Thursday, November 25, 2010

Vayeshev: What Pacifism Isn't

It might be ironic that another longtime ally of the US, South Korea, has been forced by political consideration involving matters outside of its own security to be "shev ve'al ta'aseh" while under direct attack from a historical sworn existential enemy. I guess it isn't just Israel.

One also sees, on occasion, bumper stickers [usually courtesy of Code Pink, but the sentiment probabaly predates them] procaliming that "War Is Terrorism". The unspoken corollary should be "Pacifism is Murder".

The classic Rashi in the parsha states: Yaakov sought to settle {"leshev"] in peace/trsanquility ["shalva"]...and the episode of Joseph was foisted upon him. SImple enough...and while there was no real battle necessarily to be fought here, one can discern what might be the preeminent false concept associated with peace and tranquility: that it ipso facto requires ceratin parties to be shev, to settle and do nothing. Certainly the Middle East peace camps and peace processors seem to have bought into this fallacy.

One personage who didn't buy into this fallacy was Yitzchak Rabin; despite, with great misgivings, having decided to embark on the Oslo process, he realized two things that have eluded other [if not all] peace processors: one, you make peace with your emenies not your friends, meaning that said enemies don;t suddenly become your friends; and, two, peacemaking is, counterintuitively, a messy business [as evidenced by his comment in the immediate aftermath of Oslo that "Arab governments do not operate on Western democratic principles". He knew who he was working with, and wasn;t suffering from the illusion that a "new Middle East" was about to be created.]

Certainly we don't need to be reminded of the fallacies of doctrinaire pacifism and peace processors. But everyone else does.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Ki Savo—No Judgments?

A couple of weeks ago I came across R Shlomo Ressler’s Dvar for Shoftim, where he wrote about the Torah’s device of dismissing potential soldiers from duty to avoid having the “sinners” among the exemptees pointed out: that is, the Torah, even having created a category of “faint of heart” as a cover for those who felt their spiritual standing was shaky, had already decided that that wasn’t enough, that it would include, among others, newlyweds and new home- or vineyard- owners, all help cover for the “sinner” so as to not embarrass him.

I thought that this maybe hadn’t gone far enough, that maybe the point should have been that a particularly pernicious form of embarrassment or one-upmanship, even, and this is what the Torah was guarding against. I did not yet have any thing I could use as a proof text, however “shver”, so at the time I left it alone.

Then I realized that I could possibly use two inyanim for some support, however tepid, from both last week’s and this week’s parshiyot both. From this week comes the pasuk in the middle of the Tochacha: “Because you did not serve the Lord your G-d wth happiness and a good heart, ‘merov kol’.” How to translate “merov kol”? “Above all”? All the punishments of the tochacha are unleashed because G-d was served be’yirah as opposed to be’ahava?

I saw another translation that was a bit less disconcerting, to say the least: “whilst ye yet had all things”. This made more sense: given the opportunity—the unfettered opportunity—to reach the level of be’ahava as opposed to be’yirah, one can—with whatever degree of difficulty—understand the source of Divine retribution.

In either case, one might be hard pressed to find a moment in Jewish history that qualified as “rov kol”, except for maybe the moment when the Shlomo’s kingdom was united and the Beis haMikdash had been completed—at least from a national standpoint [I leave out much of what might seem to qualify from the Chumash, like Har Sinai and Hakamas haMishkan, because they occurred outside Eretz Yisrael and therefore cannot fall into the category of “rov kol”].

As additional support, I refer to the inyan of ben sorer umoreh, where the Torah creates a series of legal barriers to the punishment ever being carried out. One of the messages of ben sorer umoreh—particularly when one examines the various explanations regarding the conditions of the parents, physical and otherwise [as detailed in BT Sanhedrin, perek Ben Sorer u’Moreh]—is that no one has the perfect upbringing to the point that they could be found to be irredeemably sociopathic

So too here: no one can truly be judged for their spiritual behavior unless everyone knows that said “defendant”’s life falls unequivocally into the category of “rov kol”, and maybe not even then. Someone may know. You probably don’t.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Ki Teizei—Love Stories

I always thought the concept of a “tefila kodem tefila” was a little bit over the top. If anything could lead to a, “ein ladavar sof”, that would be one: when can someone stop asking that one’s upcoming tefila be accepted? What is there was insufficient kavana during the tefila kodem tefila? Would it be appropriate to institute a tefila kodem tefila kodem…etc.?

A friend recently pointed out me that when people date nowadays, they are really dating to see if they want to date, so first dates—or the first series of dates—aren’t necessarily “dates” in that sense, but more along the lines of “dating to date”. The aforementioned concept of “tefila kodem tefila” came immediately to mind.

As may have been previously noted in these pages, the religious and moral authorities who are trying to turn back the clock to a more modest time and arrangements in dating—aside from the schools and yeshivas and seminaries that carp loudly about tznius [Rabbi Manis Friedman and Wendy Shalit come to mind]—may be taking the wrong approach using the fire and brimstone or the “kol kevuda d’bas melech penimah” tacks. All they should rally have to do is tell us how much WORK dating and interacting with the opposite sex is.

Though, to be fair to both R’ Friedman and Shalit, they do cite evidence that shows that even adolescents are experiencing a certain amount of mental taxation in their social pursuits. It is rather that the educational policy seems to be to talk about negiah and mixed dancing 24-6 [or 7] and ignore all of the actual tzaros that go along with even all that.

I would almost suggest that educators read Laura Kipnis’ Against Love, a polemic text that takes the approach that love—especially the illicit, ostensibly more “fun” kind--is just too much work to be worth it. If educators are looking to create more chaste environs without necessarily completely separating the sexes, the “too much work” tack might be a better bet.

In any case, as previously noted in these pages, the halachos of both kiddushin and gittin are learned from this weeks parsha. But even the beginning of the parsha—a completely Torah-sanctioned, but ultimately completely inappropriate, relationship which starts in war, leads to discord and the ultimate bad seed, the ben sorer u’moreh, at least according to Rashi.   I’ve heard the that the word “marriage” derives from “Mars”, known to be the [false] deity in charge of war; maybe the Torah was onto something.

But even leaving that out, just add in all the trouble with love stories: Yaakov and Rachel, Yitzchak and Rivka [nightmare in laws?], David and Bathsheba [muchan misheshes yemei bereishis, but probably not in the execution], and Yehuda and Tamar [from which Mashiach will issue, but otherwise not the best way to arrange a shidduch].

And take the ultimate expression of PDA being “inappropriate” [if not proscribed]: the gemara Baba Basra 58b, on our foreparents in the Mearas haHamachpela: “What is Abraham doing? He replied: He is sleeping in the arms of Sarah, and she is looking fondly at his head.” Is that when we can look forward to a relationship reaching its pinnacle? Now we know why there’s a joke that marriage and funeral differ only in that one has a band. [In the time of the mishna and gemara—and possibly later—funerals had bands too.]

Ki Tetzei—other than warning us that marriage isn’t always bliss—may also be warning us how much work dating is and why that relations between the sexes are so warlike; in that case, who wants to do the work?

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Eikev: Field Trip

Once again, the controversy surrounding “Who Is A Jew” has raised its ugly head and elicited the ususal noise about splitting Jewry as it always has done. This at the same time that the legitimacy of the Jewish state is under a renewed a reinvigorated attack in the wake of the terrorist-supported and –supporting flotilli to Gaza.

“…lest the beast of the field multiply upon you” appears twice in Chumash, once in this week’s parsha [7:22] and in Parshas Mishpatim [Shemos 23:29]. There are many different explanations, some spiritual [Rashi here: only if we sin will we be subject to animal attacks], some almost environmental [Rashi there: you don’t have enough people to fill up the land and it will remain desolate].

Historically, there has been the choice of “having a state without all the land” or “having all the land without the state”; the obvious and unfortunately conscious choice made in 1948 was the former. While there may have been viable chances to actually effect the Jewish state’s rule over all of Yesha after 1967, for some reasons—likely mostly prudent ones—this was never done.

Meanwhile, several demographic issues arose. The first is the possible demographic “time bomb” that will ostensibly force Israel to choose between being a democracy and a herrenvolk state—o verblown, to be sure, and certainly less shayach since the departure from Gaza, but still definitely an issue to some extent. The second involved the myriads of Russian and other immigrants who were not halachically Jewish. This compounded what might have been once a smaller problem of PR when the state was dealing with just a few people who had “questionable” conversions. The controversy has also led to renewed calls for either the abolishment of the rabbinate, separation of “shul” and state, or both.

One might say that—without drawing absolutely clear analogies –that the “chayas hasadeh” could be anyone; could be us as much as anyone else. [Lest anyone think I am trying to be perjorative, check out the analogy to “chayos hasadeh” in Shemos 1:19 and Rashi ad loc. Different context, to be certain, but obviously I’m not the first.] And, bearing the predicate clauses to each of the aforementioned “chayas hasadeh” pesukim—“You cannot conquer them too fast” here in Eikev and “Lest the land become desolate” in Mishpatim—and, re-examining the history of the State—there are loose parallels, but parallels just the same, with the historical progression.

What should we be prepared for? A herrenvolk Jewish state? A bi-national state [which will esseitally be a Muslim-run state?] A democracy that will allow for a possible Jewish minority as long as the Arab and/or Muslim population isn’t the majority? A new definition of Israeli citizenship?

As oblique as any of this is, the only way to be optimistic about all this is to quote the “Gaon” [probably R’Hai or R’ Saadia] as brought down by Ibn Ezra [who disagrees with said “Gaon”, but no matter], who says that this statement—“pen tirbeh alecha”/”lest [they] multiply—indicates the “one day they will be victorious”. Obviously he means bnei yisrael will be victorious; but how? Over whom? When?

