Wednesday, September 07, 2016

Loving God More Than Halacha

It would seem to be old news. This past summer, the Petach Tikvah Rabbinate rejected the conversion of a young woman who was converted by Rabbi Lookstein. There were protests, op-eds and negotiations; and the crisis ultimately ended in absurdity and ambiguity, with the Supreme Rabbinical Court dodging the case, and instead pressuring the convert to undergo a flash reconversion. Rabbi Lookstein’s convert is now free to get married. One could say this is now over. But it’s not.

Unfortunately, many of the issues behind the disqualification of Rabbi Lookstein are still ongoing; and of greater concern is the religious philosophy that precipitated this crisis, a philosophy which promotes an unhealthy fixation on Halachic rules while forgetting the ultimate goals of Halacha.

This fixation is not new. The Talmud (Sotah 21b) talks about the “pious fool”. It says:

היכי דמי חסיד שוטה? כגון דקא טבעה איתתא בנהרא, ואמר: לאו אורח ארעא לאיסתכולי בה ואצולה

“What is a pious fool? a woman is drowning in the river, and he says: 'It is improper for me to look upon her and rescue her'.”

A pious fool looks only at the rules and never at the goals. A woman created in the image of God is dying, yet this pious idiot can’t even look at her in order to throw her a lifeline!

The discipline of Halacha is so intense that we must always worry about mutating into pious fools; and I believe the Lookstein case is a classic example of this phenomenon, of putting meticulous observance of Halacha before Jewish unity and serving God.
To understand this, we need some context. While it is unclear why Rabbi Lookstein’s conversion was rejected by the Petach Tikvah Beit Din, one suspects that it has a lot to do with an ongoing conflict in Israel regarding conversion. In 2008, Rabbi Avraham Sherman disqualified thousands of conversions by Rabbi Chaim Drukman. He did so because he felt Rabbi Druckman was no longer a qualified Rabbinic Judge. In his decision Rabbi Sherman wrote:

"שביה"ד לגיור של אבה"ד הרב דרוקמן הם בי"ד פסול,משום שמזלזלים בהלכה שנפסקה ע"י כל הפוסקים …...ונוהגים "בקלות דעת", שמכניסים גויים גמורים לכלל ישראל ומכשילים את הרבים בחטא גדול, ויש לראותם כמגלים פנים בתורה שלא כהלכה…... התנהלות זו הפכה להיות "שיטה", על כן יש לראותם קלי דעת שאינם נכנעים לפסק דין תורה והשו"ע, ובודים מלבם דברי הבל ומטהרים את השרץ בק"נ טעמים ומדמים בלבם שיש בכחם לעקור דבר מן התורה ולכן יש לראותם מזידים ו"אפיקורסים"

“The conversion Beit Din of Rabbi Druckman is a disqualified Beit Din, because they disrespect the Halacha as decided by all of the decisors…..and act with a lack of seriousness, should see them as  frivolous people who do not accept the decisions of the Torah and Shulchan Aruch, and fabricate on their own empty words….therefore one should see them as intentional transgressors and heretics…”

Rabbi Sherman is referring to a lenient view in the laws of conversion, one accepted by Rabbi Druckman. In response, he claims this view is fabricated, and any Rabbi who follows it is a transgressor and heretic. Therefore, not only are converts who are converted based on this lenient view disqualified, but Rabbi Druckman himself, because he holds this lenient view, is disqualified and considered a heretic and a sinner.

After all of the shenanigans this summer, I was left with the sneaking suspicion that a similar process was at hand with Rabbi Lookstein. After all, one could see immediately that this convert was quite meticulous in her observance of mitzvot; that was admitted by all. And the idea that a well known Rabbi was “not known” by the Rabbis in Petach Tikvah was also a smokescreen; why couldn’t they make a few phone calls and find out who Rabbi Lookstein was? Clearly, the rejection had something else behind it. And I suspected this was an attempt to apply the Sherman ruling to Rabbi Lookstein, to say that he is disqualified because he may be “too lenient” to be a qualified judge.

This attitude is disastrous. The age old etiquette of Halachic debate has been destroyed, replaced with a “my way or the highway” attitude. In the past, we could disagree passionately about serious halachic subjects, but we never allowed that to divide us. The Mishnah in Yevamot (1:4) writes about the debates of Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel:

א,ד  בית שמאי מתירין את הצרות לאחין, ובית הלל אוסרין.  חלצו--בית שמאי פוסלין מן הכהונה, ובית הלל מכשירין; נתייבמו--בית שמאי מכשירין, ובית הלל פוסלין.  אף על פי שאלו פוסלין ואלו מכשירין, אלו אוסרין ואלו מתירין--לא נמנעו בית שמאי מלישא נשים מבית הלל, ולא בית הלל מבית שמאי כל הטהרות והטומאות שהיו אלו מטהרין ואלו מטמאין לא נמנעו עושין טהרות אלו על גבי אלו
“Even though these  prohibit (certain marriages) and these permit, these disqualify and these allow, Beit Shammai did not refrain from marrying women from Beit Hillel, nor did Beit Hillel refrain from marrying women from Beit Shammai. The utensils where these ruled pure and these ruled impure, still they (Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel) did not refrain from using utensils the other deemed pure.”

