Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Giving of the Law: Sinai or Jericho

Even though the Torah references Sinai (Exodus 19:18) as the place where the Law was given there are indications in the text that another venue was the place of the giving of the Law as well.

After the crossing of the Sea of Reeds we read of another instance where the Law was given. We tend to ignore this episode because of the drama and hyperbole introducing the Sinaitic experience. Chapter 15 of Exodus relates in banal reportage the movement of the Hebrew after the crossing in search of water. After three days of trekking they arrive at Marah (east side of Suez) where they discover non potable water (Exodus 15: 23-24). This will be the first of a long list of complaints documented in the text. Moses beseeched by the people turns to God for a solution and God tell Moses to throw a tree in the bitter waters. Moses complies and the water turns potable. (Exodus 15:25). The verse ends with 7 very profound words: Sham sam lo chok umishpat v’sham nisahu: “there He established a decree and an ordinance and there He tested it.”

A quick survey of the commentaries will allude to the fact that something in the nature of the giving of Law did occur. But before getting to that let us first analyze the text. Two things occurred in chapter 15 verses 22-27. There was the giving of Law as well as the testing of the people’s faith. First came the test and after came the giving of the Law. Testing isn’t unusual in our tradition. Abraham underwent ten tests by God. In this instance the thirst of the Hebrews was the test. This can be discerned by the fact that in the last verse of the chapter (27) the Hebrews arrive at an oasis Elim where there were 12 springs and 70 date palms and there the text tells us they encamped. Had God wanted them to avoid thirst he could have brought them there directly. But He wanted to test their faith.

The sweetening of the water, a miracle, a show of supernatural powers was intended to enhance their faith which was followed by a short carrot and stick speech by God (Exodus 15:26). This short, threatening speech follows the pattern of others in our text although much longer and in greater detail such as the “tochecha” found in Leviticus chapter 26:14-43 and in Deuteronomy 28:15-68. The difference is that the two tochachas don’t pull any punches. Nothing is alluded to. It is all spelled out very clearly – obey or suffer the consequences. The miracle of the sweetening of the waters suggests that God will do “good” by Israel if they recognize Him, and follow His laws. There is of course the implied threat.

The Talmud (T.B. Sanhedrin 56b) suggests that at Marah a version of the Ten Commandments was given: the seven Noachide laws and three more: shabbat, honoring ones parents and laws. The Michilta has another spin on the words “vlo matzy mayim”, that they went three days without torah, reblling claiming that they were thirsty for Torah. Moshe, therefore made an adjustment in his schedule. Torah instruction would be on Shabbat, Tuesday and Thursday. Thus there would never be a situation where three days would go by without the study of Torah. It would appear according to this that they had received Torah at Marah.

There is an interest in maintaining the tradition that the Torah was given in the desert in order to show that we received it in a cultural vacuum. Tradition has it that even in Egypt we lived in Goshen, a segregated community. As we stood at Sinai we did so ready and willing to accept God’s law at the exclusion of all others. Once we enter the Promised Land there are no new laws given. Those that we received in the desert were ample and sufficient. Shoftim did not make new laws neither did the kings nor the prophets. There is one interesting exception to this that I would like to reference: The Book of Joshua, Chapter 24.

In this final chapter Joshua gives his final parting speech in Shechem (Nablus). In this speech (v 1-15) he surveys the short history of the Hebrews from the very beginning until the present and at the conclusion he presents the people with new laws (16-28) with the intention that Shechem become the focal point and central city. Shechem after all had played a significant role in our history hitherto:
• Abraham builds an alter to God (Genesis 12:6-7).
• Jacob buys land there and builds an altar (Genesis 33:18-20).
• Joseph is buried in Shechem.
• Jacob is buried in Shechem.
• Moses commands the people to build an altar near Shechem (Deteronomy 27:1-8).
• Joshua fulfills the commandment of Moses (Joshua 8:30-35).
Incidentally, the Northern Kingdom viewed Shechem as their central city as opposed to the Tribe of Judah who saw Jerusalem as their point of reference.

