About “Male” Religion and “Female” Freedom

At the peak of Germany’s latest “circumcision-debate,”[1] talkshow host Anne Will invited an orthodox rabbi, so as to let him defend the position of his folks. Inexperienced with contemporary religious tribunals, the rabbi brought forth what was, to him, the single one relevant argument: “If circumcision is going to be forbidden, we will continue in any case…because it is written in the Torah: On the eights day, his foreskin shall be circumcised” (Lev 12:3). Needless to say that with this explanation, the rabbi gave the audience the gratification of being easily identifiable as a religious fanatic: he was – as is obvious from what he just said – a fundamentalist one cannot reasonably talk to.

Of course, not all Jews quoted the word of God in order to illuminate circumcision’s raison d’être. Some willfully followed the choreography, which dominates religious tribunals from the Middle Ages onwards, and has the accused trapped in (of course futile) attempts to prove Judaism’s compatibility with Christian and/or secular notions of the truth. Whether such rhetorical compliance is a strategic choice or a matter of conviction – one thing is certain: Any speech about God in a secular space has to grapple with the ways, in which secularism has not only installed a division between earthly and divine power, but also rearticulated “religion” in a manner that is compatible with modern sensibilities and modes of governance.[2]

Germany’s “circumcision-debate” did not come alone. The debate needs to be read as an integral part of the religious debates that preceded and followed it – most of which were directed against Muslims, Germany’s principal bearers of “religion.” This is not to deny the circumcision-debate’s unique qualities and dynamics, which developed when Germans figured that circumcision is not only a Muslim, but also a Jewish practice – yet, I hold that the circumcision-debate’s ideological context are all those debates, that had previously scrutinized, stigmatized and criminalized the religious practice of Muslims: The debate about the “meaning” of a hijab, about prayer in public schools and universities, about religious education in mosques or Islamic kindergartens, about Muslim girls’ participation in swimming lessons, about handshaking, to mention just a few.

A central element in all these debates is an anxiety about the subject’s free will and the way the latter is deployed vis-à-vis her body. During the circumcision-debate, for example, one of the most notorious and powerful arguments against the rite focused on the obvious lack of “free will” on the part of the child: How can the German State permit Muslim and Jewish parents to inscribe the bodies of their innocent minor offspring with an irreversible religious mark? How can parents force a religion upon a child that does not have the slightest understanding of what said religion is all about? More generally, this argument is time and again brought forth also against the religious education of children: Children should either grow “naturally,” without any “premature indoctrination,” or learn about every religious tradition, so that they may henceforth choose from among what they “liked best.” In order for a religious practice to be accepted at least by left-wing liberals in favor of “religious diversity,” it is thus crucial for this practice to pass as an expression of an individual’s free choice. Accordingly, both hijab-wearing women and their secular supporters defend the hijab in public spaces as an individual choice, and not as a religious obligation.

The practice of circumcision, however, does not fit this strategy. It completely undermines the standard arguments of left-wing liberals in favor of religious diversity and self-determination, because circumcision simply cannot aptly be described as “just another choice.” It is obviously not the child’s “choice,” but neither is it the parent’s “choice”: From a Jewish religious perspective at least, circumcision is not a choice among any number of equally worthy options. There is no marketplace of different practices, from which a “consumer” may pick whatever suits her best, because the body is here not a thing, which an individual owns and with which she can do whatever she is inclined to do. It is not a commodity to possess, analogous to a thing being purchased. It is, rather, something that defines the self long before the latter is able to capture itself in language (hence, the obligatory and pre-discursive character of circumcision). The rite’s opponents thus detected, quite accurately, that circumcision is, indeed, about subjugation, in which an individual’s “free choice” does not take center stage.

In this respect then, practices such as circumcision fundamentally contradict contemporary identity-politics, which do not recognize the body as a guarantor of stable (gendered) identity and a site of self-evident (masculine) power: In contemporary Europe, difference is no longer explicitly, in a socially acceptable way, articulated through reference to the body, that is, through gender and/or race. This does of course not mean, that gender has ceased to work, that it is an obsolete category. Rather, I’d suggest that difference, that was previously articulated in terms of gender and race, is today negotiated primarily in terms of “male” religion vis-à-vis “female” freedom: The face of Islam – again: Islam as the primary bearer of “religion” – is decisively decoded as male and black, that is, the “old” way of being male. It is autocratic, violent, physical, and dangerously virile, it even “conquers.” It is, if I may, everything the “new,” Western male was once, but is no longer. In contrast to the “old” manliness of religion/Islam, the “new” manliness – that is, the new way of exercising cultural superiority – entails a disavowal of the male body as a site of symbolic and actual power: the face of the New Right in Europe does not feature archaic machismo, but female leadership figures, and female self-determination against religious (male) authority as one its most prominent pet issues.

My question then is: Are all those debates about the embodied practices of “religion” a reflection of a sense of insecurity regarding the cultural superiority of this “new” manliness? Or why do Europe’s “new men” feel such an urgent need to constantly hurt the bodily integrity of others, to unveil female hair, faces and bodies, to obligate children to shake hands, to circumvent the public bowing down in prayer, to define the proper look of the male sexual organ – to emasculate whatever reminds them of what was once, but is lost? Why do so many people attack the body in an age, which has stripped the body of any innate, intrinsic meaning? Is this because the enchanted body is (still) too desirable?


9e67349cb1bec817b7bf99a4d976026d[1] For an analysis of previous German circumcision debates see Robin Judd, Contested Rituals: Circumcision, Kosher Butchering, and Jewish Political Life in Germany, 1843-1933, Cornell University Press 2007.

[2] A person, who embodies a religious practice, that runs counter these notions, thus faces something like an ever-ongoing Fanonic moment: Even before uttering a first word, she has to take into account that her audience yields secularism a non-negotiable necessity and religion a threat – with the threat growing proportionally to her religion’s distance from modern notions of what a religion is, and how it should behave like.

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Who Is Mandolina?

On a late afternoon, a chilly spring-day, I rushed down Gihon Street of Jerusalem’s Abu-Tur neighborhood. I had to get to the main street’s bus station, to catch number 74 downtown. A few months earlier we had married, and moved from Nahla’ot to Abu-Tur, into an apartment of a house, that people referred to as “the last house of Gihon Street.” It was not that this street ended with our house – our house gained its appellation simply because it was the last house of Gihon Street’s Jewish part. Right next to it, the remains of a wall from the 67’-war marked the “border,” the border between “Jewish Jerusalem,” and the other, unknown, “Arab Jerusalem”: that part, which is – from the perspective of the city’s Jewish inhabitants – some kind of a white spot or a black hole, where the names of neighborhoods and streets become indistinguishable gibberish, where I would not get along, be lost, a total stranger.

Yet, a stranger I was also in “Jewish Jerusalem”: Women who looked like me were sitting in the bus next to me, reading Psalms, or calling their families on their mobile phones to organize the Shabbat’s set up – yet I had no family in Israel, and instead of Psalms, I had just discovered Talal Asad’s “Formations of the Secular.” Jerusalem’s German expats didn’t offer any refuge, too: as a convert, who deliberately chose to belong to the not-yet-enlightened Psalm-readers, I was referred to as a more or less pitiful person, whose academic brain melts away like a snow-man in the sun. I was, in short, an assemblage of unrelated parts, with myself (and my apartment, coincidentally) being located at an unidentifiable in-between place, where no other people were dwelling, where there was no recognizable community, no solidarity, no natural buffer-zone.


On that chilly afternoon, on my way to the bus-stop, I met Mandolina. Mandolina – who did not have her name back then – was a cat, maybe one month old, not bigger than a fist. She was dwindled up in a bush next to the street, crying, because her belly was ripped open. There were branches, thorns, dust and dirt, and a bundle of blood, bowels entangled around legs, with a faint breathing body. Frantically, I searched for the phone-number of the city’s veterinary emergency. Someone picked up: Yes, they would come, but it may take a while.

I waited next to the bush. The hours passed by. The sun slowly vanished, the sky turned red, and the air became cold and serene. I am not sure, cat, what we are doing here, I told her. She kept on breathing; I kept on waiting.

It was dark already when the veterinary service arrived. With a pair of tongs, similar to those that are used to pick up rubbish from the street, they grabbed her, placed her in a metal cage, took my phone number, and drove away. She will not make it, they told me.

Mandolina, however, made it. Three days later, I got a phone call from the veterinary service: The cat had survived surgery, but it couldn’t remain any longer at the veterinary station. Outside, the chilly weather and the rain would turn the wound inflammatory, so if I could take the cat into my home? Yes, I said, sure, the cat can stay with me!

Again, she was locked up in a metal cage. When the veterinary service worker opened it, she ran out in total panic, crushed a few times against the walls, and eventually hid behind the fridge. Ok, he said, goodbye then.

For two weeks, she left her hideaway only during the nights, in order to eat some of the food, which I had placed next to the fridge. In the night, I heard her wandering around, yet as soon as she heard the rustling of my blanket, she ran back to the fridge, her refuge. We advanced in small steps: First, she stared at me when I was sitting at my computer, a few meters away from the fridge. Weeks later, she stared at me also when I was walking around in the apartment, hiding only when I came too close to her fridge. It took a few months, until she dared to touch my hand with her little nose. In the meantime, we had built her a little shack in the garden right next to our apartment’s window, from where she could jump in- and out. She never became fully domesticated.

When we left Jerusalem for Berlin, Mandolina stayed behind. I placed a full plate of food next to her shack – she immediately came to fetch it – and I closed the windows of our apartment, the garden’s backdoor, the apartment’s door, and left the “last house” of Gihon Street. I passed the place where I had found her, walked down the street to the bus stop, to the central bus station, to the airport. Our neighbors agreed to give her food, yet we lost contact with them. I have no idea what happened to Mandolina: for a few weeks, she probably waited for food to be placed next to her shack. I hope that she made it, and am tentatively optimistic: Even though she had always remained small, she had a strong survival instinct, and luck, too.


When setting up my blog, one of the stages of registration entailed the naming of the site’s domain. I didn’t know that, unlike the blog’s title, I could of course not change the domain-name later on. And that’s how a blog called “Mandolina” came into being: It was simply the first name that came to my mind. She remained in my heart, if you wish to phrase it like that.

This name fits, however, because much of my writing here is a continuation of something, that started many years earlier in “Gihon Street’s last house,” during the time Mandolina was living in our garden (which was not officially “our garden” at all). The feeling of insecurity and melancholy of this time have vanished, yet still, the blog’s vantage point is that moment when turning from a self-evident, naturally belonging agent into an object, or a “problem,” of contemporary notions of “the good,” the reasonable, the right, the important. Of course, this means that this blog is not about pleasing the majority of readers: it is about re-thinking that, which pleases the majority of readers. It is, at the end of the day, about finding words for a vantage point, that is situated at the margin of a place, where street-names sound familiar, and glides into another place, that is the dominion of another law, quite literally. A place, where me and Mandolina gradually lost our panic, reassembled our selves, and tried to make sense of this fragile, particular beginning of a new life.


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The Hebrew Manuscripts of the Bodleian Library in Oxford: An entirely Non-Academic Account

At some point in the course of my studies, I decided that I am not a manuscript-person. Maybe this was simply due to laziness, or haughtiness, or both: After working for a couple of months on the transcription of a Hebrew manuscript from Renaissance Italy (precisely: Yohanan Alemanno’s magnum opus, Hay ha-Olamim), I tossed all my work into the archive, and never opened the microfiche-pdf again.

On my way to the manuscript-collection of the Bodeleian library in Oxford I therefore did not expect anything overtly spectacular. Together with a group of some 15 academics, I had attended a (very cool) summer-school in a nearby castle-hotel, and after being transferred to downtown-Oxford for Shabbat, we were offered a guided tour through the Hebrew collection of the library. The chief-librarian, César Merchán, welcomed us at the entrance: An old building, high ceilings, a lots of marble, a security counter, lockers for bags and jackets, acclimatized air, silence. Like many times before, I sensed that old, academic buildings imbue their guests with an aura of authority, secrecy, importance, as if one enters a temple, in which matters of higher orders are being stored, made accessible only to the selected few – one immediately becomes a little too underdressed, a little too profane, a little too working-class.

Passing another few doors with locks secured by secret codes, we entered a room, into which César had previously moved some manuscripts. On a wheeled cupboard, one next to the other, they were waiting. César heaved a huge Mahzor upon a plastic-foam-construction on a table in the middle of the room, and let his hands wander through the pages. 13th century, Ashkenaz.

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For a quarter of a second, I thought that something’s utterly wrong here, that César is not really the Bodleian’s Hebrew chief-librarian, but a charlatan who had tricked his way illegally into the temple: How come, I asked him, that you touch the pages without gloves? Shouldn’t there be some kind of protective barrier between your hands and the 13th century? How can you touch something so fragile? “Oh no,” he said, turning to me, “there are two schools among librarians of manuscripts. One advocates the use of gloves, but the other holds that you have to feel the pages.” The use of any additional tool would not protect them, but reduce the sensibility of the hands, as nothing is more sensitive, more perceptive, than real skin. The preferred method of the Boldelain library is, therefore, literally “skin on skin”: the skin of human hands gliding over the skin of an animal, the parchment. A sensory meeting of the hands of the living, the active, the powerful, with letters, motionless on parchment, fragile, a thousand years old. Or maybe the other way around – for what would we be without those letters?

Ohhh, I murmured, and was reminded of the Brit of Joel: In an attempt to understand the medical dimension of the intervention, I had asked our Mohel if he would use any devises, or tools, besides the regular ones. But he assured me, that he would need solely his hands. Any “medical” addition would interrupt the procedure unnecessarily, and bear the risk of complication. Skin on skin, again.

The Mahzor measured some 50 x 30cm, with a width of approximately 15cm. Its script and layout were even, almost as if printed, without mistakes. One could see how the pages had been prepared: cut, smoothed, nearly invisible lines being embossed at each page, an incredible amount of work before the scribe had set his first letter on the parchment. Someone in our group rejoiced upon identifying at first glance a particular part of the Sukkot-liturgy: Did the scribe of this Mahzor ever imagine, that 1000 years apart from his own life, the eyes of a professor for Talmudic law would meet his letters, and mean precisely the same thing they meant to him? How many eyes, how many places, how many hands had this Mahzor seen? How many Jews have carried its weight, how did it survive? It must be heavy, I thought, its transportation not especially convenient, and difficult. Each page was illustrated with ornaments, fable-animals, human-beings without faces, colors and layers of gold. Meticulously, millimeter-by-millimeter, the illustrator had beautified each page, as if the immeasurable value of the words needed to be accompanied by material, aesthetic worth.

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Each page had a “micrography” at its bottom, which César explained us to be a particularly Jewish type of illumination. Mircographies are tiny, tiny Hebrew letters combined to form an ornament, that is, it is not the illumination of a letter, but the very use of the letter itself as a “limb” of the illustration. It is unknown what motivated this kind of artwork: possibly, it circumvents a prohibition of images, yet possibly, too, the use of a letter as a physical component of a larger image, or ornament, is also a visualization of the Jewish interpretative tradition: Viewed from above, it is an image, a coherent whole, an entire world, yet the closer you draw, the more you become aware of a multitude of components, details, interwoven one into the other, a “massekhet,” a web, made up of tiny little bodies of letters, each one in and of itself an indispensable, corporeal component of the universe.

César turned the pages, something he had done probably at least a dozen times before our visit. Despite British correctness and professionalism, his face seemed to be filled with admiration, affection, love for what he was doing.

On our way out of the library, we passed a few high-ceiled reading-halls named after people. Serious scholars dressed in neutral colors were sitting in rows above their books and manuscripts. No food, no drinks. If I had decided to become a manuscript-person, would I sit here, too? Would I be smart and patient enough to prepare a critical edition, or would I schedule as many coffee-dates as possible and sneak into facebook for digression? Would I be fond of my manuscripts like César? Glancing over the ethereal-looking scholars, I saw myself sitting on the ground with Joel, handling toys, strollers, bottles, bananas, ice-cream, invitations to the kindergarten’s summer-party, team-days, and the laundry, tired. I envied their tranquility, the quietness and cleanliness of their temple, their effortless appropriateness. The Mahzor was an expat here: It was written by the light of the sun and candles, it wandered through the hands of those, who prepared the parchment, the ink, the script, who illustrated it, who carried it from place to place on their backs, or in wagons, who recited its words on the Festival of Sukkot. A few of its pages had been damaged by the teeth of a mouse. It must have seen the fullness of life.

(César had advised us to look at the manuscripts in their digitalized form, accessible on the library’s website. A collection of micrography-highlights, for example, is here).

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Short Note: Post About Jewish Studies in Berlin

I just wanted to say that I took that last blogpost off the blog, because I cannot publish anything here, in my blog, before its “official” publication in a normal, traditional journal and/or presentation at a conference! I should have thought about this before, of course, but well…so my apologies.

If you have more questions, suggestions, critique etc. please feel free to contact me in private (via facebook or mail). It is important to have that conversation.

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About Mountains Being Held (Or: Another Take on the Issue of Commandments)

A famous, often-quoted midrash depicts the Giving of the Torah to the Children of Israel at Mount Sinai. The midrash has God holding a mountain in his fist, and the Israelites are assembled beneath it. God asks them if they would like to get this Torah: If yes, He would keep on holding the mountain, if not, He would just let it tumble down.

According to this midrash, God obviously didn’t bother whether or not His children wanted to receive His commandments. Whether or not they “like” them, whether or not they can make sense of them – God really could not have been interested less. For the Israelites at Mount Sinai, there was no process of intellectual understanding, let alone choosing, but a flash of force, and no way back.

To be forced to do something (or not to do something) is, according to our modern intuition, a negative thing. We value deeds, when they are the result of a conscious, well-informed, reasoned choice, when they are a result of our freedom, and hence, an authentic expression of our innermost selves. A deed, which was “forced” upon you, has no such value; it is, at best, a superficial performance, but does not express any intrinsic “truth.” If you do something without understanding it, possibly without even wanting it, you will sooner or later “free” yourself from it: Such deed being no more than an empty vessel, a letter without spirit, is doomed to fade into oblivion.



I remember the morning after my wedding: I had to leave the house, and figured that I was expected to wrap my hair with some kind of scarf. Not that I’ve not thought about this before – yet, as long as matters remained abstract, as long as one is not really there, in that particular situation, the feeling is difficult to imagine: I was expected, from now on, no matter what, to wander around in public with my hair covered. It didn’t make sense to me at all: Why should all out of a sudden my hair be “nakedness”? Why should belief be related to my head looking like a potato wrapped in an unidentifiable pile of textiles? And why should women suffer yet another intrusion into their bodily autonomy? I do not let any fashion-magazine tell me that I should diet, so why should I let (male) religious authorities tell me what to put on my head? The only, really the only reason I covered my hair nonetheless was some dull sense of an obligation: I was a new religious Jew, and this is what was expected of me to do. Could I have rebelled against this? Yes I could. But I didn’t.

After a year of obligatory wrapping, we moved from Jerusalem to Berlin. I initially anticipated this move as a step into freedom: In contrast to Jerusalem, in Berlin no one would care for my head-covering and bestow religious significance to its presence or absence. At best, it would pass as some weird fashion-statement or hippie-thing. Whatever I would choose to do in Berlin, I thought, it would be my own free choice.

I simply continued: The wrap still looked awful, but it somehow, clandestinely, had sneaked into my self-image. Sometimes, as if to prove to myself that I was free, I took it off. But then, something was strangely missing, and it didn’t feel the right thing to do. Somehow, the way I saw myself in public now included some textile tossed on top of my head. I still argued that covering one’s hair does not have the same religious importance as the observance of the Shabbat – yet nonetheless, covering, at this point, gained more and more subjective importance: With a very active baby in the house, wrapping became one of the few daily “Jewish” things I would do. Other positive commandments got a little pale, but wrapping remained, possibly because it is such an exterior, visible marker – though now, it was no more a marker I carried so as to be recognized by others.

Going along with this, I also tried to make it look better (no, this is not a footnote): Our local department store’s “tichel-section” won me as its new faithful customer, and I acquired more colors and patterns, poufs, anti-slip headbands, experimented with a “half-wrap,” and had all kinds of hair-cuts. When trying to find a wrap-style that would look “ok” on me, and actively engaging this commandment, I also started to own it: I became its “managing director,” it became a tool I could use, maybe a little similar to the process of slowly internalizing a foreign language, and eventually mastering it, so that the sentences flow out without effort.


Today I’d not take off my wrap voluntarily – yet, I would have never ever come to this place had I rejected the idea of an “obligation” in the first place.

Did the mountain vanish? In a way, the mountain is still there: The obligatory nature of the commandments remains. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter, if I “like” them, let alone understand them. But the mountain is no threat any longer: The subjugation to a commandment is the basis, upon which I can form an identity, and act in the world. It is because I do partake in this mitzvah, that I own it, and because I own it, I can also criticize certain aspects of it, and possibly, even make sense of it. It is mine. It is the place from which I can watch and interpret the world: A place that is not universal, but particular; a place that is not the end, but the very means (or: the tool?) through which I can be.


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The Man Who Did Not Love His Wife. (The Second Chapter of Mishnah Berakhot)

Every winter-term, I teach a class entitled “Introduction to the Mishnah.“ I go with my students through the first chapter of Mishna Berakhot (Blessings): From when on does one recite the Shma’ of evenings?[1] – it’s a text read a hundred times, analyzed up and down, back and forth. The last winter, we were quicker than usual, and had enough spare time to read also the Mishnah’s second chapter. On my way to the classroom, I skimmed the text.

The beginning of this second chapter seemed fairly “normal.” The first halakha declares, that in order to fulfill the obligation of the Shma’, one has to direct one’s heart at this mitzvah: One has to consciously intend to recite the Shma’. The succeeding halakhot delineate the precise meaning of “to direct one’s heart”: What, if all out of a sudden an important man passes by and says “hello” – may I interrupt my recitation? What, if I am just building a wall or sit on top of a tree – do I have to climb down before reciting? As usual, the Mishnah is eager to make the law livable in just any possible situation…

The Mishnah then turns to a group of people, who are exempt from reading the Shma’ of evenings: Grooms, right after their wedding ceremony, do not have to recite. No explicit reason for this exemption is given, yet, if the necessary prerequisite for fulfilling the mitzvah is “to direct one’s heart,” then this exemption seems somewhat logical: During the night following their wedding, grooms may simply not be able to direct their hearts at the Shma’. They are with their newly wed wives, after all.

Thus far, the Mishnah’s second chapter didn’t entail any noteworthy difficulty. I will be able to manage this, I thought, closed my book, and got another coffee-to-go before entering the classroom. However, I was wrong. This was not a “normal” text of law. Some 60 minutes later I found myself sitting in front of a bunch of students, in an ugly classroom, reading about a man, who does not love his wife.


Following the rule about the exemption of grooms, the Mishnah introduces a rather lengthy aggadic passage, starring Rabban Gamliel. Rabban Gamliel, the Mishnah tells, recited the Shma’ even on the first night that he got married. His students, bewildered, ask him for the reason of his behavior: “Didn’t you teach us, our teacher, that a groom is exempt from reciting Shma’ on the first night?” And Rabban Gamliel replies, with a little pathos: “I will not listen to you, to remove the kingdom of heaven from me for even one hour.” Nothing, not even his new wife, distracts Rabban Gamliel from directing his heart at the recitation of the Shma’!

Yet, this was not the only time that Rabban Gamliel did not behave according to halakhic conventions. Right after reporting this first incident about Rabban Gamliel’s wedding-night, the Mishnah transmits that he washed himself on the first night after his wife died – even though mourners are prohibited from doing so. Again, his students ask in amazement: “Didn’t you teach us, our teacher, that a mourner is forbidden to wash?” This time, however, Rabban Gamliel’s answer does not involve the “yoke of heaven” or any other heavyweight knock-out argument. His answer sounds thin-lipped, like an excuse: “I am not like other people. I am delicate.” The difference between the two explanations couldn’t be more drastic: Absolutely nothing, not even his wedding-night, can stop him from accepting the “yoke of heaven,” yet when his wife dies, it is his “weakness,” referred to by a Greek term (אסטניס), which lets him divert from the rules of mourning? If he was as devote as he claimed to be, then why couldn’t he wait just a little longer with his bath?

I got a little cautious feeling in my stomach when reading through these passages together with the students. Something is utterly wrong here, I thought. First of all, the Mishnah almost never transmits such lengthy narrative elements, and if it does, this has a reason. It seemed as if the Mishnah virtually urged us to acknowledge, that Rabban Gamliel’s behavior is absolutely not related to either devotion or weakness, but rather, to his relation with his wife: He recites the Shma’ in the night following his wedding, and bathes himself right after her death. If it is really piety, or devotion, which explains his behavior during the wedding-night, then piety should have stopped him from bathing right after his wife’s death! Possibly, then, it is not piety, which motivated his recitation of the Shma’ during his wedding-night. Possibly, he simply didn’t love his wife and thus could easily “direct his heart” to prayer.

As if determined to bolster this suspicion, the Mishnah then recounts Rabban Gamliel’s behavior following the death of his slave, Tavi. When Tavi died, Rabban Gamliel received words of comfort for him, even though one is halakhically prohibited from receiving words of comfort for slaves. This time, Rabban Gamliel is honest: “My slave Tavi was not like other slaves. He was kasher,” he explains. His reception of condolences had nothing to do with piety or weakness, but rather, with his relation to Tavi: Tavi’s death saddened Rabban Gamliel, and accordingly, he accepted words of comforts. Yet when his wife died, he was not all that sad, and thus bathed himself. And when they got married, he was not that exited, and could “direct his heart” at the recitation of the Shma’…

The narrative passage featuring Rabban Gamliel ends here. The chapter’s concluding halakha returns to the halakhic point in question – the exemption of grooms in the night after their wedding – and lays out that a groom, who wants to recite the Shma’, may do so. Rabban Gamliel, when reciting the Shma’ on his wedding-night, thus did not behave wrongly.

But someone is hesitant.

Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel says: Not everyone who wants to take on a name may take it on.

Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel is Rabban Gamliels son. He saw his father bathing right after his mother’s death, and he probably heard about his father’s recitation of the Shma’ right after marrying his mother: Not everyone, who claims piety his motivation and recites the Shma’ during the wedding night, should do so. His father, Rabban Gamliel, should rather have loved and mourned his mother.

David Hockney - My parents 1977 Tate Britain Museum

David Hockney / My Parents / 1977 / The Tate Gallery

From when on does one recite the Shma’ of evenings? The Mishnah begins, when the Jewish day begins: at night. It is the time people return to their houses from work, and gather around a table; it is the time, when husbands, wives and children meet. And the Mishnah, too, returns home: It follows the footsteps of a powerful sage, no less than Rabban Gamliel, from the study-house to his family. And it records the voice of Rabban Gamliel’s son, who is a witness of his father’s lack of love.

A couple of eyes looked up, and rested on me. Maybe I am fantasizing, but nobody texted, and my coffee had turned cold. Someone whispered, „oh man…“ and I must have looked a little helpless, saying: This is a text of profound beauty, guys, you see that?



(You can find the Mishnah’s full text, in English and Hebrew, here)

Mishnah: part of the “Oral Torah” – next to the Written Torah (= the Hebrew Bible) the most important writing of Judaism.
Halakha: a law, here: a unit of a Mishnah’s chapter.
Shma’: a core-piece of Jewish prayer. A declaration of faith, entailing the pillars of belief in one God and His commandments.
Mitzvah: a commandment.
Aggadic: of narrative character, as opposed to “halakhic” (= of legal character). Aggadic units are weaved into halakhic texts such as the Mishnah
Rabban: a title of honor given to the head of the Sanhedrin (=court of law)

[1] This first chapter exemplifies various typical characteristics of mishnaic texts. For example, the text’s underlying halakhic context is never explicitly spelled out. It is never explained, that the exact times for the Shma’ need to be known, because they determine whether or not one has to recite a blessing before reading the Shma’. In addition, the selection of the Shma’ of evenings seems random – yet it is not: The text runs parallel a Jewish day, and thus begins with a Jewish day’s very first mitzvah: the blessing, that precedes the Shma’ of evenings.


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Unruly Religion

A couple of weeks ago, I participated in a panel discussion about “discrimination on religious grounds.”[1] At the end of the discussion, someone in the audience asked me whether I had experienced a rise of anti-Semitism during the past months. I was not sure what to answer: No one has ever offended me, neither verbally nor physically, as a Jew. Yet, this answer would convey a message I did not want to convey, namely, that everything is fine. Nothing is fine. Just that the problem does not look like you think it does.


At some point in my life, I became a religious Jew. I didn’t expect this to cause any relevant upheaval in my socio-cultural milieu: Academics from the humanities, people, who are engaged in Jewish Studies, travel regularly to Israel, and have Israeli friends. Among my peers, it surely was ok, even superb, to be a Jew. And yet, the appearance of another “kind” of Jew – the religious Jew – triggered their profound discomfort. Nothing I had done affected them in any straightforward, practical way, but glossing over it was nonetheless not an option: I learned that you could not be a member of their club if your identity, however discretely, pointed at a non-secular frame of reference. You could not represent the not-yet-reformed versions of Judaism.

When you belong to the not-yet-reformed, you are a traitor to cultural evolution. As the rest of humanity had progressed from paganism to Judaism to Catholicism to Protestantism to secularism, you were making a u-turn and despite knowing better return to some earlier, less elaborated, less free, less noble state of being. I was told that I could have chosen between “champagne and water,” and took the water. I was told that my husband will cheat on me once I would have produced him children, because this is what they do in “these kinds of societies.” I was asked if I am not afraid to marry into that “African tribe,” my husband’s Yemeni family. I was told that it is very, very sad that “someone like me” needs to put up with something like this (“something like this” being the observance of the Shabbat). Everybody oppresses and brainwashes me, I was told: the Jewish law, the rabbis, my husband, everybody from that other side, where God rules, instead of reason. I was being asked if I could keep on writing my dissertation despite my religion. I was told that secularism is the only guarantor of peace, that my religion will force me into cruel tribalism as evidenced by the rite of circumcision…

It felt like being trapped in an everlasting job-interview. When you are tagged as a “fundamentalist,” you are constantly checked as to your compatibility. Before being admitted as a relevant partner of debate, you have to prove that you’ve learned the rules, that you are a liberal, free and critical mind even though you stick to a set of archaic rules. Your word is never relevant as is, a priori, but always in danger of de-legitimization because of its situatedness, subjectivity, its being tainted by religious bias. At best, my position was that of a tragic transitional character, the one that knows of the sweetness of freedom and bravely manages to finish a Ph.D. despite religious constraints, but is not strong enough to get rid of those constraints entirely. Tradition, you know, is a very heavy chain.

I recount this not so much as a personal testimony, but as a piece of a puzzle of a larger point: In contemporary Germany, Jews and Muslims are not categorically discriminated as Jews and Muslims, but as unruly Jews and Muslims. We have a ban on head-coverings in state offices and almost criminalized ritual circumcision, because head-coverings and circumcisions do not comply with hegemonial assumptions about how a “religion” should function and look like. Thus, when the opponents of circumcision claimed, that they are not motivated by Jew-hatred, at least some of them could be believed: The criminalization of ritual circumcision was, indeed, not meant to be an anti-Semitic assault, but rather, an educational endeavor meant to transform the archaic into the enlightened: it was well meant, it was left wing, it was even feminist.

Of course, there exists racial xenophobia, that type of anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim racism that is categorically directed against Jews and Muslims. Yet, this kind of xenophobia is a social outcast and a political no-go: The New Right is keen to dissociate itself from a racial stigmatization of Muslims (and to that end, the AfD’s Muslim members are its greatest asset). The discourse, which is nowadays activated in order to legitimize xenophobic politics, is not one of racial purity, but of cultural progress from the “backward” to the “enlightened,” from tradition to reason, from tribalism to individualism. It is an evolutionary narrative, in which our predecessors peeled, layer by layer, “religion” from their skins, and thereby turned from child-like victims of religious paternalism, incapable of “independent reasoning,” into self-determined, individual agents. Secularism is this evolution’s glorious end-product, where religious differences and particularity are neutralized, where the limits of bodily existence are overcome by pure, bird-eyed reason: an ultimate truth.

The structuring element of this evolutionary narrative is religious: At the bottom, there is fundamental, non-reformed, non-liberal religion. In contemporary Europe, this kind of religion is currently associated with Islam. At the top is Protestantism, hardly distinguishable from secularism, and accordingly perceived as wholly congruent with “universal norms,” rather than with any particular “religion.” Judaism is an ambivalent in-between: On the one hand, it is entirely appropriated and incooperated into Protestantism, yet on the other hand, it is always kept as “the other,” whose existence testifies to Germany’s multiculturalism. It is the quintessential “other that is like us” – which explains my German friends’ unease with a Jew, who is “not like us”: The existence of this kind of Jew, who is a little closer to the bottom, was a surprise to many during the “circumcision-debate” in 2012, and erupted the new Germany’s self-image: The nation was torn between a wish to maintain a tolerant self-image, and a refusal to tolerate religious difference of the non-liberal kind.

Ultra-orthodox Jewish boy wears a costume ahead of  Purim in Jerusalem's Mea Shearim neighbourhood

Purim in Jerusalem’s Mea Shearim neighbourhood February 22, 2013. Reuters/Amir Cohen

So yes, something is going wrong here. The problem, however, rests neither with a particular political party, nor with any particular religiously defined group. The problem rests with an evolutionary model of cultural progress, which positions Judaism at an intermediary stage: a necessary, yet imperfect stage, that ultimately needs to be overcome, that is: to be transformed and expressed along particular, socially acceptable lines. This is a secularized version of Christian supersessionism, and it surrounds us in a million of ways: It is ever present in discussions about “Islam,” it comes up when the “level of female emancipation” in Jewish orthodoxy is scrutinized, it is a self-evident, automatic framework of any public assessment of “religion” – and it hurts.



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