Rabbi Avi Weinstein

Blessed is the human created in [His] image… (Pirkei Avot 3:14)

In Uncategorized on July 22, 2014 at 9:36 am

This Mishnah in Pirkei Avot reverberates to all who value the sanctity of human life. This may appear to be a statement that needs little commentary. It is declarative, the message of which is clear and simple; but the prooftext bears some scrutiny. There are caveats that may bring offense to those who consider that being a human is merely a biological description.

The quotaion “…for in His image God made the human.” (Bereshith 9:6) is the second half of the verse which opens with “Whoever sheds the blood of man, By man shall his blood be shed.” The verse distinguishes between humans and the rest of creation. Monkeys are not created in the image, but humans are. If that’s the case why is the punishment for taking a human life fulfilled by killing the perpetrator? What happened to his Divine image? The intentional murder of another human, the verse teaches, and by extension, the Mishnah, causes that person to forfeit his place among the human family.

Challengers of this interpretation could claim that the reason the first part of the verse was omitted is significant, and the intention of Rabbi Akiva is a midrashic move that is meant to ignore the first half of the verse. Those familiar with how prooftexts are cited in the Talmud, know that the general presumption of citations is that they cover also parts of the verse that are not directly quoted. Here, that would seem to be the case because Rabbi Akiva could have quoted from the creation story which makes the unqualified declaration “for God created the human in His image, in the image of Him, He created him…” (Genesis 1:27) The use of this particular verse that justifies capital punishment for murder must be intentional.

A murderer loses his right to live, but more importantly, is the fact that this makes him  “other”–objectively other. He is missing a fundamental element of what it means to be human.

Certainly, the cynical abuse of human life by the criminal Hamas regime would fall in this category, but the shameful declarations of “Death to the Arabs” by Jews meant only to terrorize the Arabs who live among us violates and degrades the Divine image. The consequences of ignoring this incitement are too great. I believe the struggle against this behavior is as important as the destruction of Gaza’s tunnels. In this struggle, we dare not become like our enemies, and we must remember who are our foes, and more importantly, who aren’t.

Being born human does not guarantee that he will remain so. To hate the enemy is a horrific accessory of war, and certainly, the nihilistic and cynical modus operandi of Hamas needs to be despised. Everyone needs to be aware that in the chaos of battle tragic accidents will inevitably occur and innocent life will be lost. I don’t know what goes through the heads of each and every soldier as they invade Gaza, but I do know that the racist and bigoted statements of incitement as evidenced by the hundreds of nasty comments on social networks have the sole purpose of defiling the Divine image. And it is irrefutable that some of these people must be soldiers.

It is unfair, and upsetting to have the world focus on the asymmetry of losses conveniently forgetting the asymmetry of values between Israel and the Islamo-fascists of Gaza. But in the end, we not only have to look at ourselves in the mirror, but we need to be proud of what we see. It cannot be considered cool to normalize defamatory statements against those with who will still be our neighbors. There is so much nobility that I’ve witnessed during these trying times, let us not tarnish our “image” by such subhuman ugliness.

Arik, and the Israel that Once Was

In Uncategorized on December 1, 2013 at 3:10 pm

Arik Einstein, chose his songs carefully, but more important to me were the lyrics of his personal experience that, exemplified the particular experience of an Israeli so attached to the land, but so far removed from her religious origins. While admiring the beaches of San Francisco, he yearned for the sites and smells of home. Bewildered by his beloved friend’s sudden attraction to a world so foreign, yet so close, he shared his feeling of being abandoned. הוא חזר בתשובה, עכשיו הוא לומד תורה, He returned and repented, and now he learns Torah… All of Israel witnessed Uri Zohar, the hippest of Israelis, become Reb Uri before their eyes. For most, it was something about which to gossip, but for Arik it was a personal tragedy. Irony of ironies, the whole country witnessed Arik’s newly religious daughter marry Reb Uri’s son. When asked to sing at the wedding, Arik politely declined, only saying that he was “singing in his heart”.

The whole of Israel boasts the intimacy of a small town from which many wish to escape but miss as soon as they do. At the time of Arik’s passing Shlomo Artzi was performing. When he heard the news, he was dumb struck.  Finally, the crowd in solidarity with the shocking news began singing one of Shlomo’s classic songs, “Where is there a person like this one who was like the weeping willows…” After a moment, Shlomo joined with the band in song. It was a classic expression, uniquely so, of the old new Jews of Israel consoling each other from such a poignant loss.

Watching that clip on Youtube brought me back to a time that once was, but now seems so far away.

Like you in San Francisco, we are reminded of what we’re missing. So long Arik.

On Chanukah, Post Denominationalism, and the sudy of Torah Sheb’al Peh.

In Uncategorized on November 26, 2013 at 1:49 pm

There is no holiday that self-consciously confronts core issues of identity more than Chanukah. The prayer “Al Hanisim” (Thanks for the miracles) explicitly elucidated the threat of Antiochus as “forcing us to forget Your Torah”. Unlike Haman who–unsophisticated soul that he was–wished to wipe the Jews off the map, for Antiochus, it was time to get the Jews who refused to play ball to behave in a more palatable way. His strategy was brutal, but total annihilation of the Jews was never on the table. It was more about their stubborn refusal to be a bit more like everyone else.

