Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Not visiting the Kotel

Yes, I'm in Israel right now. Yes, I'm a religious Jew. And yes, I'll be spending most of my time while here in Jerusalem. But no, I won't be going to the Kotel. And though on previous trips I've always made my obligatory visit, this time, with a tight schedule, I won't be weeping on an archaeological wall and stuffing prayers into cracks. Why?
1) Its religious importance has been overstated. It's the retaining wall of the temple mount, not the wall of the temple itself. The history of the wall as a place of religious devotion over the centuries lends it significance as a medieval synagogue, but the centrality of the site is a more recent phenomenon.

2) I'm a bit of a contrarian, so when I'm told I'm supposed to feel something, I tend not to

3) Don't get me wrong. Israel is very inspiring. But the idea that the Shechina rests in one place is distasteful to me. Treating a wall as if it somehow enables a direct connection to God seems a bit avodah zara - like.

4) Judaism would not have survived as a temple-based sacrificial religion. While the destruction of the Beit HaMikash was a tragedy for many reasons, the forced transition to a vastly different type of practice (Rabbinic Judaism) is what created the religion we have today, and was ultimately beneficial to Judaism.

5) The recent increased conflict over Women of the Wall's right to pray there highlights how much the Kotel has become a symbol of Charedi control and intolerance. That significantly diminishes any feeling of emotional connection I might have had before.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Gedolim Albums

Does anyone remember "gedolim albums"? It was a huge trend in the 80's & 90's among Orthodox kids. It was actually started by my 4th grade rebbe, Rabbi Ausfresser, and spread in the Orthodox world in the 80's. He's also the one who took us to meet HIS rebbe, Rav Moshe Feinstein.

The funny thing was, my yeshiva day school wasn't one of the frummer ones in terms of the student body. Most of the kids were Modern Orthodox. But in those days, there wasn't much of a divide betweenModOx and Yeshivish. So it was perfectly natural for ModOx kids to revere the "gedolm" and fill albums with pictures of them.

Of course, for me, "gedolim" meant some men whose identities I was only vaguely aware of. But they appeared in The Jewish Press and in Olomeinu with long beards, black hats, and captions that read "shilita", so they got clipped and stuck in my gedolim album.

It was a simpler Orthodox world back then. No one really used the term "Charedi", and "Yeshivish" was used much more casually. The Modern Orthodox were less modern and the Yeshivish were less... Yeshivish. Today, I can't imagine any Modern Orthodox kids putting together gedolim albums.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

"Gedolim"? You mean a bunch of fundamentalist fanatics?

There's a trend among many Modern Orthodox folks. They don't like the direction of the Charedi world and what their leaders are saying.

But these Modern Orthodox folks are still hesitant to be too harshly critical of the leaders of that world. Instead they say that they've been manipulated by askanim, and don't really know what's going on. But why are these men being absolved of responsibility?

This attitude persists despite the fact that those leaders are taking their followers into a demographic disaster.

Despite the fact that they compare the state of Israel, and secular and even many religious Israelis to the worst things possible.

Despite the fact that they encourage public burning of the Israeli flag in disgusting displays of ingratitude.

Despite the fact that every month they come up with a way to demean and repress women ever further.

Despite the fact that they refuse to cooperate with any effort to root out evil in their communities.

And these people have become "gedolim" only by happening to sometimes be particularly skilled in Talmud, as long as they also toe the fanatical party line. Others, specifically Chassidic rebbes, don't even have the intellectual accomplishments, and are just hereditary leaders. They have no redeeming qualities whatsoever that should place them above your average man on the street.

Every person who sees through the lies of the Charedi leaders, and that includes you and me, is better than any of these supposed "gedolim". Yes, I said it. The way I live my life and the way I view my Judaism makes me better than these "leaders". They are deserving of no respect whatsoever, and certainly none of the ridiculous reverence heaped upon them.

It's time to call them what they are. Fanatics. Fundamentalists. Cult leaders. Destroyers of lives. Failures. The sooner every Jew not under their thrall internalizes these truths, the better off we'll be.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Purim codes?

Sigh. Because of a new video, many are inundating FB and email with the silly "purim codes", which claims a mysterious connection between the names of Haman's son's in the Megillah and the 10 Nazi war criminals executed in Neuremberg in 1946.

In general, I deeply dislike "torah codes". People like it because it provides comfort in faith. But faith that has proof (very dubious proof, but many don't see that) is not faith at all, and cheapens true faith and certainly cheapens the idea of free will.

Emunah should be based on a deep feeling, an emotion that engenders a certainty of the soul, not on party tricks.

It's a bird! It's a plane! No, it's the Bat Dodo!!

Many people are unaware of the midrash that says that Mordechai was Batman and that Esther was actually a superheroine as well - she was known as the Bat Dodo, combining the stealth of a bat with the, um, well, whatever powers the Dodo had. Here is an artist's rendering of Esther. This is all quite clear, as the verse reads:

היא אסתר בת-דדו

"Hi Esther Bat-Dodo"

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Who is Achashveirosh?

And now for a different take on Achachveirosh.

Megillat Esther is fictional, or at least a heavily fictionalized version of true events. So I can treat the Megilla like any other piece of fiction, (albeit a sacred one in this case), when it comes to analyzing the characters and their motivations. What follows is simply my own personal interpretation of what might have been the motivation of one of the main characters of the Megilla. This has nothing to do with history.

Achashveirosh is most often seen as a bit of a bumbling fool. He is easily manipulated by his advisors, as is seen in his impetuous decision to banish Vashti, and in Haman's easily won decree to kill all the Jews.

He seems entirely oblivious when Haman comes to the royal chambers late at night. He already KNOWS that Haman plans to kill the Jews. He KNOWS Mordechai is a Jew. and yet, before Haman has a chance to speak, he cluelessly tells Haman to lead Mordechai around on a horse in honor! Is it any wonder that we see him as buffoonish character?

And yet, there's another possible way to view Achashveirosh - that of a shrewd politician.
The best (read: most successful in maintaining power) kings in history are often the ones that can play to the masses, and though they have absolute power, still maintain a popular base with the people. But, being kings, they still use their dictatorial powers strategically, when they need to.

Let's look at Achashveirosh and reinterpret his actions assuming he was that kind of king.

The first incident is obvious. Vashti disobeyed him. He needed to show his empire that he could not be disobeyed. So he follows the advice to send her away and confiscate her estate for the next queen.

But that left a vacuum. Think of the role of the First Lady in America. She humanizes the President, and often helps with his popularity. Achashveirosh knows he needs a queen. So, again with advice of his counsel, he immediately launches a search for a new one. And not just from among the aristocracy, but among the population at large. Any supporters of Vashti would likely have been pacified by the excitement of the possibility that their daughters might become queen. The year-long search distracts and entertains the empire. And the search itself humanizes and makes the king seem more accessible to the people. He's looking for his queen. That's something that the people can find relateable.

But here things go slightly awry. Perhaps the king planned to pick a young woman from a prestigious family. But he was smitten with Esther. In this case, the story doesn't really differ from our traditional understanding. God's hand is hidden, but guides the king's heart towards Esther.

That's all preface. Then the action picks up pace. The Jews are pretty numerous in the kingdom. So are Haman's people, the Agagites, and his allies. These are two power bases, both potentially supportive of the king. Achashveirosh decides to promote Haman to be his second in command, an extremely powerful position. By doing so, he's also symbolically showing favor to the Agagites and their supporters. This is a clear move to show them that they are in his favor. And in return, Achashveirosh hopes for their support. There are no polls, but a partisan base doesn't hurt. Plus, they are well-off, and some "campaign contributions" to the royal coffers certainly won't hurt either.

Achashveirosh has made his choice between these two groups and makes it clear that everyone else knows it too. The Agagites are the winners, the Jews are the losers, and he hopes that the Jews will know their place and stay subservient.

Haman's thrilled, except for one thing. Mordechai doesn't seem to understand that the political sands have shifted. He's not acting subservient and doesn't seem to know his place. We know this part of the story. Haman devises his plan.

Achashveirosh grudgingly goes along with the plan. He was hoping the Jews would know their place, but since that's not happening, well, best to go along with Haman and eliminate them completely. He can't have a "third column" undermining his authority. Plus, Haman's "campaign contribution" is very appreciated.

Here's where the politics really start. One night, Achashveirosh can't sleep. He's tossing and turning. Perhaps he drank too much at Esther's banquet that day. But he's also preoccupied with the decree to kill the Jews. It's certainly not pangs of conscience. Like most rulers in the ancient world, Achashveirosh is pretty ruthless when he needs to be, and genocide doesn't really bother him.

But it's a shame to let a perfectly good power base go to waste. The Jews are smart, well connected, and, as he was just reminded by the story of how Mordechai foiled the plot against him, potentially loyal. If they could become part of king's power base too, he would truly be secure on his throne.

Then Haman shows up, and the king has a brainstorm. How to convince Haman that the king also favored the Jews? How to make a public display that the Jews and the Agagites could work together? The answer? Send Haman out leading Mordechai's honor guard! This would make it clear to Haman that he wants Jews and Agagites to work together and support the king together. It would also show the public that it was a new day.

Unfortunately, Haman's anger burns too bright. The king is a pragmatist, (albeit a ruthless one). Haman is not. He hates the Jews as deeply as any Anti-Semite in history. He's not willing to compromise.

The next day, at the second wine party, Esther reveals all. She's a Jewess. And Haman wants to destroy her people. Upon this revelation, Achashveirosh storms out to the garden to think. According to one midrash, he's already decided to kill Esther and side with Haman. But when he comes back in, the pragmatism leaves him when he sees Haman seemingly assaulting his woman on the bed. And like Helen of Troy earlier, or Ann Boleyn later, the fates of empires often rested on love of a woman. That's the turning point, and Achashveirosh the politician is replaced by Achashveirosh the jealous monarch. So Haman's fate is sealed.

But now the king as a problem. He was hoping to keep his monarchy shored up by the support of the powerful Agagites. Now he's had their leader executed, and they're sure to be very, very angry. So Achashveirosh does the only thing he can do. He pivots his favor towards the Jews, wholeheartedly. They're back in favor, and Mordechai is elevated to the top spot. He allows the Jews to defend themselves, and conveniently, this eliminates those now-furious Agagites.

וּמָרְדֳּכַי יָצָא מִלִּפְנֵי הַמֶּלֶךְ, בִּלְבוּשׁ מַלְכוּת תְּכֵלֶת וָחוּר, וַעֲטֶרֶת זָהָב גְּדוֹלָה, וְתַכְרִיךְ בּוּץ וְאַרְגָּמָן; וְהָעִיר שׁוּשָׁן, צָהֲלָה וְשָׂמֵחָה.

And the rest, as they say, is (apocryphal) history.

Happy Purim!

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

1814 book: kneeling while reading the megillah?

According to "A New Universal History of the Religious Rites, Ceremonies and Customs, of the Whole World, Or, A Complete and Impartial View of All the Religions in the Various Nations of the Universe, Both Ancient and Modern, from the Creation Down to the Present Time" (wordy title...), by William Hurd, 5th edition, published 1814:

"The feast of Purim, which signifies lots, continues two days; and it was first instituted in memory their deliverance from destruction, when Haman instigated Ahasuerus to put them all to death. In the morning they give bread to the poor, and in the evening they repair to the synagogue, where the whole book of Esther is read over, and explained to the people at large.
"During the reading of this lesson, the reader kneels, whereas he is obliged to stand when he reads the law, and he repeats three prayers, wherein he blesses God for having delivered them from the plot formed against them by Haman Prayers being over they indulge themselves in all sorts of luxury; so that this may be justly called the Jewish carnival."

I'm laining part of the Megillah this Purim. Better buy myself some kneepads!