(Kosher) Food For Thought

Musings from NU Hillel's Campus Rabbi

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Location: Evanston, IL, United States

Sunday, December 09, 2007

American Religion

This story has to be one of the weirder ones I've seen on the front page of the Tribune Perspectives section. It is written by a Jewish woman who the reader presumes is in her 70s, and begins with the words: "Our mistake was sending our children to Hebrew school." She goes on to talk about her life as a Jewish woman married to a Jewish man, and yet erecting a Christmas tree in her home. When their kids came home from Hebrew school and pointed out that it didn't make so much sense, she couldn't really understand it. You kind of have to read it for yourself.


Sunday, November 25, 2007

The best Jewish engagement program out there

Okay, I'm a little biased (my wife is a program director of this initiative) but in my professional opinion this is the most cost-effective, most strategic program out there for engaging Jewish families. The story speaks for itself.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

AskBigQuestions convergence: What do you say no to? And what are you thankful for?

My biggest project of this academic year has been launching and developing an initiative AskBigQuestions (and its website, www.askbigquestions.com). ABQ attempts to fill a void on Northwestern's campus, one which exists on many other university campuses too: We don't talk about life's Big Questions, the questions of ultimate concern with which all human beings are ultimately concerned. Who am I? Where do I come from? What's my story? What will be my vocation? Who will be my partners? What will be my legacy? These are the questions that make life worth living.

Among the many faith and philosophical traditions that address these questions, Judaism and Jewish life is a world class culture of unparalleled thickness. And by presenting a Judaism that answers the most important questions of human life, students who are rooted in the narrative of universal humanism can find a Jewish voice that feels real and that resonates.

In addition to the website, ABQ regularly sponsors salons with popular NU professors in a coffee shop. The format is usually that they will offer some perspectives on the question, I will respond with some Jewish resonances, and then the students, the prof and I engage in a lively give-and-take.

This column by Roger Cohen in today's New York Times brings together two of the Big Questions we've addressed this fall: "What do you say no to?" and "What are you thankful for?" Check out the story at the end:

"When Stanley Cohen, the friend and attorney to the artist Alexander Calder, moved to Paris in the 1960s, he ordered The Sunday New York Times. It would arrive the following Wednesday. He would take the paper and store it unread until Saturday night. Then he would place it outside his door so that, on Sunday morning, he had the illusion of finding his beloved paper waiting.

"I like that story. It’s a reminder of how not to be a slave to time, of the need to be imaginative and humble in our thankfulness, and of the fact that news can wait a week. A day off to read it is dandy. Turn off, tune out, drop in. And a decent-sized turkey takes five hours to cook."

Cohen reminds us that Thanksgiving attempts to be a version of Shabbat: A day to say no to the small stuff so that we can say yes, say thanks, and give blessing, to the big stuff. Saying thank you requires turning off a lot of the stuff that chains us to work, chains us to thin relationships, in order that we can say yes to our families, to other human beings.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Andrew Sullivan Endorses Obama (!)

This is pretty amazing. Sullivan, a conservative, argues that Obama is the right man for the times. He has two primary points:

1. Obama would be, in his words, the best weapon the U.S. could possibly deploy to change the calculus of the "War on Terror":

"Consider this hypothetical. It’s November 2008. A young Pakistani Muslim is watching television and sees that this man—Barack Hussein Obama—is the new face of America. In one simple image, America’s soft power has been ratcheted up not a notch, but a logarithm. A brown-skinned man whose father was an African, who grew up in Indonesia and Hawaii, who attended a majority-Muslim school as a boy, is now the alleged enemy. If you wanted the crudest but most effective weapon against the demonization of America that fuels Islamist ideology, Obama’s face gets close."

2. Obama is the only candidate who can transcend another round of Baby Boomer cultural warfare, which would be the inevitable result of a Clinton-Guilani/Romney (though not necessarily McCain) matchup, and in so doing provide a way out of Iraq and a host of other problems:

"The man who opposed the war for the right reasons is for that reason the potential president with the most flexibility in dealing with it. Clinton is hemmed in by her past and her generation. If she pulls out too quickly, she will fall prey to the usual browbeating from the right—the same theme that has played relentlessly since 1968. If she stays in too long, the antiwar base of her own party, already suspicious of her, will pounce. The Boomer legacy imprisons her—and so it may continue to imprison us. The debate about the war in the next four years needs to be about the practical and difficult choices ahead of us—not about the symbolism or whether it’s a second Vietnam."

As Sullivan goes on to discuss, Obama's generational stance--post-Boomer, that is--enables him to move beyond the divides of religion and race and culture that have been played out in every election since at least 1988 (not to mention 1968 and 1972). The notes on religion jibe with a post I wrote in this space earlier this year: Obama offers a third way, beyond the either/or choice of belief or science, and instead points the way to a "both/and" approach--science is true, and so is faith.

As I have already written to friends, I am on the Obama bandwagon. And after this piece from Sullivan, I am even more committed. Friends, his time has come.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Harvey Cox and the Secular-Religious Divide

One of the core assumptions I bring to my work on campus is that we are entering a new moment in American society. Simply put, people today are hungry for a way to be intellectually honest and still use the language of belief. As a culture, we have come to sense that the insistent secularism of the last generation, while it brought much good, also threw out the baby with the bathwater. There has to be a way to be a smart person who recognizes and believes in science and reason, but who can still have faith in religious traditions and have a relationship with God (albeit a more sophisticated version of the Creator than was perhaps articulated in previous, more authoritarian, generations). As one student so marvelously put it to me a couple of years ago, "We're looking for coherence without codependence." The Democrats are talking about God, for crying out loud; and there's no question in my mind that this is a major part of the appeal of Barack Obama (see a previous post).

