Wednesday, January 26, 2011

History of Pastafarianism

We're Not in Kansas Anymore
Cerebral Boinkfest (blog), Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Linda Hedrick runs down the history of Pastafarianism and the Flying Spaghetti Monster.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Does Jewish Secularism Have a Future?

Does Jewish Secularism Have a Future? is the theme of the May-June 2009 issue of Jewish Currents. There is first the editor's Introduction (pp. 1-3), and here is the rest of the contents:

"Offers We Couldn’t Refuse: What Happened to Secular Jewish Identity?" An Analysis by April Rosenblum (8-28)
"My Dinosaur Days: Does Jewish Secularism Have a Future?" An Illustrated Memoir by Lawrence Bush (29-50)
"Humanistic Judaism and Sherwin Wine: The “Other Wing” of the Jewish Secular Movement" An Appreciation by Rabbi Adam Chalom (51-55)
Responses from Readers and Activists (56-69) Barnett Zumoff, Linda Gritz, Ross Perlin, Marie Parham, Rabbi Shai Gluskin, Ira Mintz, Lyber Katz, Joel Schechter, Dorothy Zellner, Brian Klug, Michael Prival, Jack Nusan Porter, Rokhl Kafrissen, Michael Gould-Wartofsky, Billy Yalowitz

Rosenbaum provides an historical account of how secular Jewish (Yiddish) culture was once in the mainstream of American Jewish life and how various social pressures virtually eliminated it in the 1950s and beyond.

Lawrence Bush recounts his own experience in the secular Jewish milieu and his engagement with Jewish Currents, of which he is now the editor. Contrary to Irving Howe, he maintains that Yiddish culture is not doomed after all.

From being the lone humanistic rabbi in the 1960s, at the time of this writing (Wine died in 2007) Sherwin Wine engendered over 30 congregations and over 50 leaders. 

Interestingly, even secularists, in trying to demythologize their religious tradition, didn't make it quite that far:
For example, from Mayn Folk, a 1962 Workmen’s Circle children’s history book (my translation from the Yiddish):
When the Jews lived in the wilderness, their leader was Moses. He was the leader of all the Jewish tribes. All Jews obeyed him. Moses taught the Jews how to live properly and well. He gave the Jewish people wise and good laws. He gave Jews the Torah.
God is edited out of this book, which instead focuses on the “organizer” Moses. However, despite all the evidence of archaeology and Biblical criticism that the Torah was compiled centuries after Moses (if he existed), the traditional teaching of the siddur (prayerbook) that “this is the Torah that Moses placed before the Children of Israel” persists.
Turning Moses into a left-winger is a miracle in itself, but I heard the same line some years ago when attending a Labor Seder, replete with heavy-handed didactic politicization of the traditional ritual in the service of the cause of the day. I was quite amazed to see a number of young people present, as I expected nobody under 80 would be found there. I don't know what denomination the labor seders are held under; it was not Humanistic Judaism as far as I know, but it may as well have been. I liked the people, and especially the participation of African-American, Ethiopian, and Latino union activists, but I found the ceremonial aspect rather lame.

I have also known some of the members of the Washington DC branch of Humanistic Judaism, Machar, but in settings far removed from any semblance of a religious service. Hence I remain mystified what religious services of Jewish atheists could possibly look like and what an atheist rabbi is supposed to do. I suppose this article attempts to answer that question.

Wine attempted to combine both the congregational and secular dimensions of Jewish life, and both the particular tradition and universalism, incorporating non-Jewish intellectual sources. Wine also incorporated intermarriage into his denomination and even gay commitment ceremonies. Wine was willing to question even the cultural survival of the Jewish people. He rejected the Bible and Torah as below the standard of real intellectualism. His philosophy can be found in Judaism Beyond God (1985, revised 1995). His liturgical innovations can be found in Celebration: A Ceremonial and Philosophic Guide for Humanists and Humanistic Jews (1988). His final statement can be found in the festschrift A Life of Courage: Sherwin Wine and Humanistic Judaism (2004).

Given my limited exposure, all I can say is that people have to do the best they can from where they find themselves. If I had to go this route, I would probably prefer Ethical Culture, which I'd also prefer to the even more vapid Unitarians, but I find it all a bloody bore and essentially a palliative for the upper middle class. (Though in fairness I must concede that the traditional clerical institution provides a base for charitable work and social action.) Still, Humanistic Judaism is the next best thing to Jewish humanism, that is, humanism ex officio.

