Monday, December 29, 2008

What Future for Israel/PA?

I have periodic arguments with right-wing friends, both here and in Israel, over the long-term prospects for the Palestinian Authority and Israel. They often like to complain that the two-state solution is terrible, unthinkable, etc. But really, it's just the worst choice, except for all the others.

As I see it, there are four possibilities (well, five, but I don't think the zeroth is that viable):

0. Status quo ante. Armed semi-truce with the Arabs in the Territories. Continual low-level shelling or missiling of border areas. Occasional flare-ups of major military activity. What we have now, which is pretty unpleasant for all concerned. Israel holds the water supply, the job supply (if only because the Pal-Arab kleptocrats have no interest in economic development), and food supplies (because they have ports and roads), the Pal-Arabs have the publicity upper hand, and a lot of will for self-sacrifice.

1. Two-state solution. Two states, probably with the PA in two separate chunks with some kind of safe-conduct corridor between them. Totally separate populations. Treating equally as nations for water, electricity, and jobs. Recognizing each other's existence. The Pal-Arabs are totally uninterested in this; if any express interest, they'll probably be killed by the leadership.

2. Heavy-duty armed occupation, as existed before the Intifada I, up to the 1980s. Nobody's happy, planes are hijacked, terrorism is mostly outside the country. Everybody's unhappy.

3. Annexation. The 5 million Jews in Israel would be a majority for a while, but the higher Arab birthrate would, within a very few decades, make an Arab majority within the unified state. That way lies the end of the Jewish state, through demographic suicide.

4. Transfer. The idea that got Meir Kahane declared a racist and thrown out of the government. Expel the Arabs who live in the territories, send them anywhere else in the Dar al-Islam, complete the population exchange that was begun in the 1950s. The Greek/Turkish population exchange worked, not without a lot of pain. The Armenian Genocide was similarly to the Jews, a one-way population transfer, and it was a disaster. Why don't we hear about the Jewish Genocide perpetrated by the Muslim world in the 1950s? This would really turn Israel into a pariah state. It would probably bring in an invasion by America to punish Israel after the expulsion was over. Never mind the poetic justice that Jews have been expelled everywhere, I can't see this working.

So we are left with 4-1/2 unpalatable options. The two-state solution is the least unpalatable, for all parties, but one party for some reason doesn't want to see it that way, would rather, probably for publicity reasons, remain a victim non-state. When my friend starts ranting about the unacceptability of the two-state solution, I post the above list again, and he has no answer.

And so we have the current Gaza invasion. Who knows where it will lead? Back to state 0, as Harold Feld expects? Or is it a move towards another position, perhaps another heavily-armed occupation?

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Chanuka for the Perplexed

R' Sokol's drasha this week focused on Chanukah and the philosophical ideas that arise therefrom. He started from the end of the Rambam's laws of Chanukah, where he states that a) Chanukah is very dear to the Jews, b) that one must be very careful in fulfilling the mitzvot of Chanukah, and c) that one must sell the shirt off their back to obtain oil and lamps for Chanukah.

Now, this kind of zeal for a mitzvah is also apparent on certain mitzvot that indicate our love for God, notably tefillin, tzitzit and mezuzah. Using them, wearing them if appropriate, being careful to observe them properly, attach us to God. But these are all commands from the Torah, while Chanukah is a purely human, rabbinic holiday, in fact, about the only such that has remained on our calendar down to this day (other minor holidays mentioned in, e.g., the Fast Scroll, have fallen out of fashion as the events they commemorate have been forgotten). Why, then, is Chanukah so special?

Well, what is Chanukah? It commemorates a battle against Seleucid Greek-Syrians who wanted us to assimilate to their religion. The greatest powers in the Greek system are the Fates, the one who spins the thread (birth), the one who measures the thread (lifetime), and the one who cuts the thread (death). They have powers even over the gods, such as Zeus, Hera, Apollo, Aphrodite [of the see-through nightie], etc. Belief in the Greek system led to Fatalism, the idea that nothing we did could possibly influence Fate, the path of our own lives. The gods (at least the Fates with real power) were totally uninterested in us.

Various philosophers developed sophisticated philosophical and theological systems based on this idea. One of them was Aristotle, who posited an eternal, unchanging universe governed purely by natural law. God was pure intellect, whose thoughts were the natural laws. Since everything in the universe was created from a substratum, some predecessor thing, matter must be eternal, because the idea of something coming from nothing is nonsensical (for him). God has no will, because he is pure intellect. Since the Universe is unchanging and God is not affectable, everything is just governed by fate, by the interaction of phyiscal particles and energies. This view is accepted today by many scientists who reject religion.

Maimonides refuted this, by positing that the induction of "everything coming from something else" was itself not provable, and that it made as much sense to say that there is a First Cause which is the initiator of the Universe. God has a Will, which He exerted to create the Universe, and which we can affect by our actions and prayers. In fact, in the Guide for the Perplexed II:25, he discusses the refutation of the eternity of the universe, and posits that if Aristotle's idea were provable, the Torah would have to be interpreted allegorically in many places. Thank God that God exists and this is not necessary.

So here, Chanukah, for Maimonides, was the triumph of Judaism over fatalism, God over Aristotle. In Judaism, God does listen to our prayers, accept our teshuvah, rules over the world with reward and punishment, and will send a Final Redeemer bb"a. God cares.

