Thursday, July 27, 2006


Nothing, they say, is a coincidence. It's a platitude so often that it has the ring of a truism, in the beginning of speeches, in casual conversations, implicit in the inspirationalness of a good 70% of inspirational stories. You happen to meet a stranger who ends up knowing your second cousin? Katrina strikes soon after disengagement? Parsha Mattos always falls during the three weeks*? All of them represent some sort of message from Hashem, whether as a specific instruction, a source of potential inspiration, or just a general statement registering His participation in the world.

I hear this quoted so often, in fact, leading into the main gist of some speech or other, than I tend to take it as a given. On further examination, however, this doesn't really tally entirely with my vision on the world. I mean, I believe that G-d is parsimonious in His direct intervention in the world. Indirect intervention is far trickier, but I am personally inclined towards Rambam's vision of Hashgacha. The Rambam maintains that G-d largely leaves the world to its own rules and devices. Hurricanes will, for the most part, hit because of meteorological conditions. Depending on a person's greatness, G-d will intervene in his life more or less, but in general, He stays out of the picture. In other words, coincidences often happen due solely to natural explanations or random fluctuations of chance.

On the other hand, I do not really reject the idea of Divine Intervention. I believe that G-d does have some interaction and direction over the randomness, to whatever degree or however directly. Many coincidences, then, may have some important message.

The problem with this otherwise balanced theory is that I have no way of determining which coincidences are which. It would be nice if one could compose a neat algorithm, based, perhaps, on the odds against this particular confluence of events. But that's mathematically silly and theologically ridiculous. So the most logical way to decide the issue seems to be to evaluate the cost of a miss and that of a false positive and determine the best course accordingly.

Which gives rise to a very interesting insight: This is little to no cost to a false positive, and there may even be some benefit. Because attributing Hashgacha rarely causes anyone to do anything that they wouldn't otherwise. When faced with a coincidence, people tend to interpret events based on their prior convictions. Which is natural, and perfectly logical. So nobody who thought that disengagement was a good idea would possibly say that Katrina must have been a punishment for it. No matter how likely or unlikely they consider the similarities between the events**, it would never occur to them to draw the link. Similarly, those who find a link between the Parsha and the week's events always use them to reinforce and/or inspire towards an ideal they had already had. So "wrongly" assuming coincidence tend to inspire people towards pretty noble goals- better interpersonal relationships, improving their midot, serving Hashem better and so forth.

A miss, on the other hand, has small to large negative. At best, you fail to be inspired towards the noble goals that you would otherwise attain. At worst, G-d has to continue to send more and more harsh messages to shape up until you get the hint.

Based on this analysis, I think I would come to the more complicated conclusion, "Many things may very well be a coincidence, but it may not be morally useful to believe so." It seems, I will admit, somewhat disingenuous, but I have very little problem lying to myself, as long as I know that I'm doing it. Or, to sound moderately less split-personality, I am willing to assume everything is Hashgacha in order to get myself to become better, as long as I do not let it murk up my theology.

This may not, in fact, be the best system. Perhaps it would be better for me to totally lose the theology that alerts me to the possibility of coincidence, so that I will be more likely to fall for my own attributions and thus be more inspired. Or perhaps it is disingenuous to suck false inspiration from anything and I should just be inspired by good old fortitude. Be that as it may. I find myself unable to fool myself any more than I do and unwilling to fool myelf any less.

*If you want to call this a coincidence instead of presuming some prior planning by the calender makers or some supernatural aura/power corresponding to certain times of the year
**This example, by the way, is based off of an e-mail that went around just after Katrina explaining it as punishment for America for pushing disengagement, as proven by the fact that it struck Condaleeza Rice's home state and other uncanny similarities

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

This Time, Last Year

Israel sure finds a way to keep us busy during the Three Weeks, doesn't she? This time last year, I was listening to speeches analyzing the halachic status of the disengagement, explaining my refusal to wear any sort of wristband, and praying that Israel wouldn't have her first civil war. This year, we are all kept busy tracking Israel through the first real war in over a decade and trying to decide whether or not we would prefer it to erupt into a region-wide conflict.

Bit of a microcosm of there, the two extremes of a nation's troubles- civil war on one hand, violent conflict on the other- and at the same time, the two faces of Israel's foreign policy- concessions to win peace and war to fend off those who ignore concessions.

I suppose that could be a lovely transition into a post attacking disengagement, but I was never really into antidisengagementarianism. What strikes me about the two periods is the contrast in attitude.

Last year, I can remember only a deep sick sort of fear in my stomach. I was actually and truly terrified that this was a defining moment in Jewish history, a literal second chance at the whole sinat chinam/feuding factions thing, and I thought that we just might fail it. Hearing the news made me nauseous, to say nothing of the nastier sort of rumors and vitriol (Sharon starting the disengagement to avoid being indicted and so forth). And to make matters worse, I didn't know how I stood on the whole matter. I saw a lot with which I sympathized on both sides, and a lot that really appalled me.

Compared to that, this year is a psychological cakewalk. Good old-fashioned war, with all its clarity. No guilt, no indecision, no moral qualms. It's very odd. Last year's crisis did not end up involving any deaths, but it somehow terrified me much more than a barrage of missiles. I mean, maybe it's just because I don't actually live there, don't have to face the consequences of real war, while the moral conflict reached its fingers into my friends and community. But I think it's more than that. I have a strong, perhaps irrational, faith in Israel's ability to handle any war. Give us a target, give us something tangible to shoot at, and I'm not worried about Israel's future. Internal strife is more frightening, more elusive, something we have to fight with the less sturdy tools of propoganda, philosophy, and maturity. A war is just a war, an almost welcome chance to sort things out, while a huge protest movement is, well, a mess. It seems silly to be grateful for a war, but this year's crisis is something that I know that our nations, strong in its unity, having survived her most terrible danger, is well equipped to face.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Top Ten Reasons I am Making Aliyah

I am sick of my own unbelievable mushiness when it comes to aliya. So...these are the real reasons for the decision, aided and abetted by Mike, who is not making aliya, really.

10)Funny colored money- it feels so fake that it's fun to over-spend.
9) I heard that there are people who are going to give free drives to the Mediterranean? And I love going to the beach!
8) America is being run by a cabal of Jewish conspirators.
7) Everybody speaks English.
6) Being overdrawn isn't an embarressment, it's a national pasttime.
5) Jordanian TV
4) Well, Israel certainly needs another lawyer.
3) So much closer to the culture, excitement, and beauty of the Paris of the Middle East.
2) No extradition treaties and no death penalty (heh, heh)
1) Well, I've heard that once all the Jews get there, they can all be wiped out and Messiah can come. And who doesn't want Messiah to come? Again.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

What's our Edge?

Throughout my Western Civ class the past year- which is really a "History of Christianity" class in essence- and throughout the current ongoing war with crazy Islamists, I have been struck by the following question: "How was Judaism able to escape all this mess?" Judaism, for all of its flaws, has never really been guilty of anything approaching Jihad or Crusades, never, for all of its fundamentalism, lapsed into the hard-core evilness that seems to haunt most religions. I have actually pondered the question for a couple of days now and have attempted to compile a list of every possible answer of which I can think, in no particular order.

1) The Blessing of Weakness- Judaism has never been a dominant power, never had a chance to enforce their rule with steel. There are few things more conducive to favoring the weak than being the weak, and few things more likely to discourage oppression than inability to oppress. In fact, this could in some way be the point of Galut- keeping us from the corruption of power until we have figured out basically how to be civilized, with the advantage of being able to learn from everyone else's struggles.

2) Been there, done that- My question excludes the earliest part of Jewish history, which is pretty rife with wars and killing, because I tend to think that everyone in that time was just as bad and one could hardly expect one tribe to suddenly jump to some sort of 21st century Western morality. It would have been as impossible as it would be suicidal. But it's possible that our religion got such an early start that we got over that stage before anyone knew better. I don't particularly like this answer, but I can't articulate an exact objection.

3) Stupid Question- The question itself is based on a false premise, ignoring evils that Judaism has committed or looking at only a small slice of all of history. Of course, I don't think that this is true, but then, the objection is based on my own ignorance and is thus going to be circular and so forth.

3a)Define Evil- Or else Judaism has the advantage of defining what is "evil". Perhaps Judaism has never lapsed into evil because they get to pick what evil is. I don't buy this one either. Firstly, Judaism doesn't define evil in the Western world. Christianity does, and Christianity has done plenty of things that they and others will freely label as evil. Secondly, I think that the definitions of evil that I am using- wanton murder of innocents, for example- are pretty well acknowledged among the general population. But of course, I would be fooled by my own indoctrination, so I can't evaluate this one either.

4)Inherent Advantage- It may not be PC, but there's a definite possibility that our religion turns out less evil results because it's better. I don't think that's a complete explanation, because no religion can be so wonderful as to preclude misinterpretation, because that would eliminate free will. And, objectively, I can see tons and tons of things in the Torah and later sources that would have been excellent fuel for Jihadists, from Amalek to some of the more interesting civil wars. Thank G-d, we have never really been swept up by people pushing these interpretations, but that doesn't mean that the fuel isn't there.

5) The Jews- My brother's- Jews are "a stiff-necked nation." It would be physically impossible to get them to unite around any one goal, except for self-defense. The Jewish nation, as a united whole, lasted for 80 years (with three rebellions)- hardly enough time to start any sort of crusade.

6) Flexible Interpretation- My pet theory. A talk radio host was bullying a Muslem caller into admitting that if he was convinced that his religion really did call for killing people, he would do it. I wondered out-loud whether I wouldn't have to say the same, and then came to the conclusion that "If Jews were ever really convinced that the Torah really did call for doing something that immoral, we would find another way to interpret it." Intellectually dishonest on the surface, but it may just be the soul of Judaism. The halachic system, as it was formed or as it evolved, makes us partners in creating our moral code, which gives us the liberty to use conscience as an interpretative tool. Again, it may be cheating, but then again, I look at it this way: My moral sense and legal code are both Divine. If there seems to be a contradiction, then one or the other has to be tweaked so that they can match, just as I'd try to resolve an apparent contradiction between two p'sukim. And the law is usually a lot easier to tweak.

The reason I love the last theory so much is that I think that the halachic process and its human-centricness is the most awesomely cool thing about Judaism and I would very much like it to be our saving grace as well. But I am open for other explanations, or better arguments for any of the above.

Third Time's the Charm?

My brother has risen once more from the dead, just as we were all starting to ask ourselves whether those dry bones could ever live again. I must say, this one is definitely my favorite so far, with one excellent post already and absolutely no mention of baseball. And I feel obliged to offer it all of my best wishes since I was an instrumental part in killing his last one, by agreeing to guest post while he was in Israel and then failing to do so.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

A Short, Uncharitable Rant

First of all, let me apologize for the previous post. The sappiness of it overwhelmed almost before I had finished posting it, but I can't afford to delete anything that I spent precious computer time writing.

And on to the rant of the evening. I just got back from a shiur for alumnae of my high school. It was a wonderful shiur, it really was. Not boring at all, and very full of lovely, surprising pro-Israel sentiment. Trotting out all of the traditional lines- "He who lives outside of Israel, it is as if he serves idols", "Ramban says it's a mitzvah d'orayta to live in Israel", roundly criticizing Reuven and Gad for choosing wealth over living in Israel, and so on and so forth. Really, it was wonderful.

But it still rubbed me just a bit the wrong way. I'm afraid that I am sick and tired of hearing my American teachers and rabbis lecture about the holiness and necessity of living in Israel. "Yes, inspiring, wonderful, great idea. Why don't you go for it?"

Or all the people who go up to me and congratulate me on my aliya. "You're so lucky," they say. "Take me with you," they say. "I wish I could join you," they say. Well, you know what? There's no immigration quota. You want, you can spend a couple of weeks filling out paperwork and you can go too.

And yes, I know that I am being smug and unfair and self-righteous. I know that making aliya is not simple or fun, and for many it may well be unwise or impossible. I know that I spent seminary being annoyed at the people who thought that every Zionist in American was a hypocrite for not moving there. I know that there are plenty of good reasons for staying here. I know that I am only making it due to a tremendously large amount of good fortune and help from above.

But still. I mean, still. One of the main reasons that I decided to go for it was that I didn't want to spend the rest of my life being one of those people. That I would have always felt like a bit of a failure if I never made it to fulfilling something that I believe is so important. That I would not be able to stand becoming one of those people who lecture others about the paramount importance of something that you can't do. Or forever being jealous of others for being able to do something that I just could never manage.

I don't address this mainly to the people with families and untransferable jobs or anything, I mean my peers who are just starting to plan out their lives and just say that "someday they hope to make it to Israel." Someday often never happens. And I know that this is hypocritical, because until six months ago, I was saying the exact same thing- "someday", "after college", "definitely in my plans". But- if you really mean it, if you want it to happen, then you have to do it. Just go for it. Not someday, not 'I wish'. And certainly not 'It is morally mandatory. For all of you."

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

I was sitting on the train yesterday, feeling rather smug. And for good reason. There are few things more conducive to smugness than going from a pro-Israel rally to the Israeli consulate to submit your application for an Oleh's visa- a feeling that you alone, of all the people around you, are really supportive of Israel- you alone are really brave and idealistic and all that sort of junk. And most of all, the feeling that you alone doing something for the country- giving her the rest of your life, and so forth.

Anyway, just about the time that the wry internal editor was starting to get sardonic on the whole smugness thing, the woman behind me, who had been holding a deafening cell phone conversation behind me, shouted "It's not me that owes you! It's you that owes me!"

Thank you, Hashem. Sometimes it does not pay to be subtle, eh?

Well, but nonetheless, it's true. How dare I feel smug for moving to Israel? Do I honestly think that Israel is breathing a sigh of relief and saying, "Well, now all of our troubles are over. Tobie is on her way." Or even if we will allow that my presence may make some small positive difference to Israel, how can I imagine that this comes close to the good that Israel is doing for me?

I am not doing Israel any favors. Quite the contrary. I am giving Israel what? Some tax money, a couple of more figures for her demographics? And she is giving me...everything.

But the point of this post is not merely to act as a forum for my uninteresting personal revelations. I think that, in some sense, many of us may secretly be feeling the same smugness- attending our rallies, saying our prayers, calling our congressman. "Israel, don't worry, here we are." And our actions are, of course, commendable, and I suppose we have the right to feel good about doing them. But let's not forget for a second that Israel gives us more than we could ever give her.

As Americans, she is a friend in a truly messed-up region, one of our only real allies, and a useful canary in the mineshaft. As Jews, she is our heart, our hopes, our inspiration. She doesn't owe us anything; it's we who owe her.

Monday, July 17, 2006

The Chicago Rally

Blogging real events? Instead of random sentiments? What, Tobie? But yet I feel a certain obligation to record the events of the pro-Israel rally that took place today in Chicago.

First of all, the day was swelteringly hot. Heat index of over one hundred. The organizers (Jewish Federation, I think) were surprisingly well-prepared, handing out water bottles throughout the event, although I don't know if any got to the people in the back of the crowd. My family, because we came a few minutes late, ended up getting incredibly good spots, off to the side of the podium, but right in the front, so that we could see and hear the entire event.

The rally began with the singing of HaTikva and the Star-Spangled Banner. There were a series of politicians who spoke- Congressman Mark Kirk and Judy Baar Topinka, as well as a couple of State Senators. The entire event was very frum friendly- opening with a prayer (Misheberach for Chayalim), reciting Tehillim, and with all the songs led by a male singer, no accompaniment. They also had a couple of teenagers read the names of the killed- very powerful.

The most funny thing about the whole event was the counter-rally across the street- 75 people to our 5000. (Actually, I heard that they had scheduled first and this whole event was just thrown together to counter them. But in any case, we blew them out of the water. Hands down.) They were quite a dedicated lot, but then, they were doing the more fun kind of rally- inane chants and so forth. They kept trying to counter what the speakers were saying or to drown them out. It was actually hilarious to listen to them trying to draw the speakers into some sort of debate, and just getting totally ignored. But it wouldn't really have been much of a debate, since they were given to ridiculous slogans- if a speaker mentioned the Holocaust, they shouted back "Israel is the one causing the Holocaust!" Other gems included "Get out of Lebanon!" (what?) "Racist, go home!", "Stop killing children!", and of course "What do we want? Israel out! When do we want it? Now!"

It was actually fascinating to see the contrasts between the two events. As usual, the organizers handed out Israeli and American flags as a pair; I did not see a single American flag on their side of the street. Our rally was an organized bill of speakers, cheered intermitantly; theirs was a stream of slogans. Our side cheered or shifted silently when the war in Iraq was mentioned; theirs flaunted signs "Get out of Iraq" and had a sizable delegation of Not In My Name-ers. Our side had a large cross-section of population, including a lot of children; theirs was the traditional twenty something protesters.

One other special thing about this rally was the feeling among the crowd. I've been to plenty of Israel rallies, but there was a sense of camraderie today that I don't think I've sensed before. We did not only cheer speakers, but shouted "Yeah!" and comments; we passed water around and looked out for another. The man behind us mentioned that he was going to visit Israel in two weeks, and everyone around him murmured approvingly; later, somebody next to us complimented me on my whoop (I must say, I have a marvelous whoop/scream. And I get to use it so rarely that I really do enjoy trotting it out on occasions like this.) There was a palpable sense that today we were all one, standing with Israel, making our voices heard.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

My Reaction

I normally don't post about world events because I don't have anything particularly useful, intelligent, or original to say about them. The blogsphere contains dozens of people expressing their opinions on crucial world events, and most of them are more informed and articulate than I am. With regards to the recent events in Israel, however, I think I might have something of a unique perspective.

I have the perspective of someone who is (G-d willing) making aliya in a month.

And I have a confession to make, as well. I was scared for the first time yesterday. That is, not just scared for Israel- the impartial fear that any American can and does feel- nor scared for loved ones in danger. I was scared for myself, moving to a country that seems to be on the brink of war.

My relatives have always thought that my family was insane for visiting Israel, much less sending their children to live there. One aunt or great-aunt told my mother that she was a horrible mother for putting us into that kind of danger. I'm used to floating around family gatherings, blithely spouting platitudes about how safe Israel really is (more likely to die in a car accident, etc), about how normal life really was, or, when I was feeling more self-righteous, about how I would be willing to die doing something I really believed in, about how you couldn't let fear stop you from doing what you knew was right.

Which is very easy to say when deep down, where you hide gut feelings, you aren't scared at all, because you know that very few people are killed and, furthermore, know for a fact that it won't be you. won't be. Because it's something that happens to people whom you later hear about in news reports.

And I felt the same way the whole year I spent there. I was aided by the fact that it was a pretty safe year. Terrorist attacks were infrequent and most of our political-thought time was spent on opposing the disengagement or worrying about civil war.

But sitting here now, listening to radio shows and news reports and all the thousands of blogs hashing and rehashing, debating and analyzing, worrying and reassuring, calling to action and critiquing, and going on and on and on...

I wish that I were there. I wish that I were already there, where I could walk outside and see how normal my life was, where I could take buses and watch the people milling about their daily lives. Where my fear would be the fear of every single one of my neighbors, and I could join them in facing it, shrugging it off, and moving on. Where I could bury my face against a building and remember that it was all worth it.

But this... it's like sitting outside an operating room. You don't know what's going on or how things are going, but every few minutes a couple of doctors come out and give hair-raising, conflicting, and vague descriptions of a loved one's surgery. And then twenty or thirty strangers sitting around you begin to analyze what that means and what will happen, and to critique the doctors' techniques, worrying that they might cause further harm. And you sit there, suddenly scared, and want to just push open the doors and come inside and sit beside the operating table, so that you'd be able to watch and be there as it happens. And maybe even help.

When I decided to make aliya, I had a very definite picture of the country I was choosing. And, to be honest, my decision wasn't particularly heroic. I knew what I was getting, and it wasn't a very scary place. But now it is. Not that I think that I am likely to be killed or anything like that, but living in a war zone is a tense, unpleasant sort of experience and it wasn't quite what I had thought I was bargaining for.

But in a way, I'm sort of glad that the fear finally managed to get through. Because it gives me a chance to test all those platitudes that I have so often mouthed. And it turns out that they seem to be true. Because I still can't wait to get there.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

My Fourth

(Mike suggested that I not post this until after the Fourth of July was over, and then enforced his suggestion by refusing to let me use the computer all day.)

There is nothing quite like celebrating the Fourth of July as a soon-to-be emigrant. It makes you feel like a bit of a fake. Explaining the meaning of the holiday to my nephews, waving a flag at the people who march by in the parade, even ranting about the little girl who for some incomprehensible reason is wearing a shirt with a blinking Union Jack on it- the zest for all of them feels a bit ashy in the mouth when you realize that in a month, you'll be leaving the country for another.

Of course, it wouldn't be so bad if the only thing going were a religious question. But I'm not just going to Israel because I happen to think that it's obligatory. I'm like one of those stupid, ridiculous heroines who is being courted by a sturdy, reliable, responsible, wealthy, and all-around suitable gentleman, but nonetheless gives her heart to the handsome, though impecunious, poet, leaving the more worthy suitor with only a warm, sororital feeling

I love Israel. I love it intestinally and automatically, with a native's wry fondness for its foibles. I love it irrationally and irrevocably, so that even after a year, I would stop sometimes in the streets and feel its liquid air purr into my lungs.

And as for America? I'm proud of it. I think that it is quite possibly the greatest nation on earth. It is certainly the best governed and has championed some of the most noble causes. I am grateful to G-d for giving it to us and to America for existing. But when I see the flag, I feel none of the sudden tightness in my stomach or foolish fondness; I curtsey to it politely and tell it that I am most grateful, sir, for your attentions, then disengage my hand and slip away. I would never think to kiss its dirt, or cry when I spot it through an airplane window. Even were it to retain my citizenship, my taxes, my support and participation, I don't think that I would ever fall in love. And now, on a completely different note, but far too good to pass up the opportunity to quote one of my favorite comedy sketches, a clip from Bits of Fry and Laurie, a British comedy team: