Chana, Eli, and Shmuel part III; A reading of Brachot 31b

You can see the first two parts of this installment here and here. I really like the story that appears at the beginning of Sefer Shmuel (Chapters 1-3), and I am currently teaching it. Since the first part is the Haftarah for the first day of Rosh Hashana, it’s inyana de-yoma.

My basic approach to the story remains the same. Eli represents entrenched religious establishment. Chana represents those for whom the establishment does not work, and who actively or passively rebels. Shmuel represents the synthesis between the two.

When teaching this, I found the following question very useful in getting my students to really think in terms of the human drama of the story: Who did Elkanah marry first, Chana or Peninah? Depending on the answer, totally different pictures emerge.

Elkanah himself is a ‘typology’ as well – he’s the wealthy balabus. He’s got a big family, money, and yiches. There’s a midrash that lists Elkanah as one of four blameless people who ever lived (I believe the other three are Yishai, Binyamin, and Mephiboshet). That’s exactly who he was. A really good guy. No enemies. The good life. Thus, he’s totally down with the religious establishment, because it’s good for him. The real test of any social system, including a socio-religious system, is not how it deals with the average or above-average, but how it deals with those on the margins, like childless women.

So lets say, as the psukim seem to indicate, that Chana was Elkanah’s first wife. After however many childless years, Elkanah wanted to start a family so he married another woman, Peninah, who proceeds to bear him many children. How would Chana feel? Superfluous, replaced, alone, inadequate – these are some of the words you might use to describe her situation.

Now imagine the other scenario. Elkanah marries Peninah and raises a large family. After a while, the wealthy Elkanah marries a second woman, who never has any kids. How does Chana feel? It might depend on what everyone else thinks. Did people think she was sugar-daddy Elkanah’s trophy wife? Did people look at her like she was the Anna-Nicole Smith of Ancient Samaria? In such a scenario, she would have a completely different set of feelings to motivate her – shame, invalidation as anything more than eye-candy, objectification.

Just asking the question generated a fantastic discussion.

I also noticed another point about Eli. He and his sons run the show at Shilo. That much is clear. But there’s one image of Eli sitting at the doorpost of the Sanctuary which really sums it all up. He is acting as God’s gatekeeper. He (and his sons) is trying to control access to God. This comes out in several other ways as well (see the earlier posts) – including Rashi on the words ‘lo adoni’, where he has Chana saying that Eli is ‘not her master’ – and that she can approach God without him. And, finally, in the following Gemara in Brachot 31b:

תלמוד בבלי מסכת ברכות דף לא עמוד ב

אל הנער הזה התפללתי, - אמר רבי אלעזר: שמואל מורה הלכה לפני רבו היה, שנאמר: וישחטו את הפר ויביאו את הנער אל עלי, משום דוישחטו את הפר הביאו הנער אל עלי? אלא, אמר להן עלי: קראו כהן, ליתי ולשחוט. חזנהו שמואל דהוו מהדרי בתר כהן למישחט, אמר להו: למה לכו לאהדורי בתר כהן למישחט? שחיטה בזר כשרה! אייתוהו לקמיה דעלי, אמר ליה: מנא לך הא? אמר ליה: מי כתיב ושחט הכהן? והקריבו הכהנים כתיב! מקבלה ואילך מצות כהונה; מכאן לשחיטה שכשרה בזר. אמר ליה: מימר שפיר קא אמרת, מיהו, מורה הלכה בפני רבך את - וכל המורה הלכה בפני רבו חייב מיתה. אתיא חנה וקא צוחה קמיה: אני האשה הנצבת עמכה בזה וגו'. אמר לה: שבקי לי דאענשיה, ובעינא רחמי ויהיב לך רבא מיניה. אמרה ליה: אל הנער הזה התפללתי.

“I prayed for this child”: Rabbi Elazar said: Shmuel made a halakhic ruling before his master, as it says, “And they slaughtered the bull, and they brought the lad in front of Eli.” Did they bring the lad to Eli because they slaughtered a bull? Rather, Eli had said to them, ‘Let a Kohein come and slaughter the bull.’ Shmuel saw that they were scrambling around for a Kohein to do the slaughtering. He said to them, “Why are you looking for a Kohein to do the slaughtering? A non-Kohein is authorized to slaughter!” They brought him before Eli. He [Eli] said to him [Shmuel]: “How do you know this?” He replied: “Does it says ‘and the Kohein shall slaughter?’ It says, ‘and the Kohein will offer’. From the acceptance [of the blood] on, it is the mitzvah of the Kohanim. This teaches that a non-Kohein is authorized to slaughter.” He [Eli] said, “What you say is good. However, you have made a halakhic ruling before your master, and anyone who makes a halakhic ruling before his master is punishable by death.” Chana came and cried before him, “I am the woman who stood before you here…” He said to her, “Leave him, so that I may punish him, and I will pray, and He will give you a greater child than this one.” She said to him, “I prayed for this child.”

