Esav's Head

There's a famous Midrash  (Bereishit Rabbah 97:21) on Parshat Vayechi that when the brothers came to bury Yaakov at the Me'arat ha-Machpela, Esav barred their entry, claiming the site belonged to him. As the fleet-footed Naphtali ran back to Egypt for the deed, Dan's deaf son, Chushim, saw the fight and intuited that Esav was the bad guy, and so chopped of his great uncle's head. The Midrash continues that Esav's head rolled onto Yaakov's bier. Thus, Rivkah's prophecy that she would be bereft of both of her sons on the same day was fulfilled.

A few years ago, I visited Me'arat ha-Machpela. It was a Chol ha-Mo'ed, so the place was a mob scene. At one point, in one of the halls, I was a bunch of people gathered around a small structure. I was curious. I got in line, and when I got close enough, I saw that it was just a small opening where you could see and smell down into the cave. It was pure rubbernecking - one person must have thought it looked interesting, so a crowd developed.

As I was walking away from that spot, somebody stopped me and asked me what was over there. I told him it was the marker for where Esav's head it buried. I thought the guy would laugh, as I intended it as a joke, but no. He thought I was dead serious. Far be it from me to burst his bubble; he seemed fascinated.

So why bring this up now? Aside from being related to last week's parsha, it seems that cruel practical jokes relating to fictitious graves has hit the news. It's pretty funny, too. I would daven at 'Kever Unkelos ha-Ger' (who knew that he was a Vizhnitzer?) just to appeal to God's sense of humor.


Bithya's Arms

שמות פרק ב פסוק ה

ותרד בת פרעה לרחץ על היאר ונערתיה הלכת על יד היאר ותרא את התבה בתוך הסוף ותשלח את אמתה ותקחה

Gemara Sotah 12b:

Rabbi Yehuda and Rabbi Nechemiah: One said she sent her arms, and the other said she sent her maidservant.


Robert Browning:

Ah, but a man's reach should exceed his grasp, or what's a heaven for?


A Gma"ch (an acronym for Gemilut Chasadim) is the contemporary term for a 'free-loan society'. These types of societies exist all over the Jewish world, but have become a strong part of the social landscape in Israel, especially in religious communities. It can contain almost anything - most commonly money, wedding dresses (or other fancy women's clothing), tables, and chairs. There are a few that I've heard of that really take the cake, though:

  • When we lived in Alon Shvut at the beginning of the most recent intifadeh, the road between Gush Etzion and Jerusalem was often closed because of rock-throwing and shooting. Someone from the yishuv (actually, Rav Danny and Susan Wolf) opened a 'bulletproof vest and helmet' gmach, for instances when a family had to travel together to Jerusalem. We actually procured out own armor, which we donated to the gmach when we moved out of the Gush.
  • Back when DVDs were a novelty, it was not yet on the radar of the Chareidi powers-that-be. Although a TV - even just a monitor - and VCR were verboten, nothing had yet been said about playing DVDs on ones computer. Thus, someone opened a video store in Kiryat Sefer, but called it a 'DVD gmach'. Very creative.
  • While Ruchama was in the NICU at Hadassah-Mt. Scopus, we temporarily moved to Jerusalem to be near her. Several families in the area invited us regularly for Shabbat meals. There was one family who had a refrigerator with an automatic ice-maker. They were concerned about the fact that if one removed ice from the ice bucket, the machine would sense that the ice was running low and make more ice. To avoid issues of grama, they disabled the sensor. Problem was that the freezer began making ice non-stop. So they notified all of the neighbors, who began stopping by to pick up ice for the Shabbat meal. They called it their 'ice-gmach', which is really funny if you speak Yiddish.


An Ecumenical Reading of Kiddushin 31a?

I wanted to follow yesterday's Christological Talmudic reading with an ecumenical Talmudic reading today. The narrative in question is recorded in Kiddushin 31a, as part of a longer halakhic/aggadic treatment of the mitzvah of kibbud av va-em. The components of the sugya cannot really be divorced from their overall context; perhaps I'll get to the entirety of it some day:

תלמוד בבלי מסכת קידושין דף לא עמוד א

דרש עולא רבה אפיתחא דבי נשיאה, מאי דכתיב: +תהלים קלח+ יודוך ה' כל מלכי ארץ כי שמעו אמרי פיך? מאמר פיך לא נאמר אלא אמרי פיך, בשעה שאמר הקב"ה +שמות כ+ אנכי ולא יהיה לך, אמרו אומות העולם: לכבוד עצמו הוא דורש, כיון שאמר +שמות כ+ כבד את אביך ואת אמך, חזרו והודו למאמרות הראשונות.

The great Ullah sermonized at the door of the Patriarch's house: What is meant by 'All the kings of Earth will acknowledge You, for they have heard the statements You spoke' (Tehillim 138); it does not say 'statement', rather 'statements'? When God uttered 'I am God' and 'You shall have no others', the nations said 'He seeks his own honor'. But once he said 'Honor your father and mother', they recanted and acknowledged the first statements.

Before addressing the unique setting, let's note the content. The first four 'dibrot', at least as formulated in the first version (in Yitro, where Shabbat contains no explicit social element), all pertain to man's relationship with God. The fifth, honoring parents, begins the transition to the 'bein adam le-chaveiro' commandments. From elsewhere in this sugya it is clear that kibbud av va-em was viewed as something in between man-man and man-God.

This mitzvah, then, is the first one (in the dibrot, anyway) which begins to show that the man-God mitzvot imply a certain social order as well. This is the beginning of what we call 'ethical monotheism' - that belief in a Deity requires the absorption of His values and not a simple obedience. This was one of Judaism's great contributions to the world, and forms the basis of our covenant with God ('keil rachum ve-chanun, etc.). The formulation of this mitzvah opens the door for a theology with moral implications. The Gemara is saying just that. The 'nations' heard the first mitzvot, and they sounded just as familiar as the purported commandments of any other self-serving deity. The shift toward the ethical and moral plane changed their opinion, even causing the re-evaluation of the original dibrot.

The process which Ullah reads into this verse parallels the theological development of the Western world. At some point, paganism was replaced by systems whose cores were ethical monotheism. The Roman world, especially its upper classes, began a love affair with Judaism and, eventually, Christianity.

Ullah lived during this interesting time. Christianity had already taken a turn away from its Jewish roots, and was gaining steam amongst the Roman nobility. Relations between Jews and Christians were stable - the schism with the early Judeo-Christians had ended, but Constantine had not yet made Christianity a true power, with its effective license to persecute non-believers. The last great Roman persecution of Christians happened at the end of the reign of Diocletian.

Ullah was never the head of any of the Yeshivot in Eretz Yisrael, and this is the only time he is called 'Ullah Rabbah'. I believe that he obtained this moniker specifically for this occasion since he was, by this point (late 3rd-early 4th Century) an 'elder statesman' of the rabbis. It seems that he delivered this sermon at some sort of public event; the door of the Patriarch's house seems to be an honored venue (perhaps like the White House Lawn?). I would like to suggest that there was some sort of gathering of Roman nobility, by then heavily Christian, and Jewish nobility at the Patriarch's residence in Tiberias. It seems far-fetched to suggest that Diocletian himself was there, although we know that he visited Tiberias on his way to and from campaigns against the Sassanian Persians. In any event, Ullah addresses the crowd and speaks about the emerging world-order, where the nations of the world acknowledge God and His morality.


A Christological Reading of Niddah 24b?

Yesterday, the 9th of Tevet, is a significant date on the Jewish calendar, but for reasons that are hard to pin down. It was ordained as a fast day during the Geonic period, but for reasons that are unclear. Some versions record that this date it the yahrzeit of Ezra ha-Sofer. Another tradition lists it as 'unknown' (see SA oc 580:2), but commentators note that it may be the yahrzeit of 'Shimon', an early Christian who was planted by the Sanhedrin in the nascent movement in order to divorce it from Judaism. This issue is the topic of an article by Professor Shnayer Leiman in JQR 1983. It relies heavily on the medieval Jewish work 'Toldot Yeshu', which identifies this Shimon with St. Paul.

I've always found this particular tradition, that Pauline Christianity was actually a Jewish invention designed to transform early Christianity into a non-Jewish religion, fascinating. The life of Paul - particularly his origins as a 'Pharisee' who studied under Rabban Gamliel and his 'transformation' on the road to Damascus - invite this type of theorizing.

There's a Gemara, much earlier than anything else that discusses this tradition, which I speculate might contain the kernel of this legend:

תלמוד בבלי מסכת נדה דף כד עמוד ב

תניא, אבא שאול אומר: קובר מתים הייתי, פעם אחת נפתחה מערה תחתי, ועמדתי בגלגל עינו של מת עד חוטמי כשחזרתי לאחורי אמרו עין של אבשלום היתה

It was taught: Abba Shaul said: "I was an undertaker. It once happened that a cave opened beneath me, and I stood in the eyeball of a corpse up to my nose. When I returned, they said that it was the eye of Avshalom."

This is one of those truly bizarre Gemaras. There's another, similar story on the same page which talks about the 3-mile long femur of the King of Bashan, Og. There, the teller is either Abba Shaul or Rabbi Yochanan, and the difference might be whether the two stories are a unit. If they are, then I have yet to find a good explanation, because I just don't know what to do with Og's femur. I think I have an idea about Avshalom's eyeball, though.

