A Quote that Makes me Want to Learn More about this Guy

Universal justice is the essence of Judaism and all of the various types of liberalism, which are rooted in love and sensitivity, their blessed source is in classical Judaism, making it easy for us to be true to the fundamentals of Judaism while being the most extreme liberals...
R. Shmuel Alexandrov, Mikhtavei Mechkar U-bikoret, 1907, p. 23, letter to Rav Kook (which the latter responds to in Letters I:45).

R. Alexandrov seems like a fascinating character. He published several short works that I'm dying to find the time to delve into.


Berlin and Jerusalem

Berlin and Jerusalem have an interesting relationship. Ever since the 19th Century, when there was widespread sentiment that "Berlin is the New Jerusalem", the cities been, in a sense, antipodal. We all know about the prescient words of the Meshekh Chokhma, and we know about the fortunes of the two cities since then.
I was reminded of their antipodality this week. Both Jerusalem and Berlin were divided cities for parts of the 20th century. Jerusalem between 1948 and 1967 and Berlin between 1961 and 1989 (in truth, it was divided for a longer period than that, but without a wall).
Yes, as the world celebrates the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin wall, it clamors for Jerusalem to be redivided. In fact, this partition of Jerusalem is championed by the same folks who wrote all those articles comparing the Separation Fence to the Berlin Wall.
Do an experiment: gauge the reaction of people to the statement "Berlin will never again be divided" with the statement "Jerusalem will never again be divided".
Some might argue that Jerusalem is already divided de facto. That may be true, and I am certainly not arguing that the idea of partitioning Jerusalem should not be carefully considered. I AM, however, saying that there's not a snowball's chance in hell that Gilo will end up on the Palestinian side of the partition (look at a map of Jerusalem today and a map of Jerusalem in 1967; there's no way that we're going back there). And I AM saying that a partition of Jerusalem, in any form, would be tragic.


Parsha Playlist

Listening to my youtube playlist (which shows pretty clearly that I came of age in the early 1990s), I was reminded of a reading of a well-known Gemara that I posted, and which somewhat relates to this week's parsha as well as to my post on last week's parhsa.


The First FFB

This is an oldie but a goodie (the rabbi formerly known as Yehupitz recalled it to me). it never actually appeared on this blog, but on the short lived "Maven Yavin" blog. It also brings me back to a less cynical point in my life (I wrote this 4 years ago but developed the kernel 13 years ago already). Here it is:

Although much has been written on the Ba'al Teshuvah experience, the experience of FFBs (Frum From Birth) presents its own set of challenges. For a number of years, I have seen Yitzchak Avinu, the world’s first FFB, as a paradigm for those challenges, especially as his experience unfolds in this week’s parsha, Toldot. Please bear in mind that this in no way exhausts the potential to read Yitzchak in this light.

This parsha tells Yitzchak’s story. Abraham’s death is recorded at the end of last week’s parsha even though he lived to see the events at the beginning of this week’s. Once he ‘passed the torch’ to Yitzchak after his marriage to Rivkah, and his story is no longer relevant to the continuity of God’s covenant with man.

Yitzchak’s story is summed up it the first verse of the Parsha: This is the story of Yitzchak, the son of Avraham; Avraham begat Yitzchak.

That’s who Yitzhcak was: Avraham’s kid. Rashi directs us to a Midrash here that states that Avraham and Yitzchak were virtually indistinguishable, so there would be no room for cynics to suggest that Yitzchak was the son of anyone else. The Midrash communicates the latent message of this verse – that Yitzchak’s entire life, entire experience, goals, attitudes, and even the way he presented himself, were strongly shaped by his upbringing in the house of Avraham.

It’s not easy to be ‘The Rabbi’s Kid’. Dad’s the guy who hears the Voice of God, but the kid’s the one who ends up getting sacrificed. From a very young age, the pressure to speak and act in a particular way are enormous, as everyone has different expectations from ‘The Rabbi’s Kid’. I’ve seen with my own two eyes how two students may be carrying on in the exact same manner, but the Rabbi’s Kid is singled out because he ‘ought to know better’. The kid would wish nothing more that to simply be like everyone else, with little or no expectations.

In a sense, every FFB is a ‘Rabbi’s Kid’, to the extent that they live in a culture where they are keenly aware that they have different expectations from those in the surrounding culture. The child is tethered to the values and behaviors of the parents, with little or no opportunity to discover for themselves what would make a person desire or choose this awkward lifestyle.

In the second verse of the Parsha, Yitzchak’s experience is contrasted by the experience of Rivkah, the ultimate NCSY story. Again Rashi points us in this direction; she was born to a wicked man, in a wicked place, and had a wicked brother. She’s the ultimate Ba’alat Teshuva, having had no expectations given her upbringing.

But in the third verse, again, taking Rashi’s approach, we see that this introduction was almost a set-up for what ensues. When they pray for a kid, Yitzchak is answered, not Rivkah. Someone who overcame so much and someone who was given everything on a silver platter, and the latter’s prayers are more powerful. Rashi even tells us that prayer of a 'tzaddik ben rasha’ – the righteous the son of the wicked – is qualitatively inferior to prayer of a ‘tzaddik ben tzaddik’ – the righteous the son of the righteous. Why?

