Colour Among The Black Hats?

Are they all black?

The students of a prominent Eastern-European rabbi were about to join him to light the Chanukah candles. The rabbi noticed a broom near the window next to his Menorah and asked for it to be removed; apparently, he was concerned that in their zeal to emulate him, his followers would place a broom by the window before lighting their Menorahs too. There is a humorous (and definitely fictitious) end to the story: having visited the rabbi, each of his students went home, placed a broom by the window and then removed it before lighting his candles!

A common perception of a significant part of the Orthodox world is that it is narrow, monolithic and stifles individual expression. Detractors often point to the restrictive nature of Jewish law, conformity in dress-style (this criticism is levelled especially at those visible communities with distinctive garb) and the seemingly limited range of educational and other life-choices available to its adherents. There is a sense that the ‘men in black’ all think the same way and live cloned, indistinguishable lives.

There is some truth to this: traditional Judaism is predicated on a belief in the historical truth of the Sinaitic revelation and the eternal imperative of halachah. Its followers will create communities that share religious aspirations, educate their children in a certain way and where religious and social needs can be met. This may create a certain narrowness of experience, but devoting one’s life to a complete system of belief and practice involves accepting that some of the wider experiences of an unfettered life must be surrendered to a higher ideal. The intensity of experience that the religious crave may also lead them to form tightly-knit groups with their own exacting standards and social norms and look to charismatic leaders for guidance in their quest for individual perfection and constant communion with the Divine.

The Modern Orthodox world has attempted to combine serious commitment to Mitzvah observance and Torah study with aspects of contemporary scholarship, culture and engagement with the modern world. But for the rest of the Orthodox world, must fervour and spiritual ambition lead inexorably to conformity and the crushing of individuality, or is there room for personal expression and creative thought?

There will always be those who take refuge in the crowd, preferring to follow rather than to think for themselves; choosing to evade personal responsibility by relying on others. The Orthodox community harbours no fewer such people than any other group, but surely no more.

One can certainly observe those within the community who fear individual expression to the extent that they try to suppress it in others. There have been a number of unfortunate high-profile examples of this. They include banning of books that deviate from a narrow ideological line, attempting to limit higher education, abolishing concerts and other forms of entertainment, and restricting access to even the unobjectionable parts of the internet. Is it possible that some feel threatened by the very individual expression that is one of Judaism’s greatest strengths?

Yet despite these regrettable attempts to recast Judaism as a system requiring all its adherents to think and behave identically, most Jews are pretty resilient in their individual expression! Despite the superficial appearance of conformity and group behaviour that delegitimizes individuality, one readily finds a vast range of ideas, aspirations, ideologies and modes of religious expression. These differences are evident both between and with Orthodox groups. In traditional Jewish teaching, there is a spectrum of opinion on nearly every subject: the nature of God, Man’s free will, how to understand human suffering, the appropriate attitude to art and music, secular studies and even modernity itself, as well as about virtually every area of Jewish observance.

This multiplicity translates into diversity of lifestyle and belief. Even in the most Orthodox of circles, there are those who visit art galleries, love classical music, tour China, learn Arabic and even consider these essential to their religious experience. Others prefer to incorporate ‘secular’ modes of expression into Jewish contexts; in recent years, some highly professional and innovative music, art and literature have emerged. Among the ostensibly monolithic Orthodox, there are staunch Zionists, political lefties, recycling macrobiotics, DIY enthusiasts, aficionados of Kabbalah and those who reject it as mumbo-jumbo. In my own experience I have come across a Chassidic university chancellor and a number of Charedi avant garde musicians.

