Saturday, June 26, 2004

A cautionary tale of woe. A certain character for whom I've provided consulting services announced that he intends not to pay me. He has not claimed, so far, that I haven't provided the service contracted for but simply that he won't pay "because I can and there's nothing you can do about it". Our contract specifies that in case of a dispute, we'd settle it in a beis din. He attempted to preempt this option by announcing that if I took him to beis din, he'd make sure to "get some chassidishe dayanim who can be paid off". (He was greatly inspired by the Sieger divorce case.)

I turned to the beis din of a major orthodox organization with a sterling reputation for integrity. Indeed, the menahel with whom I've been in contact has been courteous and efficient in all our communications. The beis din summoned my adversary and after much delaying, he responded by demanding zabla (=zeh borer lo echad), a procedure in which each side chooses a dayan and the two dayanim choose a third. Rema (Choshem Mishpat 3:1) says that if the beis din which issued the summons is ad hoc, then the nitba has a right to demand zabla. Rav Moshe Feinstein (Choshen Mishpat (2), Siman 3) says that all batei din in New York are regarded as ad hoc. So, as far as the beis din is concerned, we go to zabla, provided that he chooses a recognized borer as his dayan. He came back with, surprise, a borer who is in fact a chassidishe fellow who serves as a professional gun for hire. The Rosh at the beginning of pereq zeh borer carries on about a borer being a dayan in every sense. The Shulchan Aruch (Siman 9) forbids a dayan from meeting with one side in the absence of the other and from taking money at all from either side (except for skhar beteilah under very specific circumstances and even then from both sides equally). The Aruch Hashulchan (Siman 13) mentions that it has become customary for borerim to meet with their side and to take skhar tirchah. The Aruch Hashulchan justifies this post facto as an agreement between the sides but stipulates that a borer must in any case be paid the same regardless of the outcome of the case in order that he not be too incentivized to win at all costs. This has now lead to a situation in which there is a cottage industry of borerim who are essentially dayanim who openly take bribes. Effectively, cases are being judged by a dayan yechidi with two lawyers presenting their respective cases. I personally find this revolting and a complete perversion of the rabbinic court system. But nobody seems interested in or capable of doing anything about it -- including, I'm afraid, the beis din to which I originally turned.

But at least my adversary won't have to do hataras nedarim. He did exactly what he said he'd do and apparently that's frum justice in New York these days. (And a wonderful irony: his lawyer is an officer of the very organization the beis din of which he now refuses to stand before.)

Friday, June 25, 2004

The semester is over and I've gotten a bit slovenly. Just a few brief notes:
The Shaigetz's comment area has become a forum for some painful material about child molesting in the frum world. Amongst the nonsense is some serious stuff that deserves an airing.

Although I've given shiur on pereq zeh borer, I never really appreciated how it all plays out until I got embroiled in a din torah, or more precisely, in an attempt to have a din torah. I hope to spill my guts on this topic next week. If you are frum and want to stay that way, consider skipping that post.

I also hope to get to Rav Yakov Emden's teshuvah on pilagshim. (This is not connected to the above topic but I'm beginning to remind myself of an old Buck Henry routine in which he's a radio talk show host who keeps getting more outrageous to try to generate listener calls. By the time he's done he's advocating busing communists into your neighborhood to eat your puppies. I think you had to be there.)

Sunday, June 20, 2004

Quite a circus today in the President's house. Vaadat Chukah and various academic kibbitzers, including me, converged to discuss what I thought would be Israel as the State of the Jewish People but instead turned out to be Minority Rights in a Jewish State. It seems this was orchestrated by the Israel Democracy Institute to herald the arrival of their proposed Bill of Rights. Shamgar carried on at length about the (idiotic) Supreme Court decision to force Tel Aviv to change all its street signs to give equal prominence to Arabic. Shamgar is proving himself to be more and more a pompous windbag. Everybody had something to say but the only one really worth listening to was Ruth Gavison who said that the proposed constitution will not solve any substantive problems but will only determine where the power to decide various issues lies. She believes, as I do, that shifting power from the Knesset to the courts is a catastrophe. It prevents compromises that are acceptable to the broad center. I spoke to MK Reshef Chen of Shinui about my proposed Basic Law: Israel as the State of the Jewish People and he's basically on board. If I can get Ravitz on board, Mashiach will be that much closer. I spoke briefly to MK Yuli Tamir of Labor, who wrote her thesis on Liberal Nationalism, and we agreed to sit. Her input on this can be very important.

Thursday, June 17, 2004

The Times weighs in on the I.B. Singer centennial with a rehash of the Yiddish writers wars chronicled by Cynthia Ozick in Envy. Two quotes capture the spirit:

Inna Grade (Chaim Grade's almanah) on Singer: I profoundly despise all those who eat the bread into which the blasphemous buffoon has urinated.

Allan Nadler: When Abraham Sutzkever was starving, fighting Nazis with the partisans in the Lithuanian woods and writing great Yiddish poetry about the tragic fate of the Jews on fragments of bark, Singer was eating cheese blintzes at Famous Dairy Restaurant on 72nd Street and thinking about Polish whores and Yiddish devils.

A lesser intellectual might have urinated into the cheese blintzes and eaten the bread but Singer didn't get the Nobel Prize for nothing.

Wednesday, June 16, 2004

At long last, Edna Arbel has gotten her comeuppance. Attorney General Mazuz was an unknown quantity until yesterday. I was worried that he'd turn out to be another cog in the prosecutorial political machine. In fact, yesterday he calmly cleared Sharon in the Greek Island affair (not the part that interests me -- see below) and just as calmly made mincemeat out of Arbel. Key quotes: "The evidence in this case does not bring us even close to having a reasonable chance of winning a conviction. There is reasonable doubt and sometimes even more than reasonable doubt regarding each of the elements of the crime."
"The head of the [investigating] team set up a target [Sharon] and this naturally radiated to the rest of the team."
Asked why he thought Arbel had targeted Sharon, Mazuz replied, "I have my ideas but they are only in the realm of ideas. The former State Attorney will find a way to say what she has to say on this matter. I have said all I can and should say."
Perhaps this is the beginning of a turnaround in the state prosecution but lots of politrukim will need to be cleared out of there. If you read Hebrew, don't miss this great piece by Amnon Dankner.

As for Sharon himself, I take little solace in the closing of this case. First, the pressure on him to behave remains; the Greek Island case has been closed but the Cyril Kern investigation remains open. Second, I have mixed feelings about the guy. He is a true leader who is willing to take the heat and I admire that. But the hitnatkut is misguided. What worries me more than the policy itself is the threat that Sharon is prepared to cause very grave constitutional crises to ram it through. Ignoring the referendum and firing ministers to win the cabinet vote were, I fear, just the beginning. He is perfectly capable of calling on the army to implement the evacuation even without cabinet approval. The first evidence of this was the publication of an evacuation timetable which explicitly contradicts the recent cabinet decision.

Tuesday, June 15, 2004

I'm a hypocrite about lots of things but not about hypocrisy. I'm in favor of it and I practice it. I wish everybody would. For example, I sometimes (actually, often) speed on the highway. And I'm in favor of speeding laws and have no quarrel with a police officer who tickets me. But I'm not here to talk about speeding -- it's religion I want to discuss.

It seems like everywhere I look lately, women are laining at women's minyanim, leading kabbalas shabbos, saying kaddish, learning daf yomi, etc. At the risk of sounding like a troglodyte, let me say that this creeps me out. Am I just another misogynist pig with a vested interest in defending the patriarchy, buying into misguided essentialist arguments about female inferiority in order to shore up flagging self-esteem? Well, if you can parse that sentence, you probably think so. But I think it's something else.

What it comes down to is that I'm reasonably frum but I'm not at all religious. I identify profoundly with the frierdike doiros, I love to speak Yiddish, I wear a gartel, I enjoy talking in learning and even dumbing down my English syntax when necessary. And I really love laughing at religiosity. I have a soft spot for heimishe chazer-fressers. Someone who writes good hiddushei toirah on shabbos goes right into my pantheon. (But I would never do that and it would kill me if my kids would.) So for me, women laining etc is tarti lereiusa: first, it bastardizes yiddishkeit and second it's so self-righteously earnestly nauseatingly pious. And get off my back because self-righteously earnestly nauseatingly pious men get me sick just as much.

So let's get back to hypocrisy. I've got no issues with people who want to do aveiros. Unless they carry my DNA, I'm not getting involved. The problem seems to be that nobody is secure enough any more to just own up to doing aveiros lest they be accused of the dreaded H word. Every apparent aveirah needs to be incorporated into a twisted philosophy that justifies it. The fear of hypocrisy is destroying yiddishkeit far more effectively than hypocrisy ever could. So for my part go right ahead and do aveiros. But please keep your hands off my religion. This is how we do it and if you don't like it, start your own damn religion.

