Sunday, March 07, 2021

On Contemporary Idolatry

 


 
I'm thinking about Avodah Zarah.
 
Actually, I've been thinking about it not only lately, but for a few years now. As an halakhic and experiential religious category, Avodah Zarah has not played much of a role in Traditional Jewish Life, for at least two centuries. Islam has, with minor exceptions, always been viewed as a monotheistic faith. Even the attitude to Christianity has significantly softened. Whereas Maimonides and most early Ashkenazic authorities viewed Christianity as unadulterated Avodah Zarah, for five centuries now the dominant position has been that Christianity is not Avodah Zara for non-Jews. This, together with twentieth century religious relativism and syncretism, has taken the sting out of the traditional Jewish revulsion at Trinitarian Belief, the attribution of Divinity to a Human Being, and the various trappings of the more traditional Christian Churches. 
 
The result is that even the most traditional Jews have lost their spiritual 'sea-legs' when it comes to Avodah Zarah. 
 
Consider, when a prominent rabbi was obliged to participate in a church service, the opposition was largely an expression of the long, bitter and bloody history between Church and Synagogue. It barely echoed the genuine reaction of Traditional Ashkenazic Jews to Avodah Zarah (see, e.g., the various elegies and chronicles written the wake of the First Crusade or the Chmielnitzki Uprising). Or, when Jews visit India and the Far East, they have no problem visiting, admiring (or eating) sites that are indubitably unalloyed Avodah Zarah (at least according to Halakhah). We just don't know it when we see it.
 
And yet, Avodah Zarah is the polar opposite of the Torah.
 
It is the antithesis of everything the Torah stands for, and the fundamentum upon which our relationship with God stands or falls. The entire TaNaKh is infused with this binary, which Hazal pithily summed up: כל המודה בעבודה זרה כופר בכל התורה כולה וכל הכופר בעבודה זרה מודה בכל התורה כולה(ספרי דברים פרשת ראה פיסקא נד 
 
You may ask, then, why am I thinking about Avodah Zarah (unless I plan to travel to the Far East)? The answer is that we are living in a pagan age. We are confronted at every turn by Avodah Zarah, and we fail to realize it.
 
Avodah Zarah is not confined to the fetishistic adoration of images or of natural forces. In fact, the prohibition against idols is really (by most counts) only comes up in the Second Commandment, not the First. It is merely a sub-section of the more important injunction that we must have no other gods but the One True God, Creator of Heaven and Earth, the One whose Will we are bound to uphold under any and all conditions. On this basis, my teacher and friend, Rabbi Dr. David Berger offered the best definition of Avodah Zarah that I know of: Avodah Zarah is to accept or worship as god, someone or something who/which is not actually God. 
 
This begs the question: What makes the present age pagan?
 
The answer was provided, unknowingly, by the great classical scholar, Edith Hamilton, in her wonderful book, Mythology. In the introduction (pp. 14-20), Hamilton describes the novel features of Greek and Roman Mythology. Chief among these is that 'the Greeks, unlike the Egyptians, made the gods in their own image.' The gods of Greece were an exercise in human narcissism and human self-indulgence [and yes, I'm aware of Frankfurter's 'Before Philosophy' and Margalit and Halbertal's Idolatry].
 
Contemporary Western 'Enlightened' Culture, that which demands that we measure up to its demands and adjust to all of its values, is very much the successor of Greece and Roman religion. The difference is that the Greeks and Romans posited these ideal humans as being above them and that they owed them obedience and obeisance. We, however, have done away with that distinction and simply worship ourselves as a group and/or as individuals. Accepting Nietzsche's assertions about God, the West has posited that belief in God and adherence to Religion is either an opiate (Marx) or a Neurosis (Freud). The result is self-worship, self-adulation and epistemological, axiological and moral relativism. 
 
As Tara Isabelle Burton, in her book 'Strange Rites, notes: In the absence of God people create a plethora of rites and religions; self-centered, self-concerned, self-indulgent and morally unfettered rites that she herself (a PhD in Religion from Oxford) describes as pagan.
In his lectures on the story of Abraham, 'Abraham's Journey,' Rav Soloveitchik anticipated the West's move back to paganism (enlightened, sophisticated paganism, but paganism nonetheless). Everything he discerned has come to pass, and to a degree that I suspect would have surprised even him.
 
The trouble is that even ostensibly religious Jews too often don't recognize this new/old Avodah Zarah for what it is. They don't see the dissonance between many of its values and the Torah. They live in compartmentalized tension. Alternatively, they too often wish to resolve the points of disconnection between them by (to invoke and reverse an image of Tchernikhovsky) 'putting Tefillin on Apollo.' 
 
None of these responses are sustainable.
 
At some point, we will have to return to the realization that there are places to which Judaism and its adherents cannot and will not go. It will be a traumatic moment. There is, however, no avoiding it. The existential fact for the Jew is, as the Midrash says:
 
כל העולם מעבר אחד והוא מעבר אחד
)בראשית רבה (תיאודור-אלבק) פרשת לך לך פרשה מא)

 
The whole world is on one side and he (viz. Abraham) is on the other side.