On her radio program "Speaking of Faith" this morning, Krista Tippet interviewed Harvard Prof. Harvey Cox. The title of the program is "Beyond the Atheism-Religion Divide," and it's fantastic. Cox offers a wonderful, sensible counterpoint to the strident anti-religion rhetoric of Sam Harris, Daniel Dennet, Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, on the one hand, and the strident, anti-modernist fundamentalism of the religious right (and others). Highly recommended.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Peoplehood and Genealogy

This piece in the New Republic offers a fascinating take on the real and perceived issues of genealogy. In a nutshell, it addresses one of the major questions I find on college campuses these days: How can you explain the idea of Jewish Peoplehood in anything but tribal terms? (The unspoken question behind this one is: "Isn't tribalism a bad thing?")

The author, Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker, summarizes the facts about how geneaology works: After you get past the great-great-grandparent stage, the level of diluation (remember, you have 16 g-g-ps) is enormous, and leads to the inevitable conclusion that we're all related. So hooray for humanism, and boo to tribalsim.

And yet: Pinker reminds us that in most traditional societies, people generally married their cousins. While there is a slight increase in the risk of genetic disease in this, the social effects are enormous. In fact, Pinker says that the modern concept of society is built on the creation of a trans-family, anti-tribal, national (or even international) identity:

"In the struggle between society and family, the exponential mathematics of kinship ordinarily works to the advantage of society. As time passes or groups get larger, family trees intertwine, dynasties dissipate, and nepotistic emotions get diluted. But families can defend themselves with a potent tactic: they can graft the twig tips of the family tree together by cousin marriage... Not only does cousin marriage amplify the average degree of relatedness among members of the clan, but it enmeshes them in a network of triangular relationships, with kinsmen valuing each other because of their many mutual kin as well as their own relatedness. As a result, the extended family, clan, or tribe can emerge as a powerfully cohesive bloc--and one with little common cause with other families, clans, or tribes in the larger polity that comprises them. The anthropologist Nancy Thornhill has shown that the prohibitions against incestuous marriages in most societies are not public-health measures aimed at reducing birth defects but the society's way of fighting back against extended families. "

Now take this and read the story of the assimilation of American Jews (or any ethnic group in America). Tribal=Arranged-Marriage=Bad, American=Love-Conquers-All=Good, at least in the narrative of American values. And we wonder why base appeals against interfaith marriages from traditional Jews sound, well... racist? (Yet we can't argue with Pinker's logic. In fact he's not making an argument about genes, but about family: common history, language, and values. This is in fact the basis on which I talk to people about marriage choices. If you're interested in building a home in which Jewish life, holidays, and values play a central part, you probably want to choose a partner who does as well.)

Because it's too good to pass up, here's Pinker's conclusion:

"In January 2003, during the buildup to the war in Iraq, the journalist and blogger Steven Sailer published an article in The American Conservative in which he warned readers about a feature of that country that had been ignored in the ongoing debate. As in many traditional Middle Eastern societies, Iraqis tend to marry their cousins. About half of all marriages are consanguineous (including that of Saddam Hussein, who filled many government positions with his relatives from Tikrit). The connection between Iraqis' strong family ties and their tribalism, corruption, and lack of commitment to an overarching nation had long been noted by those familiar with the country. In 1931, King Faisal described his subjects as "devoid of any patriotic idea ... connected by no common tie, giving ear to evil; prone to anarchy, and perpetually ready to rise against any government whatsoever." Sailer presciently suggested that Iraqi family structure and its mismatch with the sensibilities of civil society would frustrate any attempt at democratic nation-building."


Thursday, May 10, 2007


This has been an interesting exercise. I will be the first to admit that I wrote my original letter in haste, and in the age of email, it's always a mistake to press send before you've had 24 hours to think on something like this. I thank everyone who has expressed concern with the tone--including my Rebbeim. You were of course right, and I appreciate your care and willingness to offer tochacha (rebuke). Here's a revised version:

To the editor:

Rabbi Mordechai Eliyahu is a great Torah sage. We deeply respect his many contributions to the betterment of the Jewish people and Torah over the course of his life.

That is why we were so saddened to read of the remarks attributed to Rabbi Eliyahu that blamed the Holocaust on the rise of Reform Judaism in Germany. Those words were hurtful to the memory of the victims of the Nazis, survivors of the Shoah, their children and grandchildren. They were also deeply and wrongly offensive to millions for whom the Reform movement constitutes a meaningful and vibrant Jewish community.

Though Rabbi Eliyahu is an Orthodox rabbi and a former Chief Rabbi of Israel, he obviously does not speak for all Orthodox rabbis. So, to Rabbi David Ellenson and to the many Jews offended by Rabbi Eliyahu's words, we wish to state clearly that, though we respect Rabbi Eliyahu's accomplishments, the words attributed to him espoused a theology deeply at odds with our understanding of Torah.

For our part, we are working to bring about the day when Jews, and rabbinic leaders, of all denominational backgrounds can teach and learn from one another, and make common cause in building a people that is a light unto nations.


Rabbi Joshua Feigelson, Northwestern University Hillel