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March 18, 2017

How a thirteen-year-old interprets what's been given

“Of course what I’ve just said may not be right,” concluded the thirteen year old girl, “but what’s important is to engage in the interpretation and to participate in the discussion that has been going on for thousands of years.”

So said the bas mitzvah girl at an orthodox Jewish synagogue this afternoon. She is the daughter of friends, so I went. And because it is an orthodox synagogue, I didn’t violate the Sabbath by taking notes. Thus that quote isn’t even close enough to count as a paraphrase. But that is the thought that she ended her D’var Torah with. (I’m sure as heck violating the Sabbath now by writing this, but I am not an observant Jew.)

The D’var Torah is a talk on that week’s portion of the Torah. Presenting one before the congregation is a mark of one’s coming of age. The bas mitzvah girl (or bar mitzvah boy) labors for months on the talk, which at least in the orthodox world is a work of scholarship that shows command of the Hebrew sources, that interprets the words of the Torah to find some relevant meaning and frequently some surprising insight, and that follows the carefully worked out rules that guide this interpretation as a fundamental practice of the religion.

While the Torah’s words themselves are taken as sacred and as given by G-d, they are understood to have been given to us human beings to be interpreted and applied. Further, that interpretation requires one to consult the most revered teachers (rabbis) in the tradition. An interpretation that does not present the interpretations of revered rabbis who disagree about the topic is likely to be flawed. An interpretation that writes off prior interpretations with which one disagrees is not listening carefully enough and is likely to be flawed. An interpretation that declares that it is unequivocally the correct interpretation is wrong in that certainty and is likely to be flawed in its stance.

It seems to me — and of course I’m biased — that these principles could be very helpful regardless of one’s religion or discipline. Jewish interpretation takes the Word as the given. Secular fields take facts as the given. The given is not given unless it is taken, and taking is an act of interpretation. Always.

If that taking is assumed to be subjective and without boundaries, then we end up living in fantasy worlds, shouting at those bastards who believe different fantasies. But if there are established principles that guide the interpretations, then we can talk and learn from one another.

If we interpret without consulting prior interpretations, then we’re missing the chance to reflect on the history that has shaped our ideas. This is not just arrogance but stupidity.

If we fail to consult interpretations that disagree with one another, we not only will likely miss the truth, but we will emerge from the darkness certain that we are right.

If we consult prior interpretations that disagree but insist that we must declare one right and the other wrong, we are being so arrogant that we think we can stand in unequivocal judgment of the greatest minds in our history.

If we come out of the interpretation certain that we are right, then we are far more foolish than the thirteen year old I heard speak this morning.

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March 2, 2016

Keep prayers out of public school

I received an email from Rep. Vern Buchanan (Republican from Florida) asking:

The Supreme Court has ruled that opening public high school sporting events with a prayer is unconstitutional. Do you support this decision?

Rep. Buchanan's form

I said yes. In fact, I called his office to tell him why. Had I not been compressing a message for one of his aides, here’s what I would have said:

I grew up in the school district where parents brought the suit, Engel v. Vitale, that resulted in the 1962 Supreme Court decision. I was twelve. I remember the cross-burning down the street from us when the results were announced.

The school had adopted what it considered to be a non-denominational prayer. There is no such thing. Even if there were, how one prays varies in different religions. Jews don’t kneel, clasp their hands, and bow. In fact, Jews don’t pray together in public places as part of their usual ritual. (Exception: Part of the Yom Kippur service entails kneeling.)

Not to mention that I’m an agnostic atheist, so I don’t pray. I remember availing myself of the option to sit quietly while the rest of the class said the prayer. Why would anyone think that that’s an acceptable option to give a kid? My school was half Christian and half Jewish, and it was a very tolerant place, so I didn’t feel ostracized. But I was lucky. “Starting a class with prayer tells a kid what’s normal.”Starting a class with prayer, and understanding that this is a school policy, tells a kid what’s normal. If you don’t pray, or don’t pray that way, how could a child not draw the conclusion that she or he is not a full-fledged member of the class?

