Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Tribe Diatribe

If it has been too long since my last substantive, non-poetry based post, please understand that it is not a function of my abandonment of my beloved audience (you all, about whom I care deeply), but rather because I am still in recovery from this article in the Jerusalem Post.

Now, whenever I come across articles of this nature—that is, malinformed and small-minded—I wonder if the dialogue is enhanced by my commentary. If I pick apart this gentleman’s argument piece by piece, if I point out the flaws, if I urge you all to actually consider the man’s case, even if only to refute it, aren’t I implicitly condoning the existence of this diatribe? Am I inherently suggesting that some aspect of his absurdity is legitimate?

I am so angry, I don’t even know where to go from here. Do I suggest that the writer can legitimately draw his conclusions about the conference to which he refered (about Jewish philanthropies funding cultural programming) only if he attended said conference and not through inferences derived from someone else’s notes? That the part of the study he asserts were ignored—that the Jews who attend cultural events do have extensive Jewish backgrounds—were not ignored and were in fact discussed in depth, a fact I know because I attended the event and took my own notes? He asks, “If young American Jews are not affiliating despite being more educated and engaged then ever, what causes Jews of my generation to leave the community behind? “ Had he been at the conference, he would know that unaffiliated does not equal uninvolved, that leaving prescribed denominations does not mean leaving the community, that, in fact, many young Jews are using Jewish cultural events as a jumping off point to connect and form their own communities. He would also know that far from universalism, the findings of Cohen and other sociologists indicate a trend toward particularism, toward hybridism, toward “niches.” The writer does touch on this issue:

What makes this assimilation so hard to see is that it looks and smells like particularism. Individuals wear their ethnic colors on their sleeve and spice their foods with traditional flavors. But one should not be mistaken. Just because someone looks Jewish and sounds Jewish does not mean that they will act Jewish. Just because you drink Manishevitz and go to a klezmer concert does not make you any more Jewish than were you to drink tequila and listen to salsa.

And just because you use the words “zeitgeist” and “esthetic” in your article does not make you erudite. Or right.

Update (11/01/06): I was remiss in my research. Somehow, I missed Esther's reaction to the article (my sincere apologies, oh wise and magnanimous Esther).

What's in a name?

Names are really important in Judaism (if only so that we can identify eachother). According to some commentator whose name I cannot remember, the reason that the Hebrews were taken out of Egypt early was because they were assimilating too much, taking Egyptian names. Same deal with the Maccabees, they were really upset when Jews began taking Greek names, and would sneak into people's houses to perform the first pirate circumcisions on their unsuspecting kids. Yeah, we have an awesome history.

Within Judaism there are a variety of different naming practices. Ashkenazim name their children after people who have passed away, in the hopes of transferring the positive characteristics from the ancestor onto the child. One caveat is that if the person died young the name is often changed slightly, as in the case of my good friend's little brother: from Asher to Ashrei. Sephardim/Mizrachim on the other hand have a different tradition, in many cases the son is named the reverse of the father: ie Avi ben-Yosef's son would be Yosef ben-Avi.

My name, for example is Rivka Feiga. For those who are unaware, this name is SUPER-shtetl (if you need a definition, check out David Kelsey's comparison of Ghetto to Shtetl). This name would be fine except for the obvious:

1) It makes me look like an escapee from Beis Yaakov*
2) Feiga's nickname is Feigele (or little bird). What does this mean? Essentially my parents gave me the middle name for the Yiddish equivalent of "fag." Thanks guys.

Mercifully, they decided against giving me "Feigle" for a first name. Yeah, it rhymes with "bagel" and has the same awful nickname. Additionally, I am named after my great grandmother, a woman who ruled her husband with an iron fist. Which brings me to the question, are names deterministic? Am I bossy because of my name, or are they unrelated factors?

At least I'm not Ateret Hodaya. Jack's Shack reproduced (the good) part of an old article from Haaretz on how Israelis name their kids. I was born around Pesach, I wonder what my name would have been? Thankfully my parents (who are really lovely people) gave me a pretty standard biblical name, and not Shiloh, a la the Jolie-Pitt baby. Zen Angel agrees with me that it is a pretty awful name, but I'm not sure that I love the name "Damaris" as an alternative. Also, it is pretty clearly Christian.

I kind of want to name my first son Mischa after my (Russian) Grandfather. I know that Mischa is a nickname, but I don't like Michael, or the hebraicized version. All my significant others thus far have vetoed that idea. Any takers?

As Promised, Jews Love: Halevi

(If anyone has the full text of ,יעלת חן, רחמי לבב please attach it in the comments section; I could not, for the life of me, find a usable text online. Thank you.)

At first glance, Halevi’s love poetry contrasts with the piety of his theological poetry; however, a closer reading suggests that his love poetry is likewise theocentric (1). Read in isolation, יעלת חן, רחמי לבב simultaneously conveys the speaker’s obsession with his lover and reveals her malice in return, creating an unsettling ambiguity. His veneration of her in the face of her cruelty to him suggests a terminal myopia on his part. Yet, the unwavering loyalty coupled with justifiable anger recalls the interaction between God and Israel during the time of the covenant. Read as an allegory for God’s relationship with Israel, the poem resonates with the theocentrism and particularist message of Halevi’s other writings. Halevi’s focus on God’s perspective in this relationship inverts the expected power dynamic and brings Israel’s treatment of God into sharp relief. In this version of their relationship, Israel acts as the aggressor, wielding power over God. In contrast, God remains passive: He is at Israel’s mercy, the recipient of her vitriol and her pity (2). This perspective underscores Halevi’s insistence on God’s particularism. Not only is Israel God’s Chosen People, but without Israel, God is without purpose, without meaning.

God and Israel as lovers is a well-established allegory that provides theological and philosophical fodder for Halevi, who inverts the power dynamic. Halevi imagines God’s response to Israel’s defiance. Whereas the biblical God is wrathful when spurned, Halevi’s God painfully bemoans His fate and continues to re-establish the relationship, in spite of His repeated mistreatment. Israel acts as the aggressor: ensnaring God, violating His laws, pleading for Him to return, and then rejecting Him, once again. This cycle recalls the biblical relationship, but that interaction is defined by defiance and punishment, in which God wields absolute power and Israel lay prostrate at His mercy. The Bible records His anger, but Halevi records his pain and sorrow: the mirror image of the biblical portrayal.

In יעלת חן, רחמי לבב the imagery depicting Israel’s actions towards God are wholly negative; yet, God’s devotion is bottomless. The first three verses demonstrate the harm that Israel has done her lover. In the first, God pleads for her pity (רחמי), but the snakes that protect her cheeks sting Him with poison. The verb for pity, רחם, is reserved to describe God’s compassion (for example: Ex 33:19, Dt 13:18, II K 13:23, Is 9:16, Je 12:15); however, Halevi’s God requests רחם from Israel, implying that Israel holds the power in this relationship. Halevi employs dynamic parallelism to heighten the dramatic tension as Israel’s physical violations of God increase. In the first verse, Israel’s guards pursue God; in the second, her fiery nipples drink his blood; in the third, “תמיתני בצדיה...[עפעפים שלה] נפשי בקשו.”

