Rabbi Avi Weinstein

Archive for December, 2009|Monthly archive page

Jay Michaelson argues that as long as you take your Judaism seriously, you’re as authentic as anyone else…Really?

In Uncategorized on December 25, 2009 at 9:45 am

Those of us who are in the liminal state between being middle-aged and being old are sometimes reminded that we are closer to the latter than the former. Oy! Jay Michaelson argues against calcified notions of authenticity in The Forward. Progressives, i.e. gay, Bhu-Jew, neo-feminist Jews whose bedrock values are hybrids of the “best” of cultures, are as authentic expressions of Judaism as any ultra-Orthodox community.  Judaism is dynamic and has always made accommodations to historical currents, so all responses to modernity are equally authentic.  I declare, therefore, I am. If I say I’m Jewish, then I am.  If I meditate, and the wrap my tefilin around my neck because it is more meaningful to me, then that is as Jewish as following the rules.  I imagine that if a progressive can create a community around her Judaism, then that according to Michaelson is as authentic as anything or anyone else’s.

…the entire notion of authenticity is a false projection of particular historical quirks onto an imagined ideal of “realness” that artificially freezes culture, and thus spells its demise. The truth is that there is no single authentic Jewishness. Like any living culture, Jewish culture (and religion) evolves over time in order to remain vibrant. Of course, there are certain core values, myths and cultural traits that remain relatively constant. But bagels, bookishness and bar mitzvahs all evolved historically; none is more “really Jewish” than sushi, sports or a Sweet 16

Self definition is a combination of positives and negatives.  I am Jewish, but I am not Christian. Michaelson would have trouble with that one because by his definition we would  have to welcome Jews for Jesus, especially if they kept an eco-Kashrut and observed the holidays. After all, Christianity was perceived as the fulfillment of Judaism without regard for certain mitzvot, and a belief in a charismatic messiah.  I am a declared vegetarian, but I eat chicken–they’re stupid enough to be considered ambulatory vegetables, according to my version of vegetarianism.

Just because there is a dialectic process of tradition and modernity, and that process is dynamic, does not mean that anything, or even most things go.  For years, I led a team of Reform, Conservative, secular teachers on the Bronfman Youth Fellowships where the purported “myth of authenticity” was regularly debunked by the broad spectrum of representation.  We would live together as a– united by our willingness to discuss our differences–community for five intense weeks in Israel. We also would gather for a follow-up weekend in the fall.  I would ask these group of  high school seniors an open question. “What have the last couple of months been like for you?”

Most of them assumed I meant how often had you been to shule in the last two months, or what rituals had you adopted that you hadn’t done before.  When interviewed, “Birthright Israel” college participants admit to having little connection to the God of Israel, but have a stronger affinity for the “culture”, but the first “cultural” thing they do when they return to campus is to go to Friday night services, hear kiddush and make motzi. A tradition, dare I say a culture,  may be challenged from the outside, but it is defined by normative practice.  The one thing that makes halachic Judaism normative is the fact that all denominations, and predilections need to be in dialog with it.  They may light candles after sunset, but they still light. The converse is not true, and therein lies the tradition’s claim to authenticity.  Authenticity is not judged by meaningful experience alone.

Twenty years ago, I had a conversation with a prominent Reform rabbi and author, who was a pioneer in bringing  a revised Jewish mysticism to the Reform movement and beyond.  After admitting that he needed to rely primarily on translations, he opined that “Who knows why you ended up in Israel studying in yeshiva for twelve years and I went to HUC? Why should that prevent us from unifying the Jewish people and sitting on a Beit Din together?”

