Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Hesed Shel Emet - A Modest Proposal

This term figures in Parshat Vayehi, to be read two weeks from this Shabbat, where Yaakov extracts from his sons a promise to carry his body out of Egypt and bury him in Israel. It refers to "true kindness," that shown to the dead who cannot reciprocate in this world. We Jews place a high value on respectful handling and prompt burial of the dead. Ideally, all handling and preparation, as well as the burial itself, should be performed by observant Jews.

I explained in a previous post how it saddens me to see a casket wheeled out the back door of the funeral chapel on a cart like a bale of dry goods being wheeled to a loading dock. It should be carried instead by strong Jewish men. That is usually the case at the cemetery itself, where relatives and friends of the deceased carry the casket to the open grave, lower it and fill the grave with earth. However, I recently had occasion to attend the funeral of a family friend's mother where this was not the case. Death occurred on a Thursday, and the funeral was held the next day. Friday at this time of year is a bad day for a funeral, as if there was any such thing as a good day for one, what with people having to work and prepare for Shabbat. The chapel was practically empty, and there was no minyan at the cemetery for Kaddish to be recited. Of the men that were there, most were elderly and unable to handle a shovel. The Gentile cemetery workers had to carry the casket from the hearse to the grave and lower it in. I and one or two others shoveled as much earth as we could and covered the casket, and then the cemetery workers completed the filling-in.

All this happened because of the timing and the fact that the deceased had few friends or relatives who could attend. It no doubt happens too often for comfort. The resulting indignity could be mitigated if the cemetery workers were observant Jews. Part of the sickness of galut is an aversion to manual labor, as if it was shameful to make a living with one's hands. But not everybody is capable of mastering the Talmud or memorizing the Krebs Cycle. There are people who cannot sit in one place and focus on a text for any length of time, but who like to make things, fix things and otherwise work with their hands. Our society marginalizes such people instead of making use of their talents. If they are blessed with physical strength, they could support themselves honorably by handling Jewish burials when no other Jews are available. Such work might also appeal to recent graduates temporarily unable to find jobs in their fields. As a side benefit, the work itself would keep the workers fit and strong. And they will be getting paid for it in both worlds.

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Monday, November 22, 2010

In Memoriam: John F. Kennedy

Today being the 47th anniversary of the tragic assassination of our 35th President, I wish to direct the reader's attention to an article which appeared recently in the Jewish Press, and to my reply, posted online but not printed in the paper:


I purchased a DVD containing written and audio transcripts of President Kennedy's memorable speeches and much more from Media Outlet. Would anybody have imagined 47 years ago that so much useful information could be packed into one inexpensive, easily accessible disc, to have at one's fingertips whenever needed? The following is the full text of President Kennedy's inaugural address, delivered January 20, 1961:

We observe today not a victory of party but a celebration of freedom-- symbolizing an end as well as a beginning--signifying renewal as well as change. For I have sworn before you and Almighty God the same solemn oath our forebears prescribed nearly a century and three quarters ago.
The world is very different now. For man holds in his mortal hands the power to abolish all forms of human poverty and all forms of human life. And yet the same revolutionary beliefs for which our forebears fought are still at issue around the globe--the belief that the rights of man come not from the generosity of the state but from the hand of God. We dare not forget today that we are the heirs of that first revolution. Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans--born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage--and unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this nation has always been committed, and to which we are committed today at home and around the world.
Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, to assure the survival and the success of liberty. This much we pledge--and more. To those old allies whose cultural and spiritual origins we share, we pledge the loyalty of faithful friends. United, there is little we cannot do in a host of cooperative ventures. Divided, there is little we can do--for we dare not meet a powerful challenge at odds and split asunder.
To those new states whom we welcome to the ranks of the free, we pledge our word that one form of colonial control shall not have passed away merely to be replaced by a far more iron tyranny. We shall not always expect to find them supporting our view. But we shall always hope to find them strongly supporting their own freedom--and to remember that in the past, those who foolishly sought power by riding the back of the tiger ended up inside.
To those peoples in the huts and villages of half the globe struggling to break the bonds of mass misery, we pledge our best efforts to help them help themselves, for whatever period is required--not because the Communists may be doing it, not because we seek their votes, but because it is right. If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich.
To our sister republics south of our border, we offer a special pledge --to convert our good words into good deeds--in a new alliance for progress--to assist free men and free governments in casting off the chains of poverty. But this peaceful revolution of hope cannot become the prey of hostile powers. Let all our neighbors know that we shall join with them to oppose aggression or subversion anywhere in the Americas. And let every other power know that this hemisphere intends to remain the master of its own house. To that world assembly of sovereign states, the United Nations, our last best hope in an age where the instruments of war have far outpaced the instruments of peace, we renew our pledge of support--to prevent it from becoming merely a forum for invective--to strengthen its shield of the new and the weak--and to enlarge the area in which its writ may run.
Finally, to those nations who would make themselves our adversary, we offer not a pledge but a request: that both sides begin anew the quest for peace, before the dark powers of destruction unleashed by science engulf all humanity in planned or accidental self-destruction.
We dare not tempt them with weakness. For only when our arms are sufficient beyond doubt can we be certain beyond doubt that they will never be employed. But neither can two great and powerful groups of nations take comfort from our present course--both sides overburdened by the cost of modern weapons, both rightly alarmed by the steady spread of the deadly atom, yet both racing to alter that uncertain balance of terror that stays the hand of mankind's final war.
So let us begin anew--remembering on both sides that civility is not a sign of weakness, and sincerity is always subject to proof. Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate.
Let both sides explore what problems unite us instead of belaboring these problems which divide us.
Let both sides, for the first time, formulate serious and precise proposals for the inspection and control of arms--and bring the absolute power to destroy other nations under the absolute control of all nations.
Let both sides seek to invoke the wonders of science instead of its terrors. Together let us explore the stars, conquer the deserts, eradicate disease, tap the ocean depths, and encourage the arts and commerce.
Let both sides unite to heed in all corners of the earth the command of Isaiah--to "undo the heavy burdens [and] let the oppressed go free."
And if a beachhead of cooperation may push back the jungle of suspicion, let both sides join in creating a new endeavor, not a new balance of power, but a new world of law, where the strong are just and the weak secure and the peace preserved. All this will not be finished in the first one hundred days. Nor will it finished in the first one thousand days, nor in the life of this administration, nor even perhaps in our lifetime on this planet. But let us begin.
In your hands, my fellow citizens, more than mine, will rest the final success or failure of our course. Since this country was founded, each generation of Americans has been summoned to give testimony to its national loyalty. The graves of young Americans who answered the call to service surround the globe.
Now the trumpet summons us again--not as a call to bear arms, though arms we need--not as a call to battle, though embattled we are --but as a call to bear the burden of a long twilight struggle, year in year out, "rejoicing in hope, patient in tribulation"--a struggle against the common enemies of man: tyranny, poverty, disease, and war itself. Can we forge against these enemies a grand and global alliance, North and South, East and West, that can assure a more fruitful life for all mankind? Will you join in that historic effort?
In the long history of the world, only a few generations have been granted the role of defending freedom in its hour of maximum danger. I do not shrink from this responsibility--I welcome it. I do not believe that any of us would exchange places with any other people of any other generation. The energy, the faith, the devotion which we bring to this endeavor will light our country and all who serve it--and the glow from that fire can truly light the world.
And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you--ask what you can do for your country.
My fellow citizens of the world: ask not what America will do for you, but together what we can do for the freedom of man.
Finally, whether you are citizens of America or citizens of the world, ask of us here the same high standards of strength and sacrifice which we ask of you. With a good conscience our only sure reward, with history the final judge of our deeds, let us go forth to lead the land we love, asking His blessing and His help, but knowing that here on earth God's work must truly be our own.

It is a source of consolation for me that, even in 1961, speeches were recorded for posterity and it is possible to hear the President's words in his own voice. Here is a link to an audio recording of the inaugural address taken from the disc referred to above:


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Friday, November 12, 2010

Victors, Not Victims

On November 2, Sergio Britva, an immigrant from Brazil, won gold at the World Masters Weightlifting Championships, 35-39 yr age group, 105kg (231 lb) body weight, in Poland. Silver went to an Iranian athlete while a German took bronze. The German lifter shook hands with the Israeli, but when the Israeli offered his hand to the Iranian, he refused to take it, and as the Israeli flag was raised above those of Germany and Iran, he looked down at the floor.

The following dispatch from the Young Israel listserv says it better than I ever could:

Click here to watch a stirring video that every Jew and every supporter of the State of Israel must see. The following is an account of the event captured in the video, courtesy of crossingtheyarden.com:It’s been awhile since an Israeli weightlifter was in the news. The year was 1972 and members of the Israeli delegation to the Munich Olympics, including several Israeli weightlifters, were taken hostage by Arab terrorists. When the German police botched the rescue operation, the terrorists executed all the hostages. It took about a day for the Germans to realize that continuing the games was in really poor taste. They stopped for the funerals and after the Israeli athletes were safely in the ground, continued on.Thirty-eight years later, an Israeli weightlifter makes the news again. This time, the Israeli is not a victim, he is the champion. The story of Sergio Britva, an immigrant to Israel from Brazil who won the weightlifting world championships last month, is not to be missed.If you have not yet seen the video of the awards ceremony, it is a must see. The world championships for this category of weightlifting were held a few weeks ago in Poland. Sergio lifted a combined total of over 300 kilograms. That’s like lifting a bus load of Sumo wrestlers above your head.He won the gold medal over the second place finisher from Iran and the third place finisher from Germany. Does it get any better than that? An Israeli beats an Iranian and German in Poland! Just to make sure that everyone knew where he was from, Sergio draped an Israeli flag over his shoulder as he took his spot on top of the winner’s podium. Good thing he brought the flag since the announcer forgot to mention which nation he represented. I guess the flag and the team shirt with the word “ISRAEL” in huge letters wasn’t a big enough hint.With a huge champion’s smile on his face, Sergio shakes hands with the third place finisher from Germany and then extends his hand to the runner up from Iran. Showing true class, the Iranian refuses to shake the hand of the athlete who beat him. That’s ok, Hadad, they don’t give medals for acting like a human being. Whether you shook his hand or not, you can still think about how you disgraced your poor excuse of a country every night and day by letting the Zionist enemy take you to school.I could watch what comes next a hundred times and not get bored. To the strains of “Hatikva,” the Israeli flag is hoisted high over that of Iran and Germany. The announcer tells everyone to “Please stand up for the Israeli National Anthem.” Could you imagine the emotions going through Sergio’s mind as he watched his nation’s flag and listened to our country’s anthem - aptly called “The Hope.” That’s right all you anti-Semitic losers, stand up and watch the Israeli flag hung in victory.I just read an article about how the Iranian athlete is now under fire for even standing next to the Israeli. He only did so because otherwise the Iranian delegation would be barred from future competitions. I am glad that they won’t be. I can’t wait for the next time.I’m kind of fond of that song.

Sergio Britva at the medal ceremony. On the video you can see him blinking back tears.

Israeli flag raised over the medal platform, above those of Germany and Iran

ברוך אתה ה' אלו-ינו מלך העולם אוזר ישראל בגבורה

ברוך אתה ה' אלו-ינו מלך העולם שהחיינו וקימנו והגיענו לזמן הזה

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Thursday, November 11, 2010

Rav Shmuel Kaminetzky at Kingsway

My synagogue, Kingsway Jewish Center, hosted an Agudat Yisrael conference on parenting last Sunday that featured Rav Shmuel Kaminetzky, introduced as a prominent Rosh Yeshiva and a member of Aguda's Moetzet Gedolei Torah (Council of Torah Sages), and Rav Yakov Horowitz, a prominent Torah educator who specializes in "at-risk youth." I and many other congregants were surprised that a modern synagogue like ours would host Agudat Yisrael, but our rabbi, Etan Tokayer, figured we had nothing to lose; Rav Kook preached ahavat hinam, gratuitous love, as a remedy for the gratuitous hate that led to the destruction of the Temple. I asked Rabbi Tokayer if he was aware that Rav Kaminetzky signed on to the Slifkin ban (after the fact). He replied that he was not, and that he is surprised. He then encourged me to attend the meeting, although I am past the parenting stage of life, and ask R. Kaminetzky.
I attended the meeting. Much of the advice given was pedestrian (we have to spend time with our children - duh), but I would take issue with two items raised by Rabbi Horowitz:

1. Make children conform to the school's rules, in school and out. If you don't like them and can't get the hanhala (school's management) to change them, submit to their authority or find another school. In an ideal world, the hashkafot of parents and school would dovetail, but in the world we live in that is not always the case. Nor can the parents always find another school, either for financial reasons or because there simply is none in reasonable commuting distance. It becomes a question of who's working for whom. I say that the school is working for the parents, and that the parents do not surrender their authority when they enrol their children in a school. On the school's premises and/or during school time children must conform to the school's rules, but off premises and on their own time what is acceptable to the parents is acceptable, whether walking on a particular street, talking to members of the opposite sex or the like.

2. Rabbi Horowitz related an account, pubished in Mishpacha magazine, of a parent who came to him concerning his seventeen-year-old son who came to him with doubts regarding ikarei emuna, basic principles of faith. After asking a "higher authority," R. Horowitz advised the parent to encourage the adolescent not to give up hope, that we are allotted seventy years on the planet give or take, and therefore his child has 53 years to resolve his doubts. R. Horowitz spent most of his life working with troubled Orthodox teenagers and I must defer to his judgment as long as the questions concern matters of belief. But what happens when we go from emuna (belief) to metziut (objective reality)? What happens when an intelligent seventeen-year-old is fed "facts" by his parents and yeshiva teachers that are demonstrably false, i.e. that the earth is 5771 years old and/or that humans are not descended from other animal species?

That, of course, brings me full circle. During the question and answer period, I called R. Kamintezky out on his letter; I had several copies on hand for disbelieving members of the audience. Before I could complete my question, the moderator cut me off saying that the Rosh Yeshiva could only take questions on the topic of the lecture, i.e. parenting and education. Never mind the obvious connection between miseducation (where I come from education is supposed to open minds, not close them) and children becoming at-risk and eventually leaving the fold. I am an adult and I could handle being slapped down that way. But all too many inquiring students, some as young as Bar Mitzva age or younger (I started having doubts in seventh or eighth grade) are slapped down in the same manner (or worse, physically) and cannot handle it. To paraphrase Abraham Lincoln, you can fool some of the kids all of the time and all of the kids some of the time, but you cannot fool all of the kids all of the time. Eventually they will discover that we have been lying to them and playing them for stupid. And then they will reach one of two conclusions:
1. The Torah contains lies, or
2. The gedolim are fools, pathologically out of touch with reality.

I have reached the second conclusion. I fear that most of our disaffected young people will reach the first.

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