Tuesday, December 27, 2011

על הדרת נשים: ראיון שלי ברשת ב

הערב התראיינתי לתכנית 'הערכת מצב' ברשת ב, בנושא הבוער של הדרת נשים בחברה הישראלית. הראיון במלואו נמצא כאן (בין דקה 14:53 ל22:23). אולי בגלל רגישות הנושא הייתי יותר עצבני מהרגיל ושומעים את זה בדבריי. לטעמי, העברתי את המסרים העיקריים שרציתי: 1) החילוניים תופסים טרמפ על נושא האלימות החרדית הקיצונית כדי לקדם את סדר יומם הפוסט-מודרני והאנטי-דתי. לכן, אלה מביננו שמתנגדים למחיקתן/גירושן של נשים מהציבוריות הישראלית חייבית שלא ליפול למלכודת התעמולתית שהשמאל מציב לנו. 2) אין תקדים ביהדות לגירוש הנשים מהמרחב הציבורי בצורה כה גורפת. לא הספקתי לומר שמידת מעורבותן של נשים בחיים מחוץ לבית היא פועל יוצא של תנאי החברה הכללית בכל דור ובכל מקום. 3) יש עימות חזיתית בין המתירנות המינית של העידן הנוכחי לבין יחסה היותר שמרני ומאופק של היהדות למיניות ולרצונה למנוע התנהגות לא נאותה בין אנשים. 4) הקפדה על הרהור עבירה מוטלחת על הגבר ולא על האישה. כאן, נדמה לי שדבריי בנושא קול אישה וכדו' היו שטחיים מדי, כפועל יוצא מקוצר הזמן.

למדתי שוב לקח במגבלות השיח בתקשורת. השתכנעתי עוד יותר כמה חשוב ללמוד להעביר מסרים יהודיים מורכבים בשפה המובנת לכל. לא בטוח שהפעם הצלחתי. יש עוד הרבה עבודה לעשות...

Sunday, December 25, 2011

The Unknown Miracle of Hanukkah

A quick survey of the types of lectures, shiurim, articles, and various other discussions of Hanukkah that flood the internet reveals that they focus on two, eminently predictable, motifs: the victory of the Hasmoneans over the Seleucid Greeks and and the miracle of the little cruse of oil, bearing the seal of the High Priest, that lasted eight days instead of one. How do these relate to one another? Why doesn't the Talmud emphasize the military victory? Why do the First Book of Maccabees (IV, 56-59) and Josephus not mention the miracle of the cruse of oil?

All of these questions are important but, in my opinion, they miss a deeper, more central and more resonant miracle that occurred 'in those days at this time of year.' Allow me to explain.

The decrees of Antiochus IV Epiphanes were, in many ways, unparalleled in the history of civilization. Paganism, by its very nature, is extremely eclectic and, by extension, tolerant. The expectation was that everyone would worship and respect everyone else's gods. After all, there were so many gods around, what difference would one more or less make? Over time, given the phenomenological similarity between the various groups of Gods, they became identified with one another. Amun merged with Ra, Zeus merged with Jupiter, and Jupiter merged with Baal; and so on and so on. There was no push, or need, to force anyone to worship other gods. As a result, moreover, the concept of apostasy was almost non-existent. Apostasy was, by definition, non-existent. (Socrates was executed on a charge of atheism i.e. not believing in 'the gods.') The only group in the ancient world that rejected this arrangement was the Jews, who were commanded by God 'not to have any gods besides Me.'

Historians are sharply divided as to why Antiochus decided to wipe out Judaism, to forbid the worship of the One True God, and to force them to worship Zeus Olympus. Whatever his reasons, it is clear that this was the first time that Jews had encountered an out and out attack on Judaism, in its totality. (The affair described in Daniel 3 were a partial precedent, but not long lived. On that occasion, moreover, the Jews were not asked to abandon Judaism but to bow down to an idol. This was, of course, a heinous sin and constituted grounds for martyrdom. It was, however, not on the scale of things that Antiochus and his Jewish Hellenizing supporters conceived.) For the first time, the question of martyrdom arose. Just when and for what infractions was one obligated to die? (The famous determination that one is martyred only when forced to worship idols, murder or submit to sexual immorality was only made in the years before the Bar Kokhba Revolt. Cf. Sanhedrin 74a.)

A. The Beginnings of Kiddush HaShem

There appears to have been little, or no, unanimity on this question. And the initial responses (if we are to trust the stories in I Maccabees) came first from the people:

Ch. 1, 41-50: Moreover king Antiochus wrote to his whole kingdom, that all should be one people, And every one should leave his laws: so all the heathen agreed according to the commandment of the king. Yea, many also of the Israelites consented to his religion, and sacrificed unto idols, and profaned the sabbath. For the king had sent letters by messengers unto Jerusalem and the cities of Juda that they should follow the strange laws of the land,And forbid burnt offerings, and sacrifice, and drink offerings, in the temple; and that they should profane the sabbaths and festival days: And pollute the sanctuary and holy people: Set up altars, and groves, and chapels of idols, and sacrifice swine's flesh, and unclean beasts: That they should also leave their children uncircumcised, and make their souls abominable with all manner of uncleanness and profanation: To the end they might forget the law, and change all the ordinances. And whosoever would not do according to the commandment of the king, he said, he should die.

57-63: And whosoever was found with any the book of the testament, or if any committed to the law, the king's commandment was, that they should put him to death. Thus did they by their authority unto the Israelites every month, to as many as were found in the cities. Now the five and twentieth day of the month they did sacrifice upon the idol altar, which was upon the altar of God. At which time according to the commandment they put to death certain women, that had caused their children to be circumcised. And they hanged the infants about their necks, and rifled their houses, and slew them that had circumcised them.Howbeit many in Israel were fully resolved and confirmed in themselves not to eat any unclean thing. Wherefore the rather to die, that they might not be defiled with meats, and that they might not profane the holy covenant: so then they died.

2Maccabees 6,7-19: And in the day of the king's birth every month they were brought by bitter constraint to eat of the sacrifices; and when the fast of Bacchus was kept, the Jews were compelled to go in procession to Bacchus, carrying ivy. Moreover there went out a decree to the neighbour cities of the heathen, by the suggestion of Ptolemy, against the Jews, that they should observe the same fashions, and be partakers of their sacrifices: And whoso would not conform themselves to the manners of the Gentiles should be put to death. Then might a man have seen the present misery.For there were two women brought, who had circumcised their children; whom when they had openly led round about the city, the babes handing at their breasts, they cast them down headlong from the wall. And others, that had run together into caves near by, to keep the sabbath day secretly, being discovered by Philip, were all burnt together, because they made a conscience to help themselves for the honour of the most sacred day. Now I beseech those that read this book, that they be not discouraged for these calamities, but that they judge those punishments not to be for destruction, but for a chastening of our nation. For it is a token of his great goodness, when wicked doers are not suffered any long time, but forthwith punished. For not as with other nations, whom the Lord patiently forbeareth to punish, till they be come to the fulness of their sins, so dealeth he with us, Lest that, being come to the height of sin, afterwards he should take vengeance of us. And therefore he never withdraweth his mercy from us: and though he punish with adversity, yet doth he never forsake his people. But let this that we at spoken be for a warning unto us. And now will we come to the declaring of the matter in a few words. Eleazar, one of the principal scribes, an aged man, and of a well favoured countenance, was constrained to open his mouth, and to eat swine's flesh. But he, choosing rather to die gloriously, than to live stained with such an abomination, spit it forth, and came of his own accord to the torment.

B. Warfare on Shabbat

The challenge of religious persecution was not the only unparalleled challenge that faced the Jews of Eretz Yisrael. An even more striking example is described in I Maccabees, 2: 31-38:

Now when it was told the king's servants, and the host that was at Jerusalem, in the city of David, that certain men, who had broken the king's commandment, were gone down into the secret places in the wilderness, They pursued after them a great number, and having overtaken them, they camped against them, and made war against them on the Sabbath day. And they said unto them, Let that which ye have done hitherto suffice; come forth, and do according to the commandment of the king, and ye shall live. But they said, We will not come forth, neither will we do the king's commandment, to profane the Sabbath day. So then they gave them the battle with all speed. Howbeit they answered them not, neither cast they a stone at them, nor stopped the places where they lay hid; But said, Let us die all in our innocence: heaven and earth will testify for us, that ye put us to death wrongfully. So they rose up against them in battle on the Sabbath, and they slew them, with their wives and children and their cattle, to the number of a thousand people.

This behavior is problematic, to say the least. What happened to the iron-clad rule that פיקוח נפש דוחה שבת, that saving a human life trumps Sabbath observance? Did the Jews, at the time, think that Kiddush HaShem required dying and not fighting? Did they think that there was a difference between saving a life medically and fighting? Did they think (as one scholar has suggested) that using weapons was forbidden on Shabbat? Or, had it never happened that Jews fought on Shabbat? (This is not so far fetched since, until the nineteenth century, wars were formal affairs carried out in set piece battles by relatively small armies.)

Whatever the explanation, it is clear that many pious people (including rabbis) thought that fighting on Shabbat was forbidden. Something had to be done, and Mattathias acted:

39-42: Now when Mattathias and his friends understood hereof, they mourned for them right sore. And one of them said to another, If we all do as our brethren have done, and fight not for our lives and laws against the heathen, they will now quickly root us out of the earth. At that time therefore they decreed, saying, Whosoever shall come to make battle with us on the Sabbath day, we will fight against him; neither will we die all, as our brethren that were murdered in the secret places. Then came there unto him a company of Hassidim who were mighty men of Israel, even all such as were voluntarily devoted unto the law.

I believe that Mattathias' action was quite extraordinary. In order to understand why, we need to turn to yet another religious challenge that was posed by a happy occasion, the re-dedication of the Temple.

C. The Defiled Stones of the Altar

After the conquest of Jerusalem in Kislev, 165 B.C.E., the author of I Maccabees reports (42-47):

So he chose priests of blameless conversation, such as had pleasure in the law: Who cleansed the sanctuary, and bare out the defiled stones into an unclean place. And when as they consulted what to do with the altar of burnt offerings, which was profaned; They thought it best to pull it down, lest it should be a reproach to them, because the heathen had defiled it: wherefore they pulled it down, And laid up the stones in the mountain of the temple in a convenient place, until there should come a prophet to show what should be done with them. Then they took whole stones according to the law, and built a new altar according to the former.

The altar had, albeit, been destroyed by the Babylonians but it had never been profaned. Two questions had arisen: 1) Can one continue to use the original altar, built in the Days of the Return to Zion? 2) Did the defiled stones retain any sanctity, and thus require respectful disposal, or not? The decision was to rebuild the altar with new stones. However, they could not decide what to do with the old ones. So they put them aside 'until there should come a prophet to show what should be done with them.' If they decided the one question, why not the second? And why wait for a true prophet? (Most of the Talmudic questions that are left over for Elijah's coming are theoretical.)

One could object that the question of the final disposition of the old altar was not a burning concern, so that it could be delayed. Later in I Maccabees, however, we find a passage that sheds a different light on the desire for a 'true prophet.'

After finally defeating the Greeks, and attaining national autonomy as a client state of the Seleucid Empire, I Maccabees 14, 35-41) reports:

The people therefore sang the acts of Simon, and unto what glory he thought to bring his nation, made him their governor and chief priest, because he had done all these things, and for the justice and faith which he kept to his nation, and for that he sought by all means to exalt his people....Also that the Jews and priests were well pleased that Simon should be their governor and high priest for ever, until there should arise a faithful prophet;

The combined role of rule (ethnarchos) and High Priest was unprecedented, and controversial (cf. Kiddushin 66a and Ramban, Gen. 49, 10 s.v. וזה היה). Notice, though, that the Jews were unsure of their actions and made them conditional upon the arrival of a true prophet, who would decide whether their action was legitimate, or not.

D. The Miracle of תורה שבעל פה

The Hanukkah story occurred less than three hundred years after the cessation of prophecy, in the time of Malakhi. Up to that time, it appears that (with all due respect to the Rambam) prophets played an integral role in interpreting the Torah, and did not confine themselves to exhortations and predictions. Consider, when the Jews wanted to know whether they should continue to fast on the Tenth of Tevet, the Ninth of Tammuz, the Ninth of Av and the Third of Tishrei, they asked the prophet Zekhariah (Zekh. 8, 19). Once prophecy ceased, Judaism became totally a religion devoted to the interpretation of the record of Revelation, i.e. the Torah, as a way of knowing what God desires of man. This worked well during the fourth and third centuries.

In the second century, however, questions arose and decisions had to be made for which there was no precedent, no obvious verse, and no Divine guidance. Mattathias and his generation had to courageously step forward and take responsibility to try to discern what the Torah teaches when one is required to eat non-kosher food, desecrate the Sabbath, delay circumcision, dispose of the sacred stones of the altar, create a form of government never seen in Israel prior to that time, and yes, to create a new holiday with absolutely no Divine mandate (direct or indirect).

They were well aware of the risks involved. They yearned for the appearance of a true prophet in those unparalleled, troubled times. Yet, they knew they must be courageous and act for Torah, out of the conviction that the Torah must have an answer for each new circumstance. To deny that would be blasphemy.

The unknown miracle of Hanukkah, then, is the spiritual courage of the Sages of that generation to stand up and be counted. They didn't cower in the Battei Midrash and say that they can't, they aren't worthy and so on. The times demanded heroism. God and His Torah demanded heroism. So the stood up and acted heroically, all the while aware that the True Prophet might disagree. In his absence, though, they would do their best for Fear of God and Love of God.

The Rav זצ"ל used to say that Hanukkah is the holiday of Torah she-b'al Peh. I never really understood why.

I think that now I do.

חג אורים שמח!!!

Monday, December 05, 2011

But Israel is Home: A Guest Response to Jeffrey Goldberg

The Jewish World is all aghast at Israel's aggressive campaign to get Israeli expatriates to return home. The lead has been taken by Atlantic reporter and blogger, Jeffrey Goldberg. I am, personally, conflicted about the campaign. One, impassioned and thoughtful response is by a young friend whose blog posting I repost here:

Dear Mr. Goldberg, That's Right. America IS No Place For A Proper Jew

by Chana Rivka Poupko

I have 2 great passions in life and hope to one day develop a career in both fields.

The first is advertising, the second, Jewish identity. So when I came across the latest campaigns targeted towards Israelis in the U.S. telling them to come home, I could not ignore it, and I definitely could not ignore it after the uproar which it created amongst American Jewry. There is an on going argument amongst advertisers- is all publicity good? Some believe that even bad publicity is good, since it gets the company's name out in the public. I am glad this campaign is creating such an uproar. This gives us a chance to finally discuss this important topic that has been relevant for the past 2,000 years.

One cannot find on YouTube the ad with the child saying it's Christmas, when he actually should be saying it's Channuka. It seems that the ad had hit an exposed nerve in the body of American Jewry.
Jeffrey Goldberg at his blog writes ("Netanyahu Government Suggests Israelis Avoid Marrying American Jews"):
The idea, communicated in these ads, that America is no place for a proper Jew, and that a Jew who is concerned about the Jewish future should live in Israel, is archaic, and also chutzpadik
I would like to tell Mr. Goldberg, “That's right. America IS no place for a proper Jew. And any Jew who is concerned about the Jewish future should not be living abroad. And, by the way, chutzpah in Israel is not a negative term. It’s having the nerve to say what needs to be said, no matter how unpleasant, in this case to tell Israelis who have gone to American for the “good life,” that they may have sold their birthright for a mess of lentil soup.”

Other bloggers have written about the scare tactic in this campaign. The question arises: “why hasn't the campaign gone down a calmer road, convincing these Israelis to come back home for reasons like, sunshine, a low unemployment rate, real felaflels? Using fear in a campaign is a very strong tactic, but most- sometimes it's all that works. Sunshine, good food and a steady economy, may not be cards strong enough to play.

I was talking to a relative who moved to Israel a few years ago. We spoke after she had some trouble in a few stores that day and of course she began the classic "Oh, in the states that would never had happened". But then she paused and said "it’s moments like this that remind you that you move to Israel for spiritual reasons, not materialistic reasons." Anyone who’s been following the Israeli news over the last 6 months knows that financially life in Israel is not simple for many of us.

During college I've heard my friends saying that in a few years they hoped to live somewhere outside the land of Israel. Some of my friends found out that I'm an American citizen and I can get up and leave anytime I wish to do so. They've told me I'm crazy for staying here when I have an opportunity to just get on a plane and not live here anymore. But those are just some of my friends.

On the other hand, I have a fair number of friends who've made aliya. These friends have chosen to voluntarily join the army and start a life here without their family. I greatly admire these friends. Truth be told, if you look at their actions through materialistic eyes – then yes, they are crazy. But when you know that moving to Israel is not immigrating to another country, but something much deeper than that, the Jews who live out of this great country, may be the crazy ones.

One does not immigrate to Israel, one makes aliya, and one is not an immigrant in Israel, one is an Oleh. Aliya, and Oleh come from a root that means "going up". Moving to Israel is a difficult but an uplifting experience for your soul, from what I've heard. I myself cannot share my experience of making aliya, I was lucky enough to be born here. But my parents have made aliya 30 years ago and everyday I thank God for that.

Not too long ago, a friend who made aliya asked what my favorite thing about Israel is. I had no answer. Later that night I went to bed asking myself that question over and over again. I realized I don’t have a favorite thing about life in Israel. Life in Israel is my favorite thing. Knowing that I am lucky enough to be living in the land that has been promised to my forefathers thousands of years ago is an astonishing thought to me. But living here is not amazing just because of historical reasons. A Jew's spirituality is not whole while living out of the Land of Israel. Although G-d dwells everywhere, his presence is strongest in the land of Israel. A Jew is closest to G-d while being in the Land of Israel. Making aliya is not just for religious people. Aliya is for anyone who understands the importance of Jews living in their home land.

Julie Wiener ("Israel To Ex-Pats: Come Home Before Your Kids Start Celebrating Xmas") suggests that a parody campaign should be done, presenting the "dangers" of aliya Americans making aliya and producing "bizarre" offspring who will call their mother "Ima". Wiener is afraid that God forbid, these offspring will cut in line in the super market. In life one should keep a sense of proportion. On the micro level, cutting in line is disturbing to me; on the macro level – Jews living outside of Israel is much more disturbing to me. I feel sorry for Jews whose ancestors prayed for two thousand years to be able to return to the Land, and now that we can, they don’t. I try to imagine to what these people's ancestors would say if 200 years ago they'd been told their grandchildren would have the possibility to live in Israel, yet chose to ignore it.

It seems that those frightened by this campaign are threatened by the thought that someone actually is telling them that living out of Israel undermines Jewish and Israeli identity. You do not have to be a professor of sociology to know that immigration creates a new identity for immigrants and if not for them, then for their off spring. The percent of Jewish assimilation is incredibly high. The number of Jews in the world today is the same as it's been in 1980, which means, we're still having children, but were disappearing too. One can say they will make the effort in order to keep his/ hers Jewish identity, but our forefathers said the same thing when they moved out of the shtetel. We all know that did not last for long.

Every day I pray for all Jews to realize the importance of life in Israel. How can we claim this land is ours while we're still living all over the world? Why should the common Joe Smith believe in the Jew's right to the land of Israel, while half of his colleagues are Jews, not living in the Promised Land?

Living in this great country may be a crazy thing to do, but still, I know this is where I'm suppose to be, and that's what keeps here.

Chana Rivka Poupko is a 24 year old Jerusalemite; she is a PR intern and hopes to see the day when all Jews move to Israel. Besides that she has lots of love of world Jewry and cares about their future. She'd love it if her kids will have Israeli chutzpa instead of having no Jewish identity.

My Latest Article: The Devil's Hoofs

Everyone's heard of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, though most people haven't read the actual book (it's actually quite boring). It has become a symbol of the primal dread of a Jewish cabal ( a word derive from Kabbalah) scheming to take over the world.

Recently, Boston University's Center for Jewish Studies and Center for Millennial Studies published a collection of articles addressing the origins, use and contemporary valence of the Protocols.

My contribution (available here) examines the diabolization of Jewish Literature, especially the Talmud in Christian Europe (and now in the Muslim Word).

Friday, November 18, 2011

The Rav Soloveitchik Siddur: Some Conflicted Reflections


This week the OU and Koren Press launched the The Koren Mesorat HaRav Siddur . I have yet to see the volume. However, if it is anything like it predecessors (the Yamim Noraim Mahzorim and the Kinnot), then I am sure it is a work of aesthetic beauty and spiritual power. It could hardly be otherwise, as it presents us with the inestimable interpretations and insights of מורי ורבי, Rav Soloveitchik זצ"ל on the liturgy. Prayer, the unmediated encounter with the Master of the Universe, was a central theme of the Rav's writings, and lies at the core of his understanding of the religious experience. This fact should not be under estimated. The Rav revolutionized our understanding and appreciation of prayer.

First, he restored prayer to the world of Yeshiva spirituality. Davening in Volozhin was notable for the brevity with which it was marked. There, the Study of Torah reigned supreme and the time allotted there to was maximized. The Rav, whose all encompassing involvement in Talmud Torah was no less intense than that of his forebears in Volozhin and Brisk, made extraordinary efforts to sensitize his disciples to the text of the siddur and the riches it contains. By so doing, he balanced out the perennial tension between Prayer and Talmud Torah as competing spiritual activities, a tension that marks Judaism from the beginning.

The Rav also made prayer both accessible and desirable for the intelligent modern whose daily life mires him in quotidian trifles, and renders him obtuse to Eternity, and to his Creator. He did this in his inimitable way by harnessing the totality of Torah and Western Culture to explicate both Halakhic discussions concerning the commandment to pray, and the text of the prayers themselves (and Worship of the Heart is but a foretaste of a much larger discussion).

So, the publication of this Siddur should be greeted with enthusiasm and gratitude to the many people involved in its production.

However.....

I am concerned that in all of the blessed publication of this material, תורת הרב הכלכך קרובה ללבי, a central part of his teachings will get lost: study.

The Rav did not write a commentary to the liturgy. He studied, very closely and creatively, the mahzor and the siddur, piyyut and tefillah. It was in the interaction between mind and heart, in the stretching of the mind and the invocation of interpretive creativity that the Rav was in his metier. He demanded not only results but process, from both himself and his students. I do not believe he was interested in a Soloveitchik canon for Divrei Torah and ווארטלטך, but rather to show the way to ever deeper understanding of the words of the liturgy, which will resound in the heart of the Jew as he/she undertakes the challenge of prayer.

So, in the end, whether this prayerbook (as with other collections of the Rav's interpretations) is truly Massoret ha-Rav (ie in the tradition of Rav Soloveitchik) will be determined not by its publication but by how it is used.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Dabber Ivrit ve-Hivreta

This week's Makor Rishon had an article about an organization called ESRA, which helps Olim from English speaking countries to acclimatize in Israel (aka קליטה). The article highlighted an aspect of contemporary Aliyah from English-speaking countries, namely the tendency of Anglos to live in hermetically sealed English-speaking ghettoes, and to socialize solely with other Anglos. The result is that an ever growing Oleh population never becomes part of Israeli society.

Personally, I find the phenomenon both curious and painful. When we moved here in 1993, we worked very hard to become part of Israel. True, we spoke English at home and in no way severed our awareness of an involvement in American culture. Still, we have always had both Israeli and non-Israeli friends. We learned about Israeli culture and politics. My wife studied in Israeli schools and training programs. She volunteered for years in various connections and always worked in Hebrew speaking environments. As a university lecturer, I was immersed in the broader society from Day One (or actually, day 265 because I landed into the biggest academic strike in two decades). More than that, because I was too old to be drafted I spent ten years as a volunteer on the Jerusalem Police Force (מתמי"ד) both to make up for my not serving in the army and to taste something of the melting pot experience that army service provides. The children, despite being raised in an American environment, are integral, caring parts of the fabric of Israeli society. I take tremendous pride in that fact.

Indeed, I cannot imagine doing otherwise. My life is so much richer for being part of this tapestry. I have here a sense of Klal Yisrael, of belonging to the multi-variegated body politic of the Jewish People that cannot be fully expressed in words. The fact that we all speak the same language, understand the same codes, reference the same cultural and religious moments (even among many Secular Jews) is, for me, a profoundly spiritual experience. If you don't crack the language and the semiotic, you deny yourself of that moment of total lack of self-consciousness when something dramatic (good or bad) happens and your Israeli brother or sister says one word (or you do) and you implicitly, intuitively understand and share the experience. The Anglo Olim who, in their fear and/or their arrogance, keep to themselves, deny themselves of all of that.

They also harm the State of Israel. For Anglo-Saxon Jewry is one that grew up under real democratic rule. It is the Jewry that developed Modern Orthodoxy. It is commercially and academically successful and sagacious. In other words, it has its own riches to contribute to the miracle of Israel by adapting its heritage to the unique dynamic of this beautiful Jewish mosaic. It's not fair to keep all of that from the rest. Who knows, perhaps that's why they were privileged to come at this time.

One thing is certain, as with anything of lasting worth in Jewish tradition...If it's not in Hebrew, it will have no future.


Tuesday, November 08, 2011

לא רעב ללחם ולא צמא למים

The Aramaic Targum on the Book of Ruth opens by saying that there will be ten serious famines prior to the coming of the Messiah. The last one will fulfill the vision of the prophet Amos (who lived not far from where I presently sit): הנה ימים באים נאם אדני יהוה והשלחתי רעב בארץ לא רעב ללחם ולא צמא למים כי אם לשמע את דברי ד or : 'Behold, the days come, saith the Lord God, that I will send a famine in the land, not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water, but for hearing the words of God' (Amos 8, 11).

There are, I believe, two sides to this prophecy.

Amos, himself, may have been telling the Jews of his day to appreciate the fact that there is prophecy in their midst, for a time will come when it will cease to exist. The Targum, though, was writing more than half a millennium after prophecy ceased. He lived in a world in which God hid His Face (as it were), a tragic reality that was reinforced by the destruction of the Temple, the Hadrianic Persecutions and the brutal aftermath of the Bar Kokhba Revolt. He yearned for God's word to make sense of the cruel, unjust reality in which he lived. Perhaps, he hoped that he was living in the End of Days, as evidenced by his generation's desperate need for unmediated Divine guidance.

That need, that spiritual hunger, grew ever more intense as the centuries unfolded and the Jewish historical experience grew more painful and heroic. In the wake of the cataclysm's and conundra of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, it has over flowed. It is, however, solely up to God as to when He will break His silence.

There is another side of Amos' prophecy, which is both timely and which is within our power to address.

Hungering for God's Word is another way of describing an overwhelming desire for God's Presence, per se. For two thousand years, up till the Emancipation (at least), Jews sought God and found Him through Tefillah and Torah, through Mitzvot and Ma'asim Tovim. In Amos' terms, God's Word allowed the Jew to connect with his Creator and feel His Presence. That sense of propinquity is what made him feel truly alive (cf. הל' יסודי התורה פ"א ה"א) and truly happy (e.g. ושמחת לפני ד' א). In the age of secularism, aka the 'Age of Disbelief,' God has been banished from the public square, from educated discourse, and Jews can no longer connect with His Word. For a long time, it appeared that they didn't really want to connect, either.

As I've noted here on any number of occasions, the latter is no longer true, at least as far as the Jews of Eretz Yisrael are concerned. The spiritual upsurge, the Jewish Renaissance, that has marked the past decade and a half has been truly inspiring. Even the secular media has been marked by 'not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water, but for hearing the words of God.' The search for God and Torah are at the front and the center of contemporary cultural discourse and personal desire.

That desire, however, is all too often unrequited. The people might want God's Word, but God's Word is often inaccessible.

It is often inaccessible because large swaths of the Orthodox World are caught up in political considerations that make their own power and funding more important than spreading Torah and Sanctifying God's Name. Today's nefarious decision by the Religion Ministry to kill the Tzohar Marriage initiative is typical of this trend (as is the persistent delegitimization by the Rabbinical Courts of conversions and Divorces issued by Orthodox Battei Din both here and abroad). Couples wishing to marry כדת משה וישראל will now have to either contend with the unfeeling and gross bureaucracy that plague the established rabbinate (along with not infrequent graft), or will choose to marry in Cyprus or marry by proxy in Paraguay. These are couples who seek God's blessing on their marriages, but will have nowhere to find it.

God's Word is also inaccessible because, for the vast majority of Traditional and even Orthodox Jews, they can't understand it and there is no one to teach them. It is not of the lack of teachers or classes that I write. Rather, it is the inability of the overwhelming majority of rabbis and educators to convey the Torah in cultural terms that can command the respect and (hopefully) the assent of the inquirers after God's Word. There simply aren't enough representatives of Torah (men and women, from all types of professions) who can intelligently convey God's Word to those who hunger for it. The enormity of this tragic circumstance is difficult to convey. It is compounded by the fact that (with a few exceptions) the community prefers to ignore the severity of the situation. In the Rav's terms, the Lover is knocking on the Beloved's door (which is locked from the outside). The locksmith, however, refuses to awaken and allow her to enter.

I do not know if we are living in the end of days. Happily, I am neither a prophet nor the son of a prophet. I do know, however, that when the Day of God, the Day of Judgement arrives all of us who presume to be involved, observant Jews will be asked why we did not help the Jews of Israel (who, according to Maimonides, are the life blood of the Jewish People everywhere) to slake their thirst for God and His Word.

Sunday, November 06, 2011

The Children of Oslo 1993

In 1991, writer/playwrite Shmuel Haspari composed a song 'Horef '73' about children conceived in the wake of the Yom Kippur War who were then being called up for their service in the Israel Defense Forces. The song quietly, but effectively, expressed the bitter disappointment of those who lived through the 1973 war that its leaders had not done enough to 'turn an enemy into a lover' (מאויב לאוהב, a line ironically taken from SY Agnon). The underlying premise was cognitively dissonant idea that the absence of peace in Israel was all Israel's fault. If only we gave the Palestinians what they want, we would have peace. That type of thinking led to the Oslo debacle of 1993.

The original song is here.

Now LATMA (the people who brought you 'We Con the World') have produced an updated version that expresses the feelings of the parents whose sons and daughters reported this year for induction, in the wake of ther hallucinations of Peres and Beilin, Deri and Rabin that if we only give them what they want, they'll strike a deal and make Peace. Turns out that they won't get what they want until we (ie the Jews) are no longer here. (The Hebrew is far more powerful than the English)




Friday, October 14, 2011

Gilad Shalit: Between Scylla and Charybdis

There was no easy way to obtain Gilad Shalit's release, especially since the feckless Olmert-Livni government did nothing to rescue him during the critical first few days after his kidnapping. (Ironically, had he not been kidnapped, he'd have been court martialed for sleeping on guard, which is why he was taken.) As a very perceptive friend of mine noted, Israel should have given Hamas a daily ultimatum: Release Gilad Shalit or we will pulverize 'x' suburb in Gaza. Civilians would be aware of the need to leave, and then we would level it. If he hadn't been released, we should have continued: OK, release Shalit or in twenty minutes the port of Gaza will be destroyed, and so on. No other sovereign country would or could do less.

Olmert, however, did not stand tough. The Israeli government, once again, cared more for its PR image than for the safety of its citizens. Shalit was buried deep with in Gaza. Once that happened, it was only a matter of time that we would have to release unrepentant murderers in return for Shalit.

Personally, I'm torn. As the father of a soldier, I understand and identify with the Shalits. However, I also know that these animals that we are turning loose will murder again. Gilad Shalit will be home, but dozens, God forbid, of others will be thrown into a tail spin of grief from which they will never recover, because we paid this price. We have, once again, displayed weakness in the face of an enemy, who only respects force and fortitude, and who has absolutely no respect for human life.

