Sunday, January 27, 2008

The Fate of the Ten Commandments

Sometimes in Western Societies, people like to think that morality is somehwat transcribed by the Ten Commandments. There is an impression that in broad terms civilised cultures accord with this classic of the Judeo-Christian tradition. (I have serious issues with that phrase, but for this argument, it works.)

So this week, as we read the Ten Commandments, I began to wonder which of the Ten Commandments is the least kept in contemporary society... and I am thinking in the broadest of senses.

So let us begin from the top. 1. Belief in God - At some level we could claim that society still believes in a God. Yes there is widespread atheism and skepticism, and yet "In God we trust" - polls during the '90s and '00s suggest that over 90% of Americans believe in God. So do a widespread majority of Israelis.

As for idolatry in the classic sense, it is all but absent in Western Society.
The topic of Blasphemy may have been raised with the Salman Rushdie scandal and also those Islamic cartoons in the Van Gogh incident. There is definitely a tension between free speech or artistic expression on the one hand, and religious views on the other. And yet good civilised society does attempt to be respectful to religion.

The Sabbath? well - Western society has embraced the notion of a weekend and it is encoded in many labour laws.

Parental Respect we shall return to.

Society subscribes to Thou shall not Kill , Steal, bear False Witness, in a broad sense.

And so now we come to the problem ones! I think that contemporary society has given 3 of the Ten Commandments a really raw deal. [Let me add that it is modern society in particular that has developed these problems. There were other problems 100 years ago, but these 3 were upkept in general society then.]

First, adultery. On the books we still accept fidelity in marriage. However, we all know that marriage has seriously been hit over the past fifty years. A student leader was recently telling me that amongst university and post-college age students it is a rarity to find a person who has not cheated on their boy/girlfriend. I am not talking about "hooking up" and random sexual partnerships but rather any sense of fidelity within a committed relationship. apparently it barely exists. Homosexuality is a legitimate life choice and a source of pride. Any Hollywood movie will assume that adultery is absolutely justified if one person is in a loveless marriage. All this amounts to a veritable obliteration of any sense of crime in association with adultery. In this dimension we have a contemporary ethic that is incredibly at varience with Torah values.

Maybe along with the breakdown of family in terms of the marital unit comes the lack of any sense of "honour your father and mother." Respect for, not to speak of obedience to parents has been seriously corroded over the past fifty years. Many factors are to be taken into account, way beyond my ability in this post. But no one can doubt that "honour" in the traditional sense, is almost lost in a modern concept. (Many have documented that contemporary parents seek to be their childrens' friends rather than their parents, moral guides or disciplinarians. It is not simply children who don't have "Respect" for parents. Parents do not anticipate that the parent-child relationship be a hierarchical relationship. They want it to be horizontal, casual, intimate - an association of equals, of friends.)

But one virtue that seems to be an unbelievable casualty of contemporary capitalistic consumer culture is the notion of "Lo Tachmod" - Thou Shalt Not Covet - the notion of envy, and desiring things that belong to others. In the '80s Gordon Gecko proclaimed that "Greed is Good" and we haven't looked back. We have an insatiable consumer appetite fueled by slick images and marketing strategies that help us to fell unsatisfied with our lives if they are without this product or that "look." We are victims of an enormous commercial machine that charges ferociously in order to ensure that we are always unsatisfied with what we own and that we covet something else. Our contemporary mood is the opposite of איזהו עשיר? השמח בחלקו. I fear that this value of not seeking the things that we do not own is almost lost to our society. "He who dares, wins" in todays world, and one is supposed to have drive, ambition in todays world. I am not saying that in today's world we condone a person who envies the next person. But yet, the underlying atmosphere runs, in a most deep manner, in a counter direction to the ethic of Torah. This problem pervades many "frum" communities too, and we should be watchful about rampant materialism as it is very much in contradiction to the spirit of Torah.

Feel free to add your comments.

Friday, January 25, 2008

שבת מנוחה

There is a song that Israeli kids sing on Friday's in Gan (and bigger kids in the army):

היום יום ששי
מחר שבת
שבת מנוחה

Now in the religious school system, they sing the words שבת קודש instead of שבת מנוחה. I never understood why. I imagine that the aim is in some manner to say that Shabbat is not simply a day to rest, unwind, relax but rather an active spiritual day in which we connect with God, and Torah etc.

But what's wrong with resting - just resting - sleeping, reading the newspaper (God forbid!), hanging with the wife 'n kids on Shabbat? After all, the famous Shabbat Zemer "Yom Zeh Leyisrael" has the chorus line of "Shabbat Menucha"! We use the phrase Shabbat Menucha in a Shabbat liturgy. And let's not forget... God Himself rested on Shabbat!