I’ve heard in the name of R’ Simcha Zissl of Kelm that the key term is ‘tzaddik ben tzaddik’ and not just ‘ben tzaddik’. The process by which ‘the son of the righteous’ who, by default, by habit, would be acting in a manner that would be consistent with ‘righteousness’ at conventionally understood. It’s no small matter for a person to become a ‘tzaddik ben tzaddik’.

Religious growth can be conceptualized into two categories – change which manifests externally and change which does not manifest externally. Rivkah always had an external benchmark, a starting point against which to gauge her growth. Yitzchak had no such luxury. If he was to grow and mature as a religious person, any change would be completely invisible to the world. It is a process which requires a great degree of self-awareness, to distinguish between elements of one’s personality which are habit, and those which have been freely affirmed. There is a certain comfort in ‘externalizing’ one’s religious growth, which can be seen regularly in the contemporary Orthodox community. This implicitly recognizes that interior growth with no external manifestation is very, very, difficult to affect and engenders constant insecurity with one’s own religious state.

The verb ‘to pray’, in Hebrew, is reflexive. Jewish tradition has understood prayer as a process of self-discovery and self-judgment. The prayer of a tzaddik ben tzaddik is indeed a potent prayer.

Yitzchak’s personality, in the Jewish mystical tradition, is connected to the process of ‘judgment’, again reflecting the process of ‘pure judgment’ by which he must scrutinize himself.

He is seen as the originator of the mincha prayer – said at a time where both the sudden clarity of morning and the confusion and darkness of night are absent. There’s light, but it’s old light.

Yitchak follows in his fathers footsteps, struggling against adversity to dredge the wells that his father had originally dug. Is that not the ultimate FFB experience? Redigging our fathers’ wells? Trying to rediscover the freshness and life within them?

Haloscan comments


The Responsibility of Leadership and the Teitel Arrest

Egla arufa, recorded in Deuteronomy 21:1-9 is one of the Torah’s more obscure mitzvot. If a corpse is found in the vicinity of a town, that entire town, represented by its elders, must expiate itself of the murder by performing an atoning ritual (breaking the neck of a calf at a dry riverbed) and declaring that they did not perpetrate the murder. The Talmudic Rabbis nevertheless attribute some guilt to the town and its elders: perhaps they could have provided the unfortunate victim with an escort, or perhaps they neglected to offer hospitality to the victim or the perpetrator (see Sifrei and Malbim to Deut. 21:7), thereby indirectly causing the crime. Similarly, the Rabbis assigned some indirect responsibility for accidental homicides to the High Priest (see Num. 35:25 and Rashi ad. loc.).

Opinion pieces and editorials covering the arrest of Jack Teitel (colorfully and creatively now known as “the Jewish terrorist”) have largely either assigned blame to the national religious/ far right/ West Bank/ American religious immigrant community for creating a context for this type of crime to flourish, or sought to deflect or deny the responsibility of those communities (while, of course, condemning the acts).

Rabbi Rafi Feuerstein, a board member of the Tzohar Rabbinic Organization, published an op-ed in which he calls on the rabbis to publicly condemn (but not apologize for) the act, because otherwise silence will be construed as acquiescence. R. Feuerstein comes very close to hitting the nail on the head: He acknowledges that the role of the rabbi – as well as the teacher, leader, or any other public figure – is to keep an open eye on those marginal individuals from whom despicable acts may emerge, specifically, to prevent those elements from hearing messages that would enable them to draw frightening conclusions.

Alas, this is where R. Feuerstein misses the mark in a fashion that is typical of Israeli rabbis. Israeli rabbis – even those on the moderate to left end of the Religious-Zionist spectrum such as R. Feuerstein and other Tzohar rabbis – cast themselves first and foremost as ideologues and thinkers (I have not yet seen the Coen’s Brothers’ new film “A Serious Man”, but I did see the trailer snippet about how one of the rabbis that the main character seeks out has no time for an audience because he is “busy thinking”; though a caricature, there is some truth to it, especially with regard to the Israeli rabbinate). As such, R. Feuerstein sees as his primary goal to make sure that the ideological pronouncements made by himself and his colleagues are articulated in a manner that does not allow them to be construed by those on the margins as agreement or encouragement of criminal behavior. He even goes further – the rabbis should make an ideological pronouncement clarifying that the values they espouse conflict with the actions of this “lone wolf”, lest silence at this time be construed as acquiescence.

Had R. Feuerstein adopted a different image of the role of the rabbi – one that I believe has a stronger historical tradition and is more in line with the needs of the present Jewish community – his message might have been somewhat different. The rabbi indeed has a duty toward the margins of society: not an indirect duty to make sure that such elements do not become monsters, but a direct duty to engage and address the needs of that constituency as any other member of the rabbi’s flock. A rabbi is a pastor, not a policeman and not a public intellectual.

In that sense, R. Feuerstein should have called for the rabbis to accept some blame in the manner of the town elders during the egla arufa ceremony: denial of any active wrongdoing, but acknowledgment that perhaps they could and should have been more attuned to the needs and thoughts of their constituents – even the most marginal of them. I am not so naïve to think that the rabbis are responsible for gauging the mental state of every affiliated Jew everywhere in the world. Yet, like the town elders of the egla arufa or the High Priest of the accidental killer, they do bear some guilt for failing to notice and address someone who needed help. In fact, closer attention to the individual, even at the expense of demagoguery, may have helped prevent the crimes in question.