Friday, January 30, 2009

Making Aliyah a Reality in Allentown, Pennsylvania

My shul, Congregation Sons of Israel in Allentown, Pennsylvania, has seen quite a few families, as well as individuals, make aliyah over the past several years. Certainly, the number of olim per capita is higher here than in many larger communities.

There are various reasons for this phenomenon, but today I am interested in finding ways to build on this success – to promote Aliyah to Israel as an achievable goal for members of our Jewish community.

Our Jewish Day School already helps, bringing in Israelis to teach and hosting girls from the “Bat Ami” program. And, of course, our shul offers both regular and special Israel-related events, and Israel is at the top of everyone’s radar screen. But I’d like to do more.

So I had a new idea just this morning, and I expect to implement it this year: A Shabbat Aliyah, juxtaposed with Yom ha’Atzmaut, in which we honor our Allentown Olim.
• I’m thinking of asking our olim to send family photographs, which we could post on the walls of the shul.
• I would ask a few of them, including a former rabbi of our shul, to send divrei torah for Friday night, Shabbat morning and Seudah Shlishit.
• I want to put up a wall mural of the map of Israel, highlighting the places where our Olim now live.

Building on that, I’d like to have an “Allentown Oleh” column in our special HaModia bulletins, which we publish six times per year. Not necessarily a political, even aliyah-oriented column; I'm thinking more of a blog post talking about life, updating us on lifecycle events, that sort of thing.

The overall idea is to make people more aware of their peers who have made aliyah, to provide insights into the process of aliyah, to help people understand כי יכול נוכל לה, that, yes, we can do this.

I find that one of the major obstacles to aliyah is simply the sense that this is a major, years-long, arduous task. In truth, it is. But Nefesh b’Nefesh has done a lot to smooth the way – and, perhaps, seeing how others have succeeded will help people to envision doing it themselves.

So I'll ask you: What ideas do you have? In particular, I’d like to hear from the Olim who read this blog – what else could we do, to promote aliyah from our shul?

We don’t have the funds to run pilot trips or start building a development, but I am a firm believer in the idea that small steps count, too - so let’s hear your advice.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

A Dead Moneylender, Collective Punishment... and Zombies

I’m still on a funeral kick this week (see previous posts here and here), so here’s a morbid item from the introduction to Rabbi Yisroel Reisman’s excellent book, “Laws of Ribbis.” [Note: ריבית, Ribbis, or Ribbit, refers to interest charged on a loan. It is defined in Jewish law as אגר נטר ליה, charging someone a fee for the right to hold your money.]

A moneylender passed away. He had made his fortune by collecting interest from the poor of the town. In vengeance, the Chevra Kadisha (burial society) demanded a large sum of money for the grave, angering the heirs.

The matter came to R' Akiva Eiger. "How appropriate," he responded. "The normal price of a grave assumes that the purchaser will use it for a limited time, until the resurrection of the dead. We are taught that one who takes interest, though, does not get resurrected. As such, he will remain in the grave for eternity, and he should therefore pay a higher price for use of the grave!"

I love that story, both for R’ Akiva Eiger’s characteristically sharp humor and for the community’s vengeance against the money-hungry lender. But after some thought, you realize that there is an impropriety here: The revenge is actually against the moneylender's heirs! Certainly, his greedy soul will be aggrieved by the price of the grave, but how did his heirs deserve to lose that money?

In truth, though, the heirs won’t lose anything; they'll probably just take the fee out of the money they would have used to build a monument for him.

But, beyond that, Judaism does believe in collective responsibility, and particularly within a family.

Remember the story of Lemech and his wives? (Nah, I knew you didn’t – no one pays any attention to that blip in Bereishit, thanks to all of the other events overshadowing it, and thanks to Rashi’s difficult midrashic explanation. It’s in Bereishit 4:19-24. Go look it up, I’ll wait.)

As Ibn Ezra deciphers Lemech’s odd poetry there, Lemech’s wives separate from him because he is the 6th generation after Kayin, and Gd had sort of indicated (4:15, per Ibn Ezra’s read there) that Kayin would be punished for murdering Hevel after 7 generations. Lemech’s wives did not want to produce children who would suffer that punishment.

And so Lemech complains to his wives, “Kayin was a murderer, and so he deserves to be punished – but I have not killed anyone! Why should I suffer?”

To which the Torah’s unwritten answer is that when a person is punished, his family does suffer with him. Kayin’s family suffers with his punishment – and so the moneylender’s heirs suffer when his estate is reduced.

We see this throughout the Torah, and throughout life. A family suffers when its wage-earner goes to prison. Children learn bad traits from their parents, children grow up in poverty because of their parents’ spending habits, children acquire diseases because of their parents’ behavior.

It’s not a pleasant thing – it’s just the result of a world which is designed with אחריות and ערבות, with interlocking relationships and responsibilities. We just rely on Gd to balance out a person’s just desserts in the end.

I hate to end on a sad note, though, so here’s a story which qualifies as both morbid and funny (at least, I think it’s funny):

Construction signs warn of zombies
Hackers change public safety message

AUSTIN (KXAN) - Austin drivers making their morning commute were in for a surprise when two road signs on a busy stretch of road were taken over by hackers. The signs near the intersection of Lamar and Martin Luther King boulevards usually warn drivers about upcoming construction, but Monday morning they warned of "zombies ahead."

Anyone know Ex-President Bush’s whereabouts when this happened? This seems like his sense of humor, and he was in Texas...

[Oh, and speaking of zombies returning from the dead - RenReb has decided to add a post to her long-dormant blog. Check it out here. I miss that blog.]

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Funeral Tchotchkes

It took me a while to figure out how to write “tchotchkes” in English. I went through a few versions – czoczkes, tshotshkes, chachkas, tchatchkes… - before settling on the spelling chosen by Wikipedia and Merriam-Webster.

Anyway, to cite the first two paragraphs of the Wikipedia article:
Tchotchke (originally from a Slavic word for "toys" (Polish: cacka, Russian: цацки)), adapted to Yiddish טשאַטשקע tshatshke, trinket, are small toys, knickknacks, baubles, trinkets or kitsch. The term has a connotation of worthlessness or disposability, as well as tackiness, and was long used in the Jewish-American community and in the regional speech of New York City.

The word may also refer to swag, in the sense of the logo pens, keyfobs and other promotional freebies dispensed at trade shows, conventions and similar large events. Also, stores that sell cheap souvenirs in tourist areas like Times Square and Venice Beach are sometimes called tchotchke shops.

I use the term here in its kitsch sense, to describe a funeral product brought to my attention by a local company a few years ago. [I first mentioned this product here, and have now found time to tell the story.]

The company is Israeli, kibbutz-owned; they work with concrete here in the US, sending over Israeli employees for a few years at a time. Corporate management came to me some time back to present their new idea: Ornamental casket liners made from Israeli earth.

They had manufactured, if I remember correctly, a pressed-earth piece displaying a מגן דוד (“star of David”), to place beneath the person’s head. There were a few other pressed-earth pieces, as well, with obvious Israel connotations – the horizon of Yerushalayim, the kotel hamaaravi, that sort of thing. And they wanted my הסכמה, my approbation, to show that this was a halachically acceptable burial accessory.

This was an interesting problem:

On one hand: Without a doubt, such an item would be halachically acceptable. Jewish tradition expects a body to be buried in contact with the earth, to the extent possible. Further, we customarily use Israeli earth as part of the Chevra Kadisha’s preparation of the body. This company had simply found a way to monetize the Israeli earth by converting it into a product people would buy. Why not offer it to people?

On the other hand: Accessorizing the funeral would go against the grain of Jewish burial tradition dating back to Rabban Gamliel’s insistence on being buried in plain white canvas. We use the simplest possible casket and תכריכין (shrouds) because we don’t want to embarrass anyone who cannot afford something nicer – so I wouldn’t want to endorse an innovation which would result in higher costs, and embarrass people, at such a sensitive time, into paying for something they don’t need.

I shudder to imagine the potential next step - commemorative items like the aforementioned keyfobs, pens, et al. Maybe, eventually, a trowel embossed with the profile of the deceased and displaying the logo, "My parents went to X's funeral and all I got was this lousy shovel." There are no limits to poor taste.

In the end, I consulted with a halachic authority whose words I greatly respect, and he confirmed the latter view. I declined to give them a letter of approval.

