Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Betwixt and Between

“Hamakom yinachem otecha betoch shaarei avelei Zion V’yerushalayim”, is the customary departing words to be said when leaving the home of a mourner, and I thought I would leave the home of this unfortunate mourner having said them. These are powerful century old words, a formula for helping us in our desperate time of need which contextualizes death and mourning. It is a means of connecting new mourners with all the other mourners in the community of Israel, whether they are mourners of today or a thousand years ago; whether they are in America, Israel or Europe; we are all mourners. The loss of a loved one is part of the natural process, and in our community we help compensate for this loss by chanting these words as well as by the recitation of mourners kaddish. It is a formula developed over the centuries by our people to help and aid us get through the loss of loved ones. But on second thought I decided that here, in this particular house of mourning it was out of place. Besides, I felt queasy about uttering these emotionally laden words in the environment that I found myself in.

That was a few weeks ago. Fast forward three weeks. I was invited to the same house, this time for an engagement party. Greeting me at the door were the parents of the chatan. By this time I had almost forgotten that he, the father of the groom was a mourner. He appeared at the door with a bearded face which took me by surprise. Jokingly I commented to him that the three weeks hadn’t yet begun and that he was obviously a bit premature. He had no idea what I was talking about but had an honest rejoinder. He said he was observing shloshim and therefore, didn’t shave. Reflecting quickly back on that evening I was in his home to visit him as a mourner I couldn’t help but chuckle, thinking he was joking. Beside, if he was in shloshim, why was he hosting a party?

He appeared insulted by my callous reaction. Sensing it, I explained that when I entered his house when he was “sitting shiva” it was as lively and festive as the engagement party, something akin to an Irish wake. It had all the markings of a Bar Mitzvah reception, minus the hard alcohol, however there was wine being offered. So I explained to him my difficulty in reading the cues and knowing how to act appropriately. What was most disarming was the fact that no one else felt as I did with the exception of one elderly gentlemen who called me after the visitation and asked me if that was an appropriate Jewish display of mourning.

Had someone asked me as a riddle to guess what kind of background did this person have, I would have guessed a baal teshuvah. I don’t mean to be insulting to B.T.’s but it is conceivable that they have family and perhaps friends who haven’t a clue as to how one is to behave in the Jewish house of mourning. I never would have assumed that this was the home of a chiloni Israeli. Even chilonim understand the basic customs and traditions of a Jewish home. They may not be aware of the finer detailed ritual of the holidays or the synagogue, but I would have assumed that they understood appropriate deportment in the home of a mourner. Especially those Israelis who are middle aged and were raised in “Jewish” homes – that is, parents whose roots were European.

Many will tell me that I can’t have my cake and eat it too. That I shouldn’t expect the non dati Israelis to be versed in traditional Jewish living but at the same time shun religious living. What did I expect? After all, this is what happens to a state where the “zioynim” and the “shmootznikim” have control over the educational institutions. This is what happens when people like Shulamit Aloni were allowed to be the ministers of education. This is what happens when there is no respect for yisrael saba. This is what happens when for decades it is the chilonim who run the country and set the rhythm of living in a secular environment.

Since experiencing this unfortunate conundrum I couldn’t rest. Having mulled it over many times I have come to a different conclusion than the frum naysayers who would first accuse all the chilonim and “ziyonim” for having polluted the mayanot of Torah. I believe that it is because of them we find ourselves in this kind of problem where Israelis, good people, good Jews aren’t familiar with appropriate custom, tradition and Jewish mores of behavior.

Over the decades it has been the frum community who has tried to coerce their secular countrymen into observing halachic standards which they weren’t willing to accept and for good reason. The means they used other than fascistic tactics was the gross perversion of parliamentary and democratic procedure, relying on a weak coalition in order to further their narrow and parochial interests which weren’t in the interests of the state.

Instead of offering alternative approaches of Jewish practice for those not willing to buy into a talibanesque form of Jewish living, they presented a Jewish lifestyle that was rigid, distorted doctrinaire and colorless, ultimately pushing away many secular Israelis interested in a spiritual approach to Jewish living. It was the highroad or no road. There was no possibility of compromise or finding a road that was in between the “ratzui and matzui”, the optimum and the minimum, the betwixt and between. The result isn’t good for anyone, much less the future of the Jewish people whether they be in America or Israel.

Monday, July 28, 2008

A Muse: Masei 2008

“Speak unto the children of Israel and say unto them: When you pass over the Jordan into the land of Canaan, then you shall drive out all the inhabitants of the land and destroy all their figured stones…And you shall drive out the inhabitants of the land and dwell therein for unto you have I given the land to possess.” (Numbers 33: 50-53)

Many of our traditional commentators are troubled with this text not because of the disturbing message it sends but because of the language used which appears to be problematic. The commentators are concerned that stylistically there appears to be a redundancy with verses 52 and 53 where the term v’horashtem is used twice. Rashi responds by saying that they aren’t repetitious but rather the second v’horashtem is a precondition for settling the land. The second verse adds a warning that if the Israelites don’t dispossess the inhabitants first, they will never succeed in maintaining themselves successfully in the land. (This sounds uncannily familiar with the politics of today in Israel.)

The text sited above is also the basis for the controversy between Maimonides and Nachmanides. According to Nachmanides the emphasis isn’t on dispossessing others or securing the land as much as it is fulfilling God’s command and assuming our inheritance as promised by God. Maimonides however does not list the settling of Israel as one of the 613 mitzvot.

The Ramban sites the Talmudic aggada that relates the story of several sages that were on a mission to the Diaspora. On reaching a point in the Diaspora, they began thinking about Palestine with nostalgia. Their eyes filled with tears, they rent their garments and considered the biblical text: “thou shalt possess them and dwell in their land”. They turned around, abandoned their mission and went back to Palestine saying: “residence in Eretz Israel is equal in weight to all the mitzvoth in the Torah”.

This last statement is very forceful, because it places a tremendous weight on the politics of living in Israel verses performing all the other mitzvoth in the Torah. The question is: does the act of living on the land replace all the other mitzvoth, or is value of living on the land comparable to the comprehensive value of the other mitzvot.

None of our commentators directly addressed the ethics of dispossessing others from their land. One can only assume that two things were in play: the commandment from God as understood by our commentators overrode any other ethical considerations; and quite possibly because they were living in the Diaspora their world view and the means by which they interpreted Torah was influenced. In other words, their comments were based on a virtual reality. Circumstances today are entirely different. The State of Israel is no longer a virtual reality and responsible interpretive guidelines regarding ethical standards ought to be addressed by our rabbis.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Greening of Torah Text

Global warming is this decade’s buzz word. It is politically and socially correct to be concerned about our environment. There is much to be said about the need to become not only more sensitive to our planet’s limited resources but also become pro-active. I do this not only as a Jew but as a citizen of planet earth. As an involved, productive human being wishing to pass on a healthy legacy to the next generation it stands to reason that there should be active and reasonable concern and commitment to guarantee that the earth will be of the same quality or better than what we received from our parents.

This is why I can’t understand the burning need by so many of the yefe nefesh to ascribe qualities of environmental concern in the Bible that aren’t there. As I read more and more articles in liberal journals such as Tikkun and Sh’ma aas well as other left of center journals I am aghast at the approach methodology exploited for the greening our Torah text to the point that it is no longer recognizable as the text of our fathers. In November, 2007 I penned an essay entitled The Greening of Agudah, where I implored the Agudah leadership to address environmental issues with the same passion that they have addressed other issues. The basis for this position is that we are stewards of God’s creation; that we were mandated to serve as the custodians of the planet as inferred from the creation story. That however is as far as it goes – or should go.

In truth, all mankind is mandated to serve as custodians over the planet. This isn’t a Jewish mandate, nor is it rooted in text beyond the creation story. The creation narrative preempts the Jewish story which begins with Abraham, thus all humanity must assume stewardship for our planet. So why is there such an obsessive desire on the part of the yefeh nefesh (literally, beautiful souls; sarcastic reference to the liberal Israeli community) to prove that biblically we have an obligation to be green - even at the point of distorting our text.

What is particularly fascinating is the fact that our yefeh nefesh pick and choose the text that serves their purpose while ignoring other text that doesn’t necessarily fit into their world view. Oftentimes they reference the Deuteronomy text delineating appropriate behavior of the Israelites when laying siege to a city. Environmentalist point to the fact that the Hebrews were commanded to preserve the fruit trees, giving the distinct impression that the Bible was not only benevolent but also environmentally sensitive. What yefeh nefesh choose to ignore is that the fact that trees other than fruit bearing can be destroyed. But this example is fairly innocuous. There are other examples within our sacred text tradition that put us on the same footing as the jihadists, and as a matter of fact sheds some light on their world view.

Chapter 13 verses 14-18 in the Book of Deuteronomy is quite frightening, but rings soberingly realistic, relevant and sheds light when trying to understand the intolerance of Jihadists today. According to the text, if there are amongst the Israelites those that choose to serve other gods they shall be smitten and “utterly destroyed”. But not only that, the text insists that all the spoil be brought to the center of the town and burned together with the town itself. The town of course, according to the text shall not be rebuilt. Over the past several weeks we have been reading about Pinchas’ zealotry. He not only murdered Midianites, but was rewarded by becoming the high priest. He was also the designated general to lead the military campaign against the Midianites (and not Joshua) because of his zealotry. How are the yefeh nefesh going to reconcile these blood curdling commandments with their warm and fuzzy picture of our biblical heritage? Will they rewrite our text, or reinterpret it. There are green apologists who contend that while these commandments are “on the books” they were never put into effect. This however is irrelevant. Most important is the text’s attitude to our neighbors and the lack of tolerance exhibited towards those who don’t necessarily agree with the prevailing belief system as laid down in the text.

The yefeh nefesh also believe that being green is an expression of living up to the prophetic vision of being a “light unto the nations”. Being a light unto the nations has nothing to do with environmental issues. We are mandated to observe all of God’s commandments and by doing so we will be a “light unto the nations”. This includes odious commandments like driving out witches (machashefot) from our communities, or rules relating to taking captive women as a wife or inane commandments assuring that our garments do not contain shatnez and of course observing the shabbat and kashrut. What this means is that we have to live a halachic life style, for it is only through halacha that we can approximate what it is that God wants of us. According to this logic being reform won’t work, since they don’t subscribe to any halachic standards. Perhaps being conservative would work, although it is doubtful, since they pander the public by reading polls and focus groups. This leaves only the orthodox – but which, ultra or lite? This is but one more reason why the paradigmatic construct of denominational Judaism is archaic and no longer works.

The truth is, the yefeh nefesh aren’t interested in being consistent. There have a particular agenda and will do whatever it takes to make there philosophy fit into Jewish thought even at the point of distorting Jewish text.

Monday, July 21, 2008

A Muse: Matot 2008

“And every armed man among you shall cross the Jordan before Hashem, and then you shall return – then you shall be vindicated from Hashem and from Israel, and this Land shall be a heritage for you before Hashem”.(Numbers 32:21)

Martin Buber aptly put it when he said the distance between the God who commanded Moses to destroy the Midianites and to conquer the land and the God that I can believe in is about three thousand years. The text, in discussing the preemptive war against the Midianites, emphasizes that it was Pinchas who would lead on not Joshua. It was the same Pinchas, the zealot whom we encountered a few weeks ago at the end of Parshat Balak who brutally and without conscience drove a spear through the Israeli and Midianite woman who were consorting. This was to be a war run by religious zealots and not by masters of military strategy.

This weeks portion has three basic themes all of which are earmarked by zealotry: The laws regarding vows; the wholesale killing of the Midianites and their women and the division of their property as revenge for seducing Israel into worshiping Baal Peor; and the settlement of Gad Rueven and half of Menashe on the eastern bank of the Jordan in exchange for their commitment to participate in the wars for conquering the land.

Notably interesting about the zealotry in this week’s portion as in other references in the Tanach, is not only the fact that the zealotry was done in the name of God. Other cultures of the same period shared this same value, ascribing lack of tolerance and hostility to diversity as the wish of their Gods. This was a time where the norm was zealotry and its attribution to God. What is amazing, however, is that today, hundreds of years after the onset of modern biblical criticism, hundreds of years after the enlightenment there are still Jews who believe in the values espoused in the text as applicable today as it was yesterday. To them, the notion of “Torah Mesinai” trumps modern Biblical thought, common sense, good will and respect for diversity and free will.

If this is so, then how is it that these same fundamentalist Jews can summarily discount the beliefs of the Muslim jihadists who too believe in accepting the murderous commands and expectations of their God as valid today as it was thousands of years ago? Our reply has been that our ways are tempered by justice. But who defines justice? For Muslims it is the shariya, for Jews it is halacha. Imagine if we lived in a theocracy!

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Halacha Gerrymandered

The early 19th century was witness to two competing philosophies to living Jewishly; one was representative of the conservative, reactionary approach, the other a more liberal and embracing approach. One was represented by the Chatam Sofer, the other by Moses Mendelssohn. One advocated a form of isolationism the other embraced Bildung, a German approach to emancipation whereby there was obfuscation between the religion of the minority and the prevailing culture.

The Chatam Sofer, in his “last will and testament” beseeched Jews to maintain the integrity of Judaism through complying with the message to be learnt from the word shalem, understood as an acronym for shemot, (names), lashon (language), and malbush (dress code). For the Chatam Sofer the identity of the Jewish people would be preserved if they maintained meticulously the Hebrew (Yiddish) names, spoke primarily Yiddish and continued dressing in the tradition of their fathers. The common denominator for him was to screen out foreign culture. Assimilation could only be prevented by negating the “other” culture.

His nemesis, Rabbi Moses Mendelssohn, believed that for Jews as a people to grow and reach fruition they would have to embrace Bildung, and this would manifest itself initially by assuming names reflective of their countries, learn well the language and culture of the countries where they resided and dress commensurate with the prevalent culture. For Mendelssohn, negating the host culture was a pattern that had to be broken if the Jewish people were to progress.

There were many who argued over the ages that history has proven the wisdom of the Chatam Sofer. After all, as the Chatam Sofer aptly pointed out, Mendelsohhn had no Jewish descendants. The Chatam Sofer and his proponents were wrong, dead wrong. True, Mendelssohn’s offspring ultimately assimilated into the prevailing culture, but resulting from the Mendelssohn approach came the Jewish enlightenment which gave birth to Zionism and ultimately the State of Israel.

Oddly enough Zionism also sought what the Chatam Sofer espoused; to stem the tide of assimilation through Jewish national rebirth. The difference, however between the Chatam Sofer and those of the emancipation was that the emancipationist wished to recast the sacred sources and memories of Judaism into a national literature and historical memory. While cultural and linguistic autonomy would prevail and probably receive the blessings of the Chatam Sofer, it would reinforce the notion of a unique Jewish Identity.

The difference, however between the Zionist and the Chatamm Sofer is a profound one. The Chatam Sofer operated within the confines and ethos of Torah and halacha; the process of fashioning a Jewish culture, came not only at the expense of all other culture but negated all other cultures. It was the inability of Torah and halacha to accept and respect the diversity of the world in which we lived. Examples of this are too numerous to list but a few will serve the purpose. Biblical expressions such as b’chuchotehem lo telechu is a clear denunciation of other cultures. Rather than promulgate in a positive fashion the “new culture” we are left with the negation of the “other”. To cast a pejorative light on the custom of tattooing the body is less effective than presenting the argument for preserving the body pure.

Halacha took the cue from the biblical approach and cast the gentile culture in a negative light rather than positioning ours in a positive one. For example, the argument for “stam yeyenam” or “yayin mevushal” originates from a negative position. It was the desire of the rabbis to prevent us from mingling with gentiles that prompted the prohibition against wine on the basis of “stam yayenam” and yayen mevushal can be understood as prejudicial without any positive outcomes.

The fear of the “other” throughout our history and fostered by halacha gave rise to a resistance to accepting diversity as a meams of maintaining our own cultural uniqueness. At times this gave rise to a splintering of the Jewish community such as at times when the imaginary line was crossed: Karaites, Shabtai Zvi, Frankists and even to some Hassidism. Now, however, we are doing it again to ourselves. However, this time, tragically this paranoia of the “other” and misapplication of halacha has shifted and turned inward. Rather than be accepting of multiple interpretation of text and renderings of halacha, there has arisen with in our midst a cabal of fundamentalists determined to fracture the Jewish people into a balkanized community and give greater application to the teachings of the Chatam Sofer. An issue such as “Who is a Jew” effecting tens of thousands of Jews worldwide ought not be decided by those with tunnel vision and a limited, parochial understanding of history.

Halacha in the hands of these fundamentalists has been too divisive a tool and has proven to be the great divide of the Jewish people. It would appear that there needs to be some kind of mechanism in place that would check the deleterious effects of these fundamentalists when applying halacha to situations that extend way beyond there purview. Cultural Memory, as stated by Jan Assmann is a form of knowledge accumulated over the generations and specific to a particular community is the means by which the group basis its unity and specificity. Cultural memory is embedded in art, buildings, ceremonies, holidays, sacred space and landscape, law, folklore, literature, music, philosophy, ritual, song, symbols and theology.

Cultural memory has two features that are ideal for dealing with the issues stated above. Members are drawn into the community based upon their need to belong and their need for identity. Second and most important, cultural memory is reconstructed and reread in light of present circumstances. It isn’t the regurgitation of information but the re-contextualization of knowledge. By re-contextualizing information a self reflective posture is assumed promoting and encouraging a community which isn’t dogmatic, but diverse and pluralistic.

Monday, July 14, 2008

A Muse: Pinchas 2008

“Phinehas, son of Elazar son of Aaron the Kohen, turned back my wrath from upon the children of Israel, when he zealously avenged My vengeance among them, so I did not consume the Children of Israel in My vengeance. Therefore, say: Behold! I give him My covenant of peace.” (Numbers 25: 11-12)

Pinchas in his zealotry lanced through Zimri and his midianite paramour and in so doing saved the rest of the Israelites from the rage of God. This entire incident is puzzling in view of the fact that Moses was married to Midianite, and Jethro, the father in law of Moses was is venerated in our tradition, so much so that we have a portion of the Torah named after him. To complicate matters more so is the fact that our matriarchs were all foreign women, from Aram.

Clearly in spite of the plethora of themes in this weeks portion, the dominant theme, although ignored by so many of our rabbis and teachers in favor of less threatening themes in the portion such as the daughters of Zelofchad or the division of the Land among the tribes is the zealotry of Pinchas rewarded for his bloodbath by being designated as the primogeniture for the High priest hood.

Our tradition recognized the centrality of this event when linking the story of the zealotry ofElija as the haftarah of Parshat Pinchas, relating the story of Elijah on Har Horeb and the slaughter of those worshipping foreign gods. Clearly there is a relationship between the actions of Pinchas to that of Elijah and our commentaries take note of it. Rashi even comments that Pinchas is Elijah.

Another zealot, Matityahu is also related to our hero, Pinchas. Mattityahu, known to be a zealot in Sefer Macabim is also compared to Pinchas.

The common denominator of all three incidents is their zealotry for God and the blood shed which is accompanied by it. All three of the protagonists are rewarded for their zealotry: Pinchas was the primogeniture of the priesthood; Elijah was able to ascend the heavens in a fiery chariot and Mattityahu was able to establish a dynasty.

Whether Judaism is a religion of zealotry can be argued, depending on your position. There are those who would point to the Talmud Bavli, Shabbat 88a, which comments that God, at Sinai gave an ultimatum to the Jewish people, either accept the torah here on Sinai now, or be buried under the mountain. On the other hand we have enduring concepts such as elu v’elu divrei elohim chayim, and darchei noam, ideas which sustain the principle of respecting differing points of view.

Having said that, one of the great luminaries of the age, Harav Kook, is frought with many contradictions as to his own commitment to tolerance. He didn’t accord any currency to the secular zionists and believed that they were only to be tolerated with the hope that one day they would see the light. On other occasions he referred to them as dangerous people with dangerous ideas, but he stopped short of denouncing them always with the hope that perhaps they would reform. While Harav Kook therefore can’t be categorized as a liberal who supported a pluralistic society he also wasn’t in the tradition of Pinchas’ zealotry.

It all reminds me of the position of many in the orthodox community that give token respect to those not of their practice, always with the hope that if they treat them respectfully they will be able to make them “frum” Jews. This approach indicating a basic lack of respect for the other is reminiscent perhaps of harav Kook’s position regarding the secular Zionists, tolerance kept in check!

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Halacha: The Art of Compromise

In the May 30th issue of the Jerusalem Post (Up Front), Jonathan Rosenblum wrote an article On Halacha, No Compromise. The tone of the article is disturbing, its title reflects a Judaism that is barely recognizable to anyone other than a charedi, but most disappointing is the dishonest representation of the conversion issue. Perhaps the title of his article is most revealing. Halacha as practiced studied and applied over the generations has been nothing but the art of compromise. Most students of halacha understand that even our great sages understood that halacha couldn’t be meaningfully applied, expressed or useful if it was to be arbitrated by fiat. Our sages even commented that it was easy to be machmir, but the test for a true scholar was if he could be meikil.

It is easy for those of Jonathan Rosenblum’s ilk to assume a cavalier position regarding those Jewish converts who have assumed for decades that they are Jewish, because power corrupts and nothing corrupts more than those in power. However, if we take this issue out of the corrupted hands of rabbinic demigods and place the issue within a framework where there is a separation of church and state one will find the opposite results.

In 1988 there was a plan laid out to create a conversion process whereby rabbis of the orthodox conservative and reform communities would participate. The plan was called the Denver Conversion Plan, spearheaded by a wonderful scholar and colleague Rabbi Stanley Wagner. Rabbi Wagner had been concerned that there were many reform and conservative candidates for conversion that would benefit if the conversion was “al pi halacha”. Rabbi Wagner and those on his committee turned to the Hartman Institute in order to explore the halachic issues and problems involved in a process that would co-opt reform and conservative rabbis. One of the issues involved and to which the Hartman Institute researched in great detail was that of “kabbalat ol mitzvoth”, accepting the yolk of Torah.

Jonathan Rosenblum presented the issue as though there was no truly legitimate dissenting opinion as to what constituted “kabbalat ol mitzvoth”. According to Rosenblum it is black and white. By accepting the “kabbalat ol mitzvoth” one is commiting oneself to living an orthodox lifestyle. Halachically, of course this couldn’t be further from the truth as the research at the Hartman Institute pointed out. One example of this is the discussion as to whether or not there is a need for a beit din at milah, tevila, and hodaat mitzvah. There is no unanimous opinion; however tosaphot in kedushin 62b asks why do we need three witnesses when in Sanhedrin we learn that you only need one in matters of borrowing money. Tosaphot answers that conversion is more akin to cases of torts where you require three expert witnesses. But tosaphaot asks how then can you have conversions today if you require mumchin? The answer according to Tosaphot is that we rely on their imaginative decision found in Gittin 88b, that later judges acted as surrogates of earlier judges. The point is that where there is a rabbinical will there is a halachic way!!

With regard to kabbalt mitzvoth there is another creative way which ought to be considered. Shemot Rabbah 42, 8 was very insightful when it is remarked that while the Hebrews at Sinai verbalized “naaseh v’nishma” in their hearts they were poised to be idol worshippers. Thus, to say that all future generations of converts must be prepared for kabbalat mitzvoth as a condition sine qua non for conversion isn’t correct. The reality is that the conversion is the milah and tevilah and hodaat mitzvoth, informing the convert of the mitzvoth. Thus Harav Uziel, Rishon L’Zion (former Chief Sephardic Rabbi of Israel) stated that the court doesn’t require the convert to fulfill the commandments, only to be aware of them. For many decisors, kabbalat mitzvoth are synonymous with “hodaat mitzvoth” (awareness of the mitzvoth, and not with “kiyum (fulfillment of) mitzvoth”. The Chemdat Shlomo, for example, understands the concept of the kabbalat mitzvoth as a convert who, because of and through tevila embraces Judaism. Many other Poskim believe that “kabbalt mitzvoth” is a verbal recognition on the part of the convert that he has entered into a community of people with a system of laws (halacha). It in no way implies shemirat mitzvoth.

I have sited some of the comments and observations of the Hartman Institute which were submitted to the Denver Conversion Program in 1988. Whether or not one accepts these findings isn’t the point. What is important to note however is that halacha and its process isn’t monolithic as Jonathan Rosenblum would imply and have us believe.

The politics of Israel today have allowed for the cavalier perversion of halacha because there is no separation of church and state. The religious establishment under the influence of the charedi community has hijacked the halachic process in order to serve its own narrow agenda. Jonathan Roesenblum ought to know better.

Monday, July 7, 2008

A Muse: Balak 2008

“For from its origins, I see it rock-like; and from hills do I see it. Behold! It is a nation that will dwell in solitude and not be reckoned among the nations.” (Numbers 23:9)

Over the centuries there have been many Torah commentaries which have discussed the meaning of this puzzling expression said as a blessing by Balaam that Israel is “a nation that will dwell in solitude, not to be reckoned among the nations”. A significant 19th century commentator from Galicia, Poland Rabbi Nachman Krochmal shed some interesting light on this puzzling blessing. Before sharing with you his interpretation of this verse, a few words about him.

