Wednesday, April 30, 2008

The Writers’ Café: Creative Voices from the Frum Community

During Pesach I received a copy of a new magazine called “The Writers’ Café: Creative Voices from the Frum Community.”

An introductory “Letter from the Editor” describes the goal of the publication: “Our aim is to bring you the best in creative, imaginative writing for and about the frum world. In doing so, we hope to promote the growth of such writing, benefiting readers and writers alike.”

My first reaction, even before opening it: "Cool." Like many rabbis, I have a side career as a frustrated fiction writer.

Having read it, my second reaction is that this magazine is definitely “for and about the frum world.” A serial story ends with “To be continued, b’li neder.” Pieces focus on observant life, both day-to-day (clothes shopping, baseball, sibling relationships) and spiritual (davening, weddings, rebbe-talmid relationships, Rosh haShanah, tefillin).

A third reaction: Leaving aside the quality of the production values and writing (and the definition of “frum”), I think the idea of encouraging Torah-observant Jews to look at their own community and describe their lives is positive.

And a fourth reaction: I think this could lead to an answer to a question I’ve been pondering: Is the observant community capable of addressing criticism from within?

The question has come up in recent years over issues ranging from abuse in yeshivot to unethical businessmen to out-of-control bansmanship to relationships between our community and politicians of dubious morality. Are we able to criticize ourselves, and listen to that criticism?

One thing is certain: Observant Jews tend to dislike secular critical portrayals of our community. We react to such a perspective much as we would react to a mirror that highlighted our pimples. Reactions like, “She doesn’t really understand us,” “He’s got a vendetta,” and “That’s just lashon hara,” are the equivalent of the acned teenager’s, “Must be the lighting."

Our excuses for the way we appear to others come easily; it’s simpler to condemn the messenger than to consider the message. Think of the recent reactions to Shalom Auslander and Noah Feldman. I’m not agreeing with either of them, just highlighting our knee-jerk response to their criticism.

In fact, I wonder if this isn't one motivation for literary contributors to “The Writers’ Café.” Uncomfortable with the way others describe us, we will describe ourselves.

But what will happen when the “frum” writer in the “frum” magazine offers reasonable criticism? Serious writing encourages an objective point of view, which should lead to some highlighting of faults...

Hypothetical examples:
-In one story, a character says regarding Judaism, “I believe in it. I think it’s the best way to keep people…good.” What if another speaker in the story points out that not all ritually observant Jews are good in all of their behaviors, and that many the lives of many non-Jews fit the Jewish defintion of good?
-In another story, a rebbe brings great compassion to bear in dealing with a rude student. But what of a story depicting the rebbes who, whether due to defects in character or training, don’t employ proper methods in addressing rudeness?

Would The Writers’ Café be ostracized as another outsider publication with a bone to pick? Or might readers allow themselves enlightenment if the criticism were to come from within?

[Side note: The local distributor wished to have copies out in our shul lobby for people to take, but I oppose having non-dvar torah literature out in the lobby. I recognize the need for dvar torah sheets for people who become distracted, or need distraction, during davening, but I can’t see offering additional material, above and beyond the myriad dvar torah papers. This aside from the question of reading fiction on Shabbos, which I do not wish to touch no matter how long the pole…]

Daf: Nazir 50-53

As we get to the end of Nazir, most of my comments are technical. The casual reader may find the tooth note on 51a interesting, and the method issue of the 3rd-man-in מכריע on 53a.

On the thick honey known as דבש הזיפים, see the Rosh’s interesting explanation, from a gemara in Sotah, that this may refer to a honey which was so thick that merchants would dilute it (זיוף) and people couldn’t tell the difference.

The מפורד text is odd, when referring to something that had been in many tiny pieces – and, sure enough, the Rosh has מפורר, crumby, which seems to fit better.

How could there be atzamos without gidin? See the Rosh.

The common denominator for hair, teeth and nails, as the Rosh brings from the gemara in Niddah, is that either they are not created at birth, or they regenerate.

The discussion of teeth and tumah is particularly interesting because of the debate about Rabbi Yochanan’s practice, recorded in the beginning of gemara Berachos, of consoling mourners by saying to them דין גרמא דעשיראה ביר, which seems to translate to “This is the bone of my tenth son,” for he had lost ten sons, and apparently showing them the bone. This practice is highly problematic, both in terms of spreading tumah and in terms of failing to bury the bone! Some suggest that it was a bone from the Seudas Havraah (הבראה/ביר), but others suggest it was a tooth; as indicated here, there would be no concern for tumah, and perhaps that would also mean there would be no concern for burial.

The Rosh explains our differentiation re: heels as being about calloused flesh on the bottom of the foot.

Abayye prefaces a comment with נקיטינן here. Elsewhere, Rashi notes that this is a term for something Abayye considers to be practical halachah.

The Rosh labels the laws about graves discovered in fields as הלכה למשה מסיני.

The gemara has the term שגידר regarding a spine which its vertebrae removed. The Rosh’s term שגירד seems to fit better.

The Rosh (start of the page) notes that the law with אבר מן המת here automatically includes אבר מן החי.

Here we say that we would not rely on a third view, from a later generation, to resolve (מכריע) a debate between two earlier views. Tosafos and the Rosh have different view of the problem. Tosafos (2nd half of בית דין) says the problem is not with using a later view in general, but rather the problem is that this “third view” is really a third view, with its own logic – it isn’t really a vote for either of the original views (see also Tosafos on this issue in Pesachim 21a). Rosh, on the other hand, seems to say we don’t accept the third view because it is of later origin.

The gemara says that a sword which touches a corpse has the same tumah status as the corpse itself. The Rosh notes that this rule applies to all metal implements, even though the Torah’s term is חרב.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Happily turning back the Pesach kitchen, for a change

[ hosts Haveil Havalim #163 here; thanks for the links!]

After Pesach we turn the kitchen back into its year-round self, washing and storing dishes, packing up Pesach goods, stashing Haggados and matzah covers, rolling back counter liners, shredding tin foil…

After Succos we take down the kids’ handmade Succah decorations, bring in the table and chairs, store the schach, dismantle the walls…

For me, each Shabbos and Yom Tov has a similar, if simpler, ritual: I gather my derashah and shiur notes and toss them into the Recycle bin in my office, and with that release all of the tension and nerves and exhaustion associated with that particular day. It’s an effective way to let go; one week later I look back and am surprised that it has only been seven days since the event. It always feels like much more time has passed, and that's often a good thing.

This year, though, there’s more I want to remember than I want to forget. There were some disappointments (I didn’t enjoy my last-days derashos – they were more simplistic than I would have liked) but the overall Yom Tov was good, thank Gd.

I hope to remember my two older kids staying up and participating nicely in the second Seder. (the first was a different story, for another time…)
I hope to remember squeezing in two afternoons to go with the family to playgrounds.
I hope to remember the kids davening nicely in shul, for the most part, and standing under my tallis for Birchas Kohanim without fighting.
I hope to remember the people who responded well to the Aliyah push in one of my drashos.
I hope to remember the extended walks we took on those long Yom Tov afternoons.
I hope to remember playing with our innocently happy 2 year old. Granted he now prefers his visiting grandparents to me, I’ll win him back before long.

Customarily, my family sits down to a meal together on the last afternoon of each Yom Tov. For Pesach we call it the Chasal meal, referring to the חסל סידור פסח part of the Haggadah, when we declare that we have successfully fulfilled the mitzvot of the Seder. We eat a light meal, and sing songs of the Seder, and of Yom Tov in general.

The vision of such a meal is beautiful, but it rarely works out that way. After two and sometimes three days of being together in the house, after more than a week out of school, the kids are often out of control. Guests are thinking about getting home ASAP that night, I’m nervous about the impending obligations which will set in after Havdalah, we’re thinking about setting up the kitchen, doing the laundry, re-stocking the pantry, etc. I’m rushing to finish before heading back to shul for daf, and wondering if something is going to go wrong with my attempt to re-purchase the chametz (Don’t laugh, it actually happened one year – the person who had bought our chametz went missing that day!).

This year, though, the Chasal meal was great. The kids talked about their favorite parts of Yom Tov, we finished off a lot of the leftovers of various meals, we had a good nap beforehand and the mood was relaxed.

I wish I knew what worked right this year, and why Yom Tov was so nice, so that we could replicate it next year, but I don’t know what it was – preparation beforehand, patience during, some זכות from helping someone create shalom bayis this year, I don’t know. But I’d sure like to get it right again next time... in Yerushalayim.

Friday, April 25, 2008

My Grandfather's Tefillin (Derashah, Day 8 of Pesach)

One morning 1900 years ago, Rabban Gamliel, the nasi, prince of all Israel, scholarly giant and ruthless political leader, gathered an elite, secret group of sages in an attic. Their mission was to set the Jewish calendar for the coming year. It was an elite group because their calculations involved a combination of halachah, esoteric math and astronomy, as well as knowledge of agriculture and meteorology. They met in secret, in an attic, because this was a period of Jewish rebellion against Rome and the Romans had placed a price on their heads.

Rabban Gamliel, valuing the calendar as a chief means of holding the nation together, defied the Romans and assembled his council. He surveyed the room. Suddenly, his breath caught - there was an extra person, one more than the count of invited sages. Was the extra person a security breach, or an impetuous student? He demanded, מי הוא שעלה שלא ברשות? ירד! Who has ascended without permission? Descend immediately!

Shmuel haKatan, one of the invited sages, realized that the interloper was an overeager student who was now about to be humiliated in front of the others. There seemed to be no good approach. If he said nothing, someone would be publicly shamed - but there didn’t seem to be another option.

Thinking quickly, Shemuel remembered a story from Tanach about a man named Shechaniah ben Yechiel, who had falsely identified himself as a sinner in order not to embarrass others who had actually transgressed - and, even though this would be a lie and even though it would also bring him embarrassment, Shemuel did the same. He lied and said, “אני הוא שעליתי שלא ברשות, I am the one who ascended without permission. I did not intend to participate, but only to learn the law.” And so Shemuel haKatan used Tanach to guide him through a difficult situation.

Shemuel haKatan is not unique; every generation of Jews has found relevance in Tanach or in figures from later in Jewish history. The gemara tells the story of a man captured by Romans, who the Romans attempted to mate with a woman who was not his wife; the man drew inspiration from Tanach’s Palti ben Layish, who lived in the same house with King David’s wife for years without sinning. The famous woman whose seven sons were killed drew her sacrificial inspiration from Avraham. Jews tempted to adultery have learned from Yosef’s restraint, impoverished people have taken inspiration from Hillel, rich people from the extraordinarily wealthy Rabbi Elazar, people in great despair from Chanah.

We have learned from mitzvos, as well. We have learned selfless kindness from the mitzvot of tzedakah, of visiting the sick, of burying others. We have learned mercy for animals from the mitzvah of sending away a mother bird before taking her young, and we have learned environmental concern from the mitzvah of not slaughtering a mother animal and her young on the same day. We have learned to be careful in judging others from our judicial law, and we have learned to value literacy from the laws promoting Torah study.

From Shemuel haKatan to the woman and her seven sons to us today, Jews have always understood Judaism to be more than a set of practices, and Torah to be more than an intellectual or spiritual exercise. At Har Sinai, 3400 years ago, we were bequeathed an eternally relevant roster of role models and a panoply of pertinent principles from which we may glean counsel, from which we are expected to draw inspiration, in any real-life situation.

When I studied in Yeshiva in Israel after high school, I didn’t really understand this point of applying Torah to general life. I wanted only to remain there in the yeshiva for as many years as I could, filling the gaping lacunae in my knowledge and living daily mitzvos without the distraction of the broader world. The relevance of Torah to challenges of business ethics or medical ethics wasn’t anywhere near the top of my agenda. It wasn’t for years that I understood that Torah is not an entity unto itself, embraced in isolation. Torah is meant to guide us through life, just as it guided Shemuel haKatan.

Look at Matan Torah, the presentation of the Torah to the Jewish people at Sinai. HaShem gave us the Torah in a desert, a place in which our nation could study and mature and develop, but as Ramban noted, so many of the Torah’s mitzvos are prefaced, כי תבאו אל הארץ, When you come into the land you shall fulfill these commands. Torah was meant to be lived by a nation in Israel, a real-life people handling real-life problems, not an isolationist population dwelling in Gan Eden but rather a political force living in Canaan.

Rabban Shimon bar Yochai’s life is perhaps the best illustration of this fact. The great Tanna spent twelve years in a cave with his son, hiding from Roman authorities who would have killed them. They spent the entire period in deep study, their Judaism a self-focused spiritual experience; they are credited with writing the seminal Kabbalistic work, the Zohar, during that time. What a wondrous escape from the world, a life in which their food was Divinely provided and all distractions were removed!

But, as Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm noted in a speech he delivered at Yeshiva University in 1997,5 that period did end, and at Divine command: HaShem declared, “Leave your cave!”

The cave, like the midbar, like the yeshiva, is an incubatory laboratory, a grand place to learn, to engage in Research and Development, to deepen our understanding - but, ultimately, Jewish life must be lived, the Torah must be implemented, in a world of crises and, yes, distractions. True Torah knowledge is deep, true Torah knowledge is sophisticated beyond the words on a page or the pilpul in a shiur, true Torah knowledge guides us on matters as diverse as abortion and euthanasia and free trade and free speech. True Torah knowledge is eternally relevant.

So far, I don’t think I have said anything new or surprising… but don’t worry, there’s still a little time.

Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch, in his introduction to Horeb, explained that not only should every Jew learn practical lessons from the Torah, but every generation should learn NEW practical lessons from that Torah. The Torah itself remains relevant, the halachah is the same as it has ever been, but in addressing new situations, non-halachic situations, we can always find FRESH guidance in the role models and principles of the Torah.

As Rav Hirsch put it, “A greater measure of freedom has been given to every individual mind to work out and form such views according to the thinker’s own will. As a result, we possess a collection of the most diverse views of men of the highest gifts from the earliest times down to our own day.”

In every generation, we are summoned to find the relevance of the Torah to our individual lives, because every generation faces new situations.
We face new policy issues: Personal computer technology, globalization, constant attacks on the state of Israel, an environmental crisis, who foresaw all of this even forty years ago? Who would have analyzed the Torah and produced lessons we could use directly, in our own day?

We face new personal issues: Families wrestling with the results of intermarriage, people making new choices on gender issues and homosexuality, greater options in Jewish education as well as secular careers, increased availability of mitzvah observance but decreased cohesion in Jewish communities - all of these demand a new look at Torah’s lessons, through modern eyes…

…And so, we need to provide this analysis, through the words of our sages, ourselves.

Many people here are about to say Yizkor, remembering generations of relatives who did exactly this, who acted on the lessons of an Avraham and Sarah, a Moshe, Aharon and Miriam, a Yehoshua or a Devorah, who derived values from the Torah’s mitzvos and laws and philosophies. We remember them, and we honor them, and we carry on their tradition... but not too far.

Once in a while, someone tells me that he wears his father’s tefillin, his grandfather’s tefillin, even his great-grandfather’s tefillin. This is a beautiful practice - but only so long as the tefillin don’t remain our father’s tefillin, our grandfather’s tefillin, our great-grandfather’s tefillin, as those beloved relatives left them. We might need to touch up the leather. We might need to replace a strap. We might even need to change the parshiyyos inside the tefillin; the passage of time, and changes in heat and humidity, can damage even the finest set.

The key is that we make those tefillin our own, we update them for our lives - and the same is true with our Torah. The stories don’t change. The mitzvos and laws don’t change. And yet, the Torah which HaShem gave us remains ever current. Like Shemuel haKatan, like the woman with her seven sons, like a grandson fitting his grandfather’s tefillin for his own head and arm, we can always find sophisticated relevance in those words we received at Sinai, to guide us in our lives.
The Rabban Gamliel at the beginning of the derashah is Rabban Gamliel II, and the incident with Shemuel haKatan is in the beginning of Sanhedrin. To see how serious he was about the calendar, look at his disputes with Rabbi Yehoshua, for which he was temporarily deposed.

The Ramban to which I referred is toward the end of Sefer Vayyikra, where he comes very close to saying mitzvos matter specifically in Israel.

The cave experience is recorded in Shabbos 33b. Rabbi Dr. Lamm’s speech on it may be found here.

Rav Hirsch’s comment is found as part of a longer discussion of שמעתתא vs אגדתא, in his Foreword. In the Dayyan Grunfeld translation from the German, 3rd edition, it’s on page clviii.

Redemption must be learned (Derashah, 7th day of Pesach)

If the elephant never forgets, then we, the Jewish people, are a nation of pachyderms. Every two-bit country that oppressed us and then disappeared is commemorated with at least a holiday if not a book in Tanach, and every tyrant, king and general who attacked us and was then killed during the past 3400 years is marked for special ignominy. We don’t forget anything.

The best example of our inflexible hold on history is Pesach. We escaped Egypt, and now, every year, we spend a week not only marking our redemption but even eating the same food we ate at that time, 3400 years in the past!

However, Pesach is more than just another holiday in which we hold on to our past - after all, Pesach is the only event in Jewish history that actually requires full-scale, dramatic, re-enactment.

• We have no such re-enactment for the Akeidah.

• We have no such re-enactment for the giving of the Torah at Sinai - we do learn all night on Shavuos, but that’s a custom rather than a biblical mitzvah.

• We have no such re-enactment for the building of the Mishkan or Beis haMikdash, or for their destruction.

You might be able to make a case for Succos as re-enactment, but we certainly have no staging with the philosophical depth and legal complexity of the Pesach Seder for anything in Jewish history. Why this? Why is it so critical that we envision ourselves on this march through the walls of a long-dead empire?

Perhaps the key is in the Geulah experience itself, in teaching Jews of every generation how best to appreciate and handle גאולה, Redemption.

גאולה, as the word is used in the Torah, means more than being saved from a threat:
The Torah’s term גאולה refers to redeeming a slave from slavery.
The Torah’s term גאולה refers to redeeming family land that has been pawned.
The Torah’s term גאולה refers to redeeming property that had been dedicated to the Beis haMikdash, so that now it may be used for common, mundane purposes.

גאולה is about changing our state, enabling a fresh start, breaking new ground, without being beholden to the people we were before or the world in which we lived before - and because we are creatures of habit and comfort and fear of the new and unknown, גאולה is a hard experience for us to absorb. גאולה can frighten us into hiding like a groundhog who has seen his shadow, or like the Jews in the desert who complained to Moshe, “We would have preferred the slavery of Egypt to the insecurity of this new way of life.”

The trail of Jewish history amply illustrates the difficulty of embracing גאולה; our national narrative is littered with redemptions which offered the opportunity of a new start, but which ultimately failed either because we didn’t recognize them, or because we weren’t willing to grasp them:

• The Assyrians invaded Israel, exiled the northern ten tribes and then turned to the South. It seemed inevitable that they would conquer ירושלים - but King Chizkiyahu, Yerushalayim and the nation were miraculously spared. This could have been a real גאולה, the gemara even says that Mashiach could have come at that point, had the people celebrated and embraced Gd adequately - but they did not thank HaShem immediately with great song, and the opportunity was lost.

• Purim offered another גאולה, as the Jews celebrated their escape from Haman and thanked HaShem. But shortly thereafter the Jews were given Persian permission to return to Israel and build the second Beis haMikdash, and the great majority did not go.

• I would make the case that 1948 was a potential גאולה as well, a watershed moment when Jews could have returned en masse to this new, Jewish land - but, again, it was only a partial גאולה because some went but the great majority did not.

The megilah we read today, שיר השירים, sums up the problem of the failed גאולה. HaShem is described as a suitor at our door, his hand outstretched, calling to us, פתחי לי אחותי רעיתי יונתי תמתי, Open up the door for me, my sister, my beloved, my dove, my perfect one! But the response of the Jewish people is a reluctant excuse, רחצתי את רגלי איככה אטנפם, I have washed my feet, how can I dirty them? It’s an excuse, a paltry excuse for declining גאולה.

