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October 23, 2014 / 29 Tishri, 5775
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Posts Tagged ‘say’

Testing And Prophecy

Wednesday, August 7th, 2013

How did our ancestors distinguish a true prophet from a false one?

Unlike kings or priests, prophets did not derive authority from formal office. Their authority lay in their personality, their ability to give voice to the word of God, their self-evident inspiration. But precisely because a prophet has privileged access to the word others cannot hear, the visions others cannot see, the real possibility existed of false prophets – like those of Baal in the days of King Ahab.

What was there to prevent a fraudulent, or even a sincere but mistaken, figure, able to perform signs and wonders and move the people by the power of his words, from taking the nation in a wrong direction, misleading others and perhaps even himself?

Moses addresses this concern in our sedra:

“You may say to yourselves, ‘How can we know when a message has not been spoken by the Lord?’ If what a prophet proclaims in the name of the Lord does not take place or come true, that is a message the Lord has not spoken. That prophet has spoken presumptuously. Do not be afraid of him.”

On the face of it, the test is simple: if what the prophet predicts comes to pass, he is a true prophet; if not, not. Clearly, though, it was not that simple.

The classic case is the Book of Jonah. Jonah is commanded by God to warn the people of Nineveh that their wickedness is about to bring disaster on them. Jonah attempts to flee, but fails – the famous story of the sea, the storm, and the “great fish.” Eventually he goes to Nineveh and utters the words God has commanded him to say – “Forty more days and Nineveh will be destroyed” – the people repent and the city is spared. Jonah, however, is deeply dissatisfied:

But Jonah was greatly displeased and became angry. He prayed to the Lord, “O Lord, is this not what I said when I was still at home? That is why I was so quick to flee to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity. Now, O Lord, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live” (Jonah 4:1-3).

Jonah’s complaint can be understood in two ways. First, he was distressed that God had forgiven the people. They were, after all, wicked. They deserved to be punished. Why then did a mere change of heart release them from the punishment that was their due?

Second, he had been made to look a fool. He had told them that in 40 days the city would be destroyed. It was not. God’s mercy made nonsense of his prediction.

Jonah is wrong to be displeased: that much is clear. God says, in the rhetorical question with which the book concludes: “Should I not be concerned about that great city?” Should I not be merciful? Should I not forgive?

But what then becomes of the criterion Moses lays down for distinguishing between a true and false prophet: “If what a prophet proclaims in the name of the Lord does not take place or come true, that is a message the Lord has not spoken”? Jonah had proclaimed that the city would be destroyed in 40 days. It wasn’t; yet the proclamation was true. He really did speak the word of God. How can this be so?

The answer is given in the book of Jeremiah. Jeremiah had been prophesying national disaster. The people had drifted from their religious vocation, and the result would be defeat and exile. It was a difficult and demoralizing message for people to hear. A false prophet arose, Hananiah son of Azzur, preaching the opposite. Babylon, Israel’s enemy, would soon be defeated. Within two years the crisis would be over. Jeremiah knew that it was not so, and that Hananiah was telling the people what they wanted to hear, not what they needed to hear. He addressed the assembled people:

He said, “Amen! May the Lord do so! May the Lord fulfill the words you have prophesied by bringing the articles of the Lord’s house and all the exiles back to this place from Babylon. Nevertheless, listen to what I have to say in your hearing and in the hearing of all the people: From early times the prophets who preceded you and me have prophesied war, disaster, and plague against many countries and great kingdoms. But the prophet who prophesies peace will be recognized as one truly sent by the Lord only if his prediction comes true.”

Jeremiah makes a fundamental distinction between good news and bad. It is easy to prophesy disaster. If the prophecy comes true, then you have spoken the truth. If it does not, then you can say: God relented and forgave. A negative prophecy cannot be refuted – but a positive one can. If the good foreseen comes to pass, then the prophecy is true. If it does not, then you cannot say, “God changed His mind” because God does not retract from a promise He has made of good, or peace, or return.

