Tuesday, November 29, 2005
We have often written on scientists and their views of God and religion – which of course is usually negative. It always amazes me though, that atheist scientists constantly feel the need to prove that God does not exist and that religion is pure illusion, but rarely if ever do they find the need to prove that astrology is hokum. To me, it says something about the power of religion and God that it just drives these people bonkers.
In the website Edge, Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert (since when are psychologists considered scientists?) makes yet another attempt to prove that chance and the nature of our brains and not God or religion is the key to understanding the world around us.
I am not sure if these attempts to debunk religion are part of an inferiority complex or just a temper tantrum by people who don't like to share the intellectual stage with ideas with which they are not expert – but then again I am not a psychologist. What I do know, is that these modern attempts to disprove God and religion are about as tiresome as the medieval attempts to prove God and religion.
Monday, November 28, 2005
In the first the face of a youthful, thin, white haired Ariel Sharon looks skyward in perfect socialist realist fashion over the slogan "Manhig Chazak l'Shalom" - a strong leader for peace.
In the second, R. Ovadia Yosef, in his regal sephardic rabbinic garb smiles over the biblical "mi la'Hashem elai" - whomever is for the Lord to me.
I am going to go out on a limb here, since I am not sure of the Halakhah, so feel free to jump in and correct me. It seems to me that the rabbis were not so sure that R. Shimon bar Yochai was the actual author of the Zohar. It hit me while I was in shul on Friday night using a "nusach sepharad" siddur.
For those who pray using nusach Ashkenaz, on Friday night we say the "Bameh Madlikin" from the second chapter of Mishna Shabbat followed by short paragraphs from the gemara in Berachot and Shabbat. Afterwards, since the custom is to say Kaddish d'Rabanan (Rabbis Kaddish) after learning or saying items from Chazal, thjat Kaddish is recited. Similarly, after se say the braita of R. Ishmael from the Sifra before pesukei d'zimra and after Ein K'elohanu when we say the portion from Kritot we also say Kabbish d'Rabanon. Also, when ten men learn together, it is customary to recite a few sentences from Chazal, no matter what was being learned, in order to say the Kaddish.
In nusach sepharad, instead of Bameh Madlikin, they recite a portion from the Zohar starting with "K'gavna". No Kaddish is recited afterwards. Also, when we say the portion of the Zohar, "B'rich Sh'may" before we take the Torah out of the ark, we don't say Kaddish b'Rabanan.
If the rabbis truly believed that the tanna R. Shimon bar Yochai was the author of the Zohar wouldn't we be saying kaddish after reciting portions of the Zohar during our tephilot?
Thursday, November 24, 2005
This is an article I agree with in its entirety:
"The issue is not whether there is more Torah U'madda at the Yeshiva than ever before, but rather why has our flag and banner been removed. When Yeshiva's administration explains that "Torah U'madda" will remain as their "alma mater", it reminds me of the origin of "alma mater" which is 'old mother' - and conjures up an image of one who is placed in a nursing home waiting for a semi-annual visit from her children. Will they take Torah U'madda out of the closet every so often in an effort to keep us happy by placing its words in an ad or on a web page, all the while displaying those silly flames and non-sectarian motto ?"
"But with only seven or eight students going into the pulpit rabbinate annually, according to Rabbi Marc Penner, advisor to RIETS students, despite a record high enrollment of 330 students this year, if a major shift is to be made that would produce more leaders, it would seemingly require a shift not only in the quality of a specific program, but in the disposition of the entire institution."
Only seven or eight pulpit rabbis out of a class of about 80? One has to wonder.
Wednesday, November 23, 2005
Is one of the largest Hasidic groups returning to its working class roots?
Tuesday, November 22, 2005
It hit me as I was leaving the wedding of my wife's Belz cousins on Sunday that the passion for Judaism that was lacking in Kiryat Belz was present in many of those in my own religious-Zionist community. It seems to me that the Hasidic branch of the religious-Zionists in
I am not the first to point out that each Jewish group is itself subdivided into its Hasidic and mitnagdic branches. Whether haredi, modern-Orthodox, religious-Zionist, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist – and even now, Habad – each group has its more spiritual branch facing off against its rationalist intellectuals.
The religious-Zionists in
The Hasidic branch of the RZ's take their mission very seriously and their mission is uplifting the spirit through song, dance, prayer and learning of what we now call "machshava" - which is often the teachings of Rav Kook, hasidut, Rav Soloveitchik and older greats such as the Maharal and Ramchal. The mitnagdic branch also take their mission - Torah l'shma – seriously. The haredim have been "forced" by the State to declare that their vocation is limud Torah in order to avoid military service. They also, through the kollels, receive money in payment for their learning. The religious-Zionist mitnagdim though have taken Torah l'shma seriously enough to produce scholars who learn Torah not as a vocation (except to teach ) but in their free time – expecting no reward in this world.
This is not an attack on the Israeli haredim, but it is an undeniable result of the attempt to recreate on a mass scale that which was practiced by a lonely few poverty stricken talmidei chachamim. The Israeli Hasidic-haredim too, seem to have traded in the passion and spirit of their tradition for the material and physical rebuilding of the community – with a greater concern on the technical aspects of their Hasidism rather than its spiritual ones. This is not to say that the Rebbe's tisch is still not an uplifting event for their spiritual lives (maybe more than anything we as RZ's have experienced) or that the Admor has lost any of his spiritual depth , but it seems to me that by leaving "this worldly" ways, they have, maybe, been unable to realize the power of their spiritual heritage. We can't forget that because of their desire to avoid military service even the Hasidim have adopted the elitist limud torah ideology that they fought against in
Reading the literature of eastern-Europe it is easy to see how the passion and respect for Torah learning on the one hand and the rebbe's court on the other developed. Surely, the fact that the rank and file worked hard and came home exhausted only to go to minyan and learn a bit of Ein Ya'akov or Hayei Adam helped them appreciate the real sacrifices made by those few who dedicated their lives to Torah l'shma. Or how the Hasidim who went to the rebbe's courtyard to gain a little wisdom and solace after a backbreaking week contributed to the passionate joy on Shabbat and at weddings and the heartfelt pain of the funeral procession.
But today – as I looked around at the Belz Hasidim whose love their Admor is not less than their ancestors in
Again, I don't mean this as a criticism of the people and I am not accusing them of neglecting Yahadut or of being hypocritical. Neither am I looking to use this to praise the religious-Zionists, but the leadership of this community has encouraged what can only be called a "welfare mentality". Every decision has its price. The price they might be paying for this dependence and abandonment of work could just be a betrayal of the very ideals they have been fighting to protect.
Monday, November 21, 2005
Note - for those not familiar with the terms in this post, I have included an incomplete glossary at the end.
A month ago my wife's cousin, a Belz Hasid told us that in the month of CHESHvin they were going to have a "chassenah". My two youngest children knew what this was because they attended their cousin's "chassenah" in
My 17 year old American-Israeli bilingual son knows what a wedding is and he knows what a chatuna is, but a chassenah? A similar problem arose when, two years ago, a visiting American friend asked him if we "do duchenin" in our shul.
My bewildered son could not understand what was being asked of him and I couldn’t stop laughing. He knew well what "nesiat kapayim" and "birkat kohanim" were – but "duchenin" ? After I calmed down and explained to him that it comes from the fact that the kohen goes up to the "duchan" ("oleh la'duchan" – a linguistic fact of which the American boy was clueless) – he wanted to know why being the "shaliach tzibbur" who in local parlance is the one who is "oleh la'bama", was not called "bamanin". Fair enough.
So, we went to the chassanah in CHESHvin (instead of the chatuna in CheshVAN) last night, partially as family members and partially as interested observers.
My first observation and total shock as I entered one of the halls of the Temple-like structure that the Belz community has built was that there was mixed seating! No, not men and women – worse. Hasidim and mitnagdim were seated at the same table. Belz and Brisk. And YU nuch! But family sometimes requires sacrifice.
At the "choson's tisch" where cake, cholent and kugel were served and the ketuba finished and witnessed, the father of the chatan did something I had never seen (except on a certain Catholic holiday). He took some ashes and rubbed it on the forehead of the chatan right as he was to go to the "badeken" (putting the veil over his bride's face).
While for my wife and I our badeken was the most emotional part of the wedding since we had not seen each other all week and since we were surrounded by singing and dancing friends and relatives, we expected that for the spiritually exuberant Hasidim, it too would be a climax of sorts. This was especially so, since the chatan and kallah had not seen each other in a year – and then for only 45 minutes. In spite of that, or maybe because of it, the badeken itself was quiet. The chatan walked into the woman's section flanked by the fathers who were holding candles and accompanied by a handful of other men. The women quietly threw confetti, the deed was done and the men walked out – all to a slow, dirge-like nigun that was started in the men's section by the one piece band consisting only of a drum. Apparently, besides male singers, Hasidic weddings in
The outdoor chupah was quick and businesslike; the bride's face was covered by a second opaque veil until after the finish of the chupah at which time, when they walked to their (yichud) room the bride surprisingly put her arm into her new husband's. This was the first and only visibly romantic moment at the wedding.
The biggest surprise of the wedding was during the meal, the seuda. We all expected Hasidic mayhem but all we got was barely ten minutes of "dancing" when the bride and groom entered their respective sides of the hall.
I wondered where all the Hasidic joy was. I wondered about this group of Jews whose are part of the revolution of the Baa'l shem-Tov to bring joy back into the lives of Jews. It seemed as if I were witness to a communal blank stare. The passion for their Judaism, which you would assume would boil over at a wedding, was missing. I felt sorry for the adults and children alike not because they couldn't watch TV or listen to Jazz or even because they needed to get married to complete strangers but because that for which they had sacrificed everything – their Judaism – seems to have passed them by.
Glossary for this post:
Cheshvan – current month in the Jewish calendar
CHESHvin – Ashkenazic pronunciation of Cheshvan
Chatuna – wedding
Chassenah – Ashkenazi pronunciation of chatuna
Nesiat Kapayim – priestly benediction
Birkay Kohanim – priestly benediction
Duchenin – priestly benediction
Litvak, Mitnagdim – Orthodox opponents of Hasidim for theological and Halakhic reasons.
