Always Historicize

I want to share (belatedly) one of R. Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev’s comments on the torah portion that just passed; I study the Berditchever’s book, the Kedushas Levi, with my father every week.

The portion, Trumah, describes in great detail the plan for the desert sanctuary. For many readers, I think, this extended ekphrasis raises (at least) two problems: (1) Who cares about all these details? Why are they important? (2) This is not at all how we serve God. It’s alienating to feel that we are far removed religiously from our forebears. I think Levi Yitzchak has good answers to both questions. Below are the text, a loose translation, and a few comments. Continue reading

Edith Wharton on Blood Diamonds

A story from A Backward Glance, Wharton’s autobiography:

A young physician who was also a student of chemistry, and a dabbler in strange experiments, employed a little orphan boy as assistant. One day he ordered the boy to watch over, and stir without stopping, a certain chemical mixture which was to serve for a very delicate experiment. At the appointed time the chemist came back, and found the mixture successfully blent — but beside it lay the little boy, dead of the poisonous fumes.

The young man, who was very fond of his assistant, was horrified at his death, and in despair at having involuntarily caused it. He could understand why the fumes should have proved fatal, and wishing to find out, in the interest of science, he performed an autopsy, and discovered that the boy’s heart had been transformed into a mysterious jewel, the like of which he had never seen before. The young man had a mistress whom he adored, and full of grief, yet excited by this strange discovery, he brought her the tragic jewel, which was very beautiful, and told her how it had been produced. The lady examined it, and agreed that it was beautiful. “But,” she added carelessly, “you must have noticed that I wear no ornaments but earrings. If you want me to wear this jewel, you must get me another one just like it.”

What’s great about the story is that this is actually how luxury goods work in our world. Rendered invisible by the shiny, commodified final product is the bloody labor history of its production.

Review of Josh Safran’s Memoir

Ever wonder why so many cars blow up in American novels and movies? I did:

Among the American contributions to world literature, perhaps least appreciated is the genre of automotive horror. To be sure, we are acknowledged to have invented the road trip, which was prophesied by Huck Finn and Lewis and Clark (whose rivers yearn to be highways) and shifted into full gear in the work of Jack Kerouac and Bob Dylan. Miles of paper have been spent analyzing our carefree, gas-guzzling quests and their values: freedom, wilderness, the ecstatic individual who sings America. We tend to pass over the ghosts that haunt this national romance, even though our nightmares are littered with murderous cars (Stephen King novels alone account for several), crazed motel managers, and buses which explode if they go below 50 miles per hour. Exactly what do these vehicular demons say about American freedom?

Go read the answer.

Jewish State Law

I dissect the politics surrounding the proposed Jewish State Law:

If only I were more grateful for small favors. Take the “Jewish State Law” currently under consideration in the Israeli Parliament. Right-wing Knesset members Ayelet Shaked and Yariv Levin have reintroduced the bill, which “emphasizes foremost the affinity of the Jewish people to the state and the land, above that of other nations” and lists democracy only secondarily. For a country whose citizens are 20 percent Palestinian, this bill, which “does not recognize that the land may be the homeland of other nations,” is bad news. But on the bright side, Justice Minister Tzipi Livni asked respected law professor Ruth Gavison, a founding member of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (the Israeli parallel to the ACLU) to formulate an alternative. As an added benefit, Haaretz reports that Prime Minister Netanyahuwas miffed by Livni’s move. Sounds promising.

Unfortunately, Professor Gavison, like so much of the centrist Israeli establishment, consistently disappoints. Gavison is one of many Israeli liberals who drifted right in disillusionment after the second intifada. Her ideas show that lurking in the shadow of Shaked and Levin’s virulent ultranationalism, hides the deeper, broader threat of an ever-expanding Israeli security state.

To find out why, read on.