The way of Torah is to allow debate without division; without it, we cannot hold a diverse community together.  The tragedy of the Sherman ruling is that it cannot imagine another legitimate Halachic interpretation, and cannot see as legitimate Rabbis with differing points of view.

Disqualifying Halachic opponents is an ersatz piety. It is easy to define a community by it’s opponents and to manufacture passion by harping on an imagined threat to the Halachic tradition. This tendency is not new, and events like the disqualification of Rabbi Druckman were predicted over a 100 years ago by the Netziv, Rav Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin (1816-1893).  He writes in his Meshiv Davar (1:44):

והנה המעריך הורו והוגו עצה להיות נשמר מדור זה להפרד זה מזה לגמרי כמו שנפרד אברהם מלוט, במטותא מן המעריך עצה זו קשה כחרבות לגוף האומה וקיומה, הן בשעה שהיינו באה"ק וברשותנו כמעט בבית שני נעתם ארץ וחרב הבית וגלה ישראל בסבת מחלוקת הפרושים עם הצדוקים וגם הסב מחמת שנאת חנם הרבה ש"ד מה שאינו מן הדין היינו בשעה שראה פרוש שאחד מיקל באיזה דבר אע"ג שלא היה צדוקי כלל אלא עשה עבירה, מ"מ מחמת ש"ח היה שופטו לצדוקי שמורידין אותו, ומזה נתרבה ש"ד בהיתר ולשם מצוה בטעות וכבר רמז ע"ז בתורה (ס' במדבר סי' לו מקרא ל"ד) כמבואר בהע"ד והר"ד, וכ"ז אינו רחוק מן הדעת להגיע ח"ו בעת כזאת ג"כ אשר עפ"י ראות עיני א' ממחזיקי הדת ידמה שפלוני אינו מתנהג עפ"י דרכו בעבודת ה' וישפטנו למינות ויתרחק ממנו ויהיו רודפים זא"ז בהיתר בדמיון כוזב ח"ו, ושחת כל עם ה' חלילה זהו אפילו אם היינו בארצנו וברשותנו:

“Thus, when a Pharisee saw someone being lax in a certain matter, even though he was not a
Sadducee but only sinning in this matter, because of unnecessary hatred he judged him to be a Sadducee…From this mistaken attitude numerous people justified murders (of religious opponents) …..”

It must not be like this; we cannot allow exaggerated piety to destroy our community. Rav Aharon Lichtenstein liked to quote the phrase “the traditions of civility”; and our community needs those traditions of civility desperately. We must learn how to respect each other’s religious perspectives and how to live together as one community. In medieval Europe there was a debate over the permissibility of caul fat, a fat found on the outside of the animal’s stomach. The Shulchan Aruch notes that it was considered prohibited. The Rama notes that this was ruling was accepted everywhere except for the Rhineland, where people ate caul fat. The Rama (Yoreh Deah 64) then adds:

חלב הדבוק לכרס שתחת הפריסה אסור.

הגה: וכן המנהג בכל מקום. מלבד בני ריינוס' שנוהגין במקצתו היתר ואין מוחין בידם שכבר הורה להם זקן (הגהת אשיר"י ומרדכי ורוב הפוסקים).
ובכל מקום שנוהגין בו איסור דינו כשאר חלב לבטלו בששים (א"ו הארוך) אבל אין אוסרין כלים של בני ריינוס הואיל ונוהגין בו היתר (חידושי אגודה).

“One does not prohibit the dishes of the Jews of the Rhineland (even though they eat caul fat), because they consider (this fat) to be permissible”.

This is an exceptional ruling!! In the Rhineland, people are eating a food that the rest of Europe considers to be absolutely prohibited. Yet even so, Jews from the rest of Europe would eat off of what they considered non-kosher dishes in order to respect the Jews of the Rhineland. In contrast, today it is far more common for one to dismiss those who accept an “unsuitable” hashgacha. We have sadly become pious fools, forgetting that our priority should be unity, not Halachic stringency.

