Rabbi Avi Weinstein

Archive for July, 2011|Monthly archive page

Poor Amy (Winehouse) May she rest in peace.

In Uncategorized on July 25, 2011 at 6:11 pm

More than a handful of years ago, in a vainglorious attempt to accelerate the de-nerd-ification of  Hillel, there was a push to identify the least nerdy of contemporary icons who happened to be Jewish.  It didn’t matter how much they connected to us, we were going to claim our connection to them. The allure of a name like Winehouse, especially after Grammy award honors, was the new source of pride for the next generation of Jews.  As much as Hillel heralded her Jewishness six years ago, that was then. Now she no longer counts.  Not cool enough.

This whole issue of cool versus nerdy is possibly the falsest, lamest, and stupidest of dichotomies. For in undergraduate terms, a nerd might be defined as a student who appreciates her parents, makes good grades, and doesn’t get comatose on weekends. She may avoid piercings, tatoos, and prefer not to explore her sexuality, by allowing multiple partners to use her as a map to Nirvana.  The nerd doesn’t find it the least bit funny that there was a website lottery devoted to guessing when Ms Winehouse would finally peg out for the grand prize of an iPod.

Having values, and being grounded is definitely not cool, but it defines what most parents want for their children.

Hillel’s attempts at cool were never  particularly successful with the kids to whom they wished to target. Chabad, however, by being themselves, seemed to be much more attractive to those cool bad boys and girls.

Instead of the classic role models, Hillel went for edgy. They hired cool Jewishly ignorant kids to attract other cool Jewishly ignorant kids, to engage them in a Judaism that was as foreign as Zoroastrianism–but they were definitely not nerdy.  It is probably not great to define one’s mission on another’s terms.

It was, however, great for many of those who were hired because many of them  got genuinely interested in Jewish communal service, and a surprising percentage are still serving in Jewish organizations throughout the country. In the end, many have come to be educated Jews. The law of unintended consequences sometimes works in a people’s favor.

The early Zionists defined a new Jew, and brought thousands into their ranks.  It seemed to work better in Israel than in the diaspora where the once strongly felt cultural common denominator diminishes with time.  It is pathetic to hitch your wagon to one who makes not going into rehab an anthem. And what about poor, tragic Amy Winehouse who was only celebrated Jewishly when she was topping the charts while bottom feeding with a level of degeneracy that was virtually impossible to emulate.

Then, the glitter was gone,  the star appeal was replaced with missed performances, and   one debauched spectacle after another until finally, and, unspectacularly, at the age of twenty-seven, she died. This time, no comment from Hillel. What was once cool had become cold.

Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, and yes, Amy Winehouse, all died at age twenty-seven. The gematria of twenty-seven is “ZaCH” which means pure. In the Torah, olive oil used to light the menorah must be pure.

All of these imperfect, deeply flawed vessels, voiced a purity of spirit that is the unique province of music. Their brief lives struggling between thanatos and eros, with death emerging as the inevitable victor will continue to be remembered, not so much for the way they lived or died, but for the light that shined from their voices, their guitars, and their songs.

If we Jews piggybacked on Amy’s celebrity taking pride in sharing the same roots, the very least we can do is take a moment and acknowledge her passing. Goodbye Amy, what never left you alone in life, may it leave you now in death. Peace.


Ruminations on Leiby Kletzky, and a community’s sorrow

In Uncategorized on July 20, 2011 at 1:55 pm

Much ink has been spilled on the latest and most painful Jewish tragedy. What else is there to say? Only this. The Talmud in Hagiga 3a, says the following:

Israel are like scattered sheep harried by lions. First he King of Assyria devoured them and then Nebuchadnezer of Babylon crunched their bones. (Jeremiah 50:17) Nebuchadnezer, the king of Babylon likened Israel to a lamb, just as a lamb when smitten on one limb, feels the pain in all its limbs, so is Israel, when one of them is killed, everyone feels it and everyone suffers…

The Talmud interprets the verse as the voice of Nebuchadnezer who observes that all of Israel is like one organism that when a loss is suffered by a community, the entire body of Israel shudders, and mourns. Sometimes, only an unspeakable tragedy reminds us of this.  People spontaneously converged on the modest Kletzky apartment from far and near.  Some criticized the spontaneous outpouring of strangers to the shiva house as insensitive, and even selfish, putting their own needs ahead of the grieving family’s. On one level those who criticized have a point, but, the point of the Talmud is that no Jew is a stranger to another Jew, and heartfelt empathy for a kinsman is appropriate even at the most devastating times.

