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.