Archive for category Jewish

Why Purim Matters – Fate and Destiny

Today is Purim, the holiday that celebrates  the victory of the Jews over Haman’s genocidal faction in ancient Persia, during the Babylonian exile.  As always, there are questions.

On most holidays, Jews recite a set of Psalms of praise and thanksgiving collectively known as Hallel.  We do recite it on Chanukah.  We do not recite it on Purim.  Why?

Rav Yosef Soloveitchik argues that the reason is that Chanukah established Jewish independence, and therefore regaining control over our own destiny.  Purim, on the other hand, was a reprieve, but one that left our fate in the hands of a king and a system that had been proven arbitrary.  (The difference between Fate and Destiny is one that Rav Soloveitchik explores in greater depth in an essay, later released as a short book, by that name, Fate and Destiny.)  Purim thus established the “Fiddler on the Roof” scenario, the shtetl paradigm, that would come to dominate and define Jewish existence for most of the next 2500 years, interrupted only by the 2nd Commonwealth.

And arrested again by the establishment of the State of Israel.

While many times Ahashveraus, the Persian king, is depicted as foolish, rather like the king in Aladdin, the rabbinical commentators see him as considerably more malevolent, anywhere from looking for a reason to exterminate the Jews to hostile, and willing to let himself be persuaded in the matter.  They note that it was under his rule that reconstruction on the Temple came to a halt, under obstacles and threats from the throne.

Which brings us to today.

While history doesn’t repeat, President Obama is certainly doing a fine, fine Ahashveraus impersonation when it comes to Israel.  His hostility is manifest, and even if he’s not willing to take positive action himself on the matter, he doesn’t seem very interested in doing anything to impede Israel’s neighborhood enemies.  His recent on-again-off-again veto or not of yet another Security Council resolution on Israel was designed as much to show the Israelis who was in charge, as though Israel really believes it can willingly alienate an American president.  His lecture to American Jewish leaders that they need to “search their souls” on Israel’s (and their) desire for peace, made the implicit threat almost explicit.

Much of the point of Fate and Destiny is the difference between being active in your future, and being passive, at the mercy of other people and forces.  (I’m not sure if the essay, written to provide a theological basis for Orthodox support for Israel, uses the Purim-Chanukah comparison.  Undergoing an Omahavian exile myself, I don’t have access to my copy.)  Unfortunately, then, as now, too many Jews are more comfortable acting under those parameters.  It is too much like a replay, at a national level, of the deals-for-today that Jews had to make for centuries for their communities to survive.

Instead, we should be acting forcefully to shape our own future.  Forcefully doesn’t mean recklessly or insultingly.  But as an Orthodox Jew and a patriotic American, I believe that Israel’s interests & principles, and those of the US coincide far, far more often than they collide, and lucky for me that they do.

Right now, when we have a President who shows himself to be uncertain at best about American interests and principles, the temptation is to try to ride things out.  But such decisions, taken cumulatively, have long-term consequences.  It’s one of the reasons why I supposed Sharon’s disengagement strategy – it was an attempt to seize the initiative and set the terms of the debate, and but for his age and health, it might have succeeded.

We need to remember that we do have another choice.  We are lucky to live in an age when we can choose Chanukah over Purim.

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Looking for Torah in Ayn Rand

Of all the rhetorical baits-and-switches the Left has pulled over the last 100 century or more, perhaps none has been as complete, enduring, or damaging as the identification of “Jewish values” and liberal politics. The historical roots are in European socialism, and there is even some evidence that the prominence of leftist Jewish political activity contributed to the merger between Democrat urban patronage and socialist policies. Regardless of the roots, for many if not most American Jews, the labels Liberal and Democrat are part and parcel of being Jewish. And attempts to assert capitalist, small-l libertarian, or conservative views are often met with accusations of not being Jewish enough.

But folks, It Ain’t Necessarily So.

Rabbi Gross out here in Omaha is in the middle of a 3-class lecture and discussion series on “Looking for Torah in Ayn Rand.” I missed the first lecture on “The Virtue of Selfishness,” but I caught last night’s on The Fountainhead.

There’s no particular reason to think Howard Roark is Jewish, but he’ll do. His life is a pattern as old as that of Pharaoh Jews: his talents are used, his ambition thwarted, his virtues caricatured as vices. Like Yaakov, he takes pleasure in his work (there is ample textual basis for this belief), and is often able to work out a modus vivendi with the Powers That Be (Esav, starring as Peter Keating) to continue to do that work, although his status is often precarious.

But Rand’s villains-as-cautionary-tales are usually more interesting, both for what not to be and what not to fall for. In this case, that’s columnist Ellsworth Toohey, who doesn’t actually wish that the US could be China for a day, but might have. His techniques for making it so are straight out of the manipulations of the worst of the Torah villains.

Toohey sets up altruism as the greatest ideal; once men inevitably fail to live up to it personally, he then offers them the chance to make amends by living up to it vicariously, by turning power over to someone who clearly has no interest in money – him.

This is straight out of Lavan’s playbook. Lavan uses Yaakov’s guilt over the moral complications concerning the birthright to manipulate him into increasingly unfavorable deals, which he has no intention of keeping to in any case. In each instance, when Yaakov tries to enforce the terms of the agreement, Lavan argues that it’s unfair, or that that’s not how things are done there, or that Yitzchak would never have done that.

Toohey deligitimizes greatness, even the idea of greatness, by elevating mediocrity. Yes, it’s handicapping people for the sake of control.  It’s also a direct parallel of the rhetoric Korach uses to undermine Moshe. What’s special about this blue thread, when I can make a whole garment of them? What’s special about washing this way, when I’ve just taken a whole bath? What’s special about this scroll on my doorway, when I’ve a whole library of sefarim? In Rand’s world is actual achievement and originality that suffers. In the Torah, it’s holiness.

Finally, Toohey recognizes the destructive power of laughter. The ancient Greeks understood it. Umberto Eco’s monks killed over it. And Rabbi Hayim Luzatto in Mesillat Yasharim (The Path of the Righteous) makes exactly the same point – that laughter and ridicule obliterate reverence. (The Rabbis keep this power under wraps by giving it free rein for one day each year, on Purim.) Both ridicule and mediocity serve to eliminate rivals for people’s admiration and models for their aspiration.

All this said, one has to understand Ran’s limitations. As Whittaker Chambers noted in his devastating National Review critique, a purely materialist philosophy is by definition incomplete. Rand’s philosophy may suffice for Rav Soloveitchik’s Adam I – Dignified Man – but only Torah is broad enough to satisfy Adam II – Man who hungers for a faith community.

Still, that Rand mistakenly considered her philosophy to be complete doesn’t mean that we have to evaluate it on that basis. We can stipulate that it’s incomplete, evaluate it on the basis of where it actually applies, and recognize that some of its most liberating aspects are both rooted in and consonant with Torah ideals.

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Kaporot Correction

Wednesday, the Denver Post carried a picture similar to the one on the left, with this caption from the AP:

An ultra-Orthodox Jewish man swings a chicken, later to be slaughtered as part of the Kaparot ritual in which it is believed that one transfers one’s sins from the past year into the chicken, in the religious neighborhood of Mea Shearim, in Jerusalem, Wednesday, Sept. 15, 2010. The ceremony is held before the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, which starts on Friday. Jews traditionally observe this holy day with a 25-hour period of fasting and intensive prayer.

Clearly, the AP (or its source) is confusing kaporot with Azazel, the goat that was sent out to die in the wilderness in the times of the Temple.  Azazel really did symbolize a transferrance of the people’s sins, and was a sacrifice in the truest sense of the word.  The chicken is neither, and the AP’s description leaves the whole thing sounding ridiculous, even on a spiritual level.  In fact, we’ll do kaporot today, but we’ll use money that we’ll give to charity, standing in for a chicken.  The notion of transferring sins to money that you later give to charity is so nonsensical as to be meaningless to me.

While the AP has shown a remarkable degree of anti-Israel bias, I don’t think this is anything other than cultural ignorance, supported by a quick Bing or Google search.  In fact, Kaporot has nothing to do with transferring one’s sins to the chicken.  Here’s what it really means, according to the ArtScroll book Yom Kippur, Its Significance, Laws, and Prayers:

The ritual is designed to imbue people with the feeling that their lives are at stake as Yom Kippur approaches, and that they must repent and seek atonement.  The ceremony symbolizes that our sins cry out for atonement, and that our good deeds and repentance can save us from the punishment we deserve….The chicken is later slaughtered [symbolizing the concept that a sinner deserves to give up his soul for not having used it to do God’s will] and either the chicken or its cash value is given to the poor…

…in order that the ritual not be misconstrued as a sacrificial offering – an act prohibited in the absence of the Temple – the animal used for kaporot may not be one that is suitable for such sacrifices.

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Merry Christmas, Garrison!

From Powerline, Garrison Keillor’s latest column:

Unitarians listen to the Inner Voice and so they have no creed that they all stand up and recite in unison, and that’s their perfect right, but it is wrong, wrong, wrong to rewrite “Silent Night.” If you don’t believe Jesus was God, OK, go write your own damn “Silent Night” and leave ours alone. This is spiritual piracy and cultural elitism, and we Christians have stood for it long enough. And all those lousy holiday songs by Jewish guys that trash up the malls every year, Rudolph and the chestnuts and the rest of that dreck. Did one of our guys write “Grab your loafers, come along if you wanna, and we’ll blow that shofar for Rosh Hashanah”? No, we didn’t.

Christmas is a Christian holiday – if you’re not in the club, then buzz off. Celebrate Yule instead or dance around in druid robes for the solstice. Go light a big log, go wassailing and falalaing until you fall down, eat figgy pudding until you puke, but don’t mess with the Messiah.  (Emphasis added, but hardly needed – ed.)

I sympathize with Keillor’s disdain for the secularization of Christmas.  But White Christmas, The Christmas Song, and Rudolph are harmless enough.  I might as well complain about Sunrise, Sunset being played at Orthodox weddings.

But what on earth does the secularization of Christmas have to do with the religion of the songwriters? Nothing.  Mel Torme, Johnny Marks, and Irving Berlin were part of a wave of Jewish popular songwriting in the last century.  But there were plenty on Christians writing secular Christmas music, amd the Christians who recorded all these songs didn’t seem to mind.

I used to like Garrison Keillor.  He loved, recreated, and advanced the art form of radio.  I listened to Prairie Home Companion through college and until he retired from it.  He was largely single-handedly responsible for the revival of storytelling in this country. The audio version of WLT, a Radio Love Story was great company on long road trips.  Some of his work will live forever, and deserves to.

But he has long since traded his wistful, sweet notalgia for a poisonous bitterness driven by a country he can no longer understand, and spiced with a political nastiness all too common on the left.

Unlike if a conservative had said these things, there’s no likely recourse here.  Good luck getting the ADL to condemn these comments, and don’t hold your breath waiting for the many Jews (or the management) at NPR to ask for a “clarification” of his remarks.

This casual enabling will have long-term consequences for Jews, none of them good.  One hesitates to discern a pattern based on two data points, but this is the second time in a week that liberals have gratuitously brought up the Jewishness of someone whose activities they didn’t approve of.  Jonathan Chait of The New Republic and Lee Siegel of The Daily Beast both attributed Joe Lieberman’s opposition to the health care bill to his Orthodoxy, without a shred of evidence.  (In Siegel’s case, religion was less a vehicle for an attack on Lieberman than Lieberman was a vehicle for an attack on Orthodoxy.)

If Jews are unable to take certain political positions, indeed engage in certain common cultural activities without having their Jewishness attacked, it represents a watershed change in the American political culture, one that is not “progressive” in any positive sense, but “regressive,” back to the culture of Europe that so many of our ancestors fled.  These attacks are coming from the Left, and it’s up to the Left to clean its own house, although I suspect they consider this a feature more than a bug.

And just in case Keillor happens to be visiting any public space or listening to any music radio in the next few days, I wouldn’t want him to enjoy a Christmas song under the delusion that it wasn’t composed by Jews.  So here’s a list:

  • The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire)
  • Do They Know It’s Christmas? (Feed the World)
  • Holly Jolly Christmas
  • I’ll Be Home for Christmas
  • It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year
  • Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!
  • Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree
  • Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer
  • Santa Baby
  • Santa Claus is Coming to Town
  • Silver Bells
  • Sleigh Ride
  • There’s No Place Like Home for the Holidays
  • White Christmas

Merry Christmas, and happy listening, Garrison!

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Maaser vs. Zakat

Both Jews and Muslims are required to give an annual tithe.  In Judaism, it’s called “maaser,” and in Islam, it’s referred to as “Zakat.”  Somehow, I ended up on the Zakat list for some Muslim charity last year, and apparently they share their lists (or more likely, sell them) just as Jewish organizations do.  Which means that this year, I’m on four lists.

Both amuont are 10%, but they’re 10% of very different totals.  In Judaism, Maaser is a 10% after-tax line-item deduction on income.  In Islam, Zakat is a 10% assessment on net assets (with a personal exemption, to boot).  So for Judaism, it’s an Income Statement problem, and for Islam, it’s a Balance Sheet question.

I don’t know enough about how Islam view wealth or Zakat for that matter to come to any conclusions (although if I keep reading these solicitations, I may) but I’d like to throw out there as a working hypothesis that they represent different views of money.  A tax on income would seem to reflect a more dynamic view of wealth.  Someone may have a lot of assets, but either be unable to dispose of them, or may simply have a bad year.  Where a tax on assets – a property tax, if you will – may reflect a more static view of wealth, that it’s unlikely to evaporate (or sublimate) over the course of a year.

As I said, I’m not sure about this, and I’m open to proofs that I have it exactly backwards.  But I do think it’s an interesting difference.

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