Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Should J-Street be permitted to join the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations?

Should J-Street be permitted to join the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations? Yes, yes, of course.

Today the Times describes what's at stake and includes a quote from some fellow named Farley that sums up what I think is wrong with Orthodox Jewish thinking about Israel.

"Their positions are out of the mainstream of what could be considered acceptable within the Jewish community,” said Farley I. Weiss, an Arizona lawyer who serves as the president of the National Council of Young Israel, an alliance of Orthodox congregations. Mr. Weiss said his organization would vote against admitting J Street to the conference. “I think they are trying to change what pro-Israel means — their positions aren’t pro-Israel positions,” he said."
Farley says three things of which two are laughably wrong. A breakdown:
  1. "Their positions are out of the mainstream of what could be considered acceptable within the Jewish community" HAHA no. The "Jewish" community includes the Israelis who vote for liberal parties and all of the American, French, Canadian and British Jews - of all denominations - who agree with those policies. The mainstream includes them, and is not limited to the hard-core Zionists at Farley's kiddush club
  2. "their positions aren’t pro-Israel positions," because everyone who disagree with RW Israeli policies hates Israel? This is what small-thinkers think, but it isn't so.
  3. "I think they are trying to change what pro-Israel means" Most of the Jewish world, thankfully, already knows you can be pro-Israel without also being pro-settler and pro-Likud. Its Farley Weiss who is outside of the mainstream, here.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Sterling gets the wrong punishment

I DISAGREE with the NBA's decision to ban Donald Sterling for life.

Donald Sterling did not deprive anyone of his civil rights, and he did not break any laws. He committed a serious social error, or call it a social crime if you prefer, and he should be punished socially.

Instead of a ban, I'd like to see Sterling booed every time he appears at a game. I'd like to see free agent players decline his money. I'd like to see him denounced by the media. I'd like to see him banished from his social circles. I'd like to see his business partners, including his team's corporate sponsors, jump ship. All of these are appropriate social consequences for a serious social crime such as the one he committed. Forcing Sterling to divest himself of an asset or banning him from participating in the management of that asset is the wrong kind of penalty.

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Monday, April 28, 2014

Keep your shlisel challah, but...

I've been told that its "silly and pretentious" to discuss the true origins of shlisell challah. They say this is "mockery" and that revealing the true origins serves to "tear down" the custom.

Let's take a counter example: Thanksgiving Turkey. All of us know the real reason behind the custom. No one thinks the custom of eating Thanksgiving turkey was invented by prophetic Sages, or that eating a drumstick carries any mystical, spiritual or magical significance.  Yet, to the dismay of the turkeys, this knowledge has done nothing to blunt the American eagerness to consume the bird on the last Thursday in November. The custom prevails, and shows no sign of weakening, despite the fact that all of us know, or at least intuit,  that this is a custom invented by ordinary people for mundane reasons.

The success of the turkey custom is why I feel rather certain that the shlissel challah custom is in no danger. The practice of sticking keys into our challahs will not be abandoned if it becomes widely known that we do this only because our Jewish forefathers, in imitation of their non-Jewish neighbors, thought it festive or fortuitous to bake their breads in symbolic shapes. (The custom has evolved from baking key-shaped loaves to inserting actual keys into the bread)

But - second argument -  let's say that I'm wrong and all this truth-telling about the origins of shlissel challah causes it to be forgotten. So. Freaking. What.  Exactly how are we, as a people, harmed if a relatively new custom, copied from Catholics, is left on the dust pile of history? Sure, the first Saturday after Passover would be a mite less interesting, but otherwise? You can't sue before you've incurred damages, and I fail to see how losing shlissel challah hurts anything.

My advice on this subject is, therefore, the same as my advice on all matters of custom and tradition: If you like shlissel challah please enjoy it with my blessing. I ask only this: Tell the truth about it, and permit others to do the same. 

Not so fast

A guest post by Y. Bloch
When I was in junior high lo these many years ago, our principal propounded an interesting theory. This yeshiva had many issues with the modern State of Israel, and the rabbi claimed that the Zionists had devised a plot with their holiday schedule to undermine traditional vernal Judaism. They set Yom HaShoa (Holocaust Remembrance Day) in the last week of Nisan, the month of Passover, one in which we eschew public morning, while they put Yom HaAtzmaut (Israeli Independence Day) in the first week of Iyar, a month defined by its mourning practices.

This is the most extreme expression of a common canard: fasting in Nisan is inconsistent with the Jewish tradition, so how can you put a day of mourning in the last week of Nisan?

Except, of course, that long before 1953, when the State of Israel established Yom HaShoa, there was a day of fasting in the middle of the final week of Nisan. That dates back to the 40's--not the 1940s, the 740s.
These are the days on which we fast according to the Torah; whoever fasts on them must not eat or drink until evening: on the first of Nisan, Aaron's sons died; on the tenth of Nisan, Miriam died and the Well vanished; on the twenty-sixth, Joshua son of Nun died. (Halakhot Gedolot, ch. 18, p. 232)
This 8th-century Gaonic source is echoed by the early prayer books of Amram Gaon (Order of Fasts) and Mahzor Vitri (ch. 271). The Kol Bo (ch. 63) concurs, but records the date of Joshua's death as the 28th. So, somewhere between the 26th and the 28th of Nisan, there was a strong custom to fast; somewhere between the 26th and the 28th of Nisan, we have Yom HaShoa. Yet we can't mark this day--because of the added mourning customs we've tacked on during this period after the Crusades 350 years later?!

