Monday, March 30, 2009

Muse: Tsav 2009

“Add your burnt offerings to your sacrifices, and eat flesh. For the day that I brought you out of Egypt I spoke not to your fathers, nor commanded them anything in matters of burnt offerings or sacrifice: But this is what I commanded them, obey me and I will be your God, and you will be my people…but they did not obey nor lend me their ear….”(Jeremiah 7:21-24)

This Shabbat is known as Shabbat Hagadol, the Shabbat before Pesach. The haftarah is a special one, since it is Shabbat Hagadol. However, in years when Tsav is read not on the Shabbat before Pesach the Haftarah is excerpted from Jeremiah. Even though this week is Shabbat Hagadol I prefer to muse on the regular haftarah.

The quoted text above taken from the excerpted chapter of Jeremiah and read at the conclusion of parshat Tsav on a Shabbat not preceding Pesach reflects what the intent and purpose of the sacrifices in the Temple were intended to be. To understand what that message is one has to ask what did Jeremiah mean when he said “But this is what I commanded them, obey me and I will be your God, and you will be my people…”

What was it that God said to the Israelites on the day that He brought them out of Egypt? He didn’t command them on the laws of sacrificial worship – that came later. So what was it that was said to the Israelites on that historic day? The answer to this we find in Jeremiah chapter 34 which deals with the laws governing the freeing of slaves. The Israelites were commanded that on the seventh year they were to free the slaves. This they did but they immediately enslaved them again. They sought a way around the law – a loophole. The law was that the slaves had to be freed on the 7th year. Nowhere did it say that they couldn’t be enslaved again! So the Israelites committed a grave sin by corrupting the spirit of the law.

In Jeremiah 34:13-14 the prophet reveals that on the day the Israelites were taken out of Egypt they were commanded by God that any slaves in their possession would have to be freed on the 7th year. When Jeremiah says in chapter 7:23 “I will be your God and you will be my people” he was referencing the freeing of slaves on the 7th year. The corruption of this commandment given to the Israelites on their first day of freedom was a sin meriting the destruction of the Temple and the end to sacrificial worship. In this sense Jeremiah was saying that God didn’t want our sacrifices, but rather the obeying of the law. Sacrifice was never intended to be the essence of worship, but was only meant to symbolize devotion to God by those observing the covenant.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Bow Your Head

I love weddings. I realize that may sound a little metro, but I love weddings, especially orthodox weddings. It doesn’t happen to matter whether they are ultra frum or orthodox lite. What I like most is the attention to detail and tradition. I even like taking notice of the evolution of the detail within the orthodox ceremony. Let me modify my enthusiastic acceptance and love of the orthodox wedding: I love the ceremony itself; in the vernacular: the chupah. It’s a ceremony laden with meaning, rich and textured history and pregnant with symbolic value. But that’s not how I always felt. After all I’m a cynic!

It is a ceremony that has morphed from its humble beginnings to the opulent and ostentatious pageantries demonstrating the immense wealth accumulated by hard work and smarts over the past generation. I have never placed much stock in ostentatious ceremonies. My wife and I were married on a shoestring without any prenuptial planning. Our chupah was a tallit supported by four friends (and ever sagging in the middle) at my sisters home officiated by a good friend (may he rest in peace) and chavrutah. No frills, no flowers, no booze and no band; just a few good friends who mattered to us and family. But not everyone is like me. Some people need to party. Some need to show off. Others need the admiration of the masses. And so, because of human nature the chupah has undergone much change: from the simple metal or wood frames supporting some insignificant material to designer chupahs today which have become statements of good art or in appreciation of the fine arts, some with a price tag in the tens of thousands.

The ceremony has morphed from the accepted mixed seating to separate seating, from sitting and schmoozing in hushed tones while the bride and groom enter the room; to rising out of respect when the bride and groom elegantly and gallantly make are accompanied to the chupah. I used to think this latest embellishment ridiculous and ought to be reserved for a very, very important dignitary. The ceremony has morphed from the whinny voice a baal tephila’s rendition of the “Baruch Haba” to the beautiful sound of a professional singer expressing his appreciation of the bride and groom as he chants melodiously with a contemporary sound the welcoming of two loving spirits coming together under the chupah.

