Amar'e Stoudemire's Views on Israelite Tribes; Now Everyone Can Shut Up

The mainstream media has picked up on Amar'e Stoudemire's claim that his mother is a Hebrew and has run with it. Some are even suggesting that he join the Israeli national team. Everyone can calm down now.

Back in May, Amar'e's Pheonix Suns wore "Los Suns" jerseys to protest the new Arizona immigration law. As part of this show of solidarity, 'Re tweeted: "We support the Latin commuity. They are apart of the 12 tribes of Israel. It 1 Nation under YAH (god). Let's come together. Shalom !! 1love. [sic]" At the time, I came across this article during my wide-ranging researches for JID.

So the new Knick thinks that Latin Americans are part of the 12 Tribes of Israel (technically speaking, he would not consider them Jews, who are members of specifically the tribe of Judah). This belief is weird, but not as uncommon as one might think. In fact, Black Hebrew Israelites, Rastafari, and Mormons all believe that some or all of the the Israelite tribes made their way to the Americas. To be sure, belief that Amerindians are descendants of the Lost Tribes was extremely popular in the 17th century among Europeans and even Jews. Manasseh Ben Israel (the subject of a feature article in Segula last issue) was probably the best-known Jewish proponent of this theory; in his messianic vision, the exile would be complete - and the redemption could begin - only when Israel would be scattered over the entire globe. This was his impetus for petitioning Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell to admit Jews into England, but I digress.

Let us sum up: Stoudemire has apparently adopted some sort of belief in Hebrew roots of some Africans, Latin Americans, or Amerindians. Adherents of these theories probably take such belief seriously, but the rest of the world, including the scientific community, generally relates to it as a bunch of baloney. Yes, it was fun to entertain the idea that Amar'e is fun unzere, but sadly, no. Farmar and Casspi are still the best we've got.


The Promise of Ekev

[This is based on a shiur I gave this week, itself based on several older blog posts]

  דברים פרק ז  יד) בָּרוּךְ תִּהְיֶה מִכָּל הָעַמִּים לֹא יִהְיֶה בְךָ עָקָר וַעֲקָרָה וּבִבְהֶמְתֶּךָ
You shall be blessed over all peoples; there shall be no sterile or barren among you or your livestock.

Who cares if there are sterile males amongst the livestock? Not every male needs to be fertile in order for the flocks to be productive; on the contrary, only the ‘best’ males are used to fertilize the females. Is there any kind of value or ideal if there are no infertile male animals?

A few possible answers:
  1. It’s easier that way. Things can happen without the owner having to make them happen, without having to engage in husbandry. Not much net gain, but less work.
  2. The last word is only going back on the word before it. The expanded verse (without contracting by use of conjunctions) would read: There will be no barren males among you. There will be no barren females among you. There will be no barren females among your animals.
  3. We’ll have an abundance of fertile males which we’ll be able to sell to non-Jews, who aren’t recipients of this Divine blessing

As is often the case, looking at something contextually can often supply a better and deeper answer. In the present case, this specific blessing is at the beginning of the larger brakha of “Ekev,” which has some distinguishing features.

In the book of Devarim, there are a number of recapitulations of the consequences for obedience and disobedience in the Land of Israel (R’ Elchanan Samet counts 12); each one is subtly different. In this instance, the word “ekev” is key. It’s a metaphoric term that means “because” – the metaphor points to a heel, as in “on the heels of”, as a result of, as an immediate consequence.
The word עקב appears only 5 times in all of Chumash as a subordinating conjunction.
בראשית פרק כב
יז) כִּי בָרֵךְ אֲבָרֶכְךָ וְהַרְבָּה אַרְבֶּה אֶת זַרְעֲךָ כְּכוֹכְבֵי הַשָּׁמַיִם וְכַחוֹל אֲשֶׁר עַל שְׂפַת הַיָּם וְיִרַשׁ זַרְעֲךָ אֵת שַׁעַר אֹיְבָיו: יח) וְהִתְבָּרֲכוּ בְזַרְעֲךָ כֹּל גּוֹיֵי הָאָרֶץ עֵקֶב אֲשֶׁר שָׁמַעְתָּ בְּקֹלִי:

בראשית פרק כו
ג) גּוּר בָּאָרֶץ הַזֹּאת וְאֶהְיֶה עִמְּךָ וַאֲבָרְכֶךָּ כִּי לְךָ וּלְזַרְעֲךָ אֶתֵּן אֶת כָּל הָאֲרָצֹת הָאֵל וַהֲקִמֹתִי אֶת הַשְּׁבֻעָה אֲשֶׁר נִשְׁבַּעְתִּי לְאַבְרָהָם אָבִיךָ: ד) וְהִרְבֵּיתִי אֶת זַרְעֲךָ כְּכוֹכְבֵי הַשָּׁמַיִם וְנָתַתִּי לְזַרְעֲךָ אֵת כָּל הָאֲרָצֹת הָאֵל וְהִתְבָּרֲכוּ בְזַרְעֲךָ כֹּל גּוֹיֵי הָאָרֶץ: ה) עֵקֶב אֲשֶׁר שָׁמַע אַבְרָהָם בְּקֹלִי וַיִּשְׁמֹר מִשְׁמַרְתִּי מִצְוֹתַי חֻקּוֹתַי וְתוֹרֹתָי:

במדבר פרק יד
כד) וְעַבְדִּי כָלֵב עֵקֶב הָיְתָה רוּחַ אַחֶרֶת עִמּוֹ וַיְמַלֵּא אַחֲרָי וַהֲבִיאֹתִיו אֶל הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר בָּא שָׁמָּה וְזַרְעוֹ יוֹרִשֶׁנָּה:

The last two are in this parsha, at the beginning of the blessings and the end of the curses. 7:12 and 8:20.
There are several commonalities between each instance of the term:
  • In EVERY occasion, the consequence is predicated as a reward for having hearkened (or not hearkened) to the word of God (the root שמע appears each time)
  • In EVERY instance, the promise of children is reiterated.
  • EVERY instance is related to God’s covenant with the Patriarchs.
  • In 4 of the 5 occasions, the ‘consequence’ introduced by the term ‘ekev’ is inheriting the Land of Israel. The exception is Bereishit 22:18, at the end of the Akeida. However, according to the Rashbam, the entire episode may have been a test of Avraham’s` relationship to the land.
  • 4 of the 5 instances are related specifically to brit Avot, the original covenant between God and the Abrahamic family.

Throughout the Torah, the most consistent consequences for obedience are possession of the land for ourselves and our posterity, and the land yielding its fruits to us, as an expression of the covenant between God and Abraham. Ekev seems to be a code word that invokes this covenant, and the unique character of the blessings and curses at the beginning of the parsha lies in the fact that it’s a restatement of Brit Avot. But there’s more.

The second verse of the parsha, in addition to invoking the Land of Israel as the locus of the fulfillment of God’s covenant, restates the very first brakha to man: Be fruitful and multiply. Throughout the book of Bereshit, this brakha is reiterated whenever God establishes or re-establishes His Covenant. This is straight through until Ve-Yechi, where Yaakov takes the birth of Ephraim and Menashe as the ultimate fulfillment of the promise that God made to him during his second visit to Beit-El. In essence, Bereishit charts the course of this brakha from Adam through Yaakov, after which it becomes the blessing of a whole family, not just an individual. The brakha continues at the beginning of Shemot – the description of the Israelite population explosion uses those terms of pru u-revu. As is well known, Chazal comment on that description that sextuplets were the norm. This blessing is one of uncontrolled fertility and boundless virility. In fact, before that brakha was given to man, it was given to animals. The brakha of Ekev, as the manifestation of this original brakha extends to the animal kingdom as well. Thus, the animals will also experience this incredible fecundity.

Conceptually, the promise and consequences of Ekev bear similarity to the man’s initial conditions in the world: fruitfulness and control of the land on one hand, versus exile and unproductivity on the other. In Eden, Adam’s disobedience resulted in exile and in having to work much harder to be productive. It also carried a terrible curse that affected human fecundity – the pain of childbirth. And in fact, the first time that the root עקב is used in the Torah, meaning “heel”, is related to that first disobedience and subsequent exile: ve-hu yeshufenu akeiv – in the sentencing of the Snake.

The upshot of this connection to Eden is that life in the Land of Israel is to correspond to life in Eden – disobedience results in expulsion. It also means that it is insufficient for the goal of Jewish life in the land to be the fulfillment of “Jewishness” – it is supposed to bring about the fullness of our humanity.

What does that mean? What are the duties or values that “Ekev” calls upon us to embody? What “humanity” does it wish us to fulfill?

The opening verse of the parsha refers specifically to obeying Mishpatim – the laws that govern interpersonal relations. Throughout Tanakh, Mishpat, law, is seen as a key to redemption – Tziyon be-mishpat tipadeh.  Rashi, as is well known, speaks of the “little things that one tramples underfoot.” Combining these two elements yields an awesome insight – that the fullness of our humanity, the ultimate goal of life in Israel, is realized through the ‘little things’ of our interactions with other humans. We might have been tempted to say that Rashi's instructing us to be vigilant about the observance of lesser rituals, the small print of Orach Chayim. But the presence of mishpatimtzedakah and chesed, taking care of widows and orphans, welcoming the stranger, etc. – radically alters the implications of Rashi’s words. It's the 'little' and 'trampled', routine engagement with other people which form the basis of this promise.

There is often a great danger that when one believes in a “big idea,” in a “greater good,” it ends up obscuring the “little things” that we trample underfoot. There is a tendency to see the blood of revolution as inevitable, to accept collateral damage, to regard evil as “necessary.” Rashi is warning us about the dangers of focusing on the greater good and allowing the individual to get caught in its gears.

The following passage expresses those dangers better than I ever could. It’s from a book called Life and Fate by Russian-Jewish author named Vasily Grossman, and it appears in an essay called “Beyond Memory” by Emanuel Levinas, in his book In the Time of Nations. Grossman writes:

...I do not believe in the good, I believe in kindness...Not even Herod shed blood in the name of evil...

Humanity had never yet heard those words [from the New Testament - AR]: "Judge not, that ye shall not be judged...Love your enemies, do good to them that hate you. Bless them that curse you. Pray for those who curse you..."
What did that doctrine of peace and love bring to humanity? The tortures of the Inquisition, the struggle against heresies in France, Italy, and Germany, the war between Catholics and Protestants...

I have been able to see in action the implacable force of the idea of social good born in our country (i.e., Russia - AR). I saw it again in 1937; I saw that in the name of an idea of good as humane as Christianity, people were exterminated. I saw entire villages starving; in Siberia I saw the children of deported peasants dying in the snow...

There exists, side by side with this so terrible greater good, human kindness in everyday life. It is the kindness of an old lady who gives a piece of bread to a convict along the roadside. It is the kindness of a soldier who holds his canteen out to a wounded enemy. The kindness of youth taking pity on old age, the kindness of a peasant who hides a Jew in his barn. It is the kindness of those prison guards who risk their own freedom, smuggle the letters of prisoners out to wives and mothers...

The history of man is the struggle of evil trying to crush the tiny seed of humanity. But if even now the human has not been killed in man, evil will never prevail.


In-Vitro Meat

5 years ago, I wrote this post about the halakhic implications of in-vitro meat. This recent article (HT: Yitz) has brought the issue back into general discussion. There ought to be some treatment of the issue in a journal like Tchumin or the RJJ Journal.

Still waiting for that cheeseburger.


Beyond the Melting Pot: A Review of Haim Sabato's "From the Four Winds"

[This review appears in the June-July issue of Segula and is posted here with their permission.]

For all of the acclaim that Haim Sabato has won during the past decade or so of his literary career, he remains underappreciated. His best-known work, Tiyum Kavanot (translated into English as Adjusting Sights), drew interest for its portrayal of the Yom Kippur War through the eyes of a religious soldier and budding Torah scholar, a perspective that had been overlooked despite the ubiquity of things military in the Israeli cultural milieu.

In his other three works, Sabato portrays cultures that have largely been marginalized in Israel or that have vanished altogether. In this sense, Sabato is creating an Israeli postcolonial literature, recovering the voice of Israel’s Mizrahi subaltern (indeed, the religious soldier of Adjusting Sights can be read this way as well) as he tries to find his way in the modern, westernized State of Israel. By giving voice to Israel’s Jewish “others,” Sabato’s oeuvre decouples Zionism from the colonialist elements of its European proponents, paving the way for a much-needed and refreshing postcolonial Zionism.

A meeting of cultures
In the semi-autobiographical From the Four Winds (Hebrew: Bo’ee Ha-ru’ah), Sabato describes his own naïve and bookish childhood in the Beit Mazmil (today’s Kiryat Hayovel) immigrant neighborhood in Jerusalem, in which Jews from Arab countries and from Hungary lived side by side. The historical circumstances that threw these unlikely groups together were the near simultaneity of two major events on different continents in the Autumn of 1956: the Suez Campaign and the Hungarian Revolution. As a result of the former, Egyptian Jews were declared enemies of their home state, causing tens of thousands of them to flee for safer havens, including Israel. A similar number fled Hungary in the wake of the failed revolt against the Communist regime and subsequent Soviet occupation of the country. Sabato, however, offers no background information. He writes through the eyes of his second-grade self, for whom the global forces that threw these two immigrant groups together would have held little interest, certainly much less interest than the situations created by their daily interactions.

His encounter with Hungarian Jews in the late 1950s allows Sabato to take on another 800-pound gorilla of (Ashkenazic/ European) Israeli culture: the Holocaust. The most poignant and touching scene in this regard takes place toward the end of Chapter 9 (pp. 74-75). Haim (for the sake of convenience, I will refer to the character as “Haim” and the author as “Sabato”) recites a Holocaust elegy of his own composition, based on stories he had heard from his teacher. His audience is Mr. Farkash, a Holocaust survivor; the normally garrulous Farkash responds with silence.

One gets the sense that Sabato is communicating the predicament of a Mizrahi youth growing up in Israel in the aftermath of the Holocaust. On one hand, it would have been impossible to grow up in the early years of the state without the Holocaust impressing upon one's understanding in significant ways, especially for a sensitive and imaginative child like Haim. At the same time, the experiences of a Holocaust survivor were not his or even of those closest to him. As a result, his “memory” of the Holocaust would ring hollow to those who experienced it directly. By juxtaposing Haim’s elegy with Farkash’s silence, Sabato manages to recover the voice of a community whose indirect but significant and unique experience of the Holocaust has been all but ignored (though, to be sure, Prof. Hanna Yablonka has written extensively on Sephardim and the Holocaust); although Egyptian Jews did not endure the Holocaust, those who grew up in Israel did experience it through the very fabric of their cultural milieu, and the prior generation experienced the dread of Rommel’s advance toward Cairo and beyond toward Eretz Israel. Sabato describes those anxious times:

Father remembered that Hakham Anteby had gathered a whole group of children, ninety-one in total, into the Ahavah ve-Ahvah synagogue in Cairo, to recite the ninety-first Psalm… as a means of warding off the enemy. They did so in a dreadful din, with great fervor, chanting beautifully while concentrating their minds on the German soldiers… during Rommel’s advance the kabbalists of Jerusalem had gathered in fast and prayer to ward off the decree. (pp. 18-19)

Transcending Bitterness
After describing the multiethnic matrix of Beit Mazmil in the early chapters, Sabato focuses on the development of Haim’s relationship with Moshe Farkash, the Hungarian Holocaust survivor who is about 30 years Haim's senior as it progresses from a point where Farkash takes a very young Haim under his wing, through a phase in which Haim becomes Farkash's Talmud teacher, to the point where Farkash, at the end of his life, charges Haim to carry out three tasks that Farkash himself had been unable to fulfill.

The first part of the book is rife with references to Farkash's past that become clarified as the narrative progresses; in fact, Haim's refrain throughout the early part of the story is “everything must become clear on its own.” These references are sometimes explicit but often allusive. The reader learns why Farkash feels so strongly that childhood should be filled with happiness; why he insists of “wearing a mask” on all days but two; why he suggests a particular chapter of a particular talmudic tractate to study with Haim; how he became such a proficient baker; why he undertakes to ensure that every child in the neighborhood enjoys a bar mitzva celebration.

From the Four Winds tells the story of the lives of two people: Haim and Farkash. The narrative arc follows the chronology of Haim’s life, beginning when he is a child and ending as he approaches middle-age. Farkash’s story, on the other hand, is presented in the order that Haim, the first-person narrator of the story, hears it. The reader thus pieces together Farkash’s past along with Haim and shares Haim’s esteem for a man whose twinkling eyes belie his tormented past and true heroism.

On the surface, Farkash's struggle is against circumstance – the events that brought about the early death of his father, a veteran of World War I, when Farkash was six years old, the poverty he faced with his widowed mother, the travails of apprenticing under a brutal mentor, and ultimately the horrors of the Holocaust – in order to make a new life and raise a family in Israel. On another level, Farkash's struggle is internal, against the impulse toward blaming circumstance, bearing grudges, or surrendering to the blackness that succeeded in pervading the lives of so many others – be they Holocaust survivors or refugees from whichever suddenly inhospitable land. Farkash (the character) mirrors Sabato (the author) in that his contrived naïveté is not an attempt to recast past horrors in pastel colors. It is an argument that sometimes one must “pretend not to hear” (a trope that recurs in the book) in order to keep the demons at bay, that once certain forces come into existence, like the typhus outbreak along the Central and Allied trenches along the Eastern front that claimed so many of Farkash’s father’s comrades and enemies alike, the destruction they create is indiscriminate and uncontainable. Farkash is a hero not because he survived his terrible suffering, and not even because he managed to create a new life, but because he succeed in keeping the blackness of his past from causing paralysis or breeding anger.

