Friday, January 29, 2010

Post-Orthodoxy Reconsidered III

One of the central motifs in the debate surrounding 'Post-Orthodoxy' is the apparent 'pushing of the Halakhic envelope' on different issues. The objections have different emphases and nuances. (Please excuse the repetition, since I've touched on these issues before.)

Some point out that there is a fundamental dishonesty in this envelope pushing, since we often see the pushers cobbling together scattered sources to support a specific (not clearly indigenous) agenda. Others emphasize the increasing decline in respect and deference that is accorded to recognized halakhic authorities, as each person seems to chart his/her own path in observance. Then again, in many cases, halakhic innovations crudely ignore the critical role of consensus in halakhic discourse (סוגיא דעלמא).

As readers of this blog know, I have noted (and agreed) with most of these objections on many occasions. It is arrogant to foist an outside agenda upon the body politic of Judaism. It is arrogant for less than qualified individuals to arrogate rabbinic authority to themselves, just because they possess basic Jewish (or rabbinic) literacy. Selectively citing sources, while ignoring the weight of rabbinic tradition, is a violation of the texture and essential dynamic of Halakhah, from Talmudic times until today.

However, let it be noted that many of these objections can be just as easily posed to the so-called Right as to the so-called Left. The culture of humra, the abandonment of established halakhic traditions and practice on the grounds of contemporary inadequacy (aka מיר זיינען גארניט) and the denigration of women are just as much a deviation from hoary halakhic norms, as the innovations flowing in from the Left.

The same is true in the area of theology, though here Left and Right mirror each other. The Left goes where no Orthodox Jew has gone before, while the Right so narrows the field of what is legitimate and what is not that many great scholars of the past (including Rashi, Rambam, Ramban, Rashba, and Rema) would be excluded from Orthodoxy.

Apparently, Post-Orthodoxy cuts both ways.

Reality Check

[While we're busy working ourselves into a lather over Post Orthodoxy, it might be worth recalling that 71 years ago tomorrow, Adolf Hitler יש"ו made this speech in the Reichstag, in which he threatened the Jews with extermination. The world, and most Jews, ignored him. At present, there are countries and individuals who are making the same threat, receive support from Jews and non-Jews, while most people refuse to acknowledge the danger. The translation of the speech is here.]

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Post-Orthodoxy Reconsidered (Interlude)

I had actually intended to delay further writing on this subject until Erev Shabbat. However, looking over the comments at Hirhurim, it is clear that Gil Student and I are treating very different concerns.
He is addressing specific points on the communal agenda in the United States.

I am discussing a different type of Post-Orthodoxy.

I am concerned with its expression through the widespread abandonent of Torah and Mitzvot by the products of the best Religious Homes and Schools in Israel.

I am concerned with its expression through the phenomenon of 'Dati Lite,' and not necessarily because of its dilution of religious observance. Rather, I see it as a direct result of the type of one or two dimensional Judaism that is taught by the rabbinic and educational leadership of our sector of society.

I am concerned with its expression through religious subjectivism; a Judaism that is more spiritual utilitarianism than human self-fulfillment through the Worship of God and the observance of His commandments.

Gil is worried about 'pushing the envelope.' I'm more concerned about the motives for doing so and how the needs of those who are doing so can be legitimately expressed, channelled or guided within the framework of Tradition (and I believe there is much room for that).

As I said, though, all of that will have to wait till tomorrow.

Post-Orthodoxy Reconsidered II

Gil Student has engaged my previous points about 'Post-Orthodoxy.' His cogent observations (and those of some of my commentors) deserve consideration and response. However, before turning to these, it's important to define our terms.

One definition would compare Post-Orthodoxy to, mutatis mutandis, post-Evangelicalism which is, itself, defined as '
former adherents of Evangelicalism. includes a variety of people who have distanced themselves from mainstream evangelical Christianity for theological, political, or cultural reasons. Most who describe themselves as post-evangelical are still adherents of the Christian faith in some form.'

I'm not really comfortable with this type of definition. First, Christianity by definition, determines who is in and who is out through very precise theological litmus tests. (Recall the fact that the Eastern and Roman Churches split in 1054 over what, to the Talmudically trained, can only be seen as a kvetch.) Orthodox Judaism, though, has somewhat more leeway on issues of belief (and less in matters of practice). The definition of Post-Evangelicalism, thus, seems more attuned to a move from Haredi/Yeshivish to Modern Orthodoxy. Then again, it's a very awkward fit.

