Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Sacrificing for the Moledet

For the past several months I’ve been extraordinarily busy with a new project that I am committed to. It has virtually left me little time to opine. However, there appeared in the op-ed page of the Forward this past week (Nov. 9, 2007) a piece co-authored by Tsvi Hersh Weinreb and Stephen Savitsky representatives of the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America.

Their article, “We Cannot Forget Jerusalem”, is full of the usual clichés and platitudes reviewing our historical connection to Jerusalem through the ages. Of the eleven paragraphs 9 are a review of that connection and the last two paragraphs are critical of the upcoming Annapolis initiative.

Unlike Weinreb and Savitsky, I’m not taking a position as to the vision of the lack of it in regarding this latest initiative. I’ll leave that up to Israelis who installed Olmert as the prime minister and who allowed him to continue in that office even after the debacle in the summer of 2006. I do however take exception with the incredible temerity and dishonesty expressed by these two Orthodox Jewish bureaucrats. It has always been my position that “galus” Jews have no justifiable right to opine regarding the foreign policy of Israel whether it is regarding the surrender of Sinai, Gaza, the Golan or reaching an accommodation on Jerusalem. And for one simple reason: Only those people who live there, who have invested their lives and the lives of their families there have the genuine right to express their opinion regarding their future. Only the citizens of Israel who live under the constant threat of violence and the promise of peace at a significant price have the right to express their point of view. Those Jews opting to live in the lap of luxury whether it be in America or Europe, free of existential issues forfeit their right to any serious opinion; for they have not thrown in their lot with Am Yisrael choosing to live their Jewish lives vicariously and thus dishonestly.

Visiting Israel once or twice a year, buying an apartment in Jerusalem or sending your children to yeshivot for a year doesn’t earn you the right to opine about Israel’s future. The most stunning display of arrogance however was their statement in the concluding paragraph: “As Jews we are required to defend and rebuild Jerusalem, and if we do not take a stand now, history, and we believe, God himself-will judge us poorly…” Since 1948 Israeli’s have done the “dirty work” of defending and rebuilding Israel. While you sat smugly in your homes, planning your vacations to Israel, millions of Israelis lived the dream and defended Israel with blood. While your kids sat in yeshivot in Israel as though they were in extended summer camp, their Israeli counterparts were serving their country with pride, paying unfortunately, the ultimate price when necessary.

How dare these Jewish bureaucrats tell us what Jews are required to do? They have no monopoly on truth, values and core beliefs. Even within the Orthodox Jewish community there is a plethora of opinion; al achat kama v’kama amongst the other denominations, be they Conservative, Reconstructionist, Renewal or Reform. Furthermore, by what right have they too invoke God. We are all God’s children regardless of our faith tradition. It is precisely because of this myopic approach to religion that there is an almost continuous blood fest resulting either in jihadist or a rather pathetic attempt at understanding God’s will. If you are so convinced as to what is God’s will and the importance of a unified Jerusalem, then you ought to be investing your lives and those of your children in Israel. While I detest radical and fundamentalist Islam at least they have an ideology, albeit warped, by which they are prepared to live and die. What about you-are you willing to die for what you say you believe in?

Monday, September 10, 2007

A Muse: Haazinu 2007

The Bible credits three songs to Moses, two of which are in the Bible: Az Yashir delivered after the crossing of the Red Sea, the beginning of Israel’s long journey, and the other, Haazenu, at the end of the journey. It is a beautiful poem which warns, instructs and gives us hope. The poem has another feature, in which it serves as a vision far into the future, which foretells of the Zionist vision and the return to Israel.

The author of the Kli Yakar, Rashal, comments on the 32nd verse of chapter 39. where the verse repeats the word “ani” twice. The Rashal comments that it is in the same spirit of “nachamu nachamu” in Isaiah which refers to the redemption on a dual level: physical and spiritual. The physical redemption relates to an independent Jewish state where our destiny will be dependent on our own will and the spiritual redemption when the negative side of our inner core, the yetzer harah will be sublimated to the yetzer hatov. The two together will work in tandem in order for the redemption to become permanent.

Incidentally, the Rashal also interprets the concept of “Tichiyat Hameitim” within the context of this futuristic vision of redemption. In the Diaspora, the Kli Yakar maintains, we as a people are without vitality, the collective life force drained from us, as though dead. The redemption will breathe life back into the people. It happened twice in the past, he maintains, but those were but momentary pauses in our history. The third redemption, based upon Hosea will be the last and permanent redemption. Sounds like a chapter out of Leon Pinsker’s Auto-Emancipation.

Thursday, September 6, 2007

Two Continental Plates

Ever since reading about Noah Feldman’s monumental choice I’ve been vexed by the finality of his decision and the inevitable consequences. Truth be told, Noah Feldman is of little interest to me. Rather it is what he symbolizes that is of deep and abiding concern. He represents a growing number of informed and Jewishly educated Jews, who because they are “Jews of Choice” understand their decisions and implications in a very different perspective than orthodox Jews.

There was a time when one’s Jewish identity was uncomplicated and unilateral. Defining oneself as a Jew didn’t require qualifiers such as reform, conservative, reconstructionist, renewal, modern orthodox, mainline orthodox, ultra orthodox, charedi or hassidic. A Jew was a Jew and when he intermarried, he married out. There were no options other than to suffer the castigation and ignominious exit from his community.

Only fifty years ago, while there was a mild amount of intermarriage, it still wasn’t the normative behavior of young Jews. But then again, that was before Jews understood themselves as a “Jews by Choice”. It was before the reform movement ruled on patrimonial descent. It was before Jews were seen as part of mainstream America and accepted unconditionally within the social fabric of America.

The rules of the game have changed. Being a Jew today doesn’t require the unconditional abdication of one’s personal choices for the greater good of the community. Today, we have multiple types of communities, and if one is no longer accepted or comfortable in one he can easily shift to a more accepting, more embracing community. In today’s world, where Jews are “Jews by Choice” they can opt to be practicing Jews of one denomination while their spouse may choose to practice Judaism according to the tenets and principles of another denomination.

There are a growing number of Jews of the twenty first century, who, although not intermarried, light the chanukia but also adorn a winter tree in their home. There are a growing number of Jews of the twenty first century married to non-Jewish spouses, raising their children with a Jewish identity and seeking confirmation and acceptance within the Jewish community. There is a rising number of Jew of the twenty first century, the products of intermarriage seeking acceptance, because of the opportunity afforded them through the reform ruling of patrilineal descent. There is a growing number of Jews of the twenty first century who wish not to marry, but to live together with or without raising a family, and seek acceptance within the Jewish community. There are growing numbers of Jews of the twenty first century who are choosing mates of the same sex, while seeking out a Jewish community in order to satisfy their justifiable and genuine spiritual needs. Jews of the twenty first century are “Jews by Choice”.

The rules of the game have changed, and where there was once a semblance of uniform and shared values, in the twenty first century there is a panoply of choices that in essence have redefined what it means to be a Jew today. A Jew today defines himself with many hyphenated qualifiers. He can split his identity into as many units as is necessary in order to navigate successfully through the labyrinth of choices open to him. Applying the old rules to the new game is counterproductive and ought to be counterintuitive. Orthodoxy Jews tend to be comfortable in the halachic rubric ruling and guiding their existence. And while this system is essential for our existence as orthodox Jews it does not address the needs of those Jews who define themselves independently of the halachic community.

Clearly the Jewish people have bifurcated into two competing communities. Those who define themselves by orthodox interpretation of halacha and “Jews by Choice”. It would appear that these two galactic poles are in confrontation with each other reminding one of the confrontational relationships between competing groups in the past. The manner in which we choose to respond to these new challenges, shifting mores and competing groups will determine the future of our community for generations to come.

The relationship doesn’t have to be confrontational. It has become that way because leadership within the orthodox community tends to be judgmental thus effecting confrontation. We have seen this in the past as with the confrontation between misnagdim and hassidim in the eighteenth century. Ironically “Jews by Choice” have no other choice but to personify who and what they are. Orthodox Jews, on the other hand have a choice. They don’t have to compromise their values nor renege on any halachic standards. What they have to do is practice their own teachings. To love and to embrace their co religionists would be the first step to fusing these two continental plates into one muscular and powerful unit.

Monday, September 3, 2007

A Musing: Nitzavim-Va'yelech 2007

Nitzavim is the shortest weekly portion of the Torah, without any mitzvoth “aseh” or “lo taaseh”, but nevertheless a portion which is powerful and compelling in its message. This parsha is composed of words of comfort and consolation spoken by Moshe, inspired and commanded by God on the eve of his demise. The portion is divided into three sections: A farewell speech ( 29: 9-28); consolation (30:1-14); and life’s choices (30:15-20).

A particularly interesting verse, found in the second section, verse 30:3 has confounded Biblical commentaries for centuries. This verse repeating the word “v’shav” twice seems to render a redundancy which is a typical of Biblical text. Throughout the centuries scholars have been challenged by this redundancy and have offered a variety of interpretations which would explain the redundancy of the term “v’shav”.

Many of the commentaries interpreted the meaning of the text to fit in with current events. Rashi, who lived during the first Crusades, understood the repetition of the word “v’shav” to indicate that God is with Israel whether they are in the Land of Israel or in Galut, He is, according to Rashi, with Israel even in their time of pain and suffering. The Abarbanel witnessed the Spanish Inquisition, and interpreted the repetition of “v’shav” within the reality that he lived. The Jewish people in Spanish Europe were basically split into two groups: Those who refused to compromise their faith and those who publicly renounced their faith while privately practicing their faith. The Abarbanel believes that the mentioning of “V’shav” twice refers to and represents these two troubled suffering communities of Jews.

