Rabbi Avi Weinstein

Archive for July, 2010|Monthly archive page

As the Knesset Ponders non-Orthodox conversions, some new thoughts on an old story

In Uncategorized on July 15, 2010 at 7:01 pm

This is the week when Jewish teachers throughout the world teach the lesson of Kamtza and Bar Kamtza. The moral of which is that  enmity between two people can have profound political consequences. Rabbi Yochanan teaches that because of the hatred of Bar Kamtza, and rabbinic apathy, Bar Kamtza became an enemy of the Jews and managed to provoke the Romans into destroying Jerusalem. Bar Kamtza’s  plan was to have the Romans bring a sacrifice to Jerusalem, on the way he would make a blemish on the animal so that it would not be fit for the altar, and then claim that the Roman Emperor was being disrespected.  The Rabbis immediately divined the predicament and deliberated about what to do. Here is what the Rabbis had in mind:

“The Rabbis had in mind to sacrifice it anyway to maintain peaceful relations with the government. But Rabbi Zechariah son of Avkulos objected, ‘People will say, ‘Animals with blemishes may be sacrificed on the altar!’ ”

“The Rabbis had in mind to kill Bar-Kamtza so that he would not report what had happened to the Caesar! But Rabbi Zechariah son of Avkulos objected, ‘People will say, ‘One who makes blemishes in sacrifices is killed!’ ”

Rabbi Yochanan said, “The excessive carefulness of Rabbi Zechariah son of Avkulos destroyed our Temple, burned our Palace, and exiled us from our Land.” (Gitin 56a)

Rabbi Yochanan, a fairly tough minded sage with very profound standards for personal piety, has harsh words for Rabbi Zechariah and his inflexibility.  Rabbi Zechariah, of course, had a point. What, after all, is more important? What the Romans think, or being consistent and faithful to our sacrificial rites? It would, however, have taken a miracle to save the Jews from the yoke of Roman oppression, and we are enjoined not to rely on miracles. There was no choice according to Rabbi Yochanan.  Lives were in the balance and sacred rituals–no matter how sacred–be damned. The people come first, and the rigidity of Rabbi Zechariah had ominous consequences that deserved to be condemned.

When I was living in Jerusalem, I was once asked by a journalist from a prominent American newspaper about the “Who is a Jew” amendment that was being debated in the Knesset. The late (Reform) Rabbi Alexander Shindler had held a press conference railing about this divisive piece of legislation.  He neglected to mention the Reform movement’s contribution to divisiveness by countenancing patrilineal descent, but, never mind.

I answered that I didn’t believe in unenforceable laws that were made only to disenfranchise people.  The journalist asked, what might be a rebuttal to the liberal Jews’ position.  “Well”, I said, “if 60,000 more Reform Jews lived here, then that might be three Knesset seats, and labor wouldn’t need to make coalitions with the religious parties, but until that time comes, they might not matter so much.” This was in my own estimation a glib, but cogent response.  Orthodox observant Jews far outnumber their Conservative and Reform counterparts, they are allowed to vote their conscience, even if it means bringing their holy wars to the Knesset.  This is not Ayatollastan as Jeffrey Goldberg would say, but democracy.

It is, however, at this juncture, profoundly misguided to muscle through the Knesset  legislation that can only help to diminish support among a community that Israel may need more and more in the future. If Congressmen from the Democrats are writing letters to the State of Israel echoing the concerns of their Jewish constituents, then this is no longer a side issue.

It is true! We are one people of many religions. One of those religions has a monopoly on personal status in Israel for two reasons: One, lots of them live there, and this issue is important to them. Two, dominion over personal status was granted to the Jews living in the Land long before there was a State by the Ottoman Turks, and Ben Gurion maintained that status quo. Why? Because there were lots of those Jews and their rabbis. It is time for leaders of the Reform and Conservative movement to acknowledge that lack of Aliya and lack of success in bringing great numbers to their ranks in Israel is the primary reason for their predicament.