Well, maybe these days were once observed, but surely the decisive compendium of Jewish law, the Shulhan Arukh, wouldn't mention--oh, never mind, it's quoted verbatim in OH 580:2.

OK, let's put aside the technical halakhic question (I'm not aware of anyone who actually fasts on this day anyway). Can the yahrtzeit of Joshua shed any light on Yom HaShoa? I believe it can. Quite simply, Joshua (along with Caleb) is the survivor of the worst generational holocaust in Jewish history. Out of about 600,000 able-bodied men who leave Egypt, only two enter the land. This catastrophe is caused by the propaganda and demagoguery of ten men, the Spies, who break the will of the people in the name of preserving the Chosen Race. For forty years, the Israelites must pay the heavy price of this historic mistake. Finally, once they enter the land, as we read on the first day of Passover (Joshua 5:4), "This is the reason Joshua circumcised them: all the people who came out of Egypt, who were males, even all the men of war, died in the wilderness by the way, after they came out of Egypt." Normally, it is the father who circumcises, but the generation that entered Israel was an orphan generation; Joshua had to foster a fatherless people.

Upon entering the Land of Israel, I wonder if there were any great thinkers who opined that this tragedy was necessary, that only a catastrophe as vast as the death of 603,548 men would allow God to give us such a great gift. If so, they would have been immediately recognized as fools. God promised the Land to Israel on their way out of Egypt, and the holocaust in the desert only served to delay it.

So why do people insist on putting Yom HaShoa and Yom HaAtzmaut on two opposite sides of the scales of theodicy? As my rebbe, Rabbi Yehuda Amital was wont to say, if God offered us such a deal, it would be morally repugnant to consider it. The Holocaust must be evaluated on its own terms, not least of which because so many others aside from Jews were slaughtered in it as well. It must be discussed, knowing that it can never be fully explained or understood. Adding it to the list of Jewish tragedies on Tisha beAv, when neither schools nor yeshivot are in session, hardly fits the bill.

I think that the yartzheit of Joshua, who buried more than half a million of his kinsmen, friends and countrymen, is a particularly opportune time. Maybe some other day would be more appropriate. But the vagaries of the Jewish calendar should not be an excuse for ignoring the Holocaust and the profound questions it raises.

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Offered without comment: The Katy Perry Bar Mitzvah video

I really don't know what to make of Katy Perry's appearance as Yosef Shulem, the challah-fressing bar mitzvah entertainer, in her latest music video, "Birthday."

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Sunday, April 27, 2014

My sister is really hot

A guest by Y. Bloch
So says the Bible. In fact, we read it over Passover, in the Song of Songs (AKA Song of Solomon):
You have stolen my heart, my sister, my bride... How delightful is your love, my sister, my bride! How much more pleasing is your love than wine... You are a garden locked up, my sister, my bride; you are a spring enclosed, a sealed fountain. (4:9-12)
I have come into my garden, my sister, my bride...
Listen! My beloved is knocking:“Open to me, my sister, my darling...” (5:1-2)
Now, you might be thinking, "But SoS is an allegory!" True enough; no one thinks that the unnamed female protagonist (let's call her She) actually has two fawns (7:4) or grape clusters (7:8) strapped to her chest. However, the author does choose to use "sister" as a synonym for "beloved."

A few more hints in the text flesh out the picture. 1:6 states: "My mother’s sons were angry with me; they made me keeper of the vineyards, but my own vineyard I have not kept!" So she has maternal brothers, but apparently no maternal sister, as in 6:9: "My dove, my perfect one, is the only one, unique to her mother, flawless to her that bore her." She says of the male protagonist, "O that you were like a brother to me, who nursed at my mother's breasts! If I met you outside, I would kiss you, and no one would despise me." In other words, if they shared a mother and not just a father, their kisses would be innocent and familial; but since they do not, their interactions are erotic and romantic.

The unusual configuration of Torah readings this year (which won't recur until 2035) means that we read SoS on the Sabbath between the regular portions of Aharei Mot and Kedoshim. They have quite a different view of sororal love, respectively:
You shall not uncover the nakedness of your sister, your father's daughter or your mother's daughter, whether born at home or born abroad... You shall not uncover the nakedness of your father's wife's daughter, begotten by your father, since she is your sister. (Lev. 18:9, 11)
If a man takes his sister, a daughter of his father or a daughter of his mother, and sees her nakedness, and she sees his nakedness, it is a hesed, and they shall be cut off in the sight of their people; he has uncovered his sister's nakedness, he shall be subject to punishment. (20:7)
This seems pretty clear and unambiguous (if not redundant), except of course for the use of the word hesed, usually translated as kindness (or lovingkindness, but not that type of loving), but here carrying some pejorative connotation. Granted, it's a bit jarring to slip SoS between these two passages. But maybe it's a cultural thing; after all, sibling marriages were common in ancient Egypt and other societies. Certainly, the Jewish nation, founded by Abraham and Sarah, would never--
Abraham said, "I did it because I thought, There is no fear of God at all in this place, and they will kill me because of my wife. Besides, she is indeed my sister, the daughter of my father but not the daughter of my mother; and she became my wife. And when God caused me to wander from my father's house, I said to her, 'This is the hesed you must do me: at every place to which we come, say of me, He is my brother.'" (Gen. 20:11-13)
OK, OK, but that's because of the vagaries of matrilineal descent in Jewish law. Certainly we would never countenance marrying one's full sister, unless--
Come and hear! Why did not Adam marry his daughter?So that Cain should marry his sister, as it is written, "For I said, the world shall be built up by hesed" (Psalms 89:3). But otherwise, she would have been forbidden? Once, however that it was permitted, it remained so. (Sanhedrin 58b)
Well, sure, historically, but once we get past Abraham, Jews start marrying their cousins, like decent folk, not their sis--
"And they took Dinah from the house of Shechem" (34:26)... R. Huna says: she was saying, "But I, where can I take my shame?" (II Sam. 13:13), until Simeon vowed to her that he would marry her. Thus it says, "The sons of Simeon were... and Saul the son of a Canaanite woman" (46:10) Dinah was the “Canaanite woman,” because her behavior was like that of the Canaanites, says R. Judah. (Gen. Rabbah 80:11).
That would be Simeon, one of the twelve tribes of Israel, marrying his full sister Dinah. And fathering a kid with her. Hmmm...
Now, my point with all of this is not to advocate on behalf of incest. It is to point out how complex sexual morality is. We usually assume that the answer to the question "What is the Torah's view on sleeping with one's sister?" is pretty straightforward. It certainly is halakhically (see Shabbat 145b); but when the question is how we think about it, the path gets a little winding and muddy.

