Monday, January 26, 2009

Back to the Middle Ages

This past Tuesday, January 20 was a wonderful and promising day for all Americans, indeed for all people of good will throughout the world. A new American president was sworn in. This is a president who has brought back to the American people a feeling of hope – that we can build a better future for our families and future generations. This new beginning represents as well a quantum leap that America has made in the quest for healing wounds festering for so long, marring the social landscape of this great country.

Barak Obama’s dramatic rise to power promises to heal the social fissures that have threatened for so long to rupture America, leaving it forever fragmented. That is why I was so disturbed to have read that the Rabbinical Council of America criticized Rabbi Haskel Lookstein for participating in the National Prayer Service marking the inauguration of President Barak Obama as the 44th president of the United States:

“The long standing policy of the Rabbinical Council of America, in accordance with Jewish law, is that participation in a prayer service held in the sanctuary of a church is prohibited. Any member of the RCA who attends such a service does so in contravention of this policy and should not be perceived as representing the organization in any capacity.”

This position of the RCA is based upon a decision of Harav J.b.Soloveitchik, the spiritual father of modern orthodoxy who believed that there should be no orthodox rabbinic participation in interfaith services. While I am not suggesting that the Rav had it wrong, I am positing that what the Rav may have said a generation ago may not necessarily be applicable today. Apart from that, let’s not forget that the Rav presented his “Lonely Man of Faith” at St. John’s Seminary. In so doing he would have had to discuss points of Talmud and other rabbinic material. St. John’s Seminary is a building where religious text as well as services is conducted. While it may not be church, per say, the difference is purely semantics. The Rav clearly understood that lecturing at St. John’s would impact immensely on Christian thinkers without diluting the message of Judaism.

With regard to visiting a church, the law banning it is based upon the assumption that it is pagan. The Talmud Avodah Zarah prohibits entering pagan temples. In the Middle Ages Tosafot commented that going to churches while not being pagan was still questionable however because of “eyvah” it was permitted. “Eyvah” is a Talmudic principle that requires of us to maintain good relations with all people regardless of religious beliefs. This is the reason why British orthodox rabbis attend state functions at Westminster Abbey.

It so happens that the Rambam, the Meiri, the Maharal of Prague, the Noda Beyehudah and others such as the Tiferet Yisrael all declared that Christianity wasn’t pagan since it accepted divine revelation and had systems of laws and ethics. Taking this into account and the fact that the reason for being in the church is not to participate in non-Jewish prayer I can’t imagine why Rabbi Tzvi Hersch Weinreb declined the offer to participate in the National Prayer Service.

If anything we should be seeking darchei noam and participate in healing the divide that has plagued this nation for so long. It seems to me there is a double standard when the RCA, OU or Aguda lobby Washington for their narrow and parochial interests but refuse to participate in a national service, a symbolic gesture of coming together, of uniting as one humanity, seeking God’s blessings and guidance as President Obama set a new course for America.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

A Muse: Bo 2009

“This day shall be to you one of remembrance; you shall celebrate it as a festival to the Lord throughout the ages; you shall celebrate it as an institution throughout the ages. Seven days you shall eat unleavened bread; on the very first day you shall remove leaven from your houses…you shall observe the feast of unleavened bread, for on this very day I brought your ranks out of the land of Egypt; you shall observe this day throughout the ages as an institution for all time.”(Exodus: 14-17)

This week’s portion presents the defining moment in Jewish history, the Exodus from Egypt. Commemorating the Passover we were commanded to sacrifice a kid, or lamb, becoming the Paschal sacrifice, the blood to be spread on the lintel of their houses. In actuality there are two Pesachs: the Pesach of Egypt, the night between the 14th and 15th of Nissan, and the “forever” Pesach, as Y. Leibowitz noted.

The Pesach of Egypt was a singular moment in time, the night between the 14th and 15th of the first month of Nissan, never to be repeated again. The “forever” Pesach, the one we are commanded to “observe throughout the ages as an institution for all time” is the second Pesach; the one we reenact annually, in an attempt to reinforce that what has been integrated into the national Jewish psyche from that very first Nissan, when we left Egypt as a free people.

