Sunday, November 30, 2003

Heeling the Rift? 

Saul Singer wrote about the Orthodox- non-Orthodox rift by quoting Michael Steinhardt as saying that "we have become two distinct peoples". Singer goes on to analyze the situation and hints that the solution, if there is one, lies at the feet of the modern-Orthodox world.

I don't know that 'unity' in the strict sense of the world is what we are looking for here, or what any one group can provide. However, what modern-Orthodoxy has that the haredi or Chabad worlds on the one hand or the Conservative and Reform on the other don't is the ability to sit, listen and talk to people on all sides.

I don't think we really need to agree on too many things regarding theology. The modern-Orthodox accept "torah mishamayim" (the Torah as revelation) with the same strength as the haredi world and we accept the primacy of science over midrash, kabbalah and agada when describing the world around us no less than the Conservative and Reform worlds. Each of the modern-Orthodox viewpoints causes theological problems that the others don't have (the exception of course being those Convesrvative Jews who also accept unapologetic revelation and those Haredi Jews who are scientists) - but that is what keeps us comfortable in both worlds.

The only real areas we need to agree on are the basic Jewish texts that need to be studied and of course the age old 'Who is a Jew?' question. As to the former, we can certainly agree on a 'lowest common denominator' and as to the latter, a situation where politics were removed from the discussion could probably bring agreement there, too. One other issue – which is really an offshoot of the 'who is a Jew? question is the treatment of Agunot (women who cannot marry because of a lack of a proper divorce or the unconfirmed death of a missing husband). I think of this as an offshoot of the 'who' question because the only real practical problem for Clal Yisrael (the People of Israel) is that of children born of a marriage to an Aguna.

We can certainly solve the unity problem by focusing on the proper issues and the only group that can do this in an intellectually honest and clear way are the modern-Orthodox.

Which brings me to last Thurday night. In the Binyamei Hauma hall in Jerusalem there was a 70th anniversary reunion of Hashomer Hadati/Bnei Akiva of North America. The hall was filled with olim who were members of Bnei Akiva of N.A. as well as the bogrim (graduates) who have yet to make aliya. It was a great evening as we could meet friends, chanichim (students/campers) and madrichim (counselors) of days gone by.

The organizers did a wonderful thing by highlighting not only the diversity of views that Bnei Akiva of N.A. has (or at least had) but the contribution of bogrim from BANA in all fields from education to science to Torah to women's issues (one group inexplicably left out , was the business world – but that is probably owing to the socialist past – we were all sinners once).

If there is a group who still view the health of the Jewish people and not the political party or religious sect as the supreme goal it is those of us who have no clear identity, who can't seem to find a place for ourselves at the table, who are theologically orthodox but seek truth wherever it may be found and who see the solving of halakhic and other problems that prevent a semblance of unity as critical issues, it is the modern-Orthodoxy as represented by the "Torah va'Avodah" of my old "alma mater" – Bnei Akiva of North America.

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Thursday, November 27, 2003

Draft Day 

Although I was awake on and off since about 2:45am, the alarm got my wife and I out of bed a little after five. My eldest son was up already, packed, ready to put on tephilin, eat and wait. By 6:20, his grandmother, two brothers and one sister were piling into the car for the short ride to the base.

The base is referred to, as is nearly everything in the Army, with "rashei tevot" – abbreviations that form words in and of themselves (much like the US Army favorite, snafu – Situation Normal All Fouled Up). The base here is called the Bakkum (Baseese Klita u'Miyun) - or as we like to refer to it in our house, the Vacuum – where it sucks up our boys and girls.

Once in the Bakkum we proceeded to embarrass our son by taking all sorts of pictures and crying all sorts of tears. At 7:28 my youngest son announced that in two more minutes his brother would officially be a soldier. A strange feeling went through me then. A feeling of concern I think more than of fear. Like any good father I want my son to be tough and to be able to be, in the words of a psychiatrist friend of mine, an autonomous individual. But we really don't like to see our sons suffer – and suffer he will in the next few months of basic training, infantry training, anti-terror training and who knows what else training.

The fear I expect will come later.

His name went up on the electronic board along with the names of other prospective tzanchanim. An announcement went out telling the boys to immediately go and board the bus in the parking lot. We all walked him there. Kisses and more tears, pictures of hugs and a big smile from the proud face of his younger brother – the next in line (im yirtzeh hashem b'dir ?) for soldier hood. A hug from his youngest brother, his sister hugged him twice (we missed the picture the first time), then Savta, dad and of course his mother, the proud and worried mother who would glady have changed places with her son.

Then to the bus.

Well, I hope I am not revealing any state secrets by telling you what happened next. As they went up the stairs to the bus, a young (aren't they all?) chayelet (female soldier) greeted each of the new draftees - the tough young boys with bulging muscles and marine hair cuts, the boys who have had enough of their moms and sisters, the future defenders of the Jewish people - she greeted them with …. a lollypop.

Welcome to the Jewish army.

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Wednesday, November 26, 2003

Hillel Again ?!! 

I couldn't resist linking to this childish story in De'iah ve'Dibur on the evils of not being "machmir" (stringent) when keeping halacha. Do these people cringe every time they see that once again the Halacha is like (the more lenient) Bet Hillel and not like (the more stringent) Bet Shammai?

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Tuesday, November 25, 2003

Aguda vs. Mizrachi, redux 

There are some things which are assumed to be settled, so that even those who vehemently opposed them in the past finally admit error. That the world is not flat, that the earth revolves around the sun and not vice versa is no longer argued. In Judaism, there are no longer any opponents of Miamonides as there were.

