12/28/2008

Ah, Sunday

The wife and kids were off today for Chanukah vacation so I took off as well. We woke up late, went on a short hike about a 5 minute drive from our home where we visited the ruins of a Byzantine church and two agricultural villages - one from the Byzantine era and one from more recently (the ruins were about 60 year sold or so). The landmarks can be seen just below the border of modern Modiin on this map - look for Haditheh and Baweirah. We live just at the corner of modern MOdiin, near the box marked Umm al Umdan.

After the excursion, we went to the supermarket to pick up a particular gift that will be presented later tonight, but also treated ourselves to sufganiyot.

Then we went to watch my nephew's Little League baseball game - his team, from Hashmonaim, played against the team from Modiin; the epic Chanukah battle ended in a 9-9 tie.

After we finish bathing and lighting, we will be headed to my folks' home for our annual Chanukah shindig with the extended family.

The night will conclude with that traditional combination of beer and foootball, and I will probably be up late watching the Ravens game (unless the Patriots lose the early game; even if they win, I don't want to hear any Pts fans whining. They had a softball schedule, playing a full 8 games against the AFC and NFC west).

Sundays happen so infrequently here, but when they do present themselves, they are truly enjoyable. So enjoy this happy conflation of Chanukah, Rosh Chodesh, and Sunday!

Kind of makes you forget that a war just started here...

BBC Translators

I have taken it upon myself to translate some news posted by the BBC into plain English. The examples come from this article on Operation Cast Lead:

Wherever Hamas operates, civilians live and work close by.
Translation: Hamas uses civilian shields to deter attacks that will include inevitable civilian collateral damage.

The United States is arguably the only outside power Israel deeply cares about.
Translation: The United States is arguably the only outside power that deeply cares about Israel.

12/27/2008

IV: Chanukah as the Festival of Religious Freedom

This celebration is also characteristic of America, but as a more religious expression than simply the Jewish Christmas (i.e., in American Jewish religious communities that embrace American values). It tends to downplay the military aspect of the holiday, and instead emphasizes the Jewish “struggle” to maintain an identity in the face of a prevailing culture and to win religious freedom.

The theme of Jewish freedom of worship is certainly present in various midrashim that describe the decrees against the practice of Judaism (Rosh Chodesh, circumcision, Torah study, etc.) and against belief in the God of the Jews (kitvu al keren ha-shor…). It appears in the al ha-nisim paragraph as well (“to make them forget Your Torah and transgress Your beloved commandments”). Other compositions seem to indicate that Judaism was in actual danger of disappearance due to the onslaught of Hellenism. In fact, the entire theme of rededication of the Temple, from which the holiday derives its name, is quite possibly the historical reason for the institution of the festival.

Of course, the American version tends to superimpose 20th Century American ideas of religious identity and freedom onto the 2nd Century BCE, but hey, we try to keep it warm and fuzzy.

12/26/2008

Which o' deez things iz not like da uthas?

This actually appears on a website which lists government translation opportunities:

It is anticipated that Atlanta, Miami, New Orleans and Washington Field Divisions will have a variety of language requirements for Title III linguist support in the various locations. Required languages are as follows; Spanish, Korean, Vietnamese, Laotian, Jamaican Patois, Chinese (Cantonese), Haitian Creole, Hebrew, Russian, Albanian, and Ebonics.

12/24/2008

III: The American Chanukah – Christmas for the Jews

The notion that Chanukah might correspond to the holidays of other cultural traditions is not a new one. The Gemara in Avoda Zarah (2b) speaks of an eight day holiday, Saturnalia, first celebrated by Adam when he noticed that the days had begun to get longer. Indeed, innumerable cultures hold celebrations around the winter solstice, and it is an intuitive annual landmark. In general, Jewish holidays do correspond to the seasons. Sukkot, a harvest festival, is not the same as Thanksgiving or Oktoberfest, but they are rooted in a similar consciousness (see here).

Christmas seems to have originated as the Christianized version of pagan midwinter festivals. Various yuletide customs have been traced (correctly or incorrectly) back to pagan practices. This being the case, an argument can be made (though not an especially compelling one) that Christmas and Chanukah share some lineage.

The historical question is largely beside the point, however. In the American cultural milieu, Christmas became a dominant cultural practice that excluded non-Christians (such as Jews and Chinese, who inevitably began celebrating Christmas together, with the former eating food prepared by the latter). Chanukah, by virtue of its temporal proximity to Christmas, naturally filled that void.

Not all “observances” and customs associated with this syncretistic celebration are as over-the-top as the “Hanukkah bush” or “Hanukkah Harry”. The giving of “Chanukah presents” has penetrated even the more traditional segments of the Jewish community. American gentile culture clearly associates the two holidays since it has adopted the generic “happy holiday” greeting to cover all observances associated with the season. Television commercials with Christian and Jewish symbols appear during the season. The term “Christmakwanzukkah” has come to symbolize this amalgam of various traditions and observances.

There has been a more recent shift in American culture for Jews to take pride in their identity, but this trend nevertheless uses Christmas as the yardstick. To wit: “Instead of one day of presents, we’ve got eight crazy nights”.

12/23/2008

II: The Chareidi Chanukah – Am le-Vadad Yishkon

Last week, my daughter’s chareidi school had a pre-Chanukah party in which the girls performed a number of songs on the holiday theme (or so I was told by my wife, who was allowed to attend; as a man, I was not). The songs were well known selections such as “Baruch Elokeinu she-beranu le-khvodo…” and “Ashreinu mah tov chelkeinu”. The themes of these songs was Jewish isolation and separatism.

I recently read several articles by Dr. Benjamin Brown, including “Rabbi E.M. Shach: Admiration of Spirit, Critique of Nationalism, and Political Involvement”. The thesis of the article is that this type of separatism was a pillar of R’ Shach’s worldview and politics.

Chanukah, in this way of thinking, celebrates the maintenance of the purity of the Jewish/ Torah way of life in the face of prevailing culture. As opposed to the Zionist celebration, which focuses on the external enemy of the Chanukah story, the Chareidi narrative highlights the internal enemies, the Hellenizing Jews, as the primary antagonists (a point which I satirized with an alternative story of the origin of the custom of spinning the dreidl here).

Many of the themes of the holiday lend themselves easily to this approach – small lights in the face of overwhelming darkness, untouched flasks of pure oil, an obligation of the entire household as one, the idea of being surrounded by mitzvot, and the notable midrash that appears in Rashi on the leyning for the last day of Chanukah – “shelcha gedolah mi-shelahem, she-atah meitiv u-madlik et ha-neitrot” (“yours is superior to theirs, for you set up and light the candles”).

In truth, the themes of particularism and universalism have been in tension within Judaism for a very long time – even before the Chanukah story. I do not believe that it is possible to resolve the question of whether Judaism in universal or particularist in favor of one approach or the other. There is no doubt, though, that different groups of Jews have adopted attitudes all along the spectrum. The Chareidi approach strongly tends toward the particularist end of the spectrum. Like the Zionist celebration, this approach picks up on the elements of Chanukah that corroborate its fundamental narrative of radical cultrural/ religious isolationism.

12/22/2008

I: The Israeli Chanukah – A Celebration of Jewish Might

Last year, I wrote a short post about how the Chanukah narrative is shaped by the group celebrating, and that different Jewish groups celebrate, essentially, different Chanukahs.

Three years ago, I wrote a different Dvar Torah on each night of Chanukah (all of them can be viewed under this label, or in the archives for December 2005). This year, I will combine the two elements, and write about a different form of celebration each night.