Our rabbis troubled with the difficulty of this task urged us to tell the Exodus story as if “we ourselves were the generation who left Egypt.” The urgency of the rabbis is profound but nevertheless difficult to understand without considering Freidrich Nietzsche.

Nietzsche’s two basic assumptions (that the world we live in is finite but that time is infinite) led him to the concept of Eternal Recurrence. The principal of Eternal Recurrence maintains that the life we live will be repeated innumerable times through eternity. Accordingly, there really is nothing new and that all the pain and joy experienced by us will be repeated again and again as a result of Eternal recurrence. (In a sense this gives meaning and a new twist to the declaration made in Ecclesiastes that ein chadash tachat hashemesh-nothing is new under the sun).
Nietzsche’s principal of Eternal Recurrence seems to fit in with some of the classical teachings of our sages and rabbis. The aphorism taught by our sages that ma’ase avot siman libanim, that the deeds of the fathers are signposts for the sons echo the reasoning of Nietzsche. Lurianic kabballah as taught by Rabbi Chaim Vital in his sefer Shaar Ruach Hakodesh believes that there is an eternal spiritual repetition of what we have done in this world.

Our sages, including the masters of kabballah as well as Nietzche’s principal refer to the life of the individual. But what about the collective life of a nation? What about our collective history. Is there such a thing as Eternal Recurrence for the collective memory of a nation? On a certain level it could be exalting – if it were applicable, after all, the Jewish people have indeed reached remarkable heights of spiritual accomplishments. However so much of our history is pockmarked by suffering, perhaps more suffering than joy and spiritual exaltation. To be destined to repeat these under the principal of Eternal Recurrence would appear to be daunt and frightening!

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Dimyonos and the Devil

Apparently there is a shidduch crisis in the Jewish world. Shmuel Boteach and Jonathan Rosenblum have both weighed in sharing with us their sagacious advice, as though they had some unique insights into human nature. Truth be told, I don’t see a crisis here. In fact, to be blunt those who do see a shidduch crisis are in dire need of a realty check.

A crisis on the southern border, yes. A crisis with the global economy, yes. A crisis with global warming, yes. A crisis with Jewish philanthropy, yes. A crisis with shiduchim is absurd. So absurd that in one of the discussions regarding the shidduch crisis a known rosh yeshiva is quoted as saying to a bachur hesitating about pulling the trigger on a shidduch said “when you enter the world of dimyonos you are playing in the yetzer hara’s field.” The bachur apparently married the girl and “lived happily ever after”.

What’s amazing is that the rosh yeshiva felt threatened by dimyonos. Dimyonos is the playing field of the yetzer hara, he believed. How tragic for that rosh yeshiva, and how sad for the bochrim in his field of influence, because dimyonos is one of the most beautiful things the brain can produce. It is dimyonos that has created poetry, literature and scientific discovery. It is dimyonos that makes us laugh. It is dimyonos that gives us the courage to do what seems otherwise impossible, like fight for freedom or establish a Jewish state. It is dimyonos that not only sets us apart from the animal kingdom, but is probably the only feature that uniquely marks us as created in God’s image. Dimyonos isn’t the playing field of the yetzer hara; unless your yetzer hara is unchecked and out of control.

Dimyonos is what makes us totally three dimensional. It’s what puts the sparkle in our eye. It’s what gives us hope. It’s what keeps us alive in moments of grave despair. It’s what kept alive our people in the darkest days of the never ending Nazi nightmare. Dimyonos has nothing to do with yetzer hara, per say; it can be a reflection of ones beautiful mind or or a manifestation of a twisted or perverted mind.
Dimyonos is sort of like tofu or the mystical manna sustaining our ancestors during the forty year desert trek. Tofu is flavorless of and by itself as was the manna. According to lore, the manna would take on any flavor a person desired; it all depended on his dimyonos. “Man can’t live by bread alone”; he can actually, but his world will be monochromatic. Stifling imagination suppresses who you are. Imagine living a life time on manna, never imagining it to have the taste of one of your favorite foods! People thrive in monogamous marriages, but there are times when monotony can set in and here is where the imagination can be helpful, add zest and vigor to one’s marriage, revitalizing it and giving it new life.