I thank Ace from Talpiot for calling my attention to this Gemara in a comment he left a few years ago (I wonder if he remembers).

The whole thing works right into the theme we’ve been developing. The Kohanim are monopolizing access to God. Even that which is permitted to non-Kohanim is being usurped – perhaps not even intentionally. The Kohein’s role as the middle-man between God and Israel does not mean that Israel cannot get to God but through them – that would be the Catholic Church. But perhaps Eli is indeed practicing a proto-Catholic type of Israelite religion, where the priesthood sees itself not as providing access to God, but as providing exclusive access. That is precisely the issue which Chaza”l have Shmuel calling him on. Just as his mother defied Eli by insisting on paving her own way to God, Shmuel defies him by limiting the cultic control of the Kohanim.

Eli’s response makes a number of assumptions. The halakha is that a student must distance himself from his master’s place in order to pasken without committing a capital crime. Eli’s accusation thus rests on two assumptions: a. Eli is Shmuel’s ‘master’ even though they had just met; b. the Mishkan at Shilo was Eli’s ‘place’. Neither assumption is obvious, yet by making both, Eli is telegraphing his attitude toward the Mishkan and his role within it. It should also be noted that Shmuel’s offense is not considered punishable by human courts. As we noted in an earlier post, Eli seems to have blurred the lines between himself and God.

The last line of the sugya, which is a quote from the verse itself, can be read in two ways. What is Chana’s contention when Eli (again, playing God) promises to give her another child? She says, “I prayed for this child.” I think that at first glace, the emphasized word should be ‘this’. “I prayed for THIS child, not another. You can’t take him away from me.” But perhaps is should be read thus: “I prayed for this child. It’s very nice that YOU can promise me another one, but I want the one that I prayed for myself. This is the child of my prayer – and nobody else’s (despite Eli’s ‘addition’ that Chana’s prayer would be heeded).” This reading is reinforced by the very name she gives her son – Shmuel, ‘because I asked God for him.’

Today is my Havztim Rab

Because I turn 31 today according to the Hebrew calendar.

And because I have to find something interesting about an otherwise completely unremarkable birthday. I mean, prime numbers are so boring.


Shemittah is from Mars; Yovel is from Venus

I gave my first class on Sheviit today. We went through the different places where the Chumash discusses, or might discuss, Shemittah. All in all, it went pretty well, I think.

I did notice one thing, however. As opposed to most other areas of Halacha where there’s some basic familiarity and application to life, this is an area which is completely and totally foreign to the average Chutznik. It was like we were discussing Buddhism.

In truth, I had similar sentiments while learning Masechet Sheviit. It’s hard to get into the head of a farmer, let alone one from late antiquity. Yet, this is a very real and contemporary issue. My goal is that these students experience shemittah and all of its socio-religious implications. After all, Shemittah was intended to accomplish something; in an agrarian society, the meaning of Shemittah would have been truly experienced. The vast majority of us really only experience Shemittah as consumers (yes, even those of us who ‘buy’ small plots of land in Israel in order to let them fallow for the year). I want to try to learn what it would be like to experience it as a producer.



In just about a month, we would have the opportunity for the mitzvah of hakhel, on Chol Ha-Mo’ed Sukkot of the Shemittah year. Well, according to Ibn Ezra, anyway. I was startled to discover that Ibn Ezra, against pretty much everyone else, says that Hakhel was performed during the Shemittah year itself, and not the year after Shemittah.

During my little bit of research, I came upon several different ideas regarding what Hakhel was intended to accomplish, and, consequently, why it was performed when it was. First, the verses themselves:

דברים פרק לא

(י) וַיְצַו מֹשֶׁה אוֹתָם לֵאמֹר מִקֵּץ שֶׁבַע שָׁנִים בְּמֹעֵד שְׁנַת הַשְּׁמִטָּה בְּחַג הַסֻּכּוֹת:
(יא) בְּבוֹא כָל יִשְׂרָאֵל לֵרָאוֹת אֶת פְּנֵי יְדֹוָד אֱלֹהֶיךָ בַּמָּקוֹם אֲשֶׁר יִבְחָר תִּקְרָא אֶת הַתּוֹרָה הַזֹּאת נֶגֶד כָּל יִשְׂרָאֵל בְּאָזְנֵיהֶם:
(יב) הַקְהֵל אֶת הָעָם הָאֲנָשִׁים וְהַנָּשִׁים וְהַטַּף וְגֵרְךָ אֲשֶׁר בִּשְׁעָרֶיךָ לְמַעַן יִשְׁמְעוּ וּלְמַעַן יִלְמְדוּ וְיָרְאוּ אֶת יְדֹוָד אֱלֹהֵיכֶם וְשָׁמְרוּ לַעֲשׂוֹת אֶת כָּל דִּבְרֵי הַתּוֹרָה הַזֹּאת:
(יג) וּבְנֵיהֶם אֲשֶׁר לֹא יָדְעוּ יִשְׁמְעוּ וְלָמְדוּ לְיִרְאָה אֶת יְדֹוָד אֱלֹהֵיכֶם כָּל הַיָּמִים אֲשֶׁר אַתֶּם חַיִּים עַל הָאֲדָמָה אֲשֶׁר אַתֶּם עֹבְרִים אֶת הַיַּרְדֵּן שָׁמָּה לְרִשְׁתָּהּ:

