Rabbi Avi Weinstein

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Arik, and the Israel that Once Was

In Uncategorized on December 1, 2013 at 3:10 pm

Arik Einstein, chose his songs carefully, but more important to me were the lyrics of his personal experience that, exemplified the particular experience of an Israeli so attached to the land, but so far removed from her religious origins. While admiring the beaches of San Francisco, he yearned for the sites and smells of home. Bewildered by his beloved friend’s sudden attraction to a world so foreign, yet so close, he shared his feeling of being abandoned. הוא חזר בתשובה, עכשיו הוא לומד תורה, He returned and repented, and now he learns Torah… All of Israel witnessed Uri Zohar, the hippest of Israelis, become Reb Uri before their eyes. For most, it was something about which to gossip, but for Arik it was a personal tragedy. Irony of ironies, the whole country witnessed Arik’s newly religious daughter marry Reb Uri’s son. When asked to sing at the wedding, Arik politely declined, only saying that he was “singing in his heart”.

The whole of Israel boasts the intimacy of a small town from which many wish to escape but miss as soon as they do. At the time of Arik’s passing Shlomo Artzi was performing. When he heard the news, he was dumb struck.  Finally, the crowd in solidarity with the shocking news began singing one of Shlomo’s classic songs, “Where is there a person like this one who was like the weeping willows…” After a moment, Shlomo joined with the band in song. It was a classic expression, uniquely so, of the old new Jews of Israel consoling each other from such a poignant loss.

Watching that clip on Youtube brought me back to a time that once was, but now seems so far away.

Like you in San Francisco, we are reminded of what we’re missing. So long Arik.

On Chanukah, Post Denominationalism, and the sudy of Torah Sheb’al Peh.

In Uncategorized on November 26, 2013 at 1:49 pm

There is no holiday that self-consciously confronts core issues of identity more than Chanukah. The prayer “Al Hanisim” (Thanks for the miracles) explicitly elucidated the threat of Antiochus as “forcing us to forget Your Torah”. Unlike Haman who–unsophisticated soul that he was–wished to wipe the Jews off the map, for Antiochus, it was time to get the Jews who refused to play ball to behave in a more palatable way. His strategy was brutal, but total annihilation of the Jews was never on the table. It was more about their stubborn refusal to be a bit more like everyone else.

The Chassidic masters, notably the Sefat Emet and Rav Tzadok Hakohen, gave Greek wisdom, and by extension, western culture its due. They called it wisdom and conceded that it was sophisticated and that it even had an ethical sensibility. The problem, according to the Rebbes, is that the Greeks didn’t appreciate the value or the necessity for Torah She B’al Peh, the oral or the Talmudic tradition. From their perspective, it was holding us back.  In all fairness, according to the Rebbes, Torah Sheb’al Peh was the exclusive domain of the Jews–Kind of like the Jewish version of Skull and Bones. The Hebrew Scripture alone was to be shared among the nations, and therefore was translated into Greek, but the oral tradition was for the Jewish people alone. Thus a history of suspicion and superstition regarding the Talmud was born. Maybe they should have a Readers Digest version for popular consumption to combat the mystery and superstitious prejudices that emerged from this secretive religion of the Jews.

Long before Christianity, the Chasidic Rebbes saw the Hasmonean war as being against the supercessionism of Greek philosophy that from their perspective, was attempting to annihilate the rabbinic tradition. As the Midrash in Eicha (Lamentations) Rabba asserts: If they tell you that there is wisdom among the nations, believe them. But if they tell you that there is Torah among the nations, don’t believe them. (Eicha Rabba 2:9)

The tension between Jewish tradition and the dominant culture, however one chooses to understand it, refuses to go away. The zeal with which we have traditionally protected the study of Talmud in particular and Rabbinic literature in general has roots in the Mishnah.  Reading of Ketuvim, a part of the Hebrew Bible,  was discouraged on shabbat lest someone favor this over going to hear the drasha of the local rabbi. The reading of ketuvim was considered more attractive by the masses because of its narrative power, and its ability to entertain. In the long run, the sages felt it was better to encourage the community to learn some halacha than read from the scripture. Maybe the sacred narrative was too much like other stories out there, while the unique nature of Torah sheb’al peh was considered more unmistakably Jewish as far as how Jews lived, and reinforced the unique aspects of Jewish practice in a way that ketuvim couldn’t.