I am, however, very tired of my community not being able to see the proverbial forest. We read these passages year after year–don’t you think enough of us would get the message? This legislation is bad for All of us. It is true that Jewish affiliation is messy, and has been messy for many years, but as long as there is a diaspora, such legislation only succeeds in making Israel less relevant to maybe millions of Jews.

We should listen deeply to Rebbe Yochanan.


Israel’s Cultural Isolation…The Left of the world has with Elvis (Costello that is) left the building.

In Uncategorized on July 1, 2010 at 12:35 pm

This week in Jewcy my friend and once student Charlie Buckholtz bemoans the fact that he, along with all the indie punk rockers of Israel have become the victims of a cultural boycott that may doom Yerushalayim to hearing only Ashkenazi inflected tunes urging everyone to rebuild the Temple–at least until the Messiah comes.  Finally, redemption was at hand with Elvis Costello, the Pixies, and Devenra Banhart coming to T.A. Alas, they have all canceled because of the Flotilla (the hun) incident.

He articulates the frustration of him and other punished fellow travelers who happen to be citizens of a State with momentary ‘benighted policies”.

“…events beyond all our control have conspired against us (Pixies)…merely having your name added to a concert schedule may be interpreted as a political act and it may be assumed that one has no mind for the suffering of the innocent (Elvis)…it seems that we are being used to support views that are not our own (Devendra)…

These sad, spineless phrases are unworthy of the brilliant lyricists in whose names they are written. Reading them makes me want to lock myself in a room with Blood and Chocolate, Surfer Rosa, and Nino Rojo-enduring examples of language used to express the rawest experience, the hardest-earned insight, the most deeply personal human truths. By contrast, these notes, with their awkward overreliance on the passive-voice, read as a series of furtive dodges. The artists’ protestations of being somehow waylaid by new “events” or information just prior to their appearances rings too hollow to be taken seriously. By Elvis’ own logic, these so-called new “events” only make the case for rejecting artistic boycotts that much more urgent. It is, again, a logic that applies to “any democracy, no matter how flawed in the worst time when a government is in power acting in an irresponsible, violent and despicable way.” If “the only answer is dialogue and reconciliation,” and music has the potential to move those processes forward, then aren’t these exactly the kinds of places conscientious artists should be most eager to perform? They booked…they were pressured and intimidated…and they caved.

Well said, Charlie. I, for one, however, don’t believe that the zeitgeist is entirely rational when it comes to Jews. Ruth Wisse would ask with irony overblown, “How can the favored victims of the the twentieth century betray what we love about them,  their victimhood?” I don’t buy that either because it’s too self-serving.

Israel is now an embarrassment because recently, all of a sudden, those who love Jesus, love Israel and all its hawkish policies, and those on the left cannot be associated with those “morons”. The biggest indictment of Israel is not the oppression of Gaza, it’s being embarrassed by those Americans who claim to love her.  When Peter Beinart reports that you can’t expect the young to check their liberalism at the door when it comes to Israel.  I do believe he is misreading what is fueling the disengagement of the liberal young. People are not so thoughtful.  Israel is guilty by association. If Sarah Palin is a fan, then something is profoundly rotten in the state of…

The enemy who is the friend of my friend makes me reconsider that relationship.  This is not fair. It’s not Israel’s fault that they have accidentally found a comfortable niche within Christian eschatology.  Israel has become gross because she is a welcome guest at most tea parties. If the right wing would despise Israel as the Birchers and those of Liberty Lobby used to, then I believe there would be more sympathy for the situation that Israel finds herself in. That, however, for some reason is now not the case.

Here’s a suggestion for Charlie. Gospel music, its timeless, heartfelt, and musical as well and it’s probably the ultimate source for blues, jazz and rock and roll.  You can bet those players won’t cancel their tour to Jerusalem…And that, you can take to the bank. Therein lies the rub.

The Oven of Achnai, And the Lesson not Learned!

