Monday, January 31, 2005

Hope for the conversion crisis?

One of Israel's most challenging social and halachic problems in recent years has been the increasing numbers of non-Jews who are socially integrated into Jewish society.

Many immigrants from the former Soviet Union have come with non-Jewish spouses and half-Jewish children who are halachically not considered Jewish. Yet they are socially Jewish, most of them view themselves as Jewish, and they are indistinguishable from the vast majority of Israeli Jews.

According to Israel's Central Bureau of Statistics, there are some 290,000 such citizens who are neither recognized as Jewish nor Arab.

As these individuals assimilate into Israeli Jewish society, they and their children will over time be increasingly difficult to identify as non-Jewish. The results can be tragic. Imagine the heartbreak and suffering when prospective spouses discover that one of them is not recognized as Jewish. Imagine the social and political repercussions as such incidents become increasingly common.

There are no easy solutions, either politically or halachically, and with all of Israel's other pressing challenges such long-term crises often fall between the cracks. But some efforts are being made. Word is that Prime Minister Sharon considers this a high priority, and closely follows the developments.

Among the projects underway is an attempt to facilitate the conversion to Judaism of non-Jewish immigrants. The easiest way to do this is when they are already in some formal framework, usually the army.

The IDF sponsors a voluntary course for immigrant soldiers, called Nativ, which offers a broad introduction to basic Judaism. The course is run by the Jewish Agency-sponsored Machon L'limudei Hayahadut (Institute for Jewish Studies). Those who are not Jewish and wish to convert can follow the course with a conversion program.

Resources, naturally, are limited, and the program can reach only a small percentage of the relevant population. But every bit helps.

Along the way, prospective converts must spend a certain number of Shabbatot with religious families to experience religious life first-hand. We have recently had the privilege and pleasure of participating in this, hosting a pair of soldiers undergoing conversion. The Machon is always looking for more host families.

We figure we're doing our bit to make Israel's future a little brighter.

Sunday, January 30, 2005

Store still shelves Silfkin's sefarim

I stopped by a sefarim store at a local haredi neighborhood last Friday, and was pleased to discover that Rabbi Nosson Slifkin's books are still on the shelves, despite the recent rabbinical ban.

I don't know why this is: whether word of the ban even reached this bookstore, or whether the proprietors or clientele are even followers of the ban's signatories, etc. The same store carries books by Rav Soloveitchik and Rav Shlomo Aviner, so clearly they either aren't that narrowminded or don't let ideology get in the way of revenues.

Any reports from other parts of the world?

Thursday, January 27, 2005

We can try to understand the Bee Gees

If you've ever tried singing along to the falsetto squeals of disco hit Stayin' Alive, you may have wondered what the lyrics actually are.

In the innocent summer days of 2001, this was the pressing topic occupying CBC Radio's show As It Happens. Listeners were asked for the last line of the chorus:

You know it's all right. It's OK.

I'll live to see another day.

We can try to understand...


You can hear their suggestions and the correct answer in this RealAudio clip. As a bonus, catch a Stayin' Alive parody at the 4:53 mark.

For more details, see here (after you listen!).

What those lyrics mean is a far greater mystery....

Update (31 Jan.): Thanks to Reb Yudel for digging up the Bee Gees' Israel connection. Who knew?

Please do not blind pilots!

Defending the web, one lawsuit at a time

Welcome to OrthoLawyer Ronald Coleman, whose new blog Likelihood of Confusion covers developments in his exciting professional specialty: intellectual property law.

Yawn? Not if you're interested in hot topics like blog name theft, the Google/Geico case, and bloggers on the take.

A Jewish angle? How about the Yiddish with Dick and Jane fight?

Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Selling chametz: A solution for church and state?

I can't pass up a topic so relevant to the name of this blog.

Best of the Web Today, James Taranto's blog for OpinionJournal, made a rare foray into halacha last week by discussing the selling of chametz (see last item).

The context?

The American Civil Liberties Union threatened to sue the city of Frederick, Md., over a Ten Commandments monument in a city park, so Mayor Jennifer Dougherty came up with a clever idea: She sold the land on which the monument sat to the local chapter of the Fraternal Order of Eagles. Since it's no longer on public land, she argued, it doesn't violate the separation of church and state--even though it's still in the middle of a city park.

Secularists, though, insisted the sale was a scam. Writes Taranto: "Which just goes to show you that American secularists are more orthodox even than the most observant Jew."

From a halachic perspective, I can understand the secularists' position. The sale of chametz is subject to dispute even among Orthodox Jews, and some will not rely on it regarding absolute chametz ("chametz gamur"), which is a Torah-level prohibition. They will sell only various second-degree types of chametz which are prohibited only rabbinically.

So for ACLU secularists, who hold that the association of church and state is forbidden by the Constitution (d'oraitha, so to speak, l'havdil), I can understand why they would be machmir (rule strictly) on selling the parkland.

Regardless, a better analogy than the sale of chametz is perhaps the heter mechira, the temporary sale of agricultural land to non-Jews to circumvent the sabbatical restrictions of the Shmitta year. Like the Frederick park, this primarily involves the sale of land, not goods. The heter mechira, however, is a relatively recent innovation and remains hotly contested among Orthodox Jews, many of whom reject it entirely.

On final analysis, the Frederick sale seems on more solid ground than either of the halachic analogies. The land sale is presumably permanent, unlike the temporary sales for chametz or shmitta. If the court upholds the sale, it's hard to find constitutional fault with leaving the monument in place.

(Note: The usual "I am not a lawyer or rabbi" disclaimers apply.)

Israel through Canadian eyes

What's it like to live and work in Israel? Canada's Centre for Intercultural Learning offers advice for Canadians on making a first impression, interacting in the workplace, and getting to know Israel's culture.

Some highlights:

  • is easy to associate a person with a specific political ideology by their dress. A right wing person would be a religiously observant looking--with a head covering for men and women and modest or dark coloured clothes. The left wing person would be more likely to wear "beach" attire (from a Canadian perspective); for men, for example, half-open button down shirts without an undershirt underneath.

  • Gestures are more important than touching. You may meet Israelis who jump all over the place while trying to express a commonplace idea.

  • Israelis speak loudly and quickly. They give the impression that they are in a rush or frustrated. Israelis often yell as though they were all worked up when in fact they are speaking in quite a normal tone of voice.

  • The whole society is under a lot of stress and pressure. In a country where life can be ended in an instant by an attack, emotions run high. People get into fights at vegetable stands, with taxi drivers and in business meetings. Because anger is a staple of the Israeli diet, it need not be taken as seriously as it would be in Canada.

  • Though things should run on army time--punctually, in reality, everyone seems to be running a little late. So, if you are the person with the upper hand--that is, you are the boss, the investor, the employer, you can come late. If you are looking for a job, a seed investment etc. you should be on time. The definition of late can vary from about 5 minutes to 40 minutes. Past the half-hour mark, the tables turn and the person who is late is considered rude.

  • With respect to a religious woman, in an Orthodox Jewish family (as in other religions), the status of women is such that they do not work very much or at all; they are required to raise the children while husbands spend most of their time studying the Torah in Talmudic schools. In an orthodox family, it is considered to be a divine act ("Mitsva") for a woman to have a lot of children, and they are her responsibility, the father's role being to teach them about Jewish traditions and values.

  • The Jewish religion, and religion in general, is very much respected. Respect of others is a dominant feature.

  • Israelis (like people from many other countries) think that there are bears and Indians in traditional dress walking around Montreal and that even in summer the temperature is -30 degrees!!

In case you can't tell, about half of this is insightful and accurate and the other half is hilariously absurd.

Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Happy Fruit Tax Accounting Day

Tu Bishvat did not originate as a festival. It was, rather, the start of the "tax year" for fruit tithes. Fruits which begin to grow before Tu Bishvat are tithed as part of the previous year's produce; from Tu Bishvat on, they belong to the following year's produce.

Why this date? The Talmud explains:

Said Rabbi Elazar in the name of Rabbi Oshaya: Since most of the rains of the year have passed, and most of the season remains. (Rosh Hashana 14a)

That is, Tu Bishvat is deliberately a midwinter event. The winter is Israel's rainy season, and Tu Bishvat falls at that delicate point when most of the rains are behind us, though most of the winter is still ahead of us.

What does this have to do with tithing fruits?

Simple. If most of the year's rain has already fallen, then the halacha assumes that any fruits which are already on the trees have grown on the current season's rain, and thus belong to the outgoing cycle of tithes. Any new fruits to grow will, by presumption, be nourished primarily by next season's rains and thus belong to the next cycle of tithes.

But wait! What's the difference between a fruit which grows on Shvat 14 and one which grows on Shvat 15? They were both watered from the same season's rains!

The stupid answer: There is no fruit growing in Shvat! At least not in ancient times. Fruit trees blossom in the spring and bear fruit in the summer. Hence "Hashkedia porachat" - the almond tree is the first tree to blossom, even before Tu Bishvat. But it doesn't bear fruit yet!

Tu Bishvat was chosen as the cutoff date for tithes because it is firmly between last year's and this year's growing seasons for fruit. All fruit clearly belongs to one side or the other.

Well, almost. Even in Talmudic times, it was clear that some fruit didn't fit the rule. Etrogim, in particular, can remain on the tree from one year to the next, and grow throughout the winter. The Talmud discusses their status, and ultimately the halacha is that Tu Bishvat doesn't apply to etrogim. They are tithed based on the date they're picked (not grown), and their cutoff date is Rosh Hashana, not Tu Bishvat.

So we eat dried fruit on Tu Bishvat (a much later custom - Tu Bishvat was not treated as a festival until at least medieval times) because fresh fruit is (generally) not available. Modern Zionists, trying to recruit Tu Bishvat to their land-building efforts, started planting trees on Tu Bishvat, despite the fact that it's a lousy time of year to plant trees.

But you don't have to do anything if you don't want to. Unless you have fruit trees in the land of Israel, in which case you should do your taxes!

Update: Judith Weiss of Kesher Talk offers more great Tu Bishvat links.

A vote for humility

If you're voting for the Jewish/Israel Blog awards, a suggestion: Why not support one of the many nominees who aren't loudly campaigning for votes?

The best bloggers don't need to promote themselves.

Monday, January 24, 2005

Talmudic ghost stories

Do the dead know what happens in the land of the living?

The Talmud discusses this question at length in Berachot 18a-19a (starts with "R. Hiyya and R. Jonathan were once walking about in a cemetery").

Aside from interpretations of biblical verses, much of the evidence comprises anecdotes about the exploits of spirits in cemeteries. Read them and be spooked.

So, how are we moderns to relate to such passages? Are we required to believe them since they appear in the Gemara? Apparently the sages did, to the extent of determining halacha on their basis.

May we dismiss them as folk tales? On what basis would we do that? Just because they sound fantastical? They aren't more unbelievable than a host of biblical passages which Orthodox Jews certainly do believe (the flood, the splitting of the sea, the sun standing still, to name a few).

From a scientific perspective, science can neither prove nor disprove such tales. Just because we have no confirmed evidence of spirit communications is not proof that they do not exist. The fact that many modern westerners cringe at such stories is not evidence that they are false.

The issues at stake here are similar to those in the Nosson Slifkin controversy, though one step removed. Unlike the age of the earth or animal anatomy, science has no decisive position on ghosts and spirits. A lack of evidence does not constitute proof, as the Talmudic maxim goes. If we reject ghosts, we do so based on our own instincts and experiences. No scientific methodology can decide the question.

On the question of spirits, we are not forced into a choice between science and Torah. So why do we find it so difficult?

Sunday, January 23, 2005

15 degrees warm

Soccer Dad reports that it's 16 degrees cold in Baltimore, and recommends eating ice cream to warm up.

In Tel Aviv, meanwhile, it reached 15 degrees warm today. I comfortably went out without a coat this afternoon.

Of course, he's in Fahrenheit and I'm in Celsius. Let's hope they never meet.

Dunner doesn't get it

Pini Dunner, London's most media-savvy young haredi rabbi, applauds the United Torah Judaism party's decision to join the Sharon coalition, seeing in it the return of "the left-leaning non-Zionist haredim" and the defeat of the religious Zionists, who "now find themselves on the fringes of Israel's political scene fighting to preserve their raison-d'etre before the house of cards comes tumbling down over their heads."

Undermining his analysis, Rabbi Dunner misinterprets nearly every faction of Israeli politics, including his fellow haredim.

Let's start with terminology. What does he mean by "non-Zionist haredim"? Zionism is the belief that there should be a Jewish state in the historical Land of Israel. Does Dunner believe that Israeli haredim are indifferent to the existence of the Jewish state? That they would be nonplussed were the state to cease to exist, God forbid?

No doubt that was once so. Much of the haredi community was anti-Zionist, openly opposing the founding of the state. But those days are long over. The haredim indeed have no ideological commitment to statehood or Jewish sovereignty, but they are, de facto, intensely patriotic and nationalistic. The younger generations, especially, who were raised as Israeli citizens, are deeply attached to it in their hearts - whatever their formal ideological stance. Certainly, they know what their fate would be should the state's survival be jeopardized.

This process is exemplified by Yehuda Meshi-Zahav, son of an ideological anti-Zionist, who in his youth organized haredi street demonstrations against Sabbath desecration. Now he is best known as the head of Zaka, the volunteer organization which aids terror victims and recovers the bodies of the dead. In 2003, Meshi-Zahav lit a torch at Israel's state commemoration of Independence Day, expressing his pride at the state's accomplishments and his service to it.

Which brings us to "left-leaning". Surveys consistently indicate that the most right-wing segment of the Israeli public is, by far, the haredi community. Not the national-religious, or even the settlers. They demonstrate the strongest support for diplomatic intransigence and the lowest level of trust in the Arabs. They are increasingly prominent in right-wing demonstrations, and never evident on the left. This political gap between the haredi public and its rabbinic leadership is not new, and the public will always back its rabbis' political decisions, but, like now, that support can be reluctant.

Dunner refers to "the pronouncement by Rabbi Elyashiv, the world's undisputed and most distinguished halachic expert, that it is halachically permitted to participate in the dismantling of Israeli hegemony over biblical Israel." Of course, no halachic expert is undisputed, not even the distinguished R' Elyashiv (whose ban on Indian wigs at the instigation of Dunner's father was hotly disputed by other halachicists).

But what pronouncement is Dunner referring to? R' Elyashiv allowed UTJ to join Sharon's coalition on a three-month trial basis, on the condition that it take no posts in the government. But he has never ruled on the disengagement plan itself. In fact, the decision to join the coalition was premised on the fact that Sharon has a majority for disengagement with or without UTJ's support. Given that, disengagement was a non-issue in the coalition decision, and Elyashiv focused on the party's other interests. Had the disengagement plan been dependent on UTJ's votes, it is far from clear they would have joined.

(It's very clever of Dunner to explain away UTJ's opposition to the Oslo Accords, as if it had nothing to do with their contents and thus does not affect his thesis that the haredim always support peace efforts!)

Dunner writes, strangely, that "the views of non-Zionist haredim are now congruent with the post-Zionism of Israel's majority". Israel's majority? Post-Zionism, the belief that Zionism has run its course and the Jewish state must now be replaced with a secular "state of all its citizens", does not now and never has been the stance of Israel's majority. It has at best won over the margins of Israel's intellectual elite, the heirs of the pre-state anti-Zionist left. Dunner must be spending too much time with the British Jewish academic left, which has always been uncomfortable with Zionism. Heck, in Britain, even Bnai Akiva is left-wing!

Finally, about the religious Zionists. I admit that religious Zionism has often overemphasized the importance of land at the expense of other vital priorities. But it is unfair to attribute their opposition to territorial concessions solely to a belief that "any withdrawal is a sacrilegious act that denies the messianic redemptive process."

Religious Zionist rabbis who have ruled against territorial compromise have argued from classical halachic sources, no less than the haredi rabbis who have supported it. You can accept or reject their readings of the sources, but you won't find them invoking "the messianic redemptive process" in support of their halachic positions. Dunner would know this if he had read their responsa.

Sephardic Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef, who in principle accepts the legitimacy of territorial compromise, has ruled strictly against the disengagement plan. Is he also motivated by "the utopian requirements of [his] warped religious views"? Does one have to agree with Dunner to be accorded respect as a "distinguished halachic expert"?

I confess that religious Zionism "blurred the lines between Judaism and Jewish nationalism." It did not create that theology, though. The theology that merged Jewish religion with Jewish nationhood was created with the birth of our nation:

Now the LORD said unto Abram: 'Get thee out of thy country, and from thy kindred, and from thy father's house, unto the land that I will show thee. And I will make of thee a great nation, and I will bless thee, and make thy name great; and be thou a blessing. And I will bless them that bless thee, and him that curseth thee will I curse; and in thee shall all the families of the earth be blessed.' (Genesis 12:1-3)

The Jewish people is a nation with a religion and a land. It has been so since its founding. How to balance those priorities is a challenge for all religious Jews. Denying the religious value of either the nation or the land, though, has no basis in Jewish sources. London will never be the promised land.

Monday, January 17, 2005

The ban, the halachic process, and haredi posekim

Others have already addressed the shameful ban by prominent haredi rabbinical authorities on several of Rabbi Nosson Slifkin's wonderful books on science and Torah. The story was first blogged here, and extensive discussion of the episode can be found at House of Hock, Hirhurim, and DovBear (yes, we agree on this one! I hope he can live that down...).

I'd like to focus not on the substance of the ban, but on the process. As I discussed in my last post, process is as important as substance, if not more so.

Those of us in the "Modern Orthodox" community (for want of a better description) tend to accord great respect to the opinions of the gedolim of the haredi ("black hat") community. We don't regard their rulings as the last word in halacha, but we, and certainly our rabbis, take them very seriously. No one questions their vast expertise in Torah and halachic literature.

Some, such as Rav Moshe Feinstein z"l and Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach z"l, have indeed been regarded throughout the Orthodox community, Modern Orthodox included, as supreme posekim on many subjects.

And then comes an incident like this one. According to most reliable accounts, the decision to ban R' Slifkin's books was reached without allowing the rabbi to defend himself, without even meeting with him before issuing the ban. Most of the signatories to the ban apparently never read more than brief excerpts of the books taken out of context.

Is this how a serious posek approaches the halacha? Especially where a man's livelihood is at stake? (Not to mention that that man is himself a rabbi and affiliates with the haredi community?)

If it weren't for the fact that no Torah court could be found to hear such a case, I would say that R' Slifkin should take the posekim to a din Torah for sullying his good name and destroying his livelihood without due halachic process.

As R' Gil wrote, the signatories comprise "a serious list of esteemed Torah leaders". Some of them are considered by haredim to be the senior halachic decisors of this generation. If this is how they approach a ruling with such serious consequences for a man's life, how can we - how can anyone - take their opinions seriously on any other halachic matter?

I can't conceive, for example, of leading Sephardic authority R' Ovadiah Yosef reaching a similar decision without extensive study and analysis, not to mention a meeting with the author. I don't know what he thinks about the age of the earth. I do know, though, that he takes halacha very seriously.

Modern Orthodox rabbis urgently need to speak out on this matter. Not on the matters of creation and evolution, or of book-banning. They are important, but not the ikkar. Saying, "science and Torah are compatible" or "I'm opposed to banning books" is not enough.

No, they must address the halachic process here: Is this a legitimate way to reach psak? If not, what does that imply about the rulings of the same posekim on other issues?

Simply put, they must take a stand on their, and our, relationship with haredi posekim. In the wake of such an affair, do we have any reason to continue according them respect as halachic authorities? If so, why? If not, what does that say about the relationships between our communities and theirs? Which approach is really "Torah-true"? (Should we agree to meet with them before banning their books of responsa?)

Rabbis of the blog shtetl, dare you get the ball rolling?

Sunday, January 16, 2005

Seniority in judicial deliberations

In John Yoo's commentary on whether Clarence Thomas should be appointed Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, the following quote caught my eye:

...the chief justice's only real power comes during the Supreme Court's conferences, where cases are decided. In these meetings, the chief justice speaks first, followed by each justice in order of seniority....

By contrast, in a court of Jewish law, the Mishna sets out the order of deliberations as follows (Sanhedrin IV:1):

In civil cases, and regarding defilement and purity, they begin by asking the opinion of the eldest, while in criminal cases they begin with those who are sitting on the side. (i.e., the most junior)

Is there an optimal approach? Is justice better served if deliberations start with the most senior judge or with the most junior?

On the one hand, if the most senior judge speaks first, the junior judges may be reluctant to disagree with him, either out of respect for his knowledge and position or out of a political desire to please him. Legitimate dissenting positions may thus be suppressed.

If the most senior judge speaks last, on the other hand, his (presumably) more extensive expertise and insight will be unavailable through most of the debate, with the junior judges forming their positions based on a partial analysis. If they heard the arguments of their superiors first, perhaps they could point to flaws in them or otherwise improve upon them.

Economists Marco Ottaviani and Peter Sorensen apply economic modelling techniques to this question in a 2000 paper, "Information aggregation in debate: Who should speak first?" (PDF). I haven't plowed through the whole paper, and I'm skeptical as to the usefulness of mathematical modelling of such scenarios. Still, the results look intriguing. They conclude, in part, that the "anti-seniority rule" is not necessarily optimal.

Whichever process is optimal, what can be the logic behind the Talmudic ruling that deliberations begin with the senior judge in civil and ritual cases, but with the junior judge in criminal and capital cases?

I would suggest the following: In civil and ritual cases, the court's primary objective is to reach a verdict by the most precise application of the relevant laws. Thus, the senior judges begin the discussion, setting out the issues with the greatest possible sophistication, with their junior colleagues learning from their analysis and adding their own contributions in full awareness of the precedents at hand. The eventual verdict may or may not be the optimal one, but it will be well-grounded in law and precedent, and the process of deliberation will expose junior judges to the analytical techniques of their senior colleagues.

In criminal and capital cases, however, a man's dignity, or even his life, is at stake. In such cases, the quest for truth takes a back seat; the priority is to protect the defendant's civil rights by affording him every possible opportunity for acquittal. The court cannot take the risk that if the senior judges vote to convict, their juniors will defer to their seniority or expertise and acquiesce, condemning a man without a thorough deliberation. Rather, they must be allowed to speak first, before voices of greater authority have rendered their opinions. Each junior judge may be the defendant's only chance to clear his name.

Thus, the main flaw in Ottaviani and Sorensen's analysis is not the use of economic modelling techniques, but the very assumption that the objective of a decision procedure is necessarily to reach the optimal decision in terms of its truth value. Other legitimate objectives of a decision procedure can include allowing different judges to express their views, according respect to senior judges, affording a learning process to junior judges, and reaching a decision which is accepted as legitimate by the court, the litigants and the public.

In criminal proceedings, biasing the deliberation in the defendant's favor can itself be an objective of the process. We explicitly prefer according him the benefit of the doubt rather than always striving for the objectively "optimal" decision. In the broader context of society, it is more important that the process be optimal than that its decisions be.

Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Happy Two Bishvat!

Sorry, I couldn't resist.

Actually, if we held like Beit Shammai, Tu Bishvat would have been marked yesterday, on the first of Shvat. We accept Beit Hillel's view and mark it on the fifteenth.

Odd that we make such a big deal over the start of the tax accounting year for tree-borne fruits. Why don't we do the same for the first of Elul - the new year for animal tithes? We could eat beef jerky!

Tuesday, January 11, 2005

Have your CAYKGH and eat it too

Thanks to JRants, I can easily stay informed of the latest developments in the Jewish community... of Kew Gardens Hills. More precisely, Congregation Ahavas Yisroel of Kew Gardens Hills. (That's in Queens, New York, in case you were wondering.)

As far as I know I don't have any friends or relatives in CAYKGH (how do they pronounce that?), but if I did, JRants would get me the updates in no time.

In appreciation of this vital community service, I'd like to extend wishes of Mazel Tov to the Goldschmiedts and Wimpfheimers, as well as to the Schwerds and Walfishs. I don't know them and they don't know me (or even who I am), but we're all Jews, right?

I confess I often lack Kavanna in the First Brocha (or any of them, for that matter), and I fear I'll have to miss R' Yechezkel Rosenberg's Shiur in the Sunday Morning Chavrsua Program.

So, CAYKGH (like "cake" with a "gh"?), welcome to the fray! Keep on blogging, and let's see more of that daring commentary and insightful analysis. We'll get you muddy yet, just wait and see.

Meanwhile, I'll be careful as I walk in the neighborhood - especially at night.

Charity again: Obligation and community

This will be (bli neder) my last post on the subject of charity for the tsunami victims. I'm responding to critics one more time because I feel there are signficant philosophical issues I haven't yet addressed.

Annie Gottlieb of AmbivaBlog comments on my first post in the midst of a discussion of fundamentalism and evangelicals. I think she's misconstrued my intentions. She certainly quoted only one side of my argument, though, to be fair, she concedes that "it's not that simple" and advises reading the whole post. (Please read the followup post as well.)

She understands me as advocating - or at least exemplifying - the social separatism of Orthodox Jews: "Orthodox Jews have made another kind of adaptation: they coexist by withdrawing, into enclaves that are not hostile to the outside world, just strictly separate and detached." While there are Orthodox Jews who live in such enclaves, most do not, and I am certainly not one of them.

What she seems to miss in my discussion is the one key word which perhaps best characterizes the approach of Orthodox Judaism to moral questions: Obligation.

When faced with a question of religious behavior, we are meant to ask: What does halacha, Jewish law, say? Is it forbidden, permissible or obligatory? If it is obligatory, what is the source for the obligation? What are the parameters of the obligation? What are its exceptions? What overrides it, or is overridden by it?

To take the case of charity: Jews are obligated to give charitable donations. Halacha specifies what is deemed a charitable donation and how much of one's income to give overall. Generally, though, one is not personally obligated to support any specific poor person or cause (though there are exceptions). If such a specific obligation existed, there would be no end to it, as it would apply equally to every poor person in the community, which would likely be more than any one giver could bear. The community as a whole is obligated to support all of its poor, but no individual bears that burden alone.

Similarly, I argued, no individual Jew can be obligated to contribute to tsunami relief, as such an obligation would imply an equal obligation to contribute to every other legitimate charitable cause on earth. This is clearly impossible. At the same time, though, I argued that the Jewish community as a whole may indeed have such an obligation, even if no individual is compelled by it. Simply put, my primary argument was about obligation, not separatism.

Ironically, YodaYid seems to agree with this argument, while claiming to reject it:

Regarding the idea that if we have to help the Tsunami victims, we have to help everyone - I wholeheartedly agree! Obviously no individual can be responsible for, say, all the malaria victims, but it would certainly be laudable to donate at least a small amount a year towards alleviating the problem.

Right. No individual can be responsible for all of the world's poor, and thus no individual can bear an obligation to help all of the world's poor. It may indeed be laudable, but it cannot be obligatory.

So far, none of the critics has put forth a credible argument to the contrary.

This brings us to the second key word for understanding my argument: Community. This aspect of the discussion is by no means particular to Jews, or to Orthodox Jews.

AmbivaBlog seems ambivalent (surprise!) about the notion of community. Philosophically, indeed, it is difficult. If all men are created equal, on what basis can I possibly accord different treatment to some, purely on the grounds of their geographical, genealogical or theological proximity to myself?

The same question, it seems, can be asked about family. Is it legitimate to show preference to members of one's family over other people? Set aside the question of dependent children. Why should I, as an adult, care more for my sister than anyone else's sister, for my father than anyone else's father, for my cousin than anyone else's cousin? Yet I do, and nearly everyone does, and no one finds fault with it (outside the legal definition of nepotism).

On one level, community is the natural extension of family. In ancient times and in parts of the world today, community and family are often closely related, with entire towns populated by members of one extended clan. Similarly, Jewish sources traditionally regard the Jewish people as one large family, or at least descended from one - despite centuries of displacement, intermarriage and conversion.

The same is true on the level of a town or a nation. Our responsibility towards those we pass daily in the street, those with whom we share a society and a government, is inherently greater than it is towards outsiders.

We may all be created equal, but ultimately there is no "brotherhood of man"; there are no "citizens of the world" (and I've lived on three continents). Each of us is born into a family, a neighborhood, a town and a country, a faith and a culture. As adults, we similarly live in such overlapping communities. To different extents, each of these forms of community embodies aspects of shared responsibility, of mutual assistance. Our allegiances to them are, naturally and legitimately, stronger than and prior to our allegiances to outsiders.

Thus, I argue, one's responsibility to aid the tsunami victims is directly proportional to one's communal ties to them. Clearly, primary responsibility falls on their own governments (and India's 1.2 billion, for example, are more than capable of rehabilitating their suffering compatriots. The same may not be true of other victimized countries.). Other world governments, in a sense, share communal ties with them and should rightly help out in appropriate ways, especially with respect to their allies.

But for me as an individual, the poor and suffering in my own communities rightly take precedence over those in distant lands. To do otherwise would be to forsake my immediate responsibility towards my relatives, fellow citizens and countrymen, in favor of strangers. I fail to see the morality in that.

Monday, January 10, 2005

The Intifada at Duke University

From Commentary via OpinionJournal: In October, Duke hosted a conference of pro-terrorist antisemites. Read all about it.

What's worse? The complicity of the administration or the pusillanimity of the Jewish organizations on campus?

Note the presence of the Neturei Karta, yimach shmam, in this protest march. For more namby-pamby campus Jews, see the university's press release.

"The great jihad has begun"

Following his landslide victory in yesterday's Palestinian "elections", Israelis are in an uproar over Abu Mazen's victory speech:

The small jihad is over and the big jihad has begun. We are facing tough missions - how to build a state of security where people live a dignified life."

"The big jihad has begun" - this is our moderate peacemaker?

Though I'm plenty skeptical of Abu Mazen's intentions, this particular phrase is in fact encouraging.

"Jihad" is Arabic for "struggle". Islamic tradition, in particular the mystical Sufi tradition, distinguishes between two types of jihad, the "lesser jihad" (al-jihad al-asghar) and the "greater jihad" (al-jihad al-akbar). The lesser jihad is understood as referring to the physical battle against the enemy. The greater jihad, by contrast, is understood (by Sufis at least) as the "struggle against oneself," one's own inner struggle against sin and temptation.

In Jewish terms, the concept of the lesser jihad recalls the saying from Pirkei Avot, "Who is mighty? He who subdues his passions" (4:1).

To those who understand his references, then, Abu Mazen is telling the Palestinians that the time for military battle against Israel has ended, and they must now focus inwards on building their society, on national development and other forms of nonviolent accomplishments.

If this is his true intention, and the public follows him, Israelis may genuinely have cause for optimism.

Update (11 Jan.): SoccerDad is skeptical about my interpretation, citing scholar Daniel Pipes: "In premodern times, jihad meant mainly one thing," namely the use of force to expand the territory under Muslim rule at the expense of territories ruled by non-Muslims."

This may be so; the aim of Pipes's essay is to rebut the claim that jihad does not and never has connoted military struggle. But what interests us here is not the premodern meaning of the term jihad, or even its primary contemporary meaning, but rather the contemporary meaning of Abu Mazen's reference to the "lesser jihad" and the "greater jihad". Here, Pipes seems to lend support to my position:

The second variant [meaning], usually associated with Sufis, or Muslim mystics, was the doctrine customarily translated as "greater jihad" but perhaps more usefully termed "higher jihad." This Sufi variant invokes allegorical modes of interpretation to turn jihad's literal meaning of armed conflict upside-down, calling instead for a withdrawal from the world to struggle against one's baser instincts in pursuit of numinous awareness and spiritual depth.

Regardless, I remain skeptical both of Abbas's intentions and of his ability to lead his society accordingly. If the "lesser jihad" is over because the Palestinians believe they have won the military phase of the struggle, as evidenced by Israel's intended retreat from Gaza and northern Samaria - an unfortunately highly plausible interpretation - then the cause for optimism is weak indeed. If, similarly, the armed struggle is to be suspended tactically to give Israel enough quiet to allow the "disengagement" to proceed smoothly, strengthening the Palestinians' position for the next phase of the struggle, we must brace ourselves for difficult times to follow.

Thursday, January 06, 2005

Where do you look when you're in an elevator?

Do you stare straight ahead at the doors? Down at your feet? At someone else's feet? Let your eyes wander around the walls, searching for something to read?

Do you make eye contact with other passengers or avoid it? Do you talk to them or keep quiet? Does it matter if you know them?

Do you keep your arms at your sides or folded in front of you?

Do you shift uncomfortably waiting to reach your floor?

Is your behavior any different on a subway train? In a waiting room?

Do your answers signify anything deeper about you? Or am I wasting your time even asking?

Tuesday, January 04, 2005

Prioritizing charity: Who comes first?

You can't write a post like this one without bracing for a storm. Stirring things up was clearly part of my intention, and I'm pleased that the reactions so far have largely been thoughtful.

The post has only been up for 14 hours, much of which were late at night either here or in the U.S., but I'd like to respond to the comments so far. I expect they're representative of what many readers are thinking. (Incidentally, I neglected to point out that I am not a rabbi, and that any practical questions should be referred to one. I'm just a troublemaking blogger.)

In appreciation of his flattery, let me start with YodaYid, who is "a bit upset" (particularly as this is "one of [his] favorite blogs" - thanks!). He describes my post as callous and glib.

Unfortunately, any analytical discussion of human suffering and its response will sound callous. How can we apply the tools of reason and logic to a situation which calls for empathy and compassion? Yet, only through reasoned analysis can we consider our options pragmatically.

Our emotional response to suffering must be compassionate and instinctive. Our pragmatic response, however, must be rational and workable. Acts of charity must be motivated by compassion, but they must be guided and prioritized by reason if they are to be effective.

YodaYid, I'm not looking for "rationalizations not to help". I am trying to understand whether Jewish law - or, for that matter, any pragmatic moral argument - obligates me to help. I am trying to understand whether the claim to charity posed by the tsunami victims should take precedence over the claims of those who are emotionally and physically close to me.

Clearly, it does matter that millions of others are stepping forward to help in this regional disaster, including the world's major governments - and I'm rightly proud of Israel's role in this regard. Meanwhile, the poor and disadvantaged who are close to me may have no one else to support them.

I am reminded of a recent essay (Hebrew) by Rabbi Yaakov Ariel, Chief Rabbi of Ramat Gan, on the subject of charity and public policy. He argues that there are two aspects to the mitzvah of tzedakah: An individual obligation and a communal obligation. As he puts it, "The community is entrusted with the social side, while the individual is entrusted with the moral side."

In other words, these two obligations have separate objectives. The community is entrusted with the welfare of all its members, and as such each community must ensure that residents are adequately supported in times of need. If one poor man suffers, the community has failed him. It is a failure of society.

No individual, however, can be held liable to support all of his community's poor. The individual's obligation is a moral one. It is that he must remain sensitive to his fellow man's suffering. He must not turn a blind eye; rather he must give something of his own wealth to everyone in need. This develops his moral personality and his instincts of compassion and righteous behavior. From this perspective, it is better to give many small gifts to many individuals than one large one, because the greater the number of acts of tzedakah, the greater the impact on the giver's character.

To a large extent, Rav Ariel's communal obligation corresponds with the pragmatic response I mentioned above, while his individual obligation corresponds with the emotional response.

Note, though, that both these obligations remain within the context of a community, a collection of people in a shared society. It is that commonality which gives rise to, on the one hand, the community's responsibility towards its members, and, on the other, the individual's responsibility towards his neighbor. Only in the age of mass communication can we even pose the question of our potential responsibility to people we have no ties to whatsoever.

While I appreciate YodaYid's attempts to distinguish between the tsunami and other tragic situations around the world, I don't buy it. There is always a reason why one tragedy is more needy than another. If anything, the tsunami victims have the attention of the world - for now. Countless others suffer in silence and solitude. If I have an individual obligation to help some, I have that same obligation towards them all. Such an approach is ultimately unrealistic.

Reb Yudel implies this emotional/pragmatic distinction in his thoughtful remarks: "Can you make [them] feel better? Can you help them? Of course not. But can you do nothing? Of course not, too." In other words, while the practical impact of my individual donation is negligible, I may have an obligation to help, even minimally, which derives from my emotional response to their suffering. Just to make the point that I feel empathy.

In the context of one's own community, I agree. But beyond that, where does it end? Am I obligated only towards those tragedies which make the evening news? Towards all of them, or only the most acute? If coal mines are closing in eastern Europe, must I open my wallet for the unemployed? If a train crashes in Alabama, must I step forward?

Empathy is vital towards the development of our character. But empathy is cheap. To give rise to a financial obligation, it must be possible to apply that obligation consistently and universally.

Thus, I agree that "it really doesn't matter whether the OU ends up donating $180 or a $180,000. What matters is that Jews who want to do something... can do that little something." Our obligation, to the extent that it exists, is communal, not individual.

Shira Salamone is in shock that a rabbi might argue against aiding the tsunami victims. From her brief description of his words, it sounds to me that he argued that we are not required to contribute to their aid, not that it would be wrong to do so. Regardless, it's not a matter of being "against giving tzedakah." It's a question of priorities and degrees of responsibility. Tzedakah funds come from a limited pool. As individuals and as a community, we have to decide how best to allocate them.

Finally, DovBear himself responded that I'm a racist, and besides he hadn't really meant to praise the OU but to attack the Christians. That's very compassionate of him.

In response to those who label as bigotry the preference of one's own community over others, I defer to Ze'ev Maghen's essay, "Imagine: On Love and Lennon".

Monday, January 03, 2005

Point of Pride?

DovBear is proud that the OU's website calls for contributions to aid victims of the Asian Tsunami - while various conservative Christian sites do not.

Reading further, though, one discovers that the OU is walking a fine line. The organization expresses grief and empathy for the victims, and offers prayers. It announces the launch of a fund for disaster relief, and says it is accepting donations.

Yet the OU avoids explicitly calling on people to donate to this fund!

The Orthodox Union has launched a special fund to which monetary contributions for disaster relief can be sent. We call upon our constituent synagogues, individual members, and all members of the Jewish community, to reflect upon this disaster as an expression of God's inscrutable will, and to take the suffering caused by the disaster to heart in prayers, thought, and action. We encourage each synagogue to determine the manner in which it will express the emotions and feelings engendered by this suffering. (Emphasis added)

What gives?

I'm (thankfully) not privy to the OU's internal deliberations, but I presume this flexible phrasing has to do with the thorny question my wife posed to me the other day: Do we, as Orthodox Jews, have an obligation to donate to the tsunami relief effort?

I'm doubtful.

To start with, halacha agrees with the saying, "charity begins at home." When giving charity, we must give first to the poor among our own relatives, then to those of our own town, then of other towns, etc. Clearly, given a limited pool of charitable resources, the victims in Asia are a low priority for those of us thousands of miles away.

If we were obligated to help the tsunami victims, why stop there? Hundreds of millions around the world live in various stages of poverty. Must we, as Orthodox Jews, support them all? The tsunami victims may have the most acute, immediate need, but many other victims of war and disaster are not far behind them. Is it our responsibility to bear the burden for all the world's poor?

Second, does it matter that the victims are (almost entirely) not Jewish? In a town of mixed population, the halacha requires us to give charity to non-Jews on the same terms we do to Jews, apparently so as to maintain friendly relations between the communities. Where we give to the Jews, we must give to the non-Jews. But does this apply here, where there are hardly any Jewish victims to begin with?

As individual Jews, we have no links with the suffering Asian communities. Whether or not we contribute to them as will have no effect on intercommunal relations. Why donate to them rather than support our more immediate charitable responsibilities at home? Other kind souls the world over will step forward to help them; none will do the same for us.

Note, though, that I said "as individual Jews." As a community, however, we may have interests in aiding the victims. The State of Israel, for example, clearly has an interest in promoting friendly relations, and, where possible, alliances, with large Asian countries, especially those such as Thailand with which it already has close ties. Clearly, Israel should be offering assistance in accordance with its means, and it is doing so.

There is also a kiddush hashem to be made in demonstrating that the State of Israel and the Jewish community are concerned for all of God's creatures. Though such acts may not always win the recognition they deserve, they remain valuable for both their practical and symbolic impact. People should associate Jews, and religious Jews in particular, with acts of charity and compassion. (It's better than associating us with stinginess!)

So it would seem appropriate for the OU to launch an assistance fund. And yet I can't find a compelling argument requiring me, or any other individual Jew, to actually donate to such a fund. As I noted, the OU itself doesn't even make such a claim. The paradox stands.

A final note: The cynic in me can't help but suspect the OU of ulterior motives in this prominent initiative. The OU's site highlights an exchange of letters with one of their Sri Lankan clients. It is no secret that the OU does a great deal of business certifying Asian food manufacturing plants. Could the OU's Asian assistance fund really be motivated primarily by its own business interests?

Let's hope not.

Certainly, the OU's Christian counterparts have no similar motivations.

The Burmese question

I'm taking a break at my desk, working my way through a container of pickled herring, and I'm wondering: What happened in Burma?

The country's tyrannical military regime makes reliable information hard to come by. But simple geography would seem to indicate that the reported Burmese casualty figures are implausible. Thousands of deaths in Thailand and 90 in neighboring Burma?

Reports are trickling in that the official estimates may be fictional. "It is in the thousands," estimated one foreign diplomat. Southern Burma "should have been hit equally" as hard as southern Thailand.

Or maybe not. In the discussion of this post skeptical of the official figures, some commenters have argued that Burma may in fact have been largely spared. It wouldn't be unprecedented, apparently.

So which is it? And will we ever find out for certain?

And isn't it stunning, in this age of instant information, that we don't know the answer?

Sunday, January 02, 2005

Rebellion and return

Ben Chorin writes:

Every thinking person who was raised frum must be a bit of a rebel and a bit of a baal teshuvah.

Ditto. Read the whole thing.

Actually, that's usually my reaction to Ben's posts. Keep up the great work, Ben.

That's what I call dedication to Torah!

Fistfights, stink bombs, threats and disruption of classes - those guys from Ponevezh Yeshiva sure know how to fight!

Why don't they put that violent energy to good use? The Israeli army could always use a few good men.

Haveil Havalim Edition #3

A shocking revelation struck the Jewish blog velt last week, as blogging rabbi Simcha from Hirhurim finally dropped the increasingly-thin veil hiding his true identity, disclosing what most regular readers had worked out long ago: He is none other than Rabbi Gil Student. Yes, that is his real name! (Does he have a t?)

Everyone's talking about the newly-announced JIB Awards for the best Jewish and Israeli Blogs. Kudos to Israellycool for the initiative.

The Asian tsunami has Out of Step Jew musing about how monotheism and paganism relate to natural disasters, and DovBear embroiled in a debate about divine justice and retribution.

Did the Vatican condemn Israel over Sri Lanka's refusal of assistance from the Jewish state? No, writes Meryl Yourish; it was all a mistranslation. The Vatican actually condemned Sri Lanka. No one can explain how the message was reversed.

AmbivaBlog is far from ambivalent in this scathing critique of the Kabbalah Centre, insightfully contrasting its ideals and those of its founders with authentic Jewish attitudes towards wealth and poverty, while offering a sneak peek at a new book.

Rabbi Jeremy Rosen of Yakar in London discusses how he deals with premarital sex among Orthodox Jewish singles. (He's opposed, but there's more to it than that.)

Dove's Eye View ("An Arab American woman sees signs of hope") had lunch with a Jewish friend of Lebanese and Syrian origins. Her reflections on their relationship include recipes from their Sephardic meal.

Still on the subject of food, the Shaigetz not only doesn't like Chassidim (though he is one); he specifically doesn't like their Shabbos food. Along the way he notes, "I do find it ironic that the likelihood for a girl to have a Bat Mitzva party is in inverse proportion to the likelihood of her keeping any mitzvoth."

The folks at Cross-Currents can't decide which is worse for the Jews: PETA or Mainline Protestants. Love 'em or hate 'em.

At her Makom Kavua, Rashi's Daughter tells us why she calls herself Rashi's Daughter.

Newish Jewish blogger Nushyman (baruch haba!) complains about people who are incompetent at using Janglo, a consumer advice e-mail list for English-speaking Jerusalemites.

Poetry has attacked on multiple fronts. Ladybug is inspired by sunset in Jerusalem. At Mystical Paths, Akiva's daughter meditates on the blessings of dew. Yehoshua Karsh's Jewish soul muses on the Jewish people's abusive behavior patterns.

Tzemach Atlas is saddened by shuls with fluorescent lighting. Lisa from On the Face enjoys the weather in picturesque Tel Aviv.

Allison Kaplan Sommer is distraught over Israel's incoming Interior Minister - specifically, over his potentially-embarrassing name. By contrast, Steven Plaut finds the name amusing, and will no doubt take full advantage of the added possibilities for skewering the new appointee. (Meanwhile, someone should tell the good professor that e-mail is so passe! It's time he moved his missives to his blog for good, and let his old-fashioned readers subscribe by e-mail. The formatting is just too unbearable.)

Soccer Dad takes pleasure in getting the New York Times to issue a correction about Israel's recent prisoner release.

But does Israel really exist? Not according to the official website of the Syrian parliament, notes Patrick at Clarity and Resolve.

We don't buy it, though - Michael Freund reminds us not to believe everything we hear. Somehow we suspect the same applies to his friends at Arutz-7, though.

With that, the third edition of Haveil Havalim (aka Vanity of Vanities) comes to a close. Applicants are welcome for Haveil Havalim Edition #4 - both offers to host the roundup and nominations for the best Israel/Jewish-related blog entry for the first week of 2005 (give or take a few days). Contact the organizer, David Gerstman: Send it to dhgerstman at hotmail dot com and mention Haveil Havalim or Vanity of Vanities in your subject line.