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So, I know that I barely use LJ, but I was wondering if anybody knows a way for me to post the same blog post to the various blog sites I have?

Thanks ya'll!
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Today, Osekre released the album art for his debut CD, for which I produced and mastered 13 tracks. You might have already seen the fake music video for No Turning Back From Here's first single "Fire and I."
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In case you haven't seen it yet, you can see an alternate and final take from the shoot for the first music video in which I'll be appearing (...I'm the keyboardist in case you can't tell...).

You can watch it at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-lBKvka3dUA

I had lost the ability at this point to play the right parts on the piano and to actually pay attention to the fact that there was necessarily an expensive camera rolling in front of me.
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In trying to recall the times at night when the Priests in the Temple in Jerusalem would perform different Temple rites, the Rabbis of Massekhet Berakhot 3a debated how nighttime is divided up1: should nighttime's 12 hours be divided into 3 night-watches of 4 hours each, or 4 night-watches of 3 hours each?

Amidst the arguments, the Talmud examines Rabbi Eliezer's position:
לעולם קסבר שלש משמרות הוי הלילה
Rabbi Eliezer has forever held that there are three watches in the night!
והא קמ"ל דאיכא משמרות ברקיע ואיכא משמרות בארעא
And he teaches us that there are watches in Heaven and watches on Earth.
דתניא ר' אליעזר אומר שלש משמרות הוי הלילה ועל כל משמר ומשמר יושב הקב"ה ושואג כארי
For it is taught: Rabbi Eliezer says, "There are three watches in the night, and at each watch, the Holy Blessed One sits and roars like a lion...
שנאמר (ירמיהו כה) ה' ממרום ישאג וממעון קדשו יתן קולו שאוג ישאג על נוהו
As it mentions (3 roars!2) in Jeremiah 25:30, 'God, from upon high, will roar and, from the base of God's holiness, will project God's roaring voice. God will roar over God's glory!'"

Rabbi Eliezer continues in his explanation:
וסימן לדבר
"God's roaring here is a symbolic matter:
משמרה ראשונה חמור נוער
At the first watch, a donkey brays...
שניה כלבים צועקים
At the second watch, dogs bark....
שלישית תינוק יונק משדי אמו ואשה מספרת עם בעלה.
And at the third watch, a baby nurses at the breasts of its mother as the woman speaks with her husband."

Of course, Jeremiah didn't give any direct acknowledgment of donkeys, dogs, or even humans in the excerpt Rabbi Eliezer quotes. But Rabbi Eliezer knows that, if he's going to take Jeremiah seriously, then he has to take Jeremiah metaphorically.

Rabbi Eliezer is listening for God's roar: God's promise of surveillance, of protection. Rabbi Eliezer tells us that, when he listens to the sounds of the night that surrounds him, he hears nature. He hears the bray of a donkey upon which he or a neighbor might ride to town or to the market. He hears the barking of dogs protecting their territory. And he hears a baby being raised by nurturing parents.

All these sounds that Rabbi Eliezer hears are wordless. Certainly the dog and the donkey have no words to share. And the baby does not even cry or produce a sound approaching the volume of a bark or a bray. The baby only feeds and gets the parents talking. It is only after that third night-watch has already begun though that nighttime has finally restored the words of life into women and men3.

That wordless donkey--assuring transportation and economic access to the market--and those inarticulate dogs--determined to safeguard the residential stability of home--work in tandem with the muted baby who promises us the future of human life.

Rabbi Eliezer listens for God's three roars each night, and he finds them in the wordless cries of nature. But only by way of the sounds of the mute and the speechless, Rabbi Eliezer is able to listen to God. Rabbi Eliezer's point is simple: we can hear God's promise most pronounced in the wordlessness of nature.

1. The classic Jewish calendar divides a day into 12 equal "hours" of nighttime and 12 equal "hours" of daytime. Hypothetically, if a day were dark from 8 PM until 4 AM and light from 4 AM to 8 PM, then each Jewish nighttime "hour" would be 80 minutes long and the Jewish daytime "hours" would be 40 minutes each. Because sunrise and sunset change everyday of the Gregorian calendar, the Jewish "days" begin and end at different times everyday on the Gregorian clock.
2. Rashi notes this in his commentary to this section.
3. Judaism has often valued speech as an indicator of life or existence (for both God and God's humans were enabled to speak, as the humans were made in God's image). Also, one ancient Jewish belief states that the human soul leaves the human body when the body sleeps and returns when the body wakes up. This idea is reflected even today in modern classical Jewish nighttime and daytime prayers.
4. Special thanks to Emily Winograd for studying this Sugeya with me.
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WARNING: This content may be unsuitable for children under the age of 12. This text may contain adult content and refers to content with strong language.

A Modern Jewish Review of Clapton: The Autobiography


As a musician and someone who loves to read non-fiction, I have a strong affinity for books like these. Though I've read a number of biographies of musicians, Eric Clapton's is the first musician's autobiography I've read, and I liked it a lot!

Written from a very honest and introspective viewpoint, Clapton very easily admits to a life full of vices. He tells us of the difficult but important lessons he had to learn in order to change his life for the better.

Eric Clapton was born out of wedlock in 1945 and was raised by his grandparents. Though he was bright in his youth, he admits now that he did not apply himself in his schooling and focused instead on the blues scene around him. Picking up the guitar and playing in bands when he was young, he also began drinking excessively while still a teen. All this was not long before he was declared a sensational young guitarist, and not long before he had also begun developing habits of excessive drug use. As his fame and fortune grew ever more prominent in his life, so did his substance abuse and his lust life. After several attempts at treatment and rehabilitation to cure his various forms of substance abuse, Clapton successfully became--and has since remained--sober since the late 1980s, several years after he had already become a father. During his life of juggling the imbalances of dysfunctional family lifestyles, drugs and drinking, he recorded hit albums in all sorts of uniforms: as the solo artist, as the pseudonymous bandleader, and playing in all sorts of bands where he always--sometimes against his wishes--shone through as the brilliant star lead guitarist.

Writing that he is seeking retirement now, Clapton, in his days of sobriety, has remained one of the most influential and high-selling musicians still performing and recording these days. But the book is not the story of how he came to be a rockstar. This autobiography is about how Clapton came to find the values that made him the family man he is today.

Like nearly any other life-story, Clapton is a tale of second (and third and fourth...) chances. It's a record of the wrong turns made and what eventually corrected these ways. This idea of turning or returning to proper paths in life, Teshuvah (literally, "returning"), is a key theme in Jewish living.

In this book, Clapton maps out his evolution from living a selfish and indulgent life to his finding a purpose in helping others: healing friends, family, music fans or substance abusers--each in different ways. In this review, I could do no justice in discussing from a Jewish perspective all of the ways in which Clapton bettered his life and helped those around him, but one particular change in his life really stood out to me as a Jewish reader: the acceptance of God.

Based on the number of children Clapton bore outside of marriage, it is clear that Eric Clapton is not, by any means, a traditional conservative Christian.

On account of Clapton's non-dogmatic religious life, and on account of Clapton's moderate, sentimental nature, I find his relationship with a real God both fascinating and extremely inspiring. After the death of Eric's son Conor, Clapton writes:

I cannot deny that there was a moment when I did lose faith, and what saved my life was the unconditional love and understanding that I received from my friends and my fellows in the twelve-step program. I would go to a meeting and people would just quietly gather round and keep me company, buy me coffee, and let me talk about what happened. I was asked to chair some meetings, and at one of these sessions, when I was doing a chair on the third step, which is about handing your will over to the care of God, I recounted the story of how, during my last stay in [the rehabilitation center of] Hazelden, I had fallen upon my knees and asked for help to stay sober. I told the meeting that the compulsion was taken away at that moment, and as far as I was concerned, this was physical evidence that my prayers had been answered. Having had that experience, I said, I knew I could get through this.
A woman came up to me after the meeting and said, "You've just taken away my last excuse to have a drink." I asked her what she meant. She said, "I've always had this little corner of my mind which held the excuse that, if anything were to happen to my kids, then I'd be justified in getting drunk. You've shown me that's not true." I was suddenly aware that maybe I had found a way to turn this dreadful tragedy into something positive. I really was in the position to say, "Well, if I can go through this and stay sober, then anyone can." At that moment I realized that there was no better way of honoring the memory of my son. (pp. 245-246)

Eric Clapton's twelve-step program may call for a relationship with God, but what kind of relationship with God does Clapton develop?

Recalling his second stint in a rehabilitation facility (before the death of his son Conor), Clapton writes of his first serious experience of speaking to God:

My second visit to [the rehabilitation center of] Hazelden was, on the face of it, much like the first, but on a deeper level it was very different. This time I had no reservations about why I was there--I had tried to control my drinking and failed... Also, my life had become very complicated and completely unmanageable during my relapse. I now had two children, neither of whom I was really administering to, a broken marriage, assorted bewildered girlfriends, and a career that, although it was still ticking over, had lost its direction. I was a mess.
...I kept coming back to the thought of Conor, the reality of his life and what it required of me, and the horrible possibility that if I didn't get it right this time, history would probably repeat itself. The thought of him going through all that was what finally made the difference. I had to break the chain and give him what I had never really had--a father.
Nevertheless, I stumbled through my month in treatment much as I had done the first time, just ticking off the days, hoping that something would change in me without me having to do much about it. Then one day, as my visit was drawing to an end, a panic hit me, and I realized that in fact nothing had changed in me, and that I was going back out into the world again completely unprotected. The noise in my head was deafening, and drinking was in my thoughts all the time. It shocked me to realize that here I was in a treatment center, a supposedly safe environment, and I was in serious danger. I was absolutely terrified, in complete despair.
At that moment, almost of their own accord, my legs gave way and I fell to my knees. In the privacy of my room I begged for help. I had no notion who I thought I was talking to, I just knew that I had come to the end of my tether, I had nothing left to fight with. Then I remembered what I had heard about surrender, something I thought I could never do, my pride just wouldn't allow it, but I knew that on my own I wasn't going to make it, so I asked for help, and, getting down on my knees, I surrendered.
Within a few days I realized that something had happened for me. An atheist would probably say it was just a change of attitude, and to a certain extent that's true, but there was much more to it than that. I had found a place to turn to, a place I'd always known was there but never really wanted, or needed, to believe in. From that day until this, I have never failed to pray in the morning, on my knees, asking for help, and at night, to express gratitude for my life and, most of all, for my sobriety. I choose to kneel because I feel I need to humble myself when I pray, and with my ego, this is the most I can do.
If you are asking why I do all this, I will tell you... because it works, as simple as that. In all this time that I've been sober, I have never once seriously thought of taking a drink or a drug. I have no problem with religion, and I grew up with a strong curiosity about spiritual matters, but my searching took me away from church and community worship to the internal journal. Before my recovery began, I found my God in music and the arts, with writers like Hermann Hesse, and musicians like Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, and Little Walter. In some way, in some form, my God was always there, but now I have learned to talk to him. (pp. 234-236)

Clapton may not have known to whom he was speaking at first, but he still directed whatever he was saying to Whoever would listen. Without a prior firm belief in a God, Clapton still had prayers to say, so he said them. Without a previous history of kneeling in classic Christian prayer, Clapton--born as a Christian--kneeled in his prayer.

In some ways, kneeling is very Christian-sounding, and in some ways, it is very Jewish-sounding. Of course though, much of Christianity is naturally very Jewish-sounding. The very idea of kneeling in prayer has become associated with Christian worship. However, the Hebrew words Birkayim ברכים ("knees") and Barukh ברוך ("blessed") come from the same root that, in Semitic languages, have become associated with both blessings and the movements of our knees. Although the exact choreography differs in the prayer services of each religion, Judaism, Christianity and Islam each have liturgical movements associated with the knees: whether we are bending the knees and bowing, kneeling, or lying flat on our arms and knees.

When Eric Clapton says that his "legs gave away," in some sense his legs also gave a way: a way for Eric Clapton to access God. Familiar with Christianity, Clapton's legs "choose to kneel".

For Clapton, to kneel is to be humbled. And of course, becoming physically humbled is key to prayer in the three Major Abrahamic religions: whether we are covering our heads, covering up our bodies, uncovering our heads, kneeling, lying flat on the ground, or expressing our humility through other phrases in our traditional body language.

The prayers worked. Eric Clapton says, "it works, as simple as that." Eric Clapton isn't speaking of a God who talks directly back to him or a God who is spreading seas and saving peoples. In fact, Clapton does not tell us exactly what God does do in the world. This God is not necessarily active in affecting our free will, but this God is real and so are the results of Clapton's prayers!

Clapton says that this relationship with God is more than "a change of attitude," for he found a special "place to turn to." God is hard to define, and, in Judaism, God goes by many monickers1, among them Makom (מקום), the Hebrew word for "Place." A place does not literally speak, but the presence of a place may speak to one's heart. A place can become a sacred space for reflection, for connection, or for whatever activities with which we fill the void.

Where Clapton finds voids, Clapton prays to the God who listens and understands (but does not necessarily act!). After Clapton has poured out his heart, it is then up to Clapton himself to take responsibility for his actions: to put down the bottle, to quit smoking, to settle into a family and to learn daily lessons in life. But without his daily humbled prayers to God, Clapton's ego will destroy him.

Clapton's God may not directly solve Clapton's problems for him, but Clapton prays to God because "it works" for one to place faith in a power greater than one's self and then to act on one's own behalf daily: to admit and to submit to the humility of humanity2.

In the morning, Clapton seeks a goal in "asking [God] for help" and, at night, recalls what he's achieved by "express[ing] gratitude for... life and... sobriety." Checking in with God twice a day may suffice.

In the Rabbinic memory of the early Israelite religion, Korbanot (קרבנות) ("sacrifices," literally "approaches," the standard way of reaching out to God through burnt offerings) were required in the morning and afternoon: twice a day. Remnants of the Korbanot would be sacrificed at night. When the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed for the last time in 70 CE and prayer was instituted, prayer was assumed to be obligatory in the morning and afternoon, and, whatever energy people had left for prayer would be left for nighttime prayer. But, the Rabbis assumed that people would be engaged in Jewish liturgy at nighttime, for the Rabbis believed it was necessary to recite the biblical passages of the Shema in the morning and night3.

Clapton isn't trying to keep up with Judaism per se, but Clapton is in good hands when it comes to creating a lifestyle that is resonant with Judaism. He is praying twice a day, which is very Jewish on multiple levels.

Clapton prays and, though he's not a traditional guy, he follows some nice traditions. Clapton says it works. But, why does he have to pray to God specifically? Why doesn't he just think hard and carefully and act properly under his own volition?

It's tough for most people who pray to articulate the benefits of prayer, but Clapton himself sees gifts from God in the end. Most clearly, Clapton speaks of finding salvation or God in the music he hears or the music he makes. To hear God in music after praying to God must be to engage in a truly divine dialogue: to speak to God in prayer and to hear God respond in song.

Further, who knows what else God does or does not do in our lives? Clapton, the ego, must humble himself and know that there is much that he will never know. When he delved most deeply into his vices, Clapton could not control himself. He remembers a time in his life when he would
"jam and jam and jam and night would become day and day would become night... and [I] kept [myself] going with fryups and a cocktail of drink and drugs, mostly cocaine and... quite strong sleeping pills, but instead of letting them put [me] to sleep, [I] would ride the effect, staying awake by snorting some coke or drinking some brandy or vodka, and that would create a unique kind of high... God knows how [my] bod[y] stood it." (123)

Clapton claims not to be much of a talker or a writer, so it cannot be Eric Clapton's job to tell us exactly what it is that God did do for Clapton personally. But it is clear that Clapton realized that there may have been a force outside of his own body trying to keep him alive. Only after the realization of an external force though did Clapton learn to talk to God and to believe in and to appreciate God's favor: to become the benefactor of miracles.

Though his substance abuse could have killed him, something beyond his body kept Clapton going. Clapton, a former member of Blind Faith, began his "internal journey" as a practitioner of blind faith and, only then, gained the ability to open his eyes and see God.

Again, Clapton: The Autobiography, like any successful life-story is the story of Teshuvah, but what I found most fascinating in this book was this subplot of how God came into Eric Clapton's life. To hear of an impoverished child who grows into a philanthropist is certainly incredible. To read of the maladjusted schoolboy who finally finds his way to success in the world is almost inconceivable. To see an inconsolable, introverted drug addict kick the habit and become a family man is almost unbelievable. But I find most shocking here the miracle that, in a world where God is proclaimed dead and a world where religions are blamed for wars, a man named Eric, who had lost control and had succumbed to despair and near-suicide, found salvation and stability in an imperfect world just because he began to believe.

1. God having multiple names reflects the different understandings of God. This does not imply that there are multiple Gods necessarily. Similarly, some theologians argue that Hinduism, which preaches of many Gods, is preaching of multiple identities of one Deity. I personally do believe that God comes in many forms, in different forms, to different peoples and to different people.

2. One of my favorite Jewish adages, which I learned from Rabbi Dr. Stuart Grant, goes something like, "When I pray to God, I pray as if everything depends on God. When I act, I act as if everything depends on me." This Orthodox frame of mind realizes that nothing can be left to solely human or solely divine devices. In the big picture, both God and humanity must bring about the changes we need in life. Reconstructionist Judaism has often preached of God as--not a supernatural and divine being--but the collective goodwill or altruistic impulse of ourselves and our communities. I do believe that, like all streams of Judaism, Eric Clapton treads that fine line that distinguishes between human willpower and divine will. Yet, neither Clapton nor Judaism deny that our prayers are some of the most important steps we make on our quests to reach our goals.

3. "The passages of the Shema" broadly refers to Devarim (דברים) (Deutereonomy) 6:4-9 and 11:13-21 and Bemidbar (במדבר) (Numbers) 15:37-41. Mishnah Berakhot's rationales (1:3, 1:5) for the daily and nightly recitation are the recurrence of the phrase ובשכבך ובקומך ("when you lie down and when you get up") in the first two selections and the biblical command in Devarim 16:3 for Israelites to recall the exodus from Egypt (as mentioned in the third selection) during כל ימי חייך "the entirety of your days."
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In Massekhet Sotah 21b, I read with Gabe Seed the following excerpt tonight:

אומר בן עזאי חייב אדם ללמד את וכו' ר' אליעזר אומר כל המלמד את בתו תורה מלמדה תיפלות:
The Mishnah taught: Ben Azzai taught that men were obligated to teach Torah to their daughters. Rabbi Eliezer taught that anyone who teaches his daughter Torah is teaching her indecency.

תיפלות ס"ד אלא אימא כאילו למדה תיפלות
The Talmud teaches: "Indecency!?" I would think rather that--and I'd say--"is similar to having taught her indecency!"

א"ר אבהו מ"ט דר"א דכתיב (משלי ח) אני חכמה שכנתי ערמה כיון שנכנסה חכמה באדם נכנסה עמו ערמומית
Rabbi Abbahu taught: What's the reasoning of Rabbi Eliezer? It is written in Proverbs 8:12, "I, Wisdom, live with Ormah (Prudence)." When wisdom enters a person, Armumit (shrewdness) enters alongside it.

