Thursday, December 28, 2006

Parshat Vayigash - Yoseph's Wagons.

Yoseph reveals his true identity to the brothers. Now they go to Eretz Yisrael to tell their father that Yoseph is alive. But when they give him the good tidings:

"His heart went numb, for he did not believe them. When they recounted all that Yosef had said to them, and he saw the wagons that Yosef had sent to transport him, the spirit of their father Ya'akov revived. "

what was it about the wagons that revived Yaakov's soul? Why would this help him to accept the surprise news of Yoseph?

In this shiur we examine, text, context and Midrash.
Read the shiur here.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Subliminal Assimilation

I just chanced upon this in the NYTimes.

It reminds me about how every year, my students here in Yeshivot in Israel, express nostalgia and genuine feelings of how they miss the Christmas atmosphere in the US/UK or wherever they come from. These are modern Orthodox studnets who have never stepped out of a Jewish school environment. As a kid, I loved the Christmas TV because they really screened the best movies, but I would not have said that I loved Christmas! When I express my surprise that this is not exactly a Jewish holiday, they respond, with teenage disdain (as if I should lighten up) that it is just the pretty lights and the songs in the shops and malls etc. etc. And I cannot help feeling that they are absolutely unaware just how assimilated they are. How absorbed they are in the culture of a religion that is alien to our own. And the amazing thing is that they don't see it! (Read the article in the NYTimes. Is it innocent or insidious?)

I am I being extreme here?

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Parashat Miketz - Yehuda's Responsibility

Yehuda said to his father, Yisra'el: "Send the boy in my care, and let us be on our way, that we may live and not die: you and we and our children. I myself will be surety for him (anokhi e'ervennu); you may hold me responsible (mi-yadi tevakshena): if I do not bring him back to you and set him before you, I shall stand guilty forever. For we could have been there and back twice by now had we not dawdled. (43:8-9)

Up to this point in the Joseph story, Yaakov patently refuses to send Binyamin down to Egypt. Suddunley, with this conversation, Yaakov indicatess his willingness to send Binyamin. And this begs the question: How did Yehuda persuade Ya'akov? What in his words pushed his father to the "tipping point?" What phrase found a place in Ya'akov's mind? What was it that induced a change of heart?

Read the shiur here

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Jewish Campus Atmosphere

I subscribe and contribute to a Jewish Educators' List, Lookjed.

This query was recently submitted to the list:

One of my students heading to college next year is seeking a campus whichhas a strong Orthodox Shabbat community. Some campuses have a strong Orthodox community during the week, but everyone goes home for Shabbat;other campuses have lots of people for Shabbat but not the most spiritually conducive atmosphere. What college would you recommend?

Rabbi Eitan Mayer
Menahel Chinuchi
Midreshet MoriahJerusalem

Adderabbi has already posted on this. I thought that I would give my response too.

This is what I answered:

Rabbi Mayer asked about a student who seeks a campus with a good Shabbat atmsophere. I love a good Shabbat davening and a warm Shabbat environment. And yet, I would like to critique the assumption of the question. If this student is dorming on campus, her whole life is there 24/7! She should then be searching for a community with a great Beit Midrash, an approachable Rabbi and Rebbetzin, good shiurim, and a week-long vibrant Jewish Community. This will affect the totality of her Jewish commitment in a way much stronger than Shabbat alone.

Too many Jews are "Shabbat Jews" who come "out the closet" just for Shabbat, but whose minds and wider lifestyle is elsewhere. To be a religiously vibrant and spiritually successful university student, one should be looking for Judaism in all spheres.

I would add one further point. The people who succeed on campus are frequently the givers, the activists, the organisers and machers. We should advise this student, who cares so deeply about Shabbat to get onto the committee that organises Shabbat atmosphere on the college campus. That way, she can be active in creating the appropriate atmosphere. She will grow significantly as a result.

Space Invaders

I came down to my computer this morning to find my 10 year old playing a game that I actually recognised. Yes! It was quite amoment of nostalgia - Space Invaders!

I remember so clearly (in the days before anyone had PC's) , how we would pile into the local barber's shop and spend 10p for a turn on Pacman or Space invaders. It's fun to see how life turns full circle. And apparently, even in computer games, there are "classics."

Chanukka Fire

Beit Shammai advise us that we should light Channuka candles in descending order, starting with eight the first night, and progressing to a single light on the final night. Our Halakha follows Beit Hillel who advise us to light 1,2,3,….8. The Gemara presents the logic of each opinion, and yet this machloket has provided ample room for the darshanim to probe the meaning of the Channuka lights. Here is one such explanation.

Fire is something that has potential both for creation and destruction. We harness the energy of combustion to drive our cars and power our electricity. Fire provides heat and light. And yet fire can destroy indiscriminately, burning buildings and lives into oblivion.
The Machloket regarding the number of lights relates to the function and motive of the fire of the Chashmonaim, the spirit of their rebellion.

Beit Shammai sees the fire of the Channuka lights as symbolic of the war waged against Hellenism. The fire purges the impurities burning them out, destroying them. Our Chanukka lights represent the fire that burns out the ideologies and practices that are incompatible with Judaism, and hence, as Chanukka progresses there is less and less to burn, less evil to remove, to eradicate. Judaism emerges purged.

Beit Hillel's fire is a positive force. Beit Hillel say: We do not burn out the evil. We simply begin to light the illuminating fire of Torah. And each night the fire grows in intensity and size. (This idea from R.Zevin – LaTorah Velamoadim.) Our answer to evil is to increase goodness, we fight Hellenism with our Torah.

Do we focus on suppressing the negative, or do we promote and build the positive? The Halakha is like Beit Hillel. And yet, think about it - can one indeed build the positive without removing the negative? Can one create good without fighting evil? Can one create holiness without removing Tum'ah?

Monday, December 18, 2006

An ideal Channuka Tiyul

Today on a Channukah tiyul, we walked through a newly opened 400m long ancient tunnel at Armon Hanetziv (just by the Tayelet). It is part of a water system originally developed by the Hasmonean kings that once brought water to the Temple in Jerusalem! (...and water still flowed through here in the early 20th Century) The kids had a great time.

The springs that produced the water originated south of Gush Etzion at Ein Koziba and flowed through the hills in an aqueduct over 20 km long to Har Habayit! Another aqueduct was built by Herod originating just below Efrat, flowing through Bethlehem and arriving at Herod's palace at Jaffa gate/Migdal David! These engineering feats are just incredible. They calculated the precise elevations in order to keep the water flowing (20 km long, descending only 85 m in height!)

My kids are old hands at these ancient aquducts having visited the water system around Efrat many times. My son is more familiar with the ins and outs of the water to the Beit Mikdash than he is with the Center of town in modern day Jerusalem! He spent teh tour correcting the tour guide. It seemed a very appropriate tiyul for Channuka, connecting to the Temple and the Hasmonean kings and it is very cool to go "back in time" visiting places which have such historic and archeological value just 500 metres from where I work.

Unfortunately, today we seem to be experts at wasting water and abusing our scarce water sources. We have alot to learn from the ancients.

(Details of the tiyul are here and here)

Friday, December 15, 2006

Parashat Vayeshev

This week's parsha shiur.

Rashi quotes a disturbing Midrash in the opening lines of the Parsha:

“Vayeshev Yaakov - Yaakov wished to dwell in calm and tranquillity. The trouble (lit. rage) of Joseph pounced upon him. God says: Tzaddikim want a peaceful life? Is the good that awaits them in the World To Come not sufficient that they desire calm and tranquillity in this world?”

I say that it is disturbing, because if we are to take the message of this midrashic comment to heart, then what is being demanded from the righteous is to expel all aspirations of personal calm and harmony, and to set forth on a path of torment and self denial. Is this the ideology which is recommended by Torah?

We shall return to the theology in a few minutes. But for now, let us attempt to examine the midrashic method itself. How is this Midrash created? From where does it draw its ideas?


Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Olmert's Nuclear Gaffe

Much has been said about Olmert's gaffe the other day. Was it a mistake or was it deliberate? And even if it was a mistake, is Israel's nuclear program really a secret? And does anyone fool themselves (other than Robert Gates the new U.S. Secretary of Defense) that Iran is embarking on nuclear armarment to defend itself against Israel?

Even before this I read the following piece (read it in full here) in Yediot Acharonot by MK Eitan Cabel.

"Some 80 officers used to sit (perhaps they still do today) on one of the floors at the Pentagon, at the headquarters of the United States Department of Defense in Washington. They were dressed in US army uniforms and they went through paperwork, piles of paperwork. They would read, delete, correct, read again and approve with their own signatures every piece of paper that left the department. They didn't skip a word.

And what is the purpose of this department? Anyone who is anyone in the US armed forces, whether in the African Desert or in the Icebergs of Greenland, who is required to make a public address in front of civilians as American soldiers, is obliged (yes, obliged) to prepare his or her speech in writing long before the event.

The content of the speech must be approved at all levels of command, all the way back to that small department at the pentagon. At the end of the route, the content of the address is either approved or not and returned to the prospective speaker.

And that's how it comes to pass that (hardly) anything ever happens: There are no scandals, no storms and no sensational headlines in the newspapers. Everyone from generals to junior deputies express themselves in the same language. There must be order in the US military.

I once witnessed the criticism of a boring speech set to be delivered at the opening of a US military canteen in Germany. The address was aimed at thanking the base commander, the German neighbors and the mayors of the adjacent cities. I sounded my surprise vociferously. Inside, I ridiculed the drawn out effort devoted to the speech aimed at selling chocolate wafers.

