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?

Monday, September 8, 2008

Give Me – I’m Entitled

This past week two articles appeared in my in-box from two opposite ends of the social/religious/political spectrum, but triggered in me a singular pavlovian response. One article appearing in Mishpacha, a haredi weekly, entitled Can We Talk Seriously About Poverty by Jonathan Rosenblum, and the other appeared as an op-ed essay picked up by the JTA entitled Jews Justice and the Workplace by Stuart Applebaum.

While the latter article, written by the president of the Jewish Labor Committee undoubtedly isn’t haredi, the former is written by a haredi for a haredi paper. The former was written on behalf of American workers the latter written on behalf of the haredi community in Israel who spurn work, opting to spend their productive years in the study of Torah.

These two interest groups, separated by continents, mind sets, language and culture are also on opposite ends of the political spectrum. Undoubtedly, Applelbaum represents unions and is thus leaning to the left end of the political spectrum. Rosenblum’s readership is probably on the political right and socially conservative. These two groups have little in common, do not share the same values and certainly do not think in the same language – figuratively and literally. What they do have in common is a world view, a philosophy of living that “it’s coming to me”, for similar and different reasons. Union members feel that the employers “owe” them, and the haredim feel that everyone owes them because they are engaged in the study of Torah.

Entitlement has become the bane of western civilization and knows no borders, but possesses the universal language “give me – I’m entitled”. Both groups believe that they are entitled to share in a larger portion of the wealth although their contribution isn’t commensurate with their demands. Let’s take a birdseye view of each of their claims.

Applebaum claims that the employees of Rite Aid have the right to unionize and perhaps they do. The JTA however turned it into a Jewish issue by linking it to Deuteronomy 24: 14-15 “you shall not abuse a needy destitute laborer, whether a fellow Israelite or a stranger in one of the communities of your land”. The text references destitute laborers. That is a far stretch to label workers under the protection of federal and state agencies as destitute, especially when they are earning above minimum wage and have other benefits. Destitute laborers were the employees of Agriprocessors, who were allegedly physically and sexually abused, taken advantage of precisely because they were undocumented. Social justice is certainly a significant concern of the Bible, but that doesn’t necessarily assume that the Bible supports union shops. On the contrary, one can argue that union shops are counterintuitive when wishing to achieve social justice. Unions seek to get rich on the back of their members. Enriching the coffers of the union at the expense of their members is standard fare. Union demands of employers have created unrealistic economic expectations to the point where companies preferred to move overseas. In the end the only ones hurt were the employees. In other situations, employers chose to shut down rather than continue to witness the rape of their companies by unreasonable union demands. Unions have sucked the creative entrepeneuring spirit out of many because the price is too high. Fascinating, that so many unionists wanted a larger piece of the pie without assuming any additional responsibility or financial liability and certainly exhibit little or no gumption in creating their own opportunity, but content themselves with living off of others.

Living off of others is what haredim know best, other than living in the past and regurgitating inane chidushim suggested by others in past generations. Rosenblum an articulate journalist is on the wrong side of this issue. He sites government statistics that 18% of the Israelis that are living below the poverty line are haredi. The poverty he argues, is a major cause of family dysfunction, lack of shalom bayis challenging their “ehrlikheit” and ultimately negatively impacting on the prospects of good shidduchim for their children. There are, he says three solutions: greater government support; increased contributions from rich Jews from abroad – somewhat like the old chalukah; and adopting a simpler life style.

At least two of the three assume entitlement. Rosenblum admits that he doesn’t have any real solutions. What I do know is that continuing on the current path will lead to economic and social disaster for the unfortunate progeny of those determined to live off of entitlement programs. It is humiliating, diminishing ones self esteem, grinding one into the ground, with little hope for a better opportunity for one’s offspring. Acquiring skills, trades and professions is the only answer. Eliminating the idea of entitlements from their vocabulary as well as their cousins on the other end of the spectrum will be their only yehoshua.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

