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.