Monday, October 31, 2005

I have a dream .... 

From the JPost:

"Rahel 13, wants to go to school. She's supposed to be in ninth grade now. She says she's a good pupil and likes her classes.

She also insists that she is an honorable haredi girl, who dresses modestly, lives a modest life, observes the commandments, and wants a shidduch (match) to a good man.

But Rahel still hasn't begun the school year because she hasn't been accepted into any educational institution within the haredi system.

She is convinced that she has been rejected from four of the most prestigious schools, despite her high grades and commendable behavior, for one reason only: because she is Sephardi and the schools are Ashkenazi.

She has heard that Rabbi Mordechai Eliahu, a senior religious-Zionist leader, has ruled that she could change her name to a more Ashkenazi-sounding name, in order to get accepted, but she doesn't want to.

'I don't want to lie about who I am. And I don't want to offend my father and grandfather, since it's their name. And anyway, it wouldn't help. The school principals ask all sorts of questions to find out if we're Sephardi. They'd know,' she says.

Batsheva Malul doesn't have any doubts about why her daughter hasn't been accepted into a school, either. "They did not want us because as Sephardi newly religious ('hozrim b'tshuva'), we do not act and behave exactly like they expect us to. They told me my little girl is not dressed like a real haredi.

'But I say she is. There is nothing wrong with that way she is dressed, it is totally modest. But for them, it was a reason enough not to accept her. And so instead of beginning school at age six, she comes every day with me to my work and spends the whole day here, without studying,' concludes Malul, who works as a cook in a haredi soup kitchen."

I have been told by people who live nearby, that in the haredi town of Qiryat Sefer there are three levels of kindergartens: The lowest is for children whose father's works for a living: The middle one is for children whose father's teach Torah for a living: The highest level kindergarten is for children whose fathers sit in kollel all day.

What is the purpose of thinking you are a better Jew than Moshe Rabbenu if you can't be exclusive?

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Sunday, October 30, 2005

The Seven Mememememememe's 

Well, "thanks" to Biur Chametz for infecting me with the "meme" that has gone around the Jewish blogosphere. When I first saw it I thought that someone had lost it. Now I know its true.

I used the basic categories and added one of my own at the end.

As for future infections – I think just about every Jewish blogger I read has done this – but I am not sure. So I hope to pass this (if they haven't already) to: Paul and Miriam at Bloghead, Barefoot Jewess, ZS Berger (in English AND Yiddish), Velveteen Rabbi, JBB, My Obiter Dicta and in a new twist, to the following loyal OOSJ readers: BK and DR (separately of course), Father Mike, George, The Other Kobi (haven't heard from the not the other Kobi lately – if you are there, you too) and Evy.

7 things I can do:

1. Teach my children to read the torah.
2. Coach little-league baseball and teach the value of loosing.
3. Get people angry at me.
4. Raise my children (with the help of my wife, of course).
5. Get wherever without asking directions.
6. Buy books.
7. Drink three pints of English bitter while standing up and talking to clients in a London pub.

7 things I wish I could do:

1. Quote verses in the Tanach by heart.
2. Write fiction.
3. Be fluent in French, German, Arabic, Ancient Greek and Latin.
4. Loose my American accent in Hebrew.
5. Own a summer home on Lake Otsego in Cooperstown, NY.
6. Understand the aesthetics of music.
7. Make money.

7 Celebrity Crushes:
1. Micki Haimovitch (Israeli channel 10 news)
2. Meryl Streep in "The French Lt.'s Woman"
3. Mariel Hemmingway in "Manhattan"
4. Jane Monheit
5. Norah Jones
6. Suzanne Farrell
7. Julie London

Things I want to be in my next 7 lives:

1. Play Centerfield for the NY Mets.
2. Teach political philosophy .
3. Have Mark Helperin's professional life (novelist and political commentator).
4. Be a research biologist.
5. Be an astronomer.
6. Be a Midwestern mainline Protestant whose biggest worry is the Nebraska football team.
7. Be the rabbi that liberates orthodox women.

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Friday, October 28, 2005

What was Created on Day One? 

Every once in a while you just have to get back to the basics. Many have us have read much on the first book of the bible – so much has been written. But, sometimes you read the words and you decide that the basic meaning of the text (the pshat) is so elusive that you need help from those who dedicated their lives to it.

Translators rarely do the job since they must make one definite decision when there isn't really one definite way of reading it. Midrash doesn't help because that is not its job. So we must return to the three great bible commentators – Rashi, Abraham ibn Ezra and Ramban (Nachmanides). True enough the last one is not really considered a "pshat" commentator but he does often elucidate so much. Rashi of course uses midrash to try to illuminate the text – but in so many circumstances he is who we look towards when we need to define terms. Ibn Ezra of course, because of his command of Hebrew and Arabic as well as his vast general knowledge and command of language in general is the master.

So, I asked myself – what, according to the first few verses of Genesis was created on the first day?

Rashi: We rarely make it past that first, famous comment by Rashi – but if you look a bit further down you will read (throughout are my wholly inadequate translations): "In the beginning of the creation of the heaven and the earth, and the land was tohu and bohu (Rashi later defines these terms as "wonder" and "nothingness"), God said 'let there be light'. And the scripture does not teach us the order of creation …". Read the whole thing, but apparently we have heavens, earth, light, water, wind created on the first day - but all after light, which was created first.

Ibn Ezra: "And according to my view,the Heavans (Shamayim) and the Earth (Aretz) are the Vault (Rakia) and the Land (Yabasha) – since the only thing created on day one was light".