Pesach, on the other hand, was a case of successful גאולה, successful redemption, as we marched out of Egypt and all the way to Sinai to receive the Torah. We recognized the opportunity, and we grasped it - and so, today, we use Pesach in order to accustom ourselves to the idea and opportunity of redemption, of instantaneous change, of a Divinely ordained shift that demands we rush בחפזון to keep up.

• We imagine what it was like to be a slave, familiar with matzah and marror, and suddenly find ourselves eating a korban Pesach.

• We imagine what it was like to be downtrodden, born into servitude, and suddenly learn that the heritage of Avraham counts for something, that the promises of the past are more than legend, that the Creator of the Universe wants a relationship with us.

• We imagine what it is like to see our world’s priorities and obligations turned upside down in the frenzy of redemption.

We need Pesach to help us imagine what it is like to embark into a new world of possibility so that we will understand the nature of גאולה and so that it will no longer be intimidating. In every generation, we train our children to see themselves leaving Egypt, to have their lens widen from the closed perspective of the slave to the wide-open vista of the free, to understand what it means to have the shackles suddenly removed. Pesach is our training ground for freedom.

As I pointed out before, the Torah’s vision of גאולה is not an all-or-nothing term reserved only for Messianic redemption; גאולה refers to every change of status, every shift in our existence, large and small. All of these are opportunities.

גאולה may be a job offer. גאולה may be an opportunity to attend a class. גאולה may be an invitation from a spouse, a parent, or some other relative to apologize and re-start a troubled relationship on a healthier footing.

Pesach tells us to keep our eyes open, to watch for Moshe coming out of the desert to tell us that our slavery is over, to recognize the גאולה for what it is and to capitalize on our opportunities.

The ultimate גאולה, whether we call it the first sprouting of our national redemption or just the fulfillment of our Jewish dream of living in our own land, is the return to Israel. That’s the whole ball-game, a fulfillment of the Torah’s instruction to us to take possession of Israel and pass it on to our descendants, and the chance for us to celebrate the Torah and its mitzvos in their intended way.

We’ve been through, several times, the many legitimate reasons why people cannot make aliyah. Health reasons for some, responsibilities in America for others, and so on. But Pesach teaches us to keep our eyes open for גאולה, to recognize it when it comes, and to leap at our chance to escape Mitzrayim and head toward our land.

They tell the story of a man who drowns in a flood, declining all human efforts to rescue him because he’s waiting for a Divine miracle. When he goes before Gd for judgment, Gd explains that all of those human efforts were the miracle, the redemption Gd was sending.

May we learn to recognize our גאולות, large and small, and take advantage of them when they come.

Daf: Nazir 44-47

More notes, some of which may actually be interesting for non-daffies to read. At any rate, writing these up is good chazarah for me.

An interesting note on exhuming a body – per Tosafos ובאו, R’ Yitzchak wanted to exhume his father’s body in order to bury it with the bodies of the rest of his family. This is, indeed, one of the few justifications for exhuming a body: to unite a family.

The name R’ Yehoshua ben Elisha is unfamiliar; note that the Rosh had it as the much more common R’ Yishmael ben Elisha. (Per Tosafos toward the beginning of Yevamos, there were at least three figures named R’ Yishmael ben Elisha.)

Towards the top of the page, where Abayye says a טבול יום is like a זב, the Rosh has a significant change: A טבול יום is not like a זב.

Here we are told that Moshe carried Yosef’s body with him in the camp of the leviyyim. Note, though, that Yosef was actually transported through the midbar by others, per Succah 25, and that this triggered the need for Pesach Sheni! However, our gemara could be within the view that Pesach Sheni was actually triggered by the kohanim who had carried Nadav and Avihu from the mishkan.

The Zav is called a מחוסר כפרה, but the Nazir is not. Perhaps this is because the nazir’s korbanos are to re-start his nezirus, and not to conclude his tumah. (Although I’m not sure how R’ Eliezer would react to this; he said the Nazir already starts his new count after completing the 7 days of taharah…)

We seem to be conflicted here as to whether shaving at the entrance to the mishkan/mikdash is considered degrading to the sanctity of the place, or not. According to the view that it is degrading, when the Torah said the nazir should shave פתח אהל מועד, it didn’t mean that he must do that. But I don’t really understand that position; if shaving there were degrading, why would it be permitted at all?

The mishnah at the bottom of the page mentions שילוק, a type of cooking which is in a liquid medium but is not the same as normal boiling, which is called בישול. Pseudo-Rashi here renders it as “not well-cooked,” but everyone else, including pseudo-Rashi in Nedarim 49a, renders it as “overdone.” The Bach here comments that perhaps this note of “not well-cooked” means “not cooked well, but rather overdone.”

As the Rosh notes (printed on 46a), the mishnah here does not need to mention the case of one who shaved on the chatas שלא לשמה; it’s brought only to complete the set of chatas, olah and shelamim.

How do you end up with two simultaneous Kohanim Gedolim?!
The Rosh brings one explanation that it is where the first became unable to serve for a limited, defined period of time (such as one day for קרי), and then the second was appointed, and then the first returned to eligibility – but he rejects this view, because in such a case the temporary replacement is no longer eligible to serve once the first returns to eligibility, and so the priority question in the gemara is easy to answer.
The Rosh then brings a second view, from Rabbeinu Moshe, that this is where the first kohen gadol was out for an indefinite period because of illness or exile to a city of refuge. In such a case the replacement would not lose his kohen gadol status when the first returne; they would both be able to serve.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Birkat haChamah/Blessing the Sun 2009, Erev Pesach, and Bad Astronomy, Part I

[Part 2 is here, Part 3 is here.]

If you thought this year’s Erev Pesach was unusual, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet. Next year we have, of all things, Birkas haChamah on Erev Pesach - Wednesday April 8, 2009.

Yes, you heard me right - we will be reciting a once-in-28-years blessing, and it will fall out on Erev Pesach, of all days. In the morning, specifically. Right after the siyyum for the firstborn. While we’re trying to get rid of all of our chametz, and prepare Pesach food. And the Seder. And a 3-day Yom Tov.

I have to think that we’re going to organize a communal celebration for Birkas haChamah - how could you not do that, for something that comes up less than 4 times per century? So it’s going to be a huge, massively fun, mess.

And, of course, it likely will rain (or snow?) just to wreck Birkas haChamah, put out the Chametz fire, and make life in general more chaotic.

And do you want to hear the funniest part? Birkas haChamah, according to some very big halachic names of the past few centuries, is observed on the wrong day.

Don't hang me for a heretic; let's look at the sources:

Talmud Bavli, Berachos 59b:
The sages taught: One who sees the Sun בתקופתה, the Moon in its strength and the stars in their paths and the constellations in their order says “Blessed is the Creator of Bereishit.”

Which is followed by Abayye’s explanation:
When is this? Abbaye said: Every twenty-eight years, when the machzor returns and the tekufah of Nisan occurs in Saturn, on the night after the third day, the beginning of the fourth.
In other words: The sun, as seen from Earth, is said to pass through various Houses in the heavens. When we see the Sun return to the beginning of the House in which it was created - a point in space we calculate based on our calendar calculations - then we recite this berachah.

Note: The Yerushalmi (Berachos 9:2) cites the view of R’ Chuna who disagrees in explaining what this blessing is all about: Rabbi Chuna said: This is only in the rainy season, after three days. (See Chasam Sofer Orach Chaim 56 who explains why seeing the sun after 3 non-sunny days would rank a blessing on “The deeds of Creation.” Or just figure it out yourself; it’s logical enough.) As the Beit Efrayim (Orach Chaim 7) noted, this is probably a debate about reading the word בתקופתה or בתוקפתה, the former meaning “at its circuit” and the latter meaning “in its strength.”

In any case, Rambam (Hilchos Berachos 10:18) and Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim 229:2) agree with the Bavli view of Abayye, that this is a berachah recited once every 28 years, when the sun reaches the start of its circuit again.

And so everyone (except some odd Italian communities noted by the Chida (Tuv Ayin 18:58), and except for the Raavad (cited in Minchas Yitzchak 8:15), who said it for his community in order to avoid berachos in vain if we are doing it improperly) goes out to recite a berachah upon seeing the Sun next Erev Pesach, and wish it a happy birthday as it starts its new circuit of the heavenly Houses.

Well, almost.

As the Masat Binyamin (101), Chasam Sofer (Chasam Sofer Orach Chaim 56), Rav Meshulam Roth (Kol Mevaser 2:51) and many others pointed out many, many years back: If we know anything at all, it’s that our 28-year calculation is wrong.

1) We have two different traditions for how to measure the sun’s circuit, one credited to Shemuel and the other to Rav Ada. Shemuel’s, which is based on a 365.25-day solar year, gives us a 28-year cycle; Rav Ada’s, somewhat more accurate in its estimation of the solar year, gives us a 19-year cycle. (For more on their calculations, click here.)We follow Rav Ada for most halachos - so why are we following Shemuel for this one?

2) According to many authorities, as well as our liturgy, we follow the Tannaitic view that the world was created in Tishrei, not Nisan. Therefore, this event should be in Tishrei!

3) We are quite well aware that although the sages’ calculations are sufficiently accurate for most halachic purposes, they are not quite precise - and so we shouldn’t be using this day at all!

Various authorities present fascinating answers for the first two problems, but the third is pretty intractable. The Chasam Sofer concluded that the numbers are wrong, but leaves it as צריך עיון גדול and recited the berachah anyway.

Rav Tzvi Pesach Frank (Har Tzvi ibid) had a very interesting approach. He accepted that these are problems, but argued (based on a very interesting responsum of the Rashba regarding Shehechiyanu at the birth of a baby) that the whole berachah is optional. If I understood him correctly, he was saying that we can recite the berachah when we recognize the beauty of Bereishis, even if that’s not the precise moment in time described in the gemara.

I plan on a Birkas haChamah Part II post (now available here!), and perhaps a Part III, to discuss how/when Birkas haChamah is said, and whether we should have mass gatherings for it or avoid having such gatherings, and more, but I think this should suffice for now.

[Note: You may find considerable good material on this mitzvah here.]

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

RenReb – Back from the dead, or only pretending?

I don’t have the time to write this, but I must: In a fine afikoman gift to the blogosphere, RenReb has posted her first new post in many, many months! (How did she know I’ve been good this year?) I feel like saying a ברוך מחיה המתים (Blessed is the One who resurrects the dead) blessing, only it hasn’t been twelve months since her last post… it just feels like it.

Yes, the Renegade Rebbetzin is back, or at least back for a day, for one post, a post which reminded me all over why I have loved to read her site. It was funny and personal and hit on something that has upset me greatly (the horrible death of Rabbi Jacob and Devorah Rubenstein) and then made me laugh with its notes about the Rebbetzin as appendage… and it was altogether too short.

One reason I like today’s RenReb post is that it reminds me of why I named this blog “The Rebbetzin’s Husband” in the first place. (Well, not in the first place. I only used this name when someone posted it several months ago in response to my “Help me name this blog” post. I really mean, why I used that name for this blog at all.)

My wife is altogether too often mis-identified as “The Rabbi’s Wife.” That is a farce; the Rebbetzin role is its own entity, with way too many unique responsibilities and way too many skill requirements to be categorized as Rabbi Redux. The Rebbetzin is mother to many, counselor to many, friend to many, teacher to many, host to many, even halachic resource to many - this aside from all of the ways she makes me a better rabbi – and to call her “Rabbi’s Wife” is as absurd as to call a rabbi “The Rebbetzin’s Husband.” (Or to have an orange on the seder plate, but that’s another topic.)

Two notes, for the record:
1) My wife is not the Renegade Rebbetzin. She certainly is one of the many, many rebbetzins who have been suspected of this. To be honest, I would love to see her blog one day. But no, she is not it.

2) My blog title is not, in any way, meant to indicate any association with her blog, which I readily acknowledge is far superior to mine. Hers is funny, mine is not. Hers is personal in the way an anonymous rabbinic blog can be; mine is not. Hers makes me want to keep on my reading; I don’t like reading my own writing.

The Renegade Rebbetzin blog is still the blog I would love to write, if only I possessed the sense of humor and the anonymity. The former I can’t have, because either you have it or you don’t. The latter I can’t have either, because my ego won’t allow it. So, I muddle on.

RenReb, thanks for re-surfacing. Hope to hear from you again.

China, the Olympics and the Holocaust

I have received a “Yom haShoah Declaration” for rabbis to sign, protesting the Beijing Olympics because of China’s horrible human rights record. This should be a straightforward decision:

1. Between their actions at home and in the Sudan, the Chinese government’s actions are so revolting that I cannot see anyone going to China for an official event, recognizing them as a member of normal human society.

2. I feel especially moved to sign because, as the petition notes, the Olympics organizers have arranged a kosher kitchen for the Games, presumably to entice Jewish tourists. What a horrible hypocrisy, for a Jew to support these Games while insisting on eating kosher. [Set aside, of course, the whole question of the propriety of Jewish support for these Greek celebrations of the body…]

3. The letter was put together by the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, an organization which has accomplished much good on many fronts.

My problem is this: The use of the Holocaust as a basis for protesting Beijing.

The petition specifically notes parallels between these Beijing Games and the 1936 Games in Berlin. The wording includes: “During the 1930s, some major American Jewish organizations, such as the American Jewish Congress and the Jewish War Veterans, urged a boycott of the 1936 Olympics in Nazi Germany. Sadly, however, divisions in the Jewish community undermined the effectiveness of the boycott campaign. We dare not repeat the mistakes of that era. We must speak out now, so that Beijing is not able to use the games as a cover for its abuses at home and abroad, as Hitler did. Hitler’s success in improving his public image in the 1930s helped pave the way for the horrors that followed.

First, I have a very hard time with comparisons of anything, at all, to the Holocaust. Six million dead, murdered brutally and humiliated, millions more raped and tortured and displaced and orphaned, and all because of their racial or religious identity… no, nothing should be compared to this. If, Gd-forbid, there would ever be another massacre on that scale, it would have to be its own entity as well. Nothing at that level should be compared to anything else.

Second, the facts in China's case are not the same as those in Nazi Germany. The treatment of the Taiwanese, Tibetans, etc, is not the same as the Nazi treatment of Jews. Protesters in China are not being gassed en masse, raped, spat on and shorn in public displays, having their sacred religious artifacts degraded publicly in the most obscene ways. And while I am horrified at China’s support for the Sudanese government in its atrocities in Darfur, once you learn more about the history of Darfur you see that this situation is not all as one-sided as it has appeared in the rebel-sympathetic press. It's far more like that modern Chechnya than it is like WWII Germany. I reiterate that nothing can justify the Sudanese government’s actions, nothing can justify supporting that government, but they are not nearly in the same league as the Nazis.

So why is the Holocaust being dragged in? Because it’s available. Because Berlin and China are easy to compare. Because it’s a proven way to grab the ear of the world, like screaming “Fire” or “Rape.”

I probably will sign, but with serious reservations. The comparison is wrong. What’s more, it’s unnecessary. Comparison to Berlin 1936 is easy – but we, as Jews, ought to be able to condemn human rights violations on the basis of our Torah and our ethical tradition, without resorting to the Holocaust.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Private Religion, Public Religion, and the Passover Seder

I must admit that I think this derashah could have been much better. I had much more to say, and the ending needs work. This week has turned out to be unexpectedly jam-packed, and I never managed to devote the time I needed to improving it. Nonetheless, here it is; I still think it has something to offer:

The Compassion Forum held at Messiah College last week, in its attempt to reveal the private religious lives of the candidates, raised an important Pesach-related point regarding the value of public and private religion.

At the very beginning, Senator Clinton was asked to talk about specific times when she had experienced “the Spirit,” and similar questions continued for both candidates for the rest of the night.

Sitting there at the Forum, I was very uncomfortable - Personally, I am more at home with private religiosity than public declarations. And my discomfort fits with Jewish history; since the days of Korach we’ve been mis-led by so many false prophets and false messiahs and corrupt leaders, all of whom wore a public religious face while doing as they pleased behind the scenes.
But is my reaction a Jewish reaction? Does Judaism prefer public or private religion?

On one level, we prefer private religion for its personal character.

Private religion is Moshe on Har Sinai, Adam and Chavah and Gd in the Garden, a direct relationship that is neither open nor shared, intimate, monogamous, an immanent relationship that bonds each Jew uniquely to Gd. Gd knows me, and I know Gd through my experiences of a lifetime, and no one else on Earth can claim the Gd-experience that I have.

Michah ordered us, והצנע לכת עם אלקיך, walk in צניעות with HaShem. צניעות is not specifically about covering a part of the body, or being humble. צניעות means privacy. We are to walk privately with HaShem, and so experience a faith which is intense and personal.

Public declarations of faith, on the other hand, lack that immediacy, that personal intensity, that I-Thou, that Har Sinai and Gan Eden feeling of closeness. In the realm of communal, public religion, Gd is shared with others.

But, on an another level, public religion is stronger for its communal character and its communal reach.

• Public religion means standing with others, davening with others, learning from others, achieving greatness together, seeing ourselves not as individuals but as part of a beautiful nation. It may not be Moshe atop the mountain, but it is the Jewish people at the base of the mountain. It may not be Adam and Chavah in Gan Eden, but it is the Jewish people crossing the Yarden and entering Israel.

• Public religion is inherently more objective than personal religion, not subject to my personal tastes and emotions. If my religion is about my own experiences and feelings, where is the guarantee for its authenticity? A communal experience, with communal standards, lends an objectivity I cannot have on my own.

• And public religion involves Kiddush HaShem, broadcasting to the world that we believe. It is reinforcing, calling us to act in concert with our relatives, our neighbors, in service of HaShem and fulfillment of HaShem’s Torah. And it is ביתי בית תפילה יקרא לכל העמים, it opens our beliefs and ideas to the world.

In fact, Judaism embraces both models, both the intensely personal and the gaudily communal, in many ways:

For example, look at prayer:

• Chanah, in her tefillah for a child, is our model of prayer, היא מדברת על לבה, רק שפתיה נעות וקולה לא ישמע, She spoke from her heart, and only her lips moved and her voice was not heard. We are taught to daven our Shemoneh Esreih in precisely that way. We recite Viduy on Yom Kippur loud enough only for ourselves to hear, not for others to hear.

• On the other hand, we recite Hallel to thank HaShem as a community; there is a halachic debate as to whether an individual is even permitted to say Hallel alone. ברב עם הדרת מלך, HaShem is glorified when we gather en masse to daven. We recite שמע ישראל ה' אלקינו ה' אחד aloud, for all to hear.

Look at Torah study:

• The gemara says that Shlomo haMelech in Shir haShirim compared Torah to a thigh, to teach us that just as we cover our thighs, so we should study Torah in private. Rabbi Akiva instructed his son R’ Yehoshua not to learn Torah בגובהה של עיר, out where everyone could see him.

• On the other hand, the gemara requires that we study Torah b’chavrusa, with others. We are taught to go to the Beis Medrash and study together. Rava marvels in the gemara about the impact of seeing Jews learning together en masse - he questions how any Jew could witness that public honor of the Torah and not be instantly convinced to embrace observance!

Look at our role models in Tanach:

• Yitzchak and Yaakov are private, they don’t go out of their way to spread Jewish ideas to those around them. And when Yosef’s brothers descend to Egypt, they don’t join everyone else; rather, they go live in Goshen, on Yosef’s own advice.

• But Avraham is public, telling everyone from his guests to the king of Sdom that all of his wealth comes from Gd. Yosef is public, he makes sure to inform everyone that he is an עברי, and that all of his gifts are Divine in origin.

Even our celebrations are split into those which are public and those which are private:

• Shabbos is private; the Torah doesn’t say to invite in the stranger and those at our gates, but just to celebrate with our families. Our sages taught that we should even minimize our conversation on Shabbos.

• But Yom Tov is very public; we bring in the לוי and the גר and the יתום ואלמנה, anyone we can find. We declared at the start of the Seder last night, כל דכפין ייתי וייכול, let everyone come in and have the Seder with us.

So in prayer and in learning Torah, in Tanach and in our Shabbos and Yom Tov experience, we have both the private and the public, the intimate and the advertised, the individual and the communal.

But there is one time when we are mandated to be public, when even the most private and personal Jew must embrace public Judaism - and that is with our children. Our mitzvah of chinuch requires that we share our own convictions and our own practices with our children, the better to help them in their growth.

Many people are reluctant to share with our kids the amounts we give to tzedakah, to tell them the number of hours we spend or have spent learning Torah, to discuss with them the doubts and crises and watershed moments of our spiritual lives. They’re our kids, not our peers, and these are real intimacies.

But when it comes to chinuch, to educating our children, we dare not hold back. Yes, children are perceptive and they pick up a lot on their own - but the continuity of the Jewish people is too great a thing to entrust to the hit-or-miss insights of youth. We are bound by the duty of Sinai to be proactive, to initiate these conversations with our children, in an age-appropriate way.

This applies particularly for the Seder, and Pesach in general, the time of והגדת לבנך. On Pesach we seek to guarantee the Torah’s transmission, our nation’s transmission, to the next generation, and so it is a time for us to be most public.

Aish haTorah put out a great animated short film this year, a Prequel to the Arba Banim, those four children about whom we read at the Seder. They asked a key question: “How did those four kids become the adults they are today?” And they answered by portraying four children asking their parents, “Why is the sky blue,” and receiving different parental responses.

• One child’s father says exasperatedly, “Questions, questions! Why are you asking me so many questions?!” And so his child grows up to not question at all.

• Another child’s parents say, “I don’t know, it just is” and leave it at that, and that child grows up to be the simple child.

• A third child is ridiculed and publicly humiliated by his father for asking a dumb question - and so he grows up to think that this is the way we treat other people.

• The fourth child’s mother says, “That’s a great question; let’s go look it up,” and so that child learns to honor questions and to investigate.

On Pesach, when we are instructed והגדת לבנך, to teach our children, we override any native inclination toward privacy and toward the quality of our intimate relationship with HaShem. For our children, for our grandchildren, for our nieces and nephews, for the children of our community as a whole, we celebrate our Seder and our Pesach in public, and open our intimacy for everyone around us.

At the event last Monday, Senator Clinton was asked about her favorite bible story, and she said it was the story of Esther. I turned to the person next to me and asked him whether he thought it was a sincere response, or just a crowd-pleaser. He pointed out to me that you don’t really come to Messiah College to pander to the Jewish vote.

Public displays of religion do often beg a skeptical reaction. Public displays can seem to be more about action than about that heart which HaShem so desires, more about being public than הצנע לכת עם אלקיך... but there is that other side, the positive side of public, communal religion, as highlighted on Pesach. All through this Yom Tov, may we follow the model of public davening, public learning, the model of Avraham and of Yosef and of Yom Tov’s communal celebration, doing our best to ensure that our children grow up as Chachamim, to inquire and to learn in complete sincerity.

Daf: Nazir 39-43

Again, as always, much/most of this will only be intelligible to people who have a gemara in front of them. The notes toward the end regarding kohanim and cemeteries today are, to me, particularly interesting.

The definition of minimum hair-length here is reminiscent of the discussion of the haircuts of the king and kohen gadol; see Sanhedrin 22 for more.

The discussion of whether hair grows “at the base” or “at the end” reminds me of a shailah I once received regarding mikvah for a woman whose hair was in cornrows, and which she never intended to un-do. While the real question was about chatzitzah and intent, I wondered whether, if the hair grew from the head, that meant the hair currently in the cornrow would eventually come out. Of course, that’s not what happens – but it was an interesting question nonetheless.

The Rosh explains that the “stringency” of the metzora is his requirement to shave off all of his hair.

The standard of two hairs here as the definition of “hair” is reminscent of the standard for פרה אדומה (two non-red hairs disqualify) and the definition of puberty. And, perhaps, various laws of מלאכה on Shabbos.

Tosafos מחכו points out the irony of R’ Yosi b”r Chanina laughing at a comment in Sanhedrin 17b, and here having his own comment ridiculed.

On the issue of a Nazir unintentionally pulling out hair as he combs, we encounter an issue which has always troubled me, in many areas of Halachah: We invoke the principle of דבר שאינו מתכוון, that lack of intent translates into reduced liability, in many areas of law. The only area where intent should matter, though, is the laws of Shabbos, where the Torah specifies מלאכת מחשבת, intentional acts of melachah! I must be missing something, but I don’t know what it is.

Note that there are two explanations for the discussion here, regarding the Nazir’s unintended shave. Our edition seems to view the issue as simply about intent, or lack thereof. The Rosh, though, has a different edition and seems to view it as also being about פסיק רישיה, guaranteed results. As in the laws of Shabbos, an unintended but guaranteed result would be considered a violation.

The Rosh notes that the boxed nazir in the cemetery cannot be liable for becoming טמא unless he actually helps the other party open his box.

How could one warn a Nazir not to become טמא for being in the room with a גוסס (a person who is very, very close to death)? Perhaps the patient will not die while the Nazir is present! The Rosh suggests that a doubtful warning is acceptable here, because most גוססין do die in short order.

The Rosh notes that – based on our Gemara - a Kohen may not attend a cemetery even to bury a relative, for he will encounter other graves on his way out. This is why we traditionally bury kohanim and their families in the outermost area. However, we haven’t really solved the problem, because we still have cemetery gates, so that the Kohen cannot depart directly from the grave!

Tosafot and the Rosh appear to disagree regarding permissibility for a Kohen to come into contact with tzaraat and זיבה from a non-relative; the Rosh specifies a relative, Tosafot במותם does not. Presumably the Rosh’s position is based on the pasuk from which this lesson is derived, in which relatives are specified.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Daf: Nazir 31a-37a

Mostly technical notes in this edition, some linguistic and some on the flow of the Gemara.

Tosafos כיצד offers two ways to understand Beit Shamma’s position – Either that the first one will be kodesh, or that the first black one will be kodesh

In the beginning of the eighth line, it appears to me that the “ק” is a mistake; it should simply be סלקא דעתך.

Aramaic lesson: טיהרא = צהרים – The ט and the צ are interchangeable. Similar Hebrew word: צהר, from the Teivah. And see the beginning of Berachos on טהר יומא. For that matter, I have to wonder about טהור as well…

The Rambam in his comments to the Mishnah explains it very clearly.

איבעית תימא as opposed to איבעית אימא is an interesting quirk of language, consistent with other oddities of Nazir, as per the Rosh’s note from earlier in the masechta.

In the mishnah at the bottom of the page: The Rosh and Tosafot believe that in this case the Nazir has not yet designated the specific animal, but pseudo-Rashi disagrees.

Note the Rosh’s little biography of R’ Eliezer.

Note, as well, the Rosh’s explanation of the pesukim in Daniel regarding the future destruction of the second Beis haMikdash. This is one reason why the count of 70 plus 420 is so important, raising the stakes on the problem of the missing 164-or-so years in the Seder Olam chronology.

See Tosafos.

On the second line, it should be אי rather than ואי.

Hebrew: The word גפן here means “vine,” not “grapevine.” We use גפן like that in other places (most obviously צמר גפן), although there are places where גפן alone is assumed to mean grapevine (like the butler’s dream).

On combining items toward the total prohibition: Tosafos gives the obvious combinations of solids. Pseudo-Rashi asks for trouble by mixing solids and liquids, which is a whole other ballgame.

The whole כלל-פרט vs ריבוי-מיעוט methodology is fascinating. At its core, the question is whether I view any class stated in the Torah as automatically including 100% of its sub-cases (כלל) or as expanding a small set of cases (ריבוי), and whether I view any specified case as representing only itself (פרט) or as an exclusionary-but-not-isolated example (מיעוט).

See the Rosh here on בין הבינים and compare it with his comments on בין הבינים on 38b.

See Tosafos on 35a שני on liability for eating the seeds and skins.

The Rosh presents the fascinating possibility that we could have suggested that R’ Eliezer rejects the entire method of כלל-פרט-כלל, for the entire Torah, and not just here.

The gemara talks about three factors defining the stringency of a prohibition: (1) It cannot become permitted, (2) even benefit is prohibited, and (3) יש היתר לאיסורו Hatarat nedarim cannot affect it. The gemara then says only two of these apply to Arlah. Pseudo-Rashi says this is because Arlah lifts after three years, but that is problematic – the fruit of those first three years is assur forever! What do we mean when we say that Arlah only has two of the factors? Tosafos והוא presents two approaches:
A. Factor (3) יש היתר לאיסורו doesn’t refer to Hatarat Nedarim, but rather it means that the prohibition is not all-encompassing. In the 4th year of Arlah – the year of נטע רבעי – the fruit may be redeemed.
B. Factor (3) יש היתר לאיסורו actually means that we are allowed to create the entity which we will not be allowed to use. As opposed to כלאים , which one is not permitted to create, one is permitted to plant a tree, even though that will generate Arlah.

Column: Is there a place for The Compassion Forum in the political process?

This is a column I submitted to The Allentown Morning Call after Sunday night's The Compassion Forum at Messiah College. They ran it here with a few edits.

Note: If this had not been a general readership newspaper, I would have used the term צניעות Tzniut, privacy, to describe the third point below, toward the end of the article. Public discussion of deeply personal beliefs seems to defy that צניעות we are taught to hold dear.

Is there a place for The Compassion Forum in the political process?

Is it hypocritical to wish for spirituality in our political representatives, but to wish equally that they not discuss it in public?

I found myself pondering that question as I sat in the audience at The Compassion Forum at Messiah College on Sunday night, April 13th, watching Senators Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama answer faith-oriented questions both personal and political. As a guest of the Orthodox Union I felt honored to have been invited, but as a Jewish American I felt more than a little uncomfortable.

Certainly, I find nothing inappropriate in a politician incorporating religious beliefs into decisions; just as they rely upon education, upbringing, friends and advisors, so our elected officials may draw on religious beliefs. More, their application of religious beliefs to practical policy displays an encouraging sophistication of faith and depth of thought. Nonetheless, this sort of forum does trigger deep discomfort in many Americans - myself included.

In my view, one problem is that these discussions unnecessarily spotlighted disagreements for voters of different religious persuasions. Many Americans vote based on practical policy and track record and overlook differences in religious philosophy, and many of those voters don’t want to have the underlying religious disagreement waved in their faces.

As a member of a Jewish minority, and as a member of an Orthodox minority within even that Jewish population, I have disagreed with basic religious beliefs held by every political candidate for whom I have voted in the past eighteen years. My own sensibilities have survived that conflict - but I do appreciate the candidates who don’t emphasize those differences.

A second issue is that these interviews flew in the face of our American freedom of religion. As a nation, we have valued that freedom since the colonial period. As a Jew, I particularly appreciate the fact that my right of worship is honored in our great country. No American should ever be made to justify, or even explain, his own religious ideals - but that was exactly what happened on Sunday night.

There was an awkward resemblance between Sunday’s public dialogue and the savage religious persecutions of the past millenium. Placing a political leader - or anyone - on a stage to answer questions like, “Do you believe God punishes nations in realtime,” and “Do you believe God created the world in six days,” white leather chairs and glasses of water notwithstanding, calls forth images of the Catholic Inquisition in the late Middle Ages and the Mutazilite Muslim Inquisition of the 9th century.

And to this I would add a third piece of the problem: The role of public display in religion, altogether.

Certainly, the Bible itself is mixed regarding public declamation of religious belief. At no time in the Pentateuch are the Israelites instructed to spread their Sinaitic tradition to other nations. On the other hand, Canaanites who opt to adopt Judaism are accepted into that early Jewish nation.

As a viewer whose tradition is ambiguous regarding evangelism, and whose personal beliefs include the words of the prophet Micah (6:8), “and walk modestly with thy God,” I mistrust a forum in which a politician is called upon to publicly answer the question, “When did you experience the Spirit?”

I attended the Forum out of curiosity, and my curiosity was duly satisfied. More, the Compassion Forum did highlight elements in both candidates’ beliefs with which I could agree, and which likely resonated with people of many faiths. Senator Obama spoke about the way his bible-based faith had inspired his work with impoverished people in the south side of Chicago. Senator Clinton voiced a very Jewish belief when she said that her response to suffering is not to ask why God permits it, but rather to ask how she can help. And yet, for all three of the reasons outlined above - spotlighting religious differences, the resemblance to an Inquisition and the public display of personal beliefs - I was less than comfortable with The Compassion Forum.

May our political representatives always remain strong in their beliefs, but - so far as I am concerned - may they keep those beliefs to themselves.

Monday, April 14, 2008

A Proba (Rabbinic Job Interview) for Senator Clinton and Senator Obama at The Compassion Forum

Yes, to those who spotted me, I was at the Compassion Forum in Messiah College last night, courtesy of the Orthodox Union. They found me a very good seat, too! (You can see me in the lower left corner at 00:20, here.)

Lots of interesting names in the audience, and I’m pretty sure I spotted Congressman Steven Rothman, from last week's event at Muhlenberg College, in the crowd. (I have to admit I wouldn’t have recognized most of the big figures by face, but I saw their names on their seats, so that helped.) I sat next to one of former President Clinton’s advisors, and he very patiently answered my million questions about the way these events work.

A lot to process from the experience, and I’m somewhat tired from the drive home, but here are some thoughts:

The Messiah College folks were, for the most part, sensitive to the needs of non-Christians in the crowd. They warmed up the audience with gospel singers whose choices were fairly non-denominational (except for one point in the second song; not sure if that was an ad-lib or part of the script). Oh, and there was one reverend who, concluding his very pareve introductory remarks, veered into the ultimate goal being joy in the father, son, etc.

One particular thought: Religion has really become safe ground in the past several years, I suspect in large part due to President Bush’s approach of letting it all hang out on his own faith. I was taken aback by the pointed religious questions: “Do you believe Gd punishes nations, in real time?” “Why does Gd permit suffering?” “What were specific moments when you experienced the spirit?” This aside from the more ‘normal’ questions, like, “Do you believe life begins at conception?” (I'm not sure whether I'm disturbed or encouraged by the acceptability of these questions in political discourse.)

The whole evening actually reminded me quite a bit of a proba, a rabbinic job interview, at which anyone could ask you anything, and you’re sitting or standing there, expected to come up with a response which is both true to your principles and satisfying to your many audiences.

The candidates themselves were very impressive in handling these questions. (That’s not really a surprise; you don’t get to this point unless you are very, very intelligent.) While they must be able to guess many of the questions in advance, they still, very visibly, think well on their feet.

I had two favorite answers of the night:
1) When Senator Clinton was asked her favorite biblical story, she answered by talking about Esther and Purim. I asked my neighbor whether he thought that was a planned, politically balanced response. He didn’t think so. I’m not so sure, but I must say that she explained it well, talking about women’s opportunities to take heroic action on a public level. She also mentioned receiving divrei torah on the parshah; I’ll have to add her to my email list…

2) When Senator Obama was challenged to pledge to reduce the national poverty rate in half within ten years, he replied in the affirmative, accepting that responsibility.
Frankly, the challenge itself was foolish; a president can commit to many things, but there is so much beyond his control on this issue that it's absurd. We're not talking landing a man on the moon, we're talking controlling a million conflicting issues that don't come under your jurisdiction.
And the answer he gave was actually much less than a pledge, hedged with comments about humility and needing cooperation from so many others
However, the fact that he made the pledge at all was bold. It would have been legitimate for him to have stopped short of the pledge itself, but he did not – he confirmed that he would do this, and he did mention some concrete ideals toward that goal. I would love to see that pledge fulfilled; what can I tell you, it satisfies the socialist in me. אפס כי לא יהיה בך אביון, right?

Two other quick notes:
A) The Middle East, interestingly, was off the list of topics. I'm relieved, frankly, but I would have liked to have heard them talk about the mix of religious beliefs and the Middle East.

B) Hillary came around shaking hands, and when my hand wasn't out she handled it very smoothly. She knows how this works, of course. A Muslim fellow behind me was a bit surprised, though, and asked me about it afterward.

More coming as I digest the experience… and probably a Yizkor derashah as well...

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Daf: Nazir 28b-30b

[This week's Haveil Havalim is up here!]

There is some great fun in these daf. Of particular note: Shemuel’s status, or lack thereof, as a nazir. The mitzvah, or lack thereof, of חינוך, for father/mother to educate son/daughter - and at what age the mitzvah ends. And, assorted notes. As always, read with a gemara in front of you for maximum benefit.

According to the mishnah on 28b, a woman cannot accept nezirut for her child – which immediately raises the question of how Chanah vowed to accept nezirut for her (unborn, unconceived!) son Shemuel in the beginning of Shemuel I! Radak to Shemuel I 1 11, referred to in the Giyon haShas, is also very surprised by this.
(Note that Hatzlelponit/Shimshon does not pose a problem, because there it was not her own vow that made him a nazir.)

In the mishnah, the word כיצד does not seem to belong. The Rosh and Tosafos indeed remove it, but the Rambam in his פירוש המשניות reads the mishnah in a way that this word fits.

How could nezirut constitute a solid way to educate a child? The Rosh says it’s b/c it trains the child in פרישות, separating from harmful things.

See also the Rosh’s note on chinuch which is not respected by the child’s relatives.

There is quite a bit of confusion in the Rosh, throughout this discussion and on to the next page, about R’ Yosi b”r Chanina and R’ Yosi b”r Yehudah. Presumably it’s simply a copyist’s error.

The Rosh’s definition of “נחירה” is to kill the animal in such a way that the blood departs from the vessels. Recall Pesachim 49b לנוחרו.

R’ Yosi b”r Yehudah indicates here that the obligation of חינוך to educate one’s children ends when they hit physical puberty, at or around age 12. This is remarkable for many reasons, but among them is the debate about the berachah of ברוך שפטרני, the Baruch shePetarani recited when a son reaches Bar Mitzvah. One view (see Magen Avraham 225:5) is that the source for the berachah is the newfound exemption from teaching the child, but see also the alternative view that the obligation of chinuch continues, and the berachah is because of the child’s exemption from the father’s punishments!

Note that our gemara equates הלכה למשה מסיני and דאורייתא. I seem to recall something on this in the Rambam’s introductory section to his ספר המצוות, but I don’t have time right now to look it up.

See the great question in Tosafos ואי בעית אימא

On Rabbi Chanina and Rabban Gamliel’s conviction שמורה הלכה בישראל, that he would grow up to (that he now does!) pasken halachah, see also Gittin 58a on R’ Yehoshua ben Chananiah and R’ Yishmael ben Elisha in the Roman prison.

Note that the Rosh has a different edition in the mishnah here, which makes the gemara on 30b more complicated within R’ Yosi’s view.

The Rosh views the series of hypotheticals as אם תמצי לומר cases, which then tells us how we rule in all but the final case.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Celebrating Shattered Assumptions and New Visions

Here is the aggadata portion of the Shabbos haGadol derashah I expect to deliver this Shabbos. There's a lot more to be said about this concept, of course.

Celebrating Shattered Assumptions and New Visions
Shabbat haGadol 5768

Being a scholar in residence is a lot of fun, because you get to provoke, then leave a mess behind for the rabbi. On the other hand, there is an attractive side to inviting in someone to make a mess - it shakes things up, and makes people think.

Last Shabbos we had _________________ here, and in speaking about the role of the visual in Judaism he did create a few messes, but he also made people think.

For example: _____________ surprised people when he said that the Torah believes that idols have power, just less power than HaShem possesses. In truth, this is not at all clear-cut - the gemara records a debate between Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Yosi haGelili on this point, and even Rabbi Yosi haGelili, who argues idols do have power, still believes that this power is assigned by HaShem. It’s an issue most people don’t contemplate much - but one worth thinking about, and so I'm glad he raised it in people’s minds.

And more than that: This sort of provocation, forcing us to think carefully about our preconceived notions, is more than just a messy exercise; it’s also one of the key ideas of Pesach night.

The first thing we teach our children about Pesach night is נשתנה הלילה הזה מכל הלילות, this night is different from all other nights. We dip and we cover plates and we play Hide-and-Seek with matzah and we pick up cups and we play with Plague toys and we lean, all along making sure our children understand that this night is different.