After her misbehavior, Israel repents in the fourth verse, but biblical precedent demands that her repentance be short-lived. The term Halevi uses for messengers, שלומיה, refers to making peace with God, especially in covenantal relation (Nu 25:12; Ex 34:25, 37:26; Mal 2:5). When her envoys return, she cries out for prophecy, as if she were ready to truly hear God’s word. Halevi writes, “מלאכי שלום, פגעו בי, שנו גם שלשו.” The phrase מלאכי שלום alludes to Isaiah 33:7, in which the מלאכי שלום, the prophets, weep bitterly because God renounced the covenant (cf. Is 42:19, 44:26). Even after God returns, Israel remains faithless. Her דדים, which in the second verse ensnared God, in this verse lead to his rejection. In Ezekiel 23, God reprimands Israel and Samaria for whoring themselves out to Egypt, particularly for letting Egyptians fondle their דדים. Throughout the poem, God’s verbs are passive and Israel’s active; she is the subject and he the object. Although He narrates, Israel maintains the power in this relationship.

God’s continued devotion, in spite of Israel’s unquestionable malice, raises a question as to his motivation. Why would God continue to love and be devoted to Israel under these conditions? Halevi states the case explicitly, “תדעי כי יום תנודי—אסוני בנדודך.” The crux of the poem is not God’s particular love of Israel, but God’s imminent ruin if Israel abandons Him. Beyond particularism, the poem is exclusivist. God does not love Israel more than other nations; rather, God loves Israel alone. Halevi demonstrates through this allegory that Israel grants God purpose. Without Israel to love and care for, God ceases to have purpose and, by implication, meaning.

(1) Theocentric poetry includes the poetry where the poet openly addresses God and his Zionist poetry. I include the Zionist poetry because Halevi demonstrates therein that a return to Zion is a return to God’s covenant and that he cannot fully express his piety outside the confines of her walls.

(2) As Halevi uses the masculine singular for God, I address God throughout the paper using masculine singular pronouns to maintain consistency with the text. This choice does not reflect my personal theology.

Jews Love: Meat

Last week's Torah portion was Parshat Noach, the story of the flood. Chaviva points out that before Adam and Eve were expelled from the garden of Eden they were vegetarians (we think), but after the expulsion they began to eat meat. In celebration of this, and of Noach himself, at my college there was a yearly ritual: on the weekend when Parshat Noach was read, the boys would have a bassarfest,* or a meal where only meat was eaten. Get it, two of every animal? This is problematic for me for a number of reasons, primarily among them the exclusion of women (sometimes fiancees/wives were allowed, sometimes not), but it strikes at the heart of an issue which I find interesting. The relationship between Judaism and the consumption of meat.

Today's Washington Post ran an article about the rising trend of vegetarianism among teenagers. Let me preface my next comments with the fact that until a year or two ago I was a vegetarian, I hadn't eaten meat of any kind from the age of 9 onwards. Anyway, so the article suggests that eating less meat is healthy. Fine, for most Americans this may be the case, but for traditionally observant Jews, who have to make the choice between meat and dairy at every meal, I find that we already eat less meat than the average American home. In addition, I found that instead of gaining weight when I began to eat meat again, I lost it. Why? Because I was substituting lean meats (like chicken or fish) for the large amount of grains/beans/nuts/cheese in my diet. Lower in fat for the amount of protein, and FAR lower in carbohydrate. Instead of suggesting vegetarianism, we should be suggesting cutting out red meat (which the article does nod towards) in favor of leaner meats and more vegetables.

I tend to think that the idea that vegetarian living is healthier is a myth. If we were meant to eat only vegetables and grains, then our bodies would be unable to digest meat, which brings me to my next point: most people are lactose intolerant on some level. We are not meant to be drinking milk/eating cheese the way that we do. Additionally, not eating meat for ethical reasons becomes problematic in terms of Jewish ideology. Hashem permitted the eating of meat, yet you find it unethical. Are you more merciful than Hashem? Cause that is kind of what it sounds like.

This is not to say that I am not fully in support of organizations like Hazon, I am, I think that they do great work. I also support people who are vegetarian for whatever reason that they so choose, but I think that they need to realize that their values may be in conflict with Jewish values. If you do not like meat, or think that eating meat is wasteful, then your logic isn't really problematic. Same deal with people like Yael, who are vegetarian mostly because it is an easier way to keep kosher. However, there is a great deal of vegetarianism in the Jewish community, for instance Heeb'nVegan quotes Peter Singer in his tagline, saying: "I've noticed that quite a lot of people who are prominent in the animal liberation movement are Jews. Maybe we are simply not prepared to see the powerful hurting the weak." Yes, Judaism for sure puts an emphasis on killing the animals in a humane way (whatever that means), but it does not advocate vegetarianism.

Sorry Smel. I still love you.

*Bassarfest is a bastardization of the Hebrew word "bassar" or meat, and "fest" or festival.

Monday, October 30, 2006

Jews Love: Metaphysical Poetry

John Donne, the first poetic feminist. So what if his intent was less than honorable?

by John Donne

Some man unworthy to be possessor
Of old or new love, himself being false or weak,
Thought his pain and shame would be lesser,
If on womankind he might his anger wreak ;
And thence a law did grow,
One might but one man know ;
But are other creatures so?

Are sun, moon, or stars by law forbidden
To smile where they list, or lend away their light?
Are birds divorced or are they chidden
If they leave their mate, or lie abroad a night?
Beasts do no jointures lose
Though they new lovers choose ;
But we are made worse than those.

Who e'er rigg'd fair ships to lie in harbours,
And not to seek lands, or not to deal with all?
Or built fair houses, set trees, and arbours,
Only to lock up, or else to let them fall?
Good is not good, unless
A thousand it possess,
But doth waste with greediness.

There you have it: a woman should be allowed to leave her husband and have carnal relations with John Donne. The poem reveals that all restrictive legislation stems from male feelings of inadequacy and impotence; that man legislates sex and marriage because he is unable to secure a woman without legal coercion. When you vote next week, remember that. Makes you think differently about the controversy surrounding gay marriage, doesn't it?

Next week: Jews love Halevi (you thought only the goyim wrote about love?).

Jews Love: Shabbat Meals

I'd be the first one to admit that the majority of my social life takes place on Shabbes. I eat the ceremonial meals on Shabbat because I am obligated to, but it is also my main social outlet. I hang out with friends, and let's be honest, try to meet boys.

This usually works out pretty well for me. I've met a number of (now ex)boyfriends at the Shabbat tables of friends and family. Yet occasionally I run into a super-awkward interaction, like this one from Shabbat lunch. For the record, the guy with whom I was conversing was not a guest at the meal.

(In the kitchen)
Guy: So what are you going to do now [with your life]?
Me: Well, I figured that I'd work for a year or two at [job redacted] and then maybe look to get my MBA at [school redacted] or instead go for a PhD in History there. They have a great program for what I'm interested in.
Guy: Don't waste your time there. You are too smart for [school redacted] you should go to Harvard.
Me: But then I'd have to be in Boston, and [school] has the best program in the country.
Guy: Whatever you say, but you shouldn't bother.

And then later (by the Shabbes table)
Guy: I like my girls a little taller than you.
Me: Really? Are you serious? (I am 5'8 in bare feet) I'm not wearing heels.
Guy: Oh, then that is ok. (Steps closer) I don't like to have to lean down to kiss a girl.
Me: Um, [platonic guy friend] are you ready to go home yet?

Mmm frum boys.

