Saturday, July 31, 2004

In my very first post, I mentioned that I have a somewhat vexed attitude towards Zionism. I never explained what I meant by that and now is as good a time as any to pay that debt. First, I'll say what I didn't mean by that. I was not referring to Agudah/Mizrachi debates which are now utterly passe and probably as boring to you as they are to me. I also certainly didn't mean that I have doubts about the desirability or value of living in Israel: it's clear to me that this is where the cutting edge of Jewish history is located now and I can't understand why anyone who cares about that and has the opportunity to be part of it (I know there are those who can't for a variety of reasons) would not choose to be here. I have never regretted making my life here and I love every minute here (OK, not the annual car inspection when I get all flustered and feel like a clueless white guy).

I was referring to the fact that Zionism, as it is manifest in the political, economic and social fabric of the country, is weighted with some seriously diseased cultural baggage. In particular, it suffers from what Thomas Sowell calls "the vision of the annointed". As Sowell explains in other works, it is a curious fact that, by and large, the same people support pacifism, judicial activism, environmental legislation, abortion, and other "left-wing" causes. In fact, it is only because political views cluster this way that it's even meaningful to talk about left and right political views. The explanation for this correlation is that the cluster of positions identified as left-wing share a single feature: the belief that social problems can be solved by a right-thinking cadre of educated elite, if only the bone-headed masses would give them a chance. The contrary positions typically identified as right-wing share an underlying belief that most social problems are not solvable but rather must be "managed" and that the best methods for managing them evolve over generations. This is only possible in an atmosphere of humility, moderation and patience in which experience -- and the traditions in which it is manifested -- are respected.

Zionism incorporates all the ugliest aspects of left-wing thinking. It is rooted in elitist snobbery. In fact, Zionism was directed primarily against the conservative streak in Judaism. The traditional Jew, subservient to halachah and waiting patiently for Mashiach, was to be replaced with the worldly, unsentimental, self-reliant Jew. The Jewish People, distinctive in their beliefs and habits, anomalous in their statelessness, would become a people like all others and take their place among the nations. Their leaders would practice the arts of statecraft and diplomacy and mingle as equals among other world leaders. Their elite would engineer, through the efforts of their own intellects, solutions to the pressing problems of the State.

If the purpose of Zionism is the sustaining of a viable democratic Jewish state, Zionism's snobbery threatens all three aspects: viable, democratic, Jewish. Let's see how.

Jewish – To the new worldly Jews produced by the Zionist revolution, traditional Judaism and those who wish to maintain it in all its old-fashioned glory are something like the nutty old aunt in the attic. She needs to be fed until she dies of natural causes; in fact, she needs to be well-fed so that she doesn't come down and make a scene in front of the company. On special occasions she can be trotted out in ceremonial garb. She is expected to shut up and be grateful for anything she gets. The result has been that Israeli culture is not rooted in any cultural tradition, even one against which it might define itself. The national debate on almost every issue – abortion, pornography, blue laws, etc. – has been impoverished because whatever view traditional Jews are aligned with is simply dismissed as so much shouting from the attic. Modern Israeli culture has neglected the family heirlooms that the nutty old aunt has been hoarding in the attic in favor of tchatchkes picked up at the five and dime.

Viable – I've blogged this before but here goes again. Those for whom a central element of the Zionist revolution is the chance for Jews to practice diplomacy just like everybody else must take it as axiomatic that Israel's problems are just like everybody else's. If Israel is besieged by enemies threatening to drive it into the sea, that must be the result of some border dispute, perhaps some colossal misunderstanding that caused our proud neighbors to lose face. Whatever the problem is, it surely must be amenable to a solution requiring precisely the diplomatic tools our elite now possess. The possibility that hundreds of millions of people want us dead because we are Jews is simply incomprehensible to those for whom it is an article of faith that statehood has ended the anomalous status of the Jew. This article of faith, because so many remain in its grip and because it is wrong, now threatens our very existence. For over a decade, the centerpiece of our foreign policy has been to make, or seek to make, diplomatic concessions that weaken our defense posture for the sole purpose of proving to ourselves and to others that this false article of faith is in fact true, that we really are just like everybody else, that we are hated only for the usual reasons.

Democratic – If the purpose of the State is, as the ideology of revolutionary Zionism would have it, to provide the Jewish people with a framework in which to solve problems rather than to merely manage them, there are those who won't wait patiently for the unwashed masses to evolve solutions. They prefer an elite with the intellect and vision to create the policies that will improve the human condition. A centralized economy and a proactive judiciary place the reins of power firmly in the hands of those who will use it best. It is precisely this belief which threatens Israeli democracy. Power has been siphoned away from elected representatives and given to self-appointing elites who know better. Israel's Supreme Court judges, unique among those in the history of the free world, are appointed by a committee including a plurality of sitting judges, the protocols of which are kept secret by law. As a result of the self-replication this system encourages, the Supreme Court is a largely homogeneous body which serves as a bulwark against the elected representatives of the masses. When those involved have represented interests inimical to the court's milieu, the courts have capriciously over-ruled decisions by both the Knesset and the executive branch.

In the U.S. the fact that the policies of the left are determined by over-indulged elitists is disguised by the conspicuous presence on the left of the whole panoply of "victims" whose causes the left claims to champion. In Israel this is not the case. The left here consists overwhelmingly of out-and-out snobs: old-line, Ashkenazi, secular elitists who think they inherited the country from their zeides (which in fact they did). The victims whose causes the left champions here are only those who might be willing to be patronized (Viki Knafo but not Shas, Arabs but not Haredim), never those who might threaten the left's hegemony over everything you don't need votes for.

So if I hate Zionism so much, why do I love Israel so much? Oh, come off it -- that's a silly question.

Tuesday, July 27, 2004

It's Tisha B'Av afternoon, post-nap and pre-minchah. I'll try to jot down my impressions of two recent "group experiences" while they're fresh. I'm usually cynical about these sorts of things but I'm feeling sappy (probably some sugar imbalance brought on by the fast).

On Sunday evening I participated in the human chain from Azza to Yerushalayim. It was a logistic nightmare for the organizers but all I had to do was stand there. It was one of those wonderful Am Yisrael experiences where left and right, chiloni, haredi and dati stood together in common cause... Had you going there, did I? OK, I lied about left, hiloni and haredi. But still it was nice to see all the usual mitnachalim doing the mitnachel thing. Fresh air and sunshine -- perfect weather for standing on the side of the highway for two hours sucking up fumes. (I think that sappy feeling has worn off.) Anyway, I confess that at exactly 7:00, when we all held hands and sang Hatikvah and Ani Maamin, I FELT THE POWER. I really did. Just for a few seconds. But I definitely felt it.

After that I went to Sylvain Shalom's meeting against bringing Labor into the government. (Yes, I reveal here a dark side of my life.) He's just worried about his job (foreign minister) but at least some of the other 1000+ members of the Likud Central Committee there might have actually been worried about the country. The point was to give the Likud members of Knesset the courage to defy Sharon on this issue. It might even have worked. But no politics on Tisha B'Av (except a quick reminder that not all sinah is sinat chinam).

Last night the whole family went for eichah and kinos to Herodion, an ancient fortress near My Little Town, where Jewish fighters held out for a year after the Churban. From there they could see the Beis HaMikdash burn and from there we could see the lights of Yerushalayim. A few hundred people gathered on a dark mountain top in the midst of hostile neighbors on the night of Tisha B'Av. I think I might have FELT THE POWER again. But Treppenwitz will describe it much better than I can.

Monday, July 19, 2004

Pilagshim -- continued from yesterday:
Rav Yakov Emden, fully accepts the Ramban’s main arguments for permitting pilagshim. However, he believes the proofs from biblical characters are inadequate and the distinction between kings and others is not entirely arbitrary. But mostly, RYE seems offended by the Ramban’s bout of frumkeit in his advice to Rabbeinu Yonah at the end of the teshuvah. Let’s follow his arguments in some detail.
The main additional text that RYE brings to the table is Yoma 18b: 

When Rav would visit Darshish he would announce, “Which [woman] is [available] for a day?” When Rav Nachman would visit Shkhantziv he would announce, “Which [woman] is [available] for a day?”
The gemara then asks why this is not in violation of the dictum of R. Eliezer b. Yakov that a man should not have wives in various cities lest his children come to marry each other. To this the answer is 

[Regarding the identity of the children of] Rabbis, the word goes out.
RYE regards this text as significant for several reasons. First, because it offers, in his view, post-biblical examples of pilagshus. RYE regards it as self-evident that Rav and Rav Nachman were not offering kiddushin and kesubah to the women involved in these brief relationships. Rather, the relationship must have been one of pilagshus in which the critical constraint is simply that for the specified period the relationship be an exclusive one for the woman. (This understanding, while sensible, requires an interpretation of the phrase yechudi havei meyachdei that is different from that of virtually all Rishonim.) By positing this post-biblical example of permitted pilagshus, RYE defuses a possibility raised by the Rivash (Teshuvos HaRivash 395) and the Radbaz (Teshuvos HaRadbaz 1296) that (almost) all biblical cases of pilagshim preceded the decree of Dovid HaMelech on yichud penuya and that from that time forward pilagshim were forbidden as well.

 The text is significant for a second reason. It offers RYE a possible explanation for the Rambam’s distinction between kings and others, while at the same time rendering that distinction irrelevant for practical purposes. RYE argues on the basis of the gemara’s question and answer that an essential element in allowing pilagshus is the avoidance of ambiguous paternity (as per R. Eliezer b. Yakov). Therefore the gemara permits the pilegesh relationship only for a significant personage where the children’s paternity is likely to be well known. The Ramabam’s heter for kings, suggests RYE, is based on the same principle. But, he argues, the gemara’s limitation of the heter to significant personages is an artifact of the story in which Rav and Rav Nachman were just passing through the towns in question. In an ordinary case where a couple were living together, R. Eliezer b. Yakov’s problem would never arise and the limitation would not apply. (Of course, this begs the question again of the Rambam’s limitation of the heter to kings; eventually RYE comes around to Rabbeinu Yonah’s explanation: only monarchs can truly enforce an exclusive relationship in the absence of a formal contract. He recognizes that this, too, is forced and ultimately resorts to dismissing the Rambam’s limitation of the heter to kings as divrei nevius.) 
RYE concludes that as long as there is no threat of ambiguous paternity – that is, the woman is committed to the exclusivity of this relationship and will wait three months before entering another relationship – pilagshus should be permitted for non-kings as well as for kings.
RYE is at his indignant best when attacking the view expressed by the Ramban at the end of his teshuva to Rabbeinu Yonah in which he advises against permitting pilagshim since this could lead to promiscuity and, more specifically, to sex with nidot. Rabbenu Yonah (Shaarey Teshuva 3:95) understands that this is a consequence of the fact that a pilegesh can be presumed to be embarrassed to go to the mikveh so as not to expose the relationship. This presumption is then picked up by the Radbaz, and then the Rosh (Teshuvos HaRosh 32:13), who adds that beis din should force the couple to separate. The Tur (Even HaEzer 26) continues this line, which then is cited in the Shulkchan Aruch but without specifically mentioning the nida presumption. However, Rema mentions the source of the forced separation as the presumption of the pilegesh not going to the mikveh, adding that in the event the pilegesh does go to the mikveh, there are some who permit the relationship.
RYE picks up on the self-fulfilling character of forbidding pilagshus on grounds that people are ashamed of it and concludes:

[This is] an unheard of hedge. On the contrary, for precisely this reason, he should permit [pilagshut], so as not to come to an issur kareis… If only the heter of pilagshim would be publicized, they wouldn’t stumble on serious offenses. Therefore, I should think that it should be declared publicly that pilegesh is permitted.


Ad kan. Some of you might be wondering what the point of all this was. I will not say. But I will say what the point was not. This has nothing to do with chakira's recent posts on this issue. Also, I have no personal stake in this. Furthermore, I'm not one of those I'm-OK-you're-OK rabbis who needs the admiration of those he makes feel good about themselves. In fact, I'm not a rabbi at all. I also have no need to shout The Truth from the hilltops. As I've said before, I'm a big fan of hypocrisy. If you've got cheatin' on your mind, gezinterheit, but leave me and Rav Yakov Emden out of it. 

Sunday, July 18, 2004

Rav Yakov Emden (henceforth: RYE), who lived in Altona in the 18th century, was not only a genius of unfathomable breadth and depth but an extremely independent and courageous thinker (actually, the word “cantankerous” comes to mind and it didn't hurt that he held no official position and owned his own printing press). His book arguing against Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai’s authorship of the Zohar, Mitpachat Soferim, includes – in the words of Prof. Yeshayahu Tishby – every major argument subsequently raised by generations of scholars. His diaries, collected in Megillas Sefer, are astonishingly candid; if you think The Making of a Gadol should be banned, you’d burn his diaries with your sheitel. His teshuvos exhibit little timidity. One of his less timid teshuvos, which essentially permits sex by an unmarried couple who are living together, is the one I want to discuss. All the usual disclaimers apply.
The issue at hand is that of pilagshim, generally translated as “concubines”. Many biblical characters are said to have taken pilagshim: Avraham, Calev, Gideon, Dovid Hamelekh, Shlomo Hamelekh, etc. The gemara (Sanhedrin 21a) asserts that the difference between a wife and a pilegesh is that a pilegesh is “without kiddushin and without kesubah”. This is the canonical definition, accepted by almost all Rishonim. Nevertheless, the views cited in the Yerushalmi (Yevamos 5:2) can be understood as indicating that a pilegesh does get kiddushin. Moreover, the Ramban understands Rashi (Breishis 25:6) as accepting the view that a pilegesh gets kiddushin (although the Ramban himself rejects this view). The Vilna Gaon in Biur HaGra on Even HaEzer 26:1 (note 7) also argues for this view. Still, the dominant view is that the relationship between a man and a pilegesh is not marriage but rather, in RYE’s somewhat indelicate phrase “she is exclusively with him for a fixed period and specified reward as agreed between them”. (It should be added that, contrary to the popular view, a pilegesh is not a “second” wife. A pilegesh is neither a wife nor need she be secondary – the man might be otherwise unattached.)
So may a man and a woman live together in holy pilagshus? This is a hotly debated question among Rishonim, as we shall see, but, to get right to the point, RYE is strongly in favor. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. The story begins pessimistically. The Rambam (Hil. Melachim 4:4) holds that only a king is permitted to take a pilegesh. This is consistent with his view that a man who has sex with a woman outside of marriage transgresses both a positive commandment (Hil. Ishus 1:1; Sefer Hamitzvos, Aseh 192) and a negative commandment (Hil. Ishus 1:4; Sefer Hamitzvos, Lo Taaseh 355). “One who has sex with a woman for the purpose of zenut without kiddushin is given lashes by Torah law, for he has had sex with a kedeshah.” (The words zenut and kedeshah are technical terms, as we will see, and are best left untranslated.)
The Ramban (Teshuvos HaRashba Hameyuchasos LaRamban 284) responding to a query by Rabbeinu Yonah regarding pilegesh, begins with “I don’t know what doubt there is, it is certainly permitted”. He puts forward four main points:

1. There are no grounds for forbidding it. The issur of kedeshah refers to a woman who makes her body freely available. A woman who has sex exclusively with one man is not a kedeshah. Ramban argues that this is also the Rambam’s intention when he writes “for the purpose of zenut”. (However, in Sefer Hamitzvos, Lo Taaseh 355, it’s quite clear that the Rambam forbids all sex outside marriage. Moreover, in his hasagos there the Ramban disagrees with the Rambam but on slightly different grounds: there he limits the meaning of zenut and kedeshah to cases where kiddushin is not possible, such as to a slave.) This same point is made by the Raavad in his hasagos on Hil. Ishus 1:3.

