Jack Wertheimer on The New American Judaism

Jack Wertheimer The New American Judaism book coverAmerican Judaism has been buffeted by massive social upheavals in recent decades. In The New American Judaism, Jack Wertheimer, a leading authority on the subject, sets out to discover how Jews of various orientations practice their religion in this radically altered landscape. What emerges is a quintessentially American story of rash disruption and creative reinvention, religious illiteracy and dynamic experimentation. Here, Wertheimer provides insight on why and how he wrote the book, and what readers of all faiths can learn from it.

What led you to write this book?

Twenty-five years ago, I published a book offering my take on contemporary Jewish religious life. When I revisited that book in recent years, I realized an entirely different approach, not merely an update, would be needed to do justice to today’s scene. I also was curious to learn more about the proliferation of new settings for Jewish religious expression and the remaking of existing places for congregating.

You interviewed 220 people for this book. How did you decide whom to interview and what questions to ask?

I mainly interviewed rabbis situated in different corners of Jewish life, and then turned to other observers to help me understand new developments. My overall questions were straightforward: What are you seeing among the Jews in your orbit when it comes to religion? And what are you doing to draw Jews into religious life? From there, the questions led us down fascinating byways. I learned about the re-appropriation of long-discarded Jewish religious traditions, and creative efforts to engage attendees at religious services; about the self-invented forms of Jewish practice taken for granted by some Jews and also the return to traditions by others. I heard about startling religious practices one would not have seen in synagogues even twenty years ago, and also learned of Jewish religious gatherings in unlikely places.

So what is new about the new American Judaism?

I could be flip and answer: “that’s why you have to read the book.” But to begin addressing the question, I’d say the environment in which American Jews find themselves is new. In some ways, it is remarkably open to all religious possibilities—or none; in other ways, American elite culture is highly dismissive of religion in ways that was not the case but a few decades ago. This has further eroded what Peter Berger called “the plausibility structure” for religion. Jews in our time are less likely than in the past to regard their religion as a package of behaviors and, as the old saw put it, “a way of life.” Now religious settings have to contend with Jews who wish to connect only episodically and only on their own terms. This has led both to religious participation as a “sometime thing” for many Jews, and simultaneously has spurred a great deal of experimentation to create enticing religious environments in the hope of drawing more participants. Congregations of all types are reimagining the use of space, the choreography of prayer service, the impact of music and visual cues, the ways they extend hospitality and mutual support to fellow congregants, and the messages they deliver about how Jewish religious practice enriches one’s life.

Is all of this unique to Judaism?

Not at all. One cannot really understand Jewish religious developments in a vacuum. Even the seemingly most insular of Jews who deliberately live in their own enclaves cannot escape the impact of the powerful culture all around us. (One of the rabbis I interviewed put this colloquially when he said: “culture eats mission for breakfast”—i.e. it overwhelms religious ideology.)

Many internal Jewish developments described in this book are quintessentially American (though some have parallels in other countries). New ways of thinking about religious experiences can be found in American churches, mosques and synagogues. Religious leaders across the spectrum recognize that they face common challenges, such as the well-documented retreat from institutional engagement, the quest for spirituality among some, the disenchantment with religious leadership, the DIY mindset when applied to religion and the desire for a more engaging worship experience. Experimentation is a hallmark of American religious life, as it is in many Jewish religious institutions.

Can you talk about one challenge you faced in your research?

There are a great many ways Jews practice their religion. One challenge facing anyone attempting to survey the scene is how to capture American Judaism in all its complexity and variety. To be clear, the term Judaism is used in many different ways. Some see it as synonymous with all of Jewish life. Others as the expression of a distinct theology and package of do’s and don’ts. The book endeavors to examine how “average” Jews incorporate Jewish religious practices into their lives, what they believe, what in their religion is important to them, and what is available to those who seek out Jewish religious settings.

A lot of people are pessimistic about the future of American Judaism. Do you agree with them?

A lot of people are pessimistic about the future health and vitality of Jewish life in this country. Some also worry about the long-term future of this or that denomination of American Judaism. There are good reasons to worry about both. But given the explosion of creativity in the Jewish religious sphere, I don’t worry about the future of Judaism. It’s the adherents, the Jews in the pews or those who rarely show up, that require our attention. I devote attention in the book to writing about some approaches to this challenge that I regard as short-sighted, if not wrong-headed. I also suggest some guidelines that might make for a stronger Jewish religious life.

What do you hope readers will take away from this book?

First, that like so much in life, American Judaism is complicated, anything but static, and replete with pluses and minuses. Second, by stepping back to behold the entire scene, there are some remarkably fascinating things to observe. And related to that, perhaps readers will join me in appreciating a bit more the enormous investment of energy, creativity and good-will that so many rabbis and other religious leader are pouring into efforts to revitalize Jewish religious life. We don’t have to find every effort personally congenial to appreciate the explosion of energy at precisely a time when religion is not held in the highest esteem.

