Adventures of a Chief Rabbi: Weapon of Mass Education

April 24, 2015

Weapon of Mass Education

camaraTestigoIt started without ceremony. A phone call. A member of my community. She had been contacted by connections from a popular Uruguayan TV program. They wanted to make a program about Judaism in Uruguay – who should be their key person? She wanted to know if I was willing. I protested. Certainly there are people with both more knowledge and better Spanish than me. She insisted. You’re the man. Fine.

The producer came to my office and to this day still refers to me as “Ingeniero” (Engineer) – a title to which he seems to give greater respect than to “Rabino” (which I’m not sure is not valid…). He explains to me what they want to do. I write out a guide and an outline as to what should be included and what we should cover.

That was about a year ago. We didn’t cover everything we hoped, but there is the distinct possibility that we will do more given the great success of the program.

The day the bomb fell was this past Monday, April 20. There was an advance warning. A commercial was posted online. Thanks to the magic of WhatsApp the commercial went viral within the Uruguayan community and in a space of minutes most or all of the Jews of Uruguay knew there would be a program that related to them.

At 10:30pm the bomb fell and changed the community in a way we are just beginning to see.

The host, Kairo Herrera, interviews me and we talk about the history of the Jews in Uruguay, the Holocaust, Shabbat and Brit Milah. There are interviews with the President of the Comite Central, the umbrella Jewish organization of the community. The Shemtov family, the Chabad emissaries in Uruguay for 30 years played a central role in demonstrating and explaining much of Jewish law and rituals.

I was surprised by the number of people who watched it. I was pleased by the number of people in the Jewish community who saw it and congratulated me on a good performance. I was shocked that every other person I met this week saw it and commented on it. The pool people, the garage people, the gardener, the cleaning staff, the security staff. The bank teller starts getting into a discussion with me about the fear of circumcision and other people on the line joined in on the discussion. A Christian woman in the crowd extolled her love of Jews and how her friends from the Church are right now in Jerusalem, our Holy City.

We received a call from an important non-Jewish Kosher food provider that now wants to meet with me.

People are talking about it. Arguing about it. Debating if it’s good for the Jews or bad. Griping whether it was a good representation of Jews or not. To me those issues are secondary. We have a discussion going. People are hearing about Shabbat, about prayer, about Brit Mila, about Jewish history, Jewish faith and Jewish identity. A person in my office with little Jewish interest starts to ask me about spiritual matters.

I receive heartfelt thanks from members of the community. I’m told this is a major building-block for increasing Jewish awareness and practice in a very secularized country.

That was the first wave of the bomb. For the first time in Uruguayan history I’m told, there was a full-length nationally-aired locally produced TV program about Judaism. It helped that it was hosted by one of the more popular personalities, and presented Judaism in a warm and respectful yet approachable fashion.

For the host to explain to the Uruguayan public the laws of the Sabbath, for me was incredible. For him to discover and reconnect with his Jewish origins was clearly emotional and resonated with many. Long-time watchers of Kairo have told me they have never seen him so moved in one of his programs.

That was the direct impact. Thousands upon thousands of Jews who are hearing details of their culture – many for the first time in their lives.

However, the fallout is even more interesting. A large swath of the Uruguayan population also watched the show. Gentiles start to talk with Jews about their religion. And what I sensed from many, and what brings me to tears of joy, is that these Jews respond with pride. Yes, these are our customs. Yes, these are our traditions. This is where we come from. That is our Rabbi.

All of a sudden, people who I’ve met briefly once in my life, or who have merely been in the same room with me for a few minutes, are saying – that’s my Rabbi.

They are telling their coworkers, neighbors, friends how they go to synagogue on Yom Kippur, how their parents were Holocaust survivors, how their uncle, or cousin, or child lives in Israel, how they have a weekly Friday night Shabbat dinner that brings the family together and that they eat some of the exact same foods that they saw on TV. That yes, they and their father before them and their grandfather and all their ancestors going back 4,000 years to our Patriarch Abraham had a Brit Mila, a circumcision that demonstrates our eternal bond between our people and God. They said all of this and more. That was the second wave.

