Thursday, October 30, 2003

How the State Deconstructs the Spirit 

For many who don't live in Israel its difficult explaining the religious issues that are tearing Israel apart. For those of you who are Orthodox and Zionist you often look to the Chief Rabbinate as the embodiment of Religious Zionism and the return to what must have been during the previous times of Jewish sovereignty. For those who are Conservative, Reform or unaffiliated, you may see the whole religious apparatus as an attempt by the Orthodox residents of the country to hoard money and exclude others from the political process.

Both arguments have elements of truth in them, but both miss the mark. The state-sponsored and controlled religious services in Israel are exclusionary, but in more ways than you might think. The present system has a cheapening effect on the religious practices of all Jews as well as a lessening of the spiritual and halakhic importance on many of what have come to be called "life-cycle events".

One only has to go to a wedding or a funeral in Israel in order to understand the damage that state-sponsored religion has done to the Jewish psyche. The impersonal nature of both these "life-cycle" events as practiced in Israel is enough to depress both the most ardent religious statist or committed atheist. Joy and uplift at a wedding and grief and mourning at a funeral are exchanged for anger and lightness at these two most important of religious moments. They are treated much like getting a driver's license or taking out a passport.

The basic Israeli funeral is an affront to all those Jews who volunteered for the Chevra Kadisha (society that prepares the dead for burial) over the last 2000 years. In most Jewish communities throughout the world, the Chevra Kadisha (CK) works modestly, quietly and with dedication to a job that is not the envy of anyone. For the most part, in large communities, no one even knows who is on the CK. Once a year, on the Shabbat of or following the 7th of Adar a special kiddush or seuda shlishit (third meal eaten on Shabbat, usually after afternoon-mincha services) is given by the CK itself commemorating what tradition states is the yar zeit (anniversary) of the death of Moses. Besides that, the members of the CK (and it always includes men and women) work with dedication and without recognition or compensation.

Here in Israel, the CK is a government run organization of highly paid civil servants. They strike like other civil servants and hold communities and individuals hostage like other Israeli employee unions. In the cemetery in Kfar Saba there is even a warning sign telling people not to solicit charity because it is against the prohibition of "hasagat gevul". Now , this prohibition (an anti-capitalist one for mercantalists) is in place to prevent the opening of competing businesses in the same location. In other words - the CK of Kfar Saba is saying : "hey , the cemetery is our territory - only donations to the CK are allowed".

At the funeral, the CK lead the family through the "Service" - Kaddish is said, Keriya (ritual tearing of the garment by close family members) is done and the funeral is over. If there is a eulogy, it is mumbled quickly by the civil servant as the attendees stand around.

And what of weddings ? If you are not an orthodox Jew, you of course cannot get married by your rabbi (on the odd chance that you have one). If you are an Orthodox Jew, you may also not be able to get married by the rabbi of your choice. It could be that your rabbi does not have permission from the rabbi of the city or town in which your wedding hall is located. It may be (as is the case of a prominent rabbi in Ra'anana) that the Chief Rabbi of your town does not approve of your (Orthodox) rabbi and won't give him permission to officiate at wedding in his own town.

The wedding itself, with rare exceptions, is performed by a local civil servant who may or may not come on time. He may say a few words - sometimes a joke about marriage, sometimes a joke about the ceremony itself. The guests will stand around with drinks in their hands and food in their mouths. (I once attended a wedding performed by then Chief Rabbi Lau and he had to turn around in the middle and ask for quiet.) It is all according to halacha and the bride probably went (against her will?) to the mikva (ritual bath), but the emptiness of the moment permeates the hall along with the loud music.

Why has this happened in the Jewish state ? How have the Jewish traditions of eastern Europe and the middle-east turned into dry effortless attempts to fill the checklist that is religious life here. Read the Ketuba ? check; said the 7 blessings ? check; stepped on the glass ? check - Ok you're married.

The Orthodox are used to getting things for free and so won't donate money to build shuls and mikvas or pay their rabbis. The non orthodox are so used to seeing bearded civil servants lead them through religious events that the wedding and funeral have become the religious equivalent of filling out your tax forms.

Israelis themselves are, like Americans, a very practical people. The US though, has a tradition of religion being a complement to other aspects of civil society and so it is judged beyond its utilitarian aspects. Here in Israel religion has become just another government agency that provides services that the general public needs. Religion is judged by the efficiency in which the tasks (in this case halakhot) are accomplished.

A religious event or ceremony ought to be more than a "service". A wedding isn't simply a contract with obligations. A funeral is more than putting a body in the ground and covering it up.

The privatization of these "religious" services might give the average Jew (Orthodox or not) the ability to reconnect with his traditions. If they could actually choose to belong to a specific synagogue it might force the secular to turn to religion at important moments in their lives.

But in an odd sort of way it would have the greatest effect on the Orthodox world. It would revitalize religious practice by giving the Orthodox world in Israel the opportunity to take responsibility for their own religious lives. It would give them the opportunity to volunteer to bodies like the chevra kaddisha.

If the essence of the funeral is really the burial of the body and the essence of the wedding ceremony is merely the formalization of a relationship then state sponsored religion serves its purpose.

But that cannot be the basis of two of the most important of our religious events. By taking control of our religious lives the state is deconstructing the spiritual life of the individual by turning the spiritual into an emotionless action whose only goal is to get it done.

We are not speaking about turning Israel into a "secular" state. Israel ought to remain a Jewish state and use Jewish traditions to form the basis of its civil society. Yet it must be a civil society if the traditions are to become more than the technicality of providing a service.

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Wednesday, October 29, 2003

On Alexander Bogen 

Israeli newspapers are notoriously strange in their publication choices. None was so strange as an article (sorry, available in Hebrew only) covering the opening of an art exhibition .... on the last day of the exhibit !
The exhibit was of the art of Alexander Bogen, the Vilna born artist and partisan, along with the poetry of Avraham Sutzkever, of whom we wrote in the past.
The 87 year old Bogen is reported to have opened the exhibit by stating: "We were born both of a silk shirt, from the Jerusalem of Lithuania, where from one sleeve went Avraham Sutzkever, the great and wonderful poet and from the other sleeve went me."
The exhibit was at the Shalom Aleichem House in Tel-Aviv. Needless to say, I missed it.

To see some of Bogen's art go here, here, here and here.
To read Sutzkever's poems, see the link to the right.
To read about the Sutzkever 90th birthday commemoration at YIVO, read ZS Berger.

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Can research scientists make aliya ?
In a survey of over 2200 life science researchers worldwide, The Scientist magazine ranked Hebrew University as the sixth best non-US academic institution in which to work.
Bring your lab with you.

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Monday, October 27, 2003

The Narrative of a People and its Land 

By now most of you have probably heard of or read the article "Israel: The Alternative" in the NY Review of Books by Tony Judt calling for the dismantling of the Jewish State of Israel and its replacement by a "bi-national state". Its not our place to try to refute the innuendos and libels against the Jewish people that permeate the article. We here are probably to the left of some readers and undoubtedly to the right of others. Many on the Internet have written to the details of the article and to the practicality of the "bi-national" solution.

