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.

Monday, June 1, 2009

It Isn't Just Us

Suspended for Dancing
by Mike Krumboltz

Tyler Frost, the high school senior who was suspended for attending his girlfriend's prom, has become a sensation in Search. And yet, despite all the news surrounding his fight for the right to get jiggy with it, folks had yet to hear from Frost himself. That wait is over. This morning, the teen went on "The Early Show" to tell his side of the story.

During an interview with Harry Smith, Frost explained that his private Christian school does have a contract stipulating "no dancing." However, he didn't believe it should include dancing outside of school. So, despite a stiff warning from his principal, he went to his girlfriend's prom at another school. He has since been suspended and won't be allowed to take his final exams on time or graduate with the rest of his class.

Despite this, Frost has no regrets, saying that attending his special lady's prom was both "worth the risk" and "the right decision." Frost's stepfather was also there for the interview. He didn't say much before leaving in the middle of the discussion, but he did mention that a lawsuit against the school is in the works.