Donald (of Arabia)

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Without exception colorful, the pictures from the Trump visit to Saudi Arabia were exceptionally exotic. The image was one part arms bazaar, one part catwalk, and one part performance spectacle.

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Alan Mintz (z”l)

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I want to remember here Alan Mintz as a leading contributor to the development of radical American Jewish youth culture in the 1970s and to lower case liberal American Judaism. A major figure in the study of Hebrew literature and a scholar of the novelist and short story writer Shai Agnon. Before he co-founded Proofexts, a premier venue for Jewish literature scholarship, Alan was deeply involved in the creation of  the Havurah Movement and the student journal Response.  While Alan came to position himself politically on the right, these were important institutional organs of radical American Jewish youth culture. On a personal note, Hurban: Responses to Catastrophe in Hebrew Literature was for me something along the order of an event when I first encountered it in the late 1980s. Along with David Roskies’ Against the Apocalypse, it was in this study of modernist, secular Hebrew literature that I first found the religious language of revolt with which to grapple freely and in good faith with trauma and post-Holocaust philosophical and theological questions. In this, Alan was for me something of a hero before I ever met him, most probably in the early 1990s. Another relatively early work, “Banished From Their Father’s Table”: Loss of Faith and Hebrew Autobiography had something of the same pathos of memory, loss, and perseverance. Looked at together, his life and work show contemporary Jewish life in America at its best as a poetic-political-spiritual project with stubborn roots in the Hebrew literary tradition. I’m posting his “My Life with Hebrew” that appeared here at Mosaic.  Alan and I were not particularly close, but I remember him with profound appreciation. Our conversations were open, friendly, and always illuminating whenever we would meet. I knew him either downstairs at kiddush at Ansche Chesed or on Broadway.  A sage creature of the Upper West Side, Alan was both wry and warm.  Alan died suddenly yesterday.  May his memory be for a blessing.

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Dancing Trees (Central Park)

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Viewed from a distance the trees just stand there, not doing much. But a close zoom into and between the branches  allows you to see these stately creatures in Central Park undulating. Carefully cultivated by masters of arboreal arts, these aren’t wild beings, not exactly.

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Trump’s Islam Speech & Religious Studies

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About Trump’s big speech on Islam to be delivered in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, please pass this jewel from columnist Sarah Posner to Department chairs of Religious Studies and to their deans. “[E]xperts I spoke with today warned that this speech is so fraught with pitfalls that they are surprised Trump is even attempting it. They say handling such a nuanced topic as religion is a challenge even for the most learned minds and skilled orators. Yet Trump faces that problem and the additional challenge of striking a balance that is unique to his political situation” (emphasis added).  Yes, about religion a little nuance would help. One could start with the tense relation between religion and culture, the difference between essentialism  and historical contingency, and arguments about “belief.” Maybe not for this crew of deplorables in the White House, but professors in Religion could be able to help serve a public good? While none of this Posner’s precise point, that’s my partisan takeaway. You can read the entire column here.

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(Body) Maimonides & Dance (Epistle to Yemen)

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In the 12th century, Shia forces in Yemen rebelling against Saladin conducted a persecution of the Jewish community. Originally written in Arabic, Maimonides Epistle to Yemen addressed the contemporary challenge of forced apostasy, heresy, and messianic claims. What caught my eye was how the combination of skepticism and aesthetic taste, especially dance, namely two dancing figures, informs the letter and perhaps the larger Maimonidean worldview.

The skepticism is recognizable enough. Maimonides rejects astrology along with any and all attempts to calculate the coming of the Messiah. These calculations lead to doubt and confusion. The appeal of Judaism and to Judaism is based purely in the past and present, namely the memory of Sinai as spectacle and the living truth of Judaism. But more to the point, it is based on an understanding of the body as a physical assemblage. A masterpiece of religious polemical writing, the letter doubles down on the inner living structure of Judaism, the immutable eternity of its truth, against what he rejects in contrast as the false religions of Christianity and Islam. Judaism is compared to a living body, whose organs and other inward parts, its networks of muscles, nerves, ligaments, joints and bones, are all “truly marvelously made.” In contrast, Christianity and Islam are at best stony, wooden, metallic simulacra. Maiminides compares them to statues, “copied from and patterned after [Judaism],” showing only a trace beauty of an outer organization (Isadore Twersky, A Maimonides Reader, p.443). We all know that Maimonides rejected the ascription of any corporeal attribution to God. But here what we have is Judaism as God’s revelation, perhaps even Torah as creature, in the image of a human body, a wondrous work.

Maimonides also doubles down on the Sinai event, and in doing so doubles down on imagination as the bedrock of popular Jewish religion. Maimonides wants the people to understand by way of the imagination that the Torah hangs on Sinai “and the memory of this occasion” as God’s final and consummate revelation. “It is imperative, my fellow Jews, that you make this great spectacle of the Revelation appeal to the imagination of your children. Proclaim at public gatherings its momentousness. For this event is the pivot of our religion, and the proof which demonstrates its veracity” (p.442). What Maimonides calls for then, what he recognizes as popular Jewish religion, is truth conveyed through the two forms of “great spectacle” and public performance.

Maimonides doubles down on spectacle and performance with this startling, even erotic image in praise of the people Israel:

Solomon, of blessed memory, has compared our people to a beautiful woman with a perfect figure, marred by no defect, in the verse, “Thou art all fair, my love; and there is no spot in thee.” (Song of Songs 4:7). On the other hand, he depicted the adherents of other religions and faiths, who strive to entice and win us over to their convictions, as courtesans who lure virtuous women for lewd purposes. Similarly they seek devices to trap us into embracing their religions, and subscribing to their doctrines. To these who endeavor to decoy her into avowing the superiority of their creed, our nation deftly replies, “Why do you take hold of me, can you confer upon me something like the felicity of the two companies?” She reasons thus, “If you can furnish us with something like the Revelation on Sinai, in which the camp of Israel faced the camp of the Divine Presence, then we shall espouse your doctirnes.” This is metaphorically expressed in the verse, “Return, return, O Shulammite; return, return, that we may look upon thee. What will you see in the Shulammite? As it were a dance of two companies.” (Song of Songs 7:1). Now “Shulammite” signifies the perfect one; “A dance of the two companies” alludes to the joy of the theophany in Mt. Sinai in which both the camp of Israel and the camp of God showed as is intimated in the two following verses: “Moses brought forth the people out of the camp to meet God,” (Exodus 19:17), and “The chariots of God are myriads, even thousands upon thousands; the Lord is among them, as in Sinai, in holiness” (Psalms 68:18) (p.443).

One could easily say that these vivid appeals to the imagination were intended for common people and for the education of children. But this is not a merely incidental figure of thought, simply passed off as “just a metaphor.” What we have before us is a long and sustained attention to an image. There is a possible, maybe definite, philosophical conclusion to what in this section of the letter are remarkable couplings of the image of human bodies, joy and an open and erotic appeal to aesthetic imagination, to revelation viewed through the prism of poetry, to the Song of Songs and Psalms, to the spectacle and performance of dance. Much more than “law,” Maimonides turned his readers’ eye on two beautiful companies of dancers, the company of Israel and the camp of God, suggesting that he saw in aesthetics and the art of performance a more sure foundation against doubt and skepticism than simple and bald appeals to divine power and religious authority. The authority of revelation, its value as truth, would lie in the confidence of the dance itself, in image of the performance of the dancers, in this case, before a male philosophical gaze.

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Literary Walk (Central Park)

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Those would be Sir Walter Scot, Robert Burns, and Fitz Greene Hallek. I’ve never paid them much mind. But I got caught in the view of the trees and had some time to kill on my way towards an appointment on the East Side where I stopped by the Literary Walk in Central Park. What makes the literary walk “literary” was seen by one speaker at the dedication is the inclusion into the site of the human element, those “human associations, historical or poetic” that are “connected” with “shades,” “lawns, “rocks, “waters,”  and “new memories.”

 

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A Fascist Impulse in Religious Zionism (Tomer Persico)

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Has Meir Kahane captured the mainstream, the heart and soul, of Religious Zionism? Back in the day, an expression such as this would have come from the outside fringe, not from the inside represented here by a member of a coalition partner dressed up as “Jewish law.”

At a gathering of religious Zionist public figures two weeks ago, Deputy Knesset Speaker Betzalel Smotrich talked about his diplomatic plan, which he dubbed “The subjugation plan.” The purpose of the plan, he said, was “to erase all Palestinian national hope.” Under the plan, the Palestinians will be given three choices – to leave the […]

For more read here.

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