Saturday, July 31, 2004

The Controversy Continues

Both The Jewish Week and The Forward have published articles about R. Schachter’s “parrots and monkeys” gaffe.

Gary Rosenblatt of The Jewish Week includes several reactions of other rabbis, all unattributed. So Back Row of the ’Beis suggests a “Fun Family Activity for this Shabbos”:

Read Gary Rosenblatt’s TorahWeb article and try and figure out who said all the anonymous quotes.

Well, I’m glad this is being talked about as widely as it is. That’s the only way things will change.

Tuesday, July 27, 2004

Pious Appliance

Today was Tishah be-Av, the saddest day in the Jewish calendar, when we commemorate the terrible tragedies that befell the Jewish people throughout history. Three weeks prior to this date, we cease all joyful activity. On Tishah be-Av itself we mourn and fast. And today my refrigerator, no doubt overwhelmed by the sadness of the day, decided to observe it by breaking down.

When my refrigerator is working well, it hums merrily along in several pitches at once: a low one for the motor, a higher one for the fan and probably a few others that I’m not aware of. This morning it sounded anything but merry. After listening carefully I realized I was hearing only the low-pitched hum. No fan. When I opened the refrigerator my worst fears were confirmed: it was all but room temperature in there.

Room temperature ... in Jerusalem. In July.

(You have to admit that there is something symbolic—and a bit spooky—about a refrigerator breaking down on a day when Jews are not supposed to eat.)

I called the repairman and described the problem. Getting up my courage, I asked him: What could this problem be, and how much will it cost to fix? He replied that it could be anything from a minor repair to one that would cost approximately two thousand shekels.

We learn that Tishah be-Av has two main aspects. One involves grief over the destruction of both Temples, the exiles and the horrific events that have befallen us throughout history. The other is the spark of redemption present even in the darkest, most difficult times. The Messiah, it is said, will be born on the Ninth of Av. And so, combining this Jewish teaching with current events, I found myself hoping that whatever the repairman discovered would have more to do with the day’s aspect of redemption than of mourning.

After some tests he determined that the problem was a broken thermostat. He replaced it, put the freezer back together and even replaced the plug. I paid him and went happily off to work. (Well, maybe not happily; it was still Tishah be-Av, after all.)

I came home hours later and headed for the refrigerator, anticipating the blast of cool air that would tell me all was well. Alas, no. The inside is barely cooler than it was this morning, the refrigerator is back to its unhappy, low-pitched, fanless hum, and I’ve called the repairman again, asking for a date sometime tomorrow.

Perhaps when he arrives he will tell my refrigerator, ever so gently, that Tishah be-Av is over.

(The next day: He did.)

Saturday, July 24, 2004

Leaders, Be Careful with Your Words

Rabbi Herschel Schachter, Rosh Yeshiva of the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary (RIETS) of Yeshiva University, has published an article on entitled “Can Women Be Rabbis?”. The title is misleading, since the article hardly touches on the question at all. Mostly it mocks and derides women who seek to expand their activity in Jewish ritual. Here is what the article has to say about the practice of women reading the ketubbah (marriage contract) at orthodox Jewish weddings—a practice which R. Schachter admits is permitted in Jewish law:

Yes, even if a parrot or a monkey would read the kesuba, the marriage would be one hundred percent valid.

I could have a whole discussion here about differentiating between the legal, social and emotional aspects of women reading the ketubbah aloud at orthodox Jewish weddings. But that’s not my point. Rather, the issue here is the insulting, offensive language and tone that R. Schachter allowed himself to use.

Jewish teaching states clearly that lashon ha-ra, evil speech, is unacceptable. So it is all the more disturbing when someone like R. Schachter, a leader of the Jewish community whose opinions people value, resorts to it. It also destroys the trust that should exist between leaders and their constituents. After all, if a leader mocks one group now, who knows who the next target may be? Those who laugh at the current insult won’t be smiling when they find the next one directed at them.

Also, R. Schachter seems to have forgotten that the Jewish people’s deadliest enemy at present delights in referring to us as the offspring of pigs and monkeys—beasts that deserve to die. This makes his comparison all the more troubling.

Our Torah says: “Love your neighbor as yourself,” while our basic ethics text, Pirke Avot, admonishes, “Judge every person favorably.” Neither text goes on to add, “Unless you disagree with them, in which case you are free to mock and insult them as much as you like.”

Or perhaps R. Schachter holds a different opinion?