Thursday, June 29, 2017

Up Shittim Creek

Manspreading is a problem of biblical proportions.
In the final verse of this week's Torah portion, the Israelites arrive at their final station in the desert (Num. 22:1): "Then the Israelites traveled to the Plains of Moab and camped along the Jordan across from Jericho."

Yet the final chapter of next week's portion begins (ibid. 25:1): "Israel settled in the Shittim, and the men began to whore with Moabitesses." (Yes, men can whore; in fact, in the Bible, the verb is more often employed in the masculine than in the feminine.)
Wait, "in the Shittim"? What are they doing there? Lower-cased, shittim are acacia trees, but here it's a place name -- one we've never seen before. We have to skip ahead to the travelogue in Numbers 33 to understand that:
They traveled from the mountains of Abarim, and they camped at the plains of Moab by the Jordan across from Jericho. And they camped on the plains of Moab along the Jordan from the House of the Wastes to the meadow of the Shittim. (vv. 48-49)
After 40 repetitions of the refrain "They traveled from [X], and they camped at [Y]," suddenly we have encampment without departure. The camp of Israel does not move, but the men of Israel do -- to the point of settling in Shittim.
The results of this are catastrophic, as the Israelites begin embracing Shittite culture, in particular the worship of Baal Peor. What makes this Baal so bad? The Talmud (Sanhedrin 64a) explains:
Rav Judah said in Rav's name: A gentile woman once fell sick. She vowed, 'If I recover, I will go and serve every idol in the world.' She recovered, and proceeded to serve all idols. On reaching Peor, she asked its priests, 'How is this worshiped'? They replied, 'People eat beets, drink beer, and then make diarrhea before it.' She replied, 'I would rather fall sick again than serve an idol in such a manner.'
However, the men of Israel lack the self-respect of this paganess, so "Israel adhered to Baal Peor, and the Lord's anger raged against Israel."
What follows is a plague that kills tens of thousands of Israelites, then a war of vengeance waged by Israel with even more casualties.
And that's why, when the time comes to decamp from the Plains of Moab, Joshua (2:1-3:1) sends spies "from the Shittim." They go to the house of a whore in Jericho, but the only thing they seek from her is information. In return, they spare her and her family, and the Israelites are able to cross the Jordan to the Promised Land -- with focus and purpose.
But this is not the last time Shittim shows up in Scripture. Joel 4:18 states: "In that day the mountains will drip new wine, and the hills will flow with milk; all the ravines of Judah will run with water. A fountain will flow out of the Lord's house and will water the stream of Shittim."

Shittim represents the wild excesses of a young nation -- unruly, unbound, unmoored. The Temple, God's house, symbolizes divine inspiration: peace, tranquility, purity, purpose, justice.
Wouldn't it be nice if we could think about it in that way again?

Monday, June 12, 2017

Secret Jewish Origins of!

While Moses may sound like an Egyptian name, did you know that Moses was portrayed in the move History of the World, Part I by noted Jew Mel Brooks? What about Moe of the Three Stooges, birth name Moses Harry Horwitz? Oh, and bartender Moe Szyslak from The Simpsons is voiced by Hank Azaria... a Jew!
OK, I made that quote up. But let's be honest, you've probably seen a lot of these articles over the past few years. Jewish media need to be on top of trends, and you can't let a story go cold... or even a body. Did a beloved musician die tragically? Read The Forward's "The Secret Jewish History of Chris Cornell and Soundgarden." (There is none.) What about a terrorist attack? Look, it's The Forward again with "Can Kabbalah Help 'Broken' Ariana Grande Heal After Concert Bombing?" (Only if Madonna counts the sephirot backwards.) Maybe it's time to get political? Tablet screams: "Ivanka Trump Mistakenly Identifies the Western Wall as Judaism's 'Holiest Site.'" (The pedantic author also gets it "wrong.") And these are only from the last month!
But this star-kaker trend may have reached its nadir with an article from Haaretz, the reputed gold standard of Jewish/ Israeli media.
I refer to Nathan Abrams' "The Secret Jewish Origins of Wonder Woman," which is so much the epitome of anti-journalism I expected to see it in The Qwardian.
It starts off with a tiresome retread of the international hand-wringing over Gal Gadot: Is she white? Is she Zionist? Why does that matter? Actually, Abrams glosses over the third question, because he needs to get to his thesis, which is about Diana of Themyscira, not Gal of Rosh HaAyin--that she is secretly Jewish!
Wait, Wonder Woman had Jewish creators? No, but lots of Golden Age comic-book superheroes did, so...
Wait, the character is Jewish? Sure, she was molded from clay, and that's got to be a Golem of Prague reference, because there's no precedent in Greek mythology, right...
But her publisher, MC Gaines, was Jewish, so that counts via the Sandler Standard ("So many Jews are in showbiz/ Tom Cruise isn't, but I heard his agent is!").
I mean, tikun olam, fighting Nazis, feminism all seem Jewy, so... Case closed!

What really sticks in my Golden Girdle of Gaea is the rank ignorance and laziness of this piece. You see, there is a Jewish comic book legend who wrote Wonder Woman longer than anyone, a stunning run of over twenty years, from #22 in 1947 to #176 in 1968. His name is Robert Kanigher, son of Rebecca and Ephraim from Romania. You don't need to strain to make Bob Kanigher Jewish. Not only did he shape Wondy's story from the late Golden Age to the height of the Silver Age, he created iconic superheroines Black Canary and Rose & Thorn (not to mention Wonder Girl). He also created Ragman, the vigilante from Gotham City who actually turns out to be Jewish (and inspired by the Golem).
Jews have a lot to be proud of, in terms of our culture, art and science. The desperate need to make every hot celebrity or cause "Jewish" belittles that proud heritage. So raise a glass to Bob and Gal, but don't try to dunk a superhero made of clay in the mikveh!

Monday, June 5, 2017


We never settled on a good name.
National Religious? Religious Zionist? Srugim, the cheeky, called us, after the kippot serugot (knitted/crocheted yarmulkes) our men wear. Modern Orthodox, foreigners called us. Mizrachistim, the ultra-Orthodox called us. Messianists, the secular left called us.
I’ve always preferred Dati, which is what the pollsters call us. Dat is a biblical word, but of foreign (Persian) origin, which exemplifies what we stand for: an unwavering commitment to Jewish law and tradition, on one hand, and engagement with contemporary society, on the other. We sought to build a bridge between the secular, alongside whom we worked and lived and fought, and the Haredi, whose talmudic language we were conversant in and cherished.
But I’m not sure that’s true anymore, especially considering what happened just the day before yesterday. It didn’t make much news, but slowly filtered through social media: convicted sex-offender Mordechai Elon opened his new “Jerusalem Hall of Meeting and Study” to muted fanfare. Here, on Israel National News (Arutz 7), you can watch him installing the mezuzah to dedicate the site.  INN helpfully puts it in the “Kippa Seruga” section, naturally.
I’ve talked about Elon before — wait, he’s a rabbi, one must not forget that! Let’s give him his proper title then: I’ve talked about Pederabbi Elon before in this forum, in “Sorry, Rabbi, it’s not OK” and “Indecent acts.” But I naively thought that he would go away after his conviction for sexually assaulting a minor and his decision not to appeal.
I could not have been more wrong. Pederabbi Elon keeps popping up, again and again, to give public Torah lectures, even though he’s legally barred from contact with youth. And now he’s got a brand spanking new study hall, across from Jerusalem’s Great Synagogue, 59 King George St.
Now, the Elon family is Dati royalty. His father was deputy president of the Supreme Court, where one of his brothers served as well; while another (recently deceased) was Minister of Tourism, his sister-in-law being a famous author. Oh, and one of his sons is chief rabbi of Caesarea, where our prime minister has his palatial residence.
I thought we Dati were supposed to be different. Didn’t we criticize the Haredim for welcoming back convicted sex offenders like Pederabbi Eliezer Berland? Aren’t we the ones who believe in our court system fulfilling the vision of the Prophets to build a society of justice and compassion? Yet, with nary an admission of guilt nor apology, we welcome back Elon, and the most we can hope for is a Facebook debate: Rabbi Lichtenstein opposed him, Rabbi Druckman supports him, ask your Local Orthodox Rabbi.
Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised. We cancelled our subscriptions to any media that challenged us, and our reading list now spans the “spectrum” from BaSheva to Israel Hayom. We clustered in like-minded communities and cut ourselves off, built yeshivot and synagogues that tolerate only one type of Judaism, and founded political parties to funnel money to them. We out-haredied the Haredim. Now what?
At long last, have we left no sense of decency?