The Mishnah (Sanhedrin 4:5) observes that God makes each human being different from every other; as such, everyone should be able to say with confidence, ‘the world was created just for me’. A great Chassidic thinker understood this to mean that each of us has strengths and weaknesses that distinguish us from every other person; consequently, each of us has a unique spiritual task. Indeed wrestling with one’s own relationship with God is a Biblical role of the Jew. When Jacob was attacked by an unknown assailant, his name was changed to Israel, ‘because you struggled with God and with Man and you prevailed’ (BeReishit 32:29). ‘Struggling with God’ to forge a religious identity that is individualistic, yet firmly within the portals of tradition, is intrinsic to Judaism. The paraphernalia of Jewish life exist to facilitate this lofty goal, rather than stifle it. On its own terms, Judaism thrives on and celebrates individuality.

Fusing staunch commitment to a specific version of traditional Torah life with a tolerant attitude to the range of valid alternative views is a challenge which has its successes and disappointments. Yet respect for the multiplicity of views and lifestyles that the Torah accommodates is central to its system. We fail the Torah itself by stifling genuine creativity and individuality; but when we validate the legitimate religious choices and ideas of others, we not only create a harmonious and tolerant Orthodox society, but confirm the beauty and breadth of the Torah.

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

A version of this article appeared on Cross-Currents

Heady Reflections On A Sukkot Adventure

An odd way to spend Chol HaMoed

I looked in the mirror this morning and realised that the bump on my head hasn’t quite gone away. It’s only a couple of weeks since Sukkot, so I thought I’d share the story and what I learned from it.

On the first day of Chol HaMoed (Thursday) I had planned to join my family for a trip to the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew (see
here for another article in which I mention Kew Gardens), However, I was exhausted and decided to stay at home, especially as we were hosting a Sukkot party for my community that evening. My wife and children left the house and I decided to rest, so I donned my pyjamas (remember this for later) and dragged my mattress into the Sukkah.

After an hour and a half, I was refreshed and ready to continue with my day. However, my attempts to return to the house were thwarted by the discovery that the back door was mysteriously locked from the inside. I could see the keys in the lock and, frustratingly, my cell phone on a table within, but I couldn’t access either.

As we leave our front door secured only with a number-lock during the day, I was certain that if I could get into the front garden, I could re-enter the house through the main door. I squelched my way in my socks to the side gate and tried, unsuccessfully, to climb over it, cracking my head in the process. A bit dazed, but not badly hurt, I remembered the ladder at the back of the garden. I intended to climb over the gate and take the ladder with me, but this failed too: while I was sitting on the lintel, the ladder fell back into the garden. I managed to scramble down into the front garden, where, inexplicably, I found the front door locked. I was now standing in the front garden in my socks and pyjamas (remember them?) unable to get into either the house or back into the garden. Contemplating the possibility of a further couple of hours of this situation, I hid behind a car, hoping for some kind of solution.

At this point, a neighbour walked past en route to a funeral. He noticed me and insisted that I come and sit in his Sukkah rather than crouch behind the car. I accepted his invitation, which included a drink and the loan of a sweater and a coat. I then realised that I didn’t know my wife’s cell number, so I called my parents to ask for assistance. The conversation began a little like this: ‘hello, I’m sitting in a neighbour’s Sukkah wearing my pyjamas.’ When they stopped laughing, which took quite some time, they were able to put me in contact with my wife, who was at least a hour away.

There is a small gap in the fencing between our house and the neighbour’s garden, so foolishly, I resolved to return to my own garden. I was hoping to prise open a window or get in some other way. I squeezed through the gap, returned to my own garden and quickly discovered that I still couldn’t enter the house. I was also unable to get back through the gap in the fence (perhaps I should have realised that my eight-year-old son, the usual gap-squeezer, is rather smaller than me), so I was again stuck in the garden in my pyjamas.

I heard a ring at the door, so I climbed the ladder again and peered over. This was one of several conversations I conducted in my pyjamas over the following 45 minutes with passers-by, from my perch nine feet above the ground. The most remarkable was with another neighbour, who approached the house, saw me looking over the gate from a great height and said, with a straight face, ‘hello Rabbi Belovski: the party is this evening, isn’t it?’ When I replied in the affirmative, he thanked me and walked away, making no reference to the fact that I was on a ladder, in my pyjamas, behind the gate, or, most significantly, that my head was bleeding. Perhaps my life is so odd that this event seemed the very paragon of normality.