It is therefore only when the prophet offers a positive vision that he can be tested. That is why Jonah was wrong to believe he had failed when his negative prophecy – the destruction of Nineveh – failed to come true. This is how Maimonides puts it:

“As to calamities predicted by a prophet, if, for example, he foretells the death of a certain individual or declares that in particular year there will be famine or war and so forth, the non-fulfillment of his forecast does not disprove his prophetic character. We are not to say, ‘See, he spoke and his prediction has not come to pass.’ For God is long-suffering and abounding in kindness and repents of evil. It may also be that those who were threatened repented and were therefore forgiven, as happened to the men of Nineveh. Possibly too, the execution of the sentence is only deferred, as in the case of Hezekiah.

“But if the prophet, in the name of God, assures good fortune, declaring that a particular event would come to pass, and the benefit promised has not been realized, he is unquestionably a false prophet, for no blessing decreed by the Almighty, even if promised conditionally, is ever revoked … Hence we learn that only when he predicts good fortune can the prophet be tested (Yesodei ha-Torah 10:4).

Fundamental conclusions follow from this. A prophet is not an oracle: a prophecy is not a prediction. Precisely because Judaism believes in free will, the human future can never be unfailingly predicted. People are capable of change. God forgives. As we say in our prayers on the High Holy Days: “Prayer, penitence, and charity avert the evil decree.”

There is no decree that cannot be revoked. A prophet does not foretell. He warns. A prophet does not speak to predict future catastrophe but rather to avert it. If a prediction comes true it has succeeded. If a prophecy comes true it has failed.

The second consequence is no less far-reaching. The real test of prophecy is not bad news but good. Calamity, catastrophe, disaster prove nothing. Anyone can foretell these things without risking his reputation or authority. It is only by the realization of a positive vision that prophecy is put to the test.

So it was with Israel’s prophets. They were realists, not optimists. They warned of the dangers that lay ahead. But they were also, without exception, agents of hope. They could see beyond the catastrophe to the consolation. That is the test of a true prophet.

The Holocaust as an Expression of Kindness? Seriously?

Monday, August 5th, 2013

One of the things that never fails to upset me is when people of stature start trying to explain the Holocaust. There are some rabbinic figures who have tried to do so, both past and present. It seems like there is a new addition to those ranks in the person of Rabbi Avigdor Miller, a venerated Rabbinic personality of the 20th century.

I do not say this to disparage him. He is a man who garners tremendous respect from observant Jews from all walks of life. There are people who consider his Hashkafos about Judaism their guide to life. He has a wide following, perhaps greater today posthumously than when he was alive.

My introduction to Rabbi Avigdor Miller was when I read his book, Rejoice O’ Youth which was an unsuccessful attempt to refute the theory of evolution.  For many years that book angered me. But I have mellowed in that regard and now believe that he has every right to his views on that subject and to promote them in a book. Just as others do to refute it.

I recall also being upset at something I once read about him where he strongly disparaged Modern Orthodoxy. I will be Dan L’Kaf Zechus that he was not disparaging observant Jews that are modern but meticulous in their observance and respect the Mesorah. He was probably referring to those I like to call MO-Lites. Jews who are not so meticulous about their religious observances and are more assimilated into the culture than they are into their Judaism. Or those Modern Orthodox Jews that are on the extreme left and try to innovate practices that depart from the Mesorah.  Like Yeshivat Chovevei Torah (YCT) and Yeshivat Maharat.

According to an article in Mishpacha Magazine, his son, Rav Shmuel Miller, has published a book posthumously written by his father  that in my view is unconscionable. The thesis of the book is that the Holocaust was actually a Chesed… a kindness from God in the way of a wake-up call! It is called  ‘A Divine Madness’ – Rabbi Avigdor Miller’s Defense of HaShem in the Matter of the Holocaust.

Rabbi Avigdor Miller did not want to publish this work during his lifetime. He felt that so soon after the Holocaust it would upset survivors. His son has decided that enough time has passed and published it. Rabbi Avigdor Miller is certainly entitled to his views. But I am entitled to totally reject them.

He is not the first one to put forward the theory that the Holocaust happened because Jews were abandoning the Torah and observance in droves in the period prior to the Holocaust. But what is so upsetting about this particular thesis is that he considers the Holocaust a kindness. I understand his point. Which he tries to illustrate using an example once cited by the Chofetz Chaim as follows.

If someone is in the coldest region on Earth like the North Pole and falls asleep, he will freeze to death in short order. If someone is there next to him, he will try to wake him up from his slumber. If calling out to him, won’t work, he will shake him. If that doesn’t work he will smack him. If that doesn’t work, he will take a stick and hit him. An onlooker might see this as being cruel and not understand that he is trying to wake him up in order to save his life. In other words what looks like a cruelty to another human being – is actually a kindness meant to save his life.

This is such a bad analogy that it boggles my mind that it was even attempted let alone published in a book.

There are 6 million individual stories of savage slaughter that happened in the Holocaust. And that is just about Jews that were systematically killed. There could be as many as another six million stories about horrors experienced by survivors.

Just to cite 2 personal examples.

My father escaped the Nazi death camps by hiding in 3 different bunkers with other families until his city was liberated by the Russians.

When the first bunker was discovered, the escape route planned in such an eventuality via the town sewer system enabled an escape by my father and my 3 older brothers (who were in their early teens at the time). But my father’s first wife (my brothers’ mother) never made it. She was captured while trying to escape. The next bunker was a makeshift one in the forest. That too was discovered, but my oldest brother got caught while my father and his two younger sons escaped. My father heard his oldest son screaming as he was being carried off by the Gestapo.

My wife’s uncle was an Ish Tam – a Gerrer Chasid; kind and sincere; simple  and pure in his devotion to God. He had not an ounce of evil in his bones. He had a beautiful family – a wife and children – prior to the Holocaust. They were all slaughtered by the Nazis except for him. He was captured by the infamous Josef Menegle for purposes of medical experiments. That left him without family and sterile after the war… never able to rebuild his family. Although he did remarry and made Aliyah.  He was a truly good man who never questioned God.

You can multiply these two stories by the number of victims and survivors. How many stories like this and far worse have we all heard?!

If this is God’s Chesed, I’d like to know what it’s like when He gets angry! How dare anyone say that God decided to torture innocent people in order to wake us up? Rabbi Miller does not make understanding the Holocaust any easier. He makes it even more difficult to understand, in my view.

Many great rabbinic figures were slaughtered by the Nazis. It is said that the great people of any given generation are punished because they did not protest the increasing rejection of Mitzvah observance of their time. Even if that’s true, how can such inhumanity to the average Jew – innocent people who are not Gedolim – be explained?

How can anyone say that being tortured by the likes of Mengele is the same as being hit with a stick at the North Pole?! How can anyone say that forcing Jews to dig mass graves for themselves and then being shot into them is the same as being hit with a stick?! How can anyone one say that the millions of Jews marching into the ‘showers’ at Auschwitz and Buchenwald is the same as being hit with a stick. Such analogies are an insult to not only the six million who died, but to all the survivors and their children, of which I am one!

Wake up call?! How exactly did all the torture endured by survivors wake up all those who lost their faith after the Holocaust?

My negative attitude about the Satmar Rebbe is well known here becauseof his antipathy towards the State of Israel and his disparagement of Rav Kook. But there is one thing I do agree with him about. The Holocaust cannot be explained.  And all victims of the Holocaust including survivors have earned an automatic place in the world to come – even if they did not remain religious.
I therefore object in the strongest possible terms the publication a book which espouses the view that the Holocaust was a ‘wake-up’ call. His right to publish such opinions should not trump the hurt such views have upon survivors and their children.

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Chief Rabbis & Politics

Monday, August 5th, 2013

I have never been a fan of chief rabbis. Anyone appointed by committees, politicians, or bureaucrats is suspect in my eyes. Perhaps my antipathy is rooted in the days when both Napoleon and the czar appointed state chief rabbis whom they approved of because they were likely to support their agendas. I can say with confidence that, in general, the greatest rabbis, whether intellectually or spiritually, have never been interested in public appointments.

I don’t mean to say that all chief rabbis have been duds. Israel’s Chief Rabbis Abraham Isaac Kook, Isaac Herzog, and Uziel were great men by any criteria. Chief Rabbi Goren was a dynamic overachiever and a fearless innovator. Some, like Ovadiah Yosef, have been great scholars but poor spokesmen. But there have been too many others who were undiplomatic, corrupt, or ineffective. The reason can simply be put down to politics. When appointments are made by groups of political appointees (or self-appointed grandees) they invariably make the wrong decisions. Neither is public acclaim a reliable test of the best person for the job. Those who seek or need public recognition are rarely willing or able to take the tough and controversial stands that are the mark of genuine leadership.

