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!



My July Dear Rabbi Column: Desperately Seeking Deals in Demarest

Dear Rabbi: Your Talmudic Advice Column

Dear Rabbi,

Often when I go shopping or order merchandise online I feel compelled to search and search to get the very best deal. After I buy something, if I find out later that I could have gotten the item cheaper, I feel so disappointed with myself. I’m afraid I may have a bargain-hunting disorder. What can I do about this?

Desperately Seeking Deals in Demarest

Dear Deals,

There is nothing wrong with looking for a good deal or trying to save money when you shop. Effective negotiation in transactions is valued as a desirable skill. Frugality is considered by many to be a virtue. Some religions raised the frugality trait to an overt ethical ideal. Quakers and Puritans in America for instance have encouraged a lifestyle of modest spending in combination with helping others through charity.

On the other hand, sadly we Jews are sometimes stereotyped unfairly and negatively for our frugality.

Our consumer culture in America pushes us through its commercial interests towards conspicuous consumption and lavish spending as the goals of a good life. That’s obviously contradictory to any aims at prudent thrift.

I don’t know if you are in the end lavish or frugal. Your problem appears to be that you feel driven to a near compulsion to get the absolute best deal on whatever you buy, be it a big ticket item or a small purchase.

So let me assure you outright: It is okay to pay retail. I give you permission to do that. You do not have to always get the best price or deal on everything that you buy. That may not be a profound insight. But sometimes it helps if a neutral third party just tells you that.

And if you do manage to go retail, and yet your “disorder” persists and you feel that paying retail is a personal shortcoming, something like a sin, then I have an additional suggestion to help you deal with what you perceive to be a failure in your behavior.

On Yom Kippur in the alphabetical confession of our sins that we recite in the synagogue, the “Ashamnu,” you can quietly add one more lapse to your catalog: “Retail-nu.”

My July Dear Rabbi Talmudic Advice Column: Raging over Rabbis in Randolph

Dear Rabbi: Your Talmudic Advice Column

Dear Rabbi,

I read about rabbis in Israel who offer cures, amulets, talismans and the like to their followers. They attend family events of their followers and give advice to businessmen. The rabbis receive fees for these services, sometimes lavish donations. Some of these rabbis have become quite rich, even multi-millionaires. Forbes has published a list of the richest Israeli rabbis! I personally think these guys are despicable con men who use religion to prey on vulnerable people in need of help. Shouldn’t we do something to stop these people?

Raging over Rabbis in Randolph

Dear Raging,

Whoa! It is hard to ask a rabbi to condemn a rabbi. On the one hand, we rabbis need to stick together. If you attack one of our colleagues, common sense dictates that we ought to step up to defend him. However, on the other hand, you are right in your inquiry. If we find that a professional colleague is a fraud, it makes good sense for us to step up to discipline him, lest our whole profession be tarnished.

We rabbis derive our authority primarily from our study and special knowledge of rabbinic literature including Talmud, Codes, Responsa and yes, also from Kabbalah. Secondarily, many Jews believe that some or all rabbis have special charisma, which is power that derives from their closeness to the sacred and from their more direct link to God. This latter belief is more common in the Hasidic and Sephardic communities.

And you no doubt realize that, on the one hand, if you are affiliated with any form of organized religion, that you already are paying significant amounts to rabbis for their services. Nearly all rabbis serving in a professional capacity in America are paid – some quite handsomely. You may derive personal benefits from their services. Some provide solace and counseling in a professional manner based on academic training. I assume that you have no problem with that means of livelihood and you do not consider such practitioners to be con men.

But on the other hand, you may be rightfully indignant if a rabbi exploits his station to demand from his reverential flock exorbitant fees for whatever it is that he offers: presence at events, blessings, advice and the like.

In this case, since you don’t seem to know directly the rabbis that you question, you need to step back and ask if you are incensed specifically about these charismatic holy men making too much money. And you need to consider what provokes you to conclude that they are fakers and charlatans who exploit the weak and helpless. There are many testimonies from their followers praising and thanking these holy men. Celebrity charismatic rabbis, who earn the big bucks for providing the cures and remedies that you dislike, also can and do alleviate much suffering among their followers.

If a rabbi breaks the law by committing fraud or engages in an outright scam, you are justified to call him a con man. But if he engages in legal activities that are within the professional parameters of what rabbis do, you have little basis to label him a fake.

Nevertheless, you may choose to disapprove of extremes of rabbinical activity. For a religious believer, like yourself, if you believe a rabbi's activities are outrageous, you are entitled to your subjective opinion to declare a flashy healer a fake, while you continue to deem the other more modest counselors legitimate.

I do hope that you find helpful this brief Talmudic analysis and (rabbinic) advice for the day-to-day reality of our contradictory world, where one person's holy man may be another person's con man.

The Dear Rabbi column offers timely advice based on timeless Talmudic wisdom. It aspires to be equally respectful and meaningful to all varieties and denominations of Judaism. You can find it here on the first Friday of the month. Send your questions to DearRabbi@jewishmediagroup.com

7/1/14

How do Islamic Jihadists try to merge religion and terror?

After US forces killed Osama bin Laden in 2011 I came back to look again at the larger issues of how Islamic Jihadists merge religion and terror. Again in 2014 we confront this issue in the aftermath of terrible violence. I probed the topic back in 2006. Here are some of my questions and answers on the subject.

Why have religious conviction, hatred of secular society, and the demonstration of power through acts of violence frequently coalesced in Islamic activist movements?

Mark Jeurgensmeyer describes in Terror in the Mind of God: The Global Rise of Religious Violence, how one of the men convicted of the bombing of the World Trade Center Mahmud Abouhalima expressed his understanding of some terrorist acts that have little impact on political reality:
"But it's as I said," Abouhalima responded, "at least the government got the message." Moreover, he told me, the only thing that humans can do in response to great injustice is to send a message. Stressing the point that all human efforts are futile and that those who bomb buildings should not expect any immediate, tangible change in the government's policies as a result, Abouhalima said that real change - effective change - "is not in our hands, only in God's hands."
"THE FOUNDATION OF THE NEW TERRORISM" in the report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States provides additional insight and background.