Men being “nice”: another look at partnership minyanim

“Men come to the partnership synagogue for a whole host of reasons,
the overwhelming majority of which have nothing to do with feminism.”
-The Men’s Section

Crossposted at Jewschool

The Men’s Section is about the men’s side of partnership minyanim in Israel–their reasons for joining and their difficulties after joining. The author was clearly distressed by her own findings, which even I admit were surprising. Partnership minyanim are generally seen as being the “next step” to equality and gender balance. Admittedly, her research is Israel-centric, but one thing was clear: men weren’t joining out of a sense of feminism. In fact, what we know as the ideal of feminism was actually one of the difficulties men had with the minyanim!

Many of the men interviewed reported that they didn’t feel a sense of community in their old shuls, or they felt an emotional disconnect, or that they felt constant pressure to be perfect (the “man-on-man gaze”), or that they were dissatisfied with the hierarchies. Note that none of this has anything to do with women. In fact, many of the problems reported by men were with the women–that they had their own incorrect “women’s trope,” or that they didn’t come on time. The fact that women were never taught the trope as meticulously as men were wasn’t discussed, and as Sztokman observed, women were expected to prepare meals for shabbos, and take care of the children, and still show up on time and stay throughout the service. She found that these men will let women into “their space” via the partnership minyanim only if they are willing to abide by the same rules by which the men were socialized. The irony is that these are the very rules and patterns that the men hoped to escape by joining these minyanim.

Sztokman shows they are replete with the same social hierarchies that one might find in any mainstream Orthodox shul. Feminist deconstruction of gender and manhood was not a concern, and it seemed as if the women were there as sort of an afterthought. In fact, when one of the members had a non-egalitarian member of his family come in for his son’s bar mitzvah, many of the members argued that they should rescind women’s leadership positions. As one woman said, “we all fix things up in our home before the mother-in-law visits. How is this any different?” It was obvious that, as strange as it seems, egalitarianism wasn’t a very pressing item.

Before reading this book, I, like many people, thought that giving women aliyot was an end goal in itself, and that partnership minyanim were an insufficient but ultimately good avenue for the eventual expansion of women’s roles. Sztokman’s research suggests that they could instead be actually self-defeating to feminism. In building these partnership minyanim, we are focusing on the male model of what shuls and tefillah should be, and the men who are joining these minyanim are implicitly rejecting this model even as they insist on retaining it.”The Orthodox synagogue,” Sztokman writes, “remains a men’s space based on the way men are socialized.”

Partnership minyanim seem to have become, at least in Israel (although half the men interviewed were originally from the US), an extension of this “men’s space.” Grace aux male participants, they are still pervaded by:

  • Emotional disconnect (58): There wasn’t an emphasis on enjoying tefillah or singing and the like; rather the emphasis remained on punctiliousness and keeping services short.
  • Absolutist language (80): “When forces of power preempt discussions, there is a control of ideas before they are even publicly aired.” In an attempt to continue being seen as halachic (“in the club,” as Sztokman puts it), there was a tendency to retain social boundaries using the “inflexible language of authority,” or halacha (regardless of whether the subject being discussed was strictly halachic or not). Couching an existing hierarchy in this type of language is effective because, one interviewee said, “people are afraid of what God is thinking.”
  • Clericalism (90): On a similar note, the minyanim were (and are) being judged as “not halachic” because only “small-name” rabbis approved of them. That is, there weren’t exactly any renown rabbis who would publicly underwrite these minyanim. Having no real widely recognzied support, this caused an internal rift as members argued whether to call themselves “Orthodox” (instead of merely “halachic”) in order to appease critics. As someone wrote in the Jerusalem Post, “halakha does insist that each generation has certain leaders whose authority derives from their widespread acceptance. Particularly when attempting to break with established practice, the approval of recognized authorities is essential[...]An environment in which everyone ultimately makes his own decisions[...]may be democratic and tolerant[...]But it is not halakhic.” Of course, some of the men interviewed did wish to see a change in the monolithic nature of halacha. Still, participants sought outside approval from authoritarian structures even as they hoped to break those structures down, as evidenced by their petition to call their minyan “Orthodox” rather than “halachic.”
  • Authoritarian control over discourse (161): When the vaad heard about this petition, they were not pleased. They had wanted the discussion to go through them first. They announced that “only emails that have been approved by the va’ad could be sent to the entire congregation.” This was the beginning manifestations of centralizing an authority that had once been more dynamic, going back to a centralized “Orthodox culture generally,” and forming a “culture of authoritarian control over communal discourse in Orthodoxy, beyond halakha.” It seems that this too is because of the fear that the group will be ostracized by other, mainstream Orthodox groups.
  • Male model of performance (202): Although it seems on the surface that gender identity is being challenged, there is no discussion of punctuality, perfectionism, power structures, and how they shape masculinity. Instead, the minyan becomes a space in which women can practice their (always deficient) roles themselves, modeled on the already present male structure.

“The process of reaching gender equality is often interpreted as offering women as opportunity to internalize the practices of Orthodox masculinity in bits and pieces. Layn here, learn there, be a meticulous, emotionless, perfect performer[...]Orthodox men have not challenged the supremacy of this model at all. The partnership synagogue is a place where men are reacting to gender hierarchies by inviting women to share their space as objects of a male gaze, perhaps to relieve some of their own pressures. They are bringing women into their box, perhaps as a comforting presence.”

  • A dependence on another’s servitude (221): In a way, partnership minyanim will always be an “incomplete revolution,” because the structure is so completely different from that which shul culture has historically been based on; namely, the assurance of having someone at home to take care of the business that must be attended to while the man is at shul (or yeshiva or elsewhere). If women want access to this type of freedom, there is of course the problem of having no one left at home to “pick up the slack.” Even further social strain was exemplified in Sztokman’s observation that women who came in with children weren’t welcomed, and in the particular minyan she attended, women were also criticized for breastfeeding. Women are expected to fulfill their “homemaker’s role” while still attending to the pervasive sense that they must also fulfill the role of a punctual minyan member. In other words, women are still criticized for coming late and leaving to attend to children even while they are simultaneously expected to cook/clean/take care of said children.
  • Idealization of masculinity (224):

“The problem with Orthodoxy, I came to realize, is not just that women are forbidden from doing what men do. The problem is in the entire set of assumptions around men, the idealization of masculinity that, really, is not what I want in life. Orthodoxy is not really a place for women.

More than that, Orthodoxy is by definition a male construct. Orthdoxy is men. The way to be a complete Jew in Orthodoxy–from the bris to the bar mitzvah to giving a woman a ring and maybe giving her a get–is to be a man[...]I am not merely saying that Judaism is a patriarchal culture. What I’m saying is that Orthodoxy as a construct is male[...]a culture that rests on idealized images of human existence that can only really be fulfilled by men. As a woman, I can never really be truly Orthodox[...]I am never quite inside the culture. Because to be Orthodox in its full meaning ultimately means being a man.

[...]We have a nearly two-thousand-year-old Talmudic tradition that prides itself on such punctuality, precision, and perfectionism that the precise words of the Shema must be recited at a certain time. But, really, is that what makes us godly? Or is it just am expression of men seeking control in a world of chaos who measure, cut, and calculate every movement so as to avoid having to actually feel emotions such as fear, uncertainty, and pain?”

Partnership minyanim by definition need men to function–men who are not necessarily ready to give up their previous privileges of power and control. Naturally, these men in turn use what they know from their own male socialization to create more male spaces. Now, I hardly wish to say that this is true of all partnership minyanim, especially since the study was done in Israel, where the culture is very different. But the study shows at least that there is easily precedent for a tendency for these to slide into being copies of the men’s Orthodox culture that has always existed.

Because these spaces are created by men who are “allowing” women greater roles (222), men who are likely not motivated by concern for women (see quote), I would hardly call them feminist, and I don’t believe they will be until the culture of “men being ‘nice’” enough to give women a “corner” or a bit of practice in masculine performance is replaced by women creating self-functioning spaces themselves (which, of course, is already starting to be done). There is still a long way to go. Feminism is not only about giving women expanded symbolic roles, it’s not just about giving women aliyot, but in changing the entire atmosphere and breaking down the ultimately harmful paradigm of the masculine ideal of tefillah.

Language at Drisha (Language for all)

Crossposted at Jewschool

Words are pretty cool. Sometimes they stay in one place, and sometimes they cross state lines. Sometimes certain types of words spread like wildfire. I don’t mean gossip; I mean words like “cat” or “bank.” For example, I was born in Connecticut, so I still say “pocketbook.” I brought “pocketbook” all the way down to Virginia, where my “pocketbook” encountered everyone else’s “purses.” It was barely a fight. I haven’t traded my “pocketbook” in for a “purse” yet, and it’s been years.

Still, in other environments, some words enjoy an almost guaranteed takeover. When I was at Drisha over the summer, nothing in the kitchen was free for the taking. Lot of things were hefker, though. “Ownerless.” It seemed that as the summer wore on, more and more things were hefker. And kal vachomer, if we were saying hefker we were definitely saying davkaDavka was thrown around like a baseball at Drisha. Once it showed up in our sugya, and once our gemara teacher started saying it, everyone in our class started saying it. Heikhi, how does this happen? Well, for one thing, our class wasn’t picking up much from Talmud 3 down the hall. Our class was together three and a half hours a day, and words tend to spread that way. I don’t know what the other classes talked about but we, Talmud 1, were learning ben sorer u’moreh, the rebellious son, and that’s where our vocabulary came from.

For that month, our life was the ben sorer u’moreh. Our jokes were ben sorer u’moreh-themed (maybe that was just me). On the last day of class, we bought OU Dairy bacon and grape juice, as an elaborate joke based on the fact that for someone to be a ben sorer u’moreh he must meat and drink wine…but only if he stole it from his parents first (both of whom must look and sound the same). We expanded this into a bigger joke, saying that his parents only owned one item, the clock in our own classroom. When the clock went missing one day, we said the ben sorer u’moreh had stolen it.