Throughout Joshua’s survey of the history of the Hebrews never is there reference made to the giving of the law at Sinai or Horeb and he castigates the Hebrews for not giving up their gods, a precondition for receiving the law. Therefore in Joshua 24:16-18 the people promise to renounce their idols promising to follow God. In verse 23 Joshua forces them to surrender the elohei nachor. It is only when they remove Nachor and swear allegiance does Joshua give them the law in verses 25-26. The people respond to Joshua’s call by saying “navod v’nishma” similar to what the Hebrews said at Sinai “naasae v’nuishma”.

The Midrash Tanhuma is uncomfortable with all of this and comments that Moshe wrote the Torah while Joshua wrote in the “sefer torat elohim” (Joshua 24, 26). Thus Joshua is portrayed as a great leader but not of Moshe’s stature. Two examples illustrate this: The crossing of the Sea of Reeds versus the crossing of the Jordan when the text says that Joshua was elevated to the level of Moshe (Joshua 4, 14). The second example is when Moses is commanded to remove his shoes at the burning bush because it was holy ground; Joshua too is commanded as such on the eve of battle (Joshua 5, 15).

The ten northern tribes believed that the Torah was given in Shechem and this set them apart from the tribe of Judah in the south believing that Sinai was the defining moment of the giving of the law. This enmity between these two communities was given expression in the polemics of Genesis 35:4 as an attempt to diminish and devalue Shechem as nothing more than a dumping ground of the idols that Jacob buried under the taberinth rather than burn them as was our tradition (Deuteronomy 7:5)

Monday, May 18, 2009

Kaddish Over Who?

Last week Rabbi Norman Lamm, chancellor of Yeshiva University said with a heavy heart that “we will soon be saying kaddish over the Reform and Conservative movements”. Shocking. If I was a psychologist I might suggest that perhaps Rabbi Lamm was “projecting”, but I’ll get to that later. It’s just mean spirited. Had a reputable hareidi rav said that of the modern orthodox movement there would have been hell to pay. What did Lamm benefit by being so uncouth?

The truth of the matter is that the modern orthodox movement is doomed to the same future as the reform and conservative movements. The numbers, ideology, commitment and intellectual honesty are on the side of the hareidim – unfortunately. Hareidim reproduce prodigiously, are totally committed with little or no compromise to their way of life and have a very deep and abiding belief in “netzach yisrael”. The modern orthodox, on the other hand, are totally confused as to who and what they are. They aspire to be part of the sophisticated, educated and cultured secular world; appear as modernists and wish to apply those standards to Torah values. For example, the reform and conservative movement s have been ordaining women rabbis for decades. It finally hit the modern orthodox that they too could do something like that. All they would have to do is tweak the system. They not only have lagged behind by a few decades and appear to be “knock off” of the two other liberal movements but they are terribly disingenuous and intellectually dishonest.

The modern orthodox are today where the conservative movement was in the 1950’s. A healthy respect for halacha, but in need of upgrading it to fit the times. Then they were sneered at by the orthodox community and there wasn’t much of a hareidi presence in America because they were still recovering from the war and adjusting as freshly minted greenhorns. Today however the conservative movement can hardly be differentiated from the reform. Both are competing for the title of the largest Jewish movement in America – as if numbers really matter. What the reform movement won’t tell you is that nearly 50 % of their membership is either not Jewish by anyone’s standards, converted by reform standards, or recognized as Jews through patrilineal descent.

Logic would dictate that both the conservative and reform movements will ultimately fade away. The question is who will be around to say kaddish for them. I don’t think it will be the modern orthodox because they will be right behind the reform and conservative. (This is beginning to sound like a modern version of Chad Gad Ya). Modern orthodoxy is an experiment that outlived its usefulness. In its inception it had value and purpose. American Jewry was at a significant existential juncture after world war two. The American Jewish community had little direction other than what the reform and conservative movement was offering. Had it not been for the rise of modern orthodoxy as formulated by Rabbi J. B. Soloveitchik many would have been lost to traditional Judaism. But those days are long gone and the hareidi community has not only grown but has become mighty powerful economically and politically.