The head of the department noticed my expression of ridicule: "That's the only way to run an empire," he said. "In Israel, where you come from, lack of organization reigns supreme," he concluded with a tone of contempt."

I do feel that as an Israeli society, we need to learn to keep our mouths shut. You hear so many irresponsible statements, so many goverment and police "leaks." It is, frankly, embarrasing that everyone knows the full blown procedings of the government Cabinet meetings, including who insulted whom. It is crazy that in the investigations of Katzav and Ramon, the newspaper publish full insider reports as to what happens within private and confidential Police investigations. More recently, because of the failures of the Lebanon War II, the senior command has been blaming the responsibility on lower-level officers. They have responded by giving their own version to the Press, and once again, all the IDF secrets and dirty linen is brought out to full public view.

Can people not understand that irresponsible speech causes severe harm? We have a culture in Israel of "winging it" (Hakol Beseder!) which allows MK's to all say whatever they like to the world press, and Israel suffers! In government, this should not happen. And the PM should know better.

I will conclude with something I heard on the radio yesterday. A speechwriter was commenting on Olmert's "mishap" and he said that the tragic thing is not what Olmert did say , but rather what he did NOT say. Press conferences and media interviews are all about image and PR, about creating "spin." They are there so that you can get your message over to the world. What Ehud Olmert achived, unfortunately was that he allowing everyone to think about the parity between a nuclear Israel and a nuclear Iran, has if it's fair; they have it so why can't we! He totally missed the boat here. He should have said something to the effects of:

There is one country in the Middle East that has publically stated a desire to obliterate another country. Iran seeks to destroy Israel. Fact! Now, Iran seeks nuclear capability. Fact! The conclusion is that Iran is a danger and Iran must be stopped.

That is the bare facts and tragically, Ehud Olmert, and hence Israel is failing in communicating that stark reality to the World Community.

Israel's Story in Maps

If you are a teacher, or simply want to inform people of Israel's history and border changes via maps, then this site is great. The maps are clear and the text is informative.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Anglo Olim and the Israel Challenge

How Israeli should Olim become? Here are some questions for my fellow Olim?

Do you listen to the news on Kol Yisrael?
Do you listen to Israeli music or read Israeli novels?
Do you ever attend Israeli theatre?
How accented is your Hebrew?

This is but one of many issues that faces Olim to Israel. How much effort should I put into becoming "Israeli?" The facts are that many Olim fail to learn Hebrew, don't listen to the radio or get to know Israeli TV, don't read Hebrew newspapers. After all, today one can listen to US radio, read the NY Times, and watch British TV over the internet. In many ways, they are cut off from society. And in certain perspective, they are living in their past, unengaged in a living dialogue with the society that surrounds them, of which they are a part. I can only feel that they are losing out. After all, one who lives in a cultural vacuum becomes stagnant.

There are many causes of this phenomenon. One is lack fo confidence in grasping a new culture. Cultural identity is certainly a powerful thing. Our basic cultural "wiring" acquired during our formative childhood and youth is so deep that however long one lives in another environment as an adult, one's early cultural context remains with us in a powerful way. But I do feel that this is not the only thing for Olim.

Sometimes I feel that certain Olim from western countries latently feel that they come from a "better" place, and hence they are happy to confine themselves in their Olim's bubble and allow the Israeliness to be absorbed by their kids.

I have always been attracted not only to Eretz Yisrael but also to Hebrew and Israeli culture. I enjoy it. Now I admit, I speak predominantly in English at home, and I live in a community with a large anglo population. At the same time, I have been here in Israel for 15 years and so I am more than comfortable with the language. When I am in the makolet or park with my kids, or other public places I talk to them in Hebrew as I seek to have an identity as a "local" rather than an immigrant. I find that year by year I find myself more knowledgeable, more interested in the cultural scene here in Israel. I find that the CD's that I am attracted to buying are increasingly of Israeli artists, be it Shlomo Artzi or Etti Ankri or Achimoam Nini or Aharon Razael. I enjoy getting a Hebrew newspaper, whether it is Haaretz or Makor Rishon, and one of the reasons is for the Arts sections which give me a window into the wonderful range of plays, shows, concerts, artists, conferences, lectures, etc. that go on around the country. I listen to Galatz constantly. The last two films that I saw : "Someone to run with" and "Aviva my love" were both excellent Israeli dramas which showed the beauty of Israel alongside the more sordid elements. And I loved the films: for the scenery which I know and love, and saw differently through the camera lens; for the Hebrew language itself, and the wonderful idioms and references that only Hebrew has; and also just the notion of seeing an Israeli film gives me pride. What can I say?

Recently on our email list in Alon Shevut, there was a discussion about use of Hebrew by English speaking Olim. Some people expressed rather emphatically that anglos should be writing in Hebrew: עברי! דבר עברית! And that at least people should post in Hebrew alongside their English. Some Anglo-Olim replied equally forcefully expressing the sentiment that they had sacrificed enormously by leaving their previous countries and that Hebrew was tough for them. They called for people to value their Aliya and the contribution they bring to this country despite the fact that they will continue to function almost exclusively in English.

In the 1950's any Oleh would change their name, Hebraicising it, and would only speak in Hebrew. On the one hand, I really feel we could do with some of that today. Israel could do with a boost in its national pride and Israeli identity. But I am a realist. Today we live in more global and more liberal times. So many Israeli's love to play with English within their Hebrew. And so in today's world, the "other" identity of an Oleh is warmly welcomed here. No one will ambast you for not speaking fluent grammatical Hebrew. Nonetheless, I call upon all my fellow Olim to put in some effort and to work on engaging in a wider spectrum of the Israeli cultural experience; not to live over "here" but be culturally "there." Try it! It is a process, but becoming Israeli can be very rewarding and enriching!

Friday, December 08, 2006

Antisemitism: an "Academic" Problem?

Rav Beni Lau of Beit Morasha and Beit Knesset HaRamban has a nice parashat Hashavua piece about "הלכה בידוע שעשו שונא ליעקב"

It is here in Hebrew and here in English.

I particularly like the way in which he relates to the academic research. He talks about the way in which Talmudic research demonstrates that the classic quote is wrong!

"Talmudic scholars who identified with Rabbi Hirsch's (humanistic) Weltanschauung challenged the validity of the above-mentioned halakhic principle - רבי שמעון בן יוחי אומר הלכה בידוע שעשו שונא ליעקב - through a philological examination of the midrashic terminology, and made an amazing discovery: No manuscript of the Sifri (the source that mentions this subject first) contains the word halakha in that particular context. Instead, the text reads, 'והלא בידוע שעשו שונא ליעקב' - "After all, it is a well-known fact (vehalo beyadua) that Esau hates Jacob."

How did the word halakha creep into this text? Obviously, a simple graphic error occurred. The word vehalo והלא can be written in abbreviated form as 'והל - which a careless copier turned into halakha והלכה."

One might imagine then, that this particular Talmudic proverb has lost its validity, however Rav Lau concludes:

Although charming, this theory is irrelevant, because no philological study can ever overturn the axiomatic declaration that "according to halakha, it is a well-known fact that Esau hates Jacob." As long as there are world leaders like Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the pessimistic view that the gentiles will always hate the Jews will persist.

Parashat Vayishlach: Reuven's Sin

I will be writing the Introduction to Parsha shiur for Gush's VBM over the coming few weeks.

Here is this week's shiur on the topic of Reuven's sin. The pasuk (Bereishit 35:22) tells us:

"When Yisrael dwelled in that land, Reuven went and slept with Bilha, his father's concubine, and Yisrael heard."

Rashi cites the midrash brought on Shabbat 55b:

"Because he switched around his [father's] bed, the Torah treats him as if he slept with her. Now, why did he switch and desecrate his bed? When Rachel died, Yaakov took his bed, which was placed most frequently in Rachel's tent rather than the other tents, and Yaakov put his bed in Bilha's tent. Reuven came to protest his mother's insult. He said: "If my mother's sister was a rival-wife to my mother, should the maidservant of my mother's sister now become a rival-wife to my mother?" Therefore, he made the switch."

According to the Torah text, Reuven slept with Bilha. According to the midrash, he simply adjusted his father's sleeping arrangements, obviously an unwelcome intrusion into his father's personal life, but not quite the same degree of sin! What is the truth here? Is the midrash not making an attempt to whitewash Reuven's severe crime? Why does the midrash feel a need to distort the facts of the matter?

Read the shiur here

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Parashat Vayishlach Shiur

Twenty years have passed but Esav hasn’t changed. Esav: hostile, eternally furious, dangerous, violent, indignant and unforgiving. Yaakov is understandably terrified. Wouldn’t you be frozen in terror if you were faced with an armed militia of 400 men? And who exactly are they fighting? – a family with twelve small children, a few slaves, and a large number of animals. A defenceless civilian target! Esav clearly has not changed. The years have not faded his anger, his insult. He is uncompromising. He has no mercy.

To your brother Esav: You see him as your brother, but he is acting towards you as the evil Esav. He is still filled with the same hate.” (Rashi, Passuk 7.)

“… He (Yaakov) prepared in three ways: Diplomatic reconciliation, prayer, and for violent confrontation.” (Rashi, v.9.)

This is the way in which we traditionally view our Parshat Hashavua. Esav is a threatening menace. Yaakov is the innocent victim. The atmosphere is one of impending tragedy. We read the pesukim tensely and nervously, certain that Yaakov will be able to escape only by the skin of his teeth, and by virtue of a large helping of divine assistance. It is, therefore, with a sense of incredulity and perplexity that we read of Esav’s warm greeting to Yaakov. Esav’s exuberant bear hug and kiss leaves us puzzled. How did this hunter, this monster, suddenly transform into a loving brother and a doting uncle? What changed Esav?


The Rashbam reads this narrative in a very different way. In his view, the messengers return from their rendezvous with Esav with a very different feeling:

We came to your brother, to Esav: And you gained his favour just as you wished! In fact he is so happy about your arrival that, in his love towards you he is coming to meet you with four hundred men in your honour. This is the focus of the text (Ikar peshuto.) Similar to this is the verse (in Shemot 4:14 which describes Aharon setting forth to meet his brother Moshe): ‘Indeed he is coming to meet you and he will be happy to see you.’

And Yaakov was greatly frightened: in his heart. Even though Esav had expressed to the delegation his intention of honouring Yaakov, Yaakov did not believe that Esav’s intentions were good.”

So here we have a very different picture of Esav, and of Yaakov. But from where does the Rashbam develop this unorthodox reading? Does the text tolerate this reading?

Read more here

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Israeli Naivete?

Yesterday, when reading this passage in Rav Soloveitchik's Kol Dodi Dofek, this line seemed particularly timely. It seems that nothing has changed. This was written in 1956!

"With the establishment of the State of Israel, secular Zionism declares, we have become a people like all peoples, and the notion of 'a people that dwells alone' has lost its validity... Under the influence of this spirit of indiscriminate amity... the representatives of the State of Israel have often displayed an embarrassing naivete, improperly evaluated particular circumstances and situations, and failed to adequately discern hidden intentions of certain individuals. As a result of their child-like innocence, they trust the promises of people who promptly proceed to betray us and are overly impressed by flattery and pretty speeches. It appears to me that on a number of occasions the foreign policy of Israel has manifested an absence of a sense of honor, of national pride, of caution, and the fortitude to maintain one's own position.

All these mistakes flow from the prime error committed by Secular Zionism when it sought to erase the sense of isolation (of the Jewish People.)"

Ravitzky Has Woken Up!

Barukh Rofei Cholim!
Prof. Avi Ravitzky has awoken from his coma. He has recognised his family, spoken and written a little. There is a long way to go and I imagine there is still much to daven for, but this is wonderful news!

Travel Reflections. (Part 1): "Special Kosher" meals.

If I have been rather unprolific over the past week or two, it is because I was away in the U.S. as a scholar-in-residence and preparing rather intensely in the days leading up to the trip. I am now back in Artzeinu Hakedosha. And of course, travel brings with it new perspectives and thoughts. This post will concern Kashruth on El Al.

El Al has been in the news recently. Due to the strike last week, a plane flew out late on Friday causing chillul Shabbat. In addition, one flight served non-Kosher food. Now the charedi community are up in arms which is an interesting phenomenon in itself – Why do they feel so, so sensitive about the activities of El Al? But Charedim and El Al will might well be the topic of a future post.

Back to the food issue. Food on El Al is Kosher. It is all Kosher. But some people order "Special Kosher" meals. Why? Because these meals are Mehadrin[1], Cholov Yisrael[2], Pat Akum[3] etc. For a number of years now I have made a point of NOT ordering these "Special Kosher" meals and going for the standard El Al food.


Well, one of the reasons is simply that the Special Kosher food is diabolical. It was so unpleasant the last time I received it that I simply didn't eat the whole flight.

But there is a more serious reason. You see El Al is a Jewish airline, That is why they make all the food Kosher. Now if every religious traveler orders "Special Kosher," then what is the incentive for El Al to stay Kosher? (That is also the reason that the Charedi protest against non-Kosher food is so bewildering … they never eat the standard food!)

Moreover, if I always order "Special Kosher," then the secular person next to me gets the impression that his/her food is a little "less than Kosher"! I, personally, am happy to slightly adjust my personal Halakhic standards[4] in order to avoid that impression. I want the irreligious person next to me to feel that we are brothers, that we can share the same food as it conforms to a recognised kashrut standard. Now, part of this feeling is simply because air travel means that everyone is in such close quarters. But also, I remember that whenever I traveled British Airways to Israel I was impressed that many secular  Israelis ate the non-Kosher British Airways food. As a religious person, it saddened me. Of course I recognise they are not personally committed to Kashrut. However on El Al everyone eats Kosher. It is a wonderful Jewish environmnet. The very least I can do is to eat the same food and  boost El Al's decision, and celebrate the reality that El Al is kosher; rather than reinforcing the "holier than thou" separate community thing.

Now I do realise that some people may fail to understand this attitude. And that is because in today's world it is out of vogue. Let me illustrate what I mean.

The Rabbanut (Chief Rabbinate of Israel – responsible for Kashruth supervision nationwide) of the 1950's and '60's had a klal Yisrael approach to Kashruth. They had an agenda. They wanted to make it easy and cost-efficient and accessible to keep kashruth. To this end they adopted certain leniencies that would allow kashruth to be easy and to gain wide appeal despite the halakhically non-observant majority. For example they allowed a restaurant in which the mashgiach (supervisor) visited occasionally rather than a full-time pair of eyes. If a small felafel joint would have to pay the extra salary of the mashgiach it's food would be much more expensive that the non-kosher felafel place next door, and hence the mashgiach visited once a week and covered 30 restaurants and the felafel cost the same everywhere. Was this a more lenient approach? – yes! Is it supported by recognized Halakhic sources? Yes!

The Rabbanut of the '50's allowed Gelatin even from animal sources and this according to the Responsa of Rav Chayim Ozer Grodzinski. This allowed hotels to make all sorts of cream pies and tarts and Elite to make better toffees. Was it a more lenient approach? – Yes! But it was supported by authoritative opinion and most importantly it allowed Am Yisrael to keep Kosher and to eat – to "have your (Halakhic) cake and eat it" if you will excuse the expression!

And this relates to Heter Mechira and Bassar Kafou, and other leniencies that facilitated a nation-wide kashruth system that has proven itself, such that in 1980 there was virtually no foodstuff produced in Israel without the Rabbanut Hechsher.

Enter the Badatz! Suddenly along came a more learned public as the Yeshiva movement grew. Along came the Charedi Badatz and said: How can we rely on these leniencies? Would you eat this way in your kitchen? And gradually, mehadrin standards became more common in the marketplace, and the economic clout of the strictly Orthodox community is clear. They have many kids, and have many many mouths to feed.

Now on first glance this is a good thing. Halakhic Kashruth standards rose significantly. Who can complain?

But, the feeling "on the street" especially amongst secular circles was that the religious don't rely on the Rabbanut standard anymore. So, once again, if all the religious go to the Mehadrin – Badatz – felafel kiosk, then why bother paying the Rabbanut for a license at all? Just declare yourself non-Kosher, now you can open on Shabbat , and serve shrimps too!

And that is what has happened. The Rabbanut has lost its hold on the public arena. Now, the "klal Yisrael" severely eclipsed.

Kosher food is now more kosher than ever, and being eaten by fewer Jews!

Now I do know that there are many factors here: consumerism, individualism, Shas, the westernization of Israel and many other factors. And yet, I believe that the basic approach of the '50's Rabbanut is a recipe for Am Yisrael that takes responsibility for all Jews, and is uninterested in religious one-upmanship.
And so, on El Al, especially in the environment of a plane, in the context of our national Jewish airline, where we are all at such close quarters, I would like to eat together with my fellow Jews just like them, together with them and thereby to reinforce just how easy and pleasant it can be when we can all eat the same Kosher food.

[1] Meat that conforms to more stringent Halakha standards.
[2] Milk whose milking is supervised by a Jew.
[3] Bread baked at a Jewish Bakery
[4] The El Al standards are lower than that which I observe personally and in my home.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

The Turbulent Middle East

See this fascinating presentation (it takes 90 seconds) on the way that the Middle East has been captured and recaptured throughout History, amidst great bloodshed and violence. It has been the stage for all of the world's Imperial History.

I am still thinking about the spiritual implications. Any thoughts?

I have always thought that there was something in teh fact that Israel is at the crossroads of civilisation. This enables Israel to spread their particular mission of God and morality to the most advanced cultures of the globe. But wen I saw this presentation and realised how these world empires are just so enormous, what possibility do we really have in even having a micro-influence on the superpowers. On the other hand, history has proven that frequently , Jews have influenced major cultures and world leaders.

One thing is for sure. If God placed us in this central location, God wanted us to be connected to the cutting-edge of world events. He could have put us in Alaska or some lonely Island. We are supposed to interact with the most advanced of world cultures, to know what to take and what to resist and that is part of God's legacy for us.

Thursday, November 30, 2006

Parashat Vayetze

This week's Parsha Shiur.
Rachel and Leah.

Rebuilding the Hurva

This was on Haaretz just yesterday. It talks about the archaeology that they have found as they renovate the Hurva shul in the Old City. I always get a real thrill as we understand that as we walk through the Jewish Quarter, just a few metres under our feet is a whole undiscovered world of a Kohanim's Quarter from Bayit Sheni. In this excavation, they have even discovered finds from Bayit Rishon!