That there still exist Jews who consider themselves religious and oppose Zionism is something that still fascinates me. Although the Chinese communist leader Chou en Lai, when asked to judge the success of the French revolution stated that 'not enough time had gone by to judge" for most of us, the more than 50 years of Israel and all that it has accomplished is enough to judge the necessity of Zionism. Sure, politics makes people attack this or that government, people are called traitors or apostates as the conversation deteriorates, but there doesn't really seem to ideological opposition to Zionism in the religious camp in the way there was in the first half of the 20th century.

Yet, now comes an article in the haredi online publication Dei'ah Ve'dibur entitled "The Downfall after the Illusion of Pride" by Yisrael Spiegel which attacks not the policies of Religious Zionist politicians and rabbis but of Religious Zionism itself. It claims not a political failure of some sort, but its failure and "downfall". The reason for this downfall is not a political mistake but a sin. Two sins actually, the "sin of Zionism" and the sin of "pride" (a Christian sin, actually).

Using a year old article in Ha'aretz by Yisrael Harel, a writer and leader in the Settlement movement, as his backdrop, Spiegel goes on to attack the "ridiculous and artificial liaison which they (the Religious Zionists) tried to create between those who deny the Torah and those who keep it …" .

Spiegel's attacks continue by stating that the Religious Zionists "…separated themselves knowingly and consciously from chareidi Judaism and all those who continued to adhere to the standards of the ancient tradition… But the Religious Zionists sacrificed their connections with those close to them for the sake of an alliance with those so distant from them…".

What is most fascinating is quotation he brings as the heart of his article by R. Elchanan Wasserman, a leader of Aguda in the 1930's and fanatical opponent of Zionism who was tragically murdered by the Nazis in 1941. After accusing "all" the leaders of Zionism as "apostates to the hilt", R. Wasserman declares it is "forbidden to join them even for holy purposes".

"And if you think" R. Wasserman continues, "that they are capable of bringing salvation to the Jewish people in a material sense then, my friends you do not understand something very elementary: that people like those, who established for themselves a goal to eradicate … Hashem's Torah from the Jewish people, are capable only of being the emissaries of Satan…".

What are we to make of an article like this ?

Let us first analyze the arguments from the point of view of Haredi Judaism. Let us see, if by their own yardstick, Zionism has contributed or taken from the development of Haredi Judaism – the form of Judaism that all other Jews "separated" themselves from.

I think we can all agree that the primary goal of Haredi Judaism is to raise boys who will learn Torah day and night. Let us even assume that like the Gaon of Vilna, Haredi Jews believe that learning Torah in the Land of Israel is if not a greater good than learning it in Lithuania or New Jersey – certainly a great "zchut", or honor. No less a goal is providing the ability for Haredi families to perform as many mitzvot as well as possible.

Using those as yardsticks we can see the success of Zionism in building up the Yeshiva world in ways that even the wealthy and free American Jewish community has not done. In the first years of the State of Israel, less than 500 boys were given army deferments for full time Torah study. Last year, nearly 30,000 were given these deferments. That is an increase of about 5,000% in a little over 50 years (or 650% when adjusting for population increase).

If more people are learning more Torah in the Land of Israel today than in any other time in Jewish history, we can only point to the presence of a Jewish army – the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) as the main catalyst. The main target of the 1929 Arab riot in Hebron were the students of the Hebron Yeshiva – now situated, under the protection of the IDF, in Jerusalem.

Now, the Haredi spokesmen such as Yisrael Speigel may claim that God would have protected such a large community of Torah learners without the IDF, but we can point out two painful facts: The first is that although they fanatically deny the honor of joining the IDF to their own boys, Haredi rabbis have never, to my knowledge, called for disbanding the Zionist army. To my knowledge they have never called for the unilateral disarmament of the IDF in favor of giving the many billions of dollars in the defense budget to the Yeshivot.

The second and more painful fact is that God did not intervene to save pious and learned Jewish communities in Europe during the Shoah and there is no reason to "Lismoch al-hanes" (rely on a miracle) not sixty years later. This is not a statement that is meant to judge God and God's actions during the Shoah – this is neither the time nor the place for such a discussion. Speigel will surely attack me for bringing the Shoah into this argument, but it is irresponsible for great thinkers and leaders not to reinterpret their views in light of the Shoah. Would R. Wasserman have re-thought his views, had he not died al-Kiddush Hashem ? We will never know.

As for the performance of mitzvot – its safe to say that never in the history of the world have so many Jews eaten produce that is grown in the Land of Israel in which Teruma and Ma'ser have been taken. Never have so many Jews eaten so much kosher meat and chicken as happens now in Israel. True enough, there is a reaction against all this keeping of mitzvot – but nevertheless, the mitzvot are kept.

We have not mentioned the generous monetary support that the Zionist state has given to Haredi families for years, support that allowed them to live as they wished without having, like their ancestors and the Rabbis of old, to have to work to support their limud Torah. R. Shach didn't have to be a wine merchant like Rabbenu Tam, nor did his wife have to operate a store, like the wife of the Gaon or Vilna. The Zionist state provided subsiodized food, shelter, education and free medical care to the rabbis, their families, their students and their student's families.

