Wednesday, June 30, 2010

On The Orthoprax Rabbi

Last night Isaac referred me to The Orthoprax Rabbi, a blog claiming to be the words of a non-believing, publicly-observing rabbi of an Orthodox synagogue, and asked me for comment.

To be blunt: That situation is my worst rabbinic nightmare. In my first year in the rabbinate, I nearly left the field out of concern that The Orthoprax Rabbi might someday be me.

Let’s unpack that a bit.

It began with a normal, healthy maturing process:

As a child, I - like many children - always took it for granted that there were experts who ran the show, making everything work as it should. From painters to plumbers to publishers to actors, the people who designed and produced my world seemed to possess perfect knowledge and tools, since everything around me looked as (I assumed) it should. Even as a teenager, I continued to maintain that assumption, for the most part. Doctors, judges, political leaders, rabbis, all of them most know what they’re doing.

Then my first name changed to Rabbi, and I began to learn the truth that all of us must learn as we mature: That many of the people given titles and respect are just like everyone else, muddling their way through. When people began to call me a talmid chacham and look to me for advice and decisions, I got scared. Is this what the world is like? Are people like me (as in, imperfect people with imperfect knowledge and tools,) the ones running business, government, Judaism?

That revelation led me to seriously reflect on the fallibility of many of Judaism's architects, and on the less-credible aspects of Judaism and Torah, and on the great masses of people who thought Jews were living an illusion, and on the somewhat smaller number of people who were relying on fallible me as I had once relied on fallible others.

And that led me to want out.

I wanted to have the freedom to work out these issues without having a responsibility to a community, without concern that my ultimate decisions would damage my shul.

I wanted to know that fear of harming a community, or hunger for a paycheck, wouldn’t force me to live a hypocritical life, pretending one thing to the world and living another in my heart.

In essence, I wanted to avoid becoming what The Orthoprax Rabbi seems to have become.

I didn’t exit the rabbinate. And I didn’t become The Orthoprax Rabbi, either. Instead, I spent years thinking through my doubts and concerns, resolved the great majority of the big ones and left a couple as standing questions, and continued onward with an awareness that I have yet to reach my ‘final’ understandings, and that I will likely spend my entire life oscillating between poles of conviction.

I feel bad for The Orthoprax Rabbi, who seems to have gone further in his certainty than I ever did. Such certainty is stultifying.

I also feel bad for The Orthoprax Rabbi because I believe he experiences great internal pain in living this split identity. Despite his insistence that there is no inconsistency in being an unbelieving rabbi, the fact that he must conceal his disbelief is proof otherwise. And I am convinced that psychologically healthy human beings naturally wish to live a unified life, sincere and honest, and are pained by concealing their souls.

Definitely my worst rabbinic nightmare.

Does that answer your question, Isaac?

Monday, June 28, 2010

Hand-to-Mouth: Honor, Trust or Something Else?

When I was in Kerem b’Yavneh, I had a Yemenite friend who would shake hands and then, after releasing your hand, raise his own hand to his mouth and kiss it.

I never asked after the meaning of the gesture (does anyone know where I can find Tomer Isaac these days?), but I assumed it was a display of honor: “I recognize that you are sacred, a pure soul, created in the image designated by Gd, a living, breathing sefer torah, and so I kiss my hand after touching you.” I was impressed; I felt this showed great respect to the other party. I began to incorporate the hand-to-mouth into my own behavior, and it became second nature.

Eventually I entered the rabbinate, and realized I needed to subdue the trait somewhat; it sort of weirded people out, this bearded rabbi putting his hand to his mouth, especially when I was among people who didn’t know me. Then the whole hand-kissing thing became doubly problematic with the advent of swine flu; why not just go ahead and sneeze on other people, while you’re at it? And so I trained myself out of the practice, for the most part.

Fast-forward to this past Shabbos, which I spent as a speaker in Ottawa, enjoying incredible hospitality (Hi, Bram!) and a great shul at Machzikei haDas. I received a truly warm welcome, and despite being away from my family I really felt at home - so much so, apparently, that I fell back into my old practice of shaking and then kissing my hand…

…until one person approached me about this hand-kissing, and presented a new explanation for the practice: The gemara (Berachot 62a) states that because one uses his right hand for eating or for various religious purposes, he should only use his left hand to clean himself in the washroom. So my new friend suggested that the idea of putting one’s hand to one’s mouth after shaking someone’s right hand is to display confidence that the other party is civilized, and would not have used his right hand to clean himself in the washroom.

Wow, was that different.

I mean, trust is good, and displaying trust is good, but still... the hand-kissing practice is kind of yuck, all of a sudden.

So here’s my question: Have you heard of this hand-to-mouth practice? And do you know its origin?

Sunday, June 27, 2010

A Woman on the Roof of a Parking Garage

[This week's Haveil Havalim is here]

On Friday morning I flew to Ottawa, and from the Pearson Airport monorail I saw a single car occupying the top deck of a several-story parking garage. The car was in the far corner of the roof, and a woman stood beside it, right near the railing, writing something. It was a long way to the ground, the sun was shining, the car was alone on the rooftop, the woman was so intent on her writing… I wish I had been able to take a picture for you, but the moment was there and gone as the monorail moved along.

It was like a scene from a movie, either the beginning or the end.

Perhaps she was about to fly off to another country, and she was sending a Goodbye letter to her family, to a friend, to a boyfriend.

Maybe she was getting some last-minute work done before entering the hubbub of the airport.

Could be she just goes there because she likes the view, and she isn’t flying at all; the space is somewhat expensive, but it inspires her. Maybe she’s an artist, doing sketches for a painting.

Maybe she’s a poet or songwriter, and a thought just hit her, and she needed to catch the wave before it washed over her.

Possibly, she had just returned from a trip, and had a thought she wanted to jot down. Or maybe it was a harrowing flight, and she was writing a note to self: Make a Will!

Or, she could have been writing down her location so that she would remember where she had parked.

Or she was writing a note to drop off the edge of the building, to the ground below.
Or someone else was going to pick up the car, and she was leaving him/her a note.
Or she was planning to engage in some violent act in the airport, and she was leaving a message for investigators to find.

Many possibilities, of course, and my imagination is limited by my own experiences and identity. Could be something entirely different from my own dimension.

Funny. The exercise of pondering this was somewhat akin to one of the first steps in developing a dvar torah – looking at a source and contemplating what might lie behind it. Why did Bilam do that? Why did the Torah think it worthwhile to tell me about the dialogue between Balak and his messengers? What is that ox-tongue metaphor, anyway? And so on. [The difference between the dvar torah process and what happened Friday morning is in the steps toward answering those questions, but that's a topic for another time.]

And, of course, it reminded me of the novels I have not yet written…

A woman on the roof of a parking garage. Interesting.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Free opening line for a derashah

Opening lines can be tough to develop, and they help shape the derashah experience. So here's a free opener, for any rabbis surfing the web just before shabbos in search of an opening line for this week's derashah:

Rabbis need to be careful in crafting their derashos, both in terms of what they include and in terms of what they leave out. Often, whatever a rabbi has been reading or pondering of late can make it into the speech, and the result can be funny, or disastrous.

For example, I know one rabbi who got really into 18th century English poetry, to the extent that he began to deliver his derashos in iambic pentameter.

Another rabbi I know became addicted to recipes, and his speeches came to focus exclusively on food. The shul decided to move his Shabbos morning speech after the kiddush, since he was making people so hungry.

