A practicing Jew disenchanted with the Orthodox establishment, with a lot on his mind and the need to speak truth to power.
Friday, July 30, 2010
Sign of the times
Tomorrow's haftara asks, "Can a woman forget her offspring, to have pity on the child of her womb? These may forget, but I [God] will not forget you." The question is usually read rhetorically, as in "Is it possible that a woman could forget her child? Yet even were that to happen, I won't forget you."
I prefer to read it as a simple statement of fact: These too will forget, but I won't forget you. We live in crazy times when women seek to kill their own pre-born babies, and the U.S. Supreme Court found in the Constitution a right to do so - in an opinion that many legal scholars consider badly written, the outcome having been decided in advance for political reasons and the Justices contriving a legal justification afterward. God is telling us that this crime against nature will happen, but He will not forget us.
These past three weeks we carried out certain mourning practices commemmorating the destruction of Jerusalem and the First and Second Temples, in 586 B.C.E. and 70 C.E. respectively. No shaving, haircuts, live music, and for the last week no meat or wine, except on Shabbat. Some of us do not wash clothes, wear freshly laundered clothing or shower. Tonight and tomorrow we will fast, sit on the floor, read Eicha and say Kinnot.
Every year at this time I experience considerable cognitive dissonance. We are mourning in the morning of our redemption - reishit tzmihat ge'ulateinu. It hits us in the face no matter how much we try to pretend otherwise. For 62 years we have had our state, and it is flourishing beyond anybody's wildest dreams. Until 1967 it was truncated, with Jerusalem split down the middle. I remember my teacher telling me that the Beit Hamikdash burned down long ago, and I, all of six years old, asking why the Fire Department didn't put the fire out. I was also told that one wall was left standing, but we could not get to it because it was in Arab hands. Later I learned of the armistice, according to which Jews were to be allowed access to the kotel. But the Jordanians never kept their commitment and for nineteen years the best we could do was climb to the top of Mount Zion or the YMCA tower, look out to the Old City and the Dome of the Rock, and imagine the kotel in the general vicinity. Then came the Six Day War and all of Jerusalem was ours. We could go to the kotel, broadened and beautified. We still do not have a Beit Mikdash because two mosques occupy the site, and Israel's government left the mosques under the control of the Muslim Waqf, thinking that the Arabs would then make peace with us. The Jewish Quarter, destroyed by the Jordanians, is all rebuilt and the Jewish presence in Jerusalem is greater even than when the Batei Mikdash stood. Even the Muslim Quarter sports a Young Israel synagogue. Torah study and Torah institutions rival anything that existed during the Temple periods. We like to castigate ourselves for not deserving the presence of God among us that the Temple embodies. However, in fact the people living then were no better than we. A case can be made that they were more wanting. Certainly while the First Temple stood many if not most Jews worshiped idols and Torah observance was sadly neglected. When Cyrus gave the Jews permission to return from Babylon and rebuild the Temple, only a tiny minority actually did so; the rest preferred the comforts of what they had come to think of as home - sounds familiar? And the Second Temple period featured plenty of assimilation of Greek and Roman culture; even the Hasmonean kings adopted Greek names along with their Hebrew ones. The Temple succumbed to military defeat, made inevitable by disunity and internal bickering; for every two Jews you have three opinions. Disunity and internal bickering certainly continue to hinder us today and we need to work on ourselves there, to put it mildly, but the orgies of self-flagellation popular at this time of year are quite uncalled for.
To put things in perspective, just recently the Jewish Press carried on its front page a picture of a pro-Israel demonstration with people holding up Israeli flags in front of the Roman Colosseum! Imagine - Israeli flags at the Roman Colosseum - financed according to some scholars with the spoils Titus brought to Rome from the destroyed Jewish Temple! If only Titus and Vespasian could get up and have a look!
Whose flag flies on top of Masada - Rome's or ours?
The Old City's Young Israel synagogue, in the Muslim Quarter (!), midway between Sha'ar Sh'khem and the kotel.
Finally, here is an armored unit of Zahal, the Israel Defense Forces, being sworn in at Masada. Whose flag, whose language, and whose fine, fit young men?
I was, praise God, privileged to raise a son who was sworn in to the Israeli Army in a similar ceremony at the kotel. I can hardly imagine a greater joy for a Jewish man, except for the rebuilding of the Temple itself. May that come about quickly in our time, and before I am too old and weak to place one brick on top of another.
Arabs and Jews in Hevron are supposed to be forever at one another's throats. However, they recently cooperated beautifully to save 2000-year-old olive trees from an invasive parasitic plant. Some had to be cut down completely, leaving only a stump. However, olive trees are so hardy that sometimes even the stumps regenerate. This is precisely the kind of phonomenon envisioned by the Elon Plan. After the total defeat of the terrorists, Arabs wishing to remain in Judea and Samaria will resume their citizenship in the already-existing Palestinian state, namely Jordan, and will live and work side by side with Israelis. For this to work on more than an ad hoc basis, Israel must come down on the terrorists with a heavy hand and convince the local Arabs that cooperating with terrorists will bring them nothing but death and misery. Never mind the local leftist media, never mind world public opinion, never mind Obama, the United Nations, the European Union, etc, etc. This solution is best for Israel, Jordan and the local Arabs. If we will it, it is no fairy tale.
We often hear from education "reformers" and tabloid editorial writers that the summer vacation should be abolished. This proposal is usually accompanied by attacks on "lazy teachers" who get summers off when nobody else does. We are told that summer vacation was originally instituted when America was an agrarian society and children were needed on the farm, summer being the busy season for farmers. Now that few children are needed for farm chores, summer vacation outlived its usefulness. I am not sure how true this is; wasn't harvest season in autumn, when kids return to school? But in any event, summer vacation for students and teachers is a venerable American tradition, and that alone argues for keeping it. We Diaspora Jews keep an extra day of Yom Tov, originally because word of the correct date, based on the sighting of the new moon in Jerusalem, might not have reached outlying areas in time. However, we have had a fixed calendar since the fourth century C.E. There is absolutely no doubt of the correct dates of our holidays. We keep the tradition of the extra day simply because it's a tradition; minhag avoteinu b'yadeinu.
Some traditions (and features of a language) originate for one reason and acquire new meanings with the passage of time. For instance, Shavu'ot originated as an agricultural observance, evolved into a commemmoration of the giving of the Torah (zman mattan Torateinu) and is now, praise God, returning to its agricultural roots. Similarly, summer vacation might have originated to free children for farm work, but it took on new utility that more than justifies holding on to it. It is said that two months without learning causes children to forget everything they learned in the previous year. If so, wouldn't kids working on farms have also forgotten their lessons? Does urbanization ruin kids' brains? The sad fact is that children, regardless of where they live or how they spend their free time, tend to forget what they learned as soon as they take the test, unless it is relevant to their lives or of particular interest. I remembered most of what I learned in science, biology in particular, because that is my passion. I fell in love with biology before I fell in love with my wife - or met her. I forgot most of my Shakespeare, except for some quotable quotes (the fault, dear Brutus. . . .). The summer does not cause children to forget what they learned, but it provides an opportunity for learning of a sort that one cannot get in a classroom. Warm temperatures and long hours of daylight enable children (and adults) to recharge their batteries, and acquire habits of physical activity that are absolutely essential for their good health. Playing with friends builds social skills that are not acquired sitting behind a desk but that are necessary for society to function. And children are free to read what they wish, and experience the ethereal joy of learning not because some adult is forcing them to, not because they have to pass a test, but for the pure joy of learning something new. Looking back to my own childhood, most of our parents were struggling and travel was out of the question. But the public library was our home away from home, and we explored the world in books, some of which were borrowed in June, taken to summer camp and returned in September. Summer camp itself was our first experience away from home, and we learned to solve our own problems instead of running to Mommy. You don't get that kind of learning cooped up in a classroom. Most of the summer's seasonal jobs, such as lifeguarding and manning concession stands in parks and beaches, would go begging if not for students off from school. These students are learning that they have to work for the things they want.
Columnists and editorial writers in tabloids begrudge teachers our summers off - and would have children develop sedentary habits that will condemn them to a lifetime of misery. Face it - how productive are you cooped up indoors when the sun and surf beckon? Are you able to concentrate on work when you have to dress in a manner inappropriate for the summer's heat? Instead of abolishing summer vacation for teachers and students, we ought to experiment with prolonged time off for workers in general during nature's time for fun in the sun.