Jack Wertheimer is professor of American Jewish history at the Jewish Theological Seminary. His many books include The New Jewish Leaders: Reshaping the American Jewish LandscapeFamily Matters: Jewish Education in an Age of Choice, and A People Divided: Judaism in Contemporary America.

Marcia Bjornerud on Timefulness

Timefulness coverFew of us have any conception of the enormous timescales in our planet’s long history, and this narrow perspective underlies many of the environmental problems we are creating for ourselves. The passage of nine days, which is how long a drop of water typically stays in Earth’s atmosphere, is something we can easily grasp. But spans of hundreds of years—the time a molecule of carbon dioxide resides in the atmosphere—approach the limits of our comprehension. Our everyday lives are shaped by processes that vastly predate us, and our habits will in turn have consequences that will outlast us by generations. Timefulness reveals how knowing the rhythms of Earth’s deep past and conceiving of time as a geologist does can give us the perspective we need for a more sustainable future.

What exactly do you mean by Timefulness?

It’s the habit of seeing things not merely as they are now, but also recognizing how they evolved—and will continue to evolve—over time. In a sense, it’s perceiving the world in four dimensions. I use the word as a deliberate counterpoint to the idea of Timelessness, which is an impossible, and ultimately sterile, aspiration.

Unless you’re jet-setting around the cosmos at relativistic speeds, nothing exists outside the framework of time; every person, idea, culture, organism, landscape, and continent exists in a particular time-stamped moment while also bearing vestiges of a much deeper historical and evolutionary past. We tend to view these entities only as they appear in the current temporal plane, but their paths through time shaped what they are now, and what they may become in the future. In other words, all things are full of Time— they’re Timeful.

The natural world in particular is bursting with backstories— tragedies, comedies, sprawling million-year sagas, chronicles of forgotten empires. Reconceiving everything, including ourselves, as entities sculpted by time is a perceptual shift that can be transformative on the personal and societal levels.

I don’t quite get the connection with geology.

This way of viewing the world is the very essence of geological thinking – being able to hold in the mind’s eye multiple past— and plausible future— iterations of the Earth and its ecosystems. I recognize that geology suffers from a public perception problem; people either associate it with musty museum displays or rapacious oil companies and mineral prospectors. But in fact it’s an intellectually vibrant science that requires exceptional powers of imagination: the capacity to zoom in and out of spatial and temporal scales, and to visualize long vanished landscapes and inaccessible parts of the Earth we can never see directly.

Geology is also a strange field in that it addresses both very pragmatic questions—where to find groundwater, how to protect people from natural hazards—and deep, even philosophical ones: Where do we come from? Why is the Earth the way it is? Both kinds of questions are important to humans, and both require a keen sense of temporal proportion—the relative and absolute durations of the great chapters in the planet’s past, the characteristic rates and timescales of natural phenomena. But as a society, we are largely time-illiterate: shockingly ignorant about how our activities intersect with the Earth’s long-established habits.  

Human and geological timescales are so vastly different – why does it matter if ordinary people have a feeling for ‘deep time’?

Actually, they’re not as disparate as one might think. Geologists have perhaps overemphasized the idea that the Earth is incredibly old and slow-moving and that humans are mere last-minute walk-ons. I think this misrepresents our place on Earth in a number of ways. First, we humans may have taken our current form only recently, but we have very deep roots in the evolutionary tree. Second, even though we may be relative newcomers, we are having an outsized effect on the planet. Finally, the Earth’s habits are really not that sluggish. Today, satellite observations allow us to see glaciers and tectonic plates moving in real time. Many geologic processes—erosion, river migration and climate change, for example—can play out well within a human lifetime. And some of the planet’s behaviors, like earthquakes and landslides, happen so fast that we are left dazed in their aftermath. Earth has many tempos and modes, many still being discovered and documented.

Throughout the book, you weave in the intellectual history of geology and explain how we have come to our current understanding. That must be intentional?

Yes! The story of how humans have gradually come to understand the character of our planet and managed to reconstruct its deep history is itself a fascinating evolutionary tale. Calibrating the geologic timescale is arguably one of humanity’s greatest intellectual achievements. Yet it is underappreciated because it is not the work of a solitary genius but instead a collaborative effort of people making observations all around the globe over the past two centuries – and it’s still a work in progress. Along the way, there have been scientists, both amateur and professional, who had brilliant insights but were too far ahead of their time for their ideas to be verified by available data. There have also been experts much celebrated in their own day who proved to be completely wrong about the nature of the Earth and who held the science in check during their lifetimes.

So yes, the book is both about the idiosyncratic history of the Earth, and the equally idiosyncratic history of human understanding of the Earth.

