Friday, June 28, 2013

Two Radio Discussions: Shabbat in Tel Aviv and the Chief Rabbi Race

I've got about a forty minute drive from Yad Binyamin to Orot each day, during which I normally listen to podcasts on my iPod. At times, at the turn of the hour, I'll turn on the radio to get the news. Today, after the news, I stuck with the radio, and remembered why I love living here.
The top news item in Israel today is the recent decision of the Israeli Supreme Court instructing the city of Tel Aviv to enforce the ban on businesses staying open on Shabbat (the city levies fines). It seems that major chains were keeping their supermarkets open, while the smaller stores (makolot) were getting pinched by closing. And, when they did open, the fines levied against them were far more painful to a small store than they were to a major chain.
The Supreme Court sided with the small stores, instructing the municipality to enforce the current law, which bans commerce on Shabbat. This law, which is on the books, has been largely ignored or enforced only half-heartedly, as many if not most citizens of Tel Aviv don't keep Shabbat and want to be able to buy groceries on their day off.
The Supreme Court didn't come out in favor of Shabbat, mind you. They came out in favor of upholding the law. They explicitly said that if the people of Tel Aviv wanted to be able to shop on Shabbat, then they could and should simply change the law. What the city cannot do, though, is intentionally ignore a law on the books.
Left-wing radio host Keren Noibach
What I loved about the radio discussion that ensued what that the discussion did not fall along expected party lines. The secular radio host, and some of the politicians, were not united in favor of opening stores unilaterally on Shabbat. They also wanted there to be a spirit of Shabbat, even in Tel Aviv. Keren Noibach, a well-known left-wing morning radio host noted that especially in our consumer-driven culture, the last thing that Tel Aviv needs is for another day of shopping. Many also noted that they wanted the Jewish nature of Israel was important to them.
I then changed the station from Reshet Bet (Kol Yisrael) to a more dati-oriented radio station called Galei Yisrael, which is supposed to appeal to the Religious Zionist community. The discussion turned to the race for the Chief Rabbinate (where the news changes literally by the minute). I wondered about the connection between the two issues on the radio that morning. What's the connection between Shabbat in Tel Aviv and the identity of the Chief Rabbi? Shouldn't the Chief Rabbi of Israel play a role in the discussion? I believe he should - not by working to clamp down on Tel Aviv, but by taking the role of Chief Rabbinic Advocate for Shabbat. I yearn for a Chief Rabbi who could respond to these issues with words of encouragement, love and a positive attitude towards the Jewish nature of Israel; who could connect to the public - not just the religious public, but the Israeli public at large who, hearing his message would react not with indignation and scorn, but admiration and appreciation.
Then, perhaps the next time Keren Noibach wanted to talk about Shmirat Shabbat, instead of just inviting a professor and a lawyer, she invited a rabbi to join in the discussion as well.
I loved listening to these discussion

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Audio Shiur: Parshat Balak - When Leadership Errs

Audio Shiur:
Parshat Balak - When Leadership Errs

At the end of Parshat Balak, when the people begin to sin by worshipping Baal Peor, God gives Moshe instructions, and Moshe seems not to carry them out. Or he does. And then he's left powerless to deal with the insolence of Zimri. Did Moshe err? If he did, how are we to react to the mistakes of our greatests leaders?

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Bruriah - and Female Torah Scholars

