Monday, May 31, 2010

The Protests Continue. I'm Not Sure Why

I generally try to keep quiet about Chareidi protests, but things are really getting ridiculous.
It seems that the Chareidim continue to protest about the removal of graves in Ashdod in order to clear the way for the expansion of an emergency room, which requires special construction to make the room protected from possible missile attack. (Ashdod is well, well within missile range from Gaza.)
First and foremost, halachah clearly permits the removal of graves if there is a public need. In the classic work on issues related to mourning and Jewish law, Rav Yechiel Michel Tuchoshinsky writes in his work called Gesher Hachayyim (Chapter 26) the following:

5. If the grave damages the public (for example, it is adjascent to a road) even if the body was buried with the permission of the owner of the field, on is permitted to move it.
The gaon Rabbi Akiva Eiger added that if the community finds that it is appropriate to move the location of the grave to address communal need, this is considered in every respect like the grave that damages the public which is permitted to be moved.
This really isn't a matter for halachic debate. It's not a Modern Orthodox vs. Chareidi halachic issue. Everyone considers the Gesher Hachayyim an authoritative work, and even if you didn't, he's basically copying these rules out of the Gemara. It's simply not a matter for halachic debate.
So why then are the Chareidim protesting?
Even more interesting is the recent unearthing of a pagan altar at the hospital site, pretty clearly demonstrating that the bones that they found are those of pagans, and not of Jews. I don't know about you, but I'm not familiar with a Jewish altar with an image of a cow on it. Which only makes me wonder again: why are they protesting?
The answer, clearly, is that the protests have much more to do with political power than they do with Torah values or worries about graves being upset. The chariedim feel the need to assert their political might every so often, which I guess is fine when it really does affect their way of life. But when it's about the removal of pagan graves to insure the construction of a protected emergency room, Chareidim don't seem powerful. They seem foolish, petty and self-interested.
And that's not a demonstration of power. It's a chillul Hashem.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Audio Shiur: Beha'alotecha 5770 - When is it Really Bad?

Audio Shiur:
Parshat Beha'alotecha 5770 - When is it Really Bad?

We've all had life experiences where we thought that things were "bad", only later to realize that they weren't so bad after all. How do you know when it's really bad? What do you do in such a situation? Examining the complaints of the Jewish people in Beha'alotecha forces us to ask, "Were things really that bad for them?" and by extension, what about for us?

Click here to download the shiur, or here to navigate to the shiur on

The Role of Women: This Week's Brouhaha

This week, the yishuv of Eilon Moreh conducted municipal elections to pick a "secretary." To keep keep things straight, "secretary" in this context is the head of the yishuv, involved in everything from construction to garbage collection to social programming. During the buildup to the election, a woman in the yishuv approached the rav, Rav Elyakim Levanon, wondering whether he felt that she should run for the position, as she felt that she had energy and passion that could benefit her fellow residents. Rav Levanon, in an answer that he published in the local Shabbat newsletter, answered, "No" (using the language that it's אינו ראוי - "not appropriate") for two reasons: first of all, a woman should not be appointed to a position of שררה - or "dominion"; in addition, because municipal meetings last until all hours of the night, these types of meetings could lead to all sorts of issues of modesty and inappropriate interaction between the sexes.
When women's groups (and the Israeli secular media) learned about Rav Levanon's opinion, the firestorm truly erupted. Sure, you can get a small sense of it from the English article on Ynet on this issue, (see also here, where Rav Dor Lior, rav of Kiryat Arba comes to the aid of Rav Levanon, and adds that violence among youth stems from the fact that mothers work outside the home. Ouch.) but when you look at the Hebrew press, it's "full-court press." (Get the pun?) And it's not just left-wing women's groups that are outraged. The head of Emunah Women, not known for it's liberalism, bitterly attacked Rav Levanon's decision.
What's going on? A number of things at the same time.
First of all, we need to put things into perspective. Rav Levanon is the head of a small, very religious yishuv, where people specifically move in order to live a certain way of life. He didn't issue his opinion for Tel Aviv, but for Elon Moreh. If you've ever been there, especially during the "hard" years when residents were getting killed on the roads to and from Elon Moreh at an alarming clip, you'd understand the unique nature of the typical Elon Moreh resident and the type of life that he or she wishes to lead. The woman who asked Rav Levanon the question wasn't upset by the answer. She genuinely wanted his opinion, and respected his candid response. If she wanted to run anyway, no one could or would have stopped her.
Secondly, Rav Levanon articulated Torah values. There is an issue of serarah in halachah with regard to women in leadership positions. The fact that many modern poskim allow women to hold leadership positions doesn't make that ideal, and certainly doesn't compel every rabbi to agree with them.
But I think that there's a larger issue lurking slightly below the surface. Rabbanim like Rav Levanon and Rav Lior really represent the leadership of the Religious Zionist community - or at least the right-wing of that community. Halachic opinions such as these raise the (I think well-founded) fear that these leaders have veered so far to the right that it's impossible to tell the difference between Religious Zionism and Hareidi Judaism anymore.
And, as opposed to the residents of the yishuvim (and especially the more right-wing yishuvim), who have no problem with this trend, many middle of the road Religious Zionists wonder: if they no longer have these great rabbis to follow, who will they have to lead them?