Another interpretation explaining the doublet of “v’shav” is perhaps found in Rashi’s alluding to the difficulty in redemption. The Jewish people are made up of the collective but also recognized for each individual. The Talmud Yerushalmi, Berachot (4: a), refers to the redemption as “kimaa kimaa”, slow, arduous and one by one. Perhaps the redundancy of “v’shav” represents the community of Israel as well as the individual. The trouble that Rashi may have been referring to can be the difficulty the individual has of coming to terms with who he is and his relationship to his God. There isn’t a uniform principle we can apply to arrive at these truths, each of us has to come to it on his own terms and in his own time.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Deconstructing a Gadol

Many years ago I together with my wife and two daughters lived in a small Midwestern community with one orthodox synagogue. Naturally we chose a house in close proximity of the shul. Having met the rabbi and heard some of his sermons I had my reservations, but it was the only game in town. In particular, being an intellectual snob of sorts I disliked the fact that he had one of those psuedo college diplomas, the kind where half the credits are made up of yeshiva credits comprised of talmud classes plus another years credit for their experience in an Israeli yeshiva. It is the kind of “rabbi” who lacks clear analytical reasoning, intellectual expanse and perspective, emotionally driven by the need to be “mekarev”, incapable of creatively thinking out of the box, and judgmental to a fault.

This was the time when there had been an earthquake in California, small enough not to have caused much mayhem but big enough to have caused loss of life and grab the headlines of most national newspapers. That particular Shabbat, our beloved rabbi delivered the sermon from the mount peppered with fire and brimstone. In his diatribe he referred to California as the epicenter of tumah because of the rampant homosexuality plaguing the cities and countryside. It was, in his estimation, God’s way of calling attention to our collective sins by reigning down on California a light earthquake as a wake up call. The next one, unless they drastically changed their lifestyles would be cataclysmic, he prophesied.

I couldn’t help but ask what kind of rabbi was this? How dare he exploit the power of the pulpit for such a hateful remark? Predictably, my mind wandered off to the holocaust and I asked myself whether Poland had been the epicenter of tumah for God to orchestrate the liquidation of 6 million Jews. What about all of the righteous Jews who died? What about the righteous people who died in the California earthquake? Is this the rabbis “take” on God?

Within a relatively short while we sold our house and moved to a more loving community within walking distance of another orthodox shul which was spiritual and intellectual light years away from the one I had just left. I never imagined that I would encounter the likes of another heartless and thoughtless rabbi. And then out of the blue I read about Rabbi Ovadia Yosef. Hard to believe that any man, let alone this man could make such a heartless comment. He is referred to by many as a Gadol. I have to question the standards by which someone is revered as a Gadol, if Ovadia Yosef falls into that category. What is most unsettling is that people still refer to him as such and are making excuses for his coarse and vulgar comment about the death of soldiers resulting from their lack of shemirat mitzvoth.

It just so happens that among the dead soldiers were religious soldiers. I suppose that according to Ovadia Yosef they weren’t religious enough, otherwise they wouldn’t have been killed. What is religious according to him? I would also suggest that the reverse is probably true according to his logic. Our enemies who inflicted death and destruction upon us must be very religious and acting on God’s behalf in order to punish the unrepentant and sinful Jews. How perverted. It must be very painful to live in a world that is so full of hate and resentment towards those who don’t share the same values.

A Gadol ought to be someone who has not only demonstrated an unusual and unmatched grasp of torah and halacha but is also someone who is the personification and the embodiment of collective Jewish wisdom. One indication of this kind of very unusual religious leader is his love not only of his people but of humankind. Short of this he may be a scholar and a renowned halachic decisor of esoteric Jewish law, but hardly has earned the honorific recognition as a Gadol. Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, unfortunately and by his utter lack of respect and tenderness towards his people falls short of this accolade.

Monday, August 27, 2007

A Muse: Ki Tavo 2007

Ki Tavo has within it three dominating verses which defines and gives shape to our mission as a just and righteous nation. The three verses are 27:19; 26:12-13; and 26:5-9. The first verse addresses the ger, yatom and almanah. The common denominator of all three is their foreignness. Either they are foreign due to birth, or due to circumstances. In either situation they have been relegated to the periphery of society, and as such have been marginalized. The second verse addresses the economic plight of the poor. The third puts the need for addressing these social and economic needs within the framework of history.

Hermann Cohen’s insight into this parsha reveals that a righteous sytem of justice has to be founded upon the platform of social justice and redistribution of wealth. According to Cohen, it isn’t enough to sympathize with the ger, yatom and almanah, but their issues must be addressed in a materially demonstrative manner. Thus the portion of Ki Tavo not only says “cursed is he who perverts the justice of the stranger the fatherless and the widow”, but that in order to ameliorate their plight we must materially provide for them. Not doing so does not nor cannot abate their situation. We as a people are charged to do so because once we, too, were a marginalized people, oppressed and exploited.

While Hermann Cohen’s reading of the purpose and intent of these verses is undoubtedly correct there is some difficulty in reconciling it with government systems modeled after western capitalism and a relatively free market system. Whether we are referring to the Israel or the United States, socialism in its pristine form, no matter how noble isn’t practical. Furthermore, issues surrounding the ger are very complicated. Ought we consider those seeking asylum (in Israel) from Darfur as falling into this category of which Cohen speaks; and what of the undocumented foreigners seeking work and dignity within the United States?

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

A Mussing: Ki Teytze 2007

This week’s portion covers a vast array of human behavior ranging from making war to normative sexual behavior. Interestingly the text references a host of mitzvoth that define the relationship between men and women. For the most part the text refers to the rights of men verses the obligations of women.

The Torah doesn’t recognize women in her own right but in relationship to men. Women are referred to in our text as betulot, arusot onsot, gerushot, zonot almanot etc. The parsha deals with man’s relationship with the woman, how he acquires her and under what circumstances, all from the male point of view. For example the terminology used in the text is male oriented, he being the initiator. Terms such as lichicha, beila, tefisa, are all male oriented. In fact, a soldier can take at will, a woman from the vanquished side; he can marry as many women as he wants regardless of his wife’s feelings. Our text even suggests that for the same averot, the man’s punishment is different than the womans.

Flowing from this and in our tradition the male becomes the public figure, the spiritual leader, the wise man, the priest while the woman remains docile in her domicile where kol isha is forbidden because “nashim daatan kalah”. In other words a woman’s advice on public matters ought not to be considered, and that her interference is considered an attempt at breaking the male monopoly.

Much has changed in Jewish life since the emancipation, but I wonder if the woman’s role in the traditional home has made the same strides as we have made in other sectors. I can’t help but wonder if our ceremonies and ritual still maintain woman in the inferior role and ultimately harm the rich symbiotic relationship that can be harvested when treating men and women equally.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Thou Protesteth Too Much

I’ve gotten quite a kick out of the recent spate of articles relative to the intermarriage of Noah Feldman. What I find fascinating in particular is the reaction of Orthodox Jews to his personal choice and their objection to his critique of classical Orthodox Judaism to the non Jewish world.

Orthodox Judaism has always claimed that they possess the truth; after all they have described themselves with lofty adjectives such as Torah True Jews, Torah Jews, Authentic Judaism and the like. So if they are so sure of whom they are and what they stand for why is their reaction to Noah Feldman’s choice and his defense of that choice so shrill? If they hold the keys to the kingdom why do they care what the Noah Feldman’s of the world do? The old, but trusted Shakespearian reaction “Thou Protesteth Too Much” rings true in this particular instance. Based upon the reaction of the Orthodox community one would think that Feldman’s choice for a spouse is a palpable threat to the future of the Jewish people and a rejection of normative Judaism.

Then there are those like Yitzchak Adelstein who took objection with Feldman’s comments which impugned upon the tolerance of classical Orthodox Judaism in Rabbinic literature. Adestein has tried to wiggle out of Feldman’s charge by underscoring the subtle difference between a gentile and an idolater. He tries to discredit Feldman by claiming that the orthodox are good folks even though they may be idiosyncratic, claiming that Feldman tried to embarrass the Orthodox community. I don’t believe that Feldman was trying to embarrass the Orthodox Jewish community. He was merely expressing a point of view shared by many other Jews.

Adelstein claims that we are a “legal community”, thus there are safeguards to intolerance. But intolerance has been one of the hallmarks within classical Orthodox Judaism. One only needs to review some of the texts to get an idea of how profound our intolerance is. Without boring you with all the details I will direct your attention to the Mechilta D’nezikin, parasha 4 which deals in great detail over whether a Jew who kills a gentile with intent is to be put to death as he would be if he were to have killed a Jew. Regarding a Ger Toshav who killed a Jew unintentionally, he is put to death according to Makot, mishna 3. The Rambam happens to agree. There is a lengthy discussion in Sefer Hamitzvot (R’ David Hakochabi) as to whether killing a gentile constitutes murder or not. While it is prohibited to kill a gentile, the question is whether or not it is considered murder. The point is that within our texts we see distinctions made between Jew and Gentile a disparity that ought not exist, but for intolerance. There are also different standards regarding the saving of a Jewish/Gentile life on Shabbat. Refer to Talmud Yoma 85a regarding the discussion if a building collapses on a person and it is not known whether or not the person is Jewish or Gentile. Here too we see a manifestation of intolerance, uncomfortable as it may be.

Whether we like it or not there is a history of intolerance as evidenced in our texts. For those who are committed to the text and who study our texts religiously, it isn’t surprising that there might be a trickle down effect, however innocuous the intolerance towards others who do not subscribe to our belief system. On an intellectual level that sort of discrimination is relatively harmless. After all, Jews really haven’t exercised political power on a national scale for thousands of years. So any discrimination that we may harbor towards our neighbors while immoral is really harmless.

But what happens when we are in the position of power and our subconscious attitudes towards gentiles effects the way we behave? It is no longer the harmless, innocuous intolerance of others, but can be damaging, with far reaching negative effects that impacts the ethical matrix of our culture. Not too long ago in a Kol Koreh was issued in Benei Brak instructing its adherents not to sell real estate to Arabs or Non Jews. This Kol Koreh had been signed by several “Geonim” such as R’ Steinman and R’ Shmuel Wosner. I addressed the Kol Koreh in an essay A Discriminating Kol Koreh. In another essay Indian Giver I commented on the rogue Chief Rabbinate which had the temerity to revoke the conversion of Rivkah Lubitch because her level of shemirat mitzvoth wasn’t suitable for those holy rollers. There are countless daily instances of intolerance by the halachic establishment against those Jews who prefer Reform or Conservative Judaism as they chosen practice and affiliation in Israel.

