Tuesday, January 30, 2007

B'Shalach: The Parting of the Sea of Reeds

There are times when I read Torah and think to myself "yes! precisely!" It's the kind of revelation that creates creases at the lengths of my lips and inspires a smile, the crooked kind. The kind where the head tilts just slightly and then shakes left to right just so. And here, today, as I sit in my adopted coffee shop, it happened in the commentary to Ex. 13:17. I'll start off my Torah talk with this, because it's just one of those things.

"G-d did not lead them by way of the land of the Philistines, although it was nearer." Rashi, Rambam, Ibn Ezra -- they all have thoughts on why G-d would lead the Jews on a longer route, especially after the hardship already endured. Maimonides said that G-d wanted to accustom the people to hardship, but hadn't they already become accustomed to hardship? Then, the Etz Chayim notes say: "Some commentators specifically spell out the implication that sometimes the harder way of doing something turns out to be the better way." Furthermore, "When something comes to us too easily instead of being hard earned, we don't always appreciate it." It was with this last line that the creasing, tilting and nodding happened.

I'm a fan of applying Torah lessons to just about anything and everything in my life. And isn't that what we should do? The classes I most cherish from my school days are those that I had to completely throw myself into. They're also the classes where I earned the best grades and retained the most information. And so it is in my romantic life. Nearly three years trudging along hoping for something to work out can really take it out of a person, especially with the trauma, pain and distance along the way. But I'm beginning to taste the fruits of my labor, and how sweet they are. So it is that the Jews entered the promised land. Of course the two things I compare here aren't by any means on the level, but in a way, I want to imagine that it could feel this good.

+ A note on the Red Sea (ים סוף). The Hebrew translates as yam suf. Yam being sea and suf deriving from the Egyptian word for the papyrus reed. The translation Red Sea arose from a translation of the Greek Septuagint, although I can't seem to pinpoint exactly how such terminology ended up in the Greek, considering the Hebrew. Some scholars suggest that the "Red" comes from the fact that some nearby mountains or the crossing's proximity to Edom, which means red. Interestingly, though, to this day no one has been able to locate a body of water with fresh water reeds, thus the location of the Sea of Reeds is unknown, although there's plenty of speculation about the locale.

+ Ex. 14:14: "The Lord will battle for you; you hold your peace." The notes offer a poignant interpretation of this line: "G-d will support and defend you -- but only when you stop quarreling among yourselves. A united people merits G-d's intervention." It's that second line that strikes me, particularly. It takes a people united to gain intervention of G-d. Is this an allusion to Moshiach? But is this only the peace of the Israelites that grants intervention? G-d intervenes, saving the Israelites, but the rest of the world (assumingly) is not at peace. Is this a selective thing? Does it imply that perhaps when there is peace within the Jewish community that intervention will arrive? Perhaps G-d isn't just sitting idly by, perhaps he's waiting? "A united people merits G-d's intervention." Indeed.

+ I'm struck by the commentary on the parting of the sea. I'll admit it's a pretty complicated and difficult concept to grasp ... that is, of G-d intervening with nature to build a miracle for the Israelites. But I, the average everyday Jew, am not the only one who struggles with the parting. Rabbis throughout the ages have struggled with this and rely on "a strong east wind" to qualify the parting of the sea as a natural, rather than supernatural, event. However, in the 19th century, Levi Yitzhak of Berdichev translated the words ruach kadim as "an ancient wind" rather than an east wind, explaining that
"G-d does not change or suspend the laws of nature in order to work miracles. The wind that divided the sea had been created for that purpose at the time of the creation of the world."
Of course this riles up the question of predetermination, but I've written on that before and it's for a different time. For me, this explanation is beautiful. Levi, my man, you're brilliant.

+ Note: "Mi Chamocha," (one of my favorites which is sung on Shabbat and other holidays) derives from Ex. 15:1-18.

+Ex. 17:16 " ... The Lord will be at war with Amalek throughout the ages." I had to backtrack to understand exactly what this was getting at. Amalek attacked the Israelites and in Torah, and Amalek is viewed as "pure malice, attacking without cause." Thus, this parshah ends with the unfortunate statement that Adonai will be fighting evil, in essence, for the length of days (le olam?), not the Amalekites/their actions.

And that concludes this week's Torah time. I have to say this is one of my favorite parshahs thus far. I'm a dork, though, and things like this get me all giddy and excited. Someone walked by and asked if I was in rabbinical school.

I wish!

Monday, January 29, 2007

Birthing a legacy ...

A dead Israeli soldier will father the child of a woman he has never met, in an unprecedented case. See full story here.

JERUSALEM (AP) -- In a precedent-setting decision, an Israeli court has ruled that a dead soldier's family can have his sperm impregnated into the body of a woman he never met.

Keivan Cohen, 20, was shot dead in 2002 by a Palestinian sniper in the Gaza Strip. He was single and left no will. But at the urging of his parents, a sample of his sperm was taken two hours after his death and has been stored in a hospital since.

When the family tried to gain access to the sperm, however, the hospital refused, on the ground that only a spouse could make such a request.

Arguing that their son yearned to raise a family, his parents challenged that decision in court. On January 15, after a four-year legal battle, a Tel Aviv court granted the family's wish and ruled the sperm could be injected into a woman selected by Cohen's family.

I thought this was particularly fascinating and had to share.
"I think it is a human revolution," [Irit] Rosenblum said. "Ten years ago, who would believe that a human being can continue after he has died. I think it is great for humanity."

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Another Movie!

At 3 hours and 1 minute long, "Sunshine" starring Ralph Fiennes was sort of hard to put into the DVD player. The last 3-hour-long flick I watched was probably Titanic, and that was more years ago than I care to count. I had to set aside plenty of time to watch the flick, because those who know me know I'm the type of person who refuses to stand down when a movie is started. I've never walked out of a theater and have only shut one movie off mid-flick (it was "Mafia"). I'm a get-through-the-movie kind of person. It's just how I am. But this movie, this movie turned out brilliant. Three hours felt like moments.

The film is based on three generations of a Hungarian family, and all of the patriarchs are played by Fiennes. We travel from the 1800s into World War II and into the 1950s. The story begins with the elder (not played by Fiennes) of the family leaving his shtetl-type village to take the family liquor recipe to the city. He becomes incredibly wealthy with his 'Sunshine' booze and sets the family on a well-seated path. Then, as imdb.com says, the elder's son "becomes a prominent judge but is torn when his government sanctions anti-Jewish persecutions. His son converts to Christianity to advance his career as a champion fencer and Olympic hero, but is caught up in the Holocaust. Finally, the grandson, after surviving war, revolution, loss and betrayal, realizes that his ultimate allegiance must be to himself and his heritage."

The fascinating thing about the movie is the ebb and flow of this family. The loss and the struggle of identity. The original family name is Sonnenschein (which means sunshine), but in order to further his career, the lawyer son changes his name to Sors, a Hungarian last name. Thus he and his son go through much of their lives without others acknowledging their Jewish heritage. It is only when the fencer wants to join a fencing club that he must acknowledge his heritage and convert to Christianity. But even still, the Nazis play no favors to Jewish converts and his son is persecuted even still.

The use of Fiennes as each patriarchal figure is a fascinating trick, because it shows a continuity of struggle within the family identity. And let it be known, that this film isn't full of Orthodoxy or anything of the sort, but still the Jewishness is ever present. It traverses familial struggles between the old and new, tradition versus change. And the end of the film brings us full circle, but I won't give that away. I think it's better that the viewer take it on.

Another flick I recommend, darn't!

Wednesday, January 24, 2007


I really do need a daytime job. Instead, I watch Passions and Dr. Phil and Oprah. These shows sort of eat away at your soul and make you unnecessarily obsessed with things. Ugh. Well, Dr. Phil and Oprah anyhow. Passions, on the other hand, is absolutely amusing. I love it. But really, I need a day job.

I watched a great Holocaust movie last night -- if there is such a thing. It's a story of righteous gentiles who harbor the son of their former boss amid the Nazi regime. The flick, "Divided We Fall," is a Czech film and is absolutely brilliant. Acting, storyline, presentation, sensitivity, etc. It's just an all-around stellar film. It's two hours long, but was honestly the quickest two-hour movie I've ever viewed. It's intelligent and passionate and centers on David Wiener (the escaped Jew) and Josef and his wife, Marie, who harbor him in a cupboard, while all the while a Nazi party member visits daily. Toward the end, to save themselves from imminent danger, they do something that would take a completely and absolutely strong group of people. I highly recommend it, anyhow.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Parshah Bo: Go!

In this parshah are the three final plagues: locusts, darkness and, finally, the death of the first born. The Israelites leave the land, matzot and thousands in tow.

+ Ex. 10:14 "Locusts invaded all the land of Mitzrayim ... never before had there been so many, nor will there ever be so many again." I appreciate knowing that never again will a swarm of locusts be brought upon the land. It's comforting.

Rashi's comments on this:
And the one [the locust plague] that took place in the days of Joel, about which it is said: “the like of which has never been” (Joel 2:2), [from which] we learn that it was more severe than that of [the plague in the days of] Moses-namely because that one was [composed] of many species [of locusts] that were together: arbeh, yelek, chasil, [and] gazam; but [the locust plague] of Moses consisted of only one species [the arbeh], and its equal never was and never will be.
+ Having never read through the Bible/Torah before, even in my youth (I was raised w/o religion, essentially), I was unfamiliar with some of the plagues. Perhaps the one I was most unfamiliar with is the Ninth Plague -- darkness. The sages surmise that it wasn't physical darkness, such as that brought by a sandstorm or eclipse, but rather that it was "a spiritual or psychological darkness, a deep depression." The Torah reads, "People could not see one another, and for three days no one could get up from where he was" (Ex. 10:23). The commentary comments that people suffering from depression often lack the energy to move about or to concern themselves with others, focusing instead on themselves. Having nearly drowned in the sea of darkness that is depression myself, I read this and am completely overwhelmed. My mother and the man I love both suffer that which was plagued on the Egyptians. A darkness that comes and goes, though.

The commentary reads: "The person who cannot see his neighbor is incapable of spiritual growth, incapable of rising from where he is currently." Amid the Ninth Plague, "People could not see one another." The Catch 22 of depression is that, oftentimes, one feels so absolutely alone that he or she is driven into the depths of darkness where it is most lonely. Yet, if the person is incapable of seeing his or her neighbor to begin with, and within darkness is also unable to see his or her neighbor, what is to release them so that they can attain spiritual growth?

On another note, although I seem to agree in principal that the depressed person typically cannot (rather than does not) concern themselves with others, there's a case from this very day that perhaps proves otherwise. Case: A person in my life is depressed, not wanting to talk, I feel helpless and leave the conversation. Not long after, there is an e-mail expressing hope that I'm not upset regarding the person's depression. Is this not concern for me while depressed? Indeed.

+ I cherish the explanation behind the creation of the Jewish calendar in Ex. 12:2 and why our calendar follows the moon, as opposed to the sun: "Just as G-d showed Noah the rainbow as a sign of the covenant, G-d shows Moses the sliver of the new moon as a symbol of Israel's capacity for constant renewal (Hirsch)." What a brilliant concept and explanation.

+ Ex. 12:24 "You shall observe this as an institution for all time" -- why do we no longer offer up the paschal sacrifice then?

+ Introduction of the "idea" of t'fillin toward the end of parshah Bo (Ex. 13:9). I didn't realize it was introduced so early in Torah, as commonly it's attributed elsewhere, or so I thought! A sign as in "It is because of what the Lord did for me when I went free from Egypt."

Sunday, January 21, 2007

The beauty!

ברוך אתה הי אלקינו מלך העולם שככה לו בעולמו

Baruch atah Adonai, Elohenu melech ha'olam shekahcha lo baolamo!

This prayer translates typically as "Blessed are you, our God, King of the Universe, who has such beautiful things in His universe." It is a prayer for beauty and I recite it today because for the first time this winter, it is SNOWING!!!!


Thursday, January 18, 2007

Oy gevalt.

In case you forgot about the differences in Judaic practices ... along comes Jerry Seinfield and Tamara Cohen, a real estate broker. Jerry and his wife bought a spread in NYC for several million dollars, but without, evidently, the presence of the broker who found the place. Why? They wanted to view the house on Shabbat. Miss Cohen claims she is an observant Jew and couldn't show it. The Seinfields say NO COMMISSION! Miss Cohen won the dispute, of course.

Read more here.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007


Right in my own backyard. Ugh. When will politicians start thinking before they speak?
A veteran Virginia lawmaker from suburban Richmond ignited a hot exchange in the House of Delegates on Tuesday after criticizing a proposal for the state to issue an apology for slavery and likening it to requiring Jews to apologize for "killing Christ."
Story is here.

Va-Era: Here come the plagues, here come the plagues ...

To begin, is it the question of the divine origin of Torah that keeps us from wondering whether the return to Israel for all Jews is the ultimate want of G-d? Ex. 6:4-8 says "I will free you ... and deliver you ... I will redeem you ... I will take you ... I will bring you into the land." These four phrases are one source for the four cups of wine we consume during the Pesach seder, and they have such significance in Judaism. The commentary in Etz Chayim says,
"Only when the Israelites have their own land can they become the special people they are summoned to be. Only there will they have the duty and the opportunity to translate the ideals of the Torah into the realities of daily life and fashion the model society from which all nations will be able to learn. ... [It] is the Torah's ultimate promise; ..."
Why do movements doubt the necessity of the return to Israel? Why have the numbers of individuals making aliyah decreased? Why does the Diaspora content itself with being dispersed and not within the land? What does the land mean to us, as Jews? On that note, what does Israel mean to me? My connection to Judaism has grown without a necessary connection to the land of Israel, itself. I relate to the "idea" of the Jewish homeland, and I stand firmly that Israel is the place that this homeland should be. I do not, however, know precisely whether I connect to the land at this point in my life. I long to visit, and intend to via Birth Right before I turn 26, which gives me only a few years. I connect to the history of the land, as early Jewish history is what thrust me into Judaic studies four years ago. It was a class of Abraham and Isaac, Egypt and Israel, the exodus and the Near Eastern tales.

So do I believe in the return to Israel, to be able to "translate the ideals of the Torah into the realities of daily life" or that Israel is the one place this can be done? I don't know. I do know, however, that it might very well be the easiest or most accessible place to do this. In a land where Jews amass, there is the possibility for kashrut and being religious, with few worries of the outside world knocking. Then again, look at Orthodoxy these days. Look at Tel Aviv and the dispersion of the Jewish community within the land.

+ Within the same passages, Ex. 6:6 says "... I will free you from the labors of the Egyptians ..." and I find the commentary by Menahem Mendel of Kotzk particularly profound and it reminds me of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising and other moments when Jews acted "out of character" to most, compared with history. Historians often puzzle at the militarism and force behind which Jews protect Israel, but it is born of having had enough. As Mendel says in the commentary, "A first step toward liberation will be freeing themselves from their passivity and their tolerance of the intolerable." Is this not what happened within and following the Holocaust?

+ I draw qualms with Maimonides in regards to Pharoah's actions in this parshah. In a discussion regarding the hardening of Pharoah's heart, and how he can be punished for what G-d causes him to do ... Maimonides says, "Sometimes a man's offense is so grave that he forecloses the possibility of repentance. ... he forfeited the capacity to repent." It is my understanding that within Judaism, repentance is always an option. Although Pharoah's actions are the utmost of the grave ... is he also not given the opportunity to repent? Why is he exempt from this? Is it possible that the longer one refuses to choose the right choice, the more one depletes the choice to repent? I suppose it's a question of whether we believe that people truly can change and seek forgiveness. It is apparent that Maimonides believes Pharoah was hopeless.

+ I am perplexed at G-d's willingness to kill all the fish in the Nile with the plague of the bloody waters, considering the consideration of fish throughout as being free of the "evil eye" and evil inclinations.

+ The fourth plague is plagued by the word arov, which is not as debated as it was in the 9th through 12th centuries C.E. Various figures, including Rashbam and Abraham ibn Ezra, are among those debated whether the word, which is a noun based on a root meaning "to mix," means insects or wild beasts. There's a stellar analysis of the issue on the Biblical Archaeology Web site, if you're curious about the issue. Evidently English translations of the Pesach Hagaddah often translate the plague as "wild animals," because illustrations in the documents typically display lions or other wild beasts.


So while finishing up my book on the Holocaust's reach into Arab lands, I started thinking about something. When did the idea of divide and conquer go away? It could have been spawned by the isolationist ideal of "this is land is my land" and "that land is your land" ... so back off. But the days of boundary arguments and wars to take over lands and peoples is long gone. You find boundary battles in places like Africa and some Asian areas, but the world's largest nations -- France, England, the U.S. -- don't do a whole lot of conquering. Colonization is dead. The idea of world occupation, or even continent occupation is dead. When did this happen? Did it die with Hitler's attempt to kill the Jews and take over Europe? Did it become taboo to want to rule the world? Will manifest destiny become reborn someday? Or are we through with the idea of acquisition and are happy with what we have? Fascinating stuff, I say. Colonization ... exploration ... it created the world, and ruined entire peoples. Sigh.

Stay tuned!

I can't help but share the daily thought from the teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe from Chabad.org. It's Jewish related, but it's also a departure (yet again) from all things Jewish in this blog. But it's absolutely profound and meaningful to me. The relationship of man with G-d epitomizes the relationship of me with the man I love and have loved for nearly three years. Those close to the situation are wary of the outcome at this point, but only because of the pulling and running. But for those who understand the relationship with G-d, perhaps too those can understand the relationship of all-consuming love.
Dance With the Other
As a mother and the baby she holds in her arms, as a father and child, as two in courtship or in marriage, so we are with Him. One chases, the other runs away. One runs away, the other chases. One initiates, the other responds. The other initiates, the one responds. It is a dance, a game, a duet that plays as surely as the pulse of life.
Until one falls away and becomes estranged. Then the other looks and says, "This is not an other. We are one and the same." And so, they return to each other's arms once again.
It is a great mystery, but in estrangement, there is found the deepest bond.
In other news, there will be Torah commentary this week, as well as a bit on the book I've been reading and hope to finish regarding the reach of the Holocaust into Arab lands. I've sort of fallen off the wagon of study, and am hopping back on now that I'm in the process of putting things together and moving along.

Basically, faithful readers, please stay tuned!

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Where I've been.

So I've been out of town. I spent about three days in Chicago this past week. It was a minorly spur-of-the-moment trip to visit the city that I call my "happy place," to hopefully see some snow (which I didn't), to get away from the monotony of my existence in Washington and to see someone very special to me. Aside from the unfortunate bit with the snow (the storm showed up a few days after I left), it was everything I could have hoped for. The kind of days you pray for, that lift you up and give you hope. That rekindle the fervor for life. The kind of days you want to live everyday. What does this mean? Well, it means that hopefully by summertime, I will have moved to Chicago. I don't have a job lined up, I don't have school lined up, I don't have anything but a place to put my head and stuff lined up. (I hope.)

I'm not a very spontaneous person, but if there's one thing I've figured out while being completely alone out here on the coast with nothing but Torah, reading and coffee to keep me company, it's that I spend too much time considering how easy things are that I don't put enough effort in changing them. I waited till the last minute to take the GRE and apply to graduate school. I should have started the process in May or June. Instead, I waited till November and gave myself a month to figure things out. My desperation opened my eyes to a lot of things.

So I'm going to go after the things that make me happy. There's a person, there's a city and a job can't be that hard to find in a city thriving with the Jewish presence. Graduate school will come when it's ready, and if I get accepted to Connecticut or Michigan, well, I'll figure that out when I get there. But I want to give myself a better shot at things. Because there are ways in which we can fulfill happiness, and it's how we prioritize those things that expresses who we are. I need my Shabbat, I need a warm bed, I need the feeling of love and warmth and kindness. Ani mevinah. It took awhile, but ani mevinah.


In completely unrelated news, I was riding the Metrobus the other day and was shocked to find this written on a cushion of the bus I was on. It was my normal bus route, and the seats typically are covered with all sorts of scrawlings in permanent marker by teens in "gangs" like the "Lench Mob." It's incredibly sad, but sort of amusing that these middle schoolers are sporting gang names and symbols years after the bloods and crips -- two of the bloodiest gangs -- called it even. Yah, MS-13 is still around, but they're an incredibly DIFFERENT breed of hoodlum (if you don't know about them, they're a Salvadoran group, almost more like the mob, as they're known for using machetes to remove people's body parts). These kids are kids. But I saw this and have no clue what the writing below the "NO JEWS" stands for. If anyone knows, I'd be curious to know for sure. It's the first bit of anti-Jew scrawling I've seen, ever, in graffitti.


And no Torah this week. Next week, though. Sh'mot got my attention, but not as much as it deserved. I'll proceed with Exodus next week, and perhaps pick up some of the questions/thoughts I had from Sh'mot.

Be well!

Sunday, January 7, 2007

An installment from the Kvetching Editor:

The great thing about working for a newspaper is that there's lots and lots of free stuff. It was this way in college, too, of course. Books and CDs came in as promotional material or for reviews. Writers, artists, anyone who has something to promote ships their goods off to the newspaper and after it is written about or reviewed, the items typically are kept, put in the newspaper's library or put out for taking by folks from sections that don't do reviewing. This is great, except for one thing.

Most of the books are advance copies. ADVANCE copies. That means they're STUFFED with errors. Not just poorly placed commas, but misspelled or wrongly placed words. I know I shouldn't complain, but damn. As a copy editor, books are blessings but advance books are curses. When I'm reading a text and find a bounty of errors, it kills the mood.

It's like passionately kissing your lover only to have his or her dog come up and lick you on the face. It just kills the mood!

But I read on. Especially this Holocaust in Arab lands book I picked up. Absolutely fascinating. It's sort of making me hate on the French, though. It's also keeping me from reading other books I've started. Fully submerged, I can't focus on anything of the other books in my possession.

Friday, January 5, 2007

A departure from all things Jewish, or is it?

I wrote last night. It was brief and fleeting and followed an incredibly bizarre half-hour of trying to fall asleep and being completely overwhelmed with emotion for no apparent reason whatsoever. There are these moments (that I've had since I was a child in elementary school) where I become completely taken with everything and nothing at all and I weep. It sounds weird, I know. But it happens. Sitting in a still room with all of the lights off, mind calming, breathing easy, and it comes out of nowhere. The feeling has come while editing at work, while sitting on a plane, while sitting in class. It just comes, and it doesn't stop until I ... do something to make it stop, be that write or speak outloud to no one in particular in beat and rhythm. So this is what came out this time around:

(DISCLAIMER: I've won praise and top spots for my performance poetry ... and been subsequently turned down for the publication of my poetry, because of the very reason it is well-recieved in performance. When reading it on the page, it loses the rhythm and beat and voice.)

i built this castle and
crowned myself queen.
queen of the things that
have yet to be seen.

i'm painting lavish
landscapes with fingertip
my hair making bristle
brushes, stroking and
choking the scene,
of things that fail to be seen.

i carry pieces of memories
i have yet to incur,
an advanced debit owed
to things that i cannot
begin to dream.

and yet upon my thrown
of thornes i'm sitting
and wishing and crying
out loud of
Ani ...

i built this castle, and
crowned myself queen,
queen of the things that
might have never been

Those three instances of ani are not for Ms. Difranco. Those are, rather, "I" or "I am" in Hebrew. A common phrase is "Ani Adonai" -- I am the Lord. For me, ani was followed by an empty verse. And then this poem came. Interesting, I suppose. You can tell me what the poem means to you, because I know what it means to me -- a hodgepodge of personal discovery and journey mixed with creation tales and history's tragedy. Short, but full of so much, it is.


For those keeping score at home, I checked the Plaut Torah (w/commentary) tonight while at shul, and it would appear that Plaut's translation of Gen. 48:16 also loses the multiply "like fish" reference and instead says the descendants shall be teeming "multitudes." For those of you confused, I wrote about it here in this week's parsha discussion. I don't get how "fish" can turn into "multitudes" ... even if only to condense the wording because to do so sacrifices the significance of the Jewish people being as fish, free of the evil eye.

Thursday, January 4, 2007

On this day in history:

Today, being Jan. 5, is the anniversary of the Dreyfus Affair, an infamous act of antiSemitism within the French government. Most know of it, but I feel the need to explicate bits and pieces for the sake of educating whoever happens to pass by this blog. It's also because my desperation to become a teacher/professor leads me to this ... it isn't really self-fulfilling, just what I enjoy. But the Dreyfus case has an incredibly interesting connection to Zionism. So read on.

In sum, Capt. Alfred Dreyfus, a French citizen and Jew from a prosperous family, was accused and convicted of treason in the late 1800s. He was degraded, his badges ripped off and his sabre broken -- he was sentenced to life until death on Devil's Island. After that newspaper bit showed up publicizing the issue (in January 1898), the French government ended up in a sort of scandal regarding Dreyfus. It all went down in 1894 when he was accused of passing secrets along to the Germans (HA!), and it all happened incredibly abruptly. The evidence at hand was a list of promises to the Germans, which didn't even resemble Dreyfus's handwriting. Unfortunately, by the time the French realized this, it was too late to backstep, so instead they began an elaborate coverup campaign. They were digging a hole, so to speak.

The case was reopened in 1899 -- a good 5 years later -- and was reconvincted and ordered to spend 10 years more in prison. He was subsequently pardoned, but it was not until 1906 that he was exonerated. It took 12 years for the French government to "admit" fault. He then was recommissioned in the French army and served in World War I (though I often ask myself WHY he would return to such a situation after everything that'd happened).

A rift appeared in French society between those who supported Dreyfus and those who didn't. Comics appeared in papers and the issue was covered across the country and the world. The connection of Dreyfus to Zionism is that Theodor Herzl, a journalist, was assigned to write about the case and its aftermath. In 1896, Herzl wrote The State of the Jews and founded the World Zionist Organization. Both which called for the creation of a Jewish state. There's a split among historians about whether Herzl was isnpired to fervently take on the creation of a Jewish state because of the Dreyfus affair or because of the rise of an antiSemitic mayor in Vienna, Herzl's home city. The chronology of events doesn't agree with some philosophies, as the "scandal" of the Dreyfus affair seems to have come after the pro-Dreyfus camp appeared.

I think it's safe to say, though, that both events probably worked their way into the composition of the book and subsequent efforts for a Jewish state. I think it's ignorant to assume that the Dreyfus affair had no affect on Herzl's views of the Jewish condition in Europe. Then again, I've got a bucketload of thoughts about Herzl and Zionism ...

Wednesday, January 3, 2007

More on the "War on Converts"

I came across this story today. It's not so much a story as an opinion piece by an American psychologist about the "War on Converts" in Judaism. Says Renee Garfinkel on Ynet news, in referencing shalom bayit (where abused women were told to return home to try to make peace, to make the marriage work):
As abused women once were oppressed in the name of shalom bayit, converts to Judaism are now being oppressed in the name of The Eternal Family, a code word used by the supporters of a bill proposed by Sephardi Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar. The bill would deny Jews by conversion equal access to the Law of Return.
Garfinkel goes on to explain the experience of the convert amid rejection:
I'm not an Israeli politician. I'm an American psychologist. And as a psychologist I know that to question the personal status of someone who converted to Judaism is to whip her with a vicious triple-tailed whip made of the following components: Public humiliation, threat of rejection, and social stigma.
And perhaps most importantly:
The irony of the institutional abuse of converts is that it comes from the very institution that ought to feel charged with the duty to protect them. Members of the Rabbinate have studied religious texts that explain the convert's exquisite emotional tenderness, and advise taking particular care with their feelings ("Do not taunt him" – Leviticus 19).

There is a religious obligation to avoid calling attention to the convert's status, even in casual conversation, lest she feel diminished.


Tuesday, January 2, 2007

Va-Y'hi: And he lived (but he died in the end)

This week's parshah is the final one for Bereshit (Genesis), and concludes the history of the Patriarchs, leading to Exodus, which tells the history of the nation of Israel. Israel dies, Joseph dies. And so we begin.

+ In Gen. 48:16, Jacob is blessing the two sons of Joseph (Manasseh and Ephraim), who has adopted as his own. In the blessing, he says "In them may my name be recalled, / And the names of my fathers Abraham and Isaac, / And may they be teeming multitudes** upon the earth." The commentary in Etz Chayim on this passage interprets this as "May G-d bless them as long as they call themselves by traditional, biblical names. The most valuable legacy we can leave our children and grandchildren is bequeathing to them the faith that stustained us (Shneur Zalman of Lyady)." Zalman being the Elder Rebbe, the first rebbe of Chabad. I don't know that I particularly understand how this can be derived from the blessing. I think Zalman takes the "my name" too literally. Rather, I see this as "the memories" of Jacob, his fathers, etc. be recalled. Thus, Jacob's blessing is merely that in the nation of Israel, may the memories of the Patriarchs be recalled.

** Now, an alternative (and what I consider more accurate) translation of the end of that blessing says may they multiply "like fish" (Hebrew: dag). Not sure why Etz Chayim doesn't use this translation, considering that's what the Hebrew says. I'm sort of irritated that the translation got away from this, mostly because of Rashi's interpretation of the importance of this phrase: "[Just] like fish, which proliferate and multiply, and are unaffected by the evil eye." Why are fish free from the evil eye? Talmud states that this is because they are under water. If you recall the flood, fish really were the only animal free from the effects of the flooding because they were water creatures. Additionally, it makes me wonder why the quip isn't "multiplying like fish" and instead is "multiplying like rabbits." The nation of Israel is being blessed to not be affected by the evil eye. Brilliant!

(Note: I'm curious about this and may pursue it further. How does water keep the evil eye away?)

+ Jacob/Israel calls together his sons so "that I may tell you what is to befall you in days to come" (Gen. 49:1). Israel goes on to discuss each son's character and special gifts, not so much their future, though. Naftali of Ropshitz suggests that Israel saw into the future and was so distraught at what was to come, the spirit of prophecy disappeared, as it cannot dwell where there is grief and sadness. Thus, the commentary says that "The modern reader may understand the passage to mean that a person's future depends on his or her character. There is no preordained script that we are fated to follow." This, of course, got me thinking about preordainment in Judaism. I've heard a variety of things, the most fascinating idea being Rabbi Akiva: "all is forseen, yet choice is given" (Pirkei Avot). One rabbi suggests that free will must exist for religion to matter, and I can understand how this conclusion can be drawn.

Those who fail to believe in free will are sort of kidding themselves, especially if those people are the type to believe in heaven or hell. If there are two possible destinations in life, and you are predestined without free will, then what's the point in living? You will -- regardless of good works, etc. -- end up in either heaven or hell. So why try? These also are the individuals who likely will say "My husband died because it was part of G-d's plan" or "The hurricane came because it was part of G-d's plan." It sort of makes my face hurt when people say stuff like that.

Jewish philosopher Hasdai Crescas resolved the free-will/predestination argument by saying that free-will doesn't exist. A person's actions are predetermined from the moment of birth, and their judgement in the eyes of G-d is effectively preordained. HOWEVER, this is not a result of G-d predetermining one's fate, but rather that the universe -- by nature -- is deterministic. In essence, Crescas denies free-will and predestination in relation to G-d. Rather, because nature is deterministic, it just works out that way. Of course, Crescas's views were welcomed with vehement opposition.

Chabad believe in both -- free-will and predestination at G-d's will -- and accommodates the contraditions by saying that man is unable to comprehend the existence of both. G-d and man live in different realities, of course, and thus contradictions are apparent and not able to be understood. This goes back to Rabbi Akiva's statement, too.

To further muddle up whether Jews believe in either/or, Jewish historian Josephus claimed that the "Pharisees held that not all things are divinely predestined, but that some are dependent on the will of man; the Sadducees denied any interference of God in human affairs; while the Essenes ascribed everything to divine predestination."

It's an ages-old debate that seems -- among most Jewish groups -- to be answered by the conclusion that there is no such thing as predestination, that free-will and our decisions are what decide our fate. This, of course, is why tikkun olam is so important in Reform Judaism and in all of Judaism. Good works are what lead us to obtain a position closer to G-d (in a completely nonliteral sense).

However, you'll be hard pressed to find a religious Jew who would deny that G-d is omniscient. This, of course, is not -- in Judaism -- synonymous with predestination.


Okay, so I got pretty sidetracked there with the predestination bit. I think it's an interesting concept, and everyone handles it quite differently. Aside from Va-Y'hi being the conclusion of the history of the Patriarchs, I didn't come up with much else to write on. It could be the fact that I'm pretty preoccupied with other floaty brain things. Or it could be that the coffee shop is particularly noisy today with lots of people having lots of conversations. I've got my headphones on, and it still isn't enough.

And the crowd asks, "Why not study at home, Amanda!?" And my answer? I'm not sure. Once I began college, I grew unable to really concentrate or wrangle my thoughts. Sort of a stir-crazy kind of thing. I go elsewhere to study, because I find it easier to settle myself down in surroundings that don't involve a bed or television or kitchen. It isn't that I fall asleep, watch TV or eat a lot at home all the time ... it's just a state of mind.

Next week, for the first parshah of Exodus, I'll be working from an alternate location in an alternate time zone in an alternate reality. Stay tuned ...

EDIT: It would appear I am a minor celebrity, as a girl at the coffee shop stopped to ask me if I make YouTube videos. Evidently she found this video and recognized me and BAM! Instant celebrity. I'm pretty proud :)