Some people find the idea of geologic time terrifying because it makes them feel insignificant. How do you respond to that?

I can understand that reaction and again I think we geologists ourselves are partly to blame for flogging people over the head with the vastness of geologic time. I had a math professor who was fond of pointing out that, “there are many sizes and shapes of infinity.” The same can be said for different points in the geologic past. Some are a long time ago—some are a long, longtime ago. Developing some ‘depth of field’ in thinking about geologic time makes it seem less like a yawning abyss, and then filling it in with the narrative details of Earth’s development transforms it into an awe-inspiring origin story that embraces, rather than excludes, us. I personally find existential comfort in knowing that I am a resident of an ancient, resilient, marvelously complicated planet that has been teeming with life and continuously reinventing itself for 4 billion years.

OK, but can Timefulness really “help save the world?”

First let me emphasize that by “world” I don’t mean the planet; Earth will be fine with or without us and will survive the damage we are currently inflicting on it in the same way that it has endured previous calamities. It’s the stability of the world as we humans define it— the political, economic, social and cultural world— that is in grave peril. And yes, I would argue that Timeful, long-term thinking is essential to saving that. At a time when we urgently need mechanisms in our political and economic systems that encourage long-term planning, our attention spans keep shrinking. The few leaders who aspire to keep the long view in mind find themselves removed from boardrooms and public office by impatient shareholders, voters and corporate interests that benefit from the short-sightedness of the collective. The capacity to think on even decadal timescales—zooming out just enough to recognize our common past and shared destiny as human creatures on a changing planet— may be a way to spring ourselves out of the polarized, antagonistic, segregated mindsets and habits in which we have trapped ourselves.

The narratives of natural history are a heritage we all share as Earthlings, and expanded awareness of that legacy— a little Timefulness—may liberate us from our self-absorbed narcissism and other self-destructive tendencies.  

 

Marcia Bjornerud is professor of geology and environmental studies at Lawrence University. She is the author of Reading the Rocks: The Autobiography of the Earth and a contributing writer for Elements, the New Yorker’s science and technology blog. She lives in Appleton, Wisconsin.

Galápagos: The Islands’ Environment

Our newest blog series takes a look at the Galápagos Islands, as seen in Galápagos: Life in Motion, the lavish new photographic celebration that captures the fascinating behaviors of land and sea animals that call the islands home. Each week, Princeton Nature will highlight three gorgeous photos of the Galápagos wildlife. 

Adapted from pages 8-18 of the text:

Male Galápagos Land Iguana feeding on vegetation, Santa Cruz Island

In The Voyage of the Beagle, Charles Darwin called the Galápagos archipelago “a little world within itself.” But it would be more accurate to see it as many worlds—a large set of unique habitats, or environmental niches, located together in a small place. This chapter presents a journey through them, beginning with the occasionally lush, but mostly inhospitable, terrain of these volcanic islands. These inland areas give way to the coastal zone, with its own complement of animals eking out an existence, which in turn transition down the water column to the shallow parts of the Pacific Ocean’s floor.

Galápagos Dove nesting on a prickly pear cactus, North Seymour Island

On the surface, the Galápagos Islands look very different from the tropical paradise most visitors expect. These islands are volcanic in origin and relatively young, qualities that lead to many of their otherworldly features. Land-dwelling animals need to find a niche among the costal rocks, the scrubby plants just inland, or, on some islands, in the semitropical highlands.

The Pacific Green Turtle heading back to the water after building her nest, Santiago Island

Giant Tortoises may be the most easily recognized land-dwelling animals in the Galápagos, but they are far from the only ones. Lava lizards are widespread; there are nine species found throughout the islands. These lizards are an example of adaptive radiation, through which closely related but distinct species have evolved on different islands. The Galápagos is also home to three species of land iguanas, who live in the scrubby inland forests.

Galápagos: Life in Motion
by Walter Perez & Michael Weisberg

The Galápagos Islands are home to an amazing variety of iconic creatures, from Giant Tortoises, Galápagos Sea Lions, Galápagos Penguins, and Ghost Crabs to Darwin’s finches, the Blue-footed Booby, and Hummingbird Moths. But how precisely do these animals manage to survive on—and in the waters around—their desert-like volcanic islands, where fresh water is always scarce, food is often hard to come by, and finding a good mate is a challenge because animal populations are so small? In this stunning large-format book, Galápagos experts Walter Perez and Michael Weisberg present an unprecedented photographic account of the remarkable survival behaviors of these beautiful and unique animals. With more than 200 detailed, close-up photographs, the book captures Galápagos animals in action as they feed, play, fight, court, mate, build nests, give birth, raise their young, and cooperate and clash with other species.

