Sunday, April 22, 2007

Protesting Iran

Given the negative posts that I've written about the behavior of the Iranian regime and its president, you might think that I'd be in favor of kicking it out of the UN, as called for by a recent protest (April 17) at the United Nations organized by Rabbi Avi Weiss and his organization Amcha. Steg attended the demonstration and provides a detailed account and lots of photographs. I feel ambivalent, however, because I've been reading a couple of Iranian blogs - one written by Esther, an American woman married to an Iranian and now living in Tehran (View from Iran) and another written by Arash, an Iranian who is now studying in Canada (Kamangir). Both of them are quite critical of the regime (perhaps Arash is more critical), but they both obviously love the country. I despise the Iranian regime, and think that it is a threat to Israel, especially if they manage to make nuclear weapons, but I'm not sure that calling for throwing Iran out of the UN is really a worthwhile demand. For one thing, it's not going to happen. For another thing, why should this just be identified as a Jewish issue? For another thing, I wish that the demonstrators had made it clear that they're not interested in the U.S. going to war against Iran.

The thing is that when I read Esther's and Arash's blogs, I stop thinking of Iranians as a monolithic mass, and start thinking of individual Iranians that I might really like, and who are and who will be harmed by sanctions against Iran (which Hillel is calling for - see this news release on their website - Iran Petition). There are already sanctions against Iran imposed by the U.N. because of the intransigence of the regime about their nuclear program - and of course they will hurt the ordinary people of Iran and not the members of the regime. So I'm very ambivalent about them, since I'm starting to think of people whose writings I enjoy being injured by them, not just an undifferentiated mass of people who are an "enemy."

Yom Ha-Atzma'ut

Today we had our IC Hillel Israel Independence Day celebration - a day earlier than Israel (since we have Sunday off). It was fun, although a bit loud (students like louder music than I do). The last band was Pey Dalid, a Jewish rock/reggae band - fun to listen to. On their MySpace page you can listen to four of their songs.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Professor Liviu Librescu z"l

Of all the acts that happened at Virginia Tech on Monday, Professor Librescu's standing in the path of the shooter to save the life of his students is inspiring, but so sad. I don't really know what to say that others haven't yet said. May the memory of the righteous be a blessing for all of us.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Killings at Virgina Tech

Peggy Williams, the president of Ithaca College, sent out an Important Message for the Campus Community on the massacre at Virgina Tech today. I first learned about them when I looked at the New York Times web site this afternoon, when they first reported that about 22 people had been killed. Now at least 33 people are reported dead. It's scary to hear about this - American colleges and universities are open places, and anyone can walk in, unlike Israeli universities which have fences around them and checkpoints with guards. I don't know that I can say anything particularly new about this - I can only imagine the shock and horror the students, their families, the faculty, and the staff at Virgina Tech feel. May they be able to find some comfort in the coming days and years.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Israeli Masorti movement and gay rabbis

Rabbi Einat Ramon, the dean of the Masorti Rabbinical School in Jerusalem, writes in an article in the Washington Jewish Week, Healing heterosexuality within Jewish people, that
Should we, then, deviate from the longstanding and clear perspective on the issue presented by Jewish law and theology? The answer is positive only if our vision is to transcend sexual differences between men and women and blindly follow the modern reality and ideology of gender and family fluidity. As long as there are Jews who advocate that view, they deserve to be able to make their spiritual homes at various rabbinical schools and congregations that promote such an ideal.

Yet, will the spiritual home at Schechter Rabbinical Seminary, for those of us who believe in the complementary difference between men and women, as an opportunity for deeper intellectual and spiritual family and community bonds, be likewise respected by our colleagues in the long run? We hope that the value of unity - not uniformity - of the people of Israel has not disappeared in the face of different ideologies of gender.

It is very disappointing to read such a viewpoint from Rabbi Ramon. It is clear from reading the entire article that her views are heavily influenced by Rabbi Joel Roth, who was her teacher at JTS. Rabbi Ramon, however, was the first Israeli woman ordained by JTS, and certainly in the past has expressed a far more feminist vision of the relationship between men and women.

In an article published in the book Life of Judaism, edited by Harvey Goldberg, she spells out the ways that she and her husband rewrote the traditional ketubah to spell out a broader range of obligations of both parties (unlike the traditional ketubah, which only spells out the obligation of the husband to the wife, and assumes what the wife's obligations are to be). For them, kiddushin was an act of mutual consecration, not an act of a man acquiring a wife by transferring a ring. She justifies this rewriting of the ketubah by recourse to Mordechai Kaplan's concept of "reevaluation" - clarification of the values and religious and psychological needs that a particular observance required in the past, and an adaptation of the observance and creation of a modern halakhah that remains faithful to those needs and values, as well as to modern sensibilities. It seems that she no longer holds to the values she wrote about so passionately in this article, which is a step backward for women, feminism, and certainly the role of gays and lesbians in the Israel Masorti movement.

Later thoughts: Since both JTS and the University of Judaism rabbinical school have decided to admit gays and lesbians into their rabbinical program, how will they be greeted when they go to Israel for their obligatory year of study at Machon Schechter? Will they be shunned by Rabbi Ramon and the other faculty, or the Israeli students? Will they be forced back into the closet? Will they be given aliyot or counted in the minyan? I wonder if Chancellor Eisen of JTS or Rabbi Artson of the UJ have communicated with Rabbi Ramon on this issue?


