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Archive for the ‘Halakhah’ Category

Why practice a religion? Why keep commandments? Why observe the ritual practices of any tradition, let alone Judaism? I imagine that for some people who no longer believe in a personal god, or who have a historical or anthropological view of religion, practice and ritual are the contextual, human-made acts of superstition or cultural identity. And they are correct. But that is only the beginning of the story. To understand that humans evolved brains that can perceive their own insignificance in the face of the universe, that is, who can feel awe; to know that our brains evolved in a way that we perceive things that aren’t there; or to know that culture, including religion, emerges out of social interaction in specific times and places and is modified to meet human needs; etc.; is merely to know where religion comes from.  But knowing all of that does not erase the real effects of religious practice on individuals and communities, nor does it negate the powerful meanings it generates for adherents.

So clearly, for a rationalist who believes in evolution and in the historical, human production of the Bible, the meaning of ritual, practice, and observance cannot rest upon the ancient convictions that they were given or commanded by a supernatural God. Nor can they end with a mere sociological or functionalist explanation. Can religious practice be meaningful for a rationalist, beyond being an expression of ethnic identity or group fealty?

My own reasons for practice are largely personal, experiential, and ethical, and even aesthetic. I find meaning in the ritual that marks the passage of time and marks time as sacred, both in shabbat and in the holidays; it gives structure and flow to the cycles of my life. I find davening to be a kind of meditative focusing of attention in the sacred, to what is important to me, both in my personal shacharit and at shul. I find the reading of Torah on Saturday mornings to connect the communal to the historical through language and ritual, as it takes multiple people to read correctly. In short, I like practicing Judaism.

Recently I have been reading books about the spiritual aspects of Jewish practice, and one notion has really caught my attention: that Jewish attention to ritual detail and to arguing about how to observe is itself the sacred practice that grounds us in the importance of what we are doing here and now. In a Mormon context—with mandatory belief and constant surveillance—arguments about practice were always expressions of power and domination. They can be so in Judaism as well; but because Judaism’s whole worldview sees sin and salvation and time differently, it feels different somehow. This Rabbi argued that the argument itself is a practice that constantly reminds us of our earthy, embodiedness and our embeddedness in a community. Jewish practice is about being present and paying attention to what we are doing right now. The rules of Judaism and the joy in small things like challah or a shabbat double mitzvot (wink) emphasize its nowness, the holiness of the life we live, rather than a life deferred or to come.

The holiness code in Leviticus, which Christians read as antithetical to salvation, turns out to be the core of not just the rules, but the meaning of Jewish practice itself: To be holy, because God is holy. In his book Sinai & Zion, Dr. Jon D. Levenson, a professor of Hebrew Bible at University of Chicago, has tried to show the Jewishness of the Tanakh, and to reclaim Torah from Christian misreadings. His approach is to explain Jewish theology as expressed in the Torah by seeing it historically and anthropologically, and to carefully peel back the Christian prejudices that often fail to see what is actually in the Torah.  Levenson argues that the mitzvot are terms of the covenant, demonstrations of commitment to the suzerain יהוה.

Levenson’s history of Hebrew monotheism, while threatening to some traditional believers, to me humanizes the ancient Hebrews and shows how one group of people, over thousands of years, created its own unique relationship to the universe and to the sacred. Levenson argues that the Hebrews created, through their conception of a covenant with יהוה, a three level theology, which I then borrowed into my own vision of the panentheistic divine as described by Rabbi Green in Radical Judaism.

The Hebrews focused their belief in one god (historically, by ignoring or discrediting other gods). In modern radical Judaism, I would say that Judaism sees the unity and holiness of all Being, of existence itself, of the universe as a whole, in terms of our relationship to it and our consciousness of it. I also think of the mystical explanations of the breath of ה–שם that connects us all, in each breath, to the ongoing creative unfolding of the universe.

The Hebrews central religious tenet was to love god wholly. I feel this love as a deep sense of connection to all of “creation,” to the earth and all living things, and to the universe as a whole. Many eco-Jews today anchor their environmental ethics in this relationship to creation. But it is the fact of existence and knowledge that I exist within and as a part of all existence that a kind of openness breaks open in a love of the divine.

Levenson explains that in Torah, history led up to the covenant at Sinai, and after Sinai are the mitzvot, the ongoing, day-to-day actions that link the people to יהוה. Levenson’s reading of Torah suggests strongly (although he doesn’t say it) that observance of the mitzvot is the means of constantly enacting the relationship to the divine.

In a literal sense, historical, anthropological, the mitzvot are a cultural creation.

But in choosing Judaism, I think what I’m doing is throwing in my lot with the Jews, saying that I choose to take upon myself that relationship to the divine that they have created over the past couple millennia, to commit myself to a Jewish practice as the way my life will be an expression of the sacredness of existence.

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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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I ran across this article earlier today and it hit on precisely some of the things I’ve been thinking about. The rabbi-to-be comes to a rather inspiring decision about grape juice.

Rethinking stam yeinam

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My first attempt at a home shabbat ritual

Today was my best friend’s birthday, so I couldn’t make it to the Kabbalat Shabbat service at shul. I decided that this shabbat would be my first attempt at a home ritual, making my kitchen table the alter to focus kavanah, and bring light into the darkness and begin a celebration of life.

Over the past several months, shabbat has become an important part of my weekly routine. Most liberal Christians have de-ritualized sabbath altogether, except for going to church; and for Mormons, sabbath is a drudgery filled with lay-work at church and a lot of rules about dos and don’ts to keep the sabbath day holy. I suppose if I were becoming an orthodox, halachic Jew, I would be sliding back into those days of minuscule rules (can you buy a Twix bar out of a vending machine on Sunday without losing the spirit of god?). But that is not the direction of my practice or the purpose or spirit of shabbat for me.

The idea of celebrating the coming of the Sabbath Bride, l’cha dodi!; of laying aside the work week for a time of sanctification and relaxation and even double-mitzvah-worthy sex; of a time to recenter and seek Einheit/אחד is so different from the dreaded Sundays of my youth. I look forward to Shabbat, the singing, the Maneschewitz (shudder), the niggun, the davening. It’s a meditative practice, but a connected communal one as well.

Not being able to go to shul tonight, I wanted to make sure that I still set aside the time of shabbat for myself. I was far from halachic: cheap votives from the gay hardware store down the block; לו כשר wine, a nice chianti from southern Italy. And way past sunset when I said the prayers.

But it felt really normal and powerful to do this at home. I used the Sha’ar Zahav siddur for the prayers (and coincidentally discovered the Havdalah prayer for tomorrow as well), and said all three of the blessings for the lighting of the candles, the traditional masculine language, the beautiful feminine language praising sh’chinah for the light, and the communal call to light the candles for the One. Then the b’rachot for wine (l’chaim!) and bread.

The only thing that felt odd about it is that it feels like it should be done with loved ones around. But as a single gay guy, I suppose the solo Shabbat is what I have to work with for the moment, and it’s good enough.

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As I learn and study about Judaism, I have inevitably come up against the complex set of practices and laws that constitute a Jewish life. I will treat my study of mitzvot (the obligatory deeds or acts of Judaism) and my reactions to specific mitzvot in a later post. Here I want to explore the general body of laws, legal interpretations, and the ongoing (more than 2000 years) argument about how and why to obey the mitzvot. This body of law, both oral and written, and expounded through the Talmud and later midrashes, is called halakhah. [I have readers who are unfamiliar with Judaism, and I am also trying to anchor ideas in my head; so apologies to my born-Jewish and expert readers if some of this feels elementary.]

I find that on one hand, halakhah is what I’m looking for in a spiritual home: A set of organizing practices and central values, a frame from which you can have deeper, more meaningful conversations. On the other hand, having been raised in a rather legalistic religion myself (how many times did I have to sit through a discussion about whether or not you could drink Coca-Cola, and if you did, would God’s spirit leave you?), I find myself wary, suspicious, and critical of religious rules generally, and efforts to draw in/out boundaries based on adherence to rules specifically.

History, Part 1: Reform Halakhah

In Jewish tradition, halakhah is the body of laws and interpretation of Torah. It’s traditional, derived from the “Oral Law” (if I understand correctly) and constitutes the rulings on Jewish practice vis-à-vis the Torah and the Mitzvot (obligatory deeds). One of the key innovations of the Reform movement (and by extension the Conservative movement and later the Reconstructionist movement) in the early 19th century was to historicize the Torah**, read it critically, and to rethink Jewish practice in light of the Enlightenment. Everything from Kashrut (dietary) to conversion, from dress to music in services were transformed, a process which continued in the United States. The Conservative movement was a reaction against nearly 100 years of radical changes in the Reform practices, and although they kept the historicized reading of the Torah and a politically liberal ethic, the Conservative movement sought to re-attach itself to traditional living and practice.

From what I’ve been reading about the Reform movement, it too has undergone a swing back to more traditional practices, although it remains open and diverse. One of the authors I’ve been reading suggests that the acceptance of converts and the increasing number of converts has put a kind of awareness into these liberal denominations, as gerim seek to understand Judaism it has pushed Reform synagogues to reexamine their laissez-faire attitude toward Halakhah since the early 1960s. In other words, she argues that the enthusiasm and practice of gerim are what have actually pushed the Reform movement to more traditional practice, which is an interesting sociological hypothesis (see Diamant.) Surely, services at my Reform synagogue, Sha’ar Zahav, don’t look or feel like the Reform services that I’ve been reading about, without kippot, with an organ and choir, etc.

Because halakhah has become more central to the practice of Reform judaism, I feel a need to understand it more deeply and to figure out what my place within it would be.  Because I’m someone much more attracted to meaningfulness and “soul” of a tradition rather than its rules, I wonder what halakhah would look like for me and my Jewish journey.

History, Part 2: Social Strategies of Survival

One of the key ways that cultural groups identify themselves is through their practice (using that word now in a sociological sense, not a religious one). How they act and behave in view of others and how they interact with others is the way that groups build social boundaries. In Jewish history, this sociological phenomenon becomes salient during Babylonian captivity. As is commonly noted by religious historians, one of the great innovations of the Hebrews was that during Babylonian captivity, they decided that they could carry their god with them. The universalization of god alone, however, would not have been enough for the preservation of group integrity.

Living within a majority, oppositional culture, the pressures were probably great (scholars speculate here) for assimilation into Mesopotamian culture. And indeed, we know now that much of what today we call “Jewish” was in fact borrowed from the Babylonian religions around them (e.g., Noah). But the Babylonians served simultaneously as a foil against which to build a separate ethno-religious identity, what today we would probably recognize as Jewish (e.g., rejection of certain practices that were seen as unclean (see Leviticus)). To further complicate matters, when the captive Jews were released (thanks to Cyrus the Great) and returned to Palestine++, they encountered Hebrews who had not been a part of the cultural innovations they had made in Babylon, and a battle for cultural authenticity began, which has never ceased among Jews (see today inter-denominational struggles, Israel vs. diaspora struggles, and inter-racial and inter-cultural struggles among the diaspora, with Jews inhabiting Palestine often having a de facto claim to authenticity).

That gives us two environmental dynamics within which Jews were reacting and living historically: 1) being a minority, more often than not beleaguered and oppressed; and 2) identification with other Jews who are problematically different from each other in tradition, language, dress, food, etc., because their traditions emerged in vastly different contexts, ranging from Kazakhstan to Alexandria, from Rome to Toledo, and from Mecca to Warsaw. These two dynamics gave us an emergent, ever-unfinished Judaism always in dialectic with itself and with often hostile goyim. It is this dialectic that produced, in my newly forming opinion, halakhah as it is understood today, especially in its historic and sociological contexts.

Halakhah as ‘Separation’

From this history and from Jews’ real, experiential effects of a carefully monitored religious practice within a highly surveilled and often ghettoized community—and from my sociological perspective—halakhah has come to mean separation. From what I can see, there is a long philosophical tradition of explaining the meaning of halakhah as separation. In the more liberal books I’ve been reading, this is often expressed as sacrilization, making something or a stretch of time or an act sacred.

In Mircea Eliade’s terms, this is the great division that religions make between the sacred and the profane, where the sacred becomes the locus of the real, the true, the universal. This split is mainly enacted, that is to say, it is not an intrinsic quality of the world (or its objects or people), but rather something that is created by the people who make it sacred through their acts. A child and convert (?) learn of the sacred through experiencing its meaning as the people around them make it.