Drisha just worked like that. Most of the girls had just come from seminary, so it was an opportunity to re-enter an immersive “Torah everything” environment for them. But for people like me, this was a completely new concept. Of course you’re not going to ask if those donuts are free; you’re going to ask if they’re hefker.

I’m reading a book called Becoming Frum by Sarah Bunin Benor. It’s about the language of ba’alei teshuva; when, why, and how certain words or styles are acquired. Not surprisingly, her frumspeak hierarchy is: Periphery, Community, and Yeshiva. As BTs become more involved and invested, she explains, their way of speaking changes accordingly. This isn’t so surprising; after all, if everyone around you is using sav, eventually you will have to decide if sticking with tav is worth making you different. And vice versa. Some BTs enjoy emphasizing their differences from FFBs (she actually opens and closes the book with Matisyahu, naturally). Some want nothing more than to blend in.

It’s easy and linear when someone raised Modern Orthodox is joining a yeshivishe community. It’s a little more interesting to put people from secular, Reconstructionist, Conservative, Modern Orthodox, and Chasidishe backgrounds into a non-denominational place like Drisha. More than once did I respond to “Shabbat shalom” with “Good shabbos,” which violates all natural laws of language, seeing as I was raised far less observant than anyone else I knew there, and should have used “Shabbat shalom” like the child of secular Reform intermarriage I was. I didn’t start saying “Shabbat shalom,” but they didn’t have to start saying “Good shabbos,” either. Reading from Tanach was interesting. It didn’t default to Modern Orthodox pronunciation as one might expect, but rather a mix. However, the exceptions prove the rule, as far as I’m concerned. Where “Good shabbos” didn’t bring us together, davka did instead.

It’s not limited to words, of course. When I read “the ‘hesitation click‘ is a feature of Orthodox communities,” I knew immediately what Benor meant, and I laughed. She writes that it is a feature of Israeli Hebrew, but as I hadn’t heard it until coming to Drisha, I thought it was just one person’s idiosyncrasy. It spread rapidly, though, and (as I delightfully noted) across denominational lines.

Drisha is one place where language isn’t necessarily correlated with ideological or denominational lines. It’s like its own microcosm.

time for a champion (unofficial review of ‘the evolution of god’ by robert wright)

I’m torn between having this blog either be completely objective, throwing myself out into the world and seeing what happens, and documenting everything, including things that people might not like; or censoring certain things because I’ve had some surprising readers so far and who knows who might read it next? I don’t need the wrong person taking something completely out of context and getting the wrong impression.

Well anyway, that’s one of those decisions that I’m probably going to ignore anyways. I guess I don’t have much of a filter.

I’m getting pretty excited about my autobiographical graphic novel, which is currently in its planning stages. It’s supposed to be about 200 pages when it’s done, but it’s also my first one so who knows how it’s going to come out, maybe like five pages for all I know. And unlike with novels, where it’s like “Oh, here’s my autobiography even though I’m not famous,” I feel like if you have a decent story, autobio graphic novels are pretty standard fare. Anyway, the whole motif will be middleness and “losing everything,” as it were. It’s going to be pretty dramatic as soon as I decide how to dramatically end it. I have super high hopes. The working title is Get Ready for Love, after the Nick Cave song with an eerily similar theme.


It’s weird, you know? A couple of weeks ago I got this book The Evolution of God by Robert Wright, because now that I’m “over it” I wanted to get the very kind of book I’d been avoiding for the past two years. It’s all about the sociology and development of religion, from  “hunter-gatherer societies” to Christianity and Islam (not much on Judaism past the point where Christianity starts, no big surprise there). Of course, he spells out ykvk approximately 30 times per page, which I hate, and he just got done talking about how Josiah invented monolatry or whatever, which I already heard about and still hate, and I started to wonder. Why do I hate it? Why am I even resisting? Why am I writing passive-aggressive comments in the margins?

So much for being a non-biased reader.

I originally got this book (And God: A Biography by Jack Miles) because I wanted to make a clean break and I was already feeling myself being all “Oh, it’s not so bad, I’ll just be religious again,” and getting pretty nervous about this, and I’m also reading Becoming Frum by Sarah Bunin Benor, which is reeeeally bringing me back. (“The ‘hesitation click’ is a linguistic feature of Orthodox Jews.” I laughed when I first read that.) And I wanted to be like, “I should know the truth anyways, why should I be scared of the truth?”

I did take History of Ancient Israel taught by the biggest heretic ever, but lately I’m kind of into the idea of God evolving. I’ve had this cycle of questions for a while now: How can we say that God is so nice and forgiving and actually cares about us, when that’s not exactly in the texts at all? Can whatever we invent to be true of God actually come to be true? Does he react to whatever our conception is of him? These questions, as far as I’m concerned, are pretty pressing, and I’ll gladly get my answer from secular sources if need be.

The Evolution of God seems more like the usual JEDP explanation of historical events though, rather than anything too original, but then again I’m only halfway through the book. Maybe I’m just bitter because I just read 200 pages of how the Torah was written by Josiah. I had to keep reminding myself to be objective. Realistically, of course, I shouldn’t be taking it so hard. I’ve heard it all before. And, after all, “progressive Jews” believe in the JEDP theory and know all about the “multiple authors” over “many generations” and they’re fine with it. And somehow, they think the Torah is still an “inspired document,” even, rather than the result of political factionism and rebellions and whatnot. (Interestingly, Wright says the oft-quoted “light unto the nations” phrase was referring to aggressive takeover, not “gently helping the other nations learn from the Israelites,” as some would have it.)

But I’m also not about to get down with Wellhausen just because he’s in vogue. I just don’t know who to believe these days.

I don’t know how they do it–if God was invented out of El and Baal and had tons of consorts until the upper echelons decided it was tearing the country apart, and meanwhile the Israelites were only rebelling against other gods because the other nations kept putting them into vassalage, how could take it out of its political context and say, “OK, THIS text is divinely inspired (by a god invented out of El and Baal), even though it was changed to fit the different ideologies of different kings, and just happened to evolve into monotheism, even though that wasn’t exactly the point of it at all and it’s all a mistake and a huge coincidence.”

I can get into the idea that the Israelites were polytheists. But I don’t love the idea that polytheism was the actual doctrine allllllll the way up to Josiah, nor do I love the idea that devarim was a political strategy. In theory, I’m following the idea that “God works through the political strategies,” as progressive Jews say, but I am just feeling really resistant to a lot of it. (The El and Baal thing is an example.)

Because, he works through political strategies to…what? The usual line is to be a “light unto the nations,” but…I’m with Wright on that one. I don’t really think the Jewish mission is martyrdom. The whole idea sounds kinda Christian, if you ask me. But what is the mission? What is anything?

I’m feeling so 22 right now. I can feel everything crashing down to be built up again. On what? Who knows?

an official review of ‘the evolution of god’ by robert wright

The Evolution of GodThe Evolution of God by Robert Wright

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

An ambitious and comprehensive work. He gets a little too caught up at times, as most biblical scholars tend to do, particularly around p. 157 where he claims that the hebrew word for ‘moon’ (yareah) actually refers to a ‘moon god,’ with the sole evidence that a canaanite god was named something similar (yarih). Not like close languages never even slightly overlapped, but whatever. Oh, and the best part…what’s the explanation for this? Why can “yareah” only refer to a moon god, not the moon itself? Because “inanimate hunks of orbiting rock aren’t the kinds of things you generally converse with” (157)! (He kind of reminds me of Glenn Beck; using humor and a ‘lite reading’ tone in order to cover up the fact that he just ran up 4 pages on a theory with no evidence!)

The annoying part is when he uses little “insider clues” like this to formulate entire theses.

I did like the fact that it was an easy and thorough read in which he actually allowed a few opinions other than his to show through…however, I was disappointed that (as usual with this subject) the JEDP/”Josiah re-wrote everything” theory was underlying the entire theory, without it being mentioned outright save for in one footnote (even after having ironically mentioned that Wellhausen’s theory has lost traction in recent years).

I mean, it’s not the worst book I’ve ever read, and his biases don’t show through as openly as do some other authors’. Although his motive is noble (showing that violence isn’t necessarily an inherent part of Abrahamic religion), he indulges a little too much in his own whimsies on the basis of his (scant?) hebrew knowledge for my own taste.

I have a friend who once said “An Old Testament scholar isn’t the same as a Torah scholar.” His theories may make perfect sense within his own circles, but remember that scholarshave their own biases and limitations, too. (For instance, while he was talking about asherah being “a part of the israelite pantheon being absorbed into ykvk” I had to wonder whether he knew or cared that asherah is also mentioned in the talmud, circa like 1000 years after the fact, and surely after all the “editing” he claims to have happened.

Everyone’s got their “insider codes,” and biblical scholars aren’t immune to this.

What’s Bothering Jewschool?

I don’t know how, but comments on Jack Wertheimer’s article on the “Ten Commandments of America’s Jews” devolved into a horrific point-by-point ad hominem attack on him, instead of his actual argument. In brief, his post is a commentary on the current state of liberal Judaism. I thought it was rather accurate. Jewschool didn’t think so. After all, Wertheimer is not a Next Jew. The only other thing I’d read by Wertheimer was “The Perplexities of Conservative Judaism,” which I also happen to agree with. We all have our biases. However, we have to evaluate these arguments by their merits and not resort to name-calling (“sexist grump”?) and blindly lashing out in defense. Wertheimer writes:

Although much has been written about disunity among today’s American Jews, what these words reflect is, in fact, a consensus on what Jewish life ought to stand for—a consensus held by activists, rabbis, popular writers, organizational leaders, and other figures of influence.

How can you disagree? Haven’t you ever seen slogans announcing new projects promising “An Open, Remixable, Meaningful, Connected Jewish Life”? There has to be something behind these lofty claims. I mean, say you walk into an event claiming it will make your life “meaningful,” “renewed,” “revitalized,” how do you suppose it will do so? You go into the event expecting certain claims. Wertheimer outlines those claims that event is about to make to you.

