Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Kadima Bnei Akiva!

Tomorrow be"h I set out for Bnei Akiva camp in the UK for a few days.

The last camp I did as a Rosh Machane was in 1991, so it has been a while. Nonetheless, I still regard Bnei Akiva camp and Bnei Akiva as a Youth Movement in general as one of the great influences upon my life, and one of the supreme educational experiences I have ever had.

Let me explain what was so wonderful there.

First, there is the notion of ideology. Broadly, Bnei Akiva educates about Torah and Israel; Torah VeAvoda. However, in BA the ideology was supreme. We argued about it for hours. What did chalutziut mean in today's world? Was Aliya enough or did there have to be a "Halutzic" dimension to one's Aliya? There was the notion of modesty or Histapkut BeMuat. What is the best preparation for life in Israel: Bnei Akiva's Hachshara programme or Yeshiva? There was much to debate and discuss. BUT the most important thing ABOVE any particular ideological point was that "ideology" mattered. In fact it was the ultimate thing. Living life according to ideals, examining their application, holding oneself up to standards, self sacrifice - that is what Bnei Akiva gave me. That a life lived without values, without a ideology is a pathetic worthless existence.

The notion of a community... people sharing, responsibility, taking your part even when it is not fun, the phenomenal power of a group over the individual, this I also learned at Bnei Akiva. Even when there were people who were not social "stars" they had a place in the fabric of the group. Some of this was vestiges of Israeli '50s socialism. That was OK.

Bnei Akiva was the quintessential educational organisation. Everything was education! Camp was 2 weeks of chinuch. But there was never a sense of "us" and "them" towards the chanichim like in a "kiruv" model. There was no "I have reached that good place, now let me be mekarev you." Because everyone had not yet realised the ideology... we could all be more frum, we had all not yet reached Israel... there was always the sense, that we are all chaverim, all partners, we all subscribe to this ideology. Moreover, the creativity, the singing, the energy, the fun, the intellect, the Limmud and tefilla, the hikes that we had all made the path of Torah VeAvoda a normal way to be, so that when people did become more religious it was not ever in a quirky way but in an organic integrated natural way... and many of those are frum until today. The techniques and power of informal education have never left me, and I am constantly aware just how limited formal education is as a life-changing force, if there is no Informal education.

I have a great deal to thank BA for.
It was in Bnei Akiva that my feelings of Zionism grew.
It was in Bnei Akiva that I grew to love discussing topics of Torah, Zionism, Modern Orthodoxy etc.
It was in BA that I had my first experiences as an educator, and I got hooked!
It was in BA that I had a chance to develop leadership skills, as a Madrich and Rosh Machane.
It was in BA that I learned from so many role models.
On a lighter note...It was with BA that I visited Paris (twice), Versailles, Holland, The Swiss Alps (twice!), Venice (twice!), Poland, and of course, Israel.
Many many friends.
Wonderful singing!!
and much more.

So, kadima Bnei Akiva! I am off to camp!

(I won't be posting for the next ten days. For Parshat Ekev, see my shiurim on the Eretz Hatzvi website.)

Friday, July 27, 2007

Parashat VaEtchanan - Shema Yisrael

This week's parsha contains the opening paragraph of the Shema.
Here is a question. One is supposed to have Kavannah - focused and directed thought - when one recites the Shema.

So, what do YOU think about when YOU say the Shema?
When was the last time you pondered that one?

Here is my shiur on the topic.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Playground Etiquette

The other day I took my two younger kids to a park in Rechavia. After playing for a while on the roundabout, the boys decided to go for the swings. Although the park has six swings they were all occupied. My boys, aged 2 and 5, were interested only in the swings and decided to wait. They were exceptionally patient.

But the people there weren't getting off. There was a family of 4 little girls, aged 2-11 by my estimation. They were sitting on the swings. They weren't even swinging but eating peaches. Once in a while one of them swung a little. Their parents sitting on a nearby bench - 5 yards away - watched smiling, and watched us waiting but didn't say a word! After 2-3 minutes they began to swing, but on a few occasions, one went to get another peach or to push the youngest. Each time, they carefully reserved the swing for their sister.

So how long do you think they persisted? After about 4 minutes, my 5 year old was given a swing by somebody else. They were still not budging. I turned to one of the little girls and said gently, "My little boy has been waiting for a long time!" and she ignored me. She didn't even reply.

And this continued. The parents watching me and my two year old, who was angelic. He's usually VERY active. He clearly REALLY wanted that swing. We waited for over 10 minutes. There we were standing right by that swing. There was no doubt that we were next. I made another 2 comments to the girls, and again was absolutely ignored - not even a reply - until their two-year-old got tired of it. Ten minutes...maybe more! A two year old waiting sweetly and they were taking their time on 3 of the swings! Infuriating.

Needless to say, I was quite shocked at this family's lack of care or consideration for those around them. When you see people waiting for a swing and your kid has had a reasonable turn, you vacate the swing to allow another kid a chance!

Should I have been more aggressive?
Should I have spoken to the parents?
How can parents see such lack of consideration and just sit there calmly? How self-centered can one be?

(One minute later an Israeli lady (Morrocan) came along and very quickly told one of their girls that she had been there quite long enough and being a big girl, how could she not give her swing up to (her) little boy. Her assertiveness made me think that maybe I had been too soft. I think that I expected the parents to do something! Oh! and if it makes any difference, the family were English speaking...American... seemed like Olim and not tourists. Does that make a difference?)

I remember once hearing the quote once that the "Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eaton and Harrow." What that means is that values of persistence and heroism, leadership and teamsmanship are learned at play, and then put into practice in adult life. Play teaches us interpersonal dynamics, teamwork, endurance, discipline, and much more. (An approximate quote from Rav Lichtenstein: "When someone is paying ball and keeps the ball to himself and won't pass, that isn't simply bad play; it is morally repugnant!")

The park is where kids learn how to relate to other kids!

Some time ago, my same two boys were running along the pavement on their way to Gan (Kindergarten). They were having a race as to who could get ahead. And as they were running my 2-yr-old fell flat on his face. The 5 year old - who is very competetive and hates to lose - kept going. After the little one stopped crying, I called him back and said: "When your brother falls, you ALWAYS run back to help. He's your brother. You always help your brother or friend. When he's down, the competition doesn't matter any more." I think it made an impression, because the next week, in the same scenario he ran back to help his little brother. He gave hima big hug and gave me a knowing smile.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Talmud Torah and Summer Vacation

Nine years ago, my son was hospitalized for a few days. I recall that we were released on the afternoon or Erev Tisha BeAv. Why do I recall the particular date, you may wonder?

Well, in the next bed of the children's ward at Hadassa, was a Haredi boy, maybe aged 10 or 11. I remember that on the day we were leaving, his brother came to visit. His brother was not more than 14 years old. He arrived in a black jacket and hat. And what did the two of them do? Yes, they chatted for a bit, but very soon, they opened up a Gemara to learn! And of course on the afternoon before Tisha BeAv one is exempt from Torah learning, nonetheless, the brother brought a Massechet Gittin, and they were soon reading through the passages that describe the horrors of the Hurban.

Why do I recall this story? Because it made a deep impression then, and now it really makes me wonder about my community, and the way in which we raise our children during vacation.

My son is now eleven years old. He loves learning Torah. But, is that the first thing, the prime activity that he thinks of doing with his friends during vacation? On a day which is "pattur" from Limmud Torah? These Haredi kids saw Torah as the thing which fills their time, their lives. Two young boys, no parents. There was a TV right there! They could have turned it on. No! They preferred to learn Torah. This is the way to produce Talmidei Chachamim! And more than that, the summer vacation has just so much time. Even if our kids dedicated 2 hours a day to Limmud Torah, it would be fantastic. How can we do this in our communities? How do we set this as the benchmark?

How can we succeed to generate that sense of Torah at the center, that Torah should be our prime occupation?

I think I know!

The adults have to live that way!

Do we pick up a Gemara in our time off?

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Nahem: Should Our Prayers Match Reality?

Every year, as we finish Mincha of Tisha BeAv here in Alon Shevut, the same conversation takes place in various corners of the shul. The conversation is about the appropriate text of Nahem. This year, Rav Medan and Rav Yoel bin Nun were debating at the front, there were a few discussions off to the side.

What is the issues? (Hirhurim posted on this here and here.)

In short, the problem is that in today's reality, the prayer is untrue! It talks of Jerusalem as a city which is in a state of "mourning, destruction, disgrace, and desolation: mourning for the loss of her children; destroyed of its palaces; disgraced of its honour, and desolate with out inhabitants." ( I will not even enter into the end of the prayer that sides with Rashi that the future Temple will be built in fire whatever that means.)

Here two issues may be raised.
1. Jerusalem has more Jews today than ever before. This is simply a lie.
2. With our Zionist sensibilities, we do not feel that Jerusalem is in disgrace. How do we deal with this?

As regards (1.) Rav Lichtenstein related to this and said that he cannot lie in Tefilla. If I recall correctly, he simply omits the phrases מבלי בניה and מאין יושב and indeed this has been my adjustment ever since. This assumes that with the absence of Jewish Law and a God designated government, with Har Habayit still in foreign hands, and in that sense a total disgrace and lack of honour to God's name, the phrases of בזויה, שוממה, חרבה, אבלה can all relate to that, but as regards the return of Am Yisrael, that should be omitted from the prayer.

But as regards point (2.) I do not agree. I recall some years ago that I spent some time with a very impressive frum Israeli academic. He was (and is) for me a true model of Torah Umadda, a person of impeccable integrity, love of Am Yisrael, work-ethic, spirituality, humanity etc. He belonged to a group of people who, in the wake of the Six Day War, stopped fasting on 17 Tammuz. After all, 17 Tammuz commemorates the loss of the city. Now, we had the city in our hands. Of course, this group continued to observe the 9 days and Tisha BeAv as they relate to the loss of the Mikdash.

I was quite taken by the argument and began to become increasingly sensitive to the dissonance between our prayers and our current reality. sometimes the disparity is quite startling, and we daven as if we were still incarcerated in the doldrums of Christian Europe. At times our prayers seem simply a rejection of God's kindness , a failure to acknowledge the miracles (of ingathering, of Kibbutz Galuyot..restoration to our land, of Jewish safety and dignity, of Jewish governance) that God has performed in our own days. I couldn't take things as far as annulling a Taanit Tzibbur. But I decided to take matters into my own hands, and to "adjust" or omit certain phrases in the Monday and Thursday Tachanun. Phrases such as :
ישב נא אפך וחמתך מעירך ירושלים הר קדשך ... ירושלים וחרפה לכל סביבותנו
or how about this line?
פקח עיניך וראה שממותנו והעיר אשר נקרא שמך עליה
and I said to myself... Jerusalem has never seen such honour for the Jewish people! In 2000 years we haven't had the zechut to be here. Now God brings us back and we still recite these lines? And I put pencil lines around these phrases and stopped saying them.

