Sunday, December 28, 2008

A Muse: Vayigash 2008

Traditionally, we view Joseph through the lens of the ethical/moral development of the nascent Jewish people. Joseph is Yoseph Hatzadik in our rabbinic literature, wronged by his brothers, tested by Potiphar’s wife and because of his impeccable character rose to the second in command in Pharaoh’s Egypt.

There is however another side to Joseph, Joseph the political person. It would appear that he was a natural survivor and one who had an instinctual affinity for the art of politics. Unlike the counselors and advisors of the Pharoah who were “yes men” Joseph had little to loose by informing the Pharaoh that he was in for some very bad times. A savvy politician would understand the possibilities of acquiring unlimited power if he were to take advantage of the situation. Joseph, as a ruthless politician began setting up the process and preparing the groundwork for exploiting the situation to his benefit.

Preparing for the famine, Joseph prepares the country by stockpiling perishable goods, grain and other essential food stuffs. When the famine hits he sells the food for cash (Chapter 47:14) accumulating great wealth for the Pharaoh. After the money was depleted he began trading the grain for livestock (chapter 47:16-17). Once the livestock was depleted the Egyptians sold their land to the Pharaoh for food and in so doing indentured themselves as Pharaoh’s property.

Joseph’s policy of consolidating the power totally in the Pharoh’s hand became complete once he executed his final policy which as the text says removed the people from their ancestral lands. (Chapter 47:21-22) Joseph was very clever because the only ones that weren’t dislocated were the priests who legitimized the divinity of the Pharaoh.

Joseph during his tenure managed to centralize the power, wealth, and property of the Egyptians; keep them dislocated and off the land and maintain his alliance with the priests to insure his continued divine grace. Naturally, there was growing resentment to the fact that Joseph and the Pharaoh bested the people out of their wealth and land and waited till the opportunity presented itself. After Joseph and that generation died off we are told of a new Pharaoh who “knew not Joseph” (vayakom melech chadash al mitzrayim) and was intent on not only reversing the misfortunes of the Egyptians but taking revenge for what had happened to them under the rule of Joseph.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Greed Genes

It would appear that Shlomo Rubashkin and Bernard Madoff have little in common with each other. One is a hareidi the other isn’t even modern orthodox. although he might identify with the modern orthodox community. Rubashkin made his money in the low tech, blue collar industry as a slaughter house super butcher/entrepeneur; Madoff made his money in the rarefied atmosphere of the financial markets as the head of a fund and financial consultant. Rubashkin exploited the weak, uneducated underclass; Madoff took advantage of and defrauded the wealthy, sophisticated and educated upper tier of the American elite. So what do Shlomo Rubashkin and Bernard Madoff have in common?

The “greed gene” is a gene which many of us have. It is somewhat like the fat gene. In western society where so much value is placed on beautifully sculpted thin bodies a person with a fat gene is at a disadvantage when compared to someone without a fat gene. Someone with a fat gene will have to spend his/her entire life on dieting just to maintain an acceptable level of body fat, while the ones without the fat gene will have a much easier and more enjoyable experience. The greed gene operates in much the same way as the fat gene. Not all of us have this gene. For those who have the greed gene, so much of their life will be devoted to keeping it under control.

There are many people who don’t possess this gene. They are people who may be motivated to make money, make a lot of money, but aren’t driven or obsessed with the need to make more and more and more without ever being satiated. There are millionaires plus, who enjoy the daily challenge of making money, but this doesn’t mean that they are greedy, or have the greed gene. Similarly, there are many people who aren’t necessarily wealthy but obsessed with money and do possess the greed gene. So having lots of money isn’t a determining factor as to whether one has the greed gene or not. What determines whether one has the greed gene is defining their level of satiation.

Perhaps a good analogy for explaining this phenomenon is the disease known as diabetes. It is a fact that one of the symptoms of diabetes is that the untreated diabetic can never have enough water. The untreated diabetic is always thirsty and no mater how much water he drinks, he is thirsty. Someone with the greed gene is analogous to the untreated diabetic. He can never get enough money. He doesn’t need the money. It doesn’t enhance his quality of life, he has everything he needs, his family isn’t in want of anything, yet he is driven to accumulate more and more and more, never becoming satiated. Unlike diabetes, it is difficult to identify one who possesses the greed gene and it must be a very difficult, painful and conflicted existence.

Imagine someone who hasn’t the cues to know when he has had enough to eat or drink. This isn’t an unusual problem, and many people are plagued with this disorder. Once it is identified therapies can be introduced to manage the problem. But how does one identify the greed gene. It isn’t a physical ailment; there are no discernable symptoms. Just because a person is wealthy or aspires to wealth doesn’t in any way imply they have the greed gene.

I don’t think that this problem is a uniquely Jewish one. I think it is common and runs throughout the general community, however it may be pronounced within our own community since there is a premium placed on wealth and philanthropy. The wealthier and more philanthropic you are the greater the chavod, giving credence to the Hebrew expression “baal hamea who baal hadea” meaning “he who has the money has the last word”. Our weddings and bar /bat mitzvah celebrations are gauged by how much was spent and the venue. These things aren’t in themselves indicative of the greed gene. They do however add fuel to those with the greed gene and may even trigger the dormant greed gene.

The problem is exacerbated because the greed gene becomes the monster that ultimately controls the person, taking over the person who is no longer in control. It is the disease that is in control. As such, they will stop at nothing to feed their craving for more. Ethics are out the window and so is common decency. To defraud a friend isn’t out of the realm of possibility, nor is serving up treif under the guise of a hechsher to a frum person as was evident by the Monsey butcher only two years ago, who knowingly sold treif chickens for years to his hareidi friends and neighbors.

While the greed gene isn’t a diagnosed illness and certainly isn’t on the “spectrum”, I do believe that eventually it will be an identifiable disease with medical interventions. In the meantime those with the disease will continue to wreak havoc on the unsuspecting public as the likes of Rubashkin and Madoff have demonstrated.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

A Muse: Miketz 2008

This week’s portion is a continuation of the deception and pay back that has been so characteristic in Genesis, certainly from the beginning of the Jacob narrative as we have already pointed out in previous musings. Of concern in this weeks portion is the question why didn’t Joseph attempt to establish contact with his family , if for no other reason than to let Jacob know that he is alive and well, thriving in Egypt. It would appear to be quite cruel of Joseph not to have done so. Yet, Joseph is a product of his environment and as Jacob was opportunistic and calculating in his relationship to his brother it isn’t surprising that Joseph too has demonstrated similar tendencies.

Joseph clearly had issues with his father and certainly with his brothers .It may very well be that Joseph saw his father as an enabler of his brothers and thus hatched the plot by which he would deceive them and his father as he had been deceived by them.

An interesting sub-theme which emerges in the deception and false accusations suggested by Alan Dershowitz is that those falsely accused remain silent and do not protest because it will do no good, but in the end are vindicated. Potiphar’s wife accusing Joseph of inappropriate sexual advances towards her doesn’t evoke reaction from Joseph. Joseph, however, is vindicated and becomes the king’s vizier. Similarly, when Benjamin is falsely accused he doesn’t try to defend himself in view of the evidence against him. He too is vindicated. It was only after Joseph realizes that the brothers aren’t inclined to forsake their youngest brother, Benjamin, does he call off the charade, realizing that the cycle of deception, false accusation and payback have to cease being a part of their family culture. [Incidental to all this is the further pay back of Yehudah, (who becomes the volunteer hostage) for his treatment of Tamar when he prejudged and misjudged her when he himself had been complicit].

Monday, December 15, 2008

Rear View Mirror

I’ve always prided myself in looking to the future. Committed always to having both eyes on the road ahead, but occasionally looking into the rear view mirror would be the metaphor of choice for illustrating the paradigm of Rabbi Maryles’ post this past Wednesday December 10, The Challenge. (The rear view mirror is one of the great auto inventions of the twentieth century along with windshield wipers.) To put it another way: There are two kinds of people in this world; those who are focused on the past and those who are primed and tuned to the future. There really aren’t two groups as Rabbi Maryles would posit; Hareidim and Centrtists, but rather those who chose to live in the past and those who live with an eye to the future.

The difference between the two groups is profound, a chasm that really isn’t bridgeable because the fundamental differences between them aren’t predicated on practice but rather upon a deeply rooted philosophical perspective that defines the core value of the person. Either you see the cup half empty or you see it half full. Either you see life as a series of challenges waiting to be met and exploited or you see life as a series of obstacles and threats that need to be negotiated. Those who are constantly poised with their eyes on the past haven’t a clear vision of the future or its possibilities. They aren’t dreamers, they are doomed to continue the motions of those before them always moving in the same monotonous circle, perhaps a little faster or a little slower, but never leaving the orbit. They never really progress, but live/exist in a cocoon, never having the joy of discovery. How can they? If they are always focused on the past their ability to discover is radically impaired. They may print an occasional sefer titled ‘chidushei this or that’, but we aren’t really talking about discovery, it is more of regurgitation in a slightly different format. Those who are dreamers, who have their eyes focused on the future haven’t the patience or inclination to keep on moving in the same circle, regardless of whether or not they can vary the speed in which they travel. They haven’t the patience to keep on reading the same stuff year in and year out without variation. And as they transition into another orbit seeking the new and exciting, understanding that they are on a new trajectory that will take them to unknown places, whether it is in the physical, emotional, intellectual or spiritual realm. It is exciting because it holds out the possibility of new discovery and self discovery.

This is what Judaism is really all about. That is what Genesis is all about. It is the story of Avraham, when he set out on his own journey, leaving behind a life he rejected. He tired of moving in the same circle day in and day out without deriving satisfaction and spiritual fulfillment. He jumped the orbit catapulting himself on to a new trajectory setting out on a journey of discovery and self discovery. Avraham didn’t focus on the past, but focused on the future. While Isaac may have been traumatized by the “Akeida”, Jacob definitely was a unique thinker, his entire life spent on a journey seeking the future, seeking the new, searching for self definition and new ways of self expression.

