Sunday, October 31, 2004

On Intermarriage: A Rejoinder 

For those who don't read it, the Braita weblog is an entertainingly serious set of essays written by a Jewish Studies academic at an anonymous small-town university who is at home in more worlds than most of us have visited. She is bright, articulate and more knowledgeable in things Jewish than many of us. From reading her blog you get the sense that a more committed Jew, would be hard to find.

Braita is also the daughter of a Jewish mother and Methodist father and in a recent post attacks the common Jewish organizational and religious practice of fighting the "problem" (quotes are hers) of intermarriage.

Braita's main claim is that we should, instead of fighting a loosing intermarriage battle, focus on an "equally ambitious but infinitely more manageable option of giving Jewish children and adults - whatever their parentage and marital choices – a comprehensive program of Jewish learning which includes the Mitzva of teaching Torah diligently to their children". (Patrilineal descent obviously comes into play here as her thesis remains intact halachically, only where the Jewish partner is a woman – but we won't deal with that issue here.)

Braita brings herself as an example of an "intense" Judaish commitment in spite of (because of ?) her being the daughter of an intermarried couple. I would hesitate to argue that a "good" Jew couldn't be the product of intermarriage and she makes a good point in stating that too many of the products of full Jewish marriages are also ignorant of and ambivalent towards Judaism.

However, Braita, I think, misses the point and ignores a basic theme running though even her how posts: Judaism is not just about results – that just because the ends are good (or not any worse) the means are irrelevant.

The question that she doesn't ask is whether intermarriage is something we should remain ambivalent about or does it by its very nature negatively affect a person's commitment to the Masorah and its transmission?

In other words what of intermarriage and the individual Jew? Does it cause harm to this person's Jewishness or does it not matter? What of intermarriage and that element of the Masorah that is its "transmission"? Braita discusses the effect of intermarriage on the children and the Jewish community by comparing it with our enormous failure to educate the next generation of even fully Jewish children, but what of the Jewish individual and family, what of the Masorah?

When we look at the commitment of the individual to his or her Jewishness we look at their dedication to Jewish ritual and learning on the one hand and to Jewish peoplehood on the other. Both of these things need to be looked at from the viewpoint of the Masorah – not the Masorah in the strict Halakhic sense of the word, but Masorah in following what Jews have practiced throughout the ages.

A "Halakhic" view of the Masorah would dictate an exact time for starting and ending the Shabbat, a practical view would dictate a way of celebrating the Shabbat. Here in Israel not only the Conservative movement but shomer-shabbat Sepharadim go by the term "Masorati" (Traditional). The latter use this term to mean that they maintain the general traditions of their parents and grandparents but are not orthodox in their Halakhic observance. A Sepharadi-masorati Jew in Israel might go to synagogue on most shabbatot but will also smoke and drive to soccer matches in the afternoon. His wife will light Shabbat candles and he will always make kiddush, he will never allow a non-kosher item in his house, but be less strict outside. He knows intuitively what is in the masorah and what is not and would never do something that would deny it.

Do the American intermarried Jews fulfill this practical definition of adhering to the masorah? Can someone be considered a committed Jew if in his most intimate and most personal decision – on whom to marry – has broken the taboo that his ancestors cried over? (Let's not denigrate the importance of 'taboo' in religion – for this see H. Soliveithcik's new book "Yenam".) Does the act of intermarriage in itself deny the validity of the masorah and therefore of the essence of Judaism?

To borrow a page from the late Senator Daniel P. Moynihan, does ambivalence regarding intermarriage "define Judaism down"? By taking Braita's results oriented view we allow the individual to abandon key elements of the masorah and its transmission as long as he educates his children in things Jewish. (I assume she includes Jewish actions related to synagogue, Shabbat and holidays and not just book learning in this education.)

The most important element in the transmitting of the masorah is, arguably, the family. What is left of the transmission capability of the family if one of the two key relationships in it, the spousal relationship, is no longer within that Masorah, practically or theoretically? The other key relationship – the parent-child relationship is only a partial relationship when it comes to one of the most important elements of it, the giving over of the "way to God".

Now admittedly, we have the same practical problem if only one parent is committed to the transmission of the Masorah, even if both are Jewish. Theoretically and psychologically thoough, the spousal relationship is still part of the transmission process. The same can be said of a single parent home that is the result of death or divorce.

If we go back to discussing the effect of intermarriage on a person's Jewishness, I think we can define this "Jewishness" as the commitment to the key elements of the practical masorah.

What are these key elements? To the Halakhic Jew these elements would probably be Shabbat, the holidays, kashrut, limud Torah and family life. To the on-Halakhic Jew I would think that although these would also hold, they might give a non-Halakhic definition of the observance of these elements – but would still require some observance, nonetheless.

What unifies all these elements is the last one: Family-life. For any observance certainly one whose secondary goal is transmission of the Masorah, requires a family. (This is not to deny the possibility of leading a masoretic Jewish life while being single, but a discussion on intermarriage allows us to limit ourselves to the family.)

I fully understand Braita's concern with denying the impossibility of being a committed Jewish daughter of an intermarried couple. She is a living witness to its possibility. I myself claim from time to time that my being raised orthodox in non-orthodox towns and neighborhoods has strengthened my Jewishness and don't always understand the obsession orthodox Jews have with limiting their children's exposure to the non-orthodox. I also agree that Jewish education ought to be a, maybe the priority of Jewish communal organizations.

However, that is beside the point.

