Sunday, December 20, 2009

Of the Rav, Rav Schachter and Mishpaha

I was genuinely excited to see that ורבי מורי R. Herschel Schachter שליט"א was featured on the cover of the English edition of Mishpaha magazine (I was a member of Rav Schachter's Kollel from 1979-1982).
Of course, Rav Schachter deserves the recognition, in his own right. More to the point, the extensive interview furthers the process whereby the writings of מו"ר רש"י Rav Soloveitchik זצ"ל openly penetrate the Yeshiva and Hassidic communities. [I say 'openly' because everyone knows that אגרות הגרי"ד , שיעורים לזכר אבא מרי ז"ל and the various collections of שיעורים are purchased by 'Black hat' Yeshivah students, teachers and others.] It caps the process that Rav Schachter began with his two anthologies, נפש הרב and פניני הרב.
The interview was, largely, a pleasure to read. I was especially appreciative of the fact that Rav Schachter admitted that he has a very specific 'take' on our Rebbe, which differs from that of others (e.g. Rabbi Professor Haym Soloveitchik, the Rav's son, whom he quotes in the interview, to that effect). His presentation lent an important element of balance to the picture of the Rav as being primarily a philosopher.
There were, albeit, some very jarring moments.
Rav Schachter cites David Holzer's highly problematic collection of the Rav's private table talk, Thinking Aloud, to the effect that Religious Zionism had replaced the Torah with Zionism. This citation was particularly troublesome by the way it was manipulated by the interviewer. Now, I have no doubt that the Rav might have been troubled by the priorities of certain elements within Religious Zionism, especially by the Rav Kook school. He certainly might well have expressed that criticism sharply. However, the way the quote was used left the impression that Rav Soloveitchik distanced himself from Religious Zionism. This is simply not true. I was sorry that this was cited by Rav Schachter, who is himself a devoted Religious Zionist and a very outspoken lover of Eretz Yisrael.
The interview closes with Rav Schachter's observation that the Rav urged people to study for graduate degrees in order to make a living. He suggests that had he been aware of the effloresence of the Kollelim, he would not have been so emphatic about the need for graduate study. Others, myself included, differ with him on this point.
Rav Soloveitchik זצ"ל needs no one's validation. He was recognized in his lifetime by the greatest of his colleagues (R. Moshe Feinstein, R. Aaron Kotler, R. Shneur Kotler, R. Shmuel Rozovsky, R. Avraham Cahaneman and others זצ"ל) as 'the greatest Rosh Yeshiva in the world.' However, that message was hidden from the masses, and Rav Schachter has done a tremendous service, a huge Qiddush HaShem, to our rebbe and our Yeshiva by disseminating his Torah near and far.
[UPDATE: ברוך שכיוונתי. Rabbi Harry Maryles comes to similar conclusions, and puts things into perspective, here.]

Hareidi Internet Meltdown

I'm not really sure what to make of the apparent success of Hareidi rabbis and Rashe Yeshiva in closing down a number of prominent websites that catered to their communities. On the one hand, I understand wanting to keep the salacious and undersireable elements of the internet out of the community. On the other hand, doing so is a truly Sisyphean task. Do these rabbis really think that by driving these portals out of business, they will keep people from the net? On the contrary, these 'safe' portals served a valuable function in providing information without blind links to undesireable sites.

I suspect that there is a deeper motive here. These websites provided Haredim with a place to vent; to express themselves on issues of moment, and often in contrast to the official organs of their community. In other words, this is a bald attempt to shut down dissent.

It won't work. It can't work. It might, however, return to haunt and undermine the authority of those who enacted it.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

On Insubordination, the Freeze and Ehud Barak

There is really no limit to the cynicism, the megalomaniacal arrogance, of Ehud Barak. He led the Labor Party to disaster in the last elections. His position as party leader is under constant (justified, IMHO) criticism for incompetence. He was roundly censured by the State Comptroller for spending tens of thousands of dollars for luxury expenses on a trip to Paris. He was recently condemned for employing an illegal foreign worker.
How does Barak fight back? By smashing the Settlers and the Religious Zionist community.
First, he ran roughshod over the government's decision to suspend only new housing starts in Judea and Samaria. Instead, he revoked the right of local councils to issue ANY building permits. He did so to show how tough a Leftist he is, reining in those brutal settlers (present company included). [See Menahem Benn's comments.]

Next, he went looking for a Hesder Yeshivah to beat up on. He found one, Har Berakhah. The Rosh Yeshivah there is a member of the Hardali Right, who has supported army insubordination in the face of orders to evacuate settlements. However, he's a very small fish. The whole yeshivah has thirty or so students. Barak, however, decided to make this a cause celebre, in order to win points with the Leftists. According to today's papers, he's running headlong in to the total disbanding of the Hesder Yeshivot, which supply a high degree of the officer corps, have soldiers who've been decorated for bravery above and beyond their percentage in the population, and whose motivation and devotion to duty far outstrips anything the Labor Party supporters can muster. (After all, a very large percentage of the leaders of the Israeli Left, left [the country, that is]).

Now, I absolutely oppose refusal to obey orders that are not idefensibly illegal or immoral. However, Barak's nefarious, cynical attacks on the religious zionist community will only hurt the army, and the country. OTOH, what does Barak care, as long as he gets to be Defense Minister?

Political Correctness in America....

could be more than deadly.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

American Academics in Israel: Misfits in the Promised Land (Part IV)

Stranger than Fiction: I had Naches from Gideon Levy

I'm sure that he didn't mean to provide anyone of my ilk with pleasure. However, his remarks here prove that my sense is correct. This country is becoming ever more Jewish. (Now, PLEASE, let the official representatives of religion not mess it up).

Sunday, December 06, 2009

Sex and The Single Orthodox Jew: A MUST READ

In his usual sensitive and learned fashion, QED opens up a much needed discussion on a pressing and tragically avoided subject: the inability of the Modern Orthodox community to address Sex and Sex education.

Rav Soloveitchik on Coeducation

Some issues just won't go away. One of these is whether Rav Soloveitchik זצ"ל was in favor of co-education, ab initio, or only ex post facto. A friend recently sent me this discussion of the issue by R. Shmuel Eliyahu, the Chief Rabbi of Safed (and a leader of the Hardali communuty).

Essentially he makes two points. First, the Rav nowhere wrote that co-education was permissible, halakhically. Second, unnamed students of the Rav were interviewed by Shaul Schiff of the late, lamented HaZofeh. His findings were, not surprisingly for a Hareidi publicist, that co-education at Maimonides was a concession to the times.

With all due respect, R. Eliyahu is wrong. First, his argument from the lack written sources discussing the issue is, at best, disingenuous. Anyone who knows anything about Rav Soloveitchik knows that he hardly ever wrote (never mind published) his halakhic decisions. This might be regrettable. It is, however, a fact. Similarly, the Rav never wrote a programmatic essay on the positive need for a broad secular education. Yet can anyone, save the most extreme revisionists, deny that (as Professor Twersky זצ"ל once wrote) that such a need was self-evident?

As far as Shaul Schiff's article (which is no longer on line), since I don't know who he asked, there's no way of knowing how reliable his sources were. I can only repeat what I know from close family members (as reported by Seth Farber here). The Rav and Rebbetzin never considered co-education an halakhic issue. For them it was an educational question. They were convinced that separate classes would deprive the girls of the same level of Torah and academic excellence as the boys. Therefore, co-educational classes, ipse facto, were self-justifying.

Since Rav Shmuel Eliyahu and his followers oppose equal education for girls, obviously such considerations are of no import.

[As for his claim that co-education is in violation of the Shulchan Arukh, hasn't he ever heard of the Levush?]

UPDATE: Check out the comments.

Monday, November 30, 2009

My Back Porch: So Much for Human Rights and the Obama Jive

The news is full of Netanyahu's decision to capitulate to Obama, and freeze construction in Judea and Samaria. This move is, ostensibly, in order to give the Palestinians an opportunity to return to the negotiating table. Everyone know this is a non-started, which the Palestinians rejected even before it was announced. The reasons for this rejection are beautifully laid out here. So the only thing that Bibi's freeze will do is to deny tens of thusands of people, most of whom voted for Bibi, their rights to live where they choose and to do as they wish with their homes. In addition, Obama and Bibi have now denied thousands of Israelis and Palestinian workers their ability to earn a living, since if there's no construction, there are no jobs.

Now that's alot of people, a number that's hard to comprehend. So, I'll make it easier. I'll provide a human interest example, mine.

We moved to Gush Etzion thirteen years ago. For years, we had hoped to renovate it. The trouble was that the zoning laws allowed for very limited expansion, certainly not enough for a family of seven, very tall people. Finally, the zoning laws were changed and we got the legal ok to add on in the back, so that we'd have room for our family. Now come Obama and Bibi and inform us that we can't fix our home, which is fully paid for, sits on land that was never owned by Arabs, and lies in the heart of a settlement bloc that everyone knows will always be part of Israel (even Jimmy Carter said as much). In addition, the Arab and Jewish craftsmen, suppliers, and builders will be out of work. this, in a bad economy, to boot.

My outrage at this move, more than the personal inconvenience, is my native outrage (bred in me as a Bostonian) at anyone telling me what I can or can't do with my house (as long as I comply with building ordinances). How comes Jews have no right to build legally, while Arabs build illegally on both sides of the 1949 border? What right does a foreign potentate have to interfere with the internal affairs of a sovereign state and ally? (Except that he knows that he can bully us but not righteous states like Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and North Korea.)

Bibi, unfortunately, will pay the electoral price of bowing low to Obama (as Obama will be haunted in 2012 by the picture of him bowing to the Saudi King). In the meantime, I feel violated. As well I should.


[UPDATE: Jameel confirms the above and adds some trenchent thoughts.]

American Academics in Israel: Misfits in the Promised Land (Part III)

In the introduction to his translation of R. Bahya Ibn Paquda's Hovot ha-Levavot, R. Judah Ibn Tibbon sets out the three key criteria for responsible, accurate translation:

1) Total mastery of the language of the original
2) Total mastery of the language of the translation, and
3) Total mastery of the subject matter of the work being translated.

The same criteria could easily be applied to academics, generally, and Jewish Studies, in particular. One must be thoroughly fluent in the languages of one's sources and in the subject matter. Since the language in which one is writing mediates between the sources and the reader, then absolute precision in translating concepts, modes of thought and sources is so critical as to be obvious.

Unfortunately, in many places, it is not obvious. Now, shoddy scholarship is not limited to any one group, or to any geographic location. It happens in Israel, as much as the Diaspora. ( Film historian, Shlomo Zand's obscene excuse for historiography is a recent case in point among Israelis. Zand embodies the exact opposite of Ibn Tibbon's sober assertion. He doesn't understand his sources and he isn't trained.)

However, as an American trained historian, it pains me to see that the most egregious situation is to be found in North America (and, to a lesser extent, Europe). It's not just a question of individual writers. As time goes on, the problem becomes increasingly structural (justifying manuscript boy's bottom line).

Briefly put, far too many PhD's in Post-Biblical Judaism and Jewish History lack basic Jewish literacy both in languages and Jewish Literature (broadly conceived). The result is nothing less than tragic. Some simply produce shoddy, 8th rate studies that may show awareness of other fields, but which scream ignorance of the sources that they are, prima facie, explaining. (I recently came upon a published paper on liturgy by a professor of Jewish Studies who didn't know the difference between חצי קדיש and קדיש תתקבל. Similarly, a study of Nachmanides was recently issued that was so egregious that a reviewer had to really stretch in order to find something positive to day about it. In other words, the number of academics to whom Haym Soloveitchik's strong words of protest apply is ever increasing. These, then become the mentors of the next generation, with all too foreseeable results.

Alternatively, aware of their deficiencies (or, being simply uninterested in the more substantive areas of Jewish Studies) scholars of Judaica opt to teach and undertake research in which Jewish literacy is less of an obstacle. In such cases, students are instilled with a less than total, or balanced, view of what Jewish civilization and experience comprehends.

Now, there are wonderful, brilliant, creative, responsible and broadly read scholars of Jewish Studies in the Diaspora. Many could teach the Israelis a thing or two about scholarship, and how to go about it (e.g. here, here, and here). Over all, though, the American scene appears (increasingly) to be the mirror-image of its Israeli counterpart. Thus, the Israeli foundation is sound, while the superstructure is weak (if one ever gets to building beyond the foundation). Abroad, elaborate buildings are constructed on severly compromised foundations.

The weight of the future, therefore, lies in teaching Israeli-trained scholars to build, and to build with vision. After all, כי מציון תצא תורה.



Friday, November 27, 2009

Thanksgiving Break

I'm not going to rehash the arguments in favor of celebrating Thanksgiving. My distinguished friend, and colleague, Rabbi Michael Broyde, has done a yeoman's job on that count (here). I would like to add one footnote to the position associated with Rav Soloveitchik.

Rabbi Broyde writes:

Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik also agreed that Thanksgiving was not a Gentile holiday, and ruled that it was permissible to eat turkey on Thanksgiving. Rabbi Hershel Schachter, in his intellectual biography of Rabbi Soloveitchik, Nefesh HaRav, writes:

"It was the opinion of Rabbi Soloveitchik that it was permissible to eat turkey at the end of November, on the day of Thanksgiving. We understood that, in his opinion, there was no question that turkey did not lack a tradition of kashrut and that eating it on Thanksgiving was not a problem of imitating gentile customs. We also heard that this was the opinion of his father, Rabbi Moshe Soloveitchik."

Others have also recounted that Rabbi Soloveitchik ruled this way, and that he found it difficult to comprehend how one could consider Thanksgiving a Gentile holiday or that it was prohibited to celebrate it. Indeed, there were instances when Rabbi Soloveitchik implied to his students that he and his family celebrated Thanksgiving, although shiur [class] was always held on Thanksgiving.

There is no need to imply that the Soloveitchik family celebrated Thanksgiving together. In Boston, this was a well known fact. Indeed, anyone who was in the Rav's class knew that shiur on Thanksgiving morning was moved up to 9AM in order to allow him to return to Boston in time for dinner at one of his sisters' homes.

[On a personal note, we're having Thanksgiving Dinner tonite (Shabbat). You see, in Israel we work on the last Thursday of November. Plenty to be thankful for, however.]

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

American Academics in Israel: Misfits in the Promised Land (Part II)

I recently heard the following story from a colleague: A student, specializing in one department, submitted a research proposal that involved subject matter that is generally identified with different department. The proposal was rejected on the grounds that topics associated with other specialties don't belong in that specific department.


Now, if the argument had been that the student did not possess the skills to deal with the two areas under discussion, there might have been room to talk. Even then, why not require the student to take 'x' courses or, in some other manner, gain the necessary expertise to undertake the project?
There is something fundamentally wrong with this type of academic 'territorialism.' Why, for example, was a prominent scholar of Halakhah once pilloried for having the temerity of addressing the interface between Halakhah and mysticism, on grounds that were reminiscent of R. Eleazar b. Azariah's retort to R. Aqiva (B. Sanhedrin 38b): 'Akiva, what have you to do with Aggadah? Confine yourself to Nega'im and Ohalot!' If one acquires the necessary skills, why not?