Why? Why the emphasis on making this night different? Certainly, it provokes our children’s questions, but more than that, it’s because Pesach requires for us, as adults, that we break out of our assumptions about Gd, about our family, about the people around us, and establish a new identity.

Mistaken assumptions - about Gd, family and other people - brought us down to Mitzrayim in the first place:

Avraham was distraught, thinking his estate was destined for his servant Eliezer; Avraham believed, based on astrology, that he would not have a child. HaShem told Avraham, צא מאצטגנינות שלך, Get out of your astrology! Don’t you know what happens when you assume? I’m Gd, I can handle this! But Avraham stubbornly demanded proof that he would have descendants who would inherit Canaan, and so HaShem told him, ידוע תדע כי גר יהיה זרעך בארץ לא להם, Because you could not abandon your assumptions about Me, your children will have to be slaves in a foreign land, before they will acquire Israel.

Yosef presumed that his brothers were not righteous, and so when he saw them acting in a questionable manner he interpreted their actions in a negative light. He brought דבתם רעה, a bad report about them, to his father. His brothers reciprocated when they heard his dreams of personal glory; they assumed that just as Yaakov had appropriated the birthright from Esav, just as Yitzchak had won out at Yishmael’s expense, so Yosef was going to force them out of the Jewish family line. More assumptions, this time about family - and so we moved one step closer to slavery, as Yosef was sold down to Egypt.

A frightened Pharoah watched the Jews in his land multiply and spread. Paroh saw everything in terms of power struggles - whether the Jewish growth in Egypt, or Moshe’s demands for freedom, or the dry land in the middle of the Red Sea, everything was a threat to be conquered. And as focussed on power as he was, Paroh was certain that others shared this mentality, and so Paroh told his nation, הבה נתחכמה לו, Let’s outsmart those Jews. If we don’t act first, they are going to join our enemies, ונלחם בנו ועלה מן הארץ, they’ll force us out of the land! More assumptions, this time about an entire nation of neighbors - and so Paroh enslaved the Jews, and so our slavery began.

People harbor assumptions because assumptions are comfortable. They enable us to go about our lives with a minimum of thought and a maximum of stability, ensconced in a self-perpetuating virtual reality which need not bear any resemblance to the “real world” in order for us to embrace the mirage.

But Pesach, at חודש האביב, the time when the world is reborn, shouts in our ear that there is a world of new ideas out there! Not everything that is new must be terrifying! New can mean stimulating, new can mean inspiring, new can clear away foolish presumption and make space for a new embrace of reality!

Look at Yetzias Mitzrayim itself, and see how the New did shatter old ideas and set the stage for redemption:

Paroh decreed that Jewish baby boys would be thrown in the river, so Amram and Yocheved split up, calculating that any children they might have would be doomed - but their daughter Miriam gave them a new narrative, convinced them to forego their ideas and reunite - and the result was the birth of Moshe!

Moshe believed that he, with his lisp, could not lead the Jews - but HaShem forced Moshe to look at the world differently, to forego his notions, and the result was nothing less than Yetzias Mitzrayim!

Standing at the edge of a mighty sea, the Jews trembled - but one man broke out of his assumptions, Nachshon ben Aminadav, and the result was a miraculous splitting of those mighty waters!

We, too, can break out of our Mitzrayim assumptions - the assumptions we make about the people around us, the misapprehensions we harbor about our families, the presumed truths we embrace about our lives and about Gd and about the universe!

Imagine if we would see our neighbors with open eyes, without the unhealthily cramped pigeonholes they regularly inhabit in our minds. Instead of identifying people by religious observance, age, background, and their associated stereotypes, we could open new vistas in our own associations by learning about people as they are.

Imagine if we would see family without the baggage of decades-old history, understanding the way they’ve grown, the way we’ve grown, since the time she made that offensive comment or he reneged on his promise. Blood really could be thicker than water, if only we would stop diluting it with our assumptions.

Imagine if we would accept, sincerely and intensely, the message of the Torah about the way we live our lives, opening ourselves to the possibility of real change, of shaping our lives around the message that has miraculously kept the Jewish people alive for so many millenia. As HaShem said, Avraham, Avraham! צא מן האצטגנינות שלך, get out from under your scientific assumptions about the way the universe works! Miracles can happen!

One night each year - two outside of Israel - we commit ourselves to the New, to the different, to embarking upon a journey of sound and sight and smell, of the mind as well as the body, of taste and texture and roleplaying. Of צא ולמד, Get out of your shell and learn! Of חייב אדם לראות את עצמו כאילו הוא יצא ממצרים, of A Jew must see himself as though he had left Egypt! And, yes, of נשתנה הלילה הזה מכל הלילות, of a night that is different from all other nights!

The Pesach Seder cries: Abandon the errors of the past, be a Miriam, a Moshe, a Nachshon - צא ולמד, embrace the miracle!

This last one, the miracle, is actually very hard for rabbis. Rabbis talk about Mashiach coming and putting us out of a job, but at the same time we plan for next week and next month and next year as though Mashiach were some distant dream.

But the Seder pulls us out of our routine. After the meal, toward the end of the Seder, we walk to the door and sing for Eliyahu, the herald of Mashiach promised by the prophet Malachi.

When we pull ourselves out of the regular, when we abandon our preconceived notions and learn a new script, then we will go to that door and look out with open eyes, with hopes and dreams, not rushing to get back to the table and finish up the Seder but scouting the streets for the fulfillment of that ultimate dream. When we, all of us, look out that way, we will see the fulfillment of next week’s haftorah, of הנה אנכי שולח לכם את אליה הנביא, of HaShem sending us Eliyahu haNavi, לפני בוא יום ה' הגדול והנורא, heralding that great day of HaShem.

1. On the question of idol-power, see Sanhedrin 90a, Avodah Zarah 55a, Devarim Rabbah 2:28 on Yisro and Rashi Megilah 25b re: Eigel
2. On Avraham being blamed for our descent to Mitzrayim, see Nedarim 32a
3. I believe it is the Pachad Yitzchak who talks about מצרים as mitzarim, boundaries...

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

I got the Motts[-ah]!

[For anyone who doesn't understand the title, see this video.]

Today I did my annual drive in to the Shatzer Matzah bakery in Brooklyn. I’ve been doing this for over a decade now; I did it when we were in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, for the shul there, and now I do it from Allentown. Every year is different – one year I brought my pre-school aged son, we’ve had a couple of rainy years, and last year I forgot to bring a check and had to run around Brooklyn to find a bank branch and get a bank check – so I thought I would blog the 200-mile round trip this year, and let people in on a little-known aspect of the rabbinate.

Correction: In truth, this isn’t part of the rabbinate; I doubt there are more than a handful of rabbis who do this personally. I do it because (1) my father always taught me to do the hard jobs myself, and (2) because if the matzah comes back broken, I’d rather take the blame myself than have to be upset with someone else.

One year we tried shipping it. They did a good job at Shatzer, but there was just no way. Some things aren’t meant to be shipped.

So I set out after the Daf, at 9:03 AM, armed with two cans of Boost-Plus, two bottles of water, a few music CD’s and a few shul projects to contemplate.

In truth, the ride this year was rather dull, but here are the high (or low) points:

9:33 AM
The radio anchors were a little odd this morning; one of them went on a five-minute monologue about the keywords on his station’s website, and the question of whether there was a keyword “Keyword” you could enter in order to get a list of available keywords. I changed the station.

9:38 AM
Someone named Sean Astin was interviewed on the radio, regarding his role as a surrogate in the Hillary Clinton campaign. According to the interviewer Sean starred in Rudy and in Toy Soldiers, neither of which have I seen. Sean talked about celebrity sponsors of politicians, and how they can be a drawback if they don't know anything or if they are doing it just to get their names involved. I tend to agree, except in the Bono type of case, where the celebrity actually takes the time and devotes the brain cells to understanding the issues.

9:41 AM
Huge jam-up, which continues for more than 3 miles and 30 minutes. Bloomberg radio says there's a tractor-trailor turned over, two lanes out of three shut down. Just what I had dreaded. We market Allentown by telling people it’s less than two hours to Manhattan, and that’s true – but not when you get an accident like this one. Hands-free drivers laws or not, I pull out the cell phone; I’m not moving, anyway. Might as well get some work done.

9:57 AM
Still stuck in the accident traffic. I start working on a working group I’m forming. I’ve come to believe that committees are best formed by filling qualifications slots, just like in hiring employees. So the chair and I are looking for a hard worker, a creative thinker, an organizational mind, a business mind, a community-minded person and a fundraiser. We have a great community; I have a few people listed for each slot within minutes.

10:09 AM
Still stuck. Crawl past a car pulled over by a police officer on the other side of the highway. It has New Jersey plates, which is unusual; from what I’ve seen, New Jersey cops much prefer to pull over non-residents. A revenue thing, presumably.

10:18 AM
Traffic jam is over. Hooray.

10:22 AM
A car ahead of me gets pulled over by a cop. That is unfair. There should be a moratorium on speeding tickets within ten miles after an accident scene; after we’ve been bottled up for so long, we need to stretch our legs a little! He couldn’t have been doing more than 80 anyway, and it’s a 65 zone. You have my sympathy, my friend.

10:32 AM
Police officers all over the highway. Just passed one on the left, followed by one on the right. Guess they figure you’ll speed up after passing the first one, and get caught by the second. Jersey needs the income.

10:48 AM
In the "that's awful" department: As I near the New Jersey Turnpike, I see a billboard with a Wanted poster, for a Christopher Barrett, wanted for rape. It would be nice if we could have billboards honoring people.

10:53 AM
Lots of billboards for alcoholic beverages. “Want to learn about wine? Do it the FUN way” and “Get Frost Smitten” among others. I’m no Prohibitionist, but I don’t like it.

11:05 AM
Ah, here we are in New York – where the drivers all pretend not to see you. (As opposed to Boston, where they really don’t see you…)

Brooklyn is actually tamer today than I’ve ever seen it, and the Shatzer factory is quieter than I can ever remember seeing it. Usually there’s a mob scene in there. "Why does he only pay X?" "What do you mean I have to call ahead?" "Ex-kyoooze me, I was here an hour ago, I came back with a check, lemme get my matzah!" etc. Not today; I was in and out in ten minutes.

