The Neuroses of Heinz Kissinger

The recent release of the Nixon-Kissinger tapes has been reported widely in the Jewish community, particularly because of the latter's comment:
The emigration of Jews from the Soviet Union is not an objective of American foreign policy, and if they put Jews into gas chambers in the Soviet Union, it is not an American concern. Maybe a humanitarian concern.
There has been a lot of analysis of Kissinger's statement, as he is a German Jew and a Holocaust refugee. I immediately recalled the following section of Yehuda Avner's The Prime Ministers, which, incidentally, I cannot praise enough, and I'm glad to see that D.G. Myers gave it pride of place in his review of Jewish books published in 2010.
In the excerpt, psychiatrist Willie Fort, born Wilhelm Furtwangler in Germany, offers an extemporaneous diagnosis of Kissinger's neurosis and a glimpse at the shy and paranoid Jewish refugee beneath his projected self-assurance and arrogance. Posted with the permission of Toby Press.

Click on"fullscreen" for a clearer image, or follow the link to the scribd site.
The Neuroses of Heinz Kissinger2


The Atlantic on Half Shabbos?

There's a long article in today's Atlantic about the dilemmas caused by eBooks on Shabbat. It canvases some rabbinic opinion about whether there will be any kind of permit for it, ever. A few weeks back, I contended (in the final paragraph of this post) that a potential future dividing line might be between the display of stored data, like you have on an eBook, and creating new data, like texting. The former might become permitted, but never the latter.


A (Lost?) Teachable Moment with a Haredi Beggar at the Supermarket

As I wheeled my heavy shopping cart toward my car after procuring the victuals that would sustain my family of six for the week, I noticed a gentleman in Hasidic garb talking to another shopper, by all appearances asking for a dole. By the time I unlocked my car, he had made his way over to me and begun his charity pitch.

I said to him that if he would help me load my goods into my car, I would give him a tip. After a look of confusion briefly crossed his face, he agreed, and began placing bags into the car with alacrity. We conversed all the while:
Me: This is the way of the world, no? You work, you get paid.
Him: It's a mitzva to help out.
M: Indeed it is. After all, it says "when you see your enemy's donkey staggering under its burden..."
H: Chas Ve-shalom that we're enemies!
M: ...you didn't let me finish. Kal Va-chomer if it's your friend!
H: Exactly!

By that time, we had finished loading, and I reached into my wallet to offer a tip. He protested that he helped for the mitzva, not for the payment. I insisted that since I gave him the opportunity to fulfill a mitzva, he return the favor by giving me the opportunity to do a mitzva. He acceded and accepted my 10 NIS as long as it was clear to both of us that it was not in payment for his services.

I wonder, why did he so insist? Was it because he really didn't want the material reward to take away from his mitzva? Or was it because he was afraid to acknowledge the causal nexus between work and pay (it must be noted that 10 NIS for 2 minutes of manual labor is one hell of a welfare program)?

As my sister-in-law said, it was probably a little bit of both.

On that note, this "rabbinic yellow pages" has been making the rounds. Quite well done:


Introducing Kol Ha-Rav

[UPDATE: Kol Ha-Rav is only a few hours old, and already it has been cited on Goldblog. Given that the goal of our new blog is to introduce rabbinic voices such as R. Lichtenstein into the public discourse, I'd say, so far, mission accomplished]

Rabbi Gil Student of Hirhurim-Musings and I have created a new blog, Kol Ha-Rav. Its goal is to disseminate statements, in the original or in translation, of leading rabbinic figures of the past and present whose words address timely issues and offer a traditional rabbinic voice that is often, unfortunately, absent from public discourse on the issue at hand.

The first substantive blog post is up: Rav Lichtenstein's response to the ban on selling a home to a gentile in Israel.

Contact me if you wish to submit material for publication on Kol Ha-Rav.


Heidi and Mendy vs. Uri and Dahlia

[For some reason, my previous blog post, a criticism of the recent ban by some rabbis on renting and selling homes to non-Jews in Israel, did npt appear on some RSS feeds. Here it is.]

By now, everyone knows about the terrible Chillul Hashem caused by Heidi and Mendy on The People's Court. The explanation offered in VINis plausible and may absolve them, in the eyes of man if not the judge, of attempting to take the cleaners to the cleaners. For what it's worth, I believe the VIN write-up and give Heidi and Mendy the benefit of the doubt. It's important to keep in mind that "The People's Court" is not actually a court of law. The litigants agree to appear before the "judge" as a binding arbitrator. It is also worth recalling that the point of the show, like any show, is to provide entertainment.The judge's tirade at the end was certainly entertaining, whether or not it was just.

I still fault Heidi and Mendy for two things: the first is appearing on the show in the first place, as has been noted by many. The second is appearing wearing the wig she was wearing. In hindsight, it's easy to see how wearing a clearly expensive wig could cast aspersions on the whole story. From a tactical point of view, it probably would have won more points had she been wearing a kerchief of some sort.

Lest one argue that it is inappropriate to wear a kerchief to court, well, this is America of the 21st century, and folks can (and should) wear whatever they want on their heads as a religious expression. Don't believe me? Well, one rebbetzin wore a kerchief to the White House Hannukah party. Meet Rabbi Uri and Dahlia Topolosky of New Orleans (full disclosure: they're friends of ours; and he's a UMD alum - go Terps!):


In Praise of a Zionism that Remembers the Exile

A group of Israeli rabbis have signed a document forbidding the sale or rental of homes in Israel to non-Jews.  Unfortunately, the rabbinic voices of dissent (dare I say "of reason") are barely noted, though they're out there (as will be regularly updated on this facebook page).

It is hard to characterize an issue like this one: it has major political and diplomatic repercussions, on the surface the rabbis address it as a halakhic issue, and there is clearly a deeper ideological element. The halakhic discussion revolves around a precept called "Lo Tehanem" that forbids granting gentiles possession of part of the Land of Israel. The parameters of that prohibition are the subject of much halakhic debate (in recent decades, the precept has been invoked in discussions of the halakhic permissibility of trading land for peace and of the hetter mekhira, the symbolic lease of the entire land of Israel to a gentile during the Sabbatical year, thus enabling Jewish farmers to continue cultivating; ironically but predictably, some rabbis explain away lo tehanem in some instances while standing firm on it in others). Like any good halakhic debate, there is a range of opinions and voices on the matter. In some ways, however, this makes the conclusion reached by the signatories of the ban even more troublesome: given clear and mainstream halakhic precedent for leasing property to gentiles in the Land of Israel, and given the well-honed halakhic toolbox for finding leniency in extenuating circumstances (incurring the disapproval of the gentile world easily qualifies), rabbinic insistence on the "hard line" seems particularly disturbing. Granted, much of what it means to be Israeli is built on the repudiation of the exilic concern with "what the goyim will say." In that sense, I am indeed proudly advocating a healthy dose of galuti mentality.

The underlying ideology of the hard line position views any gentile presence on the Land of Israel as anomalous and, to the degree possible, worthy of elimination. This ideology has adopted Rashi's comments on Genesis 1:1 as a mantra (as Rav Beni Lau notes on p. 3b here - via Tomer): "If the gentile nations say that you are robbers who occupied a land not theirs, say to them: 'The entire earth belongs to the Holy One, blessed be He; He created it and gave it to whomever He deemed proper (le-et asher yashar be-einav). When He wished, He gave it to them, and when He wished, He took it away from them and gave it to us.'"

Here, too, there is ample room for alternative positions, and that many tenuous assumptions must be made before such an ideological position supports a practical one. Here, too, the diplomatic and galuti tempering of real or ideal positions would prove useful. Not everything that is thought must be said.

More fundamentally, though, I take issue with the common understanding of Rashi's comments and propose an alternative reading, one that cuts to the heart of what Zionism, particularly religious Zionism, means.

The key phrase of Rashi's comment is "le-et asher yashar be-einav," which can be interpreted in two ways. The first way sees God's gift of the land as essentially arbitrary: God whimsically takes the land from one group and gives it to another, which is great for the beneficiaries of God's whimsy and tough luck for the dispossessed. The second way interprets the crucial phrase in a moral vein: God grants the land to those who are upright in His eyes, to whomever pleased Him, not to whomever He pleased. In context of Rashi's comments, the land was given to Israel because God, as Owner of this bit of real estate, reserved the right to grant it to whomever deserves it, and to withdraw it if present occupants prove undeserving.

A deeper analysis of this key phrase, "le-et ashe yashar be-einav," demonstrates that the latter interpretation is indeed the correct one. The source for this key phrase is Jeremiah 27:5 (a glance at the various translations of the verse indeed bears out the ambiguity of its meaning), part of a series of prophecies set at the beginning of the reign of Yehoyakim and warning the people of Judea that continued injustice would result in the loss of sovereignty to the Chaldeans. Given the context, it seems quite unlikely that Jeremiah meant that control of the land is based on God's whim.

Furthermore, as I've written before, the various forms of the phrase "yashar be-einei Hashem" appear throughout the Bible, and always refer to man doing that which is good and right in God's eyes, and is often contrasted with those who do that which is right in their own eyes. In Deuteronomy (6:18), the Torah specifically prescribes to "do what is upright and good in God's eyes (ha-yashar ve-hatov be-einei Hashem)." Given the moral force of the phrase in question elsewhere, it can hardly be construed as a morally neutral designation in this instance.

Finally, it would be terribly ironic if Rashi used the verse in question to prove that the Holy Land eternally belongs to the people of Israel, as in context it refers to God taking the land away from Israel and giving it to the Chaldeans! Nebuchadnezzar, not the Judeans, was "proper in God's eyes" at that time.

Of course, the implications of this reading for religious Zionism are profound. It means that the Jewish grip on the land is always tenuous, conditioned upon deserving it, living up to it, and doing that which God considers upright. The attitude that Israel belongs to the Jews by Divine grace, without having to earn it, was anathema to the Prophets, who saw justice and righteousness, universally applied, as the pillars upon which the Jewish commonwealth in the Land of Israel could be founded, and who saw failure to deserve the land as the direct cause of exile.


News Round-Up

  • Over 300 people attended our annual Kabbalat Shabbat Hannukah at the ancient synagogue at Umm al-Umdan, including the city councilman in charge of tourism and heritage sites. Last year there were about 150. One day soon, Shabbat Chanukah in Modiin will be a "thing to do."
  • I had a post planned entitled "the top 8 Chanukah songs besides the Maccabeats, Matisyahu, and Adam Sandler. Then DovBear came and did that and more (I had Lehrer, Stewart/Colbert, South Park, Hannukah Harry, and Oy Chanukah) - but he missed some good ones. Here they are:
    The LeeVeees: How do you Spell Hannukah?

    Fountainheads: I Gotta Feeling Hannukah

    Peter Paul and Mary: Light one Candle for the Maccabee Children


    Topsy-Turvy World: On Hannukah, Wikileaks, and Karl Marx's Dreidel

    As noted by Benjamin, the dreidel has not fared well in this year's Hannukah news cycle. Howard Jacobson and Marc Tracy justifiably call it a lame game, developing a trope implied by Jon Stewart in a (hilarious) video from last year. Attempts to parlay the lame toy into something cooler, like a Guiness record (note - I was a participant in the event a few years ago when UMD set the record), or invest it with symbolic meaning, end up being the exceptions that prove the rule. The game is inherently boring and skill-less.

    And yet.

    One of the more interesting symbolisms ascribed to the dreidel is articulated by R. Nachman of Breslov and appears in Sichot Ha-Ran #40, part of a critique of medieval cosmology. Translation appears in Tormented Master, p. 309):
    Their books contain questions as to the order of Creation: How is it that a star merited to be a star, or that a constellation deserved to be a constellation? What was the sin of the lower creatures, animals and all the rest, that consigned them to their lowly state? Why not just the opposite? Why is a head a head and a foot a foot?...

    This entire pursuit, however, is a vain one. One should not ask such questions of God, who is righteous and upright. For in truth, the entire universe is a spinning top, which is called a dreidel. Everything moves in a circle: angels change into men and men into angels; the head becomes a foot and the foot a head. All things in the world are part of this circular motion, reborn and transformed into one another. That which was above is lowered and that which was below is raised up. For in their root all of them are one.

    The thrust of this passage is a critique of Platonic essentialism, a critique that is echoed in a famous passage from Karl Marx (I developed this comparison a few years ago, in a Hannukah post):
    All fixed, fast frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned...
    More broadly speaking, though, the "lesson" of the dreidel is that we live in a topsy-turvy world in which nothing is solid and stable and fixed. The origin of the dreidel that was told to me in my childhood-that when the evil Greeks came to the study hall to see if the Jews were engaged in the forbidden act of Torah study, these brave and studious Jews put away their books and took out the spinning tops- has itself been turned on its head; now, the Jewish army spies on draft dodgers to make sure they're really studying Torah or keeping Shabbat.

    We have been treated to an astounding example of this instability with the publication of the Wikileaks documents. Overnight, the distinction between enemy and ally became blurred and entire theories and narratives about foreign affairs collapsed like houses of cards, completely and inexorably altering the world's diplomatic landscape. Julian Assange and Benjamin Netanyahu, perhaps there can be no stranger bedfellows (although admittedly R. Nahman and Karl Marx make pretty strange bedfellows), cite each other approvingly.

    So keep spinning that dreidel, lest you be caught of guard when the next tremor turns the seemingly solid surface beneath your feet into so much jello - hey, it's a jelly doughnut metaphor, too!


    R. Mosheh Lichtenstein: Reasons Not to Fast for Rain

    [The following letter was sent by R. Mosheh Lichtenstein to students in his yeshiva. The background is a discussion amongst the Roshei Yeshiva of Yeshivat Har Etzion regarding the degree of the yeshiva’s participation in the recent fast day called by the Chief Rabbinate to pray for rain (another fast has now been called for Monday). R. Mosheh’s stance was ultimately not accepted by the yeshiva. I have taken the time to translate and disseminate this letter—with R. Mosheh’s permission, though he has not reviewed my translation—for two reasons. The first reason is that his perspective is valuable in and of itself. The second reason is the importance of providing an alternative position to the other stuff out there, which includes rabbis saying prayers for rain on boats and in hot air balloons. I skipped the opening and closing lines of the letter and translated only the body. The Hebrew original will follow the English.]

    I [=R. Mosheh Lichtenstein] will begin with a disclaimer. Chazal, in the mishna and gemara Sanhedrin, forbade a judge whose position was not accepted to publicize it as a minority opinion; rather, he must be faithful to his compatriots and stand behind them. If he failed to do so, of him it is written (Mishlei 11:13), “a base fellow gives away secrets.” In the present case, I asked permission to publicize my opinion, and its dissemination is with the consent of my colleagues; however, in my view I am permitted to disclose my position, not because of any acquiescence, but for a much more fundamental reason, namely, that the aforementioned talmudic discussion addresses legal decisions in a rabbinical court, not ethical and educational questions. From a legal perspective, consolidation of the court’s authority in the eyes of the litigants and firm insistence on the authority of the institution of the rabbinical court, which derives from the principle of “incline after the majority,” mandates that all judges stand squarely behind the court’s rulings. With regard to educational questions, the situation is different. Yeshivat Har Etzion is founded on the principle that a multiplicity of opinions and the presentation of opposing positions to its students, while sharing educational and spiritual dilemmas with them, makes the mind fertile and contributes to avodat Hashem. The benefits of presenting different positions outweigh the costs. This is why I wish to express my opinion to my students, and this is why my colleagues have given their consent.

    Here are my basic arguments:

    A. Lack of danger
    I will begin with a harsh statement that shows the absurdity, in my view, of fasting for rain nowadays: it is ludicrous to fast for rain while the sprinklers at the yeshiva, at the homes of its rabbis, of local residents, and of public gardens—here and everywhere else—operate as usual. How can we fast over a dearth of rain when we continue to water our ornamental garden? How can we open the aron kodesh and cry out about the lack of water when no serious effort has been made to minimize water consumption?!

    More to the heart of the issue, masekhet Ta’anit addresses a reality in which a dearth of rainfall is, quite literally, life threatening. Fasting for rain is blatantly a prayer for survival. In a world without motorized transportation, the ability to transport food and water long distances, or refrigeration, lack of rain means famine, drought, and death, Rachmana litzlan. Without anything for man or beast to drink, without food or pasture, life is at risk. In the modern reality, however, in which water can be desalinated and food imported, the issue is no longer existence, but money or abundance. Desalination costs money, but it removes the mortal threat.

    In actuality, the country’s prolonged water crisis is not a crisis of existence, but a crisis of standard of living. Were we to dry out the gardens and give up the swimming pools and sprinklers, we would lose important things that broaden man’s mind, but we would not be putting our existence at risk. Therefore, to a large degree, the issue is one of lifestyle, which warrants our hoping for more rain, but does not justify decreeing a fast because there is not sufficient water to maintain the present standard of living.

    Simply stated, fasting is a response to danger, and in the modern reality, the danger that was present in a lack of rain in the times of Chazal no longer threatens us.

    B. “Rainfall is livelihood”
    In truth, there are two schools of thought about why Chazal instituted fasts for rain: A. Rain is a sign of Divine providence over the people of Israel, and lack of rainfall implies a heavenly decree and Divine wrath; B. The threat and risk that result from a lack of water. It is quite possible that these two positions find expression at the beginning of masekhet Ta’anit, when the gemara presents two opinions regarding whether “rainfall is livelihood” or rainfall and livelihood should be counted as two distinct factors.

    I believe that for us the primary element for us is indeed risk of loss and not providential sign. Masekhet Ta’anit incorporates rainfall in a long list of other tribulations that threaten the public, including pestilence, drought, war, and terrible beasts; evidently the crux of the matter was danger, and the mishna merely followed the prayer of Shlomo, which includes all of these elements. The Rambam also emphasized public distress as the obligating factor and does not address heavenly signs (although according to him, fasts for rain differ from other tribulations; here is not the place to expand on this), and in this he followed the Torah’s admonitions. Each day, when reciting the Shema, we are not satisfied with “I will grant the rain for your land in season, the early rain and the late.” Rather, we emphasize the ramifications: “You shall gather in your new grain and wine and oil. I will provide grass in the fields for your cattle, and you will eat and be satiated.”

    Consequently, we must examine not only the water economy (and as noted, under present conditions lack of rainfall does not compare to war, plague, or illness), but the economic reality as a whole. And indeed, I accept the contention of R. Danny Wolf, who once wrote that we should consider fasting when unemployment rises, when the economy suffers from a severe recession, and the like. So how can we decree a fast now, when the stock exchange went up significantly over the past year, unemployment went down (even though it remains troublingly high), the currency maintained its value, and the Israeli economy functioned better than that of most developed nations in recent years?

    C. Providence and nature
    I find it difficult to recommend fasting even to one who espouses the approach that views rain as a heavenly sign. Do we live at such a level of providence nowadays, that we may translate natural phenomena into spiritual guidance? The interdependence of nature and providence is a complicated question about which I am unable and unwilling to make definitive statements. Yet it seems that the withholding of rain for spiritual reasons posits a not insignificant degree of providence; I for one am not at all sure that our current spiritual condition warrants this.

    D. Sincerity
    Fasting and crying out are mitzvot of the heart. Just as rending a garment when it is not a climactic moment does not constitute keri’ah, and just as prayer without intention is meaningless, so too fasting, when there is a significant gap between its external expression and internal feeling, is inappropriate. Let us ask ourselves: how many of us will be able to pray tomorrow with a sense of trouble and distress, will be able to convincingly say “for we are in great distress”? We do not live it. We do not feel it. If we felt that we were in great distress, like, for example, during wartime, it would headline every newspaper, there would be round-the-clock public involvement in the crisis, etc. Yet, despite all the interest in rain, it remains buried in the back pages, far from the headlines, far less prominent than the stock quotes and exchange rates.

    For the sake of comparison, one who prays for a sick family member really prays out of heartache and a sense of distress. If we would go to the waiting room outside an operating theater or daven mincha-ma’ariv at a hospital chapel we would get a taste of prayer from the depths of the heart at a time of distress. I suspect that this is not the case with regard to rain. One who recalls the prayer of wartime or of a bad security situation understands that these, too, express an intensity that we do not reach vis-à-vis rain.

    [One may rebut this on the basis of the prayers we recite on the four minor fasts; there is an answer, but this is not the place for it.]

    E. Inflation
    If you ask me what harm there is in fasting, even if it does not achieve the levels of intensity described above, I would answer with one word – inflation. Just as inflation ruins the value of a currency, it has a similar effect spiritually. There is no greater enemy of educational action and spiritual experience than inflation and the accompanying devaluation; we must therefore vigilantly guard against it. When in doubt—minimize fasts and prayer rallies and do not allow them to proliferate, for their harm outweighs their good.

    F. The status of the Chief Rabbinate
    I will not expand on this, but merely assert that for all sorts of reasons the status of the Chief Rabbinate is very far from the reality described in the gemara in Ta’anit in which the decree of the exilarch obligated the entire community. I do not view the status of the Chief Rabbinate or its heads as being binding on the community nowadays. I wish the situation were different, but it is not.

