Monday, April 14, 2008

A Muse: Acharei Mot 2008

The story of the death of Aron’s two sons Nadav and Avihu is the central text read on Yom Kippur and is referenced four times in the Torah: Vaykira 10: 1-2; Acharei Mot 16: 1; Bamidbar 3:4 and 26: 61 suggesting possibly the level of significance.

This Parsha was incorporated into the Yom Kippur service by the 7th century author of the Pesichta D’Rav Kahanah. Many have asked the question why incorporate this parsha into the Yom Kippur service, especially since he lived hundreds of years after the destruction of the Temple when there were no more sacrificial worship, no usage of the sair laazazel, and certainly no holy of holies. The chazal and later medievalists suggests that the connection between this seminal event and Yom Kippur was just as Yom Kippur brings atonement so does the atonement of the righteous.

The Pesichta, not convinced by this interpretation offers a totally different approach and his analysis raises issues such as crime and punishment, appropriate punishment to fit the crime, and optional approaches to atonement, all of which are thought provoking and thus appropriate for such an awesome day.

In analyzing the deaths of Nadav and Avihu it is important to note that the horrific event took place on the backdrop of the dedication of the Mishkan, a day of joy and celebration; after the fire came down from God, publicly dedicating the altar and witnessed in joy by the Hebrews. All of a sudden the two sons of Aron offer a strange fire not commanded of them resulting in another fire emanating from God and killing them on the spot.

In trying to make sense of the event and find meaning behind it, the Pesichta offers six different complex approaches, one of which I will share with you. In this particular explanation he sites Kohelet, Chapter 9 verse 1-2:
“All this I grasped and clearly understood, that the just and the wise, together withal their works, are in god’s hands; men can be certain of neither God’s love nor His hate-anything may happen to them. One fait awaits all men, one lot comes to the just and the unjust, to the good and pure and the impure, to him who brings his offerings and him who does not; as with good man so with the sinner; as with man who swears lightly, so with him who fears an oath.”

The bottom line, writes Kohelet, is that for the righteous and the sinner the end is the same – death. Even though in comparing the lives of two people who are polar opposites, sharing nothing in common; one good the other bad still their end is the same. For example, and as Kohelet suggests, he who brings sacrifices, such as King Josiah and he who doesn’t bring sacrifice like King Achav died by arrows. Or he who swears impetuously such as King Zedekiah verses he Shimshon who is reluctant of taking the oath, in the end they both die in blindness. The Pesichta, taking this one step further juxtaposes those bringing the ketoret, the supporters of Korach who were rebellious and challenging leadership ultimately were consumed by fire vs Nadav and Avihu that attempted to sacrifice not out of divisiveness, but sincerity and too were consumed by fire.

Obviously, the author of the Pesichta is deeply troubled by this phenomenon: Life’s deeds don’t seem to impact on the quality of our mortality. It appears as though the Pesichta is challenging the accepted normative assumption that makes a connection between ones behavior and ones destiny. He questions these norms by introducing Nadav and Avihu into this scheme making it difficult for the “believer” in reward and punishment to come to terms with these events, unless one accepts the notion of “just rewards in the next life.”

This approach, as I mentioned earlier is only one of six exploratory initiatives into understanding the deaths of Nadav and Avihu. It is left unresolved-and for the reader to ponder as he reads this powerful chapter.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Entitlements: Frum Style

There is, to be sure an imperious attitude guiding the frumer as he makes his way through life. There was a time when I not only understood, but held the same views. I remember as a child going to shul on Succot carrying my father’s (may he rest in peace) lulov and esrog as it happened that yomtov fell out on a school day. As we were walking to shul at around 8:30 or so in the morning we passed a public school where there were many pupils walking to school. My father turned to me and said how bad he felt for these “unfortunates” that they don’t have “succos” in their lives or for that matter shabbes or any of the other “yom tovim”. Agreeing with my father I couldn’t imagine such an empty life. To be a “goy”, I thought was a meaningless existence because absent from their lives was the Torah. It never occurred to me that perhaps they had their own beautiful holidays, customs and ceremonies and probably felt that the Jews were living an empty existence.

All this came to mind when I greeted my daughter at the airport as she was returning home from Israel for Passover break where she is a student at the Hebrew University. Her ordeal at the airport and on the flight was unremarkable, other than the fact that she was stunned by the never ending and demanding attitude of the frumies. Being a student at Hebrew University she doesn’t have occasion to “get up front, close and personal” with the frum community, so her recent experience was notable.

Her experience as she told it triggered other memories; as a student at a yeshiva high school, we were indoctrinated with myths and half truths that may be contributing factors to the entitlement syndrome of the frum community. Perhaps at this point I should pause and explain what it is I mean by entitlement: Jewish style. Frum people believe that ultimately the world was created for them and that everyone in it is there to serve their needs. The advancement of their spin on Torah is all that really matters, regardless of the inconvenience and hardship that it may cause others who are either not Jewish, or Jews of another stripe. They would perpetuate a corrupt government in Israel if there is something in it that will promote their cause. Similarly, they will break laws, scheme and manipulate the system in order to get funding for their torah institutions. The myths that we were indoctrinated with are those that are still believed today; legends that we are the oldest culture, who gifted the world with monotheism; that we are living proof that we are “God’s chosen”. After all, where are all the other nations who had persecuted us through the ages and tried to annihilate us? And more: we are the “am cohanim v’goy kadosh”, we are a priestly nation, a holy people.

For those who still believe that the world is 5768 years old this will be lost on them but there are older cultures than ours. While we were slaves in Egypt the Shang dynasty was at its peak. As a matter of fact Chinese history traces itself back as far as 2800 B.C.E. with the “Three August Ones and Five Emperors.” (Although that may be a myth, we too have our myths as well. That is to say, events which cannot be verified without written documentation.) The Japanese can trace their history as far back as the mid-Jomon period roughly 3000-2000 B.C.E. These cultures, too, saw themselves as favored by their gods, no different than our tradition which refers to us as a holy nation.

If we zero in on that region closest to our own history we will discover that the infamous Greeks, the “yevonim”, trace their antecedents back to 2700 B.C.E. The Minoan civilization was a wonderful and sophisticated culture in Crete that later merged into the greater Greek culture. Egyptian culture was the best and perhaps had the most sophisticated science at the time that our ancestors were slinging mud and making bricks. When confronted with this the frum community will respond by saying yes, “but those cultures are no longer the same cultures that they once were. Greek and Egyptian cultures, once proud and magisterial are today shadows of their glorious past. My rejoinder is: what about us - look at us today – eich naflu giborim? As in every living organism nothing remains stagnant. Culture is organic, constantly growing and transforming. The Japanese of today barely resemble that of their antecedent culture of 5000 years ago. The same is true of the Greeks and Egyptians and, yes the same is true of us.

We were once a “great” people who had a Temple and who enjoyed the prophecies of giants such as Amos, Jeremiah and Isaiah. Where are we today compared to where we were then! A frumie would say “ein hachi nami” we have to do teshuva! By saying that however, he is living in denial. The false belief that this community can recover their past glory is precisely the mentality that contributes to their arrogance.

For us to look down at other cultures is condescending and high handed. It is this haughtiness which is partially the reason for the sense of entitlement in the frum community. And it doesn’t matter where the frum community is located. It could be in B’nei B’rak it could be in Gateshead or it could be in Boro Park. It doesn’t matter because they all share this one common “hashkofa”. Our way is superior, our Torah is superior, and our history is superior because we are the “am kohanim v”goy kadosh.” A myth which perpetuate this arrogance, for example, is the classic midrash that hashem approached every civilized people asking them if they wished to accept the Torah and they all refused. Of course, we didn’t; we responded with a resounding “naaseh v’nishma.” The question ought to be asked; why couldn’t the midrash have been reworked giving us the credit for having accepted “ol malchus shamayim” but at the same time maintaining the honor and integrity of other nations. To be contemptuous of them by saying they refused hashem’s offer is part of the hubris which guides the frum community.

The implicit “put down” of others is disingenuous and counterintuitive. When we sit down at the seder table and chant “avadim hayinu b’mitzrayim” let’s remember where we come from and perhaps we’ll increase our humility and decrease our sense of entitlement.

Monday, April 7, 2008

Diaspora Jews?

The Jewish Agency head, Zev Bielski and the Diaspora Cabinet Secretary, Oved Yechezkel are in the process of redefining Israel’s relationship with Jews abroad. The whole thing seems absurd and another means of legitimizing their jobs. Essentially the Jewish Agency is a throwback to pre - state days. It was kept alive as a political gesture providing employment to political hacks that are very low on the “lists” and have no chance of becoming Chevrei Knesset. Had it not been for the funding provided by UJA, Keren Hayesod and other Federations there would be no Jewish Agency. It relies on that funding, so to downplay the philanthropic angle by redefining the relationship is disingenuous.

Even if one was to argue that a redefinition of the relationship was long overdo it would seem silly to engage this conversation with Bielski or Yechezkel. Bielski, as was already mentioned above is the head of an impotent organization that is bolstered by American Jews who are in need of lackeys. After all, philanthropists love hobnobbing with politicians when they visit Israel. The organization isn’t respected in Israel and employs a good number of Olim. Israelis who work there are either third rate political hacks, usually ashamed to admit to their friends who their employer is. Yechezkel is the Diaspora Cabinet Secretary. His title tells you everything you need to know about his understanding of the Jewish community outside of Israel.

I have yet to meet a Jew in America or Europe who considers himself to be in an existential state of Diaspora. True, there are Jews who believe that they are in a perpetual state of Galut relieved only of this cumbersome burden only when the Messiah shows. However, most Jews, certainly those Jews that Yechezkel has been mandated to relate and redefine do not see themselves in a state of Diaspora. How could they? With international airlines flying everyday it is virtually impossible to play the Diaspora card. As long as Yechezkel and other government hacks see the Jewish community in a heightened state of Diasporatic angst there is no chance that they can help, understand, much less redefine the relationship between the two communities.

I would even suggest that until Yechekel and Bielski bring into line the Chief Rabbinate there is no chance of redefining anything. The RCA and the Chief Rabbinate have entered into an unholy alliance whereby they have now erected an orthodox stranglehold on the conversion process. There is, to say the least, a significant amount of non – orthodox conversion in America, not to mention the staggering number of intermarried couples who chose to identify Jewishly. These people and their families together with the liberal religious community make up the overwhelming majority of American Jews. How do they propose to redefine a relationship with people that their Chief Rabbinate refuses to recognize as Jews? As things stand the relationship that will be redefined can only be with the orthodox community. Mostly everyone else is de facto excluded. The largest movement in America, the reform movement recognizes one as being Jewish through patrilineal descent. How will the Yechezkel’s of Israel’s establishment institutions hope to redefine their relationship with the reform movement without dealing with this issue? It’s almost like Israel recognizing the “right of return” of Palestinians.

Redefining the relationship with the Jewish community outside of Israel will require bold moves on behalf of the religious establishment in Israel. Principally, they will have to understand that Jews abroad, unlike their Israel counterparts are not subject to an autocratic system whereby ones’ Jewish status is defined by a rigid orthodox standard. They are free to marry who they want, when they want. Jews living outside of Israel aren’t bound by halachic standards such as a forbidding a “cohen” to marry a divorced woman or for that matter a woman marrying a Jewish man without a “get”. There are rabbis that simply do not recognize these halachic standards. And they aren’t the exception to the rule. On the contrary, it is the small orthodox community that is the exception to the rule. So the question is what will be the nature of this redefinition of the relationship between the community of Israel and those Jews living outside of Israel.

Logic would dictate that the only way in which such a discourse could take place would be if the program was between the halachic community in Israel and the halachic community outside Israel. But then why bother. The orthodox community, while vocal, is on a fraction of the overall Jewish community and certainly aren’t representative of the larger Jewish community. Perhaps that’s the whole point. After all, the anachronistic, inept Jewish Agency will spend significant funds, spin their wheels, produce a lot of paper and in the end will land up yellowing on someone’s shelf in a back office on King George Street.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

A Muse: Metzora 2008

The discussion surrounding those suffering from Tzoraat focuses not on the actual illness but the mitzvot relating to becoming clean after having been rendered unclean as a result of the illness. Interestingly, the Torah itself doesn’t make a direct connection between the disease of Tzoraat and lashon hahrah or any other sin. There are however several Tanaitic texts that draw the connection between lashon harah and Tzoraat such as the Sifra on Sefer Vayikra. There is also a discussion in the Talmud (Eruchin 15a), which makes the connection although a bit tenuous. The Rambam, however makes a clear connection between the two, but treats it more within the framework of haggadah / musar rather than halachah.

Rabbi Israel Meir Hacohen from Radin, better known as the Chafetz Chaim was the first to actually connect the Tzoraat with lashon harah from a non haggadic and purely halachic position. The Chafetz Chaim recognized the extreme difficulty of human behavior in avoiding lashon harah but was determined to alter normative behavior by employing the use of halachah. It was his goal to create not only the awareness but also the practice of observing the halachot surrounding lashon harah as one would practice all the other 613 mitzvot. He was very clear that lashon harah wasn’t about musar but about halachah.

There were those who disagreed with the approach of the Chafetz Chaim and their argument centered on two points: Lashon harah, although important, can only be maintained through personal ethical conduct which is relative, by nature. This can’t be defined by halacha only by the will of the individual to distill in himself exemplary conduct and behavior. A second position was because observing this mitzvah demanded practically super human qualities that most of us are lacking, it was better to sin as a shogeg than as a mezid.

There is, of course, a more obvious problem with the construct of the Chafetz Chaim: If lashon harah is so connected to Tzorat then practically the entire Jewish community ought to be walking around with Tzorat. The convenient answer is that Tzorat was manifested only when there was a Temple, because then it was possible to be remedied through the good offices of the Priest. However, in a post exilic period, when there is no Temple and there are no “active” Priests, there can be no remedy; hence there is no true manifestation of the Tzorat. If this is the case than from a strictly halachic point of view we ought to be able to partake in lashon harah!