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Thursday, June 30, 2011

Kiddush by Candlelight – Parashat Chukkat

By candle light, one can mark each passing hour in the cascade of wax.  As wick gives way to flame, the blaze dwindles and the night yields to shadow.  To live in the ephemeral glow of candles is to know that light is finite and darkness inevitable.

Yet we live and breathe not by candle light, but by Edison’s incandescent bulb and the fluorescent innovations that followed. In contrast to candles, the electric bulb is a hundred times brighter. Its light rarely dims or flickers. It seems nearly infinite when set aside the sputtering tallow flame.

No doubt, we gained immeasurably when we gave up the wax candle for the electric blaze, but one wonders if we also lost immeasurably in the exchange. 

In this week’s portion, Chukath, there is a passing of the torch. The life of Aaron, the high priest, is set to expire, but before he is gathered to his people, God commands that his son be designated high priest in his stead. “The Lord said to Moses… ‘Take Aaron and Elazar his son, and bring them up to the Mountain upon the Mountain (Hebrew: Hor Hahar). There, you shall strip Aaron of his vestments, and put them on Elazar his son; and Aaron shall be gathered to his people, and there he shall die.” (Numbers 20:23-26)

While the foretelling of death is alarming, the awareness of the inevitable affords Aaron the contentment of watching his son don the garments of the high priest. “Happy is he who sees his crown given to his son,” quotes Rashi. 

Before the advent of electricity, the Sabbath candles were kindled not only to honor the Sabbath but to illuminate the home.  As dusk set in and the last rays of sun melted to darkness, Jewish families relied upon candles not only to see, but also to illuminate that which could not be seen.

In the half-light of the flame, the meal was all the more appreciated for its smell and taste. Not able to observe the full nuances of body language, one had to listen all the more attentively for the nuances of voice. It was natural to draw on memory to fill in the twinkle of an eye, the crack of a smile, or even one’s spouse’s silhouette. Yet the most important difference is spoken by the candles themselves. They say: ‘There is urgency to the evening.  Do what needs be done. Speak which needs be spoken.  Values, traditions, ideals that need be imparted, impart before the last candle burns to the wick and the light is gone.’

There is symbolism to Aaron being laid to rest in a place called Hor HaHar—a Mountain upon a Mountain.  When one has seen to it that one’s progeny builds upon what one has built, it is indeed like placing a mountain upon another mountain. Yet without the sense that time wanes, without the specter of darkness just over the horizon, what urgency is there to give over what we have? What rush is there to don our children in that which we cherish most—the vestments of the high priest—the great mountain of our tradition?

Perhaps, it is time we forget Edison for an evening, and have a Friday-night meal with a few candles instead.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Abusing Rabbinic Power

A Fabulous Piece by Rabbi Marc D. Angel:

Maintaining Purity and Integrity: Thoughts on Parashat Hukkat
The laws of the Red Heifer are considered to be among the inscrutable commandments of the Torah. The elaborate ritual was ordained for the purpose of purifying those who had become ritually unclean through contact with a dead body. One of the strange features of this procedure was that while it purified the impure, it defiled all those who were connected with the preparation of the ashes and water of purification “It purifies the impure, and simultaneously defiles the pure.” How could the exact same ingredients lead to opposite results? I suggest a possible explanation. 

Those engaged in purifying others might naturally come to think of themselves as being highly important individuals. The impure people must turn to them for help. Being in this position of spiritual power could easily lead the “purifiers” to aggrandize themselves, to subtly (or not so subtly) adopt feelings of superiority. To prevent this eventuality, the Torah declares that the purifiers must themselves be rendered impure. Thus, they will not develop an inflated sense of self-importance, because they will realize that they must become ritually defiled while they purify others. The process does not raise them above those they serve, but actually lowers their status of ritual purity.  (To Continue, Click Here.)

Monday, June 27, 2011

The Moral Survivor of the West Depends on Ethical Slaughter

From one of my favorite religio-political commentators:

"For months, the Dutch parliament has debated a bill that would ban kosher slaughter on supposed humanitarian grounds. On June 23, parliament offered a compromise according to which the Jewish community will have a chance to demonstrate that this 3,000-year-old practice does not cause animals to suffer. Given that kosher slaughter is mandated in order to prevent animal suffering, the entire proceeding is grotesque. This might seem like an esoteric issue affecting a small religious minority; on the contrary, I argue, it is on just such questions that the moral survival of the West depends - Spengler."  

To read more, continue here.

Friday, June 24, 2011

What is in a Politician's Heart? Parashat Korach

The French philosopher Bernard-Henri Levi once produced a timeline, suggesting that Pakistan had a habit of arresting Al Qaeda terrorists just before Congress convened to debate the amount of aid that would be given to Islamabad. Though Levi published his findings in 2005, Congress continued to annually renew its $3 billion dollar a year pledge to the Islamic Republic. In return, Pakistan gave its earnest pledge to use the aid find and fight terrorists. It turned out they found them alright, but then proceeded to put them in suburban villas. (Here)

Which begs the question, why are we so gullible? And if the cunning politicians in Pakistan can even fool the cunning politicos in Congress, what hope is there for the rest of us?

In this week's portion, Korach gathers from among the Children of Israel a pack of the aggrieved and the malcontent. Griping against the authority of Moses and Aaron, they rail: "You take too much upon yourselves, seeing that all the congregation is holy, every one of them, and Lord is among them. Why have you lifted yourselves above the congregation of the Lord?" (Num. 16.3)

The Tanhuma imagines that the people were initially skeptical of Korach's intentions. So like any good politician he made his campaign stops: "That night Korach went from tribe to tribe to seduce them: 'You imagine that I am concerned only for myself, but I am concerned for all of you. They have taken all the great privileges: To Moses, the Monarchy, and to Aaron, the Priesthood.' Eventually, they were all seduced." (Rashi - Num.16.19)

It would be nice if there was a sure way to know what is in a politician's heart, to discern lie from truth. But by the Tanhuma's assessment, unmasking a crafty leader, akin Korach, is no easy task.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Ask the Rabbi?

I have started a new page devoted to Questions and Answers:
Be one of the first of the first to submit to Ask the Rabbi:

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Protocols of the Elders of Mormon??? The Bigotry Begins...

If you are Jewish, the following should sound eerily familiar.

The rise of the Mormons

"Are Mormons going to inherit the earth? Or at least America? It is starting to look as though they might. The Mormon church is only 181 years old, and its followers make up just 2 per cent of the U.S. population. Yet they have an amazing number of the top jobs. It is well-known that two leading republicans, Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman, strong contenders for their party's presidential nomination in 2012, are Latter-day Saints. It is less known that Mormons increasingly run corporate America. A new Bloomberg report offers an impressive list of Mormon business leaders So here. Bloomberg’s Caroline Winter attributes the success of Mormons to the Missionary Training Centre, a sort of indoctrination camp for the Mormon work ethic. And I'm sure that's right. Yet Mormons also benefit from the fact they are devoted to their families and almost invariably likeable. For all their weirdnesses — and there are many — they tend to be incredibly nice, albeit often in a rather disturbing, Midwich Cuckoo way. Even Romney, as cheesy and slimey as any politician, has a certain irrepressible charm. All of this and more was said by Philip Delves Broughton in the Spectator in March. But the rise and rise of the Mormons is an ongoing story."

As I am at a loss for words, I encourage you to read Cranmer's knife-like evisceration on his blog. 

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Airport Security, Head-Coverings and Hamlet

If the Bard were alive today:
To travel, or not to travel, that is the question:
Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous inspection,
Or to take arms against a sea of security obsessives,
And by opposing end in jail? Or stay home and sleep.
I was recently asked whether tis better (in the eyes of Jewish law) to suffer an intrusive pat-down or submit to a similarly intrusive full-body scan. Of course, both are enormously better than having to stand naked in the snow, and neither are as enjoyable as "old-fashioned" metal detectors, not to mention those lovely electro-magnetic wands that set the heart aflutter as they sail along the spine and can be bought for as little as $30 on Amazon. I have a suspicion that the whole business might end if everyone brought their personal wands to the airport and just started scanning one another on the plane. Who's to say the TSA agents are any better at spotting terrorists than you are? (It may be a good idea to scan the airplane food as well.)

But most of us do not want to end in jail, and we are at the airport precisely because we'd rather not stay at home and sleep, so what is one to do given the choice between pat-down and X-ray?

Let's examine both options.

As far as a pat-down is concerned, it is TSA policy "that passengers should be screened by a Security Officer of the same gender." This is very good. Moreover, where the removal of garments, head-coverings, or adornments is being requested, one can elect to have the search done in a private screening area. (Source: TSA Religious and Cultural Needs) The unnerving downside of the pat-down is that one is being physically prodded and touched by a total stranger. Gloved hand or not, being frisked is intrusive in the extreme, and the more thorough the search the greater the sense of violation.  Secondarily, the manual process can consume 3-5 minutes of time. Not much in the grand scheme of things...unless one's spouse is left alone to shepherd three little children, two strollers, the contents of eight carry-on bags to those "let's put our shoes and belts back on benches," all while praying for the safety and security of any cellphones, pagers, passports, wallets, laptops and tickets.

Option two is to submit to the Full-Body Scan, a process that has a couple of advantages. 1) The process is claimed to "take less than a minute." 2) The officer who views the images is in a separate cubicle and never actually "sees" the individual. 3) If there is a irregularity on the scan, the officer reports to an intermediary officer, giving the process a further degree of anonymity.