Specialization is a fact of contemporary academic life. However, there is a difference between specialization and compartmentalization. When I was growing up, a well known piece of advice was: 'Be a Jack of All Trades, and a master of one.' I believe that this should be the guiding principle of scholarship. This was one of the most important lessons that I learned from the late Prof. Isadore Twersky ז"ל. Knowledge is unified, and thus inter-related. Typically, he based this contention upon the encyclopedic nature of the writings of Maimonides (along with other medievals, to be sure). The central point is well taken. Jewish literature and history are fundamenally inter-textual and inter-contextual, respectively. Similarly, the the lines between genres of writings that Jews created, and between the Jewish and Gentile societies that they inhabited, were eminently permeable. While a person certainly needs to specialize, he equally needs to acquire as wide an awareness of the broader historical and intellectual context of his subject. Moreover, if one writes about Rashi and Ramban, for example, that should require learning the basics of medieval Hebrew poetry (and, or, piyyut). Or, perhaps, a dip into contemporary French and Catalan poetry too.


This lesson was driven home to me recently when I ended up finding something (not yet published) of significant Halakhic and historucal significance, in a collection of medieval poems. I was able to read and crack the poems because I spent a year studying medieval Hebrew poetry with the unforgettable, Prof. Yisrael Levin (a recent israel Prize winner), when he was on sabbatical in Boston. Literacy, yes. Specialization, not necessarily. It is enough, though, to undertake a study of halakhic implications in the poems of certain medievals. On the other hand, the article would have been rejected as a thesis topic because of כלך לך אצל נגעים ואהלות.


And that, in fact, is why I described myself and many of my American compatriots, as 'misfits.' It's not just a question of responsible scholarship obliging one to 'think out of the box.' It's that we take such broad view, intellectual history as a given. (In a sense, it's an academic חומרא). Unfortunately, far too many of our colleagues here don't really understand what we do, never mind the methodologies we employ (e.g. History of Ideas). Instead, because we are a bit less centered upon manuscripts and archives, we can be made to feel, well, inferior and dismissed as such.

This situation can certainly be rectified, to the benefit of all involved. That, however, requires another posting.

Monday, November 23, 2009

American Academics in Israel: Misfits in the Promised Land (Part I)

I've long considered writing about, what I see as, a central frustration that I've encountered in my professional life in Israel. I've held off, I suppose, out of a mixture of professsional anxiety mixed with the feeling that I need to 'get it right' before I 'put it down' in writing. Yesterday, though, a heartfelt conversation with a fellow Harvard expatriate made me realize that I should start putting the issue on the table. Clarity will, hopefully, follow repeated attempts at expression.

There is, it seems to me, a fundamental disconnect between the way that Israeli and American trained historians go about their business. Israeli scholars, at least those in Jewish Studies, are trained to be first rate philologians. Manuscripts, text reconstruction, and philological analysis are their bread and butter. That, surely, is as it should be. After all, how can one possibly say anything about the past if the supporting evidence is not firmly determined? In other words, if you don't know what the past said, how can you report it, much less evaluate it?

That having been said, I can't shake the feeling that many of my Israeli colleagues (who I hold in the highest regard) pay a very high price for their heavy emphasis upon manuscript work. Somehow, it seems to manacle them. So much effort goes into philology, that there is not enough time to acquire other, equally important, skills that would allow them to properly interpret the sources over which they pore. To begin with, there is not enough of a sense that one must read widely and deeply in order to develop the kind of literary and historical sensitivity that texts require. That demands fluency in languages other than Hebrew (and a bit of English). For medievalists, it requires German, French, Italian and Latin (at least). The reading material requires primary sources in those languages, not only skimming some scholarly articles.

In other words, one needs to cast a wide net, in order to comprehend the text in front of you. One needs intellectual and cultural perspective, openness to other disciplines. If one confines oneself, to iron-clad time frames and specific literary genres, one runs the risk of being trapped in a methodological box, when scholarship actually demands that one think out of the box, in an attempt to see the larger picture. That type of box also leads to less than deep thinking and analysis, and a subsequent misrepresentation of the past. [Everything, of course, has its limits and those who go to the opposite extreme (e.g. nefarious PoMo'ists like Shlomo Zand) also miss the point. Media aurea, you know.]

Now, obviously, no one can know everything. That does not, however, excuse scholars from becoming literate in field outside of their area of specialization. Yet, that it exactly the problem with the way that Israeli scholarship is organized, to everyone's detriment. Talmud is not allowed to mix with History; Literature with Philosophy; Economics with Education and so on. Whoever organized this system forgot that while one must obviously pick one's focus, life itself is integrated and complex. The result is very much like the Indian fable of the Blind Men and the Elephant. The only difference is that scholars with blinders don't really share ideas and insights. So they're not only blind, but deaf and mute, as well.

I believe that the Israeli academic emphasis on text is essentially sound. It certainly is better than the abject lack of Hebrew literacy and textual skills that mark far too many Jewish studies professionals abroad. Nevertheless, it's time to remove the blinders, open our ears and mouths.

The ones to help with this, are those of us who were trained abroad and moved here. Of that, I will write, IY"H, next time.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Farce of the Century: The Twin Towers Trials

As always, Charles Krauthammer said it best:

Travesty in New York

By Charles Krauthammer
Friday, November 20, 2009

For late-19th-century anarchists, terrorism was the "propaganda of the deed." And the most successful propaganda-by-deed in history was 9/11 -- not just the most destructive, but the most spectacular and telegenic.

And now its self-proclaimed architect, Khalid Sheik Mohammed, has been given by the Obama administration a civilian trial in New York. Just as the memory fades, 9/11 has been granted a second life -- and KSM, a second act: "9/11, The Director's Cut," narration by KSM.

September 11, 2001 had to speak for itself. A decade later, the deed will be given voice. KSM has gratuitously been presented with the greatest propaganda platform imaginable -- a civilian trial in the media capital of the world -- from which to proclaim the glory of jihad and the criminality of infidel America.

So why is Attorney General Eric Holder doing this? Ostensibly, to demonstrate to the world the superiority of our system, where the rule of law and the fair trial reign.

Really? What happens if KSM (and his co-defendants) "do not get convicted," asked Senate Judiciary Committee member Herb Kohl. "Failure is not an option," replied Holder. Not an option? Doesn't the presumption of innocence, er, presume that prosecutorial failure -- acquittal, hung jury -- is an option? By undermining that presumption, Holder is undermining the fairness of the trial, the demonstration of which is the alleged rationale for putting on this show in the first place.

Moreover, everyone knows that whatever the outcome of the trial, KSM will never walk free. He will spend the rest of his natural life in U.S. custody. Which makes the proceedings a farcical show trial from the very beginning.

Apart from the fact that any such trial will be a security nightmare and a terror threat to New York -- what better propaganda-by-deed than blowing up the courtroom, making KSM a martyr and turning the judge, jury and spectators into fresh victims? -- it will endanger U.S. security. Civilian courts with broad rights of cross-examination and discovery give terrorists access to crucial information about intelligence sources and methods.

That's precisely what happened during the civilian New York trial of the 1993 World Trade Center bombers. The prosecution was forced to turn over to the defense a list of 200 unindicted co-conspirators, including the name Osama bin Laden. "Within 10 days, a copy of that list reached bin Laden in Khartoum," wrote former attorney general Michael Mukasey, the presiding judge at that trial, "letting him know that his connection to that case had been discovered."