What makes Torah SheB’al Peh unusual is the fact that it is so unmistakably different, that it is a challenge to teach. It is not literature, it is not law, it is not history, and it is not philosophy–it’s Torah. It doesn’t treat the Tanach as a narrative, but instead as a pretext for micro-decoding.  Those who have embraced and immersed themselves in it are literally part of a different world, albeit an unassailably Jewish one.  A secular Zionist has placed the state in the center and can claim that she is living and breathing an authentic Jewish life that has a materialist philosophy at its core. What I see, and what I make, and what I do is what I know. I live  in a Jewish state, and everything I do is Jewish.

One who is engaged in Torah Sheb’al Peh can claim the same thing, but from a more ethereal perspective. Halacha, when followed meticulously, is ubiquitous, so its Jewish authenticity is without question. Those, however, who see their connection through the lens of a modern movement have a hard time conversing with those who have chosen the tyrannies that accompany a halachic religion of time, or an ideology that centers on a place. They literally inhabit different worlds.

It is not incidental that the post-denominational Yeshivat Hadar has conferred Nachas on the study of Torah Sheb’al Peh at the expense of the conservative movement. Post denominational is a kind way of declaring that allegiance to a movement for its own sake is at best a distraction, and at worst a deterrent for serious Jews to engage seriously with the study of their religion. People don’t belong to Yeshivat Hadar; like any other yeshiva, they learn there. It’s embrace of egalitarianism, however justified or unjustified, is a matter of principle, but has nothing to do with membership. If the institution ceases to attract people, it will disappear. It was created to fill a need, not to justify a “movement”. The artifice of movement nomenclature is being challenged and rightfully so. It means so little to people.

For over ten years I was director of the Bronfman Youth Fellowships in Israel, and I literally read thousands of letters of recommendation for this elite summer program. Never, and I stress never, did I receive a letter from a conservative rabbi who praised a student’s desire to learn Torah. His praise was always related to Jewish practice, or loyalty to the youth group and synagogue. By the way, the fact that on odd occasion one did hear such praise from an Orthodox rabbi is nothing to crow about.  In order to have a movement based on intellectual honesty, as Rabbi Wolpe claims, shouldn’t there at least be an intellectual foundation? Before one can think critically, shouldn’t they have learned something first?

I had a Professor who was a student of Professor Harry Wolfson at Harvard. Back in the ’70’s Wolfson glibly told him that the problem with Jewish studies today is that there weren’t enough professors who had been “yoshev tachas kanfei hashechinah” (dwelling under the wings of the Divine presence). Wolfson had a yeshiva background but was no longer observant.

The study of Torah sheb’al Peh is the key to conversation among modern Jews who still deign to believe that being Jewish is the most important dimension of their lives.  It is the cornerstone of a unique Jewish identity, and for all those on the modern spectrum, regardless of denomination, it should be the common language of us all. Torah sheb’al peh, like being Jewish, needs to reclaim its status as a noun, and not merely as an adjective. The guardians of Torah Sheb’al Peh, especially among the modern movements, must do everything in their power to promote learning as the unifying principle upon which our particularism is built. Without it, we may as well be unitarians and finally admit that the Greeks, in fact, had it right.

Have a Happy Chanukah, and learn some Torah.

Trayvon and the Torah

In Uncategorized on July 25, 2013 at 10:11 am

Like so many of us, I am still haunted and bewildered by the slaying of Trayvon Martin. Having fully anticipated and expected George Zimmerman’s acquittal, I follow the nation’s focus on the behavior and the laws that sowed the seeds for this lethal confrontation.

I wondered whether–other than vague platitudes–would the tradition directly and specifically address this incident, and provide some insight. After sniffing around my virtual books for a couple of hours, the answer, as it were, was right there under my nose.

For over twenty-five years I have been involved with the Bronfman Youth Fellowships, and for a time, I directed the program in its incipient years. One of the enduring components of the program is the first Jewish text that is taught for orientation.

Yehoshua Ben Perachya said: Make for yourself a teacher, acquire for youself a friend,and judge each person favorably. (Pirkei Avot 1:6)

Rabbi Menachem HaMeiri, a thirteenth century sage, says the following on this passage:

When one witnesses any activity of any person who is unknown to him, and there are two ways his activity might be understood, either positively, or negatively, one should presume the benefit of the doubt for that individual, and not assume they are doing anything wrong. (Beit Habechirah on Pirkei Avot Chapter 1)

The presumption of good intentions is a fundamental component for bringing peace between people, and by assuming the worst one often gets something much worse than what was feared. The Meiri interprets the words “any person” literally to mean just that–not any Jew, but anybody!

Maybe it is reasonable to call the police on an unfamiliar face in the neighborhood, and maybe not, but to be absolutely certain that the stranger was up to no good, is an egregious violation of this principle. Zimmerman’s self appointment as a one man militia hiding behind a law that encourages violence and confrontation among strangers is the true tragedy of what happened and according to the Meiri, the Talmud has taught this for nearly two thousand years.

In Order to “Lean In”, Women have to be comfortable Spreading Out. No offense, I may not have a clue here.

In Uncategorized on April 28, 2013 at 1:31 pm

Gene Weingarten veers into dangerous as a male entering the gender divide. In his most recent column Below the Beltwary he wonders why the feminists’ self understanding resembles a continuous state of adolescent angst. It’s worth a read, and while it may be no news to women, it certainly turned my head around and then sent me whirling in bizarre Talmudic directions.

Gene opens his column with an observation no doubt provoked by Lean In the work by Sheryl Sandberg that keeps the conversation going. 

In the past several months, American women have been engaged in intense, public hand-wringing dialogues with themselves over whether they should “lean in” to be more aggressive careerists; whether it is okay to even mention a woman’s gender when writing about her scientific accomplishments; whether an obituary can discuss the deceased woman’s domestic skills (and in which paragraph such information belongs); whether women at Ivy League schools should seize the opportunity to find husbands among their intellectually equal classmates (or whether this is a deeply regressive anti-feminist impulse); and whether a woman CEO is betraying the sisterhood if she outlaws telecommuting.

He  wonders out loud when will the movement get beyond this type of rumination. Wisely, not trusting his own instincts, he calls a trusty female colleague in another city to enlighten him, and  she immediately demands that he “take off his pants”, which though somewhat abashed, he does. She takes hers off as well and asks him to read the label on the back of his jeans.  “Levi-Strauss W 34 L 32.” She replies,, “Mine says, “Adriano Goldschmied.” Period.”

The point being that where men find clothing that fits their size, women have to fit into pre-ordained clothing sizes. Men never say I have to get down to a 40 short for my daughter’s wedding, but women will diet to fit into a size eight. My own source of things feminist Dr. Eileen Solomon, mother of one of my very astute students, Hannah Solomon Schwartz, elaborates. “Men will get their suits altered without giving it a thought, but women will feel that they have failed if they don’t fit into the preordained size.” I would say, “Who knew?” But that admission just indicates my high level of male cluelessness. How much do you want to bet that this does not rate a two on  the feminine insight meter?

Van Morrison knew this over forty years ago when he wrote the lyrics to his top forty hit “Wild NIght” on his Tupelo Honey album. 

All the girls walk by dressed up for each other, while the boys do the boogie woogie on the street.”

He indicates that the judgement girls pass on each other submits to an unwritten standard that consciously or sub-consciously they all accept. It’s not so much about us guys, but about them and their relationships with each other.. 

A stroll through the garden of the Israel Museum gives a graphic comment on Talmudic uneasiness when it comes to celebrating beauty. On one side a beautiful example of a Roman mosaic creates a celebration of ancient western art and culture, while close by a crude and inelegant collection of small tiles display the laws of the Sabbatical year. The sages could care less about how it looked, but only what it had to say. Coincidence? I think not.

While Rabbi Yochanan’s beauty was celebrated, it may have been considered anomalous that such a magnificent specimen contained great wisdom. Caesar’s daughter once told Rabbi Yeshohua Ben Hananya,

What magnificent wisdom in such a hideous vessel? He replied, ‘What vessels do you use to keep your wine? She answered, “Vessels made of clay.” He answered, “People as important as yourselves shouldn’t you put the wine in vessels that reflect your stature? She reported this to her father who immediately placed the wine in vessels made of gold and silver. The wine spoiled in a very short time. Caesar asked his daughter who gave her this bad advice? She told him. Caesar summoned Rabbi Yehoshua. whom he asked why did you tell my daughter to do this? Rabbi Yehoshua answered, “What she said to me, I said to her.”

The Gemara continues and challenges this story by commenting that people who are good looking have proved themselves in learning, but the Gemara counters, “If they had been a bit uglier, they would have learned more. (Ta’anit 7a-b)

When Roman soldiers complimented Rabbi Meir’s daughter on the way she walked, she took note and the rabbis took a dim view of their attentions and her response to them. No doubt about it, beauty was no asset and deterred one from more lofty pursuits. As professional schools have become female majorities nowadays, it’s not enough to lean in, they one still must “fit in.” 

And regardless whether one wants to show more skin or as little as possible, there is no avoiding the pressure. Whether one is an aspiring model, or a Beit Ya’akov girl the focus on the body and the pressure people feel are virtually identical.  Both cultures have their share of eating disorders. The rabbis observed that a daughter of Israel should be impervious to Roman catcalls, however complimentary, but being men they, like me, never noticed what happened on the other side of the gender divide.

While leaning in women should spread out and let the clothes fit around them instead of the other way around. Spreading out may be more difficult than breaking the glass ceiling, but infinitely more important. Gina Barecca, Weingarten’s expert offers the following advice:

We need to begin with mandatory quality child care in all places of business. Mandatory flexible hours, offered to everyone, men and women. A system of workplace job assessment and promotion that values quality of work, not the number of hours put in.

This, she says, will fix everything. I admit that I don’t exactly understand how, but I have a new appreciation for the Rabbinic distaste for the Greco-Roman ideal.

A word t Gene, however,, keep your pants on–it’s an image that I don’t need bouncing around in my head.

David Hazony On Israelis, Guns and the Second Amendment

In Uncategorized on April 21, 2013 at 5:42 pm

Nothing I have read illustrates the difference between the Israeli reluctant necessity of bearing arms and the American romance of doing so. There is much to admire about Kansans, their passion for firearms is not one of them. Take a gander at this link.

http://forward.com/articles/175117/in-israel-guns-signal-failure-not-strength/?p=all

Rabbi Broyde and the Pseudepigraphal Defense

In Uncategorized on April 21, 2013 at 1:46 pm

There was a story that an author went to a rabbinic authority for an approbation, and the rabbi dutifully wrote said recommendation only to sign his name at the bottom of the page. When asked why his signature was so far from the recommending paragraph, he quoted “One should distance himself from deceit.” (Exodus 23:7)

Allright. Has anyone ever dreamed of attending ones own funeral? The impulse for that fantasy is to really know what people are going to say about you, but if you really wished to know, you would rather be a fly on the wall of more intimate conversations where the real truth may be told. Eulogies are filtered by design, and the narcissistic urge to know the truth of what people really think is ill served in public ceremonies of any kind. Still, I assume lots of us wouldn’t mind an invisibility cloak to eavesdrop on the true thoughts and feelings of others.

R. Broyde obviously grew impatient for the grim reaper and after being called out for” sock puppeting”, gives a long list of Rabbonim who used pseudonyms to advance ideas. He admits that his major motivation was to duck the slings and arrows of a vituperative comments section that often mercilessly engage in ad hominem attacks. Why he thinks that this is a peculiarly Orthodox behavior is surprising. Obnoxious, uncivil, and even threatening comments are not only the province of Jews in general and certainly not Orthodox Jews in particular. If a blog is not moderated by someone, then many, if not most, of the comments of any blog, or listserv, are not for the thin skinned.