ורבנן האי אני חכמה מאי עבדי ליה מיבעי ליה לכדרבי יוסי בר' חנינא דא"ר יוסי בר' חנינא אין
דברי תורה מתקיימין אלא במי שמעמיד עצמו ערום עליהן שנאמר אני חכמה שכנתי ערמה
But our rabbis teach: This passage of "I, Wisdom..."--how does it play out? It must be interpreted in accordance with Rabbi Yosey in the name of Rabbi Chaninah. For Rabbi Yosey taught in the name of Rabbi Chaninah: The words of Torah can only exist in a person who stands one's self up arum (naked) upon the words of Torah because it is said "I, Wisdom, live with Ormah."

א"ר יוחנן אין דברי תורה מתקיימין אלא במי שמשים עצמו כמי שאינו שנאמר (איוב כח) והחכמה מאין תמצא:
Rabbi Yochanan taught: The words of Torah can only exist in a person who posits one's self she'eyno (as non-existent), because it says in Job 28:12, "But me'eyn (where) can wisdom be found?"

The Talmud teaches us that wisdom, synonymous with Torah, is married to ערמה (ormah), which has many meanings. That minority of rabbis who fear for the worst say that this word implies deceit: when we are wise, we may use our intellect for the worst. The majority of rabbis teach though that ערמה (ormah) is nakedness, what Rashi interprets as "שפירש עליה עני וחסר כל שמערים שיתקיים תורתו" ("when one impoverishes one's self to the point of lacking all; to strip one's self in order to uphold Torah"). But, Rabbi Yochanan gets the final word here and clarifies that living Torah can only be achieved with the humility of a nobody.

The id who loves wisdom can use that wisdom for corruption. Rather, to make use of wisdom righteously, we have to denude ourselves of our ulterior motives--or else our wisdom can become an offense. In order to become somebody through wisdom, we have to start off as nobody.

In the Jewish community, we should not worry about women studying Torah. We should worry about women not studying Torah. Similarly, we should worry about anybody who has ever been a nobody not studying Torah. At some point, whether in history or in our own lives, we have each been a nobody.

Being anonymous is a universal experience, and the best route for emerging from the unknown is our pursuit of wisdom together.
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For a long time, I have wanted to blog about some of the Jewish teachings I like that I have come across in my studies: whether it be the studies I conduct on my own, or when I study with friends.

There is more truth in the world than I will ever know, but I would like to share the few and brief truths that I do learn.

I don't know how often I can show my findings here, but I'd like to do so whenever I have something worthwhile to share.

In Massekhet Sotah (מסכת סוטה) of the Babylonian Talmud (תלמוד בבלי) Page 21 Side A (כא:א), there is a story of a man traveling insecurely:
משל לאדם שהיה מהלך באישון לילה ואפילה ומתיירא מן הקוצים ומן הפחתים ומן הברקנים ומחיה רעה ומן הליסטין ואינו יודע באיזה דרך מהלך
A story of a person who was walking during the slumber hours of night and darkness, and he was afraid of thorns, of pits, of thistles, of nasty wildlife, and of thieves, and he didn't which way he was going:

נזדמנה לו אבוקה של אור ניצל מן הקוצים ומן הפחתים ומן הברקנים ועדיין מתיירא מחיה רעה ומן הליסטין ואינו יודע באיזה דרך מהלך
A ray of light appeared for him, and he was saved from the thorns, from the pits, and from the thistles; however, he was still afraid of nasty wildlife and of thieves, and he didn't know which way he was going!

כיון שעלה עמוד השחר ניצל מחיה רעה ומן הלסטין ועדיין אינו יודע באיזה דרך מהלך
When dawn came, he was saved from nasty wildlife and from thieves; however, he didn't know which way he was going!

הגיע לפרשת דרכים ניצל מכולם
He arrived at a parashat derakhim, and he was saved from everything!
The question that the medieval commentator Rashi (רש"י), the Talmud, my study partner Gabe Seed and I all had in common next was this: what does parashat derakhim mean?

Gabe's immediate thought was that parashat derakhim should be translated as "the splitting of the paths," or "crossroads," or "a fork in the road."

But, the root of the word parashat (פרש) can mean, aside from "separation" or "splitting," "explanation." So, I read this differently and said that parashat derakhim meant "an explanation of the paths" or "a map."

Rashi and the Talmud do not have a clear answer to the question, but they entertain multiple answers, each having to do with either observing or studying Torah: truth.

In short, the Talmud here teaches that we can find all sorts of benefits in nature to ease our worries about the physical world. But, when it comes down to finding direction in the world, we can only save ourselves by approaching the fork in the road, or by approaching the map. When we do not know where we are, our only answer is either a question or an answer.