Early mainstream Zionism adopted Chanukah as a celebration of the victories of a Jewish army. In its vigor to create the “New Jew”, the Zionist movement enlisted every example of a Jewish military hero and celebrated him as a Zionist or proto-Zionist figure. It gave the nascent state and pre-state a sense of continuity and tradition with a distant but glorious and heroic past. This ardor to generate a new Jewish narrative of “strength” is best expressed (and caricatured) in Hazaz’s famous short story, The Sermon (1942):

Jewish history is so dull, so uninteresting. It has no glory or action, no heroes and conquerors, no rulers and masters of their fate, just a collection of wounded, hunted, groaning and wailing wretches always begging for mercy. I would simply forbid teaching our children Jewish history. Why the devil teach them about their ancestors' shame? I would just say to them: `Boys, from the day we were driven out from our land, we've been a people without a history. Class dismissed. Go out and play football!’

This ethos was projected onto the Jewish holiday of Chanukah, and is even reflected in several very popular Israeli folk songs for Chanukah. This first one is the Hebrew rendition of the Yiddish Oy, Chanekeh or English Oh, Chanukah:

,ימי החנוכה חנוכת מקדשנו
בגיל ובשמחה ממלאים את ליבנו
לילה ויום סביבונינו יסוב
.סופגניות נאכל בם לרוב
!האירו ! הדליקו
נרות חנוכה רבים
על הניסים ועל הנפלאות
.אשר חוללו המכבים
,ניצחון המכבים נספר, נזמרה
על האויבים אז ידם כי גברה
ירושלים שבה לתחיה
.עם ישראל עשה תושיה
!האירו ! הדליקו

The key point lies in lines 7-11, which describe the miracles, wonders, and victories wrought by the Macabees. The other example, perhaps even more classic, is entitled Mi Yimalel (Who Can Retell?)

?מי ימלל גבורות ישראל אותם מי ימנה
העם הן בכל דור יקום הגבור גואל

!שמע
בימים ההם בזמן הזה
מכבי מושיע ופודה
ובימינו כל עם ישראל
.יתאחד יקום ויגאל

Here, the Zionist ethos comes to the fore right off the bat: “Who can retell the strengths of Israel, who can count them? Yea, in each generation the hero, the nation’s redeemer, shall arise”. It is significant that both of these popular songs transpose epithets that the Jewish tradition reserves for God onto human Jewish heroes: The “miracles… and wonders that You have done for our ancestors” (ha-nissim... ve-al ha-nifla’ot she-asita la-avoteinu) becomes “the miracles and wonders that the Maccabees wrought”. In the saying “Who can retell the strengths of God” (Mi yimalel gevurot Hashem) “Israel” replaces “God”.

This general transposition is reflected in many other ubiquitous (and therefore barely noticed anymore) elements of Israeli culture. Israel’s Olympics are called the Maccabiah Games, and many of its sports clubs are named Maccabi.

There is no doubt that this celebration of the Jewish military victory drew from traditional sources. One cannot but help get the feeling, however, that the conclusion of Yudke’s speech in Hazaz’s story underlies this Zionist Chanukah narrative:

Zionism and Judaism are not the same. They are two very different things entirely, maybe even opposed to one another. When a man can no longer be a Jew, he becomes a Zionist.

12/14/2008

Rabbi Mendel Feldman, ob”m

Yedidai,
It is with great personal sadness that I note the passing for Rav Menachem Mendel Ha-Kohen Feldman, ob”m, in Sydney, Australia.
I was fortunate to have known Rabbi Feldman in many different contexts. When my father spoke of “Rebbi”, he meant Rabbi Feldman. Later, Rabbi Feldman became the rav of Khal Ahavas Yisrael Tzemach Tzedek, a shtibl (now with a proper building) on Park Heights Avenue, a block away from the house where I grew up. That was our shul for about a decade, from when it opened until the family made aliyah, like a number of Rebbi’s other close talmidim, in 1995. A few years after opening the shul, the Feldmans moved to a condo one floor below my grandparents’ on Park Heights.
An illness prevented him from being mesader Kiddushin at my wedding, but he spoke at Sheva Brachot and blessed the young couple with Birkat Kohanim, which was his trademark to the degree that it is possible for that ancient blessing to be the trademark of one person. In my mind’s eye, I can recall lining up after shul on Friday night, when all of the children would line up and be individually blessed by Rabbi Feldman. I still see the wispy ends of his never-shaven beard resting on his plain black frock coat, and still even smell him, as I bend my head to receive Rebbi’s Birkat Kohanim on Friday night. I remember doing the same at my Bar Mitzvah. In addition, he was Koreh Shem at my brit milah, and read the ketubah at the wedding of my parents. I remember my father lining up behind all of the children on his last Friday night before making aliyah from Baltimore. I remember Rebbi reaching up to give my father his bracha; they were both crying. He also lent my father a pair of Tefillin aliba de-Rabbenu Tam, so that his physical aliyah would be accompanied by a spiritual aliyah. My father still wears Rabbenu Tam tefillin daily (he bought his own set a year later). The following picture is of Rabbi Feldman being podeh my eldest nephew:
Rabbi Feldman, who passed away at the age of 89, was born and lived almost his entire life in the United States. He grew up in New York and studied in Yeshivat Tomchei Temimim, under the guidance of the previous Lubavitcher Rebbe, and at Mesivta Torah Vodaas. After a short stint as a rabbi in Jacksonville, FL, he moved to Baltimore with his wife, Rochelle/ Rochel (nee Simpson), where he served as a Rebbi at the Talmudical Academy and succeeded Rav Shimon Schwab as the Rav of Shearith Israel (the “Glen Avenue Shul”), where he served for over 25 years. After his retirement from AYTT after two decades, the Feldmans emigrated to Australia to be near their son, Rav Pinchas Feldman, Chief Chabad Rabbi of New South Wales, Australia. Rabbi Feldman outlived his wife by several years.
He made the greatest impression, though, with his personal humility, care and concern. He was never a charismatic speaker (though each of his drashot opened with “Yedidai” and ended by expressing belief in the impending arrival of “Mashiach Mamash” – I do not know if that practice continued after the passing of the Rebbe, ob”m), but he attracted a very loyal and devoted following in Baltimore with his warmth and humor, by being accepting and offering guidance to his devotees. Once he became a person’s Rebbi, he remained so for life. He was also an active member of Baltimore’s Beit Din, especially with regard to matters of giyur and gittin, and the chavruta of Rav Moshe Heinemann.
An aspect of his personality which often flew under the radar, especially in Baltimore, was his Ahavat Eretz Yisrael. A significant number of his devotees made aliyah, and he took a tremendous amount of pride in their decision. On one of his last visits to Israel, his former students met with him at a restaurant, and reported that they had never before seen him in such a state of ecstasy.
Tehe Nishmato Tzerura be-Tzror ha-Chayim.
This is just so painful to see.

12/09/2008

Overfloweth?

Ironically, the day after citing Prof. Bernstein's quote - "my toilet overflows; my cup runneth over" - this gem appears in Haaretz. Overfloweth? You must be joking.

By the way, the book reviewed in that article sounds fascinating.

11/22/2008

Your Vote Counts

I’ve never felt so much a part of the democratic process. The party which I ultimately decided to vote for in the city council elections, a party which emerged only a few weeks before the elections and which was not expected to win a seat, ended up passing the threshold by 12 votes (they received 1061 votes and needed 1049 to get the seat). Hopefully this party will become part of the governing coalition; a central plank in the party’s platform is support for my daughter’s school.

In general, for all of its issues, in a multi-party/ parliamentary system, the individual voter feels that his vote makes a difference to a much greater degree, if only because it is often a question of relative quantities and not a zero-sum game. Granted, a parliamentary system is much more susceptible to small interest parties selling to the highest bidder – which stinks unless your interests happen to coincide.

