Sunday, July 4, 2010

Three Cheers for Rabbeinu Yona

It’s funny how a casual remark can spur you on to consider something you had up until then been avoiding like the plague. You want an example?: Two friends who were visiting us from The Exile needed to speak with some contacts in Efrat on a recent Friday morning. Being firm believers in combining work and pleasure, they arranged to have an early lunch at the Gush Etzion winery before their meetings. You can well believe that the time it took for us to accept an invitation to join them could have been measured in micro-seconds – if that long. And so we all drove down to ‘The Gush’ (which is the region directly south of Jerusalem as far south as Hevron), stopping long enough to pick up a friend of theirs (whom they had known from a different ‘west bank’ – of the Passaic River) who showed us the way to our destination.
It was a late Friday morning in the summer, a propitious time to be sitting in the combination restaurant/gift shop/visitors center, right next to the winery’s small bottling facility. Seated around a very long table in the back were at least a dozen English-speaking women enjoying a ‘girls’ morning out.’ Plenty of time for them to enjoy a leisurely meal and the company of friends before returning to their kids and the preparations for Shabbat – which wouldn’t begin for another eight hours. Likewise for the young couples and the smaller groups sitting at the other tables. I was in no hurry; I had a secret weapon: Natania was in our kitchen, cooking up a storm while daddy was out playing.
We settled into our seats and then headed for the buffet tables, all you can eat for forty five shekels. It turns out that our friends’ friend knew the proprietor, and so, as we ate, they treated us to copious samples of winemaker Shraga Rosenberg’s wares. So what do you think happened? As we were waiting for our coffee and dessert to arrive, I ambled over the short distance to the wine racks on the wall, behind the diners seated at the few tables there, and started checking out the different selections for sale. Aided and abetted by the proprietor, my brain mellowed by what I had already sampled, I selected two really nice bottles: a 2009 Gewurtztraminer (“fruity and elegant, with fragrances of lychee, rose and tropical fruit.”) and a 2005 Nahal Hapirim (66% Cabernet Sauvignon, 29% Merlot and 5% Petit Verdot grapes), for which I spent more than I generally do, but…………
We were headed back to Efrat, the plan being that Barbara and I would hang out while our friends went to their meetings, and then we would head on back to Ma’ale Adumim. But first our friends’ friend took us on a little detour, and I’m certainly glad she did because otherwise I would never have had the opportunity to stop at Pinat Hama. A certain number of years ago, there was a Doctor Gillis (I’m pretty sure but not positive that was his name) who, true to his calling, treated patients because they were ill, not because he necessarily liked them; the proof of the pudding being that one of his patients was a relative of Yasser Arafat, may his name be blotted out. For his troubles, the good physician was murdered by Arab terrorists; although later Arafat claimed that it was a mistake – they meant to murder someone else instead. (That’s a relief!) In these parts, when there is a tragedy, people try to do something useful: set up a tzedekah fund, build a beit knesset, something. Here, someone decided to open a place where soldiers could come to relax when they were off duty. First it was a simple shack and now it is more elaborate structure, strategically located on the main north-south road at a junction with another road which goes west to Beit Shemesh. Lots of traffic; lots of soldiers. Dozens of people from the entire Gush staff this little place (the first shift of the day and Fridays by men, otherwise by women), and people take turns providing home-made baked goods to go with the drinks and snacks. Sure enough, there were a bunch of soldiers, some coming, some going, when we arrived.
An article or two ago, I presented a fanciful idea, storing the good will inherent at a wedding celebration in an aerosol container, so that on dark and gloomy days, there would be a way to create instant “wedding cheer.” So why not “Pinat Hama”? When you are literally up to your neck in stupidity, narrow-mindedness, bureaucracy, corruption, and ‘I-can’t-be-bothered-doing-it right-itis,’ a little spritz is all you need to create a sense of being A Light Unto The Nations, to remind you of who we are supposed to be, how we are supposed to behave, (See below) and why we are living in The Land. A Land with an army to protect us, an army of young people who can use some TLC; and people who treasure the Land and the army because it’s their own children who are in that army. At least that’s the jolt I felt when we left this place, or other similar places where good old fashioned chesed is performed, the kind of activity which keeps us going, but is hardly ever mentioned in the media.
Now comes the ‘casual comment’ part. Our friends were here when the ruckus with the schools in the town of Immanuel was front page news, and, as we were getting ready to return back to Ma’ale Adumim, M. casually asked her friend, a Chabadnik, if she thought what was going on in Immanuel was ‘racist.’ Certainly not, was the reply, because if she thought it was racist, she would be against it. (But she’s not, and ipso facto, it is not racist.) Jewish schools do have the right to select their students; in fact, back in New Jersey, a haredi day school had refused to accept her children because of the family’s connection to Chabad. She didn’t like it, but the school had the right to do so. Finally, none of us had gotten the full story because we only read newspapers like the Jerusalem Post.