And Moshe commanded them: At the end of seven years, during the time of the Shemittah year, on the festival of Sukkot, when all of Israel comes to appear before God at the place that He will choose, you shall read this Torah before all of Israel, in their ears. Gather the nation – men, women, children, and immigrants who are in your midst in order that they hear and in order that they study, and they will fear the Lord, your God, and they will observe the performance of this whole Torah. And your sons who did not know will hear and learn to fear the Lord, your God, as long as you live on the land that you are crossing the Jordan in order to inherit. (Devarim 31:10-13)

  • Ibn Ezra, ad loc, states that this was supposed to take place during the Shemittah year itself. He says that, like Shabbat, the purpose of Shemittah is to provide an opportunity to turn away from mundane pursuits and to engage in more spiritually edifying endeavors. Hakhel, which comes at the outset of Shemittah, is a sort of inaugural Shemittah kick-off event whose purpose is to get everybody – even children and non-Jewish immigrants – engaged in Torah. Incidentally, the phrase ‘mi-ketz sheva shanim’ can be interpreted either as during or after Shemittah – see Devarim 15:10
  • The traditional interpretation (Gemara, Rashi, et al) is that Hakhel occurs during the eighth year. It is called Shemittah because it is still being observed de facto in that there’s really not much for a farmer to do then. Perhaps this is why that time was chosen – it’s convenient for everybody, and doesn’t interrupt any farm work. Thus, as indicated in several Rishonim (Rasa”g, Chinukh), the choice of the eighth year is simply coincidental. There should be a gathering of the entire nation every seven years in order to read the Torah publicly and transmit it to those who were not familiar with it, and in order that people hear it and continue to learn it. The choice of Sukkot, a pilgrimage festival, and the eighth year, when there was little, if any, ‘gathering’ taking place in the field, was for convenience.
  • Rabbeinu Bachya provides a rationale which links Hakhel directly to the post-Shemittah year. He relates the seven-year Shemittah cycle, as well as the seven-day Shabbat cycle, to a grater, cosmic Creation cycle in which the world exists for seven ‘millenia’ (purposefully in parentheses), six of ‘creation’ and one of ‘destruction’. The beginning of the first year after Shemitta represents the beginning of a new creation cycle. Therefore, the Torah, which is the world’s blueprint, is read at the site of the Temple, from where the world was created. Thus, according to Rabbeinu Bachya, Hakhel is a mythic re-enactment of the world’s creation after its symbolic destruction during the Shemittah year.
So we have three explanations – the educational, the practical, and the mythic. I think that each one provides a valuable perspective on this mitzvah and, indeed, on the mitzvah of Shemittah as well.


Kashrut on El Al

I have a funny hakpadah. Whenever I fly El Al, I am makpid not to order 'special' kosher meals. I find it to be a slap in their face. Every meal that El Al serves is kosher, despite the fact that not everyone who flies with El Al keeps kosher or, for that matter, is Jewish. They do this because they are Israel’s national airline and they understand (indeed, it is mandated by law) that they are the airline of the Jewish people. Providing kosher food is much more expensive than providing regular airline food.

I feel that to insist on a ‘special’ kosher meal on El Al flights is to fail to acknowledge the real effort and expense that El Al incurs by providing kosher food to all of its passengers. If I ordered a special meal, I would feel guilty for broadcasting to the other El Al passengers that I don’t think their food is kosher ‘enough’ (let alone that I’d feel guilty about getting my meal before everybody else).

That said, I always order the chicken.

My experiences from last week introduced a new variable into my thinking about El Al. As I wrote, our flight was grounded until after Shabbat. El Al played by the rules – the flight didn’t leave until after Shabbat, and we were all provided with kosher food. However, I got the impression that El Al was not concerned about creating a Shabbat environment. We didn’t stick around for Shabbat because nobody (but me) was worrying about organizing minyanim, getting a Sefer Torah, grape juice, tea lights, or Challah. For all I know, we would have been served airline food all Shabbat, as we were served airline food for lunch on Friday.

Interestingly enough, that never would have happened on another airline. Another airline, knowing nothing about Judaism, would have made every effort to insure that its passengers were well taken care of, would have contacted the local Jewish community about accommodations, and would have taken every passenger request seriously. El Al, because it supposedly ‘knows’ the religious customer, did what it normally does without thinking that this case might be different, or that this case might involve a host of issues that it is not equipped to deal with.

UPDATE: Now that I think about it more (thanks to BZ's comment), maybe it's just about expectations. Maybe with another airline I would never even expect a kosher meal or Shabbat arrangements, and it's on;y disappointing because El Al takes Shabbat into account, but doesn't come all the way through.



That’s even a blowout in football. Most runs given up in the modern era. Most lopsided loss in the modern era. Ouch.


I’ve been learning Masechet Sheviit lately, well, for obvious reasons (I’ll also be teaching Hilchot Shemitta this upcoming school year). I was learning this past Shabbat afternoon when I cam across the following Mishna (Shevi’it 3:8):

אין בונין מדרגות על פי הגאיות ערב שביעית, משיפסקו הגשמים, מפני שהוא מתקינן לשביעית; אבל בונה הוא בשביעית משיפסקו הגשמים, מפני שהוא מתקינן למוצאי שביעית. לא יסמוך בעפר, אבל עושה הוא חיץ. כל אבן שהוא יכול לפשוט את ידו וליטלה, הרי זו תינטל

It reminded me of a Yerushalmi in Shabbat (7:2, 47b)that I had once learned:

החופר החורץ הנועץ המדייר המעדר המזבל המכבד המרבץ המפעפע גושים. המברה בחרשים. המצית את האור בחישת קנים ובאגד תמרים וכרבי זעירא אמת המים שהיא מכשרת צדדיה לזריעה. המסקל. הבונה מדריגות. הממלא את הנקעים שתחת הזיתים. והעושה עוגיות לגפנים. וכל דבר שהוא להניית קרקע חייב משום חורש

The connection should be obvious: there’s this activity, called ‘boneh madreigot’, which is both a derivative of plowing as far as Shabbat is concerned and a forbidden activity in preparation for Shemittah. The question is, what exactly is this activity?

A literal translation is ‘building steps’. In fact, this is how most commentaries understand the Mishna – it is forbidden to build a flight of stairs down to a pool of water, because you will end up using that water to water your fields on Shemittah. This explanation, as several acharonim point out, is very problematic. They note that it is not forbidden to water one’s field during Shemittah as long as the purpose is just to maintain, but not improve, one’s crops. The suggestion that it is forbidden to build steps because they provide access to water, when use of the water itself is permitted, is far-fetched to say the least. Furthermore, although none of the commentators point it out, this understanding of ‘boneh madreigot’ has nothing to do with ‘choreish’ and would not be considered a derivative of that category, which includes any action which improves the arability of the ground.

When I first learned that Yerushalmi, I was living in Israel. it was clear to me then, as it is clear to me now, that ‘boneh madreigot’ means terrace farming. Building something like this on Shabbat would clearly be a form of choreish; it is truly preparing land for planting. A short drive through the Judean Hills and one is immediately aware that this form of farming has been used in this area from time immemorial. /it just makes so much more sense than the other commentaries.

I’m trying to do more research into the issue. The word ‘madreigah’ comes up twice in Tanach – once in Yechezkel and once in Shir Hashirim – and in both cases it refers to some type of outdoor structure in the hills. I plan to look in the Targumim and in Dr. Feliks’ commentary to Shir Hashirim to see what they say. I’m pretty convinced that I’m right, though.


Flying the Friendly Skies

We were on this flight. We’re still in the States. It’s been a rough few days, though Shabbat was very nice. Just want to get home, though.

There was a rumor that the plane turned around because there was a chance it would land on Shabbat, and the Satmar Rebbe was threatening another boycott. I don't know how this rumor got started, but it's untrue. There were many religious people on the flight, and nobody refused to get on because it would land too close to Shabbat (and a number of us would have if it had gotten too late). I don't know the whole story, and it is quite possible that they realized that they wouldn't make it (i was watching the 'land speed' display, and the plane wasn't going nearly fast enough to have shortened the trip to 9 hours; to do that would have required an average speed of about 667mph, and we were going about 450) before shabbat, so they just turned around themselves rather than face boycotts, etc. they could have then blamed it on technical difficulties. i doubt, though, that any religious figure called that final shot. the decision was made from the air.


Mah Rabu on the Jewish Week Camp Kutz Article

Below are some excerpts of an excellent fisking. BZ really hits the nail on the head. If you haven't read his blog, you might want to consider it. I'm a big fan.
Just because Carlebach had a bigger beard than Klepper and sang with an Ashkenazi accent doesn’t mean that his music is any more “traditional” or less “modern”.
Rabbi Rudin is falling into the Artscroll trap of identifying “more traditional” with “consonant with contemporary Orthodox practice, regardless of vintage”.
Maybe they’d have more success if they weren’t trying to make it “meaningful to everybody”, and instead tried to pick one thing and do it well. “Led Zeppelin didn’t write songs that everyone liked. They left that to the Bee Gees.”
Ok, so teenagers are looking for outward ways to display their Jewish identities. What’s the problem with that? This list might also include Tzahal T-shirts and chai necklaces. I think it’s harmless; it’s the adults who are turning this into an ideological movement, not the teenagers. The adults should stop projecting their own issues onto the campers and go read Erikson.
 blog it

Move Over, Burkini

Indirect Hat Tip: Wolf
Think this ad is related to the trend noted here?


Uncle Moishy’s Last Recording

(This could have been much better if I had the equipment to make it a podcast; alas, this is a low-budget affair)
The Scene: Uncle Moishy’s recording studio, Shabbos Parshas Shoftim, 5767
The Event: Uncle Moishy and his Mitzvah Men record a new song, encouraging observance of the mitzvah of ‘al pi ha-Torah asher yorucha’ as it is understood by today’s chareidi world, against the majority, and possible unanimity, of Rishonim. The song is set to the tune of ‘yamim al yemei melech tosif’:

Producer: Hit it, Moish.
Music begins.
UM (singing):

Every Jew should obey a gadol
In order to be a Mitzvah Man
He knows what best for your neshama
Even when you don’t undersand

‘al pi ha-Torah asher yorucha’
You must heed their ev’ry single word
‘lo sasur yamin u-smol’
No matter if it sounds absurd

(Ringing sound interrupts)
Producer: Moish – cut. Hey, Moish. It’s for you. It’s Rav Elyashiv.
UM (we only hear his side of the conversation):


“Aleichem Shalom. What can I do for the Rav, shlit”a?

“Yes. I heard something about it. I think it’s about time.

“Perhaps the Rav has never heard of me? Well (with annoying inflective flourish) let me introduce myself. I’m the famous Uncle Moishy, and me and my Mitzvah Men travel all around the world, teaching Jewish boys and girls all about Torah and Mitzvos.

“Aha. I understand. Well, I could make it ‘teaching Jewish boys or girls all about Torah and Mitzvos.

“Yes, I know what ‘lo plug’ means. I was working on a song about it to teach the kinderlach not to shake hands with people of the opposite gender.

“But, with all due respect (in pleading voice which retains its annoying over-emphasized, over-inflective baritone), Rebbi, this is my parnassah. I have no other qualifications. I was just some mediocre yeshiva bachur who started entertaining the kids in the bungalows by pasting a big paper ‘mem’ on my hat, making an iron-on T-shirt that says ‘Mitzvah Man’ and singing lousy songs. Then the kids discovered Monticello so I took my show on the road. Please, Rebbi, this is everything I have, everything I am.

“The tapes and CDs make bupkus. It’s all about public appearances in this business. All of the kinderlach will end up listening to Barney, or Raffi, or rachmonon litzlon, Counrty Yossie.

“He can still do it because he’s just some MO balabus with too much free time. For me, it’s parnossah and avodas ha-Kodesh

“Yes. I understand. I just…

“I understand.”

UM (wipes away a tear, begins to sing, slowly, with much flourish and feeling):
Give a little tzedakah
Give a little tzedakah
Give some, remember don’t be greedy

Give a little tzedakah
Give a little tzedakah
Give some, to good ol’ Uncle Moishy


First Jewish Charter School

I'm using a new feature called 'clipmarks' to blog about news items I read. It's an interesting concept - the tool lets you highlight excerpts (up to 1000 characters) of the article and post it directly to your blog. We'll see how it goes.

The news item below marks the next step in the coming revolution in Jewish education. As I wrote here and here regarding the Five-Towns public school proposal,I do not think that the day-school system that has worked so well for the last few generations is ultimately sustainable. It costs too much.
Well, now it begins in earnest. If a parent sends their kids to this public school, and the kid gets instruction in Hebrew language, Jewish history, and Israel studies, not to mention kosher meals and the availability of a minyan, how difficult would it be to supplement this non-religious curriculum with some after-hours Chumash, Mishna, and Gemara? Is the difference really upwards of 10 Gs a year?
clipped from www.jta.org
Tzipora Nurieli, an Israeli-born Hallandale woman, said she registered her three children -- ages 11, 9 and 7 -- at Ben Gamla, thereby saving a combined $48,000 in annual tuition fees.

families are set to take advantage of a groundbreaking option: the nation's first Jewish-oriented charter school.

When the school year starts Aug. 20, Schorr's daughter and Barnett's daughter will be among the 430 or so students attending the new Ben Gamla Charter School in this city. The taxpayer-funded institution says it will offer two hours of instruction a day in Jewish-related topics

"In other countries we Jews were forced to support religious institutions of the dominant religions," said Rabbi Allan Tuffs of Temple Beth El, a Reform congregation in Hollywood. "The Jewish community has succeeded in America largely thanks to the principle of separation of church and state."
of the more than 800 applicants, 37 percent had listed Hebrew as their native language, while 17 percent listed Spanish


Poles Complain about Obnoxious Jewish Tourists

A recent incident in which 35 Hasidic Jewish tourists forcibly entered the museum of the Majdanek concentration camp after the facility's closing time, removing gates from their hinges and breaking into one of the barracks, has highlighted the misunderstandings so prevalent in the hugely complicated relationship between modern Jews and modern Poland…

…the incidents have also underscored that these travellers often understand little about the Poland of today. Many Israeli tour groups arriving in Poland greatly restrict their contact with Polish society, and security guards are a standard feature of package travel. To Poles it often seems they are uninterested, even uncivil, in their relations with locals. Moreover, the message they send is clear: Poland is the land of the Shoah, and little more.

(from the Warsaw Business Journal)

On one hand, as the article points out, Jewish tourists to Poland really have little or no interest, in general, in modern Poland. Visiting Poland is, for young Israelis, a rite of passage, and, for them and most others, akin to visiting a cemetery. While there, strong emotions tend to be running high, and as such there is a tendency for individuals and groups to become very inward-focused and, consequently, very selfish.

Since Jews began visiting in droves with the fall of the Iron Curtain, there has been no small measure of ambivalence toward these journeys. On one hand, their impact on these young Jews is unassailable. On the other hand, very few people are terribly keen on ‘pouring money’ into Poland. In the eyes of many Jews, justifiably or not, Poles are held partially accountable for the catastrophe that was perpetrated on their soil. There is a tendency to keep away from the Poles, remain insular, bring one’s own food, and limit expenditures in Poland so as not to ‘reward’ it for its role in the Holocaust.

There is ambivalence from the Polish perspective as well. As an emerging economy, liberal democracy, and a recent addition to the EU, it is one of the most rapidly Westernizing countries of the former Soviet Bloc. Although it is home to an ancient culture and heritage and some beautiful historical sites, Jews represent a serious chunk of its tourism industry as they visit the huge number of Jewish-related sites in Poland. Thus, they want to encourage the continued visits by Jews from around the world. At the same time, many Poles struggle with the heritage of the Holocaust as well, though perhaps not as much as Germans (perhaps they don’t need to as much as Germans). There are over 6000 Poles that have been recognized as “Righteous Among the Nations”, more than any other nationality by far. Granted, they had more opportunities than other nationalities. Nevertheless, there is a real heritage of peasants hiding Jews in barns which is as long, if not as weighty, as their tradition of assisting aggressors. The documentary film “Hiding and Seeking: Faith and Tolerance After the Holocaust” makes this point better than I ever could.

It is therefore no surprise that the encounter between these two populations is somewhat bumpy. In fact, it has been surprisingly smooth. The fact that other countries have been complaining about the obnoxiousness of Israeli tourists for many years attests to the fact that, to the credit of the Jews, the Poles, or both, the situation there has been somewhat better. Nevertheless, these are two groups which carry serious prejudices against each other (there is an old Polish fascination with Jews, who were present yet Other for most of Poland’s millennium-long history, which has renewed itself in recent decades). Confronting these feelings, inwardly or together, would benefit both cultures. I cannot speak for the Poles, but I think that it would behoove us as Jews to strive for an understanding of Polish attitudes toward the Holocaust and toward the richness of Jewish life there which remains a treasured part of Poland’s cultural and historical legacy.

I still remember the absolute fascination of my Polish tour guide with my tefillin on our March of the Living bus (I overslept that day and davened shacharis on the bus). He was completely enthralled with all things Jewish, and although he acknowledged that his friends thought he went a bit overboard in his Philosemitism, he did not think it was terribly out of the ordinary. And as much as he learned from us, we learned a lot from him, too, both about Polish history, Jewish history in Poland, and contemporary Polish attitudes. I remember that we got a lot of stares and a ‘Heil hitler’ as we walked to shul on Shabbat morning. I also remember seeing an ad in a Polish magazine for Kosher vodka, and that it was a very popular brand in Poland then (1994). Yet, our general attitude toward the Poles was similar to the distrustful one I outlined above. In hindsight, I believe that the experience would have been enhanced by a more open encounter with the Polish people (though in a controlled environment), to discuss how the Holocaust has shaped our respective identities, and to think about how these two groups, who lived together for so many centuries, can move forward together in a productive way.


First Response Team in Monticello

My wife and I took a drive to Monticello last week. We went to get out of camp for a few hours, and to get some pizza, but I must admit that I wanted to see a bit of the ‘scene’ thar these bungalow capitals are famous for. I had only heard about these scenes, and I hadn’t yet read Rabbi Horowitz’s article about it. It was a weekday afternoon, and therefore relatively tame, but it was nevertheless pretty amazing to see just how Brooklynized that part of the country becomes during the summer.

Today, I received the following email about this issue:

It is been brought to our attention that there are gatherings of hundreds of kids taking place in the mountains. At these locations boys and girls are getting together in homes for “parties” and are behaving in a completely un-tznius and indecent manner. Our children are at risk more than ever before. Many of them are finding themselves in situations that are beyond any of our imaginations and are dangerous to both their RUCHNIUS and GASHMIUS. These are children from homes in Boro Park, Flatbush, Crown Heights, Williamsburg, Monroe, Staten Island, Lakewood, Monsey, Five Towns, many out-of-town cities, and Eretz Yisroel and WE WANT TO SHOW THEM THAT WE CARE AND THAT HASHEM LOVES THEM. Regardless of whether they are your children or not, they are Hashem’s children and we must take responsibility for them!

Therefore based on the Psak and behest of Rav David Feinstein Shlita, two organizations have stepped forward to finance the renting of two of these major hangout locations beginning this Motzei Shabbos and every Motzei Shabbos through Labor Day. The pool hall Hi-Cue in Monticello will be open exclusively for boys and Liberty Lanes will be open exclusively for girls from 1am to 4am, free of charge with free food provided. Our primary goal is to have you come out and show support, love and compassion to our children and help them realize that Hashem loves them.

We will need all our married members to come help staff and provide vital assistance in these locations from 11pm to 5am. We will also need members to make themselves available to provide assistance in other locations (i.e. Walmart, Pizza Stores, etc.). We will need married couples to be drivers, mentors, general assistance, and most of all a smile throughout the night. There will be a briefing on Friday afternoon at the Irvington Bungalow colony from 3pm to 4pm. Mechanchim and Mosdos who deal with children at risk and mental health professional will be coordinating this operation. At the behest of the Rosh HaYeshiva, HaGaoan Rav Dovid Feinstein Shlit”a, we encourage everyone’s attendance (married members only). This is truly a matter of Pikuach Nefoshos.

I thought this response was pretty good, yet incomplete. It’s kind of like Arkady Gaydamak trying to buy out the ‘Tiv Taam’ supermarket chain in Israel, and making it Kosher. It would never stop those who want trayf from obtaining it and eating it, but it may help the undecideds or those who are simply going with the flow. I’m not sure there is a complete solution, or even of the degree that there needs to be one. Kids will be kids. Of course, I have no idea what it means that these kids are being ‘un-tznius’. Does it mean the girls are wearing short skirts? The kids are holding hands? Kissing? Having unprotected sex? Why is this being left to the reader’s imagination (‘beyond any of our imaginations’)?

Reading this letter, though, I noticed the glaring absence of the mention of drugs at these hang-outs. That was the focus of Rabbi Horowitz’s article. Let’s face it, behaving ‘un-tznius and indecent’ is small potatoes next to hard drug use. The only reference to dangerous behavior, as opposed to religious breaching, is the reference to “situations that are beyond any of our imaginations and are dangerous to both their RUCHNIUS and GASHMIUS”. Perhaps that means drugs, or its milder and less taboo forms of smoking and underage drinking.

I’m not sure if I should laugh or cry at the equation between immodest dress and drug use. I have been taught that in order to be a good Jew, one must first be a good human being. Being Jewish does not absolve one from being a mensch. All of the behaviors discussed are symptomatic of the ‘at-risk’ youth. And I ask: at risk of what? Becoming Modern Orthodox? Intermarrying? Dying of a drug overdose? Contracting STDs? I think that a hierarchy of ‘risks’ must be catalogued, and fast, lest mountains be turned into molehills and vice versa (like in the old ‘it leads to mixed dancing’ joke).

To clarify: I think that this response is admirable and a good idea. I am critiquing certain assumptions about WHY kids do this kind of thing and the value judgments between the lines of the letter.


Alumnus of the Year

I cannot recall the last time an opinion piece in the mainstream media generated as much dialogue within the Orthodox community as Noah Feldman’s now in famous ‘Orthodox Paradox’ essay from last week’s New York Times Magazine. I assume there’s no need to rehash the issues or link to the numerous blogs, discussion forums, and media outlets which have covered this phenomenon from pretty much every angle. I’ve been very impressed with some of the responses, and less than impressed by some others. One can write a book on the issue and the controversy it’s generated, and I have no intention of doing that. I don’t think that the issue is a new one; the tension between universalism and particularism has been present forever. It’s a theme that I intend to discuss on an upcoming series of posts on the Book of Ezra, which I’ll be teaching second semester this year.

As my regular readers know, I am generally a critic of formal education (see, for example, here, here, here, and here). It’s a Procrustean Bed (or a Sdoim Bettle, as Rav Yaakov Kaminetsky reportedly called it) and always has been. The ideal relationship between schools and homes is that the schools provide the tools and skills to develop the values that the student imbibes in the home. If Shmuely Boteach is right that Prof. Feldman can layn any parsha at the drop of a hat, then Maimonides can be proud of the training that they gave him. Of course, they are not proud of him, because schools always have ambition to do more than reinforce and develop the parents’ values. They wish to mold a particular product, with specific attitudes and values, or at least aim for their alumni to fall within a certain defined spectrum of belief and practice. Maimonides, far from being the exception, set itself a goal of producing graduates who would be as comfortable with Shakespeare as with Tosafot. I’d recommend An American Orthodox Dreamer: Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik and Boston's Maimonides School to get a picture of the founding vision of the school. It was built on a very particular ideological vision.

This brings us to the attitude of schools toward alumni who do not ‘toe the line’, and this can even mean things that are examples of egregious and flagrant violation of the school’s ideology or values. Schools make an effort to inform and maintain relationships with alumni only to the extent that this information furthers the school’s aims and advertises its culture and mission. Basically, it’s for recruitment and fundraising. These newsletters are marketing material, no more and no less, and the school is trying to market itself as a supplier which can produce a particular type of product. I had the good fortune of taking a graduate school class in the history of Jewish Education with Prof. Shaul Stampfer. His emphasis on community-driven ‘market forces’ as a major determinant of the success or failure of educational institutions was truly eye-opening. Every educational institution in the world makes ‘business’ decisions about what alumni accomplishments to take pride in and what not. Every announcement and every photo in their publications and on their websites are part of this general promotion of their product. News concerning alumni which does not promote the school’s vision in some way will simply not be advertised. News which really provides an example of the type of alumni achievement that the school strives for will be celebrated.

For example, my brother-in-law recently completed a Ph.D. in Talmud, and is now doing postdoctoral work at Yale, where he earned a prestigious fellowship. Had he graduated from the Maimonides School, these accomplishments would, no doubt, be noted and perhaps celebrated. Perhaps they would invite him to travel to the next state north to speak to the highest-level Gemara class. But, alas, he graduated from Ner Israel, where he earned both his high-school diploma and his Bachelor’s degree (that’s right, Yale postdoc with a BTL from NIRC). I would be absolutely shocked if the institution would acknowledge his achievements in any way at all. By the same token, his marriage, ke-das Moshe ve-Yisrael, would be duly noted in the ‘Mazel Tov’ pages, if they exist.

A few years ago, my closest friend from high school (TA of Baltimore) was honored as ‘Alumnus of the Year’ at our alma mater’s annual dinner. He is a great guy, without a doubt. But his selection as alumnus of the year spoke volumes about what the school strives for. This friend was a good guy in school – a good ball player, a good friend to many, and a respectful student. He worked hard and got solid grades, but was not a valedictorian. After a few years in Yeshiva, in Israel and in Baltimore, he married the daughter of a talmid chacham and became an accountant. He now works as an accountant, is kove’a itim, bought a house in town, and sends his sons to our alma mater. He’s not the wealthiest graduate from those years, nor is he the smartest or the biggest talmid chacham. He is living the school’s dream, though, and in many ways, the ‘Baltimore’ dream. He learns, he supports Torah, he started a family, he identifies with a more yeshivish outlook and lifestyle, and he earns a nice livelihood through an umanus nekiyah ve-kallah. That’s exactly what the school loves to see! Those of us who have achieved success in various aspects of our lives, even if we’ve achieved greater success by most standards, can really have no qualms about the school’s selection; the job of the school is to market those products who best serve as its ambassadors (Indeed, the school celebrates alumni such as Rabbi Aharon Feldman, Rabbi Yisrael Newman, and even Rabbi Zelig Pliskin, but not Rabbi Menachem Liebtag or Rabbi David Samson, whose grandfather was principal for many years). Similarly, school carefully choose to display only those achievements which seek to reinforce its values and mission; would any other business advertise its failures?