We tend to think of national sovereignty as an all-or-nothing proposition…

Ancient Israel and Judah’s extended encounters with the Assyrian empire thus point out another lesson that may have a future: While we in our day tend to think of national sovereignty as an all-or-nothing proposition, reality offers up many shades of autonomy in between. For small states in dangerous neighborhoods, degrees of deference and vassalage were more common historically than either total independence or complete submission to foreign rule. It may happen again.

Dov S. Zakheim, “The Geopolitics of Scripture,” The American Interest (July/August 2012), 14.

, , ,

The Considerable Importance of the Effect of the Extensive Commentary Tradition on the Shulhan Arukh

This extensive commentary tradition had a further effect of considerable import: By and large, the commentaries to Karo’s Shulhan ‘arukh that appeared on the printed page were written by Ashkenazic rabbis; the Sephardic commentaries did not usually appear alongside the text. In this intensified Ashkenization of a Sephardic text, one can find a larger trace of one of the central shifts from the early modern to the modern in Jewish history, a shift that has parallels in the transformation of Lurianic Kabbalah by the founders of Hasidism in the eighteenth century and one that is undergirded by a massive demographic transformation of Jewish populations in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. When Karo wrote the Shulhan ‘arukh, the Jews of the Ottoman Empire were among the largest Jewish communities in the early modern world. When Gombiner wrote his commentary a century later, this demographic profile was beginning to change; and when Israel Meir ha-Kohen composed his in the nineteenth century, the Jews of the Levant were but a small minority of the world’s Jewish population.

Yaacob Dweck, “What is a Jewish Book?” AJS Review 34:2 (November 2010), 371.


A Couple of Realities Regarding the Middle East…

…too often we forget that the people in these countries are not just objects. They are subjects; they have agency. South Africa had a moderate post-apartheid experience because of Nelson Mandela and F.W. de Klerk. Japan rebuilt itself as a modern nation in the late 19th century because its leaders recognized their country was lagging behind the West and asked themselves, “What’s wrong with us?” Outsiders can amplify such positive trends, but the local people have to want to own it.

As that reality has sunk in, so has another reality, which the American public intuits: Our rising energy efficiency, renewable energy, hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling are making us much less dependent on the Middle East for oil and gas. The Middle East has gone from an addiction to a distraction.

Thomas L. Friedman, “Foreign Policy by Whisper and Nudge”, The New York Times (25 August 2013), SR 11.

The Phrase “Judeo-Christian” is less respectful to both traditions than it is designed to be

I have tried to avoid the popular “Judeo-Christian” formulation – except in quotations of others who used the term. Of course, I believe the two faiths share common roots, a fact reflected in their scriptures and in the person of Jesus Christ. But I find the phrase less respectful to both traditions than it is designed to be. That is especially true in relation to Judaism, since the formulation is often invoked by Christians as a euphemism when they are really referring to their own tradition.

E.J. Dionne Jr., Souled Out: Reclaiming Faith & Politics After the Religious Right (Princeton & Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2008), 22.

, ,

An Openness to More Stable Types of Institutions When Coupled

Farkas, a 30-something rabbi in his sixth year at the synagogue, wanted to focus VBS’ young adult outreach on couples like the Brauns because, as he put it, “When you think you found a partner in life who you are pretty serious about, your life begins to become more stable.

“It’s at that moment that you are open to more stable types of institutions, like synagogues,” he concluded.

Jared Sichel, “Cultivating Next Gen Communities”, The Jewish Journal (23-29 August 2013), 23.

, , ,

Considering Nakedness in light of the “Pink Elephant Problem”

I call it the “Pink Elephant Problem”: if someone says “Don’t think of a pink elephant”; what’s the first thing you think of? A pink elephant. Same thing applies to tzeni’ut: the more that I say “This is prohibited because of tzeni’ut and this is prohibited because of tzeni’ut”, the more you take innocuous interactions and sexualize them.
“Men and women can’t socialize at a kiddush because of tzeni’ut” – implication: men and women having kiddush together is somehow sexual.
“Men and women need separate entrances to get into synagogue” – implication: same entrance, there’s something sexual there.
All of that is problematic. … You’re sort of putting it in people’s heads that it’s always sexual. … You’re implying that men – and women, too – we just can’t control ourselves, we have no self-control…. We can’t but help get sexually aroused by listening to women. That’s what you’re implying.
When you take the expansive view of erva onto everything, effectively, you’re putting more ideas into their head they may not have even had before, just by pure implication.