I. I am the Lord your God, Who took you out of Egypt to ‘repair the world.’ No trope is more common today than the injunction to engage in tikkun olam[...]So important has this mission become that in some quarters it is held to supersede all other commandments. In the words of a young Reform rabbi in Los Angeles: “Don’t keep kosher, that’s fine; don’t keep Shabbat, that’s fine; marry a non-Jew—whatever. But understand that it will take away your Jewish identity if you don’t fight for justice.”

I don’t really get this martyr/Jesus assumption “that Jews are uniquely responsible for improving the lives of their fellow human beings.” I think that’s new. I can only guess why that started. I think, I think, that Kol Ra’ash Gadol is saying that tikkun olam shouldn’t mean giving away all your belongings, is universalizing that idea, and thinks that Wertheimer is basically saying the same thing. [S]he writes: “Oddly, many of those Jews invest that time and money as Jews (back to his complaints about Tikkun Olam).” Maybe s/he thinks that Wertheimer is saying that no one should donate to causes anymore. But I’m pretty sure what he’s saying is, pretty acutely, that we’ve tended to supercede all the mitzvos and put “being ethical” on top of it. That is a Reform tenet, but it trickled down (up?). And then, staying on theme, that is what counts when you’re trying to come up with a “revitalized” Judaism. I can’t think of any events or causes currently that are both actively liberal and actively advocating we go back to traditional, obligatory observance.

KRG writes that Wertheimer “dismisses” the supposedly (yet non-existent) overarching elephant in the room, how to distribute tzedaka when we live in a community of non-Jews. Presumably s/he is basing this on the understanding that Wertheimer is criticizing “tikkun olam” in its common forms, which is giving to secular and/or Christian charities like saving Darfur. Again, I don’t think the point is “what kind of tikkun olam we are doing” so much as it is that the entire idea has been dominating the conversation to the detriment of other things.

II. You shall not be judgmental. Jews who intermarried were once regarded as transgressors of a great taboo; today, the great taboo is criticism of Jews who intermarry[...]“What you are doing,” declared an official at an organization dedicated to reaching intermarried families, “is really the most divisive thing that Jews do to other Jews these days, which is to tell your fellow Jews that they are not ‘Jewish enough.’

Think about it. Criticizing intermarriage is frowned upon, but criticizing anyone who does intermarry is extremely taboo. KRG didn’t really discuss this one, but I know from hanging out in certain circles that criticism is basically naught because “people are doing it anyway” and “we just need to find a solution.” That solution, often, is “welcoming intermarried families,” as opposed to encouraging conversion for the spouse and/or educating people about the entire fabric of values that says intermarriage is wrong. As it stands, people generally believe, I think, that it’s an individual choice that affects no one else, and I won’t go into that, but I do think (and I would assume Werty agrees) that the problem is not so much intermarriage as it is that people have come to ignore most principles of Judaism when they don’t suit the individual, in favor of easier, more flexible, more universalizable ones.

The “You’re telling me I’m ‘not Jewish enough!’” card is well overplayed. (BTW, it’s a mitzvah to rebuke your neighbor. A friend and I once realized that that particular mitzvah is absolutely prohibited in many, if not most, liberal circles.)

III. You shall be pluralistic. Many have come to believe that diversity, especially when it comes to every conceivable variety of family configuration, enriches Judaism by exposing people to different ways of thinking and living.

Maybe this is what got Next Jew to call him a “a cantankerous kvetch who champions a world order which is quiet, routinized and organized.” Werty knows enough not to actually straight up criticize this pluralism, but now it’s out there. This is sort of when I realized KRG wasn’t actually disagreeing with a lot of his points, saying things like “there’s a thread of truth to this one” and “I also agree.” So what’s the problem? Why all the name-calling? Why all the hatin’? Because it just “feels” like an attack? It’s funny that telling you what your group probably believes and you agreeing with it can be seen as an attack, isn’t it? It says something about the article’s subject matter, doesn’t it?

OK, now I’m doing it.

IV. You shall personalize your Judaism.  There was a time when most Jews roughly agreed on the key components of Jewish identity as well as on collective Jewish needs.

I think this is pretty agreeable, and he doesn’t really criticize although I can guess the undertones. “There used to be an objective standard, and now there’s not.”

V. Meaning, meaning shall you pursue. It follows from the previous commandment that the way for institutions to compete for the temporary attention of individual Jews is to offer them “meaningful” experiences[...] “A Judaism and a Jewish community without Torah as its center isn’t going to survive,” declares an influential young rabbi, adding, “nor is it clear to me why it should.” By these lights, Jewish survival for its own sake is meaningless.

OK, I have to admit I don’t get this one. I agree with the first part; but I don’t see how “Judaism without Torah at its center won’t survive” is actually against his own thesis. Still, KRG’s criticism is less intelligible:

I’m kind of mystified by number 5. Is he saying that Jewish survival, should it have, for example, no Torah at the center, and no community, is worthwhile for its own sake? Why? Number ten, OTOH is classic Wertheimerian krechtzing. He just doesn’t actually get that there is no non-public square anymore. I know the guy is basically a grump (and sexist, though that doesn’t come out so much here) who spends his editorial time complaining about “the kids these days,” but does he really want to advertise the fact that he has no idea what year it is and is unaware of the use of new technologies and how people – not just Jews- actually live?[...]Still, even a stopped analog clock is right twice a day: He’s right that the term “tikkun olam” which doesn’t really mean what people think it means, has even in the more general way it is used currently, come to be essentially meaningless (Rabbi Jill Jacobs takes this on concisely in the introduction to her first book).

Rabbi Jill Jacobs says it, so it must be OK to mention this classified, yet impertinent, piece of info.

VI. You shall create caring communities. The burden of responsibility rests entirely on the institutions, which must avoid having expectations of those benefitting from their care.

KRG also agrees with this, but can’t help adding that Werty is “imprecise.”

VII. You shall encourage the airing of all views. The glory of Judaism, in the current reading, lies in its openness to debate, controversy, and dissent.

Nothing from KRG, but let me add that I absolutely hate when liberal rabbis say we should be able to knock all the pillars down–deconstruct them, if you will–cause Judaism is so open to debate that it encourages dissent to the point to which we’ve currently devolved, which is to say that no act or belief not immediately verifiable is necessary anymore. (And to say that there are such acts or beliefs makes you “Ultra-Orthodox” and “un-pluralistic” and “NOT a Next Jew.”)

VIII. You shall not be tribal. Others balk at the “tribe” part altogether, repudiating the claims made by Jewish peoplehood and tilting instead toward cosmopolitanism.

Cause no other group ever does that. 

IX. You shall celebrate your Jewishness. But if engagement with the Jewish people has become more awkward, pride in being Jewish has not.

Again, he’s not really outright criticizing anything per se, but I did read an article recently that said that secular Jews take pride in their ignorance of Jewish concepts. Nothing annoys me more than a secular Jew making bad Jewish jokes. They call it “pride,” of course. Those jokes are all some people have.

This is what KRG has to say about it:

He complains about celebrating Judaism (what he means is that he objects to young Jews insisting that the evidence is that we have no good reason, at least in the USA, to live in fear of our neighbors), about pluralism (really, is it that important that we all fit into very narrow categories? I wonder where I would go, since I’m a halachicly pretty traditional (except on specific things where I consider myself more stringent, such as who counts in a minyan: I believe everyone has chiyuv), textually obsessed, geeky, politically (very) liberal Jew. I like the Conservative movement’s big tent, but if the orthodox started counting women as equals, I could see myself there, too). This flows into his complaints about being open to airing all views and personalizing our Judaism.

KRG, stop being so serious. We both know what he’s saying about celebrating your Jewishness. He’s saying that we’re celebrating our ethnicity even though we’re not really taking any positive steps to actually merit that celebration. We’re just living nominally. You’re missing the point. And pluralism doesn’t mean that, either. “Very narrow categories?” You mean like how liberal Jews use the old “You’re either with us or you’re Ultra-Orthodox” approach? Those kinds of narrow categories? Pluralism means you’re trying to be something for everyone. And by everyone, I mean everyone. People who complain about keeping kosher, etc. The “big tent” you like so much. I don’t think you’d want to be Orthodox. Why? They’re not a “big tent.” They don’t water down their ideals to accommodate people who don’t want to keep kosher and complain when someone criticizes them.

X. You shall hold the Jewish conversation in public. This strikingly reverses the habits of the past, when, as the legal scholar Suzanne Stone has noted, a sharp distinction was drawn between conversations in the house of study or within the Jewish community, where fractious debate was both safe and welcome, and conversations in the public square, where “the honor of religion [was] at stake…and expression highly regulated.” Today, the mandate is to exhibit no such concern about “what the Gentiles will say” and to be unafraid of being heard and read by all.

I agree. It’s like we want everyone to hear. It’s like a circus. But here’s the news: You feel safe and you don’t sense anti-Semitism, but something brews beneath the surface when you do air all your grievances and weaknesses in a public forum (I mean, like, Huffington Post, for instance). People are picking up on what you say. KRG says “there’s no non-public square,” but that doesn’t mean you have to take all your problems straight to gentile media for the goyim to gawk at your problems. Jewish problems don’t belong on FOX News. You think there’s no reaction; no consequences? They remember your weaknesses and they are only so ready to turn all that against you when the time comes. I’ve lived in the Bible belt; anti-Semitism is called missionary work there. You want to say all religions are equally valid, that “God may have well seen fit to enter into other covenants,” but you had better believe other religions aren’t saying the same about you.

The Next Jew, though, sees it a bit differently:

One can almost hear the sound of both of Wertheimer’s hands gripping in white-knuckled mania onto a Judaism and Jewish community that is changing before his eyes by (Next) Jews who love Judaism almost as much as he.

Do you love Judaism? Or do you love what you think it should be?

(Although, as Jeff Eyges pointed out in a comment to Dan’s FB post, Wertheimer’s Judaism [=Conservative Judaism] is as dismissed as the Judaism he sniffs at by folks gripping even tighter to the reins – the Ultra-Orthodox)

There’s the “Ultra-Orthodox” again. Cause not saying everyone is equally right is a terrible thing.

