Rabbi Avi Weinstein

Archive for June, 2009|Monthly archive page

Quote for the Day

In Uncategorized on June 12, 2009 at 10:23 am

Don’t you feel a lot more like you do now than when you first came in? Well…don’t you?

Stephen Tyrone Johns of Blessed Memory

In bullet proof vests, Holocaust museum, Stephen Tyrone Johns on June 11, 2009 at 1:38 pm

I think a gesture of support should be made for this man’s family. We spend so much time obsessing over our enemies, we, especially during these difficult times, should look to support our friends. According to the Washington Post, Johns has a son and was recently remarried. Now, maybe Wackenhut securities will make bulletproof vests available to its guards.

One can only hope.

A Jewish Look at Affirmative Action

In affirmative action, Parshat Noach, Santomayor on June 9, 2009 at 5:31 pm

Judge Sonia Satomayor’s nomination to the Supremes has raised the hackles of conservatives, and they point to her dismissive response to a lawsuit where a white fireman was denied promotion after having passed the required exam. The reason given was that no minorities had passed, so because of concerns for diversity in the department, nobody was promoted.

It is clear to me that anyone who believes in fair play should have a problem with what can only be construed as reverse racism. Because of advances in race relations, I do believe that such a decision would no longer fly, but years ago, when whole groups were closed out of certain professions, redress for past wrongs was a much more resonant justification than it might be today.

The Biblical Noah, was called “A righteous pure man of his generation…” The Talmudic commentators wondered why was it necessary to say “of his generation”? One opined that it was only in such a wicked generation would he have been considered righteous, while the other disagreed saying that if Noah could maintain his morality among these folks, any other generation would be a breeze.

If a child goes to school hungry every day, and on his way to school passes two crack houses, maintains a good attendance record and a “B” average, that is a feat of profound commitment, at least according to the second opinion. He has exhibited exemplary character, and should be given “extra credit” for overcoming the obstacles of poverty, and crime. He should be given credit for the tested content of his character. According to the opinion that praises the good man in a morally challenged neighborhood, where one begins is more important than where one ends up. We are interested in the whole trajectory of achievement and not just the bottom line.

In other words, we reward on merit alone, but the definition of merit has to reflect the entire reality, and not just test scores. How many suburban kids with all their advantages would have fared as well in these circumstances.

Redress for past wrongs encourages bitterness among those who feel guiltless. My being white does not make me responsible for past injustices of other groups, but my advantages over one who is disadvantaged, should matter, if we are to be a fair society.

For a look at the two opinions and their intriguing metaphors, click here.

More theories regarding smart Jews…and others

In Uncategorized on June 7, 2009 at 1:35 pm

Nicholas Kristof sides with nurture over nature when it comes to native intelligence. He cites three over-achieving groups: Chinese Americans, Blacks from the West Indes, and, of course, Jews.

A common thread among these three groups may be an emphasis on diligence or education, perhaps linked in part to an immigrant drive. Jews and Chinese have a particularly strong tradition of respect for scholarship, with Jews said to have achieved complete adult male literacy — the better to read the Talmud — some 1,700 years before any other group.

This very complimentary statement is misleading. As far as I can see, there wasn’t complete adult male literacy 1700 years before any other group. It was, however, a mitzvah for every male to be literate because learning was a sacred activity. Talmud Torah was the meeting ground for rich and poor, patricians and peasants, artisans and merchants.

Kristof argues against the geneticists who contend that there are race based differences in regard to intellectual ability. It goes without saying that it doesn’t matter how smart you are if you don’t use your brains, but, if you are innately endowed and apply yourself, it would stand to reason that you would achieve more than one less endowed but equally ambitious. One might teach physics in high school, while the other may be a Nobel laureate. It doesn’t ring true that anyone who works hard and is insanely ambitious, regardless of innate ability, will be on equal footing with the hardworking gifted.

What is true and more to the point is that everyone, and I mean everyone, can be successful if educational values are reinforced from an early age. The immigrant drive that is often referred to as the common denominator of all groups is assimilationist and materialist in nature. The Chinese and the Jews originally viewed literacy as a tool for wisdom, and as a vehicle for transmitting traditions. When this was the purpose of literacy, believers rich and poor through succeeding generations continued to uphold these values.

When groups transformed learning from a sacred task into a capitalist tool, they actually jeopardized the future of that group’s academic excellence. Once a family established itself and the material struggle was no longer necessary, succeeding generations became considerably less ambitious–and less brilliant.

The problem of being comfortable is only a problem when the purpose of knowledge is to achieve comfort.

After 10 years of Talmudic study, I once read a modern Hebrew short story in the original language, and, on a whim, I sat down and translated it into English whereupon it was published in Commentary magazine. I then edited a translation series and added two very different books to my list of publications. One was a medieval Kabbalistic lexicon, while the other was a modern history of Israel. I didn’t have to go back to school, I had skills that were transferable, because for years I had been learning for its own sake without a report card in sight.

Over and over again, I have found that the by product of spending years mastering what is perceived to be an arcane discipline, has been a very practical use of that time, even though that was never the intention.

When the quest for knowledge is only for material gain, and cultural acceptance it cannot be sustained.

As it is written:

One who does not learn Torah for its own sake would have been better off not being created at all.

–B. Talmud, Brachot 17a

Obama & Spielberg Make the Same Mistake

In Holocaust, Obama, Spielberg on June 5, 2009 at 12:50 am

A liberal was once defined as someone who would sleep in the crack of a bed to save a marriage. I always wanted to unpack this little ditty from a Talmudic perspective. What would be the result of such an intervention?

Does it mean, he makes a cold peace by keeping the parties close, but not too close, providing the buffer that makes co-existence possible?

Or does it mean that the intervening party is about to get ___________ (fill in a synonym for violated in an unseemly fashion. Propriety doesn’t allow me to fill in the blank, but you get the point.)

Once again, Obama made the classic historical error. His speech implied that the Jewish right to homeland is intrinsically tied to the horrors of World War II Europe. The Arab street response is cogent. “Give the Jews East Germany then.” If Obama wishes to argue for the Jewish State’s legitimacy, he is going to have to go back further than the 1940’s. He has to be willing to argue that for over two thousand years of exile, Israel was the focal point of Jewish longing.

The founders of Israel knew this and placed two thousand years of exile front and center in the national anthem as the poet declared התקוה בת שנות אלפיים “The hope borne of two thousand years”. This was the problem of Spielberg’s film Munich. He, too, argued that the Holocaust compelled the world to give the Jews a state of their own. Maybe so, but the logical conclusion of Spielberg’s argument is not necessarily a Jewish Island amidst a sea of Arabs.

In the academy, viewing Israel as an outlaw state that has no right to exist is not considered a radical position. The every fifteen minute invokers of the Holocaust have legitimated it–even among many Jews. The sins of Europe do not justify Jewish “colonialism” in the Middle East has become an academic truism in anti-Israel circles.

The modern world of realpolitik is uncomfortable with ancient memory, and, so it seems is President Obama. But if he wants to some day get out of that bed he has just invited himself into, he better get intimate with some ancient history, or better yet–Christian that he is–let him get out his Bible.

What Happened to Those Attractive Retirement Packages?

In Uncategorized on June 4, 2009 at 2:24 pm

Less than twenty years ago, I worked for a corporate foundation the parent company of which had offices in the Boston metro area, where I happened to be living. They were kind enough to give me office space there instead of insisting I move to the foundation’s headquarters in The Big Apple. I had the opportunity to hobnob with the regional management and sales team who were often second generation employees. The general manager of the office was about to retire. The company gave generous pensions to those whose age and number of years working added up to 80. He was fifty-five and had worked for the company for twenty-five years. You do the math–he was off to the golf course or a second career.

I am 57, and by my calculations if I’m alive and employable will most certainly have to be in the work force until I’m 75–at least. Even before the recession this was more or less true. Although companies were profitable then, these benefits are perceived as unreasonably generous now–what happened?

George Eliot’s Strange Affinity for Jews and Zion

In Uncategorized on June 2, 2009 at 5:28 pm

On the way to the King David hotel one crosses a small alley way where a small sign attached to a stone building says “Rechov George Eliot”. One of the great writers of the Victorian era, neither Jewish, nor particularly knowledgeable of Jews, Eliot wrote one of the great Jewish novels of the 19th century, Daniel Deronda.

Through the power of scholarship and imagination, Eliot, unlike her Victorian counterparts, evokes a sympathetic portrait of Jews, and Judaism. Joseph Epstein reviews Gertrude Himmelfarb’s treatment of this phenomenon, The Jewish Odyssey of George Eliot.

When researching the novel that defined Eliot’s affinity for the Jews she never actually knew, Himmelfarb reports:

Eliot’s notebooks for this period contained excerpts from the Bible and Prophets, the Mishnah and Talmud, Maimonides, medieval rabbis and Kabbalistic works, as well as contemporary German scholars (Moses Mendelssohn, Heinrich Graetz, Moritz Steinschneider, Leopold Zunz, Abraham Geiger, Abraham Berliner, Emmanuel Deutsch), French scholars (Ernest Renan, Jassuda Bedarride, Georges Depping, Salomon Munk), English scholars (Henry Milman, Christian David Ginsburg, Abraham Benisch, David de Solar, Hyam Isaacs), and score of others.

Before pogroms and the Holocaust, Eliot intuited that it is Judaism that defines Jews and not victimhood. Jews are a people who dwells alone, but in that capacity have much to offer the world. Epstein’s review is worth a look, and Daniel Deronda should be required reading for the successive generations of Holocaustalogians, and those who vicariously identify primarily with Jewish victimhood and not Jewish spiritual contributions.

It’s time to read Daniel Deronda again.