Archive for January, 2011

One of my favorite writers, as well as my favorite Jewish-American writers, is Marge Piercy, who has lived an enviable life, on her own terms, as a poet, author and liberal activist. She lives in Cape Cod with her husband and a whole lot of cats. This excerpt is from her memoir, and feels particularly poignant these days as I’ve been blessed to have the time to do a lot of writing:

Cats continue to teach me a lot of what is important in my life, and also, how short it is, how we need to express our love to those for whom we feel it, daily, nightly, in every way we can. With everyone we love, we have only a limited time, so we must learn to celebrate it body and soul. They have taught me how precious every moment we can enjoy can be with whatever we love, because it all passes and so do we. 

Writing is a futile attempt to preserve what disappears moment by moment. All that remains of my mother is what I remember and what I have written for and about her. Eventually that is all that will remain of Ira and me. Writing sometimes feels frivolous and sometimes sacred, but memory is one of my strongest muses. I serve her with my words. So long as people read, those we loved survive however evanescently. As do we writers, saying with our life’s work, Remember. Remember us. Remember me.

Sleeping With Cats: A Memoir, Marge Piercy
the concluding paragraph


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How can an omnipotent and loving God permit so much suffering in the world? And, What are the Jewish views of the afterlife?
Since beginning rabbinical school, those are the two questions people most frequently ask me. The latter question is fairly straightforward to answer (Which millennium and which Jews?) but the former is a theological dilemma that has vexed theologians for most, if not all, of human history.

The word for this dilemma is theodicy, which Webster’s defines as the “vindication of the divine attributes, particularly holiness and justice, in establishing or allowing the existence of physical and moral evil.” In other words, how do we justify the existence of a God who created us and loves us, and oversees the affairs of the world, with the yawning chasm of poverty, pain and sorrow so prevalent around us? Or, as Jews most frequently put it: How can I possibly believe in God who let the Holocaust happen?

Two years ago, a professor of religious studies at the University of North Carolina, Bart D. Ehrman, PhD, tackled this issue in his aptly titled book God’s Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question — Why We Suffer (HarperOne). Ehrman is the author in 2005 of Misquoting Jesus, an unlikely bestseller that documents the unreliability of a literal reading of the New Testament.

In God’s Problem, his objective is different. Raised in a conservative religious family and “born again” in high school, Ehrman explains how the issue of theodicy essentially ruined his faith completely. “I no longer go to church, no longer believe, no longer consider myself a Christian,” he explains. “The subject of this book is the reason why. … I could no longer explain how there can be a good and all-powerful God actively involved with this world, given the state of things … The problem of suffering became for me the problem of faith.”

It’s a journey that many of us Jews, living post-Holocaust, can relate to. It’s a big reason why so many of our synagogues are empty.

Ever a scholar, Ehrman explains how the Hebrew Bible attempts to answer this question. The Prophets, Psalmists and Apocalypticists – all of whose voices are found in the pages of Tanach – offer three unique answers to the “problem” of evil:

1) Suffering is punishment for sinful behavior
2) Suffering is a test of virtue, or will be ultimately redemptive
3) God will ultimately conquer evil and establish paradise

He provides ample examples from the text for all three of these answers, and to varying degrees, all three of these theologies continue to exist in the Christian world today. Evangelicals and Baptists often preach Nos. 1 and 3. Catholics and Methodists buy more into No. 2. Studies show that some 80 percent of Americans (most of whom are Christian), believe that “everything happens for a reason” and that “God has a plan for me” — both of which presume that there is some larger, operating system in place that can explain why the tornado hit one guy’s house, but not someone else’s. (Whether or not we know what that system is is another matter).

Interestingly, in the Jewish world (or the non-Orthodox Jewish world at least), I would consider such views as highly unusual, and from the bimah, I never hear rabbis offering any of these three “answers” in response to human suffering.

How do we Jews attempt to reconcile an all-powerful God with the existence of evil? We don’t! In growing numbers, we become agnostic, cultural Jews who avoid traditional scripture and liturgy, which so resoundly reflect theodicean ideas. Or, in the case of classical Reconstructionist Jewish thought, we redefine the very definition of “God” itself – thereby eliminating the dilemma. (If God is no longer a separate, all-knowing, all-powerful being, we no longer have to ask how such a being could allow human suffering.)