One thing I am getting better at over the years – far from perfect, but better at – is not arguing with everybody over everything. You don’t think that X is Y? Leave it alone. My personal estimate is that there is at best a two percent chance of changing someone’s mind about anything. And even if I did change someone else’s mind, so what? But this woman was absolutely right about one thing; I didn’t really know what was going on in this situation. In fact, up until that moment, I hadn’t followed the story in any depth because I didn’t want to know what was going on, just as I hadn’t made it a point to follow the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico or the sex abuse scandals plaguing the Vatican. If people want to create their own interpersonal train wrecks, don’t expect me to be interested. But as I did have an opinion on the Immanuel situation, it behooved me to have a better sense of what was going on. I know that this is atypical behavior for most people, but I’m funny that way.
Without overwhelming anyone with the dreary details – and believe me they are dreary – , the story seems to be something like this, as best as I understand it: there is this town here in The Land called Immanuel (which means in English, ‘G-d With Us’; perhaps it should be renamed to ‘G-d help us’) and a lot of haredim live there including members of the Slonim Hassidim. More recently, a growing number of Sephardic families have moved into town, and many were desirous of sending their daughters to the local Beit Ya’akov School. However, it was felt by the Slonimers that most of these Sephardic girls come from families whose level of observance does not meet their standards: they may have subversive devices like the Internet in their homes; they may have an uncle who has a TV; possibly they daven with the standard Sephardic pronunciation which most of us use, not the way the Slonimers daven; things like that. To make a long story short, as I understand it, all of the local girls were put into a new facility, divided in half: separate classes with a wall in between, separate staircases, separate entrances, separate areas in the school yard. We are talking S-E-P-A-R-A-T-E with a vengeance. No way the girls in part A were going to mingle with those in part B! The rigorous school has a population of three quarters Ashkenazim and one quarter Sephardim; the not as rigorous school is comprised almost entirely of Sephardic girls with a couple hands-ful of Ashkenazim (clearly the local ‘riff-raff.’)
After a series of unsuccessful attempts to change the situation, a group representing some of the Sephardic parents petitioned the Israeli Supreme Court for redress. Led by its only Sephardic member, the Court insisted, and we’re talking about with less than a month to go in the school year, that the status quo was illegal and that the schools must be integrated immediately – like that day. When the Slonimers refused to accept this decision, the Court ordered the affected parents to begin serving a jail sentence for contempt. This did not sit well, to say the least, with the Haredi population, and, amidst fiery speeches by some of the rabbis, tens of thousands of Haredi men attended rallies to protest the court’s decision. The chief rabbi of the Slonimers is on records as having said that this was the worst tragedy to have befallen them since the Second World War (I have no idea what that was supposed to mean) and that he and his followers would rather face a firing squad than give in and change the situation in the Haredi school.
There is a lot to consider here, assuming one is in the frame of mind to consider, i.e., actually think – not regurgitate somebody’s party line or assume a defensive crouch and yell. For one thing, there is the way Israeli schools are funded; like many ‘private schools,’ the Beit Ya’akov schools receive some government funding. To what extent should the government be involved in matters of curriculum and policy when they are paying part of the cost? What interests me even more is the on-going relationship between the Haredi community and the government. Do they – yes or no – consider this to be a Jewish state; and if not, what is it? (more than I can consider here.) If there is a conflict between rabbinic authorities and a duly elected government, who gets to decide? However……….., let’s take a couple of steps back and consider the matter in a broader context. To set the stage, let me begin with a personal anecdote and a short history lesson, courtesy of my teacher, Nachum.
