The Kosher Cheeseburger

Rabbi Shai Cherry notes in his lectures that th prohibition against mixing meat and milk only applies to Kosher meat.

Of course, that does not mean that cheeseburgers are back on the menu for observant Jews: after all, we’re not supposed to be eating non-Kosher meat in the first place.

 

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.

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.

I’m Jewish, and I want to convert to Judaism

My feelings about conversions are complex. As far as I am concerned, all conversions are valid. I figure R. Hillel would have stood with me on that, and I believe my relationship with Hashem is what makes me Jewish, not a beit din.

Nonetheless, for a range of reasons, mostly personal, I want to reach a stage where I am considered Jewish under Halachah. I consider that a journey of discovery rather than a quest for some kind of spiritual legitimacy.

Ban the Snip, Ban the Tribe

In Europe’s Assault on Jewish Ritual Ben Cohen at Commentary leveled a double barreled j’accuse at the governments of Europe who are determined to outlaw circumcision and Kosher meat. His point, brilliantly argued, was a simple one: if you outlaw rituals that Jews are required to conduct as a core part of their observance, you are ipso facto outlawing Judaism itself, and making its practitioners criminals.
He does not stop there. He also takes on the apologists among our co-religionists who argue an equivalence between circumcision and female genital mutilation, or FGM.
To begin with, FGM has no religious basis, unlike male circumcision. Second, the removal of the clitoris entailed by FGM results in pain and medical complications that are infinitely worse than any of the outcomes of male circumcision; equally, it’s worth recalling that the benefits of male circumcision in fighting AIDS, as highlighted by the World Health Organization, are manifestly absent in the case of FGM. Third, the vast majority of men who undergo circumcision grow up unaware of the operation, whereas women subjected to FGM suffer hugely from the consequences for their entire lives.
Both his article and his response to a critical reader are worth a read.

Judaism and Asceticism

“The Divine law does not impose asceticism upon us. It rather desires that we should keep the equipoise, and grant every mental and physical faculty its due, without excess, since excess in one faculty will come at the expense of another. A person who tends toward lust, blunts his mental faculty; and the opposite. A person who is inclined to violence, injures other faculties. Prolonged fasting is not an act of piety for a person who succeeded in checking his desires and is weak in body. For him, pleasure is a burden and self-denial. Neither is limiting one’s wealth an act of piety, if the wealth is gained in a lawful way, and if its acquisition does not interfere with study and good works.”

The Kuzari

Shabbat in China

“Thus the Sabbath begins in [the eastern border of] China eighteen hours later than it does in the Land of Israel. For the Land of Israel is situated in the center of the inhabited world.”

The Kuzari

If that’s true, then I’ve been doing it 24 hours early for as long as I’ve been in China. I am assuming that there has been a p’sak issued to the contrary, having us work from commonly accepted time.

Either way, Shabbat Shalom!

Judaism is not a Faith of Fear

I spoke with someone yesterday who suggested that Jews have made a lot of our theological choices because we were frightened minorities operating within the context of larger societies who had the ability – and often the will – to oppress or kill us.

There can be little doubt that our collective experiences have shaped our culture. But I took issue to my friend’s broader point. We did not make our theological choices because we were tiny and scared, but because our Law says we must. Our rabbis based their decisions and psak din  on long and learned discussions on Torah, not on political science, and the reasons are documented in the Talmud, in Maimonides, and countless writings in between and since.

The Rabbis on the Environment

Two other little gems I found while perusing Greenfaith.org related specifically to Halacha and the environment.

The first is from Rabbi Lawrence Troster, who serves as scholar-in-residence at Greenfaith.org, where he lists “Ten Jewish Teachings on Judaism and the Environment.” The piece offers a rationale not unrelated to the one Jonathan Helfand offers, but it has the virtue of being written for a wider audience. I would recommend it as a first step, then go to Helfand for greater exposition.

The second is a list of Jewish statements on the environment that covers a wide spectrum of belief and practice. A perusal of the sources makes it clear that despite the intramural arguments that make up a core part of Jewish theological debate, there is significant agreement on the core principles.

Both are great reads, and Greenfaith.org is a superb starting point for those genuinely interested in probing the degree to which people are discovering that faiths to which faith advocates the despoilment of the environment.

In Denmark, Animals Come Before People

National Secular Society – Denmark bans religious slaughter.

