Archive for December, 2012


In Alaska today, it’s difficult to find a profession that hasn’t been turned into a TV show….
It’s hard to miss the paradox in this. Half a century ago, the notion that most Americans would soon be at least a generation removed from skilled manual labor would have seemed remarkable. But now that’s where we are, our relative comfort gnaws at us. The frequency that we respond to in [these types of shows] is the same one that makes suburban accountants buy Ford Super Duty pickups and Brooklyn graphic designers grow fake lumberjack beards. And yet this very desire for authenticity has turned some of the last truly unreconstructed frontiersmen in America into that least authentic of creatures: the minor celebrity.

Charles Homans, “A Soap Opera on the High Seas,” The New York Times Magazine (16 December 2012), 50.

Rabbinic legal thinking, which provides much of the structural framework of subsequent Jewish cultures, aims first and foremost at instituting a rather pronounced dual gender grid, imposed on the social organization of Jewish society as the rabbis envisioned it. Most of the individual laws of rabbinic halakhah apply to either men or women. Differently put, in rabbinic legal thinking it is almost always important whether the halakhic agent is a man or a woman.

Representations of the body are an important means for grounding gender, and for justifying the distribution of legal privileges and disadvantages. As theorists of gender have come to recognize, representations of the body often serve the aim of naturalizing and therefore legitimizing legal privilege. Hence, so the theory goes, almost everyone may agree now that gender differences are cultural constructs. Gender is variable, and gender differences are scripted differently in different social and cultural contexts. But the fact that gender differences exist to begin with is traditionally considered to be based in biological fact. Nature – or biology – has made bodies different, male and female, and different cultures only inscribe this reality with their specific ways of differentiating between genders. In the rabbinic case, this translates, for instance, into the prohibition of cross-dressing, inherited from biblical law (Deuteronomy 22:5), in order to uphold the clear distinction between the sexes. Or it famously translates into the general positioning of men as always “obligated” by Jewish law, while women are only sometimes obligated and mostly “exempt” (M. Kiddushin 1:7), a legal rhetoric that already early feminists have recognized as a way of privileging the male position in Jewish law.

Charlotte Elisheva Fonrobert, “Regulating the Human Body: Rabbinic Legal Discourse and the Making of Jewish Gender,” in The Cambridge Companion to the Talmud and Rabbinic Literature, eds. Charlotte Elisheva Fonrobert and Martin S. Jaffee (Cambridge & New York City: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 271.

Let us remember that the Jewish future is being shaped on the college campuses, not in old folks’ homes or hospitals.

Abraham Joshua Heschel, “Existence and Celebration,” in Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity, ed. Susannah Heschel (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1996), 28.

We do not impose moral judgments on people who care for their own children, parents, or siblings than they would for other people even though in the cosmic sense no life is worth more than any other. Even regarding giving charity, Rambam in Matanot Evyonim 7:13 (based on B. Bava Metzia 31b) writes that one’s family takes precedence for charity over the people of his city which take precedence over those outside. The issue is not of holistic moral worthiness, but the proximity of the relationship places additional requirements, obligations, and affinities such that it is not only moral but expected to prioritize the needs of some over others.

Rabbi Josh Yuter, e-mail message, 4 December 2012.

Women and men cross-dress for very different reasons, to the point that in many cases what a particular society considers transvestitism will be different for each gender. This explains the variation of both the nouns and the verbs in sections 1a and 1b of Deut 22:5. The verse is much more than a simple prohibition of particular wardrobes, and indeed in no way addresses the issue of women wearing masculine garments, since in the culture of ancient Israel the clothing of men was less associated with gender than was the clothing of women. Rather, the verse reflects the most basic ideology of gender in Israelite society, and to this end it distinguishes not simply between male and female but also between different qualities of men. The ideals of manhood and masculinity were not considered either simple or innate; one had to achieve them through action, behavior, and a good relationship with Yahweh.

Harold Torger Vedeler, “Reconstructing Meaning in Deuteronomy 22:5: Gender, Society, and Transvestitism in Israel and the Ancient Near East,” Journal of Biblical Literature 127, No. 3 (Fall 2008), 473.

…an appreciation of the role played by the stam in the sugya, which is distinguishable from that typically played by amoraim. The stam often takes upon itself tasks that affect the sugya or sugyot as a whole…. The tasks of the amoraim, in contrast, are localized, consisting of the interpretation of a particular tradition, stating the law, resolving or posing an objection, or answering or raising a question. … It is the way of the stam to offer artificial responses, sometimes to teach us why a particular argument was chosen over another, sometimes to increase the complexity of the argument, and sometimes to weave together independent traditions or discussions.

Richard Kalmin, “The Function and Dating of the Stam and the Writing of History”, in Melekhet Mahshevet: Studies in the Redaction and Development of Talmudic Literature, ed. Aaron Amit and Aharon Shemesh (Ramat-Gan, Israel: Bar-Ilan University Press, 2011), 40-41 (English section).

Heschel preferred frankness and authenticity to popularity. He told people exactly what he thought, because he believed more in the destruction of a false god than in the compromise of truth. Rabbi Heschel warned The General Assembly of the Council of Jewish Federation and Welfare Funds, that while their members were concerning themselves with numbers, society was increasingly consumed by spiritual decline. He reminded those who measure religious engagement in terms of monetary contributions of an old Jewish principle: “The world stands on three pillars: on learning, on worship and on charity. We are not going to invite a friend to sit on a tripod, a stool designed to have three legs, when two legs are missing.” He pointed to the spiritual absence which was so typical of religious life in America. According to Heschel, synagogues and churches suffer from an identical disease: acute coolness, since leaders of religious communities think that spiritual problems can be resolved by administrative means.

Waldemar Szczerbiński, “Poland and Christianity in Heschel’s Life and Thought” in Abraham Joshua Heschel: Philosophy, Theology and Interreligious Dialogue, ed. Stanisław Krajewski and Adam Lipszyc (Wiesbaden: Otto Harrassowitz, 2009), 16.