Watch male Marine Iguanas fight over territory and females; see frigatebirds steal food and nesting materials from other birds; witness the courtship dance of a pair of Blue-footed Boobies; go underwater to glimpse a Galápagos Sea Lion pup playing with its mother; and observe a baby Pacific Green Turtle enter the water for the first time. These and dozens of other unforgettable scenes are all vividly captured here—including many moments that even experienced Galápagos observers may never be lucky enough to see in person.

Complete with a brief text that provides essential context, this book will be cherished by Galápagos visitors and anyone else who wants to see incredible animals on the move.

Bird Fact Friday – Common Starling

This cheeky bird has to be one of the most familiar birds not only in the UK but perhaps the world. It’s natural range includes Ireland and the British Isles, temperate Europe and into western Asia. It has been introduced to a host of countries around the planet including the US, Canada, several South American countries and Australia often to detrimental effect due to competition with native species. Although flourishing throughout most of its introduced range the population here in the UK and in Europe it is famously in decline.

Photo credit: David Lindo

The Starling, as it’s simply known, belongs to the Starling family of 115 species found predominantly in Europe, Africa, Asia, Northern Australia and some Pacific Island. In Asia they are known as Mynas.  There are several subspecies with faroensis being the largest. Aside from its greater body size it also has a bigger beak and feet.

LindoHow to Be an Urban Birder
By David Lindo

Urban birding is fast becoming ornithology’s new rock ’n’ roll. Birds and birding have never been cooler—and urban birding is at the cutting edge.

How to Be an Urban Birder is the world’s first guide to the art of urban birding—which is so easy and great fun! Here, urban birding pioneer David Lindo tells you everything you need to know about birds and birding in towns and cities in the UK.

  • Includes a brief history of urban birding in the UK
  • Covers the best places to look for birds in towns and cities
  • Helps you get to know your urban birds
  • Gives useful tips on how to attract birds to your garden
  • Explains what gear you need and how to go about being an urban birde
  • Features hundreds of cool images and illustrations of birds in urban settings

Keith Whittington: The Dream of a Nonpartisan Supreme Court

Since the retirement of Justice Anthony Kennedy, long the pivotal swing justice on the U.S. Supreme Court, we have been hearing a lot once again about the desire for a replacement justice and for a Court that can stand outside of politics and be nonpartisan. Any nominee was likely to disappoint those holding on to that desire, but the nomination of the conventional conservative jurist Brett Kavanaugh did nothing to mollify critics of either this administration or this Court. The dream of a nonpartisan Supreme Court is as old as the republic itself, but it is nothing but a dream. We should demand that the justices behave differently than mere politicians in robes, but we should not ever expect to see a Court that stands completely outside of partisan politics.

The founding generation was deeply distrustful of political parties, and they designed the Constitution on the assumption that American politics would operate without them. They worried that partisans would always put the party interest above the general interest, and they hoped for a republic in which political leaders would seek to advance the general welfare of the people as a whole not the factional interests of a part of the people. They dreamed not only of a nonpartisan Supreme Court, but of a nonpartisan Congress and presidency as well. They were quickly disappointed.

The ink had barely dried on the Constitution before the founders began to organize themselves into political parties. They and their posterity discovered that parties were unavoidable in a democratic political system. Americans eventually learned, often grudgingly, how to accommodate themselves to the persistence of partisan divisions, and the Constitution itself was amended to take into account the fact that presidents and vice-presidents would stand for election together on a party ticket and that the Electoral College could not simply select the two best Americans to occupy the first and second positions in the national executive.

For some of the same reasons that parties have proven unavoidable in electoral politics and in lawmaking, they have influenced the federal courts as well. Americans have rarely disagreed about whether they should continue to live under the U.S. Constitution, but they have often disagreed about what the Constitution means. For over two hundred years, those disagreements have been exploited and organized by political parties. Voters, activists and politicians have hashed out those disagreements at the ballot box, on the streets, and in the halls of political power. Presidents and legislators have won elections advocating for their distinctive constitutional philosophies, and they have placed judges on the bench that have shared those philosophies.

We should hope and expect that judges do not behave in the same way as politicians. We do not expect judges to cater to the whims of public opinion or appeal to the interests of favored constituencies. We do not expect judges to trim the rights of unpopular minorities in order to win favor with popular majorities. We do not expect judges to engage in horse-trading to win votes. Not only do we expect them to put country over party, but we expect them not to be moved by narrow partisan interests. In short, we expect judges to stay out of the low politics of political campaigns, legislative logrolling, and partisan maneuvering for temporary advantage.

We cannot reasonably expect them to stand aloof from the high politics of constitutional debate, however. The Jeffersonians and the Federalists, the Whigs and the Democrats had different understandings of the proper use of government and the scope of government power, and those differences were enshrined in both party platforms and judicial opinions. The upstart Republicans had different ideas about the constitutionality of the extension of slavery, and they battled for those ideas in the courtroom as well as the ballot box. The New Dealers and the old guard conservatives had different hopes about how the country would emerge from the Great Depression, and those differences had implications for the course of American constitutional law.

The political parties today are divided about constitutional questions just as the political parties of the past were. The two parties represent different constitutional philosophies, with implications for a host of questions not only about legislative policy but also about judicial doctrine. If the partisan divisions are unusually visible on the Court today that is due in part to the fact that the two major parties have been locked in close electoral combat for an unusually long period of time and our constitutional differences have remained unresolved in society as well as in law. That does not mean that the justices march in lockstep or take their marching orders from party leaders on the hill, but disagreements in constitutional philosophy that we see expressed on the airwaves and in the newspapers are also going to be expressed in legal briefs and judicial opinions.

The Supreme Court has always been shaped by political forces, and we would not be happy if it were not. When Lincoln asked whether the “policy of government, upon vital questions, affecting the whole people” was to be “irrevocably fixed by the decisions of the Supreme Court” or to be settled by “the people,” he understood that a republic would not tolerate a Court that stood entirely outside of politics and asserted its independence from the people themselves. The justices are not demi-gods; they are just people, who disagree among themselves as other people do. The courts contribute in important ways to the stability, vitality and desirability of our constitutional system, but we need not believe in the illusion of a nonpartisan Court in order to appreciate those contributions.

Keith E. Whittington is the William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Politics at Princeton University and the author, most recently, of Speak Freely: Why Universities Must Defend Free Speech.

The Dog Days of Summer: Hybrid Dogs

Adapted from pages 180-181 of The Dog:

Data suggest that, on average, mixed breeds and crossbreeds have some health advantages over purebreds, probably because they are less inbred. As they have much higher genetic variation, they are less likely to suffer from inherited genetic diseases and more likely to live longer than purebreds.

Behavioral studies detected differences between mixed breeds and purebred dogs. Mixed-breed dogs were generally reported to be more disobedient, more nervous, more excitable, and more fearful. Excessive barking was also more frequent in their case.

They were also reported to be more aggressive toward unfamiliar people, more sensitive to touch, and had an increased risk of developing behavior problems (such as noise phobia) than purebreds. One may assume that most differences emerge because mixed-breed dogs experience less optimal early socialization and their genetic constitution also differs.

A whippet mix with a strong resemblance to the small greyhound is always ready to run. Photo credit: Grigorita Ko, Shutterstock

It is possible that a large proportion of present-day mixed breeds with unknown genetic histories originate from populations that have been under continuous selection for independent survival skills, making them more independent, assertive and more nervous/ alert. In contrast, dog breeders generally selectively breed dogs that make good human companions, focusing on favorable (calmer) behavior characteristics. Despite the different selective forces, numerous mixed-breed individuals obviously do make ideal companion dogs, as the magnitude of the differences between mixed breeds and purebreds are small.

Hybrid vigor is also known as heterosis or enhancement of outbreeding. The first generation of crossing dogs from two different breeds (or lines within a breed) produces hybrids with usually positive overall effects on health and biological functions. The explanation is that these individuals more likely inherit different gene variants (heterozygosity) that make them more resistant to environmental challenges, including pathogens.

Heterozygosity may be advantageous in other cases as well. Whippets with a single copy of a mutated gene that affects muscle composition are more muscular, and are among the fastest dogs in racing. However, whippets with two copies of the same mutation (homozygosity) develop too much muscle, which makes them rather slower.

The Dog: A Natural History
By Ádám Miklósi

As one of the oldest domesticated species, selectively bred over millennia to possess specific behaviors and physical characteristics, the dog enjoys a unique relationship with humans. More than any other animal, dogs are attuned to human behavior and emotions, and accordingly play a range of roles in society, from police and military work to sensory and emotional support. Selective breeding has led to the development of more than three hundred breeds that, despite vast differences, still belong to a single species, Canis familiaris.

The Dog is an accessible, richly illustrated, and comprehensive introduction to the fascinating natural history and scientific understanding of this beloved species. Ádám Miklósi, a leading authority on dogs, provides an appealing overview of dogs’ evolution and ecology; anatomy and biology; behavior and society; sensing, thinking, and personality; and connections to humans.

Illustrated with some 250 color photographs, The Dog begins with an introductory overview followed by an exploration of the dog’s prehistoric origins, including current research about where and when canine domestication first began. The book proceeds to examine dogs’ biology and behavior, paying particular attention to the physiological and psychological aspects of the ways dogs see, hear, and smell, and how they communicate with other dogs and with humans. The book also describes how dogs learn about their physical and social environments and the ways they form attachments to humans. The book ends with a section showcasing a select number of dog breeds to illustrate their amazing physical variety.

Beautifully designed and filled with surprising facts and insights, this book will delight anyone who loves dogs and wants to understand them better.