In Uncategorized on July 1, 2010 at 5:57 am

Probably the most popular story in the Talmud is the story of the modular oven, its parts connected by sand so that it functioned as a unit, but its parts remained somewhat independent of each other.  The question before the Sages was whether this should be considered a finished vessel, and therefore subject to the rules of purity and impurity, or whether it was technically under construction and therefore not subject to these rules.  The principle being that an unfinished vessel does not have the potential to become impure until it has reached its finished state.

The Sages declare that it is indeed finished enough while Rabbi Eliezer disagrees and says that it is not.  At this point the fireworks begin.  Rabbi Eliezer has a number of parlor tricks that he invokes in order to prove that his is the correct opinion.  Streams are twisted around, carob trees jump several football fields, the walls of the Beit Midrash begin to collapse, and finally a heavenly voice descends and announces: The law always goes according to Rabbi Eliezer!

None of these “proofs” impress his colleagues, not even the heavenly voice.  Quoting from the Torah, they say, “It (the Torah) is not heaven”, and “After the majority one must incline”. Later on, one of the sages sees Elijah the Prophet in the marketplace and asks how the Holy One reacted to the seeming impudence of those sages, and Elijah said, God smiled and said, “My children have defeated me!  They have defeated me!”

When retold, most people stop the story at this stage, but the story goes on.  The sages invalidate all of Rabbi Eliezer’s decisions that applied to the purity laws and if that weren’t enough, they decide to formally censure him, and exclude him from their circle.  Rabbi Eliezer having been shunned is terribly upset and the power of his pain has the potential to create spiritual upheaval in the world.  His immediate household is on constant vigil not to let him say the prayers that are used as an outlet for personal grief.  One day, his wife, who is the Nasi’s (the head of the court’s) wife miscalculates the new moon when these prayers are not said, only to find Rabbi Eliezer saying the prayers that have the potential to bring on calamity.  She rushes in and says, “Stop! You’re killing my brother!” When asked how does she know this? She answers, “All the gates of prayer are closed except for the gates of wounded feelings!”

Rabban Gamliel, the head of the court had indeed died.  The Mishnah for which  this Talmudic passage is a commentary, is concerned with hurtful speech and its reprecussions.  This Gemara is brought by the editors to illustrate the seriousness of causing anguish to another individual whether it be by speech or by action.  There is an implicit critique of the exclusion of Rabbi Eliezer, even if the decision of the majority was validated by God’s approval.  The overreaching of authority has disastrous consequences that lead to the demise of the leader of the Beit Din.  The same leader who has been challenged for overreaching before and especially for humiliating his colleague and adversary, Rabbi Yehoshua.

There was a textual overreach as well that was corroborated by God Himself. When the sages quote, “after the majority one must incline” the context of the verse is saying that one should not justify wicked actions by rationalizing that he was going along with the majority.  By subverting the context of the verse, the sages are co-opting the verse to refute Rabbi Eliezer.  This, the story tells us, is a legitimate use of rabbinic authority,  but when it comes to shunning a colleague, the overreaching of authority suffers profound consequences.

Why do most people choose not to learn this lesson from the story, and instead, choose to end it earlier? It may be that the drama of refuting a heavenly voice and winning is what interests most people, and therefore the story is brought to validate rabbinic authority.

I think, however, it says something very unattractive about those who would leave Rabbi Eliezer’s wounded feelings out of the mix. They hide behind the triumph of the argument which in fact is ultimately a pyrrhic victory.  A short term legislative win that has terminal consequences for Rabban Gamliel whose court was seemingly over concerned about preserving authority.  To subjugate God’s word to fanciful interpretations is the licence given when the Torah declares “It is not heaven”.  That same licence, however, does not imply when one is trying to subjugate another human being–especially not a colleague.

This is what the court did not understand, and this is what so many re-counters of this story fail to grasp when they end this story on such a triumphant note.

The Torah may not be in heaven, but we better be careful how we use it. For a look at the narrative, click here