Suffering in Translation
No review of a work by Sabato is complete without a treatment of his language (and the translation of his language). Often described as Agnonesque, Sabato's frequent intertextual allusions and use of Lishna De-Rabanan, the rabbinic Hebrew that remained the lingua franca of rabbinic literature throughout the centuries in which Hebrew was not spoken, lends Sabato's work a beauty that is hard to duplicate and that allows for a wealth of meaning to be packed into relatively terse descriptions. Sabato will often signify his intertextual allusions in the Hebrew original though the use of diacritical marks (nekudot), but occasionally will not, especially if the particular reference has entered standard Israeli parlance. The book – in Hebrew and especially in English – would have benefited from an unobtrusive style of end notes (e.g., ordered serially but sub verbo, leaving out encumbering superscript numerals) in which the frequent allusions are explained and their sources cited. Hebrew readers are hard-pressed to catch all of Sabato’s allusions; without any type of citation, it is even more difficult in translation.

In order to adequately render Sabato’s loaded formulations the translator should have deployed a variety of strategies and should not have been concerned about providing too much explanation – in a work that is only 160 pages long, using an entire sentence to describe a single term or concept is fine. I will provide an example or two of each of the more serious types of translation blunders, and the astute reader will no doubt encounter others.

Va-yiten Lekha” is the name of a prayer according to the Ashkenazic rite; a bit of explanation of this prayer and when it is recited would enrich the English rendering. Simply translating the title of the prayer, the strategy chosen by Dweck, is not very helpful, and simply transliterating the title only helps those who are familiar with Ashkenazic custom. There is also the matter that the title of the prayer derives from Genesis 27:28. A good translation strategy would have transliterated the title but also provided enough peripheral data for the curious reader to recover more meaning.

The English reader would only be confused when reading the italicized sentence “Might made right” in the middle of a description of a large group of children trying to enter into a single door. The corresponding Hebrew saying is the talmudic “Kol de-alim gevar,” which literally means “who is violent will prevail.” A translator has several options when rendering such a dictum: he may choose to ignore it and simply render the passage idiomatically; he may choose to render the statement from a foreign body of literature and provide enough context for the reader to appreciate the intertextual playfulness of the original version, even if only in some rudimentary way. Yaacob Dweck chose a third option – to render the statement in a way that is superfluous at best and frustrating at worst. The reader encounters a sentence that contributes little to the understanding of the overall passage and that includes a signifier – namely, the use of italics – that promises but does not deliver some sort of larger meaning.

In some cases Dweck simply misses the reference, such as when Farkash refers to the Holocaust era, based on Psalms 90:15, as “shenot ra'inu ra'ah”, which Dweck renders as “the years that saw wickedness” with no indication that it is, in fact, a reference to an external work. It comes off as merely an awkward reference to the Holocaust.

Dweck does not seem to have any consistent strategy for when he translates and when he transliterates foreign words (due to its multi-ethnic setting, this particular novel includes words from eight different languages: Hebrew, Hungarian, Romanian, Yiddish, Arabic, French, English, and Aramaic). It should be noted that Sabato effectively deploys these foreign words in a manner that contributes to the tone of the scene. Dweck, however, does not always follow Sabato's lead and sometimes fails even when trying. For example, Sabato’s Yiddish “vecker,” charged with waking up the boys in the yeshiva, is rendered by Dweck as “the alarm-clock.”

Sabato words for kite and spinning top are the Arabic “tayara” and “forera,” respectively. Both of these words have penetrated Israeli usage to a greater or lesser degree. Dweck chose to keep the Arabic terms, a defensible decision, but then does not provide the contextual clues that would allow the English reader to immediately decipher their meaning. Furthermore, he mistransliterates tayara as “tiara.” Finally, Dweck renders the plural of forera as forerot – applying a Hebrew grammatical form to an Arabic word – and the plural of tiara as tiaras.

Dweck’s nomenclature cannot be described as other than careless. He often transliterates names and terms from Hebrew into English without realizing that the Hebrew itself is a transliteration from a language with Latin characters. Thus, Janusz Korczak becomes Yanush Korzak. Similarly, there is no consistency regarding when a Hebrew name is phonetically rendered (e.g., Binyamin) and when it is Anglicized (e.g., Moses), even when context would indicate a preference (Dweck has “Yosi is short for Joseph”). Some of Dweck’s renderings ignore conventional spellings or pronunciations: anyone who has flown into or out of Israel knows that the airport is in Lod, not Lud.

