Tears and celebration

Why do we break a glass at the end of every Jewish wedding? There are many answers, but one of the interpretations which resonates for me is this: we break a glass to remind ourselves that even in our moments of greatest joy, the world contains brokenness. That's how I feel today - mourning the Charleston shooting and today's news of horrific terror attacks in Tunisia, Kuwait and France; celebrating today's news about the SCOTUS ruling on marriage equality across the USA.

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This image made me cry. [Source]

Back in 2012 I wrote:

I hope that by the time [our son] is old enough to understand, the notion of a state passing a law against gay marriage will seem as misguided, plainly hurtful, and outdated as the notion of a state passing a law against someone of one race marrying someone of another. (I'm far from the first to note the painful similarities there.) I don't know who he will love; right now I'm pretty sure he loves his family and his friends and Thomas the Tank Engine, and that's as it should be. But I hope and pray that by the time he's ready to marry, if and when that day comes, he (and his generation) will have the right to marry, period. And not just in a handful of states, but anywhere in this country.

I hoped then that by the time our son was grown, our nation might have risen to the new ethical heights of granting the right to marry to all of its citizens, regardless of their gender or gender expression, and regardless of the gender or gender expression of their beloved. I never in a million years could have imagined that it would happen before he even started kindergarten. I'm grateful to everyone who devoted heart and soul to the work of making this possible now, in our days.

It's hard to wrap my head and heart around the disjunction between the sheer joy which I feel at the prospect of the right to marry being granted to every American, and the grief which arises at the news of today's terror attacks around the world. Though I think that kind of disjunction is part and parcel of ordinary life. It's a little bit like having a parent in the hospital while one's child is celebrating a joyful milestone -- love and sorrow, joy and grief, intertwined. Most of our lives contain these juxtapositions.

One of the pieces of framed art on my synagogue office wall contains a famous quote from the collection of rabbinic wisdom known as Pirkei Avot: "It is not your responsibility to finish the work of perfecting the world, but you are not free to desist from it either." Our nation is still marred by many inequalities, and there is much work yet to be done. Our world is still marred by endless brokenness. But I believe it's also important to stop and celebrate what we can, when we can. Our hearts need that.

Today we celebrate the SCOTUS ruling on marriage equality. Tonight we celebrate Shabbat, and may imagine that the Shabbat bride looks a bit more radiant than usual in reflection of this joyful news. And when the new week comes, it will be time to put our shoulders to the wheel and keep working toward the dream of a world free of hatred, free of violence, free of bigotry, where everyone on this earth truly knows and feels that we are all made in the image of God and all deserve safety and joy.

May those who are grieving lost loved ones in Tunisia, Kuwait, and France -- and for that matter Charleston SC, and everywhere else tarnished with acts of hatred -- be comforted along with all who mourn. May we gather up the shards of their broken hearts and cradle them lovingly as we celebrate today's victories for human rights. And for those who celebrate, may tonight's Shabbat be sweet.

 

Edited to add: ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal's official statement.


Reprint from 2004: Blog is my co-pilot

Cover-issue-26In 2004 I wrote an article for Bitch Magazine about women in what some of us were then calling the godblogosphere. It ran in their fall 2004 issue. I titled it "Women Who Blog Faithfully." They titled it "Blog is my co-pilot: the rise of religion online."

Here's my original post exhorting readers to buy the issue, which links to all of the bloggers I interviewed for the piece.  Amy Wellborn is now on Twitter, and The Revealer still exists. All of the other blogs I cited are now defunct, except for this one.

Anyway, I think the article is an interesting snapshot of what at least one corner of the religious internet used to look like. (Also, wow, I used to like long paragraphs!) Enjoy.

 

Blog is my co-pilot: the rise of religion online

In the beginning (or “in a beginning,” or “when God was beginning,” depending on which translation you favor) God created the heavens and the earth. Some millennia later, the earth’s stewards created blogs.

