Thursday, December 31, 2009

Vayechi—Making The Call II

In continuing and expanding on last week’s theme of leadership, as last week’s parsha illustrated how two paradigmatic Jewish leaders dealt with emergency situations, this week the brachos that Yaakov gives actually start with Yaakov castigating his three oldest sons for what he saw as consequences of leadership failures.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes an extensive treatment on this theme regarding Reuven and his lost “potential”, not only as his father saw it, but more poignantly, from another incident, in Vayeshev, where Reuven saves Yosef from the rest of the brothers. At least, initially; 37:21-22 indicates that while he did throw him in the pit to forestall what seemed like imminent bloodshed [and got the requisite spiritual credit], posuk 22 also indicates where Reuven failed to “seal the deal”: he planned to “return him [Yosef] to his father], but as we see later in 29-30, while he’s otherwise occupied, Yehuda and the other brothers sell Yosef off, and Reuven’s first reaction is “va-ani ana ani va” [loosely translated: “now where do I go?”], which leads him to help in the ensuing cover-up. How much Yaakov knew about Reuven’s involvement is arguable; Rabbi Shlomo Riskin discussed Yaakov’s possible musings about his—and his sons’-- responsibility for Yosef’s disappearance, so it might follow that Yaakov referred only to Reuven’s initial misstep of removing his father’s couch from Bilhah’s tent as his evidence of Reuven’s lost potential, and a harbinger of his later failures. [As I mentioned last week, Reuven tries—in a very awkward manner—to guarantee Binyamin’s safety when the brothers are trying to convince Yaakov to send him to Egypt [see 42:37, 38]; Reuven’s idea—“my two sons will die”—causes Yaakov to think [pace Rashi on 38] “My firstborn is a fool [“shoteh”]. At this point there is no question in Yaakov’s mind that Reuven has no leadership ability, and it’s no accident—as we shall soon see--that it is Yehuda who steps into the vacuum with his guarantee, as we saw last week.]

So now we have an example of expected leadership lost: Reuven, the first-born, was not going to achieve the greatness for which he had been ostensibly destined for, even if only because of a perceived birthright. So, the mantle falls to Shimon and Levi.

Or does it? On the face of it, Yaakov is still sore at them for the massacre in Shechem; the posuk reads “be-apam hargu ish”—that they acted out of anger, and “birtzonam akru shor”—they took spoils willingly and with malice aforethought [contrast that with the later military operations in Esther: “uv-biza lo shalchu et yadam”—no profiting from bloodshed. Not for nothing did Yaakov complain in Vayishlach 34:30 that they had caused him a major PR problem: “achartem osi le’havisheni be-yoshvei ha-aretz”.] Yet Yaakov recognized that in their zeal to act—and, at least in the case of Shechem, there was ample justification—there was a contrast to Reuven’s tendencies to be both impetuous and hesitant. Therefore, as Rashi on 49:7 indicates, Yaakov’s apparent meted consequence of splitting them up and spreading them out [“achalkem”/”va-aphitzem”] was actually a device to channel their zeal into more productive leadership positions: Shimon became soldiers and teachers, while Levi became…Levites. The catch was: they never could be “top dogs”—Shimon was “condemned” to pedagogy and military, and Levi had to stay firmly on the religion side of religion and state, with terrible consequences when the Hasmoneans crossed that line.

From there we come to Yehuda. As we saw last week, he claimed his mantle by steeping into the breach at the eleventh hour with his guarantee to Yaakov for Binyomin’s, and then his following through on that guarantee at great personal cost. Ironically, Yehuda’s first “call” as a leader is rather dubious: he suggests that the brothers sell Yosef into slavery and profit, rather than kill him [37:26-27]. Yet even in this there is an element that hints at his effectiveness: the brothers listen to him and carry out his proposal, in contrast to Reuven’s “holding” action of throwing Yosef in the pit. As has been discussed at length in Rashi and midrashim, however, what ultimately gets Yehuda to his position is his experiences following the sale, particularly losing his two oldest sons and the Tamar incident, where he publicly confesses that he was in the wrong. Yehuda, unlike Reuven, has learned from his mistakes—and uses his undeniable leadership talent to correct those mistakes, as is finally revealed when he steps up for Binyamin. Additionally, as will be echoed when similar things happen to his Davidic descendants [David included], Yehuda also experienced the loss of his position, not to mention being force to take responsibility for the actions of his constituents, as evidenced by 38:1, “Va-yered Yehuda me-es echav”: as Rashi points out, the brothers blamed him for Yaakov’s pain: “if you would have told us to return Yosef to Yaakov we would have listened to you.”

The ultimate lesson here is not only regarding decisions made by leaders, however. It may be extended to anyone forced to make a “judgment call”, which may just be everyone, all the time. In a certain sense, the current global zeitgeist [a disingenuous one, to be sure, but still truistic, to a point] is, as the Crunch ads say, “No Judgments”. Ceratinly one should remember Hillel in Avos 2:4 not to judge anyone until you’ve been in the “same place”, or as Bartenura explains, until you’ve overcome the same obstacle that someone else apparently has not.

However, as Rabbi Mark Wildes once said in a pre-Rosh Hashana talk, a judgment means that the action being judged actually means something; in other words, if one is professing to never be judgmental, one is actually in a certain sense being ipso facto judgmental, by declaring nothing to be important. [Or, to paraphrase Rush [the band, not the EIB], if you choose not to judge, you still have made a judgment]. The question in this case might be: is the judgment call you [or me, or anyone] make in the spirit of “Reuven”, impetuous and not necessarily thought through; “Shimon/Levi”, proactive but sometimes destructive [Shechem may have been justifiable, but the initial idea to kill Yosef was theirs too]; or “Yehuda”, deliberate with the benefit of experience and mistakes? Finally, and ultimately, is one going to be ready to take responsibility for one’s own actions and judgments—even if and especially when they are influential regarding others’?

Friday, December 25, 2009

Vayigash—Making the Call I

Vayigash provides us with the portrayal of two future leaders of the Jewish people operating in two respective emergency situations, but from very different vantage points of power. One uses the seat of power; the other threatens it.

From the top, Yosef oversees the implementation of a rather draconian series of emergency measures to save the Egyptian [and, by extension, the world] economy [see my Vayigash: States of Emergency for a treatment of this].

Yehuda—at least according to the text—approaches Yosef with all the respect due a polity’s second-in command to negotiate for the release of Binyamin. Rashi immediately goes to work to dispel this notion: Yehuda, he says, “spoke to Yosef harshly”, denigrated him as one who “decreed and did not execute”, and threatened to kill both “you [Yosef] and your master”. Yehuda was coming very close to breaking all manner of protocol.

[Theoretically, one might think that Yehuda actually managed to get Yosef for a closed-door session [“yedaber na avdecha davar be-aznei adoni”]; this might be belied by the climactic moment when Yosef finally reveals himself, as the first thing he does is clear the room. Not that it helps: everybody knows by the end of the posuk. Maybe the Pharaonic court had Twitter.]

Either way, we see that the maturation processes of both Yehuda and Yosef—the progenitors of both of our eventual Meshichos—doevtailed almost perfectly at this point in the narrative: Yehuda has finally proven that he wasn’t being impetuous when he lays his olam haba on the line in last week’s parsha to convince Yaakov that the trip to Egypt with Binyamin was necessary, and here he demonstrates his ability to back it up. Yosef—who has already “earned his stripes”, as it were, with his ascent to power paralleling his dreams to that effect—finally recognizes that this point has been reached, preceisely because Yehuda has earned the right to “make the call”.

In next week’s parsha I will show more examples of where certain “calls” made by other shevatim could be overturned on the evidence, and where they couldn’t be but weren’t necessarily the right ones. Just an example from Miketz, however, will provide a hint of sorts: before Yehuda convinces Yaakov to send Binyamin to Egypt with the rest of the brothers, Reuven tries—in a very awkward manner [see 42:37, 38 and Rahi on 38, where he has Yaakov thinking that Reuven’s idea—“my two sons will die”—rendered him a shoteh. More on this to come.]

Friday, December 11, 2009

Vayieshev—Raising or Passing The Bar

Last week I made the point that spiritual “battles” are mostly fought in the dark and I derived from that the advisability of not necessarily “exposing” one’s spiritual roots.

It seems that in this week’s parsha Yaakov Avinu didn’t follow his own advice [and the halachic and midrashic literature is pretty critical of his pedagogical and parental approach] and, because he openly transmitted the Torah he’d learned at Shem and Ever almost exclusively to Yosef—and, both because Yosef had successfully absorbed his learning [and as a motivating tool vis-à-vis his other sons], Yaakov gave Yosef the Kesones Pasim. We all know what resulted.

R’ Shlomo Ressler writes, quoting R’ Yaakov Kaminetsky:

Yaakov loved Yosef more because he learned more, and WANTED the other brothers to be jealous (that's why he made him the shirt), so that they'd want to learn it too!...There's an important lesson in all of this, and that is that jealousy can be used in a good way, as Yaakov TRIED to do. But if we're not careful, we could miss the whole point, and end up doing things we shouldn't.

We’ve already documented the nefarious effects of this educational approach; one might say kol sheken in current settings, where it’s safe to say we’re not dealing with anyone of Biblical stature in our schools. [And, if those of Biblical stature such as the shevatim DID “miss the whole point, and end up doing things [they] shouldn't”, al achas kamah v’kamah….]

There’s another incident at the end of this parsha that also indicate faulty pedagogical approaches. We all know the Rashi on “vayishkachehu” [40:23] that states that Yosef’s counting on the sar hamashkim to put in a good word for his cost him another two years in jail.

It wasn’t until much later in life that I heard that MAYBE that would apply to Yosef because of his spiritual standing [and the obvious miracles that had occurred to him since his kidnapping]. Anyone else who DIDN’T ask for help would be mechazei k’yuhara, at best.

A few years ago I heard an even better explanation, from my mara d’asra, Rabbi Allen Schwartz, who related R’ Shimon Shkop’s explanation that Yosef was punished because he asked TWICE [in 40:14, he first says “zechartani”, and then “ve’hizkartani”]; it was well within his rights to ask the first time.

I’m sure it’s my fault that I wasn’t aware of the first explanation until my 20’s, and the second one until my 30’s. However—if I had heard either one in my formative years I probably would have remembered it. I think there’s a reluctance to proffer either explanation for fear of being viewed as “mi-ketanei amana”.

However, said reluctance is more likely to have the negative effect on pedagogical charges in a similar way to how Yaakov’s approach had on his own family. [And I hope no one tries Yaakov’s approach in the home or beis medrash.]

