Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Plus Ca Change...

The consistency with which history repeats itself never ceases to amaze me.

This morning’s
HaZofe reported that the so-called ‘Lesser Kotel” (HaKotel ha-Qatan) has been the victim of consistent desecration by Arabs. Over the past few weeks, this extension of the Kotel that stands close to the site of the Holy of Holies (Qodesh ha-Qodoshim) has had excrement and sewage dumped in front of it (to prevent Jews from praying there) and been defaced by graffiti (in red), the tamest form of which was Allahu Akbar.

In one sense, this is traditional behavior by Muslims who, prior to 1967, used to have their donkeys leave their droppings in the narrow path beside the Kotel and built the Mughrabi quarter where the Kotel Plaza now stands in order to make it ever more difficult for Jews to pray there. On the other hand, it is striking behavior since the official Muslim line is that there was never any Temple on the Temple Mount (Haram a-Sharif) and that the Kotel is a Muslim holy place, since Muhammad tethered his horse, Al-Buraq, there before he departed on his heavenly ride. So, in effect, these Muslims are desecrating their own holy place.

Or are they?

The whole thing reminds me of the contradictory approach adopted by the Catholic Church when it started waging war against the Talmud (and the rest of rabbinic literature) in the thirteenth century. On the one hand, they sought to destroy the Talmud as a heretical, blasphemous work that preaches the murder of non-Jews. On the other hand, they claimed the Talmud proved the truth of Christianity. The former tactic lay behind the famous Disputation of Paris (1240) and the latter was the point of departure for the Barcelona Disputation (1263), which starred Nahmanides and which is portrayed in the film, The Disputation.

So, one might ask, which is it?

There are two answers. Prof. Isadore Twersky z’l used to invoke the idea of the Jew as Devil. In other words, as Joshua Trachtenberg pointed out, since the Jew is the Devil incarnate (or, at least, his ally), he can be both a mortal enemy and a source of validation.

Prof. Jeremy Cohen, however, argues that the Church (or, more precisely, the Dominican and Franciscan orders) really couldn’t have cared less about the Talmud. It was interested in undermining the Jewish capacity to survive. It really mattered little if the Talmud was physically destroyed or co-opted as a Christian work. The result would be the same. Judaism would collapse and the Jews would convert.

The Muslims have, apparently, picked up this trick from the Christians (as Bernard Lewis pointed out in Semites and Anti-semites). I don’t think they really care about the Kotel (or the Temple Mount). Generations of neglect of Jerusalem prove that. However, they are interested in getting the Jews out of Jerusalem and out of the land. What approach is adopted is of little matter. The bottom line is what’s important.

Sunday, May 22, 2005

European Union?

Like much of the rest of Israel, I watched the annual Eurovision contest (in which we came in a respectable 4th). I was, however, struck by two, ostensibly contradictory, phenomena.

1) The songs were overwhelmingly cheap imitations of the worst on the US pop scene. These performers would not have lasted ten seconds on 'American Idol.' Furthermore, the evening was testimony to the deleterious effects of globalization. Nations abdicate their languages, culture, and pride in order to become tacky imitations of an America they loathe.

2) The voting pattern was striking. Overwhelmingly, the voting was local. Slavs voted for slavic countries, former Yugoslavs voted for each other, Greeks voted for each other (Albania, Cyprus), Former members of the USSR voted for each other. [Turkey voted for Greece, which was a stunner.]

I'm not sure what all of this means. One thing is clear, there is no European Union. There is a culturally American conglomeration of regional alliances. If the EU Constitution fails, so will the EU.

To Tom Friedman: Olive Tree 12 Lexus 0.

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Yom HaZikaron 5765

Nizkor et Kulam Posted by Hello
Since 1860, 21,954 have fallen in order that the Jewish People might have a State of their own.
20,368 soldiers have fallen since the Partition Vote on November 29, 1947.
תהא נשמתם צרורה בצרור החיים
ד' יקום דמם

Monday, May 09, 2005

In Defense of Religious Zionism

I am happy that someone published a decent defense of Religious Zionism. Kudo's to Ira Slomowitz for writing it.

Blaming the Rabbis...A Response to Bat Sheva Marcus

The comments I received after my post about Pesach in Hotel led me to re-read Bat Sheva Marcus' article in the New York Jewish Week, which started the whirl of debate. There was much there that I could sign off on, until I reached the following paragraph:

Much of the responsibility for this new trend, it seems to me, has to fall on the shoulders of our rabbis and leadership. If our rabbinic leaders in the last decade had spent their time working out easier, halachically acceptable solutions for the myriad of tasks involved in Passover instead of engaging in the one-upmanship in stringency that has characterized the development of Pesach preparation, we might find ourselves in a very different place. Perhaps if we were told that the spring cleaning was optional, that making something kosher for Passover is not rocket science, and that so much of what we buy and cook can be easily adapted for Passover, maybe we wouldn’t find ourselves a community feeling like it needs to run away for the holiday.

This has got to be one of the most gratuitous swipes at the rabbinate that I have ever encountered. Every first year Semikha student knows the story of the rabbi whose wife threw him out of the house Erev Pesach because if she were to listen to him (i.e. Halakha) the house wouldn't be Pesachdig. Outside of the realm of kashering and products, the rules for pre-Pesach preparation are a matter of folklore and custom. Now, these are integral parts of an ongoing tradition and of the mimetic culture to which I referred in my post. Much of it is critical to the education of the next generation, since sights, smells and sounds are deeply ingrained in the emotional memory of children. However, these cleaning strictures were not foisted on an unsuspecting public by a cabal of reactionary, primitive rabbis. They express deeply held feelings (at least, in the past) about the larger significance of Hametz and non-Hametz.

I will grant Ms. Marcus that ultimately much of this has a distant halakhic basis. Rav Soloveitchik zt'l used to note that the halakhic strictures of Pesakh are due to the fact that even the smallest amount of Hametz renders food unfit for consumption ('assur be-mashehu'). This, in turn, is a result of the fact that consumption of Hametz varries a punishment of 'karet.' Nevertheless, it's a long way from there to spring cleaning. Miles, in fact.

Now, it is a fact that in the area of foodstuffs there are some amazing Humras floating around. In Israel, most of these revolve around kitniyot (In the US it seems that the issue is the Hasidic hijacking of restaurants wherein those of the Misnagdic persuasion can't get a knaidel to save our lives.) These deserve separate treatment. Nevertheless, it is worthwhile noting that recent research by my friend and colleague, Professor Menachem Friedman, has shown that the rise of 'mahmirim' in the religious world was as much predicated upon the search for humras by members of the community as upon their own jurisprudential proclivities (perhaps more so). [I suggest reading this article and this one as well to understand the point.]

In light of this, I have to chalk up this intemperate outburst to misinformation and anti-clerical sentiments that are rooted elsewhere. Certainly they have nothing to do with Pesach.

Sunday, May 08, 2005

In Memory of the Martyrs of 1096

[About ten years ago I wrote a piece about the Aqeda that was published as part of Bar Ilan's Daf HaShavua. I'd like to repost it in light of the fact tat it was at this time of year, 909 years ago, that the Crusader descended upon the Jews of the Rhineland.]

Akedat Yitzchak: On the Perception of Historical Experience in Judaism

Immediately [the emperor] commanded that he should be killed. His mother fell upon him, hugged him and kissed him and said to him: my son, go to your father Abraham and tell him: Thus said my mother. Feel not proud of yourself and say that I built an altar and placed my son, Isaac, upon it, for my mother built seven altars and put seven sons upon them in one day. For you it was a trial, for me it was reality. [Midrash Eichah Rabbah, parshata 50].

Look and see, our G-d, what we do to write a chapter in the history of the sanctification of Your great name, never exchanging Your Torah for another faith ... and the dear sons of Zion, the sons of Magentza were put to the test ten times like our father Abraham and they also bound their children just as Abraham bound Isaac... [The Decrees of the Year 1096 / 4856 by Rabbi Shlomo ben Shimshon]

Bound on Mount Moriah, forced by his father
He slept so not to kick and mar the slaughter
We though untied are slaughtered for His love
Our souls rejoice in His salvation from above.
[from "Foreign Gods Rose Up Against Us" by Rabbi Eliezer ben Natan (Ra'avan)]

In the many discussions which have been devoted to the Akedah the common tendency is to deal with the philosophical and moral questions it raises. However the influence of the Akedah story was not limited to the abstract, academic dimension in Judaism. The opposite is true. More than it provided material for lively intellectual discussion the Akedah served many generations of Jews as a tangible, living memory which gave them inspiration in those many hours when they themselves were put to the test. This dynamic role fulfilled by the Akedah narrative can also teach us something about the attitude of Judaism towards history.
Three sources which recall the Akedah were cited above.
The first is the conclusion of the story of Miriam bat Tanchum (called "Hannah" in the historic consciousness of later generations) who lost her seven sons during the persecutions by Antiochus Epiphanes because they refused to worship idols. [In point of fact, according to Talmudic tradition this event took place during the period of the decrees of Hadrian after the suppression of the Bar Kochba rebellion. Cf: Gerson Cohen, "Chana V'shivat Baneha", Sefer Hayovel l'Mordechai Kaplan, Hebrw section, New York, 1953, pp. 109-122]. In the source before us the mother sadly relates how she sacrificed more then our father Abraham, both in the number of the sacrifices and in the essence of the act itself ("for you it was a trial, for me it was reality"). She sees herself as having been tested just as Abraham was, though her role was passive.
The other two selections are taken from the body of literature which appeared following the pogroms which afflicted the Jews of the Rhineland province in Germany during the First Crusade in the year 4856 (1096 - exactly nine hundred years ago). As we know, the Crusaders made their way to the Holy Land in order to liberate it from the Moslem "heretics" as part of worldwide strategy for extending the borders of Christendom. Therefore the Crusaders, when they came upon the many Jewish communities on their way, drew a simple conclusion : here we are embarking on a long journey to reach the church of the Holy Sepulcher and take our revenge from the Ishmaelites, and here are the Jews who live among us whose fathers killed him (Jesus) and crucified him for no reason whatsoever. Let us take revenge upon them first, destroy them as a nation and the name of Israel will no longer be remembered, or let them be like us and recognize Jesus". [A.M. Haberman, Sefer Gzeirot Ashkenaz v'Zorefat, Jerusalem, 1971, p.24. This statement is also quoted by the well known churchman Gubert de Noigent in his autobiography, Histoire de sa Vie, Ed.G.Bourgin, Paris 1907, p.118].
Thus the Jews were offered the choice of conversion to Christianity, or death for the sanctification of the Name of G-d (Kiddush Hashem).The reaction of most of the Jews seems to have been to prefer to die, to sanctify G-d's Name, rather than to save their lives by being baptized. However, they did not wait for the Crusaders and their local collaborators carry out this horrible task. They decided to deny them the spiritual satisfaction, preferring to kill one another and commit suicide. The historical accounts (in both Hebrew and Latin) are filled with stories of how fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, husbands and wives killed each other in order to avoid falling into the hands of the Crusaders. Even now the descriptions of those events shock their readers.
The selections above were taken from among the historical account and liturgical poems (piyutim) which were written about the events of 1096. They shed a great deal of light on the spiritual consciousness of those who perished. Just as in the Midrash about the woman and her seven sons (and almost certainly taking inspiration from it) the Akedah story holds a central place in these texts. The Jews are seen (and see themselves) as those who continue the path of Abraham, in their willingness to sacrifice that which is most dear to them in order to assert the Oneness of G-d. (in contrast, of course, to the Trinity). Their conduct is demonstrative, indicating a complete awareness of the meaning of their actions. They are definitely, wholeheartedly imitating the image of Abraham, and in fact, competing to outdo him. Unlike the woman and her seven sons they died by their own hands. Unlike the original Akedah story the "sacrifices" are not bound but go voluntarily and with willing souls to the altar. This is the significance of the third selection, written by Rabbi Eliezer ben Natan:
"Bound on Mt. Moriah (Isaac), forced by his father,
... We, though untied, are slaughtered for His love".
We should emphasize that, for the author of Midrash Eichah and for the generation of 1096 the use of the Akedah story is not simply a literary device. The Akedah loomed before them as a living event, tangible and imminent in their conciousness, a part of their personal experience as Jews. When the Jews of Ashkenaz sacrificed their loved ones they followed, as it were, that shining example, believing that in doing so they were expressing the historical and spiritual continuity which linked them to their father Abraham.
This point is significant on its own terms, but it also helps to explain the immense difference as to the sense of time in traditional Jewish society in contrast to the historical perception of the modern world. As described by the anthropologist M. Eliade in his book "The Myth of the Eternal Return" (New York, 1974), traditional society retains a sensitive, vibrant feeling about the past, that is, man feels the continuity which links him to the past, that he is living in a "permanent" present. He derives his identity from the cumulative experience of former generations. He judges the present in the light of the past and also in the light of his vision of the future, without ever losing his sense as to the uniqueness of the present. As a result, traditional man understands his place in the universe and in history as part of "the great chain of being" (a phrase coined by the philosopher Arthur O. Lovejoy). In Jewish terms, the Jew builds his world as a part of a chain of tradition and defines himself by making use of the collective memory of his people throughout its generations and the far reaching localities of its dispersion.
This feeling / perception of history is the basic reason why Akedat Yitzchak has made so profound an impression on the consciousness of the Jewish people in generation after generation. It explains how Jews found inspiration in the life of Abraham, (as well as of other past figures ) and carried on "dialogues", debates, and even "competitions" with him when they reached the day of their own trial. The vibrant nature of the Akedah story in the collective memory of the people helped the Jews of 1096, in the end, to make that supreme effort to sanctify the name of G-d in sadness and sorrow but also with a feeling of deep dignity, as summed up in the words of the chronicler: "This is the generation that has been chosen by Him to be His own, for they had strength and courage to stand in his Sanctuary, to do his will, and to sanctify His great name in His world..." (Haberman, p. 25).

On Pesach, Mimetic Culture and the Renegade Rebbetzin

Recently, there has been an important, explosive discussion on an otherwise entertaining blog that is penned by the self-styled 'Renegade Rebbetzin.' The subject is ostensibly that of home preparation for Pesach versus spending the holiday at a Hotel. However, the author and her many corespondents included within the scope of the discussion the overall issues of Pesach stringencies and the popular identification of Pesach cleaning with Spring cleaning. JUdging from the remarkably virulent tone of the author, as well as that of those who commented, I have been hesitant to participate. However, as the question touches upon a broader issue that is of keen concern to me, I felt obliged to participate, post factum.

The phenomenon of families spending Pesach in a hotel, rather than at home, is an expression of the westernization of Orthodoxy and a key indicator of the significantly improved economic status of observant Jews. It also constitutes a further indication of decentralizing and specialization of Jewish observance. In other words, rituals and knowledge that had previously been home based are now transferred to specialists who provide them as a commercial service. This, of course, is not an unprecedented phenomenon. Professionalization has been a permanent moment in he history of Judaism (at least, Ashkenazic Judaism), since the late thirteenth century. However, it has long been my feeling that this development is not always salutary. On the contrary, I think that it has potentially negative effects upon present and future Jewish education, ethics and religiouslity.

Jewish religious life involves much more than punctillious observance of Halakha. It has an experiential aesthetic and that aesthetic is not only expressed in results but in preparation. In the present context, this is a maddeningly academic way of saying that the experience of Jewish life requires getting one's hands dirty with Shabbat/Holiday preparations. Only one who makes the effort on Erev Shabbat can truly eat on Shabbat. As Professor Haym Soloveitchik has noted on more than one occasion, the increase of Jewish observance and the greater emphasis on strict halakhic detail has been accompanied by the death of Erev Shabbat, Erev Yom Tov, Elul, and the Three Weeks. The observances are stricter, the texture is weaker.

Opting for Pesach in a hotel may well be satisfying spiritually in terms of the seder. However, what is lost is the anticipation created by Pesach preparations and the sense of tradition of preparing as one's parents and grandparents did. It also leads to functional ritual illiteracy on the part of children who don't have a clue how to 'make Pesach,' and results in alienation from a critical aspect of the holiday. In addition, consistent resort to hotels for Pesach assumes the capacity to pay for them. What of those who can't? [In addition, while hoteliers have the right to make a living, it bothers me deeply that so much money is spent on hotels when so many Jews barely have money for matzot.]

I am fully cognizant of the tremendous efforts that are require to prepare for Pesach (or for other holidays). In our house everyone contributes equally to the effort (much as we all work on baking hamentaschen, instead of buying them). I also categorically reject the extremes ogf Pesach 'insanity.' Nevertheless, it is my deeply held feeling that more is lost by the hotel phenomenon than is gained (though I don't reject the idea of occasionally resorting thereto. I am addressing the phenomenon of preparing for Pesach by making reservations.)