I admit that I never liked the use of the kitel by the groom under the chupah for several reasons: The kitel while worn on the High Holidays signifying spirituality, solemnity and purity also symbolizes a shroud. I don’t find a shroud appropriate to don under the chupah unless it is symbolic of a marriage not made in heaven. There is also the esthetic consideration. I can’t see covering a beautifully fitted tuxedo with a cheap cotton kitel. It turns an otherwise smartly dressed groom into a shnook resembling the appearance of a meat butcher!

This past weekend changed the way I feel about traditional ceremonies. My wife and I attended a wedding ceremony that was disturbing to say the least. Had the ceremony not concluded with the breaking of a glass I wouldn’t have been certain that it was a Jewish ceremony. And I thought I had seen it all in my lifetime – but was I ever mistaken. I have witnessed (not as an eid) egalitarian ceremonies where women participated in the kedushin, I have seen women participate in the sheva berachaot under the chupah and I have seen the so called double ring deal done with a stretch of the halachic imagination. But I have never seen a ceremony like this.

Officiated by a reform rabbi and a cantor, appearing in a talit (more like a thin prayer shawl worn by ministers when dispensing last rites or extreme unction) he replaced the kidushin with poetry readings. The sheva berachot were chanted by the cantor as though it were a funeral dirge. And of course there was a clear and undeniable double ring ceremony. I wouldn’t have expected otherwise. What I found objectionable was the wording of the double ring deal. The groom said to the bride the traditional “harei at mekudeshet li batabat zo k’dat moshe v’yisrael”. The bride then turned lovingly to the groom and said “herei ata mekudash le batabat zo k’daat moshe v’yisrael”. Really!! Do you honestly think that Moshe would have been happy about this!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

The bride didn’t circle the groom seven times and the groom didn’t don a kitel under the chupah. He did however wear running shoes (New Balance) – perhaps because we wear them on Yom Kippur. After all, the kitel too is worn on Yom Kippur; maybe this was his unique imprimatur, his own twist on the swapping the kitel out.

The real zinger however was when the rabbi asked the audience, the wedding guests, to bow their heads in prayer fro the happiness of the couple. I couldn’t do it. I kept my head high commenting to the person sitting to my left that this wasn’t the Jewish way. It was at that moment that I turned to my wife on my right and expressed my sorrow in ever having been critical or cynical of some of our cherished minhagim. I missed the separate seating, missed the monotonous and sometimes tedious reading of the ketubah and missed the groom shrouded in a kitel and many others of the particulars that embellish the richness, weightiness and holiness of one of our most sacred rituals.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

A Muse: Va’yikra 2009

Torat hakorbanot, the laws regarding sacrificial worship, occupies a significant place in the life of many Jews. The orthodox musaf prayer, the “shemone esrei” speaks to the restoration of sacrificial worship. Some yeshivot in Israel study the restoration of the Temple and the accompanying sacrificial worship. In the ultra orthodox Jewish School system beginners are in many instances introduced to bible study for the first time with Va’yikra instead of Genesis. Indeed this tradition goes back to the destruction of the second Temple. In Pesikta d’ Rav Kahane the question is asked why is it that young children begin their study of Torah with torat hakorbanot instead of Genesis? Because God said just as the sacrifices are pure and the children are pure together they make a perfect combination.

The study of sacrificial worship goes beyond the nostalgia for a glorious spiritual past. There is a deeper, more profound identification with the torat hakorbanot which has become part and parcel of the Jewish ethos. The idea of kidush hashem after the Bar Cochba rebellion brought a heightened awareness of the value of sacrificial worship which assumed a central place in the Jewish ethos. This ethos manifested itself later on during the crusades and repeated itself during unique periods in our history such as the Spanish Inquisition, the Holocaust and most recently for Israeli soldiers who fell during the various campaigns. Those critical of the culture of sacrificial worship could not avoid appreciating the developing ethos of korbanot which in part defines the life of the Jewish people in an existential framework.

After the destruction of the Temple Torah study replaced sacrificial worship since the rite of sacrificial worship could no longer be performed. As referenced in P’sikta d’ Rav Kahane Torah study was considered “on par” with sacrificial worship since God said to Israel since you are studying Torah consider it as though you are performing the holy rite of sacrifice. In essence then, the hermeneutics replaced the ritual.

