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    Raiders of the lost ark – No’ach

    October 18th, 2020

    Human beings get their ten minutes of fame in all sorts of ways. An example is the sporadic “discoverers” of Noah’s Ark.

    Mount Ararat certainly exists (there are also places called Ararat in Australia, the USA. and other countries – maybe because there might have been flooding in these areas at one time. Who knows?).

    The realistic possibility of finding the Biblical ark is highly remote, however. It was all so long ago, and who can be certain that something reminiscent of a boat, even if its proportions are roughly similar to those in the Bible, really does date back to Noah?

    Probably more important is to find a meaning for life in the Noah story.

    For example: can wicked people or groups get away with their evil and corruption for ever, without God taking a stand? If the world seems to be on the verge of destruction or self-destruction, can we be certain that it will survive?

    After all, God promised never again to send an all-encompassing flood, but did He promise that other types of destruction would never occur?

    If we are caught up, as individuals, groups or nations, in destruction, how can we help ourselves to survive, and if we do survive, how should we celebrate our survival and build on it wisely and responsibly?

    The story of Noah and the flood evokes so many questions: can we find the answers?


    Righteous in his generation – No’ach

    October 18th, 2020

    God appears to Noah, by James Tissot, c. 1896

    The Torah is certain that Noah was a righteous man, but why does it go on to qualify its own words by saying, “righteous in his generation”, or literally “righteous in his generations”?

    One opinion is that the generations in which he lived were those before and those after the flood. Each was a different generation and each required a different expression of righteousness.

    Every generation, every situation, calls for a particular kind of righteousness.

    There are times to speak out: there are times to keep your peace and pray to survive to a more amenable generation.

    There are times to create: there are times to conserve (that was Bialik’s principle when, after years of creating literature, he decided to conserve and preserve the literature of the past).

    There are times to work on your own heart, mind and soul: there are times to move out into the affairs of the community.

    In Jewish theology the same doctrine may be discerned. There were ages in which Jewish teaching was more active in the global marketplace of ideas: there were ages when Jewish thinkers worked more within and for the internal needs of the Jewish people themselves.

    There is a saying, Dor dor v’dor’shav, each generation has its expositors; building on this saying, there are leaders of one type who are needed in a particular generation but leaders of a different type in a different generation.


    How I met my first Charedi

    October 18th, 2020

    The following article by Rabbi Raymond Apple originally appeared in The Jerusalem Post on 18 October, 2020.

    I was a little boy in Melbourne in the 1940s. Our cheder teacher was ill and the Education Board sent us a temporary replacement. It was an anglicised community and he was known as “Reverend,” though maybe he had been ordained. His name was Joir Adler. Born in Gateshead, England, in 1900, he had studied at a yeshivah in Jerusalem.

    In 1930, he became a minister and kosher slaughterer in New Zealand, where the community was disconcerted by his criticisms of local customs and his determination to build a mikveh (ritual bath). In Australia, he ran a Talmud Torah school and had a printing business called Eagle Press (Adler = Eagle). We wrote notes on the back of his invoices. For a while he was a rabbi in Japan.

    He did not look like our local ministers who were mostly clean-shaven and wore clerical collars. He taught us basic elementary Hebrew, though I suspect that he would have enjoyed introducing us to Gemara. In those days we had never studied Talmud, seen an explanatory Gemara or even known that the Talmud existed. We knew he was very religious (we were mostly the opposite). These days I would have realised that he was charedi, ultra-Orthodox. Eventually our regular teacher returned to duty and we lost touch with Rev. Adler.

    Charedi is from a verb that means to tremble. It occurs in Isaiah 66:5, “Hear the word of the Lord, you who tremble at His word (hacharedim el devaro). Despite the popular belief, today’s charedim are not the direct continuation of pre-war Eastern Europe. Menachem Friedman argues (The Haredi Society: Sources, Trends and Processes), that the charedi movement can be dated from the 1950s as a response to secularism.

    Individual pietists had always existed, but now they had a community. It feared that “because of our sins,” religion would vanish from post-Holocaust Jewry. It sought a solution in intense Torah study combined with a high degree of segregation from secular society. One concomitant was invective against “Jewish pig-eaters” who cut themselves off from tradition.

    Targets of their slogans included Reformers, whom they accused of giving bar-mitzvahs to dogs, and even Modern Orthodox Jews, whom they accused of making peace with the (Zionist) devil.

    After the Holocaust, Jews were an endangered species. Most Jewish children got no Jewish education or a mere smattering. Communities were disintegrating. What our enemies could not do, we were bringing upon ourselves. Judaism was on its last legs.

