Saturday, August 31, 2013

Anat retentive: A Selihot special

I wish to speak to you today about a disorder which has been prevalent in Israel and the worldwide Jewish community for some time, but has really hit epidemic proportions in the last six months.
It's called Anat retentiveness. It's serious, but there is a cure.

What is Anat retentiveness? Well, Sigmund Freud coined the term "anal retentiveness" for those who, to their detriment, are so obsessed with picayune details that it annoys others. Freud thought it was ultimately about baby poop, but that's been largely discarded, except of course for making diaper bombs to toss at women who come, with ritual objects usually monopolized by men, to pray at the Kotel, the Western Wall.

This brings us to the similarly-named Anat retentiveness. In this condition, one is overly obsessed, to one's own detriment and the annoyance of others, with the picayune details of one person, namely Anat Hoffman, whose day job is executive director of the Israel Religious Action Center, "the public and legal advocacy arm of the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism." Progressive, here in Israel, equals Reform. Don't get me started on how confusing the term "Masorati" is.

However, for our purposes, what is more important is her role as chairwoman of Women of the Wall, which will shortly celebrate its 25th anniversary. It is WOW, who are a) a group of women who seek to b) pray at the Western Wall (who'da thunk it?), who have grabbed headlines over the summer since a Jerusalem District Court ruling allowed them to pray as they want at their monthly prayers, namely with Torah scrolls, phylacteries (tefillin) and tallitot (that's an English word now, look it up). Thousands have mobilized to block them from doing exactly that in person, and WOW's detractors on the Internet are legion. And far too many of them are Anat retentive.

How do you know if your loved one suffers from this condition? Here are some telltale signs:

  1. Does your loved one clutch a yellowed clipping from the South Florida Sun Sentinel (Broward County's news follower!) to his or her bosom, murmuring about Anat Hoffman's "plan" to limit men's-only access to the Kotel?
  2. Does your loved one obsessively watch 8 seconds of videotape from an Israeli news show in which Anat Hoffman speaks of a future vision of the Wall without a mehitza (partition) between the sexes?
  3. Does your loved one give the title "Anat Hoffman is No X" to the response to a post about WOW which never mentions Anat?
  4. Does your loved one speak patronizingly about "relat[ing] to the struggles of the individuals who participate and support Women of the Wall’s (WoW‘s) prayer protests"? Or caption a photo of WOW saying Shema as "protest at the Western Wall"?
  5. Does your loved one express puzzlement that the Conservative accept a mixed-prayer area at the Kotel-proximate Robinson's Arch, but Anat Hoffman, as WOW's chairwoman, has rejected it?
  6. Does your loved one stay up all night watching a BBC interview in which Anat Hoffman admits that she is REFORM?
Now, of course Anat is Reform, and she works for a Reform organization, IRAC. But as chairwoman of WOW, she represents a nondenominational volunteer group which has Reform, Conservative and Orthodox members, some of whom arrive at the Kotel in tallit and/ or tefillin, some of whom do not. Anat retentive sufferers have referred to her as the elected president of WOW, which is both wrong and ludicrous, but assume that she were: are Americans now 50% black because their elected president is?
The idea that nondenominational groups must be represented by nondenominational Jews hits close to home for me because my father is an Orthodox rabbi, with his own synagogue, whose day job is at the nondenominational Board of Jewish Education (now called the Jewish Education Project). When he gives a sermon or lecture or interview, is he expressing the views of the BJE or its parent, UJA-Federation? No; nor is Anat Hoffman doing so for WOW when she speaks as a Reform Jew, nor is Religious Services Minister Naftali Bennett (who happens to be Orthodox) expressing a "plan" to toss Muslims from the Temple Mount when he prays for the Temple to be rebuilt. One who thinks so is sadly suffering from Anat retentiveness.

Do not lose hope. There is a remedy, manufactured by God Himself. (Biggest Pharma?) The Talmud records (Kiddushin 30b), "I have created the Torah as an antidote." Study what Halakha has to say about women reading from a Torah scroll, laying tefillin, putting on a tallit. You'll be surprised.
Most importantly, let's turn to the dean of Jewish physicians, Dr. Moses Maimonides. He believes that such a malady can only truly be cured when one finds oneself in the exact same situation and refuses to repeat the error (Laws of Repentance 2:1).

So now is the time for Anat retentiveness sufferers! You can break the cycle. Women of the Wall will be holding a Selihot service tonight (Sunday). You can take this opportunity to get over it. Let those who come to pray at the gathering-place for all Jewry do so in peace.

As for me, I have to get to Selihot. Not at the Kotel, unfortunately, but I am heartened by the thought that those who will be there, including Women of the Wall, will be praying for all of us. Shavua tov!

Friday, August 30, 2013

In Hirhurim herem

Here are some quotes for you from a famous Torah blogger:

There is more to the Torah than forbidden and permissible. Those areas also teach us about values.

