Category: Culture

I recently wondered on Facebook how people define religious “authenticity,” meaning actions or beliefs which reflect an (or the) genuine manifestation of a religion. This is a question I frequently consider regarding Judaism, particularly Orthodox Judaism, where adherents perpetually argue over which (or more accurately, whose) opinions, interpretations, beliefs, or practices define the franchise of being “Orthodox.”  These sorts of questions are generally internal to Orthodox Judaism, where affiliates claim authority to determine the boundaries and legitimacy of a nominally shared identification.

At the same time, I have been more attuned to the similar arguments over what is “authentic” Islam,  which have become commonplace in the public sphere. It does not take much effort to find studies and screeds differentiating between “moderate” or “fundamentalist” Islam, or those who assert with confidence that there is no meaningful difference between them.

As someone who has had an insider’s view of the debate within Judaism, I have been equally fascinated and frustrated by the parallel discussions regarding Islam. Many of the same people who can identify dozens of denominations and sub-denominations within Judaism (or Christianity) can only speak of Islam as single, unified phenomenon. Many of those who see fit to define Islam based solely on English translations of selected Quranic verses would quickly dismiss anyone whose conception of Judaism was based on similarly selected English translations of the Bible. Complicating matters even further is that as I have read the works of actual scholars of Islam, my own illiteracy in the subject matter precludes me from evaluating the merits of any statement, while my experience in reading Jewish scholarship precludes me from trusting anyone at face value.

With this in mind, I am exceptionally grateful for the contribution of the late Shahab Ahmed’s What is Islam?: The Importance of Being Islamic, 1 an earnest attempt at not only defining Islam, but essentially reclaiming it.

Notes:

  1. I came across the book via a review by Prof. Noah Feldman, a colleague of Ahmed who assisted with the final stages of the book, as Ahmed had already fallen ill before its completion.

Religion

I’m not a coward, I’ve just never been tested.
I’d like to think that if I was I would pass.
Look at the tested, and think there but for the grace go I.
Might be a coward, I’m afraid of what I might find out.
The Mighty Mighty Bosstones, “The Impression That I Get”

With the recent US Supreme Court decision Obergefell v. Hodges declaring same-sex marriage to be a constitutionally protected right, religious organizations are understandably concerned as to how they will be affected by this new legal reality.  In addition to public statements issued by The Rabbinical Council of America and the Orthodox Union, several rabbinic colleagues have expressed similar concerns shared by other religious leaders regarding what this ruling might mean for their own practice, particularly if they will now be forced to officiate or facilitate a practice which violates their religious beliefs. 1

Aside from these concerns over government interference in religious affairs, the Supreme Court’s ruling may have more salient ramifications on a communal level. Specifically, with same-sex marriage legalized nationally, Orthodox homosexual couples may be more likely take advantage of the benefits such legal recognition provides. This new reality may create new tensions within communities where such couples may expect or demand religious recognition for their union.

While these concerns are currently dominating the discussion, my sense is that the attention is misplaced. I do not mean to be dismissive of the concerns of others, but I suggest the details are not nearly as significant as the underlying existential tensions.

Notes:

  1. In 2011 when New York was about to legalize same-sex marriage, I argued that Orthodox Jews should not oppose such legislation but rather insist on religious protections.

Politics Religion Society

With the current violence in Israel continuing without a clear end in sight, Israel is once again receiving support and criticism for its policies. One common refrain found among Israel’s supporters is that the inordinate amount of criticism levied against Israel is actually a form of anti-Semitism. When “anti-Israel” protesters reportedly shout “Kill the Jews” while looting Jewish businesses, it is easy to reach this conclusion. But aside from these violent outbreaks, is there any validity to the argument that the more civil rhetorical attacks against Israel are rooted in anti-Semitism? In her Remarks Before 2010 Conference on Combating Anti-Semitism, Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism Hannah Rosenthal offers criteria for distinction:

Our State Department uses Natan Sharansky’s framework for identifying when someone or a government crosses the line – when Israel is demonized, when Israel is held to different standards than the rest of the countries, and when Israel is delegitimized. These cases are not disagreements with a policy of Israel, this is anti-Semitism.[Emphasis added]

Writing for the New York Times in 2002, Thomas Friedman offered a similar contrast:

Criticizing Israel is not anti-Semitic, and saying so is vile. But singling out Israel for opprobrium and international sanction — out of all proportion to any other party in the Middle East — is anti-Semitic, and not saying so is dishonest.

There are no doubt other opinions and qualifications which answer this question, but I believe that for the Liberal Left – whose members tend to be some of Israel’s most vocal and vitriolic critics – the definitions cited above are justifiable based on how it views discrimination in other contexts, particularly regarding the US criminal justice system.

Israel

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