In a similar vein, there is the notion that it is more important to create gedolim even if it means losing a few of “stragglers” [which is actually stated policy in more than a few mussar seforim], which seems to be at odds with the gemara in Eruvin 54b about R’ Pereida and the lesson requiring a 400-fold repetition. In other words,

You can set the bar too high.


In 1992—my junior year in college—I delivered a dvar Torah at a shalosh seudos, the gist of which was such:

The midrashim are all over Yaakov for his diplomatic overtures to his brother at the beginning of the parsha, if not for simply engaging in any diplomacy but not least for deigning to refer to himself as “avdecha Yaakov” [lehavdil, sounds a bit like some of the invective directed at our current President for his public displays of temerity in Suadi Arabia and Japan]. Didn’t Yaakov—who knew kol haTorah kula—know that “Halacha beyadua she’Esav sonei es Yaakov?” What was he thinking?

The midrashim quote from Rashi who explains that Yaakov was covering ALL his bases—“milchama” [as evidenced by “vayitzer lo”—his fear that he might have to kill in self-defense], “tefilah” [“hatzlieni na”] and “doron”, or “presents” [maybe, more accurately, “bribery”—and as shown in 32:16-17, this “mincha” involved a quite a bit of livestock]. The midrashim—some of the same ones who take Yaakov to task for making the overtures in the first place—then quote the gemara in Taanis [20a] that states that one should always be as flexible as a reed rather than rigid as a cedar. Yaakov covered ALL his bases—he didn’t favor one option over the other.

That’s where I left it then [I was referring, obliquely, to the nascent “peace process” at the time and the possibility that some people in our college’s frum community weren’t necessarily holding to the furthest-right political view.]

But there’s another part to the story. The midrashim explain why one should emulate the reed, rather than the cedar: a reed’s roots keep it grounded even as the wind blows it this way and that, while a cedar—no matter how strong—can be toppled by one very strong wind.

I’ll take that a step further: a reed’s roots are sunken—and hidden. A cedar [as many other trees its size and and stature] more often than not will have some of its roots exposed.

It is therefore likely less than accidental that, in between Yaakov’s preparations for and finally meeting Esav, Yaakov is faced with what some consider his signature spiritual moment: his encounter with the “Man”—which occurred at night, in the dark, away from everyone--and someone had to tell him that the struggle was over at first light, and it was Samael, who, while being simultaneously “sar shel Esav”, “Yetzer Hara”, “Satan”, and “Malach HaMaves”—is yet a messenger of G-d.

The first and obvious conclusion is to realize that anyone’s real struggles—spiritual or otherwise—take place “until dawn”, hidden away from everyone and everything.

But, more poignantly, there’s a hint about how “exposing” your “roots” make your approach more vulnerable, or indicate that they may be more tenuous than you think they are. In Yaakov’s case, his flexibility and discretion were almost interchangeable. For most other people, PDA—public displays of almost anything—make everyone uncomfortable. For good reason.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Toldos—Tired Of Dating?

Conventional wisdom holds that this week’s parsha’s focus is on the family, as evidenced from its very title. I’m going to attempt to turn that notion on its head and try to show that the parsha is trying to tell us something about the nature of communication between the sexes and possibly how the lack thereof before a marriage can cause problems later in the marriage.

In a day and age where a molestation victim killed himself the night after his wedding because he realized he wasn’t anywhere near ready [1], and there is still some “da’as Torah” circles that insist that homosexuality is cured by marriage [R’ J.D. Bleich insisted this must be true because “ein hakadosh baruch hub a be-tiryona im biryosav”], the urgency of “communicating” this seems to have become more pressing.

As an unabashed “modern” and [too] long upper west sider, I basically heard the “da’as Torah” world’s insistence on dating exclusively for tachlis as so: if you let the “system” handle all the potentially messy elements of “dating” [e.g., you don’t go on “real” dates], you’ll avoid the messes inherent in relations between the sexes; you’re practically guaranteed to have the “yud” and the “heh” between the “esh” of “ish” and “ishah”. [R’ Pinchas Stolper’s “The Jewish Way In Love, Dating And Marriage” is one such publication that hews close to this line].

The stories of the avos’ marriages should actually place this notion to bed. Avraham and Sarah’s marital difficulties were legendary, not least due to Hagar/Yishmael and “achosi hi” ; Yaakov’s harem was bound to be problematic [and see my Vayetzei on last year for my take on the wedding night and the Rachel/Leah switch]. However, Yitzchak and Rivkah’s difficulties are more instructive, particularly as, since I pointed out last week, they make up the only monogamous relationship of the three. Rabbi Shlomo Riskin [2] mentions Yitzchak’s conflicted emotions toward his father which was, indirectly at least, a driving force behind the story of how the shidduch with Rivka was executed.

More interestingly, however, was a shiur I heard in 1996 from Avivah Gottlieb Zorenberg about the Rivka seeing Yitzchak for the kaddosh that he was at first sight [and she was so startled that she fell off the camel—see last week, 24:64]. This made her more than occasionally diffident about approaching him directly in communication, as evidenced in this week’s parsha by “le’nochach ishto”, by the fact that she went to Shem for advice—and that she couldn’t tell Yitzchak what she REALLY knew about Esav except by having Yaakov steal the brachos. Even when she did manage to “break the distance” when she had to send Yaakov away, she couldn’t even be candid about the reasons with Yitzchak.

What we see is that anyone who marvels at the “shidduch” system to the point that they portray it a panacea are actually causing more damage than they prevent. [And the special sibling rivalries that resulted.]

Beyond all that and back to my original gripe, it’s as if the worst thing about the “shidduch crisis” is not that people aren’t getting married, it’s that [gasp!] they’ll have to go on “dates”—and they might go on some “real” ones. One might think that, as far as thses people are concerned, all “real” dates end up like Esav coming back from the field tired [according to the medrash, from ravishing a na’arah me’urasa and killing her intended.] One forgets Esav, as midrashim in this parsha relate, was the first “faker” of frumkeit, outwardly portraying a conspicuous religiosity that ostensibly fooled his father, up to the point of his “shidduch” at 40 [Rashi; “My father married at 40…”], when by all rights the ruse should have been uncovered [and was, to a point, but really lasted until after the Yaakov stole the Brachos, when Esav finally dropped the pretense entirely.]

I think what this incident with Esav [the ravish and the murder—sex and death] sums up is, indirectly, what I once said [not here] about the relationship curse of “b-ze’as apecha tochal lechem” [interchanging “lechem” with “pas b’salo”]: it isn’t the “sweat” of work that’s necessarily the curse; it’s the “headache”, the special “ze’as apecha”, that’s the true “pain” of “work”—and the curse is that relationships are going to take work.

No matter what kind—“holy” or otherwise.



Thursday, November 12, 2009

Chayei Sarah—Family Values?

In Vezos Habracha I raised the possibility that the Torah set the “family” values priority lower than one might think. I didn’t visit the issue in as much detail there, nor in the first few parshiyos of Bereishis, where—as I mentioned three weeks ago—the Torah deals mostly with the “world at large”.

My Mother sent me an email a few years ago headed “Would Yeshivish People Date Anyone From The Torah?” [I’ve included the detailed text at the end of this bit.] But even taking a more serious angle the families are hardly nuclear and certainly dysfunctional:

*Avraham’s [and, later, Yitzchak’s] “sister” line when faced with a monarch casting eyes on their spouse [a theme that will repeat itself later, in a different form, re David and Batsheva];

*Avraham’s taking of a concubine at Sarah’s insistence, then chasing her out [and causing her to miscarry], taking her back in, then chasing her out again….

*…when, among other things, a teenage Yishmael either tries to kill and/or molest his half-brother Yitzchak [“metzachek” has a dual connotation], resulting in his [and his mother’s] SECOND exile from the Abrahamic household;

*and, to close out the first leg of the cycle, the strong link between the death of Sarah following [if not as a direct result of] the Akeda, and the story of how Avraham and Eliezer arrange the shidduch between Yitchak and Rivkah.

[In another link to the theme of “Its Good Ta Be Da King” above re Pharaoh and the Avimelechs, Besuel himself was an ardent practitioner of the droit de signeur, or the right of the local magistrate to ritually deflower a virgin before her wedding night [“Besuel” can be not necessarily loosely translated as “Lord of the Virgins”], and the midrash relates that Besuel was under pressure to administer said defloration to his own daughter by the locals who were rather perturbed at the possibility that she might be exempted. Apparently, one of the reasons for his Divinely-executed sudden death during the night [Rashi on 24:55] was that he was more inclined to actually assert his privileges.]

I mentioned in Noach re the incident between Noach, Cham and Cannan how the Torah seems to make an inexorable connection between same-sex relations and violence. In an only slightly more subtle sense, this whole series of events may show the Torah’s rather dim view of the exercise of power in sex [Rashi on 24:57, s.v. “nish’ala es pihah, where we learn the halacha of “ein masi’in isha elah mida’ata”.] I would take this a step further: while the Torah is likely inevitably patriarchal, it does not necessarily view this as a good thing [see my Vayetzei from last year, and].

In what might seem to be a tangential point, I would actually use the Torah’s discomfort with the admixture of sex and power as one of the reasons that it insists so strongly upon matrilineal descent. While almost all other familial halachos are patrilineally determined, the Torah does not want the establishment of its “family” to be based upon a simple equation of evolutionary biology and raw tribalism. When you contrast between the fact of the machinations behind the shidduch and the fact that Yitzchak and Rivkah made the only monogamous marriage among the Avos, this parsha may actually serve as a stronger support for this notion than one might think.

And now, the email I promised:

Would Yeshivish People Date Anyone From The Torah?

There's Avraham Avinu: He seems to be frum but really he's a BT and his father made idols, not our

Yitzchak Avinu: Well his grandfather made idols, there was all that nastiness with Lot and is half brother in an arab.

Yaakov Avinu: His great-grandfather made idols, his brother went off the derech, his mother comes from a very treyfe family and he wasn't shomer negiah with Rachel Imeinu before they were married and he spent a lot of time with his uncle, who's mammesh a rasha.

Yosef HaTzaddik: His mother had an idol once and she died early, plus he's a slave and his brothers don't like him, must be something in that and with all the issues with Avraham Avinu and Yitzchak and Yaakov Avinu...better not to.

Moshe Rabbeinu: Oy, what a maaseh!!!! His parents separated, then they got back together, his parents abandoned him, put him in a basket, he was raised by goyim...not our kind for sure. He may be close to Hashem but his background is so problematic we wouldn't want him in our family!

Caleb's descendants: We don't want to marry into that family. Enough said.

David HaMelech: Descendants from a Geyoret, not our kind of people. Sure a few generations have gone by but all things being equal shouldn't we look for someone with mor e 'jewish' background.