Halacha is intended as a way to bring us close to God; but that can only work when we put God first. When we forget God, Halacha can become a heartless discipline. The Talmud (Yoma 23a) tells a tragic story that represents the worst of a Halacha-first attitude, where overzealous love for Halacha ends up leading to murder. The setting is the Temple, where two young priests are competing for the privilege of doing the service on the altar. The Talmud recounts:

תנו רבנן: מעשה בשני כהנים שהיו שניהן שוין ורצין ועולין בכבש, קדם אחד מהן לתוך ארבע אמות של חבירו - נטל סכין ותקע לו בלבו. ... בא אביו של תינוק ומצאו כשהוא מפרפר. אמר: הרי הוא כפרתכם, ועדיין בני מפרפר, ולא נטמאה סכין. ללמדך שקשה עליהם טהרת כלים יותר משפיכות דמים.

“Our Rabbis taught: It once happened that two priests were equal as they ran to mount the ramp (to do the service) and when one of them came first within four cubits of the altar, the other took a knife and thrust it into his heart. …. The father of the young man came and found him still in convulsions. He said: ‘May he be an atonement for you. My son is still in convulsions (alive) and the knife has not become unclean.’ [The father’s remark] comes to teach you that the purity of their vessels was of greater concern to them even than the shedding of blood.”

The father’s statement is both chilling and telling; here is a man worried more about the purity of the Temple than the death of his own son. The Talmud includes the father’s words to underline that how widespread a halacha-first attitude was at the time.

But we must love God more than Halacha; and the greatest of Rabbis would put God first. In a famed case from July 1802, Rav Chaim of Volozhin grapples with a difficult agunah issue, of a woman whose husband was presumed dead but there was a dearth of clear evidence to permit her to remarry. (Chut Hameshulash 1:8). In page after page of careful legal reasoning, Rav Chaim disputes precedents, and allows the woman to remarry. He explains he did so because  וחשבתי עם קוני וראיתי חובה לעצמי להתחזק בכל כחי לשקוד על תקנת עגונות והשי"ת יצילני משגיאות “I have thought together with my creator, and saw it was my obligation to use all my might to find a solution for agunot; may God save me from mistakes”.  Rav Chaim recognized that to truly follow Halacha one must look to serve God, and he had to look for a way to alleviate the suffering of a bereaved widow.

I thought of this when the Rabbis in Petach Tikvah were busy rejecting Rabbi Lookstein’s conversion. They rejected his conversion without any due diligence: not one Rabbi from Israel called Rabbi Lookstein to discuss his conversion standards. From all appearances, the Petach Tikvah Beit Din did not consider the emotional turmoil they caused this poor woman. Clearly, they did not “think it over with their creator” before rejecting her conversion.

The ultimate lesson of the Petach Tikvah incident is this: we must learn to love God more than Halacha. Rav Chaim of Volozhin, who elsewhere writes about the importance of pure devotion to Torah, never forgets that God must come first in Halachic decision making. We need to think about morality and spirituality before, during, and after opening the Shulchan Aruch. If we don’t, we are doomed to become pious fools again and again.

Loving God more than Halacha requires spiritual sacrifices. Rabbi Abraham Twersky tells an inspiring story about the great Rabbinic leaders, the Chofetz Chaim and Rav Meir Shapiro. He writes:

On the return from a convention in which many Torah sages participated, the train made stops in several towns, whose Jewish communities came out to greet the gedolim. The Chafetz Chaim, however, in his profound humility, never went on the train platform to meet the people. HaGaon Rav Meir Shapiro of Lublin, although he was a young man, boldly approached the elderly sage. “Why aren’t you going out to meet the people?” he asked. The Chafetz Chaim answered, “Why should I go out? What is it that they want to see? I don’t have horns on my head. It is because they have this idea about me that I am a tzaddik, and if I go out to them, I am making a statement about myself that I am someone special.” Rav Meir Shapiro asked, “And what is wrong with making such a statement?” The Chafetz Chaim said, “What do you mean ‘what is wrong?’ It is ga’avah (arrogance).” Rav Meir Shapiro said, “And if it is ga’avah, so what?” The Chafetz Chaim said, “Ga’avah is a terrible aveirah (sin).” Rav Meir Shapiro said, “And what happens if one does an aveirah?” The Chafetz Chaim said, “Why, for an aveirah one will be punished in Gehenom (hell).” Rav Meir Shapiro said, “Throngs of Jews will have pleasure from seeing you. Aren’t you willing to accept some punishment in order to give Jews pleasure?”

From then on, every time the train pulled into a station, the Chofetz Chaim was the first one on the platform to meet the people.”

This attitude needs to inform every aspect of our halachic observances. If Halacha is to have any meaning, it must lead us closer to God, to love our fellow Jew, and to serve mankind. Simply put, we must love God more than Halacha.

Friday, July 15, 2016

A Letter to the KJ Community Regarding Conversion

Dear Friend:

A few weeks ago, a rabbinic court in Petach Tikvah, Israel refused recognition to one of KJ's converts. The Rabbinic court claimed that they did not "know" Rabbi Lookstein, and therefore could not validate his conversions. His convert was unable to get this ruling reversed, and she had to repeat the conversion ceremony before the rabbinate would issue her a marriage license.

We know that many of you are now concerned and have many questions: will this case affect my conversion? Will I be accepted as Jewish by potential spouses? Will my children be accepted by their peers? And some of you have said you feel humiliated as if you are not true Jews.

Nothing could be further from the truth. It bears repeating a fundamental Jewish teaching: converts are beloved members of the Jewish people. The great Rabbinic sage Maimonides writes in his Letter to Obadiah the Convert that "no difference exists between you and us." Not only that, Maimonides recognizes the enormous sacrifices converts make to join the Jewish people, and says "While we (i.e., naturally born Jews) are the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, you (converts) derive (your Jewish identity directly) from Him through whose word the world was created." The spiritual journey you have taken is inspiring and heroic; no one can impugn your Jewish identity in the eyes of God. Indeed, anyone who insults you insults God, who cherishes the convert. And at KJ, our Rabbis, leadership and congregants are here to support you unconditionally.

Sadly, this convert's situation is due to the bureaucratic pettiness and religious fanaticism in one Rabbinic Court. However, several organizations are now working to change the way the Rabbinate in Israel treats sincere converts. In fact, in the wake of this case, both of Israel's Chief Rabbis announced that they accept Rabbi Lookstein's conversions.

Most importantly, any convert who intends to move to Israel should please consult with the Rabbis at KJ, to ensure that they present their credentials to a rabbinic court that is familiar with Rabbi Lookstein and our standards for conversion. We believe that we can prevent this from happening again.

We know this is a troubling issue for everyone. Please let us know if you would like to speak further about this.

May God bless you and support you in all of your endeavors.


Haskel Lookstein      Chaim Steinmetz       Elie Weinstock      Daniel and Rachel Kraus

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Where You Go I Shall Go

(originally appeared in the Canadian Jewish News)

It was a daring rescue in hostile territory, where even the smallest mistake could have doomed over a hundred lives. Yet this remarkable military operation succeeded; and forty years ago, on July 4th 1976, Operation Entebbe became the stuff of legends, with multiple movies and books recounting this dramatic military mission.

What is overlooked is that Operation Entebbe is much more than a heroic military rescue. Former Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi has said that Entebbe was not the most difficult or dangerous operation he was a part of in during his military career. So what made the Entebbe raid special? To Ashkenazi, it was the look on the faces of hostages. As the Israeli commandos burst into the terminal, the hostages initially reacted with fear, thinking the commandos were Ugandan soldiers coming to execute them. A few seconds later, when the hostages saw the Israeli insignia on the commandos’ uniforms, the look on the hostages faces suddenly changed to pure relief; they knew their brothers had come to the rescue. Ashkenazi says that is when he learned what it means to be an Israeli and a Jew: that each one of us must take care of each other no matter what. To be a Jew, you need to be loyal to your people.

Loyalty is a difficult virtue to understand. Ethical obligations are generally understood as categorical and universal. Ethics teaches that you cannot murder all people, and you must be respectful of all people. But loyalty is different, because it means we give special treatment to those closest to us. So why do we consider it a virtue to act with loyalty towards our family and friends?

Loyalty may be a troublesome concept for philosophers, but it has never been a question for Jews. To be a Jew means to be loyal to a community and to a tradition. We understand that we have to go above and beyond for those close to us, because this is critical in creating families and communities. Without loyalty, the Jewish community would have crumbled a long time ago. The Biblical character who is the paradigm of loyalty is Ruth. Despite being encouraged to return to a comfortable life in Moab, she insists on going with her mother in law Naomi and says: “Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God...nothing but death will separate you from me”. This is the most eloquent statement of loyalty ever spoken, as Ruth declares that her dedication to Naomi and her people knows no bounds.

What happened at Entebbe 40 years ago is an exceptional example of Jewish loyalty. Yiftach Atir, one of the soldiers on the mission, told me that in the days of preparation before the raid, the commanding officers sat everyone down and explained how risky the operation would be. They asked the soldiers if they wanted to go; immediately every soldier raised their hand. Like Ruth, they were saying “where you go I will go”.  

The lessons of loyalty are not just for IDF; they are for all of us. I thought about this recently when our son Eitan made plans to join the IDF.  Our friends have asked us whether we would try to stop him from enlisting. Well, we certainly hadn’t planned on Eitan enlisting in the IDF. And we are both quite nervous about him enlisting; so is every Israeli parent. But there is no escaping that loyalty to our brothers and sisters in Israel meant we had to answer yes. So with a mix of nervousness and pride, we gave Eitan our blessing. After all, Ruth taught us to be a Jew is to say “where you go I will go”. The IDF follows Ruth’s path; how could we do any less?

Monday, June 27, 2016

Two Quick Posts From Israel: June 2016

Tonight, young residents of Tel Aviv came to shop, eat, and chat at the Sarona Market, just two weeks after a horrible terror attack.
They came because it was a beautiful evening.
They came because it is a beautiful mall.
And they came because of “Davka”.
“Davka” translates as “in spite of” in English, but it means a whole lot more. Davka reflects a courageous spirit and a sense of purpose, the remarkable stubbornness of a people that has refused to abandon their mission no matter what they encounter.
Davka is the Sarona Market. Davka is the Jewish people.

Tonight, on June 22, 2016, I officiated at a special wedding in Caesarea, Israel.
The bride is the granddaughter of my friend John from Montreal. John is a survivor of the Holocaust lucky enough to have been in the Russian Army during the Nazi onslaught; his entire family, except for his mother, were murdered by the Nazis.
When I arrived in Israel, John told me he was up a couple of nights thinking about the date June 22nd. Like all weddings, the couple had chosen the date for logistical reasons, but in the back of John’s mind he knew June 22nd was also a very important date; he just couldn’t remember why. Then 2 days before the wedding, John realized that on June 22nd, 1941, the Germans had invaded Russia. On that day the Russians came to take him for military service, and it was the last day John saw his father, brothers and sister. June 22, 1941 was a terribly tragic day in Jewish history, and on that day, John’s young life was torn apart.
But now 75 years later, something else was happening on June 22. His granddaughter was getting married and living in Israel, to a veteran of an elite IDF unit. John could barely imagine that he would survive, and now his granddaughter was getting married in the Jewish state.
Jeremiah prophesied that והפכתי אבלם לשמחה “I will turn their mourning to joy”. On this night, I saw this come true with my own eyes. It was a miraculous moment, and I was privileged to be a part of it.
Mazel Tov Brittany and Mickey!!

Am Yisrael Chai!!

Friday, June 17, 2016

War and Peace

(This originally appeared in the Canadian Jewish News on June 7, 2016)

The pro-BDS movement infuriates supporters of Israel. On university campuses, students in search of a cause condescend to Israel, protesting the lone democracy in the Middle East. They demand moral perfection from the Jewish State, while ignoring the the actions of ISIS and Assad, and scapegoat a Western style democracy in order to atone for the colonial sins of their ancestors. Yes, the involvement of a few Jewish students in anti-Israel activism seems shocking, but that’s because we underestimate how attractive self-righteousness can be.

The posturing of privileged college students who have never taken shelter from a Katuysha or attended the funeral of a terror victim is both absurd and reprehensible. But in response, we need more than angry rhetoric, because justifying Israel’s self-defense deserves more than cliches. Indeed, the question of what is moral during wartime has been debated for centuries and remains a hot topic of debate in contemporary Israel .

Idealists strive for moral purity, and there is nothing purer than non-violence. The only way to categorically avoid violence is to embrace pacifism, to meekly respond to aggression by turning the other cheek. Remarkably, some groups have been steadfast pacifists; Mennonites have refused to support the military in any way, and will flee if under attack, refusing to protect their families and property.

As morally attractive as pacifism may be, it has an enormous failing: it’s suicidal. If the good do nothing to protect themselves, then evil will triumph, and as Jews, we know that it’s a failed ideology.  In 1938, Mahatma Gandhi wrote the following to the head of the German Jewish community, Rabbi Leo Baeck: “My advice to German Jews would be that they commit suicide on a single day, at a single hour. Then would the conscience of Europe awake.”  Baeck gave a blunt response:  “We Jews know that the single-most important commandment of God is to live.” For Jews, pacifism is immoral, because we have a responsibility to care for our own lives and defend ourselves.

Sadly, some in our community consider the right to self-defense to be an ethical blank check. They argue that if war is unavoidable, any tactic should be acceptable. So they encourage soldiers to execute prisoners, and endorse reprisal killings of Arab civilians. Ignoring morality in the service of self-defense, these extremists are the malevolent mirror image of pacifists, distorting the value of self-defense to immoral extremes.

The path Israel has followed is one that undertakes a double responsibility of war and peace. Israel defends herself vigorously, yet the importance of human life is never forgotten. This “Just War” doctrine is well grounded in Jewish sources. For example, Maimonides notes that the army must open a path for people fleeing a besieged city, because they no longer want to be combatants and should be allowed to save their lives.

The IDF continues to carry this dual responsibility with pride. During the 2014 war with Gaza, a member of my synagogue told me how his grandson, who was in a search and rescue unit, went in to save two young Palestinian children who were pinned down in a firefight between Hamas and the IDF.  “Jonathan”, an IDF soldier serving in Gaza at the same time, wrote a letter to Tablet Magazine about feeding animals in an abandoned house, and dropping off a box of military rations for a hungry Palestinian teen. These actions are the work of an army that takes seriously the dual responsibility to protect Israel and pursue peace.

There are different ways to think about war and peace. Some chant slogans from the safety of a university campus, ready to gamble the lives of millions with naive schemes. But the young men and women of the IDF face danger every day as they carry a dual responsibility of protection and peace, and in doing so, make us proud.

Wednesday, June 08, 2016

The Jerusalem of the Simple Jew

How do you tell the story of the Kotel to people who haven’t been there before?

Two years ago I was part of a Mega Mission from Montreal that brought nearly 600 people to Israel, including 150 who had never been there before. As we arrived to the Kotel on the second night, my task was to talk to the the group about Jerusalem, and to answer a fundamental question: Why is Jerusalem special?

Well, the answer depends on who you ask.

If you ask one who is immersed in Halacha, the answer is simple: Jerusalem is a place that obligates us with unique mitzvot. One third of the Talmud deals with laws connected to Jerusalem, including the rules of the service in the Beit Hamikdash and the rules of ritual purity. A great deal of the practice of Judaism rotates around Jerusalem.

Envisioning these practices in real life yields a dramatic picture. The three time a year pilgrimage of “aliyah leregel” brought millions of Jews together into Jerusalem for the holidays; Josephus writes of a year when 256,500 Passover sacrifices were brought, and estimates that at least 10 people shared each one, which works out to over 2.5 million visiting little Jerusalem for Passover!! It was a time when people of all classes, countries and observances came together as “chaverim”, colleagues; as the Alexandrian Jewish philosopher Philo put it “countless multitudes from countless cities come, some over land, others over sea, from east and west and north and south at every feast.”. (In addition, there is another law called Maaser Sheni, a kind of “holy holiday”, where 4 out of every 7 years the farmer would bring 10% of the value of his produce to Jerusalem to enjoy meals in the holy city.)

The needs of those visiting Jerusalem required highways, which are being discovered by archeologists, and the importance of maintaining ritual purity led to a huge amount of Mikvaot being constructed; today it feels like every time someone does a construction project in Jerusalem, they unearth a 2,000 year old Mikvah! And in Bat Ayin, along one of the ancient highways to Jerusalem, there is naturally enough an ancient mikvah built for those who were going on a holy holiday to Jerusalem.

So this is the answer of the Halachic Man: Jerusalem is filled with opportunities for mitzvot. And while the answer means a lot to me, I recognize it may not resonate with people who do not share my Yeshiva background and training. So let us turn to another religious personality, the mystic.

For the mystic, the answer is simple: Jerusalem is the center of the universe. The Midrash Tanchuma in Parshat Kedoshim (10) writes that Jerusalem is Umbilicus Mundi - the navel of the world. It then explains:

מציון מכלל יופי אלהים הופיע (שם שם ב).
ארץ ישראל יושבת באמצעיתו של עולם,
וירושלים באמצעיתה של ארץ ישראל,
ובית המקדש באמצע ירושלים,
וההיכל באמצע בית המקדש,
והארון באמצע ההיכל,
ואבן שתייה לפני הארון, שממנה נשתת העולם.  

“The land of Israel sits in the middle of the world, and Jerusalem in the middle of the land of Israel, and the Temple in the middle of Jerusalem, and the heichal in the middle of the Temple, and the ark in the middle of the heichal and the Foundation stone from which the world was founded before the ark.”
Jerusalem is the center of the world, the source of divine creation.

The mystical view is well traveled, and even makes its way into popular culture. There is an old joke, that was actually told by Prime Minister Menachem Begin to President Reagan at a White House State dinner, that reflects this view. Begin’s joke goes like this:

“The President brought me into the Oval Office, and he showed me on the table three phones -- one white and one blue. And he explained to me: ``The white is the direct line to Mrs. Thatcher; the blue to President Mitterrand.'' And then I asked him, ``What is the red phone?'' ``That is a direct line to God.'' So, I asked the President, ``Mr. President, do you use it often?'' And the President said, ``Oh, no, very rarely. It's very expensive. Long distance -- so long a distance. And I cannot afford it. I have to cut the budget and -- -- '' [Laughter]

So, then the President visited Jerusalem, and I showed him my office, and there are three phones. One was white, one was blue. And I said, ``The white is a direct line to President Sadat.'' By the by, I have such a line, and he has such a line. ``And the other, well, to Mrs. Thatcher.'' And there is a red phone. And the President asked, ``What is the red phone for?'' And I said, ``This is a direct line to God.'' So, the President asked me, ``Do you use it often?'' I say, ``Every day.'' ``How can you afford it?'' And I said, ``Here, in Jerusalem, it is being considered a local call.””

(Begin continued quite beautifully by saying: “Now, Mr. President, neither of us has direct lines to God. I only believe that God listens to the prayer of a Jew and a Christian and of a Moslem -- of every human being. But, if I have to continue with the story, then I will say that when you come, as I do believe, to Jerusalem, I will immediately put at your disposal the red phone. [Laughter] On the house. [Laughter] A local call.”)

Such is the mystical view. Jerusalem is different because God lives there, and a call to Him from Jerusalem is a local call.  The great Spanish mystic Yoseph Gikatilla (1248 – after 1305) wrote in Shaarei Orah:

ומבית המקדש היו כל הצינורות נמשכות לכל הארצות כולן .. ואם כן נמצאת השכינה משלחת הברכה כפי השיעור הראוי לכל הארצות מבית המקדש
“From the Temple all the channels of divine influence spread out to the world...therefore, we see the divine presence sends blessing to the entire world through the Temple..”

This resonates quite deeply with many people. When we go to the Kotel we put in a “kvitl”, a small note of prayers. Everyone does: Presidents, Prime Ministers, Actors and Rock stars. (Of course, the note is immediately pulled out by a reporter and published in an Israeli newspaper). All of them are closet mystics, and see Jerusalem as a place very close to God.

But not everyone is a mystic; not everyone feels comfortable putting notes in the wall. However, even rationalists can appreciate the powerful history found in Jerusalem. And if you turn to the historian, they will explain that Jerusalem has a remarkable history.

The personalities who walked through this city, who revered this city, have transformed the world. The founders of Judaism lived here: Abraham and Isaac, David and Solomon, Isaiah and Jeremiah, Ezra and Nehemiah, Judah Maccabee and his sons, Hillel and Shammai, Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Yishmael; and the list goes on and on. Jerusalem’s influence is not restricted to Judaism; the important personalities of Christianity, Jesus, James, Peter, and Paul all lived in Jerusalem as well.

Because of it’s enormous importance in the Christian world, Medieval maps had Jerusalem at the center. Here is an example of a classic medieval map called a “T-O map” because it looks like the outline of a T in an O. At the center is Jerusalem.

Another example is even more beautiful: The Bünting Clover Leaf Map of 1581, which has Jerusalem as the center of a world shaped like a clover:

Jerusalem has always played a large role in world history. And those who know this history are immediately affected by Jerusalem. Thomas Friedman tells of the time Neil Armstrong visited Israel:

“When American astronaut Neil Armstrong, a devout Christian, visited Israel after his trip to the moon, he was taken on a tour of the Old City of Jerusalem by Israeli archaeologist Meir Ben-Dov. When they got to the Hulda Gate, which is at the top of the stairs leading to the Temple Mount, Armstrong asked Ben-Dov whether Jesus had stepped anywhere around there. “I told him, ‘Look, Jesus was a Jew,'” recalled Ben-Dov. “These are the steps that lead to the Temple, so he must have walked here many times.”

Armstrong then asked if these were the original steps, and Ben-Dov confirmed that they were. “So Jesus stepped right here?” asked Armstrong.
“That’s right,” answered Ben-Dov.
“I have to tell you,” Armstrong said to the Israeli archaeologist, “I am more excited stepping on these stones than I was stepping on the moon.””

If you ask a historian what is special about Jerusalem, they will tell you: it is a place that has changed the world. And it is exciting to walk where some of the greatest figures in history have lived.

So here we have another answer, the answer of the historian. And while I appreciate the answers of the Halachic man, the mystic, and the historian, I believe there is one answer that exceeds them all: the answer of the simple Jew.

I learnt about this answer when I visited Israel when I was 7. My Zaide who was 71 at the time, came with us; it was our first trip to Israel. The look Zaide had on his face upon arriving to Israel and going to the Kotel was the look of a man transformed, a Jew achieving his dream.

Zaide’s dream is our dream, and our dream is an ancient dream. Jews have dreamt of Jerusalem from the moment we left. When we went into exile in 587 B.C.E, we cried for Jerusalem, as it says in Psalm 137:

אִם אֶשְׁכָּחֵךְ יְרוּשָׁלִָם תִּשְׁכַּח יְמִינִי:
ותִּדְבַּק לְשׁוֹנִי | לְחִכִּי אִם לֹא אֶזְכְּרֵכִי אִם לֹא אַעֲלֶה אֶת יְרוּשָׁלִַם עַל רֹאשׁ שִׂמְחָתִי:

“If I forget you, Jerusalem, may my right hand forget its skill. May my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth if I do not remember you, if I do not consider Jerusalem my highest joy.”

We never forgot Jerusalem. We pray about Jerusalem every day, we pray towards Jerusalem every day, and at every wedding, we break a glass to remember Jerusalem. At the Seders we sing “next year in Jerusalem”.  We do so in good times and in bad, in the Kovno Ghetto and the Warsaw ghetto, in the Soviet Union and in Syria. In Ethiopia each year, children would look at the storks migrating towards Israel and sing a song to the storks:

Stork, stork, how is our land?
Stork, stork, how is Jerusalem?
Stork, stork, give us the word!”.

The simple Jew has always dreamt of Jerusalem. And to him, it is a field of dreams, where we all connect, where the dreams of the Jewish history and Jewish people all overlap.

Forty nine years ago when we returned to Jerusalem the simple jew was overjoyed. My friend Donnie was in Israel volunteering during the Six Day War, and he told  me that the first night the Kotel opened for visitors, on the first night of Shavuot, people lined up all the way from The King David Hotel to get in. Such is the love of the simple Jew.

It is the love of the simple Jew that makes Yom Yerushalayim special. We know how so many who dreamt of this place never made it there to see their field of dreams; but now we can. Moshe Amirav, one of the the soldiers to reach the Kotel on June 7, 1967, said this:

“I can't help from smiling today when I recall how we searched for the Kotel. There we ran, a bunch of panting soldiers, wandering around the Temple Mount, looking for a huge stone wall…..We pass the Mograbim gate, pushing, hurrying, and all of a sudden we are stopped, as if hit by lightning. In front of our eyes stands, grey and large, quiet and sad - the Kotel. I remember feeling only once before such a feeling, when I was a child, and my dad brought me up close to the Aron Hakodesh…...Little by little I started getting closer to the Kotel. Slowly, as if I was sent to pray in front of an ark. I came closer, an emissary of dad, grandpa, greatgrandpa, and all the generations from all the diasporas that didn't make it here, and so they sent me here. Someone said the Shehechianu prayer, and I couldn't say amen. All I could do was put my hand on the rock, and the tears flowing out of my eyes were not mine...they were the tears of all the People of Israel, tears of hope and prayer, Hasidic niguns, Jewish dances, tears that singed and burned the grey heavy stone.”

This is what the Kotel is about. It is not just about ideas; it is about the simple Jew, the dreams of the Jewish People. It is about hearing the footsteps of previous generations, and feeling moved by their voices, their tears.

Forty nine years ago, our field of dreams became a reality, and the simple Jew could go home again. And that is what is special about Jerusalem, and that is what is special about Yom Yerushalayim.

Chag Sameach!

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

All of Jewish History, in Just Two Minutes

Several years ago I returned from a mission to Poland and Israel. At the time, our group was left with one inescapable conclusion: Jewish History is a rollercoaster of horror and happiness. In Poland we saw piles of human hair and cans of zyklon-b pellets. In Israel we saw smiling schoolchildren and maternity wards . In Poland we saw cattle cars. In Israel we saw proud soldiers. In Poland we saw gas chambers. In Israel we saw new construction. Up close, Jewish History becomes an emotionally turbulent experience.

The Israeli calendar is even more chaotic. The day before Independence Day is Memorial Day. Unlike the United States and Canada, in Israel Memorial Day is quite melancholy. Everyone attends a memorial, and the entire country stops when the siren rings. When I asked our security guard, Amit, to say a few words about Memorial Day, he choked up with tears; he had served in a combat unit and had lost friends in battle.

And then, immediately after this comes absolute celebration. As if by the flick of switch, the entire country is transformed into a one big block party, with revelers roaming the streets and families barbecuing in the park. In a uniquely Jewish fashion, we insist on commemorating tragedy immediately before celebrating independence. (Much like the Passover Seder includes mention of both slavery and freedom).

This Jewish need to combine bitter and the sweet memories together is what lies at the heart of an authentic Jewish historiography. Jewish history consists of both exile and redemption. We don’t view exile as meaningless historical time, something we’d prefer to forget. On the contrary, exile is carefully remembered. And this is the paradox of Jewish History: it sees exile and redemption, seeming polar opposites, as deeply connected experiences. And like all good paradoxes, it is meant to be a question that keeps asking questions.

This paradox teaches multiple lessons. It underlines the fact that Israel (and the Jewish people) continue to survive and thrive, despite our challenges. It reminds us that the manifold miracles of contemporary Israel, such as blooming deserts, the return to the Western Wall, and cutting edge medical research are expensive miracles; over 23,000 soldiers paid with their lives for these achievements. And it teaches us that we must continue to claim the moral high ground, and refuse to descend to the level of the terrorists who attack us.

At the end of Memorial Day, I was at a ceremony in which the Israeli flag, flying at half mast, was raised to full height. At that moment, I understood I was experiencing all of Jewish history in two minutes. Jewish history lives at the intersection of exile and redemption, the point of transition between half mast and full glory. It may seem an absurd way to look at history; but wasn’t it also absurd for this small, persecuted people to persist in living on? 

Happy 68th, Israel!