Your Vote Counts

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

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


Anyone Want to Join Us?

I am seriously tempted to buy tickets to the Depeche Mode concert in Ramat Gan on May 10, 2009. Anyone interested in double dating?


Avoiding Extremes in Orthodox Conversion

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


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

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

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

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

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

R. Yitzchak began:

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

R. Yitzchak said:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Shuk Democracy

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

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

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

On Voting

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

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

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

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

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

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