Tuesday, September 28, 2004

Academic Boycott- Revisited

A few weeks ago, I wrote that all indications were that I was being boycotted by a colleague. While the academic boycott against Israelis is very much a reality, my particular case appears to be on its way to a positive resolution. Stay Tuned.

October 16 (Update):

Forget the above. No positive resolution. No collegiality. Only left-wing prejudice against a colleague.

Monday, September 27, 2004

"Murder in the Cathedral' (Almost)

The news today reported a melee that occurred in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. According to Haaretz:

Greek Orthodox and Franciscan priests got into a fist fight Monday at Jerusalem's Church of the Holy Sepulcher, Christianity's holiest shrine, after arguing over whether a door in the basilica should be closed during a procession. Dozens of people, including several police officers, were lightly hurt in the brawl at the shrine, built over the spot where tradition says Jesus was crucified and buried.Jerusalem police spokesman Shmulik Ben-Ruby said four priests were detained.Custody of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher is shared by several denominations that jealously guard territory and responsibilities under a fragile deal hammered out over the last centuries. Any perceived encroachment on one group's turf can lead to vicious feuds, sometimes lasting centuries.Monday's fight broke out during a procession of hundreds of Greek Orthodox worshippers commemorating the 4th century pilgrimage by Helena, mother of Emperor Constantine, to Jerusalem. Tradition says that during the trip, Helena found the cross on which Jesus had been crucified.Church officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that at one point, the procession passed a Roman Catholic chapel, and priests from both sides started arguing over whether the door to the chapel should be open or closed. Riot police broke up the fight, witnesses said.

There is a very important lesson to be learned (or rather re-learned) here. People fight for that which they believe. Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholics, Armenians and Protestants consider each other to be heretics. That's a very serious business, since one's salvation depends on one not being a heretic. So, when one denomination infringes on another's prerogative, its symbolic legitimacy (as in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre), conflict is inevitable. Symbols are important for those whose entire essence is expressed therein. Like it or not, that's how things work in the world.

This is not something that so-called sophisticated, i.e. skeptical, moderns can fathom. It is something that only medievalists can teach. Only students of an age wherein people actually believed and were willing to follow their beliefs can understand (and interpret) events that reflect that dynamic. I say that not only in light of my own longstanding conviction to that effect, but because my friend Professor Richard Landes recently demonstrated it. He was interviewed in a Canadian Newspaper about millenial and apocalyptic elements lying behind jihadist thinking. (The article was posted on the History News Network). The reporter's conclusion was: It's interesting that a historian of the Middle Ages is able to articulate, better than any professional security strategist, exactly what is at stake in this global conflict.

It's merely 'interesting.' It makes total sense. Thank you Richard.

Saturday, September 25, 2004

Memories: Yom Kippur 5765

Jews have long memories. Indeed, as Rav Soloveitchik often pointed out, our sense of time is two-fold. First, there is chronomatic time, physical time. This is the time we watch slip by as the sweep second hand goes around our watches, never to return. There is, however, another dimension of time awareness that characterizes us. We live in an eternal present, where the past is immediate and ever so accessible. We summon up memories and experience them now. Today, for example, we not only recited the Avodah, the description of the service on Yom Kippur in the Bet HaMiqdash, we performed it verbally. The Hazzan was the Kohen Gadol. The people were standing in the courtyard. We heard the Kohen Gadol invoke the Ineffable Name of God, and fell on our faces. Past met present met future, as the threnodies and elegies after the recitation of the Avodah empasized the implications of the destruction of the Temple in mesmerizing rythm.

Recent memories were conjured up as well. When it was time for Yizkor, for the memorial prayers, the custom in Israel is to add a special paragraph for those who fell in the Yom Kippur War in 1973. When it came time, there was silence. Noone knew what was happening. It turned out, that the Hazzan couldn't get the words out. Each word choked him, and seared into the hearts of everyone there. 1973 was today, it was yesterday, it will be tomorrow. At the same time, as the present war enters its fourth year, other voices were choked over loved ones, friends and neighbors who've been murdered for riding buses, drinking coffee, datring to live here. All of the almost 1500 people murdered in the last eleven years were invoked in this Yizkor. Everyone prayed that these would be the last. Noone said it out loud. The feeling, however, was tangible.

