Monday, July 23, 2007

From Beneath My Desk (Tisha B'Av 5767)

Certain key occasions in the Jewish calendar invoke strong memories of my seven years in Gateshead Yeshivah. One of my teachers assured me that by spending Yamim Tovim and other special moments in the Yeshivah, I would have a store of powerful experiences on which to draw in later years: I am truly grateful for that advice. I constantly try to recreate those powerful moments in my community, something from which I know my congregants have benefited, perhaps without realising. And even when that isn’t possible, I can retreat into the realm of inspirational memory and lift almost any occasion for myself and my family.

Tisha B’Av is one such day: each year, from Rosh Chodesh Av, two memories are especially vivid, each associated with Kinnot (dirges read on Tisha B’Av lamenting the destruction of the Temples and other Jewish calamities). The Kinnot are perhaps the most demanding texts of our entire liturgy: many of them are written in difficult Hebrew, and are replete with obscure scholarly references that require considerable Talmudic and Midrashic background to appreciate fully. Indeed, rather than plough through all of them, many Shuls (including my own) elect to read only a selection of the Kinnos, accompanied by explanation and elucidation (a job that the ArtScroll edition of the Kinnot has made much easier). The Kinnot are potent, elegant, yet very challenging.

My first recollection is of sitting on the floor as a sign of mourning beneath the desk at which I normally davened (prayed) in Gateshead Yeshivah at about 11am on Tisha B’Av. The Kinnot were well underway, and I admit that I was struggling to maintain my interest in the reading. By this time the sun had risen sufficiently to shine in my eyes through the very large front-windows of the Yeshivah. Remarkably, this coincided with the recital of the famous Kinnah, ‘Tsion’, by Rabbi Yehudah HaLevi (author of the Kuzari), a few translated excerpts of which follow. For a full text, see here.

Zion, will you not enquire about the welfare of your captives? Those who seek your welfare – they are the remnants of your flock….

You are the royal house; you are the throne of the glory of God, so how could slaves have sat upon the thrones of your nobles?

I yearn to be given the chance to wander in the places where God appeared to your visionaries and emissaries….

This lament, apart from being outstandingly beautiful, marks a radical change in the tone of the Kinnot: up until this point they are about destruction, misery and exile, but beginning with ‘Tsion’, they express hope and yearning for a better world. It is hard to describe the impact that the concurrence of the sun shining and the majestic poetry of Yehudah HaLevi had on me. It created a sense of optimism, divine love and context to the hopeless gloom of Tisha B’Av that has stayed with me: I hope that I have managed to convey something of that feeling in words.

The second memorable moment arrived at the very end of the Kinnot, with the reading of ‘Eli Tsion’, a poem detailing all the tragedies of the Temple for which we should weep. It offers a glimmer of hope, in that it compares the tribulations of our history with the pains of child-birth: the torment is not futile, but heralds the rebirth of Am Yisrael: some excerpts follow. For a full text, see here.

Wail, Tsion and her cities, like a woman in child-birth; and like a damsel girded in sackcloth (crying) for the husband of her youth….

(Wail) for Your name, which was desecrated in the speech of those who arose to torture her; and the supplications of those who scream out to You: turn Your ear and listen to her words.

Although the text is powerful and, at least for me, summarises the themes of the entire corpus of the Kinnot, the most well-known aspect of ‘Eli Tsion’ is its tune. This poignant melody somehow synthesises the calamity of Jewish history with our unshakeable confidence in a magnificent future. Regrettably, it has been turned by some into a kind of pop song, sung at an inappropriate tempo, robbing it of its depth and power. During my years in Gateshead, ‘Eli Tsion’ was led by Rabbi Zeev Cohen, who sung it movingly in a high-pitched and haunting fashion, in the Lithuanian style: in one short rendition, he had captured the essence of Tisha B’Av. For a similar (albeit lower-pitched and slightly faster) version of ‘Eli Tsion’, listen to this, a recording of the late Rabbi J.B. Soloveitchik, zt”l leading a responsive reading of the Kinnah in Boston in 1978. I cannot lead the poem as beautifully as Rabbi Cohen, but his interpretation has inspired my own reading.

