(Social Space) Sukkot (Henri Lefebvre)

Ultra-Orthodox Jewish children play between sukkahs, temporary structures built for the Jewish holiday of Sukkot, in Jerusalemץ

“If indeed every society produces a space, its own space, this will have other consequences…Any ‘social existence’ aspiring or claiming to be ‘real’, but failing to produce its own space, would be a strange entity, a peculiar kind of abstraction unable to escape from the ideological or even the ‘cultural’ realm. It would fall to the level of folklore and sooner or later disappear altogether, thereby immediately losing its identity, its denomination, and its feeble degree of reality. ” 

Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space, p.53


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(Lachrymose) Yom Kippur (Target)



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(Rabbi Akiva) Gemar Tov (Clean Water)


Rabbi Akiva said: Happy are you, Israel! Who is it before whom you become pure? And who is it that purifies you? Your Father who is in heaven, as it is said: “And I will sprinkle clean water upon you and you shall be clean” (Ezekiel 36:25). And it further says: “O hope (mikveh) of Israel, O Lord” (Jeremiah 17:1–just as a mikveh purifies the unclean, so too does he Holy One, blessed be He, purify Israel.

—Mishnah, tractate Yoma 8:9

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Teshuva Love-Sick (Maimonides)


Proving something about the sensual, even arabesque, core at the heart of Maimonidean rationalism by way of proving R. Akiva’s dictum that the Song of Songs is the Holy of Holies is some over the top love-sick camp from Maimonides in the laws of repentance (Hilkhot Teshuva) in the Mishneh Torah, that hoary old code of Jewish law.

In the laws of teshuva, you get to the Song of Songs after some little didactic philosophical-ethical foreplay. What is teshuva or repentance (chp.1)? What constitutes complete teshuva (chp.2). People being a mix of good and bad qualities, who have and who does not have a portion in the world-to-come (chp.3) and what are the severe kinds of sin that damage this capacity to repent of them (chp.4)? We learn about free will and how this squares with Scripture (chp.5-6). These discussions represent standard Maimonides. Very important matters, they are more or less interesting.

But Maimonides has his eye on bigger matters, things like death and love, and these things speak to the imagination precisely because we cannot “know” their precise matter. We can start with this. A man (adam) [sic] should always “see” himself as if on the verge of death, that he might die at any moment (7:1). And he should “imagine” himself not distant from the level of righteous even though he will have sinned and transgressed. He should imagine that he is beloved and desired (ahuv v’nehmad) before the Creator as if he had never sinned. That is the greatness of teshuva, which is that it draws a man (sic) closer to the Shekhinah. The appeal here is to Scripture and to the drama of a speaking God, “Return O’ Israel,” “You have not returned,” Return to Me.” It sounds better in Hebrew: shuva, shavtem, im tashuv, elei  tashuv.” The night before he was hated, an abomination, today he is beloved and desired (7:6), clinging now to the divine presence and pleasing to God (7:7).

All this good that is hidden for the righteous is the life of the world to come, which is life with no death, goodness without evil (8:1), full of the joy that the dark humble body (guf ha’afel ha’shafal) cannot know because the body dies (8:3). The Maimonidean discourse of this next life is saturated by images, “mountain of God,” “holy place,” “holy path,” “courtyards of God,” “pleasantness of God, tent of God,” “palace of God,” “house of God,” “gate of God,” and “feast” (8:4), the important point being that the laws of teshuva look past the messianic age, look past reward and punishment in this physical world (8:7, 9:1-2). This is an old ethical chestnut; one serves God not for reward and not because one fears being punished.

Not love of man, love of God is the highest virtue. This too is a familiar theme in Jewish ethical literature. But to what degree is the love of God proper? Less talked about in the Jewish ethical literature, it turns out that Maimonides wants this to a great and exceeding degree, up to the point that one binds one’s soul in this love, obsessed (shogeh) with it always, as if one is sick with the sickness of love (k’ilu choleh chalei ha’ahava). Now he talks about a woman (10:3). Is she the same woman who appears earlier, the woman  with whom a man [sic] engaged in illicit sexual relations and some time after they reunite in private and he still loves her and wants her physically, but he [sic] abstains (2:1)? Is she an autobiographical fragment? One’s thought is never diverted from the love of that woman, obsessed with her always, sitting and getting up and eating and drinking. More than this should be the love of God, as if Maimonides wants to say more lovesick than lovesick. This, Maimonides, tells is was what Solomon said in the Song of Songs (Song of Songs 2:5), “I am lovesick,” which informs the parable that is the entirety of the Song of Songs (10:3).