It seems clear from multiple places in rabbinic literature that some prohibitions are considered worse than others. And some permitted but frowned upon acts are also considered terrible.
You continue to pursue the permitted/forbidden line of argument so we are just talking in circles, which is not worth either of our times. I am not interested in repeating that we [need] to look to the Torah for guidance beyond permitted/forbidden...

As you might have guessed from the title, these are from Rabbi Gil Student, proprietor of Hirhurim (now called Torah Musings). Honestly, I do not frequent the site, but this week I saw a link to David P. Goldman's "Can Conservative Religion Survive Gay Marriage?" It's an interesting piece, although much of it was lost on me because I don't have a background in Catholic theology. I commented, and Goldman responded to me very politely. I had some remaining issues, so I responded, at which point Gil stepped in. His point seems to be that even though there is no halakhic ban on lesbianism among non-Jews, we still need to fight for DOMAesque legislation based on "values." So I asked what the value was. That was the end of that thread. Gil independently raised what I had written, so we engaged anew, until I asked: "What about gay marriage is improper based on values? If you say that they cannot form sacred unions, why not? Because the Torah forbids it? That is a forbidden/ permitted argument QED." We went back and forth, and I asked again, "What is this value that gay marriage does not have?" Gil responded that he would not repeat himself, so I asked him to please tell me where he said it in the first place. You can't see that last comment, because he hasn't approved it. In 15 hours. While a comment from 12 hours later has been approved.

I think I've been banned. Well, until DB bans me here, I'll give you my take on the one Jewish source mentioned in the article, raised two months ago by another blogger...

Of lesbians and levirs

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Sorry seems to be the hardest word

Earlier this year, I was deposed by a private firm investigating sexual abuse allegations at Yeshiva University High School.
I can understand why they wanted to talk to me. Though one of the main alleged offenders, Macy Gordon, was before my time, I knew the other, George (Gedalia) Finkelstein quite well. My father served under and eventually succeeded him as assistant principal of YUHS for Boys, also known as MTA, and as rabbi of our shul. He was also our neighbor, in the next apartment building over on Fort Washington Avenue in Manhattan. His daughter was my first crush.
But apparently, there was a lot I didn't know about George. I didn't know about his habit of "wrestling" students in the 70's and 80's, although apparently then-YU President Rabbi Norman Lamm did, as reported by The Forward's Paul Berger. The door was taken off his office to prevent this from recurring, but eventually he "was quietly forced out" in 1995. Don't worry, he landed on his feet, taking over a huge Jewish school in Florida before making aliya a few years later to work for Jerusalem's Great Synagogue. Complaints have been lodged here as well--with our old friends at Takanah.
When these allegations surfaced late last year, current YU Pres. Richard Joel issued the following statement:
The inappropriate behavior and abuse alleged by The Forward to have taken place in the past, and described in statements attributed by The Forward to Dr. Lamm, are reprehensible. The actions described represent heinous and inexcusable acts that are antithetical both to Torah values and to everything that Yeshiva University stands for. They have no place here, in our community, or anywhere at all. The thought that such behavior could have occurred at our boys’ high school, or anywhere at this institution, at any time in its past, is more than sufficient reason to express on behalf of the University, my deepest, most profound apology.
It's a forceful statement, until you analyze it a bit. Joel is reacting to the Forward, what they "allege" and what they "attribute." He does not mention any victims, except to talk about the great YU guidelines for aiding theoretical people. After all, it's just a thought of such behavior, and only in that context does he "express... my deepest, most profound apology." Are there victims? Did any of this occur? Did Rabbi Lamm say this? Who knows!
A week later, they hired a firm to investigate these allegations, and their report came out yesterday, with another statement from Joel:
There are findings set forth in this report that serve as a source of profound shame and sadness for our institution. On behalf of the Board of Trustees and the entire University community, I express my deepest and most heartfelt remorse, and truly hope that our recognition of these issues provides some level of comfort and closure to the victims. Although we cannot change the past, we remain committed to making confidential counseling services available to those individual victims in the hope they can achieve a more peaceful future.
Now that he has an actual report, he's not apologetic, but remorseful. I guess we should be happy that he acknowledges the existence of victims, although he does not offers apologies or remorse to them. The problem here is that remorse (from the Latin remorsus) refers to a gnawing sense of guilt, pangs of conscience. However, what does not appear in this statement are the words "sorry," "apologize," "regret," "teshuva," "repentance" or "forgiveness." But that might imply liability.
After all, people have informed me on social media, and I quote, "This is as good as it gets when you are being sued for $680 milllion." Well, it's true that more than a dozen of the victims filed suit against YU for $380 million in July. Hm, maybe they should thank George for this potential windfall. I mean, once you sue, you're not a victim anymore, right? And it's inconceivable that there are other victims out there who didn't sue, right? Phew, glad that's over.
So why am I "fixated on a word," to quote another commenter? Because this sort of stuff matters to abuse victims. Check out Yerachmiel Lopin's Frum Follies blog or follow Dorron Katzin on Twitter; they are excellent at covering these scandals. You'll quickly get a sense of how important a clear, unambiguous, direct apology can be. Moreover, the lack of consequences for associating with abusers after their crimes have been exposed was recently dissected by former RCA Pres. Rabbi Heshie Billet. YU can and must do much more right now, even though Joel's through-line seems to be "we cannot change the past" and touting the awesomeness of the university's guidelines for the future. What about the present?
Indeed, Sir Elton, sorry seems to be the hardest word. In fact, one of the classic questions about this season of penitence is the following: why does it matter? Why should saying "sorry" or "we have sinned" change anything? Isn't it just an empty ritual?
No, it's not. It means something, because it implies the need to do something to rectify the error, as best we can. At least that's what I thought until Pres. Joel set me straight:
...on Yom Kippur, Moses descended from Mt. Sinai with the second set of luchot, the Ten Commandments. These tablets differed from the first in that they were written by God and yet fashioned by Moses...
In the season of introspection, we must fortify that relationship by recommitting to the ongoing work of creation. If our future is to align with the ethical and personal imperatives of our sacred Torah, then we must not wait – we must make it so, not merely in word but in action.
Did you think Yom Kippur was about past misdeeds? No, it's about moving on. Take two new tablets for that remorse, and don't call me in the morning. Assuming you can sleep through the night.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Repentance is hard, remittance is easy

