Monday, November 30, 2009

Yosef's Well and the Lights of Chanukah

To download a printable pdf version of this article (on one page) click here.

We like to think that the story of Chanukah chronicles the good guys against the bad: the righteous Jews against the evil Greeks. While in some ways that's true, it's also s a gross oversimplification. In many ways, the story of Chanukah tells the tragic tale of Jew vs. Jew; secularist against religionist; those who remained faithful to Torah and halachah against a powerful group that had abandoned the traditional Jewish way of life. Examined in this light, Chanukah takes on a greater sense of urgency as we watch the two major camps in Israel – the religious and the secular – grow increasingly farther apart from each other. (Watching the competing protests over the character and nature of Yerushalayim on one hand, and the growing tension over the question of following orders in the army, it's easy to see how history could repeat itself, God forbid.)
While the essence of the miracle of Chanukah focuses on the war against the Greeks and the miracle of the oil in the Beit Hamikdash, Chazal left us clues to remind us about the underlying conflict that precipitated the terrible war.
When we examine the very brief mention of Chanukah found in the Gemara (Shabbat 21b – 22b), we encounter an interesting anomaly. (I've numbered the different subjects to make my point clear.)
אמר רב כהנא, דרש רב נתן בר מניומי משמיה דרבי תנחום נר של חנוכה שהניחה למעלה מעשרים אמה - פסולה, כסוכה וכמבוי. ואמר רב כהנא, דרש רב נתן בר מניומי משמיה דרב תנחום: מאי דכתיב +בראשית לז+ והבור רק אין בו מים. ממשמע שנאמר והבור רק איני יודע שאין בו מים? אלא מה תלמוד לומר אין בו מים - מים אין בו, אבל נחשים ועקרבים יש בו. אמר רבה: נר חנוכה מצוה להניחה בטפח הסמוכה לפתח. והיכא מנח ליה? רב אחא בריה דרבא אמר: מימין, רב שמואל מדפתי אמר: משמאל. והילכתא - משמאל, כדי שתהא נר חנוכה משמאל ומזוזה מימין.
1. Said Rav Kahana: Rav Natan bar Minyomi taught in the name of Rabbi Tanchum: A Chanukah lamp placed above the height of twenty amot is invalid. 2. And said Rav Kahana: Rav Natan bar Minyomi taught in the name of Rabbi Tanchum: What is the meaning of the verse: "And the well was empty, it contained no water"? Since it says "the well was empty" did I not know that it contained no water? Rather, what does "it contained no water" teach? [The well] had no water, but it contained snakes and scorpions. 3. Said Rabbah, it is a mitzvah to place the Chanukah lamp in the tefach adjacent to the doorway. And where should he place it? Rav Acha the son of Ravva said: to the right. Rav Shmuel from Difti said: to the left. And the halachah is to the left, so that the Chanukah lamp is on the left, and the mezuzah on the right.
Sandwiched between two short passages relating to specific halachot of lighting ((1) the height and (3) placement of the Chanukah lamp), the Gemara includes a seemingly unrelated Midrash. Why did Chazal record the familiar Midrash about the well into which the brothers threw Yosef in between two halachot about Chanukah? Also, can we connect this Midrash to the rules about where to place the Chanukah lamp?

When we examine the language Chazal utilize in the Midrash about Yosef's well, we find a subtle but critical Chanukah lesson. In addition to the Midrash about the well in the Gemara, the Midrash records a different, less-known teaching (Midrash Agadah 37) about that well:
והבור רק אין בו מים [אין בו דברי תורה]. ואין מים אלא תורה, שנאמר הוי כל צמא לכו למים (ישעי' נה א), מלמד שמרוב הצרה שכח תלמודו
"And the well was empty, it contained no water" – [it contained no words of Torah]. For "water" can only refer to Torah, as it is written, "Let all who thirst go to the water." (Isaiah 55:1). This teaches us that out of great anguish [Yosef] forgot his [Torah] studies.
Yosef's brothers threw him into two "pits". They first cast him into the actual water-well, empty as it was. But then, by selling him into slavery headed towards Egypt, they cast him into a far larger well: the empty pit of Egypt. Yet, this pit was devoid not of water, but of the Torah and spirituality that Yosef learned from his father at home. The Midrash notes a critical message about the absence of Torah. Lack of Torah is not benign. Rather, that lack of Torah and spirituality itself presented a danger to Yosef. The absence of Torah is not a vacuum, open to both positive and negative opportunities. Rather, the very lack of Torah in the well necessitates the fact that "snakes and scorpions" dwelled in that well instead. A place without Torah is never innocuous. The lack of Torah spells danger for Yosef, and for us, his descendants, as the void is filled not by the positives of Hellenism: the philosophy, science and progress, but by its dangers: hedonism, materialism and self-gratification.
This could help us understand the very next passage in the Gemara: ideally, one should place the menorah not in the window, but in the doorway – on the left-hand side (when entering). In this way, we surround our doorway with mitzvot that represent the Torah: the powerful words of Shema in the mezuzah on the right, and the light of Chanukah representing the spirituality of Judaism on the left.
Where does your family light your Chanukah candles? For the past several hundred years, we lit our candles in the window, not because we wanted to but because we had to. Too many generations were forced to keep the light of Chanukah to ourselves, shut in from the dangers (both literal and spiritual) of the outside world. But today things are different, both here in Israel and across the Diaspora. We no longer fear to light our candles in the public square. Our doors today are open. We should follow the ruling of the Shulchan Aruch and light not in the window, but with open doors.
And when we do, there can be no more powerful message about the way we relate to the outside world. Our doorways represent the portal between the insularity of the Jewish home and the "well" of the Western world. What values do we permit to pass through that portal? Are they informed by the mitzvot of Chanukah and mezuzah? The moments we spend lighting our candles this Chanukah present a perfect opportunity to contemplate these crucial questions.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Food as a Uniter, Food as a Divider; On Halachah. Ethiopian Jewry and Thanksgiving