Tuesday, February 09, 2021

פרשת שקלים מלמדת: לכו להתחסן

 


           השבת נקרא בחוצות את פרשת שקלים (שמות ל, 11-16), הראשונה מבין ארבע הפרשיות המובילות אותנו לחג הפסח. הפרשה מתעסקת בחובת כל יהודי לתרום מחצית השקל לבית המקדש בירושלים, כסף שמימן את קרבנות הציבור לשנה החדשה. את הפרשה תמיד קוראים צמוד לראש חודש אדר, בהתאם לקביעת המשנה ש'באחד באדר משמיעין על השקלים' (שקלים א, א). אפילו אחרי חרבן הבית, תיקנו חז"ל שתיקרא פרשת שקלים כ'זכר למקדש' ומתוך כמיהה לבניינו מחדש (בב"א).

למרות שטעם קריאת הפרשה הוא כנ"ל, הקרבה בינה לבין פורים מעוררת עניין. היתכן ש חז"ל ביקשו בכל זאת לרמוז שקיים קשר בין תשלום מחצית השקל לבין אותו נס שאירע לעם ישראל בתחומי האימפריה הפרסית, עשורים בודדים אחרי חנוכת הבית השני?

           אחד שסבר שקיים קשר כזה הוא הרב עזריה פיגו, חכם איטלקי שחי בין 1579- 1647. הרב פיגו היה תלמיד חכם בעל שיעור קומה שחיבר פירוש ל'ספר התרומות' הנקרא 'גידולי תרומה'; חיבור חשוב ובעל השפעה המתעסק בדיני ממונות. אולם, הרב פיגו מפורסם במיוחד בזכות דרשותיו. הוא היה הדרשן מראשי לקהילת מגורשי ספרד ופורטוגל בגטו של ונציה, ודרשותיו משכו קהל רחב. אוסף דרשותיו, 'בינה לעתים,' נחשב נעס צאן ברזל של הסוגה ומעולם לא יצא מהדפוס, מאז צאתו לראשונה ב1643.

                 בדרשא לפורים (סי' כ), תוהה הרב עזריה מה הביא את המן הרשע לחשוב שיצליח במזימתו להשמיד את העם היהודי (שחי כולו בתחומי האימפריה הפרסית). הוא טוען התשובה נרמזת בדברי המן למלך, בהציעו לו כסף לביצוע זממו: 'יֶשְׁנ֣וֹ עַם־אֶחָ֗ד מְפֻזָּ֤ר וּמְפֹרָד֙ בֵּ֣ין הָֽעַמִּ֔ים בְּכֹ֖ל מְדִינ֣וֹת מַלְכוּתֶ֑ךָ וְדָתֵיהֶ֞ם שֹׁנ֣וֹת מִכָּל־עָ֗ם וְאֶת־דָּתֵ֤י הַמֶּ֙לֶךְ֙ אֵינָ֣ם עֹשִׂ֔ים וְלַמֶּ֥לֶךְ אֵין־שֹׁוֶ֖ה לְהַנִּיחָֽם' (אסתר ג, אסתר ג, ח). הרב פיגו פירש את המילה 'מפורד' מלשון פירוד ומחלוקת. הוא קבע שליהודים מגיעה כלייה 'לאשר שלט בהם הפירוד ביניהם, וכלם מלאים קטטות ומריבות, ולבם רחק אלו מאלו.'  יסוד הפלגנות היהודית, הוא התאים, נמצא באנוכיות מופרזת ובחוסר התחשבות בצרכי הזולת. חיי 'אם אין אני לי, מי לי' הוא קרא לזה. המן קיווה שניצול נקודת תורפה זו, חוסר האחדות ולכידות המאפיינת את היהודית, יסלול את הדרך להשמדתם.

           אולם, הצהיר הרב עזריה פיגו, 'הוא, יתברך, הקדים רפואה למכה זו במצות השקלים, אשר היא ממש הוראת הפך כל זה, בהיותו מזרז לישראל על התאחדות ודביקות אלו עם אלו, להיות כולם אחדים כאיש אחד.' חובת מחצית השקל מלמדת שכל ישראל שווים, כל ישראל ערבים וכל ישראל תלויים זה בזה. זה המסר המרכזי של אסתר המלכה כשציוותה: "לך כנוס את כל היהודים"  (שם,

ד, טז). הלקח, כידוע, נקלט והתוצאות היו בהתאם.

           דברי הרב עזריה פיגו חייבים לעמוד לנגד עינינו בעמדנו מול מגפת הקורונה. הנטייה היהודית לפלגנות ולסכסוך, העדפת צרכים אישיים על חשבון (ומתוך שלילת) אלה של אחרים, יכולה להיות בעוכרינו (בדיוק כפי שהבחין המן). קל וחומר בן בנו של קל וחומר, הדברים נכונים בעת מגיפה כזאת כשהחלטה אישית שלא לקיים את הוראות הממשלה ואת דרישות הרופאים ( לחבוש מסיכה, לא להתקהל ומעל הכל להתחסן) מסכנת ישירות את עצמנו ואת כל העם כולו. התנהלות כזאת מקעקעת את יסודות התורה ומפרה גם את החובה לשמור על בריאותנו וגם את האיסור להזיק לאחינו ואחיותינו.

           במילה אחת, רק אם נפנים את המסר המרכזי של מצוות מחצית השקל נזכה לחגוג את 'פורים קורונה.'

