Rabbi Avi Weinstein

Archive for July 1st, 2010|Daily archive page

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.

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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