I must confess that my refusal nags at me; I don’t feel comfortable mixing fuzzy values issues into a clearcut מותר/אסור decision process. But that’s what פסק (issuing a halachic ruling) is about – seeing not only the nuts-and-bolts, but the greater machine as well.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Uncomfortably numb

The gemara talks about the horrible smell associated with tanning leather, but experienced tanners don’t really notice it.

Career politicians probably become dull, at some point, to the accoutrements of power.

And I find that I am becoming numb to death these days.

We’ve had nine deaths in the past month – four members and five relatives of members. This number of deaths is high for our community, for such a short period of time. We’re not talking about a מכת דבר (supernatural plague) here, Gd-forbid - all of them were people who were senior, and some of them had been ill for an extended period of time - but it’s really an abnormally high tally. At times, thank Gd, we’ve gone a year or more with one passing, maybe two. But now we’re in a blizzard of bereavement.

I’ve grown suspicious of my cell phone; every time it rings I’m afraid to pick it up and hear more bad news.

And I can feel myself becoming desensitized. I can detect in myself more of a sense that death is normal, just the end of life.

I’ve come to some form of acceptance, thanks to the constant flow of eulogies and nichum and shiva houses. It’s a protective defense mechanism, because feeling horrified anew every other day is an intense harrowing of the soul.

I’ve seen this happen with hospital physicians, particularly those who deal in geriatrics or oncology; they become so familiar with death that they can discuss terminal diagnoses and end-of-life options, even with patients and their families, without any sign that the subject causes them pain.

But this is a dangerous phenomenon for a rabbi (and for a doctor as well!).

For the mourner who has suffered the loss, this isn’t the ninth grief in thirty days; it’s the first, the only. Even for those who have suffered the death of relatives and friends before, each one is unique. They endure all of the feelings, the rage and denial, the realization of bereavement, and they need the comfort of having someone listen to their pain uniquely and independently, without that experience being colored by other deaths and circumstances.

Every eulogy must be unique, every pain must be treated. With complete, genuine sincerity, the rabbi must ask all of the questions, and offer all of the counsel and commisseration, that the mourner needs to hear. He must state, “ברוך דיין האמת, Blessed be the Judge of Truth,” not as an objective ritual declaration, but with all of the pain of a mourner being forced to confront the conflict between the promise of his religion and the pain of his experience.

This is what any rabbi must do; the empath cannot afford to stand at a distance.

So you block out all of the previous experiences and see each one as new, the person in front of you not as one more in a line of mourners but as a suffering human being. You open up your heart to feel everything that they are feeling, you put yourself in their place and see what they see. It tears at you, as you know it will – but this is what you have to do, this is the person you need to be, for their sake.

And you hope that the next time the phone rings, it will be for a שמחה, a happy occasion.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

I don’t need to have an opinion on the National Cathedral saga

[First: This week's Haveil Havalim and this month's Kosher Cooking Carnival are out!]

If I had a dime for every time someone has asked me, since Wednesday, what I think about Rabbi Haskel Lookstein’s participation in the worship service at the National Cathedral last week, and the Rabbinical Council of America’s semi-public disapproval…

First: I am נוגע בדבר (I have a conflict of interest), because I am a big fan of Rabbi Lookstein. In my smichah days he volunteered his valuable time every week – on an erev Shabbos, no less! – to teach much-needed Homiletics classes for the guys. I have used his CDs teaching proper chazanus for Yamim Noraim. I have seen him to be a sincere baal chesed, someone who will move שמים וארץ (heaven and earth) for Torah and for Am Yisrael. And that’s even before we get into his distinguished career in rabbanus and at Ramaz.

Second: I am נוגע בדבר (I have a conflict of interest) because renowed poskim, who are my halachic mentors, have already issued rulings on the matter. I am familiar with their read of both the facts on the ground and the relevant halachic sources and precedents, and I see nothing I can add to their expressed perspectives.

Third: My opinion doesn't change anything here; there is no practical purpose to voicing an opinion on this.

But beyond all of that, I think that onlookers like myself need a dose of humility here.

I taught an adult education class the other day (on the issue of Lying for Peace, משנים מפני השלום), and we came to the gemara in Bava Metzia (23b-24a) which says, “A Torah scholar may lie about three topics: (1) Whether he knows a tractate, (2) Intimate details of his marriage, and (3) His host’s hospitality.”

I explained the first case, in which a scholar is asked, “Do you know a certain volume of gemara,” and he denies knowing it well. The scholar does know the subject, but, as a matter of humility, he claims ignorance. (Presumably this is not where he is asked a question by someone wishing to learn Torah or needing a halachic decision, but that’s a topic for another discussion.)

A large segment of the class – an adult class! – could not fathom the logic here. I explained that this is a matter of humility, but they still didn’t get it. These are very good people, strong members of society, but the idea that one would humbly deny his strengths was entirely foreign to them.

I think this is a function of society itself. We are taught, encouraged, demanded to promote ourselves, lest we be overlooked, or lest we look down upon ourselves. Humility is just not valued; if anything, it’s considered a character flaw, some function of a lack of self-esteem.

Rabbis are especially expected to have opinions. If a rabbi answers a question on a proba interview - "Do you feel that the State of Israel embodies Mashiach" or "What do you think is the single greatest threat to Judaism today" - with anything less than 100% certainty, he is assumed to be waffling in order to hide offensive opinions. Certainly, it cannot be that he is simply... uncertain. And if he is uncertain, well, then, he would not be a good leader.

It seems that people believe "leadership" has less to do with leading and more to do with talking.

This is what I see in the constant insistence upon having a comment on any and every issue, National Cathedral services and otherwise. There really is nothing wrong with saying “I don’t know.”

And especially when that’s the truth.

Friday, January 23, 2009

New New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand: Views on Israel and the Middle East

It's hard to use Google to find information on Kirsten Gillibrand and her views on the Middle East (particularly because another candidate for her new senatorial position was named "Steve Israel"!), but here's what I can find:

*She has supported legislations on Iran sanctions

*She is not a partisan Democrat

* She posts her daily schedule online - a practice close to my heart

* You can find her voting record here

* A dozen or so of her constituents didn't like her support for Israel in the Gaza War

*And AIPAC's Near East Report from November 2006, on the 110th Congress, included this on Ms. Gillibrand:
Gillibrand has met with AIPAC activists and staff. In her position paper on the US-Israel relationship, Gillibrand wrote, "I will be an unwavering supporter of the special friendship that exists between the US and Israel and will continue to assure Israel's strategic military advantage in the region."

I'm sure that those who don't support Israel won't agree with me on this - but I'm glad to know that the new Senator supports democracy and human rights in the Middle East.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Moshe, Obama and the Cult of Personality (Derashah: Vaera 5769)

As I watched the crowd shots at the Inauguration this past week, and I listened to people describing their expectations for the Obama presidency, I was forcefully reminded of Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch's comments on our parshah.

The parshah begins with Moshe's frustration and his outburst at Gd - "Why did You send me to Paroh?" Moshe demands to know. "From the moment I came to Paroh, he made things worse for this nation - and You, Gd, You have not saved Your nation!" To which Gd responds by telling Moshe to return to Paroh - but then the Torah interposes a genealogy of Moshe and Aharon:

Levi had three sons, Gershon, Kehat and Merari.
Gershon's kids were Livni and Shimi.
Kehat's children were Amram, Yitzhar, Chevron and Uziel.
Merari's sons were Machli and Mushi.
Amram married Yocheved, and she gave birth to Miriam, Aharon and Moshe.

Why does the Torah include this genealogy; what are we meant to learn here?

Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch explained, in a fascinating polemic, that the Torah presents this record of the ancestry of Moshe and Aharon in order to vaccinate the Jew against a theological disease which would ultimately infect Christianity: "So that, for all time, their absolutely human origin, and the absolutely ordinary human nature of their beings, should be firmly established. We know well enough how, in later times, a Jew whose genealogical table was not available... came to be considered by nations as begotten of Gd, and to doubt his divinity became a capital crime."

In other words: The Torah presents Moshe's pedigree lest we come to believe, through the miracles he would engineer and the charismatic personality he would bring to bear, that he was somehow a deity.

