Monday, June 22, 2009

Kiddush Clubs - Revisited

It was refreshing to read a piece in V.I.N., June 16, 2009 in which the case was made, once again, for doing away with the infamous Kiddush Club syndrome. Apparently there is a demonstrable rise in alcoholism among our orthodox young people. They make a good case for abandoning this practice because of its negative message to young people. The way the Kiddush Club works is that after the Torah portion is read, this “elite” group finds its way to the social hall and makes Kiddush and kibbitz as they would in the local neighborhood tavern.

As a youngster accompanying my father and uncles to shul on Shabbat morning I recall this practice – with a significant difference. Most of these men were seriously intentioned Jews and while not recognized Torah scholars, sought the opportunity to study; thus excusing themselves from the balance of the tefillah in order to attend a shiur or just study (study sacred text) b’chavruta. Unlike the current practice, their intention wasn’t to evaluate the different liquors on the table; to compare one single scotch malt to another or to compare the quality of one blended scotch to the other. By making Kiddush these serious “balhabatim” were “yotzei” and were able to eat something lite (since breakfast was a non starter), thereby alleviating their hunger so they would be able to concentrate on learning. Their Kiddush Club was probably a positive influence for most of us youngsters who understood that Torah study played an important role in the lives of these men. The little whiskey they drank was there to serve a specific purpose – nothing more.

But those were different times. They were financially difficult times; these men weren’t snobs, nor did they view their club as elite; they probably had no idea what a single malt scotch was much less afford it. They were welcoming of anyone who wished to join them in brotherhood and learning. Today, most of those attending a Kiddush club use it as an excuse to absent themselves from shul with no intention of learning torah text, but use the time to catch up on local gossip – and to strut their stuff. As such, this kind of irreverent gathering isn’t so much for Kiddush but an excuse to drink. Not a very good example for young people for two reasons: It encourages drinking and doesn’t elevate scholarship and study. On the contrary, those who are at the Kiddush club are “cool” while those who are on the side lines, studying are nerds. What kind of message does that send our youth?

But there is another matter regarding the Kiddush syndrome that ought to be addressed. This isn’t in connection with the Kiddush Club, but rather with the general Kiddush after services. There seems to be an over abundance of foods laid out at the Kiddush that is shameful. I’ve witnessed many bar and bat mitzvah celebration Kiddushim where people physically fight to get to the table, pushing and shoving others out of the way. It’s as if they haven’t eaten in years. It’s a disgraceful exhibition of poor manners that are inappropriate for a shul. These food fests aren’t occasional but have become routine weekly binges resulting in very fat men and women. It’s quite a sight to see a rolly polly woman bedecked in a humongous, large hat, waddling next to her pot bellied husband.

I’m not sure which is worse: the Kidush Club or the routine after davening Kiddush; it’s a close call. Just as there is an awareness of the devastating effects alcohol has on the body there is a growing body of scientific knowledge that preventable diseases such as diabetes, high blood pressure and even some types of cancer can be related to obesity. So while we concern ourselves with the negative impact the Kiddush Club may have on our young people we ought to pay closer attention to the quantity and quality of foods that are served at kiddushim.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Yisgadal V’yiskadash

Several weeks ago Rabbi Norman Lamm, chancellor of Yeshiva University cynically remarked that the future of American Judaism is in the hands of the hareidi and modern orthodox communities. I commented then that it was questionable whether modern orthodoxy would be around. As a matter of fact I don’t see a rosy picture for them, because in my humble estimation they will fragment into three groups: Their right wing will eventually merge with the hareidi community, their left wing will move in to the liberal community and their leftovers (“shirayim”) will be a small impotent, marginalized curiosity. Having said that, I do want to reference a worthy op-ed piece by Nahum Sarna which appeared in the Forward June 5, 2009.

In his essay, Sarna points to five reasons why the orthodox community ought not feel all that smug and secure as the emerging leadership of the American Jewish community. Briefly, he suggests that the orthodox are having a difficult time keeping their numbers; there is a severe leadership crisis; a significant brain drain to Israel; a deeply divided community and significant issues such as modernity and lastly it is facing a severe financial crisis with the threat of the collapse of many of their day schools.

The Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations sensitive to the financial crisis plaguing their school system set about addressing this last concern. The manner and lack of creativity by which they are dealing with the issue leads me to believe that they are in much more of a serious problem than I ever imagined. Sarna assumed that they were experiencing a brain drain since many of their youngest and brightest were relocating to Israel. This can be substantiated by the way they are dealing with the current day school crisis.

