December 2011

Israel has indeed had a busy year: social protests in the summer, the Price Tag hoodlums last month, and now the “Haredi Spring” of Beit Shemesh. I have already written about the former two (here and here), and want to offer a perspective on this week’s events.

There are a bunch of noteworthy things about what is happening in Beit Shemesh: As Allison Kaplan Sommer writes in the Forward, the fact that Beit Shemesh is largely populated by American olim is contributing to the backlash against Haredization. As others have pointed out, the entire spectrum of religious leadership, including Haredi figures, are speaking out against extremism. And as I myself noticed while watching the protest in Beit Shemesh the other night, I can’t think of another time that Limor Livnat (Likud) and Shelly Yachimovitch (Labor) would have spoken in one voice, on the same podium, one right after the other. In many ways, the reaction here is a credit to Israel and the Jewish people.

But it also raises questions. Extremism is a reflection of strains that are within the mainstream. While the mainstream separates the wheat from the chaff, the extreme reminds us of the chaff that lies within. Many have asked, “How can these people claim to represent the Torah?” Torah is a sea–hakol ba, everything is in it. Reading Torah, understanding Torah, is not like reading an instruction manual. Torah requires interpretation, and when interpretation enters the mix, the possibilities become very wide in all directions.

In this case, the extremists are picking up on threads within the Talmud which can be read as putting the onus for uncontrollable male sexuality on women. Now, there are also strains within the Talmud that clearly put the responsibility on each individual to control themselves, to comport themselves with a sense of modesty and humility–not because they are sex objects for others, but because they (we) are God’s creatures and should carry that awareness at all times. Part of the Orthodox community’s reaction against the sexual revolution of the later 20th century has been to articulate a sexual ethic of modesty. And in many respects, this is a very healthy thing, particularly when it applies to the universal responsibility–of men and women–to live with a sense of yirat shamayim (awe of heaven) and avodat Hashem (service of God).

Where things get crooked is when we start to make some people responsible for the sexuality of others–in particular, when we make women responsible for the sexuality of men. As one of my Roshei Yeshiva put it to us years ago, “A true ben Torah should be able to walk down Yafo street [in Jerusalem] in the middle of the summer, see attractive women in tank tops, and not be aroused.” That is, each individual needs to be responsible for what he or she does with his or her sense of sexual arousal–it is not the responsibility of one sex or the other, and it certainly is not about trying to impose one community’s self-described extreme (Haredi) ethic of modesty on the rest of society. If anything, Haredi men should strive to be examples of equanimity.

What has sadly taken place, however, is a misreading of Torah. Here, for instance, is a Gemara from Taanit 24a about Rabbi Yosi of Yokeret (thanks to Mori v’Rabi Dov Linzer for reminding me of this):

He had a beautiful daughter. One day he saw a man boring a hole in the fence so that he might catch a glimpse of her. He said to the man, What is [the meaning of] this? And the man answered: Master, if I am not worthy enough to marry her, may I not at least be worthy to catch a glimpse of her? Thereupon he exclaimed: My daughter, you are a source of trouble to mankind; return to the dust so that men may not sin because of you. (Taanit 24a)

One could read this story as saying that the daughter–and by extension, women–is responsible for the man’s sexual arousal. But to read the story that way is to forget what precedes it: A conversation between Rav Ashi and Rabbi Yosi bar Avin.

Rav Ashi enquired: Did you not frequent the discourses of Rabbi Yose of Yokeret? He replied: Yes. Rav Ashi then asked him: Why did you leave him, Sir, and come here? He replied: How could the man who showed no mercy to his son and daughter show mercy to me?

That is, the Gemara is repudiating the view of Rabbi Yosi of Yokeret, not endorsing it! It is saying that his behavior–making his daughter responsible for the sexuality of a peeping tom–is reprehensible. He is a character without generosity of spirit, someone literally not to learn from. And so Rabbi Yosi bar Avin left him to learn from Rav Ashi.

It is this point, this generosity of spirit, this openness to the world and sense of proper self-assurance, that we need to be striving for. This is the classic difference between the approach of Reuben and that of Judah: Where Reuben offers to kill his own sons if he fails to bring Benjamin and Simeon back to Jacob, Judah takes a more mature, self-assured sense of responsibility. Where Reuben displays short-sighted, narrow-minded thinking, Judah becomes an arev: He takes responsibility for himself and shows magnanimity to his father. Like Rabbi Yosi of Yokeret, Reuben is a teacher we should avoid. Rather we should learn from Judah, and assume responsibility for our lives.

Shabbat Shalom.

I watch ESPN while I’m at the gym. Not having cable at home, it’s my chance a few times a week to stay up to date on the world of sports (and keep up with my sons, who manage to find out sports information more quickly than I can).

As I stood on the elliptical machine and turned on SportsCenter this morning, the show was featuring clips of Denver quarterback Tim Tebow. Tebow has achieved notoriety for his very open expressions of Christian faith on and off the football field. And in the clips that they showed on ESPN, Tebow was wearing a microphone during the game. Here was Tim Tebow sitting on the sidelines, humming a hymn to himself. And here was Tebow exhorting his teammates to play hard and win. And here was Tebow “Tebowing,” kneeling and praying after his team’s overtime victory against the Chicago Bears.

Segue to my son Jonah’s basketball camp this week, which is organized and run by Tamir Goodman. Goodman, you may recall, was the subject of a four-page spread in Sports Illustrated and dubbed the “Jewish Jordan” as an Orthodox high school phenom in the late 1990s. Tamir was signed by the University of Maryland and ultimately played at Towson University, which changed their schedule to enable him to avoid playing on Shabbat. He went on to a pro career in Israel, and retired a couple years ago after injuries.

Now Tamir is running basketball camps (Natalie’s project, the iChallenge Ideas Incubator, is sponsoring this community-wide one in Chicago). He is shameless in teaching Judaism and Jewish values through basketball. He wears his kippah on the court. He gets a minyan together to daven mincha (he’s saying kaddish for his father). He highlights how Jewish ideas are mirrored in the ethics of team play, discipline, communication, respect, and all the other middot that it takes to be both a good person and a good player.

Tamir tells lots of stories about how his insistence on keeping Shabbat, keeping kosher, and unabashedly being a traditional Jew, became a kiddush Hashem, a sanctification of God’s name in public. His teammates, opponents, fans, and the general public encountered a very public Jew, and learned about traditional Jewish life, as a result of his remaining true to his commitments. Most dramatically, his willingness to give back a full-ride scholarship to Maryland, after the school’s failure to alter its schedule in order to be Shabbat-friendly, made a dramatic statement: Shabbat is fundamental, and no career move is worth sacrificing it.

I see a lot of similarities between Tim Tebow and Tamir Goodman. The NCAA created a “Tebow Rule,” banning writing on eye paint, after Tebow wore “John 3:16” under his eyes in the 2009 national championship game and 92 million people Googled the verse (a silly rule, in my opinion; how many people would have Googled yarmulke if Tamir Goodman had made it to the Final Four? What’s wrong with trying to do a kiddush Hashem?). With his unashamed commitment to his faith, Tebow is creating a kiddush Hashem in his own religious community, and, like Goodman, showing that religious faith can be deeply woven into a modern life.

Parshat Miketz marks the low-point of Joseph’s running away from his own culture. The parsha opens with the dramatic transformation of Joseph from a prisoner to the second-ranking figure in Egypt. Pharaoh gives Joseph clothes, his ring, his chariot, and a wife of high social station–all the trappings of “making it.” Joseph names his first-born Menashe, because “God has made me forget all my trouble and all my father’s household” (Gen. 41:51). Though Pharaoh’s steward remembers Joseph as an Ivri, a Hebrew–one who is “across,” or over or against–Joseph is ultimately unrecognizable to his brothers when they arrive, and he speaks through an interpreter. To his brothers, Joseph is an Egyptian.

What would have happened if Joseph had insisted on maintaining his identity as an Ivri a little more than he did? What if he had said no to Pharaoh? Presumably no one says no to Pharaoh. But presumably no one says no to the University of Maryland basketball program, and four free years of college, either. Joseph was actually in a strong negotiating position, but he didn’t use it. He simply accepted what was offered to him. While he maintained a strong inner sense of faith (as exemplified in the naming of his second son, Ephraim: “It is because God has made me fruitful in the land of my suffering,” Gen. 41:52), he made his identity a private affair. This put him in a position to help his brothers in the end, but also potentially contributed to the simmering negative feelings among the Egyptians towards the Hebrews.

Chabad has embraced this message as the message of Hannukah: Maintain particularity. Don’t assimilate. Be proud to be Jewish. The Lubavitcher Rebbe’s life was the inverse of Joseph’s: The Rebbe was the only one of his siblings to remain religiously observant. (His daughter was his only blood relative to attend his funeral. N.B. Stan Mazo reminds me of the obvious: the seventh Rebbe had no children. I had heard this story in a lecture by Rabbi Aharon Rakeffet, and will check on which Rebbe he was referring to.) Chabad has taken up his message, and it is their greatest contribution to the Jewish people. Hannuukah is indeed a time to be proud, to be out, to be open about our particularities. As Tamir Goodman reminds us, and as Tim Tebow shows too, we have nothing to hide and a great deal to gain in living an undivided life.

Shabbat Shalom and Hannukah Sameach.

As a follow-up to my post last week, I want to share Rabbi Shlomo Riskin’s letter that was printed in Haaretz today. It is directed at the Hilltop Youth. I am not a significant leader of the Jewish community, but Rabbi Riskin, at least in some quarters, is. This is but the latest in his increasingly-frequent statements on behalf of civility and sanity in the religious Zionist community. May we all learn from his words:

From my experience as an educator I know it’s hard, impossible actually, to preach to people who believe that they are the holy defenders of the Land of Israel; that they wave the banner of the pure and genuine Torah; that they are eliminating the conciliatory behavior, the lobbying for favors and the obsequiousness of thousands of years of exile.

“Price tag” rioters who attack Palestinians who have done no wrong, desecrate mosques and set fire to copies of the Koran see themselves as similar to the ancient heroes of Judea, who fought against the Greek-Syrian rabble that desecrated the Temple and forced them to bow down to idols.

And so I say to you:

You consider yourselves the new Hasmoneans, the Maccabees who do not bow their heads before the Hellenizing priestly establishment, which today, you believe, wears the uniform of the Israel Defense Forces. Because you are convinced that all your deeds are for the sake of heaven, you will never admit that you have sinned. And without recognition of sin, there is no repair and no repentance and no atonement.

I am telling you that you are making a fundamental mistake. If a country can be sacred, if there is sanctity in earth and stones, then isn’t it clear that a fortiori there is sanctity in man – whether Arab or Jew – who was created in God’s image? Don’t you understand that there is no “portion of God from above,” as Job described it, in furrows of earth, but that there certainly is in peaceful Palestinians?

Do you have any idea how great that “portion of God” is in Col. Ran Kahane, the commander of the Ephraim Brigade, and in each and every one of his soldiers, who daily risk their lives to defend yours and those of your families from the terrorists who are working to take them? How do you dare to desecrate these holy people? How did it enter your minds to take on the role of our enemies, the terrorists? How did your love of the land become so distorted that it turned into love of bricks and cement and caused you to forget all the rest?

You did not throw stones at me, and still you have mortally wounded me. You have stolen from me one of the assets most sacred to me. I love the Land of Israel with all my heart and all my might. I left the United States, my birthplace, to help to build my beloved city of Efrat and to be built up in it. Wherever and whenever I speak – and I have had the privilege of appearing and speaking all over the world – I present myself as a “proud settler.” And you have robbed this pride from me. You have turned the term “settler” into a dirty word. You have caused me to be ashamed of being a settler, to be ashamed to be called by the same name as those whose love for the land has turned into hatred of human beings.

The Torah is filled with the praises of the Land of Israel, but it never commands us to “love” the land. It commands us to “love thy neighbor as thyself” (Leviticus 19:18 ). And since the following words, the words that end that verse, are “I am the Lord,” the medieval commentator Abraham Ibn Ezra explains that “thy neighbor” in that context is every human being created in the image of God.

There is a direct and tragic connection between those who perpetrate “price tag” activities against Arabs and those who participate in attacks on the IDF. Shimon and Levi, two of the sons of Jacob, murdered all the men of Shechem, an act of collective revenge that did not distinguish between the guilty and the innocent. They ended up harming their own brother, Joseph, for, according to a midrash, or rabbinic tale, they were the motivating force behind his sale to Egypt.

Please, change your minds and repent, before it’s too late. Don’t sell your souls, your portion of God from above, even in exchange for our holy land. (more…)

A number of friends have written to me in recent days asking for my perspective on the latest violence by Jewish residents of Judea and Samaria (aka ‘settlers’) against members of the Israel Defense Forces. And at first my reaction was, What is there to say? My rabbinic association, the International Rabbinic Fellowship, issued a condemnation of the ‘Price Tag’ phenomenon. And beyond that, I’m not sure there’s much for me to add: I’m not a citizen of Israel, and every sane person in Israel is saying the same thing: these people are criminals, they should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law, and let justice be done.

But that’s not what the people who wrote to me want, I suspect. What prompts them to write is a deeper challenge to their own identity as American Jews.

Last week I taught a session on Israel’s Declaration of Independence for heads of central agencies of Jewish education that was sponsored by the iCenter. Anne Lanski, president of the iCenter, began the session by asking everyone to introduce themselves by sharing what connects them with Israel. Some in the room were Israelis by birth. Most had lived in Israel for one or more long-term stays. Nearly all had traveled to Israel in the past year.

When it came to me, I responded that what connects me to Israel is that not a day goes by that I don’t ask, “Why haven’t I made aliyah?” This is one of the great unresolved questions in my life and in the marriage that Natalie and I share. Both of us feel a fundamental desire to live in Israel, to be ‘full Jews’ in the sense that A.B. Yehoshua talks about: enabling our Jewish identity, which is central to our lives, to achieve full expression in the way we actually live. The reasons we’re not there are many and complicated. When children are in the picture, when parnassa (livelihood) is in question, it’s not so simple. But the desire burns every day, and virtually every night before we go to bed Natalie and I have the conversation that begins, “Why don’t we live in Israel?” Ani bama’arav v’libi bamizrach.

In his infamous speech to the American Jewish Committee a few years ago, A.B. Yehoshua pointed out that the State of Israel has a relationship not only with its citizens, but with all Jews as a result of the statement in Megillat Atzma’ut (the Declaration of Independence): “The State of Israel will be open for Jewish immigration and for the Ingathering of the Exiles.” This statement achieved expression in the Law of Return. And as a result, even though I am not a citizen of the State, I am a potential citizen. Ahad Ha’Am put it less politically in his formulation, in which Israel would be the spiritual center of Jews worldwide. I feel this every time I face east to daven, and in the central role that Israel plays in so many other aspects of my life, from the publications that I read to the TV shows I watch (S’rugim, Avodah Aravi) to what my children ate for dinner last night (Tival veggie burgers).

All of which is to say that Israel matters to me, deeply. It is impossible for me to imagine my Jewishness apart from Israel. It is impossible for me to imagine not wanting to be in Israel. It is impossible to imagine feeling fully at home in a Diasporic existence, even in a place as full of blessings as America. For me, the fact that when I get a latte in Israel they write yom tov in Hebrew in the foam–I can’t feel more at home than at that moment.

And that’s what makes so much of the news coming from Israel so tragic and painful. Yes, the news about the sickos who kill Arabs and attack IDF soldiers. Yes, the proposed and enacted laws attacking civil society. Yes, the corrupt and shameful Chief Rabbinate. All of that pains me. It pains me far more than any of the ways in which American society is broken, and that reminds me of where home really is for me.

But what it also does is test my ahavat yisrael. Can I call the Hilltop Youth Jews to whom I’m in some way responsible? Can I see the misogynists in Geulah or Beit Shemesh as my kinsmen? Would I count them in a minyan? Ahavat yisrael is the greatest attribute of my rebbe, Avi Weiss, and has always been the growing edge for my judgmental temperament. But sometimes judgment is warranted, sometimes people have to be cast out, because the survival and integrity of the rest of us depends on it.

Knowing the difference between the times for Hesed and the times for Gevurah is the test implied in Parshat Vayeshev and in the story of Hannukah. The brothers’ othering of Joseph, their attempted fratricide, is the lowest moment in the book of Genesis. Since the time of Cain and Abel, we have been trying to find a way for brothers to live together — Hinei mah tov u’mah na’im shevet achim gam yachad — and here another set of brothers fails the test. Reconciliation ultimately comes, but at the price of years of torment and eventual exile.

Hannukah is the story of a civil war, waged by religious zealots–the Hilltop Youth of their day, perhaps. Yet since the time 1500 years ago when the Rabbis of the Babylonian Talmud virtually ignored the story of the Maccabees, right through our own day, the story we tell about Hannukah is less that of religious extremism winning out over accommodation than of the struggle to maintain integrity, identity and commitment in the face of the pressures to give up. The Talmud made the story not about war in the name of purity, but about keeping the miracle of light in a time of darkness.

I am a believer that, though history has its place, Jewish memory is more important than Jewish history. How we tell the story is ultimately more significant than the events that actually happened. The story of Joseph is a story about the challenges of reconciliation, and the long processes we have to go through to bring it about. The story of Hannukah is about the faith necessary to keep on going, even when we think there’s no way left to do so.

This week, this Hannukah, we need to remember those lessons more than ever.

Shabbat shalom.


When Jacob awoke from his sleep, he thought, “Surely the LORD is in this place, and I, I did not know.” He was afraid and said, ‘How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God; this is the gate of heaven.'” (Gen. 28:16-17)

There is a powerful sense of collapsing time and space that happens in this moment of Jacob’s journey. The place where Jacob slept, it turns out, is none other than Mount Moriah, the Temple Mount, the axis mundi, the center of the world. But Jacob was unaware, and the reality had to come to him. As Rashi famously interprets, Mount Moriah was lifted out of place in order to come and meet Jacob on the way. The text itself implies something out of the ordinary, when it says vayifga bamakom–connoting more than simply “he happened upon the place,” but something akin to “he exploded upon the place.” And time seems to stop for a moment–as it does so rarely in the story of Jacob, who seems constantly to be in motion. God promises Jacob that this place will be the possession of his descendants, and all of us are thereby included in the moment.

But there is more significance to Jacob’s statement: “Achen yesh Hashem bamakom hazeh, v’anochi lo yadati;” “Surely God is in this place, and I, I did not know.” How could he not have known?! Perhaps it is precisely because Jacob is always in a hurry, always on the move. It is the story of his life. As Rashi will remind us in a couple of weeks at the beginning of Parshat Vayeshev, Jacob never really gets any peace in his lifetime. And so even at this moment, when he is passing through the spot that has meant so much in the life of his family and will mean so much in the lives of his descendants, he can’t slow down to notice.

V’anochi lo yadati: And I, I did not know. Simply speaking, this seems to refer to the previous clause: What did Jacob not know? That God was in this place. But a more elastic (Hasidic) reading reveals two more possibilities: God was in this place. Period. V’anochi lo yadati: And I did not know anochi. Anochi here could refer to myself, as in “I didn’t know myself before this moment.” Or it could refer to Anochi, God, the same Anochi that speaks at Sinai. “I did not know myself. And I did not know God.” Before this moment, Jacob says, I had no awareness of who I was or the nature of my relationship with the Divine.

The Piaczezner Rebbe, in his work Derekh Hamelech, elaborates on this point. “The knowledge of God is not some external exercise of the mind alone, like other kinds of knowledge which can be forgotten or hidden when one thinks about other things. Rather, it must enter into his soul and become part of his essence, like the knowledge of his own essence. And it must be with him all the time, whether he is asleep or awake. And it must function as part of all his other knowledge, so that through his knowledge he will recognize God.” (Derekh Hamelech, Vayetzei) When Jacob says he didn’t know God and did not know himself, he means that he did not yet cultivate in himself the ability to be aware of God’s full presence, or his own.

The Piaczezner emphasizes the practice of hashkatah, quieting the mind. To truly pray, and to truly hear the voice of God and our own voices, we have to slow down. Young Jacob is a man in motion, a person on the run. We can imagine him holding a cell phone, making deals, regularly checking Esau’s Facebook status. He has not yet learned the discipline of awareness, of quiet. He has not yet learned to recognize that God is in all places, and that we, we can know–if only we give ourselves the time and space and skill to look.

Shabbat shalom.