Authenticity Artifacts for Tali Zelkowicz

general
March 5, 2010
Share:email print

Authenticity Artifact:

I am bringing in a promotion used on UCSD college campuses for Israel. It was a condom that said, “Israel: It’s still safe to come.”

What boundaries does it push?

  1. At least two boundaries are pushed. First, it pushes the boundaries of how we want to define Israel. This condom defines Israel as a place where people can have sex. It defines Israel as a place where sex is the reason to go and the top priority. It does not speak about the history or religious significance of Israel. It also frames Israel as a security problem, and does so jokingly
  2. It pushes boundaries of how educators relate to college students. The condom defines college students as only being interested in sex and unable to think critically or have a desire to go to Israel because it is an important location in Jewish history and religion.

How does it push my boundaries?

I know that we need to make Judaism seem fun and interesting, but I am concerned we are going too far. Are we promoting Israel as a place where teens can get drunk, party, and have sex? I am concerned that this type of promotion encourages this type of thinking, suggesting to students to think about a trip to Israel in the same way they regard a spring break trip to Mexico.

Professional challenges this artifact raises for me:

  1. What are the images/messages of Israel we want to promote?
  2. How do we promote Israel to teens and college students in a dynamic way that does not degrade Israel?
  3. Can this type of promotion be part of a larger promotion? What would have to be in the other parts of the promotion to balance out this message?

Authenticity Artifact

Cafepress.com offers “custom & funny t-shirts plus unique gifts” for a wide audience.  In fact, you simply have to search for the term “Jewish,” and you will receive more than 13 thousand Jewish designs on almost 4 hundred thousand products.  You can purchase the designs on everything from shirts, to hats, to thong underwear.  A limited selection of designs include:

  • A reindeer with antlers that form a menorah
  • A picture of a Hassidic boy with the words “Born to Kvetch”
  • The words “Jewish Slut”
  • The words “Never Forget” above a Star of David
  • A picture of a bowling ball with the words “I don’t roll on Shabbos”
  • The word Yod-Hay-Vav-Hay

What boundaries does it push?

While this website does allow Jewish people to express their complex Jewish identity by embracing and owning both popular and controversial Jewish symbols, the site has much larger implications for Jewish authenticity, and pushes multiple boundaries by:

  1. Allowing for Jewish identification without a basis in history, traditions, or institutions.
  2. Displaying irreverence toward Jewish tradition.

How does it push boundaries?

As a Jewish young adult, I find many of the images on Cafepress.com humorous and entertaining.  However, as an informed member of the Jewish folk, I find equally as many images (especially the ones mentioned in this document) offensive, because they poke fun at critical Jewish concepts and issues, many that are central to my own Jewish identity. This website also raises several questions for me:

  • Who purchases these items, what designs are most popular, and why do people purchase them?
  • How can I reconcile my folk desire to find humor in my life with my personal boundaries of appropriateness and Jewish knowledge?
  • How can we as the Jewish elite convey to the Jewish folk that many of these graphics are inappropriate, offensive, or wrong?

How does it push my boundaries as a Jewish education professional?

As a Jewish educator, I worry that the younger generations of Jews will use items such as those found on Cafepress.com as the only means of forming their Jewish identity.  They will “purchase” their Jewish identity, without any foundation or understanding of what it means to be Jewish.  In the future, if my constituents wear products from websites like Cafepress.com, I will do my best to provide a historical, traditional, or cultural context to ground their stated Jewish identity.

Authenticity Artifact:

This artifact is IMRU: Judaism for the Whole World, a facebook group with real members and real meetings in Los Angeles.  Their stated hope is “to promote a culture of sharing Judaism in our synagogues and explain the value of a proselytizing ethic within the life of the religious Jew” and “to develop the tools and techniques to assist Jews as they begin telling others about life in covenant.”  Visit their facebook group at: http://www.facebook.com/search/?q=imru%3A+judaism&init=quick#/group.php?gid=34087498652&ref=search&sid=7903068.801013611..1

What boundaries does it push?

IMRU pushes at least two boundaries.

  1. the boundary between Judaism and Christianity: The organization couches their language of covenant and mission in a way that sounds like a Christian missionary organization.
  2. the boundary around proselytism and how people talk about Judaism.  Though Judaism does have a history of proselytism that dates back to long before it was forbidden by the Emperor Hadrian in 131CE, proselytism has not been a part of Judaism since that time.

