Sunday, February 28, 2010

Jew in the City

This week's New York Jewish Week featured an article about a new website, entitled Jew in the City. It's run by an intelligent and talented young woman, Allison Josephs, who has set herself a very difficult challenge: portraying Modern Orthodoxy in an intelligent and engaging fashion.
One could quibble about certain 'facts' or interpretations. Over all, her observations and videos are refreshing for their enthusiasm, strength of conviction and wonderful sense of humor, and I wish her continued success and an ever growing following.

This video is my favorite.

On Jewish Leadership and the Megillah: Wise Words from my Rebbetzin

The Megillah ends with an ominous note (Esther 10, 3): 'For Mordekhai the Jew was second to king Ahasuerus, and great among the Jews, and accepted by most of his brethren; seeking the good of his people and speaking peace to all all his seed.'

Rashi (ad loc. citing Megillah 16b), commenting on Mordekhai's less than enthusiatic reception by the members of the Anshe Knesset ha-Gedolah, notes that some members of the Sanhedrin separated themselves from Mordekhai because he embarked upon a political career and, as a result, was forced to cut back on his learning.

This comment troubles me, and I would like to believe that Hazal and Rashi were being sardonic. After all, Mordekhai had been (together with Esther) the vehicle by which God worked an unparalleled salvation. What was so wrong if he were to stay close to the king, and look out for the safety of the Jewish People? He didn't give up learning. He simply balanced learning and public affairs. (This is borne out by Hazal's discussion of Joshua in Megillah 3b. Joshua wasn't rebuked for cutting back in his studies. He was criticized for not learning. The same point is made in today's Daf Yomi [Sanhedrin 16b) in a discussion of King David.) On the contrary, balancing study, prayer and pursuing a living was considered a hallmark of that venerable community, the Sacred Community of Jerusalem (קהלא קדישא דירושלים as described in Qohelet Rabbah parsha 9 s.v. re'eh).

On the contrary, as my wife pointed out to me yesterday, Torah leaders are duty bound not to separate themselves from the community; not to confine themselves to the walls of the Bet Midrash. If they do so, they endanger the souls of those whose eyes turn to them. Leaders who lose touch with their people can no longer lead. (Again, see the story of King David in today's daf.)

When she said that, I was struck by the fact that it explained the strikingly different way in which the Torah describes Moses' prophetic initiation, as opposed to that of Joshua.

When Moses encounters God at the Burning Bush, He tells him Ex. 3, 3):
And He said: 'Draw not nigh hither; put off your shoes from your feet, for the place upon which you stand is holy ground.' When the angel appeared to Joshua, though, he told him (Josh. 5, 15): 'And the captain of the Lord's host said to Joshua: 'Put off your shoe from off your foot; for the place whereon you stand is holy.' And Joshua did so.'

Why was Moses bidden to remove both shoes, while Joshua was told to take off only one shoe? Hazal and most commentators explain the difference in light of the qualitative difference between Moses and Joshua. While both were deemed 'Servants of God' (עבד ד), Moses was inimitable. As Ibn Caspi (Adnei Kesef, ad Joshua, ad loc.) notes, Moseswas able to totally transcend hi physicality, while Joshua was only able to ascend half way (i.e. one shoe) to the heights achieved by Moses.

That's fair enough, but recall that God was emphatic that Joshua must be the one to bring the people into Eretz Yisrael, not Moses. I think the reason was that while Moses was able to lead, in the desert, while being constantly in a higher realm, no other leader was able to do so, nor was it desirable for him to do so!!! You need, please excuse the triteness, one foot on the ground in order to lead. You need to be connected to reality in order to apply God's Will and dictates on earth.
Even Halakhic Man may impose halakhic categories upon reality, but he's anchored in reality.

Too often, we think that the hermit, the withdrawn Gadol ba-Torah, is the ideal type. Such thinking is, in my opinion, fundamentally wrong. The challenge of the Gadol is to be of both this world and the higher realms. We need to be led by human beings, not be angels.

So, with all due respect to those Sanhedrin members who clucked their tongues at Mordekhai; he was right. Interestingly, Hazal thought that Mordekhai was actually the prophet Malakhi.

As my rebbetzin noted, only by being part of the people can you responsibly serve God's people.

Friday, February 19, 2010

For the Seventh of Adar

Sunday is the Seventh of Adar, the traditional birthdate and yahrzeit of Moshe Rabbenu. Every year, its arrival reminds me of an observation made by R. Meir Simcha ha-Kohen of Dvinsk (1843-1926), in his Bible commentary, Meshekh Hokhmah (Esther 9, 31).

R. Meir Simcha assumes that Haman chose to exterminate the Jews in Adar because, by his reckoning, it augured ill for them. He arrived at this conclusion because Moses was born on the night of the sixth of Adar and died on the seventh. As is well known, it bodes well for Israel, if God allows righteous individuals to live out the full measure of their days. Since Moses, the greatest of prophets, did not do so it follows (perforce) that Adar is innately, a bad month for Jews.

Haman's mistake, of course, was that he did not know that Jewish time is innately different than general chrononomy. In Judaism, the new day starts the previous evening. Hence, Moses actually did live out his full 120 years. Consequently, Adar augurs extremely well for Jews (Ta'anit 9b), and Haman ש"ט, actually set himself up for his own downfall by choosing Adar for his planned Holocaust.

Underlying, Reb Meir Simcha's comment is a deeper truth, one which was already noted by Hazal, and developed by R. Judah Ha-Levi, Ramban and R. Nachman Krochmal. Jews live under a different aspect. Our history is governed by historical laws that are different than those of other peoples. That's not simply an assertion of faith. It's an objective fact.

Mark Twain famously wrote:

The Egyptian, the Babylonian, and the Persian rose, filled the planet with sound and splendor, then . . . passed away. The Greek and the Roman followed. The Jew saw them all, beat them all, and is now what he always was, exhibiting no decadence, no infirmities of age, no weakening of his parts. … All things are mortal but the Jew; all other forces pass, but he remains. What is the secret of his immortality?

That answer is not provided by the normal rules of historical causality, despite the best efforts of superb historians to discover it. It is a riddle. (Appropriately, my friend, Dr. Simcha Goldin subtitled his book about the medieval Jewish community 'the riddle of Jewish Survival in the MIddle Ages').

The only answer I can suggest is developed by Ramban, and provides the basis for R. Meir Simcha's comment. When Abraham was chosen by God, he effectively left the realm of normal causality and entered into a different dimension of history and time (Historia Sacra, as Krochmal termed it). It was that deeper reality that was embodied by Moses' birth and death; a reality that Haman missed and that makes Adar-Nissan emblematic of Jewish survival.

As Ramban (Ex. 6, 2) points out, whether Jews stay in that sublime state depends upon their behavior; whether they live up to the dictates of the covenant that Moses negotiated on our behalf.

Now, there's the rub.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Obiter Dicta on Parshat Elon

On Forum Takanah:

נזכרתי בדברים שאמר מו"ר הגרי"ד הלוי זצ"ל, כשלמדנו מסכת תענית בחבורה קטנה בבוסטון (דברים שחזר עליהם לא פעם בשיעורים הציבוריים שלו במוצ"ש).
הגמרא (דף י' ע"ב) אומרת: 'אי זהו יחיד ואיזהו תלמיד? יחיד - כל שראוי למנותו פרנס על הצבור, תלמיד - כל ששואלין אותו דבר הלכה בתלמודו ואומר, ואפילו במסכת דכלה.' מתוך הנחה שהברייתא הוי מעין 'לא זו אף זו' (כמשמעות המקבילה בשבת, כפי שציינו בעה"ת כאן ד"ה איזהו) הרב הדגיש שכדי לשמש רב בישראל, לא מספיקה לו בקיאות בכל חדרי התורה (היינו הפירוש המרחיב ל'אפילו במסכת כלה' כפי שציין כבר הריטב"א, ד"ה ת"ר). דרושה לו מידה נוספת: גבורה. גבורה הופכת את הלמדן לרב, את התלמיד ליחיד.

כל מנהיג ראוי, כל מי שמתיימר לפסוק הלכה, חייב להיות מוכן לספוג ביקורת ואף שנאה מצד המתנגדים לו. כהוכחה, הזכיר הרב את סיפור הגיורת (כאן, בערך בדקה 40 ) שנאלצה להיפרד מארוסה לאחר שגילה שהוא כהן

On the Idolization of Rabbis:

When the Gerrer Rebbe, R. Avraham Mordekhai Alter, (the Imrei Emes), זצ"ל escaped from Nazi occupied Poland in 1940, he disguised. When he arrived in Bene Beraq, he met the former gabbai of his court. The gabbai had escaped alone from Poland, after losing his entire family.

Upon seeing the Rebbe, he castigated him for not only not urging his followers to escape Eastern Europe when it was still possible, but for reassuring them that all would be well.

The Rebbe just stood there, and started to cry. His reply was: זיי מיינען אז מיר זיינען געטער, אבער מיר זיינען נאר מענטשען (The think we're gods, but we're only human beings). [The story was told to my by a cousin of the gabbai.]

Wednesday, February 17, 2010


The scandal surrounding Rabbi Moti Elon has shocked the Religious Zionist community, and shaken it to its core. (See here, here, here, and here.)

For those who are unfamiliar with him, for decades Elon was touted as the great white hope of the Religious Zionist community. His public lectures were attended by hundreds of people from all sectors of Israeli society, and listened to by thousands more on the radio and TV. His followers are legion, and he has been dubbed the 'rebbe' of the National Religious world.

Now Elon is accused of sexual impropriety, harassment and exploitation of some of his students. A relatively new organization called Taqanah, has issued a public warning against R. Elon. The members of the forum number some of the most senior, and certainly the most revered, members of the community. Most prominent among these is the חתנא דבי נשיאה, Ha-Gaon R. Aharon Lichtenstein שליט"א, whose reputation for probity and moral rectitude, caution and respect for human life are nigh on legendary. The distinguished, irreproachable makeup of the forum is what makes this matter so disconcerting. Their charges cannot, under any possible circumstances, be lightly dismissed.

I am still trying to organize my thoughts in the wake of this wrenching, ongoing tragedy. And yes, it is a tragedy; for R. Elon, for his students, for the members of Taqanah, and for the entire RZ world. I sense a feeling of despair that reminds me (and perhaps surpasses) that which resulted from the expulsion from Gush Qatif. The following are the directions I've been contemplating:

1) Charismatic Leadership is an extremely volatile, often dangerous, quantity. As a good friend noted, charisma may well be a gift of God. However, as with all such gifts, it can be (and all too often is) abused both by the leader or by his/her followers.

2) In our present circumstances, we are so desperate for leadership that we run amok looking for saviors and messiahs. We either deify them, or we use them up and spit them out. This is true of both secular and religious society. It is, however, more dangerous and more heinous in religious society. Our primary loyalty is supposed to be to God, not a human being.

3) I have a feeling that the above is a function of the fundamentally neurotically narcissistic character of contemporary culture. We worship celebrities, with or without beards. As Edith Hamilton wrote of the Greeks, we create our gods in our own image. One result is that there is a general abdication of personal responsibility. Ironically, it was from R. Elon himself that I first heard the cynical comment: סלח לנו אבינו כי חטא הוא.

If the allegations are true, I hope that R. Elon will do the right thing and emulate King David by uttering the words: חטאתי לד'. If not, I trust that the members of Taqanah will beg his forgiveness. Either way, I am sure that they are fasting, as is appropriate when judging cases wherein lives are involved.

Thursday, February 04, 2010

Post Orthodoxy Reconsidered IV: PO in Practice

Hovering over the ongoing discussion of Post Orthodoxy (which, if the comments to Hirhurim are any indication, are getting increasingly nasty) are the issue of Rabbinic Authority and Massorah. I've addressed the former on numerous occasions during the five years that this blog has been functioning (see, though, here). Moreover, it appears to me that the latter is much more critical to an evaluation of Orthodoxy's present challenges. Here again, the knife cuts both ways. Critics of Left-wing innovations, often justifiedly, trumpet their all too often insensitive dismissal of centuries of halakhic practice (סוגיא דעלמא).

However, as I noted in the previous posting, the Left does not have an monopoly on such cavalier dismissal of Hazal, Rishonim, Aharonim and Posqim. The Right is equally able to grossly violate the canons of Halakhic Decising, and embitter thereby peoples' lives.

Consider, once again, the case of concersion. According to information published by Rivka Lubitsch, the Israeli rabbinate now has a policy of not recognizing qualified conversions, and keeping converts on probation forever. Such a policy flies in the face of and explicit Gemora, which is accepted by EVERY MAJOR POSEQ ever since, that after the convert emerges from the miqveh, he is a Jew even if he subsequently worships idols (B. Yevamot 47b).

That's not a violation of סוגיא דעלמא. I'm not sure what it is. Orthodox Judaism, it isn't!

Monday, February 01, 2010

Post-Orthodox Fallout

[ThanBook has a review of the Post Orthodox debate so far, and I strongly recommend it to those who have just joined the discussion. In terms of my ideas, I posted these clarifications to his posting.]

Thank you for your observations. I would like to clarify two points.

1) I think that the left is spiritually hungry, but its hunger and its frequently uncritical acceptance of western norms leads it to violate (sometimes grossly) the texture of halakhic tradition.

2) I am, indeed, sympathetic with the concerns that Gil labels as 'Post-Orthodox.' I don't, however, think that many of them are Post-Orthodox. On the contrary, I think that the RW has so constricted the halakhic and spiritual parameters of normative Orthodox tradition, that much that is 100% acceptable is now rejected.

I say that in full recognition of the fact that there are boundaries beyond which a person, despite all the sincerity and good intentions in the world, places himself beyond the realm of Traditional Judaism.