Right after Yizkor, though, the mood changed on a dime. There was a Brit (a rare enough occasion on Yom Kippur). Everyone segued into happiness at the little boy now initiated into the covenant of Abraham, who grazed these very hills. The contrast was quite tangible, with what had gone before. I was reminded of something told me by a very dear man, Rabbi Moshe Besdin z"l, who is the unsung hero of the Teshuva movement. Now I didn't attend his school. I'd gone straight to RIETS in the midst of my PhD at Harvard, and ws in the Rav's shiur. However, I also had a shul and Rabbi Besdin (who I don't think knew my name), like to feed me with ideas for sermons and on Sunday would come looking for me to see how I'd done.

Anyway, once he came up to me at dinner and pointed out to me that Tosafos says that anyone who doesn't attend a Brit or a weddng is excommunicated by God. That, in fact, is why the common custom is to inform people of a Brit and not to invite outright, i.e, so that people don't get caught up with refusing. The truth is, however, that Tosafos, quoting the Jerusalem Talmud, doesn't talk about the Brit or the wedding ceremony. It refers to the party engendered by the ceremony. So what's the big deal about going to a party? Rabbi Besdin, with his usual twinkle in his eye, said that Tosafos is referring to a person who bemoans the continuity of the Jewish People. Why celebrate when the fate of Israel is to be hated and persecuted? Such a person is cut off from God, because he lacks the faith, the conviction and the insight to rejoice in a better future for Israel and for the future redemption. That rejoicing (without the meal) was what swept the congregation today. It's the response to our tangible Yizkor.

I think that's what you walk out of Yom Kippur with in the Land of Israel. Hope: for Divine forgiveness, for peace, and for the strength, the super-human strength with which we've been endowed to still try to be normal (and succeeded). That's alot to celebrate, as the hammers have made a racket all night as the sukkot go up.

Thursday, September 23, 2004

Erev Yom Kippur in Jerusalem

Two weeks ago, I alluded to the last two pages of Professor Haym Soloveitchik's article on Sefer Hassidim, from 1976. In that article he points out that most contemporary observant Jews observe Judaism as a regula, a mode of life run by strict rules that they do their best to observe. Traditional communities, i.e. before Emancipation, lived lives that were fully textured by the seasonal rhythmns of the religious year. They were, in the words of his father, 'Erev Shabbos Jews.' I spent three months last Spring and Summer in New York. It was a good, constructive time (though hard to be away from home). Shabbat was Shabbat. There was, however, no 'Erev Shabbat.' Even on Main Street in Kew Gardens Hills, no 'Erev Shabbat.' Was there pre-Shabbat hustle and bustle? Of course. Were people working down to the wire? Yes.

So what was missing?

An intangible was missing. I felt it today driving through Jerusalem. As I reached Rehov Aggripas, near Shuk Mahane Yehudah, the announcer on the radio was interviewing the novelist Naomi Ragen. He was asking her to explain why someone should stay in Israel, much less leave America to live here. She offered alot of good, Jewish, Zionist reasons. The one that hit me, though, was that only here are you enveloped by the holidays. The timing was impeccable, because there, before me, exactly that was playing itself out. People were preparing for Yom Kippur (and for Sukkot). There was a tangible atmosphere of anticipation in the air. People wished each other 'Gmar Hatima Tova' with that knowing, empathizing look in your eye that I"ve only encountered here. And that atmosphere is slowly intensifying. As I write these words, things are already slowing down, as they will until tomorrow evening. The buses will stop. The radio will stop. Time will stop. The 'power of the day' (as Maimonides says) will overpower an entire country. It's a process. It's tangible.

For me, among many other reasons, that's why I'm here. I'm here for the dimensions of the spirit and of daily life that simply don't exist anywhere else. Nowhere else can you say when you walk to the store that you've done something of historical, national importance. It's not just Yom Kippur. It's every day here, with all the troubles and the pain and the fear and the aggravation. After Yom Kippur, Jerusalem will rejoice. The atmosphere in the streets will be one of relief and a feeling of 'Let's Live.' Happens every year. Maybe that's why they call Sukkot Zman Simhatenu.

Gmar Hatima Tova.