If you’d like to read more about the ideas in Ehrman’s book, but want a shortcut, check out this excellent review by James Wood, published in The New Yorker in their June 9, 2008, issue.

To hear Terry Gross, of NPR, interview Ehrman, click here. Highly recommended!

If you’d like to learn more about how Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, the founder of Reconstructionism, addressed the problem of evil, check out Mordecai Kaplan’s Theology and the Problem of Evil, by Steven Katz. A PDF of the article can be purchased for $13.50.

The Jewish Reconstructionist Federation also offers a few insights here and here.

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What I love about this painting is its focus on the people who stood at Sinai -- rather than on a divine and supernatural revelation.

Today I noticed an interesting synchronicity. The Torah portion we read during the first week of the new year (Veira) is the portion that begins the three-part chronicle of the Exodus. In it, God instructs Moses to demand that Pharaoh let the people go, and the first of the 10 plagues are reined down on Egypt.

Why is this synchronicity?

Well, the Exodus is, at its heart, a story of setting forth. It’s about going out into a new life and reality that is largely unknown. It is the beginning of a new chapter — just in the way the start of the (secular) New Year is also the beginning of a new chapter.

Like many Jews, the Jewish new year of Rosh Hoshana carries more emotional weight for me than the secular New Year does. It’s when I make my resolutions and really commit myself to inner reflection.

But the secular New Year carries its own gravitas. There is a certain magic to watching the numbers flip from ’10 to ’11. Every time I fill out my checkbook, sign a form or even look at the calendar, I have a very concrete and graphic reminder that another year of my life has passed, and can’t be reclaimed again.

In some ways, this makes the secular New Year a little less ephemeral, and a little less in need of communal reinforcement, than the Jewish new year does.

For the ancient Israelites — so the story goes — their new birth was punctuated by the revelation at Sinai. Their going forth was under the very clear instruction of Torah and God itself.

But what do we have that frames our going forth, our new beginning? In our post-modern, post-Enlightenment world, Torah and halacha are interesting traditions and guideposts, but they hardly carry authoritative sway. Their only authority is the authority we choose to assign them, which really, when you think about it, isn’t authority at all. If Torah had true authority, we wouldn’t feel perfectly okay picking and choosing from it!

Given this, under what values and principles do we enter this new year? If we choose to find them in Jewish tradition (and yes, even that is a choice), from where do we pluck them?

One of my favorite poets, Rivka Miriam, offers a poignant answer to this question. An award-winning writer born in Jerusalem in 1952, Rivka is the daughter of the famous Yiddish writer Leib Rochman.

Here is what she has to say in a poem from her collection, These Mountains: Selected Poems of Rivka Miriam, by Toby Press.

One Day the Torah Will Leave Us To Go Forward

by Rivka Miriam

One day the Torah will leave us to go forward
and we, used to feeling that she’s like our own body
like a landscape
that even when she turns away she keeps returning
coming and going —
as if she were one of our parents, or a child emerging from our
            loins —
suddenly we won’t know whether to cease
or to chase
we won’t know if one of our organs has been taken, the lungs, for
            example, or the blood, or the heart
the hidden light, the direct light, the encompassing light
or the surrounding light
and maybe she was only a childhood garment taken off
like a shirt that a growing child changes —
and maybe it wasn’t a garment at all, but a veil, a scarf
a curtain removed
the ancient fig leaf, passed from the first to last generation
or the very memory that was born before time
and keeps moving between spirit and flesh.

So, one day, without the Torah we will remain.
And no man among us will know if he’s still alive.
And each into the other’s eye will stare in search of Sinai.


I believe what Rivka is saying is that the answer can only be found in looking to each other. Our values and guideposts must be born out of relationships, and those I-Thou moments of turning toward the Other and seeking out our common humanity.

It is not the reception of Torah at Sinai that mattered. Rather, it is the fact we were all standing there, together, to receive it, that is the glue, and the lesson, that has lasted.

Nu — What do you think?

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A model of the Second Temple, destroyed by Rome in 70 CE.