And then, the Oslo accords began, and people began to discuss giving up on the Old City, and Har Habayit, and suddenly Jerusalem seemed far less secure. Incredibly, the Jerusalem which had seemed so rock steady appeared far more fragile and vulnerable. I decided that maybe I should have more modesty and that our tefillot should reflect the fact that we are existing somewhere on that line BETWEEN Galut and Geula, however, until that Geula arrives, it is an open game. (And maybe afterwards too. Who knows?)

And so, when I think of Jerusalem as a city in disgrace I do think about Har Habayit and the fact that we do not have a Mikdash, but I also think about the other ways in which Jerusalem falls short of our Religious standards, whether it is corruption and scandal, or the way in which foreign workers live in sub-standard conditions, or people who are not given their rights, or simply the embarrassment of the way our government works at times, or all different public demonstrations - from Left and Right - that seem to undermine the notion of what Jerusalem and Judaism stand for. And hovering over Jerusalem all the time is that it is ours, but it always feels like there is an axe in the air threatening to divide the city. sometimes, I feel like we are on borrowed time.

These , of course are my thoughts on 9 Av. The more optimistic and hopeful sentiments are reserved for Yom Yerushalayim and Yom Haatzmaut!

Visiting Har Habayit . Take 3!

After posting about visiting Har Habayit last week, my student Zeev Schramm has been giving me a hard time in the comments section. Yashar Koach. That is what students should do their teacher. Keeps us on our toes.

Having said that, I saw two articles today that bear quite dirsctly on this topic. See this in Jpost in which Rabbi David Golinkin, a Conservative Rabbi and leading Conservative Halakhic authority, advises people to visit Har Habayit. (Just to be clear, I am not quoting him because I am advocating Conservative psak! His sources and conclusions are shared by many leading Orthodox poskim too.) Here is a quote:

WITHOUT entering into detailed measurements, it is permissible to enter the area south of the Mughrabi Gate and near the Aksa Mosque and the area north of the raised platform surrounding the Dome of the Rock.

On the other hand, one should not enter that raised platform at all. On the west, one should stay close to the Western Wall, and on the east, one should stay close to the eastern wall.

Finally, there is an urgent practical reason for Jews to enter the Temple Mount area today. In 1967, the Israeli government gave the Muslim Wakf control of the Temple Mount. Since then the Wakf has made a concerted effort to obliterate the remnants of Jewish antiquities on the Temple Mount.

... The Wakf was able to get away with this plunder because Jews do not visit the Temple Mount, and they don't visit the Temple Mount because of the strict rabbinic rulings cited above.

This last paragraph receives a strong echo from Nadav Shragai in today's Haaretz. again, I quote from the article:

For the past 40 years, right-wing and religious organizations have been mourning the absence of the Temple Mount from our national and religious life in addition to the Temple's destruction.

In what has become a ritual, they lament the destruction of the antiquities on the mount and complain about the impotence of the Israel Antiquities Authority, the humiliating entrance conditions and turning empty areas on the mount into Muslim prayer sites.

These groups say there is a vacuum as far as sovereignty, government, law and order on Temple Mount are concerned. They say they are frustrated again and again by the authorities' lies and broken promises.

They are usually right. The only problem is that the politicians, archaeologists or even the police were not the first to give up Temple Mount. The rabbis were the ones to do so, as early as 1967. Even a decade later, when Menachem Begin wanted to change the status quo on Temple Mount to enable Jews to pray there, the rabbis would not allow it. They threatened him with boycotts and coalition crises.

When Rabbi Yoel Bin-Nun complained to Begin on the goings on at Temple Mount, Begin sent him away angrily, saying "go to your rabbis."

If YOU have been to Har Habayit and wish to add anything, or if you feel strongly on this one then please add your comment below!

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Mourning or Study on Tisha B'Av?

There is an apocryphal legend concerning Napoleon. One day on the ninth of Av he was walking past a synagogue when he heard the crying from within. He inquired as to the reason for their wailing and was told that they were weeping over the destruction of the temple. When was it destroyed, he asked. 1800 years ago was the answer. Napoleon reportedly responded: "I vow that this people is destined for a future in their own homeland. For is there any other people who have kept alive similar mourning and hope for so many years?"

The Laws of Tisha B'Av are designed to thrust us into a national state of mourning whereby individually and communally, every person becomes a mourner. It is an incredible process, as after 3 weeks of absence of public celebration, nine days of no wine nor meat, nor bathing, we sit on the floor like mourners and take off our leather shoes, we neither eat nor drink, and we wail the loss of our Temple and national glory. we become a nation of mourners. This is quite something, and there are many many testimonies throughout the ages that have expressed quite how monumental all this is.

I say all of this because I got a mailing announcing proudly a full morning of shiurim and lectures on the morning of Tisha B'Av. If I recall, the email said the the entire thing will be broadcast live by podcast. For some years now, shuls have put on learning programs, lectures, movies and other events in order to help congregants connect with Tisha B'Av. It is difficult to sit all day chanting Kinnot phrased in a difficult allusory poetic form in a language that one barely comprehends. And yet there is a basic distinction between study and mourning. The kinnot which wail or lament the Hurban, are exactly that. They are like a wail. And we sit on the floor and moan. They do not inspire; they depress. A shiur is intellectual, it is interesting, enlightening and informative. The Kinna is a very different world. It is devoid of the historical novelty, the chiddush in the third Chapter of Eichah, or the Rabbinic brilliance and mussar of Midrash Eicha. In many ways, I think we have lost the ability to mourn effectively!

If Napolean entered our shuls, he wouldn't see wailing. He would see a study hall - just that everyone is sitting on the floor!

I don't have a great solution. I also find Kinnot hard. I also connect better with study and programming. I just wonder whether we have actually - in our desire to "do" Tisha B'Av well - whether we have in fact changed Tisha B'Av into yet another study day.

Og Melech HaBashan's Bed

Og Melech haBashan is certainly one of the most colourful Midrashic figures. According to the Midrash, he survived the flood, lived hundreds of years, stood many hundreds of feet tall, and could lift mountains.

But in the peshat, we have less information. The only information that might indicate Og's exceptional size is derived from the proportions of his bed! It is described in Devarim 3:11. There we are told about an iron bed-frame 9 cubits (amot) by 4 cubits i.e. 2 metres by 4.5 metres. Not small! In fact, a very large (9-10 ft.?) man, but not a giant of the proportions ascribed by the Midrash! (Part of the midrash could be from the fact the the bed is called an "eress" sometimes indicating a baby's cradle. Of course if this was Og's bed as a baby, we would be able to extrapolate a far larger adult size. However, eress can simply mean bed. See , fro example, Tehillim ch.6 - Tachanun.)

In my daughter's school (Orot Etzion) they did a lovely activity to illustrate Og's large size according to Peshat. They went to the playground. They drew a rectangle shape 2x4.5 on the floor. Then the teacher asked the class to lie down in "Og's bed". The entire class fit in the rectangle ... with room to spare! This gave them a great peshat understanding of the large physical dimensions of the mythical figure. A wonderful, simple pedagogic tool. And lots of fun too!

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Someone is Listening!

Incredible. It is only Thursday and I have already met 2 people who listened to my parsha podcast (see below!) You record the shiur talking to yourself! (It feels a little silly.) It is quite heartwarming to know that people actually listen.

Visiting Har Habayit

It is the nine days. I think it appropriate to devote a few postings to the Mikdash.

There are certain places in Israel that inspire me deeply. It is difficult to describe the feeling that Ir David, the Southern Wall excavations, Minharot Hakotel, evoke in me. One feels that one is touching the past, that one is almost there, at the Temple! That just a few steps away, we too could touch that wondrous place, that amazing era of the Mikdash. I run out of my house and hail down a car in alon Shevut to get a "tremp" (hitchhike) en route to lead a tour in the Old City. I say to the driver "Yerushalayim!" He nods, and I get in. Wow! Unreal! This is historic! I can say the "magic word" and in a half hour, I am there! For 1900 years has it ever been this easy to stand בחצרות בית ה'- in God's back yard? What would our anscestors, our great-grandparents only say if they knew that one could be on the steps to Har Habayit just a short drive from my house? They would think the Mashiach had arrived!

So this is truly amazing.

I said that I would devote a posting to visiting Har Habayit.

First, Halakha. It would appear that one may visit Har Habayit after going to the Mikve, as long as one remains outside the precinct of the "chel" the raised platform of the Mikdash. One enters without leather shoes, without a wallet, and in a state of reverence and simcha. There seems to be little argument about the permissibility of all of this.

And yet, I have not been. Many of my friends and Rabbis have been. I find it difficult to bring myself to do it. And as with so many things in my life, I have clashing ambivalent feelings about this.

Why not go? The first aspect is the feeling of מי יעלה בהר ה' ומי יקום במקום קדשו נקי כפיים וכ' ועיין תהילים פרק ט"ז. To ascend Har Habayit demands a high spiritual level, a purity of mind and action. Do I really match that level? I have many flaws in my religious efforts and my religious level, my middot, my shemirat mitzvoth. Am I the one to push myself forward to a place that only a fraction of the Torah-observant world enter?

I recall some years ago that my Yeshiva chavruta spent some time in the Yeshiva in Moscow on shlichut there. A few weeks after he returned to Israel, the "iluy" of the Yeshiva arrived on Aliya. My chavruta greeted him at the airport and asked him: "Do you want me to take you to the Kotel?" The Russian yeshiva bachur looked at him in bewilderment. "How can I go yet?" He said. "First I should learn for a while in eretz Yisrael, in Ir Hakodesh. Then after a month or two, maybe I will reach the madrega (religious standing) to venture to the Kotel."

We visit the Kotel quite casually. But Har Habayit?

A second hesitation relates to the political realm. One argument for a Jewish presence on Har Habayit is political. Everyone knows that the Arabs control Har Habayit. Motta Gur may have declared that "Har Habayit Beyadeinu" but unfortunately the Waqf do as they wish there, and if they could no Jews would step foot there. We know how much they ruined in building the underground mosque at "Solomon's Stables" and they actively try to eradicate any Jewish traces there. For our own honour and for our historic rights and roots in the place, we must state loudly and clearly that it is Har HaBAYIT, and not Al-haram Al-sharif!

And that is a very good point. How can we Jews be denied access to our holiest place. People frequently say that the Kotel is the holiest shrine to Jews. Nonsense! Har Habayit is the only place where I am restricted entry due to its sanctity. How dare we abandon it? I greatly identify with this argument. We should establish Jewish entry to Har Habayit as a norm.

But on the other hand, I hate the politicization and Messianisation of all of this. So many organizations (like Machon Hamikdash) are so into the very structure and architecture of the Mikdash. Is that truly the essence? And when the Messiah comes, will he necessarily rebuild Herod's Roman style structure? And why are we so obsessed with the building itself? The prophets constantly warned (see Jeremiah #7) that people were giving undue importance to the Temple, and too little attention to their own deeds, their crimes, immorality and sins. Every month, there is a procession called "Sivuv Shearim." They walk around the gates of the Old City reciting Psalms, praying , singing , dancing. This yearning for the Temple. Is that the way? Or should we be fighting crime, corruption, prejudice and injustice in the streets of Jerusalem, in the shuk and in Ben Yehuda, in Government and the business community. Should we be campainig for minimum wage legislation, against woman trafficking, against government irregularities and party appointmenst to the Civil service. Sometimes this yearning for the Temple seems like a misplaced desire. At times it feels simply like a naïve hope for better times i.e. that all our problems should disappear. At other times it feels militant. And then again, many times it appears heartfelt and genuine, holy and humble, earnest and true, and the my words sound rather cruel and cynical.

Anyhow, all this political stuff (which also relates to unrealistic assessments of the political reality eg. not having to deal with Human Rights in the West Bank because God wants us there anyway) makes me insecure and nervous. Is Har Habayit the place to be making these statements? What statement am I making by going up to Har Habayit? On the one hand am I saying that Har Habayit is Jewish? Or am I expressing my desire that somehow (miraculously) God will build his Mikdash a.s.a.p. however improbable that sounds.

For me, I always feel that rather than us waiting for God, God is waiting for us to practice Justice, to act like a ממלכת כהנים וגוי קדוש, to create a society of kindness and holiness, of humanity, warmth, sophistication, morals. Will the Mashiach come by visiting the Har Habayit or visiting the hospital? By making political statements, or by challenging the corruption of politics?

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

How to bring Judaism to Israel

Sometimes the stupidity of religious leaders makes my blood boil. Two articles in Haaretz provide a perfect example of good and bad approaches to religion in Israel.

In the first article, we read how Eli Yishai, minister of Trade and Industry, (and a leader of Shas) will enforce Shabbat laws to stop the sale of the new and final book of Harry Potter this Shabbat! to quote:

Yishai said he intends to issue indictments and impose fines on local distributors of the book who violate the Hours of Work and Rest Law.... Yishai said yesterday that "there must be a limit to the desire to be like other nations."

In a different article we read how three non-Orthodox Rabbis go to visit Ehud Olmert. Their concern? - They are devastated as to the ignorance of Judaism amongst the Israeli public. They go to Olmert to discuss how Israelis can become more knowledgeable about their tradition. Here is Rabbi David Ellenson, President of HUC:

"During his visit to Israel, Ellenson had a hard time getting over the depressing impression made by senior Israeli figures a few days before his departure from the United States at an international gathering of university presidents. On Saturday night, he related, a rabbi recited Havdalah [marking the conclusion of Shabbat] for all the participants, and Ellenson noticed the Israelis. "One of them, the president of a very large university in Israel, told me he had never seen such a service and never even heard of its existence." He was greatly saddened, said Ellenson. "I hate the word ignorance, I prefer to be more gentle, but I know that's how it is. What does it mean that an intellectual doesn't know what havdalah is? How would you describe it? And he is not the only one among the Israelis."

Now, I ask you the question. Who has the attitude that may bring more people in the Secular world closer to Judaism? Who is thinking in positive ways here?

Now you may argue that Shas who are uncompromising, and reach out to the lower classes in ISrael, and educate many about Shabbat and Judaism, have in fact brought many people to Orthodox observant Judaism. The Reform Movement on the other hand may teach people about Havdalla, but how many of their congregants really keep Shabbat or Kashruth in their private lives? How successful are they in stemming intermarriage?

So that is an important point.

BUT do we have to always see religious politicians getting people's backs up? engaging in acts of provocation? Are these politicians looking Israeli society in the eye, and trying to make a mark? Why do we persist in our sectarian approach? Israelis DO want Judaism. But they do not want Haredi Judaism. If we provide them with a Judaism that is serious but intelligent, moral, compassionate, dignified, then they will be attracted to it. The forces of religion do not always need to appear to be militant, coercive and primitive. They should be setting forth ideas whereby Israelis will seek to incorporate more religion in their school curriculum, home lives, life-cycle rituals. The way to go is not by banning sales of Harry Potter!

Parashat Devarim Podcast

I recorded a podcast this week for the VBM on Parashat Devarim.

Listen to it here.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Happy Birthday!

This blog is 1 year old! Happy Birthday!

If you look at our archive, we began at Parashat Mattot-Massei last year.

Of course, today is also the year anniversary of the outbreak of the 2nd Lebanon War which actually stimulate me to begin writing on a regular basis. We all still await the return of Ehud Goldwasser, Eldad Regev, and Gilad Shalit. Kudos to Yael Dan on Galei Tzahal who plays the Rami Kleinstein song composed for the missing soldiers every single day so that people don't lose the momentum. Kudos to Google Israel today for attaching the following to their rather simple title page.

"ושבו בנים לגבולם"

As you might have noticed, I have been writing less recently. Life has been busy. I have many posts in the pipeline. About Har Habayit, about prisoner exchanges and Gilad Shalit, about sexual harassment... the hot topic in Israel nowadays, and much more. and hopefully I'll be writing them soon.

In the meantime I just want to note some musings about this blog after a year.

I sometimes ask myself why I am doing this. Part of it is a need simply to express some thoughts, to voice myself and articulate things that I feel passionate about. On another plane, this all began during the Lebanon War during which I felt a responsibility to communicate to my students and wider family in order to inform about the mood and facts of what was going on here. Even now, after the craziness is behind us, I still feel a responsibility to my readership to raise moods and perspectives that people may not have and which might possibly enrich the spiritual lives of my readers.

I guess I have 3 headings to this blog. Parsha, Israel and Judaism/Modern Orthodoxy. I am passionate about all of the above. I find it difficult to strike a balance between them all. When am I just acting as a current events commentator for Israel? or a politician? But I am a Rabbi, a teacher, a passionate Jew. I should write Torah! But is that why people come to a blog. For that they can read the VBM or my shiurim at Erez Hatzvi or Lindenbaum's websites! Should I write more Torah? I love Israel and Religious Zionism. I am an incorrigible Jew of the Modern Orthodox variety. It is my method of Avodat Hashem and the hashkafa that I follow influenced by many of my Rabbis: Rav Lichtenstein, Rav Amital, Rav Leibtag, Rav Sacks, Rav Jakobowitz, Rav Yoel Bin Nun, Rav Medan. These are the things I am passionate about.

What don't I write?
I know that I have tried not to talk lashon hara, not to be sensationalist, not to talk too much about my personal or family life i.e. not to be exhibitionist, not to be negative. Maybe that is not how most blogs work, but that is my self-imposed restriction set. I try not to write too long. Who reads long blog pieces anyway!

What has surprised me?
How much time and mind-space this takes up. It is quite the full-time job!

What would I like more of?
Comments! I would love readers to dive into the conversations more. If you are my student, don't see it as impertinent to add a comment. It is like the classroom. Voice your ideas!

I frequently have doubts about whether the world needs yet another blog of this sort. There are many blogs that talk about Israel and Judaism. I get great pleasure then when I meet people: friends, students and total strangers who relate to me how much they enjoy the blog. If it manages to seed positive ideas, and get people thinking about important things and raising awareness etc. then, this IS undoubtedly a worthwhile enterprise.

FYI, we have anything between 700-950 visits / month. Not bad. There are over 300 regular readers of this blog.

FEEL FREE to write in the comments, what you LIKE about the blog, and also do note how I might be able to improve ...ROOM FOR IMPROVEMENT AND CHANGE.

Shabbat Shalom, and thank you for being part of this major experiment.

Friday, July 06, 2007

Articles on Israel and Hamas

This from the Times

Moshe Arens in Haaretz:

Had the Palestinians only shown that they are capable of governing themselves, of suppressing terrorism, so essential an element of national governance in the Middle East, of abiding by agreements signed by their leaders, the paradigm of two states for two nations might have seemed the appropriate one. But who wishes for a state where violence reigns, and acts of terrorism are encouraged?

Good post by Michael Eisenberg

Thursday, July 05, 2007

The Kotel Isn't a Parking Lot!

I was at the Kotel this morning. It had this festive carnival like atmosphere. Over the summer, Mondays and Thursdays there are so busy with bar-mitzvah parties visiting. Along with barmitzva visitors come a whole string of entertainers. There are the Breslav people who are giving out various charms (for money) and a klezmer trio as one enters the electronic gates. A new group are white robed, tanach-look, darbuka players and shofar blowers who will give a song performance or even herald the entrance of the bar-mitzva boy and procession into the Kotel compound. Quite a scene! Minharot Hakotel is mobbed with groups entering every fifteen minutes as families book a tour alongside their simcha. It is nice to see the place alive.

Currently the kotel Plaza looks a wreck. at the back are extensive excavations - I assume uncovering second-Temple remains - but half the Plaza is sectioned off and enshrouded in white curtains to block access to the excavations. Then there are dirt trucks, and concrete mixers, delivery trucks carrying wood , all to service the excavations. All that is at the back of the plaza. At the side is the makeshift ramp which should be removed soon.

But my real pet hate is the fact that a large proportion of the plaza is now used for parking. In the past years the number of cars there has incresed steadily. I think it began in the intifada when security presence was increased but it has by now reached horrible proportions where from the security gates until the line of the Women's section is one big parking zone. It looks just awful. It is absolutely inappropriate for the Kotel! Why...Why should our prime prayer site in Yerushalayim become a parking lot? Where is the dignity of the place? Who is in charge? (Does anyone know to whom I can write a letter of complaint?) I will add that I am deeply bothered that throughout the Old City where the lovely squares and roads of the Jewish Quarter have become awash with parked cars thus seriously ruining the beauty and atmosphere of the place. It was not always this way. There have been periods where the streets of the Old City were car-free. (And I am aware that there is a massive parking problem for Old City residents, but we have only one Old City! and families must take it into account when they buy there.)

