Friday, April 30, 2010

Good Shabbos!

צָמְאָה לְךָ נַפְשִׁי, כָּמַהּ לְךָ בְשָׂרִי, בְּאֶרֶץ צִיָּה וְעָיֵף בְּלִי מָיִם. כֵּן בַּקֺּדֶשׁ חַזִיתִךָ, לִרְאוֹת עֻזְּךָ וּכְבוֹדֶךָ

"Thirsts for You does my soul, longs for You does my flesh; in a land parched and weary with no water. So, too, in the Sanctuary to have beheld You, to see Your might and Your glory." (Tehillim 63:2,3)
These words came from Dovid Hamelech when he was in Midbar Yehuda (the wilderness of Judah). Even in that desolate place, after being exiled from nation, family, and home, he never wavered in his love for Hakadosh Baruch Hu. These same words are the words coming from the deepest places within every Yid in the choshech (darkness) filled world we live in. We have to purify ourselves through Torah and Mitzvos in order to bring these words to the surface until they burst forth from our lips with emesdike (true) yearning for closeness with our Creator and the rebuilding of the Beis Hamikdash.



I don't know what Americans and Europeans think "samizdat" means, but in Russian, it's a compressed form of "sam", by yourself, and "izdatelstvo", which I would translate as some form of creative output. I'm not a linguist, but relying purely on feel, "izdatelstvo" is related to "delat", to make or do something, with the "iz", from, prefix pushing it out, externally. At least that's my feel for it. In any case, "samizdat" universally refers to a private, unlicensed printing press or publication, usually underground, as such things have tended to be in pre-Soviet, Soviet, and with the Putin era possibly post-Soviet times.

Anyway, there's a website by this name, of British origin with a small globalist component, and with the absolute best "About Us" I think I've encountered, anywhere on the web.

The Samizdata people are a bunch of sinister and heavily armed globalist illuminati who seek to infect the entire world with the values of personal liberty and several property. Amongst our many crimes is a sense of humour and the intermittent use of British spelling.

We are also a varied group made up of social individualists, classical liberals, whigs, libertarians, extropians, futurists, 'Porcupines', Karl Popper fetishists, recovering neo-conservatives, crazed Ayn Rand worshipers, over-caffeinated Virginia Postrel devotees, witty Frédéric Bastiat wannabes, cypherpunks, minarchists, kritarchists and wild-eyed anarcho-capitalists from Britain, North America, Australia and Europe.

Extropians. Frédéric Bastiat. Kritarchists. Clever.

A recent post at samizdata concerned with the upcoming British elections caught my attention and reminded me why the next round of elections in the US are so crucial to America remaining the economic engine of the world. To put it bluntly, I don't want us to turn into Britain, or France, or Portugal or Greece - unsustainable welfare states with soaring public debts, held together with ever increasing rings of taxation, bureaucracy and government regulation throttling innovation and upward mobility.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

"Feeling the [real] Hate" in Britain

Today, the Swedish Ambassador to Israel arrived at Tel Aviv University to deliver a lecture in which she expressed support for Palestinian self-determination, criticism of Israeli policies in the West Bank and vis a vis the Gaza blockade, and a general desire for a negotiated peace to the conflict between Israel and the Arabs.

Extreme right wing Israeli demonstrators gathered outside TAU, holding placards denouncing the Ambassador, shouting abusive slogans at the motorcade and challenging police deployed to ensure the Ambassador's safety.

Upon completing the lecture, the Ambassador exited the building under police guard, only to be mobbed by protesters who had outmaneuvered police holding them back. As the Jewish extremists converged on the security detail, the diplomat was quickly ushered into a police car, and not a second too soon. Within moments, protesters surrounded the vehicle. While some positioned themselves in front of the vehicle to prevent escape, others climbed on the hood and massed at the doors, banging on the windows with apparent intent to break them down, while shouting obscenities.

With the situation escalating into physical violence, a contingent of officers finally arrived on the scene, pulling back the extremists and allowing the Ambassador to leave the area. No arrests were reported.

The response from Haaretz came swiftly, in English. "Today", wrote Gideon Levy, "we mark the end of freedom in Israel. The savage settler thugs who ambushed the Ambassador are no longer a fringe element, to be brushed aside by apologists for policies of the Likud, but the ruling class of this country. We in Israel are entering a period of fascist frenzy, where the goal is to silence all opposition, to bludgeon opponents into submission and fear. No longer democratic, no longer free, permeated through and through with a culture of violence and theocratic thuggery, I speak for all free-thinking people when I call on the United States, the European Union and the rest of the international community to rescind recognition for the right of the State of Israel to exist."

Mondoweiss, the voice of the anti-Zionist left, echoed those remarks, "This is the final straw. The descent into Jewish totalitarianism is complete. To be a Zionist is to be a fascist. No one can claim for even another day that Israel is a democracy, or that it deserves to survive."

Except this event did not happen in Israel; It happened, today, in Great Britain, and neither Gideon Levy nor Mondoweiss complained. Indeed, we would expect them to cheer such an event, and to consider the violence as a natural and perfectly understandable reaction to Israeli policies. At time of writing, I did not find a single mention in the BBC, Guardian or Independent of the attempted assault against Talya Lador-Fresher, Israel's Deputy Ambassador to Britain, by pro-Palestinian extremists outside Manchester University. Nor was I able to find a single condemnation of the radicals by any English official of any authority, whether within the government, police, Manchester University, etc.

In Israel, this lack of immediate condemnation would be damning proof of complicity on the part of the government, the police, the university, the population as a whole. Pages and pages of comments would flood Israeli online English news outlets condemning the state and its people.

Another day in Britain ends, and another begins.

*Quotations by Gideon Levy and Mondoweiss presented in this piece are purely fictional, and represent the author's best attempt to predict their response to fictional events.

UPDATE: A full day later, and still no British or European media has picked up on this disgraceful story. A foreign diplomat is mobbed, threatened with bodily harm, and not a peep is to be heard? I think it's an appropriate time, in the context of upcoming British elections, to receive clarification on the right to freedom of speech in Britain, and whether the country remains a society governed by a respect for the rule by law, not fear of intimidation. For background, see CifWatch and Elder of Zion.

Monday, April 26, 2010

A Sotah's Revenge: The Nazirite Vow

Steve asked about a Nazir, and Joe responded, in the way I would have. I would like to flesh out Joe's final remarks, but this discussion requires some setup, in addition to which I'd like to bring out a few points I find interesting, so off we go.

A Nazir is an individual who takes upon themselves special vows of abstinence from wine, cutting the hair and contact with a dead body, which is a source of spiritual impurity. We learn about the nazir in connection with the sotah, the wife who is suspect of adultery.

In parshas Naso, we are given the laws of the sotah, and Rashi bring in a wealth of commentary. One of the spectacles to which the sotah is exposed, in order to compel her to perform teshuvah, repentance (which will save her life if she is guilty), is that she is progressively humiliated - first her hair is uncovered publicly, then she is stripped naked down to her waist in front of a crowd of onlookers. Needless to say, for a people who essentially gave the world our present notions of modesty (at its best, not Islamist cutting off heads for showing an ankle "modesty"), these are grave impositions of the public into the private.

Just to finish the thought, after this the sotah is forced to drink a mixture containing a powdered scroll, on which certain text is written. If she is guilty then, well, her womb explodes and she dies there and then. Until the very point she actually drinks the mixture, she can repent and her life will be spared. If she is innocent and the potion has no effect, she is cleared of all charges and accusations, declared a righteous woman, promised (by G-d, not by men) many strong children and becomes a heroine, a true aishes chayil (woman of valor), her name being given to newborn girls throughout the land. Most importantly, her husband now becomes her personal slave, figuratively speaking, can never divorce her, and must service her every wish. So, in terms of a normal Jewish marriage, as far as I can tell, nothing changes!

The parshah, having completed describing the sotah's fate, breaks off and continues with the laws of the nazir. When two sections in the text are so juxtaposed, there is a relationship between them. Rashi brings it down that the people who witnessed the spectacle of the sotah, the ones who stood in the crowd of onlookers, should take on themselves the nazirite vow, which as I wrote before consists of abstinence from wine (or anything to do with grapes, really), cutting the hair on the head, and contact with a dead body. I don't know how the term of a nazir, the length of time they are to adhere to these vows, is determined. There were probably customs how to determine this, and certainly experts could be asked, it being the Temple courtyard.

There is an interesting question that I had in relation to all this some years back. The sotah was stripped down in the Temple courtyard, which was always full of people going to and fro, bringing in their various atonement and thanksgiving offerings and the like. A person could find themselves in the Temple courtyard walking past such a spectacle involving a sotah purely by chance. In such a case, why should they be punished for it? The essence of a nazir is achieving a high level of separation or purity (equal to, and even above the level of the High Priest himself!) through abstinence from pleasure (wine) and comfort (hair cutting). It was not their decision to witness a sotah's humiliation, mind you, it's likely they were just passing by. Maybe they merely glanced to see what the commotion was all about and kept walking. For this they must take on such an extreme obligation? It is a very extreme obligation, which may not seem obvious at first, so let's develop some context.

As I said, I don't know how the term of a nazir was determined, but I have read of it being five years. In one case, a nazir near the completion of their term slipped and fell down a ravine and on top of a dead body, which had been dumped there by murderers. So, their term began from the beginning! In another case, the term began anew twice. Imagine if someone really doesn't like you and knows you have two more days to complete a ten year nazirite term. All they have to do is hold you down and force a grape in your mouth, and you are forced to start from the beginning. I'm playing it out to the extreme, but this is dangerous business, to be taking on such an oath, as by decree of heaven (i.e. events not within your control) you may never be free of it.

Flipping this around on its head, the sotah's test can only be fulfilled when she is humiliated before a crowd of people. In other words, these spectators are a necessary part of the process; they're performing a much needed service, without which the sotah's fate, which rests on her choice to admit her adultery, to not admit her adultery, or to stand confident in her valor, cannot be realized. I should mention, the sotah's outcome is not relevant to the onlookers. Whether she is cleared of the charges, repents her wrongdoing or drinks the potion and dies, the obligation to take on the nazirite vow holds.

So, which is it? How can these spectators be both valued participants, on whom the process depends, while simultaneously worthy of punishment, if we can call it that, for their participation?

A Global Event

This morning I awoke to find out that a major event has occurred somewhere on our planet. Surely you must heard about it by now. In a basic Google News search, at time of writing, no less than 407 news stories have appeared on this late-breaking item. Scanning the originating countries and languages where the story broke, I see Australia, France, a French publication from Africa, Lithuania, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Brazil or Portugal, I can't tell, the United States, of course, and most European countries (Ireland, UK, Spain, Italy, Germany), China or Japan (I can't tell the characters apart), even South Korea, and I'm not counting multiple publications in each country, nor is this an exhaustive list by any means.

What event could so singularly focus the attention of the world's media? A terrible catastrophe? A brilliant feat of human engineering? Don't be silly. Four hundred and seven news items have been published to train the eyes of the world on the attempted arrest and killing, when he did not surrender, of a Hamas commander by Israeli Defense Forces.

Now, is this intensive coverage driven by a desire to see justice done on behalf of the victims of a murderer and attempted murderer, many times over? Inspiring, but incredulous. Is it a function of Israel being host to more news agencies, per capita, than perhaps any other region on the planet, rivaling even the capitol of the sole global superpower? If you think I'm going to waste half an hour busting my butt to find that information at 6:59am, you're delusional. All I know, is that there is something very wrong in a world that cares about this event, because it isn't important.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Daily Rambam: Just Do It

Chassidim do things differently, because we're cool, and I'm not just talking about the black hats. Whereas everyone else studies a page of Talmud a day, or three pages, or something, we have חתת, pronounced Chitas by us Ashkenazim, the "ch" being a hard, gutteral "H"). Chitas is an acronym for Chumash (the 5 books of Moses), Tanya (foundational work of Chassidus) and Tehillim (psalms).

This battery of learning constitutes the minimum daily study expected of every Lubavitcher Chassid, in addition to Mishnah/Gemara (depending on ability), Hayom Yom, and finally, Rambam's Sefer Hamitzvos. This is in addition to preset learning times that one is encouraged to schedule during the week for study of Chassidus or Gemara, hopefully with another Jew who is just as thrilled as you to be skipping his lunch hour.

The way it works is, the Chumash, Tehillim and Tanya are each broken up into short sections that can be read daily, thus completing the weekly Parshah reading (with Rashi commentary) in a week (a Parshah is a weekly section of Chumash), Tehillim in a month, and Tanya in a year. The Hayom Yom, a collection of Chabad Chassidus customs, instructions, notes on liturgy and inspirational anecdotes, is also completed once a year, a day at a time, thus the name "Today's Day".

There are many amusing stories I could tell about guys I know cramming all this stuff in during their hectic workdays. Chitas doesn't take too long, maybe half an hour if it's a Parshah without much Rashi commentary, but sometimes one is blessed with a Rashi that goes on and on, drilling the most precious moments of temple service without end.

I'd like to discuss many of these subjects in greater depth, at some point, but it is only Rambam's Sefer Hamitzvot that is of vital interest to me today. This is because today, I am starting my fourth (or fifth?) cycle of Rambam's Sefer Hamitzvot, following the official Chabad study calendar, which runs on a schedule the Lubavitcher Rebbe set up in 1984.

Sefer Hamitzvos is a book listing the 613 commandments (mitzvot) that Jews are to observe. By learning a set number of mitzvot daily, we complete the full 613 in one year and...
As it was taught by Elijah: Whoever studies Torah laws every day is assured in the life of the World to Come, for it is said: Halichot (the ways of) the world are his. Do not read halichot, but halachot (Torah laws). (Siddur Tehillas Hashem, pg. 79)
Now, Rambam wrote the Sefer Hamitzvot as an aside. You see, what he was really trying to do was compile a comprehensive list of all 613 Jewish laws, with their explanations that even a simpleton (of his day) could understand. Sefer Hamitzvos is just the index, the plain listing of the commandments. His magnum opus is the Mishnei Torah, with detailed explanations and reasoning for each law, including often its practical implementation, all of which his brilliant photographic mind snatched from the vast library of Biblical, Talmudic and contemporary (to his day) sources. As he himself wrote, by studying the Mishnei Torah, one could traverse the entire breadth (if not depth) of Jewish learning.

To make a long story short, greatly expanded in detail here, the Mishnei Torah wasn't studied very much at all, until 1984, when the Lubavitcher Rebbe introduced it into the daily study schedule of the Chabad movement. There it was immediately embraced, which led to a brand spanking new version of the Mishnei Torah being printed by Moznaim, which in turn ignited interest from Jewry all over the world.

So here we are, in the 29th cycle of learning Daily Rambam. I want you to do it with me, and with hundreds of thousands of Jews (and some non-Jews) around the world. It's easy as pie. There are three options:

1) Sign up (under Daily Study) to receive a daily email with just the daily mitzvah, or several mitzvahs, depending on the study cycle. The accompanying text is from a version designed for children, so you may feel like a baby reading it, but it gets the job done. I received just the Daily Mitzvahs by email for two years before I moved up, though I still get them as well. Here's an example from Friday:
Negative Commandment 46
You may never settle permanently in Egypt again

Deuteronomy 17:16 "You shall never again return that way"

We are forbidden to return to Egypt in order to settle there. After freeing us from slavery in Egypt, HaShem prohibited us from ever permanently living there again. However, it is permissible to return to Egypt for business or trade.
I think is changing it this year to be a bit more adult friendly. We'll see what happens. I would strongly recommend this option for most everyone. The next two options are similar, and the link to learn more is the same - this one.

2) You can read or listen to one chapter of the Mishnei Torah. I STRONGLY recommend listening to it, as I very much dislike the format of the online version. The problem is the commentary; in a book, reading the commentary is natural, but online, you have to keep scrolling up and down between the text and commentary. Listening to someone learned explain things to me comes more naturally. You can find Rambam's Mishnei Torah on iTunes. Just search for "" or "Chabad".

3) You can read or listen to three chapters of the Mishnei Torah! Not for the light of heart. Most guys I know who do this don't read the commentary (which dwarfs the text three times over or more). In audio format, each chapter's learning can be as little as 10 to as much as 30 minutes, so with three chapters, we're talking a good hour of audio on average, and at least as long if you're reading it. On the positive side, you end up finishing the ENTIRE Mishnei Torah in one year. Mission accomplished, entry to the World to Come sealed, and all that jazz.

The point is to start small, but be consistent. Don't try to conquer the world. Start with the Sefer Hamitzvot and just let it run for a cycle, read it when you can, see how you like it. As an old Russian Chassidic Jew once told an agnostic American Jew, "Me Jew. You Jew. Me Tefillin. You Tefillin," and proceeded to wrap him. The point is, like Nike (named after a pagan deity, for G-d sake) says, just do it!


As you know, I recently joined in on Yaacov's "Songs of the Jews" thread. In going through the music he chose to emphasize, particularly in light of Israel's Independence Day last week, I noticed a serious omission, certainly from this side of the Atlantic.

Subliminal was a revelation when he came on the scene in the early years of this century. His first album, The Light and the Shadow, released in 2003, coincided with the great experiment of Birthright Israel, which brought tens of thousands of young Diaspora Jews to Israel on ten day trips to rekindle their spark of identity and affinity for the land, myself among them.

Coming of age through the meltdown of hope and the despair of savage brutality brought about by the Palestinian terrorist war, Subliminal identified with the youth of Israel in a way that Israel's politicians - hawks and doves alike - couldn't, and they identified with him. This was to be their century, their future, their peace. The sheer brutality of Arab terror, in one case butchering two dozen young people who had lined up to dance the night away at the Dolfinarium, pierced the bubble of youth.

The cover for that first album says it all. Subliminal made it fashionable (cool, some might say) to be a proud, strong Zionist again, in a post-Zionist era, and we diaspora Jews listened. His was the first Israeli CD that I owned - pirated and copied over and over, passing from Jewish friend to Jewish friend. Hey, I said we were Zionists, not saints! Sure, there are songs are about drinking, partying and girls - all popular themes - but we couldn't understand most of the Hebrew anyway. The one song I bothered to learn the lyrics for, the one I looked forward to, the one that pulled at me strongest, was Tikvah. It still does.

US and Israel: The State of Things

David Horowitz has written a veritable masterpiece, summarizing concisely the last year of US-Israeli diplomatic relations. Ignore his quaint and surely fruitless calls for a balance of pressure to rest on Arab shoulders, and one gets to the meat - a radical divergence in perception on both sides of the relationship; a misalignment of priorities stemming not from malice, in my opinion, but geography, ideology and experience.

The Obama presidency is convinced that Israel’s settlement policy lies at the root of much of the Palestinian and wider Arab hostility toward Israel. This despite Israel’s counterproductive demolition of the Gaza settlement enterprise and the Palestinians’ consistent rejection of peace offers that would require far greater settlement destruction.

The administration argues that Israel must prioritize more effectively – hence the relentless pressure for a building freeze to include east Jerusalem. This is seen by Washington as a tiny price to pay for the possibility of a breakthrough on the Palestinian front, in turn producing a whole new climate of relations with the Arab world and the prospect of a wider, powerful coalition to thwart the most serious threat to Israel, a nuclear Iran.

Such a freeze is of paramount importance to Israel, the administration feels, and it is acutely frustrated that Israel doesn’t share the sentiment. American pressure on Israel in this regard, the administration is convinced, is not only truly, honestly, in Israel’s best interest, but also in America’s best interest – since it would relieve some of the tensions in the Middle East which are producing greater hostility to “Israel’s friend America” wherever its troops are deployed on other Middle Eastern fronts.
The Netanyahu leadership believes that the massive concession of freezing all building in east Jerusalem, including in thoroughly Jewish neighborhoods such as Ramat Shlomo, would be anything but helpful: That Israel would be undermining, by its own actions, its claims to its own capital. That every such concession seems only to produce greater Palestinian intransigence and demands for further capitulations. That Israel, in the view of at least some in the cabinet’s key septet, would be playing into the hands of a Palestinian leadership that has never truly abandoned its phased plan for the destruction of Israel. That any perception of Israeli weakness emboldens Iran. And that the Arab world needs no concessions from Israel to motivate its support for every policy that would prevent the terrifying prospect of a nuclear Iran.
The views the US Administration holds are not limited to the Arabists within its ranks, but clearly include some of the most senior experts in Middle Eastern affairs, if not US-Israeli relations. In the past few days, Senator Schumer, a heavyweight on foreign affairs and within the Democratic establishment, fired a shot across the bow of the White House, indicating that consensus on the Administration's current approach is not to be taken for granted. A struggle is being waged for the President's ear, and it is now spilling out into the public sphere. Jewish and pro-Zionist communities around the country have been holding their breath and keeping their mouths shut for the past year in order to give Obama a chance for a historical breakthrough. Many are disoriented and confused, and are waiting for someone like Schumer to give them permission to have an opinion, so to speak. In that context, Schumer's warning is downright ominous: "we’re pushing hard to make sure the right side wins and if not we’ll have to take it to the next step."

The next step being what? Public opposition to the President's Israel policies hitting the airwaves? An editorial shooting war? Mobilization of mass rallies in areas enjoying strong Zionist support - New York, Chicago, Miami, LA.? This could get downright bloody in an election year when Republicans are resurgent. Meanwhile, neither the Palestinians nor the Arabs, G-d bless 'em, see any particular reason to strengthen Obama's hand by throwing Israel a bone. The only thing better than a strong American president strangling Israel is a weak American president impotent to interfere in Arab affairs. "Freedom Agenda", anyone?

American Presidents tend to not be strict ideologues. Imagining a one term Presidency tends to open minds to new possibilities and policy alternatives. It is not impossible to imagine Obama pivoting sharply, leveraging two years of pressure on Israel into similarly balanced demands of the Arabs. Those arguing to cut Obama off at the knees are missing the point. Israel can have no stronger advocate than a President who went head to head with it, and changed his mind, however he decides to rationalize it. Not impossible. Our goal must never be to destroy people, but to discredit wrongheaded policies, and with a finality that resonates through the American establishment for a generation or more.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Good Shabbos!

About those "Golus Jews"

The Obama administration is pursuing a foreign policy that it genuinely believes is in the best interests of America, and not coincidentally, Israel. We know this to be true, because the great ranks of American Middle Eastern analysts, experts and policymakers are swarming with Jews, as they have been for decades, and much more so, I imagine, than the State Department's South American division. It strains credulity that many of the same Jews, the kind that never thought to attend a meeting of the Peace Now radicals, who have labored to strengthen the US-Israeli strategic alliance through a quarter century are now cavalierly hellbent on destroying it. Nor can their positions be construed as a matter of personal weakness or squeamishness, as many of these experts routinely advise discharging munitions on a wide variety of human beings, without particular concern as to the price in blood of advancing American interests abroad.

To be clear, I believe that Rahm Emanuel would rather burn himself alive on the White House lawn than knowingly advance policies that substantially endanger either the State of Israel or the millions of Jews that call it home. Likewise, Jeremy Ben-Ami, of JStreet, is not a "self-hating Jew", a modern equivalent of Yevsekziya, or anything of the sort. The policies they advance are not "pie in the sky" conspiracies, concocted by dark of night in consultation with Amalek. Those who suggest that this is so do a disservice to the struggle being waged.

There are such Jews that hate their people, resent their heritage and seek to obliterate both, to varying degrees of intensity, stocked with rationalizations. I don't think such individuals are particular to the Jewish people, but given the unique strain on our faith, culture and physical security brought by twenty centuries of dispersion, added to the obligations of covenant and, without excess drama, the pull of destiny, it is not surprising that some among us will crack along the road. Rahm Emanuel and Jeremy Ben-Ami are not such Jews. Richard Goldstone is a troubling case, but to the extent that naiveté and incompetence are a defense, let's grant the man a benefit of doubt.

So cavalierly has the "bad Jew" label been bandied around of late, that I wonder if, for some, these pained, emotional outbursts at perceived betrayal are mere substitute for substance. As long as the Rahm Emanuels of our people can be denounced as traitors, sellouts, "golus Jews", the responsibility to intellectually counter the course of action they advocate can be ignored. The present sloganeering is utterly devoid of policy solutions, and has become intolerable to thinking people. "Vote Moshe Feiglin!" Why, what does he offer? "Torah values!" Why wait, let's bring these "Torah values" of his out now, when we need them most. He has a plan to go with those values, right? Right?

The anger is curdling now because the matters in question are coming to a head. Yet, where was the anger when, for twenty years, successive Israeli governments and American pro-Israel community promoted the notion of a negotiated two state solution? In all that time, not a single intelligent alternative emanated from the corner now branding as traitors the Jews who advance the only policy with institutional backing. Everyone went on with their lives, knowing that the Arabs would never really make peace with us, and all we had to do was let them prove it to the Americans. A concession here, a signed document there, a wink and a nod and let the Arabs show their true colors. Show their colors they did, the Arabs. Yet, the concession has been made, and the document has been signed, the wink was forgotten and the nod was really a sneeze. The process has overtaken reality in importance, but who created and accepted the premises on which that process rests?

Those who do not support a two state solution must state why clearly, and not in abstract theological or nationalist terms devoid of practical, day to day weight. That no comprehensive, intellectual alternative to the two state paradigm has broached the public discourse, much less diplomatic dialogue, through two decades is shameful. Instead we get excuses, self-pity, denial, emotional outbursts, all of which accomplish nothing. Nothing. Withdrawing from the debate while casting aspersions against those who choose to deal with reality in a pragmatic way is a disgrace.

Where is the 2000 page annexation plan? Where are the 7 autonomy options? Where's the polling data on offering permanent residency? Has anyone bothered to even count the Arabs in Yesha? Instead, those who argue against a two state solution are hit with embarrassment for company: let's expel three million people to Jordan at gunpoint. Why not to the moon? You'll drive? Who will make the sandwiches? Bardak!

Enough excuses, outbursts, sloganeering and demagoguery. Deal with reality in an intelligent, practical way or shut your mouth.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Ofra Haza

Yaacov has been on a "Music of the Jews" binge the past month or so. I suppose not much else is going on, what with Obama paralyzing Israeli-Arab diplomacy, so why not. I don't know very much about Israeli music of the 20th century; just a few classics that even a diaspora yid like me would have a hard time evading.

Last summer, however, I discovered her and fell in love, four decades too late.

"Mi Li Yiten"

I can't say I enjoy anything Ofra Haza sang in the 80s and 90s, though apparently millions of people disagree with me. Her music videos of this era are terrible by modern standards. Here are a couple more favorites from an earlier time.

"Shabbat ha'malka"

"Im Nin'alu"

Ayinchet has gathered quite a collection. Ofra Haza's parents were from Yemen. She was born in what was essentially a slum of Tel Aviv - Hatikvah ("the Hope") - in 1957. As far as I can tell, with songs like "Jerusalem of Gold" and a massive gold Magen Dovid around her neck in the above "Shabbat ha'Malka", she was a Zionist through and through. That doesn't seem to stop dozens, if not hundreds of Arabs, particularly Yemenites, from claiming her as their own in Youtube comments, some in better taste than others. Ofra passed away in 2000 of multiple organ failure brought about by AIDS, at just 42 years of age. Many blame her husband, who may have been a drug user.

My Shul's Mikveh

I recently wrote, rather incoherently, here and (less so) here, about an incident revolving around my Shul's mikveh. On a related note, I've thought about what I should do with these posts to salvage the core points - breaking the second one up into three articles is a start - but have decided to let them fester as a reminder of literary failure.

Anyway, over the weekend I happened to visit my shul's mikveh and snap a few pictures on my cell. It's a bit dark - I didn't bother turning on the fancy water back-lighting.

You're looking at a guardrail leading into a pool of water. On Sunday it was nice and warm. One is not always so lucky.

Here's another view, from the opposite side of the room.

The beautiful, painted ceiling with lighting accents and twinkling stars.

There's a story, interesting to me, that concerns this mikveh. It was built in place of an older one that burned down on Shavuot some years back. There is a custom among chassidim to stay up late on Shavuot - the morning being Matan Torah, the Giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai - all night if one is able, studying Torah, and to immerse in a mikveh as morning comes. I feel compelled to explain why we stay up, but Shavuot is coming soon enough and I'll explain then.

That year, I spent the night of Shavuot with a few young men and a couple of Rabbis, some learning independently, others in groups. I was only just becoming more observant in the Jewish faith, so I didn't know what to expect. When I was told, with the approach of dawn, that everyone was heading down to the mikveh for a dip, my heart sank. Throughout the ages, Jewish men have felt conspicuous, and often exposed themselves to ridicule after taking off their pants in front of non-Jews. In true baal teshuvah fashion, I was to experience the oppose - the embarrassment of being uncircumcised among fellow Jews.

It wasn't until two years later that I would be surgically wedded to my people. As things stood, I was uncut and terribly embarrassed of it. I had been to the mikveh before, but usually when it was deserted. Among a dozen Jewish men, high on the spirit of the holiday, my secret didn't stand a chance. Looking back, it does not seem like such an important thing, and neither does wearing matching socks in grade school, but imagine the abuse were a child to do otherwise. I wasn't prepared to face even a single taunt, insecure as I was. Instead, I barricaded myself in the library, praying my absence from the festivities would go unnoticed.

A half hour later I heard yelling, then fire trucks. I still don't know how that fire started, or why half a dozen guys with access to towels and water couldn't put it out. All I knew then was that my secret was safe.

Smashing Idols

Aaron David Miller, a key analyst long involved in American-led negotiations between Israel and the Arabs, disowns The Peace Process(™):
...this was the problem with Obama's tough talk to Israel on settlements. Not only was the goal he laid out -- a settlements freeze including natural growth -- unattainable, but it wasn't part of a broader strategy whose dividends would have made the fight worthwhile. Going after the Israelis piecemeal on settlements to please the Arabs or to make ourselves feel better won't work unless we have a way of achieving a breakthrough. That a tough-talking Obama ended up backing down last year when Netanyahu said no to a comprehensive freeze tells you why.

And that remains the president's challenge after the Biden brouhaha over housing units in East Jerusalem. In the spring of 2010 we're nowhere near a breakthough, and yet we're in the middle of a major rift with the Israelis. Unless we achieve a big concession, we will be perceived to have backed down again. And even if the president manages to extract something on Jerusalem, the chances that Netanyahu will be able to make a far greater move on a core issue, such as borders, will be much reduced.

So now Obama faces a conundrum. A brilliant, empathetic president, with a Nobel Peace Prize to boot, has embraced the iron triangle and made America the focal point of action and responsibility for the Arab-Israeli issue at a time when the country may be least able to do much about it.

The painful truth is that faith in America's capacity to fix the Arab-Israeli issue has always been overrated. It's certainly no coincidence that every breakthrough from the Egypt-Israel treaty to the Oslo accords to the Israel-Jordan peace agreement came initially as a consequence of secret meetings about which the United States was the last to know. Only then, once there was local ownership or some regional crisis that the United States could exploit, were we able to move things forward.

Right now, America has neither the opportunity nor frankly the balls to do truly big things on Arab-Israeli peacemaking.

That doesn't mean Obama won't try, fail and write a best selling memoir, leaving Jews and Arabs to scrape their chidren's body parts off the pavement, again.

Independence Day

Mondoweiss has brought to my attention a BBC poll measuring attitudes within 28 countries towards the influence of other countries. Israel's influence is widely perceived to be negative, in some cases staggeringly so - just 9% support in Spain, 6% in Turkey (the Turks seems to dislike just about everyone), 13% in Germany, 17% in Australia, just 2% in Japan(!), which actually beat out Egypt at 3%.

On a positive note, opinion is very fluid:
Views improved but remained negative in several countries [from 2009]. Unfavourable ratings have dropped in Australia by 20 points (now 47%, down from 67%), in Canada by 14 points (now 38%, down from 52%), in China by 12 points (now 40%, down from 52%), in Japan by 11 points (now 52%, down from 63%), in Portugal by 22 points (now 46%, down from 68%), in Spain by 11 points (now 60%, down from 71%).
Israel has certainly taken a beating in global opinion this decade. Three wars and thousands of casualties will make anyone forget their gratitude for your having invented instant messaging. What is rather more devastating is the strategic malaise produced by a lack of victory in these wars; as everyone concedes, they have delayed more violence, for a time, but solved nothing. Our enemies are patient, persistent, and making fewer mistakes than they used to.

True, Israel is penned in diplomatically and harassed militarily, but what is more urgent is that its leadership seems wearied, unimaginative and looking for foreign-led salvation rather than risking Israeli-led initiative. A small nation, surrounded by enmity, must be relentlessly bold, perpetually clever.

The country has all the tools it needs to transform its environment. Ultimately, what is more important than how other nations perceive Israel is how the Israelis perceive themselves: A nation shell-shocked and marooned at sea, or a people in command of their destiny.

Among the Righteous

As is widely known, Holocaust denial is rampant in Arab lands, and Mein Kampf remains a perennial favorite. David Pryce-Jones summed up Arab attachment to the Nazis and the Holocaust well, almost a decade ago:
In today's Muslim and Arab world, Hitler and the Holocaust are labels bandied about without regard to historical truth, in order to promote hatred on the one hand, and self-pity on the other — twin signals of intellectual and moral failure.
Arab denial of the Holocaust is not a stand-alone weapon of self-radicalism, but part and parcel of a culture and society, beginning in the intelligentsia itself, that bitterly negates Jewish identity at its core, violently clamoring for a people's extinction even as it disowns it of right to memory. In the same breath, a denial of Jewish martyrdom and its perpetuation, one dependent on the other. Most grotesquely, in a showmanship that reduces European notions of "Total War" to shame, Arab intellectuals hold Arab identity and future hostage to Jewish death and submission.

All well and good, in the grand scheme of Jewish survival, but where to go from here? It is a peculiarity of Jewish existence, given an often bleak past, that many among us seek to highlight the exceptions to history. Do individual acts of mercy temper national acts of brutality? Going forward, do they provide a counter-narrative of compassion and humanity more appealing than hatred?

You can watch the full video (55mins) here.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Getting Sensitive

The fickleness of perception and memory have been a recurring theme to which I return often in my mind. I have been generally surprised to find out how someone who lived through the same approximate experience as I, in the same space-time as I, can come away with a radically different version of events, or their meaning. This holds especially so for interpersonal relations, rocked as they are by emotions, attention spans, prejudices, proclivities and so on. What frightens me is that I make choices based on what I perceive and know to be true, and what I believe others know to be true. Yet, often, others make choices for which I have no explanation, and may never know the basis for.

There was a time when I was young and stupid. It hasn't passed. There was a time when I was even younger and more stupid, however, when I simply couldn't let a situation go when the basis for another person's actions seemed unreasonable, given the circumstances. How could such negativity be born of good will? Surely, if only I could explain myself, my experience, I thought, they would understand. I needed to know what they saw that so drastically diverged their conclusions from mine. What began as a simple exercise in perception management ended in disaster. Since then, I've been content to not be content on the matter. It's painful, to resign oneself that another will not know your truth, without recourse, ever.

An old friend recently told me how I had hurt them deeply, long ago. To me, it had been a non-event. To them, the pain I inflicted had shaped our relationship irreconcilably. I apologized. What I grieved for most were the years of distance, irretrievable. It was there, my biting, crude remark; I see it now, but I did not then. How many more remain, silent abusers, murderers of time and affection.

Hillel, the often quoted Jewish sage, teaches us to "love your fellowman as yourselves". This is the whole Torah, the rest is commentary, we are taught, and then instructed to go learn that commentary. (Incidentally, many of those who most often quote this lesson of Hillel, then choose not to go learn that commentary.) Many have colloquialized this lesson as a kindergarten axiom: treat others the way you want to be treated.

In Chapter 32 of Tanya, a masterpiece of Chabad Chassidism, the Alter Rebbe expounds on the verse, rejecting this common interpretation. The verse isn't about treating others the way we want to be treated - that's logically reciprocal, pragmatic, civilized even, but wrong. The Torah's great jewel isn't "you scratch my back and I'll scratch yours". That's obscene - a morality of atheists, or pagans, maybe.

No, what Hillel was driving at is that, on a spiritual level, there is no "you" and "me" - the separation is a mirage, a necessary concealment, a curtain that enables our physical world to exist as one where things appear distinct and independent of one another. In truth, there is no separation, we are one. Our many individualities are like rays of sunlight, entering a home through many different windows, yet the source is one. To love someone as ourselves doesn't mean we love them so that they love us back; we love them because, at our essence, they ARE us, and we are they. By loving them we love ourselves. By caring for their needs and wounds as if they were our own, we care for ourselves; we see the truth for what it is.

It is through deepening our sensitivity to this truth, by being attentive and purposeful in our thought, speech and actions and understanding their effects on others, that one begins to see the world through another person's eyes, to resolve the divergence in perception that can wreck havoc on a relationship.

Have you ever met a carpet installer? I haven't, as far as I know, but my Rabbi has, some years back. The man's hands were huge, I was told, heavily calloused from the rough work and repeated abuse of a cutting blade. So thick were the protective layers of skin that the man professed to not even notice anymore when a blade ran off the carpet and hit a finger!

Why would our souls, encased as they are in our physical form, weathering years of spiritual abuse, coarseness and insensitivity be any different? From a place of perfect unity, our souls are plunged into a world of bitter pain and separation. Blood is drawn again and again, until one learns to cope and to dish out even more, ever more furiously. This is not a process without a price. The coarse hands of a carpet installer are all his wife and children know. How much more severe must be the damage to our souls, calloused and numbed, barely feeling their way through the spiritual obstructions, caked on year after year. How much sensitivity have we lost in interactions with one another as a consequence?

Sensitivity is something you work for - a life's effort to peel away layer after layer of obstructions, like articles of clothing, undressing slowly, with great effort and while doing one's best not to do more damage. We have tools to peel away layers - the study of Torah, Chassidus (mystical learning which goes beyond the letter of the law) was created for this task, performing mitzvot (literally, a connection to G-d), prayer, immersing in a mikveh.

That's right, a mikveh, that pool of water, or lake or stream more commonly used by menstrual women and men after seminal emissions, has the power to strip layers of coarseness from a person's soul, or at least to wash away the damage added in the recent past. Diligent yeshiva students make the mikveh their first act upon rising, prioritizing it even before morning prayers, and it is obvious why - that their prayers should commence at a peak of spiritual sensitivity. Many, many hassidim have a custom of immersing in a mikveh before the Shabbos, a day spiritually set aside, elevated, above the others.

To cleanse the week's depravity from my soul before we greet the Shabbos bride; This is why I went to mikveh, Sruli. This is why you go with your father now, too.

"Peacefully and Pleasantly"

26 Adar II, 5749 · April 2, 1989
The Mayor of Ariel, Israel visits the Rebbe: “Tell the people in Israel to publicize everywhere that all the rumors that Israel will give back land have no basis in reality. These rumors are the cause of intifada, for they give the message that there is something to gain through violence. Israel will remain whole, and Moshiach will soon add the rest of its lands, peacefully and pleasantly without any battles.”

A point the Rebbe stressed, again and again, was that holding on to the entire Land of Israel would only enhance the security of all its residents, Jews and non-Jews, and that the settlement of the land should be accomplished in a peaceful way, without incitement or arrogance. No announcements. No grand speeches or gloating. Just shut up and build.

That's my preferred terminology, not the Rebbe's: just shut up and build.

It's what we do

Some years back, the Rabbi's son watched me burst through the front door and run into the basement mikveh of our shul before the onset of Shabbos. Sruli (shortened from Yisroel) must have been 3 or 4 years old at the time, certainly past his upshernish.

"Hey Victor! Where are you going?" He was playing on the railing above the staircase that led to the basement.

"I'm going to mikveh, Sruli. Don't hang on the railing like that." He pretended not hear my warning.


I had maybe ten minutes to go before Shabbos. Ten short minutes in which to take a quick shower, jump in the mikveh, dry myself, run upstairs and change (I often stay at the shul over Shabbos), then race back downstairs for evening prayers. Watching my steps as I sped down, I answered him reflexively, before the door to the mikveh shut behind me.

"It's what we do."

I didn't give this exchange a second thought, and would not have recalled it these years later, except that I was confronted by Sruli's father at his Shabbos table a few weeks later. He thanked me for answering his son in the way that a child needs to hear. To a boy of three or four, logical legal arguments and esoteric mysticism are meaningless. It is sufficient, in fact ideal, that he simply understand "it's what we do". But you, the Rabbi continued, who are not a child, of you I want an explanation for why we immerse in the mikveh.

The many lively conversations around the table ended abruptly, as all eyes turned to me. As fortune would have it, I had just finished a small book on the halacha of building a mikveh and customs related to its use (this isn't it, but it's great). However, a spontaneous, public dressing down I was not prepared for. I muttered something about ritual purity before the Rabbi put me out of my misery. Thinking back at the company at that Shabbos table, I now realize that I was not the likely audience for a discussion about the importance of taharas hamishpacha (family purity).

Perhaps I'll address certain morsels of that discussion at a later time. What instigated this recollection is an article in The Forward on the tremendous growth and success of the Chabad movement on American university campuses. As someone who spent the better part of his twenties organizing on campus, both for secular, pro-Israel organizations and religious student groups with ties to Chabad, and who myself became drawn to Yiddishkeit through a Chabad community, I have some thoughts on the subject of outreach to Jewish students.

The prevailing trends in Jewish student organizations on campus - Chabad excluded - are to embrace pluralistic, welcoming and egalitarian expressions of Jewish identity. Yes, like many "young Jewish leaders" I've learned to articulate myself brilliantly without actually saying a damn thing. In reality, what all those words mean is a bunch of 18 and 19 year old students, with no formative Jewish education, being asked what they consider to be a positive Jewish experience. These are people whose last "positive Jewish experience" was eating their dead grandma's matzah ball soup when they were seven, or being dragged away from Saturday morning cartoons, kicking and screaming, to their Reform synagogue. The reason they are being asked is that the organizations in question - and those who run them - themselves don't know what constitutes a "positive Jewish experience". Never asked is why it is inappropriate to have a "negative Jewish experience". Fear not, these students are about to be introduced to many negative (though not Jewish) experiences.

We have blind leading the blind, and deflecting objective oversight by obfuscating their failure in layer upon layer of ever complex modes of expression. Instead of acknowledging their incompetence and promptly resigning before they do any more damage, these administrating sycophants and leeches drain community resources in a tailspin of failure that condemns generation after generation of young Jews to ignorance of their basic identity, and at a most critical time of their lives. It is in university that a young person begins to internalize who they are, what they stand for, who they want to be and what they want to do with their lives. As the great majority of young Jews, challenged by the critical intellectual environment around them, reach for their cultural roots one last time before they write off their heritage as dead artifact, they are asked, by "Jewish professionals" no less, "Well, what does Judaism mean to you?" My dead grandmother's matzah ball soup, that's what. If I already knew, why would I come to YOU?! Apparently it means bullshit, because that's all you're feeding me. Tell you what, there's a dirty, homeless guy outside, let's go feed him something more tangible than this Judaism you're showing me. Tikkun Olam. It's Hebrew (pause for effect) for "repair the world".

Chabad is successful on campus because they don't feed young Jews bullshit compiled through polling data and packaged in corporate marketing. Lubavitcher shluchim (emissaries) don't need to hide behind language and aren't embarrassed of being Jews and living like Jews. They don't ask stupid questions like, "What does Judaism mean to you?" of 18 year olds with no experience in life, much less Judaism! They show by example what Jewish life is, give young Jews the basic knowledge to make informed choices about their heritage and their future and then respect their decisions.

I'm about to save the organized Jewish community tens of millions of dollars in wasted research polling, consultants and failed programming, so listen closely. When a young adult, with a collective Jewish experience equivalent to a 3 or 4 year old child asks "Why?" a "Jewish professional" sweats from discomfort and squirms in embarrassment, trying to explain away the uncouth, the unmodern, the irrational ways of an ancient people's covenant with the source of our life. Untold resources are expended on suppressing, deflecting and evading the simple answer this young Jew seeks. A Chabad shaliach proudly asserts, "It's what we do" - we Jews, you and I, together - and then proceeds to explain why we do it. Tefillin. Shabbos. Kashrus. Circumcision. Torah. We're Jews and it's what we do, no apologies, no embarrassment, no squirming.

That's it. That's the secret formula to connecting with a generation exhausted of falsehood and cynical of marketing, free of communal guilt and parental pressure and yearning for something real, for something honest and beautiful in a world that makes a mockery of sanctity and love and truth, for the treasure of an identity they can feel and can't explain. Untold numbers of Jews have died to ensure a chain of faith unbroken by thirty five centuries, culminating in me and you. This is what we Jews do. Come, and let's learn why.

On My Bookshelf