Sunday, 30 June 2013

Partnership minyanim and motivation

This is Ben's guest post, i guess we should call it, about partnership minyanim and motivation:

I’d like to advocate for the devil, without getting feathers ruffled if possible. I think the issue of motivation is more primary than the technicalities of halachic debate in dealing with this issue. Be
fore that sets off a blue touchpaper, let me clarify that I’m not casting aspersions on anyone supporting ‘PM’s, rather as follows:
I think it’s clear that what mostly gets referred to as metahalacha these days (or halachic values, hashkafa etc) is part and parcel of a posek’s approach to almost any question, especially where significant sociological/communal implications are involved. Trying to bring it down to purely a question of debating relevant technical sources isn’t realistic or accurate. I strongly suspect that anyone debating this has an essentially instinctive answer in mind, either for or against, and the debate is therefore skewed before it starts. 
More fundamentally though, before even looking at sources, the starting point for such a question as ‘should there be PMs’ is what are we trying to achieve? A question which has no particular wider ramifications, like a technical issue in borer b’shabbat, just for example, can be treated directly as is on a technical basis. However with PMs, which have significant sociological ramifications impinging on a major feature of the last 2500 years of Jewish life, presumably there needs to be a clear and identifiable benefit in terms of the most fundamental Jewish values in order to proceed. This ‘motivation’ needs to be explicit. It can’t just be a question of ‘is it mutar?’. 
Best example is probably the Beis Yaakov start up in the 20’s.The need was clear, explicit and involved the basic religious functioning of the next generation in Europe. It was radical, and the need justified it. 
I’m not saying such a need doesn’t exist with regard to PMs but it’s clear that unless a ‘l’shem shamayim’ need can be identified clearly, it’s unlikely to win senior halachic support with technicalities being a secondary, although vital issue. I realise that many feel that contemporary women’s feeling of
estrangement from religious involvement is a necessary motivator for this change, but in that case the argument should about that issue rather the technicalities of sources. 

As a slight side point, I think you’re incorrect about your understanding of Bnot Tzelofchad. The midrash you quote makes clear that their question was debated and answered precisely because they were ‘wise and knowledgeable’. If their character had been otherwise (eg knowledgeable but not wise) then Moshe would not have engaged in the way he did. The nature of the person and, by clear implication, their motivation in asking the question is made central to the story.

aliyah: reflections from a marker in the road of time.

“It’s not the end; it’s not even the beginning of the end; but it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning”

I am finding it hard to believe that we’ve reached the end of the school year. We haven’t quite been here a year, but getting to the end of the academic year is a real milestone. This shabbat, one year ago, i gave a farewell dvar torah, somewhat off the cuff, to my beautiful community in london. I referred to a vort of the lubavitcher rebbe's, that every time there is a double sedra, the two names of the sedrot contradict each other. Matos-Masei: a staff, the head of the tribe, that which does not change but which serves as a marker, provides an identity, a reference point and a rallying point; + journeys, change, new situations and experiences. A year ago, i was about to leave a matos period in my life to enter a new period of masei. And now, i am partway through the process of transforming my masei period into a mateh, again. 

We’ve come a long way, baby.

I’ve been trying to compose this in my head without reference to trite phraseology or clich├ęs, but it’s proving impossible. I cannot pretend that others have not trod this path before me – and written about it – so I’ll just have to go for honesty, but unoriginality.

Looking back on the year we have (just about) completed in Israel, after making aliyah, I can only feel gratitude to Hashem and amazement at what we have achieved. Chazal tell us that when the wicked and righteous reach heaven, they are shown the yetzer hara – the evil inclination – which tempted them throughout their lives. To the wicked, who gave in to it, it will appear like a tiny molehill; to the righteous, who resisted, it will appear like a huge mountain. The question that is asked is why it appears like this to each group of people? Surely the sinners should see the temptation to which they succumbed as overwhelming, and the righteous should see that which they overcame as being insignificant? But it is, in fact, the other way around. The sinners will look back and wish they had resisted something which was really so petty and trivial. And the righteous will look back and see their struggle not to give in transformed into an eternal triumph.