Will we save ourselves by asking questions, or will we save ourselves by finding answers?

I say that we must do both.
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WARNING: This content may be unsuitable for children under the age of 12. This text contains adult content and refers to content with strong language.

A Modern Jewish Review of Female Chauvanist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture


I found this book to be extremely important for understanding the moral issues surrounding the role that sexuality currently plays in American popular culture.

Ariel Levy makes a strong case for there being a problem of many American women giving in to expectations of male chauvanism and calling that giving in "empowerment." Levy ultimately brings the point home and shows that young girls are all too often confused and manipulated into conceding their sexual choices to the unrealistic and sexist expectations of male chauvanists. Levy examines both the hesitant girls who are pressured into being featured nude in Girls Gone Wild videos and the businesswoman in the TV and film industry who sell the images of women's bodies. Though these persons claim that offering these sexual conveniences to heterosexual males proves women's sexual liberation--because women are playing an active role in the creation of a sexual culture--Levy argues that women creating a sexual culture that portrays women as sexual objects is ultimately counterintuitive to the feminist goals of an egalitarian society. Levy proposes that, instead of creating a society in which men and women are equal, American women in the 21st century are just playing by the rules of (and attempting to enjoy) a sexist game designed by trashy sexual values.

Personally, as a moderate, observant Jew concerned with the clash between the demands of American sexual culture and Jewish ethics, I found the book to be a compelling re-evaluation of secular sexual values. My concerns as a Jew, with regard to American sexual culture, amount to three major things:
(1) non-marital sex (and other forms of non-marital sexual activity),
(2) fashions of dress (and their sexually provacative implications),
(3) and the equality of men and women (and those who may feel they do not classify as either men or women) in all parts of life.

The reason that these matter to me as an observant Jew, and not just as a human being, is that, historically, Judaism (unlike many religions) has seen sexuality as holy. Therefore, sexuality, the sacred expression of sensuality between God's creatures, is very personal and should be reserved as much as possible for only sanctified relationships. Judaism sees the benefits of immense sexual pleasure in holy relationships, but Judaism finds sexual pleasure gained through nonsacred relationships to be harmful to the sanctity of sexuality within a holy union.

Hypothetically, sex only in the context of marriage might sound reasonable. But Levy writes that statistics show that abstinence-only education (teaching that sex must be preserved solely for marriage) does not work for most people. Levy argues instead that teens should be taught about birth control and the positive and negative effects of sexual activity. Since she is writing from a scientific and secular standpoint (and not a perspective of Jewish ethics), Levy acknowledges that consensual sex is a frequently pleasurable activity. Levy says though that, since statistics show that people do not naturally wait until marriage for sex, people who believe that sex should be preserved for marriage must recognize sexual activities that are not sex itself (i.e. masturbation, groping, etc.) as reasonable ways to hold off on sexual intercourse until marriage.

Since Judaism permits masturbation (and has traditionally interpreted the story of Onan in Genesis as a sin of coitus interruptus, sexual intercourse that began but did not end), Jews can listen to Levy's advice on masturbation. But is masturbation the only sexual pleasure that may be attained by Jews before marriage?

Many observant Jewish communities often observe Shemirat Negi'ah (refraining from touching a non-family-member of the opposite gender). From a very literal or traditional standpoint, this would imply that, when a Jewish male and female who observe Shemirat Negi'ah are dating, they will not hold hands, hug, kiss, or touch each other at all because they are not married. If they get married though, they can engage in regular sexual relations with each other (since they are still observing Shemirat Negi'ah with everybody else to whom they still aren't related).

However, it is important that modern observant Jews realize the excessively stringent and contradictory nature of Shemirat Negi'ah today. It would seem that the purpose of Shemirat Negi'ah is to avoid any form of touching between the sexes to be understood as sexual. But if the purpose of this traditional form of Shemirat Negi'ah is to avoid sexually arousing Jews, then the system does not work for Jewish homosexuals. Even if homosexuals were prohibited from touching non-family members of the same gender and unrelated heterosexuals of the opposite gender, then the only non-family members whom homosexuals would be able to touch would be homosexual non-family members of the opposite gender. As Judaism values Mar'at Ayin (how a situation appears to fellow Jews), the sight of an observant Jew who will only touch Jews of the opposite gender creates an awkward and uncomfortable social rift for homosexuals: a denigrating of homosexuals that is a violation of Kevod Ha-Beriyyot (honoring the dignity of one's fellow human beings). As Judaism welcomes people of all sexual orientations, Shemirat Negi'ah, in order to fulfill its intentions for a complete community that may include homosexuals (let alone bisexuals), would have to call for no touching whatsoever between any two Jews who are not related1.

A Jewish community where no two unrelated Jews may touch each other would mean no handshakes, no hugs, no arms gathered in dance, no pats on the back, and no social pleasantries or rituals that would involve any sort of physical contact! This would create for a dead community, and I do not believe that any society can expect to operate under these conditions.

