Quote for the Day: Cruel to be Merciful?

One who is merciful to those who are heartless will end up being heartless to those who are merciful.(Midrash Zuta, Midrash Tanchuma, Yalkut Shimoni)

This quotation ia attributed to Resh Lakish, R. Elazar, R. Shimon Ben Levi, R. Yehoshua Ben Levi. It is apparent that this belief was widely held.

The proof brought is from Shaul who against Divine decree, spared Agag, the Amalekite leader, and then seven chapters later Shaul slaughters a town of Kohanim blinded by his jealous rage for David. The Rabbis read I Samuel Chapter 22 in light of what Shaul had done in I Samuel Chapter 15 where Agag is temporarily spared only to be killed by Shmuel.

It is difficult to understand how one's sympathy even for a heartless monster could cause one to be heartless toward an innocent. Maybe the Sages felt that when one loses a moral compass for right and wrong, cruelty and kind, all things are possible. A moral order requires judgment, and without that, the wrong people will be on the receiving end of ones wrath.

We live in a world where phrases like "objectification of the other" indicate a sin akin to racism. We hardly ever ask the question, "When does "the other" deserve to be "objectified" as cruel.

The Sages knew that we have never been, nor ever will be always "the same".

This is the flaw of proportional response in certain conflicts. If the expressed goal is to wipe one off the map, should the fact that the enemy is not successful at it be a mitigating factor? Or, like Roger Cohen, do we choose not to believe them because he knows that this is merely overblown rhetoric contradicted by the kindness that he has been afforded by some of the local citizenry.

Whatever political strategy one adopts, it would behoove one to heed the notion that to enter the brotherhood of man there needs to be an entrance exam.

There is a heartless nihilism that in the name of human decency should not be "understood" and doing so, will ultimately cause one to be cruel to the merciful. Words are powerful and they often reflect the deepest held passions and beliefs of individuals.

In the new age of dirty bombs one can't afford to dismiss them.


In Case You Think the Previous Post is Some Fluffy Pop Kabbalah, Look at this source from The Zohar

The lower world is completely attached to the upper world, and until the lower world is complete, the upper world cannot be complete, as we have said.

"For the LORD God had yet to make it rain on the earth [and there was no man to till the soil]." (Genesis 2:5)
For one is dependent on the other.

(i.e. until there is someone to till the soil, there is no reason to make it rain. It is the act of preparing the earth that brings the rain.)

The lower world once repaired returns face to face [with the upper world] so that it too will be repaired thus finding the heavenly now attached to the earthly.

For before this happened, the world did not have its Tikkun (repair). Because "The Lord God had yet to make it rain on the earth." So, you see, one is dependant on the other.

What is written after this verse? "And vapor ascended from the earth." (Ibid 2:6) This is the earthly Tikkun which occurs after "the face of the earth was watered." (ibid)

"And vapor ascended from the earth." This is the desire of the feminine for the masculine. Zohar Vol. I:35a (My Translation)

(At this stage, the heavens are totally dependant on the earthly vapors for rain. First, the lower earthly world is repaired which in turn repairs the heavens.)

In other words, according to the Zohar, we control the flow, once the original waters poured down from the heavens, from then on the vapor ascended from the earth.

This source was previously quoted in the Tikkun Olam: The Massive Malapropism File.

Ten Emanations and Human Encounters

Today while pondering a very human problem in a wondrous meditative state, my four years spent translating a Kabbalistic work came to the rescue and eased a concern that had been rattling my psychic cage for many months.

Shefa is a Hebrew term that describes how God's energy sustains the world. I translated it with the neologism "everflow". To my knowledge, it is a unique translation, but I feel it is the most accurate. The "Shefa" flows through the ten emanations of God, through channels. If the channels are in repair, than the Shefa pours bountifully through these ten emanations, the Sephirot until they reach the lowest emanation, then all that energy is concentrated and pours out to the world.

It is we, by our deeds, who keep the heavenly channels in tact so that the everflow will pour freely through all the emanations, and if we fall short, then the channels are ruptured and the everflow spills out to the darkness and destructive, empowering all that is negative.

Relationships born out of innocence, and ostensible purity of purpose feel this everflow so profoundly that at the moment it feels that it will be forever, untainted. The channels are secure, and the emotional bounty will be never ending. During these moments who wouldn't sacrifice all else to preserve these feelings.

Invariably, because of human frailty, and the challenges of everyday living, something goes awry. The channels are breached, and the spectre of suspicion hovers, growing stronger until all those feelings from before feel like a tragic misdirection, except it wasn't, it was real, but we are not focused or conscious enough to maintain that spirit, the way we have come to expect it.

Some everflow, however, still flows through the channels and drips down, but now it has to compete with all the darkness, the anger, the jealousy, the disappointment, the suspicion, and overwhelmingly, the guilt.

The everflow does, however, have the edge, for it is eternal, and cannot stop. The water always seeps through the thickest walls of despair. We created the walls and we can knock them down. We make them big, but with the help of the everflow from our Creator, we can make them small until they disappear.

The purpose of prayer is to affirm that we believe in the goodness of that which sustains life, love, justice and peace and we believe that we are sustained from a Divine energy beyond ourselves and it is that energy which is eternal. Everything else is temporal. When this belief transforms behavior, the channels are repaired, the darkness recedes, and the world is sustained. If they aren't repaired, then we limp along gathering glimmers of the eternal now and then, once in awhile.

As long as there is life, there is the everflow sometimes weak, sometimes strong, but constant and never ending.


Get your plagues on! Blood is ickier than Water

Moses water and the plague of blood: A tragic love story.

Charoset--so women are already on the Seder plate, who knew?

What's the connection between apples and charoses? The Talmud teaches that:

If it wasn't for the women of Israel we would have never been redeemed.

Take that Dr. Heschel, they already have a place on the Seder plate, we just have to remember to acknowledge it. Click here for the whole story!

A Heroine of The Exodus: Serach Bat Asher

In the Passover Haggadah we say “the more one talks about the Exodus, the more praise one deserves.” With this in mind, the following texts will examine a little known figure from the Exodus story, Serach the daughter of Asher. As you will see, Midrashic literature links Serach to the Exodus story and the rest of Jewish history. Serach offers a wonderful female character to incorporate into the Passover story. As her character is developed in the midrashic sources, she also raises important questions about Jewish memory.

Serach, in Rabbinic literature is the female Elijah, helping out at critical times throughout the generations, for it is written in the midrash--

Her mouth is full of wisdom (Proverbs 31:26) -- This refers to Serach the daughter of Asher who did not taste the taste of death.

For more midrashim on the wonders of an Eishet Chayil: Clck here.


All the Files are in One Place

If you click on the Scribd badge found on the bottom right hand side of this page, you have access to all the files that have been posted on this scorchin site. Happy hunting!

Birchas Hachama Riot in 1897--A Clash of Civilizations

In honor of the fact that Birchas Hachama will be said this year, I bring you the following tidbit:

Here's a New York Times article from 1897 describing the arrest of a certain Rabbi Wechsler for illegal assembly for blessing the sun. His colleague Rabbi Klein fled the scene.

Every twenty eight years from the beginning of creation, so the story goes, the sun is in its original place which is marked by a simple blessing on that day. It is always on Yom Revi'i (Wednesday) which is the day that the lights were created. Here's the money quote:

The celebration is rather a complicated matter to explain to anybody. Rabbi Klein's knowledge of English is slight, while Foley's faculties of comprehension of matters outside of police and park regulations and local events are not acute. The attempt of a foreign citizen to explain to an American Irishman an astronomical situation and a tradition of the Talmud was a dismal failure.

You can just imagine!

Hat tip to Raysh Weiss


The Third Book: Vayikra, and He Called

When God calls to Moshe, it seems that it is rarely good news. Rashi tries to understand what the word Vayikra really means.

Every time God spoke to Moshe, he was welcomed by this calling which was a term of endearment. It was the same language used by the ministering angels for they too, 'called one to the other...' (Isaiah)...And the voice went to Moshe alone for Israel was unable to hear the sound... Yet, everything God said to Moshe for thirty-eight years, was for the sake of Israel. It was only after the generation of the spies--those who were afraid to conquer the land of Israel-- had died that God spoke to Moshe for his sake alone. As it is written, "After all the people from the generation of the war had passed, God spoke to me.

What does Rashi mean when he says that "everything God said to Moshe for thirty-eight years, was for the sake of Israel."? Click here

A Searing Pesach of Pressburg 1943

Rabbi Shlomo Unsdorfer wrote down his sermons in a notebook that was recovered after the war, and after he had perished in Auschwitz. His brother published Reb Unsdorfer's essays in a work entitled Siftei Shlomo (The Lips of Shlomo). It is the only document I know of that "darshens" the holocaust through the lens of Torah. His Shabbat Hagadol drasha, that I have translated may give us some perspective, and even in these times, appreciation for our bounty and blessings.

"For all who are hungry, come and eat...us." (Siftei Shlmo)

What's in a Miracle? Posts for Pesach

The single most important component of a miracle is that it happens when you need it. It was true at the Red Sea, and it's true now. No one controls timing. Click here


An annoyance becomes a treasure

For months now, I’ve been trying to figure out what to do with this piece of display furniture which had found its way into my office. It was a cabinet with a glass top that contained a Torah scroll, the handles of which were on the outside of the cabinet and could be used to roll the scroll. It was an odd thing because it was not fit for ritual use, and as often happens, my school office had once again become the dumping ground for Judaic curiosities.

Because it was a Torah scroll, however, I was reluctant to store it anywhere else, and so it has kind of become part of my breezy decor. Last week, I took a closer look at the Hebrew inscription written on the handle.

“A gift from Batsheva Bratt and Rochel Kaufman (her sister) in memory of their brother Dovid Aharon who perished in the Holocaust.”

It had been donated by my grandmother and my aunt, and unbeknownst to anyone it just "happened” to be dumped in my office.

All of the sudden, an annoyance has become an heirloom.

Grandmothers of a nearly forgotten time

This Sunday, amid much of the Pesach preparations we went to a Zeved Bat for friends of ours. It was an occasion to remember the grandmothers Yaira Rivka was named after. These were stories of unimaginable challenges, all too common, sixty years ago. One came to America alone at the age of twelve, leaving eight siblings behind who perished in the Holocaust while the other, the youngest of thirteen went to work as a seamstress at the age of eight. When the Czar’s army came to plunder her town, she was saved by a Russian soldier who happened to be Jewish, and later became her husband.

These were strong women, undaunted by grim poverty, tough unsentimental women who protected and nurtured their families with single minded zeal.

Two weeks ago, someone sitting next to me, asked if I was related to Batsheva Bratt, to which I replied, “She was my grandmother!” “What a sweet woman. One time, I was playing softball and I broke a window in her apartment building. I was scared to death when she came out to see what happened! She took one look at my face, and said, “Gevalt, his face is white as a sheet! Honey, it’s only a vindow—come in for something to yeat.” The man who related this story is over sixty years old, and yet, he remembered this story with such present emotion, I couldn’t help but be moved.

She came to the U. S. when she was only sixteen with no English and ended up in Kansas City, married and made a life in the New World. She was an old time Matriarch who ruled the clan with a stern voice and a gentle hand. It would never have occurred to her to be a feminist, for no man she felt was her equal. One might ask, why does it seem that the Mothers loom so much larger than the Fathers? Why do their strength, their courage, and their tenacity occupy such a large part of our collective narratives?

In last week’s Parsha, Rashi comments on some mirrors that were used in the Tabernacle which were oddly named “the mirrors of legions”. (the marot tzovot). He recounts the following story:

During the time when the Jews were slaves in Egypt, the men would come home exhausted from working in the fields. A wife would sidle up to her husband, hold up a mirror and tease him. Who do you think is prettier, me or you? This would excite her husband and a new generation of Jews was born.

These mirrors were used by women to entice their beleaguered, depressed, and enslaved husbands to create the next generation of Jews. From the bleak background of slavery, the men had given up, and if it wasn’t for the idealism of the women, there would have been no generation to redeem. Those mirrors created legions.

Fast forward to turn of the century pale of settlement with widespread poverty, persecution and powerlessness. Beleaguered and beaten day to day, how did these Jewish families spiritually sustain themselves? Many were anchored in the strength of these women who knew not only how to manage a household on very little, but also knew how to nurture one.

It is not only the generation of Egypt that benefits from the tenacious zeal of Jewish women, it is every generation.


Palestinian Hip Hop and Defense of Israel

I happened on a documentary on the Sundance channel describing the emerging hip hop scene on the West Bank, Gaza, and Nazareth. Describing the art form as a healthy outlet for venting the frustrations of occupation, the film describes the frustration of ordinary Palestinians trying in vain to get from place to place. The point of view did not acknowledge any of the reasons for these restrictions--it wasn't the film's job.

What I found amazing, was the fact that someone in Gaza heard Tupac Shakur, and even though he didn't understand English, he felt an immediate connection to the music and to what he imagined was somehow a parallel experience. The film did its job, you felt bad for these innocent rappers, and you wondered why letting these Gazan hip hoppers travel for a joint concert in the West Bank was so threatening? Of course, we know why. If they transport suicide bombers with ambulances, why take a chance on a concert?

Things have gotten nastier because for the first time in Jewish history, Jewish hatred is so great that people are willing to kill themselves just to make sure that there are a few less Jews walking around the planet.