Rabbi Josh Yuter, “Current Jewish Questions 26: Music in Judaism“, YUTopia Podcast #106 (23 May 2013) {http://joshyuter.com/podcasts/current-jewish-questions/current-jewish-questions-26-music-in-judaism.mp3}


When Observant People Perceive Themselves as Not Observing Something…

I’m always intrigued when individuals or groups of people who are meticulously observant of some law system – particularly Halakhah – perceive themselves as not observing something even though they understand it to be the law. They are quite observant in general and they acknowledge that the particular practice is the law, but they just but just don’t do that practice. Often, I find that if these people are really listened to and empowered with legal language, they turn out to possess some insight into that law. It’s not that they randomly disregard it; it’s that they intuit that the law is being misinterpreted or misapplied, that it shouldn’t actually be understood as the law, and that if the halls of interpretational power had better-constructed avenues of access, such that more diverse vantage points and experiences were represented, communal perception of Halakhah would be much different.

Aryeh Bernstein, “Seclusion, Intimacy, and Power: Taking the Laws of Yichud Seriously”, Jewschool (18 August 2013) {http://jewschool.com/2013/08/18/30760/seclusion-intimacy-and-power-taking-the-laws-of-yichud-seriously/}

For the American, a rule’s a rule; for an Israeli, it’s a guideline

For the American, a rule’s a rule; for an Israeli, it’s a guideline. If something else happens to work better than the original plan, why stick to it?
In negotiations, Americans have a win-win mentality. Israelis just have “win.”
“This comes from Israelis’ attitude towards boundaries,” Kedem says. “Beginning with the fact Israel still doesn’t have an agreement about its borders. We’re constantly pushing against physical and mental boundaries. … We know we’ve crossed a boundary only when we’re pushed back. If there is no pushback, we understand we haven’t reached the boundary yet. That’s just how Israelis are brought up.”

Orli Santo, “Selling Each Other Short?”, The Jewish Week (2 August 2013), 11.


A Simple Political Divide

…the real division in the nation: between those who want to have a culture war and those who don’t. At election time, political candidates need simultaneously to “rally the base”, which includes a heavy quotient of culture warriors, and to “appeal to the center”, meaning the majority (often left of center on economic issues), which sees health care, education, jobs, taxes, and national security as central concerns trumping gay marriage or abortion. The result is a strained, dysfunctional, and often dishonest political dialogue based on symbolic utterances. Hot-button questions that rally particular sectors of the electorate – and draw listeners and viewers to confrontational radio and television programs – preempt serious discussion of what ails American culture and society.

E.J. Dionne Jr., Souled Out: Reclaiming Faith & Politics After the Religious Right (Princeton & Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2008), 50.


Jewish law is justificatory, often revealing its own raison d’être

Jewish law is justificatory, often revealing its own raison d’être, Apodictic Mishnah, on the other hand, constitutes a deviation from this overall trend of vindicatory law. It runs counter to Jewish apperception, which favors laws that justify themselves, either logically or scripturally. No wonder Mishnaic form was relatively short-lived, lasting only about 130 years. Mishnaic form initially emerged as a response to the particular political and religious conditions that prevailed in Palestine during the period following the destruction of the Temple. During the second century, it was supported and upheld by the Patriarchate, particularly by R. Judah Hanassi. After his death (ca. 220-221), Mishnaic form was gradually abandoned, and the Jewish apperception for justificatory law prevailed.

David Weiss Halivni, Midrash, Mishnah, and Gemara: The Jewish Predilection for Justified Law (Cambridge, MA & London, UK: Harvard University Press, 1986), 4.