Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Rabbi Zekharia ben Avqulas Revisited (II)

There is, as some of the commentors have noted, another version of the story of R. Zekharia b, Avqulos. It is found in Midrash Eikha Rabba (IV, 3 s.v. מעשה). This version haunts me more than the previous one. In light of this past week's scandals, I find it all the more terrifying.

In the telling of the Midrash, the story is largely like that in the Talmud. There is, however, one exception. R. Zekharia b. Avqulos was actually present when Bar Qamtza pleaded with Qamtza not to humiliate him to no avail. The Midrash comments: והיה שם רבי זכריה בן אבקולס והיתה סיפק בידו למחות ולא מיחהת, 'And R. Zekharia b. Avqulos was there, and he could have protested, but he did not.' Seeing the moral timidity, the ethical obtuseness, of R. Zekharia b. Avqulos, Bar Qamtza concocted his scheme to avenge himself, with its tragic results. It was regarding this sin that the Midrash concludes: 'R. Zekharia b. Avqulos' diffidence (ענוותנותו) set fire to the Temple.'

In this version, R. Zekharia's sin was less dramatic, but no less lethal. He simply minded his own business. He was, after all, a guest. How could he intrude upon his host's decision? Perhaps he depended upon his host for financial support for himself, or the educational institutions with which he was affiliated. Perhaps he didn't particularly like Bar Qamtza, whose personality and character were less than stellar, judging from his subsequent actions. Whatever the case, R. Zekharia saw no reason to invoke his moral authority in order to intervene and prevent the abject humiliation of another person.

It was that raw insensitivity, moral obtuseness, smug self-satisfaction, paternalist sense of superiority which enraged Bar Qamtza. Rabbis, it would appear, can forego basic etiquette and ethical conduct when convenient. That kind of sacrilege, that mode of חילול השם sent Bar Qamtza over the edge and we are paying the price to this day.

I keep thinking about the deep seated moral rot that is eating away at the Orthodox Community (across its full spectrum), and the still too quiet ranks of its 'spiritual leadership'. Orthodox Jewish leaders number far too many R. Zekharia b. Avquloses. Too many laypeople and rabbis are blaming the informant (who, admittedly is a lowlife and should also join the Daf Yomi in Danbury Deferal Penitentiary). Too many people are rolling their eyes and speaking of the accused clergy (sic!) as exceptions. Yes, if they did these things; if they desecrated the Holy Name of He who Spoke and Created the World, then they are exceptional...rogues, criminals and traitors to Torah and everything Torah stands for.

I kept thinking about the decay in our community, but my thoughts were best expressed by the brilliant young Rav in whose community I spent last Shabbat. In a carefully presented, chillingly calm address, he straightforwardly noted that if the extremes exhibit decay, it is because the body politic is gravely ill. He noted several ills: 1) The Orthodox community has no idea of the value of money or its proper use 2) The recent economic power and success of the community has gone to its head. It no longer cares what anyone thinks of it 3) The Orthodox community has a sense of entitlement that allows it to expect things without willingness to pay. 4) The Orthodox Community has lost any sense of Qiddush HaShem or Hillul HaShem.

To this, I would add that the Orthodox Community has undergone a self-inflicted labotomy which excised its sense of moral responsibility or its ability to take responsibility. It refuses to take responsibility for deviant behavior at all its levels. It refuses to protect the Agunah, the widow, the orphan and the stranger. It rolls its eyes when confronted with the poverty its own system has created. It averts its eyes when people are different. Herdlike, it runs after the most insipid legal stricture, while ignoring the departure of so many of its children from the path of Torah and mitzvot. The list goes on, but its already been written by Isaiah and Amos, Hosea and Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Micah.

So, with Tisha B'Av looming before us, in a world in which Jewish security is more imperilled than it has been in decades, I am waiting for the shepherds of Israel to summarily and vocally reject the legacy of R. Zekharia b. Avqulos. No buts. No 'you sees'. No 'I don't understand.' It is time for moral root canal. Without our moral bearings, we are left with nothing.

I recall a story that is told of the Rav זצ"ל. A rabbi once told him that if he did not avail himself of some illegal fiscal 'slight of hand' he would be forced to close his yeshiva.
Rav Solovitchik replied: 'Then close the Yeshiva!'

Monday, July 27, 2009

Why Settlements are Legal, and why it doesn't matter...