I’m usually pretty careful to avoid this habit, but I’m warning you now because this week I spent considerable time following the Wimbledon tennis match between John Isner and Nicolas Mahut – you know, the one that lasted eleven hours and six minutes…

Morality beyond the Torah

This Shabbos, I'll be in Ottawa, speaking a few times at Machzikei haDas. Our lunch topic is "Morality Beyond the Torah." For any who might be interested, here is the source sheet:

How can I keep my child from growing up to become Bernard Madoff?

1. Patrick Sawer, Migrant ‘Fagin’ ran Tube gang of child pickpockets
An asylum seeker from former Yugoslavia ran a gang of child pickpockets, some as young as seven, preying on Tube commuters, it was revealed today.
Bearded Vaske Besic, 34, became a latterday Fagin shortly after his arrival in Britain and was responsible for doubling the amount of pickpocketing offences on the Underground.
Police, who today named Besic as the mastermind behind the operation, are unable to say just how much the children stole during their 18-month campaign, but some were found with up to £2,000.

2. Talmud, Eruvin 100b
אמר רבי יוחנן אילמלא לא ניתנה תורה היינו למידין צניעות מחתול וגזל מנמלה ועריות מיונה
Rabbi Yochanan said: Had the Torah not been given, we would have learned privacy from the cat, [the impropriety of] theft from the ant and fidelity from the dove.

3. Midrash, Vayyikra Rabbah 9:3
א"ר ישמעאל בר רב נחמן עשרים וששה דורות קדמה דרך ארץ את התורה
Rabbi Yishmael bar Rav Nachman said: The way of the land preceded the Torah by 26 generations.

Our questions
• Does Judaism recognize a moral code beyond the Torah?
• Is this extra morality optional, or obligatory?
• If this is obligatory, why isn’t it in the Torah itself?
• How does this affect the way we instruct our children?

A moral code beyond the Torah
4. Bereishit 18:19
כי ידעתיו למען אשר יצוה את בניו ואת ביתו אחריו ושמרו דרך ה' לעשות צדקה ומשפט
For I have loved him, because he will instruct his children and his household after him, and they will guard the path of G-d to perform acts of righteousness and justice.

5. Talmud, Bava Metzia 30b
לא נחרבה ירושלים אלא מפני שהעמידו דבריהם על דין תורה
Yerushalayim was destroyed only because they stood on the letter of Torah law.

6. Ramban to Vayyikra 19:2
התורה הזהירה בעריות ובמאכלים האסורים והתירה הביאה איש באשתו ואכילת הבשר והיין, א"כ ימצא בעל התאוה מקום להיות שטוף בזמת אשתו או נשיו הרבות, ולהיות בסובאי יין בזוללי בשר למו, וידבר כרצונו בכל הנבלות, שלא הוזכר איסור זה בתורה, והנה יהיה נבל ברשות התורה. לפיכך בא הכתוב, אחרי שפרט האיסורים שאסר אותם לגמרי, וצוה בדבר כללי שנהיה פרושים מן המותרות.
The Torah warned us regarding relations and forbidden foods, and permitted marital relations and eating meat and wine, such that a hedonist could find a way to be immersed in [impropriety], drinking wine and eating meat gluttonously, speaking as he wishes of all depravity, for no prohibition in this regard is mentioned in the Torah; he will be depraved within the bounds of the Torah. Therefore the text followed its list of explicit prohibitions by instructing as a general rule that we should be separated from [certain] permitted practices.

Who determines the morality of this new code?
7. R’ Shimshon Raphael Hirsch, Horeb, Foreword
Because in the sphere of knowledge of the law everything rests on traditional principles peculiar to this sphere, and no individual view on the significance of or reason for a law can have any binding force, a greater measure of freedom has therefore 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. Nevertheless, the cautious thinker will find guidance for himself in the legal tradition itself."

Is this extra morality optional or obligatory?
8. Talmud, Ketuvot 103a
ההוא גברא דאוגר ליה ריחיא לחבריה לטחינה לסוף איעתר זבין ריחיא וחמרא אמר ליה עד האידנא הוה טחיננא גבך השתא הב לי אגרא א"ל מיטחן טחיננא לך סבר רבינא למימר היינו מתניתין לא יאמרו שניהם הרי אנו זנין אותה כאחד אלא אחד זנה ואחד נותן לה דמי מזונות א"ל רב עוירא מי דמי התם חד כריסא אית לה תרתי כריסתא לית לה הכא מצי א"ל טחון וזבין טחון ואותיב ולא אמרן אלא דלית ליה טחינא לריחיא אבל אית ליה טחינא לריחיא כגון זו כופין אותו על מדת סדום
A man rented a mill to another, in exchange for doing his grinding. In the end he became wealthy, and he purchased another mill, with a donkey [to do the grinding]. The landlord said to the tenant, “Until now, I had you do my milling. Now, pay me money for rent.” The tenant said, “I would continue to grind for you.”…
Rav Avira said: The tenant can say, “I can grind extra for you to sell or for you to store!” … And so, if the landlord has grain for grinding, then in a case like this we compel him to avoid the manner of Sdom.

9. R’ Yitzchak of Corbeille, Sefer Mitzvot Katan 49
לעשות לפנים משורת הדין דכתיב אשר יעשון ואמר רבי יוחנן לא נחרבה ירושלים אלא על שדנו בה דין תורה.
This is the commandment to exceed the line of the law, as it is written, ‘That they shall do.’ As Rabbi Yochanan said: Yerushalayim was destroyed only because they adjudicated on the basis of the letter of Torah law.

Why was this moral code omitted from the Torah?
• Too broad
• Social obligations, rather than personal obligations
• The next step in developing our ethical personality

Evolving our ethical personality from the Torah
10. R’ Aharon Lichtenstein, Does Judaism Recognize an Ethic Independent of Halakhah?
If, however, we recognize that Halakhah is multiplanar and many dimensional; that, properly conceived, it includes much more than is explicitly required or permitted by specific rules, we shall realize that the ethical moment we are seeking is itself an aspect of Halakhah.

11. Talmud, Sanhedrin 76b
אמר רב יהודה אמר רב...המחזיר אבידה לנכרי עליו הכתוב אומר +דברים כ"ט+ למען ספות הרוה את הצמאה לא יאבה ה' סלח לו

12. Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Laws of Theft and Lost Objects 11:3
אבידת הגוי מותרת שנ' +דברים כ"ב ג'+ אבידת אחיך, והמחזירה הרי זה עובר עבירה מפני שהוא מחזיק ידי רשעי עולם, ואם החזירה לקדש את השם כדי שיפארו את ישראל וידעו שהם בעלי אמונה הרי זה משובח, ובמקום שיש חלול השם אבידתו אסורה וחייב להחזירה

13. R’ Moshe Ravkash, Be’er haGolah to Choshen Mishpat 266:2
וממה שכתב הרמב"ם הטעם... נראה לפי עניות דעתי דסבירא ליה דלא אמר רב אלא בעכו"מ עובדי כוכבים ומזלות ולא בעכו"מ שבזמן הזה שמודים בבורא עולם ונימוסיהם להחזיר אבידה

14. R’ Yoel Sirkis, Bach to Choshen Mishpat 266
דמראה בעצמו שאינה חשובה לו השבת אבידה למצות בוראו

The way we educate our children
15. Dr. Jim Sabin, What if Madoff Took an Ethics Class?
In medical ethics teaching, most time is spent on teasing out the pros and cons of complex ethical conundrums. But in real life recognizing and acknowledging that there is a conundrum that requires contemplation is as important as the way we reason about it. Concluding that we should question the status quo is the starting point for ethical wisdom.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Earthquake in Toronto?