I think that this group pushes the boundaries for most Jews, both religious and secular, across the denominational spectrum.  IMRU proposes a radical change in the way Jews conduct themselves in relation to their Judaism and in relation to non-Jews.

How does it push my boundaries?

IMRU makes me uncomfortable.  I grew up in a community where proselytism was a fact of life in Scouts and public school.  I remember how awful it felt in high school to be given a Book of Mormon by a friend when my dog died.  I remember the degrading words from elementary and middle school friends: “You’re such a nice person, I’m so sorry you’re going to hell.”  I would never want to share my “life in the covenant” the way my Christian friends did with me.

Professional challenges this artifact raises for me:

  1. Does proselytism have a role in contemporary Judaism?
  2. What is the difference between “welcoming converts” and proselytism?  Is that difference significant for Jewish professionals?
  3. In this artifact, IMRU makes a descriptive claim that renewed proselytism would bring back an ancient tradition in Judaism that would bring more historical continuity to the present day.  Do we, as professionals, value this kind of historical continuity?

Authenticity Inquiry: Dabru Emet

This statement of Dabru Emet (“Speak the Truth”) was published in the New York Times in September 2000 by four trans-movement Jewish scholars as a response to the growing post-Holocaust openness of the Christian and Catholic communities. The document intends to establish eight common principles Jews and Christians can agree on, including “Jewish and Christians worship the same God,” and “Jews and Christians accept the moral principles of Torah.” (The entire text can be accessed here: http://www.jcrelations.net/en/?item=1014).

The text has the potential to push many boundaries. For one thing, the document minimizes the differences between Jews and Christians; if one were to read it without much prior knowledge, one might think that there are not any major theological divisions between the two religions. Dabru Emet also pushes the question of self-representation: if the document is meant to be an authentic way to present ourselves to the Christian community, how authentic is it, as Jews, to portray ourselves as similar to Christians, instead of as Rabbi Jonathan Sacks puts it, striving for “the dignity of difference?”

Personally, Dabru Emet makes me question the authenticity of interfaith dialogue. On one level, I see a practical need for it; on another, how much of our distinctive Jews selves are we willing (and able) to give up in order to engage with members of other faiths? Professionally, I wonder if this is a useful teaching tool. I first encountered it as a (graduate) student, but was able to navigate the complexities inherent within the document’s ideas. I am concerned that if we paint, to our students, Judaism as being very similar to Christianity, erasing all signs and beliefs of difference, they might ask, “Why bother being Jewish?”

Authenticity Artifact:

This artifact is an example of using traditional Torah cantillation to chant verses from the Torah in a vernacular language (in this case English) as opposed to the language of Hebrew in which the Torah is written.

For an example of this, click the following link: http://odeo.com/episodes/25434476-Experiencing-Torah-V’Yei-Rah-Genesis-Chapter-18-1-4

* this link plays a recording of the 4 verses first in Hebrew and then in English *

What boundaries does it push?

Hebrew is Judaism’s lashon hakodesh – the holy language.  It is the language of the Torah and the language of the Jewish people.  When we choose to read Torah publically using the ancient art of cantillation, we best honor that ancient art and the holy language in which the Torah is written by rendering in it Hebrew.  The melody is designed to help explain the text and it’s use can elevates the moment into a holy moment.  To use the cantillation marks to only render the text in a vernacular language then misses the point of reading Torah in the first place.  Just as the Talmud teaches us that Rabbi Yohanan prohibited reading the Torah without a melody, using the melody without the words of the Torah seems to fail to recognize that the words being chanted are from sacred text, they are not ordinary and should not be rendered as such.

How does it push my boundaries?

My objection to this practice is not that I am against translation of the words Torah for those who are not conversant in Hebrew.  I have often chanted Torah and then with the scroll still open, offered a translation of those words into English, the given vernacular language of the community in which I worship.  Chanting was given so that we can make these ancient words, those in the original language in which the Torah was written, come alive for the community.  For those who understand Hebrew, the meaning and nuances are rendered with cantillation.  For those who are still learning Hebrew and do not understand the exact meaning and nuance, the sweetness of the melodic chant will open them up to the possibilities.

