S.Y. Agnon and the Orthodox Reader

This review appeared in the Fall issue of Jewish Action Magazine

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 The Israeli writer Shmuel Yosef Agnon, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1966, authored works of modern Hebrew literature that are steeped in the language of the Torah and hundreds of years of Eastern European Jewish history and tradition. His stories, set in his Galician hometown of Buczacz, transport the reader into the vibrant world of Polish Jewry before World War II. There are probably few readers outside of the Orthodox Jewish community who have the cultural literacy necessary to recognize many of the Jewish allusions in Agnon’s stories. Yet Agnon’s works have not made the deep inroads into the Orthodox world that one might imagine they would.

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Were the Ancient Israelites Required to Appoint a King, or Simply Given the Option?

The monarchy begins twice.

 

This week’s Torah reading of Shoftim (Deuteronomy 16:18-21:9) concerns itself, more than any other, with political matters. It begins with the commandment to appoint “judges and officers in all your gates,” and ends with the laws of war. As is true throughout Deuteronomy, many of the precepts found in Shoftimare repetitions or elaborations of injunctions from previous books of the Torah. But one passage stands out both for its significance and for its novelty:

If, after you have entered the land that the Lord your God has assigned to you, and taken possession of it and settled in it, you decide, “I will set a king over me, as do all the neighboring nations,” you shall surely set a king over yourself, one chosen by the Lord your God.

Most surprising about this verse is its ambiguity: is appointing a king a requirement, or simply an option? And that’s not all: to the modern Western reader, accustomed to constitutions, the setup appears counterintuitive. One would have thought the Torah would prescribe a particular regime, and that the people would have some say regarding who, exactly, should rule. Instead, the people are to choose the form of government—evidently a monarchy—but the monarch himself is chosen by God…

The full article may be read at Mosaic Magazine

Crazy Beautiful Startup: A Review of The Wedding Plan

 

In the Summer 2017 issue of the Jewish Review of Books, I review The Wedding Plan, the latest from Israeli filmmaker Rama Burshtein.

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Excerpt:

Born in New York and raised in Israel, Burshtein currently lives with her family among a small cluster of Hasidic families in the predominantly secular Tel Aviv. Early in her career, she worked in the ultra-Orthodox cottage industry of films made by and for women, but when Fill the Void came out she crossed over to the international film festival and art house cinema scene, without losing touch with her initial audience. It was possible to enjoy Fill the Void as the tale of an unexpected love story amid tragic circumstances in an exotic setting, but it also spoke to her original audience. That film’s soundtrack was punctuated by a modern Israeli rendition of the song  “Im Eshkacheikh” (If I Forget Thee O Jerusalem), which is often sung under the wedding canopy. For those conversant with Jewish tradition, the song powerfully expressed the connection between the film’s plot and the tension between joy and tragedy already evoked in the Jewish wedding ceremony itself.

A similarly poignant countertext in The Wedding Plan is the hymn “Eshet Chayil” (Proverbs 31), which is traditionally sung each Friday night before Shabbat dinner. Like the film itself, it sings the praises of a faithful “woman of valor.” Early in the film, Michal confesses her desire for a husband to sing “Eshet Chayil” to her, and the film closes with a rendition of the song. While the traditional performance of the song presupposes a husband to sing it, the woman of valor’s husband is not really described in the hymn. It is she who takes care of all of her family’s needs, engages in complex business ventures, cares for the poor, elevates her husband’s standing, and is, consequently, cloaked in strength and majesty, as well as wisdom and kindness. In incorporating this song, Burshtein places her idiosyncratic heroine in the tradition of great Jewish women, but not without some gentle irony. How far, after all, is Michal from that desperate bachelor who proposed to her, and every other woman, on the first date?

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Parshat Korach: The Bible’s Coalition of Complainers

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The Punishment of Morah and the Stoning of Moses and Aaron (Sandro Botticelli, 1482)

…Koraḥ’s conglomeration is thus a distorted mirror-image of the Israelite encampment itself: less a collection of distinct subgroups united in service of a common goal than representatives of different tribes united only in insurrection. One is reminded of John Milton’s confederation of devils and pagan deities who inhabit Satan’s underworld in Paradise Lost: a “promiscuous crowd” with disparate grievances and ideologies who find common cause in the rebellion against God. The debates among these parties, described by Milton as “words clothed in reason’s garb,” vividly recall the grievances of Koraḥ and his mob…

The full article may be read at Mosaic Magazine

Love and Kingship: The Book of Ruth and Jerusalem Day

As temperatures rise and flowers bloom, we can feel the holiday of Shavuot approaching – perhaps our sweetest holiday – when the Book of Ruth is read in the synagogue. For a unique and even paradigm-shifting reading of Ruth, I highly recommend Rising Moon, by Rabbi Moshe Miller of Jerusalem. It is one of the most fascinating books of modern biblical interpretation I have come across. Rising Moon is structured like a drama in four acts, reflecting Ruth’s four chapters. It weaves together Biblical, midrashic and Kabbalistic sources, along with a wide range of insights from outside Jewish tradition – Adam Smith, Charles Darwin and the novel Dune all make key appearances. This eclectic mix of sources is employed to make a provocative claim about about the Book of Ruth in particular and about the history and destiny of the Jewish nation more broadly.