The Jews of that day wanted a deity for a leader. When Moshe disappears to receive the Torah, the Jews approach Aharon, seeking a new leader. They say to Aharon, "קום עשה לנו אלהים אשר ילכו לפנינו כי זה משה האיש אשר העלנו מארץ מצרים לא ידענו מה היה לו, Make a god to go before us, because we do not know what happened to Moshe the man who brought us up from Egypt." The Jewish people are dissatisfied with this all-too-mortal leader; they would be led by a god. And so HaShem stresses, at the outset, that their leader is but a human being, born of human parents.

But there is more here. I believe that beyond concern for deifying Moshe, HaShem is also concerned that this nascent nation will act in the manner of children everywhere, shirking responsibility with the expectation that their parent, Moshe, will take care of matters on their behalf, achieving feats of righteousness in their name, protecting them from the consequences of their actions, leading them along the spiritual equivalent of the Bunny slope toward a land flowing with milk and honey.

Moshe does play a parental role; as he says forthrightly, he is a nursemaid carrying a nurseling. That's why Moshe was selected in the first place, per one midrash; Moshe was chosen because of the way he cared, as a shepherd, about every sheep in his flock. This type of parental leader was necessary at this stage, to introduce a nation of slaves to their spiritual and national potential as a parent will nurture a child through adolescence and into realization of his strengths and powers.

But with that positive parental role comes the negative, adjunct possibility that the Jewish nation will become dependent upon their leader, viewing him as the solution for all of their problems. And, in truth, that did happen. This man who had said, "They will never believe me, they will never trust that Gd spoke with me," would become the parent for every national need, from food to water to military leadership, as well as the righteous protector, religious proxy for a sinful edah.

And so the Torah, at this early stage, takes pains to inform the Jew: Moshe is no superhuman individual, capable of shouldering the burdens of a nation. The Jewish people, in that generation and for all time, will need to take responsibility for their own actions, will need to grow into their role as a special nation and meet the challenges themselves.

This same concern - the possibility of relying on a leader to too great an extent - was, in fact, a problem which appeared repeatedly in Jewish history.

* Jews flocked to numerous false messiahs down through the ages, from Bar Kochba to Shabbtai Tzvi to many lesser figures in between. It is not that we are feeble-minded or beset with an unthinking gullibility. Rather, the offer of a man who bears our sins is attractive for people who are tired of bearing their own.

* Even short of Mashiach, various Jewish sects have long embraced leaders and accepted, without question, the notion that their leader's righteousness could somehow serve as a substitute for their own, extending mystical philosophies of leadership well beyond their authors' intent. Whether the chassid who goes too far with his Rebbe, or the Sephardi Jew who does the same with his Chacham, some Jews have adopted personal paths which their leaders would never have recommended, placing their leaders' portraits in their homes and businesses but failing to emulate the lifestyles of those much-admired icons.

This is a grave risk. Humility is certainly appropriate. Subordination of our will to the guidance of someone who knows us and who knows Torah is certainly appropriate. But the abdication of responsibility, with the expectation that another's righteousness will stand in our stead, that another will act in our place - this is anathema to the personal responsibility which permeates every nook and cranny of the Torah's moral mandate.

This morning's listing of Moshe's genealogy is only the beginning of the Torah's response to that abdication of responsibility:

* We noted last year, on Parshat Shoftim, that the Torah presents us with many models of leadership - Melech and Kohen, Shofet and Navi. But we also noted that all of these positions are presented as בדיעבד, concessions to a human need for intermediaries, and not an ideal. In the ideal world, all of us are leaders in our own right.

* The gemara was particularly concerned with the embrace of false messiahs, and declared, תיפח עצמותן של מחשבי קיצין, Cursed be those who formulate calculations of when Mashiach will arrive! Rather than play games of mathematics in a daydream of future irresponsibility, better to expend our energy in action!

We, in our own lives, are expected to steer clear of the mistake anticipated in this morning's parshah, to understand that we cannot look to leaders, living or deceased, past or present or future, to act on our behalf.

Our organizations - shul, school, any of them - dare not depend on a single person's inspiration and perspiration; all of us bear the responsibility of working for the betterment of the community. And the same is true for our Judaism; rather than wait for others to burden us with guilt or bodily drag us to righteousness, we must recognize that Moshe was as human as the rest of us, and that neither he nor any of his spiritual heirs will be able to do for us that which we will not do for ourselves.

President Obama may turn out to be as good as his backers claim, but as he has said himself, he will never be a nation's savior; a nation must be motivated to save itself. The same is true for the Jewish people under Moshe, and today.

Our redemptions, Messianic and otherwise, will come when we recognize that no human being can bring it one single second nearer for us. As the gemara says, redemption will come when we recognize אין לנו על מי להשען אלא על אבינו שבשמים, that rather than depend on Moshes or Messiahs or Presidents to act on our behalf, the only One upon whom we can depend is HaShem - and HaShem has already handed us the keys to our own redemption, and is waiting for us to put them to use.


1. The gemara on אין לנו על מי להשען is at the end of Sotah, as I recall. Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch's note is in his commentary to Chumash. He also discusses why the Torah brings the genealogy of Shevet Reuven and Shevet Shimon, but I didn't want to get sidetracked here.

2. Of course, the Torah also provides the genealogy of Aharon here, and for the same reason, but adding Aharon and his own conflicts as a "parent" to the nation to this derashah would have made it overly complicated, albeit more interesting to me.

3. A question: Is the Torah really addressing the Jew in the wilderness, of that generation, with this concern? Or is it addressing us? I suspect the latter.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

President Barack Obama's White House Blog: Observations and Suggestions

CNN reports here that the Obama White House website has a new face, and they are certainly correct. Long on policy and substance, this site has the look of a campaign site, hungry to communicate with the world and publish its message directly to its audience.

I like the fact that President Obama’s website bio is brief. (I suppose that when the heading says “President of the United States,” you don’t really need to mention much more.)

Two items of interest in the “Agenda” section:

I’m fascinated by the fact that pretty much every sentence says, “Barack Obama and Joe Biden believe…” I wonder if that inclusion was part of Senator Biden’s agreement to become Vice President.

Of particular interest: Israel is addressed in two separate places in the “Foreign Policy” category, once under Renewing American Diplomacy and once under Israel.

The former includes a section titled “Israeli-Palestinian Conflict” and focusses on realizing a two-state solution. The latter includes “Ensure a strong US-Israel partnership,” “Support Israel’s right to self-defense” and “Support foreign assistance to Israel.”

I have no objection to what the site says in either place, but I feel it would have made more sense to have included both sets of comments under “Israeli-Palestinian Conflict.” (And if the site’s point is that the US-Israel relationship is about more than just the conflict, then the sub-section “Support Israel’s right to self-defense” really belongs under the “Israel-Palestinian Conflict” sub-heading.)

What I would like to see:
1) I like the “Office of Public Liaison” concept (which already existed under President Bush), and hope it will be developed. Right now, it’s just a “Contact Us” form.

2) Under “Agenda,” I would very much like to see a daily or weekly list of the president’s key appointments, even without specific times. Security, secrecy and spontaneity may make a precise listing impossible, but knowing which briefings are going on, and what has the president's attention and with whom the president is working, would be a great step toward the promised transparency.

3) I would love to see a permanent focus on the ordinary citizen, especially since that has been a key part of the Obama appeal. I’m thinking a small corner or sidebar photo on the page, linking to an article about that person – an obituary of someone who had passed away, or a newspaper article about his/her achievement. The achievement doesn’t have to be as large as a CNN Heroes type; it could just reflect the life of an American citizen. The photo and article would change daily, or weekly.

4) Of course, I would love to see the President author a post or two in his blog, not as a press release or transcript of a speech, but just an everyday type of comment, the sort that appears on any other blog.

5) And most important:
It is evident that many of the people who have fallen in love with presidential politics have done so because of the star power of the new president, and not because of a newfound love for their country, or the American democratic system. That’s fine – as long as their love deepens into an appreciation for the system and country itself.

To aid that transition, I would like to see a permanent feature, such as a sidebar photo leading to an article, on specific legislators. Whether municipal, state, or federal, regardless of party affiliation, the site could spotlight people who are making positive contributions to government, and could thereby encourage others to become involved.

Of course, there is an inherent risk that with such a spotlight you accidentally endorse the next Ted Stevens; you would need some serious vetting, and the wording would have to eschew the laudatory. But if you did one every week or every two weeks, that should be manageable – and it might go a ways toward inspiring interest in government and appreciation for the best of America.

[And one more: Having just attempted to submit some of these suggestions on the Comment Form on the website - change your programming so that "Enter" does not automatically submit the form. It's quite frustrating.]

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

An award? For moi?

Leora, of Here in Highland Park, has chosen to honor The Rebbetzin’s Husband with the Premio Dardos award. Per her description:

The Prémio Dardos is given for recognition of cultural, ethical, literary, and personal values transmitted in the form of creative and original writing. These stamps were created with the intention of promoting fraternization between bloggers, a way of showing affection and gratitude for work that adds value to the Web.

I am happily flabbergasted. Cultural, ethical, literary and personal values… and here I thought I was just talking about whatever was on my mind and in my life at the time. A little ranting, a little fun, a little whining, and a little Torah. And presto!

Okay, so it’s not like this is the Academy or the Nobel committee, but it’s rewarding to have someone say, “Good job,” especially when that someone is a blogger whose work you also respect. So thanks, Leora!

Now I have to decide upon whom I might bestow this award. That will require thought – not because of whom I might include, but because of whom I might unintentionally exclude. I rarely read any blogs, but there are many I enjoy reading when I can make the time. How could I give this to only a few?

On a separate note, I fried my home computer last night.

It was a foolish thing, all my fault. I read about the liquidation sales at Circuit City, and I’ve needed more RAM for a while, so I went out and picked up a unit. Bad move – it wasn’t compatible, or at least it didn’t fit right in the slot.

Being a stubbornly happy-go-lucky guy, though, and knowing that all sales were final, I thought I would see if maybe it might really be compatible after all. Who knows - maybe the fact that it doesn’t look like a good fit is more because I don’t understand the way it’s supposed to be fit, right? Why not? What could go wrong?

Well, the computer wouldn’t start. So I took the new RAM out… and the computer still wouldn’t start. It powers up, checks CD-ROM drives, then stalls in some kind of waiting mode. The monitor thinks it’s in Power Save mode, keyboard and mouse not activated.

So I tried various experiments, and I think it’s the old RAM unit. I did ground myself before starting, but I must have discharged static at some point anyway, or mis-handled the old RAM in some way.

So I’ve ordered new RAM, and have to wait for it. This is frustrating; I don’t wait well. Too many projects, and they depend on information I have stored on that computer. I did back up my system last month, thank Gd, but I am not about to unpack it on another computer, not when I can just wait two days.

So the projects are in limbo, and I’m spending more time on my shul computer. Frustrating, but it’s my own fault for being stubborn. I love being stubborn, but, boy, is it a pain sometimes.

Monday, January 19, 2009

The Hick Rabbi and the Metrorabbi

I’ve been in Allentown, PA now for almost eight years, and have found my position here incredibly rewarding, as well as incredibly challenging.

But there are times when I meet someone from out of town – like New York, say – and they ask, “Where are you a rav?” And I reply, “Allentown,” and I can see them think to themselves, “Oh. That’s not a real rabbonus.” Or they seem to assume that this means I (a "hick rabbi") am somehow less competent than a metrorav, a rav from a major city.

It’s silly, of course. The rabbi in a non-metropolitan community tends to have more responsibilities than a rabbi in a big city. Kashrus, Eruv, Mikvah, Chevra Kadisha, it’s all in our bailiwick. We teach everything from Daf Yomi to Jewish history, we are counselors, ambassadors, lifecycle officiators, teachers for Bar Mitzvah, teachers for gerus, newspaper columnists, etc.

The Rabbanim I meet tend to understand this, but, as I have said, others do not. I suppose their reaction is just part of the metrocentricity which many people, Jewish and otherwise, feel. It’s the “If I can make it there (New York), I can make it anywhere” approach that implies its opposite, that one who makes it anywhere else could not necessarily make it in New York.

But I never wanted to be a metrorabbi:
I don’t like a lot of the politics I see in larger Jewish communities; better to be in a community where the focus is more on the meat of Judaism.
I also want to be in a place where I feel I make a substantive difference for people's lives, not a city where I am one of an army of rabbis competing to provide the same services.

So I first served a small shul in Rhode Island, and then moved here when I wanted more to do.

In retrospect, I suppose that this wasn’t the greatest “career move,” because of those people who dismiss the hick rabbi. If I were to try to publish a sefer, I'd probably meet some resistance from publishers who would wonder who I am. But I love being here...

Ah, well. All may change eventually. We only have a day school through eighth grade, and my kids are getting older. The oldest is in fourth grade, so I have four years to ponder sending my kids away for school, finding a rabbinate in Israel, or becoming one of those metrorabbanim myself...

[In light of the first comment on this post, I hasten to add: I am not announcing any resignation here! I have four years until High School is a reality.]

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Haveil Havalim #201 - The I-Love-Nauru Edition

Welcome to the 201st edition of Haveil Havalim, the I Love Nauru Edition!

Why do I love Nauru? Check this out, from Friday's news:
The U.N. General Assembly called in a nonbinding resolution on Friday for an immediate, durable cease-fire in Gaza, rejecting a more radical text proposed by a group of Muslim and Latin American states…
The assembly's electronic scoreboard showed 142 countries in favour, four opposed and eight abstaining. But the exact figures were not immediately clear as several countries said their votes had not registered due to electrical faults.
Voting against were Israel, the United States and the Pacific island of Nauru, which believed the resolution was biased against Israel. Venezuela, which thought it was too soft on the Jewish state, was also shown by the board as voting against although the country's delegate said he abstained.

So you may be wondering, as I was when I read this, “What’s a Nauru?” Here’s some information from Wikipedia:
Nauru /nɑːˈuːruː/, officially the Republic of Nauru and formerly known as Pleasant Island, is an island nation in the Micronesian South Pacific. The nearest neighbour is Banaba Island in the Republic of Kiribati, 300 km due east. Nauru is the world's smallest island nation, covering just 21 km² (8.1 sq. mi), the smallest independent republic, and the only republican state in the world without an official capital. It is the least populous member of the United Nations.

It’s motto? “God’s Will First.” I like that in a motto (unless the deity's name is Allah, anyway...).

I don’t know how the Israel-Nauru relationship began (relations were formalized in 1994), but this 2006 article is interesting:
Doctors to Nauru Islands for 1st Israeli mission
Nauru Islands , Oct. 30, 2006
Two doctors left Sunday night for the Republic of Nauru in the Micronesian Pacific Ocean on a first-ever Israeli mission to examine and treat the local population.
The government of Nauru asked Israel's Foreign Ministry to find doctors willing to take part in such a project, and Dr. Danny Yardeni and Dr. Hadar Yardeni agreed to go.
The couple, he a pediatric surgeon at Ha'emek Hospital in Afula and she a pediatrician and deputy medical director in the northern district of Maccabi Health Services, will be on the islands for two months, the Israel Medical Association reported.
Dr. Hadar Yardeni will give advice on health promotion and disease prevention and pediatric care, while Danny Yardeni will perform surgery on the islands, which have 7,000 children out of 13,000 residents.

But enough prologue; here’s this week’s HH roundup of posts from around the Jewish blogosphere. I included almost all of the submitted posts. (But guys - and you know who you are - please stop submitting four or five posts from your blogs. Especially if your posts consist of one line and a photograph. Thanks.) I also took a tour of some blogs I love; it was a good chance to catch up, since I haven't taken much time to read other blogs recently.

We have 9 parts about different aspects of the war in Gaza, and then a catch-all section for the relatively few non-Gaza posts of the week:

Gaza, Part I: Amazing Livebloggers
People ask me where I go for news, but then they give me weird looks when I tell them I read The Muqata and Israellycool. What don’t they understand?

And a big round of applause for Jack for his Gaza Updates (newest one here - the Ceasefire edition)!

Gaza, Part II: Living the war
A 17-year old talks about why we must fight this war, Nad-ned talks about what it’s like to live the war, and Ki Yachol Nuchal talks about the help she finds visiting her son, who is in the war.

For at least one politician, war trumps politics. For others, though, it’s politics (and religious politics in particular) as usual. And let’s have a look at the polls.

Israel Chronicles talks about trusting Gd in a time of war… while, war or no war, Sketchcrawl in Tel Aviv goes on!

Two big stories: Pray for the amazing parents of Yoni Netanel, and for Aharon Karov.

Want to know what it’s like in Ashdod today? If not, you might want to try these great things to do in Israel.

Here's Rav Aviner’s take on the status of civilians during wartime, and a song for the soldiers.

And here's a blast from the past: The Renegade Rebbetzin (no relation) writing during the Second Lebanon War.

And here’s a provocative piece from Gila on dealing with Arab Israelis during the war.

Gaza, Part III: A Unilateral Cease Fire
Yes, you read that right, a unilateral ceasefire. Because those have worked really well in the past, right?

Some early reaction to the news here and here.

Gaza, Part IV: The lighter side of the War
You must have seen this already, but in case you haven’t, enjoy this protestor. I hope he moonlights as an Iranian nuclear scientist.

How about this multiple-choice question regarding that mysterious siren in Yerushalayim? (More on that here.)

This video has been making the rounds, regarding the dangers of boycotting Israel. I’m pretty sure some of the stuff in there is exaggeration, but it’s cute anyway.

Gaza, Part V: The UN
I hope that when all of this is over, that commission on naming wars decides to call this “The UN War.” Because, really - you guys started it. If you had complained once or twice during the past eight years when Israel was being rocketed, you could have saved all of those mortar-firing schools that have been damaged in this war.

Here are several posts addressed to the UN’s lovable diplomats. Too bad they don't/can’t read.

Gaza, Part VI: What special techniques is Israel using in her defense?

Upgraded PR efforts, for one. And a webcam to show the humanitarian aid entering Gaza. And here’s a piece from Israelity on Israel Press, a collection of Israeli photographers, war-related and otherwise.

But better than the PR… it’s the Tatzpitaniyot!

Whatever it is - it’s working.

Gaza, Part VII: Debating the war
The Occidental Israeli says Thomas Friedman is naïve; ya think?
Tzipporah says Nah, they just don’t like us.
For Zion’s Sake says Gaza is Jewish!
And My Right Word says you have to look at who the media quotes, not just what they say. That’s certainly true if you read any of this gibberish, collected by Judeopundit.

Sometimes, even Jon Stewart just needs hard information - so here’s a chronology of Gaza Border Crossing openings and closings, demonstrating Israel’s bend-over-backward efforts to keep humanitarian aid flowing over the years.

The Occidental Israeli notes opposition to the war in the Jewish world… and, of course, what list of Jewish anti-Jews would be complete without Sir Gerald Kaufman, duly lampooned here and here?

The war is filled with tough questions for debate; see What do you do with Shifa Hospital? and Carpet-bombing Gaza, as appealing as it sounds, isn’t really an option.
But there's no moral ambiguity at Shiloh Musings; he says, Finish them!

And, one of the big questions to ask this week: What will President Obama bring to the Middle East?

Gaza, Part VIII: Solidarity, Support and Partnership
First, let's get to the point: Ways to help!

Leora has rallies and more here, and there are young solidarity artists here.

Combating ignorance with Nad-Ned is fun. Actually, though, Volokh reports that American public opinion seems to be positive so far.

The West Bank stands with Aza, as does Gush Etzion, as does the Israel Postal Authority, and Joe the Plumber, and Colorado! So would the Jews of Indonesia, I bet, if they could.

But there’s no substitute for actually coming to Israel. A rabbinic mission visited Israel this week. (I was thisclose to going, but couldn’t do it. Very frustrating.) Rabbi Zevi Reichman reports here, and additional reports are here and here. Bottom line: Don’t be a Supporter, be a Partner!

Gaza, Part IX: Hope from the Torah, in a time of War
We will survive, say the Lubavitchers, and For Zion’s Sake agrees.

And finally... Jewish life, and the lives of Jews
Sorry to bury these all the way at the bottom of a long HH; there’s some really good stuff here. Read on!

First, an important cause: International Wash Your Yarmulka Day, complete with instructions. Now, could we have one for Tzitzis?

Some plane landed in the Hudson River this week, courtesy of a flock of birds; those birds better watch out for Jack! Thank Gd we have intelligence, says ProfK - but don't overrate it.

I was driven to ask two unrelated questions this week: Are there ways for a rabbi to accept gifts? And after reading My Jesus Year I asked, How do we pray?

Here’s an interesting take on Conservative observance of Kashrut (and make sure to read the comments).

We have two posts on the dating world - one on Chesed Dating, and one on Chareidi Dating. And, we have some cute wedding wisdom, when all of that dating works out.

Before the wedding, get some solid advice on beginning your economic life together. And, please, don’t confuse hoarding with saving.

Of course, if you’ve already passed the whole wedding stage and are raising kids, you might want Mom in Israel’s advice on choosing a school. Or ProfK's advice for high school selection. Or you might want to let your kids figure it out for themselves, as Ima on the Bima did.

And if the marriage ever stops working, well, here's some advice from In the Pink on how to be a good ex-spouse.

Dating, weddings, kids, divorce... Rabbi Neil Fleischmann says we should embrace whoever we are.

Here are two unrelated posts I enjoyed: A beautiful post here, on a Meeting with the Sudlikover Rebbe. And a good read on Parents, at the Curious Jew here.

Dixie Yid talks about the nuances of cell phone driving laws, as they might or might not apply to him. (I’m reminded of Pinocchio’s big scene in Shrek 3, actually.)

The Fackenheim case hasn’t received much general coverage due to the war, but this one’s a real mess. Childhood conversions in general are a train wreck, frankly.

The Rabbinical College of America is preparing for terror attacks, in their own way.

Lots of people are keeping busy. Muse is starting a diet and a dieting blog carnival, Israel Chronicles is missing her friends’ lives in chutz la’aretz and My Right Word has a roundup of his own recent posts here.

Some serious items:
This bit of Jew-Jew racism has to be the dumbest thing I’ve seen in a long, long time… which is really saying something, given this gem from the Yemeni government.

Here’s a video of Eastern European Chassidic communities during the Shoah.

Here’s an interesting post about a 2007 lawsuit by families of IDF soldiers killed by terrorists.

Here's an important post by Therapydoc on treatment after sex crimes, and the progress we have made.

This week’s RIPs include painter Andrew Wyeth (here and here) and Ricardo Montalban. See you on Fantasy Island, my friend… hopefully in a car with rich, Corinthian leather.

And to end the week's roundup on a positive note, let's give a round of Mazal Tovs to Trilcat on the birth of her baby boy!

In Conclusion:
There you have it. Like I said last time I hosted: Unqualified to host, unsavvy in the ways of the world, but we made it through.

To celebrate, herewith some boilerplate:

That concludes this edition. Submit your blog article to the next edition of
haveil havalim using our carnival submission form.
Past posts and future hosts can be found on our blog carnival index page.

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Friday, January 16, 2009

An Approach to the Challenge of "My Jesus Year"

The New Birth Megachurch in Lithonia, Georgia. The Christian Book Association’s annual conference. Ultimate Christian Wrestling. A Christian rock concert.

A young man named Benyamin Cohen - my wife’s classmate growing up, actually - realized in his early 20’s that he wasn’t finding meaning in Judaism, and that many of his Bible Belt Christian neighbors seemed a lot more passionate about their religion. So he visited those venues I just mentioned, and others, on a tour of Christian life, to see what it was that so inspired them. He recorded his experiences in a book, My Jesus Year.

Cohen’s search for religious passion reflects a problem I think many of us face. Based on my own experience and my conversations with Jews here and elsewhere, I know that Benyamin Cohen is not the exception; he is the rule. Many, if not most, are frustrated; Judaism, and particularly prayer, doesn’t “do anything” for them.

There are two main types of prayer, and I believe prayer doesn’t move us because we are dissatisfied with the first type, and unable to achieve the second.

The first type of prayer, which is found early on in the Torah, is Needy Prayer, the request of a supplicant seeking assistance.
• Kayin does it, pleading with Gd after he is punished.
• Avraham uses prayer to beseech Gd for aid, seeking forgiveness for Sdom, and an heir for his legacy.
• Yitzchak and Rivkah are childless, and daven for help.
• Yaakov is afraid of his enemies, of Esav and Lavan and then Esav again, and he davens for protection.
• And we read in this morning’s parshah that the Jews in Mitzrayim, suffering in slavery, cry out to HaShem for relief from their pain.