Shlomo HaMelech: See above, all his mother's marriage was very dubious, he is rich though but the yichus and family background is very tricky

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Vayera—A Proposed Akeda

The Akeda is symbolic of two ostensibly contradictory impulses in Judaism.

The first is how it is supposed to embody the strength of our relationship with G-d as exemplified by our willingness to sacrifice everything for Him. So much so that we recite the passage daily and implore G-d to “squelch His anger the way Avraham squelched his mercy” [which somewhat amplifies its self-contradictory nature].

The second impulse is Yirmiyahu 19:5 quoted in Taanis 4a, where the Akeda, Yiftach’s sacrifice of his daughter, and Mesha Melech Moav’s sacrifice of his son to Moloch are all referred to as what G-d had “neither commanded, nor spoke of, nor did it ever enter My mind.” Many an analogy has been made with current Islamist practice of suicide bombing as the modern-day equivalent of Moloch worship.

I originally was all set to use this notion as a jumping-off point to the recent tragedy at Fort Hood and the continuing reluctance of most media outlets to refer to the religion of the perpetrator. I’ve always said, at times, we have to thank G-d for the fundamentalist strains in other religions; they make us look good.

Then I came across this recent story:“A rabbinical court imprisoned a man because of violence and his refusal to grant a divorce. Yet the court differentiated between "regular beatings" which does not merit a hiyuv get [a rabbinical mandate to force the man to grant a divorce], and beatings that can kill, which does in fact merit a hiyuv get (see haDin ve-haDayan 4[3]). In the opinion of the rabbinical court, it seems that "regular" beatings are something that a woman is capable of living with, and in any event, divorce should not be imposed because of it. An act that constitutes a criminal offense in the State of Israel does not constitute grounds for divorce in the rabbinical court. “

Their justification?

“…in this new reality, in which [the civil courts] want to bind the hands of the rabbinical courts so that they will be unable to continue to rule on agreements that they ratified [the woman's appeal to the Supreme Court], and in which civil courts enjoy easily nullifying decisions of the rabbinical courts, this situation has the potential to cause serious harm...".

Apparently, “extra-halachic” considerations motivated the bes din to impose their own “akeda” upon the woman/women suffering in these marriages. Better to take one for the team even if it leads to the halachic sanction of wife-beating [which this is].

I propose we conduct an akeda of our own. 

I would go as far as finding out:

  • who their own poskim and rabbinic mentors are;
  • where they learned in Yeshiva;
  • where they teach and who is responsible for hiring them;
  • whether they have published sefarim and/or shailos/tshuvos, and who publishes them;
  • if any of them are marei d’asra or serve in any shul leadership capacity, have this tshuva posted in their shuls and neighborhoods so that their kehillos know that they condone wife beating. [Let them deny it.]

I wouldn’t limit it to the above; I might actually have a criminal investigation opened up, alleging that domestic violence is being condoned [if not advocated].

There’s a story which may or may not be an Orthodox urban legend about a group of women who, upon hearing that a certain individual in their community was withholding a get, took it upon themselves to not go to mikvah until the get was granted. That may have been the best modern day example of halachic civil disobedience.

This is different.  It is not a case of a “theoretical” halachic decision, or a rabbi musing about a world that is not sympathetic to halachic concerns.  These people need to be “sacrificed” for the impression of Torah they give, as the kind of people who lead to our being equated with the reactionary elements in other religions. And, in light of their justifications of their psak, it’s mida kneged mida.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Lech Lecha—Good To Be The King?

The first recorded instance of a “declared” war between “kingdoms” or otherwise defined polities occurs in this weeks parsha. The seeds of war, however, are sown in the story of Migdal Bavel, the first instance of a totalitarian project surrounding a “cult of personality”—Nimrod—who raised himself to level of a god and got people to believe him. [Although one might note that G-d waited for the project to get to a certain point: according to the medrash, it was when those who died on the project were ignored but broken bricks were eulogized. Even the “communist” Nimrodians had their corporate priorities.]

Thwarted in the 11th hour only by Divine intervention, Nimrod—now identified as Amrafel—does the next best thing: he invents the state, or even the concept of the polity, with him at the center; 14:1 is the first time the word “melech” appears in the Torah. It only takes until 14:2 that the word “milchama” appears for the first time.

Leaving aside the obvious propensity of localities to engage in belligerencies [one might view professional sports as a healthy modern sublimation of this tendency], the proximity of melech and milchama indicate that a government has violence built right into DNA. That also can be a jump off point to explain why the Mishnah in Avos [2:3] says “Watch out for the government: They befriend a person to meet their own needs, appearing friendly when it is to their benefit, but they do not stand by a person in their moment of distress” [trans. Nachama Skolnik Moskowitz].

It would seem that politicians from Machiavelli all the way to Barack Obama are familiar with this Mishnaic proscription, only they have taken it as an instruction in how to run government. If anyone wonders why the Obama administration has backed off its “commitments” to Sudan and has failed to intervene on the side of the “angels” in Iran…[or why George HW Bush deigned to help the uprising against Saddam in 1991… why LBJ didn’t lift a finger during the Prague spring in 1968…why Ike didn’t stop the Russians in Budapest in 1956…FDR didn’t stop the Holocaust…Wilson didn’t stop the Turks in Armenia in 1916] this Mishnah should provide one instruction. [In her history classic “A Problem From Hell”, Samantha Power conclusively proves the US State policy is to employ diplomacy to avoid intervention at all costs during genocidal episodes].

But a real illustration of the nature of power, its propensity to violence and tenedency to shirk responsibility may be taken from Maurice Sendak’s children’s parable “Where The Wild Things Are”, now a major feature film. Max convinces the creatures about to eat him that he has immense powers and he is immediately crowned king; however, he discovers that power is not all its cracked up to be [being admonished that repeatedly that he was “supposed to make everything better”], and he finds himself mostly at the mercy of Carol, the most powerful and likely de facto leader of the Wild Things, who seems to exude power but is unwilling or unable to use it responsibly—which is why he has to find a King in the first place: so someone else can be “responsible”. In the end, when Max leaves and is told “You’re the first king we haven’t eaten”, the suicidal nature of power is revealed.

In the end, a reversal of the feminist dictum “the personal is political” may be in order: that is, the political is always personal. Its no accident that Nimrod sets himself up ass the first king in the Torah; last week, in making himself “a mighty hunter before G-d” [10:9] used his ego to eventually set himself up as G-d’s biggest rival [if not, kevayachol, equal], therefore establishing forever the nature of power and its tedencies toward the absolute. Max may have been a child Nimrod with no idea of what it meant to be responsible; Carol could have been a Nimrod, except that he may have had enough of a conscience to realize that there was some responsibility involved in leading. Nimrod himself, apparently, was so good at aggregating followers that his ego inflated to the point where he never had to grow up.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Noach--Sex and Violence

What is Sefer Bereishis about? What, in a nutshell, is its purpose?

If you take either the literal translations of the five Chumashim [Beginning, Names, Called, Desert, Words] or the given “non-Jewish” names of the Books [Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy], you usually get a clear indication of a/the unifying theme running through that particular chumash--the exception of Bereishis/Genesis.

It might be because it’s the only sefer that deals with the world at large outside of Bnei Yisrael at any length.

It might also be because of the 2528 years covered in Chumash, Bereishis covers 2238 of them, 1948 of them in Bereishis and Noach.

I will submit that the thread running through Sefer Bereishis is—relationships. Specifically—adult relationships [well, ostensibly adult relationships]. Even more specifically—sex and violence and the inexorable link between them. If you look at the first ten parshiyos, every one of them has either a central relations-related story, usually right in the text. [Homework: go find them.]

Go beyond that, however, the stories surrounding these relationships—and their attendant “relations” [and, in many cases the bloodshed that results]—reveal the inherent tension between a G-d given morality and human beings trying [or, as the case too often may be, trying not to] both intuit and act in accordance with said morality. One way to do that might be to try to behave in a way that demonstrates a complete absence of said ethic: the first series of events precipitating the mabul [no pun intended] in Ch 6 [“…u’banos yuldi lahem”] may actually start earlier, at 4:19: the story of how Lemech took two wives and played blatant favorites [or, to be even more blatant, how he created an androcentric sex ethic: according to Sefer HaYashar 7, pregnancy was deemed an “abomination” in this period.]

It is, therefore, no accident the sexual of the “zayin mitzvos” are actually learned from a series of remazim in parshas Bereishis 2:24 [see also Sanhedrin 58a] as opposed to from Noach itself. [By way of contrast, murder is beferush in Noach, though Kayin obviously betrays in Bereishis that he knew what he’d done to Hevel was wrong—and why.] The mabul, among other things, was consequential to the absolute complete lack of an ethic surrounding relationships—and that what began with sex [se Rashi on “mikol asher bacahru”, 6:2] usually ended in violence [“chamas”.]

Unfortunately, this lesson seemed to be lost on Ham and Canaan…because almost as soon as G-d promises that there will be no repeat performance of the mabul [9:12-17], they engage in—depending on who you ask [cf. Sanhedrin 70a]—sodomy, incest, rape, and castration. The justice this time comes in the form of the curse of eternal servitude Noach places upon Canaan and his descendants. [Canaan apparently returned the favor with his “five commandments” to his descendants: “love each other, love theft, love wantonness, hate your masters and never speak the truth” [Pesachim 113b]]. Also, the above section is the first—and only—detailed homosexual act in the entire Tanach [the anshei Sodom outside Lots house never got to “know” what they wanted to] and its not an accident that there are so many sordid behaviors attendant to the incident, which might shed some light on the Torah’s attitude towards homosex: it ipso facto involves violence being done to [at least] one party, in that view.

I’ll take it a step further: it might actually detail the Torah’s ambivalent attitude toward male sex drive, [the Talmud’s misigivings about the female sex drive [see especially Sotah 20b] may be balanced by the Biblical one regarding the male if you look hard enough], as it might always have an element of “violence”—certainly a level of “invasion”—attached to it. [Andrea Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon—radical feminists who went further and theorized that all heterosex was ipso facto rape-- may have been closer to the mark than they realized.] The classic reason given for mot making a bracha on sex is “i efshar bli ta’aroves hayetzer”: this may be one reason.

In theory, it may explain the powerful symbolism behind bris mila. In recent years there have been various movements to either ban circumcision, or reverse it, or declare it as mutilarory a practice as clitoridectomies, or—pace Rambam [but in reverse]—conemn it as unnecessarily denying sexual pleasure. [New York magazine recently had a pro/con feature on the subject]. These people miss the point. Leaving aside Rambam’s attitude [which is questionable, both hashkafically and medically], circumcision may be a symbolic way of “leveling the playing field”, as it were: taking away the violent dimension of sex. [The arayos yetzer is enough; the damim yetzer just makes things even more complicated].