Sunday, February 07, 2021

Divided and United: Some Thoughts on Parshat Shekalim

         

            This Shabbat, after the weekly Torah portion, we will read Parshat Sheqalim  (Ex. 30 11-16); which invokes the obligation to contribute a half-sheqel to the Holy Temple in Jerusalem.  The passage is always read on the Shabbat after the first of Adar because in Temple times public reminders to pay the half-sheqel began to be issued on Rosh Hodesh Adar (M. Sheqalim 1, 1). As with so many other things, the Rabbis ordained that the practice be continued in memory of the Temple (and in anticipation of its speedy rebuilding).

            Still, despite this obvious explanation, the proximity of Parshat Sheqalim to Purim is intriguing. Could it be that the rabbis wanted to highlight a connection between the commandment to pay the half-sheqel tax and the miracle that occurred in the Persian Empire, less than a century after the Second Temple was dedicated?

One commentator who thought so was the Italian Scholar, R. Azariah Figo (1579-1647). R. Azariah was a Talmid Hakham of the first order, the author of a halakhic work entitled Giddule Terumah. However, he is best known because of his collection of sermons, Binah Le-Itim which has remarkably never been out of print since it was published in 1643.

In his first sermon on Purim (no. 20), R. Azariah asks what was it that made Haman think that he could destroy the Jewish People (all of whom lived within the borders of the greater Persian Empire). He suggests that the answer is found in the deadly proposal that Haman made to Ahasuerus: ‘And Haman said to King Ahasuerus: 'There is a certain people scattered abroad and dispersed (mefuzar u-meforad) among the peoples in all the provinces of thy kingdom; and their laws are different from those of every people; nor do they obey the king's laws; therefore it profits not the king to suffer them’ (Esther 3, 8). R. Azariah suggested that the vulnerability of the Jews lay in their disunity. He understood the words mefuzar u-meforad to refer not to the Jews’ geographic distribution, but to their being deeply divided. Each Jew put his or her own concerns ahead of the needs of the nation; living a life based on, ‘If I am not for myself, who will be for me?’ The endless in-fighting among the Jews, Haman was telling the king, would be their Achilles’ heel. By exploiting it, they could be destroyed.

However, R, Azariah declared, God had already prepared the cure to Jewish disunity: the mtzvah of the Half-Sheqel. The fact that each Jew gives half a sheqel teaches us that half of us belongs to God. We are not allowed to devote ourselves solely to our own concerns. When the

chips are down, God commands us to transcend our selfishness and coalesce into a unified whole, devoted to the vision and purpose that He laid out for us at Sinai, which is achieved through unity, ‘as one person, with one heart.’ Happily, the lesson was not lost on the Jews of the Persian Empire. They responded to Esther’s call to gather ‘all of the Jews together,’ in fasting, prayer and in military self-defense.

            R. Azariah’s point should ring out loudly in our present situation, as we face the scourge of Corona. The Jewish penchant for divisiveness, for emphasizing our personal needs and desires while ignoring the general welfare, could God forbid be our undoing (just as Haman discerned). This is especially true in this time of plague, when a personal decision not to obey the rules directly, and malignantly, affects everyone around us. The Mahatzit ha-Sheqel teaches that our bodies belong to God. It does not ask, it demands that we wear masks, observe social distancing and above all be vaccinated, not only to save ourselves (which is a mitzvah in its own right), but because of the binding Torah obligation to save the Jewish People, as a whole. Irrespective of what others might say, only by internalizing the lesson of the Mahatzit ha-Sheqel is there any hope of our celebrating Purim Corona.   

           

                   

Wednesday, November 11, 2020

Between Heaven and Earth: My Dialogues with Rabbi David Hartman

 

                                                       Rabbi Dr. David Hartman                                                                                                                       (1931- 2013)

         As surprising as it may be to some, I had a long, admiring and fascinating relationship with Rabbi David Hartman ז"ל. It started, as so many good things do, with my wife who was (and is) a very close friend of his wife Bobbi. The latter suggested that David (aka Duvy) and I meet. We met, clicked, became friends and on several occasions he invited me to be a fellow of the Hartman Institute. More importantly, over the years we had the occasion to just sit and talk in his office and Living Room about, well, anything and everything.

        One subject that always came up was Rabbi Soloveitchik זצ"ל. The Rav had had a formidable impact on both of us, so it was totally unremarkable that we should talk about him. 

        Duvy had a very complicated, stormy relationship with Rabbi Soloveitchik (one aspect of which I addressed here), which deserves closer treatment by those who are more conversant with his oeuvre than I. However, one of the dominant characteristics of these specific conversations was that I often felt that we were discussing two different people. That perception was partly due to the oft-noted transformation that the Rav underwent in 1967, in the wake of his year of 'triple mourning,' when he lost his mother, brother, and (most importantly and devastatingly) his wife. In a relatively short period of time, he mellowed marked, going from a demanding Father-Teacher to a more gentle, Grandfather-Teacher. Duvy, who studied and interacted with the Rav in the 1950's and 1960's (and was the study-partner of Rav Aharon Lichtenstein זצ"ל), experienced the former. I, who came to study with the Rav in 1973, only encountered the latter (though, he remained sufficiently awe inspiring and scary).

