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Saturday, April 03, 2010

This Blog Has a New Home

After more than five years on Blogger, I decided to try a new blogging platform and moved the blog to Wordpress.

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Friday, April 02, 2010

Shabbat Pessach – The Dry Bones

לכן הנבא ואמרת אליהם… הנה אני פותח את קברותיכם והעליתי אתכם מקברותיכם עמי, והבאתי אתכם אל אדמת ישראל

(יחזקאל לז, יב)

On both shabbatot of Chol HaMoed Sukkot and Pessach we read the same Torah portion, but the Haftarot – although from adjacent chapters in Yechezkel - are different. On Sukkot we read about the battle of the end of the days, Gog and Magog (chapter 38). On Pessach we read about the prophecy of the resurrection of the dry bones (chapter 37).

The Haftarah is not the only difference. As is customary in many communities, a Megillah is read on this shabbat. On Sukkot, it is Kohelet; on Pessach it is Shir HaShirim. In the days of the temple, there was also a difference in the number of bull sacrifices offered during the holiday: 70 in total during Sukkot (13 on the first day, going down to 7 on the last); but only 2 per day during Pessach.

These differences all symbolise the difference between the two holidays. Whilst Sukkot is a universal holiday, Pessach is a particular holiday. During Sukkot, all nations came to the temple in Jerusalem and the 70 sacrifices symbolised the 70 nations of the world. So the story of Gog and Magog applies to the entire world, and Kohelet’s wisdom is one that is universal. But Pessach is a Jewish holiday, the one commemorating the moment when Israel became a nation. Thus the sacrifices symbolise the daily, regular, sacrifice of the Jews, and Shir HaShirim tells the story (allegorically) of the love between God and His people.

So what do we learn from the story of the dry bones? The prophet Yechezkel is shown a valley full of dry bones and then God resurrects the dead and the bones come together and become living humans again. Then God promises this is what will happen to the People of Israel, who are now scattered among nations and are like dry bones with no hope. God’s promise is that they will be “resurrected” and brought to the Land of Israel:

Therefore prophesy, and say unto them… Behold, I will open your graves, and cause you to come up out of your graves, My people; and I will bring you into the land of Israel.

Who did these dry bones belong to? The Talmud (Sanhedrin 92:), the sages tell us these were people from the tribe of Ephraim, who had made a miscalculation. God promised Avraham that his descendants will be slaves in Egypt for 400 years and will then be brought out possessing great wealth. The count of the 400 years began on the day Yitzchak was born, 30 years after the promise, but the people of Ephraim thought it began on the day of the promise (during Brit ben HaBetarim). So they left Egypt 30 years too early and were killed in the desert by Philistines.

There are two opinions in the Talmud about what happened in the resurrection of the dry bones. R. Eliezer says the dead rose up, sang praise to God, and died again. R. Eliever son of R. Yossi says that they stayed alive, moved to Israel, married and had sons and daughters. These two opinions reflect different attitudes of the Midrashim to these Ephraimites. Some viewed them as bad people, who did not keep the Mitzvot and rebelled against the leadership by leaving Egypt too soon. Thus, their resurrection was a temporary one, merely to symbolise the future redemption of the exiled Jews, and then they died again. But others viewed them as courageous people whose immense love for the Land of Israel drove them to take a huge risk by escaping from Egypt and trying to cross the desert alone, to reach the Promised Land. Thus, they were rewarded by being resurrected and moving to Israel, where they prospered.

The second, positive, interpretation of the dry bones prophecy is supported by the testimony given by R. Yehuda ben Betera in the same Talmud portion. Upon hearing the discussion between the sages about these Ephraimites, he stood up and said that he is a descendant of these people, and he is in possession of a pair of Teffilin that his grandfather, one of the resurrected, gave him.

This testimony teaches us a lesson of hope. Even though the Ephraimites might have been hard-headed fools who disregarded the common view and the leadership, and were punished by dying in the desert, their offspring ended up as sages living in Eretz Israel and fulfilling the will of God. Through the misdirected adventure of the grandfather emerged a Tana like R. Yehuda ben Betera. One may make an analogy to our day and age, to those brave souls who were “foolish” enough not to heed the call of the European rabbis to stay put and left for Israel/Palestine, thus saving themselves from annihilation in the Holocaust.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

An Impossible Choice

On Friday, two IDF soldiers died in a fire exchange with Palestinian terrorists in the Gaza strip.

One of them was Major Eliraz Peretz z”l, a 32-year-old deputy commander in the Golani brigade, and father of 4 children. Tragically, his older brother, Uriel, died in combat in Lebanon 12 years ago. His father could not bear the loss and died a few years later. I cried this morning listening to the mother, Mirian, speak on the radio. A modern-day Job.

Eliraz Peretz

The law in Israel is that if a new recruit wishes to join a combat unit, and his family has already suffered a loss (a father or a brother), then the family, typically the mother, needs to approve his wish in writing. In other words, if a family member has already died in the line of duty, then the family has the right to veto the decision of another family member to join a combat unit.

This law must change. There are only a handful of “veto” cases each year and the reason is simple. The mother usually has no power to decide against her son’s wishes. If the son decides to follow in his father’s or brother’s footsteps – which is usually the case – then the pressure against the mother is unbearable. A child of 17 or 18 years is not mature enough to see the possible ramifications of his decision on the family and his desire to be a combat soldier will drive him to force his mother to sign the release form. No mother can stands in the way of her son’s wishes, especially when she’s already lost a son.

The state is acting unfairly in passing the decision on to the mother. Instead, the law should state that if a family member has died in the line of duty, then no other family member can join a combat unit. Period. No exceptions. He (or she) will need to fulfill his military duty by serving elsewhere in the army, where his chances of survival are infinitely higher. The burden of a double death in the family is one no family should be exposed to.

Monday, March 15, 2010

43 Minutes

Does the Obama administration understand the complexities of the Middle East?

This question rises again to the fore following the current “unprecedented crisis” between the US and Israel, after the allegedly unintentional gaffe made by Israel during Joe Biden’s visit. (If you’ve been sleeping this past week: the municipality of Jerusalem approved a permit for building new apartments in East Jerusalem, without the government’s knowledge and without paying attention to the presence of a US eminence in the country).

Apparently, Hillary Clinton held PM Netanyahu on the phone for 43 minutes, berating him for allowing this to happen on his watch. 43 minutes! I’m not sure even Bill received such a long earful from Hillary after the Monica Lewinsky affair. Can the US administration be serious about this? Do they really think that the entire peace process is dependent on a permit for some apartments in Jerusalem? Is this really the most pressing issue, one worth 43 minutes of Hillary’s valuable time.

It is fast becoming apparent that Obama has no clue when it comes to the Middle East. His infamous appeasement speech to the Arab world in Cairo was a bad omen. Now it seems that he is indeed clueless, believing that articulate speeches can solve centuries-old problems as if by magic. Instead of dealing with the real issues at hand (Iran, anyone?), he is busy peddling useless “proximity talks” between Israel and a powerless Palestinian leadership. And he allows his Secretary of State to whine about some apartments in East Jerusalem that are years away from being built (as if anyone in his right mind truly believes that area of Jerusalem is ever going to be part of a Palestinian state). How so very frustrating, even if not entirely surprising.

bibi hillary

Bibi explains something to Hillary


As a small consolation, here is the transcript of the Hillary-Bibi 43 minute conversation (courtesy of The North Star National). Look up the Yiddish if you’re not familiar with it:

CLINTON:  “Bibi, this is Hillary.”

NETANYAHU:  “Hillary, Bubbala!  How are you?”

CLINTON:  “Don’t you ‘Bubbala’ me, Bibi.  What’s going on with this announcement of 1600 new apartments while Joe’s in your country?  That’s just a little in-your-face even for you.”

NETANYAHU:  “Oh, that.  That was a little unintentional, technical mistake.  A misunderstanding.  Come now.  You must know I don’t get every little building permit reported to me.  It’s low-level bureaucratic stuff.”

CLINTON:  “An unintentional mistake.  A misunderstanding.  Right.  That announcement was a deliberate insult.  A humiliation for the Vice President and an affront to the President and to the people of the United States.”