Most importantly for me (and I hope for my congregants and students too), the memories of Tisha B’Av in Gateshead Yeshivah encapsulate the very spirit of the day: redemptive mourning.

May this, truly, be the last Tisha B’Av.

This article first appeared on Cross-Currents

Monday, July 16, 2007

The Most Annoying Phrases

A while ago, a feature article published on the website of the UK Telegraph newspaper asked, ‘what is the most annoying phrase in the English language?’ Suggestions included ‘chill out’ and the replacement of ‘now’ with ‘at this moment in time’. The posting, before it disappeared, elicited over 2000 comments from readers, each of whom mentioned a pet hate. A random glance at them yielded such expressions as ‘all intensive purposes’, ‘fell pregnant’, ‘blue-sky thinking’ tautologies such as ‘potential risk’ and the use of the soccer-player’s favourite phrase ‘at the end of the day’, which, it was claimed, actually means nothing at all.

The observant world is blessed with a number of eloquent speakers and writers who are outstanding advocates for Judaism. Their sensitive and lucid writings have drawn many hearts towards authentic Judaism and, when necessary, they articulately defend the Torah from outside attack: we would be a poorer community without them.

Yet the standard of their written and spoken English is scarcely reflective of the majority within the observant community; even in English-speaking countries, low standards abound. À la Telegraph, one could prepare a list of the most annoying phrases used by members of the religious community. My bête-noir is the common misuse of the word ‘by’, as in ‘I’m eating by the Cohens this Shabbos’ and ‘we daven (pray) by the Oshplotzer Rebbe’. This may be correct syntax in Yiddish, but is it English? Some even seem to be unaware that the words ‘takke’, ‘mamash’ and ‘ziche’ may be unfamiliar to the plumber.

In some parts of the religious community there is little appreciation of the value of using clear and accurate English and examples of frum-speak are common. Numerous English-language books and journals are filled with basic spelling errors (don’t the authors use ‘spell-check’?), inaccurate usages, and scant attention to English syntax, quite apart from the limited and simplistic vocabulary. How should one respond when one’s children notice simple spelling and grammatical errors in the school-worksheets prepared by their teachers? In a masterful exposition of this problem (aptly named: ‘Tefillin in a brown paper bag’), Rabbi Emanuel Feldman wrote in reference to the contents of an Orthodox periodical:

The alphabet and the words were English, but the sentence structure, the rhythm, the syntax, the tone, were of another language altogether.

Perhaps we have forgotten that many books and articles on the market are commonly read by the less observant: in fact, the literature is frequently prepared with them in mind. For them, weak English is often a real turn-off, as they inexorably associate the message with the medium: bad English equals bad message. Some recent ‘outreach’ publications suffer from this deficiency: notwithstanding the time and resources that have been devoted to their publication, I suspect that they will have little impact on their target audience. Rabbi Feldman again:

Beyond theory, the use of deficient language has practical negative consequences as well, for it prevents us from preaching to anyone but the Orthodox choir. Intelligent, educated non-Orthodox Jews will surely be put off by the argot which passes for much of Torah Judaica today.

Some opine that at least within the observant community, this is unimportant: provided the intended audience understands the message, who cares if the English is poor? It is difficult to treat this seriously. A well-known Jerusalem Rosh Yeshivah remarked that it is hard for him to understand why anyone would aspire to speak English poorly. Why, he asked, would one aspire to learn English from people who speak it badly; why would one want to ignore the nuances of expression available in English and communicate in a puerile or ambiguous manner?