Even though we are living in post-modern times where the family has been redefined into oblivion, we can all agree (meanwhile) that the beginnings of a Jewish family consists of the union of two Jewish people. If one is not willing to make this commitment to the Masorah, then we can consider that person's Jewish commitment and therefore their "Jewishness" to be compromised in the same way that we consider uncommitted as one who utterly abandons the Shabbat. This isn't meant to claim that the intermarried Jew is any less of a Jew, but certainly we can state without insulting them that they have compromised their Jewishness.

We can't continue to "define Judaism down" by abandoning key elements of our masorah – and we certainly can't remain ambivalent about harming the main tool for its transmission. Braita's points notwithstanding, we have to make it clear to the next generation that marriage outside of the faith is unacceptable. That doesn't mean that we need to abandon the intermarried or their children, but it does mean that this practice is one we cannot accept, in and of itself.

In this age of science (we do still live in the age of science, don't we?) religion has had to rethink its place in the private and family lives of its respective adherents, but it can't be expected to accept all that is "inevitable". Sometimes it has to continue fighting a loosing battle in spite of the costs, lest its appeasement leave it with nothing left to fight for.

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Thursday, October 28, 2004

The Hitnatkut: Part 3, Do you Get It? 

Does the American Jewish community, even the religiously committed one get it? There was a vote the other day in the Knesset that has more moral and security implications to it than any other issue in many years and I see that the Jewish newspapers have banal news articles about it and the Jewish blogs don't seem to think much of it.

I know that rabbinical sex scandals, new minyanim, boring sermons, dates and other items are seriously important, (not to mention the no-brainer of an election choice) but here in Israel we have young people and old people who will have to face moral questions that go beyond "should I date the girl who's mother wears a robe to the Shabbat - sorry, Shabbos – table?".

Let's go over just a few of them:
1. Should a person who has a relative buried in a cemetery in Gush Qatif agree to be transferred out of his house knowing that he will never be able to return to the grave of his loved one and that the grave itself might be desecrated?
2. What should a parent do if his children want to go down to Gaza to protest the evacuation, while the parent supports the withdrawal?
3. What should a parent who lives in Gush Qatif do if his teenage child refuses to leave his home as soldiers stand outside?
4. What should a soldier do when ordered to remove a family from their home and the door is locked?
5. What should a soldier do when ordered to remove a family from their home and when he enters they are at their dinner table?
6. What should a woman do who has run from Warsaw to the Balkans to Cyprus to Haifa to Gush Qatif do when she is told by a young woman soldier to please leave her home?
7. What should the women soldier do, if that woman, with her grandchild in her arms, refuses to leave?
8. Should the residents of Gush Qatif leave their homes and their dreams if they believe that this is a disastrous thing for the country to do?
9. Should the residents of Gush Qatif leave their homes even if they believe it is for the good of the country, but they themselves will suffer terribly for it?
10. Should we allow terrorists or their families to live in the abandoned homes?
11. If a terrorist does move in should the Israeli army forcibly remove them?

I am not saying that your lives have to stop or that you all have to answer the questions in the same way, but the time has come to wake up and understand what your fellow Jews are going through right now. Its time to understand that our children here in Israel have not only been living with terror and in terror for years now but that the tough questions and the impossible answers never end.

The ridiculous rabbis who have told their soldier-students to refuse orders have only distracted us from the real issues involved in this policy. That is not the real story. Individual lives and individual soldiers, real-life decision – that is the real story.

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Tuesday, October 26, 2004

The Hitnatkut and the End of Days: Part 2 

Yesterday, we outlined various positions in support and opposition to the hitnatkut. We also pointed out the dangers in the religio-messianic arguments of both sides.

Today, we will center on the messianic argument in opposition to the Sharon government policy, not because it is weaker or more dangerous to the Jewish people than its sister argument in favor of the hitnatkut, but because this argument threatens to tear apart our community - the religious-Zionist community; this community has, arguably, been the heart and soul of Zionism over the last thirty years, making its cohesion and continuation important for the Jewish state.

The atmosphere in our community in Israel is one of impending crisis. A vast majority of Israel's religious-Zionists oppose the hitnatkut. Most of us, pro and con have friends or relatives in Gaza or in Yehuda and Shomron. There is fear for the security of the country; there is genuine concern of the human and moral cost of uprooting thousands of Jews from their homes, of putting our sons and daughters – our soldiers – in the position of forcibly removing a family from its dinner table.

We are a community in crisis.

True enough, the "in your face" nature of our politics contributes greatly to this crisis. Certainly, the arrogance of the leaders of nearly every party or faction (and this includes Diaspora leaders) aggravates the difficulties we now face.

But this crisis will be nothing compared to the crisis we will find ourselves in if we continue to let our religious and political leaders deal with the issue as "end of days" politics.

In a parent's meeting at the Yeshiva of one of our children, Gush Katif was in the air. The rabbis seemed excited about the prospect of a year of politics and protest in support of their vision that Yishuv Eretz Yisrael is the main catalyst for the immanent arrival of the messiah. There is a supreme confidence that this clash will finally vindicate their worldview that their black and white version of Judaism and politics is what will bring the redemption.

They have taken their entire belief system and bet it in one roll of the dice of what passes for politics in the Mideast.

But what if it comes up craps? What if, as appears likely, that the hitnatkut happens?

What will be their answer to themselves, their children, their students? Will a defeat on this one issue lead them to the underground? Will it lead them to abandon their idealism and their belief system? Will their students turn to another black and white life style like that found in Bnei Brak, or to one like Ramat Aviv Gimel, where no belief system exists?

I am afraid that they won't be able to properly explain failure to themselves or their students. They have been able to explain away Oslo, Hebron, Wye – but this is different.