In early 1999, there were about 23 webblogs; today, there are thousands, many of them eschewing the characteristic links-and-commentary format in favor of straight-up personal pontificating. The blogosphere has turned out to be a great place to discuss the kinds of things we’re discouraged from airing in polite company: among them, politics, sex, scurrilous gossip, and religion. It’s this last subject that had always interested me—after all, God tops the list of polarizing topics one isn’t supposed to bring up at the dinner table. But since I’m the kind of person who itches for a good theology throwdown, godbloggers are, well, my people.

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Chess

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No one knows who these men are or why their photograph has been handed down in our family. If I had to guess, I would say that this photo is probably from Belarus, childhood home to my grandfather Isaac, a.k.a. Eppie (may his memory be a blessing). It is a tiny photo, only three and a half inches by two and a quarter inches. It was in a box of miscellaneous family photographs at my parents' house; I found it in a small envelope labeled "treasures old and new" in my mother's handwriting.

Who were these men? Religious Jews, it seems clear; they are bearded and wearing yarmulkes. Then again, they don't have peyos, the sidecurls which are seen on many Hasidic or Orthodox Jews, and their beards are trimmed neatly. (Though apparently peyos were banned in the Russian Empire in 1845.) It appears that they're wearing long black coats and black kippot, though that may or may not have been a signifier of anything in that place and time, whatever that place and time were.

I looked through The Family History of Alice Fried Epstein and Isaac Epstein, M.D., a volume which contains the transcript of oral history interviews conducted with my maternal grandparents. I remembered that the book contained a variety of black and white photographs, many of which were taken in Europe and date to the early years of the last century when my grandparents were young. But I didn't find either of these men in any of those pictures from early 20th-century Belarus or Prague.

Every time I look at this photograph I'm drawn to the man on the left, with the white beard, who has looked up from their chess game to regard the unknown photographer. I am charmed by his subtle smile. Presumably he knew whoever was taking this picture. Maybe he was winning the chess game. Maybe it was just a beautiful day in the park and he was happy to be alive. Could he have imagined this print traveling across the ocean and surviving more than a century to wind up in my hands?

 

I'm taking advantage of the #throwbackthursday / #tbt meme -- which usually involves posting old photos on Thursdays -- as an opportunity to write short snippets of remembrance, sparked by whatever old photo I find to post.


In Akko: Crusader-era ruins and the Jezzar Pasha mosque

13358289154_bf1dcfd468_nAnother new-to-me destination on my family's travels was Akko -- one of the oldest continuously-inhabited sites in the region. (Bet She'an has evidence of habitation for about 6000 years; Akko, about 4000 years.) From the city's Wikipedia page I learned that the first settlement on this site was in the early Bronze age, about 3000 BCE. I also learned that "The name 'Akka is recorded in Egyptian sources from about 2000 BCE, with three signs (the initial guttural, "k" and "a"; followed by the sign for 'foreign city.')" How cool is that?

At one time Akko was ruled by Rome; then became part of the Byzantine empire; then spent a while under Muslim rule; then the Crusaders took control. By the 1130s it had a population of around 25,000 and was the biggest city in the Crusader kingdom except for Jerusalem. Eventually the Ottomans ruled there; then it became part of British Mandate Palestine. In 1929 there was a pogrom during which Arab residents demolished the synagogue in the old city. Tensions between Arabs and Jews were high again between 1936 and 1939. In 1948, when the city became part of the modern state of Israel, about 3/4 of its Arab inhabitants were displaced. But today it remains a "mixed city," with both an Arab and a Jewish population.

What reading I was able to do before the trip suggested that the relationships between the Arab and Jewish populations here are still complicated: see Arab rock attack at home in Acre, 2013, or The Israeli TV guide to cheap Arab lives, 2014. (Note that those reports come from very different news sources, so they paint quite different pictures.) I'm heartened to read about places like the Sir Charles Clore Jewish-Arab Community Center -- though I don't know enough to know how to balance the existence of a place like that against the other stories to which I just linked.

