Wednesday, December 28, 2016

We don't light a menorah

Growing up as an Orthodox Jew in New York, a rabbi's son no less, I thought I knew all there was to know about Hanukkah; but soon after arriving at yeshiva in Israel at age 17, I discovered that I had it all wrong. See, gelt was really demei Hanukka, and it wasn't so much chocolate coins as gifts. Also, that's not a dreidel, it's a sevivon, and the letters are wrong. Plus, they're not latkes, they're levivot, and no one really eats them because they've already gorged themselves on sufganiyot, so-called because they absorb all moisture in your stomach and swell like a sponge (sefog). [Your etymology may vary.]
Still, most shocking was the fact that the thing we light with all the branches is not a menorah, but a hanukkiah. I was confused because, unlike latkes, dreidel and gelt, menorah was already a Hebrew word. But in Israel, menorot were to be found in the lighting department of the local hardware store, while The Menorah was that seven-branched vessel of the Temple, known to the world from the Arch of Titus, featured in the Emblem of the State of Israel. A menorah is simply a lamp, but if it is that special nine-branched version for Hanukkah, eight for the eight nights plus one for the shamash, which kindles all the others, it becomes a hanukkiah.
So where did this neologism come from? Lexicographer Ben-Yehuda, but not the one you're thinking of: Hemda popularized the term in 1897. Nor was she the first. In fact, tonight, the fifth night of Hanukkah, marks the 249th yahrtzeit of Jerusalem-born Rabbi Abraham Meyuhas, who writes (Sedeh Haaretz III OH 38) about "a brass candlestick which we call a hanukkiah, to which the artisan affixed an additional light which we call a shamash, to be used for its illumination instead of the others, which are the essence of the mitzvah, as we are forbidden to use them for illumination." Rabbi Meyuhas knew what a hanukkiah was, though he was afraid his readers might not.
It is significant that the menorah used for Hanukkah has a special name. The fact is that there is no halakhic significance per se to the vessel; you could stick one wax candle on your windowsill and fulfill the mitzva. It was only in the medieval era that Jews started crafting particular vessels to be used only for Hanukkah; indeed, for a religion which strictly forbids graven images, this was an opportunity for artistic expression, like the wine-cup used at Sabbath's onset and the spice-box used as its conclusion.
And thus we come to the paradox at the heart of Hanukkah. On the one hand, it is a celebration of the Temple; on the other hand, it marks the ascension of the dynasty which would ultimately welcome the Roman Empire, demolishers of the Temple, into Jerusalem.
While the biblical Menorah -- that famous seven-branched one -- may be be physically more impressive, it was lit for less than 1,500 years according to the traditional counts of all the various incarnations of the Tabernacles and the Temples. Meanwhile, the lights of Hanukkah have been kindled for nearly 2,200 years, uninterrupted.
In fact, according to Jewish lore (Midrash Tanhuma, Behaalotekha 3; Talmud Menahot 29a), the Menorah was not actually made by humans at all. Moses was so perplexed by its intricate details that God told him to throw it in the fire, and out popped the Menorah fully-formed. The hanukkiah, on the other hand, is a wholly human invention.
Even in the recounting of the miracle in our daily prayers throughout Hanukkah, we do not refer at all to the Menorah inside the Temple. Instead, we say "they kindled lights in Your holy courtyards." The Menorah and the hanukkiah aren't the same.
Which brings us back to the emblem of the State of Israel. It definitely features a seven-branched candelabrum in the center--but this is flanked by two olive branches. That's not an aesthetic flourish, but the vision of Zechariah (ch. 4), whose words we read on the Sabbath of Hanukkah. The two olive branches represent the religious and secular leadership of the people, and together with the seven bronze branches, they make what we could call a hanukkiah. (I leave it up to the reader's discretion to decide which one is the shamash.)
This is the beauty of the State of Israel. It does not spring fully-formed from the fire. It does not descend from Heaven. It is made by flawed human beings, a combination of natural growth and technological artistry. It is a construct of the spirit. And we are charged by our faith to constantly refashion it into a more perfect union.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Hanuka Nudes

You've probably heard the PBS version of the Hanuka story, but what if HBO or Netflix got its hands on it? It might sound a little like this (Otzar Hamidrashim, Eisenstein, p. 192):
The rabbis taught: In the days of the wicked Hellenic empire, they decreed that any woman who marries must first be deflowered by the hegemon, and only then return to her husband. So they did for 3 years and 8 months until the daughter of High Priest Johanan was to be married. [Her family] sought to bring her to the hegemon, so she undid her hair, tore her garments and stood naked before all the people. Judah and his brothers were enraged and said: "Take her out and burn her, lest the king hear of this and endanger our lives, for she has been so brazen to stand naked before this entire people."
Said she to him: "Shall I be humiliated before my brothers and comrades and not be humiliated before an uncircumcised heathen, to whom you wish to betray me, to bring me to him that he may sleep with me?"
When Judah and his comrades heard this, they resolved to kill the hegemon. They immediately dressed her in royal finery and made her a bridal canopy of myrtle, from the house of the Hasmoneans to the house of the hegemon. All the harpists and lyrists and musicians accompanied her, singing and dancing all their way to the hegemon's house.
The hegemon heard this and said to his lords and servants: "Look, these are the great ones of Israel, offspring of Aaron the Priest--how they rejoice to do my bidding!" He ordered them all to go out.
Judah and his comrades then entered, with his sister, and they chopped off [the hegemon's] head and looted all that was his. Then they killed the lords and servants and trampled the Hellenes until they were at an end.
So before there was a Red Wedding, there was a Myrtle Wedding. But that's only half the story. The Midrash goes on to state that the news made it back to "the king of the Hellenes," who was outraged and immediately marched his legions to the gates of Jerusalem. The Jews had no idea what to do, until "a widow woman, by the name of Judith" stepped forward.
She took her maidservant and went to the gates of Jerusalem, saying: "Let me out! God may work a miracle through my hands." They acceded and she went to the king, who asked her what she wanted. Said she: "My lord! I am the daughter of great ones in Israel, and my brothers are prophets. They prophesy that tomorrow Jerusalem will fall to you!"
Once he heard this, the king was very happy... He believed this Judith and fell in love with her, asking: "Do you wish to marry me?"
Said she: "My lord the king, I am not fit for even one of your servants! However, since this is your heart's desire, let it be known in the camp that whoever sees two women going to the spring shall not detain them, as I must go there to wash and immerse myself."
They immediately did so. The king then made a great feast and they all became intoxicated, and then each went to his tent. The king fell asleep in her bosom, and this Judith took a sword, chopped his head off and wrapped it in a sheet.
She carried it all the way to the gates of Jerusalem and said: "Open the gates, for the Holy One has already wrought a miracle by my hands!"
They replied: "Haven't you done enough to whore and corrupt yourself, that now you come against us in a conspiracy?"
She immediately showed them the king's head.
Upon seeing this, they opened the gates, pouring out and shouting: "Hear, Israel, Lord our God, Lord is one!"
These two women use their sexuality in a powerful way, exposing not only the evil of the enemy, but the hypocrisy of their own brethren. These Jewish men make their peace with rape and sexual assault -- of their own sisters! (not that that should make a difference) -- as long as they don't have to witness it. Only by challenging the men's concepts of modesty -- specifically in the context of dress and ritual immersion, two of the most explicit ways in which males exercise power over females in the traditional context -- do these women manage to save the entire nation. And the salvation is twofold: from the armies of the enemy and from the mindset of their own brothers, fathers and husbands.
I know this past week the men of Israel have not lived up to the example of these two heroic women. But hey, Hanuka is still a week away...

Sunday, November 13, 2016

De Funct!

So, whatever happened with those US elections?
I ask because from the vitriol and violence I keep seeing on social media, it seems like the elections are still looming over us. The one fact we thought everyone would have to accept, the actual hard data of votes cast, is just as much up for debate as everything from the campaign. In fact, even though we have exit polling -- you know, hard data from people who actually got off their butts and did their civic duty -- we're still dwelling on predictive polls from the past, the ones based on calling someone up, expecting them to answer truthfully and assuming that they will follow through on their promise.
I'll offer my take, though there's nothing to make it more valid than others. Arguably, as an American who's lived in Israel (or Canada) for most of the past 20 years, it may be less valid. But here goes.
I come from literally (and I mean that in the old dictionary definition) the bluest district in all of America. It's remarkably static, electorally at least. When my parents got married 45 years ago, it was represented by one Charlie Rangel. And you know what? It still is represented by Charlie, despite primary challenges, ethics charges and a few devastating pieces on "The Daily Show."
What I'm saying is I come from a very blue district (currently NY-13) in a quite blue city in a reliably blue state. Yet I watched, for the first 30 years of my life, a Democratic Party that was only on the defensive. "De-Fence!" as we used to shout at the Knicks games (they've also been losers my whole life). Now, for a good chunk of that time, the Democrats were in fact in charge of Congress, but as a kid, who knew who the Speaker of the House was? It was all about the White House, and for the first three decades of my life, I only saw one Democrat get elected to it: Bill Clinton. Every other Democrat was a dud, often losing by a landslide.
But Bill was still a Democrat playing Defense. NAFTA might have been George H.W. Bush's project, but Bill was the one to sign it into law. Welfare reform, the Crime Bill, the Defense of Marriage Act, don't ask don't tell, repealing Glass-Steagal--Bill was GOP Lite.
But what else could he be? A Democrat couldn't win the White House. Even Bill only managed to get 43% the first time and 49% the second because a mad anti-trade multimillionaire who talked funny and weaved bizarre conspiracy theories was running alongside the Republican candidate. And those were ugly campaigns, in which whoever supported the Democratic agenda had to ignore the certainly sinful and possibly criminal things Bill had done to women over whom he held power.
Barack Obama hope-and-changed all of that. He had a vision which he laid out brilliantly, and he inspired people from all walks of life. Sure, there was plenty of opposition, but he did something no one had done since Eisenhower, winning two elections by getting at least 51%. And he sits today with an approval rating in the mid-fifties. He's far from perfect, he had his own bitter battles with Congress -- but he was not a Democrat playing defense.
Then, for some reason, we Democrats picked Clinton again, not Bill this time but Hillary. Except, of course, Bill comes along with Hillary, and there was no way he'd ever stick to the East Wing and putter around as First Gentleman. And we got a Clinton election: vicious, salacious and above all defensive. And once again, we got the result we should have expected: Clinton, the far more qualified and competent candidate, winning the most votes, but only a plurality. And this time the mad multimillionaire WAS the Republican nominee, so that added up to an electoral catastrophe for HRC. By the exact same electoral margin as Obama - Romney, and about the same number of votes as Mitt, Trump won. He will be the 45th president of the United States. If you're American, he is your president (elect).
I don't have patience for counterfactuals. Nor do I have patience for petitions, protests or pity. Those are all your right (assuming you're doing it peacefully), but you're still playing defense. Equally counterproductive is to say: if only we stopped giving people a hard time for their slurs and slights against minorities and women, the majority would like us more. That's defensive as well. Yes, stop being politically correct and kowtowing to the (alleged) consensus. Instead, make an affirmative, offensive argument for your vision. Engage with the new administration. Make your case. Help your fellow man. Advocate for your cause. Because when all you're trying to do is not lose, the other side will always win.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Mazeltov! (cocktails)