Just a brief after-Shabbat report from the Holy Land. While we Ashkenazim are breathing a sigh of relief that we have one more week before Selihot start, our Sephardic brothers are in full penitential mode. Luckily, their greatest living rabbinic star, Maran R. Ovadia Yosef, has a solution.

Send $99.99 to his favorite charity, and he will pray FOR you on both Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur eves! Yes, you will be named as a co-supplicant with Maran!

I exaggerate, of course. By today's exchange rate, 360 shekels would actually be one hundred dollars and thirty-one cents. Still, keep your eyes on the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange--the annual salvation of your soul may get cheaper yet.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Moses: soft on gays?

The phrase "Let this year commence with its blessings" is a a common pre-Rosh Hashana greeting, but it is its converse. "Let that year conclude with its curses," which has a much longer history. It's the reason that we always read the 98 Curses of Deuteronomy 28 at least a week before the new year, according to the Talmud (Megilla 31b). However, that same passage indicates that, frightening though they might be, these curses are the mild ones. The ghost-pepper curses are the ones in Leviticus 26. Rashi (Deut. 28:23) explains the distinction:
These curses were stated by Moses of his own accord, while those at Sinai he pronounced from the mouth of the Holy One, Blessed is He. This is demonstrated by the verses themselves... Moses made his curses milder, by expressing them in the singular form. Furthermore, in this curse, Moses made his milder... saying that the skies will sweat, and thus, even though they will not pour down rain, there will not be a consuming drought in the world.
The part about Moses stating these of his own accord is a philosophically thorny issue which I wrote about earlier this week. Regardless, it does force us to look at the Book of Deuteronomy in a different way, especially in its relationship to the Book of Leviticus.
  • In Lev. 25:1-7, the sabbatical year is about letting the land observe "the sabbath of the Lord;" in Deut. 15:1-6, it's all about debt relief.
  • Lev. 25:46 says "You shall enslave them forever," while Deut. 23:16 demands that the runaway slave be welcomed. (These dueling verses were used by supporters of slavery and abolition respectively in 19th-century America).
  • Lev. 18:3 utterly rejects Egyptian culture, while Deut. (23:7-8) commands: "You shall not abominate an Egyptian."
  • Speaking of abominations, while this is a term used exclusively for illicit sex in Lev. 18 & 20, in Deut. it denotes a wide range of taboos: from idolatry and non-kosher food to various types of commercial, ritual and sexual fraud and those actual threats to traditional marriage: prostitution and divorce.
  • In Lev. 23, holidays are about sacrifices; in Deut. 16, they are about sharing the wealth with one's family and the poor.
  • In fact, Leviticus mentions joy once; Deuteronomy talks about it a dozen times. In fact, Deuteronomy has three times more cheer than all of the other books combined! Truly, Deuteronomy is the gayest Book.
Hey, that reminds me, what about the gays? The fundamentalists tell us that their battle against "the homosexual agenda" (I can only assume it involves a dictatorship under Andy Cohen) is so exigent because society cannot survive if gays are tolerated, recognized or allowed to marry. Surely, if shrimp are an abomination in Deuteronomy, gays must be as well.
This makes the preamble to the Curses all the more curious. You see, before the (Blessings and the) Curses in chap. 28, chap. 27 details what would make the nation cursed. The whole people must assemble, upon crossing the Jordan, and forge a covenant; but since no one knows what happens behind closed doors, the people as a whole must execrate eleven types of covert transgressors. What secret sins undermine society? Well, we find the expected stuff about not abusing parents, neighbors, the blind, orphans, widows and strangers (yawn), but where's the sexy stuff? Right in the middle (vv. 20-23):
Cursed be he that lies with his father's wife; becase he uncovers his father's bed. And all the people shall say, Amen. Cursed be he that lies with any kind of animal. And all the people shall say, Amen. Cursed be he that lies with his sister, the daughter of his father, or the daughter of his mother. And all the people shall say, Amen. Cursed be he that lies with his mother-in-law. And all the people shall say, Amen.
Wait, that's it? Where are the gays? Doesn't any decent society need to strongly express its condemnation of their lifestyle?
In fact, sex between men is mentioned just as many times in the Torah as sex with one's daughter-in-law: namely, once in Lev. 18 and 20. (Fewer, if you count the Judah and Tamar story.) Say, how many organizations are out there combating daughter-in-law love?
Moses knows what he is doing. It's first-degree incest and bestiality that challenge society, not two men registering at Sur La Table.
I'll leave you with this thought. Next week, we will mark the 50th anniversary of the Great March on Washington, but I remember a different event, 25 years ago, the one for Soviet Jewry. I was too young to go, but my parents did, and it was an exhilarating experience. It was the clearest civil-rights issue of my youth: Russia was oppressing people who just wanted to be who they were, in public and without fear; so many were afraid to embrace their identity, rightly concerned about what the totalitarian government might do to them as "subversive elements" and "enemies of the state." Beatings, imprisonment or worse--the brutality of bigotry in the starkest terms.
So, when's the March on Washington for Russian gays?