Israel recently appointed two chief rabbis, both the sons of previous chief rabbis. I do not know either of them. But remarks I have seen attributed to them leave me deeply depressed that they will reflect a xenophobic, narrow perspective and shrink from trying to humanize the rabbinate. The political maneuvering, the arm twisting, the deals behind closed doors all point to a corrupt system. And once gain the innovative, the exciting have lost out. If a good man ever emerges it is despite the system not because of it. Nepotism is a poor way of producing great leaders. Yet throughout Jewish religious institutions nepotism is the norm rather than the exception. Yeshivot nowadays are often big family businesses (as indeed are most Chasidic dynasties).

Israel has two chief rabbis, one Ashkenazi and the other Sefardi. This in itself is evidence of how flawed the system is, that in a small religion such as ours religious leadership cannot work together. In addition, in Israel, there is a huge disconnect between the religious leadership and the common person, between the state rabbinate and the Charedi world, which has its own authorities. Indeed the Charedi world always rubbished and abused the state rabbinate until, in the desperate search for jobs for the boys and power, it began to infiltrate and then take much of it over. Once again it has ensured that its candidates have got the jobs.

One of the first words in Ivrit I learnt was “protektsia” (yes, I know it comes from Russian). “Vitamin P” meant you could not get anywhere in Israeli life, from top to bottom, religious or secular, without knowing someone or having someone pull strings in your behalf. So it was and so it largely remains. When this disease infects religion, it loses its moral authority.

But surely, you will say, Judaism requires one to respect one’s religious leaders. In theory this is so. The Torah commands respect for princes and scholars. Our liturgy is full of references to their importance. But there are two very distinct types of leadership in our tradition. The prophet and the judge emerged through merit. That’s probably why there were women judges and prophets. Rabbis as a rule were the result of meritocracy (the rabbinic dynasties that began with Hillel wanted to have their cake and eat it). On the other hand, the priesthood and the monarchy were both hereditary, and both failed. Most of the Jewish kings were idolatrous, evil men, and most priests showed more interest in money and power than Divine service.

Moshe typified the meritocracy. This was why he always defended himself by referring to his spotless record. It is true we say that in each generation we must accept the leader, Jephtah in his generation as the equivalent of Samuel in his. But I believe that has another meaning, of the need to accept the best we can get.

“Pray for the welfare of the ruling powers because otherwise humans would swallow each other up,” says the Mishna. That very Hobbesian idea underpins our modern secular states. But as Locke argued, if the king failed to do his job, you could and should get rid of him. This is why we pray for the State wherever we live, even as we may try our best to vote out whoever the current prime minister is. We in the West have recently experienced the irrational hysteria over a royal baby. I have no interest in ordinary people being elevated to positions of power or even symbolic authority simply on the basis of birth. There are enough inequalities in life of rank and wealth. I like the fact that we can vote people out of office as much as in. If I choose to respect someone, it is on the basis of the respect he or she earns, not the position they have been given. The diploma should be greater than the diaper.

I look forward to Elijah’s arrival. I hope he will not try to reinstate the monarchy. But I am pretty sure he will not insist on two kings, one Ashkenazi and the other Sefardi.

One of the reasons for so much disillusion with religion is precisely this disconnect between how its leaders too often behave and speak and their own purported religious values. The more we see how susceptible religious leadership is to money, power, and fame, the less good the religion they represent looks. I don’t care too much what politicians like Spitzer or Weiner get up to, and if people want to vote for them that’s their problem. But when religious leadership behaves like political leadership, something is very wrong.

Infidel

Monday, August 5th, 2013

I’ve written about Ayaan Hirsi Ali a few times, having heard her speak two years running now at the President’s Conference in Jerusalem. Each time, in her elegant and dignified way, she put the other speakers to shame. There were quiet and short remarks – there is great beauty is simplicity.