13356256385_92f1ed8d39_nAnyway: given the link that my sister sent out before the trip (Underground Crusader city revealed beneath streets of Acre, Ha'aretz) I suspected Akko was on our agenda for primarily archaeological reasons, and I was right. Here's a glimpse of that Ha'aretz piece to whet your appetite, as it did mine:

Preparing to open a new subterranean section to the public, workers cleaned stones this week in an arched passageway underground. Etched in plaster on one wall was a coat of arms — graffiti left by a medieval traveler. Nearby was a main street of cobblestones and a row of shops that once sold clay figurines and ampules for holy water, popular souvenirs for pilgrims.

All were last used by residents in 1291, the year a Muslim army from Egypt defeated Acre's Christian garrison and leveled its remains. The existing city, built by the Ottoman Turks around 1750, effectively preserved this earlier town, which had been hidden for centuries under the rubble.

"It's like Pompeii of Roman times — it's a complete city," said Eliezer Stern, the Israeli archaeologist in charge of Acre. He called the town "one of the most exciting sites in the world of archaeology."

I know that archaeology is often political -- especially in the "Holy Land;" here's a great article about that, actually: Digging for the Truth -- but I couldn't help being excited at the prospect of seeing ruins like these, especially given that the whole Old City is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

13356287753_a024faee29_nWe began with the Ottoman-era Citadel, and then entered the Hospitallers' Fortress, the vast vaulted halls built and used by the Hospitallers knights during the Crusader era, which had been buried for centuries beneath the Citadel and nearby prison. Our guide explained that the structures above them had caved in during an invasion (perhaps the Mamluk invasion? it's hard to keep track!) and it was apparently easier to just fill the spaces with sand and build on top than to clear them out. So for a time, prisoners in the local prison yard did their exercises on top of these ancient hidden halls.

I've never been much of a Crusader buff. Jews didn't fare well during the Crusades, and that's never been a period of history into which I've wanted to delve too deeply. But leaving aside for the moment the problematics of the Crusades as violent holy wars, this complex of early medieval halls and great rooms is dazzling.

Toward the end of our time in the Crusader complex we walked through a tiny underground tunnel which once served as the sewer conduit between this underground complex and the sea -- and then through the Templars' tunnel, which is believed to have been a secret Crusader escape route which allowed them to flee to their waiting boats on the sea. Running water flowed beneath our feet as we trod on a well-constructed wooden walkway, sometimes crouching beneath a surprisingly low vaulted ceiling, and made our way underground to the shore.

13357463725_8113d7aa81_nWe also visited the largest mosque in Israel outside of Jerusalem, the Jezzar Pasha Mosque , built in 1781. I hadn't known we were coming to a mosque today, so was wearing short sleeves. The friendly gentleman at the entrance to the compound passed out dark blue cloths which several of us used to cover in various ways in order to be appropriately-respectful. Once we were adequately draped, we stepped inside.

I'm not sure I would have been much of a fan of Jezzar Pasha himself, whose nickname was "The Butcher." (Sounds like he wasn't very nice to his Jewish chief advisor, Haim Farhi.) But the mosque which takes his name, constructed on his orders in a single year, is quite beautiful.

The Jezzar Pasha mosque inhabits a lush, peaceful courtyard where birds sing and a water fountain (with faucets for wudu) flows merrily. The inlay on the outside of the building is gorgeous, as is the green dome. Inside, names of God twine around the building in gold letters on blue, and beautiful inlay and painted ornament rest side-by-side with an LED clock which displays the time until the next prayers.

13357956374_2ae768fa41_nWe spent a while walking around its courtyard, admiring the artistry of the Byzantine and Persian ornamentation, and standing in small groups quietly inside the doors of the mosque (not on the prayer rugs, but on a little wooden area just inside the door which was clearly meant for visitors) just letting the space wash over us.