Nachman Krochmal, known as the ReNak (1785-1840), was one of the founders of the Wissenschaft des Judentums, the Science of Judaism, and considered one of the founders of the Haskalah. He believed that unlike all other nations which are transitory, Israel was eternal. This eternity is due to the special relationship (zeekah) that Israel has with God. However, and in spite of this he doesn’t believe that Israel transcends history. Its eternity is a result of the continuous renewal of the zeekah between Israel and God. This special relationship between Israel and God he uses to explain the destruction of the first Temple. The fact the people followed the culture of the gentiles weakened the special relationship and brought about the destruction of the Temple. On the surface this conflicts with his interpretation on the need for the twelve tribes to venture into Egypt and there to a partial assimilation.

Krochmall maintains that it was an essential prerequisite for the tribes to venture into Egypt and to learn their culture. Without this experience they couldn’t have learned the essential building blocks of designing their own unique culture. So there seems to be a contradiction. On the one hand the destruction of the Temple and the subsequent exile was a result of the assimilation into the surrounding culture, weakening the zeekah. On the other hand, Krochmal contends that the Hebrews had to go through the Egyptian crucible, without which it is doubtful if they would have acquired the necessary tools for building their own culture. Krochmal postulates however that there has to be a special balance between the two needs and maintaining this balance gives full expression to the term used by Balaam that “Israel is a nation that will dwell in solitude”. Essential is it that the Israelites maintain the unique connection with God; however, they are obligated to maintain a connection with the other nations of the world, since it is the same God who is creator of all mankind. Without fully appreciating the other nations it is impossible to maintain this special relationship with God.

Krochmal’s central thesis is that maintaining this delicate balance is what assures Israel of their continued special relationship with God. Once the balance isn’t maintained and we are no longer in the special sphere of God we are subject to suffering as all other peoples have been in history. It isn’t God that is causing the suffering, but the fact that we are no longer within His protective cocoon. Is that, I wonder, how Krochmal would have explained the Shoah?

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

The Three Weeks – Revisited

It’s that time of year again. In a few weeks we will once again enter that time warp where we obsess over our past suffering, self flagellate for three weeks with a variety of not too original methods of suffering and denial. Everyone I know is pretty much swept up with the calamity that has impacted viciously on our national psyche. We feed off of it and tread in the ocean of rabbinic halachot that will encumber us for three of the otherwise most beautiful weeks of the year.

The summer quiet and beauty is thrown out of kilter by the observance not of Tisha B’Av but of the three week compulsive obsessive marathon race as to who is more extreme in their performance and attention to the details of rules and regulations established after the destruction of the first and second Temples. During the Second Commonwealth there was an observance of the fast of Av. We know this because of references to R. Eliezer ben Zadok observing the Fast of Tisha B’Av and other discussions in the Talmud, and we know that during the Mishnaic period the Fast of Av was observed. But there is no indication from text that there was this obsessive compulsive behavior. As a matter of fact there was a tendency during that period to slightly relax the mourning laws already by the afternoon of the 9th of Av.

Our ancestors were right on target when it came to observing the Fast of Av. They understood the gravity of loosing the Temple the first time around. And Jeremiah understood the ramifications – so much so that he even confused his dates. Jeremiah claimed that the walls were breached on the 9th of Tammuz, according to the Jerusalem Talmud. (Ta’an 4:6) But they were lucky, because the exile was short lived, relative to our second exile of two thousand years.

Our sages tell us that the Temple was destroyed because of sinat chinam, which one can interpret as baseless hatred or perhaps self hate. That instead of being a united people extending appropriate courtesy to our neighbors we became a factious, balkanized people, promoting self interests not necessarily in the best interests of the nation. The tragedy of it all is that we never learnt from our grizzly history how to pull together as a nation.

Throughout our history, even when in the Diaspora we were corrupted by our own particular and narrow interests, never really putting up front and center the concerns of the nation. It is a miracle that we survived as a people.

It was probably the shock of the holocaust that brought us together, albeit for a very short time. It was a time when there was love in the hearts of every Jew, regardless of his religious or political beliefs. He could have been an atheist or communist. It didn’t matter. The sinat chinam transmorphed to ahavat chinam, just long enough for us to create Medinat Yisrael.