Rabbi Saul Zucker, director of day school services for the OU laid out what was referred to as a “revolutionary package of cost saving measures” to a group of Los Angeles Jewish educators. Based upon his plan he was presenting a new model of Jewish education that would save 50% of the tuition bringing the cost down to only $6500.00 annually. Admittedly, I have not been privy to the details of his “revolutionary plan” but regardless, I am skeptical of its potent value based upon the little I have read. His plan is based upon six points:

Establishing a health plan nationwide and administered by the OU. One of the problems with day school teachers is that most of them are part time. This has been so designed so as to avoid providing them with health care benefits. Health care costs aren’t what are driving the costs of tuition because healthcare is virtually non existent in yeshivas and day schools. His next point is very Obamaesque. The reduction of energy costs by conversion to alternative power sources. This too is a pittance. In fact, based upon usages of schools the savings would probably be negligible. His third prong in his six point plan is setting up a kehilla fund in order to broaden their fundraising capabilities. What Zucker doesn’t get is that most people are tapped out. In case he hasn’t heard the unemployment rate in the USA is fast approaching 9.5%. Those who have managed to hang onto their jobs are dealing with loss of benefits and some have even experienced reduction in pay. Those who have retained their wealth are conserving their assets and maintaining significant reserves in case the recession proves to be deeper than what is conventionally thought. The vacuum created by the major loss of major gifts won’t be made up by fund raisers – it won’t even come close! His next point is to make use of professional grant consultants. Bad idea, because they won’t raise all that much more money than they have already realized through other efforts at lobbying at the state level. They will however spend a lot of money in hiring these grant writers and consultants. His fifth idea, using the Web browser to gain corporate sponsors is a non starter. Corporations aren’t giving as they were in the past due to the recession and more important, they are skittish because they don’t yet know what the new healthcare options will be and how it will impact on them; or how the new tax structure including the tax exempt status of charitable donations will adversely affect their bottom line. Clearly, Zucker is not dealing with reality!

But Zucker’s last idea was the best. Holding Bingo fundraisers! That will surely be the saving grace of the day school movement that is getting ready to implode as a result of a profound financial meltdown that we are all facing. Sarna was right when he listed a brain drain as one of the problems facing the Orthodox movement today. He was actually referring to senior yeshiva students who were opting to live in Israel rather than stay in the states. But in actuality, unless they begin thinking out of the box and shatter their parochial paradigms their future isn’t any rosier than the liberal movements for whom they are planning on chanting the yisgadal viskadash.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Klutz Kashe

This past issue of Moment Magazine’s (May/June, 2009) column “Ask the Rabbi” considered the question “How Should Jews Treat Their Arab Neighbors”. Frankly, the question was as ridiculous as its responses were, (although the Chabad response was the most entertaining) and I felt vindicated for having let my subscription lapse years ago.

Rabbi Winkler, the independent, must be watching too many Israeli films produced and directed by self hating Israeli’s (The Lemon Tree) and not investing enough time in understanding the texts which he quotes. It’s always convenient to pull out a quote from one of our prophets, because there has never been a time when one couldn’t reconcile a particular historical event with a quote confirming one position. Besides, it’s so rabbinic! Arguing that Israel falls short in treating it’s minorities in the spirit of the prophets is quite disingenuous. While I am not an apologist for those governmental ministries responsible for the minorities I would assume that our prophets would be extremely proud of our ethical standards and treatment of all our minorities. Had only we been treated as well at any time in our history (excluding our United States experience)! What galls me however is the sanctimonious and smug remark that we (Israel) “impose unjewish occidental models of government…” I wasn’t aware that Winkler had a monopoly on what constitutes a “Jewish” model, especially since he’s an “independent” (whatever that means). There are numerous models, many of them legitimate and which may not necessarily play into the Winkler design, but nevertheless legitimate. Quoting Ezekiel to suit his liberal leanings he conveniently avoids Pentateuchal intolerance as Rabbi Manis Friedman chooses to accept!

Rabbi Peter Schweitzer, a Humanist, is no better, choosing to identify with the broader human family, rather than his own people; blurring national boundaries and ethnic distinctions. On what planet is he living? As far as I can recall, the world I live in is host to a plethora of different peoples, nations and religions – all with competing interests. That has been the case as far back as recorded history goes and will probably continue in this format for the unforeseeable far distant future. Israel happens to be a Jewish state. Being a Jewish state and celebrating our uniqueness ought not be dehumanizing to others nor should it in any way diminish their unique national and ethnic qualities.

Naturally the Renewal approach is the haziest of all. Quoting Torah, renewal tries to point to love of neighbors by citing biblical relationships such as Isaac / Ishmael; Jacob / Essau etc. But in each of those cases according to our bible Isaac trumps Ishmael and Jacob trumps Essau. So what is he talking about?

The Reconstructionist, Rabbi Dodd’s declaration that Judaism’s key teaching is that all are “created in God’s image” is absolutely a revelation. From there he makes the quantum leap to an organization called “B’etzelem, the Israel human rights watchdog group, celebrating their accomplishments. What he is forgetting is that Israel’s first and foremost obligation is protecting its citizens in a world that has inverted the paradigm of morality. The UN commission on human rights is led by a gang of the most perverse violators of human rights. Yet Israel who conducts itself in an exemplary fashion in war and peace is pilloried by those same habituated violators of human rights. Because of Israel’s moral sensitivities, B’tzelem, whom Dodd elevates to the status of Torah M’sinai, is quite redundant.

As bad as these answers were Chabad’s was reprehensible, but what more can be expected from a fundamentalist approach to biblical text and religion. Reading those four short paragraphs of Rabbi Friedman I can understand those who have rejected religion as one of the greatest divisive forces known to civilized man. He manipulates biblical text to rationalize wholesale murder of man, woman and child (cattle too). With his approach there never will be an end to bloodshed. Manis Friedman has tried to wiggle out of what he said by doing a little backpedaling as was reported in the JTA after members of his own cult disavowed his comments. But I do believe that what he said initially was his intended remark. The Muslims in the Middle East well subscribe to his approach and have done exceedingly well in sustaining and cultivating intolerance murder and war.

The fact of the matter is there are no simple answers and they won’t be found on the pages of Moment Magazine and unfortunately can’t be found in Biblical text. While biblical text may be a means by which one can find a moral compass it is still text and subject to interpretation.

As evident here, anyone, regardless of training or persuasion can put their own political / social spin on the text interpreting the word of God to mean anything and everything and sometimes nothing. Asking a rabbi, regardless of persuasion a question as loaded and pregnant as the one asked in the current issue of Moment ought to be considered nothing more than a klutz kasha.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Vampires, Einstein and Jewish Folklore

I don’t usually dabble with the Jewish side of magic or witchcraft nor do I concern my self with the Jewish occult and rarely do the existence of Vampires or werewolves cross my mind. But then again, rarely do I spend time focusing on Albert Einstein and the possible application of his theories and their extrapolations. However a few weeks ago everything seemed to come together as though there was an alignment of the stars.

Purely by coincidence or chance I was put in a situation where I saw the film “Twilight”. For those of you not aware, it is a love story about a vampire family living incognito among the “normal” citizenry of a small town in Washington State. Seeing the movie prompted me to read the book upon the recommendation of my daughters as well as the three sequels. All this happened to dovetail with my reading of a series of articles on the permutations and extrapolations of Einstein’s theories on science fiction. Being troubled by the possibilities, as improbable as they may be of vampires and werewolves roaming the earth I concerned myself with the eternal question: What do the Jewish sources say?

Stephenie Meyer, author of the four part best seller series on the life of a vampire family, got me thinking about the possibility that perhaps there was a fifth unimaginable and frightening dimension. For as long as man has lived he has been preoccupied with physical survival but obsessed with the spiritual. In man’s search for God and in his struggle for meaning, man, according to legend has encountered angels, demons, vampires and werewolves. Folk religions have grown over the millennia to include rich fables and stories about the occult, magic and witchcraft, tales of lost worlds where beings other than humans ruled supreme.

Religion is but one manifestation of reasonable people trying to explain and give meaning to the unknown. Belief in God is predicated on faith. On has to have faith in order to believe. If one believes in God and angels predicated on faith why can’t one believe in other systems as well? How much of a leap of faith is it for a person of faith who believes in God to believe in vampires as well? After all, the world isn’t one dimensional, and who is to say that what we see is all there is? Science fiction, concerned with this, is rooted in the principle that there is no limit to what man can imagine or create at least in his own mind. Science fiction has built a world where man can be transported through space back and forth; journey through wormholes, beaming through solid walls and travelling in starships that move faster than light.

Until now it’s been fun imagining the unimaginable. But converting Einstein’s theories from the theoretical to the real world has brought the unimaginable to a new level. Einstein’s universe is one that curves back on itself in three dimensions of space and a fourth invisible dimension – time. Scientists like Michio Kaku author of Physics and the Impossible believe that extrapolating Einstein’s theories can make time travel and travel through wormholes possible. If all this is true perhaps there is a fifth dimension that parallels our universe, one that has vampires and werewolves. If this is a consideration surely our Jewish sources would have commented on it.