KRG says:

As one of those uppity types he’s cranking on, I can say that while a lot of the Conservative movement is still hidebound institutionally, it’s ALSO the movement where some of the hottest ideas are being incubated – and that’s what pisses him off. OMG: Indie minyans that don’t affiliate!! Gay people! Women in the rabbinate instead of staying home popping out babies! Egal davening! three table potlucks (kosher, veg and kosher/veg, natch)! The world is coming to an end!

LOL @ the Conservative movement having “hot ideas.” And I like how non-kosher veg is a table at the potluck. My point exactly? And anyway, I don’t think he mentioned any of those things in the article.

I leave you with Jeff Margolis:

But we’re still doing that flaming bag of dog poo on Dennis Prager’s front porch, right?


Now, here’s how this affects me. I used to be one of those people who would have criticized Wertheimer for not having the Vision, that of course we should “personalize” and “revitalize” “our” Judaism. Of course we should take it away from the Authorities and Reclaim it. I loved the Jewish Catalog and the DIY approach appealed to me. But I’ve been disappointed. They told me they were pluralistic, but not to the point where they could completely respect anyone who believed in the Traditional Point of View. Everything was “the Ultra-Orthodox hate this” and “you’re either reasonable like us or Ultra-Orthodox” that. They told me they were pluralistic, that this was the most important trait you could have, but what of the non-liberal Jews you so love to scorn? And what of religion? There’s “making it work for you,” and then there “radically changing it to fit your changing desires/perceptions.” There’s adapting it to the world, and then there’s forcing a perfectly valid system (Judaism) into the confines of another system (democracy, universalism, etc.) That, to me, says that you didn’t find the first system good enough. You say you can’t put your Jewish practices in a box, but you are. And there are tons of labels on it–pluralism, egalitarianism, whatever–you don’t see them because they just happen to be exactly how you see the world. You think “Liberal Judaism” doesn’t have its own set of claims and biases? How can you say someone’s not a Next Jew if you don’t have a very specific idea of what a Next Jew ought to be? And why do you have to name-call anyone who doesn’t fit into that box? So much for pluralism.

They told me they wanted to take away the “institution” and take away the “top-down approach.” But somehow that went too far, and now anything objective is seen as “the institution.” If we don’t have three tables at the potluck, it’s because the Institution is telling us “how we should keep kosher!” How dare it! Why, it must be telling me I’m Not Jewish Enough If I Don’t Keep Kosher! Individualism sounds nice, but it’s only compelling to a certain point. I want objectivity. I want some semblance of it. If your religion doesn’t have objectivity, if people are telling you “God may as well have seen fit to enter into other [equally important] covenants with Christians, Muslims, etc.” (USCJ Statement of Principles), where is the motivation?

They told me we need to “reclaim” Judaism and “revive” it. Reclaim from whom? Who took it? The rabbis? Which rabbis? The Haredim? How did they do that? And how are you going to “revive” it? How is it in need of being revived; is it because of it or is it because of you? What do you propose ought to change? And why? I think I read this in Elie Kaunfer’s book–the only “empowering” book that I liked–I thought what we needed was a new gimmick, new programming, but that’s the last thing we need. Everything we need is right there. We’re the ones getting it wrong. We’re the ones who need to be “revived.” We’re the ones slowly but surely inventing an entirely new religion suitable to what we think we need.

I was kiruved and I liked it

I just finished a 10-week online program called Jerusalem Online University, which is hard to explain but here’s a visual:

That was on “The Torah Doesn’t Have a Lot of Errors Compared to Other Stuff” day. There were a lot of “logical proofs” like that. One was that since a Torah scroll can last up to 600 years or something like that, it only takes 12 in a row so errors can’t get in, and there were only nine discrepancies in one study, etc. How Sinai happened cause there were a lot of witnesses, and no one else has made the same claim of a national revelation, and so on.

I was skeptical at first, but I did it much for the same reason I had a bat mitzvah–”Nothing better to do!” I’m not sure I was their target audience, but don’t get me wrong I was pretty thrilled that I was accepted into this thing from the beginning. The only qualification was “One Jewish parent” and I was 1.) Shocked, because I thought it was sponsored by Aish and they’re pretty strict, and 2.) Joyous, because someone cares about my soul yay.

So, at first, if you’ll notice the kids on the chat on the right of the screen can get a little rowdy, and they were annoying me, and I kind of felt like a mom because my first thought was “Hey this program might be lame but maybe it will make one of these bros want to be frum,” and obviously I wasn’t thinking about myself because as far as I was concerned I didn’t need their kiruv.

But after a while I got kind of into it, and maybe not because of what he was saying so much as the fact that someone was actually doing this for us college students. Since what I’m used to is all efforts going toward getting families to buy synagogue memberships, I thought it was nice that they spent so much time and effort trying to get us interested. I wondered for a long time, and I’m still wondering actually, what they *really* want from us. I’m sure they expect the retention rate to be pretty low, and yet they’re giving us $200 to be in this ten-week program, and all we had to do was write weekly journals about what we learned. It’s so altruistic. It blows my whole mind.

I know skeptics would probably say something like, “They do want something; they want you to be like them! Ultra-Orthodox! They say that other forms of Judaism are invalid!” From my brief experience at least, they’d be happy if you were just more observant, even if you were label-less. Obviously, I’m sure they would really like it if you decided to be Orthodox, but if I may speak for them right now I’d suggest that’s because non-Orthodox branches don’t really demand as much out of their congregants relatively speaking, and on the contrary they want you to have the “whole package.” (My theory.)

I don’t think I realized I was getting into it until we were sent a survey after it was over. One of the questions was “How did you feel about Judaism before this?” and another was “How do you feel about it now?” I think the answers were something like: a.) A good source of tradition b.) a few interesting rituals c.) good moral guideposts d.) an entire way of life. I wish I could actually remember c.) because I ended up picking C. It was a lot like D but less intense. So then for the “How do you feel now?” I picked D. I thought about it, and although I was obviously way too into Judaism to be their actual target audience when I started at the beginning of this semester, I guess it did help me a little in unexpected ways.

First, it was nice to know that so many people were working together to make this program for the sole purpose of making kids like Judaism. There was even an option in the survey of “Further correspondence,” which I signed up for cause I’m entirely enthralled at this point. The very fact that so many people cared made me feel kind of inspired. (I know, you’re tearing up.) Next, I guess I had been thinking of Judaism as “good moral guideposts” or whatever. Obviously, I knew it was a system and I advocated for its being a system, but even so I know it took me a long time to think of it as “not just halacha,” and even longer to think of it as an integral life method, like Answer D said. I mean, I knew it was an integral life method, but being pounded with info on “How the world could have scientifically been made in six days” and how “the Jews were really chosen” made it get pretty real. Basically, it was nice to know that there are people straight up living this and believing it 24/7, which I haven’t really seen of course besides the Orthodox rabbi here and my Conservative rabbi back home.

A lot of it was dedicated more to “This is great” rather than “This is what you do,” or more importantly, “This is why it will be good for you personally.” A lot of the Judaism 101 stuff that I know either focuses on 1.) What the holidays are symbolically about, which he did talk about some, but in a more stimulating way (i.e. I heard “You have to go up the down escalator!” about four times to explain how Passover is about self-change…rather than what Judaism 101 usually talks about, which is stuff like “What you put on the seder plate”), OR 2.) How practicing Judaism will make you more ethical/healthier/a better person etc. JOU kind of strayed from that, and indeed he said during one of the courses that “Your job is to follow the Torah and repair the world with your hands tied behind your back! You have to be a light unto the nations by following the Torah! And you don’t have to go out and assimilate, the world will come to you!”

I liked that message because it didn’t beat around the bush, which I think a lot of Judaism 101 curricula do, by saying that you have to be ethical and Judaism just happens to help you do that, how convenient! But that method makes it sound like your job is to “repair the world…and if Torah gets in the way, you know what to pick. The Torah’s great, but it was written by people who were trying, just like we are.” JOU wasn’t heavy on “how it’s useful” stuff like that so much as it was on “Isn’t Judaism great? You can believe in Torah and still be a rational person!” I don’t know how to explain it, but it was “Isn’t Judaism great?” after being so used to hearing “Isn’t Judaism good?”

Anyway, I’m still not really entirely sure what they want me to do now, but hey. I would suggest that a good next step might be not leaving people alone in the wilderness after all this, which can be a problem with Birthright for example, where you have no outlet for the aftermath of the experience. I know the JOU people are really into large get-togethers, which appeal to the AEPi bros but probably no one else, and occasionally it seems like the whole program was made for the AEPi bros (there was even an optional AEPi trip offered during, like, Week 7). But they’re currently having optional informal weekly online courses, which is nice. If I were them, I’d be like “yo you’re trying to convert here’s some help and/or moral support,’ but maybe I’m just being idealistic. (I’m still waiting for some rabbi or something to be like “Oh, you’re converting what a good thing” instead of the “Oh, you’re converting, don’t ask me to help you” vibe I usually get.)

Therefore, I was kiruved and I don’t know what to do with it!

The Jewish Catalog review/hagiography

written for a class

The Jewish Catalog is one of the best success stories that came out of the “religious voluntarism” that characterized the post-immigration period. During a time when each denomination was battling a growing ambivalence among its own constituency, this is the book they wish they would have written. It would have been especially relevant to Reform Judaism during the period in which it was decided on the un-divine origin of the Torah, but nonetheless held traditional texts in high regard.

The 60′s and 70′s were a time of increased sense of ethnicity and spirituality, which opened the doors for the possibility of this book. I am quite doubtful such a book would have been very popular in the 50′s. What is interesting, though, is the approach. It is one that may not even be successful today, as it focuses on particulars and we have more non-traditional liberal sources today to follow (i.e. “Debbie Friedman recommends this song…Gunther Plaut recommends that interpretation.”) The soul of the book would be crushed under all the “modern interpretations.”

