The Caving Walls of the Study Hall

My favorite story in all of Judaism isn’t in the Torah. It’s in the Talmud, where it’s written that rabbis were arguing over whether a certain oven was ritually impure or not; one rabbi said it was, and others said it was not.

The rabbi who said it was said, “If I’m right, this tree will prove it!” and the tree to which he pointed uprooted itself. But the other rabbis said, “An uprooted tree isn’t an argument; do better than that.”

So the first rabbi pointed to a stream and said, “If I’m right, this stream will prove it!” And the stream began flowing backwards, but the other rabbis shrugged and said, “A stream isn’t an argument, either; do better.”

And finally the first rabbi pointed to the walls of the study where they were arguing, and said, “If I’m right, and Heaven agrees with me, the walls of the study will prove it!” And the ground shook, and dust fell from the roof, and walls of the study leaned, and tilted, and began to fall in on the rabbis, and the sky opened into light, and an angel appeared and cried, “Why must you argue with him, even as the study is about to bury you alive, since the whole world shows that Heaven is in accordance with his opinion!”

Upon which one of the disagreeing rabbis leapt to his feet and said, “How dare you!”

The walls stilled; the ground ceased to shake. And the disagreeing rabbi said, “The law is not in Heaven; the law was given to us, on Earth, at Mount Sinai. God wasn’t invited to this argument. God doesn’t own the Torah – humans do; and if the walls cave in on us, that won’t prove a thing. Walls aren’t an argument. Make a real argument, with reason and logic, with the law. Do better.”

And the walls stood upright again, and the stream began to flow in its natural path, and the tree rooted itself back into the ground. And the rabbis continued to argue; and the first rabbi, who had called the tree and stream and walls to move, was found to be incorrect, since the majority of the rabbis disagreed with him.

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The Jewish faith places a certain emphasis on duty and obligation. It’s at the heart of the way the Torah writes God: the stories of Adam and Eve and Noah go by, are discussed in terms of righteousness and obedience, of knowledge and ignorance. But it’s not until the story of Abraham that any Jews actually come into the narrative: the first Jew is Abraham, because God comes to him and says, “I am going to make a covenant with you.”

The word covenant means agreement; it carries the connotation of contract, of alliance, of bargain. The Jewish people’s bargain is this: they will be God’s people, and in return, God will be their god. God will give them a way of life, and in return, they will live it; they will choose God, and in return, God will choose them.

As I’ve said, I don’t believe in God, but that doesn’t mean I don’t believe in Judaism. In this case, what that means is that I believe in bargains. I believe in debts. I believe that law is not just rules for rules’ sake; instead, law is duty, obligation, an action you owe to another person in exchange for what they have done for you. Duty is a debt to be repaid.

For that reason I think about this photo:


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On Loving the Stranger

The Torah calls on Jews specifically to welcome – precisely, to “love” – converts to Judaism. It’s forbidden to disclose a Jew’s status as a convert; it’s forbidden to say that they are somehow “unreal” Jews, that their Judaism is lesser. Because conversion is such a deliberately difficult process, and because the Jewish community is so tight-knit, this is necessary and has likely been necessary for thousands of years. It’s difficult to be a convert in the Jewish community; it’s a mitzvah to make it easier.

Ivanka Trump is a problem.

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Returning to Narnia

I woke up Sunday morning in an absolutely awful mood – a straight week of rain, friend group drama, the deep and existential dread that pervades all otherwise unburdened moments of our brief lives, my cat was mad at me, etc. – and decided to put the feeling to good use before it went away by rereading the Chronicles of Narnia.

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Congress, Culture, and a New Year’s Resolution

American religion has been in the news lately, specifically regarding federal partisan politics: we’ve seen stories about Democrats’ “religion problem” (as code for a problem with middle-American white Christianity), Congress’ increasing religious diversity but stable amount of Christian members, and just yesterday, an explanation for the latter phenomenon: the complex place of religiously unaffiliated voters within American religious politics.

It’s the last story that I’m interested in. The author is seeking to explain the “demographic mismatch between Congress and the rest of the country” – specifically, the underrepresentation of the “religiously unaffiliated”, who make up 23% of the country but are only represented by one religiously unaffiliated member of Congress.

The explanations for this are sensible and coherent: that religiously unaffiliated Americans tend to be young and therefore rarely vote; that they aren’t a demographically coherent group – they’re made up of atheists and agnostics, but also converts-in-progress, people in mixed-faith homes, and people who just don’t care very much about their religious identity – and are therefore unlikely to organize with each other; that it’s also difficult to organize based on a lack of identity, an unaffiliation.

It is these factors, the author suggests, which keep Congress’ religious demographics standing as they do – and if religiously unaffiliated voters are dissatisfied with the current state of affairs, “they can vote”.

The article is an excellent exploration of why the religiously unaffiliated are unlikely to be specifically represented in Congress. However, it does not explore what seems to me to be the more pertinent question: why this 23% of unaffiliated Americans should be almost universally represented by Christian members of Congress, instead of members of a variety of faiths.

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I had never seen them in any movies when they first became a couple, which was the point of it, really; it was almost a shock to see Brad Pitt’s face in Fight Club, in Ocean’s Eleven, years later when my world had opened up to the age-inappropriate. It was almost a shock to find out he was an actor – that she was an actress – that these words, movie star, were not markers of caste or superiority but descriptions for a job that people did. That they were paid to perform labor I could touch, see, consume.

It is a fact of childhood that the world is populated by two sorts of people. The first sort is the real: your parents, your siblings, your neighbors, your babysitter, your teachers, the dogs you see on the street. The second sort is the unreal: the monsters under the bed, your Barbie dolls, the cowboys and pirates you’ll be when you grow up, Harry Potter, Robin Hood, historical figures like George Washington or Abraham Lincoln who you can play-pretend as. The celebrities in the magazines you see at the supermarket.

This second sort are not false, not even quite imaginary. You can see them, speak to them, go on adventures with them. But you also know, instinctively and deeply, that you do not need to treat them like they are real. They are gone once you stop looking at them. There’s a flatness to them, an animation, a brightness that the real ones can’t summon. They are not there for their own sake; their stories are for you. You can put them back in the box when you’re done.

One tries to avoid the realization, for example, that one’s parents are people. It’s unavoidably unpleasant. No matter how wonderful the two people that raised you are – and many of them are very wonderful – it is awful to suddenly know that they too were born, grew up, thought and felt and think and feel.

It is often simultaneous with the realization that one’s parents are not perfect. But it is not synonymous, and this distinction is important: knowing that one’s parents have made mistakes is not the same as knowing that one’s parents are humans, that even their good qualities are human qualities, that they see each other as people and not as natural phenomena.

It is an unspeakably rich realization – all the more so for the fact that it comes shortly before one realizes that everyone is a person, that everyone has the same depth of feeling as oneself, that everyone has a distinct voice and a unique personality and a compelling story and a set of habits and quirks reflected in no other person. There is a more-ness to the world, afterwards.

But there is a less-ness, as well; and it is a lessening of that brightness, of that flatness, of that glamor and gleam and coloring and background soundtrack. It is a realization that all of one’s stories about other people are, in the end, imaginary. That eventually all of the painted sets in the Hollywood of the mind will be taken down, and the credits will roll, and the actors will be sitting in front of you, a little smaller than you imagined they would be.

I had never seen either of them in any movies, and that is the point of it, in the end. They had no jobs; they had no lives. They existed in magazine spreads for me, static, like a mosquito frozen in amber.

They were very beautiful there.