Sunday, December 16, 2012

The Bar Ilan Kippa Controversy: Heat but No Light on Hanukkah

A colleague of mine, one of the most mild-mannered and likeable people I know, finds himself this morning in the midst of a raging controversy because he ejected a student from his Talmud class, because the latter stridently refused to cover his head. The reactions have been, more or less, as one might expect. The always loaded question of religion in the public square of the Jewish State explodes with vehemence, vitriol and viciousness. Secularist politicians are trying to cynically capitalize on, and exacerbate those tensions. In order to cover itself, the university (everybody's favorite religious punching bag), is waving its by-laws which everybody signs but nobody reads, to wit: students agree to wear kippot during their text courses in basic Jewish Studies. The bottom line is that today, on the fourth day of the Festival of Lights there's a huge amount of heat and very little light.
As a twenty year veteran of Bar Ilan's faculty, and one who is admittedly lax in enforcing the kippa rule, I'd like to try to inject some food for thought into the discussion.
1) There is something terribly disingenuous (and, perhaps, hypocritical) about the attacks on my colleague. The same people who scream 'Religious Coercion' would not hesitate to remove their hats if so requested, when entering a lecture hall at Gregorian University in Rome. If required by Oxford to wear an academic gown to speak from the podium, I suspect that they would jump at the opportunity to do something so exotic. If a woman were requested to dress conservatively in a foreign university setting (as they often are), no objection would be voiced. After all, one must respect the venue in which one finds oneself. However, when a professor requests a student to offer respect to Jewish sacred texts by donning a kippa (and its legal standing is quite irrelevant), all Hell breaks loose.
2) In the film of Ben Gurion's reading of the Declaration of Independence, there is a brief scene (which is usually omitted) in which the venerable Mizrachi leader, R. Judah Leib Fishman-Maimon, recites the blessing 'Sheheheyanu.' Surprisingly, many of our aggressively secular, founding fathers are seen covering their heads (with hats, hands etc) out of respect for the moment. The point is that while not personally observant, they retained the sensitivity to respond to a situation that still resonated with millennia of Jewish Tradition. The militant response of this student (and those who support him), not to mention the manipulative response of politicians, suggests that for some Israeli Jews (at least as far as Torah Study is concerned) this sensitivity is gone.
This circumstance is, in my opinion, nothing short of tragic. Reverence for tradition is an essential element for national identity and Jewish continuity (something with which our enemies seem to have no problem). The only way to secure this is through knowledge; clearly, respectfully and respectably imparted. And there is an ever expanding audience for that knowledge. My experience has taught me that such students are in the minority. As I have said many times (in print, on the radio, in public fora, and two days ago on this very site), and as has been borne out by the most recent studies, Israeli Jews are in the midst of a renaissance of Jewish identity and searching that is nothing short of wondrous. I have consistently found that my students in Basic Jewish Studies are overwhelmingly eager to obtain the type of sophisticated Jewish Cultural  and Religious Literacy that they were denied in Elementary and High School.*
3) What does this have to do with wearing a kippa? Both precious little and everything. Obviously, one can teach Judaism without a kippa. The question is one of ambiance and attitude. Even for those who do not define themselves as Orthodox or Traditional, covering one's head when studying Torah is the authentic Jewish way of showing reverence for the 'fountain from which your ancestors drew such incredible fortitude' (to quote Bialik's אם יש את נפשך לדעת). Wearing a kippa is a statement on the part of the student that this material is not the same as Dante's Divina Commedia (which, by the way, I constantly hound my students to read). It has more valence, more resonance, more warmth. Classroom ambiance is an integral part of the educational process. When the student leaves the classroom he may remove the head covering, just as he may do with that which he has learned as he wishes. The existential moment in the classroom, though, becomes part of his cultural literacy. He will understand what others intuit (and will have learned a lesson in co-existence with those of his fellow students who did cover their heads).
Let me make this clear, though. The university classroom is not a yeshiva or a seminary. The scientific method reigns. The student is encouraged to probe and question, challenge and debate (courteously). The teacher is duty bound not to preach, but to teach; not to dismiss but to respectfully engage the student's queries and challenges. Debate should lead where debate will lead.
4)  Academic integrity is not in the least impugned if a lecturer actively seeks to infect students with his/her enthusiasm and awe, love and pure enjoyment of the subject matter. Not unrelated to the present brouhaha, there is something unhealthy about a world of public discourse where a Professor of French can wax rhapsodic about La Belle France, but Jewish Studies Professors have to be as sterile and detached as clinical pathologists.
Of course, I fully understand that the question of Religion and State is one of the hot button issues of our day. Indeed, it may be more important for Israel's future than our on going war with the Muslim World. Yet, it is precisely for that reason that requiring a minor in Jewish Studies (the use of the word 'Basic' is unfortunate), and requesting acknowledgement of the fact that for Jews these studies have a reverential aura about them, is so critical. How else will we create a common cultural language, based on mutual understanding; mutual understanding not only of source material  but of its underlying emotional charge?
In the present cultural climate, the tools to achieve this common cultural-historical (and, for many, religious) language are primarily found in the academy. As an institution that is officially under religious auspices, that should be an essential part of Bar Ilan's raison d'etre. Objections that this is illegal for a public institution are silly, or disingenuous. Core Curricula characterize the best universities in the world. Implementing an educational-cultural vision is the privilege of every academic institution. Requiring a minor in Academic Jewish Studies and inculcating an appreciation for one's heritage is a legitimate educational goal. So long as one does not actively catechize, there is no problem. There should be no need for Bar Ilan to hide behind regulations. A principle is at stake and adopting a principled stance is indicated.
In fine, the (to use the colloquial term) aleihom on my colleague is not only out of place, it represents a fundamental lack of understanding of the issues at hand. Rather than abuse his teacher, the student would have been better served by meeting with him respectfully, and opening himself up to a different point of view. That, after all, is what higher education is about.
*For the record, graduates of the Religious School system have many lacunae in their education that we fill, as well. That, however, is the subject for another column.
[This column was first published on the Times of Israel site on December 11, 2012.]