There is however another group of people, the indecisive ones, those who want to look to the future but fear the unknown, so they focus just a little longer on the past by over using the rear view mirror. These are what Rabbi Maryles refers to as the Centrists. But Centrists aren’t sustainable. They are designed to self destruct. The human being isn’t designed to live in limbo, dangling between the past and the future. Sooner or later you have to make a choice; to either live in the past or to move on and into the future. Those who initially can’t decide are Centrists, but sooner or later they can’t take the stress of being in limbo and either join the hareidim living in the past or hook onto the Modernists (Post Denominationalists) who are firmly headed toward the future with an occasional glance at their rear view mirror.

Being a modernist doesn’t mean you discard the past or ignore its teachings and values. It does, however mean that a cap is placed on its ability to dictate ones approach to life. It means that while one may check the rear view mirror occasionally for contextual references one isn’t cabled to it nor hobbled by what is revealed in the rear view mirror. Rather one may use this information in a way that may help negotiate an unchartered journey. Isn’t that one of the lessons to be learned from Jacob’s long journey? The situational ethics to which we are introduced throughout Genesis is a by -product of this healthy approach to living.

With this in mind one can better understand Rabbi Maryles’ determination of reconciling the hareidi community with the “centrists”. He is conflicted, because I believe he is still one of the danglers, he’s in limbo, not having yet made the choice between the past and the future. He understands the beauty of the future but is conflicted with his loyalty to the past. I respect this and certainly appreciate his struggle, but I will be waiting for him on the other side.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

A Muse: Vayeshev 2008

Over the next several weeks we will be reading the unfolding and dramatic story of Joseph. In the midst of the drama of Joseph being sold into slavery and Judah telling their father that Joseph is dead, we are abruptly apprised of another drama unfolding; the story of Judah and Tamar.

While there is much speculation as to the inclusion of this story in the text as well as its juxtaposition there is nevertheless much we can learn from its inclusion. One of the purposes of Torah is to serve as our spiritual map and a guidepost on how to live. One of the lessons derived from the Judah – Tamar story as well as the Joseph story is the recognition of situational ethics. These ethical dilemmas are presented to us in a multitude of ways beginning with the sale of the Esau’s birthright to the stealing of Isaac’s blessings to the deceit of Tamar.

Another lesson learned from these tangled events is understanding that the unfolding of our spiritual history was earmarked by trailblazing, breaking down accepted normative practices such as primogeniture, and devaluing pedigree. Evidence of this comes not only in the Jacob – Esau story but also with the supremacy of Judah over the first born Rueben even though Judah breaks from his family and marries a Canaanite who is absolutely forbidden.

Balance and counterbalance, mida k’neged mida, the ying yang, is another lesson we take from this chapter of Genesis. Our Torah is teaching us that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. We can’t always anticipate the nature of the reaction, when and how, but we are assured that it will happen. Jacob is deceptive in his dealings with his brother and Laben in return is deceptive with Jacob. Jacob’s questionable reaction to the news of the slaughter of Hamor and his tribesmen after the rape of Dina is met with news that Joseph his favorite was killed by a wild animal as told to him by Judah. And Judah deceives Tamar and is in return deceived by Tamar.

But with all that was said the Text also teaches us that ultimately there is reconciliation. After the Great Deluge there is reconciliation through Noah, and when that isn’t complete there is further reconciliation through Abraham and his progeny. While Jacob may have lost his direction at times, in the end he is focused, directed and on message. And his sons, although they lived their developmental years in antagonism, guilt and recrimination, in the end there is reconciliation with Joseph as well.

The Text too, by abruptly inserting the story of Yehudah and Tamar in the midst of the Joseph story establishes the foundation for the Davidic line (Beit David) as early as Genesis by registering the ascendance of Judah. The stage is set for the fulfillment of the promises made to Abraham and Jacob that the Kings will come from the loins of Abraham and Jacob and through Judah even though he married a Canaanite, is the fourth son, not the favorite, has character flaws and produces twins from the unholy union with Tamar, a Canaanite.

Perhaps it can be said that Jacob was the patriarch of a dysfunctional family. He had an uncanny talent of setting son against son by pointing out their flaws and letting them be known to the siblings. It was no wonder that Joseph became the scorn of the other ten brothers. Unfortunately, Jacob never learnt from his mistakes in this regard. At the very end, when he was blessing his sons, he included the two sons of Joseph (Ephraim and Menasheh) as equals to his sons. In so doing Jacob perhaps unknowingly set up another polarity, this time greater than any of the others.

Through Judah came the original kingdom, which split after Solomon. The ten tribes that split off (the northern tribes) were referred to as Beit Yoseph and Ephraim (Zechariah 10:6-7) and the southern tribes were those of Judah (Beit David). Ephraim, the progeny of Joseph laid claim to the kingdom because they believed that it was Joseph who rightfully deserved the mantle, being Jacob’s favorite and not Judah who was fundamentally flawed.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Jerusalem, Oh Jerusalem

The Jerusalem Municipal Elections were more interesting and with results that I least expected. Jerusalem’s best days were those when the Honorable Teddy Kollek was Mayor. He brought to the table gravitas as well as a profound love for the city. For Teddy, Jerusalem wasn’t a stepping stone to further his political career, it was his career. Jerusalem was his passion. He was known to go through the streets of Jerusalem at 5AM before the city came to life and the traffic began so he could inspect for himself city projects and their progress. It was Teddy who established Keren Yerushalayim which quickly became an international organization with snob appeal. Philanthropists from all over the world were making huge donations without solicitation. They wanted to be part of Teddy’s Jerusalem.

During the mid 1980’s as a graduate student at Hebrew University, my mentor and advisor was doing research on behalf of the Keren Yerushalayim. As his student, and knowing how hungry I was, he was kind enough to involve me in the research and publication of the study. The nature of the research involved the impact of the growing hareidi population on Jerusalem. One of the purposes of the study was to make a determination on the effect a growing hareidi population would have on the hiloni (secular) community. The concern was that the hilonim were the financial backbone of Jerusalem. If the hareidim became a majority what impact would that have on the hilonim? One obvious concern was that they would abandon Jerusalem. The impact would be catastrophic. Who would deliver services? What would become of all the cultural attractions that the city built up over the past decades? Would Jerusalem, the capitol of Israel slide backward and become another backwater city like Zfat?

Since that time I have returned to Jerusalem at least annually and each time I was more disappointed than the previous visit. The city slowly began to show its neglect; it no longer shined. It began showing its age like an older woman resigned to her age giving up on the hair coloring allowing her white hair to grow in, complimenting her graying palor. It’s ok to age. We all do and so do cities. But it’s another thing to allow it to grow old. That’s the sign of someone who has given up. In the years since Teddy left the Iriya the city was up for grabs. Olmert used it as a stepping stone and then came Lupiyanski who casually let the city slide further into the abyss of growing old. His concern and that of his constituency wasn’t the culture of the city or its development in order to attract bright young minds but was concerned with meeting the needs of a growing hareidi community in need of more and more services and yeshivas but not contributing to the beauty, glory, or development of the city. On my last visit there a year ago Jerusalem lost any semblance of the Jerusalem of Gold I loved. It no longer loomed on the horizon with pride and majesty as the Jewel of Israel and the Jewish people. No, it conjured up an image of an old hareidi man, stooped but rushing to a hashakamah minyan with their eyes cast towards the ground rather than stand erect with their eyes fixed straight ahead with the pride of being a man. If Jerusalem was once a beacon of light giving full meaning to the words Ki Mitzion Tezeh Torah, today its light has dimmed, is no longer a beacon and certainly can’t pride itself on giving meaning to those poetic words of hope and fulfillment.

Over the years the hareidim through natural growth took over the city and destroyed its beautiful legacy. A city that once prided itself on its culture and beauty was replaced by neglected streets, pollution, faded out parks and lackluster in every way except for its plethora of yishivas and shteiblech. Apparently even the hareidim believed that they over did the zealousness to the point that they even corrupted the very religious principles they were supposed to be keeping. A glaring example of this was the ‘modesty police’ going berserk over the dancers scheduled to perform at the opening cerermony at the Chords Bridge. Girls 13-16 years old fully and modestly dressed by most standards wasn’t good enough for these talibanesque type hareidim who insisted that they cover their hair and wear shapeless bags over their bodies.

It was probably ‘bashert’ that the “chords” event preceded the municipal elections. Most Jerusalemites have probably had enough of the hareidim running rough shod over the city. It also helped that there happened to be disharmony within their own ranks.

The split within Agudas Yisrael was the best thing that could have happened and contributed substantially to Barkats victory. Porusch’s Shomrei Emunei Yisrael is up against Israel’s largest hassidic sect Ger. The struggle is the typical power struggle: who will control Agudas Yisrael: Ger or Shomrei Emunei Yisrael? As a result of this power struggle Rabbi Y. A. Alter, leader of Ger refused to throw his support behind Porusch and it is questionable whether or not he gave the word to his followers to vote for Barkat. Regardless, Barkat did win and perhaps now, Jerusalem can be rehabilitated and restored as a city that delights in Torah as well as world culture giving new meaning to those beautiful words ‘ki mitzion teizeh torah’.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

A Muse: Vayishlach 2008

This weeks Torah portion details the reconciliation of Jacob and his brother Esau as well as the mysterious encounter between Jacob and the angel at a place he subsequently named Peniel, on the banks of the Jabok River. The portion also relates the rape of Dina as well as the brutal revenge of Shimon and Levi.

The complex and delicate nature of the Sedra raises many questions. I'd like to share just a few of them with you:

• The series of events are not sequentially logical. If after having wrestled with the angel of God, Jacob comes out a spiritually stronger man as evidenced by his name change than why did he fear confrontation with Esau? If he wrestled with an angel and was able to overcome why was he afraid to face his brother?

• Who did Jacob really fight, man or angel, or was it perhaps a dream in which he found himself in a struggle with phantom demons. This happens to be one of the classic controversies between the Rambam and the Ramban - as to whether the wrestling constituted an external event or an inner prophetic experience through the medium of a dream.

• What was the significance of the encounter being a nocturnal one and why near the river Jabok?

• Why was it important for the text to note Jacob's physical handicap resulting from the struggle?

• Why is the story of Dinah mentioned, considering that it is unrelated to the rest of the narrative? She never reappears in the Biblical text, nor do we ever learn what happened to her, so why is this isolated incident recorded?

• Jacob's response to the news of Shimon and Levi's bloodbath is limited to the possible repercussions (utilitarian concerns) from the neighboring tribes rather than addressing the moral issues - and this after his encounter with the angel!

It is possible that these events have a common denominator, which point to the character development of Jacob. In this Parsha Jacob should be understood as a work in progress, as a man who is still caught up in the quagmire of self-discovery.

Jacob, on his way to meet his brother whom he hadn't seen for years is, according to the text, in fear for his personal safety. And rightfully so, according to Yehoshua Leibovitz. After all, according to Leibowitz, he was fully aware that he had sinned twenty years ago, and therefore didn't have the courage to confront his brother - let alone fight him. He was even willing to humiliate himself in order to atone. Ironically, it is precisely that night, the night prior to his meeting with his brother that he has the real or imagined encounter with the angel. Is it possible that in anticipation of his confrontational meeting with Esau, Jacob suffered from anxiety? Going to sleep with a heavy conscience may have precipitated Jacob's need to confront this and other issues. If so, with whom was he in fact struggling?

Was Jacob indeed literally struggling with an angel, or was he still struggling with his father Isaac regarding the Bracha? Possibly he was struggling with Esau, or his alter ego as the Medrash Rabbah suggests, whom he incidentally wrestled once before - in the womb. Or perhaps it was his shadow self whom he was struggling with.

Possibly, Jacob is wrestling with all these phantoms on this night prior to his meeting with Esau. He subdues all of these phantoms and in the process transforms himself while given a new name. In assuming his new identity, he leaves behind his insecurities and assumes the adult mantle of the patriarch. It is no wander that his struggle is staged at the River Jabok, for it symbolizes a spiritual divide - a new destiny and a break from the past. The word Yabok shares the same Hebrew root for Maavak - struggle.

Jacob's struggle as narrated in the text illustrates that we never stop growing. Each step forward brings new challenges and sometimes setbacks. Even after Jacob's spiritual catharsis he resumes his journey with a limp - with imperfections. Jacob's set back was that he inappropriately rebuked his sons after the revenge of Hamor and the tribe of Shechem. This, especially in light of the fact that Chazal point out that Hamor's solution was in step with the biblical law: payment to the rape victim's father and marriage to the victim. It was only years later that Jacob, on his deathbed did redeem himself of this matter by appropriately addressing Shimon and Levi with a moral rebuke and a scathing curse.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Oy Vey Ovadia

It’s a tight contest between Ovadia Yosef and Vice Pres. Elect Joe Biden. During the campaign season, journalist would be waiting for a classic Joe Biden gaf. Similarly, whenever Rabbi Ovadia opens his mouth the press is there waiting for a doozy. Towards the end of the election season a parapalegic patriot was sitting in the audience where Biden happened to be speaking. Having seen the paraplegic he asked him to stand up and take bow and be recognized by the public for his contribution. After seeing the condition he was in he said “never mind” or something to that effect. What a gaf. To Joe Biden’s credit one can say that while he has made some awful mistakes they were honest, with no bad intention intended. The Rabbi, on the other hand is mean spirited.

To say that secular teachers are “donkeys” and the children of “donkeys” is contemptible and insulting to say the least, not only to the teachers and their profession, but to society as a whole. After all it is society that has deemed it worthy to have schools and teachers. Where would we be without those teachers? Where would Rabb Ovadia be without those teachers? After all it is because of those teachers that we have a modern and enlightened country where Jews can live in relative freedom and democracy, no thanks to the likes of Rabbi Ovadia.

Intererstingly, Shas leader and homophobe, Eli Yishai tried to explain what Rabbi Ovadia meant. Since he couldn’t really put a spin on what Rabbi Ovadia said he took another approach – attacking the secular media by asserting that the media simply can’t understand what Rabbi Ovadia meant. Apparently, Rabbi Ovadia is some kind of genius, like an Albert Einstein. Just like the lay community couldn’t possibly understand E=MC squared, so too the public can’t fathom the meaning of Rabbi Ovadia’s words; they’re too complex. Rubbish. Yishai is as bad as Rabbi Ovadia. He must take the entire public as donkeys and not only teachers! It doesn’t take a genius to understand what Rabbi Ovadia meant – his total and utter contempt for teachers because they represent enlightenment and knowledge.

Knowledge and enlightenment have always been the natural enemies of the hareidim. Knowledge threatens their status. It’s something akin to the different sephardi immigrations to Israel. The children of these immigrants lost respect for their parents because in Israel, where knowledge and education counted they couldn’t compete in the market place. They became the unemployed, naturally loosing their status as the bread winners. The real tragedy in that scenario was the parents who chose to cling to the old ways resisting modernization and entry into the light of the twentieth century. In many cases the children suffered for their parent’s lack of foresight. As the saying goes “Eizehu ashir? haroeh et hanolad? Who is fortunate he who can anticipate the future.

Rabbi Ovadia and the likes of him are fighting a loosing battle. They can’t win. Society will continue to progress and teachers will continue to play an honored an integral part in the unfolding of history. Its people like Ovadia who have duped their public into choosing a road which is a dead end. Too bad. I feel sorry for all those children and the yet to be born children of hareidim who will never be able to appreciate a good piece of literature, good art or classical music, not to mention the challenge of studying the sciences or the humanities and contributing to the world we live in.

Monday, December 1, 2008

A Muse: Vayetze 2008

“Jacob loved Rachel; so he answered ‘I will serve you seven years for your younger daughter Rachel’. Laban said ‘Better that I give her to you than I should give her to an outsider. Stay with me.’ So Jacob served seven years for Rachel and they seemed to him but a few days because of his love for her. ..And Laban gathered all the people of the place and made a feast. When evening came, he took his daughter Leah and brought her to him; and he cohabited with her…When morning came there was Leah! So he said to Laban ‘what is this you have done to me?’ Laban said ‘It is not the practice in our place to marry off the younger before the older…’” (Genesis 29:18-26)

Throughout Genesis there is a sense that there are no real absolute standards when it comes to ethical behavior. It appears as though Genesis is conflicted between the necessities for an absolute standard as opposed to situational ethics. The creation story makes the case for absolute standards as does the crime and punishment of Cain. Noah, however is treated by our traditional commentaries on a relative scale. He was a “tzaddik”, a righteous man compared to those of his generation. Perhaps he wouldn’t have been deemed a “righteous one” had he lived in another generation, in the generation o f Abraham; yet God goes to extreme measures in His desire to enforce standards.

Jacob is another example of one practicing situational ethics, and it appears as though the text treating the episodes of Jacob is struggling with Jacob’s choices. Jacob, in his desire to fulfill his mission, tricks his brother Esau twice. The first time when he holds back his food until Esau sells him his birthright and the second time is when he tricks his father into giving him the blessings of the first born by passing himself off as Esau. One can’t help but wince at the commentaries who try to pass off these behaviors as acceptable and necessary due to the need to carry out God’s will. The text has difficulty with it and suggests that he who lives by deceit shall himself be deceived.

A clear example of this is the “switch and bait” technique used by Laban when negotiating the marriage of his daughters. Laban’s comment that “Such is not done in our place, giving away the younger before the firstborn”, reminds us of Jacob’s ruse in tricking Esau out of his birthright. The comparison goes further when considering the following: as Jacob fooled his blind father, so too was he fooled by his dim sighted wife, Leah, in a dark wedding tent. There is a beautiful midrash that interprets the story as follows: After Jacob realizes in the morning that he slept with Leah he rebukes her by saying ‘why did you answer when I addressed Rachel?’ Leah responded according to the midrash ‘is there a teacher without a pupil?...When your father called you Esau did you not say ‘here I am’? So did you call me and I answered.

Later on when Jacob wishes to leave Laban with his family he deceives his father-in-law again. The text, not being comfortable with this, points to the deception of Jacob’s own children. In the Dina story the clan of Hamor is deceived by Shimon and Levi. Later Jacob is deceived in to believing that Joseph has been killed by a wild animal. As Jacob used a hairy animal skin to steal the blessings, his sons in turn used a hairy goat to deceive Jacob by dipping Joseph’s coat in its blood.

To counter the situational ethics encountered in our text and the obvious dissonance expressed we are commanded in Deuteronomy to pursue justice. While deception and the weakness of human nature maybe man’s natural state we are thus commanded to pursue justice because that is not our natural state.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Reverend Wright and the Haredi Community

The election season is over and most, if not all of us are looking forward with hope to an administration that will set a new course for America which will be a blessing to us and the world. It was a fascinating campaign, perhaps the most intriguing that I have ever witnessed. One of the negative, and disturbing elements of the campaign was the sound bites in a closed loop viewed on television ad nausea of Reverend Wright spewing his vitriol and hate towards the white establishment and Israel.

Initially, I like so many others took umbrage not only of Reverend Wright but of Senator Barak Obama for listening to this hate speech for twenty years. Surely, I reasoned, like so many others, if he’s been exposed to this for so long he must agree with it, at least partially, or he’s shown bad judgment in associating with this church. I recalled that when we lived in the St. Louis area, the rabbi (musmach of Ner Israel) of our shul (orthodox) was homophobic and delivered sermons reflecting that. After the earthquake in San Francisco (circa 1990) he commented in one of his sermons that L.A. was the epicenter of tumah because of the rampant homosexuality. It became clear to us that we would have to disassociate from the shul because the rabbis values didn’t reflect ours. Fast forward to the current imbroglio of Senator Obama with Reverend Wright: I reasoned that if I reacted as I did when living in St. Louis then surely, Senator Obama should have disassociated from Trinity Church if he didn’t agree with Rev. Wrights rants.

I found this vexing almost to the eve of the election. I spent an inordinate amount of time reading as much as I could on Obama, his background, interests, voting record and causes that he supported. I found that there was a definite dissonance between his public record, what he supported and his continuous twenty year membership and attendance at Trinity Church. I wanted to vote for him, but was finding it difficult in light of his association with a church and reverend that was so consumed with hate towards white America and Israel. On one particular Shabbat, I davened in a shul that triggered certain recollections of growing up in a frum community where I davened frequently in a shteibel. I remember the vitriolic sermons (Yiddish) of rabbanim in which there was no love for the goyim. Had those sermons been caught on tape there would have been wonderfully compressed sound bites that could have been used to discredit the Jewish community?