11/13/2008

11/08/2008

Avoiding Extremes in Orthodox Conversion

Over the past 2 weeks, we have had 3 Shabbat guests who are in the process of conversion, two men last week and one woman this week. There could not be a more stark study in contrasts. This also came upon the heels of having done some translation work for an organization that works with potential converts, and which adds fuel to the fire.
I am not a stranger to the conversion process, nor am I a stranger to the politics of it. I have been intimately involved with a number of conversions over the past few years, I’m familiar with the halakha and with numerous modern responsa on the issue. On multiple levels, I am disheartened by the extremes that contemporary batei din for conversion tend toward and, ironically, I believe that there is a certain commonality to the two extremes.
Last week, we hosted two young men who were completing the IDF’s Nativ program. The young men were very nice, personable, and very respectful. However, they were not sincere candidates for conversion – not by a long shot. They spent Shabbat with us at the end of the program – and it was the first time they were spending Shabbat together as a group! Every other Shabbat they had been given off, to return to their (non-Jewish) families. They did not know anything about the rhythms and routines of Jewish home or synagogue life. They sad in shul and did nothing or wandered around outside. They had learned a bit of Jewish and Zionist history and TaNaKh, and that was the extent of their Jewish education.
Even more problematically, though I cannot be sure about it, I believe that at least one of them stepped out of my house for a smoke at some point over Shabbat. The area outside my front door usually does not smell of nicotine, as it did when I woke up on Shabbat morning (they had gone to a mandatory Oneg Shabbat while I called it a night). One of them carried his cell phone to shul for Maariv on motza”sh.
One of these fellows is a vegetarian for religious reasons- in other words, because that is the view of his community, the African Hebrew Israelites. This young man, it became abundantly clear, has no intention to leave his community. I’m all for giving the Hebrews citizenship – they have more than demonstrated their commitment to this country. But the fact remains that specious claims of being descendant of the King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba based on the visions of a latter-day prophet does not a Jew, or and Israelite, make. Even if this group would completely observe all of the mitzvot, conversion means becoming part of the Jewish community, and precludes remaining part of another religious community.
Upon the conclusion of the Nativ program, it is only a few more months until conversion. This program is a joke of a conversion program. It may be a good program for one to convert to being an Israeli, but not a Jew. I probably would not go so far as to say that these people are not even safek Jews after the conversion – even though the position that kabbalat ha-mitzvot is not me’akeiv or that a general willingness to identify as a Jew counts as a de facto kabbalat ha-mitzvot is clearly the minority position (as R. Lichtenstein pointed out in his letter of defense of R. Druckman, if you read between the lines) – but you can be darn sure that I would not count such a convert as part of a mezuman or minyan, and that I would insist that he or she go to the mikva if any of my kids ever comes home with one. This process of giyur is an absolute joke.
This past Shabbat we had an example of the opposite extreme. We hosted a student of my wife’s who is studying for the year at a seminary in Israel. She is the daughter of a Jewish father and non-Jewish mother who was raised with virtually no religion. She began her journey to Judaism in her early teenage years and began keeping Shabbat over a year ago, leaving home to spend Shabbat with a host family each week. She is serious about her observance. She was upset because she overslept her nap and only woke up after shkiah, and she had not yet been mechallel Shabbat as a good non-Jew must. Learning, davening, etc. – she was on the ball.
After becoming fully committed to observance 1.5 years ago, she approached her local Beis Din, who then told her that it would take 2 years before they would convert her. In the mean time, they gave her a list of books that she had to study and master, and keep tabs on her via monthly progress reports from her “supervisors”.
Some of the areas of halakha that this girl must study are completely superfluous. For example – she is learning some of the basics of slaughtering and salting fowl. She is studying the laws of niddah (which under normal circumstances she would only learn after becoming engaged) and the laws of aveilut (entirely superfluous, nost people do not study these laws until it becomes an unfortunate necessity; I studied it as part of my semicha from the Rabbanut). After completing this curriculum, she will have to take a comprehensive examination on all of it – an exam which lasts upwards of 15 hours.
This process is simply too much. Why does this Beis Din need to go so far beyond that which is required by the Shulchan Arukh, and beyond that which is advocated by the major poskim of the 20th Century. Is this part of the “universally accepted standards” shtick? Is there really a beis din out there that would “flunk” a potential convert because he/she doesn’t know how to salt a chicken or rays kri’ah?
The common denominator to both of these “processes” is that they do not get to know the prospective convert. Instead of having a rabbi who gets to know the ger and chaperone him/her through the process, keeping an eye on the ger’s integration into the frum community, answering questions, mobilizing resources, etc., you have a situation where the prospective convert must go through an impersonal standardized “process”. One process is designed to cover somebody’s idea of the most watered-down basics, and the other is designed to cover all bases, regardless of the needs and situation of the individual convert.
The ideal situation does not veer so far from the Shulchan Arukh – neither to the right nor to the left. The basic curriculum includes the laws of Shabbat, Kashrut, and Brachot/ Tefillah (plus Taharat ha-Mishpacha where applicable), certain basic works of Jewish thought and attitude (such as “The Book of Our Heritage”), and a considerable amount of time spend living in and integrating with the observant community (including sending kids to Jewish schools, if applicable). And, of course, it is important that there be a chaperoning/ sponsoring Rabbi to make sure that the potential convert is progressing properly.
Unfortunately, the extremes seem to be carrying the day.

11/07/2008

The Burning House: A Reading of Bereishit Rabbah 39:1

I’ve started a weekly Midrash Rabbah shiur in Modiin. I chose that subject because I’ve never really learned Midrash as a separate study, only as an auxiliary to something else. We tend to think of the classic collections of Midrashim as gold mines for drasha material, and not as exegetical works in and of themselves. I’ve read some books and articles in preparation for giving the shiur, but actually wanted to simply learn it straight and to see how it goes. I plan to start podcasting the shiur at some point, when I get all of the logistics figured out. In the meantime, here’s my reading of a fairly well-known Midrash from the beginning of Lech Lecha. My reading of it is not allegorical, as opposed to most of my Talmudic readings. Rather, it is an attempt to decode the exegetical and intertextual concerns which generated its composition.

ויאמר ה' אל אברם לך לך מארצך וגו'
ר' יצחק פתח:
(תהלים מה) שמעי בת וראי והטי אזנך ושכחי עמך ובית אביך
אמר רבי יצחק:
משל לאחד
, שהיה עובר ממקום למקום וראה בירה אחת דולקת.
אמר: תאמר שהבירה זו בלא מנהיג?!
הציץ עליו בעל הבירה. אמר לו: אני הוא בעל הבירה.
כך, לפי שהיה אבינו אברהם אומר: תאמר שהעולם הזה בלא מנהיג?!
הציץ עליו הקב"ה ואמר לו: אני הוא בעל העולם.

)
שם) ויתאו המלך יפיך כי הוא אדוניך.
ויתאו המלך יפיך, ליפותיך בעולם.
והשתחוי לו, הוי, ויאמר ה' אל אברם:

God spoke to Avraham: Go you from your land ….

R. Yitzchak began:

“Listen, O daughter, and look, and incline your ear; and forget you nation and your father's house” (Tehillim 45:11)

R. Yitzchak said:

This may be compared to one who was traveling from place to place, and he saw a burning mansion. He said: Is it possible that this mansion is without someone responsible? The owner of the mansion looked out at him and said: I am the owner of the mansion.

So, too, our father Avraham said: Is it possible that the world is without someone responsible? God looked out at him and said: I am the master of the world. (Midrash Rabba 39,1)


So the king shall desire your beauty, for he is your lord… (Ibid 12)

So the king shall desire your beauty – to beautify you in the world.

…and bow to him – that is, “and God spoke to Avraham”.

This midrash is also (I found out afterward) the subject of a shiur by mv”r Rav Ezra Bick. As usual, his shiur is brilliant, but he takes the gold mine approach. He does not pay attention to the midrash as a literary-exegetical construction, and even elides the intertextual components.