Not all were totally comfortable with this. The Rambam is a good example of the ambivalence regarding the place of sacrifice in ritual Judaism. In the section of Mishne Torah regarding Kings and the Messiah the Rambam says that the melech moshiach will cause a reversal back to the Davidic Kingdom when the Temple will be rebuilt and sacrificial worship will be reinstated. This is contradicted in Guide for the Perplexed (3:32) where he claims that sacrificial worship was a phase in the development of the Jewish people intended to temporarily meet their spiritual/ritual needs. The Jewish people were in the process of refining those expressions and sacrifice would ultimately be replaced by prayer and later with meditation.

Classic halachic Judaism wrestled with this disparity intent on reconciling this apparent contradiction within the Rambam. The gap however isn’t bridgeable in spite of all the pilpulism, because the two approaches represent two different methodologies and disciplines; one is halachic the other is philosophical. What is imminently clear however from the study of torat hakorbanot and our response over the ages is that ritual trumps philosophical approaches. Man in his basic and fundamental approach sought to reach out to God through ritual; and sacrifice became the epicenter of religious practice. Approaching God with the intent of beseeching was performed through sacrifice. Once sacrifice fell out of use, it was study that became ritualized as the primary means of worship.

Man doesn’t study only to fulfill the commandment to study Torah. He does so however for the existential need to pray. Study became the replacement for sacrifice as the primary expression by which man can draw closer to God.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

A Muse: Va’Yakhel & Pekudei 2009

The portion of Va’Yakhel, details the construction of the mishkan. Interesting however is the positioning of the commandment to observe the Shabbat at the beginning of the chapter which is seemingly a non- sequitur. If the portion starts with a theme, it would seem logical that there would be follow thru. However, verse four shifts rather abruptly to the preparatory work for the construction of the mishkan.

Shabbat is mentioned in Torah in two fashions: as an ideal and as a practical means of living with consequences if not observed according to the law. As an ideal, Shabbat is intended as the capstone for God “completing” the creation. God didn’t need to rest, but presented to mankind the idea that one day a week man ought to rest from the burdens and drudgery of survival. One day a week man needed to focus on something other than physical survival. The other context by which Shabbat is referenced is when it is positioned next to the construction of the mishkan with dire warnings. Here it isn’t an ideal, but a practical and ordered means by which to live and be governed by rules.

The kinds of work not permitted on Shabbat are the kinds of work related activities carried on in the building of the mishkan. The thirty nine principle forms of work are so derived. Carrying a heavy burden on one’s shoulder wasn’t one of the works prohibited on the Shabbat because it wasn’t one of the thirty nine principle forms of work. Does that mean therefore that one should be able to bear heavy back breaking burdens on Shabbat? Technically yes, but that would then contradict the ideal of the Shabbat which was introduced at he conclusion of the creation story. According to that concept, man should be able to rest one day a week and turn his mind to other things than physical survival.

The halachic definition of work doesn’t consider the effort involved. In other words, work isn’t defined by the physical energy invested rather by the intention, what is referred to in the Talmud as “melechet machshevet”. Melechet machshevet is concerned not with the process but with the end result. For example, winnowing on Shabbat is forbidden because it involves sifting or separating. The process of winnowing has two stages: Tossing the grain in the air and having the wind blow away the chaff. In and of itself, the tossing of the grain in the wind isn’t forbidden, but since the intent is to have the wind blow the chaff away it becomes forbidden.

Twenty first century technology makes much of our work effortless. One might therefore conclude that when considering the “ideal of resting on Shabbat” as introduced at the conclusion of the creation story it wouldn’t be in violation since it is effortlessly performed. However, the key to determining this would be whether or not what one intends falls under the rubric of melechet machshevet – the intention and final outcome. If the final outcome results in one of the 39 categories of “work” as performed in the building of the mishkan it would be forbidden - even if no physical effort was involved.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Two Kinds of Jew

Growing up in the 1960’s I never thought that I could imagine a situation where I would have to entertain the idea that there were two kinds of Jews: American Jews and Jewish Americans. Growing up in the orthodox Jewish, Zionist youth movement B’nei Akiva we would have these jam sessions on who we were: Jewish Americans or American Jews. During the summers when we attended Camp Moshava those discussions were much more intense and moderated by “shlichim”. Hypothetical situations were introduced where the interests of America and those of Israel were no longer congruent. We’d argue back and forward analyzing the issues from different perspectives presenting coherent positions regarding what the appropriate reaction of the Jewish community ought to be. We worked hard to construct those kinds of hypotheticals and worked even harder trying to reconcile ourselves to those situations. Not any more.