Barnett Zumoff supplements Rosenblum's analysis with a couple of internal factors and adds that "secular Jewishness is currently maintained in America only by a tiny group of determined individuals, through heroic effort and in a very diluted form." Linda Gritz recounts her own efforts in preserving secular Jewish culture. Ross Perlin addresses the problems endemic to this endeavor. Marie Parham recounts her upbringing in the Jim Crow South. The civil rights Freedom Rides and the African art her father brought home from his travels inspired her. She did not realize there was a tradition behind her impulses until she visited Camp Kinderland and heard Miriam Makeba broadcast over the PA system. Rabbi Shai Gluskin thinks that secular ideologies like Stalinism are far worse than theism, so he prefers liberal Judaism. Ira Mintz claims that "Secular Judaism is alive and well and living in Central New Jersey." Lyber Katz estimates that half of the American Jewish population is secular. He also sees a rise in an interest in spirituality among the baby-boom generation. He agrees with Rosenbaum about the devastating effect of McCarthyism. Joel Schechter is an enthusiastic latecomer to Yiddishkeit. Dorothy Zellner blames the red scare and Zionism for the destruction of secular Jewish culture. Brian Klug describes Jewdas ( a fairly new Jewish group in Britain that characterizes itself as “radical voices for the alternative diaspora.” He describes an event in London, a "Rootless Cosmopolitan Yeshiva". (I like the sound of that.)

Michael Prival recounts his own formative experience in the Jewish milieu of the Bronx. But there is no reason that younger people, who are entirely removed from this experience, should bother with it. Here he hits the nub:
In my family, secular Jewish identity survived to my children’s generation largely because of our participation in the Humanistic Judaism movement described by Rabbi Adam Chalom. Although Humanistic Judaism is totally accepting of those from non-Jewish backgrounds, secular Jewish identity continues to be rooted in ethnicity. We live in a society so welcoming that the ethnic ties of all groups weaken over time. We may regret the gradual loss of identity, but we can only celebrate the openness of the society that causes it.

A distinct secular Jewish culture cannot survive through the generations in the United States without ghettoization of housing and education that limits exposure of the young to the broader culture and, more importantly, to non-Jewish potential mates. Fortunately, these conditions do not exist for most of us, so our ancestral culture is disappearing.
Now this I can relate to.

Jack Nusan Porter was raised Orthodox, but learned to incorporate secularism? Why not the reverse?
Secular Judaism is not “marginalized,” it simply does not give Jews the nurture and “soul” that religious ritual gives. That’s why I always felt, even back in Morris Schappes’ time, that secular Judaism would decline if it did not acquire some kind of spirituality — and why not a Hebrew prayer-language, and not just a Yiddish spirituality?

Rokhl Kafrissen recounts her disillusionment with Hadar and encounter with Jewish Currents. She is not "secular"; she wants to lead an "integrated Jewish life". Oy.

Michael Gould-Wartofsky is the son of philosopher Marx Wartofsky (who knew?). He grew up in a secular socialist environment but found this at odds with mainstream Jewish identity, i.e. religiosity + nationalism. He could only find like-minded Jews in social movements not specifically Jewish, which he terms the "inner diaspora". (My kind of people.)  He enumerates the ideological parameters of the Jewish mainstream and calls for a radical rupture with it.
Such a secular revival could be global, with the help of new media and the Internet. It could embrace all forms of Jewish culture, not only those that speak Yiddish or Hebrew, and open itself up to the Latino, Arab, and Black Jewish traditions.
Billy Yalowitz starts off by mentioning his presence at two seders, one with the Reconstrucions, the other with is secular left-wing family. Coming from a heritage of communists and Yiddish speaking socialist, he inherited a contempt for Judaism and religion in general, but finds inspiration in the combination of Yiddish literature, left-wing political culture, and Judaism which is also part of his family history.

It should not be too difficult to discern my own sympathies. One area to pursue that was only touched on by a couple of the participants: how to non-Jews associated with Jews, most notably in mixed families or intimate relationships, relate to secular Jewish culture under discussion? Prival and Gould-Wartofsky skirt this question from opposite angles. I don't see any future for any culture in the USA that is not open to everyone. In addition to the factors adumbrated by Prival, the communications revolution—the enculturation of children via media technology from birth—has permanently altered the nature of culture and established a permanent discontinuity with the cultural past. On the other hand, it has also created options for recombinant appropriations of the flotsam of all cultures that never previously existed. So there is now a question of what any individual from one ethnic group experiences, related to a question of what individuals from different groups experience in association. This, as well in differentials in the experience of or need for belonging, are factors to consider. I personally can only stand so much of belonging, and so total immersion in anything is too much for me to take, but others will make their way as suits them, hopefully without getting stuck in a rut.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Jewish attitudes toward Jesus in history