        Yet the different ways in which we perceived our shared mentor were not not only due to differences of style, but of substance. On a number of occasions, Duvy emphasized and decried Rabbi Soloveitchik's objectification of Judaism to Halakhic principles (including the emotional, moral and axiological elements therein). In addressing this point, he often got tremendously agitated: "Halakhah! Halakhah! Halakhah!" he exclaimed, "It can't all be just Halakhah!"

        I recall replying that, with all due respect I thought he was misreading the Rav (at least partially). The Rav, from 1944 on (at least), dedicated an enormous portion of his thinking to the cultivation of the individual, subjection spiritual experience that should inform the observance of Halakhah. This theme, it is true, found less explicit expression in his formal published writings (prior to the establishment of the Toras HaRav Foundation), and more in his recorded lectures and shiurim. Nevertheless, that does not diminish their importance or their centrality. When he would make an assertion that 'The Halakhah is that one needs to concentrate in prayer,' he was not objectifying the individual experience. On the contrary, he was actively affirming that the experiential moment was a built in requirement of objective observance, without which it would be woefully deficient (and in the case of prayer and other internally performed commandments (קיום שבלב) deeply compromised). If anything, and here lies the great irony that Rabbi Soloveitchik was exquisitely aware of the dangers of robotic ritual performance that inhered to precisely the type of Pan-Halakhism with which he was so often identified.     

      In retrospect, though, there was clearly an additional (and more formative ) dimension to Duvy's pained cry: "Halakhah! Halakhah! Halakhah!" he exclaimed, "It can't all be just Halakhah!" He was obviously deeply troubled by circumstances wherein Halakhah seemed to violate moral norms, to do harm and incur pain rather than good. That is how I understood the enthusiasm with which fellows at the Hartman Institute (during my tenure, at least) embraced Halakhists and Traditional thinkers who seemed to endorse the subordination of Jewish legal processes and decisions to larger moral and spiritual considerations. Hence, the writings of R. Haim Hirschenson were a perennial favorite (indeed, it was the Hartman Institute that made him famous), alongside R. Eliezer Berkowitz and R. Shimon Shkop's introduction to his book Sha'are Yosher

      I certainly understood, and understand, Duvy's position, pain and even his outrage. In principle, the idea that the Law should be totally aligned with what appear to be moral and axiological principles and sensibilities should be a corollary of its Divine origin and mandate. For Rabbi Dr. David Hartman, philosopher extraordinaire, this was self-evidently the way things were meant to be and must be.

      I disagree and, if my memory serves me, I told him so. I disagree for two reasons. First, because I am fully persuaded of the cogency of Rav Soloveitchik's position that Halakhah is fully autonomous, it possesses its own integrity, it functions according to its own rules and largely constitutes a closed universe of discourse. As it happens, the Rav's postulate (in a somewhat softer form) is borne out by the leading historians of Halakhah, starring with the founder of the field, Professor Jacob Katz z'l. In this model, axiological and moral considerations certainly have a built in, mandatory role to fill in guided the Halakhic decisor, moving him in certain directions and even in discerning interpretions of the normative sources of Halakhah that might not, at first glance, have been obvious. However, the plain upshot of the sources demands that other considerations give way thereto (See BT Hullin 49b s.v.
רב, ואיסורא דאורייתא, ואת אמרת התורה חסה על ממונן של ישראל? ). [I, of course, fully acknowledge shifts and changes in the way the Torah is understood and the Law is applied. How that works, though, requires a separate discussion. I addressed it partly here.]

      So, simply as an historian of Halakhah, I cannot agree with the total subordination of the Jewish Law to axiological or apparently ethical considerations (even as the Posek will do his utmost to avoid such a head on clash, because 'its ways are ways of pleasantness and all of its paths are peace'). That's not how it's always been done. The philosopher will, I suspect, retort that this way is the way it should be done. 

     My second objection derives from the first, and is equally rooted in the historical record. The essential dynamic of Rabbinic Judaism was beautifully characterized by Professor Twersky in his essay, 'Religion and Law':

 
      The model that Prof. Twersky presents, and to whose mapping across the millennia he devoted his career, has a direct impact upon the question at bar. Law and Spirituality are antipodes, wherein neither has dominion over the other. While Twersky's emphasis in this passage is upon the built-in need for sensitized observance of the mitzvot (also in line with what I had noted about the Rav's approach earlier), its obverse is that subjective considerations never determine the outcome of Halakhah. Were that to be the case, then the integrity of God's Law would be impugned and it would become subjugated to religious subjectivism. There is no way to control the sources and content of that subjective morality and those personal values. The end result is antinomianism. Changing mores and ethics become the arbiter of what is legitimately Jewish, altering the content and character of Halakhah along the way. The Torah, which is halakhocentric in its essence and demands submission to its dictates, changes its form (without brakes) and becomes nothing more than a quaint ethno-cultural decoration for ideological beliefs (held, admittedly, sincerely). Historically, this has played itself out over and over in early Christianity, radical Sabbatianism, and (ultimately) contemporary non-Orthodox denominations. 
 
       Ultimately, then, my discussions with Rabbi Hartman (which I will always cherish, as I do both our friendship and the assistance he gave me on many occasions) concerning the nature of Orthodoxy come down to the very different outlooks of the Philosopher and the Historian. Both are correct, in their way. The challenge is in finding a modus vivendi between the two.

