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.