We have arrived at that watershed period when the Jewish community is standing at the threshold of a new age – an age where we will have to make some very painful choices: are we American Jews or are we Jewish Americans. In either case there is a level of discomfort in making a choice – but a choice we will all have to make. Some have already made the choice as is evident by their writings and political positions. Jewish leaders such as Eric Yoffe and Leonard Fein have indicated that they have made their choice and are proud to be American Jews. That is to say, that they place their priorities and identity first as Americans and secondly as Jews. They of course will deny this and explain, intellectualize and rationalize that there position really is in the best interest of Israel and the Jewish people.

In recent articles which appeared in the Forward (February 27, 2009) both these men have clearly signed on to the Obama bandwagon in what appears to be a more “balanced” approach in dealing with Israel. Leonard Fein believes that it is ok to criticize Israel, especially Israel’s prosecution of the Gaza War (Operation Cast Lead) and her lack of proportional response. He seems to think that it is appropriate to wash the “dirty linen” in public, because he says otherwise “if we are prohibited from washing our dirty laundry in public, how will it be laundered?” What a stupid remark! It should be laundered in private where it always has, away from and outside the purview of the public and anti Semites who don’t need any more reasons to bash Israel.

While Leonard Fein is just a bleeding heart liberal whose has found his voice with the Obama administration I am deeply concerned with Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism. Here is a man whose professional business is Judaism, apparently for as long as it is comfortable. Like all reform Jews, being Jewish is a matter of convenience. Once there is a hint of inconvenience the passion for Judaism begins to wane and takes a back seat to his patriotism. He too is an American Jew instead of a Jewish American as his chosen profession would have seemed to indicate and as others before him such as Rabbi Stephen Weiss has validated. Avigdor Lieberman’s rise to power as a new power broker and king maker in Israeli politics has thrown a monkey wrench into Yoffie’s Jewish world view. How inconvenient!

Avigdor Lieberman is the first totally honest and principled Israeli politician that has come to power in along time. Many of his views aren’t all that comfortable – so what. If I can apply Obama’s economic argument to current events in Israel the point will be made: Obama argues that some real tough economic choices for the American people have to be made because for “too long we have been at a party and now the time has come to pay”. The left wing is delighted that the rich will be taxed and that there will be a modified but real distribution of wealth. So why are the lefties complaining when Lieberman says basically the same thing. For too long the Jews in Israel have been at a party and now the time to pay has come. We can no longer live with our heads in the sand. The exponentially growing Arab population in Israel has questionable loyalty and may be a fifth column. Some very tough choices will have to be made! This became ever so evident during operation Cast Lead but was abundantly clear in the past when the local Arab population clearly identified with the national aspirations of the Palestinians. They can’t have it both ways: either they identify with the Israel as loyal citizens or they identify as loyal Palestinians.

Yoffie of course disagrees. Lieberman’s desire that every Israeli – Jew and Arab take a loyalty oath is anathema to Yoffie and, as he says, to the majority of American Jews. I don’t buy that. Yoffie argues that “no one in his or her right mind believes that these problems will be solved by rescinding the Israeli citizenship of more than a million Arabs.” Why not? Why can’t these problems be solved simply with an oath of allegiance? Those who can’t swear loyalty to Israel will reunite with the new Palestinian state where they will be able to take a loyalty oath. Incidentally, this isn’t a new problem. It is precisely because of this reason that Arabs citizens were never conscripted into the IDF (excluding Druze and Bedouin communities).

Yoffie isn’t the spokesman for the majority of American Jews nor has he taken a scientific poll of the American Jews position on Liebermans position for a loyalty oath. But more importantly, he is a reform rabbi in America and ought to address those religious issues concerning American Jews. After all, he is an American Jew and not a Jewish American.

Yoffie speaks of the feelings of the majority of American Jews. What he doesn’t address is the feeling of the majority of Israelis who voted for the right wing parties. They, the majority of Israeli believe that it is time for a right wing government to deal with the issues at hand. Yoffie is uncomfortable with that – too bad. And uncomfortable he is. Yoffie continues to write that American Jews “are dismayed by Lieberman, mostly because he represents values that we abhor…” Yoffie may abhor those values but the majority of Israelis certainly don’t. Israelis are fighting for their security and right to exist free of the constant threat of violence because they are Jews. They are dealing with real Jewish existential questions, and don’t have the luxury to gamble with their future. They don’t have the luxury for the mental and spiritual gymnastic of the silly intellectuals best played out on hollow pulpits by their robed rabbis in their empty synagogues haunted by intermarried couples who are searching for identity.

