Kevin DeYoung’s Hermeneutic

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Some time has passed since answering DeYoung’s 40 questions. What my friends Keegan, Tapji, and I noticed was that one must accept DeYoung’s hermeneutical framework in order to answer his questions. Each of us, I am sure, felt a sense of emotional exhaustion due to accepting this hermeneutical framework. Likewise, I felt that the who point was that one would throw up their hands and just not do the 40 questions, and in that way, it would make DeYoung’s questions look unanswerable (and in my mind, that seems like a tactic of “look my questions have stumped those liberals!”). John Short offered an alternative 40 questions that get somewhat at some of my own questioning throughout answering the questions. But I just wanted to offer a reflection on answering those stupid 40 questions.

At this point it seems like a broken record, since I have asked this question continually but it is worth repeating, in that listening to a record repeatedly, for me, indicates an important message: conservative Christians focus so much on their queer antagonism being accepted as a legitimate part of Christian tradition, yet rarely speak out against other forms of queer antagonism. There is a significant disavowal on their part that their emphasis on “traditional marriage” (whatever this term really means) they do is marginalize a whole group of people. Yet rarely do they speak out against other forms of oppression against queer people.

Here, I think about the fact that queer people are more likely to be in poverty or homeless than their cisheterosexual counterparts. Moreover, there are more cases of drug abuse, and mental illness, which in my mind correlates with the ways in which society excludes and marginalizes people. Also insert issues like job discrimination, housing discrimination, or the fact that queer people of color still face police brutality. Or that queer immigrants face violence against the US state in detention centers, as Jannicet Gutierrez recently protested before President Obama. I cannot help but think about the racist and transphobic violence inflicted against CeCe McDonald, and that because she defended herself against this violence she still was deemed guilty by the judicial system. Transwomen continue to be murdered. Pastors will say that queer people need to caged up, and unsurprisingly conservative Christians either offer a tepid response or none at all.

These are all issues conservative Christians are often silent on. None of them deal with same-sex marriage. To be honest,  I care little about Same Sex Marriage because of all of the issues enumerate by Dean Spade and Craig Wilse. Nevertheless, it is difficult for me to accept conservative Christians who say their opposition to same-sex marriage is rooted in Christian tradition alone (as if religious tradition is somehow exempt from producing bigotry or enforcing it). Why? Because they’re silent on all the other forms of oppression that queer people face on a daily basis. It is as if their opposition to same-sex marriage symbolizes their opposition of the moral goodness of queer life and culture.

What does not surprise me is that DeYoung asks if one will support Christians who will face bullying and the potential lack of religious freedom. This willfully ignores the violence faced by many queer people today. So it is not just that DeYoung has a rather myopic hermeneutic, but he is also a revisionist, ignoring the actual violence and oppression faced by queer people, as this huffington post article critiques about Christians “being oppressed.” Again, unsurprising because many conservative Christians frame their struggle as somehow akin to the struggles faced by minorities under Nazi Germany (again ignoring that LGBT people were among those persecuted and sent to concentration camps by the Nazis, or even that Nazi ideology was buttressed by the anti-Jewish teachings found in Christianity).

Here is where DeYoung and I differ hermeneutically. The Haggadah plays a central role during Pesaḥ, recounting the Israelites’ liberation from Egypt. The exodus is central both to me personally, and functions as the national founding myth in Judaism (to the extent that Rashi wonders why the Torah begins with creation not the Exodus). The exodus plays a central role in my political imagination, and in my desire to see the liberation of various groups of people. For Christians, Jesus is the image of God’s character. For me as a Jew, it is through the liberation in Egypt and the desire for new ways of life. As Moses says, החיים והמות נתתי לפניך הברכה והקללה ובחרת בחיים למען תחיה אתה וזרעך “life and death I have set before you, a blessing and a curse and you will choose life so that you and your offspring may life” (Deut 30:19). Here, I take life not just to mean a physical way of life, but the way life is conceptualized, in the hopes that lives that are typically not valued will be valued, and advocating for a society that values the lives of those who are marginalized.

Lastly, I think our hermeneutic differs to the degree that Judaism has put more stock in historical experiences than Christianity. For many Christians, it always comes back to “doctrine.” Jews have overwhelming supported SSM, at least I believe, because of the lived experiences of oppression. This in part ties into the experience of exodus, but it also ties into the anti-semitism that Jews have faced in Europe and the United States. As Yitz Greenberg notes, “Judaism is a midrash on history.” Thus, lived experience plays a central role in how one practices Judaism, and lives faithfully to God.

I am sure that these interpretations do not adhere DeYoung’s hermeneutic, but then again, I find his interpretation of Scripture to be rather bland, simplistic, and lacking a depth of flavor like mayonnaise.

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Dominion as Irresponsibility

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Yesterday I was reading David Ellenson’s reflection on Parashat Mishpatim (Exod 21:1-24:18). He cited the legal philosopher Ronald Dworkin, who notes the difference between rules and principles. If the facts a rule stipulates are given, then a rule is valid. The answer it supplies must be given. The halachic materials of the Torah are replete with rules but also principles as well. Ellison cites, “you shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in Egypt” (Exod 22:20) and “you shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of a stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt” (Exod 23:9). These might be seen as rules themselves, but the reality is that they are legal principles one must live by. Legal systems must have both rules and principles. It might be said that rules are normative judgments whereas principles are moral and ethical principles in the framework of law that are a means to allow the legal system to have continuous relevance. That a system must present us allow us for the visionary. Robert Cover, who wrote, “Nomos and Narrative,” distinguished between “imperialistic,” or I might say positivist interpretations of law and “jurisgensis” interpretations of law. The former is on the application of rules. The latter asserts that the Torah is not meant to be a system of laws to be followed. Rather, the halakhic material must be situated within a larger context of narrative discourse and meaning. It is meant to be a “bridge to a better world.” Abraham Joshua Heschel asserts something similar when he notes that “there is no binding halakha without aggada.” All of this points to the binding nature of human experience in shaping our understanding of Judaism. Halakha must always be contextualized with our experiences. Heschel went so far to say that those who understand halakha as being the only important aspect of Judaism, thus relegating the individual and communal religious experience as secondary is not even fit to interpret halakha.

Ellison’s context is situated within the context of queer Judaisms and how there might be legal principles within the Torah that might actually help color our understanding of the law. Then again, I see a definite link between his reading (and Heschel’s) and our discussions of environmentalism, or ecology. The Torah tells us of our right to dominate the earth. God commands it, therefore, we have a right to do whatever we want with it. We might consider this a rule. Then again, we cannot live with that halakhic rule alone. We must have aggada there to tell us what dominion actually means.

It is easy for me to see that the theocratic Right are blinded partially by their own stagnant reading of the text and their collusion with corporate wealth and greed. We on the religious Left often ignore the latter but I think it has to be said. I am no psychologist but the theocratic Right projects a lot of their own personal issues onto us. Those of us who believe in environmental stewardship are said to participate in the “cult of the green dragon.” I find it laughable considering that it seems increasingly clear that they are in collusion with corporations. Why are we not similarly stating that they’re part of the “cult of the invisible hand of the free market”? Or the false idol of capitalism? They constantly use the biblical text to prove that it supports capitalism. I think this is problematic.

I know I cannot do so with environmentalism but I think we should be clear about that. The biblical and rabbinic writers don’t have to face what we’re facing, so they never address it. To turn back to Ellenson, they do provide us with principles. To turn back to Heschel, we must look to our own religious experiences and our own narratives to interpret halakhic material. If we don’t, we have no right to interpret the rules. Judaism has the principle, tza’ar ba-alei hayyim “sensitivity to the pain of animals.”  We have the the legal stipulation of the jubilee, which dictates that it is God who rules over the land, not humans (Lev 25). This may point to God’s omnipotence but the priestly authors also dictated us being made in the image of God. As Heschel’s thought expresses time and time again, God is in search of humans. God does not want to be along. The Biblical narratives express God’s almost express Hir need for us. God giving us the earth is not for abuse but rather because of God’s love of us. Creation is good even before humans are created. Humans are not the pinnacle of creation, Sabbath is.

So what happens when there are threats to the earth? Do we simply state that God has control over everything, we need not worry about it? Do we simply state, “oh well humans have dominion over the earth?” Our own experiences are telling us that the earth is crying out and that our abuse of it is destroying it. God only hesitated to create the world because of us, the Midrash tells us. Ze decided to do so because while human beings had the capability of doing evil, we also had the capability of redemption, of doing some really great and transformative things.

God created the world. If we decide its okay to destroy and conquer, are we not really just slapping God in the face? Are we not simply slashing the canvas? Dominion, if it implies kingship does not simply mean doing whatever one wishes. The history of Israel is filled with examples of how the Israelite monarchy constantly fucked up. They did whatever they wanted. They were greedy. They had no concern for the living things within the land. Their right to kingship gave them the right to do what they will. So, if we are going to espouse of theology of dominion, does that mean that our lack of concern for all living things on the earth is alright? Who wants rulers like that? Who likes humans like that? I should think no one. So, Jewish principles, narratives, and history compels me to say that we need to do whatever we can to protect the environment. God created the earth, that is the ultimate blessing. I am not concerned with how that went about. I am really only concerned with how to show the Sacred that I acknowledge living on earth as a blessing.

Jay Michaelson writes about the command to choose life. He notes that fundamentalisms of various sorts focus on death. This world is transitory and that our real concern should be the life after this one. Judaism, on the other hand, rarely talks about the afterlife. Michaelson does not that this is complicated and that Judaism has no one voice that speaks for it. Nevertheless, I think we need to focus on choosing life. On preservation and protection of life. We have to do whatever we can to make life livable. The theocratic Right mocking those who find importance in conservation and environmentalism is almost a death sentence. It assumes that humans have no responsibility in doing anything for the earth. In the end, it mocks the blessing everyday. It assures that for future generations, life will not be livable.

Rosh HaShannah, Part 1

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In light of Rosh HaShannah on Thursday evening, I have a lot of reflecting to do about the past year of my life. A lot has happened. It’s a transitional year. I am going from undergraduate to graduate student. I am moving from a place so familiar and comfortable to me, to a place that is almost completely unknown. I know that there are so many people that I’ve made proud but there are likely a few people I’ve failed, I can name one.

It feels weird to have an issue with my lover, or for him to have issues with me. We communicated on so many levels but we lack verbal communication. It’s kind of a sin that I’ve made quite a few assumptions about him and because of that, we probably don’t communicate as fully as we could. I feel like there’s still a lot of surface level conversations and I know that I am partly to blame for that. It’s especially embarrassing to think about it when I consider this man to be integral to my life. We don’t know enough about each other and I guess I feel ashamed about that. What makes it all the more embarrassing was the letter I wrote to my future self at my graduate orientation, where I hoped not to take Sean for granted and to always love, and care for him because he’s special and deserves it. However, I am not to the point where I feel a crippling sense of guilt. We all make mistakes and luckily, mistakes never make it to the point where they cannot be worked out and forgiven.

In the context of Rosh HaShannah, we’re asked to think about our theological and moral failings as well as our successes. But I think failings are more apt for the holiday because Rosh HaShannah is meant to remind us that while we cannot change the past, we can make the future better through our reflection of the past. That’s what Tashlich is all about. We have to pick apart the bread that is ourselves in order to cast our sins into the water to let them go. We shouldn’t be anxious about them because they’ve already happened. What’s past is past and we have a chance to keep it as the past. The book opens on Rosh HaShannah and closes on Yom Kippur. The first step is to tell Sean all of this and the second step is to be more involved in his interests and his life because I am interested in those things too, albeit somewhat ignorant about them. He’s important, he’s special. He is undoubtably the most important relationship that I’ve had so far. It’s time to show him that through actions. If I begin to be good to him before the book of life closes on Yom Kippur, then I know it we’ll be good in the coming year.

Now the real question is, where is Carrington?