Well, I did know why. I made a choice to forgo ten years of earnings living in a benign state of poverty to study in Yeshiva for over ten years day and night.   I have a fairly empty 401k to prove it. Then, after some grueling exams that effort entitled me (literally) to be a rabbi. It did not entitle me to be a PhD, nor should it have. If, however, I chose to be a Reform rabbi tomorrow–it would not be a problem, but the opposite is not true, and this cannot, and will not go away. It is from these criteria that authenticity emanates. If I was to cavalierly say to my colleague, “You’re right, what’s the difference” I would be perpetuating a lie, something that would be ludicrous to believe. Years ago, the late Rabbi Alexander Shindler argued for the legitimacy of patrilineal descent for the Reform movement.  With rhetorical flourish, he argued, “If they were Jewish enough for Hitler, they should be Jewish enough for us!”

So, Hitler should be the one who determines “Who is a Jew?”

Removal of authenticity is tantamount to the removal of standards, and removal of standards ensures and perpetuates intellectual, spiritual and communal mediocrity. If you don’t believe me, take a look around. I guess that I can officially say that I’m too old for Michaelson’s brave new world.


Captain of “The Exodus” dies at the age of 86

In Uncategorized on December 24, 2009 at 8:41 am

Israeli novelist Yoram Kaniuk eulogizes his friend Ike Aharonavich, the daring Captain of The Exodus. In a touching tribute, Kaniuk recalls an argument between Aharonavich and his commander Yossi Harel that is still with us to this day:

All of Zionism is the story of the struggle between Yossi and Ike. Ike wanted Yossi to continue the war to show that we were heroes and in order to beat the British and Yossi said he didn’t bring the ship so that 4,500 Holocaust survivors would be killed, and if Ike’s Palmach wanted war he should bring the young people from the kibbutzim. Ike didn’t forgive him. No logic would get through to him. He accepted the battle that was almost Masada in the sea. Yossi wanted life. Ike wanted struggle and victory.

American Jews of my parents generation know their Israeli history through bestsellers like the novel Exodus and the Otto Preminger film that bears the same name.  I remember Paul Newman, as the new Jew, Ari Ben Canaan, literally son of Canaan, returning to his primordial national roots where diaspora Judaism is a perversion of Jewish destiny that should only be realized through connecting to the Land!  The book and the film made American Jews fiercely proud, but for most, not proud enough to actually live there. Nevertheless, fledgling Israel benefited from a new form of Jewish guilt that brought a disturbing conundrum to Jewish consciousness: Suppose a people was given a homeland and nobody wanted to go there.  Dollars and trees were sent as the surrogates for flesh and blood forging an uneasy alliance between the builders of statehood and their American partners who were, for the most part, rooting from the sidelines.

From 1945 until 1967 Israel had the enviable status of valiant underdog.  She was neither perceived as a victim, nor an oppressor, but a survivor, perpetually defying all odds.   Let’s imagine, in memory of Ike, a counter-history where there were 4500 martyrs from the Exodus, children, women and men, who had died valiantly for the right to be a nation like everyone else.  Where Ike would have been remembered as the catalyst for removing the immigration quotas that the British had enforced, and alongside Yom Ha’atzmaut there would be a day of reflection recalling the bold and heart rending battle of the 4500 against British tyranny, of those who had already endured the unimaginable horrors and indignities of Hitler.  Indeed, a ‘Masada in the sea’.

Masada doesn’t make it into the Talmud, and if it weren’t for Josephus, we would have no record of it.  Our Sages were reluctant to see objectively futile acts of resistance as positive, when hundreds, or thousands would lose their lives.  They were more forgiving in remembering, mourning and implicitly praising individual acts of martyrdom like the death of Rabbi Akiva, and Rabbi Hanina Ben Tradyon.  The Sages were more comfortable with playing the honorable individual victim card.  Some even justified it theologically:

Our Rabbis taught: When Rabbi Yossi ben Kisma fell ill, Rabbi Hanina ben Teradion went to visit him.  Rabbi Yossi said to him:  Hanina, my brother, don’t you know that  Heaven has ordained this Roman nation to reign? Even though she has laid waste to God’s House, burnt His Temple, killed His pious ones and caused His best ones to perish, she continues to stand! (Babylonian Talmud, Avoda Zara 18a)

Ike would have fought the British not to win, but to show the world that the New Jews were fighters, and would not go away quietly. His commander thought that these, the scarred remnants of war torn Jewish Europe, were not the people who should be asked to deliver this message. Ike would have certainly answered “But who of us had more to prove than these?”