There are those who would argue that these aren’t issues of discrimination, but a matter of halacha. No matter how one defines the issue it is discrimination. While for ages we cried discrimination seeking relief from liberal governments, when it is our turn to govern we are no better than those governments in the past who refused us our liberties. We have a history of intolerance as seen in our texts and brought to the public forum by Feldman. We sin daily against our Jewish brothers as well as Gentiles. We would do well to heed the advice of Adelstein and Co., who exhorts us to exhibit compassion and love for our neighbors. Who knows, maybe the Orthodox community will finally see the light.

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Jews by Choice

During the three weeks prior to Tisha B’av there was a plethora of articles and e-mails regarding the spiritual holocaust of the Jewish people resulting from the rapid assimilation of American Jews. In one particular article Rabbi Noah Weinberg’s film “From Out of the Ashes” is referenced. Apparently, Weinberg, concerned with the rapid assimilation of North American Jews, decided to take a group of Rabbis to Auschwitz in order to make the point that we are facing a spiritual holocaust today, and we need to wake up. Weinberg’s intentions are good, but to equate it with the European holocaust in order to shock the Jewish leadership out of their lethargy is mistaken.

There are significant substantive and critical core differences between the holocaust and assimilation and drawing any parallels is disingenuous at best and diminishes the meaning of the holocaust and the memory of the kedoshim. Let us not forget that from 1933-1945 six million Jews were slaughtered, tortured, burned, starved, dehumanized, gassed and eradicated. Today those who assimilate do so by choice. No one is pointing a gun at their head. One could hardly refer to this as a holocaust. One could even argue that whereas the six million martyred dead was final without reprieve, those who are in the transitional state of assimilation may find their way back to their Jewish roots circuitously. Just because one doesn’t identify religiously as a Jew doesn’t remove him from the Jewish corpus. Appreciating ones Jewishness through a cultural or humanistic value system has validity, and shouldn’t be dismissed.

There is another glaring error in some of these presentations comparing the holocaust to assimilation. Jonathan Rosenblum has the temerity to write in his article A Powerful Metaphor, that the “spiritual alienation from Hashem is a form of death, and even more horrible than physical death”. Really! Tell that to a survivor who lost his entire family, parents spouse and children by the fire and violence of the nazis. He then goes on to write “…if so how much more so should we expect that Hashem will give us what we need in order to save his children from spiritual oblivion…”Let us not also forget that it was God who distanced himself from us at the time of the destruction of the Temple and the Shoa. Our prophets cried out “eli, eli lamah azavtani…” Our twentieth century theologians have struggled with the problematic phenomenon of God’s eclipse during the holocaust. So why would J. R. consider God’s concern. Furthermore he objectifies God in the Christian tradition by assuming and expecting that God will provide us with “what we need” in order to avoid spiritual oblivion. If you are so convinced that by objectifying God in this manner you can expect receiving from God, than why the concern and worry about assimilation. God will respond and save his chosen from extinction!

The truth of the matter is that no one can second guess God. But I would assume that God has a deep and abiding concern for his suffering children regardless of their faith or belief system. That is why it is so puzzling that with all the mail I received during this three week period leading up to Tisha B’av, referencing the holocaust, assimilation and even the dismantling of the yeshuvim in Gush Katif. Not one of our spiritually religious sensitive gadflies’ referenced the ongoing physical holocaust at Darfur. Why is there no concern from the “Torah Jews” on behalf of the daily wholesale butchering of innocent men women and children? Why isn’t Rabbi Weinberg not physically moved and upset about this human tragedy, while not on the scale of our holocaust is nevertheless outrageous and heartbreaking. Is it his parochial and myopic vision that prevents him from having any compassion?

The silence and lack of palpable compassion on the part of the “Torah Jews” demonstrates fault in their world view and perhaps some deficiency in the Jewish role that ought to be assumed, pointing to lack of moral clarity amongst our orthodox clergy and spiritual/communal leaders. Perhaps this is a clue as to why there is so much assimilation among the Jews by Choice.

The freedoms we experience in our democratic system have recast Jews from Jews without Choice to Jews by Choice. As democracy carries with it responsibility of the individual, so does our role as Jews by Choice carry with it responsibility which connotes an upside as well as a downside. Those Jews who recognize their responsibility become fuller and more textured Jews versus those who shrug off their responsibility diminish their quality, become monochromatic and ultimately atrophy.

Being a ritually observant Jew doesn’t necessarily imply that one is a fuller more textured Jew. He can be as monochromatic as the Jew who has shirked his responsibility. The secular Jew with the ponytail may be a fuller, more textured Jew with a robust understanding of who he is and his mission on this earth, than the yeshiva bachur who puts on Tefilin shel Rabeinu Tam. The real issue isn’t the fulfillment of ritual, because ultimately that is really only a “means to an end”. If one has arrived at the desired “end” via short circuiting a particular ritual – so be it. The ponytailed secular Israeli, referred to, unfortunately in such a judgmental manner may be the future hope and paradigm for so many humanistic Jews searching for alternatives to a myopic view of Judaism.

More on this theme, when I return from Israel and Italy in a few weeks.

Monday, July 30, 2007

A Muse: Ekev 2007

Parshat Ekev presents us with a fascinating challenge regarding the observance of the mitzvoth. Rashi, referencing Midrash Tanchuma translates Ekev as heel, rather than the preferred translation of the conditional, rendering the verse to men “It shall be that if you heed the commandments…” Rashi reads the verse to mean that if you practice the lighter mitzvoth (that a person treads with his heel [casually]), then God will keep for you the covenant.

Rashi’s interpretation opens up for us a whole panoply of questions surrounding the nature and quality of Mitzvot. If the law is divine, then how do we really determine which mitzvoth are “lighter” and which carry more weight? Scholars such as Ephraim Urbach point out that our sources are not totally uniform in assessing the value of the mitzvoth. In some instances it would appear that there is a universal value to the commandments yet in other places it would appear as though there is a relative value to the commandments. He references for example the different rewards and punishments associated with the various mitzvoth; on the other hand Urbach points to Pirkei Avot which admonishes us to be heedful of the minor mitzvoth as of the weighty , “for you know not the reward” (Avot 2:1)

It is probably comfortable to avoid the problem of assessing value to the mitzvoth by treating them all with the same weightiness. By doing so, however we avoid the responsibility of making choices. Many of us are aren’t comfortable with this and wish to approach the performance of mitzvoth with the critical understanding of its place in the mitzvah hierarchy. Understanding that there isn’t one approach offers a challenge to the “shomer mitzvoth” in valuating the mitzvoth. Why are some mitzvoth considered lighter than others? Does this change with time or circumstances? In other words, is it possible that at a particular time in history and due to circumstances a weightier mitzvah can be reduced to the status of a lighter mitzvah? Can personal circumstances also have a role in determining the weightiness of a mitzvah?

We live in a society that is the most free and open in human history. Accompanying those freedoms is the responsibility of making the right choices in order to safeguard those freedoms. Being able to make the right choices adds meaning, value and appreciation to our freedom. It would appear to be the same for the practice of mitzvoth. Understanding them and making the right choices will make the practice more meaningful.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Tisha B’Av: A Muse

Tisha B’av commemorates the destruction of our Temple, the national spiritual/religious center of the Jewish people. It also marks the expulsion of our people from Spain as well as other numerous catastrophes that our rabbis thought appropriate to associate with Tisha B’av. And so on Tisha B’av we gather at the synagogue or other appropriate venues and mourn our national destruction through the recitation of Lamentations and Kinot.

While mourning the national destruction of our people, institutions and the consequent exile for two thousand years I wonder if there ought to be another state of mind other than mourning shared by all of us on Tisha B’av. The Three Weeks leading up to Tisha B’av is a period of mourning, characterized by sadness of the loss of our spiritual center as well as deep sorrow for the loss of life and the deep suffering of our people over the course of our history. When approaching the season of Tisha B’av this observer however believes that confrontation with God is in order, and as such is drawn to the Book of Job more so than to the Book of Lamentations. Lamentations of course is valuable in that it recreates in a masterful manner the very eerie feeling of catastrophic doom palpable to the sensitive reader of text. However, along with that sense of utter loss, of total doom, of Shoa ought to be the emotion of anger.

Tisha B’av presents us with the collective opportunity to challenge God and to emote anger: anger at God for turning his back on his people, anger at a God who eclipsed his presence in the face of utter and total evil. If we view, as the rabbis do, that Tisha B’av marks not only the commemoration of the destruction of the Temples but also other national catastrophes than how much more poignant is the question that we have to ask out of anger, as Job did: how dare You toy with human life, how dare You eclipse your presence from the suffering of the innocent, how dare You withhold you munificence and benevolence from your innocent suffering holy people!

Our prophets were preoccupied with the issue of collective retribution verses the idea of individual responsibility. Their witnessing of the suffering of the righteous individual wasn’t accepted and in a sense was challenged. There wasn’t the complacent acceptance of death and destruction then as we seem to be so accepting now. Amos struggled with the dilemma – how was it possible for God to employ collective retribution if it meant that the righteous would suffer. Amos trying to reconcile the dilemma was one of the early architects of the idea of Shearit Israel; that because of the righteousness of the minority, Israel will be saved. Isaiah too, struggled with this very same issue of collective punishment and although he didn’t frame his approach in anger his rhetoric reflected his deep frustration in the suffering of the innocent. Like Amos, Isaiah attempted to reconcile the polar tension and introduced the doctrine of the Suffering Servant. Israel is not only God’s witness but also man’s teacher. The implication here is that all mankind is intertwined and we share each other burden whether we wish it or not. According to Isaiah, Israel was suffering not because of her sins but because of the sins of the nations.

Jeremiah and Ezekiel witnessed the destruction of the Temple and they agonized over the prosperity of the wicked and the suffering of the righteous. Here lies the tension between the divine sense of fair play and justice of the collective verses the concern of the individual. The dilemma is sharpened when one considers the disposition of our holy writings which taught that the individual played a significant role in the religious thought of the nation. Thus, the people might prosper but an individual may suffer. The conviction that justice would prevail in the life of every man was the foundation of the psalmists (ps.25:12, 13); or another psalm which we read at the conclusion of the benediction over a meal “I have been young now I am old; yet I have not seen a righteous man forsaken…” (Ps 30:4, 5)

The book of Job is concerned precisely with this problem: pitting Job on the side of the individual and the lack of fairness verses Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar who believe that children without guilt are expiating the sins of their fathers. Herein lays the dilemma and why on Tisha B’av we have an obligation to not only mourn the destruction of the Temple but also to process the idea of collective retribution and how it fits in to our theological construct. In the final chapters of Job it is noteworthy that God never charges Job with any sin, nor does He try to explain his suffering. Suffering of the innocent is a reality. This conclusion doesn’t sit well with Job nor should it with us.

Job denounces his friends for defending God in the interest of their orthodox teachings and at the expense of Job’s emotional needs. Job is so angry that he believes tat if he had the right arbiter he could be vindicated before God. Ironically, in the end Job becomes that arbiter who intercedes on behalf of his friends. The message we learn is that for one to establish a personal relationship with God one has to confront God. God favored Job’s confrontation more than He did the complacency of his friends.

Perhaps the lesson we must learn from Job is that while we may not be able to understand the workings of God and his cosmic plan we have an obligation of challenging and investigating to the best of our ability, rather than passively accept that which has been handed to us. Job understands that we can’t really get to the root of the beauty of existence, and but he refuses to abdicate the use of reason to ponder the tragedy of existence.

Job also teaches us that the sufferer has a right to be angry with God, but also to understand that there are many paradoxes to God which we can’t understand such as the dark side of God and on the other hand His everlasting goodness. Job’s probing into God’s cosmic plan, although incomprehensible to a mortal frees Job from the mechanical and blind submission to a greater freedom where he can challenge God even in anger and in so doing forge a personal relationship with Him. Ought we not attempt at doing the same?

Monday, July 16, 2007

A Muse: Devarim 2007

In reviewing Devarim what comes to mind is what Biblical scholars refer to as Deuternomic Law. The authorship of Deuteronomy isn’t as obvious as one would think and as such is treated as a separate text not having the same sacred quality as the first four books. Raising this issue causes a certain level of discomfort among the more conservative traditionalists rejecting this and ascribing to Deuteronomy the same divine quality as the other four books.

What is most fascinating however is the fact that our precursors in the Middle Ages were more open to intellectual inquiry than contemporary conservative traditionalists. Whereas the medievalists had inquiring minds reflecting significant intellectual curiosity our contemporaries are living somewhat in the Middle Ages when it comes to intellectual inquiry of text because it isn’t consistent with the “frum party line”.

Apart from the fact the Talmud ( Megilla 31b) touches surreptitiously on this very subject when discussing the division of aliyot, Don Isaac Abarbanel is very open and blunt regarding his inquiry of the authorship of Deuteronomy. In his preface to Deuteronomy completed after the expulsion from Spain he wrote to his mentor Rabbi Joseph Hayyun questioning whether or nor Mishne Torah was from God or from Moses. In his lengthy question Abarbanel sites Nahmanides who divides Deuteronomy into two sections: The first section given by God, but the second section, that of the tokheka was ascribed to Moses. Rabbi Hayyun, in addressing Abarbanel, divide Deuteronomy into three sections: 1. The section on admonishment; 2. The commandments in the main body of the text; 3. The clarification of the commandments. According to Hayyun, the first and third sections were authored by Moses, while only the second section was authored by God.

Others such as Rabbi Isaac Karo believed that Deuteronomy was divinely inspired but the work of Moses, including the admonishments. Rabbi Meir Ibn Gabbai and Rabbi Moses ben Joseph Trani (16th century Safed) also shared this view. There are numerous other scholars of that period who shared this opinion with modifications and clarifications of sorts. The point here is not to compare and contrast the finer points between the various scholars, merely to point out that there was a significant place for scholarly discourse regarding Torah and its authorship. Intellectual discourse and inquiry was the hallmark among these scholars of the middle ages something that is unfortunately missing in contemporary yeshivot and their exponents.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Where Have All the Flowers Gone?

Harry Maryles’ survey of the Hebrew Theological College was fascinating, to say t the least and provided a portal by which to gage the growth and development of a segment of the Chicago Jewish community. The Hebrew Theological College, known by Chicagoans as the ‘Yeshiva” or in later years as “Skokie yeshiva” carried a certain mystique that Harry managed to convey well. Harry’s four part survey is important for what it says as much as it is important for what it doesn’t say.

The Yeshiva from its inception existed in sort of a schizophrenic capsule, which for a significant period of time was repressed as a result of the social milieu in which it existed. It was however a time bomb, waiting for the right convergence of social patterns to develop before it would explode. The name itself, Hebrew Theological College was indicative of there identity crisis. Did they want to be a yeshiva or a college? Even the name Hebrew Theological College was a heavy hitter and I wonder to this day who thought it up. Did they actually believe that as an orthodox yeshiva they would be able to pursue theological studies? It brings to mind Rabbi Jacob Perlow’s comment that the Hebrew Theological College reminded him of the Holy Roman Empire. The Holy Roman Empire wasn’t holy, it wasn’t Roman, nor was it an empire. The Hebrew Theological College wasn’t Hebrew, it wasn’t theological, nor was it much of a college. So what was it?

Over the years the Yeshiva struggled with self definition. They looked to Yeshiva University as the model of what they aspired to be. They saw themselves as a modern orthodox institution whose goal was to produce educated “well rounded” Rabbis capable of serving communities in the south and Midwest. To a limited degree they were successful, especially in their earlier years when the yeshiva produced able very able well educated rabbis who left an indelible mark on the Jewsh community. They also had inspirational teachers who were not only excellent teachers but were connected to the community and sensitive to the encroachment of Conservative Judaism.

Rabbi David Regensberg, an unusual and outstanding torah scholar and sensitive to the needs of the broader Jewish community masterminded the concept of the traditional synagogue that became very prevalent in Chicago as well as many Jewish communities in the Midwest and South. The prevailing thought was that if traditional synagogues could be created that would be linked to the national orthodox institutions, educational systems and youth camps and organizations. The reasoning was that if this could be accomplished generations of kids could be redirected from Conservative Judaism to orthodox practice.

These years, the years prior to Rav Aharon Soloveitchik were the golden years of the yeshiva. It was the years of the late 50’s and early 60 are where the institution attracted students from all over the United States. Students from California, Colorado, Nebraska, Texas, Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Florida attended the yeshiva because it was their rabbis from traditional synagogues who prevailed over their parents to send them to the yeshiva. The rabbis who went out to thee communities were idealistic and believed that they had a mission. When they succeeded in sending students to the yeshiva there was a gratification and vindication that assuming these non-mechitza pulpits had been the right thing to do.

Rav Aharon Soloveitchik, zt”l, changed all that when he was appointed the Rosh Yeshiva. While this isn’t the forum to go into his strengths and weaknesses, there is a direct correlation between his premiership and the decline of the Yeshiva, from which it never emerged. Rav Aharon’s tenure spelled the beginning of the end for the traditional movement. He wasn’t able to understand that there was a vast Jewish community in the Midwest and south, communities that were in need of spiritual growth and development which couldn’t be harvested over night. His refusal to be “masmich” students devoted to serving the Jewish community with the right intentions spelled the beginning of the decline of the yeshiva. The yeshiva no longer was a distinct and unique institution serving the South and the Midwest. It was no longer there to serve the broader Jewish community. The yeshiva now became an insular institution serving its own interests. It had become just another mediocre yeshiva with a struggling budget a graying building fading out of the mind and sight of the community it had been designed to serve.

Prior to Rav Aharon’s tenure the yeshiva had a goal – it had a mission and saw itself in distinction from the classical yeshiva. It stood apart from the others in that it regarded itself as serving and developing a vibrant modern orthodoxy. It was full of promise and saw a bright future for its stated mission. Because of this they were able to attract not only good students but also a wonderful staff of highly unusual scholars. On the faculty of the yeshiva were men who combined critical scholarship with their incredible scope of Torah and Poskim. Teachers such as Prof. Leonard Mishkin, zt”l had an encyclopedic knowledge of Jewish history, Rabbi Hirsch Eisenberg, zt”l was a great scholar of the Hebrew language and a consultant to the Vaad Halashon in Israel. Dr. Joseph Babad, zt”l was a fine and recognized scholar of Bible studies and Akkadian. Prof. Eliezer Berkovitz, zt”l a world renowned philosopher and author on approaches to halacha. Match these great minds to the faculty in the beis medrash of Rav Herzl Kaplan,zt”l Rav Selig Star, zt”l and Rav Mordechai Rogow, zt”l. Each brought with him unique qualities of sensitivity and significant scholarship.

In my moments of nostalgia thinking about the yeshiva I realize how privileged I was to have studied under some of the greatest Jewish minds in the second half of the twentieth century. And then I compare that institution to that of today and I can’t believe it is the same one I once attended. I ask myself whey aren’t there scholars like that there today so that our student would have the same advantages and benefit I had. And I’m reminded of the song “Where have all the flowerers gone”.

I know where all the flowers have gone. They have gone to other fertile fields where they can grow and flourish, not be held back, unappreciated and ridiculed. Once upon a time the yeshiva had created a vital, unique institution with a delicately balanced faculty, a symbiotic relationship, a spiritual echo system between the dreamers and doers, between limudei kodesh and limudei chol, between the rabbaim and those that wanted to become rabbis. Rav Aharon’s vetoing the traditional movement terminated that delicately balanced spiritual echo system and gave fresh meaning to Rabbi Yaakov Perlow’s question as to what was the Hebrew Theological College other than a name etched into stone.

Monday, July 9, 2007

A Muse: Matot-Masei 2007

There certainly is a level of ambivalence in the Torah when it comes to blood revenge. The first reference to blood revenge appears in Genesis 4:10, 12. Rather than Cain being killed for the murder of Abel he is banished, and assurances given that he won’t be murdered by another. Following this tradition we are introduced to the cities of refuge mentioned four times in the Torah: Exodus 21:13; Deuteronomy 4:41-43 and Deuteronomy 19:1-13 and in this weeks reading, Numbers 35:9-34.