Finally, there's the moral logic. It's not as if Holder opposes military commissions on principle. On the same day he sent KSM to a civilian trial in New York, Holder announced he was sending Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, (accused) mastermind of the attack on the USS Cole, to a military tribunal.

By what logic? In his congressional testimony Wednesday, Holder was utterly incoherent in trying to explain. In his Nov. 13 news conference, he seemed to be saying that if you attack a civilian target, as in 9/11, you get a civilian trial; a military target like the Cole, and you get a military tribunal.

What a perverse moral calculus. Which is the war crime -- an attack on defenseless civilians or an attack on a military target such as a warship, an accepted act of war that the United States itself has engaged in countless times?

By what possible moral reasoning, then, does KSM, who perpetrates the obvious and egregious war crime, receive the special protections and constitutional niceties of a civilian courtroom, while he who attacked a warship is relegated to a military tribunal?

Moreover, the incentive offered any jihadist is as irresistible as it is perverse: Kill as many civilians as possible on American soil and Holder will give you Miranda rights, a lawyer, a propaganda platform -- everything but your own blog.

Alternatively, Holder tried to make the case that he chose a civilian New York trial as a more likely venue for securing a conviction. An absurdity: By the time Barack Obama came to office, KSM was ready to go before a military commission, plead guilty and be executed. It's Obama who blocked a process that would have yielded the swiftest and most certain justice.

Indeed, the perfect justice. Whenever a jihadist volunteers for martyrdom, we should grant his wish. Instead, this one, the most murderous and unrepentant of all, gets to dance and declaim at the scene of his crime.

Holder himself told The Post that the coming New York trial will be "the trial of the century." The last such was the trial of O.J. Simpson.

Monday, November 09, 2009

Sunni Forum: Non-Genocidal Jews aren't Frum Enough

Most of us are unaware of just how many Muslim websites there are. [Hint: Take the number of Torah Websites and multiply by google.] Since these are set up for internal use, they can be extremely enlightening.


Today, I came across this illuminating exchange, here:


Question:
Any one knowledgeable about Jewish law please explain how this verse has been interpreted by the Jews who sympathize with Israel: Deuteronomy 20: 12, When the Lord they God hath delivered it (meaning a besieged city) unto they hands, thou shall smite every male therein with the edge of the sword: but the women, and the little ones, and the cattle, and all that is in the city, even all the spoil thereof, shall thou take unto thy self.

This could be used to justify killing everyone in Palestine by Israel. I could be wrong because:
1) The verse is not interpreted literally, or
2) The Israelis are not religious and so what the Bible says holds no weight for them.

My question is,
does this verse have any weight in today's war against the Palestinians?

ANSWER:
Possibly, but I would really doubt it. The vast majority of Jews have abandoned those aspects of their shariah; you could say that some of the hardcore, Jewish settler fanatics may be motivated by such passages, but I think it's a little egregious to suggest that the entirety of the Israeli people support such a mentality. Most Jews have been so heavily influenced by European philosophies that they essentially ignore those more displeasing
aspects of their deen.

The answer is instructive. OTOH, it asserts that Jews don't observe these law. OTOH, he attributes that to 'European Philosophies.' IOW, the Jews have sold out to the West and betrayed their Deen, i.e. their religion (which was given, according to them, by Allah). Thus, Jews are damned, no matter what.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Caveat Emptor: Tefillin Fraud

As we all know, extreme care must be exerted when purchasing Tefillin and Mezuzot. Many people (especially from חו"ל) buy at specific emporia in Meah Shearim and Geulah, often assuming that if we order Tefillin with all the Hiddurim, that that is what we'll get.

Today, I encountered a case where a pair of tefillin which were specially ordered were barely kosher, and the Sofer who checked them informed me that the ktav was an obvious case of 'get it over with minimally, who cares about the person who wears them.' In this case, the parshiyyot were written in a mishmash of Bes Yosef and Ksav Ari. The tefillin fetched good money, needless to say.

They were purchased at HaMeyfitz at 70 Meah Shearim Street, which had been known for being a bit cheaper for Gasos Tefillin than the competition. Obviously, you get what you pay for.

There are many upstanding Sofrim in Israel (and I can recommend more than a few. Noone should buy into the 'it's Merah Shearim and the Sofer is a Hassid/has a long beard/looks right therefore reliable' trap.

Anyway, HaMeyfitz should not be trusted.

HaShem Yismarenu me-remiyah,

Sunday, October 04, 2009

Shabbat Elevators are Forbidden! (or, so they now say)


[Notice the almost explicit slap at Zomet.]
[ UPDATE: The fallout from this declaration has been swift and furious. Both of the insitutes that deal with the interface between Halakhah and Technology stood by their guns and defended the use of Shabbat elevators. I suspect that the observant public will vote with its feet (literally) and keep using the elevators. In the end, all that will be achieved is a further diminution in rabbinic dignity (and, I fear, the dignity of Jewish Law, as well).
There's another aspect of this issue that relates to my ongoing discussion of Modern Orthodoxy in Israel. I understand from a well placed source that a group of very serious Haredi rabbis consulted with an expert on elevators and their halakhic implications. After hours of careful discussion of the intricacies, and why the permitted versions are fine, they left this religious scientist with the clear impression that: זיי האב'ן גאר ניט פארשטאנ'ן (ie 'They didn't understand anything'). The prohibition against using elevators was published not long afterwards.
This is yet further proof that there is something profoundly deficient in a Torah world where the halakhic authorities lack basic literacy in the sciences (including social sciences). You might not need to have a degree (as proven by R. Moshe Feinstein זצ"ל and R. Shlomo Zalman Auerbach זצ"ל, who were able to engage scientists and other experts). A degree usually does help. After all, Rav Soloveitchik זצ"ל did study Physics with Max Planck, the pioneer of Quantum Mechanics, and that enabled him to address issues far out of the usual purview of the contemporary halakhist.
However, it is such illiteracy that Haredi and Hardali rabbis advocate. They fight to keep the three R's out of the schools. One brags on the radio that he lacks a High school education. And so on and so forth. Judaism will only be the loser from this state of affairs. Yes, there is room for principled difference of opinion. First, however, you need to know what you're talking about.]

I Love Charles Krauhammer!

Obama's French Lesson

By Charles Krauthammer
Friday, October 2, 2009

"President Obama, I support the Americans' outstretched hand. But what did the international community gain from these offers of dialogue? Nothing."
-- French President Nicolas Sarkozy, Sept. 24


When France chides you for appeasement, you know you're scraping bottom. Just how low we've sunk was demonstrated by the Obama administration's satisfaction when Russia's president said of Iran, after meeting President Obama at the United Nations, that "sanctions are seldom productive, but they are sometimes inevitable."

You see? The Obama magic. Engagement works. Russia is on board. Except that, as The Post inconveniently pointed out, President Dmitry Medvedev said the same thing a week earlier, and the real power in Russia, Vladimir Putin, had changed not at all in his opposition to additional sanctions. And just to make things clear, when Iran then brazenly test-fired offensive missiles, Russia reacted by declaring that this newest provocation did not warrant the imposition of tougher sanctions.
Do the tally. In return for selling out Poland and the Czech Republic by unilaterally abrogating a missile-defense security arrangement that Russia had demanded be abrogated, we get from Russia . . . what? An oblique hint, of possible support, for unspecified sanctions, grudgingly offered and of dubious authority -- and, in any case, leading nowhere because the Chinese have remained resolute against any Security Council sanctions.


