Thursday, October 28, 2010

In Memoriam: Rabbi Meir Kahane

Real Torah vs Fake Toyrah
We recently commemmorated the twentieth yahrzeit of Rabbi Meir Kahane hy"d, murdered by an Arab terrorist in New York in the fall of 1990. I came under his influence as a high school student in the 1960s, through his columns in the Jewish Press and his numerous public appearances in Brooklyn. I had enrolled in one of the karate programs that his Jewish Defense League had set up in Brooklyn. One day after class Rabbi Kahane came in and spoke to us. He told us it was high time young Jewish men were doing this, that if we were to survive in our changing neighborhoods rife with anti-Jewish assaults we would have to break the stereotype of the Jewish "patsy" (his word), gentle, scholarly, unaccustomed to (and repelled by) fighting, unable or unwilling to defend himself. This was not news to me. A while before, in 1967, I had begun lifting weights and transforming myself from a sickly little boy into a robust young athlete. I had begun living "muscular Judaism" before becoming aware of the phrase.
Rabbi Kahane taught us that the Torah as studied and lived by generations of Jews in galut (exile) was not the genuine article. I might add that even the typical European pronunciation of the word, Toyrah (as if a yod followed the holam), has an unmanly, kvetchy ring to it. Rabbi Kahane taught us that there is nothing Jewish about being physically weak, unable to stand up for ourselves in the street, and ultimately being herded naked into gas chambers. In fact, it was the essense of hillul Hashem (desecration of God's Name). I am reminded of visiting the Holocaust memorial at Mount Zion in Jerusalem on my first trip to Israel with my family for my Bar Mitzvah. The guide pointed to several bars of soap in the front and told us that they were made from the bodies of Jewish victims and were inscribed with the German initials for "Pure Jewish Fat." It would be laughable if it were not so disgusting and tragic. Since then, all soap, ashes and other derivatives of Jewish bodies at that memorial were properly buried. The Germans discontinued soap manufacture because it was uneconomical, not due to any shortage of Jewish fat. Neither is there any shortage of Jewish fat today; look around in shul and you'll see more pregnant men than pregnant women. Well, nobody is going to get much soap from this (58-yr-old) Jew. The real Torah, according to Rabbi Kahane, presumed normal Jews and a normal Jewish nation. Jews who do not sit all day and half the night hunched over books. Jews who work Jewish soil in the hot Israeli sun. Tough, strong Jews who crush any enemy that dares attack us. The kind of Jews that we meet in Tanakh, the study of which, he taught, is sadly neglected in most yeshivot [but not in my alma mater, Yeshivah of Flatbush].
Cut to 2010. I'm in the bakery shopping for Shabbat and pick up a free copy of the Five Towns Jewish Times. I turn to an article titled "Olympians We're Not" by one "Talmid X," who is spending the now-customary post-high-school year at an Israeli yeshiva. The author describes his physical breakdown caused by sitting for most of the day in a "beis medrash" (Would someone please tell me how a hirik got transformed into a segol?). He tells of how a fifteen-minute stint in the Israeli sun heaving around "enormous sacks of potatoes" had him spending the rest of the afternoon in a bathroom stall suffering from dehydration (and presumably diarrhea). He describes the Israeli summer sun as "boiling", and an "oven. . .set at approximately two million degrees." Well, guess what? I was in that Israeli sun in 1974, when I was roughly his age. I spent the major part of the day not hunched over books but picking grapes in Kibbutz Sde Eliyahu in Emek Bet She'an. I ate like a farm hand because that's what I was, and I did not gain a pound. When I and my friends were not working in the fields we were traipsing all over the country, climbing hills and exploring caves. We traveled in a pickup truck, not an air conditioned bus. We hiked up Masada, the cable car being for weaklings only (when it passed overhead, we called out "too-reest, too-reest"). Talmid X, at best, engages in over-the-top hyperbole that discredits the rest of what he has to say: Just how heavy were those "enormous sacks of potatoes" that broke him in fifteen minutes? At worst, he commits the sin of the meraglim, the spies sent by Moshe Rabbeinu who returned with a report full of lashon hara about Israel. Ovens were the fate of weak Jews before there was an Israel. The Israeli sun is wonderful. It's beautiful. It challenges boys and, if they rise to it, turns them into men. The human organism is designed to function in the heat. Our ancestors made their living running gazelles down to exhaustion in the hot African sun. If 15 minutes in the sun dehydrated Talmid X, then the problem is Talmid X, not the sun. Diarrhea is most likely the result of eating food that was not properly refrigerated, though dehydration can make it worse. At any rate, Imodium works like a charm. Here are a few pointers for managing summer heat.
A Jew is commanded to take care of his/her health and avoid behavior that will make him sick, e.g. smoking and sedentary living. Just as we cannot say that we're too busy learning and have no time to put on tefilin, we can't say that we're too busy learning to keep ourselves healthy. If the yeshiva does not give you time to exercise, then make the time. Even if it means you arrive late for a shi'ur or skip one. Sick Jews learn sick "Toyrah," and dead Jews don't learn any. Get up a bunch of friends and work out together. Your yeshiva probably has a mashgiah ruhani; make yourself the unofficial mashgiah gufani. You might find yourself gaining fresh insights into your learning while you're running around in your underwear; strange and beautiful things happen when your heart's pumping rhythm to your brain. You might even want to carry around one of those voice-activated recorders to record those insights, flesh them out when you get back and surprise whoever is riding you for missing shi'ur. The worst thing that can happen is you'll be kicked out of that yeshiva. So? Find another one, one that teaches the real Torah and not the distorted and corrupt Toyrah.

