With Hashem’s Help, Let the Indonesia Interfaith Middle East Peace Tour Begin! Rabbi Asher Lopatin

February 20, 2012

Writing from Hong Kong Airport, where I’m waiting for my flight to Jakarta:

It was hard to believe this would happen, but here I am davening shacharit, having lost a day (Sunday disappeared) and facing West to Israel!  I decided that since I lost the Song of the Day for “Yom Rishon B’shabat” (Sunday), I would say after Monday’s Song of the Day “Today is Sunday in Israel, where the Leviim used to say in the Temple…”

The Indonesian government has generously invited five rabbis, four Christian clergy and three American Muslim clerics to fly to Jakarta, meet up with 12 Indonesian (probably all Muslim) clergy, and then head to Dubai (just one night), Jordan, Israel (including Jerusalem, Ramallah, Bethlehem and Tel Aviv), then to Washington DC for meetings with the State Dept., the White House and Congress.  The mission, ostensibly: Finding ways of using our three Abrahamic religions to bridge gaps and promote peace.  Indonesia is a thriving Democracy, by all accounts, but it is on the cusp of deciding: Will it continue to embrace the more progressive, relatively tolerant Islam that it derived in its struggle against colonialism from such thinkers as Muhammad Abdu and Afghani, or will it give in to the newer forces of Islamic fundamentalism coming from the Middle East, which are beginning to proliferate in Indonesia.  While Indonesia does not have diplomatic relations with Israel, there is potential for warmer relations, and the fact that this group of non-official, but influential,  Indonesians will be meeting with President Shimon Peres and a lot of other Israeli luminaries hopefully bodes well.

I intend to write almost daily on Morethodoxy from each of cities where we will be having conversations and relationship building exercises.  The five rabbis on this trip represent the spectrum of organized Jewish life in America: Orthodox, Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist.  Certainly none of us speaks for a movement, but together I hope that the discussions are frank and honest, with all sides seeing different dimensions of Judaism, and hopefully Christianity and Islam as well.

Looking forward to writing from Jakarta where I hope to arrive Monday afternoon at 2:00 PM Indonesian time.

Shalom al Yisrael, Peace on Israel and from Israel to the whole world,

Asher Lopatin

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How Our Tradition Works: Outside World Ideas are Necessary for our Understanding of Halacha

August 22, 2011

About a week ago, Yitzchak Zeev Soloveichik sent in a comment that crystalizes the debate over whether She’asani Yisrael – Who created me an Israelite! –  is the right blessing for men and women to say in the morning or the three negative blessings, Not a Goy, Not a Slave, Not a Woman/by God’s will.  Basically, the argument is that genuine halacha, Orthodoxy or Torah true Judaism should not be influenced by the outside world: by philosophic trends, cultural currents, ideas of the society around us. Thus, Soloveichik argues that first we need to come up with the halacha – which blessing to say, in this case – and then we work on how it interrelates with the world around us.

However, the great Netziv of the 19th century, the great great (not sure of how many greats) grandfather of Yitzchak Zeev Soloveichik himself, and of the Rav zt”l, Rav Ahron, zt”l, and so many other talmidei chachamim, and talmidot chachamim, declares openly in many difference places that from the very start, the tradition of halacha had to use external wisdoms, “chochmot chitzoniyot”, in order to carve out new, innovative understandings of the law which God gave Moses at Sinai.  In fact, in  Haamek Davar on the portion of Tetzaveh (see also in Haamek Davar on Beha’alotcha, and also in the Emek HaNetziv on his introduction to this work on Midrash Sifrei) the Netziv says that Moshe Rabeinu was the first innovator, who was the teacher for all the innovators who would come after him.  The Torah of Aharon, the Torah of tradition, is not enough: For the Jewish people to truly get closer to understanding God’s Torah, and how to practice it, we need the Torah of innovation (koach hachidush), which is derived from the seven types of wisdom – from the outside world – which are represented by the Menorah, the candelabra in the Temple.  The Netziv understood that the only way for us to begin to fathom the infinitely complex Torah that God gave us was by be open to the trends, wisdom and ideas that are present in the world around us, and look at our tradition in their light – the light of the seven branched Menorah, where the six branches shine on the middle branch which is Torah itself.

The genius of our traditional system, which I would currently call Orthodox Judaism, is that it is able to take the light from the outside world, and follow a standard system of halachik analysis, which creates a dialectic between our tradition and all the new elements outside of our tradition, and is able to remain loyal to halacha and mesoret (tradition) which integrating the best and the true elements from the outside world.  We need to have confidence in our halachic system that when feminism, egalitarianism, freedom, democracy, liberalism, and any other philosophic trend is shined on it, it will respond in a proper way to reveal new, but true, insights into God’s Torah.  Sometimes halachic practice and customs will change because of the influence of these outside wisdoms, but this change is not a change in Torah, it is just our discovering exactly what God meant, and our rabbis meant, so long ago, at Sinai, and respectively, in the great academies of the Talmudic era.  The Netziv tells us that the only way we have to understand Torah is by using these branches of the Menorah, the ideas and wisdom that the world around us offers.

Of course the Netziv tells us that when innovation is introduced it brings about arguments and quarrels – pilpul – and anyone who comes up with an innovation – like saying She’asani Yisrael instead of the three negative b’rachot – has to allow his or her innovations to be subject to arguments against them.  That is the way the system is meant to work.  However, the Netziv says that if an innovation can withstand those arguments – and only if it can stand up to them – it eventually  will become Halacha l’Moshe Misinai.  Wow!  That’s how we discover what was said at Sinai:  by seeing what influence Carol Gilligan (Tova Hartman) or Ibn Rushd (Rambam) or neo-conservative (another famous Soloveichik) thinking has on our tradition – which gmarras and Rishonim does it push us to understanding in a different way that perhaps anyone else did up until now – and perhaps, if these new interpretations withstand the scrutiny of the Torah world over a period of time, then we will get a further glimpse of Torah Misinai.  Not new, but rediscovering a 3500 year old Torah revelation.

Rabbi Asher Lopatin


The Scotch Counter Boycott is Moral and Just: It Is about Drinking Responsibly! By Rabbi Lopatin

June 23, 2011

I love Scotch, and I paskin like the London Beth Din that every single Scotch is kosher.  But I love Israel as well, and I particularly don’t like people picking on Israel. So, I support fully counter-boycotting against Scotch’s made in the area where their local council is boycotting Israel.   From the best analysis I have seen, Auchentoshen is the Scotch to boycott.  Now, Auchentoshan is not my favorite Scotch, so I’m kind of happy that it is really the only Scotch, readily available in America,  that is clearly  produced and distilled  in the West Dunbartonshire (WDS) part of Scotland, where a majority of the local council has voted various boycotts of Israel – including not allowing Israeli books in the local library.  The most precise report of what is and is not produced in this shire comes from Joshua E. London, of the Jewish Single Malt Whiskey Society, who is critical of the boycott.  But even he admits the viciousness of  the WDS local council toward Israel, and that Auchentoshen, while owned  by a Japanese conglomerate, is distilled and produced in WDS.  

I don’t like boycotts because of policy differences, but when someone boycotts Israel, we must send them a clear message that not only will they suffer, but all their supporters suffer.  People in WDS need to understand that if their elected officials pick on Israel,  it is their responsibility to remove them from office.  I want the world to know that there are millions of consumers and advocates who will fight against any boycott of Israel.  These boycotts are not only ignorant and vicious, they are immoral as well.  The distillers and producers of Scotch, have to tell that to elected and unelected officials: if you live in a place that discriminates against Israel, or if you are a school which allows students to harm pro-Israel students and speakers, your competitors will benefit and you will lose.  That’s the new order.  Maybe these crazy socialist/communist/Marxist councils will pick on someone else.

I’m not impressed that Auchentoshen is working to get KLBD hashgacha for their drinks; Rav Moshe Feinstein, zt”l, refused to give hashgacha for any Scotch in his days, because he believed all of it was kosher.  I still hold of the London Beth Din’s rule that it is all kosher.  In fact, I would suggest that the KLBD, the hashgacha of the London Beth Din, raise the issue of the WDS boycott of Israel in their discussions regarding the kashrut of Auchentashen.  The Scotch companies claim that it is not their fault that the local council has voted to boycott Israel; they are just a company and cannot influence elections.   I ask then, that these companies who feel they can’t speak up, and universities who claim that they have to allow free speech to students that disrupt Israeli speakers, make a donation to the Friends of the IDF to show that they have nothing against Israel.  Or, make a donation to Zaka or Hatzala or even Magen David Adom, any Israeli program that helps victims of Arab terrorism. If they make those donations, and are open about those donations, then I would accept that as a demonstration of their good will.

We in the Diaspora are generally not sending our kids to fight for Israel, nor are we living in Israel and subjecting ourselves to all the risks that Israelis face every day.  We are enjoying the bounty of America or some other foreign land.  The least we can do is send a message of support for Israel with everything with partake of – whether it is Scotch, higher education, or anything else that God has blessed us with the means of purchasing.  Let those who support Israel be blessed and let those who would want to harm Israel face the consequences. God has given us the means of making this world a little more just – let us not shirk our responsibility.  Yes, let us drink responsibly!

 

Rabbi Asher Lopatin


Why is President Obama Ignoring Black Africa? by Rabbi Asher Lopatin

May 26, 2011

The most frustrating thing for me about President Obama’s foreign policy is that he is letting his obsession with issues in the Middle East take him away from the most pressing and devastating humanitarian issues going on in the world: Darfur – where hundreds of thousands of people are facing starvation  and bombings – a brewing civil war between North Sudan and the soon-to-be independent South Sudan, including plans for ethnic cleansing and worse, and most of all  the horrific murder and rape campaigns going on now in the Democratic Republic of Congo.  A recent U.S. study, released May 12, estimated that during the study’s one-year time frame, between 2006 and 2007, 400,000 women were raped in the Congo, or 26 times higher than what the United Nations has been reporting.  400,000 rapes!  In one year!

How can anyone excuse talking about the plight of anyone in the world – whether it is the Palestinians or anyone else – when there are 400,000 women being raped in one area in one year.  Shameful!  We are spending hundreds of millions of dollars on helping a unknown group of rebels in Libya while we are ignoring millions of women being raped, and thousands of men, women and children being killed,per  year?

If you are Jewish, whether on the Left or the Right, you have every right to obsess on Israel – that is your religious, cultural and national obligation.  And if you are Palestinian, by all means you can complain about Israeli checkpoints which are forcing people to spend hours in traffic getting to work, or a security fence which is separating you from your friends and relatives.  But if you are not either Israeli, Jewish, Arab or Palestinian, then you have no right to focus on Israel and Palestinians or even Libyans or Syrians or Bahrainis while hundreds of thousands are experiencing death and rape and genocide in sub-Saharan Africa.  It is morally repugnant for our first African American president to be ignoring the worst humanitarian crises in our world, simply because the Arab world and the Palestinians, and many Jews, are “dreying his kup” – are distracting him – for their own interests.  President Obama needs to set the moral agenda of America and prioritize the areas that truly need our humanitarian attention: Sub-Saharan Africa, Sudan – not Israel or the Middle East.

And to the Jewish community I have a message: If we want the Administration to continue to obsess on Israel-Palestinian peace, we just need to remember that we are being selfish; we need to remember that for every hour Obama has to meet Netanyahu to pressure him, that is an hour that hundreds of more women are being raped in the Congo and another hour closer to finishing the genocide in Darfur.  We may feel that getting Israel out of the West Bank is worth it, or ending the occupation for West Bank Palestinians is worth it, but when the tally of deaths and rapes in Africa is taken, I hope it is not on our heads that the leader of the free world ignored his own homeland and left them to continue living in a hell of rapes, killings and destruction. May God open our eyes and hearts to the suffering of our fellow human beings in Africa, and make sure our President is addressing this moral imperative as he should.

Rabbi Asher Lopatin


The French Emperor’s Burka: When Liberalism Leads to Close-Mindedness

April 13, 2011

It is ironic when liberalism generates, instead of open-mindedness and acceptance, limitation of others’ free expression and denial of their rights.   France, I think, in dictating the limitations of what Muslim women can wear, has unmasked its liberte et egalite and shown it to be something else entirely.  The French Emperor, it seems, is wearing no clothes.  Liberty and equality that in the name of French secularism does not allow religious freedom are just prejudice and fear masquerading as secular values.

 

Rabbi Abraham Kook, the first chief rabbi of modern day Palestine (pre-state Israel) in the 1920’s, and father of modern day religious Zionism, understood that even in a religious context all things, even those usually deemed as anti-religious, can have value.  For instance, atheism, he said, has an important voice and place.  When others are in need, we must be atheists and not rely on God to help, not attribute the pain of others to divine justice, but jump in to assist, feeling the full burden of others’ needs as if there were no God for them to rely on.

 

I think secularism, too, has its place.  To be deeply religious, the tolerance and viewing of others’ religious values is of paramount importance.   If God is one and infinite then there are many keys to the kingdom.  When caught up in our own religious views (be they spiritual, or in the case of France, secular) it is hard to appreciate the take others might have on the big questions, i.e. God, people, the good, the universe.   But to have religious depth and not just self-righteousness, we must hear and appreciate the views of others, even if we do not accept them.   Ironically, the more we know about our own religion and the more secure we are in our observance and faith, the more we will be able to tolerate and learn from other’s views.   It makes one wonder how secure the French secularism that Sarkozy has touted really is (http://www.france24.com/en/20091112-nicolas-sarkozy-burqa-france-religion-muslim-secular-france).

 

The Talmud says that Jewish law follows the one who states the opposition’s opinion first and only then his own opinion.  Such a person’s view is truly informed and thus more likely to be correct.   When blind to another’s world view, it is easy to be right.  But if we first look through the eyes and values of another and only then commit to our own values, our own opinions will be more true and just.

 

How ironic that France, birthplace of revolution and freedom, in unmasking the Muslim woman, has donned its own cultural blinders.

 

 

 

 

 

 


The King Hearings: Building Relationships Through Honesty, by Rabbi Asher Lopatin

March 10, 2011

Representative Peter King of New York is conducting hearings on “Muslim Radicalization in America”.  While I wish the name for these hearings would have been something like, “Muslims Americans Speak Out Against Extremism and for Moderate Islam”, I think these hearings are important and will lead to good things.  I hope they expose Americans to Muslims who care about the United States and want to fight terrorism and extremism, and I hope they allow the Muslim community to take some responsibility for the acts of terror that were done on their behalf.

As an Orthodox Jew, I take responsibility for immoral things done on behalf of Judaism and Torah, and I sign petitions against those acts and statements – I am vocal and active in opposing them.  Rav Ahron Soloveichik said that Orthodox Jews had to accept some culpability for the actions of Yigal Amir who assassinated Prime Minister Rabin.  I am grateful that some . Muslims are holding preachers in mosques accountable, and I am thrilled that an early speaker in these hearings was Rep. Keith Ellison who told the story of  a Muslim-American police cadet and hero – an American hero –  who died trying to save lives in the World Trade Towers on 9/11.

Yes, Muslims are singled out because Islam – a popular and influential type of Islam – was used to justify killing American lives at the World Trade Center bombing in 1993, then again, tragically, in Yemen in 2006 with the attack on the USS Cole, then  on  9/11, then at Fort Hood, etc.  There is a pattern here, and there is a pattern of denial as well, most notably in the promotions and retention of the Fort Hood murderer, Major Hasan.  It is sad that Islam is singled out, but it is singled out not by Mr. King, but by all these acts of terror carried out in the name of Islam, inspired by Islam and perpetrated by Muslims – granted, radical Muslims.

Nevertheless, these hearings should not be seen as an opportunity for Islamobashing.  Rather, they should be an opportunity for good people from all religions and backgrounds, Muslim and otherwise, to come together and figure out how to keep our country safe.  From Rep. Ellison we learn how committed so many American Muslims are to this country, and from Rep. King I hope we learn of Muslims who are committed to taking responsibility to fight extremism that is a sad and dangerous reality in Islam today.  Yes, Jews, Christians and even Hindus all have their extremists, but our war is now focused, and must be focused, on extremist Islam, and my hope and prayer is that the Muslim community will have the opportunity to demonstrate how committed they are to that war.

Rabbi Asher Lopatin

 


On Modesty and Misogyny by Rabbi Hyim Shafner

February 23, 2011

The sexual assault on CBS reporter Lara Logan in Tahrir Square last week brought me to think a bit about the role of modesty in religious countries.   Egypt is a country in which most women are religiously required or encouraged to cover themselves completely.  Yet paradoxically it is also a country in which women on the street, even those who are covered, are constantly at risk of being sexually harassed by men.

The following paragraph is from the Canadian government’s travel advisory on Egypt:

“Women, particularly foreign women, are frequently subject to unpleasant male attention, sexual harassment, and verbal abuse. This often takes the form of staring, inappropriate remarks, catcalls, and touching.”

Trying to make sense of this dichotomy the author of a recent Associated Press article reacting to the Lara Logan case hypothesized the following:

“Harassment is often the flip side of conservative mores. Men who believe women should stay out of the public sphere tend to assume that those seen in the streets are fair game.” If this is so it paints the picture of a perverse and one sided take on the idea of modesty.

It seems to me the role of modesty in religion is two fold.  Firstly, to be modest before God.  Flaunting the body is a kind of haughtiness because it shows we wish to be desired, respected, and approved of, not for who we are essentially (a being made in God’s image according to the Bible) but for something external.  This is the quintessence of hubris, to be lauded for what one has rather than what one does.   The same is true of flaunting one’s car, one’s money, or one’s house.

Secondly, modesty keeps sexual desire in its place.   Spiritual paths all seem to understand that sexuality is one of the most powerful human drives and that, if utilized correctly in specific contexts, that power can produce the holiest of things: the creation of new human beings with divine souls, and the deepest of human connections between two willing people.

While the Associated Press theory above may be correct, it bespeaks a one sided sense of modesty gone awry.   Formulating modesty as something that focuses on women and not upon men leads to only half the population cultivating the important values that modesty should teach, and seems to actually result in an overall lack of modesty.   Delineating a modest society or religion by how its women dress and not by how its men act leads to a bizarre double standard such as that in Egypt: women in extremely modest dress being sexually harassed by men who supposedly buy into the same religious value of modesty, but practice it not at all.

A double standard of modesty is sometimes depicted, (admittedly with out the same violent results) in a county close to my heart, Israel.  There are very religious Jewish sections of Jerusalem where upon entering one sees signs warning women to dress modestly, yet there are no signs warning men to watch what they look at, though there is much written in Judaism’s books of religious law about this very issue.   In fact if one looks in the Talmud, Judaism’s most basic source of tradition and law, or even in later codes of Jewish law one finds almost nothing prescribing  female dress, but much about the care men must exercise in guarding their eyes and speech.

Unless we see modesty as more than just how women dress but also as how we all act then we have facilitated hypocrisy rather than religious humility before God.  As the prophet Micha (6:8) said so long ago, “What does God ask of you but to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God.”