Belz – Hasidic group centered in
Chatan – bridegroom
Choson – Ashkenazic pronunciation of chatan
Kallah – Bride
Badekin – Ceremony at which the groom puts the veil on the bride, before the actual wedding ceremony.
Chuppah – canopy under which Jewish weddings are performed.
"As part of ongoing developments in U.S. foreign policy, consular authority for the Gaza Strip will be transferred from Embassy Tel Aviv to the U.S. Consulate General in Jerusalem, effective December 1. Practically speaking, this means that visa applicants and American Citizen Services customers who are residents of the Gaza Strip, who have formerly been receiving services from the Embassy, will now need to receive those services from ConGen Jerusalem."
Sunday, November 20, 2005
In an interesting dilemma amongst 13 year old girls they decided to neglect clear Halakhah rather than risk disfigurement.
The OOS daughter and her friends were alone in one of the girls' apartment as Shabbat ended. They took out the candle, spices and grape juice and were about to do what all good Jewish households do as Shabbat ends – make havdalah (the prayer separating Shabbat from the weekday). But they had a problem. The girls didn't want to drink the grape juice because of the superstition that if a girl drinks from it, she will grow a mustache. The OOS daughter never heard of this and insisted that one had to drink from the grape juice after making the blessing.
The other girls still refused and the OOS daughter also decided, that when all was said and done and in spite of the fact that she has unwittingly taken this risk in the past, she would not tempt fate.
Thursday, November 17, 2005
Conversations: A Fantasy in Many PartsDisclaimer: 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, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7
Part 8 - End of Volume 1
This ends the first volume of my conversations with others. My short term relationships have kept me thinking while my emotional attachments have been reserved for those few people willing to stay with me for more than a few minutes, hours or days.
These seven people taught me a lot about many different things. One thing though that I learned after 45 years of conversations is that the plight of the Jewish people never seems to change. We struggle, we suffer, we mourn, we celebrate and we survive.
Maybe that is why we follow the lunar calendar instead of the solar one. The solar calendar truly means time – a year is a year is a year. Everything is as the earth's relation to the sun says it is. The lunar year though has no real start and no real finish. For the Jewish people there are many, many different "new years" since a "year" really has no meaning for our lunar calendar.
It seems that as long as Shabbat continues to arrive ever seven days and as long as the holidays still creep up on us we can at least (sometimes) put rancor and suffering aside.
I pity those who don't have a Shabbat table to sit around once a week. I don't know how they move forward without it. I pity even more, those who hate their Shabbat table because they let the constant movement of the solar year intrude on it.
The Jewish contribution to the western world is the continuation of the lunar calendar in order to smooth out the rough edges of the constant movement and conflict of the solar year. In this way we can ameliorate the immutable aging of our bodies with a calendar that knows no years and therefore knows no age.
There are so many more conversations that I wish to relate to you, but they will have to wait. It will take me some time to get my notes in order and my memories together – to organize them and put pen to paper.
I hope you enjoyed the first seven of these fantastical conversations.
Wednesday, November 16, 2005
Although I do not often re-read novels, I just finished re-reading The Agunah, by the Yiddish writer Chaim Grade. I chose the book for three reasons: It is one of the great Yiddish novels by the greatest of Yiddish novelists: I already had a copy of it: And, last but not least, I needed a book whose print was large enough for me to be able to read it in bed without my reading glasses.
While reading it I realized that it (or others of his novels) will help to explain some of what Haym Soloveitchik was talking about in the article we and others wrote and wrote about last week.
Although its too late for Grade to win a Nobel Prize - maybe some publisher will read this and start to republish his novels (in English preferably). I put one that is still in print over on the Amazon sidebar – it is a book that was previously published as "Rabbis and Wives". This too is a wonderful book. It is three novellas – the first of which is called "The Rebetzin" and was first published in English translation in Commentary in October, 1982. It was my introduction to this great author. It is a fabulous story that I , being a rabbis son and a more importantly a rebetzin's son fully appreciated (as will this blogger).
"In truth, the tranquility of Jordan was deceptive, secured by a monarchy that has always been more moderate in its temperament than the population it ruled. 'Iraqi Insurgent Blamed for Bombings in Jordan' was a headline on the front page of the New York Times of Nov. 13: Not quite! For Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, as his nom de guerre specifies, is a man from the town of Zarqa, a stone's throw from Amman. The four Iraqis who brought calamity to Jordan were in the nature of a return visit, blowback from a campaign of terror and incitement, and a traffic of jihadists that had sent deadly warriors of the faith from Jordan to Iraq. Even as they mourned their loss, the Jordanians could not see or acknowledge the darkness with which they viewed the world around them. 'Zionist terror in Palestine = American terror in Iraq = Terror in Amman,' read a banner held aloft by the leaders of the Engineers' Syndicate of Jordan who had come together to protest the hotel bombings. In the drawn-out struggle over Iraq, Jordan."
Read the whole thing.
Tuesday, November 15, 2005
"Boyle is clear about what distinguishes the two forms of writing. The Bible reveals the fundamental moral obligation of the Law, the command that we love and care for the other. Secular literature, using the playful, entertaining forms of art, attempts to tell the truth about who we are and how we live. It cannot speak with the authority of divine revelation because it can be traced directly to individual authors, who are subject to historical and cultural contingencies in a manner that the Bible is not. "
Monday, November 14, 2005
You might have the chance (if you live in Israel).
Mod-Orth Woman notes that YU's Orthodox Caucus has a female executive director and has "begun a new initiative focusing on women in leadership positions" (I assume they mean religious leadership positions) and I wonder about Israeli orthodoxy. The Women's Midrasha at
The separate but not equal status of women in Israeli orthodox educational and political institutions (officially, at least, YU maintains a "separate, but equal" policy regarding YC and Stern) is highlighted every few years when the National Religious Party has heart rendering debates regarding where, if at all, a women can be placed on their list for the Knesset.
Here in Kfar Saba, the first (and only) woman to head the local Religious Council recently resigned after a year of vicious opposition by the chief rabbis and others in the religious establishment. My guess is that having a woman in charge of disbursing monies for such 'manly' things like the upkeep of the mikveh, Torah classes for adults and children and other government supported religious 'services' was too much for the honest men to handle.
There is another reason for the dearth of women in leadership positions in orthodox affiliated institutions is Israel and that is the attitude of the women themselves: Some women fear any kind of change to the religious status quo and oppose any attempt to add women to the most trivial of posts: And, the women that do care and also have the education, talent and desire to enter leadership positions insist, for the most part, on staying in Jerusalem.
In much the same way that modern-Orthodox in the
Saturday, November 12, 2005
Paul at Bloghead has given a good defense of the seminal article Rupture and Reconstruction by R. Dr. Haym Soloveitchik. Although Paul was being polite, the comments on some of the original posts regarding the article have, to say the least been quite arrogant and disrespectful (the tone has calmed down on the later ones). There may be one or two people in the yeshiva or (Jewish) academic world who write more eloquently or brilliantly than R. Haym, but I have yet to come across them.
This is not the first time I have seen this kind of arrogance regarding R. Haym and others in the family who are not the Rav. I sense a bit of jealousy here or maybe it is just ideological steam being blown off. There also seems to be an assumption that those who have read and agreed with much of the essay have neglected the rejoinders. There seems to be an assumption that just because someone presents an objection to one or two points he or she has blown the whole essay apart.
For those who actually know how to read the essay will realize some of the underlying themes that are implicit in it.
There is this assumption that his father, Rav Yoesf Dov Solovietchik was this cold hearted halalkhic-rationalist who, following this grandfather, R. Haym of Brisk categorized Judaism to death and created an Halakhic man constantly in search of Halakhic perfection no matter where it leads. Those people would not have understood the humanity of the Rav or the importance of "torah shebe'al peh" (Oral Torah) in the Soloveitchik family's overall outlook. For the Rav and for his father and grandfather, torah shebe'al peh was not learning gemara – it was the transmission of Torah – intellectually and practically- from parent to child from teacher to student. They took the phrase literally and felt deeply that that was the proper way or transmitting Torah. That is part of the reason why they published little or nothing during their own lives. The keeping of masoret avot (tradition of fathers) was so strong that the Rav, unlike other rabanim who want their students to ape their every movement, would not speak to his students of his own family customs at the seder for example, because he didn't want his students abandoning the traditions of their (literal) fathers. Rather than being a cold-hearted Halakhic man, the Rav's spirituality was tied up in his transmission of Torah shebe'al peh, literally.
A close reading of the essay will show this. For those of us who had the pleasure of hearing one of the lectures on which the essay was based (as I did at the YIVO Institute in the mid-late 80's) we heard sentences that began "I have a tradition from my father …" or "I asked my father about …" which let us understand the importance of torah shebe'al peh – understood literally. You also would have felt the respect that he and his father had for the "balabatim" (congregants) - the regular Jews who just lived regular Jewish lives.
For those knowledgeable – and most of the commenters are knowledgeable on this issue but choose to ignore it – the breaking of the mimetic tradition is not new in Jewish history and the essay does not make the claim that it started in 1945. It could be said to have started even before R. Yehudah HaNasi compsed the mishna, when R. Ishmael wrote down in detail his 13 midot (literally measures – actually logical, textual and literary tools used for revealing Halakhot in the verses of the Torah) or before that with Hillel's seven midot. I would like to quote a paragraph from a book called Mida Tova – from the weekly parshat hashavua sheets that analyze the parsha from the perspective of the midot, written by Gavriel Hazot and Michael Avraham:
"It is highly likely that the midot of drash were used by scholars from the time Moshe Rabenu received them at Sinai. When God taught Moshe the Torah he taught him to naturally look at the verses in these ways. At the start of the process of the giving of the Torah (mesirat ha'Torah) these methods of analysis were passed from Rav to student in a natural and intuitive way, without formally writing down the rules. The process was similar to acquiring language that is not done with formal rules, but naturally. With time, apparently, the rules needed to be written formally and in detail… This formalization process reached it height in the time of Hillel and finally by R. Ishmael."
The mimetic tradition started with Moses and has been
"Rupture and Reconstruction" is, as Paul stated, "a truly brilliant, original tour de force". The arrogance and the ignorance with which it has been treated in the Jewish blogosphere of late, has not been, as we say in Hebrew, "la'inyan". A closer and less ideological reading of the essay will not show an attack on stringent Halakhic interpretations or a defense of easy Judaism – but a description of the deterioration of more than one aspect of Torah shebe'al peh, specifiacally in the performance of Judaism. For those who don't spend their lives proving that the Rav was a closet haredi who would have felt more at home in
In conclusion, it is interesting to me that this essay has been discussed by leaders of other religions as explanations for issues that they too, have faced. This may not be relevant to those that think that Judaism in general and orthodox Judaism in particular has not, is not and never will have any connection to other religions or to contemporary society, but to the rest of us, it is interesting to read what they have written.
I would like to quote some comments on it by Father Michael Walsh, with whom I have been emailing on this and other topics. His insights are relevant to the general discussion that has been going on. He also points out some of the literary style that makes the essay such a pleasure to read. His wonderful prose style is yet another thing he has in common with his father.
Father Walsh wrote:
"I just finished reading Haym Soloveitchik's article, 'Rupture and Reconstruction', and found much to identify with, especially in the basic insight about the community becoming more text-dependent because of the stress from the centrifugal forces of modernity. I like his writing, too, especially insights framed in felicitous expressions like 'the housewife's religious intuition imparted in kitchen apprenticeship.'
We part company at a certain point --Christian and Jewish communities of course simply diverge at different times and in different ways. But:
'It is no exaggeration to say that the Ashkenazic community saw the law as manifesting itself in two forms: in the canonized written corpus (the Talmud and codes), and in the regnant practices of the people. Custom was a correlative datum of the halakhic system. And, on frequent occasions, the written word was reread in light of traditional behavior.5'
--I wonder if this is similar to the Catholic practice described by the old Roman formula: “lex orandi, lex credendi.” This means that a practice can, in effect, be validated by venerable tradition long before it becomes understood in theology.
One of his basic points, and one that I think most resonates with the experience of late Catholic Christianity, is that what had been received as tradition without complication, now, in the modern context, has to be chosen. As he has it: 'Alternatives now exist, and adherence is voluntary. A traditional society has been transformed into an orthodox one,16 and religious conduct is less the product of social custom than of conscious, reflective behavior.' The 'ghetto Catholicism' of my youth is gone, though what brought it into existence is the same thing faced by Jewish immigrants –a hostile WASP culture—but to some extent there is still an ‘enclave’ mentality, kept alive in the parishes and parochial school system.
Some of the issues he is raising precisely parallel the issues (indeed the fights) we sometimes see over matters of Roman Catholic liturgy. The fights are usually between those who rely on their own habits of doing things, based loosely on remembered tradition and learning they did decades before, (or worse, those who abandoned much tradition without reflection after the Vatican Council of 1962-65) and those haredim (ha!) like myself, who actually study liturgical texts (I am Master of Ceremonies –among other things-- here at the headquarters of my religious society).
This is interesting: He says, 'The spiritual challenge becomes less to escape the confines of the body than to elude the air that is breathed.' I am reminded of a quote from Flannery O’Connor: 'for me this is always the conflict between an attraction for the Holy and the disbelief in it that we breathe in with the air of the times.' What offers the haredim presumably safe refuge, as he says 'is their 'portable homeland,' their sacred texts, which alone remain unblighted by the contagion of the surroundings.' People of faith have to fight for it –that is universal.
I see other parallels with my own faith and experience. For instance, when he discusses the shift in authority to the leaders of schools, it sounds almost like the development of a hierarchy –which after all, was Christianity’s early approach to the problem of authority. There is also something here that speaks to the old tension between the hierarchy and the religious orders. "
The last point Father Walsh makes is an interesting one – how much has the development of the new hierarchy in Judaism been influenced by our contact with Christianity in general and Catholicism in particular? But that is a subject for another day.
One last comment - where does all of this arrogance come from? Is all humility gone from the American orthodox world?
Thursday, November 10, 2005
I was hoping to write that the defeat of Shimon Peres was a message to all the old guard in all the political parties - Peres, Sharon, Ovadia Yosef, Elyashiv, Shapiro, Lapid, Sarid etc, etc, etc , that their time was up - that the young Turks were taking over and will bring fresh new ideas so that we can have an open debate and move this country forward.
But I was, of course. wrong. In much the same way that Israeli politicians visit rabbis such as Ovadia Yosef, Kadourie and Elyahsiv after their victories, Peretz went straight to the grave of Yitzchak Rabin and swore (on his grave?) to "continue his way".
As Emily Litella would have said: Never mind.
Conversations: A Fantasy in Many PartsDisclaimer: 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, Part 5, Part 6
I had been reading the words that Norman Podhoretz wrote or edited at Commentary for as loing as I can remember. Our home always had Commentary articles and New Yorker cartoons. The later were entertaining the former were the basis of arguments and discussions around the dinner table.
Strangely enough, of all the famous and infamous people I met over my 45 years, Norman Podhoretz was the most intimidating. More than the Prime Ministers, novelists and others. I read "Making It" after finding it in a shul library in
So, at age 30, the age Podhoretz was when he took over at Commentary (give or take), I met the man who controlled much of the conversation in our household. I was in the Delta Shuttle down to
I was reading The New Republic, a publication that occasionally adorned our dinner conversation and to which I was a sometime subscriber.
I heard a snicker from the seat next to me, looked over and immediately, embarrassingly recognized who it was. I reached into my black Lands' End briefcase and pulled out another magazine.
Me: I have Commentary, too.
NP: So you recognized me, huh?
Me: Well, you are almost part of my family.
NP: Your family from
Me: No, Lower
NP: Irving Howe territory.
Me: And don't forget Red Rosa.
NP: Not a big fan of the
Me: I didn't think with you there could be too much culture.
NP: I'm a
Me: Well, bum or not, can I ask you just one question?
NP: Just one? Sure, but first put away TNR – people might get the wrong idea.
Me: Sure. The 90's are here, the Berlin Wall is gone, history is over, right? You seem to be pretty optimistic about
NP: I think we have to separate out the future of Judaism as a faith – which will exist as long as God does and the fate of the Jews as a people of significance in the world.
Me: Significant in what sense?
NP: Not in the theological sense. The Jewish people will always be significant to God. The question is – will this significance be translated into the human sphere?
Me: If we are significant to God, then doesn't that mean we will be significant to man? If you believe in an active personal God, anyway.
NP: Why tie them together? It turns the world into a theological nightmare. The Jewish people in general and Jews as individuals might be significant to God, even significant to the world in a cosmic sense – as we are to some Christians – but that does not mean that our fate in this natural world - aside from our 'mere' existence – is assured.
Me: I don't understand, If we are significant - if we are necessary to God, then what else is important?
NP: Let's start again. Significance is what precedes success. Jews as individuals that are significant in the sciences arts, law, politics, business - if there are enough or if the success is great enough then the Jews as a people are significant to mankind by continuing to be a source of ideas, or thought. Einstein wasn't just a physicist – but a Jewish physicist. His success by itself does not make the Jewish people significant. But his significance followed by further Jewish successes following on his ideas and theories – and this forming the basis of modern physics – this makes the Jewish people significant.
Me: So we have to be in control?
NP: Nothing of the sort. Taking Einstein as an example – Jews don't have to 'control' physics in order for Jews to remain significant. Jews just have to continue their involvement on a high level. Same with literature, politics, etc – we don't need to be in control, just be one small key part of the whole picture. In some fields of course we will be the engine, on others the lubricant. In one we will draw the design in some we will just be the simple but necessary bolt. Our significance to God ensures our 'mere' survival, like we just said. We 'survived' the Holocaust because we are significant, as a people, to God.
Me: Did we loose the significance of man in
NP: Yes, you are right. And I won't try to explain the Holocaust. I certainly won't blame the Jewish people.
Me: So, in light of the Holocaust, how does your theory hold up?
Me: And what of the Jewish state? What of
NP: What of it?
ME: Not according to the State Department.
Me: So, our fate is tied to our significance to mankind. And that is tied to
NP: Now you have it. Remember, the Jews, the State of Israel, are not just another people or country. We dream of being just another peaceful country that can go about our business. That will never happen. We were chosen for significance to the world around us. Not to control it – but to always be a part of it. That is our blessing – that is our curse.
The plane landed, Norman Podhoretz got up and left the airplane, saying good-bye as he left – almost as an afterthought.
Wednesday, November 09, 2005
Tuesday, November 08, 2005
Occasionally I wander over to some of the blogs being written by haredi girls in order to see what is going on. Again, I don't know what is representative or not, but the situation does not look pretty. My guess is that the vast majority of the girls get married ("shidduched") at the relatively young age of 18-20. Some, most, are probably happily married and will continue the lifestyles they grew up with. Some might be less happily married but plod along like so many of their contemporaries and some according to Semgirl are in nightmarish relationships.
But what of the unmarried girls? Semgirl (in the same post) writes of pressures of the "shidduch", but again – all unmarried teenage and twenty-something girls and women have various communal pressures and nearly all at some point in their lives start to feel the pressure of being single.
But this post by a haredi girl (Girlie) was most disturbing:
"It’s Thursday night. First day Chol Hamod. Most of my friends are by there In-laws, or abroad. And Girlie is bored. My mother needed some eggs so off I trot to the local kosher super market. A friend calls, she too is single and she wants to do something. Her brothers have gone off to the local Simchas Beis Hashovah or wherever else they are giving a free meal, her mother is either cooking or sleeping of the mad bustle of the last few days preparing for the next on slather. She is bored. Me too I say.
As I was walking I couldn’t help but notice the amount if car loads filled with Buchorim. Well at least there not bored. And do you know why, because in
We have written in the past of the Diaspora-haredi "deal" with its women where they are provided with material comforts in exchange for living lives as dictated to them. What is most interesting is that as much as the diaspora-Haredi community has tried to keep the contemporary world away – it has been unable to conquer the worst of modernity's vices – boredom. While the Victorian ladies (and most of the men) of Jane Austin's novels were certainly bored, few beyond the landed had such "luxuries". But now, even if the households in question don't have "help", washing machines, dishwashers and the like have given the young girls the free time that their mothers and grandmothers never had. What are they to do with this free time? They are not trained intellectually to better themselves, are not allowed basic entertainment. Sports I guess are out of the question.
Contemporary life is catching up with the diaspora-Haredi community and they may have a disaster in the making if they don't recognize and deal with the problem. If in the past, material wealth was the solution to problems of equality, boredom (especially for intelligent women) the rabbis will see, is more dangerous than even learning gemara.
Monday, November 07, 2005
We went to the Kotel today where the youngest OOS son and the oldest Israeli OOS nephew put on their tephilin for the first time. The OOS nephew is the third of the "triplets" of the family, having been born just three days after his twin-cousins. It was a special day for the family – and especially for the grandparents.
The Kotel (Western Wall) is an everyday place for some people, but not for us. We go for special occasions of the sort we had today and for an occasional mincha on a visit to
All in all though, with all the problems and with the less than Halakhically pure minyanim that occur there, it is the best place for a young boy to come of age and take upon himself an obligation that he will, at times lovingly, at times dejectedly, keep for the rest of his life. The Kotel tells young boys and girls, more than any story, agada or lecture, that they are responsible for maintaining and enriching a never ending tradition.
Sunday, November 06, 2005
According to the last "youth movement census" as reported in YNET, there are 250,000 children who are members, as follows:
Tzofim (Scouts): 26%
Noar Ha'oved v'Halomed (Labor Zionist): 21%
Bnei Akiva (Religious Zionis): 17%
Bnot Batya (Haredi Girls): 11%
HaShomer HaTzair(Marxist?): 4%
If we can't revive prophecy today, can we revive the language and culture of prophecy? What will it look and sound like? Will it do us as individuals and as a people any good? Is it only applicable to those of us who live in
R. Dov Berkovits (son of R. Eliezer Berkovits) has written two articles in recent editions of Makor Rishon, the weekly Israeli newspaper. There has been an ongoing debate over the articles in the pages of the paper, mainly through a series of lengthy responses by Dr. Moshe Meir. What follows is a brief attempt to explain what Berkovits means. I would like to say that I could be misrepresenting R. Bervokits' ideas – in which case I apologize.
For Berkovits "prophetic language" is the use of man's creative powers in the direct encounter of man with God, without the use of intermediaries. This is not the Protestant version of a direct encounter, in their argument with Catholicism (thank you Mike Walsh for this) where they see no need for any mediating authority at all. Rather, even for Berkovits there is an intermediary and an authority and that is the Torah. But this authority is not, for Berkovits, to be used as an object of worship. As the revelation of God to man it is the (only) physical - in the sense that words are physical – presence of God on Earth . Prophecy is human creativity properly done: The "relationship between human creativity and the 'work of God' is not one of contradiction but one that builds one upon the other". And this is done through Torah.
"The culture of prophecy is almost the only proof that man is capable of 'creating himself'. However, this culture paradoxically teaches that building of the soul comes thanks to the ability to combine creativity, done from an inner freedom, with surrender to the creative infrastructure: God's word as revealed in the Torah".
For Berkovits, a key element in the revival of the culture of prophecy is the direct encounter of man with God. "The separation between man and God, the raising of the Creator to the heavens or moving Him aside in order to create the autonomous space of 'creative man', brings to creation that same space that Israel crated at Sinai, when they distanced themselves from the mountain due to awe and fear. This vacuum will always be filled by something that will act as a 'golden calf'. The thought that there is something- anything – that can be a substitute for the unmediated encounter with the Creator – or as the basis of man's creative powers – is a delusion: Even if sometimes it is a reasoned and learned delusion".
Berkovits claims that the contemporary religious world has created various tools that fill that "empty space" and essentially serve to distance man from God just as the golden calf did. The Hasidic world obviously puts many obstacles in the way of an unmediated encounter of man with God. The chief amongst them is the "rebbe" without whom the Hasid cannot encounter God. However, "even limud Torah in our generation has been choked by the distancing of God from man. This distancing is accomplished by methodologies whose main principle is the 'creation of Torah knowledge' – that is: The setting of abstract concepts, clarification of textual and literary-historical layers or gearing learning to psak Halakhah. All of these are valuable tools for the understanding of what is being learned; however, when they become the raison d'etre of learning they reflect a spiritual trend that is the opposite of the goals of delving into Torah – to intensify the gravity of man's being."
To me, this is reflected in the haredi world by its attempt to reach a pristine Halakhic state that, like all such places – never existed. In the religious-Zionist and modern Orthodox world it is reflected in the neglect of Rav Solovietchik's "Lonely Man of Faith" on the one hand and a misinterpretation of "Halakhic Man" on the other. Rather than seeing "Halakhic Man" as an attempt to present a lens through which the man of Halakhah, unique amongst homo-religiosis, looks at the world around him, it is used as a blueprint for the creation of a life of pure Halakhah (hence the haredi-zation of modern-Orthodoxy): While that most personal of essays, "Lonely Man of Faith" is often ignored instead of being used as the blueprint for the humble man of faith in his journey through the inevitable challenges that contemporary society hoists upon him.
So too with the thought of Rav Kook where the creative/prophetic elements have been neglected to the benefit of an uncompromising view of Jew and non-Jew alike – and where the Land of Israel has been seen as the spiritual and religious trump card par excellence.
Don't mistake Berkovits' critique for an anti-intellectual plea for more spiritual experiences. For him the culture or language of prophecy is not that of the "language of pure experience" either. Berkovits criticizes "whomever seeks an unmediated meeting with what is 'beyond consciousness and nature' just for the sake of experience"; whomever exchanges the demands of being, just for the sake of the experience, concentrates on personal experience instead of gearing the creative act of prophecy for the good of mankind by expanding God's presence in the world.
For Berkovits, the culture of prophecy is based on using man's creativity in his meeting with God not for the purpose of a mystical experience but for the purpose of the moral betterment of the world around him.
Where does that leave us? If Berkovits is correct then the revitalization of prophecy (which he finds in the works of Rav Kook -father and son-, Rav Solovietchik, his father Rav Eliezer Berkovits, the "Nazir" -R. David Cohen, student of R. AY Kook- and R. AJ Heschel), by using man's creative powers to encounter the Creator is essential for the building of a moral, just and tolerant society in the modern world.
If this is a universal message to mankind or just one to the Jewish people – or even to the Jewish people who have chosen to participate in the revitalization of Jewish life in the
Thursday, November 03, 2005
Conversations: A Fantasy in Many PartsDisclaimer: 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, Part 5
It was December, 1974 and I was a confused fifteen year old. Adolescence plays games on you, especially when you thirst for knowledge and truth and refuse help in attaining it. Teachers and rabbis were all irrelevant to me.
I tried to read books which were well beyond my age and I was to find out later, well beyond by intellectual capacity.
One day that December I left school in
I found some cafe on
Next to me sat an elderly woman: Frail and sad looking, but well dressed.
She started: Good morning young man. Shouldn't you be in school?
Me: Well … I needed a break. I think I will learn more here than in school.
She: My name is Hannah, Hannah Arendt. I live and teach nearby.
Me: You are kidding. This is really an honor and a surprise. I am reading your book. I have it right here,
I pulled out "Eichmann in
HA: You do know that most Jews attacked me for writing this book. Even my good friend Gerhard Scholem, you know him? He accused me of lacking "love of
Me: Well, I have to admit that I don't understand all of this. I didn't even know what "banal" meant, forget about the "banality of evil" before I started reading your book. You are Jewish, how can you not have a love of the Jewish people?
HA: I don't like that phrase – it is dishonest. You see, I wake up every morning and worry about the Jewish people, I check the newspaper to make sure that
Me: Why do you think the Jews can't handle a political
HA: Well, at that point, my feeling was based on a less complete concept of evil - a "radical evil" – which means, young man, an evil that requires an immense effort – an evil that requires superhuman physical effort: Intellectual leaps of faith. Depth. An intellectual foundation of the highest magnitude. It is the evil I wrote about in "Origins of Totalitarianism" …
ME: I have that book, but didn't read it yet.
HA: … this is an addition to that concept of evil. It is the evil that is a necessary condition for radical evil.
Me: You mean that this evil requires the same hard work that good does?
HA: Very good.
Me: I remember a story by Isaac Bashevis Singer that my mother used to read to me when I was a child called "Mazel and Shlemazel". Shelmazel destroyed in a second the good that Mazel worked a year build.
HA: And that is only part of the banality of evil. One that comes and goes in a second, but leaves its mark.
Me: But I thought that is it. No work, only shallowness.
HA: Not NO work, just no superhuman work. Intellectual shallowness, yes. But falsely based on depth. What Eichmann taught me was that evil makes its way slowly, methodically, with the help of so many different types of people. Eichmann was evil, but not in a radical way – in a banal way. It is still evil – that is what my critics did not understand. He was one of those types of people that make evil real. He may have been a necessary condition for radical evil, but he was not a radically evil person.
Me: Are all these helpers of evil, evil people?
HA: Not in the sense that you think. Evil is not evil until it is real. It is not evil when it is an idea in your head. Do you understand?
Me: I'm not sure
HA: It is really very simple. Radical evil is based on an idea. What I discovered by watching the Eichmann trial is that radical evil is only complete when ordinary people make it REAL. That is the banality of evil. Eichmann was evil – but not in the radical way that Hitler and Stalin were, but in the banal was that 'everyman' can be. Simple tasks lead to the perpetuation and realization of radical evil. But we can't judge these simple tasks as evil. And the horror that was Nazi Germany or Stalinist Russia for that matter was a collection of simple tasks that made the radical evil dreams of the leaders, real. I am not excusing the ordinary people. I am just explaining politics. Politics is a difficult thing.
Me: Uh, huh.
HA: I don't think the Jewish people will be able to handle politics because they will have to accept that evil is banal. They will have to accept being evil sometimes – even if they won't ever be radically evil. And I don't believe they will. But they won't accept being evil in any sense even though it is impossible to be political man and be totally virtuous man. And therefore, they will never understand what it is that they are up against until it is too late. The Jews apparently will survive as a people.
And then she stood up, said good-bye, paid for my coffee and left. I was a bit stunned, I have to admit. I couldn't agree with her of course. I wasn't sure I actually understood her. I was a Zionist who would live in and build
Wednesday, November 02, 2005
Tuesday, November 01, 2005
She will be speaking Friday night after a Shabbat dinner on "The Role of Doubt in Religious Belief" and at a melave malke on motzaei Shabbat (8pm) on "Orthodoxy Confonts Feminism".
Call the shul (718-459-8432) for details.