Pinchas and “Connected Criticism”

Over at Jewschool, I have some thoughts on how, amidst rockets and airstrikes, Jewish lefties have a strange double task, to both console and further trouble their people:

This week we read Parshat Pinchas, which opens with God’s approval of Pinchas’s vigilante killing of Zimri, an Israelite prince, who is sleeping with Cosbi, a Midianite princess (Numbers, 21:1-15). Liberal Jews are used to being alienated from Pinchas or condemning him, but this week, some of us uncomfortably find ourselves in Pinchas’s position.

Read on to see why, and how to strike the balance

A Wu Tang Yom Kippur

In the Forward, I write about “non-Jewish” tunes for Jewish liturgy:

I doubt many of the attendees at Kehilat Hadar’s Upper West Side Yom Kippur services, at which the “Lamedvavnik Niggun” made its debut liturgical appearance last fall, knew the story behind the tune.

I do, because I cooked it up with Aryeh Bernstein, who leads high holiday services at Hadar. We borrowed the melody from the Wu-Tang Clan’s hip-hop classic, “C.R.E.A.M.” (“Cash Rules Everything Around Me”). Our choice of the name “Lamedvavnik,” a Yiddish term for the 36 hidden saints on whom the world depends, alludes to the 1993 studio album on which “C.R.E.A.M.” appeared, “Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers).”

Bernstein does not mind the worshippers’ ignorance. Though he sometimes matches liturgy to thematically appropriate soul tunes (pairing, for instance, a dark, moody poem in Yom Kippur’s final service with Prince’s “There is Lonely”), he would prefer the “Lamedvavnik Niggun” remain innocuous. I agree. It is probably better that no one, on hearing Bernstein sing words that mean “The Lord shall reign forever, Your God, O Zion, from generation to generation, Hallelujah,” be reminded of Wu Tang’s Raekwon rhyming, “No question I would speed/ for crack and weed/ The combination made my eyes bleed.”

For every hidden flourish of aesthetic genius, countless borrowed nonliturgical tunes — a musical technique called “contrafactum” — can be easily recognized. In my circles, Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” is a ubiquitous setting for Psalm 146 on Shabbat morning, and the chord that Cohen played is anything but secret. But while “Hallelujah” declares, “There’s a blaze of light in every word/ It doesn’t matter which you heard/ The holy or the broken Hallelujah,” doesn’t Jewish prayer depend on making just those distinctions? We bless God for separating holy from profane, not for conflating them. To a traditionalist, foreign music can carry with it alien theology, and pop tunes can puncture or trivialize sacred space.

More examples and an argument about how to balance tradition with change follow here.


“Love & Treasure”

For the Forward, I review Ayelet Waldman’s latest novel, asking some deeper questions about how holocaust fiction will change as the number of living survivors dwindles.

A historical novel, the Russian literary critic Georg Lukács argued, should reach only as far backwards as the era of the author’s grandparents. That is because novelists build not balanced panoramas, but rather individual portraits. Real human beings are unrealistic, because they are improbably idiosyncratic. Only contact with witnesses gives writers the thick detail they need to make the zany plausible. As Holocaust survivors die, this problem becomes acute for its would-be literary chroniclers. In 2004, a little over a million survivors were living, and that number has steadily dwindled. Witnesses are particularly crucial in the case of the Holocaust, artistic representations of which have often seemed suspect; the French Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas once denounced Holocaust art as turning “the Passion of Passions… into the vanity of an author.” Survivors not only feed the writer’s imagination but also morally authorize it.

Here is the rest.

Reznikoff’s “Holocaust”

For Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, I want to share a brief snippet from Charles Reznikoff’s “Holocaust,” a long poem adapted from testimonies from the Nuremberg and Eichmann trials. I learned quite a bit about the poem (and about memorializing the holocaust) from Todd Carmody’s challenging article on it. Carmody argues Reznikoff’s poetry rejects theories of holocaust commemoration/pedagogy that try to afford the audience access to the victims’ subjective experiences and that rely on identification and experiental recreation. Rather, “Holocaust” prizes objectivity and distance, insisting on the reader’s distance from the events described and refusing to imbue them with ideological weight. This contrasts sharply with, for instance, prosecutor Gideon Hausner’s Zionist rhetoric and framing of testimonies at the Eichmann trial. The article is fascinating and highly recommended, though by no means endorsed in toto.

The snippet, which you can hear Reznikoff reading here (starting at 5:50), comes from the section on the gas chambers and is, as you might expect, quite brutal:

Continue reading

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!