There are plenty of reasons, as we pointed out yesterday, to oppose the hitnatkut. Those that do have a responsibility to let their representatives know of their opposition. But those who do oppose it (or support it) for messianic reasons must understand the risks involved with making an entire belief system dependent upon one policy issue – no matter how important that issue is. They have to understand that they risk destroying their movement and their community - especially the young who look to leaders for simple answers to complicated questions. Moreover, the corollary is also true: Even if they win the argument democratically, they must understand that it is not a divine vindication of their religio-messianic ideology but just one victory in an ongoing public policy debate – one they will have to defend and compromise over in the years to come.

We can argue, debate, protest and oppose - but we cannot do it on the assumption that we know the timing of or the way to the "end of days".

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Monday, October 25, 2004

The Hitnatkut and the End of Days: Part 1 

Although we try to stay away from politics in this blog, here in Israel that remains a difficult task. Often religion and politics clash not only on ritual and moral issues like Shabbat, kashrut or abortion, but even on foreign policy and security matters. The unilateral withdrawal from Gaza (the hitnatkut) is one of those issues.

Over the next two posts I would like to do two things. For the first post I would like to examine the various reasons why one would be for or against the hitnatkut. On the second post I would like to discuss, not the relative strengths and weaknesses of the two positions but the dangers that will arise from adopting religio-messianic arguments found on both sides of the divide. These arguments, rather than the passage or not of the hitnatkut is what could lead to the sefl-fulfilling prophecies of the apocalyptic arguments. I believe that religious reasoning does have a place in the public square, but that "end of days" declarations provide neither comfort nor real policy alternatives. Our goal here it to take some of the danger out of the arguments that could lead (and for some this is a desirous outcome) to a violent clash, even a civil war in this, the Jewish state.

Arguments For the Hitnatkut:

1. The security of Israeli will be greatly enhanced by the presence of a true border with soldiers out of harm's way unless they go on the offensive. We will be well on the way to solving the demographic problem and it will force the hand of Arafat to jump start final status negotiations without the pressure on our troops in the Gaza strip. We will in the meanwhile treat this territory as Palestinian and attack it only in order to defend against attacks to our land and citizens.

2. The hitnatkut will put Israel into a politically superior position in the global forums, better our PR wars and lead to a lessening of anti-Semitic and anti-Israeli verbal and actual violence in the western world. This act will put us into a politically superior position when responding to terrorism and allows us to act like any other nation that is attacked by its enemies.

3. Regardless of security and PR, the hitnatkut is a moral imperative. The withdrawal from Gaza will repair a moral sin and stop our dive into moral chaos that has been caused by the occupation of foreign peoples and lands. This is an important act of "tikkun" and one that we need to take regardless of its effect on our security situation. If this brings us closer to peace with the Palestinians that would be a great thing, if not, at least it allows us to live a more morally pure life. Not withdrawing immediately means that we will have to raise more of our children under the moral stain of "occupier".

Arguments Against the Hitnatkut:

1. A unilateral withdrawal from Gaza will worsen our security situation: It will give a sign of defeat to the terrorists just at the point when we have all but defeated them. This will also be a vote of confidence for the Islamic terrorists in their war against the US and the western world. We will no longer have the intelligence that has been so important in fighting the war on terror; Our Navy will find it harder to patrol the seas, the army will not be able to stop the infiltration of arms from Sinai, our air force will find it harder to target terrorist leaders, Hizbollah will gain another stronghold with which to destroy us. Kassam missiles and worse will find their way to more and more Israeli towns in the Negev and beyond.

2. It is morally wrong to uproot people from their homes, farms and businesses without a guarantee that what they are doing will be for the good of the country, in other words bring a lasting peace to the country. This moral problem has become more acute in that we are living in a post-Holocaust era where everything we do, say or think must be seen through the lenses of the Shoah. In light of this, Jews in a Jewish state should never be forced to leave their homes at gunpoint.

3. Regardless of security or other moral arguments, we are presently living through the beginnings of the redemption – hatchalta d'geula – so that we are not permitted to give up even one Jewish settlement in Eretz Yisrael. God will not permit this to happen since it will mean a reversal of all history that has occurred to the Jewish people since 1948. The messianic age is irreversible unless we prove ourselves unworthy even at this point. If the hitnatkut is allowed to happen then it will be a sign that we have betrayed our mission from God and that the whole Zionist enterprise will come crashing down bringing disaster upon the Jewish people the world over.

We have, in a nutshell outlined the various positions for supporting or opposing the Hitnatkut. My guess is that most of the country use and believe in the first two reasons of both sides and that a small vocal minority hold the third, religio-messianic arguments, pro and con.

It is my contention that by using these last arguments we are setting ourselves up for disaster. We will have moved the argument from the moral and the policy arguments that are the bread and butter of politics to utopian claims of purity that no state can live up to. By using these arguments, we will, no matter the outcome, be in a position only for failure.

Tomorrow we will discuss the risks of taking the religio-messianic argument.

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Thursday, October 21, 2004

The Said and the Unsaid 

Aharon Appelfeld is a controversial writer in Israel. Unlike other Israeli authors he has no known political positions and doesn't claim to be the "voice" of any segment or generation. However, he has three things that are held against him in the literary establishment: He is a proud "Jewish" as opposed to "Israeli" writer, he doesn't write much about life in Israel and his style is considered too sparse and simple.

For those of us who have been reading Appelfeld since the days of Badenheim: 1939, The Age of Wonders and Tzili these objections are more laughable than annoying. Appelfeld is a writer whose work will outlive the work of nearly every other Israeli novelist and whose simple although not simplistic style will be mined for diamonds for years to come.