For the record, I am fairly sure that Chemclown met her fiance at a shabbes meal. Although, in terms of the frustrations of dating (see Suburban Kvetch on to call or not to call, and Kesthertalk on being "too Jewish") I'm not entirely sure that the "meet at Shabbes meals" plan has anything on the "meet online" or "get set-up through friends" plans. With the obvious exception of the fact that you've already seen the person. Although, if you met them at my shabbes table, they probably won't eat squirrels. Probably.

Friday, October 27, 2006

Know Your Jewish Community: Lashon Hara

Lashon Hara literally means "evil tongue," but has become the word used to refer to any and all types of gossip. Judaism understands that words are very powerful, but has a hard time with figuring out exactly how powerful. For instance, if you make a neder, which basically means saying that you will/will not do something, then you are bound to it. By the same reasoning, there is a passage (the location of which I cannot recall) which states that if you embarass someone publicly, it is as if you have killed them, because you have destroyed their reputation, and their self-confidence.

It is then not so surprising that the Chofetz Chaim wrote an entire book about the laws of lashon hara and how they should be observed. This topic comes up over, and over again. Esther K recently gave a talk about lashon hara in the blogosphere, and if you do a search for "lashon hara" in google blog search, you get about a 400 hits.

But here is my question: after reading this article in the Washington Post about how politicians portray each other in ads, I have to wonder, what are the obligations of a politician vis a vis the laws of lashon hara? Would they be the same, for instance, as someone who knows about a flaw in a potential shidduch*? In the same vein of my question, Miriam L wonders if biographies, or biographical information counts as lashon hara.

I don't know enough about the electoral process in Israel to be able to comment on it, but I wonder if candidates refrain from ad hominen attacks, or if they don't, and that affects their standings in the polls?

*Shidduch is a match, as in "matchmaker, matchmaker, make me a match," and generally refers to arranged dating as set up by a shadchan (matchmaker) or a go-between, usually a friend or family member.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Jews Love: Borat

He's the Jew-hater that we all love to talk about.

Jews who love him:
Dovbear has his trailer up
Jewlicious has a whole post (including a mention of the Jewish Week article)
Bagel blogger has a whole set of videos
Minor Fast Days sends out a "yasher koach" to Borat
Saul Kiserman thinks that the whole thing is silly. He asks "why is Borat news?"
Am Echad thinks that his site traffic will increase after he used the name "Borat" in his post (hey, I'm counting on it)
and last, but not least, Valley Jew asks the question that is on all of our minds: Borat, or Tenacious D?

Update 10.27.06: David Kelsey pointed out this post by Shmarya Rosenberg at Failed Messiah. I have no idea whether or not this actually happened, but the "interview" is pretty hilarious. I think that my favorite moment is when Borat claims to have gone to Aish haTorah for "mind control." And while some of the comments make me uncomfortable, I guess that if I'm going to laugh at Borat when he mocks other people, I have to be willing to laugh at myself/my culture too.

Harley is a playa', I, regrettably, am not.

Last night Harley and I went out to dinner together at a kosher fleishik* restaurant. It was a pretty good meal, but nothing special. What was special was the restaurant's owner. He was wandering around, and stopping by customers' tables to talk with them about their orders, experience, etc.

He ended up talking to us for about half an hour, mostly restaurant and food-related. Eventually the conversation strayed to the topic of personal lives. Harley mentioned that she'd just gotten out of a 5-year relationship, and the owner commiserated, he having just ended a 6 year relationship (I assumed marriage, because older frum guys don't tend to date for 6 years). Before we left I made a trip to the ladies' room to freshen my makeup (in case there were any cute guys on the way home) and I returned to the table only to find that the restaurant owner was GIVING HARLEY HIS PHONE NUMBER. Awesome.

In contrast, while walking to dinner I passed a guy who looked really familiar, so of course I stared him down as I walked by. Turns out that I went to high school with him, and I thought for a second about stopping him to talk, but decided against it. I mean, what was I going to say? "Hey there! Your little brother tried to make out with me in high school!" Awkward.

Seriously, I have no game.

*Fleishik means meat, so the restaurant has meat products, but no milk products.

Atheist Evangelist, Coming to a Soap Box Near You

“I will not be happy until none of you believe in God.”

48% of Americans believe in ghosts, yet you don't see anti-ghost evangelists.

Perhaps the belief in God is more pernicious, but I cannot imagine that going on a crusade to undermine belief in God is productive. Given that a full 95% of Americans believe in God’s existence, 64% of whom believe “without a doubt,” (I don’t even believe in my existence without a doubt) is a dialogue on the existence of God feasible or useful? If the vast majority of Americans believe in God, if a full 79% “believe that, as the Bible says, Jesus Christ was born of the Virgin Mary, without a human father,” if 60% are confident that the biblical accounts of Noah, Moses, and Genesis are literally true (but do not believe that Jews bear the guilt for the death of JC, so don’t worry), and only 40% can name more than four of the Ten Commandments, then what good does an attack on God, religion, and sacred texts do in this country? What’s the purpose? Don’t get me wrong, the basis of intellectual engagement in the world is a dialogue of ideas, particularly with those with whom you disagree. Further, if religion truly is the root of all evil, then the burden rests upon those who see the truth to spread their screed. Yet, in light of the overwhelming evidence that Americans unfailingly believe in God, I can’t help but think that a re-imagining of religion, an adjustment of the context of faith, is a more pragmatic response to the evils religions wreak than a blanket condemnation.

Whenever I have this discussion (and you know I have it often), I recall the recent demise of a certain atheistic state that used its creed as justification for murders on a scale on par with the destruction wrought in the name of God. I am not arguing that the religious texts do not encourage bloodshed in the name of God nor am I contending that they have not been the justification for an astounding amount of bloodshed since the inception of religious thinking at the dawn of time. Nor am I asserting that atheism is an inferior belief or an incorrect belief. I agree with Sam Harris that there is an “apologetic machinery that keeps telling us that we can't attack people's religious sensibility,” that is wrong and dangerous. I am arguing that Harris’s methods will in no way address the actual issues that religions bring to bear. Van Harvey, a retired professor of religious studies at Stanford University, agrees with me: " Van Harvey, a retired professor of religious studies at Stanford University, agrees with me: “not only has Harris picked a fight with those who could be on his side, but his solution -- let's all ditch God -- is laughable given the role that religion plays in so many lives.” The Washington Post article also quotes, Reza Aslan, author of “No God but God,” who clearly read my discussion with the Rooster and my post on atheism, “Religion doesn't make people bigots… People are bigots and they use religion to justify their ideology.”

Anyone have ideas for a workable solution?

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Jews Love: The Gym

Not Chosen' did a whole post about Jewesses and their gym-love (specifically at Reebok's). To which Phoebe responded that she goes running, and not even in full makeup! Therefore she is probably not a JAP.

There has been some more recent concern over a phenomenon that has been given the supremely silly name called "Hot Chanies." Basically it is frum women who dress very attractively, probably to the detriment of modesty. Anna doesn't comment on whether the women are "Hot Chanies" or not, but does register some suprise at the fact that women who wear sheitels go to the gym. Since she gives her location as "Jerusalem" I can only surmise that the gym is single-sex, so I am less surprised. I mean, I work out, how else do you think that I stay looking this good? Hot Chanie agrees she says that she needs to work out 3 times a week to stay below a size 6, which is apparently the cut-off for being a "Hot Chanie."

Guess that I have some work to do.

My Brain Hurts

Want to avoid dressing like a harlot for Halloween? Get Biblical! Have you always dreamed of rocking a Moses costume? You’re in luck. For the low low cost of $47.99, you can don the stripey shawl, loose white nightshirt, and hold the stick that looks remarkably like Moses’ real staff! Sadly, the Adult and Delux Jesus costumes are out of stock, but you can always go as Esther. Biblical Judaism too ancient for you? Not a problem, for only $39.99 (a real bargain!), you can be a Rabbi for Halloween. And if you buy now and Ba’al Teshuvah later, you can use this costume for your daily wear and Save! Save! Save!

Operators are standing by.

Know Your Jewish Community: Eruv

An eruv is a legal loophole. Literally it is a fence built around a community so that a certain area or areas are enclosed, thereby making them the "private" domain. This distinction is important because it allows traditionally observant Jews to carry* on the Sabbath.

The prohibition is against carrying on Shabbat is against carrying from one type of domain to another. There are three domains: public, private, and intermediate. The private domain is the home, anywhere inside your house, or your fenced-in yard. The public domain is defined (if I recall correctly) as a three square meter area through which 600,000 people pass a day. The intermediate domain is everywhere else. The problem arises because as soon as you walk out the door, you are in the intermediate domain. This effectively traps observant women who have small children in the home for a full day.

There are a lot of social ramifications for this somewhat self-imposed imprisonment (after all, they chose to be observant, right?) but they are pretty easy to tease out. What is more interesting is when a Jewish community decides that it wants an eruv, but the broader community has an objection. In some cases these objections are based on nothing more than anti-Semitism, but this is clearly not the case with the projected eruv in LA. The Washington Post (as does the LA Times, courtesy of Jewlicious) reports that the community is worried about the environmental damage that might be caused by the eruv, and also that it may be an eyesore.

The comment from the article that interests me the most, however, is this one:
"This is really nuts," Mark Massara, director of the Sierra Club's California Coastal Program, said of the eruv proposal. "To the extent that we're allowing public property to be used for religious purposes is very troublesome."

Public property used for religious purposes. Now, I may be incorrect here, but as I recall from the AP US Government class that I took my senior year of high school, that isn't necessarily so problematic. Schools can be used after hours as the site of religious meetings. "See you at the pole" is a prayer circle that takes place outside of many schools, right by the flagpole, in fact. I am sure that there are other examples of the use of public property for religious purposes, but in this case I'd like to point out one important distinction. The eruv costs money, and the Jewish community will be paying the entireity of the cost for the eruv. None of the $20,000 that is required will come out of the state budget, whereas in the other cases religious groups use public property without paying in any way for its maintenance.

Not a sermon, just a thought.**

*Carrying in this case means carrying anything. Traditionally observant Jews do not carry any objects on the Sabbath, be they keys, children, prayerbooks, etc. There are ways to get around this by "wearing" an object, such as keys on a belt, but for the most part it means just what it sounds like. No carrying.

** This statement is often used by Lon Solomon, an evangelist who converted from Judaism, to sign off of his radio commercials for McLean Bible Church. If you're from the Metro DC Area you know what I'm talking about.

Jews Love: Comics

While lots of Jews are funny, or at least stereotypically so, I am talking about the print/internet media in this case. Jews who inhabit the world of cartoons/comics. If you aren't sure what I'm talking about, take a look at our "cartoons" section on the blogroll.

There are three that are specifically Jewish in content: 52portions, a weekly parsha comic by Aaron Freeman and his wife, Dry Bones, a political comic by Yaakov Kirschen, and Shabot, a satire of Jewish life, by Ben Baruch. L.C. Linton, the artist responsible for The Child Left Behind happens to be Jewish, and her comics reflect that sensibility, but it isn't necessarily the main point.

In the wider world the connection between Jews and comics becomes even clearer (and not just because Magneto is a survivor). The Jewish Museum has two comic-themed exhibits the run September-late January: Masters of American Comics, and Superheroes: Good and Evil in American Comics. The world of comic book (or graphic novel if you will) artists is chock full of NJBs, and some scholars far more knowledgable than I have dealt with why that may be.

There is a middle ground between these two previous groups of artists, Jewish artists who create specifically Jewish material, but that have enjoyed some pop-culture recognition. The most obvious example of this is Maus, the graphic novel portrayal of the Holocaust by Art Spiegelman. If you haven't read it, you really should. On a more uplifting note, there are a group of superheroes called The Jewish Hero Corps. I'm at a loss for how to describe them, so I'll leave that one alone too.

And last, but not least, there is THIS GUY (courtesy of Jew York City):

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Kol Ma She'Yesh Li

Let me start this post by saying that I don't cry. I hate to do it. I find it irritating, embarassing, and messy. With that in mind, I'd like to tell you about a movie that I watched two years ago. As part of Women's History Month my college brought an Israeli female filmmaker to campus to screen her film and talk about it. The film was "Kol Ma She'Yesh Li" or in English, "All That I've Got."

The premise of the movie is this: An old woman dies of natural causes, and when someone dies they are sent to one of two cruise ships that will take them to the afterlife, the one for those who die of natural causes, and the one for those whose lives are cut unnaturally short. When she boards the ship she finds that her first love, who died at 21, or so, in a car accident has been waiting for her. Now she must make a choice, either to become her 20-or-so year old self and live forever with him (Uri), or stay as an old lady forever. Here's the catch: if she chooses Uri it will be as if she died with him, she won't remember anything of her life after that, her husband, her kids, nothing. If she doesn't choose Uri, then he is stuck on the boat forever in limbo.

Just as she is about to make the decision, her husband gets on the boat. Turns out he committed suicide so that she wouldn't have to die alone (and as a suicide his life was technically "cut short"). She gets something like three hours where she is in her 20 year old body, and has her memories during which time she has to choose.

I spent the entire movie weeping. Start to finish. I won't ruin the ending for you (if you can find this movie anywhere PLEASE let me know), but let me just say that you don't know, until the last minute, who she'll choose.

Jewish Women: Annoying, but Hot

There are times in life when I’m going about my business, attempting to do my job on very little sleep, reading about Jewish history and thinking, wrongly, that I am fully prepared for an onslaught of stupid at every turn. The times when I have been lulled into a false sense of security, of complacency, when I wrongly assume that I can face the stupid in the world with dignity, these are the times when I come across this type of statement: “Jewish women have a cultured look to them… Some men find their intelligence, their talk, their chatter appealing, and some men find it annoying — Jewish men in particular.”

The context? An article in the Forward, a publication I enjoy regularly, about a reality T.V. show attempting to find the country’s Hottest Mom. Don’t think you misread that sentence. Executive vice president and principal of the marketing firm Buzznation Jeff Greenfield, to whom the above quote may be attributed, organized auditions across the country for hot moms and he thinks that maybe, just maybe, a Jewish woman may win. Shock of all shocks.

Just in case you think that the contest is limited to looks alone, Greenfield would never be that shallow. He says, “A hot mom is someone who can balance family and time for herself. And then, of course, there’s beauty — and hygiene is always important.” Brush your teeth and pull on your skinny jeans, we're going to Hollywood! To review, for those of you who missed it: a hot mom is a woman who is hot and a mom. Deep. Even the logo reflects the many levels on which the contest will judge these women. The Forward reports that Greenfield plans to have an animation of a woman “cooking and patting a child, and then she takes off her apron and she’s wearing sexy jeans…Because that’s hot.”

But let’s get back to the comment that initially struck me dumb. I’ve often heard of Jewish women eroticized as “ethnic,” but to reference our “chatter”? And to assert that “Jewish men in particular” find it annoying? How do I even address this level of stupidity? Although, I suppose writing a five hundred word rant about calling Jewish women annoyingly chatty hardly bolsters my case.


For a more considered and considerably better written post, read Yo, Yenta's Who's Hot? Your Mom.

(For the uninitiated, the woman in the picture is none other than the fabulous Judy Gold, who is not only hot and a mom, but who's show "25 Questions for a Jewish Mother" opened this month to rave reviews.)

A Start: Continued

The question remains: is Judiasm inherently patriarchal?

I say definitively: maybe.

My thinking was sparked by this article in the Washington Post about verse 4:34 of the Qu'ran, which states that "[A]nd (as to) those [women] on whose part you fear desertion, admonish them and leave them alone in the sleeping-places and beat them." According to the article, Muslim leaders tone down this language, but never say outright that it is unacceptable to beat one's wife.

Before anyone accuses me of an anti-Islam bias, I would like to point out that we have a similarly repugnant paragraph in the Torah. In Exodus 21:7-11 it says:
"When a man sells his daughter as a slave, she will not be freed at the end of six years as the men are. If she does not please the man who bought her, he may allow her to be bought back again." And goes on to describe the terms of such a sale. While slavery, and human trafficking are both illegal in modern America (as is domestic violence), a clever posek* could probably make the case that halakhically it is permissable to sell one's daughter to settle a debt.

Yet, unlike the scholars of Islam with verse 4:34, rabbinic authorities have traditionally discarded the whole idea of daughter-selling as obsolete. This sets the precedent for authorities to basically ignore whole sections of text that they find morally repugnant according to the current mores. Another example? From the Talmud: a doctor is not allowed to break shabbes to save the life of a non-Jew. Yet Jewish doctors transgressed this prohibition (for a number of reasons, economic, moral, etc) to the point that the rabbis ruled that because of the "erva" (hatred of Jews by non-Jews) that would be inspired, it was permissible to do such a thing.

So it is possible to address these moral quandries. This makes me wonder why (Orthodox) rabbinic authorities** have not done so as pertains to some of the more patriarchal sections of the Torah? Are they not repugnant enough yet?

*A posek is a person who can make rulings about Jewish law
** I am VERY familiar with the line of reasoning that claims that the infastructure for halakhic change no longer exists. Yet, decisions are made all the time. Cholov Yisroel, Glatt Kosher? Both modern inventions. If the OU really wanted to jump-start the halakhic process, I'll bet that it would do so.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Totally Unrelated

Those who know me also know of my heartfelt and unfaltering love of Gene Weingarten. Therefore, although it is outside the purview of our blog, I would be remiss if I did not encourage you to read his most recent article for The Washington Post.

Jews Love: Pareve Cake Mix

According to A Town Crier, Betty Crocker cakes are going to be pareve again. He seriously better not be playing with me. This is big news. BIG NEWS. The last 8 months or so the desserts on my shabbes table have been pretty lame. With the exception of this past Friday night when a male guest made (unrequested) pareve cookies which were pretty darn good.

But seriously, I haven't found any substantiation for this rumor yet, but it would be super-exciting. Even more than when Stella d'Oro cookies were declared once again "not really dairy despite the fact that the packaging may say so." (scroll all the way down)

I will not, despite how much I may want to, use this as an excuse to talk about how I think the organizations who certify products as kosher are very much like a mafia. Although Kung Fu Jew does point to the upcoming "From Latkes to Lattes" conference about Judaism and food. The issues addressed there are more "sustainable development" rather than "religious cabal that keeps the price of meat up." Really, I'm not bitter that beef is something like $35/lb.

And on the topic of kashrut, I give you this gem: a conversation about whether or not food from Star Trek's replicator would be kosher. Seriously, some people have too much time on their hands. They should blog or something.

How Did They Know?

Some poor Brit got to our blog from a site whose URL includes the words "big naturals," and which is dedicated to big-bosomed women. How did they know?

Know Your Jewish Community: Losing Our Boys

According to Friday's Jewish Week, the Jewish community is facing a crisis. We are losing our boys. The trend appears to be following that of college attendance. Women attend in larger numbers, the percentages shift, and boys/men are slipping away. This becomes a vicious circle: the more women that attend, the higher the percentage of women, the fewer men who wish to attend, and so on. In the article Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin suggests this as a reason, that "men are retreating from active engagement in Jewish life because women now dominate it." This trend has been pretty clearly documented in Jewish communal life; while men are at the head of many organizations they are staffed by women. Events are overwhelmingly attended by women, and women comprise the majority of the membership.

Rachel Mosteller at Blogging Baby is understandably very concerned about this phenomenon. She wonders "What can we do to make sure that our kids keep an interest in their religion and religious heritage?"

I remember from my own brief tenure in Jewish youth organizations (B'nei Akiva and USY) that they tended to be female-heavy. Or female-dominated, yet in my region we always had a male president. In fact, I don't think that there has ever been a female USY International President. My father thinks that these boys are, as he so diplomatically phrased it, "idiots." When he picked me up from a B'nei Akiva event early in high school we had the following conversation on the way home:

Dad: Boys must be idiots. (He says this on a fairly regular basis)
Me: Um, what?
Dad: There were what, five girls there?
Me: Yeah, I guess.
Dad: Five attractive Jewish girls. What are these boys thinking? It's like shooting fish in a barrel.
Me: Thanks, Dad, that is a really flattering assessment.

Don't Get Cocky

And now, a conversation between a Rooster and me:

The Rooster: I despise religion. And not just so-called "organized" religion, but all forms of religious thinking. I think it is one of the most oppressive, evil forces in human history. I think that if an otherwise sane human being can be convinced that there is an omniscient invisible man that lives in the sky, he or she can be convinced of anything. I also think the distinction made between religious moderates and extremists is somewhat pointless, because I think that moderates lend credence to the views of the extremists, and support this "hands off" policy whereby the religious views go unchallenged. I think that religious views should face the same scrutiny as scientific or historical views. Therefore, I think that espousing a religious viewpoint is tantamount to supposing that leprechauns and werewolves really do exist; there is the same amount of evidence for both. I believe that someday in the future, people will look back at the way children were indoctrinated into believing their parents' religious superstitions and see this religious training for what it really is: child abuse.

Harley: Are you quoting Richard Dawkins?

I agree that religion has been one of the most oppressive, evil forces in human history and lends itself naturally to all sorts of abuses, but I don’t think it’s inherently evil. That’s akin to saying that the abuse of science (eugenics), politics (fascism), and philosophy (the French Revolution) indicates that those infrastructures are inherently flawed. People created religions that they use to oppress and abuse people because people are evil and thus create ideologies that support their ascendancy at the expense of others; religion is one form that those ideologies take. To dismiss all religion as evil is to ignore the potential of religion to assist in ordering the world. (Am I correct in supposing that you are a libertarian and not an anarchist?) Religions should absolutely be challenged. The pervasive viewpoint that everyone’s faith should be accepted blindly because you don’t want to step on their religious toes is an absurd bastardization of the concept of freedom of religion. Religions should be challenged on the same grounds as science, philosophy, and politics because they are all attempts to organize the world and to the extent that they fail or lead to greater evil, they should be discarded. Asserting that some over-arching order exists in the world is not tantamount to expressing a belief in vampires and werewolves; that’s a very limited conceptualization of religion/theology. True, you cannot test the hypothesis of whether God exists (regardless of the attempts of Maimonides, Halevi, and Aristotle to do so) and God’s existence is beside the point, anyway. Religions provide a social order. Beyond that, they are a way for people to make sense of their existence. Do I find that particular aspect of my religion useful? Only insofar as it helps me frame self-reflective questions. Do extant religions largely fail at the goal of creating social order (or creating as much disorder as order)? I think so., but I do not use that argument to dismiss their potential to help people order their lives. For my personal views on religion, check out the Gene Weingarten Loves Me post.

On second thought, all human created systems of ordering the world are inherently flawed. I just don't understand why you're picking on religion and it's faith in God and not politics and it's faith in a human ability to look beyond self-interest. Social contract. Yeah, right.

The Rooster: I wasn't explicitly quoting Dawkins, but I love him.

The point of religion is not (or at least should not be) to create social order. There is only one reason there should be a religion, and that is if there really, truly is a God (or gods) that wants his/her/its adherents to think and/or behave in a certain way. However, there is no God, or at least no God that exerts any influence in human affairs, so these religious rules actually come from flawed human beings with an agenda. And people are much more willing to do some heinous immoral act for God than, say, the President. But more to the point, religion should be rejected on the sole grounds that there is no rational basis for any of it. You say God's existence is besides the point. As far as I'm concerned, that couldn't be further from the truth; God's non-existence is the point!

"I just don't understand why you're picking on religion and it's faith in God and not politics and it's faith in a human ability to look beyond self-interest."

I don't agree that politics is built upon faith in a human ability to look beyond self-interest.

Also, science, as long as it does not venture beyond its prescribed limits, is not flawed.

Harley: I also love Richard Dawkins.

The purpose of religion is explicitly to create social order. The expressed purpose of all of ancient wisdom literature is to create social order (unless you buy Karen Armstrong's argument that religious ritual was about interacting with a spiritual sphere that humans innately experience). Religious systems are the precursor to politics and government. It's a system of laws and social norms. The reason that ancient religions casually moved between gods was because the god him or herself was beside the point. Not that these ancient people did not believe that gods had power, just that the details of human interaction were more important than the defense of a god. Gods were only useful insofar as they provided rain and supported the troops. If your god was better at providing rain and supporting your troops, then your god would soon become mine. That’s ancient theology for you. Religion, on the other hand, was not discrete from ethnicity, culture, or nationhood. That’s because it was an extension of those identifying factors. Religion discrete from culture/nation is a Christian idea, codified in the 5th C CE. Before then, and for some religions still, you could not separate politics and governance from religion because the purpose of religion was to provide a motivational basis for social order. Motivational because of the reward/punishment heuristic for legislating/controlling behavior, which is not different from our current penal code, except that the gods would punish you, instead of the courts.

I don’t mean that science is a flawed system, but I do contend that a faith that it won’t “venture beyond its prescribed limits,” is a naïve understanding of human agency. Science is not an independent entity. What you mean is that so long as humans don’t use science to venture beyond its “prescribed limits,” it’s not inherently flawed. My point was that to the extent that all infrastructures for ordering and explaining the world are human inventions, reliant on human beings to operate them, and to the extent that human beings are flawed and prone to abusing the system to their own benefit, all of these systems have the potential to be abused (and therefore, are flawed). I agree that science is the best way to understand the world; I don’t understand how you don’t also see that as a kind of religion.

Some systems are more prone to abuse than others. Religion is far more prone to abuse than science. I blame that on the Easter Bunny.

The Rooster: My point before was there is only one present-day justification for any religion, and that is the actual existence of a deity.

We have better ways of ordering society now, not that there isn't room for improvement.

Science is not a type of religion. Science is the complete opposite of religion: science reveals actual truths rather than obscure everything in a mystery. It also follows a rational procedure. I don't buy that "faith in rationalism" bit because human beings don't have a choice about whether to have faith in rationality; we'd be helpless without it. On the other hand, we do have a choice about whether we are going to murder people in "God's" name, or create an environment philosophically hospitable to those who do.

The difference between science and religion is that science might be used for destructive ends, whereas religion is almost always used for destructive ends, including filling a child's head with medieval bullshit. Any good that might come from religion could come from somewhere else. Therefore, religion doesn't offer anything but ugliness.

Harley: I've been thinking about this discussion a lot over the weekend. I'm not sure I can argue that religion is a better form of social control than more modern forms (or even that it's an adequate form). The justification for religion that you miss is the communal aspect, which I think is an extension of your view of religion as discrete from other identities. The reason I maintain my Judaism is not because I desire a halakhically (Jewish lawfully) ordered world, but because I find that the Jewish community enriches my life, providing me with a context for socialization, a common language and mythology, and rituals that infuse my life with meaning. (In person, one day, we can discuss my very personal views on religion and death rituals, but it’s not suitable to post online.) You could argue that the reason I find my identity through Judaism and not through my other ancestral labels (Russian, Polish) is a result of the religious bigotry that forced my ancestors into the Pale (and, therefore, my point provides another example of the evils religions wrought on the world; although that bigotry was more political than religious in nature and execution). Within the framework of history, religion offered a social cohesion when nationality was denied. In modern times, you could argue that religion is no longer necessary to provide a social framework, but I think that denies a basic human need to belong to a community, a need that’s not necessarily met by nationality (in a nation as diverse and disperse as the U.S.).

As for “faith in rationalism,” that’s not what I meant when I referred to science as a religion. I was being reductionist: if I define religious epistemology as an attempt to discern the universal order, then science is a form of religion, in the sense that it attempts to uncover a universal order. In this sense, it’s absolutely an improvement over religion and philosophy for all the reasons you raised.

Lastly, don’t try to sell me on “science might be used for destructive ends, whereas religion is almost always used for destructive ends” because it forces me into an argument of scale. Religion may provide the justification and impetus for war, but science provides the tools (my favorite example is the invention of the cross bow during the Crusades). Raising that argument forces me to take what appears to be an anti-science position, which I find absurd and unnecessary, particularly because I am not against science by any stretch of the imagination. You say, “Any good that might come from religion could come from somewhere else.” Offer me some positive suggestion about what good religions offer and from where else you’d garner that good and I’ll concede. But don’t try to convince me that philosophy or politics can replace religion, because that’s a replacement of kind.

Friday, October 20, 2006

A Start

At its base, Judaism is a patriarchal religion. Irrespective of our post-modern insights into the role of women in the Tanakh, in rabbinic literature, in Jewish history, Judaism was constructed on the idea of separate spheres. It's encoded in our ontological literature (heaven from earth, firmament from firmament, light from darkness) and in our rabbinic literature (holy from unholy, sacred from secular, kahal from ki avi). In all of our source material, a clear distinction is made between the spheres in which a man operates and the spheres in which a woman operates, the laws a man is bound to uphold and the laws a woman is bound to uphold. Furthermore, regardless of our history of strong female figures, our religion is patriarchal from its roots. Our God takes exclusively male nouns (I do not buy the neuter argument), the majority of our prophets were male, the priesthood was a male trust, and the rabbis are all men, all dictating the religion. Instead of going into the social, historical, and theological minutiae to explain why our religion and social structure were thus constructed, I'll point you to the brilliant Tikva Frymer-Kensky (z"l), whose prolific work on this subject far outshines any attempt I would make to do the topic justice.