Food can both pull us together and push us apart at the same time. Thanksgiving is an especially good example of this phenomenon. The meal - the turkey with the trimmings - brings families together like almost no other holiday on the calendar, especially in America. But as soon as the family sits down, or maybe even beforehand what does everyone start doing? Usually fighting, and mostly about the same fights that they had the year before.
This seems to be unique quality of food: its pulls and pushes, almost simultaneously.
I've started doing some programming work for semichah students at the Gruss Kollel in Yerushalayim on behalf of the Center for the Jewish Future at Yeshiva University. Part of this programming involves exposing the rabbinical students to different people and issues affecting Israel. This past Tuesday we welcomed Rabbi Michael Cytrin , who started an organization called Or L'Doron in memory of Doron Mahareta, who was tragically murdered in the Yeshivat Mercaz Harav massacre in 2007. (You can read about his organization, which supports Ethiopian kollel fellows here.)
Rabbi Cytrin brought and an Ethiopian Kollel fellow named Uri Elazar who spoke about some of the unique challenges facing Ethiopian Jewry. He described a community that has been maintaining its own unique Jewish identity for over two thousand years, completely removed from the rest of the Jewish world. They had the same written Torah, but no Mishnah, gemara, or developed Shulchan Aruch. They had an oral tradition spanning thousands of years. And it worked for them, allowing them to maintain a dedicated, devoted, insular Jewish community in the face of adversity and persecution in the heart of Africa.
Imagine then arriving in Israel in the early 1990s and learning that the religion you considered authentic and timeless had actually "moved on"; that the religion you had been practicing for centuries was: wrong. How would you react? Would you simply change over and say, "Well, we've been doing it one way, but let's just switch"? Probably not. But then you send your children to educational institutions that, while honoring your traditions, teaches your children the new way. And as they learn the new rules and traditions, they not only forget the ways of their parents, but begin to reject them entirely.
When asked for a concrete example, Uri immediately brought up the issue of food. Eating food has been, and is supposed to be - a medium that unites. We come together around food, whether we do so as friends, as family, or as community. There is nothing as uniting as the ability to break bread together, and nothing as dividing as the inability to do that very same thing. (The rabbis were actually quite cognizant of this fact when they legislated against bishul akkum, pat akkum, stam yeynam - all instituted to create a barrier of separation between Jews and non-Jews.) In the Ethiopian culture (among many, many others), eating at someone's home symbolized respect and friendship. Not eating at their home when asked was a sign of rejection and disrespect.
Consider then the following problem:
According to Jewish law, before a shochet slaughters an animal or bird, he must carefully inspect his knife in a meticulous and prescribed manner immediately before the actually shechittah. Then, immediately following he must again examine the knife to ensure that the knife did not become nicked, rendering the animal treif. If a shochet failed to inspect the knife before the shechitah, Jewish law renders the animal treif. That's a halachic fact, with no wiggle room at all.
Ethiopian custom, on the other hand, does not have this requirement of knife inspection. Instead, according to Ethiopian tradition, the shochet must continually sharpen his knife until immediately before slaughtering the animal, without any pause between sharpening and slaughter. Essentially, it boils down to the fact that according to Jewish law, animals slaughtered according to Ethiopian tradition are effectively treif. (And Ethiopians don't buy meat from a store. To quote Uri quoting his relatives: "Buy meat from a store? In a package? How do you know who slaughtered it? How can you tell that it's kosher?" Good questions, actually.) So you're left with a situation where Ethiopians consider "regular" kosher meat unacceptable, and halachah considers meat slaughtered in the Ethiopian tradition treif as well.
So, when an Ethiopian young man or woman comes home from yeshiva for Shabbat, what should they do? Should they eat the food - which their teachers, who they respect, love and admire - have told them is treif? Should they reject their parents' food, tearing their family apart? (In the words of Uri, it's not uncommon for a father to say, "A son who does not eat in my home is no son of mine.")
I identified strongly with Uri's description of this ongoing problem in the Ethiopian community. It's not uncommon at all for members of a family to not eat in each-others' homes - and we're not talking about treif homes either, which only complicates matters. (One day, I'll write about the balance - or lack thereof - between the value of stringency in kashrut and the value of interpersonal family relationships and the friction caused when kashrut divides instead of uniting. But that's not a blog post. It's an article.)
I guess it doesn't matter whether you're an FFB, an Ethiopian Jew who made aliyah or just a plain American: Food does the same thing to all of us.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Parshat Vayetze - Finding God in Times of Strife

Audio Shiur:
Parshat Vayetze: Finding God in Times of Strife
We imagine Ya'akov's journey to Haran as a pleasant one, interrupted by a beautiful, powerful dream. Yet, analyzing the Midrashim and the comments of Rashi, his trip is anything but pleasant. Ya'akov's behavior - and his call to God for help and protection provides a powerful example we can emulate in times of strife and struggle.

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

In Memory of my Grandfather, Rabbi Dr. Hyman H. Friedman

Tonight my family marks the yahrtzeit of my grandfather, Rabbi Dr. Hyman (Chaim) Friedman. Or, as we called him, Zayde. I have a special affinity for Zayde in that I followed after him into the professional rabbinate. He served first in Atlanta, Georgia, and then moved to Winthrop, Massachusetts where he served for decades (I don't remember how many). I think that I appreciate his years of service in the rabbinate more now than I did when he died. I certainly learn new things about him all the time. Who knew that he tutored Rav Gifter when he first arrived at YU?
I served at rabbi of a shul in West Hartford, CT, that was probably a lot like his shul in Winthrop - Orthodox shul, not many Orthodox people. It's not an easy life; thankless in many ways, with many frustrations and few successes.
And yet, serve he did for so many years. After he retired, he moved to Silver Spring, MD where he spent the final years of his life studying Torah, attending minyan, becoming a noted and very popular speaker, visiting the sick and becoming a fixture in Kemp Mill. Yet, that's what he did - not what he was.
What was he? First and foremost, a Talmid Chacham. He knew how to learn. He was a masterful speaker - just watch the video - he had mastered the craft over a lifetime. He was loving, caring and gentle. He was perpetually responsible. He was soft-spoken.
And he built a family of children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren numbering literally in the hundreds, all dedicated to the values of living a Torah lifestyle and devotion to the Jewish people.
That's a legacy that speaks for itself. Which is something Zayde was quite good at.
(If you want to know more about my Zayde, you can click here to listen to a fascinating interview my brother did with him.)

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Religion According to the "Times"

The New York Times featured an article today about a traveling clerical roadshow called the "Interfaith Amigos", who circle the United States giving presentations on interfaith dialogue. Most troubling to me was the entire tone of the article. Reading it, I got a sense that this article represented what the Times considers the ideal form of religion: one in which religious ideology contains not eternal truths, but as optional path towards God. My favorite section:
The room then grew quiet as each stood and recited what he regarded as the “untruths” in his own faith. The minister said that one “untruth” for him was that “Christianity is the only way to God.” The rabbi said for him it was the notion of Jews as “the chosen people.” And the sheik said for him it was the “sword verses” in the Koran, like “kill the unbeliever.”
“It is a verse taken out of context,” Sheik Rahman said, pointing out that the previous verse says that God has no love for aggressors. “But we have to acknowledge that ‘kill the unbelievers’ is an awkward verse,’ ” the sheik said as the crowd laughed. “Some verses are literal, some are metaphorical, but the Koran doesn’t say which is which.”
And, at the end of the piece,
Afterward, Mark Wingate, a computer programmer and a Methodist, said: “Talking about the untruths of each tradition is very courageous. It gets it out of the platitude category and into dialogue.”
Mr. Wingate’s wife, Sally, added: “They had to work really hard to get to that point. Most of us are not willing to work that hard.”
First of all, to Sheik Rahman: Really?
"Kill the unbeliever" is taken out of context? It's not meant to be taken literally? I'm very sorry, but I live in a place where a great many of my neighbors take that verse quite literally indeed. Our young people spend their formative years learning and working to ensure that those believers cannot translate their beliefs into reality. Maybe instead of preaching to Methodists in Nashville he should be speaking to Muslims in Rafiach. Only I doubt that they'd really want to hear what he has to say.
But looking at the larger picture, in essence, interfaith dialogue and common ground carry great importance in the world of the NY Times. In this worldview, in the end we really all believe the same thing and want to get to the same place. We just disagree about how to get there.
But we don't agree with one another. And more importantly, the Jewish people are the "chosen people." It's a fundamental tenet of the Jewish faith, established through an eternal covenant with God at Sinai:
וְעַתָּה, אִם-שָׁמוֹעַ תִּשְׁמְעוּ בְּקֹלִי, וּשְׁמַרְתֶּם, אֶת-בְּרִיתִי--וִהְיִיתֶם לִי סְגֻלָּה מִכָּל-הָעַמִּים, כִּי-לִי כָּל-הָאָרֶץ. וְאַתֶּם תִּהְיוּ-לִי מַמְלֶכֶת כֹּהֲנִים, וְגוֹי קָדוֹשׁ:
Now therefore, if you will listen to My voice indeed, and keep My covenant, then you shall be My own treasure from among all peoples; for all the earth is Mine; and you shall be unto Me a kingdom of priests, and a holy nation. (Exodus 19:5-6)
Did God mean that figuratively? Was He only kidding? Which part of the deal did He not mean literally? The problem becomes acute, because when you start throwing out some truths, you eventually throw out them all. All that you're left with then is a vague sense of religious allegiance; a desire to approach God but no real way to do so, and a religion that speak not in absolutes, but in obscure platitudes.
Which is exactly the type of Judaism (and religion) that the New York Times likes.