Today is one of those moist, rainy, Ithaca days that we get so many of. The daffodils, tulips, and forsythia are just about to bloom if we ever get a couple of warm days. The weather forecast is for a big snowstorm, but it's certainly not happening yet. The birds are out and singing - I have a cardinal who sits in the fir tree between my house and the next, who sings out vigorously, and I hope avoids being eaten by my cat, whose ability to run up the trees is impressive. I walked down the street to Gimme! coffee to sit and drink a mocha and grade papers. As I walked over the bridge at Cascadilla St. the stream was racing along towards Cayuga Lake. Gimme! was full of academic looking folk - I sat down and sipped my mocha and someone who taught computer science sat down across from me and read his New Yorker. Further in, several people crouched in front of their laptops, and one man wrote comments on a paper. It looks chilly outside, but nonetheless there are the sights and sounds and smells of spring about to pop.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

New York to Paris

Normblog has pointed out a highly amusing feature of Google Maps. See New York to Paris for directions on how to get from New York to Paris. I find that the same directions work for New York or other American cities to London and other European destinations, but not across the Pacific Ocean. According to Google, it should take about 29 days 21 hours to drive from New York to Warsaw. What is wrong with this picture?

The Forbidden Gospels Blog

I just discovered The Forbidden Gospels Blog, written by April DeConick, professor of biblical studies at Rice University and founder of the Early Jewish and Christian Mysticism section of the Society of Biblical Literature. There's a very interesting discussion going on now about the Jewishness of Jesus. April writes:
It has only been in the last eight or ten years, as far as I can tell, that scholars as a collective voice have been reacting to this problem in their publications on the historical Jesus, demanding that we take seriously the obvious - that Jesus was Jewish. Jesus as a Jew is not just another agenda-driven "construct" as some have been suggesting (this really is a hyper-post-Modern stance). Being Jewish was Jesus' self-identity, and it has taken us two thousand years to admit it and talk about what it means. No amount of pressing the button on the "diversity" and/or Hellenization of early Judaism is going to erase the fact that for Jesus the Torah and prophets were his scriptures, the Temple his cult, Yahweh his god, and the coming of God's Kingdom his hope. Jesus as Jewish is probably the most essential (and dangerous) idea that I can think of.

Susannah Heschel has written a fascinating book on Abraham Geiger, who already in the 19th century constructed a Jewish Jesus, seeing him as a Pharisee who came to reform Judaism. He also denounced the anti-Judaism of Christian scholars of Judaism. It is interesting that Geiger's arguments (and those by other Jewish scholars of Jesus) are finally getting their just due.

Thursday, April 12, 2007


I just bought my plane ticket for travel to Israel this summer. I'll be in Jerusalem for two months, doing research and I hope finishing a first draft of my book. This may be too ambitious a goal, but I'm going to try to do it. Tentative title: Angels' Tongues and Witches' Curses: Women in Early Jewish Magic and Mysticism.

Sunday, April 01, 2007


I just went to a couple of movies sponsored by FLEFF - the Finger Lakes Environmental Film Festival, which is run by people at Ithaca College. The first movie was Fateless, after a book by Imre Kertesz, the Nobel Prize winner (in literature). I was fooled by the description given of the movie, which gave the impression that it focused on a Jewish boy's experiences (Gyurgy Koves) in Budapest after he had returned from imprisonment in Nazi concentration camps. Actually, most of the movie shows his experiences under Nazi rule. It begins by showing the goodbye given to his father just before he is going to be taken away to a forced labor camp. (He never saw his father again - he died in Mauthausen). Then Gyurgi has to go to work in a factory. One day on his way to work the bus he is riding is stopped by a Hungarian policeman, and all those wearing the yellow star are taken off.

This is the beginning of his journey to the camps - first to Auschwitz, then to Buchenwald, and finally to Zeitz. For most of the story detailed in the movie he is in Zeitz, where we see him become more and more drawn and emaciated until he almost dies. These scenes are beautiful and disturbing - and I would think they are far more realistic (and much less sentimental) than Schindler's List. He is then sent to Buchenwald to be cremated (because Zeitz does not have a crematorium) - although he is not dead yet. He ends up somehow in a hospital ward (at least that's what it looks like) be taken care of. As I watched the movie I thought this must have happened after the Americans liberated the camp, but apparently this took place in Buchenwald, somehow, before the liberation. He is there when the Americans liberate the camp, and there is a scene showing his encounter with an American Jewish officer who urges him not to return to Budapest, but to go to another country and apply for entrance to the United States.

Instead, he does return to Budapest, and searches for his father. He goes back to his old apartment, but another family is living there now and a woman opens the door just a little at his buzz and then closes it on him. He goes to the next door, and at first he is turned away, but then it turns out relatives of his live there - who were never sent to the camps. This is when he learns of his father's death. All of the people he meets in Budapest say the right things - how horrible and dreadful it must have been for him - but none of them truly understand what he experienced.

When I saw these encounters it crystallized for me a feeling I had a couple of summers ago when I visited what had been the concentration camp at Terezin, in the Czech Republic - that if one had not suffered that experience, one could really not understand. It was not possible to touch it from the outside. The movie gives the viewer a sense of both positions - both the returning survivor and the friends and relatives whom he is returning to. They have been continuing their lives as before (although they probably suffered something under Nazi rule) but he has had this utter interruption in his life that they cannot understand - and that they really don't want to (and who can blame them?). They still have their own personal concerns - they tell him that his stepmother has remarried. They talk about the business his father used to own. They tell him that his mother is waiting for him. We the viewer have seen his experience in the camps, so we have the feeling that we understand his perspective - although we are actually in the situation of the people he returns to. We were not in the camps - instead, we visit them now, 60 years later, and see movies about them that give us the illusion of experience and understanding. But the barrier to true understanding still remains.