Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Kosher Boy

Oh, my. I can't decide whether this is hilarious or dangerous. I'm leaning toward the former.

Which Would Jesus Choose?

So I've blogged about something naughty over at Jewcy.com. But, hey, I found the subject matter on NPR, so it's kosher, right?

Saturday, February 16, 2008

At the Heart of the Jewish Ethical Conscience: Woody Allen

In a piece on Woody Allen's late films, Jay Michaelson writes:

Judaism is a religion of Job, not just Sunday School, and Allen's extended meditations on the presence or absence of moral order are the essence of the Jewish ethical conscience.

Though Allen has seemingly rejected Judaism as a religion, Michaelson argues that Allen's later films, which aren't typically seen as falling into the same autobiographical vein as most of his earlier ones, are precisely and even traditionally Jewish. Rather than accept theodicy or assert that God knows all, the films depict an internal conflict about what, exactly, constitutes good and evil in this world. They are, in Michaelson's view (and I think I agree to a certain extent), more or less meditations, like the book of Job, on justice and what it means to be ethical.

Saturday, February 02, 2008

Throwing God Overboard

I just finished reading Dara Horn's In the Image. It's one of those novels I've been meaning to read for quite some time since it's in my area (Jewish American literature). I think Horn is a spectacular writer, and I like this particular novel because it integrates all sorts of ideas about God, religion, memory, ethics, philosophy, culture, and love. And, it's a great story that's easy to read and easy to get sucked into--not overly experimental or "academic."

Like most academics, I'm an obsessive highlighter and note-taker. Here, however, I found myself highlighting not the things that I would go back and try to integrate into an academic essay, but those things that somehow resonated with me on a personal level. One of the most intriguing things about this text is the idea of hundreds of tefillin being cast over the sides of ships by people who were fleeing the pogroms and their former lives in Russia and Eastern Europe. It's not the main point of the story, but it surfaces and re-surfaces on a few occasions.

I'm not quite sure what to make of it. There's something useful in thinking about the tefillin, instruments used to bind quite literally "the law" (biblically speaking) to the human body, being cast away into a sea of forgetfulness. I am interested in what Commandment looks like today, in a post-Holocaust world, and I like to think that the casting away of tefillin symbolizes an effort to reject literalist readings of the bible and of the notion of Commandment.

At one point in the story, Leora, the main character, is in an old store full of used clothing, furniture, and other odds and ends. She finds an old set of tefillin that is so damaged (having resided at the bottom of the ocean for many years) that the parchment inside is exposed:

Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One.

Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. And these words which I command you this day shall be on your heart. . . You shall bind them as a sign upon your hand, and they shall be frontlets between your eyes. And you shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.
What, I wonder, does it mean today, in our world--a world that has been disappointed by the silence and inaction of any divine being--to love God? Is it not possible that a dogmatic and unwavering commitment to the law, and literalist interpretations of it, disallows the possibility to love God?

It is in this spirit that I like the idea of the discareded tefillin. On the other hand, not to be cliche or anything, but is this also an instance of throwing the baby out with the bathwater (okay, so I am cliche)? Must religion and ritual and everything we have perceived of as sacred be cast away in order for us to truly know and "love" God? Sometimes, in some instances, yes, I think so. But sometimes, casting everything "sacred" into the sea of forgetfulness might be the worst mistake we have ever made.

Forgetting, itself, is what might be the most transgressive element of this impulse. I have never believed even in the saying "forgive and forget." And, what is forgiveness, anyway? I know that when I talk about it in class with my students no one can agree on its meaning.

As Leora keeps reading the parchment, she sees:

And if you listen to my commandments...then I will give the land rain in its proper season, early rain and late rain, and you will harvest your grain and wine and oil. I will give grass in the fields for your cattle, and you will eat and be satisfied. Take care, lest your heart be deceived and you turn away and serve other gods and worship them. For then the anger of the Lord will be kindled against you, and he will stop up the heavens and there will be no rain; the earth will not yield its produce, and you will soon disappear from the good land which the Lord gives you (110).
The commandments (and blessings), she realizes with a jolt, are conditional. And it all seems suddenly false to her.

"Surely," she thinks "there were people who listened to the commandments and still found themselves going hungry--not to mention others who ignored the commandments and watched all their dreams come true. . . . If people really had thrown their tefillin overboard on their way to America, people who had been starving to death in Europe and probably still starved in New York, perhaps it wasn't just because tefillin were archaic. Maybe it was because tefillin were wrong" (111).

And yet, it still, sometimes, seems that it would be so much easier to believe in a God who hands out rewards and punishments like an overbearing parent does to his naive and ungrateful child. It would be so much easier to believe in God as the benevolent provider, rather than the God who has shown himself to be so forgetful, apathetic, and downright unloveable at times.
Sometimes I just want to say, "Be who I always believed you were, who I used to imagine you were. Be that. Fix this mess." But I know that the responsibility was never his, that it was always mine.