Monday, February 17, 2014


I have a confession to make: I don't really live in Jerusalem anymore. Yes, on social media I'm known as Rabbi Joe in Jerusalem, but for the past three years I've lived in the West Bank town of Maale Adumim. How close is Maale Adumim to municipal Jerusalem? So close that a 4 1/2 square-mile area known as E1 is all that's needed to fill in the gap. That's why it's so hotly contested.
Right now, there's a protest going on at E1, which you may have heard of under its media-friendly name, Mevaseret Adumim. That makes it sound like my hometown, or like the Mishor Adumim Industrial Zone next door, home of SodaStream, where we all shop. (What, are you gonna go to Co-op at the mall? Have you seen how much their tomatoes are? THAT should be illegal under international law!)
This protest is being well-attended by the leading lights of the political right: members of Knesset, deputy ministers, officials and rabbis. Our mayor sent all forty thousand of us Adumites an invitation on Facebook.
But I declined. Yes, I know full well that the E1 Plan dates back to none other than Yitzhak Rabin, in those glory days between Oslo I and II. I also know that it doesn't technically slice the Palestinian part of the West Bank in two, as a road which we might build one day could go around the entire Greater Jerusalem (now featuring Maale Adumim!). But it does mean embracing East Jerusalem in a great Israeli bear hug, only increasing the awkwardness of the situation in which the 250,000 Arabs living there are citizens of an Israeli city (Jerusalem) but of a Palestinian state. OK, not a state. What are we calling it nowadays? An entity?
The essential question is the following: how much do we believe in the two-state solution endorsed by our last three prime ministers? (Yes, Ehud Barak was the last prime minister not to do so, at the turn of the century.) And if we don't believe in two states for two peoples, what is our solution to the fundamental injustice of a permanent underclass under Israeli control?
Speaking of SodaStream, I was struck by the triumphalism of my/ our putative supporters. A Facebook group called "I support Scarlett Johansson against the haters" gets 30,000 likes, dwarfing the 17,000 likes on the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement page? Well, that settles it. Clearly, Israeli policy is unimpeachable, because people liked a pretty girl on our side. Not that I know what our policy precisely is. Maybe our prime minister is waiting for his second decade in office to reveal that tidbit.
I know, I'm a settler myself; I should just shut up. What possible reason could I have for seeking defined, internationally-recognized borders for the Jewish state and the annexation of the town I live in? Instead, I should join Israeli and Jews worldwide in obsessing over the latest imagined slight from the Obama administration, the egregiousness of the boycott-sanction-divestment movement, the outrageous statements of Palestinian Authority officials. To do otherwise would be self-hating.
Perhaps the real question is this: where do we see ourselves in fifty years? If we're planning for a recognizable Jewish, democratic Israel to still exist, we need to start making some tough, long-term decisions.
Unless Scarlett is the Messiah...

Friday, February 14, 2014

Don't call me Orthodox

I pity the members of the press who try to cover the Jewish world, especially that corner of it known as Orthodoxy. The Orthodox Jew has rarely, if ever, been seen in the wild. Orthodoxy is coupled with modifiers or replaced with euphemisms: ultra, modern, fervent, centrist, yeshivish, observant, open, traditional, orthoprax, conservadox. Then we start getting ornithological: are you right-wing MO (modern Orthodox) or left-wing MO, right-wing yeshivish or left-wing yeshivish? And speaking of yeshivish, which yeshiva? And if you want to even start talking about Hasidim, you're going to need extensive sects education.
We used to have a catch-all term: frum (pronounced not like "from", but to rhyme with Things That Make You Go Hmmm...), but since there aren't that many Yiddish speakers left, "Orthodox" has become the default term in the Western world. Thus, for example, when the Pew Research Center published its report on Jewish Americans, this was the picture they presented:
So why we should we care about taxonomy? It helps us understand why Orthodoxy tends to react so strongly to any activism on its left flank, while ignoring or endorsing activism on its right.
You see, Orthodoxy is the most right-leaning stream of Judaism recognized by most Western demographers. For this reason, moderates and even liberals are loathe to alienate anyone on the right. After all, Orthodoxy's claim to fame abroad is being the right flank of Judaism, and if someone's frummer than Orthodoxy, that identity will be lost. Meanwhile, whenever any one dares to stick a toe over "the line" to the left, there's a ready-made answer: hey, buddy, go to the Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, etc. -- you're ruining our brand.
But here in Israel, we've gotten over that. According to our Central Bureau of Statistics, 43% of Israeli Jews are secular, 9% are haredi, and the remaining 48% are somewhere between masorti (traditional) and dati (religious): 23% the former, 10% the latter, and 15% smack in the middle. These five groups do not parallel the five groups identified by Pew, e.g. Orthodox is a denomination, while dati is a declaration.
Now, for a long time, dati was thought of in political terms, as a short descriptor for Tziyoni dati (religious Zionist) or dati leumi (nationalist religious). But we are now in the era of post-Zionism and post-denominationalism, and dati is just what it says it is.
Etymologically, dat is a Persian term for "law," found a dozen times in the Aramaic of Daniel and Ezra, and more than twenty times in the book of the month, the Scroll of Esther. Follow it through Esther, and you'll find that it is used for all sorts of things: statutes, rituals, decrees, customs, mores. There is the dat of drinking, the dat of women, the study of dat, the dat of the king, the dat of the Jews. It's very difficult to find one word in English to encompass all that, so let's not try. Honestly, of all terms, why go with Orthodox, which literally means "right-thinking"? You can call it dati olami if you prefer, making it universal or worldly, which is the dictionary definition of "catholic." I would much prefer to have been labelled a catholic Jew.
The advantage of being dati is that one no longer feels the need to hew to the right. Demographically, economically, socially, politically, the haredi are a distinct community, and they are not confused with the dati. It doesn't stop us from praying in the same synagogues, in which the bulk of the congregants may in fact be masorti.
Ultimately, as many of my social-media friends have pointed out (shout out, Jeff!), the dati abroad must choose a side. There is a neoharedi movement afoot, which constantly obsesses over heresy, homosexuality and hysteria (in its original sense of "bitches be crazy").  You may have heard of some of their more egregious statements, from declaring war on gays to classifying most of their fellow Orthodox as idolaters; from classifying tefillin on women as worth dying for to calling for shooting the prime minister; from condemning efforts to free agunot to defending child molesters. This movement is not like the paleoharedi movement; it sounds reasonable, uses big words and may be led by folks with advanced secular degrees and active social-media accounts. But it's ultimately the same daat-Torah jazz--that's daat, not dat, the idea that the Torah must be protected and refined through great minds before it can be presented to the masses. If ever a movement deserved to be called orthodox, it's this one. They are welcome to the label.
As for me, don't call me Orthodox. I'm dati, and there's nothing else I'd rather be.

Friday, February 7, 2014

Union Jacked

Let's talk about the United Kingdom--no, not the one with the scones and Beefeaters (sorry, I'm eating breakfast). Here in the Holy Land we had a United Kingdom three millennia ago, featuring such famous kings as David and Solomon, the lions of Judah. But it was Saul, the wolf of Benjamin, who actually united the Twelve Tribes of Israel.

This is in keeping with Benjamin's image throughout the Torah. Joseph is reconciled with the Judah and his brothers by their shared desire to protect young Benjamin. As for the tribe, we see the first hint of its unifying force in this week's Torah portion, Tetzaveh, as interpreted by the Jerusalem Talmud. The Torah states that the High Priest (I'd prefer Prime Minister, but whatever) wears an onyx on each shoulder of his vestments:
Take two onyx stones and engrave on them the names of the sons of Israel in the order of their birth—six of their names on one stone and the names of the remaining six on the other.
The Jerusalem Talmud (Sota 7:4) states:
Said Rabbi Johanan: "Benjamin was split: 'Ben' on one and 'Jamin' on the other."
Said Rabbi Zebida: "Indeed! Does it say: their six names? No, it says, 'six of their names'--part of their names, not all of their names."
So Benjamin is quite literally the uniter; you need to put the two stones together to read his name. This is true not only in rocks, but in dirt as well: once the Israelites cross the Jordan, Benjamin receives the critical territory in the center of the country, bridging Judah in the south, Joseph in the north, Gad in the east and Dan in the west.