There’s another element to all this, however: it involves how to educate about sex from a Torah point of view, particularly since the Chumash is so chock full of it [albeit couched in as oblique language as possible]. Before I even moved up to the upper west side, the first speech I ever heard the nieghborhood’s mora d’asra [Rabbi Allen Schwartz, OZ] give started with this question: why are we so reluctant to address issues of relations in chinuch [e.g. when we skip perek 38 in Vayeishev, dealing with Er and Onan and Yeahuda and Tamar], but we have no compunctions about teaching the mass bloodshed in places like Sefer Yehoshua.

I don’t remember how he resolved the issue at the time, but as I was tackling this topic here, I realized that actually teaching the issues—again, however obliquely—may not be something to be afraid of. From my experience—when I learned, for example, the gemara in Kesuvos dealing with pesach pasuah—there is something about dealing with the topic of sex from a halachic/Talmudic point of view that takes all the salaciousness right out of the issue. I would think that applies even in the internaet age when the imagery associated with arayos is increasingly prevalent and less and less subtle.

I’ll end with another corollary: it was said regarding women’s Torah education at the turn of the last century that if women did not learn Torah, they would certainly learn tiflut. I’ll proprose something that may not be as radical as you think: if the next generations don’ get their “relational” information from “safer” [i.e, chinuch] settings—they’ll get it elsewhere.

If they haven’t already.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Bereishis—Creationism Ex Nihilo

I’ve said before that the Torah sometimes isn’t as “frum” as it is made out to be.

Despite the importunations of the Gemara to not delve too deeply into ma’ashe bereishis [like ma’aseh merkava], I [again] will go out on a limb and proffer the following corollary/analog to my above statement: The Torah is not as creationist as it is made out to be.

This means:

*the sheshes yemei bereishis don’t add up to 144 hours;
*the whole of creation is NOT 5770 years old;
*there may have been “humans” before Adam HaRishon [though not with a neshama];
*evolution is emphatically not in conflict with ikkarei emuna;

The topic has been beaten to death, and all the evidence has been in print [and elsewhere] for a while. Authors such as Aryeh Kaplan, Nathan Aviezer, Gerald Schroeder and Nosson Slifkin have dealt with the topic expertly—and anyone with any modicum of intellectual honesty would be forced to admit that the ban on Slifkin was motivated by edu-political, rather than truly hashkafic, concerns.

Considering the overwhelming evidence, one might even wonder if one who actually believes in the sheshes yemei bereishis following the “creationist” credo might be flirting with what Yeshayahu Leibowitz considered “bibliolatry.” [I, personally, won’t go that far. Or did I just?...]

Instead, the “bibliolatrous” focus deflects from what the bigger fear is: if we have to explain ma’aseh bereishis in a more complicated [i.e. scientific] way, it will call everything else into question. That has been a problem—for people who believe in the “Bible”, as opposed to Torah. The “three stooges”—Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and Christopher Hitchens have mostly focused their attacks on Christianity [as did their “spiritual” forefather, Bertrand Russell], though no one should assume that any of them are sympathetic to Judaism [Hitchens’ evisceration of Chanuka at the end of his most recent tome being a case in point. I respond to Hitchens’ assertions re Chanuka in my upcoming piece on Vayeshev]. We should, however, ultimately remember that the religious right's battles are NOT ours.

Partly in response to the “three stooges”, there’s the “Evolution of G-d” which I haven’t read, but if you read the reviews [particularly Jerry Coyne in the New Republic[1]], it seems as if the book is about the scientific equivalent of the Bible codes [already mathematically debunked by Prof. Barry Simon [2], who definitely has no religious ax to grind.] We do ourselves no favors—and really do not uphold our credibility—when we “force” science to conform to religion [defense of the Torah Codes being paradigmatic: “the Torah is true, so the codes have to be”.] This is nearly as bad as if we express any sympathy for the viewpoints of those who think that creationist museums in Kentucky or Arkansas are representative of the true point of reconciliation between science and religion.

Let’s be clear: I believe in G-d--THE One G-d--and that He is the creator of all things [there can only be One.] I also believe there’s an evolutionary process and He’s behind all of it [if that description is incomplete, fine; that alone doesn’t make me a kofer]. However, I believe that any defense of “creationism” against a perceived conspiracy of science—whether motivated by politics or actual belief—is not Judaism’s most salient option. When G-d Himself says “lulei osi azvu ve’torasi shamaru”, He’s making a point about priorities, almost as if to say: it’s not helping even if you think it is.


Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Vezos HaBracha/Simchas Torah—Brotherhood

Devarim 33:9-- “He says to his father and his mother, ‘I don’t recognize him/her’; and his brother he does not acknowledge; and his children he does not know..."

The recent news that J Street has been the recipient of generous sums of funding from Arab and Muslim groups that are at least nominally hostile to Israel, if not outright antisemitic, that the non-Jewish enemies of Israel have caught on to making common cause with Jews seeking to undermine the Jewish character of Israel if not make it disappear outright [at least, those who aren’t Neturei Karta] is unfortunately never surprising.

A recent article in Harper’s by Naomi Klein—“Minority Death Match”—may provide a window into the new “replacement theology” of J Streeters and their “progressive” chevra. To be sure, J Street are probably not “frum” enough in their adherence to progressive ikkarei emuna, at least in the mind of those like Klein, who seems to have wrested the mantle of formulator of said tenets from the likes of Michael Lerner. [And say what you will about Lerner…he has a son serving in the Israeli army.]

In other words, its not surprising that the Left has employed their own version of 33:9. What might be more surprising is that, from the Right [again, not even having to mention Neturei Karta], occasionally we might actually be SUGGESTING a version of 33:9.

For Jews to get upset that evangelicals do exactly what their faith demands of them is ridiculous. In the free market of ideas, what suffuses the Jews to think that we can’t complete? Let the evangelicals do what they like. To whatever extent they succeed, the indictment is not on them, but on us.

This from an Orthodox Rabbi [Daniel Lapin] who has adopted conservative ikkarei emunah with the claim that they closely dovetail the real ones. Which is nearly as disingenuous as the J Street/Tikkun progressives claiming their “theology” is, or should be, the I’d like to see if Lapin would express similar sentiments if you replace the “evangelicals” with “radical Islamists” or “homosexuals”. After all, he actually mentions the “free market” beferush, so maybe their expressing their “beliefs” falls into that category of a conservative ikkar emuna.

I would say that ALL of these cases, to various extents, embody 33:9 [with Neturei Karta serving as a paradigm].

And, I’m willing to actually give the progressives a leg up here: first, because at least I don’t have to countenance the impression that they’re on my side; and second, for a very salient historical reason, articulated by Michael Medved, in a recent Commentary symposium addressing Norman Podhoretz’ query “Why are Jews liberals?”:

The liberal belief that Jews should be pro-choice and pro–gay marriage has nothing to do with connecting to Jewish tradition and everything to do with disassociating from Christian conservatives. According to this argument, Catholic and evangelical attempts to “impose” their values on social issues represent a theocratic threat to American pluralism that has allowed Judaism to thrive. Jews, like all Americans, vote not so much in favor of politicians they admire as they vote against causes and factions they loathe and fear. Jews fear the GOP as the “Christian party,” and as the sole basis of Jewish identity involves rejection of Christianity, Jews will continue to reject -Republicans and conservatism.

As you may have guessed, I have no problem with that sentiment; maybe I’m ging the liberals too much credit, but doest the Gemara say about Mordechai that “since he rejected idolatry; and all who reject idolatry are called Yehudi (Jew)" (Megillah 13a)? Israel Zangwill [who married out] once wrote “The Jews are a frightened people: sixteen centuries of Christian love have broken down their nerves.”

Obviously, this is oversimplifying, and yes, Christianity is certainly no longer the driving force behind apocalyptic anti-Semitism; that theology has [ironically] been replaced. Still, one who do well to remember a converse of “Es echav lo hikir” [or is is inverse? Contrapositive? Now you know why I gave up on the LSAT’s]:

“Hatzileni miyad achi miyad Esav”.

Beware of any proclamations of brotherhood, whether it comes from our brothers…or our other brothers.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Ha’azinu: “It’s Not Personal; It’s Business”

History/Never repeats/I tell myself/Before I go to sleep—Split Enz

For most of the past decade, I’ve spent a good portion of the Rosh Hashana—whether at home or in shul, during a lull in prayers [or sometimes if I get bored during the actual prayers]—reading through Shoftim and/or Melachim. The stories therein generally brought home two particular points to me: one, that people—particularly my own, as the stories were generally about them—oftentimes indulged in behaviors that were grossly criminal and immoral, even given the extreme cultural differences between their times and ours [the ma’aseh of pilegesh b’givah in Shoftim 19 is paradigmatic]; and two, many of said incidents were perpetrated by individuals with WAY too much power and/or success [not for naught does one find the verse “And he continued in the evil ways of his father[s]” recurring in both books of Kings].

Mostly, it was an exercise in making myself feel better during the time of year that my tradition calls for an intense degree of introspection, both because I didn’t a) want to think I was ever that bad and b) not having to kick myself for mot having reached what ever “madrega” I was “destined” for [obviously, the bigger they were, the harder they would fall]. [This year, instead of perusing the neviim, I found myself reading about Jews in Sing Sing, and Jewish criminality in US from 1900-1940. Le’havdil, of course, but a similar theme applies.]

Similarly, around this time of year I remember my initial reaction to the Oslo process which was truly commenced on September 13, 1993 [right before Rosh Hashana] with the famous White House handshake, outside of the obvious political implications: the “frumer” elements in and out of Israel would be quicker to proclaim the need for teshuva to counteract the effects rather than resort to all-out vicious opposition. I can’t really speak for whether there was actually any introspection within those communities and its members, but my expected public proclamations and calls for tshuva didn’t happen.

When you get down to it, all of Sefer Dvarim—from the opening parsha thru the end of Vayelech—Moshe basically tells bnei yisrael two things: 1) You were bad. A lot. 2) After I pass, you’re gonna be even worse. Parshas Haazinu basically encapsulates this entire notion in peotic form [according to the midrashim, Moshe had Bnei Yisrael recite it with him responsively, lest they miss the point]. Obvious questions are raised: what is the purpose of such a national endeavor if Jewish life—and, by extension, our history—is one long rerun of the Tochacha? And does this affect any notion of an intellectually honest bechira chafshis, if our collective gross misbehavior has been decreed from on high?