The entire infrastructure of the American Jewish enterprise is dependent on the hareidi community. The entire hechsher system of food products manufactured globally is in the hands of the hareidi community. (The hechsher tzedek, noble as it is and one that I support is “batel b’shishim, a mere drop in the ocean). The hechsher of meat and poultry too is dependent on their administration. They also have powerful lobbyists advancing their interests on the state and national level. Day schools and yeshivos are staffed in good measure by the every same community of totally committed Jews whose sole dedication is “harbazat torah”, the proliferation of Torah. While hareidi men and women devote themselves to the noble task of education (chinuch), the modern orthodox are choosing lucrative careers that highlight status and prestige.

Yeshiva University the bastion of modern orthodoxy, once a pillar of Torah study has been reduced to a footnote within the Yeshiva University complex. It has become an institution of higher learning competing for government grants and funding. Their schools have little to do with the perpetuation of Torah culture and its values but concerned with the academic recognition of their graduate schools of medicine, science and the social sciences. It is no wonder that the message coming out of Yeshiva University and modern orthodoxy is one that is garbled and confused rather than crisp and articulate. The fact of the matter is that modern orthodoxy pales in comparison to the hareidi community. It wouldn’t surprise me if the liberal movements survive in spades the modern orthodox community. If anything the hareidi community will witness the demise of the liberal movements and modern orthodoxy. It would appear that Rabbi Lamm ought to revise his estimation as to who will be saying kaddish over who!

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Machon Shilo

Once in a great while I come across a scholar who really touches my soul. Rabbi David bar Chayim of the Machon Shilo Institute is such a talmid chacham and twice during the past three years I have written about his approach to Jewish living.

Apparently, as I predicted, he is causing waves within the halachic establishment and his echo is becoming louder. While he may not be taken seriously yet by the mainstream halachic establishment, wait, and as the proverbial expression goes “hold your breath”. He is, I believe, the kind of leader in the tradition of Prof. Berkovitz who searched for truth and wouldn’t yield to the establishment even if his opinions weren’t popular. He will impact greatly on how we understand and practice halachic Judaism.

There really isn’t that much more to say other than to direct you to a series of you tubes in which Rabbi David bar Chayim puts forward his views. You can access these you tubes by searching under the title “Who or What is Machon Shilo”.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Haredi Alienation

Less than two weeks ago an opinion piece by Eliezer Hayon appeared in Ynet (April 27, 2009) explaining why it is that Hareidim do not observe the national day of mourning for the halelei tzahal (fallen soldiers) nor do they participate in celebrating Yom Haatzmaut, Israel Independence Day. Eliezer Hayon has done his best in trying to enlighten the non hareidi community as to why this is the case. However, Hayon falls short – terribly short and in so doing reveals his disdain for “Am Yisrael”. Before I get into Hayon’s lame excuse he needs to be called out; he made a gross and false generalization that hareidim do not observe the Memorial Day or celebrate Independence Day.

To the best of my knowledge there are multitudes of hareidim who do celebrate Independence Day and are visibly upset on Memorial Day, standing at attention for a moment of solidarity and respect when the siren is sounded, visiting the cemetery and marking the day in an appropriate fashion. To lump all hareidim into one convenient basket is a disservice to the hareidi community and diminishes the integrity of the discourse many of us have regarding these very sensitive days.

To illustrate my point the Belzer Rebbe has been known in the past to sneak out of his home on Independence Day and daven with a minyan that says hallel. I do not known if they say hallel with or without a bracha – but that really isn’t the point nor does it matter. There was also speculation at the time that he really wasn’t davening with the minyan; but wanted to witness the special davening. What really matters is his very unique sensitivity and the example he sets for all of us.

His sensitivity to this very special moment in our collective history underscores that statehood is so unique to our history that it ought to be witnessed by all of us; each of us in our own way. His participation even as a passive observer reaffirms the powerfully held belief that there is no place in our community for those who seek to create “piloogim” or to be “poresh” from the clal. We haven’t the political or social luxury to entertain the notion that there is room in our Jewish world for those who seek disharmony or to create a damaging wedge within our community. Yet he does attempt to weave this sinister web as he demonstrates in the following excerpt:
“The hareidim do not celebrate or mark these holidays because they feel no connection to them. Many of them have never served in the army…very few have fallen…so what have they to commemorate? The ultra orthodox have never been involved in the crucial decision of Israel’s history…such as party institutions courts, elections…What have they got to celebrate?”

