Friday, July 29, 2011

Getting Ritual Wrong

I guess that when I start blogging again, I really start blogging again.

Today's edition is entitled: "When media outlets publish unbelievably stupid articles about Jewish rituals." I have read two already this morning that made my blood boil:

1. This gem in the JTA (Jewish Telegraphic Agency), linked to via Jewish Ideas Daily, saying that non-Orthodox Jews are doing too much tikkun olam (repairing the world, i.e., social justice) and not enough mitzvot.

This is an old charge, but it never ceases to piss me off, because it presents false choices: mitzvot OR social action. Newsflash: They are not mutually exclusive. All Jews should strive to do more of both. I was raised Reform with a day-school education AND a fair amount of ritual in the home and am now a member of a modern Orthodox shul, although I would not describe myself as modern Orthodox. I have written in the past about how shocked I am by the attitudes toward social action of some of my otherwise wonderful shul friends. I think that the ritual aspects of an Orthodox Jewish life (including among the Modern Orthodox) can become overwhelming, and that it is therefore important for rabbis and, heck, anyone who cares, to remind Orthodox Jews about the importance of social action, not only within the shul, but outside it as well.

But far, far, worse than this false dichotomy is the author's explanation of why Orthodox Jews (don't even get me started on the term "Orthodox movement") engage in "serious Jewish education and Jewish practice":

"We can’t have it both ways. We might insist that tikkun olam and social justice are central to our Jewish way of life, but they are increasingly taking the place of serious Jewish education and Jewish practice. Those are the water pumps and sandbags employed by the Orthodox movement against the rising tides of assimilation."

Silly me. I thought I observed Shabbat because it is an eternal covenant between God and the Jews that evokes the miracles of Creation and the Exodus from Egypt and links me to Jews throughout the centuries. NOW I realize that I am doing it to keep any future children from inter-marrying. That makes it so much more meaningful. Thanks, buddy.

2. The New York Times's religion reporting is a joke. This is another thing that is not new and, yet, continues, in its most egregious instances, to make me want to bang my head against the wall.

So, guess what's (not) new in the Jewish world today? This piece (it may be online only) divulges the great secret that some Jews, especially in San Francisco, are not having their sons circumcised. Wow! If this hadn't been going on even in New York for the last 15 years at least (I am too young to remember any further back, although info is welcome), I might be surprised. I think it is especially ridiculous that the piece makes no connection whatsoever between the recent San Francisco circumcision controversy and the attitudes of "Jewish 'intactivists'" living in the Bay Area who prefer brit shalom to brit milah. Who do you think started and leads the campaign to have circumcision banned in San Fran?

Hey, New York TImes, just in case you forgot about that whole controversy, you might want to check your OWN NEWSPAPER from TWO DAYS AGO, when you ran an article entitled "Judge May Strike Circumcision Ban."

BOTTOM LINE: This whole media narrative about the inexorable decline of Jewish ritual (or mitzvot, if you prefer) in the non-Orthodox world and the related superiority of the Orthodox in all things Jewish is getting really tiresome.

I often wonder whether these writers have ever belonged to an Orthodox community. If they didn't, it would explain why they see Orthodox Jews as so special and transcendent. As a member of a warm and caring modern Orthodox community, I see every Shabbat that its members, who, yes, engage in "serious Jewish education and Jewish practice," also have weaknesses and struggles for holiness, just as other Jews do.

But no one ever writes about that.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Career Advice

Wow. I realize I haven't blogged for a while, and I realize I haven't blogged about academia much at all, but I saw something today on Slate that really struck me. At the end of an article otherwise pedestrian article on reforming Ph.D. programs in the humanities, the author, William Pannapacker, said something unexpected. Really unexpected.

A bit of background for those of you who are lucky enough not to have, or be studying for, Ph.D.'s in the humanities: Most graduate students are exploited terribly as cheap labor for undergraduate teaching so that tenured professors rarely have to leave the library. Those same professors often encourage their most engaged students to pursue Ph.D.'s, both so that the professors can reproduce themselves academically (have disciples, in other words) and because those professors have little experience outside of academia and think their students' only other choice is working for an evil corporation. Many, many, Ph.D.'s in the humanities do not get tenure-track jobs once they graduate (this has gotten MUCH worse in many fields since the Great Recession). Many of them become severely underpaid adjunct professors who earn something like $5,000 per course (if they're lucky) with no benefits and no job security. If you want to hear from some of these people, check out the blog College Misery.

I didn't know any of this before I entered graduate school, because: a) things weren't as bad then, and b) those undergrad professors tend to reassure their students that MANY people may not get jobs, but, you, of course, are not "many people." You are special and chosen, and you're going to a top-3 grad school in your field, where you will be fully funded. (Did you know, dear readers, that some students take out as much as $100K in loans to get Ph.D.'s? Even as an undergrad, I would have recognized that as crazy).

So, for the last ten years or so, various people have been writing articles in various publications that only academics read suggesting many of the solutions that Pannapacker puts forth, including: providing non-academic career advice to Ph.D.'s; publishing the rates of job placement in any Ph.D. program; and encouraging grad students to organize. Because most of these articles are written by academics (and Pannapacker is one), most of them do not include his final suggestion, which he calls "the nuclear option."

Pannapacker says:

"6. Just walk away. Do not let your irrational love for the humanities make you vulnerable to ongoing exploitation. Do not remain a captive to dubious promises about future rewards. Cut your losses, now. Accumulate work experiences and contacts that will enable you to support yourself, have health coverage, and something like a normal life. Even the more privileged students I mentioned earlier—and the ones who are not seeking traditional employment—could do a lot of good by refusing to support the current academic labor system. It exists because so many of us who care about the humanities and higher education in a sincere, idealistic way have been passively complicit with the destruction of both. You don't have to return to school this fall, but the academic labor system depends on it.
In order to reform higher education, many of us will have to leave it, perhaps temporarily, but with the conviction that the fields of human activity and values we care about—history, literature, philosophy, languages, religion, and the arts—will be more likely to flourish outside of academe than in it. As more and more people are learning, universities do not have a monopoly on the 'life of the mind.'"

There were five jobs nationwide in my field last year. FIVE. In. The. Whole. Country. (And Canadian universities must, by law, give preference to Canadians). Non-academics rarely believe these statistics, but they are real. It is refreshing to hear an academic admit that this may not work, even for the Ivy-League, fully-funded, Ph.D. who has not yet had to resort to adjuncting. I have never heard a tenured professor say anything close to: "It [the current academic labor system] exists because so many of us who care about the humanities and higher education in a sincere, idealistic way have been passively complicit with the destruction of both." It's as refreshing to me as it is shocking.

I'm going back on the job market this year. I very well may find another postdoc. Will it be exploitative? If I don't find one, will I adjunct, or will I do a #6?

Any thoughts?