Thursday, December 15, 2011

Follow the leader

I had a bit of whiplash today between teaching the freshman Jewish History class and the senior Zionism one. And not just because of the student age difference.

The freshman course is on the second temple period, and the curriculum always gets us the the history of the Maccabee rebellion around Chanukah time. It is always cool to teach the actual history behind the story. The former is obviously much more messy and complicated than the latter. I always have to encourage my disillusioned students by saying things like, "Did you really want a holiday that could be entirely understood in kindergarden? Isn't it great to discover that there was more to it than you thought?"

One of the messier parts of the history is the all out civil war between the Hellenists and the traditionalists among the Jews. This is some rough stuff. Here is how it is described in I Maccabees:

44: [The pious Jews] organized an army, and struck down sinners in their anger and lawless men in their wrath; the survivors fled to the Gentiles for safety. 45: And Matityahu and his friends went about and tore down the altars; 46: they forcibly circumcised all the uncircumcised boys that they found within the borders of Israel. 47: They hunted down the arrogant men, and the work prospered in their hands. 48: They rescued the law out of the hands of the Gentiles and kings, and they never let the sinner gain the upper hand. 

Its no wonder that the author refers to Pinchas and alludes to Moshe ("Who that is for the Lord come to me!") in order to defend the honor of the army of religious Jews we call the Maccabees. It is a pretty dark start to the revolt against the Greeks that finds brother killing brother in order to save the future of Jews and Judaism. This is pretty tough for 9th graders to digest. That Jews killing Jews is even a "break the glass" last resort, self defense scenario is rough stuff.

In the 12th grade we are studying Zionism and the State of Israel. As we are currently entering the period of the British Mandate, we are dealing with the split between the Revisionist and mainstream labor Zionists. Into this discussion I brought a quote from those days from Rav Avraham Yitzchak HaCohen Kook, who became the first Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Palestine under the British. The piece I brought them is Rav Kook's articulation of the need of Jews with different outlooks to work together and strengthen each other. I relates to some previous posts, but I think the segment stands on its own as worth quoting. It may be his most important, most relavent, and most ignored statement of principles.

Three Factions
We now have three noteworthy factions among our people. 
The first is Orthodoxy, as we are accustomed to call it. It champions the cause of the holy; it speaks with vigor, with zeal and with embitterment on behalf of the Torah and the mitzvot, of religious faith, and of everything sacred to the Jewish people. 
The second is the new nationalism that battles for everything toward which the national spirit aspires. It embraces many of the characteristics of a nation seeking to renew its national existence after a long period of exile. It also seeks to include many elements deriving from the influence of the other nations, to the extent that it judges them desirable and appropriate for itself. 
The third is liberalism, which was an advocate of the Enlightenment in the recent past and still has a following in many circles. It does not confine itself to the domain of the national but demands general human enlightenment, culture, morality and much more.
It is understandable that in a healthy setting there is a need for each of these three forces. We must always seek to reach this healthy state, where these forces will act in our lives jointly, in all their fullness and their goodness, in harmonious integration with nothing in excess or in diminution. The claims of the holy, of the nation, and of humanity will be joined together in a spiritual and practical love. Individuals and parties will be in agreement that each one is to recognize with goodwill the positive service of the other. This acknowledgement will then develop to a point where each one will recognize the positive role in every cause, that it is desirable, and that in order to pursue it for the general good of spiritual harmonization as well as the enhancement of the particular cause with which he himself is identified. He will go even further in recognizing a positive dimension in the negative aspect of every cause, within its proper delimitation. He will know that it is to the benefit of the very cause of which he is an advocate to be influenced to some extent by the negation, because by its challenge it sets his beloved cause within its proper sphere and saves it from the perilous detriment of excess and exaggeration… 
If we shall examine the tension that we suffer in this generation we will know that only one course is open to us. Everyone, the individual or the community, must take to heart this admonition: that together with the need to defend the particular position to which one is attached by natural inclination, habit or training, one must know how to utilize the positions that have found a following among other people and their parties. Thus one will perfect oneself and one’s party, both through the positive aspects in the position of the others, and through the beneficial aspects in their negations, by safeguarding one’s own position against the defect of exaggeration which produces weakness and destruction. Thus we may hope to attain a way of life appropriate for a people of high stature… 
Orot, pp. 70-72

They say that every generation gets the leaders that they deserve. This must apply to Cohanim also, be they Maccabim or chief Rabbis. It seems that that Jews in the second century B.C.E. needed Matityahu and Yehuda. In our time, we sure need Rav Kook. His vision of Jewish brotherhood and cooperation is needed desperately in our time.

If only those who claimed to follow him as a leader would heed his words.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Love, Marriage, and the Israeli Rabbinate » Main Feature » Jewish Ideas Daily

I think that Fischer's piece ends on a harsh note, and it makes me sad. But he's so right. - Mike

Love, Marriage, and the Israeli Rabbinate » Main Feature » Jewish Ideas Daily

November 28, 2011
Love, Marriage, and the Israeli Rabbinate - The Chief Rabbinate - Jewish Ideas Daily
By Elli Fischer

The organization Tzohar is fighting for the right to perform its popular "alternative" weddings in Israel. A recent dispute with the Ministry of Religious Services was apparently resolved after a media war, frantic mediation, and a high-level Knesset meeting. Tzohar's victory lasted all of two days before the Chief Rabbinate decided to enforce a long-neglected and selectively applied regulation, again placing the future of Tzohar's program in jeopardy.

Founded as a body that would help unify the modern Jewish state, the rabbinate (Hebrew: rabbanut) has evolved into something else entirely.

Fairy Tale Merav Michaeli, Haaretz. Calling a Tzohar wedding an "alternative" shows how keenly some Israelis want to escape the rabbinate's authority.

Will Tzohar Declare War on the Rabbanut? Elli Fischer, On the Contrary. In the area of kashrut, the rabbinate is not transparent or accountable; but Tzohar may not have the will to mount a fundamental challenge.

Has the Chief Rabbinate Outlived Its Usefulness? Shlomo Riskin, Jerusalem Post. The rabbinate is unfriendly and inflexible—but it can be reformed.

Without the Rabbinate, I'll . . . Yair Ettinger, Haaretz. In addition to marriage, initiatives to sidestep the rabbinate also exist in the realms of divorce, conversion, and burial. The Chief Rabbinate responds to Haaretz's series here.

After Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin's 1996 assassination, Tzohar was founded by a group of relatively open-minded, idealistic Religious Zionist Orthodox rabbis to bridge the growing divide between Israel's religious and secular populations. ("Tzohar" is a Hebrew word for window; the organization's motto is "a window between two worlds.")

Soon after its founding, Tzohar began the Wedding Project. Because Israeli law does not recognize, or "register," civil marriages performed within the country, the only recognized marriages between Jews that can take place in Israel are marriages approved by the Chief Rabbinate. But Israeli law does recognize civil marriages performed abroad, so Israeli couples were going to Cyprus to marry in civil ceremonies. Tzohar saw the trend as a sign of alienation from the institutionalized rabbinic bureaucracy, and the Wedding Project was designed to address this alienation. It did not advocate the recognition of non-Orthodox ceremonies but merely established four operating guidelines. A Tzohar rabbi would not accept payment for performing a wedding. He would meet with the bride and groom beforehand. He would schedule just one wedding per day—and arrive on time. That these guidelines were considered innovative speaks volumes about the prevailing situation under the rabbinate.

With these few rules, Tzohar transformed a soulless encounter with officialdom into a positive encounter with Jewish tradition. The Wedding Project became Tzohar's calling card. Despite the sharp criticism implied by the Wedding Project and its threat to the "gray income" that rabbis got from performing marriages, the rabbinate did not interfere with Tzohar's operations—at first.

Things began to change in 2003 with the election of Chief Rabbis Shlomo Amar and Yona Metzger and the achievement of ultra-Orthodox control of the Chief Rabbinate. Since then, the rabbinate has sought to enforce increasingly strict standards of Jewish law and keep non-official rabbis from providing religious services (and threatening the rabbinate's control of patronage). Tzohar has criticized the rabbinate for insisting on ultra-Orthodox standards, bureaucratizing religion, and driving people away from Judaism.

These tensions came to a head a few weeks ago. Under a loophole, an official municipal rabbi affiliated with Tzohar was deputizing other Tzohar rabbis to register weddings they perform around the country. The rabbinate, through the Ministry of Religious Services, closed the loophole. At that point, Tzohar shut down the Wedding Project and launched its media blitz, prophesying that thousands more Israelis would marry abroad in civil ceremonies, assimilate, and be lost to the Jewish people.

Why the alarm and doom-saying? The reason stems from Tzohar's view of the Chief Rabbinate. Tzohar's rank-and-file Religious Zionist rabbis see themselves as ideological and spiritual heirs of Abraham Isaac Kook, Israel's first Chief Rabbi, who played a central role in founding the Chief Rabbinate in 1921. Kook envisioned a rabbinate that would transcend politics, reach out to all Jews living in then-Palestine, and create a renaissance that was spiritual as well as national. Kook exhorted rabbis to "look for the positive in each faction" so as to "restore the honor of the rabbinate and expand its spiritual influence" over the "exhilarating national renaissance taking place in our day." Additionally, Kook's followers believe the instruments of Israel's sovereignty to be sacred inasmuch as they reflect the will of the Jewish people.

Yet even in 1921, when the community numbered just 75,000 Jews barely a generation away from traditional observance, Kook's vision was aspirational. Kook's successors continued to believe in an independent, apolitical rabbinate but were subject to the politics of the governing Labor Zionist coalition, including the National-Religious party. In 1960, Joseph B. Soloveitchik declined an invitation to be a candidate for Chief Rabbi, writing that "the Chief Rabbinate is really a government agency, so it is childish and naïve to think that the chief rabbi would be able to act independently."

Today, with Israel's current demographic challenges—including hundreds of thousands of citizens whose Jewish status is in question—and the intense pressures to end the Orthodox monopoly on matters of personal status, the implementation of Kook's vision seems even less likely. But Tzohar's rabbis, acknowledged even by their non-Orthodox critics to be sincere and idealistic (having briefly been a Tzohar fundraiser several years ago, I concur), continue to believe deeply in the importance of the rabbinate. Tzohar views the period before ultra-Orthodox control as a heyday in which the institution was beloved and apolitical, secular citizens happily submitted to the rabbinate's determinations, and chief rabbis were giants of Torah, sensitive to the needs of the people.

Ironically, the ultra-Orthodox have historically held the rabbinate in contempt and ascribed no religious significance to it; indeed, the current Ashkenazic chief rabbi, whose scholarly and spiritual credentials fall far short, to say the least, of his predecessors', was installed because of his professed allegiance to the ultra-Orthodox parties. Now that these parties control the rabbinate, they continue to view it as nothing more than the spoils of coalition politics, a place fit for political hacks. In treating it this way, they do grave harm to Judaism. But Tzohar watches helplessly, unwilling to advocate abolishing or privatizing the rabbinate or offering civil alternatives to it. Tzohar rabbis believe that if its rabbis were in power, they would be able to resist the temptations associated with controlling huge government budgets. They are convinced that a kinder, gentler rabbinate would prevent the development of non-Orthodox Judaism in Israel, but less obviously and violently. They think the problem lies with the people currently in power in the rabbinate, not the institution of the rabbinate itself.

For many Israelis, Tzohar is the spoonful of sugar that makes the bitter pill of dealing with the official rabbinate palatable. However, it seems clear that increasing numbers of them—including Orthodox Israelis—would prefer never to have to deal with it in the first place, even with Tzohar as a buffer: They would prefer, that is, to have the oppressive and despised rabbinate be removed altogether, whether because they do not share its values or its interpretations of Jewish law, or because they feel that moderns states should stay out of ecclesiastical business.

Yet Tzohar's rabbis, clinging to a nostalgic or imagined ideal of what the rabbinate might have been, refuse to address the sad reality of what it is. This is a group with the talent and stature to articulate a vision of what the Jewish state would look like without an official rabbinate. Instead, it spends its energy in a way that continues to enable its opponents, just so it can hold on to its pipe dream.

Elli Fischer, who lives in Israel, is a writer and translator and blogs at He has rabbinical ordination from the Chief Rabbinate of Israel.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Simon Deng advocates for Israel! He's so cool!

Former Sudanese slave and friend of Fuchs Mizrachi School, Simon Deng, defended Israel at Durban III!

We owe a debt of gratitude to the David Project foe sending him our way.

"Simon Deng, the South Sudanese delegate at the recent Durban III conference on racism (in New York), shattered the hypocrisy of the anti-Israeli front one normally witnesses at such meetings. Mr. Deng pointed out that while the UN has spent years launching paper attacks against Israel, the body generally has ignored the Arab racists committing crimes against Black Africans far more heinous than those falsely alleged against Israel.
From 1955 to 2005, four million non-Arab Sudanese were murdered, seven million were ethnically cleansed, and hundreds of thousands, including Mr. Deng himself, were seized by Arab slave-merchants and sold into bondage to Sudanese and Egyptian Arab owners. Darfur was never a “tribal” conflict, as the UN long soft-pedaled it; it was Arab colonialist genocide against Black Africans. It took UN bodies 16 years to recognize what was afoot, and they did so then only at the behest of Jewish organizations in Israel and the United states.

One of the only Middle Eastern countries to which persecuted South Sudanese could escape was Israel, which, as Mr. Deng reminded his unappreciative audience, is a country with no colour bars: Black Muslims and Christians have found safety in Israel. Mr. Deng also emphasized the violent discrimination of Muslim countries against Coptic Christians (Egypt), other Christians (Iraq, Nigeria and Iran), the B’hai (Iran) and Hindus and Sikhs in Kashmir. Deng celebrated the fact that the South Sudanese president, Salva Kiir, has determined that his new country’s embassy in Israel will be in Jerusalem, “the eternal capital of the Jewish people.”

Mr. Deng’s admirable and timely exposé was ungenerously received by the usual claque of Arabs and their anti-Semitic fellow travelers, and has been under-publicized. But it has put a banana skin under the anti-Israel movement in the Third World, and undermined, or even exploded, the prolonged, self-hating infatuation of sub-Saharan Africans and African-Americans with militant forms of Islam."

Mizrachi staff wrestles with God's immanence (wrong parsha?)

Forwarded conversation

Subject: Anthropopathism (yeah, that's right)

From: Noam Shapiro
Date: Mon, Nov 14, 2011 at 3:36 PM
To: FMS Judaic Staff Meeting

Anyone know of a good source that indicates that God has emotions? (I know many pesukim indicate it. I mean a rishon who says point blank- God does have emotions, and its not a metaphor, like the Rambam would say)

From: Rabbi Aaron Bayer

I feel like kaballa, chassidut, midrash is where you need to go with this. I would check out RAMBAN on some of the psukim that rambam explains metaphorically. Also, check out Eish Kodesh

From: Michael Unterberg

You may have the following problem:

Those who formulate the question philosophically will come to the same conclusion.
Those who are not philosophical will not formulate shittot in that manner. They will just discuss aggada and emotional language literally.

I'm inclined to agree with Aaron that those are the places to look, but it seems unlikely that you will find an articulated statement of belief. (that's what philosophers do)

That being the case, anyone with a philosophical bend can read mystical or literary sources (like kabbala and aggada) as metaphor anyway. So it puts you in a bit of a closed loop.

It is up to the reader to decide if the author intended those anthropopathic statements as literal or as a contribution to metaphorical religious literature. Hard to tell, frankly.


From: Noam Shapiro

Well said, Michael. But here is my problem: how many of us really view notions of God's love and compassion, to name two emotions, only as metaphors which allow us to perceive and relate to God? I would venture to say that many people (me?) think/feel/believe that God truly loves. And to say that God doesn't but that He merely has acted in a way that we humans intrepret as manifesting love, (a la the Rambam) - what are you left with? Is this not at the end of the day just self-deception? (shhh. don't tell anyone- we dont really mean it when we talk about having a relationship with God, its just a facade that we use in order to have....a relationship with God?)
"Meyla" when it comes to God's physicality- I think its easier to say that "dibra torah kilshon bnei adam' and that it is figurative language. But to say that God's emotion is metaphorical...what are you left with then?


From: Barry Kislowicz

On your point about physicality Dr Brill used to say that it's almost impossible to pray effectively without having some image of God in your mind -

From: Michael Unterberg

I think that it is a functional metaphor. By that I mean, a premise that may not bear scrutiny, but its needed to function. So, we use it as our narrative and live with the dissonance. I mean that as a healthy thing.


God loves us.
I have the best Mom in the world.
Israel is the most beautiful country in the world.
MY kids should be models.
My school is the coolest.
I am confident that I can do anything.
"You can choose any career that makes you happy"
My team will win.
I am so good looking.

There is a delicate balance here. And of course, dissonance can be unhealthy and lead to disaster. But we do need them. Its like peer pressure. It has a negative connotation, but actually is a healthy psych/social device that can be misused.

I recommend the book, "LIfe of Pi" by Yann Martel to see how I mean a functional story as a useful narrative.

On another note: Rav Kook talks about Avraham's immanent sense of God being needed earlier in history than Rambam's explication of the transcendent God. You can't have a relationship with the latter, and if we were aware of that first we could never be religious. He compares it to not know that the world spins for the first thousands of years of civilization. If we knew that from the beginning we would never have built tall structures or stand up straight. After we were well acclimated to the immanent sense of God we were ready for the knowledge of the philosopher's God. Both are paradoxically True, and we live in the tension.

I don't know if what I said was different than Rav Kook, complimentary or contradictory. I really don't, but I think its at least similar. Any thoughts?

Anyone mind if post either of these two? Names? No names? Is it shtika kehoda'ah?


From: Noam Shapiro

You have my permission. But I want some of the royalties.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Mizrachi Staff debates "Rashi script"

Forwarded conversation
Subject: The Tzadi Lamed Deal is Killer
Date: Mon, Nov 14, 2011 at 5:33 PM
To: FMS Judaic Staff Meeting <>

Check out this article about Rashi script:

From: Adin Krohn <>
I hear the issue. But I have two thoughts.

First, it's not that hard to learn. There are only a few letters that look significantly different. It can be taught easily in early grades, especially in Israel. Certainly "ktav agol" (script) is much harder. Yes, it is much more common, but that's not relevant to this particular point.

Second, what has to come first? If we want kids to be able to use a classic mikreot gedolot, not just torat chaim, then they have to be able to read ktav "Rashi". Certainly high level sefarim (although as new versions come out, more block print is being used), the Rema printed in Shulchan Aruch, etc. When we make it obsolete it will be obsolete. Until then, are we handicapping kids? Of course, if a kid will never read those books, then fine. But are we handicapping them in advance if we tell them they don't have to know it?

more thoughts?
Rabbi Adi Krohn
Yeshivat Yesodei HaTorah
From: Michael Unterberg <>
I am a big believer that since it isn't hard to learn, there is no need to bother little kids with it. Most kids that I know find the Rashi script an irritant at best. Why not just let the older learner figure it out in the 5 minutes it takes, and get used to it in a few hours. In the meantime, we are failing to attract large numbers of kids who choose not to be lifetime learners. There are many reasons for this, both due to our standard pedagogy and due to factors outside of school. (my guess is that the latter is the larger reason - which works against my argument) 
What I am saying is that we should be very careful not to fall into old patterns of teaching. In 21st century pedagogy, it seems crucial to me that we teach to clear relevance as much as possible. To me, Rashi letters is a small symptom of a larger problem. In essence we bore and annoy a majority of kids for a minority that will need to use it when they get older. Again, it is the ease of learning it that turns me against teaching it to, let's say, 5th graders who will not need it. 
Ironically, in the old country we used cheder as education for the masses, and only taught the relevant skills to those who went beyond. The democratization of learning has caused us to take (what I consider to be) strange steps in the skill teaching agenda we set for all students. 
I know that this argument falls on deaf ears. I made a similar post on lookjed in 2005 in response to a question, and was soundly ignored. (you can see the post here) I find that this happens when one makes a progressive suggestion in Jewish educational circles. (i.e. my Steinsaltz argument) I find that when I articulate a case against the status quo, the responses in defense do not take my case point by point and argue them. The response is usually some form of argument that that status quo is too big and public to challenge, and we need to teach in line with the bigger system. Otherwise how will our students fit in and function when they encounter the broader status quo world? 
Not to sound like a Mac commercial, but that argument would have placed out Eliezer Ben Yehuda, Nehama Leibovitz, Rav Yoel, Mordechai Breuer, Sara Shnerer, The Rav, Rav Chaim, etc. etc. If there is a better way to teach contemporary students, then its worth challenging the status quo and see what happens. 
On the other hand, perhaps people nodding and walking away just means that I'm crazy, and that hasn't sunk in yet. 
Sorry, for the long response. As you all know, this is a button on mine that gets pushed from time to time. The Rashi letter thing is a relatively minor issue. It concerns me as a symtom of what for me seems to be too high a level of fear to challenge the status quo. 
Let's do what makes sense and let the status quo meet us when we succeed. 
Anybody mind if I post this on my blog?
From: Dara Unterberg <>

From: Aharon E. Wexler <>
I agree with R' Michael. The real issue as educators is whether we are educating kids to be Talmidei Chachamim or to be well rounded balabatim. The Yeshiva system is based on the Volozhin system which directed itself to producing Talmidei Chachamim becuase Balabatim were produced by osmosis living in the shtetl. You went to Yeshiva to get something MORE than what your Shtetl could give you.
 In the Western World no one is going to be a well rounded balabayit by osmosis and there is no one who has come up with a viable model of how  to do this today. On the one hand we have 900 years of Gemara Rashi Tosfot as being the key to Jewish learning and a belief that Jewish learning is the key to everything else. But now I am not so sure anymore. I wonder what model can produce Jews who are dedicated to Judaism and make them, if God forbid need be, even die for their Judaism like our unlearned ancestors did before.  JEwish history has shown that the unlearned masses were willing to die Al Kiddush Hashem more readily than many of the scholars. How do we instill that dedication in our youth?
From: daniella robicsek <>
i agree with you too, michael.  perhaps people haven't responded one way or another on the lookjed post because they bascially agree with you (or they don't have good arguements to the contrary). anyone who's tried to teach students who aren't enamored with tanach to begin with, should identify with your arguments. Ktav rashi seems like the lowest priority on the totem pole in the context of the much more significant issues that exist.
From: Adin Krohn <>
I hear what you are all saying. Of course I agree that because it is easy to acquire it can wait until later. And most if not all texts being used by kids who have to learn rashi script don't even have it themselves (such as a newer chumash with rashi, for example).
I guess my question starts with: what happens when a text that is only in ktav rashi is one that is deemed important enough to study? Do we avoid it or do we say "ktav rashi isn't that hard, let's teach the kids how to use it now"? How does the students' proficiency (or lack thereof) in reading it affect our curricular choices?
Maybe the answer is "a lot." i.e. why select books that make it harder for the student to read it. Do I care if a fifth grader can't access the kli yakar in the standard mikre'ot gedolot? Of course not.
But do I care if a girl in seminary can't look up a din in the Rema? I think I do. How motivated do I expect students to be to start to learn ktav rashi at that late stage? I guess you could say, "if a girl (or boy) doesn't care enough to learn ktav rashi, then I guess they don;t need ot be learning rema on their own."
Or at least we don't care enough about that dilemma to put ALL our fifth graders through the trouble of learning ktav rashi.
Maybe it is just a cost-benefit analysis where the pain of rashi script for all outweighs the gain of having some low percentage of students who want more advanced learning but are sufficiently unmotivated to be stopped by the obstacle of rashi script not have to be stopped. (did that make sense?)

I think we all agree now? Feel free to continue this...
From: Rabbi Aaron Bayer <>
To put it another way you could suggest that it’s a question of access. Who has access to these texts? Ideally I would like everyone to have equal access to all texts but perhaps that is not worth the tradeoff.
I think that the most universal text that is still printed in rashi script even in the new mechon yerushalayim shulchan aruch and the newer mishna berura is the rema. That’s a pretty big deal. But perhaps the six letters that are different can be taught in 9th grade (the earliest age that I imagine most kids start learning shulchan aruch)

From: Michael Unterberg <>
Teach it when you use it. That's my policy. Relevance uber alles. 
From: Noam Shapiro <>
This discussion reminds me of the video lecture you sent out once, Michael- would you mind resending it? (About the guy discussing shifting paradigms in education) Not totally the same- but the idea of who the audience is in education ,as well as what the purpose is... would love to see it again.
From: Michael Unterberg <>

From: Noam Shapiro <>
Thanks man!

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

The Cosmic Lottery - GRS drasha from Lech Lecha

A few people have asked for copies of the drasha that I gave this past Shabbat at Green Road Synagogue. Unfortunately, I don't write things up before I speak. But I think that I might like a copy too. Dara and I have largely based the Bible and Jewish History curricula at Fuchs Mizrachi on these ideas. So I will try to write it up as best as I can from memory. In addition to any differences of memory, my writing and speaking styles differ a bit. 

The Cosmic Lottery

When I was a kid in school, my teachers used to make a big deal about how difficult the challenge of "lech lecha" was for Avraham. How hard would it be, the asked us to imagine, leaving your home, family and culture to move to a strange new land. What they left out, was that Avraham was already doing that anyway. He and his family were nomadic trader/shepherds, and were already moving from Mesopotamia to Israel. This was the initiative of Avraham's father, Terach, and appears in the text at the end of chapter 11, immediately preceding the lech lecha. 

"And Terah took Abram his son, and Lot the son of Haran, his son's son, and Sarai his daughter-in-law, his son Abram's wife; and they went forth with them from Ur of the Chaldees, to go into the land of Canaan; and they came unto Haran, and dwelt there." 

The basic route along the fertile crescent 

Whenever you place the Divine command to Avraham, he is basically being asked to do something that he was doing with his father anyway. So why was this challenge so difficult?

Well, maybe it wasn't. Perhaps God is asking Avraham to be the kind of person that he already was, and do the kind of things he already did, but to now dedicate those things to Him. The greater challenges come later, including the ultimate test of the Akeda, the second "lech lecha". But for now, Avraham is simply taking who he is so far, and dedicating himself to God. The text says that he is 75, years old. The midrash tells us that he was already a great iconoclast, (literally!) challenging the prevailing world views of his age with his perspective of ethical monotheism. He does appear in the text to stand different from those around him in many ways. As he grows, even in his later years he demonstrates that kind of sustained subversion against his own ideas as well. He always challenges himself, which is undoubtably why he succeeds in his later tests from God. 

And why is God choosing this man and this land and bringing them together? He says, "And I will bless them that bless thee, and him that curseth thee will I curse; and in thee shall all the families of the earth be blessed". So it has something to do with blessing all the families of the earth. Through the ages this has been explained to mean building a nation that will be a light to all others. This nation will create a great society of justice and righteousness that will be an example to all others. That is what they are being chosen for. In earlier chapters, God has tried to make covenants with Adam and Noah in order to build an ethical humanity. When this does not work out, God decides to make his covenants with Avraham to be the progenitor of this nation that will follow his example and exhibit his characteristics. 

Now that we are three thousand and a something hundred years into that plan, it seems reasonable to take a step back and see how the mission is going. How have we done as the vanguard of civilization?

Well, a few centuries after Avraham those descendants end up founding a kingdom in that land. They have a nomadic herding tradition, and settle into agricultural life. They are also on the crossroads of the fertile crescent where Asia and Afica meet, between the two great world empires of Egypt and Mesopotamia. In this cross cultural environment, they do indeed embody the character of Avraham, creating a body of literature that changes the world. It posits ideas that were crazy in the in the Iron Age, when they were written. Among those ideas were concepts like monarchs under the law, the sacred value of every human life and peace as a virtue. It is nearly impossible for us to grasp how tiny and insignificant this kingdom was politically and demographically, precisely because the influence of these works is way out of proportion to the tiny people who generated them. 

The First Jewish State

Although they lose their kingdom in 586 B.C.E. to the Babylonians, they continue to study and expound on their classic canon of sacred literature. In these works, the Jews delve into understand both the values and practices of the Bible. And while the values are probably more important, emphasis is placed on the explication of the laws, so that Torah can be lived and not just learned. In these works, they, like their forefather, constantly and consistently challenge the prevailing assumptions of their ages. They ask questions within their world and without, always thinking that things can and should be made better.

They spend centuries spread around the world in a variety of countries and cultures, constantly weighing values against each other, balancing tradition with progress. Defying all the laws of history, they maintain a coherent identity in exile, and eventually (astonishingly) return to reclaim their homeland and independence. There they continue to struggle like their forefathers, to create a culture of justice and bring values from the realm of ideas to reality. They continue to contribute to arts, culture and science all disproportionate to their numbers

We may wonder that the pace is so slow, but the mission does seem to be ongoing. When we do wonder about the glacial pace, we can question wether it is because of our backsliding, or because God simply works at a scale that we simply can't appreciate. But the plan does seem to be in effect

What does this mean for us? What are the consequences of being part of the .2% of the world's population who are part of this covenant? What is incumbent upon us as winners of this Cosmic Lottery, to be born into the nation destined to be the vanguard of civilization by dint of a contract with the Master of the Universe? What responsibilities fall to those proud few who constitute this amazing people?

I think it comes down to three things.

1) The first is the need to access the great works of our people. To have such an embarrassment of riches at our disposal and ignore it would be a crime. To live without drawing on three thousand years of inherited wisdom is living hand to mouth. To put it into simpler parlance, we should learn more Torah.

2) We should not only learn Judaism, we should live it. Just as with the first factor, we can certainly do better at our practice of halachah, and live more authentic Jewish lives. And if we can, we must.

3) We must do everything we can to move the mission forward. This means building a Jewish state that exemplifies the ideals of tzedek vemishpat, justice and righteousness, so that Jerusalem becomes the city on the hill that is the world's model.

Like our father Avraham, we must constantly challenge prevailing accepted views in search of deeper truth. And like him, this must be directed not only against society, but also within ourselves. His example is one of constant, dynamic growth.

Perhaps the most amazing thing about the story of God's plan in making this covenant with Avraham is that we get to write the next chapter. May we make our forefathers proud.

The Great Journey

Thursday, November 3, 2011

All we are saying is, "Give mutual unilateral disengagement a chance!"

I am really not kidding.

I noticed that I seemed to be in a minority this week. I've begun work at "Write on for Israel: The Next Generation", teaching Israel advocacy to adults. At one point another speaker was discussing the Palestinian statehood bid in the UN. In discussing it as a unilateral move, he asked the group to compare it with the success or failure of other unilateral declaration. The talked about American independence, the Confederacy and Israel's withdrawal from Gaza. The consensus seemed to be that the first worked because it was backed up in war, and that the other two were failures.

Man, I don't know. I still agree with Ariel Sharon, and believe that unilateral Gaza withdrawal was the right move. I'm not referring to how the residents of Gush Katiff were treated, that is a different issue. Let me begin to defend my thesis, by starting with a few of my assumptions. Next I'll lay out the case, and then I will defend it against possible objections.

A: Assumptions
1) Sometimes Israel has no good moves to make. It can only choose from bad ones. This is an important point. Sometimes when we criticize Israel for creating damage "A", we don't notice that they are solving problem "B" in the only way possible. Lazar Berman makes this argument well. So we may not be able to solve all the problems, but we should look for ways to at least manage the bad ones. By way of analogy, think of how doctors deal with chronic illnesses. There may be no cure, but you must manage what you can.

2) As I mentioned in two previous posts, I think that the space between what the Israeli left can concede and what Palestinian leadership can accept can't be bridged at this time. More importantly, so does Aaron David Miller. That means that peace is not a meaningful thing to pursue at this time. I think that in any case, the second Intifada eroded any fragile trust between Israelis and Palestinians that is the necessary foundation of a peace deal. So let's not even use the word for the foreseeable future. It raises an impossible goal that frustrates progress.

3) For moral and pragmatic reasons, the status quo of Israel being entangled in the military oversight of daily life in the West Bank is a disaster.

B: The Plan
What options does that leave? Once you take peace off the table, how can you move to a different future in the region? I think that Gadi Taub's approach makes the most sense. Mutual unilateral disengagement is what seems most plausible to me. (I know, the acronym is M.U.D., but I really am not kidding here. There is nothing modest in this proposal, so seek no irony)

There will have to be negotiation to set terms for this to work, but there will still be outstanding disagreements. (like the right of return) These will need international support to succeed. At best, they will lead to a cold peace/war between two separated people. Perhaps in a generation or two, this could lead to peoples that could begin to build cooperation and trust. But I don't think this status quo should go that long, and we may not be able to build the trust till we get there.

C: Objections
1) Thousands of rockets come to mind. Don't those rockets prove that unilateral disengagement from Gaza was a failure? Well here's the thing. That failure was due to Israel's lack of a deterrence policy. Post "Cast Lead", Israel has implemented such a policy to great effect in the north with Hizbullah and the South with Hamas. (although it may be even more about Islamic Jihad in the south according to Khaled Abu Toameh)

Are there still rockets? Some, of course. And while even one is not acceptable, I refer back to assumption #1 and point out that terrorism may only be manageable. We have stopped terrorists themselves from crossing that border into Jewish areas, though, and that is a great security success. Are they arming? Yup, but back to assumption #1.

2) Isn't "negotiated mutual unilateral disengagement" the same as a peace process? Yes and no. The similarities are obvious. But NMUD can be pursued with clarity and honesty in a way that the peace process can't. Setting a more realistic goal could possibly generate a healthier dialogue. Israel has reached armistice agreements with many hostile neighbors over the years, and this could be one. I wouldn't call an armistice with Syria "peace talks". But the did lead to reasonably quiet borders, stable coexistence and a maintainable status quo. We need that with the Palestinians. Take peace out of the equation, and there more be work to do and goals to accomplish.

However you evaluate Bibi's performance, he certainly makes a big deal about peace based on true facts. Well, the truth may just be that we can't bridge the gap to become good neighbors. Good fences may be the best we can do for now.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Sura in the lounge

The 10th grade Jewish History curriculum has a unit on the Talmud, that focuses on the differences between the Mishna and the Gemara. Estee Fleischmann and I cam up with a little improv play a few years ago that we involved the class in.

Basically, the two teachers play Ravina and Rav Ashi. They are asking their students to brainstorm how the Torah she'beal peh should continue to be written. The former wants to just make a new document similat to the Mishan, and the latter disagrees. To make a long story short, they brainstorm with the students, who sort of reinvent the wheel in designing how the new structure should look and come up with the Gemara. The major insight is that while the Mishna recorded the product of discussions, the Gemara must record the process. This will create a work which must be learned and studied, and opposed to just read. Anyone who studies it becomes, over time, part of the oral tradition and a living carrier of the Torah.

Now, we also want to shtick it up. So you have to put out middle eastern food, smells and sounds to create atmosphere. When I put on the little play with the current 10th grade Jewish History teacher, Rabbi Ari Spiegler, we turned the student lunge into ancient Sura in order to have our discussion. My favorite prop was an old school oil lamp that I made from a kit. I mean, how cool is this thing? Just check out the video below, and let me know what you think.


Forwarded conversation
Subject: Article: Sura in the lounge

From: N
nice- good stuff. btw-  i really like the new layout design of your blog

From: A
I love it-
Although, I kept expecting the carpet to catch on fire or something. If you want a video to go viral, it needs a bit more pizzazz.
Seriously though, how do the kids react? Do they get the point? Do you think it impacts how they feel about gemara in general?
Is the play full of really hard words and difficult syntax?

From: Michael Unterberg 
Thanks, N. Yeah, I like that the viewer can choose to alter it using the sidebar. Way interactive.

Apropos, A, since as you know, Fire is a Virus. (see link) Pizzazz, on the other hand, is a local restaurant. (nuch a link. nerd jokes abound)

The play is improv, so that avoids the annoying syntax. The kids like it. They are sitting on the floor on pillows and noshing, and their teachers are wearing robes. So that's fun. Many get the point, and have fun with it. Some don't and need more classroomy reinforcement. The idea is that this positive fun time will both help them remember it and give a good taam to it. That's harder to measure though. It should provide a reference point for Gemara teachers to provide occasional motivation, I would hope. 


Friday, October 28, 2011

Good for Gordis

So well said. Yashar Koach to Daniel Gordis.

A Rediscovered Abundance of Goodness | Daniel Gordis - Dispatches from an Anxious State

A Rediscovered Abundance of Goodness
Posted By Daniel Gordis On October 28, 2011 @ 2:40 am In Featured Articles,Uncategorized | 14 Comments
Mr. Prime Minister,
Before the Shalit deal fades entirely from view, many of us are hoping that you have noticed what you unwittingly unleashed.  I don’t mean the next wave of terror or the terrible decisions that Israel must make before the next kidnapping.  We knew about those even before last week.  But last Tuesday, all of us – those opposed as well as those in favor (and there were persuasive arguments on both sides) – rediscovered something magnificent about this country.  It would be tragic if we returned to business as usual without pausing to take note.
In addition to Gilad Shalit, we got one more thing in return that few of us could have expected; we got a reminder of the abundant goodness that still resides at the very core of this society.  You could see it everywhere.  Compare the speeches on our side, celebrating life and freedom, to the blood-thirsty Palestinian harangues calling for renewed terror and additional kidnappings.   Compare the respectful restraint of our press to Shahira Amin’s immoral and abusive interview in Egypt.  But more than anything, we saw this reservoir of goodness in the streets – in the people so moved that they could hide neither the tears in their eyes nor the lumps in their throats.  We saw it in the throngs along the roads, people who wanted Shalit to know that they, too, celebrated his long overdue freedom.  And we saw it in the hundreds of people in Mitzpe Hila who continued dancing long after he’d entered his house and closed the door.  
We all felt it – it was innocent, pure and thoroughly decent.  We were witness that day to an entire country believing in something again.  Those young people outside the Shalit home were singing not only about Shalit, but about this land, this people, and about a future in which they still believe.  Did you see them?  Women and men, religious and secular, dancing with abandon in celebration of freedom?  Did you hear them singing anachnu ma’aminim benei ma’aminim …. “We’re believers, the children of believes, and we have no one on whom to depend, other than our Father in heaven”?  You didn’t miss it, did you?  Hundreds of people of all walks of Israeli life, proclaiming without hesitation their belief in something bigger than themselves?
The reason that the trade was wildly popular, Mr. Prime Minister, wasn’t ultimately about Gilad Shalit. It was about Israel.  About a country desperate to transcend the cynicism, that still wants to believe that it’s worth believing in.  Shouldn’t we – and you – therefore ask ourselves what can we do next to justify people’s belief in this place?   What will it take to make this a country that its citizens can love even when we’re not freeing a captive?
How about if we start by eradicating evil?  Take but one example and deal with it.  There’s a small but vicious group of kids living over the Green Line who bring inestimable shame on the Jewish people.  They burn mosques, tear down olive trees and sow fear everywhere – all with the implicit support of their rabbis.  And they make many young Israelis deeply ashamed of this entire enterprise.  Last week, you showed us that you do know how to take decisive action.  So do it again.  Rein them in.  Arrest them.  Cut off funding to their yeshivot.  If you show this generation of Israelis that your government stands for goodness even when that means making tough domestic decisions, you’ll unleash a wave of Zionist passion like we haven’t felt here for a generation.  It wouldn’t be any harder to do than what you just did, and it would actually do even more good for Israel than getting one soldier back.
And beyond goodness, there’s also Jewishness.  No, we shouldn’t make too much of that anachnu ma’aminim benei ma’aminim song, but admit – it’s not what you expect to see lots of secular people singing.  Yet they did.  Because this is a strange and wondrous country; not so deep down, even “non-religious” people aren’t “non-religious.”  Just like their observant counterparts, they’re searching, struggling, yearning – and at moments like that, they know that the well from which they hope to draw their nourishment is a Jewish well.
That’s why it was wonderful that you quoted from Isaiah (the Haftarah for Parashat Bereishit) in your speech.  It was your suggestion, I hope, that at its core, this society must be decent, but it must also be Jewish.  You know what the main problem with the summer’s Social Justice protests was?  It wasn’t the naïve embrace of high school socialism, or the utter incoherence of the demands.  It was the fact that there was simply nothing Jewish about their vision for Israel.  Dafni Leef and her comrades could have given the same vacuous speeches at Occupy Wall Street.  Or in Sweden, for that matter.  Those inane speeches were testimony to the failure of our educational systems and of Israel’s religious leadership.  The Yoram Kaniuk affair and the court’s willingness to let him declare himself “without religion” is a reflection not on him, but on the appallingly uninteresting variety of Judaism that the State has come to represent.  Can you – or anyone else – name even one single powerful idea that’s come from any of Israel’s Chief Rabbis in the past decade or two?  Me, neither.
But lo and behold, it turns out that Israel’s young people still want to believe in something.  We haven’t given them the tools to articulate it, but they still intuit that whatever we become, it’s got to be Jewish.  So ride that wave, too, Mr. Prime Minister.  What would it take to shape a country where the profundity at the core of Jewish tradition became once again the subject of discourse in our public square?  Does Judaism in the twenty-first century suddenly have to become dull and backward, or can we restore the intellectual and moral excellence that once characterized it?  Can you take this on, too?  Appoint the right people?  Build the right schools?  Can you help make this a country encourages those young people now searching for Jewish moral moorings?
For or against, hardly a single one of us is not thrilled that Gilad Shalit is home.  He deserved his life back.  But so, too, does this country.  Shalit, hopefully, will now get better and stronger with each passing day.  Israel must do the same.  It needs to get better – we need to be honest about the evils lurking in our midst, and we must exorcise them.  And we must become stronger, which we can do only by engaging with the roots that brought us back home in the first place.
Can you do this?  Many of us hope so.  Because if this fails, it will in the long run have made no difference that Gilad Shalit came home.  But if it succeeds, we might just come to see his liberation as the turning point in our collective return to believing in ourselves.

Article printed from Daniel Gordis – Dispatches from an Anxious State:
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Tuesday, October 25, 2011

The Long Road Home

In many ways, Gilad Shalit's journey home has barely begun.

Obviously, we all know that spending years of 19 to 24 in a Hamas bunker is going to leave terrible scars. There will be so many difficulties in his reentry into normal life, and many of them are so hard to anticipate.

Could he have known that he has become an international celebrity and front page news? He must have known that his family would be advocating for him. But what could prepare him for the public persona he now has? Celebrities often complain about the down sides of fame, although they worked hard to earn it. What if it is thrust on you through happenstance? It must create a Harry Potter like sense of confusion. Can he ever have the kind of privacy in public that we all enjoy?

Will he possibly feel guilt? Don't forget that other soldiers were killed during his capture. Will he fear running into families of the victims of the released terrorists? (I don't even want to consider future terrorist actions, God forbid, and what that would make him feel)

I was just watching an interview with the hero Dennis Fitch. It was for Errol Morris' "First Person", and it is riveting. He saved dozens of lives by landing an impossibly out of control plane. It is an amazing story. In the interview, he talks about meeting the mother of a young woman who didn't survive the crash. This mom walked up to him and said, "You killed my daughter!" The injustice of it gave him no consolation. Here was a hero made to feel guilt for what he could not control rather than what he accomplished.

Will Gilad fear such meetings? Will they happen? They could. And what positive accomplishments can he use to attempt to console himself?

I wonder who is even qualified to help Gilad through these times. Who has had an experience like his? Other prisoners of war in Israel may yield some aid and understanding.

I hope it goes as well as it possibly can.

Did the government do the right thing? Its too hard for me to say. Were the potential concerns of strategy and the abstract concerns of justice worth this young man's life? How does one decide?

I keep thinking about a scene from Frank Miller's 1986 graphic novel, "The Dark Knight Returns". The new commissioner asks the retiring Commissioner Gordon how he could have sanctioned a vigilante like Batman. The panels below are his response.

"You will," he answers.