Journey to Hebron: Nightmares and Hope

Yehiel and I met Elliott at the appliance repairman’s shed on a side street in South Jerusalem.

Elliott Horowitz, a historian at Bar-Ilan University, had already paid for the almost-new washing machine, with cash that friends have pledged to repay. We wrestled the heavy white hunk of metal into the back of Yehiel’s undersized station wagon, and set off – three guys with skullcaps and graying beards driving to Hebron with a washing machine for a Palestinian stonecutter.

It was Elliott’s idea.

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Rav and Shmuel at the Gym: How Should We Begin the Passover Seder?

Between sets of arm curls, Nahum walks over to me and says, “You’re familiar with the disagreement between Rav and Shmuel about the way the Seder should begin?”

Nahum doesn’t look like the kind who works on his biceps—he’s a slender guy in his mid-thirties who wears a black kipah and glasses. He resembles a teacher at a religious high school here in Jerusalem, which in fact he is.

But Nahum, like me, is a regular at the small weight room at the Jerusalem Pool on Emek Refa’im Street. We get a diverse crowd—men and women, jocks and schoolteachers, retired people and teenagers, Jews and Arabs, religious and non-religious; there’s even a macho ultra-Orthodox guy who lets out whoops when he lifts—but I’ll save him for another story.

The conversation, like the crowd, can come from all directions. Nahum is referring to the two leading Babylonian rabbis of the third century CE, whose disputes form part of the first layer of the Gemara, the Talmudic discussions of the laws laid down in the earlier Mishna. The Torah commands the Jews to retell the story of the Exodus from Egypt at a discussion-meal conducted by families on the first night of Pesach (Passover). Rav and Shmuel disagreed on how to begin telling the story, and their disagreement is recorded in the Haggadah, the book forms the framework of the Seder night.

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Invitation to understanding: Postdoc fellowship

Though this blog isn’t a bulletin board for ads, we occasionally get messages worth passing on. This one is an invitation to scholars to help understanding between Jews and Muslims:

The Jewish-Muslim Initiative at the University of Illinois-Chicago invites applications for a Postdoctoral Fellowship in the Spring semester of 2009. The successful candidate will teach one undergraduate class, give two or three public lectures, and participate in the life of the university. The class may compare Jewish and Muslim views on any topic, or be on any aspect of historical Jewish-Muslim relations.

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More on Gay Families: The Halachic Challenge

Thanks to Jeff Greer for responding to my post Gay Families: The Halachic Challenge and mentioning an important book for those interested in the subject, Rabbi Steven Greenberg’s “Wrestling with God and Man”. Greenberg is a gay Orthodox Jew who is doing important work to find a place for gay men and women in traditional … Read more More on Gay Families: The Halachic Challenge

Gay Families: The Halachic Challenge

Sick of hearing about settlements, human rights violations, and Jeremiah Wright? Want to read something happy for a change? Take a look at Caryn Aviv’s story about “My Big Fat Gay Jewish Family in yesterday’s Ha’aretz-English edition.

Loving, happy families with gay parents present a challenge—but a potentially productive one—for Orthodox Jewish halacha. As long as homosexuality was practiced in hiding, it could be dismissed as deviant, unhealthy, and incompatible with society’s vested interest in promoting strong families as the best environment for raising and educating children. Looking at families like Aviv’s, it’s hard to raise any rational objection to such non-traditional family structures. Objectively, many traditional, nuclear families fail to provide children with the emotional security they need; how can we condemn a non-traditional structure that does so provide?

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The Land of Asylum

This idea that Israel should offer asylum to non-Jewish refugees – how new is that? Some crazy concept thought up by secular Tel Aviv liberals with no concern for Israel’s Jewish character?

Actually, no. Just a bit older than that.

After my post a few days ago on the need for a new policy on African refugees reaching Israel, I got an email from my son, who’s now studying at Ma’aleh Gilboa, the yeshiva of the Religious Kibbutz Movement. He sent me a text from Sefer Hahinukh, an anonymous 13th century religious text

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Purim: Chance, Fate, and Choice

Purim is the Hebrew calendar’s brush with postmodernism. No other observance is so full of contradictions, alternative readings, ambiguities. Nahafokh hu, as the Book of Esther says—every character, event, and ritual comes along with its mirror image. We expunge the ultimate evil, Amalek, from our memories by remembering; we are commanded to recite a story we already know and listen to every single word, yet we may read it from a scroll in which many words are missing; we mark God’s miraculous intervention in Jewish history by reading a book in which God is not mentioned at all.

These contradictions are all emanations of the one great contradiction that every person who both thinks and believes must face. The problem presented by modern, scientific knowledge is not in the specifics. Belief in God can be squared with the assertions that the universe came to being in a big bang and that humans are just another kind of primate. The apparently unbridgeable gap is that between chance and purpose. The fundamental, irreducible principle of the world of the believer is that what happens in the world happens because of divine intent. The fundamental, irreducible principle of the scientist’s world is that it runs according to physical laws, with no purpose and no plan. God’s world can be judged; it can be good or evil. The scientist’s world can only be.

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‘How to Prove You’re a Jew’ – Afterthoughts, aftershocks

Obama Converts to Judaism” says a headline on Huffington Post, which I found via the eternally alert Laura Rozen at War and Piece.

Buffeted by criticism of his controversial Christian pastor while continuing to quell rumors that he is a Muslim, Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill) took a bold step today to settle questions about his religious faith once and for all.

“I am converting to Judaism, effective immediately,” Mr. Obama told reporters…

I know this is meant humorously, because it ends with:

…the move raised the ire of one of his harshest critics, former Rep. Geraldine Ferraro. “Barack Murray Obama wouldn’t be in the position he’s in if he wasn’t Jewish,” said Ms. Ferraro…

but I still wanted to zap a message to Obama warning him: For heaven’s sake, don’t do it. It’s enough he has to prove he’s pro-Israel. Must he add the problem of convincing the Israeli rabbinate that he is a Jew? Believe me, it won’t be easy.

When I wrote “How to Prove You’re a Jew” for the New York Times Magazine, I guessed it would stir interest. I didn’t imagine how much. One friend told me it had been emailed to her 20 times. She also told me she’d had a terribly difficult time proving she was a Jew when she got married here in Israel a couple of years ago, despite

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