1/28/2010

Of Fruit, Dried and Fresh

The custom to eat dried fruits on Tu B'Shvat is a funny one, and currently an ironic one.

While Tu B'Shvat has evolved over time, and clear historical layers can be discerned, it became a day to celebrate specifically the produce of the Land of Israel in the sixteenth century (I designed a 'Seder Tu B'Shvat' whose different elements are based on these historical layers; the 'haggadah' is available here).

Growing up in the US, we celebrated Tu B'Shvat with fruits that, if they did not actually come from Israel, reminded us of Israel (for some odd reason, carob, or 'buckser', always featured prominently, as though it were edible). And the fruit was always dried.

Indeed, someone asked me a few weeks ago why we specifically eat dried fruit on Tu B'Shvat. The obvious answer is that in the middle of the winter, fresh fruit was hardly available, especially in colder climes. Moreover, the whole reason that fruits were dried in the first place was to make them more durable (the other major way to preserve fruit through the winter was to ferment it into an alcoholic beverage; for some reason, wine was always more popular than raisins). This is an example of a 'custom' born out of a very straightforward reality. Nevertheless, back in grade school, they gave us dried buckser instead of fresh apples. It was part of the whole experience.

The ironic part is that here in Israel, the dried fruits are mostly imported, and from Turkey at that. Some are dealing with this either by prohibiting Turkish dried fruit or by marketing Israeli dried fruit. My solution would simply be - eat fresh fruit! The whole dried fruit thing was a concession to reality, not an ideal!

There is actually precedent for this idea in rabbinic literature. The mishna in Bikkurim 3:3 states: "Those who were close brought figs and grapes, and those who were distant brought dried figs and raisins." This tells us that the ideal, when using fruit for religious purposes, was fresh fruit. However, in the interests of portability and durability, dried fruits were permitted.

There is a deeper level to this as well. At the end of Rav Kook's Eyn Ayah to Brakhot, he has several pages of notes on some of the mishnaic tractates at the end of Zera'im. His comments on Bikkurim (which, taken together, would constitute an excellent text for study on Tu B'Shvat) were actually published in English a work called Of Societies Perfect and Imperfect: Selected Readings from Eyn Ayah.

In a nutshell, Rav Kook discusses how those who are "close" and those who are "distant" represent either two distinct spiritual states. 'closeness' is associated with prophecy, the land of Israel, and the fullness of the potential of Jewish existence, whereas 'distance' is associated with the 'four ells of halakha', exile, and a Jewish existence that sacrifices its fullness for the sake of durability, but which still retains the essence of the original flavor. The first group is thus associated with fresh fruit, and the latter group with dried fruit. Both, however, bring their produce to the Temple and take their place within the range of modes of Jewish worship.

A little something to consider as you eat your Tu B'Shvat fruits - dried or fresh.

1/25/2010

Parshat Ha-Man and Misc

  • A few years ago, I wrote about a more venerable segulah for parnassah than even saying Parshat ha-Man on the Tuesday of Beshalach (a post that I'm quite proud of, and that was subsequently ripped off). Keep it in mind tomorrow.
  • I do not think that the Haitians whose lives were saved by Israelis care a whit whether or not the motivation was genuine or a PR stunt.
  • There's an adage about miracle stories, attributed to the Kotzker, that if you believe them you're a fool and if you don't you're a heretic (or some variation thereof). It's a great line because it seems to leave no way out - one is either a fool or a heretic. It's a zero-sum game. I saw in a shul rag this week that the line was quoted as "If you believe the miracle stories of the tzadikim, you're a fool, but if you believe that the tzadik could not have wrought the miracles attributed to him, you're a heretic. This paraphrase completely neutralizes the tension of the original saying and also plays into the personality cult of this particular rag. Bad on both counts.
  • In the middle of watching Season 1 of Srugim - loving it. In the middle of reading Sabato's Bo'ee ha-Ru'ach - really loving it.