In fact, Saul is neither the first nor the last of the wolf pack to unite the tribes. The period of the Judges begins in earnest with Benjamite Ehud ben Gera and his successor Shamgar ben Anat, ushering in an unequaled eighty-year Pax Judicia. Similarly, the post-exilic period is ushered in by Benjamites Mordecai and Esther (whose family tree shares many names with Saul's), who institute Purim, a new holiday to be celebrated, quite literally, by Jews far and near. In fact, Mordecai is the first person to be labelled "the Jew" even though his paternal line does not go back to Judah.

Thus, we see that Benjamin symbolizes unity and unification. The lone son of Jacob to be born in the Holy Land, the lone son to be innocent of sin in the Joseph episode (as well as any other wrongdoing, according to Talmud Shabbat 55b) fathers the tribe which creates the United Kingdom of Israel and later sticks with Judah when the Ten Tribes split off.

That's what makes the episode of the Concubine of Gibeah so shocking. The Book of Judges ends with the story of this brutal gang rape and murder. The Israelites want the perpetrators, from the Benjamite town of Gibeah, to be brought to justice (Jud. 20:11-14):
So all the men of Israel gathered together at the city as allies. The tribes of Israel sent men throughout the tribe of Benjamin, saying, “How could such a wicked thing take place? Now, hand over the miscreants in Gibeah so we can execute them and purge Israel of wickedness.” But the Benjamites refused to listen to their Israelite brothers. The Benjamites came from their cities and assembled at Gibeah to make war against the Israelites.
Benjamin is a unifying force here as well, but not for good. They go from being a tribe of Israel to an enemy of Israel, all in the name of sticking up for Gibeah. In the ensuing civil war, tens of thousands are killed on both sides, and Benjamin is almost exterminated.

This shows us the limits of ahdut, unity. Yes, the Jewish people have survived for millennia by sticking together. However, that value cannot undermine our basic commitment to justice. Clearly, the Benjamites of Judges 20 thought that the abuse of one woman was a trifling issue, to be ignored for the good of the whole. But covering up episodes of sexual violence does not preserve a society; it rots it from within. Justice, even for one individual, is the concern of the entire society. Without it, what is the purpose of a nation's survival at all?

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

You never forget your first

It's true what they say. It's been a quarter-century, but I still feel intimately connected to my first. I was preparing to become a bar mitzva, and my father felt that to become a man in the eyes of the Jewish world, I needed to make my first conquest: Sukka.
The height of Venetian fashion, in a fetching Daniel Bomberg typeset.
Sukka (rhymes with looka) is a Talmudic tractate which discusses Sukkot, the most important Jewish holiday most people have never heard of. Sukkot is light on the histrionics and historicity; instead, quite literally, it's "the time of our rejoicing." Sukka deals with the festival's three central mitzvot: a) chilling in a flora-roofed shelter; b) singing and dancing with the fruit and fronds of the Four Species; c) holding an OG House (of God) Party. Sukka has a great balance of lore and law, of history and hermeneutics. It's not one of those twiggy treatises that's an easy layn for those looking to seal the deal quickly, nor is it one of those intractable tractates that endlessly ponders arcana. Sukka, quite simply, has it all.

I bring this all up not only because of my own quadranscentennial, but because myriads of enthusiastic Talmudists will begin studying Sukka tomorrow, as part of the Daf Yomi system. The idea behind Daf Yomi (not to be confused with Daft Yomi, which involves silently studying Talmud while wearing metallic headgear) is shockingly simple: one folio, one double-sided page, every day of the year. Using this method, it takes about 7 1/2 years to study every tractate in the Babylonian Talmud (with some extras). This ancient practice dates back to the Coolidge administration, when Rabbi Meir Shapiro of Poland first noticed that many tractates were sadly neglected. Yeshivot kept coming back to the same few chapters in the same few treatises, leaving huge expanses of the Sea of Talmud uncharted and unknown. R. Shapiro, launching the project at a conference in Vienna, believed that Daf Yomi would unite and edify world Jewry, saving tractates like Sukka from obscurity.

