Rabbi Avi Weinstein

Archive for December, 2010|Monthly archive page

Does the Talmud have anything to say about Mayor Bloomberg and Governor Christie’s Snow Dilemma?

In Uncategorized on December 31, 2010 at 9:54 am

The answer, of course, is yes! If you look deeply enough, th Talmud has something to say about everything. Bloomberg was hammered for seeing the world through the eyes of Manhattan Island, forgetting momentarily that he was responsible for Brooklyn and Queens. Christie was MIA.  Both have lost tremendous political capital by demonstrating very publicly how out of touch they were with the voters.  Trash and snow removal are the lifeblood of government.  Screw these up, and you may as well start to number your days as a politician.

In Brachot 27b, Rabbi Yehoshua has indirectly challenged Rabban Gamliel’s authority for the third time. Rabban Gamliel publicly humiliates him in front of Yehoshua’s colleagues.   Big mistake.  His colleagues take umbrage and collude in having Gamliel deposed.  Rabban Gamliel is out of touch on a number of levels. First, he doesn’t realize that Yehoshua enjoys broad support of his colleagues. Second, he doesn’t realize that his policy of controlling who enters the House of Study is not popular, and third, when he finally goes to Rabbi Yehoshua’s home to apologize, he notices for the first time, that Rabbi Yehoshua makes coal for a living. To which Rabbi Yehoshua replies:

Woe to the generation that you are its leader! You do not know the sorrows of the sages or how they support themselves and make a living!

Being a wealthy patrician had caused Rabban Gamliel to be out of touch, to not realize that when a storm is coming, the leader cannot be seen basking in the sun at Disney World. He cannot demonstrate that the New York he governs, doesn’t include the outer Boroughs.  He cannot be insensitive to the hunger and deprivation of his colleagues, and how they sacrifice for the values that he and they uphold. The public humiliation of Rabbi Yehoshua was increased sevenfold by the patrician in power’s humiliation of one who barely scratched out a meager living. The temptation for arrogance, insensitivity grows with the increase in authority. It is inevitable that with more responsibility often comes more insularity. This is the subtext that runs through this very famous dispute. Rabban Gamliel thought that because of Rabbi Yehoshua’s humble origins that he was an easy target, Yehoshua’s formidable intellect notwithstanding.

To be sure, Rabban Gamliel felt that any dissent was a threat to the new post Temple reality, and in his own mind, any dissent needed to be handled severely.  The same story teaches that even though his authority was challenged, and threatened, he still showed up at the Beit Midrash every single day. His ego did not interfere with his devotion to Torah.

Nevertheless, his ignorance of Rabbi Yehoshua’s personal circumstances denotes the insidious nature of privilege. The rich guy would put the poor guy in his place and be done with it. This time he would publicly belittle him and be done with the matter. Little did he know, or learn from his predecessors. After all, Shammai was a rich guy, and Hillel was anything but.

Rabban Gamliel II, a student from Beit Hillel should have realized that.

It is a lesson that the Mayor and Governor should have learned as well.


The Global Day of Jewish Learning: Advertisement for Rabbi Steinsaltz and myself

In Uncategorized on December 28, 2010 at 11:01 am

It was last November, and in one day, over a year’s effort was put to rest. It took that long to compile, translate and design the curriculum that was used in all of the English speaking communities throughout the world. Rabbi Meir Klein and yours truly collaborated on what turned out to be a more massive project than we imagined at the time.  Had I known, I would have asked for more moolah, but chalk that one up to experience. For those interested in checking out the curriculum, please peruse the Global Day website.

Kissinger and the (Soviet) Jews: Tales from the Holocaust…and the Talmud

In Uncategorized on December 28, 2010 at 9:18 am

Recent revelations from the Nixon tapes made news, as Kissinger is quoted saying:

“The emigration of Jews from the Soviet Union is not an objective of American foreign policy. And if they put Jews into gas chambers in the Soviet Union, it is not an American concern. Maybe a humanitarian concern.”

Maybe a humanitarian concern??????” Michael Gerson, a believing evangelical Christian with a Jewish grandfather, in a WaPo op ed piece chides Kissinger and the “realism” that led him to these odious comments.  In a familiar defense, Kissinger responds, complaining that his statement, however inappropriate, was taken out of context, invokes his sacred status as an indirect victim of the Holocaust and its horrors. He lost friends and relatives, and fled from Europe’s ovens in the nick of time as a fourteen year old child. Gal Beckerman, who has recently written a history of the struggle for Soviet Jewry challenged Kissinger’s revisionism in today’s WaPo. Kissinger’s intemperate remarks reveal an older and more complex story than Madeleine Albright’s Jewish identity melodrama.

Once, I was talking to the late Jewish historian Arthur Hertzberg, and he told me the following story. When he was President of the American Jewish Congress  the Council of Presidents was meeting with Mr. Kissinger. One of the Presidents was saying Kaddish and needed a minyan for Mincha, the afternoon service. “Of the ten people in the room, other than Israel Miller (who was saying Kaddish), only me and Kissinger knew which side of Mincha was up.”, Hertzberg said. Kissinger is a different bird than Ms Albright. Albright’s Jewish identity was as strange to her as it was to George Allen–Mr. Makaka.  Why should they own something that never meant anything to them to begin with?

Henry K. grew up in a traditional Jewish household, and yet at every personal, social and political opportunity he distanced himself from his heritage. For him, there was no greater liability than his Jewish background, with his foreign accent playing a close second. His, was a betrayal of the first order. The suffering of Jews was not going to affect the grand design, the bigger picture that the little slave had managed to sell to his anti-semitic master, Mr. Nixon.  Were Nixon’s bigoted comments taken out of context too?

Kissinger has proven that the axiom of Pirkei Avot: “Beware of government, because they only befriend a person for their own designs.” (Pirkei Avot 2:3) He is the quintessential insecure intellectual, too clever by half, who understood early on  that in order to buy in to his version of the American dream, he must sell out his birthright.

As he scrambles to justify his “gas chambers” faux pas while exaggerating his human rights achievements, K. still argues that it would have been bad for the Jews for him to reveal any sentimentality.  According to Gal Beckerman, he went as far as to fabricate statistics in order to buttress his case. It is clear that Kissinger, had he been advising Churchill, would not have recommended bombing the gas chambers of Auschwitz, because it would have made him sound a bit too “Jewy”. You could almost hear him saying, “Dat we must not undermine the war effort, even though this maybe a humanitarian concern.

In the Talmud, Rabbi Yossi Ben Kisma, who refused to live in a place where Torah study was central to daily life, nevertheless, capitulated to the Roman authority when they took over and even tried to convince Rabbi Hanina Ben Tradyon to stop learning Torah in public–predicting Hanina’s demise in extraordinary detail. Rabbi Yossi, however, had Jewish interest at heart and was doing his best to convince his friend to stop his public learning in order to save him.  He argued that a kingdom that could get away with destroying God’s house, must have the Holy One’s approval, and we must not resist the punishment that has been impressed upon us.  Rabbi Hanina was martyred in an act of spiritual resistance in  a way that transformed his students, his daughter, and even and especially his executioner.  It is his story that we remember, and it is his remarkable statement while he is being burned at the stake that remains with us until this day. When his fate and his body are tied literally to a burning Torah scroll, his students ask in horror what does he see? He says, “The parchments are burning, but the letters are flying free.” (Avoda Zara 18a)

Collective resistance is not a motif one sees championed in the Talmud.  The Talmud heralds Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakai who negotiates with Vespasian for a new center of learning outside of Jerusalem. The heroes of Masada’s last stand are only known because of Joesphus’ history, the Talmud did not wish to stoke Jewish passions with their examples of collective martyrdom, so it s not mentioned. Sometimes collaboration was chosen as a survival mechanism against unspeakable odds.

Rabbi Yossi collaborated with the Romans because he felt that this was the best option to preserve the life of the community. Kissinger claims that he could do the best for the community, by doing what is best for America. In other words, he made a conscious decision to abandon any contact or connection with Jewish life so that he could reinvent his own bad self.  For him to protest that he not be judged with his “Walk a mile in my shoes” Holocaust victim defense, is obscene, hideous, and disgusting. His battle to annihilate  his Jewish identity was the only thing missing from the context of his statement.

Here is what Kissinger meant by his “gas chamber gaffe”. The destiny of them–the Soviet Jews–has nothing to do with me, the reinvented American. This is more than self hatred, it is self obliteration.

With friends like Henry…

Psalm 87 Verse 6 Indicates that one may say “Happy New Year”!

In Uncategorized on December 27, 2010 at 8:24 am

Thanks King David. The verse states;

…ה’ יספר בכתוב עמים
“The Lord shall record, in the  registry of peoples…”
…in the registry of peoples i.e. using the way the nations record events, the Lord will count and acknowledge the Jews among them.  The solar calendar, or the way nations count, has, according to this verse, Divine acknowledgement. So, too, for you Jews in the diaspora, a nod to the Gregorian calendar, even if it is not “our” calendar, may be in order.

When Adam noticed the day diminishing, he said, “Is the world becoming darker because of
my sins, will it soon return to its unformed state and, so, is this the mortality that the
heavens have levied upon me?”  He prayed and fasted for eight days.  This was during the
period of Tevet so soon the days grew longer.  He then realized, “This is the way of the
world.”  Adam then chose to feast for eight days.” (Avoda Zara 8a)

And as the Beatles sang: Here comes the sun!
And Happy New Year!

It’s that time of year again! Oy to the World!

In Uncategorized on December 24, 2010 at 9:30 am

Talk about trying to push a river! This morning, at 7:15 AM, Friday, December 24th, I took my son to school. The roads were clear, and the only place brimming with activity was the Yeshiva of Greater Washington.  All other schools, including Jewish ones, were on “winter” break. Even though it is woefully inconvenient to have mismatched vacations with the Christian universe, I can’t help but admire the tenacity of  schools like the Yeshiva.  I have just done a search of Muslim school calendars, and each one breaks a day or two prior to December 25th. Like most Jewish schools they have caved to the bias of the Gregorian calendar.

In principle, much of this has to do with  the centrality of study as a devotional enterprise in Jewish tradition. Torah study is not only enriching, but a duty. Even the reconstruction of the Temple would not be reason enough to call off school, so how could one justify putting a fig leaf on a vacation period where Santa Claus, lights, and Jesus play a central role. On the other hand, if one is going to take a winter break at some time, why not do so when families can truly enjoy the time together?

In Israel, this period, save for Christian pilgrimages, goes unnoticed by the general population.  Sunday is a school day, and if weekends are gaining traction, they will begin on Friday and end Saturday night.  The Hareidi community has for once chosen to be totally in sync with the Zionist entity.  The temerity of acting like a dominant culture when nothing could be farther from the truth, reminds us of the perils of exile. My son notices that everyone else is off, and he and his cronies are the only ones who see this as a principle worth sacrificing for. His family now has to take extra vacation days beyond those taken for the Jewish holidays in order to accommodate this principle, while in Israel everyone would still be in school.

During these long nights, and frigid days, these tensions are truly the stuff of exile.  When Herzl was criticized for wishing to be a normal nation, surely the critics still dreamed of national holidays being Jewish ones, where a forced homage to another religion was not mandatory, and where the ubiquity of another religion was not the normal state of affairs. In the nineteenth century dreams of such a reality was considered Messianic thinking the substance of which was in Jewish imagination and memory. Little did they know.

The assimilationists have made our exile quite comfortable, as long as we play along. Thanks to Irving Berlin, we can hope for snow on December 25th, and fancy clothes on Easter without having to contend with you know who. We can all thank movie studios for films where brotherhood, generosity and love are emphasized while you know who is nowhere to be seen.  In theology, the melting pot is at peak boil for the masses at this time of year, while the theologians stand bemused and marginalized on the sidelines.

This pervasive “if you can’t beat ’em…” attitude is understandable. What can anyone gain by such an obstinate position that demands school be in session, only because “they” have off. It is, however, a deep and profound reminder that we are in exile, with a calendar and a culture that we really do not share. It mirrors a reality we would rather not face, and of which we may not be aware…until we spend Xmas in Israel.

Net Neutrality and the Torah

In Uncategorized on December 22, 2010 at 8:58 am

I admit it. The net neutrality debate has me confused. On the one hand, there are the telecoms who want to be the gate keepers catering to those who can pay the most for premium services.  On the other hand, there are the merchants like Amazon, e-bay, and other retailers who want equal access without interference from AT&T, Verizon, and Sprint.

The Telecoms argue that since they either create or pay for the networks, that entitles them to be gate keepers. The FCC argument for regulating and restricting their role by not allowing for a two tier system i.e. premium services for a price as opposed to budget services is that it will inhibit the little guy from competing and deny poor people access to high quality internet.

As I understand it, most of the restrictions mandated by the FCC only apply to wired computers.  Right now, although, I am in my home, I am using a wireless network in my upstairs office.  This means that many of the FCC protections do not apply while they do apply to my wife’s wired computer downstairs. The difference is that the wires are owned by Verizon, while the wireless airwaves are owned by the public. It is a public/private partnership.  It is not unreasonable for the FCC to act in what it perceives is the public’s interest.  On the other hand, it should be that the FCC has more right to regulate wireless, than they do with wired computers.  There’s something smelly there.

In the Talmud, the phrase caveat emptor has no resonance. A bedrock business Talmudic principle is that anyone who unwittingly pays or sells an item that is one sixth over or under market value can nullify the sale. There are exceptions, but in most cases one can get his money back. This assures protection for both the merchant and the consumer.  According to one opinion, the percentage reflects how much one might be willing to overpay without feeling cheated. In other words, there should be an enforced level playing field upon which naive merchants and consumers alike can rely.

While we were sleeping, the telecoms managed to double dip and charge minutes for received calls. Even though in the land of landlines, the received long distance call was always free, all of the sudden, both the caller and the called were charged equally. There is no other country in the world that has this practice of double dipping. Because all companies charge for received calls, it is tantamount to a private  tax levied by the telecom giants that has forced people into plans that cost as much as fifty dollars a month more than they would have to pay if received calls didn’t count.

The internet was commandeered from early on by those who saw its unifying potential as a tool for breaking down barriers and for collaboration. The corprations came to the party very late, and have until recently been frustrated by not being able to harness the internet’s huge commercial potential. Now that they’re beginning to, they bring a not so enlightened self interest into the fray.  Google and Verizon want the Droid apps and their premium services to be the machers on the superhighway’s HOV lane while Amazon worries that the consumer will end up paying these “taxes” which may inhibit sales since third parties could potentially be not invited to the party.

The practices of the Telecom industry until now have been outrageous when it comes not only to fees, but to price structure as well.  If the world is the market for this utility, they have been overcharging well over one sixth the market value (try double), and have been laughing all the way to the bank.  In exchange, we already have expensive uneven access to a national broadband utility that places the US as 25th in the world.  Twenty-fifth? The digital divide within this country is another nail into the coffin of a failed education system. Left to the designs of the Telecoms, those who pay less will crawl so slowly that they may as well leave the grid.  The highway will have less traffic, and for those who have, things will never have been better.

Assimilating Chanukah: On Maccabeats and other curiosities

In Uncategorized on December 7, 2010 at 11:06 am

Either Jews spend a disproportionate amount of time on Youtube, or Chanukah has gone mainstream. I’m referring, of course, to the YU Maccabeats viral hit candlelight. Years ago, The Berman Hebrew Academy of Greater Washington, was playing the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School on the first night of Chanukah.  Before the game, the host team lit candles, said blessings and sang the Chanukah anthem Ma’oz Tzur. Immediately following the ritual, a pulsing pop tune came blaring out of the PA system where members from both teams were introduced with great fanfare. I’m thinking, here we are in a gymnasium, with boys dressed in shorts and tank tops playing basketball on Chanukah. Does it get more Greek than this? Our zealous ancestors would have bombed the place with Mattathias chanting to the crowd, “Whomever is for the Lord, follow me!” I was alone in seeing the irony, oh well.

Now, the YU a capella group puts new lyrics to a snappy tune the lyrics of which sings of all the traditional Chanukah tropes. Even though most of the group’s repertoire are arrangements of classical Jewish music, this is the tune that has captured the  attention of hundreds of thousands–maybe millions–of people.  What does it say about us and where we are. Well, it says that even the most traditional of us love it when a Jewish song with traditional themes is so popular, it’s deemed cool.  It’s a sign that we belong, and that we want to.  This is a nice, but very different message from the original meaning of Chanukah that may have found even dabbling in the dominant culture a no no.  One can argue that secular American culture is not idolatrous, but it certainly is licentious and any Maccabean priest would have spit three times rather than have anything to do with a popular non-Jewish song.

Many holidays in the world have a light motif (pardon the pun) this time of year, and although this is not acknowledged as one of the reasons for having an eight day festival during this season, it might be worth incorporating given how most Jews relationship to the dominant culture has changed. The Talmud says that Adam was said to have made a private eight day festival celebrating God’s majesty when winter days began to grow longer.

YU’s motto is Torah and Mada–Torah and General wisdom, a philosophy that argues for the integration of Jewish and General knowledge. Here with this video, they extend that integration to Jewish and general “culture”, something that has always happened with Jewish music. Many of those tunes identified as Jewish originated as German drinking songs. The lyrics are Jewish but the tunes are often borrowed and even the traditional tune to Ma’oz tzur originated as a German folk tune, used by Martin Luther–of all people. . too. The only difference is that we have forgotten where Ma’oz Tzur came from, and this year’s most popular Chanukah song is a parody of a contemporary top forty tune. It is this fact caused millions of Jews and others to tune in. Borrowing tunes replacing them with appropriate lyrics is a time honored Jewish tradition, but given the origins of Chanukah, it does seem a bit ironic.

Also, is something a parody when the essential message is not necessarily humorous?