Imagination in and of itself has no intrinsic yetzer hara or yetzer tov associated with it. Imagination is a reflection of who and what you are. If your yetzer hara is dominant it will surely impact on your behavior as well as your imagination. But if your yetzer hatov is dominant imagine how it could impact on the quality of your imagination. One can assume that those who created so many of the Walt Disney programs that we grew up on were the product of dimyonos enhanced by the yetzer hatov. Had the creators of the Disney listened to that rosh yeshiva we’d be living in a world of black and white. Suppressing imagination doesn’t help deal with the yetzer hara. All it does is repress it until one fine day it explodes.

The rosh yeshiva’s advice “when you enter the realm of dimyonos, you are playing on the yetzer hara’s field. Your focus should be on her and only her” is terribly poor advice. The article ends by saying the couple “lived happily ever after.” Based upon his need to repress his dimyonos I’d question what his definition of happy is!

Monday, January 19, 2009

Educating Moshe

Necessity is the mother of invention as the saying goes and it seems as though it is being proven once again. The New York Board of Regents approved a proposal on Monday January 12, 2009 for their first Hebrew Charter school. Actually this initiative co- sponsored by Michael Steinhardt (one of the founders of Taglit Birthright Israel) isn’t the first in the nation. Other Hebrew language charter schools have opened and are thriving.

Its an important achievement because it is the logical progression on the continuum of Jewish education for the 21st century; for two reasons: A Hebrew charter school makes Jewish education affordable and accessible regardless of ones financial status without the stigma of applying scholarship money; and the charter system finally normalizes and mainstreams Jewish education making it the universal right of every Jewish child while integrating this unique educational experience into the comprehensive life of a student.

There will be skeptics who will maintain that the charter system is no substitute for yeshiva education. These nay sayers are mistaken. On a practical level, even before the current economic meltdown paying for Jewish education from kindergarten through high school graduation was terribly painful for most Jewish families, especially those anticipating expensive tuition for college. Over the past decade conservative estimates were that the cost of Jewish education per child ranged between $12000-15000 per annum and roughly an additional $4000.00 for a summer camp experience. Thus the cost per child is conservatively $20000.00. If the average Jewish family has two children the expenditure for a total Jewish educational experience is approximately $40,000.00. That’s not peanuts!!!! In addition let’s not forget the cost of synagogue membership which is roughly $2000. Families were expected to pay these fees in good times and then, it was considered prohibitive. Now that the United States is in a deep recession a significant number of families won’t be able to afford day school tuition.

There is also the growing concern that the education received in many day schools doesn’t justify the outlay – even in good times. More and more families are questioning the quality of the Hebrew curriculum as well as the qualifications of the teachers. Most of the Hebrew teachers are underpaid and for good reason. For the most part they have chosen teaching in day schools as a career of last resort. In too many cases they aren’t qualified or certified and don’t meet the minimum standards set by departments of professional standards. You get what you pay for!!

Developing a Hebrew language charter school will be a great boon to Jewish education. Besides being free it will assure that all teachers hired will be certified, professionally trained with credentials. They will also be professionals who chose teaching as a career; not as a default job by which to supplement the family income. It means that curriculum will have to be meticulously developed, scrutinized by impartial educators without a political / religious bias.

This brings me to the final point. The charter schools will by definition separate religious education from Jewish education. At long last Jewish education will be a rich amalgam of language, history, culture, music, Modern Hebrew literature, Bible, rabbinic texts as well as classic literature. Educating our children in an organized, professional and challenging manner will enrich them and manifestly impact on the tone and quality of our communities. Religious practice will be relegated to the synagogue and home where in tandem they will be able to impart the desired religious values.

Imagine an educational system whereby Moshe is sitting next to Woo Lin studying Talmud or the history of the Spanish Inquisition. I can’t begin to imagine the rich interchange between them!