An Early Modern Phil Ochs

Since I read Anatomy of Criticism, I have been wondering how I could use Frye’s myth criticism, especially given that I’m skeptical of the idea of unified, transhistorical literary structure—whether of characters, genres, or stories. This is not a question, sadly, on which I make daily progress. But I do have two little thoughts, as a result of reading Surprised by Sin, about Frye’s approach.

1. Frye’s approach is, in effect, an invention of the Renaissance, and its technical name is “monomyth.” People like Milton used monomyth (or something very much like it—the word seems to have been coined later) to assimilate Greek myth and literature into the Christian scheme. If you love and respect Ovid, but you believe in Christian history and theology, it helps to identify the correspondences between the two and to identify the incarnated divine visits to Baucis and Philemon with, say, the annunciation scene. Obviously, at its core monomyth reflects some of the archetypal patterning of the Christian Bible, and its correspondences to the Hebrew Bible (which were used to retroactively read the Hebrew Bible christologically). But monomyth—the idea that all stories are at their heart one story, or parts of one—seems to have been spurred by the pressure to include extra-canonical voices (I don’t know if there’s work on whether the Age of Exploration played a role or not, but I would not be surprised).

In ways, these Early Modern assimilative desires also play themselves out in Frye’s work and context. Frye himself was ordained as a minister, and reading his books, you notice first of all the vast range of his references (all periods of literature, high and low, prose and poetry). Further, if Frank McConnell is to be believed, Frye appealed to students in the sixties in large part because, in opposition to the New Critical purism then “regnant,” Frye offered an inclusive, eclectic criticism. As scholars were just starting to tug at the seams of the canon, they needed an even vaster, more expansive monomyth.

2. I have no idea if these mythic threads are real, but they are ubiquitous. So, for instance, this morning, on my daily run, I was listening to Phil Ochs’s version of “The Ballad of The Carpenter,” Ewan MacColl’s politically radical retelling of Jesus’ life and death.

As you can tell from the title, the song foregrounds Jesus’ having been a worker, and he recounts the Passion as the story of a revolutionary (“he noticed how wealth and poverty / Live always side by side“) undermined by and betrayed to the “rich men.” I’ve always loved this song. But only this morning did I realize how deep its retelling goes. Continue reading

Women in Rabbinic Judaism

Over at the Talmud blog, I review Elizabeth Shanks Alexander’s new book on women and timebound, positive commandments. For the last few decades, this obscure- and technical sounding category has been central to fights over feminism and Jewish law, because rabbinic texts seem to exempt women from those commands, excluding them from some of the central responsibilities of a Jewish adult. Alexander argues the term is not just technical in sound; its originators never intended it as anything other than a technical, structural device to help encode information better.

Implicit in the title of Elizabeth Shanks Alexander’s new book, Gender and Timebound Commandments in Judaism, is the question: What does gender have to do with “time-bound, positive commandments”? What motivates rabbinic texts to rule that women are exempt from those mitzvot? And as the phrase “in Judaism” implies, this question arrives entangled in important arguments over how Jewish women ought to practice today. Yet, while Alexander conceived the idea for the book, as she explains in the introduction, “in the shadow of a contemporary cultural debate,” she writes as a Talmudist. Thus, she restricts herself historically to pre-Medieval sources and methodologically to descriptive history. Further, within those frameworks, Alexander does not so much answer as destroy the original question. She argues that in classical Rabbinic literature, the rule does not express a substantive intuition about (or, in her term, “construct”) gender. The rule and its history tell us not about rabbinic attitudes towards gender, but about the transmission of rabbinic texts.

 

Read the rest!

“Mr. Fish himself is surely an orthodox traditional Christian.”

The title of this post comes from Oberlin professor W. Arthur Turner’s otherwise unremarkable 1969 review of Stanley Fish’s critical masterpiece, Surprised by Sin. It is not hard to see why Turner thought what he did, since the thrust of Fish’s book was to defend Paradise Lost’s coherence and clarity as an Orthodox Christian text against the claims of those (most famously and remarkably, William Blake and William Empson) who had insisted that the text actually revealed God as a manipulative, illogical monster.