NETANYAHU:  “Hillary, please!  Look, you have to know this was done in all innocence.  It was regrettable, and we recognize it was hurtful.  After all these years, you more than anyone would recognize that our connection with the American people and our respect for the president are important components of Israel’s security and foreign relations.”

CLINTON:  “Don’t try to butter me up with diplomat talk.  This was a calculated effort to undermine the peace talks with the Palestinians we’re trying to advance.  You’ve weakened trust with us, and you and your government are in serious trouble.”

NETANYAHU:  “Hillary, you have to believe I had nothing to do with it.  Look, you know we have this Foreign Minister, Avigdor Lieberman, who’s new to these things.  He’s going to get a bissel fardrayt from time to time and make these little goofs.”

CLINTON:  “‘Little goofs?’  You’re striking right at the heart of the Obama Administration’s Middle East policy and plan for peace.”

NETANYAHU:  “Policy and plan for peace?  Whatever could you be referring to?”

CLINTON:  “You know full well.  The President has made it publicly clear that the United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements, and that they have to stop.”

NETANYAHU:  “Oh, yes, of course.  Now I remember.  That little diplomacy shtick Mr. Nobel Peace Prize has going.  How could we have forgotten that even-handed Cairo speech, and this well-thought-out, impartial, equitable plan our neutral broker Barack Hussein has come up with?  Let’s see … we sink our government and tacitly abandon our rights to territory by agreeing to freeze settlements in exchange for … what?”

CLINTON:  “Don’t get cute with me, Bibi.  A freeze would be a show of faith in the process.”

NETANYAHU:  “Oh, faith in the process.  The process!  How silly of me!  So much the process has brought us.  Intifadas with suicide bombers blowing themselves up in our buses, markets and restaurants.  Missiles raining down on children and bubbas from Gaza, from which we of our own accord withdrew.  United Nations investigations and resolutions against us for defending ourselves.  Here we have a United States president buttering up the Palestinians and turning against his friends, and we wouldn’t want to threaten the process with a few apartments in an area of our ancient capital not even claimed by the other side.  You’re so right.  I must apologize for damaging the process.”

CLINTON:  “Bibi, you’re trying my patience.  We’re expecting you and your government to take bold, specific actions to show your commitment to the relationship with the United States and to the peace talks.”

NETANYAHU:  “Hillary, I assure you we are willing to show the same commitment to the President’s peace talks that he has offered to the vital interests of the state of Israel.”

CLINTON:  “And what would that be?”

NETANYAHU:  “It’s another technical, diplomatic term:  does the word bupkes mean anything to you?”

Friday, March 05, 2010

Ki Tissa - Holiness in Stones

ויהי כאשר קרב אל המחנה וירא את העגל ומחולות, ויחר אף משה וישלך מידיו את הלוחות וישבר אותם תחת ההר

(שמות לב, יט)

The story of the exodus of the People of Israel from Egypt is reaching its denouement: the giving of the Torah. Moshe just spent 40 days and nights with God and is on his way down the mountain to give the Torah, the two tablets, to the People. When he sees what the People are up to – dancing around a golden calf and calling it God – this is what happens:

And it came to pass, as soon as he came nigh unto the camp, that he saw the calf and the dancing; and Moses' anger waxed hot, and he cast the tables out of his hands, and broke them beneath the mount (Shemot 32, 10)

Imagine the shock. Today, should a Torah scroll fall to the floor, a jarring jolt of horror strikes the congregation (and in certain conditions, we need to fast). So Moshe breaking the actual tablets written in the hand of God seems be an act beyond belief, a surreal image. What brought Moshe to commit such an unbelievable deed?

The Midrashim offer three different explanations:

1. Moshe wanted to protect the People of Israel. The Midrash likens the covenant between God and Israel to a betrothal. So by breaking the tablets, Moshe avoids Israel being punished as a married woman (eshet ish) who has strayed. The same idea is conveyed by another famous Midrashic saying: מוטב יהיו שוגגין ואל יהיו מזידיןBy not knowing the law, Israel would be erring in practicing idolatry, but at least they would not be performing a sin willfully, out of knowledge.

2. Moshe is frustrated. With the culmination of his efforts in Egypt and in the desert rendered to nothing, one can understand the irritation and the need to vent anger. The Midrash brings opposing views as to whether God agreed to or rejected this behaviour of Moshe, but regardless of His acceptance, Moshe’s act was one borne out of pure disappointment.

3. God commanded Moshe. A diametrically opposed view in the Midrash has God commanding Moshe to break the tablets, as it is inconceivable for a human being, even Moshe, to decide by himself to destroy God’s word. Certainly not as a frustrated act in a moment of anger.

These are all acceptable explanations of Moshe’s breaking the tablets. But there remains a fundamental question: how do we reconcile the view that Moshe acted of his own accord (whether out of anger or to protect the People of Israel) with the view that it is not possible for a human being to perform such an act without God’s permission? Why did Moshe not get punished for breaking the tablets?

Another Midrash offers us a way to solve this question. The writing on the tablets was God’s writing, and the letters hang miraculously in the air so that the commandments could be read from both sides of the stones. When Moshe saw the sin of the golden calf, the letters “flew away” from the tablets and vanished. All Moshe was holding now was a pair of empty stones. One explanation is that Moshe lost all strength while witnessing the People of Israel sinning, and the empty tablets simply fell from his hands.

But I another explanation. After the letters vanished, the tablets were nothing but stone. Devoid of the word of God, they were devoid of any holiness. Moshe breaks the tablets willfully and in anger, but in doing so he is not breaking the word of God; he is merely casting down a pair of empty, worthless stones. With God having removed Himself as a result of the People’s unwillingness to accept the Torah, there is no kedushah left.

This is a great lesson for us. God’s presence and holiness are there only if we act properly and earn our right to deserve them. Kissing barren stones in the hope their supposed holiness will protect us, rather than working on improving our ways (which is much harder!), is an act devoid of any religious meaning.

This idea for this Torah Thought is from R. Lichtenstein.

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Brave New World

I’ve been holding back on getting a Kindle for the last year or so. I wasn’t sure the technology was there yet and I was afraid to be disappointed. But last week I decided to stop procrastinating and dove right in. I am now the proud owner of a brand new Kindle!



So far I’ve only read one book on the Kindle and I must say I am pleasantly surprised. It has the main disadvantage I expected: missing the feeling of holding a book in your hands and flipping the pages. But the reading experience is better than I expected. It’s slim and light, yet sturdy enough to hold (especially with the cover). And the “virtual ink” technology is truly amazing, much better than reading off an LCD screen. Not to mention the fact that if you think about a book, you can have it in your hands two minutes later.

In short, first impression is that this is going to be a winner for me.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Hard to Believe

I am still reeling from the news about the alleged sexual misconduct of R. Motti Elon. The news broke last night and there are still more questions than answers.

R. Elon denies the charges. But a list of ten prominent rabbis put their name to the warning; surely they made 100% sure this is true before publishing such claims about someone like R. Elon?

On the other hand, if they knew about this four years ago and were convinced the story was true, why didn’t they publish this earlier?

They claim they posed limitations on R. Elon and only after he didn’t adhere to these limitations they decided to go public. But such allegations surely need to be handled by the authorities, not by some self-appointed council of rabbis?

I don’t know R. Elon personally. But like many Israelis I know of him and his reputation. This is so hard to believe.

If it does turn out to be true this will be a double blow. Firstly, because of who R. Elon is. But mostly because of how this leading group of rabbis seem to have preferred to deal with this case internally, apparently from fear of washing dirty laundry in public.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Mishpatim - Justice or Compromise?

ואלה המשפטים אשר תשים לפניהם

(שמות כא, א)

A few years ago, while building our new house, we had a disagreement with one of the contractors. We were not fully satisfied with the his work and asked him to compensate us. The argument dragged on for a while but he did not budge. So we sued him at the Small Claims Court and after a few months we were invited for the hearing. I remember walking into the tiny courtroom with some trepidation; after all, this was my first ever appearance before a judge. The judge entered, sat down, looked at us both and said: “I can either delve into the matter before me deeply, appoint experts and start a lengthy process of investigation. Or, I propose that you both settle now” and he proposed an amount of money. After a short discussion with my wife, we accepted, and so did the contractor. The whole thing took less than two minutes.

