Thursday, January 31, 2008

Rav Soloveitchik on Territorial Compromise

This morning, a close friend sent me a recording of the Rav's זצ"ל famous remarks on territorial compromise. The remarks were made at the annual Teshuva Drasha, and have been siezed upon, used and misused, by all sorts of people.

Basically, the Rov makes three points. 1) The Six Day War was important because it saved Israel and its Jews. 2) Judaism is not a religion of shrines and dead saints. Thus, concern for Human Life should always trump holy places (the Kotel, Rachel's Tomb, Mearat ha-Makhpela). 3) The question of territorial compromise is best left up to the generals and the statesmen. It's not an halakhic issue.

I agree with all three points, though I may differ with the Rav over the degree of importance one should attribute to sacred spaces in Judaism (I think they are very important. The Rov thought they were less important).

However, Rav Soloveitchik never said that it was a mitzvah to hand over parts of Eretz Yisrael to the Arabs. He had too much respect for other religions and their power to think that the Muslims or the Christians would love us if we would only compromise a bit more. I wonder if he would have said these words if he had witnessed the weakening of Kookian messianism in the wake of the Disengagement from Gaza.

Finally, I really wonder if he would have been so strident if he saw that the Israeli Left (and their Diaspora supporters) are trying to advance a kulturkampf to denude Israel of any Jewish content or significance.

I guess we'll never know.

After the Winograd Report

I have to admit that yesterday I was actually hopeful. I was actually hopeful that the much anticipated Winograd Report would bring an end to the ugly farce of the Olmert/Livni/Kadima government. I could taste the disappearance from power of the combination of the visionless, venal, selfish, incompetent, and thugs who sit around the ministerial table.

I was wrong.

They will remain, so long as Olmert offers to compromise Israel's future, its Jewish integrity, and its security. As long as that continues, he'll stay out of jail. Once he stops dancing to the tune dictated by the secular-assimilationist-defeatist elites, he'll be finished (much as it took no more than four hours after he resigned ffrom the government for Avigdor Lieberman's daughter to be summoned to the police, in a case aimed at neutralizing her father).

So much for hope.

Friday, January 18, 2008

This is my God, and I will build Him an Abode

The Midrash (Mekhilta, Beshalach, Massekhta de-Shira parsha 3 s.v. zeh keli) states that a maid-servant at the splitting of the Red Sea beheld a Divine Revelation that was greater and more sublime than anything witnessed by either Isaiah or Ezekiel. Either way, I can't but feel jealous. It really is true, that the hardest, and the ultimate, punishment in the retributions listed in Deueronomy is God's hiding His Face from us (הסתר פנים; Deut. 31, 18); in the fact that His Providence and Presence are so hidden from view. Yes, this millennial circumstance has forced us to grow up and work with belief. It forces the Jew to sacrifice and exert himself in order to maintain his faith, his bearing, his spiritual balance, his sanity, his humanity.

It also hurts, indescribably.

Recently, as a result of a conjunction of events, my own sense of existential isolation and angst has been particularly heightened. I would have given anything for a smidgen of what the maid-servant apprehended at the Red Sea. It is, however, God's decree that we rely on our faith in Him, and in Him Alone. Ironically, though, that faith is not something distant. His decisions do not only compel us from His transcendence.

In fact, the very song that immortalizes the maid-servant's insight provides the balm for the tortured souls who live in a world of Hester Panim. זה א-לי ואנוהו, says Moses. 'This is my God, and I will build Him an Abode.' The abode, as the Sfas Emes (Terumah, 5648 s.v. במדרש עילית) is Israel. It is us. As the Rov זצ"ל taught us, though, the Jews are the Abode as individuals, not as a collective. Our relationship with God is both unique and incommunicable. We reach out to Him, and He graciously responds to the invitation. 'This is my God,' - We extol Him from a distance, 'and I will build Him an Abode' - within my soul.

This tremendous Divine חסד is the only balm for the aching loneliness that is our constant companion and that threatens to overwhelm us in times of adversity (in their myriad degrees of intensity).

How did the Kotzker put it? וואו געפינט זיך דער בורא עולם? וואו מאן לאזט אים אריין. [ "Where is God?" And he replied, "Wherever one lets him in."]

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Truly a Phenomenon: Michtavim on Professor Soloveitchik

In a relatively short period of time, "Rabbi Dr." Menachem Butler has established himself as an important presence in the world of Jewish Studies and, just as importantly, in the interface between Jewish Studies and Yiddishkeit. Over all, he has served to share knowledge and material, and to galvanize (and sometimes nudge) others to do the same on AJHistory (a"h) or the Seforim Blog.

In his most recent posting, he provides us with a tantalizing preview of an article on the structure and character of the Mishneh Torah by, מורי ורבי Professor Haym Soloveitchik נר"ו, for which many of us have long waited (though, many of us have heard parts of the presentation in lecture form). In addition, before he has opened the discussion of its salient points, in a thoughtful, respectful manner (mixed with a youthful enthusiasm which we should all envy).

Thank you, Menachem.

[N.B. I have adopted the habit of using נר"ו [=נטריה רחמנא ופרקיה ] instead of the more ubiquitous שליט"א because that is how גדולי תורה wrote in the age of Maharik (1420-1480).]

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Our Strike

I haven't really addressed the on going university strike, mostly because I am not really good a numbers and economic models. Hence, it's hard for me to say which offer is better or worse. As I write, though, the sides are arguing for and against injunctions to force us back to work for two weeks (i.e. till the official end of the first semester). So, perhaps, in light of this article, I should offer a few observations:

1) Higher education in Israel has taken a budgetary beating for a decade. We have had no raises (either COLor real) in all that time. Budget lines for new hires have disappeared. This has been most noticeable in the Humanities and Social Sciences. ALL new money (even if slated for the latter) has gone to the sexy 'hard sciences.' In my department, for example, thee has been only one new hire in three years and he's also the youngest lecturer, aged 46!

2) The issue is not only salaries, but support for research. I'll share a small example. The library at Bar Ilan subscribes to JSTOR I and II. The problem is that JSTOR III has most of the more critical journals relating to religion and Jewish Studies. When I asked about expanding the JSTOR subscription, I was told 'No Money.' (Needless to say Bar Ilan raises money based on the excellence of its Jewish Studies faculty, which really is excellent, and is the only address in Israel for some fields e.g. History of Halakhah.)

3) The press is presenting us as pampered ingrates. Yes, we teach between 6-8 hours a week. However, anyone who knows anything about academia knows that: a) guiding graduate students takes up many many hours of time b) research and writing are also time consuming c) tenured faculty sit on endless numbers of committees. So we put in our hours, believe me.
The joke is that because of the meagre pay, we need second and third jobs. That, obviously, interferes with or ability to fulfill our primary jobs well. This is especially egregious in the non-hard sciences. The mathematicians and scientists can always consult and come out way ahead.

4) The real victims are the adjuncts and junior faculty who work for slave wages and getno benefits. Their light should have been part of our struggle. They are silent, because they can be fired.

This strike has impacted my family from both directions. In addition to me, one son had his MA delayed and my daughter had her first semester (about which she was so very excited) destroyed. So, it's important not to demonize us lecturers. We know the score, better than anyone.

Monday, January 07, 2008

Barukh Dayyan ha-Emet: Rabbi Dr. Isaiah Wohlgemuth זצ"ל

It was with deep sadness that I heard today of the passing of my teacher, Rabbi Dr. Isaiah Wohlgemuth זצ"ל. Rav Wohlgemuth, the last rabbi of the German town of Kitzingen, came to the United States after Kristallnicht (and a stay in Dachau). Students at the Maimonides School remember him as a beloved Talmud teacher (and earlier, Latin teacher) and as the person who was personally charged by Rav Soloveitchik זצ"ל with teaching the interpretation of the prayer book, ביאורי התפילה (aka BH), the summary of hich is in the precious volume pictured above.
Rabbi Wohlgemuth teaching of Torah was not confined to Maimonides. Every Shabbos afternoon, he offered an informal Gemora shiur for public school kids in his home. Then, in the Summer, he taught Talmud in the Prozdor of Hebrew Teacher's College (aka Hebrew College), where I had the zekhus to study with him for two seasons. He was the person who set my mind and heart on fire with enthusiasm for Gemora study. In his gentle, loving way he eased me into the world of learning. It was he who approached the Rov on my behalf, for permission to attend his Summer shiurim in Boston. For these alone, my debt to him is incalculable.
Yet, I am certain that I will most remember him for the gentle, warm nobility and caring that shone forth from his smile.
חבל על דאבדין ולא משתכחין!
יהי נפשו צרורה בצרור החיים ותהי מנוחתו כבוד.

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

The Beginning of Slavery in Egypt

The Midrash, at the start of Parshat VaYehi (בראשית רבה,פרשה צ"ו ד"ה(א)ויחי ), states that the servitude in Egypt began with Jacob's death (כיוון שנפטר יעקב אבינו התחיל שעבוד מצרים על ישראל).

When I learned this passage with my son, Ariel, he cogently objected that the servitude only began two hundred and ten years later, at the start of Sefer Shemot!

After discussing the matter, we came up with the following.

Rashi (Ex. 1, 8), cites the famous dispute between Rav and Shmuel (BT Sota 11a) regarding the words 'a new king arose in Egypt.' One understood this to refer literally to a new king (or, a new royal dynasty). The other claimed that it referred to the same Pharaoh that Joseph served, whose policy changed (נתחדשו גזירותיו). Now, I had always had trouble understanding the second opinion.
What happened to make the same Pharaoh, who was so impressed with Jacob and so supportive of Joseph, change his policy toward the Israelites from one of beneficence to one of servitude and persecution?

Following a line of analysis set out by the Rav זצ"ל, Ariel noted that Pharaoh's admiration for Jacob is actually a natural point of departure. The Midrash, Ariel observed, shows that when Jacob died Pharaoh saw his opportunity to transform the Israelites into Egyptians, with himself as their god-king. Jacob's passing signalled the end of the old world, of the tradition of Abraham. Now, the Israelites could shed their Canaanite trappings and become Egyptians. Notice, that according to the story of Jacob's funeral, the Egyptians tried to turn it into a national day of Egyptian mourning (Gen.50, 7-11):

And Joseph went up to bury his father; and with him went up all the servants of Pharaoh, the elders of his house, and all the elders of the land of Egypt, and all the house of Joseph, and his brethren, and his father's house; only their little ones, and their flocks, and their herds, did they leave in the land of Goshen. And there went up with him both chariots and horsemen; and it was a very great company. And they came to the threshing-floor of Atad, which is beyond the Jordan, and there they wailed with a very great and sore wailing; and he made a seven day period of mourning for his father. And when the inhabitants of the land, the Canaanites, saw the mourning in the floor of Atad, they said: 'This is a grievous mourning for the Egyptians.'

The Israelites, however, did not cooperate. They, in large part, refused to play along. They buried Jacob on their own and continued to observe the covenant of Abraham (though Hazal are divided as to the extent).

Feeling spurned, Pharaoh reversed his pro-Israelite policy and, instead, determined to grind them into the dust from which they had come.

[That's נחת!]