Oh, he's not going to tie this to the weekly Torah portion, is he? [groan]
Sorry, but yeah. It's the morning after Election Day, at least here in Israel, and most of the results are in. Much triumphant crowing, much gnashing of teeth, etc.
All I can think of is this week's portion, in which (Genesis 14) Abram, founder of the Jewish nation, first prophet of God, girds his loins and orders his house to enlist in the defense of...
Sodom and Gomorrah! (Also Admah and Zeboyim... and  Zoar, which I guess we're calling Bela. What happened to Lasha again? Never mind.)
In any case, we are supposed to root for Abram and his disciples, even though we were told a chapter earlier that:
10Lot looked around and saw that the whole plain of the Jordan toward Zoar was well watered, like the garden of the Lord, like the land of Egypt. This was before the Lord destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah...  13Now the people of Sodom were wicked and were sinning greatly against the Lord.
Abram sides with his (adopted) countrymen, against the armies from the land of his birth (or at least long-term residence). Why? Because his nephew Lot lives among them. And he knows that there are good people, even in the godless Jordan Plain.
So am I calling half the Americans who voted differently from me Sodomites? No, not with Mike Pence on the ticket. Gamorreans? No, those are Jabba's guards from Star Wars. Adamantine? I'm pretty sure that's the adjectival form for Wolverine's claws.
No, my point is that Abram could see the good in his countrymen even when they were objectively bad. Now, are you better than he? I know I'm not, so I'm going to concentrate on advocating for what I believe in and making our nation better.
Here are things I'm not doing:
  • Complaining that it's rigged
  • Blaming third-party voters
  • Saying "I told you so" to those who voted differently in primaries or caucuses.
  • Apologizing for the things I said during this season
Here are things I am doing:
  • Drinking heavily (see Gen. 14:18)
  • Blogging
  • Watching my son
  • Figuring out how to move forward in a new reality
Most of all, I'm trying to send a message:
Losers, get over yourselves.
Winners, mazal tov!
Everyone, get to work. We have a lot to do.

Saturday, October 29, 2016

Rabbi Joe mansplains it all

Over the past week, I have seen many beautiful and moving posts about women's experience over Simchat Torah, the last of our autumnal holidays, defined by the experience of dancing with a Torah scroll. Over Shabbat, I learned that my mother was one of those women at Jerusalem's Beit Boyer who pioneered "Sitting with the Torah on Simchat Torah," as Shira Pasternak Be'eri so lovingly described.
However, I thought it was inappropriate for me to weigh in, as yet another man telling women what and how to feel about this challenging holiday. I still think that. But I do I feel the need to address my fellow men, especially regarding a troubling phenomenon I've witnessed on social media.
The argument runs something like this: "Maybe women in YOUR community feel the need to dance on Simchat Torah [with or without a Torah scroll], but in MY community they're perfectly happy celebrating vicariously by watching their husbands, fathers, sons and young daughters dance [because females age out of Simchat Torah as soon as Donald Trump starts contemplating dating them]."
Now, that's not a real quote per se, but a composite. Still, I could not help but wonder for how many centuries we men have been speaking for women, declaring that a certain quirk of Jewish law "doesn't bother them." It didn't take long to come up with a list of the Top 12. Why Top 12? Because I like to go one step beyond the Nostalgia Critic.
  1. A woman has no right to expect to meet a man before they marry. (BT Kiddushin 41a)
  2. A woman should expect her husband to marry as many women as he wants (except for kings, they're limited to 18). (BT Sanhedrin 21a).
  3. A woman may be divorced against her will. (BT Gittin 21a)
  4. A woman may receive her bill of divorce in the mail, even though her husband has cancelled it en route. If she then remarries, she is an adulteress and forbidden to stay with the latter man. Oh, and their children are bastards. (ibid. 33a)
  5. If a man dies without children, his brother may take his widow, sexually, with or without her consent or any ceremony (BT Yevamot 8b).
  6. A ritually impure woman may not enter a synagogue. (Rema, OH 88:1)
  7. She may not touch a holy book. (ibid.)
  8. She may not pray. (ibid.)
  9. She may not say any blessings. (ibid.)
  10. A woman does not need any formal Jewish education. (BT Kiddushin 29b) A woman must not study Talmud. (JT Sota 3:4, Maimonides, Talmud Torah 1:13)
  11. A woman should not work outside the home. (Maimonides, Ishut 13:11).
  12. A young woman's becoming a bat mitzvah is nothing to celebrate. (Everyone before Ben Ish Hai, Re'eh 17)
Now, in each of these cases, Jewish law at some point rethought the matter. But what about the decades, centuries, millennia before? How long were Jewish men declaring that women were OK with this, that they had no objections to it, that their femininity somehow was enhanced by the enticing possibility of being raped by their brother-in-law or having their kids made bastards by their ex-husband or being told that God didn't want His name in their mouths while they fulfilled the biological imperatives that God gave them?
I don't have an answer. On the contrary, I have a question, which you, my brothers, must ask: How do the women in your lives, in your communities, synagogues and workplaces, feel about this? There's a revolutionary way to find out: ask them. And then listen to what they have to say. And we Jews, male and female, might find a new list of items to rethink in the future.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

A Load of Bull

Sukkot is a holiday full of color and conviviality, from the brightly decorated makeshift huts that give the festival its name to the assortment of flora we wave and weave, to the nightly gatherings for dancing, singing and maybe a bit of traditional fire-juggling.
Image: Yael Bloch. We don't allow fire-juggling inside the sukka.
Image: Yael Bloch. We don't allow fire-juggling inside the sukka.
There's just one part of the holiday that seems a bit drab: the Torah reading. Let me give you a taste (Num. 29:13-20).
And you shall offer a burnt offering, a sacrifice made by fire, of a sweet smell to the LORD; 13 young bullocks...
And on the second day you shall offer 12 young bullocks...
And on the third day 11 bullocks...
And that is the most exciting part, the only detail that varies from day to day, as we read the same verses FOUR TIMES in a row.
But then you get to the special psalm for today, the third day of Sukkot, as we recall offering the 36th of 71 Sukkot bulls. In Psalm 50, Asaph speaks powerfully of God calling Israel to judgement at "Zion, the perfection of beauty... Gather my saints together to me; those that have made a covenant with me by sacrifice." And what is the ruling?
8I will not reprove you for your sacrifices or your burnt offerings, to have been continually before me. 9I will take no bullock out of your house, nor he goats out of your folds.
10For every beast of the forest is mine, and the cattle on a thousand hills. 11I know all the fowls of the mountains: and the wild beasts of the field are mine.12If I were hungry, I would not tell you: for the world is mine, and the fullness thereof. 13Will I eat the flesh of bulls, or drink the blood of goats? 14Offer to God thanksgiving; and pay your vows to the most High:
There's also a message for the wicked:
16 What have you to do to declare my statutes, or that you should take my covenant in your mouth? 17Seeing you hate instruction, and casts my words behind you.18When you saw a thief, then you consented with him, and have been partaker with adulterers. 19You give your mouth to evil, and your tongue frames deceit. 20You sit and speak against your brother; you slander your own mother's son. 21These things have you done, and I kept silence; you thought that I was altogether such an one as yourself: but I will reprove you, and set them in order before your eyes.
Asaph's version of the Heavenly Court seems far more interested in bullying than bullocks, an appropriate thought for a day exactly one week after Yom Kippur. There is only one offering which is praised in Psalm 50: the toda, thanksgiving.
23Whoever offers to God thanksgiving honors Me, and whoever sets the path I will show the salvation of God.
Perhaps this is reflected in the Midrashic teaching that in the future, all sacrifices will be discontinued except for the toda (Lev. R. 9:7). However, there is another interpretation (ibid. 1), that toda here means what it does in Joshua 7:19: confession.
Grant honor now to Lord God of Israel, and give Him toda: tell me what you did, do not hold back from me.
Confession and thanksgiving are really two sides of the same coin. But they cannot be the be-all and end-all. To earn salvation, we must take action and "set the path," as the Midrash goes on to explain:
"Whoever sets the path" -- these are those who maintain the roads.
"Whoever sets the path" -- these are those who faithfully teach the youth the written word and the oral tradition.
"Whoever sets the path" -- these are the storekeepers who sell to the public after giving the poor their portion (R. Jose be-R. Judah in the name of R. Menahem be-R. Jose)
"Whoever sets the path" -- these are those who illuminate the public thoroughfares.
Sukkot is the Season of Our Joy, but it is also a time of judgement. What better time to ponder what sacrifice truly means? Whether the bullocks et al. of Sukkot are literally reinstated or not, we know what it takes to restore the honor of Zion.

Monday, October 3, 2016

The OTHER Ten Commandments

Yesterday, amidst the spiritual high of Yom Kippur, I was struck, mostly by my almost-four-year-old with a rubber sword, but also by a poem wedged into the musaf (additional) service in the Ashkenazic liturgy.
Musaf of Yom Kippur, third of the five prayers of the day, is dominated by a recounting of the High Priest's service in the Temple, followed by a series of dirges lamenting all the stuff we miss in our Templeless times. But in between the two series, we have a short paragraph talking about what Yom Kippur is in the modern era.
  1. A day on which eating is forbidden
  2. A day on which drinking is forbidden
  3. A day on which washing is forbidden
  4. A day on which anointing is forbidden
  5. A day on which having sex is forbidden
  6. A day on which wearing shoes is forbidden
  7. A day of establishing peace
  8. And friendship
  9. A day of abandoning envy
  10. And competition.
We might call these the Ten Commandments of Yom Kippur; after all, the Talmud (b. Ta'anit 30b) does say that this was the day on which Moses came down from Sinai with the Second Tablets.
We spend a lot of time agonizing about the first six; I think the closest the Jewish people came to civil war in the last decade was about #6 and the Crocs Heresy. But what about the final four? Those are not about abjuring, but adjuring. Instead of ignoring our personal needs and wants, we are commanded to engage with our neighbors.
Is it because it's easier to stay away from snacks for 25 hours than snark? Maybe it's because we'd rather ask people about how they're fasting rather than how they're doing. I wonder if any of my rabbinical colleagues have been asked if one may set up a snide remark, then come back and deliver the punchline nine minutes later?
The good thing about the "Second Tablet" of Yom Kippur is that we keep it going. There are no more fasts for the rest of the month, but there are plenty of occasions to rejoice, to welcome, to harmonize and to engage. There are many more situations in which we may forgo covetousness and contention. We spend a whole week as guests in our own homes, right before the rain and cold arrive. It's almost like we're trying to empathize with those who have no adequate shelter, or something.
I hope you had a good fast. But the experience on Yom Kippur should be just the beginning.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

When Shimon said goodbye

Everyone remembers a different Shimon Peres. For me it will be the prime minister who shepherded Israel through a unprecedented event: the assassination of its head of government.
I was just 17, a student who had arrived just ten weeks prior to study at Yeshivat Har Etzion in Alon Shevut. Har Etzion was and is a yeshivat hesder, combining Torah study and military service. As a foreign student, I was not (yet) heading to the army, but I had to learn how to handle an M-16 for guard duty. At the time, my Hebrew was poor and my knowledge of Israeli society was worse. But everything was new and exhilarating and wonderful.
But from the moment an older student slapped his hand on the bima in the beit midrash and we started saying Psalms on that night of Saturday, Nov. 4th, 1995, I knew something was seriously wrong. And the news just got worse. Prime Minister Rabin has been shot. He is dead. His killer is a Jew. His killer is an Orthodox Jew. His killer is a graduate of a hesder yeshiva.
We spent that night in shock; the next amid the crush of the people trying to get to the Knesset, where Rabin lay in state; and the day after going to the funeral. Not that our bus could actually get near Mount Herzl; the traffic was insane, the security tight. We ended up sitting on the bus listening to eulogies by world leaders, the first being President Clinton (the First?).
It was a fine speech, surely, and in its last paragraph, Clinton referenced the Torah portion, which we will also be reading this Tuesday, the Second Day of Rosh Hashanah: the Binding of Yitzhak. He declared: "As we all know, as Abraham, in loyalty to God, was about to kill his son, God spared Yitzhak. Now God tests our faith even more terribly, for he has taken our Yitzhak."
A worthy notion, certainly. But then Shimon Peres, acting prime minister, arose and chose a different verse. It is what we read from the Prophets on the Second Day of Rosh Hashanah, God's words to the weeping Rachel:
“Restrain your voice from weeping
And your eyes from tears;
For your work will be rewarded,” declares the Lord,
“And they will return from the land of the enemy.
There is hope for your future,” declares the Lord.
(Jeremiah 31:16-17)
Peres spoke of his decades-long friend and sometimes bitter rival not as a martyr, not as a sacrifice, but as a tireless, demanding leader who had toiled ceaselessly all of his life and whose work had yet to be completed. We would mourn, but then we would take up the task yet again.
And when the new government of Israel convened two weeks later, with Shimon Peres as prime minister for the third time in his life, my rosh yeshiva, Rabbi Yehuda Amital was part of it, as Minister-Without-Portfolio. Peres wanted to get back to work, not point fingers at the religious or the settlers or the bnei yeshiva. And when he was voted out of office months later, he just went back to the Knesset, where he served almost uninterrupted for half a century, until he became Israel's ninth president.
And unlike so many of those we have lost over the past seven years--Prime Ministers Yitzhak Shamir and Ariel Sharon, Presidents Ephraim Katzir and Yitzhak Navon--Peres never faded into obscurity in his later years. He never stopped working. His last act was just two week ago, as he posted a Facebook video in support of buying Israeli products. He was indefatigable, the last of Israel's founding generation.
Jewish tradition says the First Day of Creation was actually today, the 25th of Elul. It is certainly a new world, without Shimon Peres, last of his generation. But he would assure us that it will be all fine--as long as we get back to the hard work of making Israel the State it has the potential to be.

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Pray like a girl

Jews have always known the value of producing credits, so it's no surprise that, at least in Sephardic synagogues, every one of the daily prayers starts off with royalties: to Abraham for instituting the morning service; Isaac, afternoon; Jacob, evening.
But where them ladies at? After all, our Siddur contains more than these three daily prayers, namely the musaf (additional or supplementary) service for special days.
In fact, the Talmud (Berachot 26b) itself asks (rhetorically): "But who would have instituted musaf?" There are only three Patriarchs, so who could it be? Obviously, concludes 18th-century Jerusalem-born sage the Chida, it must have been a Matriarch:
The musaf of the New Moon was instituted by our Matriarch Rachel, as she foresaw with the Holy Spirit that, in the future, the women in the desert would avoid the Sin of the Golden Calf. Indeed, her name is alluded to with the words "Roshei Chodashim Le-amcha--New Moons to Your people You gave, a time of atonement for all their generations."
(Birkei Yoseif, OC 423:2)
Aside from the mind-blowing implication that Mother Rachel was a Time Lord, this tradition lays down a principle: atonement is women's work. Because the New Moon (Rosh Chodesh) is all about renewal, repentance and restoration, its prayer couldn't have been instituted by the Patriarchs; it had to be Rachel doing it on behalf of those who kept the faith in the first major crisis after the Exodus from Egypt: the women, who refused to worship the Golden Calf.
The Talmud itself (ibid. 29a) says that one Rosh Chodesh in particular was pivotal in Rachel's life: the New Moon of Tishrei, better known as Rosh Hashana, when she conceived. However, it is a later heroine who is credited with the special musaf service of that day:
To what do the nine [blessings] of the New Year correspond? Isaac the Carthaginian said: To the nine times that Hannah invokes God in her prayer (I Samuel 2:1-10).  For a Master has said: On the New Year was the reckoning of Sarah, Rachel and Hannah.
So we have Rachel to thank for the prayers of Rosh Chodesh and Hannah, mother of Samuel, for those of Rosh Hashana. But there's another tool we wield on the latter, another voice we hear, that of the shofar, and credit for that goes to their predecessor, the Mother of All Matriarchs, Sarah.
Isaac returned to his mother and she said to him: "Where have you been, my son?"
Said he to her: "My father took me and led me up mountains and down hills," etc.
"Alas," she said, "for the son of a hapless woman!  Had it not been for the angel you would by now have been slain!"
"Yes," he said to her.
Thereupon, she uttered six cries, corresponding to the six blasts (tekiot). It has been said: She had scarcely finished speaking when she died.
(Leviticus Rabbah 20:2)
Midrashically, the straight blasts of the shofar known as tekiot come from Sarah, the first Jewish mother, overwhelmed by the trauma of the Binding of Isaac. However, the ululating, groaning teruot come from a different matriarch in our history, the mother of Sisera, anonymous in Judges 5:28 but named by some traditions as Temah (cf. Ezra 2:53). Apparently, even enemies of the Jewish people have mothers too, and their very human grief is something we tap into as well on Rosh Hashana.
While both Rosh Chodesh and Rosh Hashana have a component of atonement, there's only one day that has it in its name: Yom Kippur. The centerpiece of that day's prayers, its musaf in particular, is the pair of goats: "And Aaron shall cast lots over the two goats, one lot for the Lord and the other lot for Azazel" (Leviticus 16:8). While this service might seem to be male-dominated, the fact is it too follows the template set by a Matriarch--specifically, Rebecca. Her audacious ploy to get Isaac's blessing for Jacob begins with the following command (Gen. 27:9): "Go now to the flocks, and take for me from there two good kid goats." What's so good about these goats? "They are good for your progeny, for by them, they gain atonement on Yom Kippur" (Gen. Rabbah 65:14).
But our salah is not quite complete: Yom Kippur has five prayer services, the final one being ne'ila, which literally refers to the locking of the Gates of Heaven. While the gate of prayers may be locked, the gate of tears remains ever open (Talmud, Bava Metzia 59a), especially for a wronged wife. Or as the Zohar puts it:
We have been taught: Any born of woman who sheds tears before God, though their punishment has been decreed, it shall be torn up, and that punishment shall not beset them. From whence do we know this? From Leah!
Atonement is all about rebirth. It is only natural for its prayers to be the teaching of our Mothers. Especially at this season, the embryonic forty days of repentance which end and begin each year, we must make sure our mothers (and sisters and daughters) feel welcome in our houses of prayer. As we answer our Mothers' call, may God answer us.

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Why I'm fasting

As I read Rabbi Elyse Goldstein's "Why I'm not fasting on Tisha B'Av" this morning, I couldn't help but notice a parenthetical (and antithetical) statement:
And I’m not fasting because, ultimately, the destruction of the Temple lent way for the democratization of Judaism... It doesn’t make me sad, even though my husband and sons are kohanim and would, in the time of the messiah, be those powerful priests again. (And I’d get to eat from their terumah as the wife of a priest. As a vegetarian, it doesn’t appeal to me. As a feminist, I don’t want to eat their leftovers.)
See, terumah is for vegetarians: it's the term used in Talmudic and halachic literature for the portion of grain, wine & corn (and other produce as well) given to priestly families. Moreover, every member of the household may partake whenever they feel like it--females don't eat off the plates of their fathers, husbands or children. (Well, maybe children. I've yet to meet the toddler who finishes what's put in front of him.)
This imprecision may seem like a minor quibble, but it goes right to the heart of Rabbi Goldstein's argument: that Talmud trumps Temple:
To rebuild the Temple would undermine the existence of an interpretive Judaism. The Pharisees won in the end, and interpretation won too over the fixed, hegemonic ritual of the Sadducees... Jewish history has plenty of trauma and we can certainly use a day to remember that. But remember: from the ashes of the Temple rose the phoenix of rabbinic Judaism, and that’s the Judaism I now celebrate, the Judaism that survived.
There's only one problem with this timeline: rabbinic Judaism precedes the destruction of the Temple by centuries! Yes, during the Persian era, the first part of the Second Commonwealth, the Great Knesset sat, and it is credited with canonizing Scripture (Bava Batra 15a), composing most of our prayers (Berachot 33a) and eradicating idolatry (Yoma 69b). These rabbis were not the successors to the priests, but rather to the prophets (Avot 1:1)--half a millennium before the Second Temple was destroyed.
The Pharisees did not see the Temple's destruction as a victory over the Sadducee priests, but as a tragedy, which is why so much of the Talmud is dedicated to the laws of holiness (Kodashim) and ritual purity (Taharot), 23 of the original 60 tractates. In fact, that terumah Rabbi Goldstein is so disinterested in is the reason we all wash our hands before partaking of bread--because that is what the kohanim had to do before eating holy food. In fact, the first paragraph in the Talmud refers to the kohanim going in for supper, since that is the signal for nightfall and the time to say Shema.
However, Rabbi Goldstein maintains that there is no reason to fast on Tisha B'Av anymore, regardless of what it what might have once meant:
Fasting on Tisha B’Av almost seems like a slap in the face to that sovereign Jewish nation. I want to imagine that if the Rabbis of the Talmud were living today, they’d say, “what? How can you keep a fast that longs for a nation you are living in now?”
But there is no need to imagine what the rabbis of the Talmud might have said, when we can read what they actually did say (Rosh Hashana 18b): "R. Papa replied: The ninth of Av is in a different category, because several misfortunes happened on it, as a Master has said: On the ninth of Av the Temple was destroyed both the first time and the second time, and Beitar was captured and the city [Jerusalem] was plowed." As Maimonides and Rabbeinu Hananel explain, the ninth of Av is so puissant and pertinent that it was observed while the Second Temple stood. It commemorates far more than the loss of the sacrificial service; it represents the countless tragedies, personal and national, of slavery, exile, rape, dispossession, persecution and genocide.
In fact, the Sanhedrin, the great body which made so many of the reforms Rabbi Goldstein applauds, sat in the courtyard of the Temple! For me, the apex of Tisha B'Av is rising from the cold floor to sing, mournfully but majestically:
Wail, Zion and her cities
Like a woman in birth pangs
Like a virgin dressed in sack
For the husband of her youth.
For the beat of her dancers
That has been silenced in her cities.
And for the council that has become desolate
And the dissolution of her Sanhedrin.
But if that doesn't speak to you, write your own kinnah (elegy, dirge). It is Yom Kippur which focuses so minutely on the Temple service, not Tisha B'Av, with its ever-evolving liturgy. There is no greater testimony to Judaism's capacity to survive and thrive.

Thursday, August 4, 2016


Common wisdom says you talk about unity at this time of the year. After all, tonight we segue from the sobriety of the Three Weeks to the somberness of the Nine Days, with the advent of the month of Av, when the Temple was destroyed, we are told, due to baseless hatred (Yoma 9b). So it's customary to denounce division at this time -- even though that's exactly what this week's Torah reading talks about (Num 33:53-55):
Take possession of the land, and live in it, because I have given you the land to inherit. You are to divide by lot the land among yourselves, by your clans. The larger the clans are in number, the larger their inheritance is to be. The fewer the clans are in number, the lesser their inheritance is to be. To whomever the lot falls, that inheritance goes to him. Divide it according to your ancestral tribes.
The Jewish nation is split up genealogically -- into tribes, then clans, then (ancestral) houses--much as the US is split into states, counties and localities. "By your clans" is one word in the original Hebrew, lemishpechoteikhem. If you can pry apart that hexasyllable, you might recognize mishpacha, often translated family. But these "families" were massive, with an average population of well over ten thousand adult males, so the term "clan" is probably more accurate.
It's notable that we find this precise term in only one other place: when Moses gives the first mitzva to the Jewish people in Egypt (Exodus 12:21):
Then Moses summoned all the elders of Israel and told them, “Choose sheep for your families, and slaughter the Passover lamb."
Even before the Exodus, in the ghetto of Goshen, the Jewish people must organize themselves by clans and ancestral houses (ibid. v. 3), in order to prepare for their destiny in the Promised Land.
In fact, this is a theme running through the entirety of the Book of Numbers. In all the other four books of the Torah, mishpacha shows up a total of 26 times; in Numbers, 159. The specific conjugation lemishpechotav (by his clans) shows up twice.
So the Israelites did everything just as the LORD had commanded Moses; that is, they encamped and traveled under their banners, each man by his clans, upon his ancestral house. (2:34)
Moses heard the people weeping by his clans, each man at the entrance of his tent; the LORD was very angry and it was bad in Moses' eyes. (11:10)
The Jews divide themselves by tribe, clan and house at the foot of Mt. Sinai; but once they start traveling, literally at the first encampment, they start crying. The proximate cause is the food, but the Midrash (Sifre ad loc.) seeks a deeper reason, declaring that it was mishpacha matters which perturbed them. Now, the Midrash takes mishpacha to mean close family in this context, explaining that the people were bummed they couldn't shtupp their sisters-in-law anymore.
However, as we have noted, that's not really what the word denotes in Numbers. It seems that they were bothered by the clannishness. Before Moses showed up, they were simply Hebrews, set apart by their national identity, dress, language, etc. They were slaves, but they were a unified people. With the Book of Numbers, that changes:
And they called the whole community together on the first day of the second month. The people registered their ancestry by their clans and ancestral houses, and the men twenty years old or more were listed by name, one by one. (1:18)
Unity is easy in exile and under oppression. To be "the whole community" in the ghetto is simple enough, even if life itself is anything but. Coming into the Promised Land, going from minority to majority status, presents a new challenge. Suddenly clans and tribes and houses make a difference, and it's enough to make one weep. Can we build a society based on our commonalities, while celebrating our differences? Well, third time's a charm. Let's get to work.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Man beats God

For a brief period when I was a teenager, the definition of Jewish pride was the professional wrestler Goldberg. After all, in the '80s, even goyim changed their names to wrestle, and Jews changed their names just to tell jokes. But a new era was dawning, and amidst all the faux reality and showmanship, it was nice to have some honesty.
Truth be told, the Jewish wrestling tradition goes back to The Beginning, the Book of Genesis. The very name Israel is given to Jacob, "because you have struggled with God and with humans and have prevailed" (32:28). And in this case, the men's division was late to the game, since Jacob's beloved Rachel says a decade before, "With wrestlings of God I have wrestled with my sister, yea, I have prevailed" (30:8), giving the name Naphtali -- My Wrestling.
Nevertheless, these examples seem a bit high-minded. Rachel and her sister Leah grapple with God metaphorically, and Jacob's battle is with an angel (as Hosea 12:5 states) in the form of a man. The Jerusalem Talmud (Taanit 4:5) presents a much more literal grappling with God, explaining how it was that the First Tablets, with the Ten Commandments on them, came to be shattered by Moses.
You did well to shatter them" -- Rabbi Samuel bar Nahman in the name of Rabbi Jonathan: “The tablets were six handbreadths long and three wide. Moses grasped two handbreadths' worth and the Holy One grasped two handbreadths' worth and there were two handbreadths left in the middle. Once Israel did what they did, the Holy One tried to snatch them away from Moses, but Moses was stronger and snatched them from God. This is the meaning of the biblical praise at the end of the Torah (Deuteronomy 34:12), ‘and all his strong arm’ -- Let there be peace upon him whose arm was stronger than mine!”
According to Rabbi Jonathan, there is a literal tug-of-war over the Torah, and Moses beats God. (Doubtless if he were around today, this rabbi would have his ordination revoked for such heresy.) So what is Moses' plan here? Does he hope to abscond to a country that doesn't have an extradition treaty with Heaven? Is he going to upload the Tablets and make them open-source? Is he going to mass-produce generic versions of the Commandments?
No, Moses just wants to shatter them. Why? Because Tablets shattered by human hands can be replaced by human hands, as indeed happens shortly. On the other hand, if God snatches the Tablets back and takes them back to Heaven, who knows whether the Torah will ever return to man?
Indeed, it seems that by snatching the Tablets back, God is giving Moses the opportunity to walk away: no harm, no foul. After all, the Israelites, dancing around the Golden Calf at the time, are presumably not ready for the Torah's challenges. So why not just let God take His magnum opus back? Perhaps a later generation will be prepared for this awesome opportunity.
But Moses passes the test. He does not relent; he wrestles with God and pulls the Tablets from His grip. Audacious, awe-inspiring -- and acclaimed by God Himself, in the very last verse of that very Torah.
And herein lies the contradiction of this weekend, opening the unique Jewish hybrid of Ramadan and Lent known as The Three Weeks, leading up to Tisha b'Av. This period is inaugurated by the 17th of Tammuz, but this year, we will not fast on that date, because it falls out tomorrow, on Shabbat. Before we fast on Sunday and remember the tragedy of the Tablets being broken, we have a day to savor Moses' audacity and the hope it grants us.
What must Moses have felt in his Tablet tug-of-war, stepping into the ring with God Himself? This is what I could not stop thinking about at the Jerusalem March for Pride and Tolerance yesterday.
(Credit: Y. Bloch, Liberty Bell Park, Jerusalem, 21 July 2016)

 We feel God tugging, trying to snatch away the Torah, as it were. We may imagine the divine words: "You're not ready for this! Your society is riven by discord and hate. The words of this Torah are used as a crown to magnify one group and a spade to bury another! It belongs in Heaven, until you all are worthy."

But we must not give up. We must hold on for dear life, snatching the Torah back, keeping it down on earth as a living document. And if we shatter it, we can mend it. We've been doing that for more than 3,000 years. And we will continue, with trepidation, but tenacity, until we hear those words from God Himself: "You did well to shatter them."

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Down the Q&A Hole

Responsa are a weird and wild archipelago in the sea of Torah. Originally these shutim (literally, questions and answerses -- yes, it's a double plural) were collections of actual missives sent to sages around the world and the halachic replies sent back. You might find an analysis of open-carry for Wild West Bank women (Iggerot Moshe OH IV 75), sleeping with a man who claims to be Elijah the Prophet (a totally different meaning of כוס של אליהו, Binyan Zion 154) or whether you have to repeat Grace After Meals if the individual who led the prayer revealed himself to be a horse (Ezrat Mitzar 8). Think of them as Infrequently Asked Questions.
Why don't you come with me, down the rabbit hole -- or more precisely, the Q&A hole? You'll be walking in a Yiddish Wonderland.
Shutim have now gone online, just like the rest of life. For well over a decade, the religious-Zionist website Kipa has had an Ask the Rabbi section. Most of the questions are fairly pedestrian, but one has recently received a lot of attention -- not so much for the query, but for the replier, Rabbi Col. Eyal Karim, nominated to be the next Chief Rabbi of the Israel Defense Forces.
Let's see it inside.
I have read about [the halachik question of] "the beautiful captive" on this site as well as studying the laws in the Torah, but I still have a question:
In various wars among the nations, e.g. World War I, various nations fought among themselves, and no one among them was particularly good to the Jews or particularly bad to the Jews...
However, were they to capture a village populated by Jews and rape Jewish girls, it was rightly considered a catastrophe and tragedy for the young woman and the family.
Thus, rape in war is considered a shocking matter. So how is it that a rabbi told me that a beautiful woman [captive] is allowed, according to some authorities, even before the entire process [pertaining to captives] described in the Torah? In other words, he submits to his desire and sleeps with her, and only then takes her to his house, etc.?
This seems contradictory to me. If raping civilians in war is something forbidden and shocking, why should it apparently be allowed for a Jew?
And would it be permitted in our days for an IDF soldier, for example, to rape young girls in time of combat, or would this be forbidden?
Thank you.
That is the entire text of the question. (The one ellipsis is in the original.) If you want to read the passage, it's Deut. 21:10-14; Maimonides details the process in Laws of Kings and Their Wars, Chapter 8. Suffice it to say that the issue of the beautiful captive is not pretty, especially the part about taking her to a deserted place to force her (3) and killing her if she later refuses to convert (9).
But now for the answer:
Wars of Israel -- whether mitzva wars or volitional wars -- are mitzva wars. They are thus different from other wars conducted by the nations of the world among themselves. Since war is, by definition, not a particular matter -- rather the nation as a whole fights -- there are situations in which the personality of the individual is "erased" for the sake of the collective. Conversely, sometimes a large unit is imperiled to save an individual when the matter is exigent due to considerations of morale.
One of the most important and determinate values in war is maintaining the army's combat readiness. That is why the fearful and fainthearted are sent back from the ranks, so that they will not melt their brothers' hearts. The emotions and needs of the individual are shoved aside in order for the nation to succeed in war. Just as in war the boundaries of endangerment for the sake of others are "breached," so too in war the boundaries of tzniut and kashrut are "breached." Libation wine, which is not permitted in peacetime, is permitted in war, in order to maintain the good feelings of the combatants. Forbidden foods are permitted in war (according to a few opinions, even if kosher food is available) in order to maintain the combatants' readiness, even though under conditions of peace they would be forbidden.
Similarly, war overrides certain aspects of sexual immorality, even though intimacy with a non-Jewess is a very serious matter; nevertheless it is permitted in war (under the conditions which permit it), due to consideration for the combatants' difficulties. Since the success of the collective in war is our primary concern, the Torah allows the individual to indulge his evil desire under the conditions it permits, for the sake of the success of the collective.
Eyal Karim
You can still read this responsum on Kipa. It's been up since 2002. There is a link to a clarification from 2012 "for one who is not an expert in the halachic world." Does the five-minute rule for food turn into a ten-year rule for responsa? I don't know. But considering that the replier is nominated to be the chief chaplain for an army which has many women, gays and non-Jews in its ranks; and considering that he has expressed incendiary ideas about all of these groups, some since retracted and some not; and considering that he would be my (reserve) boss, I don't find it funny anymore. So can we please dig ourselves out of this hole?

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

The True Shanda

Blogging about blogging is not something I usually have time for, but sometimes you have no choice.
My social-media feed today is being flooded by Rav Zev Shandalov's "Why I Will No Longer Blog in The Times of Israel." I don't know if he'll still view it, so maybe he'll miss this too, but Rav Zev is not my intended audience.
I want instead to address the subject of his ire, The Times of Israel's editorial policy. Rav Zev refrains from ad-hominem attacks, but those who share his piece often do not, even going so far as to tag the people they'd like to call out.
So what angers Rav Zev so much? The following lines:
Murdered in her bed: Teenage girl killed in terror attack Terrorist breaks into Kiryat Arba home, stabs teenage girl dozens of times, killing her. Member of local security team also wounded.
In the words of Rav Zev:
I read and re-read those words, and my blood began to boil. How dare the Times of Israel make the location of this girl’s murder a part of the story!? It was as if the fact that she was in the “West Bank” almost made the murder understandable. It was as if the Times of Israel was saying that we can “understand” (MY words, not theirs) why this happened.
Oh wait a second, I got that wrong. That header was from Arutz 7, also known as Israel National News, comfortably ensconced on the right wing of the spectrum. When they tell you where the attack took place, we can rely on them. We don't need Talmudic exegesis of why the subheadline does say where it happened, or why there's no mention of the nationality of attacker or victim. Not one time in the article do the terms Jew, Arab, Muslim, Palestinian or Israeli come up. Why is that? Is Arutz 7 afraid to face the truth? What are they trying to cover up?
The answer, of course, is nothing. They're reporting the story the way they usually do. As was Times of Israel, when it wrote:
Israeli girl, 13, stabbed to death by Palestinian in her West Bank bedroom
Hallel Yaffa Ariel killed by terrorist who entered her home in Kiryat Arba; civilian guard also injured responding to incident; attacker killed.
So why is the latter so offensive, so outrageous, so unconscionable that Rav Zev will never write for ToI again? Is it the unpardonable term "West Bank"? I doubt it, since the Bible uses that term (I Chron. 26:30).
Moreover, Rav Zev says quite clearly that it's identifying the place at all which disgusts him: "How dare the Times of Israel make the location of this girl’s murder a part of the story!"
Perhaps his introduction can be edifying:
Rather, I wish to take umbrage with many editorial decisions that have been made at Times of Israel, since I began posting my blog in July of 2013.Over the years, I fully understood that the site was not in concert with what I believed. It did not and does not share my values or my outlook on the State of Israel. I continued to post on their site, though, since it would give my writing exposure and readership. (There isn’t a writer around who doesn’t want his or her writing to get to the largest possible audience.)
I also knew full well about their editorial positions and chose to ignore them or (on some occasions) call them out on them. The one time that they censored one of my articles (which in and of itself PROVED the point of the post!) I just went ahead and posted it on Facebook.
Herein lies the problem: Rav Zev feels he did ToI a favor by posting on "a ‘left-wing, kumbaya, let’s not offend the world, occupation-is-the-reason-for-all-the-world’s-ills’ kind of site." But since he knows their true nature, he knows what they mean when they have the gall to identify the location of this heinous act of butchery.
The most important fact of this incident is the stunning, incalculable, cruel tragedy of a girl going from her bat mitzva party one year to her funeral the next. But the true shanda is that we have become so convinced of the inhumanity of our fellow citizens that we see their every act, every word, every gesture as calculated and compassionless. Now more than ever we need fora where we can come together to weep, to grieve, to talk... even, especially, if we're not all saying the same thing.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Mainstream Racism in 3 Easy Steps!

You know it's hard out here for a racism pimp. If racial bigotry and hatred is your stock-in-trade, it's a tough sell nowadays. A generation or two ago, you could count on the conservative or right-wing parties to welcome you or at least wink at you. Now, they shun you. The old standbys--"Some of my best friends are you-know-whats!" "You-know-whats are my best customers/ employees!"--just make you sound more racist.
But there is hope. For a decade now, discredited companies have been using the magic of re-branding. Blackwater renamed itself twice in three years! Now, that might not work for you as an individual, since you would lose all your Instagram followers. Instead, you need to re-brand your racism. All it takes is 3 easy steps:
1. Defining discrimination down: engage in definitional sophistry. 
This first step has three approaches:
A) X's comments can't be racist, because racism is an ideology, and X is no ideologue.
It is indeed surprising that this one fools people, as it is the exact opposite of the truth. Racism is prejudice--as in judging BEFORE you have evidence or data. The ideology only comes later. Think of the folks siccing dogs and firing hoses on black people trying to vote or go to school. Did they all have 100,000-word manifestos at home? Most racists aren't ideologues; most humans aren't ideologues. However, because the most prominent racists try to justify themselves in (bad) writing, speaking & broadcasting, this one fools a lot of allegedly intelligent people.
B) Race is just a social construct, so it's meaningless.
You've got to be audacious to pull this one off, but the payoff is huge. See, if race isn't real, how can racism be real? This one is a half-truth, because race is indeed a social construct, but of course racism is a social ill. The black family in Queens denied housing by a slumlord may be the victims of a fabricated social construct, but it's meaningful as hell for them.
C) It's not racism, because we're talking about a group based on ethnicity/ religion/ national origin.
This is the flip-side of B): arguing that racism does indeed exist, but limiting it so drastically that you're let off the hook. What, did you say Mexicans or Muslims should be judged by their background, not their actions? Neither one is a race, so we're all good! Some think that it's discrimination which is the problem, not which biographical factor you're basing it on, but hey, that's why we need to keep them down, right?
OK, that's Step 1. Your statement/ idea/ action is not racist. But what is it then?
2. Alchemical dependency: transmute your racism with pseudo-synonyms
There are many synonyms for racism: discrimination, bigotry, prejudice, etc. None of those will help your case. However, pseudo-synonyms are extremely useful: terms that seem to be equivalent but are not, e.g. offensive, insensitive, off-color, inappropriate, polarizing, divisive, controversial. Those terms may appear to be negative, but they subtly shift the onus from the speaker to the subject. Did he find that offensive? Maybe he's easily offended. Did she find that insensitive? Maybe she's hypersensitive. Did they find that polarizing or divisive? Maybe they shouldn't take such an extreme stand in opposition.
OK, you're almost there. You're no longer a racist, but you still seem like a jerk. How can you go from zero to hero?
3. Despicable gallantry medal: make yourself a social-justice war hero.
Try this sample script. Make sure to punctuate it with head-shakes and looks of consternation.
It's really a shame that in today's politically correct society, we can no longer honestly discuss issues of major consequence. We're so afraid of overrunning people's safe spaces with micro-aggressions that we stifle the free exchange of ideas. Well, I say no! This country was built on freedom of speech, and I will not be cowed. Maybe this isn't politically correct, but I believe that the truth is still something worth fighting for!
Stirring, no? In three easy steps, you've gone from Andrew Jackson c. 2015 to Andrew Dice Clay to Andrew Jackson c. 1815! Huzzah!
Sure, you're still a racist, but now you and your supporters don't have to feel guilty about it. And isn't that the point?

Friday, June 10, 2016

20 Years of Peace

Tel Aviv sits in Gush Dan, the Dan bloc. Israel has no states, provinces or counties per se, but it does have millennia of history. The name of the region goes all the way back to the Bible, in which the tribe of Dan receives territory from Zorah in the lowlands to Joppa on the coast (Josh. 19:40-46). In fact, tomorrow we will read from the thirteenth chapter of Judges, the origin story of Samson, which begins: "And there was a certain man of Zorah, of the family of the Danites," and concludes: "And the spirit of the LORD began to move him in Dan's camp, between Zorah and Eshtaol."
So why do we read this prophetic passage this weekend? It has two links to the Torah portion, Naso. Num. 6 explains what it means to be a Nazirite, which Samson is ordered to be from birth, while Num. 7 tells us about the dedication offerings of the tribal princes, including Ahiezer, Prince of Dan, on the tenth day. The Midrash (Num. Rabbah) explains that "He brought his offering to correspond to Samson, as Jacob's blessing to Dan focuses solely on Samson."
(If you're wondering how Ahiezer knew the details of his latter-day tribesman's life -- forget it, Jake, it's Midrash Rabbah.)
Consider, for example, how it tackles the final element of the dedication offering: "And for the sacrifice of peace-offerings, two oxen..."
This corresponds to the two times it is written of him that he judged Israel for 20 years, and these are they: "And he judged Israel in the days of the Philistines 20 years" (Jud. 15:20); "And he judged Israel 20 years" (Jud. 16:31). This teaches you that the judged Israel for 20 years of his life; then, for 20 years after his death, the reverence of Samson was upon the Philistines, and they dwelled in tranquility.
This is intriguing, as it means that Samson, like so many other early Jewish leaders -- from Moses; to fellow Judges Othniel, Deborah and Gideon; to Kings David and Solomon -- had a tenure of forty years. However, unlike his colleagues, half of his was after his death!
The Midrash here distinguishes between two types of peace: one based on mishpat, and one based on mora. Mishpat is usually translated as justice, but as amusing as it is to imagine Samson's confirmation hearings for the Supreme Court, that's not the sort of Judge we find ruling over Israel and leading it in war during the pre-monarchial period. Perhaps Judge Doom. Or Judge Dredd.
Dread is one of the translations of mora, but I translated it above as "reverence," describing what the Philistines felt once Samson was dead. It certainly was not the worry of what Samson might do--the Philistines did not fear a zombie strongman. Mora is a term which parallels kavod, honor or respect. The Talmud (Kiddushin 31b) explains: "Mora -- neither stand in his place nor sit in his place, nor contradict his words, nor tip the scales against him." Mora, on the national level, means not seeking to dispossess or disinherit another people.
Thus, Pax Samsonia had two distinct periods: that of reactive mishpat in his life and that of preemptive mora in his death. The former involved a lot of smiting, as the Midrash notes; but what's truly wondrous is the latter, two decades of peace based on the final sacrifice of Samson.
As we consider the horrific terror attack this week in Tel Aviv's Sarona market, in the heart of ancient Dan, we have to ask ourselves: how do we get to the era of mora? How do we reach a place of mutual respect in which we say that the slaughter must end, in which killing is decried by all people of good conscience? How do we find the period of peace that lies beyond awful tragedy? When, at last, will we all dwell in tranquility?
It is high time for our 20 years of peace to begin.

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

The Big Five-Oh

We Jews love our numbers, but we're a bit so-so on Numbers.
The fourth of the Five Books of Moses, which we begin this week, is a testament to truth in advertising, as its first portion at least is full of detailed census results. Sure, those numbers are round, firm and plump, but what do they mean? Does how many thousands and how many hundreds Reuben and Judah had really resonate millennia after all those folks died?
There is one tribe which breaks the double-oh pattern, however:
Those that were numbered of them, of the tribe of Gad, were forty and five thousand six hundred and fifty.
The Gaddites have an extra fifty, which naturally means that the total of the Israelites, a number we've been hearing about since the Book of Exodus, also ends in 50. But did every other tribe randomly have perfect hundreds with zero remainders? That seems actuarially unlikely. Rabbi A.D. Goldberg, citing Imrei Noam, offers a different take:
Certainly the intent is that the Torah rounds to the nearest hundred, not the nearest ten, for if so we would still be challenged by the unreasonable proposition that no tribe other than Gad happened to have an exact multiple of ten. The reason the tribe of Gad was not rounded is that its count was exactly fifty, which cannot be rounded to the nearest hundred; for which of them would you exclude?
In other words, it's easy enough to add or subtract 49 to bring a total to the closest hundred. But if it's 50 on the nose, why is it more valid to add 50 and bring it to 45,700 then subtract 50 and bring it to 45,600? Thus, an even fifty at the end stays put, indelible.
The Gaddite census is hardly the first time we come across an ineffaceable fifty. At Sinai, Moses is advised by his father-in-law to appoint judges in an almost perfectly decimalized system: over tens, hundreds and thousands. But in between the first two are "officers over fifty." Indeed, the officer over fifty (pentecoster, to be technical) is a position of unique authority and regard during the First Commonwealth (I Samuel 8:12, II Kings 1, Isaiah 3:3). A unit of fifty people has special significance which cannot be ignored.
Nor can we overlook the monetary value of fifty. At the peak of physical ability, one's valuation is fifty shekels (Lev. 27:3), The value of land is also determined by a fifty-shekel standard (ibid. v. 16). This is even the standard bridal payment (Exod. 22:17, Deut. 22:29).
Most striking, however, is the use of fifty in units of time. After all, we are currently "counting the omer," marking the days and weeks until we arrive at the fiftieth day after Passover, commemorating the Giving of the Torah on Shavuot (AKA Pentecost--yeah, that's where it comes from). The date is immaterial; we are commanded to sanctify the fiftieth day after leaving Egypt.
Fifty weeks is the length of a standard year on the Hebrew calendar.
And fifty years? That once again brings us to the end of Leviticus (25:10-13):
Consecrate the fiftieth year and proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you; each of you is to return to your family property and to your own clan. The fiftieth year shall be a jubilee for you; do not sow and do not reap what grows of itself or harvest the untended vines. For it is a jubilee and is to be holy for you; eat only what is taken directly from the fields. In this year of jubilee, everyone is to return to their own property.
The fiftieth year is (usually) a once-in-a-lifetime event, an occasion to restore and return, of reuniting families and proclaiming liberty. It is sacred and inviolable. It is not to be ignored.
And so we enter the fiftieth year, the jubilee of united Jerusalem. Perhaps this year we will finally find the courage to answer the questions that Jerusalem demands of us, or at least to ask them. Instead of hiding behind slogans and cliches, we may finally confront the challenges of David's capital. What is our vision for Jerusalem? What does unity mean? How do we proclaim liberty not in theory, but in practice? How, ultimately, do we make the Holy City whole?

Friday, April 1, 2016


Leviticus, the middle child of the Pentateuch, is often overlooked as we prepare for the spring and its bevy of colorful holidays. However, the Book does offer some pyrotechnics in this week's portion, Shemini (9:1-3):
Then Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, each took his censer and put fire in it, put incense on it, and offered foreign fire before the Lord, which He had not commanded them. So fire went out from the Lord and devoured them, and they died before the Lord. And Moses said to Aaron, “This is what the Lord spoke, saying: ‘By those who come near Me, I must be regarded as holy; And before all the people, I must be glorified.’” So Aaron held his peace.
This is not only a personal tragedy, but a national one as well. For 25 chapters--the last 16 of Exodus and the first 9 of Leviticus--the Israelites are dedicated to one purpose: constructing and consecrating the Tabernacle and its vessels, including the human ones, Aaron and his four sons. Now, the elder two--already designated for greatness at Sinai (Exod. 24:1-9)--are dead, precisely at the height of the celebration, the eighth (shemini) day, following a week-long initiation process.
So what did they do wrong? The Baal Haturim, famous for his love of mnemonics and gematria, here hews closely to the simple meaning of the words.
"Which He had not commanded them"--now, we cannot say that he neither commanded them to do so nor commanded them not to do so! Rather, it means "which he commanded them not to." The same is true of "or any of the host of heaven, which I have not commanded" (Deut. 17:3) [that God commanded not to worship the stars].
What law did they violate? Apparently, Baal Haturim alludes to Exod. 30:9: "You shall not offer foreign incense on it." But if the prohibition is foreign incense, why speak of "foreign fire," both here and in Numbers 3:4?
The fact is that fire is a leitmotif in Shemini, appearing no less than--what else?--eight times in the story of the eighth day. At first, the fire is outside the camp, for the incineration of a special type of sin-offering. At the completion of the ceremony, Aaron blesses the people and a fire comes down from heaven to light up the altar, at the center of the camp. By then kindling their own fire, Nadab and Abihu defile the Tabernacle and defy God, for which they end up paying the ultimate price, as a divine fire comes forth to devour them. To set matters straight, Moshe stresses three times that the survivors, Aaron, Eleazar and Ithamar, must eat their portions from "the fires of the Lord." Procedure must be followed, even in their bereavement.
All of this seems esoteric to the modern reader. Divine fire, profane fire--what does it all mean? However, the power of our fire is far from a moot point. The idioms are the same in English and Hebrew: opening fire, ceasefire, under fire. When we hold our fire and when we fire away are questions of morality. The stakes are so high that we as a society must be exacting in determining when such fire is justified and when it is not. Nadab and Abihu, after all, were righteous men, destined for positions of prominence, but their momentary error in judgment doomed them. God knew what was in their heart; all we have is a system of laws to try to uncover the truth of the matter. In the meantime, we must reaffirm our commitment to never profane the awesome power of our fire.

Friday, March 18, 2016

Cruel Intentions

"Whoever is made compassionate to the cruel will ultimately be made cruel to the compassionate" is a refrain so often voiced by hardliners, you might think it's a verse in the Torah. Not quite.
Rabbi Elazar said: Whoever is made compassionate to the cruel will ultimately be made cruel to the compassionate, as it is written, “And Saul and the nation spared Agag and the best sheep and cattle” (I Sam. 15:9), and it is written (Ibid. 22:19) “And Nob, the city of priests, he smote with the edge of a sword.” (Midrash Tanhuma, Metzora 1)
Jews worldwide will read the story this weekend. King Saul is commanded by the Prophet Samuel to eradicate the nation of Amalek, as you may have seen horribly portrayed in Of Kings and Prophets. (They missed this part, 14:48: "And he gathered an army and attacked the Amalekites, and delivered Israel from the hands of those who plundered them.")
Regardless, people seem to forget that this line is a criticism of Saul's decision not to execute Agag, king of Amalek, whose crimes are many and, of course, cruel -- as Samuel declares, “As your sword has made women childless, so shall your mother be childless among women” (15:33). Indeed, some versions of the Tanhuma make this even clearer by speaking of "the cruel one," putting it in singular, unlike the plural "compassionate ones," a reference to the people of the priestly city of Nob, wiped out decades later for aiding David in his flight from the by-then mad king.

So was Saul bothered by the initial command? The Talmud (Yoma 22b) explains that Saul was bothered by the fact that the Torah requires that in the case of a unsolved murder, a heifer must be taken to make atonement for the nearest city:
And he strove in the valley” (I Sam. 15:5)--R. Mani said: Because of what happens ‘in the valley’: When the Holy One, blessed be He, said to Saul: Now go and smite Amalek, he said: If on account of one person the Torah said: Perform the ceremony of the heifer whose neck is to be broken, how much more so for all these persons! And if humans sinned, what has the cattle committed; and if the adults have sinned, what have the little ones done? A divine voice came forth and said: Be not righteous overmuch. And when Saul said to Doeg: Turn you and fall upon the priests, a heavenly voice came forth to say: Be not overmuch wicked.
Now, this is a bit perplexing. If Saul is such a bleeding heart, we would expect him to spare the innocents; instead he (and the people) spare the finest of the animals and the cruelest of the men!
Rabbeinu Hananel (ad loc.) offers an explanation:
This means that the decree of heaven bore heavily upon him, as he said, "A corpse found in the camp requires a broken heifer--all of these souls we kill, all the more so we must bring offerings to atone for ourselves!" That is why he left the finest animals.
In other words, Saul was not troubled by the bloodshed, but by the bloodguilt. It may seem strange to us, but tribal societies in the Middle East have for millennia believed in this concept. Even the Torah speaks of the blood-redeemer. Saul is clearly adopting a mechanistic view of sacrifices: it's fine to spill the blood of Amalek, but atonement must be made, by offering the finest animals. But more than that, there needs to be a party to whom this blood-ransom is paid--and none is more fitting for this role than King Agag himself. This is why Samuel, to whom altars are not exactly foreign, denounces the choice of sacrifice over justice in the strongest terms (Ibid. 22): "Has the Lord delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of the Lord? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, to heed than the fat of rams."
Saul is an intriguing figure: powerful enough to unite the tribes of Israel, but constantly beset by depression and doubt. On the one hand, he carefully tells the Kenites to evacuate before waging war against their Amalekite neighbors. On the other hand, his genocide of the Gibeonites -- collateral damage of the Nob massacre according to Talmud Yevamot 78b -- leads to a devastating three-year famine "because of Saul and the House of Blood, because he killed the Gibeonites.” Indeed, the awkward phrasing "made compassionate" and "made cruel" may indicate that Saul himself was not motivated by these emotions, but by the need to appear empathetic or emphatic in the eyes of the people.
Israel cannot afford to be motivated by insecurity and crises of confidence. The stakes are too high to sacrifice justice on the altar of avarice and tribalism.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

In self-defense of Purim

I eagerly dread this time of year.
On the one hand, Purim, now just two weeks away, is a carnival of costumes, comedy and conviviality. Oh, and cocktails. So, fun for kids and adults.
On the other hand, its central text becomes more troubling the more you hear it. And we read Esther a lot: two times, four times, infinite times if your son happens to celebrate his bar mitzva on Purim.
Now, I hear you shaking your head (yes, I bugged your house). After all, isn't the story of Esther one of of self-defense? Haman's decree allows Jews to be attacked; Mordecai's decree allows them to defend themselves, right? We assume so, but even at its inception the second decree seems a little ominous, echoing Haman's language of killing, annihilating and destroying, including women and children. Does this sound like self-defense? "A copy of the text of the edict was to be issued as law in every province and made known to the people of every nationality so that the Jews would be ready on that day to avenge themselves on their enemies" (Book of Esther, 8:13).
Perhaps it's all just a scare tactic? If so, it works:
And many people of other nationalities became Jews because fear of the Jews had seized them. (8:17)
No one could stand against them, because the people of all the other nationalities were afraid of them. And all the nobles of the provinces, the satraps, the governors and the king’s administrators helped the Jews, because fear of Mordecai had seized them. Mordecai was prominent in the palace; his reputation spread throughout the provinces, and he became more and more powerful. (9:2-4)
Aye, there's the rub. If it was all about self-defense, and everyone was terrified of them, all those "other nationalities" needed to do was NOT stride into the Jewish Quarter brandishing axes on the 13th of Adar. Just go to work or school or the movies (Iranian cinema is delightful) on that day! Instead, they circumcised themselves and jumped in the mikveh?
Now, let's turn to Shushan, center of the action. On the 13th of Adar, 500 people are killed in the citadel, as well as Haman's ten sons (75,000 empire-wide), without any mention of self-defense. And then (9:13):
“If it pleases the king,” Esther answered, “give the Jews in Shushan permission to carry out this day’s edict tomorrow also, and let Haman’s ten sons be impaled on poles.”
That would be the 14th of Adar. A day on which no one is allowed to attack Jews. And, as per another decree from Xerxes, "The Jews in Shushan came together on the fourteenth day of the month of Adar, and they put to death in Shushan three hundred people" (9:15). And that is why we have Shushan Purim.
So if it wasn't self-defense, what makes these people the enemies, haters, ill-wishers and adversaries of the Jews? It's not like they were writing nasty posts in which they spun conspiracy theories of Jews bent on taking over the Holy Land, inducing government officials to adopt antisemitic policies!
Actually, it's exactly that, as we learn from The Book of Ezra, which is set during the return to Zion following the horrors of Babylonian captivity:
Then the peoples around them set out to discourage the people of Judah and make them afraid to go on building. They bribed officials to work against them and frustrate their plans during the entire reign of Cyrus king of Persia and down to the reign of Darius king of Persia. At the beginning of the reign of Xerxes, they lodged an accusation against the people of Judah and Jerusalem. And in the days of Artaxerxes... wrote a letter to Artaxerxes... "The king should know that the people who came up to us from you have gone to Jerusalem and are rebuilding that rebellious and wicked city." (4:4-7, 12)
Esther is, essentially, a revenge epic. It's a story of the powerless Jews in exile finally getting a chance to turn the tables on their tormentors. It is the Persian version of Inglourious Basterds.
There seems to be quite a hunger in the Jewish community for that sort of material right now. After all, we do face legions of haters and ill-wishers. But the question we have to ask is whether we think transferring this revenge epic from parchment to pavement is really the way to go. This time, there are actual attackers with blades in their hands. Isn't it time we focus on that reality, not the fantasy of eradicating all the haters?
At the very least, it's a sobering thought for Purim.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Parashat Trump

Truth be told, we didn't read Parashat Trump, but rather Parashat Truma, though only an errant pen-stroke separates them. The term parasha can mean passage, but it can also mean issue, affair, even scandal.
Truma and Trump share more than a nominal connection; both have a penchant for making things out of and covering things with gold or bronze. But it's not the aurumphilia of Trump that is so concerning, but rather his veriphobia -- not his love of gold, but his antipathy towards truth.
Now, the concept of the lying poltiican is hardly novel; indeed, some may consider it a fundamental job requirement. But pre-Trump, the life-cycle of a politician's lie followed a predictable pattern:
  1. Politician lies.
  2. Opponents and/ or the media present evidence of the truth.
  3. Politician faces the music.
Now, depending on the nature and degree of the lie, the politician might be embarrassed, deposed or prosecuted. But at least he or she had to admit the truth.
Not anymore. Let us recall that Trump's political career (at least the current act) began with his declaration that he was getting to the bottom of President Obama's birth certificate. The news would be earth-shattering, he promised us, praising the investigative team he'd sent to Hawaii to uncover the truth. Which turned out to be... nothing at all.
You might have expected Trump to retreat from the public spotlight, or at least the political arena, but no--he doubled down. After all, he is a reality-television star, a genre wholly built on the lie that viewers are watching "real life," as opposed to footage which is scripted, manipulated and edited to tell a specific story.
And so, Trump, fueled by egocentrism and casual misogyny/ racism/ antisemitism/ Islamophobia, has built his political persona on "telling it like it is," which in this case means constructing his own reality. The hard truth that he tells his cheering crowds? That they are right and everyone else is wrong. And in the week of Parashat Truma, Parashat Trump stopped being a theoretical exercise as the Donald won the first Republican primary in New Hampshire, allegedly one of the last bastions of Northeastern moderation.
Why is his brand so attractive? Because he speaks to the reality that his supporters perceive, of an America flooded with criminal illegals, a floundering economy and a spineless foreign policy. You may try to bring facts into the conversation, but that doesn't change what the Trumpeters feel, what they know in their bones to be true. Being accurate or considerate has been redefined as political correctness, and we know whom to blame for that. Everyone knows the facts are biased.
But why is this an issue for the Jews, beyond the fact that America hosts the largest Diaspora community? The problem is that the Dawn of the Donald is not an isolated phenomenon; it has spread far and wide, and now it seems to be taking over mainstream American Orthodoxy.
I hail from the world of American Orthodox Judaism, and its direction concerns me. For decades, OJ prided itself on its scholarship, subjecting all manner of modern dilemmas to the classical sources of Halakha (Jewish law): Talmud, Codes, Responsa. However, over the past few years, as its has grappled with contemporary issues, mainstream Orthodox Judaism has eschewed halakhic reasoning for appeals to Authority, Tradition and old-fashioned Yiddishkeit (whatever that means). From marriage equality to nuclear diplomacy, from halakhic prenups to conversion courts, from women's public prayer and ordination to biblical criticism, it is shockingly rare to see sources actually cited in the articles, essays and blogs coming from the right. On those rare occasions when classical sources are cited, follow-up questions are a sure way to get yourself censored, blocked or ignored.
At this very moment, more Jews are sitting in yeshiva than ever before. You might think that this would lead to a higher level of scholarship and erudition, but I've yet to see the evidence for that. The paucity of source-based halakhic reasoning shows us that this generation is getting a pretty pathetic return on investment. Any businessman could tell you that's unacceptable. Especially a yoogel-ly successful one like Donald Trump.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

On Wings of Camels

So, how long till the heresy-hunters come for my rebbe?
The controversy over Open Orthodoxy; its flagship institution, Yeshivat Chovevei Torah; and its most controversial graduate, Rabbi Dr. Zev Farber has not yielded much in the arena of Jewish law. Opponents to its right continue to push OO out of the observant community, but the halakhic arguments always seem to fall short. That's why the strategy of hashkafic (philosophical) attack has been embraced. Forget orthopraxy, the correct practice; it's called orthodoxy, right thinking! (You know, by 19th-century Germans, the arbiters of all things Jewish.)
The play goes like this:
  1. Maimonides' Thirteen Principles are universally and axiomatically accepted. There is no need to prove this, because, y'know, axiomatic. (But the text most people refer to is a poem written three centuries later--SHH!)
  2. Anyone who challenges one of these principles in any way is, by definition, a heretic and to be banished from the observant community. There is no need to prove this, because, y'know, by definition. (But many medieval authorities, including Maimonides himself--SHA!)
  3. Any institution whose graduates or movement whose adherents express such challenges without being immediately defrocked and disowned by said body is therefore itself heretical. There is no need to prove this, because, y' know, therefore. (But every yeshiva has had graduates who--ZAY SHTIL!)
You might think that my rebbe, HaRav Dr. Aharon Lichtenstein of blessed memory, who passed away less than ten months ago, would be safe from such accusations, but consider what was published 15 years ago by one of his foremost students, Rav Haim Navon:
According to the position presented here, there is no conflict between Torah and science, for the Torah does not pretend to provide us with scientific information. This position is relevant not only to the apparent contradictions between the Torah and the natural sciences, but also to the contradictions between the plain sense of Scripture and our knowledge of history, in the spirit of what Chazal said: "Iyyov never existed and had never been created." Much ink has been spilled over the camels that are mentioned in Scripture. The book of Bereshit describes our patriarchs riding camels. Scholars and Rabbis have been arguing for decades whether or not camels had already been domesticated in the patriarchal period. According to the position presented here, the question is totally irrelevant. Perhaps the patriarchs never really rode on camels, but on donkeys or on oxen or on winged horses, or perhaps they traveled on foot. Who cares? God, for various reasons connected to the Torah's influence upon the generation in which it had been given and upon later generations, preferred to write that the patriarchs rode on camels. Within Scripture's internal historical system, this is not an anachronistic failing. The comparison with real history is out of place, for we are talking about two entirely different systems, which do not presume to parallel each other.
That's the English version of the article which he published in the Summer 2001 edition of Alon Shevut (159).…/en…/archive/bereishit/03bereishit.htm
Now consider this line from the Hebrew original (
It is clear that we, as believing Jews, must stake out some boundaries for this position. As servants of God, our faith demands that we believe in certain historical events. The most minimalistic definition would include the Convocation at Mt. Sinai, which is a concrete historical event, without which our bedrock faith in Torah from heaven has no standing. But aside from a few critical junctures such as this, there is no great significance to the question of historical details in Scripture. This approach has tremendously significant ramifications for the study of Scripture.
Rav Navon was not banned, banished or excommunicated. He co-edited many of Rav Aharon's books. He remains one of Yeshivat Har Etzion's most prominent graduates and continues to teach there. Yes, there was a furor in the yeshiva when it was published; Rav Yaakov Medan wrote a fiery response. But that was the end of it.
What got everyone mad at Rabbi Dr. Farber was saying “Abraham and Sarah are folkloristic characters; factually speaking, they are not my ancestors or anyone else’s” in a passage entitled "Avraham Avinu Is My Father," which they attack because it undermines "a letter in the Torah." So what's the difference? Believing the camels are folkloristic, not the the people? Even if Rabbi Navon were saying that, it would not resolve their objections--that is, assuming they are principled objections.
So what is the distinction here? Hate the camel, not the rider? Because if we apply the YCT/ OO standard as conceived by so many of its critics, I know who's next.