Stalemates and Doubts

Take a look at Gil's post on the idea of using "teiku" on questions of faith. He attempts to show that not only do chareidi rabbis like R. Matisyahu Salomon use it when running up against apparent contradictions and difficulties in the realm of faith, but so did R. Soloveitchik. Therefore, he concludes, critics of R. Salomon are being disingenuous.

Back when the controversy about R. Salomon broke out, there were indeed bloggers who criticized R. Salomon for using the idea of teiku as an ideological cop-out, to avoid dealing with Torah and science issues. In other words, they saw what R. Salomon was doing and judged it to be bad or wrong, arguing that in matters of faith every effort must be made to know and to answer whatever possible.

To that end, R. Gil's excerpt from RYBS (who is himself invoking Kierkegaard's Fear and Trembling) indeed demonstrates that there are instances in which the man of faith must throw up his hands and say "teiku." There are theological questions and contradictions so profound that the true man of faith must accept that some questions will not be answered.

He could have cited the example of R. Yehuda Amital as well. A cornerstone of his post-Holocaust theology was resignation without any attempt at justification. This was the basis for his critique of those - from R. Zvi Yehuda Kook to R. Yoel Teitelbaum - who rationalized the Holocaust within a larger ideological scheme (see, for example, pp. 127-133 of By Faith Alone).

Yet my critique then, as now, focused on what I believe to be a common misunderstanding of the idea of teiku. Teiku is said not when I don't know something and not even when nobody knows something. It is used when something cannot be known (note that in the RYBS quote he shifts from the real meaning of teiku to the colloquial meaning of teiku just before the end of the quote; I wouldn't put too much linguistic stock in the rhetorical jab at the end).

Resignation in the face of the unknown should never be a long-term solution. It may be prudent in some instances, but it must never become policy. It stunts all discovery and progress. At the same time, recognition that some things-like the reason for the binding of Isaac and the Holocaust-are unknowable is a desirable trait. It means knowing that man can never know the answer, or that there is no answer - not that someone of superior intellect will eventually come and answer it for me.


Balancing Imperatives: A Response to Rabbi Shmuly

After I completed my studies for rabbinic ordination in 2002, my wife and I decided to move back to the United States - temporarily - to teach Torah. Before leaving, we met and spoke with Rav Aharon Lichtenstein. Among the issues we discussed was whether we would have an imperative to stay in a community if it grew to depend on us. He responded with the story of a relative of his who was a shochet, a ritual slaughterer, in Alabama. At some point this man decided that it would be better for the family to move to a larger community. A member of the local community approached him and said, "if you leave, everybody here will start eating treif." R. Lichtenstein continued, "but he had to make the decision that was right for his family. And indeed, kosher food was no longer available in that city."
My own grandparents faced a similar dilemma. In the late 1940s, my grandfather was hired to officiate (lead services, read the Torah, and deliver sermons) High Holiday services at a synagogue in a small town in Ohio. The one-off gig turned out to be a probeh, an audition, and he was offered the job of full-time rabbi. Although he was inclined to accept, my grandmother insisted that she would not move her family to a city with no decent Jewish education. And so they remained in Baltimore.
These stories were definitely part of the calculus that motivated us to return to Israel after 4 solid years teaching in the US. The decision greatly impacted my professional trajectory and ultimately led me to leave the fields of education and rabbinics. Our move was motivated by lots of factors, not least of which was that we did not want our children to grow up with Israel as a foreign country. I will always be an immigrant or alien here. I wanted that experience to end with me.
But during those 4 years, perhaps because we knew that we would only be in the States for a handful of years, we were able to do things that perhaps we otherwise would not have considered. For two years we lived in College Park, MD - something we never would have considered had we been looking for a place to settle. Living on campus while serving the campus community made all the difference, as the campus became our home and not merely our place of work.
Before moving to Maryland, we lived for two years in Dallas, Texas, where we were also willing to explore untested corners of Jewish education there. On one occasion, we spent a Shabbat at the University of Texas in Austin (hook 'em Horns). In many ways, that experience fueled our desire to accept campus rabbinic positions when the opportunity arose.

That Shabbat, we met a student, a senior named Shawn, who had become observant the previous year. I remember being struck by the fact that his trajectory of increased observance did not result in alienation from his peers. Though there were not many role models in Austin, he had somehow managed to keep his balance while undergoing massive lifestyle changes.
Today I have several things to say to Shawn.
The first is: Mazal Tov on your wedding. Tizku livnot bayit ne'eman Be-Yisra'el.
The second is: Keep making great use of your youth and energy! Continue to be a globetrotting warrior against poverty, injustice, and oppression wherever it may be found!
The third and final is: You are now part of a unit that is larger than yourself - a unit that will hopefully continue to grow. This will help you realize that your decisions affect those around you, and that self-fulfillment is not the only variable feeding those decisions. You are not the first and will not be the last to have to chart a course between choosing what is best for the Jewish people, or even the world, and the needs of those nearest and dearest to you (I recommend this post by R. Michael Broyde, which appeared the same day as your article). Be assured that it is not a zero-sum game, though. You will find that balance, just as you managed to keep your balance as a newly observant student at UT. You will meet the needs of your family even at the ends of the earth, if that is the route you choose. And, believe it or not, even if you wind up here in the Jewish state, you will find ample opportunity for development in conjunction with a diverse array of neighboring societies; to play a leading role in fighting injustice, alleviating poverty, advocating for Israel and Jewish interests, and learning from people of other faiths; and to actualize all of the values of our Jewish tradition.


Notes on Lag B'Omer

1. My reading of the RSBY narrative continues to evolve. The recent podcast takes a slightly different approach than the series of blog posts. The new "addition" is the two-tiered reading of RSBY's purification of the graveyard - on the external level he was building a bridge (one of the features of society that he critiqued earlier in the story - this is noted by Jeff Rubenstein), but he builds it through halakha (a point made to me by Moshe Simon-Shoshan). In other words, the rabbi/ poseik ideally contributes to the world, makes the world a better place, does "tikkun olam", through the vehicle of halakha. Contrast this with the nay-saying old rabbi in the very next line of the narrative, and you get a very neat opposition between the rabbi, RSBY, who uses his erudition to improve the world - even if it's merely to make life a bit more comfortable - and those who use the same erudition to cast aspersions and deny conveniences. Eruv disputes provide an interesting contemporary parallel. On the deeper level, I returned to the symbolism I developed here, namely, that finding a path through a graveyard connotes the process of moving forward after a major trauma or crisis, a task that fell to RSBY as he and his colleagues rebuilt Judaism after the Bar Kokhba rebellion.

2. Last year, I noted the irony of celebrating Lag B'Omer before Shabbat ends by pointing out that RSBY's mind was put at ease when he emerged from the cave and saw how beloved Shabbat is to the Jews. I suggested then that when Lag B'Omer falls out on Saturday Night, the lighting of bonfires should be postponed. This year, the Israeli Chief Rabbinate called for just such a postponement (even a broken clock is right twice a day), following the call of Rav Ovadia Yosef. I do not see that this call prevented much Shabbat desecration (and religious communities did not heed the call either), but I think it is valuable for another reason (which may get its own post soon enough). The Mapai party, during the years it dominated Israeli politics and culture, created a secular civic religion that essentially hollowed out Jewish rituals and refilled them with new meanings that they supplied (see Liebman and Don Yihya's volume here). To a great extent, this Mapai religion and traditional Judaism in its various forms remained separate spheres, though there was some overlap (imagine it as a Venn diagram). In recent decades, Mapai religion has begun to collapse. There is still an Israeli civic religion, but it draws on traditional Judaism more and more (not necessarily in a halakhic form - there are plenty of non-kosher sukkot and it's always jarring to see people vacuuming their cars on the Shabbat before Pesach). There are still aspects of secular religion that lie outside anything traditional (e.g., the "Adloyada" parades on Purim), but the area of overlap is greater than ever and growing. The Rabbinate's call for a postponement of Lag B'Omer celebrations is a sign that traditional forms of Judaism are "making room" for civic religious praxis to draw more nourishment from the tradition. This is a positive development. For a broader outline of these trends, I recommend some of Yehudah Mirsky's recent essays at Jewish Ideas Daily as well as a recent series of blog posts by Ben Chorin.