Avshalom, the son who usurped the father's crown and tried to kill the father, the long-haired scion of David who is killed for his usurpation, is an easy allegory for Christianity and/or Jesus. His enormous eye represents Christianity's desire to conquer all, to recast everything in its own image; the large eye is a panopticon, symbolic of a religion that wishes to be an empire. Christianity only became such after Paul. Paul's Hebrew name, according to the Christian Bible, was Saul, the same as Abba Shaul's. Finally, the idea of Abba Shaul being an 'undertaker' (lit. 'a burier of corpses') is an apt metaphor for the job of divorcing Early Christianity from the Jewish mainstream. He wanted to kill the religion which threatened Judaism by turning it into something non-Jewish.

So do I really think that the tanna Abba Shaul is none other than St. Paul, who some Jewish traditions regard as the Sanhedrin's emmissary? No. Do I think that the Gemara thought so? Not really. This is just a bit of speculation; like I said before, though, this topic fascinates me.


Book Review: They Called him Rebbe: The Life and Good Works of Rabbi Boruch Milikowsky


Jerusalem: Urim Publications; December, 2007.

295 pages

Amazon Link

I have always admired successful immigrant rabbis, men who arrived on American shores during and after the Nazi era, poor, grieving, and with no knowledge of the English language or American culture but who managed to break through all of those barriers to touch the lives of others. The stories of those who overcame so much, emerging from hell to win the hearts and minds of a new and foreign generation, stand as triumphs of human spirit that can continue to enlighten and inspire long after they pass on.

My appreciation for this genre has only deepened in recent years, when I became an ‘immigrant rabbi’ myself, moving from the United States to Israel and facing the difficulties of adjusting to a new culture, albeit without fresh memories of a Holocaust and with inestimable material advantages. It has made me think about the challenges that my own grandfather faced upon his arrival in Baltimore in 1947 with my grandmother and their three children. I stand in awe of his struggle to establish his shteebl while working as a shochet, mohel, chazzan, and assorted other religious capacities (he was a ‘Swiss-army Jew’, as I like to call it).

Raphael Blumberg’s They Called Him Rebbe: The Life and Good Works of Rabbi Boruch Milikowsky (Urim, 2007) carried a special resonance for me. Most of the book is set in Baltimore, my hometown and my parents’ hometown, and in its Talmudical Academy (TA), my alma mater. Its ‘characters’ – students of Rabbi Milikoswky and graduates of TA from the 50s into the 80s - are familiar as longstanding members of the Baltimore community, as friends of my father (who was in Rabbi Milikosky’s shiur in 1962-3), and as figures well-known throughout the Jewish world (but who may be a bit better known to those who take interest in remembering who has Baltimore roots). Its event – both the comic and the tragic – remain part of Baltimore’s collective Jewish memory until today.

One might get the impression that this book would only interest vintage Jewish Baltimoreans, who smile at the mention of Cottage Avenue or Old Court Road as they would at the names Wes Unseld or Cal Ripken. In fact, however, the book should attract broad interest specifically because of its unique setting, and not despite it. Rabbi Milikowsky’s successful adaptation to the peculiar culture of that particular school, in that particular city, and in those particular years contain a universal message of love and devotion, and their ability to bridge between even the most disparate of cultures.

Rabbi Milikowsky, a native of White Russia, studied in some of Europe’s great prewar Yeshivos, ultimately fleeing from Lithuania to occupied Shanghai as a student of the Mir Yeshiva. Soon after his arrival in the United States after the war, he became a Rebbe at TA, where he remained until his passing in 1990. When he arrived at TA in the late 1940s, it had recently added a high school. Although it had been in existence for 30 years by then, it remained one of a small handful of Jewish day schools outside of New York. As such, its student body included a wide variety of local students and ‘out-of-towners’, immigrants and ‘Yankees’, from observant families and from traditional but non-observant families, and with a broad range of talents and abilities.

Thrown into such a situation with a strong yeshiva background but no formal training, Rabbi Milikowsky used whatever means he had at his disposal to communicate with his students. The author recounts (p. 87):

…there was a concentration of good ball players amongst the non-observant boys. During recess the boys would go outside and play softball on the T.A. asphalt lot. At some point Rabbi Milikowsky asked how to play and joined in some of the games with the eighth graders. If he could not communicate verbally with some of the weaker boys, he could at least communicate nonverbally.

Yet, on the very same page, the author includes an anecdote which many readers would view negatively, as characteristic of a worldview not shared by contemporary pupils and one that is potentially damaging to their religious development:

There was a boy, not so observant, who was creating problems for the class and for Rabbi Milikowsky. One time, in a fit of anger, he threw a chumash on the floor. Rabbi Milikowsky got very upset and castigated him about how this was a forbidden, dangerous thing to do. The next day the boy was taken to the hospital for an emergency appendectomy. The students of Rabbi Milikowsky’s eighth-grade class took this as an omen about their own behavior. Rabbi Milikowsky didn’t have to say a word.

The startling juxtaposition of these two stories captures the tension of an old-world rabbi trying to forge relationships with new-world students. Other practices of Rabbi Milikowsky’s that would be frowned on today include smoking in front of students, turning a blind eye to students who smoke, and mild corporal punishment (including a story on p. 147 of a student who complained to his father that Rabbi Milikowsky hit him with a broom, whereupon the father presented the rabbi with a belt, in case his son ever deserved another beating). To his credit, the author makes very few attempts to minimize or contextualize these stories (he also does not airbrush a larger hair-covering or longer sleeves onto pictures of Mrs. Leah Milikowsky).

This book has little to offer in terms of formal pedagogy. Its subject never trained to be a classroom teacher and may have never prepared a lesson plan. Of all the praise found in this book, next to nothing of his teaching style or skill is offered. His students did not pay tribute by acknowledging that he taught them to learn Gemara or read Rashi. Rather, the book emphasizes the relationships that he built with his students, the informal classroom moments where he would allow students to discuss whatever topics were on their minds, his availability to them at all hours, his willingness to spend Shabbat and Yom Tov in the T.A. dormitory long after he had retired as the dormitory’s mashgiach, his presence in the school’s Beit Midrash and on school trips, and his mussar shmuessen (lectures on ethics).

The author pays special attention to the way that Rabbi Milikowsky treated each student individually (pp. 142-146, 182, et al), tailoring his responses to the needs of each student. In the 1960s, when desegregation began in the American South (which the author often erroneously calls ‘South America’), T.A. accepted many students from southern cities, Atlanta in particular. As dormitory students, Rabbi Milikowsky was directly responsible for them. The book recounts how he tried to understand their background and ease them into a life of observance. Other anecdotes describe his relationship with a poor student who was diagnosed with ADD later in life (pp. 176-180) and how he dealt with the issue of students who were seeing girls (pp. 142, 228). His concern for everything going on in the lives of his students coupled with a grounded, common-sense approach with how to deal with them finds expression both in the numerous stories and in witticisms like “Treat them like adults – expect them to act like babies” (p. 272).

Another element of Rabbi Milikowsky’s personality highlighted by the book is a profound openness to different types of learning and ways of thinking. The book illustrates the way he approached women’s Jewish learning (indeed, his daughter, Rabbanit Malke Bina, founded MaTaN, a major institution of higher women’s Jewish learning), academic Jewish studies (his son Chaim is a professor of Talmud at Bar Ilan University), Zionism (p. 253), Haskalah Literature (p. 252), and American patriotism (p. 208).

In general, the book does a good job of arranging numerous brief stories into a chronological whole. The reader comes away with a sense of the man and the trajectory of his life. Nevertheless, it often reads life a tribute by his favorite students. A small handful of the hundreds of students who sat in his classroom or lived in his dormitory are profiled. Perhaps more attention should have been paid to students who were not amongst ‘Rebbe’s boys’, in order to complete the picture of this fascinating personality.


Local Rabbinic Politics

By an accident of fate, the municipality of Modiin-Maccabim-Reut will be dropping one of its Chief Rabbis. There are currently 3: the Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Modiin, the Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Modiin, and the Chief Rabbi of Maccabim-Reut, who also happens to be Sephardi. A conscientious citizen, affiliated with the anti-religious Shinui party, filed a grievance with the Supreme Court  about 4 years ago, which the court upheld. The contention was that there is no need for three rabbis once the municipality of Modiin was expanded to include Maccabim and Reut. I actually partially (33.3%, to be exact) agree with this decision, but that's an old issue.

Thus, it was decided that the city will drop one of its two Sephardic chiefs. In truth, I have sympathy one of the two. The rabbi of M-R has held that position for upwards of 20 years and is, by reputation, much more in line with the sensibilities of the city's Dati Leumi community, which makes up almost the entirety of its religious community.

Yet, I cannot - and will not - ignore the fact that of these three rabbis, one is the son-in-law of R' Ovadiah Yosef, one is a brother-in-law of former minister and Shas Party chief Aryeh Deri, and the third is the son of former Ashkenazic Chief Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau.

[I have deleted the line which draws attention away from the main thrust of the post, and which, in hindsight, is inappropriate and gratuitous].

Thus, I could not give a rat's furry tuchus who wins this fight. Hopefully, the winner will have merely won a Pyrrhic victory.

Why'd 'e die did 'e die did 'e die...

Remember that niggun that would be mockingly sung with the words: 'why'd 'e die did 'e die did 'e die 'cuz there's a shark in the mivkah'? It's a true bungalow classic (the tune is actually called the 'Belzer Hakafah').

But it turns out that he didn't die because of any sharks, but because a towel closet was blocking the emergency exit (Link). Y'know, government building codes regarding public construction are not just about making the ehrliche Yidden spent more money or cut corners. They actually make sense, most of the time. Moreover, lack of regulation does not absolve the deployment of common sense. A men's mikvah is quite obviously a potentially hazardous place in the immediate sense (although slower developing problems, such as PTSD for victims of pederasty and athlete's foot for the rest of us, certainly should give one pause); slipping, drowning, and choking on popcorn are just a few of the dangers that lurk in the mildewed corners of the men's mikvah. Caveat dunkor.

Let's all remind ourselves that in 99.99% of all instances (with the exceptions of le-shem geirus and to ascend Har HaBayit) there is no mitzvah - chiyuvit or kiyumit- for a man to immerse in a mikvah. That favorite chapter of Messilat Yesharim, the one entitled 'Be-Mishkal Ha-Chassidut' rears its head again. Read it and read it again.

Geez, I'm starting to sound like Harry. Good thing I'm keeping this short.


Learning to Daven

I overheard by 3.5 year old son making a bracha on his French toast this morning: "Baruch ata Hashem Elokeinu Melech ha-olam borei lechem"

I thought it was great. A friend mentioned that there was some Rebbe who didn't teach his kids to daven so that they would figure it out on their own. I don't think we'll go that far, but it did make me proud.


Yoseph's Plan A

Vayigash starts with Yehuda's plea to Yoseph to take Binyamin's place as a slave. At the conclusion of his declamation, the Torah records that Yoseph 'could not hold back', and that he then revealed his true identity to his brothers. The fact that he 'held back' implies that , had he been able, he would have kept stringing them along. Why to what end? What was his original plan?

There are a number of different theories about what Yoseph was trying to accomplish with the whole charade: bring about the fruition of his dreams, make his brothers repent, etc. Part of the drama of these parshiyot, which indeed provide some of the best drama in all of TaNach, is in trying to figure out who knows what, when.

It seems to me that Yoseph never intended to reveal himself to his brothers. As far as he was concerned, they were strangers ('va-yitnaker Yosef le-echav') and he wanted nothing to do with them. He felt that their betrayal of him had severed familial ties; he could not have known what Yaakov's role in the sale was: he may have missed his father, or he may have thought that his father was somehow party to his disenfranchisement (Menashe = 'for God has made me forget my father's house').  Either way, the only family member about whom he was concerned was Binyamin, his full brother who was very young at the time of Yoseph's departure.

The entire charade was to get Binyamin down to Egypt and keep him there. He designed the frame-up job to give a pretense for keeping Binyamin there while turning the rest of them loose. He even provoked their jealousy to make them less willing to go to bat for their pampered brother. Had all gone well, he would have been free to start his own, Rachelide family together with his brother.

He did not count on the brothers going to bat for Binyamin. He did not count on the fact that Yaakov never got over Yoseph's disappearance, as Yehuda described in his speech. Thus, Yehuda's speech causes Yoseph to change his plan and leads to the dramatic resolution of the fraternal conflict.


Chanukah: A Celebration of...

Classical Zionism: "Jewish Self-determination and Military Prowess"

America - 60s version: "Light"

America - current version: "Religious Freedom"

Chareidim: "The Torah Remaining Pure and Free of Greek Influences"

Rabbis: "Torah she-Baal Peh"


Funny thing is, you can do this with just about any holiday. Welcome to post-ideological religion. Feel free to chat during davening.


The Greens who Stole Chanukah

There's a campaign to get people to light fewer Chanukah candles to combat global warming. Link

Please. A Chanukah candle less per family? If I would be convinced that it would actually make a difference, I could hear it; after all, the requirement to light more than one candle per family is only Hidur, and as the Ramchal writes in the chapter of Mesillat Yesharim entitled "Be-mishkal Ha-chasidut", things beyond the letter of the law are to be avoided if they would give the wrong impression to those around. This, however, is absurd. If these bozos think that the hole in the ozone layer is the result of kinderlach lighting the cheap wax candles, then they're really dumb.

If I was going to crusade against Jewish pyromania, I would start with Biur Chametz. I go nuts every year when these idiots show up with a few crumbs, a gallon of lighter fluid, and plastic bags that once held chametz. Start with those pyromaniacs who are hiding behind religion; they're no better than any other polluter. I wouldn't mind if Lag B'omer was scaled back as well; it's a disaster waiting to happen. Kids in this country burn anything not nailed to the ground. And again, this is pyromania hiding behind Judaism.

But that's not really the point, is it? The point is that these people who are calling for less candles are just a bunch of misguided bozos who take aim at something just because it's prominent and helps them grind their axes about religion adjusting to the paradigm of global warming, blah, blah,blah. Maybe they should go after Yad Vashem next for using so many darn yahrzeit candles.


Rabbis and Bricklayers

"In Europe there were rabbis and bricklayers. After the war, some went to Israel and some went to America. The rabbis went to Israel and became bricklayers, and the bricklayers went to America and became rabbis..."

-Rabbi Boruch Milikowsky, as recounted in "They Called Him Rebbe", pp. 99-100 [soon to be reviewed on this blog, and released by Urim]

Though times have changed somewhat, Rabbi Milikowsky's observation still holds true, to some extent. I am becoming the case in point. I'm not becoming a bricklayer, but I have begun the process of career change. I will be a freelance translator, with a lesser emphasis on writing and editing. Teaching remains my main occupation as of this writing, but this is my last year in that field. A number of factors have conspired to push me in this direction.

I enjoy writing and seem to be pretty good at it; this blog taught me that. Translation can be enjoyable and challenging as well. I have a preference for Jewish-themes material, so that I actually learn while I work, but I am not limited exclusively to that. I'll also continue teaching, but on my own terms - what I want, where I want, and how often I want. I need it to be that teaching Torah is something that I do as a contribution, and not something that I feel forced to do to feed my family. I also need to actually feed my family (me and Latrell). It's kind of ironic that Israel has forced me to be much more focused on material concerns, but I'm not the first.

In any case, November has been a pretty good month so far in this new endeavor. I've landed a handful of jobs (thanks to those, including David, who helped get me started). My first article has been published - it's a piece on Israeli poverty which appeared as the cover story here (before you begin downloading, beware that the .pdf of the magazine is 46+ MB).

Thus far, it has been hard to blog at a good pace while keeping up with my writing jobs and also my teaching schedule. Time will tell if this becomes a permanent situation or if things will settle back to a regular blogging pace.

Wish me luck.


Brain Dump

I know it's been a while. I've been very busy. It's not even that I have nothing to write about. There were a couple of ADD-laced observations that I wanted to share in the mean time:

  • Definition of an exercise in futility: taking a Segway on a treadmill
  • I have a great sweatshirt (my 2nd favorite, behind my 10-year-old, frayed, green hooded sweatshirt); it's a black hooded sweatshirt which says 'Maryland' in Hebrew characters on the front, and has the UMD terrapin mascot on the back. I was wearing it last night, and an Israeli saw the front: jet black, with the single word 'Maryland' in Hebrew. He thought I was making a political statement. Meshugga velt.
  • I had fun with a colleague from an English-speaking non-American country who was ranting about the fact that, for Americans, Thanksgiving Day has become a Yom Tov. I told him that he didn't know the half of it, that I grew up in a relatively right-wing community and that nevertheless we would lain in shul every Thanksgiving Day. He was beside himself. He started foaming at the mouth, until a student 'clued him in'.


Vayetze- Belated

[I was asked to speak in Shul A Friday night. The following is basically what I said, sticking to my rule of never speaking for longer than 7 minutes (it was actually 6 minutes). The next day, I davened in Shul B, where the Rabbi said pretty much the same thing. Cool thing is, the two other people who davened at Shul A Friday night and Shul B in the morning also noticed it.]

In the middle of the parsha, there's a heated exchange between Yaakov and Rachel when she demands children and he responds angrily. It presents a bit of a difficulty for those who like to see the Avot as flawless because if Rachel did nothing wrong, then Yaakov was wrong for getting angry, and if the anger was justified, then Rachel did something wrong. Different commentators explain it in different ways.

A few verses later, Rachel trades her night with Yaakov for some flowers called dudaim. Rashi thinks they were some type of fertility flower. If that's the case, then we see Rachel, on two occasions, trying to conceive by using some type of intervention - once by demanding from Yaakov (ostensibly that he pray for her) and once by using dudaim. Yaakov's angry response was "Ha-tachat Elokim anochi asher mana mimech pri vaten?" Again, commentators offer different explanations about what 'hatachat Elokim anochi' means. 'Tachat' clearly means 'instead of' - like in 'ayin tachat ayin', and not 'underneath' (thought the Shelah says that it does mean 'underneath - Yaakov was saying that he couldn't pray for her because he was not in Eretz Yisrael at the time).

The way i explained it is that he is angry at her because she was using him as a replacement for God. We live in a culture where people sometimes look for shortcuts - amulets, brachot from tzadikim, getting mezuzot checked, segulot, etc. in order to cure all ills. Perhaps they work, and perhaps not. Certainly, though, they are not a replacement for a direct relationship with God any more than taking prescribed drugs are. But these things often pass for 'frumkeit' and religiosity. Yaakov, the 'tzadik' whose wife demanded that she pray for him, responds angrily that whatever he might be able to do, she must confront God on her own.

Indeed, when Yosef is finally born, the verse states that God heard Rachel's voice.


Hate to Say I Told You So, But...

About a year and a half ago, when the whole Rabbanut vs. the RCA issue developed, I started writing about how a fellow named Rabbi Nachum Eisenstein and his organization, the Vaad HaRabbani Haolami Leinonei Giyur, were pushing the Rabbanut to discredit American orthodox rabbis. I mentioned that he was influencing organizations like EJF to adopt Rav Elyashiv's standards universally. I also mentioned that he doesn't really consider American community rabbis, (the modern orthodox variety in general, but lav davka) to be orthodox.

Those posts drove a lot of traffic to my blog, but my 'theories' didn't really gain much traction. Steven I. Weiss even spent an entire post debunking me and denying that RNE has anything to do with the whole issue. Granted, the fact that RNE did what he did at the EJF conference doesn't 'prove' that he was behind the whole Rabbanut vs. RCA thing. I actually have confirmed from other sources that, at least at the time of the scandal, RNE was part of a three-member 'kitchen cabinet' advising Rabbi Yigal Krispel, who was in charge of evaluating conversions from abroad. RNE remains a veteran member of the Jerusalem Rabbinical court establishment.

So last week, when RNE got up at the EJF and disqualified the conversions of any Rabbi who believes that the Earth is more than 6000 years old, people were shocked, up in arms, going nuts. I wasn't terribly surprised. RNE's been saying these things for years. The difference is that now he has a platform.

An angle of his speech that I haven't heard elsewhere is that he had a specific rabbi in mind with that diatribe: Rabbi Barry Freundel. RBF is the RCA's recognized giyur person for Greater Washington, and is very involved in giyur in general, through his shul (Kesher Israel in Georgetown). He is a big part of the RCA's restructuring of its giyur registration. He was the point person in the RCA's negotiations with the Rabbanut, which RNE was working hard to stop (to the extent that he informed Chief Rabbi Amar, the day before his meeting with Rabbis Freundel and Billet of the RCA, that RBF's shul has a women's tefillah group, in the hopes of discrediting him. I don't know whether RBF believes in a young Earth or not; I do know that there are members of Jerusalem's Rabbinical Court who would not accept his conversions (which, I might add from the experience of personally having worked with him on a few instances of giyur from the UMD community, are done with a very thorough and serious process). RBF also doesn't 'look' like the 'dayan' that EJF/RNE/RYSE envisions - no suit, colored shirt, knit kippah, and, IIRC, wedding band. I cannot imagine that it was an accident.


Clarification Regarding Charedi Women as Teachers

I want to clarify my position on Chareidi women as educators. I do not think that all, or even most, Chareidi women are good teachers. I also do not think that there are no good teachers outside the Chareidi system. I also do not think that there is nothing to worry about in giving one's kids a Charedi education.

There are really two points. The first is that I am very happy with my daughter's school. She is getting a good, well-rounded education, has excellent, professional teachers, and a nice group of kids in her relatively small class. The administration is generally receptive to the parents and willing to talk to them. Earlier this week, her class went on a Rosh Chodesh tiyul (day trip) to the Bamba factory.

I realize (as I mentioned in the previous post) that this is not indicative of Charedi education. This is education under Chareidi auspices. I do not think it an accident that schools in Israel that are under Chareidi auspices but are geared for the general public are generally considered to be excellent schools. I do believe that there is a good talent pool of Chareidi educators, especially women, which is deeper, pound-for-pound, than the pool in other sectors of Israeli society. I should point out that my other kids have has Chareidi women as teachers in nursery schools funded and run by the municipality. They are not just populating the faculties of Chareidi schools. I wonder if, given the choice, these women would prefer to work outside the Charedi sector. I wonder what the difference in pay is. The answers might be interesting - that the best Charedi women teachers teach outside the Chareidi sector. A point for speculation.

With regard to the 'dangers' of educating my kid in an environment like that, I am simply not worried. Speaking only for my own family, it will be very, very long time before my kids have teachers who know more Torah than their parents. It is extremely unlikely that they will adopt a different value-system because they think that their parents' is not serious or rooted in Torah. Furthermore, the norm remains for kids, after a few years of experimentation one way or the other, to remain fairly close to their parents ideologically, and for that matter religiously and practically as well. If the family provides a stable and comfortable environment, kids will GENERALLY not move too far away from what they know and love. There are, of course, exceptions.

A final point pertains to the different systems of education. I've written before how I think a broad but frum personality develops. It does not happen by simultaneously developing the 'Torah' and 'Madda' parts of the brain, so to speak. It does not happen by trying to turn kids on to Torah AND Geography AND Literature AND Physics and so forth. It happens when there is a deeply-rooted love for Torah out of which everything else develops (and yes, it can develop that way). The Menorah, symbol of Jewish wisdom, highlight this - it has a central column out of which all other branches stem. Yet, it's all made from the same piece of metal. To my mind, that symbolizes the relationship and also the chronological process of the absorption of both Torah and what we'll call 'that other valuable stuff'. I think that there's plenty of time in high school or college for our kids to become angst-ridden and conflicted about matters of Torah and whatever else. Let them learn to love Torah first, though. It is certainly important that they learn other things as well, but I don't care if my kids doesn't love math.

I'm not saying that only Chareidi schools imbue a love of Torah. I am saying that I would not write a local Chareidi school off just because it's Chareidi, and that often it is the best option available.


Posts for Toldot

In addition to the post from earlier in the week, here are some posts on Toldot from the archives:


The Best Teachers

I believe I've said it before on this blog. If not, I'll say it again. Chareidi women are the best teachers in Israel. There's not even a contest.

The immediate prompt for this observation is the fact that my daughter's school, which is under chareidi auspices though very few students come from chareidi families, has come under fire from the local rags for being some sort of chareidi colony in the heart of secular Modiin. There was even a quote about how there are '120 kids from Kiryat Sefer', a large chareidi city very close to Modiin. That's simply untrue. About half of the kids are from villages outside of Modiin (primarily Gimzo, Nof Ayalon, and Chashmonaim, for those interested), and the other half from Modiin itself. The teachers, though, are almost all from Kiryat Sefer. And they are excellent.

As an aside, there's a very big difference between chareidi education and chareidi-run education. This difference seems to be lost on the writers in the local rags. Surprisingly, it seems that Jonathan Rosenblum also failed to make that distinction. He does, however, note the higher quality of chareidi teachers (link).

In most sectors of Israeli society, the best an brightest go into the professions. In chareidi society, for better or worse, the women are encouraged to find jobs which will still allow them to spend significant chinks of time at home. Teaching is a very good profession for that. Thus, you get many highly talented people entering the teaching profession from the chareidi sector. I would add that often the most competent office managers and clerical staffers are chareidi women as well.

It is a documented fact that the quality of education in the United States went down as women entered the mainstream workforce. The teaching profession in the U.S. was once dominated by very talented women, who are now if other fields.

I value equal opportunity. I want every door to be open for my wife and daughter. At the same time, it is indeed a shame that the teaching profession no longer gets the talent it deserves. Thank God for chareidi women.


Perhaps my Father will Feel Me

In this week's parsha, Rivka hatches her plan to trick her husband into giving the brachot to Yaakov. The younger son seems willing to go along with it, but expresses his reservations. Amongst them, he says 'ulai yemusheini avi' - 'perhaps my father fill will feel me - as he indeed did. In response, Rivka instructs him to wear gotaskins, so that he would feel like Esav.

Biblical Hebrew has different words for 'perhaps'. In general, 'ulai' is used when the speaker wants the potential event to occur, whereas 'pen' is used if it is t be avided. 'Pen' can alternatively be translated as 'lest'. In context of our parsha, 'pen' would have been the expected choice of words. After all, we assume that Yaakov does not want to get caught. Nevertheless, the Torah uses 'ulai', which would normally indicate that Yaako actually wanted his father to catch him. Perhaps, at some level, he did. There are two reasons that I can think of:

  1. Guilt. Yaakov felt terrible about duping his old, blind father and subconsciously wished that he would be revealed. The scheme was not his initiative, but his mother's. He objects to it but ends up going along. Perhaps he still hoped the plan would fail.
  2. Affection. Yaakov was beloved by his mother, but his father preferred Esav. Yaakov would now be in a situation where he would be before his father disguised as the beloved Esav. In playing out the scenario, perhaps the thought crossed Yaakov's mind that he would be the recipient of some physical affection from his father, even though it was intended for Esav. This would present a problem in that baby-faced Yaakov could not pass for the hirsute Esav, but it had the unintended benefit of some real father-son bonding.


The Myth of the Two Brothers

Mississippi Fred has posted a typically erudite and enjoyable post about the well-known story of two brothers, and how their field came to be the site of the Temple. I recall that this story was featured in the original 'Chicken Soup for the Soul', but without the part about it becoming the site for the Temple. Too political, I guess.

Interestingly, there is another version of this story:

In Jerusalem there was a field cultivated by two brothers; one of the brothers was married and had several children, the other was single. They cultivated in common the field they had inherited from their mother; when harvest time was come, the two brothers bound up their sheaves, and made two equal heaps of them, which they left upon the field. During the night, the unmarried brother had a thought; he said to himself, ' I am young; I lives single and without company. I have nobody to assist me in my labor or to console me in my weariness; it is not right that he should take as many sheaves from our common field as I. I will get up, and go and carry secretly to my heap a certain number of sheaves; he will not perceive it, and so he cannot claim them.' And he did as he had thought. The same night, the other brother awoke and said to his wife, ' I have to feed you and the children. It is not right that his share should be as large as mine; come, I will take some sheaves out of his heap and add them secretly to mine; he will not perceive it, and so he will not be able to claim them.' The next day, each of the brothers went to the field, and was very much surprised to see that the two heaps were still equal : neither one nor the other could account to himself for this prodigy. They did the same for several successive nights,but as each had carried to his brother's heap the same number of sheaves, the heaps still remained equal; until one night both stood sentinels to search out the reason of this miracle, and they met one another carrying the sheaves they had mutually stolen from each other. Now a place where so conniving a thought came at the same time and recurred so continually to two brothers must be a very special spot. And so they chose it to build the Knesset.



During the inauguration of the First Temple, its builder, King Solomon, offered a very long prayer, recorded in I Kings Chapter 8 vv. 22-53. He lists many functins that the new temple would serve. Among them, he says:

46 If they sin against Thee--for there is no man that sinneth not--and Thou be angry with them, and deliver them to the enemy, so that they carry them away captive unto the land of the enemy, far off or near; 47 yet if they shall bethink themselves in the land whither they are carried captive, and turn back, and make supplication unto Thee in the land of them that carried them captive, saying: We have sinned, and have done iniquitously, we have dealt wickedly; 48 if they return unto Thee with all their heart and with all their soul in the land of their enemies, who carried them captive, and pray unto Thee toward their land, which Thou gavest unto their fathers, the city which Thou hast chosen, and the house which I have built for Thy name;

This is an amazing thing. Solomon could conceive of a situation in which the people would sin and be exiled, but his temple would remain standing, and the exiles would continue to pray toward it. This possibility, that the building remains significant even in the absence of the people, is negated by God's response to Solomon at the beginning of Chapter 9:

3 And the LORD said unto him: 'I have heard thy prayer and thy supplication, that thou hast made before Me: I have hallowed this house, which thou hast built, to put My name there for ever; and Mine eyes and My heart shall be there perpetually. 4 And as for thee, if thou wilt walk before Me, as David thy father walked, in integrity of heart, and in uprightness, to do according to all that I have commanded thee, and wilt keep My statutes and Mine ordinances; 5 then I will establish the throne of thy kingdom over Israel for ever; according as I promised to David thy father, saying: There shall not fail thee a man upon the throne of Israel. 6 But if ye shall turn away from following Me, ye or your children, and not keep My commandments and My statutes which I have set before you, but shall go and serve other gods, and worship them; 7 then will I cut off Israel out of the land which I have given them; and this house, which I have hallowed for My name, will I cast out of My sight; and Israel shall be a proverb and a by word among all peoples; 8 and this house which is so high [shall become desolate], and every one that passeth by it shall be astonished, and shall hiss; and when they shall say: Why hath the LORD done thus unto this land, and to this house? 9 they shall be answered: Because they forsook the LORD their God, who brought forth their fathers out of the land of Egypt, and laid hold on other gods, and worshipped them, and served them; therefore hath the LORD brought all this evil upon them.'

Here, God changes the focus of the temple: it can only stand while Israel does His will in the land. The building has no objective merit. It is the centerpiece of the Israelite civilization. Absent that civilization, its ruins will become a byword for what was, and what happened when a once proud nation forsook its God. In this sense, God is protecting Solomon from the hubris of great builders for the sake of great buildings, from emphasizing edifice over edification, in short, from becoming like the king in Shelley's poem below:


I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shatter'd visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamp'd on these lifeless things,
The hand that mock'd them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!"
Nothing beside remains: round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.


Translating 'Emet'

The Hebrew word 'Emet' and its derivatives are invariably translated as 'Truth' (capital T, generally). This translation is so ubiquitous that it seems silly to even discuss. Yet, I believe it to be a mistranslation, at least in certain contexts.

Take, for example, the first chapter in Rambam's Hilchot Yesodei Ha-Torah, where he uses the term 'Emet', in its various forms, several times. There, translating 'Emet' as 'Truth' obscures the meaning and makes things difficult to understand. Rambam's goal in Halakhot 1-4 is to describe how God's Existence is dissimilar, independent, and non-contingent on the existence of anything else, whereas everything else's existence is contingent upon His. Thus, compare the following translations:

Halakha 1:

"All existants, in heaven and earth and everything in between, would not exist but for the Truth of His Existence"

"All existants, in heaven and earth and everything in between, would not exist but for the Realness of His Existence"

Halakha 3:

"All existents are contingent upon Him, but He, blessed be He, is not contingent upon them or any one of them. Thus, His Truth is unlike the truth of any of them."

"All existents are contingent upon Him, but He, blessed be He, is not contingent upon them or any one of them. Thus, His Realness is unlike the realness of any of them."

Halakha 4 continues this trend, but there is no need to belabor the point. The Rambam here is not talking about what is True, but about what is Real.

Aside from general accuracy, I think that the difference between the different translations is profound. 'Truth' is an abstract concept that we essentially borrowed from the Greeks. They invented or discovered (not getting into that here) logical rules and postulates which allowed them to categorize statements as being 'true' or 'false'. Something which is 'True' corresponds to some kind of Ideal Form, and something which is false does not.

At some point, the Hebrew terms 'emet' and 'sheker' came to correspond to these Greek concepts. As we got used to the Greek way of thinking, it was important to have the vocabulary to communicate it. The problem is obviously that it ends up 'Hellenizing' ideas and statements that appear in early Jewish works. Those early sources are not necessarily concerned with abstractions. The Torah and the Neviim, and Chaza"l in their wake, are amazingly concrete, often expressing abstraction in very 'earthy' ways. They were interested in what's real and what's fake, what's authentic and what's phony, what's orginal and what's imitation. The problem with lying is not the violation  of some abstract category, but the representation of something which is misleadingly non-real.

I'm not suggesting to stop translating 'Emet' as 'Truth', just that the other possibility be tried as well, because it might make a big difference.


End of Shabbat Poll

I just added a poll to the right-hand margin. I am curious to know if people would consider Shabbat over if they saw three mid-sized stars even if the publicized 'Shabbat Ends' time had not yet arrived. I'll leave it up for a week; I'm very curious about this.


Chana's Biblical Character Meme

I was actually just thinking about this. Here are my tentative answers:

Which biblical character do you feel you are most like? Korach.
Which biblical character would you marry? Gomer bat Divlayim.
Which biblical character would you want on your team (or on your side, during a war?) Yonatan ben Shaul.
Which biblical character would you want to be close friends with? Ezra.
Which biblical character do you think would make an excellent Disney villain? God (just kidding. Eezevel.)

The High Court's Decision Regarding Heter Mechira

The Israeli High Court's recent landmark decision to override the Chief Rabbinate's ruling to allow local Chief Rabbis to set their own kashrut standards for shemittah has caused quite a stir in Israel, and would be getting even more press were it not overshadowed by the Annapolis Summit.

The Ashkenazi Haredi public has lambasted the decision, calling it consistent with what they perceive to be the court's anti-religious attitude that they have been protesting for years. The secular public takes it for granted that the Supreme Court should be just that - the country's final arbiter- and that ultimately the Rabbinical Courts are answerable to it. The Religious Zionist public seems torn between agreement with the decision on one hand, and, on the other hand, concern that the court has entered into area of halakhic decision-making.

I remain sympathetic to criticisms of the court, namely, that it is a self-perpetuating oligarchy that ignores democracy in favor of self-defined 'democratic values', that it fancies itself to be an island of liberal, Western correct thinking in the heart of the souk. Nevertheless, in this particular case, I both agree with the court's decision and believe that this type of decision should be within the court's purview.

The idea that the Rabbanut should not be answerable or accountable to the Israeli public is absurd. Every rabbi in history was accountable to his constituency, and for good reason. The role of the Rabbi is not to be a psak machine, but to address the concerns of the people. The rabbi is entitled to take his own position on a matter, but, by the same token, the congregation then has the right to select a rabbi who is more in tune with their sensibilities. Either extreme - the rabbi being unaccountable or the congregation exercising total control - is unacceptable. Rather, the relationship should be one of constant dynamic engagement between rabbi and community to try to arrive at a place which is good in the eyes of both God and man.