Truth be told, we as Jews had our prejudices; especially those who came from the European experience and tasted the lash of anti Semitism, if not the shoah. But it wasn’t only the European Jews who held these prejudices against goyim. There were Jews as myself, born in America, to American parents who never experienced anti-Semitism. Yet I accepted the prejudices of my community because I was part of the community. Wasn’t this true also of the black community? Perhaps their experience was even more poignant. After all I never experienced anti-Semitism, why should I have any dislike for goyim? The average black person, however, has experienced multiple times racism in his/her lifetime.

A friend of mine, a hareidi, asked me if I felt that Rev. Wright ought to be buried in a military cemetery when the time comes in view of his remarks. I was shocked and disturbed by the question. After all, he is an American patriot, regardless of Sean Hannity’s opinion. He was in the military, served with distinction and discharged honorably. That is a lot more I can say of our hareidim, who not only do not serve their country in the military, but do little if nothing towards the good of America. (I question if they even consider America their country. In fact it wouldn’t be too far fetched to believe that they consider America a transient camp, a stop-over, until the Messiah comes and transports them to Israel.) I asked my friend if he wasn’t ashamed of the question? How many hareidim sit down to turkey dinner on Thanksgiving and give thanks to America? How many hareidim serve in the U.S. military? How many hareidim identify with Memorial Day? How many hareidim know the words to the “Pledge of Allegiance” or the “Star Spangled Banner”? And what about all the hareidim, born in America that barely speak grammatically correct English, or do so with a yiddish accent? I’m confident that Reverend Wright believes in the words to the “Pledge of Allegiance”, sits down to turkey dinner on Thanksgiving, appreciating this great country.

Having reflected on all this I don’t think that Reverend Wright hates America anymore than our rabbanim hate goyim. I do believe however, that there is a sense of deep frustration and sometimes the appropriate words just aren’t there to express what we truly feel.

Senator Obama is now President Elect Obama. I am proud of this country for having elected him and believe, as do so many others that we are a blessed people with a hopeful future. I also believe that he, like Reverend Wright and our hareidi community do not hate, but may have at times, expressed frustration with the system. It may very well be that this historic election has been the true and appropriate expression and redemption of America.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

A Muse: Toledot 2008

“But the children struggled in her womb…and the Lord answered her ‘two nations are in your womb / two separate peoples shall issue from your body; one shall be mightier than the other, and the older shall serve the younger.’…The first one emerged red, like a hairy mantle…so they named him Esau. Then his brother emerged holding on to the heel of Esau; so they named him Jacob.” (Genesis 25:23-26)

Jewish history and literature hasn’t been kind to Esau, Jacob’s twin brother. In fact however, the little we know of Esau from the text, presents a man who although is common is magnanimous in his later relationship with Jacob, in spite of the manner in which he was treated by his brother. (See Vayishlach) He is a man who is perhaps cunning, but not necessarily dishonest in his business dealings. He may be vulgar and not schooled, but isn’t necessarily greedy and selfish. Yet, it is Esau, the father of Edom, who is presented in Rabbinic literature as the symbol of corrupt Rome; the personification of moral degeneration. Why?

The typological characterization and vilification of Esau begins late, relative to our history. Prior to the Common Era there are no negative associations with Esau. However by the first and second centuries the vilification of Esau proliferates in rabbinic literature. Current events contributed to the tenor of the midrashic literature especially when seen on the backdrop of defining historical trends and events such as the destruction of the Temple, the Bar Cochba rebellion and all the death and destruction that accompanied these seminal events. In addition the rise of Christianity and the threat it posed certainly contributed to the demonization of Esau.

Throughout these defining periods of history scaling hundreds of years, the Roman Empire cast a giant, ominous shadow over Judea. Hatred of Rome was translated and given expression by a hatred and demonization of Esau. Antipathy towards Rome and the dismissal of Christianity was typified through the prism of Esau. Negative characterization of Esau such as lying, stealing, bloodshed, promiscuity, infidelity and godlessness was attributed to Esau. The negative picture of Esau as portrayed in rabbinic text can be seen at the three stages of Esau’s development and relationship with Jacob: Esau and Jacob in the womb; Esau and Jacob developing as youngsters; and Esau forfeiting his birthright to Jacob.

In discussing the gesticulation period of Jacob and Esau, midrashic sources site R’ Yochanan and Resh Lachish’s jostling as to what is to be understood by the biblical description of Jacob and Esau’s fighting. R’ Yochanan saw it as symbolic of a fight to the death between Jews and Gentiles while Resh Lachish saw it more as a kulturkampf – a cultural struggle that would continue “ad infinitum”, without resulting in a decisive outcome.

In their second phase, as they are growing into young men midrashic sources compare them to plant life, where initially it is difficult to distinguish between the shoots of the same plant until they are ready to flower. Either they will give off a pleasant scent and a flower or they will be thorny with no scent or one that is disagreeable. So, the midrash say was it destined to be with Jacob and Esau. One would think that two sons coming from the same home, identical parents and shared values would be similar. Only after maturation could the distinctions between them be understood. Esau characterized as an “ish sadeh” isn’t understood to be a noble man in harmony with nature. Sadeh, is understood by the midrash to represent chaos, dysfunction, lacking moral clarity, promiscuity, homosexuality equating all of this to Rome.

The last stage is when Esau comes in from the field famished, demanding the lentil soup and says “haleiteini”, signifying vulgarity and uncouth behavior more appropriate for a Roman. Here again R’ Yochanan comments on the word “haadom” which is repeated. According to R’ Yochanan the first “haadom” references the soup but the repeat usage symbolizes Edom or Rome.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Erva – A State of Mind

My dear and old friend Rabbi Harry Maryles in his recent blog Religious Ruling – Wigs Are Out defies the hareidi community to actually adhere to the ruling of Harav Elyashiv. A Rabbi Maryles suggests it is highly doubtful if it will ever happen!

Rabbi Elyashiv’s ruling in essence rejects the halachic validity of today’s sheitels, because essentially they are erva and defeat the whole purpose of the sheitel. Rabbi Maryles pointed out that this is the same Rabbi Elyashiv who ruled against Rabbi Natan Slifkin’s work on evolution. He questions whether these same rabbanim who supported Rabbi Elyashiv on the Slifkin issue and who jumped on the bandwagon in destroying Slifkin will also support Harav Elyashiv on this new “tempest in a tea pot” and replace their wife’s sheitlach for scarves, snoods and babooshkas?

The question that Rabbi Maryles asks is profound, perhaps more so than he realizes. While disagreeing with Harav Elyashiv I nevertheless have a deep and abide respect for his approach to halacha. He happens to be not only a purist but a consistent purist. Anyone who has studied his pikei halacha will realize that his decisions are based upon his pristine understanding of the text and the spirit behind the text. In other words, what were the reasons behind textual references? And if the reasons weren’t apparent he made certain assumptions that would have far reaching application. In addition his rulings are detached from politics and the prevailing social mores and values.

Having said that I don’t necessarily agree with him, but at least I know and appreciate where he is coming from. His psak negating Slifkin was ridiculous as was his recent call for a Yom Tefillah on November 13 as I have already commented. However his psak on sheitels is a psak that is not only correct, but will be the least heeded of all his piskei halacha because it creates not only inconvenience but also undermines the mores and values of some of the hareidi community.

As was indicated earlier, the basis of his piskei halacha are detached from politics and social mores. He is a purist. Many within the hareidi community while wishing to maintain the normative behavior of the hareidi community sought the ways and means to have their cake and eat it too. If their women had to wear a sheitel, they would; but without detracting from or impinging on their sexuality. And this is precisely the reason why Rabbi Maryles’ comment was so profound. Without him perhaps realizing it, he suggested that the bulk of this community wouldn’t comply with this halacha because their women would no longer look hot.

I’ve mentioned before ( see my essay When She’s Hot, She’s Hot – or Not) my interest in attending “frum” weddings goes beyond the traditional reception, and the anticipated deafening and boring klezmer music; there is the tantalizing smorgasbord of hareidi women decked out in their “shabbos best” sheitlach, their spiked heals and suggestive outfits. If they had the slightest inkling of the spirit behind the halacha they would present themselves more modestly with a deportment conforming to that of a bas yisroel. Unfortunately, pilpulism has reigned supreme for generations, robbing the halacha of its spirit, and reducing it to neat loopholes where taking advantage of the “law” is carnation in one’s lapel buttonhole thus rendering our “practice” far removed and remote from the intended. Harav Elyashiv understands this obviously, thus his ruling.

What Harav Elyashiv ought to have ruled on as well is what constitutes modest behavior for women who wear the sheitel. The pilpulists will call me out on this. They will suggest that one can’t mix tznius with the inyan of ervah because they are two different things. For a pilpulist this might be true. But for one seeking truth and clarity, understanding and appreciating ervah subsumes the willingness to make the connection with tznius. By bridging the two, ervah and tznius take on a whole new meaning; removing them both from the pilpulistic gobbledygook, becoming instead a state of mind and thus a state of being.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

A Muse: Chayei Sarah 2008

“Then Rebecca arose with her maidens; they rode upon the camels and proceeded after the man; the servant took Rebecca and went. Now Isaac came from having gone to Beer-lahai-roi, for he dwelt in the south of the country. Isaac went out to supplicate in the fields towards evening and he raised his eyes and saw, and behold! Camels were coming. And Rebecca raised her eyes and saw Isaac; she fell while on the camel and she said to the servant who is that man walking in the field toward us? And the servant said ‘he is my master’. She took the veil and covered herself. The servant told Isaac all the things he had done. And Isaac brought her in to the tent of Sarah his mother; he married Rebecca, she became his wife and he loved her…” (Genesis 24:61-67)

This narrative while providing some information leaves out a lot of the detail, thus presenting a sketchy picture which begs to be filled in and texturized. The Torah doesn’t elaborate on Rebecca’s journey back to Isaac, or the dynamics between Rebecca and Eliezer, Isaac’s servant during the course of the journey. It appears as though the narrative was holding back some of the details. The text provides some vague information about Isaac going out to the field to “supplicate”, and later the text even relates that Eliezer informs Isaac of everything that happened on the journey. What did happen? This, the text doesn’t reveal.

Some of the language employed in the text is problematic as well. The Hebrew text says that Rebecca “fell off” the camel (vatipol maal hagamal); traditional commentators as well as the translation of the text reads that she “alighted”, or “leaned”. And what is the significance of Rebecca “veiling” herself. Why is that detail offered, while leaving out so many other details?

These aren’t new questions. Over the centuries various sages these and other questions. The Yalkut Shimoni too raised this question and offered some interesting insights into these queries. According to the this medrashic source, Rebecca actually became a “moocatz eitz”, the status of a non-virgin resulting from an accident, such as falling, and not as a result of sexual intercourse. Isaac, however, suspected that perhaps something had gone on between him and Rebecca on the road, so Isaac asked Rebecca what happened to her virginity. According to the medrash she claimed that she fell off of the camel apparently breaking her hymen and becoming a “moocatz eitz”. At first Isaac accused her of lying suggesting that Eliezer had cuckolded him. She swore that it happened as she said, took Isaac to the site of the accident with the hope of finding evidence and thus vindicating herself; and lo and behold there was still the blood stains on a piece of wood. Perhaps this is the reason why our text (Genesis 24:15) stresses, and perhaps over emphasizes the fact that not only was she a virgin, but that no man “knew her”.

Regarding the significance of Rebecca veiling herself, Medrash Rabbah states that there is only one other time when our text refers to “veiling” and that is with the incident of Tamar disguising herself as a prostitute. In both episodes, Tamar and Rebecca give birth to twins.

There are other questions regarding the circumstances surrounding the marriage of Isaac and Rebecca, such as the type of Jewelry given to Rebecca. The name of her father Bethuel (related to the word “betula” – virgin) ought to give rise to wonderment as well. The meeting place at the well of water coupled with the above queries ought to give pause, and wonder what did happen between Rebecca and Eliezer on their way back to Beer-lahai-roi in the Negev.

Monday, November 10, 2008

So Much for Bitachon,

In a meeting this past week of the leadership of the most “prominent” kollels under the auspices of Harav Elyashiv and Harav Shteinman an astonishing announcement was made: to hold a Yom tefillah on Nov. 13. The purpose of the Yom Tefilla is to “storm the gates of heaven” (it sounds like a line out of a Shlomo Carlebach sing-a-long) and plead for the financial health of Jewish philanthropists so that they can continue and donate to yeshivas and kollels. How proud they must be. How accomplished they must feel to have stooped to such a level.

Once again the hareidi community has demonstrated their self centered egocentricity, diminishing their self respect and robbing them of any moral capital that they may have once had. One would have thought that the economic meltdown which has had a global affect so powerful that it has been referred to as a “tsunami”, would recast the priorities of these spiritual (?) leaders.

The economic crisis has brought a starving and disease ridden Africa to new unbearable heights of suffering and deprivation. People throughout the world have seen their retirement savings evaporate and their future golden years not very promising. Businesses have been eradicated in short order, in the blink of an eye; thousands of employees who left for work in the morning returned home without jobs and without hopes of finding work in the near future, if ever.

Our sages and rabbis could care less about how our global village is being economically ravaged. Rather than call a Yom Tefillah for the financial health of our global village they selfishly concern themselves with a relative few insignificant kollelnikim. Their concern is that philanthropists will manage to escape this tsunami and continue supporting their institutions which do little for the betterment of the world we inhabit. Their only pedestrian concern is that the “chalukah” continue, no matter that there are starving babies in Africa and parts of Asia. The assistant director of nursery schools, Yaakov Segal’s comments were very revealing when he said:
“But now with key donors cutting back their donations in response to financial uncertainty, the damage that this will inflict on Torah study will lead to devastation in the world…Repentance, prayer and charity can reverse a hard decree.”
What Segal doesn’t get is that this was not the result of a harsh decree from God. This was a result of greed, and it was from this greed that Segal and the gedolim benefitted. In effect, what they are praying for is that the greed should continue in order that they can continue to maintain the Issachar-Zevulun model.

If the gedolim had any spirituality they ought to be doing two things: Instituting a day of prayer where they would be praying for the combined wisdom of western leaders to design and develop a system for economic recovery. They ought to be praying for the wisdom to redefine their Torah enterprises, and set them into a new direction. They need to become self reliant, and realistically scale back those in kollels to only the most outstanding and promising and those turned away, encouraged to work.

Just this past week, Jonathan Rosenblum writing in Mishpacha claims that there is a silver lining in this financial meltdown. When one is without the securities that we take for granted “bitachon” ought to kick in. He sites the story of Rabbi Yechezkel Levenstein told by the magggid Rabbi Shalom Schwadron, that when Rabbi Levenstein received a regular pay check he wasn’t able to exercise his “bitachon”. Only when the paychecks became more erratic did his “bitachon” kick in. I’d recommend that the gedolim begin living with a little more “bitachon” in hashem and less “bitachon” in their philanthropists.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

A Muse: Vayera 2008

“Abraham came forward and said, ‘will You sweep away the innocent along with the guilty? What if there should be fifty innocent within the city; will You then wipe out the place and not forgive it for the sake of the innocent fifty who are in it? Far be it from You to do such a thing, to bring death upon the innocent as well as the guilty, so that innocent and guilty fare alike. Far be it from You. Shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly?’” (Genesis 18:23-25)

Parshat Vayera has two interesting episodes, each presenting a different ethical position to a moral dilemma, and each presenting the reader with a different portrait of God. The first deals with the threat of Sodom being eradicated, resulting in Abraham initiating a conversation with God, negotiating the safety of its inhabitants. In this scene Abraham is depicted as one who stands before God - he doesn’t prostrate himself. He doesn’t appear to be self effacing, obsequious, or servile, but confident and self assured in his position. The impression one gets is that Abraham’s ethical position, in principle, is acceptable to God, but the critical mass necessary to warrant his claim isn’t there. What becomes an acceptable number to save a city? When Abraham argues “will you sweep away the innocent along with the guilty” he really is making a statement against collective punishment and rejecting the rationale for collateral damage.

In this scenario God is depicted as One who is sympathetic with the issue at hand, a God that values morals and ethics. God is seen as transcendental, external, One who stands outside of time and history and is omnipotent. Since He stands outside of time and history He doesn’t have man’s sense of ethics and morals, since these are human qualities. Abraham is asking God to accept human norms, thus trying to remove the omnipotence, placing God into history.

The following episode, the Akeda is very different. Unlike Sodom, Abraham is servile and self effacing, reticent and willing to obey without an argument. All Abraham can say is “Hineini”, and passively accepts the command to slaughter his son, Isaac. Here God is presented in the total opposite image of the God in the story of Sodom. There He is involved. In the Akeda He is removed, estranged and not approachable. In Sodom, Abraham brings God down to accept the ethics of the mortals. In the Akeda, Abram doesn’t even try to bring God down and involved in history, but resigned to perform what is commanded of him.

Thus, there are two models of the God head presented in Vayera. The model presented in Sodom where God is willing to be involved in human history, adapting to man’s morals and ethical concerns, willing to meet man on man’s terms and dialogue wit him. The God of the Akeda is transcendental, omnipotent demanding more than He is ready to give.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Bomba Israel

On a trip to Santiago, Chili a few weeks ago I had the privilege of spending time in the Jewish community. Part of that time was spent with a Jewish fire brigade called Bomba Israel. In Chile, the fire stations are strictly voluntary, a civic responsibility, which carries no wages, salaries, benefits or perks. In 1954, the Jewish community, wishing to express its appreciation to the Chilean people for welcoming them after the holocaust established their own fire brigade. Adorning the fire station, called Bomba Israel, and all their trucks is a Magen David and the flag of Israel. Those that man the station 24/7 are the Jewish youth who on a rotation serve as the primary first call responders not only for the Jewish community but wherever they are called.

Perplexing in all this is the demonstrable lack of religious practice (shemirat mitzvoth) by these brave and proud Jews. In taking note of their Jewish pride, loyalty to the Jewish community with one eye on their home community and the other glancing towards Israel I couldn’t help but be reminded of Yehuda Halevi’s take on the qualitative difference between the Covenant of the Pieces and the Covenant at Sinai (Horeb). Before getting into that it is interesting to note an Aggadic text in the Talmud.

Talmud Sanhedrin (98a) describes the “melech moshiach” arriving on a donkey. While there are those who understand this Aggadic text literally, there are those who treat it metaphorically. Harav Kook suggests that there is no reason to believe the donkey is kosher because externally it shows not the signs of a kosher animal. It doesn’t chew its cud nor does it have split hoofs as opposed to the pig that has at least one external sign to qualify it – split hoofs. However Kook maintains that while the donkey doesn’t possess the external features to render it kosher it has an internal, non identifiable holiness and for this reason the Bible (Exodus 13:13) commands that of all the forbidden animals, only the donkey is obligated with the mitzvah of Bechor, the first born. For Harav kook, the donkey is a metaphor for the non practicing Jew, but demonstrates a highly developed sensitivity to the concept of Jewish peoplehood.

Yehuda Halevi too, with his highly developed sense of peoplehood underscored this quality as central to the Jewish people. When put to the task of choosing which was more important, the Covenant of the Pieces or the Sinaitic Covenant he rendered the Covenant of the Pieces to be the locus. He reasoned that there are two types of kedusha; the external (chizoni) and the internal (penimi). The Covenant of the Pieces was an internal kedusha, fundamental and essential to the very essence of the Jew. It’s his matrix, his DNA, without which one cannot be Jewish. The Covenant of Pieces provides the connection, the electrical contact between the Jew and his people. It is the coding that allows the Jews to communicate with one another in a way distinct from all other people; whereas, the Sinaitic Covenant is external. The mitzvoth presented at Sinai are external dressing; if they aren’t scrupulously observed the cohesion of the Jewish people is still in tact and guaranteed by the internal coding. This is not to diminish the value of mitzvoth, but they aren’t necessarily essential to the continuation of peoplehood. Halevi went so far as to venture the following: A non observant but nationalistic Jew with an eye to Zion is more substantial than a Jew who is compulsive in mitvot observance, but doesn’t identify with the corpus of the Jewish people.