There came a time when we were growing up, when our mother (may her memory be a blessing) saw fit to begin leaving my brother and me alone in the house. And what did the two of us do with our new found freedom? We fought bitterly. Often. Why? You can posit any number of reasons, but ….bottom line….because there was no one to stop us, no mom, no big sister, no baby-sitter. It took us quite a while to figure out some way of getting along, but in the end we did. Now, consider the Jewish people in a similar vein. From the time our nation was split into two kingdoms following the death of Shlomo Hamelech until the time of the second expulsion – when we couldn’t agree on whether to fight the Romans or seek an accommodation with them – we have been at each other’s throats. In the process, we lost most of our twelve tribes, who simply vanished without a trace. Why were we fighting amongst ourselves? Because there was no earthly force to stop us. (You can say that it was vastly more complicated than that; but, the same bottom line, was it really?) For the last two thousand years, what’s left of us have been scattered among the Nations, and they have taken turns being our (not-so-nice) baby-sitters, and most of the time we have been too busy hiding from them to bother with each other. But not always. Several weeks ago when it was the Shabbat when the section of the Torah called Chukkot was read, Nachum reminded us about the public burning of thousands of volumes of the Talmud in Paris in the year 1242 C.E. It seems that there was a student who didn’t get along with his rabbi and wound up going to the Church authorities to ‘rat’ on the Talmud; they needed little convincing to burn every copy they could get their hands on. Watching this catastrophe was Rabbeinu Yona (this was the time of the rabbeinus [our rabbi]; not my rabbi, or his rabbi, or their rabbi, but our rabbi. What a concept!), which caused him to have an amazing insight: Only forty days ago, we, and I was one of the chief instigators, burned copies of the writings of the Rambam, because we considered them heretical, right here where the Christians are burning our Talmud. Can there be a connection between these two events; is this a Divine punishment for our sins? Rabbeinu Yona reconsidered his position on The Rambam and ultimately wrote his ethical masterpiece, The Gates of Repentance. There are to this day Jews who fast on the Friday before Shabbat Chukkot in remembrance of what the Catholic Church did to us. Is anyone fasting to atone for what we did to each other, burning the Rambam’s work?
There were plenty of scuffles during the time of our dispersion: for example, the Chassidim versus their opponents versus the secularists, but our infighting was limited by geography. It would have been hard to work up a good tussle between the locals in Slonim and Algiers. But then, all of a sudden, we were miraculously able to return to The Land and the fun began. I’m sure that there were idealists around sixty two years ago who thought that with the in-gathering of the exiles we would all work together to build our Nation in Our Land: dance the Hora together, things like that. It hasn’t worked out all that smoothly – as you may have noticed, assuming you were paying attention.
Several weeks ago, I came upon an article, together with a photograph, in Haaretz. Apparently, a number of Chabadniks moved into Ramat Aviv, a very pricey, secular neighborhood north of Tel Aviv proper. Being Chabadniks, a couple of the guys went down to a street corner and looked for customers to put on tefillin. Did that get the neighbors upset! There was a demonstration with people carrying signs saying “Ramat Aviv is not B’nei Brak.” While the demonstration was bad enough, the article was even worse. Haaretz has a collection of leftist loonies whom they let out of their padded cells from time to time to write vitriolic articles. The journalist the paper chose to write the article used it to attach anything which is important in Judaism, and that Ramat Aviv must, must, be kept free from any taint of our ancestral religion. Imagine what would happen if all of a sudden people wanted to pray anywhere near Tel Aviv University and the Diaspora Museum? Why, everyone might start to sprout a long, white beard overnight – even the women! Personally, I think the Chabad movement is somewhat weird; but if there can be a Chabad House in Katmandu, why not in Ramat Aviv? I understand that whatever activities these folks are up to, it started with the absolute love their rebbe had for each and every Jew; and as far as they are concerned, the most worthy thing a Jew could do is to reach out to his fellow – no matter how estranged from the tradition the latter might. It’s just that the Chabadniks don’t have to be so annoying about it. Likewise, the secularists writing for Haaretz don’t have to be quite so hostile; I guess it comes with the territory.
So where does that leave us with the Slonimers in Immanuel (G-d help us), who are seeking a separate education for their children? If you ask someone, like the spokesman for a large American Haredi organization who is paid the big bucks to sit in Washington D.C. and pontificate, it’s perfectly acceptable for Haredi parents to educate their children how and with whom they want. (In a recent article I read, he even compared the Sephardic families who petitioned the Supreme Court to Bull Connor, the segregationist who physically opposed school integration in America. Yes, you read it right. That’s what he wrote. You’ll have to ask the good rabbi by what convoluted logic he arrived at that remarkable conclusion.) One can debate endlessly whether the Slonimers were acting within the framework of the law or not, or whether the law should allow them to do what they were doing. Can I tell you something? That’s not my issue. I don’t care either way. I’m much more interested in what the Slonimers are trying to accomplish and why. AND what effect their actions will have on others.