And, by the way, I completely agree that many frum men are indeed misogynist pigs with a vested interest in defending the patriarchy, who buy into misguided essentialist arguments about female inferiority in order to shore up flagging self-esteem. And I respect women who say that but I find it much more endearing when they say it with words like putz and schmuck instead.

Friday, June 11, 2004

A very fine (Hebrew) article by Amnon Bazak inspires me to lay it all out on the whole political-security issue. Even though it looks a bit schoolmarmy to me, I'll number the main points:

Point 1: The Arabs want us all dead. This has nothing to do with occupation or lack of manners. They just want us dead.

Point 2: Lots of Jews (let's call them "deniers") have a vested interest in denying Point 1. A few are professional makhers, diplomats or academics who need to assume that the problem they are trying to solve is solvable or they wouldn't have much to do. Others don't find being Jewish very significant and would like to just be like everybody else. It's hard to do this while acknowledging that millions of people consider your Jewishness significant enough to want to kill you for it.

Point 3: Although it is often said that "the whole world is against us" is a cliche of Zionism, the opposite is true. The core of Zionism was the desire to be like everybody else and the assumption that we could be. As a result, the Zionist elite who have traditionally run the country regardless of elections are deniers. This leads them to pursue manifestly destructive policies.

Point 4: Since deep issues of identity are at stake, the deniers are prepared to rig centers of power (courts, press, security) to retain their hegemony. See my post of this past Monday.

Point 5: All the above notwithstanding, the right ought to pursue prudent political policies. This means that we ought not assume that the state is indestructible because we are worthy of divine intervention. That is arrogance. We ought not assume that maximal borders are optimal borders. That is simple-mindedness. We ought not to do things just because it pisses off the left. That is spitefulness.

Point 6: What the right must do is keep its eye on the long-term objective which is to defeat those who wish to destroy us. We need to slowly cultivate social, economic and political conditions which will make victory possible. The algorithm for doing so is not necessarily a greedy one. It might require apparent steps backwards to get where we wish to go.

Point 7: Two necessary steps in the above algorithm are:
1. changing the way critical appointments are made so that the monopoly of the deniers on certain state organs (courts, press, security) is broken
2. developing a leadership mentality so that the right thinks in terms of long-term objectives rather than simply reacting to the deniers' bumbling
For now, I'm copping out on the rest of the steps but I'll get back to this.

I don't know of any organized political groups in Israel that grasp all of the above points. The closest is Manhigut Yehudit, which gets most of it but has some problems with parts of Point 5 and the end of Point 6. Nobody's perfect.

Yesterday was an endless day of meetings and lectures, including one of the worst I ever heard (a student whose advisor turns out to have been a fraud who claimed degrees he did not have) and one of the best (Adi Shamir on some new ideas in cryptography -- what a great lecturer he is). But it was the beginning and the end of the day that evoked passions by highlighting the subtle interplay between midas hadin and midas harachamim. The day began with a meeting of the vaadat mishma'at (in charge of punishing alleged cheaters) at the august institution of higher learning that employs me. This is difficult work. Think about a case like this (and there are lots of them): a student admits cheating but explains that she is divorced and supporting a child by working two shifts as a cashier, receives no support from her ex-husband or her parents with whom she has a strained relationship, has suffered a nervous breakdown from stress, her distracted state has lead to several car accidents that landed her in the hospital, and that she is working towards her degree so she can get a decent job and restore her self-esteem. An opportunity to expel her, you think? Don't worry, we wouldn't. But what should be done?
The cruelty of some members of this committee astounds and angers me every time. Some simply assume that every student is a liar and cheater. Yesterday a student denied the charge made against him outright and, to my ears, sounded quite believable. I suggested that since the issue was one of reliability, we'd have to hear the testimony of the complaining teacher in person (not from a written report) so that we could ask some questions to determine the truth. Oh, the righteous indignation this evoked. Did I dare impeach the integrity of a colleague?! Daggers were drawn. They are prepared to destroy this student's life for fear of being made to look like fools. ("Ma, ani freier?") Of course, it's all couched in the language of principle: upholding standards, sending messages, exercising our mandate, protecting reputations, blah blah blah. No rachamim here.
My day ended with an azkarah marking the first yahrzeit of a little girl tragically killed in a car accident. It was marked with divrei torah, songs, artwork and reminiscences each of which reflected such profound sorrow, such dignified restraint and such a love of human beings and life. In the midst of midas hadin, it was all rachamim. Redemption.