I think what we're really talking about is a number of different trends, which present themselves differently in Israel and in the United States. In fact, I dare say that the difference in venue is partly responsible for our points of contention. Since, despite my ongoing contact with the American Orthodox community, I am more intimately aware of the situation here in Israel, it is to it that I will refer here.

The typical topic of discussion in Israel concerns three, inter-related topics: A decline in observance, (aka Dati-Lite); a galvanized Orthodox Left (religiously); Abandonment of Orthodoxy (aka הורדת כיפה) and the never-ending saga of the Shiddukh Crisis. All three are a result of the Post-Modern surge in absolute personal autonomy. The belief in that autonomy, which finds expression in every aspect of life, undermines (among other things): rabbinic authority, intellectual and religious humility, the ability to form long-lasting relationships (which demand mutual concessions), and (IMHO) sexual restraint.

The lessons of Late Modern (leading into Post Modern) philosophy are ubiquitous and conveyed by every medium. In this sense, the trends noted above are both social and ideational. They are social because they have been internalized by society. They are ideational, because they are based on ideas. However, they have been internalized, across the board, in a semi-conscious fashion. In other words, they have their profound impact because they impose themselves upon unself-reflecting people.( And, unfortunately, Israeli religious men and women, are frequently trained not to reflect upon their lives and values- or they lack the education to responsibly do so. In light of the very limited parameters of religious thought that is taught in our schools, this can often lead to tragic results. I will have more to say about this in a later posting.)

In the present context, the Israeli phenomena that are closest to what is presently described as 'Post-Orthodoxy' are the Religious Left and Dati-Lite. Both phenomena are reactions to, or rejection of, the specific texture of National-Religious Judaism as it's developed over the course of the last twenty-five years.

[To Be Continued, אי"ה.]

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Post-Orthodoxy Reconsidered

Aiwac has a series of perceptive and important aspects of the 'Post-Orthodoxy' that was, in turn, prompted by Gil (and this) and the recent article about Maqor Rishon editor (and Bar Ilan graduate student) Yoav Soreq, which was translated (sort of) by Menachem Mendel (though, I will say out front, I really differ with his overall agenda).

After reacting to the criteria published for Post-Orthodoxy, I thought that there wasn't much more to say. However, riding home on the bus from Ein Boqeq today, I had time to think about the broader etiology and implications of the phenomenon. My ideas arte still under-developed, but a general direction seems fairly clear to me.

1) Post-Orthodoxy in the realm of theology is a result of the refusal, or the inability, of the Orthodox Community (especially those whose Talmudic credentials are above reproach) to creatively confront the challenges of Post-Modern culture, rather than give in to myopia (in an ironically, post-modern modern).

2) Post-Orthodoxy in the realm of theology is a direct result of so narrowing the definition of what is acceptable in the area of core belief, that many medievals would have been excluded. I say this, by the way, without accepting the overly broad canvas drawn by my friend Marc Schapiro.

3) In brief, in the realm of belief, we are witnessing the inevitable result of the theological brain death inflicted on Orthodoxy by those who, a la the bon mot of the late and lamented, Rabbi Walter Wurzburger זצ"ל, think that the verse reads: מחשבה לא תחיה.

Practice Practice

[Hat tip: Parshablog.]

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Hypocrisy in Sheikh Jarrakh

Over the past few weeks, the Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah has been the scene of ever intensifying protests by Arab nationalists, leftists and anarchists against the eviction of a number of Arab families who had been settled in Jewish owned property during the Jordanian occupation (1949-1967). These families had been allowed by the Israeli courts to stay in these buildings so long as they paid rent to the owners. In recent years they have stopped doing so and were, as a result, evicted.

The protests, which can be seen on You Tube, have grown in numbers and intensity. In addition, the protesters have experienced the 'gentle treatment' of the Israel Police (whose viciousness I personally experienced when protresting from the other side, and which I condemn no less vociferously when visited upon my ideological opponents).

I find their message hypocritical, pathological and delusional.

1) Hypocritical because many of them live on, or study in, land abandoned by Arabs in 1948/9. As long as it's not their homes and businesses that are involved, they are perectly willing to protest.