Labels: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Not in Our Name - Gay Bashing and Orthodox Rabbis

These last several weeks have seen a spate of suicides of gay teenagers who gave in to despair after being harassed and bullied at school and on the streets. There have also been several violent attacks on actual or perceived gay people. Against this backdrop Brooklyn's very own homophobic rabbi Yehuda Levin joined with Carl Palladino, the Republican candidate for governor of New York, in gratuitously spewing anti-gay hate on television.

It's easy enough to say this is somebody else's problem and look the other way, but in light of our own history and authentic Judaism's view of the world I for one cannot do so. We ought to know that when the human rights of one group are diminished, we are not far behind. And we ought to be outraged by the violence being perpetrated against actual or perceived gay men, because we Jews, Orthodox Jews in particular, were victims of the same kind of violence in the not so distant past. To venture out of doors with a kippa [skullcap] on one's head was to become a walking target for rowdy young Gentiles with nothing better to do than pick fights on the street with Jewish boys. For both gays and observant Jews, the violence and bullying stemmed from the same stereotype - that we were patsies, weaklings unable or unwilling to defend ourselves. And even if this common bond did not exist, our Torah teaches that all human beings carry the image of God and are entitled to respect and dignity. That should be axiomatic, but it seems to have escaped some prominent Rabbinic figures. Steven Greenberg, the first and so far only openly gay Orthodox rabbi wrote an article for the Jewish Week describing his experiences on moving to a new city and entering an Orthodox synagogue there. The rabbi of the shul asked him to leave, and told him that the ruling had come from a rabbi whose authority exceeded his own. I don't get it. No ruling could be issued unless someone asked for one, and that someone presumably was the synagogue rabbi. And in the absence of a recognized Sanhedrin, there is no rabbi whose authority exceeds that of the mara d'atra, the synagogue rabbi, in the confines of that synagogue. It sounds like that synagogue rabbi is a wimp, but it gets worse. Rabbi Greenberg spoke on the telephone with the rabbi who gave the order barring him from the synagogue. It turns out that this man is a prominent Rosh Yeshiva. Rabbi Greenberg told him that he, Rabbi Greenberg, was attempting to find a way for young gay and lesbian Jews to remain part of the Orthodox community, and that some of them become so desperate that they attempt suicide. The rabbi responded that perhaps it is a mitzva for them to do so; that since they are guilty of a capital offense they might as well administer their own punishment. Huh? Suicide is now a mitzva for people who commit capital offenses? Never mind that homosexuality is not a capital offense, only anal sex is, and many of these conflicted young people have not had anal sex. I never heard of any rabbi, let alone a so-called gadol, saying the same for people who violate Shabbat, curse or strike their parents, or commit any other capital offense. Only a qualified Sanhedrin may carry out the Torah's death sentences, and in the 2000-year absence of a "court of competent jurisdiction" these sentences are left to God. Rabbi Greenberg writes how he experienced extreme difficulty keeping his composure. I feel his pain; similarly situated, I doubt if I would have been able to keep my own.

I wish Rabbi Greenberg had informed his readers of this prominent Rosh Yeshiva's name and that of the Yeshiva he heads. Perhaps he gave the man his word that he would not, in which case he has to keep his word. Perhaps he feels divulging this information would be lashon hara, but here the Jewish public needs to know, since we presumably revere him and relate to him as an authority figure. It should be obvious that we cannot accept the authority of a "leader" who regards suicide as a mitzva. We must make it crystal clear that such a vile man does not utter such abominations in our name. Each one of us should sign the online pledge to speak out against anti-gay harassment and bullying; it might just save a life.

Since the Slifkin affair, the haredi rabbinic leadership has been piling outrage upon outrage and failing us at every turn. It is increasingly difficult to give these people the benefit of the doubt - that they are ignorant, or senile, or prisoners of an old world that no longer exists. It is becoming evident that the Torah world is being led by evil and godless men. Heaven help us all.

Labels: , , , ,

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Basil Pizza and the Limits of Kosher Supervision

Last week's New York Times Magazine featured an article about Basil Pizza and Wine Bar, an upscale pizza and dairy restaurant on Kingston Avenue just north of Eastern Parkway in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. The establishment, like most kosher eateries in Crown Heights, is under the supervision of the OK, a kosher supervision orgnization popular with the Lubavitch community in the area. I never visited the restaurant so I can only comment on what I read in the article. According to the author, the establishment was visited by Rabbi Dan Yoel Levy, head of the OK, who expressed concern about the conduct and dress of patrons and demanded access to surveillance video. Rabbi Levy, who disputes details of the author's account of his visit, apparently had received complaints about lingering youth in the establishment. He asserts that it is his responsibility and that of kosher certifying agencies in general to monitor the entertainment (no crude comedy, no female singers and so forth) and make certain that young men and women were not socializing inappropriately.

I beg to differ. We look for the hashgaha (supervision) sign in the window for assurance that the food is kosher. We cannot determine that by looking at the food. We are fully competent to judge the quality of the entertainment, the socializing, the ambiance for ourselves, thank you very much. Basil was established with the idea of attracting a mix of Hasidim, other Orthodox Jews, secular Jews and non-Jews under one roof. It is a setting where people are expected to linger, to talk, to socialize. Such establishments often cater private birthday parties and waitresses bring out a cake and sing "Happy Birthday." No Happy Birthday at Basil. No Ella Fitzgerald over the loudspeakers. Things were not always so uptight in our community. I remember attending community sedarim at my late uncle's shul in the late 1960s or early 1970s where my female cousin sang. She was a member of the Zamir Chorale at the time, a high school choir that regularly performed in public. Her singing was superb. Nobody complained; we all kvelled.

The owner of Basil Pizza is understandably conflicted about Rabbi Levy's request for ongoing access to video feed. On one hand, he does not want to lose the hashgaha because that might kill his business. On the other, he feels that complying would violate his customers' privacy and that it just feels "creepy" - to which I might add "un-American." While I doubt if there is any legal right to privacy in a restaurant open to the public, I as a customer would not want my every move scrutinized by a bunch of greybeards, and knowing that that was the case might cause me not to go in. The owner and non-Jewish manager already require waitresses to dress modestly and even admonished customers for contact between men and women that would go unnoticed in any other restaurant of its type in the city. What goes on in the kitchen is within Rabbi Levy's purview; what goes on at the tables and at the bar is, quite bluntly, none of his business. If he or any kashrut supervisor receives complaints on that account, he should direct the complainers to the restaurant's management and/or advise them to exercise their unquestioned prerogative to withhold their patronage. While video cameras in the kitchen might facilitate the requirement of yotze v'nikhnas [the supervisor's need to go in and out of the kitchen unannounced], the purpose of surveillance video in the public area of a restaurant is to deter and, if need be, detect criminals, not to give rabbis a window on the behavior of patrons.

Accordingly, my advice to the restaurant's owner is this: If you gave Rabbi Levy your word, contractually or otherwise, that you would provide a video feed, you have to keep your word, at least for the duration of the contract. Post a sign informing your customers that the restaurant is being monitored by video and that the kosher supervisor has access to the feed. If you did not give him your word, then respectfully decline to provide the feed. If the hashgaha is taken away, there are other hashgahot who would be glad to pick your establishment up, and that most of your customers would consider reliable.

I am not likely to patronize Basil, since I have little occasion to be in Crown Heights except when I run there in summertime. I would feel funny entering an upscale establishment of that sort in my summer running attire. Nevertheless I like the idea of such a place, and I wish it success.

Answering Rabbi Lapin

Rabbi Daniel Lapin, who supports the Christian Right in its efforts to weaken separation of church and state in this country, had a column in a recent issue of the Jewish Press. My online reply is as follows:

Rabbi Daniel Lapin's essay is based on a speech he delivered at last month's Glenn Beck event. Glenn Beck is not one to let facts get in the way of his Bible thumping and his simplistic solutions to America's social problems and neither, it seems, is Rabbi Lapin. America never was severed from its Judeo-Christian roots. Each of us is free to practice any religion or none. Separation of church and state is written into our Constitution by design. The courts have been interpreting it more strictly than in the past; that suits me fine, as it probably would have suited Thomas Jefferson, who stated in 1785,“". . . it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods or no god. In neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg."” Let us examine each of Rabbi Lapin's three M's” in turn. On marriage he asks rhetorically, "Does anyone really suppose that marriage evolved naturally?"” Well, I and most scientists do, since it is a "cultural universal,"” meaning it is present in just about every culture on earth, even those that never heard of the Bible until Christian colonizers, imperialists and missionaries brought it to them. Tremendous advantages accrue to children who grow up in a stable two-parent home, advantages that enhance their probability of surviving and having children of their own. Marriage is still the norm, so much so that even gay men clamor to marry one another. Money - We all learned in Economics 101 that money is a medium of exchange, unit of account and store of value, not a "spiritual vision."” Every culture has norms for ownership of property, whether private or communal. Every culture prohibits stealing. That too is a cultural universal. Rabbi Lapin asserts that, "without the Bible, we would all be living in . . .equal poverty."” What does he make of Japan, China and the other Asian "tiger economies" whose people are doing quite well for themselves and are neither Jewish nor Christian, nor do they consider our Bible holy to them? Most of us, no matter our religious persuasion or lack thereof, never mugged a little old lady or held up a convenience store. We acquire our money by honest work and are good with God or good without God. Manners - Rabbi Lapin finds their roots in the Biblical account of God creating humans separately from animals, and recalls his mother telling him not to "eat like an animal."” Well, my mother would tell me not to eat like a particular species of animal, namely a pig, to which most Jews have a visceral aversion and which supposedly likes to wallow in dirt. Rabbi Lapin here is simply repeating a tired canard that the modern outlook on human origins encourages people to "act like animals."” Well, as every pet owner knows, dogs act like dogs and cats act like cats - and pigs act like pigs. Why shouldn't humans act like humans? Humans are highly social primates who for most of our history competed with other species that are larger, stronger and faster than we. Social cooperation was the only way to successfully compete, and even today when we no longer run down big game with primitive weapons we cannot manage without getting along with one another. Every culture, Judeo-Christian or not, possesses a set of social mores, manners if you will. It does not really matter what those manners are, and behavior that is de rigueur in one culture might well be taboo in another. Every society's set of rules fosters group identity and group cohesion, which in turn enhances survival. Whole books have been written on the probable evolutionary origins of human behavior, a fascinating topic known as sociobiology.

Pirke Avot enjoins us to "correct yourself and then correct others."” Our Orthodox community has plenty of social pathology, and we need to work on ourselves rather than shove our religion down the throats of others. Would Rabbi Lapin return to the pre-1960 halcyon days when a Jewish boy with a kippa was a walking target for physical attack by rowdy Gentiles who learned in their parochial schools and in their homes that we killed their god? When students, including Jewish ones, in public schools were taught to recite Protestant prayers and sing Christmas carols? When Jewish shopkeepers could not keep their shops open on Sunday if they so chose? When children died of a host of diseases that have since been conquered by modern science? When one in ten Americans could not be served at lunch counters and other places of public accommodation, could not live in certain neighborhoods even though they could afford to, could not attend certain colleges even though qualified, could not even drink from public water fountains, simply because their skin was dark? I will take modern America with all its imperfections any time, thank you.
Zev Stern, Ph.D.

My printed reply, shortened due to space limitations, appears here.

Labels: ,

Sunday, October 03, 2010

English - May its sun never set

Imagine there's no heaven
It's easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky
(John Lennon)

Many years ago, when we were young, we grooved to this song by John Lennon. Whatever we think of its message now, most of us did not appreciate then or now how lucky John Lennon was to be able to write those words and how lucky we are to understand them. As I first learned from the preface to a little-known English dictionary, English is unique among widely spoken languages in having separate words for "heaven" and "sky." Speakers of Romance languages like French and Spanish cannot distinguish between these two concepts; in French, for example, the word "ciel" must suffice for both. Therefore, to the extent that thoughts depend on words, a French or Spanish John Lennon would not have been able to conceive that song or write it.

This is only one example of how beautifully nuanced, expressive and rich in shades of meaning the English language is. A person with a rich English vocabulary, acquired by extensive reading, can express just about any conceivable thought. Is it any wonder that the English text of international agreements is usually the "authentic" one, and that any scientist with anything worth publishing publishes in English?

I was reminded of this yesterday, Shabbat Bereshit, because modern Hebrew should have the ability to distinguish heaven from sky but for some reason does not. Shamayim can be used for heaven and rakia for sky. Too bad that Biblical Hebrew conflates these words from the very beginning: God called the rakia "Shamayim [Gen. 1:8]." And He put them [the sun, moon and stars] birkia hashamayim [Gen. 1:17]. When I went to Israel in 1965, I and my family flew from Lod to Eilat on Israel's inland airline, known as Arkia, or "to the sky (rakia)." The condition of the dinky propeller plane made us suspect that it would indeed take us up to heaven, but thank God it only reached the sky and Eilat. When children are taught basic Hebrew vocabulary (in those yeshivot that actually teach basic Hebrew vocabulary), the teacher often points to the sky and says, "yesh ananim ba-shamayim [there are clouds in the sky] ," when rakia would be more apt.

A similar paucity of vocabulary creates difficulty understanding the writings of Rav Kook. He would write savlanut, a word that today means "patience." But more often than not, he meant "tolerance." The reader must figure that out from the context, since at the time he wrote Hebrew did not have a word for tolerance (!) and savlanut connoted both. Today we use savlanut for patience and sovlanut (with a holam) for tolerance. The Academy for the Hebrew Language in Tel-Aviv oversees modern Hebrew and coins such words as appropriate, continuing the tradition of Eliezer Ben-Yehuda. Perhaps the Academy should enforce a distinction between shamayim and rakia as well. Even so, it is extremely unlikely that Hebrew will ever match the expressiveness and versatility of English, except in spiritual matters, where Hebrew is probably superior. I am glad that it is my privilege to speak, read and understand English. Whatever one's first language is, English should be his or her second. As we once said of the British Empire that brought Western civilization to half the world, may the sun never set on it.

Labels: , , , , , , ,