Friday, May 25, 2012

I made the big Times! Top spot on TOI!

1) Mea Culpa: First of all, I feel really guilty that I didn't mention in my second blog post that Dara told me those Rav Medan insights.

2) Mea Kvela: I know that the topic was a serious one, but I am so happy and honored to be today's featured blog on the Times of Israel! They posted a catchy title, even added pictures and tinkered with some of my transliteration! Really cool and flattering.

The featured spot (right above Neil Lazarus) 

They added a nice Rut pic...

And this captioned photo of refugees!

Best of all, because I was the lead feature of the day, my little post appears right under David Horovitz's on the side bar:

Look, I call for stuff!!!

I don't mean to distract from the serious point of the piece, but on a purely personal level, I'm jazzed!

Chag Sameach!


Wednesday, May 23, 2012

My new blog at Times of Israel

Well, I now have my own blog at David Horovitz's Times of Israel online newspaper. I have been a big fan of Horovitz for years, so I'm pretty proud and pleased.

Basically, I will be posted Israel related posts there first, and then adding them here a few days later. My first post is one that appeared here previously, and I will repost it here soon. I guess you can choose to follow one, both or neither.



Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Israel: Theocracy or Democracy Lecture

You can download most of the audio from my lecture by following this link,

the Power Point can be found at this link,

And the source sheet can be found here.

If you prefer, here is a folder that holds all three.



Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Pigs and Parasangs

The Rabbis learn the idea of constancy and consistency from our parsha. The sacrifices are not only important in themselves, but also as a symbol of our need to never shirk our burden of responsibilities to Hashem. It is seen in the following verse:

Vayikra 6:2
Command Aaron and his sons, saying: This is the law of the burnt-offering: it is that which goes up on its firewood upon the altar all night unto the morning; and the fire of the altar shall be kept burning thereby.

The Talmud discusses a time when Jewish infighting brought the constant service in the Temple to a stop. It occured during the second temple period under the hasmonean dynasty. Two grandchildren of the Maccabees were fighting a war over who would run the country and the Temple. The event is described as follows:

Baba Kamma 82b
IT IS NOT RIGHT TO BREED PIGS IN ANY PLACE WHATEVER. Our Rabbis taught: When the members of the Hasmonean house were contending with one another, Hyrcanus was within and Aristobulus without [the city wall]. [Those who were within] used to let down to the other party every day a basket of denarii, and [in return] cattle were sent up for the regular sacrifices. There was, however, an old man [among the besiegers] who had some knowledge in Grecian Wisdom  and who said to them: 'So long as the other party [are allowed to] continue to perform the service of the sacrifices they will not be delivered into your hands.' On the next day when the basket of denarii was let down, a swine was sent up. When the swine reached the centre of the wall it stuck its claws into the wall, and Eretz Yisrael quaked over a distance of four hundred parasangs  by four hundred parasangs.

This event may contain some rabbinic hyperbole, but it is no legend. The Jewish historian Josephus reports what is essentially the same event. And he too shared the Rabbi’s sense of righteous indignation and articulates it in no uncertain terms.

Antiquities of the Jews - Book XIV 2:2
While the priests and Aristobulus were besieged, it happened that the feast called the passover was come, at which it is our custom to offer a great number of sacrifices to God; but those that were with Aristobulus wanted sacrifices, and desired that their countrymen without would furnish them with such sacrifices, and assured them they should have as much money for them as they should desire; and when they required them to pay a thousand drachmae for each head of cattle, Aristobulus and the priests willingly undertook to pay for them accordingly, and those within let down the money over the walls, and gave it them. But when the others had received it, they did not deliver the sacrifices, but arrived at that height of wickedness as to break the assurances they had given, and to be guilty of impiety towards God, by not furnishing those that wanted them with sacrifices. And when the priests found they had been cheated, and that the agreements they had made were violated, they prayed to God that he would avenge them on their countrymen. Nor did he delay that their punishment, but sent a strong and vehement storm of wind, that destroyed the fruits of the whole country, till a modius of wheat was then bought for eleven drachmae.

It is often stated that sinat chinam (inappropriate conflict between Jews) brings disaster to our people. It is also worth remembering that it make the proper constant and consistent service to Hashem impossible.

Rav Avraham Yitzchak HaCohen Kook is often quoted as saying that since the Second Temple was destroyed through sinat chinam, the third one will have to be built through ahavat chinam. (baseless love) May Jewish love for our fellows continue to grow and bring the redemption closer every day.


Friday, March 9, 2012

A History of Mizrachi Comedy

Here is a playlist that takes you through the years of Mizrachi Comedy Movies

And then there are the ones not on Youtube, that you can see here:
MNUnterberg website


Friday, February 3, 2012

Isn't it great when you might be wrong?

