Friday, July 13, 2018

Matos/Maasei—The Company You Keep



If the post biblical literature didn’t tell us, we might not know how evil Bilaam is until we get to 31:8 in this weeks parsha—and maybe not until 31:16.

Throughout parshas Balak, we get a rather translucent view of his character; he seems to be both slippery and conniving, but at least somewhat well meaning, enough that his ostensible blessings make it both into the text of the Torah and sep parts of the liturgy.

We don’t get a hint that he is in effect a spiritual companion to Amalek until the Jewish armies find Bilaam in the company of the five Midianite kings during the revenge campaign against the Midianites.  Rashi pace the midrashim notes that Bilaam seeks renumeration for the Israelite body count from mass idolatrous orgies that resulted from his sotto voce advice, which, in verse 16, precedes his renumeration as getting slain alongside them in verse 8.

Numerous reasons are proferred.  For one, he overreached in seeking material recompense for having his Judeomisic fantasies realized: “the camel asks for horns and had its ears cut off”.  For another, he used the Israelites’ power of speech/prayer, using their own weapon against them, so they used the Edomite weapon—the sword—against him.

Furthermore, Bilaam is grouped both with the four “commoners” who have no share in the world to come in TB Sanhedrin, and as one of the three implacable enemies of Judaism suffering the most nefarious eternal punishments in TB Gittin.  Yet of all the antagonists listed here, one could argue Bilaam comes off as the most deserving of opprobrium, to the point that one is Talmudically enjoined to draw any negative inference from a verse regarding Bilam that can be drawn.

Part of this is because the textual narrative actually indirectly conveys Bilaam’s outward projection of righteousness. Rav Avigdor Nebezhal points out, not least because of the “blessings” and his own ostensible prayer “May my soul die the death of the upright and may my end be like his” (23:10).

Further amplifying the aggravating factors, one can discern a pure hatred of all things Jewish both because of and in spite of Bilaam’s pretensions to righteousness by comparing his motivations to the other miscreants on the two lists; none of them reach his level of Judeomisic rage.  To wit: 

*Gehazi was driven by lust and wealth, and his own Rebbi [Elisha] regretted possibly making him go off the derech; 

*Doeg was motivated by jealousy borne of a distorted “kinas sofrim”;

*Achitofel was motivated by vengeance for his granddaughter Batsheva’s ostensible violation;

*Titus was drunk on power and bloodshed that drove his Judeocidal inclinations, as opposed to the other way around;

*and ”Jesus” was driven by a distorted theology (that is, if he isn’t a stand-in for Bilaam, or vice versa).

Bilaam, on the other hand, is driven first and foremost by hatred—one may even say, saddled with it (22:21)—to the point that he wants to turn Balak’s defensive initiative into an offensive one (22:11), using the inside knowledge he does about Judaism and G-d, while not having any of the possible grievances and/or motivations of the other listed antagonists.

he undoes one of the last vestiges of chastity that had ostensibly held since the mabul in furtherance of his Judeocidal goal, in both this world and the next.

Add together his penchant for “prayer” (“using Moses’ strength”) white weaponizing libertinism (having undone one of the the last vestiges of chastity that ostensibly remained since the time of the Mabul), all under the guise of a “lose data’s Elyon”, and you have the paradigm of one who preaches “freedom” with religious or moral veneer, even if one knows better and yet disingenuously pursues nefarious and destructive ends. 

The world is replete nowadays with “prophets” who morally lecture Jews about their Jewish [!] shortcomings (some Jewish , some not), all as a means to gaslight, at best.

Therefore, like the Gemara says about Bilaam:

Any negative inference that can be drawn—should be drawn.








