Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Apologetics about the role of women in Judaism

In a Facebook discussion, someone brought up a 2012 post of Eliyahu Fink's entitled "Dear Chaya" and I was looking through the comments and I noticed a couple of mine that were worth reproducing here.

One commenter wrote:

"The statement of  'women are second class citizens' , is absolutely against a true Torah ideology!!  ... as Jews we believe that women and men each have the equal opportunity to fulfill our DIFFERENT potential, not better, but different and unique!"

My response was:

"...that's a modern apologetic that all of us have heard ad nauseum.. And every person who presents it acts as if it's some giant revelation that those of us critical of womens' roles in Orthodoxy must have never heard before. Yes, it's become the defensive party line, but that doesn't make it any less a manufactured apologetic... just because you are happy with your role in Orthodox Judaism doesn't mean that you speak for all women in Orthodox Judaism."

Later in the discussion another person wrote:

"I think the real issue is that everyone equates equality with sameness. You can be on the same 'level' as someone but be completely different, have different strengths, different weaknesses. Women are not allowed to testify because we are more compassionate and more likely to bend judgement in favor of compassion. That does not mean we are unequal, it means we are made differently. Today's society is so focused on everyone being the same, they forget that in reality people are different, and that's ok!"

My response to that comment:

"Sigh. That same apologetic again. Where have I heard the concept of separate but equal before? Hmmm. Oh, right, in the south under Jim Crow, black people had a different role to play from white people. To paraphrase your comment, that does not mean they were unequal, it means they were made differently. Today's society is so focused on everyone being the same, they forget that in reality people are different, and that's ok! So black people had a special role to play. Sitting in the back of the bus, not allowing them to drink from 'white' water fountains or enter 'white' restaurants was all part of respecting their higher plane."

Monday, December 15, 2014

Is Alon Shvut in Israel?

The New York Times printed a very nice obituary of Gil Marks, whose death is a great loss. I own and deeply value his wonderful "Olive Trees and Honey" cookbook.

The current brouhaha is over this line at the bottom of the article:

"Correction: December 11, 2014. An earlier version of this obituary misstated the location of Alon Shvut, where Mr. Marks lived. It is in the West Bank, not in Israel."

I agree, the unnecessary correction does come across as insensitive, and would have better been left alone. However...

1) They probably got in trouble with some readers. I doubt they would have changed it without complaints.

2) Alon Shvut is in Gush Etzion, which, technically, is not part of the state of Israel, however much it feels like it and has been integrated. Yes, it was settled by Jews well before the state was established. Yes, in almost every proposed peace deal, it would be part of Israel. But legally, at least for now. it's an "administered territory" of Israel, since it's over the green line, and unlike the eastern parts of Jerusalem, or the Golan, has not been officially annexed by Israel.

3) The Israellycool article engages in hyperbole, equating stating a current geographical reality (though admittedly one fraught with political implications) with accusing the deceased and his family of being "illegitimate occupiers". Talk about making a mountain out of a molehill.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Were Chazal liars?

In a Facebook thread, someone angry about the distortions he was fed by Judaism referred to "Chazal's crimes" and that their "lies" are what shaped most of the religion.

This really bothered me.

"Chazal's crimes"? Their "lies"? That's a worse distortion than what Chazal did. Were the ancient Greeks' misunderstandings about reality being composed of four elements "crimes" and "lies"? Was Aristotle trying to fool people when he maintained that the earth was at the center of the universe?

They were men of their time who had at their disposal only the tools they were given. The very concept of empirical scientific proof hadn't been invented. They deeply believed in the divinity of the Torah and of the truth of the work they were doing. It's OK to still respect them and the remarkable work they did, while acknowledging that they were technically wrong. It's a distortion of history, shows a lack of understanding of context, and betrays arrogance to accuse them of "crimes" and "lies".

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Time to reboot halachic Judaism

Back in 2007, when I started my first blog, my stated purpose was to start a new denomination. I figured that what constituted normative Orthodoxy had become too restrictive, and I wanted a big tent that could encompass basic halachic practice (shabbat, kashrut, etc) with the freedom of more egalitarianism, less dogma, compassion and acceptance of LGB's, etc.

I'm thinking something similar now, more as a thought experiment this time, not to actually start a new movement.

But I'm sick of all the scandal, the excessive chumrot, the heavy handed rabbinical control, the misogyny, the power plays, the conspicuous consumption, the condescension of anyone who doesn't seem "frum" enough according to others' social mores, the sexual shaming, the objectification of women, the worship of rabbis, the sheep-like adherence to "daas torah", the corruption of battei dinim and the Israeli rabbanut, the increasingly stringent demands of kashrut agencies, the indoctrination of children, the out-of-control spiraling cost of living a "frum" life, the mistreatment of converts and the mismanagement of the conversion process, the unearned superiority complex, the racism, the ignorance, and the damaging insularity.
It's time to reboot halachic Judaism.

All the good names are taken. "Reform", "Reconstructionist", "Renewal" are all good ones that have been used already by non-halachic movements. "Reboot Judaism" isn't very catchy, but it just might be enough for an online discussion, or even to become sort of viral: ‪#‎rebootjudaism‬.
So what would your suggestions be for a rebooted halachic Judaism?

Here's one to start with: pare back the control of the kashrut agencies. 200 years ago, if a person was observant, the food in their store was presumed to be kosher. The relationship with customers was a local one. Other Jews were simply trusted. Yes, going back at least partially to that model has risks, but are they really worse than the corruption and ridiculous chumrot in the Kashrut Industrial Complex?

Here's a concrete idea. Instead of a store being under a hechsher, the hechsher is on the proprietor. He or she has to take a class on kashrut, pass a certification exam, and after that, he or she is trusted. This would also lower the cost of kosher food, at least for restaurants and take-out places. I'm not sure if this is workable, but it's time to think outside the box.

Here's one more idea before I "open the floor" to your ideas. Day schools too expensive? How about group home schooling. Get a group of 20 or 30 kids in one neighborhood, hire a few teachers mixed with knowledgeable parents, and do home schooling. The kids can meet on a rotating basis in the homes of the parents. The kids get a good secular and Jewish education at a fraction of the cost.

What would you like to change? It's time to #rebootjudaism

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

How could the Freundel scandal happen in the Modern Orthodox world?

There's far too much publicly available evidence now to hope that Freundel is innocent, that this is a misunderstanding, or that he was framed. He was visible on the camera numerous times, setting it up. The courts will eventually deliver a verdict, but at this point, there can be little doubt that Barry Freundel committed the crime.

Now we have to ask ourselves some very hard questions. Many of us have blamed the occasional scandals of deviant individuals in the Charedi world on the cloistered nature of that world, and of the objectification of women that accompanies it.

But Barry Freundel was a leading light of the Modern Orthodox world, which prides itself on opening up roles for women, where interaction between the sexes, while having careful boundaries, is acceptable. Where women are, supposedly, not objectified. Modern Orthodox women become doctors, lawyers, and professors. They are not cloistered in the home, told that their primary role in life is to become a mother.

So what is it that made Freundel do what he did? Every man has a sex drive and every heterosexual man enjoys the sight of attractive women. But this is far beyond just glancing at women, or even looking at online pornography. This was the premeditated setting up of cameras and recording women who trusted and looked up to Freundel. It was the exploitation and abuse of a power entrusted by a community. It was intricately planned. And he did it again and again. Which means it wasn't a momentary lapse by an otherwise praiseworthy individual.

Instead, it means that Barry Freundel was a fraud. A fake. He presented a face to the world that became admired and respected, yet he was fooling us all.

How can such a man have become such a prominent and respected rabbi in the Modern Orthodox community? Was he an isolated case, someone who was just manipulative enough to make us think he was authentic? Or did he start out authentic and became a charlatan sometime over the years?

Either way, we have to ask ourselves if something's rotten in the state of Modern Orthodoxy, something deeply wrong with way we choose our leaders. Was this just isolated, or do we now have to take a second look at all our leaders? Is our supposedly enlightened version of Orthodoxy still guilty of objectifying women in a way that either encouraged or enabled such a man to commit the acts he did?

Where do we go from here?

Thursday, October 2, 2014

The Shabbat texting app

There's been a lot of discussion over the last few days about the app being developed that might allow texting on Shabbat.

Personally, I don't text much. I'm in my 40's, not my teens, and still prefer verbal conversation. But I can understand the appeal.

There's definitely merit to the arguments that you can make texting halachically permissable.

But the Shabbat observing public has halachic prohibitions, and then they have social ones. And for the past century, Shabbat has come to mean not using electrical or electronic devices. Personally, I'm very thankful for that. I happen to see myself as a pluralist, and I don't think anyone's required to keep halacha if they don't want to, and therefore certainly don't judge anyone for using a phone on Shabbat. Still, I would hate for it to become socially acceptable. It would change the entire flavor of the day.

There's a social aspect to halacha, and social mores that have been established that frame the way we experience Shabbat. And I love Shabbat being that way. So I don't want that tacit social agreement about what constitutes shabbat observance to change.

That being said, I could be persuaded by a Shabbat Kindle...

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Who really wrote Unetaneh Tokef?

I like to think I'm pretty savvy about the origins of various minhagim, and I usually look at the legends behind the various customs with a skeptical eye.

But I only learned today that the Rosh Hashana prayer "Unetaneh Tokef" was found in the Cairo Geniza, in a manuscript dating to the 8th century. That is far earlier than the traditional belief in the story of R Amnon of Mainz in the 10th or 11th century, who wrote it as he lay dying because of his refusal to convert to Christianity.

I had already viewed the details of this story as suspect, because it smacked of being too perfect in its emotional impact. But until today, I still assumed that the authorship, and its time period, were relatively accurate.

It turns out that the issues with the authorship are well-known, and have been for half a century. The Geniza manuscript was known to scholars as early as the 1950's. And that is not not the only issue with the traditional story. See this Schechter Institute article for more details.

Yet the Artscroll Machzor, first published in August of 1985, still reports the traditional story faithfully, the only possible concession to reality being perhaps the words "This is the story behind it".

That leaves two options:

a) The editors at Artscroll were simply unaware of the scholarship that showed an earlier composition date. If so, that's a shame, and shows yet again that despite their beautifully typset and bound volumes, there is a willful ignorance of anything outside the Yeshiva walls that pervades the atmosphere there. Yes, I didn't know the facts either, but whenever I write or prepare a topic for public airing, the first thing I do is research it fully. They did not.

b) They know about the scholarly view, yet discount it. Now I can understand rejecting scholarly ideas about Biblical authorship - that would challenge Orthodox dogma, and I certainly don't expect Artscroll to embrace, or even acknowledge ideas that go against the foundations of their beliefs. But this is just authorship of a medieval poem! There is absolutely nothing "dangerous" in adding a couple of lines to the commentary acknowledging that the traditional story that follows isn't factual, even if some might still find it meaningful.

Either way, they choose to close their eyes and ears to anything that doesn't conform to the ever narrowing "Torah True" ideology. And that's a real shame.

As for me, the authorship doesn't matter. It was written by a Jew and is about repentance. And when we all loudly recite, in unison, the words
ותשובה ותפילה וצדקה מעבירין את רוע הגזרה
I will feel their power as I always have, irrespective of authorship.

Friday, September 19, 2014

American Colonies Reject Independence From Britain in Historic Vote

July 5, 1776

PHILADELPHIA — Voters in America decisively rejected independence from the British Empire in
a referendum that had threatened to break up the 150-year union, but also appeared to open the way for a looser, more federal Britain.

With results tallied by early Friday from all 13 colonies, the “no” campaign won 55.3 percent of the vote while the pro-independence side won 44.7 percent. The margin was greater than forecast by virtually all pre-election polls.

The outcome was a deep disappointment for the vocal, enthusiastic pro-independence movement led by Benjamin Franklin, who had seen an opportunity to make a decades-old nationalist dream a reality and had forced the British crown into panicked promises that they would grant substantial new power to the colonial governments.

The decision spared King George III of Britain a shattering defeat that would have raised questions about his ability to continue in office and would have diminished his nation’s standing in the world.

Mr. Franklin, while conceding defeat, insisted that the 1 million people who voted for independence showed the depth of yearning for the political powers promised to America by British political leaders to stave off disunion.

“The colonies will expect these to be honored in rapid course,” Mr. Franklin said, while promising to work to heal the divisions the referendum created.

The campaign to keep America within the Empire secured just over 1.3 million votes, providing what the king took as a mandate for broader changes affecting all components of the British Empire.

“The people of the American Colonies have spoken and it is a clear result,” King George said outside Windsor Castle in Berkshire after Mr. Franklin conceded defeat just after dawn. “They have kept our country together. As I said during the campaign, it would have broken my heart to see our union come to an end.”

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Gaza and Ferguson

In Ferguson, I think we can all agree, violence is absolutely unacceptable. And those who engage in violence should be subject to due legal process and punished. However, I think we can also all agree that the fact that some engage in violence doesn't mean that the protesters don't have legitimate grievances and that those grievances shouldn't be addressed. Further, I think we can agree that those engaging in violence, wrong as they might be, wouldn't be doing such things without the injustice present that created the underlying tension.

Now, with due disclaimers that I am not drawing a 1:1 comparison, just for a thought experiment, please replace the word "Ferguson", above, with "Gaza", and read the paragraph again.


Thursday, August 14, 2014

What is terrorism anyway?

DISCLAIMER: I am in NO way making excuses for the terrorism of Hamas. I'm just musing on the nature of warfare.

It's interesting - Israel is negotiating with Hamas for a long term cease-fire. So even though we say that terrorism, in the form of shooting rockets into cities indiscriminately, is not legal warfare and should only be answered with force, we nonetheless negotiate with them as if they were playing by the rules.

Of course, the idea that innocents shouldn't be targeted during wartime is a fairly recent one. For most of human history, war, people expected war to bring rape, massacres, expulsion, and people being taken into slavery. That was just the way of things. The notion of human rights didn't exist.

Now, we pretend to be more civilized. Yet only 70 years ago, the United States, which is supposed to be a bastion of human rights. dropped weapons of mass destruction on innocent civilians in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, killing between 150,000 and 200,00 people. By all definitions we use today, that was a massive and horrific act of terrorism.

People make a lot of excuses. The say there was no other way to end the war. Or that it saved millions of lives.

But can't Hamas claim the same thing? Can't they also say that they have no other way of fighting?

In my book, terrorism is terrorism. Hamas shooting rockets at Israeli cities is terrorism. And the US using the atomic bomb on Japan was also terrorism - pretty horrific terrorism at that. But the idea of terrorism is a fairly new notion. Before that, it was "all's fair in war" and "might makes right".

How do we get to a point where all players agree that targeting civilians is off the table? Will we ever get there?

Friday, August 8, 2014

Supporting Israel doesn't mean supporting the right-wing there

Earlier, on Facebook, I criticized the establishment of a new settlement in the memory of the 3 boys. I suggested that if they really wanted to honor their memory, they could give tzedaka, learn mishnayot, even establish a new yishuv inside the green line, rather than creating a political provocation for the PA at a time when Yehuda and Shomron has, thankfully, stayed relatively quiet as compared to Gaza.

Of course, a number of you strongly disagreed with me, as I expected. But one comment really bothered me, implying that since I don't live there, I shouldn't question these types of decisions.

Here's my issue with that attitude.

Even if you accept the "you're in chutz la-Artez, you can't judge the war in Gaza" argument (which I don't), this case is entirely different. This has nothing to do with protecting people.

I happen to have consistently supported the incursion into Gaza (despite the horrific consequences, which I blame on Hamas).

This has nothing to do with protecting our brothers and sisters from rockets and terror. This is a political decision to make a right-wing political point, and there is NOTHING unseemly about criticizing it.

Supporting Israel in a time of war means supporting the army and the fight against the enemy. It does NOT mean unquestioning support of damaging right wing policies.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Why do we still fast on Tisha B'Av?

From 2010 (slightly edited):

There are voices that assert that we should no longer fast on Tisha B'Av, that if we wanted to rebuild the temple, we could simply do so, and that with a rebuilt Israel and a rebuilt Jerusalem, Tisha B'Av should be obsolete.

These people certainly have a point. It’s ironic to see people who live in fancy houses in Flatbush, travel to Israel on El Al several times a year, and have full religious freedoms in America begging Hashem to “end the terrible golus!”

But there’s another way of looking at it, and it’s the way I choose to look at many of our traditions. What we commemorate on Tisha B’Av isn’t just the loss of the Temple. It isn’t just a yearning for the Beit HaMikdash to be rebuilt and for sacrifices and a monarchy to be reinstituted. To tell the truth, how likely, practical, or even desirable does that really seem?

Instead, it's about something much bigger. We fast because we’ve fasted for 2,000 years. We mourn for the very real people who died for being Jews throughout our long history. We fast because our parents, their parents, and their parents fasted. Looking at the tragedies of Judaism, we also gaze at our rich and varied history.

There’s a myopia sometimes, in the way that many frum people look at Judaism. It’s a focus on a history that ended 2,000 years ago, and a focus on a future that has not yet come. There’s a lack of internalizing the richness of our history and of how Judaism (and Jews) changed and evolved and grew for millennia. It’s as if all of that time was just a holding pattern and is only religiously significant in terms of what came before and the hope of what will come.

The exile created the Judaism we have today. It’s a far different religion, and we’re a far different people, than what we were in the year 70 AD. Part and parcel of that religion is fasting on Tisha B’Av. It’s not just about the destruction, it’s about who we are now, who we were 100, 500, and 1,000 years ago. The kinot we read aren’t just about the destruction. They’re also about the time they were written in, the beautiful poetry of Eliezer HaKalir in the early medieval period or the ones written in the wake of the tragedy of our times, the Shoah.

It’s also about hope. People claim that since Eretz Yisrael is under Jewish control and we could rebuild the Temple should we choose, there’s no need to fast. But as I wrote above, yearning for the redemption isn’t just about the Temple and the monarchy. Instead, it’s about yearning and hoping for a world at peace, where war and hate are no more. It’s a vision that can transcend sectarian differences and is unencumbered by petty differences of theology. Instead it’s about hope.

And that’s why we fast.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

War is hell. And Gaza is hell right now.

When you hear or see a report on the radio or TV about the suffering and death in Gaza, please don't reflexively shut it off, thinking that it's "anti-Israel".

Yes, we can, and should, stand with Israel during this fight. Yes, Israel is in the right here.

But that doesn't negate the tremendous human suffering on the other side. It doesn't change the fact that children are being killed by our bombs, even if Hamas did put them in harm's way. It doesn't mean that innocent people aren't being killed, wounded, and displaced in massive numbers.

We should continue to cheer on our side, but we should also remember that war is hell, and there's nothing good about it.

Israel is doing what she has to. But there are ugly consequences to the actions she has been forced to take, and we cannot diminish our humanity by ignoring that. As Jews and human beings, our empathy should extend across enemy lines.

So next time a report from Gaza comes on, force yourself to listen. And care.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Time to remove Hamas

I hate to say it, but if Israel is already launching a ground invasion (which I'm ambivalent about), they should do it right.

Any cease-fire or agreement to withdraw that leaves Hamas still in power means nothing was accomplished in the long run. We'll just have to do the same dance again in two or three years. And even during the supposed quiet, Hamas will continue taking potshots at communities like Sderot.

Removing Hamas from power entirely will leave a power vacuum that Israel may have to fill. And I hate the idea of our troops having to be there long-term again. But if it's done right, maybe it can return Gaza to normalcy and quiet, and with Hamas out of the picture, perhaps even set the stage for a peace agreement in a couple of years.

Whatever happens, I pray for the safety of our soldiers and of all innocent people.

Monday, July 7, 2014

There will never be peace if we insist on a "warm" peace

Dreams of "peace" tend to be farfetched. If peace means warm relations and no tension ever, and if that's the goal of negotiations, then negotiations will never lead anywhere. Various Israeli governments talk about "difficult sacrifices" in return for "peace", but the implication is always that the only peace worthy of those sacrifices is a everlasting / kumbaya / we all love one another type of peace.

A more realistic goal is basically a perpetual truce. We can call it a "peace" agreement while being aware that it would be a tough agreement where most people will be unhappy, and where there will still be tension and even occasional violence. But if we're ever going to get out of the current endless cycle, we have to understand that even that kind of peace may be worth some "difficult sacrifices". And hopefully, that might even, over time, progress to a warmer peace.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Masonic society using Hebrew year on old Building in Hartford?

I found this building in downtown Hartford, a few blocks away from my work.

Any ideas what this was? Why did this society decide to use the Jewish year? (תרנ"ד - 1894) What was the significance?

Here's the whole building

At some later point, it must've become the Law Tribune building.

Friday, July 4, 2014

Why we mourn Eyal, Gilad, and Naftali

I have a confession to make. I don't feel the death of the 3 boys in Israel as deeply as some of you seem to.

Don't get me wrong. It's terribly sad. And the way they died is tragic and horrifying. And when I think of the parents, I realize I can't imagine what they're going through.

But I haven't cried. I haven't made tribute videos. I haven't felt like I'm in deep mourning. I haven't filled my Facebook wall with their pictures. I simply wrote "BDE", and expressed my deep and sincere sympathy for the families.

I didn't know these boys. They were strangers. As a fellow Jew, I feel deep sympathy for the families.. But I don't feel like I lost a family member myself.

I want to tell you about two other young people who lost their lives in Israel recently. Their names were Yishai Levy (11 years old) and his sister Sara Levy (10 years old). Somehow, their deaths hit me harder than those of Naftali, Eyal, and Gilad. Maybe it's their ages. Maybe it's because even though I didn't know them, they lived in Columbus, Ohio, where my wife and I lived for a few years and where she taught in the day school the children later attended. Or maybe it's the particularly heinous way in which they died - their mother sent them off to Israel for the summer to visit their father, her ex-Husband. Their divorce had been a particularly bad one, with deep bitterness. On the night they arrived, the father stabbed his own children and killed them.

Is the manner in which Yishai and Sara died more horrific than the way Naftali, Eyal, and Gilad did? There's no scale to measure such things. The mothers of all these young people are locked in deep grief right now. And there's no reason to make it any sort of competition.

But I do have a greater point to make. What I want to analyze today is not my own reaction, but the reaction of Jews in general, particularly Israelis and religiously involved Jews overseas. Why was one tragedy so front and center, and the other all but ignored? This isn't a polemic and I'm not calling anyone to task. But I think this question is worth exploring, because the answer may shed some light on how we view ourselves and our tribal allegiances.

Before I get to that, I'd like to tell you about a few of the other young people who were tragically murdered over the last few weeks.

Gina Burger, 16, Pennsylvania, USA
Murti & Pushpa, 14 & 15, Uttar Pradesh, India
Amanda Hill, 16, North Carolina, USA
Jed Coates, 18, Sydney, Australia
Cheyanne Bond, 17, New Jersey, USA
David Headlam, 18, London, UK
Michael Patton, 17, Illinois, USA
Yeliani Schwartz-Ojeda, 3, Florida, USA
Muhammad Hussein Abu Khdeir, 16, Jerusalem, Israel
Alexis Kellas, 9, Virginia, USA

Why aren't we crying over them? Why aren't we in deep mourning?

That's an easy one, unfortunately. It would be debilitating to spend all our time focused on all the tragedy in the world. Innocent people and innocent children are killed on a daily basis. We just don't have the emotional capacity to absorb it all. So what do we do? We naturally focus on when a "family member" is killed, someone who is part of our religious, social, or ethnic tribe. In the case of us Jews, that usually means someone else who is Jewish. And I'm taking no one to task for this. It's simply human nature, I wrote at the start of this post that I don't seem to be feeling the deaths of the three boys as much as some of you. But I definitely feel it more than I feel for anyone in the list above. When one of our own is killed, we mourn.

But what about when those who are killed ARE our own? A father and his 7 year old daughter drowned a couple of weeks ago in a terrible accident north of Tel Aviv. Why aren't we engaged in mass mourning for this little girl like we are for Naftali, Eyal, and Gilad?

One simple answer - accidents happen all the time. But the three boys were murdered, not killed in an accident. They were taken from us deliberately. So it's not simply the death of a young Jew that unites us in mourning, it's the heinousness of the manner in which they died. They were murdered in cold blood.

Then why aren't we engaged in the same mass mourning for Yishai and Sara Levy? They were Jews. They were killed in Israel. They were part of a religious community in the US and attended a Jewish day school. And they were murdered in a particularly heinous and disturbing manner. Why aren't we crying over their deaths to the same degree?