Monday, November 09, 2020

To Touch the Past

 

                                                             Prof. Nahum N. Glatzer                                                                                                                          (1903-1990)

        The other day, I had an experience that brought to mind a memorable, actually formative, conversation I had with the late Prof. Nahum N. Glatzer. I've written quite a bit about some of the giants with whom I was privileged to study, like Rav Soloveitchik זצ"ל, Rav Gedaliah Felder זצ"ל, Prof. Isadore Twersky זצ"ל and (mutatis mutandis) Professors Haym Soloveitchik, David Berger, and Reuven Bonfil. However, there were others like Prof. Yosef Haim Yerushalmi ז"ל , Prof. Alexander Altmann זצ"ל, the late Prof. David Herlihy and mutatis mutandis Profs. David Berger and Giles Constable.

         Among these latter, Prof. Glatzer ז"ל holds a special place in my heart. When I graduated High School, I was accepted to Brandeis. I so very much wanted to go there, both because of the Jewish environment, and because I wanted to study with the two luminaries who were the stars of the Department of Near Eastern and Judaic Studies, Professors Alexander Altmann and Nahum Norbert Glatzer. My ambition remained, however, unfulfilled because the tuition at Brandeis was way out of our reach (especially since my father ז"ל had passed away not long before, and our family's financial situation was precarious). So, I ended up going to Boston University, which had offered me full tuition remission. However, strange are the ways of the Creator, and in my Sophomore year BU announced that Professor Glatzer would be coming to the university as a University Professor (having been retired from Brandeis the previous year).

        I jumped at the opportunity. Not only did I enroll in his class on the Book of Job, at the end of my junior year I asked him to co-direct my Senior Thesis on the Disputations of Paris, Barcelona and Tortosa (together with Prof. Reinhold Schumann). He graciously agreed (and he was ALWAYS gracious). Thus began a year of bi-weekly meetings in which we discussed my project, and innumerable subjects that came up along the way. I treasure the memory of every one of these, but one in particular proved to be formative.

        Mid-way through my senior year, I found myself in the dark wood of a personal crisis. Despite the fact that I had long assumed that I would enter academia (at least, for part of my life, the rabbinate being my perpetual antipode), I was having second thoughts about the value and importance of academic Jewish Studies. In seeking to resolve my I turned, inter alia, to Prof. Glatzer.

        We met in his study in his home in Waltham, which was lined from floor to ceiling with books. It felt as if we were sitting in a timeless space. I described my dilemma and, somewhat impertinently, asked what value is there in doing what we do?

        Professor Glatzer sat quietly for a moment. He then said that, yes, most people don't understand the attraction or value of studying Jewish History and that our path is, indeed, very lonely. What make it worthwhile are those moments when you study that which the past has left us. You then leave the present and connect with the past, which then becomes alive again. As he said these words, his face glowed. It was clear that he experienced researching our people's past as a spiritual, transcendent moment. His words resonated deeply with me, and I left his home resolved to continue upon the path that I had chosen.  

       Last week, I had an experience that reminded me of that conversation, and of the force, conviction and veracity of Prof. Glatzer's words.

       I am in the process of (finally) turning my doctorate on Maharik (R. Joseph Colon Trabotto; 1420-1480) into a book. Maharik was one of the two leading Ashkenazic Halakhic decisors in the Fifteenth Century, and had a massive impact on the nascent Rabbinic culture of Poland. Among the things that I am naturally doing is checking the manuscript record for material that was unavailable to when I was originally writing during the eighties. This effort is today rendered so much easier by the ongoing Ketiv project for the digitation of Hebrew manuscripts (which has, happily, reached the collections that are most important to my research).

    Last week, while looking for something else (of course), I saw that the catalogue listed an autograph letter by Maharik to his student David da Modena (in the Braginsky Collection). I was stunned. While there are many manuscripts of Maharik's responsa and commentaries, I was unaware of an actual autograph (it now emerges that there are two). I went to the website, and there it was!       

                        A Journey through Jewish Worlds: Highlights from the Braginsky                                                                     Collection (Amsterdam, 2009), pp. 52-53

     I was transfixed. Before me, albeit virtually, was a letter written by a person, a Torah giant, to the study of whose writings I had devoted ten years of my life (and not a few years subsequent). 

     I immediately thought of Prof. Glatzer. I could see the look on his face; a soft look of radiance and spirit. I beheld a piece of the past with which I had an intimate connection, and was transported to Quattrocento Italy, which became alive again.

Thursday, November 05, 2020

Feeling Defiled

In my book, The Fabric of Religious Life in Medieval Ashkenaz, I highlight the fact that Ashkenazic Jews experienced their spiritual states physically. Things that were pure were experienced as physically attractive, while those things that were prohibited were experienced as physically repulsive. Hence, there developed among them a custom that when a pot absorbed something non-kosher, not only did they purge (i.e. kasher) it, they would bring it to a ritualarium (mikveh) to purify it. 
 
Similarly, spiritual states were experienced both emotionally and physically. Based upon that reality, Jews traditionally immersed themselves in a Mikveh as part of their process of repentance (an echo of which is found in the practice to go to Mikveh before Yom Kippur---a custom that really should be observed by both men and women, irrespective of whether the woman is a Niddah, or not). 
 
This sensitivity, physically experienced, has not passed from the world. 
 
It is famously told that Rav Herzog זצ"ל, as part of his indefatigable attempts to retrieve Jewish babies who had been in monasteries and convents during the War, met with Pope Pius XII on March 10, 1946. Rav Herzog asked him to publicly call on priests across Europe to disclose the location of the Jewish orphans. The pope asked for additional information but was essentially evasive. [Fifteen years ago, it emerged that a number of months later the Pope issued a letter forbidding priests from returning the children.] 
 
Rav Herzog was, aside from being a towering Talmid Hakham, a very sensitive and insightful person. He realized he was being played by the Pope, and was so shaken by his encounter that upon emerging from the Vatican he told his the person accompanying him: 'Quick! Get me to a Mikveh!'
 
However, one need not invoke an episode of such dramatic import to understand the physical expression of spiritual or psychological moments. The Rabbis, for example, maintained that the malady of Tzara'at , was imposed as a punishment for tale-bearing and gossip. Whatever the condition was clinically, it was obviously repulsive. It mandated the quarantining of the afflicted person, and contact with him or her engendered an obligation to purify oneself in a Mikveh. When I was younger, I didn't fully appreciate the power of this idea; that is until about thirty years ago. I was walking with my wife one Shabbat afternoon, when we encountered a person, who I later learned was a notorious gossip. We greeted the person, who then launched into an unbelievable torrent of gossip about people in the neighborhood. We tried to get away, but the person kept following us, spewing forth a flood of 'Lashon Ha-Ra' (lit. 'Evil Tongue'). Finally, we succeeded in escaping their clutches. At that point, my wife and I looked at each other, and both of us expressed a need to take a shower as a result of the experience.
 
I'm writing this today, not because it relates to the Torah Portion of the week. This week is not Parshat Tazria or Parshat Metzora which deal with the laws of Tzara'at, it is Parshat VaYera (a challenging Parsha in its own right, to put it mildly). 
 
I'm writing this because I am literally physically and emotionally shaken by an encounter I had yesterday with people who are ('were'?) part of my Modern Orthodox community, one to which I devoted twenty years of my life before coming on Aliyah, and to which I am periodically asked to contribute. I had the temerity to point out that a Biden presidency doesn't bide well for Israeli concerns about Iran. I simply noted that the salvation that American Jews see in a Biden victory, is perceived by an overwhelming majority of Israeli Jews as potentially threatening because of his declared intent to re-engage Tehran, remove sanctions and restore its international window to nuclear weapons. Note, I was not referring to differences of opinion over this candidate or that. I was referring to the tragic fact that Jews in different countries can have different interests, even different existential needs and threats.
 
What I got was a tsunami of abuse because by my observation, ipso facto, it must be that support Donald Trump. Therefore I embody all of the sins of Orthodoxy, represent the apartheid government of Israel, am devoid of Humanity and that I am an educated moron to boot. The type of raw hatred, abuse and pure poison that I saw yesterday (and, frankly, over the past few years) among ostensibly committed Jews leaves me trembling. Among the charges hurled at me are (inter alia): Furious negation of any part of Torah that doesn't align with a specific political narrative; Virulent excoriation of Jewish National Identity and Destiny; the 'cancellation' of any person's Orthodoxy by anyone who does not thereto subscribe (though here I understand from Andrew Silow-Carol's Column today that in the US it cuts both ways) ; Angry De-legitimization of the State of Israel and supercilious dismissal of the threats to its Survival; Deep and Abiding Loathing (nothing less) for all Americans who've cast their lot in with their brethren in the Land of Israel. The list goes on and on. 
 
I feel defiled.
 
I am confident that my interlocutors of yesterday (alongside those paragons of Free Speech and Respectful discourse who've blocked me on Social Media) will (with some justification)  point out all of the sins of the Torah, the Racist Character of Jewish Identity and National Aspirations, the manifold errors of the State of Israel, the moral deficiencies of all other Orthodox Jews, and the intolerable arrogance of American Olim. They will victoriously dismiss everything I've written here. 
 
The point is, though, that 'whataboutism' is beside the point. For I am not here addressing specific issues and flaws, of which there are many on both sides (except for the Torah, which, as the Word of God is, for me as an Orthodox Jew, Perfect). I feel defiled by the Hatred, the Anger, the Loathing, the obtuseness and the Arrogance the spewed forth in my encounter yesterday. Hared, Anger, Loathing, Arrogance...these are not only the path to the dark side. They are, Hazal Teach us, a form of Avodah Zarah.
 
Avodah Zarah defiles.
 
I need a Mikveh.

Thursday, August 27, 2020

Between Scylla and Charybdis

 
         I have had the honor and privilege of living over twenty-eight years in Eretz Yisrael. It is my home, both spiritual and physical. I desire no other. Indeed, by moving here decades ago, I feel that I have redeemed and fulfilled the dreams of my great-great grandparent who, when so many Jews migrated westward in the wake of the pogroms of 1881, siezed the opportunity to return home to Eretz Yisrael (15 years before the First Zionist Congress). 
         I also have the privilege of being a fourth generation American. My forebears emigrated to the United States from Belarus, Lithuania, and Eretz Yisrael (the latter forced out by the Turks). Thanks to them, and despite significant challenges, I was able to grow up a proud American and to receive an education (both general and Jewish) which is, certainly today, unequaled. I have a deep debt of gratitude to the United States of American. Despite its flaws, the memory of the country in which I was born and raised remains for me the best hope for Mankind.
         Still, casting my lot with my fellow Jews in building our ancestral, God given homeland, has consequences; as do all principled decisions. One of these is that, on principle, I do not vote in American elections (even though I report annually to the IRS and pay taxes to the American government). Neither do I, on principle, endorse candidates for elective office in the United States. To do so would be, in my opinion, unethical since I would not bear the full measure of the consequences of that vote (just as I expect American Jews not to interfere in the democratic process in Israel, as they do not bear the full measure of the consequences of their actions).
      At the same time, the world in which we live is ever smaller and ever more inter-connected. The waves generated by the cultural wars, in Europe and especially in the United States, crash loudly on the shores of Israel. The ontological, ethical and axiological questions that they raise impact us all. In particular, the challenges that contemporary culture pose to Judaism and Jewish Survival ((and, more importantly, the hidden assumptions or 'sub-text's) must be confronted, irrespective of where they find the most tangible expression. Finally, in their more extreme manifestations, both contemporary liberalism and contemporary conservatism contain within themselves hostility (and too often, explicit hatred of Jews and/or Judaism). On the Right, this has frequently emerged as bald, unadulterated Jew-hatred of the type that history has known since ancient times. On the Left, Jew hatred manifests itself more deftly, more subtly, through an Orwellian (mis)use of language. It is, however, no less insidious and no less dangerous.  
    Owing to the fact that my intellectual and spiritual loyalty is above all to the Torah as Traditionally conceived, and to the survival of the Jewish People as the bearers of the Torah, I do share ideas and make observations about the American scene when they relate to these issues. Sometimes, these concern things that are said or done in a political context. However, I try my best to make sure that the subject matter and the observations hie to issues, and do not support any particular political party or issue. 
    I will admit that my musings and critiques may (more often than not) single out developments on the so-called politico-cultural Left. There are a number of reasons for this. First, as I mentioned, right wing Jew-hatred is 'out there and obvious.' It should, of course, be excoriated (not just 'called-out') and fought with every fiber that we possess. Second, while there is horrible Jew hatred on the Right, the spiritual challenge posed to Judaism and Jewish survival, by even moderate elements of contemporary Liberal culture (which is, in actuality, very different than classical Liberalism), is less obvious, and more corrosive. The aggressive advocacy of atheism, doctrines of radical individual autonomy, denial of the existence of Truth and Moral Norms that bind us a priori, the assault on the traditional Family, the excoriation of national identity and more in the name of fetchingly packaged 'Enlightenment' and 'Progress,' indeed the dissolution of Tolerance itself (the same Tolerance that allowed Jewish entry into European society two and a half centuries ago)--- all of these and more are part of the challenge posed by the culturally dominant currents emanating from the Western cultural elites, and those in the United States, in particular. Owing to their less obvious qualities, it requires more effort to highlight the threat that these pose to Traditional Judaism and Jewish self-definition. Hence, my posts tend to concentrate on this threat, not because I underestimate the danger of brute, Jew hatred. I do not (especially, as I have personally confronted it, in all its deadly ugliness, both in the United States and in Israel.)
    The result of this is that there is much in the Conservative cultural agenda with which I identify, and which I find very useful in waging the war of ideas and in advancing what I believe are the core values, the grundnormen, of Orthodox Judaism. However, I wish to make it very clear that I am neither a 'card carrying' Conservative or Liberal (and yes, on many issues, I am very responsive to the Liberal agenda (e.g. the legitimate advancement and strengthening of women's Torah literacy and leadership within Orthodox Tradition and in accordance the inner dynamic of that Tradition). My epistemological model is both simple and complex. At the bottom, I posit the organic integrity, yea essentialist character of Judaism. Judaism is not detached from historical change or cut off from intellectual/cultural challenges or stimuli. However, except under extraordinary force majeure, it does not simply submit to the outside. It interacts and responds thereto, according to its own rules, rhythms, dynamic and clear boundaries. As the late historian H.A.R. Gibb once said of Islam, Judaism only absorbs outside influences when it has a previously developed internal need to do so. Even then, it only does so in line with its own, internal lines of development. To 'reinterpret,' 'align,' or 'adapt' Orthodoxy so that it becomes epistemologically dependent or conditional upon an external value system (conservative, liberal, or otherwise) is to eviscerate the Torah and, for the believing Jew, nothing short of blasphemous.[1]
     Now, I hope that it is clear that my engagement in these matters is on the level of ideas, not of individuals (except, insofar, as I cite individuals who express ideas or positions). In Hebrew, we describe this type of approach as being לגופו של עניין, ולא לגופו של אדם (ad ideam, non ad personam). In recent years, however, for reasons that are irrelevant here such discussions have become increasingly difficult. In fact, in the terrarium of social media, they are nigh on impossible. Everything has become personalized, and politicized. More to that, if individuals who have moral or other failings also support a specific idea, it willy-nilly becomes de-legitimized as do all those who advocate that idea. In short, all arguments become ad personam and are never ad ideam. This situation, the existence of which I am hardly the first to note, is extremely dangerous for society generally. For Jewish cohesiveness, especially Orthodox Jewish cohesiveness, it may well prove lethal.
        In different ways, large sectors of American Orthodoxy have violated the prime directive that I described above. They have, often uncritically, accepted external systems of cultural and ethical values and forced them upon the Torah. Right wing Orthodoxy, in its fight against the corrosion of contemporary Liberalism, has embraced the American Right that include a frightening degree of moral obtuseness and ethical insensitivity and expectation from its leaders. Indeed, they all too often forgive their erstwhile allies, blinded as they are by fear and loathing of the forces they oppose. In addition, it is insufficiently sensitive to the Jew Hatred that lurks in the ranks of its erstwhile allies.
       Self-styled Modern and Liberal Orthodoxy has an unhealthy tendency to embrace and internalize those self-same outlook, values and world-views that are an anathema to God's Torah and a life of surrender to His Will. In its more egregious manifestations, this expresses itself in the distortion of the Torah, rejection of Jewish national (not nationalist) identity, and the granting of legitimacy to the unacceptable phenomenon of Orthopraxis or 'Social Orthodoxy.' In addition, the uncritical embrace of contemporary liberalism and its exponents, blinds far too many Liberal Orthodox Jews to the spiritual dangers posed by their erstwhile heroes. In addition, the absorption of post-national, inter-sectional theory threatens to attenuate the ties of this community to Israel. This doesn't endanger them physically, of course. It does endanger the lives of six and a half million Israeli Jews.
       We are, then, foundering between Scylla and Charybdis. Personally, in trying to advance the cause of my own primary allegiances, the extremes on both sides twixt whom I try to navigate make me feel as if I'm being blown out of the waters of the Straits of Messina. The Orthodox community, on the other hand, by not navigating between the extremes is in danger of being devoured by Scylla or swallowed up by Charybdis.[2]
       It matters not which is which.
       The result is the same. 
 
[1] It might be credibly asked how I can subscribe to this belief and be an objective historian. I have addressed this issue throughout this blog, which you are invited to look over.
 
[2] Similar things can be said of Israeli society. However, it requires a separate discussion.

Wednesday, April 08, 2020

על פסח בשעת הסגר (צדדים חיוביים)

 
כלכך הרבה דברים יפים, עמוקים ונוגעים ללב נאמרו ונכתבו בימים ובשבועות האחרונים שהיססתי לתרום, בגדר כל היתר כנטול דמי כמו רבים וטובים, אני חצוי לקראת החג..
מחד גיסא, מאד צר לי על המגיפה המקיפה אותנו וגובה מחיר מיתמר בחיי אדם, בפרנסה ובחרות. צר לי שלא נהיה השנה יחד עם אהובינו, במיוחד עם האנשים הקטנים, המלבבים את חיינו. מאידך, כואב לי הלב על אלה שייאלצו לחוג את ליל הסדר בגפם. אני מתפלל, יחד עם כולם, שד' יסיר מעלינו את המוות הזה, ירפא את החולים ויחזיר אותנו במהרה למסלול התקין של החיים.
מאידך גיסא, המצב מחייב אותי לספור את הברכות שחנני הקב"ה. יש לי בית, רעיה, ושלושה ילדים שכן יהיו סביב השלחן.
כמו שאמרו רבים, הסגר מחייב את כולנו להיכנס פנימה: פיזית ורוחנית. למרבה האירוניה, למרות התלות המחוזקת במכשירים אלקטרוניים, הסגר מכריח אותנו להכיר מחדש את אלה שאיתם אנו גרים: בעלים, נשים, ילדים. זוהי מתנה אלקית שלא תסולא בפז ושאת ערכה חייבים לשמר גם כשכל זה ייגמר בב"א.
ועוד משהו...רבים בפיד שלי (במיוחד בני 25-45) מעירים שזאת הפעם הראשונה שנאלצים לארגן ולחגוג את סדר הפסח מחוץ לבית ההורים. רבים מהם בהלם מזה ואפשר להבין אותם. אין דבר יקר יותר מסדר משפחתי גדול, ותוסס וסואן. אולם, יש משהו מתוק ויפה בצורך לחגוג כל אחד בביתו, במיוחד אלה שעושים כך בפעם הראשונה.
במצב זה, יש לאלה הזדמנות להבטיח על אחד את המשך המסורות שעליהן גדלו, ולגבש מיזוג מסורות במידה שבני הזוג צמחו בערוגות שונות. ככה מבטיחים את הקיים ומוסיפים וממציאים חוליות חדשות בשרשרשת מסורת הדורות.
במצב זה, ניתן לשאול ולהתייעץ (אמנם מרחוק) עם ההורים והסבים והסבתאות, מה עושים ואיך עושים. כלכך הרבה פעמים שמעתי מאנשים שהוריהם וסביהם כבר אינם בחיים שמצטערים שבדיוק את הדברים האלה לא שאלו כשהיתה הזדמנות לכך. זוהי הזדמנות יקרה. לא הרי מתנה מחיים כירושה לאחר מאה ועשרים.
במצב זה, האינטימיות תשתלט על הסדר. יהיה זמן להרגיש וללמוד ולהפנים ולתת לדמיון האישי ולזיכרון הקולקטיבי לעוף: לצאת ממצרים, לחוות את סדריהם של הקדמונים ע"פ מה שכתבו בפירושיהם ולבטא את הטמון בלבנו ואת הכמיהות האישיות והלאומיות שלנו.
מאחל לכולנו חג כשר ושמח ובריא.
בניסן נגאלו ובניסן עתידין להיגאל.
השתא בעגלא ובזמן קריב.