Sunday, December 26, 2004

My neighbor and good friend, EA, is a lawyer and a magid shiur. Years ago he learned in Merkaz HaRav and attended law school at the same time. At first, when people in the yeshiva heard he was spending time in law school, they were quite upset with him. So he began introducing himself as a law student who wished to spend all his available free time in yeshiva. Then they were very impressed with him.

There is a lesson in that story. Many of us are very critical of various heterodox institutions. They bastardize the mesorah, they're wishy-washy or syncretistic, blah blah blah. But let us stop and think for a moment how we might respond to someone who says the following:

I don't believe any of the central "myths" of yiddishkeit. It's not that I'm arrogant enough to claim that they are false but, forced as I am to make an imperfect decision, I simply can't work up any reasonable level of conviction about them. Nevertheless, I greatly love and respect my ancestors and identify with my received culture and traditions and wish to maintain them as well as I can. But, since ultimately it really is not much more than folklore for me, I'm not prepared to sacrifice everything else that is dear to me to maintain those traditions. I emphasize that this is not laziness; it is simply that respect for my people's traditions is only one value among many for me and I am trying as best I can to balance them all. I appreciate that you believe that yiddishkeit is either everything or it is nothing and that my watered-down version of yiddishkeit seems absurd to you. I understand that you think that these other values of which I speak are nothing more than the residue of western meshugas to which you believe I'm an unreflecting slave. So what would you have me do? Should I try to maintain my heterodox traditions in the fellowship of like-minded people? Or do you prefer that I simply become a total sheygitz so as not to threaten the pristine version of yiddishkeit that you'd prefer have the stage to itself?

How would you respond?

Thursday, December 23, 2004

Some people just have an irredeemably narrow view of the world. I usually regard that as none of my business. Except when it is my business.

Recently My Ninth Grader (MNG) complained that his Rebbi was forcing him to take notes in some subject called "emunah". MNG was savvy enough to notice that this was not the kind of topic that should be taught as if it were "material" that needed to be recorded. It would either touch his soul or it wouldn't. This seemed like a reasonable argument and I mentioned it to his Rebbi, whom I should add is a very young, very Kookniky-looking fellow. While I was at it, I mentioned that most frum people I know managed to stay that way without ever learning "emunah", which is an amalgam of dreary medieval philosophy and indoctrination into whichever little cultic corner of Yiddishkeit the teacher or school happens to identify with. (The part starting from "which is..", I did not actually say.) He chose the single response most suited to ticking me off which was "Well, that's how it was in galut, things are different here. " Ouch! The one most important thing a Rebbi can teach is the importance of respecting our ancestors. If the main idea rattling around his Kook-obsessed mind is galut-bad-Israel-good, he isn't going to be too good at instilling respect for all those very galuti ancestors, including those dreary medievals he's teaching.

But if he's a bit lacking in perspective, what about some of my neighbors who have taken to walking around sporting yellow star badges (yes, the Jude ones Nazis once made Jews wear) in protest of the withdrawal from Azza. If I get it right, and I'm afraid I do, the idea is that the uprooting of Jews from their homes in Azza is comparable to what Nazis did to Jews. Hello?! Has somebody gone completely nuts? Let me repeat that I'm not some namby-pamby liberal who sheds tears for every victim but the Jews. I am opposed to this withdrawal. But to compare it to the holocaust?! I am without speech.

Saturday, December 11, 2004

Some Torah for Chanukah:

The miracle of the flask of oil raises many questions. If we follow virtually all commentators and understand that the problem of finding oil involved tum'ah in the conventional sense (and not a more general category of defilement involving idolatry), the following problems arise:

1. It should not have been necessary to use oil that was tahor due to the rule that tum'ah hutra be-zibbur.

2. Oil found in the heichal could have been presumed to be tahor since the heichal is a reshus harabim and safek tum'ah birshus harabim is tahor.

3. If the kohanim were prevented from preparing new oil because all of them were tamei, then they would also have been prevented from using the found flask since it is forbidden to be metamei kodshim be-yadayim.

4. The seal of the kohen gadol could not serve as proof that the flask remained tahor since even a sealed earthenware flask can become tamei (tumas midras).

There is a single answer to all these questions. The usual version of the miracle has got it all backwards. They could have used a tamei flask since tum'ah hutrah be-zibbur but they could not have used a tahor flask due to the problem of being metamei kodshim be-yadayim. But it was very difficult to find a flask that was tamei because of the rule that safek tum'ah birshus harabim is tahor. They were fortunate to find a single flask that had the seal of the kohen gadol verifying that it was certainly tamei and this flask burned for eight days until the kohanim could again use oil that was tahor.

PS The above is a joke. I made it up myself. Please don't take it seriously. And don't mention it to Hirhurim, who will take it seriously and explain why it's wrong.

Wednesday, December 08, 2004

Dovbear reacts to my previous post with a comment of such breathtaking stupidity that I can't resist suggesting that he stick to topics he knows something about -- even at the risk of opening a yawning gap in his daily routine. In his original post he wrote:

If it's a democracy, it isn't a Jewish state. And if it's a Jewish state, it can't, with a straight-face, offer full-equality to non-Jews.

After some reflection he altered the post to:
Israel can't have it's cake and eat it, too. If it wants to be a better democracy, this means becoming less of a Jewish state. And vice versa.

The amended version is perhaps not breathtaking, only stupid.

The offer of "full equality for all citizens, collective rights for minorities (Arabs) in exchange for recognition that Israel is a Jewish State" was made by Israel's leading constitutional scholar, Prof. Ruth Gavison, who also headed the Israel Civil Liberties Union for many years.

The thought that the more Israel is Jewish the less it is democratic will also be news to the reactionary who penned the following:

"מדינה יהודית" היא אפוא מדינתו של העם היהודי; זוהי זכותו הטבעית של העם
היהודי להיות ככל עם ועם העומד ברשות עצמו במדינתו הריבונית..."מדינה יהודית" היא
מדינה שההיסטוריה שלה שלובה ושזורה בהיסטוריה של העם היהודי, ששפתה עברית, שעיקרי
חגיה משקפים את תקומתה הלאומית..."מדינה יהודית" היא מדינה המטפחת תרבות יהודית,
חינוך יהודי ואהבת העם היהודי. "מדינה יהודית" היא "הגשמת שאיפת הדורות לגאולת
ישראל". "מדינה יהודית" היא מדינה שערכי החירות, הצדק, היושר והשלום של מורשת ישראל
הם ערכיה. "מדינה יהודית" היא מדינה שערכיה שאובים ממסורתה הדתית, שהתנ"ך הוא
הבסיסי בספריה ונביאי ישראל הם יסוד מוסריותה. "מדינה יהודית" היא מדינה שהמשפט
העברי ממלא בה תפקיד חשוב, שענייני נישואין וגירושין של יהודים מוכרעים על-פי דין
תורה. "מדינה יהודית" היא מדינה שבה ערכיה של תורת ישראל, ערכיה של מורשת היהדות
וערכיה של ההלכה היהודית הם מערכיה הבסיסיים".

I'm too lazy to translate. For those who didn't recognize that quote, it's by Aharon Barak (Parshanut, p. 332)

Dovbear's comment is quaintly provincial in that it is rooted in a trend of thought that is both recent and localized, namely, that the raison d'etre of every democracy must be to simply enforce rights. The notion that a nation may actually have particular values or cultural traditions that it wishes to preserve while guaranteeing civil rights -- the overwhelmingly dominant understanding of democracy wherever and whenever it has flourished -- is apparently incomprehensible to a small number of self-absorbed urban academic Jews in a handful of blue states in the U.S. Some of their cohorts have not yet emigrated from Israel.

For Israel to be a Jewish state means, inter alia, that
- it encourages the preservation of Jewish culture (there is no such law currently)
- it's official language is Hebrew (today Hebrew and Arabic have equal status)
- Shabbos and yomim tovim are the official days of rest
- Jews are given the right to immigrate and obtain citizenship (similar laws appear in the constitutions of Poland, Slovenia, Bulgaria, Romania, Macadonia and others)
- kashrus is kept in public dining rooms in official state institutions (there is no such law currently)
- state symbols are rooted in Jewish cultural traditions (check out the Swiss flag)
- the public square reflects consensus values (which in Israel's case includes certain Jewish values)

None of the above stand in contradiction to democracy. With specific regard to the last point, if Israel were not subjected to the tyranny of a self-appointing radical court that strikes down every reasonable compromise reached by the legislature on religion and state in the public square, it would be more democratic and more Jewish.

P.S. I've just returned to Israel and, as is perhaps evident, that's put me in great spirits. Some of you might be happy to hear that I've brought along a fine bottle of Jefferson's Reserve.

Monday, December 06, 2004

I'm still dreydling around in New York (rather unproductively). A few short notes:

Last Monday in vaadat chukah in the Knesset, the cat came out of the bag. The discussion involved minority rights in the constitution. The offer put on the table was full equality for all citizens, collective rights for minorities (Arabs) in exchange for recognition that Israel is a Jewish State. All the Arabs -- including MKs and reps of groups funded by American Jews through the New Israel Fund -- declined the offer. It's time liberal Jews who think they're funding the Arab equivalents of Martin Luther King wake up to reality.

I spent shabbos with my parents in The Neighborhood Where I Grew Up. Friday night I tagged along for a gathering of their friends of many decades. A dozen refugees in their 70s, without benefit of any formal education, Jewish or secular. They put their kids' generation to shame. The number of places they've lived, languages they've spoken, experiences they've endured is simply of a different order of magnitude. Girsa deyankusa -- pesukim, midrashim, chassidishe stories -- roll off their tongues effortlessly. The group included people who've worked for a salary their whole lives as well as some of the richest people in the world. There is no way a stranger could have known who was who. It also included some women who cover their hair and some who don't. (There is no way a stranger could have known who was who.) I like them.

True confession. The best part of this trip was walking around Manhattan taking in the "Holiday" atmosphere. Gevalt, do those goyim know how to throw a yontif! I stepped into a certain upscale department store on 3rd Avenue near 60th Street (Note to Mr. B: you want advertising here, you'll have to pay for it). From the Salvation Army bells out front to the buzz inside, from the store decorations to the background music, it was perfect. The smell of chestnuts at the corner vendors, the likes of Nat King Cole and Johnny Mathis crooning seasonal nigunim -- is this just nostalgia or does somebody here know the melacha? A far cry from those thin-lipped Catholics in weird costumes intoning in Latin about dominoes. That's just plain spooky.

In case you're wondering what I was doing in that particular upscale store, that's a Novardek story. I used to be very bashful about buying things that women usually buy for themselves (if you get my drift here). I've "worked on myself" (to use the felicitous phrase of the American pseudo-mussarniks I'm glad to have escaped) to overcome this bashfulness. This effort has proved so successful, that I've become downright brazen. I'm beginning to enjoy it and even the sales ladies seem charmed. (I'd try asking for nails in a pharmacy just to test my limits, except that nowadays they have them, so the exercise seems pointless. You think they started carrying them because of all those Novardekers?)