It’s the fast of 17 be’Tammuz and again begins the perennial question what are we mourning in these next three weeks. Does the destruction of the Temple and the end of Jewish sovereignty in the year 70 still hold emotional and political weight? After all we are living in Israel, Jerusalem is built and being rebuilt all the time. We have a government, an army, a transportation system, and so on.
Ironically the Rabbis who crafted these days of national mourning put in place a really healthy model for Jewish identity and meaning without a national land. They envisioned a network of courts and local Rabbis and teachers, connected though several larger centers of learning. Unity was based on holidays and a shared calendar, study of single yet growing canon, and letters and petitions for tzedaka, which crossed the borders of other nation states.
Did they institute these fasts to instill a sense of peoplehood and history or to highlight a real political ideal: the temple, the Sanhedrin, sovereign government?
I don’t think anyone wants to go back to being a vassal of the Roman Empire, though life in the Babylonian-Sassanian empire seems like it was pretty good- maybe like being a Jewish minority in the US today. It’s a moot point. Israel exists. We have an independent Nation State once again.
Yet on this fast day, I am not overly focused on mourning the destruction in 70 but rather the challenges of rebuilding this country. Recently a law was passed here that erodes the rights of free speech by allowing the government to sue anyone who plans a boycott against the State. Now there are more bills on the table that the ‘right’ wants to pass to give them the ability to squeeze and limit the ‘left’. As an American I feel some a deep panic attack brewing. I don’t want to live in a tyranny even if its expressed goal is to protect me.
In the Diaspora over the last two thousand years we developed a way to be unified and yet diverse. I realize I am romanticizing the past and there were many vicious debates about who was in and who was out of the Jewish community. But there were no laws against speaking one’s mind. If an idea or a movement had the weight of a community to follow then no big brother could stop it. The overarching sense of the Jewish people remained even as we diversified and went in different directions.
We have a lot to learn from our years in the Diaspora and the current global Jewish communities and we in Israel should take notice. I don’t want to live in a country where opinions are monitored. I don’t want to live in a country where there is a centralized religious establishment. I seek today a society built on mutual respect and freedom of thought and practice. I fast for liberal democratic rights, for a little chaos of ideas within the boundaries we call home. Returning to power must not mean an abuse of that power.
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for Yeshivat Talpiot. Come join us!
A new egalitarian yeshiva is opening up in Jerusalem. We are hoping to add a new voice to the religious discourse in Israel, one based on openness, mutual respect and tradition and the future. Please come check us out. YeshivatTalpiot.org
I return after many months to this blog, about bodies of literature and the heft of words, for I've reached that feeling - which uncannily revisits me every year- that I need to write. A golem of matter has been forming, a skeleton of an article, a theory, or some words, outlines and shadows of so many “forms” that I begin to search for the spirit which can give life to them, blow into their nostrils or carve the name of God on her forehead.
Today I read Lacan (Seminar 20, Lecture 5) who talks of the "other satisfaction" – which I take to be intellectual as well as sexual. In my tentative understanding, this different type of pleasure "does not stop being written" and "produces the jouissance that shouldn't be/could never fail."
(Making sense of Lacan is like making sense of a piece of Talmud, whose lines trip over themselves, and you are sure there is a mistake in the manuscript but you have no way to be sure other than testing your own logic. And in that black hole you write yourself into the lines.)
You can never stop writing, nor does text stop writing itself. Perhaps that is the "other satisfaction" - recognizing the limitlessness of the chaos of interpretation and taking part in it. "It shouldn't be" – for you can never write the truth or write the text again – but it "could never fail" because interpretation has infinite reincarnations. Like desire we are always revolving in the continuous loop of seeking perfection - of partners, of touch, of fullness. Desire is precisely the absence of perfection. And yet it can never fail, because in the moment there are no measurements, no others, no truth (Can we truly be in perfection– there is only before and after, fantasy, desire, memory and so on).
And so too you can never stop writing. Perfection is out of our reach but only just one more sentence out of reach, forever.