These were the thoughts running through my mind when visiting the non religious Chilean youth while on duty at Bomba Israel, Santiago, Chili.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

A Muse: Lech Lecha 2008

“And he said ‘O Lord God how shall I know that I am to possess it? He answered bring me a three year old heifer, a three year old she goat, a three year old ram a turtle dove and a young bird.’ He brought Him all these and cut them into two, placing each half opposite the other, but he did not cut up the bird…” (Genesis 15: 8-10)

Hitherto we have understood Avraham to be a believer, a man of faith, not asking God for signs and proofs of His intentions, so why does he now ask God for a sign or proof? Prior to the Covenant of the Pieces, Avraham sees himself in a unique and personal relationship with God and understands this relationship to be contractual. Whatever God demands of him he will do, and by so doing God will be true to Avraham. All Avraham has to do is live up to his side of the contract. However with the onset of the Covenant of the Pieces the relationship is no longer between God and Avraham, but also added into the equation is the progeny of Avraham. While Avraham can assure his own loyalty how can he assure the fealty of those who haven’t even been born yet? It’s at this intersection that the relationship has changed. It is no longer defined as a contractual relationship but rather a covenantal relationship.

This covenant focuses on our national roots as a people, as a nation. All those who emanate from Avraham are to be considered one family, one extended family evolving into a tribe and ultimately into nationhood. The Covenant of Pieces is buttressed with another covenant that was made at Horeb, at Sinai, but its dimension is spiritual/religious. The Covenant at Sinai places flesh on the structure effected through the Covenant of the Pieces, in that we are bound to each other as a people even when not in Israel, even when there was no Israel.

The question that has evolved over the centuries is which of these two covenants are more central to the Jewish people and has been debated by some of the greats. Harav Avraham Isaac Hacohen Kook and Harav Joseph Ber Soloveitchik represent two of the greatest 20th century minds to grapple with this issue.
Soloveitchik believes that the Covenat made with Avraham is our destiny, with no choice left to the individual, the Brit Milah symbolizing this. If the Covenant of Avraham is our destiny then the Covenant at Sinai is our choice, and thus the central one. We accept it upon ourselves and by doing so we become “bnei mitzvah”, thus altering destiny into challenges and purposefulness. Kook, on the other hand believes that the central covenant is the Covenant of Avraham. This is the internal covenant and can’t be broken. The covenant at Sinai being external can be broken.

These two positions reflect the classic difference of opinion between Maimonides and Yehuda Halevi, which will be presented later.

Monday, October 27, 2008

A Muse: Noah 2008

“Noah, the tiller of the soil, was the first to plant a vineyard. He drank of the wine and became drunk, and he uncovered himself within his tent. Ham, the father of Canaan, saw his father’s nakedness and told his two brothers outside. But Shem and Japheth took a cloth, placed it against both their backs and, walking backwards, they covered their father’s nakedness; their faces were turned the other way, so that they didn’t see their father’s nakedness. When Noah woke up from his wine and learned what his youngest son had done to him, he said, ‘cursed be Canaan; the lowest slaves shall he be to his brothers.’” (Genesis 9: 20-25)

Reading this intriguing text one can’t help but wonder what really did happen between Noah and Ham, when Noah laid in his tent drunk? What did Ham do to deserve such a damning curse? From a superficial review of the text it appears that Ham not only saw his father’s nakedness, but that instead of covering him, he went out and told his brothers of the sorry state of their father.

This standard reading of the text is problematic because rather than answer the question it raises an additional one. If Ham’s sin was that he didn’t respond quickly enough in covering his father than why does verse 24 read “when Noah woke up from his wine and learned what his youngest son had done to him”? Why is there an emphasis on discovering what Ham did to Noah?

There is an interesting relationship between the story of the Flood and the incident in Sodom. Prior to the flood the text (Genesis 6: 5-7) relates that the “bnei elohim” were engaging in “deviant” sex with the daughters of humankind, (male on female). Prior to the incident of Sodom men were desirous of engaging the angels in “deviant” sex, (male on male) as well. After the flood there was a relationship between Noah and Ham (male on male); after Sodom there was too, a relationship between Lot and his two daughters (women on man). The analogy goes further. At the conclusion of the Deluge Noah becomes willfully inebriated, but at the conclusion of the Sodom episode, the daughters get their father drunk. Noah understood what ham did to him, but Lot has no idea. Because Noah knows, he curses Canaan, the son of Ham, but Lot not knowing what had occurred, doesn’t curse his daughter’s progeny. (Midrash Rabbah suggests that Lot knew what his eldest daughter had done and didn’t take steps to prevent a similar incident with his youngest daughter the following night.)

Midrash struggled with how to best present the perverse relationship between Noah and Ham, and so there are three alternative versions of what happened, ultimately the third version became the most acceptable: In the first version, midrash suggests that Ham castrated his father in order to insure that the inheritance will be split three ways instead of four ways or more. Our tradition had a difficult time with this version because it didn’t fit the image that the text had tried to create about Noah being an “ish tzaddik”, the righteous man of his generation. Being the righteous man of his generation he deserved better, so this version was replaced with one less ominous. In the second version Ham sodomized his father, which may be plausible in light of the biblical story of Lot and his daughters. Still, Noah, being the righteous man that he was, was deserving of better treatment and so the third version is the one that our sages were most comfortable with. This third and final version suggests that Ham saw his father’s nakedness, but was slow in reacting appropriately. Because our sages saw the entire episode as unfortunate and perhaps even bazaar they sought to adopt a veiled and vague version of what may have happened.

The obvious question that we ought to be raising is if it was such a disagreeable event why not censor it completely and excise it from our Masorah. Our tradition may have considered this option but reconsidered because with the convenience of Noah’s curse the sages were able to rationalize Israel’s conquering of Canaan centuries later.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Lemon and the Left

Recently I attended the International Film Festival in Chicago and viewed an Israeli film entitled “The Lemon Tree”. (Not recommended.) I also just returned from Santiago, Chili where, among other things I visited the home of the late socialist, intellectual and statesman, Pablo Neruda. Both events, although ostensibly unrelated and separated by two weeks, impacted on me greatly, especially now during this election season.

Frankly, for the past several months, ever since the election season began to heat up I’ve been struggling with my conscience. For me, a capitalist and one deeply passionate about Israel’s future, McCain seems to be the logical candidate, as Bush appeared to be when he ran against Gore and Kerry in 2000 and 2004. One can never know how things would be today had Gore or Kerry been elected, and no one is satisfied with the current state of affairs. On the other hand, Obama apart from his charisma and gifted articulation happens to be exceptionally bright, promising change and offering hope for a better future.

And so I struggle and waffle between the two candidates. McCain is assuring in that his record, experience and commitment to American ideals gives me a level of comfort that Israel is won’t be “sold down the river”. He is also a capitalist and certainly doesn’t believe in a redistribution of wealth. Obama on the other hand, while young, bright and charismatic hasn’t convinced me of his commitment to Israel. He is also a social democrat influenced and bedazzled by the European model and believes in a redistribution of wealth. But he is so, so bright that I want to believe that he knows what’s best and will lead us out of the current chaos that we find ourselves in.

Because of my commitment to Israel, and my sense of capitalism, it would seem a foregone conclusion that McCain would be my candidate of choice. However, by voting McCain and aligning with the Conservative Right I am somehow resisting an impulse deep, deep in my soul that reminds me of the need to listen to our great prophets of social justice like Isaiah and Amos, to name just a few. Their deep and abiding concern was the welfare of the poor, those on the margins who for whatever reason didn’t manage to live with the dignity so very basic to every human being. By voting McCain do I ignore the teachings of our prophets? Or, to put it another way, will voting for Obama align me with the teachings and underpinnings that made Judaism timely, throughout the ages?

Visiting the home of Neruda put this into partial focus. His passion for socialism was overpowering. Those with whom he associated, his prose, poetry and service to his country were awesome and inspiring. Understanding Neruda within the context of his people’s struggle gave me a greater appreciation for Obama’s message. But what about Israel?

Like so many of us, Israel is a burning passion which influences not only what I think, but what I do. So how could I possibly vote for Obama not being convinced that he has the best interests of Israel at heart? On the other hand, viewing the Israel film “Lemon Tree” caused me to reconsider the place Israel has occupied in those decisions which might impact on her future. The PLO couldn’t have produced such an effective piece of propaganda. If Israel could submit a self hating propaganda piece as “the Lemon Tree” to the world to watch as entertainment at her own expense, then why should I filter my politics through the prism of Zionism?

Perhaps I ought to cast my lot with the “Rabbis for Obama” and align with the Jewish liberal community who see their choice through the lens of our socially conscious prophets who cried out for social justice and compassion for those with less.

If it were only that simple. There is this small voice within me that won’t let me cast that vote without a struggle with my conscience. But does it really matter how I vote? Here in Illinois it is a foregone conclusion anyway!

Monday, October 20, 2008

A Muse: B'reishit 2008

“Surely if you do right there is uplift, but if you do not do right sin couches at the door; its urge is toward you, you can be its master. Cain said to his brother Abel…and when they were in the field, Cain set upon his brother Abel and killed him.” (Genesis 4:7-8)

Many of our commentaries have indicated concern with the punishment Cain received. In murdering Abel, Cain’s punishment is to roam the earth with the mark of Cain on him. These commentaries ask why wasn’t he killed. Certainly this would have been in keeping with the ethos of the biblical text that says “whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed” (Genesis 9:6).

When dealing with the episode of Cain and Abel another question comes to mind. How is it that Cain was placed in this predicament in the first place? God, by electing to prefer one sacrifice to another set the sage by which jealousy and the cycle of vengeance would be put into motion. In choosing one gift to another God has presented to Cain the need to choose also and decide how to deal with the insult. How would his relationship with his brother now be defined and what would be his relationship with God?

The dilemma suggested in this text isn’t dissimilar to the story of Adam and Eve. By placing before them the temptation of eating from the forbidden, they were paced in a situation of making a choice that would forever impact on their relationship to each other and their relationship with God. In both cases, the outcomes suggest that their relationship with each other have been altered forever and their relationship with God is in need of repair.