Imagine if what we had been taught in religious school is that many of the fundamental elements we consider “Jewish” are actually attributable to the Romans. How would that affect what we call “traditional Judaism”? How would that shape our thinking of what defines Reform Judaism versus Orthodox or “traditional” Judaism?

What elements am I referring to? Well, ones like separating meat and dairy as a core element of kashrut. That practice doesn’t come from the Torah. The Torah only lists certain foods as being prohibited (like pork and shellfish) – it says nothing about not mixing meat and dairy. That notion evolved centuries later, out of the rabbinic tradition.

Or how about the Passover seder? That also came about in the rabbinic era, after the fall of the Second Temple in 70 CE, as a replacement for the animal sacrifices that used to be conducted at the Temple each Pesach.

Or how about the reams and reams of halacha, Jewish law, that govern everything in “traditional” Jewish life today like which days or weeks a couple cannot get married; what violates the biblical rule to not “start a fire” on Shabbat (light switches, ovens, car engines, telephones); how many days a mourner should sit shiva and when shiva is suspended, and from whom a person should sit shiva; etc. etc. etc.

All of it comes from rabbinic Judaism (and, later, medieval Judaism). And rabbinic Judaism owes its very existence, its very ascension to the forefront of Jewish life, to the Romans.

In my Rabbinic Civilizations course, one of our assigned books is From the Maccabees to the Mishnah by Shaye J.D. Cohen, which is a concise and fascinating history spanning from the end of the Persian exile to the 4th century CE. The rabbinic era spans the latter part of that time period: from the fall of the Second Temple in 70 CE through the writing of the Mishnah and Talmud in the 6th century CE (500s). As Cohen writes in chapter 7, the shift from Second Temple Judaism to rabbinic Judaism was not a mere chronological transition but a substantial change that laid foundational cornerstones still central to the Judaism practiced in our contemporary world.

As Martin Jaffee explains in his equally excellent book, Early Judaism, the Romans continued to control Judea long after the Temple fell. Their method of control was simple: Appoint Jewish institutions to administer over the daily affairs of their people, and allow the Jews to preserve their ancestral customs so long as they don’t lead to unrest or violate Roman law.

Rome named a Jewish appointee to be the “Patriarch” of the country – and this Patriarchate system lasted for more than 400 years. Although a second revolt by the Jews, the Bar Kohkba revolt, in 132-135 CE, represented an interruption of this policy, the interruption was brief. Once quelled, Rome simple renamed Judea “Palestine” (to name the land after the Philistines rather than the Jews), and re-instituted the Patriarchate. 

Rabbi with Torah, 1955

Who was the Patriarchate? It was what would become known as “the Rabbis.” Its first holder, in 90 CE, was the rabbinic master Gamaliel b. Shimon b. Gamaliel and the office remained strictly hereditary for the next 400 years. Why did Rome chose a rabbinic family? We don’t know. Why was Gamaliel chosen from among the possible rabbinic families? We don’t know that either.

What we do know is the net effect of that policy: Slowly, over the course of hundreds of years, the beliefs and practices that represented a small, minority proportion of the Jewish people (the rabbinic class) increasingly dominated all sectors of Judaism and Jewish society, even those far out into the diaspora, until eventually, it became “normative.” What had been, in the time of the Temple, a minority group whose views were opposed by most segments of Jewish society [the wealthy, the priesthood, and the bulk of the masses (am ha’aretz) in both Israel and the diaspora], ultimately triumphed over their opponents and became the mainstream.

“The rabbis triumphed over their opponents among the aristocracy and the priesthood by absorbing them into their midst, or at least coming to terms with them,” Cohen writes. “The rabbis triumphed over the indifference of the masses by gradually gaining control of the schools and the synagogues. The exact date of the triumph is hard to determine, but it was no earlier than the 7th century CE.”

The rabbis didn’t invent the synagogues so much as take them over and use them as a means of advocating their own particular interpretation of Jewish law and practice. It took well over half a millennium for that to happen, and it could only happen because the ruling power of Rome established, sanctioned and supported their power.

How ironic, then, that these rabbinic views and opinions are what we all today, even we liberal Jews, identify as “traditional Judaism”!

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