Sunday, November 23, 2008

Reverend Wright and the Haredi Community

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, November 22, 2008

A Muse: Toledot 2008

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 17, 2008

Erva – A State of Mind

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, November 16, 2008

A Muse: Chayei Sarah 2008

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 10, 2008

So Much for Bitachon,

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, November 9, 2008

A Muse: Vayera 2008

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 3, 2008

Bomba Israel

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, November 2, 2008

A Muse: Lech Lecha 2008

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

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

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

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

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