But what of his style? What does the sparseness of his words want to tell us?

In a lecture/Q&A available online (thanks to my brother for sending the link over) from Jewish Book Week in England Appelfeld gives us two hints at answers. First, the Bible has been an important influence in his writing life. Hebrew not being a first language for him, he clings to the Bible as one would cling to a parent or grandparent, to the person who was to have taught you your "mother-tongue".

Hebrew is a wonderful language. It is a language that I have learned in
the street, of course. I was in a kibbutz for a long time. But
mostly I have learned it from the Bible. This is a very spare language
with very short sentences. The unsaid is more important than the
So through the Hebrew language I came to my parents, to my
grandparents. But, more important, I came to Jewish history, to Jewish
writing. Everything that is Jewish is somewhere connected to Hebrew.

There is another even more important reason (I think) for the spareness in
Appelfeld's writing. Unlike most of the other writers of the Holocaust
that we think about like Eli Weisel, Primo Levi, Avraham Sutzkever or Paul
Celan, Appelfeld was a child during the Shoah. And children, he tells us,
relate their story differently than adults.

The children did not absorb the full horror, only that portion of it which
children could take in. Children lack a sense of chronology, of comparison
with the past. While the adult survivor spoke about what had been before
the war, for the children the Holocaust was the present: their childhood and
youth. They knew no other childhood or happiness. They grew up in
dread. They knew no other life.

… While the adults fled from themselves
and from their memories, repressing them and building up a new life in place of
their previous one, the children had no previous life. Or, if they had, it
was now effaced. The Holocaust was the “black milk” as the poet [Paul
Celan] said, that they sucked morning, noon and night.

… The Holocaust is mostly conceived even amongst its victims as an episode, a madness, an eclipse that does not belong to the normal flow of time. A volcanic
eruption of which one must beware but which indicates nothing about the rest
of life. The Holocaust as life, as life in the most dreadfully
concentrated form, from both the existential and social point of view.
That approach was rejected by the (adult) victim.

… In the case of children who grew up in the Holocaust, life during the Holocaust was something they could understand for they had absorbed it in their blood. They knew no other. They knew man as a beast of prey, not metaphorically but as a physical reality with its full stature and clothing. His way of standing and sitting. His way of caressing his own child and beating a Jewish

For Appelfeld, the Holocaust that he experienced as a child was no metaphor, it was life. It was not an aberration, not a study on human behaviour and evil, it was his childhood.
Aharon Appelfeld's writing style moves us and teaches us more than the words of so many others.

As Appelfeld stated: "The unsaid is more important than the said".

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Wednesday, October 20, 2004

Presbyterians, Again 

Another set of links from my good friend from the west coast who wants to remain anonymous. A tireless and dedicated "friend of the Jews" , this (Christian) woman is constantly on the lookout for Christian anti-semitism.

Here is a short report on the Presbyterian Church USA "peace" mission to Hizbollah and Syrian leaders, followed by an official Church statement "regarding Israel and Palestine and outreach to Jewish people".

This Church's attempt to compose pro-Jewish music remains atonal.

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Tuesday, October 19, 2004

Grandfathers, Fathers and Sons 

Tzemach Atlas in his illuminating blog (Mentalblog) is finding some of the more interesting goings on in the Jewish community. One of his latest has to do with the words and actions of Rabbi Meir Twersky, son of Isidore (Yitzchak) Twersky, grandson of R. Soloveitchik, rebbe at YU and rav of the Talner (Hasidic) shul in Boston (For those from the Philadelphia of the 1960's this is the same Talner Hasidic dynasty).

Apparently, in a recent lecture, Rabbi Twersky, despite his classics education at Harvard has (in this lecture) ceased advocating college education for religious boys and girls (YU/Stern being the exception from what I understand). I say "apparently" because I don't have the patience to listen to lectures over the internet and a transcript is not available – but I will take Tzemach's word for it.

Two other seemingly unrelated actions by R. Twersky were discussed in the post. He has removed two sculpted lions as well as the whiskey from the Talner shul (what the purpose is of a Hasidic shul, or Hasidism in general without hard liquor is another question altogether). The claim is that the whiskey was removed in reaction to an article by the OU on the need for hashgacha for hard liquor and the lions were removed for fear of avoda zara.

But, could there be another reason for these events – one that would tie them all together?

Could it be that Rabbi Twersky has been influenced by his elite Harvard education more than he thinks?

Has he accepted the post-modern anti-intellectual critique of western art and culture while coming under the influence of the politically correct, self-righteous anti-drinking bias of the American elite?

Are we witnessing the birth of a post-modern Hasidic neo-Mitnagdism? Or is it a post-modern mitnagdic neo-Hasidism?

Without making too much or too little of these incidents it is really quite amazing how what was good enough for the fathers and grandfathers (no matter how great they were) is never good enough for the children.

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Monday, October 18, 2004


The Forward has a short excerpt from the soon to be published memior by Aharon Appelfeld "The Story of a Life".

"Sometimes a month goes by without anything of what I saw during that time coming back to me. Of course, this is merely a temporary hiatus. Sometimes just an old object, lying on the roadside, is enough to bring hundreds of feet up from the depths, feet that are marching in a long column. And if anyone collapses under it, no one will help him get up...

... Someone who was an adult during the war took in and remembered places and individuals, and at the end of the war he could sit and recall them, or talk about them. (As he would no doubt continue to do till the end of his life.) With us children, however, it was not names that were sunk into memory, but something completely different. For a child, memory is a reservoir that doesn't empty. It's replenished over the years, and clarified. It's not a chronological recollection, but overflowing and changing, if I may put it that way."