Looking at this relationship on the national scale, the question becomes who is empowered, as the representatives of the people, to decide when the rabbis are not doing their job and need to be replaced. The most intuitive answer is the High Court. Absent any special committees or laws that give the Rabbanut its 'job description', it is up to some judicial body - ultimately the highest judicial body - to define the role of the Rabbanut. They based their definition on much history and precedent with regard to this issue. A national body like the Rabbinate cannot start changing major positions, still deemed viable by many, depending on which way the wind blows. The 'heter mechira' has a checkered history, but it is a venerable history nonetheless. The court need not pasken that the heter is valid. It merely must clarify to the Rabbanut what its role is and what its mandate is - and that includes not reversing the positions of a lifetime, especially when so much is riding on it.

It must be emphasized that the court did not require anyone to rule against his conscience. Rather, it mandated that when the local Chief Rabbi is unwilling to certify 'heter mechira' produce as kosher, another willing rabbi should be brought in to do so. This solution should be obvious, based on the communal model. Everybody knows that the 'heter' exists and that the Rabbanut affects it. If a particular local rabbi does not like it, fine. That's his prerogative. The problem was that he could take such a position without risk, without having to answer to the people who work in the food industry whose lives and livelihood they affect. Fortunately, these people had recourse to a constituted body who could remind these rabbis, on behalf of the citizens of Israel, that they must take responsibility for their choices. This is a great step forward in the creation of an accountable Chief Rabbinate.

Fantastic New Blog

After two recent posts about the Rashbam on this week's parsha, commenter AJ pointed me to a blog called Parshanut. It is awesome. He takes one commentary per year (at least for the past 4 weeks) and finds interesting comments on the parsha of the week. I wish him much luck. I read the month worth of archives, and it is really good.

Rashbam on Avraham's Guests

This week's parsha's opening scene has God appearing to Avraham as he sits at the door to his tent in the heat of the day. The next verse describes how three men approached him. The classic interpretation, which even has major ethical implications, is that Avraham interrupted his conversation with God in order to attend to guests.

Rashbam has a radically different interpretation. He says that the first verse is a 'headline', and the later story fleshes it out. In other words, he says that God appeared to Avraham - as described in the first verse - in the guise of three men - as described in subsequent verses. He sticks with that interpretation throughout the episode, even refining it somewhat. He says that 'God' in this episode speaks through the 'greatest' of the visitors. It is He who remains to speak with Avraham as the other two go to destroy Sodom. Looking at verses 21 and 22 of the chapter, it seems that when God says 'I will go down to see if they have acted as has been screamed' it prompts the other 2 'men' to leave for Sodom, while the third remains to converse with Avraham.

This gives a really interesting perspective on what angels are. It's almost like the 'agents' in the first Matrix movie, the form used by the matrix itself, the program which contains all within it, to appear to entities which exist in the program.

Rashbam on the Akeidah

There are some incredible Rashbam's on this week's parsha that ly in the face of conventional Jewish understanding of various episodes. The first is on the Akedah. He understands it as a punishment for Avraham's treaty with Avimelech, based on the opening words of 'achar ha-devarim ha-eileh'. Inheriting the land, as God promised Avraham, would preclude entering into such treaties. It's as if God is saying to Avraham, "You're so confident in the treaties that you make, and how they'll last for generations? Go kill your kid. Let's see how much these treaties will help you!"

[This idea is chilling, given the context of current peace negotiations.]

He also gives an alternative translation of the word 'nisah' - commonly understood as 'tested' - where he takes it to mean 'tormented', but not in the sense of physical torture, but in the sense of a completely knocking the wind out of someone's sails, a complete reversal of expectations.
Rashbam even gives a French translation of this word (which resonates well with me particularly) - CONTRAIRE.
I think that this approach can be broadened, that 'achar ha-devarim ha-eileh' isn't just going on the treaty with Avimelech, but on Avraham's whole life. Avraham, the guy who made the connection between belief in God and pursuit of that which is good and just, that God is about morality and truth and justice, is here confronted by a commandment which undermines everything he thought and taught about God. Human sacrifice? Our God? It's truly a torment, and truly 'contrary' to everything Avraham had presumed about God.
It's as if to say, "Avreiml, you're a good guy, and you're doing great things. But in case you think that you've got Me figured out, that I'm the God of This or the God of That, I want you to go ahead and do the most evil and contrary thing that you could ever imagine."
Like the Kotzker said, if one can figure God out, then what does one need Him for?

[I posted this on a different blog a while back, but never on this site.]

Coming Soon: Intifada #3

This morning, on my way from Modiin to Jerusalem, I was delayed for a while - 10-15 minutes or so, in the protest reported on here and here. As I passed the scene of the protest itself, saw the Palestinian flags and the police and Border Guard making arrests, it dawned on me that our local cousins are gearing up for a new intifada, which will inevitably be 'sparked' by some 'provocation' after the Annapolis talks fail. Something to look forward to.


Statement of the Rabbinical Council of America in advance of the Israeli-Palestinian Negotiations at Annapolis MD

[Whether I agree with the following statement, which purports to speak in my name, is almost beside the point. After you cut through the highfalutin vocabulary, it adds nothing to the discussion that has not been hashed and rehashed a million times before. Do they really think that the real players involved care what a bunch of rabbis has to say on the matter, especially if they purport to speak with a single voice (like that's ever really happened) and take an unremarkable position? Is it just public posturing, to make people thing that the orthodox rabbinate is actually doing something? Some things are better left unsaid.]

October 22, 2007

In advance of the forthcoming Annapolis conference, the Rabbinical Council of America, consisting of almost 1000 rabbis, respectfully urges the American sponsors of this conference to take the following into serious consideration:

It is obvious that the State of Israel remains a small island of freedom in the Middle East, and is America's only reliable ally in that region. Any harm that comes to Israel will redound to the detriment of the United States as well. Any pressures on Israel to adopt positions that are fundamentally harmful to her interests will teach terrorists - and their proxies - that their modus operandi always reaps ultimate rewards.

The Palestinian Authority is an Unreliable Peace Partner

It is equally obvious that the Palestinian Authority (the PA) is a singularly unreliable entity.

  • It has proved unable to stop the daily shelling of Israeli town and villages.
  • It has done nothing to stop terror.
  • Its schools continue to teach children to hate Israel, and to hope for the day that Israel will be destroyed.
  • It crumbled completely in the face of the terrorist Hamas organization, and even handed over to Hamas arms that were supplied to the PA by America.
  • The PA's weakness is demonstrated in the continuous Kassam attacks on Sderot since the Gaza disengagement and the resulting Hamas ascendancy in Gaza.  We are concerned that an IDF withdrawal from the West Bank or the division of Jerusalem would result in a similar Hamas takeover, and an ensuing barrage of Kassam rockets throughout the heartland of Israel, including major population centers and its capital, Jerusalem.
  • The PA under Abbas remains as corrupt as it was under Arafat. It does not have the backing of its own people, and is either unwilling or unable to live up to any promises it makes.

Given America's previous painful experience with the PA, America must not be gulled by the façade of smiles and lip service to peace. To make concrete concessions in exchange for the verbal commitments of such a "peace partner" poses a mortal danger to the future of Israel. Only solid evidence of a sustained and profound change in PA attitudes and actions can serve as a basis for serious negotiations.


We respectfully remind the American sponsors that Jerusalem is not merely a piece of territory. Since Biblical times Jerusalem has been and remains central to Jewish faith and practice. For Jews it is in fact the "holy city" par excellence. To barter even parts of its sovereignty away, or to weaken its Jewish character in exchange for some ephemeral pledges of "peace" from an unreliable PA, poses a severe threat to the very soul and morale of the Jewish State. An undivided Jerusalem is a statement of strength and faith ? and thus a guarantor of peace. A divided Jerusalem is a surrender to weakness which will ultimately become a festering sore that will create misery in the region.

The countries of the Middle East respect strength. A show of vacillation and weakness in support of Israel will give a green light to anti-American interests. A show of resolve and strength by the USA in support of Israel's integrity will buttress hopes for a lasting peace in the region.


This post was inspired by Dan's enlightening (as always) recent post about Jewish attitudes toward animals and, in particular, dogs.

He starts with what he calls a Jewish joke, but the joke is not particularly Jewish. Here is the Jewish version of that joke:

"A man goes with his dog to visit his rabbi, feeling terribly disheartened. He describes to the rabbi how special the dog it, how the dog knows how to read and write, play the piano and even sing. The rabbi, confused, tells the man that he should be thankful. He can take the show on the road and use the dog to make an incredible fortune. 'I know', wails the man, 'but the stinking mutt just wants to sit and learn!'"

Dan's post, which talks about dogs at religious ceremonies and in shul, also reminded me of a conversation I had with my 3-year old son on the way to shul this past Shabbat. As we were walking, we saw a man walking his dog and said 'Shabbat Shalom' to him. My son asked if the dog was going to shul. I told him that dogs don't really go to shul, and that it's not nice to bring dogs to shul. I added, though, that there are special dogs who help people see when their eyes don't work. Those special dogs can go to shul.

He absorbs this for a second and then asks, "What kind of cat can go to shul."


The Idiot Coefficient

The story described in the last post reminded me of an idea I came up with a while ago called the 'idiot coefficient'. The idea is that when one takes what one knows, and divides it by what one thinks one knows, one gets a ratio, a fraction of the number 1. The smaller the number, the bigger the idiot.

