Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Am I Jewish?

Monday morning, before going off to shul, I read an article in the Jerusalem Post (not yet online) that recounted the story of a young man from Pennsylvania who wanted to get married here in Israel. His mother was Jewish, so there should not have been any problem. He was wrong. The Rabbinate's rules are that only someone married in Israel, or whose parents were married by an Orthodox rabbi whose name appears on their approved list, is automatically certified as being Jewish. This young man did not fit into either category and his file was sent for investigation to a special office of the Haifa rabbinate. He was required to find photos of his grandparents' graves and copies of their immigration papers, ship manifests of their arrival in the United States and other supporting documents. With the help of Rabbi Seth Farber and the ITIM institute, the task was achieved and our young man was married (barely) on time.

Then it struck me, that had I wanted to get married in Israel I would have been in the same position, or perhaps in a worse position. My parents (ז"ל) were married in Boston by a Conservative rabbi in 1954. So, my file would have automatically been sent for investigation. So I'd have needed to collect documents. Gravestones I have, check. The problem is that my maternal grandparents entered the United States under separate last names, because my grandmother wasn't well. She came under her maiden name, Littwak (אלא מה?), and he came under Czertok. At Ellis Island, he changed his family name to Birnbaum, because Czertok means the 'devil' (and he was less than fond of his father, anyway). So, I would have to stand in front of a bunch of rabbinic inquisitors and make the case that they were both Jewish, and my mother's parents. (Never mind that my Bubbe ע"ה was the embodiment of the nice, little (she was 4' 11") Jewish lady).

Contemplating this possibility, and knowing how officious and mean spirited many of the denizens of the Rabbinate can be, I felt vicariously degraded. A wave of empathy for all those forced to legitimize themselves as Jews before the apparatchiks of the Rabbinate washed over me. Even granting that certification is sometimes required (as with the former Soviet Union), still stories like that reported in the Post (the like of which occur every single day) are unnecessary and insensitive sources of pain, anguish and Hillul Ha-Shem. Jewish Law provides very clear guidelines for establishing identity (such as testimony by witnesses). Relying on the extraordinarily stringent rulings of a noted Hungarian מחמיר like R. Menashe Klein is simply unacceptable for a governmental agency charged with representing the mainstream view of the Torah.

There has to be a better way.

Friday, April 22, 2011

My Rebbe, זצ"ל on his Eighteenth Yahrzeit

About a year after R. Aaron Soloveichik זצ"ל passed away, I asked my friend, הקדוש David Applebaum הי"ד how he was coping with his rebbe's death. David, for those who had the privilege of knowing him, was the embodiment of a devoted disciple, a true תלמיד מובהק. Indeed, as R. Aaron wrote in the introduction to his book on the Rambam, פרח מטה אהרון, David was as much his son, as his biological children. It was, thus,only logical that I seek his insight in coping with my ongoing feeling of bereavement at the Rav's absence (though, I certainly would not have the temerity to claim as intimate a relationship with the Rav as David had with R. Aaron. On the other hand, every talmid has his own unique relationship with his rebbe. Anyone who knows me, or has read anything I have ever written, knows that the Rav was my spiritual father and that without his teachings, without sitting in his shiur for almost a decade, without the personal relationship that we did have I don't know how I might have made my way in the world of Torah and mitzvot.)

In response to my question, David gave me a quizzical look. "What do you mean that R. Aaron was נפטר? he asked.' I'm learning הלכות נידה with him now. David, of course, meant that he was listening to recordings of R. Aaron's שיעורים and, in that way he kept up the ongoing relationship of learning that bound them together. R. Aaron lived, as long as David learned from him.

Over the years, I've followed his advice, especially as more and more tapes of the Rav's shiurim come on-line and more manuscripts have been published. On those occasions, I agree with my beloved, much lamented friend, the Rav still lives as long as I continue my rebbe-talmid relationship with him. Thus, when learning the second and third chapters of Pesahim this year, I've kept my notes of his shiurim nearby.
I've also tried to spread his teachings and expound them in print and orally. Today, on the occasion of his eighteenth yahrzeit, I devoted myself to writing a long study of his attitude toward time awareness as a source of spirituality. Given the amount of revisionism about him and his teachings, I feel something of a sense of mission in trying (to the best of my ability), to understand and transmit his legacy without apology or defensiveness.

And yet, it's not enough. It's not enough because the Rav has been gone for eighteen years, and he retired from the public stage twenty-five years ago. The world has changed much since then, and stayed much the same (only more so). When I listen to his shiurim I am stunned by how prescient he frequently was, and how dated other things he said appear. That is, of course, to be expected. Great thinkers live in their own times and are ahead of their times. The challenge is to distinguish between the two. That requires living up to the challenge he frequently set up before us: 'What do you have to say?' For those of us who were privileged to sit at his feet have the obligation to go further and see farther, as dwarfs on the shoulders of giants.

So today, on the eighteenth yahrzeit of my beloved rebbe, רבן של ישאל, I have decided to commit myself to finally writing a book in Hebrew on the interaction between Torah and Hokhma, on (Post)Modernity and Judaism, on Spiritual Daring and Intellectual Humility. It will be what I think, and what I've learned about these issues, for the Israeli community that has never encountered or grappled with them.

I do this as a tribute to one who embodied all that (and more) for four generations of disciples and a world beyond, still waiting to be guided by the ideas he set forth; a person who wanted his students not to be mimics but autonomous creators and servants of the Creator.

A Plug for Jew in the City (by a Mayim Bialik Fan)

One of the most intriguing, creative and successful Jewish websites that I know is Jew in the City. It is the brainchild of a bright, eloquent woman named Allison Joseph who, with style and humor, sensitivity and common sense breaks down stereotypes about Orthodox Judaism, and conveys the Torah's message on a plethora of issues in a manner that can be appreciated by a broad, sophisticated audience. Her undertaking is best represented by the videos she produces, to which I always look forward. Overall, Jew in the City is a real קידוש השם.
[I won't say that I agree with everything she says, and I've told her as much. However, it would be churlish to be picayune in the face of a really impressive and successful enterprise such as this. We, self apppointed, cognoscenti often miss the point, and the boat by raising our eyebrows and rolling our eyes. היכה ארץ בשבט פיו is reserved for the Messiah וד"ל.]

One of the most intriguing, creative and successful Jewish personalities today is, IMHO, Mayim Bialik. (Full disclosure: I am a Mayim Bialik fan who used to watch Blossom reruns and now watches [בזמן שלא מן היום ולא מן הלילה] The Big Bang Theory.) Mayim, over time, has been on a path toward a life of Shemirat Mitzvot, in an ambiance that is very often, extremely hostile (note the vicissitudes of Steven Hill. I've had my own, up close and personal experiences with Hollywood et al along similar lines.). She has, however, pulled it off with aplomb, sensitivity, enthusiasm and a disarming lack of self-consciousness. In a world wherein Orthodoxy is increasingly under severe criticism and disdain, Mayim Bialik represents another, first rate, קידוש השם.

You may wonder where I'm going with this. Well, before Pesach I received an invitation to attend a fundraiser on behalf of Jew in the City, which will feature Mayim Bialik (details here). It seems that Ms. Joseph is Dr. Bialik's ongoing חברותא. Anyway, though I rarely endorse causes (aside from Modern Orthodoxy generally) or businesses (aside from Deluxe Kosher Tours), I'm making an unsolicited exception here.

I think it would be a great, and enjoyable mitzvah to support Jew in the City by either attending the parlor meeting with Mayim Bialik (or by supporting it with a donation, which allows an online link to the proceedings, so they say). The Rambam bemoans the inability of rabbis and preachers to convey the message of Torah in a manner that demands the attention, assent and (hopefully) consent of their listeners. Jew in the City does that, ודי לחכימא. [Click HERE for information.]

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

We Are Alone...But for Him..We Are Not Alone

When I opened my computer after Yom Tov last night, I discovered that my in-box was fillLinked with responses to a Huffington Post article that

Sunday, April 17, 2011

The Blessings of Pesach Preparation

I am watching a beautiful sight. The children, led by the two older daughters (C and E), are leading the last push to make over the kitchen from Hametz to Pesach. The caring, fun loving, and devoted way they're working brings tears of joy to my eyes.

I see that they've internalized the lesson that Shabbat requires Erev Shabbat, that Hag requires Erev Hag and that Pesach requires Erev Pesach (which for us begins after Purim when we stop eating Matzah).

They've learned that creating a sacred space, free of Hametz and all that it symbolizes, is the first step to personal and national redemption. In between Youtube videos and episodes from their favorite TV shows (played in the kitchen on the laptop, surrounded by Kitniyot) they are lovingly creating a place for Yom Tov to settle.

By kashering and cleaning the way they are, they are imitating the way that my parents and their mother's parents prepared for Pesach. In that way, they are joining generations of Jewish men and women who've prepared for Pesach all the way back to 1200 BCE.

Finally, judging from the conversation, they all feel the ongoing specialness of doing all of this in Eretz Yehudah in Eretz Yisrael, which was the end point of the Exodus in the first place.

People who only make reservations for Pesach will know neither the effort or the reward, the timeliness and the timelessness of the effort.

מי שטרח בערב שבת יאכל בשבת.
ברוך שהחיינו וקיימנו והגיענו לזמן הזה.

חג כשר ושמח.

Friday, April 01, 2011

Join Me in the Balkans!!! June 26-July 14

SAVE THE DATES!!! I will be leading an incredible tour of Bulgaria and Romania this Summer (June 26-July 14). We will explore the beauty of these breath-taking countries and experience their rich Jewish Heritage, dating back to Roman Times. Click here for details.

On Halakhic Integrity: A Reaction to Gordon and Levy

I recently had the occasion to read an article in Azure by Evelyn Gordon and Hadassah Levy, entitled 'Halacha's Moment of Truth.' After finishing it, I was at a loss as to how to react.

To start with, I have long admired Evelyn Gordon's incisive critiques of Israel's judiciary, especially her devastating analyses of Aaron Barak's 'Judicial Revolution.' In addition, I am a priori very sympathetic to the necessity of a straightforward and courageous engagement with the multifold, and frequently, unprecedented challenges that the Torah faces. I was, therefore, loathe criticizing it.

The authors seem to have hoped that an intellectually grounded, cri de coeur would advance their cause. They may be right. However, what they have written is far from being a responsible, learned excursus on Halakhic history and its potential in a contemporary context. It is riddled with factual errors and misinterpretations. Based upon the footnotes, which overwhelmingly refer to secondary literature (some of which is famously agenda driven), the reader is led to conclude that the authors lack a basic mastery of rabbinic and post-Talmudic literature and methodology, without which no cogent case can be made on this topic.

More egregious, however, is the apparently total lack of understanding as to how the Halakhic system works. The authors nurture a vision of 'Halacha ex machina' in which rabbis do as they please and make wholesale changes in the Torah, as they see fit. Such an approach denies Jewish Law any type of internal consistency, or integrity. It is, according to the authors, 'as clay in the hands of the potter.' Such an interpretation, it is true, lies at the heart of the Conservative movement (and its Reconstructionist progeny). However, it is wrong historically and a fatal mistake communally.

As Professor Haym Soloveitchik, the acknowledged doyen of the History of Halakhah, as asserted: 'If law is conceived of, as religious law must be, as a revelation of the divine will, then any attempt to align that will with human wants, any attempt to have reality control rather than to be itself controlled by the divine norm, is an act of blasphemy and is inconceivable to a God-fearing man' (H. Soloveitchik, 'Religious Law and Change: The Tosafist Example,' AJS Review, 12(1987), 205).

That, of course, does not mean that the Law doesn't change, of course it does. The question is what is the texture of the process that engenders or countenances that change. Here, I fully endorse the characterization of Professor David Berger: 'A similar assessment seems appropriate with respect to the closely related issue of change in Jewish law. While the most traditionalist circles maintain that change is, and has always been, out of the question, non-Orthodox figures, and even some in the most liberal sectors of Orthodoxy, assert that rabbis have always succeeded in finding ways to permit what they feel must be permitted. Blu Greenberg's bon, or mal, mot, 'Where there is a rabbinic will, there is a halakhic way,' was provided with a telling Hebrew translation by my distinguished brother in-law David Shatz: 'Im tirΩu, ein zo halakhah'. This question has been
subjected to scholarly scrutiny by Jacob Katz, Haym Soloveitchik, Yisrael Ta-Shma, and Daniel Sperber among others, and my sense, guided no doubt by my own predilections, is that social, humanitarian, and ideological factors - what I call competing religious values - have surely affected the willingness to rethink the plain meaning of texts, but in the final analysis the texts still matter' (D. Berger, 'Identity, Ideology and Faith: Some Personal Reflections on the Social, Cultural and
Spiritual Value of the Academic Study of Judaism,' 25). [Strikingly, Gordon and Levy do not cite any of the above noted scholars- the universally acknowledged leaders in the field of halakhic history.]

This is how rabbinic figures behaved, then as now. If the authors wished to sway them, and the population that is most loyal to Halakha, then their point of view is (at best) a non-starter. Indeed, it is worse than that. For by embracing an understanding of Torah that is an anathema to the halakhic loyalist, they cast serious suspicion on the salutary (and necessary) enterprise of breaking the present halakhic paralysis.

Since I am sure that the authors were well-intentioned, I will not close with the traditional adage posited of the well-intention. Rather, I assume that once can say of them that which the Khazar King heard in his dream: 'Your intention is acceptable, but your actions are unacceptable' (Kuzari 1, 1).

ANNOUNCING: A 1-Year MA in Talmud

The Talmud Department at Bar Ilan University, the best of it's type in the world, is please to announce the launching of a One Year MA Program, opening in October 2011. This is an unparalleled opportunity to study wit leading lights in the fields of Talmud, Dead Sea Scrolls, History of Halakha, Mishpat Ivri, Midrash, and Rabbinic Theology. I am proud to be part of the initiative and will offer a course entitled: Halakhah, Kabbalah and Philosophy (with some added suprises).

If you're Israeli, or planning on being in Israel on a sabbatical, this is a wonderful opportunity.
For information write: depttl@mail.biu.ac.il .