Writing for the Atlantic, Alan Jacobs reports some insightful lessons from a study session led by Rabbi Jacob Schachter aimed at formulating a sound religious posture toward the internet. Jacobs was thrown off at first when Rabbi Schacter introduced the session by handing out a three-ring binder filled with photocopies of rabbinic legal sources regarding the proper execution of a get (a ‘get‘ is a traditional Jewish document of divorce)–a matter with no apparent relevance to the session’s supposed topic.
This seemed a strange way to proceed, but I soon saw the sense of it, because traditionally a get had to be written by a sofer (scribe) according to a very strict protocol–and with the rise of the printing press in the sixteenth century, debates ensued among rabbis about whether a printed get could ever be legitimate.
Rabbi Schacter went on to explain the complex theological questions posed to traditional practice by the advent of the printing press:
Why was there no printing press in the time of the Patriarchs, or of the sages of the Mishnah? Were these not great and wise men–men who talked with God!–who could have invented the printing press had they thought it appropriate to do so, or had God so instructed them? And was not their failure to do so an indication that the printing press is to be shunned? Some thought so, but others replied, no, not at all: The fact that these men were great sages who knew God did not mean that they could overleap the state of their own age. Technology develops incrementally in any given culture, and even the wisest men of God have no power to escape those conditions.
Schacter’s message was that contemporary Jewish leader’s coming to terms with today’s technology will require that they, in Jacobs’ words, “think as seriously and as faithfully as their ancestors did about the printing press.” The take-away for Jacobs: “By entering into the conversation with those we admire from the past, we can practice the habits of mind we need in order to be discerning users of technology today.” A valuable lesson indeed.
Israeli archaeologist Yosef Garfinkel announced earlier this week several findings which may contribute toward a positive case for the veracity of biblical history, in particular the question of whether a centralized Israelite kingdom existed during the era of the biblically purported King David. Excavations at a site called Hirbet Qeiyafa, near contemporary Bet Shemesh in the Judean hills, yielded two small-scale model shrines resembling biblical descriptions of the Jerusalem Temple, and showed the city to have been significantly fortified - an indicator of a strong and well-organized central administration. Notable among items not found were pig remains and cultic figurines – both of which are common to the area – suggesting a culture observant of biblical religion.
Others, of course, have disputed the evidence; these sorts of debates hardly ever appear resolvable, and despair at the futility of even trying to decisively settle them is, I think, a natural response. But still, even acknowledging the provisionality and tenuousness involved, it’s always nice to hear a little positive evidence.
The State of Israel’s declaration of independence–64 years ago on this day in the Hebrew calendar–was at the time, and has been forever since, a point of impassioned conflict. Even leaving aside the five Arab armies that immediately invaded the country and the substantial international opposition at the time, it’s worth noting that the Jewish administration’s vote in favor of independence passed only by a margin of 6 to 4. Religiously, responses range from enthusiastic endorsements of the state as the first flowering of messianic redemption to grave condemnation of the human impudence involved.
But one way or another, after two millennia of Jewish homelessness and suffering, and in exasperatingly delayed fulfillment of those two millennia’s worth of daily, desperate prayers, it’s impossible to ignore the sheer gravity and poignancy of the moment. And I would venture further that, listening to Ben Gurion resolutely read the declaration that day in 1948, anyone would be hard-pressed to miss hearing the divine voice dramatically reverberating through the strokes of history.
Here’s a video of the declaration (with English subtitles):
According to a recent a recent 3-0 decision from The Appellate Division of New Jersey Superior Court, one needn’t be Jewish to sue for anti-semitic discrimination. The suit in question was brought by a certain Myron Cowher, of German-Irish and Lutheran descent, against Carson and Roberts Site Construction and Engineering Inc., charging that he endured a year’s worth of anti-semitic slurs resulting in a hostile work environment. Reversing a previous decision, the court ruled that Cohwer’s not being Jewish was not relevant to the anti-semitism charge, as the “proper question” is not the actual identity of the plaintiff but what effects the alleged discrimination would have on “a reasonable Jew.”
