YUTOPIA’s Favorite Books – 2019

Last year when I moved my annual “Favorite Books” recap from social media to a blog post, I thought it would be a nice way to keep an archive and write a little more about more books. Unfortunately this year I have a little less to say. It’s not that I haven’t read as much. On the contrary, according to my Goodreads log, I’ve read 106 books this year which is about double my average from the past few years.1

The trouble is, while I read a lot of books I didn’t enjoy as many this year as I have in the past. In fact, out of those 106 books, I can only really recomend two.

The Statistics of Shidduchim: An Updated Case Study in Futility

Back in 2011 I wote a post called “The Statistics of Shidduchim – A Case Study In Futility” in which I tried to quantify my experience in the Jewish dating world. I personally don’t keep a log of all the times I’ve been set up or how dates have gone, but I do have a an account on a website which does just that (more or less).

Since I’m approaching my 5-Year Aliyahversary, I thought I’d take a look and see if anything changed in Israel.

Religious Politics and Rabbinic Recognition

Introduction: Rabbinic Identities

About a month after I started as rabbi of the Stanton St. Shul, the first internal conflict I had to resolve was over a question of rabbinic recognition. A scheduled academic speaker had been ordained by a non-Orthodox institution, and one member objected to addressing this person by the title “Rabbi” on the grounds that non-Orthodox institutions tend to disregard Jewish law.1 In the end, my psak wasn’t so much to address the speaker as “Rabbi” but to ask how she preferred to be addressed and follow whatever she said.2 Still, I felt the need to defend my position to the congregant.

The answer I gave to the congregant was something I had written about fifteen years ago when I was first starting to develop my thoughts on authority in Judaism. I applied a “Brisker” distinction between the shem or “title” of “Rabbi” and the halot or “status” of being a religious authority. Just as people might still call incompetent physicians “doctor,” they wouldn’t necessarily consult them for medical advice. I suggested the same ought to apply for the rabbinate. We could still call people by their “title” out of professional courtesy, but we would not bestow the halakhic status of consulting over religious matters or give deference to those who are unworthy.

The congregant was not impressed with my distinction, and I can understand why. The rabbinic title is supposed to imply religious authority as it has since its inception.3 While this may have been appropriate in the past, conflating the rabbinic title and status has gradually led to a religious reality is at best confusing and at worst manipulative.

Jewish Justice and #MeToo Source Sheet

I recently published my first piece for The Lehrhaus on “Jewish Justice and #MeToo.” It’s something I initially was going to post here, but I thought expanding my scope might be a good idea. As a side benefit, I think the piece benefited from the wonderful Lehrhaus editors. Check it out and let me know what you think. Maybe I’ll look to publish more elsewhere in the future.

When I publish blog posts on long topics I like to include source sheets in case people find them helpful for classes/shiurim. Since they don’t do it on The Lehrhaus I’ll post it here.

YUTOPIA’s Favorite Books – 2018

One of the things I still enjoy from social media is the book recommendations, either directly from friends or from reviews I see shared. Every now and again I get exposed to books or authors whom I otherwise would never have encountered, and this exposure has helped me expand my knowledge and perspective about many topics.

Since I enjoy book recommendations, a few years ago I started compiling my favorite books from the previous year, initially as a Facebook post, then a Twitter thread, and now that the blog is back up and running, I decided to start posting them here.

The following isn’t a comprehensive list of books I’ve read or even a ranking of the “best” books. Rather, these are the books I enjoyed reading the most. This does not even mean I agree with everything in these books, only that for various reasons I found myself more engaged and generally appreciated the experience of having read these.

Enjoy at your leisure!

Why the Israel/Diaspora Division Runs Deeper than People Realize

Even from my distant vantage point of living in Israel, I believe it is obvious that the Trump presidency has either created new divisions within the Jewish community or at least expanded the existing ones. One of the biggest points of divergence is over policies pertaining to Israel, where divisions have been growing steadily for decades. A recent poll by the American Jewish Committee helpfully quantifies the current extent.

The gap between American Jews and Israelis regarding President Trump’s approach to Israel is profound. While 77% of Israeli Jews approve of how the president is handling U.S.-Israel relations, only 34% of American Jews do. A majority, 57%, of U.S. Jews disapprove, while only 10% of Israelis do.

On the U.S. decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and move its embassy there, 85% of Israeli Jews, compared with 46% of U.S. Jews, support the decision, while 7% of Israelis and 47% of U.S. Jews oppose it.

