Monday, February 28, 2005

Women and communal Torah reading - I

The Background

Shabbat morning in shul. The Torah reading is in progress. The Levi makes his second bracha, concluding his aliyah.

The gabbai calls out, "Ta'amod Rivka bat Shlomo, shlishit!" A woman gets up, makes her way through the women's section, passes through a gate in the mechitzah, and ascends the bimah. She says Barchu and Asher Bachar Banu, and the reader resumes the leining with the next aliyah.

Is this an Orthodox community?

This was the question occupying the respected scholars Rabbi Yehuda Henkin and Rabbi Prof. Daniel Sperber this past Motza'ei Shabbat, in a fascinating discussion at Jerusalem's Kehillat Yedidya synagogue.

Just five years ago, the thought that two so esteemed and deeply learned Orthodox rabbis might even address this issue was largely fanciful. Even today, it is disconcerting for the typical Orthodox congregant. We grow up with the expectation that things just don't change much. Certainly not the central rituals of communal life. Fiddling with ritual is what the Conservative and Reform movements do.

Yet here we are, and the discussion is taking place at the highest levels. Aliyot and Torah reading by women are gradually seeping in at the fringes of the Orthodox community, taking place in congregations which consider themselves to be Orthodox and committed to halacha. (The first was Shira Hadasha in Jerusalem, followed by a handful of minyanim in other countries.)

Background: Mendel Shapiro makes the case
It all started with a 2001 essay (PDF) in The Edah Journal. Attorney Mendel Shapiro, who bears YU semikhah, argued that, according to a straightforward reading of the halachic sources, women can in certain circumstances receive aliyot and even read from the Torah on Shabbat.

This must not be confused with the phenomenon of women's prayer groups, which have gradually spread among modern Orthodox communities since the 1970s. The Torah reading in question here takes place within a conventional community with a minyan of men and a mechitzah. The woman olah or ba'alat kri'ah fulfills the same halachic role as her male counterpart.

The main source of interest is the baraita in Megilla 23a:
Everyone can be counted towards the seven [aliyot on Shabbat], even a child and even a woman, but the sages said a woman should not read the Torah because of the dignity of the congregation (kevod ha-tzibbur).

Kevod ha-tzibbur is conventionally understood as the damage to a community's reputation by the implication that, if a woman is reading the Torah, presumably the men are all illiterate. But when the baraita was formulated, there was no ba'al kri'ah; each oleh read his own aliyah from the Torah. Today, when the oleh only says the blessings, calling up a woman cannot possibly reflect negatively on the literacy of the men.

Furthermore, in modern times, with widespread literacy among both men and women, the very implication that the men are illiterate is unreasonable. Thus, in theory at least, it should be legitimate today to give women at least some of the aliyot, and even to allow them to read. (In practice, Shapiro objects to introducing such a practice in an existing synagogue with an established minhag, or where it would be divisive.)

Background: Rabbi Henkin says, "Yes, but"
Rabbi Henkin, regarded as a leading posek (halachic decisor) for the modern Orthodox community, responded to the Shapiro article by agreeing with much of his reasoning, but objecting to its implementation. He writes:

Regardless of the arguments that can be proffered to permit women's aliyyot today... women's aliyyot remain outside the consensus, and a congregation that institutes them is not Orthodox in name and will not long remain Orthodox in practice. In my judgement, this is an accurate statement now and for the foreseeable future, and I see no point in arguing about it.

He is open to the possibility, though, of women's aliyot in the women's section on Simchat Torah; he also writes that "if done without fanfare, an occasional aliyah by a woman in a private minyan of men held on Shabbat in a home and not in a synagogue sanctuary or hall can perhaps be countenanced or at least overlooked." (He has taken a similar position regarding women saying sheva brachot.)

Background: Rabbi Sperber invokes human dignity
Rabbi Sperber, professor of Talmud at Bar-Ilan University, followed up in 2002 by bringing kevod ha-briot, human dignity, into the mix. Citing Talmudic precedents, he notes that kevod ha-briot can at times override even Torah-level (deoraita) obligations. In this case, he argues, the distress suffered by women excluded from the synagogue rituals should surely override the (at most) rabbinical enactment barring women from reading the Torah in shul. He writes:

We have here a clash of two principles of different sorts - kevot ha-tsibur (if such exists) and kevod ha-beriyot.... [I]t seems clear to me that, in this instance, human dignity trumps communal dignity. This is especially so when we are speaking about "a doubtful consideration of kevod ha-tsibur," for it is entirely possible that the congregation has waived its dignity, or that it senses no affront at all to its dignity in women being granted aliyyot.

In short, while Shapiro argues that it can be permitted under the right circumstances, and R' Henkin feels it should be avoided in practice except possibly in private, R' Sperber argues that there are in fact compelling halachic reasons to implement it today in communities where women feel distressed by their exclusion.

I've written more background than I intended. I'll have to save my report from the recent discussion at Kehillat Yedidya for another post.

I would like to add a personal comment that, arguably, the participation of women in the communal Torah reading can be less problematic than a women's prayer group. Many of the halachic objections to women's prayer groups are not applicable. There is no evasion of the halachic preference for tefillah betzibur, and none of the implicit playacting involved when women read the Torah without a minyan and without fulfilling any halachic obligations. On the contrary, they are participating directly in the genuine communal mitzvah of reading the Torah. Also, the unity of the community is maintained, with no split into men's and women's services.

(The next post on this topic can be found here.)