1/19/2010

443

The High Court ruling regarding Route 443 was issued the week that my daughter Shlomit was born at Hadassah- Mt. Scopus, when I was using that road several times a day shuttling between the hospital and my home in Modi’in. The ruling predictably generated a large amount of protest in the Modi’in area, as evidenced by this petition and by the fact that the mayor of Modi’in issued a press release against the decision. My initial response to these protests was that they are alarmist, and to the mayor’s reaction that it is populist, but it has taken some time to articulate exactly why that is the case.

In the first place, this is not an easy issue. I tend to agree with fellow Modi’inite Uriel Procaccia that, reluctant as we may be about it, it is hard to justify, legally and morally, the discrimination applied to keep Palestinians off the road. Every step of the decision might be defensible, but the outcome, that eminent domain was utilized to take land for a highway that was ultimately closed to the original landowners is simply an absurd situation. Closing the highway to many due to the actions of the few, even if defensible, is certainly far from clear cut. Security is obviously a paramount value, but it is not the only value.

That leads to the next point: as a Modi’inite, 443 is a very convenient highway for me to get to Jerusalem. I'm there is half an hour. There is, however, an alternate route - Route 1. There is only one Israeli community - Beit Horon - for which 443 is the 'lifeline' in and out. In other words, for the overwhelming majority of Israelis, using 443 is a matter of convenience. The most inconvenienced, aside from those from Beit Horon, would be residents of the Kiryat Sefer bloc, who would have to travel through Modiin to Route 1 if 443 were inaccessible or dangerous - adding perhaps 15 to 20 minutes to their journey, depending on their destination within Jerusalem.

Thus, framing the issue as one of Israeli security vs. Palestinian convenience is somewhat disingenuous: Israelis could obviate the security concern by taking the alternate route, admittedly an inconvenience, though Palestinians along the 443 corridor are inconvenienced to a much greater degree by being denied access to 443. I am not advocating closing 443 to Israeli drivers, simply pointing out that the current framing of the issue – Israeli security vs. Palestinian rights – is disingenuous.

Throughout Judea and Samaria, Palestinians and Israelis share roads. There are a number of roads closed to Israelis, but many that are shared by Israelis and Palestinians. Very few West Bank roads are for exclusive Israeli use. Nevertheless, and despite the fact that there are occasional incidents, security is pretty good and the risk of a car accident far outweighs the risk of terrorist incident. Route 443 would not be essentially different from those roads. Access was restricted at certain times at the height of hostilities 8-9 years ago, but those restrictions eased as things calmed down. That being the case, why is 443 so touchy? Why has access not been eased yet, and why is opposition in this instance so broad?

This gets us to the crux of my observation: as opposed to nearly every other road in Judea and Samaria, with the possible exceptions of certain stretches of Route 1 and Highway 90, the Israelis who travel on 443 are by and large NOT 'settlers'. The road simply takes a 20km 'shortcut' through the West Bank. As Aluf Benn wrote last week, most Israelis prefer to keep Palestinians out of sight and out of mind, to 'disengage' from the Palestinian population. It is these people whose sentiments are expressed by the mayor of Modi’in. It is these bourgeoisie commuters, not the settlers, who are horrified at the prospect of sharing a road with Palestinians.

443 follows the path of the ancient Beit Horon Descent (or Ascent, depending which way you're going), a key access point from the coastal plain to the interior highlands of the Land of Israel. This road can thus be seen as either a flashpoint for conflict or as a symbol of endurance in a patch of rough terrain. It seems that how we view it is our choice.

The Gospel according to Stephen, Part II

Rabbi Riskin issues a צו פיוס.
(I couldn't resist the pun. If you get it, you get it, if you don't, you don't).

1/15/2010

Your Gates shall Always be Open

My cleaning help put me to shame this week. There was an almost mythic time in Israel where it could be assumed that even menial workers - street sweepers, milkmen - knew Tanakh or were Torah scholars. I had such a moment with the cleaning help. The surprising part is that he's a Nigerian Christian (more precisely, he's a Biafran Igbo Pentecostal and believes himself descended from the tribe of Ephraim). He's also an informal pastor of sorts, spending a lot of time on the phone with people who call him for advice.

When I picked him up at the bus stop this week, I asked him what he thought about Israel's plans to build fences along the Egyptian border. I was truly curious about what he would say about the matter: on one hand, I could see him favoring Israel's measures as illegal migrants are the greatest threat to the livelihood of the legal ones. In addition to flooding the market with supply and thereby driving wages down, an increase in immigrants can create a backlash from citizens, who would be unlikely to differentiate between West Africans (excl. the Maghreb) and those from the Horn of Africa (incl. the Sudan).

On the other hand, I could imagine that he would want Israel to keep its borders open, either to provide asylum for refugees (and tolerate the migrant workers who came along for the ride) or because he believes that the migrant workers themselves should be given the opportunity to do hard work for decent pay.

He answered me by saying that the Bible says that multitudes of nations shall come into Israel, and that Israel may not close its gates. I asked him if that's from Zechariah, and he answered no, it's from Isaiah 60. We left it there, but I later went and looked it up.

To my shock and embarrassment, Isaiah 60 is my Bar Mitzva haftara (Ki Tavo), and it says precisely what he quoted:
וּפִתְּחוּ שְׁעָרַיִךְ תָּמִיד יוֹמָם וָלַיְלָה, לֹא יִסָּגֵרוּ:  לְהָבִיא אֵלַיִךְ חֵיל גּוֹיִם
 And your gates shall always stay open; day and night they shall never be shut - to let in the hordes [possibly] of nations (Isaiah 60:11)
Granted, in fine tradition, F. ripped this verse out of context (no need to take my word for it; read the chapter). Nevertheless, his response contains a very profound truth that we seem to have lost sight of here in Israel.

Discussions about the entry of non-Arab non-Jews into Israel inevitably raise the issue of the integrity of the Jewish state and the demographic threats that it faces. Isaiah and other prophets, and F. in their wake, understand that a Jewish state need not have a Jewish majority. I would add that the converse is true as well - having a Jewish majority does not mean that it is a Jewish state.

Obviously, it is always problematic to apply an apocalyptic vision to a very contemporary situation. Nevertheless, it can be valuable, not only in that prevents us from losing sight of the ideal in the face of the real, but because it may even have practical ramifications.

The gentiles coming to Israel of their own volition - be it from the Phillipines, West Africa, the Horn of Africa, Eastern Europe, Thailand, or anywhere else - are looking for freedom, economic opportunity, or both. These people appreciate what Israel has to offer. They choose to come here despite the bureaucracy and virtually impermeable barrier to citizenship (after all, not even marriages of convenience are permitted). Right now, they are building this country (see ibid. 10) and are willing to do the work that Israelis are not. They are the new kibbutzniks.

Moreover, they overwhelming acknowledge Israel as a Jewish state, de facto if not de jure, and some, like F. and his flock, believe Jewish sovereignty here to be ordained by God (and should be welcomed no less than American Evangelicals who believe similarly). They are loyal to the State of Israel, if not outright Zionists.

Were Israel to open the floodgates, it would create a natural population buffer between Jews and Palestinians and ensure that neither becomes a tyrannical majority (possibly paving the way for a workable and peaceful one-state solution, but that's an issue for a different time). Of course, as this group assimilated into Israeli society - becoming citizens, serving in the army, etc. - some serious matters of personal status would have to be resolved (a caste system or legally-enforced Jewish endogamy would become unworkable, if they are not already).

At the very least, it is worth considering how keeping our gates open can transform Israel into a state in which Jews are not a majority, but which is in keeping with the prophetic vision of the Jewish state.