Chaim Saiman on Halakhah

Chaim Saiman Halakhah book coverThough typically translated as “Jewish law,” the term halakhah is not an easy match for what is usually thought of as law. In his panoramic book Halakhah: The Rabbinic Idea of Law, Chaim Saiman traces how generations of rabbis have used concepts forged in talmudic disputation to do the work that other societies assign not only to philosophy, political theory, theology, and ethics but also to art, drama, and literature. Guiding readers across two millennia of richly illuminating perspectives, this book shows how halakhah is not just “law,” but an entire way of thinking, being, and knowing.

What is halakhah and why did you decide to write a book about it?

Literally, halakhah means “the way” or “the path,” though it is typically translated as Jewish law.

I grew up in a home and community where I was expected not only to obey the law, but to study and master complex legal texts in Hebrew and Aramaic.

I was about eight years old when my father proceeded to pull out two massive tomes from the shelf and inform me that I had to learn with him before I could escape to the Nintendo console located in my friend’s basement. We began to study the section of Mishnah (the earliest code of Jewish law, from around the year 200 CE) detailing the responsibilities of different bailees—those who watch over the property belonging to someone else. This book is a grown-up attempt to answer why an eight-year-old should care about bailees and the ancient laws of lost cows.

Did you really start a book on Jewish law with Jesus?

Yes. I take Jesus and the Apostle Paul as some of the earliest in a long line of halakhah’s critics. Both lived before the tradition crystallized in the form of the Mishnah. Yet even at this early stage, Jesus pokes fun at the Mishnah’s forebears for obsessing over legal rules and formalities at the expense of true spiritual growth. Jesus would have most likely considered it a bad idea to initiate young children into religious life by analyzing the laws of bailments.  But whereas Jesus saw the law as a set of regulations and restrictions, the Talmudic rabbis understood it as a domain of exploration and study, a process they called Talmud Torah.

 What is Talmud Torah?

It is hard to translate, mainly because the idea does not exist in Western or American culture. Word-for-word it means the “study of Torah,” but its impact extends beyond what is usually thought of as “study.” Talmud Torah means that Torah is not studied merely for pre-professional reasons, and not (only) to know the rules relevant to living a Jewish life, but because it is a primary religious activity, an intimate spiritual act that brings the learner into God’s embrace.

The closest analogy in general culture is the idea once practiced at elite universities when the curriculum was focused on Greek, Latin, philosophy, ancient civilization, and classical literature. Unlike today, the goal was not to make students more attractive to employers, but to educate them into ennobled citizens who would fully realize their humanity. The rabbis had a similar idea, but rather than literature or philosophy, study was grounded in the divine word of the Torah, and especially the legal regulations set forth in the Mishnah and Talmud.

What does Talmud Torah have to do with law?

Though Talmud Torah arguably applies to any area of Jewish law and thought, longstanding tradition places special emphasis on the areas that correspond to contract, tort, property and business law—the very topics covered by secular legal systems.  According to the Talmudic rabbis, the subjects taught in law schools across the country become a spiritual practice when learned in the halakhic setting. Lawyers get many adjectives thrown their way, but godly is rarely one of them. The book aims to understand what it means to hold that legal study is a path to the divine, and what are the implications of this idea for a legal system.

Is halakhah the law of any country?

Not really. One of the unusual aspects of halakhah is that it first becomes visible in the Mishnah several generations after the independent Jewish state was dismantled by the Romans. Further, the most fertile periods of halakhic development took place when Jews did not govern any territory but lived as a minority under non-Jewish rule. This is the opposite from how legal systems typically develop.

From at least the Middle Ages through the nineteenth century, Jews tended to live in tight communities whose internal legal affairs were heavily influenced by rabbis and halakhah. But even here, close investigation shows that the civil laws that applied often deviated from Talmudic rules studied under the rubric of Talmud Torah. In the case of civil law there were effectively two systems of Jewish law. One used by tribunals when disputes arose in practice, and the other that lived mainly on the pages of the Talmud and realized though Torah study.  The relationship between these two forms of halakhah is a central theme of the book.

What about the state of Israel?

One of the ironies of modern Jewish life is that while Judaism historically defined itself through devotion to law, when the state of Israel was established there was little consensus about the role of halakhah in the state. Israel’s Socialist Zionist founders saw halakhah as a relic of the outmoded European Judaism that had to be overcome before a modern, Zionist, and self-determined Judaism could take hold. Most observant Jews by contrast, viewed secular Zionism as religiously invalid, if not dangerous. Since their primary concern was maintaining halakhah’s integrity in a secularizing world, they had little interest in adapting it for use in the modern state. Hence with the exception of marriage and divorce law, halakhah was not reflected in early Israeli law.

