Thursday, December 31, 2009

On Pot and Naturalism

Honestly, it's absurd to say that just because cannabis is natural it's ok to smoke it all the time. Who are we to say in what context it was meant to be smoked? Anyway, all the vices of the world are "natural". Grape fermentation is 'natural', coffee and chocolate beans are 'natural'. Respite is natural, steak is natural and beautiful people are natural, yet unrestrained appetites for sleep or food or cohabitation are also 'natural'. They've all existed since the beginning of time. That doesn't mean that it's not part of our duty as responsible human beings to beware of them, and to ensure we don't develop addictions to them. Thorns are 'natural'. Wild beasts are natural. Cliffs, are 'natural'...

Sunday, December 27, 2009

The Papa and the Baba

I have borne witness recently, friends, to what seems to be a recurring theme among those who are relatively new to observant Judaism attempting to marry those who come from more observant families: the guy and the girl are perfectly fine with each other, notwithstanding the difference in their backgrounds, but when it comes time for the Baal Teshuva to be accepted into the religious family, one of the parents is adamantly opposed to such objectionable seed sullying the purity of their clan. The saga usually ends with the family seeking the councel of a Rosh Yeshiva or Mekubal, and discovering that their concerns were well-founded, since the authority figure is usually also in opposition to such unions.

To me the whole thing smacks of a pre-Fiddler on the Roof era; for even in that film, in all three marriages neither the father nor the community had much say in the face of love. To most (unorthodox) Jews today this phenomenon seems quite arcane, yet it's still "מעשים בכל יום" in our religious community "עד עצם היום הזה".

Yet what if a great man, say a descendant of the Abuhassera lineage, ..or your Rosh Yeshiva, ...or the Rebbe of Lubavitch בכבודו ובעצמו, after having been approached by you with the question of whether or not to cave in to parental pressure to turn down a prospective match with whom you've already developed an emotional relationship, tells you to listen to your elders and back down. Would you heed and does it make sense to heed?

It seems to boil down to how much supernatural Divine Inspiration and knowledge, or lack thereof, we aspire to this person, and whether their insights into our lives are true. Yet those who would wish to ascribe such inspiration to these men would use as proof the precept in Avot which states "עשה לך רב והסתלק מן הספק". But this proof insn't entirely convincing, since that Mishna may just be discussing "מילי דשמיא" (heavenly matters), but not necessarily the idea that one must heed a spiritual authority for "מילי דארעא" (earthly matters).

In regard to the latter, which is the topic of discussion here, the concept of "Da'at Torah" must be referred to. You see, many today feel that it's obvious that you must heed the guidance of your Rav in all matters, but upon a critical analysis it can be determined that many are of the opinion that Daat Torah is a relatively recent phenomenon, created by the modern Haredi group as a reaction to modernity.

While that may be true for Ashkenazim though, it is well known that Moroccan Jews always approach their Mystics, the "Mekubal" or "Baba" for advice in temporal matters, and that advice was always heeded. Unfortunately though, I think it is to our shame that we not only brought this institution to Israel, but it became quite popular among religious and irreligious Sefaradim alike, evolved into "big business" and provided opportunity for charlatans. Not to suggest that most Mekubalim in Israel are charlatans, but it is not unheard of. So not only have we, as Moroccan Jews in Israel, not stamped out these false notions, we promulgated them like never before.

Anyway, I grew up on American imagery and conceptualization, where if a man and a woman are in love, they don't let anything get in the way ( in Fiddler on the Roof). Therefore to blindly trust Rabbinic authorities in these matters, is, in my opinion, not only somewhat foolish, but has no basis in Torah.

I wish to speak about this further in the future, in relation to how it affects the halachic process.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Not a Deaf Ear on the Blind Night

As many of you may know, friends, tonight the Christians celebrate the commemoration of the birth of their Deity; Christmas. For the moment I'm not quite interested in discussing Christmas itself, though I admit it's an interesting topic, especially for those of the "Judeo-Christian" tradition.

Though traditionally Christmas has never quite been a rosy time for the Jews, most Jews today seem to celebrate Christmas in one way or another. From going to Christmas eve concerts to reveling in Christmas carols to Chasidic "Shalishsudis"s with Coca Cola bottles that have an absurdly out of place picture of an overly-merry, red-cheeked Santa on the wrapper.

My own form of involvement in this holiday is the aforementioned Christmas carol binges. It should be stated though that the idea of listening to and taking pleasure in songs sung for the glory of a foreign Deity is at least somewhat questionable from a halachic perspective. Yet it's essentially not a question of Christmas songs themselves, but of the music specific to any religion outside of our own, especially those with Pagan leanings. The "G-d of Israel" is in fact known to be very concerned about proper theology, but is there any room for lenience for songs of this nature?

Now, I can't go into the actual halachic specifics of the topic, but suffice it to say that I am generally lenient on religious songs of other monotheistic traditions as long as there is no mention of explicitly polytheistic ideas, even if the the premise of the entire religion is semi-polytheistic. This lenience, in my opinion, is very Maimonidean in origin. He was a proponent of an unprecedented amount of theological inclusion and acceptance.

As you may have noticed, I included some of the Christmas songs I'm fond of on the sidebar. I thought the red color would be amusing, but the truth is I myself find it to be of objectionable taste. Nonetheless, I wish to say a few words about some of these songs separately:

1) The Little Drummer Boy: The first song I wish to mention is this pleasant little tune written early in the previous century by the lovely American composer Katherine Davis. This song, I feel, more than the other Christmas songs, is not only evocative of the most sublime Jewish ideals, but in a strong sense are more typical of Chasidic ideas. For those who are not aware, the song is a narrative of a boy who is stuck in the predicament of having to greet the king, whom everyone else is bestowing lavish gifts to, with nothing but his drum. When his turn comes to greet the monarch, he decides that his best option is to play his drum as best he can, which ultimately finds favor with the king. The meaning of the parable is obvious; the object of Divine service is not "how much" we have to offer G-d, but to be fully sincere with what we actually do. As it says in Avot: אחד המרבה ואחד הממעיט ובלבד שיכוין לבו לשמיים.

There is a well known Chasidic tale told about Rabbi Yisrael ben Eliezer of Medzibizh that bears a great similarity to this: during the Yom Kippur prayers the "Baal Shem" refused to continue because he felt that there was something impeding their prayers. At that moment an unlearned village boy entered and played his flute as a form of prayer, not knowing that such performance is prohibited on the holy day. Yet instead of criticize this boy, the Baal Shem Tov exclaimed that is was this boys absence that was impeding their prayers, and with this performance they can rest assured their payers are reaching heaven's gates.

2) It Came Upon a Midnight Clear: While obviously discussing Christmas, this nineteenth century melody, written by Edmund Sears has no direct reference to Pagan G-ds (probably having something something to do with his being a Unitarian minister). Although this song was written partly as a melancholy critique of his overly materialistic society, it embodies a lot of the positive aspects of Christmas's current form, the main one being to increase in friendliness as the world becomes more desolate (as Christmas takes place in the dead of the winter). The song also beautifully contrasts the mundanity of life with the spiritual ecstasy of the angels, and ends with a yearning for the era of the Redemption.

3) O Come O Come Emmanuel: A metrical version of one of the Antiphons, the hymn was translated into English by John Mason Neale, again, in the nineteenth century. Although the song refers to the Christian god and is directed to him, from a non-Christian standpoint the song is simply about G-d, Israel and the coming Redemption. It's a prayer to and about the Jewish Messiah, to come and save Israel from it's plight in the exile. Essentially the song has surprisingly Jewish themes (aside from the whole "son of god" thing!), the last line for example reads "Who to Thy tribes, on Sinai's height, In ancient times did'st give the Law, In cloud, and majesty and awe. Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel. Shall come to thee, O Israel".

4) Carol of the Bells: Translated from Mykola Leontovych's Ukrainian. The significance of this song is more melodical that lyrical, but again, just the idea that people should be kinder at the height of the winter and not miserable is a legitimate idea.

[The title of this post by the way, is based on a now obsolete Eastern European Jewish term for Chistmas, "בלינדע נאַכט" (Blind Night), now replaced by the more common "ניטל נאַכט".]

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

חלום משה בנו יעקוב

During Chanukah I happened upon a cheap edition of a book I'd been looking for: an earlier, dialogue version of Luzzato's ethical opus, Messilat Yesharim. Many of his works were in dialogue form, but this particular work he later felt would work better in a condensed form, and as a monologue (which is all we've known about until a decade ago, when the earlier version was found in a Russian antiquities library). This event is what got me thinking recently of the Ramchal and his influence on later movements.

You see, as is evidenced in his preface (to both works), what the Ramchal would really like to see is people using the same energy, the same logic, the same hair-splitting analyses and the same studiousness not only in the study of the Talmud, but much more so in the study of ones own spiritual existence. That idea is not really mentioned later in the work, but it's the premise of everything he says; to have a regular "seder-iyyun" for "mussar".

What's funny is that while it's known that his works, and especially this work, deeply influenced Rabbi Yisrael Salanter, the founder of the "Mussar Movement" and the generations of thinkers and yeshivot that followed in his path, and even the main opposer of Chassidut when it first emerged, the Gaon of Vilnius, but it's less known that they, in a quieter way, influenced the founding of the Chassidic Movement as well. While Rabbi Yisrael ben Eliezer of Medzhybizh himself was a contemporary of Luzzato, it's difficult to pinpoint Luzzato's influence in his thought, though it is definitely there. One Chassidut in which the influence of Luzzato is still obvious today is, I think, Chassidut Chabad. Anybody in a Chabad Beit Midrash would tell you that an essential difference between them and their non-Chassidic counterparts is the stress and time they put into the study of "spirituality" and proper character training, which is essentially the wish of Luzzatto.

His Kabalah was a little more popular among some Chassidic thinkers. Rabbi Dov Ber of Mezeritch for example, commanded the printing of Luzzattos "Kalach Pitchei Chochmah", though some Rebbes (such as (the ninteenth century) Rabbi Menachem Mendel (Schneersohn) of Lyubavichi, frowned upon or prohibited it's study.

Luzzatto also affected other movements, such as the Zionist and the Reform: as H. N. Bialik was want to mention that "he was the father of the schools of thought of the 'Gra', the 'Besht', 'Ben Menahem' (Moses Mendelssohn) and in him lies the beginning of our own literary development (i.e. that of the "Maskilim"). It's also known that the writings of Rav Kook are based on a synthesis of the ideas of the Gra and the Ramchal. He once said "I feel like I'm a gilgul of Luzzatto".

It's always confused me that so many different groups affiliate with him. Which is really true to his ideology? Well, the reality is that most of his work was in kabbalah (something Graetz criticizes him for), so his true ideology is really quite steeped in mysticism, but he has another side, a "Nigla" side. An ethical side. And most of that side is revealed in both Messilat Yesharims....which is why I'm considering again writing on my blog dedicated to that book, but this time contrasting it with the dialogue version.

..I think the part of my brain that generates conclusions has been removed or something...

Sunday, December 20, 2009

הָקֵם תָּקִים

אין ספק שלעזור לאדם לשחרר את גלגלי מכוניתו מן השלגים הינו בכלל "כִּי תִרְאֶה חֲמוֹר שֹׂנַאֲךָ רֹבֵץ תַּחַת מַשָּׂאוֹ..." ו"הָקֵם תָּקִים עִמּוֹ". ח

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Lomo on Chanukah - '09

I was just looking over my Chanukah post from last year, and while it does badly need to be rewritten, the core idea is correct.

One quirky little idea I've been pondering about Chanukah thus far this year is how different the historical reality of those times are from the historical setting I once imagined: when I think Chanukah I usually think Jews against Greeks, and the Greeks being at the height of their empire and having no rivals. In the meantime the reality of Chanukah is far more complex and unexpected than one would imagine: The original "Greek" conquerors weren't even Greeks but Macedonians who despised real Greeks, and the height of Greek culture had passed long ago (people like Aristotle had lived in the First Temple period, well before there was any Greek Empire, and Antiochus VI was one of the last great Seleucid kings).

One also imagines the Persians as having stepped into the historical background long before then, but they were still very much around at this time. The very same Persians who allowed for the Second Temple to initially be constructed, were in fact, Antiochus's main difficulty outside of the Judeans (he actually died waring against the Persians). The funny thing about the people of Iran is that they keep appearing in history under different names: Medes, Parthians, Sassanids etc. And the Romans, whom one thinks of as having thrived later in history were also very active at that time, and even made a pact with the Haasmonean Judeans against the Seleucids and Helenized Judeans. Since it was essentially some sort of civil war among the Judeans themselves, and the Seleucid king only came at the behest of the (Judean) Tobiads, who were at odds with the Onias/Hasmonean party, which represented the majority of the people, and who favored the Seleucid rival, the Egyptian Ptolemaic kingdom (who, after all, were just as Greek as the Seleucids, and were also an impediment to Judah's autonomy, yet was still preferred over the latter). All these historical complications are what make reading the Book of Maccabees so difficult: "We know the story, the oil burnt for eight days. What's all this with Onias and Romans?"!

I wouldn't have posted this since it bears no lesson,'s better than nothing!

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

…This is Man

[In the picture: SS officers in the Auschwitz camp who, despite their busy day murdering millions of our ancestors, find the time to take a pleasant afternoon nap.]

My mind, friends, works in tangents. Seeing a topic discussed in one media makes me interested in finding out about it in another. For example: As a result of my having seen the film The Boy in the Striped Pajamas I became interested in "the Holocaust" in general. One thing that incited my interest was the fact that Jewish critics of the novel/film mentioned have a number of complaints about it regarding the authenticity with which it describes the Holocaust. One exceedingly obvious thing in the film is that the camp inmates aren't emaciated (kind of hard to do that with makeup). Another film I had seen which had questionable representations of the Holocaust was a BBC film ("television play" actually) entitled G-d On Trial (actually pretty interesting).

From there I chanced upon a very well known book that I had heard nothing about; Primo Levi's If This is Man, foolishly published in the United States under the title Survival in Auschwitz). I hadn't even known that Levi was "in the Holocaust". The book, of course, was quite interesting, and it fulfilled one of the main purposes I was reading; getting a real and accurate description of the Nazi concentration and death camps. It's a very detailed description that a movie wouldn't really be able to represent anyway; how cold it was, or how uncomfortable it is to march all day in wooden shoes or in the freezing rain wearing nothing but a shirt and trousers. He speaks about it from the perspective of a thoughtful individual, not a complainer, and he covers many of the great philosophical issues the ordeal brings up.

Once I’m already involved in this, I think I might read his work of labor-camp-inspired poetry, entitled "Shma" in America, as well as Elie Wiesel’s Night; a book I couldn't imagine reading in high school, where it was assigned to me. I might also watch Schindler’s List, a film that, again, I would have found ruthlessly boring in the past.

But from whence comes my newfound interest in the Holocaust? I must admit that I originally, like most people, found no good reason in researching it too much or being obsessed with it. One of my main reasons was that "holocaust studies" should not be what defines Judaism for Jews in America, and non-Jews find Jews who are "too" interested in the holocaust to be of ill taste. They feel that the world has heard quite enough about the holocaust, and that it's not quite the most fascinating or cheery subject to start with. While I still agree that these are legitimate concerns (among other, legitimate, concerns) my feelings about the German solution to the judenfrage changed with age. I used to see the holocaust, as some still do, as something that happened in some primordial past of the 1930's-40's, regarding events about which legends abound in shuls and batei midrash every ninth of Av, and seems to be as distant as the churban itself. Though when I became older and more interested in past events, the 40's didn't seem like so long ago. In fact as far as technological advancements of the 20's century go, it was really very much like today; there were telephones, refrigerators, cars, airplanes etc. Essentially it was very recent. In that case then, its occurrence becomes all the more unbelievable. In the environment that I grew up in (yeshivot), the fact that the 'Goyim' wanted to exterminate the Jews was a given; they're inherently evil, there's nothing to talk about. Yet if we're dealing with the center of world culture, a place where Jews had played an important part in he previous war, a place where Shai Agnon felt safe and comfortable, a place where even he who's philosophy became the cornerstone for Nazism, Friedrich Nietzsche, was violently opposed to German Anti-Semites, that such a country would, just a few years ago, annihilate countless of it's law-abiding citizens within a few years is difficult to comprehend. ..which is the main place from which interest in the holocaust generally stems.

It's not a question of the Jews then, but a question the Germans seem to pose about humanity; not a "Judenfrage", but a "Menschfrage". In fact it was not only Jews that the Germans wanted to annihilate: the very founding of the death camps was for the purpose of eradicating the Slavs. In the long run, the Germans essentially wished to conquer the Eastern European states, eradicate and enslave the native populations, and build German colonies which would eventually become part of Germany (all of which actually happened on a small scale. Auschwitz was to become just one of these future German cities). It’s the enth degree of the colonialist ideology: "If the Americans can wipe out countless of innocent natives because they are 'savages', use their land as lebensraum and bring innocents from the African continent to work for them, and if France and Britain can colonize the relatively civilized countries of the Arab world and India, who's to say we can't remove and enslave the Untermenschen and replace them with ourselves" they would say. It's really just an extension of the same principle, but a very hard concept for any 'Modern' to swallow. ..which is why this can't become a stale or abhorrent subject, but rather one which requires diligent study, for, as I often say, any society, especially that of America, could go downhill like Germany did, and turn on it's minorities who, in some parts of America, seem to almost exclusively be Jews. And besides, the views of contemporary non-Jews on the Holocaust should be concerning enough to us: when they hear tha six million Jews died, instead of saying "how could this happen?", many of them call the Jews liars. They say "it was not six million Jews that perished, as the Jews claim, but rather nine hundred thousand nine hundred and ninety!”. After all that suffering, the only response of the Nations is that not enough of us died! …enough to cause concern..

הצעיר לבית שריקי

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

In Lomo's Mind on a Cold Brooklyn Morning

…I step off the subway and realize its cold again in Brooklyn. Again the wayward clouds play their old sun-hiding trick, and again the howling wind rushes between the buildings as if it's a hardened New Yorker on the way to catch a train. Again, Brooklyn is a dismal town. Even the Bangladeshis are wondering if it was really a good idea to come here. "What were we so lacking in Bangladesh that we had to come here?" they ask each other. The Puerto Ricans are asking each other the same question.

Yet they and we still walk these streets and politely let the hurried wind pass. And for what do we trudge through this daily rat-race when we don't really need a lot of money to get by on our own? Just to buy a better one of those accident-mobiles? Why? Just to impress some pampered, self-absorbed witch who wouldn't put-up with the slightest infringement when the time came? To trap yourself in a never-ending load of responsibilities only to raise and support more of the same unappreciative takers? All to continue the circle of Brooklyn life? Perhaps it’s just a mood I get into, but again the whole cycle seems pointless to me. ..or perhaps since I haven’t quite lived yet I can’t imagine giving my life up so fast..

(I’m attempting to write in that narrative style that most people find so natural, but just seems to allude me. Just needs some getting used to, ..but I've still got a ways to go.)