Rabbi Avi Weinstein

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Why Doesn’t the Israeli Center and Left Care About Anat Hoffman?

In Uncategorized on October 26, 2012 at 9:22 am

For more than twenty years, Anat and her mighty band of “Women at the Wall” have been respectfully exercising their right to worship on Rosh Chodesh. This latest outrage has predictably provoked vocal protests from primarily non-Orthodox diaspora Jews from North America. Let’s face it, the group Anat was leading were tourists.

The Kotel and Jerusalem itself have long been conceded to the Ultra-Orthodox. Secular and even Modern Orthodox Jews have been fleeing Jerusalem for the last decade. Over half of first grade children in Jerusalem are haredi, and the numbers are climbing. The tax base of Jerusalem is less than the development town of Ma’alot because of the hundreds of thousands of Kollel students feeding off the public trough.

What does all this mean? Most secular Israelis who are not openly hostile to religion, consider themselves non, or lightly practicing Orthodox Jews and just as they are not breaking down the doors to enter Conservative or Reform synagogues, they are not going to get their knickers in a twist about the praying rights of women at the Kotel. Add to this, the little known statistic that the vast majority of Israelis have never even visited Jerusalem, and you will understand why this issue has gained so little traction in the past two decades. The only thing thing that concerns the Israeli government about the Kotel is whether the paratroopers can have their swearing in ceremony there. Other than that, it’s considered a place of archaeological curiosity. As long as the tourists are allowed to peruse the antiquities, let the dossim have a free hand.

Back in the eighties when “Who Is a Jew” was the hot button issue, Rabbi Alexander Shindler had come from the States to lobby the Knesset, and held a press conference. At the time, I was studying in a yeshiva by day, and working as a stringer for a wire service by night. I also was an unofficial translator for much of the foreign press corps. (Talk about a schizo existence.) Often, members of the foreign press would ask for background concerning religious issues, since I was usually the only observant person they knew. At one time, I wanted to change my name to be “Religious Sources” since that was how my information was often referenced. A correspondent of a Chicago paper was curious about the issue, and couldn’t understand why it hadn’t been resolved after millennia of discussion. He also wondered what the argument was all about, and if Israel was a primarily secular country, where was the public outrage?

Of course, the answer then was that religious parties were essential for a coalition government, and these were relatively easy concessions for the majority party to make. If, however, there were say sixty or seventy thousand non-Orthodox religious Jews who cared enough to give the Labor party three more seats, then the coalition would no longer need the religious parties but until that happens, don’t expect to see much change.

The same is true in this case. Either a bunch of serious Reform and Conservative Jews are going to have to pack their bags and move to Israel, or one hundred thousand Israelis are going to have to find God in pews without a mechitza. I think we have a better chance of seeing the Messiah come before that dream is realized, but given the current US unemployment stats, I could be mistaken.

On Jewish Exceptionalism, or “The More Things Change…”

In Uncategorized on July 31, 2012 at 5:52 pm

The Book of Lamentations traditionally attributed Jeremiah, the paradigmatic Prophet of Doom, poetically mourns the destruction of the Jerusalem, its Temple and the exile of Jews to Babylonia.  It begins “How is it that she dwells alone, the city, once great with people, she that was great among the nations, Is become like a widow.”

In a classic micro reading, the Midrash asks: We’ve already been told that the city was great with people, what does “great among the nations” teach us?

It teaches that the people were great in wisdom. Rabbi Huna in the name of Rabbi Yossi said: Whenever a Jerusalemite would travel abroad, they would place him on a throne in order to hear his wisdom.

Once there was an older man who went abroad from Jerusalem. He stayed with  friend there until he became ill. He entrusted his friend with the deeds to all his property and asked him to hold them in trust for his son. If his son demonstrated three acts of wisdom, his son would inherit, but if he didn’t do so, the man was instructed not to transfer the deeds to his son. They made a pact hat no one was to tell the son where this man lived.  The son arrived in Athens, and knew the man’s name, but nothing else. He saw a man selling bundles of kindling, and asked the man if he would deliver the kindling to this man’s house, and then he followed from behind. The woodsman called out to the man and told him to take his wood. The man answered, “Did I order the wood from you?” The woodsman said ,”No, but the man behind me ordered me to deliver the wood to you.” That counts as one act of wisdom.  The man went to greet the son and asked him who he was, and then immediately invited him in for a meal. The man brought his wife, his two sons and his two daughters for a midday meal.  The main course was five cornish hens The man told the son to divide up the food among himself and the family. The son politely said that it was not his place to do so, but the man insisted.