Professional challenges this artifact raises for me:

When we choose to read Torah using the cantillation marks and melodies, it is essential that we regard the sacredness of the text and the responsibility of carrying a tradition that is over 2000 years old.  When we read the text in the vernacular, even if it is with the cantillation marks and melodies, we suggest that Hebrew is not a necessary part of our tradition.  As Jewish educators, we owe it to our students to expose and familiarize them with the foundations within our rich tradition.     Then, in a safe space, we can help them use this foundation to question, interpret and commit for themselves.

Authenticity Artifact:

“I am a radical Conservative neo-Hasidic Theravada (ther-uh-vah-duh) practitioner of Vipassana (Vi-pash-na.). I spent last Passover celebrating a “Zen Seder” that opened with a modified Haggada narrative comparing Israel’s exodus from Egypt to Buddha’s liberation from suffering.” If you haven’t guessed it by now, my artifact is a quotation from a Jew-bu, someone who chooses to combine Jewish and Buddhist practice and belief.

What boundaries does it push?

For me, there are primarily two main boundaries being pushed: the prohibition of avodah zarah (idol worshiping) and the different approaches to the role of the individual and the community regarding concepts of prayer and community in each religion.

How does it push my boundaries?

I am not sure if I find Jew-bu’s to be authentic, but it makes me feel an uncomfortable when I hear about a “Zen Seder” because I believe it detracts from the meaning of Passover and risks compromising the unique significance and values embedded within specifically Jewish history. And I wonder: why are people becoming Jew-bu’s? What do they feel is missing from Judaism that is fulfilled by Buddhism? Do liberal Jews believe Jew-bu’s are authentic?

Professional challenges this artifact raises for me:

As a Jewish professional, I find this artifact is dangerous because it takes people away from living Jewishly.  I really enjoy Jewish meditation and I think that it can be a powerful component in our spirituality.  Therefore, if mediation is a reason that most Jews become Jew-bu’s, then I believe we should expose people to that aspect of Judaism.  It is important to expose oneself to information about all different religions and what other people believe and how they practice.  At the same time, it is also important for Jews to be devoted to wrestle with one’s Jewish practice.

Authenticity Artifact:
My artifact is the genre of Jewish Tattoos such as the Magen David, chamsa, Shalom, and chai, etc.

What boundaries does it push?
Tattoos of any sort push our traditional Jewish belief that our bodies are on loan from God and returned to Him upon our deaths.  This prohibition is defined in the Biblical source Leviticus 19:28, which states “You shall not make gashes in your flesh for the dead nor incise any marks on yourself: I am the Lord.” This boundary is pushed further and maintained by the malicious tattooing of numbers on Jews’ forearms during the Holocaust.

How does it push my boundaries?
Jewish tattoos do not push my boundaries.  I’ve embraced the thought that Jewish tattoos are vehicles for Jewish identity formation and self expression.  Like many others, I have one too.  In fact, it’s their widespread appeal in liberal Jewish settings today that inspired my inquiry into whether the halacha (Jewish Law) mentioned above holds value in liberal, contemporary Judaism and to what extent.  Tattooed Jews are staking a claim on their Judaism, sending a message to others that they are Jewish and proud. I wanted to know how others receive them.

Professional challenges this artifact raises for me:
Jewish communal professionals, clergy, and educators are symbolic exemplars for the community.  Therefore, I wonder about the message tattoos send and what’s appropriate. Is a chamsa on one’s ankle kitsch and cute, while a magen david on one’s bicep distasteful?
Do Jewish tattoos send the message that it is acceptable for Jews to be like everyone else in secular society when we’ve traditionally set ourselves apart?

Authenticity Artifact:
I bring the following artifact: tattoos with Jewish themes/symbols

What boundaries does it push?

As I understand it, tattoos are prohibited in Judaism based on two traditional and one modern idea.  First, tattooing is a pagan ritual and thus prohibited. Second, tattoos have traditionally understood to be a form of self-mutilation.  One should not alter their body as they are ultimately on loan from God.  Finally, Jews were tattooed against their will in the Holocaust.

Those who choose to get a tattoo with a Jewish symbol use a traditionally prohibited act to express a particular Jewish value or celebrate one’s Jewish identity in a non-normative manner.  This challenges the notion that those who get tattoos do so on a moments notice and without consideration for the consequences.

How does it push my boundaries?