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Indecent acts

Earlier this summer, I wrote on this site about the woeful attitude of many in the Jewish establishment towards cases of child abuse: "Sorry, Rabbi, it's not OK." With Mordechai Elon being found guilty of indecent acts against a minor, I feel the need to respond to some shocking reactions on social media.
The fact that the man may have sinned does not change the quality of the Torah he has taught for decades.
Well, we have two choices here. Either the Torah as a whole is invalidated, or Elon's tiny, tiny corner of it is. If you truly believe that child abuse does not impinge on one's suitability to teach God's word, then you have made God an accomplice to some truly heinous acts.
It's the month of Elul! Don't you believe in the power of repentance?
Repentance is, in the Jewish conception, between man and God--not via priest, press or public. (Elon has denied the charges throughout the legal process.) When a court determines guilt, penitence is absolutely irrelevant. The victim and perpetrator will get to talk about how they feel at sentencing.
Whatever you believe, this is a very sad day.
The sad days were a decade ago when Elon committed these acts. The sad days were every day since then that the case was handled with kid-gloves, as compromises were reached and feet were dragged. Today is a day of justice, a day when healing may begin.
Justice is, after all, the opening theme of this week's Torah portion, Shofetim: "Justice, justice you must pursue" (Deut. 16:20). In fact, the Talmud understands this (Sanhedrin 32b) as a mandate to "Seek out a fitting court." The broader tragedy here is that so many religious Jews seem to be unclear as to what a "fitting court" is for this sort of reprehensible crime.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

What proof is the Torah?

This summer, the Knesset passed a draconian law unfairly targeting a segment of the Israeli public of which I am a proud part: alcoholics. Taxes on liquor shot up across the country, and the higher the alcohol content, the higher the price. Shocking! Who's to say that 4% Coors Light should be cheaper than Yekev HaGalil's 96% Gold?
Oh, it's our Finance Minister Yair Lapid. Never mind then, I can't say no that beautiful, beautiful man.
Maybe he has a point. Maybe there is a difference between different types of alcoholic drinks. After all, there's a reason that we drink beer in steins, wine in goblets and vodka in shot glasses. The proof is in the proof.
You see, there's a raging debate in the English-speaking Jewish community this summer, based on the new website,, which features the writings of Rabbi Dr. Zev Farber and others, aiming to harmonize Orthodox and academic approaches to biblical studies. From YCT to YU, from the RCA to the Aguda, Orthodox Jews are struggling to define what is an acceptable view of the divine origin of the Torah. You might remember the same thing from over a decade ago in the Hebrew-speaking Jewish world, when it was called Tanakh be-govah einayim  (literally, "the Bible at eye-level"). Now the acronym is TMS, for Torah from heaven (shamayim) and Sinai.
What does this all have to do with alcohol? Perhaps more than one might think. We keep obsessing over the eighth Maimonidean Principle of Faith, in which he basically quotes the Talmud's statement that anyone who declares that any verse of the Torah was "not said by the Holy One, Blessed be He, but by Moses of his own accord" is a heretic (anonymous beraita in Sanhedrin 99a; also R. Eleazar of Modiin, Sifrei, Num. 112), but the Talmud itself elsewhere (Abbayei in Megilla 31b) says exactly that, in the same words, about the Curses in this week's Torah portion (and, presumably, the rest of Deuteronomy).

