Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Monday, 30 November 2009

Let's Try An Analogy

Further to my recent post on the differences in approaches to debate between Chareidism and Modern Orthodoxy, I came across an analogy that might explain the way each group approaches its rabbinic leadership.  As some of the commenters noted, the concept of yirah is very much overplayed in the Chareidi community.  On the other hand, a lack of yirah for rabbinic authority seems to almost be a chiyuv amonst the Modern Orthodox.  Is there a happy medium?
The analogy is one of golf.  I'll assume that most of my readers (all twelve of you) have heard of Tiger Woods.  Now, stay with me on this one.  Tiger Woods is the "gadol" in question.  Beneath him are many kinds of golfers.  There are other top level professional, mid-level professionals and amateurs at various levels of skill and experience.  But there is only one Tiger Woods.
How does the Modern Orthodox golfer approach Tiger Woods?  If I understand that group and its aversion to unconditional yirah correctly, then the MO golfer sees Tiger Woods as just another golfer.  Yeah, he's got a great set of skills but the MO golfer believes that if he just practises enough, he too can become just as good as Woods.  That's why Woods is so great, after all.  All he does all day is play golf while the MO golfer has an actual day job and can only golf in his free time.  What's more, the MO golfer has played some of the courses that Woods has played in the past and, on very rare occasions, done better on a particular hole than Woods did in his last PGA event there.  So not only is he a golfer like Woods, but on very rare occasions he's just as good if not better than Woods.  So while he can admire Woods' accomplishments, he does have any actual awe for him. 
The Chareidi golfer approaches Woods in a totally different manner.  For him, there is something special about Woods.  It's not because he has been practising and playing golf since he was two years old that makes him so good.  There's something special, something chosen about him.  Yes, he swings the same type of club as Woods but his poor results clearly show there is something different about Woods.  He's simply not in Tiger's league.  Tiger is perfect.  Even if he has a seeminly bad tournament, the Chareidi golfer knows that it really wasn't a bad tourney, it just appears that way to him because he's so far below Woods' level.  Even when Woods shot that ball into the sand trap, it wasn't a bad shot.  Woods meant to do it for some purpose far beyond the Chareidi's intellectual and spiritual grasp.  After all, the Chareidi golfer knows that his ball moves because he hits it with the club but that's not how Tiger plays.  Tiger moves his ball with the shem hameforash or ruach hakodesh and it only appears that the ball moves swings his club.  But he doesn't actually have to physically hit the ball, that's how far above the rest of us he is.
Somewhere in the middle, there is the middle ground.  The Navon golfer knows that Tiger's success is a combination of both gift and skill.  Yes, Tiger has been playing golf since he was weaned but lots of other men and women have been too and they haven't achieved what he has.  He has that little extra bit, that innate talent that combines with his drive and practice to create the Tiger Woods experience.  So I cannot simply say "Yeah, all I needed to do was practice like him and I'd been winning tournaments just like him".  I don't have the gift!  Others might have the gift but not the interest.  They cannot simply sit around and assume that one day they'll just walk onto the green and let fly with the ball.  They haven't practised.  But this combination of gift and skill make him a special person who stands heads and shoulders above the other competitors in his field.
Now take a look at the real rabbinic leaders of our day.  I don't care if it's Rav Eliashiv, shlita, or Rav Aviner, shlita, or Rav Schechter, shilta.  These men are not the talmidei chachamim they are merely because of the time they've spent in the beis medrash.  They are also gifted individuals who have used their intellectual and spiritual strengths to bring their intellectual gains to that next level.  They are worthy of yirah in a sense of admiration, the one reserved for a person who was capable of great things and actually achieved them.  Perhaps it is this for of yirah that MO should try to strive for in its relationship with its leaders, one based on an appreciation of the subject material (Torah) and the dedication of the Rav who has sought to excel in it for the sake of his Maker.

Sunday, 29 November 2009

Authors of Their Eventual Misfortune

Several years ago when Shinui won 15 seats in the general Knesset election the religious community in Israel was up in arms, and for good reason.  Here was a party that had run on a single issue - hatred of religious Jews - and done so well that it qualified for seats at the cabinet table.  Had Tommy Lapid had a platform advocated hatred against any other identifiable group in the state, he would have been denounced as a hate-monger and racist.  Instead, because he chose the Chareidim as his target he was lionized and given favourable national attention.
What the Chareidi community never seemed to understand, however, was that Lapid's electoral success was entirely due to their efforts.  Never ones to be good with hasbara, decades of religious coercion and government blackmail had turned off enough Israelis to allow the single-idea Shinui to gather a significant Knesset caucus. 
The realization didn't hit after either.  I'm not aware of any major Chareidi source that called for community soul-searching after Shinui's success.  While many were happy to smear Lapid and his followers, no one took a step back and asked "how did we contribute to this mess?"  Instead more of the behaviour that Lapid capitalized on followed, vindicating his views in the eyes of many.
Shinui is history now, of course.  One cannot run a party with a platform that simply consists of advocating hatred for 10% of the population of the country, no matter how strong the endorsement of the media and "enlightened society".  Once Shinui got dirty with politics and turned into just another political party, it quickly lost its appeal with the electorate and began its spiral into oblivion.
However, with recent events in the news it seems that the time is now right for another Tommy Lapid to emerge.  Consider events in the last few months:
1) Riots in Meah Shearim to protect a mother convicted of abusing his child until he reached death's door
2) Riots over a parking lot in Yerushalayim
3) Riots over Intel keeping its plants open on Shabbos
4) Attacks on the State and other non-Chareidi religious Jews and their beliefs
5) Theft from the secular state that pays billions of shekels to them.
Imagine you're an average chiloni who likes to watch the news every evening after work.  You live in a secular neighbourhood.  Your friends and family are all secular.  All you know about religious Jews is what you see when you flick on the TV at night.  And what do you see?  Riots.  Burning garbage cans.  Attacks on police.  Chants of "Nazi, nazi".  What conclusions could you quickly draw about this particular group?
Now there are those who rightly point out that when it comes to reporting the news there are inherent biases we must all beware of.  When it comes to reporting about Israel in general, the world media likes to focus on the negatives on the Israeli side and ignore the atrocities committed by our enemies.  Similarly, it is no secret that the Israeli media has no heistation to print bad news from the Chareidi community and studiously ignore any examples of Chareidim functioning positively in society since that might detract from the message that they are trying to get across, that all Chareidi are evil parasites who threaten the secular fabric of the state.  And these people have a point.  No thinking person believes what CNN or the BBC have to say about the Israeli-Arab situation.  We know they're distorting the facts or simply lying about that.  Why is it when it comes to the Chareidim that we suddenly trust this same press?
The answer, unfortunately, is simple: too many elements within the Chareidi community are quite happy and willing to provide anti-religious journalists with enough grist for a thousand mills.  Want to run a story about Chareidim behaving badly?  You'll find more than enough of them willing to oblige.  Never mind the quiet majority that doesn't get involved.  Never mind the honest, hard working ones.  These self appointed community representatives will make sure the aforementioned chiloni watching the TV news at night has enough to shout about the next day at work.  Once again, they are doing it to themselves.  And all the apologetics by Pinchas Lipschutz and Rav Avi Shafran can't change what people see with their own eyes.
For now the backlash is limited to protests by both the non-religious and the moderate religious crowds.  This cannot last forever.  There are votes to be garnered by unscrupulous politicians willing to do with the Chareidim what fascist and communist politicians used to do with the Jewish community in general once upon a time in Europe.  Unfortunately, it looks like too many Chareidim are eager to help them.

