Selichos

For the first time this year, I am starting my Selichos before Rosh Hashanah. I started last night after sundown, calculating that this would give me 7 full days of prayer before the start of the New Year.

What a powerful experience. Without making a pledge or vow, I’ve got a feeling I’m going to make this a tradition for Elul going forward.

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The Price of Belief

The meaning of [the] Indiana [Religious Freedom Restoration Act decision] was that this was the first time corporate America took sides in the culture war — and it sided dramatically, powerfully, and consequentially with pro-LGBT activists, against the cause of religious liberty.

Source: How Bad Is The Benedict Option? | The American Conservative

I have issues with fundamentalist proclamations that we should adhere to the letter of the Bible on homosexuality. Abrahamic faiths generally walk a delicate line on LGBT issues, but the consensus that appears to be growing out of modern Jewish discussions on the topic (leaving the rulings of Haredi poskim out for a moment) is that the problem is the act rather than the individual. There shall be no stoning.

But I have equally fervent issues with the libertine proclamations that to believe that any consensual act between two mentally competent adults is wrong and deserving of legal censure. The reason I supported the RFRA was purely defensive: I should never be told what not to believe, and if the law as it stands is not sufficiently protecting my Constitutional right to freedom of belief and practice, then the law needs to be bolstered.

The Indiana RFRA was imperfect legislation at best. But its faults should not be conflated with the rightness of the core position around which it was based. We need a better RFRA, or, better yet, more vigorous protection of our Constitutional guarantees, even in the face of a vocal plurality who disagree.

I am willing to accept being socially ostracized for my beliefs. But I will not accept persecution, and in an era of social media, there is a fine line between being ostracized and being persecuted.

Judaism and the Benedict Option

As described by conservative commentator Rod Dreher, who is both an expert in and advocate of the practice. the “Benedict Option” refers to the voluntary withdrawal by contemporary Christians from the wider society into segregated, or even cloistered communities, much in the way that Benedictine monks did during the more unsettled parts of the middle ages.

These modern Benedictines have, in Dreher’s words, “ceased to identify the continuation of civility and moral community with the maintenance of American empire, and who therefore are keen to construct local forms of community as loci of Christian resistance against what the empire represents.”

Dreher continues:

“Put less grandly, the Benedict Option — or “Ben Op” — is an umbrella term for Christians who “accept [Alistair] MacIntyre’s critique of modernity, and who also recognize that forming Christians who live out Christianity according to Great Tradition requires embedding within communities and institutions dedicated to that formation.”

The public discussion among observant Christian communities around the Benedict Option reached a crescendo during the latter half of President Obama’s second term. At the time, it was possible to foresee America living for decade under a government that was unsympathetic to the concerns of Americans shaken by the speed and magnitude of change in public mores. It has since dropped off, but one gets the feeling that observant Christians are waiting to see how far Trump is – or is not – willing to go to reverse that trend, or even to slow the pace of change.

The logical question when reading about the Benedict Option is to ask whether there is a Jewish version. Are observant Jews in America as alienated by the changes in American society as are observant Christians? And are they ready to change the structures of their communities to address them?

Few who read this would disagree that they already are, and have been for centuries. Indeed, as Dreher and others have noted, the most relevant model for the Benedict Option in the context of a modern society is not the original Benedictine communities themselves, but observant Jewish communities. The place of worship becomes the center of the community. Communities establish religious schools offering different mixes of secular subjects and religious teachings as an alternative to public schooling. They build social institutions designed to support observant life. And they are serious about weekly communal activities.

Two questions emerge from this, then.

  1. How are we as Jews – as individuals and as a community – to respond to Christian communities taking the Benedict Option?
  2. Is it time for Jews of all denominations – Conservative, Reform, and Deconstructionist as well as Orthodox – to begin rethinking our physical assimilation into wider society?

I’ll address each in separate posts in the coming weeks.

Torah on Shabbat

One of the questions about Jewish practice that has always vexed me is the issue of Torah study on Shabbat.

On the one hand, Shabbat is a day of total rest of mind and body.

On the other hand, Torah study is a joy in itself.

Can we not, then, study Torah on Shabbat?

Daniel Jackson on Belief and Rationality in Judaism

Although the challenges presented by the natural sciences have receded, fresh challenges have taken their place and seem to pose much harder and more far-reaching questions. The field of biblical criticism has unearthed a mass of evidence that the Torah is a composite document that reflects the prevailing ideas of other cultures contemporaneous with ancient Israel. How, in the light of such claims, can one adhere to the belief, required by Maimonides in his eighth principle of faith, that the Torah we have in our hands today is the very same Torah that was handed down by Moses, and that it is all of divine origin?

Torah min haShamayim: Conflicts Between Religious Belief and Scientific Thinking”
Dr. Daniel Jackson

TheTorah.com

The erudite polymath Daniel Jackson, whose day job is professor of computer science at MIT, delves into the heart of the Jewish struggle between the belief in Torah as the faithfully transcribed word of Hashem and the rational challenges posed by biblical criticism.

I read the article hoping that Jackson had discovered a Rambam-like balancing point, but that is as yet too much to ask for. Judaism has made its peace with science thanks to Maimonides, and more recently with Darwin. But while he offers no guide to the textually perplexed, he does end with a subtle reminder that there is a difference between doctrine and the mitzvot, and that while must observe the latter, our greatest danger is to base the edifice of our belief on the infallibility of every bit of our received doctrine.

I couldn’t agree more. I think it is possible to believe that Torah is the divine essence transcribed through the poor tools of human language, and that the very reason the Oral Law and the Rabbinic Writings are so important is that, in toto, they represent a quest for perfection of our understanding of the essence of Torah. The Pentateuch in our Seferim Torah is the heart, but the Oral Law and the Writings are the body, and neither can live without the other.

Not Yet Time for Vegetarianism

“[Rav Kook wrote that] the mitzvot light the way to the perfection of the future – a time when the animals will have been transformed into humans, and humans into angels. Thus kashrut is mean to prepare us for vegetarianism, a great step forward in the moral perfection of the human race – but must not be done before its time, for the complacency and self-satisfaction it might bring. Indeed, he wrote, one could imagine a bloodthirsty tyrant who prided himself on his vegetarianism, eerily presaging Hitler.”

Yehudah Mirsky

Talmud and the Death Penalty

A recent study cited in Forbes documented problems in the application of the death penalty in the United States. The provocative study suggests that one out of every twenty-five defendants sentenced to death in the U.S. is actually innocent.

The study, while not necessarily conclusive, strengthens my growing conviction that if we are going to be a nation that continues to sentence people to death, we must consider using a more Talmudic level of criterion in our sentencing. I am a longtime advocate of the death penalty, but it is difficult to continue such support when the possibility of a mistake is so high.

Much of my support of the death penalty lies in its source in Torah rather than my belief in the punishment as a deterrent to criminals. Yet it is becoming clear that our standards for evidence and sentencing fall short of the intent of Jewish law. That should trouble every Jew in America who supports capital punishment.