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.