Post Tisha B'Av Musings

Today, I was among over 80 attendees from many countries listening to Rabbi Brovender on webyeshiva.org. He elucidated a couple of kinot (liturgical poems of lamentation) and gave the following insight. When the Prophet Jeremiah in the fifth chapter of Lamentations, asks that God should "Remember what we once had", what is the Prophet assuming? That God can forget? What does it mean for God to remember, and what does that teach us about Jewish memory?

Going back to Noah, memory is also invoked. It says after the flood that "God remembered Noah". It wasn't like there were that many people around for Noah to get lost in the shuffle. So, what does memory mean in a Divine context. Rabbi Brovender then said, when the Prophet enjoins God to remember what we once had, he doesn't imply that God has forgotten. He is asking God to activate the dynamic of what once was that has presently been put on hold.

Similarly, in one of the kinot when it says that "God didn't remember the covenant with Avraham", it's not that God forgot, but rather that the process has been halted, and he petitions that the process be renewed.

As Faulkner once said: Not only is the past important, it's not even past.

The class was given in memory of my teacher and Rabbi Brovender's colleague and friend Rabbi Jay Miller. I think Rabbi Miller would have liked it.


Wolpe's Original Text on R. Yochanan and Resh Lakish

The text excerpted can be found in Jeffreygoldberg.theatlantic.com. Look in the archives for July 23rd.


"For me, Rabbis are just average Joes..."

Tablet.com has some insight and background into the Syrian Rabbinic Roundup this past week. They conducted an audio interview with Zev Chafets who wrote about the Syrian Jewish community for the NYT magazine a couple of years ago.

At one point, he was asked whether he was shocked that so many rabbis were included in the corruption scandal that has shaken New Jersey. His answer was that he had been a Jew for sixty-two years and from what he sees rabbis are just "average Joes" no more or less exemplary than those in the general community. When Chafets lived in Israel, he witnessed first hand the corruptions of the religious parties that were seemingly no worse, but no better than the Godless socialists. His remark saddened me because, he no longer has any expectations from the rabbinate and sees them as cynically exploiting their position for personal gain, just like so many others in power.

We rabbis should see ourselves as people who are less impressed with our position, but daunted and committed to the mission of serving the Jewish community and leading by example. Too often, many of us are more impressed with our position than the gravity of our mission. The fallout is total disregard for not only us, but the Torah we have learned, and even worse, the Torah we have taught.

I believe that observant communities are exemplary when compared to how non-observant communities behave. They have fewer criminals, safer neighborhoods, and have a better track record for caring for the most vulnerable. Nevertheless, Rabbi Kassin may have taken a bad hit from the perp walk that starred him, but, ultimately, it was God and the Torah who will bear the brunt of the blow. And that's the kind of stuff that gave us solemn occasions like Tisha B'Av.

This is something we all need to do Teshuva for.

"Woe to the generation whose Judges are judged." (Ruth Rabba, Petichta)


Rabbi David Wolpe Misses the Point on the death of Rabbi Yochanan and Goldberg takes the bait.

Jeffrey Goldberg quotes his rabbi, David Wolpe, on the Talmudic tradition of argument.
The Talmud tells us that when Resh Lakish -- Rabbi Simeon ben Lakish -- died, Rabbi Jocanan was inconsolable. No one else challenged Rabbi Jochanan's conclusions so vigorously or engaged him in such sharp argument. Repeatedly the Jewish tradition emphasizes that disagreement, even fundamental disagreement, need not be the same as personal hostility.
The point, I guess, could be made that one should be dispassionate in arguing fundamental disagreements, but this is hardly the example to illustrate it. After all, it was during a fairly abstract argument that Rabbi Yochanan killed Resh Lakish, after each one hurled personal insults at the other. Rabbi Yochanan was so angry at the time that his own sister who was married to Resh Lakish could not convince him to have mercy on her husband. It is the most tragic story in the Talmud, and the lesson learned is that those who challenge you the most, are the ones who help you define your thinking. It was, however, Rabbi Yochanan's failure to understand this that gave us this lesson.

The Talmud repeatedly argues for forgiving the passions of those who are overzealous in argument if they are truly arguing for the truth and not some ulterior agenda. I don't think they presume that one can easily distinguish passionate engagement from personal hostility. The tragedy of Rabbi Yochanan and Resh Lakish is that after the moment of anger had passed, there was no road back to reflection and forgiveness, but the disagreements themselves were inevitably personal.

If someone attacks your understanding, something that you have internalized, it may be very difficult not to take it personally. It could be that the one who can easily argue principles dispassionately doesn't care about those issues so much in the first place. Christopher Hitchens--who is brought as an example of someone with whom Wolpe disagrees fundamentally, but civilly--I think, would agree.

The problem with Wolpe is that he doesn't seem to care about what the Talmud is saying, he only cares about using it as a pretext for what he wishes to say. I congratulate Wolpe for living in this Elysian Field of civil discourse, but I hardly believe that our Sages are fellow travellers.

Please, Rabbi Wolpe, let us know what you think, but leave the Talmud out of it.

For the whole story of Rabbi Yochanan and Resh Lakish, plus other powerful Talmudic narratives, click here. You can find the R. Yochanan and Resh Lakish story on page 11.


Quote of the Day

"Wanting to be someone else is a waste of the person you are."
--Kurt Cobain

He should know...He committed suicide


Baruch Atah...OK fine, but what does it mean?????

It is interesting to note that Medieval classics like the Rokeach, Shiblei HaLeqet, Kolbo and Abudarham are works that are referenced more than they are learned. Only when one wants to explore a topic are these books revealed in greater detail. I was asked to give a class on the Siddur to which I reluctantly agreed. My hesitation came from feeling that this once a week class would require much thought and preparation for a topic I regarded as less than exciting. Boy, was I wrong!

Every week I've been exposed to these early Medieval Halachic authorities who instead of writing codes, wrote what amounts to brief essays on Kaddish, Pesukei D'zimra, and Baruch. The Talmud has pithy aphorisms in random places that give insight into the meaning of many of these prayers, but these writers extend what have become popular quotations with questions that rarely occur to those who routinely and somewhat mindlessly utter their prayers each day. I count myself among them. Prayer is a time for declaration, not analysis, but analysis of prayer is an appropriate enterprise for learning--I, like many, never got around to doing it.

Last night I lifted a couple of paragraphs from Rav David Abudarham's classic 14th Century work on liturgy. He wrote this book with the following purpose in mind:
"the customs connected with prayer have become varied from one country to another, and most of the people do not understand the words of the prayers, nor do they know the correct ritual procedures and the reasons for them."
He poses the following question: Why is it that most Brachot begin by addressing God in the second person and end by referring to Him in the third person. We begin with Baruch Ata (Blessed are You) and we end by saying Borei Peri Hagafen (the one who created the fruit of the vine). Why doesn't it say, "that You created the vine.

He explains that this is reflective of how we experience God which is primarily through His actions. Because we believe all things come from Him and no other entity, because we believe this, we demonstrate this by addressing God as an intimate. We cannot, however, presume to know God's essence, so that when we attribute what He has made, we switch to the third person. For aspects of God are both present and hidden. This is also reflected in human beings. Our actions are revealed, but the essence of our heart remains hidden within us. Whereas our deeds are connected to God only through mitzvot, our hearts, our thoughts have the potential to be continuously connected to the Holy One.

He also clears up the issue of what it means to say Baruch Atah. We are not blessing God--How would that make sense anyway? We are acknowledging that God is the source of all blessing. Baruch atah means "You are the source of blessing", and then the rest of the Bracha makes sense..."King of the universe, who created the fruit of the vine."

Sometimes one has to be pushed to learn something that he should have known a long time ago.


"This is all my fault."

So said Robert E. Lee to his troops after his costly defeat at Gettysburg. He then offered his resignation to Jefferson Davis thereby accepting full responsibility for losing what would later be considered the turning point of the Civil War.

Well, in the midst of this financial crisis, I have yet to hear those words from the Masters of the Masters of the Universe, or from Greenspan or Paulson. In fact, we are "treated" to a flurry of books and memoirs that state the opposite, or worse, finger someone else, or even worse, "I'm no more of a scoundrel than anyone else in this business."

At least Medoff pleaded guilty.

"In a place where there are no people, strive to be a person!" (Pirkei Avot 2:5)

It is not colossal errors that show the measure of a man, but how one chooses to be accountable brings him up or down to size. These imposters, posing as leaders, never even tried or probably understood what it means to "...be a person."


Maureen Dowd: Uninformed, or Just a tinge Anti-Semitic

Either Maureen Dowd, or some snarky editor at the NYT, gave her column the title Pharisees on the Potomac. Her point was to recount the hypocrisy of the Republican leadership. If you look up Pharisee in the OED, you will find that the second definition legitimates this usage, but then again, look at the second definition of a Jew "...a grasping extortionate person." Does that allow the NYT to have an editoral entitled "Medoff Jewed lots of Jews in Florida"? The only difference is how educated the NYT staff might be.

One assumes, and hopes that this is a literacy problem and nothing more for Ms. Dowd, and whomever edits her column. Still, the larger issue is the fact that this word is part of the English language and is not considered an epithet or defamatory.

One may not defame a people in the NYT, but their Sages and their Ancestors are fair game.

Gettysburg Visitor Center and Battlefield: Unforgettable

It has been long overdue for me to take my twelve year old son to Gettysburg, PA. It's about a 90 minute drive for an unforgettable afternoon. The new visitor center and museum offer an orientation that does what it is supposed to do. It makes you want to see the battlefield. The newly restored Cyclorama, a 360 degree mural that weighs thousands of pounds is presented succinctly, but brilliantly.

Six thousand soldiers died, and over 40 thousand maimed in three days of relentlessly fierce fighting. The spirit of the Union and Confederate dead hover over the place, as palpable as a humid day in July. Go visit! It is as moving of a place as any in Washington DC.


The Hearings, Sotomayor, Hillel, Shammai and the nature of interpretation...

I'm addicted to these hearings not only because they are so "Talmudic", but because it reminds me of the intellectual limitations of those who represent us in the Senate. Although she is no Bork when it comes to parrying the same challenge over and over again, Judge Sonia Sotomayor does more than hold her own.

Any serious student of Gemara understands that interpretation of law never happens in a vacuum. Either consciously or unconsciously one brings his/her own experiences to understanding what's in front of them. They are, however, shackled by what the parameters of a phrase will allow and that phrase still has to ring true in context.

One may argue that the right to abort a fetus is an extension of the Constitutional right of privacy , or one may say that it isn't a legitimate understanding of the 14th amendment. When Roe vs. Wade became law, it did not contradict anything in the Constitution, but the case redefined our understanding of the 14th amendment. An extension of personal liberty would certainly be within the what one might call the spirit of the law.

If, however, one sees abortion as murder, and the fetus as the most vulnerable of society, then this conclusion is an obscenity. What one brings to the table will color the way one understands the law--the pretense of being a robot, is just that, a pretense. In the end, one's argument has to pass muster, and that is the litmus test for its validity. The fact that the argument emanated from a manor on a plantation, or a housing project in the South Bronx is irrelevant.

As much as the Talmud valued concepts well argued, it valued temperament even more. When Both houses of Hillel (the kid from the projects) and Shammai (the man with the house on the hill) argued, a heavenly voice declared that "These and these are words of the living God, but the law goes like Hillel." (Babylonian Talmud, Eruvin 13b) Why like Hillel?

Because they were humble in their demeanor and gentle--and they always were careful to quote Shammai's position, before their own. It was said of their master, Hillel, that he never lost his temper and was profoundly patient. One could argue that this sensitivity came from his humble origins, and this was reason enough to follow Hillel.