Nowadays when the moniker “valiant survivor” rests not so easily on Israel’s shoulders, we should take a moment, pause and reflect on how complicated a once simple, straightforward narrative has become and how the shadow of the Exodus still informs our present.

Steinsaltz Contends that without the belief in souls, there ain’t no such thing as Democracy!

In Uncategorized on December 22, 2009 at 10:54 am

I just came across an old interview of Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz done by the Jewish Review a few years ago.  He sees that democracy is based on religious principles:

Democracy is based, strangely enough, on a religious principle. Democracy would be totally irrational unless we held firm to the belief that we have souls and that these souls are all equal to one another. This is because, as was written in Orwell’s 1984, one can’t rationally make the statement that all men are equal, and this is simply because it is obviously untrue. People are not equal from any point of view. Therefore, to create a society based on the notion that the vote of a wise and learned person has the same value as the vote of somebody who is unlearned and doesn’t know what he is talking about; you must posit that they have equal souls. This is also true with respect to the rights of man as well. Why should a person who is the highest intellectual be regarded as equal to somebody who is ignorant or who is a criminal with respect, for example, to the right to be saved by a given medical procedure? So you see, this principle, this belief that people have souls and that souls are of inestimable, equal value, is the source of every social structure we hold dear.

The rest of the interview is well worth reading, and it’s not that long.  For over forty years Rabbi Steinsaltz has been translating and punctuating the Babylonian Talmud into Hebrew.  It is a daunting enterprise that is on the cusp of completion.  This monumental achievement will be marked by an international day of learning, a celebration of Torah reaching all four corners of the earth. I am proud to be involved in designing the curriculum for what promises to be a profound celebration.

Garrison Keillor Cries Foul On Irving Berlin: Jihad, American Style

In Uncategorized on December 18, 2009 at 8:17 am

Garrison Keillor is offended that Irving Berlin penned songs about His holiday. I have to laugh. Those bloody Jews, those bloody Jews not content with just writing songs about their own holidays, hijacked Xmas and Easter.  The truth is Philip Roth, in his novel, Operation Shylock, agrees with him:

“God gave Moses the 10 Commandments, and He gave to Irving Berlin ‘Easter Parade’ and ‘White Christmas.’ The two holidays that celebrate the divinity of Christ–the divinity that’s the very heart of the Jewish rejection of Christianity–and what does Irving Berlin do? Easter he turns into a fashion show and Christmas into a holiday about snow.”

It’s hard to be a competing minority this time of year for many Jews–this is an old story.  Once Keillor himself referred to Christmas music for Jews is like having noisy neighbors, he just wants us to endure the incessant “harumpumpums”, and “silent nights” as the price we pay for living in the Christian diaspora. Instead, those geniuses of assimilation, de-Jesus the holiday, so they can celebrate along with the rest of America.  Roth sees this as a good thing, Keillor feels violated by those insidious, surreptitious Jews of the “culture conspiracy”.  I feel ambivalent.

Now Orrin Hatch has written a snappy Chanukah song out of his deep respect for Jews and Judaism.  Conan Obrien and his Jewish drummer Max Weinberg view this as an opportunity to gently spoof Mormonism, as if there is something bizarre about Senator Hatch writing a Chanukah song. This is a peculiarly, but not uniquely, American phenomenon.  Why not uniquely? Marc Chagall created a number of paintings of Jesus, some of which equated his crucifixion with Holocaust victims. Mounds of irony in that comparison, even though it’s hard to figure out who is co-opting whom.