The Hamas spiritual leader, Sheikh Yassin,  commented on how much Jews loved life, and how that weakness would be their downfall because no such vulnerability existed among his devotees. Nebuchadnezer gives witness to this curious empathy among Jews as well when he says that when one of them feels pain, they all do.

We go months embracing division, petty bickering, and disaffection for one another, and then something like this happens, reminding us that black hats, and knit kippot, Hebrew, and Yiddish are all mere garments that cover, and sometimes obscure the soul of the Jew. To see beyond the accessories one has to pay attention, one has to wake up, one needs to focus.  Maybe if we all had a bit more clarity, we would be protected from the unthinkable. The Gemara goes on:

He further expounded: You have affirmed that this day the Lord is your God…And the Lord has affirmed this day…(Deuteronomy 26:17-18) The Holy One said to Israel: You presented me as one to the world i.e. you have affirmed to the Lord, and [for that] I will present you as one to the world. i.e. And the lord has affirmed.

You presented me as one, as it is written:  Hear O Israel the Lord our God, the Lord is one!

I will present you as one to the world as it is written: Who is like Your nation Israel, a unique nation in the land.”

So it may be that empathy, sensitivity, and comfort for the living be the unique and unifying badge of Israel. For this, we should be known by friend and foe alike. So, it has been, and so, it should always be.

Curbing Conspicuous Consumption Afghan Style: Shades of the Gerer Rebbe…

In Uncategorized on July 17, 2011 at 5:00 am

In Friday’s WAPO , it was reported that the government of Afghanistan is aghast at the over-the-top wedding receptions that have resulted from new-found wealth in Kabul.  The new legislation would limit the number of guests, and the amount one was allowed to spend on such a celebration.  I have to confess that I don’t share in the outrage of some who would harp on this anti-democratic turn of the “new” Afghanistan.

In Israel, a similar ban was enacted thirty some odd years ago by the Gerer Rebbe who also felt that weddings for his community were getting out of hand.  He, too, placed a limit on the number of guests that one could feed at a wedding, because he saw that the ostentation of these events detracted from its spiritual purpose. It turns out that the Muslim religious establishment feels the same way.

There’s perhaps no better symbol of this city’s recent infusion of wealth than the glitzy wedding halls that have sprouted near its center, with Vegas-style replicas of the Eiffel Tower and flashing neon everything.

But the country’s government sees such celebrations as a different kind of emblem — of waste and anti-Islamic values. A law proposed this year by the Ministry of Justice would curb celebrations like Azimi’s, placing a limit on the number of guests and the cost of festivities.

The Rebbe also decreed that if the price of esrogim didn’t decline he was going to buy several for his community and ban his hasidim from purchasing their own. There may be as many as 100,000 Gerer Hasidim in Israel, so the economic threat against rapacious esrog dealers was very real. The threat worked, and the prices came down, but this time, the entire community of esrog customers was the beneficiary.

Such edicts would not fly, even among Hasidim in America, and that may be a necessary consequence of enjoying democracy, but, let’s face it, paternalistic and moralistic as it sounds and as it is meant to be… Everyone in Israel loved those discounted esrogim, and if not for the Sage of Ger, we would have been at the mercy of those greedy esrog dealers.

On the Perils of Narcissistic Self Preservation Masquerading as Virtue

In Uncategorized on July 13, 2011 at 12:45 pm

There were four nations in history that subjugated the Jews from the destruction of the first Temple onward: Babylonia, Persia/Madai, Greece, and Rome. Each of these nations had different defining characteristics.  To the Midrash, and the Maharal, these differences were significant.

God’s promise to Abram in Genesis 15 offers to the father of nations, a life of peace, but his descendants will not fare nearly as well.  Abram will not suffer, but he is burdened with the knowledge that his offspring will be enslaved in a land not theirs for four hundred years. He is given this knowledge after…

“…a deep sleep fell upon Abram and a dread (אימה) dark (חשיכה)  and great (גדולה) fell  (נפלת) upon him…” (Genesis 15:13)

The Midrash always preferring economy of language plumbs new understanding from this proliferation of words.  Beyond the exile of four hundred years, these four words, dread, dark, great, and fell are indicative of the four exiles the Jewish people have and will continue to endure.  According to opinion one, Dread alludes to Babylonia, dark, alludes to Persia, great to the Greeks, and fell to Rome while opinion two switches dread to the Romans, fell to the Babylonians, dark to the Greeks and great to the Persians. According to both these readings, Abraham was given some seriously bad news.