In the end, the most clever argument may not bring the truest decision. The Torah expected judges not only to be beyond reproach, but to not favor a particular background when cases come before them. Nevertheless, they must be empathetic to the plight of their fellow Jews for creation cannot be sustained if scrutinized through the lens of absolute justice--justice has to be coupled with mercy.

The Torah demands no less, and the Constitution shouldn't either!


Missing MJ in Tel Aviv

It reads:

"Blessed Be the Righteous Judge"

Shocked and aggrieved we announce the untimely demise of

"Michael Joseph Jacobson"

the singer "Michael Jackson"

His admirers who are in mourning

Sarah Palin--Rage as an organizing principle

Beyond the Tina Fey caricature is the undeniable fact that millions--it seems--identify with her. Many who often feel, by virtue of their military service, their skin color and their religious convictions that they are the real America, but, through some bizarre sleight of hand, they have become...marginalized.

They are living in a nightmare come true when along comes Sarah. She looks like us, she talks like us, she's kinda cute, and her kids don't always behave the way we would like...just like us! What else matters? Identity politics is not only the province of Sarah Palin supporters, but we all, and I do mean all of us, want to identify with our leaders as somehow the most idealized version of whom we would like to be.

For frum Jews, she, like most evangelicals, is adamantly pro-right-wing Israel--so, go no further. Bibi, Ha'aretz reports is already calling Rahm Emanuel and David Axelrod self-hating Jews behind closed doors. Often, frum Jews are not as interested in social policy as they are in small government and an unhindered and blindly supported Israel. The belief that 'government will only waste my money so why give it to them' is widespread and so is the 'fact' that democrats/liberals are less reliable allies of Israel than republicans/conservatives. (Pat Buchanan notwithstanding). This is an argument that has merit. I'd like my charity dollars to go where they will do the most good, so let me decide, but how should one decide if one is not going to rely on the governement for social programs?

Living in exile as we are, we may look to the Talmud as to what our responsibility is to our neighbors.
The Sages taught: One should support financially the idolatrous poor with the Jewish poor, visit their sick with the Jewish sick and bury their dead with the Jewish dead. (Babylonian Talmud Gitin)
Add to this, the understanding that how we are perceived as a people actually does matter. The Talmud further states that we have a duty to "sanctify God's name" or at least not profane it--the most egregious and severe of all sins. How do we do that? We do that by being exemplary, that we demonstrate our love and concern for all. Such respect makes others say, "He is good, his Torah is good, and God is good." The way we love God is by being visibly, demonstrably, lovable.

Not by being angry, not by delegitimating others when we disagree, and not be capitalizing on the rage of others. This is true for everyone, including those who are the supporters of Sarah Palin. We need to understand the origin of their generosity and compassion as well as the injustices that they have endured.

I believe many of these people have been profoundly and unfairly insulted. We know that wisdom comes in many shapes and sizes--not only from the hallowed halls of the ivy league. It is easier to have two dimensional pictures of adversaries and certainly it justifies salty rhetoric, and salacious gossip. Caricaturizing the adversary is a national past time.

It's just not a particularly constructive one.


David Brooks Discovers Dignity

So do the readers of the NYT! His latest op-ed piece rates as the most emailed article of yesterday's paper. Here's a snippet:

(George) Washington absorbed, and later came to personify what you might call the dignity code. The code was based on the same premise as the nation’s Constitution — that human beings are flawed creatures who live in constant peril of falling into disasters caused by their own passions. Artificial systems haveto be created to balance and restrain their desires.
This is an idea that is at least two thousand years old, as it says in Pirkei Avot

Who is considered mighty, one who conquers his impulses." (Pirkei Avot 4:1)

I would never use the term artificial systems because the struggle between impulses and a moral, or higher calling is a natural one. The desire to serve an ideal is as deep and natural as any other impulse. It is called a desire for a reason, and it is natural for human beings to wish to be good, just as it is natural to be selfish and narcissitic. The notion that we are flawed is also a natural conclusion from the intellect. This is not just a minor point, but it goes to the heart of the matter. Is hearkening to our better angels an artificial action to control who we really are? Or is the impulse to do so the process by which we become who we really should be. The distinction I think is a serious one.

Why does the word "Amen" loom so large?

It is true that the things that are most common to us are often the things we know the least about. They are part of our natural routine and so we don't question them. For many, the intricacies of breathing only become understood when that process is interrupted. Otherwise, there are many of us who happily walk around totally unaware of the science behind that which allows us to function.

Our spiritual habits are no different. People say אמן or "Ayyymen" all the time, assuming they both know what they mean and what it means--or maybe mindlessly parroting an accepted mimetic tradition, and knowing neither.

Last night, in the late summer of my years, I learned and then taught about the importance of this one word--not only in liturgy, but in everyday discourse.

The word Amen makes a brief appearance in the Talmud. It is a word with power. Resh Lakish says when said with gusto that it opens the gates of heaven. Ben Azzai cautions with a severe warning that one should never "orphan" an Amen, but it should always be connected to a bracha. Amen means nothing on its own, but becomes powerful only when it is responding to a blessing.

Well, what is it doing? What does it mean? What are we doing when we say it? Most people when they say amen are affirming what has been said to them. But it is more than that. Amen is an acronym for Al Melech Ne'eman אל מלך נאמן (God, the faithful king) and by saying it we affirm that all God's promises will eventually come to pass.

People often improvise their own wishes in life where people affirm these impromptu blessings with an enthusiastic Amen. They are indeed affirming the words of the speaker, but they are also bearing witness that the One who created the world is in charge of fulfilling these wishes. We, impudent snots that we are, invoke Him even in circumstances where we are implicating Him in promises He has not made. It's a sort of spiritual activism in which one should engage with some care, for a misplaced Amen the Gemara says, is a dangerous thing.

Amen is testimony. Amen is affirmation. Amen, at its best is done in response to others, so Amen does not only connect us to God, but our relationship with others--it is an opportunity to unify the commandments between people and God and the commandments between human beings in just one word.

No wonder it can open the gates of heavens.


Jeffrey Goldberg interviews the very erudite and new Israeli Ambassador

Michael Oren, a fine historian and scholar is a phenomenal spokesman for the Jewish State.


Why are Men Such Bozos!!!????

Jenny Sanford succinctly and poignantly outlines what should make a marriage last. The operative term is the "will" to persevere during the hard times.

I always wondered why the Rambam didn't put marriage as his example for a relationship built on ideals--instead, he sees marriage as a reciprocal partnership, which, of course, it is. That was enough for Jenny Sanford, but not enough for her narcissistic husband, who needs validation that he still has "it"--which, of course, indicates that he's lost "it" in more ways than one.

The illusory nature of romance will not sustain a relationship for a lifetime, but the will to be a loyal partner and companion, may. As many of us have learned, the will to be a faithful partner has to be shared by both parties or the relationship is destined for failure. Unfortunately, this is something that often can't be known ahead of time, but of consenting adults who are not physically violent, or financially irresponsible, still require more than these trappings of decency to sustain a marriage. They require a mutual commitment that is not subject to the vagaries of the emotional turmoil that is part of everyday living.

It is not incidental that a wife in the Talmud is referred to as a "home". Jenny Sanford provided a haven for a man who seems to be considerably less able and talented than she is. But why are we surprised? A politician's job is to convince himself that hundreds of thousands adore him. Many need to be adored and why shouldn't that need be reciprocated by more than just one woman. In fact, the truly great (looking) ones--Kennedy, and Clinton have been compromised, but have also maintained their allure and to a degree their legacy. Sanford was just following in their footsteps. Didn't he compare himself to King David, after all?

Jenny, however, did not require the adoration of throngs, just a commitment from her husband. She was formidable in her own right, and was happy to demonstrate her competence in a way that furthered her ideals, and her commitment to her husband. This, however, was a not enough for Mark Sanford, who can only mollify himself by saying, "Well, at least she didn't have cancer!"

Do we really believe that the Argentine home wrecker is his 'soul-mate'? Seriously.

Well, maybe this week.