(Temple Society of Concord) The Essence of Judaism is Architecture (Syracuse)

temple concord

Undergraduates at Syracuse, and elsewhere I supposed, gravitate to Abraham Geiger and Reform Judaism when we pull up to the modern period in my introduction to Judaism. They like the individualistic voluntarism that they associate with liberalism and which they think they see in Geiger, even if, truth be told, Geiger was more committed to the Idea than to the individual. About the notion that ethical monotheism is the essence of Judaism, I put up on the doc-cam this article here from the Syracuse University student paper, the Daily Orange, about the news that Temple Society of Concord, an old Reform congregation, was selling off to real estate developers its Greek revival synagogue, one of the oldest synagogues in the United States.

You don’t see this often; the students in class were genuinely shocked. Kudos to Gabe Stern, the student journalist, for excellent religion writing; the headline and article put the focus on “home,” finding “new home,” “loss,” “resistance,” and “change.” The University area is where the Syracuse Jewish community first set up shop. What affected the student was loss and maybe revulsion at the idea that a synagogue might become private real estate for students. A donor I met with once described all the delis that once helped define the neighborhood back in the 1950s when he was an undergraduate here. In class we discussed the demographic and economic variables in play that speak to the difficulty maintaining liberal religious community in areas of historical first settlement. $9,000,000 is a lot of money up here.

What we learn from this story is what? That in its instantiation as a form of material culture, maybe the essence of Judaism is architecture.

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A word that moves me: Affect

On religion, affect, norms (including whiteness), on film and philosophy, you all should be following colleague and friend Gail Hamner’s blog; and this piece in particular is worth a close look


Our faculty colloquium this fall asked colleagues to select one word that motivates our work in religion (teaching, scholarship, or both). My word, unsurprisingly, was affect. These are my remarks:

In turning to the noun, affect, I want to foreground its forcefulness, the way this noun indexes its correlative verb–to affect and be affected, to influence and be influenced– and I want to conjoin this forcefulness with an atmospherics that curiously dis-places agency.

Consider this. Claudia Rankine opens her recent short drama, The White Card, with two images. The first is one of Robert Rauschenberg’s “White Paintings”*, this one a triptych of plain white panels, and second a photograph by Robert Longo titled “Untitled (Ferguson Police, August 13, 2014).”** The photograph is also a kind of triptych, turned horizontal to Rauschenberg’s vertical panels, with two bands of blackness on the top and bottom of the photo and a center…

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Affective Partisanship & Ideological Partisanship (Theories of Religion Redux)


[h/t Joshua Garoon] This op-ed by Thomas Edsall here in the NYT about the relationship between group partisanship and ideology on the other hand, which driving which, reminds me of arguments in theories of religion going back to Marx-Durkheim and Weber; and affect studies.  Does social structure and identity determine ideology and ideas or do ideology and ideas determine social structure and identity? Which comes first? Capitalism or Protestantism?  Which conditions which? Which is primary and which is secondary and how do first and second invert, one in the face of the other? Mind or matter? While we might know better and say that they are intertwined, there is something of a live wire question as we continue to suss out this mobius strip.  Of great helpfulness are the many political scientists cited in the op-ed, and the attention to what many of them are now bringing to affect and politics, and to the distinction drawn between “affective partisanship” and “ideological partisanship.”

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Peoplehood & Power (Hertz Commentary to Numbers)



Way behind blogging the 1936 iconic Hertz commentary, here is my quick distillation of key points of interest in the Hertz commentary to the book of Numbers, which is largely uninteresting. I don’t know if this distillation is unique to Numbers. I’d have to re-check the commentaries to Genesis, Exodus, and Leviticus. For that I have neither the time nor inclination, but am trusting my own perspicuity as a reader. At the very least, these were the points that caught my interest over the summer in synagogue as I was following along the Torah readings in the synagogue as I reflect back now in October.

Thinking about Noam Pianko’s thesis that the idea of Jewish peoplehood is a distinctly 20th century idea, what stands out in the Hertz on Numbers is peoplehood and power. There is little of interest, I think, in the Hertz discussion of the priestly texts that dominate the book.

My attention was caught first by the comment re: the Menorah in Num. 8: 2. It is described, naively, as “one of the favorite symbols of Judaism,” reflecting spiritual conquest, the spirit of God against human might and power. Again naive is the notion that Israel is the Servant of the Lord performing “divine tasks without violence.” The image, drawn from Isaiah, is one of “irresistible illumination” and “the gentle agency of light.”

How that trucks in the Hertz with what follows in the book of Numbers is an open question, starting with the divine violence that breaks out in the story of the Korah rebellion.  For the Hertz, its punishment is meant to be a “vindication of Moses and Aaron” and the Jewish legal code in a life and death struggle with demagoguery and anarchy (intro. to chapters 16-18). But about the destruction of Korah and his co-conspirators, the Hertz is virtually silent (16:30-5).

(About gifts to priests, there’s the appearance of the word “emolument” which is only funny now, given its currency now under President Trump) (chapter 18)

But about the paradox of the holy, the Hertz seems to be aware in its commentary to the Red Heifer ceremony in chapter 19. “A word must be said” about this paradox, which is the “simultaneous possession of sanctification and defilement.” This appertains not just to “general history,” but also to Jewish history, which is that institutions and movements which can sanctify can also defile those that create or direct them. The very people who help others are not infrequently “hard and self-centered, hating and hateful; elevating others and themselves sinking into inhumanity, impurity, and unholiness” (note to 19:20). “Not infrequently” indeed. The insight often goes missing in contemporary Jewish Studies, particularly, although not uniformly, in relation to the mystical tradition and Hasidism.