Last year, as several American Jews, diplomats and scholars, debated the need for Israel to surrender more, Hirsi Ali was handed the microphone and now, more than 16 months later, her words remain imprinted on my brain, “Even if you give them Jerusalem…EVEN if you give them Jerusalem, there will be no peace.”

Many clapped for this statement and the first thing I did after blogging about her was to promise myself I would learn more. With a great many excuses, a full year past and I was back again this past June at the President’s Conference, thrilled to have another opportunity to hear her speak. The room was packed – not a vacant seat (I grabbed the last three seats and called Chaim telling him he had to come hear this session). After hearing her speak again, I fulfilled that promise by ordering two of her books – “Infidel” and “Nomad.” These contain the story of her life – up to this point, whatever she wants to tell us – but certainly in much more detail than she could provide during her short presentations.

I learned so much about Islam – about that world on the other side of my borders. To be honest, I knew a lot of it, or suspected it – but she gave depth to my knowledge and then took me way beyond. She gave reasons, deeply rooted in Islam and in the Koran. I knew the results; she taught me the cause.

So here, I have a confession – I am a mother, a wife, even a grandmother, if you can believe that…and though I have joined others in condemning it, I only realized in reading her story what female genital mutilation was. I had no idea…and a part of me wishes I still didn’t know. How these men could do this to their daughters; how they could want this in their wives – I honestly and truly don’t understand.

That is, perhaps, the curse of Western civilization – we cannot comprehend the barbarity and because we are so naive, because we cannot understand, we tend to excuse, minimize the acts. We conveniently use the words and condemn the action…but to read pages that describe the act, the pain and suffering of these young girls – then and for years after was a startling revelation, a glimpse into a world that I had never imagined.

Can a mother want to do this to her daughter, as Ayaan’s mother chose to do to hers? How? In God’s name, how? I have never knowingly caused my daughter’s pain. And when they have been in pain, I have felt that pain throughout my body.

As to Ayaan, her story is amazing…what she survived…what she made of herself is a lesson to all of us – even those of us who, by comparison, have been blessed to live with relatively few hardships. I have never known hunger; I have never been beaten. Medical care has always been available, education, food, and love.

There were several things that got to me in her story (I’ve only read Infidel so far; I’m starting Nomad tonight) on so many levels – as a woman, as a Jew, as an Israeli, as a mother.

One of the first things that struck me, even as I found myself deeply involved with her personal story, were the few references to Jews. Until she was well into her 20s, I don’t think Ayaan ever met a Jew. I didn’t know whether I should laugh or cry when I read, “In Saudi Arabia, everything bad was the fault of the Jews. When the air conditioner broke or suddenly the tap sopped running,t he Saudi women next door used to say the Jews did it…I had never med a Jew. (Neither had these Saudis.)” What I got from this was something I had already known – they really really hate us. They don’t even know us, but they hate us…go figure.

Another thing that bothered me, though I understood her reasoning, was her journey away from Islam. She describes a religion that demands absolute obedience; a religion that has no mechanism for change over time; and a religion that focuses on punishment and the Hereafter – all you do in this life is preparation for the Hereafter and there are seemingly thousands or more things for which you are regularly threatened to be condemned to hell. It seems almost as if it is impossible to get to this heaven, given the number of restrictions – in action and in thought – that are applied to Muslims.

Ayaan’s brilliant reasoning takes all of this into consideration and reaches a conclusion – there is no hell; there is no hereafter. The Koran was written by man, not be God…and from there – she decides there is no God. I’m simplifying it. For her, it was a journey of thousands of miles and many years. She embraced Islam, searching and searching to justify her beliefs. She found contradictions and still pushed on.

It is written in the Koran that you may beat your wife…and Ayaan properly asks, what kind of God would allow that? It is written that you can cheat and lie to an infidel…and what kind of God would allow that?

And while I agree with her, it is also the point where I lose my way in following her. I won’t argue whether Allah is God and God is Allah, but I will say that the God she describes is not my God. I do believe in God – but not this Allah that she describes. My God has told us to choose life, not death. My God does not allow a man to beat his wife and the value of a life – Jew or not, is important. You cannot cheat or beat a slave and even slaves have an “out” clause to their slavery such that they must be set free after a certain number of years. These are the laws given to my people, by our God, a God we refer to as merciful and just.

