Friday, December 30, 2011

The Amazing Limmud Experience

I have spent this week at the UK Limmud Conference 2011 and I think it deserves a blogpost just to talk about how wonderful it is.

I left Israel on Sunday morning, in a an elevated sublime feeling of Jewish Israeliness. Let me explain. I stepped into the taxi at the airport at 5:58 to be greeted by the recitation of the “Shema” as is broadcast daily at 6am on Israel radio. This was followed by the newscaster starting the news with the greeting, "חג אורים שמח", announcing the Hebrew date and that it was נר חמישי של חנוכה. So much Judiasm in 1 minute of radio at 6am; - It put me in a great mood.
I davened Shacharit in the airport with an eclectic mix of Haredim, messorati sephardim, a few Modern Orthodox Israelis and one very settler-looking fellow with full blown peyot, t'chelet tzitizit and a huge knit kippa. Wonderful to hear Birkhat Kohanim with the Hazzan's heavily hassidish pronunciation, answered by a pure Israeli accent. We are one people!
The beautiful end to the Jewish aspect of the journey was when the flight staff closed the flight by wishing us a חג חנוכה שמח  – as we landed in London on Christmas day. I couldn't but reflect on how fortunate we are to have our own nation state where being Jewish is natural, and woven deeply ad so naturally into the fabric of our national existence, as we live on our time, our terms, with our own dear cultural frame of reference. אשרינו מה טוב חלקינו. Yes I am a starry eyed old style Zionist. And 20 years in Israel somehow never succeeds in erasing that.

But I digress … let's talk about Limmud. This is my second Limmud in 2 months. Last month in Stockholm and now in the UK. Limmud is an organization, run by volunteers that create conferences which explore just about every facet of Judaism and Jewish life. In Limmud UK, over 5 days, over 2000 sessions were delivered. That is astounding. So many topics are on offer: Israeli literature, the current state of Israel and Zionism, Jewish community, arts and issues of the local Jewish community, women, education, policy, philosophy, Jewish texts and spirituality. You name it; its there. Moreover, everyone is welcome to come; everyone is welcome to speak. Limmud is a beautiful environment that respects every participant as a human being, a Jew, an equal. One hour, you are the teacher; the next hour, you are the student. Limmud creates a platform for people to explore and celebrate their Judaism and to learn more about it, hear new voices, gain inspiration, and enjoy their Judaism. (See a similar perspective from wonderful friends that I met at Limmud - see here and here.)

Now, in the British Orthodox (United Synagogue and rightwards) community, Limmud is shunned, certainly by the Rabbis. Several of my (British) students have asked me why I attend seeing that it “lends legitimacy to the Reform.” My Grandfather too, when I told him that I was attending Limmud, said to me: “Isn't that the Reform conference?”

One of the most forceful proponents of this thinking is Rav Hanoch Erentreu, Av Beit Din in the UK. I recall in the '80's that the Pope visited the UK. Dayan Erentreu was supposed to meet him in his capacity as Av Beit Din in Manchester. But then he heard that he would be presented to the Pope alongside the Reform Rabbi. This in his mind created an equation of sorts. He turned down the invitation. To meet the Pope was alright; to meet the Reform Rabbi was beyond the pale.

I cannot even begin to understand or accept Rav Ehrentreu's decion. To my mind this stark separation of the Orthodox community from Limmud is shortsighted and incorrect.

First, no one is legitimising anyone. Everyone who speaks is representing their own opinions, themselves. Everyone is welcome to attend or not to attend. As for lending legitimacy, the Reform, I believe, are fully aware that the Orthodox don't accept their version of Judaism. Somehow, the Orthodox feel that if they fail to associate with a Reform Rabbi, don't call him or her a Rabbi, then they will be less of a Rabbi, or if they discredit non-Orthodox denominations, that they will disappear. Don't they realise that when they discredit others , the only thing that they do is to generate disdain for Orthodoxy and alienation from it?

Limmud is the antithesis of this attitude. For five days you have thousands, yes – thousands of Jews – rushing from session to session, from shiur to political talk to historical lecture, exploring, learning, thinking, discovering more about their Judaism as they progress upon their Jewish journey. What typifies Limmud is its respect to every person, and love of Jewish learning. The warmth expressed by everyone is amazing. I believe that Limmud is as popular as it is in the UK precisely because it is so un-politicized , unlike the rest of Jewish living here.
The Orthodox rabbinate are making a mistake, because if they were there – 10, 20 50 Orthodox Rabbis - they wouldn't be recognising any non-Orthodox anything. They would just be seeing lots of Jewish people who don't want to be labelled, or judged, or looked down upon; good, well meaning Jews who wish to deepen their Judaism, as they see it. They would just see how thirsty people are to learn and to study. They would see that by respecting everyone, and taking down all our titles and divisions, we create genuine achdut, they would realize that if they can teach good Torah, a compelling Torah which is respectful and compassionate, loving and true, then people will listen and, maybe be drawn to their vision. That is why it is hugely shortsighted.

For me, at Limmud, just like at Pardes, where I teach, I am constantly impressed at the simple reality that we cannot impose our views on others; we can merely present Torah – their heritage and ours – with love. People are different – that is our divine spark. I cannot control another person's future. But I can seek to inspire, to teach, to influence, to spread the word of God to others. However, it will be best received when I demonstrate respect to the person sitting opposite me. And when I show that respect, I will probably learn something from him or her in turn.

I invite you all to join the worldwide Limmud movement. It is Achdut (Jewish togetherness) as its best.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Educating in Post-Moral World

I came across a recent sermon by Rabbi Haskel Lookstein of KJ and Ramaz. (Hat-tip Kavannah blog). Here is the most sensational segment:

And lest you think that this phenomenon is out there and has nothing to do with your world and my world, I actually found this problem this September in my sex ethics class in the 10th Grade at Ramaz. I gave the students an assignment to read an article about something quite grotesque: it described a group of Jewish married couples who gather periodically and engage in what is popularly called swinging, that is, spouse swapping. A sort of round robin sexual orgy. I asked them how many of you think that this is wrong? And only a few students raised their hands. Astonished, I asked them how could they not think that this was wrong. I got answers like: “well, since it is all out in the open and everybody knows that everybody is doing it, there is nothing fundamentally wrong. No one is cheating on a spouse because the spouse was also swinging.”

I said to them: “what about the seventh commandment – do not commit adultery.” One student answered that these people are really not religious. What the students didn’t seem to understand was that whether they were religious or not, there is a moral code that is rooted in the Bible which defines for us what is right and what is wrong. The problem is that when pressed, many of the students simply said that if it feels good and if it feels right then who am I to judge? I told them I wasn’t suggesting that they go over to somebody who is engaged in swinging and chastise them, but that they had to have an opinion on this practice. They looked at me with some disbelief. Now, please understand, these are good kids. I don’t for one minute believe that they will engage in this kind of debauchery when they are married adults. This is not related to what they are doing or will do; this is simply an indication that these children are not thinking in moral categories and that they feel that it is somehow politically incorrect to judge another’s behavioral choices. They are picking up from society in general a reluctance to judge.

I confess that I was so disturbed about their reaction that I spent much of the course, which is actually ending next week, coming back to this subject again and again in order to show them how far they have wandered intellectually from the religious sources in which they believe. These are children who follow the Torah which tells them to keep Shabbat, Kashrut and Yom Tov and to pray. They all do these things. But they don’t seem to understand that the same Torah is the source of our moral values, and morality is not simply a matter of opinion. God gave the Ten Commandments on Mt. Sinai not the Ten Suggestions ! Morality is not personal; it is ultimately ordained by a higher authority. (See entire sermon here.)
Let me say at the outset that I share Rabbi Lookstein's concerns and his broad perspective. But this sermon made me think, both as an educator, and as an individual.

