Orthodoxy and Innovation

by Aryeh Tepper

For many religiously observant Jews, the traditional siddur, or prayer book, constitutes a problem. One such Jew was the great hasidic rebbe, Nahman of Bratzlav (1772-1810), who articulated the problem in terms appropriate to his time: the fixed prayers, with their praises and petitions, are like a well-traveled highway, and well-traveled highways attract robbers. By which he meant that excessive routine makes it difficult to concentrate the mind.

Things haven’t changed in the intervening centuries. In fact, they’ve gotten worse as the traditional siddur has grown in size and the highway has been extended. It’s a rare soul who actually reads the two millennia’s worth of accumulated prayers that, for example, are supposed to be recited each weekday morning. Today, the traditional prayer service resembles,  paradoxically, the spirit of contemporary life: it leaves no time to reflect.

But if the prayer book presents a problem, the ease with which traditional forms have been destroyed in the modern period presents another problem, and arguably the greater one. The traditional text is, after all, a reservoir of elevated thought and sentiment—potential energy waiting to be harnessed—while no serious person believes that simply dismantling the tradition will serve to revive the hearts of the Jewish masses. Continue reading “Orthodoxy and Innovation”

Boredom and Judaism

by Gil Student

Boredom is a fascinating topic but I never expected to discover a literature about it. How could anyone dare to write on the subject? Who is confident in their own exciting prose to risk writing a boring book on boredome? Yet there is a literature. I recently read Dr. Erica Brown’s book Spiritual Boredom: Rediscovering the Wonder of Judaism and learned a good deal about myself and Judaism.

There are two main themes in this book. The first is how to use Judaism to avoid boredom and how to spice up your own Judaism, two overlapping ideas. The second is the importance of embracing boredom. Yes, these are two contradictory themes. But don’t let that bother you.

There are a great few Bloom County comic strips in which Opus is looking for a way to lose weight. He goes from one fad diet to another, each time failing. All the while, his friends are telling him to eat better and exercise more but he insists there must be a better way. There isn’t. The best things in life come through hard work. Overcoming boredom, Dr. Brown tells us, is the same. It requires “restraint, training, and self-control” (p. 83). Continue reading “Boredom and Judaism”

Avid Readers At Prospect Park Residence Enjoy Sharing Insights At Monthly Book Club

Every month, a group of avid readers at Prospect Park Residence in Park Slope gathers to discuss the books they have read as members of the Prospect Park Residence Book Club. The club is moderated by Director of Activities Theresa Hines, herself a voracious reader.

“We talk about what we’ve read, discuss the author, and share our opinions about our books,” explained Hines. “We explore other novels by the same author, writing style and content in our discussions. Residents enjoy fiction and non-fiction: mysteries, biographies, historical novels, romance, and science fiction.”

A number of residents participate regularly in the book club including Ruth Willig, Eleanor Greif, Lillian Marks and Mildred Blechman. “Anyone who lives here and loves to read or discuss books is invited to participate,” said Hines.

According to Hines, Book Club members read at their own pace, and some finish more than one book in between meetings. Others drop in just to listen and hear about what residents are reading, which also provides opportunities to socialize and connect to the world of literature. Hines helps by distributing a current bestseller list to book club members to spark ideas on what to read. Continue reading “Avid Readers At Prospect Park Residence Enjoy Sharing Insights At Monthly Book Club”

New Book Explores the Evolution of Jewish Law

By Sam LewisInnovation in Jewish Law (cover image)

CSLR Senior Fellow Michael J. Broyde’s new book, Innovation in Jewish Law (Urim Publications, 2010), addresses questions about how Jewish law allows for innovations while remaining consistent with Jewish religious values.

Changes in the laws of Judaism take place incrementally, Broyde explains, due to evolving social realities, technological developments, or growth in the ways of thinking.

“Jewish law requires that its adherents study Jewish law faithfully, and many great minds have devoted their whole lives to the perfection of their understanding of Jewish law. Jewish law, with its large corpus of texts and a long history of study, requires explanations and clarifications,” he writes in the introduction. Continue reading “New Book Explores the Evolution of Jewish Law”

Bible Reference in the Electronic Age

Publishers innovate with new products and Web strategies

By Kristin Swenson

Got questions about how to use turmeric, the mating habits of penguins, or why water still drips out of the faucet when it should come through the filter you’ve attached? If you’re like the majority of the curious today, you’ll turn to the Internet for answers. Questions about the Bible are no different—people go online to find out who Paul was, where the remnants of Noah’s ark might be, what deities the Israelites worshipped that made God so angry, and how many miracles Jesus performed. Says Brian Hughes, senior marketing manager at Oxford University Press, “Search engines are the new card catalogue, and we want our content to be at the top of the search. We are constantly working to improve our discoverability, on campus and off.” Michael Stephens, senior editor at Abingdon, notes, “It’s not enough just to go to particular biblical verses—people need help interpreting what they read. They need some context.”

Not so long ago, it was books—heavy, often multivolume tomes—that were the go-to resource for definitive information. One advantage was that it was pretty easy to determine the credentials of the authors of those books. You could assume that encyclopedias were edited by subject authorities who invited qualified contributors, and that dictionaries were compiled by experts. Bible commentaries laid out their authors’ credentials, and lexica were the product of professional philologists. On the downside, it was difficult for any individual to have all sources at his or her elbow. In-depth research usually required a trip to the library, and it could take a long time to hunt down the answers hiding in one volume or another. We also had to wait, sometimes years, for new editions to incorporate changes in a field of study or to record new discoveries. Continue reading “Bible Reference in the Electronic Age”

Exhibition focuses on book burnings

By Mary Thomas

Reports last week of the awarding of the 2010 Nobel Prize in Literature to Mario Vargas Llosa invariably mentioned that 1,000 copies of his first novel, “La Ciudad y Los Perros” (“The Time of the Hero”), were burned by the Peruvian military, which found the book offensive.