Our task here is, unfortunately, much more basic. Once again, almost like clockwork we must defend Jewish peoplehood to the world around us: East and west, liberal and conservative, religious and secular. As on Yom Kippur every year we beg God to have mercy on us in spite of our imperfections and to let us live until the next Yom Kippur, so too, the Jewish people must continually prove to the world around them that in spite of our faults, yes we are a people whose traditions we love, yes we have a land that we have loved for thousands of years, and no, we are not an axis of evil ready to stomp on the poor unassuming world.

This blog is not about politics in the strictest sense of the word. We don't discuss security or foreign policy and leave the economic problems to others. We are here to try and confront the religious issues that Jews face in the contemporary world.

There are however certain issues that seem a sine qua non for our discussion, issues that form the basis of our meanderings through the problems that face us, issues of agreement without which we couldn't start our deliberations.

- That there is an enduring connection between the Jewish people and its halakhic and midrashic traditions.
- That we don't deny knowledge that comes to us from outside of the Written and Oral Torah.
- That philosophically and theologically the Jews have never left the Land of Israel and have never given up on their own Peoplehood.

It is the third point that unfortunately we must deal with again.

What is our connection to the Land of Israel and how did it originate? How did it continue? Does this connection have any relevance today?

These are both historical as well as cultural questions.

The historical aspect of the founding of Rome by Aeneas running from Troy and recounted by Virgil in the Aeneid is secondary to present day Italians than to the fact that this story forms the basis of their cultural and shall we say spiritual connection to their country. A founding myth may or may not be true in its entirety, it may have elements of truth or it may be so wrapped up in magic and miracles as to be wholly unbelievable.

Orthodox Jews may understand the third parsha of the Torah, "Lech Lecha" (Genesis 12: Hebrew ... English) which we will read in two weeks as literal truth. God commanded Abraham the Torah says to leave his home and go to a land which God "will show you". From reading the Torah as the revealed word of God we can understand clearly that the people who claim Abraham, Isaac and Jacob as their forefathers were given what was to be known as Eretz Yisrael. Believers understand intuitively that the Land of Israel belongs to the People of Israel in perpetuity.

But what of the non-believing Jews ? What of believers of other monotheistic religions who don't accept the revelation at Sinai or who feel that it has been deemed irrelevant by later revelations? What of the non-believer in general?

Is the historical truth of the founding of the Jewish People as sons of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, as subjects of King David, necessary to the claim of contemporary Jewry to the land in the Fertile Crescent that we call Israel ?

This is an interesting question and goes to the heart of the issues we are discussing. We can say to ourselves that we know without a doubt that God spoke at Sinai and that the word of God is the Truth that need not be proved or discussed. We can say that it bothers us not what the "others" think or say because we know the Truth. That however is not how you confront what has been a real problem for the Jewish people for thousands of years: The challgenge to our legitimacy.

What is to to be done ?

An interesting argument was presented by Professor Yosef Ben-Shlomo who was for many years a teacher of philosophy at Tel-Aviv University. A former student of Geshom Scholem and Martin Buber, Ben-Shlomo is a true polymath. His lectures and writings cover European and Jewish philosophy, literature and music, Zionism and Jewish mysticism.

In many lectures over the past years he has claimed that the "narrative" of Jewish History and not the historical facts themselves is what binds the Jewish people to the Land of Israel. God may or may not have promised Abraham to give the Land to his descendents: King David may or may not have defeated Goliath and the Philistines and formed the kingdom that stretched for hundreds of years.

It is the narrative of these events as told to generation after generation of Jewish children that stakes the claim of the Jewish people to the Land of Israel. It may not be possible to pinpoint with historical accuracy the date or even existence of the Kingdom of David or find the receipt that the Torah tells us Abraham received for his purchase of the Cave of Machpelah in Hebron (Genesis 23: Hebrew ... English). We may not ever be able to pinpoint the exact date when the Jewish people staked their claim to the Land of Israel or to Jerusalem.

We can however trace the narrative of our connection to this land for close to 3000 years. We may not know if King Solomon actually built the Temple in Jerusalem but we do know that in 400 BCE and before Jews were telling the story of David and Solomon and worshiping at a Temple in Jerusalem. We know that we have been speaking, studying, praying and singing about it since.

We may not know if Moses' brother Aaron, the first Kohen Gadol (High Priest) actually performed the Yom Kippur Avoda service in the Mishkan (the Torah's predecessor to the Temple) but we do know that our Rabbis were elucidating the laws of the Avoda in loving detail not only during the time of the Temple's existence when it had practical relevancy, but for hundred's of years afterwards in an attempt to continue the Jewish narrative of the work done in the Temple in Jerusalem. This labor of love was continued in post-Talmudic times by hundreds of paytanim (poets) who took the laws and made them into long and glorious piyutim (poems) that exhorted us to repent.
Miamonides continued this narrative by elucidating and clarifying further - in minute detail - the laws of the Avoda service.

And it doesn't end here.

The Tanaim of the Mishna and Amoraim of the Gemara used the exact words that describe Abraham's purchase in Hebron to expound not only economic laws of purchasing land and other items - but of laws of marriage, too.

Our halakhic literature contains pages upon pages of halakhot (laws) that can only be performed in the Land of Israel. Most of the first Seder (order) of the Mishna, Zraim (literally "Seeds"), speaks of the agricultural requirements of the Jewish farmer in the land of Israel. Miamonides expounded these laws in detail in his Mishna Torah and less than 300 years ago R. Avraham Danzig, a student of the Gaon of Vilna wrote a work on these same laws that he hoped to use one day.

These tractates and laws have been studied continuously for over 2500 years and form the basis of the narrative story of the Jews and the Land of Israel.

Did Joshua keep these laws when he brought the Jews across the Jordan River into the Land of Israel ? Was there a Joshua ? These are irrelevant questions to us because for the last 2500 years we have been reading and studying the book of Joshua (Hebrew ... English). We read the first chapter in our synagogues every year on Simchat Torah.

Has this narrative ever ended ? Has there been an historical continuity of this narrative or is the literature we are speaking of something archeologists dug up in the last 100 or 200 years ?

My guess is that there has not been a year let alone a decade or a century where a Jewish scholar, poet or artist has not used the theme of the Jewish connection to the Land of Israel in his writings or teachings. For the thousands of known works, there are many more that have been lost over the years. How many lesser poets tried to mimic Yehuda Halevi's verse on his love for the Land Israel and whose work has been forever lost ?

By how many Jews and for how many years of Sukkot holidays has God been asked to provide rains for the Land of Israel in the winter ? How many Jews and for how many years have the laws of fasting during a drought year in the Land of Israel (in Tractate Ta'anit) been studied and expounded?

Is there another people with a such a long and extensive narrative that connects them with this specific land in what was called the Fertile Crescent? What other people have written poems, composed prayers and studied laws in such minute detail that relate to the Land of Israel ?

This narrative does not argue against others living in this land. It doesn't even argue against the sharing of this land with others.

But it argues with strength and with passion that a people that would develop a culture which is tied up to a specific land has a right to live in it, in peace and as a people.

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Sunday, October 26, 2003

A Poet on Bereshit 

Early last week (October 21) we suggested looking for the book in Hebrew by Shulamit Elizur called "Shira shel Parsha" (A Poem for Every Parsha) in which she introduces us to certain piyutim (poems) written during the middle ages.

For Bereshit (Genesis) she picked an interesting theme – the fratricide of Abel by Cain (Genesis 4:3-16: Hebrew ... English). This is a story that we often neglect. My own guess is that since neither were Jews today's Rabbis don't really have much to say about them. Well, the Paytanim (poets) seem to have thought otherwise.

She brings several piyutim (poems) written for the Avoda service on Yom Kippur. We know well two of the many that were written: "Amitz Koach" by Meshulam b. R. Kolonymous which is said in most Ashkenazi servies; and "Atta Konanta" written by Yossi b. Yossi – which is said both by Nusach Sepharad and by the followers of the Gaon of Vilna (as mentioned in the halakhic work "Hayei Adam" by his student R. Avraham Danzig).

Now for us , the Avoda (literally "work") service, which recounts in detail the high priest's (Kohen Gadol) cult in the Temple, is a wholly Jewish affair. The Kohen Gadol asks for forgiveness for himself, his family, the other priests and all of the People of Israel. Yet, the creation of the world and the story of Cain and Able figure prominently in many of the piyutim written for the Avoda service – even the two with which we are most familiar.

One of the reasons for this (I do Elizur no justice here – please go and read the book for a fuller understanding) is the destructiveness of brotherly fighting and the connection between the story of Cain and Abel and that of Jacob and Esau. There is almost a double warning here: Not to fight amongst ourselves – and to beware of the offspring of Esau (Edom).

She ends by explaining to us why the paytanim write with such joy as they describe God's acceptance of Abel's sacrifice. This is symbolic of
- triumph of justice over evil, and
- as a vision of hope for the sufferers of galut (exile) .
Even though Abel was killed at the end, his triumph is still greater than Cain's.

What better themes for the Avoda service in our day ?

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Saturday, October 25, 2003

Sgt. Adi Osman, z"l 

On September 29 I attended the funeral of Staff Sgt. David Solomonov and wrote of the soldier in Israel as a "davar shebikdusha" - that which possesses holiness. Sgt. Solomonov was from Kfar Saba as I am. You feel an extra personal hurt when someone of your hometown falls in battle.
On Friday Kfar Saba lost another soldier who was defending her people from terror. A young woman of 19 Sgt. Adi Osman was killed with two comrades in arms when a terrorist broke through the fences of Netzarim in Gaza.
Adi's parents own and run a restaurant in Kfar Saba called Sabino. For those who know Israel and its cuisine, Sabino is an "al ha'esh" restaurant - a local eatery specializing in grilled meats on skewers and mouth watering salads with spices you never heard of. Sabino is the restaurant that the kids love to go to. My 15 year old hangs out there with his "chevra" on a regular basis. It is good, friendly ....

I want to quote what I wrote less than a month ago when Kfar Saba again mourned its young.

" The soldier in Israel is considered holy – a "davar shebikdusha". I think that is because he is the wall that holds back the destruction of our traditions and protects the lives of our people.
True enough our traditions lasted for 2000 years without an army. And our tradition tells us that the world would not exist if the Torah were not studied for even one hour. Maybe that is true.
But what is a certainty is that if the Israeli Army (IDF) were not to exist for one hour, thousands upon thousands of Jewish lives would be lost.
Where would the Jews of the former Soviet Union or the Jews of Ethiopia be today without our army? The Jews of Morocco ? The Jews of Egypt ?

What is the atmosphere like at a funeral of a soldier in Israel ? Imagine that it is also the funeral of all those Jews who were killed "al kiddush hashem'. "

Sgt. Adi Osman of Kfar Saba - Yehi Zichra Brucha

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Thursday, October 23, 2003

I wanted to continue to delve into one aspect of the women's issue that we dealt with yesterday. The issue of learning Torah – of limud Torah - seems to me to be the prime issue today of women and orthodoxy. Here in Israel it is not widely accepted even among the dati-leumi (religious Zionist/modern Orthodox) community to teach the girls Torah on an equal footing with the boys. As I see firsthand with my 11 year old twins (one boy and one girl). They spent their entire elementary school time in separate classes yet had the exact same homework assignments and tests. That is how the Israeli school system "works" – but that is an issue for another day.
There is one area though (besides gym) where they learned different things - Torah Sheb'al Peh - or the Oral Law. The boys learn gemara from the fifth grade and the girls are taught something called "Toshba" (short for Torah Sheb'al Peh) – essentially mishna.
Now if you look at the teshuva (responsa) of R. Y.H. Henkin called "Talmud Study by Women" you will see that there were discussions during Talmudic and medieval times about teaching women Torah. They differentiated between teaching them the Written Torah as opposed to the Oral Torah. We won't now go into all the historical, sociological and psychological aspects of the Talmudic and medieval sayings and rulings on women and their intellects but it is clear from R. Henkin's teshuva that the Rambam and others didn't differentiate between Mishna and Gemara.
R. Henkin's teshuva is lengthy and technical and well worth studying even if you find it difficult to get through some of the strange arguments about women's intellects. But that is the way we ought to "do" Torah – honestly and without apologetics.

His conclusion is an interesting one though. R. Henkin states that the main reason why chazal differed between teaching Written as opposed to Oral Torah was exactly for that reason – it was written as opposed to oral. He states that the prohibition of the teaching women orally as opposed to from a text was that it was believed that women were more apt to accept and take seriously Torah backed by a written word rather than one backed only by an oral tradition. (I guess you could interpret this last statement as an insult or a complement to a "women's" way of thinking.)
So if the teacher's in my twins' school think they are being "more religious" by teaching girls mishna instead of gemara they are a bit off the mark. (In truth we did manage to convince the principal to provide one hour of gemara per week in the fifth grade. Now in sixth grade, this has for some reason disappeared. We are just starting our fight for Jr. High School more at a later date).

We have traveled pretty far from the point we wanted to make here though – and that is the prime importance of Limud Torah as an equalizing factor in the separation of the sexes that orthodoxy demands in so many other mitzvot. I feel that the limud aspect trumps all others - "Talmud Torah k'neged Kulam" (Shabbat 127a: Hebrew... English). That is not to say, as we did yesterday, that in shuls and communities where women demand it, local rabbinic leadership ought not to take bold moves within the framework of halakha. They should. And we have to recognize that for the puropose of "shalom bayit" (peace at home/community) we will often need to compromise.

But we should brook no compromise when it comes to limud Torah. We should accept no purported halakhic reasoning at all that disallows any aspect of limud to our daughters. On this we must remain firm. We can't send our daughters to study medicine, law or finance without allowing them to fully understand what our tradition has to say about these important matters.