After visiting the mosque, we walked back to the Crusader ruins -- and heard the adhān about two minutes later, while standing in a small grassy square just outside one of the main entrances to the ruins. We stopped and listened to its haunting melodies. God is great! rolled out like auditory calligraphy, floating on the sea-scented air.

 

All photos in this post come from this trip's photoset, which I'm doing my best to add to each day (wifi permitting.)

 


An historic synagogue in Rhode Island

Touro synagogue 3Stepping inside the Touro Synagogue feels a little bit like stepping inside an Old World Sefardic shul. There's a good reason for that. All of the oldest congregations in the New World were founded by Sefardic Jews, including this one.

There's no mechitza; instead there's an upstairs section and a downstairs one. The bimah (pulpit) from which the shaliach tzibbur (prayer leader) leads prayer and reads Torah is in the middle of the sanctuary, almost in the back, so he's leading from within/among the community, not standing in front of them Protestant-style. The ceiling is lofty and painted and ornamented in simple, elegant Colonial fashion. There are twelve big columns (one for each of the twelve tribes, naturally) and twelve smaller ones in the women's gallery above.

It is, I learn when we visit, the oldest still-standing synagogue in North America. (There was one founded earlier, in what was then New Amsterdam, though it burned down. It was rebuilt and the congregation is still extant, as is this one, but that makes this the oldest still-standing Jewish worship space in the country.) The community is celebrating its 250th anniversary this year.

Two hundred and fifty years may be a mere eyeblink in terms of human history -- certainly there are many European houses of worship older than that! -- but for a house of worship on these shores, 250 years is a very long time. And somehow there's something extra-special about being in a North American synagogue which is that venerable.

Its history is really cool. The first Jews came to Newport in 1658, of Spanish and Portuguese origin. (You might recall that Jews were unilaterally cast out of Spain in 1492. Thanks a ton, Ferdinand and Isabella.) Some of them came from Curaçao, and for a bit of a first, they came because they were interested in the colony's experiment in religious liberty, not because they had just been kicked out of where they'd been living. Rhode Island's colonial charter said, among other things:

No person within the said Colony, at any time hereafter, shall be any wise molested, punished, disquieted, or called in question, for any differences in opinion, in matters of religion, who does not actually disturb the peace of our said Colony ; but that all and every person and persons may, from time to time, and at all times hereafter, freely and fully have and enjoy his own and their judgments and consciences, in matters of religious concernments, throughout the tract of land heretofore mentioned, they behaving themselves peaceably and quietly and not using this liberty to licentiousness and profaneness, nor to the civil injury or outward disturbance of others

Synagogueinterior2009It's worth remembering that the Puritans of the Massachusetts Bay Colony banned Catholics in 1647, and weren't particularly fans of Quakers, Baptists, or Anglicans either. In Colonial days, suspicion of "Jews, Turks and Infidels" was pretty standard fare. But Rhode Island set out to be different, and that attracted a handful of Jewish families from early on.

In its earliest years the community davened in each others' homes. They began constructing a building in 1758. The architect, an English fellow named Peter Harrison, had never seen a synagogue before. (Most non-Jews probably hadn't.) He designed the interior based on what he learned from the community's prayer-leader, Reverend Isaac Touro, who had recently emigrated from Amsterdam and had been part of that city's great Portuguese synagogue.

During the American Revolution, many of Newport's homes were destroyed by the British army (not only because pillaging is a time-honored form of wartime violence, but also because the houses were wooden and New England winters could be awfully cold -- the troops needed firewood.) Our tour guide confided in us that Touro himself was a Loyalist, rather than a supporter of the Revolution. One way or another, he convinced the local British invaders not to burn the synagogue but to use it as their field hospital. Its beautiful chandeliers and brass fixings went to New York for safekeeping until after the war, and the sanctuary became a place where the wounded could convalesce.