Yoffie and Fein are two uncomfortable Jews. I feel sorry for them. They live delusional lives. For too long they had the luxury of sitting on the fence, intellectualizing, teaching, writing and lecturing about the arcane and the inconsequential. I guess the time has come for us to stop playing that game: what are you: an American Jew or a Jewish American?

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Purim 2009

The origins of Purim grow out of the Esther narrative. The story of Esther, is a work of fiction, a fantastic tale, regaling of how a beautiful Jewish orphan becomes the Queen of Persia. (Circa 4000B.C.E.) Esther saves the Jewish community of the Persian Empire from annihilation as desired by the anti Semite and descendant of the intractable foe of the Jews, Haman.

The holiday of Purim was probably modeled after the ancient spring festival celebrating light and warmth after a long winter. It is a holiday that indirectly celebrates the victory of good over bad; the supremacy of light over darkness; and the dominance of good and order over evil and chaos. Added to this is the personal experience of the Jewish people – survival as a people in spite of the attempts by anti Semites to annihilate us.

The Purim story is unique in that it treats our delivery from evil with decided humor and irreverence. Perhaps this is the reason why God is never mentioned. The story is a spoof. It tells of the King’s feast lasting 180 days celebrating his good fortune, topping it off with a 7 day blow out party of debauchery with no restrictions on alcoholic consumption. Vashti, his queen is commanded to make a nude appearance which she refuses to do and thus sets in motion her fall and the rise of her replacement.

Ahaseurus is urged to replace Vashti since her refusal to obey the king might be misconstrued by his subjects as a signal for all women of the kingdom to disobey their husbands. To assure that there is no misunderstanding among his subjects he sends out a royal letter urging men to exercise control over their women. In the meantime the king launches a national search for the most beautiful woman in the realm. His campaign ignites the imagination and hopes of every damsel almost in the same way that American Idol has lit the hopes and dreams of aspiring entertainers. After many competitions and contests the semi-finalists spent a year primping in beauty spas and soaking in oil of myrrh, and of course Esther emerges as Ms Persia ultimately being crowned queen.

In her position as queen, she became privy to information regarding plots to overthrow the king as well as the evil intentions to have the Jews killed. By manipulating the right people and exploiting events she was able to maneuver things in such a way that she was able to expose the real culprits and win the day for the Jewish people. The Scroll of Esther goes into much greater detail and is read in synagogues as a way of marking and celebrating the holiday of Purim.

The Book (Scroll) of Esther

In a word, the Book (Scroll) of Esther, one of the five scrolls in our canon has been the inspiration for the joke “They tried to kill us. We won. Let’s eat.” It’s a story of exaggeration and hyperbole.

King Ahaseurus who ruled approximately 4000 B.C.E. governed from Ethiopia to India and of course ruled large multicultural Jewish communities. The Jews of these communities were by and large secure, but felt at times insecure as a result of periodic surges of anti Semitism imperiling their lives and communities.

The Purim story tells of such a moment in our history of insecurity, exploited by Haman a supposed descendent of Amalek, whose intentions were foiled by Queen Esther. Esther, a beauty, beguiled the king with her world class looks, won the local and national beauty pageants, thus becoming another of the King’s wives, but soon replacing Vashti for the number one spot. Understanding the perilous situation of the Jewish community she schemes plots and orchestrates, doing whatever necessary to manipulate the king to her position. Making the story even more complex was the fact that she hid her own Jewish identity from the king. Only after she flushes out Haman and exposes him and his dastardly intent does she reveal her true Jewish identity. As a result of her moxie the Jews are saved and haman and his ten sons are hung from the same gallows intended for Mordechai.

The main cast of characters is the following:
Esther aka Hadassah - a beautiful teenager our star and heroin.
Ahaseurus – King of Persia and hopelessly in love with Esther.
Vashti – Ahaseurus first wife who refuses the king’s command to appear at the party.
Haman – Advisor to the king, anti Semite and descendant of Amalek.
Mordechai – aka Marduk. Cousin of Esther and architect of the plan to save the Jews.
Hatach – Messenger boy.
Zeresh – Haman’s wife.
Teresh – Treasons plotter to kill the king and Mordechai uncovers the plot.
Hegai – The harem czar.
God – Never once mentioned in the story.

