Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Rejecting the Extremists in our Midst

Today's Daf Yomi (Shabbat 54b-55a) presented a forthright and powerful ethical message:

Anyone who is able to protest against the transgressions of one's household and does not, is punished for the actions of the members of the household; anyone who is able to protest against the transgressions of one's townspeople and does not, is punished for the transgressions of the townspeople; anyone who is able to protest against the transgressions of the entire world and does not is punished for the transgressions of the entire world.
We are all culpable for our environment. We cannot claim that we are not interconnected with those who live in our home, our community, our town, or even our planet. It is our responsibility to raise our voices to protest when we see injustice, wrongdoing.

This passage struck a deep chord, because I had been thinking about the incident that happened last week with Rav Lior. If you are not up to date, here is the story as reported (link):
Rabbi Dov Lior, the chief rabbi of Kiryat Arba and one of the settler leaders, was surprised last week by the chilly reception he received from reserve soldiers stationed on the Gaza border.

One of the reserve soldiers called up by the IDF at start of Operation Pillar of Defense was Rabbi Lior's son-in-law, Efraim Ben-Shachar. Ahead of the weekend, shortly before the reservists were released, Ben-Shachar invited his father-in-law to meet with infantry fighters and support them with a Torah lesson following the arrival of many artists throughout the week.

But Rabbi Lior's visit sparked a row. Some of the unit's soldiers were outraged by the presence of the controversial rabbi, who had endorsed the "King's Torah" essay, which legitimizes the killing of non-Jews.

'Persona non grata'

According to one of the unit's soldiers, Omer Parter, an activist in the Working Youth movement, protested the rabbi's presence. Rabbi Lior tried to shake his hand, but he refused. When the rabbi asked, "Am I not allowed to speak to the soldiers?" Parter replied, "You are a persona non grata here."

As religious soldiers began gathering around the rabbi to listen to what he had to say, Prater told his comrades that Lior was one of the rabbis who gave their consent to the "King's Torah" book. Along with other soldiers, he searched for quotes from the book on his cell phone, including the permission to kill small children "if it is clear that they will grow up to pose a threat to our nation."

As tensions rose, Rabbi Lior decided to leave several minutes later without addressing the soldiers.

"I believe there is no room for Rabbi Lior's messages in the army," Prater told Ynet. "I oppose and condemn Rabbi Dov Lior's work and activities. I did stop him from speaking in light of his support for Baruch Goldstein and his conduct in the period before Rabin's murder. This is how I educate my pupils at the Working Youth – to love the land and practice equality, and not to hate anyone."

Amos Netzer, a friend of the protesting soldiers, wrote about the incident on his Facebook page: "I am proud of my friends who insisted on the truth, despite the harsh conflict with their comrades, exposing the true colors of one of the greatest instigators in Israel."

So that is the story. I read it and felt inspired by of those soldiers who actively opposed Rav Lior's presence in the army base. Rav Lior is an extremist. His views encourage violence and even murder. His political views, phrased in religious language, were part of the incitement in the lead-up to Rabin's murder. He has supported the book "Torat Hamelekh" a pseudo-halakhic work that incites violence and hatred against Arabs, moreover, when he was summoned for questioning by the Israeli police, he refused to comply. I have not studied his works in detail, but even upon this evidence alone, his views and personal example are dangerous for Israelis and for Judaism.

I asked myself whether I would have protested his arrival at an army base, or at my shul, with the moral clarity and stridency of those soldiers, and I am unsure whether I would have raised my voice or remained on the sidelines, not taking a stand. I live in a yishuv (settlement) in which I feel like a moderate, and I frequently encounter many people hold extreme views, some of which are expressed in blatantly racist language. When people write something offensive, I usually just read and ignore it; after all who wants to get into a fight? And standing up for your beliefs against other people always means that you will be attacked, accused and maligned. It is compounded more when, in the case of Rav Lior, the man is undeniably a huge Torah scholar and has a devoted following. There is a conflict: Do I shame a Torah scholar? And yet, I find his views unacceptable. How strongly should I oppose him? Should I personally not attend his lectures, or should I protest outside them? Should I campaign that he be removed from his post as chief rabbi of Kiryat Arba? (- a position paid for by the State of Israel.)

Here let me make a general comment which goes to the heart of the problem. Every community has difficulty reigning in their extremists. We propose that the Haredim in Beit Shemesh control their extremists who insult and harass schoolgirls on their way to study. We suggest that ordinary Palestinians bring pressure to bear on Hamas to stop firing rockets into Israel and to cease storing weaponry in hospitals and kindergartens. We wonder why the Peace camp cannot restrain their anarchists who throw stones at the IDF in Billin every Friday. And the moderate settler community should be responsible to expunge their extremists.