The Chassidic masters, notably the Sefat Emet and Rav Tzadok Hakohen, gave Greek wisdom, and by extension, western culture its due. They called it wisdom and conceded that it was sophisticated and that it even had an ethical sensibility. The problem, according to the Rebbes, is that the Greeks didn’t appreciate the value or the necessity for Torah She B’al Peh, the oral or the Talmudic tradition. From their perspective, it was holding us back.  In all fairness, according to the Rebbes, Torah Sheb’al Peh was the exclusive domain of the Jews–Kind of like the Jewish version of Skull and Bones. The Hebrew Scripture alone was to be shared among the nations, and therefore was translated into Greek, but the oral tradition was for the Jewish people alone. Thus a history of suspicion and superstition regarding the Talmud was born. Maybe they should have a Readers Digest version for popular consumption to combat the mystery and superstitious prejudices that emerged from this secretive religion of the Jews.

Long before Christianity, the Chasidic Rebbes saw the Hasmonean war as being against the supercessionism of Greek philosophy that from their perspective, was attempting to annihilate the rabbinic tradition. As the Midrash in Eicha (Lamentations) Rabba asserts: If they tell you that there is wisdom among the nations, believe them. But if they tell you that there is Torah among the nations, don’t believe them. (Eicha Rabba 2:9)

The tension between Jewish tradition and the dominant culture, however one chooses to understand it, refuses to go away. The zeal with which we have traditionally protected the study of Talmud in particular and Rabbinic literature in general has roots in the Mishnah.  Reading of Ketuvim, a part of the Hebrew Bible,  was discouraged on shabbat lest someone favor this over going to hear the drasha of the local rabbi. The reading of ketuvim was considered more attractive by the masses because of its narrative power, and its ability to entertain. In the long run, the sages felt it was better to encourage the community to learn some halacha than read from the scripture. Maybe the sacred narrative was too much like other stories out there, while the unique nature of Torah sheb’al peh was considered more unmistakably Jewish as far as how Jews lived, and reinforced the unique aspects of Jewish practice in a way that ketuvim couldn’t.

What makes Torah SheB’al Peh unusual is the fact that it is so unmistakably different, that it is a challenge to teach. It is not literature, it is not law, it is not history, and it is not philosophy–it’s Torah. It doesn’t treat the Tanach as a narrative, but instead as a pretext for micro-decoding.  Those who have embraced and immersed themselves in it are literally part of a different world, albeit an unassailably Jewish one.  A secular Zionist has placed the state in the center and can claim that she is living and breathing an authentic Jewish life that has a materialist philosophy at its core. What I see, and what I make, and what I do is what I know. I live  in a Jewish state, and everything I do is Jewish.

One who is engaged in Torah Sheb’al Peh can claim the same thing, but from a more ethereal perspective. Halacha, when followed meticulously, is ubiquitous, so its Jewish authenticity is without question. Those, however, who see their connection through the lens of a modern movement have a hard time conversing with those who have chosen the tyrannies that accompany a halachic religion of time, or an ideology that centers on a place. They literally inhabit different worlds.

It is not incidental that the post-denominational Yeshivat Hadar has conferred Nachas on the study of Torah Sheb’al Peh at the expense of the conservative movement. Post denominational is a kind way of declaring that allegiance to a movement for its own sake is at best a distraction, and at worst a deterrent for serious Jews to engage seriously with the study of their religion. People don’t belong to Yeshivat Hadar; like any other yeshiva, they learn there. It’s embrace of egalitarianism, however justified or unjustified, is a matter of principle, but has nothing to do with membership. If the institution ceases to attract people, it will disappear. It was created to fill a need, not to justify a “movement”. The artifice of movement nomenclature is being challenged and rightfully so. It means so little to people.

For over ten years I was director of the Bronfman Youth Fellowships in Israel, and I literally read thousands of letters of recommendation for this elite summer program. Never, and I stress never, did I receive a letter from a conservative rabbi who praised a student’s desire to learn Torah. His praise was always related to Jewish practice, or loyalty to the youth group and synagogue. By the way, the fact that on odd occasion one did hear such praise from an Orthodox rabbi is nothing to crow about.  In order to have a movement based on intellectual honesty, as Rabbi Wolpe claims, shouldn’t there at least be an intellectual foundation? Before one can think critically, shouldn’t they have learned something first?

I had a Professor who was a student of Professor Harry Wolfson at Harvard. Back in the ’70′s Wolfson glibly told him that the problem with Jewish studies today is that there weren’t enough professors who had been “yoshev tachas kanfei hashechinah” (dwelling under the wings of the Divine presence). Wolfson had a yeshiva background but was no longer observant.

The study of Torah sheb’al Peh is the key to conversation among modern Jews who still deign to believe that being Jewish is the most important dimension of their lives.  It is the cornerstone of a unique Jewish identity, and for all those on the modern spectrum, regardless of denomination, it should be the common language of us all. Torah sheb’al peh, like being Jewish, needs to reclaim its status as a noun, and not merely as an adjective. The guardians of Torah Sheb’al Peh, especially among the modern movements, must do everything in their power to promote learning as the unifying principle upon which our particularism is built. Without it, we may as well be unitarians and finally admit that the Greeks, in fact, had it right.

Have a Happy Chanukah, and learn some Torah.


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