One answer is that the three boys were only killed after a couple of weeks of prayer and desperate hope, so there was a build-up. And when their bodies were found and all hope was lost, the dam burst and all the emotions came pouring out in mass grief.

But I don't think that's all there is to it. There's another factor, one that speaks to our self-identification and self-definition.

Naftali Fraenkel, Eyal Yifrach and Gilad Shaar weren't just anyone. They were young people taken before their time. And not just any young people, but members of OUR people, fellow Jews. And they were't killed just anywhere, they were killed in Israel, our homeland, where we should have a right to feel safe. They weren't just killed, they were murdered, and in a particularly heinous manner.

And finally, they weren't just brutally murdered, they were murdered by them.

The enemy.

The other.

A good part of our grief is anger. This wasn't a murder in isolation, but the latest in a long story of our enemies wanting us dead, wanting us out of what they view as their land. In our eyes, Gilad, Eyal, and Naftali represent all of us, We mourn because those who killed them wanted to make a political statement, and they viewed any Jew in their land as an enemy.

Our mass mourning is a mass cry of anger and defiance. It's an emotional thrust against the enemy.

Sara and Yishai Levy were killed in a horrific manner, by their own father, A father who, we must assume, had deep emotional and psychological problems. But the greater conflict in that case was only between a father and mother in a bitter divorce dispute. It was not nation against nation, people against people.

The three boys, however, are seen as representatives of all of us. We are all engaged in a struggle for our land. Almost all engaged Jews believe in the right of Israel to exist, only disagreeing on where the borders should be drawn. And we see the boys' murders as an attempt to push us out, to tell us that we have no right to be there, that we have no claim to nationhood, and that Jewish blood is cheap.

We see it as an act of war.

And when one is attacked in an act of war, one circles the wagons and strikes back against the enemy, both physically, as Netanyahu is doing, and rhetorically, as we have all seen in mass media and social media. That is why some have reacted in unfortunate calls for mass reprisal.

Without the larger context of murder and national struggle, most of us wouldn't have been mourning them at all. If Eyal, Gilad, and Naftali had been killed in a traffic accident on the very same road where they were taken, the mourners would have only included their families and friends. We, strangers, wouldn't even know their names. There would have been no funeral with tens of thousands of people. There would have been no tribute videos, foreign representatives of diaspora communities paying shiva calls, no mass grief.

It's been only four days since we learned of their deaths and this is the first Shabbat since then. We will turn off our cellphones, TV's, radios, and computers. We will be disengaged from the national mourning for the first time, engaging only with our families and neighbors.

Let us take a deep breath and for just a few hours, try to disengage the greater context of how they died from the actual loss. We wouldn't have known their names without the greater context, but since we do, we can try to mourn them and their actual lives. These were 3 promising young men taken from us far too soon. Let's try to mourn their loss the way their families are.

When we sit at our Shabbat tables, let's remember that for 3 families in Israel, there will be an empty seat, and remember the boys. While we do that, we can also think of Karen Levy, the mother of Yishai and Sara, looking at the empty seats at her Shabbat table. And if we can spare a few moments, let's also think of the families of Gina, Murti, Pushpa, Amanda, Jed, Cheyanne, David, Michael, Yeliani, Muhammad, and Alexis, all looking at the empty seats at their own dinner tables.

Let us daven for peace, for a world where no more young people need die, anywhere.

Shabbat Shalom

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Even now, Israel is a safe place

You remember all the suicide bombings in the 90's and the early 00's? Remember the constant terrorism? Remember innocent people being killed every few weeks?
I think that we've gotten used to living without that constant threat, without that constant barrage of attacks. The very fact that people are reacting in a hyperbolic manner and demanding mass murder of civilians as revenge is itself an indication that we've forgotten how to react to terrorism.
There is no silver lining to this terrible tragedy of the 3 boys. But perhaps there's a silver lining to people's inappropriate reactions. It reminds us that Israel has become far safer for civilians in the past decade. We are no longer numb to all the death. When the kind of terror that we used to experience on a regular basis returns, we react in a way that shows our raw sensitivity. It shows that, small comfort it may be to the mothers of these boys, Israel is, Thank God, a relatively safe place to live or visit.
May Israel stay safe, and may we never have tragedies like this again.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

I'm Here, I'm not Queer - but I support them!

Here's something I posted on my "Philo" Facebook account today (that's the account I use for "blogging" type material, as opposed to my regular FB account):


Earlier today, I wrote, here on Facebook: "Happy Pride Week to all my LGBT friends!". But I wrote it only on this account, my "blogging" Facebook account.

I'm hardly anonymous. My real name (David Staum) is right there next to "Philo" on my main page. But the whole reason I have 2 Facebook accounts is to have one for keeping in touch with family & friends, who range from very conservative to very liberal, very Jewish to very non-Jewish, etc, and another account, this one, for discussing my opinions on politics, social issues, religion, philosophy, etc.

So even though I would like to, I didn't write the same message about Pride Week on my "real" account. And I'm conflicted about that. It's not like most people don't know that I'm very liberal. But on that FB account, I have too many friends from deep inside the "frum" world who would decide to argue with me. And what was meant to simply be an encouraging message of support would degrade into an argumentative comment thread, replete with homophobia, emanating from people I like and care about. And I just don't have the energy for such useless arguments.

Still, I feel like a hypocrite. I feel like some of my gay friends on that account would be happy to see support from someone who is, at the least, associated with the Orthodox Jewish community. As it is, I content myself with oblique congratulations there when another state takes a stand for marriage equality.

I'm not sure what the purpose of this post is. I'm not asking for advice. I'm not going to start posting my opinions front-and-center on my other account. I just wish it didn't need to be this way. Mainly, I wish there wasn't such close-mindedness in the frum community. I wish people could just agree to disagree. But until that day, I don't need the rancor and unpleasantness.


Friday, June 27, 2014

Did anyone check the underside?

Why Shlomo didn't understand the Red Heifer

In Bamidbar Rabba, Chukat 3, it recounts instances of Shlomo's Hamelech's (King Solomon's) deep understanding of everything, reflecting his exceptional wisdom. But at the end of all this, it quotes Shlomo himself saying that despite all his attempts at studying it, he could not understand the nature of Para Aduma, the Red Heifer, which was burned to ash, after which the ashes were used for ritual purification (Bamidbar 19).

Which, of course, doesn't mean that Shlomo couldn't understand it. He presumably would have, as a king at a time when these laws were paramount. What the midrash really means is that they (the authors of Bamidbar Rabba), living 1,000 years later than Shlomo at the very least, and perhaps much later, were no longer comfortable with the idea.

The authors of the Midrash were certainly comfortable with the idea of korbanot (sacrifices) in general. But Parah Adumah is different. It's not really a korban in the sense we think of it:

It is entirely burned to ash. While the Korban Olah is also entirely burnt, there are several differences. The blood of the Olah was sprinkled on the corners of the mizbe'ach (the alter). And the valuable skin was saved and given to the kohanim (priests).

Furthermore, the Para Aduma was burnt OUTSIDE the camp, not on the mizbe'ach at all. The Torah tells us (Devarim/Deuteronomy 19:5) that it is to be burnt up entirely, “her skin, and her flesh, and her blood, with her dung, shall be burnt.” (Though some blood is sprinkled in the direction of the Mishkan (Tabernacle), in the previous verse).

The purpose of sacrifices, at least on the face of it, notwithstanding later Maimonidean interpretations, is to bring gifts to God, so He will enjoy the “re’ach nichoach”, the aromatic fragrance. But the Para Aduma is burnt up OUTSIDE of the Mishkan or Mikdash (Temple). Its only purpose is utilitarian, for the use of the ashes in purification rituals.

What I’d like to suggest is that the authors of the midrash contained in Bamidbar Rabba recognized this utilitarian nature. Regular korbanot? Those they could understand, even in a world where animal sacrifices were rare or nonexistent – they were analogous to prayer, and therefore the “pagan” feel was ameliorated by the fact that it was direct Avodat Hashem, worship of God.

Furthermore, all other animal sacrifices served in some way to feed or provide for human beings. Even the Olah resulted in valuable animal skins for the kohanim. This served an important role in providing sustenance to the nation in a time of centralized worship.

But Para Aduma, although necessary for the functioning of priestly ritual, served no direct higher purpose like the other korbanot. Instead, it was just used for its “magical” properties. And it didn’t provide any food or other tangible benefits like the other korbanot.

So the authors of the midrash, trying to understand a sacrifice that was not a sacrifice, and which provided none of the traditional benefits to the people, wrote their feelings into a story about how the wisest man of them all, the legendary Shlomo, who could even talk to the animals, nevertheless could not puzzle out the rationale for Para Aduma.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Will the real Mey Merivah please stand up?

In this week's parsha, we have the story of "Mey Merivah", where Moshe hits the rock instead of speaking to it.

As a little kid, I got very confused, experiencing deja vu when learning Chumash. For example: Avimelech of Gerar wanted Yitzchak's wife? So Yitzchak told the king that Rivka was his sister? Wait - didn't that happen with Avraham? Or did I confuse Avraham and Yitzchak?

And of course, Moshe and the rock. Studying Parshat Chukat in class as a kid: Wait, didn't I study this before? Why do I remember it as Hashem TELLING Moshe to hit the rock? He was supposed to speak to it? I'm so confused!

Of course, as a got a little older, I paid attention to my teachers, who explained to me that there were NOT the same incident. Similar events occurred, but they happened twice. In the case of Mey Merivah, the 2 incidents happened 40 years apart. And the fact that the two places had the same name was just coincidence. Or Bnei Yisrael, having experienced a similar event, gave the two places the same name.

As I got even older, several decades older, I realized that I was actually right as a kid. They WERE the same incident, told twice in the Torah by different authors. Then the question becomes, who were those authors?

It's pretty widely accepted in the academic world that the Merivah story in Shemot is by E and the one in Bamidbar is by P. But who were E & P?

In Who Wrote The Bible, Richard Elliot Friedman suggests that E were the kohanim of Shilo, who had been disenfranchised. They ended up in the northern kingdom of Israel, but were sidelined by King Yeravam ben Nevat. So they were priests without a job. And they had a family tradition that they were descended from Moshe. At that point there was little distiction between the Levi'im and Kohanim. All of Shevet Levi were Kohanim. The demotion of some to Levi'im is a later development.

Meanwhile, who did King Rechavam set up as the kohanim in Jerusalem, in the Beit Hamikdash? Those who had a tradition of descent from Aharon. And, according to Friedman, they are the authors of P, at a later point than the writing of E.

If the kohanim of Shilo were writing E, they naturally wanted to make their ancestor, Moshe, look good. So in their version, he was told to strike the rock, and he struck the rock. The miracle occurred.

But P, wanting their ancestor Aharon to look better, had a desire to make Moshe less than perfect. So they, reacting to the already extant combined JE text, rewrote the story slightly. In their version, in Bamidbar, they add Aharon into the story, and they have Moshe commit a sin. This time, he was told to TALK to the rock, but he instead struck the rock. They couldn't rewrite the already known text to omit the miracle, but they could rewrite Moshe's role to make him look less perfect.

All this is a nice theory. And it's very neatly put together. P was a priest in Jerusalem in the reign of Chizkiyahu Hamelech. E was sometime earlier, in Shilo. This is an identification of who "the author" might be.

But I have trouble with this neat package. Texts in the ancient world were rarely written by the author onto a scroll, which then became the authoriative edition. Instead, like in all ancient cultures, there was a deep tradition of oral narratives. It's really hard to know who "wrote" what. Kernels of narratives started, often built around older songs. These stories may have diverged, converged, and diverged numerous times. People repeated the stories to one another. Local biases crept in. And, like in the mind of the confused child I was, two versions would become one in people's minds. And when they were scattered, voluntarily or not, they would carry the stories to their new homes and new neighbors. There were likely numerous versions.

Friedman himself is not a fan of discussing oral narratives. In one lecture I heard, he dismissed a question from the audience about the oral traditions, asserting that it was not something that could be analyzed or tracked in any way, so was irrelevant to the equation. Like cosmologists who see anything before the big bang as unknowable, Friedman seems to feel that there is no point to such speculation.

Still, even if we can't track oral traditions, I think it helps fill in the picture to consider what role they might have played. And all of this is not to say that the broad strokes of Friedman's theories are wrong. But instead of being in the hands of specific authors, it seems more likely to me that oral narratives arouse in new variations over the years in an organic way.

So P's version of Merivah may have been a reaction to E's story, but with a less deliberate agenda. Saying that P wrote it to play up Aharon and put down Moshe seems callous and false. Friedman writes that the author of P "could not deny Moses' singular place as Israel's greatest leader and prophet, but he still sought to lower the image of Moses somewhat".

However, imagine this instead:

It is during the reign of Chizkiyahu Hamelech. The Assyrians have destroyed the northern kingdom, and refugees are flooding south, to Jerusalem. As they settle in and begin mixing with the population, they tell their stories, E's stories. It doesn't take generations for stories to change. Just look at urban legends today, with their thousands of variations.

So even in very short order, a story like Mey Merivah is repeated and organically changed. As it is repeated, local biases creep in, inserting Aharon. Let's say two versions begin to circulate. In one, Moshe talked to the rock. In another, Moshe hits the rock. The version of Moshe talking to the rock might even have been invented by those who wanted to elevate Moshe. After all, what's a bigger miracle, talking to or hitting the rock?

And as these stories are repeated, again and again, the native residents of Judea, who have a natural affinity to Aharon, combine the stories in a way that makes sense to them, not deliberately, not with malice or an agenda, but just their organic interpretation of how the events being told fit with their prior perception of Moshe. So their version results in Moshe sinning.

Meanwhile, in a counter-reaction to the natives of Judea, the immigrants, who favor Moshe, abandon the "talking to the rock" narrative, since that has become associated with the sin. Instead, they revert to Moshe being told to hit the rock, and then obediently hitting the rock, preserving his righteousness.

There’s no evidence for any of the above. It's all speculation. Friedman's correct about the inability to know what role oral narratives played. But there's still a role for speculation, because otherwise we're stuck with a rigid picture of 4 authors, a picture that may be not as false as the rigid traditional picture of one author, but false nonetheless.

Monday, June 16, 2014


In the wake of the kidnapping of the 3 young men in Israel, I've read a lot of lofty sentiment, how we are all united, all Jews seeing themselves as parents or siblings of these boys.
And that's a beautiful idea. It really is. If nothing else, it must help their families, knowing that everyone is praying and hoping with them, as they deal with this nightmare situation.
If only people left it there.
But apparently "achdut" also means making your particular political point. It means hatred spewed at anyone who doesn't agree with your exact interpretation of events. It means a chance to bash, in ugly terms, politicians, journalists, and leaders who don't jump on a jingoistic bandwagon that apparently is deeply integral to the search for these three young men. It means blatantly misrepresenting facts with no shame. It means a chance to spew racism and xenophobia. It means contempt for fellow Jews whose only crime is not to sign on to your personal crusade.
Yes, I'm so glad we are all united.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

What if Rome had become Jewish?

A historical "what if" question.

Constantine adopted Christianity as the religion of the Roman Empire in the 4th century. But in prior centuries, Judaism was a massively proselytizing religion, in Rome and beyond. And though the historicity of this is doubtful, according to the Talmud the emperor "Antoninus" (identification uncertain) actually did embrace Judaism.

So here's the question. What if, instead of converting to Christianity, the Roman Empire had become Jewish?

What would the world look like today?

Would Judaism and Islam have been the great historical rivals, instead of Christianity and Islam? Would Islam even have existed?

What would Judaism look like?

Would a Jewish Rome have rebuilt the temple in Jerusalem? Or would they have shifted the centrality of the religion to Rome itself?

Would Judaism still be a religion of shuls and Torah learning? Or would it look very much like the Catholic Church, with grandiose Cathedrals and a pope-like figure in Rome, but with some version of halacha and a different dogma?

Would Hebrew still be out Lashon Kodesh? Or would it be Latin?

It's impossible to know any of this, of course. But it's a fascinating thought experiment.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Let's rebuild the temple!

You want to rebuild the Beit Hamikdash? A few problems with that, unless you believe in the idea that it will be rebuilt miraculously.

But otherwise? Seriously, are we really going to go back to animal sacrifice and a priestly caste system? Those are ideas that were popular among all cultures in the ancient near east, were not unique to the Jews, and are rather distasteful when you take a few minutes to think about it.
And what about the actual building? Trying to build the beit hamikdash on the temple mount for the foreseeable future would spark a massive war. Not to mention that destroying the mosques there would be an archaeological crime, just like the Taliban destroying those Buddha statues, which is universally condemned.
But here's an idea for actually building the third temple, in a realistic manner:
Find a plot of land near the temple mount. Maybe on what was once the slope of that very mountain
Let's say, a big open plaza that is in Jewish hands. Hmm, I wonder where can we find that? Build a big shul on it modeled after ancient temples. Maybe Herod's temle wouldn't fit, but Shlomo's would. There are plenty of architects that could come up with an innovative design. Get some big donors from America. Can't you imagine the sign on the side? "The Harold and Bertha Goldberg Temple". Make the Kotel the eastern wall. Have a giant aron kodesh, put some sifrei Torah inside, and call it the kodesh hakodashim.
Then call it the whole building the beit hamikdash and hold regular daily minyanim there.
Problem solved.
(Except the question of whether Charedim will allow Women of the Temple to daven there in peace. Or whether talking during davening will be tolerated).

Yoram Hazony and Open Orthodoxy

I just read Yoram Hazony's piece on Open Orthodoxy.

On the one hand, despite excellent writing, the article harps on the same issue that people over-focus on: what is Orthodoxy? Why not let Open Orthodoxy be? It's all semantics. If they called it "Open Traditional Judaism", no one would are. It's only the inclusion of the word "Orthodox" that makes people upset. Then again, a good part of that is the fault of the Open Orthodox themselves, by vociferously claiming that they are Orthodox.

On the other hand, as others have pointed out, it's a substantive article, and is mostly respectful, not engaging in any name calling or targeting specific individuals. And he has a point about the stifling of dissent. Those of us who believe that academic biblical criticism has a place in traditional thought have to make sure that we don't become what we claim our detractors to be; close minded and intolerant of opposing viewpoints.
In response to the article on Facebook, Elli Fischer makes a good point. He says that the fault line doesn't run between Modern Orthodoxy and Open Orthodoxy, but through OO itself. He may be right.

One thing that is notable about Open Orthodoxy, is that philosophically and socially, they are, in many ways, better classified as being in that growing space between Orthodoxy and Conservative, the space that contains the independant minyan movement and Mechon Hadar. The divide, therefore, is between those who loosely classify themselves as "Open Orthodox", for convenience sake, but are comfortable dropping in to daven at an egalitarian minyan sometimes (full disclosure - I'm one of them), and those who are firmly clinging to the "Orthodox" part of "Open Orthodoxy" and are determined that the Orthodox world legitimize their status. I think the YCT hanhalah and most of the students and musmachim there fall into the latter camp.

One minor point about Hazony's article: He writes "...the launch of the egregiously named www.thetorah.com website, whose purpose, as far as I have been able to understand it from conversation with Farber, is to popularize views of this kind among young Orthodox Jews...". Zev Farber did not found TheTorah.com, though he has contributed greatly to its growing popularity. Hazony should have spoken to the founders, David Steinberg and Mark Zvi Brettler.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Where did Jews come from?

So, leaving ideologues (like Shlomo Sand) or weak science (like Eran Elhaik) aside, the fact remains that our genetic heritage is murky.

Also, the question of where the explosion of the Ashkenazi Jewish population came from is a valid one. Without a strong outside influx, the late medieval appearance of Ashkenazim on the scene in extremely large numbers is highly improbable.

Unfortunately, exploration of these questions is deeply tied to politics these days. Proponents of the Palestinian cause use Sand's theories to claim that Zionists are just European interlopers. And supporters of Israel counter with genetic studies that bolster the ancestral claims of today's Jews, while ignoring other studies that cloud the issue.

The fact is, a Jew is a Jew is a Jew, whether by birth or by choice. The claim to Eretz Yisrael is based on a combination of ancestral heritage and of a grand journey of millennia through the diaspora, in which that ancestral land was never forgotten, and never abandoned. When people, either individually, or en masse, willingly joined that journey, they joined in the claim of an ancient dream.

So whether Jews around the world have an 80% or a 20% share in the genetic material of ancient Jews, or whether they are Jews by choice today, they share an equal part and an equal right in that dream of shivat tzion.

All that being said, the question "where did we come from" is still a fascinating one that in a perfect world would be open to exploration without any greater ramifications. Are we Ashkenazim the descendants of Khazars? Or did our Jewish male ancestors spread out by way of Italy and marry (and convert) local Eurpoean women? Orthodox Jewish children running around with red hair, fair skin, and freckles clearly have ancestors that didn't come from the Ancient Near East. And what about the Palestinians? Many studies show a genetic connection between them and many Jewish populations. Are they descended from ancient Jews? Or from the same mass of ancient populations in the area who also produced the Jewish people.

My guess is that the answers to all of these questions are "all of the above". We have a long a complicated history. I just wish it was easier to explore it in an intellectually objective manner.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Chas VeShalom they should date someone poor

While the writer's topic here is about lying for shidduch purposes, something else caught my eye:
"The groom was from a 'good family'; his father is head of a large hospital unit. The bride is also from a 'good family.' Her father has a dental clinic, which employs around a dozen employees. His father is a professor, hers a doctor, it seemed like they were two peas in a pod. My friend only knew the mothers, but the similar socioeconomic status and background seemed an adequate indication for a good match."
Really? Socioeconomic status is the basis of a good match? Chas VeShalom that a rich person should date a poor one.


Monday, May 5, 2014

"Lo tevashel g'di" - why 3 times?

Yesterday, I wrote about the comparison between "Lo tikach ha'em al habanim" (Shiluach HaKen)" and "Lo tevashel g'di bachalev imo". Quick recap:

Two different mitzvot in the Torah, that upon a simple reading would seem to be similar. They're both about the mother/offspring relationship in the animal kingdom, and about compassion or respect for that relationship.

Yet the former is a limited circumstance mitzvah, limited by the chachamim even further to precise conditions. But the latter controls half our lives as observant Jews.

A couple of commenters (on on FB and one here on the blog) mentioned that the chachamim use the fact that "lo tevashel" is repeated 3 times in the Torah as the source for all the laws of mixing meat & milk. Like so many other things gleaned from the Torah, the repetition is taken to mean that it must be understood as much more than the plain meaning. Which is, of course, true.

As those who follow me know, I don't believe in a literal Torah MiSinai, and believe it to be a composite document based on oral narratives. In that light, like so many other things in the Torah, the repetition simply indicates that it comes from differing documents.

The new thought I have today is this:

There's no question that the laws regarding meat & milk are quite ancient. So at the time of redaction, the line of "lo tevashel" may have already been understood to refer to all ruminants and to any meat & milk, not just the mother-child relationship. Therefore, the redactor(s) may have purposely left it in 3 times, to deliberately highlight the way in which it was already understood. So the traditional explanation may have some truth to it.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Shiluach HaKen vs Lo Tivashel G'di

לֹא-תִקַּח הָאֵם, עַל-הַבָּנִים

לֹא-תְבַשֵּׁל גְּדִי, בַּחֲלֵב אִמּוֹ

Two different mitzvot in the Torah, that upon a simple reading would seem to be similar. They're both about the mother/offspring relationship in the animal kingdom, and about compassion or respect for that relationship.

Yet the former is a limited circumstance mitzvah, limited by the chachamim even further to precise conditions. But the latter controls half our lives as observant Jews.

Imagine if Shiluach HaKen was treated like meat & milk? Imagine if we derived a vast body of laws from it the way we do with those 5 simple words about a kid and mother's milk?

We probably wouldn't be allowed to eat eggs and chicken together. And we'd have separate sets of dishes for egg products and fowl products. Or something along those lines.

Why are they so different? I know the traditional answer is that Torah SheBa'al Peh was given at Sinai, and that's the interpretation that was given at that time.

I've been thinking that there might have been an existing tradition of separating meat & milk before the Torah was (re)reveled in Ezra's time, and those laws got shoehorned into a simple line about a baby goat and its mother, so as to provide a divine rationale for the practice. But there weren't any elaborate laws that could tie into Shiluach HaKen, so the original interpretation remained.

After all, the gemara is full of such source seeking - it enlessly asks "minalan"? - where do we know this from? What's the source in Torah SheBichtav? And invariably, the answer is: because pasuk x says something that might parsed in an obscure manner to provide our source. That was likely a part of our tradition well before the Mishna and the Gemara.

So what came first? The chicken or the egg? Just some food for thought.