Tag Archives: judaism

The American bar mitzvah, 1887

“And during the time when the Hungarian or Polish Jewish youngster was brought to a level where he could understand the Prophets, and listen to rigorous biblical and legal studies, the American youngster is merely brought to the magnificent level of being able to stammer a few words of English-style Hebrew, to pronounce the blessing over the Torah, and to chant half the maftir from a text with vowels and notes on the day he turns thirteen — a day that is celebrated here as the greatest of holidays among our Jewish brethren. From that day onward a youngster considers his teacher to be an unwanted article.”

Moses Weinberger, Jews and Judaism in New York, 1887 (Jonathan D. Sarna, trans.)
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Is the evil impulse good?

I learned this teaching from Rabbi Rebecca Ben-Gideon last week and have been turning it over in my mind:

Rabbi Nahman said in Rabbi Samuel’s name: ‘Behold, it was good’ refers to the Good Desire; ‘And behold, it was very good’ refers to the Evil Desire. (It only says ‘very good’ after man was created with both the good and bad inclinations, in all other cases it only says ‘and God saw that it was good’) Can then the Evil Desire be very good? That would be extraordinary! But without the Evil Desire, however, no man would build a house, take a wife and beget children; and thus said Solomon: ‘Again, I considered all labour and all excelling in work, that it is a man’s rivalry with his neighbour.’

This is from Bereshit Rabbah 9:7.  Ambition, here, is understood as a manifestation of Yetzer Hara, the evil impulse.  David Holzel writes about this view of yetzer hara in the context of the Star Trek episode “The Enemy Within,” the one where Captain Kirk splits up into Good Kirk and Bad Kirk.  Holzel says the yetzer hara isn’t really all bad, and Nahman seems to agree.  Here’s a Talmud story on a similar theme:

It is said that two thousand years ago, a group of Rabbis encountered the Yetzer Hara amidst the destruction of Jerusalem. Knowing that the evil impulse was to blame for the devastation of their Holy Temple, they grabbed him and wrestled him into a chamber pot, where they held him. Ready to destroy the Yetzer Hara, one Rabbi interjected. “Who knows what will happen if you destroy him. Hold him for three days and see what happens!”
The Rabbis waited patiently for three days and then began scouting the city. Immediately, they noticed that the world was beginning to rot away. People stopped doing business. Chickens stopped producing eggs. Families stopped building houses. Immediately, they knew what they had to do. They let him go, knowing that the world could not be sustained without him. (Yoma 69b)

But here’s what I don’t get. If the yetzer hara is a morally neutral complex of desires (the physical/material/selfish part of human nature) why is it called the evil impulse?  It could have been called something else — “the animal nature” or something.  I feel like it’s a basic feature of Jewish thought that things are called what they’re called for a reason.  Nobody argues that lashon hara isn’t actually bad.  If it weren’t bad it wouldn’t be called lashon hara!

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Jews, intermarriage, and the love that is actually quite comfortable speaking its name

Do Jews have a future?  Maybe, but only if we stop marrying goyim, says Jack Wertheimer, a professor at JTS, in a long article I found infuriating for reasons I find hard to articulate. Maybe you guys can help me be infuriated by it in a more fully worked-out way!

There is the confusion about causation and correlation, which annoys me as a mathematician:

The bottom-line fact is that in both religious and communal life, intermarried families participate at decidedly lower rates than their in-married counterparts. The 2000-01 NJPS offers ample evidence comparing the two populations. In the realm of religious engagement, four times fewer intermarried families than in-married families join and regularly attend a synagogue, and five times fewer keep a kosher home. The same trends obtain in the area of social and communal participation: three times fewer intermarried families report that two or more of their closest friends are Jewish, and four to five times fewer join and volunteer for Jewish organizations or contribute to Jewish philanthropy.

And of course hysterical overreaction to disagreement, which annoys me as a human being:

In short, it remains unacceptable to encourage Jews to marry other Jews, unacceptable to state the obvious about the downside of intermarriage, and unacceptable to invoke such a thing as a responsibility to the Jewish people. In today’s environment, Jewish endogamy has become the love that dare not speak its name.

I’m a Jew married to a Jew, and nobody throws rocks at me, nobody vandalizes my house or calls me names on the Internet, and I can very definitely tell you that nobody suggests that I be forbidden from marrying, or institutionalized, or just plain thrown in jail, like those people who loved in the way that actually didn’t dare speak its name.

I’m the kind of person who, in Wertheimer’s mind, ought to be part of what he hopes is a “silent majority” —  I’m raising Jewish kids, I belong to a synagogue, I give to Jewish charities.  And yep, I favor my kids marrying other Jews.  I’m in the Jewish community.  But guess what — it’s exactly articles like this one that make me want to tell the Jewish community, or this part of it, that it can go take a leap.

It reminds me of going to Orthodox Talmud Torah as a kid.  They told us that any one of us who married a non-Jew was fulfilling Hitler’s plan.  They also told us that if the United States ever went to war with Israel, we would have to fight on Israel’s side.  Fair to say they took commitment to the Jewish people fairly seriously.

But I actually like those guys, in retrospect, better than I like this article!  Because let’s face it — they knew my family didn’t keep kosher.  They knew we weren’t shomer shabbos and they knew that when we came to pray on Saturday morning, we drove there, parked three blocks from shul, and walked the rest of the way, just to keep up appearances.  It wasn’t a problem.  They let me keep going to Hebrew School there, and they let me stand up and be bar mitzvahed there just as if I were observant.  I think it’s fair to say I learned a lot there that helped keep me part of the Jewish community for life.

Should they instead have tossed me out, the way Wertheimer wants synagogues to do with Jews who marry outside the faith?

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Jay Michaelson on God vs. Gay, Dec 1

My friend Jay Michaelson, my go-to guy for all matters of Jewish learning, is speaking in Madison this Thursday evening about his new book God vs. Gay?:  The Religious Case for Equality. Recommended for all who care what feist left-wing observant Jews have to say about religion and sex.  Which is everyone, right?

Book trailer:

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