I don't think there is an Israeli who thinks there is such a thing as a benign occupation, but now they know what life would be like for the Jewish Island in a sea of Arab discontent. It is only walls and checkpoints that make day to day life possible.

These eye witness accounts of Israeli soldiers is a distraction. The root causes of which have already been articulated by both sides ad nauseum. There is a clash of civilizations here, and it's the reason that Bibi is PM again, and it's the reason that Lieberman is a power broker. In Middle East politics, it always has been a zero sum game. I can only be a winner, if you have suffered significant losses.

There is no win-win.


The Great Jewish Army

I guess I am not shocked, or even surprised by the disclosures in the NYT and the Israeli Press. I am saddened by them. Bialik got what he wished for, a nation like all others. This is the stuff of all citizens armies and having been a soldier in this one, I can tell you that there are all kinds of folks who don an Israeli uniform--and some of them, believe me, you would rather not know.

The moral code for killing by definition is a dubious one, but necessary. Remaining sensitive in battle is probably not the best recipe for survival, so things happen. It doesn't make it right, but we are talking about an enemy who has declared that no Israeli--man, woman or child is an innocent. So, it may not be for them, that we should have mercy, but for ourselves, to prevent us from becoming someone we would rather not recognize.

I do believe that this type of carnage follows us home.


Prostates are More Important than Israel or Gaza

Look at the most popularly searched items on the New York Times, and you will see that the most popular story has to do with the PSA test doing more harm than good. Even though Ethan Bronner and Isabel Kershner have been given prominent space, the readership is yawning. Everyone's had enough of the Jews and Israel. I am sure that Israelis are aware of this, and take heart in the fact that they are not presently a big fish to fry.

The President has his hands full with a domestic agenda, closing Guantanamo, leaving Iraq, and there's always Afghanistan. This means that Israel will do absolutely nothing on the Palestinian front which will cause some to celebrate and others to mourn.

I mourn the fact that we have given up on having a long term future that approaches some semblance of normality. I mourn that the next generation of westernized bourgeois Israelis who would rather not be associated with an occupation, also do not want to cede territory so that their families don't become ducks in a Kassam shooting gallery. There is a resignation that deep down nothing other than the surrender of the Jewish State will ultimately be enough for our Palestinian cousins.

I remember Tom Segev saying in a lecture last year that peace is not something the next generation considers anymore. If peace is not attainable then it does not matter whether there is a Palestinian state or there isn't. The fatalism that comes with the obscenely modest goals of "buying a few more years of quiet" has a nihilistic nuance of resignation. Resignation, and fatigue accompanied with the awareness that the United States is yawning and AIPAC is still lobbying.

It's not that nobody has the big picture, but rather there doesn't seem to be one.


Betrayal is worse than murder????? For Dante yes, for Rambam, maybe not!

Dante thinks so, but Rambam sees it a little differently. Betrayal is particularly insidious because it can lead (my emphasis) to many deaths. He then offers Doag Ha'Adumi's betrayal of David as an example.

The opposite of betrayal is loyalty. Tom Friedman points out that teachers in his and my county voted for a 5% pay cut from their 65k salaries so that programs would not be cut and teachers not be terminated. This is, I understand, not an isolated event, but one that is being repeated all over the country. I believe it is happening because the County has demonstrated good faith toward its employees and the employees trust that the county doesn't have the money to honor their contracts. The employees also don't want their constituents-their children--to suffer.

When polled about burnout teachers rarely put compensation at the top of their list of complaints. It's usually the lack of opportunity for growth and development that is their primary concern.

I believe it is this behavior that will make the rains come. The Government should keep their promise to AIG and kick themselves for not reading the fine print, but the bonusees should show some loyalty and fidelity to their fellow citizens and give them up. Otherwise, who is going to have faith in anyone?

My mother is fond of saying, "You make your own luck." The theological twist is that God will not (and from a Kabbalistic perspective, cannot) do His part until we do ours. We're off to a really crappy start.

What Makes The Rains Come

The Gemara in the Tractate of Ta'anit expresses the following sentiment:

The rains only come because of those who keep their promises.

The foundation of ethics is trust. The financial crisis boils down to nobody trusting the value of billions of dollars of assets, and, guess what, the rain is not coming.

As the Psalmist said:

Truth will flourish from the earth and righteousness will look over from the heavens.

The Talmud understands this as an "if then" clause. If truth flourishes from the earth then we will be looked after by the heavens. The metaphorical rains will fall.

It's going to be a long season without rain. It'll be scorchin'


The Loveliest Of All was the Unicorn

As we distance ourselves from the sin of the Golden Calf, we are once again engaged in building the Mishkan, the Tabernacle that will be the focal point for all Divine encounters.

The fabrics, gems and precious metals are of many kinds and Israel has been astoundingly generous.Amid the myriad of materials donated are skins of a certain animal, in Hebrew it is called a "Tachash." The Jewish Publication Society (JPS) translation of this portion hazards a guess and translates these skins as those of a dolphin with a disclaimer saying that the Hebrew is "uncertain." In Hillel's Bronfman Edition of the Five Books of Moses, Everett Fox translates Tachash as "tanned" skins. Others have offered "sealskins."

The earliest Aramaic translation, the Targum Onkelos, translates the word Tachash with an equally cryptic Aramaic word, sas-gavna which later Talmudists endeavor to unpack. Here are some sources for you to ponder.

Synagogues and Newspapers

Edgar M. Bronfman recently had an op ed piece that was posted on JTA. Never a fan of synagogues, he has created his own prayer experiences for the High Holidays to which he has invited friends and fellow travelers. He praises the emerging signs of Jewish culture and religious life and encourages people to support them even during these austere times.

"The fact that young Jews are not affiliating in the“traditional” way indicates there is something wrong with our institutions,not that there is something wrong with our youth. We have to let go of the old ways of defining what it means to be an “involved Jew” and begin to look to the kind of involvement that today’s Jews are seeking."

Well, that does seem to be an issue, but Judaism is not a service industry. It is a vehicle for service. Even these exciting new projects attract mostly engaged Jews who are disaffected from existing institutions. The synagogue may be going the way of the newspaper, (as Clay Shirky would have us believe) but just as journalism is a necessary component for a democracy and therefore will not die, Torah is the central and essential component of Judaism and any innovation that does not somehow reflect its values will not be sustained. Historically, this seems to be an accurate statement. Make no mistake, for these purposes Torah is not narrowly defined, but encompasses many pathways. These pathways share one thing though, and that is commitment.

The more these innovations come from substance and meaning, and not from a consumer's perspective, the more successful they will be.


Love conquered

Love conquers much but perceived indifference kills it every time.

"...when our love was strong we could lie together on the tip of a sword, but now that it is no longer strong, a bed sixty cubits wide seems small." (Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 7a)

The Pure Vapor Breath of School Children

Today, at a kindergarten celebration, each child took a rose which they offered to their mothers. Some mothers chose to let their daughters have the rose--the boys seemed to defer. One girl who reclaimed a Rose, broke the stem burst into tears and seemed to be inconsolable, until a classmate came and along with a hug, gave her the rose that she had been given. It made my day.

If A City Chooses Not To Support Educating Its Children, Then Bye Bye City!

The passage from the Rambam which declares that "a city that does not assume responsibility for educating its children should be destroyed" needs to be unpacked a bit further. He actually is quoting directly from the Talmud emphasizing that he does not see this as a rhetorical exercise in hyperbole. It is a matter of law that not only appears in his legal code, but in subsequent authoratative Jewish codes of Law. Here is a fuller text of the Talmud from where the Rambam took this quotation.

Babylonian Talmud Shabbat 119b
Resh Lakish said in the name of Rabbi Yehuda Hanassi: The world only exists because of the breath vapor of small school children.
Rav Papa said to Abayye: What about us?
He answered: The vapor that is tainted by sin is not the same as the vapor that does not have this stigma.
And Resh Lakish said in the name of Rabbi Yehuda Hanassi: One does not cancel the studies for small school children even for the building of the Temple.
Resh Lakish said to Rabbi Yehuda HaNassi: This is what I have received from my ancestors, and there are those who said that he meant, from your (Rabbi Yehuda HaNassi’s) ancestors: Any town that does not sponsor instruction for school children should be destroyed!
Ravina said that the inhabitants should be excommunicated.

To view the passage and my commentary in its entirety, Click here.


Parents as Teachers, Teachers as Parents

David Brooks put his two cents in regarding the Prez's education plan:

We’ve spent years working on ways to restructure schools, but what matters most is the relationship between one student and one teacher. You ask a kid who has graduated from high school to list the teachers who mattered in his life, and he will reel off names. You ask a kid who dropped out, and he will not even understand the question. Relationships like that are beyond his experience.

Because the master teacher--i.e. the rabbi--in Jewish life is also the central authority, Brooks' statement resonates loudly in Jewish tradition. Originally, it was the parent who was given the responsibility to teach his child, but in Talmudic times, this responsibility had been transferred to a new profession, the teacher. Teachers had assumed a parental responsibility and were afforded the respect that parents had only enjoyed. As stated in the Mishnah:

Your parents have brought you living into this world, but your teachers will usher you into the next. (Mishnah Bava Metziya 2:11)

Implicit in this understanding is that the teacher by definition assumes not only a parental responsibility, but a parental interest in the child.

I always tell teachers that they have to take this responsibility very seriously and yes they must love the children, but they need to get their love at home. Beyond proper tools, beautiful buildings and cutting edge technology, there is the one who knows and also cares.

Obama takes an unwitting cue from the Rambam on Education

My understanding is that even though No Child Left Behind had some positive impact, the implementation of standards was never followed up with the funding that was promised. It is clear, however, that Obama is going to put serious money where his mouth went this past week.

Years ago, I collected several sources from the Rambam's Mishnah Torah regarding his priorities for what were considered essential communal services.

In Hilchot Matanot Aniyyim Laws of Tzedaka, He states that every Jewish community has to have a community fund to take care of the poor, and acknowledges that he never heard of a community that didn't have one.

In Hilchot Shekhaynim, Laws regarding good citizenship, he states that citizens can force each other to contribute to the building of a synagogue and the purchase of a community Torah scroll.
Note the injection of coercive language that was absent from the community fund.

In Hilchot Talmud Torah, Laws of Torah Study, he commands that every town must hire a teacher for their children, and if they don't we put a ban on the town, and if they still don't, we destroy it.

Why is the most coercive language saved for educating children? The Rambam knew that if one didn't have an educated population, soon enough one would not have synagogues or community funds. Education is the foundation of civility, success, and communal memory. It is where we are reminded of our connections to each other and the value of a collective enterprise. A school is where these messages are reinforced. Obama's right! Education reform, in the long run, is the most critical of all his goals and it can't wait.

Just look at the most dispossessed of peoples and their profound adaptability when only a text kept us together for nearly two thousand years, then one may understand, "Why are you Jews So Smart?" Click on the link for the Rambams in question.


The Architect and the Intellect--Bezalel the artist's artist.

Haven't we got enough bad news already? So, excuse me if I don't dwell on the Golden Calf. Parshat Ki Tissa introduces us to a character as enigmatic and uniquely gifted as Avraham, Bezalel, the architect for the mishkan--the Tabernacle. He was imbued with:

Chochmah--that which is learned from others
Tevunah--that which he inferred from what he had learned
Da'at--that which he received from the Holy Spirit

He was also chosen by God, and as his name attests, he walked in his shadow. It was a clever person who named the famous art institute in Jerusalem, Bezalel, a person who could learn, think, and was open to inspiration. He was God's definition of artistry and creativity. Click here to learn more


It Seems That Public Humiliation Is Really Not Cool EVER!

The Talmud in Sanhedrin 11a offers three instances where individuals behaved badly and nevertheless they were spared public embarrassment through the grace of others. It was considered laudatory not to call an individual out for indiscretions in front of one's peers.

In one case, seven judges were invited to deliberate over the calendar year and eight came, even though these deliberations were by invitation only.

Rabban Gamliel had ordered his emissaries to invite seven judges only to find that eight had arrived. He asked the one who had not been invited to step down. Shmuel Hakatan (who had been invited) immediately said, "I was not invited but only came to see how it's done according to the law."

In this case it is presumed, I think, that the Beit Din crasher didn't know that these were closed deliberations and therefore was spared embarrassment.

In a second case, someone had come into Rebbe's class stinking of garlic, and Rebbe asked whomever it was to leave the class, and Rav Hiyya (who had not tasted garlic) immediately left, and the rest of the class followed, so as not to embarrass Rav Chiyya.

This case one could also presume that the perpetrator was not aware of Rebbe's aversion to garlic breath, and was therefore protected from being publicly humiliated.

The Gemara asked where did Rav Chiyya learn this lesson and the Gemara says it was learned from Rebbe Meir.

In that case a woman comes to the Beit Midrash of Rebbe Meir and states that one of his students had betrothed her through conjugal relations. Rebbe Meir (who had not done this) immediately gave her a writ of divorce and all of his students followed suit, thereby protecting the individual student who had behaved in such a dishonorable fashion with a presumably indiscreet partner.

The Gemara then brings examples in the Bible either where it explicitly states or learns by inference that Biblical figures and even God Himself go to great lengths not to publicly embarrass those who have egregiously sinned, even though they were certainly punished.