2. There are no grounds for distinguishing between a king and anybody else. In fact, it seems that although Ramban is aware (probably from Rabbeinu Yonah who so holds) that there are those who make such a distinction, his text of the Rambam does not make any such distinction. In any case, he rejects the proposed distinction as arbitrary.

3. Many biblical characters who were not kings took pilagshim and there is no indication that they were guilty of any wrongdoing.

4. Various statements in the gemara indicating that flaws in the marriage process (no brachah, diminished kesubah, unfulfilled conditions) render subsequent sexual encounters as zenut, should not be taken to mean that all sex outside proper marriage is zenut. Rather, they mean that if one takes the path of marriage, accepting the benefits and responsibilities thereof, then all the procedures must be carried out properly. However, if the path of pilagshus is taken, none of this applies.
Having said all that, the Ramban concludes his letter to Rabbeinu Yonah with the words “in your place, warn them away from pilagshim, for if they’ll know this heter, they will be licentious and will have sex with them in a state of nidut”.
Either the Ramban failed to convince both Rabbeinu Yonah and the Rashba or else they took his advice at the end of the letter to heart. Both of them (Shaarei Teshuva 3:94-95; Teshuvos HaRashba 4:314) argue that sex outside marriage (including pilegesh) is forbidden on grounds of kedeshah (even though the Rashba then goes on to argue that a pilegesh isn’t a kedeshah). The Ran (Teshuvos HaRan 68), however, agrees with the Ramban that pilegesh is permitted.  

Another view worth mentioning is that the negative commandment mentioned by the Rambam does indeed apply only to a true kedeshah and not to a pilegesh but the positive commandment to take a woman through the procedure of marriage is violated by pilagshus. The Rivash (Teshuvos HaRivash 395) attributes this view to the Raavad; the Gaon (Biur HaGra on Even HaEzer 26:1, note 8) attributes it to the Rambam.

RYE picks up the ball from the Ramban. To be continued…

Friday, July 09, 2004

I'm dreidling around the Goldene Medina dealing with professional commitments. My talk on Ben Ish Chai at the machine learning conference was immensely popular. Unfortunately, the one thing my colleagues now know about Ben Ish Chai is that -- as one of them undiplomatically put it -- he is "a liar". Oh well.

Last Shabbos I was at a bar mitzvah in a growing Amerikanish yeshivish community. The simcha was wonderful. An opportunity to spend time with my wife's family who are all fun to be with. The community, though, consists of lots of intellectually downwardly mobiles -- people who went to law school, medical school etc. and then decided to dumb down in the name of frumkeit. To each his own.

The most frightening thing was the yeshiva, which apparently now has a name as a hot place for yeshivishers. I went to the RY's shiur shabbos afternoon. He sits there not looking up from his sefer, not taking questions or comments from the fifty or so bochurim who sit in rapt attention. He speaks in Yiddish in which he apparently has a vocabulary of less than 100 words, breaking into English when he runs out of Yiddish. The point of the shiur was a chakira between two positions on why we listen to the chachamim even when there is objective evidence that they're wrong: is it simply to preserve the system even when it fails or because we ought to presume that the system hasn't actually failed. A standard issue in jurisprudence. He brought a few mekoiros but missed the main ones (the Ritva in Eruvin and the hakdamah to the Ktzois, for example). Unfortunately, he was unable to articulate the main idea due to lack of vocabulary and zero awareness of the basic jurisprudential concepts. But what worries me is that he masqueraded his well-earned insecurity as haughty authority. Not only did he entertain no questions and avoid all eye contact, he finished his final sentence, got up and left. My shver tells me that this is a Hutnerian shtick. It wasn't too attractive when Rav Hutner did it but somebody ought to tell this guy he ain't no Rav Hutner. Earned gaiva is bad enough; nokhgemakhte gaiva is just plain ugly.