The third wave is a respect that is crystallizing. The gentiles in this very secular country are verbalizing a respect for its Jewish citizens, who they always admired, but saw as hidden behind a veil of secrecy and mysterious and unknown customs. But now they’ve been invited into our homes, to our dinner table and our kitchen. To our ceremonies, histories and beliefs. And the overall reaction to these customs is not aversion, but respect, admiration and perhaps some envy. They sense the antiquity of our roots. They understand the centrality of our family life. They see the strength of our faith.

All of these waves have affected and will affect the Jewish community. To see themselves in the eyes of the Gentile, to stand in front of them with pride and to see respect reflected in their eyes validates their tradition more than a thousand sermons.

Whoever wants to help me with continued Weapons of Mass Education, please be in touch.

Animal Tension

First posted on The Times of Israel at: http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/tazria-animal-tension/

Baal Haturim Leviticus: Tazria

Animal Tension

Man is the only animal that can remain on friendly terms with the victims he intends to eat until he eats them. -Samuel Butler

doves

There is an internal debate within the Torah as to the treatment of animals. There is an explicit command against cruelty to animals, known in Hebrew as “tzaar baalei chaim” – that we must refrain from causing anguish to animals. However, it is also a given in the Torah that we can eat kosher animals, sacrifice them and use their skins.

So where do we draw the line? The Torah in multiple places provides protection and great sensitivity to animals: you can’t muzzle an animal while it’s working, you can’t overburden the load on an animal, you cannot have two different species pulling a load together, and additional protections. But it seems clear that animals can be used for constructive purposes. They can be harnessed as beasts of burden. They can be killed for digestive, sartorial or ritual purposes.

The Baal Haturim on Leviticus 12:6 gives at the same time what is perhaps the finest dilineation of the sensitivity and the uses the Torah assigns to animals.

Amongst the various animal sacrifices that can be brought in the Temple, there are also birds. There are two types of birds that are mentioned: The “Torim” and the “Bnei Yona” (often translated as doves and young pigeons though there is some disagreement as to the exact nomenclature). Most often these bird sacrifices are brought in pairs, and the phrase that is used is “Torim o Bnei Yona”, with the “Torim” always before the “Bnei Yona”. However, in one instance, where only one bird is sacrificed, the order is reversed.

The Baal Haturim explains that the Torah has an extreme sensitivity to the well-being of the animals. The “Torim” are apparently a lifelong monogomous species and if one of them were to be sacrificed the partner would remain mate-less for life. So in the case of a single bird sacrifice it is preferable to bring from the faithless “Bnei Yona” that will not impact on any avian soul-mates.

May we treat animals with their due respect and understand their acceptable uses.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To our sons Akiva and Elchanan who’ve been taking care of the precious Jerusalem Biblical Zoo and its special residents.

 

 

Adventures of a Chief Rabbi: Trunko, the Super-Dog

April 21, 2015

Trunko, the Super-Dog

trunko superdog

In my office, together with the soldiers and Trunko (dark brown dog, barely visible between the two soldiers).

As chance would have it, I visited my colleagues in the communications department on the third floor to review our Shavuot programming and the recent TV program. We heard loud sirens approaching. The department has windows with a good view of the street. Two armored vehicles rush up our street – against traffic – and skid to a halt in front of our building. A small army of camouflaged soldiers with black berets, bullet-proof vests and thigh-holsters jump out of their vehicle and spread out along the street. One of their cars moves ahead and blocks traffic. They form a perimeter around an uncommonly large mini-bus with tinted windows. Dogs fan out and sniff where their sensitive noses take them. After a few minutes of craning our necks and gawking, we realized that was the extent of the excitement and resumed our work.

A couple of hours later, at my desk, soldiers march into my office with their dog. Unfazed, I smile and greet them. This is the routine inspection of the building before major community events. The dog sniffs around my office, but finds nothing interesting except for a bread roll on my desk. I warn him off and he politely backs away from my lunch. They tell their dog “sit” in English and he does so obediently. I learn that the dog is bilingual and that some commands are given in English and others in Spanish.

His name is Trunko and he was the one responsible for finding the “device” outside the Israeli embassy a number of months ago. I call him a hero, give him a “yasher koach” (a sort of “well done” in Hebrew) and a friendly rub of his head and neck.

To my surprise, I find blood on my hand. I inform and show the soldiers who are equally surprised, and do indeed find that he is bleeding from his jaw. It seems that just before, in the line of duty, Trunko was injured, though he never complained nor said a word. He continued his work, determined and unflinching. He was promptly taken for medical attention. I was glad to have played a small part in bringing his plight to his commanding officer’s attention.

This canine hero, who does so much for the Jewish community here, has taken a hit for us.

Thank you Trunko and your colleagues for everything you do for us, remaining vigilant and protecting us.   

My Lodestar, My Rosh Yeshiva

April 20, 2015

My Lodestar, My Rosh Yeshiva

Either directly or indirectly, Rav Aharon Lichtenstein had a pervasive moral influence on my life. He was the arbiter, he was the guide, he was the model of what an ethical existence was meant to be. He saw through the confusion of loud and conflicting ideologies, pressures, influences and distractions. He saw to the heart of matters in a rational, wise, experienced insight.

I have known and interacted with many great Rabbis in my life, but to me, Rav Aharon was … the holiest. He was modest and approachable. He was constantly accessible. He dressed simply. He did not have any intermediaries. He sat in his place in the Beit Midrash (the study hall of the Yeshiva) surrounded by hundreds of his students.

Nonetheless, I always approached him with trepidation. When I walked to his small desk, I felt perhaps the awe of the High Priest on Yom Kippur entering the Holy of Holies. I was sparse and efficient with my words, not wanting to waste a second of this great man’s time. I listened carefully to each nugget of wisdom, of insight, of guidance that he shared with me.

And then there were his students. To live in Alon Shvut, in the shadow of Yeshivat Har Etzion, is to live in the shadow of Rav Aharon. One cannot walk two steps without running into a student of Rav Aharon. These students have become my lifelong friends, companions, guides and instructors. They are my community. They are my family. We are all orphaned today.

 

 

 

Beauty and Danger

Beauty and Danger

 The rose and the thorn, and sorrow and gladness are linked together. -Sa’di

rosesRomantic sentiment gets limited attention in the Bible, but it is there, and the rose takes its place in Biblical literature as a romanticized metaphor for beauty just as it does in more modern times. This essay continues the series inspired by Mr. Egbert Pijfers, based on the artwork of fine artist Nira Spitz. The painting in question is a deceptively simple water color of a vase of roses.

Deceptive, because one would think it child’s play to capture the image of an inanimate object on a table in a room. Nonetheless, the artist, in her characteristic brilliance, subtly brings to life this object that carries millennia of symbolism. The wall, table and vase are common enough, and the artist renders them in a sturdy yet amorphous fashion. They are the foundation, the backdrop and our eyes note them, register them, they give reality to the painting, assure us that we are in the presence of an experienced master and then draw our attention, frame the main event – the roses.

The roses appear as they would in real life, with their geometric dispersion, their positioning relative to one another, the angle of the flower to the stem, the interplay of shadow and light upon their petals. However, what the artist does, what brings out the genius of her art is the texture she adds to the roses. In real life, or in a photograph, we would not sense the variation in colors, we would not pick up the spectrum of reds that are the canvas of the rose, we would be blind to the dynamic mix of light, shadow, angle, position, depth and rich texture that the artist reveals. They are as flowers from another dimension, another world, some mystical realm, some king’s garden from antiquity. By focusing so intently on the minute nuances of the petals, normally invisible to the eye, we finally see the rose for what it truly is. A live, vibrant, deep ecosystem that arrests our senses on multiple levels.

Hence the age-long infatuation of mankind and specifically its womenfolk with the rose. It is no coincidence that through multiple cultures, continents and civilizations, the rose has held a special place in the universal language of romance, and continues to do so until this day.

Perhaps the most famous mention of roses in the Bible is in King Solomon’s Song of Songs, an ancient love poem filled with passionate, longing, descriptive lines of the pursuit and adoration of one lover for another. Biblical commentators read more deeply into the Song of Songs and interpret it as symbolizing the relationship between God and the nation of Israel.

“As the rose amongst the thorns, so is my love amongst the maidens.” Song of Songs 2:2

While in literature the rose often stands out from other flowers, and the comparisons are then of subjective beauty between different flowers, in King Solomon’s Song, the comparison is more heavily lopsided. It is a stark comparison to compare a rose to its thorns. To confuse matters further, we realize that a rose is typically inseparable from its thorns. The thorns are part and parcel of the rose. There is beauty, but it is accompanied by danger – and if one is not careful – pain.

The theme of beauty, danger and pain is one that surfaces in multiple ways and times throughout Biblical and Talmudic literature.

We see this theme in the very beginning of the Bible, in the Garden of Eden. Eve, the prime woman, knows of the danger of eating the forbidden fruit, but it is beautiful to her. She lets the beauty of the fruit overcome the warning. She ignores the danger. She and Adam and the snake are all punished, all are cursed with different sentences of pain for daring to partake of the beauty.

Sarah, the first Matriarch is described as exceedingly beautiful. Abraham, her husband, upon entering hostile territory, realizes the danger this can bring him. Two different monarchs on two different occasions take Sarah for themselves and then discover the danger and the pain of taking a prohibited beauty.

Jacob is attracted to the beautiful Rachel. He misses the subterfuge of his soon-to-be father-in-law, Laban, and unknowingly (!?) marries the less attractive sister, Leah, and then marries his sweetheart Rachel as well. The ensuing rivalry caused by his affection for the beautiful sister creates a schism between the tribes of Israel that some say we are still suffering from almost 4,000 years later. The danger and the pain were very real.

There are many more examples that play upon this theme throughout Jewish literature. The question though is, what do we learn from this? Should we avoid or be wary of beauty? Is there safety in the mundane, in the plain? Why are we so attracted to “beauty” however we define it, and why is it so often dangerous.

If we return to King Solomon’s Song, there is pain, longing and hardship throughout the relationship – that is life, he is telling us. Beauty makes the pain more poignant, the longing harsher, the drama more intense. Beauty is that intersection of perception, memory, imagination and fantasy, where the senses are excited and are given pleasure by what they perceive. It is the symmetry, elegance, simplicity, complexity, that ephemeral quality that may be either universal or which no two people will agree upon.

The fact that beauty may be evoked by something as random as the geometric pattern of organic matter, by the refraction of its photons upon our iris, by the feelings these visual cues engender, is something that we at once take for granted yet barely comprehend. The instinctive, visceral reactions may be both unexpected and uncontrollable. Is that what we must fear? Is the danger in the non-rationality that beauty threatens to instigate?

In her excellent book (now a film as well), Divergent, Veronica Roth imagines a future where taking such thinking to its logical extreme, an entire faction of the population rejects anything that might distinguish one person from another, anything that might seem to beautify one person over another. They shun makeup and elaborate hair arrangements and they all adopt the exact same drab grey uniforms.

Their premise is that “Abnegation” (as they call themselves) can save humanity from warfare. Is that the path that man must choose to achieve peace and serenity? Is beauty so dangerous that it threatens our existence?

No. But it’s fun to consider.

As in many other themes throughout the Bible and the Talmud – the middle road, the golden path, a healthy balance is the solution. There are common agreements as to beauty, and then there are individual tastes. Beauty is a quality that humans appreciate and engender positive feelings within their soul. We are instructed in multiple places, especially in matters of worship and divine service, to seek the beautiful, to construct the beautiful, to make use of the beautiful, to surround ourselves with the beautiful.

The High Priest is commanded to wear clothing that is beautiful and there is a very specific design that the Torah has in mind. Synagogues are meant to be beautiful. All the articles and furnishing of the Tabernacle and subsequently the Temple are beautiful, golden and enhance the space. We are instructed to wear our beautiful garments for the Sabbath. A husband is obliged to buy his wife beautiful garments for the holidays. The Rabbis have encouraged us to seek beauty for the rituals and articles of Jewish life: beautiful covers for the Torah scrolls, beautiful mezuzah cases (the small scroll that goes on the doorpost), beautiful ketubot (marriage contracts), beautiful candlesticks, beautiful wine cups and much more. However, their beauty is always harnessed in service of the divine, the holy.

In Judaism, the beautiful is appreciated, but it must be balanced with whatever other values may be competing or are at stake, and hence some of the inherent danger.

When beauty becomes an end in and of itself; when beauty becomes a priority; when beauty becomes an overarching obsession, outweighing all other considerations, then we enter the province of danger and ultimately pain. Beauty enhances our experiences – but it must be moderated to the purpose it is part of. It is a means – it is never an end.

Perhaps that is the message of the rose. Appreciate it. Handle it if you will. But embrace it gingerly, tenderly. Your touch should be cautious, careful. For should you grasp it fully, should you dare to hold beauty with all your might – your hands will be filled with blood.

‘Tis the last rose of summer,
Left blooming alone;
All her lovely companions
Are faded and gone;
No flower of her kindred,
No rosebud is nigh,
To reflect back her blushes,
Or give sigh for sigh.

I’ll not leave thee, thou lone one!
To pine on the stem;
Since the lovely are sleeping,
Go, sleep thou with them.
Thus kindly I scatter,
Thy leaves o’er the bed,
Where thy mates of the garden
Lie scentless and dead.

So soon may I follow,
When friendships decay,
And from Love’s shining circle
The gems drop away.
When true hearts lie withered,
And fond ones are flown,
Oh! who would inhabit
This bleak world alone?

The Last Rose of Summer by Thomas Moore

Bugs in Paradise

First posted on The Times of Israel at: http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/shmini-bugs-in-paradise/

Baal Haturim Leviticus: Shmini

Bugs in Paradise

picnic1We hope that, when the insects take over the world, they will remember with gratitude how we took them along on all our picnics. -Bill Vaughan

The laws of keeping Kosher can at times seem complex and involve much minutia. One can paint in broad strokes the basic laws: no mixing of meat and milk products, kosher mammals must have split hooves and chew their cud, they must be slaughtered and checked according to strict guidelines, kosher fish are only those that have scales and fins, and a few other fundamental guidelines.

However, matters get interesting when we start mixing things, when we deal with modern manufacturing processes, when there are doubts and uncertainty about what exactly we are eating. Then the Rabbis in all their glory attack the subject matter with encyclopedias worth of details, arguments, counter-arguments, decisions and responsa.

One interesting detail is that in some mixtures a rule of thumb is that if there is less than one sixtieth of the offending substance in the mixture (which is not a lot), the entirety of the mixture is permissible to eat. However, a curious exception is bugs. Any food or mixture of food that has even a tiny bug makes that food prohibited.

The Baal Haturim on Leviticus 11:29 adds an unexpected explanation as to why. He writes that snakes are included in the group of insects, bugs and general “creepy crawlies” (sheretz is the exact Hebrew word) that are prohibited. And because the snake is considered so repulsive we can’t allow any of it, not even a little bit, no matter how big whatever it’s swallowed into is, to be consumed. The snake implicates all other bugs in this prohibition, making life more challenging for all those people checking for bugs in the food we eat, but ostensibly also making it better to eat.

May we stay clear of bugs and snakes in our lives and in our food.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To all those who were so careful to avoid chametz (unleavened bread) throughout Pesach.

 

 

Adventures of a Chief Rabbi: Uruguayan Kippah

April 15, 2015

Uruguayan Kippah

Apropos Yom Hashoa (Holocaust Remembrance Day) I recall a chilling story of a young Jewish boy forced to walk through a corridorkippah of baton-wielding soldiers who hit him as he passed. As he gets to the end of the line, battered, bloody and bruised, he realizes that his Kippah (skullcap) fell. Instead of walking to safety and freedom from the ordeal, he goes back into the human tunnel of death to retrieve his fallen Kippah. The soldiers mercilessly continue to hit him as he walks back. As he touches the fallen Kippah a final blow hits him and he falls to the ground, dead.

As we recall the recent effort to exterminate the Jewish people, it also gives the opportunity to reflect upon its future. While there is the growing nuclear threat from Iran, I am more concerned about assimilation.

There are times when I truly despair for the future of the Jewish community. There are days when I can’t imagine continuity. The levels of intermarriage, assimilation and general indifference to Judaism is frightening and I believe below sustainable levels. The number of Jews who have elected to remove themselves from the Jewish people is staggering and every day it seems like more will follow.

There are two movements within modern Judaism that I am both highly supportive of, but at the same time wary of the exclusive embrace that some people give it. I am talking specifically about support of the State of Israel and remembrance of the Holocaust. These are two important components of modern Judaism with which I have deep connections, identification and investment.

However, I have always been concerned with the exclusive embrace of either of these movements as the sole aspect of Jewish identity. We were Jews before the State of Israel and the Holocaust. While these are important and historic milestones in our long history, what I have noted is that often in families that exclusively make either or both of these movements central to their identity – the following generations are less likely to stay within the fold of Judaism.

When I say exclusive, I don’t only mean that they do not observe the Sabbath or Kosher food laws. I mean that they don’t come to the synagogue even on Yom Kippur. I mean that they don’t have a Pesach Seder. I mean that they don’t perform a Brit Mila (circumcision) for their sons. However, they may be highly committed to remembering the Holocaust. They are ardent supporters of the State of Israel. I am friends with some of these people. They are sterling human beings and I love them dearly. My concern is what happens next?

There is a fundamental problem with the very concept of Jewish “identity”. Judaism contains multiple elements, but a key one throughout millennia has been one of practice. Of actively doing, following, performing, living Jewish life as was handed down from father to son through millennia. Somewhere along the line we lost that connection and have replaced it with “feeling” Jewish, with “identifying” with Jewish causes – and the key experiential component of Judaism went out the window.

“Feeling” and “Identity” is not nearly enough to take us further. Judaism and whatever it means is becoming so watered down, so amorphous, that soon the term “Jewish” will have little meaning – and then we’ll really have problems – but that’s an article for another day.

On the flip side, “feeling” and “identity” can be a powerful start on the road back to authentic Jewish life. I witnessed a glimmer of that tonight. Tonight the Uruguayan Jewish community commemorated Yom Hashoa (Holocaust Remembrance Day). It was an event that the organizers have been preparing for months. The community attended in force, filling the synagogue to standing-room only capacity, easily over one thousand people. The Vice-President of Uruguay was present along with distinguished guests from the government and diplomatic corps.

The evening was extremely moving. Professional videos including old footage, interviews with local survivors and the youth movements, on a backdrop of stone-block walls evocative of the Holocaust memorial on the beach of Montevideo, were the main feature. Candle lightings by survivors with a descendant and community leaders and special guests. A moving introduction by the new Israeli Ambassador named for a great-aunt who perished in the Holocaust. Heart-breaking songs by a young and talented singer. I was called upon to read Yizkor, El Male Rachamim and Kaddish, and it was hard to keep the emotion out of my voice.

The finale was members of the youth movements coming to the front. Then a recording was played from 1945. It was of Jewish survivors who upon liberation from the death camp started singing Hatikva, which was to become the anthem of the State of Israel. The audience, without instruction, stood up and joined in a tearful rendition of Hatikva. This was all extremely moving, and I at least was crying.

However, the point that gives me hope upon the despair of a shrinking community, the little detail that makes me think that all is not lost, that embers can be saved from a community that is not threatened with violent extinction, but rather by quiet yet rampant assimilation, was the fact that a number of the boys wore a Kippah.

Clearly they did so out of respect for the place and the occasion. For some of these boys, besides for their involvement with a secular Zionist youth organization, there may be little else of Jewish substance or connection in their lives. Yet they put a Kippah on their heads. You may think it’s not a big deal. But they didn’t have to do so. There were plenty of other boys and most of the men without a Kippah on their head in the synagogue.

For these boys to have the sensitivity, the respect for this simple religious act gives me hope. It gives me hope that from “feelings” and “identity”, that from Zionism and Holocaust remembrance, as secularized as they may be, there is a path back to Jewish practice. That there is a road that leads back to Jewish life, Jewish practice, Jewish tradition and Jewish continuity.