Wednesday, June 09, 2004

A follow up on Monday's angry political post: The police commissioner has decided to reject Rubenstein's recommendation and not to remove eavesdropper Moshe Mizrachi from his post. See the JPost editorial. Arbel went head to head with Rubenstein over the Mizrachi affair and the Bibi gifts nonsense and the oligarchy granted her two undeserved victories this week.

Monday, June 07, 2004

I can't stay away from politics for long. I've railed already about the supreme court essentially appointing itself and how this resulted in a manifestly unworthy appointment like Edna Arbel. On another occasion I'll list all the terrible consequences of an ideologically and demographically homogeneous court. But Arbel's unworthiness stems from her role as State Prosecutor and it is the sins of the office she controlled that merit attention.

To make a very long story short, the state prosecutor's office consistently decides whether to pursue charges against politicians based on their political views. This is not conjecture; it is backed by overwhelming evidence. The most far-reaching consequence of this policy is its deterrent effect. Politicians know that if they behave according to the political preferences of the prosecutor's office, they have a better chance of not being charged with a crime. Every politician knows that there is an open file waiting for a misstep and that such files can be kept open for many years. They also know that if they pursue the "right" (that is, the left's) policies, any file can be made to disappear.

I could list two dozen examples with little effort. But I'll mention here only five of the most egregious ones, each of which has had significant political consequences:

1. For the first example, I'll simply quote my friend Jonathan Rosenblum:
"Arbel was accused, together with former attorney-general Michael Ben Yair, of bringing an indictment against then-justice minister Yaakov Neeman which they knew could not hold up in court. Their goal: to force the resignation of Neeman, an outspoken critic of the government legal system.
"The police were not allowed to enter a written recommendation concerning Neeman's prosecution into his file because prosecutors knew that the recommendation would be negative. Worse, the police were not allowed to interrogate the only relevant witness in the case, despite his pleas that they do so, because that testimony would have fully cleared Neeman.
"Though Neeman was fully exonerated by the court, which had harsh words of criticism of the prosecution, he was never reinstated as justice minister. Thus those who "fabricated a case against an innocent person and obstructed justice in order to pursue a purely political and ideological agenda," in the words of Ma'ariv editor Amnon Dankner, succeeded in their goal of removing Neeman.
"If there is an answer to the charges concerning the Neeman prosecution, we have yet to hear it."

2. The second example is the failure to prosecute anyone in the Yossi Ginosar affair, a tale of corruption so deep it could have kept an army of journalists busy for years. Instead it died inside of a week. In short, Ginosar was a secret agent and friend of all the Labor party makhers, who made millions in partnerships with Muhammad Rashid, a major PLO makher. Rashid and Ginosar were partners in cement and casino businesses. They were also involved in laundering hundreds of millions of dollars for the Palestinian Authority -- money which remains unaccounted for to this day -- and has very likely been used to finance terror operations. (Steve Cohen, now an advisor to Colin Powell, was also reportedly involved in this scheme.) Ginosar also served as a senior advisor to Rabin, Peres and Barak before and during Camp David. These negotiations concerned sensitive security and financial issues and Ginosar's conflict of interest could not be more blatant. Consequently, then Attorney General Elyakim Rubenstein ruled that Ginosar could not serve in Israel's delegation to Camp David. As part of massive efforts by Barak to include Ginosar, affidavits were presented denying any conflict of interests. These blatantly false affidavits were reportedly signed by Danny Yatom. Despite solid testimony by Ginosar's assistant, Ozrad Lev, no charges were ever brought against Ginosar (now deceased) for corruption, nor against Yatom for perjury. Incredibly, the case was closed due to "lack of public interest".
(An important sidebar to this story: Two other people deeply involved in the Palestinian casino business are Dov Weissglas, Sharon's right-hand man in the hitnatkut fiasco, and Martin Schlaff, the man reportedly behind the Cyril Kern scandal.)

3. Ehud Barak's cronies, Tal Zilberstein and Buzhy Herzog, set up a network of fake charitable organizations to funnel money illegally to the Barak/Labor campaign. The state comptroller, Eliezer Goldberg, who investigated the matter, called it a "trampling of the law" and fined the party an unprecedented 3.2 million dollars. Among other violations, the "charitable" organizations were used to launder illegal foreign contributions and to funnel to the campaign estate money, under Herzog's control, intended for charity. Under questioning both Herzog and Zilberstein "pleaded the Fifth". The investigation was allowed to fizzle and no charges were ever brought against any of the major players.

4. By contrast, after his defeat against Barak, Bibi Netanyahu was hounded by the police and press for moving gifts he received as PM from one warehouse to another, supposedly some sort of technical violation. (His Labor predecessors reportedly took hundreds of gifts home and in at least one case such gifts were auctioned off; none of them were even investigated.) When Attorney general, Elyakim Rubenstein declined to bring charges, Arbel let it be known far and wide that she dissented from his view and wanted charges brought. A few days ago, the supreme court, of which both Arbel and Rubenstein are now members, decided on the murkiest of grounds that the justice department is obligated to publicize Arbel's decision, despite it's being an internal Justice Department document.

5. Arbel authorized Moshe Mizrachi, head of the Israel Police international investigations division, to wiretap the phones of Avigdor Lieberman and other right-wing politicians as part of an alleged criminal investigation. As it turns out, Mizrachi taped conversations clearly unrelated to the investigation, including intimate conversations between family members and friends, and conversations between public personalities (including past and present state presidents) not suspected of any crimes. In addition, Mizrachi transcribed these conversations and placed them in a safe, presumably for use as the need and opportunity would arise. These charges were confirmed and documented in detailed reports by both Rubenstein and state comptroller Eliezer Goldberg. Arbel used her office to hamper these investigations from their inception. Finally, when Rubenstein recommended removing Mizrachi from his post, Arbel, in violation of all protocol, publicized a dissenting view, sharply critical of Rubenstein. The case against Mizrachi could not be more compelling, Arbel is herself implicated in these crimes and hence suffers from clear conflict of interest, and, in any case, had no authority to publicly dissent from the attorney general's ruling. That she did so without any fear of public criticism (indeed, the press dutifully supported her) is sorry testimony to the state of Israel's justice system.

Sunday, June 06, 2004

The oddest thing happened while I was in NY. The Times reported that some rabbanim paskened that the water in Brooklyn could not be drunk unfiltered. Ordinarily, I'd have just chalked this up to the recent outbreak of rabbinical insanity that has managed to find problems with cows (the sebu business), eggs (longhorn chickens; you don't want to know), hair (you already know) and now water. But only a few months ago -- Purim to be exact -- I myself wrote and plastered on the walls of Meah She'arim (actually I paid someone to do the plastering) a pashkevil forbidding water. (The fonts on the online version are not quite as authentic as in the original.) I thought I was joking but apparently I was in the vanguard.
What amuses about all this is that a good number of people imagine that by making yiddishkeit look absurd, and thus serving notice that we march to a different drummer, they are forging a link with their zeides and bubbes from the alte heim. But in fact they achieve the exact opposite: they prove that they suffer from boredom. And boredom was one luxury our zeides and bubbes could never afford. They didn't have the time, the energy or the money for it.

Friday, June 04, 2004

One week in the Goldene Medina with my eishes chaver was just what I needed. As finstere goolis goes, it's one of the better ones. We did something we never do: a Broadway show and dinner at Le Marais. We saw The Producers, which was Mel Brooks for dumb goy hicks from Iowa. Every joke telegraphed for the humor-impaired. And why didn't someone tell me it was a Musical?! A Spectacle, an Extravaganza! Help.
Le Marais, on the other hand, lived up to its billing. A hunk of beheimah at 11:00 at night, coconut ices (sorry, sorbet) for dessert -- now that's what goolis is for. One jarring aspect of eating out in New York is seeing chassidishe chevre in fancy restaurants, which doesn't happen much in Yerushalayim t"v. Which is not to say that I've ever seen a chassidishe yingerman in NY out with his wife r"l. But I do see them in small groups of men and occasionally with underdressed women clearly not their wives. I'm sure there's a perfectly reasonable explanation but it does kind of pique my curiosity.
And of course the key to the trip is multiple visits to the kodshei kodoshim, Barnes and Noble. Much browsing but I didn't actually buy anything except Stephen Jay Gould's posthumous collection of essays on baseball. (The snobs are snickering but I remind them that Barnes and Noble doesn't carry Shev Shmaatse.)
I suppose here is the spot where I'm supposed to begin pontificating on the vacuousness of Modern Orthodox life in America, on the vicarious Zionism of the Teaneck shenishba set, blah blah blah. But no. Most people in NY work too hard and play too hard, but so what? For every survival skill that Israelis have honed and Americans have not (so that Israelis think of Americans as a bunch of wusses), there is a communal survival skill that frum Americans have developed and Israelis have not. Finding the perfect balance between alienation and involvement and pulling it off with class -- when it works, it's a beautiful thing. We could use some of that here.