Friday, February 10, 2012

Keep those comments coming!

Ethan, your time has finally come!

Everyone else can read Ethan's comments here and here but for anyone who wants a quick overview, Ethan's basic argument is that rather than avoiding the Religious Right, I should engage with them, and try to convince them that what they are doing is not right. He also suggests that my disengagement from God and some aspects of Judaism might be misguided. That's a very short summary and I do encourage anyone who reads this to click through and read his actual comments, which are detailed and respectful while clearly disagreeing with me in some fundamental (but not fundamentalist) ways.

Ethan, I can understand how a disenchantment with the Reform Movement could push someone towards the Orthodox, especially the Modern Orthodox, who do embrace thought and questioning in ways that previous generations never did. In some ways, we're opposite sides of the same coin, or whatever metaphor you want to choose for people who perceived the same thing but reacted to it differently. Here's my response to what you have said:

1) I realize that many Reform Jews are poorly educated about Judaism and wouldn't even know where to look something up if they had a question, which they generally don't because many don't spend a whole lot of time thinking about religion. I am not one of these. I had a good basic education at home and at Hebrew School and a very intellectual Rabbi growing up. I also have a BA in Religion, and I've taught Hebrew School (and attended the requisite conferences) for a total of 9 years at three different schools. I have a shelf full of Religion books at home and near-constant access to the Rabbi, Cantor and Educator at work for any more-detailed questions I might have. Plus Google, of course, and the ability to tell right-wing garbage from real scholarship. When I'm not sure why Jews do something, I make sure I find out. And while I haven't spent lots of time studying Talmud, I am fairly conversant with Leviticus.

2) There is a huge difference between choosing food for scientific reasons (yes, my health, but also the health of the world--I try to eat local produce as much as I can and part of the reason I gave up meat is that meat production uses a lot more energy, and causes more pollution, than the production of plant-based foods. I also try to eat products that are ethically produced, free trade, and where possible, are processed by unionized workers.) and kashrut. Have you read Leviticus 11? It's nonsense. Never in the chapter does it say why we should only eat animals that chew the cud, only that we should. And it makes statements that are blatantly contrary to science. If I were a really good blogger I'd take out my TANACH and footnote my arguments, but I'm a tired blogger so you're just going to have to look at the whole chapter if you want to check up on me. It says in there that a bat is a bird. A bat! Do you know how hard it is to explain to children why it says that a bat is a bird, and why it says that a hare chews its cud?

I can't read that and take it seriously. You can't tell me that one of the birds I shouldn't eat is a bat, and then expect me to listen when you say I shouldn't eat lobster because it doesn't have fins and scales. Who cares? If it had fins and scales, it probably wouldn't be so delicious. And honestly, I can eat locusts but not lobster? This is not logical.

Again, I understand why kashrut can be comforting to some, and that it brings ritual to your life. But to me it means basing one's life on something that was written a long time ago and no longer makes sense. I have examined it (even tried it once), and I reject it. And don't even get me started on the milk and meat thing.

3) Spiritual differences between women and men may exist. This does not explain to me why women cannot wear trousers or kippot or read from the Torah. It tells me nothing of why my husband (or father) should own me. Or why I should cover my hair. Or why men thank God every morning for not having been made a woman. Women are oppressed in many observant Jewish communities. Think of the women who cannot get remarried because their legal ex-husbands will not give them a get. This is not okay.

4) But then we come to strategy. You make an interesting point that arguing with extremists on their own terms might be more convincing. That's true. But as they wouldn't respect my Jewishness, my education, or my right to discuss the matter, it's a difficult proposition. It seems much more sensible to me for Israel to cut off their special privileges.

On the other hand, you're right that Progressive Jews should be trying to make a more attractive option. Some are, such as Kolot Chayeinu in Brooklyn, NY. One option I have considered is to try to grow a community like theirs, which is vibrant and thoughtful and full of scholarship and activism.

Part of what this blog is doing is helping me to engage with these questions in a more thoughtful way. I want to hear the arguments so that I can consider them and refine my position. I also want my view of Judaism to be out there. The more people who read this, the more people will learn that there are well-educated, thoughtful, moral, involved people who are atheists and who are progressives and who are trying to work all of this out.

So I thank you, readers, for giving me a forum in which to do this, and for keeping me on my toes with the thoughtful comments. Keep 'em coming!


  1. Hi there, sorry for taking so long to get back to you.

    1) I hope that you didn't take my comments as an accusation of hypocrisy on your part. I was trying to demonstrate that the values you were claiming are in many ways better represented by the more observant strains of Judaism than either Reform Jews or secular humanists, taken as whole communities. I respect that you take Jewish learning seriously, and I can think of a number of other counterexamples who I know personally, but it is undeniable that, as a community, Reform Judaism does not maintain lay learning in depth as an important value. If less observant Jewish communities want to be taken seriously as equally legitimate expressions of Judaism, then a very good start would be to begin taking their own Judaism as seriously as other communities do.

    2) I agree that there is an enormous difference between your scientific criteria for what to eat and kashrut. That was my point. I agree with the values you espouse regarding what you choose to eat, and I think that you should not relax those standards in order to keep kosher, but I don't see them as an alternative to kashrut. You note that the Torah does not always teach us the reasons for kashrut; this is true, but the written Torah is just the beginning of what we have access to. The rabbinic tradition includes a great deal of thought on the matter. I must admit, though, that I am not fully consistent on this point. I sanctify my food by praying before and after I eat, and keeping kosher style, but if I went beyond that I would no longer be able to eat with most of my friends and family, and I consider the maintenance of peace in the house to be a much greater Jewish value than strict kashrut.

    Regarding the particular scientific problems you have with the laws, I would say that it sounds more like a translation issue than an accuracy one. We have defined birds in one way, but is it appropriate to project our taxonomic categories onto biblical Hebrew? Perhaps that word would be more precisely but less elegantly translated as flying vertebrates. Is that category not scientifically valid, or worth having a word for? Similarly for hares, although this one required a quick bit of research, they do bring forth partially digested food to be eaten again so as to get more nutrition out of hard to digest leaves, just not in the way that we currently classify as ruminant. Could that be sufficient to meet the definition of a phrase that is translated as "chews the cud"?

  2. 3) No question whatsoever that there are observant Jewish communities where women are wrongfully oppressed, and it is shameful and a chillul hashem. However, if we accept that women may have spiritual differences from men, then it makes sense that there would be some differences in behavior that do not follow necessarily from physical differences, especially in Judaism, where we try to give every aspect of life a spiritual and holy dimension. Tzniut, which is at the root of much of the controversy, is unfortunately rather vague, and so there are many different standards of tzniut, some of which are blatantly discriminatory. However, it fundamentally applies to men as much if not more than women, and it is easily possible to interpret it in ways that are much more restrictive to men than women without deviating from as rigid an adherence to tradition as you please. For the morning prayers, I will recommend this article, which explains the thought behind it reasonably well:

    4) Remember that in most debates where you want to change things, your target is more the audience than the person you are debating against. You may not be able to convince the extremists, but could you contribute to the understanding that basic morality does not require you to give up the fundamental tenets of the faith? Could you engage with some who are more open to questioning and respect for others, but who are devout enough to have the respect of those you cannot reach directly? Reducing the privileges of the Haredi in Israel is worth doing, but if you do not marginalize their position, then the problem festers. They don't have anything like the same privileges in the US, yet they are still able to maintain birth rates vastly greater than the rest of the Jewish population; how long until you will no longer be able to simply overpower them as you propose to do? And even if you could keep them from power forever, why give up on klal yisrael and the hope of reconciliation? Our brothers may be misguided, but they are still our brothers. We increase the gap between us to our mutual detriment. Again, not that you should deny your beliefs to allow for unity, but do not take on beliefs to break yourself away further, or even emphasize and identify more strongly with some of your beliefs over others simply for the reason that they are further from those you disagree with.

    As far as I can see, building communities like Kolot Chayeinu would be an excellent thing to do, although there is only so much I can tell from a cursory perusal of the website, without having lived it at all.

    Thanks for the thoughtful answers! Until next time, shalom.