Finally, there are instances in which Dweck’s simply misunderstood Sabato or was unfamiliar with the relevant idiom: although “dag malu’ah” literally means “salted fish,” it refers to herring. Hayyim ibn Attar’s father’s name was Moshe; “Hayyim the son of Attar” is simply a mistranslation. In the final scene of the book, the reader meets Farkash's grandson and namesake. The boy's full name is Moshe Aviad Farkash. The name 'Aviad', based on Isaiah 9:5, means “my eternal father,” a fitting memorial name. Dweck, however, renders this final line in the book as “a witness to my father,” misunderstanding 'ad' as 'eid'.

Rising to the Poetic Challenge
To his credit, Dweck does an admirable job rendering the various poems – liturgical and otherwise – that frequently appear in the book. To the extent possible, his translations of the poems keep the scheme of the original – rhyming when the original rhymes and forming an acrostic when the original does so. One of the most dramatic scenes in the book, recalling the opening scene of Adjusting Sights, is set during the afternoon of Yom Kippur, when some Sephardic congregations pass the time between the morning and afternoon services by reciting a liturgical composition describing the Binding of Isaac. Sabato describes how in 1973, the first military call-ups took place at precisely that hour. The poem's vivid description of the sacrifice of Isaac by his father is punctuated by the names of the boys from Beit Mazmil who fought in the Yom Kippur War, and which of them never returned. Dweck succeeds in capturing the tension and drama created by the juxtaposition of frantic military activity with the chanting of a heart-rending composition. Sabato is at his best in scenes such as this, and this is reflected in the English as well:

                        “See how my mother’s joy is gone,”
                        Said the son she bore at ninety years of age.
                        “Consumed by the flame and consigned by the knife,
                        Now I shall beg her forgiveness,
                        It pains me that Mother shall cry and sigh.”
                        The binder and the bound by the cord, upon the altar of the Lord

The poem gripped the heart. It was as if it had been written by the matriarch Sarah herself… the sirens continued their menacing wail. Captain Nissim Israel, whose mother, Mrs. Israel, had emigrated with us from Egypt, and who used to spread a thick helping of jam on the pieces of bread the children of immigrants received in the Tikvateinu community center – folded his tallit and parted from his father in a whisper… He was the commander of an artillery battalion…

The recitation of the poem continued in the circular cavity of the synagogue. (pp. 115-116)

The translator faces the daunting task of reproducing great literature in another language. This task, more art than skill, has been described as follows by Spanish-English translator Edith Grossman (whose renditions include a 2003 edition of Don Quixote) in her work Why Translation Matters:

...what we do is not an act of magic, like altering base metals into precious stones, but the result of a series of creative decisions and imaginative acts of criticism. In the process of translating, we endeavor to hear the first version of the work as profoundly and completely as possible, struggling to discover the linguistic charge, the structural rhythms, the subtle implications, the complexities of meaning and suggestion in vocabulary and phrasing, and the ambient, cultural inferences and conclusions these tonalities allow us to extrapolate. This is a kind of reading as deep as any encounter with a literary text can be.

In the final analysis, the present translation is not terrible. It is very readable and faithful to the original, and the reader of From the Four Winds will not be disappointed. However, Sabato produces Hebrew literature of the first rank, and Bo’ee Ha-ru’ah is no exception. Unfortunately for English-speaking audiences, Dweck is deaf to the vast array of tonalities to which the translator must be attentive, and which mark the difference between a good book and great literature.


NY Mag Profiles R. Avi Weiss and his Mission to Ordain Women

This article is very well researched and well done - the litmus test is that it is fair to R. Shai Held as well as R. Avi Shafran (and many in between). The criticisms are serious and made by serious people, not Samuel Heilman holding-forth-at-the-kiddush style flippant speculation. Its portrait of of R. Weiss is very well done, sympathetic but certainly not a whitewash.

As readers of this blog know (click on the 'gender' tag for more), I am in favor of creating a may to recognize Orthodox clergywomen so that they may: a) earn higher salaries; b) get jobs in Jewish organizations (federations, Hillels, umbrella organizations, NPOs, etc.) that often give preference to ordained applicant - jobs that are often filled by non-Orthodox women rabbis; c) claim the tax benefits (parsonage) of recognized clergy. The title is rather meaningless. That said, Maharat sounds silly, and Rabba, as the article indicates, is bound to cause controversy.

My term of choice would be Tanna'it. It means "teacher," but it has a history. It was the title of Osnat Barzani, a 17th century Kurdish-Jewish rabbinic figure and Rosh Yeshiva. As the haredi community has taught us, in the fight for the hearts and minds of the people, the key is not to avoid innovation completely, but to give that innovation the appearance of tradition.


