Monday, January 28, 2008

Latest Chabad Round

Failed Messiah has links to mp3s of the recent on-air debate between R’ Yitz Greenberg and R’ Sholom Ber Kalmanson of Chabad [of Cincinnati], over the usual stuff. Meanwhile, R’ Shmuley Boteach and R’ Dr. David Berger post their usual positions on Lubavitch messianism (Boteach – wrong but not non-Jewish; Berger: non-Jewish and dangerous by slippery slope). Gil Student reviews the Boteach-Berger exchange, drawing commenters from the usual positions. Mad Messianism is in the air. Let’s hope Moshiach is on the way.

Listening to the program - boy, it's like Jon Stewart’s critiques of the media. The media claim that the candidates are "lashing out" or "erupting", when really it's the media figures who are full of hysteria in talking about the candidates.

Kalmanson goes on about "haters", but really, the only unreasoning hatred was coming from him - treating Greenberg as some kind of representative "anti-lubav", where really he was agreeing with Kalmanson on the big question (should L messianism be written out of Judaism, as it seems the Israeli conversion court has). People can disagree without being "haters", but Kalmanson's worldview can't encompass that idea.

Kalmanson also carries on about the Rebbe being a big enough godol to have a respectable position - never mind that EVERY other godol who has considered the issue in the past 1000 years has disagreed, even those sources which Lubavitchers quote, such as Rashi and Abarbanel. He carries on about kovod to gedolim, claiming that Greenberg is an "am haaretz" who doesn't respect gedolim, yet he repeatedly denigrates other gedolim who happen to disagree with him. And it's not as if the Rebbe ever stated explicitly that he was Moshiach. So how does the reputation of the Rebbe as a godol protect the position that he’s still Moshiach even after death?

Then he starts with a dreh about Beis Hamikdash Bimkomo - in HIS (Moshiach's) mokom, not the Mokom haMikdash - supported by the [false] claim that Bayis is a feminine noun, and "mimkomo" refers to a masculine referent, therefore, it must be Moshiach's place. This is meant to fulfill the Rambam’s stated requirement that Moshiach rebuild the Temple “bimkomo”, in its place. But as eny fule no, both Bayis and Mikdash are masculine nouns. So the whole pilpul is flat-out wrong.

Afterwards he brings out the usual claims of “the gemara says ee min mesaya, which validates a dead messiah,” which, contrary to the claims of many Lubavitchers, is not understood by Rashi, by anyone who approaches Rashi honestly, to justify a dead messiah. And he carps on the Rambam’s statement that “if he is killed, he was not the promised Messiah”, eliding the previous clause: “if he was not successful, or was killed, he was not…” Once he dies, it’s clear he was not successful. So even if one takes the Rambam’s narrative as the definitive rule on who is or is not the Messiah, as the Rebbe did repeatedly, the Rebbe cannot be the Messiah, because he’s dead, niftar, in the Olam haEmes, not below 10 tefachim, etc.

Now, I'm not here to offer an opinion whether Lubavitch messianism is heretical or not; there are respectable opinions on both sides. But almost everyone outside of Lubavitch knows that it's wrong, or even foolish, to believe in a messiah who dies in an unredeemed world, and returns to complete his mission. That opinion I've even heard from a Lubavitch rabbi before 1994. It's the weakness of the arguments, from people who proclaim such dedication to Torah and the intellect, that bothers me.

These guys, these guys, they carry on at great volume, undermining their own arguments in their vehemence to prove the other guy wrong, bad, hater. Clearly they don't have the law or the facts on their side, if they have to go so far into arguing ad hominem.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

10 10 Wins Commands

This past Shabbos I was in Park Slope, my old community for a bar-mitzvah. We ate bei the rabbi, and davened (in part) at his shul. Both the rabbi's 10-year-old son at dinner, and the past president at shaleshudis, mentioned the L. Rebbe's idea that the 10 Statements (Aseres haDibros) correspond to the 10 Stateements (Maamaros) of creation, such that the 10 Commandments as they are called, are a tikun, a repair, for the Fall of Man which was the final incident in the Creation story.

It occurs to me, that one bit of evidence that links the two concepts, other than the simple coincidence of numbers (10-10), is that God creates the world with only 9 explicit statements. Only 9 times does the first Creation story use the verb "Vayomer", "and [G0d] said". The tenth statement is implicit in the first verse: Bereshith bara Elokim et hashamayim v'et haaretz. In the beginning, created God, -> the heavens and the earth. How does God create? Clearly, through speech. So there is an implicit act of speech that began the creation.

Similarly, in the 10 Commandments, there are only really nine that are phrased as commands: Honor your parents, Keep the shabbos, Don't murder, Don't kidnap, etc. The First Command, which we heard directly from the Mouth of God as it were, as a mass revelation at Sinai, is more of an existential statement, the grundnorm of the Torah system: I am the Lord your G0d, who took you out of the land of Egypt, the house of bondage. There we have mandated the entire basis of Torah - our dependence on God, and our need to follow what He says.

So we have a strong parallel: the grundnorm of existence is that God created the universe, so it was stated indirectly. The purpose of existence is to fulfill G0d's will as expressed in the Torah, so the First Statement at Sinai was just that, an existential statement of God's relationship to us, the basis of our purpose in fulfilling the Torah, the grundnorm of the mandatory nature of Torah.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Bey Ano Rochitz twice

Musical Note By Cantor Sherwood Goffin
Why "Bey Ano Rochitz" twice?

I'm sure you've questioned why we, who are so careful generally not to repeat words in davening, repeat Bei Ano Rochitz twice while taking out the Torah. Other shuls have already dropped the repetition. As with everything I do, I have thought this out carefully.

This melody was written by Chazzan Zeidel Rovner (actually, Maragowsky),1856 -1943. He was a bearded, religious Chassidic Jew, born in Radomyshl, Kiev, who served in prestigious European pulpits, the last of which was in Rovno, the place that became his last name when he moved to the USA in 1914 because of Czarist persecutions. Here, he became a sought-after choir-director, writing many beautiful choral compositions that were very popular.

This melody, Bei Ano, comes from a very lengthy Brich Shmei that he wrote. (At the Belz School, in YU, we have the collection of all of his hand-written manuscripts.)

Whereas it is a problem to repeat words in the Amidah or the Blessings of the Sh’ma, it is NOT a problem, halachically, to repeat words while taking out or returning the Torah to the Ark. Since most of the melodies we sing at this point were written by Reform synagogue composers, this one written by a religious Jew is very meaningful to me. If Zeidel wrote it, I feel that in this one instance I wish to honor him by at least singing this melody as he wrote it, repeats and all. As a model of what a true Shaliach Tsibbur should be, Zeidel deserves to have his melody sung the way he sang it.

Daven Well and Sing Along!

&copr; 2008 LSS and Sherwood Goffin

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Law & Order Gets Jews Right

Or, more right than is usual for TV depictions of religious Jews. I mean, who can forget the Sefer Yetzirah episode of The X-files, where a woman sits shiva for her fiancee, the Sefer Yetzirah when disinterred from under the head of the dead husband bursts into flame, and a golem is made from the earth of the grave (the depth of impurity) rather than the earth of a riverbank (constantly washed with living waters, the heights of purity). And the shul doesn't seem to have discovered electric lights.

Last night's episode of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, about a boy who rapes smaller children, starts out with some suspicion of the victim's Chasidic tutor and his supervisor. There are various scenes set in Williamsburgh, and in "Kiryas Moshe" (clearly a stand-in for Kiryas Yoel). Munch, as the staff Jew, interacts with the Chasidim in various contexts, using Hebrew terms (yehareg v'al yaavor, pikuach nefesh, lifnei iver) more or less correctly in interpreting between the Chasidim and Stabler.

In the Kiryas Moshe scene, a local cop talks with his supervisor on the radio, both using what sounded like a chasidish pronunciation of Yiddish, and clearly enough that I could tell that Munch interpreted the Yiddish right (not that I know much Yiddish either).

Munch's and the father's pronunciation was from Mars, like they were reading bad transliterations, but they must have gotten permission to shoot in a Chasidic suburban area and use at least one guy who really speaks Yiddish. I've never been to Kiryas Joel before, so I don't know if they were really shooting there or in some other development in Monsey, but the locals were dressed right for Willyburg or Boro Park - biber hats for the men, sheitl+pillbox for the women.

Further, they were going to put the victim into a yeshivah Torah Veyireh in Willyburg. I don't know if there's a TvY in Willyburg, but there's one in Boro Park, and it's a Satmar yeshiva (I went to a wedding there once).

They were trying to portray Satmarers without actually using the name, and I think they succeeded without making them an object of ridicule, and without making themselves an object of ridicule for their poor rendition. It's a big improvement over other episodes where they've tried to portray Orthodox or Chasdic Jews.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Yiddn Ein Mishpoche

In the well-known Lubavitcher datebook, Hayom Yom, the entry for 24 Tevet reads as follows:

On this day the Alter Rebbe passed away in the village Piena on Saturday night of parshat Sh'mot 5573 (1813). He is interred in the city of Haditz.

My grandfather (R. Shmuel) asked the Tzemach Tzedek: What did Grandfather (the Alter Rebbe) intend with the "ways of Chassidus" and what did he intend with Chassidus?

The Tzemach Tzedek answered: The "ways of Chassidus" are that all Chassidim are to be like one family, with affection, as Torah teaches. Chassidus is vitality. Chassidus is to bring life and illumination into everything, to shed light even on the undesirable - to become aware of one's own evil exactly as it is, in order to correct it.

"alle Chasidim zolen zein vi ein mishpacha al pi ha'Torah b'ahava" - Chassidim (meaning, at least in current Lubavitcher parlance, all Chabad Chassidim) are one family, joined in joy and love of all Israel, such that we can self-correct.

Perhaps that kind of unity is only possible in a group joined for a moral/spiritual purpose, such that one person won't get massively offended when another tries to correct their behavior or attitudes. Perhaps part of that is the secret of real Kiruv, bringing others close enough so that they can be brought to proper Torah-dig behavior and ideas.

However, in a larger sense, Jews are one family. The Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik has made the distinction between the Covenant of Destiny (Brit Goral), a covenant of shared fate and restoration made with Abraham, and the Covenant of Meaning (Brit Yi'ud), made with Moses at Sinai, and binding all Jews to the Jewish religion. Jews opt out of the Jewish religion, but they cannot opt out of the covenantal community of destiny.

As R' David Hartman has said, extending R' Soloveitchik's vision into an ideology of kiruv:

"Religious Jews who are deeply concerned about the fate of all Jews must not only share the burdens of survival but also strive to build spiritual bridges among Jews. The sense of community that preceded mitzvah must also influence one's approach to the observance of the commandments. Halakhah is addressed not to the singular individual, but primarily to the individual rooted in the historical destiny of community" (Conflicting Visions, p. 27)

I have seen Jews be the fate community.

In Adar 2002, when Debbie & I last visited Israel, we had spent a shabbat with friends in Ramat Gan. After Shabbat, we heard on the TV about an attack on guests attending a bat-mitzvah in Geulah, a religious neighborhood in Jerusalem. It was terrible - people killed as they went to the party.

The next day, we were on a bus to the Diaspora Museum in Tel Aviv. Traffic was terrible - with attacks coming every 2-3 days, the police were inspecting vehicles on the bridges over the Yarkon. The driver had his radio on, as usual, tuned to a news station. At one point, the announcer said he would read the names of the dead from the previous night's attack. The driver turned up the radio, and as name after name was slowly read out, you could see people all over the bus sobbing, putting their heads down, personally hurt by this attack. Didn't matter that the dead were mostly religious and the bus-riders mostly not, the death of cousins always hurts.

So more than the Tzemach Tzedek said, that (his) chassidim were one family - we Jews are all one family, all of us in the covenantal community of fate.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Female Orthodox Rabbis?

Feminist Credential Disclaimer: I see no halachic obstacle to women becoming lower-level Orthodox rabbis, based on the Pischei Teshuvah in Choshen Mishpat 7:4 (note 5), and the Tosfos explaining how Devorah the prophetess functioned. However, it is just not done.

There is a confusing article in the Jerusalem Post today, claiming (or not claiming) that the Hartman Institute is starting a program to train women, regardless of denomination, for ordination as Orthodox rabbis. But it's not a normal ordination, in that it doesn't look like they'll have the title "rabbi". And it's not a normal ordination program, being based, not on Talmud and halacha, but on a Masters in Jewish Philosophy and extra teacher training.

R' Aviner, often thought of as a posek for Modern Orthodoxy, isn't happy, but is less happy about Orthodox women studying side-by-side with heterodox women, than he is about the semi-ordination.

So: is this a Great Step Forward for Orthodox Feminism, or is it another non-issue that's trying for a bit of publicity, like the non-denominational (if Orthodox in practice) Kehillath Orach Eliezer hiring a non-Orthodox woman to be a non-rabbi?

Saturday, January 05, 2008

Three Days

One big puzzle strikes many people who read this week’s parasha – why does Moshe ask Paroh to let the Israelites go into the desert for three days? Isn’t that deceptive, since Moshe surely knows that he’s taking Bnei Yisrael out of Egypt altogether? How can Moshe act deceptively?

R’ Sokol brings three approaches from the meforshim.

1. The Ibn Ezra (12th century) in Bo gives a lawyerly interpretation. “Send my people out so they can worship me in the desert for three days.” He doesn’t say what the people will do after the end of three days. He leaves it to Paroh to assume they will return, but really he’s not saying anything actually untrue. Also, it allowed them to borrow the gold and silver vessels from the Egyptians – after all, it seems reasonable that they’d want to borrow nice things to use in their God-worship. And when they weren’t returned, it provided a nice pretext for the Egyptian soldiers to follow on, allowing them to be killed at the Sea. Nechama Leibowitz criticizes this approach, noting that deception is in the ear of the hearer, not in what is actually said. If it sounds deceptive, it probably is.

2. The Abarbanel (15th century) (and the Akeidas Yitzchak, R’ Isaac Arama) understand it more diplomatically. Moshe is testing the waters. He’ll ask for three days, if Paroh says yes, they have a basis for continuing discussions until Paroh agrees to full liberation. And if he refuses, well, he deserves all the punishment he’ll get. R’ Sokol’s problem with this is, why did Paroh have to fail the test a dozen times? After 4-5 repeated attempts to get him to let the Jews out failed, it should have been obvious that Paroh was never going to come around, and it was time for the big punishment and release.

3. Shada”l (Sammuele David Luzzatto, 19th century) suggests that since Paroh had enslaved the Jews, and embittered their lives, and tried to kill them, he had instigated a state of war. And in war, deception is permitted. R’ Sokol doesn’t like this approach either, because while that may work for a human leader, like Moshe, this was God setting the plan, so why is God mandating untruths?

R’ Sokol resolves the issue by changing the way we conceptualize God’s role. Instead of God as war-leader, or political leader, we should look at God as pedagogue. God is not in this case acting against the Egyptians, but acting on Moshe, to teach him a lesson. After all, Moshe’s attribute is Truth. Moshe Emet veTorato Emet.

Look at how he approaches things. The first incident after he leaves the palace, he sees an Egyptian hitting a Jew. Justice demanded that he kill the Egyptian. A few days later, he sees a Jew hitting a Jew, and justice demands that he try to intervene and stop him. At the Golden Calf, he comes down from the mountain full of righteous anger, grinds up the Calf, makes a potion and forces thousands to drink it, killing them, in the name of Truth, Justice [and the Torah Way –jjb].

Aaron, on the other hand, is all about compromise. He temporizes on the Golden Calf, tries to direct the feeling in a proper way, delays making it, etc. Aaron’s attribute is Peace. He knows you sometimes have to act deceptively to achieve peaceful resolution of tense situations. This is sometimes necessary in running a civil society. Sometimes one needs to act deceptively for the greater good. Hashem was trying to tell Moshe this lesson, by pushing him to deceive Paroh.

There are two types of people – those who have trouble telling the truth, and those who have trouble telling lies. Moshe clearly fell into the latter category, but sometimes one needs to deceive for the greater good, in running a real political system.

[Sermon delivered by R’ Moshe Sokol, Yavneh Minyan, Shabbat Parshat Va’era 5768. Summarized by Jonathan Baker].

Thursday, January 03, 2008

Bitsy Bas Paroh

Bithia “Bitsy” Bas Pharaoh

(summary of R' Moshe Sokol's sermon for the sedra Shmot)

The Torah text is opaque on the character of Bat Paroh, Pharaoh’s daughter. It doesn’t even give us her name (that is only mentioned much later, in Chronicles). Who is this woman who saved and shaped the savior of the Jewish people?

The Midrash gives us three main approaches to understanding her. R’ Sokol, liking alliteration lists:

· Seeker

· Sufferer

· Stam

Rashi, describing Bat Paroh, gives a medrash that everyone with some Jewish education knows – that she extended her hand out, several metres, into the river to retrieve the basket with the baby Moshe. Think about her position. She was the daughter of Paroh, the daughter of a god whose word is law. Her father has decided that the national interest involves killing all the Jewish male babies. She goes against the national interest, the word of her father, the word of her god, and extends herself to this Jewish baby. She was a seeker, a rebel, looking to grow beyond herself, beyond her upbringing, to do the right thing.

A Medrash in the Yalkut Shimoni tells us, on the other hand, that Parohs daughter was a sickly child, covered with boils, ugly, ill much of her life. She was going down to the river to bathe and try to cure herself. She somehow got the idea that the baby in the basket would cure her, and sure enough, touching the baby Moshe cured her. Now, someone in pain is usually wrapped up in it, to the exclusion of outside concerns. However, Bas Paroh was able to use her suffering, to find empathy with the cry of the baby she heard from a distance, and through her pain she eased the babe’s pain, and thus was cured.

In another story, she was Bas Paroh, used to the life of privilege, stam a Princess. She went down to the river to have a beach party with her friends. But then she hears a baby cry. What does she have to do with abandoned babies? That’s not her business, that’s Somebody Else’s Problem. (Think about the self-centered heiresses of today). But she transcends her shallow nature to help another human being.

So too should we all seek to grow beyond the assumptions of our nature, and empathize with, and help, others.

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Milah for non-Jews

An article in the Forward about Cantor Phil Sherman's milah services to non-Jews caught my eye. Bear in mind I've known Phil since high school, when he was Youth/Outreach Director at Lincoln Square Synagogue and later Hazzan at the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue. He's one of maybe two mohalim living in Manhattan, so his milah business keeps him quite busy.

He also does milah for intermarrieds, where the child is not Jewish. I was a witness at such a milah (you'll notice I'm not using the English word - there are anti-milah crusaders out there who will pounce on any site that talks about it), the son of friends. He's Jewish, she's not, they consider themselves neo-pagans. But his parents pushed for a milah. And a milah, like a wedding, requires two valid witnesses to establish the nature of the life-changing event (entry into the Jewish people, marriage, entry into mitzvah observance for a Jewish baby boy).

When they asked me, I was hesitant, and asked who the mohel would be. They told me it was Phil. Big sigh of relief - Phil wouldn't do anything halachically wrong/questionable. When we went to their home, Phil did the procedure as usual, but said it was "lesheim giyur", for the sake of conversion, and use the brachot one uses for milah at a conversion. The excuse was: if at some point in his life the boy decides to convert, that's one painful [for an adult] step he won't need to do.

My big question, and I never really got a good answer aside from repeated assertion, was that the first chapter in Hilchot Milah (Yoreh Deah 260) in the Shulchan Aruch consists of one sentence: "It is a mitzvah for the father to mal his son, and this is a greater mitzvah than any other positive mitzvah". That's it. The Shach says that the second clause is because if the boy grows up without milah, he has a threat of kareit, spiritual excision, hanging over his head if he dies before having it done. Fine, but what about the first half - it seems absolute, so that even the father of a non-Jewish son should do milah. The Gemara on Kiddushin 29a doesn't seem to be any more dispositive, even quoting the verse commanding milah as "you shall mal all males". And yet, when I've asked before, everyone takes for granted that this is only for Jewish sons. Why was the father, in the case where I was witness, not doing a mitzvah of malling his son?