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Sunday, October 17, 2004

On "God, Man and History" 

The Shalem Center in Jerusalem has released a new edition of Eliezer Berkovitz's "God, Man and History". What follows is a commissioned but unpublished (unpublishable?) review.

A Review of God, Man and History, by Eliezer Berkovitz
publsihed by Shalem Press, September 2004

For over two-thousand years, ever since Philo of Alexandria, religious thinkers have tried to justify their religious ideas and beliefs in light of reason. Proofs for the existence of God, of His oneness, of His eternity, have bothered thinkers whose faith in God was secure, yet felt the need to show themselves and other believers that what they inherited, intuited and practiced on a daily basis was true also in the eyes of reason.

In the 20th century, as European Jewry first underwent the growing pains of modernity and its scientific method and then was all but destroyed by a neo-pagan adaptation of that method, there came to the United States a group of rabbis, philosophers and scholars led by Rabbis Joseph B. Solovietchik, Abraham Joshua Heschel and others who, instead of hiding from the world, braced it, confronted it and left Judaism and the world better off then when they started on their path.

Although Eliezer Berkovits was one of these rabbis, from the start he was an outsider in the Jewish intellectual and religious centers of the United States and Israel. His Talmudic and rabbinic training were at the Hildesheimer Rabbinical Seminary in Berlin which put him out of touch with the predominant force in orthodox Jewish intellectual life – the Lithuanian Yeshiva.

Unlike Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik of Yeshiva University, the leading scholar and philosopher of modern-Orthodoxy and religious-Zionism whose grandfather practically invented the Talmudic methodology used to this day in nearly all the Yeshivot in North America and Israel, Berkovits' Talmudic learning was more practical and less intellectual. Whereas, for R. Soloveitchik, confronting modernity and the new Jewish challenges in the United States and Israel was a task to be accomplished via intellectual seriousness in the study of Jewish texts – he let it be known that he felt that his competition for students were the intellectually rigorous hard sciences - for Berkovits this confrontation led him to take a look at the changed sociological situation of individual Jews and the new historical circumstances of the Jewish people.

Where Berkovits wrote specifically of the problem of women and Judaism or the theological challenge of the faithful after the Holocaust, Solovetichik's major works tried to give traditional Judaism the intellectual infrastructure needed to face life in the contemporary world.

By re-issuing Berkovits' 1959 book "God, Man and History" David Hazony has brought out one of Berkovits' major efforts to be a part in the building of the foundations of modern life on a religious ethos. But Berkovits' path to the goal of a religious life in the modern world was different than the classical Jewish orthodoxy as adapted by R. Soloveitchik.

If for classical orthodoxy as expounded by R. Soloveitchik and others the raison d'etre of a Jewish life is the unbroken tradition passed on through the Jewish household and academy, for Berkovits God's "Encounter" with man, His revelation to man, forms this basis.

This is not to say that R. Soloveitchik believes any less in the revelation at Sinai or that R. Berkovits ignores the "masorah" or tradition, but each emphasizes the one as he uses reason within the framework of religion.

If for traditional orthodox Judaism the study of the Law (halakha), even those laws with no practical value like the laws of sacrifices, is that which confirms the tradition, for R. Berkovits it is "faith" which underpins the process started by God's Encounter with man.

Both approaches though come to the same conclusion: The action, the doing of the "mitzva", the ethical act, is the key to serving the God who revealed himself and started the unbroken masorah (tradition) by giving the Torah to Moses at Sinai.

Like all other guides for the perplexed, "God, Man and History" speaks to the believer. The atheist has no reason to read this book although the agnostic will have a lot to gain. Berkovits, in his opening section dismisses the need to prove God's existence. If Miamonides, Aquinas and Al-Farabi felt the need to show that God exists and that this belief does not contradict philosophy as presented by Plato, Aristotle and their subsequent commentators, Berkovits uses 'reason' to show that an "Encounter" between Man and God is not only logically possible, but in light of God's existence, highly probable.

Berkovits states straight out that the "foundation of religion is not the affirmation that God is, but that God is concerned with man and the world." The challenge to cotemporary man, specifically after the scientific gains as well as the horrors of the 20th century is to accept that God cares about humanity in general and the individual in particular.

Berkovits uses the first section of his book "The Encounter with God" to establish that "the imperative of revelation is the event itself – not necessarily what can be learned from it". For Berkovits, the truth that enters the world as a result of the revelation is of less significance than the fact of revelation.

This though presents him with a problem. For in all the major monotheistic faiths the "main" encounters occurred in the beginning of time, so to speak. And for all of these faiths, "Encounters" with God are still possible. Yet – for Berkovits the rationalist the challenge is in making this encounter personal without "lapsing into mysticism". It is clear to all religious rationalists that although God appeared and "encountered" man on man's turf – He has since that event (or those events), all but "disappeared".

For the mystic the answer is to force an encounter now through various exercises and incantations. Berkovits has a natural distaste for such efforts and therefore relies on "faith" in order to make past encounters relevant today.

If for the mystic reaching a certain level of faith can force the hand of God to reveal Himself to man today, for Berkovits "faith" is something altogether different. Although he calls faith the "edifice" built on the foundation that is the encounter, it is more true in his view to call faith a "tool" with which today's religious person can make the historical event that was God's encounter with man into a personal event.

Faith is not an end it and of itself but a tool that allows the religious man to use reason to make the jump from the metaphysical or philosophical God that exists in the world, to the religious God who, although He hides, cares about the world.

Hidden-ness in revelation is a given for Berkovits. God must hide Himself from man, at least partially, in order to allow man the freedom to choose to believe in God or not. If we were spoken to by God every day, if in every event we saw the "hand of God", if miracles were the way of nature, if reason could prove all that makes up our faith – then we would not possess the freedom necessary to create in ourselves a true commitment to God or a true relationship with God.

It is "only because faith is a commitment made in freedom is it a commitment at all". When God encountered man at Sinai the object was not only to reveal the ways He wanted man to act, but to start a relationship with man. For Berkovits, only freedom allows a continuation of the "fellowship initiated by God in the encounter".

Berkovits doesn't hide behind the veil of "positive religious-freedom" that to be truly free is to be free of our "Evil inclination", but supports the negative freedom which is necessary for life in liberal democracies. This goes to the heart of Berkovits' project in "God, Man and History" which is to form a religious basis for obligatory good behavior in a free country.

He knows better than most that to "know" that behavior is "right" is not to feel obligated to "do the right thing". I put these words in quotation marks not in the post-modern sense of relativizing good behavior but in order to point to the fallacy in the rational and utilitarian basis for good behavior.

It is the failure on the part of secular ethics and Berkovits' religious solution to the problem of obligation that underpins the discussion in the second part of the book. Following his emphasis on the "fact" of the encounter instead of the "message" of the encounter, he sees obligation and its source, the "why be good?" question as man's main ethical challenge.

As to the "what ought we to do?" question, he doesn't deny that a mind as great as Kant's can figure that out for us. Even though pure reason, utility, or personal feelings may be able to tell us what is the right thing to do, they can't tell us why we ought to do the right thing.

However, we can't even stop there. Why we feel obligated to act rightly and the source of that obligation is itself really only the first part of the challenge to teachers of ethics. How to induce mankind to act on this obligation is the second and "most fundamental concern or ethics …".

It is there that Berkovits departs for the western philosophical tradition. He notes that "the misunderstanding of the function of reason has been the tragic mistake that the western world inherited from the Greeks". Reason,. as Berkovits shows throughout this book has its uses – but it does not have the "authority to command".
We have used reason to build ethical system after ethical system none of which have convinced a large group of individuals to act properly. Reason is the "faculty of understanding, recognition and interpretation" , it may even be able to tell us "the difference between right and wrong", but "it cannot … provide the obligation for doing good and eschewing evil".

It is here where Berkovits returns to the fold of the classical orthodoxy of the Lithuanian Yeshiva: The training of the mind to know the truth and the training of the body to act rightly through ritual, habit and modesty. In other words learning about and the doing of the mitzva forms the pedagogical answer to the greatest of all ethical challenges – inducing the body to act rightly.

We may be able to convince the mind what is right to do by training it in pure reason or even in the Talmudic methodology of our tradition, but the body also needs years of training and education to induce it to act according to the mind's prescriptions.

This means that the true teacher of ethics is really a teacher of physical education. Training the body to act rightly in its relations with others is the pedalogical goal of the teacher since the man-man relationship is based on the God-Man encounter – which is the true foundation of the ethical obligation. The command of "immitato dei" – of acting like God – commands us to use that relationship as a model for training the body to act properly when it encounters another.

As a former rabbi of mine often stated as he expounded on a subject that he knew would take up not only our ever diminishing lunch hour , but the rest of the day – "ad-kan" – until here.

And this before we have discussed Berkovits' most ambitious challenge – that of the Chosen People and its place in history. He succeeds when he states "one must be a Jew to other Jews in a history making action to justify his call for a Jewish return to its homeland. He is less successful in his attempt to justify God's choosing a specific people on which to rest the fate of the world.

David Hazony is in the midst of an important but difficult task by bringing the thought of Eliezer Berkovits to the attention of the religious world in general and the Jewish world in particular. Hazony has obviously seen the importance of Berkovits' thought in answering many of the intellectual and practical dilemmas we face as the period of scientific rationalism gives way to a period of intellectual relativism.

Berkovits speaks directly to the inadequacies of reason anticipating many of the post-modern challenges to right behavior, rationally or traditionally derived. Unlike the post-modernists and their Heiddgerian antecedents though, Berkovits' critique of reason does not lead to totalitarian deviancies but revitalizes the use of reason along with the tool that is faith, all built on a foundation of God's encounter with man, in order to induce free man to act rightly.

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Thursday, October 14, 2004

The Russians have Arrived 

The Jewish Week is reporting an interesting development that we have seen in Israel over the last 5-10 years – the influence of the Jews of the former Soviet Union. According to the AJC report covered in the article Russian Jews are more conservative both politically and socially than their US brethren. They support Bush over Kerry, oppose compromise on Jerusalem and oppose same-sex marriages. Here in Israel, the Russian Jews are also more politically conservative although on the social issues this is not clear.

That itself is an interesting point. The overwhelmingly secular nature of the Israeli-Russian Jewish community puts them on the "left" side of the religious-secular divide and hence, the left side of most social issues. It would be interesting to know what their views would be if here in Israel we could separate the social-moral issues from the Halakhic-religious ones. (The issue of the non-Jewish-Jewish Russians here is a related but different issue.)

Although the reputation of the Russian-Israeli girls is of the sleazy side, that is getting less and less true as recent newspaper reports have suggested that Israeli girls are starting to dominate the, shall we say, oldest profession trade. From my own interaction with Russian born Jews, I think that the reputation was always undeserved.
On the other hand, the stores on the main drag in Kfar Saba and its major supermarkets are dominated by Russian-born women (and men to a lesser extent) and you see in them not only a stronger work but a more mannerly attitude.

