Thursday, November 15, 2007

Chalifah: replacement, exchange and take a risk

It is a sort of habit, in the Old City of Jerusalem, but also in many very Jewish circles, to systematically answer to greetings by saying that everything is fine. Things are fine, or at least more or less fine.

Russian is wonderful for this hide and seek word play because it introduces some nuances that would normally be absent in Hebrew.

So things are not going that well, it seems, in the world at the moment. Others simply answer that there is "nothing new under the sun". True, I am told that every day. It is a kind of clerical interfaith parroting Esperanto. The French have a rather old and popular song about a servant explaining the "Madame la Marquise" that everything is wonderful, classy... still the castle is on fire, but everything is fine.

Veeyn-kol chadash tachat hashemesh does not mean there is nothing new... Instead, it presupposes that all things exist and, as a consequence, we are blind to see them new.

It is astounding how the virtual world has conquered our brains and changed, distorted, twisted our perception of the reality. Again, it determined with new parameters our reality. Young computer whizzes have made fortunes out of bytes and bugs. Empires were thus created and continue to be launched. They actively transform and reshape our frontiers, existing and virtual acting capacities. They swindle between technical progress and human enhancement, causing mental mishmash and wandering on their way.

Strange kings and queens, a bit like Solomon looking at an ant lodged in his hand and wondering how powerful he was because he held her fate in his palm. And she answered to him he was nothing because she can flee quicker than he could run but she underlined that the king's hand was a good throne for her. There is something similar in the words of Jesus of Nazareth: "Even Solomon, in all his splendor, was not clothed as one of these birds" (Matthew 6:29; Luke 12:22-31).

Let’s say that things are constantly new. It is like this contemporary eye operation of the cataract: chik chak and there the sight is more acute, God willing, than when a child is born. Colors were turning to darkening yellow and, out of sudden, they are brighter, “newer”. The problem is not to get used to things growing old or common. On the other hand, changes do make personalities, minds, bodies different, if not alien to some possible integrity.

This is the main issue of parshat hashavua Vayetzei – "And (Jacob) went out of the land”, the reading portion taken in the Bereishit 29:10-32:3. The haftarah/prophetic portion is read in the Book of Prophet Hoshea 12:13-14:10 (Ashkenazi; 11:7-12:12 for the Sephardim). It accounts how Yaakov left Beer-Sheva and went to Charan, the original place of Abraham. Jacob’s problem is very real for our generation and historic development. We need to know about our roots. Memory and family backgrounds can be very short-timed: 10 years seem to some like more than a century or two. We are quick at packed-up matters or actions, too quick at thinking. Then, we miss reflection, long-term patient observation of facts and invariant situations. We need short sentences and get tired by long phrases. Interestingly, legal texts (laws) who were always and everywhere written in a very concise tongue, using very few words develop at the present into long paragraphs of confused definitions.

We have the problem everyday in this country. Either we frame ourselves in Hebrew, which allows excluding the aliens, foreigners or considered as such. We clam up and seal down. In many places, people would address each other according to what they think the others are: Ke fadlak (How are you), kak dela (Soviet Russian to ask how you feel), Are you good? is the local Pidgin that closes up any true conversation from the very beginning because the people who meet do not have any common language. It leaves us as if we were without roots.

Jacob’s problem is that his journey to Charan turned to be a way into exile and not in-depth discover of his roots. The major issue that we have to face and to resolve in our own lives and moral conducts is how to stop being twisted and crooked. As a consequence of his mother's decision to back him as her beloved son, Yaakov endorsed the responsibility of having cheated, betrayed, mocked and robbed his father and his brother by a process that is called “substitution”, “chalifah” in Talmudic Hebrew.

It led to falsehood, made his life a hell. And it is indeed fascinating: his father-in-law Laban knew that Jacob was crazy in love with Rachel; still he cheated him during the wedding night and Yaakov got the sister, Leah… without even recognizing her till new dawn! (Gen. 29:25). Nu, he protested! Is this a model of nice and brilliant mishpuche-family atmosphere or more likely to be some sort of professional enslaving nepotism?

Chalifah – chalifim/chalifin firstly means replacement, substitution: “When a scholar dies, who will get us one to take his place (chalifato)?” (Berachot II,5c). This is the very question about whom may take the succession in the Chassidic communities. It started with R. Nachman of Bratzlav who had no son, but continues today in the Chabad and the Szatmar movements. “Chalifot” mean “shoots that replace and prolong”. This sounds positive.

But “chalifah/im/in” is usually negative and covers some treachery, fraudulent actions. Tricky maneuvers, connected with women and sex, are usually showing process as also money. Exchange as a possible double-dealing and crooked target is wonderfully defined in Kiddushin I,6: “As soon as one of the parties to the exchange has taken possession, the other takes the risk for its exchange”. The statement that deals in fact with the acquisition of a woman as a spouse exposes the real nature of the contract: it is a risk. In the case of Jacob, the whole story is crooked: he had no right to the birthright of his brother Esau and did not acquire it personally. He fought to get his identity. He could not think there would be a risk in working to get Rachel. In the end, he received four women that he knew intimately with much obedience to Laban or his wives.

We hate risks. We need to be secured. We collect credit cards and insurance policies. We are not only afraid of some accidents, wounds, injuries. It is important. But it is not the main issue.

The haftarah also recounts Ephraim’s falsehood and the deceit of the House of Israel. “You are a merchant with deceitful scales in his hand, who loves to cheat. Ephraim said: I have certainly become wealthy! I have found power for myself” (Hos. 12:8). The fraudulent aspect of a risk is that we might consider us superior to others, at a personal or societal level without measuring the limits of human capacities.

Jacob’s marital problems give the exact picture of our lives’ risks. He often positioned himself as in a situation of being substituted and cheated. Curiously, it is comparable to Jesus’ conversation with the Samaritan woman who actually told him: “Salvation comes from the Jews” (John 4:22). Jesus asked her to come with her husband. She simply answered she had no husband. “You are right in saying that,replied Jesus, because you had five husbands and the one you have now is not your husband” (John 4:17). It is traditionally considered that he was speaking of the various covenants that God passed with the House of Israel.

Does a covenant cancel a previous one? Or does it replace it? Is a new covenant a risk taken like when choosing a bride? We face life-long challenges that seem unreal because, at the moment, we prefer wooing like one-day butterflies, and then throw the others away after short instants of apparent satisfaction?

Judaism has often experienced through history this paradox of a profound desire from the non-Jews to replace them, take their birthright as God’s chosen ones. Thus, Israel usurped it for a dish and got the blessing with false hair. The paradox is that it worked and Yaakov really got God’s blessing. The price certainly implies to accept to walk on earth by taking risks. Paul of Tarsus wrote that “to the Israelites are the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the Law, the worship (avodah) and the promises” (to the Romans 9:4). Jealousy and fanatic zeal can lead to think that covenant-bearers can be replaced.

This is the present challenge of the Churches to recognize the full coherence and positive call of the House of Israel. I will take time. In return, the Jewish communities should approach the Churches that have been abiding the Holy Land with more interrogations and insights. This is a bet and a risk because of the past relationships. It is interesting that, these days, the Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko, came with the aim to return 700 Torah Scrolls to the Jews. The Ukraine and Israel are bound by the seal of history and these scrolls are not corpses, killed bones. They are the living covenant showing that the God of Israel is living and sustains life.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Adom: 90 years ago, Balfour and Lenin-Trotsky

We love orange, a bright and warming-up color, full of hope. Orange (Katom) is up-to-the-decade, modern, trendy, somehow as purple while black is beyond fashion. Orange is the color of the quiet Ukrainian revolution that cannot be resolved adequately but is deeply rooted in peaceful movements among the various trends of the Ukrainian society (pro-Moscow, Russian-speakers in the East, Ukrainian-speakers and separatists, autonomists, independents in other regions). In the region, Katom recalls Gush Katif and the after-pullout mishmash.

Adom/adumah means red in Hebrew and refers to "red" as the blood that circulates through the veins of Adam and silently (bedom) maintains him alive. Shoshanah adumah (red rose) in the Canticle (7:3, cf. midrash Rabbah) euphemistically describing female menstruation (Niddah 9b). We have also the parah adumah (red heifer, cow) used for the purification ceremonies and expected each year in order to correctly perform the order of the Yom HaKippurim, the Day of Atonement (Num. 19; Avodah Zarah 24a; Sukka 2,53d). Finally, with a slight vowel change, Edom is Esau's name mostly used to designate a gentile nation, alien to God, in particular the Romans and subsequently "Christianity" as is developed throughout the ages.

Red became a sign of beauty, life, freshness (King David), purification as also of alienation to God and strong opposition as when Jacob usurped Esau’s rights. This will be at the heart of the parshat hashavua "Vayetzei = and he (Jacob) went out", the reading portion that we shall study at the end of this week.

Orange is en vogue. Red is fashion. In Russian, krasnyi corresponds to the color that is highly appreciated by the Slavic cultures. Still, the Krasnaia Ploschad = the Red Square basically means the Beautiful (Krassivaia) Square because its warm and flamboyant color is considered as a major element of the Kremlin area which continues to shelter Lenin's tomb, one of the most visited monuments in the world.

Ninety years! Not even a century, not a hundred (100) years yet. And a sort of blackout, universal silence about the emergence of one of the major events that affected the whole world during the 20th century till it finally seemed to collapse with the fall of communism in the former Soviet Union, its East European satellites and some other countries. Cuba, China, North Korea i. a. consider they substantiate the spirit of communism. The October-November Russian Soviet and Bolshevik (major-extremist) Red Revolution started 90 years ago, about the same period as Lord Balfour that Her Majesty’s government favorably viewed the establishment of a (Jewish) national home in Palestine. Balfour's Declaration was the British response to the Russian Zionists, Chaim Weizmann and Nahum Sokolov.

Moreover, on November 29th, 1947, i.e. sixty years ago within a few days, after much hesitation from the part of President Truman, the UN Special Committee on Palestine voted for the partition of Eretz Israel and the creation of a Jewish State. It was on Shabbat,16 b'kislev 5708. Crowds gathered to dance joyfully in Eretz and in New York. As some month later on the Independence Day, David Ben Gurion said that "he felt no gaiety but a lot of anxiety". Chief Rabbi Yitzchak Herzog declared: "After a darkness of two thousand years, the dawn of redemption has broken". Judah L. Magnes who had steadfastly fought for a bi-national state wrote: "It looks like trouble".

Now, is there or is there not a link between the Red Revolution, the Balfour Declaration, and this continuous trouble that persists along the decades? How can we point out the essential role of the Olam Hamitzvot - the world of the Commandments as showing this particular dawn of redemption beyond times of tragedies?

Russians are en vogue in the country and somehow they irritate those who like to teach them how to become true Jews and Israelis. A very large immigration composed of Jews, half, quarter of Jewish descent and even less. Newcomers that rushed into the country after 70 years of communist rule and ideology, strongly combated by the Westerners, to begin with the North American Jews and non-Jews. Some refiuzniki (fighters, resistants) slowly arrived thirty years ago or were thrown out from the Soviet Gan Eden into satanic Israel, sometimes in transit via Schoenau in Austria. After the fall of communism, almost all former Soviet Union citizens who came to Israel directly arrived by plane or some ship from the Ukraine (Romania or Istanbul for some rare cases). They were immediately given their Israeli citizenship (or the possibility to get it rather quickly). They knew only few things about Judaism. They rarely spoke of their backgrounds. They were assimilated to some hybrid pan-Russian falsely internationally universal nation. The better part of the newcomers originally came from the Ukraine, Belarus where the tsarist Empire had forced them to settle. Jews? Undoubtedly for some bigger part - certainly not according to the Halachah, indeed Jewish with regards to the Nazi rules that governed the deportation and extermination of the Jews during the time of the Shoah. A lot of them do speak Yiddish as also Farsi-Tat (Persian because their ancestors did not return to Jerusalem by the time of Cyrus' decree).

The first refiuzniki were, as Nathan Sharansky, true fighters for the sake of Zion. Some of them were Christian Orthodox priests, as Yuri Edelstein’s father who is famous. Some others were Gentiles, accepted by the State of Israel to go up to Jerusalem with their Jewish parentage. The situation is quite unique in history! True atheistically-educated people, rooted in all possible tribes and nations composing the former Soviet Union and satellites regions or republics, suddenly discovered they were fully entitled to be Israeli citizens. The weird part is that many had discovered the Church in between.

Many were hardly Jewish by faith or background. True, they were driven to come to Israel for various reasons. Many would admit that the economic collapse and historical uncertainty decided them to make their aliyah to the State of the Jews. In comparison, the situation would be rather similar if a sudden anti-Semitic rash would affect the United States and Canada. A large part of the North American Jews have no real roots in the world of the Mitzvot and would hardly be able to prove their Jewishness, as it often happened to the former Soviet newcomers.

A mirroring situation? Definitely. It is a part of the same drama and hope that has been on air since the erosion of the civilization of Yiddishkayt in Eastern Europe, started 120 years ago seemingly climaxing with their eradication during World War II.

It took a certain time to convince Lenin to return to Russia and take the lead of the Red Revolution. The Bolshevik revolution was led by a two names joint-personality: Lenin-Trotsky (aka Bronstein). No use to trace back to Marx-Engels. Jews foresaw socialism and the red revolution as a part of some messianic move that would apparently remove the noblesse and the bourgeoisie and chip down the realm of the Mitzvot, making it a proletarian egalitarian codex. Some think that communism is devilish. It would be useful to positively consider the widespread development of education, culture, some sort of Slavic-inspirited freedom, high level of technology and this special mixture of lies combined with purity and truth, rectitude and assistance to all the nations that grew in some rude and rough areas. The international druzhba (friendship) that preceded the American tendency and is rooted in the civil commandment of love and human assistance (chevrut). As mentioned in a previous blog in August about the 70th anniversary of Birobidzhan, the Jewish Autonomous region, we might overestimate the West and misunderstand the real qualities brought by the former Soviet olim to Israeli society. Ballets, theatres, orchestras, medical and hi-tech professions, tours without borders throughout the country allow the emergence of new Israeli that would not say yes to any system of thought or faith. They maybe double-minded incidentally, but it is a profit in times of research.

So why is there such a silence about this 90th anniversary of the Red Revolution? Most political conflicts show they are featured according to the same “past” communist patterns. From Angela Merkel to Vladimir Putin, with various choices – the communist era brought the pioneers to Israel and they clutched to the fundamentals of righteousness. The world of chassidut and Yiddishkayt only found refuge in the United States, trying to save what had sustained true Jewishness and got secularized in the “communist” dream of all human rights and equality.

Late Rav Yeshayahu Leibowitz was a typical heir of the Riga world of Yiddishkayt and had a true understanding and experience of the Mitzvot. He noted how educated the Russian youngsters are when they arrive from Soviet schools. He and they had in common the same teaching methods. He knew that the first kibbutzim were conceived in the then-Belorussia, dealing with fight for equal rights and care. He had faced the German seeds that led to National-Socialism and had also crossed the path of the Chabad that struggled against the consequences of the Red Revolution.

We know today that this ideological system cannot simply be rejected because it curiously relies upon some curved Messianic Jewish call to justice and equality. In that sense, “ordinary, anonymous people” are the produce of such a society. Pope John-Paul II was a major actor in the fall of communism because he understood it from inside and positively. It is far too early to measure the return to faith of the Eastern Orthodox Churches and protestant sects.

Whatever huge problems are related, in the present, to what happened 90 years ago with the Red Revolution, the Balfour Declaration and the UN vote (60 years ago), the Rav Leibowitz would not have kept silent. He did underscore in his explanation of Jacob’s peculiar vocation. By usurping his brother’s birthright, Yaakov chose to journey through a hellish life made of failures and wandering on a distorted path. God’s correction and confidence thus showed as the constant miracle as with the coming lights of Kislev.