It is of interest that R. Broyde gives a “traditional defense” basically elucidating the practice in which he engaged has some illustrious company. Sages, in fact, who are far greater than he have lauded the practice of a nom de plume. In fact, he says,

Writing on torah matters through a pseudonym is an old practice and done for a variety of reasons. In Halachic matters, the practice is cited approving by the Magen Avraham. Many have done this and I see no need to apologize for it. Professor Marc Shapiro once told me that a list of such figures includes the Ben Ish Chai and many others; all greater than me. He also called my attention to the book Otzar Beduyei Hashem by Shaul Chajes, which is an exhaustive list of individuals who used pen names. Finally, Shapiro informed me that the Aderet published a book anonymously, and included his own haskamah to the book (referring to himself in exalted language). My friends have told me about several contemporary talmidei chachamim who regularly write under pseudonyms. Many secular writers have done such as many can see as well.

If the norms of an organization, or a list require full disclosure of ones identity, he is at least violating the rules of said organization, and operating in bad faith. If, however, anonymous comments are allowed, then I guess the question is what’s the difference between “anonymous”, and a pseudonym? If, in fact, the list was open and had no rules, then one could argue, “What’s the harm?” But if there was an assumption that “sock puppetting” was against the rules, then at the very least he operated in bad faith which he has admitted.

My question is the implicit self justification of his apology. The fact that R. Broyde has been suspended from the Beit Din, and investigated by his University indicates that regardless whether great Sages have written pseudonymous approbations for their own works does not justify his behavior. In fact, it actually casts aspersions on those greater than himself. I like Clinton too, but let God justify his sins.

Certainly one cannot compare this behavior to adultery, but aren’t there Torah prohibitions one can invoke here? Like “One should distance ones self from deceit.” If the norms that have been violated have gained the attention of the general community i.e. the university where he works, could this not be considered a chilul hashem. A rabbi, one who passes judgement on others, is now exposed in what he declares as “inappropriate”, but harmless behavior is now being punished by Jewish and American institutions alike.

His apology acknowledges his behavior, but his implicit “What’s the big deal” defense rings hollow.  The  Gemara in Yoma’s examples of what constitutes a chilul hashem, a profaning of God’s name, are all matters of perception, and not reality. If the public judges one harshly for perceived immoral behavior, then the justifications are irrelevant. So is the fact that sages also engaged in practices that are no longer “appropriate”. Why impugn our all too human predecessors as a defense for having been caught? Are we proud of the fact that the Aderet gave an approbation for his own book under a pseudonym?

Generally, the label center-left describes someone who is concerned about ethics and its contemporary consequences. Not in this case.

Musings on “These, and these are words of the living God.” Disputes for the sake of heaven…

In Beit Hillel, Beit Shammai, Uncategorized on March 17, 2013 at 2:43 pm

The Passing of Rabbi Menachem Froman, and his tireless pursuit of peace, and his total commitment to love have made me confront my own inadequacies, and limitations. I never knew him, but he did live on the borders of my consciousness. I loved his audacity. Imagine a founder of Gush Emunim proclaiming that he didn’t care whose flag waved over his town, he just didn’t want to move. How was it that such a man was not chased out of town? The settler who befriended Abu Amar. A man with such presence and conviction so filled with love, he was untouchable. Too idealistic to be taken seriously, to unworldly to get a colonoscopy that almost certainly would have given him many more than his sixty-eight years. Undaunted, Rabbi Menachem soldiered on. To understand how the majority of Tekoa’s settlers who endured Rabbi Menachem’s betrayals, one needs to understand the traditional culture of dispute that has sharpened the minds of so many for lo these long years. Certainly, the Rabbi’s credibility rested on his unassailable commitment to the Torah, the land and his love of all Jews. In the end, his character and integrity were more important than his positions. Yet, even if people were disposed to see beyond what they regarded as naive, was there religious precedent for such tolerance?

Immediately, Hillel, Shammai, and the Talmudic dialectic come to mind. Two dramatically different temperaments that led them to such different truths. Yet, before choosing a cosmic victor, the heavenly voice declared, “These and these are words of the living God!” A feel good aphorism that was proclaimed, nay, abused, but never really understood by the bigoted adherents of diversity. Everybody’s right! Nobody has a monopoly on the truth. Deconstructing meaning until there is none, we self righteously inflate self satisfied pillows with the feathers of broad mindedness.Resting comfortably, we slumber so soundly, all conflict remains, each side brandishing a fragment of truth. Is that really what Hillel and Shammai teach us?

In Pirkei Avot, Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai represent different sides of the argument that will endure. A question not often asked is why do we want disputes to endure? Is not resolution possible? Two sides of the same truth? Heady stuff. Borne out of Hillel and Shammai’s personality, and life experience, two schools of Halachic thought are born, and they are ultimately viewed as heads and tails, two sides of the same coin. One side, however will be selected as more authoritative, while the other will be there pointing out the imperfections of the one favored. Shammai is perceived as more exacting while Hillel is considered more generous.

In Kabbalistic terms Hillel represents the quality of chesed while gevurah
Is the province of Shammai. Beit Hillel understands that they are more in touch with those around them, more realistic regarding what might be a reasonable expectation. Shammai does not see the point in accommodating people when the law’s job is to require obedience. Who’s serving whom, after all? In a perfect world, the Zohar says, Shammai will get his due, but this flawed morass of humanity must suffice with the forbearing nature of Hillel and his minions.

Beit Hillel has the good sense and manners to elucidate their rivals positions before invoking their own. This is not merely good manners, but the embodiment of “These and these are words of the living God”. It is an admission that even if they feel more correct, the entire truth remains evasive. For the coin to be complete, it can’t just be heads. In fact, when both claim that the “Law is with us” no monopoly of the truth is implied, but Beit Hillel’s argument is that our temperament is more compatible with the people because we are connected. Thus the sages comment, “That one’s opinions should always be intermingled with those around them.” The favored ruling should therefore be with the generous spirit, and not the exacting one.

For those who seek no accommodation, but want to embody the strict nature of the law without favor, they are entitled, and even lauded for the commitment. It is only when the spirit of Beit Shammai, the spirit of the stringent, chooses to eradicate the validity of those who seek accommodation where the deference offered by Beit Hillel is scorned and ridiculed as less than adequate, that things become distorted. As if Beit Shammai says unequivocally, that they understand why they deserve such deference, but how on earth can they in good conscience reciprocate. For so long, this imbalance has been accepted by both sides. It stands to reason that the more exacting is more authentic, and so the deference of Beit Hillel, should be expected. But isn’t the model presented by Chazal through these two disputants cautioning us against this assumption?

Both sides are learned, both sides intentions are honorable, both sides share language, and both submit to the Torah’s authority. These contenders agree upon way too much, to dismiss the other.
The Talmud states that they need each other. God lives in both of them.

Why is it now that when one side does not abide by the stringencies of the other it is perceived as less committed and that the shared value system of Hillel and Shammai come into question. Ironically, the sages who are interested in promoting the Torah bear witness to Beit Hillel’s perspective as the one most suitable to the way we live while Beit Shammai is relegated to the future more perfect world.

It is Hillel who understands that the word Machloket does not mean dispute, but two different portions, each one part of the same whole. No matter how different, each is connected by compatible language, commitment, and scholarship.

I marvel at the fact that it is these unique personalities that evolve into schools of thought , and are never fully separate from those origins. That the Sages are aware of this and fully acknowledge that in the end all concepts are never fully objective, but always connected to and limited by the feelings and the behavior of the individual, is profound. Moreover, their bias is for the humble and generous spirit of Hillel.

Just like Hillel, it was Rabbi Froman’s shared commitments that allowed him to remain as the spiritual leader of Tekoa.

To be continued…

2012 in review

In Uncategorized on December 30, 2012 at 5:05 pm

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2012 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

600 people reached the top of Mt. Everest in 2012. This blog got about 3,000 views in 2012. If every person who reached the top of Mt. Everest viewed this blog, it would have taken 5 years to get that many views.

Click here to see the complete report.

Three Plus Size Women Take Umbrage at a Casino Restaurant

In Uncategorized on December 20, 2012 at 12:15 pm

It was a news item that made it at least half way across the country. A waiter had identified three female diners as fat girls on their receipt. One of the women noticed, and with the help of social media, sympathy and outrage abounded throughout Stockton, California and beyond. I became aware of the incident fifteen hundred miles east of Stockton. An item that was deemed newsworthy enough to make the news on a Kansas City television station. One of the women appeared on TV claiming to be so mortified by the insult that the emotional scars had reverberated for days afterward. Her anguish was genuine, but worthy of understanding further. 

