Tuesday, January 22, 2008


So I've been thinking about vampires and their aversion to religious objects and, overanalysing as is my wont, I have a few questions:

Are all religious symbols valid or just Christian ones? If the latter, does that conclusively prove the validity of Christianity? If the former, do either vampire or victim have to be aware of the nature of the symbol or would it be sufficient for the symbol to exist even in some distant, unheard of tribe somewhere? Would a cross work for a Jew? Does it depend on the religion of the vampire? If a cross would work, would it be forbidden for the Jew to use one because that would constitute idolatry? Is a Magen David a valid religious symbol, given its relatively modern origins and the lack of religious power attributed to it? Could vampire-shunning be used as a test for the religious validity of a practice or symbol? Can the cross be made out of any material and if so, why don't people just make one with their fingers at the critical moments? If there are limitations on material, what are they? Do they relate to the permanancy of the material, the consistency, or is there a closed list of valid materials? Would a plastic cross do the trick? Would a tattoo of a cross work? Must the vampire see the cross or is general presence sufficient? Can he avoid the problem by closing his eyes? How much of a barrier is required to block the influence of the cross? Is a single layer of material sufficient, and if so, could vampires wear sunglasses, or would protective material be required for all exposed areas of skin? If a priest recited a prayer and spat on the vampire, would that constitute holy water? What if the priest is secretly not a very holy person at all? What if a regular person said a bracha and spat? What bracha would you make? Would it be a bracha l'vatala? If so, would that negate the holiness factor?

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Shomer Follow-Up

I had forgotten the oh-so-sweet rush that comes from a blog posting- the sense of accomplishment when you look at the torrents of words that have somehow poured forth from your fingertips; the anticipation laced with a bit of anxiety as you wait to see how the world has accepted your offering; the thrill of joy each time you check and see that there is a comment, and the curious suspended excitement as you wait for the page to load. So addictive it is. Enough to stir me from my habitual torpor, actually having something useful to say be darned.

And from that unusually florid introduction onward:

I was talking to one of my roommates about my last post (She reads, apparently, but will not comment, thus necessitating actual verbal dialogue. The horror, the horror.) and we both attributed the shomer negiah phenomenon to reason #2 below: the gap with the values of society.

To elaborate: once upon a time, Jews lived largely among Christians or various ascetic sects and could generally go along with the idea that sex was- generally or entirely- bad. Of course, they realized that sex in marriage was a different story, but then again, so did the Christians and so everybody was happy and halacha developed along lines that fit everybody's values and that was that.

But nowadays, general society has massively different opinions on a number of different fronts. The first is that sex is pretty much alright when done for almost any reason or situation (barring a mutually accepted loveless marriage, which still is somehow very immoral.) The second- and more interesting- is that love justifies all. People in books, movies, real life will do unbelievably silly and/or immoral things under the banner of love and even if it ends tragically for themselves or others, Love is brought out as some ineffable, overarching, incontrovertible justification.

Last year, I attended a shiur in which the speaker suggested (based, I believe on Paradise Lost and C. S. Lewis) one of the most compelling definitions of Avoda Zara that I had ever heard: Idolatry is taking one value or ideal and setting it above everything else- putting it in the place of God. Over the years, there have been idolatries of nationalism, of honor, of nature.

And ever since then, those have been the terms in which I have framed my annoyance with almost all bits of culture out there, from ridiculous paeans to Love like Enchanted to otherwise sensible books. They seem to worship love. But I believe (with the firmness of one who has no personal experience on the issue) that love justifies nothing that is not otherwise justified, and nothing that is overwise justified needs love to justify it. (Including sex.)

The problem is that even for those who intellectually agree with that sentence, I think society's canonization of love makes it difficult to wholeheartedly pledge themselves to a standard that is often going to be in conflict with the all-important Love. And therefore pro-shomer arguments are forced to base themselves on the relatively weak ground that shomer is actually the best servant of Love, rather than the stronger and less arguable point that it is a religious requirement likely formed with little to no interest in what effect it will have on Love, one way or the other.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Shomer Negiah

Izgad linked to an interesting article by Matthue Roth (author of the 'great but flawed Orthodox novel') discussing shomer negiah. Actually, the article simply described a phenomenon of which I think people are pretty generally aware: Modern Orthodox young people tend to view shomer negiah as optional, if not downright nerdy.

This is a fact that has always fascinated/annoyed me (according to context, mood, and audience.) For me, personally, it is less a religious issue at this point than a sociological one. (Also, not a personal one. I have had no personal experience on the subject, besides the awkward work-handshake situation, so I have no dog in this fight.) But here's my religious take off the bat, just to get it out of the way:

To the extent of my knowledge, shomer negiah (when the girl is a niddah, as most unmarried girls are these days) is possibly a Biblical level prohibition, possibly a Rabbinic one. (Based on the verse "To a woman in her niddah, you should not approach to bare her nakedness." Not, perhaps, a necessary reading by modern standards, but in Talmud homiletic terms, a pretty strong one.) Like most prohibitions found in the Talmud, you can discuss the legitimacy of the Biblical reading, the societal influences pushing the reading\prohibition, and the moral/psychological value of the prohibition from here until the cows come home, but there is little intra-halachic basis to write off the commandment. And, as is generally the case, there are various loopholes that the halachic system and the Jewish community has chosen not to go with. So, from a purely halachic standpoint, there isn't really any intra-system reason that it should be weaker than almost all the kashrut we currently keep, or 99.9% of shabbat.

But for some reason, it is considered a legitimate question in even observant circles to ask "Are you shomer?" And they don't mean shomer shabbat or shomer kashrut, or general shmirat mitzvot. And for that same inexplicable reason, answering 'no' gets you nothing worse than being thought at worst 'a little left-wing' and at best 'normal' in a way that admitting to not really keeping kashrut never would.

I am at a loss to explain these things. I can come up with a few general guesses, but they fail the basic test of explanations, which is that they could predict which things would be like this and which wouldn't. But here they are:

1) It's too hard. Unlike turning on lights and eating milk and meat together, shomer negiah offers too much temptation for hormone- or love- addled minds can overcome. The problem: this doesn't really explain why it's okay to state in general that you don't even attempt to be shomer; if the action is regarded as a irresistable sin, you'd think there'd be more shamefacedness about it. Also, Jews are pretty insane about the oddest stringencies in the most difficult situations. I doubt that shomer negiah presents any insurmountable obstacle to people who really, really believed that it was wrong.

2) It's too weird. Society, as a whole, has changed drastically from the Victorian mindset that would have regarded such a thing as even semi-normal. Society today, instead of stigmatizing love/sex, has nearly idolized it, so that the most ridiculous and immoral actions seem to gain validity if done in the name of love. As such, the official halachic stance is simply not tenable in the modern world and under modern sensibilities. To be modern, in effect, means to disobey the halacha in this case. The problem: there's plenty of weirder and/or more 'offensive' things that the modern orthodox will continue to do. Shomer negiah, actually, sounds pretty good when phrased in sweet, airy terms to the general world (Read, for example, Gila Manolson). Certainly better than shechitta or various other things that we keep.

3)It's not all that exceptional. Maybe Modern Orthodoxy, in general, is dropping prohibitions left and right, and this is simply the only one that occurs to me at the moment. If so, the shomer negiah phenomenon is symptomatic of a general trend in modern orthodoxy that is well beyond the scope of this suddenly-quite-long blogpost.

4) Who knows? Sometimes religion just evolves, working along its own path, weaving in and out of history. In a hundred years, perhaps this will just be one of those things. I think that what makes this trend different is the fact that halacha has never really caught up. Nobody's trying to reinterpret the law or challenge the validity of the prohibition. They just ignore it, in a manner that must be causing some pretty unhealthy cognitive dissonance out there.

Does my ever-wise blogging audience have any suggestions?