From a JTA report:
Experts say the ruling will expand the scope of who can sue for discrimination under the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination by allowing anyone, not just a member of the protected class, to pursue the claim. This significantly broadens the interpretation of the law, which typically has protected people based on their actual age, race, religion or sexuality.
Gregg Salka, an associate at Fisher & Phillips law firm who works with small-business clients, told The Star-Ledger newspaper that “Anyone can pretty much bring a claim, even if they’re not a member of a protected class. It moves the focus more towards the discriminatory comments rather than the actual characteristic of the plaintiff.”
Today, the 27th of Nissan in the Jewish calendar, marks the State of Israel’s official Holocaust Remembrance Day. It’s been seven decades now, but the sheer magnitude of the tragedy still resonates powerfully for Jews both in Israel and across the globe. But the focus is not only on the grief and mourning for the past, but no less on celebrating the incredible heroism exhibited by countless many during the period and on reaffirming a resolute, passionate commitment to a better future. The full official name of the day is “Yom ha-Zikaron la-Shoah v-la-gevurah,” or “Memorial Day for the Holocaust and for Heroism.”
In Israel, the focal point of the day’s observance is a two minute long siren sounded throughout the country at exactly 10 A.M., whereupon every single person, no matter where they are or what they’re doing, stops and stands in silent remembrance. I’ve been there and participated in the ritual myself, and I would say that it is easily the most poignant expression of civic and communal solidarity I have ever experienced. And there’s something profoundly hopeful about that.
For a flavor of what the experience is like, have a look at this video of every driver on a busy highway pulling over, getting out of their cars, and standing solemnly at the sound of the siren:
Writing for Tablet, Simi Lampert recounts her experience first deciding for–and then against–donating her eggs through an agency. She’s charmingly candid about her reasoning in favor: “It seemed like a relatively simple thing to do for the amount I’d be paid. Plus, there was something cool about being able to give someone else the chance to have a child.” Despite the significant resistance she encountered in her friends and family, and the many moral and philosophical considerations they raised in objection, she persisted in her straight-laced intuition of the positive utility and ethical harmlessness of the procedure; “I was just being logical I thought, and everyone else was being excessively emotional.”
What ultimately caused her conversion, she says, was a reflection on the inarticulable yet powerfully compelling significance of natural family life. Her father having died when she was three, her mother remarried, and she enjoyed healthy relationships with her step-father’s family. But there was always something missing, something she felt she could only truly share with her genetic family. Her conclusion:
Thinking about my family, I realized that I’d be taking away from that egg—that future child, even future adult—what I missed so much in my life. Suddenly, I felt protective over that person; I felt the need to keep it safe from harm and hurt. I felt the connection everyone else assumed I’d have all along. And once those emotions were involved, I couldn’t take them back.
Logically, I suppose, my initial instinct was still right. My egg is, biologically, just an egg. It’s not a child. But if I did donate it, one day it might be a child. And that child would grow up never knowing the feeling of loving someone with the same snub nose it might have. That child would wonder why it—not it, he or she—felt the need to insert sarcasm into every conversation. He would never know the bond of a genetic relative. No matter what logic told me, my feelings had changed, and I couldn’t go through with it.
In preparation for the Passover holiday and its prohibition against leaven bread (Hebrew: “hametz”), Jews spend weeks punctiliously purging their homes of every last crumb of the offending food. Pantries are cleaned, ovens scrubbed, the dark, mysterious regions in between couch cushions scoured – all in a sort of spiritually charged ritual Spring-cleaning. The culmination of the process is the final search (“bedikah”) performed by candlelight, in silence, on the night before Passover.
Writing for Tablet, Judith Shulevits offers a charming theological take on the ritual and the Talmudic discussion surrounding it, interpreting it as a performative metaphor for spiritual self-examination. Some highlights:
A theology emerges. What is man? He who is capable of searching inside himself. What does he search for? Some dark or foreign matter that he has put there himself. With what does he search? The light of God, which is also in himself.
Focusing on the curious insistence that the search be done specifically by candle-light:
Why a candle rather than a torch or the sun? This time the rabbis bother to answer. Sunlight, the rabbis said, leaves portions of your house in shadow. Torches can blind you. The smallest light is the most reliable. “One can bring the light of a candle into the holes and cracks [of one's house], but one cannot bring the light of a torch into holes and cracks,” said Rav Nachman bar Yitzchak.