It's a lose-lose proposition. I hope that the media circus that is about to descend upon us, led by Leftists who will always celebrate anything that makes Israel weaker, will give serious coverage to the renewed grief of parents and children, spouses and siblings who must now see the murderers of their loved ones free and feted by the Palestinians.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Damsels in Distress

The long expected volume, Sefer Tuv Elem, in honor of my teacher, colleague and friend Professor Reuven Roberto Bonfil, has just been published. My article, 'Damsels in Distress,' examines the status of Jewish women in Renaissance Italy as reflected in the responsa of R. Joseph Colon Trabotto (Maharik).

The article may be accessed here .
The TOC and appreciation by David Ruderman article can be downloaded from here.

Saturday, October 08, 2011

Who Shall Live and Who Shall Die: Post Yom Kippur Reflections

Yom Kippur 5772 was, for me, a truly profound, uplifting experience. Flanked by my sons, knowing that my daughters were sitting with their mother and grandmother, I was privileged to enwrap myself in its proffered sanctity and internalize the awesome power of the day, what the Rabbis called 'עיצומו של יום.' As the day reached its end and its crescendo at Neilah, I could not help but wish that the moment might never end. My emotions were, admittedly, mixed when the Shofar signaled the Shekhina's departure. And yet, the heightened spiritual awareness with which Yom Kippur vouchsafed us is so intoxicating, so overpowering that I dare to believe that it can accompany me (and everyone else who let it in) through the coming year. מיום כיפורים זה עד יום כיפורים הבא עלינו לטובה.

Here in Eretz Yisrael, Barukh HaShem, the number of Jews for whom the intimate encounter with God on Yom Kippur is important, rises every year. More and more formal and informal observances of the day are sprouting up over the length and breadth of the country. Communities and settlements that were doctrinally allergic to Judaism, know build synagogues, study Torah and reconnect with being Jewish. The papers claim that only 58% of Israeli Jews fast, but those numbers are (in my opinion) inaccurate. The real numbers are more like 70%. Either way, however, the rejudaization of the Holy Land is in full swing. It is, as many have noted, nothing less than a renaissance and Yom Kippur is a touchstone of that rebirth. The Jew's yearning for God, through Torah study and pure spirituality, is alive and well in Israel.

The state of the Exile is, sadly, much less promising.

After the fast, when I logged on to Facebook, I was really shocked and deeply saddened to see just how many of the American Jews with whom I am connected, were totally unaware (or didn't care) that today was Yom Kippur. When I was growing up, we spoke of Three Day a Year Jews. Then there were One Day a Year Jews. Now, it appears, there are many many No Day a Year Jews. I suppose it was inevitable. Through ignorance and intermarriage, acceptance in America and weakened identity, most American Jews will be gone within a generation. Or, they will have created for themselves a patina of attenuated Jewish affiliation that will not long last. The historian in me sees a parallel with the Graeco-Roman diaspora, which largely assimilated away during the First Century CE, when being Jewish ceased to be comfortable because the Jews of Eretz Yisrael kept rebelling against Rome, and Jews felt more comfortable in the academies of Greece than the synagogues of Jerusalem or Alexandria.

There are, of course, counter indications. Efforts at bringing alienated Jews back to Judaism are happily successful, and Orthodox Judaism rightfully prides itself in its achievements. The overall direction, though, is clear. The contrast with developments in Israel, only highlights that fact.

That does not mean that we should, God forbid, give up on any Jew in the Diaspora. However, it reinforces my conviction that any possibility of continued Jewish existence abroad is absolutely dependent upon the strengthening of Judaism in Israel. (Did I hear anyone say: כי מציון תצא תורה?)
One crucial way to do that is to create a credible Modern Orthodoxy in Eretz Yisrael, which will speak to intelligent secular Jews, and sensitively respond to men and women who can no longer relate to the religious koine of either the Religious Zionist or Haredi worlds.

Ultimately, as with our individual fates, so too the destiny of Jewish communities is in God's hands. However, we have a role in this as well.

The Book of Exodus (18, 13) recounts that: 'And it came to pass on the morrow, that Moses sat to judge the people; and the people stood about Moses from the morning unto the evening.' The plain meaning of the verse is that Moses judged the people on the day after his father-in-law Jethro arrived at the Israelite encampment (as described in the previous verses). Rashi, however, asserts that the events described occurred 'on the morrow of Yom Kippur' (מחרת יום הכיפורים).

The Rav זצ"ל observed that, despite the textual difficulty, Rashi's comment contains a profound observation about the manner in which the Jew must go about his business. He must always feel, Rav Soloveitchik said, as if it were the day after Yom Kippur. The heightened spiritual awareness, the glow that remains from immersion in holiness that derives from one's encounter with God, must accompany oneself through the year.

In other words, in order to be Yom Kippur, Yom Kippur must transcend itself and infuse the other 354 days of the year. That lesson is both personal and national. On the personal level, as quotidian superficialities threaten to deaden our God-awareness, we need to hold on to the 'high' of Yom Kippur to prevent being dragged under, once again. One does that through ongoing actions like prayer and study, tzedakah and hesed; a carefully balancing of commandments between oneself and God and between oneself and one's fellow man or woman.

On a national level, that demands that all of us in Israel who were elevated by God's visit during these past ten days must work, through teaching and conduct, to intensify the trend back to Torah and to thereby save not only the Jews of Zion, but those abroad, as well.

Thursday, October 06, 2011

Erev Yom Kippur 5772: Holiness Expands

An enigmatic Talmudic passage (Yoma 81b) reads as follows:

Hiyya, the son of Rab, of Difti learned: ‘And you shall afflict your souls in the ninth [day of the month]’. But is one fasting on the ninth? Do we not fast on the tenth? Rather, it comes to indicate that, if one eats and drinks on the ninth, Scripture accounts it to him as if he had fasted on the ninth and the tenth.'

The Netziv (in his commentary to the שאילתות) interprets Hiyya's remarks to mean that Erev Yom Kippur merges with Yom Kippur itself to form one unit. On Erev Yom Kippur, we celebrate the sublime opportunity, nay the incalculable privilege, that God has given us to spend a full day in His Presence, basking in the unmitigated light of the the Shekhina. He offers us this time of intimacy with Him to ask forgiveness for our sins, to reconcile with one another and with Him. We know, deep in our hearts, that God's endless love for us will lead to סליחה, מחילה וכפרה if we only return to Him and set ourselves on the path of Teshuvah. So, the Torah instructs us to celebrate our quality time with God, our anticipated immersion in sanctity and our hoped for forgiveness, in advance of Yom Kippur itself!!

This means that both the ninth and the tenth of Tishrei possess a unique tangible charisma, קדושת היום.

You don't really need Hiyya bar Rav to teach you this truth. All day, as I saw everyone go about their business in the Hills of Judea and in Jerusalem, you could feel the sense of anticipation. 'Yom ha-Qadosh' (as my late father in law referred to Yom Kippur, מיט א ציטער) is upon us. Already tonight, the atmosphere is infused with an aetherial, other worldly feeling. It is the Ninth of Tishrei, and the sanctity of Yom Kippur is steadily descending and intensifying. It will grow, as the country winds down, and stops starting tomorrow night.

Listen carefully. The harbingers of the שכינה are already here. They are in the profound silence outside my window. They are gathering at the Kotel, where thousands of בני עדות המזרח are gathered for their most exalted selihot. The King is coming. The Shekhina is descending. A mixture of anticipation and awe, fear and excitement fill Eretz Yisrael, which is blessed not only with Yom Kippur but with Erev Yom Kippur.

אשרי העם שככה לו. אשרי העם שד' א-לקיו

גמר חתימה טובה לכל בית ישראל

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Shanah Tovah


חִזְקוּ וְגִילוּ כִּי שֹׁד גָּמַר
לְצוּר הוֹחִילוּ בְּרִיתוֹ שָׁמַר
לָכֶם וְתַעֲלוּ לְצִיּוֹן
וְאָמַר סֹלּוּ סֹלּוּ מְסִלּוֹתֶיהָ
תָּחֵל שָׁנָה וּבִרְכוֹתֶיהָ

צרכי עמך ישראל מרובין ודעתן קצרה.
יה"ר שתברך את כל עמך ישראל
בשנה טובה ומתוקה, שנת שלום ושלוה
שנת תורה ויראת שמים, שנת בריאות ופרנסה
שנה בה נלך יחד לבית ד' ברינה:

לשנה טובה תיכתבו ותיחתמו לאלתר
בספרן של צדיקים גמורים

מאחלים לכם ולשלכם,
ג'פרי, טובי, אבי, אריאל, חנה, אלישבע ומוריה
וולף

Warmest Best Wishes for a Happy and Healthy New Year
From
Jeffrey, Toby, Avi, Ariel, Chana, Elisheva and Moriah
Woolf

Sunday, September 25, 2011

A Cri de Coeur-- Reflections on Selichot

A famous vort, attributed to the Kotzker Rebbe, goes like this:
The Kotzker once emerged from his inner sanctum to find his Hassidim swaying while praying. Angry (but wasn’t he always), he cried out: Der vos shokelt zich, shteht fun veitens. Loosely translated, and sacrificing the sharp homiletic, the Kotzker was saying people who shockel miss the point. One is supposed to tremble ‘inside’ (innervenig), and not merely outside.

I was reminded of that comment during Selihot the past two nights. Technically, they were fine. The hazzan’s pronunciation was exact. The cantillation impeccable. What was missing? Soul, awe, dread, fear, apprehension, kavvanah and elation at the opportunity for Teshuvah. There was absolutely no indication that anyone in the places I davened was aware of Rabbenu Yonah’s statement (Sha’are Teshuvah I, 1):
מן הטובות אשר היטיב השם יתברך עם ברואיו, כי הכין להם הדרך לעלות מתוך
פחת מעשיהם ולנוס מפח פשעיהם, לחשוך נפשם מני שחת ולהשיב מעליהם אפו

What did I see? I saw more of what I see all over Israel and all over the Orthodox World. The pace and the body language of the people cried out: ‘It’s 1233AM (sic!). Let’s get this over with quick. I’ll do exactly what I’m supposed to. If the Shaliah Tzibbur misses a note or uses the wrong nusah, I’ll be the first to send him to Golgotha. However, don’t you dare make me devote more time to this than I need to.’ As we all know, in a different context, Tosefet Shabbat be-yetzi’ato is a sin.

This is the tragedy of much of contemporary Orthodoxy. Halakhic punctilliousness has conquered the field, but in too many places spirituality has been banished. As Professor Haym Soloveitchik concludes in his magisterial essay, ‘Rupture and Reconstruction’: ‘Having lost the touch of His presence, they seek now solace in the pressure of His yoke’ (Tradition, 28(1994), 103).

I have no doubt that he is correct. The state of affairs that he describes, however, is neither sufficient nor acceptable. It leaves observance anemic, at best, and totally stale, at worst. The massive search for spiritual expression that presently characterizes contemporary Orthodoxy of every stripe is a loud protest not against Halakhah, but of the legitimate need to infuse mitzvot with feeling and with God’s Presence. The Rov זצ”ל already foresaw this need. From the late 1950’s on, he consistently complained of having failed, as it were, at developing a sensitized spiritual awareness among many of the same disciples who had mastered the Brisker Method and were capable of dazzling hiddushim in every area of Halakhah. (See, e.g., ‘Al Ahavat ha-Torah u-Ge’ulat Nefesh ha-Dor’ and his oft-cited remarks in his eulogy for Reb Haim Heller, ‘Peletat Sofrim’).

In light of this lugubrious reality, is it any wonder that so many of our children and youth take off their kippot?

There is, however, even more to my deep sense of ennui and despair the past few days after Selihot. Ladies and Gentlemen, we are presently in very serious trouble, both as a people and a religion. Assimilation is an aggressive cancer eating away at the body politic of our nation, both here and abroad. The forces of evil really are planning to destroy us, and are developing the means to do so. As the Psalmist said (Ps. 85, 5): They have said: ‘Come, and let us exterminate them as a nation; that the name of Israel may be remembered no more.’ Throughout the Summer, as we read Sefer Devarim, the words of the Torah had an immediacy and a global relevance that I had never felt before. Particularly during the most recent war, I walked around feeling as if I was living in the midst of Shirat Ha’azinu. From conversations with many, many others, I am not alone in that feeling.

Isn’t that enough reason to cry out from the depths of our souls to God to save us? Is it such an imposition to move ourselves to feel? How long will we sophisticate ourselves to death? After all, Tefillah be-Et Tzarah is the commandment of prayer according to the Ramban, and a special dimension (qiyyum) according to the Rambam ( See Sefer HaMitzvot, Aseh 5 and Hassagot Ha-Ramban and Hil. Tefillah 1, 1 and Kesef Mishneh, ad loc.).

Self-satisfaction is the perpetual malady of the Jew. It is also quite lethal, as we will read on Shabbat Shuvah (Deut. 32, 15): ‘Jeshurun thus became fat and rebelled. You grew fat, thick and gross. [The nation] abandoned the God who made it and spurned the Mighty One who was its support.’ This ailment comes in all shapes and sizes, visiting both ostensibly observant Jews as well as the non-observant.

There are a few days left to prepare for Rosh Hashanah. We should search our souls, unleash our souls, and not just check the size of the shofar and the rate of the stop watch to time the teqi’ot.
Our Lives, and our souls, depend upon it.
    [I wrote this five years ago. Tragically, it's still painfully relevant.]

Sunday, September 18, 2011

The Real Victims of the Palestine Authority

The world's hypocrisy, especially the hypocrisy of the Jewish and Israeli Left, is best borne out by the Palestinians themselves. No, I'm not referring to the well-dressed, well-fed self-appointed representatives of the PA, the PLO, and Hamas. I'm referring to the simple, working class Palestinian Arab.

You see, as opposed to the Left, I live among Palestinians. Right now, I hired an Aran named Ghattib and his son Ayman, to help us move to a temporary apartment while we renovate our house. The tale he tells us is horrific. They have no medical insurance. They have no medications. They have only fifth class hospitals (as in Bethlehem and Hebron). They used to get a minimum ration of oil and flour. Once the PA goons found out that Ghattib does occasional work for Jews, they cut him off because he must rich. His daughter-in-law has rheumatism and had to travel to Amman for treatment. Ghattib is working overtime to fund her treatment. Why don't you have medical insurance, I asked?

The fatcats in the PA take all the money and build themselves mansions, buy clothes and fancy cars. They leave nothing for us.

This is the state the same fatcats are crying for. I guess it's good for them. For Ghattib, it's an ongoing nightmare.

Friday, September 02, 2011

Forty One Years Later: My, Father, A. Irving Woolf ז"ל

It seems like only yesterday. It was a cold, drizzly Friday morning in Nantasket. I heard my mother ע"ה scream (it was 5:45AM). I ran into her room. She was standing with the phone in her hand. Wit a look of shock and horror on her face she cried: 'Daddy passed away in his sleep!' It was left to me to wake my brothers and tell them the horrible news that would change our lives forever.

It seems like only yesterday, but it happened forty-one years ago. I have often thought that time (on a certain level) stopped for me at that moment. Of course, it didn't really. I was blessed with a heroic, wonderful mother and siblings. I found my עזר כנגדו with whom I had the merit and love that allowed us to build a family based on אהבת ד, אהבת העם ואהבת הארץ. I was privileged to study at the feet of the greatest leaders of my generation, both Torah giants and Leaders in צדקה and חסד.
God has blessed me in so many ways.

Yet, the cold chill of that moment never goes away. Someone is always missing. I miss smiling, fun-loving man who was always there and able to show us how to enjoy life (especially on the spur of the moment. 'Full of Fun' is how a cousin described him). I so wish he'd been here longer for me to learn that lesson, or to just have someone to talk to (as I imagine sons speak to fathers). Not only my life, but that of my children would've been that much better for it. I miss sitting with him in Shul, with his hand lightly on my shoulder. He was an emotionally shy man, who poured his obvious love for us into actions and hesitant words. We played Little League, he was the team manager. We were in Cub Scouts, he was the Packmaster....You get the idea.

