â€œI couldnâ€™t help but wonderâ€¦â€
Sound familiar? It may be Carrieâ€™s popular phrase of wonderment on Sex and the City, but way before the popular series hit HBO, Allison Josephs was a child who couldnâ€™t help but wonder herself. About spirituality and Judaism, that is.
Now her popular website www.JewintheCity.com answers questions that may as well begin with that catchphrase. I couldnâ€™t help but wonderâ€¦How do you turn a man who isnâ€™t ready for commitment into one who is?…Iâ€™m becoming more observant, does it ever get easier?…Why do Orthodox Jews consider a womanâ€™s singing voice immodest? And most recently, Big Bang Theory actress and neuroscientistÂ Mayim Bialik posed the question to Allison, her spiritual mentor, â€œHow can I reconcile the science Iâ€™ve studied with the Jewish beliefs I hold dear?â€
Allisonâ€™s video response is another in a queue of videos that provide the everyman with explanations to common misconceptions about Orthodox Judaism. From the question of the hole in theÂ sheet to whether or not kosher food means itâ€™s been blessed by a Rabbi, her videos are informative and fun to watch and prove that thereâ€™s no such thing as a stupid question.
In her video, Science vs. Religion: Mayim Bialik and the OTHERÂ Big Bang Theory, Allison explains that the Torah agrees with the essence of the big bang theory in that the universe has a beginning. She quotes the doctor Rabbi Moshe Ben Maimon (Maimonidies), who wrote in his Guide to the Perplexed that, â€œThe creation account given in the Torah is not intended to be literal in all its parts.â€ She provides the example that we do not take the Torah literally when it refers to the hand of God, because God does not, in fact, have an actual hand. So too, she postulates, the word â€œdayâ€ should not be taken literally to mean sunset to sunset, or how would one explain the first four â€œdaysâ€ before the sun was created? No, she says, a â€œdayâ€ is said to represent the passage of time as the world evolved in the natural order mentioned in the Torah account of creation.
And dinosaurs? Allison points out that Genesis mentions the creation of giant reptiles, which some believe refers to dinosaurs.
Judaism is pro-science. In fact, Rabbis must take scientific and medical information into account before ruling on Jewish law. And science would be lost without ethics and morality. They are not mutually exclusive.
While Allisonâ€™s video provides some examples, it is not meant to be a full explanation. Rather, like the theory of the big bang, it is a starting off point for more learning and investigation.
Allison, this topic is historically controversial. Has your video been criticized?
This is our most well-liked video to date. But since, as we know, for every 2 Jews there are 3 opinions, the expected criticisms have come up. Thankfully nothing too bad, though. The fun thing about taking a stand in the middle is that you get hit on both sides!
You say on your site you experienced an existential crisis as a child. What was it?
I had an almost idyllic childhood. I grew up upper-middle class in the suburbs with close family and friends. I did well in school, was involved in lots of extra-curricular activities which I enjoyed. I had pretty much everything you’re supposed to have in life to be happy, and I wasÂ happy. But it occured to me one day, at around 8 years old, that I didn’t know why I was alive, that none of the stuff I was doing was going to last beyond this world. So I asked my parents very casually one day why we were here. And all I got back was blank stares, which was a pretty terrifying (and unexpected) response. I was angry that the people who got me stuck existing didn’t know why they were alive in the first place.
Everyone I asked – teachers, friends, relatives – the most successful people in my life didn’t know either. So I started not being able to sleep at night as I thought about death and eternity, and how I was heading somewhere for a VERY long time either sooner or later, but that I wouldn’t be prepared before I got there.
What was your biggest misconception about Orthodox Jews before you were Orthodox yourself?
I had soooo many misconceptions about Orthodox Jews before I became Orthodox myself, but I think the one that sums up a bunch of misconceptions at once is that I thought that Orthodox Jews were notÂ normal or anything I could relate to. Â So JITC is all about showing people that we ARE normal. Well…I’m not actually so normal, but in a good way!
What would you say to critics who believe youâ€™re trying to put a pretty face on a chauvinist religion, or that youâ€™re stretching the interpretation of the Torah to fit into science?
Men and women are treated differently within Orthodox Judaism. That’s a fact. What needs to be determined, though, is if the difference in treatment is because the men are trying to hold the women back or because men and women are spiritually different from one another, and therefore have different spiritual needs.
I think the best way to figure out which one it is is to experience Orthodox Jewish life personally. When I did, I saw tremendous respect being given to the women, who I also, for the most part, saw were strong, outspoken individuals in control of their lives and destinies. In the dozen-plus years I’ve been involved with Orthodox Judaism, I’ve been in literally two homes where the men were chauvinistic and both times I was extremely uncomfortable and it felt like something was off and not the Torah way.
In terms of “stretching the Torah to fit into science,” there’s always been a rationalist strain within traditional Judaism. In Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan’s book, “Age of the Universe” he talks about a kabbalist Rabbi Yitzchok deMin Acco who had come up with a calculation that the universe was close to 15 billion years old – in the 13th century! There’s also a famous midrash which says that “God created and destroyed universes,” which some people believe is a reference to dinosaurs, woolly mammoths, and pre-historic man. Although there is a strain within Orthodoc Judaism that believes in a literal reading of the creation account, a non-literal reading which has flexibility in it has been around for a long time.
So whatâ€™s next for Jew in the City?
I’m working on a book. A cooking memoir. The recipes will be the non-kosher foods I grew up eating and loving. The reader will learn how to make them kosher just as I’ve done as an adult. The message behind the book, in both the stories and the recipes, is that you don’t have to lose the flavor when you become observant, you just have to follow the rules. The book will also touch on the misconceptions people have about kashrut and the spirituality in it.
I’ve also recently gotten onto the speaking circuit again after having taken a break to be home with my kids. So I have a few upcoming speaking engagements, including a scholars-in-residence Shabbos I’m doing with Mayim Bialik at the Boca Raton Synagogue in January.
And finally, are you Samantha, Carrie, Charlotte, or Miranda?
None of the above! People often think that JITC was taken from SATC, but the real inspiration for Jew in the City was a YoutTube show called LonelyGirl15 about a teenage girl who shared her life with the viewers of YouTube. I realized that there was this incredible medium where a person could bring others into her life, almost forming a relationship.
It’s the lack of personal interactions that causes so many negative stereotypes about Orthodox Jews. Most people who don’t like us have never even met us. So when I saw that she was a lonely 15-year-old girl, I thought, “Who am I?” And the name “Jew in the City” popped into my head!
To view more fun and informative videos from Allison Josephs, visit www.JewintheCity.com.