But the main point here is - if the Religious Zionists were wrong then and now about "cooperating" with the apostates, what was the other option? Speigel claims that (before WWII) the religious Zionists "… turned their backs to the warnings of the leaders of that generation who cautioned and defined with pinpoint precision the very essence of Zionism and its true goal. They then predicted and clearly envisioned the difficult developments to which we are today witness".

The "difficult developments" that Speigel refers to are the viscous attacks that religious Zionism has undergone over the last ten years – especially since the assassination of Yitzchak Rabin. But again – we need to ask, are these "difficult developments" that the rabbis apparently envisioned and predicted more or less difficult than what would have happened without a Zionist state? How many of these Religious Zionists would have been murdered in the eastern-European death camps had they heeded the calls and warnings of those rabbis?

Let us assume for a moment that not only had the Mizrachi rabbis which Speigel derides so much, but even the "apostate Zionist leaders" had listened to the warnings of Agudat Yisarel. We don't know of course for certain, but where would the Jewish refugees of the Holocaust gone? We forget that they were in refugee camps in Europe and Cyprus three full years after their liberation! Would the Poles and the Lithuanians have been forced to take the survivors back ? If so, what would have happened to limud torah in the center of Communist atheism? Would they have been sent to Africa ? Certainly, the United States and Western Europe were in no mood to take in additional hundreds of thousands of Jewish refugees.

What would have happened to the Jews of the former Soviet Union ? What would have happened to them after the fall of Communism had they not had a place to run to? What would have happened to the Ethiopian Jews ? Which country in the world would have accepted tens of thousands of black Jews in their borders?

We can go on and on. What is clear is that with all of its troubles and in spite of the current spate of anti-Semitism the Zionist enterprise has been a boon for the Jewish people in general and for Haredi Judaism in particular.

Agudat Yisrael rabbis of the past erred. They were wrong on the major issue of the day: Zionism and the future of European Jewry. They even opposed having their flock move to America (the treife medina). Their error not only caused an unnecessary rift in religious Judaism it inadvertently caused the death of many thousands if not hundreds of thousands of European Jews by not encouraging them to move to the Land of Israel when they had the chance.

Today, Haredi Jews from Brooklyn, from Antwerp and from Chicago come to Israel to learn Torah – all because the hated Religious Zionists "separated" themselves from Haredi Judaism and built up an infrastructure in Israel now used by Haredi Jews.

Forgetting the other slanders that Speigel makes in his article what amazes is how out of touch the Haredi religious and intellectual leadership is with its own community. Are the Haredi masses really still anti-Zionists? Do they really hold the religious boys who defend their right to live and learn Torah in the Land of Israel in such disdain? After following the election returns over the last ten years, it appears not.

As my son makes his final preparations for his service as a paratrooper in the IDF, I wonder how many haredi boys will look at him, with his kipa, with his uniform and with his gun, with the same pride that the Netziv had in his Bet Midrash in Volozhin. That Spiegel and the rabbis whose views he mimics don't is a shame on them. It is they who have separated themselves from the community of believers and doers.

What we must ask ourselves again is: What would the Jewish world look like had we listened to the "daas Torah" that R. Wasserman and Yisrael Speigel hold so dear and not been full partners in the building of the country we call Israel?

I think we can all imagine the tragic answer.

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Sunday, November 23, 2003

A Son in the Army, Part 3: Mission 

Sometime in the early 19th century, Rav Avraham Danzig, the author of the halakhic work Hayyei Adam, gave his children and descendents a wish or blessing that for seven generations they not have to serve in the army. This was an important and understandable blessing, seeing that the Czar drafted young boys for terms of twenty-five years. Serving in the Czar's army could not have been something that a young Jewish boy yearned to do. To defend your own people is one thing, but to be forced to defend your oppressors and their land was just plain cruel.

For seven generations the descendents of the Hayyei Adam escaped military service. In the eighth generation my father served as a chaplain in the United States Army. Surely, the blessing, even if R. Danzig meant seven to mean forever, would not apply to an Army whose role it was to the defend the freedom of all of its citizens – even its Jewish ones. This concept of being a citizen in a free country probably was beyond the scope of understanding of the Jews of Vilna of the early 19th century.

My son is the tenth generation from the Hayyei Adam and he will do something that would surely have astounded and thrilled him: Serve in a Jewish army defending the right of Jews to live as Jews in the Land of Israel.

Today's haredi rabbis feel themselves the true heirs of the likes of the author of the Hayyei Adam and his teacher, the Gaon of Vilna. But the Gaon sent his students to the Land of Israel and planned to move there himself. R. Avraham Danzig wrote a book on the laws that pertain to the Land of Israel in order to make it possible to live there and perform its special mitzvot in the here and now – and they did all of this without the advent of the messiah.

The loss of innocence of the Jewish people brought a tremendous responsibility to those who bravely chose to act without evidence of a messianic kingdom.

This responsibility is to man and to God; it is not a burden but an honor. This responsibility is a mission.

We are now locked in a battle that requires good people to delay their life's dreams in order to fulfill a mission that will allow people to live their lives in dignity and in freedom. For the world at large this means the right to liberty and the right to take responsibility for developing a real relationship to the Others of this world through ethical behavior in general and through "mitzvot ben adam l'chavero" in particular.

For a Jew the mission also includes defending the right to live as Jews in a Jewish country in the land of Israel; defending the right to take responsibility for the relationship with God through "mitzvot ben adam l'chavero" and through "mtizvot ben adam lamakom".

For good or for bad we live in this world and do not depend on miracles in order to live our lives as they ought to be lived. For this reason, eighteen year old boys and girls in Israel have as their initial mission an end to their own personal innocence of childhood in order to fulfill their responsibility to the Other in a most aggressive and unpleasant way.

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Thursday, November 20, 2003

A Son in the Army, Part 2: Responsibility 

Emmanuel Levinas writes: "Ethics … does not supplement a proceeding existential base; the very node of the subjective is the knotted in ethics, understood as responsibility … I understand responsibility as responsibility for the Other…" (Ethics and Infinity, p. 95).

For Levinas as opposed to his antagonist Heidegger, ethics, or more precisely ethical behavior does not pre-suppose a correct understanding of (my) "existence". I don't have to know "who I am" before I can act ethically. And to act ethically is to take responsibility for someone who is not I, for the Other.

We live in a world threatened by nihilism where human lives and relationships are considered worth living only in the "world to come". Religions and ideologies do not strive to build a livable society of good individuals acting in responsibility to one another, but rather a group of individuals each striving to enter the world to come, irrespective of the damage it does to those around them.

We see this in our own religion as the mechanical has trumped the spiritual and the spiritual has trumped the human to create societies that are based on strict performance to increase the chances of a life in the "world to come" at the expense of living with dignity in this world. We see it in the anti-human ideologies and philosophies of the likes of animal rights fanatic Peter Singer. We see it in the rioting of spoiled youth who want to save the earth by ridding it of humanity. These examples of nihilism are destructive to society at large by cheapening life on earth in the hope that it will lead to a more pleasant "world to come".

But that nihilistic behavior is usually checked before it leads to more extreme violence.

There is a nihilism of a different order though that is truly threatening to many thousands of communities in general and to many thousands of Jewish communities in particular. It is the nihilism of anti-Semitism and Islamic fundamentalism – and is so far removed from other nihilistic beliefs and practices that we almost need to call it by a different name. This nihilism is destructive of all it touches – from its own societies to those near and far.

The ethical thing to do is to take responsibility for the Other and to do what is necessary to fight and destroy that which harms this Other. In order to act ethically and take responsibility for the Other, even the Other who as Levinas teaches us does not want us to take responsibility for him, we must be willing to act in ways that our more shallow selves may think immoral.

To act ethically, is to take responsibility for a situation in spite of the unpleasant actions that need to be taken to support ethical behavior. For those of us living in Israel, to act ethically is to fight, violently if necessary, against the nihilism that will destroy the Other who is not only my friend and family, but my enemy as well.

As my son approaches his army service he is blessed with a strong sense of responsibility for the Other that is the Jewish people as well as those he will be trained to fight. In one week he will join a unit that will come face to face with the nihilists and their families. He will need that sense of responsibility in order to gain the courage to act ethically toward the Other and possibly to do what is unpleasant.

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Tuesday, November 18, 2003

A Son in the Army, Part 1: Innocence 

I don't get into a lot of personal discussions here, my life isn't that interesting. However, with a little over a week until my eldest son is drafted into the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) I feel a need and a responsibility to bring my thoughts paper, so to speak.

On Thanksgiving Day (in the US) my son will be drafted into the Paratroopers Brigade of the IDF. Unlike the other infantry units, the paratroopers, the "tzanchanim" are a volunteer unit. They are better trained and more disciplined than the other units, have a reputation high motivation and moral sense, for professionalism and toughness. The tzanchanim have been involved in most of the important battles that the state of Israel has faced in its 55 years of existence.

Within the tzanchanim are units that are involved in the more dangerous aspects of the operations - units like reconnaissance, urban warfare and anti-terror units and it is in one of these units that my son hopes to serve.

He will be drafted on a Thursday, come home on Friday and on Sunday start a two or three day "gibush" which weeds out the best from the better and determines where the boys will serve. He and his comrades in arms will serve for three years. Those that get chosen for officer school will serve an additional year or two. My second son is four years younger than his older brother and four years older than his younger brother and sister.

My wife and I are starting on a ten year period of having at least one child in the army each year.

For century upon century war was not an option for the Jewish people. Threats, pogroms, murderous outrage and insults came and went, yet the Jewish response was never war. Murder-suicide in the face of the forced conversions of the Crusades turned into a ritual complete with blessings and piyutim, yet war was never an option.

Were the leaders of the communities, the rabbis, being practical in assuming that raising an army was useless and counter-productive ? Were they living the word of God in building an ideology based on death "al kiddush hashem" ? Did the rabbis look to the Tanach and all the war stories told there as alien to the life of serving God?

Sometime over the last one-hundred years, war became an option for the Jewish people. Is this progress, a certain maturity or coming of age of the oldest monotheistic religion? Or is it a regression from the pristine world we have lived in for that last centuries?

George Steiner, the literary critic and all-knowing thinker responded to an article in Azure about his views on Judaism by stating: "To survive, Israel must use torture and systematic humiliation of its neighbors and enemies. For two-thousand years, we Jews were not in a position to torture other human beings. That was our incomparable nobility and mission. Israel has taken away this immense privilege from all living Jews, wherever they may be".

Steiner may claim to be talking about the current war in which we fight not an enemy on a battlefield but an enemy that stalks our children while hiding behind theirs. In reality, he is upset that his innocence has been taken from him. Like a child who finally finds out that his father is not infallible, George Steiner has realized that the people who so "proudly" went to their deaths for 2,000 years are not so innocent after all.

