Friday, September 30, 2005

An akeida thought for Rosh Hashanah

Several blogs - for example, On the Fringe and Mirty - are ruminating on the Akeida - the near-sacrifice of Isaac by Abraham, which is in the Torah reading for Rosh Hashanah.

How could Abraham ever have believed that G-d wanted him to sacrifice his son?

I think that the answer is in a drush : Vayaar et hamakom me-rachok - "And Abraham saw the place from a distance..'

Read 'Hamakom' in its sense of being a synonym ('kinnui') for the name of G-d. So the verse reads - "And Abraham saw G-d from a distance ..." [You could push this one stage further and take the word-play in Hebrew of 'seeing' and 'fearing' -- giving: "And Abraham feared G-d from a distance"..]

Abraham thought he was close to G-d, but actually he was far from G-d.

That is why he, Abraham, could have imagined that G-d really wanted him to sacrifice Isaac.

Our world is full of people who are far from G-d, but think that they are close to G-d, and therefore believe that G-d wants them to do appalling things. In the case of Abraham, G-d stopped him in time. He was never intended to kill Isaac, and G-d wanted to know whether he, Abraham, really understood the quality of mercy of G-d or not. [Edited:] Abraham passed the test on one basic level and was complimented on that by the angel. Yet could he have also not earned praise by refusing the command? Could there not have been two ways of passing the test - at two different levels?


Second thought, to which I have no answer:

  • On Rosh Hashanah, we read of the two sons of Abraham, one of whom is exiled into the desert, and the other of whom is taken for sacrifice Har haMoriah (= the Bet Hamikdash).
  • On Yom Hakippurim, we read of the two goats, one of whom is exiled into the desert, and the other of whom is taken for sacrifice in the Bet Hamikdash (= Har haMoriah).
--- what is the meaning of this profound parallel?

Thursday, September 29, 2005

Who's to judge?

I tracked down Susan Weiss's piece on the rabbinical courts in the new edition of The Jerusalem Report (Oct 3). Since there's no link, a brief overview: the majority of the piece is an attack on the configuration of the committee which chooses rabbinical judges, which currently consists of the two chief rabbis, two rabbinic court judges, two MKs, two ministers and two representatives of the Bar. 8/10 are currently men, too many are political and religious hacks who appoint to the bench through political deals. All this was clear when MK Haim Ramon, who held the balance of power on the committe, decided earlier this year that he was going to take revenge on the national religious for going against disengagement by supporting only ultra-orthodox candidates, and when we had to watch R. Ovadiah and R. Elyashiv do all the negotiations and settle the issue amongst themselves.
What Weiss does reveal is that out of the 140 applications for the 8 new positions on the court, only 5 percent have any academic education whatsoever, and only 5 percent served in the army outside the military rabbinate. Ie. -- majority ultra-Orthodox with no academic qualifications, no experience at all in the world of the majority of the people they are going to be judging. To me this raises the question, which Weiss doesn't address, of why there are so few national religious applicants whose candidacy can even be considered?
Either way the candidates that do present themselves are not properly vetted. Worst of all, most candidates "were unwilling or unprepared" to answer a question, put to them by one of the two women on the committee, about how they would deal in court with a husband who beat his wife and as a result, she was hospitalized / in a shelter.
"Apparently this was the first time a committee member had ever asked such a question... Until Shenhav asked her question, candidates' attitudes toward women's interests had never been examined."
Of-course not, 'cos they were too busy working out if candidates were Ashkenazi or Sephardi, and if they supported this rabbi or that. Once that's settled, what their attitudes are to the issues and the people they're going to be judging, what their qualifications are to be sitting on that bench are less important (Weiss notes that among the candidates considered 'pro-women,' those with too many academic qualifications were vetoed as well). And that's how you end up with this.
It's been clear for a long time that the composition of this committee is a disaster and certainly, tackling it -- and clarifying the criteria for who gets to be appointed -- is one very obvious way to tackle the attitudes and strange behaviour of the rabbinical courts. But Wiess goes one further:
Of-course, women have never sat on the rabbinic bench... And until a woman can be appointed to the bench, No Judge is a Good Judge. A judiciary that precludes women from the benh cannot be fair, impartial or empathetic to the pain of women who appeal to courts for justice.
Now, before certain commentators jump to proclaim that women cannot serve as dayanim, her suggestion is not completely new and unheard of. The widely respected Rav Ya'akov Ariel -- who would have been the current chief rabbi of Israel, had politics not intervened -- had to say on the matter in 2002:
There is no halachic obstacle to women serving as rabbinical court judges, Ramat Gan Chief Rabbi Ya'acov Ariel said this week.
Ariel, considered one of the leading stricter rabbis of the National Religious Party, reportedly made the comment during a symposium at Bar-Ilan University.
Aviad Hacohen, director of the Mosaic Center, which sponsored the symposium, quoted Ariel as saying there is no obstacle in terms of the learning and knowledge of women today.
The more often these ideas are heard and pushed for, the quicker they will become reality; so more power to Susan Weiss, and I'm all in favour. The day when we will see it happening, however, is still far off; at the moment, we can't even get enough people to press for the the committee appointing the judges -- of whatever gender -- to be rid of political/religious hacks, include more women's voices and more modern Orthodox people, or to press for the men appointed to the bench to be better qualified, more moderate, more considerate towards women and to include more modern Orthodox. All this, despite real and very harsh anger at the Rabbinic courts amongst the public. What does it take, in Israel, to translate anger at the system into action??????

The rabbi and the visa

The latest on the case of Moscow's Chief Rabbi being denied entry to Russia is that may have had something to do with a change in the visa rules, which he was apparently unaware of. It still appears that he had a valid visa which was revoked at customs. The exact story, therefore, is still unclear and KEROOR, the organisation Goldschmidt is affiliated to, is reserving comment for now.
I should add two things. First of all, I find it weird that R. Goldschmidt was apparently unaware that his visa needed changing -- most foreign workers are extremly tuned in to these issues. This is particularly true in light of the fact that Russian Chief Rabbi Adolph Shayevitch's comment that R. Goldschmidt has never had any visa problems in the past is not quite right, as can be seen from this memo from 2001. You would think that under such circumstances, keeping his visa valid would be even more important, making this whole episode even more puzzling (either the Rabbi was extremely negligent or, how shall I put this politely, there's more to the authorities' story).
Second, regarding the allegations in the comments sections here that people who jumped to the conclusion that it may have had something to do with Chabad's Rabbi Lazar were hate-mongers. The fact is, this is the conclusion many people in Moscow itself jumped to. Indeed, Berl Lazar's own spokesperson -- knowing of the rumors it had something to do with visa problems -- said, in the same breath, that his organisation is ready
"to render every possible assistance to Rabbi Goldshmidt to get an entry visa if he asks for such help".
"Unfortunately, I don't know the details of the refusal of an entry visa to Rabbi Goldshmidt. If we are talking about a conflict within the community, it is absolutely outrageous and inadmissible to use such ways to settle accounts."
It's strange that he brings this up himself, without actually denying it, especially after the focus shifted to the visa issue. In any case, I can promise you that Rabbi Gorin wasn't responding to allegations by bloggers... and the very facts that such suspicions were the first thing that came to so many minds; that the 'conflict within the community/tug-of-war' (in other translations) is so openly and matter-of-factly referred to; and that R. Gorin actually leaves open the possibility it had something to do with this conflict -- speaks volumes here about the state of play in this community.

Where did the Nazis escape to? Some clues...

BBC World news carries this totally bizarre story about a German-language magazine published in Namibia. Why is there a German magazine in Namibia? Who reads it? Who is the local German population? The answer to the last question may shed light on the story - apparently the magazine carried an ad paid for from Germany celebrating Simon Wiesental z'l's death.

This reminds me of a conversation I once had with an otherwise charming gentleman (he was a genuine ohev Yisrael) who was the Head of a German-language school near Montreal. I asked him who his students were. Without a trace of self-consciousness he replied:"About a third are from old German families who settled in the area as farmers many years ago; about a third are the children of diplomats and businessmen; and about a third are the children of families who've moved up from South America." South America!!!!! I was stunned. Imagine morning roll-call: "Bormann - did you bring your math book? Mengele - you have lunch duty today ... etc"

Wednesday, September 28, 2005


Does anyone know how to create a jump in a post in Blogger? 'Cos if anyone does, I have something long to put up...

Temple Mount treasures

The JPost is reporting that a relatively rare seal dating back to the time of the first Temple, with writing yet to be deciphered, has been found in Jerusalem. It's importance lies in that it comes from the Temple Mount complex -- indeed, it was found in the pile of rubble from Temple Mount thrown out by the Waqf six years ago while building in Solomon's Stables. At the time, their overt disregard for archeaological procedure and for what treasures might be hidden in the ground they were dislodging was taken as one more attempt to erase the physical connection between the Jews, temple mount and the land of Israel.
Why did it take 6 years? Because the IAA inspected the material and declared it of no archaeological value, didn't want to look into it, and didn't want anyone else looking into it either. The seal was found by a Bar Ilan archaeologist working with a group who believed otherwise, and who believed that the IAA's decision was politically motivated.
Now who's proven right? And who knows what other archaeological treasures are in that pile -- and what other prices pieces of our history are being obliterated by the Waqf while Israel sits on its hands and watches?

UPDATE: A reader, who knows about these things sends an interesting explanation of what the item found actually is:
It's a tiny piece of tin that was used to mark official documents stored in archives and the Biblical-era equivalent of filing cabinets. The papyrus scrolls were rolled, tiedwith a string, and then a little piece of tin was affixed to the scroll.The tin was pressed with a seal from the government official involved. So it might just say "Clerk #4" or it might say someone really importantif the document was important. Over the centuries, the scrolls and the string degrade, but the bullas stick around. They're incredibly sturdy and thousands of them have been found all over Israel. First Temple period and prior is difficult because it's pre-coin period - so archaeologists are reliant on ceramics (pottery), stone (carved stuff on buildings), etc. It's stuff that's fairly destructible (though ceramicfragments are surprisingly hardy). What
Barkay [the archaeologist] is doing is so important-- and it would be wonderful if he finds more stuff.

The 'offending' passages

Gil understands the issue of how minor the revisions are in the new edition of Making of a Godol a little differently:
What is so shocking about this "Improved Edition" is how minor the changes are. If we are to take R. Kamenetsky at his word and believe that he revised all of the "offending" passages, then we now have a complete record of the issues that led to his ban and most public humiliation. One would hope that in order to be called cruel and sadistic, to be accused of intentionally trying to cast doubts on the fundamental principles of faith, to be called a Rasha Aritz (a wicked tyrant), etc. (quotes are from pp. 152, 160 of Anatomy of a Ban and were not stated by Gedolim but by interested parties) one's offense would have to be exceedingly egregious. But such is not the case. The "Improved Edition" of Making of a Godol only demonstrates how minor the author's indiscretions were, if they can even be termed indiscretions. The public humiliation, the name-calling, the black-listing, the financial damage and the betrayals are entirely incommensurate with the perceived offense.
If he's right, it's an even bigger shanda than before. But certainly, after the original was published, there were other passages that were singled out by the public as 'controversial,' which remain untouched in the revised "improved" edition, and the general implication which was deemed 'offensive' by so many at the time -- that the Gedolim learned secular studies, read secular books etc. -- is still there. Were today's "Gedolim" -- or those whispering in their ear -- not offended by these passages that others pounced on at the time, after all, but rather worried by i's that needed to be dotted, t's that needed to be crossed? It seems doubtful; I stick by my earlier explanation.

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

'Improved' edition, nudge nudge, wink wink

A number of blogs have begun to discuss the fact that R. Nathan Kamenetsky has released a new and "improved" (his wonderful word) edition of the Making of a Godol. (SIW even has an interview with him -- the first since the original book was banned -- presumably for the Forward, which is a curious choice for R. Kamenetsky.)
Although I haven't seen a copy of the "improved" book -- it's only being sold in Monsey -- what is clear is that it doesn't differ by much from the original. Yes, some details are very slightly toned down and even exorcised (see Steven's interview for another detail, in the question about promoting secular knowledge) but it also seems that many of the most controversial and remarkable passages -- eg. the story about R. Aharon Kottler's letters to his fiancee -- seem still to be there.
Indeed, reading the examples of the changes R. Kamenetsky did make, and reading his attitude in Steven's interview, it becomes clear that he is keeping to the strict letter of his word, to obey / show respect to today's "Gedolim" by not allowing the sale of the book they banned (can't remember what he said exactly, but it was to that effect) -- whilst, in reality, basically giving them the finger. Given the limited number of changes, and their subtlety, the very word "improved" is a massive, ironic snub to those who disliked the first edition.
What does this mean? Basically that the Gedolim's control over such matters, and their power of intimidation, is waning (mainly because their bans have been so widely perceived as inherantly unfair). In the past year, we've seen R. Slifkin re-issue basically the same books that were banned; and now this. OK, certain segments of the population may have thrown their books out or not bought them; but bans are meant as much to control authors as they are to control readers, and these two (... unlike one Rabbi Jonathan Sacks) have basically stood their ground, and lived to tell the tale.
How will the 'Gedolim' react to the "improved" edition? I'll be curious to see whether they turn a blind eye. For whilst one might argue that they were mislead, or allowed themselves to be talked into, banning the original edition, which they had never read -- and they were insistent enough about that one -- this book, whilst paying lip service to their authority, actually seems to be a defiant challenge to it, and therefore more is actually at stake.

(Some links through AJHistory)

Turf wars in the Russian Jewish community -- out of control?

According to Ha'aretz,
The chief rabbi of Moscow's main synagogue said Russian border guards had denied him entry to the country on Tuesday when he returned from a trip to Israel. Rabbi Pinkhas Goldschmidt, speaking on Ekho Moskvy radio, urged the authorities to review his case and let him return to Russia. He said the border guards told him that his Russian visa had been annulled, but gave no further explanation. He flew back to Israel after being denied entry.
Goldschmidt, chief rabbi at the Moscow Choral Synagogue, said he hoped the incident was a misunderstanding.
Well, not quite. Ma'ariv/NRG is quoting "sources in the Russian Jewish community" as blaming "the harsh competition between Jewish organizations in Russia" -- namely, Russian chief rabbi Berel Lazar, Putin's right-hand man, whose underhand tactics in order to win total control of his turf have already been well documented elsewhere.
Of-course, they also quote sources 'close to Lazar' denying this, saying that "being a moiser is the worst possible thing."
That's right -- it is, and in a country like Russia where the Jews are in any case a threatened minority which is vulnerable to the government's whims, playing off the government to settle personal and communal feuds and play petty power games makes it doubly so.
In fact, the thought that someone might have interceded with the government to get rid of a rival rabbi is so horrifying that one actually half hopes this was classic old anti-Semitism after all (as -- with Russia's recent track record -- it may yet turn out to be).

RELATED I: My first port of call when I read about Jewish communal politics in Russia -- Shmarya's take.
RELATED II: The Independent on tension caused by Chabad across eastern Europe. Overall, I tend to say that if people don't like Chabad, they should go out there and do the work themselves, but these wild west tactics they seem to be using in Russia aren't just about 'doing the work,' but about control.

Is this really being 'buried with dignity'?

Losing pets can be very traumatic for owners -- and the thought of one's pets in doggy (or rabbity/catty) heaven can be very comforting for many people. But do deceased pets really need a full-on religious funeral?
Yes, says a senior chaplain at one of America's universities:
Harold White, the senior Jewish chaplain at Georgetown University, has presided over several funerals for pets, including four of his own cats.
"The important thing is to bring solace to people who have suffered a loss," said White, who wings it with prayers of his own creation, because there is no set ceremony in Judaism for the burial of an animal. "I believe an animal who lived with dignity in the home should be buried with dignity."
But many religious leaders do not share his conviction. Most of the ceremonies White has performed have been for pet owners whose own clergy refused to officiate.
"I'm a pet lover," White said. "I think the clergy who would tend to officiate would be clergy who own pets."
Yeah, or who have way, way too much time on their hands. Who pays this guy's salary?
(And how could he bury a dog that hasn't had a bark-mitzvah?)

(Via Yeshiva Orthodoxy)

BBC World Service watchers

I have just (midnight Toronto, Monday) finished watching an extremely hard-hitting and critical interview with Rafiq Husseini -- Abbas's chief of staff -- on Steven Sackur's HARDtalk. For those used to criticising the BBC, this was an unusual programme. Sackur, his irritation obvious, tried to pin Husseini down on controlling Hamas, on corruption in the PA, and on stoppping attacks on Israel. Husseini said a number of astonishing things, including that Israel was "justified" in military actions in response to attacks. Not sure if it is yet viewable on the www, but since so much BBC reporting is biased, when they do something fair it is worth noting.

Should be viewable soon on

It also did not take more than a minute or so of listening to Husseini to have it confirmed that the PA has absolutely zero power or influence in Gaza (or possibly anywhere else either).

Monday, September 26, 2005

Young, poor -- and occasionally kosher

A new survey [unfortunately, it doesn't say what the criteria was for interviewing people] shows that "Younger and lower-income consumers are behind the growth in sales of kosher foods":
Of those respondents who said they "buy kosher occasionally," 70 percent were between the ages of 18 and 34. Further, 67 percent of those occasional kosher shoppers had annual salaries of less than $30,000 a year.
What do we make of this?
The younger shoppers also outpaced all other age groups in thinking that kosher foods were healthier and safer. Younger shoppers also said they were choosing kosher due to a desire for vegetarian and dairy-free items, and the need for a product list consistent with halal, the system of slaughtering animals in accordance with Muslim law. This was also true of those who earned less than $30,000.
We already knew that Muslims, veggies and health eaters were big consumers of kosher food. What's interesting here is the low-income factor, which I would associate primarily with the vegetarians; this source, for example, says that "vegetarians were significantly more likely to be of low income status" whilst this one explains that "In many areas, people are vegetarians because of inadequate income"; I would also assume lots of poor students are veggies. In the UK, Muslims are also relatively low-income, though I don't know what the situation is in North America. All this, of course, is counter-intuitive for us, as kosher food is generally perceived by practising Jews as more expensive and a (relatively) rich man's choice; but most of the consumers talked about here are only buying the occasional kosher product so it never really adds up and presumably the perception isn't shared.

Modern Orthodox Woman

Modern Orthodox Woman is back, and has a good posts on the growing inclination of young female graduates today to stay at home rather than work, as well as references to a discussion about women wearing tefillin and an article in the Jerusalem Report, which I will try and get my hands on, advocating that there should be female judges in Israel's rabbinic courts.

'This is supposed to be an anti-war rally, not an anti-Israel rally!'

The Indepundit describes an anti-war rally in San Diego, which pretty quickly gets hijacked by anti-Israel activists:

JAMAL KANJ, a fiery Palestinian from a group called Al-Awda, takes the podium. “We Palestinians,” he begins, “have been subjected to GENOCIDE at the hands of the Israelis for generations." He rants on. "In 1948, they forced us out of our homes, and today we must DRIVE THE JEWS FROM PALESTINE!”
Suddenly, a middle-aged man wearing a black “F the President” T-shirt rushes the stage, screaming at Kanj, “I’m TIRED of this CRAP! You people keep bringing this up! This is supposed to be an ANTI-WAR rally, not an ANTI-ISRAEL rally!”
Kanj yells back, into the microphone. Others in the crowd stand up and join in the
shouting match.
The Arab-Israeli conflict has arrived in San Diego.
Red-vested “peace monitors” converge on T-shirt Man, trying to contain this sudden outburst of dissent. They are followed closely by the San Diego Police Department, who quickly take control of the situation and lead the man away.
As T-shirt Man exits stage right, ANSWER front man Carl Muhammed enters from stage left, strutting in front of the platform and waving a large Palestinian flag. Carl and his radical Palestinian posse face down the angry Israel supporters, and the entire rally begins to descend into chaos.
In an effort to regain control of the rally, CodePink maven Barbara Jaffe-Rose takes the podium, declaring her solidarity with the Palestinian cause. “As an anti-war Jew, I support the Palestinian Right of Return, and demand the end of U.S. aid to Israel.” She attempts to lead the crowd in a cheer: “Not one penny, not one dime, U.S. out of Palestine!”
It flops.

What surprised me here is not the hijacking but that someone actually felt strongly enough to protest (was the man Jewish? It doesn't say) and that there was actually a serious contingent of 'Israel supporters' who again, felt strongly -- and confident -- enough to say something.
Read here for more -- particularly the outrageous comments by Nadia Keilani. Then compare that account to the sanitised account of the same protest here and here. You'd never know it was the same rally.

(Via Instapundit)

Shofar Idol

Moderately funny riff on American Idol (Pop Idol if you're British), but hey, it's in the Rosh Hashanah spirit. Click here .

A rotten party

Yesterday I asked 'Can Israel's elected officials get any more pathetic?' and as Kibi correctly predicted in the comments section, the answer was 'of course -- just wait until after the Likud Central Committee meets.'
Ok, the Likud central committee isn't elected (although who knows who's giving the orders), but it is (and it's scary even to write this) an important part of Israel's democratic mechanism. And last night, during an absolutely crucial meeting for Israel's largest political party, someone in that Committee deliberately sabotaged the microphone before Ariel Sharon stood up to speak -- in effect, silencing the Prime Minister, who ended up walking out without delivering his speech.
As Ha'aretz nicely summed things up: "The Likud Central Committee, the most widely detested body in the nation, managed Sunday night to plummet deeper into the depths of vile, repugnant behavior than ever before. "
And then some.
Our ruling party is itself ruled by a bunch of thugs, hooligans and petty criminals, to whom democracy and decency mean nothing -- and power and personal gain mean everything. What was the fight really about?
Sharon's opponents accused his supporters of being motivated solely by personal interests - a desire to retain status or jobs. But Oved Hugi, a central committee member from Yad Eliyahu, charged that jobs were at the root of the opposition to Sharon as well. "It's a battle between those who have jobs and those who don't have jobs," he said.
A rotten party like this has simply lost the right to govern and should be booted out of office as soon as possible before the country becomes run on baksheesh. Sadly, there's no alternative party suitable for power and the Israeli electorate is unlikely to treat them as they deserve. I would urge the Prime Minister to act as quickly as possible to set up an alternative party where people can vote for his policies without getting the Likud politics and corruption -- but the fish stinks from the head down.

UPDATE: Dutchblog Israel writes:
If I lived in a normal country I would probably be happy to see a party that in many respects represents the opposite of what I believe in heading for self-destruction. Still, as a leftwing Zionist watching what goes on in and around the Likud Central Committee not only fills me with revulsion, it also makes me sad and worried. Aware that the Labor party is hardly in a better shape than Likud, I know that this is the way in which our state is run and how the future of me and my family is being taken care of.

Try as they do, the French just can't help themselves...

A French dictionary was recalled after a computer virus caused the publication to revert to an edition with anti-Semitic definitions.
Earlier this week, MRAP, a French anti-racism association, charged that the 2005 edition of Le Petit Littre had reverted to an 1874 edition that contained racist and anti-Semitic definitions for entries such as “yellow,” “Negro” and “Jew.” The definition of “ghetto” reads, “neighborhood of a city inhabited by a mainly Jewish population.”
MRAP expressed its “indignation” at the publication, “which considers itself a resource for cultural reference, while it is stuffed with the worst racial stereotypes one could possibly imagine” and called for consumers, teachers and libraries to boycott the dictionary. A computer bug caused the 19th-century edition to be sent to the printer by mistake.
The dictionary’s publisher said the 2006 edition will be published with a foreword explaining the evolution of these terms since the 19th century.
It's a little strange no one noticed they were printing the edition from 1874 -- there must have been thousands of differences, not just the racist ones. I wonder what definition was under 'idiot'?

UPDATE: Here are the offending defitions (in French). The definition for 'Jew' includes: "Someone who sells things exorbitantly expensively, and in general whoever seeks to earn money with roughness."

Sunday, September 25, 2005

Taking pot shots

The rabbi who was caught driving under the influence of marijuana last month is now back with his congregation after a month's suspension (with pay). The NYT is running a long story which basically repeats the one they ran last month, about the community's dilemma whether to forgive, forget or to fire.
Amusingly, their longest quote is from a rather feisty 87-year-old woman saying that "the crime that was committed was against our government, not against our people" (would she have said that had he killed someone driving in that state?) and berating her fellow congregants:
"Who among us is perfect?... Who among you didn't take a little puff of marijuana? Who didn't get plastered and got behind the wheel, and didn't get caught? Who didn't take two cookies out of the supermarket and hand to your child?"
Um, me, me and me (to the last three...) -- although I don't know what this bubby's been up to. In any case, I guess an 87-year-old can say what I can't.
Ultimately, despite lots of hand-wringing, it comes down to this: out of 550 families, only 8 have actually left the shul over the rabbi's return. This is not a lot. He'll survive.

UPDATE: Orthomom's two cents. DovBear's.

Infertility -- a spiritual affliction?

Twice this year, we've talked about rabbis who attach moral and spiritual stigma to a physical disease (ie. imply people get cancer because they -- or even others -- sinned in some way). The NYT today has a short piece on people coming to the Lubavitcher Rebbe's grave because they believe it will help them conceive (...bad enough, but anyway), which includes a quote from one Dr. Richard V. Grazi, director of a Brooklyn clinic called Genesis Fertility and Reproductive Medicine, which has a patient base that is heavily Orthodox Jewish. He says:
"Many people believe disease is controlled to a certain extent by God and that infertility is a spiritual affliction," Dr. Grazi said. "You ask what brought them the child and they say, 'It was the rebbe.' And it's really impossible to prove either way."
What makes it even worse is that it sounds like this time, it's the victims of the condition themselves who are doing this.

Not informed

One last word on Simon Wiesenthal.
A farewell ceremony was held for him in Vienna last Wednesday, attended by Austrian Chancellor Wolfgang Schuessel. His funeral on Friday in Herzliya, Israel, was attended by the Italian, Austrian, Polish and British ambassadors, a representative of the German government, the deputy president of the Russian parliament.
But who was missing from the funeral?
According to Ha'aretz, not one -- not one! -- Israeli government minister bothered taking the time to go. Arutz 7 explains,
Education Minister (Likud) Limor Livnat announced that government ministers were not informed of the funeral arrangements for Nazi-hunter Simon Wiesenthal, who was laid to rest in Herzliya on Friday at noon.
I bet they don't wait to be 'informed' of the details of free trips overseas, or details of meetings to discuss overthrowing the Prime Minister. No -- they only 'wait to be informed' of details of funerals they have nothing to gain from attending, even if it would mean showing a bit of respect to one of the most prominent and important Jews of the past 50 years and doing their duty as the representatives of the public.
Can Israel's elected officials get any more pathetic?

Friday, September 23, 2005

So, whodunnit?

Steven I. Weiss -- who is getting his fourth reference in two days -- is trying to figure out who the rabbi who wrote the now-infamous disengagement-from-Israel piece can possibly be.
Whether he's successful or not, it hardly need saying that anyone who, under the boastful tagline "important, powerful rabbi," writes such a forceful, extreme and frankly hateful piece, should have the courage to stand by their convictions and put their name -- voluntarily -- to what they wrote. Obviously, I can't force (and hardly expect...) anyone to own up. But anything less both reduces the power of what they wrote -- and is simply cowardly.

Thursday, September 22, 2005

Out of the closet, into the controversy

Rabbi Alan Stadtmauer, principal of Yeshivah of Flatbush High Scool, resigned at the end of last year -- and has now revealed, in an email to a former student, that he has come out of the closet. SIW says he would like to hear more about R. Stadtmauer's personal story; certainly. But what I would also like to hear about a little more is how the coming out of a well-loved and respected rabbi (acc. to the Forward article) will affect the attitudes of his students, former students and colleagues to the issue of gay people in the Orthodox world. Perhaps this is a long-term question, but the Forward doesn't really address even how they've reacted now, other than to quote a dry letter from the school's president and a comment from student in the street saying that "I don't care so much that he's gay as that he's left religion" -- a quote which sounds suspiciously like the question posed by the student who originally wrote to R. Stadtmauer to inquire about his sexual orientation, who said, " i have nothing against the gay part if its true but i dont understand how you could give up your religion that easily."* Those comments, especially if (?) they come from two different students, are extremely interesting -- seemingly backing up R. Stadtmauer's comment in the email, that " I think most kids I know would be okay [with his homosexuality], but most adults would not," but it would be interesting to hear more on how they've reacted to this news.
Ultimately, more and more gay Orthodox Jews are talking openly about their homosexuality -- increasingly, people in positions of authority. As more people know Orthodox people they respect who are gay, and watch them struggle with all the accompanying issues, are attitudes already beginning to shift?

*In his email, R. Stadtmauer says he no longer feels bound by halacha, although he still believes in the value and truth of the Torah; he apparently told a member of the school's administration he was no longer an Orthodox Jew.

Non-Jewish victims of the Holocaust -- our allies?

Ephraim Zuroff's piece about Simon Wiesenthal in the JPost whittles down his legacy to a few seminal points, including this one:
The plight of the Nazis' non-Jewish victims was always a sensitive subject, but Wiesenthal consistently called for their recognition, convinced that Hitler's other victims were the Jewish people's best potential allies in Holocaust commemoration and education.
It's an interesting point because there have been a few instances this year where the Holocaust/ww2 has been treated as a Jewish-only concern. For example, Prince Harry wearing the Nazi uniform was treated primarily as an offence to the Jewish community, whereas it was really an offence to all victims of the Holocaust as well as all the Brits who fought the Germans and who were victims of the Blitz. Singling it out as a 'Jewish' issue made it seem as if Nazism was something offensive only to Jews. This very month, when Holocaust Memorial Day was under threat in the UK, the Muslims' claim that it wasn't fair to single out "Jewish suffering" was challenged on many grounds, but not really on the ground that the Holocaust wasn't only about the Jews. By accepting the Muslim vs. Jewish paradigm at face value, we helped politicize the Shoah.
Quite simply, we shouldn't box ourselves into a corner where we are fighting for Holocaust commemoration alone, and where it becomes a 'special interest' issue.

Etymology corner

Philologos has an incredibly interesting piece about the etymology of the word 'Abacus.'
To cut a long story (which is worth reading in full) short, his dictionary relates it to the Hebrew word 'Avak' -- dirt. The original abacuses, he says, were basically just boxes of dirt or sand in which geometrical diagrams could be drawn and calculations made -- and then erased.
But why, he asks, should this word come from the Hebrew, and not for example from the Phoenician 'Abak,' meaning sand?
This would seem a more plausible derivation, were it not for a curious and generally misunderstood Hebrew phrase that we find in the Talmud.
This phrase is avak sofrim, literally "scribes' dust," and it occurs in a passage in the Mishnaic tractate of the Sabbath. In a discussion of whether or not writing is permissible on the Sabbath, we read:
"Writing with ink, with arsenic, with chalk, with tree gum, with copper sulfate, or with anything that leaves a [permanent] impression is forbidden.... Writing with beverage, with fruit juice, in ordinary dirt [avak drakhim], in scribes' dust [avak sofrim], or in anything impermanent is permitted."
What does "scribes' dust" mean in this passage? If you look up avak sofrim in a Hebrew dictionary, you will read: "A powder scattered by ancient scribes on ink to dry it." In turn, this is based on traditional rabbinic interpretations of the phrase, such as Rashi's comment that it refers to "the powdered dust [afrurit] in a scribe's jar."
However, a moment's reflection should convince one that this is illogical. If writing in ink is forbidden on the Sabbath because it is permanent, how could dusting the ink to dry it be permitted? This makes no sense at all.Indeed, here "scribes' dust" can mean only one thing: fine dirt or sand kept by a scribe, not in a jar to powder ink but in a box so that it can be used to write erasable and therefore impermanent words or sums. One can only assume that the 11th-century Rashi made such a mistake because by the time he lived, the rod-and-bead abacus had replaced the obsolete sand abacus.
All very brilliant. But his theory has one weakness: why would a scribe need a box in which he can write, in dust, words and sums that can then be erased? It's hard to imagine.
I do have one suggestion, however, which would really strengthen Philologos's case for a connection between the abacus and "Avak Sofrim." Perhaps, instead of "Avak Sofrim" being translated as "Scribe's Dust," it should really be translated as "Counter's Dust" (as in, 'lisfor,' to count) -- ie., the reference in the Mishnah was to an abacus all along?

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Jew of the year

Just like last year, we'll be declaring a Jew of the Year on Erev Rosh Hashanah. Please leave your nominations -- with explanations -- in the comments, or email me at I'll try and post a list of people nominated so far sometime next week.

No driving, no bikes, no nothing

SIW clears up one of the questions on the New Square list of rules: women in the community are not allowed / expected not to drive.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Disengaging from the State of Israel -- from New Jersey

The repercussions of disengagement continue to flow. One of them is this rather long piece written by "a powerful, important rabbi in the tri-state area" -- who this blogger purports to name [UPDATE: Although the Rabbi named strongly denies he has anything to do with it] -- on why
the disengagement has... ushered in my personal divorce from the State of Israel. It is painful to say but the State Israel no longer reflects my values or aspirations, and no longer is worthy of my political or financial support.
The writer expresses disgust with a government which is prepared to move its own Jewish citizens, with a state where the government does not base its policies on the belief that the land is biblically promised to us, with a country which "has raised the art of schnorring to unprecedented heights," and with settlers, and settler leadership, who were not really prepared to fight to stay in Gaza and Northern Samaria. The crux of his argument is this:
As of now, Religious Zionism is dead in the water. For too long, we have endowed the secular, political state of Israel with a religious, even messianic dimension. The Satmar Rebbe, who posited that Jewish statehood before the coming of Moshaich was both illegitimate and ephemeral, is looking more and more visionary. Not that I believe he was inherently correct; I don’t. The emergence of the State of Israel was an opportunity offered by G-d after all the trauma and turmoil of the exile, to once again possess the land of Israel and build a Torah state. But we have failed, and the third Jewish commonwealth is slipping away before our eyes.
Actually, not all Zionists who are religious felt the need to be religious Zionists, and many people who find religious meaning in the state of Israel do not endow it with messianic meaning. The messianic dimension was the Gush Emunim message, which this rabbi seems to have swallowed hook, line and sinker, together with a large chunk of the National Religious camp, post 1967. Naturally, when this vision -- a misguided version of Zionism that results in inflating the value of land beyond all else -- explodes, their commitment to the state of Israel explodes, or is thrown into crisis, too. But the establishment of the state of Israel was never an opportunity to build a 'Torah state'; it was an opportunity to build a Jewish state, and there is a big difference.
He continues:
True, the secularists will deny this as they deny G-d, but religious Zionists will deny this too, wedded to a philosophy that presupposes that Israel has Messianic significance. Thus, they posit a redemptive process of hills and valleys, stops and starts—with the loss of Gaza and Samaria just another valley before the great hill. It could be true, but at its core, the line of reasoning is a tautology, and so self- justifying as to be irrefutable. If bad things are really good and good things are good, then what is bad ? At this point, one can certainly hypothesize that the state of Israel, as presently constituted, is not “the beginning of the flowering of our redemption” but rather an impediment to redemption – a product of the hoary arrogance typified by kochi v’otzem yadi – “my strength and the might of my hands has brought me this wealth.” Perhaps the redemption cannot come about through the auspices of a secular state, even as a first stage, because it is therefore flawed in its very foundation. Perhaps until we realize that we are utterly dependent on G-d and the redemption comes according to His will and timetable, we must try to build a Jewish state – and Jewish life everywhere – without any Messianic claims.
Perversely, building a Jewish state without Messianic claims is the answer; however, for him this is equated to a betrayal of what Zionism stands for, and he is, therefore, 'disengaging' from the state, its people and everything it stands for.
How sad that such a distorted understanding of the Zionist enterprise and what the Jewish state is all about has led to this. How sad that his commitment to the Jewish state depends on government policy, and that it's his way, or the highway to the State of Israel. How sad that he can't bear to be wrong and deal with the aftermath in a more mature way.
And how easy to say all this from New Jersey! Interesting that he's gone further than most religious Zionists who actually live in Israel -- who have to deal with the reality of the State and have nowhere else to go.
In any case, if the Rabbi named indeed wrote this piece, I'll be interested to see how his shul [UPDATE -- or any shul that turns out to be run by whoever wrote this piece] reacts; can any mainstream Orthodox shul in North America, other than the most extreme, actually accept a rabbi who says he is divorcing himself from the state of Israel and that the state might actually be an impediment to redemption???
There is actually, apparently, a memo going around the named rabbi's shul-- which someone forwarded to me -- in which a group of congregants who "have grown concerned about the atmosphere of tension, conflict and stridency that is increasingly pervading our shul" (one wonders what exactly has been going on there) have drawn up a mission statement which includes the following points:
  • Sermons should focus on Torah education and inspiration. Topics and events of social and political significance to the Jewish people, whether in Israel, the United States or elsewhere, should be presented with respect and tolerance for other perspectives. Explicit political partisanship must be avoided so that a spirit of unity prevails throughout the shul community...
  • Shul publications and events (e.g., the monthly bulletin, weekly mailings, guest speakers, etc.) may certainly encompass wider latitude of subjects, including politics. However, expression of alternative views and ideas on non-Halachik topics must be given equal opportunity and prominence.
  • The synagogue must be a place of civility and tranquility. No individual or group of individuals should be subject to public scorn or abuse, for any reason, by the lay or religious leadership. Where there are legitimate disagreements (between members or between members and the shul) they must be discussed and resolved with respect. There is no room for cynicism or sarcasm in dealing with individuals or in issuing public rebuke. Halachik issues must always be addressed with integrity and sensitivity.
Sounds, unfortunately, as if they don't want to fire him -- but that the rabbi can expect a long discussion with his Board shortly.

UPDATE: OOSJ's strong-worded take.

Simon Wiesenthal Z"L

Simon Wiesenthal, the Nazi-hunter, has passed away, aged 96. He retired just two years ago. See Meryl Yourish for links to all the obits.

Monday, September 19, 2005

Re-inventing the sunday schools

This Sunday I started teaching cheder / supplementary school again (grade 4), for the second year in a row (I also taught cheder for 2 years in Toronto in the late 1990s).
Although there aren't that many Sunday Schools (to my knowledge) in London, in the Diaspora as a whole there are just as many Jewish kids in Sunday Schools as in the day school system, and the Sunday School is certainly stronger outside of the large communities. As day school tuition rises -- and as Jews move out of the big towns because they are too expensive -- there are a number of people who are predicting the return of the Sunday School. The question is, a few decades after it went out of fashion, can the Sunday School / Cheder be made to work again?
The problems:
  • Most Sunday Schools schools are still run on a much more amateur level than most day schools. The teachers and often the administrators are volunteers like me, with plenty of good will but little or no teacher training.
  • While money (not enough, but money) is being directed at the day school system, I'm not sure that the same kind of money is going towards the Sunday Schools.
  • A problem I've personally encountered -- the lack of good teaching materials. There are about a thousand books for teachers on the chaggim, mitzvot, Israel etc. but few of them are actually any good (the exception seems to be Hebrew). As I understand it, this is really a problem in the day school system as well -- and the market is so fragmented that the chances of a really good, systematic curriculum and materials ever emerging are slim.
  • Most importantly, the perrennial problem of Sunday School education -- with so little time, what do you teach -- skills, knowledge or spirit? And can anything meaningful be accomplished in so little time?

These are, of course, similar problems to the ones experienced 30-40-odd years ago, however, in the interim, I believe two thing have changed, and those are parental commitment and the Jewish community's attitude to Jewish education in general. True, many of kids going to Sunday School are still there for complex reasons (parents can't be bothered to give them Jewish education themselves, it assauges guilt, promised the grandparents etc. etc. etc.) and as a result, many of the parents don't take Sunday School as seriously as they should -- but, as the rise in Jewish education in general shows, parents today are more interested in their children's Jewish education and I know that many of the kids in my class, for example, come from knowledgable and committed families. The Jewish community, too, is more committed to educating its kids in more inventive and creative ways than before. How can we harness these factors to make a success of the Sunday School this time round?

  • Educate the teachers. The Sunday School where I teach is encouraging its teachers to attend a formal year-long course (one evening a week) in teaching skills. It's also encouraging them to attend specially-organised Torah learning classes so that their own Jewish knowledge is developed. Both good ideas, especially the former.
  • Parental involvement. This is key, as we all know that the real education takes place at home and that for the Jewish education to be a success, the parents must be into it. The Sunday Schools should try and get the parents involved as much as possible, through activity days they can participate in with their kids, getting parents to help out in the school, etc.
  • No magic bullet. Since it's so hard to give these kids skills, knowledge and spirit in this one framework, Sunday School must be seen as part of a package which might include camp, Israel programmes (later on), youth groups etc. The Sunday Schools should be promoting these options heavily -- this did not happen, for example, in the Sunday School I taught in in Toronto, which, although Orthodox, was independent and not affiliated to any specific camp or youth group. And the community should be encouraging the parents to think in this way too.
  • The Internet. Cheap and easy way for dissemination of good teaching materials specifically for Sunday Schools, which is simply not being properly utilized at the moment.

Any other ideas?


Every so often, a survey shows that most / a big chunk of the population knows little about the Holocaust, and Jewish groups are up in arms at the thought that the Shoah might be 'forgotten.'
I've written here before about this being a symptom of a larger problem in society -- the demise of study of history in general.
If you really want an insight into how deep this problem runs, however, take a look at this story from Ha'aretz:
The French satirical magazine Le Canard Enchaine reported in its September 14th issue that during the visit of French Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy to the new Holocaust museum in Jerusalem's Yad Vashem on September 8, he asked - while perusing maps of European sites where Jewish communities had been destroyed - whether British Jews were not also murdered. Needless to say, Douste-Blazy's question was met by his hosts with amazement. "But Monsieur le minister," Le Canard quoted the ensuing conversation, "England was never conquered by the Nazis during World War II." The minister apparently was not content with this answer, which, according to the magazine, was given by the museum curator, and persisted, asking: "Yes, but were there no Jews who were deported from England?" ... According to an investigation by Haaretz on Sunday, the event actually occurred as described.
Perhaps -- apart from the astounding ignorance on display here -- the fact that he associates the deportation of the Jews with host populations rather than the Nazi occupiers also shows something.

Friday, September 16, 2005

A bitter 'lozenge' to swallow

After 57 years, it looks like the dispute between the International Red Cross and Magen David Adom over the use of the star of David symbol -- which resulted in the Israeli organisation being denied full membership of the IRC -- might finally be resolved.
The proposed solution has been on the cards for some time, and involves the IRC introducing a third symbol, in addition to the red cross and red crescent, which will be considered 'neutral' and 'secular' -- a red diamond, or 'lozenge.' Under certain circumstances (not during war situations), Israel and other countries which don't want to operate under a cross or crescent will be able to insert their own national symbol into the lozenge.
I'm all for compromise but this is, of course, an entirely unfair solution, which reduces Jewish (and Hindu and other) symbols to second-class status compared to the cross and the crescent, and which still dictates that the Jewish magen David should not be displayed in certain circumstances.
The official reason the IRC (or, more accurately, the countries who have signed the Geneva Convention, who get to vote on this) previously refused to approve the Magen David was because it was worried about a 'proliferation of symbols.' Of-course, this has now been exposed as a lie, since if Israel and other nations can now insert their own insignia into the diamond, they're basically going to end up with a myriad of symbols anyway.
The real reason, of course, is that the Arab states were 'offended' by the Magen David and that the rest of the world pandered to this anti-Semitism. By accepting a solution which is anything less than giving the Magen David equal status to the cross and the crescent, they are continuing to do so (although Israel, having been brow beaten for so many years over this, is simply happy for the crumbs thrown its way).
Alternatively, if they're stuck on this lozenge idea, a just solution to this whole thing would be to make everyone put their own symbol, be it cross*, crescent, magen david or other, into the lozenge. The neutral symbol should be everyone's, equally.
But they're not going to do that. Wouldn't want to offend the Muslims, you see.

*In fact, the IRC claims that the cross is not a religious symbol but the inverted Swiss flag. This, however, is irrelevant since it has become associated with the Christian cross in everyone's mind -- the IRC's own fault for allowing the crescent.

Thursday, September 15, 2005

Blog recommendations

You may have noticed that my posting on Bloghead has slowed somewhat in recent days/weeks. I'm simply swamped with other stuff (eg. the small matter of earning a living...) and this situation is likely to continue for a while -- certainly up to Rosh Hashanah.
In the meanwhile, I'd like to recommend two other excellent blogs you may not have come across, which are sure to keep you entertained.
  • Deja Vu by Dr. Judith Apter Klinghoffer -- I discovered Judith when she guest-blogged for Andrew Sullivan last month. She writes a lot about Israel, the Arab world etc. and has links to all the best stories.
  • Adloyada -- Lots of good sense from a British woman of a generation we don't usually hear from in the blogosphere.

Watch out, Cherie Blair

Monica Lewinsky is moving to London -- to attend the elite London School of Economics. I guess she must be brainy -- really brainy -- after all?

Tom Rose, Tom Fell...

I don't really want to get sued (and the man this article is about seems to be rather lawsuit-happy at the moment) so I'm not really going to comment on this one* but the Jerusalem Post meshugass continues apace.

(Hat tip: Allison, the most vigilant member of the JPost 'diaspora')

*See Calev Ben David's quote on page 2 for all that really needs to be said.

Bladder diplomacy

During policy negotiations and diplomatic discussions with other countries, the late Syrian President Hafez al-Assad was famous for plying the other side with endless drinks of tea. The first person to get up to go to the bathroom, however, was considered weak -- and no one wanted to appear that way during important talks. Thus he applied the psychological pressure. James Baker labelled this 'bladder diplomacy.'
Wonder how George W. Bush would have done under the circumstances?

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Rabbi Cyril Harris z"l

Cyril Harris was an old and dear friend. We worked together at Hillel in London, and he was best man at our wedding in 1973. I wrote the following obit for the Canadian Jewish News:

The Emeritus Chief Rabbi of South Africa, Rabbi Cyril Harris z'l, passed away in South Africa on Tuesday 13 September, a few days before his 69th birthday , after a year-long battle with cancer.
Cyril Harris was a colourful and impressive personality, who followed a hugely popular rabbinic career in England with an internationally significant Chief Rabbinate in South Africa. He was born in Scotland, and was one of the group of young rabbis who graduated from the British rabbinical seminary, Jews' College, in the 1960's. A superb orator, he could be fiery when the occasion demanded, but could equally quote poetry from the pulpit in his Scottish accent, to a spellbound congregation.
In the UK, he made his reputation in the London suburb of Kenton, where he built a large, young community. He was a wonderful teacher, and for years taught teenagers at the Summer Schools and Winter Schools of the Jewish Youth Study Groups. His involvement with young people led him to take the radical step of leaving the pulpit and becoming Director of London Hillel in the early 1970's. He did a great deal for Hillel in England at a time when it was in transition. Within two or three years, however, the pulpit called again, and he moved first to another large suburban synagogue, Edgware, and then to the prestigious St. John's Wood Synagogue nearer the centre of London.
Towards the end of the 1980's, his name began to be mentioned as a contender for the British Chief Rabbinate, which was due to become vacant on the retirement of Chief Rabbi Lord Jakobovits z'l. In what many saw as a tactical move, in 1987 he accepted the post of Chief Rabbi of South Africa - which positioned him better as a candidate for the larger UK post. In the event, Jonathan Sacks became the British Chief Rabbi, and - fortuitously - Cyril Harris remained in South Africa. In the momentous times of the early 1990's, he became a crucial moral, religious and political influence in the transition of power, leading the Jewish community with great skill through what could have been vulnerable circumstances.
As Chief Rabbi, he forged relationships with Black leadership - most importantly, a warm personal relationship with Nelson Mandela himself, who became South African President in 1994. When Mandela married his second wife, he brought part of the celebrations forward from Saturday to Friday in order to allow Rabbi Harris to bless the couple. Rabbi Harris was totally committed to social justice, and was co-chair of 'MaAfrica Tikkun', the Jewish community's foundation which channelled their nation-building activity in the new South Africa.
Throughout his career, Cyril was supported by his wife, Anne, a distinguished lawyer in her own right, and his sons Michael (a rabbi in London) and Jonathan. He represented an open-minded modern Orthodox Rabbinic profile - increasingly rare - of wide horizons, pastoral care, and visionary political and social conscience. He leaves many, many friends and admirers - former congregants and former students - in the UK, South Africa, and around the world.

UPDATE: NYT obit; JPost report

Jewish issues - European vs. American perspectives

In the last post, Miriam linked to comments by Steven I. Weiss, posted on Canonist. I am cross-posting here my (slightly amended) comment to Steven's post. Arguing that the issues raised by Bloghead should never have arisen in the first place, he says:
As an American, I look at all of these problems and wonder what government
was doing when it got involved in any of these matters in the first place.
It is difficult for N Americans to appreciate European and other countries where there is simply no historical background of separation of Church and State. On the contrary - the Church has been central to government, law and culture in every European country(in greater or lesser degrees in modern times). In this, N America is the exception, not the rule, and therefore, with respect, the comment is meaningless, unless you want to go back a thousand years or so and argue that early medieval town governments in Europe should have declared themselves secular ("We'll follow the American model -- oops, it hasn't been discovered yet!").

Whatever the problems of the situation - that's what it is, and it has to be seen through a European, not an American perspective. A second part to this is that in a country where there is no constitution (ie most of Europe), where Moslems outnumber Jews by many times, and where there is still a complex Christian attitude to Jews (part-antisemitism, part fear, part Holocaust guilt, and - nowadays - overlaid with huge anti-Israel political sentiment) --- it is also meaningless to talk about "The Jewish community cannot and should not consent to restrictions on religious liberty...". They have neither the power nor - increasingly - the influence.

Monday, September 12, 2005

Recognizing the writing on the wall...

The last string of stories on Bloghead -- all basically about Jews' rights being curbed as a result of European and Canadian attempts to deal with their Muslim populations, or about Muslim anti-Semitism in the diaspora being supported by Western authority -- have left me a little depressed. (C'mon, Madonna, can't you do something stupid so I can have something lighter to blog about?)
Jews have had hundreds of years living in the West in which both parties have (mostly...) learned how to live with each other. The Muslim encounter with the West is at a much earlier stage and is still very rough, causing massive problems of integration.
Nevertheless, we're all being lumped together -- because all 'minority religions' must be treated the same -- and Jewish religious liberties, some of which we had to fight hard to win and then fine-tune, are now under consistent assault because of the Western difficulties integrating Islam. To make matters worse, because the Muslim electoral power is always so much greater, Muslim sensitivities far outweigh those of Jews in the eyes of those in power.
So far, off the top of my head, just in the last few weeks and months we've had:

  • France -- ban on kippot and other religious symbols in schools, as a result of the desire to ban the hijab
  • Ontario, Canada -- Premier declared intention to ban batei din, because didn't want to allow sharia law courts
  • Ontario, Canada -- Jewish schools don't receive state funding -- partially because that would mean Muslim schools would have to be funded by state as well (as far as I know -- please correct me if I'm wrong on this one)
  • UK -- government and public discussing whether faith schools (state-funded) were good idea after all -- because of worry about Muslim faith schools. Any move to regulate or change status of faith schools will affect Jews.
  • UK -- Muslim pressure to turn Holocaust Day into Genocide Day because they felt it was 'offensive' that the suffering of Jews was 'singled out' became official advice to Tony Blair; although the PM has said he won't accept this advice, there's a definite push in this direction
  • Belgium -- recent attempts to ban shechita (to be debated in the Senate this week, I believe), connected to attempts to crack down on Muslim ritual slaughter.
Obviously, there are many other areas where Jews are going to continue to be affected by the Muslims' encounter with the Western states, some we can't even foresee now. For example, our "Canadian correspondent" has told me that this morning there was a discussion on Canadian radio about whether Canada should continue recognizing religious marriages (!!!!), as a result of a larger discussion on the separation of church and state provoked by the Sharia-related events of the past few days, and a desire to look again at the way religious communities and religious authorities function in larger society.
The question is (and I recognise this is mostly directed at European and Canadian readers), how are we, as a community, going to deal with this? Short of getting up and getting outta here, is there anything at all we can do? How should we be planning for the future where this problem looks likely to only grow?
I don't have the answers. I'd really like to hear Bloghead readers' take on this.

UPDATE: SIW responds -- as an American.

Wanted: Israeli general

And if you haven't yet had your fill for the day of Jewish-Muslim conflict in the diaspora... Read this. The Guardian this morning broke the story that a retired Israeli general who was on his way to Britain to speak at a regional synagogue was tipped off, mid-flight, that the British police were going to arrest him as soon as he stepped off the plane on charges of war crimes:
The arrest warrant was issued on Saturday at Bow Street magistrates court, central London. It is believed to be the first warrant for war crimes of its kind issued in Britain against an Israeli national over conduct in the conflict with Palestinians.
Despite the alleged offences occurring in the Gaza Strip, war crimes law means Britain has a duty to arrest and prosecute alleged suspects if they arrive in Britain. The warrant alleges Mr Almog committed war crimes in the Gaza Strip in 2002 when he ordered the destruction of 59 homes near Rafah, which Palestinians say was in revenge for the death of Israeli soldiers. The warrant was issued by senior district judge Timothy Workman after an application by lawyers acting for Mr Almog's alleged Palestinian victims. According to legal sources, before granting the warrant Mr Workman decided his court had jurisdiction for the offences; that diplomatic immunity did not apply; and there was evidence to support a prima facie case for war crimes.
If Mr Almog had been arrested he would have been bailed on condition that he did not leave Britain. The attorney general would have to have sanctioned any prosecution against him for war crimes.
Luckily, the El Al crew allowed him to stay on the flight and return with them directly to Israel -- so he, as the Guardian put it, avoided "capture" (as if we were talking about some al Qaida terrorist on the run in Afghanistan).
There was, at the height of the intifada, some worry about Israeli armymen and politicians not being able to step outside Israel for fear of this exact scenario. Although the intifada is supposedly over, the Palestinians have not given up their public relations effort (which this is part of) and their mission to make Israel appear a rogue and criminal state.
The thing is that two can play at this game. What we should be doing is making absolutely clear to the Palestinians that if they continue on this tack, next time Mohammed Dahlan, Saib Erekat etc. step foot on British soil, we too will approach the courts to get a warrant for their arrest. Unfortunately, we're too timid and will probably just have to get used to Israeli generals being unable to step foot in the UK.
(What was that we were saying about Jews and Israelis being excluded from European society?)

Googlebombs ahoy!

Some clever wag (groan...) has managed to arrange it so that when you search for the word 'failure' on Google, the very first item to come up is... this.
Of-course, no one would be looking for the word 'failure' on Google if this little joke weren't circulating like crazy by email, but anyway. Those of you with the political inclination, enjoy.

Multiculturalism -- dying a death

Just late last week, we revisited the proposals to allow Sharia law courts to operate in Ontario. First, the good news:
Ontario will not become the first Western jurisdiction to allow the use of a set of centuries-old religious rules called Shariah law to settle Muslim family disputes... the premier of the province, Dalton McGuinty, said Sunday.
As you will recall, last week we asked,
quite simply, how can Ontario deny Muslims their courts -- while allowing Jewish Batei Din? This [motion to allow sharia law] may not have any direct effect on us, yet (perhaps the result will simply be that they will be forced to allow Sharia courts), however there is no question that this link will at some point work to our disadvantage.
Well, we got it half right, because the bad news is that
In a telephone interview with The Canadian Press, the national news agency, Mr. McGuinty announced that his government would move quickly to outlaw existing religious tribunals used for years by Christians and Jews under Ontario's Arbitration Act.
"There will be no Shariah law in Ontario," he said. "There will be no religious arbitration in Ontario. There will be one law for all Ontarians."
A representative from the Canadian Jewish Congress said the organization was "stunned." From this distance, I really don't know to what extent they saw this coming, if at all (were they taken in by reassurances that the government was not intending to change existing arrangements?), and what they were doing to prevent exactly this scenario from unfolding. I'm not even sure what they could have done -- they were always between a rock and a hard place, as ultimately, whether they could see it or not, it was always going to come down to all or nothing (and indeed, presumably with this in mind, B'nai B'rith came out in support of Sharia courts -- a problematic stance for anyone who believes that Sharia law is one of a number of causes being pushed or used by Muslim extremists who are deliberately trying to politicize Islam in the West, a threat to our whole society). I'm sure we'll get more background / commentary in due course from our Canadian correspondent.
In any case, the question in my mind is, in how many countries, particularly in Europe, is this scenario going to be repeated? For what's to stop Muslims elsewhere from floating the idea of Sharia courts? They clearly have nothing to lose -- only others do.

Sunday, September 11, 2005

The beginning of the systematic exclusion of Jews and Judaism in European society

The UK Sunday Times reports that a government-convened 'advisory committee' on the causes of extremism among UK Moslems is to recomment the abolition of the UK Holocaust Memorial Day as it offends Moslems - and its replacement with a 'Genocide Day' that includes, naturally, the commemoration of the "Palestinian genocide."
I was never convinced of the wisdom of instituting a UK Holocaust Memorial Day, for reasons that we needn't go into here. But it's there, and now there will be pressure in the UK (Jewish votes - very weakly organised, if at all - max 250,000; Moslem votes - heavily concentrated and highly motivated - est. 1.6m) to abolish, change or 'universalise' it. Don't expect the UK Jewish Community to be effective in countering this. They will wake up after the event. Don't expect the Labour Govt. to resist it, because it is a simple way of appeasing the Moslems without offending the Christian majority. And get used to it, becaue it may well be the pattern of the future. Any and every expression of Jewish identity in public life, especially anything that signifies identity with Israel or with persecution of Jews, will be under scrutiny and attack. I daresay that UK politicians will be extremely reluctant to appear on Jewish community platforms (if they aren't already). The only acceptable platform will be at the UK Neturei Karta convention, and the only "acceptable" Jews to represent the community will be our NK co-religionists.
Next: Christmas Day -- offensive to Moslems. Oops - forgot -- in many areas of UK society it has already been effectively stripped of its Christian identity.

Thursday, September 08, 2005

Too disgusting for words

Many of you will already have seen that another senior Israeli rabbi has joined the increasing chorus of Jewish clerics to blame Katrina on American support for disengagement: Rav Ovadiah Yosef. It's not surprising; it's fairly clear that Rav Ovadiah has trouble with (how can I put this politely...) his rhetoric getting out of control, and in recent years he has been expressing some rather strange ideas and been a little too prone to wishing people dead in all kinds of inventive ways. There's nothing to be said about this latest outburst that hasn't already been said about Lazer Brody's opinions.
However, I would like to draw attention to another, more original aspect of his little speech, which hasn't received as much attention, and which I take particular exception to. Maran said:

“There was a tsunami and there are terrible natural disasters, because there isn’t enough Torah study… black people reside there (in New Orleans). Blacks will study the Torah? (God said) let’s bring a tsunami and drown them.”
“Hundreds of thousands remained homeless. Tens of thousands have been killed. All of this because they have no God.”
As bad as it sounds in English, it sounds even worse in Hebrew, as the word he used for 'black people' ('kushim') is basically the Hebrew N-word (although, sadly, quite widely used).
This racism -- from one the supposedly greatest rabbis of our generation -- is simply too disgusting for words. Draw your own conclusions.

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Much hodoo about nothing...

A couple of weeks ago, the Jewish Chronicle published an article about the line from psalm 148 which we recite when we return the Torah to the Ark -- 'His majesty is on heavens and on the earth.'
The phrase in Hebrew is, of course, 'Hodo al Eretz ve-Shamayim.' However, in the author of the article's synagogue, it's pronounced 'Hodoo' -- meaning "give thanks," which, in this case, is wrong.
Last week, the JC included an interesting update, in which a reader claimed he had
two siddurim from the mid-’30s, one from New York, the other from London’s East End, in both of which the word is actually printed as “hodoo.” “Hodoo al eretz,” as he points out, literally means “India is on the earth” — certainly not what the Psalmist intended.
I'm interested to know just how widespread this mispronounciation is. I'm pretty sure I've never heard it as anything but "Hodoo." That's certainly the way I sung it (until I read the article). Anyone?

Christians vs. Muslims in the PA

That there is tension between the Muslims and Christians in the PA (partic. in recent years in Bethlehem) is well known. However, apropos the ransacking of a Christian village by Muslims that we discussed yesterday, the Christian 'Custodian of the Holy Land,' Fr. Pierbattista Pizzaballa, conducted an interview with an Italian paper in which he claimed that Muslim-Christian relations in the PA have significantly worsened since the outbreak of the second Intifada. Talking of a "distinct increase in Muslim hostility towards Christians in the Holy Land," he says that
The turning point... came with the introduction of a new element into the second intifada: Islamic fundamentalism. Previously, the Palestinian movement was of a predominantly nationalistic character. And this character was due in large part to the contribution of Christian Arabs belonging to a refined and Westernized élite, which was not without tinges of Marxism. The guerilla leaders George Habbash, Wadi Haddad, and George Hawatmeh were Christians. But the leading proponents of the moderate and pragmatic wing, which supported the Oslo accords, were also Christian: Hanan Ashwari, Hanna Seniora, and Afif Safia. But now the latter of these figures are in the shadows and under threat. Even the death of Yasser Arafat has worked to the disadvantage of the Christians. And they are emigrating.
Of-course the Islamification of the Palestinian national struggle has been going on for years, with the rise and rise of Hamas, but there's no question that Hamas, the Islamic Jihad, Hizbullah influences etc. have become so much more pronounced since 2000.
The piece also gives a slightly different account of the case of the Palestinian honour killing that prompted the ransacking of the village, but the essentials remain the same. Read the whole thing here.

(Via Tischreden)

The first Western country to adopt Shariah law: Canada?

If you think that the West has woken up to the dangers of Muslim extremism in the last few months, think again. In Ontario, the process to give Shariah law some kind of official status by sanctioning Shariah-based tribunals is rolling along, despite the fact that many Muslim women, for reasons I'm sure I don't need to explain, don't want it. For others, the issue is the promotion and implementation of a radical Islamist agenda. Protests are going to be organised by "100 organisations" in Canada and Europe this weekend, although the reports don't seem to detail which organisations these are -- I'd like to know how many Muslim organisations are included.
In any case, this is another case where Jews' interests are compromised by the West's problematic relationship with Islam within its midst. For quite simply, how can Ontario deny Muslims their courts -- while allowing Jewish Batei Din? This may not have any direct effect on us, yet (perhaps the result will simply be that they will be forced to allow Sharia courts), however there is no question that this link will at some point work to our disadvantage.

Spielberg's new movie -- is there anyone he hasn't annoyed yet?

The Palestinian who masterminded the massacre of the Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics is apparently annoyed / puzzled that Steven Spielberg didn't consult him on his new movie about the attack and its aftermath:
"I know nothing about this film. If someone really wanted to tell the truth about what happened he should talk to the people involved, people who know the truth," [Mohammad] Daoud told Reuters by telephone from an undisclosed location in the Middle East. "Were I contacted, I would tell the truth," Daoud said.
Unfortunately, Mr Daoud, when you commit a major terror attack you lose a certain amount of credibility and respectability, and the right to consult on blockbuster Hollywood movies. If you haven't worked that out by now...

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Honor killings in the PA

Several of the PA's worst problems -- its attitudes to Christians, attitudes to women and particularly honor killings, problems with law and order, tendency to blame Israel for everything -- merge in this horrible story, which you won't hear about in the non-Israeli press, but should. According to Jerusalem Post correspondent Khaled Abu Toameh, who is usually pretty reliable, an entire Christian village in the PA was ransacked by hundreds of Muslim men because a man from the village had an affair with a Muslim woman.
But much, much worse -- almost impossible to comprehend -- is the fate of the woman herself:
The 30-year-old woman, according to PA security sources, was apparently murdered by members of her family for having had a romance with a Christian man from Taiba.
"When her family discovered that she had been involved in a forbidden relationship with a Christian, they apparently forced her to drink poison," said one source. "Then they buried her without reporting her death to the relevant authorities."
When the PA security forces decided to launch an investigation into the woman's death, her family protested for fear that the relationship would be exposed. The family was further infuriated by the decision to exhume the body for autopsy.
Nifty trick, that -- get the woman to drink poison herself so it's harder to convict you of murder (or would be harder, if the PA had a proper legal system and if it bothered prosecuting people for honour killings, a very widespread problem in the West Bank and Gaza); to lessen your own guilt; or to make the punishment for the woman even worse. Note that they weren't afraid of a suspicious death being discovered -- they simply didn't want the affair to be exposed. I simply cannot begin to imagine what this poor, poor woman went through -- and find it hard to absorb the depths of evil, heartlessness and cruelty some people can sink to.
On a seperate tack, I don't understand why Western Christians don't seem to care about the way other Christians are treated in Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, the PA etc. True, unlike the Jews and Muslims, they're not an umma -- but surely it's both in their interest to ensure that Christians are treated well everywhere, and simply part of Christian charity, kindness etc.?

Competition update ....

Reviewing the entries so far, I came to the conclusion that we were hurtling towards the unprintable -- which I should have foreseen. So, sorry, folks, I made a mistake! Thanks to the inventive readers who submitted entries. And, M***y, yes, it was a little too inventive for the family blog!!

Monday, September 05, 2005

The implications for terrorism

A few people have asked, with concern, how the US would cope if an entire city was destroyed by terrorism, in light of what happened in New Orleans.
The truth is that people shouldn't worry so much. I have no doubt that were Osama bin Laden responsible for the devestation in Louisiana, rather than Katrina, enough troops to cope would have been in the city within five seconds flat. The fact is that countries (usually) respond to security threats from the outside with more urgency than to other, entirely equal threats from within -- perhaps because it's seen as an assault on the entire country, perhaps to discourage further attacks through a show of strength, perhaps out of simple defiance. Somewhat similarly, there was also some discussion in Israel of how so many resources were devoted to defeating terrorism at the height of the intifada -- and very little to road safety, by comparison, although more people were killed in horrific car crashes every single month (other than one).

Jewish conspiracies

A film trying to dispel the myth that no Jews turned up to work at the Trade Center on 9/11 is beginning to make the rounds:
"Light is the best disinfectant," said [filmmaker Marc] Levin, a New York-based US Jew who has made a number of documentaries for US television and fictional features based on real events....
Levin said he got the idea after talking with an Egyptian taxi driver who pointed to the booklet as justification for his believing that 4,000 Jews did not turn up to work the day of the attacks on New York and Washington.
"It started as a sort of personal catharsis in the wake of September 11," he said. "I couldn't believe I was hearing these rumours"...
Levin said he also hoped to organise a screening in the Palestinian territories, where he hoped to counter the effects of the "Protocols of Zion" being taught out of school textbooks.
If he can say something original about this phenomenon, sounds very interesting -- particularly in light of the fact that post-7/7, rumors of a Jewish conspiracy sprouted within hours. Of-course, his chances of persuading most people who believe such rubbish in the first place are negligable; they'll most likely just dismiss his film as propaganda.
I wonder, however, if he'll touch on one of the most interesting aspects of this story, and that is that, in the very immediate aftermath of 9/11, some of these rumors were believed and spread by some Jews, who liked to think that G-d had made a miracle for, and protected, his chosen people (I have no idea whether this was true in NYC or the US, where presumably people knew people who were missing and thus knew better; but certainly in Jerusalem, where I was in Sept. 2001, rumors that there were no Jews -- and later, less Jews than expected -- in the buildings were repeated, and without the qualification, 'listen what crazy stuff is coming out of the Arab press,' if you get my drift). You saw something similar in the aftermath of 7/7, where Jews were perfectly willing to believe the rumors going round that the Mossad/Netanyahu (who was in London at the time) had been warned about the plot in advance.
The fact is that Jews don't always recognise the anti-Semitic nature of such rumors, because their basic tactic is to exaggerate Jews' power -- and part of us buys into this, and also wants to believe that G-d is giving us special protection. Unfortunately, it puts us at risk of becoming complicit with anti-Semitism.

*For a good summary of 9/11 conspiracy theories regarding the Jews, and their origins, see

'Hiding and Seeking' - an immensely moving and honest film

I have just finished watching Menachem Daum's latest documentary, Hiding and Seeking, which was screened here on PBS. It is an immensely moving film, which shows NY filmaker Menachem Daum taking his wife and two yeshivish sons to Poland to seek out the family who saved his father-in-law and his two brothers during the war. They find the farm and the people who hid them for over two years. The impetus to make the film came from Menachem Daum's unease that his sons were unappreciative of the efforts made by some Poles to help Jews. It is a beautiful and moving film.

He does not flinch at all from dealing with the very difficult issue which emerges during the film - which is that once they had got out of Poland after the war, no member of the family ever contacted the family who saved them. (There are no excuses). The online discussion of the film at the pbs site is also revealing - encouraging, but also very bitter in places.

I would also like to commend the pbs website (see link) which is highly informative and interesting on the background and making of the film, including updates and a very recent reflection from the filmaker. It's too long to post here, but please click on the link. Apropos of the latter - the very attitudes that prompted Menachem Daum to make the film in the first place lead me to wonder how many students at Jewish schools would make a gesture parallel to that of the high school students described in his posting.

An exceptional film. DVD's can be ordered from here.

  • Also highly recommended is the earlier (1997) Daum/Rudavsky film - A Life Apart: Hasidim in America

Sunday, September 04, 2005

Recent Google searches which led people to Bloghead

  • "pretty, frum" (...or should that be, "pretty frum"?)
  • "chabad shluchim india how to become" (if you have to google it, your chances aren't great...)
  • "yichud problems cleaning lady"
  • "sex blog jewish upper west side"
  • "mikveh singles"
  • "woodmere ny divorce blogs"
  • "what is a sheitel?"
  • "sex shabbos boyfriend light shaatnez"
  • "orthodox rabbi in goa"
  • "chabad tenerife" (your chances are 100% better in Goa)
  • "hurricane housing jewish family" (this Sat. night)
  • "frum and looking" (for what???)
  • "The Death Eaters are Zionists" (Harry Potter reference)
  • "Bush satanist"
  • Chrismukkah comes early

    ...for one author, at least, who just signed a book deal to write a satirical take on 'intermarriage yuletide celebrations.'
    "The book will explain the history, the rituals and, of course, include my grandmother's recipe for gefilte ham."
    No word on whether it'll be out in time for channukah stockings.

    Saturday, September 03, 2005

    The long-term

    Even as we are shocked by some of the terrible acts going on in New Orleans, we must remember to acknowledge those who are going out of their way to do good deeds and to help those in trouble. By this I mean not only the people on the ground -- the police who stuck around to do a difficult job in unbearable circumstances, while others deserted, for example -- but those who are going out of their way to help those who have been evacuated to other cities.
    In shul this morning (in London), someone told the story of their brother and his four kids, who live in New Orleans. Originally they planned to weather the storm at home, but as the water levels began to rise to their door, they managed to hitch a ride out of town with a truck driver. They somehow ended up in Chicago, where apparently (he said -- can anyone confirm?), some Jewish schools have offered to take in survivors from New Orleans and give them a free education. In the event, these particular children will be sent back to the UK -- where Rosh Pinah, a private Jewish primary school that was already full, has offered them places, no questions asked. Israeli universities are also offering, through the MASA programme, special places for students whose studies have been suspended as a result of the hurricane (although this is slightly different as this programme is actively trying to attract more American-Jewish students anyway).
    Getting families out of New Orleans is just the beginning. Where are they going to live? Where are they going to work? How are they going to earn money? Where are their kids going to study? How are their parents going to pay for their education? How can people rebuild their lives from nothing?
    The real test of helping these people is going to come over the next few months and years, and it's good to see that many people, including members of the Jewish community far and wide, are already beginning to think of long-term ways to help.