Confusing ends and means, the Obama administration strives mightily for shows of allied unity, good feeling and pious concern about Iran's nuclear program -- whereas the real objective is stopping that program. This feel-good posturing is worse than useless, because all the time spent achieving gestures is precious time granted Iran to finish its race to acquire the bomb.

Don't take it from me. Take it from Sarkozy, who could not conceal his astonishment at Obama's naivete. On Sept. 24, Obama ostentatiously presided over the Security Council. With 14 heads of state (or government) at the table, with an American president at the chair for the first time ever, with every news camera in the world trained on the meeting, it would garner unprecedented worldwide attention.

Unknown to the world, Obama had in his pocket explosive revelations about an illegal uranium enrichment facility that the Iranians had been hiding near Qom. The French and the British were urging him to use this most dramatic of settings to stun the world with the revelation and to call for immediate action.

Obama refused. Not only did he say nothing about it, but, reports Le Monde, Sarkozy was forced to scrap the Qom section of his speech. Obama held the news until a day later -- in Pittsburgh. I've got nothing against Pittsburgh (site of the G-20 summit), but a stacked-with-world-leaders Security Council chamber it is not.

Why forgo the opportunity? Because Obama wanted the Security Council meeting to be about his own dream of a nuclear-free world. The president, reports the New York Times citing "White House officials," did not want to "dilute" his disarmament resolution "by diverting to Iran."
Diversion? It's the most serious security issue in the world. A diversion from what? From a worthless U.N. disarmament resolution?


Yes. And from Obama's star turn as planetary visionary: "The administration told the French," reports the Wall Street Journal, "that it didn't want to 'spoil the image of success' for Mr. Obama's debut at the U.N."

Image? Success? Sarkozy could hardly contain himself. At the council table, with Obama at the chair, he reminded Obama that "we live in a real world, not a virtual world."

He explained: "President Obama has even said, 'I dream of a world without [nuclear weapons].' Yet before our very eyes, two countries are currently doing the exact opposite."

Sarkozy's unspoken words? "And yet, sacr? bleu, he's sitting on Qom!"

At the time, we had no idea what Sarkozy was fuming about. Now we do. Although he could hardly have been surprised by Obama's fecklessness. After all, just a day earlier in addressing the General Assembly, Obama actually said, "No one nation can . . . dominate another nation." That adolescent mindlessness was followed with the declaration that "alignments of nations rooted in the cleavages of a long-gone Cold War" in fact "make no sense in an interconnected world." NATO, our alliances with Japan and South Korea, our umbrella over Taiwan, are senseless? What do our allies think when they hear such nonsense?

Bismarck is said to have said: "There is a providence that protects idiots, drunkards, children, and the United States of America." Bismarck never saw Obama at the United Nations. Sarkozy did.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

A Crocs Conundrum

I waited until after Yom Kippur to discuss this issue, in order to avoid needless controversy on the Eve of Yom Kippur.

By now, everyone who is interested is aware that a prominent Lithuanian authority has ruled that wearing crocs on Yom Kippur is halakhically permitted, but not adviseable. The reason, as reported in the Yeshiva World, is that the ordinance against wearing leather shoes is aimed at causing discomfort, and that the level of comfort afforded by crocs vitiates this requirement.

I find this ruling, במחילת כבוד תורותו, extremely difficult to understand.

First, I question whether it should have been published, since it was quickly transformed into an outright prohibition.

Second, I fail to understand the logic. The rabbis prohibited wearing leather shoes (נעילת הסנדל) as a way of fulfilling the Torah's requirement that we afflict ourselves on Yom Kippur. Anything not made out of leather is permitted. Comfort, prima facie, is a highly subjective thing. For example, I suffer every year by wearing sneakers or synthetic sandals (including Teva Naot). My family can attest that after the fast, I change into real shoes (or leather Naot sandals) right after Havdalah and announce what a pleasure it is. For me, crocs are an affliction. Other people feel differently. They say that cloth shoes, slippers, Teva sandals and crocs are wonderful and leather shoes are comfortable. Indeed, they wear them all the time. So what is it? Everyone decides what's permitted and what's prohibited for themselves? Such an approach is in violation of Hazal's explicit rule: אם כן, נתת דבריך לשיעורין, ie you shouldn't make your rulings based upon such subjective criteria. This, it seems to me, is especially the case when by all accounts crocs are absolutely permitted, even according to the authority in question. אתמהה!

One could respond that this is a matter of religious policy. I'm willing to grant that point, but there are other considerations. What if wearing more comfortable, non-leather shoes prevents a person from other admirable behavior such as standing through all of the davening, or even walking to shul for Yom Kippur. Does an ascetic stricture trump either of these? אתמהה!

Furthermore, why does this become a public pronouncement? If this was a suggestion offered to one enquirer, who says it was intended to become policy for the entire world? In addition, such declarations play into the hands of sectors who are only too happy to poke fun at the Torah. In the age of the internet, that should always be a primary consideration (and one of the reasons that I am firmly opposed to SMS and Internet responsa). Certainly, that was not the Posek's intention.

Finally, Yom Kippur is an exalted day. It is a sublimely spiritual day. Its halakhic perameters were determined by Hazal. What is prohibited is prohibited. What is permitted is permitted. As the Aharonim point out, over and over again in Yoreh Deah, הבו להו דלא להוסיף עלה! Don't push unnecessary strictures. The Torah demands sacrifice, no question. It also demands we be allowed, within the requirements of the Law, to properly worship our Creator. והמבין יבין. As R. Akiva Eger was wont to say: ה' יאיר עיני.

[UPDATE: I am grateful for the learned comments that this posting generated. Such is the way of respectful discussion in lehrnen.

In the interim, I have been informed that מו"ר Rav Herschel Schachter שליט"א reports in Nefesh HaRav (p. 210 no. 2) that מו"ר the Rav זצ"ל advised against wearing sneakers with arches, in accordance with the view of the Rambam that the footware allow one to feel the ground underneath him (which Rambam maintains is a Torah consideration). Once again, the same considerations made above hold, even in light of this testimony. 1) The overwhelming number of authorities disagree with this ruling, and thus there is no way that the Rav would've said that such sneakers are forbidden. He advised that one consider the Rambam, which would be typical of him. 2) There is no way of knowing how the Rav would've ruled in a world in which sneakers all have arches, or whether he would today have taken other factors into consideration . (In general, there is far too much necromancy at work in deducing the Rav's possible rulings in contemporary circumstances. See the aposite comments of R. Meir Lichtenstein, here.) 3) The fact is that crocs actually do let you feel the ground under you.

I, obviously, have no objection to people being strict with themselves. I have my own Yom Kippur humros, too (which are between me and my Maker). My objection is the categorical imposition of humros upon an entire population, especially when they bear in their wake such negative implications as those outlines here and in the comments.]

The Component Parts of Modern Orthodoxy: The Question of Culture

Sometimes, it amazes me that after three millennia this issue still has to be thrashed out. All one has to do is review the discussions in Judaism's Encounter with Other Cultures in order to realize how rich and vital a case has been made for the integration of 'secular studies' within a Torah curriculum. (In the Israel context, I must say that it is nothing less than tragic that this volume, and others like it, are not available in Hebrew. Anyone who undertakes such a translation, or sponsors such an undertaking, would be performing an invaluable service to the cause of Torah in Israel.)

In any event, it is a fact that the value of secular knowledge has not penetrated the rabbinic or Jewish educational world in Israel, much as religiously observant academics all too often treat the world of Torah learning with barely disguised contempt. The result is that the Torah is perceived by those Western educated as (חלילה) 'primitive,' while the Torah community sees the former as a wast of time (at best) and out and out dangerous (at worst).

