Out Of The Ashes

A firefighter found a sefer Tehillim at ground zero. The name inside is Avraham Binyamin Shapiro (it may be Spira). If anyone knows whom this may belong to, please contact me
by either sending a letter to 9 Dorset Road, Spring Valley, NY 10977; by calling me at work (908-582-5384); or by e-mailing me at mdlevine@lucent.com.

Mordechai Dovid Levine
(Via E-Mail)

Prescient Columnist

In the December 26 issue of The Jewish Press, the opening sentence to Rabbi Hollander’s weekly Sedra of the Week column states, “A psychology student was given an assignment
to find out how different groups in society would react to a sudden warning that an earthquake was about to explode and bury the world.?

BAM! The next day, Iran is jolted with an earthquake that killed 40,000 people, with an estimated 30,000 more injured. Rabbi Hollander’s timely introduction preceded the cataclysm
by one day. It will be interesting to observe the reaction.

President Bush has labeled Iran a member of the “Axis of Evil.” Let us examine the accuracy of that label. The president offered to send the suffering Iranians food, medicine, and clothing relief as did many other countries including Israel. This morning’s newspaper reported that Israel’s humanitarian offer of assistance was rejected. Rejected! Who can comprehend this intensity of mindless hatred? President Bush was correct. We are witnessing a regime so blind in its wickedness that it is stumbling around in the realm of pure evil.

Rabbi Hollander was also right when he reminded us in a previous article that “we should be proud that our enemies hate us.”

Thank you, Rabbi Hollander, for sharing your keen insight. With enemies like this, you could not be more correct. Happy birthday.

Norman Shine
Brooklyn, NY

Teanukah, Anyone?

Re ‘Bizarre Doings at The Jewish Week’ (editorial, Dec. 26):

Jewish Week publisher Gary Rosenblatt seems troubled that “… every Jewish child knows about the heroism of Judah Maccabee and his brothers, though the saga is of marginal
importance today. But so few are familiar with the courage and accomplishments of Herzl, Ben-Gurion, Begin and Sharansky…”

This shows a serious lack of understanding of his own religion and a total disregard for its age-old established values.

The Battle of Jericho, for example, was fraught with miracles, courage and accomplishments, and culminated with the Jews entering the land of Israel as a nation for the first time. Yet, although most yeshiva students learn of this historic event, there are no holidays or widespread celebrations commemorating the battle.

Apparently, physical prowess absent redeeming spiritual values is not much cause for Jewish celebration. Whereas the Jews’ entrance into the land of Israel for the first time had great potential, the battle itself was basically a means to an end.

The courage and heroism behind the story of Chanukah, on the other hand, were directly responsible for the salvaging of the Temple ruins and allowing the Temple-related services to
continue. It was a case of courage and heroism for the sake of spiritual values, and such a message is as relevant today as it was then.

I’m a strong supporter of Israel. But bereft of any spiritual values or aspirations, our repossession of the land of Israel in 1948 would have had little more significance than conquering Teaneck, New Jersey. (And while we have, in fact, just about conquered Teaneck, we don’t have a holiday called Teanukah.)

The Jewish nation was never about flaunting military might or conquering land. As for Chanukah being an “ugly story,” as Mr. Rosenblatt puts it, that would be the case only if we were celebrating our having had the might, the courage, and the willpower to sacrifice our people for a conquest that represented no loftier objective than acquiring a piece of land.

Mr. Rosenblatt must remember that we are not Jews because we have Israel; we became Jews first and then we were given Israel. The fact that there are many Jews today who rant and rave about Israel, yet display no other tell-tale signs of being Jewish, is about as ugly as a story gets.

Josh Greenberger
Brooklyn, NY

A Quick Acceptance Of Our Invitation

In the interest of the final line of your response “we would look forward to a continued exchange of ideas,” I feel constrained to respond to your response. You charge me with giving the appearance that “Yaakov Avinu was being slighted since his father was portrayed as leaning toward choosing the militaristic Esau over the Torah student Yaakov.” You righteously ask, “How could anyone have taken this as anything other than a statement of Yaakov’s unreliability and the correlative denigration of Torah as the fount of the Jewish people?”

First of all, I would send you to the Malbim who says that Yitzchak did choose Esau because he believed that Yaakov was not aggressive enough; it was because of this that Yitzchak wanted to distinguish between the more spiritual birthright (to go to Yaakov) and the more materialistic blessing (to go to Esau). And this is only a “hava amina,” in yeshiva terminology. Rivka proves that Yitzchak’s fears were not grounded. So how does my commentary, which merely attempted to explain the motivation of Yitzchak, prove Yaakov’s unreliability and denigrate Torah as the fount of the Jewish people? Much the opposite. My purpose is to show
the greatness of Yaakov who combined the voice of Torah with the hands of aggression if it were to be necessary.

Second, you mention your concern about “the extraordinary notion that Yitzchak Avinu was prepared to define Klal Yisrael as a militaristic nation for eternity.” Militaristic is your word, not mine. I portray Yitzchak as loving the land of Israel and having been humiliated at the hands of Abimelech – who acted as the arch anti-Semite who exiled the Jews from their rightful homes. How is this to be identified with describing Yitzchak as wishing a militaristic nation for all eternity? From his own experience, he understood the suffering of the Jews, the exile of the Jews and the humiliation of the Jews. From this perspective, he realized the importance of a stronger and more aggressive “first born.” I truly believe that I was only strengthening the position of the Malbim with the peshutu shel mikra of the incident with Abimelech coming as it does in the midst of the story of the blessings.

