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!!!!!