Thursday, July 31, 2008

Maasei—Jewish Geography

The passages regarding the imperative to settle the Eretz Yisrael and the consequences of allowing an alien population to settle there with Jews (Bamidbar 33:50-56) is a favorite of Kahanists and other “not-one-inch”-ers. They’ve attempted to apply the status of shiva amemim/Amalek to the Arab/Muslim inhabitants currently between the Jordan and the Meditteranean.

I one heard a shiur from Rav Moshe Sosevky, one of the founders of Yeshivas Ohr Yerushalayim, that there is a qualitative difference between what he called “galus Yishmael” and other galuyos: the other galuyos were contingent directly upon bnei Yisrael’s behaviors. The contingencies regarding galus Yishmael, who has zechuyos of his own deriving from his being a ben Avraham Avinu, aren’t as clear cut.

In other words, there may be more hashkafically salient positions than the most ostensibly right-wing one.

Lest anyone think I am advocating for a Palestinian or “bi-national” state, I will spell out a few of my political positions in this area, as briefly as possible.

The Palestinians: have no legitimate status as an ethnicity, geographic entity, or political entity. The idea of a “contiguous” Palestinian state in both “territories” exists only to undermine the stability of the State of Israel.

The Disengagement form Gaza: was a good idea that has been bungled. One might say that having 10,000 civilians to defend there might have endangered the rest of Am Yisrael, not unlike Moshe’s original concern with Reuven, Gad and Menashe.

The “Peace Process”: the only people who really want a Palestinian state in any form are the far-left “post-Zionist” Jews who have always wanted a secular state. Yoram Hazony and Hillel Halkin, among others, have written extensively about the (secular) belief (which mirrors the Satmar/Neturei Karta position) that the Jews cannot really fulfill their true mission unless they remain stateless. As long as the Beilinese don’t really run the country (or, at least, get control of the Mossad), we’ll never leave Judea and Samaria, and there will never be a Palestinian state.

What does this have to do with the Parsha?

Take a look at what’s in it: setting the federal borders, the arei levi’im, the arei miklat, even the institution of intra-tribal marriage as a result of the agitiation of benos Tzelaphchad. Heavy politics; this before any battle of kibush ha’aretz is fought.

The Torah knew nothing in Eretz Yisrael would ever be cut and dry.

Thursday, July 24, 2008


Natan Sharansky is now Defending Identity as a fundamental building block of democracy.

In this summer’s Jewish Observer, Yonason Rosenblum takes Sharansky’s thesis one step further, asserting in “Can the Chareidim Save Israel?” that the chareidim are the only Jews in Israel with an unmistakable and unquestionable Jewish identity. Rosenblum’s ultimate implication has to be that chareidism is prescriptively, and non just descriptively, the sine qua non of Jewish identity, or in the parlance of multiple choice tests, “the best answer”.

My retort would be two things one of my most revered Rabbanim told me (I don’t need to cause him any trouble by publicly naming him; it doesn’t make his points any less trenchant).

The first was his assessment of what would happen if Israel would become a bona fide theocracy: “We’d have to close the country; no one would stay.” Interestingly, it was the chareidim who threatened to leave the country in the early days of the State when universal conscription of females was bandied about by the government at the time; there were teshuvos to that effect.

The second is what he told me during the Kollek-Olmert mayoral election, when Kollek was finally ousted. “Of course I’m voting for Kollek. I need streimlach in City Hall? Let ‘em stay in the beis medrash.” (Seeing what Olmert has wrought in the PM’s office, he may have been onto something for different reasons.)

The discussion of religious-less religious tensions (that’s my nice way of putting it) will never end, especially where Jews are concerned. I would instead quote Rabbi Matis Weinberg on the parsha. After parsing the differences between tribe as “Shevet”, or “exclusive club” (paraphrase mine), and tribe as “Mateh”, or “supporting staff” (also my paraphrase), he says this:

“The quest for identity makes ideals dangerous, a club to be wielded by every bully finding himself through depriving others, cleaning up his own ethnicity by ethnically cleansing.”

With the three weeks upon us, its important that any of our “tribes”--or “staff[s]-- or “clubs”-- refrain from doing anything that gives off this impression. Especially if they are even only perceived as acting as such from Divine mandate.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Pinchas and Extremism

Pinchas may have been a zealot, but he was no radical extremist.

Conventional wisdom dictates that a) the two are equivalent, and b) that Pinchas serves as the paradigm for both. Contemporary “extremists” (in at least a colloquial sense) on both sides of the religio-political (or politico-religious) spectrum believe this: “right-wingers” because he did what needed to be done in spite of the draconian nature of his action, “left-wingers” because his action, necessary or not, was draconian and therefore ipso-facto radically reactionary. (Some rather enterprising "enlightened" thinkers have termed this action the first example of religious terrorism.)

A further examination of the sequence of events leading up to Pinchas’ confrontation with Zimri will reveal that his action, while certainly zealous and ostensibly draconian, were not the actions of an unbridled extremist. In fact, his action was both religiously and politically calculated, was undertaken only after consultation, and could be successfully executed (literally and figuratively) only through the implementation of an elaborate subterfuge.

The Jews were once again knocking at the door of the promised land...but then the plague of snakes hit, Moshe and Aharon were disqualified from leading the Jews into Eretz Yisrael, and now the populace was engaging in widespread simultaneous promiscuity and idol worship, resulting in another raging plague.

In the midst of all the carnage came one of the pillars of the community—Zimri—to announce his plan to put an end to the plague. Basically he was telling the populace: you idiots. Why do you think you have to engage in the worship of ba’al peor just to liaise with non Jewish women? I’ll show you otherwise.

That’s one political response.

Pinchas, like everyone else, overhears Zimri’s boast and, remembering the halacha of kanain pog’in bo, consults with Moshe, who advises him to carry it out. What happens next—as detailed in the gemara in Sanhedrin—is worthy of any Mossad operation. Pinchas tricks the throng around the ohel moed—where Zimri has decided to make good his boast—into thinking that he is wants to pick up where and when Zimri leaves off. (Possibly the first Biblical example of law enforcement using deception to crack a case.) Hiding his weapon under his robe, he gains entrance and then spears the in flagrante Zimri and Cozbi, who are otherwise engaged and therefore completely unaware of his presence.

The first thing to note is that Pinchas was not only working within the exisiting legal system—he knew that there was a halacha of kanain pog’in bo—he even consulted with his superior first, and then, because he knew the risks involved (if Zimri actually stopped, Pinchas would be guilty of murder; if Zimri turned and killed Pinchas, it would be justifiable homicide), made sure he had all his bases covered. Aside from Zimri, he probably suspected that the cheering crowd outside the tent--obviously Zimri had influenced numerous people that his approach of gilui arayos without avoda zara was the more prudent course—were also aware of the halacha of kanain and were informally acting as Zimri’s security, although there is little or no textual indication as such.

However, is isn’t just Pinchas’ ability to calculate and consult that belies any notion of inborn extremism. One only has to see that the opportunity to actually put an end to the plague was actually unwittingly provided by Zimri, because until he declared his intention, showed up with Cozbi and took her in, everyone was at a loss as to how to stop the plague, because the mass convictions and executions going on were obviously not pacifying the Divine anger. It is possible that Zimri was trying to score political points with his constituency (whomever they may have been) by using his approach to contrast with Moshe’s, who was at a loss to stop the dying. (It is also possible that he had other things on his mind at the time; the gemara is actually rather explicit about what he and Cozbi were doing and for how long.) He almost certainly, however, calculated that no one would “call him on it”; that is, people would liaise without consequence before anyone would carry out kana’in. If not for Pinchas, he might have been correct.

Pinchas’ working within the system, giving Zimri whatever due process he would have deserved (admittedly not much, for Zimri had publicly announced his intent to violate the law and then made good on his boast) and undertaking a risky (though not necessarily suicidal) operation designed to save lives should serve as enough of an indicator that, to paraphrase Rabbi Norman Lamm, while he may have taken an extreme position, he was not taking an extremist position. If that is not enough, however, one must realize that he took this action purely as a reaction; he was precluded from taking any real proactive measures beyond what had already been done in this crisis. Until Zimri, acting as a political opportunist, provided Pinchas with an opportunity of his own.

So—if anyone—on either side of the religio-socio-political divide—thinks that the story of Pinchas provides either a justification for religious extremism, or portrays all religion as ipso facto irredeemably radically reactionary—think again.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Welcome to the Yeshiva

Ye’ush Mi’Da’as is a Talmudic concept delineating when it is possible to ascertain that one who has lost an object has certainly despaired of ever finding it.

The essays in this blog will have nothing to do with that sugya, at least not le’chatchila.

So why ye’ush mi-da’as?

I can offer three definitions.

Giving up on Knowledge (“da’as” as noun). I have despaired of ever attaining that level of da’as depicted and revered in Talmudic literature. Now I don’t think that one can be boreach mipnei da’as and have da’as run after him, the way kavod apparently runs after one who is boreach mimenu. (I wouldn’t know about running from kavod; I haven’t tried it.) Then again, I have a habit of confusing various Rabbinic maxims (maxi?); who was it that said “kol hamarbeh sicha im ha-isha harei zeh me-shubach?” (Full disclosure: I am single, male, and a resident of the Upper West Side.)

Giving up willingly (“mi-da’as” as adverb. Or, if my grammatical assessment is incorrect, I’ll rely on a reply post to remind me. There’s your first definition of ye’ush mi’da’as in action.) In other words, though I look at where I am madrega-wise and don’t necessarily like what I see, I am loath to do anything about it. Maybe, once upon a time, I heard someone say “sonei tochachos yichyeh.” Maybe that someone was me.

So what’s the curriculum in this Yeshiva?

I will attempt to post on a weekly basis (bli neder. Really bli neder. So bli neder that if was any more sure that it was bli neder, it would be a…nedava!) I will use an inyan from the parsha as a starting point, and then throw everything I can into it, like a chulent. (For those of you who have not yet been privileged to be fed my chulent, I am famous in certain circles (read: Upper West Side) for putting Pringles and Diet Coke in my chulent. That should tell you something). As far as I am concerned, anything is fair game.

Which brings me to what is probably Yeshivas Ye’ush Mi-Da’as’ raison d’etre: the exhibition of a fierce intellectual irreverence, yet one that avoids a slide into sacrilege. Some may say that such an undertaking is impossible; others may say that even if it were possible, the propriety of such an endeavor would be questionable at best.

While I won’t attempt to justify what I do—I’ll let the essays, and (hopefully) the reply posts, provide all the necessary justification (or lack thereof), I will provide three vorts by way of explanation.

A) My rav muvhak, Rav Aharon Bina, related sometime during my shana bet (yep—I went shana bet) that the Chazon Ish used to say that if there are three guys in a shiur, and at least one guy isn’t batt’ling, then it’s not a real shiur.

Think of me as your representative batlan. So what’s your excuse?

B) Rabbi Norman Lamm tells about preparing for a shiur with Rav Soloveichik where he was able to explain a sugya the way the Rav had taught it, to which the Rav retorted: “That’s what I said. What do you say? The problem is you brought your yetzer tov to the bais medrash. You were supposed to also bring your yetzer hara.”

I, on the other hand, just left my yetzer tov somewhere in front of OZ. (I’m an upper west sider; I couldn’t commit.)

C) The Gemara compares Torah to a drug in many places. It also says, “hamayeminin ba, sama dechaya [to those who go Right with it, it is life giving]; hamasm’ilin ba, sama demosa [to those who go Left with it, it is deadly]”.

Now, avoiding any specific religio-political implications because a) I would have to go on forever and b) eventually, I probably will go on forever, lets just assume for argument’s sake that, in line with my stated intention to be irreverent, I will be “going Left”. (And yes, masm’il rhymes with maskil. Cute.)

The gemara also says that “ein divrei torah niknin ela le’mi shememisin atzmo aleha [the words of Torah can only be acquired by one who kills himself over them].”

So, what quicker acquisition than as a sama demosa?

Oh, I forgot the third definition of ye’ush mi-da’as?

I lost my mind and I can’t find it.
But you probably figured that out already.

By the way, I forgot to save this before I posted it, something went wrong with Explorer, it got completely erased, and I had to write it again. My hava amina was that it was a siman min hashamayim to be misya’esh on the project

So was I misya’esh?

No. And it came out better the second time.