Now, Maimonides did go through various periods of more or less wealth, especially after his brother was lost at sea, the brother who had been supporting him in an Issachar-Zevulun relationship. He seems always to have been able to provide for himself and his family. But there is little doubt, that had it become necessary, he would have sold the shirt off his own back to be able to celebrate Chanukah, the triumph of Torah over Fatalism.

delivered Parshat Vayeshev, 5769, yavneh minyan of flatbush

The Ason - Chanukah Torah

Binyamin, it seems, was a nervous sort of fellow. How do we know this? When Yaakov sends the sons down to Egypt to buy food, he keeps Binyamin back, "pen yikra'enu asson" lest ason happen to him (as it's understood) or lest it call to him (as it's written). So what is "the ason?"

We also see the ason in the Bilaam story, vayiftach H' es pi ha-ason, God opened the mouth of the ason, the donkey and it spoke to Bilaam.

We put the two stories together, and apparently, Yaakov was worried that if Binyamin went down to Egypt, a talking donkey might call out to him, and he would die. This is reinforced by the Aramaic translation of Onkelos, which reads dilma `ar`ineih motha, perhaps he will be awakened to death, from er, awaken, or perhaps startled to death.

The talking donkey didn't surprise Bilaam that much, but Yaakov worried that a talking donkey might scare Binyamin to death, and thus prevented him from going to Egypt. QED.

*to explain the joke, this only works in Ashkenazi pronunciation, it depends on the equivalence of alef-taf-vav-nun and alef-samech-vav-nun, and confusing ayin-resh-ayin for ayin-resh in the Aramaic.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008


I've heard sermons for years that claim that Man is free because of the Torah, that in getting the Torah we were freed, etc. How can this be, when the essence of Torah is to limit our lives in dedication to God as slaves are dedicated to serve their Master? It seems paradoxical.

Now, with the economic crisis, and the education I've been getting reading Harold Feld's blogs, I think I understand it. The root of the economic crisis seems to have been the gradual elimination of New Deal era bank regulation from Carter through Clinton, enhanced by Pres. Bush's light oversight of the economy. The return to the pre-Depression banking environment has meant a return to the boom-and-bust cycle that brought us panics in 1837 (and the ensuing depression), 1857, 1873, 1893, 1901, 1907 and the Great Depression, with its crashes in 1929 and 1938.

And that has meant a greater disparity between the haves and the have-nots. The haves, the Wall Street guys, get bailouts; for the have-nots, the union guys, well, the government has been dragging its heels.

Not to get into a huge argument about whose fault it is (I think it was inevitable, esp. since, as Harold says, the Chicago School of free-market economics has dominated policy for several decades), but I now see the analogy with Torah:

Law levels the playing field.

We were all told about the Torah vs. the Code of Hammurabi, at least those of us who went to Jewish day schools, how the Torah removed the distinctions in torts between social classes. The Torah may be full of distinctions between one group and another, but one major source of personal fulfillment is available to all: the crown of Torah. Financial success is not limited to one caste or social or tribal group. If we devote our lives to Torah, in all its aspects, societal as well as ritual and ethical, we have a constitution for a truly free life.

The regulation of banks and markets leveled the playing field between the big companies and upstart companies, allowing true competition to take place. Big companies were not allowed to use their power to destroy all new competitors. This allows for growth in the national economy. So too in Torah, in the academy, the order of speaking is meant to encourage the newcomers, the younger students - they speak first, before the Great Leaders Prounounce their Opinion. Had the great leaders spoken first, that would have ended discussion without the younger students being heard.

The Wiccans have it wrong: an it harm none, do as thou wilt. Without defining harm, without defining regulations for the smooth functioning of a growing society, each person's definition of harm will allow them to get away with things that should not happen in a free civil society.

Only through law, comprehensive definition and equalization of the various classes of individuals, can man truly be free.

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Singing in Davening


by Cantor Sherwood Goffin


Our sages were concerned about the Shabbat prayer service, and commented on those who prefer to rush through the service for various reasons (cholent; napping; even Torah study). It seems clear from many sources that the opposite view is encouraged. In the Shulchan Aruch, O.C. 281, the Rema (1525-1572, who is the accepted authority for all of Ashkenazic Jewry*) states:"It is proper to extend the singing of Shabbat melodies (davening) and to render them pleasantly. It is wrong to protest this even under the argument of Bitul Torah (detracting from time for studying Torah)... It should not be excessively prolonged, however, to enable the congregation to eat (lunch) before the sixth hour (astronomical Noon, which is normally later than our standard Noon)."

I hope this will make it easier for everyone to


*Moses ben Israel Isserles, considered the "Maimonides of Polish Jewry," was one of the greatest Jewish scholars of Poland. Born in Cracow, he eventually became Rabbi of Brisk. [Interesting sidelight: Hestudied in Lublin at the Shalom Shachna Yeshiva where he met his first wife, Schachna's daughter. She died young, at the age of 20, and he built the Isserles (later known as the Rema) Synagogue, in her memory. That shul still stands today in the Kazimirz section of Cracow.] One of his most well known commentaries was the Mappa (the Tablecloth), a commentary on the Shulhan Arukh, written by Joseph Caro. The Shulhan Arukh focuses mainly on Sephardic rite and customs, while the Mappa emphasizes Ashkenazic customs, henceforth expanding the influence of the work to Eastern European Jewry. His decisions are followed scrupulously by all of Ashkenazic Jewry.