Monday, June 28, 2004

Remembering Naomi Shemer

An insightful essay touching on Naomi Shemer's philosophy of life.

I would add: Naomi Shemer and R' Shlomo Carlebach had much in common.

Each was the dominant figure in their respective branches of music. Israeli popular music was transformed by Shemer just as Jewish popular song was by Carlebach. Each set the standard for a generation of songwriters, most of whom rarely approached their levels of virtuosity. Each could draw from an eclectic mix of musical styles, adapting them to suit their particular genres.

The primary talent both shared, one all too rare even among the most popular of songwriters, is the instinct for matching the melody to the lyrics. Many have copied Carlebach's style superficially, but few songs feel like they just "fit" the text like R' Shlomo's. Naomi was the same. The words and the music combine to form an integrated whole with its own spirit, its own message.

Perhaps most important, and perhaps surprisingly to many, Shlomo and Naomi had a shared outlook on life. Though he was a rabbi and she a secular kibbutznik, both shared a sense of pride and optimism in the Jewish people and the state of Israel. Naomi's Zionism was colored by religion, by her fluency with Tanakh and her nostalgia for her father's chassidic upbringing, while Shlomo's Judaism was infused with Zionism, with a historical consciousness and a recognition of the tremendous potential of renewed Jewish sovereignty.

R' Shlomo passed away ten years ago October. No Jewish musician since has come close to filling his shoes. It's hard to imagine that anyone will fill Naomi's in the next decade either.

Friday, June 25, 2004

I've been Googled!

This blog has already been listed by Google, and - surprisingly to me - is the first result listed for "Biur Chametz"! For some reason, it's not a very popular phrase on the web....

Sunday, June 20, 2004

The BBC? Biased against Israel?

Who would have imagined that the esteemed British Broadcasting Corporation might have a teensy-weensy problem getting their reporting straight when it comes to Arabs and Jews? You're shocked, I'm sure. Admittedly, author Tom Gross doesn't reveal many new facts or episodes here, but it's a great compendium of some of the Beeb's worst offenses.

And did you realize the BBC's Arabic service is worse than al-Jazeera?

More support on nikkud

This time from Philologos, the Forward's language columnist.

Friday, June 18, 2004

Don't take our vowels!

Ma'ariv language columnist Rubik Rosental writes this week in praise of Hebrew's classical system of vowels.

He's responding to a recent proposal by the Academy of the Hebrew Language which would "simplify" the vowel system by bringing it in line with modern Israeli pronunciation. (See report in Ha'aretz)

I'm on Rubik's side here. The fact that modern Hebrew has jettisoned most of the distinctions classical Hebrew made between similar consonants and vowels is no reason to surrender to populism. The correct response is to improve language teaching in the schools.

Granted, not everyone needs to be an expert on nikkud. But most Israelis - including the university-educated - barely know how to speak correct Hebrew as it is. Once we allow the street to determine correctness, there's no end to reform.

Granted, too, that languages change over time, and Hebrew has clearly done so. But modern Hebrew is remarkably similar to rabbinic Hebrew, and, for that matter (though less so) to Biblical Hebrew. What value is gained from officially endorsing changes which are taking place anyway?

Most people use vowels so infrequently anyway that changing the system to suit them seems superfluous.

(What can I say? I'm a ba'al koreh... and the more I lein, the more I appreciate the fineries of classical Hebrew. We've lost enough to modernity already.)

Thursday, June 17, 2004

In Search of (Modern Orthodox) Leaders (PDF)

"Reuven Spolter asserts that as the Modern Orthodox community grows in size and age, its pool of rabbis and educators becomes progressively smaller, younger and less experienced."

From the latest issue of Jewish Action: Ruby - er, Rabbi * - Spolter touches on many of the familiar points: The talented intellectuals in the Modern Orthodox community tend not to go into chinuch, and many of those who otherwise would instead make aliyah, leaving a constant leadership vacuum filled either by "black-hatters" or by Israeli shlichim. It's especially difficult to attract talented leaders to remote communities - where "remote" means "outside metropolitan New York".

(In the UK, the problem is even more severe. Proximity to Israel and a severely declined Jewish community make aliyah that much more attractive. Hardly any Modern Orthodox rabbis get semikhah there these days; most of them study in Israel or the US. Mainstream shuls have increasingly turned to Chabad rabbis to fill their pulpits.)

Unlike other bemoaners and bewailers, R' Spolter proposes a solution, if a partial one: Let communities sponsor semikhah scholarships, conditioned on a number of years of service to the community after graduation. The community gets a guaranteed rav, though a few years down the line; the rabbinical student gets a guaranteed job; and once he settles into the community he's less likely to leave. In other words, get 'em while it's easy: when they're still poor semikhah students!

* I should be over it by now, but I'm still getting used to all these friends I knew as kids suddenly becoming rabbis!

Dissent Greets Isaac Bashevis Singer Centennial

The New York Times gives voice to all those who don't think the shtetl was characterized by widespread dybbuks, demons and erotica - as often portrayed by I. B. Singer.

Sunday, June 13, 2004

R' Riskin on Modern Orthodoxy

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin Shlit"a is the latest to join the recent conversation (registration required) on the state of Modern Orthodoxy. I'm largely in agreement with his comments; he writes about

the real essence of modern Orthodoxy as well as its most significant challenge in our generation and in every other: its mission to embrace and sanctify – rather than automatically reject – those aspects of contemporary society which can not only be made compatible with Judaism but which can enhance it.

Two comments from me.

First, there's that implicit disclaimer: "those aspects of contemporary society which can... be made compatible with Judaism".

Clearly, there are aspects of contemporary society which can not be made compatible with Judaism under virtually any conceivable circumstances. Some of them, however, are pervasive in most segments of Modern Orthodox society, which tends to accept the basest offerings of Western culture, from television to movies to music and books.

We "moderdoxers" have been reasonably successful at sanctifying the "kosher" aspects of modernity, from science to statecraft. But we've been pretty poor at rejecting the clearly treif. (This is not self-righteous commentary; I'm at least as guilty as anyone else here, if not more so.) Modern culture assaults us from all sides; too often we say, "We're only modern orthodox - bring it on!"

And then there are those aspects of modern culture which, while perhaps within the realm of the permissible, are of negligible positive value: overindulgence in spectator sports, for example, or spectator politics. How do we as a society better distance ourselves from narishkeit?

Second, the rabbi opens with a bit of tochacha:

In adding my voice to the discussion, I would first insist that greater commitment to Torah study, synagogue attendance, modesty in conduct and dress, and hair covering (for men as well as women in an obvious and non-sheitelistic manner) must be seen as vibrant expressions of a renewed and re-invigorated modern Orthodoxy.

This sounds rather apologetic - as if before singing the praises of modern Orthodoxy, he feels compelled to confess its faults so as not to be vulnerable to its critics.

Furthermore, while it is appropriate for Rabbi Riskin to scold the community he leads, I find his choice of topics questionable. Torah study, shulgoing, modesty - fair enough. There's plenty of room for improvement. I would add that our shuls tend to feature too much talking and too little davening.

But the bit about hair covering is mystifying. "For men as well as women" - is R' Riskin implying that MO men don't cover their hair properly? Maybe in America there are many who go to work bareheaded, ostensibly for reasons of parnasa, but in Israel it's a non-issue. Or is the mention of men just a gratuitous attempt at egalitarianism? I suspect the latter.

"Obvious and non-sheitelistic?" If he wants to pasken on valid hair coverings, he should do so explicitly, not toss in an off-hand phrase in an essay on another topic.

But mostly, I wonder: How is hair-covering conceivably a "vibrant expression of a renewed and re-invigorated modern Orthodoxy"? What about it is vibrant or invigorating? Assuming he holds it's an obligation (disclosure: my wife doesn't cover), what makes it more important than any of the countless other halachot he could have listed?

Do we, as a community, give enough tzedaka? Are we careful enough about our business ethics? About lashon hara? Hilchot Shabbat, for that matter? All of these, to my eye, are higher priorities than hair covering, which isn't even an explicit mitzvah and occupies a trivial amount of the Shulchan Aruch. Or does he mention hair covering simply because it's externally obvious, and thus vulnerable to outside criticism?

Among the vast collection of mitzvot d'oraita and d'rabbanan, the overemphasis today on kisui rosh among the standardbearers of the religious community disturbs me to no end. There are numerous religious communities and schools in Israel for which the first criterion for admission is the wife's (or mother's) type of hair covering. It has become less an issue of halacha and more a badge of self-identification.

And I'm disappointed to see Rabbi Riskin on that page.

(At least he mentioned it fourth, not first...)

Friday, June 11, 2004

The Transit of Venus

I saw the transit of venus on Tuesday. I wasn't going to miss a once-in-a-lifetime astronomical event if I had any say in the matter.

So I brought a handheld telescope to work and used it to project the sun's image onto a sheet of paper on the floor. Watching that tiny bite gradually appear at the edge of the disk over the course of several minutes, knowing that it represents the movements of the heavenly bodies, was awe-inspiring. Later, over lunch, I took some colleagues to the roof of the building to show them the hole in the sun's disk.

It still amazes me that until the 17th century orbital calculations this phenomenon was entirely unknown, but I can observe it easily with a basic piece of optical equipment.

One question I couldn't answer, though: Should I say a bracha on observing the transit? If so, should it be Shehecheyanu? Or Oseh Ma'aseh Breishit?

On the one hand, extraordinary celestial phenomena typically deserve a bracha: seeing a meteorite fall, for example. But this is a phenomena not familiar to Chazal, and one which is not visible to the unaided eye (you need either a solar filter or a projecting lens).

Safek bracha l'chumra, and I didn't think to ask a shaila in advance (who would I ask?), but if I didn't utter any praise of God, I certainly thought it.

Who am I and why am I blogging?

There seems to be a veritable explosion of Orthodox Jewish bloggers lately, so I figured I'd step into the fray. I have some 15 years of experience in online pontificating, covering countless Usenet groups, Listservs and websites over the years, so it's about time I moved to the latest technology.

My brother told me that he recently was out of town for Shabbos, checking out a new community with his recent wife. When he introduced himself, someone asked him, "Are you the brother of Ploni Shmoni Almoni from Phoni University?" This rang funny, since he included my middle name, which I never use, and I left university 12 years ago. "Yes," replied my brother, "how do you know him?"

"Oh, I don't," he said. "I remember seeing his posts on soc.culture.jewish when he was at college."

I figure if someone can remember my sophomoric comments a decade later, I must have something worthwhile to say about the world.

Either that or I'm deluding myself again.