The downside is the intrusiveness of the images themselves, compounded by the possibility that the officer who sees the image may be of a different gender than the woman or man being scanned. (For those unfamiliar with the specific nature of these images, see Millimeter Wave Technology and the Backscatter Technology.)

Some time ago, the OU's 'Vebbe Rebbe' addressed the issue in a post, permitting an individual to electively use the scanner based on a number of arguments. 1) The security officer who sees the images is a professional who likely sees thousands of images a day and is, therefore, very much similar to a male doctor who is expected to maintain a level of professional detachment when examining a a female patient. (Igroth Moshe YD III.54)

2) The second argument is rather creative and well worth quoting in full:
"The gemara (Megilla 15a) says that whoever said the name Rachav [see Joshua Ch. 2] would be aroused, but only if he knew her. Based on this, some say that the prohibition of hearing a woman’s singing voice applies only when the one listening has seen the woman who is singing (Yabia Omer, I, Orach Chayim 6). In this case, where the guard does not know the person and would not recognize her based on what he saw, there is little cause for concern that he will be aroused."
3) Lastly, it's the man's problem if he get's aroused by such images, not the woman being scanned. (Brachot 24a; See my post Why Doesn't Someone Write a Tzniut Book for Men? )

I would argue as well, as the person being scanned is fully dressed and covered up, it's hard to even come up with a whiff of a prohibition. Even if one were to lump radio and magnetic images with photographs and digital images, one can argue cogently that the 'nakedness' of an image is not the same as actual nakedness.  (See previous blog: Skype and Head-Coverings, Part I and Part II) To conclude then, one can absolutely choose to have a full-body scan over a pat-down.

A final thought. I had an opportunity to ask my teacher, Rabbi Yakov Love, shlita, just what he thought of the whole business of a married woman covering her hair on Skype. He agreed that the image of a person does not have the same law as an actual person. As Rabbi Love rules (according to the Igroth Moshe) that the obligation to cover one's head is based on whether one is in the physical presence of other men, there is no obligation to cover one's head for a Skype interview. He added though that while 'Dat Yehudith' might not apply, the strictures of modesty may very well determine that a woman might choose to cover her head,  because she feels it inappropriate for her image to be broadcast without it. Similarly, most of us would probably feel violated if we were photographed while getting out of a shower--no matter what the halachic status an image might have.

To sum up then, when it comes to pat-downs or full-body scans, one ought to do that which feels least intrusive and affords one the greater degree of self-dignity and modesty. In blunter terms, choose what you feel to be the lesser of two evils.

Friday, June 17, 2011

The Secret of Life: Parashat Shelach-Lecha

Reality bends to our expectations. The gas tank can be half full or half empty, depending on one’s state of mind. An optimistic weatherman might declare ‘a day of scattered sunshine’ while a pessimist will predict ‘scattered clouds and rain.’

In this week’s portion, twelve spies are sent to scout the Land of Israel. Upon their return to the Israelite camp, ten of the twelve offer a negative report. “The people of the land are fierce, their cities are fortified and very great…we are not able to go up against the people for they are stronger than we…we were in our own sight as grasshoppers, and so were in their sight.” (Numbers 13.28-33) But there is a minority report: “We should go up at once, and possess it; for we are well able to overcome it.” (Numbers 13:30)

Who tells the truth? Is it the yea-sayer or naysayer who best describes reality?

To be fair, they both behold the truth. But while one observes a problem and gives up, the other observes the same problem and begins to think of a solution.

The world tends to mirror our minds. If an obstacle is thought surmountable it will be overcome. If we fall and have the vision to see ourselves upright, we do get up.  But without that vision, we remain inert, fixed in the desert like the Israelites of old—the ‘Promised Land’ an illusory mirage.

Paul Coehlo put it nicely: "The secret of life, though, is to fall seven times and to get up eight times." And that takes faith and vision.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Tai Chi and Yoga: A Funny Story

Shoba Narayan writes in a travel magazine:
"When I informed my conservative Indian family that I was interested in tai chi, they were appalled. Why was their Indian child, heir to an ancient and proud tradition—yoga—leaning toward an alien discipline? "
The concern seems naggingly familiar, though I must admit my own myopia. Growing up in Los Angeles, I have always thought of yoga and tai chi as forms of exercise. I would never have imagined that switching from yoga to tai chi (or, heaven forfend, pilates) could possibly be considered tantamount to forsaking one's faith.

Narayan goes on to describe how she traveled to China to search out the perfect tai chi master, which she finally manages to find in a public park in Beijing on her last day before her return to India. After her lesson with the master--a Mrs. Shi--they get to chatting.
"...She has one daughter, she says, who is twenty-one and living in India. What does your daughter do? I ask.
She is a yoga teacher, Mrs. Shi says.
I laugh. I cannot help but appreciate the irony of coming all the way from India to learn tai chi from a Chinese woman whose daughter is in India studying yoga."
Narayan finishes the story with old moral: Even on terra incognita we carry a bit of home in our heart.
I bow to Mrs. Shi, give her the martial arts fist-to-palm salute, and once more offer to pay for the class. Again she refuses. As I walk through the ballroom dancers, I turn back and find her watching me, waving.
I have to offer my shifu something. I am not even sure if I will ever see her again, although of course that isn't the point. [...] On the spur of the moment, I stop. The grass is my yoga mat. I wave at my shifu, who is still watching me. My elbows support my head as I bend and execute a perfect headstand. Years of practice as a child still haven't left me. I am doing the Sirsasana yoga pose in a Chinese park as an offering for my tai chi teacher. Someone claps. I get back up on my feet, wave at my shifu, turn, and head to the subway for the long ride home.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Parashat Baha'alotcha: And the Gossip Goes On

“Who brings a tale takes two away.” So goes an Irish proverb.

Gossip is like that. I share one tale with a friend, and this friend shares a second tale with me. Often it doesn’t end there. Dirt is piled upon dirt; the proverbial molehill becomes a mountain.

In this week’s portion, Baha’alotcha, the Torah records the saintly characters of Miriam and Aaron – Moses’ siblings – swept up in the winds of disreputable chatter. “And Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses because of the Ethiopian woman whom he had married: For he had married an Ethiopian woman. And (then) they said: Has the Lord spoken only with Moses? Has He not spoken also with us?” (Numbers 12:1, 2).

Note the progression. First Aaron and Miriam complain about Moses’ relationship with his wife, and then they complain about Moses relationship with God. The conversation may very well have continued had they not been interrupted by an irate God: “And the Lord spoke suddenly unto Moses, and unto Aaron, and unto Miriam: ‘Come out you three to the Tent of Meeting…” (12.4).

Such is the power of gossip, without a swift or sudden interruption, without a voice from above or within that says, ‘Enough!,' gossip will carry on.

A final thought: It is somewhat of a mystery just what it was that Miriam and Aaron found bothersome in regards to Moses’ wife. The Torah seems to want to spare us specific details, yet our commentators, as is their custom, attempt to flesh out the unsaid.

Some are of the opinion that the conversation was about Moses being a neglectful husband (Rashi, Hizkuni). Others suggest it was about Moses’ decision to marry a non-Israelite wife (Ibn-Kaspi, Shadal). A third approach imagines that they went as far as discussing his wife’s unattractiveness (Ibn-Ezra).

Whatever the truth, there is a certain irony in the Torah trying to spare us the details of the Miriam and Aaron’s exchange, and we in our curiosity trying to flesh out the scandal. When it comes to gossip, legend abounds. A thread of hearsay can become a patchwork of conjecture or outright fabrication. In this, too, there is a valuable lesson.

Friday, June 3, 2011

The Weight of Wine: Parashat Naso

The grape vine is unique among trees in that it requires trellises and careful wiring to keep its fruit securely attached to the trunk and branch. As vintage time draws nearer, each cluster of grapes grows heavier. Without added support, the combined weight of several clusters could very well snap the vine.

This morning I came across a fascinating Midrash that described the predicament of the un-trellised vine:

"Though the vine be supported by straight reeds and forked reeds, it cannot stand up under the weight of the wine in the grapes. So if wine's own mother cannot bear its burden, how then can you?" (Translation

The image that immediately came to mind was that of a tavern drunk, who by night's end needs two others to carry him home. Such is the intoxication of wine-- "if wine's own mother cannot bear its burden, how then can you?"

This week's portion, Naso, discusses the Nazirite, a man or woman who resolves to abstain from the pressed grape and her by-products for a period of time. (Numbers 6:1-21) Most likely, the period of abstinence may have been inspired by a period of over-indulgence. As Diogenes put it: "The vine bears three kinds of grapes: the first of pleasure, the second of intoxication, the third of disgust." It started out well, but then indulgence was followed by intoxication, and intoxication to blabbering and slobbering, and from there to a morning of many regrets.  

Truth be told, a good many things, like wine, give us pleasure. Likewise, in excess they engender the same self-disgust.  'I meant to spend twenty minutes on the computer, how did three hours go by?' 'I just wanted a handful of potato chips, why did I eat right down to the crumbs on the bottom of the bag?' 'How did I spend so much time on the phone?'

Without the trellises of support--family and faith, good deeds and constant self-reflection--the fruit of pleasure grows in weight, the branch bends, the timber threatens to break. 

Perhaps the lesson of the Nazir is that it is wise to say 'No' on occasion--to abstain from that which distracts us, to use the extra time and energy to mend those trellises, prune the excess, grow deeper roots. 

Shabbat Shalom