That's why it so galls me when people trot out a simplistic view of human sexuality through the lens of the Torah, as David Benkof did in his piece last week. While I respect his personal choices, his portrayal of the Torah's view on the matter leads him to portray the Midrashic idea of Adam being created as a Siamese hermaphrodite as the simple meaning of the text (see Berakhot 61a). Furthermore, it leads him to invoke one reading of 2:24 as the model for marriage, even though the rest of Genesis depicts many other variations on this theme. Then he adds to this the anatomical argument, even though such an approach would lend far more legitimacy to polyandry than to polygamy.

The Jewish concept of sexuality, like so many other things, has evolved over time. We should not pretend that we are still in Eden. Instead, we should use the halakhic tools at our disposal to welcome all who wish to study and pray with us. It's hesed, you know.

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Friday, April 25, 2014

The Jordanian Mural at the 1964 Worlds Fair

Here's something interesting which I will post without comment. It tells the story of a major controversy that erupted at the 1964 Worlds Fair (the one in Queens) when a pro-Palestinian mural was installed at the exit of the Jordanian pavilion. Though it was only 1964 all the predictable things happened next.
For those too lazy to click, or uninterested in the full story, the mural featured a mother holding her child and contained the following words....

Thursday, April 24, 2014

New Square Conformity

After reading in Mishpacha magazine about the bullying and forced conformity that passes for piety in New Square, NY,  the Jewish Worker asks: Is this what Judaism is all about?

I presume his question is meant rhetorically (How could someone think Judaism is "all about" something?); still his description of 21st century life in this Hasidic-American village is harrowing. Contemplate what it means for a moment to have no choices and no options. Contemplate what it means to be forced by societal pressure and childhood conditioning to dedicate your life to the glory of an unelected, unaccountable Rebbe. If you're reminded of North Korea, you're not alone.

Certainly many of you are preparing to protest that New Square is nothing at all like North Korea. For starters, New Square residents can sell their homes and leave town. Also, the leader of New Square is accused only of shady financial dealings. No one says he is also a sexual pervert or a murderer. He doesn't run detainment camps. All true. And I concede my analogy is imperfect, as all analogies are imperfect. So let me be clear: I am not trying to tell you North Square is North Korea. Of course, it isn't. Rather, I'm reporting that Mishpacha's article suggests that the leader of New Square, like the Dear Leader of North Korea, has managed to create a cult of personality and to acquire near total control over the thoughts and behaviors of his followers. If this disturbs you, as it disturbs me and as it seems to have disturbed the Jewish Worker, perhaps we should band together and be a bit braver the next time the Rebbe and his well-heeled entourage come to town with their hands out.

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Saturday, April 19, 2014

Lucky number seven

A guest post by Y. Bloch
Poor 7oP. The Seventh Day of Passover seems to get no respect, despite its being a bona fide biblical holiday. It has no special custom, command or ceremony all its own. Compare this to the end of Sukkot, Shemini Atzeret; the Talmud (Sukka 48a) already enumerates six special traits of the day in Temple times, to which another half-dozen have been added in the two millennia since. Meanwhile, 7oP remains forlorn, a sort of Anticlimaxodus.

True, tradition tells us (specifically, R. Hanina bar Papa in Talmud Sota 12b) that the 21st of Nisan was the day of the Splitting of the Sea of Reeds and the subsequent Song of the Sea. But this sequel to the Ten Plagues feels a bit underwhelming: once again, the Israelites face hardened-heart Pharaoh; once again, Moses raises his staff; once again, God performs a miracle; once again, the Israelites are spared and the Egyptians are smitten (but not in a good way). However, since we celebrate at the Seder as freemen, it's hard to muster up much emotion about Pharaoh 2.0. Instead, he seems to fit into the familiar pattern of "They tried to kill us, we survived, let's eat."

But I would like to argue that the events of the Seventh Day are in fact vital and integral to our Passover experience. A week ago, Eylon Aslan-Levy posted "The Ten Plagues and the Ethics of Modern Warfare," in which he argues that "For Moses, the Death of the Firstborn was the nuclear option." I have a number of issues with the piece, but first and foremost, I am dismayed by the portrayal of the Slaying of the Firstborn as some sort of weapon of mass destruction, introducing lethal force into the equation for the first time.