Any conversation we have on women’s roles in Judaism must take the fact of Jewish patriarchy into account. Inserting the emahot (matriarchs) into the Amidah does not actually address the issue of separate spheres, it provides a gloss that makes us feel as if we are addressing the issue.

Life-long Commitment

I’ve already alluded to the one life-long commitment that I’m willing to make: to The Washington Post. To give you an idea of the depths of this commitment, when I was younger and I got in trouble, my parents punished me by taking away my paper privileges. That’s right: I was forbidden from reading The Washington Post for weeks at a time. Among the columnists that I read regularly, I am addicted to Carolyn Hax’s advice column (and live discussion). She has very emphatic views on about online dating, which she elaborated on in today’s column:

Online, there's no community investment. The reach and anonymity of the Web allow people to act like jerks without the normal social consequence of alienating the people they live, work and play with. Not everyone online will do this, but everyone can, and so some do. Some, too, are just trying to hide from social challenges, but that doesn't work either, as you've found. Lower thy expectations, drastically. Or, if that's too unappealing a thought, go back to dating off-line.

Her advice brought incited two trains of thought:

1) Given the cohesiveness and size of the Jewish community, are Jewish bloggers safe from the social consequence of alienating the people with whom they live, work, and play? I have seen some vitriol online and I have also witnessed the real world consequences of poorly thought out responses. To the extent that we feel anonymous, because our community (although often internally divided) is so small, inevitably, we will encounter those we patronize online. Those people we alienate may be our fellow congregants, fellow Jews in the Woods, fellow YU grads, fellow aunt’s cantor’s brother-in-law. In a similar vein, do online Jewish interactions substitute for real, live Jewish interactions? Is a virtual Jewish community the same as a real, flesh and blood Jewish community?

2) Jewish dating online! Now recently single, I have been inundated with the natural predators of the Jewish world: older Jewish women who know that their nephew is just perfect for me. Really. We’re besheret. Excellent. My personal life aside, there is not one single Jewish person I know who has not at some point tried J-Date (myself excluded). And of course, blogging about online J-dating proliferates, but the only site you really need to visit is Esther Kustanowitz’s JDaters Anonymous (also visit her other sites because she funny and insightful). For a more advice-based site, visit the Single Dating Service, which offers such useful advice as How to write an interesting personal profile and How to end a relationship

Passing for Insight

Annie is more fun than I:

I am writing a post on Jewish patriarchy;
she's writing a post on Halloween.

I'm going to go eat some worms.

Jews Love: Halloween

I have a Halloween costume picked out for this year. My roommates and I are going to be Teen Girl Squad. This was the roommate's idea. Now, unlike the roommate, I celebrated Halloween as a child, I used to get dressed up in a costume (generally a dress of some kind, and a crown), put on a coat, grab a pillow case and trudge around my neighborhood asking for candy. It was great fun. I love dressing up. However, as I get older I've begun to worry whether or not I really should participate. Halloween is just not a Jewish holiday.

Besides the issues of devil-worship, and the fact that it was originally Samhain, or all Hallow's eve, Halloween in the modern era is somewhat problematic. It has become, according to many sources, "National Dress Like a Slut Day." Or, as a friend of mine said: "the day where men dress like women, and women dress like sluts." Hurrah. The New York Times explores this trend in terms of feminism, I think for the second year in a row. Or maybe last year they talked about how little girls want to be princesses. At any rate, Gawker seems pretty enamored of the Times' article, and I can't help but agree that the whole thing is ludicrous. Also, dressing like a slut is probably not a major Jewish value. Probably. If it is I need a wardrobe update.

Aside from the issues of sexuality, the observance of Halloween strikes at the core of the tensions inherent in American Judaism. Are we more American, or more Jewish? In this Chabad question-and-answer, they try to straddle that gap by offering Purim as a replacement. Hey, you can't dress up for Halloween, but we have a holiday where you can, and it even has its own cookies! I actually like the answer given there for why Purim is a better holiday, and a better example for children, but it doesn't really help in October. Debbie Schlussel tries to substitute Sukkot for Halloween. You decorate a house, and go from Sukkah to Sukkah collecting candy. This seems a bit more practical: it is closer in time to the competing holiday, and allows parents an afternoon nap on chag while the kids run around eating jellybeans.

One response, quite similar to that of the Evangelical right is to react passive-agressively, or even agressive-agressively. Shifra describes religious children tearing up the Halloween decorations at Six Flags when they were there during the intermediate days of Sukkot. I understand if you don't want to observe the holiday, but c'mon, you live in America. Are you going to tear down Christmas decorations too? If you follow that line of thought then Christians, many of whom think that Christianity superceded Judaism, have the same right to remove any religious paraphernalia that offends them. Of course this assumes that Halloween is a religious holiday, which it may still be to some Wiccans. Or Pagans.

On the other side are Jews who deny that it is a religious holiday and celebrate it, akin to Thanksgiving, either because it is fun, or because it feels like an "American" thing to do. While I wouldn't necessarily attend this party, someone who calls himself "Superjew" is having quite the Halloween party. That particular one is a bit too reminiscent of bacchanals for my taste, but to each his own.

As for me? I'll probably be at the parade in Greenwich Village, with my roommates. Dressed as "Cheerleader." Although maybe I'd have more fun if I followed Jdate's guide for Halloween hookups.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

The Crush

You may have noticed that Harley and I often quote a particular male j-blogger. Basically every day since we found his blog. After much discussion and soul-searching we (or really I) decided that it was time to come clean. We have a major intellectual crush on David Kelsey.

There, I said it.

Seriously David, call me.

The Bad Jew: Sex and Niddah

Given the premise that no one can be a Bad Jew because the label encompasses ethnicity, culture, and tradition as well as religion, why do I periodically feel like a Bad Jew? This morning, Annie and I had a lengthy discussion regarding sexuality and halakha. As you may have surmised, Annie and I have slightly different perspectives on Judaism. Both of our Judaisms are complicated, but Annie’s is explicitly halakhic and usually within the rubric of Modern Orthodoxy. On the other hand, I am the type of Jew that Michael on Jewlicious mocks (“satires”) on a regular basis. I’m a post-halakhic, post-denominational, Brooklyn-dwelling, socially radical, academic Jew; and I don’t know what half those words mean. I am precisely the type of Jew that your mother doesn’t want you to bring home, but that the YU boys hit on in hopes of slumming it for a night (and yes, Annie, they always bring their tefilin to daven in the morning). From a halakhic perspective, if we are viewing Judaism solely through a religious lens: I am a Bad Jew. There, I said it. I have secret Bad Jew shame. I choose not to be halakhic Jew. For a myriad of reasons that I won’t delve into here, I do not consider myself bound by the Jewish law enunciated in Rabbinic Literature. To the extent that I do observe some Jewish law (such as kashrut), I do so to connect to my religious heritage. Those Jews who consider Judaism to be primarily a religion, defined by following halakha (whichever gloss of the halakha they deem authoritative), would rightfully question my Jewishness. To them, I am not really Jewish, even though I am biologically Jewish.