Steiner has discovered that being in a situation where you might have to harm or "torture" people means that occasionally you might act in a way that betrays the high morals of the world around you. This, for Steiner is innocence lost.

Imre Kertesz captured the essence of innocence in his book "Fateless". The young boy who serves as the narrator and main character of the book is taken from his home in Budapest on a long train ride.

When arriving at Auschwitz:
"The news soon spread: suitcases and packages should stay there. Later, they explained , as the words were translated and passed around, later everyone would be given back his belongings, of course. But first disinfecting awaited the luggage and a bath awaited us. Indeed, it was high time for that, I thought to myself."

Then this innocent Hungarian Jewish boy met his brethren:
"Then the natives approached me, and I finally caught my first glimpse of them. I was quite surprised, because, after all, this was the first time in my life that I had set eyes on – at least in such close proximity- real convicts, clad in striped suits of criminals, with shaven heads and round caps. … On their breasts, next to the customary number for convicts, I also saw a yellow triangle…. Their faces too, were not particularly trustworthy… I found them suspicious and altogether strange"

On Tisha B'av and on the high holidays we read piyut (poem) and piyut written by witnesses to the murder-suicide ritual that the Jewish leaders encouraged as answers to the attempts at forced conversions by the Crusaders. We read of the Jews of Mainz and of York who killed their children and themselves. We read of the mothers who found their frightened children and killed them as the only alternative to, literally, baptism by fire.

Were these actions really our "nobility and mission" as George Steiner would have it?

Is my son now part of the problem of the loss of Jewish innocence or is he one who is helping his people overcome the tragedy of innocence? Is he, as one who will readily defend people and country by resorting to violence, betraying that which has made us a great people over the last 2000 years or helping a people refine its greatness by facing up to the challenges that the world around puts in front of us?

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Monday, November 17, 2003

Jewish Spirituality? Aargh! 

I really wasn't sure what to think after seeing the blurb on the article "Recovering the Jewish Spirit" in Jewsweek. A teacher of Jewish philosophy at YU is upset that "Jewish spirituality has been tarnished by pop celebrity interest and a lack of rigorous education within the Jewish community".

It seems a wonderful idea to fight against the celebrity shallowness that has taken over so much of Judaism and its strange new adherents to Kaballah and to Carlebach worship.
Yet after reading further I realized that Dr. Alan Brill, the head of the new Kavanah Center seems like my old gemara rebbe, who in order to be "in with the boys" would play basketball every once in a while.

Apparently, Brill wants to slightly intellectualize the new-age garbage that has turned Judaism into "Jewish spirituality". He intends on combining "meditative techniques" that are found in the Kabbalah with textual study of the Zohar and Hasidic texts.

When Brill was quoted as saying: "There are few out there cultivating serious and traditional Jewish thought in America similar to all the recent developments in Israel" I really didn't know what he was talking about. Although intelelcutally there is a lot going on in Israel (like the Da'at Mikra tanach commentary that we spoke of the other day) "Jewish spirituality" is of the same depth on both sides of the ocean.

I don't have objections to learning the Zohar and Chasidic texts - but not if that's how you compete with the New Age.

If you want to study and confront Judaism intellectually through the study of its wonderful texts, by all means - but if you are looking for a better TM.... please.

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Sunday, November 16, 2003

Our Right to Life 

Once again Jews were killed for being Jews. Dr. Judt doesn't believe we have a right to defend ourselves with arms (that must be the conclusion of the demand for an Alternative to Israel), yet in country after country we loose our right to life.

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Thursday, November 13, 2003

Mittleman Answers the Parent's Guide 

In last month's issue of First Things, Alan Mittleman discusses a pamphlet that is apparently making its way through the Internet entitled "Parent’s Guide to Orthodox Assimilation on Campus" by two graduate students at MIT and Harvard. I haven't seen the pamphlet but according to Mittleman's discussion of it, they seem to have panicked after seeing some Orthodox kids end up not too religious.

The pair seem to want to encourage parents to limit their children's exposure to those things that challenge their children's religious lives – be it intellectual or social. They cite various Jewish Studies courses and the Hillel houses as two apparent "traps" into which these unassuming young boys and girls seem to fall. Their solution is not as Mittleman would prefer "a Hischian" one – referring to Samson Raphael Hisrch's "Torah with Derech Eretz" - but rather a "sociological one". This means of course isolation from the world at large. They even discourage "kiruv" urging the students to leave it to "kiruv professionals" - the strangest profession to be sure.

Mittleman answers them well:
"A mood of fretfulness thus pervades the pamphlet. The tactics it advocates—emotionalism and disengagement—attest to a failure of intellectual nerve. There is a theological vacuum behind the anxiety. Although the authors gingerly suggest that the yeshiva high schools expose their students to “potentially troubling theories such as evolution and the Documentary Hypothesis,” they also recognize that the high schools might “lack the resources to successfully implement this proposition.” Better, then, for it to be dealt with by the intellectual and spiritual leaders of Modern Orthodoxy. They are the ones who ought to “articulate sophisticated responses to the complex questions” raised by contemporary Bible scholarship, Jewish Studies, and so forth. But who are these leaders today? Modern Orthodoxy has no one approaching the stature of its late leader, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik. And does the posture of waiting for authorities to work out strategies really befit people who are products of the modern university? Should they not have learned to think for themselves, especially in an area touching intimately on the quality of their own faith?
There is a cautionary tale here about the neglect of theology. Modern Orthodoxy for too long has relied on sociology—familism, solidarity, youth groups, institutional loyalties—instead of intellectually sophisticated apologetics. It has written off the bolder elements of its own Hirschian legacy, let alone any ongoing engagement with modern philosophy, in favor of an increasingly otherworldly fundamentalism. Its synagogues have jettisoned the hoary Hertz Pentateuch, which, to be sure, was florid in its Victorian prose but also honest in its confrontation with modern scholarship, in favor of the rigidly fundamentalist Art Scroll translation. Likewise, Modern Orthodoxy’s immense success in building up a socially vibrant culture in the American suburbs has distracted it from the requisite intellectual task of providing depth and justification for its way of life. "