Monday, November 23, 2009

What Did You Do Last Night?

I regularly listen to a sports talk show on my iPod, which somehow turned into a discussion between the cast members about what they had done the previous evening. Among the four was:
1. Eating dinner and hanging out
2. Watching TV
3. Eating junk food and watching TV
4. Watching a lot of TV
Hearing this rather sad report, I thought to myself: "Wait a minute, what did I do last night?" Thankfully, I spent a nice chunk of time working on a Torah-related piece, so the evening wasn't totally blown. Obviously, family-related activities: putting the kids to sleep, helping them with homework, etc. are clearly worthwhile. But the question seems relevant: what do we do at night? Do we spend our evenings (or at least a part of them) doing something productive, or do we wile away our evenings on some show or another, surfing the web and endlessly updating our Facebook profiles until sleep overcomes us?
This question brought to mind a rather powerful quote from the Rambam about the importance of learning Torah at night. Rambam (Laws of the Study of Torah, 1:8) writes that there's a mitzvah to study Torah every day and every night.
כל איש מישראל, חייב בתלמוד תורה: בין עני בין עשיר, בין שלם בגופו בין בעל ייסורין, בין בחור בין שהיה זקן גדול שתשש כוחו, אפילו עני המחזר על הפתחים, ואפילו בעל אישה ובנים--חייב לקבוע לו זמן לתלמוד תורה ביום ובלילה, שנאמר "והגית בו יומם ולילה"
Every man from Israel is obligated to study Talmud: whether rich or poor, of whole body of one who suffers afflictions, whether a young man or an elders whose energy has waned, even a poor beggar who knocks on doors, and even the husband of a woman with you children - he must dedicate time for the study of Torah during the day and night, as it is written, (Joshua 1:8) "you shalt meditate therein day and night
But then, later on in Chapter 3, (13) Rambam expands on this idea of learning at night rather sharply.
אף על פי שמצוה ללמוד ביום ובלילה, אין אדם למד רוב חכמתו אלא בלילה; לפיכך מי שרצה לזכות בכתר התורה, ייזהר בכל לילותיו, ולא יאבד אפילו אחת מהן בשינה ואכילה ושתייה ושיחה וכיוצא בהן, אלא בתלמוד תורה ודברי חכמה. אמרו חכמים, אין גורנה של תורה אלא לילה, שנאמר "קומי רוני בלילה" (איכה ב,יט). וכל העוסק בתורה בלילה, חוט של חסד נמשך עליו ביום, שנאמר "יומם, יצווה ה' חסדו, ובלילה, שירו עימי--תפילה, לאל חיי" (תהילים מב,ט). וכל בית שאין דברי תורה נשמעין בו בלילה, אש אוכלתו.
Although there is a commandment to study during both the day and night, a person can only study the majority of his wisdom at night; Therefore, anyone who wishes to merit the crown of Torah, should be careful with all of his nights, and not lose even one of them sleeping and eating and drinking and talking and engaged in similar activities, but instead in the study of the words of Torah and wisdom.Said the Sages, the "storehouse of wisdom" is only at night, as it is written, "Arise, cry out in the night". (Lamentations 2,19) And anyone who immerses himself in Torah at night, a thread of grace is extended to him during the day, as it is written, "By day the LORD will command His lovingkindness, and in the night His song shall be with me, even a prayer unto the God of my life" (Psalm 42,9). And any home from which Torah is not heard from it at night - a fire consumes it.
Ouch. While I might feel a little good about what I did last night, it only makes me wonder: what did I do the night before that? And before that?
And how will I spend my evening tonight?

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Parshat Toldot - Raising Different Children

Audio Shiur:
Parshat Toldot: Raising Different Children
Looking at the very different children raised by the Avot – how Avraham raised both a Yishmael and a Yitzchak, and Yitzchak raised both an Eisav and a Ya’akov, one question comes to mind: what happened? How can such good people raise such different – and in the eyes of the Midrash, bad – children like Eisava and Yishmael? Where did they go wrong? And what can we do to avoid their mistakes?

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

What's Good for the Goose...

The Jerusalem Post reported this morning about a woman arrested for wearing a tallit. Arrested? For wearing a tallit? Yes, because she wore her tallit at the kotel.
Police were alerted after the women requested to read from the Torah. The decision to arrest the woman was based on a High Court ruling under which public coming to the Western Wall must dress according to the customs of the site, police said.
Apparently, it really is against the law in Israel for a woman to wear a tallit while praying at the Kotel. In fact, there is a dedicated area at the kotel where women and mixed groups can pray in close proximity to the wall, under "Robinson's Arch." This is where most non-Orthdox Bar and Bat Mitzvahs take place. But this woman decided to pray with her tallit in the "main" women's section. Ironically, it's not against Jewish law for a woman to wear a tallit. Halachic authorities have frowned on the practice, especially in recent years, but it's hard to call the performance of a mitzvah "forbidden." It's only against Israeli secular law for a woman to wear a tallit at the Western Wall.
I'm quite sure that this will swell into yet another storm of outrage. The press loves this stuff: it pits poor women just looking for a place to pray against the big bad Orthodox. In fact, the immedaite reaction has been swift and predictable:
Rabbi Gilad Kariv, the head of the Reform movement in Israel, said that millions of women in the Jewish world enjoy the right to pray wearing a prayer shawl. He called the arrest "an embarrassment to the police and to the state," especially as it took place in the Jewish state and in the holiest site to Jewry.
First and foremost, is this really "the holiest site to Jewry"? Actually, that would be the Temple Mount - the plateau that sits just above the Western Wall, a place that also carries strict restrictions about Jewish prayer.
In fact, reading the article about a woman praying at the Wall in a tallit immediately made me think of another article about Har Habayit (the Temple Mount). A NY Times article about a recently published book about the Mount noted that,
Some radical (editorial note: anyone who visits Har Habayit is now a "radical") Jewish groups are responding by defying a longstanding rabbinical council prohibition on entering the Temple Mount, Judaism’s holiest site. On a recent weekday morning, a small knot of Orthodox Israelis with skullcaps, the fringes of their ritual undergarments hanging from their waists, were exploring the compound, which is open to tourists for a few hours daily. Jews and Israelis are allowed to walk around, but not to pray.
The Jewish group’s leader, who identified himself only as Yosef, fearing a police ban on future visits, said that the rabbinical prohibition was “political,” and that he went to the mount every day because he considered it “our place.” Asked if he prayed there, he would say only that he did what he thought was right, “without getting in anybody’s way.”
That's right. It's illegal for a Jew to pray on Har Habayit. Moreover, while you can think about God if you're up on the Mount, you can't even move your lips. A March 2008 article in Ha'aretz reported that,
A Jew is not allowed to pray in any overt manner whatsoever on the Temple Mount, even if he is just moving his lips in prayer, Public Security Minister Avi Dichter recently wrote MKs Uri Ariel and Aryeh Eldad (National Union-NRP).
All this leads me to wonder: if the "Women of the Wall" are truly committed to freedom of expression and the rights of all people to pray according to their religious passion, shouldn't that rule apply not only to Reform and Conservative Women, but also to Jews who want to pray on Har Habayit?
And if they can accept that a Jew should not pray on the Temple Mount because of the provocation and incitement that would surely ensue, why shouldn't the same rules (er, laws) apply to them? If Rabbi Gilad Kariv wants to know what's truly "an embarrassment to the police and to the state", it's telling Jews that they cannot pray on the real "holiest site in the world." When he gets off his own personal agenda and fights for the rights to pray wherever they please, including the Temple Mount, maybe then I'll begin to take his complaints, and the tactics of the Women in Green a little more seriously.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Cloning Ourselves

I include PR among the many things that I do at Orot. (In Israel, it pays to be a jack of many trades). So, when the film department brought in a film maker named Shoshi Greenfeld to speak to the students about her recently released documentary, I went to take a picture and ended up seeing part of her film and listening to some of her interesting talk. To see a short clip of her film, click here.
In the film, one of her cousins has a baby boy, and she notes an interesting question: why did God create us in such a way that we're born, live a relatively short life and then die? Why did He not just give us each eternal life? The answer she gave was that each of us becomes stuck in our own ways. We tend to find a certain set of values that become entrenched and unchanging. Yet, each new child brings something new to the equation; something different and creative, and it's that newness that moves the world forward.
Shoshi emphasized this point in her discussion of the movie, "The Wayward Son", which is about a young man who struggles over whether to enter the IDF after watching the disengagement from Gaza. She feels strongly that people should follow their inner guide - and not succumb to external pressure to conform to what society expects of us.
Yet, Shoshi's discussion and film raised an interesting question in my mind: on one hand, we do want our children to be unique and different. We want them to excel in their own ways and use their own special talents to make their mark on the world. But do we educate them to that end? Truth be told, we educate (and by "we" I'm talking about "me") our children to be clones of ourselves; we send them to educational institutions that model our personal religious attitudes. We expect them to study both Torah and secular subjects (as we did), and make choices that we would. And when they lean in a direction that makes us uncomfortable, we use our parental powers of persuasion to steer them back on the "right" path. Rare is that parent truly open to his or her children choosing a totally different path in life.
If so, where's the line between conformity and creativity? At what point does a parent stop nudging a child to conform, and allow the child to find his or her own way?
This isn't one of those "easy answer" questions, but rather one that I imagine will continue to gnaw at me as our children grow and develop.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Parshat Chayei Sarah: The Jewish Mother

Audio Shiur:
Parshat Chayei Sarah - The Jewish Mother
The search for a wife for Yitzchak - and the qualities the Torah describes in Rivkah - offer a powerful and critical glimpse at the critical roles that Jewish women play in shaping not only their homes, but society at large. By comparing the choice of words found not only in our parshah, but in Vayera as well, we can see what critical qualities Yitzchak saw in his new wife that brought him to love her.

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

Monday, November 9, 2009

Jew-Hating in Japan

So I'm listening to 60 Minutes on my Ipod, and there's a story about how a member of the Yakuza (that's Japanese Mafia, or so 60 Minutes says) bought a liver transplant at UCLA. The story was originally reported by an American journalist living in Japan named Jake Adelstein. It's an interesting report - nothing that surprising about the fact that people with money find ways to get what they need. But one quote caught my attention.
Adelstein wrote the story for "The Washington Post" and it eventually made its way back to Japan. The news infuriated the Yakuza bosses. For Goto, it was a humiliating blow from which he would never recover.
"I heard from someone very close to him that as he was leaving and getting in his car he said, 'That goddamn American Jew reporter, I wanna kill him,'" Adelstein said.
I wonder: why did the Yakuza boss identify him as a Jew reporter? Has he ever met a Jew, much less seen one in person? I don't know anything about Adelstein, but it seems difficult to imagine that he lives a religious life. Actually, if you read the interview about him on the Amazon page hawking his book it's pretty clear that there's nothing Jewish about him other than his name. Why then does he suddenly become the American Jew Reporter? What do the Japanese mafia have against the Jews?
Just wondering.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Judaism: A Religion or an Nationality?

The New York Times shared a fascinating report on a very public court case in England about whether a Jewish school was required to admit a specific student. Fascinatingly, British public schools are religious in nature - the Jewish school is in fact a public school. (Wouldn't American Jews just love to have that financial burden lifted off their backs?) Additionally, the recognized United Synagogue in Britain falls under Orthodox auspices, under the capable leadership of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks. So when a student whose mother is not Jewish applied and was rejected for not technically being Jewish (according to Orthodox standards), the student sued for discrimination. The Times piece continues,
In an explosive decision, the court concluded that basing school admissions on a classic test of Judaism — whether one’s mother is Jewish — was by definition discriminatory. Whether the rationale was “benign or malignant, theological or supremacist,” the court wrote, “makes it no less and no more unlawful.”
The case rested on whether the school’s test of Jewishness was based on religion, which would be legal, or on race or ethnicity, which would not. The court ruled that it was an ethnic test because it concerned the status of M’s mother rather than whether M considered himself Jewish and practiced Judaism.
While I'd love to agree with the Orthodox position in the case that the decision was a religious one and not ethnic in nature, I can't. To me, the issue boils down to a simple question: Is Judaism a religion, or is it a race - a nationality? First we need to define terms. What's a religion, and what's a nationality? Let's turn to the dictionary:
Religion: a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe, esp. when considered as the creation of a superhuman agency or agencies, usually involving devotional and ritual observances, and often containing a moral code governing the conduct of human affairs.
Nationality: the status of belonging to a particular nation, whether by birth or naturalization; Nation: a large body of people, associated with a particular territory, that is sufficiently conscious of its unity to seek or to possess a government peculiarly its own (I highlighted that last part.)
Of course, you'll answer: Judaism is a religion. It demands practices and beliefs. But then, what difference does it make whose mother was what? How can whether a Jew eats a ham sandwich on Yom Kippur have no affect on his or her Judaism? (see the article) In reality, Judaism is both. On one hand, it does have aspects of nationality and ethnicity. Yet, it's also got trappings of religion. The question then becomes, which is it more? What's the defining quality of Judaism - the aspect of theology or the nationality?
To me the answer is clear: First and foremost, Orthodoxy views Judaism is an ethnicity. To be more precise, it's a nationality - one into which Jews are born. It's a fact, a reality completely divorced from behavior or belief. If you accept that according to the Torah one's Judaism stems from the birth mother, I don't really see any way around this. Once you're born into that nationality, Judaism binds you with certain obligations, beliefs and practices. But if you're not born into it, you can practice the religion and adhere to the beliefs until the cows come home - but you're still not Jewish. Perhaps Louis Brandeis said it best,
Let us all recognize that we Jews are a distinctive nationality of which every Jew, whatever his country, his station or shade of belief, is necessarily a member.
I'll give two simple examples from Judaism to illustrate my point:
1. When we call a man up to an aliyah to the Torah, he recites two blessings, one before the Torah reading, and one after. These two blessings reflect the dual nature of Jewish existence. The blessings are:
בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ה' אֱלֹהֵינוּ מֶלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם, אֲשֶׁר בָּחַר-בָּנוּ מִכָּל הָעַמִּים וְנָתַן לָנוּ אֶת תּוֹרָתוֹ. בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ה' נוֹתֵן הַתּוֹרָה
Blessed are You, LORD our God, king of the universe, who chose us from all the peoples and gave to us His Torah. Blessed are You, LORD, giver of the Torah.
בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ה' אֱלֹהֵינוּ מֶלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם. אֲשֶׁר נָתַן לָנוּ תּוֹרַת אֱמֶת וְחַיֵּי עוֹלָם נָטַע בְּתוֹכֵנוּ. בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יְדֹוָד. נוֹתֵן הַתּוֹרָה:
Blessed are You, LORD our God, king of the universe, who gave us the Torah of truth and set everlasting life in our midst. Blessed are You, LORD, giver of the Torah.
In simplest terms, the two blessings address these dual aspects of Jewish existence. On one hand, Judaism is a nationality, a binding of a people. And yet, it also demands behavior and action. But which blessing do we recite first? Which aspect takes the primary role? אשר בחר בנו מכל העמים - that God gave us the Torah as a means to choose us as a nation. First and foremost, we are a nation. Once we establish that principle we can then continue to the next aspect of Judaism which understand the Torah as a means to חיי עולם - eternal life - through adherence to God and His commandments.
2. Whenever you're at an interdenominational event and you want to sing a song that everyone knows, you've got pretty much two choices: hava nagilah - I have no idea how that song got so popular, but they even play a bad version of it at baseball games - and Am Yisrael Chai. Let's leave have nagilah for a moment. What's the meaning of Am Yisrael Chai? The nation of Israel lives. Not the religion, but the nation.
Why isn't this obvious to all of us? The trouble seems to stem from 2000 years in the Diaspora. (2000 years of exile can do that to you.) Without a homeland, a language, a government, an army - all the trappings of a nation, we forgot our true identity. We forgot that Judaism is, first and foremost, a nationality. We forgot that we have a home, a country, and that we will only realize our true purpose in the world through the Jewish nation. Instead, we allowed Judaism to become in our minds a religion of strict practices, firm beliefs, required devotion. All important, but in the end, still just a religion.
We were wrong. We are not adherents of a religion. Judaism is a nationality; an ethnicity. And while that might not help the Jewish School in England, the sooner Jews in the Diaspora come to this realization, the better off the Jewish people - עם ישראל - the Jewish nation - will be.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Did He Tell Her?