Why do I tell this story?

This week’s parasha, Mishpatim, deals with a multitude of intricate tort and property laws. The Ramban (Nachmanides) says that the entire parasha is a continuation of the previous one, Yitro, where we read the Ten Commandments. More specifically, it elaborates the rules governing the last commandment about coveting. A person needs to know what belongs to him and what does not, what he can rightly covet and what he must not think about possessing. For this, he needs the detailed laws in Mishpatim.

So it would seem a judge needs to “do justice”. Indeed R. Shmuel bar Nachmani says in Sanhedrin: a judge who judges truth makes the Shechinah (God’s presence) rest in Israel, and a judge who does the contrary makes the Shechinah leave. A tall order for a judge, who has to make 100% sure he find out the absolute truth and passes correct judgement. But also in Sanhedrin we find an interesting discussion that reflects differing opinions on how a judge should go about his job.

R. Eliezer ben Yossef HaGelili says that a judge must not settle for a compromise, and one who does so is committing a sin. Instead,  judge should decide either way and give a verdict. However, R. Yehoshua ben Korcha says that not only is a judge allowed to find a compromise, it is a mitzvah for him to do so! He learns this from verses in the Prophets that show that justice and peace can live together, and this is possible only if the sides reach a compromise.

So we are left with the question: what is a judge to do? Fortunately for us, there is a third opinion in the Talmud that merges the two opinions. R. Shimon ben Menassia says that a judge is allowed to offer the sides a settlement before he listens to their arguments (or even after he listens to them, provided he doesn’t know what to rule). But if he has heard the sides and reached a decision on who’s right and who’s wrong, he is not allowed to offer a compromise and must make a definitive ruling. In other words, the judge has two roles: that of judge (like Moses in last week’s parasha) and that of mediator (like Aharon, who always sought to bring peace between parties).

It turns out that this is also reflected in the secular laws of the State of Israel. In the 1980 law governing the court system, there is a stipulation that if a court does not know what the verdict is, the court should appeal to “the principles of freedom, justice, righteousness and peace of Israel’s heritage”. Mencham Elon, a former judge in the Supreme Court, wrote that he researched many judicial systems and did not find one where “peace” was up there with values like freedom and justice.

R. Ya’akov Ba’al HaTurim sums it up nicely by using the first two words our parasha as acronyms:

ואלהוחייב אדם לחקור הדין (A man must investigate and get to justice)

המשפטיםהדיין מצווה שיעשה פשרה טרם שיעשה משפט (The judge has a mitzvah to offer a compromise before making jugdement)

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

A Two-Pronged Threat

The ultra-orthodox religious Jews in Israel are posing a serious demographic challenge to Israeli society. In my Israeli Society in 2030 blog post, I pointed out the troubling statistics of children starting school this year, and the possible effects on life in Israel in a couple of decades.

The trouble does not end with the proclivity of religious Jews to “go forth and multiply”. The ultra-orthodox religious establishment, mainly the Chief Rabbinate and the Rabbinical Courts, is also fighting a bitter war against conversions to Judaism (giyur). By adopting the most extreme interpretation of the conditions necessary to bring a non-Jew into the fold, they set the bar impossibly high. They insist that committing to maintain a religious way of life after the conversion – something that the vast majority of Jews do not do themselves – is a pre-requisite for the conversion process to start.

The most evident win of the ultra-orthodox in this war is the repudiation of the state-sponsored giyurim granted by Rabbi Chaim Druckman. This led to the resignation/firing of R. Druckman and to sharp drop in the number of conversions. Data published today shows that in 2009 there was a 12% drop in giyurim, after a 27% drop in 2008. Only 4,206 people converted to Judaism in Israel in 2009, and of these less than 1,000 belonged the group labelled as “religion-less”. This group, mostly composed of ex-Soviet Union emigres, is estimated at 300,000 people (some put the number much higher). The rate of conversion is but a drop in the ocean.

By blocking the way for Israeli citizens to convert to Judaism, the ultra-orthodox are exacerbating the demographic threat. Most of the potential converts are secular people, so by keeping them out of “the tribe”, the relative number of ultra-religious Jews is higher. Faced with the specter of a society composed of 30-40% ultra-orthodox Jews, most of which currently do not serve in the military and are not legally part of the workforce, it is no wonder that Lieberman, and now Netanyahu, are promoting crazy ideas like allowing Israelis abroad to vote in parliamentary elections.

As I wrote previously, this two-pronged threat is the single biggest challenge facing Israel’s future.

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Meryl Weep

I’ve written before about how Meryl Streep is quite possibly the most overrated actress on the planet. So you can imagine the pleasure with which I read this piece on Spiked about Meryl Weep.

Here’s to another oscar-less year!

Monday, February 08, 2010

The Green Future

It’s funny now, but there is truth behind every joke. Thirty years ago people made fun of the restrictions placed on smokers; now, smokers are shunned pretty much everywhere. This is a glimpse into our “green future”.

Friday, February 05, 2010

הרמב”ם, משה הלברטל

You know the famous hypothetical question: “if you could meet 3 people from history, who would they be”? Well, in my case – when the question is posed specifically about figures from Jewish history – my reply is: “Moses, Maimonides and I haven’t decided about the third”. I guess there is no need to explain Moshe, the greatest Jewish leader of all time and the only person who has spoken with God “face to face”.

RabamAs for the other Moshe - R. Moshe ben Maimon, the Rambam, Maimonides - he is not only by far the most prominent Jewish thinker and Torah scholar of all time. He also stands out for his rational approach to Jewish law and his unbelievable capacity for writing outstanding scholarly works on subjects ranging from law to medicine to philosophy. All this against a background of a harsh life that saw his family fleeing from Spain to find refuge in Morocco and in Eretz Israel before settling in Egypt, the loss of a brother who supported him financially, a demanding and time-consuming job as the Sultan’s doctor and attacks on his writings and thoughts from Jewish leaders worldwide. To have accomplished what Rambam accomplished in his 68 years is unfathomable to mere mortals like us. It is no wonder the epitaph on his tombstone reads: “from Moses (the prophet) to Moses (Rambam) there were none like Moses”.

The writings of Prof. Yeshayahu Leibowitz first introduced me to the world of the Rambam more than two decades ago. I have studied, and am continuously studying, the Rambam’s Halachic works, most notably his codification of Jewish Law, the Mishne Torah. I have also read (and only partly understood) his great philosophical work The Guide for the Perplexed. I read the various letters (Igrot) he wrote to Jewish individuals and communities who sought his opinion. I have also read a couple of biographies and many academic books and treatises on his works and his philosophy.

So when I picked up Prof. Halbertal’s book about the Rambam I didn’t have great expectations. Halbertal is indeed a renowned Rambam scholar, but the book is part of a series published by the Zalman Shazar Institute in Jerusalem about prominent Jewish thinkers in history. I found most of the books in the series tend to be somewhat confused in their approach, probably a result of trying to blend an academic work with the need to satisfy the wide audience the books aim to address.

But Halbertal surprised me. He managed to write 300 brilliant pages encompassing almost every facet of the Rambam. He covers his life in the first chapter and then goes on to describe every major body of work and philosophy of the Rambam, from his early work on the Mishnah, through his colossal Mishne Torah and ending with The Guide to the Perplexed. Throughout, Halbertal classifies and explains the thoughts behind what Rambam wrote, and highlights the different approaches to his philosophy. This is all done in clear and concise prose, never lapsing into convoluted academic text nor into over-simplifications. One is left with a good, solid understanding of what a revolution the multi-faceted. multi-disciplinary Rambam brought about in Jewish thought.

I cannot say whether this is a book that a person who knows nothing about the Rambam will enjoy. But to someone who has studied or read some of Rambam’s works, Halbertal’s book is a must. It will bring order from chaos, summarise many of the ideas succinctly and elucidate some of the finer points of Rambam’s philosophy. It is a book I highly recommend (currently available only in Hebrew, I believe).

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

The Fall (cont.)

A year and a half ago I wrote about the fall of miss USA in a beauty pageant as symbolising the decline of the United States.

This post came back to my mind this morning, as I read about the victory of Li Na over Venus Williams in the Australia Open. Another small metaphor of the decline of the US, befittingly this time in the hands of a rival from China.

Li Na