Judaism developed along two tracks: the halachic, legalistic system, which gave expression to the formalistic practice of Jewish living and a folk religion enhancing much of its flavor and texture from aggadic text, informal and popular with the folk, but treated with reservation by the rabbinic leadership. Some of the aggadic texts, among other things, were peppered with stories of demons and angels. Many of these myths appearing in aggadic texts were unique to Jewish tradition and some of them were absorbed from the hosting cultures incorporated into our texts, but reflecting the culture and the times.

There are aggadic references in the Talmud of blood eating demons. In Chullin 105b and Eruvin 43a references are made with the explanation that in the Bible we are forbidden to consume blood because “it is the life force of all creatures” (ki dam who hanefesh). One of the most common types of vampires was Lilith (Eruvin 100b; Niddah 24b; Shabbos 151b) described as a wild haired winged nymphomaniac. Rashi recommended having amulets to protect oneself and loved ones from her. Medrash Rabbah explains that man’s wasted semen was used by Lilith to create vampires. Perhaps here is the appropriate place to explain that there was a time when Jewish cultural practice subscribed to the notion that there was a vast “middle world” neither of flesh nor entirely of spirit. Demons and angels populated this middle world and as a result of them magic (hashba’at shedim) was employed to conjure them up.

The estrie was another type of vampire that had much currency during the middle ages. The estrie was a type of vampire that lived among the human population, appearing as human, in order that it would have a steady supply of blood which it craved and needed for survival. An estrie wounded by a human being would die unless it obtained bread and salt from the intended victim. A rich source for this vampirology is fond in Rabbi Judah the Pious’s book Sefer Hasidim. According to Sefer Hasidim, estries were one of those creatures referred to in the Talmud that spoke of beings created in the twilight of the first Friday evening of creation, bodies not yet completed when God seized working in order to create the Shabbat.

In one incident detailed in great detail by Rabbi Yehudah Hachasid a woman who was an estrie fell ill and was watched over during the night by two unsuspecting ladies. When one guardian fell asleep the patient (estrie) began to unravel her hair and tried to suck the blood of the sleeping lady. The alert guardian cried out, woke the sleeping guardian and prevented the estrie from sucking the blood. If injured the estrie could reverse the damage by getting bread and salt from the victim. But what victim would then turn and give a vampire the necessary bread and salt, you might ask? Rabbi Yehudah wrote that they were able to morph themselves in to other creatures and thereby trick the victim. Sefer Hasidim relates an incident of an estrie who took the form of a cat. But a certain Jew sensed a familiarity with the cat, identified it as an estrie and struck it. The following day a woman approached the man asking him for bread and salt, would have complied but was warned by a wise old Jew not to give it to her.

Rabbi Yehuda Hachasid also cautioned that a deceased estrie in the grave wasn’t necessarily dead. It could rise from the grave unless it was buried correctly. Accordingly, an estrie that is buried with its mouth open must be stuffed with earth otherwise it will rise and seek out blood. He sites other rabbinical sources (Rabenu Yerucham, Rav Yoel Shem Tov, Rav Menasheh ben Yisroel; the Zohar; and Taame Hamitzvot of the Radvaz) that conquer with his opinion.

Our folk history is rich with customs on how to navigate in a world where vampires and werewolves in search of human blood moved freely in towns and villages where unsuspecting humans lived. Earlier I said that our tradition grew on two tracks one was halachic; the other folk history / aggadic. There were times however that while they ran somewhat parallel to each other at times they intersected. An instance of this intersection where the folk tradition influenced halachic renderings was at the crossroads of halacha and survival. Folk tradition understood that vampires, estries and Liliths do not always strike in obvious ways. Sometimes they appear in the night as spirits sitting on our hands and fingers waiting for us to rub our eyes, mouth or ears which would be the portals of entry into our bodies for these spirits. In order to avoid this, our rabbis declared that Jews upon waking in the morning before even walking “daled amos” were to wash there hands (negel vasser). Many developed the ritual of placing a bowel of water and cup near the bed precisely for this purpose. Interestingly, on Yom Kippur, although we are forbidden to bath our bodies we are still obligated by Jewish law to wash our hands up to the knuckles in order to perform the mitzvah of “negel vasser”, avoiding the possibility of the body being invaded by the “ruchot”, evil spirits who distinguish not between weekdays and holy days.

Our rabbis believed at one time in these spirits of the middle world. In our sophistication we have written out of our heritage a rich folk history that ought to be considered as a legitimate part of our tradition. Not until reading an innocuous and light weight best seller and connecting it to some science fiction based upon Einstein did I realize that maybe its true. Maybe there is a universe running parallel to ours populated by estries and Liliths crossing their boundary ever so often in search……of nutrition.