We all know the famous Rashi about Shalom Bayit in this week's parshah:
When Sarah heard the angel bless the new couple with a child, she laughed saying,
And Sarah laughed within herself, saying: 'After I am waxed old shall I have pleasure, my lord being old also?' (Bereishit 18:12)
God confronts Avraham with a challenge:
And the LORD said unto Abraham: 'Wherefore did Sarah laugh, saying: Shall I of a surety bear a child, who am old? (verse 13)
Rashi, notes that God changes some of the details of the story. Instead of saying that Sarah thought that Avraham was too old, God only tells Avraham that she considered herself too old. Why did God change the facts? In order to maintain peace within the family. From this Rashi we learn that one may actually change facts in order to maintain peace - mipnei hashalom.
Sounds great. I have one simple question: If Hashem really wanted to keep the peace, why did He say anything at all? Isn't that kind of like picking a scab? Why does God need to interject and rebuke anyone? Why not leave well enough alone, and Avraham and Sarah avoid a fight entirely?

It's really late before Shabbat, so I can't answer the question now. But I have a suggestion based upon the comments of Ramban on this section - which I'll share after Shabbat. Still, it's a good question to discuss over the chicken soup.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Parshat Vayera - When Spouses Fight

Audio Shiur:
Parshat Vayera - When Spouses Fight
Vayera chronicles not one, but two of the three arguments between Avraham and Sarah found in the Chumash. The way they fight, and what they fight about, teaches us a great deal about how we should (or should not) argue with our own spouses.

Click here for the audio link, or listen in the handy audio player supplied below. And if you're wondering where the cool Lego picture is from, check out this site.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Wrong Answer. Parenting in the Age of Facebook

A New York Times tech blog featured the following question and answer:
My 13-year-old daughter signed up for Facebook without my permission. Should I be a grinch and make her quit or get over it and just let her keep her account?
(Answer)Rather than crack down on her account, this could be a golden opportunity to help your daughter begin learning how to safely navigate social networks and the Web.
While the article goes on to describe important ways to monitor your childrens' Facebook accounts and activities (and I totally agree that you should insist that your children "friend" you, as you have not only the right, but the responsibility to know about your child's online behavior), the answer doesn't address the fundamental question.
From the question, it's unclear whether the child asked for a Facebook account, and the parent said no, or just signed up on her own. Reading the post, I get the sense that it's the former. If this is true (and this post will assume that it is), then my answer to the question is that the parent must "be a grinch" (notice how guilty the questioner feels) and make her drop the account, at least temporarily.
We have a simple question of discipline. A child asked a parent for permission to have a privilege, and the parent - justified or not - said no. It really matters not whether the kid wanted to stay over at a friend's house, attend a party or open a Facebook account. What matters is that after getting an answer she didn't want, the child proceeded to defy the parent and do it anyway. (Typical child behavior. Nothing shocking there.) But what the child needs most at the moment, is discipline. She violated a rule, and a direct answer from a parent. Relenting now sends the message that it's OK to ignore the parent's wishes, and if you go ahead and violate what the parent says, the parent will feel "like a grinch" and allow the behavior to slip.
I think there's an important point in the question that parents often miss. Discipline stinks. No one likes punishing or disciplining a child - whether the child is four, and bursts into to tears, or fourteen, and gives you an eye-roll that only a teenager can. But, as much as they hate the discipline, they need it too - and even crave it. Because discipline gives our children a sense of security and limits. It sends them the clear, powerful message that their parents not only care, but will fight them to ensure that they do the right thing.
Most thirteen-year-olds' friends are all on Facebook, sharing the minutia of their lives. I don't really have a problem with allowing kids to have Facebook accounts, as long as a parent follows the advice in the column.
But, if I was the parent in question, the violation demands punishment. I would tell the child: "Yes, you can have a Facebook account - in two months. And hopefully, the next time you ask me for something, instead of doing what you want when you don't get an answer you like, you'll come back to me, discuss it, present your side of the issue and we'll be able to reach a reasonable solution."

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Fighting for a Piece of the Pie

A while back I flipped on the radio on my way to work and heard a brief interview with Professor Daniel Hershkovitz, Minister of Science and member of the cabinet from the Mafdal (religious Zionist party). Just as an aside, Professor Hershkovitz is an amazing man - a real combination of Torah and knowledge. He's a rav, a professor, and also a very engaging speaker. But I digress.) Oops, my bad. He's not from the Mafdal (that stands for מפלגת דתי לאומי - the Religious Zionist party). They renamed the party הבית היהודי - the Jewish Home. They're still the Religious Zionist Party, only that's not what they call themselves. And in any case, the name change didn't work. They didn't get any more votes this time than last.
Hershkovitz found himself on the radio fighting for money for Sherut LeUmi. What is Sherut LeUmi? The law in Israel states that every Israeli young person is required to enlist in the Israeli Defense Forces. In a deal that was worked out in the early fifties with Ben Gurion, the government exempted religious women who felt that military service violated their religious and spiritual values. (This is a rather complicated issue here in Israel. While there are certainly Orthodox girls who do serve in the IDF, most do not.) Yet, as opposed to most Chareidi women who had no interest in serving the State in any form, religious Zionist young women felt that while they could not serve militarily, the still wanted to contribute to the State in some way. Hence, Sherut LeUmi - national service - was born.
Today, fifteen thousand young people - many women, most religious, but some men and secular women who cannot serve in the IDF for whatever reason (health, educational, emotional, or whatever), serve in Sherut LeUmi. They serve across the country in hospitals, offices, schools, municipalities - you name it, they volunteer and give between a year or two after high school to the country.
Seems like a great program - and it is. Sherut LeUmi girls are passionate, idealistic, dedicated to the State and devoted to their work. They work under umbrella organizations who arrange their housing, working conditions, oversee their programs and supervise their work. They also give them guidance and ensure that they have food to eat and enough money to get some lunch and a bus pass to get to work and back home. It really is a shoestring budget - about 35 million shekel for the year.
You would think that the government would consider this a good deal; 15,000 idealistic young people dedicating a year or more of their lives to the country. (How much would the United States pay for that many volunteers?) You'd think that the Israeli government would consider it a bargain. And yet, there was Professor Hershkovitz on the radio, arguing for the money for Sherut LeUmi. In Israel, even volunteers for the country are political, and because Sherut LeUmi is considered a "religious Zionist" endeavor, it never made its way into the yearly budget. No, every year it's got to be a fight.
The treasury said that the Mafdal - sorry, Bayit Yehudi - should use its discretionary coalition money for Sherut LeUmi. (apparently, joining the government and supporting the Prime Minister comes with perks; money for the pet projects that you like.) Hershkovitz said nothing doing - why should he be stuck with a bill for a project that really serves the entire country, and should really be part of the State budget anyway?
So they played a huge game of budgetary chicken. The treasury didn't send the check, and the year began. The Sherut LeUmi organizations started the year, promising to pay bills with the money that they "knew" would eventually come, but did not. Until things got so bad that the Sherut LeUmi outfits decided to do what everyone else always does to get what you want in Israel: go on strike. Imagine the outrage across Israel if all the office workers, hospital volunteers, school tutors, etc - just didn't show up one day? It's sad - but strikes, even threatened ones - really have an impact here.
Hershkovitz threatened to leave the coalition if the money wasn't forthcoming, and, as the above article notes, "Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz, after consulting with Prime Minister Netanyahu, approved the budget due to the national importance of the operation." Isn't that rich? Must be really important if they had to threaten to cancel the program before the government approved the budget!
The best part came when the check finally cleared. Last week's Mekor Rishon - the paper of record for the religious Zionist community - featured this large advertisement.

In this ad, the four major Sherut LeUmi organizations give a big thank-you to Professor Hershkovitz for his hard work securing their budgets, ensuring that they didn't have to go on strike, shut down, and cancel a major national volunteering program. They also thank the head of the coalition, member of Knesset Zev Elkin and others. All of this for making sure that they got the budget they were always supposed to get, everyone knew that they'd get - and that they've been getting for decades.
If so, why the fight? Because here, money is all about politics. The government - the Likud in this case - wanted to force Hershkowitz to fight, and use some of his clout on Sherut LeUmi, knowing that they'd send the check eventually. It gives them leverage when they need him to sign on to something that he doesn't really support, but that they want.
Yet, to me, this entire episode hints at a much deeper, more pervasive problem in Israeli politics that plagues the religious Zionist community: the need to get our "piece of the pie."
By creating separate parties, on the one hand the RZ community gives itself a unique and distinct voice, allowing it to raise issues unique to its constituency. At the same time, we also alienate ourselves from the "broader" society. In a way, we articulate a sense of "otherness" and alienation from the larger Israeli public. So that public says: you have your own needs? You want your slice of the pie? Fine - but you're just going to have to fight for it. That's the way the game is played. You don't get the pie for nothing.
But what if RZ Israelis voted with the larger blocks. What if, instead of having a specifically RZ party, the RZs were members of Likud - voting in Likud and also having a seat at the table. Would we be having this argument now? Would we be fighting for every shekel, or would our seat at the table make those fights unnecessary?
Put another way, are the interests of Religious Zionism better served by creating separate parties, or would we all be better off - not just the larger Israeli public - but the Religious Zionist community as well - by combining forces with Likud and fighting not from the outside, but the inside?