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.

moana-singing-boats-shore

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:

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

This article originally appeared in Moment Magazine.

george-eliot
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.

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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.

Something to Lose: Eviatar Banai and the Sukkot Paradox

This piece originally appeared on Lehrhaus, an exciting new online magazine of Jewish thought and culture. Please check out the website and follow it on Facebook or Twitter

Eviatar Banai is an Israeli rock musician who comes from a well-known family of performers. He is also a ba’al-teshuva, a returnee to faith, and his songs reflect the various stages of the religious journey he has undergone in the public eye. In his mesmerizing new song “Pergola” he reflects upon many of the personal changes he has undergone – musical fame, self-affiliation with the Haredi community, and the material accoutrements that accompany both developments. Many of the lyrics read as ironic, such as references to certain trappings of a bourgeois lifestyle (a “Hyundai Santa Fe,” his “crazy mortgage,” and eating “Kosher sushi” in the tony Jerusalem neighborhood of Shaarei Chesed). He describes his fame in equally wry terms – poking fun even at the way people praise his religiosity and his contributions to the Israeli cultural landscape. Indeed, the song’s repeated refrain, “yesh li mah li-hafsid,” “I have something to lose,” points to the potential downside of success. One can become, as Banai sings, “a slave to the body, a slave to fear.” The more we have, the more we are vulnerable to our fears of losing it all.

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“Extol Her for the Fruit of Her Hand”: An Alternative Perspective on Female Leadership

As the drive for formal women’s religious leadership continues to manifest itself with greater force and momentum in the Modern Orthodox Jewish community, one senses an opportunity. Here is a chance to celebrate women, to show how we value contemporary women’s voices and perspectives, as well as unsung female leaders of the past who influenced the course of Jewish history both directly and indirectly. Yet, instead of this movement for female leadership expanding our collective sense of the many forms leadership can take, we are asked to view events through the paradigm of victory or frustration: a woman has been assigned this or that position, or such a position has been denied or declared off limits. These milestones may in fact have some significance, but there is also something retrograde about a religious conversation that places so much stock in the acquisition of titles and authority. Although great leaders are identified and praised in the Jewish tradition, most of them male and some female as well, in many cases their authority is interrogated, critiqued and ultimately viewed as besides the point. In stark contrast to the epic heroes of other traditions, Jewish heroes, even as they achieve external greatness, are praised for their humility and devotion to God. Some may say, first give a woman a seat at the table, and then we can begin the conversation about the quality or texture of her particular leadership. Or some might contend that female Jewish leaders would not be prone to the same foibles that plague traditional male authorities, rendering our tradition’s critiques of those foibles irrelevant. Yet, the ways in  which we discuss this issue as a community matter, and a singular focus on giving women greater formal authority, even within the realm of Torah, is profoundly lacking from a religious point of view.

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Literary Voice as an Expression of Theology: The Examples of Deuteronomy and Lamentations

The book of Deuteronomy is unique among the five books of the Torah in that much of it is written in the first-person singular. The book is essentially a speech crafted and delivered by Moshe, with the imprimatur of God. As a genre, it is different from the rest of the Torah, which can largely be divided into the categories of narrative, law or poetry. While Deuteronomy contains all of these components, it also functions as a kind of sermon, rooted in the subjective, personal voice of Moses, that is intended to inspire and strengthen the Jewish people as they enter the land of Israel. The genre and perspective of the Deuteronomy is also interwoven with its message. There is an earthly nature to the book as a whole – it is practically oriented and interested in the human institutions necessary to interpret and actualize God’s covenant in the land of Israel. As Moses says toward the end of the Book (30:11-14):

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