Sunday, July 14, 2013

A Light We Ain't


I've decided to go on strike. After all, everybody else here in The Land reserves that right, port workers government functionaries, and the like. So why not me? To be accurate about it, what I'm proposing is not really a strike, more like a work slowdown – a work-strictly-by-the-rules job action.

The “Nine Days” are upon us, the days from the beginning of the Hebrew month of Av, up to and including Tisha B'Av, the day we mourn the destruction of both the first and second Temples as well as a whole series of other calamities – like the expulsion from Spain and the start of W.W.I. There are all kinds of stringencies that are in effect as to what you do, wear, and eat, culminating on a Yom Kippur-type fast on Tisha B'Av itself. I will do what I have to, no more, no less. I'm going to explain what I'm not going to do, but first a little introduction.

Every year, organizations here put out announcements that go something like this:
Big Tisha B'Av Bash
Fun for the whole family!
Music and Dancing!

And then underneath it says something like: in the event Mashiach has not arrived and Beit HaMikdash rebuilt by then, we will read Eicha and recite Kinot the way we always do, as per the attached schedule. (Can you imagine the following conversation: So and so is calling Shloime Schwartz's Simcha Band. “Hello, Shloime. I'm calling from Congregation Shomrei Galus. We'd like to book your band for erev Tisha B'Av. Just in case.......”)

Starting from right after Tisha B'Av last year, I began paying attention to various events in the Jewish world. What gevaldig things would be happening this year to merit the miraculous events we have – in theory – been waiting for since the second Temple was destroyed almost two thousand years ago? Have we collectively upped the ante, so to speak? Are we in any way, shape, or form, doing better in our efforts to be a “Light Unto The Nations” than we were a year ago; are we just plodding along without much to show for our efforts; or are we in fact worse off than we were last year – our spiritual flashlights getting dimmer and dimmer?

If we had any reason to believe we really, truly, did merit seeing the fulfillment of this dream that so many generations longed for, and then it didn't happen..... that would be a reason for reflection, introspection, and mourning. But for real? We may merit that we all live wherever we are in relative safety, but that's as good as it gets and not a drop more. A Light we ain't.

Let's calmly consider what has been going on regarding the Children of Israel, both here in The Land and by extension in the Exile. Most recently, the Chief Ashkenazic Rabbi (not any old rabbi, but the one, for better or worse, who is supposed to represent the entire Ashkenazic community here) has been forced to suspend himself because he and his staff are being accused of financial impropriety. Granted, the police and the media here have a habit of accusing people of things they are unable to prove in a court of law, but...... It is well understood by those who study our texts that our officials are supposed to be beyond reproach in any way, shape, or form. We can all think of rabbis and other leaders who fill the bill, whom no one would dare accuse of any wrong-doing – just not the one who is in fact in charge.

Then we have the former Sephardic Chief Rabbi, a man universally regarded for his amazing erudition in matters of Torah …... and for his willingness to utter the most derogatory words of rebuke about persons and institutions he doesn't cotton to. At this point in time, when there are supposed to be “elections” for the positions of Chief Rabbis, both Ashkenazic and Sephardic, this F.S.C.R. (taking time out from deciding which of his own two sons he should support for his former position: the one who is under police investigation or the other one) vilified an Ashkenazic rabbi, the candidate of choice of another faction. Some of the F.S.C.R's mind-numbed followers then physically attacked the second rabbi – in a shul on Shabbat. Nice. But, for reasons I cannot fathom, shul on Shabbat seems to be an opportune place for followers of certain rabbis to rough up other rabbis. It does happen, even though it's not a regular occurrence.

The icing on the cake, though, are the doings at the Kotel. Many years ago, a small group of women began showing up there every Rosh Hodesh (the first day of the Jewish month) raising their voices in prayer, some of them wearing, for reasons I really and truly cannot quite fathom, a tallit and, for a few, tefillin – paraphernalia usually associated with the male of the species. Having as I do a relatively high tolerance for eccentric behavior, I would have just ignored them, let them do their thing, and go on their merry way. No big whoop; the heavens would not have split; the world would not have come to an end. Not so some of the “locals.” They thought the best course of action was to yell at the women, spit at them, and throw things in their direction. The police thought the best course of action was to begin arresting them (the women not the “locals”).