On this issue, I find myself to be among the boundary pushers.  It is possible to offer counter arguments to those listed above.  First, we are no longer concerned with pagan ritual and there are countless aspects of the secular culture that influence Jewish practice and identity today.  Second, one might understand a tattoo to be a form of self-beautification rather then mutilation.  Consider a cancer survivor who places a tattoo of the word ‘chai’ over a surgery scar.  She does this to remember the strength that allowed her to reach recovery rather then the time of uncertainty and panic she felt when the surgery first took place.  Finally, a Jewish tattoo today can be an outward expression of Jewish pride; one that emphasizes the freedom that Jews who were part of the Holocaust did not have.

Professional challenges this artifact raises for me:

  1. Is it the responsibility of the rabbi or other religious leadership to discourage tattoos based on Jewish values and teaching?  Is it possible to acknowledge both sides of the argument?
  2. What assumptions might people draw upon finding out that a Jewish leader has tattoos?  Might such assumptions be different depending on what point in the relationship this information is obtained?
  3. If someone is going to get a tattoo, what Jewish values and teachings might we use to caution them in their decision?
  4. Are memorial tattoos in a different category then other tattoos (i.e. a tattoo someone gets in memory of someone they have lost)?

Authenticity Artifact:

I am bringing in kosher yoga, as presented to me on the HUC Spirituality retreat, as a way to blend Jewish tradition with the practice of yoga.

What boundaries does it push?

  1. At least two boundaries are pushed. First, can yoga be integrated into Jewish tradition?  Even more important, can Judaism be authentically expressed through yoga?
  2. It pushes boundaries when it is used to replace a traditional tefillah service because yoga and tefillah seem to serve different purposes.

How does it push my boundaries?

I know that we would like to be creative in our tefillah practice.  However, when I do yoga, I feel connected to myself and like I have achieved something personally.  While I may feel that way after prayer, Jewish prayer is traditionally experienced within a communal setting and reaching out to God.  I worry that Jewish yoga could conflate the self and God, which is problematic for authentic Jewish prayer.

Professional challenges this artifact raises for me:

  1. The generation of Jews that are “seekers” who would find this appealing may see this as an acceptable form of prayer.  How can I help redirect them and use this practice in a way that can help them pray without being their prayer?

Authenticity Artifact:

The “Kabbalah Red String” is the name for a bracelet used to protect against the evil eye. Although the red string – which costs $26 on line – has a history in Judaism as a superstitious practice to protect against the evil eye, it has recently risen to prominence in large part due to the Kabbalah Center, in Los Angeles.

What boundaries does it push?

  1. Amulets are superstitious magic, which the Bible clearly condemns (Deut. 18:10; Zechariah 10:2), and of which the Mishnah & Talmud disapprove—albeit apparently because of the desecration of God’s name when it’s a written amulet. In other words, the red bracelet is outside of the lines I understand as bounding Judaism.
  2. When worn by non-Jews it becomes a cool, cultural artifact of Jews. It is literally an artifact, divorced from its context. Furthermore, for some people, the red string has become symbolic of the excess and even cult-like aspects of the Kabbalah Center. The Kabbalah Center’s attempt to trademark the red string sends the message that the bracelet is not longer a traditional Jewish folk or mystic artifact but a brand of the Kabbalah Center.

How does it push my boundaries?
If the red bracelet reflects a practice of Kabbalah in a Jewish framework, if it reflects ‘existential claims about one’s deepest values and sense of self,’ then the red bracelet in that context may have authenticity, a traditional Jewish folk practice reflecting an intellectual and spiritual Jewish life. On the other hand, amulets are on the borderline for authentic Jewish items for me: authentic in terms of Jewish culture—peoplehood—but not in terms of religion.

Professional challenges this artifact raises for me:
I think those are easily understood and communicated boundaries. Firstly, amulets—and other superstitious folk practices, such as chamsas—may be culturally Jewish but not religiously so. This may be an opportunity to talk about truly religious “amulets:” mezuzot and tefillin, which are meant to focus one’s heart, mind and conscience on God but are not intended as protective talismans. Secondly, such cultural practices are therefore Jewish only when done by Jews. When performed by non-Jews, they take the quality of voyeurism, museumification, fascination with a foreign ethnicity. Essentially, they are religious or cultural tourism, and void of the context of culture, lose their meaning.

Share:email print

Post a Comment

Your email address will not be published.

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>

*