3. All that said, my attitude toward the whole bonfire thing is benign tolerance at best, coupled with concern for fire hazards. As a friend pointed out today, "I'm going to make a medura tonight just like I do every Saturday night." Well said (he was referring, of course, to havdala, made over a candle that must have multiple wicks, defined by halakha as a medura).

4. Finally, a public service announcement: next week's event with MK R. Amsalem has been postponed. I will be giving a shiur next Saturday night on the topic of "Chumra in the writings of the Chafetz Chaim and R. Moshe Feinstein." I will be using the former mainly as a foil for the latter, but will present several models of the role and goals of stringency in their writings, and expanding on what I wrote here.


A Path through the Graveyard

Here is the yahrzeit shiur I gave in honor of my grandparents on Tuesday night. It addresses the last part of the R. Shimon b. Yochai narrative that appears on Shabbat 33b-34a - bar Yochai's reintegration in society after the years in the cave.
The dedication begins at 4:10 and the shiur itself about 45 seconds later.
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If I Coud be like Like

A news item appeared in the Israeli press yesterday morning announcing that an Israeli couple had named their daughter Like. By the evening, it was in the English Jewish media as well. I posted the item on my FB wall yesterday and challenged people to come up with funny situations that this name would cause. Here are some of the best (and yes, some of them are mine):
  1. "Like Like, if I could be like Like. (I wanna be I wanna be like Like)"
  2. If she marries Junior Seau, she would be Like Seau. If she marries Spike Lee she'd be Like Lee, and then her biopic would be A Like Lee Story (A Spike Lee Joint).
  3. When she's a teenager she'll ask: "Mom, Dad, do you LOVE me?" 
  4. If she's a Wonder Years character: "I mean, I like Like, but I don't LIKE like Like."
  5. At a younger brother's parent-teacher conference: "We like how he's likely like Like and her like."
  6. Conversation between parents before the naming: Mom: "Maybe we can call her 'Ahava' (which means 'Love')?" Dad: "What, and have her friends tease her for being named after a face cream?" 
  7. If she does something out of character, it would be unlike Like, or un-Like-like.
  8. Her older sisters are Poke and Share.
  9. Really the best response was the one actually given by her father: "Had it been a boy, we'd have named him Moshe."


By Faith Alone: The Story of Rabbi Yehuda Amital

By Faith Alone: The Story of Rabbi Yehuda Amital
My translation of of R. Amital's bio will be out later this month and can now be pre-ordered. I'm too close to the action to give an objective review, but I think it succeeds in capturing the multifaceted personality of a very unique, complex, and sorely missed individual.


Am Shalem: The Entire Jewish People

  • I've joined up with R. Amsalem's "Am Shalem" movement as a grassroots organizer, working primarily with the movement's English-speaking division. I have some ideas of where to go with this, and I'll update this blog with relevant news. For some background, here's a feature that Aryeh Tepper did on R. Amsalem w/ JID, and here's a brand new article about Anglo activism in the movement. 
  • Email me (adderabbi at gmail) if you're interested in getting on the movement's mailing list, making a donation, or otherwise getting involved.
  • [UPDATE: tHE SHIUR HAS BEEN POSTPONED. i WILL RE-POST ONCE IT'S BEEN RESCHEDULED] R. Amsalem will be speaking at Kehillat Shaarei Yonah Menachem in Modiin on Saturday Night, May 28. Details to follow, but it has been confirmed.
  • From an article that speaks to these issues and certain key fault lines, there is an emerging dispute about whether Lag B'Omer should be celebrated this year on the 33rd or 34th day of the Omer. The reason to postpone is to prevent Shabbat desecration during preparations. The Ashkenazic Haredi authorities are not in favor of postponing, but the Sephardic rabbis generally are. In my opinion, this dispute falls along a fault line of "secessionist Orthodoxy" that goes back to the austritt days of R. Hirsch. Basically, does the halakha address the community of the self-defined faithful, or does it speak to the entire Jewish people (the Am Shalem, if you will). My grandfathers both ministered to the non-observant, and one grandfather studied in the Wurzburg Seminary founded by R. Seligmann Baer Bamberger, the disputant of R. Hirsch on the austritt issue. It is clear where my sympathies lie.
  • And finally, speaking of my grandparents, I will be giving my annual yahrzeit shiur in memory of my three grandparents who passed away during Sefirat Ha-Omer. The shiur will take place on Tuesday night at 8:30pm at the Glenwood Synagogue in Ramat Modiin (Hashmonaim). The topic is: "A Path through the Graveyard: R. Shimon b. Yochai's Return to Society" - and yes, the topic will very much have to do with the themes discussed earlier in the email.
Two other short notes:
  • According to Blogger, this is my 1000th post.
  • I think I'd really enjoy this album


The Economics of the Maharat

Via TaxProfBlog (HT: @MAHelfand, @menachembutler)

Orthodox Jewish Women and the Parsonage Exemption

Jacob Lewin (J.D. 2011, Cardoozo) has published Note, Orthodox Jewish Women and Eligibility for the Parsonage Exemption, 17 Cardozo J.L. & Gender 139 (2010). Here is the part of the Introduction:
This Note posits that unordained Orthodox Jewish women can only take parsonage when they have an official licensing, which can be satisfied with a theological degree. Part I presents a background of the parsonage exemption as well as the historical debate as to its constitutionality. Part II discusses the scope of the parsonage exemption and the case law that determine eligibility. Part III first introduces Broyde’s approach to the issue of unordained Orthodox Jewish women’s entitlement to parsonage and then presents an evaluation and ultimately a suggestion as to how unordained women can be eligible. This Note ultimately concludes that unordained women can be entitled to the parsonage exemption and that lacking ordination does not bar eligibility when a woman has an official certification to her character as a spiritual leader.
I've been arguing for over 5 years that the matter of somehow accrediting Orthodox women who serve in a pastoral role is one of basic yashrut. The question of whether such a woman should be called rabbi, rabbah, maharat, tanna'it, or anything else is completely secondary. And as has always been the case, halakha is more responsive to economic pressures than it is to ideological movements.


Of Revolutionary Women and Straw Men

Cross posted to Hirhurim.
I do not envy the task that Michal Tukochinsky set for herself in writing “How Women’s Talmud Study is Unique” (New York Jewish Week, April 12, 2011). She wishes to describe how the new (second) generation of women’s Talmud study differs from the first, differs from men’s Talmud study, and yet remains part of the halakhic community despite its discomfort—typical of all traditional communities—with revolutions. Unfortunately, in order to accomplish this task, she oversimplifies the contrast groups while grossly understating the current state of women’s (or feminine, or feminist) Talmud study. The result is a flawed view of the uniqueness and contribution of the program she heads.

To begin with, she certainly does not give much credit to the pioneering women who first entered the male-dominated world of Talmud study. She unflatteringly describes these women as modeling themselves after and “aping” the manner in which their male counterparts studied Talmud. To be sure, many of these pioneering women may have been motivated, consciously or otherwise, by the prospect of breaking into a typically masculine world. Indeed, many traditionalist opponents of this first generation accused them of just that. However, such motivation, even when present, would not render them methodological copycats. They wished to learn Talmud from whoever was willing to teach it. The reality was that they found willing teachers in Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik and his disciples, thus exposing them to one specific methodology, which also happened to be highly conceptual and famously devoid of “worldly awareness” in its talmudic analysis.

Tukochinsky’s second error, perhaps related to the first generation’s limited exposure to various methodologies, lies in describing the entire world of male Talmud study in terms that apply to only one school of thought within it. Granted, this school, the “Brisker” school founded by Rabbi Chaim Soloveichik more than a century ago, became the dominant methodology in the world of yeshivot, conquering, in turn, Lithuanian, greater European, and ultimately even Sephardic institutions. From a historical perspective, however, the Brisker school is a relative newcomer and never even came close to monopolizing Talmud study worldwide. Much of Tukochinsky’s critique may be justifiably applied to this school, but there are and always have been other ways of learning that she may admit are more “feminine,” or less “isolated from the world.”

Relating to some of these other ways of reading and studying Talmud makes it difficult indeed to defend the uniqueness of Tukochinsky’s beit midrash. For centuries, the dominant Sephardic mode of Talmud study was “aliba de-hilkheta” – with the specific goal of eventual application of the Talmud to life. Although not terribly popular in mainstream yeshivot, its practitioners included those who emerged as the greatest poskim, including, inter alia, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, and the still-living Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv. It is no accident that those who studied Talmud with an eye on “life itself” earned the trust of the community when it came to applying the Talmud to life.

In 1986, Rabbi Marc-Alain Ouaknin published Le livre brûlé, Lire le Talmud, in which Derrida, Deleuze, Foucault, Blanchot, and other European thinkers are brought to bear on the Talmud and other traditional Jewish texts (here’s an excellent review). It was published in English in 1995 as The Burnt Book: Reading the Talmud. Indeed, Derrida himself was no foreigner to the world of the Talmud; a major influence on him—though they certainly had their differences—was the French-Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, who notably articulated many of his philosophical teachings in the form of talmudic readings (three volumes of which have thus far been translated into English, and two into Hebrew).

There is still much good to be gained from studying Talmud in light of postmodern continental philosophers. However, to relate to it as unprecedented or revolutionary ignores at least 25 years and arguably a half century of French-Jewish intellectual creativity. The fact that the circles that comprised “Vilna on the Seine” are little-known outside the Francophone Jewish community may say something about the creativity of Tukochinsky’s student, but cannot possibly say anything about how the second generation of women’s Talmud study is revolutionary.

There has, in fact, been a feminist revolution in Talmud study, though Tukochinsky makes no mention of it. The late Chana Safrai, a pioneering Orthodox feminist, was arguably the first to apply the feminist critique to the Talmud from within a traditional context. Daniel Boyarin’s Carnal Israel (1993) is already considered a classic work of feminist Talmud study. More recently, Tal Ilan has begun a large project, the Feminist Commentary on the Babylonian Talmud, of which several volumes have already been published. Rather than relating to some unique or creative or new method of Talmud study and attributing it to the women’s revolution, these works directly address how gender shaped the worldview of those who produced the Talmud.

In other circles, the second generation of women's Talmud study has taken different contours. Talmud study for women is taken for granted to the point that it is no longer seen as a revolution. The self-consciousness of being revolutionary that characterized the first generation is diminishing among their daughters. Furthermore, by the time many young women graduate high school, they are as bored with and turned off to Talmud study as their male counterparts (though hardly because of a desire to imitate them). It is significant that the second generation, in many respects, is NOT characterized by revolution.
In the final analysis, however, there is clearly a difference between the first and second generations of women studying Talmud, which coincides with broader shifts in the general world of talmudic scholarship. The Talmud has always been “broader than the sea,” endlessly mined, using a dizzying variety of hermeneutical tools, to create sense and meaning for living Jews. In today’s universities, yeshivot, and rabbinical schools, one can find men and women reading the Talmud according to the Brisker method, in light of legal theory, source-, form-, and gender-critically, in comparison with contemporaneous Christian, Zoroastrian, or Sectarian texts, with an eye on the dominant Roman and Persian cultures, as literature, as a mystical tract, or as a guide to life.

One may argue that some of these modes of reading are more “masculine” or “feminine” than others—whether practiced by men or women. However, that would mask the exciting reality that different people with different ways of thinking are applying their prodigious talents and creativity to a text that has long been the lifeblood of the Jewish people. There is no doubt that women Talmud scholars still face barriers to advancement in yeshivot and even universities. Let us hope, along with Michal Tukochinsky, that these barriers erode, allowing women to more fully add their voices to the diverse, exciting, and ever-expanding world of Talmud study.


Zaydie in the JTA Archives

With the news that the JTA recently uploaded 250,000 articles spanning nearly a century, I had to check it out. I searched for familiar names and places, including my grandfather, who actually appeared in one article. First the article, then my reactions:

June 3, 1971
Maryland’s Only Kosher Poultry Processing Plant to Remain Closed Pending Hearing

Maryland's only kosher poultry slaughter and processing plant will remain closed pending a hearing on June 9. Pen-Mar Poultry, Inc. located in this city, was closed down last week because of what Dr. Robert J. Lee, chief of Maryland's meat and poultry inspection division, termed as "gross unsanitary operative conditions" in the plant. Dr. Lee said the products prepared were subjected to bacteria, with insect and vermin control almost completely lacking. Rabbi Leopold Fischer, the plant's ritual slaughterer and spiritual leader of Congregation Zera Israel here, denied the charges and attributed any shortcomings to the upkeep of outmoded machinery. He told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency that "Our chickens are clean." He further stated that the 1,500 families who normally get their poultry from Pen-Mar are now being forced to import chickens from New Jersey and New York. According to Dr. Lee, state inspectors have been working closely with the Pen-Mar management since the beginning of the year in an effort to upgrade the facilities, but have been met with "extreme verbal abuse" by the staff. He further stated that "Not once have they (Pen-Mar) asked to have inspection reinstated since its suspension on May 25." By law, state inspection is required to maintain operations. Rabbi Fischer confirmed that friction exists between management and State inspectors.

My comments:
  1. My father recalls that there was a lot of politics involved, as the first major slaughterhouse, Empire, was trying to put the little guys out of business and threw political weight around to get it done.
  2. At that time, my grandfather was not actively slaughtering anymore, but was the supervisor of the other shochtim.
  3. My father works in occupational safety professionally. I'm wondering if he was rebelling against something...
  4. Should I worry that this man was also my mohel?
Wonder what else I'll dig up on this new toy.

Paul Simon in Israel

It's recently been announced that Paul Simon will be doing a concert in Israel. If I'm in the country, I'm there. Marc Tracy of Tablet suggests a set list. His recommendations are all right (Homeward Bound can be understood as a heavily Jewish and even mystical allegory; I am a Rock easily resonates with the Israeli situation; Still Crazy applies to the whole country)- some a bit contrived, though. There's some low-hanging fruit that he missed though:
1) The Dangling Conversation - about two people in a relationship but talking past each other. Can apply to both internal and international politics.
2) The Boxer - “In a clearing stands a boxer, and a fighter by his trade, and he carries the reminder of every glove that laid him out or cut him till he cried out in his anger and his shame ‘I am leaving, I am leaving,’ but the fighter still remains.” What a great metaphor for Israel.
3) Scarborough Fair - because it's frequently used for "Dror Yikra" (at least it was until "Sloop John B" inherited that crown).
4) Bridge over Troubled Water - because it speaks to the very reason that the State of Israel was founded.
5) Slip Slidin Away - "God only knows; God makes his plans. The information's unavailable to the mortal man. We work our jobs, collect our pay; we think we're riding down the highway but instead we're slip sliding away." This is Yiddish wisdom ("mensch tracht un Gott lacht").
6) America - hitchhiking is still popular here, as is America (though in the song, America is a stand-in for New York; perhaps a rewrite for "Jerusalem" is in order - "counting the cars on Route 443 yeah, they've all come to look for Jerusalem."


Surviving by Running; Surviving by Staying; Surviving by Surviving

All four of my grandparents were living in Europe during the Nazi rise to power: 2 in Germany and 2 in Romania. My maternal (German) grandparents each came to the US independently – they did not meet until much later, marrying in New York in 1948. My grandmother came with her family as a teenager in 1938, settling in Washington Heights. My grandfather came alone in 1937, leaving his parents behind, having graduated from ILBA – the Jewish Teachers’ Seminary in Wuerzburg (which he initially attended because he could no longer attend public school). He settled in Baltimore soon thereafter, accepting a job as a music teacher (initially – he eventually became principal) at Beth Tfiloh in Baltimore. His father, my great-grandfather, died (of natural causes, but no doubt accelerated by the war) in Stuttgart in 1942, and my great-grandmother managed to then secure passage to America via Portugal on a kindertransport. She was among the last Jews to leave before the implementation of the Final Solution. Both grandparents lost extended family members in the war, but their immediate families and many other relatives managed to escape to the US before the war; a handful survived the war and made their way to Israel afterward.

My Romanian (paternal) grandparents got married in the mid-1930s, lived in Grosswardein for a little while, and then moved to a small town in Transylvania called Orastie, where my grandfather became rabbi. Romania, an Axis country, was terrible for the Jews; the best that can be said for them is that they were unsystematic about killing us, and as a result the majority of Jews in Romania at the start of the war survived. Parts of Transylvania were annexed by Hungary, which for a time was considered more benign for Jews (that situation ended in the spring of 1944, when the Nazis occupied Hungary and implemented the Final Solution there). Several of my grandmother’s family members pleaded with them to flee to Hungary with them, but by grandfather insisted on staying put. Most of my grandmother’s family was wiped out – she was 1 of 15 siblings; 3 died before the war, 9 died in the war, and 3 survived. My grandfather’s brothers had made it to Palestine in the late 1930s with (secular) Zionist youth groups.

My grandfather’s insistence on staying put, as best as I can reconstruct it, had to do with his status in the town. As rabbi, he had cultivated relationships with several local powerbrokers, including the local sheriff (“cultivated relationships with” probably means nothing more than “liquored up”). As a result, his family was protected by local police whenever the regular army was in the neighborhood; there are stories that he even faced a firing squad before the sheriff intervened. He felt that there was no place safer for his family than in a small town where he was respected. Turns out he was right.

None of my grandparents ever spent time in a concentration camp or ghetto. None of them had to suffer inhuman torment, had to go through hell, or had to hide in a barn. Did that make them Holocaust survivors or “merely” Holocaust refugees? And does it really matter?


Crown without a King

Like so many others, I have been drawn into the pageantry of last week’s royal wedding. At first I tried convincing myself that I really did not care, but ended up tuning in anyway, compelled, like billions of others, to gawk. In fact, instead of apathy, I find myself curiously offended by the events—and indeed, by the very notion of royalty—as an American, Israeli, and Jew.

As an Israeli and an American, I am a citizen of two countries who fought for independence against soldiers of the British Crown, and to whom the British Crown represents the type of hubris that made a still-festering mess of vast swaths of territory. Though the British Empire undoubtedly had its fine hours, its sun has thankfully set.
But it was not antipathy toward Britain that caused me to take offense. After all, the crown is a symbol. Although the Talmud (Berakhot 58a) states that “[One who sees] gentile kings says, ‘[Blessed are You, God, our Lord, King of the Universe] Who has granted of His glory to flesh and blood,” halakhic consensus excludes symbolic kings who do not truly rule their subjects. The trappings of royalty do not a king make.
This is the source of offense: I can understand why it is prudent for a subject to respect and venerate a truly powerful king, but I will never understand the adulation of a purely vestigial royalty, whose line of succession have done and need do nothing in order to attain their status.
As a Jew, I am an heir to a tradition and bearer of a pedigree much greater than that of the British royal line. The Talmud proclaims on several occasions that “every Israelite is a prince.” Benjamin Disraeli, an apostate Jew and British Prime Minister, quipped to Daniel O’Connell in a Parliamentary debate when the latter insulted the former’s lineage, “Yes, I am a Jew and when the ancestors of the right honorable gentleman were brutal savages in an unknown island, mine were priests in the temple of Solomon.”

And yet, Jewish pedigree has long been replaced by meritocracy. A vestigial priesthood and the primogeniture of certain Hasidic courts are all that remain of exclusive birthrights. “The crown of Torah,” writes Maimonides (Laws of Torah Study 3:1), “stands available and accessible to all, ‘the heritage of the community of Jacob’; whomever wants it may come and take it.” According to the Mishna (Avot 4:17), the crown of a good reputation surpasses the crowns of royalty, priesthood, and even Torah. I therefore find it offensive, as a Jew, that there are those whose stature stems wholly from pedigree.
As an American, I believe that veneration and honor must be earned, if not deserved. Admittedly, American cultural heroes often attain their status for their inherently trivial skill of throwing a ball through a hoop. And yet, even then, that respect is born of merit, of men gathering on the playing field to determine superiority through fair competition. I am proud that the country of my birth can elect a black man, the son of a foreigner, to its highest office. Men are judged not by the color of their skin (or blood), but by the content of their character. Israel, too, has seen the rise—and fall—of statesmen from a variety of origins. None are above the law, and none are beneath it.
A party was held in my neighborhood in Modi’in this past Friday night, celebrating the royal wedding. It garnered some significant media attention (in The Forward and the Jerusalem Post, among others), which is to say that they had good PR. As I considered how to succinctly explain why I would not be attending, I eventually hit on a quip that sums up several of the reasons outlined above: I would attend, but my Nazi costume is at the dry cleaner’s.