But there is another piece which seems to come from the history of Jewish people as embattled minorities, which is a separation of Jewish people from everyone else. Now clearly, there are reasons for Jews to embrace separatism historically, so as a sociologist, my response is “of course.” There are clear reasons why an oppressed people would have a deep sense of “chosenness” (another idea shared with Mormonism that I always found ethically disturbing; I will return to the idea of chosenness in Judaism in a later post).

In Orthodox thinking, separation is a key and integral part of Jewish theology and thus of Jewishness. David Gelernter spends an entire chapter extolling the virtues of Jewish separation from the world in ways that I found not only problematic but deeply unethical. There are passages in his book that read like an early 20th century eugenics tract against race mixing. Gelernter works his philosophical acumen for all its worth to make the act and state of separation itself into something sacred, but when you read a passage like this—”as [Jews] marry Gentiles and do as Gentiles do, and sink back (with a well-earned sigh of relief) into the muddy ocean of mankind”—if you have any post-Shoah, post-Jim Crow, post-Stonewall, post-pogrom sensibility at all, you cannot help but gasp at the ethical blindness of this idea (see Ch. 2 and pp. 51).

Gelernter fears the dissolution of Jewish distinctiveness in the face of an accepting and relatively free social and cultural context for Jews in the United States. He makes empassioned arguments against conversion and especially against “mixing of blood” between Jews and Gentiles. To be frank, reading this chapter in his book felt so anachronistic, so unethical that I almost gave up my decision to explore Judaism (his was the first book I read, back in February).

But the context he fears is a real one: In the United States and much of the world, Jews find themselves at a new cross-roads historically. While there still is anti-semitism afoot, it is not the dominant paradigm that governs legally, socially, or culturally. In other words, in the U.S. (where most of the world’s Jews live), when there is no real outside pressure (Jews are, in my opinion, fully integrated into U.S. culture), what does it mean to be a Jew?

For a non-believing Jew, who does not believe in separation as an ethical position, and who finds the panentheism of Kabbalah more resonant than the sacred/profane dyad—that is, for a Jew like me—what should halakhah mean? Can it be anything more than a mere expression of identity?

Toward a Humanistic Critique of Halakhah

Sociologically, I understand both the historical need for “separation” of a minority people in dangerous circumstances, and I also understand the social function of religious practice as a separation of the world into sacred and profane.

But as someone who is seeking a practice, but who is atheist-panentheist, I am caught up short by the more conservative take on halakhah-as-separation. And as a humanist, I wonder if there isn’t a more universalistic or humane reading of halakhah, a halakhah for the present social and scientific realities, rather than one built in a past that, for all intents and purposes, no longer exists.

Surely, Judaism contains within it the intellectual and humanistic values that I hold dear, otherwise I would not be so seriously pursuing conversion. From gemilut khasidim (acts of kindness), tzedakah (acts of justice), and tikkun olam (repairing the world) come a central ethical and, for me, resonant way of living. How do these altruistic and forward looking ideals interact with a legal culture of minute and specific laws? How do the Talmudic teachings that extend the acts of kindness and justice and repair outside of the Jewish community combine with the Talmudic (and cultural) impetus to exclusion and separation?

Because I am at heart a humanist who finds beauty, truth, and goodness (as well as ugliness, lies, and evil) in all of humanity’s religious efforts, I want to create a Jewish identity for myself and be part of a Jewish community that looks outward from its spiritual home to the world as a positive and intentional act, rather than out of a need to express a separate identity.

teku

**derived from German high criticism of the Bible, and which had a massive impact on Christianity as well; in the United States, this led to the liberalization of Congregationalism and the transformation of Unitarianism and the roots of American Transcendentalism (Emerson’s Nature being a prototypical panentheistic text); thus, German high criticism generally marks the beginning of liberalization of Western monotheism; the effect continues to be felt today both in Judaism and Christianity.

++I use the term “Palestine” with full awareness of the complexities of naming the land that has been the locus of so much bloodshed and identity politics for the past 3000 years. I use it as a term of ease rather than a political position.

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