Sunday, January 18, 2009

A Muse: Va’era 2009

“The Lord said to Moses, early in the morning station yourself before Pharaoh and say to him, thus says the Lord, the God of the Hebrews: let my people go to worship me. For this time I will send all my plagues upon your person, and your courtiers, and your people, in order that you may know that there is none like Me in all the world.”(Exodus 9: 13-14)

How are we to understand the purpose and nature of the plagues? Were they a means to punish the Egyptians for enslaving the Hebrews or part of God’s scheme to demonstrate His power and in so doing degrade the power and value of the Egyptian deities? Were the plagues a result of divine intervention in the natural order of things, or perhaps the plagues weren’t an act of God, but were part of nature; its timing and intensity orchestrated by God?

The Rambam references the plagues to raise the question of free will. How can the Egyptians be blamed for the continued enslavement of the Hebrews if God won’t allow Pharaoh to set the Hebrews free? The Rambam resolves this issue by calling attention not to the current state of affairs when Moshe pleads on behalf of the Hebrews, but their prior condition of slavery. The punishment they are receiving is for the inhuman treatment of them prior to the arrival of Moses. God, according to the Rambam was interested in Pharaoh refusing to do teshuva in order at they could be punished for crimes already committed. Had the Pharaoh set them free upon request it would have been difficult for God to punish Pharaoh to the extent that He subsequently did.

The Rambam’s understanding of punishment and its purpose fits in with the world view of Chazal who also buy into the scheme of mida k’neged mida, that for every action there is an opposite reaction, or in the vernacular there is pay back. This tends to be the approach of the underdog in general who feels that their only vindication will come as a result of payback. We have seen this many times in our history; retribution for sins against the Jewish people would be realized sometime in the future – if not in this world then in the next. Regarding the plagues the sages link each of the ten plagues to an event that relates back to the plague. For example: the plague of blood references the fact that the Egyptians wouldn’t allow Hebrew women to purify themselves after menses. (never mind that Torah and all that evolved from torah shel baal peh hadn’t been given yet to the Hebrews) The sages cleverly crafted this kind of mind set for each of the plagues. There are different versions of this throughout the midrashim. The point however is that the plagues weren’t randomly chosen, but were carefully crafted by God with the intent of delivering a clear message to the Egyptians and to bring them to their knees.

Shmuel David Luzzatto, the Shadal believed that the plagues were really occurrences in nature however, they appeared miraculously. He further says that the timing of the plagues and their intensity was what gave them divine quality and provenance. Thus according to the Shadal, although the ten plagues were occurrences which took place within nature they nevertheless had supernatural elements associated with them; their timing and intensity.

The plagues, apart from being a punishment were also a method by which to educate. By observing the plagues, according to the Shadal one could understand better the way of God. Accordingly, not every intervention by God has to be miraculous. God may intervene through the natural order of things but tweak the timing as well as the intensity. Is it possible therefore those phenomena like global warming (assuming it isn’t man induced) or the ice age although not acts of God are manifestations of his presence by tweaking our environment?

Monday, January 12, 2009

The Audacity of the Yefe Nefesh

This past January 8, 2009 Dov Hikind (D-Brooklyn) blasted Cardinal Martino, the Vaticans Justice and Peace Minister for his outrageous remarks about the Israeli incursion into Gaza. Martino apparently compared the conditions in Gaza to a concentration camp reminiscent of the Nazi regime. Hikind was upset by the remark – I wasn’t. Hikind reacting to Martino said:

“I cannot recall a single instance in the last four years where Martino voiced any concern about the daily barrage of rocket and missile attacks against Israelis, or the suffering they have endured at the hands of these terrorists, Hikind said. The comparison to Gaza…is extremely offensive to the memories of the millions who were slaughtered….”

As I said I do not share the same disappointment in Martino’s remarks as Hikind because oddly enough I find something comforting in the consistency of the Vatican. The same position was expressed in July 2006 when the Pope denounced Israel.

Then Cardinal Angela Sodano said “the right of defense on the part of the state does not exempt it from its responsibilities to respect international law, particularly regarding the safeguarding of civilian populations”. Where was the Vatican in 1943? Why was there no concern then for the safeguarding of the Jewish populations of Europe? What about the Europeans wringing their hands over the civilian population in Gaza. How do they sleep at night knowing that the Jewish blood on their hands has so saturated their skin it will take centuries to purge? How dare they or the Vatican express their opinion about human pain and suffering, especially when it was their knowing and complicit hand that contributed to the pain, suffering and murder of my people?

If we have learned anything from our recent history it is that Jewish blood comes at a premium, a very high premium. Under normal circumstances one could say that your blood isn’t redder than mine. But this adage cannot be applied to us. We are Jewish and held to a different standard – a higher standard by the gentile world. We’re expected to take the moral high ground even when our children are being blown to bits; our cities are being rocketed or our civilians targeted by deranged suicide bombers. If we are held to this higher standard I would submit too, that our blood is redder and comes at a very, very high premium. Our enemies must realize that to exact our blood will cost them ten and twenty fold.

We aren’t Christian and we don’t believe in turning the other cheek. It isn’t one of our ethics. On the contrary we believe in taking the initiative – if we feel threatened we have the moral obligation to terminate the threat. The Talmud TB Sanhedrin 72a sums it up succinctly when it ruled: “Im Ba L’hargecha, Hashkem Laharog” If someone attempts to kill you, forestall and strike first. It is an act of self defense. There is no discretion here. I don’t need Alan Dershewitz’s hechsher that the IDF’s reaction was within the accepted norms of proportionality. In this new equation proportionality is not a factor – not if it is the destruction of my people sought by the enemy and their enablers who voted them into office.

I have however another issue with Hikind’s reaction to Renato’s despicable remark. Why didn’t Hikind choose to critique Renato and not the Yefe Nefesh and the J Street pac. Their remarks after all aren’t that much different than Renato’s. They paint a graphic picture of the IDF charging into Gaza, guns ablaze with the force that the Wehrmacht attacked the Warsaw Ghetto: a picture of the suffering old and feeble Gazans; defenseless women and children at the mercy of the brutal IDF. Are these not the same Arabs who dance in the streets every time a Jewish mother and child is blown up by one of their terrorists or suicide bombers? J Street of course has gained much support from some of our liberal rabbis and Jewish leadership, the Yefe Nefesh.

Rather than waste time and go after the Renatos of the world, Hikind ought to invest his energies on our own miscreants, the Yefe Nefesh. They are potentially very destructive because they feel they are on a mission of “tikun olam”; even if that means degrading the strength and security of Israel. The irony is that they would prefer to spread love and kindness, not at their expense, but at the expense of the Israelis. How noble! Sad it is that they forgot the most important mitzvah – more important than tikun olam – Ahavat Yisrael.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Hamas -The Flavor of the Day

They are nothing new. We have always had detractors, from biblical times all the way up to the present. In our life times in Israel there have been a variety of different radical groups that were hell bent on making our lives miserable – or worse. You remember the PLF, PLFP, and the DFLP. How about the PLO and Arafat – where is he and his movement? Abbas too has been marginalized and is propped up by Israel and the US without which he would be no better than a Raggedy Ann doll. So today the flavor is Hamas.

Every time I say the word Hamas I’m reminded of Ham (second son of Noah) and the Curse of Ham as the midrash would have it, although today perhaps it ought to be revised to be the Curse of Hamas. They are a curse because - bottom line – they want us out of the neighborhood, permanently. That however is nothing new and I’m sort of used to it. The reason they really have become insufferable and a curse is because they have become masters in the manipulation of the press. But it takes two to tango. The media has to be willing to buy into their game, to become complicit in the means by which truth becomes manipulated and self serving. Sort of like the way ambulance chasers and PI lawyers operate. For them truth is only a function of what it can be used for. It has no intrinsic value. When this last eruption of violence began a few weeks ago it seemed like a no-brainer. How long can we tolerate being rocketed by Hamas? How long can our children be traumatized by explosions in and near their schools, kindergartens and pre-schools. Once again I was caught in my own naivete. Silly boy, I said to myself, after listening to the left wing media ad nauseum. I should have known better!

It’s our fault. Of course it is! The Israelis once again are to blame for the latest wave of violence and the breakdown of the cease fire. Hamas tried, they really tried hard to maintain the cease fire in spite of the serious infractions of the IDF. This is the message I was getting from not only the left wing media, but from nice Jewish people in my own home town, what I refer to as the “yefe nefesh”. I am still in shock that these yefe nefesh believe either that the breakdown of the cease fire is the fault of the Israelis or that the Israelis over reacted.

Would the uprising of the Warsaw Ghetto be described by anyone as an overreaction? Hard to believe that Mordechai Anelevich was overreacting when he and the other ghetto freedom fighters decided that they wouldn’t go down quietly. Yet I believe, as hard as it may be, that given the type of self hating Jews out there today, if they had been around in 1943, they would have judged Anelevich and Co. as overreacting. It is actually too painful to write about because it has always been convenient to live side by side with these otherwise totally reasonable people.

If I had my choice whether to associate with the yefe nefesh or with the members of Neturei Karta, or some other radical anti-zionist fringe hassidic group, hands down I would prefer the yefe nefesh. I prefer them because they are similar to me in the way they dress, speak and present themselves to the world. Until recently I would have even said that they are similar to me in the way they think and that we share many of the same values. I can no longer say that categorically, because while we may dress alike and share many of the same western values the divide is great. While my loyalty has always been with my people their loyalty is with whatever flavor is popular today. Although they present themselves as principled, they aren’t. Their corrupted sense of situational ethics has blinded them to the needs of their people.

Hamas is the flavor of the day. They are the underdog and they know how to exploit that amongst the yefe nefesh as well as manipulate the media. They have beat Israel in the media wars in the past and they are beating us again. We haven’t had good press since the six day war. That’s because the press loves dead Jews. In fact they love anyone dead, but most of all the Jews. That’s also the reason why holocaust movies do so well. I don’t think there has ever been a holocaust flick that wasn’t a box office success. Ever since we lost our victim status we lost our popularity with the trend setters. Now it’s the turn of Hamas. Today they are the poor victims and have the sympathy of the world.

I’m not comparing Jews to Hamas – God forbid. It’s wrong to compare Hamas to Jews – and for several reasons. They are cunning butchers whose waking hours are focused primarily on killing and destruction. Their main drive is to devise different ways of inflicting pain on those who don’t buy into their politics. Their weltanschauung is predicated on the culture of hate, exploitation and entitlement. Jews of course are the complete opposite. We spend our waking hours as productive and creative citizens of whatever country we choose to live, and predicate our existence on love of God and all of his creations. Unfortunately there are times when we have to defend ourselves. Yes, and some times there is collateral damage. When that happens we are told by the press and other liberal media outlets whom the yefe nefesh buy into that we are overreacting. I rather overreact and remain alive to hear my critics “go off” on me than under react and have them praise me at my funeral.

I think that most Jews would agree with me. However there is a significant number of these yefe nefesh who just don’t see it the way I do. I can’t silence them, nor would I even if I could, for to do so would make me no better than the Hamas. I can’t forgive them either, for their lack of solidarity with Israel and the preponderance of the Jewish people, while not weakening us, somehow is diminishing. And that makes me feel bad.

I’m sure that there will be a time when Hamas no longer exists and some other factious, Palestinian offshoot will emerge as the new underdog and they will become the new flavor of the day for the yefe nefesh to lick. But while they come and go Israel will be a constant, ever vigilant, a beacon of hope, in a world desperately in need of its light.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

A Muse: Shemot 2009

It’s interesting how at times Torah text is interpreted through the lens of history as experienced by the interpreter. Parshat Shemot is a good example of this because in it we have several instances where this applies. Concepts such as slavery, freedom, persecution of a people, prejudice, death of the Hebrew males all lend themselves to the interpreters imagination based upon his/her own historical perspective and understanding.

Throughout biblical text the words “peru urvu” or “peryiah urviyah” to be fruitful and multiply carries a positive connotation. It is only here in our text of Shemot that these two words are broken with the word “vayishritzu”, which, according to the sage Resh Lakish is intended to give the act of “peru urvu” a negative connotation. It was negative according to Resh Lakish because the offspring weren’t being circumcised and they were wearing their hair in the custom of the prevailing Egyptian culture. Clearly Resh Lakish was reading the text through the lens of assimilation that he was witness to. The Book of the Macabees references Hellenized Jews who were participants in the Olympiad and had to reverse their circumcision so that they wouldn’t be identified as Jews. Clearly Resh Lakish and other sages of their period were wrestling with assimilation issues and superimposed it on the Hebrews in Egypt as well.

Rabbi Yochanan too, in identifying with his culture superimposed it upon the Hebrew experience in Egypt. When interpreting the text “vatimaleh haaretz itam”, Rabbi Yochanan claims that this was to be understood literally. There were theatres and ampitheatres built down into the ground, creating a depression in the earth and it was the Hebrews who were heavy attendance, filling these theatres, thus the expression of the text “and the earth was filled with them”. Egyptian culture didn’t however build this way, nor did they have theatre, which was the culture and method of the Greeks and Romans familiar to Rabbi Yochanan.

Fast forwarding to nineteenth century Volozhin, Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin (Hanetziv) asserts that the principal sin of the Hebrews was that they weren’t true to the ways of Jacob. Jacob coming into Egypt preferred Goshen so as to separate off from the Egyptians, however the subsequent generations sought to move into the mainstream Egyptian culture. For the Netziv the push to assimilate was the sin of the Hebrews and the subsequent generations. Assimilation as expressed by the enlightenment (haskalah) was one of the hot button issues for nineteenth century Jewish leadership, one that the Netziv had to struggle with.

The Baal Haturim, Rabbi Yaakov interpreted the enslavement of the Hebrews as a result of the fact that they flunked the test of loyalty to the Egyptian ruling family. According to Rabbi Yaakov, there was this constant tension between the Egyptians and the Canaanites, thus important to discern where the loyalties of the Hebrews laid. Rabbi Yaakov was writing at the same time that Napoleon had convened the Jewish Sanhedrin in 1807 and one of the questions put to the Jewish leadership of France was whether or not they defined themselves as Jews or Frenchmen. One of the questions put to the community was if war were to break would the Jews fight alongside the French?

A contemporary Israeli interpretation of the text references the fact that the Hebrews were actually a ticking demographic time bomb waiting to go off in the not too distant future. The Egyptian concern was therefore to get a better control; over this community. Naturally this sounds familiar to the current demographic issues facing Israel when dealing with the Arab population on the West Bank.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Love Work and Despise High Position

Prior to the Yavneh period Torah scholars received minimal support from Temple funds, however during the Yavneh period a tradition began emerging where community was encouraged to support its rabbis. However many if not most scholars were reluctant to accept support from the community. They continued to practice their skills and crafts as cobblers, smiths, scribes maintaining their independence and intellectual integrity. They based this position on the Tanna D’bei Eliahu 5:2 which believed that a scholar should live off his own toil.

Throughout the centuries some of our greatest Torah scholars actually worked for a living (astonishing, but true). The Ibn Ezra, the Rambam, the Ramban, the Ran, the Sforno were physicians. Others such as Bahya Ibn Pakuda the Ravad and the Ralbag were philosophers or astronomers. Sages such as Rabenu Tam, the Rashba were involved in finance. Others were involved in the trades. Rava Abaye traded in wines. Some such as the Rashbam was a sheep farmer and the Ramchal was a diamond cutter. Rashi was a vintner. Later scholars like the Hafetz Chaim maintained a grocery or made their livings in other mundane ways.

Clearly our tradition encouraged work, looking unfavorably at being “professional” Jews. Pirkei Avot 1:10 clearly prefers work when it states “love work and despise high position (interpreted to be the rabbinate). Somehow the Jewish community over the years has taken this statement from Perek and stood it on its head – inverting the paradigm. Now it would appear that “loving a high position and despairing work” is the operative message. There was good reason for this somewhat cynical approach. By being independent of the community leadership the rabbi was able to exercise moral and ethical leadership over a community that was in need of his spiritual counsel. Receiving a paycheck from the very same community would have compromised this ability. Rabbis of today are in a far distant place from their predecessors. The rabbis of today, regardless of affiliation are knee deep in dirty politics and the politics of survival. They are compromised the moment they sign the contract. In essence they have abnegated their ability to lead as required by the semicha tradition they have received.

