Thursday, May 28, 2009

לולא תורתך שעשועיי

Shavuos is my favorite Yom Tov. After all, its central activity is Talmud Torah.

I learned how to appreciate the holiday from my years studying with the Rav זצ"ל and the opening remarks to his famous lecture on Gerus and Masorah are my inspiration.

We often forget the study of Torah is not only a spiritual need, it is a physical requirement. החושש בראשו יעסוק בתורה, said the Rabbis, 'He whose head pains him, let him occupy himself with Torah.' The obverse is also true. The lack of studying Torah inflicts both emotional and physical distress on those who love it.

The act of Talmud Torah is not solely determined by the subject matter. It
also depends upon one's state of mind. Thus, it is possible to study our sacred literature with detachment; without a feeling of encountering God. That, in my opinion, is not studying Torah. On the other hand, one can immerse oneself in Jewish History, with all the tools of modern scholarship. If one does so in a modality wherein one sees Divine Providence guiding the history of His People, that is part of Talmud Torah. In terms the Rav described above, such study of Torah in the wider sense is an encounter with God; It is an act of Divine Revelation.

ואידך פירושא, זיל גמור
The rest is commentary, let us go and study.

חג שמח לכולם

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Happy Yom Yerushalayim!

I already expressed with what feelings I will travel tonight and tomorrow to the Holy City, the place which the lord, our God, has chosen.

To President Obama, who wishes to rip out the heart of the Jewish People, in order to sacrifice it on the altar of the Jihadi Molech: I offer the heart-felt and on-target words of Israel Harel.

חג שמח

[Note: I've removed my intemperate remarks about MJ Rosenberg. My sentiments haven't changed, only the way I want to express them.]

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Eyes that Burned Like Diamonds: The Talner Rebbe זצ"ל

Today is the thirty-seventh yahrzeit of Grand Rabbi M. Z. Twersky זצ"ל, the Talner Rebbe of Boston, father of my teacher, Rabbi Professor Yitzhak (Isadore) Twersky זצ"ל. He passed away on the 41st day of the Omer 5732, יסוד שביסוד as in צדיק יסוד עולם.
The Talner Rebbe was one of those remarkable people who had a real impact on me. The irony is that we never were introduced. We never exchanged a word. I was just one of the hundreds of people, and a kid at that, who came to his shtiebel to dance on the eve of Simhat Torah. Indeed, even if I had wanted to speak to him I would not have been able. By the time I encountered him, he was unable to speak, as the result of a stroke. It was, however, not his words that affected me. It was his eyes.
The Talner's eyes burned like diamonds. As the circle of dancers would pass by him, standing mute at his shtender, he would look at you; and his eyes would see right through you. They were kind eyes, warm eyes, truthful eyes. In his mute dignity, he generated a profound sense of holiness, of godliness. In his presence, I recall feeling that I was in the presence of a real צדיק.
That experience taught me that that there are truly spiritual, truly holy people in the world.
I thank God for the opportunity of encountering such a one.

Oh Jerusalem!

The papers are all reporting the plan that Obama plans to advance. Basically, it requires the expulsion of 350,000 more Jews from their homes, creating a sovereign Palestinian State (which can militarize five minutes after it becomes independent), the acceptance of refugees in Israel (to a 'limited' extent), and the internationalization of the Old City under UN auspices.
I can already read the future columns by Aluf Benn, Gideon Levy, Gideon Samet, and their non-Israeli mimics, like Tom friedman (and some of the truly intellectually challenged). 'Who needs Jerusalem?' 'No one lives there.' 'Why should sticks and stones stand in the way of peace?' and (the real kicker) 'We can trust the United Nations.'
'The United Nations'(?). You mean the guys who made the Six Day War Possible? The guys who are letting Hizbullah rearm under their very eyes? The guys who helped kidnap Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev, כרונם לברכה? the guys who are rolling their eyes at the slaughter in Darfur?

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Save Israel From Itself

Settling Jaffa, Acre, Lod and Ramle
Nadav Shragai

The maps and textbooks issued by the Palestinian Authority present a picture of a world without Israel. Asraa, Ra'ad, and Rahaam, all of them eight years old and originally "from occupied Safed, Acre, and Haifa," beam with pride as they are interviewed on Palestinian television. Their friends earn high marks and prizes for solving geography riddles about Palestine, "which borders Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and Egypt." Catchy video snippets portray the Jezreel Valley as "the bread basket of Palestine," and Lake Kinneret as "the sweet water of Palestine." The country's territory, as one child points out in one of the broadcasts, spans 27,000 square kilometers, rather than 6,220 sq. km., the area of Judea, Samaria and the Gaza Strip.

In light of this display, which is both fascinating and depressing at once and comes courtesy of the Palestinian Media Watch, mixed Arab-Jewish towns in the country occupy a central place in the public dialogue, and not by chance. Israel, as the state of the Jewish people, is losing its grip on these cities. Neighborhoods and apartment buildings in which Jews have lived in the past are being bought by Arabs. Some of these transactions are private initiatives, while others are part of a deliberate campaign. Take, for example, the plot near the Golani junction where a Hamas charity front nearly succeeded in acquiring land from a cash-strapped Jew. Jewish investors managed to raise the necessary funds, thus rescuing 50 dunams (some 12 acres) of agricultural land.

These rescue missions do not always have a happy ending. In Upper Nazareth, a town established over 50 years ago to solve the demographic problem posed by Arab Nazareth, "for sale" signs adorn dozens of residential structures. The sellers are Jews. The buyers, for the most part, are Arabs. A residential neighborhood originally planned to house career army officers is today inhabited by Arabs. In addition, the population of the Hakramim neighborhood is changing. The Jews are going, the Arabs are coming.

The findings on changing demographics are published primarily in national-religious journals, even though this process ought to concern all Israelis wishing to maintain a Jewish state. Members of the National Union do indeed make the effort to occasionally visit those areas in which the national-religious public has gained a foothold, including mixed cities in which these individuals have in recent years sought to halt the process. Beyond that, however, there has been awful neglect.

The Israeli "mainstream," which for years has preached the need to separate from most of the territories of Judea and Samaria in order to preserve the Jewish character of the state; which is ready to uproot tens of thousands of Jews from their homes in order "to save the state of Israel," today sits and does almost nothing while within the bounds of Little Israel, that which it seeks to allegedly "save," it is losing the demographic battle on a daily basis. When, for instance, did members of Peace Now last visit Carmiel? Why don't secular youth movements emulate their brethren among the national-religious followers who routinely send their members to strengthen the ranks of Jewish inhabitants in mixed towns that are being abandoned by their Jewish residents? Have they despaired of realizing the Zionist dream and achieving a Jewish majority within the Little Israel that lies outside greater Tel Aviv? Or, perhaps, as some of them have delicately hinted, they consider this effort to be racist as well? Could it be that they are bothered by the fact that the settlers in Judea and Samaria have dispatched their best people and rabbis to Jaffa, Acre, Lod and Ramle?

Either way, we will not win this battle with loyalty oaths, neither from the Arab side as demanded by Avigdor Lieberman, nor from the Jewish side. This struggle will be won by populating the settlements - as they are referred to by Palestinians - of Acre, Lod, Ramle and towns of their ilk with Jews.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Toward Jerusalem Day 5769

The Center of the World (Medieval Map)

[Remarks requested by a friend.]

It came from out of nowhere, or so it seemed, on an October day in 1967, forty two years ago. So long ago, yet I can still hear it resonating in the air. Jerusalem. ‘Would you like to come to visit Jerusalem?’ asked an aunt visiting from Israel. I’d never thought about it as a real possibility. And yet, at the very broaching of the question a wave of intense longing washed over me. I’d never felt anything like it before. Yet, there it was. I was being drawn by an irresistable force of incredible power to a place that I, a thirteen year old fourth generation American, had never seen. Overwhelmed, I begged my parents to let me go. ‘Some day, perhaps,’ was the best I could elicit in answer. I will never forget the bitter mix of keen disappointment and indescribable longing with which that visit ended.

It would be four years, before I beheld Jerusalem. Another three years would pass before I learned the words to express the force that siezed me, and then drew me to Jerusalem. As in so many other ways, it was my master and teacher, R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik זצ"ל, who enabled my mind to comprehend my soul’s quest.

At the start of Parshat Lekh Lekha, the Torah describes Abraham’s journey to the Land of Israel. In one of his unforgettable Saturday Night shiurim, the Rav observed that the Torah blankly describes Abraham as travelling, seemingly aimlessly southward, ever southward from the area of Syria through which he had entered (ויסע אברם הלוך ונסוע הנגבה). Rashi explains his behavior, that ‘At intervals. He would stay here a month or so, then travel and pitch his tent somewhere else. But, all his travels were southward going to the south of the Land of Israel, which is in the direction of Jerusalem’ (לפרקים, יושב כאן חדש או יותר ונוסע משם ונוטה אהלו במקום אחר, וכל מסעיו הנגבה ללכת לדרומה של ארץ ישראל והוא לצד ירושלים). God had given no road map to Abraham. Still, the patriarch travelled onward, ever onward to Jerusalem. He sensed, intuitively, that this was his ultimate destination.
What drove Abraham, the Rav observed, was the craving a Jew has for sanctity, for qedusha. God, of course, is the source of all holiness. However, qedusha is first made manifest in Jerusalem, and from there it radiates out to the rest of the world. Thus, the Jew has an existential bond with Jerusalem, and to Eretz Yisrael. He often doesn’t know whence it comes. It is, however, a fundamental part of his makeup. Otherwise, how else can one explain the hold that Jerusalem has upon a Jew from, say, Portland Maine; a Jew who never saw the Land of Israel, but whose heart strings reach out to a strip of land six thousand miles away? It makes no sense, unless he is drawn by a force that far transcends his own personal awareness.

Upon hearing the Rav’s words, I began to understand the full significance of that moment in the Fall of 1967, after the the great and miraculous salvation that God had wrought for His people, the previous June. Indeed, as the years went on, that awareness dimmed and deepened. In the end, it was that formative moment (and the inspiration of my soul-mate) that brought me and my family to ארץ ישראל, where I sit and write these lines.

And yet, surveying the state of my people on the eve of the forty second Yom Yerushalayim, I have cause to wonder whether these ‘mystic chords of memory’ still bind the Jew to the Holy City, and the Holy Land. Too many Jews are ready to tear the heart out of Israel and deliver it to those who wish it (and us) ill. Too many Jews can’t understand the stubborn devotion to what they scornfully describe as ‘sticks and stones.’ Too many, prima facie, Jewish leaders and thinkers delude themselves with pablums about sharing Jerusalem, with those who by dint of their own religious faith, can neither share nor acknowledge that for the Jew, Jerusalem is where the world begins and where it will be redeemed.

Yet, on the Eve of Yom Yerushalayim, I am hopeful. If the Jews of the Exile are largely unmoved, or hostile, to Jews ruling (and, in fact, sharing) Jerusalem; the Jews of Zion are not. When despair threatens to cast its shadow over me, I remember an August Night, almost nine years ago. The Israeli government was negotiating Jerusalem away at Camp David. The Jews of Israel had other ideas. Natan Sharansky, who heard Jerusalem’s cry from a Soviet prison, called for a demonstration of solidarity with Yerushalayim, against ripping out the heart of Israel, both nation and land. A half million people came. I know. I was there, below Jaffa Gate. The throngs stretched from the Old City, up Jaffa Street, Agron, Route 1, Mount Zion, and back down Derekh Hevron. They reached as far as the Central Bus Station, at the entry to the city. They came from Dan and they came from Eilat. They came from Tel Aviv and they came from Ofra. They came from Haifa and they came from Beersheva. There were secular Jews and Haredi Jews. There were Religious Zionisi Jews and Traditional Jews. There were Ashkenazim, Sephardim, Yemenites, Ethiopians, and Bnai Menashe. One tenth of the Jews of the State of Israel came to swear allegiance and pledge devotion to the city that God chose to cause His Shekhina to inhabit. And God hardened Pharaoh’s heart, and the city was saved. We fought a hard and bitter war the following years, to save Jerusalem. With God’s help we emerged victorious.

In the years that followed, the Jewish soul of the Jews of Zion has grown ever stronger. The number of Jews who make a point of renewing their tie with the Holy City has grown from year to year. The miracle of mass aliyah from the West has changed the face of the country. Tragically, assimilation may yet lay waste vast swaths of the exile. The Jews of Eretz Yisrael, however, and those who still long for Zion from their exile, will persevere and prevail. Jerusalem does not forsake or abandon those who love her.

The Pope and I: My Interview on Reshet Bet

Twelfth Century Papal Bullum

Last Night I was interviewed on Israeli Radio about the Papal Visit. You can hear the interview by going to this address:

On the lower right hand side of the screen is a big letter ב in yellow. Click on the ב, and a new screen will appear. To the Left you will see a tab that says: משדרים מוקלטים. Scroll down and on the right hand side (as of 830AM IDT), is הנקודה היהודית. Click on the icon and I'm the first interview.

I welcome all comments and criticisms on both the presentation and the content.

Shabbat Shalom

Thursday, May 14, 2009

More on Conversion

R. Michael Broyde's Review in tradition is generating a lot of heat over at Hirhurim. My comments below, that I cross-posted there, earned their fair share of criticism. (Though, I must say, I find it sort of odd that I'm being painted as an extremist.)

In any event, in order to clarify my remarks here, this is what I wrote there:

Regarding my basic point as to why Kabbalat ha-Mitzvot is under discussed among Rishonim and pre-Modern Ahronim:

I described the sources in light of accepted axioms of the History of Law. My point was this: Things that go without saying usually do but are no less binding for that. The Gemora in Yevamos doesn't require that the convert undergo a course in Jewish Theology (though the Rambam does, but as the late Prof. Twersky noted, that's an innovation of Maimonides). Yet, can anyone imagine a Jewish conversion wherein the convert does not accept Ol Malkhut Shamayim? Obviously not. Law exists in a socio-religious context. The context determines what gets written down and what doesn't. Therefore, trying to pry all sorts of tortured nuances out of Rishonim on this issue is a testimony to the fact NOT that Qabbalat ha-Mitzvot was not required but that it was so obvious as to not require mention.

Regarding the observation that the first rabbinic authority to really address the subject head on was the Tosafists in the twelfth century:

Why do Tosafos discuss it? Very simple. As the revivers of Talmudic dialectic and the advancers of what is called the 'critico-conceptual' approach to Torah study, Tosfos analyzed the component parts of every aspect of Halakha. Kashrus, Sheckhita, To'en ve-Nitan, Kodoshim, Niddah etc etc etc. So it was only natural that when engaging the various sugyos on gerus, they did the same.

There is, in my opinion, no reason to claim that Tosfos 'invented' the need for Kabbalas ha-Mitzvos. In fact, if there is a contradiction between the various Talmudic passages on the need for accepting the commandments, why didn't Tosfos note it. Yet, as far as I know, nowhere in the entire corpus of Tosafist Halakha is there any mention of such a contradiction. Does it make any sense to anyone that Tosfos would notice contradictions between Gemoras and Midrashim, but pass in silence over an glating contradiction between a Mishna, a Gemora in Bekhoros and a Gemora in Yevamos?

Again, I agree with R. Broyde (and I think a strong case can be made that some of Reb Moshe Feinstein's responsa would support this) that a critical distinction should be made between Kabbalat ha-Mitzvot and Shemirat ha-Mitzvot. Reb Chaim Ozer leaves open the option of accepting converts who will define themselves as Sinners.

Serious food for thought.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Mark Steyn on Islam Ascendant: Or How the west was Won

Just read it.

R. Michael Broyde on Conversion: Required Reading

Rabbi Professor Michael Broyde has just published an excellent review of Avi Sagi and Zvi Zohar, Transforming Identity: The Ritual Transition from Gentile to Jew—Structure and Meaning. The major argument of the book is that there are two, competitive theories of conversion in rabbinic literature. One requires acceptance of the commandments for conversion, the other does not. [Available here. Hattip: Hirhurim.]

Professor Broyde carefully, respectfully subjects that claim to a critical examination. His findings, based upon razor-sharp reasoning and total control of the full halakhic literature on the subject, arrives at the conclusion that there is absolutely no such tension and that (aside from R. Ben Zion Uziel זצ"ל) there is no precedent for conversion that is totally detatched from a real committment to observance by the convert. (Subsequent observance by the convert, as Rabbi Broyde correctly notes, is a separate issue.)

I admit that I had long been planning to write an article on this subject. However, Rabbi Broyde has 'scooped' me and I am happier for that. Since that is the case, though, I'll add the hiddush that was to serve as the crux of that article.

Much has been made of the fact that there is very little explicit mention in the literature of the requirement that a convert accept the commandments as a sine qua non of conversion. There is far more discussion of the screening process for converts, in terms of their motivation, and of the legal formalities surrounding the act of conversion, itself.

This lacuna is easily explained. It is a given in the History of Law (especially non-constituion-based law), that 'That which goes without saying, usually does,' The tacit assumptions of a legal system, though, are no less binding for their being tacit. Until the Emancipation, being Jewish and observing the commandments were absolutely identical. There was no need to state the obvious. That, indeed, is why references to Qabbalat ha-Mitzvot are all very much en passant. No one EVER questioned its centrality. The operative questions were what (if any) place it had in the actual conversion ceremony (e.g. Bes Din, Tevilla etc.)

What every halakhic authority from Hazal did address was the issue of the motivation of the convert, and the willingness of the convert to acknowledge the full panoply of Jewish observance including, (or more likely, especially) Rabbinic ordinances. It was to that that they need to give their attention. It was only after the Emancipation, when Jewish identity and Jewish observance were no longer, necessarily, identical that the question of conversion and observance arose. Here, in fact there developed an irony. Because the question of observance was an iron-clad, unstated assumption; when it came time to actively inquire whether one needs accept the mitzvot in order to convert, there was no straightforward declaration thereto in the classic sources. This created a situation in which one could begin to argue that less than (or no) such commitment might be feasible (at least, ex post facto). [There are other, agenda driven motives too. These, are addressed by Broyde.] such a position is, however, unfounded and essentially, indefensible from a normative halakhic perspective.

Friday, May 08, 2009

Nonsense is Nonsense: Of Rubber Soles and Tzni'us

I just saw this insanity.* I only have two comments, not my own:

'Some things aren't Assur because they're Assur. They're assur because they're stupid and it's Assur to be stupid.'
----Rabbi Dr. Joseph B. Soloveitchik זצ"ל
די גרעסטע מצוה איז ניט צו זיין קיין נאר.
הרה"ח ר' הירש יוסף כהנסון זצ"ל (סבא רבא של אשתי
[* I am referring to the Psak. Parshablog's discussion was interesting.]

Sunday, May 03, 2009

Much Ado About Nothing: Scholem on the Star of David

The latest sacred cow to be slaughtered, ostensibly, is the Six Pointed 'Star of David.' A book wriiten by Gershom Scholerm over sixty years ago has recently been published, though his basic findings were reveraled around that time. The findings? To quote YNET:

In his article Prof. Scholem stated that, "The Magen David is not a Jewish symbol, and therefore not the 'symbol of Judaism'." ....The official usage of the Star of David as a Jewish symbol began in Prague. Prof. Scholem writes that it was either chosen by the local Jewish community or by the Christian rule as a means of branding the Jews, who later adopted and embraced it. In 1354 Emperor Charles IV granted the Jews the privilege of raising a flag of their own, and this flag contained the Magen David. One of these flags can still be found in Prague's Old-New Synagogue. From Prague, where the Magen David was printed on book covers and engraved on cemetery headstones, the symbol spread to the rest of Europe and gradually became known as the symbol of Judaism.

During the first Zionist Congress in Basel in 1897 the Zionist flag, which bears a blue Star of David, was chosen. But Prof. Scholem claims that the symbol only became truly meaningful during the Holocaust, after the Nazis used it to mark the Jews, and thus sanctified it. According to Scholem, this gave the graphic symbol a spiritual sense of sacredness it never had before.

So we're supposed to get bent out of shape that a powerful Jewish symbol isn't Jewish. The flag is illegitimate and who knows what else. (Yawn)

I seem to recall Professor Scholem mentioning this insight when he taught at BU in the Spring of 1976. At the time I was a bit distraught, but over the years I've come to realize that this kind of reductionist argument (x is documented outside of Judaism, entered from the outside and is therefore illegitimate) is both excruciatingly superficial, as well a silly.

Everyone is influenced by the outside world. It's inevitable.The questions that one should ask when discussing thigs like this are: What was absorbed and what was rejected? (That will be determined by the essential fabric of Judaism.) If something was accepted, what previously developed, inner need did it (or does it) fill? Finally, how was it interpreted, modified and adjusted to the Jewish value system? (For if it wasn't, it would not have lasted.)

So, who really cares when the Star of David became a Jewish symbol? If it was adopted as a powerful vehicle of Jewish memory and indentity, if it moves Jews to tears, and if it passes muster with Jewish Law and values; then ahlan ve-sahlan, (and spare me, PLEASE, the silly cow shechting).