Hebrew College: Humanity vs. Divinity: Whose Side is Moses On?

In the spring of 2009, I took a graduate-level class co-offered by Hebrew College and the Andover Newton Theological School called Interfaith Models of Religious Leadership, taught by Rabbi Or Rose and Professor Gregory Mobley, examining the leadership styles of Moses and Jesus through interfaith engagement with the primary texts as well as writings from both Jewish and Christian scholars about both figures. This was my mid-term paper, wrapping up the Moses unit.

As the holiday of Passover approaches on the calendar, it’s hard to consider the role of Moses in the exodus from Egypt without questioning how important Moses himself really was in the liberation of the Jewish people.  After all, if he can be so completely[1] written out of the story that he doesn’t even bear mention at the Passover seder, was he ever really anything more than a prop?

Of course, the Haggadah, as a text with a particular religious purpose, has its own set of reasons for focusing its telling of the Exodus on God and away from Moses.  Popular culture certainly has its own set of reasons for storytelling choices, but as artifacts of “the people,” pop culture can offer windows into what elements of the story have captured the imaginations of regular folk in different times and places.

The giving of the Ten Commandments marks a border in the story of Moses, a liminal point at which the story of liberation transitions into a story of law-giving and nation-forming.  Because this moment signifies not only a transformation of the Israelites into a nation, but also a transformation of Moses from liberator to lawgiver, it serves as an interesting point of comparison through which to examine retellings of the story.  Comparing the account in Exodus 19-34 with a play from a medieval Corpus Christi cycle and a contemporary “musical spectacular” reveals telling differences in how each storyteller perceived the character of Moses at this moment in his story.

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Jewschool.com: On Schaudenfreude

Originally posted on Jewschool.com.

I work in the Jewish community, at a school in Boston, Massachusetts that has a robust relationship with a sister school in our sister city of Haifa, Israel. Every year, we host a delegation of tenth-graders who spend a week-and-a-half living with our students, learning about what it’s like to be a Jew in the diaspora. While most of the visit takes place during one of our students’ school vacation week, the Israelis usually arrive a few days before school gets out in the states. During these first few days, we (the administrators of the Boston) school spend our days showing the Israeli students and their teachers around town. Our time is split between Jewish sites, from the Federation to the old neighborhoods, and more touristy fare.

A couple of years ago, when it fell to me to plan the tourism segments of the week, someone suggested to me that I take the group to the Mapparium. I have lived in Boston nearly my entire life but had never heard of the Mapparium, much less visited, but it sounded fine, so I booked tickets. When we visited, we had extra time on our hands, so we were also able to work in a tour of the Christian Science Monitor newsroom. I didn’t really know anything about the paper beforehand, but having worked in journalism for a time, I was really struck by the core values of the CSM. In the words of Mary Baker Eddy, the paper’s aim was “to injure no man, but to bless all mankind.” Or, in the words of the paper’s current administration, “our aim is to embrace the human family, shedding light and understanding with the conviction that truth is the beginning to solutions.” Continue reading

Jewschool.com: Having Faith in the Media

Originally published on Jewschool.com.

When I was in high school, one of the stops on USY‘s Israel tours was The Propaganda Center. I’m fairly certain that wasn’t actually its name, but I defy you to google “Israel propaganda center” and come up with anything useful. Regardless, this place was supposed to teach us about spotting bias in the media. Although I went there twice during high school, I don’t remember the specifics — some of it involved seeing how Hitler’s media peeps used images of Kosher slaughter to make Jews look like devil-worshippers with bloodlust. What I do remember is that even though I was already aware that pretty much all media had some sort of bias, watching the folks at The Propaganda Center poke holes in actual news stories forever changed the way I read the news about Israel (and much of the news in general).

Blind SpotAbout a month ago, I had a similar experience that has changed the way I read the news, only this time it was in book form. Reading Blind Spot: When Journalists Don’t Get Religion was an experience of consciousness-raising. The anthology, edited by Paul Marshall, Lela Gilbert, and Roberta Green Ahmanson, takes contemporary newsmedia to task for misunderstanding and sometimes simply missing critical stories because of an epidemic of ignorance about religion in the world’s newsrooms. Some of the stories analyzed are what you’d expect: Iraq, Iran, terrorism, etc… but perhaps the most interesting chapters cover the ways a misunderstanding of religion crippled the reporting of George W. Bush’s reelection, the hooplah surrounding The Passion of the Christ, and faith-based humanitarian programs. (The best “fun fact” I took away from the book, however, relates to the 24-hour cable news stations. Turns out they get higher marks than most other news outlets. Since they have so much time to fill with only so many stories happening on any given day, they’ve taken to exploring many more angles for each story simply out of necessity. That doesn’t make them any less annoying.)

Naturally, I approached the book searching for bias. After all, this could have easily been a conservative screed against the Liberal Media Elite. And to be fair, there’s a little of of that in evidence. But part of the book’s point is that religion doesn’t always equal conservatism, and that outlook is a huge part of the problem to begin with. So, for example, when religious liberals and religious conservatives banded together to champion human rights legislation (such as the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000, the Sudan Peace Act of 2002, and the North Korean Human Rights Act of 2004), the remarkable alliances at work were overlooked in most press. This does everyone a disservice, especially the end-consumers of the news who end up with a flattened and inaccurate view of the world.

The book avoids one of my pet peeves (whining about a problem without offering a solution). The final section of the book is called “Getting it Right,” and includes an article about some notable exceptions to the trend, and another with recommendations for the future. Of course, some of the recommendations, which include something akin to an affirmative action program to place more religiously connected people in newsrooms, may not be so realistic in these end times of traditional media. But at the very least, those writing the news should be aware of their own blind spots and look for collaborations that will enrich their understanding of the stories of the day. Even the most casual observer of world events can see that the place of religion in shaping our day isn’t getting any smaller, so we owe it to ourselves to meet the challenge of understanding head-on.

Livejournal: Workshop My Writing

Originally published on my long-defunct Livejournal.

I’m participating in a Jewish Young Adults’ Writers Workshop. This month, our assignment was to write a two-page scene “in which two people who are fated to become involved meet for the first time.”

I’ve been fooling around with doing a gay take on the Biblical story of Jacob for a while now, so I thought I’d use this opportunity to rethink Genesis 28. After all, that’s Jacob’s first meeting with God, and I think it’s fair to say the two are fated to become involved.  To refresh your memory, this happens when Jacob has left his parents’ house en route to his uncle’s home, where he’s been sent by his father so he can find a wife from within his clan.

I just finished my first draft. It’s very drafty. I’m going to rewrite it tomorrow before I show it to anyone in the workshop. But since I have neither the self-confidence to do this on my own nor the shame to be embarrassed by the considerable shortcomings of this draft, I’m posting it here for feedback first.

A couple of caveats: I’ve been debating whether this should be set in modern times vs. ancient times, and in America vs the original places. In this draft, it’s modern America. That is almost definitely the wrong answer. I think tomorrow I will attempt modern-but-original-places. I may end up just going for overall anachronistic. It worked for Joseph Heller’s retelling of the David story.

Also, I’m not sure what to do about the sex. I’m not sure my answer below works – what do you think? I don’t want it to get pornographic, and I think there’s good reason to leave it ambiguous as to what exactly happens, but… well, tell me what you think.

Okay, enough with the caveats. Here goes:  Continue reading