Double Vindication in the Fight against Modiin Bigotry

Many readers might remember that this past October, the city of Modiin closed the spacious and beautiful Anabe Park to out-of-town guests during Hol Ha-mo'ed Sukkot. The background was a minor incident the previous Pesach and an ongoing pissing contest between the respective mayors of Modi'in and its Haredi neighbor, Modi'in Illit.

To make a long story short, I went to the park on Sukkot and invited a Haredi family that I met at the entrance into the park as my personal guests (guests of Modi'in residents were allowed in). A Haaretz reporter happened to be there, and so I was in the Israeli press. The municipal spokesman even called me a "provocateur."

All of this information appears in news that appeared around that time, and I wrote two blog posts on the subject.

The story did not end there, nor did my (indirect) involvement in it. In the first place, the stupid exclusionary policy was lifted before Pesach. I'd like to think that my actions, the involvement of several Israeli civil rights groups, and the opposition of a majority of the city council contributed to the mayor seeing the error of his ways. Alas, according to local blogger Yaki Beja, it seems that the real reason for the change was the fact that the park's concessionaires were losing considerable business (ironically, it turns out that the park's upkeep was funded through the concessionaire dues, which means that a Haredi who came and bought a popsicle was in fact helping to fund the park). Whatever the reason, I'm glad that the policy was reversed, and I'm happy to have been on the right side of this one.

It gets better, though.

A week after the Haaretz article, a local paper ran a column by one Koby Or, which smeared a local attorney named Eli Fisher. Or assumed that the "Eli Fischer" in the article was this somewhat well-known local personage, and then he drew all sorts of wild conclusions about what Adv. Fisher was trying to accomplish by conspiring with a Haaretz reporter to manufacture a headline (it should be noted that Mr. Or, by his own admission, was in Eilat for Sukkot, far away from the action).

Although Mr. Or apologized in print the next week and made some modifications to the online article, Adv. Fisher, being a lawyer, sued Mr. Or and the publication that ran his article without editing it, checking facts, or asking for a statement from Adv. Fisher (or me, for that matter). The verdict was handed down a few weeks ago: Adv. Fischer won 36,000 NIS in damages from Mr. Or and the paper. Additionally, Mr. Or - who seems to be an old-school secularist type who is grumpy about anyone not like him coming along to do things differently - stopped writing for this or any other local paper. It is explained in the court protocols that Mr. Or quit the paper after it became clear that he would now be subjected to annoying little things like editing and fact-checking. To be honest, he's not that much different from today's armchair journalists who fact-check on Wikipedia, but whatever.

This has been summarized from a long blog post by Yaki Beja on the issue. He's got all of the courtroom drama. I'm just happy that a small battle in the fight against bigotry has been won. In any event, I'm going out for coffee later this week with my new friend, Eli Fisher.

He's paying.


Haredim for World Peace

A quote from a responsum:
It is obligatory for every haredi to work toward world peace, so that innocent blood is not shed in the world, and war ceases.
 Who wrote this and when? Check out my latest blog post at FindNeedles.


Hillel Praises; Shammai Appraises

Hillel and Shammai are perhaps the most famous pair of rabbinic rivals in the Talmud. Their rivalry, and their differences in personality, are a theme that runs through all parts of rabbinic literature - halakha and aggada, Mishna and Tosefta, Bavli and Yerushalmi. Any discussion of Jewish attitudes toward pluralism and its limits begins with Hillel and Shammai.

This rivalry has been treated extensively, so I doubt that I would have much to contribute on this front. Nevertheless, I had an insight into their names several years ago (thanks, David G, for reminding me about that blog post), and I believe it to be a true chiddush.

The name Hillel is related to hallel - praise. The name Shammai is related to shuma - evaluation. In fact, the Modern Hebrew word for an appraiser is a "shammai". The personalities of Hillel and Shammai are thematized along these lines. While Shammai and his disciples are concerned with the true, present, objective value of something, Hillel and his academy have a more generous outlook; they are able to see how something might have greater subjective value or potential value.

In the audio shiur I posted yesterday (and in a latent form in this post), this difference is used to understand the divergent approaches of Hillel and Shammai when confronting the prospective gerim. Shammai kicks them out using a yardstick - a tool of precise quantification, symbolizing the standards that potential gerim must meet, but that these do not. Hillel, in my reading, perceives some nobility in their motives and is willing to act based on their potential.

A similar dispute appears in Avot De-Rabbi Natan 2:9. Shammai's academy had very strict acceptance standards, whereas anyone could study at Hillel's. According to that passage, Hillel's lack of standards was not predicated on the belief in universal Torah education, but on the notion that it is impossible to know what sort of background will produce the next rabbinic leaders. Both Hillel and Shammai want to produce greatness, but whereas Shammai insists that greatness requires certain raw materials, Hillel contends that one's present state is not a good predictor of potential. So he refuses to evaluate, and lets everyone in.

Perhaps the most poignant example of this difference between Hillel and Shammai appears in Sanhedrin 16b-17a. The disciples of Hillel and Shammai disagree about "how one dances before the bride." Beit Hillel maintains that one should always tell the groom that "the bride is beautiful and charming," whereas Beit Shammai states that one should tell it like it is. The dispute, according to the ensuing discussion, is about whether there is value in reinforcing the groom's subjective perception. For the Hillelites, the true "worth" of the bride is irrelevant; this is what the groom has settled upon, and it is proper and generous to reinforce his beliefs, even if they are erroneous on some objective plane. Beit Shammai is unwilling to violate its objective evaluation - that is, lie - to make another person feel good (an outstanding and hilarious dramatization of Shammai's dilemma can be viewed here).

A final example further illustrate this theme and may even locate the differences within the general demeanor of the two sages. In Beitza 16a, it is recorded that Hillel and Shammai took different approaches to Shabbat, and really to life. Shammai would constantly be on the lookout for delicacies that he could serve on Shabbat. Even if he already bought a fine beast, he would look for a better one and compare it to the first. The impression here is that Shammai's life was an unending series of appraisals and evaluations. He simply could not turn off his faculty of judgment; Halakhic Man on steroids or, if you wish, a life-long appointment with an optometrist ("Is this better, or is this? Which is better, this or this?"). Hillel, on the other hand, felt that as long as one was living life for the sake of heaven, there was no need for the constant evaluation; one could live life as it happened.

In this passage, Hillel's position is not articulated in the form of a dissenting opinion. His position is introduced by the phrase "Hillel had a different demeanor" ("mida acheret hayta bo"). Similarly, in his response (and later in the passage, his disciples' response), he does not directly dispute Shammai's incessant appraisal, but simply quotes Psalms 68:20 "Blessed be the Lord, day by day." "Barukh Hashem yom yom."

This "dispute" straddles the line between halakha and aggada. Shammai acted a certain way, and his disciples transformed their stories about him into a halakhic position. Hillel does not get drawn into Shammai's impulse for constant evaluation, and his disciples resist the temptation to transform stories about their master into actual halakhic positions. The poetics of this short passage indicate that the Bavli has indeed thematized the divergent tendencies attributed to Hillel and Shammai, and subsequently to their respective circles of disciples.

One might ask, so what? What difference does it make if the Bavli conceptualized Hillel and Shammai in this way? What is the aggada le-ma'aseh? As I noted in yesterday's post (and here I am indebted to insights of Barry Wimpfheimer as well as Moshe Simon and Chaim Saiman), I think this insight is significant because it externalizes a certain tension that every rabbi feels to a certain degree. On one hand, there is the impulse toward rule-making, and on the other hand is an impulse to accept every moment and every individual with a spirit of generosity, without trying to impose an existing set of rules and standards on it. The rabbis of the Bavli felt this tension, too. Thus, although they engaged in formulating and standardizing law, they also expressed reservations and resistance to that attitude. My contention here is that the Sages externalized these opposing tendencies through the figures of Hillel and Shammai, and that by showing Hillel to be their clear favorite, they, in some way, legitimated the resistance that has accompanied the impulse toward codification, standardization, and rule-making every step of the way.


A New Venture and a Pre-Shavu’ot Podcast

It has been an eventful few weeks. After three and a half years, I am no longer working for Jewish Ideas Daily. The parting was amicable and we did not discount the possibility of doing some work for JID or its affiliated projects.

The work that I’ve done for them, specifically building a model to take in the entire sweep of Jewish and Israeli news, opinion, and analysis on a daily basis, has prepared me for the next step. Together with Dr. Judah Levine, who worked with me for JID, I have launched a new venture called FindNeedles. We serve clients by going through vast amounts of content to find the items that are specifically relevant to them. Our process combines the power of machine aggregation with the human intelligence of curation. You can learn more by visiting our site, www.findneedles.com . And here’s a sample of something we recently provided for a client.

Please get in touch if you think we can be of value to your business or organization.

A few weeks ago, I gave a shi’ur in honor of my grandparents, as I do every year. This year I explored the uneasy and blurry relationship between halakha and aggada, between law and lore. I used the well-known stories of the non-Jews who came to Hillel and Shammai with the intention of converting to Judaism. The central thesis (and chiddush) of the shiur is that the figures of Hillel and Shammai are typologies that externalize rabbinic ambivalence about standardizing and codifying practice. I further argue that this ambivalence persists even after these stories are domesticated by halakha – that is, that aggada resists domestication and occasionally succeeds in injecting something of life’s messiness into the halakhic codes themselves. In fact, I argue, the impulse toward standardization of conversion and the impulse to resist standardization, both of which are manifest in contemporary debates about conversion, are discernible within the Talmud’s discourse; looking only at halakha or aggada simplifies the picture considerably.

This reading of the stories in the Gemara and the subsequent codification is both indebted to and critical of a recent work by Barry Wimpfheimer  called Narrating the Law. I hope to have occasion to flesh this out further in a review essay.

Since the subject matter pertains directly to the upcoming holiday of Shavu’ot, I thought it might be of interest over the next few days. The audio of the shiur is available here, and the associated source sheet is here.

Chag Sameach.