The son gave one hen to the husband and wife. Then he gave one to  the two sons, and one to the two daughters. He then kept the remaining two for himself.  No one said a word.

That evening, the man brought out a large chicken and asked the son to divide it up among everyone. The son politely refused saying that it was not his place to do so, but the man insisted. The son gave the head of the chicken to the man. He gave the innards to his wife. He gave the legs and thighs to the sons. He gave the wings to the daughters, and he kept the carcass for himself.

The man could not control himself and asked “Why have you divided the food in such an unseemly
way?”

The son answered, “Did I not tell you that this food was not mine to split up, but nevertheless I did it appropriately.  The first time, I gave you and your wife one chicken. Together, that numbers three heads.  I gave your two sons one chicken and that’s three heads. I then gave your daughters one chicken and that’s three heads.  Since there is only one of me I needed two chickens to count as three in order to divide them equally.

Once again you brought out a chicken and asked me to split it up, and I declined, but you still insisted. And once again I did it properly. I gave you the head because you are the head of the household. Your wife got the innards, because that’s where her children came from. Your sons got the legs because they are the pillars of the family. And the daughters got the wings because some day they will marry and fly away from here. I took the carcass which is shaped like a boat because I came to Athens on a boat and on a boat I shall leave once you have given me my inheritance. So give it to me, and I’ll be on my way. And so it was. (Eicha Rabba 1:4)

This is the first of many short narratives that have similar themes. They always end with the Jerusalemite using cleverness to his advantage in a way that the unsuspecting Athenian cannot deny. All the stories are funny, and it is stunning to find them as commentary on the saddest book of the Bible! In fact I know of no other place in Rabbinic literature where such an extensive digression of this kind takes place. Why here, of all places? Why are these the examples of the kind of Jewish acumen that was noted among the gentiles?

Eicha Rabba dates back to the fifth century, a time when the impact of he second exile still resonated deeply. At first these stories look like a manifestation of impotent rage–a way to feel superior when all evidence is to the contrary, but  what prompted the editor to tell these stories here? It was the apparent redundancy in the first verse, of reiterating that the city was great. The triumphalism of the midrash is in stark contrast to the bleak mood of Lamentations. This particular expression of Jewish exceptionalism is all too familiar. It is incredible to realize how ancient this self perception is vis-a-vis our non-Jewish neighbors.  It is also not altogether unfamiliar to find this  typical Jewish one up-man-ship amidst the most tragic of circumstances, but to chalk it off to being just an example of the pathos of Jewish humor might be missing the point.

This is a comment on how little such cleverness matters. There are pitfalls to being exceptional in that there is a tendency to believe in ones own public relations. It inspires jealousy, resentment and sometimes retribution. It may be significant to others, but it should mean very little to ourselves. In the end, the great city and her oh so brilliant inhabitants end up desolate and in servitude. The witty repartee that carried us into exile must have been cold comfort.

All that wisdom  has served to make the exile that much more painful. In the end, we have a few funny stories with which to salve our wounds.

Because the Bar Kochba Rebellion (132–136 CE), had such a tragic ending, Jewish civilization retreated into the life of the mind. As in these ancient stories, Jews, by and large, make their mark in using their wits not only in Talmud, but even in ways that the world can appreciate.  We who take pride in Jewish professional athletes know that if we wished, we could easily remember all their names,  but try and name all the Jewish Nobel Prize winners…

Much to the great relief to many and consternation to some, the Jewish army of the State of Israel has brought us back to being a nation that does not only have to rely on its witty rejoinders for solace.  These are the jokes of exile but not of a nation. Nowadays, just when we think that we stand among the nations as equals, the nations of the world remind us that we are tolerated but don’t really belong. The Munich massacre of 1972 was only an assault on Jews, and had nothing to do with the Olympics, and so therefore, there is no reason to devote even a minute to their memory, on this, the fortieth anniversary. This is a private affair, it has nothing to do with the Olympics of 2012.

Even Israel, with her great Jewish army, is finding out that with all the achievements it has made on the world stage, the necessity for a few good jokes has yet to pass.  The more things change…

When the Rabbi Lacks that “Je ne sais quoi”

In Uncategorized on May 8, 2012 at 10:59 am

Nothing is more divisive for a shul than when the congregation is split over its rabbinic leadership.  Somewhere between farce and Elizabethan (melo)drama accurately characterizes the intensity, the politics, the hubris and the silliness that inevitably emerge as part of what will certainly feel like a never-ending saga.

Lost in the discussion is any interest in what the Halacha might say that would maybe temper the discussion, and guide the way for more orderly, and dare I say, more civil proceedings.  Having witnessed, and unfortunately participated, in such a debacle, it at least aroused in me a need to review halachic literature on how one should go about dealing with a situation when the rabbi’s future is  in question.

As one may expect, the general tendency is to favor the standing rabbi unless he has done something so egregious that his moral authority lacks credibility.  If he has become merely unpopular, or out of touch, these alone are not automatically considered grounds for dismissal or non renewal of his contract. There are other remedies, compromises if you will, suggested in the literature that try to mollify the community such as bringing on an assistant rabbi, or a co-rabbi that would be more to the liking of the community.

There are other opinions that would side with the community if the vast majority were dissatisfied.  In most circumstances, where the community is split, if the rabbi finds such a reality acceptable, and is fulfilling his role responsibly, than he is on pretty firm ground virtually according to everyone. This is usually the backdrop for a breakaway minyan–a time honored tradition in all congregational life.

I was curious to know the textual justification for why the rabbi was afforded these protections–at least by the halacha. What I have found, fascinated me, and for whatever they are worth, I have some insights and comments to make on the sources and how they are understood.

In the Talmudic tractate Brachot 28a, there is the story of an ongoing dispute between Rabban Gamliel, the Nasi, the president of the rabbinic leadership and Rabbi Yehoshua who was known for his brilliance and his propensity to disagree with the president.  When it became known that Rabbi Yehoshua had once again contradicted one of Rabban Gamliel’s decisions, Rabban Gamliel publicly humiliated Rabbi Yeshoshua, and this was not the only time he had done so. The rabbis take umbrage and decide to depose Rabban Gamliel and appoint Rabbi Eliezer Ben Azaryah as the new Nasi.

In the meantime, Rabban Gamliel, realizing his future as the Nasi is in jeopardy, apologizes to Rabbi Yehoshua which puts the rabbis in a quandary. Now that Rabban Gamliel has apologized, the grounds for removing him are no longer valid, but once they offered the position to Rabbi Eliezer Ben Azaryah it cannot be rescinded. Why not? Because of a Talmudic principle that asserts “One can cause an ascent in holiness, but cannot be the cause of its decline.”

In all but one other instance, this principle applies to ritual objects. For instance, when selling a Torah, the proceeds could only be used for objects that were equally or more holy. You couldn’t  buy a Torah breastplate with the proceeds from the sale of a Torah. You could, however, buy a Torah with the proceeds from the sale of a breastplate. The Torah being considered an “upgrade” from the breastplate.

This principle is learned in two different places in the Torah from verses dealing with the Tabernacle in one place and the fringes of a prayer shawl in another. It is also applied when the High Priest, for reason of unexpected impurity, is unable to perform the rituals on Yom Kippur. An appointed  deputy replaces him, but once that has happened the deputy remains in the position of high priest and may not be returned to  his previous  position.

In the story of Rabban Gamliel and Rabbi Yehoshua, however, the principle is applied to rabbinic roles where character flaws are considered grounds for removing Rabban Gamliel, but barring such blatant behavior and this only after it happened repeatedly, Rabban Gamliel’s position as Nasi would have remained secure.

The interesting move of this story is to make the Rabbinic position on par with that of either the High Priest in the  Temple, or somehow on par with the sanctity of sacred objects. The study and teaching of Torah was being promoted as central to Jewish life as were the rituals in the Temple. It is this story that sets the stage for the sanctity of rabbinic authority after the destruction of the Temple. If this had not been established prior to the destruction, one can only wonder what might have transpired.

The story teaches that  the feelings, or the dignity of an individual rabbi is not only an offense against him, but  the Torah itself.  Unlike the Priest, this honor is not a birthright, but is merited by the hard work and recognition of peers that the individual in fact is one who embodies the acumen and qualities of a scholar and  thereby deserves to be objectified in the highest sense of the word. He is, for all intents and purposes, the Torah.

This begs the question of whether the modern rabbi nowadays is presumed to have these qualities, or as is often the case is mostly an officiant who primarily is there to serve the pastoral needs and experiences of the community.  This is particularly problematic in a modern Orthodox setting where prevailing opinions pay lip service to one quality but truly value the officiant who is perceived to be on the same wavelength as the community.

The conflict arises when said rabbi exemplifies the Torah of  Rabbi Yehoshua and Rabban Gamliel  but does not fulfill the expectations of what many in the  community have come to expect, that being, more the modern rabbi, and less the “Rav”.

Maybe if people looked at what the Talmud and poskim (legal decisors), considered criteria for who was considered to be a “Rav”, then  they would come to the conclusion that it is time for them to change and not change what it means to be the “Rav”.

On Emma Sullivan: Free Speech, Ethical Speech, and the Guilty Pleasures of Gossip

In Uncategorized on December 5, 2011 at 2:25 pm

You’d think that somebody somewhere would have known better, but NOOOOO!. Here you have the false bravado of an inarticulate teenager countered by the ham handed tactics of Governor Brownback’s team of totalitarians. Great move team, thank you for validating an airhead whose contribution to free speech is to lie about a confrontation and then smear the Gov. with an ad hominem remark so popular with the unlettered youth of America. Sucking and blowing are two integral parts of breathing, but maybe I’m missing something here–might there be a disparaging innuendo afoot? I am being a little facetious here in case someone accuses me of being clueless.

It’s great to be an American where you can spread the word to your friends that the Governor blows and you are hailed as being independent minded,then catapulted into thousands of tweetie birds waiting to hear what profound pithy pearly aphorism should come before the herds. I really hate Twitter’s contribution to public discourse. I hate that Brownback’s office chose to apply China’s tactics toward a girl with limited influence, and intellect. I hate the fact that academics and first amendment advocates did not see that although she may have had been within her rights, some taken the high road.  Might someone have mentioned to her that if you wanted to be taken seriously in life, maybe you should try to add more than sucks and blows to your political commentary?  Might someone have said that even though one abhors the individual that the office still deserves some respect? There is nothing heroic in name calling, that its basically a cheap shot that reflects as much on you as it does the target?

For all of us who take freedom of speech issues seriously, are we happy with Emma Sullivan as being the standard bearer?  

On the coattails of this non-event comes a new book by Joseph Epstein on Gossip which is validated for its naughtiness, but chastened for its lack of seriousness. Jewish tradition sees nothing trivial about gossip, about gleaning pleasure from another’s woes, or circumstances.  Epstein admits that the missteps of so called celebrities hold little interest for him, but the tzuris of colleagues is irresistible.  Free speech as precious as it is without ethical moorings is profoundly corrosive. Emma Sullivan’s heroic status is a testimony to the narcissistic confidence of one who has nothing to say, but does so vehemently, confidently, loudly and publicly.

“Let me pray on that…” Why do even Jews with religious sensibilities think that this is a strange thing to do.

In Uncategorized on August 28, 2011 at 1:55 pm

Secular and atheist enthusiasts bristle when elected leaders  pray to God for guidance when making critical decisions.  I, too, was deeply uncomfortable when God was implicated in political decisions.  At a glance, the atheists were more consistent than I was.  According to them, why consult an entity that didn’t exist, much less receive guidance from a delusion?  I, however, believe in God, so what’s my problem? Am I only religious when it has no political consequence, or is there a religious reason that creates this discomfort?

The Talmudic examples of prayer as petition reflect a need for a particular outcome.  God “speaks” through the healing of someone who is critically ill.  If one prays for success in a particular endeavor, he doesn’t ask God for advice, but humbly prays for success.  Jews pray for rain, but don’t ask God which crops should they plant. The person is aware that although necessary, his hard work is not sufficient to ensure success.  He therefor prays for a desired outcome.  He doesn’t presume that God will make decisions for him, and he therefore bears no responsibility. Au contraire, one assumes responsibility for decisions on the one hand, but humbly prays for success on the other.  Without the help of his “Partner”, the farmer’s hard work, and the attendant plans may be for naught.

To pray for rain, however, acknowledges a human can only do so much, and the rest is either left to chance or the Creator. To assume that prayer can provoke a conversation akin to the Prophets in the Hebrew Bible would mean that the petitioner was on their level, and that God would see him as worthy of such an encounter.  This, I think, is hubris bordering on arrogance.  The humility of praying for a positive outcome is worlds apart from praying to God to make a decision.  For in the end, who is responsible for that decision?

The Jewish version of praying to God to help effectuate a decision is the relatively recent phenomenon of da’as Torah where people go to a Torah personality, a godol, to help make decisions not necessarily related to Jewish law.  There is little Talmudic precedent for this, but, in this case people are deferring to the wisdom of someone whom they consider more capable. If the decision turns out to be undesirable there is a this worldly recourse for ones grievance.  The petitioner hears an answer from a real person who for whatever reason, he considers to be more capable than he is.

When, however, God is the adviser, we only have the petitioner’s word for it. Even for believers like myself, this should give one pause. Especially since the Talmud teaches that “After the destruction of the second Temple only fools and children give (and presumably receive) prophecy.” (Baba Batra 12b)

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.