"The excavations, which began in 2003, also unearthed structures and pottery from the First Temple period, remnants of rooms from the Herodian period (Second Temple), burnt wooden logs (evidence of fire that took place after the destruction of the Second Temple), and three plastered ritual baths carved in rock from the Second Temple period. The diggers also found a small weapons arsenal, where defenders of the Jewish Quarter stashed mortar shells and grenades during the Independence War. "

The land Hurva shul was originally purchased by Rabbi Yehuda HaHassid, in the year 1700. It was meant to house living accommodations and a shul/Beit Midrash for his followers. However the buildings there were destroyed by the arabs as the Jews could not pay the loans they took to buy it. Hence the name, the Hurva. After the Talmidei HaGra made Aliya in the 1840's they built the grandest shul on the site, and it became the "Great Synagogue" of Jerusalem, it's largest and grandest shul.

And the Jordanians blew it up in 1948 leaving it as a ruin.

So here is what I would like to relate to: It is fascinating to think about the mindset of the renovation of the Rova after 1967 when we regained control of the Old City. Teddy Kollek and the other planners envisioned the Old City as an Artists Colony, an exotic place with musicians and artisans. The scenery and streets, museums and squares would also remember and recall the past. But in this context, all the shuls; the Tiferet Yisrael, and the Hurva, the grandest structures, were left in ruins. It was a very secular modern view that prevailed with Synagogues left as Historical relics of a bygone age, a museum of sorts, a lost history alongside the Cardo and the Herodian stones, consigned to ancient History.

But of course, as religious people, we see Judaism in the present. It is not a romantic past-tense but a reality of the here and now. Nowadays the Jewish Quarter is predominantly populated by the religious. Why did the chilonim move out. Well - the difficulties of living in the Old City – difficult access, close proximity to many Arabs, endless tourists – have kept away the artists. But or the religious, the notion of the proximity to Makom Hamikdash speaks with resounding power. And so, the shuls are being rebuilt and an ancient glory is being restored. The wrongs of History are being pput right!

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Parashat Toldot: Was Yitzchak Poor?

There is a lovely machloket (disagreement) between Ibn Ezra and the Ramban regarding Yitzchak's financial status. (You can find the discussion in ch.25 v.34).

The Ibn Ezra claims that Yitzchak was poor. He says:

"The proof is that Yitzchak loved Esav because he provided his basic needs. If food was plentiful in his father's home, then why would he have sold his birthright for soup? And if his father ate all sorts of delicacies, then why did he ask (Esav) to bring him fresh meat? And why did Yaakov not have elegant clothing? And why did his mother send him penniless when went away, such that he asks God for "bread to eat and clothes to wear (28:20)"?

Some will ask; but Abraham was wealthy and it tells us that Avraham gave his inheritance to Yiztchak (25:5). In addition ch.26 talks about Isaac as a wealthy farmer. Ibn Ezra responds:

"As if one has never seen a man, wealthy in his youth who falls into poverty in his old age!"


"Those whose hearts are blind think that wealth is a great attribute of the righteous. Let teh case of Elijah refute that! And they continue to question: Why would God let Yitzchak be lacking in material wealth? Maybe they can answer why God allowed him to lose his eyesight!"

One senses that Ibn Ezra is "worked up" here. Ibn Ezra lead a particularly difficult life with many upheavals and travels. He certainly was not wealthy, and maybe – who knows – he identified with Yitzchak here. At the very least, he felt that (if I may quote Tevye…) it is no shame to be poor!

(The irony here is that of course, all the blessings of chapter 27 do invoke this worldly material blessings:
The agricultural – the dew of the heavens the fat of the land; abundant grain and wine.
Power – Nations will be subservient to you; other People's will bow to you! - 27:28-9)


The Ramban has a very different perspective:

"The text informs us that after his father's death 'God blessed Isaac his son.' (25:11) Now, where is his "blessing" if he lost all his father's wealth - 'And I will be with you, and I will bless you.' (26:3) (is there a Divine blessing) if he became rich but then became poor? If some of the righteous experience the financial legacy of the Evil (i.e. poverty), it does not occur to those whom God has blessed… all the patriarchs were like kings, and foreign heads of State would come before them and make treaties with them[1]… and if Isaac had bad luck and lost his father's wealth, how would they have said: 'We see evidently that God is with you!' (26:28)?"

The Ramban refuses to accept poverty in the case of Yitzchak or any of the Avot. God's blessing bestow material comfort, status and honour. Ramban also rejects as "laughable" the theory that Isaac had wealth (after Avraham's death) – then lost it (the birthright episode) – then gained wealth (ch.26 Yitzchak as a successful farmer) – and then lost it a second time (the Blessings episode.) "Who blinded his mind?" - he quips at Ibn Ezra!

For the Ramban, all the other details are resolved locally.

Esav sold his birthright for soup because it had no financial dimension, and his spiritually deaf personality failed to appreciate the role of the firstborn.

As for Yitzchak's love of hunted meat, the Ramban says "that dignitaries and kings delight in this delicacy over all others. And regarding Yitzchak's request to Esav in particular that he should engage in the hunt, the Ramban remarks: "Esav would pander to his father by bringing him from the hunted food … and (Yitzchak) wanted to benefit from it so that it would enhance the closeness between them."

Yaakov left home without wealth so that he could escape quickly and so that he would not become a target for attack as he travelled the highways.

And as regards Yaakov's lack of clothing, the Ramban answers that Yaakov lacked nothing! But he borrowed Esav's clothing as they had the smell of the "field," the camouflage that Yaakov needed in order to carry off the subterfuge of the Blessings.


This is certainly a tough debate to settle. No side wins easily. But if we can return to the basic principles, it is certainly fascinating that the Ramban refuses to see a Tzaddik who is blessed by God, experiencing financial difficulties. The Ramban needs to see a correlation between the spiritual and the material. For the Ibn Ezra, the two are absolutely disconnected. A wanderer like Eliyahu who is given lodgings by a random stranger for years on end[2] can be the holiest person. There is no symmetry between the material fate of the Man of God and his spiritual status; they are two disconnected realities.

What is the connection between the material and the spiritual? We experience the spirituality of Shabbat via material pleasure? Can there also be a correlation in other ways between material luxury and spiritual heights? On the other hand, wealth can at times be a distraction, a mode that takes a person far from the world of the spirit, to the world of indulgence and pleasure. Maybe the two are at odds with each other?

Shabbat Shalom!

[1] Each of the Avot are granted enormous respect by foreign Kings: Avraham with Malkitzedek and Avimelekh. Yitzchak and Avimelekh. Yaakov and Pharaoh.
[2] The woman from Tzrafat Melachim I 17:9,19-23.

Sderot, Qasaams and Fear

Qasaam missiles fall daily in Sderot. Last week one woman was killed. Yesterday, a man - a factory worker - was killed. Today, another 4 Qasaams. One fell near a school. I - like many Israelis - have been in emotional disengagement with the plight of Sderot. I have sort of distanced it emotionally and not allowed myself to connect. But this post really brought home the daily terror. Read it!

Don't Raise a Esav Like a Yaakov!

This passage by Rav Hirsch is very important for parents and educators alike. I will make some comments at the end.

ויגדלו הנערים - As long as they were little, no attention was paid to the slumbering differences in their natures (see on V.24), both had exactly the same teaching and educational treatment, and the great law of education חנוך לנער על פי דרכו "bring up each child in accordance with its own way" was forgot­ten: -That each child must be treated differently, with an eye to the slumbering tendencies of his nature, and out of them, be educated to develop his special characteristics for the one pure human and Jewish life. The great Jewish task in life is basically simple, one and the same for all, but in its realisation is as complicated and varied as human natures and tendencies are varied, and the manifold varieties of life that result from them.
When Father Jacob visualised the tribes of our nation in the sons standing around his death-bed, he saw, not only future priests and teachers, he saw around him the tribe of Levites, the tribes of royalty, of merchants, of farmers, of soldiers, before his mental eye he saw the nation in all its most manifold characteristics and diverse paths of life, and he blessed all of them… There, strength and courage, no less than brain and lofty thought and fine feelings are to have their representatives before God, and all, in the most varied ways of their callings are to achieve the one great common task of life.
But just because of that, must each one be brought up לפי דרכו according to the presumed path of life to which his tendencies lead, each one differently to the one great goal. To try to bring up a Jacob and an Esau in the same college, make them have the same habits and hobbies, want to teach and educate them in the same way for some studious, sedate, meditative life is the surest way to court disaster. A Jacob will, with ever increasing zeal and zest, imbibe knowledge from the well of wisdom and truth, while an Esau can hardly wait for the time when he can throw the old books, but at the same time, a whole purpose of life, behind his back, a life of which he has only learnt to know from one angle, and in a manner for which he can find no disposition in his whole nature.Had Isaac and Rebecca studied Esau's nature and character early enough, and asked themselves how can even an Esau, how can all the strength and energy, agility and courage that lies slumbering in this child be won over to be used in the service of God … then Jacob and Esau, with their totally different natures could still have remained twin­brothers in spirit and life; quite early in life Esau's "sword" and Jacob's "spirit" could have worked hand in hand, and who can say what a different aspect the whole history of the ages might have presented. But, as it was, ויגדלו הנערים, only when the boys had grown into men, one was surprised to see that, out of one and the selfsame womb, having had exactly the same care, training and schooling, two such contrasting persons emerge.