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ZS Berger wrote yesterday about the 90th birthday commemoration/celebration at the YIVO Institute of the Yiddish poet Avraham Sutzkever. We spoke of him in a post before Yom Kippur where we presented his astonishing poem "A Wagon of Shoes".
Berger has written better about Sutzkever than I can, so please feel free to go and read his post.

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Wednesday, October 22, 2003

What would you think about a shul that in order to expand its role for woman in its tefilot it became more stringent halakhically ?
That is exactly what is going on at the 80 year old Beth Tefiloh Congregation of Baltimore, Maryland. Beth Tefiloh is an interesting shul. It is large (1200 families) and obviously very wealthy. It has a Day School and High School and has Orthodox tefilah. What it was lacking from a halakhic perspective was a mechitza separating its men's and women's sections. The shul has had separate seating since its inception but in a compromise when the shul moved from urban Baltimore to suburban Baltimore 40 years ago it kept its seating arrangement without its mechitza.

As reported in the Baltimore-Jewish Times, in a Kol Nidre speech a few weeks ago, the shul's longtime leader Rabbi Mitchell Wohlberg proposed both building a mechitza and increasing the role of women in the tefilah. Although he isn't clear what these roles would be, Rabbi Wohlberg stated that they would be within the realms of halakhah. The congregation already has a women's tefilah, a hakafah for women, expanded Bat Mitzva ceremony. It will be interesting to see where this leads.

R. Wohlberg has hit on one of the most important themes for Judaism today – the role of women in the religious lives of a community.
It is not only a modern Orthodox problem but one that is creeping up on the haredi community as well. In that community, slowly but surely, the women are the bread winners and those attending universities. While the men are sitting and learning (or not) in a kollel, women are getting law and medical degrees, doctorates in computer science and accounting. The haredi women are learning more Torah and are even attending graduate courses in non-Orthodox schools of Jewish Studies. It will not be long before the haredi world will have to radically adapt its views on women.
The modern Orthodox communities in Israel, the US and other countries have been dealing with the issues of women in halakhah in a haphazard manner. That may be a good thing. One of the great aspects of Judaism is that it does not have a Pope. There is no one who dictates doctrine and practice to us. Instead, we have seen changes on a local level for the last 30 or 40 years and in some places are raising a generation of girls who know how to read from the torah and learn gemara.
Unfortunately in other places each issue, large or small is a fight. Here in Kfar Saba, one shul that spontaneously gave a Torah to women one Simchat Torah, broke apart not two years later as a bunch of young men decided that that was not how "their father's shul was". In this congregation, it was not the "more observant" that objected to this 'change' but rather the ignorant ones who spend most of the tefilah outside with their cronies.
These same fathers fought tooth and nail so as not to allow the girls in the local religious elementary school learn gemara with the boys.

What we are lacking though in the modern orthodox community is a local leadership that is willing to fight the ignorance and introduce the changes that are necessary if we want to raise serious modern Orthodox girls. This means taking charge when girls in their community and their parents insist that they get an equal Torah education. It means that although certain things take time, when it comes to limud Torah waiting another 30 years for a proper level of education means more lives led in ignorance. When limud Torah is concerned they ought to demand that the girls not be left behind. It also means opening up shuls to groups of women who need and deserve a permanent place to hold women's tefilah groups. Even in a bastion of modern Orthodoxy like Teaneck, NJ, there is not, as far as I know, a single shul that will house its well established and active women's tefilah.

Local leadership is important. We can't wait for the rabeim at YU or Har Eztion, let alone Brisk or Ponevitch to come around - they will follow just as Roshei Yeshiva have followed for the last 200 years. They were wrong on the issue of Zionism, wrong on the issue of leaving Europe for the "treife medina" of America, they were wrong on the need to educate our children in the arts and sciences and they are wrong on the issues of women in our religious communities.

Kol Hakavod to R. Wohlberg and the others who understand that you can have your daughters learn and pray on the highest level without fear of being labeled by those who don't understand.

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Tuesday, October 21, 2003

With this week being the week where we start again to make our way through the Torah I thought it would be interesting to point out two different books that can help us enjoy and understand what we will be reading for the coming months.
The first is simply a translation of Bereshit by Robert Alter. He is apparently working on a translation of the entire Torah although up to this point only "Genesis: Translation and Commentary" is out.
Alter does not use the Masoretic text and does not divide the chapters into the traditional parshiot, which can be annoying at first. It does though give you a bit of a different perspective on the flow of things. His commentary is mostly literary and philological. If you have read his two older books "The Art of Biblical Narrative" and "The Art of Biblical Poetry" you will probably enjoy this, too. If you have never had the opportunity to fulfill the custom of reading the original twice and a translation once (shnayim mikra, v'echad targum) this will make the feat enjoyable.
As long as we are on the topic of Robert Alter, his book "Cannon and Creativity: Modern Writing and the Authority of Scripture" is a true labor of love by the author and is therefore a pleasure to read. In this small book he traces the Biblical influences on three masterpieces of modernist literature: Kafka's "Amerika", H.N. Bialik's poem "The Dead of the Desert" and James Joyce's "Ulysses".

The second book is, as far as I know only in Hebrew. This shouldn't scare you if your Hebrew is of the yeshiva day school variety. With a little effort you will be rewarded. The book is called "A Poem for Every Parsha" or "Shira shel Parsha" in Hebrew, written by Shulamit Elizur and is published by Mossad Harav Kook. During the golden age of the religious poem or piyut from the 6th to the 12th centuries it was customary to compose and recite poems (piyutim) based on some aspect of the parsha.
Elizur, a professor at Hebrew University and an expert on the piyut picks one for each parsha. She then guides you through it, explaining difficult words and identifying the allusions to other places in the Tanach and to midrashim - known and unknown. Each piyut is essentially a commentary on the Torah. This will give you a clue as to how Jews read and understood the Torah during those times.
What is fascinating is the command of Tanach and midrash that the poet or paytan had. What is even more fascinating is the command of Tanach and Midrash that many of the paytan's readers had.

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Monday, October 20, 2003

On Being a Thinking Religious Jew 

Are thinking people that are raised religious more apt to remain observant or more likely to "take off their kippah" ?

My oldest son told me the other day that two of his former teachers are convinced that he will not remain religious because he is a "thinking person". My soon to be 19 year old will be drafted into the army in six weeks and will lead a life that will be all but cut off from his home. He will have different responsibilities that he has had until now and will have to listen to different authority figures. He will have different role models and will be facing situations and challenges – physical, moral and intellectual that he has never faced before.
My son is, by his own (and my own) definition a "thinking person". He himself is convinced that most people like him do not remain religious. I don't agree and in fact think that those thinking people who are no longer religious became that way because of intellectual laziness.
Certainly, being an observant Jew who is willing to take on the world as it is; who is willing to confront modernity in all its gore and glory and in all it scientific wonder and heresy; who is willing to put himself in religiously and morally impossible situations - certainly, this is a most difficult challenge.
It is a challenge though that he and we can face up to only if we face it with intellectual courage. It seems to me that those who are willing to face these challenges but 'take off their kippah' are failing in those challenges. So too, those who are not willing to face those challenges mi'lichatchila (at the start) are admitting the weakness of their derech (way of life).
I say this because we must face these challenges not in spite or our being religious Jews, but because of it.
A recent correspondent, a conservative Jew and a teacher of philosophy replied to one of my posts stating that "in many ways, it's easy for an active liberal Jew to embrace the mitzvot that he or she observes than it is for a self-critical modern orthodox Jew. We have much less baggage." That is a statement that made me do a double take. But he is right. For the Jew who believes in revelation and God, yet places free will at the center of his moral universe, keeping the masoret (the tradition) demands navigating an intellectually rocky course.
What keeps us honest is the knowledge that that is how it is supposed to be. We are supposed to have doubts, to face challenges to our faith, to be "self-critical". We are supposed to take responsibility for our own actions yet recognize that God presents Himself in history. We are commanded both not to depend on miracles and to cry out "Yisrael bitach Ba'Hashem (Israel depends on God).

In one of our first posts, we quoted the famous footnote in R. Soloveitchik's "Halakhic Man". It is appropriate that we quote it again here. He wrote of religion that it "is not, at the outset, a refuge of grace and mercy for the despondent and desperate, an enchanted stream for crushed spirits, but a raging, clamorous torrent of man's consciousness with all its crises, pangs and torments".

If you are willing to grant only the haredi world authenticity then you are selling yourselves short and creating a situation where the 'thinking young person' has only two choices – to accept the haredi derech or reject God.

It appears to me that it is a religious imperative to accept the challenges that he world places in front of us. If we are truly 'thinking people' we will work through these challenges intellectually, in the library, in the Beit Midrash and in our own heads. We will confront them in our day to day lives as teachers, students, businessmen, soldiers, doctors and lawyers.

More importantly, we will confront these challenges as parents. When my fifteen year old asks me how it is that "all" the rabbis think other than we do I don't answer "al-regel achat" (on one foot) – because it just isn't so simple. I see it as my job though to convince him that this way of life is right "mi'lichatchila" (as it ought to be done under any circumstances) and not only "b'dieved" (as it can be done under certain circumstances).

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In last month's issue of The New Criterion, a monthly review of culture there was an interesting article on the historian and polymath S.D. Goitein by Eric Ormsby called "The 'born Schulmeister' ". I remember reading one or two books or articles by Goitein back at YU and always assumed he was one of the 'greats'. Goitein was one of those European Yeshiva trained scholars whose ability to analyze a text put him well above his colleagues and put awe in his students.
His most famous work is on the Cairo Geniza which he painstakingly uncovered and analyzed. His results are a seven volume work entitled "The Mediterranean Society" (also available in a one-volume abridgment).
An interesting aspect of the article is the personal information including the apparently difficult time he had with colleagues such as Gershom Scholem and the rest of the Jewish Studies crowd at the Hebrew University. Goitein himself was the first professor of Islamic studies at the young University. These troubles led him to end his career at the University of Pennsylvania and then at the Institute for Advanced Studies at Princeton.
This article re-acquaints us with one of the great scholars of the last century and reminds us of the tremendous contribution that people like Goitein have made to our understanding of Judaism. Without scholars such as Goitein, Jacob Katz, Scholem and others who did their work outside of the Yeshiva our knowledge and love of Torah would be that much less. Its a shame that so many of our own Rabbis won't accept that so much of the learning of Torah happens outside of the Beit Midrash.

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Friday, October 17, 2003

Simchat Torah Special

As a service to those of you who are living in Israel or who plan on making aliya in the near future I will let you in on a Simchat Torah secret. Its way too expensive to bring good Scotch to shul to share with the unappreciative Israelis so you have to either bring the garbage or start a new tradition. With the aliya from the former Soviet Union you can now get decent Vodka at good prices.
Hence, the official Out of Step Jew Bloody Mary recipe: (three recipes serves an entire Israeli sized shul, unless there are alot of Brits around - then multiply by six).
2 oz. vodka
4 oz. Tomato Juice
2 dashes lemon juice
2 dashes Worcestershire Sauce (not always easy to get in Israel)
2-3 drops Tabasco sauce (a bit more if Temanim or US Marines present)
1/2 tsp. sugar
Leave in Freezer overnight and then straight to the shul fridge during Shacharit.

This is enjoyed by the Out of Step Jew, the official Out of Step Jew Wife (which she reluctantly drinks instead of the good Scotch), by the official Out of Step Jew Soon to be Chayal Eldest Son, by English and Slavic language shul members. 1/2 Shot glass fulls to the Official Out of Step Jew Second Son and 1/4 glass fulls to the Official Out of Step Jew Twins.

Chag Sameach.

(Apologies to TMQ)

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Thursday, October 16, 2003

With Sukkot almost gone we just wanted to mention a short and poignant story by Agnon called "The Zaddik's Etrog". You can find the story in "A Book that was Lost and Other Stories", edited by Alan Mintz and Anne Hoffman. The book is full of many of Agnon's stories and a deeper look into these in particular one's show how much of a modernist writer Agnon was.
His stories of early Tel-Aviv and late shtetl carry many modernist themes. He is not just a chronicler of the lore and life of times past.
In "The Tzaddik's Etrog" Agnon tells the story of a righteous and poor man who sells his tephillin (phylactaries) in order to buy an Etrog. He spends the entire amount he got for the sale of the tephillin on the 'perfectly formed' etrog despite his wife's strong hints that they needed food for the chag.
My ten year old son read this story in school and commented to me that the Tzaddik obviously forgot about the precept of "v'samachta b'chagecha" – and "you shall rejoice on your holiday".
The Tzaddik forgot not only about the specific mitzvah of rejoicing on the chag but went so far overboard as to spend the money that tephillin cost on an etrog. Today, a very good pair of tephillin would cost at lest $400 and a wonderful "mehandrin" etrog about $100. Although the price of an etrog in Eastern Europe might have been higher in relative terms than it cost today, it surely was not close to the price of tephillin.
Mintz and Hoffman, in their introduction to the section that carries the story comment that the "Tzaddik's quest for a beautiful etrog is revealed to be simply a higher form of spiritual selfishness".
The Tzaddik indulged his spiritual self to such an excess so as to neglect the other responsibilities - some spiritual, some physical – that he had. Agnon identifies a specific weakness in man – selfishness - that is present in those that are righteous and those that are not.
Spiritual selfishness is an interesting concept that is truly applicable to modern day Israel. Whether it is the Israeli kollel-niks that can't even stop for a minute to thank the soldiers who died to protect their right to learn Torah in Eretz Yisrael or the rabbi that won't grant the Agunah leniency – we see a certain selfishness where the "righteous" won't risk his not getting into heaven forcing others to do without.