I’ll be happy to reconsider these views when I hear about the first public school where the kids are mainly or entirely Christian that mandates starting the day by saying a “non-denominational” prayer that refers to G-d as “Allah,” and that requires the children to kneel while facing Mecca. Then maybe I’ll believe that the push for school prayer isn’t based on Christian assumptions.


October 24, 2014

[clickbait] Copyright is sodomy

A year ago, Harold Feld posted one of the most powerful ways of framing our excessive zeal for copyright that I have ever read. I was welling up even before he brought Aaron Swartz into the context.

Harold’s post is within a standard Jewish genre: the d’var Torah, an explanation of a point in the portion of the Torah being read that week. As is expected of the genre, he draws upon a long, self-reflective history of interpretation. I urge you to read it because of the light it sheds on our culture of copyright, but it’s also worth noticing the form of the discussion.

The content: In the Jewish tradition, Sodom’s sin wasn’t sexual but rather an excessive possessiveness leading to a fanatical unwillingness to share. Harold cites from a collection of traditional commentary, The Ethics of Our Fathers:

“There are four types of moral character. One who says: ‘what is mine is mine and what is yours is yours.’ This is an average person. Some say it is the Way of Sodom. The one who says: ‘what is mine is yours and what is yours is mine,’ is ignorant of the world. ‘What is mine is yours and what is yours is yours’ is the righteous. ‘What is mine is mine and what is yours is mine’ is the wicked.”

In a PowerPoint, it’d be a 2×2 chart. Harold’s point will be that the ‘what is mine is mine and what is yours is yours.’ of the average person becomes wicked when enforced without compassion or flexibility. Harold evokes the traditional Jewish examples of Sodom’s wickedness and compares them to what’s become our dominant “average” assumptions about how copyright ought to work.

I am purposefully not explaining any further. Read Harold’s piece.

The form: I find the space of explanation within which this d’var Torah — and most others that I’ve heard — operates to be fascinating. At the heart of Harold’s essay is a text accepted by believers as having been given by God, yet the explanation is accomplished by reference to a history of human interpretations that disagree with one another, with guidance by a set of values (e.g., sharing is good) that persevere in a community thanks to that community’s insistent adherence to its tradition. The result is that an agnostic atheist like me (I’m only pretty sure there is no God) can find truth and wisdom in the interpretation of a text I take as being ungrounded in a divine act.

But forget all that. Read Harold’s post, bubbelah.


March 7, 2012

Contentious hermeneutics

My friend AKMA has posted part I of his research and reflections into the “Old Testament” writings about death. AKMA is a friend, and a truly learned, open-minded, and open-hearted theologian. It’s fascinating watching him doing his preliminary research, sorting through the death references from within his Christian frame, although AKMA being AKMA, he’s mainly pointing out ways the Jewish testament does not support the Christian testament’s ideas about death; AKMA is carefully avoiding (I believe) the assumption that Christianity completes the Jewish beginning.

Even so, as I read his thoughtful interpretation, I was struck by how differently he proceeds than would my orthodox Jewish friends (one of whom is my wife :). They’re learned scholars as well, and they of course at times traverse the testament to find all the references to a topic under discussion. But the next step is different. My orthodox friends understand the text only in conversation with the tradition of great scholars — rabbis — who are interpreting the text. It wouldn’t occur to them to try to understand the text apart from that great conversation. Of course AKMA also understands the text through the interpretations that surround it; he is, after all, an extremely well-versed scholar. But it’s different. For the Jews, the rabbinic conversation is, essentially, a part of the text.

And, it’s worth pointing out that that interpretative tradition is fully embraced as unresolved. The rabbis disagree, and this is a good thing. A scholarly discussion that does not point out and defend the disputations has failed. Thus, the tradition is self-contradictory. But, my orthodox friends bridle at that phrase because when you call something self-contradictory, you usually mean to say that it’s flawed; at least one of the sides needs to be rejected, or you need to mystically embrace the paradox. For orthodox scholars, to reject one of the great sources would be to lessen the tradition. And mystically accepting all sides would end the perpetual argument that in a real sense is Judaism. Rather, it’s accepted that we humans are not up to the task of finally understanding the world or the G-d that created it. But we are commanded to keep trying. So, we need as many learned points of view as possible, and we especially need to understand them in their very disagreement. The Jewish understanding of its eternal text is the continuing contentious discussion.

This divergence of argument occurs on the basis of agreement about an unchanging text. We’ve been given an original text that stays literally the same; its letters are copied from one text to another with error-checking procedures that keep the sequences of letters quite reliable. But the text does not speak for itself. It needs to be read and interpreted. That interpretation cannot be accomplished by an individual or even by a community. It requires a history: a set of conversations within the community, arguing about the text across time and circumstance. Thus, an unchanging text can remain relevant because its meaning is not apart from or behind the interpretation, but is in the history of interpretation by an argumentative community.

The perpetual argument is driven by a need to resolve questions of behavior: how the Law is to be applied to a particular dilemma. What constitutes sufficiently koshering an oven when you move into a new apartment? Your rabbi rules, citing text, tradition and its interpreters. The rabbi one synagogue over might well rule differently. That’s ok. That’s how it works: local rabbis refer to a contentious set of interpreters operating from a single text, following rules of argument and evidence. This ties the community to a continuous tradition and an eternal text, while allowing for progressively relevant interpretation and for a multiplicity that enables Jews to not only to live with disagreement, but to flourish within it.

AKMA has written brilliantly about the diversity of interpretation as reflected through his own commitment: differential hermeneutics , and also here and here, among other places. This is a difference in traditions that is reflected in differences in interpretative practices. It is a difference we should embrace.

[Disclosure: I am a non-observant, agnostic Jew. There is no chance that I have gotten the above right.]


My friend Jacob Meskin read a draft of this and has been very helpful, as have several other people, none of whom entirely agree with what I’ve written. Jacob passed along the following from Levinas:

“The Revelation as calling to the unique within me is the significance particular to the signifying of the Revelation. It is as if the multiplicity of persons — is not this the very meaning of the personal? — were the condition for the plenitude of ‘absolute truth’; as if every person, through his uniqueness, were the guarantee of the revelation of a unique aspect of truth, and some of its points would never have been revealed if some people had been absent from mankind. This is not to say that truth is acquired anonymously in History, and that it finds ‘supporters’ in it! On the contrary, it is to suggest that the totality of the true is constituted from the contribution of multiple people: the uniqueness of each act of listening carrying the secret of the text; the voice of the Revelation, as inflected, precisely, by each person’s ear, would be necessary to the ‘Whole’ of the truth. That the Word of the living God may be heard in diverse ways does not mean only that the Revelation measures up to those listening to it, but that this measuring up measures up the Revelation: the multiplicity of irreducible people is necessary to the dimensions of meaning; the multiple meanings are multiple people. We can thus see the whole impact of the reference made by the Revelation to exegesis, to the freedom of this exegesis, the participation of the person listening to the Word making itself heard, but also the possibility for the Word to travel down the ages to announce the same truth in different times.” [ From “Revelation in the Jewish Tradition” (1977), in Beyond The Verse, trans. Gary D. Mole, Indiana University Press, 1994, pp.133-134]

Jacob points out that Levinas is saying this within a context that assumes a tradition of revered rabbinic commentators who are touchstones for the conversation. Without that understanding, this particular passage could lead one to think that Jews feel free to interpret any which way they want. No, our argument has bounds.


May 26, 2010

Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks and Prof. Michael Sandel

We went last night to hear a conversation between Harvard philosopher Michael Sandel and the Chief Rabbi of England, Jonathan Sacks. Very interesting, although it actually turned out to be Prof. Sandel interviewing Rabbi Sacks, rather than an actual conversation; I had been looking forward to the two of them digging into a topic — perhaps justice? — more mutually.

I didn’t take notes — it was not an open-laptop sort of event — but here are some highlights, filtered through my own interests and my faulty memory.

