Rabbi Avi Weinstein

Archive for May, 2009|Monthly archive page

The Liberal Temperament vs. The Conservative Temperament

In conservatives, Kristof, Liberals on May 31, 2009 at 3:37 pm

Does everything boil down to temperament, or personality type? Maybe. After reading Nicholas Kristof’s op ed last Thursday, the following sentence came to mind. There are liberals, there are conservatives…and then there are Jews…and then there are frum Jews.

Kristof reports:

One of the main divides between left and right is the dependence on different moral values. For liberals, morality derives mostly from fairness and prevention of harm. For conservatives, morality also involves upholding authority and loyalty — and revulsion at disgust.

He also admits that hearing opposite points of view never moderates an opinion, but indeed, it tends to calcify one’s thinking as each side spends tremendous energy conjuring reasons to refute the other. Opinions that stem from morality do not reside, it seems, in the deliberative part of the brain, but from a more reactive part of the thought process.

It occurs to me that the Torah is neither liberal or conservative but embodies aspects of both parties. Certainly, the Torah is respectful and deeply concerned about respect for elders, teachers, and traditions, but it is equally concerned about caring for the most vulnerable in society.

As Kristof points out, most liberals would have no problem slapping a parent in a performance providing he had his parents permission, most conservatives would not do such a thing, even play acting. Certainly, the sages of the Talmud would be very sympathetic to the conservative point of view. Strict lines of permissible and forbidden behavior are the stuff of law, after all.

But that’s not the whole story, the Torah is not a rights centered document, it is duty centered. The poor do not have a right to be fed, but all individuals have an obligation to feed them. The verse in Deuteronomy exclaims that this is the reason you have the money in the first place.

For it is because of this issue (sustaining the poor) that God has blessed your actions and your occupation.
(Deuteronomy 15:10)


You are a steward, a partner in making sure that poverty is eliminated as much as possible. It does not seem that the Torah is sympathetic to those who say that it’s my money and I can spend it any way I wish, does it? These words are echoed in the liberal preference for equity, for taxes to take care of those in need. In fact Tzedaka collection resembled tax collection much more than it did a voluntary activity.

The purpose of the Talmudic version of friendship is to break down the facile labels that define American political discourse. We are supposed to submit ourselves to what the Torah requires of us. We have a pact with our learning partners that we shall not care who comes up with the most articulate and unassailable position, for it does not matter. We both claim victory since we were part of the process of arriving at the truth. My challenges sharpened your theory, and therefore, we celebrate our theory together in hopes that others will challenge and sharpen what we have presented. Such a dynamic still allows for biases, but humility is also fundamental for the dynamic to work. In such a world challenges are taken seriously, and are spurs to creativity.

Just when we have again received the Torah, it behooves us to remember that the seventy faces of Torah interpretation are in dialogue, and our tradition is the remedy for the disturbing blather that passes for political debate in this country. We should remember that yes, there are liberals, there are conservatives, but there are also Jews, and this is a much higher calling.

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The Saudis Came to Jewish Kansas

In Jewish Day School, Saudi Arabia, Yom Yerushalayim on May 22, 2009 at 1:33 am

I’m not kidding. Nine Saudi Arabian school principals and supervisors came to visit the Hyman Brand Hebrew Academy today. Organized through a local not for profit and sponsored by the State Department, these men–of course, men–came to witness a Jewish community day school in action. Just for a dash of irony, today is Yom Yerushalayim, but somehow I don’t think they would have joined in the celebration of the Jewish unification of El Kuds, if you know what I mean.

One of the educators opened expressing gratitude for our hospitality, and telling us that one of Muhammed’s wives had Jewish lineage and that his other wives ridiculed her until Muhammed rebuked her and said she too is the daughter of a Prophet, Moses.

They asked about how we handled moral education when the students did not live up to the ideals expected of them. They asked about class size. They asked at what grade the boys and girls are separated (they aren’t).

Our students asked why aren’t the boys and girls allowed to play together even after school? They explained that boys and girls have different temperaments and needs, so they need to be separate until they are married. Understanding that these people were our guests, and that it would be rude to challenge them, our students let that one go until after our cousins had left. Great maturity for 7th graders.

The top supervisor gave me his email address, a gmail account and asked me to send him sample of our Jewish studies curriculum. So, for two hours peace in the Middle East seemed possible until…

Right at the end of the visit, after all the pictures of detente, one of the teachers said through his interpreter (who was from Nablus but had been in the U.S. for thirty-five years). “We do not agree with Israel, and we feel it is unfair that Palestine is not present on your Israeli maps.” To which we replied, “Would we find Israel placed on Saudi maps? We do not agree with much of what you do, but you seem perfectly nice.”

They laughed, got on their bus and went to visit one of the Catholic schools.

I remember being with the poet Yehuda Amichai, of blessed memory, when he was asked if he went to these very fashionable dialogues with his Palestinian counterparts. He eschewed participation in them saying that he already believed that their was decency across the Jewish Arab divide, but that was beside the point. Each people had passionate claims to the same small piece of real estate and all the cordial teas in the world was not going to change that, nor was it going to make it easier to compromise.

Here is what I learned today, that the Saudis we met were very keen on letting us know that there was room for them to respect the Jewish tradition, but there was not the same generosity when it came to Israel. This seems to amplify Amichai’s point. As long as you are not claiming the real estate there is plenty of room to get along.

Happy Yom Yerushalayim!

Why Discussions of Pluralism are so Boring, and Intellectually Sloppy

In Beit Hillel, Beit Shammai, Peace, Pluralism, Truth on May 20, 2009 at 1:54 pm

What is the difference between a good Drasha (Rabbinic homily) and a bad one? A good drasha demonstrates an honest attempt at understanding a problem in the text, the byproduct of which is a powerful insight.

A bad drasha starts with the insight and contrives textual corroboration as an afterthought. The intent of the former is understanding. The intent of the latter is to use the text as an approbation for an idea conceived independent of the text. For example:

Rabbi Abba Bar Shmuel said: For three years The House of Hillel and The House of Shammai argued. One side said ‘The law is like us!’ The other side said, ‘The law is like us!’ A heavenly voice came forth and declared: These and these are the words of the living God, and the law should be decided as Hillel says!

But after it is declared that these and these are the words of the living God, why did the House of Hillel merit having the law decided like them? Because they were gentle and humble and they would teach the words of the House of Shammai, not only would they teach their words, but they would quote Beit Shammai before they would give their own opinions. (B. Talmud Eruvin 13b)

I can’t tell you how many times that the agreeing to disagree of Hillel and Shammai are brought to “prove” that pluralism has always been part of our tradition. This is not an honest reading of Hillel and Shammai, or the heavenly voice who endorsed both of their opinions. Hillel and Shammai both agreed on the Divine authority of the Torah. They often disagreed on how to interpret it. Much like Supreme Court justices who believe in the integrity and authority of the Constitution, but disagree on what it means.

This is a plurality of opinion, but it’s not our pluralism. Our pluralism means that everyone respects each other even though they agree on virtually nothing–not even whom is considered to be a Jew. This source has nothing to say about that kind of pluralism and therefore would never challenge a traditional thinker to be more open minded regarding others. It might, in fact, have the opposite effect. Because the insight preceded the text, the text does not prove the insight, and therefore this qualifies as a paradigmatic example of a bad drasha.

Does this mean that there are no sources that might challenge a traditional thinker? No, it just means that if one wishes to challenge someone on their own terms, he needs to do so with their tools and not rush to super impose his values on an ancient text. For example:

How great is peace, that even the Torah misrepresented Sarah’s words in order to bring harmony between Abraham and Sarah , as it is written, “And Sarah laughed quietly saying after I have been without season and my master is old.” Later when the story is repeated the narrative changes, and instead of “my master is old” it says, “and I [Sarah] am old.”( Derech Eretz Perek Shalom)

A simple understanding of this statement is that even though truth is the seal of God, nevertheless, it takes a back seat to peace. It is worth sacrificing truth in favor of harmony, for this is what the Torah did for Sarah, so that Abraham would not be angry at her. This source allows one to interact with perceived heretics for the sake of peace which is a greater value. This is not because one acknowledges the other’s truth, but because it is better to get along than it is to be belligerent. It may or may not be a religious imperative, but it is an honest reading of a text which cannot be easily dismissed. It also doesn’t give the pluralist everything he wants because what he wants is a modern value that does not exist in traditional sources.

It is, however, a step forward and the most honest approach given the differences that we face. If getting along in spite of formidable differences is a religious, read Orthodox value, the nature of discourse could be fundamentally transformed.

For the Hebrew sources, a translation and commentary on both texts for downloading, click here.

Proverbs 15:27 Something worth Considering

In economic hardship, gifts, Proverbs 15:27, spurning gifts on May 17, 2009 at 6:38 pm

Proverbs 15:27
…He who spurns gifts will live long.

As often is the case the pithier Hebrew version of these words is more poetic, more absolute, and, as a result, more jarring. שונא מתנת יחיה or in transliteration, SoNAy (Lit. He who hates) MaTaNoT (gifts) YiCHYeH (will live). Note that the verse doesn’t allow for indifference, but one must despise the idea of being on the receiving end for gifts.

Now that is a counter cultural concept if I ever heard one.

The Talmud teaches what an exemplar of this value does to demonstrate that he is one who spurns gifts.

“A Sage who does not hesitate to declare his own food treif (not kosher) when he is not absolutely certain” (B. Talmud Hullin 44b)

The commentaries learn that if he is not so invested in his own sustenance than surely he is not one to care about gifts. The reason being that he is more concerned about keeping the law than he is material losses. Certainly,such a person will never consider a material gift to “matter”.

What does it mean to “spurn gifts”? It is to see them as tempting distractions that deter one from life’s purpose, a nefarious subterfuge to make one subject to the sycophantic designs of those who wish to curry favor. The same Talmudic passage recounts that:

Rabbi Elazar was sent a gift from the House of the Nasi (the Jewish leadership) and he wouldn’t accept it. He was invited to join them, and he refused to go. When they inquired as to why he would not join, he answered, “He who spurns gifts shall live.”

Rabbi Zera, however, refused gifts when they were sent to him, but accepted the authorities invitation to join them. “They are showing affection to me.” He said.

Here, R. Zera marks a distinction between invitations and gifts. R. Elazar does not. R. Elazar, considering the source sees gifts and invitations as one and the same, but R. Zera is willing to accept the flattery of the officials as long as it does not line his pockets.

Here’s another thing to consider. In times of economic hardship, do gifts not create yet another possibility for humiliation and embarrassment for those who have fallen on hard times and can no longer participate? What would happen if special occasions were celebrated without gifts, but with the reciprocal sharing of bounty, or where ones honored presence was considered gift enough?

I remember when my daughter celebrated a birthday in a Chabad kindergarten. We were invited to attend while the class was served a cake in celebration of her sixth year. She had a wreath of flowers on her head, and the gift from her teacher was that she was given the honor of serving her students her birthday cake.

And truly an honor it was.

(Former) Agnostic Roger Simon Describes How Ahmadinejad made him into a Believer

In Agnostic, Ahmadinegad, Belief, Simon on May 15, 2009 at 4:56 pm

Simon was at Durbin II and came face to face with what he perceived to be evil and he came up with the most interesting of conclusions. The protean mind never ceases to amaze.

The Samuel Bronfman Foundation’s annual "Why Be Jewish" Gathering

In Bronfman, Jewish, Leadership on May 15, 2009 at 10:17 am

After a few days in New York at the annual “Why Be Jewish” gathering sponsored by The Samuel Bronfman Foundation, I’m back home. This year’s specific topic was “Renaissance in a time of Ration”, the purpose of which was to see the opportunities that austerity can create.

One recurrent theme of the conference was that diminished resources by necessity should make institutions reflect on priorities. In the words of Sharon Cohen Anisfeld leadership during these times–and for that matter during all times–requires one to ask three essential questions:

  • Who am I? In other words, what are my abilities and what are my limitations.
  • To Whom am I responsible? Or as she poetically put it, “Who is your ‘we’?
  • What do I have to give that they need?

Beyond these existential questions are the operational ones, those that deal with efficiency, economy, and accountability. It goes without saying that sound implementation strategies are central to success, but it is equally clear that the minutiae of details deadens the passion that fuels the enterprise.

The gathering reflected the values of The Samuel Bronfman Foundation. The themes were contemporary, but the wisdom came from the ancients. The seamless synergy between classic Jewish texts and current issues testifies to the fact that the Samuel Bronfman Foundation practices what it supports. The Bronfman Youth Fellowships in Israel, Myjewishlearning.com, and The Education Initiative, all seek to promote Jewish content in pluralistic settings.

Women and men, scholars and professionals, learned and taught for a day and a half without rushing to computers, without furtively checking their blackberrys, and without needing to be in some bucolic setting away from it all. It was an island of the mind in the middle of Manhattan.

Adam Bronfman ended the session with heartfelt personal comments. He didn’t understand why this gathering was so moving for him, but was grateful that it was. I think I know why he felt that way. It truly was a gathering. There was no posturing. People either became reacquainted, or made new friends, and although this happens effortlessly for teenagers, it is always more difficult for adults. He was moved because a professional community from different quarters came together as family, and managed to “feel the love” in the most urban of settings.

It occurred to me that when people say someone was thinking out of the box, they usually mean that they had somehow circumvented the “box” with unconventional or innovative ideas. Is it not also true that one cannot see his box unless he sometimes stands outside it? Innovation that builds on resources and conventional experience suggests that one should step outside a framework with the purpose of jumping back in thereby giving new life to venerable traditions. This is what the Foundation and its benefactors practice, and it was good to be outside the box so that I’m now excited to jump back in.

Thanks to all for the opportunity to learn and teach, to teach and learn. I am not a person who thrives in these settings, and I am not one who looks forward to attending professional conferences, but this is one gathering where I do hope they will invite me back.

I think I need it. In fact, we all do.

Teaching the Maharal of Prague is Wondrous…

In DIvine Presence, Guests, Maharal, Talmud on May 8, 2009 at 1:30 pm

…Nobody, and I mean nobody unpacks, examines, and elucidates like the man who is said to have made the Golem. It is stated in the Talmud that:

Welcoming guests is greater than receiving the Divine presence

This statement follows a Mishnah which determines that one is allowed to move heavy objects on Shabbat for two reasons: Because of guests, and to make room for people to study. One opinion ascertains that receiving guests must be a greater mitzvah than accomodating scholars. How do we know this? The prooftext that is brougt is the Biblical passage where Abraham leaves a visitation from God to greet three strangers. Listen to the Maharal on this passage:

Rising early to study Torah is the way we honor Torah, but when you welcome a guest it is tantamount to honoring God Himself. For when one brings a guest into his home and honors him because he was created in the image of God, then it is considered as if he is honoring the Divine presence Herself which is greater than honoring the Torah, and that is why the statement “Beloved are humans for they are created in the image of God” is mentioned first and only then mentions Israel and the Torah.

So eloquently and succinctly rendered and hundreds of years before Buber’s I and Thou. The Maharal has more to say, and it is worth the effort. Click here.

The Festival of Second Chances, Pesach Sheni falls on Friday, May 8th…

In Pesach Sheni, second chances on May 8, 2009 at 3:04 am

…or more accurately, the 14th of the Jewish month of Iyar. It also happens to be my birthday, and the birthday of my son Shraga Faivel. Pesach Sheni originated because the children of Israel who were far away, or were impure had managed to miss the Pesach sacrificial meal They wanted a second chance, and Moses was counseled by God to give it to them.

And the LORD spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to the Israelite people, saying: When any of you or of your posterity who are defiled by a corpse or are on a long journey would offer a passover sacrifice to the LORD, they shall offer it in the second month, on the fourteenth day of the month, at twilight. They shall eat it with unleavened bread and bitter herbs, (Numbers Chapter 9)

To remember this second chance, there is a custom to eat Matza on Pesach Sheni, and some communities omit prayers that are considered inappropriate on happy days. But for most of us Pesach Sheni usually passes unnoticed.

I propose that it should be the Jewish holy day of second chances. The day of do overs. Just as God gave those Jews a second chance to fulfill the Pesach sacrifice, so, too, we should give others, and ourselves, a second chance, or at least the benefit of the doubt–a Jewish day of reconciliation.

It was always significant for me that I was given a second chance to raise a son after a ten year gap between he and his older sister and that the second chance was given on Pesach Sheni. Second chances make everyone better!

An Australian Sees "The Big Picture" when it comes to Israel

In Ahmadinejad, Indyk, Israel, Kissinger on May 7, 2009 at 2:33 pm

Gary Sheridan writes an extensive article that explains why the American left is in cahoots with the theocratic, anti-gay, Holocaust denying Ahmadinejad.

Here’s an interesting point:

First, Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East. Turkey is a democracy but is not technically in the Middle East. Lebanon is no longer a full democracy, its politics dominated by armed militias and Syrian interference. Israel is the only society in the Middle East with all the institutions of a democracy: a media that reveals all its secrets, a free parliament, independent courts, independent universities and the rest. This earns it a lot of support, especially in the US, but it also means that Israelis generate much of the most damaging criticism of Israel.

This is a singular quality of Israel but it is also discloses a singular quality of the Middle East. Is there another region in the world in which there is only one democracy? This fact alone demonstrates how utterly at odds with its own region Israel is, but also how very odd that region is. The Jewish people, as Walter Russell Mead has written, are an old people but the Israelis are a young people. And deeply imprinted on their DNA is the culture of democracy.

It has always amazed me how a bunch of Eastern European socialists and Middle Eastern Jews created a democracy without any tradition of its institutions. It is ironic that the colonial face of Israel is not in the complexion of its population, but in its institutions which by virtue of being democratic are deigned as “colonial”. If that’s what colonial means–I’ll take it.

Another tidbit regarding our friends the Saudis, taken from accounts of diplomatic exploits of Martin Indyk, and Henry Kissinger:

Indyk describes in 1998 between Clinton and Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia is most instructive. This was at the height of the Monica Lewinsky scandal. Indyk writes:

Abdullah leaned across the table and explained to Clinton in a hushed voice that he had information that Monica Lewinsky was Jewish and part of a Mossad plot to bring the president down because of his efforts to help the Palestinians. He told the president that he intended to share this intelligence with senators he would meet after lunch in an effort to help forestall his impeachment.

This anecdote echoes one of a generation earlier told in Henry Kissinger’s memoir, in which Kissinger holds a formal meeting with a Saudi ruler who tells him the world is beset by a global communist conspiracy, which is a mere part of the broader global Jewish conspiracy.

It’s striking that from Kissinger to Indyk absolutely nothing has changed, nor will it, I’m afraid. Sheridan’s lengthy article is well worth the time.

Lenny Bruce Would Not Understand Vanessa Hidary, and nor do I?

In Lenny Bruce, Vanessa Hidary on May 5, 2009 at 3:09 am

I saw this youtube segment showing Vanessa Hidary wowing an African American crowd with a ruminative piece of spoken word performance art. She is quite compelling, but her message, upon reflection, was troubling.

The piece centered around a non-Jewish male asking her out at a bar and her declining because that day was going to be Yom Kippur and she was going to be fasting. He “compliments” her by saying she didn’t look Jewish, nor did she act that way. She responds with a silent smile, and only later did she feel the sting of shame.

This triggers a diatribe decrying his not so subtle bigotry and her silence, all the while invoking images of the Exodus from Egypt, the Western Wall, and the ubiquitous Holocaust. Her point was that she was tired of feeling that being Jewish is not cool, and she just wants to be seen and respected for who and what she is.

When did being Jewish stop being cool? Hasn’t she ever heard of Lenny Bruce’s neologic musings on Jewish and Goyish? “Dig I’m Jewish, Count Basie’s Jewish, lime jello is goyish…” Doesn’t she know there was a time that the top three novelists on the New York Times Best Seller list were Phillip Roth, Saul Bellow, and Bernard Malamud–all writing about the Jewish experience while the fourth a very non-Jewish John Updike had written Bech: a Book whose protagonist was a very Jewish college professor?

In the days of Lenny Bruce they wanted to be like us. We didn’t need to be accepted by them–that was the height of unhipness. Did anyone ever doubt that Allen Ginsberg was Jewish? Who was hipper than Allen Ginsberg?

Her perpetual invoking of our unique badge of suffering is also getting to be a bit much. You start to wonder what these artists would do if we didn’t have the Holocaust. I get a bit queasy when I see the Holocaust replacing Mt. Sinai. We needed Sinai, and, God knows, we didn’t need the Holocaust–but some seem to.

There is an old joke about a country yid meeting a city yid on a train. “Where are you from?” the city yid asks the country yid. “From a small shtetl.” “How small?” “100 Jews and about 15 gentiles.” “And you, where are you from?” “I’m from Minsk” “How many people are in Minsk?” “50,000 Jews and 200,000 gentiles.”

“What do you need with so many gentiles?” The country yid asks.

The point of the joke is that the country yid has no perception that Jews are, or ever act like, a minority group. Why?

Because we’re too cool to care!