Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Cracked.com gives us 8 Online Fads You Didn't Know Were Invented Decades Ago.

Last night my girlfriend and I were discussing the cyclical nature of social trends. Today I get this. Neat!

This is a vital point to remember when doing anything with religion: all these "new", "modern", "never been seen before" problems we get excited about probably did in fact exist somewhere else years ago. They were resolved successfully, we're still here, get over it. Means whatever radical new idea is upsetting you today was probably the mainstream a few generations back, and the people doing things "your way" were the impetuous upstarts.

In case you're wondering, my personal favorite is #8, the primordeal emoticons.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Ishmael and Issac

I seem to be on a "Biblical Grammar" streak. Lately every drash I hear involves word origins, hidden meanings based on structure, or some similar topic. Today's got into the burial of Abraham, and Issac and Ishmael's reunion. The rabbi's larger topic was mixed marriage, so he dwelt on the significance of Hagar's name: Ha-gar, the stranger. So "Ishmael ben Hagar" is "Ishmael, son of the stranger". His discussion prompted a different line of thought for me.

Ishmael = "He will listen to God"
Issac = "He will laugh"

Ishmael listens, Issac laughs; Issac gets the blessing.

It's not enough to listen to God. We must be prepared to laugh as well.

Both Abraham and Sarah laughed when God told them they would have a son, although we usually just hear about Sarah's. She laughed in surprise and disbelief; Abraham laughed in joy.

Abraham laughed in joy. Laughter shows joy. Sitting in services last month, someone said something that made me happy, and I laughed. It was very loud in the otherwise silent sanctuary. I was struck by how rarely we as adults laugh out of pure joy; humor, embarrassment, or courtesy, sure, but joy? Almost never. But religion is supposed to make us happy, right? We rejoice and celebrate our people, our culture, our family, our community, and our God. If we're so happy about it, where's the expression of joy? Where's the laughter?

Sarah laughed in surprise and disbelief. Laughter shows understanding. There's a lot of intelligence that goes into humor, both writing it and understanding it. This is why in-jokes are so annoying when you're not "in the know"; without the understanding to make it funny, it's just strange, frustrating, and nonsensical. [I want to say more about this, but it's not flowing well so I'm hoping one of my funny friends will save me in the comments section]

Laughter requires joy and understanding.

It's not enough to listen to God. We must be prepared to laugh as well.

Religious Evolution

“Religions are natural phenomena; they’re just as natural as cows. They’ve evolved over millennia, they have a biological base – just like the aurochs – they have become domesticated, and human beings have been redesigning their religions for thousands of years.”

Dan Dennett
TED 2006

Not a lot to say about this quotation; it's pretty self-explanatory. He didn't develop this theme as much as I was hoping he would in his presentation, but it caught my imagination.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Starting at the beginning

Interesting commentary/discussion on B'reshit (בְּרֵאשִׁית) - also known as Genesis - this week (I know I'm several weeks late on this verse). It starts with the first 3 verses. We all pretty much know the standard English translation by heart: "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth....", leading up to the climactic "And God said, 'Let There Be Light'!" Problem is this: when you look at the Hebrew, it doesn't translate like that.

Some Hebrew anatomy would be helpful here. The Hebrew letter bet (ב), pronounced "B" as in "boy", when used as a prefix typically means "in" or "at". Reshit comes from rishon (רשון), meaning first, constructed here to mean "beginning". Therefore, in (or at) the beginning... Here we find the first problem. The word is constructed such that it really means "In the beginning of..." . We don't know what goes after that dot-dot-dot. The next word appears to be the verb bara, meaning "created". Something's wrong with either our English translation or the original Hebrew.

Unsurprisingly, Rahsi has an answer. A couple answers, actually. We'll go with one for now.

He starts by noting that bet has a lesser-known meaning: "for the sake of..." Now we have "for the sake of
רֵאשִׁית". What's רֵאשִׁית ? Using a bit of midrashic mental gymnastics, he demonstrates that רֵאשִׁית is used in other verses to refer to Torah or the tribe of Israel. So now we have "For the sake of Torah/the people of Israel, God created the heavens and the earth." Great; now we're getting somewhere. Good for morale, not so good for relations with your neighbors. But at least it's better grammar.