Wow - The whole building just shook. I thought it was vertigo, but I went on Twitter and it looks like a whole bunch of people felt it.

Nothing at this Earthquake Forecast site yet, but should show up soon. [Update: Full information on the quake's specifics from USGS here.]

I didn't know Toronto was on a fault line. Now I see this from a CBC site:
Canada is a veritable hotbed of seismic activity. The country averages three to four earthquakes a day – more than 1,200 a year. The vast majority of them can only be detected by the sensitive equipment that measures seismic activity.

But – a few times a year – Canadians do feel the earth move. The most active parts of the country are the western and southwestern regions of British Columbia, including Vancouver Island and the Queen Charlotte Islands, which are struck more than 200 times a year. However, Eastern Canada has also been hit by major quakes, and experts cannot rule out a major earthquake hitting Toronto, Ottawa or Montreal.

Except for reports of one death in an earthquake in Montreal in 1732, nobody has ever been killed by a quake in Canada.

On Nov. 18, 1929, a magnitude 7.2 quake rattled the floor of the Atlantic Ocean about 250 kilometres south of Newfoundland, which was then a British colony. Nobody died from the quake, but 29 drowned after a tsunami swept across the Burin Peninsula.

G-20 related, or just random?

Synagogue Bathrooms

[In genteel Canada we actually say washrooms, but since the civilized world doesn’t really know that word, I went with bathrooms here. When you get down to it, the two terms employ the same euphemism, anyway.]

I know what you're thinking: Bathrooms, TRH? Really? Shouldn't you get an anonymous blog to write stuff like this? Isn't this Jack's domain? Just read, and you'll understand. I hope.

My family took a trip to California when I was 14; we went to LA and San Francisco, and we drove the coast in between. I vaguely remember visiting relatives, and I’m sure we saw some sights as well, and I think the view on that coastal drive was probably impressive, but my main three memories from that trip are:

(1) The awful smell in the kosher restaurant that was located right above a Buddhist temple (Was it called ‘The Lotus Garden,’ or am I making that up? This was the latter part of the '80s.),

(2) The scary roller coaster hills of San Francisco, and

(3) The bathrooms at The Madonna Inn.

This last item might well have been the highlight of the trip – we went there just to see those bathrooms, then drove on - and I know it is the highlight of others’ trips, too. Don’t believe me? Google “Madonna Inn” and bathrooms and look at all of the video and still photographs, not to mention the essays on the scatalogical facilities at this hostelry.

Why do I mention this?

1. Because one of the lessons I learned in the synagogue rabbinate was that your facility should be attractive, out of respect for its religious function. Not in the sense of, “Let’s waste money on making sure we have the fanciest moldings and a three-story Aron Kodesh,” but in the sense of, “We want this building to be at least as beautiful as our homes.” [There is much discussion on this point, in terms of the halachos of shul-building.] If our homes have attractive, clean bathrooms, then so should our shuls.

2. And because people who come to shul should find a building designed with daveners as well as davening in mind. People need certain things – good signage, appropriate seating, helpful lighting, well-managed air conditioning, perhaps page number indicators, and, yes, good bathrooms. Providing these elements says that we are thinking about the needs of people who come to daven.

3. And because bathrooms, as in the case of the Madonna Inn, are an easy opportunity to impress people, since they are not even looking to be impressed. Impressing people with your décor is challenging, because everyone has seen magnificent shuls. Impressing people with your programming is challenging, because everyone has programming. Bathrooms, on the other hand, are low-hanging fruit.

So what do you need, to impress with your washrooms? Not much. I would include:
• Good signage, so guests don’t need to be embarrassed when they are forced to ask for directions
• Clean facilities
• Accessible facilities – good lighting, handicapped accessible, changing areas for babies, child-friendly urinals, and so on
• Facilities affording privacy, in terms of both external access and internal function, while maintaining safety as well
• A good space for netilas yadayim outside the bathroom
• And, yes, perhaps something aesthetically unique.

Start here for ideas.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Of Lot and Bilam, Sdom and Moav

In preparing a parshah shiur for this week, I started to develop a concept that I won’t end up using. It’s interesting, but I don’t think it’s substantive yer; it’s more homiletic than real. I’m sharing it here, though, because a reader might be able to take it further.

The core idea:
Recall that Ibn Ezra believes that the Torah tells us the origins of nations in order to teach us about their descendants’ inherited natures. [See, for example, his comment to Bereishis 9:18.]
Avraham’s cousin Lot, of Sdom, is the patriarch of Moav, the nation which hires Bilam to curse the Jews in the wilderness. There are several parallels between the story of Lot/Sdom, and Bilam/Moav’s attempt to curse the Jews. Perhaps these parallels are the Torah’s attempt to teach us certain moral lessons, based on the character and identity of the nation of Lot/Sdom/Moav.

Here are the parallels I have noticed:

1) Selfish concern for their own resources
Sdom is not aggressively evil; they are only wicked to visitors, selfishly wishing to keep their resources for themselves. [See also Avot 5:10 on שלי שלי.]
Moav is likewise concerned for their resources. They are not concerned that the Jews will come to fight against them; rather, as one reads Bamidbar 22 it is evident that Moav is worried about the Jews moving to the neighborhood and consuming all of their grassland.

2) Angels
Angels are sent to destroy Sdom
Angels are sent to keep Bilam/Moav from succeeding against the Jews

3) Reluctance to do as Gd instructs
Lot is reluctant to leave Sdom, even when instructed by angels to do so.
Bilam is reluctant to abandon his plan to curse the Jews, even when instructed by angels to do so.

4) Involvement with sexual immorality
Lot is accused of knowingly sleeping with his daughters, or at least the second one. See Nazir 23a, which suggests he planned this.
Bilam is accused of sleeping with his donkey, per Sanhedrin 105a.

5) An unsuccessful attempt to direct people in a proper path
Lot attempts to convince the people of Sdom to leave his visitors in peace.
Bilam attempts to convince the Moabite emissaries to abandon their plan of cursing the Jews.

There also may be something in Lot telling his visitors to stay for the night, and Bilam telling his visitors to stay for the night.

I also found an interesting contrast between Avraham on one side, and Bilam on the other:
Gd tells Avraham that He will destroy Sdom, and he prays to Gd to change His mind and save these strangers.
Gd tells Bilam not to harm the Jews, and he prays to Gd to change His mind and harm these strangers.

Interesting, but could just be the common pre-shiur desperation to find a pattern. Not enough for me to feel this is quite real, yet, but interesting.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Why a rabbi teaches Jewish History

[This week's Haveil Havalim is here]

I spent Shabbos in the beautiful and warm community of Hamilton, Ontario. It was Italian Shabbat, with a lunch featuring Italian foods, so I tailored my shiurim for Italian topics: The Badge, the Ghetto and the Printing Press: Jewish Life in Medieval Italy, Rabbeinu Meshulam ben Klonymus, Tosafot Rid and Rav Ovadia Sforno: The Torah of Middle Ages Italy, and Esav = Edom = Rome: Jews and the Catholic Church [we looked at Yosi ben Yosi's אהללה אלקי, as a theological polemic].

The trend of those topics toward Jewish History led several people to ask whether I was a History major in college, or, in the words of one, “Isn’t history an unusual topic for a kollel man?” The answer to the former is that I was an English major at first, and I concluded as a Computer Science major. The answer to the latter is Yes. And the answer to the unspoken question of, “Is this really within the Torah sphere of shiurim?” is, in my opinion, Maybe.

Certainly, learning חכמי אשכנז הראשונים or מסורת הפיוט or בעלי התוספות or Cecil Roth doesn’t impress the way that learning תקפו כהן does. And I wouldn’t consider Jewish History an appropriate topic for seder time. But at the same time, I think knowing history adds authenticity to any Torah study which relates to human beings – teshuvos (responsa), minhagim, tefillah (prayer) and more.

That’s how I first got into learning and teaching history – it was a matter of authenticity. During my rabbinic internship in Englewood, New Jersey (under the great Rabbi Shmuel Goldin) I taught a series on Science and Halachah, and I found that I was interested in getting the science right and teaching it as part of the shiur’s Torah. This made me more confident in my knowledge of the broader topic, and I think it also helped listeners feel more confident (correctly or incorrectly!) that I knew what I was talking about.

That practice of filling in the broader background carried over into other classes. For example, when I taught about halachic practices and minhagim of certain locations I also learned about the Jewish communities of those locations. When I taught classes about particular halachic themes – Jewish dress, for example – I also learned the relevant background.

As a second motivation, in my shul rabbinate I found that history was מושך את הלב, it drew people’s hearts. See Rashi to Shemot 13:5 - We are supposed to help people learn by starting with topics that draw their hearts. History does that; unlike during my student career, in which history was deemed dull, as an adult I found that people wanted to know the background of Jewish communities and their leaders. Not as gossip, but as fascinating information.

Certain people wouldn’t necessarily turn out for a class on the different approaches of biblical commentators, but they would absolutely come out to classes on the lives of those commentators, which would then lead to study about their styles as well. Many people would not necessarily come out for a series on The Laws of Shabbos, but they would turn out in real numbers for shiurim on Shabbat in 13th Century France, for example, and learn the relevant halachic debates along the way. So although I needed to spend considerable hours learning the history accurately and completely, the payoff was that it brought people in.

So I learn and teach History because I consider it a crucial part of authentically understanding and explaining Torah, and because it attracts people to shiurim.

There are lots of other, minor reasons, but those are the big two. And there’s one popular motivation I don’t share: I don’t believe that learning the lessons of history will keep us from repeating the errors of the past. Those who fail to learn the lessons of the past are doomed to repeat them, but so are the rest of us. It’s just human nature.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

It happened this Monday... or not? (Derashah: Chukat 5770)

[I wrote the following article for this week's Toronto Torah, and I liked it enough to post it here. Although it's not written as a derashah, I have labelled it that way because it could certainly serve as a foundation for a derashah.]

Some twenty-five hundred years ago this Monday, on the ninth of Tammuz, the walls of Jerusalem were breached by the Babylonians.

Or not.

Yirmiyahu placed the Babylonian invasion on the ninth of Tammuz, declaring (52:6-7), “In the fourth month, the ninth of the month, the famine strengthened in the city and there was no bread for the population. And the city was breached…” The sages (Taanit 28b) were perplexed, since we fast on the 17th of Tammuz, but Rava replied in the Talmud Bavli, “There is no problem; Yirmiyahu spoke regarding the first Beit haMikdash, whereas in the time of the second Beit haMikdash the city was breached on the 17th of Tammuz.” The Tur and Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim 549) cited Rava’s view as law, explaining that we fast for the second breach of Jerusalem because the destruction of the second Beit haMikdash is more severe for us.

Notwithstanding Rava’s explanation, the Talmud Yerushalmi (Taanit 4:5) offers a different version of events. This version addresses the conflict between Yirmiyahu and the tradition of fasting on the 17th of Tammuz, as well as the conflict between an indication by Yechezkel (26:1-2) that the first Beit haMikdash was destroyed on the first of Av and our tradition of commemorating the destruction on the ninth of Av. Clarifying this pair of prophetic passages, Rabbi Tanchum bar Chanilai contends that the calendar had become corrupted.

In brief: Rabbi Tanchum bar Chanilai argues that the Beit haMikdash was destroyed on the ninth of Av, and Yechezkel listed it as the first of the month because of “calendar confusion.” He continues to state that the Jews of Bavel knew that twenty-one days had passed between the invasion of Jerusalem and the fall of the Beit haMikdash. Therefore, with the destruction of the Beit haMikdash set as the first of Av, they considered the invasion as having occurred 21 days earlier, on the ninth of Tammuz.

All of the above leads to a simple question: Granted that the beleaguered population might have been confused, why did Yirmiyahu and Yechezkel record inaccurate dates? Can it be that these texts, canonized as prophecy, are simply inaccurate?

Tosafot [Rosh haShanah 18b] averred that yes, the prophets were handcuffed by popular perception. Chatam Sofer, though, writing on the Yerushalmi, contended that the confusion was actually the product of a proactive decision by those prophets to date the churban as the first of Av.

As Chatam Sofer explained, the destruction of the Beit haMikdash fulfilled Eichah 4:22, “The punishment of your sin is concluded.” Once the building was demolished, we entered a new world of consolation and re-birth, and so Yirmiyahu and Yechezkel dated the destruction as the first day of a new month [thereby necessitating the re-dating of the 21-day invasion as the ninth of Tammuz instead of the 17th of Tammuz], and indeed a new era.

Chatam Sofer’s suggestion is stunning in its presumption. Judaism views the calendar as sacrosanct, the very purpose of the creation of the celestial spheres; “He created the moon for the sake of the appointed times,” King David sang, building on Bereishit 1:14. We set our halachic lives by our days and months. Our first national mitzvah was the system of calculating the lunar month. And yet, Yirmiyahu and Yechezkel felt comfortable re-setting the clock, in clear defiance of the physical moon and the halachically infallible justices of the beit din, for the sake of making a philosophical statement about the new era we had entered!

This bold explanation should highlight for us the importance of new beginnings, a point also underscored by the arrangement of our own Tishah b’Av –centered mourning. Whereas normal mourning following a personal loss consists of consecutive, easing levels of grief, our mourning for the Beit haMikdash consists of intensifying levels, building up to Tishah b'Av. Then, immediately after the 10th of Av’s special commemorations end, the mourning ceases entirely and we being building anew. As the Chatam Sofer put it, “A new month, Menachem, begins.” This is a day deserving of the title, “Day One.”

Should Mashiach fail to arrive, we will soon enter the initial stage of mourning, on the talmudically corrected date of the 17th of Tammuz. May the value of our mourning up through Tishah b'Av, and our efforts at consolation in the new era thereafter, merit the rebuilding of our Beit haMikdash.

[For more on the Yerushalmi, see Yalkut Shimoni Melachim 249 and the explanation of Maharal to Rosh haShanah 18b. See also Tosafot Rosh haShanah 18b on the apparent Bavli/Yerushalmi contradiction and the approach of Gevurot Ari to Taanit 28b. And see Maharsha to Taanit 28b for a unique explanation of the calendar confusion.]

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Of Synagogue Presidents, Part III: President as Uber-Volunteer

We've said that the relationship between Rabbi and President is endangered by two major factors: The vagueness of the president’s job description, and the overlap between the jobs of rabbi and president.

To my mind, and from my experience, a simple solution from the rabbi’s side is for the rabbi to give the president plenty of space to create his own job, even as he is cognizant of the red-line boundaries which must not be crossed.

I say this because I view the president as an Ubervolunteer. You know what I mean when I say Ubervolunteer: The people who spend hours every week, all year round, working on the kiddush. Gabbaim who care enough about their job to make sure that everyone in the shul gets an aliyah as often as possible. House committee members who come out to mop up leaks and change light bulbs. The president, if he does his job right, is an UberUberUbervolunteer (Ubervolunteer3, if you will), so treat him like it.

This means:
Value the president, and let him know he is valued.
Allow him a lot of freedom, just as when you delegate to anyone else.
Assume the best of intent, not the worst.
Be gentle!

This solves the Vagueness of the presidential job description - the president gets to develop his job as he sees fit, and to the best of his strengths.

This solves the Overlap issue - the president can have his input wherever he feels necessary, and the rabbi retains his autonomy where he needs it.

This isn’t always simple, of course:
There’s a lot of deep-seated psychological baggage involved for both rabbi and president; I know presidents who look at rabbis and see their fathers. I've heard it's almost an Oedipal thing sometimes, which can get a little spooky. Telling lashon hara about your rabbi to get back at your domineering father, talking in shul to work off your frustration with your mother...

And then, on the other hand, I know rabbis who look at presidents and see schoolyard bullies and abusers past. That's a bad one, when you look at someone who's just trying to help and all you can see is Shmully Mxyzptlk, who beat you up in the sandbox back in third grade. Get help, please.

It’s also tough because the president is, technically, an employer, which can create heavy tension for the rabbi/employee. What if the president decides to cross a red-line, and doesn’t take it well when the rabbi tries to limit his actions?

Nonetheless, I believe that the rabbi is best served by knowing his red-lines and ceding as much of the rest as he can. Of course, I have violated that rule any number of times... But I’ve muddled through on the strength of these principles.

Coming soon, we still need Synagogue Presidents IV:
The President as Employer, Partner, Congregant
What happens when a president makes a mistake

What happens when a rabbi makes a mistake (as if!)

Monday, June 14, 2010

Of Synagogue Presidents, Part II

I mentioned in Part I that one of the main problems for synagogue presidents, and for their relationships with their rabbis, is the fact that the president's job is not well-defined.

There is a second problem, though: The Overlap Issue. (See, for example, ProfK's comment on Part I.)

Think about how annoying it is when you work hard on a project, and then someone comes along and tells you how YOU should have done it. Particularly when it's a ridiculous nitpick:

The dinner was amazing, the program was good, the babysitters did a great job with the kids, the music was perfect, the decor was nice... but wouldn't it have been better if you had picked invitation stamps that matched the colors of the tablecloths?

The class was great, it was lucid and clear, it answered all of my questions, what a shame you started it at 8:00 instead of 7:45. My neighbor could have come if it was at 7:45, but because it started at 8:00 it conflicted with his TV show. But I can see that you needed to do it at 8:00 because minyan ended at 7:55, so don't let it bother you, Rabbi. It's just something that he would have really liked. And I would have really liked. And he would probably have joined the shul, too. Which is good, because he has a lot of money. And I almost had him convinced to TIVO the show so that he could have made it to the class. Rabbi, you would really like him. He isn't Jewish, of course, but who's prejudiced? This isn't like the old days, you know. So if only the class had been at 7:45...

Some suggestions are annoying because they are about irrelevancies, they come in after the fact, or they are presented in a particularly upsetting fashion. But the truth is that our major problem is not with the annoyitude of the suggestions; human beings really don't like having people step on our toes with advice, in general. We want to do our jobs, and we'll ask for your input if we want it.

And that's where the Overlap Issue kicks in for rabbis and presidents, as it does in many work environments. There is no way around the fact that certain issues are, in fact, in both bailiwicks, and without clear lines of whom should handle what.

To illustrate - I once gave a new president of mine the following list of rabbinic jobs:
Grief and Illness Counselor
Family conflict Counselor
Officiator for funerals and happier occasions
Prison Counselor
Administrator / Scheduler
Errand Boy (an ignoble name for the noble task of running to Office Depot to pick up copies)
Personal Posek (posek=legal authority)
Institutional Posek (Vaad haKashrus, Eruv, Mikvah, Chevra Kadisha)
Representative of shul to the Jewish community
Representative of shul to the general community
Political and religious columnist for newspapers
Program Innovator
Recruiter for programs (staff and attendees)
Services organizer
Youth director
Amiable friend
Membership "chair"
Outreach to gain new members
Welcoming committee as people move to the community
Uniter of the institution’s many parts
Facilities Manager
Patient listener

(For more on the Rabbi's Job Description, click here.)

The point of the list above is to show that while there are certain jobs that must fall exclusively to the rabbi, such as the posek and mashgiach positions, other jobs really do cross into presidential territory.

Example 1: A minyannaire complains about the heat at morning minyan. He may well go to the rabbi, particularly if the president doesn't come to minyan (despite the fact that he darn well should!). But facilities management certainly should involve the president, and generally should be directed by the president other than for halachah issues.

Example 2: The rabbi should be hands-on in the youth program, whether as the actual personnel or as a director. But who runs the youth budget? That certainly enters the president's area.

Example 3: The annual fundraiser needs honorees, and the committee sits down to select people. Surely the president should have a major role in selecting honorees - but might not the rabbi need to make sure that these are people the shul should honor?

So what happens if an insecure president starts to feel uncomfortable that people are bringing budget, facilities or membership issues to the rabbi? And what happens if an insecure rabbi starts to feel uncomfortable that people are bringing halachic issues to the president?

So now we have two problems: The president's job is not clearly defined, and the president's job overlaps that of the rabbi. A recipe for disaster.

So how do you solve the problem? Stay tuned for Synagogue Presidents, Part III...

Sunday, June 13, 2010

How do you improve your Kavvanah [concentration]?

[This week's Haveil Havalim is here]

I feel like I must have posted on this issue in the past, but I can't find it, other than my post back here on "Why use a siddur" and this set of posts about various aspects of the davening experience.

Some years ago I staffed an NCSY program in which a teenager acted out davening the amidah, interrupted occasionally by a voice-over that interjected what he was actually thinking. Something along the lines of “Bareich aleinu… I wonder who won the game last night… Wish I could have gone, but I was stuck working on that project… Sally could have helped me with that project… I wonder if Sally’s sister likes me… Did I remember to say v’ten tal umatar?”

It’s so easy to get distracted, particularly in the altogether too one-sided conversation that is davening. Here I am saying the same words as yesterday, saying some of those words thrice daily, in a monologue, and it’s hard to retain concentration. Even though I can and do add, that doesn’t change the fact that many of the words are repeated into the ether entirely too often.

The gemara is filled with harsh comments about this sort of rote prayer – העושה תפלתו קבע אין תפלתו תחנונים (One who makes his prayers ‘fixed’ is not reciting an acceptable prayer) is but one example.

So what’s a Jew to do? [Assuming he won't go entirely creative in the liturgy, 'cause I won't.]

Approaches I’ve seen include using a different siddur for a change, changing one’s seat in shul, learning more about the davening, and keeping pictures of the loved ones for whom we are davening.

A few months back I encountered one way to help me re-focus. While at a local shul I opened up a siddur to find stamped in it, right before Sh’ma, something along the lines of, “Remember! You are about to perform a mitzvah!”

On the one hand, that was a bit jarring. On the other hand, it was exactly what I needed. I always write in my books as I learn, and I do make notes in my siddur as well, so perhaps I should make a little note at those points where halachah requires special focus. Or at those points that don’t require special focus, for that matter.