A Muse: Ki Teytze 2008

“You shall not see the ox of your brother or his sheep or goat cast off, and hide yourself from them; you shall surely return them to your brother. If your brother is not near you and you do not know him, then gather it inside your house, and it shall remain with you until your brother inquires after it, and you return it to him. So shall you do for his donkey, so shall you do for is garment, and so shall you do for any lost article of your brother that may become lost from him and you find it; you shall not hide yourself”. (Deuteronomy 22:1-3)

While the concern for lost property and its return to its rightful owner has been established in other chapters what is unusually interesting here are the last three words “lo toochal l’hitaleim”. Art scroll translates these three words as “you shall not hide yourself”. The Plaut and Tigay editions translate these three words more accurately as “you must not remain indifferent”. In reality, the difficulty in translating this clause is not with the word l’hitaleim” but with the word ‘toochal”.

Toochal can mean one of two things: It can mean “forbidden” as in Shoftim, Chapter17 verse 15, where conditions are defined as to who can be anointed as a king and who cannot. A foreigner cannot be anointed king even if it is the will of the people – it is simply forbidden, as per the text. In Ki Tavo chapter28 verse 35 the same term is employed but its meaning is different. Here there is nothing forbidden but rather medical treatment isn’t available. So, how is one to translate those three words in our text – as something forbidden, or something subject to one’s ability or inability?

Ibn Ezra recognized the problem and suggested that before translating text one has to search for all the possible interpretations and then choose the one that is most plausible based upon the contextual understanding. In most cases this is reasonable, however this is difficult with our current text because there is no discerning context as to whether it ought to be “forbidden” or perhaps subject to one’s will and ability.

There is a similar dilemma when translating the text in Exodus chapter33 verse 20. Was Moses forbidden to look upon the “face” of God or was he simply unable to comprehend what it is that he would see? Onkelos understands it to mean that Moses wouldn’t be able to comprehend what he was visualizing while Rashi understands it as Moses being forbidden to look upon Gods immanence.

Perhaps there is no “right answer” to this dilemma, but left up to the individual’s understanding of the text and his place within the community that he lives. Added to this dilemma is the question of what “achicha” means. Will “achicha” be limited to Orthodox Jews? What about converts that weren’t converted through an accepted Orthodox program, but are very much a part of the community? And what does community mean? Is it the narrow religious community or the broader Jewish community encompassing all the movements?

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Tyranny of the Minority

Tyranny of the minority. You’re all familiar with Alexis de Tocqueville’s concern about the viability of democracy with the ever present looming threat of the tyranny of the majority. But what about the tyranny of the minority. In America there are enough safeguards in place to protect democratic society against tyranny regardless if it is perpetrated by the majority or the minority.

In Israel however, while there are enough legislative and judicial systems in place to protect society from the tyranny of the majority; sadly however, systems aren’t in place to safeguard against the tyranny of the minority. The concern is not over a coalition of minority parties into an amalgam by which parliamentary control is achieved, because that is precisely the nature of the democratic system in Israel. The apprehension is with those agencies that operate outside of the political consensus. Normally fringe groups such as Mishmeret Tzniut wouldn’t be of concern, but when their tactics become acceptable and mainstreamed within their own community then there is concern for the viability of democratic values.

Recently the police in Israel began a crackdown on members of Mishmeret Tznius because of the terror they have perpetrated on behalf of the haredi community in Jerusalem. It is one thing for the Mishmeret Tznius to institute mehadrin bus service by having women ride in the back of the bus. These are dedicated bus lines for the haredi community and while it is unconscionable and humiliating not only for the victims and perpetrators but to all Jews, it still may not have crossed the line. However, when their conduct becomes violent and spills over into the larger community, democratic values are threatened. Harassment, inflicting bodily harm, assault and battery on those who don’t conform to haredi standards is more than criminal; it is the tyranny of the minority!

Mishmeret Tznius is nothing more than the vigilante squads condoned and supported by the haredi establishment intent on ensuring the “modesty of society” something akin to Taliban squads gone wild in Afghanistan. Vaad L’maan Tohar Hamachane, the “Council for the Purity of the Camp” sounds creepy but is for real. They are one of the better known modesty squads out there roaming the streets of Jerusalem created by the infamous Meir Safranovitch, blessed and backed by the Gerrer Hassidim. These aren’t nice people.

One of the members, Binyomin Meirovitch was detained by the police for the bloody beating of a divorced woman. So much for the injunction against violence of “al tarimu yaad”. He and six others including the nefarious Elchanan Buzaglo beat the defenseless woman to a pulp by swinging a bat to bludgeon her. Apparently her ex-husband not being able to convince her to behave more “modestly” paid the squad $2000.00 to pummel her. Imagine it wasn’t even done l’shem shamayim, but for money. To add insult to injury the haredi community defended Meirovitch and his thugs – should I be shocked? Shmuel Popenheim, spokesman for the Eda Haredit commented that “…when the iniquities are taking place right next door, anybody in their right mind would do what it takes to put an end to the madness.”

What kind of “right minded people” would justify hired violence (“hit men”) against a divorced defenseless woman by her husband, simply because her standard of behavior no longer conforms to his? The real madness is that although they are no longer married he still considers his ownership of her in tact. The madness is that he would probably treat a dog better than a human. This group and all those complicit have redefined and given new meaning to hilul hashem.

Monday, September 1, 2008

A Muse: Shoftim 2008

“When in your war against a city you have to besiege it a long time in order to capture it, you must not destroy its trees, wielding the ax against them. You may eat of them but you must not cut them down. Are trees of the field human to withdraw before you into the besieged city? Only trees which you know do not yield fruit may be destroyed; you may cut them down for constructing siegeworks against the city that is waging war on you, until it has been reduced”. (Deuteronomy 20: 19-20)

Many Jewishly committed environmentalists latch on to these uniquely worded verses as a means of finding textual precedence for addressing environmental concerns. Admittedly they are correct however there are other interpretations of these verses which point away from environmental concerns and focuses on man’s needs. As you will see these approaches tend to place man at center stage rather than the concerns of the environment.

The soldier in need of wood in order to build “bulwarks” against the city may do so only with those trees that are not fruit bearing. This Biblical injunction can be understood either as an ethical imperative or as a utilitarian need. Man ought to relate kindly towards these trees because from them he benefits from their fruit. Rashi underscores the ethical imperative by comparing the tree to the man one is confronting as his enemy by framing the text rhetorically: Is the tree of the field a man that it should be besieged by you, and be punished with privations of hunger and thirst? From a utilitarian point of view the soldier may need the tree for sustenance during war and thus it would benefit him to preserve these fruit bearing trees.

Another utilitarian view different from the above and unique was expressed by Rabbi Shlomo ben Aderet, better known as the Rashba, the thirteenth century Spanish scholar: According to him, the fruit bearing trees distant from the “urban warfare” shouldn’t be cut down because it provides sustenance; however those trees found near the proximity of the city under siege can be cut down because “haadam who etz hasadeh” they may serve as a place of “cover” for the enemy. The Rashba’s understanding of the text is unusual in that he doesn’t see the cutting down of the trees as a means of building a “bulwark” (matzor), but as a means of clearing fields in order to avoid enemies using the trees as a means of carrying out counter-offensives. Sound familiar?

An alternative interpretation to the text are those who see the “etz Hasadeh” as more of a analogy to man. The Talmud Bavli, Taanit 7:a maintains that if a Talmud scholar is reasonable from him should you learn (as one would eat from a fruit tree); and if not he should be avoided (as a tree that isn’t fruit bearing may be cut down).

Anthropomorphism dominated the interpretation of text. Everything was created to suit man. Thus there doesn’t seem to be anything unusual or even immoral when we hold that the world and all of its creations were created in order to satisfy man’s needs. There were Torah scholars who genuinely believed that not only were there ecological concerns based on utilitarian needs of the planet; but that nature in and of itself had its own purpose totally detached from man. Rabbi Yosef Ibn Caspi, a student of the Rambam subscribed to the belief that the Torah was committed to pure ecology, this however we will deal with next time around.