    לכבוד ....... יקירי,

    שמחתי לקבל את בקשתך לקבל הבהרות על העמדה שהבעתי הבקר במסרת חוג "עיון תפילה" בדבר ההצעה לקיים תענית גשמים מחר. היות ולא נוכחת בחוג, ביקשת לשמוע את עמדתי מכלי ראשון, ואעשה זאת בחפץ לב, אך גם אנצל את ההזדמנות לעודד אותך להצטרף אלינו ולהשתתף מדי בקר בחוג העוסק בעיון תפילה, לימוד אשר חז"ל הפליגו בשבחו וחשיבותו.
    אפתח במסירת מודעא. חז"ל במשנה ובגמרא בסנהדרין אסרו לדיין שעמדתו לא התקבלה לפרסמה כדעת מיעוט אלא עליו להיות נאמן לשותפיו ולהתייצב מאחריהם, ואם לא עשה כן, עליו נאמר "הולך רכיל מגלה סוד". במקרה דנן, בקשתי רשות לפרסם את דעתי והפרסום נעשה על דעת עמיתי, אך לא מטעם מחילה אני רואה עצמי רשאי לגלות את עמדתי אלא מסיבה עקרונית יותר והיא שהסוגיא הנ"ל עוסקת בהכרעה משפטית בבית דין ולא בשאלה חינוכית וערכית. מבחינה משפטית, ביצור סמכות בית הדין כלפי הנידונים ועמידה תקיפה על הסמכות של מוסד בית הדין הנגזר מן הכלל של "אחרי רבים להטת" מחייב התיצבות כל הדיינים כחומה בצורה מאחרי פסר הדין. בשאלות חינוכיות, המצב שונה. ישיבת הר עציון בנויה על הנחת היסוד שריבוי דעות והצגת עמדות מנוגדות בפני תלמידיה, תוך כדי שיתופם בלבטים הרוחניים והחינוכיים, מפרה את הדעת ותורמת לעבודת ד', ושרב התועלת בהצגת עמדות שונות על פני הנזק. לכן, רציתי להביע את עמדתי בפני התלמידים ולכן הסכימו עמיתי לכך.
    להלן, עיקרי הדברים:
    א. חוסר סכנה. אפתח באמירה בוטה המציגה את האבסורד בעיני בתענית על הגשמים בימינו והיא שמגוחך להתענות על גשם כאשר הממטרות בישיבה, בבתי הרבנים, התושבים והגינות הציבוריות – די באתרא קדישא הדין ודי בכל אתר ואתר – פועלות כסדרן. וכי האיך ניתן להתענות על מיעוט גשמים כאשר ממשיכים להשקות את גינות הנוי וכיצד ניתן לפתוח את ארון הקדש ולזעוק על חוסר במים כאשר לא נעשה כל מאמץ רציני לצמצום צריכת המים?!
    באופן מהותי יותר, הענין הוא שמסכת תענית מתיחסת למציאות שבו מיעוט גשמים מהווה סכנת חיים, פשוטו כמשמעו, והתענית על הגשם היא תפילה על הישרדות באופן הברור ביותר. בעולם שאין בו תחבורה ממונעת, יכולת הובלת מים ומזון למרחקים וקירור, העדר מטר פירושו רעב, בצורת ומוות ר"ל. אם אין שתיה לאדם ולבהמה ואין מזון ומרעה, ישנה סכנת חיים.  ואולם, במציאות המודרנית, בו ניתן להתפיל מים ולייבא אוכל, אין המדובר על קיום אלא על כסף או שפע. התפלת מים עולה כסף, אך היא מסירה את איום התמותה.
    לאמיתו של דבר, משבר המים המתמשך במדינה איננו משבר של קיום אלא משבר של רמת חיים. אם נייבש את גינות הנוי, נוותר על הבריכות והממטרות, נאבד דברים חשובים המרחיבים דעתו של אדם, אך לא נעמיד את קיומנו בסכנה. לכן, במידה רבה, מדובר על רמת חיים, דבר אשר בגינו ניתן לקוות ליותר גשם, אך אין זה מוצדק לגזור תענית בהעדר המים לקיום רמת החיים הנוכחית.
    במלים פשוטות, התענית היא מענה לסכנה, ובמציאות המודרנית, הסכנה שהיתה בזמן חז"ל מהעדר גשם איננו מאיים עלינו.
    ב. "גשמים היינו פרנסה". לאמיתו של דבר, קיימות שתי אסכולות מדוע חז"ל תיקנו תעניות לגשמים: א. הגשם הוא סימן להשגחה אלוקית על עם ישראל, ובהעדר הגשם ישנו סימן של גזירה משמים וכעס אלוקי ב. האיום והסכנה הבאים בעקבות חסר במים. ייתכן מאד ששתי העמדות הללו באות לידי ביטוי בתחילת מסכת תענית, כאשר הגמרא מציגה שתי דעות בשאלה האם "גשמים היינו פרנסה" או שיש למנותם כשני גורמים שונים.
    לדידי, אכן המרכיב המרכזי עבורנו הוא הסכנה של אבדון ולא הסימן ההשגחתי. מסכת תענית כוללת את הגשם בשורה ארוכה של צרות אחרות המאיימות על הציבור כדבר, בצורת, מלחמה וחיות רעות, דבר המעיד על הסכנה כמוקד הענין, ובזה אין המשנה הולכת אלא בעקבות תפילת שלמה הכולל את כל המרכיבים הללו. אף הרמב"ם הדגיש את הצרה הבאה על הציבור כמוקד המחייב ולא נזקק לדבר על סימנים משמים (אך לשיטתו תעניות הגשם שונות מן הצרות האחרות, ואכמ"ל) ובזה הלך בעקבות פרשיות התוכחה שבתורה. מדי יום בקריאת שמע, אין אנו מסתפקים ב"ונתתי מטר ארצכם בעתו יורה ומלקוש" אלא מדגישים את השלכותיו "ואספת דגנך, תירשך ויצהרך, ונתתי עשב בשדך לבהמתך, ואכלת ושבעת".
    ממילא, יש לבחון לא רק את משק המים (אשר כאמור, המצב הנוכחי איננו יוצר השוואה בין מלחמה, מגיפה ומחלה לבין עצירת גשמים) אלא את כלל המציאות הכלכלית. ואכן, מקובלים עלי דבריו של הרב דני וולף שכתב בשעתו שיש לשקול תענית כאשר האבטלה גואה או המשק סובל ממיתון חריף וכיו"ב. ברם, איך נגזור תענית השתא, כאשר הבורסה עלתה בצורה יפה בשנה האחרונה, האבטלה ירדה (א"כ היא עדיין גבוהה ומטרידה ביותר), המטבע שומר על ערכו והכלכלה הישראלית תפקדה טוב יותר ממרבית המדינות המפותחות בשנים האחרונות?
    ג. השגחה וטבע. ברם, אני מאד מתקשה להמליץ על תענית גם מי שמאמץ את הגישה הרואה בגשם סימן שמימי. וכי אנו חיים ברמת השגחה כזאת בימינו שנוכל לקחת תופעות טבע ולתרגמם להנחיות רוחניות? זיקת הגומלין שבין טבע להשגחה היא שאלה סבוכה ואינני יכול או רוצה לקבוע בה מסמרות אך נדמה שעצירת גשמים בגלל סיבות רוחניות מניחה רמת השגחה לא מבוטלת, ואני לפחות כלל וכלל אינני בטוח שמצבנו הרוחני הנוכחי מצדיק זאת.
    ד. כנות. תענית וזעקה הינן מצוות שבלב. כשם שקריעה שאיננה בשעת חימום איננה קריעה ותפילה בלא כוונה איננה משמעותית, כך תענית שיש בה פער משמעותי בין הביטוי החיצוני לתחושה הפנימית איננה ראויה. הבה נשאל את עצמנו, כמה מאתנו יכלו להתפלל מחר מתוך תחושת מצוקה וצרה, ויוכלו לומר בשכנוע "כי בצרה גדולה אנחנו", הלא איננו חיים או מרגישים כך. לו היינו מרגישים שאנו בצרה גדולה, כמו למשל בעת מלחמה, אזי העיתונות היתה עוסקת בכך בכותרות הראשיות, היה עיסוק ציבורי מסביב לשעון במשבר וכו'. ואולם, למרות כל הענין בגשם, עדיין נמצא אותו מקופל בתוככי העמודים הפנימיים, הרחק מן הכותרות ובמקום פחות בולט מנתוני הבורסה או שערי החליפין.
    לשם השוואה, אדם המתפלל על חולה בתוך ביתו, אכן מתפלל מנהמת לבו ומתוך תחושת מצוקה. אם נלך לחדר המתנה שמחוץ לחדר ניתוח או תתפלל מנחה-מעריב בבתי הכנסת השוכנים בתוך בתי החולים, נוכל לחוות את טעמה של תפילה בעת צרה הנעשית מעומק הלב, אך חוששני שלא כך הם פני הדברים ביחס לגשמים. מי שזוכר את התפילות בעת מלחמה או מציאות בטחונית קשה, מבין שגם הן מבטאות עצמות שאיננו מגיעם אליהם ביחסנו לגשם.
    [אמנם, תוכל להקשות עלי מן התפילות בד' תעניות, אך יש להשיב על כך, ואכמ"ל.]
    ה. אינפלציה. ואם תשאלני, איזו נזק יש בתענית, אף אם אין היא בעצמות הנזכרות, אזי התשובה היא מלה אחת – אינפלציה. כשם שאינפלציה מהווה סם המוות לערך הכסף, כן הדבר בדברים רוחניים. אין לך אויב גדול יותר לעשייה החינוכית והחוויה הרוחנית מאשר האינפלציה והזילותא הנלווית לה, ולכן יש להישמר ממנה מכל משמר. במקום ספק – המעט בתעניות ועצרות תפילה ואל תרבה בהן, כי רב הנזק מן התועלת.
    ו. מעמד הרבנות הראשית. לא ארחיב בכך, ורק אסתפק בקביעה, שמכל מיני סיבות, מעמד הרבנות הראשית רחוק מן המציאות המתוארת בגמרא בתענית שגזירת ריש גלותא חייבה את כלל הציבור ואינני רואה את מעמד הרבנות או את העומדים בראשה מחייבים את הציבור בימינו. הלוואי והמציאות היתה אחרת, אך היא איננה.
    אלה מקצת מהרהורי לבי בענין, והיו לך להפרות את חשיבתך ולהעמיק את דעתך.
    ויהי רצון שישפיע הקב"ה עלינו שפע טובה ויערה עלינו רוח וגשם ממרום, ויאר את פניו אלינו בכל עת ובל שעה.
    בחיבה ובאהבה,
    משה ל.


