Wednesday, March 26, 2008

A Eulogy for my Grandfather

This past Thursday my grandfather, Rabbi Yitzchak Isaac Chinn, passed away. I had spent the previous evening with my mother, having flown into Silverspring, MD from Columbus, OH for spring break a few days earlier. I was tagging along with my mother as she walked her dog Loki when my father called me with the news. So my mother, my older brother, Gedalya, and I ended up jumping into my her minivan and driving out to McKeesport, PA for the funeral service.

My grandfather served as the rabbi of Gemilas Chesed in McKeesport for over fifty years. For those of you who have never heard of McKeesport, it is a little town outside of Pittsburgh, PA. Like much of western Pennsylvania, McKeesport was a steel town until the industry dried up in the 1950s, leaving deserted mills and ghost towns. The Jewish community went the same way as the steel mills; when my father was growing up, McKeesport was a dying Jewish community. The Gemilas Chesed that I knew was one of old men with my grandfather performing far more funerals than bar mitzvahs. Like many similar communities, the young left and no one came to fill in their place.

One might assume from this that my grandfather failed as a rabbi; nothing could be further from the truth. He built a very vibrant Jewish community. What you must understand is that, while my grandfather’s synagogue was nominally Orthodox, most of his congregants were not fully practicing Jews. Despite this, my grandfather was incredibly successful at getting his congregants, even those who themselves were non-observant, to send their children to Jewish day schools. Many of these children, despite the fact that they did not grow up in observant homes, ended up becoming observant themselves. They went on to move to larger Jewish communities such as Silverspring, Baltimore, New York City, and Lakewood; some even went to Israel. One could say that my grandfather was the victim of his own success. His influence caused people to leave McKeesport. My grandfather may not have built a place of Torah in McKeesport (though there is now a small Yeshiva using the Gemilas Chesed building) but he helped build Torah around the world.

As my grandfather lived out his life in McKeesport and not Lakewood or Boro Park, you may find it hard to believe but my grandfather was Haredi (ultra-Orthodox). He may have been old school Haredi, a breed that, like Gemilas Chesed, is quickly dying out, but Haredi all the same. He went to Yeshiva Torah Vodaath and studied under Rabbi Shraga Feival Mendlowitz of blessed memory. Throughout his life, my grandfather maintained himself as a part of the Haredi community. He was a featured speaker at numerous Agudath Yisroel and other such rabbinical conventions. My grandfather was close to many different rabbinic leaders. When my parents were going out my mother’s father, who is a Klausenberger hasid went to the Klausenberger Rebbe and told him that my mother was going out with a boy named Chinn from McKeesport. The Rebbe’s eyes’ lit up and he replied: “Oh that is Yitzchak Chinn! Yes, that is a good family.” Once, when I was living with my grandparents, the phone rang and I went to pick it up. The person at the other end of the line said: “Hello this is Reb Avraham Pam.” I do not know how many small-town rabbis regularly got personal phone calls from the Rosh Yeshiva of Torah Vodaath.

My grandfather was someone who transcended boundaries. He could befriend rabbis in black hats and he could befriend Jews who drove to synagogue on the Sabbath, he could befriend non-Jews. He possessed the ability to do this because, at his core, he was a gentleman. He treated everyone with respect and dignity; no one was beneath him. My grandfather was a great man in of himself but he was also the product of a certain world. The world of my grandfather was one in which Orthodox Judaism was uncloistered. My grandfather grew up as a good American boy, who happened to wear tzitzit and a kippa. My grandfather could relate to practically anyone who lived in this country because he was an American. The secular world for him was not something that one could just ignore and try to hide from; it was family. One may disagree and fight with family but family is part of you and cannot be ignored.

I am not trying to portray my grandfather as Modern Orthodox. I honestly have no idea what he thought of Yeshiva University, Torah U’Maddah, secular education, rabbinic authority or about evolution. He was not the sort of person with who could be baited into such conversations. What he possessed was something that transcended these issues. He showed respect to everyone and was, therefore, someone who could be respected by anyone. This was founded on the fact that he did not see the world in terms of us and them; the world was part of him.