Unfortunately the ahvat chinam didn’t last all that long and we’ve reverted back to our natural state of backbiting self interest groups, willing to sell out the good of the country for the benefit of the few. I’m not picking on any one interest group. It is endemic. It matters not if you are a charedi or daati leumi, atheist or a socialist. The factiousness of the Knesset, the corruption of the political system staggers the mind. How Ehud Olmert has still managed to hold on to power is the most shocking indicator that “not all is alright” in the moledet. How he survived the Lebanon war two years ago is telling enough, but how he has survived the corruption charges screams out to me that we are in desperate need of a collective cheshbon hanefesh, not another fast day.

What good is fasting on the 17th of Tamuz and again three weeks later on the 9th of Av if we aren’t paying any attention to what it is we are doing it for? We aren’t doing it because God commanded us. He only commanded us to fast on Yom Kippur. This is a fast day instituted for a purpose which is intended to put us back on track. But we are skimming that part and focusing on the ritual. What good is the ritual if you are missing the whole point!!! Olmert is in power, the country is tearing itself apart, it has no direction regarding peace and security, its moral compass is out of whack, but we’ll be self flagellating at the Kotel come Tish B’av as if “business was as usual”. The way things look it may more sense to take a pass on the 9th of Av this year and go straight to celebrating the 15th of Av – makes more sense!

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

A Muse: Chukat 2008

“Then Israel sang this song: Come up. O Well! Call out to it! Well that the princes dug, that the nobles of the people excavated, through a lawgiver, with their staffs. A gift from the wilderness – the gift went to the valley to the heights, and from the heights to the valley in the field of Moab, at the top of the peak, overlooking the surface of the wilderness.” (Numbers 21: 17-20)

When reading this song one is struck by the obvious distinction between it and the Song of Moses. They both begin with “Oz Yashir” but while the first continues with “Moshe Uvnei Yisrael, this one reads “Oz Yashir Yisrael’, absenting Moses! Another observation is that while some commentaries believe that Moses wasn’t destined to lead the Israelites into Israel as a punishment because he hit the rock, there are other commentaries who believe that Moses didn’t lead the people into the Promised Land because the people were in need of a different kind of leader. Both of these two points while seemingly unrelated are in fact connected.

This song (Numbers 21:17-20) comes in a watershed Parsha. It is the Parsha when Miriam and Aaron die and Moses is informed that he wouldn’t be privileged to lead the Israelites into the Promised Land. Interestingly, it is the triumvirate, the leaders of the generation who left Egypt and knew slavery, that was dying off. The “Sfas Emes” in discussing this phenomenon points to a Tosefta that says Moshe, Aaron and Miriam were the custodians of the Israelites, and as a result of their good works, three gifts were given to the Israelites: water, the hovering cloud, and manna. The water was due to Miriam; the cloud to Aaron and the manna to Moses.

The leadership of Moses is contrasted to that of Miriam and points also to the reason why the song in this weeks portion is absent of any reference to Moses. Moses was a charismatic leader, one who led by dictate, through and by the virtue of God’s wishes. He was the designated one in communication with God and by virtue of this unique relationship could perform miracles. He didn’t understand the people as he so often complained because he was on another level. Midrash says he ruled ‘milamaale lmaateh” from on high, out of touch with the people but enjoying their loyalty because they believed God was in communication with him. That’s why his gift was the manna, because it came from God. Miriam on the other hand was a leader who understood the people and sustained them with water, relating to them from their vantage point, their level. Miriam works behind the scenes, to allow life to unfold naturally and to advance. This is obvious very early on when Miriam is looking from a distance over at Moses after being discovered by the Egyptian princess. She wasn’t just looking from a distance as to the welfare of Moses but according to one midrashic interpretation, looking into the future and seeing the unfolding drama of the Israelites and their relationship with Moses.

Miriam was a leader whose time hadn’t yet arrived. The people were still in need of a Moses. It was a leadership that thrived on rule by fiat and miracles. It took forty years in the dessert for them to mature to the point that they were indeed ready for a different style and kind of leadership. The song that they now sing is a song absent of Moses, a song that resonates with a strong will of the people to find their own voice, their own power sans miracles. It is by no accident that the text tells us of Moses difficulty with speech. His leadership skills served at a time when less speech was necessary and more action was needed. Now, however, times have changed, the nation has matured. It is a people that wish a leader to rule with the power of speech and not only react by the use of physical power.