Back to our discussion on from this morning: sexuality and halakha. I have some emphatic views about sexuality, which I would be pleased to discuss with any of you, but not here and not now. Suffice to say, my views on sexual expression tend to align with Dan Savage. That fact, combined with my politics and my views on Judaism, leads to some fraught moments, when I emotionally react to Jewish law in marginally sane and slightly illogical ways. The following conversation occurred in reaction to this astounding post on The Kvetcher, who’s reflecting on a post written by The Failed Messiah.

Annie, far more staid than I, responds intelligently to my qualms and queries about Jewish law concerning sexuality.

Annie: The prohibition against pre-marital sex was derivative: don't have sex w/someone who is niddah, and then the rabbis said that young women can't go to the mikveh, keeping them in a perpetual state of niddah. In 15th Century, Spain had a community where young women were allowed to go to the mikveh, and have premarital sex, but they put a stop to that. Marriage is inherent to Judaism [historically from a biblical-criticism perspective] to differentiate from the non-Israelite rituals. Socially we get our example from the Torah, but not halakhically. There is no deorita law that premarital sex is out. It is all based on niddah. The anti-premarital sex stand is another example of Judaism bending to the outside social norms. Just like when Rabbi Gershon said you can only have one wife, so that people weren't having two wives, contrary to the common European practice. They wanted people to obey Jewish law above secular law, so they had to make competing laws prohibiting premarital sex because fornication was prohibited in Europe at that time. We get our social precedent for the preeminence of marriage from the bible, but not halakhically. We give primacy to the couples who are married, although in the case of the line of David, TWO women (Ruth and Tamar) seduce the men to whom they are not married. I think that everyone should go to the mikveh from puberty onward. I think then more people would observe niddah, if it wasn't an unnatural boundary at marriage.

Harley: Why did you stop being shomeret neggiah?

Annie: two reasons: 1) I found the halakha derivative and was a bit bothered by the fact that rabbis were legislating my body contrary to what I felt the intention was. It felt like a perversion of the halakhic process.

2) It was governing all of my male-female relationships, and not in the way that it intended. It made my male friends awkward, it sexualized all touch, and made people think all the time about the fact that they weren't touching me. Now, I am just not touchy and it is less of a concern. People aren't thinking, “oh, she's holding back.” My guy friends would stand a few feet away; every interaction was fraught. The rabbis started with an ideal that isn’t particularly Jewish, found a law that could be twisted to fit that ideal, and legislated. Having unmarried women not go to the mikveh is not a "fence around the law." It, in fact, makes it EASIER, not harder, to transgress the original issue of having sex with a niddah. The cases of rape almost always presume that a woman is not niddah, they rarely deal with it because sleeping with a niddah is an offense which I think merits death. It is considered adultery. It is a de'rabbanan. So if you go to the mikveh you break a rabbinic law. If you have premarital sex and are niddah, you break a Torah law

Harley: Niddah is from the torah?

Annie: “Do not draw close to a woman when she is a niddah; relations are forbidden [at that time]." (Leviticus 17:18)

Harley: I see these laws as leading directly to the objectification of women and the denigration of their bodies as dirty.

Annie: [The laws concerning niddah] are an example of the rabbis trying to exert social control in a way that I dislike and I dislike their halakhic process. The reason you don't have sex with a niddah is not because it is dirty, but to contain sex to the times when a woman is the most fertile. Back to procreation. (If you are going to talk logic instead of ritual.)

Harley: My frustration is that there seems to be no way to discuss extra-marital sex within the confines of Judaism without being privy to laws that I find offensive.

Annie: My issue is that you are reacting emotionally to the laws outside of them. You consider two things simultaneously which I believe false. I think that if you look for "reasons'" for the Torah's laws, you invalidate a lot of it. If you say: we keep kosher b/c... then you are lying because the torah does not say so [give reasons]. We are ASSUMING, based on historical evidence. So if you react to those rationales and base your beliefs on those, then you are not, in fact, reacting to the Torah and rejecting something out of hand for the incorrect reasons, but you are reacting to the justifications or historical reasons that you assume are the case. Religion is about separating holy from secular

Harley: I am not looking for justification. I don't believe there are necessarily rational bases to many laws and if there were they'd be beside the point. The point is the law, where we are now. I just disagree with their definition of holy. It goes against who I am at the base of my being.

Annie: Because you assume that tehora is about bodily purity

Harley: It is about being a body. To say that a woman is ritually impure because of bodily functions is about body, even if it's not about physical impurity.

Annie: When men have an "emission," they have to go to the mikveh before they can eat.

Harley: That’s wrong also.

Annie: Why? The idea of holy in Judaism is about separating from your body. That is why we fast on Yom Kippur: to have a "rest" from bodily functions.

Harley: Because that falls in the genre of law that also makes people feel that their natural bodily functions are wrong, evil, impure. It's about being a body and distancing ourselves from our bodies. It is the opposite of body positive, even if it's about ritual purity, the rituals surrounding the purity are physical and the cause of impurity is physical, so the effect, whether intended or not, is to place a pall over a person's body that you are impure at certain times. I understand separation of holy from unholy, pure from impure. I think it's wrong to say that someone's body is impure as a result of a natural bodily function. It's one thing if you've handled a dead body, but for a woman to be impure because she menstruates, whatever the justification, makes women feel impure, explicitly.

Annie: I think that that is a modern interpretation and it exists because we now tie mikveh to marriage and thereby patriarchy. Ideally a woman should go to the mikveh every time she has her period, independent of men, so that then she is suitable to enter the temple, just as a man who has an emission needs to go to the mikveh. It is a recognization of the fact that our bodies are vessels, and that within them resides a soul, something of higher purpose that is in some way eternal. It recognizes our humanity

Harley: Yes, the moment it was legislated by men, it became external and thereby has its effects. Mikveh is not inherently wrong. I know many women who derive meaning from going to the mikveh, but I cannot separate it from it's source (post-biblically, when it's transformed from a presumably female-derived ritual to a male-legislated ritual) and it's tied into the general history of labeling women's bodies as dirty

Annie: But you need to recognize that your issue is not with mikveh, but with the a) rationale given to it, b) the fact that men legislate it, and c) your idea that it is tied into dirtiness of women's bodies, which are corollaries to the original law.

Harley: The original law caused those corollaries

Annie: Right, but the point is that your problem is not with the Torah law, but with its execution. The original law existed and PEOPLE caused them. Now, women are beginning to be yoetzet halahkot and legislate over the laws of niddah (it is becoming more common in Israel). If you believe that the Torah was written by people, and that you cannot be bound by halakha b/c you don't like the structure of a group of rabbis deciding for you, there is no reason to observe. If I didn't believe that kashrut was mandated for reasons other than the "logical" reasons (i.e. pigs had that disease, to keep Jews and non-Jews separate) I wouldn't observe. I don't observe kemach yashon or cholov yisroel for just that reason, aside from the personal inconvenience. If you believe that the laws are at their base racist and isolationist, then why would you, as a modern person, follow them?

Harley: To invoke Neil Gillman: if your myth is broken, how do you rebuild?

The photos are from the Mikvah Project.