Both positions are seriously flawed.

Contrary to the supercillious judgements of some, there is no flaw in the Torah. There are, however, serious flaws in the way it is often approached and, a fortiori, the way in which it is presented. There is nothing new in this. A galaxy of medieval scholars can be invoked who inveighed against the puerile interpretation of Hazal, which leads to the Torah being treated with derision. The most penetrating comments come (not unsurprisingly) from the pen of Maimonides. Twice, in the Introduction to פרק חלק and in מורה נבוכים III, 31, the Rambam inveighs against those who present the Torah in a way that will not command the respect (never mind the assent) of the intelligent person (Jew or non-Jew). That assumes, of course, that the Torah is understandable in an idiom that is universal. In order to do that, one must acquire the cultural and intellectual tools to intelligently interpret and understand the Torah's manifold wisdom. Anything less is, let's face it, a Desecration of God's Name (רחמנא ליצלן).

However, secular study is not merely an apologetic, or pedagogic, tool. It possesses intrinsic value for the observant Jew. In an article I published many years ago in the now defunct British Journal L'Eyla (Spring 1989), I argued that a large section of what passes as 'secular studies' (and not confined to Math and Physics either) should be seen as an integral part of Torah (along lines set by Maimonides in הל' יסודי התורה פרק ד הלכה יד and הלכות תלמוד תורה פרק א הלכה יד). How this wisdom should be used in a Jewish Religious context is discussed by R. Aharon Lichtenstein in his magisterial essay in the 'Encounter' volume. However, he was preceded in this by the way in which Professor Twersky characterized the R. Soloveitchik's זצ"ל use of secular studies. It is used masterfully, and judiciously in order to elicit the deeper, highly sophisticated, levels of Torah spirituality and insight. Furthermore, in a world in which the Jew is bombarded with alternate cultural models, it is an absolute requirement to courageously and forcefully engage those models.

Engagement does not betoken surrender. On the contrary, all too often the absence of a sophisticated engagement with the West (for example) abandons the Torah to the 'graces' of those who would distort it in order to decorate an a priori surrender to general culture.

Mastery of Western Culture (music, philosophy, belles lettres, history, art etc.) provides depth of thought and sensitivity, as well as precious tools to illuminate our Tradition (מסורה), for the sake of our own minds and souls. Not everything outside is acceptable, or valuable. Sometimes, though, even from those things we are forced to reject, we arrive at a deeper sense of who we are.

As I've written before, all of this is predicated upon an all too rare quality: intellectual and spiritual humility. It is lacking both among western intellectuals and among too many rabbis.

That discussion, though, will have to wait for another day.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

MA/PhD in Contemporary Halakhah and the History of Halakhah

In response to numerous requests, the Talmud Department at Bar Ilan University, in conjunction with the Center for the Study of Post-Talmudic Halakhah (which is under my direction), is pleased to announce an MA and PhD track in the History of Halakhah and in Contemporary Halakhah. The program, which is guided by the normal criteria for advanced degrees, will be tailored toward the acquisition of the specific skills required for these two disciplines.

In addition, the Center will sponsor seminars in both Contemporaty Halakhah and the History of Halakhah. These will allow graduate students to learn from and interact with leading scholars in the field, and cognate areas of study.

The program is geared to Israeli residents, including retirees. Olim Hadashim are eligible for tuition subsidy by the Israeli government.

For further information, contact me directly woolfj@gmail.com .

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Bar Ilan's Religious Zionism Conference: Proof of the Problem

Monday, I attended the Bar Ilan Conference on the Future of Religious Zionism. It was convened in response to a year that was filled with intra-mural crises in the 'sector' (the מגזר, as the Israelis say). The room was packed. The debate was heated. Indeed, there was more heat shed than light.


The first session, which I attended in full, addressed the charges made by R. Yehoshua Shapira of Yeshiva Ramat Gan, that there were irredentist elements within the Religious Zionist camp that are fomenting 'Neo-Reform.' [R. Shapira later claimed that his remarks were distorted, but I didn't see much difference between them and that which he said at the conference.]


R. Shapira reiterated his charges. He singled out a number of developments for excoriation: 1) The writings of Rivka Lubitsch, who has made a number of aggressive solutions for resolution of the plight of Agunot (see here, here and here.) were deemed a rebellion against rabbinic authority. 2) He excoriated the acceptance of gays in the religious community. 3) He condemned both delay of child raising by young couples and 4) the bearing of children by single women who have not found a mate. 5) He declared the Shira Hadasha congregation in Jerusalem to be outside the pale of Orthodoxy.


In order to back his claims that these phenomena are incipiently Reform, he quoted the Wikipedia (sic!)article on Reform Judaism.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

The Component Parts of Modern Orthodoxy

In the first volume issued be the renewed (and now, sadly, defunct) Kenes Lavie II, based on a suggestion offered by Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm, I first set forth my ideas on the component parts of Modern Orthodoxy. As I still think they are largely valid, I will use them here to provide an overall framework for our discussion here.

Now, it's been objected that my entire premise here is a bit off base, because Modern Orthodoxy is a quintesentially Diaspora, and specifically North American, phenomenon. In brief, it can't be translated into an Israeli context. I strongly disagree. However, there is a lot of truth in this observation, and we need to carefully wweigh the differences between the Diaspora scene and the Israeli reality, in order to adapt the key elements of the Diaspora model to Israel.

Herein, therefore, are the key elements of Modern Orthodoxy:

1. Axiological Openness to Outside Culture
2. Advancement of the Status of Women
3. Commitment to the Jewish People at Large
4. Religious Zionism

A first glance at the list presents an interesting irony. These four points correspond to the major componentsof Religious Zionism, as advocated by te founder of Mizrachi, R. Yitzhak Ya'aqov Reines ז"ל. The irony is that Diaspora Modern Orthodoxy and Israeli National Religious Orthodoxy adopted three of these four planks. On two, numbers 2 and 3, they agreed (until the advent of the Hardali rabbinical phenomenon). They diverged on the other two.

Diaspora Modern Orthodoxy enthsiastically adopted number 1, while remaining largely passive regarding number 4. (In other words, the MO community passionately supported Israel, but has been pareve when it comes to Aliya.)

The National Religious community has, of course, internalized the overarching value of living in the Land of Israel. However, as opposed to the Diaspora, it has not adopted an axiologically positive atitude to Western (or any other form, of non-Jewish culture). This is especially true of the rabbinic and Jewish educational frameworks, from kindergarten to Post-Hesder. Consider, for example, the case of the flagship educational institutions of Religious Zionism in Israel: Merkaz HaRav and Bar Ilan University. The former is, essentially, a Haredi school that atributes messianic significance to the State of Israel. However, it split in two (and the community with it) over the innocuous issue of ataching a Teachers College to the Yeshiva. Bar Ilan, on the other hand, is a first rate university with the best Jewish Studies Faculty in the world. However, its parochial element is not central to its activities. [Another irony lies in the fact that Yeshiva University began as a yeshivah and expanded into a university, while Bar Ilan started as a university and only much later founded a Bet Midrash as an epicycle to itself.]

In the coming posts, I intend to focus upon the definition of element number 1, its possible development in Israel and the consequences of achieving and not achieving that dvelopment. [We will return to the other components, after wards.]

Sunday, September 06, 2009

Israeli Modern Orthodoxy Part One:בלי חשבון

What would it take to develop Modern Orthodoxy in Israel? The question has been gnawing at me for a very long time. Of course, prior to asking that question, one must first ask: Do we need an Israeli version of that spectrum of Orthodoxy that developed primarily in the United States (with Frankfurter antecedents), here in Israel?

I believe that the answer to both of these questions is absolutely affirmative. We desperately require an Israeli version of the Modern Orthodox spectrum. I believe it is not only achievable, but eminently possible. In this, and the ensuing posts, I will set forth why I maintain this to be the case. Before doing so, however, I want to make a few points.

First, any legitimate interpretation of Torah must be based upon Love and Fear of God, upon קבלת עול מלכות שמים, and devotion to a life of שמירת מצוות. That means, inter alia, that there will be limits to where the Torah will allow one to go, despite one's burning desire to push further in the interests of a cherished ideal. It means that one must, at some point, admit the limits of one's understanding and surrender to the Will of God. This, it is true, will seem to some a matter of taste or judgment. It is, to a certain degree, that. However, I believe that there are objective limits to where Judaism (and Halakha) can go and still retain its integrity. The expanse is wider than many would admit. It is not, however, endless. I believe, that despite its polemical casting, that was precisely the Rav זצ"ל's point in the proem to his שיעור on Torah and Massorah.

Second, conviction requires a life of heroism and sacrifice. This sounds, perhaps, overly dramatic, and I suppose it is. What I mean is that devotion to Truth in Torah is a very complex thing. On the one hand, one should be open to respectful criticism and be ready and willing to engage other opinions and interpretations. He must be open to changing his mind However, one must never, ever surrender one's convictions out of fear: Fear of disapproval by those ostensibly more pious; fear of those ostensibly more progressive and trendy; fear of those who threaten social repercussions, who roll their eyes, who try to beat up with their self-important paternalism and so on.
I believe that the Rav זצ"ל once put this very clearly (cited by R. Lamm נר"ו). The Torah states (Gen. 32, 1): ויעקב הלך לדרכו ויפגעו בו מלאכי א-לוקים. The first part of the verse is, prima facie, superfluous. Of course, Jacob went on his way to Eretz Yisrael! There is, however, a deeper truth here. Jacob pursued his own, unique mission in the service of God. He did not deviate from that path, his path, His path. He did not look to the Right. He did not look to the Left. He looked straight ahead, and on his way encountered God's angelic messengers. ויפגעו בו מלאכי א-לקים.

Third, לא המדרש עיקר אלא המעשה. In the Modern Orthodox community, far too much time is devoted to debating the niceties of ideology and policy. That is not to deny the vital role of study and ideological exchange. However, these exchanges (courses, articles, debates, fora, caucuses and so on) are insufficient (though pleasant; מפגשי שבט we call them in Hebrew). Action is required. We need to do Modern Orthodoxy. We need to do Torah in the widest sense of the term (call it Madda, Hokhma, Derekh eretz; it doesn't matter). What that action involves will be a later subject.

Fourth, the path of Modern Orthodoxy is a חומרא. It is the harder, more worthwhile path. It demands more of the Jew than the alternatives. It demands spiritual growth, Torah learning in the narrow sense and Torah learning in the broader sense. A principled Modern Orthodoxy challenges its adherents, and vexes its opponents (be they secular or Haredi). Most importantly, a principled Modern Orthodoxy is תפארת לעושיה ותפארת לו מן האדם. Why מן האדם? Not because we seek כבוד. It is because we seek a life שיתאהב שם שמים על ידינו.

Next Post: Component Parts

[NOTE: מפאת חשיבות הנושא, והעובדה שבכל מקרה הדברים מיועדים להיות מיושמים כאן בארץ, החלטתי להחיות את הבלוג העברי ולפרסם שם דברים מקבילים למופיע כאן בהאנגלית, א"כ בשפת עבר. הבלוג נקרא 'הגיגים' ומופיע כאן. אני מקווה שהמאמר הראשון יופיע בימים הקרובים.]

Friday, September 04, 2009

Women (and Girls) Aren't Hametz

Last Shabbat at dinner, the typically desultory conversation (you'd be amazed the wide range of topics that get discussed at our Shabbat table) touched on the Haredi/Hardali agenda of pushing women out of sight. As the smartest person at the table observed (i.e. my wife): 'They think that the Torah's prohibition is בל תיראה ובל תימצא.'

The point is well taken. Open up any Haredi paper and there are absolutely no women or little girls. (In fact, women are airbrushed out of any and all photographs.) There has been a move to stop females from carrying cellphones, because their talking on the phone in public is immodest. Women are banned from most hours of the Shavua ha-Sefer ha-Torani, from Bakeries on most days, and from Heaven knows where else. Dr. Sima Salcberg, in her brilliant expose of the situation that obtain in Ramat Bet Shemesh, reported that women are not only barred from the street (and a fortiori from sitting on public benches or taking children to the park), they are told to avoid the windows of their homes so as not to expose themselves to passersby (the reverse of היזק ראיה but these guys don't learn Daf Yomi). The Mehadrin buses are simply the logical result of a general trend.

The truth is that if this were merely a Haredi proclivity, I wouldn't care (except for the buses). It's not my community, not my problem. What concerns me is the way this kind of policy is insinuating itself into the Religious Zionist world. The trend is led by the Hardali rabbis (and aided and abetted by self-proclaimed Modern Orthodox rabbis who, as on so many other issues, lack gumption).

So let's get this straight. Not every event needs to have separate seating (e.g. weddings. including the Chuppa). Women can speak in front of men (especially in shul, with the proper arrangements). Women can teach men, and vice versa. Couples can socialize with each other. They can even study Torah together. And the world, Ladies and Gentlemen, is not run from Qiryat Moshe, Bet El, Qiryat Arba, or Elon Moreh (or from many of the 'Rabbinical' opinions offered in 'BeSheva' or 'Maqor Rishon').

[Torah UMadda post to follow.]

Liberal Teshuvah

[I've just finished wading through Jonah Goldberg's best-seller Liberal Fascism. It's an eye- opening, though somewhat flawed, book. Not unexpectedly, it left me depressed, especially as it heightened my awareness of the fascist themes that swirl around contemporary Western discourse (including the word discourse). It was, therefore, a relief to read that two prominent Israeli Leftists have undertaken reality checks.]

Civil Fights: Don't make me laugh

Sep. 2, 2009
evelyn gordon , THE JERUSALEM POST

There must have been something in the air last month: Two prominent Israeli leftists publicly acknowledged fundamental problems in the "peace process" that will make a deal unachievable if not resolved.

Aluf Benn, Haaretz's diplomatic correspondent, articulated one problem in an August 7 column describing a conversation with a "senior European diplomat." Benn posed one simple question: How would a deal benefit ordinary Israelis? The diplomat was stunned. Wasn't it obvious? It would create a Palestinian state! After Benn pointed out that most Israelis care very little about the Palestinians; they want to know how peace would benefit them, the diplomat tried again: "There would be an end to terror." "Don't make me laugh," Benn replied.

When the IDF withdrew from parts of the West Bank and Gaza under the Oslo Accords, Israelis got suicide bombings in their cities. When it quit Gaza entirely, they got rockets on the Negev. But the bombings stopped after the IDF reoccupied the West Bank, and the rockets stopped after January's Gaza operation. In short, the IDF has done a far better job of securing "peace" as Israelis understand it - i.e., not being killed - than the "peace process" ever has.

NORMALIZATION WITH the Arab world is also scant attraction, Benn noted; most Israelis "have no inherent desire to fly El Al through Saudi Arabian airspace or visit Morocco's 'interests section.'" And the downsides of a deal - financing the evacuation of tens of thousands of settlers and "the frightening prospect of violent internal schisms" - are substantial.

Benn's conclusion from the conversation was shocking: Thus far, the international community has never thought about how a deal might benefit Israelis; that was considered unimportant.