In the section on the mezuzah, we meet Maimonides, Eliezer ben Jacob, and R. Tanhum; and the laws for mezuzah come from Kitzur Shulhan Aruch, hardly a liberal source. Later on in the section, we even learn about the mizrach. In the section on kashrut, we are warned that “the only thing to worry about [regarding fruits and vegetables] is that insects haven’t invaded your food” (19). Such concerns would not worry the typical Reform congregant today, nor would the list of approved hechshers, including the Orthodox Union, which has the word Orthodox in it. I do wonder whether a Conservative reader would find interest in a similar book had it been written today, although again, it may “seem” to be too Orthodox-leaning, ironically. Likely, though, it would gain most traction in “post-denominational” circles, or even certain “culturally Jewish” circles perhaps. I suppose this was its initial audience as well.

The book’s success is even more outstanding given the level of detail that might lead one today to claim it’s “too traditional” (again, very ironic). It focuses on how to do things correctly over esoteric commentary on “how spiritual it will be if you think about doing it.” Admittedly, it is a self-proclaimed “DIY manual.” “You should have two sets of dishes and two sets of silverware,” it claims. And “you absolutely need sink liners” (23). It only occasionally recognizes denominational division (24). Despite this, it’s quite socially liberal:

If you are female and want to try out a shofar, you might really freak out the seller, who, shall we say, may not yet have sufficiently raised his consciousness. You can dodge the problem by bringing a male friend along. But if you run into any difficulty, remind the fellow that the Shulhan Arukh (Orah Hayyim 589:6) specifically allows women to blow a shofar. (65)

I especially enjoy the timely section on How to Bring Mashiach. Some suggestions include planting a tree (preferably in Vietnam), sing “Lo yisah goy” at West Point while digging holes for trees with swords, “letting the female within you encompass the warrior within you,” and other various useful things (250-1).

The book has endured because, even today, it is one of the few avenues that people who cannot affiliate with mainstream institutions have available to them. It makes a person want to be Jewish, when faced with so many other options. It shows that Judaism is a perfectly interesting and even fulfilling alternative to popular options such as Buddhism or Hinduism or other smaller sects that apparently were popular in the 60′s and 70′s. I especially like it because it serves as a kind of model for a “post-denominational” community, which can do things like build its own sukkah, but do it within halachic guidelines, and without requiring a hierarchical leader. It gives people an ability to be self-sufficient. Moreover, it seems to regard both “culturally Jewish” and “religiously Jewish” groups as one (even in the juxtaposition of illustrations and photographs), so that the potential gap between the two is synthesized. That, particularly now, is essential.

Why I Don’t Like Soloveitchik

So, I know you’re not supposed to say anything bad about Soloveitchik, but we can’t even pretend this blog isn’t controversial at times. So, full steam ahead.

I don’t really like him that much. There are a few diverse ways in which I don’t like him.

First, I don’t like the book The Lonely Man of Faith. It lacks philosophical argument, and it reads like word vomit. It’s like he’s just explaining the synopsis on the back of the book…by repeating it over and over. We are lonely. Man is conflicted. I knew this already; tell me something new, you know? Further, he even says in a footnote that Maimonides was the one to come up with this idea (among others), so the book doesn’t even have originality going for it. I just…don’t get it.

Next, I don’t like what he says about women’s tefillah groups. He says they are halachically permissible, but we shouldn’t do it because they rip apart the fabric of Judaism or something. They’re inauthentic. You have to consider public policy, and more importantly most women don’t have the proper MOTIVATION to have proper tefillah groups. It is so “obvious” that women are mostly doing it for the wrong reason, too, precisely because women’s tefillah groups look so much like a “REAL” Torah reading, and halachic or not, women need to know that what they are doing isn’t REAL. Fine; it’s not his fault that “motive” is such a stupidly huge factor. But I don’t like that a while later, he regretted saying that they were halachically permissible and retracted everything he ever said about it “lest people get the wrong idea and think he was actually for women’s groups,” susbstituting instead that they are highly recommended against. That’s a bunch of crap.

Finally, I found out that he was indeed the guy who told the lady she couldn’t wear a tallit with tzitzit because she felt too spiritual when wearing the tallit for a month without tzitzit…thereby proving that she too was wearing it “for the wrong reasons.” This is horrid reasoning to me. The kind of logic found in The Lonely Man of Faith, actually. Can you really conclude she was doing it “for the wrong reasons”? How the hell do you know? Are you a psychologist now too? You’re sure not a philosopher. And how dare I ask would you quantify the “right reasons”? I don’t think you’d ever be satisfied, would you? If you don’t like it, it’s the women’s fault for not liking your horribly monolithic power structure (aka “normative Judaism”), and they’re “misrepresenting Torah” (aka implying that the world doesn’t revolve around men). Yeah, that must be it.

Koren versus ArtScroll…I think I’ve figured out my hatred

OK, so it’s no secret that I really hate the ArtScroll siddur. But I never really had a clear example of why Koren is clearly better, although we all knew this. I hated it because it was taking over our Conservative synagogue; I hated it because the Ohel Sarah is ridiculously offensive; I hated it because it’s basically an entire empire; and I hated it because it brings its agenda into people’s homes just because it looks like it might be made of faux leather and the name is popular so why not buy one?

But I was just scanning that list of laws at the back of the Koren on Saturday during a particularly boring dvar Torah, and I noticed something: Koren is different.

1.) Behold—Laws of Tzitzit, #323:

Putting on a four-cornered garment with tzitzit attached fulfills an affirmative mitzva from the Torah. The obligation applies only during the daytime [מנחות מג]. Since wearing tzitzit is a time-bound mitzva, women are exempt [שו''ע או''ח, יז:ב].

Let’s take a look at this revolutionary sentence. First of all, you may have noticed that they cite their sources, whereas ArtScroll just expects you to take their word for it. Next, their sources include such classics as the Talmud and Shulchan Aruch, not crazy sources I don’t know like freaking Feinstein and the Rebbe and Luzzato and whoever else they decide to throw in. Next, here’s the revolutionary part—they say “women are exempt”, not “women should not do this”. Unlike ArtScroll, they are making no value judgment on my behalf. It’s not the siddur’s job to tell me what I should or shouldn’t do, if you ask me. It should tell me the facts and the laws and perhaps the customs, but not that not following them is basically going to send me to Hades (seriously, that’s their tone…have you read Ohel Sarah, by the way?) They do the same treatment with tefillin: “Women are exempt”, not “Women have such a special snowflake soul that they do not need tefillin. Tell your wife to light candles instead.”

2.) Koren includes things that ArtScroll would never even imagine including, just because it leads to orgies:

Laws of Birkat HaGomel, #398: A husband may say Birkat HaGomel for his wife, or a father for his children [משנ''ב, שם: יז]. But, according to most authorities, it is preferable that a woman say Birkat HaGomel for herself in the presence of a minyan.

Whoa! For herself? With a minyan? Isn’t that how the Temple was destroyed?

3.) Nowhere in the Laws of Erev Shabbat does it mention that candle-lighting is a “woman’s special privilege” or that “it is preferable for a woman to do it”. Nor does it say in the Laws of Mourner’s Kaddish that “women shouldn’t say the Mourner’s Kaddish”.

3.) Koren acknowledges that women are also obligated in Kiddush. Not only in their laws on Kiddush (#454: “Women are obligated in this mitzva, and a woman is permitted to say Kiddush for herself and others.”), but in their utter lack of need to inject their ideology via omission. When speaking of Kiddush throughout the siddur, Koren always includes “under the age of Bar/Bat Mitzvah”, not “Bar Mitzvah” and hope we won’t notice. That’s important.

4.) Speaking of which, Koren doesn’t include its laws within the body of the siddur. It leaves them for the end. For example, when I read the brachot for the tallit, I am not subjected to a big grey box at the bottom saying “Women should not wear a man’s vessel.” Same for the brachot for tefillin. And through the text, it includes “one does this” or “some say the following”. No “a man wraps the tefillin around his arm seven times”, because whatever the writers of Koren may believe personally, they leave it at home.

Unlike ArtScroll.

5.) Customs are treated as just that—customs. Through my Koren, I see “it is the custom that…” or “some have the custom to say this standing”, not “we do this”, or “we believe that”. In my Koren Sacks siddur, the English commentary doesn’t tell me I’m going to Sheol if I don’t follow the custom; instead it gives me a brief synopsis of why a certain thing is the custom. For the HaKorbanot stuff, for example, it says: “There are different customs as to how many passages are to be said, and one should follow the custom of one’s congregation.” Elsewhere, it says “Tachanun is not said in the presence of a groom (and some say a bride).”

5.) There is a Zeved Habat section, which is surprisingly full and doesn’t just consist of two psalms or something. As far as I can see, Zeved Habat is conducted in the synagogue with a rabbi and a congregation (I’ve heard it called by different names), and that it’s already a “longstanding custom of the Sephardim and increasingly adopted by Ashkenazim”. Better yet:

If food is served at the ceremony, the meal has religious significance (seudat mitzva) and should be accompanied by words of Torah.

And the ceremony totally ends with this line:

All say: Our sister, may you grow to become thousands of myriads.

How fun is that?

There is also a fairly long Prayer After Childbirth that is said in the synagogue and requires congregational responses and possibly even the rabbi. Like the Zeved Habat, Koren Sacks attempts to invest it with religious significance:

In Temple times, mothers would offer a sacrifice after the birth of a child (Lev. 12:6-8). No record exists of a formal prayer offered on such occasions: there may have been no fixed text (1031).

These are two ceremonies that I hope really do catch on because of “what a siddur said”.

(The only thing that’s a little weird about Koren is that their Prayers to Be Said Before Death comes literally right after their Prayers for Illness and Prayers for the Recovery of Illness. Yeah, that’s a good message.)

Basically, I like Koren because it’s very clean and direct. It doesn’t shamelessly insist that I accept its ideology, it’s not part of a vast empire, and it’s not overextending its market. More importantly, it’s a siddur, and not a nonnegotiable ideology. And Modern Orthodoxy (and for that matter, Conservatism) seriously needs a new player in the market.

…It’s time to get rid of your ArtScrolls.

