On not shaming others

It should not come as a surprise that I like the parasha thoughts of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. Here’s a paragraph from this year’s discussion of parashat Vayeshev that I wanted to share:

[…] We, the semikhah and yeshiva students, were davenning the morning service in one of the lounges in the chateau when the Reform woman entered, wearing tallit and tefillin, and sat herself down in the middle of the group.

This is something the students had not encountered before. What were they to do? There was no mechitzah. There was no way of separating themselves. How should they react to a woman wearing tallit and tefillin and praying in the midst of a group of men? They ran up to the Rav in a state of great agitation and asked what they should do. Without a moment’s hesitation he quoted to them the saying of the sages: A person should be willing to throw himself into a furnace of fire rather than shame another person in public.
(Rabbi Jonathan Sacks: The Heroism of Tamar (Vayeshev 5775))

This is a lesson that contrasts with the seemingly never-ending news about religious Jews who throw tantrums on airplanes because they have to sit next to a woman and other such stories. A little humility, taking back oneself rather than shame another. And the worlds would be a better place. For those that like to have sources they can point to, here are those Rabbi Sacks gives:

Because Mar Zutra b. Tobiah said in the name of Rab (others state: R. Huna40 b. Bizna said in the name of R. Simeon the Pious; and others again state: R. Johanan said in the name of R. Simeon b. Yohai): Better had a man thrown himself into a fiery furnace than publicly put his neighbour to shame. Whence do we derive this? From [the action of] Tamar; for it is written in Scripture, When she was brought forth, [she sent to her father-in-law].
(Babylonian Talmud, Ketubot 67b)

R. Zutra b. Tobiah further said in the name of Rab — according to others. R. Hanah b. Bizna said it in the name of R. Simeon the Pious, and according to others again. R. Johanan said it in the name of R. Simeon b Yohai: It is better for a man that he should cast himself into a fiery furnace rather than that he should put his fellow to shame in public.13 Whence do we know this? From Tamar, of whom it says, When she was brought forth etc.
(Babylonian Talmud, Brachot 43b)

Women, Beit Din and the Mikvah

One of the arguments for modesty is that men can’t stop to think of women in a sexual way. So why can male rabbis be in the mikva with a female conversion candidate? Doesn’t this counter all the things we are taught about modesty? (Shoshanna Jaskoll: Make up your minds on modesty).

One argument that it does not is that the situation is the same as for a woman seeing a male doctor. It is allowed to see a doctor of the opposite gender. Supposedly the doctor can maintain a professional distance, so the situation has nothing sexual. I agree and I have seen male doctors with no second thoughts. But I guess that a doctor has seen hundreds of naked patients and as a result is very used to it. The situation with a beit din is very different. Orthodox rabbis are not used to seeing naked people all day, they might do a few conversions a year. Also, in general they remove themselves from anything related to sexuality, which makes a naked woman in the room even more unusual. So I don’t think this is a good analogy.

I am undecided on the issue of male rabbis in the mikva, but in general I argue against excessive modesty. I do think that it is possible for men to not think of sex when they see a woman. Maybe not for 16 year old hormone-crazed teens, but grown men should be able to ignore the body of a woman and talk to them normally. Evidence for this can be found in the millions of asexual social interactions between men and women in a workplace or family setting.

On the other hand, I can imagine that certain things can cause a man’s thoughts to go down the way of fantasizing about a women. And I guess that a naked woman in a bath is one of these things. Many people argue that the rabbis don’t actually see anything inappropriate, only the head or there is a robe or something. I am not sure it makes a difference, it is the situation in itself, not what is actually seen that makes it weird.

The point of this post? I don’t know what to think. Three clothed men and a naked woman in a bath makes a setting for a late-night movie I guess, but I don’t actually think anything inappropriate will happen with a beit din and a conversion candidate. I only know that I would be very uncomfortable and though I would really like to convert, I am not looking forward to the mikvah experience.

Having someone to turn to

In a previous post I wrote about establishing guidelines for the conversion process even though everybody is different. I am not very familiar with how the process works in the US (I’m in Europe), but apparently they want to introduce a person (ombudsman) that female conversion candidates can come to with their problems and concerns. I think this is a good thing and should be copied by other organizations.