We can be pretty sure that this is what Maimonides, a great rhetor, meant in the opening halakhah when, after delineating the essential elements of the confessional prayer, he went on to add that whoever confesses profusely and at length is worthy of praise (1:1).

A few quick takeaways. Hilkhot Teshuva is not reallly a halakhic text, and certainly not a halakhic miscellany. It has a definite philosophical structure that moves from a halakhic beginning towards a theological conclusion. Indeed, Hilkhot Teshuva shares the same structure  as the Guide. First in the opening chapters comes the philosophical discipline (in our case here an ethical-halakhic discipline) the point of which is to perfect the imagination, which turns out to constitute the end telos of the ecstatic structure as a whole that points the soul, ultimately  towards death and towards the incorporeal and incomparable perfection that is life in the world to come.

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Friends, Enemies, and Fish (Shana Tova)

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“To all of our friends, enemies, and blood enemies: Happy New Year”

Der Groyser Kundes (Yiddish satirical; early 20th C)

h/t Zackary Sholem Berger

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Trump, Rudy, Sam, and Volodymyr


(A lot of you out there might have real problems with Uncle Sam, but still…) (h/t Adam Black and Jonathan Karp)


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(Jewish Emancipation) Teaching Marx & On the Jewish Question


I am sure this probably includes a great many colleagues across the Humanities and also scholars of Marx, and Marxian theorists. This is all the more true when Jewishness is reduced to another expression of “whiteness.” But the sudden realization stopped me short that graduate students in a Theories and Methods in Religious Studies know zero about the historical contexts that defined “On the Jewish Question.” A student had the courage to flat out ask about something about which she admitted she didn’t know.

By emancipation, scholars of modern Jewish history and modern Judaism mean, at the very start, Jewish freedom, meaning the freedom to secure political rights and participation in the mainstream society from which they were systemically excluded. In Jewish Studies, emancipation is a stand-in for modernity.

All of what follows is well-known to readers of “On the Jewish Question.” Bruno Bauer had rejected the emancipation of the Jews because of their religion; once the Jews abandoned their particularistic religion, they would be fit and able to integrate into their host country. Marx did not think the real problem had anything to do with religion per se. The problem was social and economic, namely the bourgeois social order itself. Religion was a mere epiphenomenon, with Judaism caricatured as a consummately nasty reflection of capitalism. But this was no reason not to grant “political emancipation” to the Jews, to not allow their participation in bourgeois civil society. Political emancipation was a poor thing, indeed: the form of pure egoism and separation, trading and selling. The Marxian logic is eliminationist. True “human emancipation” would demand a revolutionary change in the economic and social order of things; the abolition of capitalism would “make the Jew impossible;” the “religious consciousness” of the Jew “would be dissipated like a thin haze in the real, vital air of society.”

What many or most non-Jewish readers of Marx do not understand is that behind “On the Jewish Question” was the systemic  exclusions suffered by Jews in Europe prior to their emancipation, first in France and then in Germany; and how this constellation drives the argument in the essay. By “systemic” is meant conditions that are “legal,” political”, “social,” and “cultural.”

With Jews “legally” constituted as a separate and non-enfranchised corporate entity, emancipation sought to redress exclusions that were “political,” having to do with citizenship, but also “social-civic,” having to do with restrictions on domicile, education, employment. As Bauer recognized, the political disenfranchisement was not something suffered uniquely by Jews prior to the establishment of political liberal order. But the social exclusions were uniquely suffered by Jews, not as an individuals, but as a separate, legally constituted and excluded pariah class. Undergirding these political and social exclusions was the sheer force of cultural prejudice against all things Jewish, not just Judaism. About this, I would advise students interested in Marx and “On the Jewish Question” to consult social and cultural historians such as Jacob Katz, George Mosse, Paula Hyman, Jay Geller, and Sander Gilman. Herzl’s The Jewish State would also be of some help while adding historical and polemical perspective.

At least not in good faith, the structural problem with “On the Jewish Question” means that one cannot simply isolate one set of strands (the political and social) from the other (the cultural). Against Bauer, the exclusions that Marx sought to address were the political and social ones. Against Christianity, the one social class that still really matters in the west, Marx understood that the most gross thing for Christians to hear is that they were “Jewish” and tainted by “Judaism.” Left unaddressed and actually aggravated by him were the sedimented cultural prejudices about that “taint,” prejudices that legitimate those legal, political, and social exclusions. In addressing the political and the social exclusions and in the name of revolution, Marx, with terrible malice, tapped into and volatized the supporting force of the cultural prejudice, the animus regarding all things Jewish that, in and with Marx, is a potent little thought-strand threaded into the psychic DNA of radical political thought in the modern west.

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