But it is hard for the community at large to bring down their radicals, the people at the more extreme fringes of the community. Why? First, these are frequently scary or powerful groups. But second, these people share the ideology of the entire community; their basic political perspective is not enormously different from everyone else. But they take it to an extreme, engaging in violence or unethical behavior. So how does one draw lines? And how does a person turn against their neighbour and possibly report them to the police, or protest against them? And how does one know for sure if this person is harmful?  

In a lecture I attended recently, they spoke about how one of the favourite pastimes of kids in Israel in the 1950's was going out and picking wild flowers, with some even sold commercially. In the mid-1960s, however, the Nature Reserves Authority, with the help of the Society for the Protection of Nature, published a list of protected wildflowers and launched a vigorous education campaign. The public was urged: "Don't pick! Don't uproot! Don't buy! And don't sell!" The effort saved Israel's wildflowers, and three decades later it is considered the most successful nature protection campaign conducted in the country. A professor of botany (who has an official permit to pick wild flowers) reported that he cannot go into the countryside on weekends or vacations because he is stridently accused and virtually accosted with children who berate him for ruining nature!
If we can teach our kids about protecting flowers and empower them to speak out, how do we educate our kids to speak out against other forms of extremism?

violence is involved, that should be a clear line. I often wonder how we can hear so many reports about settlers cutting down Arab's trees and nobody has been arrested and put on trial. Either the reports are fabricated, or the police are inept, or worse -apathetic.Why have the perpetrators of "Tag Mechir" ("Price Tag") attack not been located and tried? The moderates condemn them but will the mainstream settler community actively eschew them?

Some time back, when a nearby mosque was firebombed, I attended a public demonstration to protest the fact that a Jew would attack a mosque. But in an area of many thousands of Jews, only 30 people turned up. Happily several key local Rabbis made a visit to the mosque to express their moral outrage, and to express their regret to the local muslims, but again, these are the moderates - Rav Lior was not there. A similar scenario when some youths in the area threw a firebomb at an Arab taxi with six people injured. Moderates condemn, the rest are silent. If we do not protest these things, are we not compliant when the next attack comes? We need to find ways to empower ourselves to eject extremist elements from our communities, and to send a clear message that racist, hateful and murderous philosophies, and acts of violence or prejudice are unacceptable and reprehensible.

In the meantime, think about this. Would you have protested Rav Lior's visit? And what will you do next time you encounter reprehensible behavior?

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Missiles in the South and Parashat Toldot

This week's parsha finds Isaac in the South, the Negev, under attack. The people of Gerar perceive him as a foreigner, accusing him of usurping their land, and they challenge his right to live in the region. However, in contrast to Abraham who is a transient shepherd, Isaac is a farmer who is deeply connected to the land, making the desert bloom and digging for water deep into the soil. He refuses to be intimidated into abandoning his farm, his land. He digs and finds a well of spring water. He gives it a name - "Esek" - which means contention or dispute. Isaac is not flustered. He digs another well and names it "Sitnah" - Enmity or Hostility. Clearly the conflict continues unabated. Isaac represents the quality of Gevurah, tenacity, persistence, and he doesn't give up. However, the 3rd well that he digs reflects the fact that he has prevailed in his struggle. He calls it "Rehovot" indicative of space, relief, calm. Once the people of Gerar understand that he is not going to leave, and that he is growing stronger, they accept his presence and approach him to make peace. (Read Genesis 26:12-33.)

This could not be more relevant and resonant to events "down South" this week. We, like our father Isaac, will grip the land, and we will not be intimidated by those who seek to dislodge us. We too will persist so that we may flourish here, and eventually, when they accept our presence here, achieve peace with our neighbours.

Shabbat Shalom!

Monday, September 03, 2012

Rosh Hashanna 5773 - Shofar and God's Love of Israel

On the one hand, the cycle of the Jewish year is predictable and familiar: The solemnity of Yom Kippur, the smells and feel of the Sukka and the 4 species, the warmth and intimacy of Hannnuka, Purim's raucous frivolity, the tunes and tastes of Seder night, the lilt of Eikha on the 9th of Av, and so forth. We know what to anticipate, and we look forward to the special atmosphere that each holiday brings.