Moshe Dann has eloquently explained why there is absolutely nothing illegal about the Jewish towns located beyond the 1949 Armistice Lines. The key paragraphs are:

In 1967, under attack, Israel struck back and conquered the Golan Heights from Syria, the Sinai Peninsula and the Gaza Strip from Egypt, and Judea, Samaria and Jerusalem (the West Bank) from Jordan. Israel had been threatened with a second Holocaust, and few questioned its actions. No one spoke of a Palestinian state; there was no "Palestinian people."
Many legal experts accepted Israel's right to "occupy" and settle its historic homeland, because the areas had been illegally occupied by invading Arab countries since 1948.
One organization, however - the International Committee of the Red Cross - disagreed.
Meeting secretly in the early 1970s in Geneva, the ICRC determined that Israel was in violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention. Based on the Hague Convention, GC IV was drawn up after World War II to protect innocent civilians and restrict brutal occupations. Unilaterally, the ICRC turned it into a weapon to delegitimize and demonize Israel.
As far as is known, the ICRC did not rely on any legal precedents; it made up "the law."
Judge and jury, its decisions lacked the pretense of due process. Since all decisions and protocols of the ICRC in this matter are closed, even the identities of the people involved are secret. And there is no appeal. Without transparency or judicial ethics, ICRC rulings became "international law." Its condemnations of Israel provide the basis for accusing Israel of "illegal occupation" of all territory conquered in 1967.
Although most of the international community, its NGOs and institutions accept the authority of the ICRC and other institutions, such as the International Court of Justice, as sole arbiters of what is "legal," or not, it's strange that some Israeli politicians and jurists cannot defend Israel's legal claim to the territories. And Israel's case is strong.
ADOPTED IN 1945, the UN Charter (Article 80) states: "...nothing in this Chapter shall be construed in or of itself to alter in any manner the rights whatsoever of any states or any peoples or the terms of existing international instruments to which members of the United Nations may respectively be parties."
This means that the designation of "Palestine" as a "Jewish National Home," incorporated in the British Mandate and established by international agreements adopted by the League of Nations and US Congress, guarantees Israel's sovereign rights in this area. All Jewish settlement, therefore, was and is legal.

The sad part is that all of this is irrelevant. The world has decided that Jewish residence in Judea is illegal, and will not be deterred by facts. [Just as the Muslims are convinced, despite clear Quranic proof, that the Bet ha-Miqdash never stood on the Temple Mount.] It's nice for us to know. The rest of the world couldn't care.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Rabbi Zekharia ben Avqulas Revisited

I am haunted by Rabbi Zekhariah ben Avqulos. R. Zekharia is not a very well known figure in the Talmud. Indeed, his name hardly appears only three times in all of rabbinic literature. Yet, despite ( or perhaps because ) of this, his impact on Judaism and upon Jewish history looms large.This is the first of a series of reflections on his problematic legacy. R. Zekharia is best known for his role in the denouement of the famous tale of Qamtza and Bar Qamtza which is recounted in the Talmud ( Gittin 56a). According to the story, a certain individual named Bar Qamtza travelled to Rome and claimed to the Emperor Nero that the Jews were in revolt or (or at least planning one) against him. In order to verify this claim, Nero chose to test the Jews by sending a sacrificial animal to be offered up on his behalf in the Temple in Jerusalem. The concept was simple. If the Jews offered the animal, it was a sign that they remained loyal and if not, their refusal would be a clear declaration of rebellion. The situation, however, was not to be so simple. Bar Qamtza, owing to his deep resentment of a slight he felt he had received at the hands of the rabbis ( as recounted at the start of the story) was intent upon proving the Jews to be in rebellion and thereby to have his revenge upon them. Hence he sought at all costs to prevent the offering of the sacrificial animal in the Temple. This he achieved by splitting the lip of the animal, thereby rendering it blemished ( ba'al mum ) and hence unfit according to Halakhah. His choice of blemish was, moreover, ingenious. For, as the Talmud notes, while such a physical imperfection was recognized as such according to Jewish Tradition, it did not disqualify a sacrficial animal according to pagan lore. Hence, reasoned Bar Qamtza, the Jews would refuse to offer the sacrifice for reasons which Nero would take to be unsatisfactory at best and disingenuous at worst. In any event, Roman retaliation would be assured and Bar Qamtza's lust for vengeance satisfied. The Talmud recounts, that upon receiving the animal from Nero and quickly realizing how Bar Qamtza had maneuvered them into a corner, the Sages expressed their determination to offer the animal in any case in order to avert the Emperor's wrath and vindictive reaction. Only one man stood against them, Rabbi Zekharia b. Avqulos. Eloquently he countered each and every argument marshalled in favor of offering the animal. The crux of his argument? Halakhah must stand pristine under any and all circumstances. No other considerations may prevent the precise implementation of an established halakhic ruling. In a word, 'Let the Law bore through the mountain!' ( Yiqov HaDin et HaHar). And so, the animal was not offered. Rome attacked and the rest is history. Yet, looking back on the events of 66 CE, the second century scholar R. Johanan ruefully observed, 'The punctiliousness ( anv'tanuto ) of R. Zekharia b. Avqulos destroyed our Temple, burned our Sanctuary and exiled us among the nations!' What was wrong with the position of R. Zekharia b. Avqulos? Rashi offers that he should have allowed the Sages to put Bar Qamtza to death as a traitor. Others, on the other hand, suggest that the Sages should have been allowed to sacrifice the calf in question, despite its being disqualified, out of considerations of Piquah Nefesh, viz. to save the lives of those who would die in the inevitable war should the animal not be offered. What is common to both of these opinions, however, is that R. Johanan was convinced that R. Zekharia erred on two counts. First, he failed ( or refused) to take into consideration the larger implications of of the situation being addressed. Second, he obstinately disallowed the implementation of other legitimate halakhic responses to a difficult, even untenable, situation and instead held tenaciously to a narrow, literalist and unimaginative 'strict constructionist' approach. For his error ( and that of the Sages who gave in to him), concluded R. Johanan, the Jewish People paid ( and are still paying ) a terrible price.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Much Ado About Maharat

