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 “An Early Modern Phil Ochs”

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