How do the sages conclude that these four words are indeed referring to these four nations? They extract verses from the Bible where these words are used in proximity to the nations being discussed.

While the first opinion’s primary motivation is chronology, the second opinion is more concerned with how these words reflect something essential about the nature of those who ruled, and continue to rule over us. The fact that they are not mentioned in sequence is of no consequence. but even with these prooftexts there is much that is not understood about the nature of these nations’ relationship to the Jews. Take for instance the proof that great is ascribed to Persia because it says in the Book of Esther “…Ahasueres promoted (lit. made great) Haman.” Other than the fact that the word great is used, what does that tell us about the greatness of Persia? Furthermore, why would the greatness of Persia eclipse the Greek empire? At a glance, it is the Greeks who have been more impressive on the world stage.

Enter the Maharal, who explains that both opinions agree that nations have defining characteristics, but they disagree about which quality is most appropriate for a particular nation. Who is defined by the dread that they cause? Who is defined by darkness? Who is defined by greatness, and who is defined as fallen?

That the sages found much to admire in Greek wisdom is well documented in both the Talmud, and the Midrash. The first opinion in this Midrash certainly concurs, explaining that Greece was the greatest of all the empires.  Greece, however, was the cause of great darkness when they made Torah study a seditious activity, hence the second opinion’s counter proposal.  The second opinion also sees this darkness as trumping the greatness of the Greek empire, and so chooses to define Greece by its oppressiveness and not by its ability.

How, then, does Persia merit greatness? The verse quoted before actually seems to create more problems than it solves.

The Maharal explains that Ahasueres had actually promoted Haman to a place where he was higher than the station of the king.  Being descended from Amalek, the most formidable enemy of the Jews caused Ahasuerus to have great respect for Haman, to whom he literally handed over the keys to the kingdom. Haman seeing that he was regarded more worthy than the king himself believed that he had entered the pantheon of the gods. Haman, with this purported newly acquired virtue, wasted no time and had commenced to parading around town expecting the adulation of all the subjects of the empire.

Once Haman made his self perception known, Mordechai could not defer to Haman with any obsequious gesture for fear of being an idolater.

Maharal’s understanding of Haman is that of the ultimate narcissist.  Instead of realizing that a diffident buffoon with a mercurial temperament had conveyed all these powers upon him, he chose to believe that he deserved a position that placed him in the heavens.  It may have been the folly of the king to put Haman in that position, but Haman, drunk on luck, and good fortune chose to see this as destiny.  What reinforced this exalted opinion of himself is his lineage. He came from the leader of Israel’s enemies, and had a strong legacy of cunning, deceit, and demagoguery.  He considered himself worthy by viewing his vanity and self adulation as virtues.

This is narcissism in the extreme.  None of us, however, is immune to this impulse, especially in a culture, where narcissistic self preservation is conflated with morality.   It starts with being centered on rights instead of responsibilities, and it ends with people misconstruing their lifestyle choices as virtues, or vices.  When in reality what masquerades as virtue, may very well be narcisstic self preservation. A nazi in herbivore’s clothing,  allows one to parade as a moral example for what is a lifestyle choice that masks a hidden cruelty.  Being thin is not a virtue, nor is being healthy.  Being popular is not a virtue, nor is being sexy.  Being adored for these qualities has not made the world a better place, but a more vapid one. Self discipline in service of others is different from being disciplined to achieve for ones self.  Certainly it is not wrong to better ones self, but in and of itself, it represents nothing virtuous.

I run four to five miles most days. Originally, it was to help control my blood sugar. Now, it’s an exercise in hedonism that is a priority because of the pleasure it brings me. The idea that this somehow makes be better than those who choose other avenues of pleasure,say eating,  is beyond ridiculous.

This misunderstanding is the stumbling block that was placed before Haman so that he would be hoisted on his own petard (in this case a very high noose). But we are all subject to this lack of clarity, and we all have the desire to look no further than the figure we cut, the foods we eat, the recreation in which we engage, and the popularity we seek. The allure of this worldly greatness, according to the Maharal, is ultimately an empty pursuit that brings no true joy, no true happiness, and, certainly no possibility of redemption.

This is the game the nations of the world play with each other and with their own people.  We are but a microcosm of what happens all around us, and if we can look outward and shake our heads at the destruction that the petty designs of world leaders has wrought, we may as well look inward with a faint murmur, quietly declaring to ourselves when nobody else is around, et tu…

On Yale Closing Its Initiative for the Interdisciplinary Study of Anti-Semitism

In Uncategorized on July 10, 2011 at 9:35 am

I’m not close enough to what happened, nor am I familiar with the players to cast judgement on why the center was closed.  This I do know, however. Liberal to left wing Jews are the most likely to be influenced by the truisms espoused in Ivy League academic settings than others.  Obama is resented more for his academic pedigree than he is for his race among right wingers.  The left, however, is willing to forgive his many missteps because of his ability to parse a correct grammatical sentence.

The center’s enemies overwhelmingly were concerned for Yale being perceived as a haven for Islamophobia, or more crudely, a Zionist front.  As renowned Holocaust historian Deborah Lipstadt stated when quoted in an article that appeared in Tablet, the center had made itself an easy target for such criticism crossing the line from scholarship to advocacy. Never mind how that line has been blurred in other ethno-gyno-racial-centric disciplines. The university chooses who the victims and the victors are. Perceived victims are given a pass, but perceived victors are judged by more conveniently exacting standards.

It is clear from the article that Jews were very much in the forefront of the closure of the institute in favor of a more benign, less activist replacement.  More and more of them are uncomfortable with the moral dilemmas of a Jewish nation state that wields, and yes, sometimes abuses its power. George Steiner once argued that Jews do better in exile. After the resurgence of anti-semitism in Europe, he softened on this position.

Toynbee said that more should be expected of the Jews because of what they have suffered.  We need to be judged by a harsher standard because victims should have learned something, and so therefore they must adhere to a higher standard. Others get a pass because “they know not what they do”, but Jews have no excuse. Really?

The challenge posed by this backward logic is that more and more Jews have come to believe this as well, and this is a problem that will not go away anytime soon.

More on Toynbee/Herzog

In Uncategorized on July 8, 2011 at 7:43 am

It is instructive to note that the date of the debate was 1961 where Toynbee all but says that Israel was a country born in sin.  He abhors the notion of the nation state and has little sympathy for the new kid on the block.  For those who think that the settlements are the crux of the conflict, look at the arguments that Toynbee makes that delegitimates the UN decision for partition–that same UN that soon will be used as a pawn for the unilateral declaration of Palestine.

Please don’t misunderstand, I believe an accommodation with Palestinians will have to be made, and the settlements create unnecessary friction that makes Israel too easy of a target, but it is also clear that they create a distraction from what used to be on the front burner which was Toynbee’s understanding of the conflict’s origins.

What has changed since then is that many in the liberal Jewish community have begun to buy Toynbee’s arguments hook, line, and sinker.  The settlement policy has made it easier for these Jews to not only disengage from Israel, but to actively condemn this colonial power in the heart of the Middle East.  The late Tony Judt was very much Toynbee’s heir, and although what is created in academia usually stays in academia–these arguments are part of popular political discourse beyond the ivory tower.

Anyone who believes that what’s at stake can only be dated back to 1967 should think again.

Yaakov Herzog, Arnold Toynbee, and Balam

In Uncategorized on July 7, 2011 at 3:17 pm

The following was a drasha I was commissioned to do for the Bronfman Youth Fellowships. I have to admit that it got me scorchin’.

Balam the gentile prophet makes his illustrious and problematic debut in Parshat Balak. He has a direct line to the God of Israel, and Balak, a Moabite leader, knows this. Balak is fearful of this upstart nation and sends some emissaries to ask Balam for help. “Come then, put a curse on these people for me.” (Numbers 22:6)

Balam tells this mission, after consulting with God, in no uncertain terms that this is beyond his capability and sends these sorcerers on their way.  Balak, sends a more elite group to plead his case this time offering great riches as a reward for fulfilling his request. Balam asks God again who says that he can go. Balam goes which for some reason infuriates God who thwarts Balam’s journey by sending a threatening angel that only Balam’s donkey can see. (Enter Eddie Murphy). Balam beats the donkey urging him to go forward, but, instead, the donkey informs Balam of this obstacle, and berates Balam for not realizing what is going on. Only then, does Balam see the threatening angel who also chastises Balam for beating the donkey and not seeing what’s in front of him. (Weird) Balam offers to cancel the mission, but the angel tells him to continue on the condition that Balam hold to the script that God will give him.
Am I the only one that finds this to be a confusing narrative? Why was God angry when He was the one who had given Balam permission to go? Hadn’t Balam given the correct answer the first time when he told the emissaries, “Go back to your own country for the Lord will not let me go with you.”? (Numbers 22:13)
God’s fury indicates that the permission Balam was given was a hollow one. He was hoping somehow Balam would realize that the first response i.e. to leave the Jews alone, was the only answer. Why would the offering of riches, and the honor of an elite guard change God’s mind? Was there a begrudging tone when God finally acceded to Balam’s request? Possibly. God’s disappointment is in Balam’s lack of character. Whereas Moshe, Balam’s Jewish counterpart, would never have been enticed by riches, or “important” people, Balam had the temerity to ask again, because the offer was just too delicious. It is instructive that Balak does not threaten Balam, but instead, tempts him.  Balak knows his customers.
At first glance Balam looks like a decent, if not altogether noble sort of fellow. He does God’s bidding, but he is then shown up by none other than an ass. God, then sets Balam up to bless Israel, and Balam, realizing what he is up against, does just what he is told to do.
In rabbinic literature, Balam is portrayed as unequivocally evil, not the nice, but flawed person, the narrative here seems to suggest. He is viewed as responsible for the plague at the end of the parsha when Pinchas rises up to stop Israel from consorting licentiously with Moabite/Midianite women. The Midrash holds Balam responsible for this behavior because these people viewed him as the moral authority for their community.  His sanction of this behavior costs him his life, and later in Deuteronomy, his complicity is alluded to, but not explicitly rendered.  Everything with Balam is under the table.  He plays it both ways and stands for himself above all.
Even though he obeys God, the sages see him as doing everything he can to corrupt God’s people. He almost succeeds. His, is an abuse of office for personal gain and nefarious purpose. After being embarrassed by having to bless this people he tries to undo their uniqueness by corrupting them.
That is why nothing is as it might seem, because, in fact, nothing is. Balam wears the cloak and the aptitude of the Prophet, but intends to use this ability to expose Israel as a nation as corrupt as his own. This not only will aggrandize him, but will demonstrate that there is no such thing as Jewish exceptionalism.  Balam blesses the Jews as “a people that dwells alone.” (Numbers 23:9) In a multi-cultural age many bristle at the notion of Jews being different, but the millenia old story of Jewish continuity thwarts simple explanation.
Ask Arnold Toynbee who classified Jews, and a few other nations, as a “fossil” people, that after the second century they withdrew from civilization at least until the Napoleonic era. He found it remarkable that this unevolved people survived with what he condemned as a recalcitrant isolated entity.
When Ya’akov Herzog, then the Israeli ambassador to Canada, took Toynbee to task in a famous 1961 debate, Toynbee, like Balam, is disturbed by this community that is different and that does not fit easily into such comprehensive theories of civilization.
Herzog and Toynbee agree that there is something different about the Jews, but the gulf between them regarding what that is will never be crossed in this lifetime.  I just reviewed the debate which is available on Youtube. You’d think it was broadcast yesterday, and not fifty years ago. Toynbee’s position couldn’t be more current in some quarters, and Herzog’s rebuttle for many could not be more resonant. Balam understood Jewish exceptionalism and, according to the sages, wished to undermine it.
Toynbee, however, diminished the notion by declaring the isolation of the Jewish people a tragedy that kept them from “progressing”. He ascribes a special moral responsibility to Jews because of what they have endured therefore they should come under special scrutiny. It’s as if to say, “With great suffering comes greater responsibility.” No excuses for the tortured. They should know better. In fact, Toynbee compared the Israelis to Nazis, if not on a statistical level, certainly on a moral one.  “After all, you only have to murder one person to be called a murderer.”
For my part, I believe in the eternity and the uniqueness of the Jewish people, and like in Balam’s blessing, we will always stand, if not alone, at least apart, but I reject Toynbee for according to him, a Talmudic tradition that valued education sometimes more than life itself, was by virtue of its isolation uncreative and not “evolved”.
I would argue that we evolved in our own way, and ultimately not only the Jews but the entire world was richer for it.
Take a look at this debate and view these pyrotechnics first hand. I found it riveting and I bet many of you will too.
Yaakov Herzog was the son of Rabbi Yitzchak Herzog who was a Chief Rabbi of Israel. Yaakov Herzog was himself a Talmudic prodigy who chose public life over the rabbinate.