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Wednesday, October 15, 2003

We just returned from three days up north. Friends came in from the US to celebrate their second son's bar-mitzvah and we took them to the Gilboa and the Golan for three days of water and hiking.
If you have never been to the Sahne (Gan Hashelosha) in the Beit She'an Valley (Emek) you are missing one of the more beautiful places in the country. Natural pools of water, small waterfalls, lots of palm trees and grass. Some of the pools are more than ten feet deep; the water is cool and clear. In the dead of summer with the air temperatures in the Emek about 100 - the water of Sahne becomes one of the few escapes from the heat. The water in the Mediterranean or the Kinneret can hit 80 degrees or more while Sahne waters refresh.
We spent Sunday there (only one day of chag here remember ?) then slept on the Gilboa. The Gilboa Mountains are one of the parts of Israel most neglected by tourists. They run parallel to the Beit Shean Valley from the towns of Afula to Beit She'an and has trails, springs, flowers and pine trees. It has natural fields of Iris's that bloom for only a short period and becomes a busy tourist locale for the natives.
It is famous for the battle in which King Saul was killed (1 Samuel 31: Hebrew ... English). More later.
We went to the Golan on Monday and took the moderately difficult trail of Nachal Zevitan. It is one of the main Nachals (streams) in the Golan and feeds into the Kinneret. It is close to the "capital" of the Golan, Katzrin, right off of the road that leads from the Arik Bridge. The Nachal is full of water and there are natural pools encircled by geometrically precise rock formations. The trail highlight is the walk down over 100 feet to the foot of the high but narrow waterfall, Mapal Zevitan. Two pools of ice cold water receive the water from the fall.
Yesterday we took a quick (2 hour ) hike on the Gilboa down Nachal Shokek, which only has water in the winter. It is not as fun as the water-filled streams but you do have the difficulty of following the "rain water" water down the mountain.
So, we spent Chol Hamoed walking our proverbial four amot of Eretz Ysirael.
On your next trip to Israel if you want to do some of the things not on the "checklist", drop us a line.
Chag Sameach

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Saturday, October 11, 2003

While reading Kohelet (EcclesiastesEnglish ... Hebrew) today in the synagogue (here in Israel we read it on the first day of Sukkot when it falls on Shabbat) I wondered what would happen if the text were found today and presented to a haredi or haredi-wannabe rabbi.
Three choices:
a. He would think that this was a challenge to his faith and study it extensively.
b. He would read it but not let his children or students read it.
c. He would throw it in the garbage.

Although Kohelet has enough in it for any old ideologue it appears that the major theme of the book is not to let things slide, to take responsibility for your actions and not to let others take care of what you need to do for yourself.
It seems to say "yes, you can sit and learn all day and let others defend you ... but that will lead to folly ... you can let others support you while you think you are doing God's will ... but be careful it doesn't lead you to a moral vacuum".
This may be a bit of an individualistic reading of the text but the author does list all the things he has done: Planted vineyards and orchards, fought battles and generally experienced the world. Kohellet is an individualist who doesn't seem to have patience for people who are whiners and dependent upon others.

We will be spending part of Chol Hamoed with our friends walking more than our 'four amot' of Eretz Yisrael ... but we will be back in the middle of the week.
Moadim L'simcha.

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Thursday, October 09, 2003

Of the many political crises here in Israel the one to get top billing at the moment is the transfer of the rabbinical courts and the Chief Rabbinate from the soon to be dismantled Religious Affairs Ministry to the Justice Ministry.
On the one hand the Justice Ministry seems the logical place for the religious courts to be. On the other hand, Tommy Lapid of the Shinui Party is the Justice Minister. I am one of those religious Jews who was not too upset at the stunning showing of Shinui in the past election. I didn't vote for them but agreed that much of the services that the government provided need to be privatized. And that includes the religious services. Many of us are disappointed by their near anti-Semitic tone and by their turn to populist rhetoric since the election. But they are not the problem - they are just a symptom.
I feel strongly that the only way for Orthodox Judaism to prosper in Israel is for it to face "competition" from other Jewish religious streams such as the Conservative and Reform branches. The best way for that to happen is to make the Chief Rabbinate entirely ceremonial and to privatize the religious court system.
The National Religious Party (NRP) should have taken the hint when its entirely qualified candidate, Rabbi Ya'akov Ariel, the chief rabbi of Ramat Gan, lost the race to be Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Israel to the candidate of the haredim, R. Yonah Metzger.
Now Metzger is supposed to be a nice guy, but was previously ruled incompetent to be the chief rabbi of a city and was able to rise only to be a neighborhood rabbi. But, the haredim, headed by "posek hador" Eliashiv wanted a stooge in the position to further degrade its appeal to serious Jews.
Mission accomplished.
Now it is time for religious Zionism to move on and take on the private sector. Without insulting the Conservative or Reform movements here in Israel I think that with the thought of Rabbis Kook and Soloveitchik behind it, it should be able to regain its moral leadership over the Ashkenazi Jewish population in Israel. The Sephardi population in the meanwhile is in the grasp of R. Ovadiah Yosef.
If the NRP, as the representative of religious Zionism were to take the bold step of willing to disband the whole system and privatize all religious services I feel that it would (re)gain the respect of much of the religious and traditional Jewish population.
Instead of threatening to leave the coalition over the matter, the NRP should see Shinui and raise them one, by suggesting to dismantle the whole shebang. It can then propose the following:
1. Turn its conversion unit to the capable and humane R. Haim Druckman. Now, R. Druckman is a bit extreme on the political front but does away with much of the insanity that the Israeli Chief Rabbinate forces into its conversions.
2. Set up religious courts dealing with marriage, divroce and Agunot under the leadership of people like Rabbi Y. Henkin or others and really work to solve the key halakhic issues that affect the lives of too many women.
3. Encourage the proliferation of Yeshiva and University trained pulpit rabbis who will lead congregations out of their insularity by seeking out new members.
4. Make number three work by creating a smicha program at Bar-Ilan University or by working on a special relationship with Yeshiva University.

Leaders of the NRP - this is the time to save your party and your ideology by being bold … and by being smart.

Chag Sameach.

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Wednesday, October 08, 2003

I just came back from the funeral of Staff Sgt. David Solomonov z"l.

It is difficult to describe the atmosphere at the funeral of a soldier in Israel.

Israeli soldiers stand at attention and march with berets on their heads instead of their shoulders. Chayalot (female soldiers) march along with tears in their eyes.
People like myself who never met the fallen, nor the family, come and stand by, listening and watching. Mothers with baby carriages come and stand quietly as long as their babies cooperate. Soldiers by the dozens come late and out of breath. Ambulances and police officers stand ready.
Those of us who are parents of boys of similar age watch and can't understand how the mother and father of the fallen walk the fifty yards to the gravesite.

The soldier in Israel is considered holy – a "davar shebikdusha". I think that is because he is the wall that holds back the destruction of our traditions and protects the lives of our people.
True enough our traditions lasted for 2000 years without an army. And our tradition tells us that the world would not exist if the Torah were not studied for even one hour. Maybe that is true.
But what is a certainty is that if the Israeli Army (IDF) were not to exist for one hour, thousands upon thousands of Jewish lives would be lost.
Where would the Jews of the former Soviet Union or the Jews of Ethiopia be today without our army? The Jews of Morocco ? The Jews of Egypt ?