Got it

I guess it’s no secret that one (very un-legalistic) reason for keeping women from Orthodox leadership positions is that it will turn men away from the religion in droves, just like it did with non-Orthodoxy. The basic argument is that women reading Torah, teaching Torah, coming to shul, leading services; along with mixed seating, kol isha, and other dreadful things like women being witnesses and halachic advisors will make men feel like they aren’t “needed” anymore (read: emasculated). The point is that this is a clear correlation, and that this is a big enough problem that we “desperately” need new programming for men and “role models for young boys” in non-Orthodoxy—and that we can absolutely not let the same fate seize Orthodoxy too.

And basically, everyone knows that the term for this crazy thing is egalitarianism.

So it was a strange thing to do for the author of this article (yeah, it’s old, so sue me) to use the word to mean “pluralistic in general”:

Besides gender separation, another supposed inegalitarianism of Orthodox congregations is that if you’re not already familiar with the traditional liturgy, you’re likely to be lost. Conservative and Reform congregations announce page numbers. They sprinkle in English readings. And they tend to sing a lot slower. This, we are told, makes services more inclusive and accessible to everyone.

Or does it? Yes, they make what’s offered accessible. But often, what’s offered isn’t worth accessing in the first place.

It’s not all about gender egalitarianism in this article; in fact the whole thing takes a back seat, and is only really mentioned with regard to separate seating. Still, it’s not totally surprising that another author would read the article within that unspoken context. She writes:

What makes me uncomfortable with the article is the way Michaelson has used egalitarianism in its traditional sense as a “hook” to draw people in, and the implication that moving to an egalitarian prayer service and the inclusion of women in spiritual opportunities is somehow linked to a decrease in meaningful communal prayer overall.

It is the “hook”—here’s the thing; it’s not just the hook in this article. When people need a scapegoat—some reason non-Orthodox services can tend to be a little dry—they go for the easiest, most noticeable variable. And then blame it.

It’s not women, and that’s quite obvious. If you put any large group of people not sufficiently educated in liturgy together for a service, naturally they will need an educated leader to lead! This has nothing to do with the denominational divide; with their theology; with their views on gender. I think Michaelson, of the Forward article, gets that—how could we say that slowed-down responsive readings in English are due to women making it slower? Blaming the education gap on women is too easy—I happen to think it’s because those who were raised Orthodox are also more likely to have learned the service etc. The Reform education system educates to its own extent (which obviously won’t prep anyone for a full-length Orthodox service anyway), and I guess Conservative education is hit-and-miss depending on whether you make an effort or not.

I agree with the article, though, because Michaelson seems to be advocating a type of pluralism that isn’t all-inclusive—we don’t want it to be! (It’s why 4-year colleges have admissions committees and 2-year community colleges just put the kids who “shouldn’t have made the cut” into remedial classes for a long time.) His solution is simple:

Let’s rethink what we mean by “egalitarianism.” What if it meant “open to all who bother to make the effort”? What if synagogues distributed fliers that said: “Welcome! We are very glad you are here. Our service is somewhat traditional, because that traditional form works for us. You may be a little lost at first. So we warmly invite you to join our weekly Siddur 101 class, where you can learn the ropes.” People who choose to accept the invitation obtain the rewards. Those who don’t, don’t.

I think the biggest fear people have, by doing this instead of lowering the bar to the point where the less experienced can participate at the expense of the more experienced, is that they will seem elitist and unwelcoming. But it’s one thing to prohibit a certain demographic indefinitely, and quite another to offer them a way into the relatively specialized affair that is an all-Hebrew full-length service.

Not only would such an approach allow longtime participants to get more out of the prayer experience, but it would also suggest to newcomers that there’s something worth working toward. Things that come cheap usually feel that way.

I can relate to this; the Reform service is accessible—too accessible. The typical service is designed for people who, whether or not of their own accord, would be immobile without a prayer leader; know no Hebrew; don’t see themselves obligated in mitzvot; likely do not keep Shabbat and therefore find a longer service unnecessary; and spend minimal to no effort outside the synagogue to learn the basic layout of the siddur or other details. The service that is born out of these needs couldn’t have been any different! When nothing goes in, nothing comes out etc.

It seems to me that—excuse my bluntness—people want their inexperience catered to. I’ve been approached more than a few times by older people asking me to teach them Hebrew—which I highly commend them for!—but rarely do they follow through to the point where they can learn much. I occasionally get incredulous reactions by people when they find out I’ve been going to the “inaccessible” Conservative (upper and lower case ‘c’) synagogue even though I was brought up with no Jewish education, and that I taught myself Hebrew and the outline of the siddur and Torah and so on in the course of a year. To keep up at my synagogue, I had to do that—it had nothing to do with my own willpower, and certainly not in any way that any properly motivated person couldn’t do. “It’s impossible!” they say, and moreover, why would anyone want to make the attempt when the Reform temple is looming over you, ready to accept anyone—No Work Required? Worse, some blame the Conservative synagogue for not being pluralistic enough, perhaps even turning people away (which is already false because most people there aren’t very observant anyway).

Maybe the lack of “spirit” in non-Orthodox synagogues is precisely because they are trying to appeal to as many people as possible, and doing so in a manner that’s not very well thought out (i.e. responsive readings)? If they don’t like it, they don’t have to join…but if they do like it, they have no authority to demand that others lower their standards for them. It doesn’t work in school, it doesn’t work in business, it doesn’t work here.

Your author is very familiar with this concept in other areas as well. She has been through the public school system, and is well acquainted with the phenomenon of classroom proceedings being constantly held back for the ever-present few who probably belonged a grade behind.

Deuteronomy 7:3-4: Worst prooftext ever

I’m reading a great book called In the Image of God: A Feminist Commentary on the Torah by Judith S. Antonelli. It uses an array of sources, from Midrash to a great wealth of knowledge on Egyptian rites and so on. The basic attempt is to show, parsha by parsha, that the Torah itself isn’t sexist, and a review is probably forthcoming etc. I agree with a good deal of what she says, except for her strangely random spiel on matrilineal descent.

The preceding chapters were all setting up the idea that the matrilineal descent of the Israelites’ Near Eastern neighbors was degrading to women because it either perpetuated or naturally came out of a polygynous system. It was very clear throughout the book that the Israelites, purposefully or not, used patrilineal descent and that this was a good thing. But suddenly the tables turn.

Do not intermarry with them. Do not give [your daughters] to his sons, and do not take their daughters for your sons, for he [it] will turn your sons [בנך] from Me and they will serve other gods [Deut. 7:3-4].

So, I’m not a Torah scholar in case you couldn’t tell (I’ve been doing this for one year people), but a couple of things.

First of all, is this referring only to the Canaanites, or is it a statute for all generations? That would make things a lot easier. I’m not sure if this is also the prooftext for prohibiting intermarriage, but I should think that from context it would be more like the statute “Moabite men may never convert and marry a Jewish woman”, not “No man may ever convert and marry a Jewish woman.”

The gist isn’t that it says “do not intermarry”, it’s that:

The son of the gentile, when he marries your daughter, will turn away your grandchild from Me. This teaches you that your daughter’s child by a gentile [man] is called your child, but your son’s child by a gentile women is not called your child, but her child [Rashi; Kid. 68b].

Hey correct me if I’m wrong, but I thought that both combos of Jewish daughter and Canaanite son and Canaanite daughter and Jewish son will “turn your children away from Me”. What is this? Why did he only pick one half of the sentence?

Antonelli writes,

The Torah is only concerned with the child of the Jewish daughter and her gentile husband, and not with the child of the Jewish son and his gentile wife, because only the former is Jewish according to Jewish law. A Jewish man cannot make Jewish children without a Jewish woman as a mother. Hence, the Torah refers to the “turning away” of those it considers Jewish. Non-Jewish children are not spoken of as having been “turned away” from Judaism because they were not a part of it to begin with [p. 414].

Talk about retroactive imposition of a law! She later states that “Matrilineal descent is as old as Abraham,” as if this so-called command of matrilineal descent wasn’t given in Deuteronomy (if she wanted to take that route), but rather existed eternally or something.

Also, it’s not only concerned with the Jewish daughter: “do not take their daughters for your sons“! What am I missing? She writes:

The question arises as to who is the “he” (or “it”) in the above passage. Will “it”—intermarriage—”turn your son from Me?” Will “he”—meaning the gentile father—turn the Jewish son who marries his daughter away from Hashem? Alternately, will “he”—meaning the gentile son—turn the Jewish daughter’s brother, the Jewish son, away from Hashem? The answer given is that the gentile son will turn his own son by the Jewish wife away from Hashem.

(Of course we’ve picked the most convoluted answer.)

Luckily, I know that —י is a singular future tense, so I’m guessing סיר means “turn away”, even though no dictionary agrees. If it’s singular, I don’t see how it could be referring to these plural Canaanite sons; nor would it sound so great to say “He, the gentile son, will turn all your children away from Me”. Perhaps it’s using male singular because this is addressed to male singular in general. But then “he, the gentile son” doesn’t correspond well with “them”, “בם” when first referring to the Canaanites.

Translating יסיר as “he” totally ignores the second part of the command, in a way that translating יסיר as “it, intermarriage” doesn’t. And anyway, couldn’t one just as easily read it “Do not take their daughters for your sons, for he [the Jewish son] will turn your children away from Me [because a wicked woman makes the husband wicked]“?

Rashi, why?

Nothing Sacred: A Book Review and then I talk about ME some more

I knew upon reading the title Nothing Sacred: The Truth About Judaism I would regret reading it, and then I saw that the author is an NPR media correspondent, and well the book basically was exactly what I thought it would be. I’m not exactly sure what I just read, but I think the basic gist is that we have to “make Judaism relevant”. I knew he was Reform when he’d already said by page seventeen that:

It must be understood that the legend of Israelity captivity and escape from bondage is not a historical record, but a symbolic emergence from the death cults of Egypt—a metaphoric “rebirth” through the parting waters of the Red Sea. The evidence of a mass migration of Israelites from Goshen is scarce, to say the least.

I mean, even PBS admitted that there was some semblance of evidence for some kind of voyage. I mean, I don’t know where PBS is on your believability scale, but given that their version of the story was the political insurgence version, I don’t think they were exactly catering to a “fundamentalist” audience.

