A question, posed out of respect:

If Halachah was fixed and never meant to evolve over time, what is the reason for retaining “minority opinions” in Mishnah and Gemara?


Inspired by Sean Maloney

Sean Maloney, Executive Vice President of Inte...
Sean Maloney in 2008 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Though not what one might term a “Jewish Scholar,” Sean Maloney is a remarkable man. Leaving aside his meteoric career with Intel, he has also survived – and recovered from – a catastrophic stroke that pulled the plug on a large part of his left frontal lobe.

He offers three lessons that ring so Talmudic that they should be offered here:

  1. Pick the one thing that has the biggest impact. Don’t squander a minute.
  2. Fight for what you believe in. Never stop listening.
  3. Laugh, because you don’t know how long it is going to last.

I cannot imagine Akiva or Hillel (or even Shammai) arguing with any of those.

How Spain Made Judaism

Boy reading from the Torah according to Sephar...
Boy reading from the Torah according to Sephardic custom (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Jews of Spain
Jane S. Gerber
Free Press

To the extent that I grew up in a Jewish milieu, that milieu was heavily Askenazic. The traditions seemed to leap magically from the Eastern Mediterranean with the sacking of the Temple and the tragedy at Masada all the way to Eastern Europe. While I had known my Jewish education was lacking (I was 31 before I knew what the Talmud was, for crying out loud), I had not known how badly my views had been poured through the prism of Eastern European traditions.

Not, that is, until I picked up Jane S. Gerber’s superb history of Sephardim, The Jews of Spain. 

Gerber did more for me than describe the history of brothers and sisters I had barely acknowledged in the past, she also provided a massive missing link. There is no continuity to or understanding of Jewish history without understanding the Sephardim. As I read, disjointed pieces of Jewish history fell into place. Who was the Rambam, and what the heck was he doing in Egypt? Why were the first American Jews from Spain? And who carried on the richness of diaspora scholarship and culture throughout the “Dark Ages?”

In the course of the book, Gerber also weaves a rich tale, a story of which any people could be proud. I’ll admit, it took me some time to finish the book, but only because I found myself pausing every few pages, setting the book down, and rushing over to look up another great Sephardic work, personality, or city on the Internet.

By the end, I found myself no longer seeing the Sephardim as outsiders, but instead seeing myself as, somehow, Sephardic. It has changed our lives, and as we add customs to our observance and celebration of our heritage, we are starting to add bits and pieces from Sephardic custom as well.

A superb read, The Jews of Spain belongs on the bookshelf of every Jew.

Torah and the Force

“A Nerd Reconsiders Star Wars Philosophy”
Liel Leibovitz

Tablet Magazine
January 24, 2012

It is far too easy to dismiss Tablet as a publication of cultural Judaism as opposed to one of Torah Judaism, but that is hardly true. While the topics covered are primarily arts, culture, news, and politics, there is a healthy debate about religion in the publication, and this more than anything else draws me time and again to its pages.

Leil Leibovitz’s essay on the ethos of George Lucas was the most recent payoff for my effort to catch up on my RSS feeds. I absorbed Jedi culture before I knew exactly what the Talmud was, and while I never took it quite seriously as a faith, I appreciated the imagination that went into its creation.

Leibovitz points out that George Lucas’ ethos (or, more exactly, Joseph Campbell’s worldview as interpreted by George Lucas), has wormed its way into the popular consciousness over the past 35 years, and that is troublesome. Campbell’s work, interpreted generously, offers an opportunity to unite peoples and mitigate conflicts by showing how, beneath the specifics, we all share similar hopes and dreams. Leibovitz calls this “the monomyth.” Interpreted less generously, however, Campbell offers fodder for moral relativists. This is part of what appears to bother Leibovitz.

Campbell certainly had his dazzling strengths as an erudite and engaging scholar of comparative cultures, but his lack of understanding of faith and its machinations is astounding. In an 1985 interview he gave to In Context, a humanist journal, he called the Bible “the most over-advertised book in the world,” dismissed its claim to moral authority, and argued that the violence the Israelites visited on the peoples of Canaan precludes their scriptures from shining an ethical light unto the nations. Any religion, Campbell argued, is nothing more than an invitation to sectarianism and hate.

Campbell’s mistake is that he seeks the similarities and dismisses the nuances and differences that set the faiths apart. Too many atheists, particularly the recent crop of radical secularists, make this error as well. Few bother to dive into the specifics of each faith, choosing either to condemn faiths based on the behavior of outlying extremists, or to assume that if one religion is bad, the whole lot are.

Lucas’ fault is that he builds from Campbell a world where the good are really good, the evil are really evil, and moral ambiguity evaporates. That’s nice for mythology, but it has no attachment to the real world, and it perhaps suggests why the cultures built on mythologies either tossed them in favor of religions that addressed moral ambiguity, or were subsumed by cultures that did.

How many people out there, though, profess themselves atheists yet believe some version of, in Leibovitz’s words, “if we only open our hearts and understand people are all the same and all good we’d be enlightened enough to lift rocks with a tilt of our heads.”

I think this is why I never became the kind of hard-core Star Wars fan my demographic profile and personal interests suggested I should be. Lucas makes beautiful movies, but the philosophies that lie beneath them, like their dialogue, leave much to be desired.

Though Leibovitz goes no further, I will.

The truly great filmmakers of the past century have been those who have eschewed monochromatic morality and presented us with stories and characters designed to make us uncomfortable. One of the best films of the past decade, Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, for all of its eye-candy, grabbed moral ambiguity by the throat, shook it in our faces, and demanded that we confront choices that test the principles by which we think we lived. One wonders how long the world will remember a director who chose to serve us moral pabulum rather than confront us with human nature.

Or maybe I’m giving film as a craft too much credit. Maybe the moving pictures we watch in the dark, however impressive, should never be tasked with confronting these issues. Maybe the hard questions should be left for the synagogue, the schiur, the schmuss, and literature, thus kept out of the cinema entirely. After all, the goal of the rabbi or the bar teshuvah is to draw himself/herself and the world closer to Hashem. The goal of the auteur, however, is to draw closer to Mammon.

Chinese Studying Jews

Jewish studies flourish in China
David N. Myers

The Jewish Journal
August 15, 2012

A fascinating look at the growing field of Jewish studies in China, and the author’s experience lecturing at the Glazer Institute of Jewish Studies in the ancient capital city of Kaifeng.

My favorite quote:

The Confucian ideal, parallel to the Jewish precept of “kevod ha-moreh,” is alive and well today. Unlike the consumerist approach to education in the United States, where students demand attractively presented products from their teachers, students in China feel happy to receive the pearls of wisdom that issue from their teachers’ mouths. At times, this leads to a certain passivity in the classroom on the students’ part. But the overall effect, especially for a short-term visitor from America, is wondrous.

Of course, the degree of open Talmudic discourse between teacher and students is missing in China, and that needs to change. Nonetheless, the point about the American “consumerist” approach to education is spot-on.

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