Friday, June 29, 2018

Balak—Mission Creep



From the peaks of rocks I see them, from the heights I gaze upon them;
this is a people who dwell alone, not reckoning themselves one of the nations. (Bam. 23:9)

The characteristic Rabbinic back and forth about this Balaamic prophecy touches upon the question of the statement’s status as a blessing, a curse, or possibly both: 

Rashi’s eschatological formulation: “as Targum explains, they will not suffer destruction as other nations will, as it is says (Jeremiah 30:11), “for I shall annihilate all the nations” and Israel will not be counted amongst them”, that the Jews will not suffer the national extinction that is the fate of so many; 

The Netziv’s derivation, as a warning against assimilation: “If it is a people content to be alone, faithful to its distinctive identity, then it will be able to dwell in peace. But if Jews seek to be like the nations, the nations will not consider them worthy of respect”;

and a unique dual interpretation by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, focusing on “badad” and its concordance: “badad, 'alone', in the Hebrew Bible [] is used about a leper: 'He shall live alone [badad]; his dwelling place shall be outside the camp' (Lev. 13:46)[;] by Isaiah: 'The fortified city stands desolate [badad], an abandoned settlement, forsaken like the desert' (Isa. 27:I0) [; and,] [m]ost famously, it occurs in the first line of the book of Lamentations: 'How solitary [badad] sits the city once full of people.’”

Rabbi Sacks further explicates how he sees the curse: “There is the psychological phenomenon, I said, of the self-fulfilling prophecy…That, I concluded, was the-perennial Jewish danger. If you define yourself as the people that dwells alone, that will be your fate. You will have decided that this is the Jewish fate that nothing can change. It was ever thus and always will be. Jews have enemies, but we also have friends, and if we worked harder at it we would have more.”

Yet he also writes: “We should never abandon our distinctiveness. It is what makes us who we are. Nor is there any contradiction between this and the universalism of the prophets. To the contrary – and this is the life changing idea: In our uniqueness lies our universality. By being what only we are, we contribute to humanity what only we can give.”

Based upon the ostensible parameters, one could suggest the following:  Judaism was never meant to be isolationist; one cannot broadcast it’s message in a vacuum.  However, Judaism universality is contingent upon and ancillary to its parochialism and provincialism.  In other words: Judaisms message and messaging is always its own.

What would that mean in practical terms?

In recent times, a lot of ink has been spilled and bytes fried to pigeonhole Judaism’s tenets in order to prove that they might align in aggregate with certain political programs, left or right.  

There are times when those who predominantly populate one side of the political fence seem to be more sympathetic to Jewish concerns; at the moment at least in this country, one can hardly argue credibly that the left is more Judeophilic, but not so long ago the roles were reversed: the 1992 Democratic National Convention has suppressed the pro-Palestinian emanation from Jesse Jackson’s acolytes that had been rampant in Atlanta four years prior, while the George HW Bush admin and the James Baker Dept of State were barely disguising their intentions to continue pressing the Jewish State into one-sided concessions while the President was dog whistling about “lobbyists”.  Asserting that Judaism is, or should be, “Left” or “Right”, is counterproductive and self-destructive.

There are times we need to make policy alliances, but the possibly has even more pitfalls: both outsiders and all too often our own start to assume that Judaism, again, aligns with a political program.  Until recently, the possibly more dangerous alliance looked like it might be with the religious right, who shared concerns about freedom of conscience, educational policy, cultural pollution, and traditional values, not to mention Zionism, but who all too often would betray their evangelizing and eschatological tendencies.  Some still assume that there have to be political and philosophical dovetails in places where there really aren’t.  

(Also, there have been stated worries on occasion that religious Jews can’t be seen to be less religious in comparison to religious non-Jews.  Aside from the aforementioned issues, it also led to an ecumenical stance against the Markey bill, and questioning the Trump border policies because we can’t be seen to be less rachmanim bnei rachmanim than the other religious groups that were ostensibly disturbed.  It isn’t necessarily the best method of policymaking.) 

However, the bigger problem by far now is the misappropriation and distortion of Judaism based on “Tikkun Olam” as its First Principle.  This is a thin veneer for the aggressive promulgation of “social justice” prerogatives as determined by intersectional tenets.  No matter how many classical Judaic sources that the ostensibly religious social justice warriors can cobble together to prove that classical Judaism supports—or even “commands”—progressivism, the entire edifice falls because of its faulty premise: a progressive universalism that is as supersessionist—if not more—than Christianity in at its most Judeophobic—is ipso facto no longer Judaism.  It is telling that the keynote speaker at the recent graduation ceremony of possibly the flagship progressive Jewish institution exhorted its most recent class to self-erase through mass intermarriage as if it were a Jewish duty.  Even Gandhian musings about Jews committing collective suicide were less abhorrent.

Also, in contradistinction to Rabbi Sacks’ salient point, Rabbi Shimon Schwab once remarked that “the Americans are not our enemies, but they are not our friends”.  Irrespective of the possibility that Rabbi Schwab’s hahkafic inclinations are/were more isolationist—for lack of a better term—than Rabbi Sacks’, there is a more specific point to remade beyond assimilation or America.

Despite Rabbi Sacks’ asserting that “if we worked harder at [making friends], we would have more”, at times we might not be alone, but we might wish we were.

There was a time when Jews theoretically aspired to be “white people” and were rejected as another iteration of the “other”.  More recently, Jews have been belatedly granted that wish, only now all white people are considered in some circles to be congenitally morally defective because of privilege and imperial history.  The conundrum that Jews are considered to be simultaneously both economically rapacious oligarchs and anarchic extractive revolutionaries never really went away, but it has gained a life it was missing for decades.  Now the most traditional Jews have been pigeonholed as Trump supporters, which ostensibly presents a PR issue for some.

Leaving aside the question of where Jewish concepts saliently fall on the political continuum, this might be where the Balaamic “curse” comes into play: we seem to lack the unfettered ability to choose who our “friends” are.  In this way, anticipated Heavenly “snapback” might be expected if our unique, exclusive message is in danger of dilution, even—or especially—if some of our own are at the forefront of committing adulteration.

If nothing else, it prevents mission creep.

Friday, June 15, 2018

Korach—In Neutral


R’ Ysoscher Katz writes:

The Chassidic Rebbe the Yetev Lev (1836-1904) said that he heard from his grandfather, author of the Sefer Yismach Moshe, who believed in reincarnation, that the first time he lived he was part of the generation that left Egypt and sojourned in the desert. He, in fact, claimed to have vivid memories of the tent in which he grew up.

He also recalled that during the Korach rebellion, the elite and religious leadership sided with Korach, while the hoi polloi sided with Moshe Rabbeinu.

As he was recalling the fight and the way the community aligned with Moshe or against him, his grandson asked him: Zeidy, whose side where you on, Moshe’s or Korach’s?  His Zeidy responded that he was neutral, not siding with either of them.
How come, the grandson asked, incredulously?

If you knew what a great person Korach was, you would not have asked such a ridiculous question!

Leaving aside questions of reincarnation for the moment (touched upon here, if one wants to know the author’s position), there are two patterns in the narrative here that might be further discerned by this story:

The first is the tendency to lock oneself into a position because one is certain they can’t be wrong, or because they have made an irrevocable religious commitment.  

The second is the tendency to being led and misled based upon a person’s ostensible stature.

In the first case, vis a vis rectitude: 

Korach—having visions of his descendant Shmuel equated with Moshe and Aharon—assumed a prophetic imprimatur for his intransigence, so it never occurred to him that could be wrong.  In contrast, the Gemara relates R’ Yochanan’s deathbed terror of having made the wrong moves in asking for Yavneh and not saving Jerusalem at the time of the churban.  (R’ Norman Lamm writes in "Faith and Doubt" drawing on R’ Kook about “pachad”: allowing for the possibility of being wrong—even very wrong—while simultaneously firmly committing to a necessary course of action.)

Furthermore, one of Korach’s erstwhile followers—On ben Peles—also thought he was locked into what his wife let him know was a useless gesture because he had been “sworn in”, as it were, until she found a way out for him.  

Lesson: pretentions to absolute rectitude lead to—er—wrecktitude, and that using a sunk cost fallacy to justify an ethical conundrum doesn’t make it any less a fallacy.

In the second case, vis a vis great personalities:

The meraglim were great men before their chet: one of the possible motivations behind the distorted report was the fear that Bnei Yisroel, once they entered the land and stopped eating the Manna, would move from a more to a less spiritual existence: they wouldn’t be “frum” enough.  The mass panic and ensuing gezera putting Bnei Yirsael in neutral for 40 years might have given the “hoi polloi” cause to reconsider following the elites: everyone might have had the same insight as Mrs. On ben Peles, that this wasn’t their fight to have because they had nothing to gain either way, because ultimately for them the machlokes was going to be agavra, not acheftza.

Lesson: sometimes neutrality is the worst option, except for all the others.

Still, the notion that neutrality was the mandated course of action here conjured up, Avram being tossed in the kivshan ha’esh, and Haran waiting for a confirmation to decide which side he was on; why would Haran suffer for ostensibly choosing the right side based in a miracle, whereas there would be no parallel in the case of Moshe vs Korach, theoretically also decided by an overt miracle, that of the pi ha’aretz?  Even if one discounts Ibn Ezra’s rendering of Nimrod as a “great man”, why would Haran suffer for waiting to choose sides?

The distinct motivations might be instructive, however subtle.  The Yetev Lev’s reluctance to challenge either personality possibly stemmed from a legitimate fear, based on having made a grievous error the last time a side was chosen.  In Haran’s case, there was no precedent, but if one looks at the language of Rashi/Midrash Tanchuma, Haran was already figuring out how to choose sides before Nimrod’s people even got around to asking him:  

Haran waited and said to himself, “If Abram proves triumphant I will be on his side; if Nimrod wins I shall be on his”. When Abram was saved they said to Haran, “Whose side are you on?” Haran replied, “I am on Abram’s side”.  They therefore cast him into the fiery furnace and he was burnt to death.

Furthermore, Haran might have intimated that Avram was right—why else would he expect that Avram might “prove triumphant”—but feeling compelled to give himself an "out", he declined to commit until he had evidence.  At the very least, the dor hamidbar had evidence that allowed them inaction, having made "two" wrong commitments: following the mergalim, and then trying to undo that with the ha'apalah.  

(It’s also possible that in a manner of speaking Haran did, even if post-facto, die “al kiddush Hashem”—there’s no textual indication of him being condemned for his action; he just might not have been worthy of the miracle that Avram was, for a number of reasons).

The lesson of Haran in a way doubles down the lesson of Korach: a pretension to rectitude that becomes about personal stature—in other words, turning what might be a she’ll lishma into an unequivocal machlokes agavra—can be deadly.






Friday, June 8, 2018

Shlach—Bricks in the Wall

This had to be about the President. 

The D’var Torah at Shachris brought out the Rashi (s.v. החזק הוא הרפה) quoting the Midrash Tanchuma (Shlach 6) presenting Moshe’s counterintuitive Mosaic instruction to the meraglim: “if they live in open cities they are strong, since they evidently rely on their own strength, but if they live in fortified cities they are weak”.

This had to be about The Wall.

It wasn’t.

The speaker instead referred to R’ Sacks’ exposition on this Rashi/Medrash, the gist being: “what is the appropriate mode of engagement between Jews and the wider society?…The story of the spies tells us that our fears are sometimes exaggerated. Judaism is strong enough to withstand any challenge. The question is now as it was then: do we have the confidence of our faith?”

Fair enough: but how does one reconcile this with notions of “om ani chomah”, and the attendant midrashim indicating for the near-imperative to build “spiritual walls”?

A closer look at Shir haShirim 8:8-10 might indicate that the wall directive isn’t as universally imperative as assumed—and further underscore R’ Sacks’ points, on both individual and collective levels.

Verse 8:8 asks: “We have a little sister, Whose breasts are not yet formed. What shall we do for our sister when she is spoken for?”  The verse seems to be using an archetype of physical immaturity as a metaphor for a lack of preparation for both intellectual and emotional challenges, and a number of commentaries refer to the “spoken for” reference as a possibility that “little sister” will be taken either by a King, or by a power alien to Judaism.

R’ Sacks observes that “Jews were, in John Murray Cuddihy’s telling phrase, “latecomers to modernity.”…Two centuries ago, segregation and the voluntary ghetto might have been the right response. Jews were not ready for the challenge of Europe and Europe was not ready for the challenge of the Jews. But now is not then. Ours is not the age of the spies but of their descendants, born in freedom.” 

There might be/have been a time to “put up walls”, as it were: 

*Early childhood education: even secular educators have decried the abandonment of teaching basic morals to the point that some have said “if we want to educate our children to be liberal, we need to teach them conservatively.”  The “little sister” will hopefully not remain “little” forever, intellectually or spiritually.  Unless an educational program looks like this: 

I recently spoke to a group of school principals in Borough Park and urged them to accept that students may be different and recognize that not every student will “fit into the one size fits all box” which our system has evolved into. …  A few weeks after my lecture, one of the principals met me and in front of a group of women, made a point of telling me that she disagreed with what I said and walked out of the room during my speech to display her rejection of my hashkafos…This principal reminded me of what we learned about the inhabitants of Sedom who were notorious for forcing everyone’s uniformity.”

*In a similar vein, note that that the far left are building their “walls” to force inclusivity and restrict expression.  Not for naught did Communist societies feature “reeducation” camps.  Even the most brutal Western facilities are “correctional”.  Sometimes a wall eventually resembles Migdal Bavel; or, in the light of this weeks parsha and the question about Canaanite fortifications: maybe the Canaanite walls were an early attempt at social engineering mirroring the efforts of today’s hard intersectional progressives.   The Canaanite and Nimoridan programs couldn’t catch on unless they were coerced.  

The salient point remains that there are times where a restrictive approach might be needed, but not in perpetuity.  There comes a point where we have to act like we’ve grown up and start placing doors in the walls, if we need to leave them up at all. 

Thursday, May 3, 2018

Shomer Omer Lag-In; or, the Min-Hug



It’s been said in certain quarters that frum women particularly hate Pesach; one unnamed rabbinic eminence has asked—not exclusively rhetorically—why G-d would give a holiday that inspired such loathing.

It remains uncertain how pervasive this loathing is, or even if said loathing is that gender specific, or even if it should be; recent medical literature even points to an intestinal malady that is uniquely characteristic to matzo consumption, which might serve to reframe exactly what it is that makes people invest the initial consumption of chametz after Pesach with a “redemptive” quality.  (It makes more sense then that Krias Yam Suf occurred on the last, as opposed to the first, day.)

Beyond Passover misia is the enigma that is the Omer, specifically the minhagei avelus that pervade the period.  It has been attributed to the Kotzker Rebbe that “If Torah was a minhag, everyone would keep it”; the Omer, because of its length and universal application, provides those who wear their minhagim on their sleeves the opportunity to, for lack of a better term, flaunt it: “which Omer do you keep” and “what do you do/not do during the Omer” keeps the discussion circulating.

For those who relish the opportunity to keep another minhag, and do so publicly—almost akin to the Rebbe who led his disciples in a dance after the reading of Eicha to “celebrate” the opportunity to fulfill the mitzvah of mourning the churbanos—the restrictive nature of the Omer and the concomitant inconveniences don’t present a problem, the actual nature of what is actually being mourned during the Omer notwithstanding.  [Hence: the “min-hug”: this is one mintage that gets more PDA, for lack of a better analog.]

For those who might be Omer-skeptical, the questions and apparent self-contradictions surrounding the period likely amplify the annoyance with the inconveniences to the point that it might conjure up a loathing for the Omer minhagim that rivals the Passover misia.

To understand this phenomenon, one needs to reexamine the ostensible proximate cause of the avelus: the sudden deaths of 24,000 of Rabbi Akiva’s most prominent disciples, punished by the plague for not according each other with sufficient respect.  Not everyone is in accord as to the nature of the deaths; there are some who maintain that they were all martyred by the Romans, but the most salient theory is that they all died of “askara”, a rather painful illness. Rabbi Akiva eventually retransmitted all of this lost knowledge to a grand total of five disciples.  

The classic reasons given for the mourning are the near-loss of a critical mass of Torah knowledge and the concomitant admonitions regarding forging better relations between fellows.  (Battles over minahgim that descend to adhominy might portend an ironic violation of the entire premise of the Omer (“No fighting in the War Room!!!”); fortunately, people have (usually) found better things to fight about.)  

A closer examination of the narrative and its context might provide an ironic counter to the min-Hug, both in the scope of the avelus and the actual ultimate message surrounding the cause.

First, consider the options for observance: Pesach-33; Rosh Chodesh-46; the stoppage in some circles for Yom Haatzma’ut; and the machlokes re whether the plague stopped on lag but started again the next day.  No matter which regimen is chosen, the existence of a choice indicates that the avelus has an attenuation built right into it.

Second, reconsider the message of the plague: an Divine near-erasure of his own Torah as a signal that some things can subvert the message from within.  Consider that the 24,000 students were “not according each other the proper honor”: with such a critical mass of elite disciples, this could not have gone unnoticed among the less elite; furthermore, as this ostensibly public display of dissension occurred on the heels of the second Churban, which was attributed primarily to sinas chinam, the spectre of disunity and its post-

Therefore, if the primary vehicles of tradition are broken down, k’vayachol it was time to start again from scratch even with only 5 as opposed to 24,000.  The 24,000 would have ostensibly been sending the wrong message about what Torah was supposed to be about, and the transmission was stopped by the plague that affected the transmitters.

Tangentially, one should consider the Tanna usually associated with Lag b’Omer: Rav Shimon Bar Yochai.  As Rabbi Norman Lamm has noted in a few essays about RSBY, there was a difference between the Tanna who emerged from a twelve year sojourn in the cave  burning everyone he saw whom he deemed to be lacking in Torah just by looking at them, and the Tanna who emerged a year later when ordered by G-d to immediately return to the cave for “destroy[ing] My world” and was considerably more conciliatory.  Consider the possibility that the 24,000 students might have had power on a level of RSBY and instead as it were destroyed each other; in fact, later on in the Talmudic narrative RSBY again gazes to death a colleague who seems to be falling into the habit of disrespect and noncooperation that might have been characteristic of R Akiva's departed disciples, and also the disciple who was the original cause of the report that consigned him to the cave.

In a certain sense, one should almost celebrate Lag Ba’omer—if not the entire Omer itself—as a renewal: a Divine recalibration of the tradition transmission that was supposed to more faithfully represent what that tradition was/is ultimately supposed to be about.

So: don’t get a haircut.  Don’t shave.  Don’t get married.  Don’t concertize.  Just don’t make a big deal of it.  Especially when others legitimately might do some of the don’ts.  And one might be advised to not use more comprehensive performance of the minhag as an excuse to be disrespectful to those who might have a shorter Shomer Omer checklist—unless one thinks the best way to learn history is to repeat it.








Friday, January 26, 2018

Beshalach--Split Seas, Hairs, Differences


In the run up to Krias Yam Suf, one alien population is exchanged for another.

In the process, G-d removes potential traitors from the lists of the redeemed, but allows—as it were—Moshe Rabbeinu to bring another potential fifth column right into the newly (or almost, at least) emancipated Bnei Yisrael. 

As is the Torah’s wont, the chronology of the narrative is ostensibly reversed: the “erev rav” or mixed multitude is explicitly referred to in last weeks parsha (12:38) even if hinted at again at the beginning of this weeks parsha in 13:17, the “am” that Pharaoh “beshalach”’ed was erev rav, ostensibly “converts” who nevertheless were going to report if/when the Hebrews were going to complete their escape), while Rashi explains in the next pasuk (s.v. “Chamushim”) that 4/5 of the Hebrews dies during the three days of the Choshech plague, having proven themselves unworthy or unwilling to leave Egypt.  (Rashi mentions this last week too (10:22), but here “chamushim” provides a more direct scriptural hint.)

What did they do that warranted such a drastic punishment?  Rabbi Gidon Rothstein explains it this way: “Rashi ascribes it to their not wanting to go. In his view, anyone willing was taken out, regardless of their other (often significant) sins.  But this tradition says that the overwhelmingly large segment of the people preferred to stay, and died in darkness...Chazal and Rashi had no problem saying that most Jews, with all the troubles of slavery, wanted to stay.”

Take it a step further. Even if the full emancipation wasn’t going to occur until Pesach, the signs of redemption were already there: TB RH 11a indicates that the actual enslavement of the Hebrews stopped on the previous Rosh Hashanah, coinciding with the first plague of blood.  Furthermore, leave aside the open miracles occurring; the political winds seemed to be blowing in the Hebrews’ direction by the time the seventh plague of barad occurs, when the text refers to the “G-d-fearing” in PHARAOH’S court (9:20), and those who told the king before the next plague “Are you not yet aware that Egypt is lost?” (10:7).  At that point it was likely clear to G-d that even both “natural” and “supernatural” evidence wasn’t going to sway these people into joining their brethren and sistren in the national destiny.  In fact, they may have misread the political changes (deliberately or otherwise) and concluded that they had a chance now to become Egyptian citizens, as the slavery had been suspended and the Egyptians were now "favorably disposed toward the people": they might have been so determined to to stay that they would actively try to stop the redemption process and side with their erstwhile Egyptian masters, even to the point where they would put their fellow Hebrews--and even family memebers--in danger.

