Archive for Book Review

Thoughts on Otherness

I’ve read or listened to two books recently that made me think about Jewish issues. One is The Land of Painted Caves by Jean Auel, (Crown Publishers, New York, 2011 ; Brilliance Audio on CD) which has no Jewish content since it was about early humans who lived tens of thousands of years ago, and is also fiction. The other was Stone and Dung, Oil and Spit: Jewish Daily Life in the Time of Jesus by Jodi Magness (Grand Rapids, MI. Eerdman’s, 2011). I reviewed it for the AJL newsletter, but I wanted to express some thoughts aside from the review. I listened to The Land of Painted Caves during my longish commute to and from work. It had 29 CD’s and it kept my interest for all of them. The main flaw of the series, of which it is the latest part, is that this one cave woman, Ayla, managed to single-handedly advance civilization by several major developments: domesticating horses and wolves, using a spear thrower, using flint to start fires and discovering that men had a role in making babies and a few others as well. Her parents died in an earthquake when she was very young and she was rescued by a passing group of Neanderthals who had a very different culture (this happened in Auel’s earlier books) but who loved and raised her and taught her their ways. But being “other” caused her to be banished from that group, and eventually she hooked up with others who were “like her”. Yet her earlier experiences made her somewhat of an outsider even among her own kind, and therefore she had a clear perception of the problems of otherness. That is what caused me to ruminate on the Jewish condition, that, and perhaps also since I listened to it around the holiday season when otherness comes into sharper focus.

Jodi Magness, who wrote Stone and Dung, Oil and Spit, is a respected archaeologist who combined archaeological evidence with textual passages to try to form a picture of what Jewish life was like in the late second temple period. Her main interest seemed to be the way Jewish purity laws played out in everyday life for people at that time. She talked about the “Jewish elite” of the time, who were enamored of Roman material culture and who tried to imitate it in various ways, including vessels, food, clothing, beverages, personal hygiene and other things but who tried to accommodate those things while retaining the elaborate system of purity laws. She also discussed some of the more extreme groups of Jews who rejected Roman ways, and those who fell in between. The purity laws seemed to accentuate the “otherness” of Jews in the Roman Empire at the same time as many struggled to fit in, yet retain their uniqueness. It reminds me of me, and others like me, trying to be in the modern world, while keeping traditional practices, like kashrut, Shabbat and Jewish holidays. We love Thai and Chinese cuisine and good wines, but we have to adapt it to our ways. Hanukkah begins to look a lot like Christmas, but we say no to trees and colored lights. Are we other, or do we belong, just a little differently? It is obviously a very old question, going back at least to cave man times. Can we go with the flow? How much? It reminds me of those circus performers where one beautiful lady rides two racing horses at once.

Anyway, as they say, what goes around comes around. It seems that we’ve been struggling with the same problems for a long, long time, and not only as Jews.

Sarah Barnard

The Study of Healing

The library recently received the new book Midrash & Medicine, edited by  Dr. William (Bill) Cutter. I had the opportunity to speak with him and his colleague Michele Prince,Director of the Kalsman Institute on Judaism and Health about this collection.

SFS: As a librarian, I’ve seen that a lot of books (and music) have come out recently that deal with healing and spirituality.  What do you think is driving that movement?

BC: The broken environment of our society and the disappointment coming out of the 19th century/Enlightenment paves the way for interest in this movement.  Ethnicity is less important in people’s lives and yet the call to Jewish tradition is still very strong.  Spirituality and healing fill this niche.  The individualism present in today’s culture also sets a role.

MP:  The movement towards healing and spirituality fights against our overly connected, 24/7 culture, which provides few occasions to “turn off.” The explosion of global news of war, natural disaster, climate change, political unrest, and the divisions in our own nation force the search for courage and inspiration – a sense of the mystery of life.

SFS: We often hear the words “healing,” “health,” and “cure.”  The meanings seem to overlap.  How would you define each and how do they relate to each other?

BC: When I speak to audiences I argue that people are searching for quick “cures” when they go to the doctor’s office, but when their suffering has meaning beyond illness then healing is sought. Healing is when we seek for a “total relationship” between our values, our friends, ourselves, and our environments.  Healing is “meaning making.”

MP:  Many of us in the field of Judaism and health, including Bill, agree that we can be healed without being cured. Many live with chronic illness – in medicine, physicians and researchers attempt to shift what were once fatal diseases, such as some cancers, to diseases which allow for ongoing maintenance, such as some cardiac conditions or diabetes. In Jewish life, we pray for the healing of spirit and the healing of body – and search for the whole. Medicine – the provision of healthcare – once included spiritual values: service, altruism, compassionate care  – and we are trying to improve the health of the healthcare system.

SFS: The title of your book is Midrash and Medicine, but the contents hint more of Midrash as Medicine.  What is Midrash and what power does it have when it comes to healing?

BC: Clever question. The Jewish tradition of constant renewable interpretation SHOULD  be a part of medical treatment.  The self moves from cure to healing.

SFS: You also include articles on poetry and music.  What place do they have in healing?

BC: Poetry forces caregivers and patients to look at their situations in new ways …their language is innovative and it leads to innovative ideas.

SFS: I was surprised to see articles on death and loss; especially the very personal story by Eitan Fishbane about the sudden death of his young wife.  Why did you choose to include these in the collection?

BC: Very good question. Eitan’s talent with narration and background in Jewish mysticism were potent partners in helping others with similar losses.  The response in the book underscores this.

MP:  So far, Fishbane’s is the chapter readers comment on most frequently.

SFS: Thanks to Bill and Michele for speaking to me about this, and to Adi Bodenstein for co-ordinating it.

One Aspect of the Changing Role of Jewish Women

I recently had the pleasure of speaking with Dr. Dvora Weisberg, Director, School of Rabbinic Studies; Associate Professor of Rabbinical Literature in Los Angeles, about her latest book, Levirate Marriage and the Family in Ancient Judaism (Brandeis University Press, 2009)

SFS: Dvora, congratulations on the publication of your book and on its being honored by Jewish Book Council as a finalist for the Women’s Studies Barbara Dobkin Award.

Tell me, what is Levirate Marriage? And why should we care about it?

DEW: Levirate marriage is union between a widow of a childless man and, in Jewish tradition, his brother. In other cultures, it could be another man in the deceased’s family.  The purpose of the union is to produce children for the deceased. While in Judaism, this union is a marriage, in other cultures it might not be.

The reason that I care about it is that it helps us understand how cultures respond to a catastrophic death in the family. It is almost always practiced in cultures that are patrilineal or patriarchal; in such cultures the death of the man causes a breakdown of the family structure. The death of a woman, while upsetting, would not cause a change to the family structure.

SFS: Who do these laws protect/benefit?

DEW: Depending on how they’re practiced, (they’re practiced differently in different cultures) it can benefit the widow who is immediately absorbed back into her husband’s family;  the deceased because he can now have children through a surrogate; or the larger family because it allows the family to reconfigure and stabilize after the death.  It will depend on how the laws play out both in other cultures and within Judaism over time and in different places.  It’s interesting for the scholar to see how the family structure and particularly the role of women has changed.

SFS: We tend to think of pre-modern Jewish families as large extended clans, but you found that much of Rabbinic literature focuses on the nuclear family and on the needs of the individual.

DEW: Part of my argument in this book is that the Biblical family is usually seen as an extended family and the laws focus on that extended family. But the Rabbinic tradition focuses much more on the nuclear family.

SFS:  How much choice do individuals have in the decision to go through with the levirate marriage?

DEW: The Biblical law focuses on the deceased’s “right” to have a child. The widow and her brother-in-law are expected to cooperate.  But in rabbinic literature, the rights of the living people involved are given precedence. They may make the decision to go through with the levirate marriage or not.

SFS:  You mention that many scholars look at the surrounding cultures when studying rabbinics – what does that perspective bring to your work?

DEW: Particularly when you’re looking at the rabbinic period, you can see major differences between the Palestinian laws which are influenced by the Greco-Roman society as opposed to the Babylonian which are influenced by Zoroastrian culture where a form of levirate marriage was practiced, as well as polygamy. This shows that Judaism has been influenced by its surrounding environment.  Many scholars of Judaism are surprised to learn that forms of levirate marriage were practiced by other cultures.

SFS: Is there any lesson for families today?

DEW: I think that the really important thing that this study shows is that family structure is not static and that it changes over time and in response to different circumstance. And even within a culture there can be multiple shades and nuances in the definition of family.  When I talk about the rabbis addressing the “nuclear” family (mother, father, children), that doesn’t mean that other forms of family don’t exist.  Different family members are included in mourning customs, incest laws, and inheritance laws.  We have a tendency to think that “family” means one thing but, “family” can mean multiple things within a society and families are always changing.

SFS: Thank you!

Visionary author about visionary synagogues

I recently had the pleasure of interviewing HUC faculty member, Dr. Isa Aron about her newest book.

sfs: Congratulations on the publication of your new book, Sacred Strategies: Transforming Synagogues from Functional to Visionary (with Steven M. Cohen, Lawrence A. Hoffman, and Ari Y. Kelman. Alban Institute, 2010).

sfs: The title really caught my eye.  Why would you want to move a congregation away from “functional”?
IA: “Functional” synagogues are filled with congregants who view synagogue membership as equivalent to membership in the auto club.  They pay dues in exchange for a series of services which include worship, religious school, and clergy officiation at life cycle events.  Perfectly functional for an organization, in that it can balance its budget and have a well-maintained and even aesthetic facility; but not especially inspiring for a Jewish religious organization. In contrast, members of “visionary” synagogues see themselves as part of a kehillah kedoshah, a holy community.  In order to transform a group of isolated consumers into a holy community, the synagogue must also have the other characteristics of visionary synagogues, such as a participatory culture, reflective leadership, and an innovative disposition.

sfs: In the first chapter, you mention a book, Good to Great which highlights corporations which have proven their success by earning lots of money.  How do you measure a congregations success?
IA: For us success means the percentage of active participants.  Not the overall size—the congregation may be large or small–but rather: How many of its members come to services on Shabbat? How many children continue their education past bar/bat mitzvah?  How many adults engage in ongoing learning or social justice projects?  As one rabbi in our study noted:  “I’m not impressed if the parking lot is full of different cars every Shabbat.  I want to know: how many of the same cars are there week after week?”

sfs: I’ve read many articles that show that American Jews are not joining congregations nearly as much as their parent’s generation had and that many congregations are in trouble because of this.  Why is it important to save the synagogue?
IA: This may sound heretical, but I don’t think it is important to save “the (generic)” synagogue.  On the other hand, visionary synagogues provide their members with rich, supportive, engaging, stimulating and spiritual communities, communities in which they can live out their deepest Jewish values.  That kind of community is definitely worth saving.

sfs: In my experience with groups – any time one person suggests a change, a second person will dig in their heels and want to keep the current practice.  How do you introduce change without alienating some of your group?
IA: This is the hardest question of all, because every synagogue, even the most functional, works very well for some of its congregants.  These are the congregants likely to be in power, and likely to be the most resistant to change, because, after all, the synagogue meets their needs perfectly.  To change a functional synagogue it is helpful to have the support of a project, like HUC’s Experiment in Congregational Education, or Synagogue 3000.   The synaogues profiled in Sacred Strategies used these projects as resources, helping them to bring together a diverse, forward looking group of lay leaders, who could inspire their fellow congregants with a more vibrant vision of the future.

sfs: Thanks Isa for taking time out to share your thoughts!