Lately it seems to be the season of haredim on screen. My immersion in this very particular oeuvre began with Shtisel, the 2013 runaway hit Israeli TV series, which depicts a haredi family in Jerusalem in all of its complicated, charming dysfunction. (The first two seasons are now available with English subtitles on Netflix.) More recently, Autonomies (2018) presents a dystopian division of Israel into separate secular and religious states. In the United States, two recent documentaries showcase radically divergent ways of understanding the New York Hasidic community and the experience of marginal figures within it. Haredi Jews are not always interchangeable with Hasidic ones, and Israeli soap operas are different than American art-house documentaries. Yet in considering all of these offerings, certain patterns inevitably emerge. Counterintuitively, the more serious offerings in this genre are the ones with a lighter touch.
In this month’s Jewish Action I review Aviva Gottlieb Zornberg’s new-ish Bamidbar anthology.
Excerpt: Beyond offering specific insights, Zornberg presents an expansive framework for reading Tanach that sets her apart from nearly every interpreter out there. Her books are a true illumination of the Talmudic maxim which describes the Torah: “Turn it and turn it for everything is in it” (Avot 5:22). Zornberg highlights the remarkable potential of Tanach to reflect upon, and in turn be illuminated by, many of the deepest questions and concerns raised in continental philosophy, postmodern criticism and the field of psychoanalysis.
In his essay on the poet Raḥel, Hillel Halkin offers a fascinating study of her too-brief life (1890-1931), her poetics, and the unique place she occupies in the Hebrew literary landscape. Certainly, against the background of the pioneering Zionist ethos of her time—nationalistic, idealistic, and collectivist—the intense individualism of Raḥel’s verse stands out. No less deeply committed to the Zionist enterprise than other poets cited by Halkin, notably Uri Tsvi Grinberg and Avraham Shlonsky, she devoted herself mainly to the exploration of such seemingly inward emotions as sadness, longing, humility, and self-doubt.
The study of poetry on its own terms is a noble literary ideal, but it is difficult to read the poetry of Raḥel without also ruminating upon the personal circumstances, especially the disease to which she would eventually succumb at the age of forty, that may account for the themes of suffering, loneliness, and longing that run through her work. It is perhaps for this reason that Halkin in the end deems her to be, with emphasis on both adjectives, a “great minor poet”: that is, one who deals with localized themes, seemingly without obvious public import, but who nevertheless addresses them with a clarity and virtuosity that ensures he or she will never be forgotten—as, in Israel, Raḥel has indeed never been.
Yet might this major/minor distinction, which Halkin applies with subtlety and generosity, ultimately be something of a false choice?
Genesis famously offers two “versions” of Adam and Eve’s creation. The first, in the first chapter of Genesis, is a broad overview: “And God created man in His image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.”
The second chapter of Genesis presents a more detailed narrative: God forms the man Adam from the dust of the earth (adama), Adam dwells in Eden for a bit, and then God proclaims that “It is not good for man to be alone; I will make a fitting helper for him.” Afterward, God borrows a rib from Adam when he is sleeping, which he fashions into a woman. This act has profound symbolic significance, which Adam himself relates in a kind of poetic mode: “This one at last/ Is bone of my bones/And flesh of my flesh./This one shall be called Woman (isha)/For from man (ish) was she taken.”
In examining the verses of both creation stories, we learn important lessons about not only the origins of human beings and our relationship to our creator, but also about what marriage should involve.
Embracing Genesis’ messages about marriage may require departing from certain sacred cows of modern Western life. But Genesis suggests that the tradeoff is worth it. Here’s my take on it:
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…
This article originally appeared in Moment Magazine.
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 Deronda. Daniel 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.
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.