Single-issue voters may continue to support Trump if they view him favorably on that single issue despite deep disagreements over any (or all) other policies. This single-mindedness may seem incomprehensible to others considering how much else needs to be overlooked or dismissed.

I noticed some examples of this tension coming to bear in the aftermath of the horrific shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh. Many in the media explicitly blame Trump for his incendiary rhetoric and Trump had been previously criticized for normalizing white supremacy.

Journalist Julia Ioffe not only blamed Trump for the attack, but also called out American Jews.

The implication here is that supporting a president for policy in one area may have disastrous consequences for people in another area. In this case, support for moving the US embassy to Jerusalem comes at the cost of American Jewish lives.

Writing in The Atlantic, Franklin Foer calls for a variant of excommunication of Trump supporting Jews because their doing so puts other Jews at risk.

Any strategy for enhancing the security of American Jewry should involve shunning Trump’s Jewish enablers. Their money should be refused, their presence in synagogues not welcome. They have placed their community in danger.

Can Jews really be this apathetic or willfully blind towards the physical danger of fellow Jews? I suggest the answer is sadly yes, with ample evidence from Israel.

Many readers may be familiar with Shira Banki, the sixteen-year-old who was murdered at the Jerusalem Pride Parade in 2015. Her murder was met with an outpouring of support and tributes not only in Israel but in the US as well (one person I knew even wrote a song dedicated to her). 

In contrast, I suspect few will recognize the name of Hallel Yaffa Ariel, a thirteen-year-old who was murdered in her home in 2016. But because Hallel was a “settler” even those who bothered to acknowledge her death felt the need to include qualifiers and disclaimers.

The reality is that even if we recognize that all human lives are of value, certain deaths or tragedies affect us emotionally more than others. But I suspect that people notice whose deaths are mourned, or more precisely, those who are worthy of mourning, and those whose are not.

Similarly, many of those who are currently appalled at the rising fascism in the United States have also supported a Palestinian state in which the current constitution, makes Islam the official religion, derives legislation, from Shari’a, imposes a death penalty on selling land to Jews, and currently pays people to murder Jews

For as complicated as Israeli/Palestinian politics may be, if we are going by Foer’s criteria for exclusion that, “They have placed their community in danger” then it would not be surprising for Israelis on the ground to be less sympathetic to those who have pushed for a Palestinian state as currently constructed (as opposed to a liberal democratic Palestinian state). Those who have excused totalitarianism when others are threatened should not be surprised when those same others are less than sympathetic to their moral alarmism.

In other words, when you see comments that certain Jews only care about their ideology even as other Jews are living under attack, consider that maybe this has been going on for a while now with the roles reversed. This should not be taken as a justification, but I believe how people have reacted to drastically different lived experiences may explain much about why the Israel/Diaspora relationship is as strained as it is.

The Sacred Slogans Series

Sacred Slogans

Over the summer of 2018, I resuscitated this site and undertook a personal writing project to finally address in long-form1 several topics which I feel have been intentionally oversimplified, in some cases to the point of distortion. The result is what I call the “Sacred Slogan Series,” including PDF source sheets, collected below for convenience.

Introducing “Sacred Slogans”
The introduction explains what I mean by “Sacred Slogans” and why I feel they are so important to explore in greater detail. I also define my methodologies and goals.

Tzelem Elokim / Imago Dei / Image of God
The idea that all human beings are created in the image of God is a core tenet of faith for universalist approaches to Judaism, but for Biblical and Rabbinic sources it’s far more complicated.

“70 Faces of Torah” and Eilu Va’Eilu Divrei Elokim Hayyim – The Limits of Pluralism
These two idioms are often cited in defense of pluralism, but in the original Rabbinic sources, they actually define the limits of pluralism.

Ohr Lagoyim / “Light unto the Nations”
Aside from the dubious origins of “Light unto the Nations” as a slogan, this entry addresses the extent to which Torah is concerned with how Jews are perceived by gentiles.

“A Jew is a Jew” – Identity vs. Inclusion
This entry addresses a modern-day Sacred Slogan in order to differentiate between one’s immutable status of being a Jew and one’s acceptance in Jewish communal life.

“Love the Stranger” – The Ger in Jewish Society
While the Biblical commandment to “love the stranger” is often invoked in the context of immigration and refugee policy, Torah comes with its own regulations.

Tikkun Olam
Tikkun Olam is the most ubiquitous of the Sacred Slogans. This entry discusses how Tikkun Olam was implemented by the tradition which coined the term.