Denmark has now added itself to the growing list of countries who have decided to restrict the practices of observant Judaism. What is most telling is this particular quote from the Danish agricultural and food minister, Dan Jørgensen:

However, defending the governments decision, Mr. Jorgensen told Denmark’s TV2 television that “animal rights come before religion.”

In other words, in Denmark, animals come before people. Better that every Jew and Muslim family be forced to leave Denmark than have one single animal be slaughtered according to the ancient laws of Kashrut and Halal.

It is increasingly apparent that Europe was never about freedom of religion. One can only wonder how long it will be before the country outlaws circumcision and distinctive religious apparel.

As to the practice of Kashrut, let me say only this: if science has proven that the current practice of shochet slaughter is not as compassionate as Talmud calls us to be, this is an occasion for us as Jews to consider submitting the question to our greatest Torah scholars: is it time for a change in Halachic practice?

The Blemishes of Orthodoxy

“Either/Orthodoxy
Lawrence Grossman
Jewish Ideas Daily
May 15, 2012

Lawrence Grossman of the American Jewish Committee sparks an thoughtful debate about the relevance of Orthodox Judaism when even some of its adherants are perplexed.

For his part, Grossman mounts a pithy assault on one book that argues against the divine inspiration of Torah, and another that defends Orthodoxy yet tries to frame Orthodoxy in the cast of modern spirituality.

In the end, Grossman poses a question: if, in fact, Torah is not from a divine source, and thus the justification for the mitzvot weak, why does Orthodox Judaism remain so “vibrant and successful?”

Read the article, but read it as you would attend a shiur: in other words, read the comments as well. They are in many respects the best part.

Assent and Corporate Ethics: The Sinai Question

I wrote a blog post over at Silicon Hutong earlier this week (“The Company Code: Morality, China, and Facebook“) that examined the moral issue around Facebook entering China. While I wrote the post for a secular audience, issues of Torah and Halakah were swimming in my head. It was one of the most difficult posts I have written in seven years of blogging.

One of the issues I wanted to cover, but in the end removed, was the question of assent. When Hashem gave the Torah to Bais Yisrael at Har Sinai, He did not give the Torah until the entire people had confirmed that they would accept the Law (Parshat Yitro). I claim neither Torah nor legal scholarship, but what that implies to me is that a law, a commandment, or a moral code cannot be made binding on anyone – even by the Almighty Himself – unless that person agrees to take that law upon himself.

As troubled as we may be about the potential for Facebook to conduct itself in China in a way that does not meet our approval, we have to ask ourselves whether we can hold the company to a moral code to which it has not formally subscribed. Indeed, I would question whether we can hold the company accountable to a moral code that has not been explicitly spelled out for the people in the company with ultimate decision power: the company leadership and its board of directors.

There are those who would suggest that a common sense of right and wrong should be enough to tell a company what it should and should not do. The history of the corporation, from the South Seas Bubble to the Global Financial Crisis, belies such assumptions. Leaving aside for a moment whether a company can, in fact, be held accountable for moral transgressions, we must recognize that a corporation itself may posses legal personhood, but it does not innately posses a moral compass, or a sense of right or wrong.

There are others who might suggest that merely by operating in the context of a nation or culture, a company gives its implicit assent to conform to the moral codes of that society. In today’s global and multicultural business operating environment, however, it is often impossible for a well-meaning company to identify a prevailing moral code in a single country like the United States, and infinitely more difficult when doing so across national boundaries.

Many companies, particularly small- and medium-sized businesses, that operate in accordance with set moral standards. Salesforce.com, In-and-Out Burger, and Google are among the most prominent examples. What each of these hold in common is that they take the time to spell out the moral strictures under which they will do business, and they extend those principles into the very core of the company through everything from operating manuals to the behavior that is rewarded at bonus time.

The solution is clear: it is not enough for us to simply expect (read “hope”) that a company will naturally operate ethically, nor to impose upon it a code of behavior ex post facto, but to articulate to each company at the outset a requirement that they adopt, publish, and make a part of their operations a clear moral code, one that reaches into the very fabric of the organization. In this, you have not only assent to a code, but collective ownership of and accountability for each aspect of those behavioral guidelines.

As outsiders, then, before we can criticize a company for its immoral behavior, we must first make clear that we expect it to frame what constitutes right and wrong (beyond simply “obey the law,”), or make clear that if they do not, we will do so for them, and then, if they do not set their own standards, we must make clear the code by which we expect them to operate.