It has been my own prediction (hope?) that in the near future this influence will win out over the brashness of our natives. It is clear to me that you will see a different country in twenty years than you do now, mostly because of the Russian-Jewish influx. What the religious here can do to influence this influence is a story for another day.

On the American-Jewish scene, it will be interesting to see if the Russian-Jewish-Americans enter the mainstream and influence it, or if they are pushed aside much the way their great-uncles and aunts were pushed aside by the established American-German-Jewish community 100 years ago. Could we see a new alliance of Russian-American-Jewish secularists, American-Jewish Orthodox, church-going Catholics and Christian fundamentalists?


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Wednesday, October 13, 2004

The Donkey Arrived Alone 

Seventy-one self appointed men, among them Prof. Hillel Weiss, Rabbi Yishai Ba'abad and Rabbi Tzvi Edan, have decided to reconstitute the Sanhedrin in the town of Tiberius. YNET reports (Hebrew only, not sure if its available outside of Israel) that they will meet every other month in Jerusalem and deal with all the major issues of the day – issuing halackhic decisions regarding supporting the government and other issues of the day.

Although this sounds like a Purim joke, it's really the delusions of a group of self-important and self-righteous mediocrities who take their own selves a little too seriously.

Once again, you have to wonder if Miamonides 12th article of faith is not, again, being used to soothe the minds and massage the egos of the ignorant and the annoying. The donkey forgot its main passenger.

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Tuesday, October 12, 2004

A Secular Inquisition in the Offing? 

The blog Little Green Footballs reports an incredible story (original here) from London from American playright Carol Gould.
Here is just the start (it gets better):

"Just before leaving for the United States nineteen days ago, I went to my favorite tape duplicating shop to have copies made for the actors who had appeared in the video of my new play in London. I handed the master tape to the proprietor, whom I have known for some ten years. He seemed unusually agitated and flushed. He looked at the material and snarled, ‘Is this another one of your Jewish-Holocaust things?’ I was speechless. He scowled and continued, ‘You know, Carol, I want to get something off my chest that I’ve been dying to say to you for years. Number one, just don’t say Israel to me. Number two, you people should look at yourselves in the mirror and wonder why every so often there is a Holocaust or massacre or pogrom. You bring it on yourselves. Just look at the way you are and then figure out why the rest of the world wants to flatten you. Number three, America throwing money at Israel has to stop, and hopefully all hell will break loose. Israel is not a country..."

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Bringing the Illuy to America 

In celebration of the (I think) 75th anniversary of Yeshiva University, their student newspaper, Commentator, is commissioning alumni and others to write articles of interest on the history of YU.

The current issue has a very interesting article on R. Shlomo Polachek, known at the "Illuy (genius) or Maichat" – one of the students of R. Chaim Soloveithcik of Brisk and the Rosh Yeshiva of REITS during the 1920's. It is an interesting piece written by Rabbi Nathan Kaminetsky, the author of a biographies book called "Making of a Gadol". (If I am not mistaken this is the book that the "yeshiva world" was up in arms over because it discussed the secular learning of R. Jacob Kamenetzki.)

The article highlights the modesty (in the old sense of the word) of R. Polachek as well as his genius in the study of torah. The more interesting part of the article is in Dr. Bernard Revel's (first president of YU) efforts to bring the rabbi to the US and the debates amongst the then "gedolim" on the teaching of Torah in America.

A great tragedy of 20th century world Jewry is that so many of our best and brightest (in the world's of Torah, academics, business, etc) failed to look beyond the European continent for their future. The tragedy of the world of Torah is that the conservatism of so many rabbis and their lack of faith in their and their own community's ability to withstand the pressures of modernity caused those who stayed in Europe to suffer their cruel fate and (arguably) left little room to stay "in the fold" for those who eventually assimilated into American society.

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Sunday, October 10, 2004

Talya Halkin with Aharon Appelfeld 

Talya Halkin has a review of Aharon Appelfeld's new memior, The Story of a Life, followed by an interview with the author. (Interestingly, that is the subtitle of one of his earlier books: "Tzili: The Story of a Life")

Appelfeld is not only the best Israeli writer today, but the best Jewish writer, too. His writing has that simplicity to it which forces the reader to think about his words well after finishing the book, in spite of the fact that the reader understood everything. He is the type of writer you could sit down and have a cup of coffee with and not feel that you were sitting with a writer obsessed with his "self" but one whose modesty nearly outshines his genius. (As a matter of fact, my wife is still planning on inviting him over one day.)

Halkin's interview is respectful to Appelfeld not only as a writer but as a person. In answering her last question: What saved you from feeling you couldn't live after war? , Appelfeld responds not with a self-righteous ode to his art and his creativity, but with a quiet, simple and moving tribute to his parents and others who have helped him along the way:

"I was the only child of parents who loved me deeply, and I feel that love to this day. Even the worst things didn't change this love. I was lucky to meet people who helped me develop my personality, who gave me something of their own soul, even very simple people. They held out their hand to me at moments where I was about to fall. Even at a very young age, they let me understand that in addition to evil, there are also moments of grace and compassion in this world. "

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Wednesday, October 06, 2004

Two Israelis .... 

... won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry.

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Reasons to make aliya:
Yom Kippur fast ends at 6:10pm.
You only have one "three day yom-tov". We spent last Friday at the beach.
Simchat Torah and Shmini Atzeret are on the same day.
You wouldn't mind at all if Sukkot extended for another week or two.
Nothing at all happens until "after the Chagim".
Nothing at all happens "after Pesach".

The official out of step Simchat Torah Bloody Mary recipe:
For every 4 oz. of vodka (we used 8 this year) …
8 oz Tomato Juice
1 capful of lemon juice
4 dashes of Worcestershire Sauce
6 drops of Tabasco Sauce (make that 7 or 8)
3 tsp sugar
a bit of salt and about the same bit of black pepper

We went to the Russian grocery store to buy vodka this year. There are about 87,000 choices. We passed over the Smirnoff's, Abslolut's etc as well as something that was 95% alcohol (no joke, this is for drinking). We also avoided the 10 shekel bottles since our system does not respond well to derivatives of break fluid. We also avoided the bottles with only Russian writing on them since we won't understand the warning label or package insert. We settled on a 30 shekel bottle of Nemiroff Ukrainian Wheat Vodka. Haven't a clue if it is good or not (to be honest, I am not sure I can tell the difference between good and not good vodka, let alone good and great).

An OOSJ Poll: Are there any orthodox women who enjoy going to shul on Simchat Torah?

Chag Sameach.

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Tuesday, October 05, 2004


I am not much of a movie reviewer, partially because I don't see a lot of movies, partially because I can't really take them too seriously. I go for dumb comedies, the more slapstick the better. I guess they are a great medium for science fiction and action if you go for them, or for sappy romance.

But for serious stuff? Art? Nah. The silver screen produces movies, not films.

Last night, though, the entire family (minus soldier boy) went to see a new Israeli movie (and if I stay away from the movies in general I stay away from Israeli ones in particular), "Ushpizin". Now "ushpizin" (Aramaic for guests) of course are the Biblical guests we invite into our sukkah each of its seven days. The movie centers around a Breslov couple, chozrei b'tshuva (penitents) who find themselves on the day before Sukkot with no money, no children and no ushpizin.

Without going into the details, two runaway convicts, one of whom knows the husband from the bad old days, show up in their sukkah on the first night of the holiday. The movie is the story of the couple and how they deal with ushpizin who are , shall we say, less than biblical characters (although they are characters).

The movie was fair, I think, in its rendition of haredi life. It kept the clichés to a minimum and captured the excitement and tension of the haredi street in Jerusalem before what is a very busy chag. It would have been nice to see more fully developed characters and a bigger emphasis on the various relationships in the movie. The only relationships dealt with at all, were the couple with God and the couple with each other.

I am not much into figuring out messages to movies but my 16 year old insisted that the message was that you have to deal with your anger (hence the Breslov angle). I disagreed (is it possible NOT to disagree with a 16 year old?) and thought that rather than a message, the movie was about people and how they turn the world into their own personal relationship with God. Everything that happens is for a reason, everything is a test for the couple – that at least is how they treat everything.

In any case, it does have a sappy Hollywood ending which made the kids happy. It is as good a movie as a non-comedy can get (there are some funny lines and scenes though) and if it comes to a neighborhood shul or JCC, its worth going to on its own rights – not just because its an Israeli film (that is the real difference between the Zionist who makes aliya and the one who stays in the Diaspora – Diaspora Zionists have to like things because they are Israeli, we here in Israel occasionally like things in spite of the fact they are Israeli.)

Moadim L'Simcha.

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Sunday, October 03, 2004

X-Ray Against Reason 

The Jerusalem Post has a front page magazine story on the grave and "Tzadik" worship that is going on in Israel. We have dealt with this in the past but according to this article it is worse than I thought. I know that many people take trips to the "graves of the tzadikim" but didn't realize the mass revival meetings that go on there.

As they report:
"It's 2 a.m. at the cemetery on the edge of Netivot, and an orange light is rising from the crowd of more than 1,000 people. The sharp smell of burning candles is heavy in the air. The closer you get to the source of the light, the hotter you feel.

Finally you see it - a blazing furnace with three-meter-high flames, spurting wax - the wax of what the emcee says are the 6,000 boxes of candles (120,000 candles in all) that Rabbi Ya'acov Yisrael Ifergan, known as "The X-Ray," is tossing into the furnace. The candles are offerings to the tzaddikim, or sages, so that they might intercede with God and answer the prayers of all those present.

The action has been going on for four hours beneath the majestic mausoleum Ifergan built for his Moroccan-born father, Shalom Ifergan. The prayer meeting earlier this year marking the 10th anniversary of "Baba" Shalom's death drew some 20,000 attendees. "
What are we to think of all this? This goes beyond the kabalistic gobbledygook we are familiar with and, to my mind crosses way over the line between an acceptable but harmless practice to idolatry pure and simple.

Most disturbing, the Post has an editorial on the subject titled "They too are Israel" which ends with what is an attack on Mitnagdic rationalism by stating:
"The fact is that from its outset, Judaism has been practiced through both charisma and intellect, sometimes harmoniously and sometimes disharmoniously. In the case of Moses, the lawmaker and miracle maker lived within one figure. In the case of Hassidism's rebbes and Lithuania's Talmudists, the encounter between emotion and scholarship resulted in a clash, often a traumatic one.

The Jewish state's hosting of these two elements is therefore not new. What would be new, and welcome, is that this time around, the 'rationalists' will be wise enough to remain aware of the limitations of their own intellect, and respectful of other people's desires."

This editorial reeks of New Age shallowness and would have us surrender our tradition to every charlatan and psuedo-Kabbalist that comes around. Religion does teach us the limits or our own reason, but our religion does not teach us to abandon it totally.

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