Are things as bad as Rabbi Lookstein thinks? In a post-modernist world, surely, the only categorical wrong is to harm another person, against his or her will, or worse, to coerce another individual. Murder and thievery are wrong because they hurt other people. But does this mean that we have absolutely surrendered our traditional sense of  a moral code? Have other educators experienced this helplessness in addressing ethical discussions? I meet many teenagers who are idealists, who are passionate about moral positions and know how to argue their case. How much has this reality penetrated?

It has made me wonder about the degree to which this mode of thinking has penetrated my moral sense. With the shifting moral sands of our contemporary world, both general and Jewish, a sometimes wonder about the changes that go on in my mind. As modern people we are also consumers of this ethical climate. When should we be judgmental and when is it wrong? In a wold which gives voice to all individuals to argue their case and to explain their motivations, do we lose a sense of  good and bad?

And is the Torah the sole source of moral values? What happens when Torah or Halakha seem to preach one way, and society sees things another way. And what happens when our instincts say that society has a good point. (An example might be, egalitarianism.)

So, feel free to read Rabbi Lookstein and to add your comments below.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Gilad Shalit: Love Life!

Today in Israel, we were as one people. 

The Jewish people felt united. 

On Sukkot, the "four species" represent 4 different types of Jew which we take and bind together. Today, we were bound together by one person: Gilad Shalit. The hardened news reporters and anchormen were choking up the tears. It seemed as if the entire country were glued to some media format for hourly updates. I certainly followed the day's events with baited breath, just waiting for a first glimpse of Gilad, and feeling a sense of relief and closure as made his way back to Mitzpe Hila - back home.

It has been a highly emotional day, and it is virtually impossible to add something original after so much has been written. Instead of posting my original thoughts, I will share some quotes that resonated with me today:

In agreeing to this prisoner swap, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the Israeli public chose to return to their roots, to revive a central tenet of old-time Israeli ideology: we do not leave our sons in the field.

The tenet is as old as the country itself. It stems from the fact that the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) is a citizens’ army, in which conscription is universal and every family knows that it could face the same tragedy as the Shalits. And in the army itself, the “stretcher march,” in which soldiers in training are ordered to carry one of their heaviest comrades on a stretcher up hills and down valleys for miles, is a formative ritual meant to instill one message: there is never a case in which soldiers cannot bring their wounded home.

This ethic is taught in other armies, too, but it resonates differently in Israel. From the moment of his capture, Gilad Shalit has been a household name. Compare this to the silence in the United States regarding Bowe Bergdahl, the U.S. soldier held hostage by the Taliban since June 2009. Ever since Shalit’s kidnapping, Israeli society has been wracked by a sense that it failed in its obligation to him. 

Miki Goldwasser mother of IDF reserve soldier Ehud Goldwasser, abducted and killed by Hezbollah in 2006

On Tuesday we shall see decorated stages, flags and joyous masses in Gaza. We shall see many arms raised and many fingers making the victory sign. Gaza shall rejoice, and to my great regret Israel will be affected by these sights. 
Dear citizens, think about it: The families of terrorists are happy like we are as we see Gilad Shalit's return. However, they did not win, and they know it. They were humiliated precisely because so many terrorists were released for only one soldier.

Make no mistake about it. They realize and feel this humiliation. They realize that they are not worth much if they are willing to exchange 1,000 of their own for one Israeli soldier. Do you really think that Gaza residents are not jealous of us, Israelis, for being so united around one soldier? It’s impossible not to envy us. Look at the global reactions – everyone is stunned.
In Israel, like the swaying palm branches of the Lulav, the mood of the people tends to fluctuate from one extreme to another. This time around, listen to the voice of reason and do not be deceived by the images from Gaza. The joy there is artificial. 

 Adrian Blomfield in the Daily Telegraph

For every Israeli who has served in the armed forces there is a feeling they could easily have been Gilad Shalit. For every Israeli parent, the young conscript could quite conceivably have been their own son.

In return for a sacrifice everyone has to make, Israelis believe that it is incumbent on the government to do everything in its power to save a living soldier when something goes wrong – whatever the cost.

But it also runs deeper than that. The notion of doing everything in one's power to free someone unjustly taken prisoner is deep rooted in the fabric of Israeli society.

This is partly due to the country's Jewish heritage. In Judaism, winning the release of any Jew held captive by gentiles – something known in Hebrew as pidyon shvuyim – is a commandment ordained by God. Heeding it brings you blessings; failing to fulfil it is a sin.

Captivity is worse than starvation or death, Jewish teaching says. "The redeeming of captives take precedence over supporting the poor or clothing them," wrote the Jewish scholar Maimonides in the Middle Ages.

For modern Israel, with its almost universal belief of being a country under siege, the Jewish notion of pidgin shvuyim is a hallowed creed, an affirmation that a militarised state can only be strong if it protects all its citizens, particularly its soldiers – no matter how lowly.

"Israel's main asset in human and security terms is the sense of mutual responsibility that its citizens and soldiers feel towards one another," wrote Avi Shavit, a columnist for the Israeli newspaper Haaretz.

"Without this feeling, there is no meaning to our lives here. Without this feeling, we have neither army, security, nor the ability to protect ourselves.

"Rightly or not, Shalit has become a symbol of mutual responsibility. And therefore his forthcoming release will not only be the redemption of a captive and the saving of a life and the return home of a son. Shalit's release will be the realisation of Israeli solidarity."
 And Daniel Taub (Israel ambassador to the UK)

As much as all Israelis know and identify with the young men and women who serve in defence of their country, so do they also know a victim of a terrorist atrocity. And many of those involved in perpetrating such atrocities are among those who will be released as part of the Shalit deal. Israelis cannot help but wonder whether we are saving one life, the face we know, at the cost of other unknown faces in future terrorist attacks.

Is it possible to overvalue life? Have our tradition and national psyche clouded our judgment and created an Achilles heel?

Disturbingly, the terrorist groups we confront seem to think so. Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah once declared “We shall win because the Jews are weak and love life.” Fathi Hammad, a leading Hamas figure echoed this credo as he defended the strategy of sending women and children to shield terrorist bases: “We desire death as you desire life!”

But at its root, the decision to make the deal was not won by pragmatic arguments or realpolitik. We are bringing Gilad home, and paying the painful price, not because we know that this is the correct strategic decision, but because of our profound conviction that it ought to be. The bittersweet joy of the moment presents a challenge to us all. If this indeed is not a world in which placing supreme value on a single human life is the best course of action, then let us work to make it one.
Taub's point is quite significant. Yesterday was a celebration of saving a life. Some are saying that with 1000 terrorists on the loose, this is foolish and shortsighted. Some will say that today was shallow sentimentalism and easy emotion. There is truth in both these statements. And yet, today, Gilad is our brother and son who has come home. We are all his family. And we have shown that we are who we are because we value life and our solidarity.

Monday, October 10, 2011

From Yom Kippur to Sukkot

At this moment in time, we have emerged from the seriousness of Elul and the עשרת ימי תשובה (Ten days of Penitence) to the joy of Sukkot - "zman simchateinu." In shul, the heaviness and looming tension has palpably lifted as our prayers are suddenly lighter, streamlined - the selichot, avinu malkeinu and various other additions to our prayers have been exchanged for a "no tachanun" week. For the regular shul-goer, there is no sweeter relief than that!

We may well ask ourselves what remains then, of the Yamim Nora'im? To answer this question, I will share an idea that I heard from Rav Yaakov Medan some years back. He related to the biblical Yonah, who entered the city of Nineveh and issued the famous proclamation:  "In forty days Nineveh will be overturned - עוד ארבעים יום ונינבה נהפכת" and astonishingly, the population, from king to child, all swiftly respond in a contrite mood of repentance, each returning stolen items and recanting their evil acts.

The text tells us that God retracts his condemnation of the city (echoing the famous line in Shemot 32:14 in which God waves his pronouncement of destruction after the Golden calf):

(י) וַיַּרְא הָאֱלֹהִים אֶת מַעֲשֵׂיהֶם כִּי שָׁבוּ מִדַּרְכָּם הָרָעָה וַיִּנָּחֶם הָאֱלֹהִים עַל הָרָעָה אֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר לַעֲשׂוֹת לָהֶם וְלֹא עָשָׂה 
When God saw their deeds, that they turned from their wicked way, then God relented concerning the calamity which He had declared He would bring upon them. And He did not do it
Yonah (mysteriously) finds this repentance exceptionally distasteful. He sits outside the city and builds a Sukka: "to see what will transpire in the city." What is Yonah waiting for? And why is he so miserable? Does he think the city might be destroyed after 40 days? The Radak and the Metzudat David suggest that Yonah is waiting to see whether their penitence is genuine, in other words, whether their resolutions will hold, or will their behavior will merely revert back to its sinful ways - "עד אשר יראה אולי לא יעמדו בתשובתם" Yonah is rather cynical and suspicious regarding this "quick fix" teshuva, and he suspects that the changes are cosmetic in nature, and that very soon, the people will resume their sinful acts.

Rav Medan suggested that Yonah's skepticism should resound in our ears, in that our situation mirrors that of Nineveh. 

The model of Nineveh is built upon a pattern of a 40 day period of repentance, followed by a test period. We too have 40 days: the month of Elul and the 10 days of repentance. But what follows these 40 days of repentance? We now encounter a test period. The question that we face is whether OUR New Year's Resolutions will hold, or whether the commitments that we made sincerely and genuinely in the fervor of Yom Kippur will simply dissipate and evaporate. With the close of the tension of the days of penitence, we are challenged to ask ourselves whether our teshuva is only cosmetic, or whether it constitutes an enduring, fundamental reorientation of our behavior and lifestyle

Here we should pay attention to the small detail in the text. Yonah sits in a SUKKA (!) to see what will transpire in the city. The test is simple: Will our decisions last even the 5 short days until Sukkkot? Will we succeed in retaining that religious tension and passion even in these lighter, less intense, normal days? Will we be susceptible to Yonah's biting critique or will our change be more substantial?
Good luck! - Behatzlacha!

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Israelis - Come Home!

Here are two new videos by the Israeli government to persuade Israelis living abroad to return to Israel. Interesting to play the assimilation card on them. Very moving.

I do agree that their kids are likely to assimilate, but are these videos too manipulative? Is it within the Israeli government's role or mandate to encourage its citizens to return? (- I guess no more than it is to encourage anyone else to make Aliya!) Anyway, if you like or dislike these videos, add your comments below.

Whose land is it anyway?

In the last minute rush for Palestinian Statehood, there has been a flurry of attention on Israel. One comment in today's Guardian caught my eye.

"If the Palestinians want a state, they can go to Europe or the US – it's very nice there," said Michael Ben Ari, a member of the Israeli parliament. "This is the land of Israel and we are here forever."

Now, MK Michael ben Ari is as extreme as it gets, he is an open follower of the rascist Kach ideology, so I don't expect too much from him. But here, he expresses an idea that too many religious Jews hold, and that is patently wrong. Are we here forever? Just read the Parsha!

I set before you today life and prosperity, death and destruction. I command you today to love the Lord your God, to walk in his ways, and to keep his commands, decrees and laws; then you will live and increase, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land you are entering to possess. But if your heart turns away and you are not obedient, and if you are drawn away to bow down to other gods and worship them, I declare to you this day that you will certainly be destroyed. You will not live long in the land you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess. (Devarim 30:16-19)
The land of Israel is not ours; it is God's, and he will allow us to live here if we follow the Torah, if we act morally. When Israel fall short of their religious and moral calling, then we lose the land. We should be paying as much attention to morals, as politics and the military.

Jerusalem Graffiti

Yesterday, I was in the centre of town (Jerusalem.) I saw this graffiti. Whereas I generally resent the defacement of the city, these were posted only on temporary barriers around building sites, and I do enjoy graffiti which imparts Talmudic wisdom. Certainly, many people could do with learning this lesson.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

The dangers of the "Individual"

As we enter the month of Elul, I return to teaching. As a teacher and parent, I think a great deal about the factors that craft our spiritual and religious personality. A passage from an article by Rav Lichtenstein (Orthodox Forum - Contemporary Impediments to Yirat Shamayim) , gave me pause for thought recently:

"We — more the ben Torah in us, than the modernist — are not content with training our children or ourselves to bring our faculties to bear upon coping with the quandaries of life and its vicissitudes. We strive to mold the self, proper — to maximize ability, to extract and exploit the potential immanent, by divine gift, in our inner core. We share the Greek passion for paideia, as an educational and civic
ideal — and this, out of religious aspiration, as an end in itself, rather than merely as a means to inculcate or improve the capacity for dealing with issues. Ba’alei ha-mussar speak incessantly of the responsibility to build kohot ha-nefesh [traits of the soul], beyond activating or energizing them; and this emphasis is an integral part of our authentic collective tradition. Moreover, we encourage, as part of this process, a stress upon dynamism and vibrancy: man as agent — gavra in contrast with object — hefza. This is reflected in the extraordinary emphasis upon will as the epicenter
of the self; and, in the tradition of the Rambam, free will, postulated as both experienced reality and desideratum …
And yet … the course may boomerang. The capacity for chosen spiritual aspiration may issue, instead, in vaulting secular ambition. The more powerful the personality, the graver the potential for rebellion, the stronger the passion for independence, the greater the reluctance to submit. The kabbalat ol malkhut shamayim of the docile may be less attractive or even significant, but it is probably more secure."

What Rav Lichtenstein is saying is that Judaism desires the empowerment of the individual, the strengthening of independent resolve. But that if we empower the individual, it can backfire! If that independence of mind and spirit, the dynamism and force of the individual suddenly turn away from Judaism to other pursuits, then we have proverbially shot ourselves in the foot..

Now, Rav Lichtenstein attributes the passion for individual empowerment "more to the ben Torah in us than the modernist," but I am not so sure. As I see the Haredi community, the sense of the collective - the uniform dressing, the prescripted life-choices, and the emphasis of conformity – is far more prominent. In the secular environment as in the Modern-Orthodox community, far more emphasis is placed on self-expression, individual life choice, wide ranging self enrichment and fulfillment.

I would go further: From a religious vantage point, the Modern Orthodox worldview sees the development of the individual as an expression of tzelem elokim, of the unique individuality that God has invested in each and every one of us. Talking to my Haredi cousins, they simply don't promote the self exploration and wide opportunities that we desire for our children. They will be less likely to value the experiences and ambitions that my kids voice – whether in music and art, whether in sport and reading, whether in understanding science or History. Their strength is in the group. They create a "weaker" individual., which engenders a more powerful collective. However, for the Modern Orthodox community, this very empowerment makes us more susceptible to people taking their choices elsewhere, away from Torah, and possibly from Judaism. We promote a stronger individual. The stakes are higher. Success will be sweeter, but failure is higher. In RAL's word's: "the stronger the “heart,” the greater the
potential for just such a life, the bolstering of personality and of will, as its dynamic principle, engenders the risk of enabling rebelliousness."

Rav Lichtenstein follows his logic in the field of intellectual development:

"Here, too, we deal with abilities much valued by ourselves, in the Torah world no less than in the academic. … the overriding emphasis upon study as a value, and the development of the capacity and the desire to study as central to spiritual growth.

… Almost inevitably — particularly, in the modern context — this entails inculcating and encouraging a modicum of critical perspective, as regards both the reading of texts and the analysis of concepts, which, in turn, fosters a measure of independence.

Here, too, then, we risk encounter with a golem who may turn upon his creator and/or mentor; with forces which, once unleashed, may reduce an educator to the role of the sorcerer’s apprentice. As the primeval serpent well knew — and this was crucial to his temptations, as appealing to spiritual pride, no less than to sensual appetite — da’at opens access to knowledge, and knowledge is power, not only in Bacon’s sense, as enabling a measure of human mastery over man’s natural environment, but as providing and possibly encouraging spiritual autonomy. That autonomy is, however, precisely what possibly distances man from the Creator, undermining yirat shamayim at its root."

This has given me some room for thought over the summer, both in regard to child-rasing, and the education of our students. Sometimes, the same values that we instill as an expression of our spiritual mission and legacy, have to be delicately nurtured so that they yield the correct fruits. And yet, as Rav Lichtenstein points out, intellectual empowerment – itself a mitzvah - generates independence of mind, but then … we can never have assurances as to where our minds will lead us!

Tuesday, August 09, 2011

You never know who you are talking to!

I would like to relate a remarkable story of everyday human respect. In response to Tisha B'Av this is an attempt to reflect upon one of the simple, small ways in which we can all improve our regular interaction with other people.

The story begins when I visited the gallery at Beit Avi Chai ome time ago. I had been interested in a photography exhibiti there, and when the opportunity arose, I went along to enjoy what was, a fantastic display. However, I took issue with the curator's written commentary finding it objectionable, and I decided to write a letter of complaint to the organization.

I am not usually a complainer. I rarely write letters of praise or criticism to public foundations. And yet, since I have great respect for the Avi Chai Foundation which champions Jewish unity, Zionism, and Jewish Education, and the aforementioned comments seemed at variance with those values, I decided to write an email.

10:30 pm - It was late Saturday night, and I searched online for the email of the curator. I couldn't find it. In the end, with some unsophisticated web-surfing, I guessed the museum director's email and sent off a one paragraph, polite email, articulating my objection.

8:45 am, Sunday: I opened my gmail to find a letter from the director of Beit Avi Chai, Mr. Dani Danielli. It was written in respectful, intelligent, gentle language. It explained, the museum's decision with reference to academic sources and historical evidence. The email was quite lengthy - 3 times th elength of mine - and it upheld the museum's perspective and demonstrated the validity of their approach.

I was bowled over.
1. Who forwarded it to the director?
2. Why did he respond to me?
3. He responded so promptly – first thing in the morning.
4. The fact that he wrote to me so respectfully and with no hint of aggression. I am so used to the Israeli "attitude" problem which generally means that any complain will be agressively rebuffed as a reflex defense mechanism automatically springs into place. In addition I have also become used to the telegraphic Israeli correspondence (army-style?) style which can strike an Englishman as rather abrupt.
5. The director was totally in touch with what was going on in his institution. He was fully versed regarding the topic at hand. He had thought through the issues and grappled with the ideological nuances.

Anyhow, this was quite a breath of fresh air, and a highly impressive response by Beit Avi Chai.

What do I take from this situation?

So often, I get an email at work. Sometimes, it is irritating. Other times, I am busy and I simply respond with a two line rushed statement. Sometimes, I am a little short or brusque.

So, 1.) I should respond to anyone who writes to me with respect. Mr. Danielli received my email. I had not listed that I was a Rabbi or educator. I could be just some nudnick off the street. And yet, he took the time to respond, present his case, articulate his thinking.

And 2.) I should take two extra minutes to ensure my language is not telegraphic, but gives my correspondent the sense that I value them and take them seriously.

If we all begin to respond to one another in more humane ways, we can genuinely make the world a better, human-elevating place.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Rami Levy, Israeli Racism and the danger of Intermarriage.

The headlines on Wednesday informed the Israeli public of racial segregation in our local supermarket! In response to apparent romance between one of the (Arab) packers and one of the (Jewish) cashiers, a local Rabbi had approached the supermarket owner to ask – in the name of preventing intermarriage and assimilation – that the there be no interaction between Jews and Arabs at the store. In two visits that I have made to the store this week, (I am not an overenthusiastic blogger – just an avid shopper!) the majority of packers are now in fact Jews.

As this is my local store and my community Rabbi, I feel emotionally connected to this issue. I also feel that it raises some important points of conversation that are seldom discussed in Israeli society so let's make a few comments about Israeli-Arab coexistence.


Rami Levy, the owner of the supermarket, described his store as the "Peace Supermarket." Is that so? Well, I certainly do think that Rami Levy has furthered the cause of coexistence in our little segment of the embattled Middle East.

When the store opened last year, and it gave equal access to Jews and Arabs, many local Jews were shocked? "What? Are we going to shop with them? - Those terrorists?" Was this a genuine security concern, or merely discomfort of the "other" a.k.a. racism? – Probably a mixture of both. Jews were fearful of Arabs, after prolongued terrorism, and with nothing to readjust that impression. After the shop opened, the result - almost instantaneously - was very positive interaction. Even though we don't go dancing down the aisles together, there are smiles and there is courtesy, there is mutual assistance, and there is – interaction! Suddenly the Arabs have a human face; they also have wives and husbands, they also buy pasta and toilet paper, and they also have holidays on which they buy exorbitant supplies of food! I would say that the Rami Levy has humanized the Arab population for my children in a very real way.

Let me stress. For the average Israeli, there is little contact with Arabs; and there is much fear. The Arabs with which we interact are unlikely to be on our socio-economic level – academics or white-collar workers. And unless one knows people who are "different and equal" it is difficult to build a culture of tolerance. See the latest satirical piece of Sayed Kashua, the fabulous Israeli-Arab novelist and Ha'aretz columnist. His story demonstrates quite clearly that Israelis don't want to holiday with Arabs, and the latent racism irrespective of which side of the Green Line one resides. In our neck of the woods, before the Oslo accords in 1993, we used to drive through Bethlehem, and people used to shop in their markets and stores. Then came the roadblocks and separate roads. And in 2000, with the intifada came a deeper level of segregation. Without human contact, it is difficult to build trust, and the simple understanding that we are all human beings who deserve respect and dignity..

Here is a letter written by a 30 year-old man who grew up in Gush Etzion. He recently attended a dialogue meeting for Arabs and Israelis (of the Right Wing Eretz Shalom group) to further neighbourly relations in the area. Here is what he wrote on the group's email list:

"On Friday, I went to Hussan (an Arab town) for the first time, with, I admit, many butterflies in my stomach. But almost immediately, all my fears melted
away. I saw a large group of Jews, black and knitted kippot, from Beitar and Gush Etzion, beards and tzitzit flapping on the wind … we sat in the garage we drank coffee and conversed. I was quite embarrassed by my initial suspicions.
Fundamentally, Can anybody tell me that the person who I am sitting and talking to is trying to work behind my back? The culture of cowardice and suspicion has reached heights that we cannot fathom. True! There have been (violent) situations, and … when we fall, we fall down hard and it hurts, and we can add the argument that the suspicions and distrust of Jews (towards Arabs) is the Arabs' fault etc. etc. (- that is what I told myself until now.) But today, I feel that the stigma generated by these sorts of statements is too large. It is a burden too heavy to bear, and it carries a heavy price. And so, alongside a distrust at the national level, every individual must open some sort of friendship or human relationship (with an Arab,) if only so that he learn not to tarnish (all the Arabs) and to be defensive all his life." (written July 24,

I bring all this to show that simple supermarket interaction is vital to expel the view of all Arabs as the enemy, as hostile and threatening. Total separation can lead to a dangerous dehumanisation and demonization of our Arab neighbours.

Now let me address the problem of intermarriage and assimilation. The local Rabbi thinks that if Jews and Arabs work alongside one another, there will be people who fall in love and intermarry. Now, truth be told, this is a real possibility in university, at work, and anywhere.

I think that we really have two choices.

Option 1 is an Israel that is a segregated society in which Arabs are restricted from integration, a culture that will breed a society of bigotry, racism and exclusion (which anyway will be ruled illegal by the Supreme Court,) which but morally is not the ethical Israel that I believe in.

Option 2 is a society which respects its citizens and every human being on its streets.

But we have a problem. If Arabs are equal to Jews, and integrated in society, then what WILL be with intermarriage? The answer is clear. We have to educate our kids to want to be Jewish, to value Judaism, and to desire a Jewish lifestyle. Just like in Chutz LaAratez, people will have to choose to be Jewish and to marry a Jew. Now, for some, they wish that Israel will be the place where one doesn't need to think about these things. In Israel the football players and street-sweepers should be Jewish as should be the doctors, lawyers and cashiers. But the realty is that over 25% of the Israeli population is non-Jewish; be it Russian immigrants or Arabs or what have you.

Now, you will ask correctly… if we create an equal Israel, how can we justify allowing that increased intermarriage. Possibly we should push more segregation to stop that momentum. So again, I return to our two options above. Either we create a exploitative unequal society or we invite full participation. I am unwilling to live in a society that grades its citizens to first class and 2nd class. It is wrong.

Now, this is difficult. I desperately want to further Israel's Jewish character, and to see Judaism reflected positively in Israel's public and cultural environment. I would cry over any case of intermarriage. Sometimes, I wish that the problem will simply go away, because this is about making hard choices, and pitting religious interests against humanistic ones. And yet , civility and respect for all decent human beings are also mitzvot. We cannot solve the problem by creating an increasingly unequal society. Education, and strengthening of Jewish-Israeli identity is the key way that this should work.

Ironically, the newspaper articles saw this as a Gush Etzion, "settler" problem. But it is a problem throughout Israel. And we are going to need to face this one head on.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

The Housing Protest and the Three Weeks.

Here in Israel, we frequently discover unexpected connections between current events and the Jewish calendar. Usually at the peak of the summer we get a war (2006), or a disengagement from Gaza (2005), or just some angry demonstration or another.

This year, in the thick of the "three weeks" [traditional mourning period for the Temple destruction and exile,] we have the widespread housing protests, and doctors' strike. And I have to say that this movement is very close to the heart of the message of the three weeks. I will explain.

What are people protesting? As regards the issues, it started with a boycott of the price of cottage cheese, and quickly followed with a protest of rising house and rental prices, along with the trainee doctors who scuttled a negotiation deal that ignored the ridiculously long hours that trainee doctors spend at the hospital without a break, and with little pay.

The government responded 2 days ago with a wide housing initiative, but unfortunately they are missing the point.

The main issue is that Israel's economy is run by a very small group of tycoons, monopolies and cartels - some are government sponsored like the electricity company - who fix the prices of cell phones, banking charges, electricity, water, food, clothing, etc. at a rate that merely increases the profits of the wealthy while severely squeezing the middle class. This has hit a point at which families who were relatively comfortable some ten years ago, are now scrambling to balance their budgets, and young families cannot afford to purchase a home. Israel has not suffered from a recession like the US and Europe, and yet the economic growth has affected only the highest paid sectors and life has become more expensive for the majority of the population. Wages for the lower percentiles (75%) of the workforce have dropped, whereas basic commodities have risen over 40% in the past 5 years.

The reason why this is protest reverberates so poignantly at this time of year relates to the special haftara next week, a haftara that is read in the Eicha tune and is meant to give us pause to think before the 9 of Av. Some people merely connect the "3 weeks" to Jewish infighting , sometimes called "sinat chinam.' But it is the opening chapter of Isaiah which labels a corrupt and uncharitable society as "Sodom and Gomorrah." Isaiah accuses the leaders of society of making a profit on the backs of the lower classes in society:

“Cease to do evil; Learn to do good.

Devote yourselves to justice; aid the wronged,

Uphold the orphan, defend the cause of the widow.

... Your rulers are rogues, and thieving cronies.

every one avid for presents and greedy for gifts,

... Zion shall be saved by her justice,

her repentant ones with Tzedaka.” (Yishayahu 1:16-28)

Isaiah relates to the situation in which the poor are abused by the leadership whose culture is one of bribes and cronyism. The poor suffer and God finds it abhorrent.

This protest has a wide base of support and is likely to continue. It is not merely about housing costs. It is about the question of the widening division between rich and poor in Israel and the erosion of the financial security for whole sectors of Israeli society. I believe that Yishayahu would have parked his tent along Rothschild boulevard, or would have joined the doctors in their march to Jerusalem. The current protest resounds with the sounds of his words, spoken to a very unequal and corrupt Jerusalem, 2500 years ago

As for solutions ... who knows? When I listen to the protesters asking for the govt. to fund education/health/housing etc. I wonder what planet they live on ... Where do they think the govt. will get the money? But on the other hand, as I say, the fact that the economy is soooo centralized and that there is a dearth of competition -- those sorts of things can be changed as the economy becomes more efficient and more competitive.


Rami Levy in Gush Etzion – Arabs in Israel: Does an equal society mean intermarriage?

Monday, July 04, 2011

Old and Young. Does it make a Difference?

We live in a world that worships youth. Whether in TV or on the catwalk, youthfulness is cool, daring, and attractive. Older people are at times, too old for a particular job, are made to look out of touch in movies, and (some) feel a need to inject themselves with Botox to somehow fend off the years!

In Judaism, we have a sense that age is realted to differently. It is addressed with veneration; it is something that we prize. Sefer Vayikra tells us:

"מִפְּנֵי שֵׂיבָה תָּקוּם וְהָדַרְתָּ פְּנֵי זָקֵן"
"'Rise in the presence of the aged, show respect for the elderly" (19:32)

In Judaism we recognize age - זקנה - as related to sagacity and wisdom (age-sage… is there an English connection too?) and we encourage the young to revere and cherish the older generation as an invaluable resource.

זְכֹר יְמוֹת עוֹלָם בִּינוּ שְׁנוֹת דּוֹר וָדוֹר שְׁאַל אָבִיךָ וְיַגֵּדְךָ זְקֵנֶיךָ וְיֹאמְרוּ לָךְ.
Remember the days of old; consider the generations long past. Ask your father and he will tell you, your elders, and they will explain to you. (Devarim 32)

I mention this topic because I had a couple of new insights to the topic this week. We have a family practice of studying Pirkei Avot every Seuda Shelishit during the summer. This week, we related to the topic of old and young in a series of Mishnayot (that I had never perceived as a series until now!)

4:25 Elisha ben Avuyah used to say: He who learns as a child, what is he like? He is like ink written on new paper. He who learns as an old man, what is he like? He is like ink written on "erased" paper.

4:26. Rabbi Yosi bar Judah of Kefar ha-Bavli said: He who learns from the young, what is he like? He is like one who eats unripe grapes and drinks wine fresh from his wine press. But he who learns from the aged, what is he like? He is like one who eats ripe grapes and drinks old wine.

4: 27. Rabbi Meir used to say: Do not look at the flask but at what is in it; there may be a new flask that is full of old wine and an old flask that does not even have new wine in it.

4:25 talks about the fresh mind of children, or is it youths in general, (…or until what age may a person be termed a ילד?) in which every new piece of data makes an indelible mark, in which a child has a special capacity to absorb new information without any interference. The older person, is like writing on paper from which text has been erased. I think this means that the paper is marked, even if it is erased; one finding it difficult to undo previous misconceptions and misperceptions. New information must be configured into an already organized brain and seeks to find its place amongst the existent data.

(Interestingly the Talmud in Chagiga 14a-b records the way that Elisha Ben Avuya had a fatalist attitude, convincing himself that he was unable to change from his heresy and rejection of a Torah lifestyle. This Mishna too, reflects the feeling of "too little too late," and the inability to engage in a full experience of Torah due to the scars of prior experience.)

4:26 Rabbi Yossi bar Yehuda proposes that the old have an advantage over the young. Their minds are mature like old wine. In contrast, the minds of the young are unripe, sharp in taste, sour. Their knowledge is raw, untried and untested, full of unbridled adolescent passion and idealism. But it is as if the youthful minds lack the ability to truly process the knowledge, to understand its far-reaching implications, to foresee its effects. Time allows one discipline to enhance another. The experience of life is the understanding of ideas that have succeeded and failed, a perspective that discerns between that which is fundamental and that which is peripheral. The older a person, the more his knowledge has developed, deepened, undergone a process of integration and cross-fertilization, of thoughtful reflection, of selection and rejection.

This is reminiscent of the Talmudic saying of Rabbi Shimon ben Elazar:

If elders say "destroy" and children say to "build" – destroy and don't build, for the destruction of elders constitutes an act of construction, and the building of youths is, in fact, an act of destruction. The indication of this principle is the story of Rechavam, son of Shlomo. (Megilla 31b)

Is Rav Yossi arguing with Elisha ben Avuya? Or do they agree – teach the young, but learn only from the old?

Would the Educational Psychologist concur? Do children and youth exhibit the power of data retention, as opposed to an older person's ability to process and apply knowledge? And should our educational curriculum follow this dichotomy?

In reading Rabbi Meir in 4:27, it would seem that he disagrees with this sharp distinction based upon age. He argues that one must not judge a book by its cover, or a person in accordance with their age. Some young people exhibit extraordinary wisdom, insight and sensitivity. Some mature adults reflect an immaturity and have little to share in knowledge or worldly advice. Rabbi Meir cautions us to afford young people the opportunity to prove themselves, and not to automatically defer to the elderly unless they offer insight and vision.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Israel. Country of Opposites

I love this country! Today, I was at the Tel Aviv Port. Great place. all of Tel Aviv is gearing up for Thursday night's "Layla Lavan" (lit. White Night) when there are all night long events throughout the city's cultural establishments.

I loved these two posters that were up in the port area.

On the one hand, Kabbalat Shabbat:

On the other hand: Yoga blessings to the setting sun!

Judaism and Paganism hand in hand - or just good old fashioned tolerance?

Well, actually I just love the fact that these two things can co-exist. And it is an acolade to the place of Judaism in Israel, and to Tel Aviv, that they hold something called "Kabbalat Shabbat.' (Bialik took "secular Oneg Shabbat sessions very seriously.) I know that it is probably way different from Kabbalat Shabbat in my shul, but they are welcoming Shabbat! That is a great thing!

Wednesday, June 01, 2011

Shopping in Jerusalem on Jerusalem Day

Yesterday, as dusk was falling on Jerusalem, I was wandering around the industrial zone of Talpiot, looking for a couple of pairs of shorts for my 6 year-old. His are all worn out or don't fit, and he has been reminding me on a daily basis that I promised to buy him new clothing.

I was wondering whether this was "appropriate" behaviour for Yom Yerushalayim, or whether I should be dressed in blue and white, waving a flag, and praising God. And then I remembered Yehuda Amichai's lovely poem:


Visits of condolence is all we get from them.
They squat at the Holocaust Memorial,
They put on grave faces at the Wailing Wall
And they laugh behind heavy curtains
In their hotels.
They have their pictures taken
Together with our famous dead
At Rachel’s Tomb and Herzl’s Tomb
And on the top of Ammunition Hill.
They weep over our sweet boys
And lust over our tough girls
And hang up their underwear
To dry quickly
In cool, blue bathrooms.

Once I sat on the steps by a gate at David’s Tower, I placed my two heavy baskets at my side. A group of tourists was standing around their guide and I became their target marker. “You see that man with the baskets? Just right of his head there’s an arch from the Roman period. Just right of his head.” “But he’s moving, he’s moving!”
I said to myself: redemption will come only if their guide tells them, “You see that arch from the Roman period? It’s not important: but next to it, left and down a bit, there sits a man who’s bought fruit and vegetables for his family.”
(Hebrew version here)

In this poem, Amichai feels that people visit Israel to salute death, to acclaim dead politicians, and to view ancient artifacts, remaining in the tourist bubble (represented by the hotel room.) But the real life - the redemption that is happening NOW - is the stuff of ordinary people going about their daily lives in Jerusalem. That is a source of wonder and amazement, and it is alive not dead.

There is certainly a time and place to celebrate, commemorate, to thank God for his salvation and kindness, (I did say Hallel this morning.)

Maybe I am suffering from a serious case of self-justification, and yet, possibly the best way that I commemorated Yom Yerushalayim this year was just living like a normal citizen in Jerusalem. I went to work, and then I bought my son a few pairs of shorts, and that is, in its own small way, an act of redemption. Because for 2000 years, there were no Jews doing that in Jerusalem. I came home, and took my other son to a supermarket (to buy Bissli for his Yom Yerushalayim party) in a place at which soldiers were fighting battles just 44 years ago. We thank God that we have the gift of being able to live normally in our beloved city.

Happy Jerusalem Day!

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Herzl in Tel Aviv - 2011

In 2004 the Israeli Knesset passed the Binyamin Ze’ev Herzl Law (In Commemoration of His Memory and His Work), 5764-2004.The purpose of the Law is, “to inculcate future generations with the vision, legacy and activity of Binyamin Ze’ev Herzl, to honor his memory, to teach future generations and to effect the creation of the State of Israel in accordance with his Zionist vision, together with its institutions, its objectives and its image.”

Tomorrow, the Knesset is due to have its annual session which discusses Herzl and Zionism's vision.

Two comments are worthwhile making.

1. Herzl's vision could not have been more successful. We have a living, breathing country in our "old-new land" fulfilling Herzl's dream of normalisation.

But Herzl's vision couldn't have been more wrong! Herzl thought that our Statehood would bring anti-semitism to an end, facilitating Jewish normalisation in the global community. And yet, today, Israel is the focal point of world anti-semitism. This reality lends a fundamental paradox to Herzl's legacy that we don't quite know how to digest.

2. But the real reason that I wanted to write this post is due to this graffiti that I found and photographed in Tel Aviv:

This graffiti is a play on Herzl's famous line: "If you will it; it is no dream." Herzl's original statement indicated that if we have the determination, the courage and desire, then anything is possible. This sort of ideology which animated the founding generation of the State of Israel was responsible for the passion and belief that Medinat Yisrael would come into existence and that it was worth toiling for, fighting for.

Unfortunately, this graffiti shows that there are some who today preach a different ideology: "If you don't want; there is no necessity." לא רוצים - לא צריך. This is not a joke; and if it is, it is humour in poor taste. This way of thinking takes Israel for granted, or worse - suggests that Israel is just worthless, not worth fighting for. It is sad to see how within 63 years of independence there are Israelis who fail to understand what we fight for, who lack the historical perspective to know how desperate the situation of world Jewry was in a pre-Medinat Yisrael world. These are people who fail to envisage the incredible state that we CAN create in Eretz Yisrael.

We still need to plant and tend the seeds of ideology, nurturing and fostering a passion and love for our country, hope for the future, and the wherewithall with which to build our collective future.

Happy Herzl Day!

Saturday, May 14, 2011

At the Israel Museum

The other day I visited the newly renovated Israel Museum to see the archaeology section there. For a Tanakh teacher, it was a real treat; there are phenomenal exhibits which bring Tanakh to life.

We saw artifacts from ancient Hazor, the royal archway from Achav's palace in Shomron. Here is the earliest reference to the "House of David" (See right - highlighted in white")

Here (below) is Sennaherib's prism which tells the story of the Assyrian attack on Hizkiyahu. It is incredible what these archeological artifacts reveal. For example, until we had these Asyyrian records, we never knew that Sennaherib described his besieging of Hizkiyah as if Hizkiyahu was a "caged bird." But after we learn this, we better understand why Yishayhu (31:5) uses the metaphor that, "as birds fly free, so will the Lord of Hosts protect you." Yishayahu MUST be responding to Sennaherib's propaganda, but until this archaeological find, who knew?

It is incredible to see these connections with the past. When you see Hizkiyahu's royal seal in front of your eyes, when you can look at "shekel" and "gera" weights and measures, the amazing silver "scroll" of Birkhat Kohanim, found in the Hinnom valley, and so much else which directly overlaps with Tanakh, it is quite wonderful!

The museum has been beautifully refurbished and renewed and it looks amazing.

One of the things I was excited to see was Anish Kapur's special new sculture. The way I read about it is that it reflects the notion of ירושלים של מעלה\ ירושלים של מטה as it switches heaven and earth. In Jerusalem, the "heaven" is on "earth," and the "earth" is in the "heavens." What an amazing metaphor, and what a stupendous creation to express this idea.

Come visit!

Monday, May 09, 2011

Beauty - A terrible basis for marriage!

I am currently teaching a course at Pardes entitled, "War and Peace." No! It isn't about Tolstoy. It is an examination of the morality of war in Sefer Devarim.

This is taught on the Community Education program at Pardes which means that the class is exceedingly heterogeneous. In my class of 20 students this week, we had two 20 year old WUJS students, a 40 year old tour guide, a retired president of a prestigious university, and two fully participating students who were over 90 years old! The beautiful thing about having mature adult students is the life-wisdom they they bring with them, and a perspective of experience that comes with a long life. As Devarim 32 tells us:

Remember the days of old;
consider the generations long past.
Ask your father and he will tell you,
your elders, and they will explain to you.

We were studying the case of the אשת יפת תואר - the beautiful captive woman. The Torah legislates an entire procedure for a man who sees a beautiful woman amongst the prisoners of war and wishes to marry her. There are serious questions of morality here that relate to human rights, to intermarriage, assimilation, and so forth. (Read more on the topic here.)

One elderly man - he must be at least 85 - raised his hand, quite agitated. He objected to the entire discussion:

"I am bothered by the Ramban," he said; "He keeps talking about beauty as the basis of attraction between this man and this woman. But doesn't he know - beauty is a terrible basis for a marriage. Beauty fades and is fleeting; marriage is based on so much more!"

Everyone in the class laughed. The wonderful thing about this man was the straightforward, almost naive, simple way in which he said it, with a "childish" innocence. Only after everyone laughed did he realise that what he had said could sound funny. It was if he was unaware that we live in a society that is youth-intoxicated, botox-injected and obsessed with external appearances. For him, it was most preposterous to base a relationship on good-looks, which, as this wrinkled, stooped, wonderfully cheerful and happy man knows, dissipate and diminish with the years. Love is based upon something deeper.

In Hebrew, the word "זקן" means "old" but also "wise." - How true that is!

Friday, February 11, 2011

Parashat Tezave. "Tamid" - Always connected!

(NOTE. I particularly enjoyed developing this Devar Torah because its source was the Concordance! By carefully observing instances of a word throughout Torah, I noticed something novel and new. It is amazing how a simple tool like the Concordance - or the Bar Ilan program - can contribute to our understanding of Torah. )

A key feature of the drama of Parshat Tetzave is the notion of "Tamid;" - that the service of God in the Mishkan must be constant, or perpetual.

Let us examine the evidence:

1. The Menora: "To light a perpetual candle (ner TAMID)"

2. and 3. The Breastplate: "Aharon shall carry the names of the Children of Israel… on his heart … before God, at all times (TAMID)."

4. The Tzitz (headplate) "… and it shall be continually (TAMID) upon his forehead…"

5&6. The Daily Sacrifice (Korban Tamid) "…Year-old lambs, two a day, for perpetuity (TAMID) … a Tamid (continual) burnt offering at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting"

7. Incense: "a constant (TAMID) offering of incense."

The theme of "Tamid" resonates throughout the parsha quite clearly, The impression is that the Mishkan service be continual, without a break, constantly serving God. Through the reptition and the consistency, the perpetual motion, we build a sense of Israel's never-ending dedication before God.

Interestingly, many of these activities only take place once or twice a day! The Menora is lit each night (Rashi); the priest's clothes are only worn when the High Priest is engaged in Temple service, but not at night, for instance. The Korban Tamid is each morning and evening, as is the incense. These are not continual acts.

There is a difference between a continual, uninterrupted phenomenon, and one which is periodic, even if regular. Tamid, interestingly, means an action which is not perpetual. But by being a regular, daily, constant rhythm, it engenders the momentum and power of something which is continual, seemingly without interruption.

The clear upshot of all this is that one of the essential elements of Avodat Hashem (worship of God) is indeed that regular, daily action, which is the essential ingredient of "Tamid." Today, the way that we demonstrate this dedication is through our daily prayers which are modeled on the Temple service, and in their constant thrice-daily tempo, they too generate the energy and power of "Tamid."

(In our world, where we find ourselves needing to be "online" at all times, we might have some contemporary reflections to add to this notion of TAMID and the relationship between constant connection and our deeper commitments in life.)


I decided to look up the word "Tamid" and see where it appears in chumash and in which contexts. I was quite surprised to see the results, which to my mind give us something of a "Hiddush."

The word "Tamid" appears 18 times in Humash. 16 of those instances are clearly related to the avodat HaMishkan, the Temple service, indicative, as we have said, of the constant and continual rhythm of the Mishkan service.

However, there are two other instances. The first relates to the pillar of cloud or fire that hovered above the Mishkan from the moment of its construction:

"On the day that the Tabernacle (Mishkan) was set up, the cloud covered the Mishkan, the Tent of the pact; and in the evening it rested …in the likeness of fire until morning. It was always so (Tamid): The cloud covered it, appearing as fire at night." (Bamidbar 9:15-16)

(טו) וּבְיוֹם הָקִים אֶת הַמִּשְׁכָּן כִּסָּה הֶעָנָן אֶת הַמִּשְׁכָּן לְאֹהֶל הָעֵדֻת וּבָעֶרֶב יִהְיֶה עַל הַמִּשְׁכָּן כְּמַרְאֵה אֵשׁ עַד בֹּקֶר:
(טז) כֵּן יִהְיֶה תָמִיד הֶעָנָן יְכַסֶּנּוּ וּמַרְאֵה אֵשׁ לָיְלָה: במדבר פרק ט

Now this is surprising, because the actor, the subject, has shifted. In the 16 other instances of this word, man engages in an act of worship that is in some way, "Tamid." But now, it God who is relating to Israel in a mannaer reflective of "Tamid." And this is exceptionally powerful. It is as if God reciprocates our dedicated "Tamid – perpetual" service, actively demonstrating that His protective presence remains over the Mishkan at ALL TIMES - Tamid! Man's constant presence in the Mishkan, stimulates God's ongoing protective presence over Bnei Yisrael.

Interestingly, it is Israel who create FIRE in a perpetual manner every evening by lighting the Menora (and also continually on the Mizbeach אש תמיד תוקד על המזבח לא תכבה (ויקרא ו').) Israel also generates CLOUD – ענן הקטרת. We can suggest that there is a visual symmetry, a realistic corollary of man's fire and cloud corresponding with God's fire and cloud.


But the second (or 18th) reference is more exciting still. In reference to the Land of Israel, we read:

It is a land upon which the Lord your God seeks; His eyes are constantly (tamid) upon it, from the year's beginning to year's end."(11:12)

אֶרֶץ אֲשֶׁר ה' אֱלֹהֶיךָ דֹּרֵשׁ אֹתָהּ תָּמִיד עֵינֵי ה' אֱלֹהֶיךָ בָּהּ מֵרֵשִׁית הַשָּׁנָה וְעַד אַחֲרִית שָׁנָה: ס דברים פרק יא פסוק יב

In the Wilderness, God responds to our Tamid – our regular commitment - by concentrating His Presence over the Mishkan at the epicentre of the Israelite camp. But this passuk takes it all to a higher level. In the Land of Israel, God extends His providence and protection to the ENTIRE land, which God watches and protects, TAMID – perpetually. In the Land of Israel, the entire land is under God's protective gaze and nourished by His spiritual proximity.

וכן יהי רצון
שבת שלום!

Friday, February 04, 2011

Haredim turned Hilonim - New Israeli series

This week, a new series began on Israeli TV. It is a drama about a group of Hilonim (secular Israelis) who have all left the Haredi (Ultra Orthodox) community. It is called Simanei Sheela (Question Marks) which is a play on the phrase חזרה בשאלה - a contemporary Hebrew phrase indicating a movement from the Religious world to the irreligious. You can watch the opening episode here. It centers around a clandestine apartment which is a "safe house" for Haredi escapees. They keep the address secret so that the Haredi community cannot find them.

One of the fascinating scenes in episode 1 sees all the members of the apartment eating Friday night dinner, with the TV on, smoking, and singing zemirot! A passionate debate ensues instigated by the freshest memeber of the apartment as to why they should be singing zemirot at all if they are now Secular. As many op-eds on the topic have noted (link, link), any religious person who moves to the Hiloni community still carries the baggage of his or her religion throughout their lives! For these people, their songs are still a part of their identity. Their secret knock is to the beat of Hassidic hit music!
Another great scene is when one of the girls who has already been secular for 3 years, becomes terrified of a dog that barks at her. This plays into one of the classic cliches about Haredim that they are terrified of dogs. (Since I also share this fear, I fully identified.)

Incidentally, the phrase חזרה בשאלה is a play on the term חזרה בתשובה. Rather than translating it as "returning (to God) in repentace," it is read by the secular public as "a return to having answers" as if the religious world purports to being able to offer answers to life's difficult questions. In that case חזרה בשאלה means "living with questions." I have to say that from my perspective, this is wholly wrong. I follow Rav Soloveitchik in this regard who says that belief in and practice of Judaism isn't a respite for life's big questions, in fact, it just deepens them! See Halakhic Man, footnote 4(!). Religion should deepen our sensitivity, our caring, our ethical conscience, our peoplehood, our humanity. Our struggles are more and not fewer.
So, let's see how this series develops. Will it have any depth? Will it just be a Haredi-bashing series, or will it be intelligent about this fascinating sub-group in Israeli society who certainly do not have an easy life.

Galant, and the morality of our leaders

The saga of the Israeli Chief of Staff goes on and on. It is upsetting to see the real bitterness, infighting, intense rivalry and interpersonal acrimony in the leadership echelons of the army/Ministry of Defense that this “story” has revealed. However, in the wake of this turmoil, I would like to make a couple of comments that regard morality in public life.

First, this episode demonstrates that Israel is looking to have a leadership which is honest and ethical, upholding high standards. After a corrupt presidents and prime ministers, we are embarrassed by our leaders. Israeli society has had enough of corruption. I am glad that the primary question that is being asked about anyone who rises to high office relates to his ethical standing. This is a good sign.

But I also feel that Yoav Galant has been dealt a raw deal. Yes – his house or “estate” raises serious worries, if only about ostentatious style and extraordinary size. But on the other hand, even if he filed a request for a building permit falsely, even if he did seize some public land, I am not sure this is reason to reject him, especially after he has already been appointed.I asked an Israeli judge about this last week what he thought about the scandal. He said: “They are holding him up to a standard of angels; but we are all human beings, and we all make mistakes.” (link, link) Yoav Galant has been hailed by his soldiers and colleagues as an impressive professional who upholds a high ethical standard, and is infused by his ideological Zionist mission. He sounds pretty good to me. If he had lapse of honesty regarding the legality of his home, so be it. I am not sure that this is a general statement about his integrity and honesty.

I would go further. We are dealing with powerful men. There is a reason that you and I are not the Chief of Staff. The sense of responsibility, the willingness to take chances, the tenacity to rise to the top – these are things that are essential if one is to rise to the top of an organization like Tzahal. Like in the case of Police Chief Danino, (link) anyone who thinks that you can get there without putting a foot wrong here or there, is mistaken. He who dares wins, but in that daring, you sometimes do create enemies, and make errors. So in this case, from what we know, I still think he would have done a good, honest job.

Lastly - I believe that the way that this has been publically juggled between the government, the State Comptroller, Attorney General, and Supreme Court, and inflated by a sensatialist media is outrageous. It should have been dealt with in a simpler and more discreet fashion. I also wonder whether someone is targeting Galant. After the forged letter, and now this episode, does someone have an inappropriate interest to see Galant outside the position of Chief of Staff?