Monday, July 05, 2010

Israeli Music engages with its Judaism

I have just posted my second memorial post in as many weeks. l don't want this to become some sort of obituary column, so it is time to post something of a positive nature.

This evening, Gush Etzion hosted a joint concert of Yonatan Razel (of Vehi She'amda fame) together with Arkadi Duchin. A dati and chiloni musician in concert together. This is not the first time that we have seen one of the central figures of the Israeli (secular) music scene demonstrate an interest in Judaism. In recent years there has been a huge revival of interest in Jewish themes. For example, Ehud Banai and his album of zemirot, the much hailed move to religious observance by Etti Ankri and her recording of a beautiful album of Rabbi Yehudah Halevi's songs. Barry Sakharof with an album of piyutim by Ibn Gvirol and Kobi Oz with his Psalms for the Perplexed. Kobi Oz is the lead singer of Tippex (Teapacks) and a prominer figure in the Israeli music scene. Here is a quote from him:

"In recent years I have steeped my soul in a warm marinade of Judaism, and the result is "Psalms for the Perplexed," an evening of brand-new songs that fall somewhere in the hazy area between "religious" and "secular." It is not something naïve, spiritual, or kabbalistic-just Hebrew songs that send a smile in the direction of our brilliant Sages"

There is no doubt that Israelis are seekers in many ways. Many search for spirituality in the Far East. But as Israel matures and grows-up, many Israeli's are asking themselves basic questions. Many young Israelis are far from the antagonism towards Judaism and rejection of religion that once held sway in secular circles. They are curious and intrigued as to what their heritage beholds. Sometimes they are trying to understand why we, as a Jewish country and nation, have such a unique fate, with such inordinate world attention and frequently inexplicable hatred directed towards Israel. Sometimes, it is a search for the spiritual, or a return to ancestral roots. Secular Batei Midrash like Alma or the secular yeshiva, and cultural centres such as Beit Avi Chai all examine Jewish themes. There was such a wide range of Tisha B'av programs for the average Israeli this week - demonstrating a clear revival of interest in Judaism (as long as it isn't coercive!) This isn't Aish Hatorah but rather an exciting dialogue with Judaism and Jewish tradition through music.

Some years ago, I was listening to a live concert by Avishai Cohen. Avishai Cohen is a world famous (Israeli) jazz player who "made it" on the NY scene, playing at all the top venues. And yet, once he had conquered the summit of the Jazz circuit, he came home to Israel. at this concert, he was talking about his new album, and he mentioned that he had always played instrumental jazz but had never sung lyrics. He decided that he wanted to sing, but which words, which text to sing? And then he said: "So I thought about this song that my grandfather used to sing. The words are shalom aleichem malachei hashalom." - Amazing! It isn't the version that you might recognise, but the fact that Israeli artists are enaging in a dialogue with Judaism is heart-warming.

Maybe we are moving forward after all!

Words of Tribute. Marc Weinberg z"l

On Sunday evening, Beit Knesset HaRamban in Jerusalem held an evening of learning that was dedicated to the memory of Marc Weinberg z"l. Many people have asked me to post the comments I made at the close of the shiur in Marc's memory. Here they are. But let me just say that this is far from a comprehensive Hesped. My paltry words cannot sum up the energy, charm and power of Marc. In addition, I was aware that many in the audience did not know him. Having said all that, here is the speech.

Tribute to Marc Weinberg z"l.
Comments at the end of my shiur. Erev iyun at Ramban shul – 18 July 2010 / 8 Av 5770

This evening, chaverim, we have discussed tragedy, death, destruction, pain, suffering, collapse, disintegration. We have discussed it on the national scale.

However all these words seen apt at describing the terrible afflictions of cancer that gripped the body of my dear friend and talmid, Marc Weinberg, in these recent years, until his tragic death, at the start of this "3 weeks" period.

I do not want to talk of the pain. In truth I prefer not to reflect on the broken twisted body that was forced to withstand all the torture and suffering of Iyov – and Marc held forth so gallantly and heroically. I prefer to recall the Marc Weinberg full of vitality - with his immaculate sense of fashion, his beloved suntan and his Sunday morning football game.

For many of you who did not know him, let me say a few words. On the one hand, this shiur is highly appropriate for Marc's memory. In a way, it is at variance with him.

It is matched to him because Marc loved Tanakh, limmud Torah, and particularly, giving Tanakh a structure, a pattern. Whenever I spoke to Marc, even in the latter months of his illness when he was seriously sick, he would ask me: "any new books that I should know about?" He loved getting to the core of the methodology of things. Marc was an educator to the core. He worked as a highly successful banker and financier. And yet, he spent evenings and Sunday afternoons teaching young people. He loved nothing more than taking really intelligent (but Judaically unlearned) kids and teaching them how to learn. Not just teaching them but giving them learning tools and a thirst for knowledge. A good shiur was one which had a clear methodology, order, system, and this is what he wished to impart to his students.

In one of our final conversations Marc related to me so excitedly how he had begun to teachTanakh and Judaism to the Hiloni son of a neighbour in Modiin , excited at how bright and well-read he was, and devastated at his dearth of Judaic education.

But in other ways this shiur is mismatched to Marc. I don't know which aspect of God Marc would have identified with: God as Judge, enemy or source of faith. That חשבון Marc can take up with the Ribbono shel Olam. God knows that Marc would have a long list of legitimate complaints to take up with Him.

But Marc was not a philosopher or a theologian. Marc was a do-er. He was a magnetic personality. People warmed up to him. But how did he use his charisma? Once again, we can talk about Marc and methodology. Marc believed living life according to principles, and he was proud of these principles and ethics – his Modern Orthodoxy, his commitment to intelligent Talmud Torah, Religious Zionism, Derekh Eretz, community, personal integrity. He spent time figuring out how things worked, and then he set to work. He took these foundational principles, and as he developed his confidence over the years, he applied them in the world of finance, community building, Zionism and Aliyah etc.

He acted. He built a shul. He had a Hashkafa that he was passionate about and knew that he could put it into place, and did. He was determined to establish a vibrant young Modern Orthodox, Religious Zionist congregation in London. He did it. He was devastated to see Jews' College become a right-wing institution and yearned to see it as a hub of real education and inclusiveness, a forum for Modern Orthodox speakers and text-study. He built that. People who came to the shiva saw his daily lists which outlined his aims and objectives, his achievements and accomplishments, but most simply, his daily tasks, his list of people to be in touch with. This was a man on a mission. He developed a phenomenal network of contacts through his intelligence, hard work and integrity and most importantly his care and sensitivity, And he leveraged this network to help people - finding jobs for people, and when he had a new project to put into place, he knew precisely who could play every role. His confidence gave people an assurance that the project would work.

There are two types of response to tragedy. One is in the theological realm, but Marc would have said that the response to destruction is to build, and better not to let it be destroyed in the first place. To build our world.

May his family: Natalie, Yona and Maayan; Syma and Henry, Debra and Aviad, have much nechama from the realization that he did so much for so many people. May this be the end of any suffering for their family and may the passage of time ease their grief and allow them to move onwards and to smile at life (and may life smile at them!) And may we learn from the figure of Marc Weinberg z"l that we should not underestimate our power, our ability to shape and build the world around us.


p.s I found an email that Marc sent me which exemplifies exactly what I said above. It was sent on the day his eldest daughter Yona, started school:

01/9/09 Education Question


Today was Yona's first day of Kita Aleph.

This made me think how I can contribute to supplement her Limudei Kodesh. I love
structures and things I can follow. She cannot yet read hebrew fluently but she
says Tefilla and I could help with her general knowledge but have been doing so
without any structure .... I sort of want to know a program for the next few
years of goals I should be achieving with her..."

That email echoes much of what I said here.

May his memory be a blessing.

No Shortcut Judaism – In memory of מורי ורבי - Rav Amital

Rav Yehuda Amital passed away last week at age 86. He was my Rosh Yeshiva, my teacher, to whom I am indebted for much of my value system and my spiritual path in life. He was a Holocaust survivor, an ideologue, an institution builder, a master teacher, a Talmid Chacham, a humble Jew who cared about every other Jew, a proud Israeli who fought in the war of Independence, and founded Hesder, sending his own students to fight in the army, who began as a leading settler, and ended up as a supporter of Peace. He stepped into Israeli politics when he felt that his unique contribution could make a difference. Much has been written about him (see 1,2,3,4,5) however, in some manner of tribute I would like to add a few personal reflections. One caveat - a short blog entry could not do any justice to the depth of his learning, his extensive achievements, the magnetism and warmth of his personality, nor his personal charisma.

No Shortcuts – "אין פטנטים"

I believe that no student could pass through the Yeshiva without hearing Rav Amital's trademark saying – אין פטנטים. By this he meant that there are no shortcuts to spirituality, to mastery of Torah, to God. Rav Amital sought authenticity. He would sing over and over: וטהר לבנו לעבדך באמת – In other words, 'God purify us that we serve you authentically, in truth, in depth" and Rav Amital believed that this was hard work. He insisted that the Yeshiva be a place of learning without distraction, of depth and devoted study. He spoke about prayer and how religious connection is an "Avoda sheba-lev (service of the heart)" meaning that it was an Avoda – hard work. Spiritual highs cannot come instantaneously.

Rav Amital expressed his disdain for religious fads, superficial expressions of piety, and what he saw as shallow spiritual thrills. Furthermore, he was uninterested in religious practices that took a person out of the cycle of the "normal." Once, a friend of mine – a ba'al teshuva – was pedantically cleaning his hands PRIOR to Netilat Yadayim. He had studied the directive of the Mishna Berura that required that one ensure that no substance become a barrier to the waters and interfere with the ritual washing of the hands. Rav Amital saw him and gently said to him: "Danny. Be normal!" He believed that strict and full accordance with the Halakha was a way of life that demanded effort and work, but that it should not take a person away from the orbit of normal people, or regular living.

In this vein, he voiced his wariness with the increasing practice within the Religious-Zionist community to grow peyot (sidelocks) and don huge kippot (yarmulkas). He spoke against it saying that these outer trappings were an expression of fear and insecurity, that people were frightened that they could not withstand the pressures of secularism and modernity. He encouraged people to have confidence in the religious traditions of their families, in the depth and power of shemirat mitzvoth, and not to resort strange dress, and anti-establishment acts.

Truth, ideological shifting, courage.

Rav Amital's sense of truth expressed itself in other ways. After the Six-Day War Rav Amital saw the euphoria of Israel's successes as a sign of divine Redemption and encouraged that ideology as a practical roadmap for settlement of the land. However with the traumas of the Yom Kippur War (in which he lost 8 students – a tenth of his Yeshiva) and the moral questions of the Lebanon war, Rav Amital questioned his ideological priorities.

He felt that Religious Zionism had become morally compromised. When he set up Meimad, his political party, it was not designed to be left wing. It was designed to make the statement that the Land of Israel was not the sole challenge of Religious Zionists, not Judaism's prime emphasis. Rather Religious Zionism had to adopt other priorities such as social justice and reconnect with the mainstream of Israeli body-politic. He was ostracized for his views, but twenty years later, more and more people talk in that vein.

He had the courage to change his opinions even when his students and the entire Religious-Zionist world ridiculed and vilified him. He was the first major religious leader to suggest that territorial compromise might be a the best policy (under the circumstances) for the State of Israel. He was the first person to raise a self-critical voice calling for introspection after the Rabin assassination.

He always called for full allegiance and respect for the Israeli government, understanding that if we uproot our adherence to the source of our sovereignty, we risk everything.

In all these policies he spoke against the Religious-Zionist mainstream, but believed that the truth must be voiced, whatever the personal cost.

Empowerment and Truth

Rav Amital believed in empowering his students. On the inaugural evening of the Yeshiva, he stayed at home. People did not understand why he wasn't there at the inception of his institution. He replied to the boys: 'It is YOUR Yeshiva. I will help you, but YOU will make this place succeed or make it fail."

He invited a talmid chacham who was ten years his junior and a new Oleh – Rav Aharon Lichtenstein shlit"a - to take over the Yeshiva because he felt (his words) that he wanted a superior scholar to lead the institution. In a move of mind-boggling proportions, Rav Amital extended Rav Lichtenstein the position of leading the institution single-handedly as Rosh Yeshiva, and that he (Rav Amital) would merely teach on the faculty! In Rav Lichtenstein's words: "He left the keys on the table." Needless to say, Rav Lichtenstein accepted on condition that he partner with Rav Amital. Let me simply say that it is rare to see such an amazing partnership of mutual respect and love. But Rav Amital's humility allowed that to happen.

When he once gave a political speech in Yeshiva, he allowed his student (Hanan Porat), a leading Right Winger, to get up and take the podium immediately afterwards , to give a different perspective.

He believed that each person needed to find their truth. When asked by Shimon Peres what the political stance of Yeshivat Har Etzion was, he said the following:

Our stance has 3 principles.

First, that every problem of the nation must deeply bother every student.
Second, that the students must think about the problem carefully, long and hard, evaluating the arguments and implications to the full.
Third, we have no political stance – each student must make up their own mind.

The Crying Baby

No one can talk about Rav Amital without mentioning his famous story of the crying baby. It goes like this: That Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi was studying Torah, heard the crying of his infant grandson. The elder rebbe rose from his studying and soothed the baby to sleep. Meanwhile, his son, the boy’s father, was too involved in his study to hear the baby cry. When R. Zalman noticed his son’s lack of involvement, he proclaimed, “If someone is studying Torah and fails to hear the cry of a Jewish baby, there is something very wrong with his learning.”

Rav Amital believed that everyone had a sense of mission to the Jewish people. That when the baby cried, one had to engage, to alleviate the pain. When they built the unconventional architectural structure of the Har Etzion Beit Midrash, the architect had planned the modern design without windows. He insisted that the Yeshiva have big windows. Why? Because the Beit Midrash must be connected to the people, to Am Yisrael.

There was so much more to Rav Amital. His attachment to all of Am Yisrael. His beautiful, elevating tear-stained davening on the Yamim Noraim.

As was said at the funeral, Rav Amital was a wonderful fusion of idealism and pragmatism, of conservatism and change, of misnagdic intellectualism and hassidic-mysticism, of the Beit-Midrash and the needs of the nation. However, unlike the Brisker dialectic weighing and balancing the two perspectives and reaching some manner of resolution, Rav Amital's moderation was visceral, seamless and spontaneous, rather than dialectical or intellectual. In this regard, I always saw his expertise and mastery of שו"תים - the Responsa literature – as a reflection of his connection to life, pragmatism, real people and their problems, rather than an inclination to theoretical scholarly ponderings.

There is so much that I owe him that it is difficult to describe. His ideas and students will live on. I am privileged to have studied with such a giant of the spirit, such a loving, God-fearing Rav, a true guide to the perplexing times in which we live.

Israel at its Best

I have decided, in honour of the Three Weeks, to write several posts that tell positive stories about Am Yisrael, or discuss optimistic trends in Israeli society. I am an optimist at heart, and I genuinely feel that if we could only focus and amplify the good energies that exist all around us, we could certainly alleviate much of the discord that separates us and threatens to divide us further.

So, here is today's story:

I flew to London last week. Sitting next to me on the plane was a man, probably a few years my junior. I decided to make some polite conversation seeing that we would be quite literally rubbing shoulders for the next five hours. It transpired that the man was a businessman, a senior sales executive for a large UK printing machinery business and had spent 2 days visiting clients in Israel. I asked him how he had found his experience here, wondering whether he would tell me about rude Israelis and sub-standard service. But he told a different story. It went something like this.

"Well, I got to my hotel in Tel Aviv at night and couldn't quite get a feel for the place, but when i woke up in the morning, well - what a beautiful beach; just stunning! And then up to Haifa and the Jezreel Valley. Very hot, but you have a beautiful country."

Well I couldn't agree more! Good so far, but it gets better. He then continued:

"My client drove all the way down from Haifa to pick me up from my hotel. They took me out to eat and were wonderful company. They even drove me to my meeting with one of their competitors, and waited for me patiently in the car until I had completed my meeting. at the end of the day they drove me back to my hotel. Their warmth and hospitality was quite overwhelming."

His closing comment put a big smile on my face:

"This trip has set new standards of hospitality for me. It has really made me think about how we treat our business partners when they visit us in the UK. We don't drive them around or accompany them home after a meeting. We certainly have a great deal to learn from the generosity and hospitality of you Israelis."

That company in Haifa should get an Israel Business award! What a Kiddush Hashem! Nice to hear about the positive aspects of our people and our country.