Rav Hirsch's words are critical for successful parenting, and an important reminder for all educators. We cannot educate with one final product in minds. We have to look carefully at each of our children, each and every one of our talmidim, and spend time thinking about the way in which they may be stimulated, challenged supported, so that they may each reach their personal potential. So that each child can become a healthy, happy adult in the service of God and Nation. And this is easier said than done. It is mind-boggling to entertain the thought that with different educational approach, Esav might have become Esav Hatzaddik.

I vital point here is to look closely at our students and children and to identify emotions, character, and even warning signs, anger, distress. Rashi comments that in their childhood the children acted the same "and no one looked in an insightful way to understand their personalities." At age thirteen, they each went their separate ways. We have to look closely at our kids and to see their passions, their distresses, what excites them, what they struggle with. In this manner and only in this manner will we raise the next generation each in their own particular contribution to Judaism and the Jewish community. Only in this way will every child feel comfortable and excited by their Avodat Hashem.

A second point here which should not be understated in today's religious climate, is that Rav Hirsch understands that we need many different personality types, many professions and temperaments to make Am Yisrael. We are not supposed to all act/dress the same!

I imagine that in the 19th Century, in a world which had pre-designated ideas about class, occupation and social standing, Hirsch's thoughts were revolutionary and indeed desperately needed. Indeed, I feel that in many of today's educational environments, and in a world with post-modernist awareness, this message has been accepted and absorbed. We fully accept that each child needs unique challenges and care, and personal guidance. I do think however, that in today's world, there is also the opposite danger; that in an effort to assist each child develop their distinct talents and to maximise their potential, we can at times fall into the trap of overdoing it. We also need to teach children that there are times for conformity and community, that sometimes one simply needs to buckle to the system. The student or child is not always the centre of the universe. This also assists children in finding their place in the world.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Interview with Ravitzky

Prof. Aviezer Ravitzky - a leading religious zionist figure in Israel - was tragically run over by a bus some weeks ago in Jerusalem. He has still to regain consciousness. Notheless, Ynet today published an important interview that was conducted two weeks before the accident. It is certainly worthwhile reading (Hebrew).

Amongst it all, he says:
"כידוע, רווחו בקרבנו שלוש תפיסות נבדלות באשר לפתרון המשבר בינינו לבין הפלסטינים: ארץ ישראל השלמה, הסדרי שלום, נסיגה חד- צדדית. יש מי שסבור שכולן נכשלו. אינני חושב כך. כל אחת הצליחה בחלקה ונכשלה בחלקה. אי-אפשר לומר שתפיסת ארץ ישראל השלמה נכשלה לחלוטין כאשר למעלה מ-200 אלף מתיישבים חיים ביהודה ושומרון; אי-אפשר לומר שתפיסת הסדרי השלום נכשלה לחלוטין כאשר יש הסכמים יציבים עם מצרים וירדן; אי-אפשר לומר שתפיסת ההתכנסות נכשלה כאשר היא טרם נוסתה. לכן גם ההצלחה וגם הכישלון היו קטועים. בעבר כמעט לכל אחד מאתנו הייתה עמדה מוצקה, כוללת, באשר לפתרון הרצוי, ואילו כיום רבים מאתנו רואים את הפגמים בעמדתם שלהם ואת החלקיות של כל פתרון. אנו אמביוולנטיים יותר. איננו יודעים בבירור אנה אנו הולכים".

אבל רביצקי סבור שאל לנו לחשוש. "טוב שהגענו לתודעה הזו", הוא אומר. "אנו נדרשים עתה לארגן את מחשבותינו מחדש, לשבור הגדרות דוֹגמטיות ולהיערך אחרת מבחינה רעיונית, מבחינה מדינית ומבחינה צבאית.

Religion Is (Not) For Kids!

Rabbi Immanuel Jakobovitz z"l describes his thoughts upon a visit to a movie studio in Hollywood. This can be found in his book, "The Timely and the Timeless."

We had an introduction to one of the studios to view a film production. On calling to arrange our visit, I was asked if I had any young children with me, since that particular show included some ralher unchaste scenes and would not be suitable for children. I replied, if it is not fit for children, it cannot be fit for the parents either.


Does this not illustrate one of the most curious and perverted notions of our age? Religion and morality are for juveniles; Children must be protected from smutty literature, indecent pictures, imnmoral thoughts; they must not drink or gamble. But for grown-ups all this is in order, as if they were less sensual and more immune to corruption. What sort of a world are we going to have if goodness and decency were to be the exclusive preserve of children? What kind of an example are we going to set our children if we preach virtue for them and practise vice for ourselves?

The same goes for Judaism. Many people seem to think the Torah is a children's Torah. On Pesach they conduct a Seder not for themselves, but only for the sake of the children. They expect their children to go to Hebrew classes, but Jewish learning and reading is not for them.
Judaism teaches the reverse. Of course children must be trained in the virtues of religion and decency and learning to prepare themselves for the challenges of life ahead. But legally no obligations of any kind are incumbent on them until they reach Bar Mitzvah age-I 3 years for boys and 12 years for girls.

Judaism is an adult religion, meant primarily for grown-ups. With Jewish education often ending instead of beginning in earnest with Bar Mitzvah age, is it any wonder that so many Jews have such a juvenile, primitive notion of Judaism, that their understanding of Jewish thought - stunted before their brains matured - is of nursery or elementary school level, and therefore quite incompetent to cope with the complex intellectual challenges of our times? With such a childish appreciation of Jewish values, is it surprising that the flimsiest arguments or distractions encountered on the college campus are enough to knock down their Jewish loyalties and convictions like a pack of cards before the slightest breeze?

For holiness, just as for specially "holy" prayers like Kaddish and Kedushah, we require a quorum of adults, not children.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Shiur for Parashat Chayei Sarah

This shiur really gives a thematic unity to the parasha.

Tohar Neshek

Israel has always prided itself upon the value of Tohar Neshek – resort to violence only in accordance with a moral standard. Whereas Arab armies murdered prisoners-of-war, mutilated corpses and violated graves and Jewish Holy Places we decided that we – even in the throes of war – would act in an ethical manner.

This is from the TzaHaL website, from its moral code:

Human Life - The IDF servicemen and women will act in a judicious and safe manner in all they do, out of recognition of the supreme value of human life. During combat they will endanger themselves and their comrades only to the extent required to carry out their mission.

Purity of Arms - The IDF servicemen and women will use their weapons and force only for the purpose of their mission, only to the necessary extent and will maintain their humanity even during combat. IDF soldiers will not use their weapons and force to harm human beings who are not combatants or prisoners of war, and will do all in their power to avoid causing harm to their lives, bodies, dignity and property.

Having spoken to friends who are chayalim, they assure me that these values are still alive and well in TzaHaL and that the greatest care is taken not to harm human life, as long as the job gets done.

And yet, in the recent fighting, I have been disturbed by instances in which it would seem that really stupid decisions have been made, that have endangered human life. One example is the shelling of Beit Hanoun that killed 20 people last week. Why were these shells being used so close to civilian areas? And how can such a mistake be tolerated? Another is the widespread use of Cluster Bombs in Lebanon (that have killed many since the war.) I understand that they were necessary for the fighting, but was any consideration given to the aftermath of the war? (Maybe in war one musn't think about that. It is our them or us!) In today's Ha'aretz there was a report that claimed that Tzahal could have used a much safer weapon, an Israeli made cluster bomb that would never have produced all the civilian casualties that have happened since the war but that the army used a different type due to economic considerations.

Why? Is human life, Tohar Neshek, as alive in the IDF today as it once was? Or possibly, there always were "mistakes" and nothing has changed. Is this simply the price of war (and this is war)? Or have we become hardened and desensitized and lost our moral,human edge?

Some would say that the War on Terror is simply gruesomely complicated as militants live amongst civilians, function from within civilian centers and wear civilian clothes. It makes it impossible not to kill a serious number of civilians. I see this argument well. But has this really come up for public discussion here – in Knesset, in the media?

This war on terror is a battle that we are going to be fighting in Gaza and South Lebanon for the foreseeable future. We cannot afford to be immoral and callous. Worse would be that we simply cease to care. In the political dimension, many have framed the desire for Hitnatkut and Hitkansut as a wish to simply wash our hands of the entire problem. In the face of no options (no political nor military solution), we just walk out and leave them to their own problems. We have lost hope of a solution. However, we cannot lose sight of our own morality. Even if we wish that it would go away, our soldiers are fighting and we must know that we hold the moral high-ground.

Maybe Tohar Neshek is easy in the conventional battlefield. However, do we have an adequate moral "road-map" for this impossibly entangled web of militant and civilian, a civilian population that is totally mobilized to aid the terrorists; terrorists that seek to destroy Israel. (That is the case in Gaza for instance.) How DO we fight terror and keep our soul intact?

Tzarikh Iyun! We need this to be raised to the public debate. Not beacuse we are fearful about world pressure and world opinion when many Palestinians are killed in Beit Hanoun. (And yes. I do know that people from Beit Hanoun have been firing missiles daily at Israel... and nonetheless... we have to be moral.) We need it for ourselves, for our society! We need to know that our chayalim are acting in the most ethical manner despite the chaos of the Middle East. We need to make sure that when our politicians chant that "the IDF is the most moral army in the world," that these words have content and are not simply cliches.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Was Rivka Three Years Old?

We have all learned the Rashi that states that Rivka was three when she married a 37 year old Yitzchak! This has always bothered me. I can think of a few reasons:

1. Because the actions of Rivka in ch.24 - the sheer volume of water that she shleps, her parents consulting with her - are not possible for a three year old. (And please - don't tell me that human nature has changed or that she was such a tzadeket etc. etc.)
2. Because the Akeida doesn't seem to happen to a 37-year-old.
3. Because it is simply wierd for anyone to marry a 3 year old, let alone an middle aged bachelor. And we treat Rivka as a serious adult from the start.

The basis of this timeframe comes from Seder Olam (a very old Tannaitic work) which links three parshiot: The Akeida - Avraham hearing about Rivka's birth - and Sara's death. And assumes that they take place at the same time since they are mentioned concurrently. Hence, Sarah dies at age 127 which puts him at 37 at the time of the Akeida (when Rivka was born) and since Bereshit 25:20 states that he married at age 40, Rivka must have been 3 years old!

The easier solution would be to simply suggest that the Akeida is not linked to Sarah's death and happened maybe 20-30 years prior to her death. (See Ibn Ezra 22:4 and Ramban on 23:2.) Hence Yitzchak is 10-15 years old at the Akeida; and Rivka is at a regular marriagable age when Yitzchak marries her.

See this excellent shiur which discusses this in detail.

Friday, November 10, 2006

A Song for Shabbat

Jewish music is frequently so boring, so predictable and stale. Much of the creativity, both musicala and lyrical that one finds in secular music is quite often missing from the Jewish music world.

Some years back, I came across the music of Aaron Razel and I just loved it. He is an excellent musician, a beautiful Jew, he learns Torah, sings and composes with creativity, love, passion. I have seen him in concert and he is just great. His divrei Torah and his sweetness combine with his music. In our house, my kids know all his songs as we play his CD's all the time.

One song of his is pertinent to this weeks parsha. He sings what might seem like a strange passuk to put to song. It is from the akeida: הנה האש והעצים ואיה השה לעולה asks Yitzchak. Avraham answers אלוקים יראה לו השה לעולה בני. The final word בני can be read directly as if avraham is addressing Yitzchak, or possibly, with a pause, as if to say: You, my son are that Korban.

Well Aaron Razel sings this song and he repeats the word בני over and over, again and again. I have no clue whether he intended this but it so reminds me of the anguish of David Hamelech for his son as he is tortured by the loss of his son and is inconsolable as he repeats over and over:
בני אבשלום בני בני אבשלום (שמו"ב י"ט: א)
In other words, I hear David's anguish transferred to Avraham as he contemplates the prospective death of his son.

In addition, Aaron Razel includes a fantastic piano solo/improvisation interlude which just reinforces for me the feeling of Avrahams doubts and fears, second-thoughts and osciallations.

In my mind, there is much more to this song, but you'll have to listen to the whole thing and draw your own conclusions.

This website has a bit of the song (Fire and Wood) but it's a great album with some beautiful songs. Worthwhile!

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Parashat Vayera - Abraham's Vision

The Parasha opens with Avraham experiencing a vision of God. Suddenly his attention is diverted to three strangers walking by and he simply abandons God in order to receive some guests. Avraham might be a champion of Hachnasat Orchim, but he didn't even give God a chance to speak!

In our shiur this week, we examine the opening Parsha and we shall see THREE very different ways of reading and imagining the text. At the end we ask about the significance of it all.

Read the shiur here.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

The Separation Fence

This post is going to be controversial. Some of you are probably not going to like it. Just for the record, I am a Zionist. I support Israel's right to self-defense. I live in Israel and have done for 15 years now. I am raising 4 children here with a love of the land, its heritage, its people and its language. I live in Gush Etzion. If you don't know where that is, it is in the West Bank, 15 minutes from Jerusalem, 8 minutes from the southern suburbs of Beit Lechem - Bethlehem. And I guess that makes me a "settler." I also believe that Palestinians are people, and that they should be able to live in dignity. OK now!.

Every day, I drive to Jerusalem and pass the extensive work that is being done in constructing the security wall. Yes. I am aware there is controversy about the very name: a fence, a barrier, a wall. And then there is the adjective that describes the fence, wall or barrier. It ranges from the term: security, to "defense," "separation," "apartheid," and probably there are others. For some perspective from the Israeli Government Here is the official take on the Fence.

Here are some pictures, scenes I shot on my way to work a week or two ago.

Let me tell you. The construction and mainly preparation work (levelling the earth and preparing the route of the wall) has been going on for six months now. Many trucks and tractors daily toil all day changing the contours of the countryside in order to construct this barrier. By the looks of it, it will be a monstrous thing. Apparently much of the barrier is a fence, but in places in which there are concerns that the road may be a target for shooting, it becomes a concrete wall.

Well, in short, I hate this wall. I think it is a bad idea, and it will have even worse effects in the future. This post is to explain why.

1. I don't think it is effective in stopping terror. In Gush Katif/Gaza underground tunnels that avoid the border fence stretch for many hundreds of metres. The tunnel used in the operation to capture Gilad Shalit was almost a kilometer long. Even in the West Bank where the soil is not sandy, terrorists will be able to circumvent the wall.

In addition. Thank God, we have had very few suicide attacks lately, even though we know that the terrorists are trying all the time. Many of those who DO get through are transported by Israeli's ferrying illegal Palestinian labour; Israelis who make a quick buck on the black market. Will the fence stop this? And if Tzahal have been successful thus far, without a fence, then will a physical barrier make a considerable difference?

2. Until the summer, there were thoughts and plans of a disengagement – a Hitkansut – in the West Bank. Even though no one would admit it, the separation fence was supposed to be a quasi-border. But now that for everyone the withdrawal on the West Bank is far off the horizon, does this border fence make any sense?

3. This issue relates also to the route of the Fence. For legal reasons, in many places the fence must follow pretty much the Green Line. Now take, for example the northern Jordan Valley. One travels through the Jordan Valley and there is little hityashvut, but most of it is Jewish. By erecting the Fence on the Green Line, they have excluded a heroic halutzic settlement like Shadmot Mehola and placed in on the "Palestinian" side! Why? There are no Palestinians there! It is not security! It is politics. We are effectively withdrawing from land voluntarily and setting our own pioneers apart from the Israeli "mainland". What an insult to these people who have battled for years to establish their farms and communities!

And for those on the Right Wing, are they really interested in effectively creating a wider exclusively Palestinian region? Effectively we are creating far larger areas which are "de facto" Palestine. Why?

4. From the Palestinian perspective, I do have to say that if I was a Palestinian and they built that wall in my back yard, I would sign up with Hamas tomorrow. It is so imposing, so grey, so immense, so restricting. It feels like a big prison. I feel that way as I pass the construction on the way to Jerusalem and also on the way to Beit Shemesh. Gush Etzion will be a walled enclave, and I feel like they are walling me in! Think about what a Palestinian kid feels like. It is not a ghetto – people and trade can get through - but it looks too much like one. I cannot but feel that this wall is creating problems, big problems rather than solving them. Moreover, we hear about the suffering and inconvenience it is causing the Palestinian population. For many, this is genuine hardship.

5. And then there is the hills and valleys themselves - nature. I have to say that the strenth of my feelings on this startled even me! I am far from being a child of the '70's flower power. And yet, the ripping apart of hills, the destruction of fertile land, the obstruction of views, the ruining of natural beautiful countryside is something which has disturbed me in a very deep place. It seems like we are violating the landscape itself! And in Gush Etzion we used to see deer running freely through the hills. Will they be able to run, or will they also be trapped by the separation wall? We are scarring the landscape, making a permanent indelible mark on wide tracts of our historic beautiful land. Have we considered this aspect?

6. And there is the expense. Such enormous resources are being piled into this project! Just the half mile stretch that I witness being constructed daily has taken at least ten trucks half year to work on and they are still not yet finished! Not millions, but billions! I shudder to think of the welfare programs the education, the charity, the health causes that could be funded by those monies!

I would even suggest that Israel's long-term security would be stronger if all those billions were invested in Zionist education programs for Israelis strengthening their understanding of our right to our land and the nature of our struggle with the Arabs and the Palestinians.

What a waste! Whoever came up with such a megalomaniac plan to build a Great Wall of China through the delicate countryside of our tiny land was not thinking straight. Maybe in Ramat Aviv and Herzlia it sounds sensible to build a wall to keep terrorists out. Maybe if you are certain that you are going to more or less '67 borders it mmakes sense. For me I don't get it. The negatives far outway the positives to me.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

The Gay Pride Parade and Haredi Violence

We are now witnessing the fourth night of Haredi riots in Jerusalem in anticipation of the Gay Pride Parade this week in Jerusalem. The popular opinion is that the Haredim are trying to stop the parade by force. That if they show how much violence the parade sparks, that the police will decide that they cannot control the parade and will call the entire thing off. (Ynet has a video here.)

I am extremely worried about this situation, and here are some points to think about:

1. There has been talk about people getting killed at the Parade if it goes ahead. Last time, a couple of people were stabbed by a protester. Now, we have 4 days of violence. Where is the justification to threaten innocent people, to attack police, to burn public property, in our tradition?

2. I am against any violence that aims to threaten the public order to the degree that the forces of law buckle and give in. I felt that with demonstrations against the disengagement and I feel it here. One can demonstrate , but legally. The Haredi demonstration some years ago against the Supreme Court was legal , massive and influential. Force of Law here in Israel is weak enough and unfortunately weakening by the day. How can a legal march be cancelled because people threaten it? We cannot – as a society - allow violence to dictate our national life. If we do, then איש את ראהו חיים בלעו. It will be a terrible precedent if public violence wins the day. (I say this on the weekend when Rabin's assassination is being commemorated. Another instance where we suffered from the attitude that violent unlawful actions can alter the course of the nation. And precisely that should be a warning for us.)

3. Another worrying phenomenon is that this violence is now pushing the issue of Religious-liberal tensions back into the public arena and also the tension between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. See this picture of graffiti from a Tel Aviv shul this week. (The Graffitti says: If we won't march in Jerusalem, then you will not be able to walk through Tel Aviv.)

It has been quite a while since there was a flare of Haredi-Secular tension. It has ONLY bad side-effects. There are ways to solve things in more peaceable and harmonious manner. (Unless people have an interest in there being violence?)

4. On the other hand, I do feel that the Open House who organise the Jerusalem march are creating an unnecessary provocation. (Maybe this is part of the problem. Some people are interested in having things escalate and hit the headlines!) Every year there is a large Gay parade in Tel Aviv. As this article in Jpost states, life for Gays in Jerusalem is good. But Jerusalem is predominantly a religious city (Jews, Moslems and Christians.) Is there a need to take the Gay issue and "in your face" everyone with it? That is the same reason that in general I am not enthusiastic of Gay parades. I don't like taking our sexuality (Homo or Hetro) into the public arena. And in Jerusalem it seems way over the edge. The Open House have an agenda to push Homosexuality into the mainstream. Most Jerusalemites want to live and let live but they do not welcome this.

5. And again in the balancing act, we don't need an a anti-Gay backlash. Even from a Torah perspective. Obviously, the Torah precludes Homosexuality. At the same time, many people feel an innate desire to engage in Homosexual behaviour. Yes; From a Torah perspective we are against Homosexuality and that is clear. At teh same time we can sympathise with the difficulties and personal emotional torment of a religious individual who is suffering as a result of his struggle with his Homosexual inclinations. All of this is besides the point of this discussion. That can all hold without the parade and without the violence (or with the parade and no violence!) ( Having said that, I do note some irony in the fact that this is all happening on the week of Parashat Vayera with its depiction of Sedom and its destruction. A few weeks back when the topic of the Parade came up in Knesset, one of the Arab MK's said: Why do they have to march in Jerusalem; They should march in Sedom!)

Let's hope that somehow it will end well. I feel somehow pessimistic.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Lech Lecha - The Intimate Relationship

Our Parsha opens with a colossal vacuum, a bewildering omission. God speaks to the elderly Avraham (he is 75 years old) commanding him to follow him to a new undesignated land in order to found a new nation. But we know nothing of his personal past. We all want to know: Why Abraham? What make Abraham "The One?" How did he gain this unique position in History? What act made him worthy, what virtue made him the chosen one? And why does the Torah deny us this information? Of all the personalities in the Torah, we generally receive some background to their persona. With Avraham we have a total blackout. If his history is so important, so exciting and rich, then why are we denied this history?

"Abraham, the great knight of faith, according to tradition searched and discovered God in the star-lit heavens of Mesopotamia. Yet, he felt an intense loneliness and could not find solace in the silent companionship of God whose image was reflected in the boundless stretches of the cosmos. Only when he met God on earth as Father, Brother and Friend – not only on the uncharted astral routes – did he feel redeemed. Our sages said that before Abraham appeared majestas dei was reflected only by the distant heavens and it was a mute nature which "spoke" of the glory of God. It was Abraham who "crowned" Him as the God of the earth i.e. the God of men." (Lonely Man of Faith –Tradition edition pg.32)

In this wonderful piece by Rav Soloveitchik, we read of two dimensions of the God-man experience. One can perceive of God in intellectual terms. That gives you a certain perception of God, but it is distant and impersonal. Rav Soloveitchik talks of the "Covenantal man of faith" as "craving for a personal and intimate relation with God." There is a dimension of the man-God interaction that rests in the realm of experience, not cognition, of two-way relationship, rather than independent contemplation and thought. In Parashat Lech Lecha Abraham shares an intimate relationship with God, as we see God's care and worry for Avraham as he listens to Avraham's worries and concerns and reassures him with a gentle: "Do not fear Avram, I will protect you[1]." Where in our parsha Avraham is told, "Walk before me in perfection and I will make a covenant between Myself and you[2]." Avraham and God from the first moment of "Lech Lecha" walk together! It is a living breathing interactive relationship with God.

When does God emerge from the shadows? At what moment does God begin to build this mode of relationship with Avraham? I would think that it is the moment that God actually addresses Avraham, when Avraham begins to act together with God, responding to His call, interacting with Him. In this perspective then, the command of "Lech Lecha" is THE watershed moment in which God transformed from being distant to close, from anonymity to familiarity. It is the critical beginning of the relationship. That moment of "Lech Lecha" is the start of the living experience of God.

For Rav Soloveitchik we are uninterested in the story prior to the great moment of God's revelation to Avraham. Why transcribe the perception of the anonymous remote distant God? We begin Abraham's history at the moment that he experiences the true God relationship; the intimacy of God. That is the beginning of the story.

Shabbat Shalom!

READ the entire shiur here

[1] 15:1 and see also in 13:14 where God would appear to come to reassure Avraahm and console him "after Lot departed from him."
[2] 17:1-2

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Cheshvan or Marcheshvan?

I really liked this post by On the Main Line. It talks about whether our current month is Cheshvan or Marcheshvan. Here is a quote:

It happened again. Sure enough, the hazzan in shul announced the coming of the
new month in this way: ... ראש חודש חשוון יהיה ביום הראשון. I was half expecting it, actually. The issue? חשוון, rather than the actual name of the month, מרחשוון... Put plainly, the issue concerns the 'fact' that the name of the eighth month on the Hebrew calendar is Marheshvan, while many people call it instead Heshvan or think that it is really two words, Mar Heshvan is clear that the month Marheshvan comes from the Akkadian Varahshamnu. What is that month's etymology? It seems that is is a compound of two words ורח שמנה, its Hebrew equivalent nothing more than ירח שמנה, the eighth month.

He also refers to an article by Ari Zevitovsky on the topic.

Monday, October 30, 2006

Rav Ovadia on Mixed Seating at Weddings

NRG today report a Pesak Halakha by Rav Ovadia Yoseph that is full of common sense.
Rav Ovadia said that if having seperate seating at a wedding will cause family friction, then there is no problem with having mixed seating! He appreciates the fact that frequently families prefer to sit together at a simcha. And of course Rav Ovadia understands that Shalom Bayit is more important than a mechitza in these circumstances. It is just sad that piskei halakha on public policy issues that reflect common sense, sensitivity and halakhic expertise, seem so rare!

For more on the topic see here. To the best of my knowledge, Eli Clark wrote a scholarly article about this in the Journal of Halakha and Contemporary Society some years back.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Nature Tuned In To Religion

Tonight we began to say VeTEn Tal Umattar here in Israel. Well, it's been raining all day! Considering the fact that we frequently pray [1]"טרם יקראו ואני אענה" God seems to have pre-empted our prayers this year. I guess we can thank Him with a resounding Baruch Hashem!

But what I would like to talk about is simply the manner in which the tempo of the seasons here in Israel so matches our Jewish sources and our religious rituals. The rain is a wonderful example. The day after we recited the Geshem prayers, it rained. Now, as we being VeTen Tal Umattar, we have floods of rain. Remember – in Israel there is NO RAIN over the summer. None at all. And yet, the rainy season fits perfectly where it is supposed to. (Yes! I know that sometimes we are not so fortunate. But that is precisely the point. When no rain appears for a few weeks after Sukkot, we add prayers, we fast.)

Likewise with Sukkot. In England I remember the freezing cold of the Sukka. Sitting shivering as we ate in our coats! Here in Israel, it is a pleasure to be in the Sukka. And yet, just like the Sources tell us, it is nice to sit in the Sukka, but you do feel the tinge of cold; you feel that you are at the threshold of the end of summer. The autumn is coming.
Here Chag HaAviv is truly the Springtime!

I sometimes ask my students why Pomegranates are Rosh Hashanna food, and they quote me the idea that it contains 613 seeds. And then I just take them into my garden and they realise that pomegranates and figs ripen in Eretz Yisrael at this time of year! The Jewish calendar fits here in Ertz Yisrael! This is the place that the "script" of Judaism was written for!

And this reminds me of a conversation that I had some years back with a friend of mine who is a tour guide. I had got stuck at an airport in Europe, and searched high and low for food with a hechsher but couldn't find anything. So I bought some fruit. An apple and an orange were quite fine. (even though they were astronomically priced!) So I commented that here in Israel one can almost automatically buy processed/packaged/manufatured food because it always has a hechsher. But that with fruits and vegetables, we have the biggest problems due to Teruma and Maaser, Shmitta etc.

And she responded; "Well, of course!"

"What is so obvious?" Is asked?

"Here in Israel, we are connected to the soil, the land," she explained, "and so, that which is closer to the land has greater issues. In Chutz Laaretz we are detached from the land – the fruits and vegetables prove no problem at all. The problem is in society – packaging and processing – and when the society is not Jewish, that is what you have to worry about."

That certainly is a thought-provoking perspective.

Maybe in this week of Lech Lecha, we can think about the idea that our religion has a primal connection with this land and that quite possibly this land is truly the place where one may "find" God!

[1] From Yishayahu 65:24 but we quote it in Anneynu.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Is Religion the Cause of World Violence?

John Lennon certainly thought it was! What do you think? If we eradicated religious conflict would there be wars in the world?

Here Rabbi Sacks addresses the problem. (Thanks Hirhurim)

Downgrading Noah

"Noah was a righteous man, perfect in his generation; Noah walked with G-d."
(Bereshit 6:9)

In his famous opening comment to parashat Noach, Rashi suggests that possibly Noach was not so great after all. You see, Noah's "righteousness" is balanced or negated by the qualifier: "in his generation." He was a Tzaddik only relative to the sinners of his generation, but had he lived in the era of Avraham, he would have been considered "nothing" of significance.

This is one of a series of Midrashim (Rashi quotes Midrash Rabba 30:9) that denigrate Noah, demoting him from full Tzaddik status to a lower level. Some contrast him with Abraham and others with Moshe:

“R. Berechia said: Moshe is more special than Noach. Noach moved from the status of “a righteous man” (6,9) to “a man of the earth”(9,20), whereas Moshe began as an “Egyptian man”(Ex 2:19) and progressed to become “A man of God”(Deut 33:1)...” Bereshit Rabba 36:3

For many years I was bothered by this. The Torah text says he was a tzaddik. Why can we not follow the text? If you were the most virtuous person in your generation, that would be quite something. why don't Chazal adopt a more generous attitude towards Noach.

Rabbi Dr. Irving Jacobs from Jews’ College, London once gave a historical explanation for this. He explained that these midrashim emerge from the era of early struggle between Christianity and Judaism, in the formative years of Christianity when it was breaking away from Judasim and trying to justify itself vis a vis Judaism.

The Christians broke from traditional Judaism when Paul rejected Mitzvot Ma’asiyot - Halakha. They abandoned the performance of circumcision and kashrut etc. To support their case, they sought out Biblical models - tzaddikim - who were chosen by God despite their NOT keeping Torah MiSinai. Noach was an ideal candidate. He is given the title by the Torah of “Tzaddik” despite the fact that we see no trace of Mitzvot; an ideal role model! They looked to Noach as a justification of their new religion.

How did the Rabbis respond to this “reading” of Noach as a person? In their derashot given in the shuls of Tzippori and Caesarea, and Tiberias the Rabbis responded with a "new reading." If Noach was a Tzaddik, he was a minor one. He could not even approach the level of a Moshe or an Avraham. It was a response to the mood of the age.

Because the Christians venerated Noach, the Rabbis responded by denigrating him, demoting him.

(And methodologically this is a great example of the manner in which historic situations - current events - may create a new p'shat, a new reading, in the passuk. This Rashi is a legitimate reading - to see "in his generation" as regulating and constricting the scope of the appellation "Tzaddik - and yet possibly it was a new way of thinking as Rabbis saw the Christians attach enormous prestige to Noach, they found themselves adopting a different understanding of the text. Maybe this was not even overtly polemical but more subconscious. I think this is a great example of what the Rashbam calls הפשט המתחדש בכל יום.)

Saturday, October 21, 2006

Kayin and Hevel

I think this short poem by Yehudah Amichai is thought-provoking and refreshing. Read it carefully! It comes from the book פתוח סגור פתוח which has many poems on Biblical and "Jewish" themes. Feel free to add your own commentary in the "comments" section. I will add my own thoughts on this poem in the course of the week.

:קין והבל, אי-הבנה של אהבה
קין רק רצה לחבק אותו חזק
.וחנק אותו, שניהם לא הבינו
Feel free! The (virtual) floor is open!
UPDATE: I said that I'd add some comments so here goes...
I believe that this poem is not the peshat. Despite the repeated use of the word אח - brother - in the verse. The term "brother" is used repeatedly not to indicate love and warm feelings but rather to drive home the moral horror that a person can concieve of killing his brother - even a brother to whom a person feels natural emotions of love, responsibility, loyalty and kinship. (And through this, we should realise that any human being is a brother.) This is about accentuating the terrible nature of this crime.
And yet, I like Yehuda Amichai's poem because it raises situations in life in which we think we are embracing someone in love, and yet we suffocate them. The classic stereotype of this (I think it is a stereotype but a stereotype comes to warn us that we might do this to a lesser extenet) is the parent who "loves" his child so much that he dominates the child, planning every element of their lives because "father knows best" figuratively enveloping them in a bearhug, overpowering the child with imposed plans and dreams, and thereby choking and strangling the child. That parent loves his child to death, as he enforces how he must learn a musical instrument and study for school and do this and that and attend that university and engage in that career and marry that person. Today, we see less of this but there are still people like this.
I think about this as well when I hear Charedi groups talk about imposing Shabbat laws on secular society because "it will be good for them too." Maybe the religious think that it will be good for the secular, but do the secular feel that it enhances their lives? Maybe it suffocates them? And there are many other examples.
Whenever we impose something on someone else because we "know" how good it will be for them, we should always check how they are breathing!

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Bereshit in (amazing) Pictures

See this link for Parashat Bereshit in Pictures!

Parashat Bereshit

Bereshit Chapter 1 is characterised by a mood of strict obedience and total surrender before the divine word, the command of the Almighty.

"By the word of God the heavens were created and by the spirit of his mouth all
its hosts ... He spoke and they came into being, he issued a command and they
stood." (Tehillim 33).

Reading the chapter we witness an immediate response to each creative statement : "And the Lord said, let there be light ... and there was light" (Bereshit 1:3) God creates the world by the "ten utterances" (see Avot Ch.5). through which He commands his world to come into being, and each order is directly followed by it's execution. An atmosphere of submission permeates the chapter. It is its hallmark and theme. God is the all-powerful creator, commanding and demanding by his very will. And the world responds as an obedient servant.

But yet, despite this atmosphere of God's mastery and His absolute control over the world, the Midrash rather surprisingly raises a completely contrasting image:

1:11 “etz pri - God intended (and commanded) that the wood of the
trees would taste like their fruit (etz pri). But it did not do this. Instead,
'The earth brought forth trees that bore fruit (etz oseh pri) and not trees that
were fruit (etz pri). Because of this, when Adam was cursed for his sin, the
earth was punished too ... "

In place of an inanimate world, without independent will, responding to the command and desire of the architect of all creation, the Midrash prefers to talk of a world which springs into life resonating with an identity and will all of it’s own. The Midrash portrays the creation as if it were independent of G-d or even more extreme, that the world is rebelliously defiant of God's will!

Read more here

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Simchat Torah. Where is the Joy?

Simchat Torah is not an easy day. I think that there are few people who feel an innate rush of energy that propels them to dance endlessly with the Torah. It is for this reason that people stand at the side and talk, people resort to the Kiddush option; many people only truly participate in the dancing to give their kids an authentic Simchat Torah experience. But how many participants are rejoicing with the Torah, celebrating its completion, revelling in the beautiful synergy of Torah and the Jewish people?

I say this even in learned and commited communities. Somehow, it isn't always easy to spontaneously generate genuine feeings of elation in regards to Torah.

On Simchat Torah, I was in shul, and I approached a learned friend who was sitting there with his Gemara learning as all the hakafot were going on around. He looked up and he said; "lots of people are dancing with the Torah, but is anyone studying Torah today?" And I responded, "But maybe today is about the dancing and NOT the learning of Torah!" In other words, there is a time to understand Toah but there is also a time to rejoice in the special gift that God has given us.

This all reminded me about an experience I had in London about 20 years ago. I visted a chassidish shteibel on Simchat Torah. At a certain point in the dancing, the Rebbe instructed everyone to put the Sifrei Torah down. and then he announced: "Everyone go to the bookshelf! Get a Gemara! Pick the massechta that you are learning!" And everyone grabbed a Gemara and began to dance holding their Gemaras in the air, dancing. The atmosphere was electrifying. The mood suddenly accelarated and elevated many degrees. The energy surged and somehow the book of the Gemara connected with the people there in a deeper way than even the Sefer Torah!

Why? Why should the moment in which the Gemara is held be more powerful than the Sefer Torah? After all the Sefer Torah is the ultimate source of holiness. But maybe the Gemara has more power because we have studied it, we have grappled with its words, its phrases. we have struggled with the Rishonim and Achronim. We have forged a relationship; we have made a kinyan HaTorah. Somehow the Sefer Torah is a symbol, but it is so sacrosanct, so holy, that it is in a way distant. It is beyond relationship, beyond intimacy. It stands at a distance; majestic, sacred. And yes, we chant its words, but how often do we get an Aliya? How frequently do we engage with the object that is a Sefer Torah?

But the book that I learn every day: My Daf Yomi, my Chumash Rashi - That I could dance with! It nourishes me on a daily basis; it provided the lifeblood of my Judaism, it challenges and excites, informs and inspires, it is my companion, my partner in conversation, my Chavruta. I have a relationship with it.

I am not referring to the difference between Torah Shebal Peh and Torah Shebichtav but rather the development of emotional ties that we forge in relation to objects, the sentimental, emotional, and sometimes nostalgic feelings that can be evoked by a particular object in which a physical item encapsulates a whole world of feelings.

And so, this is what I began thinking about this Simchat Torah. Maybe if we were dancing with our Gemaras, we could dance with greater fervour. Possibly it isn't that we have no Simcha in our connection with Torah, but rather that the Sefer Torah specifically fails to generate the elation that we might feel!

Maybe my friend should have danced with his Gemara instead of studying it!