Yet, it is comforting to know that the intellectually honest Orthodox Jewish world is re-evaluating Shemirat Negi'ah. Rabbi Avi Weiss, founder of the Open Orthodox rabbinical school, Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, is known as a "hugger." As a "hugger," Rabbi Weiss will hug men and women as a simple greeting of "Welcome." Also, when I visited Yeshivat Chovevei Torah on May 18 2009, Director of Student Services Ruthie Strosberg Simon greeted me with a handshake upon meeting me in person. Beyond Rabbi Weiss's school, I know many observant (and many Orthodox) Jews who will shake hands, hug or high-five Jews of the opposite sex. The honest Jewish world knows that hugs and handshakes are not sexual, and they know that these gestures are extremely comforting to the strangers and friends among us.

As honest re-evaluation breaks down the stringency of Shemirat Negi'ah, the observant Jewish world must proceed to re-evaluate the permissive and prohibitive limits of non-marital sexual activity, most significantly in observant Jews who are dating. While permitting sex or even permitting oral sex, would be too close (if not absolutely identical) to sexual activities that observant Jews must reserve for marriage, I do not believe that kissing, hugging or hand-holding must be off-limits to a pair of observant Jews in a committed non-marital relationship. I believe that groping and similar activities that may be called "foreplay" may serve as a reasonable limit of sexual activity between two observant Jews2. (On a technical and literal note though, these activities must be seen as premarital "peaks" or "limits", rather than premarital "foreplay" since "foreplay" would imply that the sexual arousal characteristic of foreplay is for the purposes of impending sexual intercourse.)

Returning to Levy: though her book briefly discusses the effects and implications of fashion with regard to the remainder of American sexual philosophy, Levy makes very strong points in her intermittent comments on the sexual provokability of American fashion. Levy, aside from telling us her own thoughts, quotes a few ethnographic subjects (often teen girls or young adult women) who criticize modern fashions; for example, one girl refers to short skirts as "belts" since she feels that these skirts covered only about as much as belts would. Levy tells us of the problems feminism faces in the light of low-cut shirts, visible (and provacative) underwear (or lack thereof), low-riding jeans, and short skirts. The fact that feminists may be concerned that such clothes turn people into public sex products is not so different from the fact that observant Jews must be concerned that such clothes, when worn in public, are inclined to catch the sexual eyes of people outside of the kosher sexual relationship3.

The Jewish concern with dress, Tzeni'ut, demands that women wear skirts with lengths that differ from community to community, that men wear pants of lengths that differ from community to community, that both men and women wear shirts with sleeves of particular lengths that also differ from community to community--and all sorts of other demands that differ from community to community. Since the laws and traditions of Tzeni'ut are various and complicated, all I can recommend for the observant Jew is that he or she dress, when in public, in a way that comfortably does not reveal or invite examination of one's thighs, buttocks, genitalia, back, stomach, chest or shoulders. In line with Levy's vision of an egalitarian society, I believe that such "modest" dress helps guarantee a society in which people of all genders are respected for their internal character and judged less by their physique.

Ultimately, I believe that a society where heterosexual men do not expect heterosexual women to be sex objects (and vice versa) and where heterosexual women are not heterosexual men's sex objects (and vice versa) is a society wherein heterosexual men and women can be on equal footing: earning the same respect, enjoying the same social groups, learning the same intellectual truths, making the same money, and so on.

Similarly, just as Levy finds sexual debasement among homosexuals to be emulations of heterosexual debasement (most often of women), the creation of a truly egalitarian society among heterosexuals helps--and is necessitated by--a society wherein homosexual men or women do not expect the homosexual members of their fellow gender to be sex objects and will not be sex objects for each other.

Even though I saw her on The Colbert Report and she has been on NPR, I do not know whether or not Ariel Levy is the leading voice in feminism today. And even though you're reading this sentence, I do not believe that I am the leading voice in today's moderate, open, observant Judaism (and nobody has ever told me that I am). Yet, I believe that my Judaism is compatible with Levy's feminism in the end. I find that both Levy and I are interested in all of us building a society that preserves the integrity and exclusive intimacies of sexuality for the right times and places so that each of us can see one another as stronger people all the time.

1. While homosexual activity is often forbidden in traditional streams of Judaism, many traditional streams of Judaism do recognize homosexuality as a psychological inclination--..not just instances of sinful behavior. Whether or not a stream of Judaism has ruled against any homosexual behavior, nearly every stream of Judaism that believes homosexuality to be a psychological disposition calls for some form of dignified recognition of homosexuals in the Jewish community.

2. I believe that the sexual limits of a normative Jewish relationship is a limit that may be determined by the two dating Jews themselves or, if they feel uncomfortable designating a limit for themselves, by a Jewish authority whose advising they can comfortably seek. Some couples may be comfortable not kissing until the wedding, and some couples may be uncomfortable without groping before marriage.