I love the kids they hire to help load cars; they always have funny reactions to hearing I’m from Pennsylvania. “You mean you drove all the way in from Pennsylvania?!” as though it was Kentucky. “Better pack this tight, if it’s going all the way to Pennsylvania!” No one quite asks, “You mean there’s a market for 150 pounds of shmurah matzah in Allentown, Pennsylvania?” but you know they’re thinking it.

Yente, the woman in charge, is good; she speeds me through and I’m on my way. The trip home is, thank Gd, uneventful.

I love the “Reduce Speed Get Ticket” signs on the Jersey Turnpike. Am I the only one who sees those signs and wonders why you would want to slow down? (Sort of like the counterpart of those “Fine for Speeding” signs…)

And I get my usual lift from seeing the Statue of Liberty on the way to Route 78; even if it’s now property of New Jersey, it’s still beautiful. Enough of a lift that I can ignore the two dead Bambis I pass on the highway shortly afterward.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Daf: Nazir 24-28

These pages, like the previous installment, are fairly technical. However, one who isn’t learning through Nazir regularly, but is familiar with Gemara, might find the discussions of Halachah l’Moshe miSinai (25) and Bereirah (26a) interesting. And the wine/degradation topic on 28a is interesting in general…

The word למלכות on the top of the page is problematic; how did Ruth/Moav get into the monarchy four generations before Naamah/Amon? Ruth enters monarchy with Dovid haMelech, Naamah does so with Rechavam, Dovid’s grandson!
Rivan (pseudo-Rashi), Tosafos and Rosh don’t have the word למלכות at all, which does solve the problem – Ruth married in four generations before Naamah did.
One might also suggest it was the “line of מלכות,” that of Yehudah?

We understand, as Tosafos הלכה writes on 25a, that the term “הלכה” here means הלכה למשה מסיני, a tradition which goes back to Moshe even though it lacks a pasuk. This is interesting because of the interplay of citing a הלכה למשה מסיני and citing a pasuk, on 25b.

The gemara about identifying money as being “for korbanos” vs. specifiying which coins will be for which korbanos would seem to be a perfect candidate for the discussion of ברירה – why couldn’t I suggest that if we believe in ברירה, then money which will later be identified for specific korbanos is retroactively identified as having been designated for those specific korbanos?

The term נפלה at the bottom of the page is open to interpretation. Pseudo-Rashi says it means the money was lost or separated from the rest, but Rosh says it was earmarked!

Re: בכולן see the end of Tosafos והשאר

The Rosh on the mishnah includes inability to attend funerals as an element of degradation, perhaps associated with the gemara (Nedarim 83b) that people want to attend the funerals of others, so that others will attend theirs?

The debate about why not drinking wine is ניוול, degradation, is fascinating. Pseudo-Rashi, citing a pasuk, says it’s because wine beautifies a person, but Tosafos תגלחת says it’s because she suffers in being deprived from wine.

In the concern for what will happen to offerings dedicated by a Nazir who then has the nezirut repealed, our gemara says we are concerned for הפסד קדשים, the loss of offerings, but pseudo-Rashi’s edition is בזיון קדשים, degradation of the offerings. That latter version is hard to understand, if these aren’t offerings at all! Perhaps, though, the concern is that in the future one might be less-than-careful with the offerings, knowing that their status could be voided via repealing of the nezirut.

It sounds like the law against repealing one’s wife’s nezirut at a late stage is a rabbinic decree – so what happens if the husband repealed it first, and asked later? Presumably it’s repealed, rather than bring offerings inappropriately?

More on 28b in the next installment...

Monday, April 7, 2008

My Jewish Political Skepticism: A long tradition continues

[This week's Haveil Havalim is up here; and I have an unexpected link from the Jewish Cooking Carnival to boot!]

Jews are heir to a long national history of political skepticism. Whether slaves in Egypt told by Moshe that God would take them out of bondage, or generations of Jews promised by prophets that if only they would follow the Torah they would be safe from their enemies, or European Jewish communities living under the government of innumerable His Royal Highnesses, the Jewish nation has always doubted those who promised anything at all. King David wrote in Tehillim, “Put not your trust in princes,” and our ancestors took that as less pragmatic warning and more sacrosanct commandment.

This trait (which I admit has frustated rabbinic leadership as long as there has been rabbinic leadership) has served our minority population well through centuries and millenia of wandering from land to land. Jewish communities have taken government promises with more than one grain of salt, have hedged bets in political battles, and have kept their bags perpetually packed, literally as well as figuratively, and have saved many lives in the process.

But the downside to this lack of trust is that when we find an ally, someone deserving of our support, we hold back for fear of choosing wrong.

As a result of this Prufrockian fear of misplacing trust, I have been unable to connect with any of this year’s panoply of candidates. Magnetic orators as well as straight-talking cowboys, experienced politicos and relative newcomers, all of them talk a good game to one extent or another, and all have high points and lows, and the bottom line remains this genetic mistrust.

Case in point: This past Monday evening I attended a program at local Muhlenberg College, with Congressman Steven Rothman (D-NJ). Congressman Rothman, sent by the Obama campaign, was to speak about Senator Barack Obama’s positions on Israel and the Middle East.

The congressman said everything I could have wanted to hear; on more than one occasion his words sounded like they had come out of my own pro-Israel pen. The congressman spoke of important America-Israel partnerships, the history of the America-Israel relationship, the need for considering compensation for Jewish refugees forced out of Arab lands, and the affirmation of Israel’s existence as a Jewish state. The congressman educated the audience in the history of the British Mandate and the Balfour Declaration as well as the relatively recent vintage of Palestine. He expressed sympathy for Palestinian Arabs but demanded an end to violence, acceptance of the Jewish Israel and acceptance of previous peace agreements as a pre-requisite for dialogue with any Palestinian Arab leadership. In all of these areas, the congressman affirmed at the end that he spoke not only for himself, but also for Senator Obama.

Addressing the question I posted here last week, the congressman said that Senator Obama would not force Israelis and Palestinians to the negotiating table, and would not dictate the terms of a peace agreement. (I’m not so sure that his comments on this point were coincidental; my post on the topic was read for quite some time by someone at, mere minutes after I put it on-line last week…)

[Update: At 9:54 AM today, the day after I posted this message, I had another visit from that same site, now for this article. Presumably to check the coverage. I trust you found my report on the event accurate?]

I should add that Eric Lynn, billed as Senator Obama's Middle East Policy Adviser, also spoke strongly in favor of support for Israel as a Jewish state, in a pre-program session.

Really, Senator Obama's views sounded just like mine. I couldn't have been happier. And yet, at the end, I remained unable to really trust - just like I can’t trust Senator Clinton when she says pretty much the same things. Ditto for Senator McCain.

Perhaps I would have been more comfortable if I had heard something with which I disagreed; hearing my own party line triggers my skepticism antennae like little else. I wonder what Senator Obama’s surrogates say when they address the Muslim community. (As soon as I arrived home I looked on-line for such an event, but have not been able to find one listed.)

Perhaps it's because I was hearing a surrogate, instead of the Senator himself. I've met President G. W. Bush, and I can tell you that regardless of all stances and snafus, he has real magnetism in person. Successful politicians just have it. Congressman Rothman probably has it when speaking for himself. But when speaking as a surrogate for someone else, well, it's just harder to have the same pull.

What does it all mean in the end, what's the bottom line? I’ll admit that I am less concerned than I was a few hours ago regarding Senator Obama’s leanings. But, ultimately, the search for an end to my skepticism continues…

Friday, April 4, 2008

How important is Israel/Middle East Peace to Senators Obama and Clinton?

If I had to choose between Senators Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, and if my deciding issue were Israel, I’m not sure I’d go with with Hillary. I am a card-carrying member of the pro-Israel “right wing,” and my gut says that Hillary would be a bigger threat than Barack to the safety of Israel.

(Note: I am not endorsing anyone in the Pennsylvania Democratic primary. Personally, I am a registered Independent - and rabbi of a religious institution.)

True, Barack Obama has a stable of staunchly left wing foreign policy advisers. Ex-President Carter has endorsed him, former Ambassador Daniel Kurtzer is said to be a key adviser, and the further list of left wing associates who claim to be his advisers is quite long. (This is separate from the Reverend Jeremiah Wright issue, about which enough has already been said.)

In fact, I do think that Senator Obama supports Israel’s left wing. Based on his own public comments (which have been admirably frank; I wish others were so forthright!), it is clear to me that he believes Israel’s best interests include making lopsided “peace deals” which rely far too much on trusting the Arab world to mutate into honorable societies who keep their words and honor their agreements.

Further, I do think that Senator Clinton is less likely than Senator Obama to trust the Arab world, and less likely to strengthen terrorist sponsors in the course of “diplomacy.”

However: The issue of where these candidates stand on the Middle East is not nearly as important as where the Middle East stands with them.

For Senator Obama, based on his brief national-legislative history and this campaign, the Middle East is an issue that he must face in the course of politics, but that he doesn’t consider “front and center” in his plans. As President he would be forced to deal with terror, and with issues that affect American soldiers overseas and the American economy at home, but domestic matters like poverty and healthcare and taxes, as well as issues like environmental concerns and energy policy, seem to be at the top of his agenda. He won’t have the time, or political will, for the sacrifices needed to muscle the obstinate Middle East into his vision of peace.

On the other hand, Senator Clinton has made foreign policy a central part of her sales pitch to America. Although she has plenty of plans for domestic policy, she considers herself accomplished in the global arena, and it seems far more likely to me that she would want to achieve a landmark (dare I say legacy?) in the Middle East, than that Senator Obama would want to do the same.

I plan to attend a Monday night program at a local college, featuring Steve Rothman, a New Jersey Congressman, speaking on Senator Obama’s Middle East policy. The campaign is involved with the event, so I expect Congressman Rothman will be able to speak authoritatively.

I won’t need to ask Congressman Rothman what the Senator thinks Israel ought to do; the Senator has made that pretty clear himself. Instead, I’ll want to know: How pressing will Middle East peace be to the Senator from Illinois?