This type of prayer makes a lot of sense; I need something, Gd can provide it, so let me ask. I don’t even need to believe anything in order to do it; what do I have to lose by trying?

But if this is the defining display of our connection to Gd, if my every prayer is a request for something or even a Thank You for something, then this prayer, and the relationship it represents, are fundamentally doomed.

A connection based solely on petitionary prayer cheapens our role as human beings, as speaking spirits, as the singular nexus of the sacred and the mundane. Truly: Would we sink so low as to exclusively dedicate our audiences with the Creator to a shopping list?

Indeed, when the Talmudic sage Rava witnessed another sage praying for an extended period of time, he mocked him, saying, “He is abandoning the eternal life [of Torah study] in order to pursue temporary life!”

More than that:
• Prayer which focusses on filling our needs is bound to be uninspiring for us. Who finds fulfillment in filling out a grant application, a scholarship form? Further, who won’t wonder, “Doesn’t Gd already know what I need? Why must I jump through these hoops?”
• And what happens at times when we don’t feel a need, or we don’t feel a need that we think Gd will fill? Then, without a purpose, why pray?
• And, of course, we notice those prayers which do not come back with a “Yes” stamp, and we wonder, “Is there a Gd listening to my prayers at all?”

And so this supplicatory prayer, though accompanied by snappy tunes, or recited slower or faster, with new phrases or old, with or without improved translations and commentary, ultimately loses any personal connection and becomes a rote artifact of obligation, neither spiritual nor satisfying.

Which brings us to the second model of prayer: Relationship Prayer.

This second type of prayer is found more rarely in the early going in the Torah, but it is present.
In the Torah’s most obvious example: When Avraham was convalescing from his bris milah, HaShem appeared to him. “וירא אליו ה', HaShem appeared to Avraham.” Why? For what purpose? What message did Gd convey to Avraham?

The Torah doesn’t say; instead, the Torah moves on to a visit by three messengers, and then the destruction of Sdom. But what happened during HaShem’s visit to Avraham?

The answer is… Nothing. Avraham’s association with the Divine is not restricted to a petitioner’s plea or even to the communication of prophecy; Avraham can also simply BE with Gd, can sit at the entrance of his tent and contemplate the Gd who created Avraham and Sarah and all around them.

This is prayer as relationship - and, as Avraham’s descendants evolve, it becomes their ideal form of prayer.

Certainly, it takes a while. In upcoming parshiyyos we will see the Jews, led by Moshe, call out to Gd in need - at the Sea, and when they need water and food. Moshe himself will pray to Gd multiple times for the very survival of the Jewish people, and he will seek forgiveness for their sins.

But we will also witness the emergence of this new paradigm, at Divine decree. Gd will declare, “ועשו לי מקדש ושכנתי בתוכם, Make a sanctuary for Me, and I will dwell among them,” and with this He will revive that Divine visit to Avraham, and a type of prayer that is not Supplication, but Relationship.

The korbanot, the offerings the Jews would bring to Gd in that sanctuary, were not associated with requests and needs; there were no personal offerings in that Mishkan. Rather, the Jews brought the קרבן תמיד, a twice-daily offering which marked a national, on-going relationship with Gd.

This relationship, centered on a building known after all as the אוהל מועד, the Tent of Meeting, is described liturgically as “שמה שכינה שכינה לך, There the Shechinah, HaShem’s presence, resides, waiting for you.” Not waiting for you to come ask for things, but waiting for you to visit, to say Hello, to renew that conversation which began when HaShem visited Avraham after his bris milah so many years ago.

In truth, Relationship Prayer is as difficult as needy Petitionary Prayer, but for a different reason. Petitionary prayer may be difficult because it is inherently uninspiring, but Relationship prayer is challenging because it demands something of us, a currency we concede most stingily: It demands Trust.
• The Avraham who can commune with Gd after his circumcision is the one who trusted Gd and followed Him from Mesopotamia to Elonei Mamrei.
• The Jew who can communicate with Gd at the Mishkan is the one who trusted Gd and followed Him out of Egypt, into the desert.
• And the Jew who will find Gd today is the one who trusts Gd, who permits himself to believe.

Trust is the reason we can have this relationship, the ingredient that allows our prayer to evolve.

The Christians I have met in Cohen’s chapters - the wrestlers, the musicians, the baseball players, the megachurches - share this common thread: Trust. The people Cohen describes, the people who are invested, the people who attend and sing and cheer and fund these Bible Belt institutions, are people who trust this deity of theirs. Before they love, they believe, and everything follows from there.

A Jew who spends a great deal of time second-guessing himself, who finds relativism in every sphere of life, is going to have a hard time suspending his questions and doubts long enough to believe. Even as he bows in Shmoneh Esreih, this Jew observes himself from the outside and asks, “To whom am I bowing?” Even as he begins a meal by washing his hands, he wonders, “What if there is no Creator, and all of this is just an obsessive charade?”

All of our relationships, including religious relationships, are founded on trust - and so the Jew who wishes to experience passion in prayer, who wishes to experience some religious epiphany in shul, must look past the question of tunes and translations and ask himself the first, most basic question: Do I trust? Do I allow myself to trust?

Every time Israel becomes involved in a war, certain stock photographs of soldiers circulate by email. There’s the picture of young men trudging in a line to the front. There’s the picture of children heading into bomb shelters. And there’s the picture of a soldier perched on a tank, praying as the sun rises. Or a unit gathered to hear krias hatorah. Or a rabbi helping a solder put on tefillin.

To be sure, some soldiers turn to Gd at that point as supplicants, because there are no atheists in a foxhole; for them, perhaps, prayer is a hopeful means of asking Gd, who may or may not exist, for help. But for the rest, prayer is a function of their basic, lifelong trust in Gd and the Torah, a trust that gives them a relationship that remains with them even in the toughest times.

This relationship is what Benyamin Cohen was seeking in My Jesus Year, and this is what Avraham Avinu had - and, if we can permit ourselves to trust, then it is a relationship we will enjoy as well.


1. I can't recommend the book My Jesus Year itself, because I am very uncomfortable with the author's derogatory description of his father throughout the book. It is lashon hara and character assassination.
The book is also written in Bloggish rather than formal English, complete with misplaced apostrophes and unique grammar. That's the author's choice, of course, but it rubs me wrong in a book produced with a major publisher.

2. There is a third, hybrid type of prayer, but I felt it was more a classroom topic than a derashah topic: Rav Chaim of Volozhin, the main student of the Vilna Gaon, in his Nefesh haChaim that even when we pray for our needs, we don’t pray because we want something for ourselves; rather, we turn to a Gd who cares about us, with Whom we have a relationship, and we say, “If You care about me, then my suffering must also cause You pain - and I wish for You to fill my needs so that Your pain will end.”
What a remarkable prayer - Gd, give me what I want so that You will be happy! This prayer bespeaks so much more than a petitioner before a king; it is the conversation of two lifelong friends, whose shared heart wishes only the best for each of them.

3. Rava's sarcasm is on Shabbat 10a.

Gaza, Wounded Children and the Tyranny of Liberal/Conservative Labels

[Jack's Gaza Update 18.5 is here.]

Am I a liberal or a conservative? Probably depends on the issue you are discussing.

Gun control? Liberal.
Religious freedom? Conservative.
Gay rights? Conservatively liberal.
And so on.

This is because I, like most sane people, don’t make up my mind based on the label people will attach to me, or the platforms established by parties. I go based on what I perceive, what I know, the options the Torah teaches me, and what I feel.

Nowhere is this more true than regarding Israel and Gaza.

Ordinarily, I am big on standing up for the underdog. I want society to help the indigent, and to create alternatives for people to divert them from crime (there are plenty of sources within Torah for this, but that’s a topic for another time). I have spoken out locally and on the Net regarding both China and Darfur, and believe that Torah stands firmly against the use of force for the sake of personal gain.

But that doesn’t mean I am going to adopt the narrative of the pronounced underdog in Gaza. I may be liberal, but I’m not stupid - I can tell when the underdog is an attack dog, I can identify victim and assailant. Just because you’re weaker doesn’t entitle you to hit the other guy.

This comes up in mind because just this morning, a commenter said that it seems I prefer a legless child to a frightened child.

This has the ring of a liberal’s pithy protest applause line, but it doesn’t portray the reality of the Middle East.

First, I don’t want either obscene scenario, and neither does the Israeli government. For years, as I’ve described here and here, Israel has warned that they would not tolerate rocket attacks, has tried to keep border crossings open, has worked through diplomatic channels and offered self-defeating, one-sided truces. Invasion was a last resort, after those frightened children suffered many thousands of rocket attacks.

Second, the difference is that the frightened child has done nothing wrong, while the legless child is on the side of the underdog aggressor.

The frightened child – who cannot read a book, take a bath, or eat a meal without wondering when the next rocket will hit his home – has done nothing wrong. His country gave Gazans land and greenhouses and opportunity.

The legless child, on the other hand, attended a terrorist training camp and was filmed in a Hamas video holding an AK-47 and shouting “Death to Israel.” He believes that as long as Jews control a single square centimeter of land in the Middle East, that is a criminal occupation. And now, he’s being held as a human shield by a man who launches rockets at the frightened child.

If you will force me to choose between the benign frightened child, and the legless child who wishes to grow up to bomb me into oblivion, then I will make the logical choice.

To tell me that Israel cannot respond with force is to say that an abused wife also may not stand up to her husband, that an abused child cannot stand up to his molester. And blaming the victim is also abuse.

Finally, I must wonder: Does the liberal who asked this question to me, ask it of Hamas and their supporters as well?

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Are there ways for a rabbi to accept gifts?

[Jack’s Gaza Update 16 is here.]

15 of my last 16 posts, going back to Saturday night December 27th, have been on the Gaza war. The war remains as significant as ever, but I have nothing new to say about it today (although this short piece on Israel and the media is starting something in my head). So, here goes with something else:

One of the truly vexing problems that comes with the rabbinate is this: How do you handle presents?

Yes, I know what you’re thinking: Some big problems you have, rabbi. No wonder you have so much stress. How about you send that problem my way?

But I’m actually serious: Gift-giving is a real problem for rabbis.

People are kind, and they like to display gratitude for the things the rabbi does. Maybe it’s because of a lifecycle event with which he helped, or some counseling he did, or a crisis he helped them weather, or one of any number of things... there are people who like to give the rabbi a gift, whether cash or an item or a service.

And I, for one, have a hard time accepting gifts, for several reasons:

First, I don’t want to have visions of reimbursal in my head when I help someone.
Can you imagine a kid making nice to his great-aunt as part of a plan to gain an inheritance? Yuck.
And lest I say I could accept the gift and remain neutral, I am reminded of the gemara in Sanhedrin (re: judges) warning that one cannot accept a gift and remain neutral.

Second, I don’t want anyone to think that I give special treatment to people who pay more.
I worry that if I were to accept such a gift, even without letting it affect me, people (whether the giver or anyone who heard about it) would assume that I had been affected by the gift.

Third, I don’t want anyone to have to feel like they need to pay me in order to get my assistance.
I am here to help, that’s it. Yes, the community pays me, so there is money involved - but no individual should ever feel like they have a lesser or greater claim on my attention, based on how much they have contributed toward that salary.

Fourth, I don’t want anyone to see me as a charity case.
I work hard, and make a good salary. Granted that some 40% of that salary then goes for tuition, but it’s no different from anyone else’s day-to-day struggle. So why am I getting unsolicited help?

On the other hand, people mean well when they offer these gifts. They aren’t trying to bribe me, or to gain some special advantage; it’s just an expression of gratitude or respect. Therefore, refusal can sometimes be viewed as an insult.
Worse, declining might sometimes be viewed as rejection of the person, instead of the gift.

Which leaves me trying to figure out what to do, every time this comes up. I usually demur, but there have been occasions when I have accepted, rather than insult a person.

So the other day I declined a generous offer someone had extended, and he said to me, “You know, rabbi, there are ways to give gifts, and ways to accept gifts.”

That has the ring of sage advice. But how? What are the ways?

I turn to you:
1) What are good ways to accept gifts?
2) And - please comment anonymously on this - what is your rabbi’s approach to accepting gifts?

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

An answer for Mick Verran - A Peace Compromise

[Jack's Gaza Update 15 is here!]

In an unpublished comment, “Mick Verran” makes two requests:
1) Not to lie about him (regarding my allegation that he has posted under various names)
2) To offer a legitimate vision for Middle East peace, which could be accepted by both sides and not lead to nuclear war

Regarding the first: I am fairly certain that Mick was also the commenter known as Milosevic, and he has admitted posting under Anonymous. But if Mick insists that he is not Milosevic, then I accept it and retract; it is possible for ISP trackers to be misleading.

Middle East peace, though, is somewhat harder.

Mick’s version of peace, from his comments here and elsewhere (you can Google “Mick Verran” and see for yourself), seems to involve Israel simply giving the surrounding Arab nations everything they want:
A) Egypt wants safety from Islamism;

B) Jordan wants safety from anti-Hashemite Palestinians;

C) The descendants of Palestinian Arabs who left Israel in 1948 want to move back into their grandparents’ towns, en masse;

D) And the Muslim population of the Middle East would like to proclaim Dar Al-Islam in this land that they consider historically Muslim land, and ban Jews from living there.

Since, until that happens, the Arab Muslim population of the Middle East will be unhappy with Israel’s existence, Mick seems to suggest we might as well get it over with and save as many Arab lives as possible with the following Peace Plan:
1) Institute the fabled Right of Return;

2) Do as we did in Gaza and parts of the West Bank – Ban Jews from living there;

3) Do as we did in Gaza and parts of the West Bank – Turn over all sites holy to Jews to Arab control, for them to deface and, ultimately, raze.

I am uncomfortable with this approach, though. I am not looking to get everything that I want, but survival is sort of a bottom-line requirement for me.

Here are the things I would want, in a perfect world:
A) A Jewish Israel that goes from the Mediterranean to the eastern borders of Jordan, this land which was historically Jewish. (Jordan was supposed to be the Palestinian State created alongside Israel, a Jewish concession to the Arab world back in the days of the Mandate.)

B) Arabs would have the right to live as full and equal citizens in Israel if they would renounce killing and acknowledge the right of a Jewish state to exist.

C) Let the Arab nations repatriate all remaining inhabitants of refugee camps, just as Jews found ways to repatriate the 800,000 Jews who were kicked out of Arab lands in the 1940s and 1950s.

But I know I can’t have everything I want. And, both religiously and personally, I can’t stomach this ongoing bloodshed. So here is a Peace Plan compromise I would consider responsible for both parties:
1) Accept that Jordan will be an Arab state east of the Jordan River;

2) Accept that there will be a Palestinian state in most of the West Bank, and trade good, arable land for the large areas of Jewish residence in that area. Make this contingent on complete abolition of anti-Israel groups, the complete cessation of anti-Israel propaganda, and full diplomatic recognition of Israel as a Jewish state. If this agreement is not possible, then we live in a state of war; there really is no tenable in-between;

3) Accept that there will be a separate Palestinian state in Gaza. Make this contingent on complete abolition of anti-Israel groups, the complete cessation of anti-Israel propaganda, and full diplomatic recognition of Israel as a Jewish state. If this agreement is not possible, then we live in a state of war; there really is no tenable in-between;

4) Compensate first-generation descendants of Arabs who chose to leave Israel in 1948, by offering them their choice of money for resettlement or the opportunity to earn citizenship if they will formally recognize Israel as a Jewish state.

5) Keep Jerusalem as it currently is organized: An Israeli city, with Al Aqsa under the control of Muslim authorities. Muslim authorities (the Waqf) must agree to stop destroying Temple remains on the mountain, though, and anti-Israel sermons must be banned from the mosques under Waqf control.

I have serious doubts that we will ever see an Arab state on the western side of the Jordan, or in Gaza, accept Israel's right to exist; the rest of the Arab world won't let them do it.

And I know quite well that many Jews will find this plan to be too much of a concession to accept.

And I know very well that Items 2, 3 and 5 will be too much for many Arabs to accept.

But that’s why it’s called a compromise.

And I think it’s far more honest a compromise than yours, Mick.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Wake up, Jon Stewart, here's a Border Crossing Chronology

[This week's Haveil Havalim is here at Jack's! And here's Jack's Gaza Update #14.]

Jon Stewart made the uninformed assertion the other day that Israel shares blame for the current situation because they force the Gazans to stay in Gaza; he likened it to forcing a crazy person to live in the hallway outside your apartment, and then complaining when he wants to kill you.

Problem is, Israel keeps trying to open the crossings; it’s Hamas that forces them closed.

The Gaza crossings were open following Disengagement, monitored by EU agents to prevent weapons smuggling, starting in November 2005. Since then, Hamas has used them for attacks repeatedly, and forced both the EU and Israel to close them.

Here’s a timetable, followed by the relevant CNN articles as proof:

December 2005
- EU monitors left the crossings because they felt they were endangered by Hamas… and Israel re-opened the crossings anyway.

June 2006 - Hamas commences launches rockets into Israel for the first time since Disengagement. Israel keeps crossings open anyway.

July 2006 - Israel closes the crossings in response to the kidnapping of Gilad Shalit… then re-opens them anyway.

December 2006 - Israel closes the crossings in response to smuggling, and EU monitors close them because they feel they are in danger… and then Israel re-opens them anyway.

June 2007 - Israel closes the crossings in response to the Hamas takeover of Gaza, because the official Hamas charter calls for the destruction of Israel… then Israel re-opens them.

January 2008 - Israel closes border crossings in response to Hamas rocket attacks… then Israel re-opens them.

April 2008 - Israel keeps border crossings open despite Hamas terror attacks at the crossings

November 13, 2008 - Israel finally says, “Enough is enough”... until next time, I'm sure...

Here are the CNN links:

November 14, 2005
RAMALLAH, West Bank (CNN) -- Israeli and Palestinian leaders neared an agreement on Gaza border crossings Monday, officials said, prompting U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to extend her visit to the region.

November 25, 2005
(CNN) -- A main crossing from southern Gaza into Egypt, closed in September as Israeli forces withdrew from Gaza, is to open Saturday following a U.S.-brokered deal between Israelis and Palestinians....
While control of the crossing is being transferred to the Palestinians, dozens of monitors from the European Union will remain for at least 12 months and will have the final word in any dispute about who and what is allowed in and out of the territory.
The border will be open only four hours a day at first, but officials say it eventually will operate 24 hours a day.

December 20, 2005
JERUSALEM (CNN) -- A Palestinian police protest Friday prompted the departure of European Union monitors for safety reasons and the temporary closing of the Rafah border crossing between Gaza and Egypt, authorities said.
Meanwhile, gunmen attacked a Gaza police station where their relatives were being held and killed a 14-year-old Palestinian, said Palestinian security officials.
The Rafah crossing disturbance involved 100 policemen, who staged a sit-in within the terminal to protest the shooting death of a policeman Thursday.
According to Palestinian police sources, the officer was killed by the family of a drug dealer caught at the crossing terminal.

December 30, 2005
JERUSALEM (CNN) -- The Rafah border crossing between Gaza and Egypt was closed for several hours Friday after a Palestinian police protest forced European Union monitors to leave in fear for their safety, authorities said.
In other signs of the chaos in Gaza, a 14-year-old Palestinian was killed Friday when gunmen attacked a police station where their relatives were being held, Palestinian security officials said.
And, no progress was reported in winning the release of three British hostages, kidnapped by Palestinian gunmen in Rafah earlier in the week. (Posted 11:55 a.m.)

January 3, 2006
JERUSALEM (CNN) -- Random kidnappings. Daily exchanges of gunfire between police and armed militants. Different neighborhoods patrolled and controlled by competing militias.
It appears as if Gaza has degenerated into anarchy.
In just the past 10 days in the 146-square-mile territory (about twice the size of Washington, D.C.):
• Three Palestinian government offices were occupied by gunmen.
• Armed militants detonated explosives in a United Nations club.
• Three British nationals were kidnapped at gunpoint.
• An Italian man was abducted.
• Two rival families unloaded weapons at each other in a personal dispute.
• A Palestinian police officer was killed in a shootout between police and militants.
• The Palestinian-controlled border crossing was shut down by police angry at the death of their colleague, prompting European Union monitors to leave.
• Palestinian police took over government offices in their continuing protest.
• Israel launched air strikes on suspected militant targets.
Gaza was not supposed to turn out this way.
Last summer, Israel ended its 38-year military occupation of the area. For the first time in history, Gaza came under Palestinian rule.
No Ottoman Turks, no British mandate, no Egyptian control, no Israeli occupation. And in November, the Palestinian Authority took control over an international border crossing for the first time in history.
But since then, it's the absence of law and order in the territory that's been its most notable feature.

June 12 2006
Five Qassam rockets landed on the Israeli side of the Gaza border Monday morning, causing no injuries or significant damage, the Israel Defense Forces said.
The Monday launches followed a series of at least 70 rockets fired into Israel from Gaza since Friday, wounding four Israeli civilians, the Israeli forces said.
Two rockets landed near the security fence separating Gaza from Israel and three others landed near an Israeli community, the IDF said.
On Saturday, Hamas' military wing, Izzedine al Qassam, said it had resumed rocket strikes against Israel after a hiatus of more than a year.

July 15, 2006
The crossing has been closed since June 25, when three groups of Palestinian militants, including Hamas' military wing, captured an Israeli soldier.
Israel sent forces into Gaza and clamped down on residents' movements after the capture of Cpl. Gilad Shalit, 19, and the killing of two of his colleagues.

December 14, 2006
RAFAH CROSSING (CNN) -- Gunfire broke out and a border crossing was closed after Israel blocked Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniya from crossing into Gaza from Egypt on Thursday.
Israeli intelligence believed Haniya was carrying "dozens of millions of dollars" of suspected Iranian money to finance militant activity, a senior Israeli security source told CNN.
Sources in Haniya's Hamas party said after Haniya was initially blocked, he planned to try to cross without bringing in money. But the European Union, which has monitors at the crossing, closed it after Hamas militants fired on terminal guards loyal to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Militants also used explosives to put a hole in the wall at the border crossing.
Later Thursday night, however, Haniya was allowed to cross after an hours-long wait. His supporters fired gunshots in the air.

January 26 2008
Palestinians in Gaza have faced difficulty obtaining supplies since Israel sealed its border with Gaza one week ago in an effort to quell rocket attacks from Gaza into Israel.

June 18, 2007
Karni Crossing, the main Israel-Gaza border crossing, has been closed for six days. According to B'Tselem, Erez crossing was closed on Saturday and Nahal Oz was closed on Sunday.
In addition, the Rafah border crossing between Egypt and Gaza has been closed since last weekend.

April 20, 2008
Palestinian militants detonated two car bombs at an Israel-Gaza border crossing in what the Israeli military said was an attack timed to coincide with Passover. The week-long Jewish holiday began at sundown Saturday.
Under dense fog, the attackers approached the Kerem Shalom border crossing early Saturday in two explosives-laden vehicles disguised as Israeli military vehicles, according to the Israeli military. The two car bombs killed the four attackers and seriously wounded an Israeli soldier. Twelve other soldiers suffered moderate or minor injuries, the military said.
According to the Israeli military, an "alert" Israeli force detonated a fourth booby-trapped vehicle before it could detonate Sunday near the security fence surrounding Kibbutz Nirim.
"The terrorists planned to execute a wider attack, possibly kidnapping [Israeli] soldiers," according to the Israel Defense Forces. "This is the fifth attack in 10 days upon a central life-line crossing such as Kerem Shalom and Nahal Oz fuel terminal."
Israel sends nearly 200 humanitarian aid trucks into Gaza every week through the Kerem Shalom border crossing, which separates southern Gaza and Israel. Last week, Israeli troops stopped an infiltration attempt by a group of Palestinian militants at Kerem Shalom, killing one and wounding another, according to Palestinian security sources.
On April 9, Palestinian militants infiltrated Israel through the Nahal Oz border crossing and fired on the fuel terminal there, killing two Israeli civilian workers. In response, Israel halted already reduced fuel shipments to Gaza.

November 13, 2008
The United Nations Relief and Works Agency, which provides assistance to some 80 percent of Gaza's 1.5 million people, said it was forced to suspend deliveries of fuel and humanitarian relief on Thursday because Israel closed its border crossings with Gaza.
The move comes amid escalating hostilities on the Gaza-Israel border, which is threatening a five-month truce between Israel and Palestinian militant factions in Gaza.

Get it right, Jon. Being funny isn't worth the lie.