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Lamrot Hakol (Despite Everything)

Musings and kvetchings and Torah thoughts from an unconventional Orthodox Jew.

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"I blog, therefore I am". Clearly not true, or I wouldn't exist except every now and then.

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Appropriate pluralism

I wrote this originally as a letter to the Chicago Jewish News, which had run an article on the "Women of the Wall", a group which I feel is extremely problematic. The CJN ran it on 11/21/2003.

Respect for Jewish views

This is in response to the article "Woman leading Women of the Wall," in your Nov. 14 issue. I am a Jewish woman who enjoys going to women's prayer groups. I enjoy being able to read Torah and participate in ways that would be inappropriate in an Orthodox synagogue. And yet I am inalterably and vehemently opposed to the group known as the Women of the Wall.

I want to take this opportunity to explain why I oppose the Women of the Wall, and why I believe others should oppose them. And why it is not only "right wing, ultra-Orthodox" Jews who are offended by this group. In Tractate Yevamot 13b, we learn that even though the School of Hillel and the School of Shammai had different legal views of what constituted illegitimacy, they were able to marry between the communities. Why? Because each community would let the other know who among them would be considered illegitimate by the other.

They did not stand on their own pride and insist that only their view could possibly be correct, but rather showed respect even for the view they thought was wrong. There are authorities in Jewish law who support women's prayer groups. There are likewise authorities who oppose these groups. Each side has ample support and backing in Jewish law, and each side is as legitimate in their views as the School of Hillel and the School of Shammai were in their views of illegitimacy. When such differing views exist in Jewish law, each side is completely entitled to live according to their own views. They are not, however, entitled to try and force their views on those who hold by the opposing side. For someone who opposes women's prayer groups to barge into a private home where such a group is being held and try to break it up would be unconscionable. But for someone who supports them to hold a women's prayer group in a communal location like the Western Wall, where they know it will offend others, is every bit as wrong.

Change does not come in Judaism by demonstrations and marches. Traditional Jews believe that the Torah we keep is the same Torah given by G-d more than thirty three centuries ago. It is not ours to give up on, or give in on, just because someone is pressuring us.

This is entirely aside from the habit the Women of the Wall have of staging media events by inviting the press to what they know will result in a confrontation. Creating strife among Jews for the sole purpose of trying to force acceptance of one's views is not the Jewish way. It has never been the Jewish way.

I hope that over the years, women's prayer groups gain greater acceptance, until they are eventually considered acceptable in the Jewish community at large. But I support the right of those who do not accept them to live by their position, which, after all, has been the status quo in Judaism for centuries.

The Schools of Hillel and Shammai showed us what it means to respect our fellow Jews. The Women of the Wall show us exactly the opposite. And then complain when their disrespect is met with outrage.

Monday, March 02, 2009

The Assyrian / Blood Star (book review)

Here's a much overlooked masterwork. Back in the 1980s, Nicholas Guild wrote a book called The Assyrian. It struck my eye, because I have something of an interest in ancient Assyria and the rest of the ancient near east. I think I saw it several times before I finally bought it. And read it. And I was simply wowed.

Look, there are basically four components of any novel at the widest level. There's plot. Do you have people doing something interesting, or just sitting around? There's characterization. Do you feel that these are people that could exist? However wild they may be, do they ring true? Or are they sockpuppets, doing things that no one would do in the real world, just to further the plot? There's dialogue. That's actually one of the most important things for me. If I pick up a book and open it to the middle and I see characters speaking in an interesting way, that's a huge plus for me. Some humor, some wit. This is sort of an extension of characterization, but you can have interesting characters who have no spark to their speech. Who speak as though they're reading off a shopping list. Such books have no interest for me. Lastly, there's style. I have a book here at home that was written by someone I know. The plot sounds fairly interesting, and in the little bit that I read, I actually developed an interest in the main character, and in what was happening. But the writing... gah! Never mind the grammatical errors and use of punctuation, it simply doesn't flow. It may be that a good editor could turn it into a readable book, but as it is now... well, if I run out of other things to read, I may try and jump back in.

But I digress. The Assyrian captured me on all fronts. The book is about an Assyrian prince named Tiglath Ashur, one of the many sons of Sennecherib, king of Assyria. The story takes us from his childhood through the rest of his life, and he is a thoroughly likeable character. Tiglath (as he's often referred to in the book) is a strongly moral man. I like stories about people with strong moral fiber, and Tiglath has that in ton lots. The dialogue is sharp, and doesn't lack in humor when appropriate. The writing is wonderful; you can forget that you're reading and just live the story. And the plot has bits of just about everything. Adventure, romance, danger, sibling rivalry (potentially lethal sibling rivalry), mysticism, tragedy, friendship, hardship and hope.

I loved Tiglath's adventures. His travels and travails and just watching him deal with everything that comes his way. So I was thrilled to find out that there was a sequel. It wouldn't surprise me to find that Blood Star was simply the second half of a novel that was too long to publish in a single volume, but it starts right where The Assyrian left off, and it takes us through the remainder of Tiglath's life. It's as good, if not better, than the first volume.

Unfortunately, I don't believe Blood Star has ever been issued in paperback. Which I think is dumb, but used copies of the hardcover aren't expensive, so you can obtain the book fairly easily. And who knows? Maybe they'll reissue both books some day. Until then, I can only urge you to find a copy of The Assyrian and get started reading it. You'll thank me.