Rabbi Avi Weinstein

Archive for 2016|Yearly archive page

In Uncategorized on November 24, 2016 at 11:28 am

How is Jewish “Ethno-Nationalism” not a thing?

Okay, ever since Bila’am, and even before, we have carved out a unique clique that has a Divine mandate. As a faith, we are multi-racial, and multi-ethnic. Anyone can join, and be a part of us—all you have to do is follow the rules. Of course, whose rules is another problem, but let’s leave that for now.

Had we remained a landless religious entity, a people in exile, all of our “whose in/whose out” issues would be internal, and of little interest to the world outside. It is the Jewish state state that exacerbates a not so dormant enmity among our detractors, and enemies. Once one is on the international scene, one becomes everybody’s business. More worrisome than the anti-Zionist participants in the “longest hatred”, are those who passionately endorse Israel as a particular ethno-national state and see it as justification for their racist vision of the world. The NPI has articulated as much with great clarity.

A.D. Gordon, darling of the Zionist socialists of days gone by, echoed this sentiment when he talked about the ethnic self being nurtured by the “land” of our forefathers. Rav Kook used Kabbalistic language to reach the same conclusion. Worse than being accused of being an apartheid state by our detractors is to be loved by neo-Nazi organizations for exactly the same reasons.

Once we bristle for perceived ethno-centricism by the left, are we offended for being beloved for exactly the same reason by the racist National Policy Institute? And if we are, how do we thread that needle in a way that is easitly understood.? It is this conundrum among many other factors that exacerbate, exaggerate perceived Israeli human rights abuses against the Arab other.

No doubt, the sui generis experience of Jewish history pervades the Jewish/Israeli defense of these challenges. After what the world did to us, why do we owe them any explanations? We have a state founded on democratic principles no less imperfect than other nations, but we manage to thrive in a neighborhood of hostile, repressive autocratic ethnic states. Why single us out?

It is in this context, I would like to consider the policies of the National Policy Institute (NPI) whose little gathering of angry white men has gained much media attention.

The NPI position that Jews belong in Israel with “their culture” allows them to theoretically take advantage of Jewish innovation while still making the United States Judenrein. They say let us pluck the fruit of Jewish ingenuity, but let them do it from afar so that we don’t have to deal with their more insidious qualities. They freely admit that Asian achievement may even supercede that of their own race, but that they should go back to where they came from. Behind this is the fact that white people belong with their own kind. Emergent Israel based on the law of the Return is quite useful in the fulfillment of this dream.

These past few weeks have not made me more fearful of Israel’s enemies, but I am terrified by the discovery of Israel’s newly found “friends”.


The Maharal on Plagiarism, or The Long Road to Redemption.

In Uncategorized on July 20, 2016 at 9:51 am

Sometime during the death rattle of the last century, I convened a beit midrash with over five hundred Hillel students from over a hundred campuses. The topic was plagiarism. Something that I felt was immediately relevant to their academic lives. Virtually all of the students admitted that they plagiarised and they justified their actions by claiming that “everyone did it”. Just like pirating software, music etc…

Mrs. Trump’s sin was that, unlike her speechwriters, Mrs. Obama wasn’t consulted, or given appropriate attribution. In modern times one has to at least sign off on words that are not original. Even though we know that politicians have speech writers, we believe that the speaker at least believes what s/he says–even if they didn’t write it. The tradition would find this loose definition of word ownership a bit curious.

Here’s a faux Talmud page on the Gemara in Megilla 16a, as rendered in one of the Masechet Kallah. The Commentary surrounding is from the Maharal’s Derech HaChaim where he asks how is one to understand the connection between appropriate attribution and redemption. Take a look. Maharal on Plagiarism

As if you needed to hear more about “the Wall”

In Uncategorized on February 4, 2016 at 4:14 pm

In the space of several decades, a quiet schism has been revealed. The OWOW (Original, or the Old, Women of the Wall) who are now aggravated, and the present Women of the Wall who have scored political points by having a funded unique space outside of chareidi sightlines; the two wall solution, so to speak.

The originals wished to remain within an Orthodox framework on the one hand while pushing the envelope of accepted, but arguably halachic, practice. They wanted the Mechitza, but once on their side, they wished to express themselves by donning talit, and tefilin. The originals had been given approval by the Supreme court, but those responsible for the Kotel, had refused to enforce it.

The perceived victory of the liberal denominations has to do with the State recognition of the aspirations of the Conservative and Reform movements. This was a departure from the originals intent which was meant to work within an Orthodox framework. Non-Orthodox women who were part of the originals were in solidarity with their sisters, and supported their efforts. Phyllis Chesler, one of the originals, invoking her friend and mine, Rivka Haut z”l lays this out in her Tablet e-zine article:

Most Reform and Conservative Jews, having been misled by their leaders and by the media, do not seem to understand that the feminist and religious struggle that we have been waging for more than a quarter-century has not been to pray at Robinson’s Arch or to pray together with men in a minyan and in an egalitarian service. We all support such rights and had long hoped that the denominations would have fought for their rightful place in the sun: for a third section at the Kotel proper. This never happened. No such lawsuit was ever launched. Instead, the denominations piggy-backed on the contribution of grassroots feminists—and they hired Anat Hoffman, one of us, as an employee of the Reform movement. They used her just as she used them. The denominations have not betrayed our vision; they never shared that vision. Alas, only Anat Hoffman has departed from our original vision ostensibly for pragmatic reasons.