I stumbled on an article in the Jerusalem Post which I think sheds light on the subject. Peggy Cidor’s beat is the Jerusalem City Hall, and she described a City Council meeting which had taken place almost a decade ago. It was 10:30 at night, and council member Shmuel Yitzhaki (Shas), known for being politically incorrect (my kinda guy!) rose to speak: “My dear colleagues, forgive me for keeping you up so late, but my conscience will not allow me to remain silent any longer.” What was on his mind? There were twenty three Sephardic girls whose mothers kept calling him to do something for their daughters, who were being kept out of Beit Ya’akov schools in Jerusalem. Not surprisingly, this was not a one-shot affair; he got these calls every year. Cidor related that one day Benny Cohen who was then head of Jerusalem’s Haredi Education Department gave her the following explanation of what was happening and why it should not be considered ‘racism.’ “In Ashkenazi haredi families, when a member leaves the religion, the rest of the family ostracizes him. In some extreme cases, they will even sit shiva for him or her because they fear an eventual impact on the other children. They would rather sacrifice one child than jeopardize the rest. But in Sephardi families you can find a haredi son, a religious Zionist, a traditionalist and a totally secular child. They all respect their parents, share the same holiday or Shabbat meal and remain a rather close-knit family. It may look warm and beautiful, but Haredi Ashkenazi families look upon it differently. They are afraid of a girl who might visit an aunt who has a TV at home and perhaps dresses in a way that is too provocative in their eyes. So they will never accept a girl whose family has a ‘problem.’” In Jerusalem, where there are many schools, every girl ultimately gets into some school, even if it is not her choice; there is much less of an option in a small community like Immanuel (G-d help us). In either community, the process does little for these girls self-esteem, but that does not seem to be part of the equation..
Reading Benny Cohen’s explanation I thought to myself, that is an absolutely dead-on description of our Sephardic neighbors across the hall. They must have four or five grown children, and they are beginning to collect an impressive number of grandchildren. There’s almost always a carload or two of family members arriving just before Shabbat. You can stand in the hallway and listen to them singing Friday night and the children playing all through Shabbat. If you are invited into their apartment during the week, you can see the family pictures hanging together n the salon and the dining room. You would also notice the huge TV, tuned to a qualifying round of the World Cup (what we call soccer in The States, if you haven’t been following). If you want to judge people by their clothing, then it would seem obvious that each of our neighbors’ children has chosen a slightly different religious path. I guess none of their children would qualify for a Beit Ya’akov school – assuming that the parents would want to send them there.
Why am I writing about this? Please take my assurance that this is not meant as another bash-the-haredim article, which are as common these days as the local cats at our garbage bins. I admire this group (the Haredim, not the cats!) for the strength of its convictions, their eagerness to repopulate the decimated world Jewish community, their interest in learning Torah, their commitment to chesed for themselves and others. It’s just that…….if you think Israel gets bad P.R., these folks get much worse – which is sort of where I’m coming from – although I’m sneaking up on it from behind. I never pretend to be a Torah Scholar, or even a Torah scholar, and I try to confine my comments to those areas in which I have some understanding. One of them is the concept of G-d judging us with rachamim (mercifully, overlooking our faults and focusing on our good deeds) versus din (strict justice, just the facts), and of course we are always beseeching G-d to show us mercy, for we are what we are, even though our ancestors were virtuous. (At least mine were; I don’t know about yours!)
So what about us? If we are asking for mercy for ourselves, shouldn’t we try to show a little rachmones for the next guy. And if we insist on employing the strictest standards for our fellows (your grandmother’s sister has a second cousin-by-marriage who wears pants; you’re not getting into my school) or making up standards for criteria which don’t even exist – like the kind of shoes a prospective son-in-law wears to shul on Shabbos – well, what should we expect from the Supreme Judge? Then there’s the concept of midah k’neged midah, which means, more or less, than what you do to the next guy might come back to bite you if you’re not careful. Rabbeinu Yona figured that one out pretty darn quickly: You wanna burn the works of the smartest guy of your generation, I’ll show you some REAL book burning. Wait ‘til the Bishop of Paris gets through with you First learn to behave towards one another, and then we’ll worry about a blatt (one side of a page) of Gemarrah.
Now I don’t claim to have any inside information on these matters; so this is just a wild guess on my part. Maybe, just maybe, our frenzied zeal to be critical of one another, he did that, she didn’t do that, is mirrored in the insane lengths to which the nations of the world are going these days to judge us (we don’t care what your reasons are for blockading Gaza, you killed nine people on that flotilla; doesn’t matter if they were armed and would have killed your soldiers….) You want din, I’ll give you din in spades. You want to be contemptuous of a duly constituted court, I’ll show you what a court can do (and Sholem Rubashkin is given what is essentially a life sentence, way out of proportion to his offence. Funny, there were no riots anywhere in Haredi America over that.)
Time for a spritz of Pinat Hama. Time to remember all of the good deeds by so many people here in The Land (and you guys stuck in Exile). Wiser heads prevailed as regards to Immanuel, and for the last several days of the school year, all the girls (those with and without a blemish) were able to sit together and participate in some kind of a program without any recourse to a firing squad. Perhaps I might give some advice to the esteemed Rabbi of the Slonim Hassidim: be careful what you say; somebody out there might latch on to your rhetorical excesses and think it’s a good idea.

No comments: