7/31/14

My Dear Rabbi Column for August: Can I make her forget my bad behavior?

Dear Rabbi: Your Talmudic Advice Column

Dear Rabbi,

I am generally a polite, well-mannered person. Yet I feel like my significant other keeps track of any lapse in my behavior when we are together, especially if something that I did embarrassed her in public. I was recently rude toward some noisy people when we were out in a restaurant. Now she reminds me about this occurrence whenever we go out. This makes me sad. What can I do to make her forget about this?

Memories in Mahwah

Dear Memories,

In the personal question that you pose you do raise one of the most complex issues of human culture. Does a person have the right to have acts that he or she commits to be forgotten? If you did something that you do not want remembered, can you get it erased from the record?

The answer to your direct query is there is nothing you can do to make your significant other forget your actions. Our biological memory banks are hardwired to preserve certain data in a special way. We have a prominent place in our psyches where we store information about people or events that we judge harmful to us or dangerous to our well being or survival.

That includes a wide spectrum of events and facts ranging from personal acts between people to more global events and intelligence data about dangerous threats, past and present.

The question you pose operates on an individual memory level. You want your significant other to suppress a particular act of yours from her memory-bank.

My Dear Rabbi Column for August: Must I give back my day school scholarship?

Dear Rabbi: Your Talmudic Advice Column

Dear Rabbi,

I was unemployed recently and during that period I negotiated a discount for my family’s synagogue membership and a scholarship for my children’s day school tuition. Now I have been hired to a new position with good pay, and I also made some prudent investments that have paid off nicely.

Now that I got a job and a windfall do I need to inform my synagogue or yeshiva of the change in my circumstances?

Lucky in Lodi

Dear Lucky,

Legally you may be obligated to tell your institutions if that was a term specified by them when they gave you reductions in fees. But the explicit stipulation of that contingency is rare. So you probably do not have a legal obligation to inform your organizations until next year.

Morally, though, you do have to step up and inform the school and shul that you can pay more of your fair share. Others will benefit from the funds that your good fortune provides. Our communities depend on you to act with generosity and compassion on every level and in every such circumstance.

7/21/14

Should we abolish fasting on Tisha B'Av?

Yes. I believe we should abolish the practice of fasting to commemorate the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple on the ninth day of the month of Av, known as Tisha B'Av (falling on August 5 in 2014).

Now before you convene a synod to excommunicate me, know that I am in good company. In the third century CE the greatest Tanna, Rabbi Judah the Prince, tried to abolish Tisha B'Av.

My son Yitz called my attention to this passage below which records the rabbi's action [Soncino Babylonian Talmud (2012-04-25). Megillah and Shekalim (Kindle Locations 739-743). Kindle Edition.] and to Tosafot's glosses (at Megillah 5b) which reject the premise that someone could entertain the notion of abolishing Tisha B'Av.
R. Eleazar said in the name of R. Hanina: Rabbi planted a shoot on Purim, and bathed in the [bathhouse of the] marketplace of Sepphoris on the seventeenth of Tammuz and sought to abolish the fast of the ninth of Ab, but his colleagues would not consent. R. Abba b. Zabda ventured to remark: Rabbi, this was not the case. What happened was that the fast of Ab [on that year] fell on Sabbath, and they postponed it till after Sabbath, and he said to them, Since it has been postponed, let it be postponed altogether, but the Sages would not agree.
Of course, if Rabbi Judah the Prince (compiler of the Mishnah) once tried to abolish Tisha B'Av but the sages would not agree to it, I do not expect that the sages of our times will agree with me to abolish Tisha B'Av.

Yet here is why they should.

I concur that as a culture we need to remember the calamities of the past so that we can be vigilant and prevent the calamities of the future. But we need effective ritual memories that are clear and unequivocal. Tisha B'Av commemorates that the city of Jerusalem and the Temple in it were destroyed.

Because the city has been rebuilt in modern Israel, this befogs the symbolism of the past destruction and renders it less effective.

I have been mulling over this issue for thirty years or more. In 2012 I mused as follows (with a few edits added).

Is Tisha B'Av relevant? No I do not think that the fast of Tisha B'Av is relevant anymore. I need a holiday from Tisha B'Av.

That day was for a long time a commemoration through fasting and prayer over the destroyed city of Jerusalem and the Temple. I visited Jerusalem in May of 2011 (ed.: and again in 2013) and can attest that the city is not desolate. It is without reservations, glorious.

Who then wants the bleak story to be told? Archetypally the militant "celebrity" archetype wants to keep recalling defeat, destruction and desolation, to spur team Jews on to fight the foes and to triumph at the end of time. That scheme may work for that archetype as long as the facts of reality do not fly smack in the face of the narrative. And when they do, what then? The narrative loses its force.

I cannot imagine Jerusalem in ruins. Period. And indeed, why should I perpetuate an incendiary story of gloom and doom into a diametrically opposite positive world of building and creativity? The era of desolation has ended.

For over twenty-five years, I've been lamenting the irony of lamenting over a city that is rebuilt. It's more rebuilt now -- way more -- than it was twenty five years ago. What do I do then about Tisha B'Av, the Jewish fast day of lament and mourning? Here is what I said those many years ago.

7/15/14

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7/9/14

Shhh, Don't Tell Anyone. Deena Yellin Reviewed a New Book, "A Shark in the Mikvah"

I've taught classes at major state research universities where I described the practices of Jewish women's ritual immersions. As I recall my expositions always were met with amazed and confused stares and looks of "they-really-do-that?" disbelief on the faces of the students.

Deena Yellin wrote a nice review of an appropriately zany treatment in a new book of this idiosyncratic Jewish women's ritual of immersing in a mikvah bath each month prior to engaging in sexual relations. See her review and buy the book, There's a Shark in the Mikvah!: A light-hearted look at Jewish women's dunking experiences (Kindle).

But I really can't talk any more about this. Deena quoted me as I explained why we generally don't discuss this ritual.
...most women are hesitant to talk about any strange scenarios floating around at the mikveh because in their kallah classes before marriage they were taught to keep it all on the down low.

The tradition of silence about this subject is for good reason, said Rabbi Tzvee Zahavy of Teaneck, an author of several books about rabbinic Judaism and Talmud. “Sex is one of the most personal, sensitive and private domains of our lives, therefore we strongly agree by matter of social conventions to put some aspects of our lives off-limits to chit chat, gossip and public scrutiny.”

Nevertheless, the authors are gaining kudos for sharing the stories – some inspiring, some humorous and others downright embarrassing – to let veteran mikveh-goers know they are not alone and to encourage newbies to give it a shot.
Accordingly shh, please don't tell anyone about this review or book.

7/8/14

What is the Theater of Religious Terror?

The following is a post that I wrote when I was teaching a course on comparative religious terrorism.

What do stories of piety and mayhem have in common?
Let's focus on an interpretive framework called the "Logic of Religious Violence." We try to enter into the minds of those who perpetrate acts of violence in the name of religion. Then we try to step back and analyze what we observe.

What are the constructed events that serve as the elements of performative violence?
Mark Juergensmeyer ("Terror in the Mind of God") presents a convincing definition of the phenomena we have studied that are made up of acts of religious violence and terrorism.
"Instances of exaggerated violence are constructed events: they are mind-numbing, mesmerizing theater. At center stage arc the acts themselves--stunning, abnormal, and outrageous murders carried out in a way that graphically displays the awful power of violence--set within grand scenarios of conflict and proclamation. Killing or maiming of any sort is violent, of course, but these acts surpass the wounds inflicted during warfare or death delivered through capital punishment, in large part because they have a secondary impact. By their demonstrative nature, they elicit feelings of revulsion and anger in those who witness them.
Juergensmeyer further defines and presents his theoretical framework as follows:
How do we make sense of such theatrical forms of violence? One way of answering this is to view dramatic violence as part of a strategic plan. This viewpoint assumes that terrorism is always part of a political strategy--and, in fact, some social scientists have defined terrorism in just this way: "the use of covert violence by a group for political ends." In some cases this definition is indeed appropriate, for an act of violence can fulfill political ends and have a direct impact on public policy.

7/4/14

American God-Talk for the Fourth of July

For Independence Day, noted author Ira Stoll collated for Time some of the God statements of our presidents. 

These proclamations are not actually theology. At best they are god talk, chatter in political settings about the divine, perhaps meant to inspire, perhaps to garner votes or support. In any case, it's nice to recall that our leaders spoke about god.
The Theology of the Fourth of July
Ira Stoll
Amid all the fireworks and barbecue smoke this July 4, consider pausing for a moment to reflect on the one our founding fathers called the Creator.

July 4 is a religious holiday. For this insight, thank John F. Kennedy.

On July 4, 1946, Kennedy — then 29 years old, the Democratic nominee for a Massachusetts Congressional seat, and still a lieutenant in the Navy Reserve — was the featured speaker at the City of Boston’s Independence Day celebration. He spoke at Faneuil Hall, the red-brick building where long ago the colonists had gathered to protest taxes imposed by King George III and his Parliament.

Kennedy began by talking not about taxes, or about the British, or about the consent of the governed, but about religion. “The informing spirit of the American character has always been a deep religious sense. Throughout the years, down to the present, a devotion to fundamental religious principles has characterized American though and action,” he said.

For anyone wondering what this had to do with Independence Day, Kennedy made the connection explicit. “Our government was founded on the essential religious idea of integrity of the individual. It was this religious sense which inspired the authors of the Declaration of Independence: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights.’”

It was a theme that Kennedy would return to during the 1960 presidential campaign, when, in a speech at the Mormon Tabernacle in Salt Lake City, he described the Cold War as “a struggle for supremacy between two conflicting ideologies; freedom under God versus ruthless, Godless tyranny.” And again in his inaugural address, on January 20, 1961, in Washington, D.C., when he said, “The same revolutionary beliefs for which our forebears fought are still at issue around the globe — the belief that the rights of man come not from the generosity of the state but from the hand of God.”

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7/3/14

The Star Spangled Banner... in Yiddish (1943)

It's the 4th of July this week and time for us to sing again the Star Spangled Banner in Yiddish courtesy of Jack Balkin.

1943 translation of the Star Spangled Banner into Yiddish by Dr. Abraham Asen, described as "the foremost Yiddish adapter of English poetry," and proudly presented in commemoration of the anniversary of the death of Francis Scott Key.

O'zog, kenstu sehn, wen bagin licht dervacht,
Vos mir hoben bagrist in farnachtigen glihen?
Die shtreifen un shtern, durch shreklicher nacht,
Oif festung zich hoiben galant un zich tsein?
Yeder blitz fun rocket, yeder knal fun kanon,
Hot bawizen durch nacht: az mir halten die Fohn!
O, zog, tzi der "Star Spangled Banner" flatert in roim,
Ueber land fun die freie, fun brave die heim!