The text apart from raising these questions teaches us a lesson. The text suggests that Cain reacted impulsively when killing Abel. God chose to punish him severely but not so harshly as to have him killed. By so doing God reveals that humankind is capable of rehabilitation, even when guilty of murder.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Outsourcing Shechita

On September Agudath Israel issued a statement in which it dismissed the Hechsher Tzedek of the Conservative Movement for two principle reasons:
• The Conservative Movement isn’t a “halacha respecting” movement and are attempting a redefinition of kashrut. In addition most of their members do not even keep kosher.
• Halachic tradition defines kashrut as relating to the ritual suitability of food and has nothing to do with ethics. Issues regarding the treatment of employees, safe standards, working conditions, etc. is relegated to “dina d’malchta dina”.
Neither of these reasons, however are weighty enough however to negate the potential power and strength of the Hechsher Tzedek.

The first argument isn’t worthy of responding to because it insults the integrity of the Conservative Movement, its leadership, rabbis, schools and devoted communities in America and Israel. Their rabbis and leadership are devoted to halachic standards. The fact that their interpretation may be different than an orthodox interpretation doesn’t mean that they don’t subscribe to halachic standards. Normative Judaism has always supported minority opinions with alternative interpretations. One just has to understand the Shulchan Aruch and the ongoing opinion differences between the mechaber and the Ramah, is but one example.

Agudath Israel claims that by introducing the Hechsher Tzedek there is an attempt at redefining what kosher is and what it means. Truth be told, halacha, even according to conservative standards has been organic and expanding as community needs change and grow. Halacha is nothing, if it doesn’t meet the challenges of those whom it claims to serve. Moreover by introducing the Hechsher Tzedek, a new definition of kosher isn’t being asserted, it is just identifying an area of weakness. This has been employed by the orthodox supervising agencies over the years. One example of this that comes to mind is the threat to remove a hechsher, if an institution does something deemed inappropriate or not in the spirit of normative orthodox behavior. For a hotel in Israel to publicly sponsor a New Years Eve party jeopardizes their kashrut certification. Based upon Agudath Israel’s declaration this ought to be considered inconsistent, since having a New Years’ eve party has nothing to do with the “ritual suitability” of the food.

Rather than condition the continued hechsher on ethical standards they rely upon “dina d’malchta dina”, the law of the kingdom is the law, which is disingenuous. According to that logic there ought not to be unions because the law of the kingdom is the law. Obviously, the “law” doesn’t cover every contingency and thus the need for unions to protect employees. The conundrum is that Agriprocessors wouldn’t allow union organizing, so that the workers would have the protection where the law falls short. To make matters worse, Agriprocessors employed labor lawyers to fight the union organizers and thus depress further the plight of the workers. “Dina d’malchta dina’s” application works when the intent is genuine. However when a Jewish organization is intent on evading the principles supported by “dina d’malchta dina” then there is need for an oversight halachic agency such as Hechsher Tzedek.

For the sake of argument would halachic agencies allow for the exploitation of underage children if the law of the land allowed it? Would Agriprocessors outsource its slaughter houses to Asian countries where labor is cheap and absent of child labor laws by hiding behind “dina d’malchta dina”?

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Post Postville

Recently the almost universally recognized hechsher OU has put Agriprocessors on notice. Unless the ownership of Agriprocessors make significant changes in the upper level management, change the CEO and fall into compliance they will rescind their valued hechsher. As of September 18, 2008 a new CEO has been named and this should be lauded. On a parallel track Conservative Judaism has introduced the Hechsher Tzedek. This new hechsher would certify that not only is the product technically kosher, but also conforms to Jewish ethical standards regulating our behavior in the workplace.

Both of these noteworthy developments are positive moves in the right direction. The OU ought to be lauded because while they represent orthodox standards of kashrut they are also the symbol to the wider Jewish community which observes kashrut as well. Many of these people were caught in a difficult situation and were indeed conflicted as a result of the developments at Agriprocessors. They found that observance of ethical standards was in conflict with their desire to consume only kosher meat products. By eating kosher meat products certified by the OU they may not be able to meticulously observe ethical commandments. Or to put it another way: by eating meat products certified by the OU as kosher they would be violating another mitzvah regulating our ethical behavior towards the worker.

The Conservative movement’s initiative to introduce the Hechsher Tzedek accomplished several things: It placed a sharp focus on the need to find relief for the ethical imperatives central to Judaism, but being violated. By introducing the Hechsher Tzedek new options were being made available to those committed to observing meticulous standards of technical kashrut but not compromising with those mitzvoth bein adam l’chavero – the ethical commandments. Lastly, by introducing their unique hechsher, pressure was brought to bear on the OU. The OU has responded appropriately, they’ve done the right thing and ought to be applauded.

It would appear that the next step is for closer cooperation between the OU and the Hechsher Tzedek. A blending of these two hechsherim would send a powerful message to the wider Jewish community that on certain issues there is no difference what your denominational preference is.

In this season, when the Days of Awe dominate the mind set of most serious Jews, regardless of denominational identification, those mitzvoth which are between man and his fellow man take on special and unique significance. We all know that as we approach Yom Kippur we cannot, as our sages teach us, come before the creator with expectations of mechila and selicha from our Creator before first having made peace with our fellow human beings. A merger between the Hechsher Tzedek and the OU would blend the mitzvoth bein adam lamakom and the mitzvoth bein adam l’chavero, bringing all of us to a higher sensitivity level and perhaps a genuine contribution towards tikkun olam.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Rabbis for Jewish Rights

Let’s get one thing straight. Judaism isn’t a religion, nor should its rabbis be viewed as priests or ministers. We are a people, with a cultural identity and value system, part of which has a religious component. If we take our text seriously one could even say that Judaism is about culture, language and borders. It isn’t faith based, but “deed”oriented. Rabbis shouldn’t present themselves as though they were Jewish ministers and priests turning the other cheek and spreading love to the world.

Rabbis were intended to be teachers, and based upon our mesorah one who had achieved the degree of Jewish knowledge and wisdom qualified for Semicha. The degree of semicha conferred on a talmid chacham assumed that apart from mastering the required knowledge base, one was also in complete and total identification with his people. Thus being a rabbi carries with it an awesome responsibility. It is more than appearing rabbinic. It is more than giving a good sermon or appearing to be politically correct.

Being a serious rabbi is about being a teacher and leader among his people. It means that you have to be able to competently read a sacred text, understand its context and be able to derive from it a lesson on how we need to conduct our lives under certain circumstances. It requires a rabbi to be a leader even when it may not be necessarily popular – even when it isn’t politically or socially correct. There are many rabbis who fit this description, but after reading Rabbi Forman’s article “Rabbis for Human Rights – the 20th Anniversary” (Jerusalem Post, August 29, 2008) he clearly isn’t one of them.

It is abundantly clear to me today that Arabs and Jews cannot live together in the same country. Jews see their manifest destiny as living in Israel with Jerusalem as its capital, and so do the Arabs. They, as us are intractable. They aren’t willing to compromise, but for some unexplainable reason the Rabbis for Human Rights are willing to compromise with the fate of the Jewish People. They preach human rights and good will towards those who wish us harm, basing it on our sacred text.

Rabbi David Forman quotes cherry picked texts to further his argument but ignores other texts as well as our history which flies in the face of everything he stands for. Yes, we ought to be an or lagoyim, a “light unto the nations”, but that doesn’t mean by inflicting pain and injury upon ourselves. Israel is a “light unto the nations”, spreading science, health, technology to the world, not to mention the abundant Jewish scholarship in our rabbinical seminaries and universities. And we are a sterling example regarding ethical behavior on the battlefield, whether it is to protect enemy civilians at the expense of our own soldiers or providing medical help to those wishing to harm us. Israel has set a moral example to the rest of the world long ago; we will trade hundreds of terrorists in exchange for returning home one chayal, dead or alive.

In view of this I was alarmed at the fact that Rabbi Forman wrote:
“In a country where Judaism is often associated with intolerant and uncompromising beliefs and actions, RHR teaches an alternative understanding of the Jewish tradition, one that emphasizes Judaism’s humanistic and universal side.”
Rabbi Forman has the idea that Judaism believes in turning the other cheek. He believes that human rights abuse is incompatible with the Jewish tradition of moral responsibility and sensitivity and the biblical concern for “the stranger in your midst The strangers that the bible is referring to are a small minority of neighbors that shouldn’t be taken advantage of, nor should they be abused; but ought to be treated with respect. But that is a far cry from what has happened in Israel. These Arabs aren’t a “stranger in our midst”; they consider us the stranger, and are intent on driving us off the land. ”. In my tradition haba l’horgecha hashkem v’hargehu, (if someone is intent on killing you, rise up and kill him first) trumps everything.

Furthermore, our prophets that he quotes so conveniently, he misunderstands. Micah and Isaiah were concerned with social injustice committed by Israelites against their own. When referring to the “stranger in their midst” they are referring to benign neighbors. Understanding him contextually he wouldn’t have preached turning the other cheek, certainly not under circumstances where our neighbors are our enemies and wish us not only harm but extinction. They do not wish to live side by side; they wish to take over the entire land that we call Israel and reduce us to the sand under their sandals. And they would achieve this if left to the yefeh nefesh and Rabbis for Human Rights.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

A Muse: Nitzavim 2008

“You stand this day, all of you, before the Lord your God - your tribal heads, your elders and your officials, all the men of Israel, your children, your wives, even the stranger within your camp, from woodchopper to waterdrawer – to enter into the covenant of the Lord your God , which the Lord your God is concluding with you this day, with its sanctions; to the end that He may establish you this day as His people and be your God, as He promised you and as He swore to your fathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. I make this covenant, with its sanctions, not with you alone but with those who are standing here with us this day before the Lord our God and with those who are not with us here this day. Well you know that we dwelt in the land of Egypt and that we passed through the midst of various other nations.” (Deuteronomy 29: 9-15)

These are amazingly powerful words spoken to a people who have gone through the crucible of a forty year wilderness journey, unique and of unusual historic proportions. Unlike other people who develop through a natural process and under natural circumstances our development was supra-natural. Our cultural development was compressed in time, marked and guided by the hand of God and was artificially created through divine intervention.