A Muse: Ki Tisa 2009

This week’s parsha is riveting because of the drama surrounding the “sin” of the Golden Calf. I have purposely put into quotation marks the word “sin” because it isn’t at all clear that the design and construction of the Golden Calf was actually a sin. Clearly this week’s parsha treats the erection of the Golden Calf as a sin, but if we examine this episode and related episodes many questions remain unanswered.

There is disparity between this version of the Golden Calf, Exodus 32, and the version related in Deuteronomy 9. In our text it isn’t not only the “people” who are punished, but Aron too bears some of the blame in allying with the “people” to construct the Golden Calf. In Deuteronomy 9 it is the people who are blamed for the sin; Aron is briefly mentioned in passing only once in verse 20. From Deuteronomy it is abundantly clear that Aron didn’t play a central role as depicted in Exodus 32.

The story of the Golden Calf repeats itself almost identically in Kings when Yeravam breaks away from the united kingdom which was under Rechavam’s rule. While it is true that Yeravam was being labeled a rebel and idolater in Chronicles it is unlikely that this characterization is accurate. One would have to question the likelihood of Yeravam during a crisis would institute Gods that were foreign to his own history and tradition. Those whom negated the kingdom of Yeravam were from the Kingdom of Yehudah who wanted one central kingdom with one central religious doctrine and address which was to be the Temple in Jerusalem.

It would appear that in reality the Northern Kingdom were not instituting a religious reformation as the Kingdom of Judah were insinuating but rather a restoration, a return to the religion of the Hebrews in the desert. It would mean the construction of the Golden Calf, not as an expression of rebellion, but as part of the ritual. Most of the prophets didn’t find anything wrong with the Golden Calf of the Northern Kingdom. Eliyahu the prophets whose reputation was made in his fights against the worshippers of Baal didn’t object to the Calf, nor did his student Elisha. The only prophet on record who objected was Hoshea. It appears that the Golden Calf of the Northern Kingdom was a symbol as was the Cherubim ensconced on the Kaporet of the Ark.

Thus it would appear that Yeravam was reinstituting customs that had been part of the nation of Israel from inception. The Kingdom of Judea which sought hegemony negated the practice of the Northern Kingdom insinuating that the practice of the Golden Calf even at the time of Moses was evil in the eyes of God; those participating in its construction and worship were guilty.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Haircuts by Rudolf

It’s been a long time since a Jewish barber coiffed my hair. That’s because where I come from there aren’t any. I mean, that in Israel there is a plethora of Jewish barbers but here there is a dearth of them. I know this may not be politically correct to say but we’re not supposed to entrust our Jewish locks to the likes of a gentile barber. That’s because there is an old Jewish law still on the books that says so.

The reason for this archaic but possibly still sensible halacha is that a long time ago, when anti-Semitism was the norm our wise rabbis were afraid that bodily harm could befall an innocent Jew doing nothing more than getting a haircut. That Jewish law is a throwback to the middle ages when barbers performed “blood lettings”, a procedure by which the barber opened the veins in your arm in order to bleed out all the pollutants and bad ethers that were causing you sickness (hence the barber pole of streaming red and white, to advertise blood letting, and the oversized barber chairs with wide arm rests which appear to be designed for surgical procedures). The plague which killed off nearly three quarters of Europe was blamed on the Jews. Naturally, our rabbis said that it was a matter of “sacanot nefashot” to use a non Jewish barber for fear that he would use the razor to cut your throat instead of opening your veins.

When I was a yeshiva student there used to be a holocaust survivor, Rudolf who would zoom over to the Yeshiva on his motorcycles on Thursday nights and barber us after Maariv. Actually he couldn’t cut hair but it was considered more of a “mercy cut”. He needed the money. It was no big deal. We’d stand in a line in the dingy basement, and under a low watt naked light bulb Rudolf would give us buzz cuts. It was sort of spooky, , he spoke very little English, he looked strange giving new meaning to the idea of “techiyat hameitim”. I shouldn’t be irreverent because of everything he went through but that’s how I remember it. If he liked you he’d give you a ride on his motorcycle. I wonder what ever happened to him? But he was the last Jewish barber that ever coiffed me. Since then it’s been a stream of your typical American barbers. I’ve never really been concerned with their ethnic or religious affiliation because living in America and with a few years between me and the bubonic plague I haven’t been concerned with them slitting my throat because I am a Jew – all except perhaps one.