Mittleman has hit so many raw nerves that it is difficult to know where to start. The "Art-Scrollization" of our religion is surely one of the worst events to hit modern Orthodoxy since the death or Rav Soloveitchik. The trend is not only toward simplistic readings of the classic Jewish texts but of a laziness of massive proportions. Why read Rashi in the original and figure out his genius if Mr. Art Scroll spoon feeds us his own take on him? Interestingly, the Israeli branch of modern Orthodoxy (dati-leumi, if you will) has produced modern commentaries on the Tanach that meet the intellectual challenges that Mittleman discusses. The "Da'at Mikra" commentary published by Mossad Harav Kook is a masterpiece of modern religious scholarship. If the American modern Orthodox community were serious about its intellectual mission its first task would be to translate the Da'at Mikra into English.

As for leadership, alas, no one will probably reach the stature of R. Soloveitchik any time soon. Whatever you may have thought of the Rav and his colleagues in Torah who were the last generation of European scholars, Rabbis such as Soloveitchik, Leiberman, Hutner, Weinberg, Feinstein, Berkowitz, Schneerson, Kotler and others – they are sorely missed by all of us. The religious leadership in our and our sister communities is inferior in nearly every way.

However, that doesn't mean that the leadership we do have can't take greater responsibility for our future. That doesn't only mean setting up and running yeshivot, but in being brave enough to teach modern-Orthodoxy not as a lesser alternative to the haredi way of life but as the preeminent way of serving God.

The problems Mittleman and the two pamphleteers discuss are real enough, but as Mittleman says the solution is in confrontation with the world around us, not in withdrawing from it.

Here in Israel the problem is no less serious. We send our children to the army for three years or more where they face physical, emotional, social and intellectual challenges to their faith in ways that American universities students can't fathom. But in this too, the solution ought not to be sociological but intellectual. The solution is not in separate army units or in trying to "get the boys married" young so that they are pressured by their wives to leave their kippot on their heads.

The solution is in teaching real Torah, real history and real literature (here in Israel the religious school system teaches a different history and literature curriculum than in the secular schools) – in short in giving our children the intellectual foundation not only to be able to respond directly to intellectual and physical challenges but in order to give them the confidence that their community takes itself, its ideas and its religious practices seriously.

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Wednesday, November 12, 2003

Schorsch on Shabbat 

The Forward highlights a debate current in the Conservative movement over the 1950 decision to allow driving to synagogue on Shabbat. Ismar Schorsch, the chancellor of their flagship Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) claims that the decision "gave up on the desirability of living close to the synagogue and creating a Shabbos community."

It would be interesting to know if a decision like this could be reversed - and what kind of effect it would have not on its longtime members, but on its youth. It might rejuvenate the Conservative movement in a way that would allow them to escape their trek through political correctness.

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Tuesday, November 11, 2003

First Glimpse at a new R. Meir ? 

Every once in a while we get to read thoughtful pieces by individuals who have the potential of religious leadership but who end up either fading intellectually or becoming enamored of their own celebrity. From the two articles I have read by R. Meir Soloveitchik though, it could be that we are seeing the works of a real intellecutal and religious leader.

A grandson of R. Aaron Soloveitchik and great-nephew of R. Joseph Dov Soloveithik, R. Meir brings with him not only the Soloveitchik name but also the Solvietchik mind. In an article entitled "Redemption and the Power of Man" in the current Azure quarterly, Soloveitchik takes up the differences between Judaism and Christianity regarding their outlook on man. We spoke the other day about the need to "re-look at our theological relationship with the Catholic Church by examining our own Rabbinic statements on the Church and its beliefs" and the best way to start this is to separate the theological from the polemical.

By highlighting theological differences as R. Meir does here (and did in a brilliant and controversial article "The Virtue of Hate" in First Things a few months ago) we are better able to understand how to approach the relationship between our two religions. By highlighting the theological differences maybe both religions will feel secure enough in their own beliefs so as to eliminate much of the negative polemics that consume our conversations.

The main theme running through the essay highlights the differences that the respective religions have regarding belief in man's moral capacity. For Judaism, the messiah will come because of man's repentance. For Christianity, the messiah comes in order to take the sins of man upon himself. For Judaism, according to Soloveitchik, the belief in the messiah is a belief in the potential goodness of man. For Christianity, it is a belief in original sin. I don't do justice to R. Meir's arguments here – it is worth your while to read the entire essay.

Hopefully this is just the start of a long relationship he will have with the Jewish community in general and the modern Orthodox community in particular.

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Monday, November 10, 2003

Where were the Rabbis? 