Now however there is a new twist, one that further eviscerates the position of the rabbi in the community. He has been reduced to being a CEO or a COO depending on the configuration and needs of the board. He is no longer the wise sage of the community, but one who gets down and dirty in the quagmire of fund raising and management of funds and people. Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Business has started a new executive education program for rabbis. Accordingly, the program has been designed to teach rabbis how to manage and run the synagogue as though it were a business and they were businessmen. This is in answer to the current economic downturn (recession) which has adversely affected synagogues. Membership in synagogues and temples are at all time lows and this is compounded by the fact that many members have been affected by the recession causing them to triage their expenditures. Paying synagogue dues may no longer be a priority.

The big budgets of the synagogues can no longer be met by the conventional methods hitherto used. Kellogg has stepped in to assist and in so doing has repackaged and redefined the rabbi’s position, rendering him yet another “shick yingel” for the board. Some of these rabbis are so far gone that they actually believe this training will render them more effective rabbis. One rabbi in particular had the temerity to say “that we have such a rich rabbinic training with so little management training….” It would appear that this pathetic rabbi never understood what the role of a rabbi is or how he should lead.

Perhaps this new Kellogg program which will undoubtedly proliferate around the country is a good thing. Perhaps it is really the proverbial writing on the wall. Maybe the days of the big synagogue like the outdoor theater is a thing of the past as is the “big three”. As the “big three” have become dinosaurs, struggling to survive for one more quarter so too the big synagogues are doing their swan dance. Perhaps the time has come when we downsized to smaller prayer communities, to chavurot, to personal and intimate places of learning where there are no big building funds no big budgets and dapper CEO’s serving as rabbis.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

A Muse: Vayechi 2009

This last portion of Genesis, in particular the blessings of Jacob to his sons (and grandsons) provide us with some insight into Jacob’s feelings towards his sons. One question that begs to be asked is why was Judah accorded the leadership of the tribes and subsequently the Jewish people? Judah, who broke away from his brothers, married a Canaanite. It was Judah who played a pivotal role in the sale of Joseph and who confronts Jacob with the death of Joseph. It was Judah who is less than honest with Tamar, abusive towards her later and only when cornered is reconciled with her. This is the Judah, whom Jacob in his blessings references his “love of wine”, yet charges him with the leadership of the Jewish people instead of his beloved Joseph.

Joseph is regarded by our rabbis as the righteous one, Yoseph Hatzadik, yet Jacob didn’t consider his worthiness to lead the Jewish People. Joseph, who had a stellar career in spite of his tribulations, maintained throughout, unlike Judah, a connection to his tradition. Joseph, after all he had been through reconciles himself to his brothers in spite of their mistrust without conditions and without ulterior motives, yet it is Judah whom Jacob blesses with the leadership mantle. Why?

True to form to the very end Jacob was the patriarch of a dysfunctional family who succeeded in pivoting brother against brother. Joseph, while possessing the skills, talent and moral stuff to be the leader came up short because no matter what, he was the polarizer. Even when he reconciled himself to his brothers they acceded out of ulterior motive; not love and respect but because of the power that Joseph wielded in his position as the vizier. Judah on the other hand had the skill to become the consensus builder among his brothers. While they may have been fractured and argumentative, Judah was able to hold them together with a vision and so the mantle of leadership was passed to him.

One last point: Even at the very end, when Jacob blesses his sons, he set up another point of discord amongst them by including Joseph’s son (Ephraim and Manasseh) on parity with the sons of Jacob. In so doing Jacob set up another polarity. Through Judah came the original kingdom which split after Solomon. The ten tribes which split off (Northern Tribes) were referred to as Beit Yoseph or Beit Ephraim (Zechariah 10:6-7) and the Southern Kindom known as Beit Judah or Beit David. Ephraim, the progeny of Joseph laid claim to the Kingdom because they believed it was Joseph who deserved the mantle, him being the favorite of Jacob, and not Judah who was fundamentally flawed.