Sunday, August 27, 2006

Antinomies Inform Us

Parshat Shoftim
In memoriam Richard Norman Wisan, PhD.

Looking through the Israeli Chabad pamphlet “Hiskashrus”, I noticed two ideas attributed to the Tzemach Tzedek, Rebbe Menachem Mendel of Lubavitch, on the idea of “two witnesses”.

The verse says, (19:15) “…by the testimony of two witnesses…shall the thing be established.” When we see the number two in the Torah, we often thing of pairs, generally opposites: two Tablets, one relating to other people, the second relating to God; two brothers, one following the Path, the other not; etc.

Philosophically we are a religion of distinctions, of opposites, of thesis and antithesis which must be held in mind together, not synthesized into an artificial harmony. Holy and profane, tameh and tahor, man and woman, immanent and transcendent, all are dealt with in different ways according to the philosophical position of the explainer. Paradox, tzvei dinim (Neo-Kantian dialectic), and balance, characterize the Chasidic, Litvish and Mussar approaches to the ideas we all hold necessary.

The Rebbe says, on the one hand,

Two witnesses – these are tzimtzum (contraction) and hispashtus (expansion) (two stages in Kabbalistic creation – the contraction of God to make room for the Universe, and the expansion of matter throughout the space left for it). The thing (word) – hints at the Word of God which caused Creation to happen.. By two witnesses is the thing established – For Creation to happen, both are necessary. Without expansion, there would be no physical Universe. Without contraction, there would be no space for the Universe to form.”

On the other hand,

Thing – hints at the words of prayer. Two witnesses – these are Fear and Love. By two witnesses the word is established – Only through both Fear and Love is Prayer established.”

The editors of Or Hatorah brought both ideas on the same page (Devarim 997), and they came from the same mind, so what’s the connection? Let’s free-associate about other antinomies.

Constriction-expansion: this brings to mind (since it’s Rosh Chodesh Elul) the verse in Hallel, “From the narrow place (meitzar) I called, O God, in the broad place (merchav) You answered me, O God.” R’ Meir Goldwicht of YU, in his Pesach tape two years ago, tells us that this is our personal Exodus, that we are to experience on Pesach at the Seder. From the meitzar, the narrow place, Mitzrayim, Egypt, the narrow land, we called out, prayed. We were answered in the broad place, the desert, where miracles were performed for us and we were given the Torah. Right there, we have prayer, and its answer. But this brings in the Exodus.

Fear-love: these are motivators of action in prayer and mitzvoth. In a way, fear comes first, fear of punishment, the motivator of perfect behavior, of not violating any mitzvoth. But that is not the goal of Judaism, simple behavior. No, whether for the Rambam (perfect philosophy) or for most others (kabbalistic ascents), there is a further level of perfection, born out of love for God, and desire to cleave to Him, to know Him as the Rambam requires. This is the level of Ahavah. And according to the Rebbe, both Fear and Love are necessary for prayer.

So we have fear/love as aspects of total prayer, and we have Creation (constriction/expansion), and the Exodus (narrow-wide). They all come together. Both Creation and the Exodus are motivating factors in our relationship with God. We remind ourselves of them all through the davening, in the brachot surrounding Shma, in the Pesukei Dezimra – we keep recounting our history, and marveling at the wonder of Creation as motivators for proper intention in the central prayers – Shema and Shemoneh Esreh. Further, fear and love, fear of the Creator God who is all-powerful over the Universe, and love of the Savior-God who brought us out of the narrow place, the house of bondage, come together in our prayers, motivating us to rise ever higher in our service of the Divine.

As we enter the Teshuvah Season, in the beginning of Elul, we start to think about the coming Judgment, and the ideas of repentance, prayer and charity, all of which avert the stern decree. By balancing these antinomies in our consciousness, we can inform our prayers with the intensity needed for them to be heard.

We remember the peshat in the verse, that it takes the exactly parallel testimony of two witnesses in order to convict others, be they criminals or other false witnesses. By the same token, then, witnesses that disagree will necessarily acquit the sinner. These antinomies, then, certainly disagree, and will, God-willing, when properly meditated upon and brought into conscious reality, help to acquit us, to avert the stern decree.

May our prayers be heard as this season progresses, and all throughout the year.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

KOE Succession II

Responding to Rabbi Jay Lapidus on his list, "ocrjewish":

> But is the congregation "Orthodox"?

> NEW YORK TIMES | August 21, 2006
> An Orthodox Jewish Woman, and Soon, a Spiritual Leader

> A wife, a mother of three and an expert in Jewish bioethics will become
> the spiritual leader of Kehilat Orach Eliezer, a small Upper West Side
> congregation.

That's the key question, isn't it? By all accounts, in ritual practice, the congregation is Orthodox. But they aren't affiliated with any of the Orthodox organizations. And they were founded as the private minyan of one of the big JTS people. Who davened in an O synagogue when he was able to get out of the house.

She's Orthodox, all her training came from left-wing Mod-O institutions.

But their previous rabbi was the head of the UTJ yeshiva, which is decidedly unOrthodox, as is his view of textual transmission.

Then there are the reports that they couldn't afford a rabbi, so they took on a woman who, not having the "title", could be paid less. A correspondent with connections to UTJ claimed that the UTJ rabbis wanted only full-time positions, so they didn't apply. Their loss - my last two synagogues have had part-time rabbis with (fairly prestigious) day jobs.

So is the synagogue defined by affiliation? If so, not O.
by rabbi? If so, no rabbi to define it.
by practice? If so, O.
by affiliation of earlier rabbis? If so, not O.

I've belonged to unaffiliated Orthodox shuls, but they still made a point of advertising themselves as Orthodox. KOE calls itself "halachic". What's in a name? When one is claiming great strides for a movement to which a label applies, much.

Is it the great stride forward for Orthodox Feminism that its Orthodox Feminist congregants claim? Is it a step backwards for Orthodox Feminism in terms of classical "equal pay for equal work"? Is it irrelevant for Orthodox Feminism because a) the shul doesn't want to be called "Orthodox" or b) because the spiritual leader refuses to be called "rabbi"?

Sunday, August 20, 2006

KOE Succession

Rabbi Gil Student, at Hirhurim, notes the Jewish Week story about Congregation Kehillath Orach Eliezer's new spiritual leader, Dina Najman-Licht. He opines that this story is irrelevant for Orthodoxy, as the synagogue in question is "halachic", but does not affiliate with any of the Orthodox movements.

Carol Newman, president of JOFA, and Devorah Zlochower, teacher at Drisha, think this is a positive thing, in the article.

On the contrary, I think it shows the weakness of both right-wing Conservative (which KOE is, owing its origin to the then-ailing Rabbi Louis Finkelstein of the Jewish Theological Seminary, and having had Rabbi David Weiss-Halivni, also Rosh Metivta at the Institute for Traditional Judaism, the seminary of the UTJ, as its spiritual leader since R' Finkelstein's passing) and the left-wing Orthodox.

Conservative Judaism has long called itself a "halachic" movement, even though they left halachic process behind 50+ years ago, with the separation widening ever since. Modern Orthodoxy has grown a left wing, which seeks (among other things) to maximize women's participation in communal life within halacha. The Union for Traditional Judaism split off from the right wing of the Conservative movement in 1983 over the departure from halachic process, although in many respects UTJ has followed the structure of Conservative halachic process, with a Committee on Jewish Law taking the role of a Sanhedrin for the movement, but not establishing its own true batei din. This issue deals with the intersection of all three.

Ms. Najman-Licht received all her training in Orthodox institutions, such as Drisha, Nishmat and Torat Miriam, and her bioethics from Einstein med school. Still, she had to go to a Conservative synagogue to find a compatible place. Contrariwise, KOE didn't evidently find a simpatico candidate among recent graduates of ITJ and JTSA. That a right-wing Conservative, or UTJ, synagogue had to get a spiritual leader, who by definition would not be a rabbi, from left-wing Modern Orthodox institutions, speaks to the weakness of both: she couldn't find sufficient opportunities among those who had trained her, and KOE couldn't find suitable candidates in their own movement, but had to look beyond their rightward edge.

Why is this taken as a positive, rather than the negative reaction of Alice Shalvi's defection to become rector of Neveh Schechter, JTSA's Israel branch? It seems an almost exact parallel, in small.

Friday, August 18, 2006

Ralph Nader '55*: Threat or Menace

Well, I haven't gotten much response to my religious posts, so here's a political post.

A number of political blogs and media websites have, over the years, taken issue with Ralph Nader's financial disclosures, calling him a hypocrite, or a non-enemy of corporations, or a corporate whore, for holding stock in big corporations, some of which espouse policies which he opposes.

Ya know, you can talk about Nader stealing the election (or was that Buchanan? or Katherine Harris? or the Supreme Court? or the RNC operatives who disrupted recounts?) for Bush. You can talk about his anti-corporate stance and how genuine it is, or not. You can talk about financial decisions.

But I really don't see the crime, or even the hypocrisy, in owning individual-level numbers of shares (albeit rich-individual, you don't run for President if you're not very rich - it's very expensive to run, and very expensive to lose) in corporations with whose policy he disagrees.

You've got to remember, the stock-market, at least for us individuals, is an aftermarket. You're not paying $25,000 to Microsoft to buy 1000 shares of Microsoft, you're paying it to some other guy, or some mutual fund, who has decided to reduce his holding in Microsoft.

You buy the rights to some small percentage of the profits, and the right to vote at the annual meeting. But we all know that, absent a truly massive shareholder campaign, shareholder opinions have no chance of being heard. And many corporate meetings are set up to minimize that possibility.

Yes, it's common to say "you're investing in Microsoft", but really, you're not giving them any money, since individuals don't generally have access to IPOs.

Second, this is a mutual fund. Yet another remove from the corporation. You pay money to the fund, the fund pays some small fraction (and most mutual funds don't hold more than 2% of their money in any given stock) to buy stock in some company.

Holding a mutual fund is completely divorced from any control one might hope to gain from a company. It is also completely divorced from any control the company might wish to exert over its stockholders.

As I see it, it's completely consistent: Nader has money, and wants to make more of it. So he invests in a good mutual fund. That cleanly removes him from association with the companies owned by the mutual fund. That some pundits don't see that, seems to show their hatred of Nader overshadowing their common sense.

For instance, I own stock in various corporations which have outsourced jobs to India. As a programmer and pro-American-worker person, I oppose that. But so what? They all do it, and we keep doing business with them - the phone companies, the drug companies, the computer companies.

* * *

Update. I just checked out his 2004 financial disclosure form.

1) He has evidently sold his Fidelity-Magellan fund.

2) His holdings are mostly in technology companies: Cisco, Ciena, OpenTV, CNET. Note: he opposes offshore outsourcing, which some of these companies do.

3) His big holding is now an index fund - one which shifts stocks in & out to keep up with an index.

* * *

So what do we have? Someone who complains about corporate policy, owning stock in those companies, such that he
a) milks them for money without actually having given them any,
b) gives himself a platform such that, if he really wanted to exert himself, he could express an opinion and yet again have it ignored.

I really don't see the hypocrisy. Attack your enemies on one front, and bleed them on another. Makes sense to me.

* Nader '55: it's a Princeton thing.

Saturday, August 12, 2006

All God Wants

All God Wants:

dvar torah Eqev 5766,

Yavneh Minyan of Flatbush

Jonathan Baker

Dt. 10:12-19

יב ועתה, ישראל--מה ידוד אלדיך, שאל מעמך: כי אם-ליראה את-ידוד אלדיך ללכת בכל-דרכיו, ולאהבה אתו, ולעבד את-ידוד אלדיך, בכל-לבבך ובכל-נפשך. יג לשמר את-מצות ידוד, ואת-חקתיו, אשר אנכי מצוך, היום--לטוב, לך. יד הן לידוד אלהיך, השמים ושמי השמים, הארץ, וכל-אשר-בה. טו רק באבתיך חשק ידוד, לאהבה אותם; ויבחר בזרעם אחריהם, בכם מכל-העמים--כיום הזה. טז ומלתם, את ערלת לבבכם; וערפכם--לא תקשו, עוד. יז כי, ידוד אלדיכם--הוא אלדי האלדים, ואדני האדנים: האל הגדל הגבר, והנורא, אשר לא-ישא פנים, ולא יקח שחד. יח עשה משפט יתום, ואלמנה; ואהב גר, לתת לו לחם ושמלה. יט ואהבתם, את-הגר: כי-גרים הייתם, בארץ מצרים. כ את-ידוד אלדיך תירא, אתו תעבד; ובו תדבק, ובשמו תשבע.

What does God want of us?

To fear Him, to imitate Him, to love Him, to serve Him.

To keep His laws and regulations, for our own good.

Note that these first four actions are paired opposites: love and fear, service and imitation. Imitation places us in God’s place, in God’s shoes, as much as we can in this world, while service maintains distance between servant and Master.

· To fear Him – not the lofty fear-from-love of the Chasidim, but plain fear, of punishment, so we do the right thing.

· To imitate Him – are we gods, to do like God? As Herschel Ramis says in Pog’ei Ruchos, “Are you a god? No. Then die.” We are mortals, those who die, which distinguishes us from God. Our thoughts are not His thoughts – how can we imitate Him?

But we only perceive God through His attributes, through His actions in the world – so we are to imitate His actions, His attitudes, as He is merciful, so should you be merciful, as He loves the stranger, so you should love the stranger.

· To love Him – to care for what He wants, to recognize His greatness, care for His will in the world – or the Torah, the blueprint of the world.

· To serve Him – in the temple, but not only that, in our own hearts and souls, internally, wholeheartedly – the service of the heart. Pray to Him, praise Him, glorify Him, and thereby raise ourselves up, by thinking of greatness, by striving for the same attributes in which we imitate Him.

· Summed up: ובו תדבק cleave to Him.

What is cleaving? Meshech Chochma surveys the variants:

· Rambam: cleave to talmidei chachamim – intellectual model, the mind as tool for reaching God

· Ramban : cleave to tzadikim, those who have made their will most congruent with the Torah and Mitzvot, God’s expression of His will for the world

· But these require intermediaries. R’ Meir Simcha tells us, via Saadia Gaon in Shaar haBitachon in Chovos Halevovos, that this mitzvah is for all of us, as individuals, without intermediaries. Cleaving is the attribute of Bitachon, confidence in Hashem, reliance on Hashem and only on Hashem, that He will provide for us today and tomorrow. That He will defend us in our wars of conquest and defense of Israel. This is made explicit in the maftir of today’s parasha: cleave to God and fear Him, and He will defend you and make you successful in war. Benei Yisrael had problems, chisoron emunah, in conquering the land, so they were stuck with difficulties in war, and presence of aliens as a thorn in the side.

The people of R’ Meir Simcha’s time worried too much about parnossah, where tomorrow’s meal was coming from. Through this chisaron emunah (lack of faith), they were led astray from the right path and gave up on Torah and Mitzvot, much as they had given up on God (this is my grandparents’ generation, who were throwing off the yoke of Torah in Eastern Europe 100 years ago)

Cleaving, then, is the result of, the summation of, these required actions. They add together to create a position of bitachon, of cleaving. But they are not just actions, they are abstractions, emotions that are required, in addition to the observance of the commands and rules. How do these two verses relate? How do emotional abstractions relate to concrete mitzvos?

The emotions inform the mitzvos, permeate our performance of mitzvos, imbuing them with holiness and sanctity.

How do we do this? This week’s parsha brings it all home to us – brochos.

1) We have the mitzvah of birkas hamozon: 8:10-11:

י ואכלת, ושבעת--וברכת את-ידוד אלדיך, על-הארץ הטבה אשר נתן-לך. יא השמר לך, פן-תשכח את-ידוד אלדיך,

Note what follows it immediately: Guard yourself, lest you forget Hashem.

This bracha, Chazal tell us in Maseches Brochos, this bracha creates the impetus for all the birchos hanehenin. How? If one is to bless God for the food after having eaten, when the food means less כדאמרי אינשי מלי כריסי זני בישי, how much more so should we bless before eating, when we are hungry? We must stop, and dedicate our eating to Hashem. By implication, then, we bless all our appreciations of Hashem’s creation, imbuing our use of God’s world with sanctity and intentionality. By blessing, we insure that we do not forget God.

2) Even more so, we have all the other blessings, the blessings over the mitzvoth, the blessings of praise, etc. right here in our pasuk. Where? Rabbi Meir tells us, don’t read “mah”, read “meah” – 100. We are to recite 100 brachot daily. How did Rabbi Meir know this? The verse has 100 letters in it, explains the Torah Temimah, following Rashi on the Gemara.

This ties it all together for us. How are we to engage in the abstractions, to endow all our actions, both mundane and mitzvadik, with holiness, with dedication to Hashem? By reciting blessings. The word, Baruch, itself, according to R’ Schwab, means to join. He tells us that the bracha formula means, that “we join with You, O God, immanent and transcendent, with whom we have an I-Thou intimate relation, in your being Our God, and even so the King of the Universe, in sanctifying this action, item, or idea.” Just as Hashem is holy and creates items in the world, we imbue the items and the actions with sanctity, we join with Hashem in completing the creation, by pronouncing the bracha over the item or action.

We are to bring passion to our mitzvah observance. We are to imbue our observance, mandated in verse 13, with the attributes in verse 12. We are to create passion in ourselves, for God, forHis Torah, for His universe, through fulfilling His Will for us as expressed in the holy Torah, which predated the world by 974 generations, and thus served as a blueprint for the world as a place where Torah could be fulfilled.

This leads us to devekus. This leads us to cleave to God, through our constant dedication of everything in our lives to Him, we reassure ourselves that we can rely on Him, that He is always there, that He is Our God, that He is the One who is worshiped, praised, the object of our fear and love, whose Will we pursue every minute of every day, through sanctity and sanctification of mundanity.

This is the passion of Torah, the passion of faith. This is the Aish Das, as R’ Micha Berger says,

To burn with AishDas means to learn from and grow with the mitzvos. To be observant not merely out of habit or upbringing, but to connect with the deed on intellectual and emotional levels.

This is how we must approach the Yomim Noraim. It is not enough simply to repent for past deeds. Teshuvah includes the requirement that when confronted with the same challenges in the future, that we learn not to fail in the same way again. By imbuing our actions with passion, with the attributes of Divine service, with the daily and hourly sanctification of the mundane, kiddush hachol, we might stand a better chance of living a better, more Godly life.

Therefore, come to the AishDas Shabbaton, September 15-16, at the Yavneh Minyan, the Shabbos before Slichos. Teshuvah, Repentance, is not just about regretting past actions, it’s about changing one’s reactions when faced with the same old challenges. Learn to gain passion for the mitzvos, to improve our actions in future. Teshuva: it’s about returning home, to what’s important.