Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Intermarriage

A new article in the Forward asks 22 rabbis (of all denominations) "Is Intermarriage a Problem or an Opportunity?".

Here are my own thoughts on the topic, as a halachic Jew who generally (but not exclusively) affiliates with Orthodoxy.

It's a difficult balance. Intermarriage in Judaism should be managed through a positive process - that of raising children to be Jewishly engaged and literate, and to value the Jewish community. With that done, a child will hopefully choose to marry someone who will be a partner in the Jewish journey, and that will typically be another Jew, though not always. But people are not statistics. As adults they have individual autonomy and will choose who to marry on their own. Instilling them as children with Jewish values will inform the choices they make when dating.

A bigger issue than intermarriage is Jewish engagement, and while that may have some correlation with intermarriage, intermarriage is more often a symptom, not the cause of Jewish disengagement. And there are certainly some intermarried couples whose children are very Jewishly engaged.

The issue of the Jewish status of children of a Jewish man and a non-Jewish woman is, I admit, a more serious question. How should Orthodox communities approach interaction and education of those children? No easy or blanket answers.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

A conversation about God

Pesach Sommer writes about how Orthodox Jewry often has problems discussing God.

My thoughts?

The Torah says that Hashem created us in his image, and there's been a lot of philosophical musings about the various meanings of that.

Ultimately, I think it's more accurate to say that we create God in our image. Not that God isn't real - I may doubt much of Jewish dogma, but I believe in Hashem. But part of what makes it difficult to speak about God communally in the Jewish community is that there are many Gods - or rather, many different perceptions of God. Hashem is an emotional concept. We each find our own path to him (or her) by perceiving God in a way that each of us can relate to - in our own image.

For some that's a grand king, though that concept is more difficult to relate to in a democratic age where people have the right of self-determination. For others it's a parent, sometimes loving, sometimes stern. For others Hashem is a friend, a confidante. Hashem is whatever your relationship with Him is.

For me, he's just an emotion, the connection I feel when I'm high on zmirot and spirituality - a partner in a feeling of something greater than just out humdrum lives. What Hashem really is, no one knows. So we are forced to relate in whatever way we can. But since there's less commonality in the perception of Hashem than ever, it's difficult to have a communal conversation when a common frame of reference is difficult to pin down.

Monday, October 23, 2017

How to deal with the Elie Wiesel accusation


A woman has accused the late Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel of groping her some 28 years ago, one of many women speaking out in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein revelations about their own experiences with harassment and assault.
Accusations like this seem to cause people to retreat to their corners and stick to their guns. The reactions I've seen tend to be either "wow, what a scumball" to "she's just a publicity-seeker ruining the reputation of a man who can no longer defend himself".




The truth is that there's no way for sure to know the truth. I take this accusation with a little grain of salt, because there's been no pattern of accusations against Wiesel before, no hint of this sort of behavior. But I'm not willing to dismiss it out of hand, either. The misogyny evident in some of the comments from her detractors is disturbing. A woman who makes this sort of accusation should be taken seriously. That doesn't mean we automatically believe her, but we can't just dismiss her account..

And what if it's not true? That doesn't mean she's lying. She could sincerely believe her account, the mind filling in details from an accidental brush over 28 years.

But it might be absolutely true. He might actually have grabbed her sexually. And that leaves us with another fallen hero. Another man who turns out to have been a sexual predator.

Ultimately, we need to take a wait-and-see attitude. See if other women come forward, if there's a pattern to his behavior. I don't think we should let one unsubstantiated accusation ruin the way we remember Wiesel. But neither can we just ignore it. For now, that means living with that doubt and having an asterisk next to his hero status, so to speak.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Halachic standards in Orthodoxy today - it's never been done before


Observant Jewish life used to be much simpler. We lived in cloistered communities where notwithstanding our rose colored nostalgic glasses, Jewish literacy wasn't high. Halachic observance was cultural, not legally-driven.

But nowadays, when understanding of what halacha apparently demands of us is part and parcel of the education of most Orthodox kids, there's an obsession with "getting it right". Of course culture plays a huge role now, too. But the culture is more informed by a strict legality and everyone is trying prove themselves within that context.




But here's the thing - it's never been done before! In prior times, Jewish observance was much more flexible and relaxed. People did what they were taught by their parents, not what they learned at Yeshiva. Not everyone got it "right", and there was far more variety in practice in different communities than the insistence of one-size-fits-all halachic Judaism of today.

So of course it's obsessive and rigid now, and insists on ever more unobtainable standards.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Avinu Malkeinu? How do we relate to God with modern sensibilities?

Much of our liturgy and classical literature focuses on obedience and worship of God with the analogy of subjects relating to a king. This is often the case even when the analogy is not explicit.
Such analogies worked for most of Jewish history, when the prevailing cultural context was subservience to human rulers who were often believed to rule by divine right. Thus, a similar worship of God came more naturally.

But since the rise of the enlightenment, democracy, individual autonomy, it's harder to relate to God using the old ideas. And the more one is steeped in western ideas, the harder it is to profess utter subservience to another being, even if we fully believe in God. I for one, find many of the words in the long prayers of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur hard to relate to.

What's needed are new paradigms to relate to God that really resonate with a modern mind. But what would those paradigms be? Friend, Partner? How do we reconcile that with traditional ideas about God?

Monday, May 1, 2017

Ten years blogging!

Actually, that was back in February. I only realized now that I missed noticing that milestone.

Friday, February 10, 2017

The Iran deal revisited

I was just having an email discussion with a friend who was incredulous at Jewish support for the Iran deal and for supporting Obama's efforts there. Here was my response:

I said at the time, and I still believe this, that yes, the Iran deal was a bad deal. But that's because any deal with Iran would be a bad deal. There was no possibility of a good deal. So the question becomes, was a bad deal better than no deal at all? I tend to lean towards answering yes. The deal wasn't meant to be an absolute guarantee that Iran wouldn't develop nuclear weapons, it was meant to slow down that program dramatically, and at the same time bring a rogue nation into the sunlight of international diplomacy, which would gradually move them towards some kind of relative moderation. Simply ostracizing them would have caused them to work harder to get a bomb and they wouldn't have much to lose by threatening its use later.

You can disagree with Obama's reasoning, but he wasn't just being naive - he had a method to what he was doing, the belief that diplomacy, even in the cases where such diplomacy will be tough and take years, is the only thing that will guarantee peace in the long term. I agree with that approach, even if I sometimes disagreed with Obama on details.