Sunday, February 27, 2005

Coming up soon: Women and Torah reading

No time to post today. Sneak preview, though: Tomorrow, I hope to write about last night's study evening at Kehillat Yedidya in Jerusalem. Esteemed scholars Rabbi Yehuda Henkin and Rabbi Prof. Daniel Sperber discussed their positions regarding whether women can receive aliyot and participate in the Torah reading at an otherwise-standard Orthodox minyan. (Note: This is not about separate women's prayer groups.)

You can get a head start on the topic by finding the essays by Mendel Shapiro (and response), Rabbi Henkin and Rabbi Sperber in back issues of The Edah Journal. Other reactions to the articles can be found here.

(The next post on this topic can be found here.)

Thursday, February 24, 2005

"I don't like Yidden, and I don't want Moshiach."

Blog in Dm reprints an email from a reader:

It probably happened to every bandleader, but I confirmed this one with this musician's son. The father of the chosson goes over to the bandleader and says "Remember - I don't like Yidden, and I don't want Moshiach."

Funny, I thought I was the only one with that attitude.

When my almost-wife and I met with the bandleader before our wedding back in '94, we had firm ideas about what kind of music we wanted. (Actually, we had first looked for a klezmer band, but that didn't pan out.) Our "banned" list for the band specified Yidden, Moshiach, and Samchem. A bit unusual, but not hard to accommodate.

Actually, we said, we don't like anything by Avraham Fried or Mordechai Ben-David.

The bandleader, as the British say, was gobsmacked. "Then what will we play?" he asked, dumbfounded.

"Well, what did you play before ten years ago?" He was certainly old enough to remember.

We went over his playlist together and found no shortage of classic simcha tunes, heavy on the Carlebach and Hassidic Song Festivals, along with plenty of appropriate shirei moledet (Israeli folk songs).

What did we have against those songs? Aside from a general musical aversion to shiny shoe music, those three songs were individually offensive. Yidden is written to the tune of a German entry to the 1979 Eurovision Song Contest about Genghis Khan. Moshiach takes a sincere declaration of faith ("Ani Maamin...") and turns it into a superficial glitzy dance number. And Samchem... well, I just find it unbearably tuneless. It feels like a football chant. What more can I say?

Worse than the music, though, is the dancing. Each of the popular hassidic-disco songs has its own associated line dance. Either you know its complex steps or you don't. The men generally couldn't care less and just keep circling, but the women take this stuff seriously. The moment one of the modern hits starts up, the young trendies take over the women's side of the dance floor with the appropriate dance, crowding out anyone who doesn't know it - usually the older generation, family included.

Line dancing isn't terribly Jewish in the best of circumstances, and some of the specific dances which have taken hold are, shall we say, not entirely appropriate to an Orthodox affair. But the social aspect is the worst. A wedding is to be celebrated by the entire community, including the extended family. Not by the in crowd who are up on the latest simcha dances.

How did it all turn out? Nearly perfect. Everyone knew all the songs. Everyone knew all the dances, and joined in. It was a bit odd when we could tell from the intro music that the next number in the band's dance set was meant to be Samchem, but they just skipped it.

Late into the evening, after persistent badgering by certain members of the in crowd, the band did play one round of Yidden - and immediately the dance floor nearly cleared out as the trendies did their thing. We felt vindicated, the band returned to the playlist, and the dance floor filled up again.

The summary: Everyone had a good time. Guests said it was the best wedding they had been to in years. (I'm not making this up!) And they couldn't quite figure out why.

We knew.

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Have yourself a merry Little Purim

Today is Purim Katan, or Little Purim.

In a Jewish leap year, when an extra month of Adar is added, Purim itself is celebrated in the second Adar, always one month before Passover. The equivalent date in the first Adar, the date which would be Purim were this not a leap year, is marked as a mini-holiday known as Little Purim. There are no obligatory festivities, though some do make the effort to have a modest festive meal.

Before the Jewish calendar was fixed by computation, the Sanhedrin would meet each spring to determine whether to add an extra month of Adar to the current year. If the decision was reached after Purim had already been celebrated, Purim would be celebrated a second time in the second Adar. So in ancient times, today might actually have been celebrated as Purim. Then, after the Sanhedrin announced the leap year, we would have had to prepare for another Purim, the real one.

You think that's a pain, wait till you hear about Pesach Sheni!

Tuesday, February 22, 2005

This is not a post

Don't get the wrong impression. I haven't posted anything today. It certainly wouldn't be the first time.

If you were waiting to see if I would post today, now you know.

Since when do you believe your own eyes?

Monday, February 21, 2005

Hitnatkut - or is it Hinatkut?

On December 18, 2003, Sharon first set out his "disengagement" plan in a speech to the Herzliyya Institute of Policy and Strategy. The details were vague, and would remain so for some time. But a new word was introduced into the Middle East lexicon: hitnatkut in Hebrew, translated into English as "disengagement".

As the months wore on, though, perceptive Israeli news consumers noticed a subtle linguistic shift. Instead of hitnatkut, many journalists and intellectuals were speaking of hinatkut, replacing the second letter (tav) with a yod. This is usually a sign that professional linguists have stirred things up.

Now that the plan's finally passed the Knesset, what's the correct word for it?

Hitnatkut and hinatkut both stem from the same Hebrew root, NTK, meaning to separate or disconnect. In the active (pi'el) form, l'natek means "to disconnect something," such as an electrical appliance. "I'm hanging up the phone" is ani menatek et hatelephone.

Hitnatkut is the reflexive (hitpa'el) form. Generally, this is used when one does an action to oneself, though there are exceptions. For example, while lilbosh is to wear clothing, l'hitlabesh is to get dressed; that is, to dress oneself. In our case, l'hitnatek generally means to disconnect oneself from something. "I'm hanging up" (without a direct object) is ani mitnatek - I'm disconnecting myself from the line.

Hinatkut is the passive (nif'al) form. This is used when we're interested in the object acted on, not the subject performing the act. Thus, l'hinatek is "to become disconnected." It's what happens when I'm on the phone and the line is cut off; we say, nitak hakesher, "the connection has been broken". Here, "disconnection" just happens through some external force.

In the context of Sharon's diplomatic plan, hitnatkut (as I see it) means "disengaging (ourselves)", while hinatkut means "becoming disengaged". The former is an active, reflexive verb; we're doing something to ourselves. The latter is a passive construct, implying a process which happens of its own accord. It hardly seems suitable to a deliberate program.

According to the last paragraph of this article (Hebrew), Sharon's office agrees.

I suspect some of those saying hinatkut just enjoy its highfalutin sound; it's a far less common word in everyday Hebrew than hitnatkut. Say hinatkut and you indicate that you know better than the masses - though you probably can't explain why.

For more Hebrew language discussion of this and other Hebrew language issues, see the hinatkut page on Safa Ivrit. Others object that hitnatkut implies mutuality between the parties to the action, which is clearly not present in a unilateral plan. But I don't see much precedent for the association between hitpa'el and mutuality.

I fully intend to continue saying hitnatkut - while continuing to hope (as unlikely as it seems) that it is never implemented.

(Actually, to be most accurate, I should call it a "withdrawal" or "retreat". Maybe "forced evacuation"? Some on the Israeli right call it "population transfer".)

Update: I should note that sometimes I just refer to it as hitkatnut....

Googly-eyed ads II (aka Gaza Strip Singles)

Google Ads have done it again. Reading today's Jerusalem Post online, Google served up the following:

I wonder if they include Gush Katif?

(Previous post in this series: Sell Your Settlement)

Sunday, February 20, 2005

Haveil Havalim Edition #10

Welcome to another edition of Haveil Havalim, a weekly roundup of Jewish- and Israel-related blog postings. Next week's host is Kesher Talk; send your submissions their way, please.

The envelope please.... The finals of the 2004 JIB Awards for Jewish- and Israel-related blogs are over. Congrats to the winners, nice try to the runners up, and kudos to Dave for the hard work. See you next year!

Oliver Kamm parses - and refutes - Noam Chomsky's distortions about anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism, focusing in particular on his twisting of Abba Eban's words. Summary: "Noam Chomsky is a liar, and his handling of source material is an intellectual scandal."

Out of Step Jew hails the publication of the first volume of the Encyclopedia of the Jewish Story.

Chayyei Sarah offers helpful tips on how to avoid leading on single women for men who are already committed - or perhaps should be.

Omri at Mere Rhetoric skewers Ha'aretz for its enthusiastic support of prisoner releases.

Shira Salamone has been busy with a series of posts on raising a child with disabilities.

Soccer Dad revisits two murders dubiously blamed on Israelis: One last month in Gaza, and another near Hebron in 1995.

If Torah commentators were bloggers, who would they blogroll? Dov Bear notes that Ramban was sometimes vicious towards Ibn Ezra; he sees this as a sign of respect.

Am Echad backs Bibi's economic reforms but still worries about his Yeshiva University degree.

Michael of Kosher Eucharist has had a very good Shabbat in New Orleans's Jewish community, but notes that it also has a problem or two. Don't we all?

Liora muses about her new Hebrew name after her conversion to Judaism.

Batya Medad, marking her 100th Shiloh Musing, has produced a festschrift of her favorite golden oldies.

Meanwhile, Life in the Styx has been flooded with unfinished blog drafts from the past six months and more... and Josh has released his redesigned Electronic Torah Warehouse page.

Finally, at next week's host, Kesher Talk, Judith has been exposing the little-known biases of Wikipedia - persistently left-wing and anti-Israel.

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Speak the language of the Hebrew man

Ehud Banai won three top honors at this week's Ami Awards, Israel's equivalent of the Grammies: Artist of the Year, Album of the Year and Lyricist of the Year.

Banai's music blends much of the best of Israeli popular song, combining rock, folk and blues with an ethnic twist. His lyrics similarly draw on modern language as well as ancient Jewish texts. Banai himself is something of a hybrid, a proud part of one of Israel's most prolific families of entertainers, and also a ba'al teshuva, having returned to Jewish observance in recent years.

I'd like to focus on Hebrewman, one of the hits from Banai's recent album, Anneh Li. The song is bilingual, though mostly in English. You can find the lyrics transliterated into Hebrew or English (PDF).

On the surface, the song is an ode to the Hebrew language. The chorus: "Speak the language of the Hebrew man!" But something feels wrong about it from the start. For one thing, the musical style is reggae. For another, most of the lyrics are in English. Odd for an ode to the Hebrew language.

On further consideration, the song is layered with irony. Perceptive listeners will realize that many of the episodes referenced in the lyrics in fact had nothing to do with the Hebrew language!

"It is the language of the prophets / Of the sign upon the wall."

The writing on the wall was in Aramaic.

"You know Abraham spoke the language of the Hebrewman / And also Jesus from Nazareth and Maria Magdalene."

Jesus and Co., of course, also spoke Aramaic.

These could be dismissed as the songwriter's ignorance. But the next line gives the game away:

"Einstein, Jeremiah, the Dylan and the Cohen, / They know something about the language of the Hebrewman."

To me, at least, it's clear by now that for Banai "the language of the Hebrewman" is not to be identified with the Hebrew language per se. It is, rather, the Hebrew ethos, some set of shared cultural qualities which characterize the Hebrew nation, or at least its shining lights. Regardless of whether they speak Hebrew, Aramaic or English; whether they are prophets, artists or scientists; whether they play klezmer or reggae; whether they are religious Jews or religious rebels.

(Anyone know who "the Cohen" is? Sounds like a pop culture reference to me.)

Is there really any such ethos? For that matter, is there a "Hebrew nation", distinct from "the Jewish people"? Maverick first-generation young Israelis in the 1950s founded the Canaanite movement, positing that modern Israelis should return to their roots in the Middle East and the ancient Land of Israel, even to its pre-Israelite Canaanite times. They saw themselves as part of a material culture of land and culture, aspiring to somehow skip over the millennia of Jewish religious development. They wanted to build the land and the society, avoiding the religious aspects of their heritage. (Banai refers to this movement in another of his current hits, Blues Canaani, his tribute to the late singer Meir Ariel.)

On the other hand, the Hebrew half of the song draws on traditional religious texts to envision a messianic future in which "the whole world will know one language". That language, it seems, is Hebrew not only in ethos but also in vocabulary. There is implied criticism of those Israelis - or all Hebrews? - who dilute their speech with foreign lingo.

Is that Banai's real game here? Draw Israelis into a foreign-sounding song, with English lyrics and a reggae beat, only to comment on the absurdity that this is what attracts so many Israelis today? That scions of the great Hebrew nation shun Hebrew language, culture and religion? That even the language (so to speak) of Jesus is too Jewish for today's neo-Canaanites?

Do the one-worldist verses, precisely in the Hebrew part of the song, undermine the whole premise that there is something uniquely Hebrew to preserve, calling instead for the harmony of all peoples? I think the reverse is the message. Jews are easily drawn to one-world intercultural messages. Banai validates such a vision in theory, but only in the context of the traditional Jewish approach: that all the world will eventually be united, but not in Lennonite love and atheism, rather in the spirit of the Hebrew prophets and biblical religion.

Any other thoughts?

(For help decoding the song's reggae references, see blogger Eliyahou from Tsarphati. Reggae - both the music and the culture - is very popular among today's Israeli youth.)

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Wendy Shalit responds to her critics

...though I'm not sure to what extent she moves this discussion forward.

Hints from Rabbi Heloise

Last week I brought you the laundry of the future. Today, laundry tips from the past, straight from the Babylonian Talmud (Shabbat 19a - also here):
Said Rabbi Tzadok, "Such was the practice of the followers of Rabban Gamliel: They would give white clothes to the laundry three days before Shabbat, and colored clothes even on Erev Shabbat. And from their words we learned that whites are harder to clean than colors."

Abayyei gave a colored garment to the laundry. He asked, "How much do you want for it?" He said, "The same as for white." He responded, "The rabbis have already anticipated you!" [i.e., they said that colors should be cheaper to launder than whites]

Said Abayyei, "One who gives a garment to the laundry should measure it when he gives it in and measure it when he gets it back. For if it is larger he ruined it by stretching, and if it is smaller he ruined it by shrinkage."

Monday, February 14, 2005

Soccer Dad is back in play

In a surprising unannounced move sure to please fans and critics alike, Soccer Dad (aka David Gerstman) has reenabled comments on his site, after a three-month hiatus due to rampant comment spam.

Rumor has it that the functionality was restored in exchange for Sammy Sosa and a blogger to be named later.

Asked for a response, the Baltimore Orioles refused to comment.

When Abu Mazen speaks, people listen

Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas schmoozed with the New York Times yesterday. Some thoughts:
  • It's disconcerting to see the Palestinians with a leader who seems sane and responsible. That will take some getting used to - for all sides, I imagine. All in all, it's a good thing.

  • The Times headline (at least for the online edition): "Abbas Declares War With Israel Effectively Over". "Effectively over"? What does that mean? According to the body of the article:
    Mr. Abbas said the war with the Israelis would be over "when the Israelis declare that they will comply with the agreement I made in Sharm el Sheik, and today our comrades in Hamas and Jihad said they are committed to the truce, the cooling down of the whole situation, and I believe we will start a new era."

    Oh. It means, "when the Israelis do what I want them to." In other words, "not over yet"!

  • Though he speaks of negotiating with Israel to implement the US/European diplomatic "road map", he effectively rejects key elements of it. The road map demands the disarming of "militant" groups such as Hamas as a first step; Abbas sidesteps this, talking instead of gradually converting them into "democratic" political parties. This sounds unlikely so long as they keep their weapons. Israel will have trouble moving forward on diplomacy if Hamas and Islamic Jihad keep their guns cocked.

  • The road map envisions a "provisional" Palestinian state, its permanent borders to be determined in later negotiations. The idea is to avoid all the irreconcilable "final status" issues; by targeting an interim agreement, maybe the sides can reach a deal. Abu Mazen (like me, but for different reasons) rejects this:
    "If it is up to me, I will reject it." Palestinians will see an interim solution as a trap, replacing a final settlement, and "peace will not prevail anymore in the region," he said.
    "So it's better for us and for the Israelis to go directly to final status," he said. "I told Mr. Sharon that it's better for both sides to establish this back channel to deal with final status and go in parallel with the stages of the road map."

    This (again) confirms my prediction that There Will Be No Palestinian State.

Netanyahu wasn't attacked!

Who's behind the smear campaign against Sharon's right-wing opponents?

Friday's headlines screamed that Netanyahu had been attacked by a handful of "right-wing extremists" while attending a wedding in Kfar Chabad. They had shouted at him and thrown plates at him. His bodyguards rushed him back to his car via a side entrance, only to discover that all his tires had been slashed.

Gradually, it has become clear that this story is fiction. First, somehow no one at the scene was arrested, or even brought in for questioning about the incident, except for one hapless 17-year-old whose only crime appears to be that he attended the wedding. He's currently being held under house arrest under suspicion of "verbal assault".

Then, Sunday's papers reported that Netanyahu's tires hadn't been slashed either. Rather, he had a flat in one tire. His driver had remained with the car, and there was no indication that anyone had tampered with it. The flat was just a flat. This, of course, was buried on page 6.

Today, it is reported that Netanyahu hadn't even realized anything out of the ordinary had happened. He hadn't been rushed away from the wedding; he left early via a side entrance as originally planned. Nothing was thrown at him, and none of his group heard curses or shouts. He was unaware of any attack, and was stunned by the next morning's headlines.

So what gives? If anything happened at all, Netanyahu was at most confronted by noisy protestors. Far from an assault, that is legitimate democratic action. So where did the stories come from? Who reported this alleged assault - of which the alleged victim was unaware? The original news reports all quote anonymous "eyewitnesses".

It feels like 1995 again
Yes, as the Israeli papers have been claiming incessantly this week, it does feel like 1995 again - but not the way they intend it. Again, incidents of questionable veracity are being exploited to whip up fear and anger against the opponents of the prime minister's controversial diplomatic program. Again, legitimate protest is being portrayed as anti-democratic and a threat to public safety.

A priceless quotation from Infrastructure Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, who reports receiving threatening letters: "The letters, even if they are fictitious, one mustn't dismiss them. Rabin shut me up. I tell you, they'll try to kill the prime minister."

"Even if they are fictitious"? What if they are utter fabrications? What if they are a deliberate attempt to besmirch the prime minister's opponents? Why not find out what they are before hurling baseless accusations around? Or is that the whole point of the exercise?

The height of journalistic irresponsibility: Maariv, which ran side-by-side photographs yesterday of Rabin portrayed in SS uniform at a 1995 demonstration against the Oslo accords, and Sharon portrayed in Soviet uniform in recent anti-disengagement posters. The message: History is repeating itself. Have we not learned our lessons?

Only Maariv neglected to mention who distributed the Rabin-SS poster in 1995: Avishai Raviv, an agent provocateur reporting to Israel's security services. The poster was never displayed by other demonstrators, nor were they even aware of its presence. It was handed directly by Raviv to Israel Television reporter Nitzan Chen, who broadcast it and passed it to the newspapers. In fact, many of the violent incidents attributed to right-wing extremists in the 1993-5 protests against Oslo were actually perpetrated by none other than Raviv himself.

Is the Prime Minister's Office - which runs and supervises the state security services - using the same tactics now as it did then? How many of the recent threats and verbal assaults against government officials have been invented by overzealous security agents or left-wing smear artists? Has Maariv even tried to find out who's behind the Sharon-Stalin poster? Perhaps they're afraid of what they'll discover?

Yes, it feels like 1995 again. The prime minister, with a bare majority in the Knesset, is forcing through a program opposite to the one he was elected on. He tramples democratic procedure, cynically manipulating it for his own ends without regard to the long-term damage. He derides and dismisses his opponents, accusing them of violence and denying the legitimacy of democratic protest. Is Sharon (or his underlings), like Rabin, also running agents to infiltrate his opponents and undermine their campaign from within?

Israeli society is fragile in the best of times. But Sharon seems determined to shatter it.

No, the lessons of 1995 have apparently not been learned.

[Update: Aaron Lerner of IMRA quotes Israeli reporter Amnon Abromovich that the Netanyahu incident was staged for the press. Hat tip: Tzemach Atlas.]

Sunday, February 13, 2005

Haveil Havalim - call for submissions

I'll be hosting next week's edition of Haveil Havalim, the weekly roundup of the best of Jewish and Israeli blog postings. Please send submissions to me before Sunday using this link, or by e-mailing to biur_chametz at yahoo dot com. To host future editions of Haveil Havalim, please contact David Gerstman: dhgerstman at hotmail dot com.

This week's edition can be found at SoccerDad.

Thursday, February 10, 2005

Does Shmuley read DovBear?

Shmuley Boteach criticizes American Jewish conservatives who champion Christianity: is incumbent upon the Jewish community to stand up for itself and not pander to our Christian brethren's sensibilities. Such pandering insults Christians by offering them a fraudulent relationship, and it insults Jews by reinforcing the age-old stereotype of the court Jew with no backbone.

Sadly, many of my Jewish conservative colleagues, bending to market forces, increasingly see their role as champions of Christianity rather than of their people.


Now, I too want to see a very robust Christianity in America. But surely these writers understand the paucity of committed Jews capable of promoting something authentically Jewish in American culture. Are not the millions of Christian champions of Christianity enough? Will we Jews forever consign Judaism to the status of a backwater religion?


Will Judaism ever find a high-profile voice in the world? Or will we forever be forced to choose between Jewish isolationists who argue that Judaism is only for Jews, and apologists who practice Judaism but champion a religion that claims to have supplanted it?

So, Duvie, still think he's a blinkered Christianity groupie?

(And yes, I know you don't "want to see a very robust Christianity in America." But do you give Shmuley any credit here?)

Double the Adar, double the fun

Is it Adar yet?

"When Adar begins we increase rejoicing," goes the halacha. But, with Adar I starting today, a pressing question arises: In a Jewish leap year, does this apply to both months of Adar, or only to Adar II, the month when Purim is celebrated?

In other words, is it really Adar yet, or is only next month considered Adar for halachic purposes?

Rav Yair Kahn of Yeshivat Har Etzion addresses the question in this essay.

The summary: According to most opinions, you can start partying now. (Okay, I'm paraphrasing a bit.)

Chodesh Tov. Really!

Mazal Tov, Cathy & Irving!

A belated Mazal Tov to Cathy and Irving on their belated wedding. Comics readers the world over are sheppen nakhes.

Is it true that even at goyish weddings the music is too loud? We were always led to believe they had class!

Tuesday, February 08, 2005

Star Wars Summit IV: A New Hope?

"A New Hope", announce the Israeli headlines, in an unwitting echo of George Lucas. Will we open this most recent "window of opportunity"? Will we fall through and splat on the pavement? Reflections on this questionable occasion:

  • Sharon is to meet Abu Mazen and other leaders to declare an end to years of vicious Israeli-Palestinian violence and a renunciation of terror, and to inaugurate a new era of peace and reconciliation. This is the first such momentous event since... a year and a half ago.

    Remember this?

  • Condi Rice has hit on the formula for a successful secretary of state visit: Come only after the parties have already worked everything out by themselves.

  • Reaching a ceasefire before starting diplomatic negotiations is exactly in accordance with the position Sharon has taken since he was first elected almost exactly four years ago. (See what the Guardian's cartoonist thought then!) The critics said it couldn't be done - a ceasefire was impossible without first negotiating a political settlement. There is no such thing as a military victory over terrorism, they insisted. Will they admit their error?

  • In fact, Israel defeated the intifada through a combination of intensive military operations, cautious diplomacy, and persistent fence-building. The Israeli public showed unexpected stamina in the face of unrelenting assaults, and ultimately the Palestinians tired first. The situation would be nearly ideal - if Israel hadn't also unilaterally decided to concede significant territorial and strategic assets, setting dangerous precedents and undermining its negotiating position. We have a talent for snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. (See my analysis of the disengagement plan.)

  • Israelis - and foreign observers - constantly agonized over whether Arafat was part of the problem, or the only Palestinian leader who could possibly be part of a solution. I hope this question has finally been definitively settled. Whether Abu Mazen can move towards a solution remains to be seen, though.

  • A ceasefire is welcome - or is it? If the "ceasefire" means that Hamas and its fellow terrorhoids will retain their weapons, ready at any moment to return them to duty; that hundreds of imprisoned terrorists will be released from years of incarceration, freshly trained and motivated to return to action; that our enemies will be freed from the pressure of constant Israeli assault to concentrate on rebuilding their capabilities - then in the long run we will be no better off than we were, and this is nothing more than a temporary respite until the next round of warfare. Star Wars V: The Empire Strikes Back?

  • Looking back, the collapse of the intifada resulted most directly from the deaths of our enemy's leaders: Israel's killing of Hamas leaders Yassin and Rantisi, and the recent demise of Arafat. Remember the scaremongering after Yassin was killed? "He'll kill more in death than he did alive!" cried our enemies. "It may have been right, but it was also stupid," warned our friends. In fact, it severely crippled Hamas. If we had only done it sooner?

  • It is human nature to assume that things will continue as they are. During the height of the terror assault, we could hardly imagine that it could end, and had no consensus as to how. Now that it's (essentially) over, we easily pontificate about new eras and peaceful solutions, as if it couldn't just as easily be reignited. Let's stay cautious, shall we? If we've learned no other lessons from the failed Oslo process, at least that one? Please?

  • Nothing that is said today will change one essential fact: There is no basis today for agreement on final-status arrangements between Israel and the Palestinians. The divisions remain in place on all the fundamentals. No Palestinian leader can compromise on the return of refugees, the holy places in Jerusalem and elsewhere, territorial contiguity between Gaza and the West Bank, the removal of all Jewish settlements, even (apparently) recognition of Israel's right to exist as a Jewish state. And no Israeli leader can concede those points, at least not sufficiently. At best, we can look forward to the quasi-stability of a medium-term stalemate, while diplomatic pressure and sporadic violence continue in some form or other. Whatever happens in Sharm, it won't bring peace.

  • I predicted in November that "There will be no Palestinian state". Looking back, do I stand by that prediction? True, Abu Mazen has regularly spoken of aspirations for statehood, but under what conditions? I can't envision the Palestinians declaring statehood with only Gaza and a few Samaritan hilltops in their hands. That would be tantamount to admitting defeat on their larger goals. All in all, I think my analysis stands.

  • Sharon is the first Israeli leader in memory not to kowtow to the Egyptians, seeking them out and groveling for their approval. Mubarak has eventually come around himself. Israel should not have to forefeit its self-respect to stroke Egypt's, and Sharon deserves credit for this change.

  • Egypt and Jordan apparently plan to return their ambassadors after withdrawing them after October 2001. They should not be allowed to reap benefits for simply doing what their peace treaties with Israel commit them to doing anyway.

  • Anyone else notice how Miss Rice referred to "President Abbas"? The Oslo Accords stipulated that the head of the Palestinian Authority would be referred to in English as Chairman (finessing the fact that the Arabic title, ra'is, usually means president), and the U.S. was always careful to refer to Chairman Arafat. What's changed with Abbas? Is this a deliberate change in policy?

  • Summits sure ain't what they used to be! Remember when a summit meant Kennedy-Khrushchev, Nixon-Brezhnev, Reagan-Gorbachev? Sharon-Abbas-Abdullah-Mubarak is an important regional powwow, but a summit? I think not.

Monday, February 07, 2005

Farewell to laundry detergent?

With Pesach only eleven weeks away, I bring you some useful household cleaning tips.

I noticed this story in today's Ma'ariv, reprinted from the Daily Telegraph (registration required). Excerpts:

A British scientist has found a way of cleaning clothes using nothing but water.

Richard Pashley, a professor of physical chemistry at the Australian National University in Canberra, has discovered that when tiny air "particles" are removed from water - a process known as "de-gassing" - the water lifts oily stains from the surface of clothes, allowing soap-free cleaning.

Prof Pashley said that the technique was so effective that even the greasiest stains could be removed. "You can use de-gassed water to clean whatever you have dirtied. We even experimented with Vaseline. We cleaned it off completely. This is a new area of science - the mixing of oil and water. It could be a cleaning revolution."

Brilliant, no? But there's a catch:

In his experiment, Prof Pashley, whose findings are published in The Journal of Physical Chemistry, de-gassed water by freezing it with liquid nitrogen.

Mom! I can't do the laundry! We're out of liquid nitrogen!

There may be an alternative, though:

To simplify the process in the future, he intends to develop semipermeable membranes to de-gas water as it passes through.

"He intends to develop"? Don't hold your breath. Let's check back in ten years and see if this pans out commercially.

The paper was published in the Journal of Physical Chemistry B. The full text is available for a fee.

The Patriots - Israel's NFL team

Jerusalem Post sportswriter Steve Leibowitz explained yesterday why Israelis should support the New England Patriots:

Soon after his New England Patriots play in Super Bowl XXXIX Sunday night in Jacksonville, Florida, team owner Robert Kraft will visit Israel to see the Grand Re-opening of Kraft Family Stadium in Jerusalem.

Mr. Kraft and his wife Myra will take part in the February 23 ceremony that will mark the completion of a $500,000 project whose focus is installing artificial grass, the top-of-the-line Fieldturf, in Israel's only American football facility. ...Kraft Family Stadium... has become home to a 70-team, 900-player flag-football program in the heart of Israel's capital.

The Patriots' owner and his wife are also deeply invested in Israel's economy, and the future and well-being of the Jewish state. Robert Kraft is the primary shareholder of the $40-million Carmel Container Systems in Caesarea, the largest export packaging plant in the country. The company provides jobs for hundreds of Israeli workers.

Mrs. Kraft visits the country several times each year and is directly involved in assisting numerous Israeli welfare projects relating to women in distress, new immigrants, and quality of life.

Unfortunately, I missed last night's game (this morning, really - it started at 1:30am!), since this year it wasn't carried on Israel's basic cable service. Maybe I can still watch it on tape.

Update: I just noticed that Am Echad already blogged this article.

Sunday, February 06, 2005

What's Italian for "Plus ça change"?

My wife and I met on a drizzly, cold Jerusalem winter evening some eleven years ago. Our first date was at a dairy Italian restaurant, long since gone, a short walk from the central bus station.

That night, the restaurant was full of American girls - sorry, women - studying at Jerusalem's one-year seminary programs. Many parents visit their younguns during the year abroad, and the winter has the twin advantages of being halfway through the year and allowing off-peak airfares. The students, for their part, try to exploit the visit to finagle a dinner out for their flock of friends.

We managed to get acquainted despite the noisy tables of young women surrounding us, enthusiastically tucking into pasta and salad at the expense of someone's parents.

Recently, as part of our ongoing commemoration of our tenth anniversary, we headed back to Jerusalem to reprise our first date, at a different dairy Italian restaurant.

As we entered on a cold midweek evening, we were surprised to find the restaurant full. We burst out laughing, though, on realizing it was full of American seminary girls.

Our table for two this time was located next to a long table with some twenty young ladies, presided over by (presumably) the mother of one of them in her blond sheitel. The girls were impeccably dressed and made up, as if they were out on a collective shidduch date. At least one of them clutched a Prada handbag. (So much for eschewing materialism.) We hadn't dressed up like that even when we were dating!

If, on a winter night, Jerusalem's Italian dairy restaurants are all packed with seminary girls, where, you might ask, are all the yeshiva bochurim? The explanation is simple. Offered a restaurant meal on someone else's tab, what self-respecting yeshiva guys would choose pasta? Nothing less than steak will do! While the females, one presumes, either find beef unfeminine, are disproportionately vegetarian, or just fear there will be too few diet salads on offer.

Sometimes it's the strangest things which are the ones that never change.

Thursday, February 03, 2005

Literature and ideology

All right, my turn. (See also here, here, here, here and here.)

The last work of American Jewish fiction I've read was, I think, The Chosen, so I know nothing about the current cast of characters. Jonathan Rosen, Tova Mirvis, Nathan Englander, et al are just names to me. I have no opinion on their characters or plots. But I know a disingenuous argument when I read it.

I'm not interested in outing the "outsider insiders." What matters is not so much the background of the authors as the portrayal of the subjects.

Accused by Wendy Shalit of portraying Orthodox Jews unsympathetically, Mirvis essentially pleads fiction:

[Shalit] attacks books for depicting characters who deviate from communal norms.... People like Shalit attack a story by saying, "But not everyone is like this." Of course not. But the fiction writer is saying, "Let's imagine one person who is."

The variety and particularity of human experience, this is the stuff of fiction. Novels ask what it feels like to be a particular person; they seek to burrow into a life, an inner consciousness. Fiction isn't about what people should do or should feel. It doesn't set out to confirm what we already believe. Reading isn't an exercise in seeing ourselves as we wish to be seen; novels are not dolled-up photographs in which no one blinks and we always look our best.

... Shalit espouses an approach to literature in which the message matters most of all. The crucial question is whether the portrayal is positive or negative. Shalit can allow for some small moments of human pettiness, as long as they never challenge any pre-held truth....

Literature in service of some other value is not literature, or at least not good literature. When we require our novels to promote, idealize and proselytize, we strip them of their capacity to explore, express, examine and, most importantly, imagine other lives besides those we actually live....

In short: 1) It's fiction; it doesn't have to be real; 2) It's about the specific fictional characters, not an entire society; 3) Good literature is not about ideology.

This is absurd. Any "good" work of literature says something about the world beyond the particular characters and plot. A novel is large enough to portray the complexities of characters and the societies they live in.

If one Orthodox character in a novel is unsympathetic, while others are warm and genuine, that's literature (and life). But if all the Orthodox characters in a book, let alone in an author's collection of works, are negatively portrayed, that's axe-grinding. That says, "I'm the brave author, exposing a world of pseudoreligious phonies." When the author purports to come from that world, the message is all the more poignant.

Mirvis's claim that good literature is not about a message is especially hard to support. Are The Time Machine, The Jungle and The Grapes of Wrath - to name just a handful - not about messages? Countless authors, including many of the greats, have based their works around ideological messages. They are acclaimed for their social critiques. Whether or not they are good literature depends on how well they use language, how insightful are their observations of character, how believable are the worlds they create.

Literature in which Orthodox Jewish society is uniformly portrayed as hypocritical and superficial is no less ideological than literature in which it is portrayed as beautiful and flawless.

Shalit is right that the general public easily "gets" the message that Orthodox Jews are not all they're cracked up to be. And unlike Mirvis, the non-Orthodox and non-Jewish public has no personal experience against which to balance these fictional impressions. The "fiction" defense only flies if the reader can reasonably be expected to recognize the novelized world as more fiction than fact.

I propose a simple test: If the author were not Jewish, would we be condemning the portrayal of Jews, or Orthodox Jews, as antisemitic? That should separate the literateurs from the axegrinders.

Wednesday, February 02, 2005

Olive avoidance stress syndrome

It's hard to live in Israel without eating olives. (Or watching soccer - more on that in a future post.)

I'm doing the best I can, though. No matter how long I live here, there are some pleasures I simply don't appreciate. Acquired tastes? Not for me. Much to my wife's chagrin. (Regarding olives, not soccer.)

At least I can cope with black olives. Even when chopped, they stand out clearly in a tuna salad and can be extracted with only minor surgery (though on Shabbat it's a bit more delicate).

But the green ones are devious. They sit there disguised as pickles, waiting for my unsuspecting palate. When I'm least prepared - yech! What should be a pleasurable dining experience becomes a source of unnecessary stress.

Olives chopped into a salad should be required to identify themselves clearly. Being black is a good way. Olives should not be allowed to wear camouflage green in an environment with other green vegetables.

Somehow I don't think the consumer advocates will back me on this one.

Groundhog Day and the Jewish question

Groundhog Day falls halfway between the winter solstice and the vernal equinox, apparently tracing its heritage to ancient midwinter festivals.

As I noted recently, Tu Bishvat is similarly intended to fall just prior to the middle of winter.

Which do I prefer? Outside my window, the hills are green and many of the trees bear leaves and flowers. Take that, Pennsylvania!

Punxsutawney, Israel

I woke up this morning, poked my head out of the covers, saw shadows, curled up again and went back to sleep.

Six more weeks of winter, anyone?

Tuesday, February 01, 2005

Israel's constitutional erosion continues

The Jerusalem Post's most eligible columnists, Caroline Glick and Evy Gordon, today both address aspects of Israel's deteriorating constitutional structure.

Glick takes Attorney-General Meni Mazuz to task for his decision to undermine the JNF, effectively nationalizing all its land:

The law states that lands owned by the JNF - a privately owned and funded trust - are to be administered in accordance with the JNF's charter. Mazuz decided that from now on, the ILA will ignore the JNF's charter and administer its lands in the same manner as it administers state-owned lands.

The JNF was founded at the dawn of modern Zionism for the purpose of raising money from Jews in the Diaspora and in Israel to buy lands in the Land of Israel for Jewish settlement. Its charter stipulates that JNF lands are to be used specifically for Jewish settlement. Stemming from this, it was agreed in 1960 that the ILA would only lease JNF land - which comprises some 13 percent of the total land in Israel - to Jews.

Gordon, meanwhile, notes that Israel's High Court has taken another bold step towards limiting the right of the public to choose its own leaders, this time indicating that officeholders can be disqualified based on public statements which call their moral judgment into question:

Last week, the High Court of Justice abolished freedom of speech for senior government officials and replaced it with an Orwellian Thought Police. The justices declared themselves empowered to oust or deny promotion to any official whose public statements fail to meet their standards of morality and good taste.

Why don't we just dissove the state and replace it with a benevolent dictatorship of philosopher-kings with advanced law degrees? The result would be the same.

Pressuring posekim

Gil from Hirhurim relays an e-mail from a friend containing the following exceprts:

The recent ban on Rabbi Slifkin's books has far-reaching repercussions that need to be expressed. When a matter of this nature is brought to the attention of a rosh yeshiva, the voices he hears most loudly and frequently are those of the people who have the time and desire (and sometimes chutzpah) to place themselves directly in his path. They call him at all hours and show up at his yeshiva and other functions he attends, all to press the issue and the viewpoint that they advocate.

The antagonists of Rabbi Slifkin have the time, ability and chutzpah to make their voices heard. All of the others who are affected by this ban must now make their voices heard.


It is likely that the roshei yeshiva have not yet heard from people who have been hurt by the ban. Shouldn't they hear from us how much pain and confusion people are suffering? If we want to balance out the personal influence that those with louder voices have on the roshei yeshiva, we need to voice our pain. Let the roshei yeshiva know that we have been hurt.

Is this really how haredi halachic authorities decide where they stand? By the frequency with which they are harassed by their followers?

I have no illusions that rabbinic leaders are utterly free of political influences, or that Torah exists in a social vacuum. But this is just sad. As Moses warned the judges of Israel:

Do not respect persons in judgment; hear the small and the great alike; do not be afraid of the face of any man; for judgment is God's (Devarim 1:17).