But has it worked? On the one hand, hundreds of thousands of Jews participate in Daf Yomi at some point; on the other hand, if the point was to broaden the exposure of yeshiva students to obscure material, it has been an abject failure. Daf Yomi became so popular that it is viewed by the yeshiva elite as balebatish, fine for the common folk who only have an hour or so to dedicate to daily Talmud study, but not for the full-time scholars.

So let's review what we expect from a yeshiva curriculum. Scripture? Good luck even finding a volume of the Prophets or Hagiographa; as for the Pentateuch, that's for Sabbath sermonizing, not serious study. Halakha? Don't be silly; that's kid stuff, relegated to a half-hour of independent study before breakfast or supper. Even a rabbinical student preparing for ordination has no reason to open two out of four volumes of the Code of Jewish Law, and on each of the handful of subjects he'll be tested on, he'll only need to know a few dozen chapters out of the remaining 1,100. Philosophy? Most of it is probably heresy, so let's look at only a few pre-approved books; more than an hour a day will certainly mess with your mind.
Essentially, yeshivot, which are supposed to be institutions of higher Jewish learning, ignore three-quarters of Jewish writing. But what about the Talmud? That's their bread and butter, right?

Not quite. See, the Talmud has multiple components. There's the Mishna, the original second-century composition. Then we have the Gemara from a few centuries later, which uses the Mishna as a jumping off-point for discussions of law and lore, in the form of the earlier and more concise Jerusalem Talmud and the later and more comprehensive Babylonian Talmud. Neither the Mishna nor the Jerusalem Talmud are touched in yeshivot, leaving only the Babylonian Talmud, which covers only 33 1/3 (stay weird, Tamid) of the original 60 Mishnaic tractates. So, this quadrant of Jewish thought, further halved both quantitatively and qualitatively, is the overwhelming majority of the yeshiva curriculum. Stunning.

However, that would only be relevant if yeshivot embraced Daf Yomi or some other system that would aim to circumnavigate the Talmud of Babylon. They don't. Most have cycles of their own, which revolve around the six tractates that deal with mostly theoretical cases of torts, business, marriage and divorce. In summertime (zeman kayitz), when the livin' is easy, you might find a yeshiva studying Mo'ed, the division of the Talmud dealing with the Sabbath and festivals, which is chock-full of relevant Jewish law. But Mo'ed ain't ready for prime time.

That's how I got my heart broken, almost eight years after I first made Sukka's acquaintance. I was 19, fresh from my Israeli yeshiva and back in New York, ready to conquer the world. I had spent the previous five years going back and forth between Kiddushin and Ketubot, and I was ready for something fresh and new. I had my seat right in front of one of the leading Talmudic minds of the time, an alumnus of my Israeli yeshiva, known for his inquisitiveness and intellect. And what was on the curriculum that year, breaking all precedent? My beloved Sukka! Finally, a chance to delve deep into the treatise I'd encountered shallowly as a callow youth. The rabbi strode in on day one, a bemused expression on his face, and opened his lecture with "So we're learning Sukka this year." Pause. "That's in Mo'ed." There's your laughline! Ha ha, you've been great, he's here all semester, please tip your shtender.

When I decided to transfer out of this class (and apparently others shared this inclination), a veteran student pulled me aside to set me straight. "It's not his fault, y'know. I mean, it's Sukka."

Perhaps we shouldn't be surprised at the remarkably uninformed graduates that yeshivot are putting out these days. It's not their fault that only a tiny corner of Jewish thought is deemed worthy of study. But it is our fault if we let that ignorance set the agenda for all of us.