Tikkun Olam

See the Introduction to Sacred Slogans for methodology and goals 
Click here for a downloadable PDF source sheet

Sacred Slogans

Of the Sacred Slogans we have addressed so far, none are as socially significant as “tikkun olam.” Tikkun olam literally translates to “repairing the world,” which is ambitious as it is open to interpretation. Despite the fact that there is no commandment mandate anywhere in Biblical1 or Rabbinic literature for Jews to undertake tikkun olam,2 some have understood it as a universalist mandate for the Jewish people. For example, according to Mordechai Kaplan, the founder of Reconstructionist Judaism, “We cannot consider ourselves servants of the Divine King unless we take upon ourselves the task ‘to perfect the World under the Kingdom of the Almighty.”3 Nearly 60 years later, R. Richard Hirsch asserted, “God has chosen us for a sacred mission: Tikkun Olam, to complete the universe. This concept of Tikkun Olam as the collective mission of the Jewish people has permeated every movement in Jewish life.”4

To illustrate the pervasiveness of “tikkun olam,” Andrew Silow-Carroll and Jonathan Krasner both used Google’s NGram Viewer to find the frequency of “tikkun olam” in published books and found a huge spike in its usage starting in early 1980’s and continued with a consistent upward trend that continues to this day.

With the extensive literature discussing tikkun olam constantly growing, a discussion of how the term has evolved would be a worthy study in its own right.5 However, my focus here is what did the idiom mean in its original context, with a focus on its practical implementations.

“Love the Stranger” – The Ger in Jewish Society

See the Introduction to Sacred Slogans for methodology and goals
Click here for a downloadable PDF source sheet

Sacred Slogans

As debates over US immigration and refugee policy continue, activists have taken to citing the Biblical commandments to love and protect the “ger,” popularly translated as the “stranger,” as the moral basis for their respective positions. Those who do not recognize Biblical authority can dismiss these commandments as easily as they would for anything else in the Bible. But for Jews, or at least those Jews who accept the Bible as representative of divine will, the Biblical commandments to protect the stranger ought to carry religious significance. Jewish activists who invoke the “stranger” in the context of immigration or refugees are thus asserting that the Biblical protections ought to be applied in such cases, and therefore Jews have a religious obligation to support (or oppose) government policies that run counter to God’s commandments.

Setting aside the question of if Jews should demand that civil policies follow Biblical (or Rabbinic) law, Torah has more to say about the relationship between the “stranger” and society than an unconditional obligation to provide support to whoever demands. 

Let me state explicitly that I have no desire to debate immigration or refugee policy as these complicated subjects are well beyond my expertise. The specific point I am addressing here is that if it is appropriate to extend the Torah’s model of the “stranger” to immigration and refugees, then we ought to consider more of the Torah’s laws and values to see if such analogies are truly warranted.1

“A Jew is a Jew” – Identity vs. Inclusion

See the Introduction to Sacred Slogans for methodology and goals
Click here for a downloadable PDF source sheet

Sacred Slogans

Not long after he accepted chairmanship of the Jewish Agency, former Israeli MK Isaac Herzog referred to intermarriage as a “plague” that required a “solution.” One might expect this sort of rhetoric out of an Orthodox rabbi, but not from the head of the Jewish Agency, whose mission is “to connect the global Jewish family.” Herzog subsequently clarified, “A Jew is a Jew is a Jew, no matter which stream he belongs to, if he wears a skullcap or not.”

While “a Jew is a Jew” does not appear in that exact form in traditional Jewish texts, the Rabbinic analogue can be found in the Talmud. Commenting on Joshua 7:11, R. Abba b. Zavda says, “even though he has sinned, he is still ‘Israel’”.1 Meaning, a Jew who sins is still part of the Jewish people. This is a fundamental concept for Jewish outreach among those who try to ignite the latent “Jewish spark” within all Jews.

At the same time, “a Jew is a Jew” hits at the core issues of inclusion and exclusion in the Jewish community. This is a particularly contentious issue in Israel where non-Orthodox denominations lobby for official recognition and legitimacy in the Jewish state. As discussed at length in a previous podcast series, the politics of exclusion has been a constant theme throughout Jewish history. And as we will see in this post, certain people may be halakhically Jewish, but may still be excluded from society due to their actions. The point of this entry is to differentiate between the status of one’s Jewish identity and one’s role in a Jewish society, in that the former does not guarantee the latter.2