The fact is that in their first appearance before Pharaoh (Ex. 5:3), Moses and Aaron already use threatening language: "And they said, 'The God of the Hebrews has met with us: let us go, we pray you, three days' journey into the desert, and sacrifice unto the Lord our God; lest he fall upon us with pestilence, or with the sword.'" As the Plagues strike Egypt, it's very hard to imagine that there were no casualties from the week-long lack of drinking water, the invasion by wild animals, the death by pestilence of all domesticated animals and a raging plague of boils (a disease which causes limbs to fall off; see Talmud Ketubot 20b).

Still, let's assume that the first six were nonlethal. That still brings us to unlucky number seven, flaming hail. The Torah is explicit about this one (Ex. 9:19-25):
For upon every man and beast that shall be found in the field, and shall not be brought home, the hail shall come down upon them, and they shall die. He that feared the word of the Lord among the servants of Pharaoh made his servants and his cattle flee into the houses. And he that regarded not the word of the Lord left his servants and his cattle in the field... And the hail smote throughout all the land of Egypt all that was in the field, both man and beast; and the hail smote every herb of the field, and broke every tree of the field.
So Egyptians were dying; more importantly, their animals and slaves were dying for their masters' disbelief. That is equally true of the Slaying of the Firstborn:
And all the firstborn in the land of Egypt shall die, from the firstborn of Pharaoh that sits upon his throne, even unto the firstborn of the maidservant that is behind the mill; and all the firstborn of beasts. (11:5)
And it came to pass, that at midnight the Lord smote all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, from the firstborn of Pharaoh that sat on his throne to the firstborn of the captive that was in the dungeon; and all the firstborn of cattle. (12:29)
Pharaoh, the cause of all this, does not die; all other firstborn of Egypt, including slaves and animals, do.
It may be convenient for us to think of the Slaying of the Firstborn as a powerfully destructive and indiscriminate weapon, but this plague is very personal, as we read in the Haggada: God Himself does the killing. It is not modern ethical warfare; it is ancient tribal warfare, in which Egypt is bad and Israel is good, and no other distinction is relevant. To contend that "Moses took every reasonable step to shield civilians from their leadership’s callousness and indifference to their plight" is laughable.
That is why we need the Seventh Day of Passover. The final chapter of the Exodus, the Splitting of the Sea, shows us an evolving ethic. This time, it is not Egyptian slaves or civilians who suffer, but Pharaoh's war machine (Ex. 14:28): "And the waters returned, and covered the chariots, and the horsemen, and all the army of Pharaoh that came into the sea after them; there remained not so much as one of them." As the Psalmist puts it (136:15), "And He hurled Pharaoh and his army into the Sea of Reeds, for His kindness is everlasting."

In fact, in the Talmud (Megilla 10b), we find:
For the Holy One, blessed be He, does not rejoice in the downfall of the wicked. And R. Johanan further said, What is the meaning of the verse, "And one came not near the other all the night" (Ex. 14:20)? The ministering angels wanted to chant their hymns, but the Holy One, blessed be He, said, "The work of my hands is being drowned in the sea, and shall you chant hymns?"
Once we can distinguish between the good Egyptians and the bad Egyptians, we can distinguish between the good and the bad within each Egyptian. Once we can identify the villains, we can have compassion for the enemy. That is the most provocative idea of Passover, and we can only embrace it once we are safely on the other side, on the Seventh Day.

Hag sameah.

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Thursday, April 17, 2014

Seder Wrap up

What follows continues my longstanding tradition of documenting all that was odd, interesting or otherwise noteworthy about my seders. As always, you are invited to use the comments to tell us what made your seders memorable.


Time finished
Around 1 pm both night. Most years seder is like a symphony, with all the different parts - food, conversation, ritual, music - coming together to form a harmonious whole. This year, the metaphorical music was choppy and somewhat out of tune. Nothing seemed to meld. For a change, seder wasn't entirely enjoyable and the warm, happy feeling I remember from previous years did not arrive as the meal melted into the concluding songs. If I can figure out what caused this failure, I'll let you know.


Long time readers know that potato is the DovBear family's one-true karpas instrument, but did you know the word itself appears at the begining of the Exodus story? Sort of. It's in Rashi's comment on Genesis 37:3:

פסים: לשון כלי מלת, כמו (אסתר א ו) כרפס ותכלת, וכמו (שמואל ב' יג יח) כתונת הפסים, דתמר ואמנון. ומדרש אגדה על שם צרותיו שנמכר לפוטיפר ולסוחרים ולישמעאלים ולמדינים:

At our seder, we made much of the fact that the Exodus story also starts and finishes with a dip. First, that trouble-making coat made from what Rashi compares to כרפס ותכלת takes a quick swim in some goat blood; years later, as the story comes to its climax, a hyssop branch is dipped in the blood of some other goats and splashed on the door posts. The brothers erased Yosef with a dip; their descendants brought themselves back into existence the same way.

Main Courses
We're not going to dwell on this, but the food put in front of me on the second night of the holiday may have been the worst holiday meal to ever disgrace a table. The lady of the house tried, but everything failed spectacularly. If the dish wasn't too cold, it was too bland. If it hadn't been freezer burned it was soaking wet from having been defrosted incorrectly. The soup was tepid, fatty and flavorless. The main courses wore disconcerting notes of honey and came in textures I never imagined existed in nature.There were no vegetables. I feel bad telling you all this because the woman certainly gave it the old college try. Recipes were consulted. Quality cuts of meat were procured.  There were attempts at artistry in the presentations. But just as some men can't sing, I suppose some women can't cook. Call it tongue deafness.

Books I Read
I re-read the Yiddish Policeman's Union. Six years later, I see Chabon's criticism of settler tendencies all the more clearly. Chabon puts a great line on every other page, but the cake is taken by this one, as the main character objects to Jews and Christians who have allowed their eagerness for the end of days to permit murder :

“I don't care what is written," Meyer Landsman says. "I don't care what supposedly got promised to some sandal-wearing idiot whose claim to fame is that he was ready to cut his own son's throat for the sake of a hare-brained idea. I don't care about red heifers and patriarchs and locusts. A bunch of old bones in the sand. My homeland is in my hat. It's in my ex-wife's tote bag.”

I also finished a few magazine articles, and several chapters of Lincoln at Gettysburg by the great anti-Papist Gary Wills. It is Wills thesis, that Lincoln's address changed the way we understand the constitution by successfully attributing his own - let's call them modern - values to the founding fathers. V'hamayvin yaavin. 

Best Observation
Paro's daughter didn't die during the Death of the First Born Sons. You may say that this was because she was not, in fact, a first born son, but that's too simple. Regarding the woman of valor, Proverbs 31 says "She sees that her trading is profitable, and her lamp does not go out at night." Without doing very much violence to the text, the Hebrew can be construed as "She who saw [that Moshe was] ki tov will not be extinguished at night." To clever by half? Yes. Yes.

Winning moment
At the end of a long digression about the power, flexibility and fundamental subjectivity of interpretations, one of the young men at my seder challenged me to compose a homily on the spot. He pointed to one of the props on my niece's plate and said, "Tell me what that frog says about the spirit of Pesach." I took a breath, and something like the following drasha came out:

That frog isn't any frog. That frog is Kermit, king of the frogs. And what is Kermit's anthem? A song called: "Its not easy being green" Have truer words about Pesach ever spoken? What is our seasonal struggle if not the fight to make the events of  Exodus seem new? Every year we struggle to toss off the dust and the spiders. We struggle to make it all seem new again. To let the songs touch us again. To see the rituals with innocent eyes again. But its hard. Its hard because "It's not easy being green." As spring turns to summer we ripen and rot. We fall to the ground and the bugs and bacteria do their dirty work on us. By the time spring returns we're all but a husk. Its not easy being green. Its not easy to begin again. But that's the challenge of Pesach.

Yes, of course this blows, and blows hard. But it proves the point: With enough creativity, just about anything can be put into the service of anything else.

One more great interpretation
Who Knows One, the seder's last song but one, is a confession of how the Seder has changed us. Before sitting through the story of the Exodus, I might have unreflectivly given secular replies to the song's questions. Who Knows Two? Two is the number on Jeter's back!  Who Know's Three? Three are the goals in a hat trick! But after hearing the great story, and participating in the great rituals, I'm a new man. All I think are holy thoughts. Everything I see in the Rorshak ink blot is divine.

This is certainly a retro-reason, by which I mean something a clever person produced to tell us how he imagines something else got started. But you listened anyway.

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Monday, April 14, 2014

Best Pesach Video Ever

I continue to love how this video manages to reclaim Passover on behalf of all Jews. The performers in this video are unabashedly Jewish. They believe in God and recognize the acts of the Exodus as being essential to their religious and cultural identity. But they are celebrating it on their own terms, with no apologies or deference to Charedi-ism.  This video contains not even a feint to RW sensibilities, yet only the worst kind of narrow minded RW Jew would say that these people aren't his people.

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Saturday, April 12, 2014

No Private Passover Parties

A guest post by Y. Bloch

Where will you be in 21 years? That's the next time we'll do what we did yesterday, reading the portion of Aharei Mot (Lev. 16-18) on Shabbat HaGadol, the Great Sabbath preceding Passover. It gives us a chance to examine one of the most unusual mitzvot in the Torah: the prohibition of external slaughter (shehutei hutz).
If anyone of the house of Israel slaughters an ox or a lamb or a goat in the camp, or slaughters it outside the camp, and does not bring it to the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, to present it as an offering to the Lord before the Tabernacle of the Lord, he shall be held guilty of bloodshed; he has shed blood, and he shall be cut off from the people. (Lev. 17:3-4)
Jews of the Exodus generation were not getting their fresh beef from Postville, Iowa; every domesticated animal had to be slaughtered before God.

This restriction is loosened once the Jews cross the Jordan, as described in Deut., ch. 12 and Talmud Zevahim, ch. 14; in the Promised Land, sheep, goats and cattle may be slaughtered just for a barbecue. Moreover, if one does want to make it into an offering, that can be done on private altar, a bama. Only when the sacrificial service is centralized does it become forbidden to bring offerings in one's own backyard.

However, there is one exception: the paschal lamb/ kid.
You are not allowed to sacrifice the passover in any of your towns which the Lord your God is giving you; but at the place where the Lord your God chooses to establish His name, you shall sacrifice the passover in the evening at sunset, at the time that you came out of Egypt. (Deut. 16:5-6)
This leads to one of the most unusual disputes among the ban-counters. Maimonides famously lists all 613 commandments in his Sefer HaMitzvot, and the Sefer HaHinukh expands on them. There is only one mitzva which Maimonides omits but the Hinukh counts (#487): the prohibition to slaughter the passover privately. Maimonides does include the law in Mishneh Torah (Laws of the Passover 1:3), but he apparently views it as a historical footnote, not an everlasting command, as the bama has been categorically forbidden since the Temple was built in Jerusalem. The Hinukh disagrees, and he is not alone; 500 years before Maimonides, the Gaonic list of commandments, Halakhot Gedolot, includes this prohibition as one of the 613 as well. Why?

In fact, it is quite bizarre that the passover, of all offerings, must not be sacrificed in one's backyard. After all, the original passover in Egypt (which Shabbat HaGadol commemorates) is commanded in the following way in Exodus 12: "They shall take to them every man a lamb, according to the house of their fathers, a lamb for a house" (v. 3) and "Draw out, and take you a lamb, according to your families, and slaughter the passover" (21). If there's any offering that would belong on a private, family bama, it seems like it would be the passover!

Let's return to Aharei Mot. While in the desert, the Israelites are compelled to bring their animals to the Sanctuary. Whatever one's tribal or familial or socioeconomic status, everyone has to come to this central location. This creates a certain social cohesiveness in the nation of former slaves, a cohesiveness which they had lost in Egypt. True, Goshen had a higher population of Israelites than the other regions of Egypt (a remnant of Joseph's era), but the Hebrew slaves for the most part lived among their Egyptian masters. (That, after all, is why God needs to "pass over" the Jewish houses when He smites the Egyptian homes.)  Thus, this carnivorous centralization serves an important purpose.

But how is it possible to do so after crossing the Jordan? Trekking from Dan or Beersheba to Jerusalem for shawarma is impracticable. Nevertheless, there is one occasion upon which all Israel can come together: the annual observance of Passover. Everyone must come to God's chosen place to offer the passover, and this gives them the opportunity to feel the Exodus experience.

This is fundamentally different from the paschal service in Egypt; at that time, it was more important to establish the concept of independence and autonomy in the nuclear family, an idea which their masters had tried to eradicate. But for every subsequent Passover, the issue is commemoration. We need to feel the experience of forging a nation, to symbolically gather around one fire and become one people. That is why the story we tell at the Seder does not conclude with our departure from Egypt, but includes the Splitting of the Sea, the Giving of the Torah, and crossing the Jordan into the Promised Land. In fact, the famous poem Dayenu ends with the building of God's chosen house--the one place which is irrevocably and unfailingly the focus of our service. No matter our geographical or historical distance from the Temple, every Jewish soul turns to it.

Let's remember this Passover to keep our doors and our hearts open to all those who are in need. After all, we're all in this together.

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Thursday, April 10, 2014

Pesach/Seder Thought Experiment

The Seder, as we know it, is based on a ritual originally created to accompany the eating of the Passover lamb. Over time, elements were added, many of them borrowed from the surrounding culture because they signified culture or wealth or freedom. These include dipping, four cups, four questions and reclining. Other added elements included introductory readings and closing hymns.

Let's say we were starting from scratch. Let's say we had no Seder but we did have a religious feast, based on a very important event, and we wanted to invent a ritual to go with it. If we wanted to signify culture or wealth or freedom using the symbolic language of our own era, what would we borrow?

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Tuesday, April 08, 2014

Why do Jewish women work so hard?

Interesting excerpt from imamother coming up after my snooty introductory comment.

As you'll see this woman complains, quite compellingly, that it sucks to be an orthodox Jewish woman. You're responsible for cooking and child raising while your husband gets to recharge spiritually at shul and shiurim. The typical excuse/explanation for this state of affairs is that woman do their spiritual recharging via all that cooking and child raising, but I think all but the worst-suffering Stockholm syndrome victims understand that this excuse was invented by men for the purpose of making women feel satisfied with their "tafkid" (See how much holier child raising and cooking sounds when you call it a tafkid?)

I expect many women will denounce the author of the excerpt for being a gender traitor while men denounce me for cluing women in to the scam.

Anyway, here it is.
"I'm a BT. And I became frum leading that life. Davening in shul (twice!) a day sometimes, the freedom to go tho shiurim, beautiful meals from amazing families that didn't inform me what kind of intense work went in to it all....I worked hard all week and really enjoyed the change of pace on shabbos. Now I watch my kids all week...and watch them some more on shabbos. And all those seudahs I enjoyed when I was becoming frum are now prepared by me. The lifestyle that roped me in is not what I have now. And my husband is never around during the week to help with any preparations and he just wants his time in shul on shabbos. But I guess it all just makes me a bit angry....the life that he had when he first because frum is still his life. Nothing's really changed in how he gets to enjoy yomtov and shabbos. But for me, it's very very different. And it's been like that since the beginning of parenthood. The first year we got invited out here and there and we had no kids, I was working it was different.
If anything, shabbos and yuntif is li[k]e an intensified version of what I do during the week without all the crazy school droppoff/pickup times. More "childcare", more cooking, etc but without the spiritual stuff that I enjoyed years ago. 
I don't feel connected to Yiddeshkeit through my kids and my house. I just don't no matter how hard I try to see it life that. This is nothing new. I just don't understand how women are supposed to enjoy all this if we have such demands in the home. 
I know when my kids are grown I'll miss all this but it's been a long time away from shul - over a decade. And it's really negatively impacted me religiously."
There are many issues happening here - her own personal marital interactions/communication or lack thereof, the expectation that Jewish women should find holiness in household/childrearing chores, the bait and switch of the kiruv movement that leads women to believe they will be entering a life of intellectual and spiritual growth through shul/shiurim/community involvement/as an invited guest to meals - when the reality is that women are often the behind the scenes staff making sure these events happen for men and single women to enjoy and participate in.

Imamother is a community of frum Jewish women, where you can come to relax, socialize, debate, receive support, ask questions and much more.

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Monday, April 07, 2014

A 21st century kid's choir singing 17th century Passover songs

So, two guys I like a lot - Paul Shaviv and Fred MacDowell -  appear to have collaborated in 2012 on something amazing, and I am just discovering it now.

In brief: Fred found an old hagadah that included the musical notation for two Passover night hymns according to the tune used by Western European Jews in the 17th century. Paul, who runs a school, asked the music director to arrange the music so the school choir could perform it.

And here it is! A 21st century kid's choir singing 17th century Passover songs. Thank God for the Internet!

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I think it's wonderful how using his real name has helped this guy to be so polite and civil in his dealings with ideological opponents

This is an all time Cross Currents classic.

The writer begins by patting himself on the back for being a future-seeing genius and ends by calling other Jews "Amalek". When challenged in the comments, he protests, "Hey, they're the ones acting like Amalek."

Apparently disagreeing with this particular author (who I won't name because names are irrelevant) on a matter of public policy is identical to mass murder and causes Gods throne to be forever incomplete. 
Good to know.

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Sunday, April 06, 2014

What did Tom Friedman do wrong this time?

I'm doing my best to understand why some people I admire are mad about Tom Friedman's new article about Sheldon Adelson. It's not the greatest piece of analysis ever written, and I agree parts of it are lazy and bad. But why the uproar? In a nutshell this is what Tom says:
  1. Adelson loves Israel.
  2. Iran hates Israel
  3. Iran is doing nothing to help the Palestinians because Iran wants them angry, restless, unsettled and a constant thorn in Israel's side. 
  4. Adelson, out of his aggressive, jingoistic love for Israel is using his money to encourage politicians to employ rhetoric and embrace policies that, in Friedmans view, also will ensure that the Palestinians remain a restless, angry, thorn in Israel's side forever.
  5. This, likely, please the Ayatollahs. 
Agree or disagree with the reasoning the argument contains no violations of the official Zionist rules on things you're allowed to say and think about Israel. So why are so many Zionist watchdogs up in arms?

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Friday, April 04, 2014

And a leper shall lead them

A guest post by Y. Bloch
The Torah is known as the Five Books of Moses, and with good reason. The most common verse is "And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying," which appears seventy times in the Torah (specifically, in three of the five), introducing mitzvot. But Moses is not the only one to be tagged, as we read a few weeks ago, "And the Lord spoke to Aaron, saying" (Lev. 10:8).
In that passage, God explains that Aaron and his sons have a special job in assisting Moses--not just Temple service, but le-horot, to guide, teach, instruct and issue rulings for the Israelites, "in order to distinguish between the holy and the mundane, and between the impure and the pure." Le-horot is the infinitive of Torah, and the text goes on to list a half-dozen torot, rules of purity and impurity as they relate to all stages of life and all living creatures. In each case, the passage is introduced with "And the Lord spoke to Moses and Aaron, saying"--with two exceptions.
As my friend Hillel Deutsch asked last week on Facebook, "The yoledet, however, is introduced via command to Moshe only. (Vayikra 12:1) Why?" The laws of the yoledet, the child-bearer, are indeed addressed only to Moses, which is strange. After all, the new mother is supposed to bring an offering and present it to the priest; Aaron and his sons are part of her purification process.
Even more bizarre is the beginning (Lev. 14:1) of this week's portion, Metzora, which details the purification process of the leper, in which nearly every action is taken by the priest. This too is addressed to Moses only, even though Aaron is cc'ed on the process for declaring a person to be a metzora in the first place. Why should he be excluded here?
Also on Facebook, Yosef Weiner suggested: "Some kind of reference/reprimand to him after the whole not-giving-his-son-a-brit story?" In other words, perhaps Moses is excluded in the first instance because the passage of the child-bearer includes the positive command of circumcision, "And on the eighth day, the flesh of his foreskin must be circumcised." This is a brief restatement of the Abrahamic covenant of Gen. 17, which Moses famously ignores on his way down to Egypt (Ex. 4:24-26).
At a lodging place on the way, the Lord met Moses and was about to kill him. But Zipporah took a flint knife, cut off her son’s foreskin and touched his feet with it. “Surely you are a bridegroom of blood to me,” she said. So the Lord let him alone. At that time she said “bridegroom of blood,” referring to circumcision.
Thus, there is a reason for Moses to receive the passage of the yoledet alone; he has unique experience with the consequences of ignoring the covenant, and this is no time to hide behind his brother.
But what about metzora? What personal experience does Moses have with that? Actually, it's in the same chapter (vv. 5-7):
Said the Lord, “So that they may believe that the Lord, the God of their fathers—the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob—has appeared to you.” Then the Lord said, “Put your hand inside your cloak.” So Moses put his hand into his cloak, and when he took it out, the skin was leprous as snow. "Now put it back into your cloak,” He said. So Moses put his hand back into his cloak, and when he took it out, it was restored, like the rest of his flesh.
The Jerusalem Talmud (Sota 2:1) famously expounds that the torah of the metzora (Lev. 14:2)  is the torah of the motzi shem ra, the slanderer. In fact, Moses' leprous episode is very similar to that of his older sister Miriam in Num. 12. Both express doubt about the trustworthiness of God's chosen, both incur God's wrath, both become "leprous as snow," and in both cases Aaron's advocacy saves them. But not before a seven-day quarantine session, as required for the metzora: Miriam's quarantine is explicit in the verse, but Moses' is explicit only in the Midrash, which states that he spends an entire week at Horeb, by the Burning Bush (Lev. Rabba, Shemini 11). In any case, it is clear why Moses receives the passage of purifying the metzora alone; he is the one familiar with this punishment for evil speech.
Is there any lesson in all this for us? I would like to suggest that the message is actually quite profound. If there's anyone who could claim diplomatic immunity, it's Moses, who is literally on a mission from God. Liberating the Israelite slaves from Egypt is sort of a big deal, as I understand. Yet God takes the time to take Moses to task for two personal mistakes and puts the Exodus on hold. Why? Because if Moses can't put his own house in order before assuming the leadership of Israel, there is really no point to his mission.
It's quite a contrast to the news of the week: one former mayor of Jerusalem, the Holy City, has been convicted of bribery, along with his predecessor, who ascended to the office of Prime Minister of Israel. These are two very different men, but they clearly shared a belief that they were above the law. One can't help but think of Isaiah's words (1:23): "Your rulers are faithless, the companions of thieves. All of them love bribes and demand payoffs, but they refuse to defend the cause of orphans or fight for the rights of widows." That's not the Mosaic model. God doesn't give a free pass to the leaders; He demands that they follow the laws they're handing down to everyone else.
There is some comfort, though. (We don't call them isaiads, after all.) Isaiah, himself of royal blood (Megilla 15a) goes on to promise in the name of God: "Then I will give you good judges again and wise counselors like you used to have. Then Jerusalem will again be called the Home of Justice and the Faithful City." It can't come soon enough.

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Wednesday, April 02, 2014

I have read the whole of R' Meyer Twersky's argument against women wearing Tefillin. The Rav writes with passion, vigor and sustained excellence but far too much of what he says rests entirely on a particular premise that he never gets around to proving. 
This is a shame because I suspect that most of his readers, myself included, would be ecstatic to have such a proof.

Here's an example of what I mean
"Acceptance of Hakadosh Baruch Hu's Torah does not simply entail practical compliance. Acceptance also reflects firm belief and evinces a reverential attitude. We accept Torah with a sense of awe, joy, privilege and pride because we perceive it for what it is - Hashem's chochmo, perfect, upright, gladdening, enlightening, true, etc. Accordingly, we accept Torah with humility and submissiveness."
The premise here is that "Hashem's chochmo [which is] perfect, upright, gladdening, enlightening, true" and the contingent, earth-bound interpretations and applications of verses made by 21st century scholars are one and the same.  The Rav, one fears, is not asking us to blindly accept the Torah but to blindly accept the perspetives of his own particular cohort. 
Now the men who make up his cohort may be all scholars, all men of intelelctual attainment, all masters of the Torah, but they are not prophets. They are not incapable of error. They are not inseperable from the Torah itself. To deny this is not to disparage 21st century scholars, but to recognize their humanity, ad the shortcomings and limtations that come with it. The eyes of our generation are not infalliable. And we are not being disrespectful to them or to the Torah when we insist that their shortcomings and limitations must be counteracted with protective measures such as debate, discussion, democracy, and experimentation.

Read the whole thing here:

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We told you so

Report: "A Senate intelligence committee investigation found that the Central Intelligence Agency employed brutal interrogation methods that turned out to be largely useless and then lied about their effectiveness, according to The Washington Post."
Not sure how many of you were present back in the waning days of the failed Bush Adminsitration, when we would condemn him for his immoral torture policy on a nearly daily basis. I said that torture was useless. Many of you said it wasn't.

Now a senate report confirms you were wrong. #DBOUT

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Tuesday, April 01, 2014

Pollard and more RW dishonesty

Will those right wing Jews who have always been deeply unfair and knowingly dishonest in their evaluations of president Obama continue to hate him after he frees Jonathan Pollard?

UPDATE: Surprise!! All the RW Zionists on Facebook think freeing Pollard is a horrible idea. What a shock! If Obama invented cold fusion they'd denounce that, too.

Additional points: 

(1) I don't think the president is considering this deal out of any special sense of benevolence for Jews or Israel. In fact, I hope benevolence has nothing to do with it. The president's job is to act in the best interests of the United States.Not to be benevolent. If Obama, like all of his predecessors,  believes keeping Pollard in prison is good for America, he's obligated to take this deal off the table. By the same token, if he thinks freeing Pollard advances American interests, he should close the deal as son as possible. 

(2) For years, we've heard that Pollard must be freed at all costs, but now that Obama is the one dangling a deal many on the right are suddenly backing away. They seem to think this is all part of Obama's latest plot to damage Israel becaus the deal requires Israel to free some Palestinian prisoners. (It also requires major concessions from the Palestinians.)

Now, it may be true that releasing those prisoners hurts Israel, but that's not Obama's problem. His job is to advance American interests. Often those interests coincide with Israeli interests, but when they don't: tough titty. The sovereign state of Israel has its very own democratically elected prime minister who can - and should - reject the deal if he agrees that it will hurt Israel. If he's too weak to do that tossing him out is the proper remedy, not defaming his more accomplished negotiating partner.
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