I have a particular interest in this story from today's Haaretz:

Jerusalem dig uncovers earliest evidence of local cultivation of etrogs - Haaretz Daily Newspaper | Israel News

For a number of years it has bothered me that Rabbinic tradition says that the Torah refers to the etrog (citron fruit) specifically (in Vayikra 23) when it explains the mitzva of the four species on Sukkot. For example, Maimonides says:
ב "פרי עץ הדר" (ויקרא כג,מ) האמור בתורה, הוא אתרוג.
"The fruit of a beautiful tree" referred to in the Torah is the citron fruit.
The entire article is worth reading, but the part relevant to my problem is:
Most of the plants were wild, but in one layer of plaster, apparently from the Persian period (the era of the Jewish return from the Babylonian exile in 538 B.C.E. ) they found pollen from ornamental species and fruit trees, some of which came from distant lands.
The find that most excited the scholars was pollen from etrogs, or citrons, a fruit that originated in India. This is the earliest botanical evidence of citrons in the country.
Scholars believe the citron came here via Persia, and that its Hebrew name, etrog, preserves the Persian name for the fruit - turung. They also say royal cultivation of the exotic newcomer was a means of advertising the king's power and capabilities.
The garden at Ramat Rachel is also the first place in the country to yield evidence of the cultivation of myrtle and willow - two more of the four species used in Sukkot rituals.

See the problem? If etrogim, according to the evidence, only arrived in Israel during the second temple period, than the Torah couldn't have meant them hundreds of years before the first temple was built! This would mean that the Rabbis were in error. Admittedly, this would not amount to faith shaking heresy, just an interesting trivial point. But still. At least I thought it was interesting. I've basically assumed for years that the Rabbis were wrong.


In fishing around after reading today's article, I found out something new. (for me) There is some evidence that the etrog had travelled to Egypt sometime before most assumed dates for the Exodus story. While no actual physical remains of etrogim have been found, images of what appear to be citrons on the walls of the Temple of Karnak have! Apparently they appear in the Akh-Menou hall from the time of Thutmose III, which would date it to the 15th century B.C.E. That would be well early enough for Moshe and his contemporaries to be familiar with them. There may even be images there of my favorite kind of Etrog, the many fingered Buddha's hand citron!

I know not everyone agrees, but I think these things are gorgeous. 

So there is some circumstantial evidence that the Torah could possibly have meant the etrog, and that the Rabbinic tradition is true. Of course, there are still questions. For example, the hebrews would then have had to bring loads of them into Canaan, and there should be some evidence of that.

But its still nice to see that the answer to my question was not as simple as I had originally thought. I just love it when things are more complicated than I thought, and there is so much more to figure out! Now I just have to convince my high school students to share that attitude.


Monday, January 30, 2012

Great post from my brother-in-law

You can see it on its page here, but here is the post:

The Religious Cost of Rejecting Feminism’s Core Moral Claim 

by Yosef Kanefsky

Rav Moshe Feinstein was never known as a feminist. But he both understood and accepted feminism’s core moral claim.
In a remarkable 1976 responsum he wrote bluntly about what he perceived to be the effort to extend the women’s liberation movement from the political and social spheres into the religious. He opened by reasserting the fact that women are exempt from a particular well-known set of mitzvot, and that this exemption is rooted both in Divine wisdom, and in the practical wisdom of the rabbis, who deemed it unrealistic and unfair to expect that these mitzvot be observed by those who bear primary responsibility for the raising of children and the daily running of the household. Rav Moshe branded any effort to change this halachik exemption as being both futile and rebellious, even going so far as to say that were a woman to perform a mitzva from which she is exempt not out of religious desire rather in the effort to undermine the exemption, that this would not constitute a mitzva act at all.
But Rav Moshe didn’t end there. He concluded the responsum with a lengthy paragraph in which he demonstrated that he accepted the core of feminism’s moral claim, regarding it as consistent with classical Jewish teaching.
“… [the exemption] is not a result of the fact that women possess a lower spiritual rank than men. For with regard to holiness, they are equal…And with regard to the obligation to honor a spouse, we find that the obligation applies from husband to wife, and from wife to husband without any distinction… There is no degradation of women’s honor [in the tradition]…”
Equal holiness, worth, dignity, and humanity. This is the essence of the feminist moral claim.
In the lead article of the Summer 2002 issue of Tradition, Orthodox attorney Marc Stern   challenged the mainstream Orthodox community over its habitual denunciations of feminism. First, on the grounds of intellectual dishonesty, as so much of the community has enthusiastically embraced many of feminism’s outcomes, including  high educational standards for girls, hands-on involvement of fathers in raising their children, the expectation of equal pay for equal work, and the zero tolerance for sexual harassment in the workplace. He notes that none of his readers would want to see these developments rolled back.  And then second, on the grounds that the resistance of feminism has exacted a religious price. In Stern’s words,
“In all too many communities shiurim for women are infantile outpourings of primitive and unreflective emotion, as if women were incapable of understanding anything more complex. Talented women have been lost to the Orthodox community [as a result]. The fight for equality has not yet been won, even within the realms of what is without question halachikly acceptable. How many shul have been built in the last generation that reflect a concern for… the ability of women to feel as if they are participants in the davening?”
Religious costs are indeed incurred through resisting feminism’s fundamental claim.  To the costs  Stern mentioned we also add the fact that many Orthodox rabbis still refuse to utilize the halachik pre-nuptial agreement intended to save women from becoming agunot, that women who do become agunot sometimes receive shoddy treatment at the hands of Dayanim and the members of their own  communities. And the reality that in many day schools serving the mainstream Orthodox community boys and girls still do not enjoy the same Jewish studies curriculum. The rejection of feminism’s central claim comes at a religious cost.
The extreme manifestation of this of course is the zealous suppression of women in the public sphere that has become mainstream Haredi religious behavior. Their well-known policies of seating women in the back of the bus, eliminating women’s pictures from public view, and requiring that women not appear in public ceremonies even to accept their own governmental awards, do not stem from halachik analysis, rather from precisely the kind of repressive chauvinism that the feminist movement aimed to root out.  The halachik analysis had already been done, again by Rav Moshe, who years ago had addressed a question posed by a man who feared taking the subway to work, where the crowded conditions invariably brought about physical contact with female commuters. Rav Moshe ruled that,  
“There is no prohibition to come into contact with [women under these circumstances] since it is not done in an affectionate manner. Similarly there is no prohibition to sit next to a woman when there is no other place available. And if a particular man knows that this will bring about lustful thoughts … he needs to fight against these thoughts by distracting himself and thinking about words of Torah.”
What sort of mindset simply dismisses this kind of straightforward halachik thinking in favor of making women disappear? One that stems directly from the rejection of the basic moral claim that women possess the same humanity, dignity and stature as men, and that they are not simply objects that populate a male world. And what a price has been paid for this rejection.  A disfigurement of Torah observance, and an international desecration of God’s name.
There will always be morally anchored movements and ideas that will emerge from outside our immediate four cubits. And as a religious communities, we will do much better by explicitly taking them in rather than by rejecting them. Taking them in doesn’t and shouldn’t mean surrendering all other religious values with which they may come into conflict. It means admitting them into the constellation of religious values that together determine normative religious behavior. The other important ideas out there now are democracy, and human egalitarianism – the recognition that all people of all types possess equal human dignity and worth. And these two are also facing resistance or rejection in various Orthodox quarters, with the costs already expressing themselves. Now, more than ever, we need to stand up unapologetically, and affirm with urgency the religious value of morally compelling ideas. The reward will be great.


Tuesday, January 10, 2012

ALL things shining?

Just for the record, I wrote a note to the authors of All Things Shining. I'm not really expecting a response, but I felt like making the point.

Dear Professors Dreyfus and Kelly,

I am writing to thank you for your book, All Things Shining. I had already listened to some of your courses through iTunes, and looked forward to reading the book. I was not disappointed. As a religious person, I gained appreciation and insight into much that is sacred through your work. I learned and benefited from every chapter. As I say, I am writing this note in appreciation.

I do have two quibbles. The development of Judaism certainly had no place in a broad survey like All Things Shining. Focusing on small subcultures (e.g. Jews or Gnostics) in Europe would have derailed the work. However, I do think it may misleading to refer to “Judeo-Christian Monotheism”, as your book frequently does. While their may be some truth to there being Judeo-Christian values, their theologies are extremely different.

More than that, your work claims that this Judeo-Christian Monotheism promotes a certain certainty about the world. (i.e. page 200) While both religions do make truth claims, Judaism as a religion generally eschews certainty. While its bible contains much more physis and poietic elements than the New Testament, I refer more specifically to Rabbinic Judaism. The Talmud which forms the backdrop of traditional Judaism reflects complexity, contradiction and questioning rather than certainty throughout its meandering course of law, legend and lore. It should not be necessary to bring cases or Rabbinic aphorisms to prove this. Judaism has never been catholic, and attempts to make it so have failed.

Again, this does not contradict the thesis of your work. I simply think that Jewish and Christian monotheisms are different philosophically in ways that make those references to the world view of “Judeo-Christian Monotheism” somewhat inaccurate.

My second concern regards your suggested course for finding the sacred in our lives. While I think it is fair to say that your approach differs from that Wallace’s characters, it may be just the approach (mis)used by Patrick Bateman in Ellis’ American Psycho. He does seem to combine his grasp of the wooshing physis with his poietic engagement through a refined aesthetic celebration of the culture around him. I may be missing something in your prescription, but it seems that if there are no ethics rooted in the sacred, then Bateman can embrace his sacred experiences in the way that you describe. There must be a way to correct for that.

Please regard these to points as minor. As a practitioner of complex, uncertain, multifaceted monotheism, I gained a great deal from your book. The Melville chapter, in particular, changed my way of looking at Moby Dick and its cultural claims. Thank you, again.


Rabbi Michael Unterberg


Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Forward framing

There were two unrelated articles in last week's Forward that told a chilling story when placed together. I'm sure that they weren't meant to be taken that way, but I couldn't miss the contrast.

The first regarded a survey of Jewish day school enrollment. Apparently the Avi Chai foundation has been compiling this data for a while, and the results are not cheery. While the decline in the last year is what Avi Chai calls "modest", the Forward's J.J. Goldberg noticed more disturbing information when looking back through 1998. Among his observations he says,
"Today’s total enrollment nationwide can therefore be estimated at roughly 242,000. About 14% are in non-Orthodox schools, 20% Modern Orthodox and 60% Haredi. In 1998, those numbers were 20% non-Orthodox, 26% Modern Orthodox and 47% Haredi... Satmar still accounts for about 10% of all day school enrollment. And it’s now about twice the size of Schechter. 
Here, then, is the most important insight to be found in Avi Chai’s numbers: Day schooling isn’t catching on among non-Orthodox Jews, despite two decades and millions of dollars spent pushing the idea. The proposition that day schools are the answer to assimilation isn’t panning out. 
Some argue that while day schools won’t change the masses, they’ll provide the leadership. Unfortunately, the vast majority of day school growth occurs within a population that shows no interest in engaging with the rest of the community."
It's hard to argue with Goldberg's logic, no matter how bleak a picture it paints. One wonders how these trends will continue with the looming day school tuition crisis growing, and no serious solutions being proposed by American Jewish leadership. 
One could also wonder what percentage of Jewish youth are enrolled in day schools. But as Jonathan Sarna recently pointed out in the Wall Street Journal, the Jews of North America have become incapable of collecting meaningful survey data about themselves over the past decade. So here's our equation: 242,000 is what percentage of X? Show your work. 

I was worried what this decade's survey would uncover. Certainly, the 2001 version had a lot of bad news. But now, American Jewish leadership can't even pull off a new survey! Is it worse to get a bad news update, or discover that you're incapable of even researching it? Its hard to work on building a future for American Jews when we cannot even asses the demographics, let alone their needs. 
The other article described the anti-extremist movement in Beit Shemesh. It claims that members of the large American olim population comprise the leadership of the movement. In fact, they are perhaps the reason that it exits at all. Whereas in areas like Bnai Brak and Geula the secular and modern orthodox populations drifted away, in Beit Shemesh the Americans who recently put down roots have no intention of budging. And, many of them have had enough PR experience and "know-how" to do something about it. 
"'They messed with the wrong crowd this time,' my friend Sara Eisen, a marketing executive and member of that community, told me. 'This time, the bullies came up against Americans.'”
I think that there is more to it than that. Israelis were inured to a Middle East style of coexistence between different cultures. Perhaps that's why people simply drifted out of increasingly charedi neighborhoods. But Americans (and certainly middle class Jewish Americans) have been raised with intolerance for intolerance. The horrific behavior of these "sikrikim" has raised the hackles of these Americans and the response has gone international. 
There are many healthy aspects of American culture that are healthily spreading into Israeli life. Again, we know that the Nefesh B'Nefesh numbers are 2000-3000 a year, but we don't know what percentage this is. It is certainly a small one. I can't see how that could be a good thing for the Jewish people moving forward. 

A recent Jerusalem Post blog discussed the common occurrence of native Israelis asking American olim, "Why would you move here?" Perhaps part of the reason is the picture framed by these two articles in The Forward. There is little hope for a healthy long term future for the American Jewish community. Those who want to contribute to a Jewish future are desperately needed in Israel for the particular contribution Americans can make there. I'll end simply by quoting the JPost blogger:
"Small as the numbers are, the aliyah of American Jews is proof that Zionism is a living, contemporary movement. Defined by the ability to see a better society and the desire to bring it about, we know why we're here. Our future might still be unseen -- i.e. how will the plot of life in Israel unfold? -- and though we may not have all the answers, we know with relative certainty that there is nothing 'post-' about us."

Translation from yiddish: Jews! The Key to Zion Is In Your Hands - Open the Gates! Keren HaYesod:1921