There were two different agendas for the struggle over “whose Wall is it anyway.” Potentially, neither was only about the Wall. For the Orthodox women, the permission to read Torah, wear tallit and tefillin would confer legitimacy on this practice far beyond the Kotel plaza. If a woman could put on tefillin at The Wall, why can it not be done in Modern Orthodox synagogues and schools? Rivka Haut was one of the early activists regarding the dilemmas of agunot, and she was passionate about women’s ritual inclusion in what is generally accepted  as being within halachic parameters, but not part of the amorphous, protean mesorah. She may have only had her sights on the wall, but had women been allowed to read Torah there, it would have certainly had an impact well beyond that sacred space.

It has been suggested that we go back to the time when individuals came to the Kotel to pour out their hearts, meditate, place notes, but not make a minyan. For too many, however, those activities only occur within the framework of formal tefila. It wouldn’t be long before people would clamor to pray together at “the holiest site in Judaism”. The claim that the Kotel is a Chareidi shule, howevr, is hyperbolic. It is a shule that conforms to the norms of ninety-nine per cent of the Orthodox shules in Israel, and not much fewer in the diaspora.

As one who is Orthodox in practice, but has only worked in pluralistic environments for forty years, I can tell you this. We are never going to be able to pray with integrity as a unified people. The unintended consequences of the OWOW enlisting/accepting the support of those from more liberal traditions is to have their own agendas and desires eclipsed.

Rabbi Yehoshua of Sakhnin in the name of Rabbi Levy said: Both [Cain and Abel] took equal portions of land, and chattel, so about what did they argue? One said, “The Temple will be built within my borders.” And the other said, “No, it will be built in mine!”…And Cain arose against Abel, his brother, and killed him. (Bereshith Rabba 22:7)

Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that. In the meantime, let’s learn together.



On Victims, Predators, and Kabbalah…A cautionary tale

In Uncategorized on January 4, 2016 at 11:01 am

Years ago, I read a biography of the late poet Allen Ginsberg who had managed to achieve a cult like status through the unlikely medium of poetry. He, and Kerouac had discovered at some point, Zen Buddhism, and became involved with the former Buddhist monk who founded the Naropa institute, and many Buddhist centers throughout the country. Rinpoche was a master of Zen wisdom, but he had abandoned the traditional discipline of the Buddhist monk for the pleasures of the flesh.  He was also a raging alcoholic who died of cirrosis at the age of forty-eight. His marriage was not shackled by arcane notions of fidelity, and he fully engaged carnally like a full-fledged beatnik. His knowledge, his wisdom, however, emanated from an authentic world to which he was deeply connected. His merger of the traditional east with the hedonistic and narcissistic west was, in essence, quintessentially American. He offered the promise of being the master without the shackles of traditional discipline; a loveable rogue Buddhist who has it all. In Jewish terms, the fruits of this world and the next. There were no expectations that he should be anything other than he was, and the Naropa Institute lives on as the only accredited Buddhist University on the continent–a true merger of east and west, I guess.

Mark Gafni must have kicked himself for waiting so long to find his way to Esalon where he could engage in the chaotic world of commitmentless love while lecturing nonsense peppered with pithy aphorisms borrowed from the many new agers who had preceded him.  If he had gone straight to Naropa, we may not be talking about him now, and we would still be lining up at Whole Foods checkout counters. This is why he feels persecuted. Like Rimpoche, Gafni needed an authentic history to abandon in order to sell his brand of snake oil.

Did we boycott Roman Polanski movies because of his ostensible liaison with a teenager? What galls us is that Gafni duped both leaders of the Jewish religious establishment  and Jewish renewal who demur when it comes to being that unconventional. Inasmuch as this campaign of ostracism is for defense of the innocent, and vulnerable, it is also particularly visceral for those who think they should have known better, but didn’t. As Americans, we, too, wish to have delights in both worlds, but we do so under the guise of our encounter with modernity; our own version of east meets west. “Feelin good, feeling good, all the money in the world spent on feelin’ good”. This is what Gafni’s acolytes received from him, but it cost them dearly, and so, therefore, he should pay for all the suffering he caused. Even when he acknowledges the pain he caused, he does so in the context of his so-called evolving awareness.

The book of Proverbs defines wisdom as being familiar with the ways of seduction. The Vilna Gaon explains that one is obliged to know these ways so as not to be swayed by the evil inclination. True wisdom eschews naïveté and the Book of Proverbs was supposed to immunize pupils from the malady of innocence. “To give the innocent guile, and to the uninitiated awareness, and cunning.” (Proverbs 1:4) The Gaon comments: 

For wisdom has many aspects, among them are wisdom and guile. Wisdom refers to one who has learned, received and knows much. The one with guile knows how to tempt and seduce others, offering sweet words, but his heart is up to no good. Similarly, the one who can recognize this quality is called “cunning”…as it is written, “I am wise, and I have dwelt with guile.” (Ibid 8:12) Through this exposure, he will understand the. temptation of the evil inclination.

 I think that says it all.