The Israeli cabinet voted 12-11 to allow the swap with Hezbollah for (alleged drug dealer) elchanan Tenenbaum - kidnapped by Hezbollah - and the remains of three soldiers.
This issue was clearly a moral and halakhic one. I think many Israelis and most of the cabinet members were not sure how to think on this issue. How far do we have to go in order to redeem a Jew who was kidnapped? The halakhic issue has to do with the commandment to redeem prisoners (Pidyon Sh'vuyim).
Where were the rabbis on this issue ? They were nowhere to be heard. It didn't have to do with the lenghth of skirts or other life and death issues, so they remained silent.
What has state sponsored religion brought us here ? The utter lack of moral leadership.

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Sunday, November 09, 2003

Two from Ha'aretz 

There were two interesting articles in this weekend's Ha'aretz. The first, (available only in Hebrew according to my searches) details the life of one of Israel's last great publishers - Ohad Zmora.
Zmora is the second (and apparently last) generation of publishers of good Hebrew literature - as well as literature in translation. He grew up amongst writers, with Alterman (whom his father published) reading poetry in his living room and Shlonski teaching him chess. He is credited with convincing the great writer S. Yizhar with continuing his writing career after a 30 year absence. All in all Zmora was the publisher of many of the writers known as the Palmach Generation.
Reading this article will give you a taste of Israeli literature and a taste of the life of an important publishing family.

The second article is a bit more disturbing, especially for a religious Jew living in Israel. Yair Sheleg writes "From Holy Writ to 'Writ of Refusal' " (Hebrew ... English), an article detailing the power grab of the religious courts (Bet Din Rabbani). According to Sheleg, the religious court system, set up to deal with laws of marriage and divorce for all Jews in the country is trying to force all religious Jews to use Batei Bin (Religious Courts) to settle all of their legal problems. When one side refuses to give up his right to use the civil courts, the Bet Din issues the equivalent of a Cherem (a religious ban disallowing the individual participation in communal activities such as prayer).
We will cover the new found Rabbinic chutzpa in the future - specifically regarding health issues. In the meantime, get warmed up with this disturbing piece.

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Wednesday, November 05, 2003

The Church, The Holocaust and Us 

One of the issues that still seems to be a thorn in the side of Jewish-Catholic relations is the Church's role in the Holocaust. Good Catholics have had a hard time of it lately as the morally questionable behavior of the Church during WWII has come up against Papal infallibility. Much like a good hasid trying to justify his rebbe's utterances as all logic proves him wrong, the Catholic must theologically perform grand hermeneutics in order to re-explain Church statements and actions.

One magazine, First Things has been at the forefront at the attempt of the Catholic Church to come to terms with their inaction during the Shoah. Their problem has been that on this issue alone their writing has often been defensive or apologetic. They have often tried to explain away various statements and actions of the Church. This goes against the grain of the journal as they rarely pull punches and are almost never apologetic about whatever religious or public policy issue they confront.

On the holocaust and the Church they have finally mended their ways. In an honest and well written piece "The Holocaust: What Was Not Said" by Swiss born priest, and professor (and from a family that he writes is "three-quarters Jewish"), Martin Rhonheimer analyzes the Church's failure to condemn Nazi anti-Semitism. The article is not flawless but Rhonheimer goes through all the public Church statements leading up to the Holocaust and concludes that "the real problem is not the Church's relationship to National Socialism and racism, but the Church's relationship with the Jews".

What Rhonheimer explains is that most of the statements against racism that the Church uttered and that Church apologists use, cannot also be considered statements against anti-Semitism and the Nazi anti-Semitic policies. Much of the Church's reasoning had to do with saving Baptized Jews only. The Church's anti-racist statements coincide with its belief in its own universality. He writes that the "Christian view at the time was that the only solution to the 'Jewish question' was conversion to Christianity". Rhoneheimer argues quite persuasively that condemnation of anti-Semitism was at best an afterthought in Church statements.

Rhonheimer thus states that "It was possible … even as late at 1937, for a Catholic to reject Nazi racial doctrine yet remain an anti-Semite and a supporter of the Nazi regime". He goes through other statements made in the1930's and shows how hard it was for the Church to have changed its historic anti-Judaism even in light of the horrors going on in Europe at the time.

Some of the reasoning behind the Church's behavior was of course political and not theological. It had "interests" in Nazi Germany and wanted them protected. The Jews were just not that high on their list.

What Rhonehiemer has done in the article is presented the facts as they are and interpreted Church statements without trying to justify its behavior. What he doesn't say but what I think we of the early 21st century must understand is the different political, ideological and moral climate of those times. The Church then acted as a country with interests that it wanted protected and not as Pope John Paul II has tried to do today, act as a moral force in the world (even though some of his foreign office priest-bureaucrats think otherwise). Both their historical view of Jews and Judaism as well as their obsession with their "national" interests prevented them from taking a stronger line against Nazi crimes.

One thing that I think Rhonheimer got wrong is his use of the word "tragic" in the following sentence: "Given the undeniable intellectual and moral quality of the German episcopate of that era and the bishops' impressive ideological opposition to Nazi persecution of the Church, their failure with regard to the Jews can only be described as tragic". I might have ended that sentence with the words "grossly immoral" instead. It would have been "tragic" if in spite of their attempts to save Jews, they would have been killed anyway.

That leaves us with our views of the Church today. The current Pope has I feel brought the Church up to grade on its theological relationship to the Jewish people. He has written of the Jews as "our elder brothers" and seems to have driven the theology of anti-Semitism out of the Church. The Church's recent public policy decisions with regards Israel and current European anti-Semitism however show that his influence is not total.

