Thursday, September 17, 2015

New Year's Revolutions - Reflections on Parashat VaYeilech 5776

(Deuteronomy 31:1 - 31:30)

Jewish Education. From the earliest age, our daughters came to expect one question at our weekly Shabbat dinner table, and woe unto the unfortunate lass who did not have a ready answer.

The question was always the same: "What are you reading?" Any answer was acceptable, so long as it wasn't 'nothing'. 

Over time, the kids were so excited about sharing their latest book that they began reading them aloud to the table. So it was that a simple pedagogical question developed into a charming element of our Shabbat feast that continues to this day. 

After we take turns sharing with the table the good things that have transpired in the course of the previous week, after the words of Torah, after the singing and the eating (and the ritual walking of Guinness the dog), we settle down to hear a chapter or two in the latest saga.

I have now been plugged in to The Sisters Grimm (ALL nine volumes), The 39 Clues (15+ volumes), The Mysterious Benedict Society (three), The Heroes' Guide to Saving Your Kingdom (three), Dear Dumb Diary (dozens), and many, many more. The giggles and smiles that fill our house from these stories have become an integral part of our Oneg Shabbat, the transcendental joy of the Shabbat experience.

This week's parashah is all about Jewish Education. Hashem commands Moses to assemble the Jewish People once every seven years to hear the Reading of the entire Torah. No one was exempt: every man, woman and child was required to attend. This mitzvah is called Hak-Hel, the Gathering.

But Moses quickly grasped that once every seven years wasn't nearly enough. Such was our love for Gcd's Torah that Moses ordained that we read the Torah, not once every seven years, but once every seven days. That is why about 1/50 of the Torah is read every Shabbat, completing the entire Five Books of Moses, from Bereishit/Genesis through Devarim/Deuteronomy, once every year.

But even that wasn't enough. Such was our love for Gcd's Torah that Ezra decreed that even three days shouldn't pass without reading the Torah. So every Monday and Thursday, on the ancient market days when Jews would gather, we read a few verses from the weekly Torah portion as well.

But even that wasn't enough. Such was our love for Gcd's Torah that anytime Jews assemble, a word of Torah, a nugget of Truth, a clever insight, is shared.
Rabbi Chananiah ben Teradion said: when even two people gather and a word of Torah is shared between them, the Divine Spirit rests upon them. (Avot 3:3)
Jews are perpetual learners, permanent students, and Jewish Education is at the heart of the secret of Jewish Survival. Show me a Jew who sets aside time to study Torah every day, and I'll show you a Jew whose children, whose grandchildren and great-grandchildren will be identifiable Jews decades from now.

Tragically, some forms of Jewish Education left a bad taste in the mouths of many people. Cheders and Talmud Torahs tried to give a sprinkling of Judaism to public school students, but multiple studies over several decades have shown that the Talmud Torah model of Jewish Education is worthless. In fact, Talmud Torah accomplished the opposite: this negative experience left many (otherwise) highly educated people with the impression that Torah study and Judaism were not worthy of their time and attention. 

There's a great clip from Woody Allen's movie Radio Days that captures the geist of supplementary Jewish Education:

Yet studying the Torah, is, as we say in our daily prayers, our very lives and length of our days. If we have abandoned our commitment to the daily study of Torah, is it any wonder that Judaism in America is rapidly dying?

As I have written elsewhere, I believe we are entering a period of great economic, political and social instability. The Talmud tells us the secret of surviving this turmoil:
The students of Rabbi Elazar asked him: What should a person do to save themselves from the birth pangs of the Messianic Age? He responded: be engaged in the study of Torah and do great acts of kindness to your fellowman. (Sanhedrin 98B)
In order to survive the coming maelstrom, we must do outrageous and unrequited acts of goodness for each other, and we must study Torah. Like two medicines, the effect is only achieved by taking both; one without the other won't work. 

Commit to sticking your nose in a book of the Torah for ten minutes every day. It doesn't matter what you study, find or discover an area of interest: the choices are endless and almost the entire 3,500 year-old treasury of Jewish thought and literature is available in English.

If the ossified Jewish Establishment was genuinely interested in Jewish survival, it would re-prioritize allocations to ensure a free, quality Hebrew Day School education to every single Jewish child in North America. The goal should be: not a single Jewish kid in public school. But since your feckless Federation leadership won't do it, earmark your Federation dollars exclusively for that goal. Or better yet, completely bypass the Federation and their scandalously high overhead, and donate directly to the Scholarship Fund of the Hebrew Day School of your choice.

Let's start a revolution, you and me, right here and now between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur. Whatever you lose sleep over - injustice, hunger, sovereign debt, Iranian Nukes, ISIS, crumbling social morays, galloping inflation, police brutality - if you want to change the world, begin by changing yourself, begin by committing to a regime of daily Torah study. 

Rabbi Elazar had it going on. Get Jewishly educated, particularly (especially) if you think you know all there is to know Jewish-wise. Because as the saying goes, the more you know, the more you know you don't know.

He speaks the truth, my faithful Indian companion.

Shabbat Shalom and Shanah Tovah!

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Moses and the Mob - Reflections on Parashat Ki Tavo 5775

(Deuteronomy 26:1 - 29:8)

A Facebook friend recently posted the following:
When you call yourself an Indian or a Muslim or a Christian or a European, or anything else, you are being violent. Do you see why it is violent? Because you are separating yourself from the rest of mankind. When you separate yourself by belief, by nationality, by tradition, it breeds violence. So a man who is seeking to understand violence does not belong to any country, to any religion, to any political party or partial system; he is concerned with the total understanding of mankind. - Jiddu Krishnamurti
Krishnamurti's sentiment is typical of the very dangerous post-enlightenment twaddle that passes for wisdom in our benighted age. 

Why do I call it dangerous? Let's engage our little grey cells and tease his idea apart a little.

Krishnamurti's Prime Axiom: All Violence is (by definition) Evil and Must Be Eliminated. It sounds so noble, doesn't it? Only, the corollary to this sentiment is that there is absolutely nothing worth fighting for, no set of values important enough to defend, even (if need be) with our lives.

For example, the world watches unmoved as ISIS rapes young infidel girls; even as they march to rape and enslave our wives. Raise no hand against the monstrous beheadings of non-believers, even as they come to behead your parents and children. After all, better to be slaves than to fight the oppressor; the Prime Axiom states that there is no evil wicked enough to justify violence, because violence itself is the supreme evil. 

Krishnamurti's Second Axiom: Distinctions are Violence. It follows, then, that the solution to the ills of society is to eliminate divisiveness and distinction; to create a society devoid of hues, of shades, of vibrant colors, of individuality. For the benefit of mankind, we must build a uniformly gray utopia, for any deviation breeds violence, and violence is the ultimate evil (refer to Prime Axiom).

Let's play a little semantic game. Try substituting "Proletariat" for "Mankind":
When you call yourself a [person of conscience or unique identity or distinction], you are being violent. Do you see why it is violent? Because you are separating yourself from the rest of [the Proletariat]. When you separate yourself by belief, by nationality, by tradition, it breeds violence. So a man who is seeking to understand violence does not belong to any country, to any religion, to any political party or partial system; he is concerned with the total understanding of [the Proletariat].
Anyone who presumes to rise above the proletariat must be ruthlessly punished for crimes against society. Have a good idea and want to start a little business? We will reward you with punitive regulations, massive bureaucracies and confiscatory tax codes. How dare you show initiative, because your comrades have none. How dare you invent or dream, because your comrades have no dreams. Your ambition is subversive; your dangerous thinking threatens the common good. 

Does that sound more familiar? It should. If not, dust off a copy of Das Kapital or Huxley's Brave New World or Orwell's 1984. (Orwell was just off by a few decades.)

I urge you to think seriously about the implications of Krishnamurti's sentiment, because it is the intellectual underpinning for the social and political philosophies that guide modern Western society. 

Then contrast it with the following idea in this week's Torah Portion:
On this day, the Lcrd your Gcd commands you to do all these ordinances and statutes, that you should be careful and not just do them, but do them with all your heart and all your might. Then you can declare to the Lord that He will be your Gcd, that you will walk in His ways, and will observe His Mitzvoth (commandments) and listen to His voice; and [in return] Gcd declares today that you will be a treasured nation unto Him as He has spoken to you, precisely because you observe His Mitzvoth; and to raise you above all the other nations for praise, for fame and for splendor; that you should be a consecrated nation to the Lord your Gcd, as He has spoken. - Deuteronomy 26:17-19
 Rashi on these verses states:
It seems to me that that the Hebrew word "He'emartah" (declare) denotes a setting apart or separating: just as you (the Jews) have separated yourselves from alien gods and devoted yourselves to My service, He has set you apart from among the Nations of the Earth to be His Treasured Nation.
(BTW: Want to be part of the Treasured Nation? No problem - keep the mitzvoth.)

We Jews are all about distinctions. "In the beginning Gcd created the Heaven and the Earth."  He created distinctions between the spiritual and physical, between light and darkness, between good and evil, between life and death, between the Holy Sabbath Day and the other six days of the week, between the Jews and other Nations of the World.

In a word, He created the concept of mitzvah.

Jews are distinct precisely because we carefully observe those mitzvoth. Bilaam the Wicked is forced to concede that, because of the mitzvoth that we faithfully perform, the Jews are "a nation that dwells apart, not to be reckoned among the other nations." 

Every time we read the Torah (which is a lot), Jews stand up and proclaim in a loud voice: "Blessed Are You, O Lcrd, Our Gcd, King of the Universe, Who chose us ("Asher Bachar Banu") from among all the other Nations and gave us His Torah."

So we Jews are the poster children for the very thing which Krishnamurti explicitly condemns: we separate ourselves by belief, by nationality, and by tradition. We don't eat your food or drink your wine; we don't share your social values or priorities; we have a different rhythm to the days of the years of our lives and march to the beat of an entirely different drummer. 

We proudly preserve those distinctions that have preserved us alive for close to four thousand years. Like Rashi's quid pro quo: separation for separation.

But according to Krishnamurti and his ilk, the very distinctions which define us are violent and violence is evil. 

The implication is chilling. 

Yet again, the Jew is cast as the enemy of humanity. (Another totalitarian regime did the same thing about 80 years ago...who was it...hmmm...let me think...finger tapping chin)

This neo-totalitarianism holds that it is Israel's fault that Iran wants the bomb. It is Israel's fault Arab peasants live in squalor while their potentates live like robber barons (which they pretty much are.)

But mainly, it is the Jew's tenacity in maintaining his unique identity that is the cause of violence in the world. The Jew's principal crime against humanity is his stubborn insistence on surviving.

I hope I am wrong, but it looks like the day is quickly approaching when to openly declare "Asher Bachar Banu" is to expose oneself to criminal prosecution for hate speech and perhaps far worse.

No matter who you are or where you live, every person is going to have to take a stand in this Kulturkampf. Will you capitulate to the tyranny of conformity, or will you stand with the Jews - which is to say, take a stand for distinction, for individuality, for conscience, for objective Truth?

In the face of frank evil..."Moses stood up at the entrance to the encampment and declared, 'All Who are for Gcd, Come to Me!'" (Exodus 32:26)

As the entire world stands before the Heavenly Court this Rosh HaShanah, Gcd will undoubtedly want to know: will you stand with Moses, or with the Mob?

Shabbat Shalom.