While Hayon may be right that some hareidim opted out of participating in nation building many other hareidim found their voices within the Knesset and other governmental and state agencies that built Israel. Agudah from the very beginning of statehood participated in the most crucial decisions Israel made. But this is but one example. There are many, many hareidi communities who joined in the building of the state; who feel integrally bound to it; identify with it even if the state doesn’t support their philosophical/religious weltanschauung (hashkafah).

Hayon’s article is disturbing on another level due to its bitter tone. It reminds me of the déclassé, the dispossessed, those marginalized by society; searching but unable to find their place in community. His shrill closing confirms his frusteration:
“So, dear seculars, get off our backs on memorial and Independence Day. We truly have nothing against them. We have no reaction to your grief, and we do not despise your joy, but however – they mean nothing to us”.

How utterly pathetic. How could our suffering mean nothing? How is it possible that even though they may not have served in Tzahal, the loss of chayalim (and civilians due to terror) means nothing to them? Is not Hayon part of the Jewish corpus? What about “kol yisrael arevim zeh lazeh”? Has this no meaning to the likes of Hayon? The most secular chayal would (and does) give his life willingly to protect Hayon and his ilk even though they do not share values and have absolutely no common language. The secular chayal feels a brotherhood; a bond that transcends religious values and will make the ultimate sacrifice if God forbid called upon to do so. Hayon isn’t speaking for any legitimate group of hareidim but for a “rag-tag” group of disgruntled and disenchanted people who happen to bear Jewish last names but in no way share the Jewish ethos or the core values of who we are as a people.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

A Muse: B'chukotai 2009

President Shimon Peres once commented that what distinguished the Hebrews in the ancient Near East from their precursors (regarding their view of history) was the concept of “process”. The Hebrews saw that history was a work in progress and man’s role in it would unfold as a part of a process. This was a radically new idea. Those in the ancient Near East hitherto believed that history unfolded only to be revealed as a cycle that repeats itself in one version or another; that progress couldn’t be made because history unfolded in a cycle, destined to be repeated over and over.

Accordingly, we Jews believed then as we do now that history is revelatory, unfolding with a linear progressive arch. Thus the world moves in a forward pitch; it has a beginning, a present and a future. In the Jewish world, that is, a world which is linear progressive, we can choose; we are obligated to make choices. In the ancient near eastern cultures where history is cyclical there are no choices; one has to satisfy and pacify the gods; there is a determinism that will ultimately dictate ones path.

The concluding verses of Behar which serves as an introduction to B’chukotai drives home this point when in chapter 26 verse 1 we are cautioned regarding idol worship. Worshiping God is the Jewish way because in so doing one recognizes that God is the God of the past the present and the future as opposed to idols, the work of man – stagnant. Our God and belief system is dynamic. Our text reads “If you follow my decrees and observe my commandments…”we will be blessed (Leviticus 26:3). Chukim are those rules and laws between man and humanity whereas mitzvoth are those commandments that define the relationship between man and God. Therefore the text really means that if one follows those rules which govern relationships between man and humanity and observe the mitzvoth between man and God, one will have personified the ideal of being “created in the image of God”.

The verse cited in Leviticus 26:3 is phrased conditionally. What if one doesn’t observe the chukim and mitzvoth? The tochacha comes to tell us of the terrible things that can and will befall us as a people if we do not observe God’s laws. Unlike those of the ancient near east who had no choices, we are presented with options in our text; the choice is ours to make. We can be blessed and move along the linear progressive line in an arch that bring blessings and goodness or we can bring down the curses.