I hope it doesn’t sound too arrogant – or critical of those friends who are still living in chutz l’aretz – if I say that I identify with that somewhat. Not the triumph over temptation part, but that on looking back at our first year in the Land, all the difficulties which we have b’ezrat Hashem overcome seem so much larger than they did while we were struggling through them. At the time, it was hard, yes, but it was ok, we were managing fine. And now when I look back, I think – wow, I can’t believe we did this. I can’t believe we got this far. Oh we aren’t finished yet – the struggles continue – but now they are normal struggles, regular life struggles, and I can’t think how we ordinary mortals coped with the challenges we already faced.

I remember our first week in Israel, and how dislocated we felt, how much it was time out of step with the rest of the world, a kind of cross between the week of sheva brachot and life on the moon. We took our life apart in London, packed it away in boxes and left it until we couldn’t remember it by heart – and then we took it all out and put it back together again, but differently. The weeks which we spent living with beds, appliances, one folding table, and 5 plastic chairs as our furniture, and how incredibly wearing it felt to have nowhere to put anything down apart from the floor.  I don’t think I have ever appreciated any piece of furniture as much as the second-hand chest of drawers we picked up in our second week here (at last, something to put things on!), and the luxurious arrival of our couches just before rosh hashanah (weeks before our shipment from London reached us) was a New Year’s gift from Heaven.

More: the utter discombobulation of taking the children to school for the first time, and not knowing which way to turn, what books to give them, and just leaving them to work it out. The vulnerability of being reliant on the kindness of strangers and G-d – and the lifelong lesson that comes from not having been let down. The loneliness of moving from a community in which we had built for ourselves a cosy and secure little niche to being a teeny tiny unnoticeable fish in a deep, shadowy and densely-populated lake – which leads you to reconstruct every stranger’s face as reminiscent of someone you knew ‘before’. And what a difference it makes to get a smile and a shabbat invitation, to recognise people that you pass on the street. I think perhaps it was a small taste of what life would be like without memory.

And one at a time, we moved through the markers of the year and slowly and gradually felt a new life take shape around us. Our children went to school and learned how to get to the toilets, what the teachers were called, how to distinguish the faces of friends from the mass of fellow students. We learned the past, the present, and the future, and not only in Hebrew grammar. One child cried at night because they missed their friends so much – but today that child came home from school with a paper of appreciation, engraved over and over again with praise of their smiliness, friendliness, and speed at learning Ivrit. One child was overcome with the stress of not being able to know which child was their friend – but is now quite certain that they are friends with the whole class. One child insisted it would only be awful here – but now admits it’s not as bad as they thought, and wants to bring souvenirs back for their friends.

The year turned – and so did we. The ineffable and indefinable different-ness of living in this country seeped into our bones and became part of us. Our week dances to the rhythm of Shabbat; our months marked by the white-shirted children on rosh chodesh; our milestones of acclimatisation by the chagim coming and going. And deeper than that, I find I have come to accept living to a different beat. There is a story about a rich businessman who once gave a very large donation to Rav Aharon Kotler. Rav Kotler gave him a long and heartfelt brachah that he should merit to spend eternity learning Torah in Gan Eden. A look at the man’s face told him that he was not sure this was a bracha he really wanted. Rav Kotler told the man not to worry “the bracha is, that you’ll enjoy it”. Sometimes I feel that this is the bracha we didn’t realise we were asking for – but we received it: don’t worry, you’ll enjoy it. We were told that here it is normal to live on a miracle, normal to rely on divine help to have enough money to reach the end of the month. I understood that those who were telling me that were telling me it as though it was something positive, or reassuring, but it sounded dreadfully insecure to me. Now, though, I understand it better. The bracha is that we enjoy it.

Yes, there are Israelis who are rude and abrupt, there is the difficult bureaucracy, there are the awkward and unpredictable opening hours, there is harsh sun and long lines at the supermarket and the (for me) inconvenience and handicap of living without a car. Mostly I ride with it, accept the hardships with gratitude as a kaparah and a kinyan ha’aretz, and hold my breath with the prayer that things will not become too hard, too long, too expensive, too much for us to bear.

We have come so far in this year. We have all learnt a new language; we have found employment; our children have learned how to walk and ride to school and elsewhere by themselves; they’ve learned to ride the buses and to get help from strangers (and to not-get-help-from-strangers); they have developed new talents in gymnastics, in drawing, in engineering, in sports, in comics, in making friends, in arts and crafts. We have all changed our value system somewhat and begun to reorganise our ties and loyalties and priorities. And we have so much further to go. It’s only the end of the beginning – and all beginnings are hard. 

minhag avoseinu b;yadeinu

Ben;s been reading this book, called ‘shorashei minhagei ashkenaz’. It’s a one-volume English summary of a three-voluime Hebrew work recording the traditions and origins of those traditions of Ashkenazim, so that they are not entirely forgotten and lost in the wave of homogenous artscroll-isation sweeping over us.

Amongst other things, he’s discovered from this book that a hachnasat sefer torah used to always be held on a Shabbat, or on shavuos. The recent practice (within the last 100 years) of holding it on a Sunday was entirely frowned upon and squashed as a radical, chukkas-hagoy-type practice.

Also, a baby would get his/her secular name at a special ceremony, called (I mayb e getting this word wrong) a chol-kreit. The secular name they would be given wasn;t just the same as the names of the non-Jews amongst whom they lived; it would be a Yiddish version of the Hebrew/Jewish name they’d already been given, thus someone who had been named shlomo would be named zalman at his chol-kreit, someone named dov would be named ber, etc. as you can work out, this is evidently where the practice gradually sprang up from of giving a baby two names – shlomo zalman, dov ber, menachem Mendel – which are the Hebrew and Yiddish versions of the same name. funny, isn’t it, that nowadays people give Yiddish names to their children as their Hebrew/jewish names….

Another example: the chuppah we use now is not the authentic chuppah. Couples would stand together draped in the same tallis. The chuppah we use nowadays at a wedding derived from the canopy that was held over the heads of important people, asuch as at a hachnasat sefer torah. For a while, a couple would stand draped in a tallis AND under a canopy…then gradually the draped in a tallis part died out. I find it hard to imagine having that kind of chuppah nowadays; I think if people were to revive it, they would be shouted down as trying to overturn our mesorah and introduce pritzus-dik (a chassan and kallah standing under the same tallis? Close enough to touch? Already before the chasunah’s completed? It’s so not tznius) innovations.

So what I learned from this is that Jewish practice can change extremely dramatically, over a very very short space of time. We think of the way we do things as somewhat inviolate, not easily amenable to change, and that to change Jewish practice is a serious thing which requires a good reason and official approval from several leading rabbonim. It turns out that this is not the case.

Final quote from Saki (hamayvin yavin who that is): "Not that i ever indulge in despairing about the Future; there have always been men who have gone about despairing of the Future, and when the Future arrives it says nice, superior things about their having acted according to their lights."

Tuesday, 25 June 2013

the first drink of water after a fast

the first long drink of water after a long
     fast day
i feel liquid rehydration running down the dried-up
  dried out
    river-beds of my veins.
i feel the dusty blood-ways of my lifeblood
     with the blessing of the One Who spoke
i feel the joy
   of the wadi
when the springs flow again.

Monday, 3 June 2013

this world and another

Ok ok. There's been a lot going round the blogosphere about the crisis - or, if you are on the other side of the fence, totally fine state of affairs - in the attitude of (particularly US) jews towards making aliyah. To sum up: first Hannah Dreyfus wrote this article about why she's scared to make aliyah. Then Aryeh Younger wrote this article about why he sees no need to make aliyah. Then my friend tagged me to read this article, by Rabbi Rothstein about his angst about not making aliyah and the fact that many of his acquaintances don't want to, either.

Here's my two cents (pence, agorot, whatever) on making aliyah. Since i did, not yet even a year ago.

The main thing i think is wrong with all these people who confess to not wanting to make aliyah, or not wanting enough to make aliyah, is short-term-ism and only thinking about this world. But let me expand on that.

For all the years that i spent in England before we made aliyah, and all the time when i thought we wouldn;t be able to until our children were grown up, i always insisted it wasn;t a question of if. it was a question of when.

we thought it might be 20 years. 20 years is a long time. especially when you are in you early 20s, sometimes 20 years seems like it's not far different to never. But there's an important difference between 20 years and never. the difference is in the desire.

when we left Israel 7 years ago after a year living in jerusalem, and i was distraught at leaving my land, my wonderful rebbetzin, Rebbetzin Altusky, reminded me of rashi's comment on the beginning of parshas vayechi. 'vayechi yaakov b'eretz mitzrayim' - and rashi comments, yaakov really lived a good life there. all of his time in israel had been dogged with worry and stress. in egypt, in exile, he rested and enjoyed a good quality of life. with all his family united around him, and no financial concerns (that's my expansion of rashi). he was happy there, and chazal do not censure him for having been happy there. yaakov in egypt is the model for the 'good exile'; in a way, in many ways, a model for all those jews living happily in american now. she meant for me to not worry, i can live a good life as a good jew in england. as so many do. are.

but the thing that made yaakov different to hannah dreyfus and aryeh younger is that he always knew that he was in exile. he always knew that he was not where he belonged, and so he planned to return to his homeland. he made arrangemetns to be buried in eretz yisrael. he knew it would be tricky, he made his children all swear to return his body to his home. Likewise, my rebbetzin always said 'don't worry, you'll come back. if you want to, you'll come back.'. and every time i spoke to her, after she asked how we are and how the children are, she would ask 'and how are your plans to come to israel, how are they looking?'.

It seems to me that all the jews who are living so happily and comfortably in america, or elsewhere in the diaspora, have forgotten that although yirmiyah tells us to settle down in exile and build homes, we are not meant to forget that it is exile. There is a yearning for our homeland which is what has kept us going as a nation throughout our centuries of exile. Every time that we as a group have forgotten where we belong, something - someone - has come along to remind us.

All of these people who say that they do not see the need to live in israel: they have lost sight of what matters. They have forgotten that we are a nation that dwells apart, forgotten that we have our own land which was crafted by G-d to suit us, forgotten above all that Moshiach will come one day - yes, he will. they are focusing on this world, on their jobs and incomes and achievements for the duration of their lifetimes. not on the lifetime of our nation, which requires us to yearn and to actually move to israel to bring moshiach.

I'm not trying to cast blame at anyone. it took us 7 years to get here, and it might have taken us 20. I'm not castigating anyone who has not made aliyah. there are sometimes good reasons to stay out of israel - sometimes a family really could not support themselves in israel, sometimes people have obligations of care to parents or siblings, sometimes a person is having more impact on the Jewish nation by living in the US or england or wherever. sometimes it is just not the right time. But i do castigate those who don;t want to. everyone should have an intention to make aliyah. everyone should want to come. it might take 20 years, like i thought it would for us, but everyone should acknowledge that this land is where we belong, that this land is the land of our destiny.

I have to admit: making aliyah is scary. let's all acknowledge it. we most of us leave our family, leave our support network, leave a place where we are familiar with the way that things work, and are able to read the small print if we aren;t sure of what is going on, leave our jobs (sometimes), and take a giant leap into the frightening unknown. So i am fine with people who say 'i want to make aliyah, i wish i could, but i am scared. one day i want to get there, but i am scared'. i would take your hand and agree, yes it is scary, yes it is frightening, but you'll come here when you are ready. when the time is right, you will come, because you wish it.


there are two canards which i often hear regarding aliyah, and i want to dispel them. one is that it is too dangerous in israel. well, i would have thought that after the 9/11 world trade centre attacks, US Jews would abandon this claim that living in israel is so dangerous. but it seems not. israel is dangerous. it's dangerous because there are people in the world - a lot of them - who wish us dead. they wish us dead because we are jews. they are showing more and more that they are happy to attack us in every country in the world. what can save us? Hashem. G-d. i promise you, He works in israel (no employment trouble for Him!). do US jews really think that they will be safe in america? i know it's been said before, but i'm saying it again: G-d runs the world.

and that siad, here's the other canard. it's one that i used to subscribe to. it goes like this: if G-d wanted me to make aliyah, He would make it possible. He would send me a job there, He would make my family all learn ivrit, He would smoothe the way for me. it's a lie that we all indulge in in many areas, i think, not just about aliyah. we hide behind hashgachah pratis (divine orchestration of our lives). but there are no open miracles any more. If you pack up your belongings, if you research aliayh, if you investigate employment opportunities and practise ivrit, then you will have created the vessels ready for G-d to pour in His blessings of employment and knowing hebrew and smooth acclimatisation to Israel. Our sages tell us that the way in which a man wishes to go, in that way he will be led. i used to think 'why is it that so many of my friends have merited to live in israel, and i haven;t? why can they, and not me?' until the obvious answer made its way into my brain: it's because they tried. so i tried too.


Next point. my lovely friend Jonathan tagged me in that article (i think) because he claims that there is not enough aliyah education going on in the UK. Rabbis do not talk often enough (or at all) about the importance of aliyah and israel. schools do not teach zionist principles. and this is why more people do not make aliyah.

so i think that you are right and earnest, but i disagree. you don;t need zionism to know that you are meant to live in israel. i didn;t get much of a zionist education. well not really any of a one, what i know about zionism and early modern-israeli history is cobbled together from sem, from reading, from here and there. i don;t think of myself as a zionist (shriek, horror!). i'm a jew. and i live in israel, i want to live in israel, because i learn torah.

If you learn torah, you'll notice that most of the action takes place in israel, if you learn torah, you'll notice that there's a large chunk of mitzvos that can only be done in israel. if you pay attention to the cycle of the jewish year, you'll notice that it was designed to be observed in israel (those of us who have worn gloves in the sukkah will not have failed to notice that one). if you understand what you say when you daven or bensch, you'll notice that we ask several times a day to be returned to our land.

living in israel isn;t a political issue. it's a religious one. never mind the whole settlers, west bank, obstacle-to-peace issue. never mind all this fulfillment-of-our-nationalist-dream. this is our country becuase it's our country, and we belong here because we belong to the land.

most days, in mincha, we repeat the words of david hamelech. He sinned - never mind how - and was faced with a choice of three punishments: he could either lose to his enemies, or suffer a devastating plague, or ... now i've forgotten the third one and am in a hurry to finish up. ok. or something else which i can;t remember. he chose the plague, saying 'better that i be in Your hands, G-d, than in the hands of man', since man might choose to continue his cruelty beyond that which he was decreed to suffer, but G-d would only exact precisely the amount of punishment required.

in israel, we are in the hands of G-d. we know that there are people living all around and amongst us who wish to huirt us. we know that the economy freewheels merrily along the fine line of improbability. we know that finding a job is tricky and having enough money to last out the month is in the realm of a divine miracle.

In the US, people rely on homeland security to keep out terrorists. they have good jobs which they rely on to pay their bills. they rely on the govt to keep them safe. they rely on rich men to bankroll their yeshivahs and are adament that everyone must pay a lot for healthcare.

in the book of devarim, there is a central phrase about how we will look at all our wealth and say 'b'kochi uv'otzem yadi assiti et haosher hazeh'. ie we will think that all our achievement are our achievements, that we from our own abilities created the bounty that we enjoy. but this will be punished with exile. we must remember that it all comes from G-d.

i think that this is the central mistake of all those US jews who do not yearn to make aliyah. they reverse David's sentiments, choosing 'better to be in the hands of man than in the hands of G-d'.
and they prefer to rely on man - themselves and their democratically elected officials - than on G-d.


Last point. Hannah dreyfus' article, as well as being about why she is scared to make aliyah, said that it was too big a sacrifice. let me answer that one briefly. i've given up a lot. i've given up my friends and family just near by, i've given up undesrtanding (more or less) the way things work, i've given up knowing which shops to buy what at. but i don;t think i've sacrificed a thing.

there are only two parallels i can give ot making aliyah: getting married, and having a baby. for both of those things you give up an awful lot. when you get married you give up shopping around, give up flirting with whoever wanders across your path, give up the possibilties that could lie around every corner. but you don;t feel you sacrifice anything, because of all that you gain.

with a baby even more so. like with making aliyah, you plan and prepare, and then the event comes (usually with alot of tears) and you are totally pole-axed. your life turns upside down. a baby even more takes away your social life, your freedom of movement, your ability to sleep well at night, etc etc. but it's worth all that you give up.

and in both cases you might well complain  - quite a bit someitmes. just like with our beloved country, you notice faults in your beloved spouse, and you might point htem out occasionally. someitmes even to other people. but you know that there's no one else you'd rather complain about. and you only complain about him/her becuiase you love them so much. so as a side poin ot htose who complain about olim who complain about israel - it's only becuase we love it so much. we did choose it, after all, and gave up all our other possiblities to live with it with loyalty and love, but we still reserve the right to complain when it leaves the cap off the toothpaste (metaphirically speaking).

So far, the scariest about about making aliyah, was making the decision.