate Christmas at the home of the Christian side of the family. That seems fine, but in reading the Biale collection of essays about Jewish cultural history, I came across a really interesting passage about the Babylonian Jews. The rabbis in Babylon taught that Jews in Babylon were also Babylonian and that they should honor their non-Jew neighbors by celebrating their holidays with them, and then inviting them into their Jewish homes for Jewish holidays, so that their non-Jewish neighbors could celebrate with them. It was, in all, a message of not just peaceful coexistence, but of a conscious effort to honor the Other and welcome the Other into their lives. It makes complete sense to me, perfectly rational and multicultural, relaxed and hell, it gives you access to twice the feting. I’m a bit stubborn, so I probably would have done this regardless, because it’s just my personality to experience as broad a range of cultural and religious practices as possible.

So parents and family Christmas issue easily solved.

Second, Hanukah itself feels a bit anemic and, problematically, just like Christmas, based on a few unhistorical myths that I find vexing. Without going into a long Jeremiad, let me just say that a lot of the dominant Jewish discourses about Hanukah today are about the anti-Helenizing maccabees, with thinly veiled ethno-nationalism at its core and then not even trying to hide the Zionist parallels. When Hanukah talk glides into Israel-Palestine politics and Zionism, I’m out the back door. Just can’t do it. But even at its core, the mythologized version of the Maccabees is pretty far from history itself: The Maccabees weren’t anti-Helenism, they were Greek speaking, thoroughly Helenized and bloody violent rulers. Further, the majority of the world’s Jews during that time were Jews living outside of Palestine and were Greek speakers living fully helenized lives. Politically, I’m generally against forced assimilation; sociologically, I also know that most people as they move around tend to transform their languages and practices to meet new needs and environments. Humans are constantly modifying their cultures and adopting from people around them. So whereas I’m sympathetic to arguments against cultural imposition, assimilation by force, I’m highly dubious of the moral position that cultural change is bad tout court, and that culture must be maintained over time (which is actually an impossibility). So they way Hanukah gets talked about pushes my sociological buttons, my historical buttons, and my political skepticism of modern Zionism buttons all at once.

The upshot is that Hanukah just doesn’t seem like it can fit the bill of a Midwinter holiday for me. One dear born-Jew friend said that for her Hanukah is about the lights; and I do love that idea. And the idea of the “miracle of light” fits in nicely with my own spiritual need for Midwinter. So I look forward to seeing what is there for me.

Hanukah is a minor political holiday that, due to pressure from the dominant culture, has grown into  Jewish consumer extravaganza not unlike the hot mess that is Christmas on Union Square or any mall in the country.

So third and finally, the real issue is what my personal Midwinter practice as a Jew will look like. My instinct is to add Hanukah to my current practice. But I worry about what born-Jews would say at a wreath on my door (evergreens, eternal circle, rebirth, hope) next to a mezuzah (shma!); or pine cones and twinkly white lights and candles on the 21st for solstice night. On the other hand, when I was attending the Wiccan circle at the UU a couple years ago, half the people there were born-Jews. So perhaps my worries are only because I’m a JBC? But I’m left with figuring out what pieces of Hanukah are meaningful to me (for one, the Klezmekah at shul with the Klezmer band is hot hot hot (it was my first service last year when I started this journey)) and how to deal with the Christian imagery which is so embedded in the season (which has never bothered me even though I haven’t believed in it for 15 years).

Suggestions? Ideas? Thoughts?

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