But fine. Then he writes, after having nothing good to say about Orthodoxy: “Even observant members of Reform and Conservative communities tend to practice their faith with their heads in the sand, using synagogue as a spiritual safe haven from the many paradoxes of modern living” (p. 101). I presume by context that his audience is a secular one, dissatisfied by their experiences with holiday services that they don’t actually try to understand anyway (this irks me…you only come twice a year and you wonder why you’re not getting what the big deal is), but what a way to build up an “us against them” mentality before the book even starts to take off!

He spends most of the book relating to us the parallels between Hebrew and Canaanite myth to show that the Torah is all metaphorical, nothing new here. But I got the sense that his point is mostly to show that the “ancient ideals of Judaism” are “still relevant today in our more enlightened culture”. He’s using the old “Judaism is relevant only because it agrees with what we have to say today” approach.

I also noticed another great idiosyncracy of life in that all denominations like to think of themselves as continuing the true chain of the ancients:

Overwhelming evidence (er…source? Do you treat your job at NPR this way too?) suggests that Jews did not understand the Torah literally, but saw in its mythology an allegory to their own experience of defeat and Diaspora. They may very well have seen their God not as a real entity, like the gods of the people among whom they lived, but as a metaphor too. (p. 96-7)

Oh yeah, that makes sense. A metaphor for what? Do you mean non-anthropomorphic, by any chance?

But anyway, my biggest complaint isn’t that. It’s that he’s so vague. The whole time it sounded like his solution was to get rid of halacha, but then he started talking about how halacha is good. I thought it was to make Judaism “more relevant”, but then he started jabbing media outreach coordinators who attempt to package Judaism up like a commodity (I’m with him on that one), but he offered no solutions. He didn’t even really analyze the problems…it just seemed directed to an audience of which I’m not a part. I guess that’s not his fault, but his glib condemnation of anything that wasn’t Reform’s universalist social justice ethic (“Assimilation isn’t the problem! In fact the Jews of old were for it!…The greatest mitzvah therefore is proselytization! These ba’alei teshuva Orthodox people spend all their time thinking about the specifics of ritual, it’s like they think of their mezuzah as magical! Why don’t they just concentrate on the bigger issues?”) was his fault. (He also never actually said what these “bigger issues” actually are. Politics? War? What? All the things you don’t have to be Jewish to solve anyway so what’s your book about then?)

It really seemed more like an apologetic for the ideals of Reform than any “truth about Judaism”. Ah, whatever. It annoyed me that his tone was that of “I’m presenting such controversial evidence, those fundies just don’t want to hear the truth”, when really all it was was Reform ideals, and he even told a story about a time he gave a talk at a conference about the “symbolic ten plagues” and the rabbi who came on after him had to “reassure everyone” that his ideas were radical and unfounded (p. 49).

A few times, he explicitly said that there are two avenues: the secular (his) and the religious (those isolated, “head in the sand” Orthodox fundamentalists). I thought “Are you in Israel?”

But anyway.

But now for the good parts. And those are two. And they’re all about me.

First, I realized that I necessarily follow the ideals of all the denominations all at once. I realized, as he set up about his fourth “us v. them” example, that people really love to divide themselves up, even if they don’t know it. Obviously, this guy really thought he was writing about the “truth about Judaism”, not just plain old heard-it-before universalist social justice and ethical monotheism. Therefore, anyone who doesn’t focus on that is THE OTHER. Same for most other people, I assume.

I’m not saying I don’t totally do the same thing, but I don’t do it for any particular platform. I learned my “Judaism loves when you ask the hard questions” from Reform, my “mitzvot give us an oasis in time” from Conservative, and my “do the mitzvot and then think about it” from Orthodoxy. I learned that God likes to hear our prayers from Orthodoxy and that God left us long ago to fend for ourselves from Reform. I learned that halachic specifics don’t matter that much from my Conservative friends, that the best part of a mitzvah is learning “how it got that way” from my Conservative rabbi, and that a mitzvah is to be done exactly right from my Chabad sources. I got my Biblical history from my Southern Baptist religion teacher.

Anyway, I realized something else from this book and that is that I’ve never answered the questions “What is Judaism good for? Why keep it around?” (Of course, that might be because the author also didn’t try to answer that question, even though the book was about that.

I never thought about it. Even though I originally started getting into it not for my own sake but because I thought it was true—that doesn’t actually help. I enjoy truth for its own sake, but I thought about it. If I was some leader of a minyan as is my goal in life, and someone asked, ‘It’s all well and good that you want to reform these ineffective structures, but WHY? You want us to feel more connected to Judaism, but what for? So we can have a spiritual connection? We’d feel just as good being Buddhists.”

I don’t know how to answer that either, especially for people who don’t see Judaism the same way I do—the “mitzvot as spigot” approach.

A theological theory and book review: Third in a series of long posts.

I recently read an interesting piece of ethical theory from a book called Religion for Skeptics by William B. Silverman, written in 1967. The book first caught my attention on account of such phrases as “Religion has become a dependent variable. It does not originate; it reacts (p. 17),” and “Abraham was forced to leave his homeland and family, and grope through endless hours of torment before he glimpsed a vision of the living God (p. 5),” and:

No less indicative of kindergarten religion is the crass and vulgar exploitation of prayer to inject a meaningless note of religiosity into otherwise secular meetings and functions. It is difficult to estimate the time wasted by ministers, rabbis, and priests who are asked to give perfunctory invocations and benedictions at countless meetings and banquets. Those who attend are not praying; they are waiting. The invocation is tolerated if it is brief. It is the socially sanctioned liturgical dinner bell that signals the approach of food. The benediction likewise has a purpose. It heralds the conclusion of the meeting, as the worn-out, speech-fatigued members of the audience bow their heads but brace themselves for the “amen” that will start them racing madly to the parking lot to beat the crowd (p. 43).

I also liked this:

…[W]e would rather evade the intellectual demands [of asking "What do you mean by God?"] and the emotional torment of wrestling with it, and seek complacent refuge in talking about God, professing a belief in God, participating in rites and prayers that enable us to worship God—but never enter the arena of religious struggle to force ourselves to emerge with an answer. The mature faith demands that we think through our belief about God, come to grips with the divine and, like Jacob, wrestle through the long night of doubt, groping for religious clarity, writing through the blackness of soul struggle, until the dawn of truth enables us to emerge, humbled but triumphant, with the blessing of faith.

To abandon the simple, understandable, anthropomorphic, kindergarten God of our childhood is to subject ourselves to the growing pains that herald the approach of religious maturity. To wrestle and struggle toward a mature, adult conception of God is to invite the consequences of perplexity, frustration, confusion, humiliation, and intellectual anguish. The blessing is not without cost. Jacob was triumphant, but limped upon his thigh. Mature man in search of a mature conception of God must expect to be wearied and strengthened, purified and debased, exulted and depressed, glorified and dejected, confident and chastened. He will never be the same again (p. 109).

I don’t know if the author was aware, but he advances quite an interesting theological position near the middle of the book. We come to a discussion on how we can even hope to relate to a transcendent God, especially on a moral level? How can we even be sure that he does possess such moral qualities, which we try to imitate, especially when we see such destruction? “A discerning reader may properly ask,” he writes, “‘If it is immature to project physical qualities to God, isn’t it equally immature to project spiritual qualities to God?’” After all, we can barely know whether the emotions of animals or even other humans are exactly comparable to ours personally—as in when we’re sad, angry, and so on—how could we even attempt to say that God could be vengeful, angry, compassionate, or just? Moreover, could we go so far as to equate God with the absolute concepts of absolute truth, absolute justice, absolute mercy?

But I think he advances the following theory: The morals we consider absolute, such as justice, are not absolute at all, but rather the best we can do with human-sized perceptions. Such terms are “relative terms, rather than absolute concepts.” Of course we shouldn’t hope to equal God with our human values:

Reason alone asserts that the essence of God is amoral—not to be assessed as good or evil, just or unjust—God is. His essence is beyond all values or ethical or unethical attributes imputed to Him…Faith, however, declares that God is moral in that He has endowed man with the potential for morality. God is moral in that He has granted man freedom of will—which glorifies him and exalts him above all other creatures. Without freedom of will, there can be no morality of immorality (p. 124-5).

He goes on to say that freedom of will is why we have the Problem of Evil, but if he had spent more time on this other concept, I would have found it quite interesting. God isn’t what we call good or evil, nor is he really so responsible for things that happen which we call good or evil—we are. (You can’t deny the humanistic quality of Judaism.) It’s easy to see that throughout time and throughout the lands, the so-called “absolute concepts” of justice, love, compassion, and so on, can vary widely. I hate to say this, because it comes so close to Cultural Relativism, but how might we reconcile different conceptions of these absolutes in different situations?

I propose that the idea that the actions we take in pursuing justice/mercy/etc. are relative—though the ideals we wish to reach are absolute. Thus if something happens—something “bad”—that doesn’t quite correspond with an action we’d take that we’d call justice/mercy/etc., we cannot very well blame the absolute concept. Or God, for that matter.

Now, could we call these ideals we wish to reach justice or mercy? I’m not sure. They’re certainly not identical with our limited conceptions of them, and we can only hope to know the aspects which we actually practice.

The whole thing is very Platonic.

Part IV.

Wow, I really love reading fiction: A Theology Part I

I always thought I hated fiction, but maybe it’s like movies—most are bad, but you’ve just got to recognize when it’s going to be bad and avoid it for your own sanity’s sake. I just read Bee Season by Myla Goldberg, and it’s about a young girl who finds her talent in a spelling bee, and her father uses this talent to introduce her to the kabbalistic method to transcendence. Using spelling. Meanwhile, her brother joins Hare Krishna and her mother steals various things in hopes of gathering all the shards of light that escaped from the vessel.