There are thus many, many highly intelligent and accomplished people out there who are complete and total idiots.


Let Me to Teach You English

Every day, I get a whole bunch of flyers in the mail offering various goods and services. I generally glance at them to see what's being offered, more out of curiosity and the prospect of free magnets than because I think I might actually make use of them (though I have patronized food establishments hat I thus learned of).

Today, I got a flyer from some Israeli woman offering English classes for kids and adults. She had a description of her services in Hebrew, surrounded by a Shel Silverstein poem in English. Thing is, she had spelled Shel Silverstein as 'Shell Silverstein'. This probably leapt out at me because I'm acutely sensitive to the plene or deficient spelling of words containing the letter 'l'. My own name has been misspelled countless ways. Furthermore, I assume that it would have been quite common for Jewish parents in the 1930s to name their children 'Sheldon', which shortens to 'Shel', yet quite uncommon for them to name their kids 'Shell' or even the oddly spelled 'Shelldon'.

Normally, I would think that this is an honest mistake, which, indeed, it really is. But when one is advertising as a private English tutor, one really ought to make sure he really has it right. Therefore, I called the number on the flyer in order to bring the error to her attention. She was somewhat embarrassed but very thankful that I took the time to call and point it out.

A few minutes later, she called me back, saying that she looked it up on Google and that it is indeed spelled with two 'l's, not one. Now it was my turn to be embarassed. I thought of retreating from language games back to the four 'l's of Halakha. I did not have internet access at that moment, so I called my sister, who is the proud owner of the complete works of Shel Silverstein. I asked her how the name is spelled on the cover: Shel. I called the woman back to tell her this, and suggested that though there may be a large number of hits when searching for 'Shell Silverstein', she might want to compare it to the number of hits for 'Shel Silverstein'. That was the end of our conversation.

Later, I did the searches myself. It's Shel. Shell is a misspelling, though a fairly common one. Still, one would expect more of an English teacher (or a Vice-President, for that matter). My kids will learn English by reading the prose and poetry of Shel himself, and not from a non-native-speaking teacher who misspells the man's name.


Conversion Collision Course

[Part II of this]

Yesterday, Haaretz reported about an initiative to set up conversion courts that will be independent of the Chief Rabbinate. It is being initiated by the usual suspects - Tzohar, Hakibbutz Hadati, et al - as part of their mounting campaign to replace the Rabbanut with something else (or, more likely, with a milder version of the same darn thing).

Today, they reported about Chief Rabbi Amar's visit to the USA to check out the RCA's revamped conversion procedures, their primary response to the Rabbanut's threat to pull the plug on accepting RCA conversions. This was a huge news item about a year and a half ago, both in the mainstream media and in the blogs (especially this one).

This juxtaposition highlights the schizophrenia that exists within the MO Rabbinate about these issues. On one hand, they (we) feel that their derech in life and in psak is legitimate and that they must stand up to the ever-more machmir and strident haredized rabbinic establishment. At the same time, they poo-poo the Rabbanut and keep making nice because they recognize that they are at the Rabbanut's mercy when it comes to recognizing giyur (this goes for both Rabbanim in the Diaspora and 'unfranchised' Rabbanim in Israel). The MO Rabbinate wants its own identity, yet lives in mortal fear that chareidi elements like the 'Vaad Horabbonim Haolami Leinyonei Giyur' or its bedfellow the Eternal Jewish Family will influence the Rabbanut to basically lump, with perhaps a few exceptions, MO Rabbis in with their Reform and Conservative colleagues.

Personally, I am a proponent of austritt. In order for it to work, though, a few things must happen. First of all, from the Rabbinic side of things, it must be war. No footsie-playing on the side. Tzohar flirts with the RCA (thinking that what the Israeli Rabbinate lacks is the proper training of Rabbis - which it thinks that organizations like YU, the OU, and the RCA can help solve with their great expertise and their massive stashes of US $$ - and not realizing that the real issue is accountability; the minute a community has the power to fire its Rabbi, the Rabbi becomes very, very interested in learning about pastoral counseling), and the RCA likes the attention but must also then kiss the Rabbanut's tuchis. Tzohar itself walks a tightrope between competing with the Rabbanut and playing by its rules. They have lately been declaring war more openly against the Rabbanut, especially with these giyur and kashrut initiatives, but still has to make sure, for its own purposes, that the public keeps faith in the idea of a Chief Rabbinate while working to depose the current one (Pesonally, I am against the idea of a Chief Rabbinate in any form, I just don't think the Israeli public is ready for that).

The second, and most important thing that must happen is the buy-in of the RCA and Tzohar's core constituency, namely, the dati rank-and-file, the kosher-keepers, those who care about Jewish observance. This constituency is different in Israel and America because in Israel there are no denominational affiliations, really. Tzohar can claim to represent the 'dati-lite' and the traditional segments of the population, whereas the RCA only represents Orthodoxy. Be that as it way, the Rabbanut itself lives and dies by public faith. Can this public faith be undermined?

It depends. With regard to kashrut, it's easy. The law can say who has the right to put a certificate in a store window, but it cannot tell people what to put or not put in their mouths. If the people do not think that a Rabbanut-certified restaurant is kosher, then the weight of the law will not get them in the building (unless there is an supplementary certification, which really does not threaten the Rabbanut as long as they get their check in order for the Badatz to get theirs). Similarly, if people are convinced that something is kosher despite the lack of certification, then the lack of a sticker will not serve as a deterrent (especially if it is certified by another agency). Thus, the Rabbanut’s kashrut apparatus relies on public faith (and, ultimately, the dues paid by the food seller)in their process. If that faith is undermined, then the apparatus collapses, laws notwithstanding. The Heiter Mechirah controversy has created a perfect storm for another organization to step in and usurp the Rabbanut's role.

With regard to marriage and conversion, it is much more complicated. To a degree, people can vote with their feet in these matters as well. They can live together out of wedlock. They can get married civilly in a foreign country. They can find a rabbi who is willing to (risk arrest and) perform an ‘unofficial’ halakhic wedding. Here again, public faith plays a role, but it is a bit more complicated: the cost of not playing ball with the Rabbanut is much higher. Of course, the Rabbanut wants people to get married in Israel, according to ‘the law of Moshe and Israel’; for the most part, the people want the same thing. If everyone would stop caring about whether the Rabbanut considers me Jewish or not, or stopped caring about marrying Jewish or about mamzerut, etc., then its power would be broken. But people do not want to stop caring.

Furthermore, kashrut makes money, but weddings and conversions do not. Registries and databases cost money (though not too much anymore), the Rabbi must spend a lot of time with the couple and on the ceremony, and the fact that the Rabbanut is so well funded - by the government - makes it difficult to imagine that people will put up the money for a new apparatus when their taxpayers' NIS already pay for a local Rabbi. This, ultimately, is the biggest problem of all. The Rabbis who are 'official' have very cushy jobs and much security. Those who do not will not be paid by private initiative, because there's simply no money for that. So people make do with the imperfect current situation. Tzohar has already done what it can with regard to marriage, even getting the Rabbanut to begin changing from within. Truly breaking the Rabbanut's monopoly, however, may take decades, and must begin with those few brave sould who are willing to actually break the law to have an unsanctioned but halakhic wedding or conversion.

Sealing Sodom's Fate

The city of Sodom is encountered three times during the story of Avraham. The first time is when Lot decides to take up residence there. Already then, the Torah reports that "the people of Sodom were very wicked sinners before God". The second time is during the war of the four kings against the five kings, where Avraham rescues the people of Sodom and returns them to its king. Finally, in next week's parsha, the city of Sodom is destroyed as punishment for its wickedness.

Why the wait? Sodom was wicked from the start; what happened between the first encounter, when Sodom is already wicked, and the third, when it is destroyed? The second encounter, of course.

In the second encounter, the King of Sodom meets Avraham. Their meeting is very awkwardly broken up by the apparently simultaneous meeting between Avraham and Malkitzedek. I think that the key to understanding Sodom's destruction lies in this encounter.

Avraham had just won a decisive battle. The people of Sodom had been captured and enslaved, and Avrhaham had come into possession of them and their belongings. And he gives it all back. he was entitled to the property and even the people, as the verses make clear. In fact, the Gemara (Nedarim 32a) finds fault with Avraham that he had the opportunity to bring the people of Sodom under the 'Wings of the Divine Presence' but did not. Had could have had, quite literally, a 'captive audience' for his Kiruv seminars. But he let them go, and even gave back their property, though he allowed his soldiers to justifiably partake from the spoils and also gives 10% to God (indeed, Abraham is seen here withstanding the last temptation of Christ well before Jesus does).

There are really two ways to look at Avraham at this point. Malkitzedek sees Avraham as a saint, someone blessed by God. Avraham fights and wins, but refuses the trappings of victory because he fights for God. The King of Sodom sees Avraham as a monumental frayer. After seeing Avraham part with 10% of the spoils, he tries to beg Avraham for help, and ends up getting even more than he was bargaining for.

We would expect that encountering such incredible magnanimity, that Sodom, starting with the king, might have taken it to heart. It's one thing to be cruel. Lots of people are cruel. It's another thing to be the beneficiary of charity, to truly encounter compassion and mercy at its best, and then to go right back to evil. If the point of Avraham's career was to spread the word of God through acts of kindness and love, then Sodom was his greatest failure, though not for lack of trying. They thus forfeited their claim on the land of Israel, as recorded in the words of the Nevi'im, and were destroyed.

RatRabbi II

Josh just posted his take on the picture of Reb Yeshayaleh of Kerestierer. He connects it to the Christian (or perhaps, taking it even further back, the pagan) idea of a patron saint. I had thought about that connection as well; truth is, it exists in pretty much every culture. That's why I don't think it's 'darkei ha-Emori'; people don't put up the picture to 'be like goyim. They put it up to get rid of the darn mice.

I think I figured out the secret to this segulah, though. As I was reading Josh's post, my 16-month old son was running around the room. when he saw the picture on my screen, he exclaimed "Cat! Meow!". I actually repeated the experiment twice more. He identified the picture as a cat in 2 of the 3 instances, and just looked and smiled in the third instance. So perhaps that's it; Reb Yeshayalah, in this picture, anyway, looks somewhat catlike. Perhaps there's something to this. I have heard of people hanging pictures of owls as a 'segulah' to ward off pigeons. Alternatively, my son has a limited vocabulary and his cognitive development has placed him at the beginning of the Piagettian stage of symbolic representation. If something moves but does not look like an immediate family member, it is a 'cat'. Mice, on the other hand, can probably distinguish between 'cat's' an 'things which move but do not like to eat us or kill us'.

Two harry Potter-related questions:

  1. Would a pic of Reb Yeshayaleh have warded off Scabbers? Might depend how the segulah works, no?
  2. What would Reb Yehsayaleh's Patronus have been? A mouse or a cat?

Finally, I have a cousin who works for a company which makes glue traps. I suggested to him that if he would start putting the picture of R' Yeshayaleh on the package, he would absolutely corner the Chassidishe mousetrap market, which is no doubt formidable. If you're reading this, I expect a cut ;-)


Past Lech Lecha Posts

For some reason, Lech Lecha seems to have a disproportionate number of past posts connected to it. Here they are:

I've got another one sitting in my belly; I hope to find the time to write it up.

Home Sweet Home

I'll be discharged today. The assumption is that it is indeed Guillian-Barre, though apparently an extremely mild case. There will be some follow-up, but it seems that I'm cured.

I don't know what contributed to the quick process. Early detection - I doubt I would have noticed anything wrong had I not been on a hike - and early treatment probably played a role. The fact that I'm still on the younger side of things (or so I keep telling myself) may have helped. And let's not forget prayer (the prayers of others; I'm not sure I davened for myself, other than the standard brachot in Shemoneh Esrei. I will 'bentch gomel' when I get the opportunity.

Some (like my wife) have mentioned my attitude as a factor, but I don't buy it. I'm not a big believer in 'mind over matter' or 'laughter is the best medicine' -type approaches. As Jack Handey said, “Dad always thought laughter was the best medicine, which I guess is why several of us died of tuberculosis.”

I probably won't be posting so frequently once my nose gets back to the grindstone (and I'm actually very much looking forward to that), but that's to be expected. Here's a link to a fellow who I went to yeshiva with who is suffering from a rare blood disorder. He's got that mix of humor and information that I've been striving for, but he seems to be in for a much longer haul. Refuah Sheleimah. It's a great blog, but would probably be a bit weird if you don't actually know the guy.

I feel a bit guilty for absorbing so much sympathy for what ended up being a painless and relatively minor ailment, though I am certainly grateful for it. And, in truth, the very fact that I was away from home made things difficult there; it isn't easy to be a single parent. The help we had with the kids and with people cooking meals was fantastic.



YU vs. UMD II (link) - and while you're there, check out this. Seems like the Commie is getting pretty interesting.

NYT on SYs (link)

Interesting/cute videos:


Virtual Bikur Cholim

Yesterday, during his second prolonged visit to the hospital, my friend (and commenter and photographer) Elli Schorr and I discussed the meaning of the term' le-vaker' in its original sense. He contends, in a convincing manner, that it really means 'to concern one's self' or 'to contemplate'. From this, the modern opposing senses of 'to visit' and 'to criticize' or have a common ancestor. Perhaps 'bikur rofim' - 'doctor's check-up'  - maintains both senses. With this understanding, the FAQ about the apparent contradiction at the beginning of Psalm 27 (Le-David Hashem ori) between 'la-shevet' and 'le-vaker' fals away. le-vaker is not 'to visit', but 'to meditate upon', paralleling 'la-hazot' (to gaze upon) which also appears in the verse, as an activity that one does while dwelling in God's house.

there is an implication for the mitzvah of bikur cholim as well. Whereas the ubiquitous manner in which the mitzvah is generally performed is by actually visiting the ill, any act which manifests concern for the diseased or disabled falls under the rubric as well. This would include helping the sick person's family, but would also include virtual communication (phone, email, blog comments, facebook wall writing, etc.).

[In truth, the Schorrs helped us out once before, though without even realizing it. when our daughter Ruchama was born and spending a lot of time in the hospital (there are a few old blog posts about several aspects of this prolonged ordeal), we had a tremendous amount of help from a family who had gone through a hard time with their oldest daughter and were in position to help us cope with it. They, in turn, were helped by the Schorrs during their ordeal. The family in between has helped us out this time around as well and are also long-time readers and commenters on the blog. And the Burgers Bar was awesome ;-)]

For a while now, I have gotten the sense that this medium, the blog, this strange hobby which will soon celebrate its upsherin, has developed into something of a real community, albeit a virtual one. Sure it's about Torah, news, rants, or whatever else might occur to my ADD mind; but that obscures the fact that the conversation develops out of a real, though virtual, sense of community. Like you don't shmooz with someone at a kiddush unless the relationship is already there.

The outpouring of affection and concern that has come through as a result of my current situation has really reinforced that feeling. The virtual Bikur Cholim, which is a very real type of Bikur Cholim, has been wonderful. Clearly, the blog is only a part of it. the relationships are very real, and transcend whatever might happen because of a website. But the opportunity to share, to continue our conversation from my hospital bed, through emails, visits, phone calls, blog comments and posts on my facebook wall - especially those of you who have volunteered to get beaten like rented mules by playing Scrabble on-line with me (I'm 14-1 so far). Thanks also to the many people who have helped Pesha out with the kids. She's having the hardest time of all. It is all Bikur Cholim, plain and simple, if a bit unconventional.

Finally, whenever I hear about Bikur Cholim, this is the image that comes to mind:


Making Sense from Illness?

So I've been here for about 4 days now, and I've had ample opportunity to reflect on the situation. Many have commented to me that 'my spirit/ matzav ruach' has been excellent. That may well be. The way I see it, there's really no reason to be down. If I were in pain, it might be different. But I'm not, so why shouldn't I continue to have a good time?

Additionally, this relates to the whole 'why' question. Should I be asking why something like this happens? Is there an answer? Personally, I haven't really asked the question seriously. Perhaps that's a Calvinesque response: there's a strip in which he and Hobbes get into a sledding accident and Calvin says "Careful, we don't want to learn any lessons from this." i think this is fundamentally different, though. There, he is actively making sure that experience is not a teacher. In my case, there's no 'experience' to learn from. I did not get into this situation by making some type of error in judgment, at least not in any type of physical causal sense.

Therefore, my attitude is simply to try making the best of an annoying situation. For years now, I have tried to live by an attitude whereby I live life as it comes, not trying to live too much in the past, not trying to mortgage too much to the future. The situation is what it is - no sense dwelling on the coulda, shoulda, wouldas if it will just create a sense of despondency and despair. By all means, take stock, learn from the past; but don't dote on it. Life is happening now. So as I sit here in the hospital, I refuse to feel sorry for myself (though I do feel sorry for my wife, who is truly bearing the brunt of my absence) or to think of this predicament as 'punishment'. It's life. It happens. I will judge myself only the way I handle the situation, and will not entertain metaphysical questions.

As an exercise in my own amusement, perhaps with a bit of a cutting edge, I've thought about the possible spiritual 'causes' for this illness.

The first possibility relates to the fact that this is an autoimmune condition. My father suggested that I have been selling myself short in various aspects of my professional life. I've been 'attacking' myself, weakening myself by settling for subpar opportunities. Perhaps. Definitely something to think about for the long term. Heck, I'm 31 and have no idea what I'll be doing in 5 years.

Another idea is that since this affects my walking, it could reflect a flaw in my 'halicha' in a broader sense. Perhaps I am not serious enough about 'halakha'. perhaps I need to re-think my stance on life, my path toward God, or my commitment to Torah (cf. Rashi to 'im bechukotai telechu')

Alternatively, this condition affects my antibodies, which, in Hebrew, are called 'nogdanim'. Perhaps I'm a bit too contrarian, and should shut this blog down. Nah.

Finally, this condition attacks the myelin sheath around the nerves. I'm literally getting on my own nerves. Perhaps this is because I have gotten on the nerves of others.

These are all things worth thinking about, yet none of them will make me lose sleep. I'll keep trying to become a better guy, whether or not I have GBS. At least I hope so.

JUST RECIEVED: A picture of me undergoing plasmapheresis