Ramban: After quoting both Rashi and Ibn Ezra he states: "And now hear the clear, basic and correct scriptural interpretation: God created all from nothingness. In the holy tongue only the word 'bara' denotes something from nothing (yesh me'ayin)… bringing things from complete zero is only a basic element of very little. But it has the power to produce …and this first matter , the Greeks called the 'primal matter'." He then goes on to explain that Tohu and Bohu are that from which Shamayim and Aretz were created. If you have a Torat Hayim chumash (the excellent mikraot gedolot put out by Mossad HaRav Kook) then look at footnote 31 for this Ramban. They bring an argument by the Ritva against Ramban on an interpretation of Greek philosophy, pecifically what this "primal matter" is.

It is worth your while to take a look at all the Rashi, Ibn Ezra and Ramban on the entire first day. They are long – and if you are like me you will have to read them (especially Ibn Ezra) more than once. (If you want a shortcut, just read the Ramban who often summarizes the other two – but his is the longest anyway). You will see the difficulty of using the Torah as a model for science class. You will also see three great minds struggling to explain strange or misplaced words like "Bereshit", "Elohim", "Bara", "Echad" and others. You will see them struggle to mesh contemporary scientific knowledge with the words of the Torah. If you read them all you will see that it is difficult to believe that any of them would have made comments that contradicted accepted science, logic and reason.

Sometimes, nothing is more difficult or more rewarding than trying to understand the basic (we dare not say 'simple') meaning of the words of the Torah.

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Thursday, October 27, 2005

Its 2005 ... 

... do you know what your kids are learning?


"With the school year back in full swing, do you know what your children are learning? In thousands of public school districts across the United States, without ever knowing it, taxpayers pay to disseminate pro-Islamic materials that are anti-American, anti-Israel and anti-Jewish. Often bypassing school boards and nudging aside approved curricula, teaching programs funded by Saudi Arabia make their way into elementary and secondary school classrooms."

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Conversations: Part 5 

Conversations: A Fantasy in Many Parts

Disclaimer: All information and quotes in this fantasy are just that: Fantasies. The names have not been changed since none of this happened.

Introduction & Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4


In the March of 1986 and I put on a suit and tie to go to my first day of work at the investment bank called Bear Stearns. The crash of '87 was just around the corner and I was, in the future, to wear my survival of the "crash of 87", with pride. While those post crash youngsters were floating in the bubble of the 90's I was able to hook up with the "old-timers" as they warned the young'ns of the laws of stock market gravity. Its not as if I actually did anything, trading-wise in the crash. But as a back office flunky I did help save Bear Staers a gazillion dollars by transferring the assets of one of its clients who went belly up.

After the crash, the Street, as we insiders like to call it, was depressed. Walking from the World Trade Center, yes the World Trade Center, down to 55 Water Street, was no longer an adventure. Crossing Broadway at 7 am was a lonely experience – few people, fewer cars.

Yet, one person, or at least one person that I met, was jubilant, excited , ready to move. Alan "Ace" Greenberg, former Wall Street runner, famous trader and bridge player, Bear Stearns boss and lifer. Ace was a legend on the Street and in the Bridge playing world. He would find new traders by advertising in Bridge magazines. Ace had famous girlfriends like Barbara Walters and even more famous memos. Ace believed in cutting costs and once sent the famous "paper clip memo" instructing fellow employees on the most efficient use of paper clips.

It was 6:45 am, December of 1987 and I entered the elevator at 55 Water Street glaring at my Wall Street Journal when Ace walked in.

Ace: Good morning kid.

ME: Good morning , sir,

Ace: We making money today, kid?

Me: Hope so, sir.

Ace: Hope? Don't hope, DO! What religion are you?

ME: Jewish – like you.

Ace: I thought so – we look like Jews, no problem there. But Jews don't hope – no matter the Israeli anthem. Jews gotta do. In Israel they do – they sing hope. But they do. Once Jews start to hope, they start to suffer.

ME: Maybe once they suffer they start to hope.

Ace: Bull. Jews suffer because they hope too much. Here – come to my office – let's talk a bit then we'll get to work. You see, boy. When we do instead of hope and when we don't talk about what we do too much – then it doesn't matter what the goyim think. They just try to catch up to us. The key to Jews not suffering is to be one step ahead of the goyim. In money, in science, in engineering. Hell, even in writing!

Me: I speak to a lot of Jewish people, a lot of important ones, too. Many of them say that if you don't suffer you can't be a Jew.

Ace: I'll tell you what. I don't really know much about Judaism. I grew up in Oklahoma and came to NY only after college. My mom lit candles on Friday night and they went to Temple on Yom Kippur, but that's it. But I am a Jew because I am a Jew. I don't believe in all this deterministic crapola but there is something about being a Jew- and suffering doesn't have to be part of it.

Me: Yes, but if you look at our history …

Ace: … if you look at our history you will see that we need to keep one step ahead in EVRYTHING! Let them play catch up ALL THE TIME – then we won't need to suffer. Look at when we didn't suffer – it was when we were one step ahead. You seem like a thoughtful kid. You play bridge?

Me: No sir.

Ace: You should. If you want to make it in this business stop the hope – stop the suffering talk and stay one step ahead. And go learn how to play bridge. Time to get ready for the market.

And that was it. Unbeknownst to Ace, I was to be laid off about two weeks later. I never did take his advice and learn to play bridge - which may be part of the reason for my current position in the business world.

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Women and Women 

Barefoot Jewess on women, ritual and friendship in egalitarian synagogues:

"Women wander in and wander out. They quietly sustain us with food at kiddushim and onegs (celebratory meals), make all of our simchas truly abundant, and our beings replete, support the bowed and the stricken, without a face, and without fanfare. They provide scholarships. I have not seen a single woman from the group ever mentor a convert. I have never seen a female convert embraced and nurtured and mentored in temple by the women. "

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Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Apologizing to (for?) Women? 