But as Shulevits says of the Talmudic rabbis, her writing is less a philosophical argument than “the meandering of a mad metaphysical poet,” and so it’s best read in full, which you can do here.
We’re excited to announce that First Things will now be offering individual articles for sale on Amazon, in Kindle format. Here’s the link to Reinhard Hutter’s “Pornography and Acedia.”
From the product description:
With accessible, forceful prose, Duke theology professor Reinhard Hutter diagnoses the spiritual pathology underlying our society’s disturbingly pervasive indulgence in internet pornography. Aiming “not at its shiny electronic surface but at its hidden spiritual root,” Hutter locates the origins of pornographic addiction in the spiritual vice of acedia, or spiritual apathy. This vice involves a profound and pervasive sense of boredom and a dull resignation to a life without the friendship of God—a condition powerfully deleterious to both the Christian life and to human dignity. “The lust of the eyes that feeds on internet pornography does not inflame but rather freezes the soul and the heart in a cold indifference to the human dignity of others and of oneself.”
Turning toward the positive task of prescribing a remedy for the problem of pornography, Hutter recommends a steady and active discipline of focused communal prayer, arguing that such practice “sustains the spiritual union of the mind and heart with God,” working to fortify our spiritual chastity and protect us from the corrupting vice of acedia.
All told, “Pornography and Acedia” is a valuable, comprehensive resource for properly understanding—and effectively countering—one of our day’s most dangerous challenges to spiritual well-being.
The Brookings Institute recently launched an initiative called ConText, dedicated to promoting the study of what Benjamin Wittes, senior fellow at the Brookings Institute, calls “the most important document in American history that nobody ever reads”: James Madison’s Notes of the Debates in the Federal Convention of 1787. The Context website features the text of Notes at the center of the page, surrounded by columns dedicated to Wikipedia-style crowd-sourced commentary, all in an effort at dynamic, participatory engagement with the centuries old text.
The site’s creators make a fascinating appeal to precedent for this sort of initiative: The Talmud. Wittes explains:
The Talmud is a series of debates—and commentaries on those debates—on a text called the Mishnah. The rabbis found an ingenious way of commenting on this dry, lengthy text in a language (Ancient Hebrew) which was already in Roman times no longer their vernacular (they spoke and wrote in Aramaic). On a page of Talmud, a passage of Mishnah is physically surrounded by layers of commentary text, more and more of them as the centuries wore on. So in the center of the page is a short passage, by tradition, of course, Divine, but often in practice dry as dust; yet radiating out from that passage is centuries of wisdom and thought. It is not merely a form of crowd-sourced scholarship, but it is a visual means of expressing that scholarship and crowd-sourcing that seemed to me to have broad application to the exposition of lengthy and difficult historical texts like the Notes.
Organized like the Talmud, ConText surrounds the Notes with layers of commentary—commentary on the history (what was going on in the room), current events (how these events relate to current politics), theoretical and philosophical issues, and subsequent constitutional interpretation and dispute.
It looks to be a valuable project, and I for one am glad (and more than a little tickled) to see the dynamic intellectual spirit of the Talmud inspiring the contemporary thinking public.
A team of archaeologists in Israel claim to have found the earliest archeological evidence of Christianity–a burial site known the “Patio Tomb” located in Talpiot, a southern Jerusalem neighborhood. Philologos, writing for the Jewish Daily Forward, details the putatively Christian discovery:
The evidence for the Christian nature of the Patio Tomb has both a pictorial and a linguistic side. The picture is on an ossuary (a small stone coffin in which bones were deposited after the deceased’s flesh decomposed in the earth) photographed in the tomb, with a carved drawing of a large fish from whose mouth the figure of a man is emerging — clearly, a depiction of the story of Jonah, which early Christians read as a foreshadowing of Jesus’ resurrection.