Rabbi Sacks began by saying that the theme of his new book, Future Tense, is that the current Jewish self-narrative is flawed. We see ourselves as history’s victims. We need instead, he said, to see Judaism as we did until relatively recently: not as a burden but as a privilege. He followed that up with a discussion of the theme of his book The Dignity of Difference (in the UK, he said, no one reads books, but they read book titles, so he tried to compress the message to four words), perhaps to forestall the assumption that that privilege is unique among all religions (which is the common understanding by non-Jews of what Jews mean by “chosenness.”)

Rabbi Sacks is an orthodox Jew with a highly pluralistic and urbane attitude. Indeed, pluralism was at the heart of his remarks last night. He referred several times to The Dignity of Difference and talked about universalism of the Enlightenment as an error: The differences among us should not be dissolved into a universal humanity, but should be maintained as a source of dignity and identity even while recognizing some universal imperatives. Across these lines we need to learn to talk with respect and with openness. (He thinks that America now is the home of engaged, passionate moral debate, whereas Europe and England are old and tired. Prof. Sandel urged him not to watch TV if he wants to preserve that illusion.)

Judaism, he said, is a religion of conversation. He said it is the only world religion for which all the sacred texts are anthologies of arguments: the Bible tells of conversations between Jews and G-d, and commentary is all arguments among the Rabbis.

Later he said that we should not be afraid to talk with those who radically oppose our ideas because we should have confidence that we will not be changed by them; that struck me as at odds with the idea of openness. Later still he said (quoting someone) that wisdom is the ability to learn something from everyone. Put these together and you get a realistic idea of openness: Openness to learning something, but no realistic expectation that the Jew will be convinced by the Nazi.

Faith for Jews, he said, is more or less the opposite of how the term is generally taken. It does not mean having confidence in one’s beliefs, but doubting them. [Many Christians would agree.] Jewish faith, he said, exists in the dissonance between seeing how the world is and how it should be. That is why, he later added, Jewish faith binds Jews to the Jewish law: The task is not to hold a set of beliefs but to heal the world. There is no Jewish faith without that.

I was therefore glad to hear that the Rabbi’s next book will be a response to what Prof. Sandel called the “fundamentalist atheism” of Dawkins and Hitchens. Sandel asked why their attacks on religion are of such broad appeal. Rabbi Sacks said that it’s because religion has been presenting its worst face to the world, that of intolerant fanaticism.

Prof. Sandel asked — to a murmer of approval from the crowd — whether Jews are too intolerant of differences among Jews. The Rabbi said yes, that we need to respect one another as Jews even across the wide spectrum of observance and belief. He also said that the incivility of Israeli politics is extremely dangerous. He said that the Jews have lost their homeland three times in their history, and in every case it was because we were squabbling among ourselves. He thinks the only hope for Israel’s future is to embrace plurality among Jews and among all who live in the area. We need to learn to live together. (He did not go into detail about what that would mean politically.)

Rabbi Sacks ended by, in response to an audience question, talking about the importance of Jews appreciating culture other than their own. He declared his love of Shakespeare and of Beethoven’s late string quartets [good choices! :)] Trying to describe their beauty, he was for the first time that evening at a loss for words.


March 23, 2009

Arguing for the sake of Heaven

Disagreement is, in its nature, like the creation of the world.
For the creation of the world came about in essence by way of open space,
without which all would have been endless divinity,
and there would have been no place for the creation of the world.
Therefore, God withdrew light to the margins,
and the open space was formed,
and in that space God created the world,
through acts of speech.
And so it is, too, with disagreement—
for if all the sages were of one mind
there would be no place for the creation of the world.
It is only by way of the disagreement between them,
and their dividing one from another,
each one drawing to a particular side,
that open space comes into being between them—
which, in its nature, is like the withdrawing of primordial divine light to the margins—
in the midst of which creation can take place, through acts of speech.

—Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav (1772–1810)
Jonah Steinberg, translator

This is a text a lecture (now postponed) by Nehemia Polen was going to discuss at a class in Newton, MA.