I mourn the loss of my grandfather and I mourn the passing of Gemilas Chesed of McKeesport. They represent the loss of something that we cannot replicate from within ourselves.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

The Adolescent Military Genius versus the Friendly Neighborhood Vampires: An Analysis of Orson Scott Card and his Influence on Twilight. (Part III)

(This is the continuation of a series of posts. See here and here. I wrote the first two parts of this piece back in February. Sorry for the delay.)

As with the work of Orson Scott Card, the issue of society/family building and maintenance plays a large role in Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series, lying just beneath the romance and the vampires. The Cullen family is a perfect example of the Cardian society/family. The Cullens are a group of seven individual vampires brought together by circumstances beyond their control. What keeps them together is not friendship or love but their shared commitment to a “vegetarian” lifestyle; they do not kill humans, just an occasional grizzly bear or mountain lion.

The Cullen family can be seen as a support group or even as a religious congregation. They are bound together by more than common beliefs; they need each other to keep on the path. With the exception of Carlyle, none of the Cullens can be described as a non-threat to any human within a several mile radius. Left to their own devices they would turn lethal and they all know it. The Cullens, therefore, keep a constant watch on each other to make sure that no “accidents” happen.

Meyer does an excellent job striking a balance between keeping the Cullens likable and making them threatening. The Cullens have their charm, but they could go off on a killing spree and it would still make perfect sense in terms of their characters. It is more than just a matter of each of the Cullens having an overwhelming desire to kill anyone on sight or smell. Underneath their lovable exteriors, they are, to put it simply, evil.

The fact that the Cullens, as vampires, are irredeemably evil is the foundation of their whole way of life. They believe that they are evil satanic beings and crimes against nature. They, therefore, hate themselves and strive to go against the most basic element of their nature, the need to kill.

This is essentially the doctrine of human total depravity, which many Christian groups believe in. The fact that Meyer made Carlyle an ex-Anglican minister is probably not a coincidence. He is preaching a religious doctrine, complete with heaven, hell, and salvation. At its basis, though, Carlyle’s faith is one built around the belief in the utter depravity of himself and of the congregation he now leads. Whether the Cullens actually kill any innocent people or not is beside the point; the very fact that they can be tempted already puts them beyond the pale of righteousness. Carlyle is actually the religious optimist in the group. He believes that vampires have souls and might have a hope of getting into heaven, as opposed to Edward, who believes that they are all damned no matter how righteous they manage to be.

We view the Cullens through the lens of Bella, a modern human teenager. In theory, she believes in God and is a person of faith but, in practice, she is fairly indifferent to matters of religion. As a modern, she takes an optimistic view of human beings. She tends toward the belief that people, when left to their own devices, are basically decent. She takes a very non-judgmental attitude toward people, believing that people can be left to their own devices and they will find their way to righteousness. Because of this, she has no way of comprehending the notion of seeing oneself as a totally depraved sinner, standing under the glare of a judging God. It should be enough for God that we are basically nice people, right? The Cullens, with their very unmodern religious views, is a culture shock for her. Part of the fun of her character is how she plows straight through the world of the Cullens with her modern female teenager logic, taking everything in stride.

The running debate between Bella and Edward, over whether she should be made into a vampire or not, should be understood within this religious context. Edward wishes, above all else, to protect Bella’s soul. Bella does not think in terms of souls; for her, the only issue is whether she might end up killing someone in the end, but she is confident that the Cullens will be able to protect her until she develops the sort of self-control that they have. For Edward, it irrelevant if Bella ends up killing someone, she would still be, for all eternity, an utterly depraved monster just like him. Part of Bella’s development as a character is her coming around to the religious worldview of the Cullens, with its concern for souls, heaven, hell, damnation and above all else their view of themselves as totally depraved. By the end of Eclipse, Bella, even though she intends to join the Cullens, has come to the realization as to the true nature of the stakes involved. The fact that Edward seems to be willing to go along with this would indicate that his religious views have also evolved at least somewhat; he now is willing to acknowledge the theoretical possibility of salvation.

Ultimately the Cullens are a model for a religious society. It is not a religious society as most people would think of the term. They are not a group of righteous, sin-free people, or even people who think they are righteous and sin-free, joining together because they believe that they are better than everyone else. The religious society that the Cullens form is a society created by utterly depraved sinners for utterly depraved sinners and out of the recognition that they are utterly depraved sinners. The fact that they form this society does not make them any less depraved; what it does do is give them the strength to transcend their own depravity.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

On the Universality of Judaism or How Many Measures of Water Does it Take to Make a Dragon Kosher?