But, oh, if I could I could only summon up the memory of his voice.

He was such a good, kind man. Like every good man, he told none of us of the many many acts of חסד that he performed. We only heard about many of them during the Shiva and after. Perhaps the greatest tribute to him was the large contingent of Blacks who he had helped to buy their own homes who came to the funeral and, one by one before the service, came forward to kiss the casket. (A ringing denial of a nefarious, agenda-ridden history of the times.)

Forty One years, only yesterday and lifetime ago.

Maybe this year I'll learn to embody the lessons of his short life to a greater degree. That would restart the clock.

יהי זכרו ברוך.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Why Was the Land Lost? A Moral Quandary

The Rov זצ"ל used to remark that his students should cultivate Torah 'in the widest sense of the term.' It's a turn of phrase that has always given me pause. What does it include? More intriguingly, what did he mean to exclude? In my case, since the Rov knew that I was pursuing a degree in Jewish Studies (and considering his feelings about historicism), I"m sorry I didn't ask him. Over time, however, I have arrived at a partial answer to the question.

The Talmud in several places (Nedarim 81a and Baba Metzia 85b) preserves the following discussion:

For Rav Judah said in Rav's name: What is meant by, 'Who is the wise man, that he may understand this? And who is he to whom the mouth of God has spoken, that he may declare it? Wherefore has the land perished and been laid waste like a wilderness, so that none passeth through?'(Jer. 9, 11) ?

Now, this question was put to the Sages, Prophets, and Ministering Angels, but they could not answer it, until the Almighty Himself did so, as it is written (ibid.12), 'And the Lord said: Because they have forsaken my Law which I set before them, and have not obeyed my voice, neither walked therein.' ...Rav Judah said in Rav's name: [It means] that they did not first recite a benediction over the Torah.

The commentators (led by RaN, Nedarim ad loc.) are puzzled by the non-sequitur. Obviously, the Jews were studying Torah. If so, as important as the blessing preceding study might be, why was the penalty for its lack of recital deemed to be so severe. The RaN suggests that the lack of blessing indicates a less than serious attitude to the Torah. That, however, is hardly abandoning God!

Or, maybe it is.

On many occasions, the Rov noted that the Torah itself demands the recitation of a blessing before study (ברכת התורה מדאורייתא) to serve as a declaration of surrender and submission to God prior to study. It means not judging the Torah, God forbid, but living with questions and giving the Torah (and He who gave it, the benefit of the doubt).Its point actually is to distinguish Torah study from all other intellectual pursuits, exalted and important as these must be. Reciting ברכת התורה means renewing a commitment to a religious, moral and upstanding life as a result of Torah Study. Without that context and commitment, Torah study itself can easily be seen as an abandonment of God.

I firmly believe that, in terms of Jewish Studies, the ability to recite a ברכת התורה over the subject matter is a litmus test of that which is included in 'Torah in the widest sense' and that which is not. Certainly, the mere fact that a person is a scholar of Jewish History or Jewish Studies does not per se make him or her a credible or legitimate representative of Judaism or a moral example (and I include here rabbis whose Torah doesn't penetrate their moral character).

"Wherefore is the land perished and laid waste like a wilderness, so that none passeth through?" Because the moral values of the Torah are dust under the feet of those who do not recite the blessing first.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Eighteen Years in Israel: Light and Darkness and Light

In our family, today is a holiday. Eighteen years ago, we had the זכות to make Aliyah with our children (and to undo the expulsion of my great-grandparents by the Turks, exactly one hundred years ago). We made Aliyah in the days before Nefesh b'Nefesh. In fact, we were the only Olim on our flight. We were met by a nice AACI volunteer, who told us to meet with an Aliyah counselor, and that was it. We sort of winged it, בסעייתא דשמיא and advice from a lot of friends.

It has not been easy. ארץ ישראל נקנית ביסורים. Our's have been tangible, both easier and harder than those encountered by others. There have been moments of personal and national joy, as well as four wars and personal and national loss. One thing, however, has never changed. We may have had a more challenging harder life, but it is always, but always, a worthwhile life. Nowhere else have I felt more grounded, more purposeful, more at home than here in Israel. Every step you take contributes to the eternity of the Jewish People in the only place it can call home. I appreciate the yeoman's efforts undertaken by institutions and individuals around the world to preserve the Torah and rescue Jews from oblivion. The real action, though, is here. I know this not only from being personally, intensively, involved in dialogue and Modern Orthodox initiatives, teaching Torah (in the broadest sense of the term) in both academic and non-academic settings. I know it from the flow, and power, of daily life in the Land that God Himself gave to His People. I firmly believe, with every fiber of my being, that the future of Judaism and of Jewry will be secured here, and not abroad.

Being a Jew requires sacrifice. Sometimes, that sacrifice is one of time, or of money. Sometimes, God Forbid, we are asked to sacrifice our lives. That was brought home, tragically, with yesterday's attack on the road to Eilat. I'm not going to mar this post with a discussion of Islam, Al Qaeda and so on. The truth is that much of the Christian World, as well as the Dar al Islam, wishes that we would all disappear. They have been nursing that hope for thirty five hundred years, and will keep on nursing it.

I want to focus, instead, on what the Jews do (as Ben Gurion once put it). Last night, my wife and I decided to go out in honor of our Aliyah anniversary and (belatedly) to celebrate the acceptance of my book for publication. We chose to go to En Kerem, because it's beautiful, quiet and I'd never really seen it up close (mirabile dictu). It's a gem of Jerusalem. We explored galleries and dined at a novelty (a kosher restaurant in the vicinity). There were no tourists, only Israelis. We all knew what had happened. One gallery had the news on, and it was blaring from the makolet. Whoever heard, looked at one other in that deep look of silent understanding that expresses the rock bottom, steeled determination of Israelis to defend ourselves and build our country, with God's help.

We all went on living. It was dissonant, but real. That's how Jews live, and thrive. We acknowledge our pain, and our sacrifice and we go on living. As friend of my wife, a child of Holocaust survivors, used to observe: 'The best revenge is living well.' I would add, that the best revenge is living well here, in Eretz Yisrael.

And that is precisely what I'm going to say tonight as we have Shabbat dinner in our home in the Hevron Hills.

And it is precisely for that, that I will thank God tomorrow night אי"ה at the Kotel.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Catching Up

A friend just commented to me that I've not posted here in two months. Two Months?!! I couldn't believe it. I used to post daily (or close to daily). Nevertheless, sure enough, I can see that the last time I posted was almost two months ago. Part of the reason, I'm sure, is that a significant amount of the cross-posting I used to do (e.g. calling attention to articles in the Press etc), I now do on Facebook. It's just easier with their 'Share' function. (And, I repeat my invitation to any of my readers to 'friend' me on FB so that they can participate in the very lively debates that go on on my page.)

Still, that's not the whole story. The whole story is that all of my energy has been devoted to finishing my book on the Qehillah Qedosha, and three additional articles that are now required for me to apply for promotion to Associate Professor at Bar Ilan. I'm happy to say that the book received its final acceptance for publication last month (DOP: Late Spring 2012) and I just submitted the third of the three articles for publication. So, while there are still tons of things on my plate (including packing up our house for the fabled renovations on our home: I'm soon to intensify my status as an 'obstacle to Peace') I feel liberated enough to start posting again on a more regular basis.

Bottom Line: Stay Tuned.

Monday, June 20, 2011

On Jewish National Identity: A Response to Daniel Gordis and Yitzhak Adlerstein


Daniel Gordis' observations concerning the alienation of non-Orthodox rabbinical students have elicited a thoughtful response by Yitzhak Adlerstein. He advises against Orthodox triumphalism, out of a serious concern for the Jewish collective. I support his sentiments as far as they go. They do not, however, go far enough. For, as far as real concern and identification with Israel is concerned, American Orthodoxy has much with which to be concerned.

I left the following comment, which I hope to expand later:

Overall, I agree with your reaction to Gordis’ piece and with the overall tenor of the comments (except for the first, which I think is reprehensible). I would only add a further reason for caution, lest we pat ourselves on the back overly much.

I have just completed a four month sabbatical in the US. One thing that struck me was how incredibly self-satisfied large swaths of American Orthodox Jews appear to be. For many of the people I met (though assuredly not the majority, I hope), Israel is a place to visit, without really engaging or encountering it; to use, without internalizing; to pine for in low keys on Tisha B’Av, without putting Aliyah on the agenda. One indicator of this attenuation of relations is the Hebrew illiteracy (both in speaking and writing) that marks the overwhelming majority of Orthodox Jews (including rabbis and Lamdanim). Without a common language, how can there be a common cause?

So, while we share the secret of our blessed solidarity and sense of peoplehood with other Jews, it behooves the Diaspora Jewish Community to check itself, as well.

To his credit, R. Adlerstein's response to my remarks (in a private note) were both open and appreciative.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Of Blended Families

Second (and third) marriages are a growing fact of life. Israel lags behind the US (33%- 53%), but the percentages keep growing. Israeli men and women are more likely to lost a spouse to violence (in addition to natural causes), than might be the case in Europe or the United States and Canada.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Nothing Light About Dati-Lite (1)

Lately, I've been thinking a lot about what Israelis call 'Dati-Lite'. For those who aren't familiar with the term, Dati-Lite refers to people marked by some degree of two distinct, though related, characteristics whose interaction marks a person's religious life: Openness to and involvement in the general cultural milieu and Less than maximal levels of observance.

As I once mention (in my Hebrew blog, here) the fact that these are, at all, related is instructive. It means that the regnant ideal in religious circles (at least at the official level) is that cultural self-segregation is as essential an element of religiosity as performance of mitzvot. Anyone who knows (or reads) me knows that I summarily reject such a conclusion, and I will expand upon this point in the book I'm writing on Modern Orthodoxy in Hebrew.

At the present moment, I want to zero in on the other factor: One's Level of Religious Observance.

Let me preface my remarks by asserting the obvious. Mitzvot are not optional, and that reality should be the point of departure for any Orthodox Jew. However, contemporary Israeli Orthodoxy comprehends two, inter-related, basic fallacies in this regard. The first is based upon a fundamental misunderstanding concerning the difference between religious policy and law. The second is rooted in an extremely exaggerated definition as to the minimum of observance required for one to be considered legitimately Orthodox. These dual fallacies lead to the delegitimization of fine upstanding observant Jews; to the phenomenon of 'Dati-Lite' (and not infrequently) to the total abandonment of Observance and the so-called 'Datlash' (דתי לשעבר or Formerly Observant).

Religious Policy: There is very real difference between what the Torah might allow and that which might be legal, but undesirable. Ramban, in his famous discussion of the parameters of sanctity (ad Lev. 19, 2 s.v. קדושים) notes that one could, conceivably, live one's life within the boundaries of the Law, and still miss the point. He, himself, highlighted the need to carefully balance spiritual with material pursuits. Thus, while eating kosher food is a mitzvah, neglecting one's soul in the interest of gastronomic pleasure (qualitatively or quantitatively) would render one a 'Knave with the Torah's Permission' (נבל ברשות התורה). Contrarily, extreme self-denial would presumably also fall under that category. This corrective falls, according to Ramban, under the overall directive 'Thou shalt be Holy, for I the Lord your God am Holy' (קדושים תהיו כי קדוש אני ד'). This mitzvah is, in effect, an expression of religious policy, viz. the overall import of the Torah directs certain behavioral options over other (equally legal) ones.

This, of course, opens up a Pandora's box. Who's to tell what is the Torah's overall import, or needs? In a sense, it is around this question that the history of Orthodoxy turns (and has turned for over two centuries). In a Pre-Modern/Pre-Emancipation world, the integrity of Halakhah was complemented by an organic, living (ok, mimetic) tradition. With the latter's progressive dissolution, the setting of Religious Policy, based upon the 'best interests' of the Torah, became a judgment call by the Greats (and, more frequently, the would bees and wannabes).

It remains, however, a judgment call. If a person rejects such a judgment call, and his/her behavior is in consonance with acceptable halakhic norms (usually based upon a factor that might be deemed סוגיא דעלמא, or consensus. That, however, is a topic for another discussion); there is no justification to running them out of the Orthodox community, or of so abusing them that they feel they have no choice but to leave. I believe that this is the case in a number of contemporary contexts, where the proper policy is (I believe) to firmly voice our objections (respectfully), but adopt a 'Wait and See' attitude. In other words, if the mode of behavior (e.g. 'Partnership Minyanim') continue without sliding over the boundaries of normative law, then they will be regularized. If not, well, they will either disappear or read themselves out of the realm of Orthodoxy.

If one should not drive people out of Orthodoxy over more weighty subjects, one should certainly not do so over lesser issues. Nevertheless, religious priorities in the Religious Zionist world are so skewed that this is precisely what happens.


Tuesday, June 14, 2011

The Rebellious Son: A Wonderful Movie


Many of you are, I hope, aware that the Maaleh School for Film has created an entire generation of gifted Religious Zionist Filmmakers. The most famous is, I suspect, Laizy Schapiro who created the inimitable series Srugim, which just completed filming its third season for Israel’s Yes TV (and which I"ve discussed on many occasions).

One of these truly talented people is Shoshi Greenfield. She has written, produced and directed a number of high quality films that touch, with sensitivity and humor, upon issues that lie at the core of the intersection of Judaism and Zionism in contemporary Israel. Now, her prize-winning film, ‘The Rebellious Son’ is available for viewing on the web in Hebrew with English subtitles online for only $4.00. [Website, here.]

The integration of men and women from the religious community into the visual arts is a tremendous Kiddush HaShem, and deserves support. Films such as these support that effort and bring home to your members the reality of life in Israel, in ways that even visiting cannot achieve.I strongly and warmly recommend that you watch them yourselves and publicise them among your community members.

The Rebellious Son

https://sites.google.com/site/therebelliousso/watch-now

By Shoshi Greenfield

Documentary, 72 min.

My cousin Ya’acov’s secret ambition is to go unnoticed. He dreams of becoming a monk, a recluse. One summer, towards the end of his high school days, he fulfills his monastic ambitions.He drops out of school and becomes a shepherd on a forsaken farm in southern Mount Hebron. The mystery and magic that he discovers in the mountains aren’t exactly greeted with enthusiasm by his family. This rebellious son’s high jinks draw them into family quarrels that expose fresh, surprising points of view on themes such as love, war, and the beard my cousin has decided to grow.This is a family story about one individual's attempt to find his own path and independence, even when those around him think differently.

Tuesday, June 07, 2011

Shavuot:: The Unforgottable Festival

A provocative article in today's Jewish Ideas Daily claims that almost no Jews know about Shavuot, and tries to account for that fact. One of the factors that the author cites is the fact that (in the absence of the Temple) there are no ceremonies or mitzvot that are uniquely associated with the festival. On the face of it, that's true. Upon closer examination, that is not only a false assertion, it is profoundly misleading.

To begin with, Shavuot is wonderful specifically because it is unencumbered by considerations beyond the laws of Yom Tov. Indeed, it is Yom Tov, pure and simple. It's a day given totally over to rejoicing before God. The Torah commands us, ושמחת בחגיך. The Rav זצ"ל always pointed out that the ultimate joy a Jew can experience is to stand before God, ושמחת לפני ד'. On other holidays, there are all kinds of accessories to help us do that. On Shavuot, in the afterglow of Pesach and 49 days of spiritual preparation through the Omer period, we are bidden to just experience God's presence and rejoice; physically and spiritually. The paucity of ceremonial is, indeed, its power.

In addition, Shavuot has a mitzvah. We are bidden to re-experience Revelation and to sit and study Torah. What is better, more sublime. more exalted and more spiritually intoxicating than meeting God, the Creator of the World? As R. Hayyim of Volozhin writes in Sefer Nefesh ha-Hayyim (4, 3), attaining insight into the Torah is a personal act of Revelation. And we do it through a meeting of physicality and spirituality (רוחניות וגשמיות).

That is why, for me, Shavuot is not only unforgettable. It is my absolutely favorite Hag.