A man can sell himself into slavery to pay off a debt, knowing that when the debt is paid, he will be freed. I don’t want to get into a legal comparison of Jewish law versus Islamic law – I am an expert of neither.

But I do believe in the hereafter – only different from what Ayaan was taught. We are taught that God waits to the last minute of your life to forgive any transgressions; the Islam she learned involved having two “angels” over her shoulders, each writing down the good and bad you do – and the list of bad could be as simple as being alone with a man, seeing a movie, etc. If you wear pants, if you show any skin except for your face and hands, certainly not your neck, you are sinful and evil.

I don’t blame Ayaan for walking away from a culture in which a man can take several wives and beat them as he wishes; a culture in which a man can marry off his daughter to a someone she has never met; a culture in which a woman cannot move freely unless she is escorted by a man. I can only hope that had God put me in the same culture, I would have found the courage, as she did, to escape. And she didn’t just escape, she took with her a responsibility to try to help others.

I think it took tremendous courage to walk away, to flee and save herself and thousands of other Muslim women by the work she did in Holland and now does in the United States.

I just wish somehow that along her journey, she could have found a way to keep God. It seems to me that Ayaan’s logical conclusion should have been that if Islam is as flawed as she believes it to be…she should understand that their version and vision of God is flawed too. I do not believe in the God she worshiped as a child and a young woman. Flawed, vindictive, vengeful, and promoting inequality – no, these are not traits of the God that I have known.

This Allah she was raised to worship demanded absolute obedience – compare that to the story of Abraham arguing with God to save the few righteous of Sodom. We have been in a dialog with God for thousands of years – and He listens to us. It is a relationship of love, of gratitude.

In Israel, we have seen too many miracles to do anything but believe in God. Every time a missile hits…it is a miracle because moments before a car passed by, a person left the room, a class was in the library. We have seen it all and we recognize the source. I’m sure we have atheists in Israel, but even among secular Jews here, God is pretty much accepted.

The radio broadcaster will bless the memory of someone who has died; will say, “thank God,” when no one is hurt. God escorts us through our lives here and encourages us to be better, kinder, and more charitable. We are not measured by how many infidels we kill, how many women we force into modesty. This concept of honor killing finds no home in our religion or with our God.

We have seen the horrors of what man can do to man (and to woman) but to blame God for the actions of man seems unfair. There is evil in this world – we all know that. We are given the choice – to choose good and God or to choose evil and work against God.

I can’t explain why bad things happen, but I do believe even the horrible serves a purpose. What was done to Ayaan, and so many others, were terrible, almost unimaginable and yet, didn’t these actions form her into the person she is? Overall, as I read her book, I was left with the impression that she was happy with who she is and what she has done. God, yes, I believe God, gave her a task in this life – one that she accomplishes each time she spreads the knowledge of the culture in which she was raised, each time she forces us to open our eyes and see.

Would she have accomplished what she has, without the challenges along the way? I think the answer is obvious.

What I can say is that there is tremendous comfort in believing that there is a God looking out for you, guiding you, protecting you. And I wish Ayaan could have this comfort. God has a plan – perhaps the greatest evil comes when man attempts to control or redirect that plan; when man attempts to become master of that plan.

Perhaps the irony is that the religion of Islam’s greatest flaw is not that it targets infidels, but that it fails to understand what an infidel is. I would say an infidel is a man who beats his wife, mutilates his daughter, encourages his sons to commit suicide. An infidel is one who is so busy defining God for others, he forgets to understand it is not for us to define God at all.

In carefully defining every aspect of how you live, Islam has succeeded in defining nothing. What the Muslim man fails to realize is that when he blows up a building, murders and terrorizes – and it is he who will go to hell, not the poor woman who was seen talking to a man, not the family sitting in the pizza store in Jerusalem. There are infidels in the world – but these are the people who forsake the love of God, for a culture of death and misery.

(It’s still an incredible book and I highly recommend it…I just wish I could tell Ayaan Hirsi Ali that she is where she is in life…by her own intelligence, her own strength, and by the grace of God…if not Allah.)

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