What is the atmosphere like at a funeral of a soldier in Israel ? Imagine that it is also the funeral of all those Jews who were killed "al kiddush hashem".

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I have been reading alot of blogs lately and have put the links to the few interesting ones to the right. There is one I would like to mention though - Braita. It is light, witty, Jewish and pretty well written.

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There is a fascinating story in the Yom Kippur section of Ha'aretz that is worth reading even after Yom Kippur. If you can, I would advise reading it in the original Hebrew, if not, the English translation will do. The headline writer in Hebrew calls the story "The King Who Played Chess: A Story found from the estate of Joseph Weiss in the Braslov-Kafka Style". Joseph Weiss was a scholar of Hasidic thought and literature and specifically an expert on Rav Nachman of Braslov.
For those who do like the short pieces by Kafka or Rav Nachman you will appreciate this story.

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Tuesday, October 07, 2003

There are many difficult days in Israel but none is so difficult as the day there is a soldier's funeral in your home town. I live in Kfar Saba, a town of 90,000 celebrating its 100th birthday that lies about 15 miles northeast of Tel-Aviv, adjacent to Ra'anana, bordering Qalqilya.
In my eight years here I have seen too many funerals of boys and girls killed in action. The tearful soldiers, the "El Malei Rachamim", the 21-gun salute.
Tomorrow I will see another one. My apartment is right near the military cemetery which is located in a corner of a lovely park with shady eucalyptus trees. The park is called "Gan HaZikaron", the Park of Remembrence.
Twenty-one year old David Solomonov of Kfar Saba was killed yesterday on Yom Kippur afternoon by a sniper in the north of Israel one week before he was due to be released from regular army duty. To make matters more difficult for me he was born in the US and made aliya at the age of 13 with his parents and brother. I didn't know him or his parents even though the Kfar Saba "anglo" community is not very large. But there is an empty feeling in your gut when a fellow American is killed, especially when he is a soldier. Almost all of us, olim from the US, have sons who one day will serve in the army. My eldest will be drafted in November.

Here in Kfar Saba, when a "son of the town" falls serving his country his name is added to the list that hangs on the wall at the front of the Central Synagogue. The synagogue stands at the center of town, near the Town Hall on the first paved street in Kfar Saba, Herzl Street. The inside of the shul is probably one of the ugliest that you will find in all of Israel. The frescos on the ceiling are so amateurish as to be comical. But in the front stands five marble plaques, each over 15 feet high, filled with the names of those "sons of Kfar Saba" who died for their country. The names of their parents are beside their own names, then the name of the battle in which they fell and the cemetery where they lie.

Some names are from the War of Independence in 1948. Famous battles like Latrun are listed by many names. Also small towns and settlements near our own: Ramat Hakovesh, Tira, Bazra. The name of the city Jenin lies next to a few names on the 1948 plaque.

If you are ever in Kfar Saba, come to the Central Synagogue on the corner of Weizman and Herzl. Ignore the ugly interior and study the plaques at the front of the shul.

Staff Sgt. David Solomon of Kfar Saba, Yehi Zichro Baruch.

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Monday, October 06, 2003

Although I am not a big fan Of Berl Wein he is usually quite harmless. He writes a plain vanilla column in the Jerusalem Post and presents a basic religious viewpoint trying not to insult whomever his constituency is.
In his last column in the Post however, Wein let his inferiority complex show. As is typical of modern-orthodox/Religious Zionist rabbis who are not too original, they really ache to get the approval of the haredi "Yeshiva Velt" (Yeshiva World).
His last column is called "The Evolution of Yeshivot" in which he gives a very simplistic review of the history of Torah Institutions throughout the ages. He gives away his "haredi wannabe" status at the end when after describing the Eastern European yeshivot - centering on Volozhin - he writes:
"After the Holocaust, the yeshiva world rebuilt itself with amazing rapidity, especially in Israel and the United States. Today, institutions such as the Mir (Jerusalem), Ponivez (Bnei Brak), and Lakewood (New Jersey) yeshivot have student bodies each larger than all the pre-war Lithuanian yeshivot combined." Notice how he continues the "Art-Scroll-ization" of Judaism by ocunting hardi yeshivoot as the only "real" centers of Torah learning. None of the modern orthodox Yeshivot even gets a mention.
So, Rabbi Wein, are the Yeshivot Hesder like Har Etzion, or REITS of Yeshiva University not really extensions of the E. European yeshiva world ?
I know he covers all his bases (don't forget he has a wide ranging constituency) with "and the yeshiva movement today covers the entire spectrum of the traditional Jewish world". But that doesn't cut it.
His inferiority complex is showing quite clearly.

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Sunday, October 05, 2003

In general I like to keep my comments on politics to a minimum, but the two stories I saw over the last few minutes make it impossible to remain silent.
On Erev Yom Kippur, a Member of the Knesset from Meretz, Roman Bronfman is quoted in YNET (unfortunately available only in Hebrew) responding to today's Israeli Air Force bombing of a Hamas-Islamic Jihad training camp in Syria.
Bronfman stated: "The entrance of Israel into the territory of a sovereign state is a serious break of international law... War crimes by both sides will not bring security to the region".
The Jerusalem Post reports that for Yom Kippur Uri Avineri and Gush Shalom will act as "human shields" to protect Arafat.
Tonight in our liturgy we ask for permission to "prey with the sinners". Must we ?

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Slowly but surely the Holocaust is appearing less and less unique.
A few weeks ago a school-teacher and yesterday a female attorney joined the long list of antisemites to whom killing Jewish children and destroying Jewish families is the ultimate "good".
Lack of education ? poverty ? other root causes ?
Tonight we will question our every action and call God "from the depths".
Meanwhile, their educated, their cultured, their mothers and fathers celebrate their nihilistic selves in pools of blood.

Gmar Chatima Tova.

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Friday, October 03, 2003

Sutzkever and Yom Kippur 

We have discussed the Braiterman book and his suggestions to re-read the Torah and midrash in light of the Holocaust. We extended that and asked some questions regarding some of the liturgy for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
But what of the main halachot – the five prohibited activities of Drinking, Eating, Washing, Marital Relations and Wearing (Leather) Shoes - of Yom Kippur?
Ought we to treat them differently in light of the Shoah ?
I would like to take the strangest one (to me) – that of wearing leather shoes on Yom Kippur and suggest we reconsider its significance by reading a poem of one of the great Yiddish poets of our time: Abraham Sutzkever.
Sutzkever was born near Vilna in 1913, survived the Vilna Ghetto, fought as a partisan in the forests and came to Israel in 1947. He lives in Tel-Aviv today. He edited a Yiddish quarterly Digoldeyne Keyt - The Golden Chain (I don't know if it is still around today).
The poem is taken from a collection "Written in the Vilna Ghetto" included in: A. Sutzkever: Selected Poetry and Prose. Berkeley : University of California Press, 1991. The translations are by Barbara and Benjamin Harshav.
The title of the poem is called "A Wagon of Shoes".
As a side note, according to David Roskies in his amazing compliation "The Literature of Destruction" the last stanza about his mother is true.
Here is the poem:

A Wagon of Shoes
The wheels they drag and drag on,
What do they bring, and whose?
They bring along a wagon
Filled with throbbing shoes.
The wagon like a khupa
In evening glow, enchants:
The shoes piled up and heaped up,
Like people in a dance.
A holiday, a wedding?
As dazzling as a ball!
The shoes — familiar, spreading,
I recognize them all.
The heels tap with no malice:
Where do they pull us in?
From ancient Vilna alleys,
They drive us to Berlin.
I must not ask you whose,
My heart, it skips a beat:
Tell me the truth, oh, shoes,
Where disappeared the feet?
The feet of pumps so shoddy,
With buttondrops like dew —
Where is the little body?
Where is the woman too?
All children's shoes — but where
Are all the children's feet?
Why does the bride not wear
Her shoes so bright and neat?

'Mid clogs and children's sandals,
My Mama's shoes I see!
On Sabbath, like the candles,
She'd put them on in glee.
The heels tap with no malice:
Where do they pull us in?
From ancient Vilna alleys,
They drive us to Berlin.
Vilna Ghetto, January 1, 1943

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Thursday, October 02, 2003

A few days ago we after a discussion we asked three questions:
1. Have we become a people who worships technique instead of God ?
2. Is it the technique of the mitzva that brings us to kedusha, or is it the attainment of the "values which stand behind the halacha's technicalities" which elevate our lives ?
3. Is the perfection of the technique a help or a hindrance for the attainment of these "Torah values" ?

Although I am sure there are many who would disagree we must come to the conclusion that yes we have become a people who worship 'technique'. Whether its receiving "measuring aids for matza and wine" as one of our "commentors" below stated or in measuring the size of our tzitzit.

As for the next two questions I would like to take on the issue of "tzniut" – modesty – an issue that obsesses the rabbis in Israel. This may be a reaction to the less than modest dress of so many Israeli women but this obsession has gone beyond the bounds of common decency. Here in Israel, the rabbis that are identified with religious-Zionism – with Bnei Akiva (North America... Israel)- can speak of nothing else.
One of the most respected (and overrated) of these rabbis is Shlomo Aviner of Bet-El and Yeshivat Ateret HaKohanim. This rabbi who made his name because of his politics wrote in a recent article in the Bnei Akiva monthly "Zraim" about the number of centimeters below the knee that a girls' skirt must be: About the style of pants that these girls like to wear underneath those skirts (the style here in Israel for some reason that my daughter explained to me but I don't understand): About the amount of pant that can show below the skirts !
In many branches of Bnei Akiva here in Israel the girls who wear pants are not allowed to be madrichot (leaders).
Parts of the haredi world – from whence this obsession started – even have the audacity to blame the terror attack last month on the number 2 bus in Jerusalem on a lack of tzniut - that too many families were taking summer vacations !!! That the (haredi) girls' shirts are too tight!
Now - if there is a mitzvah that is more value-laden than it is technical it is tzniut – modesty. Modesty in dress is only one aspect of tzniut and sex is not the sole criterion for dressing in a tza'nua (modest) manner.
Modesty also relates to the way we live and the way we are religious.
Rabbi R. Singer in his Edah article quotes R. Meir Twersky who interprets his grandfather R. Soloveitchik's interpretation of the words of Psalm 130 (Hebrew ... English)"Out of the depths I call you O Lord" – words that we are saying before the Shacharit (morning) service until Yom Kippur.
He writes: "Desiring and emphasizing active participation and leadership (in prayer services) are antithetical to authentic service of the heart, which expresses the sentiment of 'from the depths' ".
True enough – go to any Orthodox synagogue today in Israel and in the diaspora and we a lot of 'showboat davening', shuckling and screaming of Amen but very little modesty. We see insulted congregants who were not asked to be Shaliach Tzibbur (cantor) on Rosh Hashanah.
But – lets measure the skirts and the sleeves, let's bow during the Amidah in the exact method that God will truly appreciate (and let's make sure everyone sees us do it), lets demand our right to 'lead' the congregation in the most important of services – but to worship modestly "from the depths" ? Please !
Does the worship of technique hinder the attainment of Torah or Halakhic values? Does it hinder our quest for aliving a life of kedusha ?There is no doubt in my mind that it does. That is not to say that we are not to perform mitzvot "k'hichata" (according to their strictures) but there is a qualitative difference between the learning of the halacha and its performance.
The example of the obsession with the tzniut of women's clothing shows how we have bastardized a supreme value of how to live our lives by measuring and moralizing in the wrong places. We have, in the words of Jacques Ellul transferred "the sense of the sacred … to technique itself".

A Quick Reminder: In Israel we change our clocks tonight - back one hour. Yom Kippur ends before 6pm ... another reason to make aliya. As of tomorrow we will be NY+6 and London+1.

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Wednesday, October 01, 2003

A Quick Request:
There appear to be quite a few "returnees" to this blog. If you enjoy the writing, please feel free to comment - and if there are friends or acquaintences who might enjoy it, please forward the URL: http://outofstepjew.blogspot.com.
Thank you.

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Tomorrow we will continue our discussion that we started yesterday regarding the "worship of technique" by centering on the article we quoted by Rabbi Singer.

In the meanwhile there was in interesting comment in an article in The New Atlantis. This article, called "Why Conservatives Care about Biotechnology" by the editor of The Public Interest Adam Wolfson, paraphrases the quirky biologist J.B.S. Haldane (1892-1964) on the differences between the biologist and the physicist:
" The biological inventor is different from other scientists. For example, the physicist, Haldane argued, is a modern day Prometheus, and his inventions are thought to be a threat to some God – that , a kind of blasphemy. The biological inventor, in Haldane's view, is of a different type and character. His ultimate aim is not to challenge the gods but to overturn the human things – that is our primordial moral intuitions".
So, the physicist is a challenge to the divine universe and the biologist to a human-centered world. The physicist challenges the "causes" in the world and the biologist challenges the our "primordial moral intuitions" - better known as "common sense".
According to Hannah Arendt in The Human Condition, "It is by virtue of common sense that the other sense perceptions are known to disclose reality and are not merely felt as irritations of our nerves … A noticeable decrease in common sense in any given community and a noticeable increase in superstition and gullibility are therefore almost infallible signs of alienation from the world".
The physicist is not a challenge to the religious person because his 'blasphemy' is only theoretical.
The biologist – or really the bio-technologist may be different. The question is, does he want to understand our "biological common sense" (our genetic makeup) better, so as to sharpen our awareness of the world – or is he trying to undo that "common sense" because of the perceived evil that is humanity and cause further "alienation from the world" ?
Where we might in the past have wanted to separate science from our deepest beliefs, from religion – can we afford to do that now?

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