    There were two choices: Let’s not prolong the agony but say the kaddish mourner’s prayer for ourselves, or let’s say kiddush, the blessing over wine, not kaddish, and reinvigorate Judaism.

    But lo alman Yisra’el – “Israel is not bereft.” Today there is hardly a spot on the Jewish scene which is without new commitment. Jews are opting in. People in search find a mentor – frequently a Chabadnik (though Chabad is not considered charedi) – who opens old doors for new people. Sometimes they enter Conservatism or Reform but often they don’t stay there.

    A professor I knew told me, “If I were religious, I’d be Orthodox.” Others beat him to it. Orthodoxy is today’s fastest growing Jewish movement. It has the highest Jewish birth rate, the lowest rate of drift and desertion, the largest cadre of ba’alei t’shuvah, returnees to Judaism, or first-time religious. Everywhere we see upward trends. In Britain 75% of Jewish babies are born to shomrei mitzvot (strictly Orthodox, observant) families.

    The spread of Orthodoxy is evident. Schools, yeshivot, minyanim on campus, scholars, sages, books, online study, boys with kippot and protruding tzitzit, women with hair-coverings, mikva’ot, kosher milk, glatt kosher meat, Torah study in city offices, and more. Rev. Adler, who got his kosher milk from a local ground-keeper’s cow, would have approved.

    The eulogies for Orthodoxy in the 1940s were premature. Orthodoxy is alive and well. Many of the Orthodox are ba’alei t’shuvah who came in from the cold. We shudder that Israel is a haven for a few people who are hiding from the law, but it is also – far more significantly and positively – the place where Jews find themselves and their tradition.

    Alas, Orthodoxy suffers from chronic fragmentation. Its sub-groups cannot always live with each other in what Norman Lamm called “the harmony of a complex of elements in which each retains its own singularity and cherishes its differentness.” Some elements present what Chief Rabbi Jakobovits called “an unacceptable face of Orthodoxy.”

    Modern Orthodoxy (“MO”) has a sub-group which some call Open Orthodoxy (“OO”), a controversial movement critiqued in David Rosenthal’s Why Open Orthodoxy is Not Orthodox. It accuses Talmudic giants of holding dated views and implies that even MO has shut out history and science. MO does not say there are no problems but it thinks that OO has failed to find the solutions.

    Standard Orthodoxy has respect for gedolim (great scholars), though it suspects that non-charedim are unlikely to be accepted as gedolim. Standard Orthodoxy wonders why the Israeli charedi world opposes working for a living when many Diaspora charedim take it for granted that men have jobs and support their families. It knows what charedim say about Zionism and joining the IDF, but it wonders why Israeli charedim take tax money but don’t pay taxes.

    Logically, people who consider the Israeli government a cabal of heretics should refuse to accept government funding. No one objects to high levels of commitment, to the choice to be different or practice self-confidence and segregation, even to believe that the MO are beyond the pale of Jewish law. What about the blessing that praises Him who varies the forms of His creatures?

    How should Orthodoxy handle the non-Orthodox? The latter are also looking for God and His word. Treating them with respect and courtesy does not imply that they are right. Denouncing them won’t make them change their minds. If they want to pray their way, that’s their decision, so long as they don’t intrude upon the activities of others.


    Transforming darkness – B’reshit

    October 12th, 2020

    If – as we see from the first chapter of the Chumash – God created everything including light, why did He create darkness?

    Maybe it was as a rival to light; we do not appreciate light without contrasting its opposite, just as we do not appreciate good without the contrast with evil.

    But if we weigh up darkness against light we see that God regards light as superior.

    From a human point of view this teaches us that our task when confronting darkness is to try to roll it away (look at the opening blessing of the Ma’ariv service) – not by totally eradicating darkness but by transforming as much as we can into light.

    Think of the events of the past century with all the darkness that evil men and movements brought over Europe.

    Darkness represents the denial of human rights and human conscience and dignity; light stands for human understanding, respect, tolerance and love.


    The raw materials of creation – B’reshit

    October 12th, 2020

    Ancient debate surrounded the issue of Creation ex nihilo, “out of nothing”.

    The first chapter of B’reshit constantly uses the phrase, “And God said”, which led the philosophers to aver that God created by means of a series of utterances. They quoted the verse, “By the word of the Lord were the heavens made” (Ps. 33:6). God said, “Let light exist”, and thereupon light did exist.

    From another angle, the beginning of Pir’kei Avot (1:18) says that God used three principles to establish the world – justice, truth and peace (Zech. 8:16).

    The Midrash (B’reshit Rabbah 3:9) says that He made several earlier worlds but the preliminary ones did not please Him. Possibly this means that the earlier worlds did not take to His recipe of justice, truth and peace.