My barber is a wonderful guy. He is passionate about his trade, loves to talk about politics and current events, is very gay and has a flare for knowing what haircut really works for you. Besides, he is so gentle I don’t think he is capable of swatting a fly buzzing in his ear on a hot humid summer day. Recently while he was cutting my hair he introduced me to a new barber cutting hair in the next chair; Alonzo a recent immigrant from Barcelona, Spain. Trying to be friendly I informed him that I had been to the Andalusia and that I was headed to Barcelona this coming late summer / early fall. We exchanged pleasantries about Spain and Europe for a while and for some reason the tone of the conversation slipped from a friendly tone to one with an edge and slightly menacing.

He cautioned me about the hot humid summers because there isn’t a lot of air conditioning. Asking him why, he said that unlike the Americans, the Europeans are very concerned about global warming. As he said this he took on the air of superiority; the moral high ground, almost as though America was singularly guilty for the sin of global warming. A red light went off in my head. I asked him why he thought Europe was so concerned and Alonzo began to tell me how Europeans have always been on the vanguard. According to Alonzo, Europe and certainly Spain had an advantage over America because they were an old and sophisticated culture with a global perspective much more comprehensive than America.

Having gotten my gander up I responded that the Europeans weren’t all that sophisticated because oftentimes they had treated their dogs better than people, whereas Americans, while not always sensitive to global issues were deeply committed to human rights and dignity - more so than Europeans. Challenging me on that I simply remarked that Europeans were guilty of being rabid anti-Semites and responsible for the murder of 6 million Jews, the Spanish included. In addition I asked him if he was proud of the Spanish Inquisition.

And so the conversation continued for a while. He tried to weasel out of it all by saying that I was throwing up old, very old history, that while mistakes were made, Spain has good relations with Israel today. In my anger I thrust at him the Hebrew paper, which I had happen to have with me and which had on the front page an article about the Spanish government bringing war crimes against Israeli generals for taking out a high value terrorist in Europe. I noted that it was only the Spanish, not the French, not the Germans, not the English or the Scandinavians, who opted to wage a second Inquisition on us.

At that point Alonzo got up close and personal waiving a scissors in his animated hand going off on a tirade on how we were persecuting the Palestinians in Gaza like Nazis. At that moment I realized the wisdom our rabbis possessed in cautioning us not to be barbered by gentiles. As bad as Rudolf’s haircuts were I was all of a sudden missing him.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

A Muse: Tetzaveh 2009

“I will sanctify the Tent of Meeting and the altar…I will abide among the Israelites and I will be their God and they shall know that I am the Lord their God who brought them out from the Land of Egypt that I might abide by them, I am the Lord their God.” (Exodus 29: 44-46)

So, in our text it appears as though God can reduce himself to those dimensions which can appear within the Tent of Meeting. As a matter of fact in parshat Terumah God says that he will meet with Moses and commune with him over the kaporet, the covering of the Ark where the cherubim were standing, in an area 2 ½ cubits by 1 ½ cubits. On the other hand After Solomon built and dedicated the Temple he declared “the heaven and heaven of heavens cannot contain you, how much less this house that I have built”. It would appear that there is a contradiction. Either God can cause Himself to be contained in a physical space or He can’t. This question has been the subject of many commentators and philosophers over the generations.

Y. Leibowitz too addressed this issue and explained it in a novel way by using a haggadic text. The haggadic text refers to a conversation between a man and his wife and they say the following: “When our love was strong, we could sleep together on the edge of a sword (another version reads that the edge of a sword wouldn’t have been too narrow), for there was great love between us. Now, when the love between us has ceased or weakened, a bed the width of 60 cubits is not enough for us”. Obviously this ought to be understood as a metaphor. When the love between the God and the Israelites was young, fresh and intense the Shechina was able to reduce itself to the size of the kaporet where God would communicate with Moses. However, as the love became weaker Solomon was able to understand that the heavens weren’t big enough to contain the Shechina how much more so a temple built by man!