My class on Aggadah at Orot ended yesterday, and one of the students gave a model lesson as her class assignment. She chose to share some of the Aggadic statements about Bruriah, the well-known historic figure from the era of the Tanaim (the rabbis who appear in the Mishnah). I must confess: I has been aware of Bruria's existence (and the fact that they named a high school after her), but I somehow missed some of the sources that I'm going to share with you in this post.
The Wikipedia entry on her is actually quite complete, so I'll quote it.
Bruriah (Hebrew: ברוריה) is one of several women quoted as a sage in the Talmud. She was the wife of the Tanna Rabbi Meir and the daughter of Rabbi Hananiah Ben Teradion, who is listed as one of the "Ten Martyrs." She is greatly admired for her breadth of knowledge in matters pertaining to both halachah and aggadah, and is said to have learned from the rabbis 300 halachot on a single cloudy day (Tractate Pesachim 62b). Her parents were put to death by the Romans for teaching Torah, but she carried on their legacy.
Bruriah was very involved in the halachic discussions of her time, and even challenges her father on a matter of ritual purity (Tosefta Keilim Bava Kamma 4:9). Her comments there are praised by Rabbi Judah Ben Bava. In another instance, Rabbi Joshua praises her intervention in a debate between Rabbi Tarfon and the sages, saying "Bruriah has spoken correctly" (Tosefta Keilim Bava Metzia 1:3).
She was also renowned for her sharp wit and often caustic jibes. The Talmud (Tractate Eruvin 53b) relates that she once chastised Rabbi Jose, when he asked her "באיזו דרך נלך ללוד" ("By which way do we go to Lod?") claiming that he could have said the same thing in two [Hebrew] words, "באיזה ללוד" ("By which to Lod?") instead of four, and thereby keep to the Talmudic injunction not to speak to women unnecessarily.
Then we came to the issue of Bruria's death. Back to Wikipedia:
The Talmud, in Tractate Avodah Zarah (18b), mentions that in the middle of his life, Rabbi Meir fled to Babylonia, and mentions two possible motivations. The second of these is "the Bruriah incident" (מעשה דברוריא), a phrase which is not explained. It is left to the classical commentaries to fill in this lacuna; Rashi (ad loc.) relates the following story. Bruriah made light of the Talmudic assertion that women are "light-minded". (נשים דעתן קלות) To vindicate the Talmudic maxim, Rabbi Meir sent one of his students to seduce her. Though she initially resisted the student's advances, she eventually acceded to them. When she realized what she had done (כשנודע לה), she committed suicide out of shame. (Other sources have it that she fell ill emotionally due to shame, and a group of Rabbis prayed for her death and peace.) Rabbi Meir, in turn, exiled himself from Israel out of shame and fled to Babylonia.
For some reason, I had never heard of this story before. It appears exactly as described in Rashi Avoda Zara. And I said yesterday and write today: I don't believe it to be true. I also don't even believe that Rashi wrote that story at all. Yes, it does appear in the text of Rashi. But any regular student of the Gemara will notice different commentaries amending and changing parts of the text of Rashi on a semi-regular basis. Also, let's not forget that Rashi's commentary was hand-written, and copied. Is there a chance that a hand-written comment on the side of a Rashi text was accidentally copied and then included as part of the original text? I think that there is.
Yet, the primary reason I refuse to accept that the story happened, and that Rashi wrote it, is that it defies belief. What rabbi - actually what husband or human being - would encourage a student to test his wife by seducing her? Who would do such a thing? How does that relate in any way to the idea of נשים דעתן קלות? What would such a thing even prove? It could not have happened, and I don't believe Rashi could have considered it a possibility either.

Yet, this question - what happened to Bruriah - is crucial for a modern-day question that the Modern Orthodox world finds itself grappling with. Essentially, how do we relate to the well-known rabbinic dictates that seem to denigrate women? How do we address comments like נשים דעתן קלות - "women are light-minded" and כל המלמד את בתו תורה כאלו מלמדה טפלות - "anyone who teaches his daughter Torah; it is as if he taught her foolishness"? In the story of Bruriah, her scoffing at the words of Chazal ultimately led to her downfall. Thus, as the story appears, it sends a warning: don't dismiss Chazal so fast. They articulated a deeper truth that Briuriah failed to grasp, and that failure led to her destruction.
On the other hand, if the story never happened, then we turn our attention back to the positive comments about her Torah scholarship and the honor she is accorded in rabbinic literature. Then, we can view the rabbinic statements about women as general observations about their time (which I'm sure were accurate), but not as rules to live by. After all, they were willing to make an exception for the very capable and Torah-knowledgeable woman they knew personally.
This, of course, leads us to today. If Bruriah could be so respected by the Sages so many centuries ago, why are we so scared of women who wish to take leadership roles in the Orthodox world? Why do female Torah scholars frighten us so? On the hand, if Rashi's story really did happen, we must do our utmost to steer clear of this dangerous model of female leadership, in order to avoid the inevitable calamity that will ensure.
Who's right? I guess that depends on your position regarding the "Story of Bruriah" as it appears in Rashi. Did you think it really happened, or not?

Friday, June 14, 2013

Fathers Day: Bless Your Children - With Praise

Rabbi Daniel Cohen of Connecticut just put out a beautiful message just in time for Father's Day in the United States. Here it is.

His message resonates with me for a couple of reasons. First of all, my parents also didn't bless us each Friday night;we got blessed once a year, on Erev Yom Kippur. When we first married and had children, I felt that it would be appropriate to follow my parents' custom. My wife disagreed, and strongly felt that we should bless our children weekly, as he father had done. Her encouragement (and I think a very powerful Paysach Krohn lecture on the topic) convinced me, and we've been blessing our children every Friday night since that time.
The danger of doing something regularly - even weekly - is falling into a routine. But how many loving, tender routines do we really have? How many times each week do we (fathers) physically embrace our children - even if it's just putting our hands on their heads. Fathers can be (I might be describing myself, perhaps) somewhat authoritarian, distant and even off-putting at times. That simple blessing - placing your hands on your children - might very well be the only loving physical contact of the week.
I would add two thoughts to Rabbi Cohen's wonderful message.
The words of Birkat Kohanim are, of course, powerful and meaningful. But they're also not personal. They don't relay any specific message to each individual child. I'm not altogether sure that my children are even listening to the words. Yet, the classic blessing of children in the Torah - when Yitzchak blesses his sons - isn't simply a formulaic recitation, but instead reflected a deeper truth about each of his sons (even if he didn't realize it at the time!). My mother, who blesses each of us once a year (as is her custom) before Yom Kippur, after she reads the text in the Machzor, shares thoughts about each of her children - what she's proud of over the past year, and sometimes expectations that she has. That's a bit much for a weekly blessing, but somehow, after giving each child a brachah, I began telling each of my children something they had done during the week that made me proud. Now, they eagerly await that moment, when I give them a positive word for something that they've done over the course of the week. It might be good effort on a test; helping their mother; my three-year-old will often be noted for sleeping through the night. The content is of course important, and I take a couple of moments to think about what I want to tell them before coming home from shul on Friday night. But, perhaps, even more than that, is the positive encouragement that they receive. As a parent, it's so easy to criticize. We're far stingier with the praise, which is so much more effective.
Finally, when I began giving brachot to the kids, so did Rena. I think the first time I gave her a quizzical look, as if to say, "Hey, this is a father thing?" Why, she wondered, is it only for fathers? Shouldn't mothers bless their children as well? Indeed they should. And our children's mother does. Every week.
If you already bless your children, try adding a word of praise for each child afterwards. And if you don't yet bless your children before kiddush on Friday night, start now. (If it's not your minhag, I give you a heter to start a new minhag. Really.) It will be one new custom that you'll always be happy to keep.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Gedolim Forgeries

Rav Chaim Kanievsky
Chareidim seem to be in something of a pickle. On the one hand, they declare total allegiance to Gedolim, whose word represents the will of the Torah and cannot be contradicted. Personally, I don't subscribe to such an extreme version of what is called "Da'as Torah", but that's me. (And probably you, if you're reading this blog).
This would all be fine and good if people knew what the Gedolim actually said. But as the great sages advance in age, they simply cannot handle the ever growing demands for their time and attention. Ironically, the older and more physically frail they become, the greater their stature - and the demands of the masses on their time, energy and attention, for blessings, halachic questions and queries about issues of the day.
Thus, these Gedolim are forced to withdraw to a large degree, shielded by a small cadre of "askanim" who field questions, limit access, and filter the unending demands on their time and dwindling energy. This makes sense to me, at least. Major public figures need staffs to handle their affairs. Why shouldn't a Gadol, especially since he probably wants, more than anything else, to learn Torah uninterrupted?
Yet, this lack of access creates an inherent vacuum. How can one follow the word of a Gadol on an issue if he doesn't know what the Gadol actually said?
This has led, inevitably, to a growing phenomenon of Gedolim forgeries - two examples of which we've seen this past week.
Last Sunday, Chassidim held a rally in Manhattan to protest pending legislation in Israel that seeks to draft Chareidim inTO the IDF. Suffice it to say that had I been in New York at the time, I would not have attended. But what's a Litvishe Chareidi to do? Did the Gedolim say do go or not?
At the last minute, someone released a letter in the name of Rav Chaim Kanievsky in which he blessed the proceedings and encouraged people to attend. It turns out that this letter was a forgery, and Rav Kanievsky wrote no such letter. It's hard to know how many people attended due to the letter - yet it clearly created a sense of confusion among Chareidim who didn't know how to react. They are, of course, against the legislation. But is protesting in Manhattan the proper way to react? Would it not be better to remain in yeshiva and learn Torah in protest? That's why you have gedolim - to answer these questions. Unless you don't know what the Gadol actually said.

I noticed a similar example published on a small Chareidi web site (There seem to be an awful lot of these sites, especially since the Gedolim have expressly forbidden internet use. Interesting.) The site shares a letter in which an individual from Bnei Brak asked Rav Kanievsky whether it's appropriate to publicly shame IDF soldiers who look Chareidi (the question itself is fascinating, but not the topic of this post). At the bottom of the letter seems to be a brief answer in Rav Kanievsky's handwriting in the affirmative, and was actually reported as such by a major Chareidi website. (Actually, he seems to write in Hebrew, בוז תבוז לו - "he would be utterly condemned". It might have been quite a clever quote from Song of Songs 8:7 - if Rav Kanievsky had written the line. But it's a misquote. The actual verse is בוז יבוזו לו. He would never have made such an error in an explicit verse.) Yet, the article explains that,
בשיחה שקיימנו עם נאמני בית הרב הם מכחישים כי מרן הביע את עמדתו בנושא הרגיש, עוד מוסיף גורם בבית הרב כי ידוע ומפורסם כי לאחרונה מרן כבר אינו מביע דעתו על נושאים ציבורים בכתב, וכאן נותרו שאלות פתוחות : מי חתם על המכתב? והאם המכתב זוייף על ידי גורמים שונים? כל האופציות פתוחות.
In a conversation with reliable people from the Rav's home, they denied that Rav [Kanievsky] expressed his position about this sensitive topic. A different source from the Rav's house added that it is well known that in the recent past the Rav has stopped expressing his opinion about public issues in writing, leaving open questions: who signed the letter? Was the letter forged by other "forces"? All options are open.
So, Rav Kaneivsky never expressed an opinion about the issue at all. Or so it seems. In fact, he never expresses opinions in writing about public issues anymore, or so they say. Who then does a Chareidi believe if he wants to know Rav Kanievsky's position on a particular issue? How can one believe anything said - or even signed by - a Gadol, if people within the Chareidi community are now willing to forge letters in their names?

Audio Shiur: Parshat Chukat - The Value of Peace

Audio Shiur:
Parshat Chukat - The Value of Peace

Moshe's message of peace to Sichon seems to fly in the face of a direct commandment to wage war and conquer the country. How do we account for the different versions of the same story? How important is peace anyway?

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Sunday, June 9, 2013

The Chareidi Gospel Truth

Rav Moshe Meiselman
Each of us lives with our own individual, subjective truth. Look in the mirror. What do you see? I guarantee that you won't see what everyone else does. Women see something worse than the truth, men something better. (I like to pretend that I still have hair. From my angle viewing the mirror, and with a big enough kippah, I still do.)
We see what we want to see, and not what everyone else clearly sees.
What's true as individuals, holds true as well for entire communities.
Look at the United States today, which has become increasingly divided between "Red" and "Blue." Each group has its own media that it watches/reads/surfs, which feeds it the truths that it chooses to highlight.
This rule applies of course, to every group of every type. Personally, I never realized just how accurately it describes the Chareidi community today, especially in Israel. I really didn't understand just how deeply this rule applies to that community. Until now.
Over the past week, I have encoutered this phenomenon so often, in such dramatic terms, that it (figuratively) slapped me in the face. First, a relative forwarded an interview with Rabbi Moshe Meiselman that was recently published in the Yated. He emailed me saying (in my own words), "Read this article, and then you'll understand just how wrong you are." I read it, and found myself bewildered. I found Rav Meiselman's arguments unconvincing, to say the least, if not baffling and downright mystifying. He seemed to be describing facts and events of which I have no knowledge.
Then, last week, the issue of Rabbi Dov Lipman came up in a private rabbinic arena (I'm leaving things vague). Rabbis that I respect related to Rabbi Lipman (who is a friend of mine) with such vitriol and contempt that I found myself struggling to reconcile their animosity with the generous spirit that I know they possess. What gives? What's the basis for such a deep-seated difference of opinion?
Reading the Meiselman interview several times, it finally dawned on me. We're working with different facts. It's as simple as that. And when there's no common set of facts to discuss, there cannot be room for agreement and compromise. There isn't even place for discussion.
I'll explain, using Rabbi Meiselman's words to illustrate my point.
Discussing the "Status Quo" agreement between David ben Gurion and the chareidi community, Rabbi Meiselman said,
Meanwhile, everyone else in the country - besides the bnei hayeshivos - was expected to serve for three years in the Israeli army. One would think that this was due to security concerns. While this is partially true, there was another, more sinister reason for requiring almost everyone to serve in the Israeli army. Ben Gurion mentioned that the army was the social leveler, enabling all the diverse elements of Israeli society to be united and molded in a new Israeli mentality and nationality.
(Interviewer) In what way was the army to impact the culture and atmosphere of the country?
The army served the purpose of allowing Ben Gurion and the Zionists to impose their anti-Torah lifestyle, philosophy and ideology on the thousands who would serve in Tzahal. One must understand that being in the army means that soldiers must totally subjugate themselves to the rules and orders of their superiors. This enables those running the army to create a new social identity.
This was the reason that the gedolim leading the chareidi community insisted very strongly that bnei hayeshivos not go to the Israeli army. They rejected the new social identity that the Zionists were trying to impose on the residents of the country.
Here, in plain English, is Chareidi Truth 1A: Secular Israel (and secular Israelis) harbor a deep-seated desire to destroy the Torah, and by definition, Judaism. This is not a matter, in their perspective, subject to debate. It's simply the truth. Sometimes the secular hide this desire and couch it in rhetoric, and sometimes it's explicit. But it's always there, deep-down. Moreover, even when they say explicitly this is not the case, they're lying.
This, of course, leads to the Second Truth: Anyone who tries to destroy Torah is a Rasha. Since secular Jews wish to destroy the Torah (see 1A), they are Resha'im (wicked people).
This, of course, leads inveitably to a Third Truth: Anyone who collaborates with a Rasha is himself a Rasha.
With this in mind, we can now understand how Rabbi Meiselman could make the following assertion:
On Lag Ba’omer, Naftali Bennett visited Bnei Brak and declared that the lifestyle of the chareidi community is a greater existential threat to Israel than the Iranian nuclear threat. What Ben Gurion said sixty-five years ago our enemies say today. He declared that he will force us to integrate into secular Israeli society. In fact, one of Bennett’s campaign goals was to make Sunday a day of rest so that the Dati Leumi community could share cultural events with the secular community and achieve cultural unity. While his primary goal is to secularize the chareidim, his secondary goal is to do likewise to the Dati Leumi community.
What? What!? Did Bennett really say that "the lifestyle of the chareidi community is a greater existential threat to Israel than the Iranian nuclear threat"? That sounds pretty harsh. What did he really say? It turns out that in fact he said that,

שילוב רבבות החרדים בעבודה - באהבה - הוא יעד לאומי, ממש כמו עצירת הגרעין האיראני
The inclusion of tens of thousands of Chareidim to the workforce - with love - is a national goal, exactly ilke stopping the Iranian nuclear threat.

Naftali Bennett in Bnei Brak
Did he say that he wants to destroy the Chareidi lifestyle? Actually, he said the opposite. Did he say that the Chareidim were a threat greater than the Iranians? Far from it.
Last I checked, Naftali Bennett is religious, served in the IDF, and has attempted, sometimes successfully and sometimes not, to serve as a buffer between the Chareidim and Yesh Atid. But here Rav Meiselman explicitly calls both Bennett and Ben Gurion "enemies", and makes crystal clear that he, perhaps even more than Bennett himself, realizes that Bennett's true goal is, "to secularize the chareidim, his secondary goal is to do likewise to the Dati Leumi community." How does Rav Meiselman make such blatanly false statements, and put words into Bennett's mouth that he never said?
Rav Meiselmen isn't lying, God forbid. In his mind, Bennett really did say those things, and really does believe. Let's remember our mirror of personal truths, and the Chareidi rules: Bennett is in the coalition with Yair Lapid (who is a Rasha) so :

Bennett = Lapid = Evil

This being the case, when a wicked person makes a statement, it's only logical to intrepret that statement in the most extreme, negative form. Bennett made a connection between the Chareidim and the Iranians? "He must really mean (deep down) that he thinks that the Chareidim are worse than the Iranians, and presents a greater threat to the future of (the-dream-of) secular Israel."

Lipman and Lapid
This also explains the terrific venom focused on Rabbi MK Dov Lipman, who was called, not coincidentally, a Rasha by none other than the Rosh Yeshiva of his former yeshiva. Really? A Rasha? Isn't that a bit harsh? Sure, Rav Feldman walked back the statement a bit, but in his heart of hearts? Of course Rabbi Lipman is a Rasha, because he's working with Lapid, who's also a Rasha. Thus, our mathematical equation is:

Lapid = Bennett = Lipman = Evil

Moreover, Dov Lipman especially enrages him, because the very core of his activities - working with the secular community to try and improve the lives of the Chareidi community - is antithetical to the core identity of a "real" Chareidi. A real Chareidi knows the truth: that Lapid deep down wants to destroy the Torah. If Lipman doesn't believe this, he's fooling himself, and betraying the community he purports to represent.

I wish I were making this up. But I'm not, and if you look carefully, you'll see this attitude pervasive throughout the Chareidi press. (Mostly in Hebrew, where it's more pronounced a vitriolic. In America, the Chareidi community has learned over the years to temper its message in a more politically correct way.)
Take an open letter to Minister of Education Shai Peron (a former Rosh Yeshiva), published on a major Chareidi website, titled, "You Hate Us, and We Hate You." Personally, I find the letter, written by an anonymous Kollel student, troubling for its frankness and open expression of hatred. (Isn't the Torah supposed to bring us closer together? Isn't it supposed to speak of peace and love?) Towards the end of the letter, the writer states:
אין אני פונה אליך בשם הדת. דתך אינה יהדותי, ואלוהיך האחרים אינם אלוקי. אלוקי ישראל אשר בו האמינו כל דורות ישראל, ברא את העולם, הוציאנו ממצרים, נתן לנו את התורה ובנה לנו את בית הבחירה, לכפר על כל עוונותינו.
ואילו אתה, מר פירון, מיהו אלוהיך? הלא מבחינתך את העולם בראה האבולוציה, במצרים אילו היית – לא היית נגאל, את לימוד התורה אתה רוצה לעקור, וכפרת עוונות הוא מושג מיסטי וערטילאי בעיניך, ובכן מיהו אלוהיך?
I don't turn to you in the name of religion. Your religion isn't Jewish, and your other gods are not my God. The God of Israel in whom every generation of Israel believed created the world, took us out of Egypt, gave us the Torah, built for us the Beit Hamikdash to atone for our sins.
And you, Mr. Peron - who are your gods? From your perspective the world was created through evolution; had you been in Egypt you would not have been redeemed. You wish to uproot the study of Torah, and the notion of atonement for sins is a mystical and abstract concept to you. Thus, who are your gods?
I wish I was making this up. I wish someone purporting to speak in the name of the Torah, didn't spew such venom at a recognized Torah personality in my community.
But I'm not making it up. After all, our kollel fellow isn't really saying anything new that isn't already accepted within his community (just read the comments). He's simply preaching the Gospel Truth.
How then can we possibly have a conversation, when we're not even speaking about the same facts?

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Audio Shiur: Parshat Korach - How We Fight (about Chief Rabbis)

Audio Shiur:
Parshat Korach - How We Fight (about Chief Rabbis)

The elections for the Israeli Chief Rabbinate seem to have left the Isreali Religious Zionist community stuck in the mud. Literally. How did we get there? How do we get out? Korach's tactics can teach us a lot about what not to do.

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