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

The Law is in Accordance with Beit Hillel

They were two, very different, men. Each was an outstanding scholar of impeccable integrity and deep piety. One man's name was Shammai. The other scholar's name was Hillel. Both Shammai and Hillel founded schools, known as Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel, that left a profound impression upon Jewish Law and Jewish History.

One point upon which they differed was the order of lighting the Chanukah candles. Beit Shammai was of the opinion that one starts with eight candles, and each night one lights one less candles. Beit Hillel averred that one starts with one candles and adds a new candle each of the ensuing nights of the festival. The Talmud (Shabbat 21b) discusses different rationales for the two opinions. However, it seems to me that they are emblematic of the philosophies of Shammai and Hillel, founders of the two schools.

Shammai was profoundly sensitive to his role as the bearer, and transmitter, of the traditions of the Oral Law as he had received them from his teachers, and they from their teachers, all the way back to God's Revelation at Sinai. He was, therefore, zealous for the integrity and accuracy of Jewish Law, and (most appropriately) was conservative in its interpretation and application. It is, therefore, most appropriate that his disciples viewed Jewish religious history as a type of 'Decline of the Generations,' starting with a blaze of fire and trumpets at Sinai; with the fire growing ever dimmer and more vulnerable as ever greater distances separate us from that formative event.

Hillel was no less conscious of the sanctity, and fragility, of the Tradition that he had received from his teachers, Shemaiah and Abtalion, or of the fact that teaching Torah meant expounding God's Will, something that one undertakes only with a significant measure of trepidation. Hillel, however, differed with Shammai on one, very significant, methodological point. Where Shammai felt duty-bound to pass on Tradition in a more careful fashion; Hillel employed traditionally received rules of Biblical interpretation to expand the boundaries of Halakhic discourse and possibility, beyond those that he had received from his teachers. As a God-fearing Jew, he realized that interpretation also had its limits and that man should not have the temerity to force his own views on God's. However, he apparently believed that one must use rules of interpretation that were part and parcel of the Oral Tradition, in order to elicit its hitherto unrevealed dimensions of meaning and their practical implications. It was, therefore, apt that his disciples should advocate expanding and increasing the lights until they blaze forth in glory on the eight day.

In a world of unparalleled religious challenge, where Traditional Jewish Life and Values are besieged and attacked from without and within, it is no surprise that Shammai's philosophy has taken hold of much of the Orthodox World. After all, we are still speaking of God's Torah and the obligation of those who adhere thereto, to protect and preserve it. In its present manifestation, however, adhering to the path of Shammai has meant not only preserving the lore of millennia, but of drastically narrowing the same tradition that they claim to preserve. The result is that vast areas of Jewish Law and Lore that could, by every Orthodox criterion, be employed to address unprecedented challenges are written off and ignored in the name of caution (Agunot and Conversion come first to mind, but there are many others). Tragically, those who pay the greatest price of this policy are observant or traditional Jews (who make up the vast majority of Israeli Jews), a price that ir all too often paid in the persons of their alienated children.
In the course of the past year, a courageous group of Rabbis,  Yeshiva Heads, To'anot Rabbaniot, and Yo'atzot Halakhah have banded together to form an organization that they have appropriately named 'Beit Hillel.' Their goal is, officially, to develop rabbinic leadership that is attentive to the needs of the entire Jewish community in Israel. On a deeper level, however, their goal is precisely that of its eponymous forbear. It aims, responsibly and with Fear of Heaven, to widen the parameters of Torah and Halakhah, and to restore its capacity to function in a complex society. Its members, among whom I am proud to count myself, hope that by exposing the dazzling capacity of the Torah to encounter and engage the world, it will not only retain its adherents but will establish bonds with those who have yet to engage it.

As was true both of Hillel and his disciples, there will be clear limits to where it can go. Yes, Beit Hillel's published opinions appear lenient. That, however, is a function of the fact that regnant rabbinic opinion has pushed things to such a degree of stricture that stating the Law as it is appears lenient. Nevertheless, restoring the Torah in its plenitude can only advance the cause of Judaism and deepen Israel's identity as a qualitatively Jewish State (while giving it the tools to respectfully engage the democratic side of the Israeli equation).

The Talmud put an effective end to the decades long controversies between Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel when it declared (in the name of a Heavenly Voice): Both speak the words of the Living God, but the Halakhah is in Accordance with Beit Hillel' (Eruvin 13b). In the absence of a Heavenly Voice, the contemporary Beit Hillel is asserting that, with all due respect to those Orthodox authorities whose religious sentiments and halakhic methods differ, the sensitivities and methods of Beit Hillel must today be advanced, for the greater glory of God and His Torah.

After all, הלכה כבית הלל.

[The above was first published at the Times of Israel on 12/10/12.]

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

The End of War: An Open Letter to Rabbi Eliyahu Fink

Dear Rabbi Fink,

I read your blog post entitled 'War Baffles Me,' the many comments that it generated, and your subsequent clarification. Your idealism is heart warming, and your horror at the depravities and suffering that war can cause should be shared by every decent human being on God's earth. I am absolutely sure it is shared by every Israeli, whatever his political or religious affiliation (or lack thereof).

There is a serious flaw in your argument, however. It lies in assuming that ultimately 'people have the capacity to love and care for anyone.' I assume what you mean is that if we all sat down to speak as equals and friends, that differences of opinion would be resolved and war avoided. Your sentiments are certainly representative of the way most people in the West think today. However, your sentiment (and theirs) is seriously flawed. You (and they) have fallen into the logical fallacy that my friend and colleague, Professor Richard Landes, calls 'cognitive egocentrism.' In other words, you project your own mentality, values and “way of seeing the world” onto others. The result is an attitude that is, albeit innocently, both disrespectful and paternalist.

In the present instance, it is also deadly.

As the great historian, Professor Bernard Lewis, noted in a prescient article that was published almost forty years ago ('The Return of Islam,' Commentary, January 1976), it has been over three hundred years since the Christian (or Jewish) west confronted an Islamic resurgence. In the interim, the West has undergone secularization, two World Wars and a massive process of intellectual, religious and moral relativization. Few if any western countries think of going to war except for reasons of national or personal interest. Such conflicts can be negotiated. Muslims, such as the Hamas and their supporters (who put them in power democratically), do not fight for 'interests.' They fight, they struggle ('jihad') because they believe that it is the will of God.
I do not have to tell you that The Will of God is Not Negotiable.

This is not the place to enter into a long discussion on Islam and its attitude to Jews and Israel. There are many, responsible books on the subject (and many irresponsible ones, as well). The bottom line is this. Muslim Law (and here I refer to the overwhelming Islamic legal consensus, both Shiite and Sunni) vehemently denies the right of Jews to possess a sovereign nation on land that, in its opinion, belongs to the 'House of Islam' (Dar al-Islam). It is the God given right and obligation of Muslims to destroy the infidel (kafir) Jewish usurpers who live in that state, unless they surrender and return to a subordinate position as 'protected people' (dhimmi). Until we do so, we are the disciples and allies of Satan (shaitun ), an equation which lies behind the nefarious anti-semitism of the Muslim press, educational systems and propaganda. This position is maintained both by Hamas and Fatah (a word which refers to a stage of jihad). This is the will of God. It is a principled, on its own terms fully logical and understandable, religious position. It is a position that is understandably shared by Muslims the world over, who dream of the establishment of the Kingdom of God on Earth, as God Almighty willed it (whether they intend to work to actualize it, or not). Anyone who falls in the struggle is rewarded by God. It is a sublime vision that is absolutely non-negotiable.

For us, however, it is a deadly vision.

It is a vision against which we are forced to wage war, until the end. In this case, victory will only come when we defeat the enemy so decisively that they decide to delay their dreams of a worldwide Caliphate until the coming of the Imam, at the End of Days (according to their belief).
The great novelist Herman Wouk prefaced his novel, 'War and Remembrance,' with the words: The Beginning of the End of War Lies in Remembrance. We need to remember exactly what type of war faces us. Not all wars are the same. Not all wars are for interests. Some are against an enemy that seeks nothing less than the destruction of Israel, both its people and its state. Only its defeat will bring an end to this war. Then we can, as you said, 'talk about it.'

Jeffrey R. Woolf

[This post first appeared in the Times of Israel on 11/19/12]

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Apres le Deluge: Contemporary Echoes of the Flood Story

My teacher, Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik זצ"ל used to observe that profound insights can be found by looking in the most out of the way places. Parshat Noach provides a case in point. Both the classical commentators and, certainly, contemporary teachers focus heavily on the character of Noach (in contrast to Abraham), the Flood Story itself, the Tower of Babel and the start of Abraham's career. There are, however, other passages that deserve greater attention, and provide great contemporary insight.
After Noah and his family leave the ark, and try to get on with their lives, the Torah tells us of a very disturbing, if enigmatic event (Gen. 9, 20-28):
And Noah the farmer began, and planted a vineyard. And he drank from the wine, and got drunk; and he became exposed in his tent. And Ham, the father of Canaan, saw his father's nakedness, and told his two brothers who were outside. And Shem and Yefet took a garment, and laid it upon their shoulders, and went in backwards, and covered their father's nakedness; and they were looking backward and did not see their father's nakedness. And Noah awoke from his wine, and realized what his youngest son had done to him. And he said: Cursed be Canaan; a servant of servants shall he be to his brethren. And he said: Blessed be the Lord, the God of Shem; and let Canaan be his servant. May God enlarge Yefet, and may he shall dwell in the tents of Shem; and let Canaan be his servant.
The story defies comprehension. Why do we need to know that Noah got drunk? What did Ham do that merited such an extreme reaction by his father (including a curse on his progeny, ie Noah's own grandson)? What was it about Shem and Yefet's action that deserved so effusive a blessing? Finally, why was Yefet subordinated to Shem?
I am convinced that the key to this story is to see it against a reaction to the Flood. Consider the circumstances. Noah and his family had survived, while their entire world had been destroyed. They were now, moreover, commanded by God to reconstruct an entire society, afresh. Based upon what we know of the psychology of the survivors of all types of cataclysms, Noah and his family must have been profoundly burdened by feelings of survivor's guilt, cultural disorientation and uncertainty as to precisely what the proper response to the Flood (its causes and its results) should be. Viewed that way, with a little help from Hazal, each of the various figures represents a different response to the Flood and its aftermath.
Noah, apparently, simply could not cope with surviving, with his loss or with his challenge. He went, as the Midrash states (Tanhuma [Buber], 58, 20), from walking with God to being 'a man of the soil,' earthy, vulgar and bereft of vision. He solace solace in the bottle, and was exposed. Noah's response to surviving was to seek to escape.
Ham's reaction to Noah's state was to see 'his father's nakedness.' What does that mean? It could mean that he simply saw the old man sprawled exposed in his tent. (Apparently, that was offense enough, considering how his brothers eventually covered their father.) He was obviously not horrified by the sight, otherwise he would have covered him up. Instead, he ran to tell his brothers, rather like a bratty child with a hot piece of naughty information to convey. According to this line of interpretation, Ham lost respect for his father, therein lay his sin. Hazal, on the other hand, assumed that 'seeing his nakedness' was a euphemism for something more sinister. They offered two opinions on that count (Rashi, verse 22): that he either castrated him or raped him. Both possibilities are extensions of a fundamental breakdown of morality and authority that Ham felt upon seeing his father's abdication, and perhaps in a post-Deluge world. Castration would be an expression of anger at Noah's bringing children into a corrupt world that could so easily be destroyed. Raping his father would indicate not only violence and anger, but a breakdown of all moral taboos and boundaries. In a sense, it would connect Ham with the sin of the generation that had just been destroyed; a generation that was marked by moral break down. In a postdiluvian world, all rules were off and anything goes.
Shem and Yefet responded very differently to their father's predicament. Despite Noah's self-abasement, he remained their father and deserved not only his dignity but the deference of his sons. So they covered him up, without violating his dignity or having their own reverence for him affected by viewing him in his exposed state. The brothers were, apparently, up to the challenge of putting the past behind them and building a new society on the basis of clear moral and axiological lines of conduct. That is why they were so effusively blessed by Noah. Ham, on the other hand, had acted in a bestial fashion, so that the only future he (or his progeny) could have was by others being a beast of burden, a slave. (The role of Canaan, albeit, is unclear).
One question remains. Why was Yefet told that he would 'dwell in the tents of Shem.' Perhaps, because he was younger. However, both medieval and modern interpreters saw things a bit differently. Yefet, according to the Bible, was the ancestor of Greece while Shem was a progenitor of the Jewish People. In rabbinic tradition, Yefet represented the glories of Greek art and science, architecture and philosophy. Shem, on the other hand, was recalled as the archetype of the servant of God. In that light, Noah's blessing was that all the creativity of Yefet was endorsed and valued, so long as it was enveloped in Shem's a priori commitment to God. Such an insight squares very well with the nature of Graeco-Roman civilization, which was ultimately based on self-worship. As the distinguished classicist, Edith Hamilton once wrote (in her book Mythology, page 16), the 'Greeks made their gods in their own image.'
We, in the West, also live in a post-Flood world. The twentieth century was deluged with wars and destruction greater in magnitude than anything mankind had ever known. The incomparable nadir, of course, was the Shoah. In the wake of this era of cataclysms, man was forced to confront his survival and to rebuild the world. His responses to this circumstance have been precisely those that marked Noah and his family.
Some, like Noah, sought and seek to escape through chemicals, mystical withdrawal, retreat into Indian religions or pure self-indulgence. Others, like Ham, became and become moral relativists. They reject any and all authority and tradition. Some despair of any future for mankind. Others become totally self-indulgent, maintaining that there can be no binding values or norms in the era 'after.' Others, as prefigured by Hazal's view of Yefet, believe in Man and his capacity, by himself and on the basis of his own reason and creativity. This, as we've seen, can easily lead to arrogant self-worship and narcissism. Still others, Shem like, abdicate their personalities, their reason and creativity, in favor of a superficial form of  fundamentalist religiosity which saves them from thinking or confronting the world in which they live.
By bidding Yefet to dwell in the tents of Shem, the Torah demands that man live a life of creative tension and engagement. He must maximize his talents, engage the world critically, build, create, and not withdraw. At the same time, he is bidden to recognize his limitations. He is not all-knowing, and his explorations of science and art, philosophy and history, will always lead him to more questions and fewer answers. At the end of the day, Yefet will thrive if he is enveloped in the humbling awareness that he was created in the image of One who is greater than he, who expects greatness of him, and not the other way around.
[This post first appeared on the Times of Israel Website, on October 19, 2012]

Friday, August 31, 2012

מי שטרח בערב שבת: הגיגים לאלול

'מי שטרח בערב שבת, יאכל בשבת.
מי שלא טרח בערב שבת, מהיכן יאכל שבת?'
(עבודה זרה דף ג ע"א).
             בתקופה שלפני חגי תשרי, כולם עסוקים בהכנות מהכנות שונות. משנים את הרגלי הקימה (לסליחות). קונים בגדים חדשים ומאכלי החג. מזמינים ארבעה מינים בהקפדה מיוחדת על בליטות ותיומות ובונים סוכות למהדרין. אולם, עם כל ההכנות החיוניות האלו עדין טמונה בהן סכנת הכניסה לחגים במצב של חוסר מוכנות. אפילו על יהודי או יהודייה כזה, שומר תורה ומצוות, מרחפת תמיהת חז"ל: 'מי שלא טרח בערב שבת, מהיכן יאכל שבת?'
בשיעוריו ובדברי ההתעוררות שלו, הדגיש מו"ר מרן הגרי"ד הלוי סולובייצ'יק זצ"ל שהתורה הקפידה להקדים תקופת הכנה לפני כל חג ומועד. 'שואלים ודורשין בהלכות הפסח ל' יום' (פסחים דף ו ע"א).
ימי ספירת העומר הם הכנה לחג השבועות ולמתן תורה. 'בין המצרים' שבין י"ז בתמוז לט' באב מרגילים את האדם לאבל על חרבן הבית ע"י תהליך אבלות הפוך (מהנהגות י"ב חודש למנהגי שלושים לאבלות שבעה ר"ל). חודש אלול נועד להכין את האדם מישראל להמלכת הקב"ה בעולמו בראש השנה, למעמד הנורא והנשגב של יום הכיפורים ולשמחה של מצווה 'לפני ד' בחג הסוכות. הכנות אלו, הוא קבע בנחרצות, הן חובה מוחלטת.[1]  
            כשהרב דיבר על הכנות, הוא לא התכוון רק לבישולים ולקניות. הוא התכוון ל'עבודה שבלב' של האדם מישראל. לכל חג ומועד, וק"ו לחגי תשרי, יש תכנים מיוחדים וחוויות מיוחדות. ההלכה דורשת לא רק את קיום מצוות החג. התורה דורשת שהיהודי יצוק למצוות רגש והבנה, עבודת הלב ועבודת המוח. יותר מדי אנשים תועים אחרי החיצוני שביהדות, אחרי הפורמלי והמכומת שבה, ומפספסים את העיקר: עבודת ה' והרגשת קרבה אליו.
            הדרך הטובה ביותר לקיים את מצוות ההכנה, כך לימדנו הרב זצ"ל, היא ללמוד תוך גיוס הלב לתובנות השכל. לכן, בחודש שלפני הימים הנוראים הוא הקפיד ללמד, גם בבוסטון וגם בישיבה, את פיוטי המחזור, על הסדר. יצירות אלו אינן פשוטות בכלל. אולם, טמונים עולמות נשגבים של שאר רוח שיעשירו
את אמירתם בשעת מעשה. ובעבור מי שקשה לו לימוד הפיוטים, הרי אפשר להתרכז בגופי התפילות במחזור, הכתובים בעברית צחה. בצורה דומה, יש ללמוד את ספרי המוסר המסורתיים, או אפילו את דיני החגים- בתנאי שיעמוד לא רק על הדין היבש אלא על בתוכן החי והפועם שיש בתוך אותו דין ובלב כל סעיף ברמב"ם ובשלחן ערוך.
אולם, מי שלא יקדיש את הזמן לכך ולא יכין את לבבו ומוחו לחגי תשרי; מי שינסה בשעת מעשה לחטוף משהו מאיזה עלון פ"ש וסבור שכך יוכל להתפלל בכוונה ולעמוד לפני קונו כמו שצריך, עליו יהיה אפשר לתהות: 'מי שלא טרח בערב שבת, מהיכן יאכל שבת?'
יה"ר שנזכה לכתיבה וחתימה טובה, לשנה טובה ומבורכת.
לעי"נ ידי"נ הרב דוד יעקב הלוי אפלבאום הי"ד ביום השנה ה-9 להירצחו

[1]  יש להעיר שה"ה לגבי ערב שבת וערב יו"ט, וק"ו ערב יו"כ. הרב האמין שאלה מהווים מרכיב מובנה עקרוני של החגים עצמם. מן המיותר לומר, שבפועל, ערבי חג קיימים רק בארץ ישראל.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Consistoria Disassembla Est: תפורק הרבנות

לא קל לי לכתוב את הדברים האלה. בכלל לא קל. שנים הייתי משוכנע שלמרות מגרעותיה עדיף שלמדינת ישראל תהיה רבנות ממוסדת. הייתי משוכנע שבנושאים המעצבים את אופיה היהודי של החברה היהודית בארץ עדיף שיהיה סטנדרד בסיסי ומשותף. במיוחד בנושאים רגישים כמו גיור  ואישות, עניינים שמרקם החברה כולה תלוי בהם, חשוב שיהיה מוסד אחראי שיבטיח שיתנהלו כהלכה (תרתי משמע). אני עדיין מאמין שאין מקום לא לגיור שלא כהלכה ולא לגיטין שלא כהלכה בארץ ישראל (או בכל מקום אחר, אבל זה כבר דיון נפרד). אולם, אחרי שעות רבות של מחשבה, אחרי שחוסר הממלכתיות השתלט על כמעט כל חלקה של הממסד הרבני בארץ, אחרי זוועות ביטול הגיורים שהרב דרוקמן שליט"א וביטולי גיטין בעשרות ובמאות (מהלכים שאין להם אח ורע בתולדות תורתנו הקדושה מאז ניתנה), אחרי שכל הממסד הפך ללא יותר מפרה חולבת וכדור פוליטי ואין סיכוי לערוך לה רפורמה..

ומה יבוא במקום הרבנות? מה יבטיח את בסטנדרט ההלכתי הבסיסי והחיוני שישמור על לכידות החברה ? ברוב התחומים, אני סבור שהפרטה מבוקרת תקדם את חזון התורה. תחרות, כפי שטוען פרופ' פטר ברגר, תאלץ את נציגי התורה להתייחס בכבוד ובכובד ראש לבריות וגם יביא לידי פעילות איכותית. זה יכול יפה לעבוד בכשרות כפי שזה עובד בעריכת חופות נוסח צוה"ר. זה כבר עובד מצויין בדיני תורה בבתי הדין השונים לממונות הקיימים בארץ (דוגמת בית הדין של ארץ חמדה). אותו דבר נכון לגבי גיטין וגם לגיור. יש כבר את מערך הגיור במשרד רוה"מ והגיור הצה"לי. אינני טוען שצריך לפתוח את השוק לגמרי בנושאים רגישים כאלה הדורשים מומחיות ורגישות. אולם שבירת המונופול והקמת עוד גורמים המתעסקים בנושאים אלה ישפר את המצב בלי 
ספק. יותר גרוע מהמצב הנוכחי אולי יכול להיות, אבל מי רוצה להגיע לזה?

לשם שמם הטוב של גדולי התורה ששירתו ברבנות בעבר, ובראשם הראי"ה קוק זצ"ל,; למען קידום התורה והבאת יהודי ארץ ישראל לאהבת ה' ואהבת התורה, צריך להחליף דיסקט ולוותר על חזון הרבנות הראשית. הרב סולובייצי'ק זצ"ל צדק. רבנות במתכונת זו לא מסוגלת להיות חופשית ולא לקדש שם שמים.. 

Sunday, July 08, 2012

On Haredim, the Army and the Torah

    I have avoided writing about the Plesner Report, and the general call for Haredim to serve in the Army and enter the work force. I thought there was little more for me to add. I think I was wrong.
         Herewith, then, are my thoughts.

           לולא תורתך שעשועי, אז אבדתי בעוניי. I believe profoundly in the importance, centrality and supremacy of Torah Study for all Jews. Here, too, I have spent my life trying to learn and disseminate Torah in every way I could, especially through those media that were somewhat more unusual, and for which I am apparently uniquely suited. Here, too, I have tried to instill my children with an uncompromising commitment to תלמוד תורה and to serving as sources for תלמוד תורה in the many and varied venues in which they live and operate. The Jewish People's existence is predicated upon Torah knowledge and Torah observance. Our license to occupy Eretz Yisrael is conditioned upon these two, as well.
       I believe that everyone should serve their country (whether in the Army or in National Service). That is how I have lived my life and that is how I have raised my family. I was too old to be drafted, so I spent ten years as a uniformed volunteer in the Israel Police (מתמי"ד). My wife volunteered at the local פינה חמה for soldiers. All of my children have either served in the Army or in שירות לאומי. Giving to the nation is an essential part of Judaism. Not serving is selfish and actively hurtful. 
       I believe that the Torah demands that people work for a living to support their families. Indeed, I believe that the Torah aligns with the position of R. Tam, as cited in מחזור ויטרי (no. 425 and a few other places). On the משנה in Avot that טוב תלמוד תורה עם דרך ארץ, R. Tam says:
עם דרך ארץ. שעוסק בתורה פרק. ופרק בדרך ארץ. בפרגמטיא. ושאר שכר. ויש תימה דאלמא דרך ארץ עיקר. דהכי נמי דייקי' בכתובות פרק האשה כי האי גוונא דיקא נמי דקתני יחלקו יורשי הבעל עם יורשי האב. הכא נמי מדתלי תלמוד תורה עם דרך ארץ. אלמא דרך ארץ עיקר. מיהו יש לדחות ששניהן שוין. מדקתני אבתר הכי שיגיעת 
שניהן כו'. וכדתנן לקמן אם אין תורה אין דרך ארץ. כו'   
The passage assumes that, prima facie, earning a living is of greater import than Talmud Torah. The actual conclusion is that they are of equal worth. 
      I believe, that qualitative Talmud Torah emerges more from those who appreciate the limitations of Time. The person who knows that he has only a certain amount of Time for study will make that Time count. He will have the ability to discipline himself to concentrate and analyze, to enrich himself spiritually and make that Time infuse itself throughout his day. Concentrated study, intense involvement, also prompts greater insight and חידוש. It's not a coincidence that great Haredi Rashe Yeshiva have admitted that RIETS graduates have a better track record for ongoing learning, i.e. outside of the Bet Midrash, than their graduates. 

      In addition, I believe that the present Haredi regime wherein everyone must learn and noone can work is at odds, not only with R. Tam, but with Hazal. I refer to the Mishnah (Sanhedrin 4, 5):
 לפיכך נברא אדם יחידי ...להגיד גדולתו של הקדוש ברוך הוא שאדם טובע כמה מטבעות בחותם אחד וכולן דומין זה לזה ומלך מלכי המלכים הקדוש ברוך הוא טבע כל אדם בחותמו של אדם הראשון ואין אחד מהן דומה לחבירו
       Not everyone is meant to be a גדול בתורה, though each Jew has his unique mission. To force those not qualified, by social and religious pressure, into such a procrustean bed (to be supported by others) is absolutely unacceptable. Moreover, it is a fact that the price that is exacted from the Yeshiva community itself is horrific. The poverty, malnutrition, physical and mental abuse, divorce, and abandonment of religion that are daily occurrences are, to a significant degree, a result of this policy. [Let me just add that, at its height, there were never more than 300 students in Volozhin. The graduates of Volozhin revolutionized and electrified Talmud Study and Halakhic decision-making. They provided the leadership of the יישוב in Eretz Yisrael. The same can't be said, בעוו"ה, of the products of the present system.]  
      Nevertheless, despite sharp ideological and halakhic differences with the Haredi World, I acknowledge that we have much in common. We both grew out of the same religious world, have many of the same heroes, learn by the same method, learn with the same שטים and are inspired by the same stories and memories. As Rav Aharon Lichtenstein שליט"א is wont to comment, the Modern Orthodox World has much to learn in the realm of religious intensity, חסד, and אמונה תמימה from the Haredi Community. As our sector seeks spirituality, it is finding its sustenance in Ger and Breslav, Izbitz and Mussar. We are all, hopefully, devoted to עבודת השם in its broadest sense.
     So, I support the measured efforts of the Plesner Commission. I believe it is best for both the Haredi community, and the Israeli polity, for Haredi Men to serve in the Army or שירות לאומי (with appropriate conditions for their observance) and then to be able to work to support their families. Those who are promising תלמידי חכמים, should receive the same type of consideration as academic stars do in the Army. 
     I am convinced that this process, if respectfully undertaken,  will allow Haredim to join the Dati sector of society in exposing the broader community to Torah and Mitzvot. The potential קידוש השם is so massive that I dare not dream of where it might lead.
     I am convinced that instilling Haredi men and women with the tools to cope with the world will strengthen their adherence to the values of Haredi Orthodoxy, as evidenced by the so-called 'New Haredim' led by Haim Zicherman and others. In addition, as the religious population grows, the Haredim will be forced to take responsibility for a larger share of running the country. There will be no one else upon whom to rely.
      I believe that we are at a critical moment in Jewish History, and in the history of the State of Israel. I believe that there is a broad population, both Haredi and non-Haredi, that is open to the kind of gradualist program offered by the Plesner Commission. 

I pray to הקב"ה that the radical secular anti-semitic, anti religionists and the Haredi rejectionists do not make unholy common cause to prevent its implementation. 

Saturday, July 07, 2012

American Olim in Israel: The Challenge (Part 3)

                In considering the way that American Olim, especially rabbis and educators, should impact on Israeli society, I find myself thinking a lot about Peter Berger. Prima facie, one might wonder what an Austrian, Liberal, Lutheran sociologist of religion has to do with deepening the Jewish character of the State of Israel. Upon further reflection, the connection will become both clear and compelling.

            Berger, the author of some of the most seminal works in Sociology and the Sociology of Religion, has the distinction of being one of the few scholars I know who were willing to admit they erred. Berger, earlier in his career, was of the opinion that religion and religious faith were in decline; that a wave of triumphal secularism would sweep over Western Society. The upsurge in religious affiliation, spiritual searching and various forms of Fundamentalism (which is not always a negative thing) led him to admit that he’d been wrong and that the world was actually in a process of desecularization. In the past few years, he’s dedicated himself to gauging the character and long-term implications of this intensification of religion and spiritual quest; this longing for God.

            This brings us to Berger’s relevance for Israeli Judaism. On more than one occasion, Berger has argued that the success of religion in the present era (I eschew the term post-modern) is tied to a free market model. In other words, coercive religious affiliation and obedience simply don’t work in a society that is predicated upon radical free choice and initiative. Thus, if people thirst for faith, if they search for God, it is up to religion to make itself accessible and attractive to the searchers. (Berger is a fan of Rational Choice Theory in Microeconomics.) Coercion, established bureaucracies and time-worn slogans will not attract sensitive, God hungry searchers. On the contrary, these will drive them away.

            I believe that Berger is essentially correct, though I am not necessarily happy with this state of affairs. Judaism is not a commodity that can be marketed  and then donned and doffed like an article of clothing. Its point of departure is that it makes demands of man, whether he likes it or not. Of course, man possesses freedom of choice, and he may decide not to respond to God’s demands. However, he remains a commanded being, whether he obeys or not (and, we believe, will pay whatever consequences for his refusal God will deem appropriate). [Rav Yehuda Amital זצ"ל addressed this precise point in a memorable serious of talks, בין התחברות למחוייבות.] 

            Nevertheless, the cultural atmosphere that presently characterizes Israeli Jewry (and to an even greater extent, that of North America and Europe) militates against a priori religious demands, especially if these are not framed in terms that are, at least, reasonable or comprehensible to their putative audience.

             In other words, the Torah has to be cast and presented in terms that will command the respect, assent (and, hopefully, consent) of other Jews. This insight is not mine. Over 900 years ago, Maimonides pointed out that the Torah itself demands it.

            Consider. In the Book of Deuteronomy (4, 6), the Torah declares: וּשְׁמַרְתֶּם וַעֲשִׂיתֶם כִּי הִוא חָכְמַתְכֶם וּבִינַתְכֶם לְעֵינֵי הָעַמִּים אֲשֶׁר יִשְׁמְעוּן אֵת כָּל הַחֻקִּים הָאֵלֶּה וְאָמְרוּ רַק עַם חָכָם וְנָבוֹן הַגּוֹי הַגָּדוֹל הַזֶּה: ‘Safeguard and keep [these rules], since this is your wisdom and understanding in the eyes of the nations. They will hear all these rules and say, 'This great nation is certainly a wise and understanding people.' On two occasions (Guide III, 31 and מבוא לפרק חלק, ד"ה הכת הראשונה) Rambam points out that the Divine wisdom that inheres to the Torah must be expressed in terms that will lead any intelligent person, not only Jews, to be moved and amazed thereby. This does not in any way justify misrepresenting the Torah, ח"ו, or of doing violence to its integrity by subordinating it to an external (and possibly alien) system of values.

            It does mean that we believe that the Torah can, and must be made accessible in such a way that thoughtful, cultured people will see its beauty, its sophistication and the fact that it provides the spiritual succor that they seek. It means that the Torah has nothing to fear from other cultures, and can hold its own in defending its integrity in the lists of cultural encounter and confrontation. The obverse of this conviction is that we can address the challenges that post-modern society and culture pose to us, and instill that capacity in the Orthodox community. In an Internet age, we can no longer allow ourselves the luxury of thinking that Orthodoxy can shut itself off from the world and be safe. If we do not address the world head on, those who seek Torah will be lost and those whose lack of sophistication renders them incapable of dealing with doubt and questions; who innocently accept everything in writing on the internet as true, these too will be lost. [See the Introduction Rambam’s Letter on Astrology.]

           All of this brings me back to the unique contribution that American Olim, generally, and Rabbis (in particular), can contribute to deepen the relationship of Israel’s Jews to God, to Torah, to Mitzvot, to Jewish Historical Experience.

          Briefly stated, and I have asserted this more than once, the representatives of Judaism in Israel lack the tools to achieve either of the above goals. Far too many, barely have a High School education. This, far too often, stunts their ability to teach, to pasken, to debate, and to pastor. Ironically, lack of a sophisticated awareness of the nuances of contemporary culture (and of the Western cultural heritage) also prevents them from critically engaging the latter, which not infrequently leads them to surrender to values that do not jibe with Jewish tradition. And if this is true of rabbis, consider what the lack of such tools means for the average Jew.

         It is precisely these skills, this background, this nuanced ability and inner conviction which the Rav זצ"ל demanded of his students and his students’ students. These are abilities and talents that even the most yeshivish YU musmakh possesses. Happily, Eretz Yisrael is blessed with a greater population of such potential leaders (some rabbinic and most laypersons). They have a God given mission to integrate into Israeli society, to take responsibility to create a voice for Torah vis-à-vis both the broader community and the Orthodox community. These Olim, men and women, have the capacity to elicit the response: ‘וְאָמְרוּ רַק עַם חָכָם וְנָבוֹן הַגּוֹי הַגָּדוֹל הַזֶּה.’

        They do not have the luxury of not heeding this call of destiny.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

American Olim in Israel: The Challenge (Part 2)

[While reading this plaint about the extremism that is increasingly characteristic of Religious Zionist Psak Halakha, I was reminded of two Gedolim stories that exemplify a different mode of rabbinic leadership, one that is more in line with the sensitivities that American Olim (especially RIETS and Skokie graduates) bring with them; one that takes responsibility for the needs and abilities of the broader community, while staying uncompromisingly within the four cubits of Halakhah. The first story, about the דבר אברהם (left), I heard from an eyewitness. The second, involving מו"ר Rav Gedaliah Felder זצ"ל, I was personally involved in.]

1. The pre-war Jewish community of Kovno (Kaunas, today) Lithuania was divided into different components, divided by the Neris River. On the one side was the general community, which was made up of every type of contemporary Jewish religious and cultural population. Indeed, the community was a bit notorious for a lackadaisical form of religiosity. On the other side of the Williampol bridge, was the famous Slabodka Yeshiva, a flagship of the Mussar Movement. As might be expected, relations between the two sectors were often tense. There was a saying attributed to the Alter of Slabodka, R. Nosson Zvi Finkel זצ"ל, that the bridge from Kovno to Slabodko only went one way.
         Coping with the myriad of challenges, modernization and secularization in Kovna was its illustrious rabbi, R. Avraham Dov-Bear Kahana-Shapira זצוק"ל, author of the classic collection of responsa and Talmudic essays דבר אברהם, and known more popularly as the 'Kovner Rov.'. One central concern of his was the alienation of young Kovner Jews from the synagogue. Thus, when the administration of the Choral Synagogue came to him with an intriguing approach to the problem, he jumped at it.
        The idea was to have the synagogue's cantor, the internationally renowned tenor Misha Alexandrovich, offer public concerts that would feature classical חזנות alongside renditions of serene Italian bel canto compositions. The hope was that this type of cultural evening would draw modernizing youg Jewish men and women to the synagogue, where they would socialize and (perhaps) find mates. 
       The first concert was a smashing success and more were planned. Everyone was thrilled, except for the heads of the Slabodka Yeshiva. They turned angrily to the Kovner Rov and demanded that he intervene to stop the concerts. They were indecent, the Rashe Yeshiva objected. The led to fraternization between men and women, and in the synagogue. Worse still, they might corrupt yeshiva students.

      The Kover Rav listened quietly, and then firmly rejected the Yeshiva's objection. 'You are responsible only for your yeshiva,' he asserted. 'I am responsible for the spiritual welfare of all of the Jews of Kovno.' The concerts, he declared, would continue. 

2. When I was a young Rav, over thirty years ago, I served in a small shul in Long Island City, Queens (which closed its doors a few years ago). The community was made up of older retirees, whose devotion to their shul remains an inspiration to me. They were not all observant, indeed very few were actually Orthodox. However, they maintained a daily minyan, Shabbat and Holiday schedules and an active Men's Club and Sisterhood. They were, as I said, overwhelmingly Golden Agers and not in the best of health or strength.
        That proved to be a challenge when it came to carrying (much less raising) the Torah during services. All of the available scrolls were either unfit or way too heavy for any of the members to carry. All, that is but one, which was quite light. The problem was that it was written in Sephardic Script (כתב וועליש) whereas all but one of the members were Ashkenazic. When I mentioned the situation to some of my fellow Kollel-leit and to some of the Rashe Yeshiva at YU, they told me that one may under no circumstances use a Sephardic Torah in an Ashkenazic minyan. 
       Knowing that the shul had no money to spare to repair the unfit scrolls (much less buy a new Sefer Torah), I called my teacher and (other) רב המסמיך, R. Gedaliah Felder זצ"ל in Toronto. Rabbi Felder was a פוסק of tremendous power and fortitude, whose encyclopedic knowledge of all of Rabbinic Literature was nothing less than stunning (as borne out by his magnum opus, יסודי ישורון). He was, also, a synagogue Rav his entire life and literally lived among his fellow Jews.
     I called Rav Felder with my question. He did not hesitate for a moment.  There is no reason not to use the lighter, Sephardic Torah Scroll (because we hold like the responsum attributed to Maimonides that one may read in public from a sefer pasul: הל' תפילין פ""י ה"א בכסף משנה). I will, though, never forget the impassioned words with which he prefaced his פסק: 'You can't impose standards on בעלי בית in a Shul as if you were in a yeshiva!' he exclaimed.

It's time that we stopped ourselves being railroaded by מחמירים who, in the end, drive people away from Torah. It's time we developed the kind of גבורה and stand up to halakhic ruffians (who are welcome to be strict on themselves). If the Torah allows something, and the מסורה of פסק confirms it, we cannot roll our eyes and delegitimize those who follow the Torah's dictates. This is precisely the type of community sensitive approach to פסק הלכה that American trained תלמידי חכמים imbibed from their teachers. The שלחן ערוך is a סם החיים, not a strait-jacket.