2) Pathological because the only rights they care about are those of the Palestinians. Jewish lives and rights are of no interest to them. In the present case, Sheikh Jarrah had a significant Jewish population until the Arab riots of 1929 and 1936-7, when the British moved them out for their own protection. The motivations of many of the protesters are tinged by a deep, and abiding Judische selbst-hass. The way that they chanted against 'Settlers' reminded me of Der Ewige Jude. In other words, they have demonized their opponents in a manner that is extremely disappointing.

3) Delusional because none of this will make any difference in the Arab-Israeli conflict. On the contrary, because the Arab/Muslim/Palestinian position sees the conflict as a zero sum game, all that the protesters are achieving (if anything) is to aid and abet those who would throw them out of the country along with the 'settlers' they so despise. Indeed, they are the useful idiots who would sell the Arabs the rope to hang us all.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Evangelicals and Israel

On Srugim

The London Jewish Chronicle today published an article on Srugim, that includes part of a long intervieText Colorw that I gave earlier this week (while riding on the 31 bus to Egged).

So what is it about this seemingly niche drama that appeals to viewers?

According to Jeffrey Woolf, a Bar Ilan University academic and expert on representations of Orthodoxy in the media, “it’s really the first time that the religious-Zionist community has been represented in a non-stereotyped way on television”.

He said that when Israeli TV features religious characters they are usually one-dimensional — either zealous settlers or religious extremists.

“Religious characters are usually cartoon-like in their superficiality, either because of malice or because of ignorance.”

Because Srugim gives a fuller picture of the community, it gives religious viewers something to identify with, while for secular viewers it “makes accessible an entire world that is normally inaccessible”.

Dr Woolf says that while the identity of young religious-Zionist adults may not be obviously primetime TV material, the central struggle is a theme that has long proved successful on television — a clash of worldviews.

“The characters all live in the modern world and at the same time have their religious values, and this series explores the clash that ensues between them.”

[The Jewish Week had a parallel piece today, as well. They just didn't know whom to call.]

Thursday, January 21, 2010

ויראו ממך

Modality of Prayer: Putting One's Head Down for Tahanun

Gil has started a discussion as to whether one should put one's head down during the supplications following Shaharit and Minha, known as Tahanun, if there is no Aron Qodesh or Sefer Torah in the room. The common practice is not to do so (based, I suspect, upon the medieval Ashkenazic idea that the Torah is an embodiment of God's Name, and that therefore the Shekhinah is present in its plenitude, wherever there is a Sefer Torah).

The Rav זצ"ל's practice was to put his head down irrespective of where he was praying (and I once saw R. Aharon Lichtenstein do so at the airport). The Rav addressed this once (in my hearing) in his shiurim to Masskhet Taanit (in Boston).

He started by referring to the Gemara in Berakhot (34b:

ושוב מעשה ברבי חנינא בן דוסא שהלך ללמוד תורה אצל רבי יוחנן בן זכאי, וחלה בנו של רבי יוחנן בן זכאי. אמר לו: חנינא בני, בקש עליו רחמים ויחיה. הניח ראשו בין ברכיו ובקש עליו רחמים - וחיה. אמר רבי יוחנן בן זכאי: אלמלי הטיח בן זכאי את ראשו בין ברכיו כל היום כולו - לא היו משגיחים עליו. אמרה לו אשתו: וכי חנינא גדול ממך? אמר לה: לאו, אלא הוא דומה כעבד לפני המלך, ואני דומה כשר לפני המלך

On another occasion it happened that R. Hanina b. Dosa went to study Torah with R. Johanan ben Zakkai. The son of R. Johanan ben Zakkai fell ill. He said to him: Hanina my son, pray for him that he may live. He put his head between his knees and prayed for him and he lived. Said R. Johanan ben Zakkai: If Ben Zakkai had stuck his head between his knees for the whole day, no notice would have been taken of him. Said his wife to him: Is Hanina greater than you are? He replied to her: No; but he is like a slave before the king, and I am like a nobleman before a king

The Rav explained that there are two, unique postures in prayer: a) Dignity ('a nobleman before a king) and b) Total self-abnegation ('a slave before the king'). Our daily prayers comprise both. In the Amidah, we stand erect and follow the choreography of a minister or a nobleman before the King. Then, we become slaves before him and cast ourselves down before him (ביטול היש - his phrase).

Friday, January 15, 2010


[A few days ago I posted an ostensible discussion of President Obama's agenda by Charles Krauthammer. That discussion was removed when it emerged that the 'stenographer' had taken liberties with Krauthammer's remarks. In lieu of that, here are Krauthammer's ipsissima verba (and just as damning). Thanks to ML for sending it to me.]

One year out: President Obama's fall

By Charles Krauthammer
Friday, January 15, 2010; A25

What went wrong? A year ago, he was king of the world. Now President Obama's approval rating, according to CBS, has dropped to 46 percent -- and his disapproval rating is the highest ever recorded by Gallup at the beginning of an (elected) president's second year.

A year ago, he was leader of a liberal ascendancy that would last 40 years (James Carville). A year ago, conservatism was dead (Sam Tanenhaus). Now the race to fill Ted Kennedy's Senate seat in bluest of blue Massachusetts is surprisingly close, with a virtually unknown state senator bursting on the scene by turning the election into a mini-referendum on Obama and his agenda, most particularly health-care reform.

A year ago, Obama was the most charismatic politician on Earth. Today the thrill is gone, the doubts growing -- even among erstwhile believers.

Liberals try to attribute Obama's political decline to matters of style. He's too cool, detached, uninvolved. He's not tough, angry or aggressive enough with opponents. He's contracted out too much of his agenda to Congress.

These stylistic and tactical complaints may be true, but they miss the major point: The reason for today's vast discontent, presaged by spontaneous national Tea Party opposition, is not that Obama is too cool or compliant but that he's too left.

It's not about style; it's about substance. About which Obama has been admirably candid. This out-of-nowhere, least-known of presidents dropped the veil most dramatically in the single most important political event of 2009, his Feb. 24 first address to Congress. With remarkable political honesty and courage, Obama unveiled the most radical (in American terms) ideological agenda since the New Deal: the fundamental restructuring of three pillars of American society -- health care, education and energy.

Then began the descent -- when, more amazingly still, Obama devoted himself to turning these statist visions into legislative reality. First energy, with cap-and-trade, an unprecedented federal intrusion into American industry and commerce. It got through the House, with its Democratic majority and Supreme Soviet-style rules. But it will never get out of the Senate.

Then, the keystone: a health-care revolution in which the federal government will regulate in crushing detail one-sixth of the U.S. economy. By essentially abolishing medical underwriting (actuarially based risk assessment) and replacing it with government fiat, Obamacare turns the health insurance companies into utilities, their every significant move dictated by government regulators. The public option was a sideshow. As many on the right have long been arguing, and as the more astute on the left (such as The New Yorker's James Surowiecki) understand, Obamacare is government health care by proxy, single-payer through a facade of nominally "private" insurers.

At first, health-care reform was sustained politically by Obama's own popularity. But then gravity took hold, and Obamacare's profound unpopularity dragged him down with it. After 29 speeches and a fortune in squandered political capital, it still will not sell.

The health-care drive is the most important reason Obama has sunk to 46 percent. But this reflects something larger. In the end, what matters is not the persona but the agenda. In a country where politics is fought between the 40-yard lines, Obama has insisted on pushing hard for the 30. And the American people -- disorganized and unled but nonetheless agitated and mobilized -- have put up a stout defense somewhere just left of midfield.

Ideas matter. Legislative proposals matter. Slick campaigns and dazzling speeches can work for a while, but the magic always wears off.

It's inherently risky for any charismatic politician to legislate. To act is to choose and to choose is to disappoint the expectations of many who had poured their hopes into the empty vessel -- of which candidate Obama was the greatest representative in recent American political history.

Obama did not just act, however. He acted ideologically. To his credit, Obama didn't just come to Washington to be someone. Like Reagan, he came to Washington to do something -- to introduce a powerful social democratic stream into America's deeply and historically individualist polity.

Perhaps Obama thought he'd been sent to the White House to do just that. If so, he vastly over-read his mandate. His own electoral success -- twinned with handy victories and large majorities in both houses of Congress -- was a referendum on his predecessor's governance and the post-Lehman financial collapse. It was not an endorsement of European-style social democracy.