While those are important questions, they are almost ancillary to the real main theme of Haazinu, which might serve to reframe he entire cycle of “Were bad, Will be bad” that runs through Sefer Devarim.

One might, in a sense, see a form of a pre-emptive rejoinder to what Bnei Yisrael tell Shmuel when they request that he set up a monarchy, so that “ve’hayinu ke-chol ha-goyim”. In a sense, Moshe is telling Bnei Yisrael throughout Sefer Devarim and especially in Haazinu: Don’t expect that your Covenant with the Divine is an ipso facto guarantee that your lives will be less nasty, brutish and short as anyone from kol hagoyim—in fact, chances are that you’ll fail, occasionally spectacularly, and incur what might seem to you and/or others excessive nastiness and brutishness, but is actually almost a built in consequence of your relationship with G-d, the only thing that makes you chosen and “special”. We may take this a step further when we see how G-d Himself will avenge his servants—but, while He k’vayachol takes our persecutions “personally”, he doesn’t spend all that much time [in Haazinu’s pesukim, anyway] detailing how he will facilitate OUR revenge: He does it all for us.

And/or Him. It’s personal AND business.

But there’s another, more positive message we can take: there is a “happy ending” to the cycle of history, hinted at in the [admittedly violent imagery of an] ending of the “poem” section of Haazinu. And while Moshe states at the beginning “Zechor yemos olam, binu shnos dor vador” [“Remember the days of old; consider the generations long past”] [32:7]—Moshe certainly would not object to Shlomo Hamelech’s admonition regarding nostalgia: “Do not say, ‘Why is it that the former days were better than these?’ For it is not from wisdom that you ask about this” [Koheles 7:10]

I propose that the historical example of the recent rebirth of Israel--but particularly as a secular democratic state—is actually the sign we would be looking for. I submit this is counter intuitive, if radical, but I would use this assertion to futher support my point: Israel is the only state in the world that, in the democratic Zeitgeist of our day and age, should be allowed to have any religious character allowed in its makeup at all [and the only state in the world that should be allowed to have nuclear weapons, if only because we invented them. But that’s another discussion]. This is in no small measure due to the ironic reason that only Jews ostensibly subvert our own religious “prerogatives” and keep the state from becoming a theocratic dictatorship [which it would be without a direct Divine imprimatur.] Can you imagine any other state with a religious foundation even allowing that sort of subversion to its “traditions”? The only other example I can think of that comes close is Ireland [and only because they elected women as their President[s] and liberalized their abortion laws, through clenched teeth, in complete contradistinction to their “traditions”], but when you consider how its adoption of Catholicism in the 16th century was a histori-political accident in the first place, one can argue that its claims to its “inexorable” spiritual roots are of far more recent vintage than ours. To those who would say that Israel should more closely emulate theocratic regimes, I would venture that we’ve demonstrated the opposite [with lots of help from contemporary theocracies]. Religion and government, religion in government—is OUR business.

[No one else would ever follow our example [or would want to]; such concepts are completely foreign to them; owing in no small part to my Judeo-centrism, I would almost say it is due to some deep-seated fear that we’re right and they’re wrong; the historical example of St. John Chrysostom’s declaration that persecution of Jews be stepped up for this very reason provides a clear illustration of this. I would ever go so far as to say it drives much of current Islamic anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial. But don’t quote me on—oops.]

[Oh, and as a mildly tangential closing of the circle regarding happy endings: in both of the books I read this past Rosh Hashana—and other books about US Jewish criminality in the early part of the previous century—after 1950 or thereabouts there was a VERY significant dropoff in Jewish criminality in this country, and for the most part it has stayed that way.]

Gmar chasima tova and mechila on the House.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Nitzavim-Vayelech: Redemption Song

We thought we had enough destruction last week in the tochacha; apparently not, because after that comes a more personalized tochacha aimed at the one who engages in “shrirus halev”, [lit. “the path of my heart”] which I will loosely translate [this time, anyway] as an almost unthinking, reflexive position regarding almost anything that could have a self-serving agenda. The Torah virtually guarantees his destruction, mostly for attempting to separate his destiny from his people’s. This mini-apocalypse is followed by “hester panim” [G-d hiding His face, as it were], which Rashi terms the greatest curse of all.

I would instead like to draw an [admittedly] loose parallel between my point last week and what we see this week. I mentioned that the last and theoretically worst thing in the tochacha last week was G-d’s warning that we would all be returned to Egypt in boats in a kind of reverse Exodus/Splitting of the Sea. I mentioned that this may have been a [very disguised] blessing, as once we all realized we were in the same boat, it might serve as a unifier of sorts.

In this weeks parsha we have a similar theme: specifially, the notion of “hester panim” that occurs in Nitzavim, which one might see in this case as a sort of moral fog, exemplified by the various results of “shrirus halev” on the left and right. On the left, one only has to look at the recent Toronto International Film Festival, where a brouhaha was touched off by the inclusion of a film about Tel Aviv, and petition declaring the “object[ion] to the use of such an important international festival in staging a propaganda campaign’ which was circulated and by an array of various artists/celebrities ( A quick perusal of the signatories reveals a preponderance not only of Jews, but Israelis. On the opposite end of the religio-political spectrum, one might see a “shrirus halev” in insistence that one has done due diligence in combating fraud and white collar crime in the frum community by inviting an admitted malefactor [one who PLED GUILTY and agreed to a 5-year prison term] to give the opening address at a religious convention ostensibly dedicated to transparency; or the kind that insists that its more important to protect educational finances by fighting legislation to remove statutes of limitation from child abuse cases; or assuming that there is never any reason to cooperate with secular authorities, even if [or especially in] cases where grievous harm is being done to children. One might conclude that there was an agenda other than, as the Torah exhorts elsewhere, “doing right and good.”

The “moral fog” of “hester panim”, I think, is the locus of the corrective process of setting one heart right instead of assuming that one’s heart is already automatically straight. It also comes in the middle of a mess of catastrophes, instead of serving an automatic beginning of an irreversible redemptive process. In fact, in Vayelech, Moshe basically ends the Torah by telling the Jews You’re gonna mess up after I’m gone. Big time.

And then the Torah suddenly says Here the Song ends.

It’s the struggle that’s the song, whether on the personal or national level. And its ongoing, and not always pretty. However, its also possible that the most positive message can be garnered simply from the titles of the parsha: Nitzavim-Vayelech—We Stood, We Walked. We have to stand up before we move forward, and we will get knocked down repeatedly [too many times we do it to ourselves]. But—as long as we keep getting up and moving, the Song keeps playing.

Shana Tova to all.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Ki Savo: Shipmates

The parsha begins with the formulation to be recited along with the bringing of the bikkurim, the recitation beginning with “arami oved avi”. Rashi ad loc quotes the classic midrash about how this posuk serves as the reference point for the concept of “machshava ke-maa’seh” regarding non-Jews’ with Judaicidal designs. The parsha ends with an ostensibly bizarre close to the “Tochachah”: “G-d will return you to Egypt in boats, along the way in which he said you would no longer see….” A closer examination of both will allow one to discern subtle variations on a particular theme.

Rashi and the midrashim both here and at the end of Vayeitzei mention that Lavan pursued Yaakov with murderous intent, only to be dissuaded by Divine vision. The Gemara [Sanhedrin 105b] notes that Bilaam was a direct descendant of Lavan, possibly even his son [some midrashim identify him AS Lavan]. The entire series of events in Parshas Balak, from the transformed-curse blessings to the incidents at Avel Shittim, can be seen as a more concerted effort on the part of Lavan’s descendants—if not Lavan himself—to “finish the job” that he wanted to, but couldn’t, at Har Gilead.

To further develop the theory, one must look at the centerpiece of the Balaamic “blessing” that went against everything he stood for: "Hen am levadad yishkon uvagoyim lo yitchashav," "Lo, it is a people that shall dwell alone, and shall not be reckoned among the nations" (Bemidbar 23:9). Here is a more “classic” explanation of the concept, courtesy of Rabbi Yaacov Haber:

According to Bilaamism there can never be a chosen people. It is a step backward and very dangerous for one nation to be destined to show others the way. Universality denies national uniqueness, and therefore denies the existence of a chosen people. Chazal tell us that he was called Bilaam because of his universality; “b’lo am” (without nation). He taught that everyone should shed his or her nationalism and become a “citizen of Planet Earth”. He was above politics, war, racism and power struggles. He grew to be a “prophet like Moshe” among the nations. Bilaam was the Guru of universalism. [Parshas Balak--Bilaam, Mr. Planet Earth:]

With all due respect, R’ Haber may be missing the point. While Bilaam may have had strong misgivings with a “morality” that wasn’t “universal”, evidence from the Gemara and midrashim indicate that in truth, “Bilaamism” was all about Bilaam, and the best vehicle for Bilaamism was…a cross between immorality and amorality, or even a corss between Arendtian and Dionysian totalitarianism, by not divulging his true philosophy: whether there was no such thing as right or wrong [as indicated by his use of divination] or whether it was good to be bad [indicated by the fact that he possessed “knowledge of G-d” that made it impossible for him to intellectually honestly harbor a belief that no moral distinctions existed]. Furthermore, the medrash regarding his advising Pharaoh to slaughter Jewish babies and use their blood as a leprosy cure indicates that he was not really “above politics, war, racism and power struggles”.

The real curse of “badad yishkon” might be the kinds of “friends” we actually do have [e.g., Alan Keyes, John Hagee, Pat Robertson, Sarah Palin, Dan Quayle, etc] while rather prominent members of our own people who have turned on us in the name of an ostensible Universalism [e.g. Naomi Klein, Noam Chomsky, Richard Falk, Ilan Pappe] or a more convoluted form of “real” Judaism [Michael Lerner, Neturei Karta, Elmer Berger].

So we don’t have to necessarily go to Egypt to be in Egypt. Nowadays we have the unique situation of having both an Eretz Yisrael and an Eretz Mitzrayim. In his Haggadah, the Netziv explains the need for G-d’s rescuing the Israelites from Egypt with both a “yad chazakah” and “zeroa netuya”—there were Jews who needed to be rescued, and the Jews who needed to be forced to leave. G-d took them both out, both ways—and krias yam suf ensured no boats were needed. So when you look at the curse of Bilaam again, you can see the connection between “arami oved avi” and returning to Egypt in boats—it’s as if at the end of the tochachah G-d is threatening to completely reverse the process of krias yam suf: a shipborne return to an Egypt that won’t even give you the courtesy of re-enslaving you.

And yet—Rashi’s elucidation of “v’ein koneh” notwithstanding [they’ll kill you without bothering to enslave you]—its possible that one can find a positive message in the boat[s]: that all of us—from Neturei Karta to Noam and Naomi—will be on the boat. Certainly NOT our “friends” from EITHER side of the political fence [more likely they’ll be fighting over who gets to cut the rope]. In any case, one might do well to remember the series of statements in Baba Basra 10b regarding the notion that tzedaka performed by aku”m is reckoned to them as a CHET. One of the reasons given is that they just do it to make us look bad; I would reckon that concept can be extended to anyone who offers friendship to us pretending that there are no strings attached--when we know better.

We should always remember who our real shipmates are.

Monday, August 17, 2009

"Haredi Leaders Have Spoken Out On Scandal"?

Rabbi David Zweibel, executive vice president of Agudath Israel of America, wrote an opinion piece in the August 12 Jewish Week insisting that there has been a measrued and appropriate response to the apparent plethora of legal scandals in the Haredi community.

This was my response, as a letter to the editor.

I can't tell whether Rabbi David Zweibel, Esq. ("Haredi Leaders Have Spoken Out On Scandal") is still operating as if he was in a courtroom, but his argument regarding the salience of the Haredi response to scandal falls on two of his claims:

First, the ostensible "soul-searching articles in the Haredi press" lack credibility when some of these same organs denounce certain government informants as "malshinim" [slanderers] and "mosrim" ["informers"], and gleefully pounce on swirling rumors [since debunked] about the father of one said "moser" disowning him and sitting shiva for him. The wagon-circling mentality tends to override any impression that these people have truly taken responsibility for their actions.

Second, and more jarring, is Rabbi Zweibel's touting his "privilege" to chair a program of a symposium on "[]Doing the stirght and good" which opened with...a mea culpa from a MALEFACTOR who PLEADED GUILTY? Is that not like inviting the arsonist to help put out the fire? Is this ADMITTED malefactor a rabinnic community leader? If so, are his halachic pronouncements STILL considered "daas Torah"? Two analogs, however loose, come to mind: Jimmy Swaggart's televised "I Have Sinned"...or, even worse, the possibility that one day someone will convene a child-abuse symposium and have Rabbi Yehuda Kolko open the proceedings [wait, he wasn't convicted of the more serious charges, and wasn't labeled a sex offender...never mind...]

Rabbi Zweibel expresses surprise that "[T]he Jewish Week [gave] this event no coverage." He should be thankful; the perception given will not be the one he hoped for. I'm sure Rabbi Zweibel is even more familiar than I am with Talmudic discussions delineating various levels of Chillul Hashem [profanation of G-d's name]. I have no doubt that, unlike me, he can immediately locate and quote the sugya that offers definition of Chilu Hashem as an action that elicits the thought "Woe to he who has learned Torah."

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Re-eh: Influenca Pandemics

Last year, in my piece on Re’eh, I examined the juxtaposition of the three passages in the parsha dealing with false prophecy [navi sheker], the private seducer [mesis/mediach], and the idolatrous city [ir hanidachas]. I proposed that “the strongest common denominator….sometimes the worst kind of behaviors happen right in front of our noses and can be perpetrated by the people we love the most and are supposed to admire most, [whereas] in the city streets, or “ir”, [] we might be less surprised to find widespread moral turpitude.” I then examined some implications regarding how one influences and is influenced, and attendant issues of assigning moral responsibilities.

I would like to expand upon that theme a bit. In addition to warning us to be aware of morally compromising influence from wherever it comes—as well as the possibility that it can come from where it is to be least expected—the Torah is also dropping strong hints that said influences are oftentimes complementary.

More specifically, when looking at the parsha, we see that a malign influence can be a singular influence—an erstwhile spiritual personality [the navi sheker] or a particularly close relation [mesis/mediach]—or a mass/mob influence [the ir hanidachas]. It can almost become a chicken and egg issue: who influenced who, first? History—Jewish and otherwise—is replete with examples where salient malign influences occurred in either direction [singularmass and vice-versa], or both simultaneously.

The paradigmatic examples of singular malign influences in Torah and medrash are, arguably, Korach and Bilaam. Korach’s dubious accomplishment was that he was able to ensnare the religious elite and then a sizable portion of the populace in open rebellion against Moshe, all for the purpose of his own aggrandizement. Bilaam’s accomplishment predated even his elaborately and unfortunately successful plan to ensnare the Jews in mass flagrante with the b’nos Moav; apparently, the Midrash relates that he influenced the women of the world to remove the last vestiges of sexual continence they had practiced since the days of the Mabul. [This and his own sordid practices involving sorcery and bestialty as related in Helek indicate how thoroughly corrupt his personality was, and maybe hints as to why he was so influential: his credibility in such matters was impeccable.]

Using the example of the Nazi hierarchy, I examined the notion that that the farther away from the actual killing they were, the more actual responsibility they bore for it. One might find it astonishing that there is a very strong possibility that Hitler, deemed the “greatest desk murderer in history”, may never have personally killed anyone in his life [even as a soldier; he was a message dispatcher, not directly involved in combat.]

In contemporary times, the obvious example—and parallel—is Al Qaeda, their minions and their “poskin” [lehavdil e.a. havdalos]. While no one would doubt the grave moral responsibility of the self-detonating mass murderers, one would have to designate the label of war criminal to preachers, imams, recruiters and trainers. They are the modern day equivalent of hostes humani generis, “stateless enemies of mankind”, and deserve a legal treatment equivalent to that meted out to the mesis/mediach, according to Rambam [Avodas Kochavim 5:3-4] based on the Gemara in Sanhedrin [53b], where no warning [hasra’ah] need be given, there is a mitzvah to entrap, and one is to make every effort to convict.

In a similar, one Manhattan mora d’asra addressed the issue of the tendencies rampant in frum communities to whitewash occurring cases of child molestation, if not to deny their existence outright. Said Rav [who did this from the pulpit, which is unfortunately all too rare] equated the perpetrators of these abuses to “terrorists” and their enablers to Al Qaeda. In many cases the offenders’ were only afforded the opportunity to repeat their offenses because their bosses, handlers, or community leaders assumed “omerta” to be in the category of yehareg v’al yaa’vor.

Beyond these more obvious cases, we can examine a few more historical cases where a malign influence may have been somewhat misplaced. Without going into too much detail, when one examined some of what happened regarding Shabtai Tzvi, there exists a very string possibility that his responsibility may have been somewhat mitigated by the fact that he was very likely mentally ill, suffering from some combination of schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. This would make Nathan of Gaza—the man who “anointed” him and continued to insist that Shabtai remained the true messiah even after his public apostasy.

To conclude, I will provide a test case of sorts which combines all of the categories and allow you to judge for yourself. This involves the story of Senator Joe McCarthy, held up as a hero by many, reviled as an evildoer by many others. One of the more salient treatments I have seen of the McCarthy episodes was provided by Lance Morrow in his “Evil: An Investigation”: the sum effect of McCarthy and his era was that, because of McCarthy’s “catastrophic alcoholi[sm]”, he ended up “destroy[ing] whatever value his work might have had in combating a real danger.” Morrow, however, in trying to decide if McCarthy was evil, ends up doing the “very thing I have warned against….he should not be judged evil because there is some other explanation[:]…[h]e was history’s equivalent of a drunk driver.”

I disagree with Morrow, because in the case of McCarthy I see shades of Korach: the seizing upon an issue and twisting it to aggrandize his own power [his “list of communists in the State Department” didn’t exist, by his own admission, which was all the more damaging because they really were there, but he had no idea if threr really were any]. I would however, ascribe more moral responsibility to his enablers—however few or many they were—who rode the coattails of his popularity only to abandon him when he became an obvious liability.

In essence, one might say that the continuous thread running through these three inyanim can almost be seen as a restatement of the notion[s] of “lomed mi-kol adam” and “mi-kil melamdai hiskalti”—there are always teachable moments to be garnered even from the most sordid affairs [add, then, “ein lecha davar she’ain lo tzorech”]. Maybe they occur in direct proportion to occurrences of “We never learn”….

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Va’Etchanan—Ekev: Moral Priorities

This past spring, Rabbi Avi Shafran, Agudas Yisroel’s Director of Public Affairs,, wrote an unintentionally incendiary piece entitled “Bernie, Sully, and Me”, which concluded: “[P]ersonally, I’m still unmoved by the pilot, and, at least somewhat, inspired by the penitent. “

Apparently, despite the ensuing brouhaha and [inevitable?] “retraction”, it seems that someone was paying attention…for the wrong reasons. And, again, Jews were in the news, for the crime they are most often stereotyped with: financial shenanigans. [It’s possible that we might have to add two new brochos to birchos hashachar, after “Shelo Asani Goy”: “Shelo Asani Suicide Bomber” and “Shelo Asani Child Molester”. If you can’t figure out what stereotypes I’m referring to, I’m not going to put it on the record beferush. Suffice it to say thank G-d for the stereotypes that attach to our rival monotheistic faiths; otherwise we’d be in real trouble.]

In any case, maybe those arrested had read the article and figures that even if they were caught, they might qualify as “heroes”, if Madoff could, kal vachomer; after all, what’s $25 million, vs. $65 billion?

More likely, their thinking followed one of two lines:

First, that it’s practically a “mitzvah”: to pool the wool over the eyes of the secular authorities. I once heard a very prominent frum attorney who has defended many fervently [read: “Chareidi”/”ultra-“] Orthodox individuals in criminal cases who stated that, unfortunately, this attitude is still very pervasive in those circles.

Second, that because of halachic and other stigmas attached to “moser”, they probably assumed that, if any of them were caught, there would be a significant disincentive to anyone talking. This is why much of the chareidi press and blogosphere has taken to referring to informant Solomon Dwek as the “malshin” and there were rumors [since debunked] that his father had renounced him and was sitting shiva.

So what does this have to do with either of these parshiyot?
As we all know, the first parsha of Krias Shema is in Va-Etchanan, the second in Ekev. The Mishna in Brachos [2:2, 13a] notes that the order is relevant because one must be mekabel ‘ol malchus ahmayim before ‘ol mitzvos. Leaving aside the question of morality being ipso facto only what G-d says is moral [the statement in Eicha Rabba “Had they but abandoned Me and kept faith with My Torah!" indicated that this is more of an open question, at least as a hava amina than one might think], the sequence of parshiyos in Krias Shema at the very least indicates that there exists a certain order to moral priorities.

Rabbi Shafran’s praising Madoff while at the same time [borderline?] denigrating Sullenberger was illustrative of what might happens when said [or, sometimes, unsaid] priorities are reversed. The scandals brewing in New Jersey were certainly more graphically illustrative of this phenomenon. [Not to mention the Spinka conviction and sentence, which thankfully was buried in the nether regions somewhere in the New York Post.]

A further note: when the aforementioned attorney was discussing the phenomenon of religious criminality and the attitudes that fostered them, he was unequivocally defensive of the leaders of the various communities affected. His theory was that the ingrained cultural attitudes were too much for them to fight, but somebody had their priorities straight. Unfortunately, in this most recent case, the community leader himself got swept up in the dragnet. Leaving aside questions of [and prayers for] presumptions of innocence, one can only say that this time, he got too close.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Pinchas: Déjà Vu All Over Again

Pinchas’ taking out of Zimri and Cozbi, and Hashem’s extension of the Bris of Kehuna to him as a result, closes a chain of events that serve as a bookend to the 40-year galus in the midbar. We can surmise that the first chain was the series that started with Kivros HaTaava, the mergalim and the rebellion of Korach, which essentially leaves off just at the beginning of the 40 years lacuna in the Torah’s historical record.

This second chain begins also with a series of events that almost indicate that Bnei Yisrael are about to repeat their mistakes. In Chukas, culinary complaints lead to the snakebites, and possibly [if indirectly], Moshe Rabbeinu’s “waterloo”; in Balak, the incident at Shittim exacts a high toll averted only by Pinchas’ taking the law into his own hands figuratively and literally [albeit legitimately].

A closer examination of these parallel series may reveal how the nature of the process of Bnie Yisrael’s mission was about to change. One can contrast Pinchas with his grandfather Aharon, who stopped the plague in Korach [this, despite the fact that his personal status had been attacked] appeasing the Divine anger through a Divine service; here, the Divine response was elicited only when Pinchas took a more earthly response.

In a way, this may answer question about why the parshiyot of Balak and Pinchas are split right in the middle of Chapter 25: Rashi indicates that the surviving populace was not exactly thrilled with Pinchas’ action, even going as far as questioning his frumkeit [viz. the reference to Yisro]. The split between the parshiyot almost provides the dramatic moment where all of the backbiting occurred, but wasn’t recorded. This loosely parallels Bnei Yisrael’s immediate reaction to Korach’s demise [You have slain G-d’s nation!!!], which elicits a much more violent Divine response there.

We also see the ways in which attempting to use religion to “go negative” in a personal power struggles; close to the top [but apparently not close enough], both Korach’s and Zimri’s respective downfalls began with ostensibly religious power plays. Korach’s, of course, was much more involved: he buttressed his initial accusation of nepotism in the part of Moshe by using the parable of the poor woman suffering from the various agricultural matanos, the upshot being that Moshe and the rest of the Levites were enriching themselves at the populace’s expense. Zimri, by challenging Moshe to give him a heter to liaise with Kozbi [“Who gave you the heter for Tziporah?”], was probably trying to ensure that no one bothered him while he “conducted his business” [see my "Pinchas and Extremism" from last year which expounds on other theories regarding Zimri’s motivations, aside from just carnal lust.]

It probably takes until next week’s incident with Reuven, Gad, and Menashe assuring Moshe Rabbeinu that they are not repeating the sin of the Mergalim that we see that lessons might, finally, have been learned.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Shlach/Korach—Lonely At The Top

In Shlach, the Chet HaMeraglim was touched off by a failure of leadership; so much so that Rashi notes on 13:3 {“kulam anashim”] that they were all “chashuv” and “kesherim” at the moment of their appointment to the mission. This follows per my theme from Behaaloscha, that the failure of leadership may have began all the way back with the national attitude problem delineated by the pasuk “Vayisu Mehar Hashem” and Rashi’s intimation from “Ketzeh”/”Ketzinim” that this attitude was not restricted to the multitudes, mixed or otherwise; it might have infected the very top levels.

It’s possible that the individuals who were the meraglim suffered from this attitude. It is also possible that they were horrified either when they sensed this attitude among their countrymen, or, alternatively, were shaken when the Fire consumed their colleagues among the “gedolim”, as per another one of the explanations in that Rashi.

Either way, their response was overcorrective and reactionary; they reasoned that Bnei Yisrael were not ready for the Promised Land. “Here in the midbar, we have Torah 24/7, and the Eibishter provides. We enter Eretz Yisrael, we have to give that up. We aren’t there yet. Let’s try to stall.” The Ba’alei Mussar hint that they might not have been far off the mark…except that their attitude was colored by their fear that their current lofty status would not remain quo in Eretz Yisrael. Ultimately they may have considered their power as more important than the national interest.

Along these lines, there are two patterns of power-grabbing on Korach’s part that are instructive in the story. The first is his use of religious grievances and his (and his “Edah’s”) “frumkeit”; the second is his attempt to use democratic terminology while acting in an almost Stalinist manner. The combination of the two proved deadly.

In the first case, we see from the Gemara in Sanhedrin how On ben Peles’ wife dissuaded Adas Korach from coming to get On to further the conspiracy: she took her head covering off and sat in their courtyard, so when Adas Korach arrived to collect him and saw her, they immediately assumed On wasn’t frum enough to join the conspiracy, so they left him there. [Obviously they were a bit judgmental]. Additionally, Rashi relates Korach thought he actually had power coming to him [owing to a distorted reading of the ruach ha-kodesh he did have], which was one of the reasons he took the chance he did at fomenting the rebellion; he thought he couldn’t possibly lose.

It was these two attitudes in combination that led to his rather Stalinist behavior: he appealed to the rest of Bnei Yisrael by pretending to be a “democrat” [“rav lachem”] and telling the other 250 top-line conspirators that they would share power; but, he knew that if Moshe was right about the service with the machtos would kill anyone unworthy of performing it, and he was right about living to claim his share of power, he would live and everyone else would die. The fact that he was willing to let everyone else die so that he could claim his prize—and that he thought that this would automatically be Divinely sanctioned—spoke volumes about his worthiness as any leader, let alone spiritual.

Thus we see the progression from the possible infection of the country’s leaders with the attitude of “Vayisu MeHar Hashem” in Behaaloscha, to the clearer fear of loss or power in the case of the meraglim leading to the tragedies of Tisha B’av in Shlach, to the naked power-grab of Korach leading directly to a plague.

It’s sometime hard to criticize your spiritual leadership; in many cases it isn’t allowed. But the story running through these three parshiyot is a stark reminder that they, too, are human.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Beha’aloscha: Prelude

The Gemara in Shabbos (116b) explains how the famous “Nuns” in the parsha (10:35-36) bracket what is termed the two “puraniyos”/punishment: the post-Nuns, obviously, is the Divine fire that arose in response to the national “complaints”. What was the pre-Nuns “puraniyos”? Ramban, quoting this Gemara and several other midrashim, explains the that the “Vayisu MeHar Hashem” in 10:33 was in and of itself a “puraniyos”, as it was that Bnei Yisrael were acting as if they were “tinok boreach mibeis hasefer”: “Lets get away from Har Sinai before G-d gives us any more mitzvos”. Ramban says this was more of a “chet” than a “puraniyos”, as punishment was not immediate. Rashi and numerous midrashim note that the passage between the Nuns belongs in Bamidbar, and was moved here in anachronistic fashion to buffer the “puraniyos”.

I see a recurring theme here: when Bnei Yisrael are at their utmost highest, they also seem to simultaneously be at their lowest, or at least, at the potential of “the higher you are, the harder you fall”: witness krias yam suf [“halu ovdei avoda zara, v’halu ovdei avoda zara], matan torah and the egel [so which exactly were they running from? Ma’amad Har Sinai wasn’t exactly an uninterrupted spiritual crescendo.] And now this: three days away from the literal promised land, and a chain of events is sparked that leads to a forty-year delay in the redemption, among other unforeseen negative consequences.

But lets ignore the possibility of the bar being set too high for a moment. [Interestingly, Ramban doesn’t necessarily do that; he reasons that the Nun bracket broke up a chain of three puraniyos, which would have established a chazaka of puraniyos. In other words, G-d’s help ensured that things didn’t get worse.]

Instead, lets see why exactly a mental attitude could have been the first link in the chain that led to the national tragedy that was the first Tisha B’Av, the Chet Hameraglim.

It seems that the attitude toward this “turning away from G-d”, was alas, a nationwide one. Were they “saru meHar Hashem” as “ke-ish echad, ke-lev echad” like they had stood at Matan Torah? While the pluralistic lashon might be viewed as circumstantial, Ramban’s explanation of the double Nun as a Divine buffer to a national puraniyos might lend extra credence to the notion.

Rashi on 11:1, quoting a machlokes in Sifri as to where and who the Fire burned--either the “gerim”, the “erev rav”, or the “gedolim” (”ketzinim”)—might provide a more salient point. It wasn’t just that the attitude of tinok boreach mibeis hasefer was national…it was that it might have been coming from the top all the way down.

We will see in the next two parshiyos that this was unfortunately true.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Naso: Civil Disobedience?

An exhaustive list of all elements in halachic literature—Biblical and otherwise—that would lead one to believe that classical Judaism is irrevocably misogynist has yet to be completed, probably because it would never end. [That classical Judaism is “patriarchal”, kuli alma lo pligi; the question of whether that means it is necessarily misogynist is another, much longer, discussion.]

Parshas Sotah (5:11-31) is one of the segments that attracts the most opprobrium, certainly not least as the source of the halachos of hair covering, but more so because of the fact that it ostensibly serves to highlight the unquestionable double standard regarding adultery. Specifically, not only that adultery is only contingent upon a woman’s marital status, but that even if she is ultimately cleared when she drinks the water, she is forced to go through the entire delineated ordeal as if she did something very wrong just by having been put in the position of being accused.

While I can’t directly argue against these sentiments [precisely because one can’t really ever argue sentiments away directly], two interesting ancillary categories can be brought up from the inyan of Sotah that might sevre to somewhat mitigate just how “offensive” one finds it.

The first can be deduced from numerous hints dropped all over the Gemara in Sotah, but primarily from R’ Eliezer’s statement on 47B based on a posuk in Hoshea that the mei sotah would only work if the husband was himself beyond reproach; this, and extension of he Mishnah there which states that Rav Yochanan stopped the entire process from being implemented, as the assumed rampant profligacy had already rendered the entire process moot. One might even say that G-d Himself obviated the process, as it were, because He realized that the hopefully extraordinary cases in which the waters were to be efficacious were not so extraordinary, and as HE did not want to contribute to the double standard [which he didn’t, by employing the even more selective standards of efficacy], He short-circuited the process itself.

[There are other hints that Chazal was not oblivious to a double standard; witness the statement of Resh Lakish right at the beginning of Sotah that a man gets a wife he deserves (i.e., if she “misbehaves”, you can be certain he’s likely as prone to incontinence); similarly, the gemara in Kesuvos (10a) relates that if a newly-married husband had the temerity to come before Rav Nachman complaining that his wife was not a virgin, Rav Nachman ordered the accuser to be flogged, as it was obvious that he had received more hands-on anatomy lessons than he should have.]

In any case, one might say the G-d, as it were, built within His own system of mei sotah a self-initiated method of civil disobedience; they just weren’t going to work as they were supposed to. This ostensibly far-fetched motion becomes less far-fetched when one looks at Brachos 31B, where Chana tells G-d she will “force” him to grant her children by putting herself through the ordeal of mei sotah and, upon her acquittal, she will conceive, because the Torah promises this to an innocent woman who drinks. While this explanation is immediately questioned in the Gemara—why then, don’t all barren women do this?—the notion of a halachic “civil disobedience” remains salient. [One might say that Chana was simply calling out the Midas HaRachamim to commit a type of “civil disobedience” against the Midas HaDin, but that’s another discussion.]

Whether there exists a form of halachic “civil disobedience” that can be practiced “halachically” is certainly open to question. [One can’t imagine any jurists really advocating their decision being blatantly and publicly flouted; this would certainly apply exponentially to halachists.] However, one might conclude that just as the mei sotah obviated themselves, certain other notions that might once have been salient at one point have simply lapsed of their own accord. [As, say when anyone sees a statement prefaced with “Ain darka shel isha le’"...]

And we didn’t even have to do it ourselves.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

It Isn't Just Us III--‘How About a Hug?’

For Teenagers, Hello Means ‘How About a Hug?’
Published: May 27, 2009

...some students complain of peer pressure to hug to fit in. And schools from Hillsdale, N.J., to Bend, Ore., wary in a litigious era about sexual harassment or improper touching — or citing hallway clogging and late arrivals to class — have banned hugging or imposed a three-second rule.

Parents, who grew up in a generation more likely to use the handshake, the low-five or the high-five, are often baffled by the close physical contact. “It’s a wordless custom, from what I’ve observed,” wrote Beth J. Harpaz, the mother of two boys, 11 and 16, and a parenting columnist for The Associated Press, in a new book, “13 Is the New 18.”

“And there doesn’t seem to be any other overt way in which they acknowledge knowing each other,” she continued, describing the scene at her older son’s school in Manhattan. “No hi, no smile, no wave, no high-five — just the hug. Witnessing this interaction always makes me feel like I am a tourist in a country where I do not know the customs and cannot speak the language.”

For teenagers, though, hugging is hip. And not hugging?

“If somebody were to not hug someone, to never hug anybody, people might be just a little wary of them and think they are weird or peculiar,” said Gabrielle Brown, a freshman at Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School in Manhattan.

Comforting as the hug may be, principals across the country have clamped down. “Touching and physical contact is very dangerous territory,” said Noreen Hajinlian, the principal of George G. White School, a junior high school in Hillsdale, N.J., who banned hugging two years ago. “It was needless hugging — they are in the hallways before they go to class. It wasn’t a greeting. It was happening all day.”

Schools that have limited hugging invoked longstanding rules against public displays of affection, meant to maintain an atmosphere of academic seriousness and prevent unwanted touching, or even groping.

But pro-hugging students say it is not a romantic or sexual gesture, simply the “hello” of their generation. “We like to get cozy,” said Katie Dea, an eighth grader at Claire Lilienthal Alternative School in San Francisco. “The high-five is, like, boring.”

Some sociologists said that teenagers who grew up in an era of organized play dates and close parental supervision are more cooperative with one another than previous generations — less cynical and individualistic and more loyal to the group.

But Amy L. Best, a sociologist at George Mason University, said the teenage embrace is more a reflection of the overall evolution of the American greeting, which has become less formal since the 1970s. “Without question, the boundaries of touch have changed in American culture,” she said. “We display bodies more readily, there are fewer rules governing body touch and a lot more permissible access to other people’s bodies.”

Hugging appears to be a grass-roots phenomenon and not an imitation of a character or custom on TV or in movies. The prevalence of boys’ nonromantic hugging (especially of other boys) is most striking to adults. Experts say that over the last generation, boys have become more comfortable expressing emotion, as embodied by the MTV show “Bromance,” which is now a widely used term for affection between straight male friends.

But some sociologists pointed out that African-American boys and men have been hugging as part of their greeting for decades, using the word “dap” to describe a ritual involving handshakes, slaps on the shoulders and, more recently, a hug, also sometimes called the gangsta hug among urban youth.

“It’s something you grow up doing,” said Mazi Chiles, a junior at South Gwinnett High School in Snellville, Ga., who is black. “But you don’t come up to a dude and hug, you start out with a handshake.”

Some parents find it paradoxical that a generation so steeped in hands-off virtual communication would be so eager to hug.

“Maybe it’s because all these kids do is text and go on Facebook so they don’t even have human contact anymore,” said Dona Eichner, the mother of freshman and junior girls at the high school in Montvale.

She added: “I hug people I’m close to. But now you’re hugging people you don’t even know. Hugging used to mean something.”

There are, too, some young critics of hugging.

Amy Heaton, a freshman at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School in Bethesda, Md., said casual social hugging seemed disingenuous to her. “Hugging is more common in my opinion in people who act like friends,” she said. “It’s like air-kissing. It’s really superficial.”

But Carrie Osbourne, a sixth-grade teacher at Claire Lilienthal Alternative School, said hugging was a powerful and positive sign that children are inclined to nurture one another, breaking down barriers. “And it gets to that core that every person wants to feel cared for, regardless of your age or how cool you are or how cool you think you are,” she said.

As much as hugging is a physical gesture, it has migrated online as well. Facebook applications allowing friends to send hugs have tens of thousands of fans. Katie Dea, the San Francisco eighth grader, as well as Olivia Brown, 11, who lives in Manhattan and is the younger sister of Gabrielle, the LaGuardia High freshman, have a new sign-off for their text and e-mail messages: *hug.*

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

It Isn't Just Us II---$homer Negiah?

Well, it turns out there's a market for tznius, in a sense.

Maybe this'll solve the shidduch crisis, what between "bad dates" and religious authorities claiming that "once you touch each other you'll never marry each other" [real quote].

This is an excerpt from an article from the May 26 Village Voice.

See Dick Pay Jane: Chaste Dating for Cash
Recession desperation produces a quaint throwback
By Emily Brady
Tuesday, May 26th 2009

We've never met before. All I know about Carlos is that he's five-foot-six, Asian, likes baseball, and is looking for a "cute, smart, and fun chick to enjoy the game with."

That chick is supposed to be me.

My "date" with Carlos has been arranged by the Austen's Janes Agency. Three unemployed women in their mid-twenties set up this business—with its awkward name—earlier this year to provide men with an unusual service: platonic female company for a price.

For $60 an hour, the agency arranges for a smart young woman to accompany you, laugh at your jokes, and make you feel interesting and special. It may sound like just another escort service—with additional sex services available by negotiation—but it's not.

The young women who set up the agency are adamant about this, and they spell it out on their website: "If there are any attempts at sexual activity, the girl has the right to end the date immediately."

In other words: No touching. Not even a little kiss. But despite that firm ban on fooling around, the women are getting business, as quaint as their service seems. Which made me wonder: What sort of men, in this financial climate, were willing to spend hard cash for brief companionship and absolutely no chance of physical intimacy?

The idea started out as a joke: Cara, April, and Julie, three 26-year-old friends—who, for privacy and safety reasons, prefer to use their agency-related pseudonyms and not their real names in this story—all found themselves unemployed victims of the bad economy at the end of last year. One of the women—no one remembers which of the three—pointed out how brilliant it would be if they could get men to pay to go out with them. Both Cara and April had recently been denied food stamps, and they joked about how being paid to be taken out to dinner every night would be a great way to cut down on food costs. Behind the laughter, there was a thread of seriousness: What if? As April pointed out, "I've been on so many bad dates, it was kind of a joke because it felt like work sometimes. You might as well get paid for it."

Since then, Cara, April, and Julie have gone on about 35 dates all told, weeding out the sincere inquiries from the hundreds of e-mails they say they receive from men expressing interest in their services. While the women aren't raking in the big bucks, the money they have earned has gone toward rent, groceries, and MetroCards, and—for a few desperate weeks—was Cara's sole source of income.

The men ranged in age from mid-twenties to mid-fifties. About half were white American-born males; the rest came from countries such as India, Turkey, and Nigeria. For a while, Cara had a regular client whom she would meet for vegetarian food on Friday nights, but most men aren't repeat customers.

The first thing nearly every guy requests when he first contacts the Austen's Janes Agency is, "Pictures, please." Though the girls still post on Craigslist, they now have a website, designed and built by April, with partial photographs of the trio and their carefully crafted bios. Even for a platonic service, the physical is clearly important. The three white women field requests for Jewish, African-American, and Asian women. And once, a guy requested someone who looked like Uma Thurman, which Cara still laughs about: "Uma Thurman for $60. Seriously?"

Some men change their minds after seeing photographs. One turned down all of us, saying that he was used to dating "really pretty girls." As Cara says, you have to have a thick skin.

According to agency rules, the girls only meet in a public place and won't ride in a car. Most date requests are along the lines of dinner and a movie, but the ones that stand out range from the poignant to the kinky. Early on, Cara learned about the fantasy angle. When a guy didn't like her photograph and said he preferred long hair, she put on a long black wig and took another photo. He agreed to a date. "Some men just want you to be a certain way," she says.

When I asked Elizabeth Bernstein—a women's studies and sociology professor at Barnard, and the author of Temporarily Yours: Intimacy, Authenticity, and the Commerce of Sex—what she thought about Austen's Janes, she pointed out that the bad economy that had motivated the women to start the business may also be motivating the men to patronize it.

Poking around the agency's website, Bernstein found the style—flowery purple writing on a black background—very "neo-Victorian and demure." She then burst out laughing when she read about Julie's professed advocacy for victims of sex trafficking, which can be found in the bio section of the site.

"Part of what they're selling is the sexual fantasy that goes along with the chaste woman," she says. "It's part of the 'no-touch' fantasy, like strip clubs and peep shows."

Julie herself uses the same analogy when she explains the service. "Women are often objectified in regular life—now we are finally getting paid for it without contracting any life-threatening diseases!"

Cara, meanwhile, has found a full-time job at a nonprofit, and April is on unemployment again after a short-term government job. Both continue to "date" on weekends. Julie plans to work for the agency again upon her return to the States this summer. Though they've noticed a recent dip in business, which they attribute to the Craigslist Killer case, like the savvy entrepreneurs they are, the girls dream of expanding, hiring others, and taking the agency to other states.