Sunday, January 29, 2006

More on Levinas at 100 

Makor Rishon has an interesting series of articles (all in Hebrew) on Levinas in this past Friday's Shabbat section.

Loran Cohen summarizes his thought.

R. Dr. Eliyahu Zeini, translator into Hebrew of Difficult Freedom, discusses the concept of "the other" not as the "heart" of Levinas's thought but as the key to solving the phenomenological problem.

Unfortunately, the most interesting article, an interview with the philosopher Shalom Rosenberg on his relationship with R. Hillel Shoshani, the man who taught Levinas Talmud, is not (yet?) online.

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R. Yitzchak Kadouri, z"l 

Reports of anywhere from 150,000 to 300,000 people attended the funeral of the famous kabbalist, R. Yitzchak Kadouri. Not being an expert in kabbalah, I don't know of the greatness or not of his contribution to Kabbalistic thought but he was as revered a figure as there has been in Israel for a long time. I never quite understood his connection with Shas but for many people mired in terror, corruption and cynicism he was a source of (literally) blessing and optimism.

Ha'aretz (English)
Ha'aretz (Hebrew)

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Friday, January 27, 2006

Levinas at 100 

Ha'aretz has an article (in Hebrew) on Levinas and his influence on Israelis in honor of his 100th birthday.

"Israelis yearn for a Judaism more in tuned to their intellectual and spiritual thirsts. The meeting between Levinas and the Israeli public fits in well with the push to return to Jewish sources and the 'Jewish bookshelf'."

Read the whole thing.

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Wednesday, January 25, 2006

A Daf and a Dollar 

A few days ago we asked two silly questions – do America's Orthodox Jews have too much money for their own good and do Israel's Orthodox boys learn too much gemara for their own sake? The answers to both are obvious – one can never have too much money and, according to our tradition at least, one can never learn too much gemara.

However …. that being said, observations of the local youth scene which includes America's Orthodox kids spending a year in Israel and Israel's (the boys at least) youth spending upteen hours learning gemara, makes one put a very big "but" after the "no".

Let's start with the less emotional issue, the learning of gemara. On the one hand there has been a certain backlash against gemara learning amongst today's youth as we see a burgeoning interest in the works of Reb Nachman or Breslov and other decidedly non-Talmudic fare. Also, the pre-Army mechinot that have become popular are decidedly not yeshivot. Gemara classes are not the main intellectual attraction and creating scholars is not the number one goal.

On the other hand, if we turn to those boys who are intellectually serious (the girls, with few exceptions are given almost no intellectual challenges, religious or otherwise, but that is a topic for another day) – those who will want to learn for learning's sake and who seem to need and crave intellectual challenges are pouring their every intellectual effort into the study of the Talmud. The tremendious intellectual challenge of Talmudic study satisfies their urges and the respect they gain in family and community contributes to their satisfaction.

This is a good thing, yet what is happening is that their rabbis and teachers have ingrained into their heads the view that the only true intellectual challenge is in learning gemara. There ends up being almost no interest in the study of science, literature and philosophy from most of these boys because they have been taught and convinced that all and everything good comes from Chazal (the rabbis of the Talmud) and their recognized (mostly medieval) interpreters.
These boys will mostly go to university and learn a profession, but they will rarely approach another discipline with the intellectual seriousness that they give to gemara. This is a shame. There seems to be a lack of intellectually serious religious men in the sciences and in the humanities in Israel. True enough, Bar-Ilan has plenty of both but for the most part they have made their mark in religious related issues. The lack of even doctors amongst orthodox Jewish men in Israel is rather shocking coming from this YU alumnus.

Are boys learning too much gemara? Maybe not, but they, we, would be better off if they were to take some of that intellectual ability, curiosity and passion and dedicate it to other endeavors as well.

Now to money – the topic that is sure to move people more than gemara. No, as we stated above, you can never have too much money (I know I never manage to have enough, let alone, too much) but you can certainly spend too much money. I know as well as anyone how much money it costs to be a "regular" Orthodox Jew in urban America (at least in the NY area). Tuition costs, camp costs, shul building funds, trips to Israel, ski vacations in Aspen, it all adds up (the last one was just to be mean).

I will just mention the excessive money that schools, shuls, etc spend on peripherals: Elementary schools with stained glass windows in their shuls and other such amenities.
But, how can I say this without insulting everyone? You spend all too much on your children's comfort. I see boys and girls who come to Israel for a year or for vacation who have no curiosity whatsoever about traveling, seeing and experiencing anything that does not offer five star service. Sweating, getting dirty, sleeping on rocks, taking long bus rides – these are the types of things that make kids grow up – and your kids aren't doing any of this. They won't backpack in Israel - let along through Europe and their idea of discovery is trying breakfast at that new hotel or restaurant near wherever.

But it is more than that. Who can really deny that rising tuition and shul costs come from immoderate spending by these institutions that have little or nothing to do with the mission of the institution. American Orthodox Jewry (this is true of haredi and modern-Orthodox) has just gone overboard when it comes to "building" their communities. Look around you and tell me in all honesty, if what most of what you have built contributes to the Jewishness of your community?

In summary – maybe I am wrong. Maybe Israel's Orthodox Jews should just learn gemara and get professions for the sole purpose of supporting themselves and maybe America's Orthodox Jews should spend their money as freely as they can and spoil themselves and their children rotten.

But, maybe not.

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Tuesday, January 24, 2006


How does Conservative Judaism and Convervative Jews differ from Reform Judaism and Reform Jews?

Jacob Neusner has the answer.

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Monday, January 23, 2006

No Reason to Reason 

It always amazes me what we Jews choose to get into fights about. The Forward has an article about The Victory of Reason : How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success by Rodney Stark showing, as the title suggests, that the rise of the mostly due to Christianity. Some Jews though seem to be upset because he claims that Christianity is "the world religion which 'alone embraced reason and logic as the primary guide to religious truth.' ". Apparently he left Judaism out of the equation.

Well, to tell the truth – Judaism is not a "world religion". It is a religion of a specific people – the Jewish people. And - for the better part of the last 2,000 years, Jewish scholars – as Jewish scholars not as scholars who happen to be Jewish – have dedicated their lives to figuring the mysteries of the Talmud and its commentaries. This has led to many wonderful things and the world is a better place for it (or so I believe).

But when it comes down to it, the advances in science, technology, economics and mathematics are due mainly to the vision of Christianity as a "world religion" and to its encouragement of logic and reason beyond the middle ages. Now, I didn't read the book, only this article – but saying that is not degrading Judaism. It is pretty clear to all people raised with a Jewish education that had it been left to us and our intellectual class neither science nor economics would be as advanced as it is now.

It could be that this book is garbage from an academic point of view – I have no idea. But to get all huffy because Judaism wasn't "given its due" – please – we have more important things to worry about.

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Sunday, January 22, 2006

The Day the Rabbi Left Town 

Marvin Schick takes on YU and the American rabbinate:

"Rabbis Kenneth Brander and Ronald Schwartzberg are terrific people and among the best pulpit rabbis in America. That sounds good, but it isn't right. Each was a top-notch rabbi, one in Boca Raton and the other in Highland Park. They no longer serve their congregations because they are now at Yeshiva University's new Center for the Jewish Future, one more project in a crowded field of institutions that aim to improve Jewish life.

As the ranks of such projects continue to grow, American Jewish life continues to deteriorate. The institutions that can do the most good - shuls and schools - are losing talented people."


As a rabbi's son I can sympathize with those who want to get the heck out of the rabbinate but there is no shortcut to serving the Jewish community. More and more foundations are cute, but won't get the job done.

Read the whole thing.

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Do Israeli Orthodox Boys ... 

... learn too much gemara for their own sake?

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Do America's Orthodox Jews ... 

... have too much money for their own good?

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Tuesday, January 17, 2006

The Last Rav of Novorodak 

As those of you who read this blog semi-regularly know, I have been reading and/or re-reading various works of the great Yiddish writer, Chaim Grade.

I recently finished both volumes of the great novel, The Yeshiva, which follows a few rabbis and students to various towns in Lithuania – mostly Vilna and Novorodak which had as city rabbis R. Yitzchak Elchanan Spector (rav of the city 1851-1864) and R. Yechial Michel Epstein (rav of the city 1874-1908) and was home to a large Musar yeshiva.

Since my grandmother was from Novorodak (she came to the US after WWI) and I had a "yizkor book" of the city called "Pinkas Novorodak" I decided to do a little research and to see if I could find some of the characters from the book – or parts of characters anyway.

As I got to the chapter called "Last Rabbis of Novorodak" I saw the name R. Meir Meyerovitch – the same maiden name of my grandmother. R. Meir Meyerovitch, according to the book was welcomed as rav of the town in the early 1920's in a large celebration. R. Meyerovitch was a talmid chacham and a maskil with knowledge of literature and philosophy. Moreover, he was a Zionist who aligned himself with the Mizrachi in the city. The book continues, that in the late 1930's with the rise of Hitler in Germany and the increasing anti-Semitism in Poland he encouraged the youth in the city to make aliya as quickly as possible. As the recognized Jewish leader in the city he tried to secure financial aide from the Polish government for this project (It doesn't say if he succeeded or not). He was so adamant on aliya that the rabbi encouraged aliya even with the atheistic HaShomer HaTzair – rather than stay in what he foresaw would be their graveyard.

R. Meyerovitch died right before the outbreak of WWII. As I just found out, the last rav of Novorodak was also my great uncle.

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Sunday, January 15, 2006

Eli Cohen's Handler 

Way back on a trip to Israel as a child in the summer of 1969 (or was it 1973?) I purchased and actually read an entire non sports related book - this one called "Eli Cohen: Our Man in Damascus" about the Israeli spy who infiltrated to the highest echelons of the Syrian state and whose information was instrumental in the stunning victory on the Golan during the Six Day War. Eli Cohen was and always will be a hero for Israel and the Jewish people. It is hard to imagine any information that could remove him from the pedastal.

In the current issue of Azure there is a facinating essay (registration required) based on an exclusive interview with Eli Cohen's Mossad 'handler'. The essay covers the story of his life and the background regarding his facinating work for the Mossad, capture by the Syrians and death by public hanging. In an odd sort of way, you realize that without his capture none of us would know anything about him.

Read the whole thing.

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Saturday, January 14, 2006

Tractate Politico 

This is what the politics of a people who have basically been learning Talmud for most of the past 1,500 years, looks like (thanks to the OOS brother for the warm-up):

The Prime Minister leaves his party, the largest in the parliament because he is tired of them… He continues to be PM even though he was not elected except as member of the Likud Party to which he no longer belongs. .. When he gets sick and is unable to continue, the man who was last on all the polls and who barely made it to his Likud list in the last election takes over for him … At the opposition Labor Party, the leader looses the election to continue to lead and goes to join his former opponent in not yet existent new party… The winner of the Labor Party election offers his rival, the last, 120th place on his electoral list …Then he offers him the second spot but gets turned down … He then demands and receives the second spot on the new new party but on the promise that he not demand the second most important ministerial position should they win the election … A major strategist for the new Kadimah Party suggests leaving the unconscious ex-PM on the top of the list … The leader of the ultra-clean, ultra democratic Shinui Party nearly loses his spot on the top while his deputy looses the number two spot and both can't accept the results of the election and threaten to leave the party and start a new one … The head of the Likud Party which is the biggest in the parliament is neither the Prime Minister nor the head of the opposition … The current Acting Prime Minister has the power to do as he pleases and appoint ministers without the consent of the parliament even though he belongs to a party that never ran and consequently got zero votes in the last election … Shamai and Hillel could not have done a better job.

Elections are scheduled for March 28.

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Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Chabad, Inc. 

For the first time in a long time, the JPost has an article critical of Chabad. Rabbi Marvin Schick writes that "Chabad, the Lubavitch movement, is the Walmart of Jewish life, a mega-phenomenon that keeps growing at a remarkable rate by entering new and underserved areas, and by exploiting the vulnerability of existing service providers".

What Rabbi Schick seems to have missed is that Chabad is not a Jewish outreach or service organization, nor is its purpose to further Jewish life. Chabad is a franchise. I have often felt this way but was convinced when I heard that Chabad opened branches in two bustling Jewish communities: Laos and St. Thomas of the US Virgin Islands. My guess is that their late Rebbe is turning over in his grave at the fact that in order to maintain growth, as is necessary in any corporation worth its name, they need to tend to the jungles of southeast Asia and the nude beaches of the Virgin Islands. Or maybe not.

Yes, yes, there are Chabadniks who do "good" and who truly believe in bringing Judaism to Jews who have none. But for the most part, Chabad is a marketing organization whose goal is to perpetuate itself. Judaism is not even the product – Chabadism is. That means expanding to places where there is no Judaism or Jews but where a buck might be made by (literally) catering to guilt-ridden Orthodox tourists or Israeli kids who miss their savta. It also means pillaging existing orthodox shuls and communities by setting up competing shuls where there is barely room for one.

Rabbi Schick is correct in nearly all of his criticisms – he just has to realize that he is not dealing with a Jewish movement per se, like the Musarniks or Hasidim of Eastern Europe - but a multinational corporation that franchises to places where it can run a profit – sometimes by entering virgin territory, sometimes by overwhelming mom and pop shuls.

NOTE: An interesting piece (in PDF) via Tzemach Atlas on Chabad and fundraising.

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Monday, January 09, 2006

The Real and the Mythical 

My first memory of Arik Sharon was during the Yom Kippur War when he mythically "defied orders" and saved the day in the south. He was of course well known already in Israel - both famous and infamous – from his counter-terror units to his action in the Six Day War. As a young high-schooler in the early and mid-70's, eating the 60's leftovers and being a Zionist and a self-styled rebel, one could not but be impressed with victory mixed with insubrodination.

How much was fact and how much myth didn't matter to me then. True enough, Arik Sharon ordered imported shrimps to be delivered to him at the Suez Canal in the middle of the war. But this just added to his mystique – one that carried his political career to this day.

As a graduate student during the ill-fated Lebanon War, I was not yet educated enough in the ways of the world to understand that the great tactician had a tin ear for strategy. And with the Sabra and Shatilla massacres by the Lebanese Maronite Phelange, Israel's foray into Lebanon and remaking of the country was already doomed. Rav J.B. Soloveitchik threatened to resign as head of the World Mizrachi if the National Religious Party didn't back an investigation into Israel's (and Sharon's) role into the massacre since the General, the strategist, should have seen it coming. With Israel under attack for the war and with absurd Lebanese cassualty figures of 10,000 killed during the first days of the war being bandied about willy nilly in the media it was difficult for supporters of Israel to separate the truth from falsehood.

Over the years, Israelis have come to loathe and love Ariel Sharon for obvious reasons. Those who are praying for him today would have been dancing in the streets two years ago. In our and most religious-Zionist synagogues in Israel, tehilim (Psalms) are being said after tefilah and the "mi sheberach" is being stated for the Prime Minister. This is as it should be. For all the anger and pain Sharon inflicted on the community over the last year or so, there is a recognition of past deeds and of a life dedicated to the good of Israel.

Countries often live on myths – and Israel is no different. There is the myth of Sharon and there is the truth of Sharon. Highlighting one does not negate our responsibility to know the other. We can live on myths during moments of crisis but the truth must be allowed to come out when we make decisions that reflect the future of the country.

Sharon has represented Israel as it is: Tough, arrogant, down to earth, rebelous and tactical to the core. He also has, as we stated above and along with others of his generation, a tin ear for the long term, for strategy. He showed it in the army, in Lebanon, in his placement and encouragement of towns and settlements in Judea and Samaria – and finally in the hitnatkut.

Ariel Sharon lies in his bed in the hospital and the country prays for his recovery. There are already rumors (heard by me via a person who claims to know Omri Sharon's girlfriend – that's Israel for you) that he is clinically dead and they are just waiting for the right moment for the announcement. In spite of these rumors and because of faith of so many in this country (even athiest MK's have stated that they are praying for his recovery) there is an expectation that at the least, he will awake, smile and live many more years in his beloved estate in the Negev.

Ariel Sharon is one of a long line of controversial Israelis who have contributed so much for the country and for the Jewish people. Our hope is that he is not the last.

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Sunday, January 08, 2006

The Shock of 10th of Tevet 

An excellent essay (in Hebrew) by fellow blogger My Obiter Dicta on the significance of this Tuesday's fast day, 10th of Tevet - when the Jews were in shock that the invincibility of Jerusalem and the Bet HaMikdash was proven an illusion.

NOTE: The author has posted an English version of his essay here. Eventhough the fast was yesterday, its well worth reading.

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Friday, January 06, 2006


Reb Avraham Shaye Kosover, fictional talmid chacham and gaon to Reb Tzemach "Lohzher" Atlas (not this blogger), the fictional troubled Navaredker musarnik and founder and rosh yeshiva of the Valkenik Yeshiva, in Chaim Grade's "The Yeshiva: volume 2" – pages 142-3:

" Your trouble is that you're too full of Navaredker distrust. You always look for the taint of ulterior motive, the sin of selfishness. But the Omniscient and the Torah trust man more than a Navaredker Musarnik. The rabbi can decide for his rebbetzin whether her Sabbath chicken is kosher nor not, and the rabbinic judge is even permitted to sit in judgment in a dispute involving a man he likes and another he dislikes. As long as there is no suspicion of bribery or of open hatred on the judge's part toward one of the litigants, the Torah trusts him to deliver an honest decision. But if we see Satan in everything and everyone, and if we live with the presumption that man must not trust himself or his friends, then we nullify every judgment and every court of law, even the great Sanhedrin. By so doing we destroy in the order of the whole world. Its as if we're living in a fog. You don't se your neighbor; you don't see you own threshold; you don't even see yourself. And you, Reb Tsemakh – your entire existence has been built upon presumption of guilt."

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Wednesday, January 04, 2006

100 for Nechama 

Ma'ariv has a short piece (in Hebrew) commemorating the 100th birthday of the Torah teacher of us all, Nechama Leibowitz.

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Tuesday, January 03, 2006

(Jewish) Momma, thanks for the brains? 

From the London Times:

"A pair of academics trod this perilous territory recently, when they suggested that the disease-causing genes unique to Ashkenazi Jews — such as those responsible for Tay-Sachs disease and Gaucher disease — continue to be passed on because they offer a counter benefit: enhanced intelligence.

Henry Harpending and Gregory Cochran, from the University of Utah, cite circumstantial evidence for their theory: a handful of papers that link those same disease-causing genes to increased neural growth. This, they suggest, fits with the observation that Ashkenazis favoured 'cognitively demanding' jobs, such as setting up businesses....

...Of course, others confronted with genius do not invoke genes, brains and diseases — rather a cultural emphasis among Jewish parents on scholarship and academic achievement. What . . . pushy Jewish mothers nagging their precious sons to do well? Now there’s a dangerous idea."

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Go to Minyan, Earn Dollars? 

From the Economist:

"Some of the occasional churchgoers must wonder whether they might benefit from turning up more often. If they did so, they could gain more than spiritual nourishment. Jonathan Gruber, an economist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, claims that regular religious participation leads to better education, higher income and a lower chance of divorce. His results (based on data covering non-Hispanic white Americans of several Christian denominations, other faiths and none) imply that doubling church attendance raises someone's income by almost 10%."

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