Sunday, August 30, 2009

Ellul, the Month of the Storm God

Here we are in Ellul, the month when we try to convince God to judge us favorably for the coming year. I thought I’d post a few questions about this month I’ve never found decent answers for.

1) I’ll start with my oldest question. In first grade at the beginning of the year I learned that we blow shofer every day during Ellul, except the day before Rosh HaShanah. On Erev Rosh HaShanah we don’t blow the shofer in order to confuse the Satan. Apparently by blowing the shofer we have warned him that Rosh HaShanah is coming, and he has been preparing his case against us. When we stop for a day he thinks he has missed Rosh HaShanah and is confused, which ruins his prosecution of us.

How does this work year after year? Maybe the first time we did this the Satan would be confused, but the hundredth? The thousandth? This is the same being who we are always being warned is super-clever, who is able to lead us astray while making us think that we are being pious, then going to the Heavenly Court with perfect arguments against us. Is he really so dense that after three and a half millennia he hasn’t figured this out?

And once he does figure it out, omitting shofer on Erev Rosh HaShanah is a heads-up that tomorrow is the big day. Kind of counter-productive.

2) I understand that being judged can inspire one to try to better himself. And I can understand that being more careful than usual for a limited time (a month) is easier than doing the same thing indefinitely. But what do people think they gain by adopting extra-pious practices just for Elul? Do they think that God will be fooled into thinking they are better than they really are? Or is it supposed to work like a bribe? “Hey God, I’ll do a little something extra for You, and come Rosh HaShanah You do a little something extra for me.” *Wink*

3) Perhaps the least serious, but the one I find the most annoying, are the cute vorts that darshan the name of the month of Ellul. It is undisputed that we adopted the names we use for the months from the Babylonians. The Babylonians named their months after their gods. So anyone who makes a drasha from the name “Ellul” is finding deeper Jewish meaning in the name of a Babylonian god. I know that most of these vorts are just meant to be cute, but it smacks of historical revisionism to try to find hidden Jewish meaning in the name of a pagan god. Especially since so much of Judaism is designed to be specifically anti-pagan.

A quick Google search turns up a Babylonian god named Enlil, who was a weather god. Wikipedia says that it was “sometimes rendered in translations as Ellil in later Akkadian, Hittite, and Canaanite literature.” I don’t know if this is actually where we get Ellul, but seems to be a good possibility. So let’s all try to be better servants of God during this month of the God of Storms.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Fences of Tissue Paper

I had an interesting conversation this past Shabbos with one of my wife’s friends. She’s a fairly typical frum girl, went to a somewhat liberal bais-yaakov type school, and is well-educated (master’s degree). She came to visit us Shabbos afternoon, and I’m afraid that the conversation turned to religion. As the conversation moved from minhagim to halachah she realized that I think most of it is nonsense.

It was fascinating how she brought up the typical arguments in favor of Judaism, no doubt gleaned from high-school and seminary hashkafa classes, and how easily I was able to brush them aside with counter-arguments. It was like walking through a security fence made of tissue paper. Of course I didn’t change her mind, but to her credit she readily admitted that I had some good points.

The conversation brought home to me again that most frum Jews (and I imagine most other religious people too) never give much thought to why they believe what they do, and accept the “proofs” they are taught as children without ever evaluating these ideas as adults. Worse, this girl is probably somewhat smarter than average, yet her ignorance of history (even Jewish history), theology, and logic was appalling. Granted, theology isn’t a particular interest of hers, and most of us are ignorant of subjects which don’t interest us, so perhaps she can be excused. But the fact remains that she is going through life with an unexamined belief system, relying on flimsy arguments she was taught as a teenager.

Another interesting thing I noticed was that many of the points that came up I’ve seen around the blog-sphere or have discussed here. I realized that as I write, ideas that have been floating around inside my head for years coalesce into coherent points. It also (unfortunately?) makes them more prominent. For the most part, I’ve managed to compartmentalize. There’s what I believe (or don’t), and there’s what I do. As the ideas become more prominent, it becomes harder to perform the actions without thinking about them. Why bother? Well, that’s another post.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Sex, Drugs, and Rock & Roll

[I wrote this back in March and never got around to posting it.]

This morning on the news I saw a profile piece of a woman who was apparently a famous singer in the 60’s. The piece covered her life from her rise to stardom in her late teens; through an early marriage which she abandoned a few years later, rocky relationships with male singers, and drug addictions; and ended triumphantly with her rebuilt career and latest album release.

What struck me was that her biography matched so well with the yeshivish caricature of non-frum life as ruled by passions and inevitably hedonistic.

I wonder if modern celebrity culture could be reinforcing those stereotypes. In many science fiction stories characters worry about aliens judging humanity based on what we broadcast. Obviously, the aliens would get an extremely distorted view of human culture if their only exposure was radio and TV broadcasts. Yeshivish society, which goes out of its way to isolate itself from the rest of the world, knows of the world only through cultural osmosis. Big stories usually manage to leak through, perhaps from someone who listens to the news on the radio. The stories get passed around, and the result is a distorted version of the news show’s 10-second blurb caricaturing the latest celebrity scandal. These stories are repeated as proof that the outside world is morally corrupt.

I don’t have any evidence that this actually happens aside from some limited personal experience, but its an interesting thought.