3. The largest exception to my advice may be in beachwear. I have never seen a man choose trousers and a long-sleeved shirt as regular swimwear, and I've never seen a woman swim in a skirt and long-sleeved shirt. I believe that the permissibility of beachwear is a sub-category of Tzeni'ut that would require more knowledge on the subject that I can offer at the time of this writing.
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I just realized that I had the following recently published at http://www.koach.org/koc_5769_nisan_culture.htm of the Koach E-Zine:
My three favorite songs from The Doobie Brothers are "Listen to the Music," "Black Water," and "Jesus Is Just Alright"—not for their lyrical content though. "Listen to the Music" is a simple message, "Black Water" has a lot of grammatical errors (like "I ain't got no worries/I ain't in no hurry"), and I don't strongly agree with the theological undertones of "Jesus Is Just Alright." But I love classic rock, and The Doobie Brothers always put on great concerts.

When I was in middle school and just getting into classic rock, pop, and other music genres, I loved the tunes of "Jesus Is Just Alright," ELP's "I Believe in Father Christmas," and Elton John's "Step Into Christmas." The music didn't pull me away from Judaism and I'm sure that 70s-rock fans who proudly observe Christmas get kicks hearing Christian songs by their favorite artists. These songs are a win-win situation: good music for everyone and great lyrics for those with Christian pride. However, these Christian songs from secular-rock musicians made me wonder why there were so few Jewish songs from secular-rock musicians.

The question of why there were so few Jewish songs from secular-rock musicians made me really wonder: why were there so few secular rock-musicians—or, for that matter, professional performers of secular music—who are outwardly Jewish? We live in a free country where Christians can sing songs with Christian overtones. So, why would Billy Joel, a self-proclaimed "Jewish boy from Long Island", sing of Christmas in "She's Right On Time" or "Christmas in Fallujah"? Why has Neil Diamond—having sung "Kol Nidrei" in The Jazz Singer and "Havah Nagilah" in Keeping Up With the Steins—despite his proud Jewish heritage, released two Christmas albums? Why would Randy Newman—who speaks passionately of anti-Semitism he's faced and the uniqueness of his being a Jew—even write "Christmas In Capetown," or declare in his autobiographical "Dixie Flyer," "Christ, [we] wanted to be gentiles too/Who wouldn't out there? Wouldn't you?" Are so few musicians outwardly Jewish because it's more comfortable to be a gentile?

It's never been challenging to be Christian in the United States, but the ethnocentrism that comes so automatically to people—the assumption that everyone around us would, or should, have our own cultural values—has made Judaism, and other minority religions, hard to practice in a country where most citizens attend a Christian church. In the music industry, Christian music has always been possible to promote, but many Jews in the industry have found themselves in the position of a late 70s Bob Dylan—flirting with Christianity—or the position of Steely Dan's Walter Becker and Donald Fagen—severely hanging onto religious apathy, agnosticism or atheism and hardly recognizing their Jewish roots.

Today, Bob Dylan rarely sings definitely of Christianity. He's even been spotted in synagogue lately on High Holidays, so we know that "The Times They Are A-Changin'." In fact, when The Barenaked Ladies, They Might Be Giants, The LeeVees and other artists release the occasional Hanukah pop song, when singer-songwriter Peter Himmelman and, now, Leonard Cohen claim to observe Shabbat and when one of the biggest hip-hop acts in New York is Chassidic reggae star Matisyahu, it sounds like today's American Jews hardly live in the country where Randy Newman was born.

While I'm a full-time student in New York City, I'm also a part-time musician. It's been especially inspiring for me to be in touch with pianist/singer-songwriter Brian Gelfand and to play on a demo disc with bandleader and solo artist Avi Fox-Rosen, both of whom work professionally for Jewish communities in the tri-state area. In December, I was invited to the second installment of the Uptown Salon, hosted by singer-songwriters Andrés Wilson and Asia Mei, both of whom are also involved in the New York Jewish community. The Salon, a forum for presenting and discussing arts—poetry, visual arts, music, and more—has attracted the likes of other musicians involved in their Jewish communities, such as multi-instrumentalist extraordinaire C.J. Glass, pianist/singer-songwriter Scott Stein and others. Between musicians I've met at the Salon and knowing of so many other openly Jewish musicians—like Lara Torgovnik, Naomi Less, Michelle Citrin, and others—I'm excited to be part of a growing world of proud Jewish artists right in my very own town.

American Jews have come a long way just so they can be themselves. I find nothing ironic about making secular music and being Jewish, and the United States is becoming increasingly tolerant and welcoming of minorities. Being Jewish is just alright by me; just listen to the music.

Jonah Rank, recording his 3rd and 4th solo albums now, is a junior at the Joint Program of Columbia University and the Jewish Theological Seminary and works as a Gabbai at JTS.
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