Positive Orthodoxy in the Associated Press

Saturday’s Washington Post carried an AP article, Orthodox Answers to Unusual Questions, on the religion page. While I couldn’t find it on the Washington Post site, CNN/Netscape has the same article.

It discusses the Institute for Science and Halacha in Jerusalem, and portrays both the institute and director Rabbi Levi Yitzchak Halperin — and Halacha — in a serious and complimentary light. The most interesting part, to me, was his determination that inline skates are acceptable on Shabbos (“skates can’t break down the way bikes do”), but the article makes a much larger point about the ongoing relevance of the Halachic system. As Dov Kaplan, the American-born questioner, put it, “we also have to show that Orthodox rabbis are not distant, unapproachable and closed to new ideas. Who knows if I’ll actually skate. It’s more about making a point.”

Actually, I found another surprising heter (permission) on the same page, in one of the news briefs. “An American publisher has signed a deal with a top Islamic scholar to publish a rare English translation of the Koran.” The surprise? “The matter is sensitive because Muslims hold that the Koran’s text was given directly in Arabic from Al-lah to … Read More >>

Variations on a Theme by Dr. Schick

Without weighing in on the main question posed by Dr. Schick (Oct. 28), I will offer one observation, and pose another question.

Dr Schick’s concern about airing dirty linen in public is – unfortunately – much ado about nothing. The linen is already hanging from the tallest masts.

There are simply no secrets left. The “bird of the sky” that will inevitably “carry the sound” (Koheles 10:20) has sprouted digital wings. In the age of the internet, everything that is ever uttered becomes a matter of public record, and is never forgotten. It would behoove us all to keep in mind that our conduct is being scrutinized not only by the Ribbono Shel Olam, but by lots of human critics, poised to use every misadventure against us. It is ironic that Satmar, which often uses the notion of not “inciting the nations” against us as a central tenet in its anti-Zionism, often does not seem to understand this.

A Sukkos visitor drove the point home when he asked whether I knew that I was featured prominently on some anti-Semitic websites. I actually had known that a few cites quoted some rather innocuous statements I had made in … Read More >>

Satmar v. Satmar

I have a question regarding the disgraceful goings-on within Satmar, including but not limited to the violence that occurred on Simchas Torah when the two rival factions desecrated G-D’s name in the main Satmar shul in Williamsburg. My question is whether I should write about this incident and related matters in my regular Jewish Week column.

The argument against writing is that it is wrong to hang out our dirty linen in public, particularly when every bit of Orthodox wrongdoing is pounced on by those who hate our religion and presented as evidence of Orthodox decadence. On the other hand, writing may – and I admit that this might be a longshot – cause some within Satmar to contemplate changing the way their disputes are handled. As a collateral point, not writing may be regarded as turning a blind eye to something that is substantially wrong.

I hope that those who look at this comment will share their views with me, hopefully in a measured way. I might note that if I do write I will also touch on the wrongfulness of Satmar going to secular courts to settle this and other disputes.

Sir Francis Crick, DNA, and ID

As YomTov arrived, I realized that I had heard “somewhere” about a prominent scientist who proposed the genetic seeding of Planet Earth, which is related to my previous post about Darwin vs. Design. With a bit of research I confirmed that this was none other than Sir Francis Crick, who along with James Watson discovered the double-helix structure of DNA. He found it so complex that in his book, Life Itself, Crick proposed that the basic genetic structure of bacterial DNA was seeded from outer space.

The Wikipedia article points out that Crick later rethought his position, and became more optimistic about spontaneous generation of life on this planet. But his theory — and the reasons behind it — are informative.

What he proposed is, of course, Intelligent Design without a Divine designer — essentially putting off the question of Who or what (be that a Designer or spontaneous process) created life structures able to develop the space-travelling aliens. Crick simply thought that design was more probable than spontaneous generation — so much so that he was willing to entertain the idea of space aliens popping on over to the Third Rock from the … Read More >>

Go After the Majority

With the 150-year anniversary of The Origin of Species just a few years away, here’s a startling fact: most Americans don’t buy it. According to CBS News, 51% believe that G-d Created humans as they are now, 30% believe in G-d-guided evolution, and a mere 15% believe that it happened at random. Last year CBS found that 55% believed G-d Created man (as is), but that’s not a statistically-significant decline (four points is the margin of error of this year’s poll alone).

Considering that evolution has been delivered to public-school students, without any alternative, for generations, this is very surprising — especially to Jews, who might well have expected the numbers to be reversed. The American Jewish Identity Survey (done at CUNY in 2001) recorded that 44% of Jews describe themselves as “secular” or “somewhat secular,” compared to only 16% of the US population. Jews are more likely than any other group to somewhat or strongly disagree with the statement that “there exists a G-d who performs miracles” — more so than Buddhists, whose religion isn’t theistic per se, and more than Americans of no declared faith.

It is interesting that the line between evolution and theism … Read More >>

Rabbi Naftoli Neuberger zt”l

Today was the levaya (funeral) of Rav Naftoli (Herman) Neuberger, the long time administrative head of Yeshivas Ner Israel of Baltimore. As the public representative of not only the yeshiva, but much of Baltimore’s Orthodox community for many years, his funeral was attended not only by yeshiva deans and Rabbis from distant cities, but by political figures including Baltimore’s Mayor Martin O’Malley.

The funeral was extremely brief, even by the standards of levayos held on days when conventional eulogies are not said (such as the intermediate days of Sukkos). After Mincha (the afternoon service), Psalms were recited for 35 minutes (four chapters, and then spelling out NaFTaLI BeN MEIR HaLeVI NeShaMaH from Psalm 119), and then his son Rav Sheftel Neuberger spoke — for under three minutes. He pointed out that the halacha precludes eulogies, and then said:

You left us suddenly and quietly, in a most dignified manner that Chazal (Our Sages) call misas neshikah, the kiss of death of the Ribono Shel Olam (Master of the World), on an erev Shabbos with your panecha l’maalah (face upwards), after having lit the Neiros Shabbos (Shabbos candles). The Ribono Shel Olam fulfilled your wish, you never wanted to be … Read More >>

The Yom Kippur Monopoly

Just before Yom Kippur, a popular Jerusalem shopping mall published a glossy magazine supplement advertising its latest glitzy fashion items, many of which are beyond modesty. In the centerfold of the magazine is a Hebrew article entitled ,”How To Make It Through the Fast–Day.“ Among the suggestions are the usual erev Yom Kippur precautions: lots of water, no caffeine, many carbohydrates, etc., etc.

Then comes the kicker, a sub-section called, “Additional Tips For An Easy Fast.” (Free Hebrew lesson: the word for “tips” is tippim.) It is possible, says the article, to have a pleasant Yom Kippur even without eating. Among the best ways to take your mind off food is to meet with friends and family; read light books; play enjoyable games like Monopoly, and watch some video. (It goes without saying that no mention is made of such ideas as repentance, prayer, tzedakah, books of life and death – or, God forbid, God.

My first reaction was one of shock and insult. If they don’t want to observe Yom Kippur, that is their problem. But why observe and desecrate at the same time? Does God really desire their fasting under such circumstances? Isaiah’s angry words (I:12) came to mind: “Mi bikesh zot miyedchem remot chatzerai” “Who asks this of you, to trample on my precincts?” It would be better if you ate all day to your heart’s content rather than to refrain from food without a thought of the larger issues that Yom Kippur represents.

But then a calmer reaction forced its way to the surface. Perhaps this is not entirely negative. At least, the memory of Yom Kippur is still alive in the hearts of Israelis, even the totally secularized ones. True, this makes a mockery of the sanctity of the holiest day of the year, but at the very least, they are maintaining something of Jewish tradition, even if they are doing it improperly. These people are not, after all, deliberately desecrating Yom Kippur. They know no better, and this is how they were raised and taught. Perhaps, in paraphrase of that old Chasidic tale, one can say of them that even while they play Monopoly on Yom Kippur, they still fast on that holy day. In fact, maybe this is an indictment of the inability of observant Jews to reach out and explain Jewish values to those who have been deprived of them.

Several questions come to mind: Continue reading → The Yom Kippur Monopoly

Merge the Movements?

David Forman, a Reform Rabbi living in Israel, argues in the Jerusalem Post that the Conservative and Reform movements in Israel should merge. The credits describe him merely as “a Reform rabbi [and] the author of Fifty Ways to be Jewish,” but I recall him being reasonably prominent.

The dismissiveness with which he treats any distinction between Conservative and Reform would surely have drawn howls of outrage were it to have come from a charedi pen. He is also surprisingly negative about the two movements’ sum total of success on Israeli soil. [The two movements have been in Israel for many decades, and have spent tens (if not hundreds) of millions of dollars on outreach — and he calls them “fledgling.”]

Messages From and To G-d

You can ignore the moronic mullahs. You can ignore the well-meaning Pat Robertson and his understanding of the Divine message in Katrina, South Asia earthquakes, and other sundry phenomena. Even the hardened skeptic like me, however, would not want to ignore the Gemara. Rain on Sukkos is a depressing sign. Days after a month-and-a-half-long struggle with our imperfections, ten days of pleading for our Father to let us come back home, we pour a cup for our Master, and it is thrown back in our face.

Certainly, much commentary to the Gemara dilutes its impact. It does not apply to climes in which rains come and go at all times (Aruch Hashulchan and others). Even in Israel, where the entire summer is dry and rains commence in the late fall, the bad omen applies only when the Sukkos rain launches the season, but not when precipitation begins some time before Sukkos, and continues through the holiday (Bikurei Yaakov). At times, they tell us, the rain can even be a positive sign. The Bais Yosef’s Maggid (heavenly “insider source”) informed him one year that the rains they experienced one Sukkos signified that Hashem was pleased with their Sukkos service, and augured plentiful precipitation in the coming growing season.

Alas, none of this was of very much consolation to us in Los Angeles when we first heard the predictions of rain for Monday and Tuesday of this week. No one here could remember a rained-out beginning of Sukkos in at least fifty years. (In the close to thirty years that I have lived here, we have missed fewer than a handful of nights sleeping in the sukkah.) Our climate is very similar to Israel’s; we can almost always count on no precipitation from Pesach till after Sukkos. It had indeed not rained since then, and no one I know laid claim to a Maggid conveying information from Above that we ought not worry.

We are also singularly unprepared for the effects of rain. As it is, Los Angeles almost grinds to a halt when there is significant precipitation – a nuance of West Coast life that New Yorkers find amusing. None of us have awnings or covers over our sukkas, and we’ve never considered how to waterproof the carpet on our sukkah floor. Continue reading → Messages From and To G-d

Weather Changes – are they good for the Jews?

Among the seasons, autumn tends to be most dramatic in its changes, with rain and sun exchanging dominance and the thermometer playing yoyo with our sweaters and jackets. The days grow shorter, and the elegance of baseball swings is replaced with the intensity of football huddles. The impending chill and dreariness of winter creates an ominous aura. Pyschologists suggest sunlight type lamps – they don’t do it for me.

The days following Yom Kippur also tend to be a bit of a downer. Expectations of personal growth borne of High Holiday pledges rapidly fade as commitments to self-improvement fall short at the first or second challenge. Yet again, promises to be different, to be better, are exposed as mere fancies, and a defeated ego retreats to lick its wounds in a in a bowl of chocolate ice cream.

I once thought that the post-Yom Kippur Succos experience is calendered during the weather changes of autumn to accentuate the personal changes that the holiday season is available to facilitate. How quaint, I thought, that the weather shows that change is, indeed, possible. Alas, I am reminded that people barely change, if at all. And that the weather, itself, rarely changes … Read More >>

More on Lulavim

The Jerusalem Post reports that the “lulav situation” was made worse by a cartel that managed to become the sole importer of lulavim. An unnamed Bnei Brak-based importer is credited with breaking the cartel and bringing prices back to normal.

The story, however, is very confusing — it reads as if it were written by a conspiracy theorist rather than a news reporter. For starters, it seems to place all the blame for the lulav shortage upon this mysterious cartel, and doesn’t even mention the new Egyptian regulation barring the export of palm fronds — even though the latter is already well-known as the cause (we’re not getting as many lulavim in the US, either, and no Israeli cartel is to blame), and the Post itself discussed the Egyptian export ban just last week. It seems more likely that the “meticulously-planned cartel” had the only stock of lulavim officially approved for export; whether they were trying to recoup their extraordinary costs or were indeed gouging everyone (or some combination of the two) isn’t clear, though it’s quite obvious which theory is favored by the Post.

The JPost story refers to “aggressive methods” employed by the cartel “to corner … Read More >>

Will There Be Lulavim?

The avodah [service] of the Aseres Yamei Teshuvah [the Ten Days of Repentance, the High Holy Day Period] is almost entirely internal. On Rosh Hashanah, for instance, the principle mitzvah of the day is the blowing of the Shofar, the primary fulfillment of which is through listening. The blowing of the Shofar triggers a host of mental associations connected to the day – a summons to judgment, the blasts heralding the arrival of a king.

The Shofar also recalls the original act of Divine inspiration when Hashem breathed into Adam’s nostrils the cheilek Eloka mi’ma’al (the Divine soul). In the process, we are taken back to the original moment of Creation – “the first of Your acts” – and invited to consider anew the purpose for which Adam and each of us was created: to use his Divine soul to reveal Hashem.

On Yom Kippur, we refrain from certain physical activities. But the primary purpose of the “afflictions” of the day is to put us in a particular frame of mind – i.e., to lift us above the physical world to the point that we view the yetzer hara as something external to us, just as it was at the moment of Creation. Temporarily freed from the dominion of the Satan (the Talmud notes that the gematria [numerical value] of HaSatan is 364), we are better able to engage in the real work of the day, the recognition of how we have distanced ourselves from Hashem through our thoughts, words, and deeds.

Yet the purely internal avodah of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is not complete by itself, no matter how piercing our insights or intense our emotions. Rabbi Noson Weisz puts the matter forcefully in one of his weekly articles on the parashah. Intense emotion – even the desire for teshuvah of Yom Kippur — can easily become a form of “entertainment.” Anything that lifts us momentarily out of the realm of the humdrum and routine is by nature “entertaining.” But no matter how uplifted and inspired we may be during those “entertaining” moments, we will quickly revert the next day to our previous selves unless the uplift is translated into concrete action. Continue reading → Will There Be Lulavim?

The movie I plan to see again, this Sukkos

I haven’t seen a movie in years — or I should say, until a few days ago, I hadn’t seen one — and I certainly am not a movie reviewer, but I just have to tell you about this movie: USHPIZIN. There’s been a lot of buzz about it so you have probably heard of it, but I just want to tell you, I LOVED THIS MOVIE!
The title is an Aramaic word meaning “guests” and generally refers to the other-worldly guests, our Biblical patriarchs, who visit the sukka each day during the festival of Sukkos. In this film the ushpizin are uninvited Sukkos guests who need a place to stay.

The reviews I’ve read have all been very positive but do yourself a favor — don’t read any reviews, they will inevitably spoil some of the surprise and freshness of seeing the movie without preconceived notions.

Which is how I saw it. My husband has a Judaica store in Hollywood (Florida!) and was given two tickets to a private pre-release showing of this movie, which is how I came to see it. He didn’t know anything except “they say it’s very kosher” and “it’s Israeli.” Having no idea what the movie was about and no expectations whatsoever, I found myself transported with delight at every unfolding and unexpected frame of this movie.

I am not going to tell you the plot but I will tell you a few things about the movie. It’s in Hebrew and Yiddish with English subtitles. The main character is played by a man who apparently was a famous movie star in Israel before he became a Ba’al Teshuva (newly Orthodox) a few years ago. The woman who plays his wife is his real wife and is also a BT.

If you don’t go to movies I’m not sure I would say you should start now, but if you do go to movies, DON’T MISS THIS ONE. It’s charming, funny, sweet, sad, poignant, did I mention delightful? Continue reading → The movie I plan to see again, this Sukkos

Well, Not Quite Settled

As has been previously and compellingly demonstrated, a Nobel Prize is, in reality, no assurance of anything. Yassir Arafat received the Peace Prize; need I say more?

But be that as it may, there is little doubt that Prof. Robert Aumann is eminently qualified for the award he now shares with Thomas Schelling (to which Rabbi Adlerstein referred earlier), in the area of Game Theory. He has an extraordinary resume, and my own familiarity with the subject matter (one semester) is sufficient to know that the topic is extremely complex and demands a commanding intellect. But the debate about Codes need not of necessity be closed, simply because one side’s argument now bears “the imprimatur of a Nobel laureate.”

As Rabbi Adlerstein and others already know, my own history of enthusiasm for the Codes is (or, as will be clarified below, was) roughly as long-standing as his own skepticism. And while I agree in essence with Prof. Aumann’s conclusions, I disagree with Rabbi Adlerstein’s. This may well be a subject for further scientific investigation, regardless of the work of the committee.

One thing is clear — the opponents, no less than the proponents, have often come to the topic in order to validate their “gut response” rather than to perform a sincere investigation. As Prof. Aumann writes:

When I first presented the results of Witztum, Rips, and Rosenberg at the Center for the Study of Rationality at the Hebrew University, Professor Maya Bar-Hillel told me after the presentation, Bob, I won’t believe this no matter what evidence you bring me. She now says — and no doubt believes — that this was not really meant literally; but I believe that it was, and indeed that it remains true today. Many others hold similar views.

Let me rewind a bit, and quote the paragraph from Prof. Aumann that immediately precedes that quoted by Rabbi Adlerstein: Continue reading → Well, Not Quite Settled

One More Shopping Day

So we ignored those exhortations to “do t’shuva now — avoid the holiday rush” and allowed Elul to slip by underutilized. Rosh Hashana has come and gone, and the precious opportunity that the Aseres Y’mei T’shuva represent has been largely squandered.

Standing, as we are, one day prior to the Yom Hakadosh (as some European Jews, too awed to enunciate its proper name, would refer to Yom Kippur), is there anything left to do that can make a significant difference? The true answer to that question is, of course, that every seemingly miniscule tear of sorrow at the shambles of our spiritual selves, every change of heart, thought of remorse, resolve to improve, albeit imperceptible to all but oneself, is of inestimable significance.

Yet, there’s nothing like a concrete step that evinces a real change of heart and direction, a act that unequivocally conveys, to us and Him, a deep striving to at last, this coming year, get it right. And what if there was such a concrete step to be undertaken not merely in regard to a particular aspect of our spiritual landscape, but, rather, would impact upon that which the Vilna Gaon adjudged to be the … Read More >>

Nobel Prize Settles Bible Codes Dispute

Well, almost.

First we’ll celebrate the award.

Yesterday, the Nobel Prize in Economics was awarded to an Orthodox Jew, who wears his observance visibly and proudly. Robert J Aumann shared the prize for his work in game-theory, the same field that led to an earlier award to John Nash, of A Beautiful Mind fame.

My students at Loyola Law School probably have a hard time figuring out why an article from American Scientist (July-August 2000) is included in their opening assignment. During the opening lecture, I explain some of the reasons why a secular (actually, Jesuit) law school would bother teaching about Jewish Law. One reason I offer is that Torah literature often anticipates problems that are first considered in Western thought only many centuries later. Jewish law can often provide a template for further discussion and analysis. The article points to one such area: the fair division of assets in complex situations. It points to and analyzes the earliest consideration of a problem now taken up by mathematicians, and reproduces some of the text of the Gemara Kesuvos 93A that offers it. The primary source of the analysis is an article by Aumann in the … Read More >>

Time to Think about Ourselves

[This article requires knowledge of Talmudic idioms and the yeshivos of Europe in order to be fully understood. Apologies in advance to those who do not understand many of the terms; it would have overly detracted from the article to translate or go into lengthy explanations. It is unusual for Cross-Currents to publish articles requiring this level of background. –Ed.]

One recent Shabbos, I ran into a well-respected, American-born talmid chacham as he was energetically advancing the theory that the average yeshiva student today is a more accomplished lamdan (scholar) than was the average yeshiva student in pre-War Europe. Since my friend’s father was himself a distinguished rosh yeshiva, who learned for many years under the Chafetz Chaim in Radin, I could not dismiss his claims out of hand.

But even if we need not bow our heads before our predecessors with respect to lomdus or kishronos, an issue I’m totally unqualified to judge, there is one area, at least, in which no one would deny the superiority of pre-War Europe. The pre-War yeshivos produced people of infinitely greater depth and seriousness. Reading the kabolos (behaviors undertaken to perform) from the Mussar vaadim in the Bais HaTalmud of Kelm of one hundred years ago, it is hard to believe that such people lived within recent memory.

Rabbi Shia Geldzhaler once told me that in Antwerp before the War frum Jews did not smile during the Three Weeks prior to Tisha B’Av. Today, even in entirely chareidi neighborhoods, who feels an air of tension during Elul?

During Elul, former talmidim of the Bais HaTalmud of Kelm returned from all over Lithuania to spend the entire month within its holy precincts. Who today can imagine taking off an entire month of work for entirely spiritual pursuits? The pace of modern life does not offer that option. Continue reading → Time to Think about Ourselves

Play to Win

Do you know whether the chair you are sitting on actually exists?

At first glance, it seems like a silly question, but — as my correspondent pointed out — the truth is considerably more complex. There could be some sort of force field combined with signals sent to our brains, showing us (and letting us “sit” upon) chairs that aren’t really here. To take it even a step further, our “brains” could be soaking in a nutrient bath in an entirely different universe, with a giant computer feeding us “information” from a multi-sensory virtual reality simulation.

Most of us will begrudgingly acknowledge that this all could possibly be true, but don’t really care. My correspondent, however, wants to recognize G-d to a greater extent than our level of knowledge that the chair exists — suddenly making this a matter of genuine concern.

To the best of my understanding, that level of understanding G-d falls in the realm of what even Moshe was unable to “see.” In the Talmud Chagiga 13a (quoted in Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto’s Da’as Tevunos, Section 34), it says “what is wondrous beyond you, do not seek.” There are areas in understanding of G-d and G-d’s Attributes that we are supposed to delve into, and understand to the best of our ability — and others that are simply beyond human comprehension. The Malbim says that we are incapable of understanding G-d through His essence, but only through His actions. Our minds are incapable of seeing beyond how G-d interacts with the world, because we are limited by the physical world. So we must take as axiomatic that what our senses deliver to us does, by and large, reflect physical reality, and work from there.

At the same time, those who subscribe to the Torah’s vision of the world must recognize how strong my correspondent’s point really is. The Torah tells us that this is Olam HaSheker — a “false world.” We are in a virtual reality simulation. Continue reading → Play to Win

Should We Give Up On American Jewry?

Jack Wertheimer, provost of the Jewish Theological Seminary, has written a terrific, must-read article for the latest issue of Commentary. “Jews and the Jewish Birthrate” is chock full of ideas and data that add up to a pessimistic view of the American Jewish prospect. While intermarriage inescapably contributes to this pessimism, Jack’s primary focus is on fertility and related demographic factors. He notes that our median age is “seven years older than other Americans” and that “among Americans of all kinds … Jews have the fewest number of siblings, the smallest household size, and the second lowest number of children under eighteen at home.”

Furthermore, too many of us do not marry. Those who do, as often as not, marry non-Jews. We also marry later and have fewer children than other white Gentiles. In short, as Jews have become more appreciated by their fellow Americans and have made distinctive contributions, we also are moving in the direction of becoming extinct. Since we are certainly among the most avid readers of the New York Times and, I suspect, pay inordinate attention to obituary notices, we should have a good sense of what is happening at that end of the life-cycle. Many more of us are exiting than are entering and with the exception of the Orthodox, the new arrivals are far less likely to be Jewishly connected than those who have departed.

The “cumulative effect” of these developments, Jack writes, “is now being felt and will only become amplified as time goes by. In a community that has long since ceased to replace its natural losses, continued low fertility rates mean that the number of children in the communal pipeline will soon drop sharply, causing a decline over the next decade in enrollments in Jewish schools and other institutions for the young.” He quotes sociologist Bruce Phillips that soon “there will be fewer practitioners of Judaism in the U.S.,” a development that “will at some point become evident in the number and/or size of synagogues and other Jewish institutions.”

The article explores the socio-psychological, behavioral and ideological factors that contribute to the disturbing fertility pattern which is in contrast to the high fertility of the Orthodox. Although separately Reform and Conservative affiliation outnumbers by huge margins the number of Orthodox Jews, “among synagogue-affiliated Jews, the Orthodox sector contains more children than either of the other two.”

Apart from the Orthodox whose ranks will continue to grow, although aliyah and abandonment by some of a religious life will limit the gains, is it time to face reality and say that there is little to be done to avoid the inevitable loss of nearly all non-Orthodox Jews? Is it time to throw in the towel, perhaps by deciding that our resources should be directed toward helping Israel? Continue reading → Should We Give Up On American Jewry?

Remember Us for Life

Beginning on Rosh Hashanah and continuing through Yom Kippur, we add at the beginning of every Shemoneh Esrai, “Remember us for life, O King, Who desires life? What precisely is this life for which we pray? Do we have anything more in mind than that we not die in the year to come?

Most people conceive of life as series of moments, each presenting some opportunity for pleasure. When that opportunity is not realized, the moment is dead. But even when we succeed in achieving a certain sensory exhilaration, a moment later that sensation has passed forever and is unrecoverable.

Viewed in this fashion, life is a succession of little deaths, which we use to count down to our ultimate demise. That is why Chazal refer to such life as chayei sha’a, momentary life.

Life so defined is inevitably experienced in the debit column. We are like someone at the amusement park waiting half an hour for a thirty second roller coaster ride. The moments of sensory excitement will inevitably be far fewer than the intervals in between.

Life in the Torah’s terminology, however, is always something eternal, continuous. The source of life is described as a constantly flowing spring – mayim chayim, and when we attach ourselves to that never ceasing spring, we experience eternity. Continue reading → Remember Us for Life

Self scrutiny in Elul

James Taranto of Opinion Journal had some good fun at the expense of The New York Times editorial page last week. He compared the Times’ editorial urging Senators to vote no on President Bush’s nominee for Chief Justice, John Roberts, to one written 11 years ago in support of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a Clinton nominee for the Supreme Court.

The two nominees have much in common. Both were sitting on the D.C. Court of Appeals at the time of their nomination for the Court. Both had well deserved reputations as excellent appellate advocates. Ginsburg made hers as an advocate on behalf of the ACLU and womens’ groups; after serving as a deputy solicitor general under President George H. W. Bush, Roberts’ represented clients across the ideological spectrum in private practice. In their Senate confirmation hearings, both left their questioners looking more than a little out of their depth, if not a bit silly, and both had refused to say how they would rule on particular cases that might come before the Court.

The Times charitably conceded that Roberts’ legal abilities more than qualified him for the Court, and even conceded that he might make a superb chief justice. Nevertheless, bemoaned the Gray Lady, his failure to promise never to tamper with existing precedents on a number of liberal red-flag issues rendered him too much of an enigma for confirmation. Roberts frequent protestations of respect for the weight of precedent failed to satisfy the Times.

Curiously, the Times took a very different approach to the Clinton nominee. The paper’s unsigned editorial stressed how Ginsburg had “dwarfed . . . her questioners” and “outclassed those entrusted to advice and consent on her nomination” — a description that applied equally to Roberts. Ginsburg, opined the Times, was correct in demanding that the Senators judge her “as a judge, not as an advocate,” and refusing to commit herself on particular issues like the death penalty.

The only explanation for the Times’ different approaches to the two nominees is the men who nominated them: There is no nominee that President Bush could conceivably put forward whom the Times would support.

It would be tempting to think that the Times’ slippery approach to first principles is a particular affliction of the Left. Certainly, the Israeli Left has long been more concerned with winning the battle for its “peace” plans than with the values of democracy, the rule of law, and civil liberties of which it claims to be the stalwart defender. And it is child’s play to point to pairs of decisions of the Israeli Supreme Court where only the identity of the parties can explain the difference in results. It would be amusing, if it were not so sad, to observe the manner in which some ardent feminists can be found defending the most oppressive regimes towards women, as long as they are sufficiently anti-American or anti-Israel.

But truth be told, the tendency to concern oneself only with immediate results, without much concern for underlying principles or means, cuts across the ideological spectrum. Continue reading → Self scrutiny in Elul