And yet, each year is unique. Something is happening in my life this year that is different from last year. As individuals, we face new concerns and challenges; our health, our finances, our family undergo change and development. Our insights expand us, new experiences unlock fresh emotions and understanding. Nationally, the challenges of Israel and the Jewish people shift and fluctuate with time. And so, in some way, each year is experienced anew.

And so, looking towards Rosh Hashanna, I found myself seeking an insight that will generate new kavanna, a fresh perspective to inspire the powerful davening experience of the day. I would like to share the following idea which has excited me this year. I hope it will affect you as well.

Parashat Balak records the famous blessings (that might have been curses) uttered by Bilaam. In those blessings Bilaam praises the unique relationship between God and Israel: 
לֹא הִבִּיט אָוֶן בְּיַעֲקֹב וְלֹא רָאָה עָמָל בְּיִשְׂרָאֵל יְהוָה אֱלֹהָיו עִמּוֹ וּתְרוּעַת מֶלֶךְ בּוֹ.
"He has not beheld iniquity in Jacob, Neither has he seen perverseness in Israel; The Lord his God is with him, And the shout of a king is among them." (Bamidbar 23:21)
This passuk is particularly applicable to Rosh Hashanna as it features in the series of ten pesukim recited in the malkhuyot section of Musaf. On first reading it seems pretty straightforward in expressing God's love of Israel in that He overlooks our sins and faults. The verse's four clauses tell us that 1.) God ignores our sins, 2.) He is oblivious to our flaws, moreover 3.) "The Lord God is with him" i.e. with Israel, in other words He actively associates His identity with the Jewish people. But then we have the concluding phrase – "Teruat Melekh" - "and the shout (Terua) of a king is among them" - and this is difficult to understand. What is this "shout" or "fanfare" of the king? And how does it feature in connection with Israel?

Ibn Ezra writes: ותרועת מלך בו: במחנה ישראל וזה ותקעתם תרועה – "The Terua of the king is within him: In the camp of Israel, and this is what is indicated by   'And they shall sound the Terua.'(Bamidbar 10,5)."

Ibn Ezra is quoting a passuk that describes how trumpets were sounded when the Israelites journeyed in the wilderness. But how is this shofar blast demonstrative of God? In fact, when we read the context in Bamidbar, it seems like a signal, indicating to the throngs of Israel announcing that they would be breaking camp. Why is the pre-travel alarm signal defined as "the Terua of the King?"

Sephorno's reading offers one line of interpretation:

הם תוקעים תרועה בנסוע המשכן לשמחה שיגילו במלכם –
"They sounded a [trumpet] blast when the Mishkan traveled to express joy, delighting in their King [God]." In other words, this was a "blast of the king" because the Terua sound heralded the movement of the Mishkan, not the nation. This fanfare underscored God's presence amidst them. Israel's honor was the fact that God established His earthly residence amongst them, so that even when they journeyed, God's presence traveled with them.

These commentaries share the interpretation that the verse refers to an actual trumpet blast blown in the camp of Israel. However, this reading creates an imbalance in the passuk as the first 3 clauses refer to God's action, whereas the 4th clause depicts Israel's act (of sounding the trumpets.)

The Ramban however reads this phrase as God's action rather than Israel's: "ותרועת מלך גבור בו שלא ינוצח לעולם" – "The mighty King's war-shout (Terua) is amongst them, that they will never be defeated." In other words, the "Terua" is not a trumpet blast at all, but it refers to the sounds of war. This phrase states that God will ensure Israel's victory on the battlefield.

But Rashi contributes the most creative and surprising reading:
"ותרועת מלך בו: לשון חבה ורעות כמו רעה דוד אוהב דוד ויתנה למרעהו וכן תרגם אונקלוס ושכינת מלכהון ביניהון" – "A Language of love and friendship, as in 'The friend of David' (II Sam 15:37), [and see Judges 15:6]…"
For Rashi, the "Terua" is not a blast of the horn at all, not for travel or in the battlefield. It is a derivative of the word רעות meaning friendship, affection, fondness for a beloved.