It seems to me that Maimonides is a bit of a straw man here, or maybe a scarecrow. We don't really know what he means because he does not explain it. He merely codifies both Talmudic rulings (Laws of Repentance 3:8, Laws of Prayer 13:7).  Furthermore, the core of the objection seems to be that one is attributing the given verse or letter to man and not to God. As far as I can tell, the current debate has nothing to do with this, as everyone seems to concede that the Torah comes from God. True, he does introduce the topic in his Mishnaic commentary (Sanhedrin 10:1) by saying that "the whole Torah which we have today was the one given to Moses," but he goes on to explain that the problem is in viewing some parts of the Torah as having greater holiness than others, and this introductory part is mentioned only there, not in Mishneh Torah.  It's also worth noting that Maimonides also attributes the Oral Torah to Moses, knowing full well that the Talmud is full of arguments and disputes.
So can we move on from Maimonides? What is more concerning to me is the idea of our Torah being the Torah of Moses, and this is where our alcohol analogy is relevant.
Sure, there are Tannaitic opinions that the last eight verses of the Torah were written by Joshua, leaving the Mosaic content at just under 99.9%. Or maybe it's the last twelve, since Moses never comes down after ascending Mt. Nebo, bringing the Mosaic content to just under 99.8%. Or maybe it's those last four chapters, since in Deut. 31 the Torah is already handed over to the Levites, complete, bringing the Mosaic content down to below 97.9%. There's still a world of difference between that and saying that Moses only wrote a few chapters of the Torah, maybe some poems, travelogues or genealogies. There's a world of difference between saying that Abraham didn't have camels or live until 175 and saying that he never existed. Is it really so ludicrous to distinguish between the Coors Light and the 96% Gold?
Excuse me, it's time to refill my tumbler.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

A Sbarro survivor speaks

Twelve years ago, someone tried to kill me. I didn't know him, and he didn't know me. I happened to be an off-duty soldier just finishing up my active duty service, but he didn't know that. He came to kill civilians at Sbarro Pizzeria in Jerusalem, and he did, including Malki Roth, sister of a yeshiva chum of mine, who was working the cash register to my left; five members of the Schijveschuurder family, who attended my cousins' synagogue in Har Nof, who were seated behind me; and nine other civilians -- ten if you count the young woman who has been in a persistent vegetative state since that day.
As some of you may know, the date of this attack was 9 August, 2001, at the height of the Second Intifadah. The 12th anniversary was one week ago. But I was one of those 130 injured. I didn't die that day. Two weeks later, I got married. That's why today, equidistant between these two very public and very personal events, is the day I think about both, the worst thing to ever happen to me and the best thing to ever happen to me. Or maybe these two events are tied for best; I suppose it depends on your point of view.
I think about the what ifs. What if I had caught the bus and met my friend at Sbarro an hour earlier, as originally planned? I would have missed everything. What if I had sat one table closer to the door? I would been killed. My parents would have been getting up from shiva for their only child on this date. My fiancee would never have become my wife, and my sons would never have been born.
Instead, I walked away from that devastating attack in the center of Jerusalem a dozen years ago. Literally. Exiting through the wall, because there was no wall there anymore. As the blood ran down my face, an MDA medic took my hand and walked me the two blocks up to Bikur Holim Hospital. They stitched up my scalp and my shoulder, but there wasn't much to be done for the burst eardrum. Then they sent me on my way. I walked to the police station to pick up my backpack, which had been cut open to look for potential explosives. Then I got on a bus and headed back to my yeshiva dormitory. The next day, I got back to planning our wedding with my then-fiancee, while others were planning funerals--for spouses, children, siblings, parents.
Whenever a murder is in the news here, the reporter will note whether it is "criminally motivated" or "nationalistically motivated." It does not, of course, make a difference to the victim, who is equally dead in either case. But while a criminally-motivated murder is tragedy, a nationalistically-motivated murder is martyrdom. The upside, such as it is, is that the whole nation joins in the mourning, commemorating it each year after on Memorial Day; the downside is that the same nation sometimes sets those murderers free. And I accept that.
This has been a hotly-debated topic this week. In an effort to restart peace talks, Israel released the first 26 of 104 Palestinian prisoners, murderers all. You can read details of their crimes and victims here. Coming so soon after the 12th anniversary of the Sbarro bombing, it's no surprise that many have reacted quite negatively to the idea of setting these killers free, everyone from bereaved family members who appealed to the High Court of Justice and the President, to Knesset members who wrote furiously to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, to people who were almost there concluding that "Peace you make with humans, not animals."
I am none of these. I am a survivor. And the people who tried to kill me? The bomber was killed instantaneously; the wheelman (actually, wheelwoman) was freed two years ago to secure the release of captive soldier Gilad Schalit; and the bomb-maker is currently serving 67 life sentences in an Israeli prison.
As I stood at the corner of King George St. and Jaffa Road this week, looking at the building which is now a cafe, I wondered why I didn't feel anything. Not anger, not sadness, not triumph.
I'm beginning to suspect that this is the nature of survival. It is the lot of others to rage at the government; I just hope and pray that this trade of justice for peace proves to be worth it. This is a cause which seems to most exercise those who have lost everything and those who have lost nothing. As for me, having lost just a little something, I merely want to go on surviving.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

War of words

As Shabbat Ki Tetzei ends here in Israel, I can't help but notice how many of the weekly parasha sheets decided to focus on this week's release of the first 26 of 104 Palestinian prisoners ahead of the latest round of peace talks. I've already written about my personal reaction, as a terror survivor, elsewhere, but I wonder about the use of Jewish sources, especially the Torah itself, to approach these difficult hot-button issues. 

It strikes me as disingenuous the way some invoke verses like the final one in last week's portion (Deut. 21:8), "And you shall clear out the innocent blood from your midst;" after all, those verses refer to what we define here as "criminally-motivated murder," a personal grudge between two individuals. "Nationalistically-motivated murder," on the other hand, is about tribal grudges, the waging of war by other means. The immediately following verse is, "When you go out to war against your enemies, Lord your God will put him in your hand and you will take him captive." So the Torah itself acknowledges that there are captives, prisoners of war, those taken during war whom we do not subject to the criminal justice system.

But perhaps it is I who is being disingenuous now. The Torah goes on to talk about the "woman of beautiful form," since there is no concept of adult males being taken captive in biblical war. (I'm unsure if there is any significance to the shift from the masculine shevi to the female shivya as a term for all those taken captive.) Incarceration is a post-biblical concept, so there really are no prisoners of any sort in the Torah, and the only enemies who would survive war would be children and women, all of whom would be enslaved.

So maybe there is nothing to be learnt from the Torah on this subject. But if so, how can we say that it guides our morality? It's one thing to say that tzaraat is not leprosy and reinterpret over a hundred verses of text as a roundabout warning against slander, but is war not war anymore? Or are we simply left with Maimonides, since he is the last Jewish sage to seriously deal with these laws? This at least I'll say about the parasha sheets: they are dealing with the question, even if I find their answers at best unsatisfying and at worst dangerous. 

Shavua tov.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Shema: Don't be haredi?

When is a Jew required to say the words "Shema Yisrael"?
This question brings to mind the classic image of putting a hand over one's eyes and uttering the most famous verse in the Torah (Deut. 6:4): "Hear O Israel, Lord our God, Lord is one." However, those specific words are not mandatory. As the Shulhan Arukh rules (OH 42:2), "One may recite it in any language, as long as one is as precise in pronunciation and grammar as one would be in the Holy Tongue."
In fact, the phrase "Shema Yisrael" appears a half-dozen times in the Book of Deuteronomy, but the only time that one is required to read those precise words is on the battlefield, as detailed in the Torah portion we read yesterday, Shofetim. Maimonides writes this in Mishneh Torah (Laws of Kings and Their Wars 7:3):
When the armies assume battle positions and will shortly join in war, the war-annointed priest stands in an elevated place before the array of the entire army. He addresses them in the Holy Tongue: "Hear O Israel, today you are about to wage war against your enemies. Do not be faint-hearted. Do not be afraid. Do not panic and do not be broken before them. God, you Lord, is the One accompanying you to do battle for you against your enemies to deliver you." (Deut. 20:3-4).
What is so special about this script that it must be recited in its original Hebrew? What would have been lost in translation?
At first glance, it might seem that the Torah is merely using synonyms for being scared in this exhortation. However, Rabbi Eleazar of Worms, the 12th-century sage known as the Rokeach, explains in his Siddur (p. 117) that there are actually four types of fear in biblical parlance, the third of which is listed first in our verse (rakh levav), and for good reason:
Hared is faint-hearted, hared of sin. "And who is hared for My word" (Isaiah 66:2) -- fearful of war.
Indeed, throughout Scripture, we find the terms rakh-levav and hared used interchangeably. In fact, haredim is used in the final chapters of Isaiah (66:5) and Ezra (10:3) to refer to penitents, what we now call baalei teshuva. Similarly, the penitence of the righteous King Josiah (II Kings 22, II Chron. 34) is referred to as his being "rakh-levav" (literally, "soft-hearted"), while Pharoah's intransigence in Exodus is referred to as strong-, heavy- or hardheartedness.
Thus, being hared or rakh-levav when confronting one's own sins is appropriate (and timely for the month of Elul). However, when facing enemies, being hared or rakh-levav is inappropriate. One must be steadfast; one must not lose heart. One must have the courage of his or her convictions; one must stand and fight these external enemies. One is forbidden to be hared or rakh-levav when fighting to save the nation.
We can now understand the view of Rabbi Jose the Galilean in the Mishnaic tractate of Sota (8:5): "'He who is afraid and rakh-levav'--this refers to one who is fearful about the sins he has committed." R. Jose is trying to use the same definition for rakh-levav here as we do for Josiah, but we rule that this is qualitatively different. The haredim, the penitent, should be the first in the ranks. Ultimately, the Torah allows military exemptions only for wars of choice, and this is the ruling in both the Mishna (ibid. 7) and the Mishneh Torah (ibid. 4):
In which instances are the above-mentioned individuals sent away from the battlefront? In a war of choice. By contrast, in a war of necessity, the entire nation must go out to war, even a groom from his chamber and a bride from her canopy.
We look forward to the day when Israel's heavy military burden will be a choice; but as long as it is exigent, we do not have the hared/ rakh-levav option. We cannot let ourselves be faint-hearted.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

A real hatchet job

Caution: this post talks about TMS, but doesn't talk about TMS. You've been warned.

So, folks, how are we translating egla arufa, the stirring conclusion (Deut. 21:1-9) of this week's Torah portion? I was shocked to learn that "cow" technically refers to those female cattle which have reproduced (in some regions, only after baby number two). That being the case, the para adumma of Num. 19 cannot be a red cow, as only one Mishnaic opinion allows for a knocked-up para adumma (Para 2:1), and we don't follow it. It indeed seems to be, much to my chagrin, a red heifer. So what about the egla arufa? Calling it "the younger heifer whose neck is to be broken with a hatchet" is a bit wordy. We can go with "calf," but then we lose the sexual distinction between it and egel. The Golden Calf and the Beheaded Calf?

Speaking of that, many translations render arifa as decapitation, but no heads are coming off. We may have to go back to decollation, which nowadays usually means undoing the sorting function of a copier, but it did originally mean "be-necking". So, "decollated calf"? That seems to be too close to sexualizing livestock.

I'm also wondering why the Torah is so eager in Leviticus 5:8 to tell us that the avian sin-offering is not to be decollated. In fact, it is one of the 613 commandments (Maimonides, Neg. 112; Hinnukh 124). What does this all have to with the decollation of an unredeemed firstborn donkey (Ex. 13:13, 34:6)? I am perplexed.

Anyway, sorry to bother you. We now resume our round table on excommunication and heresy.

Friday, August 2, 2013

The C-word

There is a C-word in Hebrew, and it is vulgar, derogatory and a four-letter word, but it's not what you think. It's כושי, Cushi in English, and it has quite an interesting history.
That's what the defenders of newly-elected Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau certainly want you to think of. Cush (or Kush), they will point out, is a biblical figure, Noah's (firstborn) grandson and the father of Nimrod, the first king in Scripture. The name was considered so prestigious that it was used by other royal families, from Aramea to Judea, throughout the First Temple period. Historically, the kingdom of Kush was a great African empire in what is now Sudan, even ruling over Egypt for a number of generations as the 25th Dynasty--the famous Nubian pharaohs. If "Nubian" is considered a compliment today, certainly there is nothing sinister about R. Lau's basketball analysis for yeshiva students: "What do you get out of it when the kushim who are paid by Tel Aviv beat the kushim who are paid by Greece?” Doesn't Jeremiah ask the question (13:23), "Does a Cushite change his skin? Or a leopard his spots?"
Tantamani, 25th-dynasty pharaoh. In the biopic, he will be played by Michael Cera or Jesse Eisenberg.
The problem with this approach of course, is that R. Lau is the Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi. That name comes from Cush's cousin, Ashkenaz, and it refers to Scythians or Armenians. Is R. Lau the chief rabbi of the Kardashians? If not, I gather that he was speaking modern Hebrew in modern Israel, and the biblical terminology is irrelevant. Indeed, R. Lau admitted as much when he dismissed critics by saying, "We’re experts at taking a joking comment and turning it into a big deal." The fact is that "Cushi," as used in contemporary Israeli society, is less offensive than the N-word but more offensive than "Negro," landing it in the category of schvartze--a term with an innocuous origin that has become a racial slur used by those "set in their ways."
However, I do think that a millenia-old source can help us here--not the Bible, but the Talmud, specifically an intriguing passage from the Mishna, Negaim 2:1, which deals not with leopard spots, but leprous spots:
In a German, a bright spot appears as dull white, and in a Cushite, what is dull appears as bright. R. Ishmael says: The Children of Israel--may I make atonement for them--are like boxwood, neither black nor white, but in between. R. Akiba says: Painters have colors which they use to create images in black, white and in-between, so one may bring an in-between color, circle the spot with it and then it can be seen as if he is in-between. R. Judah says: The hues of leprosy signs should be applied leniently and not stringently: let a German be judged leniently by his own skin, and let a Cushite be judged leniently by the in-between hue. However, the Sages say: both this and that, as if they are in-between.
The first conclusion one might leap to is that if R. Lau calls basketball-players Cushites, we may call him German. It's a designation which his father, who survived the Holocaust as a young boy, might object to. However, to be fair to R. Lau Sr., considering his own friendship with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, he probably would object to the Cushite designation as well.
In any case, in ancient times, leprous spots would require quarantine, but only if they matched a certain standard of whiteness (white = unclean, that old cliche). However, Jews in the Roman period came in all shapes and colors, so how is one supposed to compare and contrast?
The first opinion simply says: play it as it lies. If you're Teutonic, a given white spot may not be as prominent; if you're Nubian, it will stick out more. The Torah was given to a nation of boxwood-colored people, and that's that.
A Roman boxwood comb--or Jewfro pick, I'm not judging.
The final opinion takes a different tack: since the laws of leprosy are so tough, we take every opportunity to find a leniency. If the German will be helped by looking at him alone, do that; if the Cushite needs an in-betweener to make his spot less glaring, judge him by that standard.
However, R. Akiba takes the middle path (and it his view which is accepted by the Sages' consensus): judge everyone by the same objective standard. Whatever the color scheme of Talmudic leprosy may be, take it to Home Depot, get your swatches, and then apply it equally to everyone. Where would R. Akiba get that idea? Maybe from his father, Joseph, who was a convert himself. R. Akiba understood, at the turn of the first century, that the future of Judaism was not ethnocentric. It was, and is, black and white and brown and yellow. Had Judaism stayed a tribal identity, it would have vanished into the mists of history. Its staying power comes from one unwavering principle: think outside the boxwood.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

The force is strong with this one

A guest post by Y. Bloch 

I say this with a heavy heart, but I think... that I may have to defend... Cross-Currents.

Hush, now, I can hear your boos from the future. This latest controversy over the writings of Rabbi Dr. Zev Farber, yadin yadin, at has already been addressed on his site by DovBear and Mark Pelta, as well as by Rabbi E. Fink and others elsewhere. Still, I do feel the need to add my two cents, or rather fifty shekels.

About three weeks ago, David Staum posted here: "Devarim 22: a rapist required to marry his victim?" Currently, R. Farber is reworking his own approach to this passage, which originally appeared in his multitudinous survey (Part 4). Cross-Currents still has the original draft (in R. Avrohom Gordimer's "Torah Min-Hashamayim: A Reply to Rabbi Nati Helfgot") though, and it goes like this:

The Oral Torah explanation proffered by the rabbis, i.e. that all of the practices not found in the Bible were either told to Moses directly at Sinai or are derived from midrashic reading of text, does not even begin to realistically address the religious changes Judaism has gone through in a believable way.
Fine, fair enough. I have argued the same. There are certainly those on the right of Orthodoxy who would differ, but I'm with him so far. Then he goes on:
Prophecy does not come as a verbal revelation from God to the prophet, but as a tapping into the divine flow. Even while channeling the divine wrath against the injustice of the rape, the Deuteronomic prophet (i.e. the author of Deuteronomy) was still a human being, his scope remains limited by education and social context. The prophet could not reasonably be expected to work towards correcting faults he did not see. Nevertheless, the injustice of the rape and the consequences to the girl and her family were things that he could see. This is what he worked to correct.
The law of the rapist is actually an example of a human mind tapping into the divine flow—albeit in a way limited by his own societally determined biases…
OK, I guess my next question is this: is a prophet tapping into the divine flow more like George Lucas's Jedi (and Sith) using the Force or Mark Waid's Flashes using the Speed Force? Clearly, in R. Farber's formulation, a prophet can only be asked to address what he would have found objectionable without any interaction with God. I'm not trying to be flippant here; I really think that this approach fundamentally undermines the ultimate distillation of Judaism: God tells us to do stuff. As I read it (and please tell me if I'm wrong), this version of God does not have the authority of a night-shift manager at a fast-food franchise. He can only work through the biases of the prophet. Some troglodyte thought "Fire! Sabbath! Bad!"--and hey, it's in the Torah.

That's why, although I find much that is hypocritical, disingenuous and downright ignorant in what the Cross-Currents writers have voiced about this issue, I can hardly begrudge them the right to draw red lines. If you're "on the derekh," you must by definition have some idea of where the lines of that derekh lie.

Now, I too struggle with this passage, but I find the idea of "channeling the divine wrath against the injustice of the rape" through the muddy mind of a primitive prophet utterly unconvincing. Sorry, there's no divine wrath there that I can find, neither explicitly nor implicitly. That's because the Torah was given to a nation of Near East nomads. Honor killings are still happening widely in this region in the 21st century, and the idea of exonerating a (young) woman raped in wedlock or out is still revolutionary around here. So, the Written Torah gave us a law progressive for its time, the Oral Torah a law progressive for its time, and modern Judaism should give us the same. Yes, I believe that God gives us the commandments that challenge but do not undermine society.

This belief may well put me in the category of heretic for the Cross-Currents writing staff, but I'm willing to argue the point. I eagerly await R. Farber's final word on the matter as well.