But to persuade Israelis to back an agreement, he noted, the world is going to have to start thinking. For Israelis already have what they want most, "peace and quiet," and they will not willingly risk it for "another diplomatic adventure whose prospects are slim and whose dangers are formidable."

A week later, Prof. Carlo Strenger - a veteran leftist who, as he wrote, thinks "the occupation must end as quickly as possible" - addressed a second problem in his semi-regular Haaretz column. Seeking to explain why Israel's Left has virtually disappeared, he concluded that this happened because leftists "failed to provide a realistic picture of the conflict with the Palestinians."

For years, he noted, leftists claimed a deal with the Palestinians would produce "peace now." Instead, the Palestinian Authority "educated its children with violently anti-Israel and often straightforwardly anti-Semitic textbooks," failed to prevent (or perhaps even abetted) repeated suicide bombings in 1996, torpedoed the final-status negotiations of 2000-2001 and finally produced the second intifada.

But instead of admitting it had erred in expecting territorial withdrawals to bring peace, Strenger wrote, the Left blamed Israel: The 1996 bombings happened "because the Oslo process was too slow"; the talks failed because Israel's offers were insufficient; the second intifada began because Ariel Sharon visited the Temple Mount.

In short, the Left adopted two faulty premises: First, "anything aggressive or destructive a non-Western group says or does must be explained by Western dominance or oppression," hence "they are not responsible for their deeds." Second, "if you are nice to people, all conflicts will disappear"; other basic human motivations, like the desire for "dominance, power and... self-respect," are irrelevant.

Strenger concluded that if the Left "wants to regain some credibility and convince voters that it has a role to play, it needs to give the public a reasonable picture of reality."

But the same could be said of the international community, which has also blamed every failure of the peace process on Israeli actions: settlement construction, "excessive force" against Palestinian terror, insufficient concessions, etc.

THOUGH BENN and Strenger were ostensibly addressing different issues, they are closely related. Leftists reinforced the West's habit of blaming Israel for every failure, because they are the only Israelis that Western politicians and journalists take seriously. And this habit contributed greatly to mainstream Israelis' view of the peace process as all pain, no gain.

First, because the world placed the onus on Israel, Palestinians never felt any pressure to amend their behavior, whether by stopping terror or by making concessions on final-status issues vital to Israelis. Israel has repeatedly upped its offers over the past 16 years, but the Palestinians have yet to budge an inch: Not only will they not concede the right of return, they refuse to even acknowledge the Jews' historic connection to this land.

Second, while Israelis care very little about relations with the Arab world, they care greatly about relations with the West. Thus a major attraction of the peace process was the prospect of enhancing this relationship.

Instead, Israel's standing, especially in Europe, has plummeted since 1993. Europeans now deem Israel the greatest threat to world peace. Anti-Semitic violence in Europe has surged. European and American leftists routinely deny Israel's very right to exist, and calls for sanctions and divestment are gaining momentum. All this would have been unthinkable 16 years ago.

And this nosedive in status is directly connected to the fact that every time something goes wrong with the peace process, most of the West blames Israel. Indeed, the fact that Washington (pre-Barack Obama) was the one exception to this rule goes far toward explaining why Israel's standing remains strong in America.

Because this knee-jerk response has remained unchanged for 16 years, Israelis are now convinced it will continue even after a final-status agreement is signed: The moment Palestinians voice a new demand post-agreement or engage in anti-Israel terror, the West will insist that Israel accede to the demand or refrain from responding to the terror, and vituperate it for not doing so. In short, Israel is liable to make all the concessions entailed by an agreement and still see its relationship with the West deteriorate.

The bottom line that emerges from both Benn and Strenger is that no peace deal is likely unless both the West and Israel's Left radically alter their behavior. The million-dollar question is whether anyone in either camp is listening.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

In Defence of Boogie Yaalon

Not unexpectedly, Moshe "Boogie" Ya'alon is reaping the whirlwind for his so-called 'right-wing' pronouncements. After all, he dared to call a spade a spade. He dared to say that the overwhelming portion of the non-elected elements of the country's power structure (Judiciary, Media, Academia, Business, Literary set) extert inordinate power over Israel's government and public discourse. A case in point is former Chief Justice Aharon Barak, who moved heaven and earth to de-judaize Israel while serving on the court and now admits that he thinks the idea of a Jewish State is fundamentally wrong. The problem is that no one elected him, but by legislating by legal fiat, he was more effective than the Knesset in advancing an agenda that is the very opposite of true democracy (as Judge Posner has pointed out).

He dared to criticize the Retreat from Gaza, and call the 'Territory for Peace' mantra into question.
And he dared to call Peace Now, which works to demonize settlers and encourages the violation of Israel's sovereignty, a 'virus.' His choice of words, and venue, may be debateable. The sentiment is not. Peace Now (and the rest of Gush Shalom) is (as a wag once noted) the Palestinian Right wing.
If they worked out of Ramallah, that would be one thing. They are, however, part of that same elite to which Yaalon referred.

Now watch them confirm that position by using all of their power to destroy the only decent Chief of Staff we've had since, I don't remember when; and the most honest, decent politician in over a generation. His crime: He doesn't think like us.

Jonah Goldberg
should add a chapter to his book Liberal Fascism, based solely on this case.


Friday, August 14, 2009

Plus Ca Change: Torah UMadda and Rav Melamed

I was trained in the method of the History of Ideas. This subsection of Intellectual History traces the delicate balance between the essential meaning of ideas and the ever-changing nuances that those ideas acquire over time, in different eras and cultural contexts. For me, the approach is the ideal way of maintaining the fundamental integrity of traditions and awareness while tracing the variations and changes which that they underwent over time.

One upshot of this approach is the persistent awareness that (at least in this) the French were right: 'Plus ca change, plus ca reste la meme chose' - 'The more things change, the more they stay the same.' The same issues keep arising, responded to by many of the same counter-arguments. As a result, one feels eminently grounded. On the other hand, one wonders why we can't put (at least some issues) behind us.

A case in point is the legitimacy of secular studies within the Orthodox community. The debate has been raging for over two millenia, with no end in sight. It has spawned dozens, even hundreds, of articles, monographs and books. I suspect that it will continue to rage עד ביאת הגואל.

The problem is that the debate has not really begun to commence here in Israel. A principled Modern Orthodoxy has never developed here. Religious academics and professionals buy into the argument that they a) are not fully religious b) their involvement in the outside world is a concession and not a value c) are walking embodiments of Bittul Torah. In addition, these perceptions are all too often dumbrated by religious academics (especially in the humanities and social sciences) who all too often exhibit a lack of religious sensitivity, intellectual humility and respect for the integrity of Jewish tradition. In me extreme cases, religious academics use their religious status to advance positions and ideas that even the widest interpretation of Jewish Tradition would be hard pressed to sustain. As result, the message of a principled encounter of Western Culture and Torah is lost upon the more traditionally rooted portions of the community.

On the other hand, the representatives of Torah (with some exceptins) are typically marked by rejectionism. Even, or especially, Religious Zionist rabbis don't really get it. I was 'treated' to an example last night on Reshet Bet. R. Zalman Melamed (Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivat Bet El - not the Kabbalist school), was given a huge chunk of time to expatiate on his 'moderate' position that so long as one has nothing better to do, and the material is censored, there can be a place for extremely limited study of secular studies. It's only ex post facto, as proven by the fact that R. Melamed is proud of the fact that he doesn't even have a High School education.

So, there is a zero sum game playing itself out here. And who do you think loses?

That question will have to wait until after Shabbat.