[I have held off on commenting on Rabbi Avi Weiss' creation of a clerical title for women. My reason for doing so was the desire to present it within a broader discussion of the halakhic and policy issues involved. Now that Rabbi Michael Broyde has published a thorough and thoughtful discussion of both, I feel free to simply state my personal feelings on the subject.]

A number of years ago, I had a long conversation with a very prominent Rosh Yeshiva, concerning certain initiatives whose aim was the establishment of Modern Orthodoxy in Israel. The Rosh Yeshiva, for whom I have tremendous respect, was less than enthusiastic about the long term impact of the initiative. His reason was, essentially, concern that it would be highjacked by radical elements such as those who advocate far-reaching changes in the liturgy and the structure of communal prayer.

I was somewhat taken aback by the intensity of his response. I replied that, personally, I am opposed to almost all of the liturgical innovations introduced by religious feminists (for example; the details will wait for another post). On the other hand, in my opinion, the most revolutionary change in Modern Orthodoxy was instituted, endorsed and advanced by מורי ורבי Rav Soloveitchik זצ"ל namely providing women with a full Talmudic Education. It was here, I maintained, that the real sea-change was to be found. Compared to it, women's tefilla groups pale in significance.

My interlocutor responded with silence.

I have not changed my mind since then. We have, happily, trained our daughters and wives to learn Torah in the widest sense. This has not only deepened their devotion to God and Observance. We have all benefitted from their insights and interpretations. In addition, where frameworks have been created to alow them to use their hard earned knowledge, they have been a blessing to the entire community. In Israel, Rabbinic Pleaders (טוענות רבניות) have rescued innumerable women from the chains of abusive marriages. In Israel and abroad, Halakhic advisors (יועצות הלכה) have deepened observance of Taharat ha-Mishpaha, especially in those areas where women were uncomfortable asking men (with definitely negative results for their marriages). Where they have served as teachers for young brides, they have achieved a level of acceptance of Miqveh that is quite remarkable.

So, in light of these successes, I see no reason not to create a formal framework wherein learned women can spread Torah. Indeed, I believe that we owe them that.

On the other hand, I fully subscribe to Rabbi Broyde's caveat:

This does not at all mean that women need to be given the title “rabbi;” it could be, either for reasons of formal authority (serarah) being limited to men, or because the title “rabbi” is limited to people who can serve as witnesses or function as a chazan, or simply as a matter of tradition, a different title should be given. So too, this does not mean that training for women in the Orthodox clergy has to be identical to the training for men in the rabbinate -- women sometimes bring different pastoral approaches that require different training.

I would even sharpen his remarks. First, I think that the title Rabbi NOT be bestowed, not only for the cogent reasons that Rabbi Broyde notes. The pall-mall rush after the title 'Rabbi' smacks to me of an agenda-ridden feminism, and not (as must be the case) of a deep desire to serve God and Israel. An alternative title announces that women (as men) are ready to maximize their roles within the framework of the Law, but surrender to God's dictates when they reach that limit. To do otherwise would verge on idolatry. At best, it would be putting Tefillin on the statue of Apollo.

Shabbat Hazon marks the departure of God's Presence from amongst us. Creating a formal place for learned, Gof-fearing women as כלי קודש would be a step to inviting Him back.

Jeff Jacoby on Obama and Jerusalem

Jerusalem - one city, undivided

By Jeff Jacoby, Globe Columnist July 22, 2009

LATE LAST WEEK, the Obama administration demanded that the Israeli government pull the plug on a planned housing development near the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of Jerusalem. The project, a 20-unit apartment complex, is indisputably legal. The property to be developed - a defunct hotel - was purchased in 1985, and the developer has obtained all the necessary municipal permits.
Why, then, does the administration
want the development killed? Because Sheikh Jarrah is in a largely Arab section of Jerusalem, and the developers of the planned apartments are Jews. Think about that for a moment. Six months after Barack Obama became the first black man to move into the previously all-white residential facility at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, he is fighting to prevent integration in Jerusalem.
It is impossible to imagine the opposite scenario: The administration would never demand that Israel prevent Arabs from moving into a Jewish neighborhood. And the Obama Justice Department would unleash seven kinds of hell on anyone who tried to impose racial, ethnic, or religious
redlining in an American city. In the 21st century, segregation is unthinkable - except, it seems, when it comes to housing Jews in Jerusalem.
It is not easy for Israel’s government to refuse any demand from the United States, which is the Jewish state’s foremost ally. To their credit, Israeli leaders
spoke truth to power, and said no. “Jerusalem residents can purchase apartments anywhere in the city,’’ Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Sunday. “There is no ban on Arabs buying apartments in the west of the city, and there is no ban on Jews building or buying in the city’s east. This is the policy of an open city.’’
There was a time not so long ago when Jerusalem was anything but an open city. During Israel’s War of Independence in 1948, the Jordanian Arab Legion invaded eastern Jerusalem, occupied the Old City, and
expelled all its Jews - many from families that had lived in the city for centuries. “As they left,’’ the historian Sir Martin Gilbert later wrote, “they could see columns of smoke rising from the quarter behind them. The Hadassah welfare station had been set on fire and . . . the looting and burning of Jewish property was in full swing.’’
For the next 19 years, eastern Jerusalem was barred to Jews, brutally divided from the western part of the city with barbed-wire and military fortifications. Dozens of Jewish holy places, including synagogues hundreds of years old,
were desecrated or destroyed. Jerusalem’s most sacred Jewish shrine, the Western Wall, became a slum. It wasn’t until 1967, after Jordan was routed in the Six-Day War, that Jerusalem was reunited under Israeli sovereignty and religious freedom restored to all. Israelis have vowed ever since that Jerusalem would never again be divided.
And not only Israelis. US policy, laid out in the
Jerusalem Embassy Act of 1995, recognizes Jerusalem as “a united city administered by Israel’’ and formally declares that “Jerusalem must remain an undivided city.’’
As a presidential candidate, Obama said the same thing. To
a 2008 candidate questionnaire that asked about “the likely final status of Jerusalem,’’ Obama replied: “The United States cannot dictate the terms of a final status agreement . . . Jerusalem will remain Israel’s capital, and no one should want or expect it to be re-divided.’’ In a speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Council, he repeated the point: “Let me be clear . . . Jerusalem will remain the capital of Israel, and it must remain undivided.’’
Palestinian irredentists claim that eastern Jerusalem is historically Arab territory and should be the capital of a future Palestinian state. In reality, Jews always lived in eastern Jerusalem - it is the location of the Old City and its famous Jewish Quarter, after all, not to mention
Hebrew University, which was founded in 1918. The apartment complex that Obama opposes is going up in what was once Shimon Hatzadik, a Jewish neighborhood established in 1891. Only from 1948 to 1967 - during the Jordanian occupation - was the eastern part of Israel’s capital “Arab territory.’’ Palestinians have no more claim to sovereignty there than Russia does in formerly occupied eastern Berlin.
The great obstacle to Middle East peace is not that Jews insist on living among Arabs. It is that Arabs insist that Jews not live among them. If Obama doesn’t grasp that, he has a lot to learn.

Friday, July 17, 2009

More on the Home of Roi Klein

Widow of Israeli war hero to be dispossessed.
July 16, 2009

National Council of Young Israel
Tammuz 5769
As reported in Israel National News

On Monday, the High Court in Israel ruled in favor of the far-left organizations Peace Now and Yesh Din and ordered that 11 homes in the Samaria town of Eli be torn down. One of the homes in question belongs to IDF Major Roi Klein, who was killed in the Second Lebanon War when he jumped on a live hand grenade thrown by Hizbullah forces, in order to save his soldiers. Maj. Klein's last words, his soldiers later said, were "Shema Yisrael."

The Klein family home is located in the Hayovel neighborhood of Eli. The neighborhood received government support and services over the course of more than a decade, but never received official authorization. Peace Now claims that some houses were built on Arab-owned land. According, to residents of Eli, a part of one building does extend onto Arab land, but the other homes in the neighborhood, including the Klein family residence, were built entirely on state land.

Klein's final act of bravery led the state to posthumously award him the
Medal of Valor, the IDF's highest honor. Klein was the first to be awarded the medal in more than 30 years.
Klein's widow, Sarah, declined to respond to the High Court decision that
could leave her and her two young children with no home.

Neighbors described
the news as "a harsh blow," particularly in light of the fact that it came almost exactly three years after Roey's death, and shortly before a scheduled IDF memorial ceremony in his honor.

'Will Your Hand not Tremble?'

Following the ruling, the Land of Israel Legal Forum sent an emotional
appeal to Defense Minister Ehud Barak, calling on him to honor Major Klein by authorizing his family's home and making it legal. "Will your hand, as that responsible for destroying the home of this hero of Israel, not tremble as you sign the demolition order?" asked Forum chairman Nachi Eyal. "With your signature, you could turn his home 'legal,' but you refuse... The law does not require you to destroy the home of a hero of Israel who gave his life for his people," the letter continued. "If there is any legal way to prevent this travesty, you must make use of it."

When he gave his life, Klein became a national symbol of bravery and sacrifice, Eyal noted. If Barak allows the Klein family home to be destroyed, "the message sent will be disastrous, for both civilians and soldiers," he warned. "If there remains any significance to 'our duty to the fallen' - now is the time to prove it," he concluded.

Please help prevent the demolition of Ro"i Klein's home where his widow and
2 small children live. http://www.atzuma.co.il/petition/be770/1/

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Fie Lifshitz College Fie!!!

I am privileged to know many learned, pious people. One of these is Professor Shmuel Glick. Those of us who know and admire him, know him to be a God-fearing, Jew, a fine Talmid Hakham and a first class scholar.

Recently, Prof. Glick was appointed President of the Lifshitz Teachers College. The latter was always a center for Torah and Jewish scholarship, which boasted such luminaries (many of who with children and grandchildren in Efrat)as Binyamin Klar, Ephraim Urbach, Shraga Abramson, Nechama Leibowitz,Haim Hillel Ben-Sasson, Zelda and (mutatis mutandis)Avraham Grossman.
In recent years, obscurantist Hardali elements have gained an foothold in Lifshitz.

Now, these forces of ignorance have forced the rescinding of Prof. Glick's appointment because he was hitherto employed as the Librarian of the Schocken Library in Jerusalem. The Library is owned and operated as a research institution by the Jewish Theological Seminary. It does not ordain rabbis and it does not involve itself in the Conservative movement. Yet these 'know-nothing' Hardali elements are using this fact to prevent this distinguished scholar from moving the college out of their control.

Let me make this very clear. Prof Glick's research career at Schocken has absolutely nothing to do either with his qualifications or fitness to be the President of Lifshitz. What these rabbis, who wouldn't know a scholar if the fell on one, are doing violates at least a dozen Torah prohibitions and, more to that, drives another nail in the coffin of Modern Orthodoxy in Israel.

I urge everyone who seeks justice and supports our beliefs to protest this nefarious action. Call the college at: 02-5679567 or e-mail them at:


Major Ro'i Klein threw himself on a grenade during the Second Lebanon War. He saved his soldiers, but his wife and children became orphans. As a reward, the Supreme Court has decided to destroy his house and throw his family into the street. You see, Peace Now thinks this hero in Israel was a criminal because the government held up the final permits for his home (that was built by the Jewish Agency and Local Municipal Council).

Unbelievable, but too true.

UPDATE: Please sign this petition against this nefarious action.