After the revolution was over, when the new president George Washington was traveling the colonies in hopes of getting the Bill of Rights passed, the congregation's then-leader Moses Mendes Seixas wrote to the president pressing him on the question of whether non-Christians truly had the right to worship in this country as we pleased. In response, President Washington wrote a fairly remarkable letter. He wrote, in part:

It is now no more that toleration is spoken of as if it were the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights, for, happily, the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens in giving it on all occasions their effectual support...

May the children of the stock of Abraham who dwell in this land continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants—while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree and there shall be none to make him afraid.

Ten-commandmentsTo bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance. It's not just a matter of the privileged "tolerating" otherness. At our best, our nation has always been about something better than that. (Indeed: the first item in that Bill of Rights which President Washington was trying then to pass is a clause enshrining freedom of religion in this nation.)

The Touro synagogue is a relatively modest structure, though a very lovely one. (I particularly like the mural of the ten commandments over the ark, and seeing the community's antique Torah scroll, now behind glass -- it's more than 500 years old, written on deerskin.) What makes it most remarkable to me is the realization that for two hundred and fifty years, people of my religious tradition have been gathering there in joy and in sorrow, davening the daily and weekly, monthly and yearly liturgies. It's sanctified by its very longevity.

And it feels holy to me because it's an early symbol of the religious liberty which is so foundational to this country. It was by no means obvious, two hundred and fifty years ago when this nation was new, that all people would be free to worship here as we pleased; that this wasn't simply a place where Christians of one stripe or another could be free from the prejudices of other Christians, but a place where Jews and Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs, people of every religious persuasion and of no religious persuasion whatsoever could together form the fabric of a nation where we walk in our own paths and cherish our differences.

I'm glad to have had the chance to sit, however, briefly, in this hallowed space. On my way out the door, I said a silent prayer of gratitude for its existence and for the principles of religious freedom which allowed it -- and every other community in this nation -- to flourish.

 

Photos from this gallery.


Remembrance

Birkenau, Poland, Jewish women and children on the platform waiting for German orders after getting off the train, 27/05/1944. Image courtesy of the digital photo archives at Yad Vashem.

 

Yesterday was Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day. I want to bear witness, but the words don't want to come.

Everyone I know who is descended from Eastern European stock lost family in the Shoah. As a girl I became obsessed with Anne Frank's The Diary of a Young Girl, reading and rereading it so many times I practically had it memorized. I would lie in bed at night imagining what I would try to bring with me if we, like the Frank family, were forced to flee in the night.

Many years ago I visited Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial in Israel. Before we entered, our guide reminded us that while the photographs we were about to see were black-and-white, the reality of the Shoah was in living color. The skies over Auschwitz and Birkenau and Theresienstadt were blue. The emaciated figures in the photos weren't greyscale shadows: they were real people in three dimensions who were herded into cattle cars and into camps ravaged by disease and famine -- if they weren't gassed and burned. The old photos and jerky newsreel footage had been comfortably distancing, but those words from our guide unlocked something in me which made the unspeakable horror newly-real.

I'm not always comfortable with what's done in the name of the six million or with the ways in which their memory is used. But as Emily Hauser notes in her post Holocaust Day 2011, Yom HaShoah isn't the day to make that critique. It's a day to remember, and to mourn.

And now -- the day after that remembrance day -- it's time to once again shoulder the burden of trying to create a better world, a world in which this kind of atrocity is unthinkable...for us; for anyone.


Jews in medieval Christendom

The Jewish situation in medieval western Christendom was a most difficult one. Constituting only a tiny minority of the population, the Jews were widely viewed as latecomers and interlopers. In a society that was highly homogenous, united primarily by the Roman Catholic Church and its standards of Christian practice and belief, the Jews stood out as the major dissenting element in society, a people in fact stigmatized not only by religious dissent but by the charge of deicide as well... Thus the basic realities of Jewish existence were isolation, circumscription, and animosity.