Fish’s book, which more or less inaugurated reader-response criticism, took the then-novel line of attributing many of the text’s apparently difficult moments (in which Satan seems appealing, or God mistaken, or the action absurd) to Milton’s pedagogical inclinations. The poem constantly tempts its readers to read it wrong, and then it pulls them up short. By doing so, it confronts us repeatedly with our own fallen state, and it helps us to reject our fallen intuitions.

But, of course, Mr. Fish was not, and is not, theologically orthodox or Christian (“traditional” is a trickier word). By all appearances, he is a lackadaisical Jew (a term I mean just descriptively). To the reader who knows that, the book’s persistent, closely argued explication of the orthodox Milton is a source of wonder, just as it was a source of error to Professor Turner. Continue reading

Why Jonathan Pollard?

After Netanyahu demanded the United States release Jonathan Pollard, I argue that Bibi’s appeasing his right-wing base and ask:

Why is there a Pollard card? Why does a convicted spy so inspire the right’s imagination? Why were there “We Want Pollard Home” signs all over Jerusalem for Obama’s visit? The answer, I think, is that many Israeli Zionists—especially religious ones, and especially American immigrants—who have a hard time facing the reality of a comfortable, assimilated American Jewry, prefer the cultural icon of a persecuted, ethnically loyal Pollard.

Here‘s the fuller story.

Why They Hate Us

Why have people hated the Jews? David Nirenberg takes a crack at this one in his impressive, immense history of Anti-Judaism—which I reviewed for the Forward—arguing,

Anti-Judaism frequently reflected not the presence and activities of real, living Jews, but the importance of “Judaism” as a concept in a broader structure of ideas. Using Marx’s pivotal essay, “On the Jewish Question,” as a framing device, Nirenberg argues that Christian, Muslim and secular Western societies produce the idea of “Judaism,” in Marx’s phrase, “out of their own entrails” — that is, to express the unpleasant corollaries of their cultural ideals, satisfy the needs of conceptual systems and think through important abstract binaries.

For the rest, read on.

Two Brief Notes

First, I wanted to register a short piece I wrote on the Newseum flap for Open Zion, entitled “Can You Bomb Hamas Propagandists?”

Second, in the back of my mind, ever since writing a long piece about Modern Orthodox parody of Lady Gaga, I’ve been wondering what to do with this video, in which a Haredi wedding band introduces newlyweds at their party to the tune of various Lady Gaga songs, then transitioning into standard Hasidic “simcha” (celebration) music. It’s significantly less semantically dense than the parody I wrote about above, but I found it oddly draws me, and I’ve never understood why.

Here’s a quick thought. I think part of the video’s draw, especially compared to the layered ironies of the Modern Orthodox parody video (many of which play on the power and gender hierarchies of both the Orthodox and secular worlds), is that of Haredi naivete. We commonly assume that Haredi naivete is valuable largely insofar as it allows Haredim to appreciate their Jewish rituals, text, and traditions more simply, directly, etc. (I’ll bracket for the moment all the manifold ways it’s harmful.)  But here, what’s poignant about Haredi naivete is that it allows them to experience our music simply and directly. These men are dancing to Lady Gaga without a second thought about what they’re hearing. That is, they’re actually participating in a cultural ideal surrounding American popular music (an ideal which we could call, borrowing a title from one of the Lady Gaga songs they’re quoting, “Just Dance”). Further, it’s an naivete inaccessible many of us who are supposedly closer to the secular lifeworld that produces Lady Gaga, because of our heightened attention to the various messages, problematics, etc. of popular music.

I’m not sure if others found that video as entrancing as I did. But I suspect I did because, hidden between the charm of Haredi innocence and cluelessness is the irony that they seem to have found a shortcut into mass American culture, a culture which, because of my Jewishness or intellectualism, I find elusive.