Granted that all diners should be insulated from unflattering descriptions while they are patronizing an establishment that should be dedicated to their pleasure and comfort. Granted that the waiter should have at least been suspended if not fired. Granted that instead of offering a twenty-five percent discount, the manager should have comped the bill immediately. I’m just amazed that insulting a customer garnered so much attention.

Was this the first time that she had been made aware that others notice that she was overweight? Or was it the fact that someone had the temerity to bluntly express what he was thinking?

The truth is that intention matters here. If the waiter was harried and was trying to give a defining quality to the table beyond the table number, and did not think that the offending description would be noticed, then his insensitivity might be understandable. If, he was having a laugh at someone else’s expense, then a plague on his house and anyone else who thought it was funny.

It is a reflection of society that “thin” or even “skinny” is never considered pejorative. “Fat” however, as evidenced by this reaction, has become an expletive, and not merely a description. A person can describe himself as fat, but woe to the one who would use this word to define others. “Blondes”, “Old ladies/guys”, would have never elicited such a reaction, but labeling someone fat is the same as calling someone “crippled”. Fat which is so normative in this society, is, somehow, considered abnormal. While labeling someone as drunk would probably not provoke the same response, calling someone fat is crossing the line, It’s not done, it’s offensive, even if it’s accurate.

The worse problem is the society that would judge a person who is overweight as somehow inferior, as someone who is less than the rest of us. So prevalent is this understanding that calling someone “fat” is accepted as name calling, even when it might  have been done without malice, but merely without thinking.

I marvel at the fact that once “Rubenesque” women represented an ideal of beauty, and it was the skinny people who were objects of ridicule. Does anyone remember the Joe Tex song “Skinny legs and all”?

The Talmud is very explicit that we must be vigilant when addressing others, and that we are responsible for ensuring that we do not hurt anyone’s feelings. “If you knew that there had been an execution by hanging in your friend’s family, do not say, ‘Hang this fish on a hook for me’ (Talmud, Bava Metziya 59b) Certainly, if we knew someone was sensitive about her weight, we should avoid the subject altogether, but one has to wonder why something as pervasive as obesity in absolute numbers, has not made a dent in making it more acceptable. 

Does anyone think that this societal obsession will be changing anytime soon?

Fat chance.

Sandy, Honi Hama’agel, and Me

In Uncategorized on October 29, 2012 at 11:03 pm

One sounds the alarm for every threat to the community, save for excessive rains…

So says the Mishna in Ta’anit, after which the renowned Honi HaMa’agel taunts God into making it rain exactly in accord with his request.  Honi does his job so well that people must evacuate their homes because of the flooding. The people plead for him to shut off the faucet. Honi demurs, and from that refusal, a rabbinic edict follows. Pray for rain to come, but don’t pray for it to stop.

When I was traveling with my family cross country in August, I vividly recall the parched corn fields of Illinois and Missouri. After so many weeks of relentless heat, I wonder if the heartlanders would have welcomed a hurricane that brought the promise of thirty-six hours of blessed rain. Rain that would undoubtedly ravage crops, but fill the “cisterns and reservoirs”.  Maybe it takes a drought to see the blessing of wind swept  rain that inspires awe but brings darkness to the city.

For some inexplicable reason, the strong winds have yet to extinguish the electric sparks of hearth and home. We lose power so often here that this welcome reprieve seems more than fortuitous. The wind is loud, and constant. My New Zealand wife scoffs at this weather, and declares that in Wellington this would be considered merely a windy day. No worry for flying debris in NZ, everything that wasn’t nailed down blew away years ago.

Torah is like water. It nurtures, and it runs to the low places where it is received by the modest and humble. The wind never stops, but sometimes it needs to remind us that it is here, and that it matters. Torah can make peace, but often brings fury like a hurricane. It is possible to care too much, and only after everything dies down does one reflect on what may have been destroyed. Such is the price of passion.

It is nearly one o’clock in the morning. The gleeful meteorologists celebrate these storms like Purim savoring the nuances of low pressure systems. I gratefully write accompanied by Edison’s miracle with nature’s fury in the background.

I’m at peace. .