Sunday, December 26, 2004

Orwell Lives!!!

As a followup to my last few postings, QED has a great post (along with a link to an essay by Orwell) that is a must read and a sad commentary on academics and intellectuals.

Brill Redux

A few months ago, I commented upon an article by Dr. Alan Brill of Yeshiva University that was entitled Judaism in Culture: Beyond the Bifurcation of Torah and Madda and published in the Edah Journal. I had both praise and serious reservations about Brill's contention that Modern Orthodoxy is what people do, not what ideologues (resorting to 19th and 20th century thought) say it should be.

Recently, Rabbi Yitzhaq Blau (one of Modern Orthodoxy's rising young stars) has offered a cogent response to Brill, in the same Journal. I agree with pretty much everything Blau says. I would only add, as I did in my original discussion, that confusing sociology with religion can prove exceedingly dangerous. Personally, while using Geertz and Peter Berger in my research, I feel that invoking them as a source for theology one could find oneself more than halfway to Schechter's 'Catholic Israel' or to Kaplan's 'Judaism As a Civilization' (for 'Civilization' substitute 'Culture').

Thanks to Hirhurim for pointing out the appearance of Blau's article.

Wednesday, December 22, 2004

The AJS: A Review Part I

I am in New York, on my way back home from the annual conference of the Association for Jewish Studies, which was held this week (S-T) in Chicago. Overall, it was a very impressive and successful gathering of over 800 academics from around the world who met to discuss and engage a dizzying array of topics. I'd never really attended an AJS conference and I was very impressed and exhilarated by the new vistas and ideas which I encountered.

I tried to use the three days to immerse myself in scholarly pursuits (and catching up with old friends, while making new ones). I was determined to take a break from Israeli politics. No such luck. While I decided not to attend sessions on Israel:Palestine, I kept encountering it anyway. The most disturbing example was provided early on. One of the first sessions dealt with the challenge of teaching about Israel on the college campus. During the break afterward, I met a close friend who is by no means a Likudnik. (He still likes Barak.) He was beside himself. He reported that every single speaker did nothing but spew venom about Zionism and Israel. We're not talking about people who hate Sharon/settlers/Yesha etc. We're talking about academics who want to dismantle the State of Israel and lecture (viz. preach) against it's very right to exist. My friend told me that one presenter summed things up by saying that he views his job as being the destruction of the Zionist narrative, with which Jewish students enter his class. (sic[k]!)

Ihr hert a mayseh?

The self-appointed task of these Jewish academicians is to destroy the Jewish national identity of the unsuspecting student. In the 1930's 'progressive' College Professors saw their sacred task as being disabusing their students of their belief in God and their attachment to Judaism. Now it's the turn of Zionism and of the State of Israel. Someone should contact Sander Gilman and urge him to add a chapter to his classic work on judische selbst-hass, Jewish Self-Hatred.

Saturday, December 18, 2004

It Might Lead to Social Dancing

Hirhurim has been writing a lot about the direct and indirect problems posed by mixed dancing. Meanwhile, for reasons that require serious thought, Israeli Orthodox society has developed a full scale disco culture for singles, which presumably includes mixed dancing (or jumping, in line with the latest trends).

You can read all about it in Ma'ariv NRG and check out a full web site on the topic, called Dosibot. I"m really not sure what to make of it. I welcome observations.

Friday, December 17, 2004


I try to keep my postings from dealing with political issues for all sorts of reasons that I'll spell out in the future. However, with Hanukkah over and the debate over the retreat from Gaza rendered almost academic, I thought I"d post the following quote from Simon the Hasmonean (IMacc. 15, 33-34). When Antiochus VI demanded that Simon hand over territory to the Seleucid Crown, Simon replied:

Simon gave him this reply: "We have neither taken foreign land nor seized foreign property, but only the inheritance of our fathers, which at one time had been unjustly taken by our enemies. Now that we have the opportunity, we are firmly holding the inheritance of our fathers.

Irrespective of what happens practically and what policy is adopted for the future of the Jewish State, it behooves all sides to remember that the point of departure is that noted by Simon. If he's not right, then Jews have no right to live anywhere in Eretz Yisrael.

Hanukkah Abscondita

Last week, someone mentioned to me that the number of Israeli Jews who light Hanukkah candles is in decline. At first I couldn't believe it. After all, the Guttman Study showed an increase in Jewish involvement among Israeli Jews and anecdotal evidence consistently shows an intensification of Jewish identification and religious observance since the Oslo War commenced in September 2000. Nevertheless, I decided to ask my non-Orthodox students what they thought.

To my utter disappointment, they all confirmed the report I'd heard earlier. Most had attended a candle lighting sometime during Hanukkah (and all of them had been eating sufganiot religiously- no pun intended). I pointed out to them that all but the most assimilated Jews lit Hanukkah candles. Why then, was the trend among young, coastal Israeli Jews going in the opposite direction?

The answers I received were mixed. Some gave the usual, 'We don't need Judaism to be Jews. We live in Israel. The Jews in the Diaspora need Judaism.' Others, in my opinion tragically, said that not lighting Hanukkah candles is a form of anti-Dati/Haredi protest. In other words, they do it so we flagrantly don't. To this I simply told them that they have no right to let others steal their Judaism from them and that the 'all or nothing,' 'Orthodox or nothing,' 'Haredi or nothing' attitude that rules Israeli society is flaccid, superficial and plain wrong. It is wreaking havoc in secular, traditional, dati and haredi Jewish circles.

Yet, I think something deeper and more insidious is at work here.

Hanukkah contains two themes, one spiritual and the other political. Both have coexisted since the first Hanukkah, with different emphases. During the Second Temple period, the mystique of the Hasmoneans and the existence (or memory) of Jewish political independence, led to the political side being stressed. On the other hand, during the exile, the spiritual side of things was more apt, more inspiring and more relevant. The rise of political Zionism led to a conscious resurrection of the image of the Hasmoneans and of Hanukkah as fights for national independence in Eretz Yisrael (though the historical reality was far more nuanced and complex). Judah Maccabee (along with Bar Kokhba and others) became the protypes for the Jewish struggle for self-determination and independence. That's the way Hanukkah was taught both in Israel and in Zionist oriented schools in the Diaspora.

For the past two decades, and since Oslo especially, everything connected with Eretz Yisrael, Jewish national identity, the right of Jewish self-determination- even the existence of the Jewish People- has been lambasted, ridiculed, denied, besmirched and negate by high visibility academics and their mindless parrots in the media. I strongly suspect, no I'm convinced, that the constant hammering away at anything positive about the Jewish connection to Israel, to Jewish sovereignty and identity has impacted directly upon Hanukkah. In the jargon of the today, young Jews can't 'connect' to the holiday. Absent the spiritual dimension of the festival and its infantilization (which goes with its commercialization), there's nothing left to celebrate.

I closed the class by exploring the concept of national collective memory (a la Halbwachs and Benedict Anderson). I hope I left them with the understanding that without that memory and its commemoration, the State of Israel and the Jewish People, will have no future. The class was quiet. Did anything sink in? Time will tell.

[Note: I've been mulling over how to write this post for almost a week. I finally decided on this formulation during my flight to the US for the Association for Jewish Studies Conference next week in Chicago.]

Monday, December 06, 2004

Hag Urim Sameach!

Posted by Hello
Hanukkah starts tomorrow night. Upon reflection the holiday has several inter-locking lessons:1)The Freedom to Study Torah and fulfill God's Mitzvot. 2) The strength to stand up before Cultural Imperialism 3) The absolute necessity for political independence to secure the Torah, in its fullest sense and 4) The power of belief, that even in a time of Hester Panim, God's Providence is the ultimate master of history.

I heard the Rav zt"l say on many occasions that Hanukkah was the quintessential holiday of the Torah she-be'al Peh, the Oral Tradition. Prima facie, I always took him to mean that it's the only holiday whose mandate is totally derived from the Masorah, because even Purim is rooted in the Megillah, which is part of the Torah she-be-Khetav. Years later, however, I realized that his observation was much more profound.
The persecutions of Antiochus Epiphanes represented the first massive challenge faced by the Hakhme Ha-Masorah since the cessation of prophecy some three hundred years previously. It was necessary to deal, for example, with the question of warfare on Shabbat (IMAcc. 2, 38-41). Considering that wars were previously set pieces waged on one day, it is perfectly possible that even soldiers had never fought on Shabbat. (War only became a 'total' matter after the American Civil War.) Or, a Hazal often say, they may have forgotten the ruling and were forced to rediscover it.

More to the point. the author of IMaccabees is painfully aware of the fact that there are halakhic questions which will only be decided when prophecy returns (though I realize that that's a problem for the Rambam). According to IMacc. 4, 44-46:
And when as they consulted what to do with the altar of burnt offerings, which was profaned; They thought it best to pull it down, lest it should be a reproach to them, because the heathen had defiled it: wherefore they pulled it down, And laid up the stones in the mountain of the temple in a convenient place, until there should come a prophet to shew what should be done with them. (This, of course, diverges from the Rambam's exclusion of prophets from the Halakhic Process. וצ"ע ).
A similar case relate to the appointment of Simon as 'ethnarch' or 'king' as well as High Priest (something of which HaZaL were less than happy). The same writer says (IMacc. 14, 41): Also that the Jews and priests were well pleased that Simon should be their governor and high priest for ever, until there should arise a faithful prophet.

The bottom line is that Hanukkah commemorates the full functioning of the Torah she-be'al Peh in extremely adverse conditions. It is only fitting, then, that it should derive its authority from the Oral Law alone.

On a lighter note, since it's a holiday of Simha ve-Hallel, here-direct from the UK -are....the
Singing Candles with their unforgettable rendition of 'Mi Yemalel.'

The Medium is Sometimes the Message

I've been following the postings of an interesting blog called Chakira for a few months. The author's postings are predominantly concerned with the in and outs of Modern Orthodoxy, generally, and YU/RIETS, in particular. This is not the place to comment on his overall output. I would, however, like to comment upon his style tone.

Qohelet (9,17) says: 'The words of the sages are spoken quietly.' (Cf. Qohelet Rabbah, parsha 9 s.v. (1) divre.) It's excellant advice, especially if you want to address issues that are laden with emotional implications. Chakira, all too often, let's his adrenalin carry him off and harms the cogency of what he wants to say. If a point can't be made effectively. but respectfully, it wasprobably not that good a point in the first place.

Good advice for all of us.

Sunday, December 05, 2004

God Save (Us From) the Supreme Court!

Ben Chorin usually spends his time inveighing against the Supreme Court. However, since the creeping incursion of the court on the legislative powers of the Knesset and its consistent efforts to de-judaize the State of Israel require an informed public, I've decided to weigh in educationally..

The highly problematic nature of Supreme Court appointments and policy have been extensively discussed in
Azure magazine, in a series of articles that should be standard fare for any informed Zionist. Chief among these are an important study by Hillel Neuer on Chief Justice Aharon Barak, and a critical series by Evelyn Gordon (1, 2, 3, 4, 5). It's all conveniently available on the web.

Beyond Eretz Yisrael

In today's Haaretz, Nadav Shragai addresses what should be a sore spot in the National Religious world. Justifiedly or not, we are (or are perceived to be) a one issue constituency. The community, as a united whole, does not go to war over the dire poverty and social injustice that increasingly plague Israeli society:

...The religious-nationalist public, including Yesha settlers, never went to battle over any issue but one - Eretz Israel. Even Zevulun Orlev, disciple of the multifaceted National Religious Party, quit the government over the plan to evacuate Gush Katif, not over the 1.4 million people living below the poverty line or the 366,000 at-risk children. While there are numerous charitable acts by individuals and numerous initiatives for social legislation, particularly those created by religious MKs such as Zvi Hendel, Nissan Slomiansky, and Shaul Yahalom, some members of the religious-nationalist public have developed a reclusive lifestyle. Acceptance committees at many settlements have been selective in absorbing new residents over the years. Many religious-nationalist neighborhoods in cities within the Green Line also have been shaped as neighborhoods with a homogeneous population.

As Shragai notes, there have been important initiatives to set up Religious Zionist enclaves inm development towns and underprivileged areas. Nevertheless, the community has not given these the same type of support, no hold barred support, that it has the fight for the Land of Israel.

Shragai continues:

Many years ago, Yeruham was already home to one of religious Zionism's first social advocacy proto-settlements. It has since been subsumed by dozens of social religious-Zionist pilot-settlements established by the Moreshet foundation, which have "settled" in underprivileged towns across the country. Many of the families that joined these pilot projects settled down there.

This one dimensional attitude is a gross violation of the Torah. Religious people ostensibly believe that the Land of Israel is a gift to the Jewish People from God. That actualization of that gift is conditional. Anyone who reads the TaNaKh knows that while Eretz Yisrael was given to the Jewish People in perpetuity, the residence of the Jews there depends upon their conduct. That conduct includes social responsibility. As Jeremiah said, while standing at the gater to the First Temple:

If you thoroughly amend your ways and your doings; if you thoroughly execute justice between a man and his neighbour; if you oppress not the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow, and shed not innocent blood in this place, neither walk after other gods to your hurt; then will I cause you to dwell in this place, in the land that I gave to your fathers, for ever and ever:

If not, then:

I will do to the house, whereupon My name is called, wherein ye trust, and unto the place which I gave to you and to your fathers, as I have done to Shiloh. And I will cast you out of My sight, as I have cast out all your brethren, even the whole seed of Ephraim:

Being a setler is a humra, not a qula. It means doing more for the general society, not less. As Shragai concludes:

Those who now ask their brothers not to disengage from them should be careful not to disengage from their brethren, even when they are not on the eve of vital political decisions. Settling throughout the country and populating Judea and Samaria are not the only noble causes. The wholeness of the people and concern for socio-economic distress are no less exalted ideals.

I couldn't have put it better myself.

Thursday, December 02, 2004

George Santayana, Chanukkah and Me

Everybody knows the famous quote by George Santayana that 'Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it' (from: Reason and Common Sense, 1905).

Shechita Controversy

Simcha at Hirhurim reports on the Shechita Controversy prompted by PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals). They claim that the animals slaughtered in an Iowa slaughter house are painfully abused after slaughter. Now, halakhically after the esophagus and wind pipe are severed the animal is considered dead, though it might have mechanical reactions afterward (halakhically known as 'pirkhus'). That's what's behind the well-known phenomenon of the 'chicken running around without a head.' On the other hand, if there is real animal abuse it obviously needs to be investigatyed.

Anyway, I"m somewhat skeptical of the source of the accusation. PETA, it will be recalled, is a radical animal rights organization that a few years ago wrote to Yasser Arafat to stop using donkeys in suicide attacks. People, they said, can murder each other. They begged him to keep the poor animals out of it! (So much for real humanity.)

In addition, PETA is touting a video that purports to show the abuse of animals by shochtim. The last time such a film was produced it was Goebbel's infamous movie Der Ewige Jude ('The Eternal Jew'). As one description of the latter notes:

Though unquestionably vicious, many would say that, by today's standards, it is also crude and transparent. The narrator explains the Jews' ratlike behavior, while showing footage of rats squirming from sewers and leaping at the camera. The film's most shocking scene is the slaughter of a cow, shown in bloody detail, by a grinning Rabbi - and it is followed by, of all things, three innocent (presumably German) lambs nuzzling each other.

The movie was intended to prepare the German public for the imminent deportation of German Jewry. Lest you think this type of effect no longer obtains, note the comments posted on the movie's website.

It now appears (according to the Post) that PETA is being backed by the Israeli Chief Rabbinate.
My other observations, though, still hold.

Owing to the fact that the packing plant in question is affiliated with Lubavitch, Failed Messiah is carrying all of the relevant links.

The Sign of a Real Leader: An Apology from Stephen Savitsky

This afternoon I received the following e-mail from the new president of the OU, Mr. Stephen Savitsky. I think it speaks for itself and speaks highly of a person willing to take responsibility for his words and to make amends for his mistakes. I look forward to his implementing the pro-Aliyah policy he described in his original interview in the Jerusalem Post.

Dear Rabbi Dr. Jeffrey R. Woolf:

After receiving many emails regarding my interview in The Jerusalem Post, I want you to know that I have placed an ad in Thursday’s editon of the Post which will read as follows:

I deeply regret the remarks I made concerning past motivations for aliya which were reported in the Friday, November 26 edition of The Jerusalem Post, and I apologize for them. I am sorry that these remarks, which were part of a lengthy discussion on aliya and many other topics, denigrated—albeit unintentionally—those who have made aliya over the years. As newly-elected President of the Orthodox Union, I will continue to acknowledge their courage and idealism, and to use their example to encourage others to follow in their footsteps. Indeed, promoting aliya was a key theme of our Convention in Jerusalem this past weekend.

I request mechila (forgiveness) from all whom I offended, and hope I may look forward to working closely with the entire community of olim to increase and enhance aliya in the future.

This unfortunate incident has caused me tremendous personal anguish and I hope that I have learned from this experience and that I will be able to represent the OU in a positive manner in the future. Thank you for taking the time to communicate with me.

Stephen J Savitsky
President, Orthodox Union


Gilly, at If I Forget Thee..., had the best 'last word' on the Savitsky affair.

Wednesday, December 01, 2004

Savitsky Redux

The furor engendered by Steven Savitsky's Aliyah malaprop was a rivetting sign of the power of the Blogosphere. Alison Kaplan Sommer turned to Calev Ben David of the Jerusalem Post to weigh in on the issue. His answer is here.

Personally, I'm very disappointed by his remarks, especially the understanding way in which he reacted to Savitsky's characterization of North American Olim as 'losers':

Take myself. Having moved here soon after graduating university, I certainly wasn't successful, and was unequipped with a medical, legal or business degree. Nor did I have a successful marriage, or for that matter, a particularly successful single life.
And yep, I admit, my family did help me out on occasion – although you certainly don't have to come on aliya to be a successful schnorrer. Was I also "running away from something"? No doubt about it. If I had been perfectly happy back in my native New York, why would I have left it?
I think that was a pretty typical profile of the young American olim of my generation.

I don't know who he's talking about (except himself). The American olim I know were all motivated by Love of God, Torah, the Jewish People and (of course) the Land itself. If they were 'running away' from something it was from assimilation (which wiped out 90% of my family). Mostly, they were 'running to' something, usually a more meaningful life and a chance to build a real Jewish future in the deepest sense of the words.

If 'losers' came here it was because American Jewry (the ones who stayed to be successful)decided that it could cure its flotsam and jetsam by dumping them here (as in 'The kid's got problems? Send him/her to a Qibbutz!'). Even then, this small minority of the oleh population was saved by Eretz Yisrael through the good graces of the Yeshivot and Seminaries that arose to help them. Are these also losers? I"d mention names, but the Torah prohibits it.

You know, I've often wondered about the parlor conversation of the Babylonian Jews who watched Zerubavel and Joshua or Ezra and Nehemiah leave comfortable homes to travel to war-torn, destroyed Yehud to rebuild the Temple. They probably clucked their tongues and talked about the 'losers' who were giving up material success in order to become a burden on the Jewish People.

Those 'losers' assured the survival of Judaism and ultimatelty gave the world the Mishnah and the Midrash,. the Sofrim and the Tannaim, the Amoraim of EY and the payyetanim. Without them there would be no Talmud.

Those of us who came here did so because we understood, implicitly and explicitly, that the Torah goes forth from Zion. Throughout the long years of exile that was also true. (This one is too long to explain here.) It remains true. As one very prominent American Jewish leader told a friend of mine at the Kotel a few years ago, 'We need you alot more than you need us.'