So writes Robert Chazan in his book Church, State, and Jew in the Middle Ages. I've moved into a section of my Medieval Jewish History class which looks at the experiences of Jews in medieval Christendom. Since I posted a while back about the early history of Jews in medieval Islam, I figured I would share some of what I'm learning about Jewish life under Christian rule, too.

In the medieval Christian world, Jews tended to be geographically isolated into separate neighborhoods, limited economically to plying trades which Christians would not or could not ply, and forced to limit their numbers in towns lest they make the Christian authorities nervous. There was, Chazan tells us, "a constant, unabating hostility" from Christians toward Jews, which was kept in check during good times but which flared into devastating violence during periods of stress.

Intriguingly, although the Roman Catholic Church fostered a great deal of anti-Jewish animosity, the church's basic position on Jews included safeguards for Jewish life and property, Chazan writes. Every scholar I've read agrees that Jews had a right to practice Judaism in the Christian world. (Though it appears to me that during the later medieval period, that right was largely abrogated by increased anti-Jewish hostility, which had support from certain quarters within the Church -- more on that toward the end of this post.)

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The early history of Jews in Muslim lands

When you hear the name "Cordoba," what comes to mind? Maybe, in light of recent events, you think of Cordoba Initiative, the umbrella organization beneath which the much-bruited Park 51 is contained. When I first heard the name, I thought immediately of the so-called "Golden Age" of Jewish-Muslim relations in al-Andalus (medieval Spain). The Cordoba Initiative's FAQ page explains that they chose the name because "A thousand years ago Muslims, Jews, and Christians coexisted and created a prosperous center of intellectual, spiritual, cultural and commercial life in Cordoba, Spain." But I've learned, since Park 51 became a major subject of conversation in my corner of the blogosphere, that to some conservative commentors the name Cordoba implies an era of Muslim rule when Jews and Christians had second-class status and lived under a set of restrictive rules. Here's one fairly representative post which ascribes to the Cordoba Initiative the desire for Muslim rule in the west: "Cordoba House" suggests Muslim triumphalism. Here's another fairly representative post which reads the name as an indicator of the desire for religious coexistence: The Meaning of 'Cordoba.'

Which of these is the correct interpretation of "Cordoba?" The answer may depend on who's telling the story. So much depends on who's looking at that moment in history, what their agenda is, and what point they want to make about the politics and religion of that era -- or of this one.

In part because of recent conversations about Park 51, and in part because interfaith dialogue (and particularly Jewish-Muslim interaction) is a passion of mine, I've been wanting a more nuanced picture of that period in interreligious history. Fortunately for me, one of my fall courses is an independent study in medieval Jewish history. I'm following the syllabus for the class which Reb Leila Gal Berner offered last spring, when I was too wrapped-up in babycare to be able to participate. And I'm going to blog about what I'm learning, both because I find writing about ideas to be a great way to cement them in my memory and because the subject of Muslim-Jewish-Christian relations seems awfully timely this season.

This week I'm reading excerpts from Dr. Robert M. Seltzer's Jewish People, Jewish Thought, from Haim H. Ben-Sasson's A History of the Jewish People, and from Norman Stillman's The Jews of Arab Lands. (As a side note: in my past experiences with Reb Leila's history classes, she's intentionally assigned us texts which don't necessarily offer congruent interpretations of history. Caveat lector: different historians will inevitably offer different slices of the story! It's part of our job, as responsible students of history, to try to form a whole picture out of these different texts -- and also to discern each historian's stances and biases as we go.) Anyway, here's some of what Seltzer, Ben-Sasson, and Stillman have to say about how the relationship between Muslims and Jews evolved during the early centuries after the advent of Islam onto the political and religious scene.

At the beginning of the seventh century of the Common Era, Jews were largely in diaspora, scattered from Spain to Persia and from central Europe to the Sahara. Seltzer writes that although the institutions which had preserved Jewish unity in the past -- primarily Davidic kingship and the Temple -- no longer existed, they were preserved in the liturgy and as subjects for study. "Above all," writes Seltzer, "messianic hope for eventual ingathering and restoration served as an overarching bond between all the branches of the Jewish people." Onto this scene emerged Muhammad, and with him, the birth of Islam.

