Monthly Archives: April 2008

Blogging Avot: Friends & Teachers

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Pirkei Avot 1:6 continues the conversation about social ethics, which began in Mishnah 4.

1:6 – Joshua ben Perachyah and Nittai the Arbelite received [the Torah] from them. Joshua ben Perachyah said: Provide for yourself a teacher and get yourself a friend; and judge every man towards merit.

The final part of the mishnah is basically just a good, solid piece of musar. Joshua ben Perachyah is advising us to assume the best about people. (For example, if your brother forgets to call you on your birthday, assume it was because he was uncomfortably busy, instead of assuming it’s because he’s incorrigibly selfish.)

The first teaching in the mishnah has more nuance. For one, by expressing the value of having a teacher and friend, Joshua ben Perachyah is asserting the value of having a social life. No man (or woman) should be an island. Relationships are important — and not just with family.

This may seem obvious, but it shouldn’t be. It can be read as a rejection of the monastic life, a value in many other religions.

Even more interesting are some of the specific words chosen by Joshua. Aseh licha rav, translated here as “Provide for yourself” a teacher, literally means “make for yourself a teacher.” And the “knei” in Knei licha haver, translated here as “get yourself a friend,” literally means acquire and usually connotes a business transaction.

Perhaps the distinction between the language used for teacher and friend has to do with the dynamics of these relationships. In a transaction, items are exchanged, each party is enriched in one way or another. Perhaps Joshua is noting that friendships are fundamentally reciprocal; student-Teacher relationships could be, but they aren’t necessarily so.

That being said, it’s interesting that Joshua advises us to appoint our own teachers. He very well could have suggested that we merely accept as our teacher whoever the rabbis of the time consider to be appropriate.

In the asymmetrical Student-Teacher relationship, the Teacher is the one empowered to give/provide/speak, but the Teacher can only do these things if the Student chooses to give him/her the power to do so.

Posted on April 30, 2008

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Books about the Shoah

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-The distinction between the Holocaust’s meanings and its facts “highlights a central issue in the broader debate about what it is we remember on Holocaust Remembrance Day.� Some recent books present “a fierce challenge to the conventional meanings attached to the Holocaust.� (The Jewish Week)

-In a book “comprised of oral history and memory,� Mimi Schwartz examines her fathers village of Benheim to learn how German Christians and Jews interacted just before, and during, WWII. (JBooks)

-A new project seeks to “locate, digitize and present to the world thousands of as-yet unknown memoirs and diaries from� the Holocaust era, including material unpublished or printed in tiny print runs, just for family. (The Jerusalem Post)

-A new book “narratives of Jewish women during Holocaust and highlights their altruism and courage.� (Ynet)

Posted on April 30, 2008

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What About Floss?

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Do you use a special toothbrush and toothpaste to brush your teeth on Shabbat?

If not, it appears that you’re breaking God’s will, or something like that, according to this ad for the Shabbas toothbrush.toothbrush.jpg

I’m all for difference levels of observance, but at what point do we move into the realm of ridiculousness?

In my opinion, somewhere before this product.

Posted on April 29, 2008

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Blogging Avot: Watch Out for Women

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The fourth and fifth mishnayot of Pirkei Avot Chapter 1 begin a series of teachings about ethical socializing — and it’s not all pretty.

1:4 – Yosi ben Yoezer of Tzeredah and Yosi ben Yochanan of Jerusalem received [the Torah] from them. Yosi ben Yoezer of Tzeredah said: Let your house be a meetinghouse for the sages and sit amid the dust of their feet and drink in their words with thirst.

1:5 – Yosi ben Yochanan of Jerusalem said: Let your house be wide open and let the poor be members of thy household; and do not talk much with women. This was said about one’s own wife; how much more so about the wife of one’s neighbor. Therefore the sages have said: He who talks too much with women brings evil upon himself and neglects the study of the Torah and will in the end inherit Gehenna.

I’ve already written about the political nature of Chapter 1 — the Rabbis trying to assert their legitimacy. Mishnah 4 is perhaps the crudest articulation of this: a sage suggesting that you open your house up to the sages, sit at their feet, and ingest their teachings.

Less cynically, however, this mishnah, as well as Mishnah 5, is not only asserting the authority of the Rabbis, but also the importance of Torah and Torah study, which the Rabbis moved to the center of Judaism. And not just Torah study, but Torah study as a communal activity.

And at the same time that we are being told to open our house to the sages, we are being told to open our house to the poor, thus bringing together two pillars of the world mentioned in Pirkei Avot 1:2, Torah and gemilut hasadim (acts of kindness).

Of course, the real action here is in Mishnah 5, which advises us not to speak with women too much.

Continue reading

Posted on April 29, 2008

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Holocaust Collections and Connections

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-A project sets its goal to collect 1.5 million crayons to commemorate the 1.5 million children who perished in the Holocaust. (St. Louis Jewish Light)

-And a 12 year old seeks to collect 6 million pennies. (Forward)

-Was Raoul Wallenberg connected, directly or indirectly, to a super-secret US intelligence agency known as “the Pondâ€?? (The Jerusalem Post)

-A new exhibit at Yad Vashem seeks to change the way Holocaust survivors are seen in Israel: Not as “as poor and but as “a true part of the fabric of Israel.� (The Jerusalem Post)

-Religious Council head’ of Rosh Ha’ayin in central Israel, Rabbi Hanania Tsfar says that standing at attention while the siren is sounded “is worthless,� and has also asked Yad Labanim not to lay wreaths on gravesites and memorials, since it is considered “gentile practice.� (Ynet)

Posted on April 29, 2008

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Mah Jongg, Anyone?

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Oh Jay Firestone. Replace “Twenty-three” with “Twenty-six” and “male” with “female” and you actually have me: The Next Intergenerational Mah Jongg Superstar.


Living more than an hour-and-half train ride away from New York City, my social life has become dominated by the synagogue choir (I don’t have a good voice), book clubs (though I frequently don’t read the books), and excessive television watching (good thing the strike is over).

So you could imagine my happiness when a group of middle-aged women decided to teach me how to play Mah Jongg. Though I’m still catching on to a few of the rules, I played a number of hands last week and was invited back as I was a “quick learner.”

The game is actually quite amusing and provides a great social outlet.

Plus I fully plan on dominating at the Hadassah Invitational.

Jay, want to come to New York and play a game?

Posted on April 28, 2008

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Blogging Avot: Religion & Reward

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The third mishnah of Pirkei Avot focuses on motivations for serving God and includes some very interesting language.

1:3 – Antigonus of Socho received [the Torah] from Simon the Righteous. He used to say: Be not as servants who serve the master on condition of receiving a reward; be rather as servants who serve the master not upon the condition of receiving a reward; and let the fear of Heaven be upon you.

On the whole, the Jewish tradition asserts that we will be rewarded — be it in this world or the next — for faithfully following the commandments, but Antigonus is concerned about making this the primary reason for serving God.

Oddly, however, it’s not clear whether he tells us what the motivation for serving God should be. Antigonus should have said something like: “Be not as servants who serve the master on condition of receiving a reward; be rather as servants who serve the master out of love…or faithfulness…or responsibility…or something else.”

Instead, Antigonus suggests that we serve God “not upon the condition of receiving a reward” — not a positive motivation, but a negative of one.

So what motivation does Antigonus suggest?

One answer may be related to the final line of the mishnah “and let the fear of Heaven be upon you.” Perhaps Antigonus is suggesting that yirat hashem, fear, be the primary motivation for following God. To make this a little more easy to stomach, it should be noted that Abraham Joshua Heschel (and others) suggested that “awe” and not “fear” is the correct translation of yirah.

More likely, perhaps, is the possibility that Antigonus wasn’t citing “the fear of Heaven” as synonymous with the correct motivation, but rather a necessary addendum to it.

And perhaps Antigonus purposely left the proper motivation ambiguous. In this reading Antigonus’ message could be understood as follows: Whatever your motivations for serving God, do not do it for the reward — but no matter what your chosen motivation is, be sure that it is accompanied by an “awe of heaven.”

Posted on April 28, 2008

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Ecology in Israel

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-Avner Rinat is working to be “awarded the desirable title of holder of an A-level bird-ringing license.� (Haaretz)

-Are irises making their last stand? (Ynet)

-A look at the increasing use in Israel of ecologic overpasses to ensure habitat contiguity for wild animals. (Haaretz)

-Plans are set for a “bee bridge� in Netanya. (Haaretz)

-Rachelle Adam makes the plea to “Save the gazelles of northern Jerusalem.� (The Jerusalem Post)

-And plans are being set to do just that. (Haaretz)

-A look at habitat restoration and preservation efforts in Israel, especially in Hula Valley, the Biryia Forest, and the Ramat Menashe Biosphere Park. (Jewish Exponent)

Posted on April 28, 2008

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Israel’s Poor and Homelesss

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-A look at the work of Jerusalem’s Hetzroni Zula, a refuge for street youth, mostly teenagers from religious Zionist backgrounds. (The Jerusalem Post)

-A look at Table to Table, the largest food redistribution organization in Israel. (Jewish Journal)

-Israel is seeing a worrying rise in homeless teenage girls. (The Jerusalem Post)

-What is it like to be an addict in Tel Aviv? (Haaretz)

Posted on April 25, 2008

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The Afterlife of Anne Frank

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In my latest column for the Jerusalem Post, I look at the post-literary career of Anne Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl.

My primary interest is In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, an indie music masterpiece from Neutral Milk Hotel (that’s the name of the band, folks), that is celebrating its 10-year anniversary this year.

But there’s more:

There is an asteroid named after Anne Frank, a Japanese anime version of The Diary and a Web-comic called Anne Frank Conquers the Moon Nazis. There are so many unorthodox depictions of Anne Frank’s story that, in 2005, New York University’s Working Group on Jews/Media/Religion held a colloquium called “Mediating Anne Frank” to examine the range of cultural products inspired by Anne’s diary. (MORE)

You can find out more about the NYU Working Group’s “Mediating Anne Frank” on Modiya.

Posted on April 25, 2008

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy