Friday, October 14, 2011

Gilad Shalit: Between Scylla and Charybdis

There was no easy way to obtain Gilad Shalit's release, especially since the feckless Olmert-Livni government did nothing to rescue him during the critical first few days after his kidnapping. (Ironically, had he not been kidnapped, he'd have been court martialed for sleeping on guard, which is why he was taken.) As a very perceptive friend of mine noted, Israel should have given Hamas a daily ultimatum: Release Gilad Shalit or we will pulverize 'x' suburb in Gaza. Civilians would be aware of the need to leave, and then we would level it. If he hadn't been released, we should have continued: OK, release Shalit or in twenty minutes the port of Gaza will be destroyed, and so on. No other sovereign country would or could do less.

Olmert, however, did not stand tough. The Israeli government, once again, cared more for its PR image than for the safety of its citizens. Shalit was buried deep with in Gaza. Once that happened, it was only a matter of time that we would have to release unrepentant murderers in return for Shalit.

Personally, I'm torn. As the father of a soldier, I understand and identify with the Shalits. However, I also know that these animals that we are turning loose will murder again. Gilad Shalit will be home, but dozens, God forbid, of others will be thrown into a tail spin of grief from which they will never recover, because we paid this price. We have, once again, displayed weakness in the face of an enemy, who only respects force and fortitude, and who has absolutely no respect for human life.

It's a lose-lose proposition. I hope that the media circus that is about to descend upon us, led by Leftists who will always celebrate anything that makes Israel weaker, will give serious coverage to the renewed grief of parents and children, spouses and siblings who must now see the murderers of their loved ones free and feted by the Palestinians.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Damsels in Distress

The long expected volume, Sefer Tuv Elem, in honor of my teacher, colleague and friend Professor Reuven Roberto Bonfil, has just been published. My article, 'Damsels in Distress,' examines the status of Jewish women in Renaissance Italy as reflected in the responsa of R. Joseph Colon Trabotto (Maharik).

The article may be accessed here .
The TOC and appreciation by David Ruderman article can be downloaded from here.

Saturday, October 08, 2011

Who Shall Live and Who Shall Die: Post Yom Kippur Reflections

Yom Kippur 5772 was, for me, a truly profound, uplifting experience. Flanked by my sons, knowing that my daughters were sitting with their mother and grandmother, I was privileged to enwrap myself in its proffered sanctity and internalize the awesome power of the day, what the Rabbis called 'עיצומו של יום.' As the day reached its end and its crescendo at Neilah, I could not help but wish that the moment might never end. My emotions were, admittedly, mixed when the Shofar signaled the Shekhina's departure. And yet, the heightened spiritual awareness with which Yom Kippur vouchsafed us is so intoxicating, so overpowering that I dare to believe that it can accompany me (and everyone else who let it in) through the coming year. מיום כיפורים זה עד יום כיפורים הבא עלינו לטובה.

Here in Eretz Yisrael, Barukh HaShem, the number of Jews for whom the intimate encounter with God on Yom Kippur is important, rises every year. More and more formal and informal observances of the day are sprouting up over the length and breadth of the country. Communities and settlements that were doctrinally allergic to Judaism, know build synagogues, study Torah and reconnect with being Jewish. The papers claim that only 58% of Israeli Jews fast, but those numbers are (in my opinion) inaccurate. The real numbers are more like 70%. Either way, however, the rejudaization of the Holy Land is in full swing. It is, as many have noted, nothing less than a renaissance and Yom Kippur is a touchstone of that rebirth. The Jew's yearning for God, through Torah study and pure spirituality, is alive and well in Israel.

The state of the Exile is, sadly, much less promising.

After the fast, when I logged on to Facebook, I was really shocked and deeply saddened to see just how many of the American Jews with whom I am connected, were totally unaware (or didn't care) that today was Yom Kippur. When I was growing up, we spoke of Three Day a Year Jews. Then there were One Day a Year Jews. Now, it appears, there are many many No Day a Year Jews. I suppose it was inevitable. Through ignorance and intermarriage, acceptance in America and weakened identity, most American Jews will be gone within a generation. Or, they will have created for themselves a patina of attenuated Jewish affiliation that will not long last. The historian in me sees a parallel with the Graeco-Roman diaspora, which largely assimilated away during the First Century CE, when being Jewish ceased to be comfortable because the Jews of Eretz Yisrael kept rebelling against Rome, and Jews felt more comfortable in the academies of Greece than the synagogues of Jerusalem or Alexandria.

There are, of course, counter indications. Efforts at bringing alienated Jews back to Judaism are happily successful, and Orthodox Judaism rightfully prides itself in its achievements. The overall direction, though, is clear. The contrast with developments in Israel, only highlights that fact.

That does not mean that we should, God forbid, give up on any Jew in the Diaspora. However, it reinforces my conviction that any possibility of continued Jewish existence abroad is absolutely dependent upon the strengthening of Judaism in Israel. (Did I hear anyone say: כי מציון תצא תורה?)
One crucial way to do that is to create a credible Modern Orthodoxy in Eretz Yisrael, which will speak to intelligent secular Jews, and sensitively respond to men and women who can no longer relate to the religious koine of either the Religious Zionist or Haredi worlds.

Ultimately, as with our individual fates, so too the destiny of Jewish communities is in God's hands. However, we have a role in this as well.

The Book of Exodus (18, 13) recounts that: 'And it came to pass on the morrow, that Moses sat to judge the people; and the people stood about Moses from the morning unto the evening.' The plain meaning of the verse is that Moses judged the people on the day after his father-in-law Jethro arrived at the Israelite encampment (as described in the previous verses). Rashi, however, asserts that the events described occurred 'on the morrow of Yom Kippur' (מחרת יום הכיפורים).

The Rav זצ"ל observed that, despite the textual difficulty, Rashi's comment contains a profound observation about the manner in which the Jew must go about his business. He must always feel, Rav Soloveitchik said, as if it were the day after Yom Kippur. The heightened spiritual awareness, the glow that remains from immersion in holiness that derives from one's encounter with God, must accompany oneself through the year.

In other words, in order to be Yom Kippur, Yom Kippur must transcend itself and infuse the other 354 days of the year. That lesson is both personal and national. On the personal level, as quotidian superficialities threaten to deaden our God-awareness, we need to hold on to the 'high' of Yom Kippur to prevent being dragged under, once again. One does that through ongoing actions like prayer and study, tzedakah and hesed; a carefully balancing of commandments between oneself and God and between oneself and one's fellow man or woman.

On a national level, that demands that all of us in Israel who were elevated by God's visit during these past ten days must work, through teaching and conduct, to intensify the trend back to Torah and to thereby save not only the Jews of Zion, but those abroad, as well.

Thursday, October 06, 2011

Erev Yom Kippur 5772: Holiness Expands

An enigmatic Talmudic passage (Yoma 81b) reads as follows:

Hiyya, the son of Rab, of Difti learned: ‘And you shall afflict your souls in the ninth [day of the month]’. But is one fasting on the ninth? Do we not fast on the tenth? Rather, it comes to indicate that, if one eats and drinks on the ninth, Scripture accounts it to him as if he had fasted on the ninth and the tenth.'

The Netziv (in his commentary to the שאילתות) interprets Hiyya's remarks to mean that Erev Yom Kippur merges with Yom Kippur itself to form one unit. On Erev Yom Kippur, we celebrate the sublime opportunity, nay the incalculable privilege, that God has given us to spend a full day in His Presence, basking in the unmitigated light of the the Shekhina. He offers us this time of intimacy with Him to ask forgiveness for our sins, to reconcile with one another and with Him. We know, deep in our hearts, that God's endless love for us will lead to סליחה, מחילה וכפרה if we only return to Him and set ourselves on the path of Teshuvah. So, the Torah instructs us to celebrate our quality time with God, our anticipated immersion in sanctity and our hoped for forgiveness, in advance of Yom Kippur itself!!

This means that both the ninth and the tenth of Tishrei possess a unique tangible charisma, קדושת היום.

You don't really need Hiyya bar Rav to teach you this truth. All day, as I saw everyone go about their business in the Hills of Judea and in Jerusalem, you could feel the sense of anticipation. 'Yom ha-Qadosh' (as my late father in law referred to Yom Kippur, מיט א ציטער) is upon us. Already tonight, the atmosphere is infused with an aetherial, other worldly feeling. It is the Ninth of Tishrei, and the sanctity of Yom Kippur is steadily descending and intensifying. It will grow, as the country winds down, and stops starting tomorrow night.

Listen carefully. The harbingers of the שכינה are already here. They are in the profound silence outside my window. They are gathering at the Kotel, where thousands of בני עדות המזרח are gathered for their most exalted selihot. The King is coming. The Shekhina is descending. A mixture of anticipation and awe, fear and excitement fill Eretz Yisrael, which is blessed not only with Yom Kippur but with Erev Yom Kippur.

אשרי העם שככה לו. אשרי העם שד' א-לקיו

גמר חתימה טובה לכל בית ישראל