Hence the resistance. Hence the fall. The system may not always work, but it does take its revenge.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

A Scholar and a Gentleman

There are many scholars whose achievements have earned them the admiration of their colleagues and there students. There are, happily, people whose essential humanity and warmth earn them the coveted sobriquet, mensch. There are, however, very few who are both superb scholars and academicians, and also menschen.
One of those unique individuals is Professor Avraham Grossman, and last night his friends, colleagues and students gathered at Merkaz Shazar to honor him on the occasion of the publication of a Festschrift in his honor. Anyone, who has any contact with medieval Jewish History knows just how massive and substantive an impact Professor Grossman has had on the field. His curriculum vitae speaks for itself.
What I want to emphasize is that Avraham Grossman is one of the finest people whom I have ever met. He is gracious, and treats every person as a צלם א-לקים. He shares his knowledge willingly, and is sincerely dedicated to the pursuit of truth. There is, for him, no contradiction between the two. Despite being involved in very vigorous academic debates, Grossman never loses his noble demeanor, and never stoops to the kind of polemic that is endemic to academia. He's a walking Qiddush HaShem.
Personally, I have had the privilege of knowing, interacting with and learning from Professor Grossman almost as long as I've lived in Israel. Like the many, many others who packed the auditorium last night, I came to pay tribute not only to an extraordinary scholar, but to an even more extraordinary mensch.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Josh Berman: A God-fearing Scholar and Gentleman

I don't think it's possible to avoid being aware of the incremental penetration of Biblical Criticism into Orthodox religious discourse. The academic study of Bible, and its dangers, have been the elephant in the Religious Jewish Room since Wellhausen. Now, the increasing number of religiously observant students and faculty involved in Academic Bible; together with the theories of the late Rabbi Mordekhai Breuer ז"ל, have placed the methodological and theological challenges raised by Biblical Criticism at the center of the contemporary Orthodox agenda.

One person whose love affair with Tanakh has led him to create books that have enriched all who read them, is my friend and colleague, Rabbi Dr. Josh Berman. His latest book Created Equal is a singular tour de force that sets forth the revolutionary aspects of Biblical Thought, in contrast with the so-called advanced civilizations which surrounded Biblical Israel.

What I like about his work, though, goes beyond his specific researches. Dr. Berman is a God-fearing Jew, who doesn't march lock-step with the 'conventional wisdom' as to the authorship of the Torah. He struggles with his Emunah, as in 'שרית עם אלהים ועם אנשים ותוכל." This aspect of his work, and his personna, was recently set forth in a piece he published on the Seforim Blog, and in an interview he gave to SOY's Kol ha-Mevaser.

In the past few years, I've increasingly encountered students of Bible who've gone over to 'Orthopraxy,' dropped religion altogether, or live fundamentally compartmentalized lives. Josh holds out the possibility of learning how to deal; to live with a question in the certainty that there is an acceptable answer.

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OK. Back to דברים העומדים ברומו של עולם.

Clarfication and Apology

I have just been notified that my posting of Charles Krauthammer's putative remarks was, at best, an inaccurate report of an informal talk he gave.

I apologize to those who relied upon my posting and further disseminated it.

Saturday, January 09, 2010

Way to go Egypt!

Egypt Does PR Right

Noah Pollak - 01.09.2010 - 10:02 AM

Credit where it is due: The Egyptians know how to deal with Hamas and especially with the useful idiots who have turned Gaza into a cause celebre. When George Galloway and his traveling roadshow of activists showed up in Egypt to make trouble, the Egyptians simply threw all of them out of the country.

“George Galloway is considered persona non grata and will not be allowed to enter into Egypt again,” a Foreign Ministry statement said. The activist left Egypt Friday morning from Cairo airport. … “He was told that he is a trouble maker and his behavior is undermining Egyptian security.”

This is no exaggeration. The arrival of Galloway’s “relief convoy” was accompanied by Hamas-staged riots along the Gaza border in which a Hamas sniper killed an Egyptian border guard. As a result, “Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Ali Aboul Gheit said his country would ban aid convoys from entering its territory.”

Where are the outraged Human Rights Watch press releases? When are the UN Human Rights Council hearings? Where is the collective outrage of the British media? We have banned aid convoys to Gaza — this statement would cause global apoplexy if uttered by the Israeli foreign minister.

But Egypt isn’t done:

Mosques throughout Egypt took advantage of Friday prayers to criticize Hamas…London-based Arabic-language newspaper Al-Quds Al-Arabi reported Saturday that most of the 140,000 mosques operating under the auspices of Egypt’s Ministry of Awqaf took part in the verbal onslaught on the Palestinian Islamist group. …

According to another imam, Hamas is to blame for the blockade imposed on the Palestinians in Gaza. “Its leaders want to stay in power, even at the cost of their own people’s expulsion and starvation,” the imam said during a sermon at Cairo’s Al-Rahma Mosque.

Egyptian officials speak the terse and confident language of sovereignty. Israelis too frequently employ the defensive language of ethics, unaware that such noble rhetoric, when applied to foreign policy, invites little but skepticism and complaint.

Friday, January 08, 2010

The Bible As History

Every time the archaeologists and the Biblical Scholars tell us that the Bible can't be this or that, someone discovers firm evidence that it really was this or that. Sometimes, you need patience and faith. See Mishneh Torah, Hil. Meilah 8, 8.

Latest case in point, a tenth century inscription that shows Jews knew how to write and that there was an Israelite Kingdom at the time of King David.


Gil Student has set some criteria for being, what he calls, Post-Orthodox. I understand his concerns, but I seriously doubt that a number of these are reasonable. Indeed, one wonders if the kind of cathechisms that he is recommending are salutary.

Herewith is his list (with my comments in italics. When I write 'I agree' that means I agree that it's a Post-Orthodox position.):

  1. You do not believe that the Rambam's thirteen fundamental principles are binding (This would exclude the Ramban and Albo. Now, I do not accept Marc Shapiro's contention that a Jew need not believe in anything. However, there is a legitimate range of belief with which the Rambam could not agree and most authorities would. BTW, the Rambam would not agree with the doctrine of Daas Torah, unless you had a PhD in Philosophy.)
  2. You believe that there are post-Mosaic additions to the Pentateuch (I agree)
  3. You think that the Amoraim sometimes distorted the views of Tannaim (Willingly?)
  4. You believe that the conclusions of the Gemara are not halakhically binding (I agree)
  5. You approve of increasing women's roles in synagogue ritual (I support increasing women's roles in the Synagogue, though I am on record against women's aliyot and the other Shirah Hadashah type of innovations. This stance is NOT Post-Orthodox. Shirah Hadashah likely is.)
  6. You support the ordination of women (What does he mean by ordination? I am four-square in favor of Yoa'tzot Halakhah and To'anot Rabbani'ot.)
  7. You think that professors have the same religious authority as rabbis (I agree. I think, though, that we need more Rabbi, AM and Rabbi Dr's out there.)
  8. You don't want accepted standards for conversions (What does that mean? If he means minima, I agree. If he means that we should divest full comstituted Battei Din of any leeway, that's just a surrender to the extremists.)
  9. You believe uncomfortable customs should be jettisoned (What customs? Minhagim that no longer 'speak' to the community fall into disuetude on their own. I've written three articles showing that. If, however, he means customs that aren't politically correct, and we're deferring to current 'tastes', then I agree.)
  10. You believe in complete, unbounded interfaith and interdenominational dialogue (I agree. The Rav's guidelines are still the way to go.)
  11. You want "out" homosexuals to be accepted as equal members of the community. (Homosexuality should never become a legitimate parameter of Orthodoxy, any more than Hillul Shabbat.)
  12. You believe that practices perceived as discriminatory should be changed (What does that mean? See number 9.)
  13. You think that every rabbi has equal halakhic authority. (I agree with this. On the other hand, I also object to the total dependence upon the individual rabbi on 'his Poseq.' Rabbis should know their limits, and so should those greater than they.)
[More to come.]

The Limits of Unity: Wisdom from QED

Yes, Aiwac has done it again.

Thursday, January 07, 2010

Just A Reminder...Israel's Claim to Judea and Samaria

Evelyn Gordon puts it so succinctly.

Though there had long been a lively debate as to whether Israel ought to hold on to these territories in practice, until 1993 all sides were ready to assert that it had a valid claim to them in principle. The argument in favor of Israel’s right to sovereignty there was simple: these territories are the historic Jewish homeland, the heart of the biblical Jewish kingdom. They were explicitly allotted to the future Jewish state by the 1922 League of Nations Mandate, which was never legally superseded. Although the 1947 UN partition plan allotted part of the land to a putative Arab state—a plan that Palestinians and other Arabs rejected as a matter of principle—it was merely a nonbinding “recommendation” (as its own language stated). Thus once the Arabs rejected it, the measure had no more validity than any other unsigned deal. Nor did any sovereign state ever replace the Mandate on this territory: though Jordan and Egypt conquered the West Bank and Gaza, respectively, in 1948, neither conquest was ever internationally recognized. Legally, therefore, the territories remained stateless lands whose ownership is disputed; over time, the Palestinians simply replaced Egypt and Jordan as the Arab claimants.

Sunday, January 03, 2010

Gittin, Qiddushin and Inter-faith Dialogue

With everything else that's been going on recently, the Jewish blogosphere has been burning up with the question: What are the proper parameters for Orthodox involvement in Inter-faith dialogue, and what degree of theological flexibility do those involved in such activity have?

The issue is extremely thorny, and a blog posting is not the place to responsibly discuss so important an issue. Certain salient points, though, are appropriate in this context.

1) The best point of departure remains Rabbi Soloveitchik's essay, Confrontation, (and see the important observations of Rabbi Professor David Berger, here). The leitmotif of that essay was the absolute need to respect the inviolate nature of the faith commitment of one's Christian/Muslim/Hindu/Buddhist interlocutor. In other words, it is both disrespectful (and futile) to engage a believer on the central issues of their faith. Thus, to argue that Jesus was simply a Pharasaic fellow traveller, or that Jerusalem had little or no religious significance for Muslims until after the First Crusade, is to simply indulge in a dialogue of the deaf (at best). Jews might believe either or both to be true. That is irrelevant, and such discussions should best be kept off of the agenda.

2) There are broad swaths of thought and action where members of different faith committments can find common ground. The struggle against neo-paganism (aka secular humanism) comes to mind. Even political issues can be put on the agenda, without venturing into core issues that divide us. For example, Evangelical Christians and Jews share a non-allegorical approach to the Prophetic promises regarding Israel's return to its ancestral homeland, and the role of that return in improving the moral standing of mankind. Where there is a clear common language, where the innermost truths of a faith community are not in play, there is a place for mutually respectful conversation.

3) Most importantly, such encounters are no place for tyros. In line with Judah Ibn Tibbon's rules for proper translation, one who is involved must have total mastery of his own tradition and extensive expertise in that of his interlocuter's tradition. Anything less is simply unacceptable.

Hazal taught that anyone who is unfamiliar with the nature of Gittin and Qiddushin should not involve himself therewith (Gittin 5b). The same is definitely true when representing Judaism in an encounter with outher religions.

Italia Judaica: Fresh Opportunities

Over the next three days, Tel Aviv and Bar Ilan Universities will celebrate fifty years of the Italia Judaica Project. The program looks very interesting, and I am looking forward to meeting colleagues who I know only by name. Participating in this conference has special meaning for me, as well. It marks, together with the incredibly wonderful time I had teaching at Revel last Summer, my return to intensive involvement in Italian Jewish History.

When I started my doctorate, there was a fundamental imbalance in Italo-Jewish studies (as in Jewish Studies, generally). Tremendous energies had been invested in political and economic history and in the study of philosophy, mysticism, dance, music, inter-faith-relations, poetry, hunting, art and historiography. Practically no effort was invested in studying the texture of Jewish religious life (except to show that Italian Jews were more open-minded and less religious than Ashkenazim. Of course, we know where that line of thought led.) A fortiori, little (if any) attention was focused on Halakhah (or real rabbinic literature).

At the time, there were signs that this situation would be ameliorated. Reuven Bonfil had just published his path-breaking study, Rabbis and Jewish Communities in Renaissance Italy
(which was preceded and followed by a series of equally important contributions to this aspect of Renaissance Italian Jewish life). For the first time, a first-rate historian had respectfully presented the bulwark of Jewish Life and Survival: Jewish Law and Observance. At the same time, Ya'aqov Boksenboim was busy publishing important collections of rabbinic responsa from manuscripts (here, here, and here). It looked like the aforenoted imbalance might be rectified. It was partly for that reason that I undertook my own work on Mahariq.

Looking over the program for this week's conference, I am sad to see that my optimism was misplaced. Of all the speakers, I am the only one to devote himself to a rabbinic figure (R. Azriel Diena). This is not only a distortion, it's also a tragedy. The Kaufman manuscript collection in Budapest, one of the most important collections of Italian Halakhah, is disintegrating as I write this, and no one thinks it's important to publish and analyze that material (except, evidently, me). עת לעשות לה (as it were). That's the message that I hope to convey on Tuesday.