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February 13, 2009

[open access] Dan Bricklin podcasts a couse on Passover

Dan Bricklin has posted a recording of a reduced version (only five hours!) of a course he took with Rabbi Reuven Cohn about the Passover Haggadah. The Haggadah is the book Jews read aloud before the Pasover meal, recounting one of the religion’s founding events. Because it is a story of liberation, it has resonances all over the place. Dan writes about the class:

The book, mainly in Hebrew, seems to be a random mishmash of different readings and blessings. With the help of the class I learned about its origins 2000 years ago by studying the ancient books of the Talmud, especially the parts called the Mishnah. Through the class I saw this book that I had been reading carefully for my whole life (and the ceremony it describes) in an entirely new light. I got to see it’s important place in the evolution of the Jewish religion after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E. It also helped give me some insight into the parallel development of Christianity at the same time.

I talked Reuven into giving a short version of the course (only about 5 hours) to some of my friends while I recorded it for sharing on the Internet (under a Creative Commons attribution, non-commercial, no-derivative works license). With the help of a few microphones and a PDF of the handouts, you should be able to feel as if you were there. The participants had a wide range of Jewish backgrounds, from very little Jewish education to extensive. The class was conducted in English.

Reuven is a very gifted teacher, with an interesting background. He received a law degree from Yale and once was a lawyer at a well-known Boston firm. He also received ordination from Yeshiva University and teaches at Hebrew College in Newton and Maimonides School in Brookline.

I have not listened to the podcasts yet, but trust Dan’s judgment implicitly. I find the Jewish method of exegesis to be fascinating, and quite admirable, even while I am unconvinced of the divinity of the work being explained.

It would be interesting to find a similar project explaining some aspect of Islam. [Tags: ]

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October 4, 2008

Rosh Hashonah in Uganda

The Velveteen Rabbi points to Glenna Gordon‘s post about celebrating the Jewish new year in Uganda.

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September 24, 2008

Who was saved in Sodom and Gomorrah?

My wife just blew my mind. I thought I knew the basics of the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. I’ve always cottoned to it because you have to like a religion in which people get to argue with their god. But I thought it was obvious that Abraham was arguing to save the innocent.

Nope. My wife, who is a scholar about these things (although she denies it), says that on the contrary, the traditional Jewish commentators take it for granted that G-d will save the innocent. And, indeed, He brings Lot out, even though Lot is only semi-innocent. In fact, Abraham is arguing that the presence of the innocent ought to save the guilty.

Why would having ten righteous people in a city be reason enough to save the guilty, given that either way, the innocent were going to be saved? That’s where the Jewish discussion of this passage begins. And maybe it’s where everyone’s discussion begins. But not me. I had it quite backwards.

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June 14, 2008

Gay rights and differential hermeneutics

In the June issue of Harper’s, Gary Keizer has an article called “Turning away from Jesus: Gay rights and the war for the Episcopal Church” that I kept trying not to like, I think because he’s too right and too good. But the article won me over. Alas, Harper only posts miniature, unreadable images of the pages, so you’ll have to do something primitive like trudge to your local library to read it.

Gary paints a picture of a church traditionally less interested in enforcing doctrinal homogeneity than in ministering to those in need. He personally favors the ordination of gay clergy, but the article focuses a level up from that: How can a church handle disagreement and difference? And he explicitly applies those lessons beyond the church to the country and the world.

It made me think of AKMA‘s idea of differential hermeneutics, a theory of interpretation (which is to say, of understanding) that assumes we’re never going to agree. He opposes this to what he calls “integral hermeneutics,” which aims at resolving issues, and thus showing that one person’s interpretation is right and another’s is wrong. And, yes, AKMA is fully aware of the issues that arise from his position. (I blogged about this here.)

I am convinced that Gary and AKMA are raising exactly the right questions, and are answering them the only way that lets us live together in peace, which is not to say in harmony or quietude. And I find what they say based upon their similar religious convictions to be quite in line with what I understand the Jewish attitude toward interpretation to be: The arguing continues all the way into the next life. If you’re so lucky. [Tags: ]