Friday, June 29, 2018

Balak—Mission Creep

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What would that mean in practical terms?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

If nothing else, it prevents mission creep.

Friday, June 15, 2018

Korach—In Neutral

R’ Ysoscher Katz writes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In the first case, vis a vis rectitude: 

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

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

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

In the second case, vis a vis great personalities:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, June 8, 2018

Shlach—Bricks in the Wall

This had to be about the President. 

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

This had to be about The Wall.

It wasn’t.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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