But the ground has shifted in the intervening years. Though Israeli law remains distinct from halakhah, there is a much wider constituency today that looks to define Israel as a Jewish state where concepts and norms inspired by halakhah find expression in state law. The book’s final chapter discusses the possibilities and pitfalls of infusing state law with halakhah.

Chaim N. Saiman is professor in the Charles Widger School of Law at Villanova University. He lives with his wife and three daughters in Bala Cynwyd, Pennsylvania.

Trump’s Assertiveness vs. Rouhani’s Resistance

by Amin Saikal

President Donald Trump has acted to diminish the Iranian Islamic regime over its nuclear program, missile industry and regional influence. He has given Tehran an ultimatum either to succumb to his demands or face unprecedented punishment. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has rejected Trump’s actions to withdraw from the July 2015 multilateral nuclear agreement (officially known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action – JCPOA), and to reimpose sanctions as “psychological warfare.” The US and Iran are now locked in a diplomatic confrontation that could lead to a confrontation with devastating consequences.

Ironically, this is the first time in the history of US-Iranian hostilities since the advent of the Iranian Islamic regime nearly 40 years ago that Washington, rather than Tehran, is isolated in world politics as a result of an American president’s actions. Not only the other signatories to the JCPOA – Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China – but also most of the other states in the world have sided with Tehran. The European signatories and America’s traditional allies have taken extraordinary steps to salvage the JCPOA. They have gone so far as to invoke an old “blocking statute” to protect their countries’ businesses dealings with Iran and have instructed their companies either to defy American sanctions or run the risk of being sued by European Union member states. They have also opened a mechanism to enable those businesses affected by sanctions to sue the American government in the national courts of member states.

Whatever the European powers’ measures and the degree of sanction defiance by Russia and China as the other two strong supporters of Iran, as well as the Iranian government’s efforts to circumvent the sanctions, as it has in the past, Trump’s actions can still entail serious economic and political implications for Iran. The Iranian economy was in a fragile state prior to the reimposition of sanctions; it is now bound to receive more hard blows. This in turn is likely to increase public disenchantment with and protests against the Islamic regime.

However, the Islamic regime is unlikely to be brought to its knees, for four important reasons. The first is that Iran has endured soft and hard sanctions since the early days of its transformation into an Islamic Republic following the Iranian revolution of 1978-79 that resulted in the overthrow of the Shah’s pro-Western monarchy. The regime has vigorously diversified Iran’s economy and trade. It has succeeded in making the Iranian economy less dependent on oil exports, and has expanded trade relations with friendly powers, including China, which has become Iran’s largest trade partner. It has engaged in processes of self-sufficiency and mastered different methods of sanction-busting, including barter trading, and transactions through third countries where it wields influence, such as Iraq, Afghanistan and Lebanon.

The second is that despite its theocratic and administrative shortcomings and corrupt practices, the regime is well entrenched. It has built sufficient coercive instruments of power to deal with any widespread public uprisings. The clerical forces and their associates that dominate the power structure have done everything possible to guard themselves against a revolution similar to the one that caused the Shah’s downfall and brought them to power.

The third is that the regime has successfully used the “threat” from the United States and its regional allies, Israel in particular, for public legitimation and mobilisation, and this factor remains at its disposal. Many segments of the Iranian society are unhappy with the regime and may well desire a better alternative, but when Iran is threatened by an outside force, a majority of them have rallied behind the government of the day. The more that Trump pressures and threatens Iran, the more he plays into the hands of the regime to invoke a combination of historically fierce nationalism and Shia Islamic devotion among the Iranians.

The fourth is that in the unlikely event of the Islamic regime crumbling through popular uprisings, this will not serve the interests of the United States and its regional allies. It could produce uncontrollable outcomes for not only Iran but also the region. The regime’s removal without a smooth power transition could generate a much worse national and regional situation than did the overthrow of the Shah’s autocracy.

The Trump leadership, egged on by Iran’s arch enemy, Israel, and backed by another regional rival, Saudi Arabia, has touted the use of force as an ultimate means to change the behaviour of the Iranian regime. However, Tehran has secured a strong deterrence against such an option as well. It has garnered adequate prowess though a combination of hard and soft power within an asymmetrical warfare strategy to make an attack very costly for its perpetrator. It has secured a network of regional protégé forces that includes most importantly the Lebanese Hezbollah, which possesses some 120,000 rockets of all kinds, capable of hitting targets in Israel and across the region. This deterrence factor should make the US and Israel think twice before they resort to the use of force.

Trump has sought to subdue the Iranian regime, but at the cost of America’s isolation from even its traditional European allies. The US has become an oddity in world politics. This had never happened since the rise of the US to globalism following the Second World War.

Amin Saikal is Distinguished Professor and Director of the Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies (the Middle East and Central Asia) at the Australian National University, and author of the forthcoming book Iran Rising: The Survival and Future of the Islamic Republic by Princeton University Press.