Saturday, 28 November 2009

Fighting With One Hand Tied Behind Their Backs

I was learning with a prominent Rav the other day when the discussion about how the poor state of dialogue between Chareidim and the Modern Orthodox came up.  Amongst other things, he noted that there always seems to be an unfairness between the two groups that always leads to the Modern Orthodox losing the dispute in question.  The factor?  The role in leadership in the two communities.
It is well understood that modern day Chareidim have, to a large extent, deified their leaders.  Under the rubric of Daas Torah, they have imbued their great scholars and religious figures with a semblance of omniscience.  The idea that one might suggest that a "gadol" has erred is considered heresy, kofer b'ikkar.  A "gadol" must be followed in all his instructions (unless those instructions are to stop rioting and attacking people) and questioning him is like questioning God - you just don't do that.
The Modern Orthodox community, on the other hand, has a much more nebulous sense of leadership.  There is, of course, the Rav, zt"l and many prominent names in today's Yeshiva University community but they do not have the presence in the life of the average MO that Chareidi gedolim have in those of their followers.  The Modern Orthodox admire the Rav but they don't necessarily see him through a "veil of holiness".
How does this affect the dialogue between the two communities?  Well, think about the reaction a member of each group would have to one's questioning the p'sak or credentials of their leaders.  In general, Modern Orthodox folks reacts in a much more mild fashion to such an attack than do Chareidim.
For example, it is quite common for Chareidim to be dismissive of the Rav.  Whether he is called "pasul", "the guy who went to Yeshiva University" or just "J.B." is irrelevant.  He is not accorded the respect a genius and spiritual giant of his stature deserves by many on the other side of the fence yet one does not hear screams of outrage from his supposed followers and students. 
Now consider this contrast: the next time someone Chareid intones that MO's are wrong because of an opinion of the Chazon Ish, zt"l, try this line - "Ah, who care about ol' man Karelitz?"  Or if they rail against modern innovations by quoting the Chasam Sofer, zt"l, use this one - "Mo' Shreiber?  Not interested in his views, thank you."  Can you imagine the reaction?  The screaming, the spitting, the fire and brimstone that would result is enough to give anyone second thoughts before using the sentences in casual conversation.  Yet the same people who would go ballistic if the Michtav M'Eliyahu was dismissed as a reactionary old fuddy-duddy would have no problem saying that Rav Kook was an ignoramus who despoiled the clean waters of Toras Eretz Yisrael!
I think one more point is salient. Another reason that Modern Orthodox leaders would never show disrespect to Chareidi authorities is because those authorities are important to them to. For example, one cannot have an honest discussion on heter mechirah without looking at the opinions of Rav Kook, zt"l. For a Dati Leumi this is obvious. Thus the Chazon Ish's opinion would be invoked and discussed with the respect due a scholar of his calibre. For a Chareidi, dismissing Rav Kook is second nature. Who cares what he thinks!

Does this point to a difference? I think it does. Modern Orthodoxy is, in its purest form, interested in determining the Torah's truth. If the Chazon Ish turns out to be right, so be it. Chareidism nowadays is interested in the Torah's truth from a narrow political viewpoint. The Chazon Ish is pre-determined to be right so there's no real discussion.If you think about, this should be no surprise.  As I noted above, the Chareidim have bestowed an incredible amount of respect on their leaders, and their leaders alone.  On the other hand, Modern Orthodoxy has not done the same with its leadership.  A Chareidi is genuinely insulted when he feels one of his leaders has been treated with less respect than he is due.  A Modern Orthodox does not.
As a result, when the two groups trade opinions, there is an inherent unfairness in the debate.  While the Chareidi has no hesitation to announce that only his rabbonim are real rabbonim, the Modern Orthodox treads far more carefully in order to avoid showing disrespect to his opponent's icons.
One might therefore look at this almost as a situation involving a bully.  Appeasement rarely makes an impact with such a person while standing up to him accomplishes that much more.  Until now Modern Orthodoxy has knuckled under to the Chareidim on most important matters affecting the shomer mitzvos community - tznius, Zionism, heter mechirah, and such.  The reason has been a desire to minimize internecine fighting and encourage achdus amongst those of us who are yirei Shamayim.  Bad enough they're screaming, the thinking goes.  What does our shouting back accomplish?
Is it time to ask a different question - what has the Modern Orthodox sensitivity in this matter accomplished for the community? Is it time to start standing up and shouting back?

Thursday, 26 November 2009

The Hidden Dimension

"And Reuven went in the dates of the wheat harvest, and found duda'im, and brought them unto his mother Leah." (Bereshis 30:14)

The Gemara in Sanhedrin tells of how Menashe HaRasha, the wicked king of Yehudah used to mock the Torah.  Amongst other supposed complaints he had against it was one of superfluity of words.  Why, he asked, did the Torah need to tell us that it was the time of the wheat harvest?  No point, hence the Torah is full of useless words and the contention of the sages that every single letter has meaning is false.
Most of the commentators howver do find a meaning for the mention of the time of year.  Many praise Reuven for not taking private property (ripe wheat) but rather ownerless flowers, a testament to his integrity even at such a young age when such a property might not yet be expected of him.
The Chasam Sofer, on this gemara, looks at it in a different and fascinating way.  He starts off by noting that whenever the Torah uses the term "wheat harvest" elsewhere, it inevitably is talking about the holiday of Shavous.  Hence, just as the seemingly superfluos detail about Lot baking matzos for the angels in S'dom is taken to mean that they destroyed the city on Pesach, here the Chasam Sofer notes that the Torah is hinting that the incident of the duda'im happened on Shavous. 
Why is this important?  He points out that the child conceived that night was Issachar, the son of Yaakov Avinu that would be most closely associated with Torah (see Devarim 33:18-19).  Thus the son of Torah was conceived on the night of the giving of the Torah.
What's more, I would note that in addition to being important Torah scholars, the Bible later reckons the b'nei Yissachar as the ones responsible for the intercalation of an extra month into our lunar calender to ensure Pesach always comes out in the spring.  Assuming a nine month pregnancy, what month would Yissachar have been born in?  Adar, the same month that is intercalated.
For those who will not see past the simple surface of the text, the Torah may seem to contain many difficulties.  For those willing to see it as it truly is, a complex document containing layers upon layers of interpretation, these observations simply reinforce that every single part of the Torah is a segment of the complex, perfect whole.