It might be that all that matters is that, ultimately, the right side will win.


Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Vaetchanan/Nachamu: Consolation Prizes

It’s possible that Moshe Rabbeinu receives the ultimate consolation prize at the beginning of this weeks’ parsha.

According to Rashi in Vezos haBracha [34:1-3] , Moshe was zocheh to see all the way into the future, in addition to being granted the ability to see the entire Land from his mountaintop vantage point.

An analogous type of consolotation prize was offered around the time of shabbas nachamu in days past. I refer to the original “singles scene”, the dance of the women in white referred to in the last mishnah in Taanis and the Gemara at the end of the masechta [also appearing in Baba Basra], where everybody borrow each other’s clothing---which was all the same color. This may qualify as an early example of affirmative action in dating…

…because as the Gemara illustrates in great detail, the women proceeded to shatter whatever ceiling—glass or otherwise—was supposed to level the playing field. “The attractive ones: ‘A woman is aught but for beauty’…the meyuchasin: ‘A woman is aught but for children’…the ugly ones [or however one defines “mechuaros”, which, in no case, is a flattering description]: ‘Charm is false and beauty is a lie’”…

[Even the Gemara Kesuvos 17b which takes issue with lying about a kalah na’ah vehchasuda who isn’t so na’ah vechasuda takes issue with this AT THE WEDDING, but concludes there are salient reasons to lie at the wedding--but not before. Someone better be telling the truth.]

So we see, that, like the Upper West Side or the characterization thereof, there was always the possibility of “something better”—and it seems that the gemara was encouraging this attitude to a point [if not simply confusing the guys who were watching, which may have been another possibility].

What would this all mean for us singles and our scenes? Dating is messy. Always was. It seems as if, even within rather draconian Talmudically promulgated strictures of tsnius, there was ample leeway given to a] as a friends grandmother put it, “let go and let G-d”: the prospective can be trusted to handle things on their own and b] levels of attractiveness are a fact of life, as are the use of selling points that don’t involve out and out lying.

Too often the “shidduch system” set up to prevent unnecessary emotional obscuring of the “true goal” [e.g. that everyone must operate on the level of “Sheker ha-chen ve’evel hayofi”] loses sight of itself to the point that shadchanim can say things like “Bums need to get married too” or “You didn’t ask the right questions”. But R’ Chananya Wasserman has dealt with that at length. More to the point here, as I’ve described in previous posts about the subject, most of the time we can do a better job by ourselves.

Even if it means we wait to marry, even if it means we might not be “100% shomer” [gasp!] 100% of the time, even if it leads to the occasional ruffled feathers, even if we are trying to avoid “consolation prizes” and are looking for “the next best thing”.

The West Side is just fine.

Friday, July 16, 2010


Parshos Maasei and Devarim both sport travelogues, of a sort.

Maasei details a stop-by-stop geographic itinerary from the very beginning of yitzias mitzrayim nall the way to the last stop—Abel Shittim in Moav. Rashi counts 42 stops in all, 28 of them in the 38 years of the gezeras meraglim, to explain that the portrayal of Hash-m’s kindness is the purpose if the travelogue and the raison d’etre of the Parsha, if not its name.

Contrast that with the quasi-travelogue detailed at the beginning of Devarim, where the Torah introduces Moshe Rabbeinu’s sefer-long mussar schmooze as an 9-stop shiur, naming places that Rashi points out didn’t even exist under the names delineated. Rather, they were euphemistic references to the commission of a certain monumental communal sin and/or its place of commission [e.g., “Di Zahav”, a nonexistent locale that refers to the chet ha-egel.]

Further highlighting the seeming contrast between the midas ha-rachamim Maasei travelog and the Midas HaDin Devarim travelog is what follows in each parsha: Maasei is a lot more positive, dealing with most of the laws that involve the bordering and governance of Eretz Yisrael; Devarim starts off dealing with why Bnei Yisrael were so delayed in getting there in the first place [see the retelling of the chet hameraglim in 1:22-2:16].

In a sense, one can view the difference in delivery styles: Maasei is G-d’s travelogue, Devarim is Moshe’s. And, theoretically, Sefer Bamidbar [and parshas Maasei] ends with what might be the ultimate inverse of the chet hameraglim: the desire of the benos tzelphcahd for their share in Eretz Yisrael; Sefer Devarim theoretically ends with either a] Moshe telling Bnei Yisrael that “Youre gonna mess up big time” at the end of Parshas Vayeilech, b] Hashem’s rather bloody revenge at the end of the Ha’azinu shira, or c] Moshe’s petira [and Rashi’s reference to “le’enei kol yisrael” as indicative of Moshe’s breaking of the luchos]. All in all—the Maasei travelog is a lot more positive than the Devarim travelog.

I would suggest that the approaches might stem simply from the very names of the sefarim, albeit in an almost counterintuituve manner. Much has been said about the dor hamidbar, specifically in this case how they were able to do [almost] nothing but learn for almost 40 years in the desert where the Eibishter really did provide. Everything. Hence, Bamidbar.

Devarim is a reality check of sorts, as the entrance in the land is about to commence and the direct provenance is about to come to an end. Moshe starts off the proceeding by saying, in effect, you guys has it so arguably easy for all this time, and see what kind of mistakes you made; what’s going to happen when you are not only responsible for a] your own provenance but b] each others behavior [becoming “arevin zeh lazeh” with the crossing of the Yarden? Boy, are you in trouble.

I would also suggest that the undercurrent of the Devarim versus Bamidbar approach is that life is a lot more like Devarim than Bamidbar, for two specific reasons. One, that real spiritual growth and challenge is less dependent on a 100% “Eibishter-will-provide” lifestyle [draw your own conclusions; and two, that despite appearances, it isn’t necessarily the better of the two; hence Moshe’s admonition of how things weren’t necessarily so great when they ostensibly were so good.

These are the best of times.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Matos/Maasei: Proportional Responses

Last week I discussed a possible perspective on left-leaning Jews and Jewish organizations [counting Neturei Karta as “leftist”] who were ostensibly hostile to Jewish and Israeli concerns, and expressed their hostility as a genuine “Jewish” response to the issues, on their terms.

Is there such a thing as a “right-wing”response that would be equivalently deserving of opprobrium?

In nine of every ten cases, no. The major difference between left-wing and right wing “zealotry” is that, at least bi’techila, right-wing zealotry is about protecting Jews; left-wing zealotry is about protecting an idea of universalism while trying to force it into a perceived Jewish framework.

[However, the recent revelation that two Rabbanim from Yeshivas Od Yosef Chai have published a sefer extolling the virtues of killing non-Jewish children because they are potential rodfim indicates, at the very least, that there are some discussions that are not to be had outside the bes medrash, and that the right wing sometimes has a habit of squandering its ostensible monopoly on common sense and ability to handle the truth. Chachamim hizaharu be’divreichem, indeed.]

We learn in Matos that military revenge responses—even if they result in the death of civilians [as the women who seduced the Jews to Peor were, in a religious sense, knowing what the direct consequence would be]—are not necessarily out of bounds, and neither is despoiliation. No, selecting women and children nowadays would not be a legitimate response. [This means you, Rabbis Yitzhak Shapira and Yosef Elitzur.] But it was then; G-d was not about to force the Jews to abide by different rules of engagement than the enemy had [which, in the case of Avel Shittim, was tantamount to a form of enemy combatants out of uniform engaging in a religious terrorism. Again, unique to the time.]

There are, in classical Jewish history, probably four instances where an overly “Right” responses hurt more than it helped: the Ma’apilim, Yoshiyahu, the biryonim/zealots, and Bar Kochba.

The Ma’apilim were a reflexive, too-little-too-late reaction to the gezera following the chet hameraglim. Despite the manifestation of Divine presence even in this case—cf. Rashi on Devarim 1:44 “ka’asher ta’asena ha’devorim”—they smote you like bees, dying when they touched you—the ensuing rebellion of Korach and resulting plague from the accusation that “You have slaughtered the nation of G-d” [Bamidbar 17:6] was likely indicative of this "spiritual moment"’s staying power.

Yoshiyahu’s insistence of showing strength by not allowing passage to Pharaoh Necho despite is the first instance of what might have been, in a moment of spiritual hubris, an overly aggressive response from a religious perspective. As the gemara in Taanis 22 details, Pharaoh Necho had no designs on Israel, but Yoshiyahu thought he had been more successful at rooting out idolatry than he had really been. Yoshiyahu paid for the miscalculation with his life, which was tragic enough; but as we will see, there were graver miscalculations.

The biryonim--as detailed on what one might call the “Tisha B’Av” gemara in Gitin—actually may have been directly responsible for the starvation in the Jerusalem under siege from Vespasian and Titus, as they burnt all the extra stores of food to force the populace not to entertain any notions of a “peace process”. We all know what resulted. Even their leader—Abba Sikra—wanted to “defect” [and did, in a way, by helping sneak out Rabbi Yochanan], but as he said, he was in fear for his life from his own minions.

Finally, there’s Bar Kochba, who was charismatic and initially successful enough that Rabbi Akiva thought he was Mashiach. However, his spiritual makeup was probably not what the Tanna thought it was; his catchphrase klapei maa’la was believed to be “Don’t help me, don’t get in my way”. [Again, the times were definitely different, so any comparison to ostensibly similar attitudes among those responsible for protecting Jews nowadays would be a stretch, to say the least.]

[I would venture that Shapira and Elitzur’s responsa places them somewhere in between bar Kochba and the biryonim.]

