Monday, February 23, 2009

The Story That Never Tires of the Telling

The Jewish Press (link) recently published an essay by Christopher Buckley, son of the late conservative thinker William F. Buckley, on his visit to Auschwitz. The essay was written in 2001 but not published until now, when the author admirably went public in response to Bishop Richard Williamson's brazen Holocaust denial (no one was gassed in Auschwitz, yeah right). I must have read literally hundreds of such accounts, but every time the story feels fresh. Most of these pieces are written by and from the point of view of survivors, sometimes their childen or grandchildren. I remember hearing Lt. Col. Walter Fellenz, a non-Jew, tell of his experiences liberating a camp. And every time I ask myself what every Israeli boy (I was born and raised here in the U.S.A.) who lived through the Eichmann trial asked his parents: How could you possibly let this happen? Why in heaven's name didn't you fight? I heard all the answers. Nothing like the Holocaust had ever happened in human history and people didn't believe what they were hearing. They were so isolated that they simply didn't know until it was too late, especially with the Germans being careful to disguise the reality. They thought they were going to take a shower until the doors shut. They were systematically starved and decimated by disease, so that they were physically incapable of resistance. They remembered the Germans of World War I as fairly decent people who brought civilization and actually liberated them from Eastern European anti-Semites. This wasn't the first time Jews were persecuted; the madness will end like the Cossack massacres and the Crusades did. The Jews who did put up a fight did so with superhuman valor; the Warsaw ghetto held out in 1943 longer than all of Poland did in 1939. Above all, 2000 years of exile sapped our will to fight or, to paraphrase Nietzsche, turned our men into women. I've heard it all and nothing satisfies. And so, reading about it for the umpteenth time, but this time written by a Gentile named Buckley, I asked myself again: Could the Nazis have murdered [Buckley uses the word murder, not exterminate; one exterminates cockroaches and rats] six million Irish? The question is tragically laughable. Irishmen would have torn the S.S. limb from limb. They don't call them the Fighting Irish for nothing. So I finished reading and I cried. Then I went downstairs and lifted weights.

Any wonder then that when people talk of the magnificent Torah life of pre-war Eastern Europe, I am filled with unrelieved disgust. I have absolutely no desire to resurrect a culture and a way of life that perished - literally went up in smoke - because we were too weak to defend it. Give me the Torah of Tanakh, the Torah of Joshua, Samson, King David and the rest (ever noticed how Tanakh is played down in the haredi yeshiva world?), normal Jews living normal lives in a normal country. Or give me nothing at all.

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Friday, February 13, 2009

Defining Deviancy Down

People of a certain age will remember this phrase, coined by the late Senator and Ambassador to the U.N. Daniel Patrick Moynihan. The Senator was lamenting society resigning itself to a downward trend in moral values and intellectual rigor, accepting without undue protest what would have been unacceptable in days gone by. The trend has gotten much worse, much to my distress.
A news article from Kansas documents a standardized high school English exam with a glaring error that somehow got by a committee of thirty teachers, only to be caught by a student taking the exam; omission of greenhouse gases instead of emission. For years I have noticed errors of this sort in advertising and even in literature coming from government agencies and lawyers' offices intended for public consumption. Some of these do not alter the meaning of the sentence and can be dismissed as mere typos, but others, like the one cited above, do alter the meaning (a distinction to which I as a ba'al koreh am attuned). Most of these errors would be caught by a proofreader or copy editor, and no matter how good a writer you are your work should be proofread by a disinterested party before publication. When such an error escapes me and is caught by others I am embarrassed and I edit it where possible. But today many if not most people are not even bothered by such mistakes, never mind that they make for poor communication. I once saw a sentence-structure error on a poster put up by a government agency at a construction site. That error made it very difficult to discern the idea intended to be conveyed. The poster gave a telephone number to call with questions. I called the number to point out the error, but the person to whom I spoke sounded like she did not understand and gave the impression that English was not her native language.
Most of these gaffes slip through because computerized spell-checkers have replaced human copy editors. Computers okay a word as long as there is a word spelled that way; those programs for the most part do not catch context cues or homophones (e.g. to, too and two). There is still no substitute for an educated human brain. I hear that English majors need jobs; perhaps some of Obama's stimulus money should be used to hire copy editors.


Is this our idea of beauty?

The eagerly awaited swimsuit issue of Sports Illustrated hit the stands, and on the cover is a seminude photo of Israeli bombshell Bar Rafaeli. It gave a lift to every glum male office worker who saw it (if it didn't, see your doctor). But it left me with decidedly mixed feelings. Sure, ta'ava hi la'einayim, and I reacted like any normal healthy man. But is this our idea of female beauty? We are rightfully proud when Israeli cancer researchers or Internet developers score a coup. Most of us rejoiced when a female Israeli singer won the Eurovision song contest. But are we happy when a young woman, identified as Israeli, graces the cover of a popular magazine in a pose that leaves little to the imagination? Would we be pleased if our sisters or daughters were to be seen in that kind of outfit? David Ben-Gurion, Israel's first Prime Minister, famously remarked that we will know we are a normal country when Israeli prostitutes ply their trade in Hebrew. They do - but normalcy like that I can do without, thank you very much.
See a previous post of mine for pictures of our kind of female beauty.


Thursday, February 12, 2009

Happy Birthday Lincoln and Darwin

By coincidence (?) today is the 200th birthday of Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin. The first saved the Union and gave America a new birth of freedom. Imagine if the Civil War had to be fought with today's media coverage. Would the good guys have won? And what would the world be like if they had not? The second gave us unparalleled insight into our biological roots and made possible most of the progress in our understanding of life from then till now.

If we are great now, it is because we stand on the shoulders of giants.

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Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Take your shoe off, Rabbi Khrushchev

Shortly after the Slifkin ban came out, well-known haredi Rabbis Aharon Schechter, Matisyahu Salomon and Aharon Feldman were invited to address a Modern Orthodox gathering in Teaneck, New Jersey. The idea was to promote healthy dialogue between haredim and people like us. Unfortunately but predictably, the opposite occurred. R. Salomon had signed on to the original ban, and the other two endorsed it later on. Not surprisingly the question of the relation of Torah to science came up, and R. Schechter, a Rosh Yeshiva at Chaim Berlin, was asked to answer. A video of his answer recently came to light, and it casts a bad light on the kind of thinking emanating from Schechter and his ilk.
The rabbi opines that "it is not our assignment to know bri'at ha-olam [brias ha-oylim to him; suspect anybody whose holam is a Yiddish kvetch]. Wrong. We are told v'khivshuha; we have to master the world. To master the world we have to understand it, and that includes understanding its history and the history of its life. He tells us that we may not make new interpretations of Torah, and implies that Slifkin did so without mentioning Slifkin's name. Wrong on both counts. Torah advances, and always has, because people developed new interpretations of old texts; American Constitutional law advances in much the same way. But Slifkin did not come up with any hiddushim, as he himself states. He provides ample citations of luminaries such as the Rambam, Rav Avraham ben ha-Rambam, Rav Shimshon Rafael Hirsch and Rav Kook. If Rav Schechter wishes to trash all of them that is his prerogative, but he ought to be man enough to say so.
The content of Rav Schechter's presentation is not new and hardly worth my notice here. But it gets worse. Rav Schechter indulges in what is familiar to me from my days at left-liberal Columbia University. When logic fails, increase the decibel count and the histrionics. At about 4:22 into the video, he amplifies the above quote by amplifying his voice to a scream and pounding his fist on the table. People of a certain age will remember Nikita Khrushchev, leader of the late unlamented Soviet Union, taking his shoe off and pounding the table with it while addressing the United Nations General Assembly. The leftists at Columbia were following precedent, and so does Rabbi Schechter.
Rabbi Schechter and his ilk are not interested in dialogue with those who choose not to inhabit their Fantasyland. He says so in the same video. If you have a problem with such matters, "too bad for you." And if our best and brightest leave Jewish observance, too bad I suppose. Such things don't bother the likes of Rabbi Schechter. But they do bother us. Rabbi Schechter says he is not obligated to think about such questions. That's fine, but we are not obligated to accept his authority. Enough deferring to that gerontocracy of evil. We have our own authority figures, every bit as good as theirs, and we have to help them find their voices (see my previous post). If Rabbi Schechter and Company want a schism, they will get one - and the onus will be on them.

Hat tip: Emes Ve'emuna

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Monday, February 02, 2009

Groundhog Day

It occurs each year on February 2. Its origins seem to be in a relatively minor Christian observance, but as far as I know only in America is any big deal made over it. Supposedly, the groundhog (a small burrowing mammal) emerges from its burrow, looks around and goes back in. If it sees its shadow there will be an early spring, and if it does not there will be six more weeks of winter weather. Or maybe the other way around. The whole story is probably apocryphal, and the Torah takes a dim view of trying to tell the future by such means (see Dvarim 18:10,11). But that's beside the point. The legend, if that's what it is, expresses another idea much better than ordinary prose can (ha-meivin yavin). I AM SICK OF WINTER. SICK SICK SICK. I am sick of bundling up like an Eskimo whenever I go outside. I am sick of slip-sliding on the sidewalks and streets; I am a runner, not an ice skater. I am sick of the thought of becoming an invalid if I fall and break something, however unlikely since my male bones are not made out of peanut brittle (barukh shelo asani isha). I am sick of not knowing each day if my wife will make it home from work with her ankle in one piece (I know, the spouses of police officers, firefighters and soldiers don't know if their loved ones will make it home alive). I am sick of looking at ugly sooty snow on the ground. I am sick of either being cold in my own house or paying through my nose (and burning precious fossil fuel) to keep warm. I am sick of the teaser snowfalls we've been getting, not enough to cancel work or school but enough to send me out to shovel when I'd rather be doing other things. I am strong and healthy barukh Hashem and I wouldn't mind shoveling snow if I didn't have to do it in the freezing cold. It all must be a Communist plot; for Russians this weather is positively balmy. I know I'm not the only one thoroughly disgusted with winter, though there are people that actually enjoy it, and not only Russians.

Groundhog or no, I don't know what kind of weather we will have beyond four or five days from now. But I hope and pray for an early spring.

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