Bird Fact Friday—White Stork

David Lindo – author of How to Be an Urban Birder –continues his take over our Bird Fact Friday series. Check out these posts every week to learn about the different birds he’s encountered in his travels through the Concrete Jungle. In his latest entry, he highlights the White Stork.

The White Stork is the classic bird of Mediterranean Europe that is often to be seen standing nonchalantly on top of enormous nests, usually on the very tips of impressive old buildings. Their stick nests grow with every year of use and are often used for generations. Their range in Europe actually extends beyond the Mediterranean basin north to Finland and into Eastern Europe. Globally, they range as far south as South Africa and east into the Indian subcontinent. Famously a long distant migrant it has been discovered that birds in the Iberian Peninsula are increasingly overwintering to take advantage of the food sources found in refuse dumps as well as at more natural sources.

Photo credit: David Lindo

The White Stork’s black-and-white plumage makes it an instantly recognisable bird in Europe, although care has to be taken when viewing distant birds as confusion may occur between it and its darker cousin, the Black Stork. The White Stork’s history within the UK is a bit of a contentious one as many of the birds discovered there are often suspected of being escapees. What is startling though is the fact that they have not bred naturally on British soil in over 600 years!

 

How to Be an Urban Birder
By David Lindo

Urban birding is fast becoming ornithology’s new rock ’n’ roll. Birds and birding have never been cooler—and urban birding is at the cutting edge.

How to Be an Urban Birder is the world’s first guide to the art of urban birding—which is so easy and great fun! Here, urban birding pioneer David Lindo tells you everything you need to know about birds and birding in towns and cities in the UK.

  • Includes a brief history of urban birding in the UK
  • Covers the best places to look for birds in towns and cities
  • Helps you get to know your urban birds
  • Gives useful tips on how to attract birds to your garden
  • Explains what gear you need and how to go about being an urban birde
  • Features hundreds of cool images and illustrations of birds in urban settings

 

 

The Dog Days of Summer: Separation Anxiety

Adapted from pages 162-163 of The Dog:

Many social species, including humans and dogs, exhibit distress responses when separated from attachment figures. This is normal and natural behavior for both infants and puppies.

Separation anxiety is relatively rare among outside-living dogs (though they are also devoted to their owners), which implies that there could be something more in the phenomenon than simply being overly dependent on the owner. Separation anxiety is much more common in dogs living in flats and apartments in towns and cities.

Keeping a dog requires time and care; dogs are active animals who are not happy left alone for long.
Photo credit: James Kirkikis, Shutterstock.

Companion dogs with separation anxiety typically eliminate, vocalize, or engage in destructive behavior when left alone in the apartment. Some breeds and some breeding lines are more prone to show separation anxiety than others. The role of inheritance is of crucial importance here, because only the mild, nongenetically based cases can be remedied easily by applying the training methods published on many experts’ websites.

“Hyperattachment” to the owner has been assumed to be the main underlying cause of separation anxiety, but most results support a more complex explanation. For example, some dogs develop separation anxiety when they are 6–7 years old, while others seem to be born with it.

Since separation-related disorders in dogs seem to have considerably diverse underlying causes, the solution may need to include a specific combination of medication and behavioral therapy, which is adjusted for each individual case. Buying another dog might help reduce boredom, but usually does not solve the problem in the case of a true separation related issue. As a short-term management, if possible, the use of a human dog sitter, or leaving the dog at a daycare center or a neighbor’s, can reduce or solve the problem.

The Dog: A Natural History
By Ádám Miklósi

As one of the oldest domesticated species, selectively bred over millennia to possess specific behaviors and physical characteristics, the dog enjoys a unique relationship with humans. More than any other animal, dogs are attuned to human behavior and emotions, and accordingly play a range of roles in society, from police and military work to sensory and emotional support. Selective breeding has led to the development of more than three hundred breeds that, despite vast differences, still belong to a single species, Canis familiaris.

The Dog is an accessible, richly illustrated, and comprehensive introduction to the fascinating natural history and scientific understanding of this beloved species. Ádám Miklósi, a leading authority on dogs, provides an appealing overview of dogs’ evolution and ecology; anatomy and biology; behavior and society; sensing, thinking, and personality; and connections to humans.

Illustrated with some 250 color photographs, The Dog begins with an introductory overview followed by an exploration of the dog’s prehistoric origins, including current research about where and when canine domestication first began. The book proceeds to examine dogs’ biology and behavior, paying particular attention to the physiological and psychological aspects of the ways dogs see, hear, and smell, and how they communicate with other dogs and with humans. The book also describes how dogs learn about their physical and social environments and the ways they form attachments to humans. The book ends with a section showcasing a select number of dog breeds to illustrate their amazing physical variety.

Beautifully designed and filled with surprising facts and insights, this book will delight anyone who loves dogs and wants to understand them better.