Summing up the linguistic evidence:
This would leave us with the alternatives of reading the entire inscription to mean something like, “I, almighty YHVH, raise from the dead,” or “I, almighty YHVH, raise up to heaven,” or, “Almighty YHVH, raise up Agabos! [the name of the man buried in the ossuary],” or, “Almighty YHVH, raise up, raise up!” In all these cases, Tabor argues, we are looking at an invocation of the resurrection of the deceased, one never before found on any Jewish ossuary, and in conjunction with the “Jonah drawing,” a likely indication of the Christian faith of the buried man and his next of kin, who may have been contemporaries of Jesus.
For further analysis and interpretation of the evidence, see the full article here.
Yossi Melman, writing for Tablet, filed a bleak report following the latest round of fire between Israel and its Gazan neighbors:
After four days of rocket shelling and air raids—which began last Friday when Israeli forces assassinated the secretary general of the Popular Resistance Committee, Zuhair al-Qaissi— one million Israelis in the south of the country and a million and a half Palestinians in Gaza returned to “normal”: a state of constant tension and fear about when the violence will start up again.
Rocket attacks on civilian targets – houses, restaurants, school buses – have become an unfortunate fixture of life in southern Israel. These rockets have never been the most sophisticated of weapons, and Israel’s new Iron Dome missile defense system has gone a long way in reducing the danger, but the challenges of life under the constant threat of attack go far beyond the body count. Melman describes the economic implications:
One Grad rocket costs roughly $1,000. One intercepting Iron Dome missile costs $100,000. On average, Israel fired two Iron Dome missiles per Grad. Thus, intercepting 40 Grads worth $40,000 cost Israel $8 million. Plus, while the rockets were flying, some 200,000 Israeli students didn’t go to school, and hundreds of thousands of Israelis were confined to shelters and did not go to work.
And of course, dollar amounts don’t even begin to compare to the gravity of the simple, grim awareness that at any time a missile may just strike your living room or your children’s playground.
I grew up hearing stories of early 20th century Jewish immigrants to America–my great-grandparent’s generation–and the inspiringly impressive sacrifices they made in the name of sustaining their religious fidelity. One particularly common motif was the Jew who, desperate to simply feed his family, would each week seek out employment wherever and however he could, only to be fired after refusing to work on the sabbath–and so the cycle would repeat, week after week.
It’s a problem that has largely gone away, but these stories came to mind when I read about a Jewish high school basketball team in Houston which was recently forced to forfeit the state semi-final game due to its having been scheduled for after sundown on Friday evening. It’s hardly a tragedy–the world will presumably endure regardless of Beren Academy’s basketball fortunes–nor does it appear to be anyone’s fault; it would be nice if accommodations could be made for this sort of thing, but it’s also perfectly understandable that an organization can’t always be expected to bend over backwards. And, as the basketball association put it, the Jewish team understood that full well when they joined the organization.
What I did take from the story is a simple appreciation for the team’s faithfulness, the admirably clear ordering of their priorities, and the dignity with which they conducted themselves in a frustrating clash between their religious commitments and the vagaries of participation in public life. “The sacred mission will trump excellence in the secular world,” said the school’s principal. Their forbears would be proud.
The full story, as reported in the New York Times, can be found here.
In a fascinating note regarding our political culture, Michael Medved observes in the Wall Street Journal that “For the seventh consecutive election, the next president will either be a privileged son or a man with no relationship with his biological father.” All of the current candidates, and strikingly, each of the previous seven presidents, is either the son of a notably powerful and accomplished patriarch, or else lacks any substantive relationship with his biological father. Barack Obama, Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich fit neatly in the latter category; Obama’s father left for Kenya before his first birthday, Ginrich’s father abandoned his seventeen year old wife when Newt was only several days old, and Clinton’s father died in a car crash three months prior to Bill’s birth. Mitt Romney and George Bush, on the other hand, represent the privileged-son type presidential candidate, following after fathers highly accomplished in both business and politics. Apparently, growing up in an intact, traditional family of average distinction is no way to become a United States president – a fact which, whatever its exact significance, surely does not speak well about the state of our political culture.
For further discussion of the phenomenon and its political significance, see Medved’s article here.
Our friend David Lapp at the Institute For American Values sent us an announcement for a new internship opportunity. They’re looking for a talented young person (at least a junior or senior in college) beginning in January of next year. Here’s the flyer: