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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“Unfinished-ness” in Art, Judaism and the Poetry of Eve Grubin

Since March of this year, the Met Breuer, a new annex of the Metropolitan Museum, has hosted a remarkable exhibit called “Unfinished.” The works of art exhibited consist primarily of unfinished work from the Met’s permanent collection, including paintings by Rembrandt, Titian, Van Gogh, Klimt and many other noteworthy artists. Some of the works included were abruptly abandoned by their creators for various external reasons such as death, illness, or a more lucrative commission elsewhere. They feature unpainted spots of canvas, rough blurry lines or pencil sketches that are still visible. These pieces are striking in how they display the creative process of the artist at work –  many display a startling unintended beauty in their incomplete form. Other paintings displayed, particularly the more modern works, were intentionally created with an unfinished or provisional quality, similar to a piece of jazz music.

Many of the pieces in the exhibit don’t fit neatly in either category however – they were neither accidentally abandoned nor purposefully designed to feel incomplete. These are works that an artist stops painting because he or she decides that it captures something essential in an unfinished state that would be lost once completed. Often these paintings were not made at the behest of wealthy patrons, or for the purpose of commercial gain, but rather remained in the artist’s personal collection. See John Singer Sargent’s outdoor scene of his sister and her friend for example, or Rembrandt’s intimate portrait of his housekeeper turned life partner Hendrickje Stoffels.

At their best, all three types of paintings challenge the notion that a “perfect” piece of art is always the most effective one. The unpainted spaces and rough backgrounds of these pieces give them a raw or urgent quality. There is a dynamism to them that would be lost in a more refined, yet calcified, final product. Continue reading ““Unfinished-ness” in Art, Judaism and the Poetry of Eve Grubin”

Sweet Tooth: Ruth, Shakespeare and Shavuot

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Ruth and Naomi (He Qi, 2001)

Amid the later books of the Bible’s prophecies of destruction and accounts of divine retribution, the book of Ruth stands out. The midrash in Ruth Rabbah (2:14)  states: “This megillah has no laws of purity or impurity, no transgressions and no mitzvot. So why was it written? It is just to teach how much reward comes to those who act with loving-kindness (chesed).”

In the context of the Bible, Ruth is unusually sweet. Sin, if present at all, remains in the background. Its characters must choose between the merely permissible and the exceptionally virtuous.

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Parshat Tazria Symposium: Parts II and III, the Psychoanalytic and Literary Approaches

Presented here are the second and third parts of a symposium on Parshat Tazria that began with a midrashic analysis by Dr. Tammy Jacobowitz in Part I. In Part II Dr. Shuli Sandler looks at Leviticus 12 through the prism of psychoanalytic theories of maternal bonding as articulated by D.W. Winnicott. Sarah Rindner draws on the work of Mary Douglas in Part III to offer a literary theory for how the mother in Leviticus 12 functions amid the concerns of the book as a whole.

Dr. Shuli Sandler: A Psychoanalytic Approach to Leviticus 12

When examining Leviticus 12, there are several questions that emerge. The first is the question of why the mother who has given birth is required to engage in a three-stage process of re-entry into the community. While there are parallels between the rules surrounding the mother who has given birth and other forms of ritual impurity, childbirth is treated in a unique and distinctive manner in Leviticus.  The second question is why there is a discrepancy between the woman’s status of purity depending on whether she gives birth to a baby boy or a baby girl. While a psychoanalytic approach is not capable of unlocking the “original intent” of these verses, my hope is that it may inspire new ideas and new ways to think about the Torah in a meaningful and psychologically resonant manner.

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Parshat Tazria Symposium: Part I, The Midrashic Approach

In April 2015, Congregation Netivot Shalom in Teaneck, NJ hosted a panel discussion on alternative interpretations of the first verses of Parshat Tazria (Leviticus Chapter 12). The panel included Dr. Tammy Jacobowitz, a scholar of Midrash and chair of the Bible department at SAR High School, Dr. Shuli Sandler, a psychoanalyst in private practice, and myself. The discussion was moderated by Rabbi Nati Helfgot. Our shared question was how to approach the difficult section of the “Isha Yoledet,” the woman who gives birth and is obligated to bring a sacrifice (“korban chatat”) to the Tabernacle.

This section is difficult primarily for two reasons. First, it’s unclear why a woman who gives birth would be barred from the Tabernacle and then obligated to bring a korban chatat offering, usually translated as “sin offering,” upon re-entry. What is sinful about giving birth to a child, and must we really consider a miracle such as childbirth to be analogous to other bodily afflictions/emissions that prevent one from approaching the sanctuary? Second, the verses require that a woman who gives birth to a female child remain outside of the Tabernacle for double the amount than she would for a male child. The reason for this discrepancy goes unmentioned.

Rather than try to definitively answer these questions,  the panel suggested three different methodologies for approaching this material, and for approaching the Bible in general. Tammy Jacobowitz looked at this section through a midrashic lens, examining a beautiful midrash from Leviticus Rabbah that reframes this seemingly dry ritual material into a vibrant theological message about God’s place in the childbirth process. Shuli Sandler analyzed this segment with the help of legendary psychoanalytic thinker Donald Winnicott whose views on mother-child bonding immediately after birth involve a necessarily delayed entry into social and communal life. I drew on cultural anthropologist Mary Douglas’s work of Bible analysis Leviticus as Literature to suggest a theory for how the Isha Yoledet, and broader section about ritual impurity that it introduces, may function on a literary level. Taken together, these approaches testify to the multifaceted nature of the Bible, and the value in exercising variegated methodological tools in order to unlock its profound insights.

These three responses will be delivered in two  installments. The Midrashic Response is presented here as Part I of III.

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“In Your Blood You Shall Live”: Marilynne Robinson and the Jewish Reader

Marilynne Robinson is one of the very few contemporary American novelists to be held in near universal esteem. Her readers have the sense that, as with poetry, not a single word is wasted or extraneous. Additionally, Robinson’s concern with Christianity, unusual in contemporary fiction, also contributes to the rapture that her work inspires. In the tradition of American Protestant poetry, Robinson’s novels don’t simply allude to religious experiences, rather they seek to create such experience for the reader. Robinson’s fiction can open your heart to the possibility of change, of divine grace and redemption. For the Jewish reader, then, encountering Robinson can be a complicated experience.

Lila

However, Jewishly literate readers may actually be positioned to appreciate Robinson’s fourth novel Lila in a way that others would not. Its eponymous heroine is the least Christian character we have encountered thus far in Gilead, the fictional Midwestern town featured in two of Robinson’s prior novels. Lila even goes so far as to call herself a “heathen,” though this does not prevent her from finding strength and solace in the words of the Bible. Lila is particularly drawn to the Hebrew Bible, as opposed to the New Testament, especially the books of Ezekiel and Job. There is a way in which the entire novel may function as a midrash on, or extended imaginative interpretation of, Chapter 16 of Ezekiel. This chapter contains the famous prophecy which likens the Jewish people to a newborn girl abandoned at birth, covered in blood in an open field. In the prophet’s vision, God passes by this scene of desolation and repeatedly declares, “b’damayikh hayi,” or “in your blood you shall live.” There are various ways to translate this evocative phrase, and it’s striking that in her extended literary meditation upon this verse Robinson ultimately departs from the King James Version and other Christian translations in order to read it in a manner similar to the Jewish tradition. This choice, as well as a general celebration of the Hebrew Bible in this work, makes Lila of particular interest from a Jewish perspective.

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