For Rashi, the verse as a whole expresses the love between God and Israel whereby, as in a human love-relationship, objectivity is swept aside, flaws are ignored, and closeness and companionship is sought. Rashi's reading is highly attractive as it remains true to theme:
"He [God] is oblivious to Jacob's sin, and fails to notice Israel's errors, The Lord his God is with him, And the love of the king is extended to him [Israel]."
Here the word "Terua" is transformed from a horn blast to a deep emotion of love. If we can apply this to our Rosh Hashanna – the "Yom Terua;" God commands us to sound the Shofar, but that very word, and hence that gesture is symbolic and expressive of God's friendship and love towards Israel. Traditionally, the Terua instills a sense of dread, a feeling of fear. At Mt. Sinai, the people heard the shofar and trembled. And yet we are proposing a model which is the polar opposite. We sound a fanfare to God, but in truth God is giving us the Terua - a gift of love - which is a divine opportunity to celebrate the special relationship, the eternal love of God for His nation. And as we blow the Shofar of God's devotion and affection, we hope that God, in his love, will overlook the sins of Israel.

Thursday, August 09, 2012

How Jewish are the Olympics?

I don't mean to spoil the party, but I need to say that there is something very cruel about the Olympics. An athlete trains, wins competitions, spends years of discipline, toil and sweat in dedication to their sport, excels in their field, and then is named the leading sportsman of their country. Then the athlete travels to the Olympic games, and comes 8th. No medal, no national anthem. The next day, the newspaper discusses their "failure" and they are interviewed on national radio in a spirit of commiseration and disappointment. Now, let us get this in perspective - this is the most supreme athlete in their country. This person is the 8th fastest/ strongest/ most skilled sportsman in the WORLD. This person lost by a fraction of a second, or by a 1/100th of a point. And they are cruelly discarded into the  garbage dump of history.

Now does this make any sense at all?  Why is this competition so narrow, so inconsiderate? The winner takes all, and the loser? ... what is left for the loser?

All of this gave me pause to consider Rav Soloveitchik's comments in his article, Catharsis (Tradition, 1978)

The mere myth of the hero gave the aesthete endless comfort. At least, the classical aesthete said to himself, there was an individual who dared to do the impossible and to achieve the grandiose. In short, the hero of classical man was the grandiose figure with whom, in order to satisfy his endless vanity, classical man identified himself: hero worship is basically self-worship. The classical idea of heroism, which is aesthetic in its very essence, lacks the element of absurdity and is intrinsically dramatic and theatrica1. The hero is an actor who performs in order to impress an appreciative audience. The crowd cheers, the chronicler records, countless generations afterwards admire, bards and minstrels sing of the hero. The classical heroic gesture represents, as I said before, frightened, disenchanted man, who tries to achieve immortality and permanence by identifying himself with the heroic figure on the stage. It does not represent a way of life. It lasts for a while, vibrant and forceful,  but soon man reverts to the non-heroic mood of everyday living.
This depiction accurately describes the Olympic games. It is about the human with superhuman strength - the figure of the "superhero" - who demonstrates the limits of human achievement and thereby wows us, somehow generating the confidence that we too share some of that greatness, that someone will save the world. It is about the show, the cheering crowds, but what does it have to do with me? Rav Reuven Ziegler explains the Rav in the following way:

"Catharsis" is a Greek term denoting purifying or purging (as when one purges gold of its impurities in a crucible). In his "Poetics," Aristotle defined the function of tragedy as catharsis of the emotions of terror and pity. Man is often troubled; he is full of anxieties which interfere with his social success. When he watches a tragic drama at the theater, he releases these emotions in a controlled and safe environment, emerging from the experience cleansed.
Although the Rav does not directly compare his notion of catharsis with that of Aristotle, the contrast is staggering (and certainly intentional). For the Rav, catharsis is not the passive response of a theatergoer but an active and demanding way of life. It is designed to attain not equanimity but redemption, to produce not an arrogant patrician but a sanctified personality balancing majesty and humility. While Greek tragedy teaches that man is an object acted upon by random forces and suffering an inexorable fate, Judaic catharsis is a means for man, as a subject, to connect himself actively to a higher destiny.
So what does Rav Soloveitchik offer as an alternative to the brute strength of the athlete, the theatrical experience of the "Games"? Rav Soloveitchik proposes that every person can become a hero! They will not be the fastest or strongest; but גבורה as opposed to כח (brute strength) is a quality of the mind, a spirit of endurance. For Rav Soloveitchik, adherence to Halakha that takes place in the privacy of a Jewish home; the commitment and self-control inherent in that system - THAT is heroism. And this is a different type of Catharsis, because it actively purifies our lives, our spiritual selves. It is not a show; it is life itself:
"It often happens that a man takes a wife when he is forty years of age. When... he wishes to associate with her, she says to him, 'I have seen a rose-red speck (of menstrual blood),' he immediately recoils. What made him retreat and keep away from her? Was there an iron fence, did a serpent bite him, did a scorpion sting him? ... Only the words of the Torah which are as soft as a bed of lilies." ( Shir ha Shirim R. to Song 7:3.)
Bride and bridegroom are young, physically strong and passionately in love with each other. Both have patiently waited for this rendezvous to take place. Just one more step and their love would have been fulfilled, a vision realized. Suddenly the bride and groom make a movement of recoiL. He, gallantly, like a chivalrous knight, exhibits paradoxical  heroism. He takes his own defeat. There is no glamor attached to his withdrawal ... The heroic act did not take place in the presence of jubilating crowds; no bards will sing of these two modest, humble young people. It happened in the sheltered privacy of their home, in the stillness of the night.

Of course athletes have enormous self-discipline, and yet, for me, the Olympics fail to relate. Judaism is not measured by who comes 1st, second or third, by the speed of the 100m, or the most exquisite equestrian performance. Rather, it is about the sanctity of the homes that we create, of the small acts of kindness, of the daily self-control, of the struggle with the evil inclination, of the life lived in adherence to a higher calling, of dedication to God, which in turn elevates and purifies man.

Pirkei Avot expresses the irony that the גבור - the athlete or hero - is not the person who exhibits greatest physical  prowess, but rather the inner strength - הכובש את יצרו.

Sunday, August 05, 2012

King David. Two Perspectives (Daf Yomi - Berakhot 3b-4a)

On the Israeli Religious Zionist scene, a storm has raged in recent weeks about the proper way to study Tanakh (Bible). Does one study the text itself, or does one approach Tanakh exclusively through the filter of Hazal (the early Rabbis)? Now this is a highly politicized debate, but at some level it has focused upon the appropriate manner in which to treat Biblical characters, in particular the heroic ones. Should they be viewed as real people, great people, but with human achievements and also failings, or, alternatively, should they be seen as exemplary, almost superhuman role-models, whose sins are not open to assessment on a regular human sale of measurement?

This question is regularly brought to the fore in my Tanakh classroom, when studying Jacob's trickery of his father, or David's sin with Batsheva and Uriah. How should we assess these figures?

Well, in today's Daf Yomi, we see a classic example of one Rabbinic way of viewing King David that seems at variance with the Tanakh text.

Berakhot 3b-4a views David as the most pious of men, who spends his nights studying Torah and praying to God.
R. Ashi says: Till midnight he (King David) studied the Torah, from thence on he recited songs and praises.
He is a posek, a Rabbinic expert who issues Halakhic rulings on laws of Nidda and the like:
Thus spoke David before the Holy One, blessed be He: Master of the world, am I not pious? All the kings of the East and the West sit with all their pomp among their company, whereas my hands are soiled with the blood [of menstruation], with the foetus and the placenta, in order to declare a woman clean for her husband
David's advisor Benaayah is the head of the Sanhedrin, and the Kreti and Pleti are the scholars themselves.
I have frequently pondered upon the difference between a Tanakh-based education in the regard, as opposed to a Talmud based education. Let me explain. My children, and the students in the Religious Zionist school system meet David first as a warrior through the pages of Sefer Shemuel. He is the man first described in I Samuel ch. 16 as a man who is:
"... skillful in playing (the harp), a man of valor, a man of war, prudent in speech, and a man of good presence, and the LORD is with him."
Our students hear about how he kills the lion and bear, they watch him defeat Goliath and rise up the ranks in the army. They also know him as a principled man who will not kill the king, who wishes to build the Temple,  who understands his place "before God" as he dances in a sense of wild abandon before the Ark, who occasionally sins, but who lives his life with a palpable sense of God in all that he does. They may also know David's religious persona - his humility, passion, repentance, thankfulness, faith, God-awareness - from the Book of Tehillim. But the primary perspective of David is of a man involved in state affairs, a warrior, a deeply religious man, but a worldly person. This is the rpism through which they will view the trials and tribulations, the sins and triumphs that characterized his life.

But for the student who draws a perception of David from Massechet Berachot, David arises every night to sing God's praises, he is a man who debates technical Halakhic minutiae; he is first and foremost a man of prayer, a Talmud scholar. In a similar perception, the Talmud (Sanhedrin 49a) turns Joab's assassination of Avner into a complicated Halakhic debate about the laws of Halitza. David's warriors: Banayahu, Joab, Avner, are in fact, warriors of the Law.

My children see David in army uniform; the children of Meah Shearim see him in a long black coat sitting in the Beit Midrash. The difference is huge.

I am fully aware that at the foundation of this discussion is the genre of Talmudic aggada. Should aggada be understood as metaphor or read literally? When the Rabbis discussed biblical (and even Rabbinic) figures, were they discussing the past, or describing their contemporary reality? 

But I return to the fundamental point. What is my base line? When discussing characters in Tanakh, do I start with the Tanakh or the Talmud?

Monday, July 02, 2012

Only in Israel...

Only in Israel do they make a stamp dedicated to my favourite Tanakh!

(And in other related news, Microsoft were just forced to pay out 520,000 NIS as compensation/damages to Koren for using the Koren font without permission, in MS Word!)

Saturday, June 23, 2012

The Halakhic Spring - Jews Are Doin' It For Themselves

There was an interesting article in Haaretz this weekend about kosher restaurants that are abandoning their Kashrut licences due to their opposition to stringent rabbinic-authority standards, their high fees or simply kashrut inspectors who aren't qualified to do their jobs. These places remain loyal to kashrut but not to the rabbinic certification. Let me quote a few lines:

The Jerusalem Rabbinate requires restaurants that want a kashrut certificate to use only hydroponic produce, commonly known as "Gush Katif," because it's bug-free.
"You can't work with this lettuce," said restaurant owner Shai Gini. "It's not tasty, and you need three or four Gush Katif lettuces for every ordinary head of lettuce I'd buy in the [open-air] market." 

I have written in the past about the high price of increasingly stringent kashrut standards by which "kosher food is now more kosher than ever, and being eaten by fewer Jews!" One of the interesting observations in the article pointed out that ultimately, real kashrut in a restaurant relies on trust. Without the sense that the proprietor is genuinely committed to enforcing kashruth in his restaurant, anyone can betray the system when the supervisors back is turned!

Carousela's Vadai, who is Haredi, said he was disgusted that he was paying for supervision, but "no one ever came to check" his cafe. Many restaurant owners have said the same for years: A kashrut certificate is no guarantee that the restaurant is actually kosher, since at best, inspectors usually make only brief daily visits. Just last week, the Makor Rishon newspaper published a report detailing numerous cases in which the rabbinate declined to take away a restaurant's kashrut certificate - which, after all, provides it with income - even after blatantly nonkosher food was found...."Before there were certificates, kashrut was based on trust," said Topolino's Gini. "But the [rabbinate] system, like any bureaucratic system, always needs to invent more and more rules to strengthen its control over its community. There's a competition over who is stricter, and the customers lose."

Now, I do have worries about the kashrut in these eateries, beacuse, after all, vegetables do need to be properly checked and kashruth supervision does provide a certain impetus. But if we can move beyond the specific restaurant and kashruth issue, it was this paragraph that really caught my eye:

People familiar with the phenomenon say it is part of a more general trend: Israelis who care about observing Jewish law, including kashrut, but want nothing to do with the official rabbinate. Other aspects of this trend include weddings, funerals and even conversions in which the rabbinate is uninvolved.

This is quite a fascinating trend of a growing empowerment within the younger religious-zionist population in Israel, and around the world. It is happening in non-orthodox circles as well. Examples of this are independent minyanim, amongst them the Shira Chadasha movement, self-proclaimed as Orthodox, but unrecognised by most Orthodox rabbis! One finds non-rabbinic Jews making halakhic decisions for themselves without consulting with Rabbis - about birth control, hair covering and personal standards of dress, but also about communal issues that would have been under the purview of a Rabbi. Recently I have observed growing numbers of visitors to Israel for the chagim (holidays) confidently making their own decision of how many days yomtov to keep (1, 2, 1 and half) and many making their choice independently rather than under direct instruction of their Rabbi. We are talking about halakhic practices that are emerging from committed, educated young observant Jews. Journalist, Yair Ettinger wrote a series last summer about how religious Israelis are sidestepping the Rabbinate on marriage, divorce and burial, and any number of modern-orthodox weddings that I have attended recently  have included creative elements, especially as regards inclusion of women. 

I sense that this is a growing movement, and I think we can point to a few roots of this phenomenon. To start, today many young Jews find themselves highly educated and textually proficient. Today's generation are far more knowledgeable than in the past. In Israel many have spent five years or more in post high-school Yeshivot and Judaic university programs. From the US and UK, many have spent significant time in text learning environments. These people understand how the texts work and are confident that they can reach independent conclusions on the basis of those sacred texts. At times, their feeling is that mainstream halakhic practice fails to reflect their own values, and in search of greater authenticity, they decide, quite autonomously, to act independently.

In addition, this is reflective of a shift in the modern zeitgeist at large to a more empowered environment. I say this in regards to the Facebook, or social media revolution which has given greater leverage to rank and file individuals, from the "cottage-cheese protest" here in Israel last summer, to the Arab Spring.. The sense is that in today's world, the average citizen should exercise his or her voice. Furthermore, with the rise of the internet, expert information is merely a click away. In previous eras, expertise was rare, guarded, and out of reach. Nowadays, every person feels that they can become something of an expert, reading up on the topic at hand. This allows individuals to feel more informed and more capable of independent decision making.

But it goes deeper than that. Let me illustrate with a story. Some years ago, my son went to visit a lung specialist for a mild asthma problem. The doctor asked him a series of questions, like, "If you play football, are you short of breath?" or , "How many times a month do you need to take your inhaler?" At the end, he posed the question: "Well, do you think that you need to be taking your inhaler daily then?" And my son, hesitantly and rather bemused, responded, "um ... um ... that's what we've come to ask you?!"

I find that this pattern repeats itself in many fields. A generation ago, the investment manager would decide for his client which fund to invest in. Now he gives you a menu of options with the upside and downside of each , and you decide.

The school doesn't instruct a child what to matriculate in. They discuss the options, and expect the student together with his parents to make the final decision.

Expertise doesn't have the same authoritative veneer as it once did, and many questions are thrown back to the individual. Whether we have lost faith in a single correct answer in a post-modernist world, or whether the experts are simply afraid of getting it wrong, the average person makes his or her own life decisions.

And similarly in the religious sphere. The Israeli Religious-Zionist world, once a homogeneous identity, has refracted into a huge number of sub-groups, each with their particular nuance and emphasis, dress, songs and venerated leaders. Whether you are described as Rav Kook, Carlebach, a settler, an academic, whether your prime goal is professional success, if you are dati-lite, feminist, left-wing, gay, Breslev, and what have you, all these and more constitute the myriad strands that build what is now an individualized identity. Most Religious-Zionist people don't vote for religious parties today. People are defining themselves in new combinations, constructing their own unique identities, unafraid to practise an individualised lifestyle, and that includes all aspects of their Judaism. Let me stress, these people are not lax or disengaged from their Jewish observance; they are highly engaged, but precisely this new confidence means that frequently they are not looking for rabbinic supervision or approval. This is as true in Hampstead and on the Upper-West-Side as in Katamon and Baka.

And so we are facing a new reality. Rabbis wake up! This is where the people are. Do we know how to provide a Judaism that will be attractive to this generation? Is this a blessing, an opportunity, or a danger to Judaism? Where will this lead us?

Comments are welcome below....

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Yom Yerushalayim 5772

למה ירושלים תמיד שתים, של מעלה ושל מטה
ואני רוצה לחיות בירושלים של אמצע
בלי לחבוט את ראשי למעלה ובלי לפצוע את רגלי למטה.
ולמה ירושלים בלשון זוגית כמו ידיים ורגלים
אני רוצה להיות רק בירושל אחת
כי אני רק אני אחד ולא אניים

(יהודה עמיחי. פתוח סגור פתוח. דף 144)

United and divided, Holy and profane,
Consensus and contentious,
Of dreams and reality,
Of peace and of pain,
Of the One True God, and the God of all humanity.

… If only it could be simple!
But then would it be Jerusalem?

So, today is Yom Yerushalayim!
Was a beautiful tefilla and special Hallel today with feelings of gratitude for the gifts with which God has blessed us. 
Here are some of my favourite Jerusalem blog-posts over the years. Looking back at them, I now realise that several of them deal with the clash between the Dream and Reality.

Here is another (less cynical, more beautiful) one from Yehuda Amichai:

למה ירושלים, למה אני
למה לא עיר אחרת למה לא אדם אחר?
פעם עמדתי לפני הכותל המערבי
ופתאום, להקת ציפורים עלתה למעלה
בקריאות ובמשק כנפיים, כמו פתקות בקשה
שהשתחררו מבין האבנים הגדולות והכבדות
ועפו אל על

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Yom Hazikaron 5772

עקדת יצחק/ נעמי שמר

את בנך
את יחידך
אשר אהבת
את יצחק
והעלהו לעולה
על אחד ההרים
אשר אמר אליך
והעלהו לעולה
על אחד ההרים
בארץ המוריה.
ומכל ההרים
שבארץ ההיא
תעלה צעקה גדולה:
הנה האש
והנה העצים
והנהו השה לעולה
רבונו של עולם
המלא רחמים
אל הנער ידך
אל תשלח
אל הנער
ידך אל תשלח.
גם אם שבע נחיה
לא נשכח כי הונף
לא נשכח את בנך
את יחידך

אשר אהבנו

לא נשכח
את יצחק.

 more here and here ...