As is typical of Midrashic collections, the Sages read seemingly metaphoric or allegorical descriptions found in the Ketuvim as pertaining directly to earlier narrative elements of the TaNaKh. In this example, the Psalm in question praises a king (ostensibly and earthly one – “therefore God has anointed you – 45:8). It includes a recommendation for a young woman who wins the king’s favor to abandon her home and follow the king (45:11-13).

The appearance of those verses about abandoning one’s nation and father’s home, however, invokes God’s commandment to Avraham – “go forth from your land, your birthplace, and your father’s house”. By reading these two verses in connection with each other (i.e., intertextually), it open up numerous exegetical possibilities for both original contexts. The Psalm is now read in connection with Avraham (indeed, a few paragraphs later, another reading identifies Avraham with the king in the Psalm), and a wholly new dimension is injected into the Lech Lecha narrative.

Firstly, in light of the verses from Tehillim, our narrative takes on a romantic dimension. God’s commandment to Avraham is read as the summons that a king issues to his potential bride, and thus, for the maiden, everything else in the whole world is eclipsed.

It also adds a narrative dimension, as the Midrash reads the beginning of Tehillim 45:11 as part of Avraham’s “back story”. This closes a glaring narrative gap, as the Torah tells us nothing about why Avraham was chosen. The first part of the verse reads: “Listen, O daughter, and look, and incline your ear…” The Midrash understands this as meaning that in order for the daughter (Avraham) to be able to abandon her home in favor of the king’s palace, she must be alert to the possibility of the summons – listening, looking, and inclining her ear.

In Bereishit, no mention is made of the back story (the listening and looking), and in Tehillim, no direct mention is made of the actually summons. The Midrash fuses these two elements together by means of a mashal – a narrative rubric within which we can assimilate the exegesis offered by R. Yitzchak. The mashal tells a two-part story: the wanderer who looks around and asks questions (corresponding to the “listening and looking” verse) and the subsequent call from the owner of the mansion (“and God said to Avraham…”).

Regarding the content of the mashal itself, this opens a window into how Chaza”l understood Avraham’s prehistory. One could argue (similar to Rambam Hil. AZ 1:3) that the mashal represents some type of argument from design: just as the mansion must have been constructed, so, too, the world must have been planned and built. This reading would understand “bira doleket” as a “well-lit mansion”. Rav Bick understands that it is a moral question: where is the owner of this mansion that he lets it burn? Where is the Master of the World who lets evil triumph?

I would suggest that the Midrash sees Avraham as confused and conflicted: a mansion is aflame. On one hand, the mansion did not build itself. Its very existence indicates a designer and builder. On the other hand, the master of the house seems willing to neglect it and allow it to be destroyed. The dissonance created by this juxtaposition, by Avraham’s outrage at God’s willingness to let His well-designed world go to pot, also opens the door for Avraham to be addressed by God.

The final segment of the midrash continues the exegesis of the verses in Tehillim as signifying the Avraham narrative. It addresses a problematic idea – the indication that God “desired” Avraham’s “beauty” – and rereads it as God’s desire to make Avraham’s beauty visible in the world. The last line simply re-correlates the verses in Tehillim with those of Bereishit, as is common in midrashim.

11/03/2008

Shuk Democracy

As I mentioned in the last post, there is a third type of democracy emerging in the world, which is based neither on the American nor the European models. Although other countries have toyed with it (Iraq, Lebanon), the country that really is beginning to employ it best is Israel, much to the chagrin of the Israeli WASPS (White Ashkenazi Secular Protectionists). This type of democracy understands that in highly diverse and potentially volatile situations, the political arena is the best place for the varying needs of different groups to be negotiated.

Shas is, to my mind, the greatest example of this type of democratic thinking. Your average Shas voter pines away for the restoration of the monarchy, but instead of viewing the democratic process as a vehicle for that restoration (as R. Kook did), or as an illegitimate impediment to that restoration, it views democracy as a shuk – an arena for negotiation where one must play by certain rules and in which everyone is trying to get the best deal for himself and eventually settles in a place which is acceptable to all. It represents a way of building a begrudging consensus.

This, I believe, accounts for an attitude which sees voting as an obligation, but one which is completely bereft of any sanctity or glory.

On Voting

With local and national election in Israel coming up, bunched so close to election in the States, voting is very much on my mind (and that doesn’t even include online voting for players of the week in the NFL). I’ve already cast my ballot for the U.S. elections, but it doesn’t really matter. My ballot will not even be opened. I am registered to vote in one of the bluest (because it’s one of the blackest) states in the country, Maryland. Regarding national elections, I’ll be voting Likud unless something drastic happens. This is not my first time writing something like that here. That leaves municipal elections, which deserve a post on their own, if not several.

I wanted to express by feelings about voting in general, though. There is a range of attitudes toward the right and obligation to vote. NeoHasid has penned a special Leshem Yichud prayer to be recited before voting (HT: HotGK). I must admit, I find the entire concept to be awfully silly. It seems to reflect the typical American-Jewish attitude that voting is some kind of mitzvah de-orayta, and that glorifies the democratic process as some kind of holy ideal.

The opposite approach is one that I heard from R’ Moshe Stav of Kerem B’Yavneh. He explained it as a duty akin to going to the bathroom – something that needs to be done, but that should be done quickly and quietly without fanfare. You do what you have to do. I may have supplied the further details – you go by yourself into a little booth, you do what you need to do, and you pull a little lever to get rid of the evidence for the next guy (this worked much better with the old-style voting booths). Granted, one says a blessing after using the bathroom as well, but we do not glorify the act itself.

I think this difference of attitude toward voting reflects a broader attitude toward democracy in general. As is well known, the American and European models of democracy are vastly different. Amercian democracy grew from the ground up, from Puritan town halls who believed that the will of the community as a whole is the best indicator of God’s will. In America, democracy originated – and remains, to a degree – a religious ideal.

In Europe, democracy grew out of an overthrow of the old monarchies and aristocracies of Europe, a diminution of the power of the church, and the implementation of Enlightenment ideals of the rights of man. It grew from the top-down, and has a definite anti-clerical ax to grind. Those who instituted democracy – similar to some members of the contemporary Israeli left – did not actually believe in democracy, only “democratic values”. It is that type of thinking which can take away human rights in the name of democracy, as we Jews remember full well. In this context, voting is a right granted as a somewhat grudging acknowledgement that the alternative is far worse, and not because the unwashed masses actually have valuable opinions.

However, while this dichotomy can account for American attitude, is cannot explain the attitude expressed by Rav Stav. To do so, we must posit a third type of democracy – Middle Eastern or “Shuk” democracy – which gets its own post.

10/29/2008

The Land of the Blind

I’ve always been fond of the metaphoric statement: “In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king”. Like a good parable should, it provides a fantastic rubric for describing a particular type of situation. My father is full of these pearls of wisdom. Some of his other favorites – which have become my own favorites – include “You can lead a horse to water, but it’s still a horse” and “unless you’re the lead sled dog, the view never changes”.

This morning, I saw the source for the first saying. It appears in Bereishit Rabbah on this week’s parsha, and it is used to explain the verse “tamim haya be-dorotav”. This is also an excellent example of a mashal as a hermeneutic device which provides a rubric or narrative pattern within which one can interpret the verse. See Boyarin’s Intertextuality and the Readiong of Midrash, ve-acm”l.

Here’s the text of the midrash:


רבי יהודה אמר: בדורותיו היה צדיק, הא אילו היה בדורו של משה, או בדורו של שמואל, לא היה צדיק. בשוק סמייא צווחין לעווירא, סגי נהור.

Rabbi Yehuda says: In his generation he was righteous, but had he lived in the generation of Moshe or Shmuel, he would not have been considered righteous. In the blind man’s market, the dim-eyed man is called “flooded with light”.

10/21/2008

What's Next? Separate Water Fountains?

Add this to the tefillin incident of a few weeks ago, and a highly disturbing picture begins to emerge. This is plain and simple bigotry. This town has some real issues.

10/20/2008

Beautiful Dvar Torah for Shemini Atzeret

I have a chavruta with whom I am studying the works of R. Yehuda Leib Graubart, who was a Rav in Europe and later in St. Louis and Toronto in the early part of the 20th century. We’re learning through a book of his drashot called “Devarim Kichtavam”. It’s fascinating to see how he relates to the “current events” of his time, such as the Scopes Monkey trial.

He has a short Devar Torah on Shemini Atzeret which is beautiful, and which expresses his Zionist sympathies. He contrasts the celebration of Sukkot, which symbolizes galut in that we exit our homes and bring sacrifices on behalf of the nations of the world, in which we shake a lulav that represents our subservience to foreign powers and our constant guardedness against threats that could be coming from any direction, with the celebration of Shemini Atzeret which reminds us that we will eventually return to our home with its strong foundations and steady shelter, that the galut has an Atzeret – an end. On this date (at least in Israel) we read the verse of “Va-yishkon Yisrael betach badad” – Israel shall dwell securely alone.

Hag Sameah!

10/17/2008

Holiday Roundup

The holiday roundup thus far:

On the Yamim Noraim, I gave 2 shiurim and davened a Shacharit, a Maariv, and Neilah for the amud. Nevertheless, I emerged feeling pretty uninspired and that the Yamim Tovim were “Lo Nora”. It’s possible that I’ve been so absorbed in my new self-employment that I simply have not been able to focus on it.

Whenever I clapped at latznu, I was being “toveil ve-sheretz be-yado”.

I’ve been reading up a bit on the history of etrogim. Fascinating history. One amusing recollection that I have is of an Israeli discussing the responsum of the Chatam Sofer on the kashrut of the so-called “Yanover Esrogim”. These esrogim were actually from Southern Italy, but reached Central Europe via the port of Genoa (Yanova). The Israeli kept referring to the city of Geneva, which neither possesses the climate to grow citrons nor is a port city.

I also noticed yesterday, when visiting a religious yishuv, that they labeled an etrog tree with a short description that includes the purported fact that etrogim were introduced into Israel around the time of Ezra. I think that this is generally accepted by historians and botanists (or perhaps it is a bit early by their count), but I was under the impression that the general thinking in mainstream Orthodox circles is that the etrog goes back to the time of Moshe and the giving of the Torah. I’m not disturbed by the idea that there was some ambiguity regarding the identity of the pri etz hadar. There are some indicators in Tanach (Nechemiah 8:15) and in the Gemara (Kiddushin 70a) that the etrog was a foreign import and not initially understood to be the Biblical pri etz hadar. However, I was unaware that there were segments of the Orthodox world who took this as a foregone conclusion.

10/16/2008

Hits from Academic Institutions

Since I began this blog while I was working at the Hillel at UMD (see this post about an fun event that took place there 3 years ago on Chol Ha-mo’ed Sukkot), it’s only natural that I get a bunch of hits from academic institutions. The past 100 page views, for examples, include hits from MIT (2 hits), Columbia, Penn, Maryland, Hopkins, Yale, Yeshiva University, Farleigh Dickinson, NYU, and Florida Atlantic. All of these institutions have a large pool of students and faculty members who could conceivably be drawn to this blog.

There are also three hits from an obscure liberal arts school in Minnesota, St. Olaf’s. I only ever heard of St. Olaf’s in Minnesota because I used to watch Golden Girls reruns as a kid. All three hits were to the same page – this one (one of my first posts ever) – and were not directed from another page; in other words, the url was typed in directly or copied from a file. My best guess is that a professor assigned it for a class. Very curious. I think I'll try getting to the bottom of this.

[UPDATE: Apparently, the Judaics professor assigned a midterm paper on Menachot 29b, and the students found the post].

10/14/2008

Flattered but Outraged

They say that plagiarism is the highest form of flattery. I understand, but it still seems outrageous when it happens. There’s also the issue of “meivi davar be-shem omro” (link is to an old but good post).

I mention it because a few weeks ago I was forwarded an email promoting “Adam Ha-Rishon’s Segulah for Parnassah”. It seemed very familiar to me, and that is because I wrote it. This mixed emotion of pride (however perverse) and outrage is new to me.

Earlier today, in shul, I was speaking with someone who mentioned that another fellow had hung this segulah for parnassah in his sukkah. I asked if it was “Adam Ha-Rishon’s Segulah”, and sure enough it was, and had been forwarded to him from a friend in the States. Apperently this has been making the rounds, so I felt compelled to put it out there again – please attribute it when forwarding it around!

Anyhow, the fellow I had been schmoozing with about it in shul put it into a good perspective for me. He (Dr. Ari [Arthur] Schaffer) penned an article in 1982 entitled The Agricultural and Ecological Symbolism of the Four Species of Sukkot (timely, no?). He mentioned that he had heard his main thesis repeated in a number of contexts and by a number of people. He took immense pride in the dissemination of the idea, even if it remained unattributed. I guess I should aspire to that attitude, but I really can’t say I do. I take pride in my chiddushim, whether they are good or not, and whether they are edifying or not (in this instance, I believe that a strong case can be made that my lampoon constitutes ‘leitzanuta de-Avoda Zara’ and is thus edifying).

So if you get this in a email, reply to the sender with a link to the original post and bring a bit of ge’ulah into the world. And to the reader who lifted it and sent it out without attribution – please try to remedy the situation.

10/03/2008

Modiin Kid Told to Keep Tefillin Out of Public School

Link to the Ynet article

The depth of ignorance in the Jewish State is sometimes astounding. Regarding this issue, there was actually a debate in an email forum in Modiin, with some people defending the school. I'm sorry to sound so insensitive to those ostensibly well-meaning parents who fear that their children will become prey to religious coercion because a couple of classmates think its cool to wear religious symbols for a few minutes every day, but I really have no patience for this.
Are these parents that insecure? After all, it's a free world out there, and all kinds of people will be out there hawking all kinds of things in life - drugs, sex, and, yes, religion. If they're afraid that their impressionable little teenager will go over to the Dark Side because a buddy likes strapping on leather boxes, I'd hate to consider how neurotic they become when the kids goes out on weekends. Seriously, can we get a grip? Do we really think that kids being kids - and different kids are into different things - is "proselytizing" or "coercion"?
One parent compared this kid bringing his tefillin to religious or traditional kids insisting that class birthday parties not be held on Shabbat. It's a poor comparison. Here, the bephylacteried youth is not expecting or demanding that anyone else live up to his standard. Rather, the school shutting this kid down would be more akin to a parent who made a birthday party on Shabbat and then complained that when a Shabbat observant kid failed to turn up, that he "ruined" the birthday party.
I also find it laughable that a school can ban a kid from offering to share his tefillin with a classmate in the name of being against coercion. I'm usually pretty good about seeing both sides of an issue, but this is cut-and-dried. A kid can bring his tefillin to school and offer to share it with his friends. He can do the same with his sunflower seeds, his stamp collection, of whatever else is legal to possess.
By my libertarian sensibilities, a kid should also be allowed to sport a crucifix or be entitled to bust out the prayer rug 5 times a day if he or she so desires, but I don't want to go there for fear of shattering to many people's narrow conceptions of what people from which sectors ought to believe.
Now, if the kid were wearing a Yankee cap, it would be a whole different ball of wax...
May this year be one of clearheadedness and sanity in the City of the Future.

9/15/2008

The Halakhot of Davening on an Airplane

Gil has a great post about prayer in the friendly skies. As is usual with Rabbi Student, his post is a serious social and religious critique against the mindset of certain individuals and groups of individuals, but formulated as a “dry” halakha shiur. That’s what makes his blog so much more effective than simply ranting about the nincompoops blocking access to the bathrooms and waking everybody up (which is probably what I would do).

The topic reminded me of a question that I had regarding zmanei tefillah on airplanes. Clearly (according to the overwhelming majority of poskim), objective events such as sunrise and sunset are calculated based on when the sun actually rises and actually sets where you are. What about calculating the hours (sha’ot zmani’ot)? Do you base it on the calculation of hours on the ground below you, or on the projected time of sunset?

To give a concrete example of the ramifications of this question, consider the following:

I am flying east from NY to Israel on a flight that left JFK at around 3pm and will land in Israel at around 9am. Sunset in Israel is at 7pm. The sun rose on the plane about an hour before landing. By the time I would get a chance to daven, it will be 10:30 – after sof zman tefilla in Israel. So perhaps I should daven on the plane.

However, I can make the following calculation. Since I was flying east, I lost some daylight hours. I will have a total of 11 hours of daylight which began at 8am Israel time. Using those figures, sof zman tefilla comes out to be just before noon, and I will have time to daven after collecting my belongings.

The same type of calculation can come into play in a number of ways, with real halakhic ramifications. The question is a fundamental one, though: are zmanim calculated based on geographical realities or human realities? Is it about the place or the person?

Anyone address this?

9/10/2008

Transgender Halacha

My 2 cents on the issue at YU:

1. Personal choices of faculty members are no business of the school. People have been suggesting that YU would have fired this teacher had it not been for the legal issues. I hope that's not true. I hope that they would have been concerned with the moral issue as well (assuming said teacher did nothing to actively defame or disgrace the school).

2. YU is not the first Yeshiva, nor the most left-wing yeshiva, to have an unconventionally gendered teacher. Several prominent yeshivas had such teachers on their limmudei kodesh faculty. Some still do.

3. I find it shocking that Richard Joel said that he is proud of all of his faculty. I think pride is the wrong term. I would not be proud of this professor, per se. I would also certainly not be proud of Rabbi Dr. M. D. Tendler for his response to the issue.

4. Halakhic article on the issue here.

5. I remember when a former student of mine informed me that he would be starting the process of becoming a woman. No, he was not asking a shayla. What do you say to that? I quoted some psukim to him from the end of Yeshayahu 56, that the sarisim who keep Shabbat and choose that which God desires are assured a legacy. I do not know if this person still keeps Shabbos. I really couldn't think of much else at the time. Ah, the life of a college campus rabbi. Seems so far away now that I've settled into the Orthodoxy of the bourgeoisie.

6. I blogged about the transgender issue a few years ago (link, link, link). In one of those posts, I suggested that, mimah nafshach, a male-turned-female could marry a female-turned-male halakhically. The question is who gives the ring/ketubah to whom. At such a simcha, we would certainly say, with our tongues in our cheeks, "matza min et mino".

9/09/2008

“The World is Filled with Law”

I’m not the first to notice a trend toward total pervasiveness of life by halakha. In addition to hyper-definition of pre-existing categories, there has been a more recent trend toward creating new halakhic categories out of whole cloth, and then applying the same type of hair-splitting definitions to them as well. The recent rulings on types of permitted music are a good example, but certainly not the only one.
I was reminded of this phenomenon this past Shabbat, when the chardal Rav of my mostly-American shul spoke about the justicability of “hashkafah”, and whether a Sanhedrin would theoretically have the right to legislate what is permissible to think, and what not. His conclusion was that it indeed would. Granted, it may limit itself to approving a range of beliefs on a particular issue and not a single dogma, but the issue of belief and philosophy is, in his opinion, justicable by the Sanhedrin.
His thesis, as well as this general trend I described, finds articulate expression in the following quote (which I modified slightly):
In my eyes, the world is filled with halakha. Every human behavior is subject to a halakhic norm. Even when a certain type of activity-such as friendship or subjective thoughts-is ruled by the autonomy of the individual will, this autonomy exists because it is recognized by the halakha.... Wherever there are living human beings, halakha is there. There are no areas in life which are outside of halakha.
As Ben Chorin and a few others may have noticed, this quote is from former Chief Justice of the Israeli Supreme Court, Aharon Barak (the only change I made is substituting ‘halakha’ for ‘law’. The irony here is that a large part, if not the majority, of the observant Jewish world – which harbors not a bit of animosity toward the noted jurist – agrees with Barak fundamentally about the role of the judge. Their disagreement is about who is authorized to make the jusdgements. Both conceptions of the law rely heavily on the legal intuition of the jurist” one calls it “wide-ranging judicial review”, the other calls it “daas Torah”. Both are constructed out of a phenomenal hubris that identifies one’s own opinion with absolute rectitude (according to most Rishonim, and more humble jurists, a judge’s rectitude derives from his authority, and not vice versa). Until this Shabbat, I never associated the two phenomena; now that I have, it seems obvious.

9/08/2008

Rav Gustman, zt”l

This past Saturday night, I had occasion to attend a simcha at Netzach Yisrael, the yeshiva in Rechavia, Jerusalem, which Rav Yisrael Zev Gustman, zt”l, founded and led until his death in the early 1990s. I was with my father, who had studied in Rav Gustman’s yeshiva before it migrated, with its head, from Brooklyn to Jerusalem in the early 1970s. I met Rav Gustman, the only pre-war Gadol that I ever met, in that building on Tisha B’av, 1987. This led to an impromptu discussion of this largely unheralded great man and his legacy.

The stories told about Rav Gustman are the stuff of legend. Having learned through some of his lengthy but intricate and brilliant shiurim, I can attest that it is not for lack of substance that stories about him tend to focus on his great sensitivity , sense of perspective, and unconditional love (except for the stories about his joining the beit din of R. Hayyim Ozer as a teenager). Many of these stories are recorded on-line. I heard most of them well before the internet became the vehicle it is today:

  1. Perhaps most famous of all is the story of when he went to be menachem aveil as Prof. Yisrael Aumann sat shiva for his slain son during the First Lebanon War.

  1. Rav Gustman would water the plants at his yeshiva out of a sense of gratitude to the bushes that hid him when he hid (the above linked article says that he hid in the bushes from the Nazis; I heard that he hid in the bushes as a younger man to avoid conscription).

  1. He used to take joy in seeing children rejoice in Israel, saying that anyone who saw children die in the Holocaust had an obligation to watch them play in Jerusalem.

  1. I’m pretty sure I heard this from David: Rav Gustman and ylcht”a Rav Aharon Lichtenstein made aliyah at around the same time in the early 1970s. During the Yom Kippur war, RAL was assigned by Home Front Command to deliver milk in Jerusalem. As Rav Gustman was on his delivery route, RAL took the opportunity to “talk in learning” for a while when delivering the milk. Rav Gustman, legend goes, exclaimed after the encounter: “What an amazing country! Even the milk-men are talmidei chachomim!”

  1. Rav Gustman opened the doors to his yeshiva in Brooklyn at the height of Vietnam conscription to allow more kids to take advantage of the draft exemption that clerical studies offered. No, I’m not 100% comfortable with that. But hey, I live in a very different country at a very different time fighting very different wars; I have no doubt that Rav Gustman sacrificed the level of learning at his yeshiva, something many others would not have been prepared to do, to take these kids in; and the United States has elected two presidents who just as legally but just as dubiously avoided conscription to Vietnam.

  1. He used to shovel the snow in front of the yeshiva – and when students and baalebatim began complaining that he was embarrassing them by doing so, he started doing it while it was still dark outside.

As these stories passed around the table, there was one fellow who offered the following:

Rav Gustman once killed an Amaleki.

Noticing my incredulous look, he continued:

He met an Amaleki, knew what the simanim are, and killed him.

I said that I didn’t believe him. He elaborated further:

Yeah. He was in the forests in Lithuania during WWII, and he met a German with the simanim.

Now it made sense. I suggested, partly in jest, that the “siman” in question was a swastika. The fellow didn’t get my drift, saying that the signs of Amalekhood go back much further than the swastika.

More than anything else, I was appalled that, for this fellow, the ability to identify and then murder an Amalekite (with no other context readily apparent) is the stuff of heroism. I don’t take the story as any type of reflection on Rav Gustman himself. That's not the Rav Gustman that I grew up hearing about.

9/05/2008

Breakfast with Bibi

I was at a bris this morning where Opposition Leader Bibi Netanyahu (as well as Sara Netanyahu, Gideon Saar, Limor Livnat, Natan Scharansky, and other members of the Likud brass) was present as well, and it gave me the opportunity to ask him about his educational plan.

[No, I was not one of the bloggers invited to the press conference earlier in the week. My friend and neighbor, father of said baby, told me about a week and a half ago (just before said baby was born) that he wanted to assemble a team of “Bibi’s bloggers”, starting with a press conference that would be taking place that Sunday. This friend is a close aide to Bibi who is also a big believer in the political power of blogs. I suggested that he get in touch with Stephen from WebAds, whose finger is definitely on the pulse of English blogs in Israel with a political bent. Apparently, my friend did just that.]

Bibi was actually very willing to give me the time of day. I asked why he wasn’t emphasizing the same principles of privatization and increased competition in educations as he has with industry. Wouldn’t it be great if schools had to compete for good teachers and for students?

He answered that he is interested in promoting measures that would increase competition between schools. He mentioned “outsourcing teachers” and having “vouchers” (that’s right, he mentioned vouchers before I did, which was music to my ears!). I asked if he saw privatization eventually replacing the entire public school system, and he answered that it’s unrealistic to think about it that way, but that “even if we can only accomplish 60% of the revolution, it would be good” (I believe that’s the direct quote). To me, this suggested that he’s really in favor of full privatization with a voucher/ charter system, but that he’s looking at things realistically. Fair enough.

He may have just locked up my vote.

9/02/2008

I Was Wrong

I had originally posted some snarky things about the J-Bloggers convention that took place a few weeks ago. They were uncalled for. It was sour grapes. I was disappointed that I would not be able to attend, or even to log in and participate virtually (I was actually flying to Israel while it was taking place).

For what it's worth, on the issue of "Is there a J-blogger community?" that has drawn a lot of attention since the conference, I believe that, in a nutshell, the answer is that there are J-Blogger communities (plural). Is that like Jacob Neusner talking about Judaisms?

Melting Pot, Salad Bowl, or Something Else?

America was long known as a ‘melting pot’ for its integration of various minority cultures into an integrated whole. There has historically been a similar pressure in Israel to generate a generic “Israeliness’ that would blur the manifold differences between Jewish ethnicities in Israel. Both attempts, in general, have given way, over the years, to a celebration of multiculturalism that many have begun referring to as a “salad bowl” – a place where different items are mixed together and tossed around (and sometimes are even dressed alike!), and in which differences are preserved to contribute to the overall taste.

There’s a third metaphor, neither melting pot nor salad bowl, which represents an ideal that lies between the other two. I’m talking about that tastiest of Jewish ethnic dishes, cholent. In the cholent pot, identities are preserved but everybody rubs off on everybody else. The onions remain onions, and the barley remains barley, but each absorbs flavor from the other. You have to keep things on a low simmer – too low and there’s no flavor; too hot and it’ll get burnt. And, of course, it doesn’t look like much, but its taste will surprise you.

8/31/2008

The Start of School

The school year starts tomorrow in Israel. This generally leads to a flurry of discussion about the ills of education here in Israel, though I’m sure it’s true of the rest of the world, too. This year, Bibi unsheathed a 5-point plan for reforming education. And at least two of the points are good points.

One of the first things you’ll always hear when discussing educational reform, and Netanyahu is no exception, is “pay the teachers more”. Good, but obvious, point. If teachers are paid as well as lawyers, more people will become teachers. Fair enough. But, and Bibi should know this better than most given his economic policies, this will only solve the issue indirectly as it will encourage more capable people to join the ranks of educators. It will also require a massive education budget.

What would work more immediately and efficiently is not to pay teachers more, but to reward good teachers. If good potential educators know that they can achieve separation from their peers and be rewarded accordingly, then they will have more incentive not only to become teachers, but to teach well. The system as it stands encourages mediocrity. Pay is based on college degrees and tenure, neither of which says whether a teacher can teach.

Bibi’s point about giving more power to administrators is a good one. This is also consistent with his fiscal policies: the less bureaucratic interference, the better. If Parent A needs to get Project P implemented in the school, the more direct access the parent has, the better. This makes schools more responsive to their constituents and puts the purse-strings in the hands of those with direct knowledge of the situation.

I disagree with his “no child left behind” rhetoric. The goal of educations systems is twofold: to develop ambition and ability amongst those who can, and to squelch it in those who can’t. School gives people an idea of how far they can go with school. Beyond that basic set of skills (the 3 Rs) and values (civics, national/ religious patriotism/ pride, menschlichkeit) that schools impart, there’s no reason to keep kids in the same classroom if they don’t belong in the same classroom.

This leads to what seems to be Bibi’s main point – a refocusing on a core curriculum. The Naqba vs. Jabotinsky think is a bit of a red herring, but only a bit. The Revisionist narrative of the founding of the State of Israel is not the same as the Labor Zionist narrative, which is not the same as the Palestinian narrative. And schools, as their core, at least attempt to impart its privileged narrative to its pupils.

The thing is, however, that there are a lot more than 3 narratives floating out there, which means that the gummint has 2 choices: it can try to mandate the teaching of all (or the most common) narratives, or it can try to choose the privileged one. I’m not comfortable with either, but I’m far more uncomfortable with the latter option. Let the textbooks include a basic familiarity with different narratives, and allow the school its choice of privileging one of the various Arab, Revisionist, Mapainik, National-Religious, or Chareidi narratives. Lord knows the kids’ attitudes will never be shaped by what’s in the textbooks. It’s the subtler “hidden curriculum” which will promote values. Thus, the kids who remember what’s in the texts more than 5 minutes after the test will maintain a semblance of well-roundedness, yet the pupils in general will identify with a particular narrative – one not legislated by the government.

This leads me to my final point about education in this country, and it’s really the elephant in the living room. Gone are the days of the double public school system (Mamlachti and Mamlachti-Dati). There are dozens of new school systems – independent and semi-independent, affiliated with all different movements and religious stripes, etc. Rather than trying to impose the government’s will (regarding class sizes, curriculum, teacher pay, etc.) on an unwieldy system that will never submit in its entirety (the chadarim will continue to be goreis NEITHER the Naqba NOR Jabotinsky), why not go with that and introduce the world’s best tried-and-true method for improving a product: opening it up to competition.

I had heard that Netanyahu would be unveiling a new educational plan and was hoping that Mr. Privatization would pick up on this very point. Why not deregulate everything but a core curriculum and then make funding contingent on vouchers, local funding, and tuition? Let schools compete for pupils and funding. Let the school decide to hire a better but more expensive teacher. Let a school teach the Naqba but skimp on Algebra at its own risk.

Nitpicking

The following job was posted on a message board I frequent:

Seeking knit-picking, pedantic, accomplished writers/editors of above-average intellectual agility for part-time freelance work.

I wrote in: “That should be nit-picking. CV attached.” I'll post in the comments if I get the job.

I can't help but think that this misspelling is just too ironic. The poster must have put that there as a test to vet applicants.

8/25/2008

Shul Rags: Part II

Continued from here.

The second amusing (but in many ways highly disturbing) element of the parsha sheet that I picked up this week involves an “Ask the Rabbi” column dedicated to social and intimacy (a poor translation of the untranslatable Hebrew word “zugiut”) issues. The respondent is a rabbi and Rosh Yeshiva in a community in Northern Samaria. I no longer have the text in front of me, as it is probably now where it belongs, but I will attempt to reproduce the question and answer faithfully.

The questioner posed the following dilemma. He is 26 years old and has been going out for a while. He dates girls and wants to continue, but they have no interest in him. He finds himself considering dating girls who he considers ‘compromise candidates’ – girls who wear pants and who will not full cover their hair. Is it OK to date these girls?

Before getting to that rabbi’s answer, here’s what I would answer:

“Dear X, before answering your question directly, I would recommend that you ask yourself – perhaps with the aid of a professional life coach – why your relationships are not working out. Women who wear bandanas and parachute pants are just as sensitive to matters of personality, habits, and hygiene as the ones in flowing skirts and tightly bonneted kerchiefs. You have indicated that you would have liked to continue relationships with some of them, but that they did not wish to do so with you. Unless you can provide a good explanation as to why you think that girls who you believe adhere to a lesser standard would be more likely to continue a relationship with you, I believe that you are inappropriately dealing with your problem by projecting it outward, rather than inward.

“As to the issue itself, I would call your attention to the fact that there are a number of gedolim whose wives did not cover their hair, or who did so in a manner that you or I might be uncomfortable with. This does not necessarily mean that these sages approved of such behavior. Rather, they understood that there are issues far more important upon which to base a relationship and a marriage. You should not be asking yourself questions about her halakhic standards, many of which are her own business, but about her qualities and character as a spouse, parent, and matriarch of a Torah-oriented household.”

The rabbinic author of the column begins by quoting the Gemara in Sanherdrin and the halakhic codes which determine that “It is a mitzvah to compromise”. He then distinguishes between interpersonal monetary matters, where this halakha applies, and matters of personal principles, where it remains forbidden to compromise.

He then goes on to argue that if this alter bachur would indeed compromise and marry the girl whose standards he deems unacceptable, she would forever feel second-rate and forever know that his dream girl is someone else. This would strain the relationship right from the get-go.

The rabbi then sidesteps what should be the obvious question: since nobody’s perfect, isn’t everybody, essentially, a compromise? Wouldn’t the same logic apply to someone who compromises on, say, looks? So the guy who wants to marry a supermodel shouldn’t settle for anything but a supermodel?

The rabbi gets around this by positing a distinction between “compromising” (hitpashrut) and “sobering up” (hitpakhechut). When it comes to principled issues like hair covering and pants, agreeing to less would be “compromising”, and is thus verboten. However, when it comes to looks, a guy can “sober up” and realize that the important thing is that she’s beautiful to him.

Shul Rags

One of the most ubiquitous features of Israeli synagogue life is the plethora of pamphlets which grace tables and chairs throughout the length and breadth of the (I Never) Promised (You a Rose Garden) Land. There are, by now, dozens, if not hundreds, of these weekly publications. Some are local in scope, and others are national. They represent every religious stripe and ideology that you can imagine. They appear in Hebrew, English, French, Russian, Spanish, and Yiddish (that I know of). As a renowned rabbi affiliated with the moderate/urbane end of the Mercaz HaRav world recently noted, these pamphlets constitute the bulk of the average religious Israeli’s weekly Torah study.

Given that they’re written horribly (I previously wrote about an egregious and consistent typo in a particular feminist pamphlet), I generally read these things for their entertainment value (preferring to get my Torah from the blogosphere J). Below, I’ll provide two examples of amusement provided by one of this past week’s rags.

Incidentally, I just returned from an extended stay in the U.S., so I had been away from these masterpieces for some time. In Chayyei Sarah’s addendum to my “Bounty of Spain” meme, I would definitely have to put the parsha pages on my list, along with pita, chocolate spread, religious art and articles, and nursery schools. But I digress, as people with ADD are wont to do.

The first bit of entertainment provided by the shmatteh I read in shul was an ad for a service whereby 10 widows would pray for you at the graves of Jewish saints. As we all know, the prayers of widows ride the HOV-lane to God (unless, of course, that prayer happens to be Kaddish). This rubs me the same way that these Kupat Ha’ir gimmicks do. It’s amusing to see how modern technologies can be used to reinforce folk religion.

This post is long enough. The second amusing element deserves a post of its own.

8/19/2008

The “Bounty of Spain” Meme

It would be easy for me to abandon all the bounty of Spain; as
It would be precious for me to see the dust of your destroyed shrine.

I considered entitling this post “The Things They Carried”, but I figured that an equation of aliyah to Vietnam is inappropriate. Instead, I lifted a line from the end of R. Yehuda Halevi’s famous poem, “Libi be-Mizrach”, in which he articulates how he prefers the dust of Israel to everything that Spain has to offer.

Nowadays, one need not leave all the bounty of Spain. Pretty much any bounty is available in Israel, albeit more expensive. Most olim, however, indeed abandon much of the bounty that is America when emigrating to the (I Never) Promised (You a Rose Garden) Land. We yet prefer the dust.

Nevertheless, every oleh that I know has a list of products that he/she still insists on obtaining from across the pond. Some of those products are relatively common, and some are individuated to the tastes of the specific consumer.

As I prepare to return to the erstwhile rose garden, and as my contribution to the Blogapalooza that will be taking place in Jerusalem tomorrow, I hereby launch the “Bounty of Spain” meme, which will list five items that an oleh personally imports from the alter heim. Here goes:

1. OTC pharmaceuticals (ibuprofen, loratidine, naproxen, kid’s chewable stuff)
2. Computers (including accessories – SO much cheaper, especially when buying refurbished from a reliable source)
3. Clothing (we’ve found that the cheap stuff in the U.S. is cheaper and lasts much, much longer than the cheap stuff in Israel; shoes are included in this category. I just bought me a pair of Rockport Prowalkers for a real good price).
4. Peanut butter
5. Toys
And here’s an extra:
6. Don Pepino Pizza Sauce – yeah, there’s the wild card; it’s just so good.

I tag: Jameel, Ben Chorin, Rafi (for a British perspective), Sarah (one of the Rebbetzin’s favorites).

Grilling, Frying, Baking and Cooking with ADD

As the summer winds down, and with Tisha B’Av behind us, barbeque season is in full force. Inevitably, I do the grilling. I’m not a particularly good cook, but for some reason when I grill it ends up pretty good. The same is true of frying. Anything that requires standing over a frying pan – I’m your guy. On the other hand, anything that has to go into the oven, I will inevitably botch.

For a long time now, I’ve felt that the reason for this discrepancy is rooted in ADD. Anything for which there’s an extended break in the action will invite the ADD person’s attention to wander. Even setting alarms won’t do the trick. “It need’s another 5 minutes”, for the ADD mind, spell culinary disaster. On the other hand, if I have to stand over the grill or frying pan, constantly checking, flipping, or whatnot, my attention is sufficiently engaged to keep me on task constantly. Thus, the burgers will come out yummy.

Admittedly, there are no great chiddushim in this post. It came up a few days ago, and I figured I’d post an example of how we ADD folks develop strategies to engage in the things that allow us to excel.

8/11/2008

The J-Blogger Convention

Almost everybody missed the first annual Pocono J-bloggers Convention this past Friday. It was sponsored by Wal-Mart of Honesdale, PA. Participants included myself and Menachem of Seforim and Michtavim. We barely recognized each other behind the accumulated facial hair. It was inspiring.

I will not be participating in the NBN blogger’s convention. I’ll be on my way back from the U.S. then. Funnily enough, I blogged our own aliyah 2 years ago, without the hype. They had an “embedded” blogger on that flight, and didn’t even know it. I’ve posted quite a bit about the aliyah experience, about life in Israel in general and Modiin in particular, and about Zionism. See the labels. Maybe next year.