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Yerushalmi on memory & history

The first book assigned for the medival Jewish history class I'm taking is Yosef Haim Yerushalmi's Zakhor: Jewish History and Jewish Memory. It's short but powerful. Because I learn best through writing, I jotted down some of the passages which spoke to me most deeply, and offer them here with some commentary -- if this is interesting to you, please read on!

"The Jews, after all," Yerushalmi writes, "have the reputation of being at once the most historically oriented of peoples and as possessing the longest and most tenacious of memories... We should at least want to know what kind of history the Jews have valued, what, out of their past, they chose to remember, and how they preserved, transmitted, and revitalized that which was recalled."

Yerushalmi writes that "[m]emory is always problematic, usually deceptive, sometimes treacherous...Yet the Hebrew Bible seems to have no hesitations in commanding memory. Its injunctions to remember are unconditional, and even when not commanded, remembrance is always pivotal." But the Biblical injunction to remember has, he argues, little to do with history or with curiosity about the past. We're commanded to remember the Exodus from Egypt and to remember the revelation of Torah at Sinai, and these are not historical events.

Yerushalmi goes on to argue that in Talmudic times, memory remained essentially ahistorical. Even into the medieval era, the relationship between memory and history in the Jewish community was not one we would recognize today.

We find in almost all branches of Jewish literature in the Middle Ages a wealth of thought on the position of the Jewish people in history, of ideas of Jewish history, of often profound and sometimes daring reflections on exile and redemption, but comparatively little interest in recording the ongoing historical experience of the Jews. There is much on the meaning of Jewish history; there is little historiography. Interpretations of history, whether explicit or veiled, can be encountered in works of philosophy, homiletics, biblical exegesis, law, mysticism, most often without a single mention of actual historical events or personalities, and with no attempt to relate to them.

Yerushalmi attributes this to the ahistorical character of rabbinic thinking which shaped Jewish priorities and possibilities. Talmudic Judaism was, he argues, the substructure for all of medieval Jewish life and creativity, and the sages of the Talmud were essentially uninterested in history as we understand it today. Exile and suffering were understood as fundamentally religious experiences, occasioned by the Jewish community's sins -- not by anonymous or areligious historical forces.

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History and haskalah

"History was like a mirror for humanity, reflecting its real image and enabling a new identity to take shape." That's a quote from Shmuel Feiner's Haskalah and History, and as the history class I'm taking unfolds, I find that I keep returning to it. I like the idea that we can treat our history like a mirror. When we face our history, what new sides of ourselves might we see?

We're studying the Haskalah: the Jewish Enlightenment, a movement among the Jews of Europe in the late 1700s and early 1800s which centered around adopting Enlightenment values and integrating with European society. (That link goes to its Wikipedia entry, which is worth reading if you're curious.) The shift was sparked by external phenomena (particularly Jewish emancipation, which made Jews citizens; France was the first to emancipate Jews, in 1791) but I suspect it was motivated by some internal yearnings, too, among them a nascent or latent desire to bring Judaism into engagement with the wider world.

In a certain way, the class itself is a product of its subject matter, since the Haskalah legitimized the Jewish study of history. Feiner writes that "[t]he maskilic legitimization of history, which turned Torat ha-adam (in its broad sense as a store of knowledge, a mode of thought, and a system of humanistic ethics) into the organizing principle of history, was perceived as a threat to the values of traditional culture." The views of the maskilim (Jewish enlightenment figures) didn't necessarily go over well in traditionalist communities where the study of secular history was viewed as either unimportant or threatening, and engagement with the wider world was perceived to have dubious value at best.

Unsurprisingly, it's that engagement with the wider world that attracts me most to the Haskalah.

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