Continue reading “Love and Kingship: The Book of Ruth and Jerusalem Day”

Why Does the Bible Require New Mothers to Atone after Childbirth?

The sections on purity and impurity in the book of Leviticus—which make up nearly a quarter of the book—are some of the most difficult for the modern reader of the Bible. The laws are complicated, the terminology obscure, the theological or moral message (if there is one) far from obvious, and some of the details (leprous houses, impure females) seeming logically or morally suspect. Even for the religiously observant Jewish reader, these passages, dealing with areas of halakhah rendered moot until the ultimate restoration of the Temple, may have little resonance.

One of the most confounding of such passages appears at the beginning of this week’s Torah reading of Tazria (Leviticus 12-13). Here God tells Moses that when a woman gives birth to a child, she is impure for several weeks, after which she must offer two distinct sacrifices: an “olah,” or burnt offering, and a “ḥatat,” or sin offering…

The full article may be read at Mosaic Magazine.

Moana and the Call of Jewish Destiny

This article originally appeared on TheLehrhaus.Com

Animated Disney films, with all of their fantasy and froth, often contain some deep ideas or archetypes. Moana, the latest offering from Disney studios, is no exception. Moana, the protagonist whose name means “ocean” in several Polynesian languages, is a girl who is destined to assume leadership of the fictional South Pacific island of Motunui. Yet she feels drawn to the sea. She undertakes a series of adventures along with a demi-god “trickster” named Maui in order to restore equilibrium to their increasingly imperiled natural environment. All of this is set against a mash-up of pre-modern Polynesian traditions and myths that, according to scholars and critics, is accurately and respectfully depicted. The film’s animation is gorgeous—like Moana, the viewer also feels the call of the shimmering Pacific ocean and expansive sky. All in all, it is an enjoyable film, setting aside some of the pagan elements which go with the territory.

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More interestingly, the film also breaks from, or improves upon, the typical Disney formula whereby a princess is stuck in some sort of repressive environment but yearns to break free. The central expression of this trope in Moana is the song “How Far I’ll Go,” composed by Lin-Manuel Miranda of Hamilton fame:

Continue reading “Moana and the Call of Jewish Destiny”

“I Shall Be Better for Having Known You”: Feminism, Zionism and Daniel Deronda

This article originally appeared in Moment Magazine.

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George Eliot (Alexandre-Louis-Francois d’Albert-Durade, 1849)

Proud Zionists and feminists have understandably been incensed by recent remarks about the incompatibility of the two principles. What about believing in the Jewish right to live in its national homeland is at odds with caring about the rights of women? And yet, the tension here has deeper roots than present debates. Indeed, the discourse of universal human rights that is characteristic of the feminist movement has never led to an embrace of a vigorous nationalism as an inevitable matter. Further, Zionism in particular is in many respects an outgrowth of Judaism, which is not an egalitarian religion, at least not as traditionally practiced. There may also be a question of allegiances: Could membership in a universal sisterhood potentially conflict with a more particularistic nationalist association?

Nearly 150 years ago, these two impulses found themselves curiously juxtaposed in the Victorian novel Daniel DerondaDaniel Deronda is the final novel of the famed writer George Eliot (née Mary Anne Evans). Generally speaking, Eliot was acutely sensitive to the way in which her society constricted and limited opportunities for her female heroines. Even within Eliot’s oeuvre, Daniel Deronda stands out for its strong women who rebel against their circumstances in ways that both succeed and fail. Not every woman in Daniel Deronda achieves a perfect feminist outcome—in fact, none of them do. Yet Eliot opens up a familiar line of argument about gender and injustice that is still being debated today.

Continue reading ““I Shall Be Better for Having Known You”: Feminism, Zionism and Daniel Deronda”

Mystical Teachings Do Not Erase Sorrow

“It’s hard to be a Jewish poet,” Yehoshua November wrote in his first collection of poetry, God’s Optimism, published in 2010. Indeed, it must be difficult to juggle November’s identities as a Lubavitch Hasid, a family man, a poet, and a professor. In that poem, November explores some of the challenges inherent in writing religious poetry. These include the fear of confusing readers who are unaccustomed to encountering sincere expressions of Orthodox Judaism in verse, the problem of writing about forbidden or impure material, and the anxiety of trying to create new poems “when there is already the one great book.

In his new collection, however, it turns out that the difficulties of being a Jewish poet do not primarily flow from being either Jewish or a poet but from the underlying difficulties of life itself.”

For my full review of November’s wonderful new poetry collection, Two Worlds Exist, please see the Spring 2017 issue of the Jewish Review of Books.