What becomes clear from this text is that numbers aren’t important. We as a Jewish nation are small in number in comparison to others such as Muslims. Our text however tells us that this isn’t a numbers game. If we do what we are supposed to do than numbers won’t factor in (we have been witness to this repeatedly since 1948). We will be blessed. Parenthetically, this is what is meant when we say that we are the chosen. It doesn’t mean that we are any better than any other people. It means that we were the first to understand that we live by the choices we make. We aren’t destined to live in a vicious cycle as the pagan faiths of the ancient near east would have us believe. Our eyes were opened to the reality that we can make choices. Our text offers us those choices and we chose to be chosen – to observe the chukim and mitzvoth.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Kitniyot and the State of the Jewish Nation:An Afterthought

Two years ago, May 3, 2007 I essayed a piece “Springtime for Liberation”. In that essay I introduced Rabbi David Bar Hayim’s (Shilo Institute) ruling which lifted the ban on kitniyot (legumes on Passover for the Ashkenazi community) among Ashkenazi Israelis. At the time his p’sak didn’t attract a lot of takers, but since then his popularity has grown. Many modern orthodox Ashkenazi Israelis who previously complied with the kitniyot ban no longer comply with the anachronistic ruling.

Rabbi Bar Hayim’s p’sak underscores the growing chasm between the hareidi community and the modern orthodox. The hareidi community has become even more stringent in recent years, more products being labeled kitniyot than ever before. Cotton seed oil, sunflower oil, peanut oil and hemp are kitniyot, even though they are only derivatives. Sweet corn and soybean didn’t exist in medieval Europe yet our rabbis chose to label them kitniyot. Juxtaposed to them is this new brand of modern orthodox following of Rabbi Bar Hayim who is applying 21st century reasoning and sensitivity to a world that is no longer clearly divided between Ashkenazi and Sephardim.

Rather than follow blindly medievalists in the 21st century these vanguards are applying reasoning and logic to a rapidly changing Jewish world that no longer reflects the world from which most of our halachic rulings were formulated. Thus it isn’t difficult for them to make the distinction between kitniyot and kitniyot derivatives. But this progressive approach doesn’t stop there.

For many Ashkenazim in Israel the entire notion of kitniyot (while perhaps appropriately instituted in the Diaspora) no longer has relevance and for two reasons: Demographics and the halachic consideration stated in Shulchan Aruch that clearly highlights that when moving to a new place one should adapt to the customs of the new community.

The ban on kitniyot was a European chumra which never received wide acceptance in Israel or by Sephardim. When Diaspora Jews emigrated to Israel they should have, according to Rabbi Bar Hayim accepted the practice in Israel of eating kitniyot. The imposition of the Ashkenazi Diaspora standard of kitniyot created a wedge within the community; precisely what the halacha above referenced sought to avoid. Perhaps this had been the intention of the Askenazi rabbinic leadership.

The Ashkenazi-Sephardi divide in Israel existing since the State’s inception and before conveniently lent itself to the perpetuation of kitniyot among the Ashkenazim in Israel. In fact, the Ashkenazi rabbinic leadership has been masterful over the centuries of perpetuating the divide between the Ashkenazi and Sepharadi traditions. However as the edges of the divide have begun to blur, bleeding into each other blunting the differences between the two communities it seems logical that rather than maintain customs which perpetuate division there ought to be a coming together of cultures, traditions and people.

What could be more beautiful than people of different traditions coming together at the same seder table eating and drinking together, celebrating freedom and life. We Jews however have an uncanny talent of creating division – points of friction where they ought not exist. Because of this masochistic, self-destruct tendency; we haven’t ever been able to come up with one universal standard of kashrut acceptable to all Jews. Practically every Ashkenazi community has their own acceptable boutique standard thus creating flashpoints of polarity propagating division and insularity. Kitniyot, a seemingly harmless and benign ban has become so draconian that it has split the growing number of families which have blended marriages between Ashkenazim and Sepharadim.