Two hours after discovering that I was locked out, my wife returned and admitted a rather damp and bedraggled rabbi to the house.

So what had happened? How had I been locked out? That is explained by a remarkable series of ‘coincidences’. While I had been sleeping, the musician booked to play at the evening’s party (an old friend) had arrived at the house to deliver his equipment, wrongly assuming that we would be at home. When no-one answered, he took a bold step: his assistant climbed over the side-gate, discovered to his delight that we had been silly enough to leave the back door unlocked and entered the house. He opened the front door and unloaded his kit. As I was heavily asleep and wearing earplugs, I heard none of this. Assuming that he was doing me a favour, he locked the front and back doors before leaving, trapping me in the Sukkah…

I have retold this story several times, including in my sermon on Shemini Atzeret. It has made people in the UK and in Israel cry with laughter at my plight, but mostly at the thought of the rabbi standing on a ladder in his pyjamas noting the (non) reactions of passers-by. It is the most powerful and real Sukkot message I could have received. Every year, we speak about Sukkot reminding us that life is impermanent, that our material possessions are ephemeral and that our security can evaporate at any moment. We may know this intellectually, but, thank God, most of us have few opportunities to experience this directly, even for a short while. My brief exile from my home made the message of Sukkot more real for me than I recall it having been in the past.

Many people say a prayer before entering the Sukkah which mentions the possibility that in the aftermath of the judgement of Yom Kippur, one deserves the punishment of exile. We ask God to consider our week-long sojourn in the Sukkah as a type of ‘exile’ in place of a full-scale banishment. I thought of this prayer after my little adventure and hope that it remains true for me.

A gezinte winter!

Statues in Montreux

Freddy Mercury, Charlie Chaplin and Rabbi Weinberg

A few days ago, I visited Montreux, a small Swiss town by Lake Geneva. It is picturesque, temperate, and while there are plenty of tourist shops, parts of the town are pretty up-market. It was a lovely place to spend a few hours with the family before driving back into the mountains.

Two significant statues on the lake-front are popular with tourists, both of well-known men who lived good parts of their lives in or near Montreux. One is of Charlie Chaplin, the famous actor and film-director, the other is of Freddie Mercury, a leading pop-star of the 70s and 80s. If we can briefly ignore their private lives (the inscription on the statue of Mercury even mentions the ‘discretion’ of the locals), each of them brought much pleasure to millions of people. Presumably, the residents of Montreux feel honoured that Chaplin and Mercury chose to live in their town and recognised this with lake-side memorials.

I was struck by the lack of a statue of Rabbi Yechiel Yaakov Weinberg, a world-famous posek (Jewish legal authority) who lived in Montreux for a large part of his life until his death in 1966. He was a man of astonishing scholarship, who wrote landmark responsa (published as Seridey Aish, by which eponym the author has become known) tackling the most complex and contentious modern issues. The Seridey Aish was at home in the premier yeshivos of pre-war Eastern Europe, yet was a man of his times, facing modern challenges to traditional Judaism robustly, but with a light touch. He fostered a generation of students, including some of the world’s foremost rabbinical leaders, such as the late Gateshead Rov, Rabbi Betzalel Rakow, zt”l, the late Rabbi Joseph Hirsch Dunner zt”l of London, and ylc”t, Rabbi Moshe Sternbuch, shlit”a, the Ra’avad of the Eidah Charedis in Jerusalem.

Where indeed is the statue of Rabbi Weinberg? Of course, hardly any visitors to Montreux will have heard of him and it is unlikely that a bronze likeness of a rabbi would attract the level of interest from tourists to make its manufacture worthwhile; this apart from the obvious halachic issues raised by making a statue in the first place. I’m sure that the matter was never even considered.

Actually, I’d have been rather upset to have seen a statue of the Seridey Aish along the lake-front in Montreux: Rabbi Weinberg immortalised in the company of an actor and a singer. While the contribution of Rabbi Weinberg is immeasurably more significant than, lehavdil, Messrs Chaplin and Mercury, his immortal responsa, which are still debated and relied-upon by halachists the world over, are a far better testimony to his greatness than a bronze cast.

This article first appeared on Cross-Currents

What’s That For?

Musar from a three-year-old

I am enjoying the privilege of holidaying with my family in the French Alps, so I am far from a minyan. While my children rarely see me davening, especially wearing tefillin, this morning my second daughter Tehilloh (10) and younger son Shmuel Yosef (3) were in the room during Shacharis. When I was laying tefillin, my daughter remarked to my son that one day he would have to don them. As I was putting on the head-tefillin, my son asked her, ‘What’s that for – does it hold his kippah on?’ Then, being three, he suggested that I might need one to hold my neck on and another to keep my leg in place!

Other than causing me some amusement as I was trying to concentrate on davening, Shmuel Yosef left me considering something important. How often do I (or any of us) actually think ‘what’s that for’ when putting on tefillin? It’s so easy for regularly-observed mitzvos to become rote performances, devoid of real meaning. I realised that it’s easy to lay tefillin each day, but harder to experience the ritual as a means of connecting with God: a tool of subjugation of the most powerful human capabilities to the Divine agenda.

Many people say a meditation before donning the tefillin, one which I have just re-read. It reminded me that:

God has commanded us to wear the arm-tefillin to recall the ‘outstretched arm’ (of the Exodus), placed close to the heart to thereby subjugate the desires and thoughts of our hearts to His service; and upon the head, close to my brain, so that the soul that resides in my mind, together with all of my senses and capabilities, are subjugated to His service.

‘What’s that for?’ Three words of powerful musar (ethical guidance) from a three-year-old: God has many agents. It’s a good focal point with which to approach the pre-Rosh HaShanah month of Elul, which starts alarmingly soon.

This article first appeared on Cross-Currents

The Pope And Praying In Hebrew

Jews and Hebrew

The London Times reports that the Catholic Church is discussing reintroducing the Latin Mass largely abandoned in the aftermath of Vatican II. See here for details. Apparently, the Pope is writing to every seminary urging them to ensure that priests are trained to conduct the Tridentine Mass, which was replaced in the 1960s by the vernacular liturgy said in most churches today. While before Vatican II, every Catholic Church in the world conducted Mass in Latin, today it is recited in the local language.

Readers may wonder why I’m interested in the Latin Mass, something one can safely assume to be of marginal concern to most readers! The answer is brief and simple. It helped me to realise how blessed we are to have a Hebrew liturgy, which (with a few minor differences here and there) is the same the world-over. Indeed, among the supportive ultra-conservative remarks appended to the article, are a few thoughtful ones that welcome the return of a universal liturgy, allowing people of every nationality and tongue to celebrate Mass together.

The early 19th-century German-Jewish and later reformers genuinely meant well when they replaced certain Hebrew prayers with vernacular equivalents: they hoped to make them more accessible and comprehensible to their worshippers; presumably, this was successful. However (and this is apart from the theological and halachic issues raised by their versions of the prayers), a great deal more was lost than gained. They underestimated the universal value of Hebrew prayers: the capacity of a Jewish national language, the language of God and the Bible, to unite and inspire people; to erase boundaries between those of different cultures and unify them in devotion.

To be fair, this has now been recognised by some non-Orthodox groups, who have re-introduced greater Hebrew content into their services: I’m sure that they have been greatly enhanced by so doing.

But many Westernised Jews have little or no knowledge of Hebrew – not much has changed since 19th-century Germany (where the vernacular was introduced) in that regard. This is a problem that has a solution – learn Hebrew! It’s easier said than done, but the opportunities available (courses, CDs and internet sites, etc.) have never been greater or the rewards (especially the chance to communicate with the natives on a visit to our own Hebrew-speaking country) more evident. Anyway, there are excellent translations of the Siddur available, each serving a different need, which one can consult throughout the prayer service.

I think that the Pope has this one right: the vernacular alternatives to their (and our) prayers are, in the words of one comment to the article in The Times, ‘improvised’ and ‘fabricated’. Do you agree?

This article first appeared on Cross-Currents

Haggadah

Two Views (Pesach 5768)

The very word הגדה (Haggadah) conjures up wonderful memories of Sedarim past, reliving the story of the Exodus with family, friends and students. It’s used to refer colloquially to the booklet -- a compilation of texts and commentaries -- read at the Seder, but the word itself actually contains a wealth of information about the way in which a truly memorable and effective Seder should be conducted. Allow me to share some ideas:

According to Rabbi Tzadok HaKohen, the way to discover the core meaning of a Biblical word is to look at the first time it appears in the Torah. In the case of הגדה, the root word first occurs in the story of Adam and Eve. When God addressed Adam after the Sin, we find the following dialogue:

The Lord God called to Adam and said to Him, ‘Where are you?’ He said, ‘I heard your voice in the Garden and I was afraid because I am naked, so I hid.’ [God] said, ‘Who told (הגיד) you that you are naked? Have you eaten from the tree from which I commanded you not to eat?’ (BeReishit 3:9-11)

Rashi explains that God’s question is to be understood in the following way:

How do you know? What shame is there is standing naked? (Rashi ad loc.)

Before the sin, Adam and Eve wore no clothes but were not ashamed (BeReishit 2:25); however, they subsequently acquired a sense that there was something embarrassing about being naked.

It can be seen from this that the word הגיד means to acquire new information. This has an interesting implication for Seder night: the story must be told in a way that is new and exciting for the participants. One cannot fulfil the requirement of הגדה (which is primarily directed at one’s children) by merely reading the text or presenting a stale version of the Exodus. Instead, one must find a new angle on the story each year and create interest and fascination by finding new nuggets of information and by telling it in a refreshing way: one that will grab the imagination and retain peoples’ attention well into the night.

Based on ‘Hegioney Halachah’ Haggadah by Rabbi Yitzhok Mirsky

The Avney Nezer of Sochaczew pointed out that an accurate reading of the word הגדה can be derived from the Aramaic Onkelos translation of the word:

And you shall tell (והגדת) your son on that day as follows: because of this that God did for me in bringing me out from <st1:place style="font-style: italic;"   (Shemot 13:8)

And you shall point out to your son… (Onkelos ad loc.)

It seems that the word הגדה means to show or to demonstrate that something is true, rather that merely tell a story. This fits with the Rambam’s version of the text of a key paragraph of the Haggadah:

In every generation, one is obliged to see oneself (לראות את עצמו) coming out of Egypt (standard text)

In every generation, one is obliged to show oneself (להראות את עצמו) coming out of Egypt (Rambam’s text)

While the standard text suggests one’s mindset during the Seder, the Rambam’s text (supported by the Targum) regulates one’s behaviour by re-enacting aspects of the Exodus. The Seder should demonstrate the facts of the Exodus and present them in a tangible and accessible way such that leaving Egypt becomes a real, rather than purely intellectual, experience for the participants.

In fact, the text of the הגדה itself indicates the use of props to turn the Seder into a demonstration, rather than a purely intellectual process. We may only tell the story when the illustrative ‘props’ are in place:

One might have thought (that one should begin telling the story) from Rosh Chodesh (Nissan), so the verse writes, ‘on that day’ (only). But perhaps ‘that day’ means while it is yet daytime (of Erev Pesach), so the verse writes, ‘because of this’. One can only say, ‘because of this’ (by pointing towards something tangible) when the Matzah and Maror are present.

This could be considered the original multi-media presentation: one can only properly fulfil one’s obligation of הגדה by turning the occasion into an experiential show.

Based on the Haggadah of the Shem MiShmuel of Sochaczew

With a little thought over the remaining hectic days until Pesach, it should be possible to plan for a Seder that incorporates both of these ideas: telling the story from a new perspective, and bringing it to life for the participants.

May we be blessed with inspirational Sedarim, the impact of which will remain with us throughout the year. Chag Kosher VeSamayach.

This post originally appeared on Cross-Currents

Shabbat And The Single Jew - part 2 (Mazal Tov edition)

Part 2 (Mazal Tov edition)
In one of my first posts on the theme of dating, I discussed the pros and cons of attending singles events on Shabbat and Yom Tov. I suggested that Shabbat and Yom Tov need to be ends in themselves and not just means to some other end, even the laudable objective of finding a life-partner. Those who use most Shabbatot as dating opportunities risk depleting their spiritual reserves and robbing their religious lives of transformative power. Interested readers will find the original post here.

In that post, I offered a specific (true) example:

A woman approached me recently for advice about attending a Purim party. She knew that there was only a slim chance of meeting someone suitable there, yet she felt that not going would leave her wracked with guilt. She took my advice and didn’t attend, instead devoting the evening to Purim pursuits: she later mentioned that focusing on the day alone enabled her to experience her most meaningful Purim for years.

Well, I am delighted to report that last Purim turned out to be more remarkable for the woman concerned than any of us could possibly have hoped (I am writing this at her request). Very late that Purim evening, she visited my home to help prepare for the Se’udah (Purim banquet) the next day. While I was reading the Megillah for my wife in another room, she got chatting over the kitchen sink to a fellow who was also planning to celebrate with us the next day.

As frequent visitors to our home, they had the opportunity to bump into each other on other occasions, and got to know and like each other, although for certain reasons it was not possible to consider furthering the relationship. Until recently that it, when they began to date in earnest. They became engaged this week and the wedding is likely to be in Israel in the summer. My wife and I are absolutely delighted for both of them and we feel honoured to have been instrumental in bringing them together.

It’s an astonishing story, especially as they only met each other because she decided to hang out in my house instead of going to a Purim party designed to enable singles to meet. God works in mysterious ways, and all of us who know the choson and kallah well know quite how extraordinary their relationship is; it has definitely served to remind us of the inscrutability of the Divine matchmaker.

Be assured that this is not an attempt to bash singles events, even those held on Shabbat and Yom Tov. They have their function and serve to bring people together who may otherwise not have met. Yet we should remember that they are only one of many ways in which God can make matches. We are not party to the Divine plan, but must allow Him to work through us in whatever way possible to bring singles together. Perhaps by simply recognising this fact, we open new vistas for His match-making and thus can become partners with Him in this holy work. May we all be blessed with the foresight and inspiration to grasp every opportunity to help others create new Jewish families.

This article first appeared on Cross-Currents

If You Prick Us Do We Not Bleed?

The Merchant of Venice

Some pupils at the Yesodey Hatorah girls’ high school not too far from where I live have attracted UK and international news overage (see, for example, here, here, here and here) over their refusal to answer examination questions about Shakespeare. Apparently, the pupils declined even to write their names on the papers, in protest at Shakespeare’s ‘anti-Semitism’, despite the fact that they had not even been studying ‘The Merchant of Venice’ and that by doing so they would forfeit the entire examination. As a result, the school has fallen drastically in the performance tables (it was, quite remarkably, first in the entire country last year and is now 274th albeit out of over 3000).

I should interject a word here about the school system in the UK. Many Jewish schools here have what is known as voluntary aided status, which entitles them to state funding for buildings, general studies teaching and a host of other things, leaving the parents to pick up the tab for the Torah curriculum. Of course, this requires the school to meet government educational standards in all relevant areas. The examination in question was a standard government test on material for which the Shakespeare section is a mandatory part of the syllabus.

The principal of Yesodey Hatorah, Rabbi Avrohom Pinter, has been interviewed several times about this curious episode, including on the prestigious BBC Radio 4 ‘Sunday’ religious affairs programme. (You can listen to the interview here: click on the link for ‘Shakespeare and anti-Semitism’). He walks a fine line between supporting the girls in their principled stand, while indicating that he doesn’t really agree with them. It is clearly not the school policy to eschew Shakespeare, since it has bought into a system that requires his works to be taught; at the very least it tolerates its inclusion in the English syllabus and assumes that its students will do likewise.

I think that the issue as to whether Shakespeare was an anti-Semite is irrelevant – it has been debated for centuries. My own opinion (to the extent that I know enough about the subject to have an informed one) coincides with Rabbi Pinter’s. While the portrayal of Shylock has anti-Semitic overtones, there are also very humane, sensitive (dare one say philo-Semitic?) aspects of his character. The bard lived in an age when anti-Semitic sentiments were common; actually it is likely that he was writing with little first-hand knowledge of Jews, as he lived at the end of the 16th century, long after the expulsion in 1290 and some while before the resettlement in the mid-17th century. As such, I am not inordinately troubled by Shakespeare’s alleged anti-Semitism.

However, two other aspects of this incident have given me cause for thought. First, even if Shakespeare was an anti-Semite, should this influence whether his works ought to be taught in Jewish schools? Second, should a school support pupils’ principled objection to a syllabus item even if by doing so it significantly damages the school and its reputation?

Tacking the second question first, one could argue that the students (and their parents, who are reported as supporting them in this case) are bound by some kind of understanding with the school, in which they have agreed to engage fully in the stated programme of study. They ‘breach’ this ‘contract’ if they do not participate in the examinations. I don’t accept this argument, as I feel that the very essence of a quality education must encourage a degree of independent thinking and allow for the students to take informed decisions, especially when they are fully aware of the consequences. This is all part of growing up, something which a school must foster; in that respect, Yesodey Hatorah and Rabbi Pinter should be very proud of their students.

Yet there must be limits to this type of freedom within an educational environment. When I was at high school, one of my co-students became an anarchist, changed his name from Darren to ‘Grover Herbivores’ and refused to wear shoes. This provoked consternation and, finally, rage from the school administration, which eventually excluded him from school life. While this extreme example is no more than quaint, it illustrates the fact that conscientious objection to accepted school norms must have limits, otherwise the institution become ungovernable. Of course, at least in the minds of the students, there is a perceived moral dimension to the Shakespeare issues which is patently absent from ‘Grover’s’ unwillingness to wear shoes. Nonetheless, there has to be a balance between personal expression and potential damage to the school resulting from the students’ ethically motivated objections. If students fail to sit examinations or perform very poorly in them the school will eventually be subject to government scrutiny, which will influence the life of every student in the school. Striking that balance is very difficult – this is a genuine clash between private and public need. We all draw the line in different places, but I would advocate maximising the students’ opportunity for personal expression (based on informed choice and awareness of the consequences), only invoking the need for public responsibility when the potential damage is significant. I, like Rabbi Pinter, do not believe that to be the case in the recent school case.

However, before voting too firmly for the girls of Yesoday Hatorah, I would like to challenge the notion that if Shakespeare was an anti-Semite (accepting this for the purposes of this discussion), Jewish schools should not study his works. I find this incomprehensible, especially in a complex and open world where it is impossible to avoid a broad range of views about Jews and, indeed, everything else. Surely studying Shakespeare, even if one vehemently disagrees with his premises, is of great educational value anyway. Perhaps ‘The Merchant of Venice’ should be discussed in a Jewish school in the context of a lesson on the history of anti-Semitism. Perhaps the students should be encouraged to debate whether Shakespeare actually was an anti-Semite and if so, consider from where he derived his information and attitude. Are we so weak-minded that we need restrict our syllabi to the comfortable, familiar and unchallenging? I certainly hope not.

This article first appeared on Cross-Currents

Leading From Behind

Two types of leadership

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This article first appeared on Cross-Currents

Un-hijacking Hanukah

Hanukah and the Greeks

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

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

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

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

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

The Talmud radically rereads the verse:

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

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

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

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

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

This article first appeared on Cross-Currents