Back to the kotel. The excavations will finish. The ramp is only temporary. Let us also get rid of the cars that dominate the kotel plaza and restore the place to the dignified place that it should be for all the Jewish people.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Leadership Traits

Last week, I was watching an interview with Supreme Court Justice Tal (retired.) He is a lovely frum man with the kind eyes of a grandfather. I remember how he used to come and daven in Gush every Yom Kippur. Having had a son in the Yeshiva who was killed in the Yom Kippur War, he retained the connection with the Yeshiva many years afterwards. (Judge Tal is also famous for having headed the committee to create a legal resolution for the draft of Haredim to the army or their inclusion in the workforce.)

The interviewer asked him, "What is the prime trait that must animate a judge?"

I was watching, thinking that he might point to the quality of integrity, or honesty, or intelligence or independent-mindedness. He responded that when he was first appointed as a district court judge and still finding his way, he had a meeting with a senior British (Jewish) Justice. He asked him the same question. The elderly Justice answered: "Compassion." "And that," said Judge Tal, "that has guided me as my prime trait to this day." He proceded to say that a judge must know the law, but must also apply it in such a way that it solves a problem. I was quite surprised that he saw compassion of all things, looking at the person's distress, as a prime trait of a Judge.

I mention this in connection with the parshat Hashavua. In this week's parsha , God picks a new leader:

And the Lord answered Moses, 'Take Yehoshua son of Nun, a man who has spirit (ruach) within him" (27:16)

The Hebrew word "ruach" - usually translated as "spirit" or simply "wind" - is used in another context in this passage. Because earlier, when Moses tells God that He must replace Moses with a new leader, he addresses God by an unusual phrase. Moses addressed the Almighty as: "The Lord of spirit of all flesh". With this simple word connection, we can explain what is the "spirit" that animates Joshua making him leadership material:

"Moses said before God: 'You know full well the minds of every one of your children and you know that no person is the same as another. When I depart from them, I request that you appoint a person who will tolerate every one of them in their individual uniqueness.'" (Midrash Tanchuma)

The Midrash explains God's title as the source "of the spirit of all flesh" as meaning that He knows the inner workings of all humans. God having created us understands the complexity of human psychology, the diversity in temperament, personality and ideology that are the hallmarks of our human nature, our genius, and our failings. According to the Midrash, Moses addresses God with this particular title because he feels that the next leader will need this God-like trait. National leadership needs an individual who, like God, understands people. A leader must be able to relate to all the diversity that constitutes humanity, with all their peculiarities and idiosyncrasies: extreme and moderate, honest and fraudulent, aggressive and calm, tolerant and intolerant. And indeed, Joshua is the person. He is a man with this "spirit" within him.


But sometimes a leader needs to express a new spirit, to forge a new path. Not to empathise but to be an independent thinker, a resolute leader. The Netziv (Rabbi Naftal Tzvi Berlin - Ha'Emek Davar commentary) suggests this approach (16:22):

"Joshua, A Man Of Spirit: HIS spirit. i.e. He is independently minded and not swayed or diverted by self-centred desires or other pressures."

So most people have a "spirit" - a consciousness - which is in some way controlled by "flesh" - self-indulgent desires. Joshua, on the other hand has a self-sufficient "spirit". He is a principled, resolute individual. He is not be swayed by the crowds.

So we have two approaches here. The Midrash sees Joshua's "spirit" as his empathy, his tolerance, his "people touch", his sensitivity. The Netziv sees Joshua's strength as his resolute independence of mind (a trait which he demonstrated clearly in the "Spies" episode.) It is this ability to stand firm irrespective of the buffeting pressures of national leadership that singles out Joshua for the leadership position.

Which is the preferable trait for a national leader? Can the two characteristics co-exist?

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Brushing Teeth on Fast Days

See the Shulchan Arukh OC #567:3

"A person that usually rinses his mouth in the morning should not do so on a public fast, but on a personal fast day, since he spits out, it is allowed .... RAMA: One is allowed to chew cinnamon sticks and other spices to give taste to one's throat and to spit out except on Yom Kippur."

It would seem that, Sephardim have a problem with brushing teeth but not Ashkenazim.

The Mishna Berura #11 states explicitly that if a person is distressed by their lack of teeth brushing / the taste or smell of their mouth, then "in a situation of distress rinsing the mouth is permitted on public fasts, but one should tip the head forward so that it should not reach the throat! This is allowed EVEN on Tisha B'Av but on Yom Kippur one should be stringent."

So the conclusion as it appears to me is that certainly on 17 Tammuz, one may brush teeth with toothpaste. On Tisha Bav, Arukh Hashulchan is machmir. Seems that the MB is lenient.

If you want to know the Islamic Halakha look here and interestingly, they have detailed Halakhot of teeth-brushing. (disclaimer: I have no clue whether this is a Modern Orthodox Islamic Halakha site or a more Haredi one???!)

Monday, July 02, 2007

Haredi Violence and Intolerance.

This is a negative post. I try not to write negative things. My belief is that there is enough to write about that can spread light, love, positive energies. I steer away from contoversy, mud-slinging and accusation. I have deliberated whether to post this. However, for some reason, I want to. I hope I won't regret posting this.

Today I had a disturbing experience.

I had a few people to meet with in Beit Shemesh. As one drives from Ramat Beit Shemesh Bet to Givat Sharett, one passes through a Haredi neighbourhood. I have known for some time that it is a frequent "trouble zone" ... stones thrown at cars on Shabbat, garbage cans dragged into the road to prevent Shabbat traffic... but today I saw it with my own eyes. There were tens of Haredi men gathering at the sides of the roads. Enormous metal dumpsters had been dragged into the road practically blocking it. Stones, rocks and massive concrete "blokim" (industrial concrete building blocks) littered the traffic circle, and graffiti was painted all over the sidewalk of the traffic circle. As I passed I saw teenagers spray-painting signs in green and red paint, on the sides of Jerusalem-stone apartment blocks. The graffiti called for modest dress: "It is forbidden to enter other than in modest attire."

The entire scene was quite shocking. One of my friends in Beit Shemesh told me that the community there had put up signs calling for modest dress in their neighbourhood. The Municipality had taken them down as they were illegal signs. This was their protest.

And this is what I began to think about:

1. Where does this violence come from? How do these religious Jews justify destroying property and endangering human life (those stones could kill!) clearly violating many Torah commands? The Haredi community demonstrate a passivity when it comes to the army. Why is it OK to take off time from learning Torah for this? Again, where does the violence, the disregard for public property come from?

2. Who ever gave these people the impression that they could define the rules in their neighbourhood, as if the roads were not public? This road is THE major thoroughfare running the length of Beit Shemesh. How do they even imagine that everyone will comply with the strict rules of a minority? Can they define how people should dress in the streets? Who is to define the neighbourhood dress code? It's a free society ... or maybe not?!

3. Where were the Police? The incident had been going on for some time. Are they maybe afraid to get involved? Have they given in to the violence?

I am, time after time, puzzled at the violent demosntrations that come out of Haredi circles.. Last year, we had the demonstrations for the Gay pride parade (and again, a couple of weeks back.) A few years ago it was Rehov Bar Ilan. Where is Bava Kamma (that deals with damage to property and persons????)

And I am also bothered by the presumption of Haredi domination of certain areas.

I have always had positive views of Haredim. I recall time after time how Rav Lichtenstein would say that even if we feel that we can talk more easily to a secular classmate at University, we should never forget that as regards basic orientation and values: Torah, Mitzvot, God, etc. - we have way more in common with Haredim. I agree with him in principle. But sometimes, I just don't get it.

My kids went to the zoo last year. Unfortunately, that day a Cheder from Meah Shearim also visited. They pushed, littered, taunted the animals, fed them against regulations, acted wildly, abused and vandalised the train. Unsurprisingly, my kids returned rather shocked, shaken and bewildered.

Another time, we visited the kotel. Waiting to pass through the electronic gates, a bus-load of (adult) Hasidim arrived, and basically jostled us out of the way. My kids, again, looked at me: "Who are these people? Why do they push children out of the way?"

A third incident. Last Hoshanna Rabba, my 8-year-old daughter was essentially ejected from the men's section of the Kotel. Why? I was explained that "she is more than 3 years old, and she isn't even wearing stockings!" and I argued and debated, but in the end, my daughter just said: "It's OK, I'll go to teh Ezrat Nashim!" But who lets an 8-year-old wander alone at the kotel? So I left too! Needless to say, it wasn't a very good Mincha for me. Again, what gives these people the assumption that they "own" the Kotel? (The same presumption, I assume, that legitimised the raising of the Mehitza at the back of the men's section Kotel, so that now, ladies cannot see their grandson's barmitzva etc. Adopting a more stringent interpretation of the Halakha and totally marginalising the majority of Israelis, non to mention, tourists כי ביתי בית תפילה לכל העמים! Is the Kotel there for all Jews or just for the religious?)

I know that one cannot generalise. One could claim that this is a marginal fringe element. But then, 1. the centre have to reign in the marginal elements; and 2. These are too many experiences not to feel that something is deeply wrong. Anyhow, these people baffle me. They seem simply impervious to certain standards of Derekh Eretz, and they are frightening, because they aim to dominate, and when they dominate, their standard is the only standard, and it is usually the strictest version of that standard. (I think this is called Fundamentalism.)

Sometimes, I ask myself... Do I have more in common with the Haredim, like Rav Lichtenstein said? I share values with the Haredim, but with certain Hilonim, I share basic norms of decent behaviour, a respect for people, a belief that one has to work to make a living, a commitment to defend our country, a respect for Israeli Law, a belief that Israel as a State is a valuable and Historic thing for the Jewish people. I share many of my core values with the upstanding secular public. (Don't get me wrong .. I feel that these are Jewish, Torah values too!)

People have voiced concern that the Haredi school system is growing, yet it still rejects the national curriculum. This means that these children are not educated in basic things (like Government and democracy etc. History of Israel) designed to forge a common identity allowing all Israelis share a common heritage. I have deep doubts whether they ever will accept these things. But how then will we be a single society? We must be able to live alongside (not with, or together, God forbid, but alongside) one another. In Chutz La'aretz Haredim know how to ignore, turn a blind eye. how to get along. But here, they seem to have different assumptions and aspiritaion. The more I live here in Israel, despite my deep desire to see their community positively, my interactions with the Haredim are frequently so negative. I sense a deep disregard for law, a sense of non-compromise, and hence a lack of desire to co-exist, and ... there is that violence.

I wish they would prove me wrong.