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Can a Woman Be Too Modest?

In my recruitment work at Orot, I often need to photograph students in various educational settings at the college. I have found that a great deal of the students simply don't want to be photographed.
Orot's student body can generally be defined as very religious Zionist. Our students come to the school specifically because they're looking for a Torah-oriented atmosphere, as well as fellow students who share their values. I have no scientific evidence, but it seems to me that Orot students refuse to be photographed more than the average female population. And, while I'm happy to honor their wishes and never take pictures of unwilling students, I have recently begun to wonder: why are so many frum girls camera shy?
I fear that their shyness comes from a misplaced understanding of tzniut.
Among the numerous ramifications of the laws of modesty, halachah makes very specific requirements about female dress, including what parts of the body a woman must cover and what's considered appropriate modes of dress. It's no secret that Judaism considers the human body private, a vessel to be saved for the privacy of intimacy, and not to be shared with the public at large.
Yet, I get the sense that we somehow muddle the message. Instead of teaching our girls that they should view their bodies, molded by none other than God Himself, as beautiful sources of pride to be saved and savored, they somehow understand that they should cover themselves because they have something to be ashamed of. So, if someone wants to photograph them, these girls feel that simply appearing in a photo is somehow a breach of modesty, and they refuse to allow anyone to take a picture of them.
I wonder: How do you instill in a young woman a sense of pride and self-confidence on one hand; that they understand their own beauty and self-worth; but at the same time the notion that their beauty is not something to be put on display for the world, but rather a quality to be cherished and saved for the intimacy and holiness of married life?
I want my daughters to know how beautiful they are, but not need to share it with the world. At the same time, I hope they don't feel that because we teach them to cover themselves, that they're doing so because they have something to be ashamed of.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

But What about the People Who Need the Loans?

In an almost unnoticed move, the Bank of Israel just changed the rules to make it more difficult and more expensive to get a mortgage. You can see the fine print (or at least an explanation) here, but the basic fear is that Israel is in, or might soon be in a real estate bubble.
It's no secret that real estate prices here have soared (Sadly, I'm a renter. I did not buy a house in Yad Binyamin.), almost doubling over the last few years. One reason for this is that it's relatively easy to get a mortgage, and real estate is considered a critical way for people to save their money. Israelis consider the notion of not owning property to be crazy. So they buy, and prices rise.
In a bid to curb this trend, the Bank of Israel has issued a rule forcing banks to set aside money if a loan is more than sixty percent of the value of the house, which many loans are, thus effectively raising the interest rate on these loans. Sounds harmless, but it's really not.
Last night on my way home, I was scanning the radio for something interesting to listen to, and I stumbled onto a Chareidi station on which a Chareidi banker
was literally screaming about this new rule. Young Chareidi families have literally no place to live; couples are living in converted storage spaces, tiny apartments, or other unsuitable housing because they simply can't afford the exorbitant cost of new housing. This rule will simply make it that much more difficult for them.
While I applaud the Bank of Israel's foresighted move to stave off a housing bubble and avoid the fate of the United State's real estate market, I think that they're shooting at the wrong target. Housing prices have risen so much because there's simply a shortage of housing. There aren't enough houses being built to accommodate new Israeli families, and the land for those families is taxed and levied ridiculously.
There's no officially permitted building in Judea and Samaria, two major areas where Chareidim built cities to alleviate specifically this problem, and getting permission to build anywhere else raises the ire of environmentalists, critics, basically anyone else who doesn't want the Chareidim to build near them.
I've got a proposal for the Chareidim: they should take over neighborhoods in secular cities. Especially in the smaller towns (far from the center of Israel), housing is cheap, and the chareidim could encourage enough families to move and establish a critical mass that could sustain the Chareidi way of life. And nothing gets a secular government moving like the thought of a Chareidi community moving into your neighborhood.
That, more than anything, could propel the government to take the housing needs of the Chareidi community seriously.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

When in Doubt, Blame the Vaad

During my shul rabbi years, I played an active role on Detroit's Vaad, especially with regard to kashrut. I won't claim that we were perfect - far from it, but generally the rabbanim I worked with tried to act appropriately and ensure that the kosher consumer could safely eat in a given establishment.
Nonetheless, the Vaad was always a running joke in Detroit. (I haven't been there for two years, but as I left a new administrator was in place, and I've heard good things since.) Surely there was a history, but I found time and time again, that when proprietors made bad business decisions, instead of blaming themselves, their business model, or even the bad economy, they would blame the Vaad. I've heard so many excuses, it's almost laughable:
  1. The restrictions were too onerous
  2. They didn't trust me
  3. The mashgiach wasn't any good
  4. They've maligned me privately
  5. They won't let customers into my store
  6. They're afraid it will become a hangout (that one I heard a lot in Detroit. My answer always was, "I'd much rather they hang out in your store than behind the 7-11, where they really were hanging out.")
The trouble is, the Vaad often cannot, should not, and will not fight back. And, there's an inherent distrust on the part of the frum public in Vaadim - or at least that's how it seemed to me. The sense was that the "rabbis" were making a living by adding to the cost of kosher food, and that if we'd just back off a little and stop imposing
I thought about this phenomenon reading an article about the demise of a Subway franchise in Woodmere, of all places. The article states,
Israeli-born Avi Paner, who bought the Subway franchise on Central Avenue in November and closed it in April, learned the hard way. For his troubles, Paner blamed the Vaad HaKashrus of the Five Towns and Far Rockaway.
“They destroyed my place,” he lamented, claiming that the Vaad didn’t like the idea of a kosher Subway and spread rumors that the store was not kosher.
“The store needs to have a minimum 120-140 [customers] a day and they didn’t come in because they were told in the schools to not come,” Paner alleged. He could not name specific schools but said some of his customers told him about a smear campaign.
You've gotta love it. Business was bad, so blame it on some kind of smear campaign. Have you ever been to Cedar Lane in Cedarhurst? The entire neighborhood is a hangout. Why would a school care where their kids bought lunch?
I can think of another reason why Subways sink in New York: the food is bad. I've had Subway, in the JCC in Cleveland. If you're living in the Midwest, any kosher food is great, and you'll pay a premium for it. But in New York, and especially Woodmere, where there seems to be a one-to-one ratio of kosher Jews to kosher restaurants, the food better be good, and it better be cheap. Subway is neither.
And that's why the Subway failed.
But why would facts matter? It's always easier to just blame the Vaad.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

A Troubling Trend in Orthodoxy

We subscribe to Mekor Rishon, the current Dati Leumi newspaper of record. We also get the "magazine" package, mostly for the kids magazine which is both excellent, and our kids love to read.
Among the magazines that appear in the package is a bi-weekly rag called "Nashim", with lite divrei Torah, recipes, articles about clothes, pictures about clothes, and other women-related ideas. I never read it. Rena doesn't either, at least not normally. It's skimming material.
This week she called to my attention to a disturbing article in the magazine, about the growing "trend" of women who dunk in the mikveh on the eighth day after the beginning of their niddah cycle, and do not follow the halachically proscribed schedule. (One of the problems with articles like these is that it's difficult to know whether it's really a "trend" and widespread, or whether it's really quite a limited phenomenon. Either way, the article helps spread the word until it really does become more acceptable.)
I've scanned and upload the article for you here. It's in Hebrew, but I strongly recommend reading it if only to be aware of the issues that the article raises.
To understand the background of this issue, a little halachic inside baseball is necessary.
The Torah describes two types of menstrual flow: dam Niddah and dam Zivah. According to the Torah, a woman who sees a normal Niddah flow counts seven days from the onset of the menstruation, and on the night of the eighth day immerses in the mikveh. Zivah is much more stringent. (for brevity, I'm skipping a great deal of detail), and in its primary form requires what is known as shivah neki'im, or seven clean days. That means that a woman must wait until the flow subsides completely, ensure that she is physically clean, and then count an additional seven days.
Practically, we cannot distinguish between the two types of bleeding, so we consider every type of menstrual bleeding as dam Zivah, requiring the familiar seven clean days every kallah learns about before marriage. This translates into a minimum of twelve and often fourteen or fifteen days of separation in a normal Orthodox marriage.
According to the article, a gynecologist and woman's advocate have been teaching women to follow the "Torah law", and instead of counting the seven clean days, to only count the first seven days and immerse on the eighth day. The problem with this is that through the halachic process, not most - but every single halachic authority takes it as a given that we do not follow this practice, but instead must count the seven clean days and maintain the mandated longer separation.
Two things trouble me about this trend:
First and foremost, it reflects a current desire to mold halachah to what most fits today's lifestyle. If it's not convenient, meaningful; if people find it too challenging, then let's change it! Let me be the first to say that separation from one's spouse for two weeks a month is hard. Really hard. But do we really think it's harder today than it was a hundred, or five hundred years ago? Yet, somehow people grant themselves the license to change centuries of Jewish custom to meet their personal needs or views. This will only get worse in the future.
Most troubling though, is that attitude that somehow one can ignore rabbinic law (the "seven clean days stringency") and apply Torah law and still consider the practice Torah Judaism. Nothing could be farther from the truth. The Torah was given to Moshe on Sinai to interpret and transmit to the Jewish people. The Oral Tradition is an integral and indivisible second side of Jewish faith. Without rabbinic law, there is no Torah. What is Shabbat? Who defines when it starts and ends; what actions are permitted and prohibited? That same Oral Law has concluded that women must count the seven clean days. That's the halachah. That's Jewish law.
And no matter what trends develop, and how many women choose to act differently, they might think that they're following the Torah, but they're sadly mistaken.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Rut: Model of Excellence

John W. Gardner was an internationally-known thinker and leader who promoted the common good and improved the lives of millions of Americans. He once wrote, "The society which scorns excellence in plumbing because plumbing is a humble activity, and tolerates shoddiness in philosophy because philosophy is an exalted activity, will have neither good plumbing nor good philosophy. Neither its pipes nor its theories will hold water."
Gardner’s words are as true today as they were when he wrote them in the 1960’s. We all believe in the importance of excellence. But are we striving for excellence as a community? Are we teaching our children excellence? Do we talk about excellence for our families?
Perhaps we don’t strive for excellence because it’s so hard to define. I looked up “excellence” in the dictionary. Webster defines excellence as, “the state, quality, or condition of excelling.” Thanks very much. What does that mean? While we might not have such an easy time defining excellence, Chazal teach us that you know it when you see it.

To read the full piece, click here to download the file in pdf format.
(Note: I gave this as a drashah at YIOP a number of years ago.)

Friday, May 14, 2010

Remebering Rabbi Anemer at His Shloshim

This past Wednesday evening (after bringing Rena home from the hospital with a new baby), I traveled to Beit Shemesh for an azkarah marking the Shloshim of Rabbi Gedalia Anemer, who was both the rav of the shul I grew up in and my rebbe during my last two years of high school.
My good friend Rabbi Dov Lipman (and classmate and teammate on the basketball team and coeditor of the yearbook - it was a small school) organized the program (a big yasher koach to him) and asked me to speak.
Rabbi Anemer's drashot - especially Shabbat Shuvah and Shabbat Hagadol, were legendary - almost a taste of a world long gone. He divided his drashot into two: the first half was pure pilpul - in-depth halachah that focused on a specific detail or nuance in Jewish law. It was so detailed, that in high school we used to joke about how long we could follow him: "I lost his at 22 minutes, how long did you keep up?" But then, after about half an hour, he switched gears into mussar, and inspiration. His rhetoric soared; he inspired and cajoled, lifted us to places we didn't normally rise to. But I always wondered: as a rabbi, I also gave drashot on Shabbat Shuvah and Shabbat Hagadol. But I only gave the second half - the mussar and inspiration and drush. I could never really get away with giving the first half. Why did he, throughout all the years, continue to give both halves of his drashah? Why the first half of halachic nuance?
To answer this question, I noted that the Torah calls the men named to serve as leaders of the tribes by the term "nesi'im - נשיאים. We normally translate this word to mean "princes," but the word emanates from the Hebrew word, לנשוא - to lift up. I suggested that the nesi'im played dual roles. On the one hand, they had to inspire the people - to show them the possible. But then, on the other hand, they also had to be nosei - to literally carry the people as well.
Rabbi Anemer was both: first and foremost, he was the ultimate role model. He represented an idea and an ideal. He stood for uncompromising Torah values, to the very last nuance and detail. But at the same time he lifted us up, sometimes on his shoulders. He carried the burden of his community with grace and dignity.
Something at the shloshim struck me. When my father died at a very young age, Rabbi Anemer played an instrumental role in our family, and also in my personal development. I always felt a personal, almost intimate connection to him, even though we did not often speak. At the shloshim, I realized that I was not alone. So many other people felt exactly the same way. He somehow found a way to connect to so many of his students and community members. I thought I knew a secret about him - that behind the facade of strength and fire and brimstone, lay a gentle, genteel giant of a man.
I realized this week that it's not really a secret. Everyone who knew him well understood the power he had to love each and every one of us. And therein lay his greatness.
I miss him already.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

A New Baby in Yerushalayim

Here's a little bit of advice.
When your wife goes into labor, don't tell her to give it time. Even though it's 11:15pm, and you've just gotten into bed. Especially when you know that your wife has babies fast. And you live a good forty-five minutes from the hospital.
We finally got into the car at 12:30am and began driving to Hadassah Ein Karem, where Rena was scheduled to deliver. About fifteen minutes later, Rena couldn't really tell where one contraction ended and the other began. So she called the police. Or ambulance. Whatever. (In Israel, just dial 100. Or 101. Not sure.) The lady on the other end of the line wasn't really sure if Rena was driving or not (she wasn't), but strongly emphasized that it would be dangerous to give birth on the side of the road. Thanks for that. She sent an ambulance, and told us to pull over and wait for them.
By that point, we were at Latrun (the turnoff from 3 to the 1). So we pull off and start waiting. And waiting. Finally, Rena asked the lady, "Where are they coming from?"
"Beit Shemesh." (fifteen minutes away).
"Beit Shemesh?" I said. "That's crazy. We're closer than they are." So I start driving, and get on the 1.
Rena has an idea. Tell them to meet us at the 38 and the 1. (Where the road to Beit Shemesh meets with the main highway.) It's pretty close. So we're driving along, and there's an ambulance pulled over with its lights flashing at the entrance to the 38, but there's another car in front of it. So I keep driving. At that point, the ambulance driver called Rena on her cell and started yelling at her, "What are you doing! Pull over and wait for us."
We did, and she transferred to the ambulance. Those guys drive fast. I couldn't keep up, even in my Mazda 5. (That's four whole cylinders of power.)
When I finally got to the hospital, I had to park, find my way to the maternity ward, and started walking down hallways until I found my way to Rena, who was well into labor.
About twenty minutes later, she gave birth to a healthy baby girl.
Today Jews around the world mark Yom Yerushalayim, the day that Israeli soldiers recaptured and reunified Jerusalem during the Six Day War. Yet, the day seems somewhat distant to me. It could just be that my wife just had a baby and I'm somewhat preoccupied.
But I think that it's more than that. For whatever reason, I'm struggling with Yom Yerushalayim, because I wonder how far we've come in the over forty years since we captured the Old City and Har Habayit. Is Har Habayit really "b'yadeinu" - in our hands? Sure, I guess it is from a technical point of view, but we don't and can't really go and pray there, both for religious and political reasons.
Don't get me wrong. The city is beautiful, and teeming with life and energy and vitality. I work in Yerushalayim once a week, and still have a sense of wonder from the fact that I can even say that. (In all honesty, one of the reasons that I've never wanted to live in Yerushalayim is because I didn't want to lose that sense of "specialness," and that's hard to do when you live in a place.)
But we're still missing the essential elements that made Yerushalayim unique: a Beit Hamikdash, and the Divine presence that it's supposed to contain; a Sanhedrin to bring guidance and Torah to the Jewish people and the world.
I guess in some way, I feel that after the amazing achievements of Yom Yerushalayim, we're kind of stuck in the mud, spinning our wheels.
After the baby was born, the placenta came next, and the doctor was examining it to ensure that it was whole. It's a pretty bloody thing, and I made some offhand remark about how "gross" it was.
The doctor would have none of it. "On the contrary," he said. "This is the most beautiful thing in the world. This is life itself."
Right then and there, I saw his point. Life isn't clean and lovely. It's somewhat messy, and complex and confusing. It's never as pure as we want or think it should be. But in that is the beauty and power and Divinity itself.
That's how I've been thinking about Yerushalayim these past couple of days. I don't see the process. The US government is leaning on Israel not to build in "East" Jerusalem. We don't yet have Har Habayit, and certainly not a Beit Hamikdash.
But my son will soon put on his tefillin for the first time, and we're thinking of going to the Kotel to do it. He is taking a tiyyul with his class to Yerushalayim. I'm going to pick up my new daughter, just born in a hospital right outside Yerushalayim.
On Yom Yerushalayim.
There's a lot to celebrate.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Welcoming Our First "Sabra"

With tremendous thanks to God, it is my great joy to announce the birth of our daughter - "NoName" Spolter. Mother and daughter are doing well.
Nothing more profound to say at this time. Just too tired.

Friday, May 7, 2010

The Haredi Army - Thoughts for Parashat Behar-Bechukotai

Secular Jews really don't like Haredim. This is something you hear all the time, both in the media, and in private conversations. You might have heard Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai's rant against the Haredi education system recently. (Just as an aside, he'll only grow stronger in Israeli secular society for voicing his opinion on the issue.) Sitting at a wedding this week, a friend of mine now working in an Israeli hospital said, "You know, most Israelis really don't like religious people. At all." I know.
Making a broad generalization, secular Israelis have two main complaints against Hareidi society:
  1. Hareidim don't serve in the army
  2. Hareidim don't really work, and they live off social services and benefits
While both complaints have a great degree of truth to them, there are cracks in the dam. Hareidim have begun enlisting in the IDF in special units, and their numbers will continue to grow. Moreover, the recent financial crisis and the massive funding cuts for countless yeshivot has generated a wave of underfunded educators and kollel fellows. Yeshivot are simply months behind - often many months - on their payrolls, and the light at the end of the tunnel has yet to appear. But children still have to eat, so many Hareidim have begun to enter the workforce through supplementary vocational training and job placement. But, for the vast majority of Hareidi society, the stereotypes still hold true.
Except, at least for the army part, the underlying values might not.
The complaint that Haredim don't serve in the army assumes that their learning in Kollel has no intrinsic national value. But, according to a comment of the Netziv in Ha'amek Davar on this week's parshah, that assumption is simply not true.

Concluding the section describing the Yovel year, the Torah tells us, (25:18)
וַעֲשִׂיתֶם, אֶת-חֻקֹּתַי, וְאֶת-מִשְׁפָּטַי תִּשְׁמְרוּ, וַעֲשִׂיתֶם אֹתָם--וִישַׁבְתֶּם עַל-הָאָרֶץ, לָבֶטַח
Wherefore ye shall do My statutes, and keep Mine ordinances and do them; and ye shall dwell in the land in safety. (sorry about the Old Tyme translations. I get them from Mechon Mamre who got them from the JPS in 1917.)
Commenting on this verse, Netziv writes,
הוא הטעם והסיבה מה שנדרש בשני היובל להגדיל תורה, דשמירת הארץ מאוה"ע הוא ע"י אנשי חיל היושבים על הספר, וביובל אין אנשי חיל חמושים למלחמה שהרי כל א' שב לאחזותו ולמשפחתו, וא"כ יש סכנה בישיבת הארץ, שנית דלשמירת הארץ נדרש שיהיה אוצרות המלך במבצרים כדכתיב בדה"ב י"א כ"ג, ויובל הבא אחר שנה שביעית כבר האוצרות מתרקנות, מש"ה הזהיר הכתוב "ועשיתם את חקתי וגו'", ופלפולה של תורה היא חרבם של ישראל, והיא המוספת שמירת המדינה, וכל מה שהמלחמה יותר מסוכנת יש לחדד יותר החרב...
This is the understanding and the reason for the fact that during the years of Yovel we must increase [our study of] Torah, for the guarding of the Land from the nations of the world is through the warriors who sit over their books. And during the Yovel year, there are no warriors armed for war, for each and every person returned to his property and his family, and if so there is a danger to the settlement of the Land. Secondly, in order to guard the Land this requires that the coffers of the king be full...and during the Yovel year, which comes after the Shemittah year the coffers have already been emptied. For this reason the verse warns us, "And you shall do my statutes.." and the battle of Torah is the sword of Israel, and adds to the security of the State. And the greater the danger in war, the more we must sharpen this sword.
Some fight with their swords. Others fight with their books. I guess the question is, do they see it that way?

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Parshat Behar-Bechukotai - The Jewish Economy

Audio Shiur:
Parshat Behar-Bechukotai - The Jewish Economy

With Goldman Sachs' recent troubles in the news, Parshat Behar gives us a golden opportunity to evaluate economic models in the Torah. By examining the economic roles of Shemittah and Yovel in society, we come to see the pitfalls inherent in capitalism, and the nuanced economic model the Torah advocates, and also try to arrive at a greater understanding of the connection between these two mitzvot, and our presence in the Land of Israel.

Click here for the audio link, or listen in the handy audio player supplied below.

Jew's Ear Juice

The New York Times featured this picture in a slide show about Chinglish - weird English translations found across China. I have two questions:
What is Jew's Ear Juice? Is our Ear Juice different that that of other people?
If you happen to read Chinese, what does it really mean?

This kind of reminds me of Ground Farfic.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

America's Hero Deficit

Following the coverage of the attempted bombing of Times Square from afar, the description of the men who reported the smoking car as "heroes" struck me as unusual, if not odd. One piece in the NY Times declared, "Vendors Who Alerted Police Called Heroes." I wondered: Heroes? Really? Sure, they reported the smoking SUV, but was that act really heroic? Even the guy who reported the smoking car wasn't so sure.
But in a city hungry for heroes, the spotlight first turned to the vendors. Mr. Orton, a purveyor of T-shirts, ran from the limelight early Sunday morning as he spurned reporters’ questions while gathering his merchandise on a table near where the Pathfinder was parked. When asked if he was proud of his actions, Mr. Orton, who said he had been selling on the street for about 20 years, replied: “Of course, man. I’m a veteran. What do you think?”
I tend to agree with the policemen on the scene in Times Square who eschewed the hero moniker and,
he referred to “guys with bomb suits” as “incredible heroes”
That I agree with. If you willingly strap on a heavy suit and walk towards a bomb to protect public safety, in my view you're a hero.
This story reminded me of the airline pilot, Captain Sully Sullenberger, repeatedly described in the media as a "hero." Don't get me wrong: he certainly did a great job landing the plane on the Hudson River safely. I'm very comfortable describing him as a fantastic, capable pilot who executed his duties under great pressure. But was he a hero? The dictionary defines a hero as,
a man of distinguished courage or ability, admired for his brave deeds and noble qualities
Again, Sully did a great job landing the plane. But were his actions courageous, brave or noble? Let's not kid ourselves: he was on the plane. He was the captain. It was his job to land the plane, an action he trained for throughout his career, and one he was paid to do. What else could he do? Not land the plane?? Was that really an option? How then were his actions "brave and noble"? They were competent, capable, steady - exactly as they should have been. He did his job. But we don't celebrate dependability today. We only worship heroism. I've been thinking about this issue for a few days now, so I noticed a sticker on the bus this morning on my way to work. Here's the sticker:
Translation: "Honored Traveler: Examine the area around your seat and report any suspicious items to the driver. (at the bottom) Remember: Awareness prevents tragedies.
This is daily life here in Israel. You keep your eyes open, watching for things that seem out of place. You report unusual items - even a backpack in a public space. And when you do, you're not a hero. You're a responsible member of society.
Awareness. Citizenship. Responsibility. These are the qualities evident in someone who reports a suspicious SUV smoking like a barbecue in the middle of Times Square. But I wouldn't call him a hero.
I wonder: why are so many people "hungry for heroes"? Why does every story need to have someone sweep in, ignoring danger and throwing caution to the wind in order to save the day? Does life somehow become less meaningful if it fails to resemble a superhero action flick?
We seem to have lost an ability to find nobility in consistency and perseverance; in the daily grind that keeps life normal and uneventful. By transforming citizenship into heroism, we somehow denigrate the cop that walks the beat who insures that our lives remain stable and normal.
I think the only hero in this case is the moron who failed to properly build the bomb in the first place. His ineptitude probably saved lives.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Bonfires on Lag B'omer

OK, OK. I know that this post will make me sound like a crotchety old man.
I can live with that.
Lag B'omer here is really hard to explain. As I've posted previously, preparations for the day involve literally weeks and weeks of wood collection, as children compete with each other to construct the largest possible pile of wood. They form groups, teams, collectives, all in the goal of building the biggest and best fire.
And they steal much of the wood from building sites.
On Lag B'omer, we sealed our windows, and went out to watch. In the small area where my children were burning their wood, I counted 12 bonfires. Twelve. One neighbor commented that the scene reminded him of the doomsday scenes after a nuclear holocaust that you see in the movies: masses of people huddled around fires on a dirt field. Another (from South Africa) noted that the scene reminder her of Soweto.
Next to my son's bonfire, the boys had collected a pile of wood larger than my living room. I think that they were hunkering down for the winter. At the scene, parents had constructed makeshift barbecues, grilling hot dogs, kebabs, burgers, etc. Now, I like a barbecue like the next guy, but on Saturday night?
My favorite little "nugget": I went to bed at about 12am, having had enough of the fires. When I got up and went to minyan the next morning, at 6:45am, a group of boys were standing next to a fire in broad daylight, and they were still throwing wood onto it. They were prepared.
I guess there's nothing really "wrong" with all the bonfires, other than the incredibly dangerous nature of burning numerous open fires in residential areas without taking really any safety precautions. (I'd be curious to know about burn statistics in the country on Lag B'omer.) But what bothers me more is the vague notion that these fires are somehow religious in nature, and connected to Lag B'omer in some way.
I don't see it.
At our fires, I didn't see any spirituality, religiosity or connection to Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai. There was no Jewish music that I could hear, and the only Jewish content I saw was in the form of a "quiz" that our neighbor conducted for the very small children who were afraid of all the fire.
I imagine that could we ask Rabbi Shimon today what he thought about the way we observe Lag B'omer, he would probably prefer that instead of eating hot dogs, we all learned a mishnah with our kids that night, put them to sleep, and instead of giving them a day off, sent them off to learn Torah in school the next day.
I guess I do sound pretty crotchety. Oh well.