1/12/2010

Jewish Ideas Daily Website Launch

First, a milestone. During the past week, I celebrated my 5-year 'bloggiversary'. The blog, and my own writing, has come a long way since those first rambling posts composed in the parents' room at Kennedy Krieger Hospital while Ruchama was undergoing behavioral feeding therapy. This blog also just had its 300,000th page view: far less than that of a 'mega blog', but reflective of sustained interest and a solid niche. Thank you all.

I would also like to take this opportunity to introduce an exciting new website that I have been involved in, on the research side, for the past few months, but which formally launched only yesterday: Jewish Ideas Daily

On this site, every day, you’ll discover an expertly prepared selection of the best the world has to offer in Jewish opinion, argument, thought, and analysis, pulled from hundreds of sources from around the globe. Whether your particular interest is Jewish philosophy or Israeli politics, rabbinic thought or new forms of Jewish literature, music, and art, the latest breakthrough in historical scholarship or permanently relevant essays on the landmarks of the Jewish year, biblical archaeology or profiles of significant Jewish figures of today, yesterday, and tomorrow--all this, plus original columns, interviews, commissioned debates, is spread out before you.


Won’t you visit www.jewishideasdaily.com? I strongly suspect you’ll enjoy having the best thinking, old and new, at your fingertips. By registering (for free) on the homepage, you’ll ensure that each day’s contents arrive promptly in your inbox and that you can save the most interesting items into your own personal account for later reading. Please also feel free to pass word of the site along to friends and colleagues who might like to take advantage of this one-stop source of Jewish ideas. Last but by no means least, we’d be delighted to hear back from you with your impressions, reactions, and suggestions.


Thanks for your interest.

1/11/2010

Sword and Shovel (Me and John Harbaugh)

The fourth chapter of the Book of Nechemiah describes the eponymous character's attempt to complete the fortifications of Jerusalem in the face of opposition from local tribes. Verses 4 and 5 (and possibly 6) describe how the Jews were demoralized and on the verge of despair until Nechemiah created a plan for completing the wall and gave them a pep talk to boost morale.

The basic plan was that Nechemiah divided the people into two groups, a work detail and a security detail. The security detail was stationed around the wall, and the work detail all carried weapons with them in addition to their work tools. Nehemiah then equipped the defenders with horns, so that if there was trouble the workers could swarm to the point of attack.

When I podcasted this chapter for the OU Nach Yomi program over the summer, I described this strategy as being "similar to the Baltimore Ravens' defense" (you can listen to the pocast; the reference appears in minute 9 and the beginning of minute 10 of the podcast).

Here's where it gets eerie. Last week, after locking up a playoff berth, Ravens' Coach John Harbaugh gave a pep talk where he explicitly referenced that chapter in Nechemiah. He even brought out props - a sword and a shovel - to emphasize the point that they had to continue working while suffering the barbs of the naysayers. Here's a video of the pep talk:

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I doubt that John Harbaugh or anyone else in the Ravens' locker room listened to the Nach Yomi podcast. At the same time, I thought it was pretty cool that I referred to the Ravens' when describing a passage in Nechemiah, and that the Ravens' coach referred to the same passage when talking about what his team faced. A marvellous coincidence.

The type of defense that I described in the podcast was on full display yesterday: swarming to the ball at the moment of attack, forcing short gains, lost yardage, incompletions, and interceptions.
[I doubt that Harbs was trying to make a political statement about the status of Jerusalem and the resilience of the contemporary bearers of "sword and shovel", but there's that as well.]

Harbaugh explains his Nechemiah 'drasha' just after the 1-minute mark of this press conference:
 

Go Ravens!

1/09/2010

Rav Eliezer Melamed in Modiin

I attended two shiurim today; I cannot remember the last time I did that. The latter shiur was given by Rabbi Prof. Daniel Sperber on changing the liturgy. Although it was very broadening and informative, it was not very enlightening (for me, anyway), since I am somewhat aware of the history of Jewish liturgy. I had the opportunity to shmooze with him a bit afterward. I raised the issue (related to the parsha) of his grandfather's responsum regarding whether an otherwise Orthodox synagogue could call itself Neolog in order to gain government funding (Afarkasta De-Anya II YD 140) in which he relates to the value of names in general, but comes up with the insight (that I was excited about because it validated what I thought at the time that I saw it) that 'name, language, and dress' were only important in Egypt because there was no other way for the Israelites to preserve their identity. Later, once the Torah was give, these elements became much less important (see s.v. hen omnam here). He ultimately rejects this idea; after all, he was in the sphere of influence of the Chasam Sofer (he was a rabbi in Romania in the early 20th Century), upon whose ethical will the 'name, language, dress' narrative is based (see what I wrote here and here).

Earlier in the day, between mincha and ma'ariv, I went to hear R. Eliezer Melamed, who has been in the Israeli media a lot lately for ostensibly encouraging insubordination in the IDF and refusing to attend a hearing called by the Minister of Defense. R. Melamed' shiur was on oneg Shabbat and the balance between physical and spiritual oneg. Drawing from a variety of sources, he showed that Shabbat must be divided between spiritual and physical pursuits. He then engaged in an actual analysis of how time should be spent o Shabbat, concluding that aside from shul, one should spend about 6 hours learning on Shabbat so that the physical and spiritual pursuits are temporally even. I was unhappy with this conclusion for several reasons:
1) I am aware that there are groups, the Chaitniks for example, who are very serious about the whole chetzyo lachem/ chetzyo la-Shem deal. Nevertheless, I do not believe these statements to be of a halakhic nature; rather, the key is that some kind of balance is achieved between spiritual and material pursuits on Shabbat. I am aware that there has been a trend, since the time of the Chafetz Chaim, to quantify mussar and virtuous practice. I do not feel that this is the correct approach, though.
2) Even granting the legitimacy of the 'stopwatch approach' (which he clearly espoused, contrary to the protestations of some of the other attendees), I disagree with his math. I think he underestimated the amount of time that people spend in the 'higher' pursuits - for example, walking to shul or a shiur, etc. He also underestimated the amount of time that people spend on things that are neither 'lachem' or 'la-Shem'. He acknowledged that some sleep falls into this category, but there are so many other responsibilities that go into this. If someone takes the kids to the park so his/her spouse can get some sleep, what is that? There are other places where the lachem/la-Shem boundary is not so clear.
3) In general, I do not think he appreciated his audience. For the balebatim that formed the crowd, there is far more time spent in shul and learning Torah on Shabbat than during the week. Even if it's only listening to layning, the drasha, and reading a couple of shul rags, it is far more than is done during the week. I'm all for more learning; don't hold it over the heads of the balebatim, though.

Of course, at the time of the shiur I could hardly formulate all this, so I took a subtler approach, raised my hand, and asked: If one learns during chazarat ha-shatz, does it count double?

Rav Melamed spent a few minutes at the end addressing questions of insubordination. He reiterated that he is very against the army getting involved in dismantling settlements, independent of whether or not they should be dismantled. He also predicted that there would be a compromise wherein he is demoted from being Rosh Yeshiva at Har Bracha in return for the yeshiva returning to Hesder. He said that the end of Hesder would not be the end of the world, since the Tal law provisions are not that different. He reported that his approach is based on the written words of Rav Goren and Rav Avraham Kahana-Shapira. He claimed that his main concern in all of the controversy is that the IDF remain completely conducive to religious soldiers, who should not have to compromise one iota on their religiosity. He added the dubious claim that this is what is keeping thousands of Haredim out of the army, and that it is for the army's own good that he encourages his students to stand up for their rights. It was clear that he sees standing up for the highest standards of Shabbat and kashrut as fundamentally similar to the issue of settlement evacuations.