At that point, the issue stopped being one of what is appropriate conduct and became an issue of “Civil Rights.” More and more members of the distaff side began to join in. Women who under normal circumstances would never have been caught dead at the Kotel started showing up to support the Women of the Wall. The battle began to escalate. Local rabbis encouraged and even brought in yeshivah bochers to oppose the women. Some of these budding talmudic scholars began hurling pre-used diapers at the women; after all the Kotel is a holy place and we can't permit women desecrating it by singing out loud. Finally, a judge decided that nothing WOW were doing warranted their being arrested and tossed in jail, and that the police should maintain order. As the sign in Musar Avicha says, “please put your nappies in the can.”

Not to be outdone, the rabbis decided to bus in schoolgirls to prevent WOW from getting into the women's section at the Kotel. Most recently, the police did prevent WOW from entering because the crowd was so large, wall to wall people. You might have thought that with all these folks at the Kotel, the Mashiach had finally arrived, that there really would be the world's biggest celebration on the 9th of Av – but sorry, no, not this year. But look at the bright side: So the Levites will not be singing in the Beit Hamikdash; at least WOW won't be singing either.

Lest you get the wrong impression, every year, every day, every minute, we find here in The Land the most amazing acts of kindness, good deeds by the bushel, Torah learning to beat the band, all by the finest people living anywhere on the planet. Just the kind of activity that you might hope and even expect would bring the Redemption. But let's say you were going for a job interview and you had on your best clothes. Just as you were about to meet the boss, who would decide whether or not to hire you, you realized you had egg salad on your tie (or a coffee stain in the front of your blouse). It's not like having a hole in your sock that nobody would notice! You might want to do something about how you looked in front of your prospective employer. All the more so, regarding near-rioting at the Kotel or rabbinic dust-ups on Shabbat: these are not the kind of references we want on our resume to show we're ready for the Final Redemption.

For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction – that's basic physics. It's also basic human nature. So what happens when the “defenders of the wall” show up en masse, and the police look the other way? Certain “supporters of WOW,” mostly liberal American groups, the ones who usually just kibbitz from afar about everything that we're doing wrong, are threatening retaliation, up to and including a financial boycott. They're even talking about airlifting in their own protesters, Jews coming to The Land just to show up once a month at the Kotel. They are not planning to live here or stay here; in fact they rarely get here – certainly not when there is any real trouble and the tourist economy is in the tank. So why are they considering coming now? Don't we have enough rings in the circus at the Kotel as it is?

But at least these liberal groups don't go around this time of year kvetching about sinat chinam. Tikkun olam, maybe, at least in the way liberals see it, but the enmity between Kamsa and Bar Kamsa as described in the Talmud is not standard fare in the sermons in their temples or the talks at their J.C.C.'s – the way it is in our shuls. Sinat chinam, unreasonable, “baseless” hatred of one another: that's what we talk about. It's out there somewhere, lurking in the text of most rabbi's pre-Tisha B'Av sermons. It's in the air, like the dust in a hamsin. We know it used to happen: we know when, where, and how. We know we're supposed to avoid it like the plague. Then Tisha B'Av is over and done with, and nothing has changed. Even during the “Nine Days,” nothing seems to change. They're still fighting a turf battle over the Kotel the same way as the Priests in Temple times fought to get up the ramp so they could be the first to get inside to do whatever they needed to. They still have their knives unsheathed over who will be the Chief Rabbis – as if that position meant anything to most Israelis. And there are only a precious few people of stature willing to stand up and say “Enough of this farce. What's the point of all this palaver if we are ignoring the mess that's staring us in the face – like the well-traveled elephant-in-the-room?”

If anyone was in shul recently and paid attention to the haftarah from the beginning of Isaiah (I admit I wasn't one of those dedicated souls), it does say something to the effect that G-d was somewhat less-than-impressed with the sacrifices being brought to the Temple. What I want you to do most of all, He says, is behave yourselves. Don't pray to me if your hands are full of blood. (Or other waste material?)

Derech eretz (loosely translated as appropriate behavior) comes before Torah learning. I'm going to take that to heart and follow that by the book. If you can't behave civilly to other Jews (let's not even consider other people), then I don't care how good your daily Talmud shiur is or how many books you have written on some exquisitely esoteric point of Jewish law; as far as I'm concerned you can stuff it royally.

We need to do one thing. Exactly one thing. Learn how to live together with all our differences. We need to figure that out before the folks still hiding in Shomrei Galus begin showing up en masse and are horrified by what they see. That is one tough assignment. We'd better be up to it.

(“Shloime Schwartz, it's me again from Shomrei Galus. I know I've called you every year since 1986, but erev Tisha B'Av........ Just in case”?)