Thursday, May 31, 2007

Boycott English Universities!

I must say that I am rather shocked that they did it! The headlines say:

U.K. union backs calls for boycott of Israel academe

Haaretz's have been talking obsessively about this. Since Haaretz is a leading leftist newspaper who routinely oppose "Occupation" they are the most shocked when others refuse to see them as liberals, prefering to portray even the Israeli intelligensia as a bunch of bigoted rascists! This is what they said:

"In the face of boycott proposals by Britain's National Union of Journalists, by a group of British doctors and a group of architects, and in the wake of the Anglican Church's decision to divest from companies cooperating with Israel, even the Israeli left - which opposes the occupation and has been working against it for years - has no choice but to fight back.

... Academic freedom means first of all an open exchange of opinions, without coercion, and not shutting people's mouths. Moreover, the British boycott is directed at Israel's academic institutions that in any case are a bastion of opposition to the occupation. On the 40th anniversary of the Six-Day War, British academia should look realistically at peace efforts in the Middle East: Over the past decade, Israel has elected governments that have expressed the desire of a majority of Israelis for a bilateral solution of two states for two peoples and a withdrawal from most of the settlements. The withdrawal from Gaza was to have been the first stage. The victory of Hamas, which refuses to recognize Israel, cut off the process.

The anti-Zionist winds blowing in Europe, mainly in academia and in Britain, strengthen the position that the very birth of the Jewish state was a mistake. The European hard left regards the Law of Return as the root of all evil; however, without acknowledging the Jewish character of the State of Israel, there is not even a basis for dialogue. British academia is in fact demanding that Israel democratically cease to exist as a Zionist entity, and that it be swallowed up in the non-democratic region in order to pander to the latest trend"

I am now losing count of haw many organisations in the UK are boycotting Israel. From the Church to the Architect's union, everyone has nothing but criticism.

Many of my students here in Israel are returning to the U.K. next year for University. In the light of today's decision, how can they attend such anti-Israel institutins. I call for all Jewish UK students to boycott British Universities until the boycott is rescinded. Come to Bar Ilan, Hebrew U. Michlala Leminhal, Technion, Tel aviv U, Ben Gurion U. etc. etc. We have great Universities in ISrael. Take the cue from Nobel Prize Winner Steven Weinberg. Don't attend British Universities!

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Megillat Ruth and Sefer Shoftim

Chag HaShavuot
Megillat Ruth and the Shoftim Period

The reading of the Book of Ruth is one of the beautiful customs of Chag Hashavuot. It is a picturesque and emotive story, and each year we are swept up, yet again, in the familiar yet exciting drama. We tensely follow the destitute Naomi and Ruth as they walk through along the roads of Moav, through the harsh landscape deeply concerned for their fate. We watch excitedly as Ruth picks the gleanings from the field, hoping that someone will ensure that she brings home enough food at the day's end. We share the anticipation as we wonder whether Ruth will indeed marry Boaz and be able to set up a happy Jewish family, bringing the tragedy of the past to a brighter future, and indeed this is a story with a happy end.

However, I am not sure whether we realise quite how unusual and revolutionary the book of Ruth is. I think that if we examine this story in the light of its historical backdrop – the period of the Shoftim – and the book that parallels it – Sefer Shoftim – we shall understand how the message of Megillat Ruth is surprising and novel.

Megillat Ruth begins with the phrase: "And it came to pass, in the days of the Judges." Chazal suggest[1] that the both the Book of Judges AND the Book of Ruth were authored by the same individual – the prophet Shmuel. Two books describe the same period. And yet, I would suggest that the books differ radically.


The period of the Judges lasted for over three hundred years. This period was a very difficult one for the young Israelite nation. Throughout these years the country was repeatedly overrun by alien oppressors, neighbouring states looking to expand their borders and to take advantage of the weakness of the Israelite nation. But these were not bad times simply from a military or national perspective. We can delineate at least four areas in which the Shoftim period was a disaster.

1.The fragile national security situation
As we have mentioned, the book of Judges talks about an entire collection of adversaries: Assyria, Moab, the Canaanite king Yavin, Midyan, Amalek, Ammon, the Philistines. The enemy intruders destroy the crops and commerce of the country, oppress and tax, and generally squeeze the Israelites to a situation in which normal life was unbearable. This phenomena occurs nationally throughout the country; there is no region which does not suffer, at one time or another from the national weakness. When one enemy subsides, another arises.

2. The nature of the Judge-leader
Despite the existence of certain Judge-leaders, the primary characteristic of the time is the absence of a coherent NATIONAL leadership structure.

The "Judges" as they are known, were ad-hoc leaders, individuals who rose to greatness by responding to the need of the moment. Invariably, the leader for any particular crisis situation emerged from the tribe which found itself at the epicentre of the problem or crisis. All of the "judges" are connected to military success. They always fight in the name of the God of Israel. But they are very much the transient heroes of the moment. In the same way that they rise to leadership and fame out of nothing, they fade rapidly into oblivion as a leading force in their tribe, or the nation as a whole. After their passing, they leave no successor and no continued leadership structure.

It is not too difficult to realise that the problems of national security would not have been nearly as acute had there been a leader with a national agenda and vision. A national leader can have a standing army that will act as deterrent to potential invaders. A figurehead gives the nation a focus, an identity. Central government can plan, can coordinate the resources and actions of a state on a macro level. Maybe a useful way to demonstrate the difference between the power of a Judge and a national leader is to note that in the wars that the Judges fought, the army never exceeded 40,000 fighting men. In contrast, King Saul, the first national leader manages to summon 330,000 soldiers in his first campaign (I Samuel 11:8.)

3. Low Spiritual Level
This period is characterised by a powerful attraction to foreign deities. The most popular gods would have been the Ba'al and the Ashtoret, the gods of Canaan, but others were served as well. In the Tanach, it is this turning away from the God of Israel, their "straying" after pagan culture, which angers God leading Him to remind them of His presence by subjecting them to oppression and national failure.

4. Inter-tribal friction
The nation does not see itself as a single cohesive unit in the period of the Judges. Frequently, tribes of Israel would simply fail to come to the assistance of their beleaguered brethren. Sometimes there are outbursts of inter-tribal violence, or civil-war

The problems of this era, as we can see, were enormous, complex, and not easily solved.


On the one hand, Sefer Shoftim blames the ills of the era upon the sin of Avoda Zara – Idolatry. It describes a recurring cycle of events, as follows:

1. Israel sin, serving other gods, local deities like Ba'al and Ashtarot.
2. God delivers them to their enemies.
3. They cry out (moan -v.18) to God
4. He appoints a leader to save them and keep their allegiance to God.
5. The leader dies and they return to stage 1.

In other words, God punishes the people for abandoning His service. The lack of national security is a direct outgrowth of the lack of religious commitment of the nation.

But, on the other hand, Sefer Shoftim is also aware of another cause:

"In those days there was no king in Israel and every man did as he pleased." (Judges 17:6, 18:1, 19:1, 21:25.)

In other words, there is a political cause and also a religious explanation for the abysmal state of the nation. Looking at Sefer Shoftim, one realizes that the solution lies in transforming both of these areas.


Megillat Ruth describes the same reality but from a very different vantage point. Chazal suggest that Elimelech left the country due to the hardships faced during this period[2]. People abandon a country in times of famine and violence. Apparently this family had the means to live abroad and to survive there deciding to become refugees rather than face the frequent invasions and foreign occupation in Eretz Yisrael.

Megilat Ruth is the civilian side of the conflict, in which families become refugees, people are unwilling to assist their families because they are frightened for their own future. It is a time when Jewish life is far from certain or secure. Rather than taking the national vantage point, a grand sweeping vision of things, Megillat Ruth tells a personal story, a story of a single family that has to survive the torment that is swirling around them.

As we know, the move abroad did the family no good. Elimelech and his sons all die. And now Naomi is left alone and penniless. (Chazal once again attribute this to their leaving Eretz Yisrael)

But how is the problem solved? Through kindness and charity!
· Ruth's kindness to Naomi (2:1).
· Boaz's consideration of Ruth (2:19,21).
· Ruth's devotion to Boaz (3:10).
· Boaz's commitment to Elimelech (4:14, 9).
· Ruth's fulfillment of her commitment to her dead husband (4:10).

The way in which one reaches redemption in the story of Ruth is through Chessed, living up to life's responsibilities, caring for those around us, thinking beyond ourselves.

It is quite remarkable that Shmuel wrote two books about the period. In the first, he suggests that the nation will be saved through a religious transformation and through an organized central government. In this regard Shmuel acts as a true statesman, attempting to guide the course of national events.

But in his second book, he suggests a radically different direction, suggesting that through small but heroic acts of kindness, one may change a world, one may induce redemption. Moreover, one may lead the way to the birth of King David himself! Just through simple but heartfelt acts of Kindness and responsibility! Public policy is the arena of the nation, and yet, here we see actions on the personal and familial scale.

In this book, the verb "GA'AL" - meaning "Redemption" – appears 24 times! That is quite a high frequency for a short book. Ruth is a book of Redemption, and Redemption is the small kindnesses that people perform for one another.


Shavuot is strongly centred upon the Bein Adam Lamakom dimension of things. After all, it is on this "zman matan torateinu" that we celebrate the eternal covenant enacted at Mt. Sinai. At that historic moment in time we agreed to be a "Kingdom of priests and a holy nation" and God responded with revelation and Torah. When Chazal describe the Maamad Har Sinai (the assembly and revelation at Sinai) as a wedding, they encapsulate the essence of things. It is not the particular Torah that we received on this day that is our focus. Rather, on this day we mark the fact that we as a nation became eternally tied to the Almighty by means of Torah.

And so, our Torah reading discusses the account of the Revelation at Sinai. The Haftara discusses the Revelation of Yechezkel in which the prophet Yechezkel was given a revelation of God's "Merkava" witnessing the angels, fire and sounds that surround God's presence. This day then, is about God's revelation.

Against this backdrop, Megillat Ruth comes as something of a surprise. Ruth is not a story of revelation. It is a very human story with deep human yearnings, fear, insecurities, and kindness, consideration and responsibility. It is a Bein Adam Lechavero story. Once again; where is the thunder and lightening and angels and fear? How does Ruth fit into the landscape of Shavuot[3]?

And hence, might we suggest a very radical message for Megillat Ruth? That Judaism does not begin with impressive spectacles of Revelation, but in the small, sensitive acts of kindness that we can all do for each other.

That is how we can bring God into our society; that is how we bring redemption!

Chag Sameach!


[1] Bava Batra 14b – "שמואל כתב ספרו ושופטים ורות"

[2] רש"י רות פרק אRashi on Ruth 1:2 based upon Baba Batra 91b.
וילך איש - עשיר גדול היה ופרנס הדור ויצא מארץ ישראל לחוצה לארץ מפני צרות העין שהיתה עינו צרה בעניי' הבאים לדוחקו לכך נענש:
Chazal talk about him as a wealthy man in his early period in Yehuda. Maybe we can surmise this by the fact that people immediately recognize Naomi (1:19) but are shocked by her withered appearance. Moreover, it is clear that Elimelech left certain properties (4:3) that needed "Redemption" and hence we can suggest that he was a man of at least moderate wealth.

[3] It could be that Megillat Ruth is the MOST APPRPRIATE dimension of Shavuot! After all the Torah never specifies that Matan Torah happened on 6th Sivan. But it is EXPLICIT in Vayikra ch.23 that Shavuot is a time for caring for the poor. There is states:

"And when you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap all the way to the edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest; you shall leave them for the poor and the stranger: I am the Lord your God" (23:22)

If there is ONE THING that we know about Chag Hashavuot, it is this description. When the Torah directs our attention to the Shavuot, it is focussed upon the harvest. And in thinking about the harvest, the Torah wishes to ensure that we are fully aware of the laws that apply at harvest time, laws that have the poor and disadvantaged at the forefront of their attention.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Parshat Bamidbar: Joy and Fear.

Our parsha describes the encampment of B’nei Yisrael in the wilderness. Not a detail goes by unaccounted for: the number of fighting men and the layout of the camp, tribe by tribe; the Levites, their roles and encampment. By the end of our parsha we have received a detailed blueprint of the plans for the Israelite settlement in the desert.

At the centre, of course, stands the jewel in the crown - The tent of meeting, the Mishkan - home to the holy ark , where God talks to Moshe. A focal point of holiness, spirituality and Torah.

When the Torah instructs us as to the central positioning of the Mishkan, it uses a rather unusual and enigmatic phrase [2:2];

“ The Israelites shall encamp, each man by his tribal flag, by their ancestral insignia, they shall encamp; opposite, around (mi’neged saviv) the mishkan”

The relationship between the camp and the tabernacle is described by two Hebrew words: mi’neged - usually translated as opposite or opposed to, and saviv - which generally translates as surrounding, encircling.

On closer examination we realise that these two phrases indicate dramatically different, contrasting, orientations vis a vis the Mishkan.

The word mi’neged; opposite, indicates a pulling away, a clash, a repulsion. Being mi’neged indicates opposition, friction, tension. A distancing force.

The word Saviv, however, means; surrounding, encircling, gathering round. If we still remember our High School Physics and the laws of motion, we will remember that in a circular motion the pull is always to the centre. Saviv means an inwards magnetic pull, a centripetal force which attracts one to the centre of the circle.

If we apply this to the Mishkan, at the centre of the circle we might say that saviv tells us one story and mineged tells a us another. Mineged - that for some inexplicable reason, the Jewish nation might feel a desire to distance themselves from their spiritual nexus. They stand opposite, keeping their distance; at variance with the M
Mishkan. On the other hand, the word saviv describes a more positive orientation. This word indicates an attraction, a desire for closeness towards the Mishkan which draws Am Yisrael inwards to the epicentre of spiritual life, to Torah and to God.

But why this dual relationship? How do we reconcile these opposing phrases? Why should we feel distanced from our holy Mishkan? and how should we decide between the two options ... is our relationship to the Mishkan one of attraction or one of repulsion?

Maybe we might suggest that this description is indeed representative of the dialectical reality that animates us as individuals and indeed, as a nation too. What is true about religion in general is described by the Torah when it tells us about the Mishkan.

On the one hand we have a strong desire to draw near to God and religion. We feel attracted to it and it gives us meaning. We desire to envelope and totally immerse ourselves in the holiness of God and in the way of life that He has given to us. We want to be better Jews, to keep Shabbat more punctiliously, to dive into our Judaism head first with all the enthusiasm that we can muster.

And yet, despite this positive pull and in direct contrast to it, there are times when we feel a need to escape, to break “the yoke of the kingdom of heaven”. There are times when Judaism seems too much, too restrictive. We need our space, our freedom.

There are times that Judaism enchants and attracts us, when it seems like the potion of life. That is the saviv relationship drawing us inwards. At other times when we experience a need to flee from religion; when Judaism feels like a crushing load of 613 mitzvot controlling our every action, our every move. A neged relationship.

This dialectic goes back to the very origin of our religion. We are about to celebrate Shavuot. At Mount Sinai, the people demanded that God Himself speak to them rather than Moses. They desired the closeness to God that religion may offer. God even commanded that a restrictive fence be built to prevent the surging masses from breaking through to reach God, invading the mountain in their spiritual fervour. And yet, the Torah also records how the people reacted with fear to the intensity of the Divine presence by fleeing, running away from the intensity . “let not God speak to us lest we die”.

Apparently this oscillating dialectic of attraction and repulsion, religious enthusiasm and hesitancy, are part and parcel of the existential religious experience of every Jew.

Our hope as we approach the Chag of Matan Torah is that our enthusiasm may prevail and that we can truly experience the words of the Torah, “vesamachta lifnei Hashem Elokecha” ... “and you shall rejoice before Hashem your God”

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Noah's Ark and Greenpeace

This is quite an amusing publicity stunt.
Mount Ararat, Turkey:
Horses carry wood for the construction of a new Noah's ark, planned by Greenpeace as a means of warning world leaders and pushing them to act to counter global warming.
(Funny what it takes for people to turn to the Bible!)

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Make Yom Yerushalayim a National Holiday!

We didn't really need an offical poll to tell us that Yom Yerushalayim goes by unmarked by the majority of Israelis. Ynet published this poll:

Some 65 percent of Israeli Jews do not celebrate Jerusalem Day, which marks the city’s reunification 40 years ago, while 35 percent celebrate the event, a poll conducted by Ynet and the Gesher organization revealed.
The poll was carried out among 500 respondents who constitute a representative sample of the adult Jewish Hebrew-speaking population in Israel.
According to the poll, most religious Zionists (67 percent) celebrate Jerusalem Day, compared to only 23 percent of non-religious Israelis, 24 percent of haredim and 63 percent of observant Jews.

Yes ... it is only the masorti (sephardi traditional) community and the dati-leumi (kippas seruga) community who mark this day. The crowd in the streets of Jerusalem bears this out. The Charedim have ambivalent attitudes to creating new festive days, and also to acts performed by the secular Medinat Yisrael. The secular public... certainly the younger generation, are very distant from Jewish heritage and feel alienated from the reality of Jerusalem. How many times have I heard of chilonim's fear, yes fear (!) of Jerusalem, perceiving it as being filled with Arabs and Haredim, a place in which they are likely to be stoned. The intifada didn't help in that regard. For the years 2000-2005, most secular schools didn't even send their students on class trips to Jerusalem!

In the lead-up to this 40th year celebration of Yom Yerushalyim, watching TV and reading the papers. We have the usual bandwagon of left-wingers who sound so down on themselves as they bemoan Jerusalem, as a place in which arabs are oppressed, or simply a backwards provincial place, or a crucible of extremism, and so forth. The TV certainly doesn't sound like it is gearing up for a party!

Now, I am all for open discussion, self-criticism and free debate. But there is also a time simply for celebration! (Why do we Jews have such difficulty just celebrating. Do we always have to examine and pick everthing apart?) The simple fact is this: Jews yearned to return to Jeruslaem for 1900 years. Today, 40 years ago, the kotel and the Old city (never mind Hevron and Ma'arat Hamachpela, Shilo, Kever Rachel in Bethlehem, Bet El) all came under Jewish sovereignty. Is that not a reason to be happy? Yes I know the politics and demographics of Jerusalem are complicated! But everything is complicated. There is a time to celebrate and a time to solve problems! Today, we should be happy!

40 years ago, the nation understood that the return to the Kotel was cause for rejoicing. Today, certain sectors fail to see this. Many people are simply disconnected from Jerusalem!

And there are political ramifications too. It would appear that regarding the Kotel there is wide consensus. (This week we heard that 96% of the Jewish Israeli public will not relinquish the kotel even for a Peace deal... see the entire poll - it is very interesting.) However, beyond the kotel, if we do not wish to see Har Habayit given to a future Palestinian State, if we wish to see Jerusalem as united in the future, then we must work (and fight the forces of the extreme Left) to boost the connection of ALL Israelis with Yerushalayim.

The answer is education. Wars can be won by armies, but the real battle is for the MEMORY of historical events. We need to help people see why Jerusalem is special and what it represents to the Jews and to the world! What is the best way to send a message that this is a historic day of incredible Jewish and Zionistic significance? - Make Yom Yerushalayim a public holiday. Then kids will have to learn about it in school. Then it will be in everyone's calendar. Then the collective memory will be forced to absorb this day as a celebration. And when the entire country gets a day off, the mood is good, and Jerusalem Day automatically becomes a happy day. The calendar is a very powerful thing. It indicates what is important. A public holiday for Jerusalem Day would send a message , loud and clear, that a Jewish Jerusalem is a momentous thing.

Make Yom Yerushalayim a Public Holiday and the pieces will fall into place! You'll see.

Why Stay in England?

Latest reports say that Mars Twix and Snickers in the UK will all be non-Kosher pretty soon.

What with:
.. and now, no more Mars Bars?!!!! I have finally come to the conclusion that there is absolutely no reason for staying in England. All Jews should definitely make Aliya now!

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Post-Shabbat thoughts on Shemitta

The Torah warns of the hardships – practical and psychological – in observing the practices of Shemitta.

In Parshat Behar, we read of the very real worries that people will suffer from a lack of food:

"And should you ask: What are we going to eat in the Seventh year if we may neither sow nor gather in our crops?" (25:20)

The answer is predicated upon a sense of trust in God:

"I will ordain my blessing for you in the sixth year so that it shall yield a crop sufficient for three years. When you sow in the eighth year, you will still be eating old grain of that crop (of the sixth year)…" (25:21-2)

Likewise, regarding loans, the Torah knows that people will be nervous about lending without the prospect of the loan being repaid:

"Beware lest you harbour the base thought, ' The Seventh Year, the year of remission, is approaching,' so that you are mean to your needy kinsman and give him nothing. He will cry out to God against you, and you shall commit a sin. Give to him readily and have no regrets when you do so for in return, the Lord your God will bless you in all your efforts …" (Devarim 15:9-10)

However despite these divine promises, in the test of history Shemitta always seemed too difficult to observe. Ezra in Sefer Divrei Hayamim records that Shemitta was not observed during the first Temple period (See II Chronicles 36:19-21).

Similarly, At the end of the second Temple period, the great sage Hillel, saw that in the lead-up to Shemitta people were refusing to lend money for fear that the loan would be cancelled. He used a rule that if the loan contract had been given to the court for collection, the loan would not be cancelled. Hillel instituted the "Prozbul," a document which transfers authority for the loan to the courts. Now, the Shemitta year would not annul the loan because the court would reinstate it. Effectively Hillel circumvented the Torah law of loan annulment. Why did he do this? Hillel was faced with a dilemma. On the one hand, the loans were to be annulled. But on the other, this was a measure to protect the poor. Now, the very law that was to protect them was hurting the poor! Nobody would lend them money in the lead-up to the Shemitta. With a heavy heart, Hillel instituted the Pruzbul, ensuring the welfare of the poor but effectively eliminating one of the powerful tools which would activate the communal conscience of Shemitta.

[In contrast, it would appear that the AGRICULTURAL Shemitta was observed during Bayit Sheni despite huge hardship! There is a Midrash which preserves an anti-semitic Roman play. There a camel complains that he is hungry because the Jews ate all his straw and thorns during Shemmitta! In other words, to their credit, the Jews resorted to eating thistles and other wild fruits and foods in order to sustain themselves.[1]]

In our century when the pre-State Yishuv was in its early years, the religious farmers were faced with a tremendous dilemma. They were fighting for every inch of land and barely able to support their families. What should they do about Shemitta? Should they refrain from agriculture during Shemitta, thus effectively abandoning their Kibbutzim and settlements. This would be a major setback for the Zionist cause and was unthinkable. Or should they disregard Shemitta? That too was out of the question. Rav Kook followed Hillel's lead and developed a Halakhic solution that would allow the farmers to continue working the land but circumvent the ban on agricultural labour. (The mechanism here was to sell the land to a gentile for a year - sort of like selling Chametz on Pesach - and Jews are permitted to work the land of a gentile during Shemitta.)

So what has become of the noble vision that Shemitta represents today? Unfortunately, today the utopian image of Shemitta - the equality, the spirituality, the counterbalance to extreme materialism - is nothing but a mirage. Rav Aharon Lichtenstein has spoken of "The tragedy of Shemitta." Today Shemitta has retained certain technical laws but has totally lost its spiritual-social vision.

This Shabbat I asked myself, is it really possible to keep Shemitta in today's world, or in any era? We see that historically we found this enormously difficult. Is it possible to release all loans, and to abandon all agriculture for a year?

How will cities survive with millions of inhabitants. They cannot simply drive to the countryside and pick a few tomatoes for lunch each day!

How does an economy with a stock-market, with bonds, with mortgages with international markets and a global competitive economy, with tight market agricultural allocations - how could we keep shemitta and not rely on these heterim even if we so wished?

Was God's intention to keep our economy on a low-ebb? Was the purpose that the entire country would taste the taste of poverty every seven-year cycle? I don't know, the more I think about Shemitta I find it so difficult to fathom how God envisaged it working?

Maybe some people think that way about Shabbat! How can you just stop for a day?! Is it possible that if we DID do Shemitta in the real sense, we would manage just like we do on shabbat? If we genuinely stopped for a year, and had savings plans (during the six years) that could tide us over and maybe even food stores of grain etc. could it work?

Is Shemitta feasible? I imagine God didn't give us an impossible Mitzva, but historically it has proven formidable, and it looks so impossible!

Comments anyone?

[1] ויקרא רבה פרשה א ד"ה א ויקרא אל
(תהלים קג) גבורי כח עושי דברו במה הכתוב מדבר א"ר יצחק בשומרי שביעית הכתוב מדבר
Here the Midrash calls those who observe Shemitta, "Giborim" because it demanded such fortitude.