For example, the Gemara sites an aggadic passage where Joshua asks God who disobeyed His commandment and took spoils of war when he was commanded not to, and God rebukes Joshua by saying in effect, "Do I look like a snitch, draw lots and find out yourself." Even in this case God was reluctant to single out an individual and preferred to punish all of Israel.

I wonder why public censure is so illegitimate, even in cases where the miscreant has brought great misfortune on his brethren? It is a terrible thing to humiliate someone publicly, but in some of these cases, public censure would not only seem permissible, but effective in righting a wrong where others had not only suffered but even died.

In a certain way, the burden of the individual is greater because of this sensitivity. A whole group will be punished because of ones misdeeds. Feelings will be spared but only at great sacrifice and great humiliation to the group. For people of conscience, that would certainly make them feel worse and maybe this is truly the meaning of the oft quoted "All of Israel is responsible for one another" (Shavuot 39a)--not only because we must endure the punishments caused by others misbehavior, but even then their feelings have to be taken into account and their dignity preserved.


Luddites Unite!

I remember reading from the responsa of the Chasam Sofer regarding a machine that kneaded dough that was powered by steam. The question was whether such a machine could be used for making matzot for Passover. The answer was negative because of the moisture that the machine produced from being steam powered, but the clincher was: One should not use this machine for anything ever since it was an invention of the devil that had come to place stumbing blocks before the blind on Passover. I remember being somewhat unsympathetic to this point of view and I was in very good and devout company.

Enter Kindle II. The cool hand held electronic device that potentially places scores of books at your fingertips and at a fraction of the cost of a book. The New Atlantis Blogger Alan Jacobs explores what this means to the future of reading. Is it a good thing to be able to give up a book and replace it instantaneously with a dozen others? He's afraid we may give up on books too easily. I,who often have three books going at the same time, do not share this concern, but I wonder if one hundred years from now, only frum Jews will have "Shabbos and Yom Tov Seforim" while the rest of the world kindles away and whether the Chasam Sofer would see this as an act of the devil that would tempt Torah scholars to desecrate Shabbos.

Unlike the shabbos clock and other halachic accomodations to technology, one can't imagine how their could be a shabbosdik book substitute. Even now, many of us break out our bound indeces because we do not use the computer's databases on shabbos. Will we be the only ones using books, say even fifty years from now? Is that a good or bad thing? I guess we might adapt by downloading and printing what we want to learn and let it be part of our preparing for shabbos.

Now that I've read similar concerns by blogging literati, I'm feeling a bit more generous toward the Sage of Pressberg. There is a sense that every time a gadget is introduced a tradition takes a hit, the unintended consequences of which are impossible to gauge, so enter insecurity and trepidation. I remember when my friend Rabbi Jim Ponet was busy fundraising for a new building for Yale Hillel--his students began waxing nostalgic about the crowded basement they called "home". Sometimes we are Luddites, and sometimes we do lose something that is quite valuable that will never be retrieved.

Who would be considered wise? The one who is able to make this distinction.


Hard Wired for Hashem

Even atheists believe in something--they just don't call it God.

Parshat Zachor: A Chasidic Understanding of the Mitzvah

Sometimes it better to focus on the enemy from within than the enemy from without. Just ask Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev.

Maybe Roger Cohen Got It Backwards--The Iranians believe the rhetoric but the hospitality was phony.

I've been thinking about Roger Cohen's impression that it is only the Iranian regime that hates Jews, but the Iranian people have a different impression. He relates that Iranians have always treated him warmly even though he never hid his Jewishness from them. Jeffrey Goldberg speaks of the Islamic devotion to hospitality that transcends politics and personal enmity toward groups, but warns that this has nothing to do with the way they feel. He sees Cohen as naive, duped by a culture Cohen does not begin to understand.

Western attitudes are different. If we hate a particular group, we don't want to help individuals from that group. Muslims seem to have a more nuanced code. When you are in my home, you are not my enemy, you are my guest, but watch out for me, if you see me coming down the street. Westerners like Cohen do not understand this because they assume that fundamentally people of all kinds share a common code, and this may be true when it comes to those who belong to your tribe, but peoples have different codes when it comes to "the other".

Cohen, I bet, does not hang out with tribal Jews who relate to the outside world not from a universalist standpoint, but from a perspective of enlightened self interest. He wants to see the nuances that validate his worldview. Hamas is not monolithic, he would tell you. We know that. No group is, but that doesn't mean there is someone to talk to on the other side. After all, charcoal grey is still pretty close to black.

If Cohen read the book of his heritage seriously, he might understand how it is possible to be helpful to someone you hate, and still hate everything they stand for. Maimonides, quoting the Talmud, states unequivocally that Jews have a responsibility to feed the idolatrous poor with the Jewish poor, visit their sick and bury their dead.

The Rabbis taught: One sustains the gentile poor with the Jewish poor, visits the gentile sick
with the Jewish sick, and buries the gentile dead with the Jewish dead, because of ways of
peace. (Babylonian Talmud Gittin 61a)

Idolatry to the Rambam is anathema, and he would say a blessing on those places where idolatrous places of worship had been destroyed; he wouldn't let idolaters starve, but if he were in power, he would not let their Holy sites stand. There is no institutional live and let live attitude toward idolatry, but there is a responsibility to the individual idolater.

If Cohen had internalized this perspective, he would know that Hamas will never accept a two state solution, because any non Muslim state on so called Arab land is tantamount to idolatry in the eyes of these Arabs. They have a code for scriptural peoples, but they cannot suffer a non-muslim nation state in their midst. Traditional Jews who have liberal tendencies see this in their own tradition, and struggle with it. But at least they know how implacable these feelings are and how irrelevant it is that Iranians tend to be nice to Roger Cohen, the Jewish journalist from the New York Times.

For a look at sources on "Helping someone you hate", or how the words Tikkun Olam have become a massive malapropism, check out these links.


Meshugeneh Men

Okay, Purim is Tuesday and it's Ad d'lo yada time...Let's hear from the Meshugeneh Men.


What Esther Teaches Us About Bobby Jindal's Makeover

The Daily Beast has an interesting article about Bobby Jindal's discomfort with his Indian roots. The conflict elucidated is one familiar to any ethnic, or racial minority. For him, assimilation into the American dream meant embracing a new religion, Catholicism, and a name change. Louisiana is an overwhelmingly Catholic state, and you can't pick a more "acceptable" name than Bobby.

Queen Esther also hid her background, only to courageously come forward at a critical moment. She did it, at great risk to herself, to save her people. Both share the fear that they would not be accepted for who they really were, but Jindal who now claims his background cynically, is not in the same league as Esther. Jindal became a good ol' boy from Louisiana, totally alien from his Indian roots and even his name. Esther may have been passing, but she always knew who she was. During this festival of masks, deceptions and hidden miracles, I recommend the book Passing When People Can't be Who They Are by Brooke Kroeger.

Stripping an identity is a painful process that must leave invisible scars. The awkwardness of Jindal's speech was not only one of style, but of one who was reclaiming an identity that he had intentionally discarded. We were watching someone who was not comfortable in literally his own skin. Compare his facility with facts and figures to the one personal speech he has given. It is hard to give of one's self, when the concept of self is so conflicted.

Esther was a hero. Jindal is a tool.

Purim Is Coming--Let's Lobby!!!

The Book of Esther has evoked much Rabbinic Commentary. One interesting tidbit depicts Esther lobbying the Sages to memorialize her in the canon. For the sources on this remarkable interchange, click here and learn a little from Ravavi's archives.


Rav Ovadiah Gives Women the Green Light on Reading the Megilla.

Ha'aretz reports Rav Ovadiah Yosef acknowledges that the prohibition of Kol Isha does not apply to chanting of sacred texts and therefore since women and men have the same obligation to read the Megilla, a woman can read for a man and fulfill his obligation to read.


More On Rabbinic Love: A Keen Sense of the Obvious

My Rebbe Rabbi Chaim Brovender cryptically points out that in the 2nd Chapter of Pirkei Avot the following advice is given byof Rabban Gamliel the son of Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi:

..nullify your will in favor of His so that He will do the same... (Pirkei Avot 2:4)

So, the way he prescribes everyone to love the Holy One--i.e. unconditionally becomes a benchmark for how we evaluate our relationships and whether we own a love that will never be nullified.

It is a strange thing to get a message from your Rebbe which gives a reference and nothing more. I am, however grateful for the insight, even if there was an implicit rebuke for missing this obvious source. At first I thought I had given the wrong reference, but it turned out to be a more substantial comment than that. Well, once a student, always a student.

Judea Pearl on Carter, Durban II and Terrorism

Jeffrey Goldberg interviews Judea Pearl, father of Daniel Pearl who was a WSJ journalist decapitated by terrorists. This is one of Judea's pearls of wisdom below. The interview is short and worth reading.

There is good and there is evil. The men who killed my son had a grievance, everybody has a grievance. Once you focus on the grievance, rather than the terrorist act itself, the terrorist has won.