Rhonheimer ends the article with these two important sentences referring to the Pope's "elder brothers" statement mentioned above. "Brotherhood includes, however, the ability to speak openly about past failures and shortcomings. This is true, of course, for both sides. But in view of all that Christians have done to Jews in history, it is Christians who should take the lead in the purification of memory and conscience."

That is a statement I agree with wholeheartedly. But what must we Jews do - not because of the Holocaust, but in spite of it? Maybe we should start to act as the Pope has called us, like an "elder brother".

What that means is that we must feel free to point out where the Church goes wrong on the issue of Jews and Israel today (without in my mind getting involved in their internal theological or religious discussions). We should also reexamine our own public policy relationship with the Holy See by acting as an ally whenever possible on international moral issues. We must also start to re-look at our theological relationship with the Catholic Church by examining our own Rabbinic statements on the Church and its beliefs. This is especially so here in Israel where the Rabbinic view of Christianity in general and Catholicism in particular has not left the European shtetl. This is understandable considering our memory of the Churches abetting of crimes against us for so many years – yet, it is in our own interests today when we face yet another religious war against yet another religion to ally ourselves to our "younger brother" – be he Edom or not.

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Tuesday, November 04, 2003

Soferet ST"aM 

There is an interesting article in Moment magazine on a female Soferet STaM (those who write a Sefer Torah, Tefillin and Mezuzah). The woman is a twice converted Jew (once by a Conservative Bet Din, then by an Orthodox one) and studied with an anonymous sofer in Jerusalem. She has been commissioned to write a Sefer Torah by a Seattle congregation.

I am not sure what to think about this. It seems just the type of thing that Judaism would permit a woman to do: The sofer works on his own, so there is no problem of "kavod Hatzibur" (the difficult and esoteric halakhic concept of Respect for the Community). Yet, the Talmud (Gittin 45b) and Maimonides (Hilchot TM"ST 1:13) state clearly that because the woman is not obligated in wearing tefillin, she is not permitted to write a Torah (or mezuzah or tefillin).

What are we to do about this? You have to wonder if there is a halakhic way to allow this and other women to be sefrot STaM. Although not an issue like that effects thousands of women (unlike issues relating to synagogue practice) this seems to be an opportunity for our modern-Orthodox community to increase the level of limud-Torah and religious practice of our girls and women. This seems an interesting vocation for the many educated and artistic girls that are in our midst.

Orthodox Judaism is slowly but surely finding places for woman within our everyday religious lives. Who amongst us has not learned Torah with Nechama Leibowitz ? There is even training here in Israel for Yoatzot Halacha (female halakhic advisors) and the religious courts also permit women to argue cases before them.

What better example cana young religious mother set for her children than the writing of mezuzot?

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Sunday, November 02, 2003

Bnei Brak Pie 

It's hard not to laugh a little bit when reading this article in the haredi press about "chassidic rock 'n roll". The author uses quotes from the 'goyish' press like Newsweek and Variety (!!) from the 1950's to prove his point about the immorality of rock 'n roll. He quotes the homosexual (a faygele nuch !!!) Alan Bloom!! He even quotes Frank Sinatra for God's sake !!
What has the world come to ? – the haredim have been infiltrated by the red menace that is rock 'n roll.

With apologies to Don MacLean

Bnei Brak Pie

A long long time ago,
I can still remember how,
That rebbe used to make me learn.
And I knew if I had my chance
That I could make those yiddin dance,
And maybe they'd be happy for a turn.
Asara b'Teves made me shiver,
With every chiddush I'd deliver.
Bad news at the Reb's tish;
I couldn't eat one more dish.
I can't remember if I cried
When I realized the nigun died
But something touched me deep inside
The day the Rebbe jived
So . . .

Shanda, Shanda for Bnei Brak simchas
They're playing heavy metal on both sides of the mechitzas.
While them good ole bochrim were drinking vodka and schnaps
And singing "This'll be the day that we all plotz,
This'll be the day we all plotz"

Do you dance while you kick and shove ?
And do you have faith in God above?
If the Toyrah tells you so?
Can you warn of the tznius patrol;
And keep the rebbe from my mortal soul,
And can you teach me how to dance with a Shiksa ho?
I know that you've been playin' rock;
'Cause I saw the maydel with your sock.
You both kicked off your shoes;
Man, I dig those haredi blues.
I was a lonely teenage learnin' guy
With a big black hat and a dirty tie.
But I knew I was out of luck
The day the rebbe jived.
I started singing . . .

Shanda, Shanda for Bnei Brak simchas
They're playing heavy metal on both sides of the mechitzas.
While them good ole bochrim were drinking vodka and schnaps
And singing "This'll be the day that we all plotz,
This'll be the day we all plotz"….

I met my kallah under the chuppa
And I asked her for some tasty suppa,
But she just smiled and turned away.
So I went to the beis medrash hall
Where my bochrim used to dance and fall.
But the gabbai said the music wouldn't play.
And in the streets the yingels shlepped,
The maidels cried, the chossen wept.
But not a word was spoken.
The nigunim all were broken.
And the two men I admire most --
The jivin' rebbe and his holy host,
Joined the kosher music whipping post,
The day the music died.
They were singing . . .

Shanda, Shanda for Bnei Brak simchas
They're playing heavy metal on both sides of the mechitzas.
While them good ole bochrim were drinking vodka and schnaps
And singing "This'll be the day that we all plotz,
This'll be the day we all plotz"….

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