Notwithstanding these four references to Cities of Refuge and the very first reference in Genesis against the idea of blood revenge we also find in this weeks reading provisions for the Goel Hadam, the blood avenger. What does Torah prefer: Blood Revenge or its avoidance by establishing the Cities of refuge?

The Goel Hadam is rooted in Genesis 9:6 “Whoever sheds the blood of man; by man shall his blood be shed”. Without going into detail as to how and when the Goel Hadam may operate we can see that there is ambivalence as to the value in preserving life as seen in the need for Cities of Refuge and the need for taking life by the Goel Hadam. According to M.D.Cassuto, it would appear that the Torah shows a tendency to reduce and minimize the incidents of the Goel Hadam. He refers back to Genesis 4:15 where Torah gives opposition to blood avenging preferring human judges acting in God’s name, not relatives acting in anger.

If Torah discourages the blood vengeance than why do we have a parsha of Goel Hadam? Again Casuto believes that Torah is providing the apparatus by which we are to be weaned off of Goel Hadam. In essence concessions were made to us as long as we were in the developmental stage. We have other examples of this. The Rambam speaks of this in great length when referencing commandments referring to the yifat toar, the eved ivri, and sacrificial worship. They are all, according to the Rambam, examples of concessions.

This would bear out and explain Nehama Leibowitz’ puzzling comment in Studies in Devarim when she says “ It will perhaps sound odd to the reader to learn that the commandments of the Torah are not absolute…These dispensations, concessions to human frailty that they are, so long as man has not yet achieved the ideal of ‘all of them shall know me’, constitute the greatness of Torah.

Thursday, July 5, 2007

Proud to be a Zionist

I held back, hoping that the David Klinghoffer’s essay entitled Why I am Not A Zionist , Jewcy.com, May 28, 2007 would be appropriately answered. As of yet I haven’t read any response to his essay other than some comments. When I was a T.A. we used to say that the most dangerous students are sophomores because they think they know it all. A freshman is still in shell shock from his first year in college. A junior is just coming to the realization that he knows so little and a senior has been humbled by in anticipation of graduate school where hopefully he will again some knowledge. D.K. unfortunately reminds me of that sophomore.

Rereading his essay for the third time he reminds me of the baal teshuva who has become obsessive compulsive about the ritual without having the broad contextual knowledge and understanding of our tradition. Until he grows in understanding he is at the stage where he is mimicking, making the right moves, wearing the right clothes saying the right things, quoting the right gedolim all in order to fit in to his new culture.

D.K. believes “that Zionism, in making a pedestrian and foreign 19th-century-style nationalism so central to contemporary Jewish culture, has caused us to neglect the higher mission God has in mind for us.” Which Zionism is D.K. referring to? Is he referring to that of Herzl or perhaps that of Achad Ha’am. I don’t mean to be pedantic but the two are very different. The distinction is important because the former represents a political emphasis while the latter emphasizes culture.

If D.K. has a problem with political Zionism he surely should support a variation of Achad Ha’am which advocated the cultural development of the Jewish people, highlighted and focused in Israel.. Achad Ha’am, some would say was in the great and venerable tradition of our Rabbis and sages who developed our prayer book. After all, D.K. I’m sure you recite the tefilla “ki metzion taizeh torah, ud’var hashem meyerushalayim”. How do you suppose that this tefillah could ever be fulflled with the absence of Zion and Yerushalyim and the Zionist entity. How would we be able to fulfill these prophetic words D.K? The great Yeshivot of Ponovez and Mir, the chassidic courts of Belz, Gur, Vishznetz and others, the sephardi chachamim and mikubbalim do you suppose all these are pedestrian?

You go on to say that you “don’t see any holiness in Jews squabbling and voting in a Knesset that happens to sit on top of the Holy Land.” If you weren’t Jewish I’d think you were an anti Semite. Jews don’t squabble in the Knesset any more than congressmen and senators squabble in Congress. How dare you insult our lawmakers with your arrogance that borders on blatant ignorance? Many of those “squabbling” lawmakers happen to be Jewish scholars, talmedei chachamim who are concerned with the physical and spiritual welfare of the Jewish people. Luminaries such as Yosef Burg, Zerach Warhaftig, Haim Meir Druckman, Avraham Ravitz, and Meir Porush, to list but a few were not ever squabbling in the Knesset, they were legislating in the best interests of Am Yisrael. There is holiness in legislating our own lives rather than leaving it to your Christian friends. It was by virtue of an independent State that we were able to save the Jewish communities of Yemen, USSR, and more recently of Ethiopia. What if there had been a Jewish state in 1939?

Holiness is defined as something that has sanctity or godliness. You don’t only find holiness in the synagogue or Beit Midrash. The greatest form of holiness is when we can sanctify the profane. When we transform our lives from the profane to the sacred that is holiness. Sitting in the Discovery Institute as the token Jew isn’t holy, certainly not, when you, in the employ of the Christian institution take cheap shots at our national institutions.

It is because of our Kenesset that there is a national and political value to halacha. Great Justices like Chaim Cohen were determined and intent on creating a legal system that reflected halacha, what modernist call the “mishpat haivri”. Today every law student in Israel must learn the mishpat haivri, because much of the legal system has morphed from British and Turkish to include also the mishpat haivri. That may be pedestrian to you, but very profound to me.

D.K. goes on to say that “Zionism has tragically distracted us from the historic role of the Jewish people…” What is the historic role of the Jewish people? Is it to sit in Galut? I understand Christian theology is most comfortable with that image of the Jew- punished for our part in killing Jesus Christ, destined to wander the planet in perpetual exile, until we repent by accepting him as our Lord. Never. Our theology never echoed those sentiments. Our theology always praised Hashem, with faith that one day we will be restored to our rightful place. It’s there if you understand what it is you are davening. The prayer “V’techezenu” said three times a day gives testimony to our everlasting faith and belief that Zion is the center of the Jewish universe, never to be abandoned.

D.K. also contends that our preoccupation with Zionism “has caused us to neglect the higher mission God has in mind for us”. How would you know what that mission is? Has your vanity and pomposity no limit? Where do you get the hubris and temerity to assume that you know of God’s intention? None of us can read God’s mind, none of us have a crystal ball. At best we have the sacred Tanach which is our spiritual map that can give us some clues. But as you may know there is much discussion in our sources and texts as to the meaning and understanding of our Tanach. We are not fundamentalists like the evangelicals (by the way traditional Jews and Evangelicals do not share the same reading of the Bible. They have made numerous mistakes in the translation) and approach and understand the Bible very differently than our Christian neighbors. We interpret text and search out meaning in the tradition of Pardes.

I never thought I would read an essay by a Jew, a religious Jew as I have from D.K. It’s the kind of writing I would have expected from the far right, the far left or from the Neturie Karta. In spite of all the detractors over the years whether it is from Norman Finkelstein or Noam Chomski I am a Zionist and am proud of it, you D.K. should be ashamed of yourself!

Monday, July 2, 2007

A Muse: Pinchas 2007

Parshat Pinchas presents us with the difficult and morally agonizing episode of Pinchas killing of Zimri and Cozbi in the name of God. Pinchas is rewarded by God by being awarded the “Brit Shalom”. On the surface one would think that God is rewarding Pinchas for his act of zealotry.

Is zealotry a quality that the Torah encourages? Was the behavior of Baruch Goldstein legitimate and even to be praised because of his zealotry? What about the behavior of Yigal Amir’s assassination of Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin (z”l)? Ought he to have been rewarded for his act of zealotry? Perhaps more important – what about the zealots of Hamas or Hizbolah who ostensibly are acting in the name of God, that His will be done? Ought we to be able to rationalize violence on the basis of religious beliefs? How we to understand the text and what is the message that the text wishes to present?

Talmud Sanhedrin (Mishna9.6/82a) deals at great length with the question of zealotry, setting up parameters as to when it is permissible. But Harav Kook gives us an interesting portal into understanding the act of zealotry. It is a rule of law that one is not instructed to perform, because it requires a level of spirituality of the highest order. If the intention isn’t absolutely pristine then the act of zealotry is considered murder.

This episode of Pinchas thus becomes instructive. The Torah isn’t presenting us with a license for zealotry, nor do we have an obligation to act out of zealotry. Rather there is an unstated granting of permission by default if one’s motivation is of the purest spiritual quality. The Torah does not support or command that one should behave as a zealot. Pinchas acted on his own initiative and not commanded by God. It was only after the fact and as a result of the purity of his intent that he was granted the Brit Shalom not as a reward but as a means by which Pinchas was vindicated.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Passion vs. Extremism

Harav Avraham Yeshaya Karelitz, zt’l (1878-1953), known as the Chazon Ish, one of the greatest and beloved Jewish spiritual leaders, an icon to all who prize Jewish values has been associated with the republican senator Barry Goldwater. The author of the piece which appeared in Mishpacha tried to make a case for the extremism of the Chazon Ish through association with Barry Goldwater’s defense of extremism. Had it been up to Barry Goldwater all of North Viet Nam would have been defoliated and millions of innocent people would have been liquidated all in the defense of liberty.

The extremism of Barry Goldwater was something very different than what the Chazon Ish was referring to. Extremism ala Barry Goldwater was a blind hatred for anything that didn’t support his understanding of capitalism and democracy. The only difference between him and McCarthy was that Barry Goldwater didn’t push for the reinstitution of “witch hunts” for closet communist in the United States. That was extremism. Extremism is not a good thing, certainly was never a good thing for the Jews. I also don’t think that this kind of extremism was what the Chazon Ish had in mind.

One of the sources for this misconception is the often quoted Igros Moshe (III, 61), which portrays extremism as the never ending search for perfection and those that discount extremism “will inevitably find themselves consorting with counterfeiters and the feeble minded.” The Chazon Ish wasn’t supporting extremism but embracing passion.

There is a significant difference between passion and extremism and any one familiar with the exemplary life of this zaddik will agree that he was passionate about his yidishkeit and wasn’t viewed as an extremist by his contemporaries. There is a significant difference between being passionate and being an extremist. Extreme is defined as furthest from the center or going to the utmost in action, habit, opinion or behavior. Extremism is an obsessive kind of behavior that may negatively impact on others who don’t share the radical or fanatical feelings or point of view.
Passion on the other hand is defined as any kind of feeling or emotion of compelling force. It is a positive force because it is a form of enthusiasm which garners excitement and has a contagious quality to it and generally not associated with radicalism or fanaticism. Because he was a passionate man the Chazon Ish was loved by every sector within the Jewish spectrum that includes hassidim, mitnagdim, ashkenazim, sefaradim, haredim, datiim, hilonim and zionists. An extremist cannot, by definition, garner that kind of love and reverence from so broad a spectrum.

To say that the Chazon Ish was uncompromising with respect to anything touching Torah is a misrepresentation of the man and his piske halacha. Had the Chazzon Ish been an extremist as some would like you to believe than his ruling on the use of milking machines on Shabbat or the cultivation of hydroponics during the sabbatical year would have been the opposite of how he in fact ruled.

Viewing the Chazon Ish as a man of passion one can better understand his advice to a troubled father whose son was no longer Shabbat observant. The son asked his father to buy him a car. The father agreed on the condition that his son wouldn’t drive the car on Shabbat. The son refused and the tension between then reached a breaking point. The father sought out the advice of the Chazon Ish who advised him to buy the car for his son unconditionally. It was the opinion of the Chazon Ish that by so doing, the relationship between the father and son would be restored and the father would be able to influence his son. Hardly the advice of an extremist!

Another example illustrating the beauty and passion of the Chazon Ish is an incident culled from the diary of R’ Eliyahu Drabkin zt’l. He was the rabbi of Ramat Hasharon, an alumnus of Yeshivat Novardok and what many would call a kanai. On a particular Friday night it became known to the Rav that the Bar Mitzvah the following morning was to be that of a son whose father raises rabbits to market for their meat. The rabbi was adamant that the Bar Mitzvah could not take place because it would seem as though the community was endorsing the father’s occupation. Not being able to communicate with the family on Friday night, the only alternative was to speak to the father when he arrived at synagogue on Shabbat morning. When the father arrived for services on Shabbat morning he was sent to the Rabbi’s study. The Rabbi informed him that since he refused to discontinue his business practice of selling treif meat his son could not become a Bar Mitzvah in the shul – and so it was.

After the fact, and because of the upset caused by this decision R’ Drabkin presented the situation to the Chazon Ish for his opinion hoping that the ChazonIsh would validate his position. The Chazon Ish took the exact opposite position and said that both the father and son should have been called to the Torah for Aliyot since they were in the category of tinokot sheneshbu. And what about those that are mechallelei Shabbat? The chazon Ish said that one should not make an issue of it, that one should not forbid them from holding their Bar Mitzvahs in the synagogue. Wow!! It would appear that the Chazon Ish was a man of vision, a man of passion while R’Eliyahu Drabkin could be seen as the extremist.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Agudas Achim Targeted

You can’t find a Synagogue like this in any other place –not in America and not in Israel. It is special because of its unique manner in which it serves its community. While it is a synagogue and offers religious services for its Jewish members it is also acutely sensitive to the needs of the overall community, many of which are the poor, uneducated and with little opportunity. For the past ten years our Rabbi has defined his ministry as serving the Jewish community while at the same time not neglecting the social needs of the larger community.

It isn’t hard for Rabbi Lefkowitz to help lift up those in desperate need of help because his first love is humanity. If one would be able to define him they would say he is a servant of God in the service of humanity. In actuality our Rabbi is operating in the great tradition of the founder of Hassidism, Rabbi Yisroel Ben Eliezer, and better known as the Baal Shem Tov. He was a populist seeking out his ministry in pubs, market places and meeting halls where the unrepresented working class gathered and sought solace, offering hope to those abandoned by the mainline intellectual rabbinate. So too, Rabbi Lefkowitz defined his mission as a rabbi of the people, the working class, the unskilled laborer and other faceless people too long ignored by mainstream intellectual Jewish leadership. He has given our community spiritual contours which it never had before, and hope in place of despair. This community in a sense had become a social laboratory where the spiritual quality of the community has increased in spite of the challenge of fighting poverty and crime. It is probably the only community in the entire country where one can witness a rabbi give meaning to the rabbinic expression “yerida litzorech aliya”, coming down to the level of his parishioners in order to lift them up. This is one of the reasons that people such as myself have left the comfortable, but sterile suburbs for this community.

That’s why the break in and robbery of the synagogue this past weekend is even more painful. It was a dastardly and cowardly act because it was done not only on the Sabbath, but also to an icon of this community that is intimately identified with the people. What makes the crime all the more vicious is the fact that it is not only a crime against the synagogue, but it is a crime against everyone – Jew or gentile living in the neighborhood. The synagogue has become over the years a symbol of hope for the entire community. It has become the axis upon which so much of the local political and social planning revolves. It has become the pulpit of social justice for the entire community, with the knowledge that our Rabbi will do everything he can to protect the welfare of everyone living in this community.

It’s not as if our synagogue was the wealthy bastion of the upper middle class, which had in its coffers money and ornamental gold and silver adorning its sacred objects. Agudas Achim has scant resources, barely maintaining the minimum requirements of the city building codes. Its members for the most part are the poor Russian émigrés, too poor to have left for the suburbs and too few people like me, running from the suburbs in search of a little spirituality.

This was the second break-in of the year. In the first robbery these thugs stole original hardware and furnishings dating back to 1927. While there may have been value to the items stolen, they were irreplaceable because of their sentimental value. Items dating back to 1927 conjure up imagery of another time, a different era, and in a sense gave testimony to the fact that there once was a thriving Jewish community here. This time, however, they took some expensive, high tech audio visual equipment, commercial grade that was donated to the synagogue. It was intended for fundraising in order to improve the physical plant.

What is most troubling is the fact that our future is in question regarding our security. In the past year we have had two burglaries and we have no reason to think that there won’t be a third unless we can install security. Most synagogues are fortunate enough to have the available funding to provide for ample security systems. Agudas Achim is not only worried about being able to afford basic security; it is also concerned about providing security outlined by Homeland security.

Agudas Achim is a special kind of synagogue. It is a synagogue which caters to community that hasn’t the financial ability to secure its future. All other synagogues are created out of a solid financial core that has a business plan and adequate funding. What makes Agudas Achim unusual is that it gave true meaning to the theological underpinnings of “tichiyat hameitim”, the resurrection of the dead. Many years ago the synagogue all but expired. Rabbbi Lefkowitz, resurrected it and it now needs the help of the expanded Jewish community and its funding agencies to help assure its future.

Monday, June 25, 2007

A Muse: Balak 2007

The centrality of this week’s portion of Balak is the prophecy of Balaam which is divided into four sections. The first refers to Israel’s protection against its enemies, the second is about Gods ever presence and commitment to Israel, the third predicts Israel’s victory over its enemies and the fourth is a prophecy about the downfall of Moab. What fascinates me most is the blessing found in chapter 23:9:

“As I see them from the mountain tops, gaze on them from the heights, there is a people that dwells apart, not reckoned among the nations”

From a first reading it seems as though this is less a blessing and more of a curse. After all what nation would want the dubious status of isolation among the nations of the world as is described in this poetic verse. Isn’t this the kind of isolation that Israel faces in the United Nations today and has been since its inception? Most nations seek out the friendship or alliances with their neighbors finding common ground upon which to strengthen common interests. Balaam’s descriptive prophetic blessing of Israel is exactly the opposite. Israel is to be a nation apart from and separate not to be reckoned among the nations. Sounds like it’s more of a curse!

Nehama Leibowitz’s, understanding this conundrum reads the word “yitchashev” to be interpreted from the hitpael, reflexive. As such the meaning of the sentence changes to be understood as “this is a people that do not reckon itself among the nations”. How powerful and how prophetic the vision is, once we approach the text from the reflexive.

Israel doesn’t share the same values as its surrounding neighbors. It stands apart, refusing to be influenced by their morals standards and ethics. Israel draws its value system from another tradition, a higher authority, unknown and unappreciated by other nations. To site but a few current examples is Isreal’s humanitarian assistance and our treatment of the critically ill in Gaza in spite of their obsessive desire to eradicate us. The Supreme Court decision in Israel to allow admission of Darfur refugees reflects our system of ethics. In spite of our limited financial ability to end poverty among our own, and in spite of possible security risks, we still can’t turn our back on those in desperate need of a safe haven as we once were in need, but without a single country willing to open its ports to us.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

M.M. Schneerson: Messiah or Member of the Ibbur Class

Driving down the expressway the other day in bumper to bumper rush hour traffic in a partial stupor I looked at the driver in the car next to me. It was an unbelievable sight. In the car next to me sat a middle age man intensely starring at a photograph of the “rebbe” that was propped up on his dash board. I can only imagine that he was hoping for the rebbe to swoop down as moshiach reincarnate and deliver him from the rush hour traffic. In all fairness, there are many, perhaps most within Lubavitch who are shocked that so many of their fellow travellers can have a mishichisti twist to their theology. Apparently, when their Rabbi, M.M. Schneerson, died thirteen years ago there were some, who didn’t accept his death as a fait accompli. They assumed that he was the Messiah and would appear in the streets of Jerusalem in a white Mercedes S500. Even though arriving in a Mercedes wouldn’t necessarily be politically correct, the fact that he was the Messiah means that history would be revised. Indeed, his coming (assuming Schneerson is of the Davidic line) will restore the glory of Israel and all the Jews will return there.

It’s a fantastic story and utterly believable– if you believe in a personal Messiah. What amazes me is the same people who cast doubt on the claims of the mishichistim believe in a personal messiah. If you believe in a personal moshiach then there isn’t much of a leap of faith to believe in MM Shneerson as the moshiach incarnate. Why not? They are both rooted in faith.

Faith is a very powerful tool and can be used for the better or detriment of mankind. It can be used and exploited by cult leaders for personal aggrandizement or for the greater glory of humanity. The Jewish people claim to have survived through the ages because they are faith based. We believed that no matter how bad it got, there would be, at the end of that very dark tunnel, a savior. But it was also our parents and grandparents generation that went through the concentration camps and gas chambers of Europe. There was no Moshiach there to save an entire continent of Jews from murder. On the other hand it was that powerful faith in a personal Messiah that carried some people through the holocaust.

In this world there are two kinds of people: followers and leaders. The followers are those who live on hope, the kind that need a rabbi to lead and sometimes think for them–the same kind of people who hold a job until they retire; never take an independent step; never explore the greater world of people or ideas. They are fatalists, “hachol beyedei hashem” who say after every worded phrase, “baruch hashem”. Then there are the leaders. They tend to be a bit irreverent because they can think for themselves. They are builders who do not depend on hope– people that we call self starters, entrepreneurs, independent minded. They are not fatalists, but determinists, who prefer to take chances depending on their own true grit.

The European Zionists of the 19th-20th century were of this second category. There is an old parable in Pirkei Avot “eiza hu chcham? Haroeh es hanolod”: that the wise man is the one who can anticipate or intuit the future. They saw the writing on the wall in anti-Semitic Europe and weren’t about to wait for moshiach. Then there were the followers, those with faith, who were determined to wait, because that’s what their rabbis told them to do. They never had enough emunah in their own capacity, to be able to validate ideas and thoughts. How can you be creative, contribute to society and build a community if you have no faith in yourself? To abdicate it all to a leader is pure folly. History bears this out.

So what is the difference between those who accept M.M. Schneerson as the moshiach and those who treat these mishichistim like pariahs? In truth, there really is no difference. Both groups fall into the first category of my construct. The mishichistim and those anti-mishichistim are both followers. The mishichistim believe that M.M. Schneerson is the moshiach, and the other group of followers believes unconditionally in their designated and preferred gedolim. Either way they lose, because they have abdicated their independence and ability to think critically.

There is another side to this. The anti-mishichistim are not only followers like the mishichistim but are also dishonest with themselves. The resistance to MM Schneerson as the “last great hope” is the realization that if he is truly the messiah, then the Jewish community will have to make significant sacrifices (i.e. move to Israel) which they are not willing to do. Accepting the messiah is a heavy burden which a cursory look at Maimonides's writings (Mishneh Torah, Hilkot Melakhim, Chapt. 11) will attest.

The mishichistim are ahead of the game and maybe ought to be admired. While they carry the stigma of being followers, they are struggling with and showing some creativity, albeit infantile. Perhaps these are new beginning for a new group: mishichistim. What they are going through now is their chevlei leida (birth pangs). At worst, if M.M. Schneerson doesn’t pan out to be the Messiah, certainly he will be regarded as an Ibbur (spirit of the righteous dead).

Monday, June 18, 2007

A Muse: Chukat 2007

Chukat has several difficult concepts which defy all the traditional commentaries and explanations. In spite of the attempts by so many of our luminaries to explain the Para Aduma, it still remains illusive and puzzling to us. Another difficult inclusion in this week’s portion is that of the second murmuring at Meribah. The first murmuring was at Mount Horeb as reported in Exodus 17:1-7 and in both instances water is miraculously and benevolently provided from a rock.

In the first incident Moses is commanded to strike the rock in order to receive the water. In the second instance, in this week’s portion, Moses is commanded to speak to the rock. Rather than do as commanded, Moses strikes the rock twice and water once again graces and nourishes the Hebrews. As a punishment for not following Gods command meticulously, Moses is punished. As a result of the sin of not performing exactly as instructed he won’t lead the Hebrews into the Promised Land.

More important than the actual sin of Moses is the punishment meted out by God. Central to this puzzling event is the question as to whether the punishment was appropriate for the crime. Culling through a myriad of commentaries, and without referencing them here none satisfy me, nor are any of them really convincing.

What does come to mind however tangentially is the story of Job. One of the lessons of Job is that there really is no rhyme or reason to the workings of God. There are people that are intrinsically good, committed to living ethical and moral lives, religious to a fault, but yet suffer disease and poverty, living in anguish, while others who are ostensibly bad, live good, comfortable and healthy lives. How can this be? There really is no answer. We may comfort ourselves by using the olam hazeh vs. olam habah card, but that still doesn’t explain the suffering experienced by a good person, or an innocent child.

While the things that happen to us may not be in our control how we react to our misfortune is. Do we react with honor and dignity or do we accept our fate with bitterness and anger. Moses is an exemplary figure who was dealt a harsh punishment that perhaps didn’t fit the crime. But his dignity and magnanimous manner in which he accepted his fate is something we can all learn from.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Torah True Judaism: Unity or Uniformity

Torah True Judaism, a phrase I’ve never quite understood is bandied about at every which way, and has become part of the Jewish nomenclature. It is a pejorative platitude in that it seeks to be elitist and exclusionary. It is a judgmental cliché in that its subtext insinuates that anyone not subscribing to their particular understanding of Torah isn’t the genuine article and not welcome in the club. There are variations of this puzzling and vexing phrase such as Torah Jews, Mesorah Jews and Torah true Jews. Another apparently popular one is the Torah community. Jonathan Rosenblum concluded his excellent well articulated piece entitled “Right of Reply”, Hamodia, May 9, 2007, with the stunning reference to the Torah community. It was the one exception I took with the entire article.

What is it about the orthodox community that preoccupies itself with not only demonstratively insular behavior but seeks to distinguish itself from the main body of the Jewish community? Actually a Torah True Jew or a member of the Torah community can be anyone who believes or accepts Torah as their guiding force. This would include the entire corpus of the Jewish community that takes itself seriously, such as the reform, reconstructionist conservative, humanist and renewal communities. They all take Torah seriously and is the focus of their lives. It is only a question of interpretation. Unless of course we employ qualifiers such as Torah true Jews according to the Shuklchan Aruch as interpreted according to the Badatz, Moetzet Gedolei Hatorah, Lubavitch or Machazikei Hadas. Take your pick.

Unless one uses the appropriate qualifiers a reform Jew could conceivably count themselves among the chosen because they too live their lives centered by Torah values. If however the intent of those platitudes is to distinguish themselves from the corpus of the Jewish people then we are in trouble. What reason could there ever be to balkanize the Jewish community? J.R. articulated why it wasn’t in our interest to react to mild or genteel anti-Semitism. To do so, he argued would play into the hands of our detractors, that our reaction is stifling criticism, suppressing freedom of speech, both critical to a pluralistic society. The same things that are correct, fundamental and core values of a democratic-pluralistic society is also the same fuel which powers the life force of the Jewish community. J.R. recognizes this and hence his argument is valid.

The Jewish community going back to antiquity prided itself on its unity, not its uniformity. From the Talmudic period and forward Judaism has encouraged the exchange of ideas and the clash of opinion. “Both these and these are the living words of God” convey this understanding. The sages of the Talmud, to their credit encouraged and cultivated the culture of dialogue. “The Torah has seventy faces” was understood to reflect the method and analysis of debate as practiced by our sages. There was no uniformity although there was unity. Even when consensus wasn’t attainable there wasn’t intellectual coercion, rather an appropriate conclusion was noted by a TEKU-stalemate. And when decisions were made, the minority opinion was carefully documented and noted. Rabbi Yehudah cautioned that the minority opinion needed to be noted, since a majority opinion will stand for as long as there is a majority standing behind it. The assumption is that the majority opinion may shift and change. While unity is desired, uniformity isn’t. Pluralism, it would seem was the ultimate expression and desire of our sages.

To be sure, there were times when as a result of our pluralistic society and the Socratic Method so integral to our culture and our intellectual integrity that marginal, but extreme sub cultures were created. One example of this was the Karaites. Although they were extreme in their rejection of Rabbinic Judaism it took hundreds of years before they were finally relegated as out of bounds. Scholars such as Abraham Ibn Ezra while not accepting the Karaites understanding of Judaism quotes and refers to their writings in his own commentaries, recognizing the merit of their scholarship in Hebrew language. There were other groups over the centuries such as those who followed Sabbatai Tzvi or Jacob Frank. Our rich tradition of intellectual freedom and our sense of inclusion allowed that which was legitimate to flourish. What didn’t conform minimally ultimately atrophied.

With this in mind, platitudes like Torah True Jew or Torah Community seem to fly in the face of our heritage and wisdom of the sages. Our sages desired unity, not uniformity, inclusion not exclusion. All of us ought to be embraced and gathered under the canopy while noting the dissenting opinions. Creating language that balkanize the Jewish community is not in the spirit of our tradition

Monday, June 11, 2007

A Muse: Korach 2007

This week’s portion of Korach is intriguing in that it tells of perhaps the first ideological rebellion in our history. Korach leading a rebellion against Moses’ leadership fails and for his role in the rebellion is liquidated along with thousands of others.

The story of Korach relates directly back to Parshat B’ha-alotecha where we are told of the command handed to Moses to begin a process of inclusion of the 70 elders in the governance of the Israelites. If a process of democratization had begun why was Moses so determined to eliminate Korach? Isn’t that part of the process of shared leadership? And was not the reaction of Moses extreme? Most commentaries depict Korach as evil, trying to usurp power, ridiculing Moses with two questions: A talit made of T’chelet does it require tzitzit? A house filled with Torah scrolls, does it require a mezuzah? The implied question was a nation of holy people who witnessed the epiphany do they really require holy leaders? Spinning the Korach incident in this way has a certain convenience because it provides traditional commentaries with the justification for maintaining the status quo in Jewish life. But the question ought not to be framed as such but rather a nation which has singularly witnessed the epiphany do they really need an intermediary to serve their God?

Korach was one of the early Jewish iconoclasts, a visionary who challenged the conventional approach to leadership and religion. It would appear from examination of the text that Korach wasn’t really challenging the right of Moses to continue serving as the designated spiritual leader as much as he was criticizing the hierarchy of religious leadership who claimed that only they and only through their office could God be accessed.

Korach challenged this approach to religious practice and spirituality by claiming that all men ought to have equal access to God’s beneficence and munificence. How different was he from the Baal Shem Tov who challenged the traditional structure of 18th century eastern European religious life? Leaders such as the Vilna Gaon ostracized the Baal Shem Tov because he created a new, powerful, populist movement to Jewish spirituality. The search for God and spirituality would no longer be the private domain of the Jewish intellectuals who as the Rambam maintained were really the ones who could maintain and sustain the “shefa” between man and God.

Thursday, June 7, 2007

Letter No. 4

In anticipation of Shavuot I chose this year to ready myself as is intended through the shloshet yimei hagbala by studying an edifying text. I sought a text that would take me out of the banal, out of the routine Jewish living and into the compelling sphere of intellectual curiosity about who I am. A text that would make me pause ponder and wander about my purpose on this earth as well a how to best utilize my most precious natural resource that of being a Jew.

I recalled having studied the Nineteen Letters written by Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, as a rabbinical student, but I vaguely remembered the full thrust of the book. I did however recall how well written the book was in that it drew you in and involved you passionately in its well articulated arguments for reasoned orthodoxy and against the by-product of the enlightenment, the reformers.

Studying the book now, as a mature adult and from a perspective other than a yeshiva student I realized that his arguments though poignant were no longer as compelling as they once may have been. I am drawn in particular to the fourth letter that discusses man’s free will. Hirsch argues in this letter that man has the choice to follow God’s will or to disregard it. While it seems pretty cut and dry and not much to argue about once we begin getting into the detail and the specifics it get a little problematic.

There is, however, an inherent contradiction found within Letter number 4. On the one hand Hirsch believes that we are destined to be he servants of God and that everything we ought to be directed in fulfilling his commandments because we are the servants of God. On the other hand he maintains that we are to be his partner in the creative force which governs the earth n which we live. How can we be on the one hand servants of God but n the other hand partners with him. Partnership assumes to some degree the ability to think, make decisions and act in the best interests of the partnership. An element in partnership is creativity. Without that element that can be no genuine partnership. We may be trustees but we can’t function in the capacity of a decision maker that requires at time creativity. And indeed in Hirsch’s Letter number 5 he holds that man is meant to function creatively:

“You rightly state that just by contemplating man’s capabilities we can readily see that he is meant to function creatively.”

There is an interesting theory that our civilization could not have evolved had we taken prima facie instruction from God without deviating. Had Adam and Eve adhered to God’s instructions and admonishments we would still be living in the Garden of Eden, not ever having the benefit to experience God’s world which was created on behalf of man. Had man complied with His instructions, Man could never have become co-partners with God in Tikkun Olam. Had man feared God to the point of being his loyal servant man could never have exercised his creativity.

Another example of man’s disloyalty to God and in so doing pushes forward the progress of man is the story of Jacob stealing his brother’s birthright. Jacob was clearly wrong in his deception and his mother’s complicity didn’t go unnoticed by our midrashim and commentaries. His deception was a clear violation of God’s moral law. However, by Jacob doing so, by him acting independently and against the conventional moral code, he won the birthright and changed the future of the Jewish people. In a sense the Jewish people have given the world a new moral axiom by which to live: do what is good – not that which is right.

Man has engineered into his DNA the need to make his own decisions without necessarily complying with guidelines that may be expected of him. By so doing, by living according to his free will and exercising his creative instinct does man progress. Only by making choices does man move from an infantile stage to that of maturity where he is responsible for his actions. We are programmed to “push the envelop”, to explore new frontiers in science technology the arts, philosophy and religion, and in so doing we are always on the cusp of new discoveries.
It would appear then, that Hirsch is correct with some modifications. Our mentality must be such that we emulate the Avot and other exemplars of our tradition. None of them functioned as pure servants, but integrated their love of God with an appreciation of the creative spirit inbred in each of his creations. We also mustn’t forget that in each of us is the little small voice that occasionally informs us of the need to go against conventional wisdom, to step out against the crowd, that by not doing so we do a disservice to ourselves to our people and to our God.

Monday, June 4, 2007

A Muse: Shelach L'cha 2007

This week’s portion begins with the 12 spies sent out to the Promised Land in order to gather specific information regarding the quality of the land and its inhabitants. The intelligence was necessary if there was to be a successful invasion of the land. The Bible details this event providing for us two versions, one where Caleb is at the center opposing the other spies and another version where Caleb and Joshua are opposing the others. In one version only southern Canaan is explored and in the other version all of the land is reported on. Regardless, Moses is disappointed with the reaction of the ten spies who reveal a lack of confidence and faith in their ability to be victorious over the Anakim.

The story of the twelve spies teaches us two lessons. In order for man to transcend in spite of the odds, he has to have not only confidence in his position but unswerving and undaunting faith. Doubt, even if later displaced with confidence isn’t enough. The damage is done. Once there is a kernel of doubt the chances of winning are reduced. Moses understood this and determined that the generation that experienced slavery was disadvantaged in that they suffered from a collective inferiority complex. It would take a new generation who hadn’t been exposed to slavery to see themselves as advantaged, strong and able to win. It appears that the Bible understands that there is no real long term benefit in playing the slavery card, but to ceremoniously recall it within a ritual/historical context.

A second lesson is that apparently the Bible doesn’t treat military conquest as a moral issue. War has always been a part of the life of nation states, as death is to living organisms. There is inevitability and as much as we would like to eliminate or forestall wars it is unavoidable. The Bible recognizes it, is non judgmental and considers it not a moral issue. It would appear therefore that modern Israel doesn’t have to justify its military victories. How countries conducts themselves in battle becomes a moral issue. The Bible recognizes the need for a code of conduct in war and addresses this need in another section. How modern Israel conducts itself during battle does have moral overtones. Israel has addressed this from the inception of the IDF with the principles of tahor neshek, the rules of engagement.

Friday, June 1, 2007

Avodah Zarah or Aish Zarah?

Growing up in Western Culture I never really got a true grasp of what Avodah Zarah (idol worship) was. With great difficulty I was able to imagine libations of wine to different gods, maybe a temple orgy, but realistically it was hard to conjure up. My reading of Socrates and some of the Greek tragedies in high school and college filled my imagination with idol worship, the pageantry and pagan rites, but unless you experience it, it is hard to imagine. It sort of like describing what a good succulent steak tastes like to someone who is a vegan from birth. Idol worship and pagan belief simply was not part of my religious-cultural experience on any level. Couple that with the fact that my teacher Rav Aharon Sooveitchik, z”l ruled that for all practical purposes there was not any Avodah Zarah in the west.

Was he ever wrong! Right under my nose, within a short distance from my home, and even closer to my office is one of the biggest lairs of idol worshippers in my city. They actually are in competition with the Hindus for first place. But that is just the tip of the iceberg. 770 Eastern Parkway, the neo-Gothic home of the 6th -7th Lubavitcher Rebbes since 1940, is now in the center of a lawsuit, a legal fight which places idol worship at the center of the storm. The outcome of this lawsuit may define who and what Chabad/Lubavitch believes in and their ideological commitment to normative Judaism. Two groups are fighting for control of the shul (chapel) and since neither side had a solid case, it is going to trial.

Basically the two sides represent the split image of a movement struggling with its identification with normative Judaism and the meaning of substantive Jewish values. On the one hand are the mishichistim and the other are the bureaucrats (global leaders). The mishichistim, who see the previous rebbe as the personification of the messiah are determined to redefine the Jewish value system along the lines of Avodah Zarah and in the tradition of the other false messiah movements in previous ages. The bureaucrats are undecided, but with a predilection to bury the rebbe once and for all and thus stay within the framework of normative, rabbinic Judaism. The issues came to a head when the gabbai (sexton) of the shul, a mishichisti took issue with a plaque installed on the wall of the building referring to the rebbe in terms reserved for the honored and sacred dead. Rabbi Zalman Lipskier wrote: “the real issue in dispute involves conflicting views on how our faith views the passing of the Grand Rebbe Schneerson and whether or not at this time he may be referred to publicly as the Messiah.”

Emerging as more important than the real estate issue of the law suit is what the consensus is among mainstream Lubavitch. Up till now I believed, perhaps somewhat naively that there was only a fringe group quite marginalized who believed Shneeerson was the Messiah. Now it appears that I was totally wrong. I should have trusted my instincts. Many years ago, when I was just boy, I was introduced to a Lubavitch minyan one shabbat for mincha (afternoon prayers). I felt strange then. Perhaps it was because we were staunch misnagdim (opposed to Hassidism) from a long line of litvaks (Jews of Lithuanian decent, who pride themselves on scholarship and study). For whatever reason, I didn’t like the place, and felt awkward. Perhaps I tucked away those feelings, assigning them to my tender age and upbringing in an American home far from the European experiences and Yiddish inflected English.

I should also have sensed years ago that Lubavitch was a definite anomaly, another hiccup in False Messianic Jewish history, a la Shabtai Zvi, when I first noticed a replication of 770 Eastern Parkway just outside of Lod, not far from the airport -- a real eye sore. At the time in the mid 1970’s I had no idea that they were already ovdei avoda zarah(idol worshippers). But from then till now an additional 13 replicated buildings of 770 Eastern Parkway were established across the globe (Italy, Canada, Brazil, Agentina, and Australia). In my mind is the imagery of thirteen miniature mishkans (tabernacles), for Lubavitchers to pray in, otherwise, who knows, maybe Hashem (God) won’t accept their tefillot (prayers). It sort of reminds me of the plague of the Bamot (personalized altars for sacrificial worship) during the prophetic period, when it was nearly impossible to restrict Jews from setting up their own Bamot for sacrificial worship. Not until King Josiah, the great reformer king made it absolutely verboten.

What is appalling about the entire phenomenon is that the replicas were all built during the lifetime of Rabbi Schneerson. He enabled the proliferation of the pagan ritual. So the question is whether one thinks that this whole thing is the real McCoy, Avodah Zorah, or perhaps it is nothing more than Aish Zarah (strange fire). If it is Avodah Zarah, we are in big trouble because there doesn’t seem to be another reformer King on the horizon on the order of King Josiah. So that leaves us with a Aish Zarah and we know that Nadav and Abihu fried for offering an Aish Zarah!!!!!