Sexually inappropriate actions or exploitation is not the only problem during the conversion process. Many other things can have a negative impact on a candidate’s wellbeing. Just having some other person to talk to that is familiar with the conversion process and can give a different perspective might be equally important for some situations. Crazy Jewish Convert gives the following example:

If a person is in the conversion process for more than 3 years, we need a second opinion, and the ombudsman can alert the RCA to that need. Is it a personal problem with a rabbi in the process? Is there a disagreement over what standard the candidate should be held to in an area of halacha? Is this a family and the family members should be converted as they become ready (like the celebrated The Mountain Family)? Should the candidate be cut loose? What on earth is going on there?? Obviously something is up and needs to be reassessed. And if the candidate is just taking a long time (for whatever reason: whether health, family, financial, education, housing situation, etc), at least we will have an outside verification that the system is working like it should and that both sides understand what the delay is. Rabbis are funny about assuming that the conversion candidate knows what the problem is. The rabbi may have even said it, but it got lost in an emotional conversation or was said off-hand. Let’s make sure everyone is on the same page.
(Crazy Jewish Convert: The RCA Conversion Ombudsman Shouldn’t Just Be for Women)

It is common that a company or institution (university, etc) have some person responsible for handling complaints about equal opportunity issues (discrimination, harrasment, etc). So why not here, when this decision is so life-changing and has so much emotion attached.

Missionaries, please leave me alone

Dear missionaries, please do not attempt to link to my page or post comments that link to your page. I am not a Christian no do I intend to become one. In my opinion, "Messianic Judaism" is just a cover to get Jews to convert to Christianity (and maybe a waypoint for Christians who want to discover their "Jewish roots" and still be Christian). It has nothing to do with Judaism.

I am smart enough to know that something is fishy if a "Jewish" page talks excessively about redemption, the messiah, lambs, Yesaia and such stuff. Judaism does not believe that we are all born as sinners (see why) and that some human being had to die to grant us atonement (see why). Judaism has requirements that the messiah needs to fulfill and surely the person Christians claim as their messiah did not fulfill them (see why). You don’t fool me by putting some misspelled Hebrew on your page.

You are wasting your time and mine. So please leave me alone.

Faced with the images our text is powerless

Richard C. Schneider is the head of the Tel Aviv studio for the main German national news (ARD). In my opinion he manages to cover the region with a pretty balanced view of both sides and he has a very realistic view of the situation. The following is a translation of a text about Gaza, the war and honest journalism that he wrote for the Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung on August 3rd, 2014.

The sun is shining, children are crying: How to tell the truth about the war in Gaza, even though the truth is hidden behind propaganda and disinformation. A field report.

Richard C. Schneider, ARD Tel Aviv, zur aktuellen Lage in Nahost thumbnailHow do you cover a conflict, that in the meantime has become a war, when you have to report on both sides? "Neutrality" and "objectivity" are expected from us journalists, but in the daily routine of news producing this goal proves nearly unreachable. Not because we side with one of the parties – although some colleagues do that sometimes – but because we are faced with three obstacles: the power of images, the propaganda from both sides, the many "truths" that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict comprises, and not least the expectations of the listeners at home, in safe Germany.

The ARD studio in Tel Aviv with its branches in Gaza and Hebron is a biotop. Jews, Muslims and Christians work together, Germans, Jewish Israelis, Israeli Arabs and Palestinians. We speak Hebrew, Arabic, German and English in the studio. We are a team, some have been friends for years or decades, we know that we can rely on one another. Only this way we can be sure that we do good journalistic work.

An example: The ARD has instructed its correspondents not to go into Gaza at the moment, for security reasons. But we have a Palestinian team there. We are in constant contact by phone, we ask for stories, images, information, that we put together in the studio. We know that our team does not manipulate images, does not forge information. We can trust only the images they send us, only for these images we know that they show what we see.

But even with our images questions remain

Experience from the past wars in Gaza has shown that material from the media agencies that comes out of Gaza has often been censored by Hamas. Images that Hamas does not like are not approved (and images that people post with their phones on Twitter, Facebook or Youtube is anyway never verifiable). When Israel claimed in 2008 that Hamas fighters wear civil clothing and thus the number of civilian victims is manipulated, because they are not all civilians but also Hamas fighters, this was only verifiable for us as we got secretly filmed footage from our camera man that showed actual Hamas fighters in normal clothes who hid their kalashnikovs under the jacket.

And even with our images questions remain: We see a destroyed mosque, a tumbled minaret – and of course the horror that a house of God was bombed is the nearly automatic response, also for us. But then we have to ask: Were weapons stashed in this mosque? We know that there have been weapons’ stores in mosques, this has been proven. In these days we experience Israeli strikes (who sometimes say it was rockets by Hamas – and then it is one word against the other) on UNRWA schools with appalling, horrible pictures: Blood, badly injured babies, crying children in front of the dead bodies of their parents.

We journalists, too, first feel anger, despair, horror and grief. But we also know that Hamas rockets have been found in two schools, the UNRWA itself has confirmed this. So how do we assess this attack? Does the fact that deadly weapons meant to kill Isralis have possibly been hidden in this place justify civilian casualties? Do the rules and laws of conventional warfare apply in an assymmetric war?

Even the weather becomes a problem

In this example the dilemma we are facing becomes clear. We have to put back our own feelings. That is more difficult with the increasing duration of the war and the ever more horrifying images that we see daily, unfiltered, uncut. We have to try and weigh the deliberately-spread misinformation and the unreliable information. At the same time we have to include again and again the motivations of both sides, explain, mediate. This is much more problematic for us in TV than for the colleagues of print media. Because we know: Our texts are virtually powerless against the images.

