Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Leading From Behind

This week’s Torah reading sees Yaakov at the end of his life dispensing blessings to each of his sons. There is a comparable passage right at the end of the Torah, in which Moshe blesses the tribes soon before he dies. While these two poetic sections are quite similar, I want to focus on a difference:

A lion’s whelp is Yehudah… (BeReishit 49:9)

…Dan is a lion’s whelp… (Devarim 33:22)

Here the lion, as in other forms of literature, refers to the leader. While we would expect Yehudah, the ancestor of the kings of Israel, to be portrayed as a lion, why is Dan described in the same way?

Rabbi Tzadok HaKohen explains that there are two models of leadership, which he refers to as ‘head of the lion’ and ‘tail of the lion’. We might call them in modern parlance ‘leading from the front’ and ‘leading from behind’.

Yehudah’s role is to lead the Jewish people from the front, setting the spiritual pace for the nation that will follow his example. The Jewish king marches ahead of his people, constantly raising the standards of observance and morality demanded of the nation. This is an indispensable role, one that truly requires the bravery of a lion to implement.

Yet there is another, no less vital form of leadership: that of Dan, which is conducted ‘from behind’:

All of the count of the encampment of Dan came to 175,600 – they travelled last under their flag. (BeMidbar 2:31)

And the flag of the encampment of Dan travelled – those who gathered all the encampments… (ibid. 10:25)

The tribe of Dan travelled at the back of the Jewish people, gathering the stragglers and ensuring that no-one got left behind. As a result, although Dan could be described as a ‘minor’ tribe, he is accorded great status in Yaakov’s blessing:

Dan shall avenge his people like one of the [important] tribes of Israel. (BeReishit 49:16)

One may also explain that ‘like one’ means that he is compared with the unique tribe of Yehudah. (Rashi ad. loc. paraphrased)

Yehudah may strike out in front, beating the drum to which he hopes that the Jewish people will march. In both national and religious aspirations, he will, perforce, guide them to places that they don’t really want to go: his leadership must comprise a heady brew of idealism and obduracy to succeed in steering the Jewish people towards their destiny. Yet for all his management skills, there is a danger that Yehudah will glance over his shoulder and realise that the people are struggling to keep up with him; worse still, they may not be following him at all. This is where Dan appears to complement the role of the leader: he nurtures, cajoles, even carries the slackers back into the camp and helps them to follow Yehudah. And while out at the front, Yehudah may not even notice the varied needs of the nation in his charge, Dan, who lives among the people, is capable of appreciating their diverse spiritual requirements and devising appropriate means for every member of the community to take his or her rightful place behind the king. This role requires just as much bravery as that of Yehudah, for the Dan’s job is often difficult to implement and deeply counter-cultural in a world that expects identically high standards from everyone. Dan, too, is a lion.

Our communities are blessed with many Yehudah-style leaders: tremendous sages, tzadikim, and outstanding role models of inspirational religious life. The Jewish world would, quite literally, cease to function without them. Yet, at least in some places, this appears to be not quite enough: for the people are in danger of falling behind the aspirations of the leaders. Sometimes the demands made by the leadership (whether it be in life-goals, stringent application of halachah, or other areas of Jewish life), cannot be met by every member of the community; this may lead to disappointment, religious burn-out and a sense of disenfranchisement. Perhaps the Jewish world would profit from a few more ‘Dans’ to gather the strugglers and bring them home: to make them feel loved in a world whose aspirations they find hard to meet and to show them a range of ways of living a meaningful and rich Jewish life with confidence and pride. In fact, at certain times in our lives, all of us may experience the type of disillusionment that the ‘Yehudahs’ can’t quite understand: at those moments, we all need the intervention of a ‘Dan’ to keep us within the fold.

Finally, we are told in an obscure Midrash (quoted in Torah Sheleimah), that the ultimate form of Jewish leadership must combine the attributes of Yehudah with those of Dan:

Mashiach hails from two tribes: his father is from Yehudah and his mother is from Dan. This is why Yehudah and Dan are both called ‘a lion’s whelp’, for the Mashiach will emerge from both of them.

This article first appeared on Cross-Currents

Monday, December 17, 2007

How The Torah Can Take On The internet

Technology has always been seen as a challenge to religious societies and their mores. I recall a discussion with a visitor to my home: the topic of conversation was a man in full Hassidic garb he had seen standing in the street speaking on a mobile phone. What I thought was an interesting synthesis of old and new worlds my guest considered hypocritical for reasons he clearly felt deeply, but was unable to articulate. And a famous London rabbi who resisted the use of video cameras at weddings was once criticised in this very paper for being ‘an enemy of modern technology’! There seems to be a perception that technology and Orthodoxy don’t quite mix!

Recently, computers - and particularly the internet - have thrown up a range of issues that Jewish scholars have started to tackle. The most hotly contested of these is how to ensure that the internet is used safely. The plethora of pornography, nefarious chat-rooms, violence and hate that pervades the sinister side of the web has caused immense consternation in all civilised parts of society; it has encouraged Orthodox leaders to offer strongly-worded edicts to control its use. In many Haredi circles today, use of the internet for essential business use is reluctantly permitted, whereas home use is disallowed; there are residential areas in Israel where few homes have internet access. The exponents of this view feel that the dangers of internet use far outweigh its benefits, and that a ‘kosher’ home should, if at all possible, be web-free. This opinion is reinforced with powerful rhetoric and some quite draconian measures: a number of communities have even incorporated harsh internet restrictions into their school-entrance policies.

Yet leaders of other Orthodox circles have adopted a different view: they realise that the internet is a supremely useful tool that many find indispensable, and that banning it is unlikely to actually stop people from using it. An increasingly common perspective sees the internet as the greatest opportunity for knowledge-dissemination since Gutenberg, one that the religious world should embrace, while simultaneously taking robust precautions to avoid exposure to its disreputable and nauseating parts. This view is tacitly endorsed by the proliferation of Torah websites and other Orthodox internet resources.

But while the internet has occupied centre stage in recent rabbinical pronouncements, many other fascinating issues are raised by computer use. Over the coming months, in a series of occasional articles, I intend to address some of them. Among other topics, we will consider how Jewish law deals with modern intellectual property matters, Shabbat complications generated by internet use and some surprising consequences emerging from the growth in the availability of wifi.

The application of ancient Jewish sources to a modern issue is always an exciting opportunity for Torah scholarship, but the almost paradoxical meeting of the worlds of halakhah and state-of-the-art technology is especially fascinating. I never cease to be awed by the comprehensive nature of Talmudic and mediaeval sources: the corpus of Jewish legal literature contains a vast range of precedents from which any contemporary case can be decided, no matter how extraordinary. Of course, this process has existed since the earliest times and the current issues raised by computers are the successors of topics like protecting copyright, which was addressed many centuries ago by such luminaries as Rabbi Moshe Isserlis (16th century Poland). In due course, our subjects will give way to the next generation of conundrums; we can’t predict what they will be, but we can be sure that the halakhah contains the tools with which to handle them.

I believe that halakhah can deliver cogent and relevant answers to apparently unprecedented hi-tech problems and that this is one of Judaism’s greatest strengths. The answers emerging from halakhic debate often seem to presage the conclusions that other systems of thought eventually reach by longer and slower means.

The little-understood willingness of rabbis, even of those of the most insular schools, to engage directly with every aspect of modernity is, potentially one of the greatest assets of the contemporary Jewish world, one that we should export to the rest of society. Torah scholars are absolutely dedicated to incorporating the very best achievements of the 21st century into Jewish life. Yet they are equally committed to taking vigorous precautions to ensure that negative aspects of technology (both the halakhically questionable and the spiritually damaging) are firmly excluded from Jewish society. I hope that this series affords a small taste of this tremendous resource.


Internet access in the home is only permissible if required for a person’s job. Computers without internet access will be required to have software installed which will prevent such access in order to prevent children from connecting them to the internet. Children of families that do not comply with the rules will be barred from school in order to protect the other children in the class. (Excerpts from internet ban of Lakewood, NJ)

A computer is not a toy. It is a tool, like an electric saw. A blanket ban on home computers is as foolish as a blanket ban on electric saws. But it is just as foolish to leave an electric saw plugged in, out in your living room where there are children. Education is all about teaching our children how to use life’s tools. (Rabbi Lawrence Kelemen)

See, a blog devoted to discussing the future of Orthodox internet use.

A version of this article first appeared in the Jewish Chronicle. It is republished here with permission.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Un-hijacking Hanukah (Hanukah 5768)

Many of us will have come across presentations of Hanukah that portray it as the anniversary of the ultimate victory of Jewish history – that of Judaism over the secular culture of the time. In this depiction, a pure, unadulterated Judaism, untainted by any non-Jewish influence, prevailed over an engagement with the surrounding society, its aspirations and intellectual activity.

This portrayal may be at odds with a number of ancient Jewish sources. In an allegorical reading of the laws governing the parah adumah (red cow, the ashes of which were used for spiritual purification), the holy Zohar learns:

'Unblemished’ – this refers to the Greek kingdom, for they are close to the path of truth. (Zohar HaKadosh 2:237a)

In the same vein (although in reality, this has no modern application), one may write certain holy texts in Greek as the sole alternative to Hebrew. The Sages find a source for this ruling in the post-diluvian blessings given by Noah to his sons: Shem, the progenitor of the Jewish people and Yefet, the ancestor of Greece. The usual translation of the verse is:

God shall give beauty (usual translation is ‘broaden’) to Yefet, yet He shall reside in the tents of Shem… (BeReishit 9:27)

The Talmud radically rereads the verse:

God shall give beauty to Yefet, and it shall reside in the tents of Shem – the interests of Yefet shall reside in the tents of Shem. (Megillah 9b)

These sources may indicate that far from rejecting Greek thought and culture, there is a view that incorporates them into the Jewish world. The Greeks developed the aesthetic aspects of life, such as music, art, literature, mathematics, and certain types of philosophy. This is the ‘beauty of Yefet’, which the Talmud encourages us not to revile, but to place firmly within the ‘tents of Shem’.

Yet while we Jews may subscribe to the coexistence of the physical and spiritual worlds, many Torah sources attribute to the Greeks an unwillingness to admit any connection between this world and the next. They may have believed in a higher reality, but considered it to have no impact on human lives. As such, the Torah could be revered as a classic of world literature, but not as the Divine guide to purposeful existence; it could take its place in a library alongside the works of Aristotle, but could never be considered a tool for human elevation.

In this light, we may recast the distinction between Jewish and Greek ideologies and hence the true nature of the victory of Hanukah. Having uncoupled the physical and spiritual worlds, the Greeks saw literature, philosophy, music, etc., as autonomous pursuits, rather than ways of experiencing spirituality within the physical world. In contrast, Jewish life encourages these endeavours only when they are a means to touch the Divine, but never as ends in themselves. The beauty of Yefet can and must live only within the tents of Shem.

The difference between our world view and that of the Greeks may seem slight, but it lies in understanding the very purpose of all cultural and other ‘secular’ pursuits. The victory of Hanukah – one of means over ends – is one that changed the face of the world.

This article first appeared on Cross-Currents