End of an Era: On the Petira of Rav Yehuda Amital zt”l

Most students who attended Yeshivat Har Etzion from the mid-1990s on will tell you that they did not have much to do with Rav Amital personally. By that stage, he was already in semi-retirement. I certainly have my impressions of him, and I shared some of those impressions in shul today (on Friday is asked the rabbi if he was planning on speaking about R. Amital as he spoke about R. Mordechai Eliyahu from the pulpit a few weeks ago; he said he would be out of town but that I could speak). Here it is, in a nutshell:

I began by expressing the sentiment that appears in the last mishna in Sotah, that when certain rabbis passed away, there was a sense that something sui generis had departed from the world, and that this was the case with R. Amital. He was an amazing combination of simplicity and complexity, confidence and humility, wisdom and common sense, self-assuredness without imposing his views on others.

His decision to share the post of Rosh Yeshiva with Rav Lichtenstein was unprecedented and, more than anything else, shaped the distinct path of the yeshiva.

I mentioned the line from the first mishna in Avot ha’amidu talmidim harbeh” – that the idea of “ha’amidu” is to nurture students to the point where they stand on their own, independently. This is best characterized by R. Amital’s relationship with his close pupil and successor, R. Ya’akov Medan. During the Oslo process, which R. Amital famously supported, R. Medan went on a hunger strike to protest the giving of weapons to the PA. R. Amital visited R. Medan in his protest tent and expressed pride in what R. Medan was doing, even though he disagreed with both his positions and his methods.

I ended by telling over the “crying baby story,” R. Amital’s calling card, and noting that his vision was for a “beit midrash with windows,” a yeshiva that would sensitize people to the world around them instead of sequestering them from it.

Here’s an excellent feature on R. Amital from Ha’aretz, from 5 years ago:

A review of a recent book by R. Amital, and of his worldview in general, By Rabbi Dr. Alan Brill::

Rav Amital’s series, “Jewish Values in a Changing World”:

Two shiurim from Rav Amital in which he recovers Rav Kook from the way he is portrayed in Merkaz Ha-Rav circles:

Three eulogies from the funeral yesterday (Hebrew):

Rav Moshe Taragin shares his impressions of Rav Amital:


The Orthoprax Rabbi – Revisited

I’ve changed my mind about the Orthoprax Rabbi. I think that what he’s doing (let’s assume that he is what he says he is, a fact that is never truly verifiable while the blog remains anonymous) is a vile offense against those who pay his salary. Even if he is a rabbinic superstar and an absolute gem of a human being, it would be inexcusable. I predict that he will be outed within a few months by some clever baalebos, and then I hope they terminate his contract. At that point, he will learn, like I learned, that even though going through a career change can be hell, there is a light at the end of the tunnel, and life will go on.

I do not have a problem with doubt. I have struggled with doubt in its various forms myself (and continue to, though as a baalebos and not as a rabbi). If you look at the comments on that old post, though, you will see that they are very different from the reactions to the Orthoprax Rabbi. This is because the Orthoprax Rabbi does not have doubts. He has it all figured out. The transformation is complete. He is not giving us a window into his inner conflicts, past and present, but is presenting us with a fait accompli of atheist belief and, perhaps more obnoxiously, complete lack of any sort of guilt about pulling the wool over the eyes of his flock.

Said rabbi compares himself with R. Leon di Modena, arguing that the former was a closet atheist. This sounds an awful lot like the maskilim (starting with Spinoza, in fact) who saw Ibn Ezra as a sort of closet Bible critic. I mean, if he wants to play games, why doesn’t he simply accept the Straussian reading of the Moreh Nevukhim and claim that the Rambam was a closet atheist. I mean, if the midget wishes to stand on the shoulder of giants, why not pick the tallest giant?

In fact, though, I think that he can be compared with other more contemporary rabbis. I recall that about 14 years ago PBS ran a series on Genesis, and the “star” of the series was Rabbi Burt Visotzky. He made headlines by calling God a “mean son of a bitch.” Rabbi Shalom Carmy recounted to me that when a major news magazine (I believe it was Time or Newsweek) called him for a response, he told them, “I would not want him leading ne’ila at my shul.” He then started acting it out for me: “Psach lanu sha’ar, You mean S.O.B.” [As an aside, I like R. Carmy’s idea that humor is often the best response when asked a question for which there is no good ‘sound-byte’ answer. I put that lesson into practice, somewhat, here.] R. Carmy’s point was that one cannot fulfill the role of shaliah tzibbur, representing the community before God and vice versa, if one feels antipathy or apathy toward either of the parties. Similarly, a kohen, who stands between Israel and God, may not duchen if he has experienced some kind of rupture with man – i.e., he is a shofekh damim – or with God – i.e., a heretic.

Another example would be David Gruber. He was a rabbi and Orthodox Torah educator in several small communities in the US (ironically, he succeeded my wife as Jewish Studies Coordinator at Yavneh Academy in Dallas - but he got the title "Rav Beit Sefer" while my wife did not) before he decided to officially leave the fold. There may have been some point where he had stopped living the life of an Orthodox Jew but still held the job of an Orthodox rabbi, but that overlap was short-lived. Though I’m no fan of his brand of self-promotion, and I’m certainly no fan of what he’s doing, at least he no longer identifies as an Orthodox rabbi and instead exploits his familiarity with Jewish ritual to make a living without pretending to be what he’s not. Rabbi Orthoprax can go do interfaith weddings, too, or if he doesn’t want to infringe, he can do interfaith funerals. As Rav Lichtenstein said about Motti Elon (not comparing what Rabbi Orthoprax is doing with what Motti Elon did), “she-ya’asok be-plada” – “let him get a job in a steel mill.” Just get out of the Orthodox rabbinate.

On the other side of the ledger is Mordechai Kaplan, who began expressing misgivings about Orthodoxy in 1904 and only finally broke with Orthodoxy in 1922 (this is an excellent book on the subject). There are several differences, though. Kaplan did not make any bones about his belief and was writing and publishing criticisms of Orthodoxy – under his own name – starting in 1909. Furthermore, he also was trying to reform Orthodoxy, and therefore actually had an agenda of staying in the Orthodox community. When he was hired to be the rabbi of the (Orthodox) Jewish Center, he no longer identified as Orthodox. But the decision to hire him remained with the congregants, who were certainly not subjected to a mekah ta’ut.


A Tribute to Marc Weinberg

MP3s of hespedim, Learning in Marc's memory
Obituaries: Haaretz, JC

This is the story of how Marc Weinberg ob”m changed my life. It is not his life story; it is not a eulogy or obituary. It is a personal reflection on my relationship with a man who I did not know for very long, but who made a profound difference in my life. Others will tell of other parts of Marc's life (it's starting); I knew him just under 4 years, and he was engaged in his final battle for more than 2.5 of those.

I knew Marc as a neighbor, chavruta, and friend. They rented the home just downstairs from us after we all made aliyah in the summer of 2006, and the families became and remain close. He soon learned to tolerate and appreciate my non-New York Americanness, and I learned to tolerate his strolls through the common area, complaining about the heat, wearing nothing but shorts and purple crocs. Somehow, he did even that with class.

The Weinbergs moved into their own home a year later, in the summer of 2007. He changed my life soon after that, on Simchat Torah (I believe, though it may have been a Shabbat around that time). I had just started teaching at a seminary, and it was my first job in Israel with any kind of stability and satisfaction; I had been miserable for that first year and finally saw a bit of light. As we strolled down his street, he asked me, quite pointedly and mildly pedantically, after hearing about my seminary job: “Rabbi Fischer, is this what you see yourself doing in 10 years?” He rendered me speechless as I realized for the first time that the answer was “no.”

A few weeks later, Marc, Natalie, and the kids came to visit me at Hadassah-En Karem when I was hospitalized with Guillian-Barre Syndrome. By that point, I had done a good amount of thinking about my future and had tentative plans to change my career from education to writing and translating. We talked about it on that occasion and several others; Marc was a meticulous planner whose outlook emphasized pragmatic financial concerns while ensuring that such matters do not come at the expense of what was truly meaningful in life – for him, family and friends, learning and teaching. I'm not sure he realized how much his advice and encouragement meant. His clearheaded analysis forced me to realize that I would have to alter my aspirations in order to be successful in Israel, but he also expressed his faith that I could pull it off, and he expressed satisfaction whenever he heard that "business was going well."

Just a few weeks after he visited me in the hospital, I returned the favor. By that point he had been diagnosed with cancer. I stopped by his hospital room on my way to teach in Jerusalem, and we enjoyed caramel sufganiyot during the predawn hours of that first morning of Chanukah.

The following year, while he was trying to recover and I had begun working from home, we learned together weekly. Even in the best of times we probably would have done more schmoozing than learning, as we both had broad interests that frequently overlapped. Given his condition and frequent hospital visits, we did not end up learning much at all, though we talked about starting up again as soon as he felt up to it. That was not to be. He passed away last night at the age of 35.
ת. נ. צ. ב. ה