I explained this to my girlfriend the other night, and she turned the whole thing on its ear. What if, she said, "for the sake of" is used to establish context? For instance, when we say, "For the sake of this discussion, let's assume the following..." All of a sudden Genesis 1:1 says, "For the sake of this Torah, this discussion, let's say God created the heavens and the earth."

No statement about actual factuality of God's creation. It may or may not be applicable to other conversations, other people, or the rest of your life. The verse becomes a sort of preamble, setting the grounds for discussion, in the same way the Declaration of Independence's "We hold these truths to be self-evident..." informs discussion of the US Constitution. That changes the entire field of Torah study and debate in some subtle and interesting ways.

Hey Rashi, you're not so tough! Bet my girlfriend could take ya'!

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Rabbi in the Ring

I'm not alone.

From Haaretz:
Foreman, a Belarus-born Israeli who has lived in Brooklyn for 10 years and is studying to be an Orthodox rabbi, won the 12-round bout by unanimous decision - 116-110, 117-109 and 117-10....

Barring any surprises, Foreman expects to finish his rabbinic studies within a year, at which point he will be ordained. "I think it would be most fitting for me to return to Israel and be a rabbi for a community there," he said. "I could leave Israel once in a while to box."

Five Reasons Vampires Aren't Jews

As part of the Jewish Journal thumbing its nose (biting its thumb?) at the new Twilight movie (deservedly) Rabbi Wolpe details five important differences between Jews and vampires.
Their day begins at night, they show a certain aversion to the sign of the cross and they dress in black. Of course, I am talking about Jews.

But add some invidious stereotypes — bloodsucking and a predatory nature, and you get vampires. So, are vampires Jewish?
Of course not. He explains why, insightfully and entertainingly, before concluding, "Vampires are not Jews. Maybe we can allow one powerful, popular trend to be about someone else for a change?"

I greatly enjoyed this essay, especially as a horror and folklore aficionado who enjoys tracing monster legends back to the real-life fears that spawned them, but find one line particularly troubling:
Judaism believes in death. Yes, it believes in immortal life, but death comes first. The entirety of Jewish ritual is crafted to emphasize that all creatures — all of them — ultimately, unequivocally die.
The ENTIRETY of Jewish ritual? I get and agree with the belief in mortality, in fact I frequently accuse modern Judaism of being too death-centric, a religion stuck in mourning, but ALL ritual?

I sincerely hope not. I doubt that his claim is accurate; it's possible he spoke metaphorically there. Weddings, childbirth, b'nei mitzvot...all of these are life-based. Many of our holidays originate in death and tragedy, but the celebration is that we're still alive!

Granted, there is the mirror argument-by-definition; celebrating life must also celebrate death, even if indirectly, because death is the line that defines life. We celebrate at Hannukah and Purim because we survived; we are still alive. Weddings are celebrations precisely because our time together in this life is so brief. New children are welcomed because they add new sparks to the fire of life, providing heat and light against the cold and dark of death. From that perspective, yes, all of Jewish ritual is about death.

I always looked at it the other way around. As a child I did see Jewish ritual as death obsessed. There are laws about mourning? We are required to behave a certain way and grieve for a certain amount of time? How morbid! And the prayers in every service, reminding us of the dead? As I grew and studied, though, I realized that these laws actually encourage us to focus on the living. By strictly defining when, where, and how to mourn, it tells us the rest of our time is dedicated to life.

Someone important to you dies? Take the next 30 days, go feel really miserable. Trust me; you'll need it. After that, spend a few more months feeling slightly miserable, and the rest of the year feeling just generally sad. Then, each year after that, pick one day to go get really stinking sad about their absence. Then get up, dust yourself off, and get on with life.

The laws of mourning don't turn our focus to death; that happens naturally. The rituals turn us back towards life.

And at any rate, compared to most - if not all - the world's other major religions, our death and afterlife focus is so small as to be negligible.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The animals must survive!

Great review of 2012 over on Flames Rising, a site I just recently discovered. I particularly like this line:
It seems to be the grand irony that animals MUST not suffer and die in movies, even as billions of people perish all around them.

It reminded me of one of my earlier posts where I asked what it says about a society that spends billions caring for pets while letting children starve. "Flames" picks up on this same trend in disaster movies; billions of deaths don't bother us as long as the dog survives.

In a way, it all goes back to Noah, and I wonder if the story of his ark paves the way for this double standard of carnage. In the story, Noah, and the readers, accepts as given that humanity is toast. God has decided on the flood, and it's going to happen. As a result, our full attention turns to saving what little can be saved; Noah knows he'll have his hands full with the animals and his family, so he writes off the rest of humanity and leaves them to the water.

Disaster movies bring that same sense of acceptance, and, in fact, reinforce the lesson to the audience. Characters that try to save everyone get killed by the unstoppable disaster du jour. Usually they die as heroic martyrs, but they still die. Of course, those who selfishly think only of themselves also die. The trick is to be selfish but not too selfish; be just selfish enough, and remember your pet. Horror movies, on the other hand, teach us never to go back for the cat, but that's a different story.

Is that the problem we face? Are we trying to find that line between being generous and being too generous, or do we really care more about the cute animals dear to us than the humans we don't know? I'll optimistically assume it's the first one. That gives me a chance to help people draw their line somewhere farther away from home than the doghouse.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Geograpic identification by song

I was thinking about this "100 post" milestone thing. Looking back, my first-ever post was 11/9/08, so I can't make 100 in a year. Instead I'm setting my sights on the end of this year. Strap yourself in, the ride's about to get bumpy.



Birdsongs have dialects. Small differences in song accumulate until they produce identifiable differences. Learn these dialects well enough and it potentially becomes one of the easiest ways to tell where a given bird hails from.

Recently I was at a gathering of Reform Jews from around the country. It proved an interesting experience; within a group of Jews of similar ages, similar backgrounds, and similar religious upbringings there was not consensus about the melody for the evening prayers. There was definitely a large plurality, to be sure, and the variations were minor, but they stood out enough to be noticeable and to be clearly intentional, as opposed to missed notes.

It's possible most of these variants were improvisations, but I doubt it. My suspicion is these Jews sang the prayers differently because that's how they learned them. And where did they learn them?

At camp.

One of the phenomena I've noticed in modern Reformed Judaism is most changes - small ones, such as new prayers, songs, and rituals; not big ones like policy change - stem from young campers returning home and bringing their favorite parts of what they did during the summer. I suspect that one could fairly accurately identify where people went to camp by looking at the variations in the songs they sing.

I could be wrong, especially given the strong centralizing forces in RJ like NFTY. Many of the songleaders at camps across the nation are learning the new songs and harmonies from the same source. This could also be the source of variations, as individuals make mistakes and innovations and pass them onto campers, but it is also a strong normative force.

I like these variations. I like that as I travel across the country I learn more of them. It makes my own experience richer, as I integrate the ones I like into my own style. I like the way they stand out. There's a great moment in the birkat when the melody I learned continues through a break in the melody everyone else used; the accidental solo was fun for me, but I think it's fun for everyone else too, giving them a little surprise in the middle of a familiar prayer.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Identity vs. Identification

From Wendy Grinberg at RJ.org:

The term identity refers to how the individual sees him or herself. Ari encouraged us to move towards thinking about identification, that is, a process by which individuals act out what they think and feel, through institutions, interactions and intersections of culture.

His challenge to us was that while these Jews express a high identity, they express a low identification. Meaning, the problem isn't with the demand, but with the supply.

Not sure I agree with her conclusions, but it's an interesting way of viewing the problem. If there is a generation of young Jews that have strong Jewish identity, how do we encourage identification with Jewish organizations?

Leaving the board

I've been thinking a lot about diving lately. I love swimming but fear heights, so there's always an interesting moment in swim class, lifeguard training, etc. when I have to face the endless, gaping abyss (actual height: 2m) to progress in the fun swimming part.

Part of why diving scares me is there's that moment after you leave the board when - in a great metaphor for faith - you have to trust that you did everything you could correctly, but from now until you hit the water you're essentially gravity's plaything. All that remains to us is to choose our response; do we stay calm and focused and enter the water smoothly, or panic, scream, and belly flop painfully? Of course, sometimes you stay calm and belly flop anyway.

My feet have left the board; I am committed. What happens between here and the water is beyond me, but I will try to stay calm and enter the water smoothly.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Milestone denied

I was very excited last night when blogger told me I had reached 100 posts! Then I looked more closely and realized about 25 of those are still unposted drafts. So no, not quite yet, and yes, this post is cheating to pad the numbers.

Soon, though. I'll see if I can do it before the end of the year. That's only 3-4 posts per week.

Yeah, this'll be fun.