Check out my latest article
on hair covering for married women on MyJewishLearning.com
. This was a tough one to write. I haven't looked at the sources concerning hair covering since my year in Israel post high school. It was hard to fit so much nuance and complication into such a short article. On the one hand I have a renewed respect for the sophisticated and complicated world of halachic psaq. On the other hand I have a lot of questions about modesty and woman's body as an object of Jewish law, which did not find expression in this article. Perhaps some time in the future I'll share those here.
Many of you Literary Talmud aficionados out there may be familiar with Boyarin’s famous claim about the seduction of the Beit Midrash. He suggests that Rabbis had to choose between a normal home and sex life with their wives or years of abstinence and study in the Beit Midrash. Further complicating things, in a group of stories in Ketuboth, Rabbis often accidentally missed their weekly or yearly visit with their wife because torah “pulled” or seduced them. Ben Azzai says it very clearly: though he is a master at finding verses that reinforce marriage for the purpose of reproduction, he himself refuses to marry so he will have time to learn, arguing that other people will maintain the ongoing generations of the world.
I just came across a striking gemarah that echoes Boyarin’s claim that torah and marriage/childbearing are at odds. (Yevamot 64b) The story is told that Rav Aba bar Zvada did not have any children with his wife, and so the Rabbis urge him to marry another woman (in conjunction with the first or after divorcing the first is not clear) and then try to have children again. Rav Aba bar Zvada says, “no thanks I tried once, who is to say the second will be any different.” He may be making a meaningful statement about the role of the man in a couple’s bareness, as well as perhaps hinting at a spiritual component to a person’s fate- but this is not our focus for today.
The gemarah goes on to dismiss the more spiritual explanation offered by Rav Aba bar Zvada and counters that the only reason he did not want to try again was because he was barren and knew he could not have children. Why is he barren and how can he be sure? Because he became barren due to the long length of the shiurim given by Rav Huna. Not only Rav Aba bar Zvada, but apparently 60 Talmdei Chachamim became barren because they did not relieve themselves for the length of the class they had to sit in respectfully without getting up, even for a bathroom break.
Unbelievable! What’s more crazy is that mostly the tone does not seem angry at Rav Huna. The students are not up in the arms by the violence done to their bodies from the hours in class. Rather there is a positive undertone that their devotion to learning, their ability to ignore the needs of their body, has actually earned them the right to avoid the arduous mitzvah of having children.
Honestly I am torn between being disgusted by the image conjured by this story and intrigued by the magnificence of its symbolic power. These Rabbis again, as in the Ketuboth stories, are literally forced to choose between learning and sex- in this case having children. Specifically the power of the phallus is subverted in the name of learning. Many before me have pointed out that according to Bachtin (a Russian literary theorist) the grotesque obsession with the body specifically is specifically tied to the anxieties surrounding life and death- the ability to reproduce and the danger of dying without leaving behind a seed.
While these Rabbis are deprived of the ability to actually reproduce, their devotion to Torah provides a different kind of immortality. While their teacher Rav Huna in fact castrates them, he implants in his students his wisdom reproducing his mind and his values. They too as teachers of torah and writers of law will have to reproduce themselves in the Beit Midrash, rather then in the bedroom.
Yesterday was the Kolech
Conference (Forum of Religious Women- Feminism is not in the title but it is an unspoken part of their charter). Though I was only able to stay for two sessions – I did hear a few thoughts that moved me and made me think.
I felt an overall push this time for women to take up the reigns of leadership – as poskim and as Rabbis. More so than in the US, the modern religious community in Israel feels very bound by halakha, is fluent in the texts that make this system, and still refers to Rabbis for ‘heterim’ or dispensations when their personal needs and law conflict. Which means the realm of writing psak and answering questions engenders Rabbinic control of the community.
Malkah Petrokovsky (Midreshet Lindenbaum) spoke about the importance of family planning and urged Rabbis, Poskim and teachers to take up the issue of birth control and family planning in a public and serious manner. In her experience many of her students feel required to have children immediately and if they ask for a “heter” to take birth control they will often receive permission for only 6-8 months.
I thought her call to put this topic on the table was very strong and well put. She was both emotional about the need to take up this issue and persuasive about the ability for the halakha to cope with change and adapt itself to people’s individual needs.
She also advocated a different vision of halakhic consultation where the posek or poseket gives the lay person the knowledge they need to make such personal decisions on their own, yet within the halakhic system. (In the US many modern orthodox couples already feel that this question should be decided without consulting a Rabbi or halakha).
The question arose at the conference: what changes will occur as women become more vocal and respected within halakhic decision making world. Malkah’s speech suggested that the topics discussed and the sensitivities brought to the table will be different. But her words also suggest that the approach to psak and the structure of hierarchy and control will be different. A “Feminist” halakhic expert (female or male) may no longer dictate law; He or She use their knowledge to empower people to make knowledgeable decisions in light of Jewish law.
It's worth reading about the Tzohar Rabbis: they are trying to put a more open and modern face on the Rabbinical Establishment in Israel. I applaud their efforts to compete with the monopoly that the Rabbanut holds on marriage and divorce in this country.
Still, I worry that the Tzohar Rabbis may remain squarely Orthodox (and more important orthodox- with a lower case "o") in their halakhic thinking. And I wonder if they will have the gall to uproot some of the systematic inequities that lead to the problems of mesorovot get, as described in this creative article.
Painting by Cricket Diane C Phillips
The recent Air France plane crash has halakhic consequences for one women whose husband was on the flight. While she and her family had a natural reaction to plan a memorial ceremony after the coast guard began finding the awful remains of the plane and its passengers, the Rabbis were debating her status as a married woman, an agunah, or a widow.
If a woman's husband disappears, she must remain in limbo, awaiting the facts of his absence. The talmud says, if a man drowns in a Yam Shayin lo sof, a sea that has no end (a very large one), then the Rabbis free her on the assumption that we have enough (if not 100%) proof that he died.
I don't want to add my own comments today, for this issue feels like a Sea of tears with no end, for the widow, for agunot of all types of cases, and for mesoravot get.
I do have to say the comments on this recent article
intrigued me. While I disagreed with a few, overall I was glad to see a civil public debate on the topic.
A lot takes place during the Counting of the Omer between Pesach and Shavuot: we count (or maybe loose count); we commemorate and celebrate Yom HaShoah, Yom HaZikaron, Yom Ha’atzmaut, Lag Baomer, Yom Yerushalim; we went from being slaves in Egypt to receiving the Torah at Sinai; and we started to notice the spring turn to summer.
Often we over look the agricultural meaning of the holidays because the historical-conceptual links have become so much more relevant to our urban and suburban lifestyle. But the sacrifices given on the two holidays can refocus our attention. On Pesach we offer the Korban Omer, raw sheaves of barely, which coincides with the beginning of the grain harvest. By offering this simplest form of grain we thank God for the basic nutrition that the land affords us. But on Shavuot we offer the “Shnei Halaechem” two robust challot. This is the only time we bring leavened bread into the Beit Hamikdash, as if we are thanking God for the sumptuous bread (coated in egg, with a lot of sugar, like Pear Challot…maybe?), and for the ability to transform raw materials into more complicated and delicious delectables.
When we think about Shavuot as the holiday of receiving the Torah, we imagine ourselves as traveling Jews stopping momentarily in the desert. But when we think of bringing grain and bread to the Beit Hamikdash we are transported to an agrarian lifestyle in the land of Israel. After all, when we were traveling in the dessert it was relatively easy to give animal sacrifices, as the animals can wonder with travelers in the desert. But to give a barely and wheat sacrifice really represents an additional blessing of stability, land to farm and live on, hopefully a extra produce to sell at a profit.
We don’t all individually farm land these days (though I am very happy with my new CSA- Community Supported Agriculture- that delivers organic vegetables to my door, with the dirt still on them so I feel a little more connected to the land). But many of us do have a sense of stability and source of income, similar to owning a plot of land, something that especially in todays economic climate we should be thankful for on Shavuot.
P.S. The AJWS works teaches poor people all over the world to cultivate land, growing food for themselves and to sell. It’s a “grassroots” (excuse the pun) way to enable people to support themselves instead of putting a band aid on the issue of poverty and hunger. If you want you can donate in spiritual preparation for Shavuot.