Soemtimes Shabbat is a crazy hectic day with lots of shul (too much sometimes ... dare I blaspheme?) and huge amount sof entertaining guests. It then is neither Shabbat Kodesh nor Shabbat Menucha.

And to create a spiritual "Shabbat Kodesh" is a challeneg in itself.

This has been a crazy week. This week, I, for one , am looking forward to a good 12 hour sleep tonight.
שבת מנוחה

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

What's Going To Be With Gaza?

You have to hand it to the Palestinians. Israel had erected a border fence of metal sheeting and sunk the metal deep into the ground to prevent subterrainean smuggling tunnels. The Palestinians have apparently spent many months with oxy-acetylene torches which, it would seem, somehow eat through the fabric of the border wall. and so when they detonated 17 explosive devices this morning, the entire wall came crashing down and 200,000 Gazans crossed the border. Quite impressive!

Sort of reminds me of the way Egypt detroyed the Bar Lev Line in 1973. The Bar Lev line was a defense ramp made of sand and earth. The egyptians got through by hosing it down with high pressure water hoses.

But, of course, this just raises more questions. I have always felt that if they really want to overcome an obstacle, the Palestinians can find simple ways to exploit our national infrastructure. What will be next? Hamas is only 20 years old. They continue to demonstrate what one may achieve with determination, belief and ingenuity. But they are most certainly the enemy. Why? Because they call for Israe's destruction!

What does this say regarding any future border, or any accomodation with the Palestinians? With Kassams flying past and with the Palestinians simply willing to obliterate the border wall, our "siege" on Gaza certainly doesn't work. Of course military action in Gaza may provide short-term relief but is hardly a long-term solution. Is there any long-term solution for Hamas who wish to see Israel wiped off the face of the map of the Middle-East?

Thursday, January 10, 2008


Bush is here and America is all over the news (and all over Jerusalem.) In Bush's honour we invite all American citizens to make Aliya!

Actually, due to all the parking restrictions and anticipated road closures during Bush's visit, when I had to drive to Rechavia today at midday, it was like driving at 2:00 a.m. No traffic. Thanks Bush!

On the radio this evening, they told a great episode that happened at the dinner that Ehud Olmert held at his residence. apparently, Bush went around the table asking every minister where his/her parents were born. He was amazed that not a single govt. minister's parents were born in Eretz Yisrael! Well - welcome to the miracle of Kibbutz Galuyot! (ingathering of the Exiles.)

Co-Ed or not Co-Ed

Apparently, Rav Aviner has come out with some exceptionally stringent (link) rules for strict separation between the sexes amongst the faculties of schools in National-Religious schools system.

Thankfully, Rav Yigal Ariel (link) has come out with a response which is so imbued with simple common sense, it is a pleasure to read. (And an unfortunate comment on the state of the times when we have to praise simple moderate common sense!)

He complains that Rav Aviner has simply adopted a Haredi standard. Moreover he suggests that amongst the faculties of schools in the Dati-Leumi camp, problems of flirting and harassment are basically non-existent.

But I loved this paragraph:

בציבור החרדי השתרשה נורמה חדשה לפיה קובעים כללים חדשים, מחוץ להלכה, ומטילים אותם באופן גורף על כל הציבור. בכל הדורות נזקק האדם הדתי לרבנים כדי ללמוד את ההלכה ולהכריע בשאלות מסופקות, אבל בתחום האפור סמכו הכל על כך שיש לו ראש ישר, והוא בדרכיו שלו יתאים את המציאות בכל מקום לרוח ההלכה.
"In the Haredi community, a norm has taken root of new rules and standards, beyond the lines of "Halakha" and these rules are imposed on the entire community. Throughout the generations, religious people had Rabbis with whom they would consult in questionable circumstances, however in certain grey areas, they relied upon the fact that people had common sense and that straight thinking would apply the given situation to the spirit of Halakha."

I remember talking to Rav Lichtenstein some years ago about co-ed situations (in connection to Bnei Akiva.) He told me a story about his mother z"l . She frequently visited a certain European city and stayed with a particular family with whom she was friendly. However one Shabbat, there was a conference of the Moetzet Gedolei HaTorah in the city and many of the European Torah leaders were hosted by families. When she asked to stay at her friends, they informed here that they were hosting a certain Hassidish Rebbe and that he didn't have women present at the Shabbat table. If this bothered her, they suggested that she might prefer to stay elsewhere. And so, she stayed with a different family, a home where the Rogatchover was eating. He did have women at the Shabbat table, and that was fine.

Rav Lichtenstein was telling me that there have always been differing traditions in this context and we should not imagine that one approach or another is more "correct."

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

'67 Borders?

Here is an interesting post (link) from Treppenwitz. I don't agree with it all. However, here is the bit I liked:

When most people today say "the '67 borders" in relation to territorial compromise, they are talking about the borders that existed on June 5th, 1967... which were, in fact, the 1949 Armistice lines.... Israel's de facto borders at the end of the War of Independence.

But since a return to the 1949 borders - even a modified version - would be tantamount to admitting that every war fought since (and every Israeli killed in 60 years of Arab aggression) was for naught, you will almost never hear that phrase used in the news.

...It's really no surprise that the left-leaning media and the Olmert government are very careful to only talk about returning to "the '67 borders". How else can one consider giving a do-over on not one, but three major wars (and six decades of Arab intransigence)... in return for nothing more than vague promises to recognize our right to exist. Sort of.

Funny how just changing the terms with which a topic is discussed can change one's entire perception. Basically, when the product you are selling stinks, the best strategy is to make sure it is packaged nicely. And let's face it... calling for a return to relatively modern borders sounds a heck of a lot nicer than a retreat to indefensible borders that existed at the end of our War of Independence! Yet, without saying as much, it is the latter that everyone seems to be talking about today.

Sunday, January 06, 2008

Scholarly or Hospitable?

I was learning Pirkei Avot with my son yesterday. Studying these two Mishnayot I was struck between the contrasting approaches that they represent.

We are talking about a "pair" of contemporaneous Talmidei Chachamim who together lead their generation: Yosi ben Yoezer of Tzeredah and Yosi ben Yochanan of Jerusalem. Here are their mottos :-

יוסי בן יועזר איש צרדה ויוסי בן יוחנן איש ירושלים קבלו מהם יוסי בן יועזר אומר יהי ביתך בית ועד לחכמים והוי מתאבק בעפר רגליהם והוי שותה בצמא את דבריהם:
4. Yosi ben Yoezer of Tzeredah and Yosi ben Yochanan of Jerusalem received the Torah from them. Yosi ben Yoezer of Tzeredah said: Let your house be a meetinghouse for the sages and sit amid the dust of their feet and drink in their words with thirst.
משנה מסכת אבות פרק א משנה ד

משנה ה
יוסי בן יוחנן איש ירושלים אומר יהי ביתך פתוח לרוחה ויהיו עניים בני ביתך ואל תרבה שיחה עם האשה באשתו אמרו קל וחומר באשת חברו מכאן אמרו חכמים כל זמן שאדם מרבה שיחה עם האשה גורם רעה לעצמו ובוטל מדברי תורה וסופו יורש גיהנום:
5. Yosi ben Yochanan of Jerusalem said: Let your house be wide open and let the poor be members of thy household; and do not talk much with women. This was said about one's own wife; how much more so about the wife of one's neighbor.
Both scholars invite outsiders into their respective homes. But the guests are very different.
For Yossi ben Yoezer (the 1st text - Mishna 4) it is all about ensuring that your home is filled with Torah scholars. One's home is in essence, a Beit Midrash in which a person may learn from the words and personal example of the wise. In one's own home, a person sits in the dust of the feet of the Talmid Chacham. In fact, one "drinks" their Torah with "thirst"...the food and drink served in one's home is the Torah of the wise.
How enormously different is the home of Yossi Ben Yochanan. His home was based upon the principle of hospitality. He advised that a person welcome everyone (not just wise people) into one's home, especially the poor and needy. Moreover the poor will not be "guests" but members of the household. They feel at home there. (And because the house is so open, one must be careful about intimacy with women who are not part of your household.) One imagines that the food and drink in his home was edible. It was real food and not Torah.
What variation in orientation! In the first we see an atmosphere designed for the intellectual elite, based upon personal piety and intense Torah study. In the second, an environment which is accessible to all and without divisions, where all are welcome, based upon giving and love.
What different religious ideologies!
One can only imagine the very different atmosphere, and the contrasting moods between these two homes of Jewish leaders.
Which home would you feel more comfortable in?

Thursday, January 03, 2008

Shlomo Artzi is a Belzer Chassid at Heart!

On the nrg site they have an amazing clip of Shlomo Artzi - maybe Israel's top rock artist. He was recording his music at a recording studio (some 12 years ago!) and next door was a choir singing Belzer niggunim in Yiddish. So watch Shlomo artzi singing like a true chassid, from the depths of his heart! (link here)

What can I say... it all just makes me think how bad it is that we are so enclaved here into our little sub-groups. Just look how a chance meeting in a recording studio brings different people together. If we all lived in more "mixed" environments, maybe we could erase so many of those divisions in Israeli society. It is amazing that although on a day to day basis religious and secular mix in a warm and very civil manner, stereotypes still prevail. Anyhow, if you ever doubted Shlomo Artzi's yiddshe neshama, here is proof.