About the incident with Balak and Baalam, the Hertz returns to that idea of Israel as “an irresistible People” confronting the “old enigma” that is Balaam’s personality, representing “the permanent type of the enmity of the impious against Israel.” Readers today will turn away from this version of eternal anti-Semitism, but might want to note the historical retrospect involved in reading a commentary such as this whose point of origin is Europe in the 1930s. But it’s worth noting the balance struck in the Hertz. First is the note that Balaam’s reception in Jewish tradition is not completely hostile. In reference to the negative and positive reputation of Balaam among Christian readers (Church fathers, Lessing, Herder, and biblical critics), the Hertz maintains that, “Careful reading of chapters xxii-xxiv shows that those who approve of everything Balaam says or does are as far from a true estimate of him as those to whom he is a semi-diabolical figure” (note to chapters 22:2-25:9). This is rather extraordinary in the middle balance it tries to strike regarding this most famous of biblical gentile prophets.

About the sin of Baal Peor and the fanatical violence of Pinchas, the Hertz more or less follows the biblical script while actually having relatively little to say about them. Surprisingly, relatively little is said about sexual immorality (see note to 25:1-9, note to 25:10-15). And then, writing about the war of annihilation waged by Israel against Midian, the Hertz finally has this to concede. “The war against the Midianites presents peculiar difficulties. We’re are no longer acquainted with the circumstances that justified the ruthlessness with which it was waged, and therefore we cannot satisfactorily meet the various objections that have raised in that connection.” What follows is an interesting historical note appertaining to British colonialism. The Hertz quotes from the Expositor’s  Bible, “Perhaps the recollection of what too place after the Indian Muting, when Great Britain was in the same temper, may throw light on this question, The soldiers then, bent on punishing the cruelty and lust of the rebels, partly in patriotism, partly in revenge, set mercy altogether aside.” The Hertz follows this, suggesting that “The Midianites affected were only the clans that lived in the neighborhood of Moab. This accounts for the persistence of Midianites in later periods of Israelite history.” (note to 31:11).

The Hertz effectively throws up an apologetic hand in this, the last note in the book of Numbers drawing out attention. The apologetic is classic. It contains almost as many multiple parts as a menorah. [1] Unable to come up with anything satisfactory to justify the violence in the biblical text, the commentary [2] notes the vast historical gulf between that violence and our own day, while [3] highlighting not uncritically a contemporary act of ruthless war close to his own readers’ time and patriotism; and finally [4] observing that one cannot read the text literally, since clearly, by the text’s own accounting, it was not the entirety of the Midianite people put to destruction, but “only” a part.

Looked at charitably, the apologetic reflects a modern variation of bourgeois religious humanity and humanism. Unable to come up with anything satisfactory by way of a justification, the Hertz steps back away from the violence of the text which it tries to contain and hedge in by way of critical distance.  Understanding that this others will not probably see it this way, it seems to me that the Hertz stands on the side of the “gentle agency of light” against the terror of human might and power, or at least works very hard to be able to do so.











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Socialist Wordmills (Henri Lefebvre)


This from French Marxist Henri Lefebvre, a philosopher and theorist of social space from the 1970s, caught my eye, thinking about Democratic Socialism in America and left-progressive politics, bunched up as they are along the coasts in special enclaves, and about the European and Israeli left today isolated in their own little pocket corners. Of note in Lefebvre’s remark is the appearance in the postwar period of radical politics as an elite phenomenon, politics in relation to the imagination and abstract patterns of thinking distant from “everyday experience.”

Why,” asked Lefebvre about the manipulation of society by authority, “is protest left to ‘enlightened,’ and hence elite, groups who are in any case largely exempt from these manipulations? Such elite circles, at the margins of political life, are highly vocal, but being more wordmills, they have little to show for it?…Has bureaucracy already achieved such power that no political force can successfully resist it? There must be many reasons for such a startling strong –and worldwide– trend…Perhaps it would be true to say that the place of social space as a whole has been usurped by a part of that space endowed with an illusory special status –namely, the part which is concerned with writing and imagery, underpinned by the written text…a part, in short, that amounts to abstraction wielding awesome reductionistic force vis-a-vis ‘lived’ experience” (Henry Lefebvre, The Production of Space, pp.51-52).

I’d be remiss, however, not to note that, in the end, at the end of the chapter on Contradictory Space, Lefebvre’s critique of capitalism, which includes a critique of Marx and orthodox (Soviet) Marxians, which he says does not escape the process of wearing out,  which are themselves too beholden to the abstraction of abstract space, especially now that the problems of capitalism and development are planetary in scope, he insists that the Marxian project evolves and is vital as a critical, paideic project, although towards what is not entirely clear (pp.321-5, cf. pp.342-3).


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(Antique Foodways) Idle Talk (Ecclesiastes Rabbah)


“All things toil to weariness, [a person] cannot utter it” (Eccles. 1;8). Idle talk wearies [a person]: “The partridge today is pickled with garlic.” The side of the [animal] is like lead.””Cut thin slices.” “Roasted with mustard.” “Portions which deserve to be called portions.” “Ox of judgment with poor mountain,” “beet with mustard.”

–Ecclesiastes Rabbah I. 8.1

[In a note the editors to the Soncino translation explain the puns in Hebrew that some of these examples build upon. The  midrash goes on to talk about remedies for hair loss]

The following midrash continues the theme of idle talk that wearies talk about 500 confections with wheat and 100 dishes with egg.” Ascribed to Rabbi is the comment that today we don’t know what good living is, after the destruction of the Temple and the life that went with it.

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Quarrel Between Ancients and Moderns (Strauss and Fellini)


If I were writing a book about Leo Strauss, I’d use this movie still from Satyricon as a cover image to get at the quarrel or non-quarrel between the ancient and moderns. But for all intents and purposes, Fellini did it better. H/t Jeffrey Bernstein.

Image result for fellini

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