Another tactic that I often find works is to pick random lines for greater concentration.

Another tactic is to focus on the lines that immediately precede the parts of davening for which halachah requires the greatest concentration. So for Ashrei, for example, I focus on the line – עיני כל אליך ישברו – that precedes the פותח את ידיך line, since halachah requires greater focus on the latter line.

What else works for you? What tricks do you have for keeping your mind on davening? [Isaac: I’ll put this question up on, too, for good measure…]

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Of Synagogue Presidents, Part I

My shul just elected its new slate of officers. In honor of the occasion (and because life is too crammed for writing new material at the moment), herewith the first part of an article I once wrote, on "Shul Presidents." If you're good, I'll post parts 2 and 3, too.

(And if you know where I first posted this, feel free to email me - but don't put it in the comments...)

The following is a genuine, TRH-original joke, told first at the Congregation Sons of Israel Purim Gala three years ago; if you hear it from anyone else, know that they got it from me:

Yankel was herding the sheep of his father-in-law in the desert, when he saw a fire in the distance. He went to see, and behold, it was a bush that burned, but was not consumed!
Yankel drew near, and a voice emerged from the bush: “Yankel, remove your shoes, for this is holy ground!”
To which Yankel replied, “But, G-d, how recently have the custodians waxed the floor?”
And G-d said, “Never mind, Yankel. I’ve seen the way the Jews are suffering in Egypt; go tell them that I’ve decided to take them out.”
And Yankel responded, “That sounds great - but, G-d, is there room for this program in the budget?”
And G-d replied, “It’s all right, it’s covered; I’m going to bring them to a land flowing with milk and honey.”
At which point Yankel interjected, “Will we need police protection along the way? And who’s going to wash all the dishes - or are you going to put the milk and honey in disposables?”
And G-d said, “I’ve got the perfect job for you, Yankel.”
“Will I be Your agent to take the Jews out of Egypt? Will I be Your first prophet?” Yankel asked, all excited.
“No, Yankel. You will be My first shul president.”

[pause for appreciative laughter]

I had quite a few presidents over the years, and dozens of board members, and the great majority of them honestly meant to work for the benefit of the community. The presidents, in particular, were sincere, hard-working individuals.

Most presidents take the job only because they are cajoled, urged and generally harrassed by the nominators, whose sole qualification for the job of nominator is that they have large, soulful puppy dog eyes, the kind of eyes that can melt the hearts of unwilling presidential candidates. If Hashem had had a nominating committee, it wouldn’t have taken a week to get Moshe to sign on.

So far, then, presidents are sincere people who are working for the community, and aren’t looking to aggrandize themselves. At least, not at the start of their terms. So why do so many rabbis have so much trouble with their presidents? Why is the synagogue president the target of so many jokes?

I think the main problem is that whereas the rabbi’s job is clearly defined ("Be everything to everyone"), the president’s job is entirely undefined.

If you look in your standard-issue synagogue constitution (and every rabbi should memorize his synagogue’s constitution, I kid you not; knowledge of that document saved me from trouble more than once!), you find that the president is supposed to call board meetings and chair them. That’s basically it; he has no vote other than as a tie-breaker, he has no power to hire and fire. He might be able to create committees as needed, but that’s basically it. (Yes, it’s true - making the announcements is not a job listed in the Constitution.)

Of course, synagogues tend to grant additional privileges to the president - the right to sign checks, the right to glare at non-members as they chow down at kiddush, the right to call the rabbi on his cell phone several times each night, the right to set the agenda for board meetings, the right to attend every meeting of every committee under the sun.

But, at the end of the day, what is his job? He’s not a spiritual leader, he’s not in charge of finances, he’s not anything. So some presidents take it upon themselves to shape the job personally… which can be problematic for the rabbi, because there is nothing a rabbi wants more than to have to re-shape his presidential relationship every two or three years.

So we are going to work on defining the job of a shul president, right here on this blog. From here Torah shall go forth to Israel, and shul presidents shall receive their marching orders. Really. Tune in next time.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

A Tale of Two Yeshivot

I’ve been too caught up in work this week to be able to blog; I almost posted a מראה מקומות (source references) sheet here just for the sake of posting something at all, but then I received an email asking me to promote the Lancaster Yeshiva’s attempt to gain a $50,000 Pepsi Grant for their work. That dovetailed nicely with a post I’ve been mulling for a while regarding another unique yeshiva, Yeshiva Bnei Simcha.

One of the (many) fundamental problems the Jewish community faces today is the challenge of educating young men and women in Torah, when their natural personalities and/or abilities are not necessarily oriented toward the traditional chavrusa-and-shiur model. What service can we provide young Jews who wish to grow in Torah and in observance, but who won’t fit into the yeshiva structure and schedule and mold?

I’ve seen this so often. I remember classmates of mine whose high school Jewish experience was negative, in no small part because they couldn’t excel in that environment. I’ve known families who felt compelled to choose public schools not for lack of funds but for lack of a Jewish environment that could educate their children.

Certainly, our yeshivot are so financially strapped that they cannot afford to educate for the great spectrum of special educational needs. However, creativity and guts and elbow grease can do a lot in this regard. Here are two examples:

1. The Lancaster Yeshiva
I first became aware of the Lancaster Yeshiva when I lived in Allentown, and I’ve been impressed by it ever since. I've meet Rabbi Sackett and some of the students, and I love what they are doing.

The core concept, as described on their website, is this: The Lancaster Yeshiva Center is a unique program that provides post-high school age boys, many of whom have not found success in previous educational endeavors, with the opportunity to combine Judaic studies with vocational training to achieve fulfillment in Jewish life and success in the workplace and community.
The caring rabbinical staff use their vast knowledge of Judaism to guide the students with classes in Jewish Law, Talmud and Ethics. Active involvement in both synagogue and community life helps the students learn how to become contributing members of society. They are imbued with values and true life experiences that heighten their sense of community and promote an enduring commitment to their Jewish heritage.
The professional vocational training instructors, with their wealth of knowledge and experience, teach the students all skills necessary for success in the construction field. The two-year program endows students with useful skills in areas including carpentry, masonry, flooring, plumbing and electrical contacting. Each year, the students work as a team to refurbish a distressed property in the Lancaster area. This project solidifies their newly acquired skills while benefiting the local community.
Click here to support their bid for a Pepsi Grant to support their work.

2. Yeshiva Bnei Simcha
I know less about Yeshiva Bnei Simcha, and I cannot vouch for their program, but I appreciate their goal of serving students with developmental disabilities, and particularly Aspergers. These are students who can learn and grow as Jews, but they won’t find their growth in a standard yeshiva environment.

As described on the Bnei Simcha site:
Yeshiva Bnei Simcha is the first program ever for adult Jewish men ages 17 to 28 with moderate learning and Developmental Disabilities as well as specializing with Aspergers Spectrum Disorders, who would like to fit into a mainstream yeshiva.
We utilize the healing & transformational power of Torah learned with joy & enthusiasm and empowers the “special needs" individual to:
RECOVER from a life of frustration and criticism by connecting the Jewish Soul to its heritage – in an unconditionally accepting and competition-free environment.
REDIRECT each individual to go beyond limitations, which formerly determined his life.
REFRESH the life force within each student, so that he can see himself as a "miracle in progress."

A yeshiva aimed at providing vocational training, a yeshiva for students with Aspergers… yes, there is yet hope for klal yisrael.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Studying for Ordination - The Heart and the Mind

[This week’s Haveil Havalim is here]

If I had made a wordle out of my emails of 7-10 days ago – ie pre-Flotilla – the words New Canadian Yeshiva and Conservative Semichah would have been featured prominently. Everyone wanted to talk about this new institution, with its interesting array of staff and its claim to represent true centrism.

To me, though, the most thought-provoking part of this new institution’s presentation was its emphasis on the academics of training for the rabbinate. They emphasize the intellectual, with course descriptions and fieldwork and academic study and touted affiliations with a dozen or so university Judaic Studies departments. Semichah (ordination) studies are laid out with tracks and texts and credits, and so on.

I state at the outset that I know next-to-nothing about this institution; I have only viewed their website. So this is not a comment on the specific institution, or the people involved. It is only my reaction to the design of a semichah curriculum along academic lines.

To me, academia is about cold study.

Academics may be personally religious, but they are not supposed to bring that religion into the academic setting. Their fervor comes from fascination for and absorption in the topic, but from the brain rather than the heart. A professor who is Jewish should teach biblical criticism or talmudic hermeneutics or pastoral counseling just as a Hindu would, and a student should learn from each identically.

For a university professor to teach a text from a heartfelt devotional perspective is wrong – objectivity is the name of the game, the professor a narrator viewing the text, the ritual and their form and function from the point of view of an impassive observer. And the student is expected to divorce his own inner life from the subject matter, as well, at least for the duration of the semester.

Training for the rabbinate, on the other hand, is as much about building the soul as it is about building the mind.

Of course, training for the rabbinate has always been intellectual, in the sense that there is heavy emphasis on text study, whether on a modern critical basis or in the traditional model. But it’s also been about personal growth of the rabbinical student, through mussar [ethical instruction] and mentorship and spiritual development. It's about sensitizing the student to the needs of others, and sensitizing the student to his relationship with Gd.

How will that fit into a university setting?

I taught a Pirkei Avos shiur yesterday, and as part of the shiur I noted the statement of the start of Avos d’Rabbi Nasan [also found in Yoma 4a-b, in a slightly different format], expanding on Pirkei Avos 1:1: משה נתקדש בענן וקבל תורה מסיני , “Moshe was sanctified in the cloud, and then he received the Torah from Sinai.” As the text proceeds to explain, Moshe could only receive the Torah after experiencing the awe of remaining in a cloud for six days, so that he would receive the Torah באימה, ביראה, ברתת ובזיעה – with intimidation, with awe, with trembling. It had to be an emotional experience, not only an intellectual experience.

Avos d’Rabbi Nasan argues that Torah study which will perpetuate a masorah, a tradition that endures through generations, cannot be academic. Torah study which worries about the loss of a single letter,Torah study which inspires all-nighters to understand a Rambam or finish a masechta, Torah study which is concerned about teaching and inculcating a lifestyle, Torah study which is concerned about raising children to a love of Judaism, Torah study which leads to practice, must be heartfelt.

When Chagigah 15b says that one may learn Torah only from a mentor who is like a malach [angel], it’s because the experience is meant to be religious.

When Shabbos 30b says that one’s lips should “drip bitterness” with the awe of learning, and if they do not then they should be burned, it’s because the experience is meant to be religious.

And when Shabbos 30b says that Torah that is not preceded by awe of Heaven is useless, it’s because the experience is meant to be religious.

This is what bothers me about aligning rabbinic training with university education. University-alignment makes the focus of rabbinic training the absorption of legal information, practical details, officiating and counseling and paskening – but not about personal religious growth and development. [Example: The posted curriculum includes nothing about mussar for the student’s own growth, but only about mussar as a tool the rabbi can use on others.] It involves a focus on becoming a better teacher and pastor, but not a better Jew. Through pastoral training there may be some development in בין אדם לחבירו, social sensitivity, but not בין אדם למקום, the relationship between student and Gd.

It displays a lack of אימה, of awe.

I know that this is also one of the knocks people bring against my own alma mater, Yeshiva University – there is a conception, in some circles, that YU is overly academic in its approach to Judaics. But that knock tends to come from people who haven’t actually been at YU, and particularly RIETS; my experience in the yeshiva was one of personal growth along with academic growth, of rebbeim who were role models in Yiras Shamayim (awe of heaven) as well as Torah study.

One last note: This is not meant to be a diatribe against academic Jewish studies. I believe that we should have intellectual, academic, rigorous study of Torah, and that rabbis as well as others will benefit from learning it properly. I also believe that practical rabbinical training should be executed in a formal, planned, structured way. But rabbinic training must be far more than that. To do otherwise will breed fine professors, fine orators, fine counselors, but I fear it will not lead to an enduring Judaism.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Please Investigate the Gaza Freedom Flotilla

[This week's Toronto Torah is here]

Even though I am instinctively against subjecting Israeli soldiers to the hostility of biased investigators, I would love to see an international investigation of the raid on the Mavi Marmara – if it would truly look at both sides in order to determine the truth.

I tend to think that the truth about this ship is more complex than, “They are all terrorists.” Rather, I suspect that a few hundred of them were simply being used. They believed themselves to be on a humanitarian aid mission, knew nothing of the realities of Gaza, knew nothing of the rifle scopes and night vision goggles they were transporting, and knew nothing about the group lying in wait for the Israelis to board. This is the group that was down below when the initial boarding took place, and they sincerely believe that the Israelis must have shot first, because no one in their group would have dreamed of assaulting anyone. They were being used by the Turks, whose goals were anything but humanitarian.

Investigators could verify the above, and find out exactly what happened; all that is needed is a serious, impartial investigation, which would include:
• Subpoenas of the cell phone records of the travelers;
• Subpoenas of the text messages and emails sent in the month before the Flotilla departed Turkey;
• Subpoenas of the financial ties of the travelers on the boat.

This should be sufficient to clarify the intentions and roles of all of the seafarers.

Of course, this is exactly what would not appear in any international investigation. The presumption and basis for an actual international investigation would be that the IDF acted inappropriately, disproportionately, aggressively, and so on. In such an investigation, it is assumed that the travelers are the victims, the soldiers are the aggressors, and so there is no point in harrassing the poor victims and invading their privacy.

And then you wonder why Israel doesn’t want an international investigation?

Thursday, June 3, 2010

We Con the World

Even if you haven't seen the latest pictures of "aid" - the night vision goggles, rifle scopes and bulletproof vests that surely constitute "humanitarian aid" for terrorists, this video pretty much says it all. (Thanks for sending it along, Jack!)

Let's see - for those keeping score at home, so far we've seen the following claims disproved:
* There were no weapons on the boat - FALSE
* The boarding in international waters was illegal - FALSE
* The Israelis fired first - FALSE
* The people on the boat were sleeping - FALSE
* The boats carried only basic human needs - FALSE

Do you guys have anything left?

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Gaza Flotilla - Who fired first?

One constant refrain among the Freedom Flotilla folks has been that IDF soldiers fired first. Herewith some excerpts:

AOL News: In almost all cases, their eyewitness accounts conflict with the narrative set out by the Israeli military and government. Avital Leibovich, a spokeswoman for the Israeli Defense Force, and other officials have said commandos used their firearms -- killing at least nine activists, and injuring dozens more -- only in self-defense after being attacked by knife- and club-wielding activists aboard the Turkish ship Mavi Marmara. However, Iara Lee, a Brazilian filmmaker traveling on the ship, claimed Israeli troops opened fire without provocation before boarding.

The Christian Science Monitor: The various versions of what happened aboard the Mavi Marmara differ starkly. Aid workers say the Turkish ship was on a purely humanitarian mission to deliver building materials, food, medical supplies, and clothing to the Gaza Strip, which has been under a blockade since 2007 when the militant Hamas took over the government there. They say Israeli naval commandos fired first.

New York Times: The Israeli soldiers dropped onto the deck and “opened fire on sleeping civilians at four in the morning,” said Greta Berlin, a leader of the pro-Palestinian Free Gaza Movement, speaking by phone from Cyprus on Monday.

Chicago Sun-Times: The Israeli government released video of activists attacking commandos with metal poles, but activists claim the Israelis fired first.

And, of course, the BBC: Mr Nowarah, originally from Ramallah, said he was the first to be sent home because he had injured his leg during the raid. He runs the Glasgow-based group Justice for Palestine and was in one of the smaller ships in the convoy. "The minute they landed into our vessels they were shooting and killing innocent people," he told the BBC. "We were in the international water, we were not a threat of any kind to the Israeli civilan, government or army." He said an Israeli soldier hit him on his back and leg with his gun. "We were unarmed, all we had were the chairs and tables we were sitting on to defend ourselves from the Israeli guns," he said.

I wonder: What do they do with these videos from the boat's own security cameras?


As Tommy Lee Jones asked in The Fugitive, as he held the evidence in his hands - "Do you want to change your b------- story?"

For more updates, see Jameel...

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Fact Checking

Muslim Matters has a page here, purportedly fact-checking Israel’s defense for its raid on the “Freedom Flotilla” ships that tried to run the Gaza blockade.

Fact checking is good. Propaganda masquerading as fact-checking is bad. Muslim Matters has published the latter.

Let’s go item by item, using their own material:

1. Deputy Foreign Minister Daniel Ayalon said Monday morning that the pro-Palestinian activists on the flotilla sailing to the Gaza Strip were carrying weapons on board
RESPONSE: Nothing could be further from truth. The ships had discharged from Turkey after the government checked for weapons. Forget the Turkish claims; common sense dictates that symbolism of peaceful resistance that the flotilla mission was engaging in would not allow the presence of weapons. Finally, the video released by the IDF itself shows that those on board were using miscellaneous items to fight off the soldiers (pirates), not any arms.
“Allegations that there were weapons aboard the Turkish ship are baseless,” Fevzi Gulcan, the head of customs at the Mediterranean port city of Antalya, said on Monday. He added that passengers had been allowed to board the Mavi Marmara ship after they were searched and scanned via X-Ray, the Anatolia news agency reported.”

So Muslim Matters says there were no weapons because:
• Turkey says there were no weapons;
• Common sense dictates there were no weapons;
• The videos show miscellaneous items being used;
• Turkey says there were no weapons.

The first and fourth items are identical, and have no credibility – Turkey was the first government to condemn Israel, without so much as a nod to the idea of an investigation.

The “common sense” argument is silly; one could easily counter that people looking to create an international incident, such as a group that is using a sea route rather than the readily available land route specifically “to call attention to the blockade,” certainly will bring weapons.

And the videos show no such thing – they show metal bars, which certainly are weapons when someone is aiming them at your head.

Verdict: FALSE.

“Israel, though, insists its forces fired in self-defense. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says they had to “defend their lives, or they would have been killed.”
RESPONSE: Like all the “self-defense” claims that Israel as one of the world’s mightiest military power makes against kids with stones, this one doesn’t fly either. See the video below released by none other than the IDF. Let’s assume for argument’s sake, that the NGO participants on board the ship started the altercation. As an illustration of the hollowness of the self-defense argument, let’s assume my neighbor comes to my house and kicks and punches me. I am in full military fatigue, I have all the weapons, while my neighbor is employing his boots to the best of his ability. In return, I take him and his family out. What would the court say to my self-defense argument?
Furthermore, there are strict guidelines on the response by military and police in law enforcement situations. Under San Remo Manual on International Law Applicable to Armed Conflicts at Sea, 12 June 1994, Section II (Armed conflicts and the law of of self-defence)...

So Muslim Matters says that individual IDF soldiers were not defending themselves, since:
• The Israeli army is strong;
• The soldiers were wearing fatigues;
• The soldiers had weapons;
• San Remo requires proportionality.

Again, this is silly. Having a strong army won’t save an individual soldier’s life. Wearing fatigues won’t save a soldier’s life. Having a weapon won’t save a soldier’s life. And proportionality is dictated by circumstance – if you come over to my house and swing a metal bar at my head, “proportionality” means anything I need to do to keep you from crushing my skull.

Verdict: FALSE.

Israel maintains that it has the right to defend its territorial integrity, in accordance with international laws.
RESPONSE: The attack took place in international waters, so in fact, Israel was in full breach of international laws. For instance, Russia’s Foreign Ministry has already come out in asserting that Israel’s attack on aid flotilla violated international law.
Robin Churchill, a professor of international law at the University of Dundee in Scotland, said the Israeli commandos boarded the ship outside of Israel’s territorial waters. “As far as I can see, there is no legal basis for boarding these ships,” Churchill said. Also, a group of lawyers in Israel have petitioned the High Court, charging that Israel had violated the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea by capturing the boats in international waters.
Under the same San Remo manual, Part II, Section I, hostile actions are forbidden on neutral waters, and clearly the Israeli action took place in international waters by all accounts...
Furthermore under Section V, Line 67, Merchant vessels flying the flag of neutral States may not be attacked. Clearly the flotilla flying the flags of Greece and Turkey fall under this category. The exceptions to this default state include “reasonable grounds to be carrying contraband or breaching a blockade… engage in belligerent acts on behalf of the enemy” and a bunch of other categories where there is clearly an “enemy” involved. While Israel may state that the ships were breaching a blockade, this argument is patently false, since the blockade itself is illegal and not approved by the international community.
But there is even further qualification, by exemptions for certain type of vessels, under Section IV,
136. The following vessels are exempt from capture:
(ii) vessels engaged in humanitarian missions, including vessels carrying supplies indispensable o the survival of the civilian population, and vessels engaged in relief actions and rescue operations;

According to Muslim Matters, the raid is illegal because:
• They were in international waters;
• Russia (occupiers of Chechnya) and Robin Churchill of Scotland say it’s illegal;
San Remo protocols allow attacking [and not only boarding!] ships that are running a blockade, but Israel’s blockade is not internationally sanctioned

But this is incorrect; as Muslim Matters notes, San Remo states:
67. Merchant vessels flying the flag of neutral States may not be attacked unless they:
(a) are believed on reasonable grounds to be carrying contraband or breaching a blockade, and after prior warning they intentionally and clearly refuse to stop, or intentionally and clearly resist visit, search or capture;

I don’t know Robin Churchill’s logic, I don’t see why Russia has any credibility on the topic, and San Remo does not require the blockade to be internationally sanctioned. San Remo’s Section II lists the requirements for a legitimate blockade, and Israel’s blockade of Gaza meets all of them.

Verdict: FALSE

Muslim Matters then tries the classic Straw Man, claiming that Israel justifies its actions by citing links between the boat and Al Qaeda. However, they only quote someone named Arthur Avnon, before challenging him that this is only rumor.
In truth, Israel has said nothing of the kind. (Although I will not be stunned if it turns out to be true!)

Verdict: Straw Man.

Try for Truth, folks. Even Mohammed, mass murderer that he was, knew that truth matters.