Sunday, 22 November 2009

Just Ignore The Facts

There are two historical facts in Canadian politics.  One is that Jews vote en masse for the Liberal Party.  The other is that the Liberal party wavers between quiet and open anti-Israel hostility.
That Jews vote for the Liberals isn't much of a surprise.  Just like in the States, most non-religious Jews (and frankly, too many religious ones) really believe that Judaism supports socially liberal policies like open access to abortion, gay marriage, unfettered immigration from the seediest parts of the world, etc.  As a result, they vote according to what they think their Jewish consciences tell them to - Liberal.
On the other hand, the Liberal party in Canada has always been quite savvy about knowing where to direct its resources.  Knowing that the Jews will vote for them no matter what, but that some immigrant communities like the Muslim ones might not, they generally concentrate their efforts on the possible votes, not the certain ones.  If that means being anti-Israel, they'll do it.  At the same time, the Conservatives have been identified as the anti-Jewish party and suffer for it at the polls each time.  As I've said for years, the Liberals could run Hitler, y"sh, as their prime minister candidate and the Jews would still vote for them because they're worried that the Conservatives are the real anti-Semites.
Let's review the Liberal party's history, shall me?  During World War II they worked to ensure no Jew would find refuge in Canada.  Since that time their support of Israel has been, at best, luke warm.  If they didn't advise the Canadian UN representative to vote against Israel, they generally advised abstaining.  It was very rare for a Liberal government to openly support Israel wihtout some precondition.  Appearing "balanced" was always the higher priority.
The Conservatives, on the other hand, have had the thankless task over the last couple of decades of actually being pro-Israel and suffering for it vote-wise amongst Muslim voters while gaining nothing from the Jewish community.  Stephen Harper, the current prime minister, has gone further to support Israel than any other Western leader, especially the current occupant of the White House (that people don't want me calling Hussein anymore).
And so, in what seems to be the interminable leadup to the next federal election that doesn't look like it is going to happen for a while, the Conservatives have finally decided to point that out.  And naturally the Liberals are all upset.  After all, as the Liberal party they're the more Jewish, aren't they?
Perhaps Canadian Jews will finally sit up and take note of the track record

A Parsha Thought

So it's well explained by the commentators that when Yitzchak Avinu digs his three wells - Esek, Sitnah and Rechovot - that these three wells represent the three Temples, the reason the first two were destroyed and the last one which will last forever.
But then he goes and digs a fourth one called Beer Sheva.  Are there going to be four temples?

Friday, 20 November 2009

Inevitable Consequences

One of the most troubling narratives in the Torah is this week's recounting of how Yaakov Avinu swiped his brother Eisav's beracha.  Many other parts of the Torah that seem bothersome to people can often be explained either with an in-depth understanding of the Midrash or an appreciation of the historical context that envelopes the story but this week's parasha is, quite simply, very difficult to explain away.
To summarize: Yitchak Avinu grows old.  He calls Eisav, the older of his twins, and tells him to go and bring him some nice venison so that he can bless him before he dies.  While Eisav is out hunting game, Rivkah Imeinu convinces Yaakov to put on Eisav's clothes and coat his hands in goat hairs and then go and pretend to be Eisav so that Yitzchak can bless him.  Yaakov does so, is successful and then slips out just as Eisav returns.  When the trickery is discovered, Eisav begs for another blessing and Yitzchak half-heartedly gives him one that doesn't seem to amount to much.  Following this generations of God haters and anti-Semites perpetuate the story that Yaakov stole the beracha from Eisav.
Yet this isn't as simple as it seems.  For one thing, there is the matter of the beginning of the parasha in which Eisav knowingly sells his firstborn status to Yaakov (Ber.5:29-33).  As if to counter the expected argument that Eisav was under duress due to his appetite and feeling starved, the Torah immediately tells us that he knew fully well what he was doing and placed no value on what he had sold. (5:34)  If anything, he thought he got the better end of the deal.
Now one flaw, if I may be so bold, in Yitchak Avinu's home was that they didn't speak much with one another.  Consider that Rivkah never tells anyone about the prophecy she received (25:23), neither Yaakov not Eisav informed Yitzchak about their personal status changes and no one ever saw fit to tell Yitzchak what Eisav's true nature was!  Thus if we flash forward several years later, it is no wonder that when it comes time to dole out the blessing to the bechor that Yitzchak calls for Eisav and tries to give it to him.
But is that really the blessing he was going to give him?  Although most people assume it is, there are a couple of problems with that notion.  For one thing, most commentators note that when a father blesses his child he generally has a separate one reserved for each.  Here, however, we are presented with the idea that there was just this one blessing and whoever got it got everything!
What's more, it really isn't the only blessing that Yitzchak had to give.  At the end of the parasha, as Yaakov is packing up to go to Charan, Yitzchak gives him another blessing (28:3-4) which is completely different in character from the previous one.  If he had this beracha in reserve, why did he initially refuse to bless Eisav after the deception was discovered?
But there is an even more obvious question that rarely gets asked.  The mastermind behind the whole kerfuffle was Rivkah.  Superficially the text suggests that she arranged for Yaakov to get the beracha because he was her favourite son.  Explanations such as how she believed he was better deserving because he was saintly while Eisav was more wicked sound like apologetics against this simplistic statement.  But how should she even have thought she would get away with it?  Even if Yaakov was successful, Eisav would still show up and discover the ruse, and then what?  Yitzchak could simply announce that he meant the beracha for Eisav, not Yaakov and then whole plot would come to nothing.  Worse than nothing really in terms of the distrust and negativity it would create in the home.  What could she possibly have been thinking?
Rav Shimshon Rafael Hirsch, zt"l, doesn't let the question go and presents an incredible answer, one completely against naive understandings of the story.  In fact, he notes, Rivkah wanted the outcome to be exactly as it happened!
Remember that it is generally understood that everyone other than Yitzchak had figured out Eisav's true character while the rasha himself managed to keep his father in the dark.  It is entirely possible that at some point Rivkah tried to point this out to her husband.  This might possibly have happened when Eisav married his two shiksas which the Torah tells us was very displeasing to his parents.  Yet it seems that Yitzchak didn't listen.
According to the commentators, he had a plan for the family.  He knew Yaakov's true nature and his desire to immerse himself in knowledge of God.  He knew that the best life for Yaakov would be one divorced from the material pursuits of this world in order to concentrate on his spiritual pursuits.  He also knew quite well that Eisav was materialistic and involved in this world.  All things in the world created by God, with the possible exceptions of communism and elevator music, have the potential to be used to increase holiness.  Any person with any nature can reach higher towards God.  A famous example of this is David HaMelech, a"h who, like Eisav, had red hair and ruddy complexion but unlike Eisav used his talents to create a kingdom of Israel and set the foundations for the first Beis HaMikdash. 
Similarly, Yitzchak felt that if Eisav's materialistic energies were chanelled in the right direction, he too could achieve holiness and this direction would involve supporting and defending his brother and his descendents while they immersed themselve in Torah.  This partnership would create a viable nation in which both halves would contribute and receive Divine reward for their efforts.
According to Rav Hirsch, Rivkah, however, realized that Eisav was not only materialistic but that he was also uninterested in sacrificing his desires to entire into a partnership like that which Yitzchak envisioned.  She also realized, probably after trying to speak with Yitzchak, that no one could convince him otherwise.  So instead she set into motion her scheme to obtain the beracha for Yaakov in order to demonstrate a simple lession to Yitzchak - if Yaakov could fool Yitzchak into thinking he was an Eisav, then it is possible that Eisav had fooled Yitzchak into thinking he was a Yaakov.  And this was the reason for the great trembling that Yitzchak felt when he realized he had blessed the wrong son (27:33).  Years of gullibility fell away and in a flash he realized the truth and how close he had come to blessing his selfish son with all the materialistic boon of the world.
This then also explains why the second beracha was meant for Yaakov.  The first one was intended for Eisav in his role as Yaakov's supporter and protector.  Since he wasn't going to fill that roll, Yaakov took it from him.  However, the second beracha, which if you pay attention to the wording, is the beracha that God gave Avraham, was always meant for Yaakov.  It wasn't simply a spare blessing that Eisav might have taken because Eisav was not fit for it.
So we can understand from Rav Hirsch's insight an entirely different way of understanding the whole story in this parasha and appreciate how both blessing wound up with the appropriate son.

Sunday, 15 November 2009

Book Review - Between the Lines of the Bible

The beauty of the Torah is that it can be read and understood on many different levels.  Over the centuries, many different approaches to its interpretations.  Most of the major commentaries generally have an agenda that they want to cover.  Rashi comes to explain the pshat while Ramban comes to attack Rashi, for example.  Both the Netziv and Rav Shimshon Rafael Hirsch try to explain how the wording and arrangement of the text show the intricate connection between the Oral and Written Law.
However one of the real classics is also one of the most important despite its recent fall from grace.  The commentary of Rav Joseph Hertz, z"l, is one most people who grew up in non-Chareidi shuls remember.  Although in recent years most shuls have moved to replace this old standard with the newer Artscroll Stone Chumash, it is important to remember the contribution towards understanding the Torah Rav Hertz provided us with.
During his time, Rav Hertz noted that British Jewry was faced with two challenges.  On the one side were the evangelical Chrisians who were intent on proving that the Torah actually predicted the coming of their so-called saviour.  On the other side were the skeptics of the day, the scholars of Biblical Criticism who were intent on proving that the Torah was not the word of God but rather an anthology invented by Jewish leaders centuries after the events contained in it.
It was against these two trends that Rav Hertz wrote his commentary.  For those who often wonder why non-Jewish sources seem to be quoted as often as Jewish ones, the preceding paragraph answers that question clearly.  Rav Hertz was interested in disproving the opponets of the integrity and Jewishness of the Torah.  Using Rashi and Sforno to do so would not be productive in this manner.  After all, the major mephorshim were "in on the game" to justify the problems with the text.  Rather he emphasized major Chrisian scholars who acknowledged the Jewishness of the text and then-modern historians and archeologists who confirmed that there was much to substantiate the Torah's narrative.
It is in a similar view that Between the Lines of the Bible, the first volume in a putative series, comes to us.  As the book's write-up notes:
Over the past few decades, Orthodox Jewish scholars have carefully embraced many of the methodologies of modern Bible study. History, archeology, linguistics and many other disciplines-especially literary analysis-can serve to enhance our understanding of the Book of Books. Traditional students have much to gain by utilizing all of the tools available in studying the Divine word. However, this burgeoning genre of scholarship has been almost entirely in Hebrew.
In this book, Yitzchak Etshalom provides the first English introduction to the methodologies of the New School. In a number of popular essays, Etshalom analyzes the familiar stories of the Bible and demonstrates the powerful tools of modern Torah commentary. In the process, Etshalom undermines many of the arguments of biblical critics and defends the Torah, through literary and historical methodologies, against attacks.
The text starts off slowly enough.   There is a long introduction on the need for "modern Orthodox interpretation of the Bible" along with an explanation of what kind of commentary this is going to be.  The first few chapters, which focus on the story of Joseph and his brothers, introduces the idea of seeing the story from the characters' point of view instead of the commentator.  Interesting but nothing earth-shattering.
However, things definitely pick up after chapter 5 as Rav Etshalom moves on deeper into the text of Bereshis and goes after the well-known difficulties in the text.  After several chapters refuting the baseless claims of Biblical Critics, he goes further using scholarship and academic methods to show support of the text of the Torah.  By the time he's done, he's done an excellent job not just defending the integrity of the Torah but also providing valuable insights off the beaten path of most existing Torah commentaries.
Overall an enjoyable read and one that will cause you to look differently at Bereishis in the future.

Regaining Direction

Along with many others, I have repeatedly written about the malaise affecting the Dati Leumi community in Israel.  Although the establishment of the State in 1948 should have propelled this group to peak importance within the Torah community, over the last 25 years the opposite has happened.  Influence has wained, the Rabbanut and other national institutions have been taken over by the Chareidi sector and what's left of the group spends much of its time portraying itself as fanatical about living in Yehuda and Shomron.
In fact, one can directly tie the malaise many Dati Leumi feel about themselves and the State to the retreat from 'Aza in 2005.  For too many, the State became an article of holiness, the "settlements" inviolable and when that selfsame State chose to abandon those selfsame settlements, much of what we believed was swept out from under us.
Perhaps this is due to language which is often imprecise.  There are three types of Zionism.  The first is just plain Zionism, the vague idea that Israel is the land of the Jews and that we have a right to have a country there.  Then there are Secular Zionism and Religious Zionism.  Because of the second part of the term, one might conclude there is a great similarity between the two and perhaps too many on the religious side have over the years because they have come to emphasize the Zionism over the Religious part of the name.  This is a grave error.
Theodore Herzl's goal for Secular Zionism is worth recalling.  An assimilated Austrian Jew, he knew nothing of Torah, the land of Israel or the journey of our people throughout history.  All he knew, based on his experiences at the Alfred Dreyfuss trial, was that no matter how much Jews tried to assimilate they were still singled out by the gentiles around them and set aside as "the other".  That assimilation into the general culture is not the Jewish goal never occured to him.  He saw it as the natural thing to do and this discordance between his desired goal and the refusal of the world around him to recognize it bothered him.  His solution was to work to create a state for Jews.  Not a Jewish state, mind you, but rather a secular state with a majority Jewish population which would be indistinguishable in culture and societal mechanisms from any advance European liberal democracy.  He hoped that when the non-Jewish world would see that on their own Jews could create a vibrant and modern state that would rival Germany or Britain they would come to realize that the Jews are one of them and finally accept them.
Unfortunately, Secular Zionism has only recently started to realize that despite their best efforts to turn Tel Aviv into "Manhattan on the Mediterranean" they are still the Jews of the world.  Like Dreyfuss, the loyal French soldier who was chosen as guilty because of his Jewishness, secular Israel today stands before the world as a pariah and outcast.  Even the State's best friendships are conditional with constant reminders that no country in the world really views Israel as a permanent feature on the international scene.
As a result, secular thought is drifting.  Unable to accept the failure of its fundamental underlying belief, it continues to push that belief further.  The desperate need to be accepted by the world has brought all manner of disaster to our people, from the Oslo Discord on.  The more Israeli politicians dream of being feted in world capitals, the weaker the position of the country becomes.
Religious Zionism, on the other hand, was founded on the desire to create a Jewish state rather than just a state with a lot of Jews in it.  The thought of standing apart from the world community was not anathema to the founders.  As Jews, we have always stood apart from gentile society around us, no matter how much our assimilated brethren would delude themselves into thinking otherwise.  It therefore made no sense to plan for a country that would fit neatly into the international order.
Rather, the dream was to fulfill the words of the prophets and use the opportunities God Himself has provided over the last 110 years to rebuild Zion and reestablish His worship in our Holy Land.
As noted above, Religious Zionism has been distracted over the last few decades.  Far from dreaming of a Jewish state and working towards that end, the Dati Leumi have limited themselves to single issues such as the right of Jews to live in Yehuda and Shomron as they do in Haifa and Tel Aviv.  Certainly these are worthy issues to take a stand on but they cannot be the defining issues of the movement.  For too many, Yesha is just not an important priority in their lives.  The more the Mafdal has concentrated on a limited platform, the more irrelevant it has become in national politics and its own community.
This is not a surprise to those who know the Dati Leumi community.  Unlike the Chareidim, most are well integrated into general Israeli society.  As a result, they share many concerns that secular Israelis have.  They are worried about taxes, defence, foreign policy and the price of food.  They are more interested in what the three large parties, Avodah, Likud and Kadimah, have to say on those issues that in the Mafdal with its constant call to support "the settlers".  Unlike many in the Chareidi community who are only interested in having a party that will extort money for their yeshivos, the Dati Leumi are interested in what is good for the State in general.
Therefore, Religious Zionism needs to reorganize and establish its original direction.  We must remember what one particularily non-Zionistic rav, Shimshon Rafael Hirsch, z"l, noted in his commentary on the Torah.  "Israel is the land of the Torah.  The Jews are the people of Torah.  But Israel is not the land of the Jews."
It is only through a connection to Torah that Jews can have a real connection to Eretz Yisrael.  Thus the only really successful form of Zionism over the long term must be Religious Zionism properly focused on showing that the return of our people to our Land is not due to necessity or political convenience but because of God's hand in history slowly revealing itself and drawing the final redemption closer. 
As a community, we must develop a platform that shows that we can build a state al pi halacha that is functional and modern.  The idea that Religious Zionism can provide satisfactory answers to the concerns of Jews, both religious and secular, must be pursued.  That great giant of Religious Zionism, Rav Avraham Yitzhchak Kook, zt"l, was not interested in creating yet another segment within the Torah world or the Jewish community in general but in remaking our nation and returning it to its former glory.  This ideal reaches out to all Jews, no matter what their background and offers them a chance to play a role greater than the small one of living in quiet desperation from day to day.  Religious Zionism must emphasize that it has the answers people are seeking and be willing to share them.
If the movement can turn itself in that direction, it may just regain its prominence and help develop the State of Israel into the ideal, the reshis tzimchas geulateinu.

Look Out For Flying Pigs

This just in: Those of you who have been following the news for the last few decades have not really understood what's going on.  Sure there have been repeated announced by Chareidi leaders that work is trief and that it's better to live in poverty and be pure of Torah than to support oneself, etc.  But this just shows you how you don't understand the community at all.  To wit:
Knesset Finance Committee chairman Moshe Gafni (United Torah Judaism) lashed out on Wednesday at Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz’s assertion Tuesday that chareidi communities are themselves partly responsible for the high unemployment in their ranks.

“Chareidi men want to work, chareidi women want to work,” he said. “The government doesn’t want to integrate them into the work force. This is an ideological battle.”
Gafni said the primary obstacles to chareidi integration into the work force come from the government, not from private employers choosing not to hire chareidim.
In other news, the Rubashkins were apparently unaware that their Postville Plant was a meat processing one.  Stay tuned.

The Perfect Couple

When Eliezer goes to Haran to find a wife for Yitchak Avinu, he stands by the well and asked God to show chesed to his master, Avraham Avinu.  However, this seems unnecessary as Avraham has already promised him that God will assist him in his task of finding the perfect bride.  Chesed is generally seen as an undeserved kindness, a gift from God to someone who cannot demand it.  Yet Avraham has already been promised numerous descedents and that this progeny shall come from Yitzchak.  Therefore it seems that all Eliezer really has to do is sit around at the well.  Why does he specifically ask for chesed instead of just coming up with his test as described in the parasha and asking God simply to grant success to his efforts?
The answer seems to be in what made each of the Avos great.  As Chazal tell us, each of the three had one special attribute that defined him.  In Avraham's case, it was chesed while for Yitzchak it was gevurah.  But this doesn't seem to tell the entire story.
We are all well aware that any one characteristic, however noble it might have the potential to be, can cause tremendous damage if left unchecked.  Chesed and gevurah are no exceptions.  Wielded in the right way and to the right extent, they contribute to a person's ability to serve God.  Too much of each could lead people astray in the wrong direction. 
What's more, chesed and gevurah are the balances for each other.  A person can be kind in excess and it takes strength of character to know when kindness is not the right choice.  And in reverse, a person's strength can lead to cruelty if not balanced by chesed.
We do find one episode in the life of Avraham Avinu where this comes into play.  When Yishmael decides to mock the young Yitzchak and his mother Hagar gets uppity with her mistress, Sarah Imeinu, Avraham is loth to do anything about the situation.  He clearly loves his older son and the thought of dealing decisively with the situation bothers him.  On the other hand, Sarah has no compuctions about the right course of action.  She forces the issue and God agrees with her, telling Avraham that his chesed is not the right way to deal with the situation.  Sarah's gevurah carries the day.
Now we may have an answer to why Eliezer specifically mentioned chesed in his prayer to God at the well.  Yitzchak, the essence of gevurah, would need a chesed to balance him out, the opposite of what Sarah did for Avraham.  Eliezer, knowing this, didn't simply want a generous girl but one who was guided strongly by chesed just like his master's son was guided by gevurah.  Thus he specifically asks for that trait.
This might also be echoed in one of Rashi's final comments on the parasha.  When Yitzchak brings Rivkah Imeinu into his mother's tent, Rashi interprets the verse as saying "And behold, she became Sarah his mother".  If Sarah had gevurah and Rivkah had chesed, how could this be so?  Simply because just as Sarah's role was to be the perfect balance for Avraham, now Rivkah would be the perfect balance for Yitzchok, continued the family along in the best way possible.

Friday, 13 November 2009

The Monumental Achievement

39 years ago, Rav Adin Steinsaltz, shlit"a, began a project that would change Jewish learning in unprecedented ways.  On his own at first, he began developed an elucidated commentary on the Talmud including translation of the Aramaic phrases into Hebrew and an in-depth commentary on issues in the text.  Slowly at first and then with increasing speed over that last few years, Rav Steinsaltz added tractate after tractate to his collection. 
On November 7, 2010 this monumental achievement will be completed with the publication of the final volume, Chullin (Niddah is due out any week now).  In recognition, Rav Steinsaltz has begun organizing a Global Day of Learning to celebrate the event in the best Jewish way possible - through the joining together of Jews around the world in the study of our holy Torah.
It is hard to describe the impact his Talmud has had on Jewish learning today.  When he began his project, the only accessible Talmud on the market was the Soncino Edition (which until today is still the only complete translation of the entire Bavli into English).  However, those who have looked inside can attest that while the Soncino provides a decent translation, it does not provide much in the way of insight into the text, nor does it encourage the reader to keep up with the photostat of the Vilna Shas opposite the English.
Rav Steinsaltz was different.  Clearly he had read through the Shulchan Aruch and was aware that nowhere in that August work does it discuss the format of the Vilna Shas page or its immutability.  Seizing upon that, he began to produce a reader-friendly version of the Gemara, complete with vowelization in the main text to encourage proper pronounciation of the words.
Despite its obvious necessity his project has not received universal acclaim.  The Chareidi community was especially hostile to the idea of any changes in the style of learning gemara:
But Rav Steinsaltz has no shortage of opponents to his approach. Many Litvish rabbonim have even banned the use of his books. Rav Shach zt”l said studying from an elucidated Talmud “has no trace of kedushoh and emunoh,” arguing it would cause the Gemara to be forgotten, chaliloh, and even called for his books to be put in sheimos. Other rabbonim, including Rav Chaim Kanievsky shlita, signed notices calling on the public to oppose the Steinsaltz Edition in “protest that would be heard from one end of the earth to the other.” Israel Sephardic Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar said these commentaries were meant for baalei tshuvoh who had never learned Gemara, warning bnei yeshiva to avoid easy commentaries and calling their use “mental laziness.”
However, after all the warnings and condemnations, these same authorities then tasked Artscroll with doing the exact same thing, making the gemara accessible in both English and Hebrew, hence the creation of the Schottenstein Talmud.
Hopefully Jews from across the spectrum of observance can come together in the next year to help celebrate the achievements of this great Gadol HaDor who changed the face of Jewish learning and opened up the important text of the Gemara to all who are interested in it.

Sunday, 8 November 2009

The Limits of Rationalism

One of my favourite showdowns between the Rambam and the Ramban (can you imagine them meeting after t'chiyas hameisim?) comes in last week's parasha. In short, the Rambam believes that the entire encounter between Avraham Avinu and the three malachim was a prophetic vision, that it never really happened.  The Ramban furiously takes him to task for this because the implication is, as Ramban states, that then the whole story of Lot's rescue and the destruction of S'dom were also merely prophetic visions, yet the Torah describes them as historical fact.  How, asks the Ramban, can the Rambam simply dismiss the whole thing as a vision?
In truth, the Rambam is being true to his style by suggesting that the encounter was a vision.  After all, he was the consummate rationalist.  It's not rational for people to run into angels and have conversations with them, therefore the need to explain it as a vision.  He does a similar thing later on when Bilaam converses with his talking ass... I mean donkey.  Further, he quite controversially describes the entire ma'aseh Bereishis as being an allergory not to be taken literally, again in opposition to the Ramban who takes the entirely opposite approach.
Who's right?
In our day and age we are also seeing this conflict played out between different factions in the frum world.  On one side there is Rav Nosson Sliffkin who has taken up the banner of the Rambam and attempted to create a completely rational approach to all things Jewish, most famously the first chapters of Bereishis.  Rav Sliffkin's approach leaves nothing to faith or chance.  Through precise elucidation of the text and with the support of various sources from a wide range of backgrounds, he is able to piece together a completely logical way to understand what the Torah is telling us about how the world was created.  Unfortunately he didn't quite stop there and, like Ramban's accusation against Rambam, he has gone on to extend his rational approach to much of the first fifth of the Torah, something even many of the supporters of his earlier works are not comfortable with.
On the other side there are his opponents who reject the rational approach entirely and who insist on understanding the Torah in as non-rational a way as possible, the strictly literal one.  They too have their supports in the authoritative literature and have some philosophic arguments to support themselves.  However, in their strident attempt to silence their disputants, they have created a serious of positions that independently thinking people find hard to support and have distanced many from Torah through their "it's our way or you're a kofer b'ikkar" approach.
Who's right?
In my opinion, neither side has a complete lock on the truth and I think a careful understand of the Rambam shows this.  It is the Rambam, after all, who codified the currently definitive list of what we consider articles of faith, the 13 ikkarim.  A look at this list demonstates one unusual finding: none of them are rational.  From unconditional belief in an invisible all-powerful God to accepting the integrity and unity of the text of our Torah to expecting the dead to return to life in the (near) future, his ikkarim all fly in the face of what we known about our normal, logical and rational world.  They are all based not on cold reason but on passionate faith.  One might have expected a list like this from the Ramban, but from Rambam, the great rationalist?
Yet this shows that Rambam himself accepted that there are limits to rationalism.
There is a reason the gemara tells us that it is not advisable to investigate the matters of Creation and what came before.  The reason is that these matters involve the deep mysteries of the Divine essense itself, something no human being can properly understand.  The rationalists, by explaining everything away, remove this essence from recordable history.  The anti-rationalists tell inquiring minds not to inquire.  Neither approach is satisfactory.
Rather we as believing Jews must inquire but at the same time recognize that there are limits.  We cannot know what creation was truly like.  What was it like to live in a universe suffused by the primeval light created on the first day?  Who can possibly answer that question?  What did Adam and Chavah look like before eating from the Etz HaDaas?  What exactly was the Etz?  We can surmise and guess but we cannot know, despite our best attempts.
So then what is the best way to approach the text?  We must recall that the purpose of the Torah is not to teach us history or archeology.  It is to teach us moral truths.  If God chose to reveal the Creation of the world in the manner that He did, the point is not to try and resolve its contradictions with science but to concentrate on the moral lessons that the story gives us.  We must redefine the world "rational" to understand it the way we understand "truth".  Just as God is "truth" itself, so He is "rational" and if we wish to be as well we must second our understanding of reality to His.

The Latest Temper Tantum

Mahmood Abbas is the best current example of a spoiled brat that the international political scene can offer.  Coming from a rich cultural tradition of such behaviour, he has consistently attempted to manipulate the Israeli political scene through staunchly infantile techniques.  When Hussein Obama became president of the United States and immediately struck an anti-Israel chord with his speeches and policies, Abbas seemed ecstatic.  One would think that a sympathetic US president willing to exert unilateral pressure on Israel would be a godsend (or is that an Allahsend) to the president of the so-called Palestinian authority.
Unforunately for him, Israel didn't prove to be the pushoever he was hoping it would be.  This isn't the first time a local Arab chieftain has miscalculated his opponents.  Yassir Arafat, y"sh, thought that Israeli morale was so poor in 2000 that launching Intifada II would cause its society to demand an immediately capitulation to his maximal demands.  Instead, he got a pre-corruption probe Ariel Sharon who took away all the credible gains that the Arabs in Yehudah, Shomron and 'Aza had achieved over the previous seven years.  After all, as any good parents knows, if your brat isn't playing nice you confiscate his toys.
Abbas' approach to Netanyahu was similar.  Assuming that Obama and Hillary would back him up and side against Israel no matter how incredible his claims were, he sat back, presented his own maximal demands and announced that unconditional acceptance of those terms was the minimum he would accept to return to the negotiation table.
But a funny thing happened on the way to that felafel stand.  Bibi Netanyahu stood his ground and Israel once again coalesced around him.  Giving Obama a 96% disapproval rating was what the prime minister needed to confront the formerly reliable ally and stand his ground.
At first, Abbas responded by being even more petulant.  Surely Obama would eventually twist Netanyahu's arm and force him to the table on his terms.  All he had to do was be unreasonable and wait, and wait...
But what he did not forsee was Obama's rapid decline in popularity.  Swept into office with great expectations, it hasn't taken most Americans very long to realize that they elected a charlatan, a guy capable of giving great speeches but only able to lead by diktat.  Americans may have wanted a fairer, more functional society but Obama seems prepared to force a socialist utopia down their throats and they are pushing back.  The recent Republican election victories, a year after the party was written off for at least the next 20 years, show how quickly the backlash has occured.
With dwindling public support, a health care bill that isn't going anywhere, repeated humiliations by Iran and a resurgent domestic opposition that is shrugging off accustations of racism, Obama suddenly has more things to worry about that how to weaken Israel in order to make better friends with its enemies.  Suddenly the will to unilaterally pressure Israel has dropped and Abbas has been left high and dry by this change.
His response?  He simply upped the ante.  A five year old would threaten to hold his breath.  Abbas isntead tendered his lack of willingness to run in elections a couple of months from now that might not have been held in any event.  And when the response from the world other than the French was "Yawn!", he became even more dramatic:
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is considering dissolving the PA and declaring the failure of the peace process with Israel, PA officials in Ramallah said over the weekend.

In his televised speech on Thursday, in which he announced that he has "no desire" to run in the upcoming presidential election, Abbas said that he would also consider taking "other measures" in the future, but did not elaborate
The article goes on to describe the various parties that dear ol' Abbas is disappointed with.  The list of the usual suspects are all those that he feels could have pressure Israel more to give in to him but didn't.  He didn't get what he wants so he's picking up his stuff and going home to play by himself.
All I know if that if I had five bucks for every time he or Arafat threatened to dismantled the PA or quit in protest without actually going through with it I wouldn't need to be doing this overnight ER shift.

The Necessity of State Religion

Israel is not a state like all other states. The recent treatment it has received at the United Nations where it was condemned for daring to defend itself from terrorist attacks shows to any decent person that despite the best hopes and dreams of secular Zionism, Israel has become and firmly remains the "Jew" amongst the countries of the world.
If that is the case, then Israel needs to play to its strength. Unlike any other country in the world, Israel cannot just exist because it exists. Such a reason for political continuance is fine for Canada, Britain, Egypt and China. Israel, however, seems to need to constantly justify its ongoing existence.
Is it as a secular democratic state in the Middle East? There hardly seems to be a point to that. After all, no other state in the region fits that model and although it's nice to know there's one country where freedom of religion, speech and the press ranks high on the list of priorities, few in the world would say that it was absolutely necessary for it to be there.
Is it as a lifeboat for Jews around the world? Florida would probably do the job just as well and with less headaches.
Israel's only purpose to continue as a Jewish state and for that to be, it needs to practice Jewish values. Unfortunately over the past few decades the worst in Jewish values has convinced most non-religious (and quite a few religious) folks in the Jewish world that the worst thing for Israel is a role for religion in the public square.
However, this does not mean that there should be an absolute separation of shul and state. In fact, such a separation would be disasterous for a country that could not survive without a special reason.
That's why I must disagree with this article by Uri Regev. On one hand, he raises relevant issues:
Hundreds of thousands of Israeli citizens cannot marry in Israel due to state law, including numerous Russian olim, all non-Orthodox converts to Judaism and native-born Israeli Jews who want an egalitarian marriage ceremony. Israeli democracy is enlightened and progressive in most respects, but in the area of religious freedom it lags all Western democracies.
On the other hand, his solution is one that can only hurt Israel. Without Judaism at its core, Israeli culture cannot survive. After all, the world does not need and hardly wants to have around "the Israeli". What's more, in many countries like those in Asia's far east where secular Israelis go after finishing their army experience, they have created a reputation so toxic that they have become unwelcome in many places. For the first time, justified Jew hatred exists in many parts of Asia based on the behaviour of Jews detached from the Torah.
That's not to say that the behaviour of many Jews who consider themselves attached to the Torah is much better. As Naomi Ragen's recent article on mehadrin buses notes, there are too many in our community who are primitive and barbaric while insisting that they are the ideal of the Torah lifestyle. Their existence has given Torah and religion a bad name in Israel, something no thoughtful person can debate.
Despite that, Israel needs Judaism to survive. Surrounded as it is by enemies who are convinced of the lies their leaders have told them about a mythical state and people that never really existed, Israel's moral and courage to continue must be based on its genuine claim to the land. We are not in Israel because we had nowhere else to go in 1948. We are not in Israel because we thought the land was available. We are in Israel because we are Jews and Israel is the land of the Jews and we know that because the Torah tells us so. To cut Jews off from that leaves no real reason to fight for this particular piece of real estate.
What is needed then is religious leadership that can bring halacha into the modern arena and ensure a practice of Yehadut that is compassionate instead of fanatic and that can show the people the beauty of a Torah lifestyle which they can feel proud of. While it is a lot to hope for, it is still a goal we must strive for daily.

Book Review: The Documentary Hypothesis

One problem with religious fanatics of any stripe is that they start off any debate with the assumption: "Given that I'm correct and you're wrong..." Certainly many traditional religious types are like that but now that atheism has gradually morphed into a religion itself its proponents have developed the same intolerance. Indeed, most of Dickie Dawkins' and Chris Hitchen's arguments are only successful if one first accepts that they are correct because they say they are. Honest critical analysis tends to lead one in other directions.
It was with this in mind that I read Rav Umberto Cassuto's The Documentary Hypothesis recently. Nothing anyone could say will change my mind about the unity of the Torah's authorship or that the author is God Himself. I was interested, however, in Cassuto's response to the classic arguments of the so-called Biblical Scholars. Would the book be one full of apologetics or would the arguments for a unified text come across as reasonable?
Now one must remember that this book itself is only a summary of a much larger text containing a far more exhaustive treatment of Biblical Criticism and its various failures. Unfortunatley my Italian is limited to the names of popular dishes and the phrase Gli atei sono un branco di idioti che hanno davvero bisogno di avere una vita. This meant I would have to rely on The Documentary Hypothesis itself for Cassuto's arguments.
On the whole I was impressed with the book. Cassuto has an organized approach in which he breaks down the multiple arguments against unity of the Torah into a smaller group of generalities. He then proceeds, chapter by chapter, to show how each of these generalities is based on a superficial knowledge of the text based on untenable assumptions that ignore multiple contradictions to them.
I don't expect anyone who refuses to believe in the truth of Torah to accept Cassuto's book. Those who insist on misunderstanding the revealed word of God will ignore, discredit or claim to have countered his arguments. However, for myself the book was valuable in providing an interesting and deep look at the structure of the text. For instance, in his treatment of the difference between the divine names YKVK and Elokim, one can use the principles he provides to gain a deeper appreciation of the message different parts of the Torah are trying to get across. Looking at word usage similarly adds to one's understanding of the text in ways simply reading through the pshat doesn't provide.
I highly recommend this book especially for those with an interest in grammer and language structure who would benefit from Cassuto's incisive analysis. On the whole, a good read.

No Guts but Lots of Glory

By now the trailer for Ronald Emmerich's upcoming movie, 2012, has been widely viewed. One of the biggest scenes in the piece which showcases incredible effects and the world literally going to pieces is the destruction of the Sistine Chapel as tens of thousands of Catholics gather with the Pope to pray for salvation. Naturally the famous dome comes crashing down right on the worshippers ensuring mass killing.
This in itself would not be worthy of a major comment. After all, the White House gets wiped out (again) as well as the Eiffel Tower. What's more concerning is a comment Emmerich made when asked why only Chrisian monuments get destroyed in his films:
In the upcoming 2012, disaster director Roland Emmerich turns his sights on the Vatican and crumbles the Sistine Chapel into dust. But when he proposed demolishing a Muslim shrine as well, his colleagues on the project freaked out.
"I do not want to have a fatwa on my head because of a movie!" co-writer Harald Kloser objected. And, concedes Emmerich, "He was right."

Emmerich, who is well known to be anti-religion, seems to be quite selective in his targets. It's one thing to pick on the Catholics. They'll protest loudly but that's about it. When it comes to other religions that might actually fight back violently, he is somewhat more silent. When I was growing up, someone who picked on victims selectively based on their weaknesses was called a bully.
Nor is Emmerich alone. That great icon of the atheist world, Chris Hitchens, is not much different. In a recent magazine article, he notes:
Ever since I invited any champion of faith to debate with me in the spring of 2007, I have been very impressed by the willingness of the other side to take me, and my allies, up on the offer. A renowned scholar like Richard Dawkins, who is quite used to filling halls wherever he goes with his explanations of biology, is now finding himself on platforms with dedicated people who really, truly do not believe that evolution is anything more than "a theory." I have been all over the South, in front of capacity and overflow crowds, exchanging views with Protestants most of the time, but also with Catholics and, in New York and the West Coast and Canada, with—mostly Reform—Jews in large and well-attended synagogues. (So far no invitations from Orthodox Jews, Mormons, or Muslims.)
Notice a trend? Once again Muslims are off the list of targets. Although Hitchens claims that it's because his invitation hasn't been taken up, I would suggest that if a militant Muslim offered to debate him, he'd either show up in a bulletproof vest wearing a respectful attitude or he'd otherwise decline with some ingratiating excuse as to why he is ducking out from a fight.
Nor am I surprised that Orthodox Jews haven't had a chance to face him (other than the notorious Sheumly Boteach who is hardly an accomplished debater). Great rabbonim who could put Hitchens in his place have far better things to do with their time than speak with a self-righteous, egotist like him.
But it is the cowardice of the defenders of the atheistic faith that I find most fascinating. One more item will suffice to show the trend. Every year we hear about gay pride parades in Israel. A few years ago there was one run in front of the Vatican in Rome. What one doesn't hear about is the one that should be happening in Mecca. After all, if it's important to confront religions and demand their acceptance of the love that can't seem to shut up about speaking its name, why not try to hold a parade in the capital of the biggest monotheistic religion in the world? Further, when the parade was held in Yerushalayim, why did the route scrupulously avoid Muslim neighbourhoods?
This is simply because these atheists are cowards, prepared to confront those groups who will not fight back with more than words because, let's face it, they can scream pretty loud and are used to shouting down opponents with vitriolic invective.
What they haven't seemed to figure out is that thinking people see this as simple bullying, and no one sensible really likes a bully.