Finally, it is told that Rav Avraham Yitzchak Hacohen Kook cried inconsolably during the week of mourning for his mother. When visitors commented on the fact that she had lived such a long and fruitful life, insinuating that there was little cause for such anguished sorrow, Rav Kook responded, “I am not crying for her. I am crying for me. There is now no one in the world who will call me Avramele with such love in her voice.” It was in this context that I used the loving language of Yankele – I did not want to give the impression that Yitzchak had rejected this studious son out of any feelings other than love.

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin
(Via E-Mail)

Editor’s Response: In Rabbi Riskin’s first comment questioning our point about Yaakov being slighted, he unfortunately quotes only part of the paragraph wherein we made the point – and, in addition, takes the point out of context. While we do not question Rabbi Riskin’s word, we are constrained to note that when the full text of the paragraph is read together with the paragraph that preceded it, it is not possible to understand Rabbi Riskin’s characterization of Yaakov as “Yankele, the naive dweller of tents,” as anything other than a slight.

According to Rabbi Riskin, Yitzchak’s desire to choose Eisav over Yaakov was rooted in a sense of powerlessness arising out of “humiliations” at the hands of Abimelech and his anxiety over his descendants being able to conquer Canaan. What else but a negative comparison could we have understood from Rabbi Riskin’s commentary as he went on to say that when Yitzchak “looks at his twin sons – Yankele, the naive dweller in tents, and Esau, the aggressive hunter – he concludes that only an Esau will have the wherewithal to stand up to our enemies and fight for the patrimony.” [Emphasis added.]

Plainly, the use of the diminutive “Yankele” when referring to Yaakov Avinu and the description of Yaakov as an other-worldly “benk kvetcher” is surely a less-than-
positive evaluation of both the reliability of one of the Patriarchs to deal with the
challenges to come and also of the utility of the Torah to prepare him for that task.

Nor does Rabbi Riskin’s claim to “strengthen” the Malbim compute. To be sure,
according to the Malbim the blessings of material success were intended for Eisav
because of his non-spiritual, material pursuits. But this was to enable Eisav to
assist the spiritual Yaakov in attaining a particular world mix of the spiritual and
mundane and also because of Yitzchak’s belief that that mix could not otherwise be
achieved. This is hardly an analysis that is nurtured by the idea that Yitzchak preferred Eisav’s militaristic bent over Yaakov’s spirituality out of his own supposed sense of powerlessness.

Finally, we too are taken with Rav Kook’s well-known anecdote, even as we question its applicability.

Tzedakah, Tikkun Olam And Jewish Values

Responding to my placement in the Forward’s top 50 list for the third year in a row, The Jewish Press worries that my work sets a bad example for the Jewish community because it, or I, or both are not sufficiently Jewish. The question at heart seems to be whether or not working in a non-Jewish community to better the world is Jewish work.

I assure you that the work I do as president of American Jewish World Service to fight poverty, disease and oppression and to intervene to save lives, regardless of religion, is as fundamental a Jewish value as any. But you don’t have to take my word for it. Just ask any reputable rabbi or scholar.

We are exhorted to care for the “stranger,” to leave food for the poor and to not stand idly by the blood of our neighbor. We are told that “these are the ways of peace.” Such deeds are as important as any other act of tzedakah we might and should perform on behalf of the Jewish community.

I have never stated that providing such service is all one needs to do to be Jewish, nor, by the way, is it all that I do. To imply that this is my intention is to degrade me and to attempt to make illegitimate my organization’s good work.

What The Jewish Press ran in response to a letter that disputed its editorial seemed not to get
the point. You might have called me or checked our website which lists Jewish text sources to explain why we do what we do. You might have inquired and been told that each and every one of our 178 project partners throughout the developing world knows that their help comes from the American Jewish community and has opportunities, which they take advantage of, to ask about Jews and Judaism. You might have learned that this interaction helps break down preconceived ideas and deters the spread of anti-Semitism.

Or you might have inquired and learned that the 200-plus college students, teens and young
adults (some of whom are Orthodox) whom we take to work in the developing world go with a Jewish educator. They participate in informal text study and discussion once or twice a day in between the work they are doing building homes, planting seeds or plowing fields.

I would be happy to provide you with contact information for a number of Orthodox alumni who have participated in our service trips who would be delighted to share with you why they have participated and why this was a Jewish experience for them. In fact, in January, four rabbinical students from Yeshivat Chovevei Torah are joining 20 other rabbinical students from all of Judaism’s movements on a work, service and study trip to El Salvador. I welcome the Jewish Press’s coverage of this trip.

Jewish ritual is important and I would never deny its value, but fulfilling tikkun olam and providing support to the majority of the world’s population who are poverty stricken is a very Jewish thing to do and complements our different and various levels of observance.

Ruth Messinger
President and Executive Director
American Jewish World Service

Editor’s Response: If Ms. Messinger had read our editorials more carefully, she would not have come to the conclusion that “The Jewish Press worries that my work sets a bad example for the Jewish community because it, or I, or both are not sufficiently Jewish.” She could also not say that we accused her of stating that the service to the poor she and her agency provide “is all one needs to do to be Jewish.”

The problem we addressed in our editorials on the “Forward 50” is its context –
the palpable sense that making a positive impact is all that Judaism requires. As we
noted here several weeks ago, the working assumption on the part of those who put
together the Forward list is that if one contributes positively to the common good, it
matters not whether one even thinks about the observance of the Sabbath, the laws of kashruth, family purity, etc. As we said then, we think it does matter ? a great deal, in fact – whether one commits to the observance of mitzvot as mitzvot.

We did not – and do not – in any way denigrate the value of efforts to better the world. To the contrary, we applaud such efforts. Our continuing point, however, is that these efforts – in and of themselves – do not define one as a Jew, even though the efforts could be identified with mitzvot and may qualify one as a good person. Our view is
that Judaism by any meaningful definition implies responsibility to perform the mitzvot, however many Jews there are who either observe very few or none at all.