Do apologetics help or hurt the cause of women in (Orthodox) Judaism? Would we be more constructive by being intellectually honest or by trying to paper over some of the "rough spots" that Halakhah has put in the way of women's equality?

Berel Dov Lerner has written an "unpublishable article on women in Judaism" which he has placed on his new blog. Regarding the high praise of many current rabbis regarding the supreme importance of the Jewish women's place in the home, he writes:

"Home and family are central to Jewish existence, although I think that this fact has implications for the lives of men as well as for the lives of women. I do not intend to quarrel here with those who deem the domestic sphere to be essentially feminine and domestic life obligatory for women. Rather, I ask whether the notion of a different but equal role for women is authentically rooted in the consensus of traditional Jewish thought. After all, “right wing” Orthodoxy is committed to more than the domesticity of women. It also claims to be heir to an unchanging world-view, which is canonically set forth in the classic rabbinic texts of the Talmud and midrashim. Did the Rabbis really perceive women as fulfilling a different but equal role in Jewish religion and society? Would they agree with the claim of modern apologists that there is nothing discriminatory or oppressive about the treatment of women in traditional Jewish societies? I shall try to answer this question by considering three classical sources: The midrashic tradition of “The Ten Curses of Eve”, commentaries on the Mishnah Horayot 3:7, and the blessing in which Jewish men thank God for not having made them women."

Read the whole thing.

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Tuesday, October 25, 2005

After the chagim ... 

... has finally arrived !

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Monday, October 24, 2005

Simchat Torah Recipe 

The official OOSJ bloody mary recipe (approved for kiddush club use):

For every 4 oz. of vodka (we prefer Nemiroff Ukrainian Wheat Vodka - not that we know anything about vodka):
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

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Sunday, October 23, 2005

No Obligation 

The nearly 13 year old OOS twins had their "masa Sukkot" from Bnei Akiva last week. Every holiday Bnei Akiva organizes an overnight for the kids and gets them hiking through the country.

In the morning the OOS daughter was making the bracha on the lulav and etrog (and the two other minim) when a boy from another town came over to her to instruct her that she, as a girl, did not need to do that. She was "patur". She is used to that kind of talk from the boys so she just ignored him (although she later indicated, with the support of her brothers, that she really ought to have punched him in the nose – or in her words to give him a "box ba'panim") .

I have to wonder what kind of education we are giving our boys if they think that they are "doing the right thing" by telling a girl not to perform mitzvot they are entirely capable and permitted to perform. I have to wonder if the child's parents or rabbi would be proud of what he did or would be ashamed and angry. I have to wonder in what direction we are heading. And I have to wonder if, when the time comes, she will be able to find a boy who will be able to overcome the education he has received and treat her with the respect due her.

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Thursday, October 20, 2005

Har HaBayit Beyadam 

YNET has exclusive video of the mosques that stand on and below Har HaBayit (Temple Mount) taken, apparantly secretly by a Jewish visitor.

This is facinating footage.

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Sunday, October 16, 2005

Religious-Zionist Breslovers? 

We all know that that there are two major streams of religious-Zionism in Israel: Those that follow the teachings of Rav Kook as promulgated by his son Rav Zvi Yehuda and his successors at Yeshivat Marcaz HaRav and those who follow the teachings of Rav Soloveitchik as adapted by his son in law Rav Aharon Lichtenstein and Yeshivat Har Eztion (Gush). The former are in the majority specifically in the religious educational system in Israel while the latter seem to be the one's producing more new hesder Yeshivot.

It seems also that the second and third generation rabbis from these two main groupings are gaining more respect for each other as both Rav Kook's and Rav Soloveitchik's writings are being studied and taught.

But these are top-down movements. There is an interesting grass-roots movement that I have observed in Kfar Saba and elsewhere in which young RZ's are looking to the writings of Rav Nachman of Breslov while keeping their connection to religious-Zionism. They have not joined the "Nachmanites" but have kept part of their community. They will wear the very large white crocheted kippot on Shabbat but continue to pray at RZ synagogues and send their young children to RZ kindergartens and schools. I am not sure if their adaptation of Rav Nachman's theology is based on his teachings or writings to the shallow slogans that adorn thousands of sites in Israel. Nor do I know if they will continue to stay in the community or will tend toward the extremism that is so common to these types of movements.

What is interesting is that this is purely a grass roots movement of young men and women who seem to have tired the main RZ ideologies but who have not been willing to turn to haredism. They don't seem to be attracted to Habad since for all their "openness" Habad are essentially separatists and the main message that this group of young Jews seem to take from Rav Nachman is unity and acceptance. There are two types of Jews, I heard one say on Yom Kippur, those who follow the teachings of Rav Nachman and those who don't follow them yet.

It will be interesting to see where all of this leads – will it lead in the end to a separatist way of life? A new grass-roots strand of religious-Zionism? Will they delve into Rav Nachman's teachings or develop an anti-intellectualism that is so tempting to many of the religious- "spiritualists"? Will they in the end be willing to make room for other Jewish thinkers or will they end up like so many other ideologues and worship the "truth" of just one man?

We will have to wait and see.

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Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Where has Moses Gone? 

Although the main part of the slichot are the 13 midot (Exodus 34:6) and we have use of them only due to the intercession of Moses with God, Moses is barely, if at all, mentioned or even alluded to in the selichot/piyutim that we recite. Instead - Abraham, Isaac and Jacob dominate in allusion after allusion.

Why so?

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Re-post a Tale 

With your permission (or without) I would like to post a reworked midrash which we first posted for last year's yamim nora'im.
Let me ask forvigeness to readers I insulted, consciously or not.
Gmar Chatima Tova.

The Tale of Rabbi Amnon and his Prayer

I will tell you the story of a tragic man and a wonderful prayer. A man who gave his life for this prayer that Jews recite every year on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Though the story is tragic, the prayer though challenges us to repent so as to convince God to forgive our sins and give us another year to try beyond our capacity, to do His will.