Central to the text above is the simple, straight forward declaration that this covenant being presented to us wasn’t only binding on those present that day, those people present in the plains of Moab, but binding on all those not yet present, the future generations and progeny for all time to come. The question that begs to be asked is by what power and how was it possible that those who were present and acceded to the covenant were able to obligate future generations. How far in the future would this obligation extend? Why have all the subsequent generations assumed the responsibility for that which had been committed in the past?

The Abarbanel raises this question as do so many other commentaries but typical of the Abarbanel his answer is crystal clear and concise. The foundational premise for the covenat being binding on all future generations to the end of time on the Jewish people is by virtue of the fact that we were slaves in Egypt and were redeemed by God. The price paid for this redemption can never be paid in full and every generation must pay by accepting the covenant acceded to by our forefathers in the plains of Moab. “Had He not redeemed us from Egypt, we would still be slaves”. Moreover, and as the Abarbanel being influenced by the Inquisition, underscores our debt and fealty by going one step further. Even if we wanted to renege on our obligation, the gentiles wouldn’t allow us to!

Nechama Leibowitz underscoring the point of the Abarbanel suggests that when we read Torah we ought to be reading it as though we personally received it at Sinai as our ancestors did. While her point is well taken, one must wonder how this is possible. How can our western mind set make this enormous leap of faith? Experience and history has altered our DNA as well as our receptors for processing information. What our forefathers understood Torah to mean was based on a cultural affinity and on events that impacted on their national psyche. We too, products of western development and environment process information differently than our forefathers. What Torah meant to our ancestors is very different than what it means to us today. Do the myriad ways by which we understand and practice Torah today suggest that we are no longer acting in good faith in maintaining the covenant that we were entrusted to keep?

Towards the end of the parsha (chapter 30:19) we are presented with a carrot and a stick. Observe the commandments and chose life. The implied threat is that if the mitzvoth aren’t observed, life, or the good life will be forfeited. If this is the case then where is the free choice that is so fundamental to our faith? (Many such as R’Hisdai Crescas dismisses the notion of free will as well as Spinoza. The Rambam however, believes that we do have free will). Yeshayahu Leibovitz commenting on this believes that in fact we aren’t denied the ability to choose not to do the mitzvoth, rather we are enjoined to do everything possible to choose to practice living according to the mitzvoth handed down to us through the generations. How we interpret the method and performance of mitzvoth brings us back to the question posed earlier.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Some of My Best Friends Are…

Jonathan Rosenblum’s recent article Think Again: Getting To Know You, Jerusalem Post, September 4, 2008 tried to present a kind and caring image of segments of the haredi community. Towards the end of the article he referenced a heart warming incident that occurred between him and a chiloni leading him to the conclusion that “many of the nicest people and most generous people I have known were not religious” It sounded like “some of my best friends are….” Substitute the word “not religious” for Jews and the ADL would be screaming foul play! Substitute “not religious” for “African American” or “black” and the Rev. Al Sharpton would be on your door step! Rosenblum’s remark, innocent as it might seem was quite revealing.

While Jonathan Rosenblum, in earnest, wishes to portray the haredi as more compassionate and more open and welcoming, the article wreaks of condescension regarding the chiloni community. Even the language used for outreach, “kiruv”, is a condescending term. Kiruv in the outreach community implies that like the “white man’s burden” of the 19th century colonialists, the haredim are also burdened with the responsibility of bringing “enlightenment”, to these pitiful souls.

Implicit in the kiruv message is an absolute lack of respect toward the chiloni community. Respect ought to mean that while haredim don’t necessarily approve of a chiloni’s lifestyle or lack of religious practice, they ought to respect their right to live as freely as they please. Respect ought to mean that even though a chiloni has chosen to live independent of any halachic system we are nevertheless still brothers and ought to stand together. Respect ought to mean that we accept the right of all people to live as they wish without judging them. Respect ought to mean that while we don’t endorse the books you read we won’t dismiss them as unworthy to be read. Respect ought to mean that while we would like you to become familiar with our religious values and culture we would also want to become familiar with yours without the fear that something awful and sinful might corrupt us.

Rosenblum claims that there are two opposing trends within the haredi world. “On the one hand, there are those whose entire focus is on… erecting barriers to the outside world… and there are those… willing to share their joy of “Torah life” with the broader Jewish society”. Both however share a common denominator – a negation of the chiloni community. The only difference between these two world views is a tactical one.

When study and dialogue between these two communities are on an equal footing with mutual respect, sharing in each others cultural and intellectual experience then will the shofar not only usher in a New Year but trumpet in a new age.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

A Muse: Ki Tavo 2008

“Now if you obey the Lord your God, to observe faithfully all his commandments which I enjoin upon you this day, the Lord your God will set you high above all the nations of the earth. All these blessings shall come upon you and take effect, if you will but heed the word of the Lord your God….But if you do not obey the Lord your God to observe faithfully all his commandments and laws which I enjoin upon you this day and do not deviate to the right or to the left from any of the commandments that I enjoin upon you this day and turn to the worship of other gods….” (Deuteronomy 28: 1-15)

Twice in the Bible is the tochecha (exhortation) given to the Israelites. The first exhortation was given at Horev (Sinai) and found in Leviticus and the second, in our parsha was given in the Plains of Moab. On the surface they sound the same: A stern, severe warning to follow the commandments as stated in the Torah, otherwise catastrophe will befall the people of Israel. However, when taking a closer look at the text there are notable differences between the two, which may or may not prove problematic from a theological point of view.

The first “exhortation” differs in structure from the second. While the first tochecha at Horeb ranks the punishments from weaker to stronger, relating them to the different kinds of sinful behavior or lack of attentiveness to the mitzvoth, the second “exhortation” does not gage the strength and severity of the punishments and doesn’t link them to the level of sin. More significant however is the difference in tenor between the two.

At Horeb, the first “exhortation” is hopeful. Even in the worst possible scenario there is still hope, because God will always remember the covenant made with the patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. In calling attention to the covenant made with our patriarchs, the linkage between the patriarchs and the destiny of the children of Israel is underscored. While we may be judged for our behavior, God will take into consideration the covenants made with our forefathers. However, in the second “exhortation”, there is no mention of the covenantal relationship and isn’t hopeful. Here God will be judging us solely on our own merit without taking into consideration our history, pedigree and the covenants struck with the patriarchs.
The Ramban notes this significant difference and suggests the following interpretation of the two exhortations. The first “exhortation” is referring to the destruction of the first Temple and the second exhortation is referring to the destruction of the second Temple. The first “exhortation” holds out hope for a “return”, because God is taking into account the everlasting covenants struck with our forefathers. Therefore, while there was an exile after the destruction of the first Temple there was a return and a second Temple was built.

The second “exhortation” does not reference the covenantal relationship and there was no return after the second Temple was destroyed and we were exiled. The Ramban understands the second “exhortation” as a death sentence and as with any death it is final. The only other option is for a “techiyat hametim”, a Resurrection of the Dead.

The theological conundrum of course is the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948. Would this be considered the “techiyat hameitim” that the Ramban referred too? And if this is “techiyat hameitim” might it be referring too, to the destruction of European Jewry and their resurrection in the form of Israel? This of course would have to assume then that the Holocaust was part of the divine plan! If one were not to accept Ramban’s concept of “techiyat Hameitim” as manifested by the birth of Israel how would one explain the “return” and establishment of the State of Israel in religious terms?

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Mitzvot Linked to the Index

Jonathan Rosenblum wrote a follow up essay in Mishpacha “In Praise of Fiction”, September 4, 2008 on the impact of poverty in the haredi community. It isn’t difficult to understand his concern although I am less sympathetic for reasons expanded upon in my essay “Give me-I’m Entitled”, September 8, 2008.

What emerges from his essay is a striking declaration that “there is no comparing our society to that of Eastern Europe a hundred years ago”. This is a troubling statement coming from an articulate member of the haredi community. After all, the underpinnings of the haredi community is grounded on precisely the premise that they are closely and inexorably linked with those past generations and revere almost to the point of avodah zarah the Eurpean experience. Even our own rabbinic sages commented that “nitkatnu hadorot” that as we progress in time, the succeeding generations becoming smaller relative to the previous generations regarding their quality and values and shemirat mitzvoth. The point of reference is the past, a pivotal principal within the haredi community.

Europe was and has been the focal point for the haredi community and it ought not be dismissed out of convenience when confronted with disturbing social issues. Chaim Nachman Bialik in his landmark poem “haim yesh et nafshecha” addressed the phenomenom of our obsession of referencing everything to our glorious (inglorious at times) past. Harav Hutner, in the sefer “Meshulchan Gavoha”, commenting on parshat Re’eh as to why we observe a year of mourning for a parent but only a month for the loss of a child is very compelling and demonstrates our fixation on referencing our lives to past generations. Rabbi Hutner believes that the year of mourning is not so much for the parent who has passed, as much as it is for the fact that another link from Sinai has been broken – forever.

There are things we can learn from our Eastern European ancestors. Rosenblum is correct when he asserts
“formal chinuch ended for almost all boys before they ever reached bar mitzvah age, and at that point they were apprenticed out to learn a trade or start working. Torah education was an unaffordable luxury for all but the very brightest and wealthiest.”
The model sighted above (with exception of the absence of girl’s education) strikes me as one that ought to be adopted in the haredi community. A yeshiva student who doesn’t demonstrate unusual gifts of scholarship ought to be channeled into productive trade schools where they will acquire technical skills appropriate for competing in the 21st century market place, thus avoiding the scarlet letter of becoming a burden on the community. Those gifted students should be adequately prepped not only in Torah, but in leadership training to make them effective rabbinic leaders, dayanim, and community leaders.

There may be something else to be learned and borrowed from the crucible of the European experience other than a depressing dress code. They lived by a set of values and ethics that weren’t up for sale. They understood that sacrifice was necessary if one wished to live the life of a model Jew. Mesirat nefesh was a value, not to be inflated or deflated depending on the strength of the Index or the stock market. Today, a haredi, according to Rosenblum places his value in the strength of the market place. He’s more concerned with a “good shiduch” for the bachur than being true to those values that were precious to yisrael sava. Why should living a life of mitzvoth be linked to the Index? Are haredi values so cheap?