Tuesday, September 21, 2004

America versus Israel: Modern Orthodoxy's Dilemma

Last Spring, Jewish Action, published by the OU, contained a cri de coeur by the Rabbi of the Young Israel of Oak Park (MI), Rabbi Reuven Spolter. The article was entitled In Search of Leaders. (Thanks to Simcha at Hirhurim for bringing this to wider attention)

The author, who has already made an enviable reputation for himself as a talented and committed young Rav, bemoans the fact that as the Modern Orthodox community grows, an increasing number of its leaders (rabbinical, educational and lay) are moving to Israel. This leaves the people back home bereft of support, inspiration and leadership. s he points out so poignantly, there just isn't enough talent to go around. (Though, from my own personal experience, there are alot of young, committedly Modern Orthodox rabbis in the field. Not enough, I grant you, but real stars in the making.

I really feel Rabbi Spolter's angst. Having labored in the ranks of the American rabbinate for over a decade before coming on Aliyah, I know, and empathize, with the kind of stresses he discusses. (I also remember his grandfather from Winthrop.) A principled Modern Orthodoxy must be predicated upon an uncompromising commitment to Torah, combined with a fearless engagement with the world. In fact, the two are mutually dependent. In any event, that kind of intensive involvement in the totality of Torah and modernity in its totality, naturally leads to a desire for an unbifurcated existence here.

The question, then, is whether to come or not. Here, Rabbi Spolter's invocation of the Rov zt"l, is very relevant. Rabbi Spolter is quite correct. If you carefully read the Rov's Zionist writings, he talks all obout supporting Israel, especially Torah in Israel. He never (to the best of my knowledge) advocated Aliyah. On the other hand, judging from the famous letter that he wrote to Rabbanit Shiloh z"l in 1967,. he was torn between Eretz Yisrael and his responsibilities in the United States. Yet, at the end of the day, he did sem to feel that those who can contribute to the maintenance of Torah in Hutz La-Aretz, must do so.

The problem is, that there is a crying, vital need for exactly this kind of people here in Israel. Modern Orthdoxy, with strong roots in the Bet Midrash and the University Lecture Hall, never took root here. THe results have been nothing less than disasterous, as millions of Jews reach out for JUdaism and find almost noone to talk to them, noone who can speak in a coin that is intelligible to the Western Educated, though Jewishly unlettered person. In addition, this absence is directly responsible for the ever growing number of people who abandon Torah because of the inability of teachers to talk to them. Things that are elementary for a YU Musmach or educator, are revolutionary here.

So, the truth is that we have here a case of 'Shnayim Ohazim be-Tallit.' Instead of dividing it, I think we need to pour money into making the Tallit bigger, so as to enwrap both populations. Tighter cooperation and coordination between Israel and the Diaspora Orthodox communities would help too.

On the eve of Yom Kippur, after having spent the day in Jerusalem, I have to close by reminding myself and everyone else, that Qedusha, Kapparah and reality all flow from here outwards. WE are promised, moreover, that the tide will inevitably draw us from outward, inward to Jerusalem.

Gmar Hatima Tova le-khol Bet Yisrael.

Monday, September 20, 2004

Plus ca Change...Shinui

At the start of World War II a group of draftees were standing in line waiting to be inducted into the British Army. Each one had to come forward and state his name, address, date of birth and religion to the Sergeant-Major, who then wrote things down. Behind the Sergeant-Major was an officer whose job was to supervise. Things went smoothly, with each draftee declaring his details and his religion (Anglican, Calvinist, Presbyterian etc.) Then one guy stands up and declares: "I have no religion.' The Sergeant-Major was taken aback, unsure as to what to do. The officer reassured him and said: 'Just write Jewish.'

I was thinking of this story when I read that in yesterday's cabinet meeting the ministers from Shinui attacked the idea of open, government assisted Yom Kippur programs. According to Ma'ariv:

A heated exchange erupted this (Sunday) afternoon during the weekly Cabinet session between Minister Yisrael Katz and his counterparts from Shinui, during a debate on the “Judaism for All” project.

Under the framework of the project, synagogues open at 195 community centers and temporary locations during the High Holy Days in order to allow those who are not observant to attend prayer services during Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur.

Shinui has expressed fury over the project, arguing it is a state-run system that aims at turning citizens religious. According to Minister Katz, “Shinui is acting worst than the anti-Semites abroad when it lashes out against a project that is meant for teaching and guiding”. In response, Minister Poraz said, “A Jew can also be an anti-Semite”.

Minister Natan Sharansky, who is in charge of the project, said that he found it hard to believe that there are Jews who react with such opposition to such a liberal undertaking, which only intends to provide secular Israelis with knowledge of their heritage. According to Sharansky, the project has been a great success and the demand is rising from year to year.

Labor-Meimad lawmaker, Rabbi Michael Melchior, who established the project five years ago, called on Poraz to resign for his remarks and for terming the project as “missionary”.

The Tzohar Foundation, which aims at bridging gaps between secular and religious Jews in Israel said in response, “The project’s aim is to make Judaism accessible to all. We regret the fact that a Jewish party is coming out against one of the last things that are still consensus in Israel”.

Shinui reminds me of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Really. Emerson, in his essay 'Self-Reliance' once wrote that 'A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.' Never mind that Jewish awareness is as critical to Israel's survival as tanks. Never mind that the overwhelming majority of Israeli Jews are not doctrinaire secularasts, as the AviChai-Guttman Institute reports keep demonstrating. The most important thing is to be against anything Jewish in the Jewish State. Or, as Minister Poraz would put it: “A Jew can also be an anti-Semite”. The British officer knew of what he spoke.

Sunday, September 19, 2004

Madonna Madness

The papers and the local electronic media are replete with reports about Madonna's trip to the Holy Land, not to mention the massive convention of Phillip Berg's Center for Kabbalah. Frankly, the whole business has me bemused. Of course, IMHO, Berg is a charlatan. (For more information, see Rick Ross' website.) In addition,.if the papers are to be believed, the goings on at the Center are not just balderdash, they're idolatry too. According to Maariv, the services include praying to R. Simon bar Yohai. (I"m sure he's thrilled).

But never mind about all that. I"m fascinated by the draw that Kabbalah has on so many people. Of course, I'm perfectly aware that this is not an unprecedented development. The sixteenth century witnessed intensive Christian interest in Jewish Mysticism. Among the Christian scholars involved were the cream of Renaissance era thinkers like Marsilio Ficino, Pico della Mirandola anmd Johannes Reuchlin. They, however, were drawn to Kabbalah because they believed it proved the truths of Christianity and would help convince Jews to convert.

This does not appear to be the case here. Interest in Kabbalah seems to be related to the collapse of modernity and faith in human reason. In addition, it appears to involve a genuine interest in Judaism by not a few people. Whatever the case, if Madonna is doing something so outlandish as to make tourism spots for Israel, thee must be some Providential piece to all of this.

Monday, September 13, 2004

Ideology and Idolatry (Part II)

So what has all this to do with idolatry? Just this. In the introduction to her classic popularization of Greek and Roman Mythology, Dame Edith Hamilton noted that the Greeks fashioned their Gods in their own image. In other words, Greek religion was heavily narcissistic.

Western ideologies, too, have a tendency to be tinged with narcissism. Specifically, an ideologue cannot see any reality outside of his own ideologically structured reality. In the case of the debate over the disengagement from Gaza, the thing that strikes me is that the proponents of the idea express absolutely no compassion for the thousands of people who are going to be put out of their homes. Irrespective of one's politcal stance, it is incomprehensible that this is not an issue. Many proponents of Disengagement refer to the residents of Gush Katif as parasites, gangrenous or cancerous growths (and so on). These individuals have absolutely no compassion for their fellow Jews being ripped out of their homes where they've lived for three generatins, or more. (Never mind the shock to Jewish collective memory that the sight of Jews marching out iof their shuls with Sifre Torah under Jewish guns.)

So, that's why it seems to me to be idolatry. Unyielding worship of one's own ideas leaves no room for morality, for compassion, for even seeing the other person. Dehumanization and diabolization are tools of totalitarian regimes, which are themselves secular forms of idolatry. Whatever the outcome of this disengagement debate, PLEASE, for God's sake! Just as Abraham smashed the idols, so his children are known to be merciful. The two are mutually dependent. So are all Israelis.

(Of course, someone will be sure to say that the settlers don't 'see' the other side. That, as I mentioned in an earlier post, is not generally true. There will be no significant violent opposition. There is no real diabolization of the Left in settler circles (aside from some crackpots who get highlighted on TV). The settlers keep appealing to their fellow Israelis as brothers. It's Yossi Sarid who said that they are not his brothers.)

Sunday, September 12, 2004

Ideology and Idolatry (Part I)

The papers today are full of discussions (pro and con) about the impact of (and the reaction to) the retreat from Gaza. The focus is upon the calls for Civil War attributed to some of the 'Leaders of the Settlers' (I'm not sure who these people are.) Talking about the 'Settlers' as a collective is not unlike talking about the 'Jews.' It sounds good, but it means nothing. The community of the residents of Yesha is no more monolithic than the 'Jews.' Using this type of terminology, though, does serve the purpose of further diabolizing the residents of Yesha and turning them into Israel's 'Jews.'

Don't get me wrong. I am absolutely against raising a hand against an Israeli soldier or policeman. Civil War destroyed the Second Commonwealth and we must not allow it to do that to the third. frankly, I don't think it will happen. There will be passive resistance, but not more than that. Whenever rabbis make some statement about refusing orders, the brouhaha is enormous. At the end of the day, however, noone listens to such Pisqe Halakha. Indeed, the only ones who refuse orders and who reject the sovereignty of the State of Israel come from the left. On the other hand, when my son recently had a pre-Army orientation, his Rosh Yeshiva said that the army is of all the people. Thus, if given an order to evacuate Jews from their homes, one obeys with tears in his/her eyes. Period.

I"ll save the connection with idolatry for later. In the meantime, Rav Yuval Sherlo had an important contribution to the discussion in today's HaAretz.

Saturday, September 11, 2004

The Academic Boycott Strikes Home

I never really imagined that I would write an entry like this. I am, apparently, anothe Israeli victim of the Boycott of Israeli Academicians (at least those on the 'wrong side of the political fence').

About six weeks ago, I contacted a colleague in the US who expertise I required for my forthcoming book, A World Unseen: Categories of Medieval Ashkenazic Culture (Brill: Etudes sur la Judaisme Medievale). The person wrote a very warm response and expressed willingness to consult on certain issues. I wrote back with a few questions and a piece of my own (and a Shanah Tova in tandem). Weeks have gone by with no response. Subsequently, I learned that this person is a radical leftist. Even then, I found it hard to believe that political differences would prevent academic cooperation. Certainly, I have planty of colleagues here in Israel who disagree with my politics, and are uncomfortable with my being a 'settler.' That, however, doesn't prevent our having friendly, professional relations.

In this case, however, itdoesn't appear to hold. A colleague of mine told me that he has no doubt that my gut feeling was correct. Settlers, evidently, don't have a right to be respected as colleagues. (Or, am I a war criminal?)

I find all of this very disconcerting. I go from sad to angry to depressed to indignant to feeling violated.

On the other hand, as Sir Isaiah Berlin once wrote, 'Jews are just like everyone else- only more so.' So, Jewish Anti-Zionists are just like all anti-Zionists, only more so. Perhaps this professor should read more Cynthia Ozick and less Said or Chomsky.

Friday, September 10, 2004

Elul: A Lost Opportunity

Rosh HaShanah is next Wednesday Night, but I keep wondering where Elul went. It's not a case of 'Who knows where the times goes?' Actually, it's more in tune with Francois Villon's question, 'Mais ou sont les neiges d'antan?' Let me explain.

On many occasions, the Rov zt"l commented that the Torah was not only concerned with the proper technical observance of the holidays (including Shabbat). It demanded preparation to ensure that there would be an appropriate atmosphere to fill the holy day. That's why Erev Shabbat, Erev Hag, and Elul are actually "Halakhot' of preparation. People need to prepare themselves to meet holiness and that's what they are for. One available discussion is found in the Rov's lecture, Concepts of Jewish Education. [Interestingly, there is a continuum between this theme of the Rov's thought and his son, Prof. Haym Soloveitchik's famous article, Rupture and Reconstruction. See also the last two pages of his article 'Three Themes in Sefer Hassidim,' AJS Review, 1(1976).]

So, with the onset of Selikhot tomorrow night, it seems to me important to stress the need to exploit the few days of spiritual preparation that remain from Elul, in order that 'One who prepares on Erev Shabbat, may eat on Shabbat.' Shanah Tovah!

Wednesday, September 08, 2004

Justifying Israel

I just spent a few months in the US as part of a semester's sabbatical. One of the things I saw up close was that people no longer take Israel's right to exist as a given. This is partly due to ignorance, part to the emotions aroused by the preent war, and part by genuine rejection of the right of the Jewish people to self-determination in the Land of Israel. Sadly, even people who do support Israel, don't know how to make a case for it. So, if you're in this situation, here's a solid piece of work from the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, entitled An Answer to the New Anti-Zionists.

Sunday, September 05, 2004

In Defense of Rav Yuval Sherlo

This week's issue of Makor Rishon has an article about the controversy surrounding Rabbi Yuval Sherlo, Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivat ha-Hesder Petah Tiqva (where my son learns-when he's not in the army). Rabbi Sherlo, who I know personally and for whom I have alot of respect, is a true Ben Torah who has devoted enormous energies to addressing the crises and challenges facing Orthodoxy in Israel. Owing to the fact that he works tirelessly to bridge the gap between Religious, Traditional and Secular Jews, that he fights for מסורבות גט and is not afraid to criticize the rabbinate, that he is willing to come to engage the types of personal problems that young religious kids encounter- he has come under intense fire from distinguished Rabbis and Rashe Yeshiva who are, let us say, less than enthused about modernity. (He's also been viciously attacked by certain Haredi journalists. Buy, in any case, you can't take that kind of criticism seriously.)

Part of the criticism levelled at Rav Yuval is based on the fundamental rejection of absolutely anything to do with modernity by a significant sector of the National-Religious Camp. This rejection is, ironically enough, based at Yeshivat Merkaz HaRav, and even more so in its break away movement 'Har HaMor' (known as the ישיבות הקו). In any event, it was to be expected. This, large sector of the Religious community is politically Zionist but unbendingly anti-modern, pro-Da'at Torah etc. It's not for nothing that they are now termed Hardalim i.e. Haredim Le'umi'im.

Another part of the criticism derives from total, abject ignorance and the fact that (to this day) no real, Modern Orthodoxy that knows its limits and its possibilities, and the really moves in a modality of Yirat Shamayim has developed here. The result is that anything that a Zohar rabbi does (for example) that is a little bit different, is immediately branded 'Conservative' or 'Reform.' Those who use those diatribes have no idea what Conservative or Reform are. In fact, my experience has been that there is nothing in the 'innovations' of Zohar rabbis that RIETS musmachim haven't been doing for decades. [But then, maybe RIETS Musmachim aren't Orthodox according to these guys.]

The bottom line is that we need to encourage rabbis like Rav Yuval Sherlo to stand up to the ballistras that are coming their way. They should be invited to speak. Their yeshivot should be supported. There is too large a population that is leaving the path of Torah because noone wants to engage their issues (or is willing to teach intelligent Torah Humility- as the Rov zt"l might say). It's literally a matter of Piqu'ah Nefesh.

Wednesday, September 01, 2004

Literacy and Inter-Disciplinary Studies

I just spent the day reading in the Humanities Library on Mount Scopus. Primarily, I was brushing up on recent articles and books that addressed the image and status of Jews in Medieval Europe, especially in art and literature. There's alot of really goodv work being done in this field and I strongly recommend anyone involved in Jewish medieval studies to browse around the medieval art and literature journals for new insights. Within reason, it's a very good way of entering into the mentalite (to use a shop worn phrase) of the period.

At the same time, once again I walked away with a sense of real displacement. An ever greater number of Jewish scholars are functionally illiterate in Hebrew (ie modern Hebrew), never mind not having a clue as to classical Jewish sources, never mind something so central as Halakha. The result is deficient historical analysis (at best), and distorted conclusions (at worst). As the Rambam says (Guide III, 51) once you start of in the wrong direction, you walk right out of the kingdom.

I think that this situation obligates rabbinically literate historians to push for inter-disciplinary initiatives and group research projects. (Of course, training more graduate students is also important).