Rabbi Amnon was a religious leader in a small community in upstate New York. His congregation was moderate in size and like all such congregations was controlled by a group of strong willed, sometimes pious oftentimes manipulative men. Rabbi Amnon tried his best to lead his congregation by providing an example of living as to God’s Laws. This was difficult to do in a small town with no Jewish school for his children and no kosher butcher close by.
Rabbi Amnon had friends and colleagues who wouldn’t go to the small towns in spite of their love of all Jews. Some decided to teach in the Yeshiva, others to wait their turn at the larger and more prestigious congregations in New York City
Being a rabbi of a major New York City congregation allowed one to avoid many of the difficult issues religious Jews faced when leaving the City. This was even more of a challenge for the rabbi who as a lonely spirit faces challenges and issues that those Rabbis of the City avoid. In the City you could always rely on colleagues and teachers for support on legal and moral issues.
To be a New York City rabbi meant to meet the challenges of the most sophisticated and knowledgeable Jews of the land. These challenges were often intellectual, often matters of style and occasionally matters of religious practice. To be a rabbi in one of these City congregations required a certain mental and emotional toughness.
Some people say that Rabbi Amnon didn’t have that toughness to succeed in New York City. Some people say that he was not intellectually strong and that he couldn’t stand up to congregants who were lawyers, doctors of all kinds and in certain cases even Rabbis.
I ask you not to believe those claimants. I knew Rabbi Amnon. Let me assure you that his toughness allowed him to stand up to any and all of congregants, be they of the City or of the small town. Intellectually, he was second to no one short of his wonderful teacher. Don’t let the criticism of others fool you or you will not appreciate the fact that this story, this tragedy was one that changed the High Holiday prayers for the Jewish people to this very day.

Rabbi Amnon came to his congregation in Upstate New York one cool summer evening, four weeks before Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year. The previous rabbi had left after a short four-year tenure and he replaced a rabbi who stayed just three years. That was the pattern for rabbis in this and many similar communities. It was difficult to be a practicing Jew in these towns and once the rabbis and their wives had children of school age they would do their best to move back to the City in order to provide their children with a proper Yeshiva education.
Our Rabbi Amnon though came with his pregnant wife and two nearly school age children with the intention of making a home for himself and his family. He wanted to teach these Jews about being Jewish and wanted them to see a family be raised as properly practicing Jews. There was of course a bit of pride in him, too. He wanted to be THE rabbi of the town. He wanted to be respected and to be known as the rabbi of the community. He wanted to be the one who created a Jewish community in a place where there were only Jews.
Rabbi Amnon started off well. He was friendly and accommodating. In his first month he attended small gatherings in his honor and hosted the “strong-willed men” in his modest home. It was his sermon on the first day of Rosh Hashanah though earned him respect. He spoke of revelation and quoted poets, philosophers and rabbis. He spoke of repentance and prayer in light of revelation, explaining deftly and carefully that to repent in Judaism is to go back in time and reverse an individual’s sins. This, said Rabbi Amnon was the way we were to participate in the greatest revelation of God’s words in the history of mankind – that which happened at Sinai.
These themes excited and energized the congregation. They looked at the young rabbi and heard him speaking with the enthusiasm of an intellectual and religious world that they wanted to learn about. The strong-willed men looked at themselves with pride at having the foresight to have chosen a rabbi for these times.
The excitement only grew as the High-Holidays continued. The second day of Rosh Hashanah brought another wonderful sermon on the same theme, this time emphasizing charity. The congregation felt uplifted as they headed home after services on the second day. The shofar, the prayers, most especially the rabbi’s sermon allowed the people to begin understanding the importance of the High Holidays.
As Yom Kippur succeeded Rosh Hashanah so the latest sermon exceeded the first. On the holy night where Jews recite the Kol Nidre in the chant that has filled synagogues for hundreds of years, Rabbi Amnon spoke of God in ways that people had never heard. God as a partner with man for righteousness, God as He who wants man to do good, to succeed. God who helps man, but whom in His righteousness will accompany man’s failure to heed God’s word with the sword or fire or flood.
The people left the synagogue eager to return the next morning. The congregation felt proud of themselves that they had the insight to vote for such a rabbi. They felt good about being fed such lofty concepts and ideas. About having quoted to them the greatest of the Jewish world’s thinkers. About having quoted to them the greatest poets of the world.
The next day, on Yom Kippur itself, the congregants were to hear more. They heard Rabbi Amnon continue where he left off as he preached before the Yizkor service in which people commemorate their late relatives. He tied all his High-Holiday sermons together with a rousing command that THEIR repentence, that THEIR prayer and that THEIR charitable behavior could force the hand of God – not only for themselves but for the Jewish people as a whole.
Yom Kippur ended and the people felt purified. They felt as the Jews must have felt as they saw the vision of the High Priest as he left the Holy of Holies and finished the Day of Atonement service. And Rabbi Amnon, partially responsible for the atonement of his congregation felt as the High Priest must have felt when he left the Holy of Hollies on Yom Kippurs past when his very survival meant that God had accepted his prayers for himself, for his family, for his fellow priests and for the Jewish people.
Rabbi Amnon felt an additional surge of piety when the Shofar sounded to end Yom Kippur. It was his first triumph as a rabbi in this town. He had started to mold a Jewish community out of a collection of Jews and would build on this success. He felt that his words transcended even the great and moving prayers that the Cantor chanted. The service was his. The people would look to his words to help them as people and as Jews.

What happened in the intervening years, between the beginning and the tragedy is hard for me to say since I left the community for many years. But I heard through letters and chance meetings by traveling congregants that Rabbi Amnon was continuing in his work and that the community he formed was strong and stable. I was told that although he was never able to surpass that first High Holiday season, his sermons continued to move the congregation to greater prayer, to greater acts of charity and to greater repentance.
I was told how Rabbi Amnon and his family were able to show the community how to raise a proper Jewish family. The community created charity programs and worried about leading just lives. The congregation reacted to calls for help, be they from Rabbi Amnon himself or other members of the congregation.
Rabbi Amnon was most successful though with the children. They came to synagogue because their parents brought them, but were glad when the rabbi himself took time to shower them with stories and of course candy. As the children grew older and the power of stories and candy waned he started to loose touch with them. But they always respected him and a word from Rabbi Amnon at least shamed the adolescents into better behavior.
I heard the story of Rabbi Amnon’s stare one Passover eve that caused some troubled teens to go home to attend the family Seder. Another story passed the lips of a visitor where the rabbi walked for miles on the Sabbath in a January snowstorm to convince the children of some of strong-willed men to come home from a party that was later broken up by the authorities.
Of course there were failures, too. There was the daughter of the member who declared her atheism and the son of the president who ran off never to be seen again in his community – both after Rabbi Amnon promised their parents that he would move them to stay.
All in all though, the stories I heard were ones of a living congregation, with its ups and downs – but with a rabbi who kept them as Jews and as a community.

On my return to my hometown the Passover before the tragedy I sensed that something was wrong. The Rabbi and those strong willed people that ran the congregation seemed nervous, on edge. They said hello on passing and the rabbi even invited me over to his house for a Sabbath meal so that we could catch up on what I had been doing over the years. But the tension was clear to see.
I was not the favorite of Rabbi Amnon’s young congregants but he liked me and looked at me with promise. He was disappointed when I decided to leave the community he was building – for he saw me and those like me as the future of the community. I was observant and pious in my own way. He knew I would never be one of those strong-willed people of the community but he knew that I could set an example by my modest temperament.
After the holiday, the tension between the Rabbi and the strong-willed men became more obvious. In the middle of the summer when the fast day called Tisha B’Av commemorating the destruction of the Temple came, the rabbi was uncommonly quiet. He shortened the morning prayer services. Even more telling, he let the fast end without his annual reading and commentary between the afternoon and evening services, of select passages from the Book of Lamentations.
Slowly, in the days after Tisha B’av when the Rabbi usually started preparing his High-Holiday sermons he could be seen in quiet meetings with the strong-wiled men. Rumors and gossip spread about a challenge to his authority from the other religious leaders of the town. Although he got on well with them, Rabbi Amnon always feared the outside forces that might destroy what he was building. He knew that his leadership depended not only on his relationship with his congregants but with his dealings with the other religious leaders of the town.
This though was not the case. I myself saw him being honored by the Inter-Faith Council and understood that his one fear, to be stripped of his congregation because of what he liked to call his “those dangerous outside forces”, was not what was worrying him.
It was obvious to me that he was being torn from within. Something serious was going on that went beyond his performance as a rabbi to the core of his identity as a Jewish leader. His wife looked sad and they no longer took their Sabbath afternoon walks. The month of Elul in which Jews prepare themselves to face the Creator came without the usual changes in the Rabbi’s behavior. Every Elul, the month preceding the High-Holidays, the Rabbi came to synagogue earlier for morning services and stayed later at night after evening services. This Elul, he rushed in and out, on time to be sure, but neither arriving early nor leaving late.
Finally, in the week preceding Rosh Hashanah, the tragedy started to take shape. The facts now reached the entire community. The son of the President of the congregation, the son of the man most responsible for bringing Rabbi Amnon to town was planning an act that would cause the congregation to either cease being Jewish or to cease being a community. It is not as if this act was of the worst sins in the world, or that it was not done before in this community.
Just as tt was clear to the President that his son and his son’s family would always be part of the congregation, it was just as clear to Rabbi Amnon that this could never be.
Rabbi Amnon, who was accommodating on so many problems was not willing to bend. The community would remain a Jewish community, not one that would sanction, let alone accept in its midst that which would surely make it melt away. Rabbi Amnon now doubted his ways. He felt that maybe he was not strong enough in his sermons, that he was not clear enough in his pronouncements for prayer, repentance and charity. How else he wondered could anyone presume to think that on this issue he would allow the sinners to remain.
And they were sinners, both the son and the father.
The pressure on Rabbi Amnon grew. After the Selichot service which traditionally begins on the Saturday night before Rosh Hashanah and prepares the community and God for a relationship that will emulate father and son instead of judge and accused, Rabbi Amnon didn’t know where to turn. He no longer felt that he could ask God for guidance since there was really no question he could ask of him.
The President and his friends, those strong willed men, approached the Rabbi after the midnight service in order to let him know of their decision. The Rabbi, they insisted, could not continue to serve the congregation without finding a way to allow the son to remain in the community. Rabbi Amnon didn’t have to befriend the son, they understood that they couldn’t demand that of him. Yet, in these times, he couldn’t let the children of those who mattered most stay outside of the community. They assured the Rabbi that the congregation would follow the strong willed men and that the Rabbi would have no place in the community, or even in the town.
Rabbi Amnon lowered his head and thought. He stood silently. The men stood in front of him and he felt their glares, he felt as if the jury were staring at him waiting for him to present his defense.
Then Rabbi Amnon lifted his head and asked the strong willed men if he could have three days to consider the issue. Rosh Hashanah was to begin Wednesday night. They would have their answer before the New Year was to begin.
The strong-willed men left Rabbi Amnon to his thoughts. They agreed to give him three days and from this they understood that the Rabbi was just looking for the best way to capitulate.

Rabbi Amnon walked home after that fateful Selichot service. He walked the cold lonely streets and entered his dark house. The Rabbi opened the door, sat down and cried.
How could he allow those men, those sinners to think that he would accept the defilement of his congregation? How could he allow the community to think that he was considering a way to accept their demands?
Rabbi Amnon didn’t sleep that night. When his wife awoke she found him sobbing quietly and realized that what had happened. She knew those strong willed men and knew that they would destroy her husband. He had feared those terrible forces of the outside for all these years, yet she knew it would be the forces of the community itself that would destroy him.
The Rabbi’s wife went over and felt him burning up with fever. Although there were no bruises and no signs of violence, the Rabbi’s limbs were soft. He couldn’t make use of his arms and he collapsed when he tried to rise from the sofa. The doctor was called in and a room was prepared in the hospital.
By the morning the congregants had heard of the Rabbi’s request for three days in which to work out a plan that would be acceptable to the strong willed men. By the evening they knew that he was in the hospital. The rabbi’s wife went around town begging for visitors to come and see the Rabbi. She knew that if his community would come he would be healed.
The community came to visit him, but Rabbi Amnon’s situation did not improve. He knew that he had sinned against God by giving the impression that he would accommodate the sinners and that the community he built would no longer be a Jewish community as long as God did not punish him.
The end of the three day period came and the President and the other strong willed men came to get their answer. Rabbi Amnon didn’t speak. He just lay there. The look of calm on his face the men took for a look of defeat. They walked away satisfied that they had won.

It was the morning of Rosh Hashanah and the congregation gathered for prayer without their rabbi of many years. The President sat at the head of the congregation and the cantor chanted the prayers. The morning service was completed and the Torah portion was read.
The shofar was sounded. Thirty blasts were heard. The cantor begged God to allow his prayers to be heard in spite of his shortcomings. The congregation silently murmured the Musaf service and waited for the cantor to repeat it.
There was a rumbling in the back of the synagogue as the cantor started the repetition. He invoked the forefathers Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, sang the praises of God who desires life and asked who could be merciful like God. He declared God as the Holy King.
As the cantor was to state the holy words that the angels say to each other in the heavens – the Kidusha prayers that brings the angels down to man, the rumblings grew too loud to continue. The cantor stopped and turned his neck, only to see the Rabbi, the dying Rabbi being brought to the Bimah by his wife.
Rabbi Amnon, supported by his wife, turned to the congregation and asked their forgiveness. He then asked their permission to say a prayer that would help them understand God, to understand God’s ways, to understand what these High-Holidays could do for them.
And he started:
U’netaneh Tokef Kedushat Hayom.
“Let us tell how utterly holy this day is….
And how awe-inspiring.
It is the day when thy dominion shall be exalted
Thy throne shalt occupy it in truth ….

The Great Shofar is sounded,
A gentle whisper is heard,
the Angels, quaking in their fear, declare:
The day of judgment is here to bring the hosts of heaven to justice!….

All mankind passes before thee like a flock of sheep.
As a shepherd seeks out his flock ….
Thou dost count and number thy creatures,
Fixing their lifetime and inscribing their destiny.

On Rosh Hasahnah their destiny is inscribed
And on Yom Kippur it is sealed…..
Who Shall live and who shall die

who by water, who by fire,
who by sword and who by beast
who by hunger and who by thirst ?

who shall be at ease
and who shall wander about …
who shall be lowered and who shall be raised ?"

After Rabbi Amnon finished this prayer, he expired on the Bimah.
And as they looked at their rabbi dead in the Synagogue, killed by hatred, they screamed to the heavens that which Rabbi Amnon taught:
“And repentance …
and Prayer …
and Charity …
will cancel the stern decree”.

The congregation and the cantor whispered the words of the angels in the Kedusha service but could not continue any further. They left the seventy remaining blasts of the shofar silent.

And now you have heard the tragic tale of Rabbi Amnon. In the days after that Rosh Hashanah and before Yom Kippur, news of the story of Rabbi Amnon spread. I myself remembered his prayer and sent it to his teacher and his colleagues throughout the land where they cried it on Yom Kippur.
And to this very day on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the Jewish people throughout the world over cry over this holy prayer created by God through Rabbi Amnon, before reciting the words of the angels in heaven.

Copyright Out of Step Jew, September 2004

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BDL on Wittgenstein and the "se'ir la'azazel".

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Monday, October 10, 2005


Somehow, living in the depths of the Israeli economy, it doesen't seem right that an Israeli has won the Nobel Prize for Economics for the second time in the last few years. As long as we are on the Israeli economy .... read this if you live in Israel or if you have worked here before.

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Two Books 

I just finished two seemingly unrelated books.

The first is Facing the Glass Booth - a translation of Hebrew poet Haim Gouri's journalistic account of the Eichmann trial. It was taken from Gouri's newspaper accounts during the sensational trial which started in 1961. I wanted to re-read Hannah Arendt's Eichmann in Jerusalem along with it, but unfortunately I can't remember to whom I leant my copy. From the book you understand the historical and psychological importance of the trial for Israel, for the survivors (just 16 years after liberation!) and for the Jewish people generally.

The second book is a wonderful biography of Benjamin Franklin by Edmund Morgan. I took two things from this book (aside from all the history I learned). The first was that in school we were not taught how fascinating a man Franklin was. The second was that it makes one wonder what the fate of the Jewish people would have been (would be?) had we methodically produced political leaders in the way we methodically produced religious ones.

Lessons for the Diaspora – and lessons for the State of Israel.

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Sunday, October 09, 2005

Wrong Insult 

Steven Weiss of Canonist has a piece in JTA on the SA Halevi disengage from Israel article of a few weeks ago. It seems that many Zionists, religious and otherwise in the US are very upset by the article and at the insults to the Rabbinical Council of America and Agudat Yisrael. Noone seems the least put off by the disgusting words in the article about the soldiers in the Israeli army.

But hey, they are not risking their lives they way RCA and Agudah rabbis are.

More shame on American orthodoxy. And no apology from the cowardly rabbi either. Its okay, Yom Kippur is still three days away.

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Intellectualized Spirituality 

Just as I was thinking about writing something on spirituality and modern orthodoxy and the differences between Israel and the US, the new issue of YU Alumni Review came with a story on the newest Orthodox Forum publication on Jewish Spirituality And Divine Law.

I haven't read the book yet but the short conversation between four of the contributors missed a few key points. The first is the success here in Israel of combining "spirituality" and "intellectualism" without the need to submit to new-age idolatry. This has been done for a number of reasons. The foremost and most obvious is the strong connection of Israeli orthodoxy to the writings of Rav Kook whose thought is both intellectually challenging and spiritually uplifting.

Another reason I believe that orthodoxy in Israel has attainted a more "spiritual" status than its US brother is that from a young age Israeli children are thrown into a reality that matures them much quicker. There is a realization that mere intellectualism will never be enough to motivate one for the life of a soldier. You can bring piyutim and even song into a foxhole, but Bava Metzia is too onerous in more ways than one.

There is another reason for the lack of respect for spirituality in American orthodoxy - the worship of the Rav's Halakhic Man to the neglect of The Lonely Man of Faith. I sometimes get the feeling that people think that Halakhic Man was written as a guide for life rather than as a (nearly utopian) look at the philosophy of mitnagdicism. Man of Faith on the other hand is the most personal of essays with an emphasis on individual man's longing relationship with God. It is a spiritual journey in an of itself. There is nothing more uplifting to read on Yom Kippur. Unfortunately, only one aspect of the Rav's torah is taught.

The over-emphaisis on Halakhah at the expense of a closer relationship with God is clearly seen during tefilah in many YU type synagogues in the US. There is an obsession in the YU world with not repeating words during tefilah – something that is not permitted by Halakhah. However, repetition of words turns meaningless prayers into spiritually uplifting praise of and prayer to God. Most of the yeshivot in Israelpermit the repition of words during the prayers for the Yamim Nora'im (high-holidays). This is so not because of an ignorance of Halakhah, but because of a recognition of the importance of tefila on Yom Kippur.

I am not the most spiritual person and I often feel that spiritualism is emphasized a bit too much in Israel. I am the first to complain when "Hayom Harat Olam" is sung for the fourth time. But I understand that there a way to spirituality without sacrificing intellectual standards and without lapsing into the meaningless mysticism that has pervaded so much of American Jewish society. I understand the importance of the spiritual in even the most rationalist of believers.

It is the challenge of the pulpit rabbis much more than the roshei yeshiva to imbue a certain spirituality into tefilot and other aspects of religious life. And looking to Israeli orthodoxy for hints will not hurt at all.

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Jewish Bible 

A good friend and philosophy professor, Berel Lerner, who lives on a religious kibbutz in Israel has started a new blog. Initially he is publishing some of his essays and articles on issues stemming from his study of the Torah. It is nice to have someone of his caliber join the Jewish blogosphere. He is one of the more intelligent and perceptive people you will ever have the pleasure to converse with. The new blog is well worth a look.

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Thursday, October 06, 2005

Conversations: Part 4 

Conversations: A Fantasy in Many Parts

Disclaimer: All information and quotes in this fantasy are just that: Fantasies. The names have not been changed since none of this happened.

Introduction & Part 1, Part 2, Part 3


On a trip to Israel in 1984 I found myself in an elevator - and then in the office – of one of the more tragic figures in Jewish history – Jabotinsky successor and former prime minister Menachem Begin.

Me: Mr. Prime Minister.

MB: No longer.

Me: Sir, it's an honor to meet you. Do you have an office in this building?

MB: Would you like to join me for a talk?

We went into his office, sat down and I found myself asking him questions that so many people asked me before.

Me: Do you think the Jewish people need to suffer? Do you think that the Jewish people are 'in it for good'?

MB: Where do you get such things?

ME: Yitzchak Rabin told me something like that in the middle of the Yom Kippur War.

MB: How did you get to speak with General Rabin in the middle of the War?

Me: How did I get to speak with Prime Minister Begin?

Begin put his hand to his head, rubbed his forehead as the rabbis do when they are not yet sure how to reconcile contradictory statements in the Rambam. Confused, concerned, yet with the knowledge that the problem must be solved. We were not yet out of the Lebanese fiasco – a war started to relieve the Galilee of terror but one which became a cause in and of itself. The honorable gentleman wouldn’t blame his Defense Minister, Ariel Sharon for something which was essentially his responsibility. All the articles written about him over the last few years said that you saw the war in his face. I saw the war in his face as he contemplated my questions.

MB: And what did General Rabin say? Do we need to suffer? Are we in it for good?

Me: Well, it was pretty clear that he thought that Jews think they need to suffer, but I don't think he included himself in that

MB: … of course not.

Me: … but as to the second question, he didn't answer. He had an urgent meeting with Kissinger.

MB: Why is it that I believe you? My trust in mankind has never been great, but I always trusted individuals . Well, fewer and fewer now, son. But those are good questions. Let's go through them together and see what we think. First tell me what books you have read over the past year or two. Tell me, even, I see you are dati, what Torah you have studied.

Me: Funny, Rabin told me that one of our faults is that we Jews read and learn too much …

MB: Yes, yes, that is the good general.

Me: … and that we read in order to suffer, that all this reading makes us fearful.

MB: There is no one more ornery that a competent general with curiosity that ends after the bullet has hit its target. All the greatest generals were thinkers, though. Yadin was one here, Patton, Omar Bradley. Admiral Nelson.

Me: Pericles?

MB: Of course, Pericles, And Bar Kochba? I don't know … and Joshua? Certainly, the Biblical Joshua – great general, great mind, learned.

I didn't want to disturb Begin now. He was thinking and talking as if I was not there. He was going through the history of the world in his mind, picking out the great generals from the good, the good from the awful.

MB: … Alexander the Great? Probably. Cyrus, without a doubt. Pharaoh, a fool. Your own George Washington? A great mind, a great respect for people. Modest man. I don't know if the Jews can stand a George Washington. Strong, modest, yet willing to move aside even when not asked. Could have been a dictator, if he chose. You all like to worship Madison, Jefferson and Hamilton but without Washington as general and as the first president, the US would have turned into …who knows? Enough of this. Back to our people. What was it that we were about to think through?

Me: Do we need to suffer, as Jews?

MB: And there was something else.

Me: Are we in it for good?

MB: Yes, yes. Before we got off on our tangent I wanted to know what you learned and read over the past two years. Start with literature.

I went through a list of novels, works of philosophy, tractates of the Talmud – embellished a bit to impress him.

MB: Okay. Let's think this through. What is it that makes us Jewish? What are the two or three things that make a Jew – a Jew? Let's figure out what that is and we will have our answers.

Me: Well, Shabbat would have to be one.

MB: I think you are missing the point. We are not here to judge which mitzvot or which customs or which foods make us Jewish. We are here to figure out the Jewish temperaments. We are not a proud people. Yet we can be arrogant. We are not a self-confident people yet we are a people that survives. We have shown over the last few hundred years that we can survive intellectually – when we have taken the problems that have faced our people and conquered them. The rabbis were our intellectual leaders and there were also those who were our political leaders. Today – I don't know if we have that. So, we can survive as Jews intellectually – but can we survive as political Jews?

Me: Do we need one in order to get the other?

MB: That is where I heartily disagree with the good general you met ten years ago. We need to excel intellectually in order to survive politically. We need to regain our diplomatic and political acumen – something we lack because we lack self-confidence. We seem always to let others set the agenda for us. When we finally get the courage to set the agenda for ourselves, we let others change the subject.

Me: Like Iraq?

MB: Yes, like bombing the nuclear facility in Iraq.

Me: Like Lebanon?

Me: This is a different question. We starting setting the agenda and then got carried away. We did the political work, but not the intellectual work. We tied ourselves up too much in the Arab world. We have to let go of our obsession to be part of the Arab world. We thought that we could change an Arab country and that is not our business.

Me: What is our business?

MB: Building our country. As a Jewish country. Being a light, not amongst the nations but amongst the Jews. Protecting the Jewish people. That is what we are – we are a people who thinks and only then does. Is this a temperament of a modern people? I think so.

Me: So, what of all this suffering?

MB: Enough with the suffering. Individuals may feel a need to suffer in order to gain attention. A nation has no business 'needing to suffer'. A nation must take what it is given and move on. It must, when it can –create its own opportunities. It – its leaders have no right to wallow in victimhood. In self-pity. But there is a second side to the coin. Only after deciding that intellectually, physically, materially and spiritually that there is no need for suffering can we then succeed as a people. And success as a people doesn't mean that we always are on top – it mean we always are. So, are we in it for good, you ask? We are in it for good, yes, because we have no choice. But it is not just up to us. Even after we set our agenda. Even after we put ourselves on the right track it is not all up to us. General Rabin – all generals of his type to tell you the truth – think its always up to them. They think that they can make a decision and everything will fall into place. But that is only so when training troops. It is not true on the battlefield and it is certainly not true in the world of politics.

Me: If it is not just up to us, then who else is it up to?

His son came in, apologized for interrupting us and took Begin from me. He told me to come and visit him again. That we would continue our conversation, but that never happened. I wanted to know what he meant by that – it is not up to us. If not us then who? The Arabs? The West? God? Who is our future up to if not for us?

But that was as far as we got.

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Sunday, October 02, 2005

Machzor as Guide 

Although Teshuva (repentance) itself in Judaism is a physical act – or a series of physical acts where we are impelled to do or resist an urge to do or not to do - that which puts us on the path to Teshuva is a combination of the physical, spiritual and intellectual. Our machzor shows us that all of our senses and thought processes are needed in order to move us to repent.

While according to the penultimate prayer on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, "u'Netaneh Tokef", prayer and repentance are separate means to removing the stern decree against us, essentially we use all that the prayers have to give us on the "yamim nora'im" to spur us to make changes in our lives.

The three key parts of the musaf service – malchiyot, zichronot and shofarot – are neatly organized intellectual exercises complete with prooftexts to show us as individuals and as a people with a common vision and fate, to accept the yoke and kingdom of God.

The emotions are stimulated by the shofar where many of us loose track of its purpose and power by counting seconds and blasts while it is being blown. Like tzedakah, the shofar has meaning for us as individuals and as part of the "edah" that are beyond its Halakhic requirements.

The songs, the tunes. Nothing moves like music set to the words of the great poets. We should not (even the rationalists amongst us) loose sight of the power of the piyut to effect not only our emotions but our intellect. The insights into our relationship with God and with each other in many of the piyutim (even those that we skip) are taught to us through the beauty of the poem/piyut as well as its content. They are not actually part of the "Halakhic prayer", yet the rabbis understood that we need them to complete our prayers during these important days.

The machzor is a gift, carefully put together over many generations to give us insight into so many aspects of our lives and, using intellect and emotion to move us on the path to a better life.

May we all take proper advantage of the machzor this Rosh Hashanah.

Shanna Tova and k'tiva va'chatima tova.

Note: To my mind the best English language machzor is still the Birnbaum. If you have a good Hebrew, you should try the Koren machzor which not only explains the words and sources of the piyutim - but prints the entire piyut - even the parts that for various reasons were excised.

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