Today my dear friend Dragon completed her journey to Judaism and became a convert. I wish her great success in her future journeys within Judaism. This post is dedicated to her.

Recently, while engaging in my usual office bantering with my Mormon friend CJ, I mentioned Dragon to him and I told him about her situation, that she was in the process of converting to Judaism. CJ responded that she must not be converting to Orthodox Judaism. Taken aback by his response I asked him about it. It turns out that he was under the assumption that Orthodox Judaism did not accept converts and that therefore one could not convert to Orthodox Judaism.

The fact that CJ assumed this about Judaism struck me as strange for a number of reasons. CJ is someone, and I do not say this lightly, whose intelligence I have great respect for. Furthermore, CJ knows a thing or two about Judaism. If he wished, he would have no trouble passing himself off as a Hebrew school-educated Jew. On top of all this, almost every religion that I know of, (the one exception being the Druze religion) accepts converts as a matter of course. One can convert to Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism or to Baha’i and no one would think twice about it. Why should someone think that Judaism was somehow different? It is true that Judaism does not have a mission to non-Jews, we do not seek converts, and we certainly do not wage the sort the campaign that Mormons engage in, but we are just as willing as any other religion to open our arms to people born outside of our faith. (Of course, to be fair to CJ I must point out that the Syrian Jewish community does not accept converts. Though even they admit that such a thing is possible; for practical reasons, it is simply their practice not to accept people born as non-Jews.)

While thinking about CJ’s comment, something rather disturbing struck me. The idea that Judaism would not accept converts makes perfect sense if one accepts the traditional Christian criticism of Judaism that Judaism is parochial and only concerned with Jews. From this perspective, Christianity becomes almost a theodical necessity. If the salvation brought about by the practice of Mosaic Law only applies to Jews then God must have created some other route to save non-Jews; clearly, a good and merciful God would not leave the vast majority of the world without some means of salvation. Hence we have the Christian salvation brought about by the Cross, which is open to everyone. To quote Paul: “There cannot be Jew nor Greek, there cannot be slave nor free man, there cannot be male and female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28)

This notion that Jewish theology does not recognize the possibility that non-Jews cannot also become close to God, while Christianity is open to everyone, can lead to certain absurdities. For example, when dealing with Job, Augustine of Hippo remarks:

… the Jews cannot deny that in other nations also there have been some men who belonged not by earthly but by heavenly fellowship to the company of the true Israelites, the citizens of the country that is above. In fact, if the Jews deny this, they are very easily proved wrong by the example of Job, that holy and amazing man. He was neither a native of Israel nor a proselyte (that is, a newly admitted member of the people). He traced his descent from the race of Edom; he was born in Edom; he died there. …

I have no doubt that it was the design of God’s providence that from this one instance we should know that there could also be those among other nations who lived by God’s standards and were pleasing to God, as belonging to the spiritual Jerusalem. (City of God Book XVIII Chapter 47.)

The truth is that there are a number of opinions in rabbinic literature that do make Job a non-Jew. For Judaism, this is not a problem in the least. Judaism can say, without blinking an eyelash, that Job was a gentile his entire life and never kept Mosaic Law, not the Sabbath, not Kosher nor circumcision, and yet was beloved by God because he was righteous. It is Christianity that has a problem with viewing non-Christians as being right with God simply because they are righteous; from the perspective of traditional Christianity it is impossible to be righteous without having first accepted Christian doctrine, particularly the divinity of Jesus and that he died to atone for our sins. Almost as if to make this point Augustine, the very next line, continues by saying: “But it must not be believed that this was granted to anyone unless he had received a divine revelation of ‘the one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus …” (Ibid.)

In truth Judaism is a more universalistic faith than Christianity. Judaism accepts that people do not have to become Jewish in order to become close to God. It is for this reason that Judaism does not have a missionary arm. We have no need to worry about little black babies in Africa dying and going to hell. Those little black babies are pure and holy, without our help. Judaism is a universal religion that anyone can claim to simply by believing in God and by living an ethical life. Jews are simply the priests and priestesses of this universal religion and as we carry out certain extra rituals. Children born to parents who are part of this priesthood are automatically part of this priesthood as well. In addition to this people, like my friend Dragon, can join of their own free will.

