Saturday, March 29, 2008

Mirror Mirror on the Wall

The modest woman who conceals her sexuality invites a man to reveal it, always teasing the possibility of more. And what is eroticism, if not the arousal of limitless possibility?

These are the penned words of none other than Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, in an article (The International Jerusalem Post Feb.29-March 6, 2008) in which he is trying to argue that women should dress more modestly. I say “trying”, because in effect, Shmuley is basically turning those b’not yisrael of modest dress into nothing more than cheap temptresses. So as not to be accused of quoting out of context in the previous paragraph, he claims that modest women are the sexiest of them all because they look feminine and desirable and the fact that their bodies are covered piques the prurient interest in men.

Normally I wouldn’t be troubled by this kind of article because I don’t necessarily believe in “modest dress” unless circumstances and “good taste” dictate. For example, attending synagogue or religious services or visiting a particular community where the norms of the community dictate a particular type of dress. But Boteach is promoting a value that distorts and demeans women. The truth of the matter is that there really is no such thing as modest dress or sexy clothes. One could be dressed modestly “al pi chol hadeyot” and she can still look like one of Elliot Spitzer’s call girls. On the other hand, during the course of the day, I, as many of you, come in contact with numerous women, many of whom are dressed in what R’ Shmuley would consider immodest and seductive, with a little cleavage and exposed thigh. Many of them are as sexy as Mother Theresa.

It’s all in the attitude and the look in their eyes. It isn’t what she wears or how she wears it but how she relates to her environment and the people with whom she interacts. So, to put a particular premium on a dress code is nonsense. What is more revealing however is Boteach’s obsession with matters of sexuality. “It is time”, he writes “to praise the orthodox Jewish woman who with her sleeves, stockings and long flowing skirt, is not just a model of femininity but is super desirable too”. Why is it time? When was it ever the time to praise Jewish girls as super desirable? I thought they were only supposed to be desirable to their husbands, therefore the modest dress and the avoidance of “ervah”? Doesn’t that also turn them into objects that Boteach so derides and is demeaning? Boteach is guilty of the same sin as those whom he has castigated in the secular community. He unconsciously treats women as sex objects, views them as something to have; no different than that those whom he criticizes:
Here’s the truth of the matter: Modest women are the sexiest of all. They look feminine, desirable, and their covered bodies invite male curiosity….But the difference is that the man will stay focused on the covered women’s flesh well after her cleavage-bearing sister has nothing left to offer.

I find this to be very disturbing; an indictment against women and society whose dress code doesn’t meet Boteach’s standards. Accordingly, these women, who may be well read, well educated, versed in literature and the sciences have little to offer compared to the “bas torah” whose span of knowledge may be limited to that which the “roshei yeshivah” allow her to be exposed to, all because of a little cleavage! And when does modest dress become excessively modest to the point that it is no longer within the purview of Jewish mores? The women in Kiryat Hayovel and Bet Shemesh who chose to cover every inch of skin and veil themselves? Are they modest Jewish girls, or is there some kind of pathological disturbance at work? Who decides what is appropriate and what isn’t?

The so-called immodestly dressed women are at least honest in their desire to appear sexy to their willing enablers and admirers who objectify the flesh; while Boteach is in denial, hiding behind questionable archaic mores that by applying them have blurred his ability to distinguish between “looking” and “leering”.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Separate – But Not Apart

During the past several weeks there has been a robust discussion among those in the fringe Jewish community (read Heeb and Sh’ma) as to what Hillel meant when he said “do not separate yourself from the community”. (Avot 2:4) The concern and the reason for the discussion revolve around the fact that the 21st century has seen a broadening of a development which started towards the end of the 20th century. This community of peripheral Jews is an unaffiliated one, seeking Jewish expression and identity in a way which reflects their lifestyle. The number of unaffiliated Jews is growing daily; the disaffection within the denominational groups (conservative, reform, reconstructionist) is up as well as the inverse shrinking numbers of members from those movements. Definitions regarding sexual identity are changing; we no longer see the world as simply divided between male and female, married or single, but into gay and lesbian as well as the more tenuous, but nevertheless significant grouping of the transgender. Not too far in the future job and college applications will include a third category along with the two alternative boxes of male or female, that of transgender. There are many intermarried couples who either do not feel comfortable or aren’t made to feel welcome in the traditional movements and so they too have joined the fringe.

This rather large and growing group of Jews on the periphery of our community seeks acceptance as well as validation. Like all of us, they are Jews by choice, as is mostly everything else for this emerging group. “The greatest generation” is rapidly disappearing and the “baby boomers” are beginning to make room for generation “x” and “y”, but Jewish organizational life including the denominational structure hasn’t adjusted itself to this new reality or they are in denial. It’s as though they were living in a time warp. B’nei Brith men’s clubs, synagogue sisterhoods and dinners to honor second and third stringers are still alive and well. Mainline Judaism is still trying to figure out why synagogue attendance in all the movements (excluding orthodox) is dramatically down and is in a free fall. Organizations have been established to think through this problem and to come up with strategies to attract the younger generation to the decaying synagogues like Friday Night Live, or some other gimmicky programs. We are locked in this fourth dimension because there is no gutsy leadership out there in the Jewish community to administer an electric shock of reality. It’s not surprising therefore, that slowly but surely there is a growing group of disaffected, well meaning, sincere Jews who, because a place hasn’t been made at the table for them have decided to “make their own shabbes”.

Separation from the community is serious business and there have been many such occurrences in our long history but we have to ask ourselves this: If Hillel was concerned with the “peeloog”, what was happening in his community that prompted him to give it his attention? And which Hillel are we talking about: Hillel Hazaken (end of first century BC and beginning of first century CE), or Hillel, (3rd century CE), the grandson of Yehudah Hanasi? Many scholars believe that the saying in Avot sited above is really that of the latter Hillel, but attributed to Hillel Hazaken. It would make sense, because the second Hillel was concerned with the spread of Christianity and the defection within the Jewish community. Perhaps this was what prompted Hillel to pen his ruling which was directed not only at those Jews defecting, but to the normative Jewish community which wasn’t addressing the root cause of the problem.

There were many other instances of “peeloog” but one very interesting occurrence was about 150 years ago in Hungary. The “peeloog” took place between the orthodox community and the rest of the community which favored a more “enlightened” approach to governing the communities other than by the shulchan aruch. The majority did not want the shulchan aruch as the guide by which to govern their communities but a minority of the orthodox insisted on it. A vote was taken and the orthodox were in the minority: 126 “neologists” (liberals were referred to as such) verses 94 orthodox. The orthodox not being able to have their way were “poresh”, they separated themselves from the community. Ironically, (and take note) when it suited the orthodox establishment they found ways to ignore Hillel’s ruling!

The real question however, is what prompts a community of people to have to resort to separation? It would appear that the emphasis ought not be on the “perisha”, but why do people seek to separate from the main body in the first place. Once a community begins to assess the need to separate it would appear that it is probably too late to alter their course. When reflecting on the Jewish community as it is structured one would have to ask whether or not it is responding to the needs of the entire community or perhaps it is locked into its own ideology at the expense of others. This was a question that had to be asked when Hillel penned his rule, or when the Orthodox community in Hungary felt the need to separate itself. It is certainly no less important a question that needs to be addressed in 2008. In the case of Hillel it would appear that a great deal of wisdom was used in finding ways to be inclusive and minimize the loss of our people to other faiths or cults. We see that in many of the rulings and the spirit in which they were made. In the case of Hungary on the other hand, it is obvious that good will, intention and desire to maintain the community whole, wasn’t in play.

It would appear that the contemporary Jewish community has learned little from history. The various denominations, locked in to their narrow ideologies barely speak with one another (unless it is regarding civic issues), and even those within their own denominations are experiencing ideological fissures that are ever widening. So what about the fringe Jews, those on the periphery, marginalized and discounted because of circumstances, choices made or life styles adopted? They have separated because the mainstream community, in their myopic vision has chosen to disenfranchise them. Yes, they may be separate but they are not apart from the Jewish community.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

A Muse: Shemini 2008

In this week’s portion of Shemini, chapter 11 lists those animals prohibited to eat and those which are permissible. Harav Kook, based upon his understanding of Torah was a vegetarian, and believed that optimally, the Israelites should be vegetarian. However, based upon certain considerations this goal was put on hold. Harav Kook position is based on several considerations:

• In the creation story man is told to eat from the land; but not from the meat of animals.
• In the verse (Deuteronomy 12:20) where man is permitted to eat meat, it is based on compromise, considering the word usage in the verse “ta’avah nafshecha”; as if to say that man is allowed to eat meat so long as he doesn’t treat animals as recklessly and callously as he treats man.
• Harav Kook views the laws in Shemini as a means by which to limit the consumption of meat. For example, the idea that only domestic livestock are allowed to be eaten is for Harav Kook, a way to discourage eating meat. It may be emotionally more difficult to eat domestic livestock rather than wild animals.
• The obligation to cover the blood after the slaughter (chapter 17:13) is indicative of “sheficat damim”, approximating manslaughter, something to be ashamed of.
• He also believes that the biblical injunction against cooking “meat in the mother’s milk” was intended to create a visual image of something so abhorrent that it would deter one from killing animals.
• Harav Kook also suggests that we aren’t allowed to eat from the ‘neveila’ (road kill) because we shouldn’t benefit from an accident whereby an animal was killed.

When considering the scandal surrounding the Rubashkin meat packing company it would do us well to consider the words of Harav Kook. Perhaps we have reached the point where we need to limit or perhaps eliminate the consumption of meat.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

A Muse: Tzav 2008

Last week I mused on the purpose of sacrificial worship and sited the Ramabam’s understanding and the place of the korbanot in our spiritual history. This week’s parsha, provides an alternative to the Rambam.

Rabbi Levi ben Gershon (1288-1344), better known as the Ralbag, aside from being a great Jewish scholar was also well versed in Aristotelian philosophy. He was a scientist of note, excelling in mathematics, and astronomy. His invention of the Baculus Jacobi, a navigational tool was in use until the 16th century.

The Ralbag is diametrically opposed to the Rambam regarding the value and meaning of sacrificial worship. In his opinion, by virtue of the fact that our text goes into such minute detail regarding the korbanot is an indicator that there is intrinsic meaning and purpose; not just a compromise for the Hebrews coming out of Egypt as the Rambam suggests. Illustrating this point he sites Vayikra chapter 2 verse 13: “you shall salt your every meal-offering with salt”. Adding salt enhances the value and taste of the product, rendering the product savory and flavorful. Salting the korban teaches us that the ritual of the korban wasn’t irrelevant by virtue of the fact that salt was added as an enhancement.

An example of this is his interpretation of the korban “oleh” in chapter 6 verses 1-2. The Ralbag in Aristotelian fashion comments on the necessity for the Torah to direct the kohanim to use kindling wood as the combustible agent. The korban itself represents the spirit (soul) of man (tzura), whereas the kindling wood symbolizes the physical dimension of man (chomer). Man lives by virtue of his essential spiritl (tzura), God gracing the spirit; and dies as a result of his body (chomer) breaking down.

With this in mind then, focusing on the method by which the korban Oleh is brought before God ought to direct our attention to the process of becoming (tzura) and dying (chomer); to be attentive to the duality of tzura and chomer, spirit and form, and recognize that it is God who is the spirit which gracesthe tzura.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

An Unacceptable Response

Many years ago, having had to relocate to a small Midwestern town, we chose to buy a house in a particular area because it had an established orthodox shul which we would be able to walk to on Shabbat. Within nine months of living there we decided to sell the house and move to a neighboring community where the orthodox shul was more to our liking. It really didn’t take nine months to come to that conclusion. In truth I had arrived at that decision with in a few months of having attending services. The rabbi’s speeches were offensive, filled with anger and violated my understanding of Judaism.

The rabbi wasn’t tolerant of life styles that didn’t meet his standards. Homosexuals were freaks and sinners, who because of them caused Los Angeles to suffer an earthquake. According to the rabbi, due to the liberal attitudes exhibited towards the gay community in Los Angeles, it had become the epicenter of “tumah”; thus not surprising that God had visited upon them an earthquake. Speaking with veteran members of the shul it was apparent that this was the kind of rabbi they wanted and appreciated. Realizing that we didn’t identify with this kind of intolerance and hateful speech, we decided that we couldn’t remain in this community, so we did the only thing we could. We moved.

I recall this chapter of my life to point out how hollow Obama’s response is to his pastors tirades against whites, Jews and America. For Obama to say that he had never heard those particular speeches may be true, but he can’t deny that he had heard about them at one time or another. If he is part of a community, no doubt the parishioners must have talked about the pastor’s sermons, and undoubtedly they must have trickled down to Obama. Unless he was an absentee church member, one who rarely attends services, and is marginally associated with the community. But this we know isn’t the case. Obama has said on various occasions that the pastor is very close to him, his spiritual advisor, married him and Michelle and baptized their daughters, and that Trinity Church is his second home. If he is that close to the pastor and so involved in the life of the church, then he surely must have been privy to his feelings on the subjects of 9-11, Israel, whites, Jews and his endorsement of Louis Farakhan.

I would think that alone would have caused Obama to distant himself from Trinity Church and that bitter, hateful minister, as I had found necessary to do many years ago. Not only hasn’t Obama done that, but in realty he hasn’t even fully repudiated his minister now even after being “caught”. All he has said is that he repudiates certain comments and remarks that the minister has made.

That isn’t good enough. For Obama to show his sincerity in his repudiation he will have to renounce his minister, not the remarks he made. Louis Farakhan, not his remarks have been repudiated universally. He, not his remarks, has been renounced as a racist, a black supremacist and an anti-semite. For Obama to do less than that regarding Wright falls very short of the mark. One can excuse an isolated remark. When hateful speech, however, becomes a pattern, such in the case of Rev. Wright, than one has to believe that it is the man, and not an unfortunate thought, slip of the tongue or error in judgment that is in need of total repudiation.

On a side bar, Obama has referred to Wright as an outstanding theologian. How would Obama know that, and what is his standard for assessment? For Wright to have said that Jesus was a black man is about as ignorant as one can get. After all, Jesus came from Judea, and as far as I know the Judeans weren’t Black. For Wright to say that Rome was “European” at the time of Jesus (repressing a black man) hardly deserves comment. I hope that Obama’s understanding of history isn’t understood through the lense of a bitter revisionist.

No, Obama, I expect more from you because you may be the president of this great country and we deserve the best. I wouldn’t want my president seeking spiritual counseling from a bitter, hateful man, who sees the world as divided along the fault line of color and who would revise history to serve his own twisted purpose, so much so that he could say from the pulpit that it was America, who was responsible for that perfidious act of terror on 9-11.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Liberation of the Liberal American Jew

There is strange and new wind that is subtly but ever vigorously blowing across the American Jewish community which I find terribly vexing. I first felt its chilling wind about four years ago around the time of the general election in 2004. At the time, good friends of mine asked me how I voted. Even though I knew that these people were liberal democrats I unabashedly answered that I voted for George Bush. Upon further questioning as to why I voted for him after pointing out how poorly he performed during his first administration, I explained that my first concern and consideration was the welfare of Israel. I made it clear that all other issues such as abortion, stem cell research appointments to the Supreme Court took a backseat to Israel’s welfare. Bush, in my estimation, was infinitely better for Israel than the alternative. Their reaction was bitter and I shall never forget it or forgive them for it. “If Israel is so important to you why don’t you move back there”?

Their remark was ridiculous because it would be the same thing as telling Jessie Jackson or Al Sharpton that if you don’t like the policies of the United States, go back to Africa. Somehow I don’t think that my liberal democratic friends understood what I was saying, nor would they have been willing to entertain the idea that in essence the two propositions were similar.

I filed that inauspicious discussion away, hoping that there remark had been out of context, not reflecting a trend within the American Jewish community. Was I ever wrong! Speaking to the same couple a few weeks ago we once again talked politics. This time they were voting for Obama. I expressed once again my concern for Israel’s future and this time the answer I receive was a bit more tactful. The gist of it was that it was time for Israel to grow up, stand on its own two feet and not be a burden on America. Reading between the lines what they were really saying to me was it was time that Israel stood on its own two feet and stopped embarrassing liberal American Jews who are in disagreement with Israel’s approach to the Palestinians.

Once again I was hoping that their opinion wasn’t typical of most liberal American Jews, but I was terribly wrong. What bothered me wasn’t the analysis of the pollsters indicating the support of many liberal Jews for Obama, but a piece in the recent issue of Sh’ma (January 2008 / Shvat 5768) entitled Affinities and Israel: A Roundtable.

The roundtable consisted of an intellectual group of Jewish adults whom I assume were all under the age of forty, ranging from a reform rabbinical student to a professor of Jewish studies and a professor of American studies as well as a few others working in Jewish organizational life. One of the questions with which they dealt was whether or not American Jews needed Israel. One of them unreservedly said, no. Others took a softer position, redefining the role of Israel within global Jewish life-in short intellectualizing the hell out of the issue. One of the participants had the audacity to comment that American Jews under the age of forty only know Israel as an occupying power. He went on to say that American Jews are so well integrated into American life that they don’t need Israel as much as before. He continued by saying “this is even more complicated because we live in a post-ethnic world where being a Jew for many people under the age of thirty, is only part of their identity”.

Let me remind these “yifey nefesh” that before Daniel Pearl died all that mattered to his Islamo- fascist murderers was that he was Jewish. I don’t know where these liberal Jews are living, but I don’t think it is in a post-ethnic world. Anti-Zionism around the world and here in America is just another buzzword, for being anti Jewish, or anti-Semitic. It may not be politically correct to be anti Semitic, but perfectly acceptable amongst our liberal friends to be anti-Zionist, because, after all, the wretched Palestinians are the underdog. If we are living in this post-ethnic world, then why didn’t the UN issue a statement condemning the murder of eight defenseless yeshiva students at Yeshivat Mercaz Harav Kook, not to mention countless other atrocities against Israelis? I have no reason to believe that there has been even a minute reorientation of the world to the Jewish people. All that has changed has been terminology and some nomenclature, but if I read between the lines regarding some statements made at enlightened universities such as Berkley, anti-Semitism is alive and well.

Hey, yefeh nefesh, read the press. When was the last time you saw a complimentary picture of an Israeli in the press. They are always depicted as angry and aggressive, while the pitiful Palestinians are depicted as suffering, living under the boot of the Israeli. Israeli soldiers are shown with an assault rifle pointed in the direction of a defenseless Palestinian indicating that he’s been victimized, once again. And what about Jewish depiction in the press; whenever they want to depict a real, authentic Jew, they pull out of the archives a picture of a black hat and bearded Jew. That’s tantamount to posting a picture of a Native American in full head dress with nothing more than a loin clothe and moccasins. Do you think that would ever happen?

So there it is. American Jews under the age of forty are no longer in need of Israel because we are living in a post-ethnic world. I hope they “grow up” post haste, otherwise they may do us irreversible harm. Who knows, maybe they’ll reach their fiftieth birthday and God willing, Israel will still be a beacon of light to all of us who need her.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

A Muse: Va'yikra 2008

This week we begin reading a rather confounding book, much of it devoted to sacrificial worship and the rites and ritual associated with it. To say the least, sacrifice was a primitive form of worship in expressing one’s devotion to God. We aren’t the only culture to have instituted this form of worship. There were many other ancient civilizations that employed animal worship (as well as produce), to demonstrate their fealty to God or to the god of their choice.

There was a certain logic to the practice of sacrifice. It meant that you were willing to take something important, of value, and dedicate it to God, at great cost or sacrifice to yourself, with the hope that in so doing you were forging and sustaining a relationship with God. In our Temple an entire social class and economy grew up around sacrificial worship; from the purchasing of the animal to bringing it to the altar and having its remains left to the priestly class.

The Rambam in Moreh Nevuchim is concerned with the rite of sacrificial worship in that it was primitive. He comments that in essence, sacrificial worship was initially a compromise made with the Hebrews. In as much as they were part of the near eastern culture where animal sacrifice was normative, it would have been too radical to expect any other kind of expression of devotion. The Rambam was suggesting that sacrificial worship would be standard practice until the Hebrews would, through a natural spiritual and intellectual growth take devotion to a new level.

Tefillah, he suggests was exactly that. The disparity between the Tzedukim and the Perushim, while pivoting on numerous points also included this. Tefillah, prayer, became the approach by which the priesthood was no longer necessary as an intermediary or arbiter in reaching God. Every Hebrew would be able to reach out to God by reaching into the depths of his heart and praying to his creator. Prayer, as the Perushim intended democratized the people as far as having access to God was concerned. At first prayer was extemporaneous, later it became formatted and standardized.

The Rambam comments, however, that Tefilah won’t be the final form of devotion. As man becomes more sophisticated in his intellectual capacity and as his spirituality grows man will be able to meditate on God, and in so doing forge the bridge linking him to his creator in a much more powerful way than Tefillah is able to accomplish.

Meditation has become for many the method by which spirituality has become enhanced. Some of our great first and second generation Hasidic masters achieved great spiritual heights through this medium. Something to consider as we begin to read Va’yikra.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

A Muse: Pekudei 2008

Pikudei, where the building of the Mishkan is completed is oftentimes read back to back with Va’yakhel. As you recall in last weeks musings, it was suggested that the Mishkan is man’s delineation of temporal, sacred/mundane space as a cap to his creation of culture, be it spiritual or mundane. I assume this to be the case because of the very unusual language in our text beginning in chapter 35 verse 30-35 where language such as “chochmat lev” and “tevunah v’daat” are used, to the beginning of verses of chapter 36 where this same type of language is applied again. It is the language of a society in formation; a society that it is at the cusp of developing its cultural norms and values.

It is no coincidence that in chapter 40 verse 33 the text reads, upon the completion of the Mishkan “vayichal Moshe et hamlacha”, “Moses completed the work”. Sound familiar? Similar language was used at the conclusion of the creation story. In Bereshit, chapter 2 verse 2, at the conclusion of creation God said: “vayichal elohim bayom hashvii melachto asher asa”, “by the seventh day God completed His work which He had done”. Whereas the Shabbat is our non-temporal sacred space, given to us by God as the cap to His creation; the Mishkan is man’s delineation of temporal, sacred/mundane space as a cap to his creation of culture, be it spiritual or mundane. With the work of completing the building of the Mishkan, Moshe has also brought to closure the exodus from Egypt.

The exodus from Egypt wasn’t only a physical deliverance, but also a spiritual and intellectual journey. Otherwise why employ the language of “chochmat lev” and “tevunah v’daat”. The construction of the Mishkan, although physical had to symbolize not only the physical freedom, but the freedom from spiritual repression.

As the Hebrews turned their back on Egypt they looked to the future. If Egypt represented a physically, intellectually and spiritually repressive society, then the new one they were building would be an open society. As the Mishkan was built by those who exhibited “chochmat lev” so too, would their culture be one of “chochma” and “tevunah”. The Mishkan wasn’t a fixed structured embedded in place, becoming cumbersome and difficult to maneuver, but was light, airy and very portable. In a sense, flexible so that it could accommodate the climate and circumstances of a nomadic existence. It carried the message of its builders, men who were infused with “chochma” to be open and accommodating, exploring new ideas and concepts adapting to a changing environment, keeping the Word relevant for all time.