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.