Ergo: something far graver than “other (often significant) sins” that caused the mass death at the hands of Heaven.  Again: the hands of Heaven, not by the hands of other Hebrews.  Only G-d could made this determination and remedy it: the Hebrews could not have done it yet.

So then—now that we know the Pharaonic motivation behind replacing one set of fifth columnists with another—why did Moshe Rabbeinu actually want these “gerim” when G-d Himself was—as it were—reluctant?  There is ample midrashic evidence that the ananei hakavod, manna and water well distinguished between the formerly enslaved Hebrews and erev rav, and yet when they were the first group attacked by Amalek the other Jews rallied to save them, impressing Yisro with their dedication to unity; yet when it came to not only the egel—where they were the primary drivers behind panicking the rest of Bnei Israel into the formation of the idol—but later, by the slav and then the meraglim, they planted the idea in everyone else’s heads that things had been better in Egypt.  Moshe apparently had a prophetic reason for bringing them along, mostly having to do with needing a multinational cover during the inevitable exiles—but was the short-term damage alleviated by the long-term view?

In light of current events, one might have to look at how one is to define “ger”, and especially in the context of how it relates to the Egyptian oppression in which the term is often used.

Comments and exhortations all over cyberspace and elsewhere lambasting religious Jews who ostensibly support Trump and therefore by extension are oppressing “immigrants” often say things like: “The Torah says more than 30 times not to discriminate or oppress the stranger because you too were once strangers in Egypt”; ”You too had brothers and sisters barred from the United States in the 30’s because all Jews were communists or parasites or too religious.”

As much as these seem to be a caricature of a certain type of Orthodox progressive [though the two sentences are lifted directly from an extended rant someone’s Facebook wall, with “likes” nearing triple digits] it bears mentioning that the progressive definition of “ger” is as distorted as the fallacious analogs between Jews trying to flee the Holocaust and the current “refugee crisis”.  [So as to not bore everyone with the details about how to explode the latter revisionism here--because it’s been done elsewhere--suffice it to say for now that our “brothers and sisters barred from the United States in the 30’s” didn’t try to blow everyone up with explosives.]  The definitions of all “gerim” are first and foremost halachic ones, and both—moshav and tzedek—are subject to a very rigorous process of vetting when is comes to permanent residency. 

In fact, the tie between “you too were once strangers in Egypt” and the restriction keeping the Egyptian convert [of both genders] outside the community for three successive generation indicates that the memories weren’t exactly all good, enough that a multigenerational vetting was required; and furthermore,  during the time of the United Kingdom of David and Shlomo—a, if not the, high point in the classical period—there were further restrictions imposed upon accepting new gerim because of the political and spiritual successes of Israel.

In fact, going back to the parsha, Moshe’s inclusion of the erev rav as “gerim” is contraindicative of the left’s views of immigration:  Moshe didn’t as it were fight G-d because he thought G-d was “oppressing the stranger”; Moshe wanted to force them into that national project [and the midrashim gingerly take him to task for doing it prematurely].

It’s possible that Trump’s approach to immigration isn’t exactly the “Torah” approach.  [His supporters might claim that he fulfills the “Biblical” requirements, but they definitely not operating from a halachic standpoint.]  However, the twisting of certain Judaic and halachic concepts completely out of context to make a political point about what “should be” a “ger” doesn’t change the definition, particularly when there is ample contraindicating texts and precedents.

“[M]ore than 30” times zero is still zero.









Friday, January 19, 2018

Bo—False Starts


Rashi in Bereishis 1:1 (s.v..."Bereishis"!!!) cites the midrashic question as to why the Torah did not begin in this weeks parsha (12:1) with what is ostensibly considered to be the first mitzvah given to Bnei Yisrael: “This month shall mark for you the beginning of the months.”

The answer that is given is almost as oblique: “What is the reason, then, that it commences with the account of the Creation? … should the peoples of the world say to Israel, “You are robbers, because you took by force the lands of the seven nations of Canaan”, Israel may reply to them, “All the earth belongs to the Holy One, blessed be He; He created it and gave it to whom He pleased. When He willed He gave it to them, and when He willed He took it from them and gave it to us…”

Irrespective of the tenuous nature of theological claims in general, why even bring this up?  One only has to look at Rashi on Genesis 12:6, s.v. “ha’Kna’ani az ba’aretz”, to see who the real “robbers”/“occupiers”/“colonialists” were even in antiquity: “Th[e Canaanites] were gradually conquering the land of Israel from the descendants of Shem, for it had fallen to the share of Shem when Noah apportioned the earth amongst his sons…for this reason the Lord said to Abram “to thy seed will I give this land” — “I will in some future time return it to thy children who are descendants of Shem”.”  (The PLO at one time or another has tried to pass themselves and their people off as Canaanites.)

We were taking back what was rightfully ours in the first place!!!  Why even give credence in our own texts to hostile Judeophobic notions, even if as identifiably faulty premises?

I once heard from a salient pulpit that the message in the midrash wasn’t intended to be an answer from us to the complaining world at large;  12:6 would suffice as an answer for that.   Rather, the midrash is for us to answer ourselves, between ourselves, as a reassurance and a warning (it doesn’t want to mention that the land could be and/or has been taken from us).

I would take it one step further: that when it comes to Jewish prerogatives, Jews in particular should not be too quick to dismiss said prerogatives in the face of accusations of violating an ostensible universal morality, and especially not confuse said ostensible universal morality with actual morality, and certainly not Jewish imperatives.

For starters—said morality isn’t always.  Hence the reference to “robbers” in the midrash on Genesis 1:1—while we can easily make a non-theological case that we haven’t robbed any land, pace Genesis 12:6—we shouldn’t even have to bother.  The accusation is a prima facie false one.  (The analog to contemporary times should be obvious.)

For another—there is certainly no Jewish value in subverting one’s own principles for the benefit of mortal enemies of the Jews, even leaving aside theology.   Too many times recently certain mitzvos and principles have been used by theoretically well-meaning and some other obviously disingenuous characters to gaslight the Jews out of certain prerogatives, or for not putting others’ interests ahead of their own.  

One most recent example might be the misuse of Hillel’s dictum in Mishna Avot 1:14—“If I am not for me, who will be for me? And when I am for myself alone, what am I? And if not now, then when?”

Let’s forget that this dictum really has very narrow applications to begin with: for the overwhelming better part it refers to activity of a spiritual nature and the need to remain heavily communally involved, and that to attempt to garner “points” as it were on one’s own short-circuits the purpose of spiritual activity.  The universal application of this dictum to equalizing certain tenets of progressive social justice with Jewish imperatives is beyond a distortion.

Additionally, assuming that those who might have some—even if severe—misgivings about certain tenets of progressive social justice and their loudest practitioners and representatives are ipso facto “selfish”, “indifferent”, “persecute the foreigner”, “willfully blind and ignorant”, to name a few—while assuming that the side that professes the aforementioned tenets of progressive social justice do not engage in the same if not worse tactics—engages in the same level of “righteous indignation”, “arrogance” and “hypocrisy” they level at those who they deem to be “only for themselves.”

Furthermore, is the notion that some “can only be moved to speak out and act when that slight and wrongdoing is directed at “one's own kind”” axiomatic?  That might be more tenuous that the notion that some are “moved to speak out and act when that slight and wrongdoing is directed” at their own only if they can speak out about others at the same time, never mind those who have universalized dicta to the point that the “others” come before us.

(In this age of "whataboutism", let's put it in even blunter terms: the alternative to what is apparently considered by some to be an administration of gazlanim is a cabal of ganavim.  Maybe even ganavim bemachtaros.)

Even forgetting the more salient if theocentric interpretations of Avot 1:14, those who would universalize the mishna even get the order wrong:  "If [We] Are Not For Ourselves" always comes before "If [We] Are For Ourselves".

Leave the final word to Yoni Netanyahu before Entebbe:

“If we don’t do it ourselves, no one is going to do it for us.”