Jewish Perceptions of Jesus in Religious Texts and Artistic Works
Bennett Muraskin
Jewish Currents, Spring 2010

Most of this information is new to me. Christian slanders against Jews are legendary. Jewish resentment against Christians is understandable. I never knew of any particular Jewish hostility to Jesus, though. Apparently, there's a long history of this from about half way through the second century AD through the Middle Ages. This I found absolutely hilarious:
Throughout the Middle Ages, European Jews generally continued to revile Jesus, albeit secretly. They would bring images of Jesus and Mary into their outhouses. Jesus was called Yoyzl or Yoshke Pandrek, which means “Mr. Shit.” They would treat Haman as a proxy for Jesus during Purim, hanging an effigy on a cross and burning it. Michael Wex’s acclaimed Born to Kvetch: Yiddish Language and Culture in All Its Moods (2006) provides numerous examples of Yiddish expressions that mocked Jesus and Christian beliefs well into the 20th century.
The fun had to end sometime:
However, the Jewish Enlightenment (Haskole) of the 18th and 19th centuries effected a sea change in attitudes towards the figure of Jesus among liberal and secular Jews.
The author documents praise of Jesus from Heinrich Graetz in the 19th century to Buber and Einstein in the 20th. Jewish artists like Chagall and Jacob Epstein also used the Jewish Jesus as a weapon against Christian anti-Semitism and to promote peace and justice. Several Yiddish writers capitalized on Jesus' martyrdom. Sholem Asch made a decisive impact but also caught a lot of flack with his popular Yiddish novel The Nazarene in 1939. Matthew Hoffman in Rebel to Rabbi: Reclaiming Jesus and the Making of Modern Jewish Culture (2007) judged "the Jewish reclamation of Jesus" an important contribution to secular Jewish culture.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Hypatia revisited

Written 12 January 2008:

Dzielska, Maria. Hypatia of Alexandria, translated by F. Lyra. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1995.

Interesting little book on the great mathematician/astronomer/philosopher Hypatia, torn to pieces by Christians in Alexandria, 415 AD. Much accepted as fact about Hypatia is actually the repetition of legend. This book reviews the literary history of Hypatia. She was a hero of the Enlightenment. Several writers of the period blamed St. Cyril for complicity in her assassination. (The first English writer to honor her was the heretical John Toland.) Hypatia became a symbol of Hellenism defiled by Christian fanaticism. She was also the subject of a novel in the 19th century by Charles Kingsley (of which I have two editions), a Protestant clergyman who wanted to sock it to the Catholics. In more recent years she has become a heroine of the feminists.

After reviewing this history, Dzielska assembles ascertainable historical data about her and her belief system, based on what can be learned by her disciples. I don't recall her relation to Christianity, but I believe she was most likely a Platonist who headed an esoteric circle rather than a public or itinerant teacher.

I paused after this point. The third chapter I think is about the circumstances of her death, and the fourth is the conclusion.

17 January 2008:

After reviewing the literary history of Hypatia and the ascertainable facts about her circle, the subsequent chapter is about her life and death, then a conclusion, finally a bibliographical supplement.

While portrayed as a beautiful young woman in literature, in reality Hypatia was probably born circa 355 AD and thus was murdered by a Christian mob at the age of 60. Her father was a noted mathematician and astronomer, and she carried on his work and added her own achievements. In addition, she was, as were other scientifically minded individuals of her time, heavily involved in hermeticism and esoteric teachings. An elite, upper class group constituted her circle. She was neither popular with the masses, nor was she a particularly avid defender of the traditional "pagan" religion.

Hypatia got caught up in the vicious religious politics of her time. When the patriarch Cyril (later sainted, natch) took over from Theophilus, he made aggressive efforts to wipe out paganism and Judaism, which destabilized an inherently precarious situation. Cyril incited violent, homicidal warfare between Jews and Christians, which ultimately resulted in an anti-Jewish pogrom devastating the Jewish presence in Alexandria. Furthermore, he locked himself into a power struggle with the pagan leader Orestes. Hypatia has friends in high places, both with Orestes and in the center of empire. Aloof from public life, she was set up as a scapegoat for the city's tensions. She was portrayed as a witch casting a spell over Orestes, preventing a rapproachment with the Christians. Cyril is known to have incited the climate of hate, but there is no evidence directly linking him to her assassination. However, a cabal of Christian leaders whipped up a lynch mob against her among the poor and ignorant yet obedient to the priesthood, and these people attacked and dismembered her in 415 AD.

Nothing like that Christian love, n'est ce pas?