It was pretty awesome. All three of the characters were focused solely reaching transcendence, which I’ve thought about often, only not in so many words. In high school, I was too lame to know where to find drugs, so I would light incense, sit on my bed, listen to The Doors, and think about if I only had drugs I could be complete—something could really happen. Or I’d listen to a new record and wait to be lifted into the heavens. I tried to push past the wall using all the legal methods—staying up too late, playing my keyboards, listening to Pink Floyd. I thought I could do it by writing music; writing plays; moving to Chicago; and other things that never worked.

On one hand, I was really tired of the cycle of everyday life—and if you’ve ever been in high school, you know that this feeling is quite real. But on the other hand, I’d had only a glimpse over the wall, and it wasn’t pretty. Since I never really had lots of friends in high school, I had more than enough time during the summer to spend by myself in my room, becoming whomever I wanted to be. (Of course, that image shattered as soon as I left to go to Kroger or something.) But I figured that if I were to reach this point, I wouldn’t exactly be acceptable to the safe and comfortable world of everyday society. “Comfort”, I’d decided, would cease to be.

I was reminded of this sentiment near the end of the book, wherein the girl ends up finally pronouncing the Name correctly, kabbalistically speaking, and ends up on the floor in a frightening trance, so frightening that she hopes to die, and she knows that she can never really enter into everyday life again. “Succeeding sounds scarier than failing,” as she says in the book upon reading Abulafia’s description of success.

It made me think a lot of things that night—For one thing, it occurred to me that books are written on how to pronounce the Name, yet there are Biblical scholars who pompously insist that they know how to say it because of such pedestrian reasons as it’s close to the verb “To Be” or whatever (which is no fun anyway). I recently heard a new theory on NOVA, however, that there was a group of people who came from the land of יהו and they just decided to add a hey at the end just for kicks. NOVA made it sound so punk rock too, because even though on its face this theory might be subversive or something, its premise was that a group of wanderers came up from יהו to meet with a bunch of political dissidents from Canaan who “wrote into the Torah that they were actually from Egypt/Ur when really they were from Canaan all along, evident by the fact that the pottery is the same but also simpler, evidence that they were rebelling against Canaan”.

The point is they got together like true revolutionaries and marched for monotheism. And that’s pretty punk rock.

NOVA made me realize that if I’m going to get anywhere I have to learn things like this. I have to admit I get nervous going in—what if they tell me that the Exodus was made up? Passover is coming!—but sometimes I sit through something and it wasn’t so bad after all. I can’t be scared to learn about the archaeology or whatever; I just can’t.

Anyway, after reading that book it also occurred to me that the Christian view of God is extremely limiting—not only in the sense that he could actually become a man, but more pressingly in the sense that the entire theology is based on redemption. That’s not just a part of it; that’s all of it. I think to the end of the book wherein the girl is simply reciting the Name—no more—she probably only entered the First Gate Of Understanding—and that was more than enough to push her over the edge. Imagine the Fiftieth Gate Of Understanding! To think that God is primarily concerned with original sin so much so to create it and then plan out that whole ordeal to cancel it again seems naive to me.

Jewish theology at least has more room to roam, but this still isn’t enough, which I recognize now. I’ve been going through the siddur trying to understand phrases such as “When He looks at the earth, it trembles. When He touches the mountains, they pour forth smoke.” On good days I’d assume this was just a respectful, if not meaningless, overstatement. But think of it—this is only the very surface of it. God is enormous! To reach the Fiftieth Gate Of Understanding would probably melt your brain!

Augmenting this is the fact that he must be all things to everyone and every religion—simultaneously, at many levels. To the simple person, he is accessible by a few words of prayer. To the people at Kiddush, by a simple “amen”. To the halachist, by a minyan. To the Catholic, by a priest. To the Kabbalist, he is accessible through specialty. To the theologian, through mathematics. By dance. By nature. By thought. He disciplines. He loves. He sustains. And those are only the things we can describe. As soon as we think we can describe God, we much necessarily discard that description. As Brian Eno says, “Oh, what a burden to be so relied on!”

Theology and Falsification

Antony Flew begins our three-way discussion on the implications that falsification has on theology by showing that any theological statement that is posed must stand up to the same test as any assertion: There must necessarily be a corresponding negation of that assertion. Most theological statements may not correspond with a negation; that is to say that there is no admitted case in which the statement could not hold true. In denying that there could be a statement that could negate any theological statement (i.e. “God created the world”; “God has a plan for us”), our statement, in effect, dies a “death by a thousand qualifications”. Flew seems to be stating that unless a theological statement is an assertion, it is a meaningless and “fradulent” statement: for example, if “You ought to do something because it is God’s will” is not intended as an assertion, then it really is no different from “You ought”, which is an unconvincing substitution.

This is partially in response to Hare’s response to Flew, in which Hare brings up the concept of a blik, a fancy way of saying “an unverified preconception”, to which we are all inherently subjected simply by existing in a world of empirical format. Hare states that Flew is using this concept as a sort of explanation, while it is really only a basis on which to build explanations. He believes that Flew’s “theological statement” need not be subjected to the dichotomy of “assertion vs. non-assertion“, for these statements as such are simply worldviews on which to build testable explanations and assertions. Flew responds to Hare in stating that reducing theological assertions to bliks, we are not functionally stating anything. They have their place in philosophy—but not religious philosophy. I shall return to this later.

Mitchell, in turn, shows that there is a difference between decisively allowing a contradiction to negate an assertion, and allowing any contradiction to negate it. He uses the example that a theologian would allow the fact of pain to count against the assertion that “God loves men”, however it would not completely and decisively negate the assertion. (I am not sure of the implications of this so much as it simply allows one some time to come up with ways around such a contradiction.) His example allows us to admit that something may count against a theological assertion, while Hare’s blik is decidedly non-falsifiable. He agrees with Flew that theological statements must necessarily be assertions, but also that such statements are not falsifiable (meaning, I assume, that he takes them to be essentially meaningless). He proposes that these assertions may even be unintelligible, and a religious person is in “constant danger” of shifting into such a mindset (in, for example, using these statements solely as reassurance).

I agree with Flew in that reducing a theological statement to a blik is misguided. Religious activities are not conducted based on the coincidentally aligned worldviews of a group of adherents—at least it isn’t meant to be as such. (My sister [who is sixteen] brought up an interesting concept a few days ago, and though it’s not as if this idea is completely new, it made me consider the validity of these religious activities. She is in the throes of coming up with some sort of religious philosophy herself, which as I understand it is somewhat solipsist [though she denies this]—all people are on their own plane, connecting via media such as art and organized religion. But then she told me that she believes a church only becomes “holy” in that all people are attempting to contact the same being—all failing due to the structure of our minds, of course. She’d probably say that I misunderstood her completely. But the point is that there is a possibility that all theological concepts are socially constructed, which is probably the point she was getting at.) When I make any theological statement, I am decidedly not simply asserting that it is an undeniable, non-falsifiable core belief of yours truly. Also, if I assert something that is not falsifiable, I am still not stating that something is personally true only to me, though my statement may well still be meaningless.

A difference must also be noted between assertions and explanations. Which are theological statements meant to be? Assertions are statements that have a corresponding negation, which—if the assertion is positive—is a state that is not the case. Or, as Flew states in a footnote, P = ~~P. An explanation must show why something occurs instead of something else. I think it could be useful to see certain theological statements as explanations, though of course we have got into some trouble this way. But I am a fairly enthusiastic believer in religious statements being inherently safe from the entire practice of falsification (for they are not empirical). However, I do think that there are at least some significant theological statements that pass the “assertion” test—I could note instances in which these statements would not hold. In fact, I could do this fairly easily, and although I don’t believe all religion must be subjected to scientific tests, I also don’t believe that falsification should be used to show that religion is purely psychological or meaningless (however, the statement that religious assertions are meaningless only stands to show that they are not subjectible to falsification, which isn’t especially offensive to me).

So, are theological statements “vacuous formulae”? I said that I could show that certain theological statements could be falsified. Let’s say “God exists.” This would mean that I am stating that “It is not the case that God does not exist.” Without adding thousands of qualifications onto this statement, I could simply state that because the world is in order—God exists. This, of course, is different from saying “The world exists, therefore God exists”. That’s not demonstrable, obviously. I could say, “Well, the world is still on its axis. We haven’t been overrun by kudzu.” But would this be similar to Hare’s example that I could always believe that my steering wheel may one day break off, though I have no evidence to prove this is so? I don’t think so, because although Hare’s driver could not be convinced that something will always be the case (i.e. The steering wheel will always work), I am convinced that something that could falsify God’s existence is not currently happening, i.e. we’re not being overrun by kudzu.

Of course you could say that science also explains this. To which I would reply that science and religion are not incompatible. So I generally like to say that religion is inherently non-falsifiable. I am only stating that there exists at least one case in which “God exists” could be disproved—although religion ought not to be subject to falsification, I believe that in certain cases, it would not be wrong to say that it could hold up to it. Of course, the very fact that we will not be suddenly overrun with kudzu can be explained by things other than God, however, does not help my case. But still, stating that science and God may be just part of a double-aspect theory is not the same as saying that nothing can disprove God. The same goes for explanations. In my scenario, the “thousand-qualification death” is of little consequence; of more importance is the “minimal qualification” God who is not especially interested in keeping us happy 24/7 (which I discussed previously and alienated some). I extend omnipotence to things that are not logically impossible, and I extend omniscience to all h
ypothetical situations—as opposed to fatalism.

In Flew’s case, I believe, theological statements have no exit—either they are assertions or they are not, and in either case, they are meaningless. I believe there must be another option—unless we take “meaningless” to mean that “apologetics are interesting, but will never prove anything”. I think I could agree with that. Referring to these types of statements as preconceptions cannot be proposed as a proper solution, either, as this idea, as Flew states, does not have much use in the philosophy of religion (for religion, unlike bliks, is not referring to something internal, at least not in most cases—save for my sister).

Flew’s article can also be found in: Antony Flew, “Theology and Falsification,” University, 1950-51; from Joel Feinberg, ed., Reason and Responsibility: Readings in Some Basic Problems of Philosophy, Belmont, CA: Dickenson Publishing Company, Inc., 1968, pp. 48-49.