Does anyone truly believe that simply because the audience is familiar with the ‘lingo’, the use of poor English has no consequences? Language is not merely a means of communication, but exposes the outlook of the speaker:

Every language expresses the core ideology of the nation (that speaks it) according to its Weltanschauung and in accordance with its grasp of the essence of reality: from this emerges its language. (Telshe Rosh Yeshivah, Shiurey Daat, Likutim)

Every language connects the core (of a person) with the external world…. (Shem MiShmuel, Devarim 5676)

If a language reveals the essence of the speaker’s world view, perhaps it follows that a limited vocabulary and the use of clichéd phraseology is reflective of tired, uncreative thinking and narrow horizons, hardly noble religious aspirations.

Negligible attention to presentation and slapdash English spill over into other areas of life too. Do we fool ourselves into thinking that when our children neglect English, this has no impact on the quality of their Torah achievements? Children are unable to compartmentalise their experiences – if they see sloppy presentation in one part of their schooling, it will affect others: is it too daring to suggest that users of poor English may become inexact Talmud readers?

Inaccurate English is most often caused by laziness and occasionally by a smidgen of arrogant superiority that allows people to think that they can get by without bothering to master the language. Simplistic English has a different source: inattentive reading, which leads to careless use of syntax and scant attention to the subtleties of language. Carefully reading a range of appropriate literature is the only way to develop a sophisticated and nuanced approach to the use of the language.

We need to produce more journals, children’s books, English-language scholarship and fiction that are engaging, rich and nuanced, and exposing our children to them, as well to a carefully-selected range of general literature. This will contribute to broadening their horizons and improving their capacity for self-expression and excellence in Torah learning. And without doubt, it will help us to extend our influence far beyond its current confine.

This article first appeared on Cross-Currents

Friday, July 13, 2007

Carrying On Shabbat In Hotels And Hospitals


After a lengthy period of study, my Shabbat morning shiur has reached the end of the laws of Eruvin, the last section of which dealt with carrying on Shabbat inside hotels and hospitals in an area not bounded by an Eruv.

One may one carry within a private domain on Shabbat. The process of making what we call an Eruv is actually called ‘Eruv Chatzerot’ – merging of courtyards (or private domains). Fearful of error, the rabbis required this process to allow one to carry even between adjacent private domains. So to allow neighbours to carry between their gardens on Shabbat, they must make a Eruv: this involves each contributing a quantity of food (in effect, buying a box of matzot between them) and declaring one of the homes as a joint dining room/kitchen for all of the homes. In the eyes of halachah, this ‘merges’ the homes into a single private domain, enabling the inhabitants to carry freely through all the dwellings and gardens.

This process is duplicated (in a slightly different way and on a much larger scale) for a city Eruv, such as the one that surrounds much of our community.

Shared public areas

This situation is complicated by the fact that some buildings (such as blocks of flats) have shared public areas: e.g. lobbies and stair-wells. In these situations, the rabbis legislated as follows:

Public courtyards… if one has made an eruv, one may carry, but if one has not made an eruv, on may not. (Shabbat 6a)

Since the house is a private dwelling and the courtyard is permitted to all, one is effectively carrying from one domain to another, even though (technically) they are both private domains. To make a ‘fence’ to the law, to avoid inadvertent sin, the rabbis prohibited this so that one will not end up carrying from a private domain to a public one. (Rashi ad loc.)

To avert this, the rabbis require each inhabitant of the block to contribute to the Eruv. However, the presence of a gentile (who, of course, is not bound by the laws of Shabbat) presents a difficulty, as he/she has equal rights to the public area, but cannot participate in the Eruv. This is overcome by ‘hiring’ rights of access for a nominal sum from any gentile resident. Assuming that every gentile agrees, the Eruv becomes functional.

Hotels and hospitals

Clearly, these arrangements cannot work in places where the residents come on go on a frequent basis, the most common examples being hotels and hospitals. May one carry between rooms of a hotel or hospital or from one’s room to the public areas? This obviously has major ramifications for travellers and patients. However, the matter is quite simple:

People who live around a courtyard and all eat at one table, even if each has his own house, do not need a Eruv, because they are like members of one household. Similarly, if several people eat in one room, each at his own table, even if each has his own room. (Shulchan Aruch Orech Chaim 370)

Sharing a table is akin to an Eruv – i.e. the central dining room functions as a ready-made Eruv and one may carry within the premises (provided, of course, that it is entirely enclosed) without restriction.

This describes a modern hotel, but does not deal with a hospital. However, it seems that if the management has the right to move the residents from one location to another (definitely the case in a hospital), they do not have sufficient rights to their room for it to confer halachic significance:

If they (the owners) can remove him at any time….(no Eruv is needed) (Bi’ur Halachah 370)

This means that patients (and visitors) in a hospital may carry freely within the building on Shabbat. It seems that the original concern that led the rabbis to require an Eruv in shared buildings only applies where the each resident lives permanently in his own residence and usually eats there too.

Sunday, July 08, 2007

Sacred Or Superficial?

Encouraged by a number of my congregants, my wife and I recently visited the impressive ‘Sacred’ exhibition at London’s British Library. Billed as ‘the rarest and most exquisite sacred books and manuscripts presented and explored, side by side, in a major UK exhibition for the first time’, it didn’t disappoint. Balanced between Jewish, Christian and Muslim holy books, the 202 exhibits are absolutely magnificent (get a taste of them here) and left me wanting to return to see them again soon. As the exhibition doesn’t end until 23rd September, if you live in the UK or are planning to visit, do make it a priority. I hope to get there at least once more.

I was especially taken with the calligraphy, the accuracy and beauty of which defy description. I am not particularly skilled with my hands: I actually struggle to read my own handwriting. In comparison, the control, artistic flair and accuracy required to produce an illuminated manuscript are quite breathtaking. I am, of course, familiar with beautiful safrus (Hebrew sacred calligraphy), but I have never been exposed to exquisite scripts from other religions written in other alphabets; I found learning about their manufacture fascinating (see here) and consider the final products a remarkable testimony to human ingenuity.

The layout of ‘Sacred’ is also most attractive: the manuscripts are interspersed with religious artefacts, all of great beauty and some of major significance (for example, an original entrance-curtain from the Kaaba in Mecca). There is also tasteful background music, as well as carefully arranged lighting and projections; it’s clear that a huge amount of thought and effort has gone into arranging the exhibition.

While, understandably, great care was taken to avoid mentioning areas of violent religious conflict, the curator was bold enough to address an obvious question: why there are so few very early Jewish manuscripts. In at least one place, the display informs the reader that the extreme rarity of early Jewish manuscripts is explained by the practice of mediaeval Christian authorities of collecting them up and burning them.

The exhibition is not perfect, of course. I was irritated by some of the display panels referring to aspects of Judaism in a rather simplistic and only partially-accurate manner: I also felt that some of the interactive computer displays about Judaism lack depth and substance. I am insufficiently knowledgeable to assess the quality of the displays and computer materials dealing with Christianity and Islam, but I could well imagine a scholar from one of these traditions expressing the same frustrations.

My enthusiasm for ‘Sacred’ is also tempered with some reservations about its objectives. The exhibition is supported by a number of foundations whose mission is to promote understanding between members of different faiths. In a difficult world, where religious tensions run high and especially in the UK, where the benefits (or otherwise) of multiculturalism are the topic of weekly high-level concern, this is certainly a vital and responsible ambition. However, there is a huge gulf between developing mutual respect, understanding and intelligent dialogue between the faiths (an objective that I whole-heartedly endorse) and advancing the notion that what divides the faiths is slight, perhaps even only a matter of style and cultural expression (one that I reject).

One can assert one's beliefs without compromise, even reinforcing why one rejects other religious convictions, without losing one’s tolerance and even acceptance of those who strongly disagree. The differences between the beliefs, practices and aspirations of the different faiths are huge; even the nature of God Himself is hotly disputed, never mind how one ought to live one’s life. We deal ourselves and our attempts at interfaith harmony a serious blow if we pretend otherwise. Reducing religious differences to externalities is unhelpful and misleading.

Perhaps I am over-sensitive, but ‘Sacred’ smells to me a little like an attempt to promote the ‘we’re all really the same it’s just a question of style’ ideology. Rather than being grouped by faith origin, the manuscripts are displayed according to eras, progressing from Jewish through Christian and Muslim tracts. One of the reasons for this is clearly to allow a comparison of the calligraphy of different periods, but to me it also conveyed a sense of ‘look how similar they all are.’ Moreover, I felt that some of the displays went out of their way to present the small number of similarities between the three religious traditions, rather than offer a more balanced picture. For example, as depicted in one of the video displays, Jewish, Christian and Muslim wedding ceremonies do indeed have more than a passing resemblance to each another. However, when it comes to any kind of serious issue, such as basic theology, festival celebration, Messianic belief, and even the value and function of the Bible itself, they differ vastly. And the final computer at the exit leaves the visitor with the explicit message that there is so much that the faiths share, much more than what divides them: in some ways this is true, but in so many other senses, it is not.

This article first appeared on Cross-Currents

Friday, July 06, 2007

The Covenant Of Peace (Pinchas 5767)

At the end of last week’s Parashah, Pinchas killed a Jewish man (Zimri) and a Midianite woman (Kozbi) for indulging in an illicit relationship:

Pinchas, son of Elazar, son of Aharon the Kohen, saw (them) and he arose from within the community. He took a spear in his hand. He came after the Jewish man to the tent, and he impaled the two of them - the Jewish man and the woman through her genitals, and the plague stopped from upon the Children of Yisrael. (BeMidbar 25:7-8)

Our Parashah begins with God’s surprising blessing to Pinchas:

And God spoke to Moshe saying. Pinchas, son of Elazar, son of Aharon the Kohen turned back My anger from upon the Children of Yisrael, when he was zealous on My behalf amidst them, so I did not destroy the Children of Yisrael in My zealotry. Therefore say - behold, I give to him My covenant, peace. Therefore say - behold, I give to him My covenant, peace - because he was zealous for his God and he atoned for the Children of Yisrael. (ibid. 10-13)

The actual blessing of Pinchas was that he became a Kohen:

Even though the priesthood had already been given to the descendants of Aharon, it was given only to Aharon and his sons who were anointed with him, and to their descendants who were born after their anointing. But Pinchas, who was born before this and was not anointed, did not enter into the priesthood until now.... (Rashi ad loc.)

The priesthood was granted to Aharon and his sons and to any male descendants born afterwards. As Pinchas was already born at this point, he was not automatically a Kohen. There is a wealth of literature on this point, some simple, some fascinating and highly esoteric.

The blessing of priesthood in response to violence is especially paradoxical. The Kohen is supposed to be a man of peace:

Be one of the students of Aharon the Kohen: loving peace, pursuing peace, loving people and drawing them near to Torah. (Avot 1:12)

Further, a Kohen who kills, while not losing his priesthood, becomes ineligible to function in his priestly role. This problem is noted by the Zohar, which also offers an answer:

What does the verse mean, ‘because he was zealous for his God,’ which implies that because of this act he gained the priesthood, but not before this. Come and see - any Kohen who kills is forever disqualified from the priesthood. For by so doing, he certainly invalidates his level. Strictly speaking, Pinchas was disqualified from the priesthood. Because of this, God needed to give him a new, permanent priesthood for him and his descendants for all generations. (Zohar HaKadosh 3:124a)

It is not entirely clear what this means. The Kohen embodies connection between this world and the next – his role is to connect man and God. This can be seen in the priestly blessings, and most potently, in the priestly role in the Temple, the place where Man and God meet. This helps us to understand why, under normal circumstances, a Kohen may not come in contact with the dead: the separation between physical and spiritual that occurs when a person dies is the antithesis of the job of the Kohen. A Kohen who kills has fundamentally undermined his role and is thus disqualified.

Sometimes, however, the momentary act of violence is essential to preserve and maintain life. It is a sad reality that in some circumstances a violent action will prevent a great deal more violence. It is obvious that extreme caution must be exercised in this regard, yet the reality is irrefutable. At various times in history, there are those who denied this and insisted that violence is never the answer to a problem, no matter the consequences. Sometimes, being merciful to the evil will result in evil to the merciful.

In this case, Pinchas was prepared to act against the perpetrators to stay the plague and restore the Jewish people’s relationship with God, while others stood about, unable to act. This made him subject to extreme criticism and even attack from his peers. Yet God indicated that Pinchas had acted justly by rewarding him with the most counter-intuitive form of blessing - an all-new form of priesthood. This was a unique priesthood, one granted by bringing peace the hard way.

Monday, July 02, 2007

Dating In Context

A lot of dating takes place out of context. The courting pair visits restaurants, hotel lobbies, theatres, parks and museums in their efforts to decide whether they are suited. This is vital: quality time spent together discussing serious issues and simply ‘hanging out’ in each other’s company are key ways of assessing long-term suitability and compatibility of aims. Yet this is all insufficient unless what we might term ‘context’ is added to the equation. If two people don’t see each other in the context of their existing lives, do they really have any chance of properly assessing the other? This concern seems especially germane in younger, very religious circles, where the prevalent mode of dating allows hardly any time for getting to know one another, let alone seeing each other in context. It also features as a key issue with ‘international dating’, in which one party pays the other a short and very intense visit, making it difficult to gain any real insight into each other’s lives.

The Mishnah in Avot says:

Al tadin et haverkha ad shetagia limkomo - don't judge your fellow until you reach his place. (Avot 2:4)

The usual understanding of this is that one shouldn’t judge another until one has experienced the same set of circumstances in which a particular event occurred. One simply cannot understand another person’s behaviour and motivation unless one has been in the same ‘place’.

The Me’iri (ad loc.) offers an alternative, more literal reading in the name of ‘a few of his teachers’. He suggests that the correct understanding of the Mishnah is that one can’t properly judge someone until one has visited their place – i.e. seen them in their home environment, and, as he puts it, ‘seen their behaviour in their place’. Everyone behaves differently at home from when they are elsewhere; the former is a much more accurate indicator of their true character and behaviour than the latter.

This is very important advice for those involved in the shidduch scene. Shouldn’t proper dating afford each discreet opportunities to see the other on his or her home turf? If the two people live in different cities, that will certainly involve visiting each other at home; irrespective, it must always include some exposure to family members, friends, favourite haunts, trusted advisers, and perhaps even Shul and community life. Of course, this exposure needs to happen gradually and organically as part of the development of the relationship, at a stage and in a way that is comfortable for both parties. It is clearly not without its risks, yet it is essential. So essential, in fact, that I am sceptical about the depth of any relationship from which it has been absent.

This is much easier said than done. In many parts of the observant world, dating is conducted away from the public gaze exposure and even from friends, partly for reasons of modesty and partly because people ‘might talk’. While the former is valid and must be taken into consideration, the second is a regrettable feature of a Jewish world that can’t quite take the laws of lashon hara (forbidden gossip) sufficiently seriously. At least among some younger people, this may rule out introducing context to the relationship as simply too risky.

Admittedly, properly contextualised dating is more likely to happen among older singles who date for longer and are less inhibited about exposing their relationship to others. Would it take a huge culture change to allow religious dating for younger, very religious Jews in this way? Perhaps, but with what at least seems to be a substantial increase in the number of failing relationships, one I’m not sure we should dismiss without serious consideration.