A Florida pastor almost caused an international meltdown recently by threatening to burn copies of the Koran. In 1988 a fatwa declared by an Iranian cleric threatened the life of author Salman Rushdie for writing “The Satanic Verses.”

Book burnings and denouncements are not a thing of the distant past, and that is one cautionary of the exhibition “Fighting the Fires of Hate: America and the Nazi Book Burnings,” which opens today at the  American Jewish Museum, Squirrel Hill.

The show was organized by the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C,, and at 7 p.m. Tuesday Tim Kaiser, the museum’s director of educational resources and Wexner Center, will give a free talk, “Behind the Scenes: Background and Development of Fighting the Fires of Hate.” Continue reading “Exhibition focuses on book burnings”

A lesson from literature is given new life on the stage

Playwright Aaron Posner once again mines the work of famed Jewish author Chaim Potok

by Graydon Royce

Playwright Aaron Posner was at a point in his life when he felt he should adapt something from Jewish literature for his Arden Theatre Company in Philadelphia. Posner determined that the best source of advice for such an endeavor was Chaim Potok, the renowned author and frequent visitor to the Arden.

“Before doing that, I thought I should reread some of his books,” Posner said recently. “So I read ‘The Chosen’ and I realized I didn’t have to look any further than this.”

Potok gave Posner permission to adapt the 1967 story of the rivalry and friendship between two Jewish boys in postwar Brooklyn. It worked out so well that Posner went back to the author’s work to adapt “My Name Is Asher Lev.” The play will have its regional premiere this weekend at Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company in St. Paul. Continue reading “A lesson from literature is given new life on the stage”

The Jewish Decade

by Robert Fulford

At the Rideau Club in Ottawa during the early 1960s, every fresh piece of paper money in the cash register carried the signature of Louis Rasminsky. That was true across the country, since Rasminsky was governor of the Bank of Canada. At the Rideau Club, however, Rasminsky himself was absent. The Rideau Club had a no-Jews policy.

What made this especially shameful was that the club functioned as the social centre of Ottawa power-mongers. They knew about the anti-Semitic policy but lunched there anyway. Finally, the shame became too much for a significant cluster of influential members. They proposed that the blackball keeping the Jews out be replaced by a membership committee. Just to make their position clear, they cited four prospective members they were backing, all Jews, one of them Rasminsky. The motion passed, and in 1964 one of the institutionalized absurdities of Canadian bigotry vanished.

In Toronto the Granite Club on St. Clair Avenue had been anti-Semitic since the Jurassic age. (The one time I went there for a business lunch I felt compromised and dishonest.) When the club decided to sell its property and move north to the suburbs, it was persuaded by a Jewish group that this might be the right moment for a change in membership policy. The new Granite Club began soliciting Jewish members, with some success, though one Jew of my acquaintance, who lived near the site of the new club, said thanks but it was a little late.

Club membership may seem a trivial matter but those two changes symbolized the transformation of the status of the Jews. Barriers were falling and Jews were finding new opportunities. The Jews themselves were changing. Harold Troper, in his new book, The Defining Decade: Identity, Politics, and the Canadian Jewish Community in the 1960s (University of Toronto Press), deftly organizes the details of this earthquake in human relations. Continue reading “The Jewish Decade”

Spiritual Bindings: LSU professor emeritus publishes book comparing Jewish mystic Rabbi Nachman and literary icon Franz Kafka

by Zac Lemoine

Born in different centuries and on different sides of central Europe, Jewish storyteller and mystic Rabbi Nachman and modern literary icon Franz Kafka are brought together in LSU professor emeritus Rodger Kamenetz’s most recent book, “Burnt Books.”

Kamenetz, who recently retired from LSU after 29 years of teaching, held a dual appointment in the Departments of English and Religious Studies that helped him produced a dual biography of Kafka, the literary writer, and Nachman, the religious teacher. The book explores extraordinary parallels in their lives and works.

“Kafka and Nachman speak to each other in a way that is mysterious; reading them side by side is an enriching experience,” said Kamenetz. Continue reading “Spiritual Bindings: LSU professor emeritus publishes book comparing Jewish mystic Rabbi Nachman and literary icon Franz Kafka”

What Modern Orthodoxy Thinks of Its Neighbors: Gloomy Reflections on a Divided Religion

By Allan Nadler

Like a picture, a title is occasionally worth a thousand words. Such is the case in the most recent publication of the Orthodox Forum, an intellectual think-tank of centrist Orthodox rabbis and scholars originally convened two decades ago by Rabbi Norman Lamm, then president of Yeshiva University, to deliberate annually on the perennially new challenges confronting them. Alas, the unfortunate title of this 20th collection of the Orthodox Forum’s 2009 proceedings extends almost a thousand words.

Parsing those words, however, is revealing, and prepares the reader for some of the volume’s more disappointing elements. First, there is an apparent, rather delusional notion, among even the most Modern Orthodox thinkers, that the Jewish world in the 21st century remains in reality divided between two camps: the Orthodox and all others. Then there is the choice of the word “believing” rather than “observant” or “practicing,” suggesting that what actually separates the Orthodox from all those “others” has to do mainly with differences of theology rather than with practice, a highly problematic proposition. Continue reading “What Modern Orthodoxy Thinks of Its Neighbors: Gloomy Reflections on a Divided Religion”