For me, his most controversial point (there were other points of disagreement, vut not as fundamental as the following) was his explanation of why he did not attend a hearing called by Ehud Barak. He claims that if it had been just a 'meeting', he'd have gone; a 'hearing' implies that the Rosh Yeshiva is subservient to the government, is not allowed to remain independent, and is merely a 'Rav Mita'am' ('puppet rabbi', essentially). Of course, I do not see the issue that way at all. Most rabbis in this world are answerable to someone and must navigate  tightrope between full independence of expression and the people who keep him employed, etc. It's very typical for Israeli rabbis to view any type of rabbinic accountability as some kind of weakness or unacceptable compromise.

Again, I could not offer a critique on the spot, so I asked: Is there not 'subservience' to others? For example, big donors? He distinguished, unconvincingly in my opinion, between government pressure and other pressures, likening it to a judge for whom predispositions are OK but bribery is not. I thought the question was better than the answer.

Finaly and unrelatedly, something else on the Rabbi Riskin issue - check out this link to a letter from R. Yaakov Emden. He's bashing the Frankists for blurring the lines between Judaism and Christianity, claiming that even Jesus and Paul did not wish to proselytize among the Jews or ask them to give u Jewish observance. He's generally fairly positive on Jesus and Paul, interestingly. R. Emden seems to have been quite well versed in the Christian testament. See here, about 1/2 to 2/3 the way down the page.

1/03/2010

The Gospel According to Steven

I honestly do not understand why people are looking to, um, crucify Rabbi Riskin for his recent "Rabbi Jesus" statements. I mean, did people really think that he's some kind of closet Christian? He was clearly propounding his view of what he calls the "historical Jesus". Of course, we all know that the 'historical Jesus' is inaccessible, but that does not undermine the legitimacy of a Jewish 'take' on Jesus. Toldot Yeshu is one such 'gospel'.
Point is, as Christian rethink Jesus and begin to think of him as having emerged from a Jewish milieu, it's desirable for Jews to rethink Jesus as well.

A few years ago, I was asked by a Christian group at UMD to give the Jewish 'approach' to Jesus. I basically said that the main issue with regard to the Jewish approach to Jesus is that he was not the Messiah and not the son of God. Everything else is commentary. He may have been a villain or a saint, but he was, at the end of the day, a human being like you and me. I went on to say that I had no problem saying that he was a great man who had a tremendous amount to offer. I do not need to believe that he is eternally boiling in a vat of semen, as the Talmud suggests in Gittin - he's just not the Messiah.

There may have been a time - not even so long ago - that the name of Jesus inspired visceral reactions of hatred: Yoshke yemach shmo. There was good reason for it, too. Christianity was the enemy, or, at the very least, Christians were. I cannot help but believe that the demonization of Jesus was related to that history. In a more positive relationship, Jesus can be Jewishly re-read in a positive light - he just wasn't the Messiah.

1/01/2010

Louis Brandeis

I got Melvin Urofsky's Louis Brandeis for my birthday and am just now getting to it. I'm only a few pages in (it's really long), but a few interesting things have already come up:
  • I have been introduced to Brandeis's fascinating uncle, Lewis Dembitz, though not nearly to the extent that I would have liked.
  • I have learned that Brandeis's family, who immigrated to the US from Bohemia (Prague) in the mid-19th century, were known to be Frankists (though by that time they were largely assimilationist) and therefore somewhat ostracized by the mainstream Jewish community.
  • Brandeis entered Harvard Law School at around the time that Christopher Columbus Langdell became its dean and began to reform the curriculum in significant ways, taking a more "scientific" (i.e., conceptual) approach to law instead of simple rote memorization. Langdells name and reforms rang a bell, and I soon realized that they were treated in Chaim Saiman's article "Legal Theology: The Turn to Conceptualism in Nineteenth Century Jewish Law" (email me for a copy). Saiman compares these reforms with the roughly contemporary "Brisker" revolution in learning. Obviously, the book does not compare Langdell with Reb Chaim Soloveitchik, but those few pages corroborate what Saiman tries to do; I can almost see Brandeis saying "a contract used to be just an agreement on a piece of paper until Langdell came along and turned it into a contract."