Had the kitniyot ban been relegated to kitniyot proper and not its derivatives perhaps the ban would have remained a fairly innocuous issue. But the hareidi community knows no bounds, operating as conservative medievalists without a clue as to the demographics and 21st century realities. By lacking the necessary sensitivity required for communal/spiritual leadership they are driving a wedge deeper into the community; the same community that is seeking commonality rather than division and enmity.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

A Muse: Emor

This parsha, among other things commemorates the festival of Shavuot. While all three biblical festivals (oleh leregel) Passover, Sucot and Shavuot are agrarian based holy days, Passover and Succot are also free standing and date specific. Shavuot is the only one of the three festivals that isn’t free standing, or date specific. Passover was designated in the Bible to fall on the 14th of Nisan is a spring festival as well as marking the exodus from Egypt. Sucot was designated by the Bible to fall on the 15th of Tishre, celebrating the fall harvest as well as the exodus story. Shavuot on the other hand isn’t date specific and is a nature-agrarian celebration with no reference to any historical event. The dating of the festival is based upon the counting of the omer which begins “mimacharat hashabbat”, interpreted by the Pharisees to be from the second day of Passover. From the second day of Passover every day the omer was to be brought for forty nine days and on the fiftieth day, Shavuot, two loaves were to be brought. Thus, the dating of the Shavuot holiday was dependent upon Passover. It was only during the tanaitic period that the date was set to be the 6th of Sivan.

The end of the second temple period was witness to many controversies between the Sadducees and the Pharisees. One watershed disagreement was interpreting the words “mimacharat hashabbat”. The Sadducees interpreted it to mean the Sabbath of Passover, while the Pharisees understood it to mean upon completion of the holy day of Passover. The difference was not only significant but also symbolic of how these two competing interests understood Judaism. The Sadducees understood Judaism to be integrally linked with temple ritual and in fact understood their status as linked to the Temple and the state. Thus their concern was strictly managing the festival of Shavuot as an agrarian holiday giving a literal translation to the text. The Pharisees, on the other hand understood the state and temple cult to be subordinate to the torah. Their interpretation of Shavuot thus went beyond the narrow confines of an agrarian holiday. They understood it as the culmination of the covenantal process beginning on Passover and culminating on Shavuot with the receiving of the Law. Shavuot would not have a non specific date based upon the Sabbath following Passover, but would have a definite date of its own, 6 Sivan, which would always come 50 days after the first day of Passover.

The Pharisees appropriated to Shavuot an identity of it’s own in that it became the festival which celebrated the Giving of the Law at Sinai. So even if the agricultural character of the holiday would be phased out, the covenantal nature and the holiness of the festival would continue. Passover and Shavuot still remained linked by the omer. Passover was the Exodus and the culmination was the giving of the Law on Shavuot. Remarkable however is the “offering” in the Temple on Shavuot. Whereas on Passover we are forbidden to eat chametz, on Shavuot the two loaves must be made from chametz. In fact this is the only time that an “offering” is to be made from chametz.

There are references in the Talmud that equate chametz symbolically to the evil inclination or the bad side of a person. The Zohar too makes the same references. Just as Israel was liberated from the shackles of slavery we celebrate on Passover that we too are liberated from the evil inclination. We burn the chametz prior to the beginning of the Passover festival to metaphorically allude to our impending liberation from the ever present evil inclination that pollutes the soul. Exorcising the evil inclination permanently from our being isn’t necessarily desirable. Our tradition points to the value in dualism. Midrash Rabbah (9:7) comments that had it not been for the evil inclination man wouldn’t have married and built a home for his family. In other words, in spite of the unseemly side man was able to do the right thing and create a stable society. A similar midrash on Deuteronomy suggests that when we were commanded to love God “with all our heart and all our soul” this refers to loving God with both the good and evil inclination.

There is an interesting Midrash that refers to the angels who petitioned God not to give the Torah to people but to give it to them. Moses argued that giving it to the angels would be counterproductive; their perfection renders the Torah irrelevant to them, while it was necessary to give it to people who were in need of perfection. Thus, on Passover we burn the chametz and try to liberate ourselves from the evil inclination. But, in fact there is a dualism that our tradition recognizes and understands that without it Torah would no longer be relevant. Introducing the chametz back into our lives on Shavuot in the Temple service is intended to do so with the intention that it will be in a delicate balance with the good inclination and keep us worthy of receiving the Torah.