Ultimately Christianity requires that Judaism be narrow and parochial. The more universalistic Judaism is the less Christianity makes sense. If Judaism really is a universalistic religion with a message for the entire world than a major component of Christianity, that Christianity comes to universalize Judaism, must be thrown out as an absurdity. That a Christian (and yes I do count Mormons as Christians) would take it as a given that Judaism does not accept converts, to me, says a lot about Christianity.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Till We Can Face the God of C. S. Lewis (Part III)

(This is a continuation of earlier posts. See here and here.)

Certain levels of virtue are beyond human grasp and belong solely to God. For a human being to imitate these virtues is to either not understand what such virtues really entail or to commit an act of fraud. It is better to be someone who clearly does not have these virtues than to be someone pretending to possess them. For example, C. S. Lewis, in his Reflections on Psalms, praises the violent, “unchristian” language in Psalms, where the speaker curses his enemies and asks God to show them no mercy. Furthermore, he defends the Pharisees in the New Testament, who refuse to have any dealings with sinners, unlike Jesus who embraces sinners.

According to Lewis, if you really believed that God was all-powerful, all just and all righteous, it should bother you to no end that God does not come down and smite the sinners of the world and do justice. The mere sight of sin should be enough to cause you to yell and to curse. It is impossible for a mortal person to comprehend the evil of sin while at the same time loving the sinner absolutely. If you claim to be able to love sinners then you clearly do not really comprehend sin, or just lying. So from Lewis’ perspective the “Christians,” who take a non-judgmental attitude toward sinners, particularly those sinners who are successful businessmen, politicians or celebrities, are at a lesser level than those Pharisees in the New Testament, whom Jesus rebukes for being so judgmental. If you are Jesus, whom Lewis believed was God incarnate, then it is possible to recognize the evil of sin and still love the sinner. For anyone else, though, the highest level you can expect is to hate. (See Reflections On Psalms chapters III and VII.)

In the Great Divorce, Lewis describes the following situation in heaven:

But, beyond all these, I saw other grotesque phantoms in which hardly a trace of the human form remained; monsters who had faced the journey to the bus stop – perhaps for them it was thousands of miles – and come up to the country of the Shadow of Life and limped far into it over the torturing grass, only to spit and gibber out in one ecstasy of hatred their envy and (what is harder to understand) their contempt of joy. The voyage seemed to them a small price to pay if once, only once, within sight of that eternal dawn, they could tell the prigs, the toffs, the sanctimonious humbugs, the snobs, the “haves,” what they thought of them. (Great Divorce pg. 78-79)

From Lewis’ perspective, there is a great “virtue” to these monsters: “Those that hate goodness are sometimes nearer than those that know nothing at all about it and think they have it already.” (Great Divorce pg. 79) The monsters, unlike most other people, understand what the stakes are; God is a goodness against which no goodness can stand. To come to God means to surrender all claims to virtue; to admit that you are nothing and that nothing you have stood for has any value. These monsters are closer to salvation than those who piously claim to be surrendering themselves to God’s will while, either, not understanding what that really means, and hence not understanding God, or perjuring themselves.

To bring this all back to Orual, the anti-heroine of Till We Have Faces. While it would be nice to say that she should have humbly submitted herself to the gods, such a thing is not possible and therefore it is something that we could never ask of her. Psyche could do this because Psyche was a goddess in human form. For Orual to meekly give herself, over like Psyche, would not have been virtue. For her to do such a thing would have meant that she either did not really understand the gods or that she was committing perjury. Orual’s great virtue is that she understood, at least subconsciously, what the stakes were. The gods then allowed her to put them on trial, which allowed Orual to consciously understand what was at stake. At this point, Orual had reached the highest level of virtue that a human being could possibly attain on their own. The divine Psyche then stepped in and granted Orual the gift of grace. This allowed Orual to truly submit herself to the gods, with perfect understanding as to what that submission entailed.

Monday, March 3, 2008

Year in Israel

The Wall Street Journal has an article on post high school Israel programs, Jewish Year Abroad. The article focuses on the issue of “flipping out” and the “slide to the right.” Rabbi Yosef Blau, of Yeshiva University, and Samuel Heilman are quoted on this. This article offers a number of statistics; I would be curious as to what these are based on.