Monday, April 21, 1997

Life in the Styx, vol. II, no. 39 (Old Styx)

Hello everyone, Chag Sameach

I have been in the treacherous grasp of the nasty black-pig death flu.  Or at least it feels like it.  On the plus side, it has enabled me to get around much of the Pesach cleaning which requires higher computational power (I still need to behave as a pack animal, no dispensation there).  On the rather extensive downside, though, I have not been able to learn very much Torah nor write papers or write email letters -- hence the dearth o' Styxen in the past few days (which should be especially notable considering the heavy doses of sick weirdness which has afflicted the Jewish people.)

I did have some of the heavenly kosher Dunkin Donuts that are in the area, and I have re-read some of my Hunter Thompson stash, so my pleasant temper and equilibrium was restored somewhat; but it is very difficult to operate right now (and I dread the Seders). Anyway, I need to make up for some of the lost time, so...


Was I sleeping when they allowed rabbis to act in a publicly disgraceful manner?  I know there's a heter for prime ministers to act like spayed swine but who allowed:

(1) the Agudas ha-Rabbanim trying to make up for all the peace and quiet that has existed for the past few years among the denominations by issuing rancorous statements of low-grade ignorance and thuggery,

and (2) Schorch, chancellor of JTS, in a vain attempt to show how Conservative Jews can be just as legitimate as orthodox Jews by being equally as rancorous and black-hearted taking the infighting all the more public on the front page of the New York Times (last Thursday, 4/17/97).

I'm sure we all feel proud.

It is especially ironic, as we rapidly scurry around in the Annual Pesach Prep Frenzy, the holiday of Jewish nationhood, of family, that we should take this opportunity to blast our fellow Jews with both barrels.  Rov Lamm, in the flaccidly impotent quarter-page ad in the NYT that was intended to counteract the blind bigotry of the Agudas ha-Rabbanim,  stated that in the song "Dayyenu" that we sing at the Seder, we claim that "Had He brought us before Mount Sinai but not given us the Torah, dayyenu -- it would have sufficed us."

But before we resort to puckish homiletics, we can learn "tolerance" just by looking at the Exodus as told through the Haggadah.  That is, the entire holiday of Pesach is about Jewish unity and spiritual equality.


Pesach is more than a holiday where you stuff 5 matzas in yer mouth in 2 seconds to satisfy some myopic shiur of kezayit ("according to modern scientific measurements, which we normally reject except when we need to be holier-than-thou, an olive weighed 35 lbs. and was the size of a woman's bowling ball").  Pesach is a holiday of humility.

We are told (by the Rabbis, go figure) that even though the Jewish people had reached the second lowest level of spiritual contamination possible in Egypt, we were still redeemed.  According to the Mishna, the story we tell at the seder should have the theme of "le-ganai le-shevach" -- from degradation to glory.  We are given two different ways of doing that -- (1) by showing that at one point all the Jewish people were slaves yet Gd redeemed us; or (2) showing that at one point we were all idol worshipers, yet Gd chose us.

The entire *message* of the haggadah is that at one point in life all Jews were spiritually bankrupt -- we were slaves, idol worshipers, "Arami Oved Avi" and all that jazz -- worse than we were ever worse before.  There are many reasons for this message (it shows the bounds of Gd's love; it shows the strength of the Covenant of the Patriarchs;  it shows that the one mitzvah we were given -- the korban Pesach -- was all it took to make us Chosen people again, just like one mitzvah can doom us, like the Garden of Eden).  But an essential message is of Jewish unity and religious humility.


Even though this is taken to extremes by many segments, we are bound together as a people and we are responsible for one another as brothers and sisters. At the same time, let's not take Jewish nationhood or unity as the end-zone of all Judaism.  We are not defined by the same rules as an "ethnicity" -- Judaism is a religion, with a Gd, a set of laws, and a covenant.  Any conception of Judaism with fewer characteristics than that is doing the definition a disservice.

We see the direction of "religion as ethnicity" in today's (Monday, 4/21/97) NYT op-ed piece by Thomas Friedman.  I'm on record claiming that Friedman is too arrogant to be taken seriously.  I am surprised, though, that he has revealed himself far more in today's editorial than I ever expected.

He has the audacity to link Netanyahu's scandal to the orthodox drive to remain in control of the Israel rabbinate: "What this religious dispute and the current political scandal involving Mr. Netanyahu have in common is that they are both rooted in a disregard for the balances and red lines necessary to hold Israeli society and world Jewry together."

He shows the same religious insensitivity, in fact the same evil-spirited bigotry, that we all condemn in the Agudas ha-Rabbanim.  The orthodox rabbinate in Israel isn't small minded or foolish for wanting to exclude non-orthodox conversions, marriages, and divorces.  It is a natural outgrowth of orthodox belief to make these institutions definitionally rigid.  To delegitimize the orthodox belief that non-orthodox conversion is invalid is to delegitimize orthodoxy.  Which may be the end goal, but if so then we are in an impasse that can only be broken with recriminations and dirty tactics.

And, the Agudas ha-Rabbanim aside -- since they are not the mainstream voice of orthodoxy, modern or otherwise (only the RCA & the OU can really speak for 'modern', and the 'Agudah' speaks for the Charedim; in fact that was one of the main crimes of the Agudas ha-Rabbanim, they had the hubris to claim they spoke for more people than gave them permission to do so) -- Chancellor Schorch joins with Friedman to delegitimize orthodoxy.

Take President Hertzog, who died earlier this week.  I have mixed feelings about lauding Hertzog as a hero because he was brazenly irreligious while his father was the Chief Rabbi of Israel.  If that isn't a symbol of Israel, I don't know what is.  But I don't *like* that symbol.  I don't like the idea that to be a modern Israeli hero you had to spit in the face of your father and turn your back on Tradition.

But here Friedman says: "Overlooked in all this legal brouhaha was the fact that Israel's former President Chaim Herzog died of a heart attack last week. Or was it a broken heart?"  To take the style of Friedman -- who is well known to role-play and address policy-makers personally in his columns in a vein attempt to be a policy maker himself -- "Yo Tommy!  Cheap sentimentalism and moral bankruptcy don't play well compared to the rest of your career!"

What's the broken heart?  Because, Friedman intimates, the state he built was being torn apart by the "desert of moral and spiritual leadership."  This sounds very similar to Schorch's claim that we need a "piety with sanity" -- as opposed to the orthodox in Israel.


This brings us to the second message of the Haggadah: humility.  We need far more humility in Judaism today.  We need people to stop believing that they can hold a press conference and wave Jewish dirty laundry to the rest of the world.  We need the superlatively arrogant Prime Minister Netanyahu to start being competent instead of being pompous.  But most impotently we need religious humility.  And that is the core of the haggadah.

We all began as scum.  As idol worshipers and slaves.  Every one of us.  Therefore we cannot look to our fellow Jew and say that he or she is worse than we are.  (Note: some have called the trait of religious arrogance as "religious triumphalism" -- I find that buzzword so repugnant that I swear I'll never use it seriously (I may use it when a conversation has degraded to buzzword-level, but at that point our souls have been bought & sold on the open market, so asinine buzzwords would be the least of my worries)).

But humility is the key to understand part of the religious dispute within orthodoxy.  Liberal Orthodoxy, let's say in the issue of women's minyans, claims that it is 'sincere.'  And if someone is sincere, then that is the highest level a person can reach, right?

The problem is that sincerity is a cheap emotion because all 'sincere' means is that you are pure in your belief.  But if the belief is an incorrect one, then the sincerity is negligible.  What the frummies are claiming is that the Liberals don't possess enough "yirat-shamayim" -- fear of Gd, and fear of sin.  Rather liberals are sincere in being liberal; in wanting personal autonomy over religious authority, of have rabbinic will equal a halachic way (and all the rest of the triumphalist buzzwords).

But Liberal Jews logically respond, consciously or sub-consciously, that if what they see frummie-jews do is considered 'yirat-shamayim' then they want nothing of it.  Because 'yirat-shamayim' -- following the law to the utmost detail -- is often just a cover for aggressive, holier-than-thou, arrogance and pettiness.  I demand that my vegetables be checked with a Lakewood Super-Soaker 3000 not because I'm really worried about the bugs, but because I want to show that I am closer to Gd than you are.

And I can't say that both sides are wrong in their characterization of the other.  Nor can I say that the stereotypes are true.  We cannot afford to be na├»ve (everyone is a wonderful swingin' cat), nor cynical (everyone is out for rank and base desires).  We must be humble.  Humility means honesty -- honest in your beliefs and honest in your assessment of others.   And when you are humble, even though it means you may still, eventually condemn another person's practice -- you will be so busy criticizing your own shortcomings, you won't have time for anyone else.

Remember, the haggadah teaches us that:

(1) we are saved only when we do sincere actions directed purely towards Gd, no matter how small (like taking the Korban Pesach and sprinkling the doorposts), and

(2) no Jew can feel arrogant in being Jewish because at one point we were all the lowest of the low.

Ach!  Enough ranting before the holiday.  The above is ill-formed and filled with the combined frustration of the current evil state of affairs that we are bringing on ourselves as a people with the personal frustration of being consumed by this black-pig flu.  Maybe during chol-ha-moed I can make up for this bile and recrimination by writing down some more torah (there is a dvar-torah wrapped up in the above screed if you look closely).

Have a chag kasher ve-sameach.
And remember, only you can prevent forest fires.  Only you.

Styx :]

[Posted on Oct 17, 2013]

Thursday, April 17, 1997

Life in the Styx, vol. II, no. 38 (Old Styx)

Hello to the Styx,

Beware, Pesach is right around the bend!


[names redacted to protect the innocent]


Gratefully, nothing super extraordinarily evil has been inflicted on Israel in the past few days -- especially since we have become accustomed to such evil -- so I am finally able to compose some good text about recent events. Because while there isn't great evil being done against us in the world-sphere, we take over and start whacking each other. In that vein, I'd like to relate some of the Torah and craziness I have endured in the past few days (not so much since Sunday since I have been struggling to rid myself of an odd Spring flu thang; it's either the flu or I have been simultaneously been tromped on by a drunken hippo and attacked by the Phlegm Monster. Either or, eh?)


I sent the message out about Nechama Liebowitz Zt'l on Sunday as soon as I saw the news -- which was 5 minutes before I needed to be at minyan, so I was unable to address the sad news with the honor and gravity that such a great sage deserved.

It's too late now to rectify the affront, to add the fancy things I try to reserve for such a figure (double dark lines, etc.), so, even though she publicly requested that there be no public eulogizing (hespedim), I don't feel obligated to honor that. Because, honestly, even though Chazal say that the eulogy enables the Defending Angel to make a better case for you in the heavenly court, a eulogy is mainly for the surviving loved ones. It is we who are comforted by the eulogies; and when it comes to a Torah Great the imperative is even more important since all of us who have read her works, who have lived in the revolutionary wake of her impact on Bible study, need to find some outlet for the shock and grief -- and to spread to the world how much her Torah was valued.

This reminds me of one of the events which happened last Sunday (April 6) -- we had a Hachnasat Sefer Torah in YU in honor of HaRav Dovid Lifshitz Zt'l. I came to late to witness his greatness and tzidkut, but the eulogies delivered at the service made it clear that Rov Dovid was universally known as a tzaddik who exuded tremendous ahavat ha-briot, love for his fellowman; a trait sorely missing from most of the major rabbeim we all seem to hear about.

For those unfamiliar, a Hachnasat Sefer Torah is an installation ceremony to celebrate the writing and completion of a new Torah scroll. It is a joyous occasion where the Torah is danced around and escorted into synagogue.

It is a wonderfully appropriate ritual to employ to honor the memory of a great Torah Sage. Because the honor we attribute to a Sage, the reason why we stand for him is the same reason we stand when a Sefer Torah is present -- because of the honor we bestow to a physical embodiment of Torah. The comment "he's a living Sefer Torah" reflects this honor.

The ceremony in honor of Rov Lifshitz, and the Sefer Torah that was crafted/created to "replace" him (even though he is, duh, irreplaceable) was very inspiring [and this practice of writing a Sefer Torah to honor the passing of a Torah great to whom a community is indebted may solve our -- by which I mean Princeton Yavneh's -- Rabbi Teitz problem. As I discussed last year; R'Pinchas Teitz was the Prometheus of Princeton's Jewish community, it was through his influence and might that there was a Kosher Kitchen at Princeton all the way back in 1960. We had been searching for a proper way to honor him and the best we had come up with was to rename the CJL Beis Medresh for him. But since it was already named after some rich stooge, we were at a loss. Here is a solution. More later]

In any case, during the whole ceremony and dancing for the Rov Lifshitz sefer Torah, I got a hopeful feeling that amidst all of the rancor and degradation that have been swirling within the Jewish polity, some of our core values can still remain intact. Also, it was satisfying to dance a Torah down Amsterdam towards the Beis Medresh with a few hundred YU students and rabbis considering I had slowly walked down Amsterdam in the other direction a few weeks beforehand during the funeral for Rov Romm Zt'l. A measure-for-measure of tragedy and celebration is always good for the soul, even considering that both were honoring the passing of Torah giants.

Which brings me full circle to Nechama Liebowitz. Here she is Torah giant; the honor we give her is not because of her as much as the living Torah personality that she became. We need to honor and spread that Torah fame! I'm sure there is a good chunk of the Styxlist that has not read her work, or have heard of her even. So let me construct a meager eulogy the best I can.

We mourn the passing of Nechama Liebowitz, who changed the face of Parshanut ha-Mikra for our and future generations. Her expertise was in elucidating the purpose and direction of major commentators, and tying together their positions into a organized instruction; she took parshanut to a new level. She was above all a superb teacher, not only on the personal level, but with her ubiquitous publications (those turquoise and blue books that many received as bar/bas-mitzvah presents) she opened up the tangled meanings of the Torah.

One of her long time students, Dr. Gavriel Cohen, is quoted by Arutz-7 as saying:
"She insisted that the student know not only what Rashi or Ramban [the two premier medieval Bible commentators] said, but she demanded that he struggle with WHY they said what they said, and think about which one seemed more correct. In this way the student became part of the Torah study, 'creating' the commentary himself. This was a totally new method, and she wrote once that this is part of a system where the student 'reproduces' the Torah from his own soul, and in this way becomes one with it. .... She wrote a little booklet on Psalms, in which she wrote that her goal was that the student should not only hear King David singing, but should hear himself within the songs of King David. In this way the Torah would become a true "Living Torah."


How darkly fortuitous that I can use the above subscreed to segue into two crucial topics. Nechama Liebowitz was a crucial figure in the history of the struggle for women's learning. She was so well recognized and respected that her Torah couldn't be hidden or suppressed. This is similar as the Rav -- who while being spurned by the black-hatty world, had to be accepted at least as a premier scholar (of course the same is said about Elisha ben Abuyah, but we won't go into that now).

It is a lesson for any revolutionary figure -- that being The Fastest Gun in the West will often make one chary of fame -- because the notoriety will draw attackers instead of letting the virtuoso sit a practice his/her craft. But with a revolutionary skill of silence, great changes can be wrought.

Part of the current problems in the struggle of Orthodox Jewish feminism is that the votaries and activists are perceived to be both loud and impatient. While the feminists will argue that the impatience comes from long desperation -- who can blame the gasp of air of one who's drowning? -- to the Outside it appears not as sincere desire but greed.

This is of course detrimental to both sides. If both camps are similarly self-righteous then how can they not assume the other side to be guilty of many crimes from insincerity to oppression/insurrection? But I have spent many months analyzing this issue with the personal-ideology that being trained to understand another person's perspective would allow me to penetrate the worldview of both the Feminist and the Charedi camps. All in the hope that were I to understand both sides, I could help both sides understand -- and eventually compromise -- with each other.

Fearfully, I have come to the temporary conclusion that there may be no compromises. The two sides may be in a shooting war.

I did not want to take this space to be my screed on Women & Judaism, so I will end this here; but suffice it to say that I have spent especially the past few weeks in intense study on the subject.


The proper segue, though, would be for me to lead from Nechama Liebowitz to the Agudas ha-Rabbanim. L'havdil.

I'm sure many of you sensitive to the issue wondered how I would dare call the Agudas ha-Rabbanim, alias the Union of Orthodox Rabbis of America and Canada, the Union of Orthodox Idiots. Aren't I transgressing the serious rule of Kavod ha-Rav (showing respect and honor to rabbis)?


First of all, let me say that I take Kavod ha-Rav *extremely* seriously. I am a stickler for order and authority -- especially when it is Gdly. But with the same ardor and vigor that I uphold the honor of authority when it is duly earned, I repudiate those who violate the sanctity of their rank and responsibility.

As I set forth clearly above, a Rabbi is only given honor commensurate to the Torah they embody. And, pardon my French, I don't give a rat's ass how much Torah these Agudas Idiots may have learned, how many pages of gemara they packed into their weensie little minds, they do not practice what they have learned. And learning gemara without practicing it, is avoda-zara. How can they blather about Reform and Conservative Jews being anti-Torah when they themselves rolled out the Torah and Gd for use as a public relations latrine?

How many good Jews were lost because of the Agudas ha-Rabbanim? How much rancor, how much hatred, spitting on the name of Gd, did they increase? They should shave off their beards and join Baruch Goldstein with the bastards and apostates. At least *he* may agree with them and their strategy of well timed blasphemy of Gd's Holy Name.


P.S. The term 'idiot' has a very specific meaning to me. I use it to refer to people who may technically be smart, but act with extreme stupidity. That is, a person who believes that they are more intelligent than they actually are, and speaks and acts on this belief, is an idiot. Idiots, ironically, in the Cypess tongue, are most often people that less perceptive people would label 'smart.' But smart people don't shoot prime ministers, do they?


There was a tragic helicopter crash in Manhattan on Tuesday. What makes it extraordinarily, and personally, stirring, is that my brother was an eyewitness. His lab in Rockefeller University overlooks the East River and has a great view of the helicopter port. Aaron told me that he was working when he heard his advisor, Dr. Tom Sakmar, utter interjections. Aaron ran to look out the window and saw the chopper pinwheel around in the sky then plummet into the East River. At least this is what he told me over the phone.

Here is part of the New York Times story:
NEW YORK (April 16) -- A corporate executive was killed and three other people were injured when their helicopter crashed into the East River moments after lifting off from the heliport at 60th Street in Manhattan.

Witnesses said the helicopter plunged into the river about 15 feet from shore after the rear rotor flew off the aircraft and lodged in the heliport's one-story terminal.

Police officials said the pilot and co-pilot of the six-seat BK-117 helicopter escaped on their own, but the two passengers were underwater for 10 to 15 minutes before being pulled from the helicopter by police divers. One died, and the other was taken to a hospital in critical condition. [...]

The helicopter had just come from Piscataway, had let off two passengers in Manhattan and was taking off for White Plains, N.Y., about 5:35 p.m. when the accident occurred, said Police Commissioner Howard Safir.

"It rose about 30, 35 feet and it started sparking in the rear," said Jose Collado, a livery-cab driver who was waiting at the heliport for someone to arrive. "You heard cracking in the back and then the helicopter turned and went into the water." [...]

By the time police divers arrived, the pilot and co-pilot had got out of the helicopter, but the two passengers were stuck inside the helicopter in the darkness of 35 feet of water.

"We couldn't see anything," said Police Officer John Drzal, a member of the police scuba team that came to the scene from Floyd Bennett Field. "It was black."

The officers said they searched for an opening in the helicopter, broke the door off its hinges and pulled out the two unconscious passengers.

The passengers were taken to New York Hospital, where one was pronounced dead on arrival. The other was listed in critical condition. The helicopter's crew members were listed in stable condition. Police did not release the names of the victims because their families had not been notified. [...]

After I downloaded the story from the Times online and included the transcript in the Styx, my brother filed this eyewitness report. The "Tom," mentioned is Dr. Sakmar who runs [his] lab (and is not a PhD, but one o'dem research MDs).

I got your message about the copter crash, but here's some more material that actually may never get reported:

At 5:30 a blue and white helicopter began to take off from the 60th street heliport along the East River. From Tom's office, I heard him yell (I don't remember exactly what he said--it was a measure of disgust and alarm). I stood up to see the copter spinning. At that point, the tail hit the building and the copter went into the water. It dropped immediately, from about 10 feet above the river. At 5:35.

My immediate reaction was, "I didn't catch all of that--let me see the replay." And I was hit with the extreme discomfort of the realization that this was REAL. We had a good view, and a pair of binoculars. The entire lab started to watch.

....Except Tom. He grabbed on his leather jacket, ran outside, across the pedestrian bridge, and entered the heliport. He disappeared behind the building, and we couldn't see him for the rest of the time.

Meanwhile, the police, fire, and coast guard all converged on the scene. News helicopters started to set up above the scene and film the events. Soon, a police helicopter arrived, flying UNDER the Queensboro Bridge and over the site of the catastrophe. Two divers jumped out and started to search for the submerged copter. By now, though, it was fifteen to twenty minutes after the copter sank. Being in medicine, we knew that it was too long for anyone still inside to survive. The probably was no air...the water was not cold enough....

But Tom had actually found something to do. As he arrived on the scene, he noticed the EMS people attending to one person, who was the copilot. He had escaped before the copter sank. Nearby was another man, lying face down on the ground, blue in the face. It was the pilot, who also escaped. But nobody was helping the pilot! All of these cops and fireman were beginning to stand around, but the EMS guys were opening and closing bags, looking for things. Well, it'd been over 10 years since he worked the trauma wings at Massachusetts General, but he knew what to do. He started to resuscitate the pilot, who had a pulse, it turned out. After some assistance, they got the pilot into an ambulance and headed up the ramp to York Avenue. There was confusion on the ramp, with cars heading down and up, so Tom told the EMS guy to clear the way. Shortly afterward they arrived at the New York Hospital emergency room, where Tom gave his report to the doctors, and answered a police statement. He then came back to lab.

All in a day's work.

Now THAT's job satisfaction!

Wow. Hats off to doctors! And to all of you stalwarts still in Med school, I assume this is why you are slaving away for years, in order to be able to be the right person at the right time. To be a quotidian superman. In this vein, all other professions seem pale; I doubt that in my rounds as a rabbi I will ever have the life-or-death ability or impact ("Rabbi saves woman's chicken from being treife, news at 11.").

That's all for now. I'll hopefully get to write the R'Lamm - R'Rosensweig - R'Lichtenstein - D'Letterman stuff up before the end of the week.

bye now