    Three Notes on Education

    A. Ethical Issues in One-Year Programs
    It started as a Lookjed thread, but was then picked up by the Jewish Week (and Orthonomics). Apparently, some one-year programs use underhanded recruiting practices, but the vast majority do not.
    Most of these programs can only take in a limited quantity—either due to finite resources or in order to maintain a good balance with other, generally Israeli, components of the school—so their recruitment efforts are based on quality, on being “top tier.” The past few years has seen a proliferation of “boutique” yeshivot and seminaries that are not interested in taking more than 25-40 students per year.
    There are, however, a handful of schools, mainly men’s yeshivot, that want to and can take in larger numbers, 100 students a year and more. From my experience, these are the schools whose recruitment efforts leave something to be desired.
    I was an RA at MTA (TMSTA-YUHSB) during the 1997-98 academic year. My floor consisted of high school juniors and seniors, enabling me to get a good look at recruitment practices in a large school. One yeshiva, while not offering a “bribe” per student, hired an MTA rebbe to be their US-based alumni coordinator. That particular rebbe also happened to teach the class from which the yeshiva was trying to draw recruits; the conflict of interest was known and discussed then. Another yeshiva set an earlier deadline for students to commit or lose their places. This put extra pressure on the students, some of whom committed to that yeshiva even before they heard back from their first choice.
    In sum, sleazy recruitment isn’t new and is limited to a handful of places, but I’m glad it’s finally coming out.
    Regarding the badmouthing of yeshivot, this was a pet peeve of mine when I taught high school. A student would be considering yeshivot A and B. One rabbi would badmouth A, the other would badmouth B, and the student would end up in community college. Well done, fellas. As b. Shabbat 34a says, even prostitutes know that the mutual badmouthing is bad for business.

    B. The Judo of Education

    The Japanese martial art of judo is known for using the opponent’s strength against him. Though teachers and students should not be thought of as opponents, there are certainly confrontational elements in the relationship. Sometimes a teacher has to directly challenge a student with disciplinary action. Far preferable, though, is when the teacher enlists and integrates (or “sublimates”) the source of distraction or disruption into the educational environment. Two examples from this past week:
    As noted in Sunday’s New York Times, in the latest of a string of articles that discuss how social media and hand-held devices are rewiring our brains and driving us to distraction (story of my life),  it’s becoming increasingly difficult to hold the attention of students whose attentions are seriously divided. My wife came up with a pretty good idea for certain occasions. She introduced her students to certain search techniques, and now she encourages them to find relevant “intertexts.” She gives questions like “where else in Tanakh does this word/ theme appear,” and they’re off. And this generation is quite adept at making associative connections—lateral thinking.
    The other example involves my first grade son. Thank God, he’s a bright boy, but sometimes needs to escape to disengage. We’ve given him paper and markers so that he can disengage without being disruptive, but he’s proud of what he draws and feels a need to describe it to his friends during class. His teacher called last week at wit’s end. I suggested that the main thing was to avoid confrontation, which my son has a tendency to escalate. I suggested that if they’re learning, for example, about Noach, let my son draw a scene from the narrative and then describe it to the class. Yesterday, my son came home with a 4-panel magnum opus on the rivalry of Cain and Abel, with a glowing note from the teacher about how he presented his handiwork to the class. Teachers can be taught, too.

    C. Teachers Paying House Calls?

    My daughter attends a school that’s part of the Shas network. The network recently issued a directive that homeroom teachers must visit each student at home, so the teacher came by tonight. I’m frankly fascinated by this idea, and I think it’s brilliant. First the negative—they do not provide any means of transportation for these teachers, and not every student is easily accessible by public transportation; we had to pick the teacher up from the other side of town. This bit could have been thought out better. Overall, though, the idea is an entirely positive one. Obviously, a few minutes in the student’s home can’t tell you everything, but it can tell you a whole lot: the student’s status within the family, family dynamics, the family’s socioeconomic and religious status, and so much more. It’s a window into the student’s world, and it can only help the teacher do her job. Kudos to Shas for this wondergful initiative.

    Entering the Twitterverse

    As you can see on the right margin, I've begun tweeting. Most of the tweets will link to articles tucked in the obscure corners of the Jewish web, which I come across as part of my research for JID, usually accompanied by a particularly witty comment. I'll also tweet whenever I post something on the blog, and will  often recommend goodies from other bloggers, videos, etc. I had been doing this for a while on FB, but this is much more focused.


    Conversion and Naturalization

    Two laws proposed in Israel over the past few months stirred up international controversy. The Rotem Bill, which would make the Israeli Chief Rabbinate the de jure arbiter of conversion to Judaism, generated a tremendous amount of opposition, particularly among non-Orthodox Jews in the United States. The more recent proposed amendment to the Citizenship Law, which would require an oath of loyalty from applicants for Israeli citizenship, has been criticized and condemned globally, with the strongest voices coming from the Muslim world. Although public criticism came to each bill from vastly different quarters, the bills, and their respective oppositions, share certain similarities, beyond the obvious fact that both address the conditions under which an outsider becomes an insider.

    "Converting to Judaism" is something of a misnomer. From its inception the term conversion implies an instantaneous transformation, an experience after which one is no longer the same. The paradigmatic conversion experience is that of Saul of Tarsus, beholding a vision on the road to Damascus and becoming the Apostle Paul. The Jewish term for a new adherent is “ger,” which literally means “migrant,” implicitly recognizing that giyur, the process by which a gentile becomes Jewish, corresponds to the process by which a foreigner adopts and is adopted by his new host society. Both processes are—or ought to be—gradual, allowing the neophyte time to absorb the language, lifestyle, and values of the adoptive society. In other words, giyur is much closer to naturalization than to conversion.

    Of course, there is a moment at which the new legal status is conferred, at which the gentile becomes a Jew and the immigrant a citizen. And certainly this moment, coming as it often does at the end of an arduous and often traumatic process of acculturation, is a significant milestone in the life of the newcomer. Nevertheless, there exists a tendency to confuse the moment of conferral with the process, to relate to naturalization as a form of conversion. Yet naturalization, like giyur, is not stand-alone moment; it is a process.

    In fact, proponents of both laws seem to have fallen into this very trap. Mandating a loyalty oath will not solve any potential problem of immigrants opposing Israel’s core democratic and Jewish values. If most non-Jews who become Israeli citizens are loyal to the state, it is not due to the presence or absence of any oath, but to their adoption of and by their new home. As for giyur, the raison d’etre of the Rotem Bill is to streamline the process and facilitate the mass conversion of hundreds of thousands of immigrants from the FSU. The bill views giyur as a bureaucratic formality and aims to define who may—and who may not—confer the status of “Jew” in Israel. Bracketing the question of whether streamlined giyur, which all but the incorrigibly naïve understand does not entail any commitment to Jewish law, is halakhically valid, reducing giyur from a gradual, community-based process to a bureaucratic state-run form of lip-service to Jewish tradition reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of the giyur process.

    Critics of the legislation are not immune to confusing naturalization with conversion either. To be sure, both pieces of proposed legislation literally alienate—render alien—certain populations by enshrining de facto realities—that Israel is a democratic Jewish state and that only (some) Orthodox conversions are recognized by the Chief Rabbinate—in law. Nevertheless, opposition to the loyalty oath may succeed in removing it from the political agenda, but will not change the fact that becoming an Israeli citizen implies embracing the Jewish and democratic fabric of Israeli society. Both sides are thus fighting to win a meaningless and potentially Pyrrhic victory. Opponents of the Rotem Bill have tended to focus their criticism on the identity of the state-sanctioned gatekeepers instead of where it belongs: on the bill’s misguided approach to giyur in general, and on the question of whether conferral of religious status is even a power that an inevitably bureaucratic state should arrogate to itself.

    Laws pertaining to the related processes of naturalization and religious reaffiliation should recognize that they are among the most arduous and anxiety-inducing that human beings undergo voluntarily. As such, they deserve to be handled by the state in a manner that reflects their subtlety, without reducing them to mere slogans.


    Mah Ani, Reformi? How Dati (and Formerly Dati) Israelis View Reform and Conservative Judaism

    Most dati Jews in Israel have never met a Reform or Conservative Jew, at least not consciously, and certainly do not have much of a clue about those denominations. As a result, the word “Reformi” has taken on an interesting meaning in these circles.

    Two examples: A few weeks ago, as I picked up my son and niece from nursery school on Friday, the teacher gave me a package for him. Without noting what was in the package, I mentioned that I was taking my niece as well and needed to take her package, too. The teacher looked at me and said “anachnu lo Reformim”—we’re not Reform. In the package, it turns out, was a Kiddush cup, a small gift for the boys in the class. The girls got candlesticks, which were not as fragile and had already been placed in the girls’ backpacks. Being who I am, I pointed out that according to the Shulchan Arukh, hardly a Reform work, a woman can make Kiddush for a man, but that was entirely beside the point.
    The second example was at a shull membership meeting a few years ago. The issue being discussed was minors leading Kabbalat Shabbat. This is done all over Israel, though rarely if ever in the States. There was a debate between the Israelis and the Anglos about whether it would be done in this shul (of which I’m no longer a member). During the discussion, I asked whether young girls could also lead. Why not, right? A board member looks at me and says, “Mah anachnu, Reformim?
    It’s clear, then, that Israelis really don’t have much of a clue what Reform is, or what differentiates it from Conservative Judaism. It’s kind of the catch-all term for “what we sense is untraditional.” I get the sense that this sentiment is not exclusive to religiously observant Israelis, hence the “shul I don’t daven in is Orthodox” phenomenon, but my experience is mostly restricted to the former.
    More thought provoking is this blog post by Tomer Persico. Persico is a scholar of comparative religion whose insights into contemporary religion are often quite fascinating and always well written. It’s worth reading his entire description of Uman on Rosh Hashana. Persico himself is what would be called “datlash”- dati le-she’avar. He still doesn’t fit neatly into any religious category, but he’s no longer traditionally observant. He makes the following comments about Reform and Conservative Judaism. I still think it’s a very Israeli way of looking at the issue (especially by not distinguishing Conservative and Reform), but it’s certainly stimulating, and many of the people joining independent minyanim might agree:
    I suddenly understood what’s so lacking with Reform and Conservative Jews (among other things that are missing, foremost being an emphasis on the direct encounter with the Divine): streams. Where is their Chabad? Where’s their Har Ha-Mor? Where’s their Ne’emanei Torah Ve-avoda? Where are their Litvaks? In other words, maybe they all exist here and there as individuals, but they have not become broader frameworks in which ideas and behaviors grow to maturity and are digested. From a bird’s-eye view, everything is too homogeneous, and thus a bit listless, devoid of passion. There is certainly no craziness. Diversity of streams ensures cross-fertilization and mutual development; it ensures infighting and evolution; it ensures feelings of mutual responsibility and kinship. In Uman, for example, you really see that something is happening in Orthodoxy.
    Orthodoxy, of course, has halakha to keep all of the streams in the same boat. It was precisely against the backdrop of halakha that Reform and Conservative (and the like) split, and thus that is precisely what cannot unite them. So they are friendly, but not organically bound to each other. This is the difference between friendship and kin: with kin, blood links individuals even if they hate each other. Friends who hate each other part company. Within a family, hatred and adversity can occasionally generate mutual development and movement (from the straits I called God). In friendship, adversity generates schism and individual development. Of course, friendship has advantages over kinship; nevertheless, in Uman the familial warmth and fraternity is palpable. If only the family was a bit more normal.


    Toldot Yitzchak: The First FFB

    I must link back to this every year on Parshat Toldot, but that's because it's one of my favorite all-time blog posts. Here it is again: The First FFB.

    If it isn't obvious, the approach I take in that piece is very personal. Here's to all the rabbis' kids and FFBs who struggle to carve out space for themselves within a tradition that can, at times, seem stifling.


    Half Shabbos, Big-Tent Orthodoxy, Texting, and eBooks

    About two months ago, R. Dr. Alan Brill wrote about a phenomenon called "Half Shabbos," which describes Orthodox kids who text on Shabbat. The distinction between "half" and "full" Shabbat has been around for a while, but as part of the vocabulary of the Syrian community. This was the first I had heard of it penetrating to the J-dubs as well.

    That this type of vocabulary existed among Sephardim before Ashkenazim world should be no surprise, and might actually be somewhat encouraging from the perspective of Orthodoxy. Sephardic communities never experienced the fragmentation that Ashkenazic communities did, and so even though there was and is a spectrum of observance in the Sephardic world, there was never any secessionism or denominationalism. In this sense, even if we agree with R. Brill, against Gil and Heshy, that "half Shabbos" is a new phenomenon, it might mean that Orthodoxy has become more tolerant of non-observance in its ranks as much as it might mean that there is increasing non-observance in its ranks. In other words, there may or may not be a greater attrition rate from Orthodox observance, but even those people who give up observance are increasingly likely to remain within the Orthodox orbit. I saw a lot of this during my years at UMD.

    I believe that these are the first stages of a return to a "Big Tent Orthodoxy" - an (ironic) Orthodoxy that will be far more welcoming and tolerant of a wide swath of observances and ideologies, or lack thereof. Not in the kiruv-y love-bombing way, but in the Sephardi (and certain brands of non-American non-Israeli Judaism; or pre-WWII American Orthodoxy) way that simply acknowledges that everyone entitled to a place in shul without having to undergo a tzitzis check.

    The return to Big Tent Orthodoxy will have halakhic ramifications as well, as Big Tent halakha functions vastly differently from secessionist halakha (see the fantastic ongoing series by Ben Chorin for more on that, though five minutes in Israel should convinve anyone of the basic truth of the assertion).

    I'm afraid, though, that sending text messages on Shabbat will never be given a hetter. Even if all the arguments about low voltages and non-grounded sources are accepted (see the comments on the Brill link above), writing text messages is writing (I would argue, based on a Ran in Masechet Shabbat, that the more ubiquitous texting becomes as a form of written communication, the more of a melekhet machshevet it becomes, which overcomes the fact that the letters are stored as binary bits; this is beyond the scope of the present post, though). Ebooks, on the other hand, like the kind you read on a Kindle or Ipad, I can see some eventual hetter for, especially as the printed word will be almost completely replaced in the next generation.


    Conversion and Naturalization

    Looks like this article will be in print in the near future. The publisher wants it down until such a time, at which point I'll re-post.
    Update: It won't be printed anywhere. I reposted it here.


    Quick Update

    • I’ve recently completed some major projects, and though there are some more in the pipeline, I hope to have some more time to blog. Should be a busy week.
    • I’m no longer working for Segula. I don’t know when or if a third issue is coming out, since I’m completely out of the loop. 
    • Mark my words: Netanyahu will announce a new, 60-day settlement freeze on November3.
    • Here are a few old posts on Chayei Sarah: a reading of a midrash that links R. Akiva, Esther, and Sarah, and one that explores the charged meaning of Avraham’s self-identification as a ger ve-toshav.


    Why Schnitzel?

    Cute article in the Forward yesterday about the ubiquity of schnitzel in Israel. It gets into the reason offered for why it became so popular. Citing (fellow TA Baltimore grad!) Gil Marks's new Encyclopedia of Jewish Food:
    immigrants from central Europe to Palestine introduced schnitzel to early kibbutzim during the beginning of the twentieth century. The simple dish that could be made in a pan (few people had ovens at the time) became a common shabbos meal, as it could easily be made the day before it was served.
    Fast forward to the 1940s, the War of Independence, mass immigration and food shortages, marked by rations and regulations. Marks says that it was during this period that “The new Ministry of Absorption taught the diverse housewives from across the globe how to prepare various simple recipes made from readily accessible, inexpensive items,” including schnitzel and the tradition stuck
    And another theory:
    On her website Israeli food writer Janna Gur explains that “In Israel, [schnitzel] is made of chicken or turkey breast — an invention born out of necessity, when veal was nonexistent and poultry was government-subsidized and more readily available.”
    I believe there is merit to all these theories, and it certainly explains why chicken and turkey became popular, but do not seem to go far enough to explain why schnitzel in particular. I think I know why, and the answer is rooted in halakha.

    Schnitzel is not merely a classic Shabbat food- it is served primarily at Shabbat lunch. Other traditional Shabbat lunch foods include cholent and cold cuts. The common denominator is that they can all be eaten in their optimal form on Shabbat afternoon.

    In the Ashkenazic tradition, foods that are "wet" may not be reheated on Shabbat, as this reheating continues and improves the cooking process. On Friday night there's little problem, as food left on a warming tray from before Shabbat will be perfect a couple hours later. Food left on the same warming tray overnight will turn gross.

    So Shabbat lunch fare is limited to foods that can be eaten cold (like cold cuts), foods that can be very slowly cooked (like cholent), and foods that are so dry that they can be reheated on Shabbat without any problem (like schnitzel). So the popularity of schnitzel was born of economic but also halakhic necessity!

    There's another popular Israeli food that has a similar genesis as a ubiquitous culinary artifact - sunflower seeds. I believe that they were first adopted by Israeli smokers (Lord knows they were in abundance back in the day) who needed a fix on Shabbat, when they wouldn't light up. The fingers-to-mouth motion of Israeli-style seed-eating sufficiently mimics smoking for nicotine addicts to make it through the day.


    Friends of Manitoba

    It's being reported (here and here) that Manitoba and Israel recently signed agreements to cooperate on various endeavors, including "an agreement to share and develop technologies designed to improve water quality in both Manitoba and Israel."
    I'm no expert in water technology, but this really caught my eye. What common water needs could these two places possibly have? Let's look at some stats:
    • According to this chart, Canada has 3,300 cubic kilometers of freshwater reserves, 7-9% of the world's total. Israel has 1.7 cu kms. Let's assume that the estimate for Canada is rounded off. That means it's neglecting, based on the law of averages, 25 cu kms. In other words, Canada has about 2,000x more freshwater reserves than Israel, and that it can afford to ignore 10x the amount of water that Israel has.
    • Manitoba's largest freshwater lake is Lake Winnipeg, the 10th largest freshwater lake in the world. It has about 75x more volume than the Sea of Galilee, Israel's largest freshwater lake. Manitoba has more than 100,000 lakes.
    • Manitoba itself has about 1% of the world's freshwater reserves, for a population of just over 1 million. Do we even need to do the math comparing this to Israel?
    So what kind of agreement was reached? Will Manitoba start piping freshwater to Israel? That would be nice, but unfortunately not possible. Do the Manitobans have water technology that Israel can use? Doubtful. Israel's been a leader in that field for a long time, a reality born of necessity. Is there some secret super-frum Manitoban Chasidic sect who need Badatz certified water imported from Israel? No, they're in Quebec and Ontario. Are Manitobans so anxious about their super-abundant freshwater supply that they're adopting drip-irrigation technologies? Talk about selling snow to Eskimos!

    In short, I'm baffled. If anyone can shed light, I'd be grateful.


    Fallacy or Ideology? On the ArtScroll Translation of the Siddur

    Cross-posted to Hirhurim

    The recent publication of The Expanded ArtScroll Siddur: Wasserman Edition gives occasion for a renewed look at various aspects of the Siddur that has won pride of place in American Orthodox synagogues over the past quarter century. The present review will address ArtScroll’s English translation.

    The Preface to the new edition indicates that the earlier ArtScroll translation was merely “reviewed and adjusted,” and a comparison of several randomly selected paragraphs more than bears this out.

    There are a total of three adjustments in the translation of Psalm 92, Mizmor Shir le-Yom Ha-Shabbat. In verse 3, “to relate Your kindness” has been altered to “to tell of Your kindness;” in v. 6, “exceedingly profound are Your thoughts” is now rendered “Your thoughts are exceedingly profound;” and in v. 14, “in the courtyards of our God they will flourish” becomes “they will flourish in the courtyards of our God.” In the berakha of Kiddush Levana, the original has “A decree and a schedule did He give them,” which has been changed in the new edition to “He gave them a law and a schedule.” This is the only change in the entire paragraph. There are no changes at all in the half-Kaddish.

    Three of these four changes reverse the order of the original sentence to reflect the more conventional English subject-verb-object structure instead of the object-verb-subject structure that is common in pre-Modern Hebrew. However, not every such sentence is modified: “with praiseful songs let us call out to Him” (Psalms 95:2) is not altered. Thus, it seems that the O-V-S structure of the Hebrew is preserved in the English unless it causes some confusion or ambiguity, in which case the more conventional S-V-O structure is employed. The other changes seem to be similarly motivated by interests of clarity and comprehensibility. The remainder of this review will therefore address both versions of the translation as a single work.

    ArtScroll’s reproduction of Hebrew sentence structure is part of a literalist conceit that pervades the translation. The translation maintains a close correspondence to the original to the degree possible while remaining comprehensible in English. The following chart demonstrates just how closely the ArtScroll translation adheres to the order and literal meaning of the original:

    ArtScroll Translation
    Hebrew Original
    ArtScroll Translation
    Hebrew Original
    Our judges
    With kindness
    As in earliest times
    And compassion
    And our advisers
    And justify us
    As at first
    Through judgment
    From us
    Are You
    And groan
    The King
    And reign
    Who loves
    Over us
    And judgment

    The Hebrew is parsed here word by word and placed next to the corresponding English word or phrase. The significant point is that the English of the Siddur is in precisely the same order as the Hebrew – no paraphrase, no elimination of redundancy (Hebrew is far more tolerant of redundancy than English), no reordering of the sentence structure. This is actually the stated goal of the translation; as noted in the Preface, “occasionally we had to stray a bit from the literal translation in order to capture the essence of a phrase in an accessible English idiom.” If anything, the straying is a bit too occasional. In the above chart, translating “va-anacha” as “and groan” is hyper-literal. The Hebrew anacha often serves as a collective noun—the cumulative groaning of many or the cumulative cause of the groaning. The English “groan” does not serve in that sense. In this case, ArtScroll’s translation is literally accurate but awkward. It is clear, then, that the literalist conceit is strong. In fact, the defining characteristic of ArtScroll’s English translation of the Siddur.

    It would be easy—too easy—to criticize the ArtScroll translation for falling into what Edith Grossman calls the “literalist trap”:

    To my mind, a translator’s fidelity is not to lexical pairings but to context—the implications and echoes of the first author’s tone, intention, and level of discourse. Good translations are good because they are faithful to this contextual significance. They are not necessarily faithful to words or syntax, which are peculiar to specific languages and can rarely be brought over directly in any misguided and inevitably muddled effort to somehow replicate the original. This is the literalist trap, because words to not mean in isolation.

    Upon further reflection, however, it is clear that ArtScroll’s literalist conceit is not the result of poor translation technique or of the espousal of Vladimir Nabokov’s more literalist theories of translation, largely ignored by the community of translators. Rather, ArtScroll’s translation reflects a particular ideological stance on the text of the Siddur, its composition, and its artistic value.

    This stance is articulated in Rabbi Nosson Scherman’s Overview to the earlier version of the ArtScroll Siddur, in the section entitled “The Holy Tongue” (pp. XV-XVI). The thrust of this section is that Hebrew, Leshon Ha-kodesh, is nothing like other languages: it is literally the language that God used to create the world. Its words do not merely signify their objects, they embody the very essence of the object. God used the letters shin-vav-resh to create the ox. Rabbi Scherman thus concludes:

    The Men of the Great Assembly had the ability to combine letters, verses, and ideas in ways that unlock the gates of heaven. Their composition of the tefillah is tantamount to an act of creation, which is why it is so important not to deviate from their language and formulation. This is not to denigrate the importance of comprehension and emotional involvement. Prayer in the language one understands is sanctioned by the Sages themselves, and surely, a well-understood prayer is immeasurably more worthy than one that is merely mouthed as a string of uncomprehended sounds. Nevertheless, this does not detract a whit from the importance of praying in the Holy Tongue; it merely points up the responsibility to understand the prayers in their original, holiest form.

    In other words, the goal of the translation is solely to enable the reader to understand the original Hebrew. To that end, the closer to an exact correspondence the translation adheres, the easier it is for the reader to keep one finger on the original and one on the translation, using the latter as a lexicon for decoding the meaning of the former. All questions of style, idiom, and art—any literary element beyond that of basic comprehensibility—are rendered largely irrelevant in comparison with the main objective of facilitating comprehension of the metaphysically charged original.

    Thus, any critique of the ArtScroll translation must either address it on its own terms and demonstrate that it fails to live up to the objectives it sets for itself, or address ArtScroll’s ideological assumptions directly. Criticizing the style of a work that admittedly ignores style is frankly unfair. Moreover, ArtScroll’s translation of the Siddur does an excellent job meeting its own goals. As the chart above demonstrates, ArtScroll excels at translating in a lexically coordinated manner while remaining reasonably comprehensible. The ideological assumptions, however, remain fair game.

    Ideological disputes about the nature of the Holy Tongue go back at least to the times of the Rishonim. Rambam and Ramban famously argue (both positions appear in Ramban’s commentary to Shemot 30:13) about what makes the Holy Tongue holy: Ramban antecedes Rabbi Scherman by viewing the Hebrew language as the language with which God created the universe. Rambam, on the other hand, views the holiness of the language as stemming from its lack of explicit words for sexual acts and organs.

    Similarly, Prof. Uriel Simon outlines the ideological and polemical positions that motivates various classical approaches to Tehillim. In his view, R. Sa’adiah Ga’on paid little to no attention to literary form—indeed, he rejected its presence—in his commentary to Tehillim, whereas Ibn Ezra granted a great deal of weight to its poetic and literary elements.

    Although ArtScroll’s stance on these issues is clearly rooted in the Jewish tradition, it is crucial for the potential reader to become aware of those underlying ideological positions and their alternatives, and then to honestly appraise the degree to which these assumptions reflect his values.

    With regard to the nature of the Holy Tongue, there are many reasons to prefer a non-metaphysical, non-essentialist explanation such as Rambam’s to Ramban’s. The discovery and decoding of other Ancient Near Eastern languages has shown that Biblical Hebrew did not live on a linguistic island, rather, it emerged from and was related to other Semitic languages and absorbed words from distant languages. The modern study of linguistics shows that Biblical Hebrew can itself be periodized and behaves in the way that languages are expected to behave. Findings in the Cairo Genizah have shown the astounding volume of alternatives to the liturgy that eventually became the Siddur, indicating that the editorial selection of what ultimately went into the liturgical rite that became the Siddur was motivated by aesthetics in addition to, or instead of, metaphysics. Philosophically, the idea that the letters shin-vav-resh literally embody the essence of what it is to be an ox belongs to a Platonic duality in which this world is but a reflection of some ideal world, in this case a world of recombinant Hebrew letters forming the essences of all objects in the universe. One may honestly question whether the potential Siddur-buyer would be satisfied by that dichotomous and essentialist worldview. Theologically, the notion that God literally used a language that had yet to ever be spoken, and that emerged at a specific time and place and obeyed the rules that govern all languages, might not resonate with everyone in the market for a bilingual Siddur. Thus, ArtScroll’s motivation for rigidly adhering to a literal translation may not be terribly convincing to a large segment of its potential readership.

    With regard to the poetic and literary aspects of the liturgy, the present generation has witnessed the rise of a cadre of Torah teachers who read and learn Torah as literature and poetry—sacred literature and poetry, to be sure—and who have revolutionized the study of Tanakh in the Orthodox community and beyond. Considering that so much of the Siddur is from Tanakh, and that even those sections that are not biblical contain vast amounts of biblical allusion and are literary constructions in themselves (see, for example, Rav Ezra Bick’s brilliant series on the Shemoneh Esrei), it can be expected that many contemporary readers would prefer a translation that pays more attention to the Siddur’s art: literary structures, intertextuality, and poetic devices, complexity, and density, to name a few. Such a translation would, of course, be anything but literal.

    Context plays a large role in the choices a translator makes. When translating a will, for example, maximum fidelity to the original is necessary, even if it will result in a very awkward rendering. Literature, on the other hand, must be reproduced in the new language with as much of the original’s nuance, rhythm, and tone as possible. This gives the translator a great deal of leeway to rewrite and recreate, with the goal of achieving something equivalent or close to it in the new language. Regarding a text like the Siddur, different ideological attitudes will naturally constrain the translator’s choices and allow for vastly different renderings of the same work. A reader who is aware of these ideological constraints and his own ideological proclivities will be able to make an informed choice when seeking the bilingual Siddur that will most enhance his experience of prayer.