Friday, April 20, 2012

Marc Shapiro on Women Rabbis and Kol Isha

I have blogged recently about issues relating to women's ordination and  modesty. In the sphere of our contemporary grapplings with Halakha that relates to gender , I very much enjoyed two blog posts on the topic by Marc Shapiro. He does not hide his personal predilections and is clearly in favour of an increased woman's leadership role in the Orthodox community. However, even if you are not in that space, the sources he brings are important reading.

Kol Isha
Thanks to the Sephorim Blog.

Let me add that this article by Rabbi Michael Broyde and Rabby Shlmomo Brody is one of the better presentations - informative, sensitive, correct balance between traditional and progressive - that I have seen on the topic.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Yom Hashoah 5772

My "minhag" on the evening of Yom Hashoah  is to watch the ceremony at Yad Vashem. I always find it so dignified, so Jewish, so touching and emotional. Peres spoke just beautifully. For all my friends in chutz la'aretz, this is one of those days that can only be experienced in Israel where the day fills the public space. One cannot go out to eat this evening, nor shop at the mall. They are all closed. Yom Hashoah is a national day of mourning and so it should be.

This is the incredibly evocative poster from Yad Vashem to commemorate Yom Hashoah this year:

But as I though about this image It dawned upon me that the picture is wrong.

Of course the image aims to portray a Holocaust survivor and the "shadow" as he was as a child before the war, along with his family who have perished. We witness this broken man and see the shadow of his past.

But this image is skewed; it is only half the truth. Why? Because so many survivors are not alone; they have wonderful families and accomplishments. Each of the six Holocaust survivors who lit the 6 torches at Yad Vashem tonight were accompanied by their relatives - most of them, by a grandchild. For this image to be truly representative, the Holocaust survivor should be surrounded by his descendants, the future, the tree that has grown out of the seed of a single survivor. In some cases, he will be surrounded by 2 or 3 family members, in other families it will be 10 or twenty or fifty, or more! Thank God, the "dry bones" of the worn, starved, and beaten survivors have given birth, in many instances, to beautiful families. ( paraphrase Sanhedrin 92b "R. Eliezer the son of R. Jose the Galilean said: The dead whom Ezekiel revived went up to Eretz Yisrael, married wives and begat sons and daughters. R. Judah b. Bathyra rose up and said: I am one of their descendants, and these are the tefillin  which my grandfather left me [as an heirloom] from them." or Tehillim 107:41.)

Alongside all the pain and suffering, we live with hope. As Netanyahu said this evening: "עם ישראל חי". The Holocaust survivors that I know: Solly Irving, Ralph Aron z"l, Leah and Yoseph Friedler of Alon Shevut, are all exemplars of this amazing reality of the renewal of our people. They, along with every survivor that I have ever met, are shining models of inspiration, courage and optimism.

Two interesting and thought provoking pieces that I read this year - worth reading -  here and here.

I will finish by remembering the names of my mother's family who were murdered in the Shoah as we remember all the Six Million:

My grandfather's grandmother, 2 uncles, an aunt and 7 cousins:

Hinda bat Yehuda Leib

Sarah Keila bat Elimelech

Yosef ben Elimelech

Yehuda Langer (Sarah Keila’s husband)

Yehudith Fayga Alta bat Yehuda

Shifra bat Yehuda

Avraham ben Yosef

Naftali ben Yosef

Yechiel ben Yosef

Perle bat Yosef

Gittel bat Yosef

And from my father's family ( - my grand-parents fled from Germany in February 1939):

My great-grandfather Sali Israel, killed in Theresiensdadt, 23 April 1943
His 2nd wife, Bertha Goldschmidt, killed in Auschwitz, 18 May 1944
Imgard Israel (aunt)
Arthur Israel and his wife Bella, and their daughter Renate (uncle)
Hari Israel (uncle)
Raisa Garabaska (cousin)
Hugo Israel, killed in Riga Camp, 1942 (uncle)

תהיינה נפשותם צרורות בצרור החיים
הַרְנִינוּ גויִם עַמּו כִּי דַם עֲבָדָיו יִקּום וְנָקָם יָשִׁיב לְצָרָיו וְכִפֶּר אַדְמָתו עַמּו: