Monday, December 25, 2006

Another wild day in vaadat chukah today. Never before have I seen one politician do so much damage to his own constituents' interests as I did today. The discussion was about the definition of the state. The alternatives were to bury the Jewish character of the state in the useless "Jewish and democratic" formulation or to include a strong separate Jewish clause.

We had lined up the Kadimah, Labor and Likud people behind the strong version. Things were going well. Which idiot torpedoed the whole thing? YL, the representative of Mafdal-Ichud Leumi!

Why, you might ask? A combination of warped ideology and personal vanity.

First, he did not want to separate the words "Jewish" and "democratic" because his conception of the state involves intertwining Jewishness and democracy as a matter of principle. Whatever the hell that means. Second, he was duped into supporting Basic Law: Dignity and Freedom of Man back in 1992. That law has proved to be an unmitigated disaster. So YL has begun acting like the Woody Allen character who, having fallen into the orchestra pit at the theater, repeats the performance for thirty consecutive nights so as not to let on it was an accident. He now wants to enshrine the language of that law in the opening chapter of the constitution so as not to let on that he was played for the fool in 1992.

If you voted for Mafdal-Ichud Leumi thinking that you were advancing the cause of a Jewish State, you wuz robbed. When the chips are down, you are being represented by someone of extremely limited intellect.

Friday, December 22, 2006

Discussions of daas torah generally generate more heat than light. Nevertheless, since some recent comments on this topic seem to me inadequate, I want to at least try to add some perspective.

Roughly speaking, the normative claim is that Jews are obliged to address all questions, even those that are not obviously matters of halacha, to appropriate Torah scholars. This normative claim rests on two empirical claims. First, that great Torah scholars are uniquely qualified to answer questions that, at least to the superficial observer, might appear to lie outside their areas of expertise. Second, that since time immemorial pious Jews have in fact addressed such questions to their Rabbis.

Let us take up each of these claims.

I think it is entirely uncontroversial that great scholars in any discipline often have illuminating intuitions regarding questions in that discipline that they might have never previously considered. A discipline is like a language: fluent speakers get it. This is certainly true of halacha. With regard to questions of halacha, the instincts of a great posek might very well have greater value than the reasoned arguments of a lesser scholar. Moreover, I know a number of poskim – each of whom combines well-developed ethical instincts and keen intelligence with thorough mastery of halacha – whom I have every reason to trust with regard to personal and/or ethical issues that might not have a clear halachic component.

Nevertheless, all the above falls considerably short of the claim that every “gadol” is endowed with well-developed ethical instincts and keen intelligence. Obviously, we can ensure the truth of this claim by (sensibly) restricting the definition of “gadol” to those who possess these qualities. But, here I wish to address those who promote this claim as an observable empirical claim and not a mere tautology. Let me not beat around the bush: by almost any contemporary definition of who is a gadol – having many talmidim, publishing many seforim, being consulted by legions of devotees, signing charamos, having every mention of your name sandwiched by HRH”G and SHLIT”A, dressing the part, having your picture on gedolim cards, belonging to some moetzes, being nin vaneched to one of the all-time greats – the claim is simply false. (I’m stopping here rather abruptly for fear of saying things I’ll regret.)

With regard to the second claim, namely, that Jews have always consulted Rabbis with personal non-halachic questions, well, there have been lots of Jews and lots of times, so go know. But one thing I do know is that we must take care not to conflate two distinct phenomena. (1)There are times when a Jew committed to halacha seeks a ruling from a posek and regards himself bound by this ruling. (2) And there are times when a Jew in distress or in a quandary seeks a word of encouragement (or of warning) from a rov whose advice is meaningful to him. This meaningfulness might be rooted in the rov’s personal charisma or the sense of empathy he exudes, or it might be the result of abiding family loyalties over generations.

The second phenomenon has nothing to do with what is sometimes called daas torah. It reflects an emotional bond, not a cold assessment of the rov’s intellect or even the quality of his advice. Earnest attempts by latter-day observers to place such bonds in the framework of daas torah – with all the attendant assumptions about the constitutive nature of the relationship – reminds me of an old joke.

A woman comes to the Rebbe and says “I have a terrible problem. My husband spends the whole day davening, saying tehillim and doing mitzvos.” The Rebbe says, “So, what’s so terrible? I do that too.” And she answers, “Ober der ferd meint es oif ernst.”

Friday, December 15, 2006

Satmar used the term "Shoah"? You can't trust anybody these days.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Much constitution action the last couple of days. Yesterday vaadat chukah met to decide on the paragraphs dealing with the "definition" of the State. Essentially, the question was whether to say up front that Israel is a Jewish State and the Homeland of the Jewish People (our proposal). The alternatives were to say nothing Jewish up front or to say something laconic such as "Israel is a Jewish and democratic State". (The latter is a catch phrase much beloved by liberals because it comes along with two decades of Barakian jurisprudence establishing that "Jewish and democratic" is essentially equivalent to "democratic".) Lest anyone have any doubts, it is a given that the constitution will include a clear statement that Israel is a democracy with full civil rights. The exact phrasing will be discussed at the next meeting.

Unfortunately, a good friend of mine, who is advising the committee and is lobbying for a position on the Supreme Court, took the "Jewish and democratic" position as did Ben-Sasson, who chairs the committee. Since both of them wear kippot, their position constituted a formidable obstacle. Conveniently, the committee members who showed up were, by and large, on our side. Ravitz and Gafni of Degel Hatorah were both there. Officially, they are not great Zionists but the nature of the schism these days is such that they are on the side of the angels. Labor was represented by Matan Vilnai (good) and Collette Avital (bad). Aryeh Eldad of Ichud Leumi and Ruby Rivlin of Likud were both very much on our side. Haim (Jumas) Oron of Meretz spoke, as expected, in the name of absolute justice and the struggle against the forces of darkness. We had no idea where Amira Dotan of Kadimah stood on the issue but she proved quite open to the idea of some Zionism at the top of the constitution. Unfortunately, neither of the Arab members (Azmi Bishara and Taleb Al-Sana) showed up; their venom usually has the effect of turning even the most cognocentric liberals into rabid Zionists.

Our presence there is very important. Even if we don't speak, a whisper or a note to one of the committee members at a critical moment can swing the whole discussion in a helpful direction. Be-didi havei uvda. In the end, Ben-Sasson declared that two options were left standing: "Jewish and democratic" or our full proposal (Paragraph 1). To be continued.

Today, we met for a second time with the Ichud Leumi-Mafdal faction in the Knesset. We discussed most of the key issues with them. On certain issues, they wanted a stronger religious position than we took. That is fine. We were trying to find a solution that we could live with and was close enough to the Israeli consensus that it has a chance of passing. They are looking out for their interests and those of their constituents. That's how it should be.

What was unbearable is that some of them (hint: not the Ichud Leumi people) are deeply mired in the Hapoel Hamizrachi mindset. In short, they are Israel's last true Bolsheviks. We tried valiantly to explain that putting social rights into the constitution will not create a more just society; it will simply transfer power of the purse from elected legislators to unelected judges. Nothing helped. Mr. Hapoel Hamizrachi (MHH) announced that he has no problem with how the Court conducts its business. He wants to make a deal on religion and once that's done the Court can carry on with its program of dispensing absolute justice. He no doubt still dreams of a "brit historit" with Mapai.

To his credit, Beni Elon tried to explain that the common Israeli practice of justices legislating from the bench is a fundamental problem that requires a solution, not an opportunity to make a deal. That this needed saying in this forum is quite distressing. There is a strain of Religious Zionism that is simply a malignancy. More on this another time.

Friday, December 08, 2006

We live by the sword.

Two vignettes from the last couple of days:

My son went for his first visit to lishkat hagiyus. He needed to weigh 50kg (110 lb.) to be eligible for a combat unit. He weighed in (fully dressed) at 49.9kg which the doctor rounded up to 50. Unfortunately, at this point the doctor asked him for the relevant forms. In order to get them out from the bottom of his sweatshirt pocket, he first had to remove a can of soda, three pounds of metal coins and whatever lead objects he had managed to stuff in there. When he didn't find the forms, he repeated this absurd show with his other pocket. He never revealed the ankle weights inside the cuffs of his pants. (The doctor had a good laugh and left his weight at 50.) We are blessed with children struggling to get into combat units, not out of them. (And, no, this kid is not naive about the IDF.)

Tonight I attended the wedding of the son of an old friend, colleague and partner. It was an exceptionally leibedig event. The eidei kiddushin were the fathers of the 20-year-old chosson's two best friends. The two friends were both killed by terrorists (in separate incidents).

Kids today...