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June 20, 2014


Yeah, the rabbi isn't really standing between you and anything. It's really not like a grad seminar :) I also think it's funny / great that the rabbi agreed with you that Israel is a distraction. (I agree, too.)

The Heschel book is great.

re: Midrash and various rabbinic commentaries and their apparent cluelessness, this is something that hasn't bothered me a whole lot, insofar as the texts I studied professionally were not modern, so I am always asking myself *anyway* "what missing piece of the puzzle would make this text intelligible to me?* When I see a commentary that makes no sense, to me, I just think, well, there must be an explanation. If I'm intrigued, I try to figure out what the explanation could be, if I'm not, I move onto something more interesting. And even Christians have terrible exegesis that apparently made sense to someone at some point but has now fallen into abeyance. (I was reading Malleus Maleficarum with my students this spring, and they were commenting on the horrible, made up Latin philology that the authors quote.)

I think, though, that your rabbi does represent "the Jewish perspective" or at least a very prevalent one, in the sense that most rabbis I know are already aware that they can't know all of the commentaries on any text. They study the main historic ones, and the notes of a good Chumash will let you know what those are, but there are thousands and thousands of other ones, plus all the ones that were part of the oral Torah and have been lost over the years in various ways. You can't master the commentary for a particular Torah reading in the way to the degree you can master the historiography of a particular scholarly debate; you can only be more or less familiar with its main strands. (And different rabbis might disagree about what the "main strands" are -- I'm going to Chabad at the moment and the rabbi always picks up Menachem Mendel Schneersohn first!) So why not pick a particular interpretation that intrigues you (or even a handful) and focus on those? Because you will never know all of it. And what you think and say is thus itself revealed as part of the Oral Torah that was always already there, given at Mount Sinai. So you add to that accretion, and what you say will be preserved (if you write it down) or remembered (if someone remembers what you say) or pass into forgetfulness itself. I kind of like that -- even though it means a great deal of the Torah is out of my intellectual control.

You also might check out the Five Books of Miriam, commentary that is specifically women-focused.

EE, thanks for the suggestion. And servetus, thanks for the extremely thoughtful comment and reassurance!

I've been meaning to come and comment on this very interesting process, which you are doing so thoughtfully. I know you'll be preoccupied with the nieces over the next week; I hope it's a good one!

Your rabbi's making Shabbat observance the driver of your transition to Jewish time seems right on to me--it's also something that most contemporary Jews struggle with one way or another.

Looking forward to more posts on this subject!

Ran across this today and thought it could be of interest for you.


Ooh, fabulous list, servetus -- thanks! As soon as I read the list, I requested Lillian Faderman's memoir from the public library; she's always been an important academic figure for me, and I hadn't known she'd written a memoir.

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Who is this What Now?

  • I'm an English teacher at Fabulous Girls' School (FGS). I'm a convert to Judaism. I am partner to D. We live in an adorable, messy little house in Adventure City. Two cats -- the Muse and the Contemplative -- live with us and keep life at home plenty adventurous.

    Email me at whatnowblogger at yahoo dot com.

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