The point is that its not WAR that isn’t the Jewish response. There is something in between Rav Aryeh Kaplan’s [misunderstood] notion that Judaism is essentially pacifist {from an essay in his “Encounters”] and Rav Shach’s assertion that “Wars are good…”. [Not to mention, again, Rabbis Shapira and Elitzur.] There also are—within limits—definite doctrines of just pre-emption and reprisal, even when civilians die. Its knowing the tenor of the time and the populace… and making sure we WIN.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Pinchas/Three Weeks: Hasbara?

The real beginning of the sequence of events that results in Pinchas’ eleventh hour action can be traced to a Rashi in Balak [Num. 22:4]: the bitter enemies of Midian and Moav made peace between themselves due to their Jew hatred. This may actually the first time we see Rashi specifically delineate Jew-hatred [we have an example of “Hebrew” hatred in Miketz [Ber. 43:32], but even if one glosses over the semantics, there were a lot less of us]; even in the Rashis expounding the milchemes Amalek in Beshalach [Shemos 17:8-16], not a word is mentioned about “hate” or “sinah”, even though Amalek is assumed—pace his grandfather—to be the hater par excellence, the paradigmatic anti-Semite.

There are many eerie parallels between this notion and the current political situation in the Middle East, particularly as regards the Gaza flotilla and the worlds reaction to it.

The first is simply how applicable Rashi’s description of the situation is today: “asu shalom beneihem”. Everyone knows about the deadly internecine strife between Sunni and Shiite, the political rivalry between Persian and Arab for Middle East hegemony , and now Turkey’s seeming willingness to actually reestablish te Ottoman caliphate.

Re the nature of the hate--both nations in this case had fears of being ‘swallowed up’, but for no good reason: wars were about passage [like 1967, with the Suez], and Bnei Yisrale couldn’t touch Moav by divine decree…so did the hate come before the fear, or the other way around? It seems as if the fear caused the hate [witeness the diff bet Balak’s and Bilaam’s hate].

More poignantly, re the nature of the responses: Zimri tried to make his response a religious response. As I've discussed before, Zimri was almost trying to tell his fellow Jews: you fools. You want to “score”—just do it, and forget the idols. Bad enough; but he turned it into a vehicle for a personal power crusade—as the gemara notes, he told Cozbi he was more of a higher-up than Moshe [her intended target], and he did his deed in the ohel moed in full view, as if he was now the top cat. This was what Pinchas put a stop to.

[Interestingly, when Pinchas ostensibly makes an appearance later on in Sefer Shoftim in the Yiftach incident and pilegesh begivah, he’s not speaking truth to power [albeit in Zimri’s case, illegitimate power]: he IS the power, and he is notably les usccesful in both cases. Pilegesh beGivah, in fact, is almost a case of Zimir in reverse: its noted that much of the carnage that results was because Bnei YisrY were makpid on the kavod of the pilegesh but not the Kavod Hashem in the immediately preceding story of Pesel Micha. In this case not only did Pinchas stand up for the honor of Hashem---Hashem, as it were, waited for him to do it [by not smiting Zimri immediately].

Now, does this mean we want to “read out” jews who are less than stellar in their support of Israel, seeing as how their ostensible “dual loyalties” [Jewish vs Progressive, or what people call “liberal” nowadays] might lead to more Jews getting killed? While it might be a stretch to call them Erev Rav [Netanyahu may be right about Axelrod and Emanuel], one can be justified in casting opprobrium towards those who are formulating “responses” to the crisis as the authentic “Jewish” response. Some deserve to be called out by name, like J Street and its claim to be pro-Israel while accepting funds from known bastions of anti-Israel machinations [e.g. Islamic think tanks and the like.] Or Neturei Karta. Or Naomi Klein [who I’m sure is a member in good standing at her shul in Montreal]. I might not place Peter Beinart’s recent essay in the New York Review Of Books [possibly THE current flagship of anti-semitic Judaism]; he was describing a phenomemon rather accurately. The fact that he was saying that these students’ impressions were correct was another matter; but there was going to be a point where Jews with little or no religious affiliation were going to become uncomfortable identifying with a state whose foundations are so clearly religious.

Still, while one should not say that they elicit the response of kana’in pogin bo, said kana’in should find a Pinchas-like method [within legal and non-lethal limits, of course] of putting a stop to, or at least rendering much less effective, the “illiberal” impressionism that seems to be the biggest “PR” obstacle to support for Israel among our own. And, should we still be—with some justification—to start reading people out as erev rav, we might be pointed to the Gemara in Sanhedrin 37a, which, as a play on the posuk in Toldos 27:27 “re’ach begadav”—the pleasant odor of the clothing—transforms it to “re’ach bogdav”, that G-d finds even the aroma of our TRAITORS pleasant.

We need to be careful.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Chukas/Balak: Divine Affirmative Action

Don’t say, “Why were the former days better than these?” For you do not ask wisely about this. (Koheles 7:10)

For the 38 years of their sojourn in the midbar [and more], Bnei Yisrael had all their needs taken care of to a rather miraculous extent, were immersed in Torah learning like no other generation…and were “nezufin lifnei hamakom” for that entire period.

It is actually that very state of affairs that is the proximate cause of the new generation’s first brush with divine retribution: the complaint about the “lechem haklokel”, the fact that the manna, being a completely “spiritual” food, never resulted in any waste byproduct—in other words, no going to the bathroom for 40 years.

Rashi notes the foreshadowing: the last time there was an “express trip” to make a dash for the border—in parshas Beha’alosecha—it elicited a similar complaint [the “misonenim”], and the resulting 38 year delay. And, here, as Rashi notes, the analog between the lashon hara of the meraglim and the lashon hara here [the reason for the snakebites].

The Divine response is interesting precisely because G-d Himself seems to go out of His way, as it were, to prevent a re-occurrence of the meraglim: as Rav Dessler points out, He sanctions an approach with the Nachash Necshoshes which is virtually the same method as what the egel was supposed to have been [albeit, this time as a Divine command as opposed to done on a questionable human initiative].

Similarly, one might find loose parallels between Bilaam and Amalek: Amalek attacked the stragglers, the “lo yirei Elo-kim”; Bilaam looked specifically for what would be Bnei Yisrael’s weakest point of resistance, and eventually all the “work” of eradicating the Jews would be done by the Divine wrath incurred by the resulting transgressions.

[Interestingly, one might notice that a historical tendency among the worst anti-Semites to have others do their work for them. Aside from the fact that Hitler ym”sh was known to be a late riser, he also was loath to actually go anywhere he would have to see the killing of Jews being performed. Similarly, Bilaam himself started the entire chain of events by telling Balak how to “seduce” the Jews to their own destruction, avoiding any real direct involvement himself.]

Again, we see that Bnei Yisrael were afflicted with a plague [as they were at the time of Korach, possibly the nadir of the entire sequence of events that started with the misonenim and ended with Korach’s rebellion], and to avoid what seemed to be a repeat, an extraordinary sequence of events occurred culminating in Pinchas’ single-handed staying of the plague—except, when one looks at the Gemara in Sanhedrin [83a or thereabouts], which describe how the hand of G-d paved the way for his action to be successful, we see again that G-d himself was actually willing to get involved to change the outcome from what might have otherwise been as tragic as it had been nearly forty years previously.

I would venture to say, in a way, the G-d, kevayachol, was implementing a “curve” of sorts for this generation so that they wouldn’t suffer as their forebears had, even if it meant implementing a form af “affirmative action” that was unavailable for the dor yetziah; this despite the fact that, in this case, if one would try to make an analog between aveiros, one might think the “klokel” complaint was worse than the quail complaint, as it attacked the obvious [and long-ongoing] manifestation of divine providence; and, if one could “compare” avoda zaras, if one considers that there were very few actual “worshippers” vis-à-vis the egel [erev rav notwithstanding], the sin of Peor was worse, with or without the ick factor.

So it’s plausible that, even thought this generation had known nothing but Torah and the “Eibishter provided” in the most literal sense possible, something was still missing. To the point that, as the Gemara in Brachos 7a details, G-d withheld Himself from his daily allowance of anger so Bilaam couldn’t pull off an efficacious curse.

The conclusion that might be drawn from all this is that, for all the talk of “yeridas hadoros” and our generation’s ostensible lack of worthiness compared to our ancestors, sometimes there are reasons that Divine Providence deems the “lesser” doros worthy of the kind of help that wasn’t necessarily meted out to those previous doros. The aforementioned parallels between Chukas/Balak and Behaalosecha/Shelach—and other pratfalls—serve as one example. The contrast between the European generations and our current ones serve as another one. Regardless of the historical truth of whether or not “nobody was frei”, again, there are reasons that things happen now that didn’t happen then—l’tova and l’ra’a, but I would say more l’tova.

While history may repeat itself, it always leaves enough of a window, and at some point, G-d will be looking through that window.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Shlach: Insecurities

The headline of the Yahoo article read “Being Bad at Relationships Is Good for Survival”.

Obviously my first thought was that I had just found another ra’aya as to why the “shidduch crisis” was anything but. [Of course, if I was to be intellectually consistent, it might lead me to have to admit that the marry-then-meet system of shidduchim [ostensibly] prevalent in the Chareidi world was the best of all possible systems [or, the worst except for all the others], because what kind of relationship is worse than no relationship; but I’d never want to publicly give any of their approaches to anything more than a grudging credence.]

Further perusal, however, revealed the real essence of the research being discussed: namely, that harboring insecurities are important mechanisms in the adaptation of evolutionarily advantageous behaviors, as the insecure have more incentive toward due diligence in the fight to survive. Or, in English, the insecure are better off, even if [if not especially when] it comes to relationships.

That led me to thinking about Alan Dershowitz’ “tzures theory of Jewish survival”:

We know that Judaism is adapted to crisis, we know how well it does when it faces external threats; the real test of Judaism is how it deals with its own internal crisis and how it deals with problems that cannot be blamed on others outside of the Jewish community…[it] puts Jews in a very uncomfortable position, we don't want tzures, we don't want to be attacked and nonetheless we want to survive and thrive.

That led me back to an older post of mine, Vayigash-States of Emergency, where I basically theorized that if you scream “sha’as hadechak” enough, you get one.

Meantime, its in these last two parshiyos—culminating with the chet hameraglim and the gezera of 40 years in the desert when the possibility of the relationship between Hashem and Benei Yisrael becomes officially insecure, as detailed in the Rashi in Devarim [2:17] that explains that during the dor hamidbar the communication between Hashem and Moshe was itself strained, “amirah” as opposed to “dibbur”.

Yet at the same time, the 40 years—according to some midrashim [I can’t find exactly where just now—I think it may have been in Beshalach, on “derech eretz Plishtim ki karov hu”]—were necessary for the development of Bnei Yisrael’s character: they needed the 40 years of Torah they got while being fed with the manna and having perpetually fitting clothing and shoes, and never even having to go the bathroom.

Were, then the 40 years were paradigmatic of security, because everything was taken care of, and “ein nitnah Torah ela le’ochlei ha-man”—so there was unparalleled Torah learning, the ultimate expression of the “relationship with G-d”? Or, were they eminently insecure, because as the aforementioned Rashi notes, the 38 years were “nezufin lifnei ha-Makom”? Can there be a tradeoff?

I would venture another link to my thesis in States of Emergency, that while some degree of insecurity is necessary to actually make a relationship work, the pursuit of ultimate “security” inherent in the “Torah-only” philosophies of some schools [you know who you are] are not only far from ideal, but actually may end up being counterproductive.

The first example is as noted above: during all the openly miraculous sojourn in the midbar, bnei yisrael were “nezufin lifnei ha-Makom”, even to the point that it affected the Divine communication with Moshe. That state of affairs hardly beckons as the ideal state of a relationship, secure or otherwise.

A later example from the annals of Jewish education comes from Chizkiyahu’s education policy as delineated in Sanhedrin 94b: he stuck a sword at the entrance of the beis medrash, which probably was the most effective deterrent to batalah—and it worked: there was no halachic ignorance in all of Israel. A perfect ra’ayah to educational coercion, no?


A few contextual clues may offer explanation as to why the policy was hardly ideal and probably not sustainable. One was the fact that it was likely done during the siege of Sancheriv, and Chizkiyahu needed to make sure learning did not stop entirely during wartime; imposing a form of martial law on the beis medrash was perfectly in line with imposing it elsewhere. What might be more indicative of the insustainability of the policy may be what occurred right after Chizkiyahu’s petira: his son Menashe take sthe throne and ushers in 22 years [at least] of the worst behavior to occur in the kingdom of Yehuda until that point, so much so that the gezera of Churban Bayis Rishon was sealed during this period. The coerced knowledge not only did not hold up, it more than fell by the wayside.

One of theories regarding the impetus behind the chet ha-meraglim was insecurity: whether they were worried about their actual worthiness to enter the land, the rest of the people’s worthiness to enter the land, whether they could actually succeed militarily—in any case, there are several psukim that point to the fact that a large part of the population was subject to insecurity. [And, as the Gemara in Ta’anis reveals, the mida k’neged mida was the perpetual insecurity—the bechiya ledoros of Tisha B’av.] It might be the Jew’s [and the Jews’] lot to e perpetually insecure. However—despite, or perhaps even because of, the evidence buttressing the possible “payoffs” from that status—from the nisim in the midbar, the amount of Torah learning resulting, or even the principle of “l’fum tza’ara agra”—it should hardly be considered an ideal.

It is something to be overcome, not something to be idealized.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Sefer Bamidbar and a Post-Shavuos Hangover

One might think that after staying up all night on Shavuos enough Torah would have been learned that would provide for enough material to keep on a back burner for future blogs/Divrei Torah. [Or, for an excuse for as to why one wasn’t written before Yom Tov, said excuse being that there would be more to say afterward.]

Indeed, the two shiurim I attended—one on due process within halacha and the other regarding the Avoda Zara status of the Trinity vis-à-vis bnei noach—should make cameo appearances on these pages sometime in the future.

Yet, while walking up Amsterdam Avenue from one shiur to another at 4AM [our wandering in the UWS “midbar”?], it was part of an ongoing argument I’ve had with a friend who claims to have lost her faith and will tell everyone and anyone who is willing to listen [or not] that highlighted the need for some intellectual consistency in these debates.

The crux of the debate came down to two counter-propositions which will always run parallel: on one side the notion of a Torah MiSinai, in this case employing the Maimonidean formulation that insists upon a letter-perfect Torah dictated directly from G-d to Moses [yes, there are salient halachic allowances for deviation, but bear with this theoretically draconian formulation for arguments’ sake: there are times where its actually useful]; on the other side, the assertion that the “Bible” [in this case, the Pentateuch], HAD to have been written by man/men, specifically 5 different ones.

Two interesting propositions came out of this. The first was that, when a bystander asked me what the “argument” was really about, I said that basically my counterpart insisted that Torah MiSinai in any form [but especially the Maimonidean notion] was “bullshit”, and I claimed that I from my end, the Documentary Hypothesis was at least equally “bullshit”. This engendered at first recriminations about scientific proof [not from me; I think the “Codes” are unnecessary at best, counterproductive at worst], counter recriminations that my counterpart knew about as much about Torah MiSinai as I knew about the Documentary Hypothesis, which engendered a note from my sparring partner that I was enagaing in unfair ad hominem tactics and that she expected better of me.

[When she reads this she’ll found out just how ad hominem I can get without losing the true subtext of an argument.]

The note was stuck inside a copy of Richard Elliot Friedman’s “The Bible With Sources Revealed”, a text that may be a—if not the—contemporary paradigmatic Documentary Hypothesian Ikkarei Emunah. [To be fair, asked her for the book; I wanted to at least see where she was coming from.]

Which, along with her note and rather forceful assertions about the scientific certainty of the Wellhausen explanation, seemed to me to be precisely the point, and one that I could not get across to her: Documentary Hypothesians are as fundamentalist, inflexible, and intolerant in their [dis]belief and want others, if not to accept their belief system as the right one, to allow them to promulgate their [dis]beliefs among others in the community who do not hold as they do, or at least try to get them into discussions to make them at least seem equally intolerant for professing admittedly anachronistic beliefs and not having the ability or willingness to defend or justify them.

In other words, aside from arrogating to themselves a self-righteousness normally reserved for Chareidi and other circles, fundamentalist Documentary Hypothesians are especially annoying for this reason: they want to make you think. And, as that famous thinker once said, if you get people to think their thinking, they’ll love you; but if you actually make them think, they’ll want to kill you. Which is why the real professional kiruv people actually have one up on fundamentalist Documentary Hypothesians: they manage to get you think that you thought of what they tell [or, ikka d’amri, sell] you. [There is some credibility to accusations that such an approach is intellectually vacuous, if not dishonest; but that’s another discussion.]

So, with my counterpart in her own midbar, where did that leave me? During the course of our discussion, I had to defend two propositions [which I never got to completely finish defending before the pre-emptive dismissal of “bullshit”]: one, how I would give credence to the Maimonidean formulation as opposed to the Doc Hyp; and two, why.

The first was simple: the Doc Hyp assumes that the Torah, or “Bible” is a written record that is constrained by certain textual boundaries which dictate that it had to be written by multiple authors. Fine, if that assumption holds. However, if you simply state that what was dictated to Moses by G-d as Torah she-biktav was a text with no punctuation and or vowelization, and therefore much more akin to a code than a historical or literary record, while that might not prove divine origin, it allows such a proposition to make as much sense—at least—as assertions of multiple authorship. [Loud thumping assertions, as blustering as anything from right-wing pulpits.]

Which brings me to explain as to why I would rather believe in a Torah she-biktav as a Divine Code even in its Maimonidean formulation as opposed to fundamentalist Doc Hyp. Because, my dear, I wouldn’t care two wits about a Bible that wasn’t Divine. That’s not Torah. If a man came up with the “stuff” in there, I wouldn’t even bother to argue for its importance as a cultural artifact; it wouldn’t be worth defending. Certainly not as a legal constitution today. I would almost tell you: if you think this system of belief is especially “bullshit”, why do you even bother studying it? You’d be better off [and more intellectually honest] taking Bill Maher’s approach of deconstructing all belief. And, as far as the “scientific certainty” of Doc Hypism, Friedman’s assertion that “the most compelling argument for the hypothesis is that this hypothesis best accounts for the fact that all this evidence of so many kinds comes together so consistently” hardly qualifies as beyond a reasonable doubt.

To conclude vis-à-vis this writer’s own motivation toward belief and possible intellectual inconsistency or dishonesty, I would almost take a converse [or is it inverse?] version of Pascal’s wager: if G-d exists, that existence is independent upon my belief in Him or lack thereof; He isn’t going away. Similarly with the Torah: if He did write it, no “proof” to the contrary will change the fact. Such a belief is hardly the stuff of high-level spirituality; fine. That’s MY midbar.

My final admonition vis-à-vis Doc Hypists: I wouldn’t necessarily suggest advertising such raving disbelief in an Orthodox community, and lets face it, when you assert the primacy of Doc Hyp in an Orthodox community, you’re raving; you’ve graduated from voicing doubts to actively asserting an contrary position. If you feel like you’re on the receiving end of disproportionate opprobrium as a result, while certain levels of said opprobrium may be less than justified, you can’t say that it would be completely unexpected.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Behar-Bechukosai: Warning Signs

There are two “tochachos” in the Torah; one here, in Bechukosai, and another in Ki Savo. Parallels and contrasts are evident: while Bechukosai’s tochacha lists 49 “curses”, Ki Savo’s list 98. Sforno hints that the Bechukosai tochacha is representative of the Churban Bayis Rishon and the Babylonian exile, while the Ki Savo tochacha is representative of Churban Bayis Sheni and the Roman exile.

One interesting contrast is the fact that in this week’s tochacha, the curses are punctuated with seven repeated Divine warnings of backsliding, usually referred to as “halichas keri”, acting as if the aforementioned “corrections” were to attributed to a source other than Divine, or as to have been “happenstance” and not related to Israel’s relationship with G-d. There is almost no such reference to gradation in Ki Savo: there is the initial warning “And if you will not listen to the voice of Hashem your G-d” in Devarim 28:15, and in the middle of all of the catastrophes, the only other reason given: “Because you did not serve Hashem your G-d with happiness and a good heart while you yet had all things” [Devarim 28:47]. It’s almost as if, unlike here, there is no opportunity given for correction of wayward behavior.

Also unlike the Ki Savo tochacha, this weeks parsha seems to provide the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel, with G-d reiterating his commitment to the eternity of the Jewish people; even to the point that the last curse—that “the land will desolate itself from them and recoup its [lost] Sabbaths [acc. to Rashi, the violated Shemittos] [27:43]”—indicates that there is an end to the payback. What happens at the end of the Ki Savo tochacha is more harrowing: the last curse is that G-d will return the Jews to Egypt in boats, almost as if a reverse engineering yitizias mitzrayim; and, to add injury to insult, when the Jews try have themselves sold into slavery, Rashi says that the Torah’s proclamation that “no one will buy” is indicative of the likelihood that they will be massacred instead.

If one takes Sforno’s hint as to the relationship between the tochachos and the churbanos, and one remembers the various sins that were supposed to have caused each of the churbanos, the contrast between the two tochachos start to make more sense. The ostensible proximate causes of the first churban are generally listed as the three cardinal sins—avoda zara, gilui arayos, and shefichas damim—and, additionally, there are strong hints in this weeks’ parshah that shemitta was almost never kept during the entire first temple period. Whereas, in the case of bayis sheni, the classic reason given for that curban is sinas chinam, but also one hears that the entire justice system was adjudicated l’shuras hadin [strict letter of the law] as opposed to lifnim mishuras hadin, and that the populace no longer made the blessings on the Torah.

In addition to the difference in kind of the sinning that brought about the churbanos, the Talmudic dictum that “hasra’ah [warnings] do not need to be given to talmidei chachamim” might further illustrate why there is no light at the end of the tunnel in the second tochacha. The society of the bayis rishon/first tochacha was almost perpetually adolescent, in a way, and this reflected in the rather anarchic behavior of not only the populace, but the ruling classes, as detailed in much of Sefer Melachim. However, it was almost this very self-imposed ignorance—according to many midrashim, when Yoshiyahu began his successful campaign of national teshuva at age 26, he hadn’t even SEEN a Sefer Torah for the first 18 years of his reign until Chilkiyahu found one hidden in the heichal—which mitigated the Jews heinous behavior, to the point that there was enough Divine “tolerance” to give warning signs, like the seven in the parsha. Adolescent anarchy is correctable, even if the corrective measures are draconian.

Such mitigating circumstances were no longer applicable in the case of Bayis Sheni. That populace was purported to be learned, which in and of itself raises the level of responsibility further; however, one might see the two other “averos”—regarding birchos haTorah and shuras hadin—as something other than ancillary, as they underpin the entire prosecution. To wit: a populace that was clearly supposed to know better has instead taken upon themselves to use a system of Divine law as a power grab, which more likely than not led them to justify the occurrences of sinas chinam and adjudication solely l’shuras hadin [which might hint at an inability to see the “human” factor in law, or a lack of judicial restraint, but more likely is the confusion of having judicial power with having judicial infallibility]. One then can actually see a deeper meaning in the neglect of birchos haTorah: almost as if those applying the law were acting as if they were the fount of all law and morality, forgetting the actual Source.

In that case, it isn’t enough to just punish a wayward, almost adolescent anarchy with a cleansing exile and a chance to rebuild; its as if the whole project has to be scrapped and re-engineered from the beginning, even unto pre-Torah: going back to Egypt. The Bayis Rishon generation couldn’t—or wouldn’t—follow the Torah; the Bayis Sheni generation took the Torah in a direction it was not supposed to go.

In theory, these characterizations are so open-ended that they can applied by any one side to an antagonist in any socio-politico-religious debate [and not only those]. So those applications will be left to the readers to make, because they will be made anyway.

With one exception: those who are ostensibly “versed in the law” [or look and act like they are, in any case], and then engage in behaviors that transcend depravities prevalent in bayis rishon—and then are defended from prosecution from other people “versed” in Torah who use the Torah to justify said protection, thereby transcending the sins of bayis sheni. They know who they are.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Emor—Blasphemy vs Heresy

Towards the end of the parsha, the series of halachos that is the hallmark of much of Sefer Vayikra is interrupted by one of the rare “narratives” in the sefer: the “son of the Egyptian woman” who “curses” G-d and is executed. In fact, there are only two “narratives”: the other is in Shemini, the events of the hakamas hamishkan and the deaths of Nadav and Avihu.

Obviously there is a world of difference between behaviors and intentions and how the Torah and the relevant literature view the actions of Nadav and Avihu on the one hand and the megadef on the other; however, one may find a common thread between the two: the lethal effect of certain inappropriate approaches to G-d. Which, in the context of the plethora of the levitical and priestly in Sefer Vayikra, much of which is dedicated to instructions regarding service to G-d in very close quarters.

While there is little logical underpinning added to explain blasphemy in the halachic literature, there ironically is significant “svara” added to the three cardinal sins, INCLUDING avoda zara, [cf Sanhedrin 74a]—why the difference bet the two? The real svara behind the status of AZ as yehareg ve’al ya’avor is not negative, but positive—the commandment [V’ahavta], rather than any of the negative admonitions against idolatry, which are certainly not scarce in the Torah.

A closer look at the nature of both “birkas Hashem” [the standard Talmudic euphemism for blasphemy] and the “mesis” might serve to illuminate why the Torah might be relatively silent on a third offense—atheism—and why it might actually be of both a different degree and kind than the previous two offenses.

Look at the language of the actual curse that’s supposed to actually incur stoning: “Yakeh Yosi es Yosi”—the blasphemer is invoking the name of G-d Himself to curse G-d. In a similar sense, the Talmudic discussion surrounding which of G-d’s names used to curse one’s parents is indicative of what might be the ultimate reason behind the gravity of these offenses: the perpertrators are, in a certain sense, using G-d as a force for evil in the world, and in the sense of the megadef, almost pointing to the Divine as the source of evil in the world while simultaneously employing the concept. That idea itself might be what elevates the gravity of the offense of megadef beyond that of avoda zara.

Now, examine the nature of mesis [seducer to idolatry], whose gravity mandates that the Jewish legal entrap the violator into a guilty verdict: the description of the “attempted seduction” involves a detailed description of the idol[s] to be served, and the final “nail in the coffin” as it were of the seducer’s declaration that “We must do this; this is good for us [Kach hi chovasenu, kach hi yafeh lanu]”. If said mesis were, however, to employ language of kfira b’ikar that involved no other divinity, or the denial of the existence of one, it isn’t clear—to say the least—that this kind of hasasa/"seduction" would merit the same response.

It’s one thing, then to see atheism as a possibly less offensive notion than avoda zara, no matter what the type [even if it involved “shutfus”, service of the real G-d—which ipso facto acknowledges his existence—in combination with other not-real deities].

But Rav Kook may even take that a step further:

“Atheism (heresy) comes as a cry from the depths of pain to redeem man from narrow and alien straights—to raise him up from the darkness of the letters and aphorisms to the light of ideas and feelings until faith finds a place to stand in the center of morality. Atheism has the right of temporary existence because it is needed to digest the filth adhered to faith for the lack of intellect and service.” (Orot 126)

Rav Hillel Rachmani [Gush] elaborates:

Rav Kook sees the phenomenon of atheism as originating from two extreme views of God: God is other and thus threatening, therefore I must escape from Him; God is nature and hence irrelevant to my life…R. Kook recognizes heresy as a tool which can help believers purify and refine their faith. The challenge of heresy shatters inaccurate or undesirable models of God, and this can enable the religious community to progress to a fuller and more truthful understanding of God. Atheism cannot deny God's existence per se; it is unable to fight against God Himself. Rather it acts to destroy Man's representations of God.

This would seem to obviate the idea that there is no such thing as a “moral atheism”; in fact, Gertrude Himmelfarb writes [Victorian Minds, Ch 11: "The Victorian Angst"] that Victorian eminences were private atheists or agnostics but almost because of that were philosophically “machmir” morally: "Atheistic--or agnostic, rationalistic, or theistic--morality was still more demanding...for here there was neither an objective ritual of atonement nor an objective measure of sin." The medrash beat the Victorians to it long before, however: the Pesikta d’Rav Kahana 15 gives at least a smidgen of credence to this idea, with “lulei osi azvu v’torasi shamaru”: better that they abandon Me but keep My Torah, because it will bring them back to me. While the ultimate basis of all ethics is Divine, acting as if one and one’s behaviors are ipso-facto ethical because one harbors “correct” beliefs is anything but.

The real issue here is not whether Judaism condones atheism over polytheism; obviously it finds both anathema. However, it again raises the question over with whom we should or should not ally ourselves—politically and /or socially—and why. Irrespective of the current world zeitgeist that is definitely hostile to any moral discipline—especially one that has its belief system rooted in revelatory bases—the representatives of the major monotheistic strains have not done very much to counter the idea that religion and faith is a force for good on the world. The real scandals and hypocrisies are too numerous to measure here.

I think that allying ourselves with other religious denominations because we need them to help shore up our faith from the attacks on all faiths is counterproductive. We need to consider the possibility that a more secular society is not ultimately more detrimental to the true nature of the Judaic mission than one that outwardly acknowledges a Divine but doesn’t know—or doesn’t want to know—what that entails.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Shemini: The Never Ending Omer

In continuing the theme of the last post, one may discern a series of loosely analogous patterns between the order of parshiyot and the sequence of events as described in the Torah as they relate to Pesach and its aftermath.

One should note for starters that the first Omer was itself a bumpy ride.

Irrespective of the notion that the 49 days were supposed to be a series of gradual incremental steps in kedusha from 0 to 49, a quick look at what actually transpired between midnight of the 15th of Nissan and the morning of the 6th of Sivan may indicate otherwise:

Day 7—The first complaint, at the Red Sea Shore: “What were you thinking taking us outta Egypt to die in the desert?” [Additionally, we may even be able to include the element of mini-“Avelus” in shmayaim for the drowned Egyptians, pace the midrash where G-d prevents the angels—thought not Bnei Yisrael—from singing shira.]

Day 10—Marah: Where’s the water? Of course, this turned out to be the first educational experience indicated as such in the text [“sham sam lo chok u’mishpat”]…Interestingly, the Seder HaDoros quotes a Bachya on Beshalach that Marah was where the actual entrance of Bnei Yisrael to the Midbar commenced, or more specifically in Bachya’s words: “…the sar of the desert—and this is the Satan—began to prosecute them and lead them to sin….”

Day 16—The Seder HaDoros, quoting Yalkut Shimoni on Shelach [#749]: this was where the mekoshesh etzim was apprehended, preceding even those who went out to look for the manna [Shemos 17:27, 28] [The manna began to fall on Day 31, according to BT Kiddushin 38a and Shabbos 87b; until that point, Bnei Yisrael had eaten 61 meals of matza which themselves had been imbued with the taste of the manna, even before the manna began to fall [with the Slav!!!] on the 16th of Iyar.]

Sometime between Day 38, which was the first Shabbos of the falling of the manna and the aforementioned attempt at its illicit collection, and Day 43, or Rosh Chodesh Sivan, when Bnei Yisrael arrive at Midbar Sin[ai]—the engagement with Amalek occurred at Refidim.

Day 50, as we all know was Matan Torah…and Day 90 was the egel. But even before we get to that, we have to remember the Rashi on Shemos 24:10, when Nadav Avihu and the Zekeinim were nitchayev misa for “beholding the sight of the G-d of Israel” but had the sentence suspended so as not to mar matan torah. [As we will see, in this weeks parsha, no such considerations were forthcoming at the hakamas hamishkan.]

Additionally, once we’ve established that the events of the Hashkamas HaMishkan in Shemini are the seame as those in Beha’alosecha [identified as having occurred on Rosh Chodesh Nissan of the seond year of the Exodus], we can link the tragedies of Nadav and Avihu and those of the Zekeinm [according the shitta that they met their demise in the fire at Kivros ha-Ta’avah]. This would even further backdate the series of misphaps previously detailed and enumerated as having occurred on the first Omer: we now have an aura of tragedy even surrounding both the establishment of our first national shrine, which coincides with what the first Rashi in the Torah refers to as our first mitzvah: “Ha-Choseh hazeh lachem…”

As if that wasn’t enough, one should only look at the second Rashi in Pekudei, which intimates that the double lashon on mishkan hints at the double tragedy of the two churbanos.

One would be forced to conclude that there is DNA of tragedy built directly into those moments that are supposed to be our most triumphant. If we ever had a hava amina that contradicted the notion that Love Hurts…

One can only conclude this, with some diffidence: the mitzvah of Omer—both its duration and the fact that we count it one day, one number, at a time, allows us to maintain two illusions, as it were.

One illusion we might be allowed to operate under is that spiritual progress is always incremental. We know better, and we always should, but if we had to actually operate without any allowance for cushioning the blow of reality, setting and reaching goals mght be made invariably more difficult. To draw what might be a loose educational parallel: the mikra is not always [if ever] directly bound to its direct p’shat. Yet it’s the linchpin of our educational system, at least as its starting point [though one must insist that it never be the endpoint]. You have to be able to start somewhere, even if its beis and not aleph.

The other illusion we might be allowed to—if we’re not exhorted to—maintain is that there actually is an end to our troubles, that they follow a linear progression with an A and B. All the events detailed above indicate precisely the opposite: they are cyclical and unpredictable. We need to be able to forge ahead in the face of that. An omer allows for that. Lo nitna Torah le'malachei ha-shares: we get to sing even when the Angels aren't allowed to.

So, in deference to that notion, for 33 days I won’t be getting married or getting a haircut.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Vayikra—House Rules

Historians often grant certain eras chronological labels that often lie outside said eras actual chronology: e.g., the twentieth century is theorized to have begun with the onset of World War I and have ended with the fall of the Berlin Wall; or, that the “Sixties” actually began with the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution of August 1964 and ended with Watergate. In a certain sense [leHavdil], Sefer Vayikra can be determined to truly begin with Parshas Teruma, where construction of the Mishkan—the first incarnation of “G-d's House”—is begun, and could almost be said to end in Parshas Acharei Mos, Chapter 18, where the halachic inclination of the Biblical text starts to move away from its almost heretofore exclusive focus on korbanos and other “kodashim”.

It is also this stretch of Chumash that, aside from being the more difficult and involved stretch inside, is also the least taught, at least in most conventional chinuch circles. As I discussed in Vayikra-Tzav: Cleanup, this is midly ironic, being that the first five pesukim in this week's parsha are, according to some strands of tradition, supposed to be the first ones to be taught. Expanding on the more particular “teachable moment” I illustrated then [to “use spiritual endeavors [] to illustrate the idea of why stealing is wrong”], one can generalize this notion, in a certain sense, to the idea about how to get one’s house in order before putting it to its appropriate use. Indeed, it might make sense that Ki Sisa interrupts between Teruma/Tetzaveh and Vayakhel/Pekudei: it took more than one shot to get it right [actual “mukdam/me-uchar” notwithstanding.]

Unfortunately, once again I have to digress into an inyan I’ve discussed repeatedly here [Re'eh--Dry Cleaning; Ki Savo--Child Predators: Makah Be-seser] that just doesn’t seem to go away.

It’s been posited that one of the reasons that moderns can’t relate to animal sacrifice—the linchpin of Sefer Vayikra—is that the ability to perceive its importance was dulled when the Anshei Knesses ha-Gedola slaughtered the Yetzer Hara of idolatry; there was a concomitant dulling of spiritual sensibilities [see Yoma 69b]. However, recent news indicates that there is still a lion in the mikdash, as it were. Right in Jerusalem.

Maybe there is a true, ironclad halachic due process for the trial and removal of predators in chinuch. However, what has emanated from the crisis of a prominent Jerusalem Rosh ha-Yeshiva who was exiled to the northern reaches of Israel rather than disciplined indicates that the emphasis is still on the “process” rather than the removal of potential harm to talmidim.

Also, while the recent treatment of the issue by Rabbi Nathan Lopez-Cardozo was somewhat closer to the mark, I have to disagree with one of his assertions: “should we now believe that all of Rabbi Elon's teachings were hypocritical and must be banned? Definitely not.” If allegations of misconduct can be proven, any offending educator’s entire derech and life work gets SHOULD get called into question: there is no way to elevate one’s students while inflicting this kind of harm on them at the same time. When a chillul shamayim beseser is nigleh like this, everything has to be reassessed.

I am usually loath to ever give credence to those to who would say that “because of X, Y happened”, as we have seen with certain declarations vis-à-vis the Haiti earthquakes; this is an unfortunate practice that should probably be left in the repertoire of minhagei American Fundamentalist religious right. However, I might be less prejudiced to an equivalent declaration to the effect that the inability and/or unwillingness to slay the contemporary “lion in the mikdash” correlates to any Jersualem crises. In any case, the impulse for clerical self-preservation will prevent such a thing from ever happening.

In anyone going to get this house in order?

Friday, March 5, 2010

Ki Sisa/Parah—Reboot

Ki Sisa might actually be the one parsha where I might welcome the “educational misimpressions” I have referred to in other posts, where I might have simply accepted that Bnei Yisrael actually worshiped the Egel, and that both the tshuva and the punishment were commensurate with the sin. Yet, like everything else, it’s obviously never that simple.

Even here.

Whether it’s Rav Dessler explaining that it might simply have been a question of timing, as the nachash nechoshes of parshas chukkas served as a Divinely commanded analog of what the egel might have been had it originated from On High [a major distinction, to be sure]. Or, one could take it as far as Rav Isaac Sher, who goes as far as to say that even the construction of the egel was not in and of itself a sin.

So—if such a miniscule amount of people were actually out-and-out guilty [0.5% percent of the eligible 603,550; none of the women, children, or Leviim were involved at all]—why the draconian Divine response? Why even the threat of kelaya? It starts to make sense that Ki Sisa and Parah follow immediately after Purim, the holiday where we celebrate the cancellation of such a gezera.

It all has to do with relationships. Among the assorted mixed metaphors attached to Matan Torah is, of course, the chuppah metaphor [one of which are the inability of a me-anes to ever divorce, and kfiah har ke-gigis being the ultimate “ones”…but that’s another discussion]. Consider that Matan Torah was the beginning of a very close relationship…and that any insult to that relationship, however theoretically slight, could damage it even if said insult was only one of perception [which could be exemplified by the various range of explanantions and/or “whitewashes” of the chet ha-egel, especially ones that deny that there was any “real” chet.]

To draw another analogy—and to further mix the metaphor—one can compare the beginning of a relationship to the onset of a pregnancy, when the smallest insult to the developing embryo can result in the termination of the pregnancy. Vis-à-vis relationships, anything one party does or says—even if not technically “wrong”—can but an end to the relationship. Something like that seems to be about to happen here, until Moshe’s extraordinary intervention.

And to even further confuse the picture, one can draw a thru-line of sorts that actually connects all of the arba parshiyot: shekalim in the beginning; zachor/Purim as a function of kimu v’kiblu and the actual giving of the Torah [31:18]; Parah as the chet ha-egel and its immediate aftermanth; and, finally, Chodesh as the renewal, the second giving of the luchos.

However, this is usually not the advised course of action with regard to forging a relationship. To employ yet another analogy [groan], it is advised that one not turn off ones computer and reboot if not necessary because of the damage it can do to the OS and hard drive. What we might have in the case of the egel was an unnecessary reboot.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Post-Purim Post-Part(y)m

As I did last year, I spent the bulk of the past three weeks expending my journalistic energies writing and producing the local Purim Shpiel, basically our version of the State of the Upper West Side. Unlike last year’s production however, I did manage to slip in a political statement of sorts, almost partly unwillingly: during our “Purim Update” [modeled on SNL’s “Weekend Update”], I came onstage as the President for a mock interview, in oversized ears…and a kaffiyeh draped around my shoulders.

I had actually run this by a few people around the neighborhood during the scripting phase of the shpiel and I was surprised by the number of people who seemed to be find the notion offensive…not so much the physical alteration [grudgingly admitting that I was not, exactly, employing a caricature analogous to blackface], but the implication—or implications—regarding the President’s perceived religious and Judeophobic inclinations. It occurred to me that, obviously, some Orthodox Jews with more liberal political inclinations who voted for Obama may feel somewhat defensive about their electoral choice, as if they are trying to pre-empt accusations of placing personal sentiment over communal responsibility [as you will see below, I would not nearly go that far], and my costume was another reminder of how they felt. It also occurred to me that, like the New Yorker cover of the Obamas as, respectively, an African Muslim and an Angela Davis clone, my costume may have been a slight dig at those in my community who actually believe the absolute worst about the President.

As can be evidenced by my writings in this [and my other] blog, I have had serious misgivings about this President and his Administration, not only [but certainly not least] due to his Middle East policies—although, again, I have been fully open about that particular “bias”. However, I have been equally uncomfortable with the tactics of the far-right tarring the President as either Muslim, or a terrorist, or a communist. [V’hki teima that he’s a socialist—well, keep in mind that at a recent CPAC conference, Newt Gingrich quoted Camus and Orwell to warn against the dangers of socialism, forgetting that both Camus and Orwell were democratic socialists. Lomed mikol adam, indeed.] This may be due to my LEFTOVER goyish college-nurtured liberal sentiments. It also might be because, sometimes, extremism in defense of anything is a vice, as can be evidenced the damage done to cause of anti-communism by Joe McCarthy.

However, should one need more “traditional” evidence, one need only look at the Purim story.

One of the best treatments of Megillas Esther I have seen is Yoram Hazony’s The Dawn, which is basically a political analysis of the sefer. One of the points Hazony makes is that Mordechai’s refusal to bow down before Haman was not necessarily just a religious statement [although Rabbi Howard Jachter’s Why Did Mordechai Refuse to Bow Down to Haman? basically covers the issue of Haman’s questionable status as Avoda Zara], but also a political statement: Mordechai was essentially protesting Achashversosh’s dispensing of the political process and instituting a totalitarian dictatorship through Haman in a specific response to Bigsan and Teresh’ assassination attempt.

With regard to my point about an extremist ad hominem approach to opposing Obama and his policies, my points from the Esther story would be this: one, we see that Mordechai’s response was measured, in that it took nine years from the assassination attempt to the genocide decree; two, his refusal to bow down was not even unanimously approved by the rabbinnic authorities of the time; and three, as the gemara points out, Achashverosh was as much an eliminationist antisemite as Haman, but Mordechai never takes any political action against him.

I don’t think anyone can characterize Obama as an eliminationist anti-Semite, and although I would certainly agree that his foreign policy is on the whole not friendly to Israel, I can think of at least three other Presidents whose policies were even less favorable [Carter, Bush I, and Eisenhower]. I think any communal effort expended at painting Obama himself as an anti-Semite on the level of, say, Bin Laden or Ahmadinejad only serves to hurt our credibility in our fight against the real antisemites. The story of Mordechai’s political machinations may teach us this: mistakes will be made, possibly even ones of life or death; but we must always be judicious and never prejudicial.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Mishpatim—Final Answer[s]?

Like I described in my post Eikev: Where Does It Say?…, the part of Matan Torah that appears at the end of this week’s parsha may serve as an example of an educational misimpression, in this that being that two of the central themes of Matan Torah—“naaseh v’nishma” and Moshe’s 40-day/40-night private shiur—are here, and not in Yisro [where “naaseh” appears, as opposed to the double formulation here].

As I discussed in more detail in Yisro—Bechira vs. K’fiya: Infantilization, this may have a lot to do with the fact that, as the Gemara Shabbos 88b details, the real k’fiya involved the “nishma”, or the ba’al peh part of Torah. So it’s no accident that there are both a “naaseh” in one place and a “naaseh v’nishma” in another: more specifically, despite another educational misimpression—that being that saying “naaseh” before “nishma” was an unqualified ma’alah—we see that the situation is more complicated. In a certain sense one can entertain a solid hava amina, at least, that it was easier to simply say “naaseh” if one could just never have to deal with the “nishma”.

Where these themes come together here can possibly be found in the Rashis on 23:2 [“Lo sihyeh acharei rabim le-ra’os”], which, when I took Intro to Bible at YU with Rabbi David Sykes, was held up as the paradigmatic stating-his-thesis Rashi, where he possibly picks the one pasuk in the Torah that, ironically, completely confounds his approach [not only that, but he says so beferush: he quotes most of the Gemaras explaining the various inyanim, but he says that “none of this explains the pasuk “al ofanav”, which he then declined to even attempt to do].

What might even more ironic is the theme of the pasuk itself: voting and other democratic procedures of Sanhedrin and batei dinin. This is as close to a “nishma” as a “naaseh”: that is, the centrality of this pasuk as both a linchpin of halachic jurisprudence and the ultimate resistance to Rashi’s penchant for p’shat indicate how much more process- than result-oriented Torah is.

To be sure, the results count for—a lot. In a shiur I attended given by Rabbi Jeremy Wieder about the halachic implication of free inquiry, one inescapable conclusion was that reaching certain conclusions were certainly halachically and hashkafically out of bounds. However, using Maimonidean examples from both Mishneh Torah [Avodas Kochavim 2:2,3] and Moreh Nevuchim [2:25], he showed that restrictions on said conclusions don’t always necessarily preclude the legitimacy of pursuing the inquiries that precede them.

Two further ironies, both touched upon by Rabbi Wieder: one, that Rambam needed to follow his own line of inquiry to arrive at the conclusion in Mishneh Torah where he expresses extreme misgivings about conducting said inquiries, and said line of inquiry certainly, on the surface, violated his own proscriptions; and two, that [like most such Rambam’s] reading between the lines leads you to a halachic conclusion other than the one ostensibly so strongly proferred. In this case, that would mean that restrictions placed upon inquiries can never be as proscriptive as those placed upon conclusions.

The more yeshivish contemporary conventions that militate against asking questions [despite the proclamations issuing from various publications from said corners that deny such mind-control tactics are being used in their chinuch approaches] may actually prove to be more counterproductive: it may actually ultimately lead to one reaching the WRONG conclusions when one doesn’t learn to ask the right—and wrong—questions. Or, even better: the key might be to learn how to turn what might be a “wrong” conclusion into just another question, so that the correct conclusion is eventually arrived at.

Just to sum up, the fact that the posuk upon which all this centers has to do with Sanhedrins and batei dinin indicate that this is not simply a “chinuch” issue. This eventually goes to the highest levels.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Yisro—The Job

My Rav Muvhak, Rav Aharon Bina, used to always quote “ahz ze Blues Brozzers Movie” which was his favorite movie [“ahz for me is kosher movie cause I not understand all ze dirty words”] in his own inimitable way:

“Ahz we are on mission of G-d job”.

To [over simplify], one can use two ways to explain this concept, both from this weeks parsha.

The first: in explaining to my senior class at MTA why we shouldn’t go to rock concerts, Rabbi Mayer Schiller simply quoted two pesukim: Bereishis bara Elo-kim es hashamayim ve-es ha’aretz. Anochi Hashem Elo-kecha asher hotzesicha me-eretz mi-beis avadim. The second pasuk sets the demarcation line from the first; not all of Bereishis is for us. This basically qualified as a stronger re-statement of the first Rashi on the Torah [and it worked, a little; it was another four years before I attended my first rock concert.]

The second: the exhortation to be a “mamleches kohanim ve-goy kadosh”. Interestingly, Rashi has very little to say, other than to explain that “kohanim” simply means “princes” [as opposed to “priests”]. This has been one way to describe our “job”, or “mission”, as Jews, along with the occasional “tikkun olam” and “or lagoyim” one hears from time to time.

Like Rabbi Schiller, I am going to focus on current events to highlight a[nother] possible interpretation of what is not our “job”/”mission”.

The recent Israeli humanitarian efforts in Haiti have received a lot—and not nearly enough—press. Yet this may be an indication of the world’s grudging recognition of the fact that the Jews—and Israel—have a mission to fulfill; so—doing our “jobs” isn’t necessarily all that praiseworthy, even if it is “lifnim mi-shuras hadin”. It also doesn’t sell papers.

What might actually sell papers, however is the story involving 10 American Baptists arrested in Haiti for attempting to kidnap 33 Haitian children. Pastoral pronouncements that Haiti was experiencing divine payback for a deal with the devil wasn’t bad enough; taking advantage of tragedy to further one’s belief definitely does not fit into our mission, especially at the expense of children. [This is why I was fervently pro-prosecution in the Helbrans-Fima case years ago.] It’s cases like these where Hillary Clinton’s assertion that “organized religion stand[s] in the way of faith” actually make sense, and another reason for us to very wary of alliances—political, spiritual, otherwise—with the “religious” right.

Anu amelim, hem amelim.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Bo-Beshalach: Protocol

Last week Dvarman ironically gave me the theme for this week’s d’var torah. He wrote:

“The Riva wonders why Moshe and Aaron waited until they were kicked out of the palace, when they could have left before it got to that point. The Riva answers that had Moshe and Aaron left before being told to leave, they would have shown a lack of respect for Pharaoh, thereby embarrassing him. Since it was Pharaoh that had originally invited them, and since he was the ruler of the land they were in, they showed him respect by not leaving until he told them to, despite their embarrassment.”

That might be true as far as it goes, but at least at this point in the discussion, a few things are left out: one, Moshe gets the last word by issuing his nevua re Makas Bechoros; two, he doesn’t exactly leave quietly [“vayetzei…bechari af”]; and, three, aside from simple “respect” issues, one might imagin that there were some diplomatic protocol issues involved, as might be evidenced even as far back as the Rashi on “Lechu le’sivloseichem” [Shemos 5:4], where it is explicitly stated that because the gezera of shibud was not chal on b’nei Levi, Moshe and Aaron came and went from the palace “she’lo birshus”. So the diplomatic protocol went both ways here.

In any case, what seemped to present itself as the link between last week’s and this week’s parshiyot vis-à-vis the aforementioned inyan was the “atzmos yosef”. It is noted in the halachic and midrashic literature that Yosef, when escaping from Potiphar’s wife, leaves his cloak behind when her importunations become almost too difficult to resist, and many of the ba’alei mussar say that it would have been “chutzpadik” for him to have ripped out his cloak when trying to resist, even if it might have cost him his life. Personally, I think this idea might need some more clarification [ala R’ Shimon Shkop on Yosef in prison, as I discuss in my Vayieshev—Raising or Passing The Bar.] After all, if a person accidentally walks into a rather disreputable place—as happened to me recently—conventional contemporary Yeshivish thinking would mandate running as far from the place as fast as possible with no regard for what might be termed “derech eretz”, even if said “derech eretz” is the kind the Mishnah in Avos refers to as the type that become the “ol” upon the person who sloughed off an “ol Torah”. For the record: a] it was not a beis avoda zara and b] I made a somewhat more graceful exit than conventional Yeshivishism would mandate. Again, my point here is that the issue is more complicated than one might read into a hava amina of a ba’al musar.

One might also think that, due to his rather lofty position [even as a slave] in Potiphar’s household at the time that the attempted seductions were taking place, Yosef was bound by a protocol other than what might be considered simple “derech eretz” in our circles [or, again, the “ol derech eretz” that juxtaposes the “ol torah”]. The reason the “atzmos Yosef” are so bound up with the conflict between protocol and dreceh eretz is related to us in the Gemara in Sotah 13b, where Rav Yehudah askes and answers Why was Yosef called bones ("You will take my bones with you") in his lifetime? Because he did not stand up for his father's honor; specifically, when he heard his father referred to as “avdecha avinu” he was silent. Protocol—even if maintained in this case as a pretense for purposes l’shem shamayim, as we evidenced from the whole story of Yosef’s revealing himself as well as his own recognition “Elokim chashva le’tova” [Bereishis 50:20].

My general point? The lines between protocol and “derech eretz” are very blurry.

A more specific point? This may explain why I’ve been single for so long, but I am going to vehemently disagree with conventional wisdom that states that, to end a short-term dating “relationship”, one party or another must make a phone call to end said relationship. [Usually the chiyuv falls on the guy, but that’s a whole other inyan]. I [respectfully, or otherwise] disagree. Unless a] specific promises or statements to affirming such a commitment have been made or b] something indicating a relationship is actually budding—lets say, for instance, there have been two dates. I would venture to say that if nothing is going to happen afterward no further contact between anyone is necessary. I will assert three reasons of “protocol”, or even “dating ‘derech eretz’”, to support my point here: 1) If there were simply dates and no other promises or—er—“extracurricular activity”, neither party should feel obligated to the other for any reason. 2) As dating and relationships involve issues that aren’t rational, no one should owe anyone an explanation as to why something didn’t “work out”. It either happens or it doesn’t. 3) In the same vein, sometimes avoiding the awkwardness of that phone call makes it easier for both parties to move on. I, for one, am sure some women who did not want to continue dating me were relieved when I didn’t make THAT call after the first or second date.

I would go as far as to say that sometimes the extra “rules” may be just another thing keeping singles single, for those who care. The questions raised in these two parshiyot may indicate that this is precisely the point; the obvious answer would be that it depends what you consider important.

Friday, January 8, 2010


At a seder a number of years ago, when the discussion turned to Pharaoh bathing in the blood of Jewish babies, the more grandmotherly types at the table—ones who were American-born and raised—said “Oy; this sounds like the Holocaust.” My father responded: “That’s exactly the point of the haggada. This was the first Holocaust.”

To be sure, the Pharaonic policy toward the Israelites was what we would term eliminationist anti-semitic, at least at first glance: killing all the male children, preserving all the females [a classic outgrowth of enslavement and genocidal policy: the conquering population’s males use the subjugated females to further propagate the victorious nation and diminish the conquered nation], and of course, the “avoda befarech” and the use of Jews as building materials.

In a superficial sense, there are only two differences between the Pharaonic and Hitlerite genocides. The first is that Pharaoh seemed to be in less of hurry, even if, like Hitler, he considered himself at war with the Jews [“ki sikrena milchama”]; he was willing to use the Jews and keep half the population alive to further his own ends; contrast this with the Nazis diverting badly needed resources from the front in the last years of WWII to keep the killing machine operating.

The second regards the nature of the Jews that both genocidal regimes put to work for them. In this weeks parsha [5:14] that the “kapos” of the time refused to enforce the Pharaonic production quotas and were punished accordingly—and, because of their sacrifices, became the first Sanhedrin [see Bamidbar 11:25]. However, the Netziv, in his haggadah, mentions that there were Jews during the Pharaonic slavery who actually enjoyed actual positions of power throughout [akin to what Alan Dershowitz terms “house Jews”], and were actually redeemed with the “zeroa netuya”—they didn’t want to leave. [This, aside from the myriads of Jews who perished during the 3 days of the plague of darkness.] There were not likely any Nazi house Jews.

In any case, it often comes up that whenever genocides are committed around the world, it is the Jews’ responsibility to proclaim “Never Again” regarding those affected groups. The first time I saw this was in 1991 during the Shiite and Kurd uprisings against Saddam Hussein in Iraq following the first Gulf War, in the New York Times Op-Ed pages [to the best of my recollection, it was Abe Rosenthal and Flora Lewis doing the exhorting]. I don’t remember any such other exhortation in the other genocides or attempted genocides that followed [Rwanda, Bosnia, Kosovo, Darfur] towards us, but I’m certain that there was plenty of “mussar” regarding our “mitzvah” to speak out. [Most likely, it came from other Jews. As one wag put it, if the Jews didn’t care about the Palestinians, no one else would.]

To be sure, our attitudes towards genocides, genocidaires and their regimes should not necessarily echo our esteemed State Department’s policy toward them, which, as documented in Samantha Power’s excellent “A Problem From Hell”, is always neutrality and inaction. [I’m aware that there are unconfirmed rumors that she referred to Israeli actions in Gaza as “genocidal”; after having read the book, however, I doubt it. There is no reference—even tangential—to anything of the sort in the book, Arab or "Palestinian", and nothing vis-à-vis the Palestinians would fit her thesis. I recommend the book highly.] However, I am inclined to be extremely chauvinistic in the use of “Never Again” as a slogan for anyone but us.

If we learn anything from our Holocaust, it is two things:

One, we NEED [and, thank G-d now, we have] our national polity, state, and army, and most of [if not all] the political tools to fight for, if not completely insure, our survival as a people and a nation. Any other nation/ethnicity in danger should try to emulate us [except, of course, for the Palestinians, who have tried to do so in a completely illegitimate manner, and will not succeed--if we don’t let them].

Two, it is emphatically NOT our responsibility to agitate for these unfortunate ethnicities’ self-determination, particularly where they are inimical to our survival. [This is an issue that I discussed last year: see my Miketz/Chanuka: Ethnic Tension. This is one reason why I believe it was legitimate for the Israelis not to take sides against the Serbs during the Balkan tensions; of the parties, they were the least anti-semitic. The Bosnians and Croatians contributed mightily to the SS during WWII, and independent Croatia’s first president, Franjo Tudjman, was a well-known Holocaust denier.]

In conclusion, even regarding how we see our own history, we may actually do ourselves a disservice to a point by focusing on our enemies’ success in destroying us. The actual experience of slavery takes up 5 of the 187 chapters of the Torah [and one parsha of 54]; G-d already declares in 6:1 that the geula has essentially begun. Even Amalek’s genocidal intent and attacks were notably unsuccessful.

It is true that it is not always the case that “They tried to kill us. We won. Let’s eat”. We didn’t always win. Nowadays, however, we have the wherewithal to win and survive. That should be our focus. On us--before anyone else.