Thursday, September 30, 2010

Happy Book Day!

I've said it before, I'll say it again; Simchat Torah is my hands-down favorite holiday. I mean, it's a drinking holiday to celebrate finishing a book! And starting a new one! As someone who used to pack spare books for the bus ride to school, this is a concept near and dear to my heart.

Given some of the depressing news about religion and reading lately, like the poll I mentioned yesterday or certain attention-seeking idiots in Florida, it's nice to hear something positive on the subject.

In case you're wondering, the "something positive" in question is "Pass the Schnapps!"

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Jumping on the Pew bandwagon

As a blogger who focuses on religion (I hesitate to name myself a religion blogger), I believe I am obligated to link to the new Pew survey that found most Americans are about as well educated on religion as they are on mitochondrial RNA.
"On average, Americans correctly answer 16 of the 32 religious knowledge questions on the survey. Atheists and agnostics average 20.9 correct answers. Jews and Mormons do about as well, averaging 20.5 and 20.3 correct answers, respectively. Protestants as a whole average 16 correct answers; Catholics as a whole, 14.7. Atheists and agnostics, Jews and Mormons perform better than other groups on the survey even after controlling for different levels of education"
Sadly, not surprising. I have often suspected that for people to hold the religious beliefs they do, follow certain religious leaders, etc. they can't really know much about what their religion really teaches. The most disturbing finding to me was that most Christians (ie, the majority of Americans) are woefully ignorant "on questions about the role of religion in public life, including what the U.S. Constitution says about religion." Again, not a surprise, sadly, given the number of times I've had to explain why having the Ten Commandments on the wall behind a federal judge might be a problem.

I suspect it's not a coincidence that the two most knowledgable religious groups in the survey are two of the most ostracized in this country (I didn't see where Muslims fit in). It's easy to be ignorant of your religion when you've never had to fight for it, defend your practices to bosses that want to refuse time off, teach your first grade teacher what Hannukah is about, explain to her why you don't want to say a prayer to Jesus after reciting the pledge of allegiance, or call a bunch of parents to explain that the field trip has been canceled because a bunch of skinheads vandalized the temple's bus. It's easy to let religion into your politics when you're just going to hide in the majority anyway.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Innovative Modern Sukkot

My dad once commented that I talk about many of my past jobs on this blog (Boy Scouts, Hillel, summer camp), but never my current one working with him. I told him as soon as I found a place where building product marketing consulting intersected with modern Jewish studies I'd work it in. So here you go dad; happy new year!

NY Times Magazine recently posted the 12 finalists in their modern sukkah design contest. While there were many beautiful entries, I especially like #8, "Sukkah of the Signs" by Ronald Rael and Virginia San Fratello of Oakland, California (check out the article for a larger shot). From the description of the project:
"It is traditional to eat and sleep in the sukkah for one week each fall, as a way of practicing a kind of ceremonial homelessness and empathizing with those who don’t have a roof over their heads. As a political statement, and as a way of transferring the prize money to those in need, Sukkah of the Signs is clad with cardboard signs purchased from destitute individuals across the country."
This wasn't my favorite from an aesthetic point of view, but I love the story and message of it. As with all Jewish holidays, there exist a huge variety of explanations of the "meaning" of the festival, starting at the surface level as a harvest holiday and moving on to such ideas as reclaiming our history as a nomadic people, reflecting on the impermanence of all things, being reminded of the fragility of our physical world, being grateful for the houses we do have, and reconnecting with nature. (Sidenote: interesting how many of those ideas started with "re-" verbs. Appropriate as we're just past the beginning of the yearly holiday cycle!) Somewhere in many interpretations of the holiday, however, is the implication that, but for the grace of God, we would be homeless too. Whether metaphorically as a people, lost wandering in the desert, or literally as a family with no roof to sleep beneath.

This reflects in several of the festival traditions, most notably living and dining in such a public space where any homeless people could see us and join us. Some temples also use it as an opportunity for a food drive, if they didn't just do one at Yom Kippur; one temple I belonged to collected fresh apples which were donated to a local food bank. I volunteered to transport them one year, and my car smelled like my favorite parts of fall for months afterward.

To me, a good modern Jewish observance combines a deep spiritual experience with an equally fervent effort to change our world for the better. I like this design for the highlighter it puts on homelessness. It puts the issue front and center; makes it unavoidable. There is a wonderful irony in sleeping in a home made of relics from the homeless; I would expect it to be a transformative experience for anyone that got the chance. If we slept here, we would spend the night considering the blessings that fill our lives, and return the next day to our homes filled with gratitude for all we have received. After that it would not be nearly so easy to turn a blind eye to the homeless people we pass on the street. Especially the ones holding the signs we ourselves might be sleeping under a year from now.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Badass #1: Exodus 2:11-12

11 One day, after Moses had grown up, he went out to where his own people were and watched them at their hard labor. He saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one of his own people. 12 Glancing this way and that and seeing no one, he killed the Egyptian and hid him in the sand. [source]
 I actually wrote about this passage in one of my rabbinic school essays. To quote myself:
Furthermore, Moses himself is a murderer! In fact, Rashi suggests the “Egyptian man” Moses killed [Exodus 2:12] is the same “Egyptian man” as the blasphemer’s father. And this very parsha [Emor] tells us “One law shall be exacted for you, convert and resident alike” [Leviticus 24:22]. So why is this man [who blasphemed] put to death when Moses is allowed to live?
In the movies this is the big heroic moment for Moses. It's his personal Rubicon, his burning of the bridge (which directly lead to that whole sea-parting thing).

But...badass? Not really. Especially since the next two events are Moses getting dissed by a couple street rats as an unfit leader, and Moses fleeing to the desert to hide from Pharaoh.

In my eyes, Moses is a murderer, plain and simple. Debate extenuating circumstances if you wish, but it doesn't change the facts on the face.

I wonder how the crime happened? Did Moses walk up to him and challenge him to a duel, Kung Fu movie style? Did he ninja up behind the guy and shank him from behind? Or, given that this guy was the former prince of the land, did he walk straight up to the guard, say, "Hey, I'm the prince; kneel before me," and crack him over the head with a walking staff?

Was the guard beating a defenseless elderly Hebrew to death, or was he punching a young, healthy slave in the mouth after catching him in bed with his wife?

How much "hiding in the sand" was done? Like a shallow grave? Or body parts dismembered and separated? In other words, exactly how hard did Moses try to hide his crime? How aware of and wracked by his guilt was he?

I have an idea for a show, maybe a YouTube series: a bunch of biblical stories retold as crime dramas, Law & Order style. It doesn't hurt that most of my knowledge and understanding of the criminal justice system comes from that series.

I'm imagining the prosecution working to assemble the case against Moses; what was his motive, how far in advance did he plan? Did he have help? Should we implicate this "Yaweh" person as a co-conspirator? Can't wait to see Moses take the stand in his own defense; "But I did it because God told me to!"

The funny part? He didn't. There's no evidence God told him to murder this guard, or even to save this slave. God acts throughout as if he's willing to sacrifice individual Hebrews to save the greater number of the people, "hardening Pharaoh's heart" after each plague to increase the totality of the eventual freedom, but losing more people under the increasingly harsh reactions that had to follow each plague.

Even after Egypt, "the word of God" as interpreted by the people that wrote the Torah is much more concerned with the community than the individual. Look how many crimes carry capital penalties, killing individuals that the greater society might live. So the idea that God would want Moses to endanger himself, expose himself, and make himself known to Pharaoh by killing one guard to save one Hebrew - an action that actually weakens Moses's position as leader - is ludicrous. Moses acts by himself, for himself. We never even see him check on this slave afterward, making this a form of "White Guilt"; we'll save you from cruel overseers, but don't really care what happens next.

What really bothers me about this particular story, though, is that through inclusion in the Torah it is law. It is part of God's word, which is inherently perfect, and therefore this story, and the actions of its characters, must also be perfect and divinely ordained.

What follows from this idea is books of commentary based on the idea, "Given that we know Moses would never do anything wrong, here's how we explain this story as a good and noble act on Moses's part."

This philosophy bothers me, for many, many reasons. For now, though, I'll limit it to this: people are not perfect. If the Torah is perfect, it makes it that much harder for us, as imperfect vessels, to understand it. A Torah we can relate to is one that has more meaning, value, and utility for us in our everyday lives (ie, the parts of life outside of Sunday School).

Imagine a Moses that we allowed to be a flawed leader. Imagine getting to talk to that Moses. "You think you've screwed up," he'd say, "Let me tell you what happened my first day back from the desert. And don't even get me started on the kinky shit my wife is into. I'm all for women acting in the "Egyptian fashion", but I haven't got a clue which magazines she got these ideas from!"

That's a spiritual leader I'd want to "study some Torah" with!