The audience sees the crying child in front of his father’s dead body – and stops listening. Conversely he sees frightened Israelis, who are well-off in comparison with Gaza and thinks: Why are they so upset, nearly nothing is happening to them. And he forgets that there are reasons for this: the rocket defense system that the Israeli gouvernment has developed, shelters in every house, et cetera. Whereas the Hamas is using and abusing their population as human shieds. But the image, the immediate image that the viewer sees, does not convey the fear of the Israelis.

Even the weather becomes a problem, especially for the Israeli side: The sun is shining, the trees are green, the houses are more or less undamaged – where is the problem? The pictures do not show what it means to live for years with the code red alarm, especially in the border region, and to have only 15 to 40 seconds to get to a shelter.

Everybody thinks he can join in and judge

In the small city of Sderot alone about 1000 times a year. To convey this, it also does not help to film the rockets that have landed in Sderot the past years and are collected in the police station – these are abstract images, they can do little to counter the desperate, horrified face of the Palestinian child.

So how should we write? How to write against the power of images, and also against the judgements and prejudices of the viewers in Germany? Against the Islamophobes and the Islamophiles, the antisemites and philosemites, against all those who have never been to the Middle East, but think they can join the conversation on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, to an extent that does not exist for any other conflict in this world? Let’s not pretend: A conflict that involves Jews is perceived differently in Germany than a war between Muslims or between Christians.

And of course we know how the viewers will react: Many only see and hear what they want to see and hear. The most typical cases are those where the same news item is perceived as pro-Zionist respectively pro-Palestinian, the most exasperating are insults for things that we have not even said – but that were "heard" by the listener. In these cases we can do nothing, except to try and be as precise as possible in our language.

For the last six weeks we have worked around the clock

That we do not always succeed is obvious given our workload. In the weeks where ARD does the "Morgenmagazin" (morning news show), our day often starts at five AM, otherwise at 6 or 7 AM, often it takes until after midnight. Every hour we produce news items, for "Morgenmagazin" (morning), "Mittagsmagazin" (midday), "Tagesschauen" (8 PM and more), "Tagesthemen" (10/11 PM), "Nachtmagazin" (night). On some days during the war I have up to 30 live video links, because besides ARD we also serve Tagesschau24, Phoenix and the regional programs. Additionally we tweet, produce video blogs, do special broadcasts. For the last six weeks we have essentially worked 24/7, since the three Israeli youths have been abducted in the Westbank.

This "story" already seems so far away, because since then events have come so thick and fast, we have rushed from one story to the other, from one horrible occurrence to the other, from one failed ceasefire to the next, that we have lost all sense of time. We nearly don’t see our families anymore, four or five hours of sleep are the maximum, the team has become our family, we are all in the same boat and have to produce non-stop.

And sometimes we are even in danger. The team in Gaza certainly is. As head of the studio the responsibility for the welfare of the staff is mine. But what sort of "welfare" is there in Gaza? Between bombs and without shelters or safe rooms? I leave it to my Palestinian colleagues and friends to decide when and where they want to shoot – or not. Because they say it is too dangerous or because they want to be at home at night, with their wives and children, in the last resort to die together. And so we are happy every morning to hear their voices on the phone.

And we, on the Israeli side? The rockets reach Tel Aviv now, the sirens sound regularly, and we hear and see the explosions. But sometimes, like it happened a few days ago, the sirens do not sound. Then we are startled to hear an unexpected explosion. The rockets that are often trivialized as "self-made" in Germany, have long become dangerous weapons that would kill and cause massive damages if the defense system Iron Dome didn’t exist.

And: When we are standing directly at the border to Gaza and the alarm sounds, we have just about 15 seconds to run for cover. In an open field that is a problem. We throw ourselves to the ground, try to hide behind some rocks, wait for the impact and then a bit longer to avoid the danger of being hit by shrapnel. Then we get up again and continue our work, and see in the distance of not even a kilometer from us smoke, explosions, air raids.

It seems like a movie, but we know: People die, and we cannot do anything. Except to report, always go on reporting. And do the best we can.

If you want to know more about the author, there is a German Wikipedia page and an IMDB page about him. He writes regularly on the Studio Tel Aviv blog (in German) and on his twitter account (in German and English). I like him very much, most of the time he presents a very rational and balanced view of the situation.

Everybody’s conversion is different

In my previous post I wrote about the uncertainty of the conversion process and how hard this can be on the candidate. The usual reply to a question about a timeline for conversion is that everybody is different and there can be no general timeline.

Of course everybody is different. But it is possible to set guidelines and at least have the same process for everybody. Many things are different for each individual and still overall people know what to expect. Getting a PhD is not some checklist to work on. You are doing research and nobody can exactly predict what will happen. But there are ways to assess where you are currently standing, what still needs to be done and if there is a chance of reaching the goal with the amount of work you are prepared to put in. The same is true for conversion.

Ideally there would be a clear formulation of what the requirements and the typical order of steps are. Classes? Books? Tests? Meetings with rabbi and/or beit din? Of course this does not mean that anybody who attends the required number of classes [or whatever] should be converted automatically. But at some points during the process there should be an assessment of where the person is currently standing. And it helps if these points are specified, happen at not-too-big time intervals and are the same for everybody. I know that conversions are not the core task for most rabbis and that many times he will have a clear outline himself. I would still welcome any attempt of some organization to provide such a framework.

If for some reason there cannot be a general outline, not everything is lost. An easy thing to do which tremendously helps the psychological status of the candidate is to just communicate the status. Is the only thing standing between the candidate and the conversion the final meeting with the beit din? Even if there are no appointments for the next 6 months because they are busy, it makes a huge difference to know the reason for the delay. Or is there some thing that the candidate needs to work on (e.g., go fully kosher), some change the candidate needs to make (e.g., move closer to the synagogue)? Not everybody will make the same steps in the same time or even in the same order. But to know what the steps are and which ones are still a problem at least puts things into perspective. And it provides a way of tracking progress.

One other related point is to be open as well about obstacles. If the candidate has a partner who is disruptive, or the candidate still believes in his former religion, or any other major issue preventing conversion, this needs to be communicated as well. And don’t just say "please don’t come back". Give a reason. Then the candidate can make an informed choice and if the choice is not to convert and hopefully eventually accept that fact.

Finally, often the argument is that the candidate’s resolve and commitment needs to be tested. Of course. But arbitrary delays and requiring the candidate to call ten times is not weeding out the noncommited. It only puts the shy, polite, introverted and self-critical people at a disadvantage. There are other, more meaningful ways to test commitment.

I am sorry, this got longer than planned. But the unstructuredness and uncertainty of the conversion process turns away committed and sincere individuals who would be an asset to Judaism.

Limbo

The issue of conversion to Judaism is in the news again and as I read the articles, many echo my own feelings. Especially when I read the about the uncertainty and randomness of the whole process:

1. Converts are in a state of persistent limbo. During the process we are never told how long it can or should take. We cannot get married if we are dating, we cannot date if we are single. We lose control over the most important choices in our lives and hand them over to men with whom we are unfamiliar for an indeterminate amount of time. I was unable to give a new job a start date, to give my former job proper notice, sign a lease on a new apartment or set a wedding date because I was kept in the dark about how much longer my conversion could possibly take. Days? Weeks? Months? A year? Several? This is psychological torture. A rough estimate and a clear plan for how to move forward to get to the finish line, the mikvah, is the least that a convert deserves.
(Bethany S. Mandel: A bill of rights for Jewish converts)

For me, that makes 10 years of limbo. For different reasons (not being sure, moving, town without rabbi, and other), but nonetheless ten years of being in a state of "in between". Not really Jewish, but also not non-Jewish anymore. Not sure when, where and even whether at all I would convert.

For my daily life it doesn’t make much of difference. I can pray, eat kosher, keep holidays etc. just like I would do if I were Jewish. But there is a clear difference with regards to the future. During a conversion you have to put your life-plans on hold. Dating, marriage, children, moving somewhere – not advisable.

But there is only so long one can postpone a life. It is very hard to live with uncertainty about such an important part of your life and it takes up a lot of energy. For myself I have decided that I have wasted enough time and energy waiting and I am going to move on with my life. If conversion happens – good, if not – G-d knows my heart. I would like to have Jewish children, but I’m not going to sacrifice my chance of having children for the possibility of them being Jewish. It would be different if I knew I only had to wait for another year or two. Many sacrifices are possible if there is a goal and a deadline. But I have nothing.

Building a future, standing together and taking responsibility

George Deek is an Israeli Arab. He is also the deputy ambassador to Norway. Here are a few excerpts of a speech he gave in Oslo on September 27th, 2014. You can read the full speech here. This is what I took away as his main points.

The Nakba was a humanitarian desaster, but today it and the Palestinian refugees are being instrumentalized by Arab politicians:

And to be frank, you don’t need to be an anti-Israeli to acknowledge the humanitarian disaster of the Palestinians in 1948, namely the Nakba. […]

But it seems that this conflict was not the only one during the 19th and 20th century that lead to expulsion and transfer. Why is it that the tragedies of the Serbs, the European Muslims, the Polish refugees or the Iraqi Christians are not commemorated? How come the displacement of the Jews from the Arab world was completely forgotten, while the tragedy of the Palestinians, the Nakba, is still alive in today’s politics? It seems to me to be so, because the Nakba has been transformed from a humanitarian disaster to a political offensive. The commemoration of the Nakba is no longer about remembering what happened, but about resenting the mere existence of the state of Israel.

It is demonstrated most clearly in the date chosen to commemorate it: […] The Nakba day was set on May 15th – the day after Israel proclaimed its independence. By that the Palestinian leadership declared that the disaster of the Nakba is not the expulsion, the abandoned villages or the exile – the Nakba in their eyes in the creation of Israel.

To overcome the refugee problem, the refugees must be enabled to build a future for themselves and their children:

If the Palestinians wish to redeem the past, they need to first focus on securing a future, on building a world as it should be, as our children deserve it to be. And the first step in that direction, without a doubt, is to end the shameful treatment of the Palestinian refugees.

In the Arab world, the Palestinian refugees – including their children, their grandchildren and even their great-grandchildren – are still not settled, aggressively discriminated against, and in most cases denied citizenship and basic human rights. Why is it, that my relatives in Canada are Canadian citizens, while my relatives in Syria, Lebanon or the gulf countries – who were born there and know no other home – are still considered refugees? […]

In fact, Israel was one of the few countries that automatically gave full citizenship and equality for all Palestinians in it after ‘48. And we see the results: despite all the challenges, the Arab citizens of Israel built a future. Israeli Arabs are the most educated Arabs in the world, with the best living standards and opportunities in the region.

Hatred for those that are different must be fought by all of us together, because in the end it will affect all of us:

The Arab world seems to have forgotten that its greatest days in the last 1,400 years were when it showed tolerance and openness towards those who are different. […]

But rather than reviving the successful approach of tolerance, Arab youth are being taught to hate Jews, using anti-Semitic rhetoric from medieval Europe, mixed with Islamic radicalism. And once again, what started as hostility towards Jews has become hostility towards anyone who is different. […]

So friends, If we wish to succeed in protecting our right to be different, if we want to have a future in that region, I believe we should stand together – Jews, Muslims and Christians: […] We will fight against Islamophobia, but we need our Muslims partners to join the fight against Christianophobia and Judeophobia. Because the thing at stake is our shared humanity.

Palestinians (and the whole Arab world) must take responsability for their actions and the consequences instead of seeing themselves as the victims and blaming others:

When the world changes, people start worrying about what the future holds. This fear makes people shrink themselves into the passive position of victims, rejecting reality, and looking for someone to blame for being behind all this. […]

Only the Arabs themselves can change their reality. By stopping the leaning on conspiracy theories and the blaming of outside powers – America, the Jews, the West or whoever – for all the problems; By learning from past mistakes, And by making wiser decisions in the future;

Why are some Jewish rituals similar to Pagan rituals?

There are loads of discussions about the position of the Torah on issues that are out of date with our modern sensitivities. To defend the real intention of G-d, one line of argumentation that is often used is the following [X = slavery / sacrifices / eating meat / …]:
– In the societies of the time X was a normal practice.
– G-d knew it would have been impossible to abolish X directly.
– G-d let X continue and only made sure X was reglemented as much as possible (because G-d didn’t actually want X).
– As society advanced, X was abolished which is totally in line with G-d’s original intent.

I have read an interesting version of this line of argumentation recently (a comment by Yitz on October 02, 2014 at 02:40 AM). The context was a discussion about Yom Kippur and that aspects of the rituals are supposedly similar to pagan festivals of the time (I did not do any background reading, so that’s why I write supposedly). Of course the first explanation that comes to mind is that people copied them from others, so all of it is made up by men. The argument in favor of G-d now goes like this [X = the rituals in question, e.g., kapparot, scape goat, …]:
– In the societies of the time X was a normal practice / the only mode of worship they knew / enjoyed by people.
– G-d knew it would have been impossible to abolish X completely and make people worship him with completely new and foreign rituals.
– G-d let X continue and only made sure X was reglemented in a way that made the people worship Him instead of some random idols.

The rational is that people expect certain things of religion which G-d had to include. Familiar elements like a holy book. Prayer. Holidays. Lifecycle celebrations. Candles in winter. Nobody would join a totally foreign religion (think SciFi aliens). Or even if they joined because of some supernatural event (think Sinai), people would forever miss their old celebrations (or probably continue them anyway). If you are looking for real-worls examples where this has happened: some descendants of forcibly converted Spanish Jews still light candles for Shabat or cover the mirrors when someone dies, Christians put out milk for Santa’s reindeers, some Israelis of Polish origin don’t go swimming after October even though it is still warm in Israel.

So to give people something familiar to hold onto, G-d modeled "His new religion" after existing practices. I think this is an interesting theory. Of course if this actually means we should go one point further along the line of argumentation and it is justified to abolished certain traditions and rituals is another question.

This is the whole comment with a longer (and maybe better) explanation:

I think you’re missing the point, and misreading my use of the word “borrow.” This isn’t about God writing a novel where being original is the ideal; it’s about God shaping the beliefs of a new nation that already knew of these myths and believed in them to some extent. If you want to correct the belief system established by a creation myth for example, you need to address that myth; not just make up a brand new story that has nothing to do with the old myth. If you did that you wouldn’t be uprooting the old myth, you’d just be adding a new one to the collection of myths.

There is an established principal in Jewish thought (and a logical one as well) that “The Torah speaks in the language of man.” Among other things, this means that the Torah speaks in the context of the time in which it was given and in a way that is appropriate for the people of the time. Many of the commentators write that God had to gradually wean a pagan slave population off of it’s pagan ritual and belief system. It would not be effective for God to create brand new rituals that have no meaning for the worshipers. To give a silly example, if God were to create a brand new religion now, he would not create one where worship of God is done by standing on one’s head 5 times a day. You can be sure that prayer would be somewhere in the new religion, because prayer means something to man as he exists now. Maimonides makes a similar point about sacrifices. It it not the ideal way by which to worship God, but the people receiving he Torah knew how to worship by way of sacrifices and other active rituals, therefore God allowed them to worship Him in the same way, while making it clear to them – through the stories and mitzvot of the Torah – that he was a very different God than the ones they believed in; He was the One God, an omnipresent omniscient Creator who created and masters all the laws of Nature (e.g. the story of separating the waters during Creation, the flood, the splitting of the Sea, whether or not these stories are true literally) and is directly involved in the history of man (the stories of the avot, the exodus). If I remember correctly, Maimonides says that while in the ideal world you may not need sacrifices (or even mizvot if you want to take it a step further than he does) in the time of the Bible (whether you want to say it was given by Moshe, or Ezra or whoever) human nature required a tangible way to serve God, and sacrifice was the method of the times; the method that meant something spiritual for them that they could relate to. The lack of this practice is what led to the Golden Calf. So God deemed it more meaningful and more pragmatic to give the people rituals they were familiar with so he had them build the mishkan, which is very similar in its layout to the temples of the pagan gods.

The laugh is always on the loser

A few days ago another story about a rabbi’s inappropriate behaviour hit the news. And later the news are that his conversions are brought into doubt by the Israeli rabbinate. These statements were retracted soon afterwards, the conversions are kosher, case closed (Amanda Borschel-Dan: Freundel scandal highlights converts’ vulnerability).

Case closed? What must these converts be feeling? Not only do they have to deal with the thought that some pervert might have a video of them showering (if female, that is), in addition they must fear that their Jewish status is coming into question. In other words, they have been the victim of a pervert rabbi and the consequences are that their, the victims’, integrity is questioned??

And for all of you who say it’s just a formality, you do a quick gerut leChumra (conversion to remove any doubt) – it isn’t. This is no small matter. It may have all sorts of ramifications. What is your status in the meantime before you schedule the mikva date? What about children born between the conversion and now? Marriages? What if you just moved to another community and as they don’t know you they require you to go through the whole process again? What if in your (new) community there is no possibility to convert? And in the future, what if they ask you for your conversion certificate and the doubt will always fall back onto you?

All in addition to the psychological effects, questioning your identity, the feeling of insecurity that something like this may happen again at any given moment and you have absolutely no power to stop it. No matter your sincerity, your commitment, your adherence to halacha, your lifestyle and choices – it falls onto you. At any given moment, without you having any influence on when, why or how it affects you. Here’s a quote by Bethany S. Mandel from her bill of rights for Jewish converts about her fears:

10. We should not have to live in fear about the status of our conversions in perpetuity. I should not be afraid that the actions of a rabbi on my Beit Din could mean my conversion won’t be universally respected somewhere down the line. My first instinct hearing reports of Rabbi Freundel’s improprieties after shock was fear. Fear for my status, fear for what it would mean for my daughter and unborn child. I have lived an Orthodox Jewish life since the moment I emerged from the mikvah. I should not have to be afraid of how the actions of others who I have no control over (but who at one time yielded plenty of control over me) could affect myself or my children. I have no indication that my conversion is in any way jeopardized at this moment, and I have asked around plenty to ascertain if there is (I want to make that crystal clear for other Freundel converts). Yet, I live in the real world where I have seen this happen too many times already.

The validity of a conversion should never be doubted afterwards. Especially not only because some faults of the supervising rabbi (not fraud on the part of the candidate) have been discovered. I am glad that the rabbinate and the RCA re-affirmed the validity, but there should never have been a question in the first place.

Holiday season is over

So, that was it for the high holidays this year. What to say?

Rosh haShana: I made a planning error and didn’t realize my business trip fell on Rosh haShana (Jewish new year). So this is the first time in 11 years that I have worked on Rosh haShana. And I felt… surreal at first, but then I sort of forgot and enjoyed myself quite a lot. Even though I had previously planned not to write or use my computer, I accidentally did. Well, there’s always next year.

Yom Kippur: I used the day before Yom Kippur to put up the succa and we only finished about an hour before the fast, then I showered and ate quickly. But it was fun and in the end it was only decoration – we could have stopped earlier, so I didn’t feel rushed (in contrast to one year where we were stuck in traffic and I arrived after a 6 hour trip with only 15 minutes to eat, shower and get to synagogue!). Still, this year I felt especially unprepared for Yom Kippur. Maybe because I missed Rosh haShana with it’s introduction of the central themes of the holiday season. But it was the first time I actually fully enjoyed the services. No cellphones, no people talking all the time, it wasn’t too cold (I get cold very easily when I fast), but cold enough so that thirst wasn’t much of a problem. And a relaxed atmosphere.

Succot: Beautiful weather, best that I can remember ever. I have never spent so much time in my succa! And the construction gets better and better every year, this year we improved the roof and made the entrance easier. And I added more decoration (mostly ivy, thuja, colorful leaves).

Simchat Tora: As I only hold one day of holidays but my community is orthodox and holds two, the dancing with the Torah is actually always on the evening after my holiday ends. It’s still fun, but it also feels weird. This year I didn’t go as I had a visitor (and anyway, my holiday is sort of over at that point).

In summary, it was not my most observant year, I probably haven’t spent that little time in synagogue during the high holidays since I started this whole journey. In terms of teshuva I fear that I failed miserably, partly due to lack of preparation. And also because I cannot find real strength to fight some issues right now (which are all between me and G-d, and I guess he knows how I’m feeling and I hope he still gives me a chance).

G-d Our King

In the days of awe one of the prominent topics is G-d as our king. But as a modern person who lives in a democracy, a monarchy is not my ideal form of government. Sure, a monarchy with a perfect king would be better than all the historical examples of kings we have. But still, is it some ideal I am praying for? Not really.

Apparently I’m not the only one who feels this way. This is how the blogger of Rationalist Medical Halacha resolves the issue with the help of the Rambam (Clashing Values – Rosh Hashanah and Rationalist Medical Ethics):

But the term management, when applied to God, has not the same meaning which it has when applied to us; and when we say that He rules His creatures we do not mean that He does the same as we do when we rule over other beings. The term “rule” has not the same definition in both cases: it signifies two different notions, which have nothing in common but the name.
(Rambam in Moreh Nevuchim 3:23)

We should not project our human concepts onto G-d. The language we use is just an approximation of what G-d or his reign is really like. It’s a metaphor, not to be taken literally.

I wish all of my readers shana tova uMetuka. May you be inscribed for a good life in the coming year.

Divinity of Hebrew – letter values and the real world

In this post we are matching word values to reality to prove that the language Hebrew is divine. The first claim goes as follows:

Hand is יָד (yad) in Hebrew. The numerical value of yud-dalet is 14. We have 14 joints in our hand. Amazing!

It actually is true that we have 14 bones called phalanges in each hand. But this count includes only the fingers! Finger is אֶצְבַּע (etzba) in Hebrew, the numerical value of alef-tzade-bet-ayin is 163. If you count all bones in your hand, there should be 27 (Wikipedia:Hand), so we need additional letters (I’m open to suggestions).

Another one:

Pregnancy is הֵרָיוֹן (herayon) in Hebrew. The numerical value of he-resh-yud-vav-nun is 271. 271 days is the approximate amount of time that a woman is pregnant. Amazing!

For the duration of pregnancy the value 271 is reasonable, but it is not the only choice. A cursory reading of the Wikipedia article on pregnancy gives values of 268, 280/281, and 283/284 as reasonable choices, but as giving birth is not an exact science we could chose any value from that range, so no big coincidence that the word has this exact value.

In fact, English is divine too and I have proof! Set a=1, b=2, …, j=10, …, s=100 and so on (just like in Hebrew). Then the numerical value for "beget a child" is (2+5+7+5+200)+1+(3+8+9+30+4) = 219+1+54 = 274! Amazing!

I apologize to all of you who take gematria seriously. But please don’t waste gematria on nonsense like this!

Divinity of Hebrew – words and molecules

Another Hebrew-is-divine proof. This time through chemistry!

Water is spelled Mayim mem-yud-mem. Interestingly, the chemical makeup of water is two atoms of hydrogen surrounding one atom of oxygen.

Ok, first I would like to know if H2O is the only example for G-d encoding chemistry in Hebrew or are there others? I couldn’t find any others through web search (I couldn’t even find this one on a serious page). If you know of any, please tell me.

But if we just extrapolate from yud=oxygen and mem=hydrogen, what can we get? The Hebrew word yam (yud-mem) means sea, so that would be OH. That’s not stable, it’s the hydroxyl radical which can cause serious damage to organic compounds. So the sea can be dangerous? Maybe that’s not it. As a hydroxyl group -OH can attach to some carbonyl group and form different alcohols (methanol, ethanol, etc). So a sea of alcohol? We could also turn the letters around, mi (mem-yud) is "who", but does that make more sense?

Maybe two letters is too short. What about adding another letter, e.g., a vav for yom? We have hydrogen and oxygen and one other element. That could be sodium hydroxide, potassium hydroxide or the hydroxide of any other alkali metal. Any connection to the concept of a day?

Or, the other way around, what about CO2, carbon dioxide? That’s pretty important, what word could it be? It has to have two mem and one other letter. As the structure is O=C=O (just like H-O-H), the other letter has to be in the middle. My rigorous scientific research* got me the candidates מָדָם (madame), מָהֵם (what are), מוּם (deficiency), מֵחַם (samovar), מֵעִם (from), מִקֵּם (to place). Plus a few combined forms with the prefix מִ (from) like מִשָּׁם (from there). Well, none of these words has any connection to carbon dioxide that I can see.

Ok, let’s assume there are other examples people more intelligent than me have found. What are the rules for replacing letters with atoms and vice-versa? Why is mem hydrogen? The oxygen atom is bigger than hydrogen, mem is bigger than yud, shouldn’t yud be hydrogen? But size cannot really be a good indicator, so let’s look for something else.

Every Hebrew letter has a numerical value. Every chemical element has a unique atomic number. So let’s find some correspondences by using a periodic table. Yud is 10, the element with atomic number would be neon. Mem is 40, that would be zirco­nium. I don’t think that gives us something connected to water. What about starting from the atoms? Hydrogen has an atomic mass of 1, oxygen is 8. Two alef and a chet? Is that a word?

During my search for other examples I came across various Christian pages that try to translate the tetragramaton to chemical elements**. They used the atomic mass instead of the atomic number (although with isotopes of different masses this does not make much sense, but I digress). So let’s try this. There is no element with standard atomic weight 10, but the isotope boron-10 is stable. Calcium has the standard atomic weight 40. So can you do something with calcium and two boron atoms? I doubt it.

Ok, this got longer than planned, but it brought back memories of school and was a lot of fun. I would suggest nobody employ this particular "proof" in an argument as it has no basis at all, not even a tiny little straw to cling to.


* I put מבם into Milon morfix and clicked on the suggested autocorrections.
** The idea is something like the tetragramaton corresponds to the atoms that form the molecules that form DNA, i.e., G-d is the basis of all life. The replacement rules were yud=hydrogen (atomic number 1/ standard atomic weight 1), he=nitrogen (7/14), vav=oxygen (8/16), gimel=carbon (6/12). Where the gimel comes from and how they arrive at these substitution is beyond me. They claim the rules are "based upon their matching values of atomic mass". Whatever. I won’t link to such pages so search for yourselves if you are interested in crazy things.

Can positive Jewish experiences save the community?

Rabbi Fink wrote a piece on Keeping the Orthodox Orthodox. I encourage you to read the whole piece, but here is the snippet I want to discuss:

We have to make our actual Jewish experiences into positive experiences. That doesn’t mean we just give out candy whenever people are not enjoying themselves to distract them. I think the way to do this is by shifting our communal focus from knowledge and beliefs to rituals and experiences.

I want to tell you a bit about my community. It is a very small community with an orthodox rabbi. The vast majority of members are immigrants from the former Soviet states [we call all of them Russians] and do not know a lot about Judaism. Many of them use the services of the community (help with appointments, forms, medical advice, social services, etc), but very few ever show up in the synagogue.

The community tried to find activities to engage the people who never show up. And it worked. We have Russian literature readings, a chess club, piano concerts and events to honor the Russian war heroes. And these are well attended. I am sure these are positive experiences. But this does not translate to a minyan on Shabat or an interest in religion. And that is why the community will eventually vanish. I am sure R. Fink was not thinking of this type of experiences, but I want to point out the danger that lies in putting experience first and religion second.

So what is the solution? How can my community survive? Well, to be honest I think most German communities will die in the next 30 years. But for those that could survive I agree partly with R. Fink. We must create positive experiences, but Jewish religious experiences. Lively services. Enjoyable Shabat dinners. Communal holiday celebrations. But I think it is not enough to have experiences, there has to be an element of learning. This may be specific to communities like mine where there is no Jewish education to speak of. Knowing the structure of the service enhances the experience by a large factor. Discussing Torah can be fun and engaging and I cannot get it anywhere but in the community. Attending a dinner to mark a holiday is more meaningful than just spending a random evening with your friends (for which you wouldn’t need to pay membership fees).

When I leaf through the community newspaper I see very few things that speak to me. I am not looking for a Russian culture club or a neighbourhood tea party. I am interested in religion. I want to mark religious occasions. I want to discuss spiritual topics, the search for meaning, ethics, G-d. Just to have some company I can go to a sports club, choir, book club or any other place that has less Russians, less complicated application procedures and less fees.

I will probably have to say more about this topic, but this post is long enough. Basically, positive experiences YES, but with a connection to religion.