America’s greatness, some opine, is that Irving Berlin can write a song in celebration of the season, and the days that mark it.  For the believers, however, it’s like, “Get your friggin’ hands off my holiday, write songs for your own holidays!” Max Weinberg lets Orrin Hatch have it, and Keillor wails on poor Irving who can’t even defend himself while Marc Chagall evokes Jesus as the prototype for Holocaust victims–which, for some reason, I find the most offensive of all.

Well, at least no one is burning down buildings, and nobody’s getting hurt–at least physically.

The Talmud and Health Care Reform: Public policy in light of great need and scarce resources

In Uncategorized on December 7, 2009 at 11:51 pm

I would like to offer an unsentimental snapshot of a public scourge that required the rabbis, the makers of public policy, to diminish enthusiasm for a great mitzvah in the interest of a greater good.

In Baba Batra 8b the Sages taught:

Rava said to Rabba Bar Mari, “Where does this notion that redeeming the captive is considered so special that the sages called it an exceptionally great mitzvah appear? As it is written: “And when they will say to you, “Where shall we go?” You will say to them, “So says the LORD, those to die will die, those to go by the sword, will go by the sword, those by famine will be by famine and those who will be taken captive will be taken captive.” (Jeremiah 15:2) And Rabbi Yochanan said, “[In this verse] the afflictions become increasingly more severe. [For example] The sword is considered more severe than death.”

Through a close reading of the verse in Jeremiah, Rabbi Yochanan sees the worst possible circumstance is to be held captive.  It follows that redeeming someone from that situation is a profound act of mercy.  Now, check out this passage:

One never redeems captives for more than they’remarket value, because of our concern for Tikkun HaOlam. One also does not help captives escape because of  our concern for Tikkun HaOlam. Rabban Shimon Ben Gamliel said, “It was a decree made especially for captives.”

All of a sudden, the exceptionally great mitzvah should not be too expensive!!??  The Talmud goes on to  query whether the limit on ransoms to be paid was because paying too much will encourage more kidnappings, or whether we are worried that it will bankrupt the community’s resources?  Either way, concern for public welfare trumps the suffering of one person, even in the case where it is acknowledged that a captive’s life is worse than dying by famine.

John Marshall a respected oncologist wrote a heart wrenching article in the Washington Post over a week ago.  He spends his life fighting cancer and lives with the knowledge that eighty per cent of his patients–regardless of the expense and relentless toxicity of the treatments–will not have a positive outcome. He reports:

My patients seek state-of-the-art therapy, access to clinical trials and new treatments, all of which we provide at our institution. Almost all of them have insurance, and most have some form of prescription drug coverage; their access to care is virtually limitless. We employ the latest diagnostic tests, targeted chemotherapy, minimally invasive surgical techniques and incredibly precise radiation. Yet, despite the many recent advances in detection and treatment, of the 50 patients, 40 of them are likely to lose the fight.
Because insurance will pay the price tag for the patient, the patient and the patient’s family will go to heroic efforts in hopes for a miracle. I would be no different. In most of those lucky twenty per cent, it probably can’t be certain that the interventions provided the outcome.  If they can’t explain why the eighty per cent weren’t as lucky, then who knows why the twenty per cent survived?
Fifty billion dollars are being spent on the last two months of the patient’s life.  Fifty billion that might be spent on finding cures, that might be spent on prevention, that might be spent on insuring all those who use emergency rooms for primary care.
The Talmud teaches that the good of community comes before the good of the individual, and even if saving one life is as if one saved the world–saving many lives translates into many of them.
Our Sages  courageously acknowledge the pain and suffering of one being held captive, but they also remind us that the needs of the individual should not be met if doing so would completely deplete community resources.
The reluctance to make these hard decisions has brought us to where we are now; a system that provides the most expensive care for the most pathetic results.  We can’t avoid these decisions anymore. The Talmud taught this eighteen hundred years ago, and it’s about time we learned it as well.