This Blog Has Moved


New Address:

All posts are available in the new blog

Please do not post any comments here. Go to the new address to comment. Thank you.

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).