Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Tuesday, 23 October 2007

Shoot the Messenger, Not the Message

A few years ago I was in Yerushalayim and had to take a minivan to Netivot. I got to the station where the van was supposed to leave from and boarded it. Now, this minivan had seats on both sides with a centre aisle. On one side, there were two seats, on the other side there were singles. The only empty seat was on the double side and a woman was in the seat next to it.

Without saying a word, the woman looked up and then over at a man sitting by himself on the single side. They got up and switched seats so that I wouldn’t wind up sitting next to a woman.

There was no yelling, screaming or fighting. I didn’t have to say a word; what had to be done was implicitly understood.

This is how Torah Judaism should work. People should willingly and happily participate in the rules and rituals of our faith, without coercion or force. And if they don’t want to, they should be convinced through quiet persuasion or positive example, never with negative means.

One of the big problems with the Torah world today is not the Torah. It is not the halachah, or our history as we understand it. It is not the message which remains as pure and perfect as it was when Moshe Rabeinu, a”h, received it from God on Mount Sinai.

The problem, rather, is the messenger, or messengers in this case. What passes for leadership in the Torah world has forgotten the overall message of Torah Judaism which is to create a society of decent, honest people who show that living by the Word of God can create a perfect place to live on Earth.

Perhaps it’s the fault of our long exile. Over the last 1935 years, Judaism has had to change and adapt to various environments, few of them positive and supportive. The first change was from a national faith to a religious one when our Temple was destroyed (may it be speedily rebuilt). Since then our conservative natures and the pressures of a world that hates us and has repeatedly tried to make an end of us has turned Judaism into an inward-looking religion.

We were exiled from our Land because of our sins and therefore we began to repent for them. And when our Moshiach did not appear, we decided we must have sinned even more than we realized and went looking for those transgressions. Generation after generation added to the details of the laws we were to observe. Precautions were built into our legal systems to prevent us from breaking rules that had been put in place in the first place to prevent us from breaking other rules. And still we weren’t redeemed.

Hated by all the societies around us, we developed a philosophy that hated them right back (often, for good reason). But again, our resistance to change meant that when some countries finally removed official barriers against our integration into their midst and accepted us as equal members of their societies, we continued to hate them, unable to change as we were.
Finally, we regained our Land in a process that revealed that the Hand of God still rules this world and that the Guardian of Israel neither sleeps nor slumbers (although He seems to have call waiting). And what was the result? All the self-protective tendencies that almost 2000 years of hard exile had created in our culture were now combined with power. Until then, authority figures could only dream of the ability to force the masses to follow their dictates. Now they had the ability to make it happen. In the past, they had to pray to Heaven that money to support their lifestyles and institutions could be acquired. Now it was handed to them.

And the result? Corruption, more hatred and a further radical shift in the culture. Instead of using the breathing space provided by God to recreate the living, working national religion we had once had, ghetto walls were once again built, this time voluntarily.

But the message, THE REAL MESSAGE, didn’t, hasn’t and won’t change!

We were not exiled from our Land because we didn’t wait six hours after eating meat to drink milk or because we had bus lines with mixed seating. We weren’t exiled from our land because our children learned math and proper grammer. We didn’t see our Temple destroyed because our married women wore denim skirts that didn’t cover their ankles. We were tossed out of our Land by God because of causeless hatred and until we eliminate that from our lives, we will not be redeemed.

The opposite message, however, now spreads across the Jewish world. The messengers are flawed and therefore, so is the message. Check out all the blogs run by those people who were once Torah observant and who had left the fold. Almost to the last, it was because someone or some group in the frum world treated them in a despicable fashion, misusing valid halachic sources or, in some cases, inventing illegitimate ones, to despite and degrade them. And the response was one of pain and heartbreak. Just like former spouses who cannot think of even one positive quality their ex may have, these people have had their hearts broken and now sit on the other side, sometimes wondering how they wound up there, sometimes, chas v’shalom, encouraging others to join them.

But a mass exodus from Torah is not the answer. The answer is to take the Torah back from those who would use it as a hammer to beat honest, God-fearing Jews over the head with.

We must remember that the Torah does not defy reality but rather, it defines it. If history, geology, archeology, seem to contradict the Torah, the traditional response has been to say that these sciences are in error. This is no longer possible as the evidence for the natural history of the world is too great to be ignored. To teach a child that the world is davka 5768 years old in the way we currently count years condemns the child either to live in a sheltered ghetto neighbourhood avoiding contact with the real world (see Rav Hirsch on Bereshis 20:1) or leaves him with a Judaism that will wither in its first confrontation with secular knowledge.

The answer to the contradiction must then be to change our understanding of Torah. Many Orthodox scientists had already started this process, showing how the story of the Creation of the world and the natural history of the universe can be understood together using an open approach to the text. If what the Torah tells us does not seem to match what natural historians say, then it isn’t because the Torah is wrong but because we don’t understand the Torah correctly and therefore, as God’s servants, we must strive to correct that.

We must never forget that loving our fellows as ourselves is the prime mitzvah of the Torah, that not doing to another what is hateful to you is the golden rule. Yes, there is incalculable importance in keeping kosher, Shabbos and all the other 613 mitzvos and I would not even suggest thinking of abandoning a single one, chas v’shalom. But we must remember why we are performing these mitzvos. Adam HaRishon was given one mitzvah and when he transgressed it, he was removed from Gan Eden. We have 613 and if we strive to perfect ourselves in all of them, we can return there. But that means putting as much emphasis on the ben adam l’chavero mitzvos as ben adam l’makom. In our many sins, the later are now emphasized to the point where transgressing the former is now considered a mitzvah in certain cases!

Remember that the Generation of the Flood was destroyed because of social anarchy, not because of idol worship. Remember that the Generation of the Dispersion was not destroyed despite idol worship because of society cohesion. The Torah did not include these narratives for no good reason but to teach us that the basis of a healthy society is mutual respect and decent treatment of one another.

The message is good, is perfect. Let us study it and retake it from those who would twist it into one of fanaticism and hate.


Anonymous said...

So, separate seating on public transportation is not fanaticism?

Garnel Ironheart said...

The point of the story was that it was agreed upon and everyone was more comfortable with the seat switch. No one had to be forced into doing something they don't want.

What is fanaticism, after all? It's both an extreme dedication to a particular belief and the determined idea that YOU must accept these beliefs no matter what your personal opinion is.

You may not care about mixed seating. I think it's important but I'm only willing to try and channge your mind through discussion. Yelling, insulting and physical force must always be unacceptable.

Nishma said...

The problem with focusing of the messenger and not the message is that the messenger with whom you vehemently disagree believes, as strongly as you do, that his/her message is the correct on and that you are misguided and, in fact the one preventing the geula, the redemption.

While I agree with your basic thesis, that often when people reject Torah it is because of a person, the question still remains regarding how to deal with this person. One possibility, as you point out, is to show that the person is actually acting contrary to Torah. But that becomes your opinion because the person argues that he/she is correct al pi Torah. And then you have the great difficulty of proving the person wrong for we all know how there always seems a way for someone to justify their position. And then there is the challenge heard in some circles, that there is a problem with Torah because it can so easily be perverted.

It is clear that that there is a need for people such as yourself step up and voice your opinion and your view of Torah. The story of the van is such a case in point for, while I would not say that it was absolutely necessary halachically for the movement of seats to have occurred, there is also no doubt that this behaviour also can be defined as praiseworthy. It was important to make your point in the context of actually reaching the conclusion that was desired by the thugs in the bus case. The point is that the present climate makes individuals forget the actual vast array of values inherent in Torah, often creating a dialectic. In critiquing the thugs who beat up the couple who did not want to move, the idea of separate seating in this situation is also challenged. Clarity of the issue, with the recognition of its complexity is important.

Beyond actual behavior, to truly make a difference, we have to enunciate the natural complexity of Torah. Simply, God wanted his followers to think and so Torah demands thought. As with any complex system, those who strive for simplicity will be able to pervert it by rejecting the complexity and reading the system with simplicity. The essence of simplicity is the inability to see conflict of values and the give-and-take of the solution. Torah is all about the recognition that in every tumah there is some tahara and in every tahor there is some tumah (Maharal).

We cannot just challenge the messenger. We have to show that the message is incorrect. That usualy can't be done head on as he/she will also have sources etc. You have to take it to the level of complexity -- and how one is balancing the conflict of values inherent in all situations. Thugs usually can only think in black-and-white -- and then you have them for it is then that you can show that it is actually Torah that is absent in their thinking. Take a look at my article "In the Name of Religion" at for more on this theme.

I believe that this is the only way to clarify who really is speaking for Torah.

Garnel Ironheart said...

> that his/her message is the correct on and that you are misguided and, in fact the one preventing the geula, the redemption.

Yeah, but he's wrong and I'm right because I says so.


Seriously though, one reason the Chareidi world has been able to take such a defining and authoritative position within the Torah world is not because of superior education or spiritual accomplishment but because they believe so strongly that they are the defining force in Judaism that this belief has affected the other Torah observant groups to the point that they believe this too. The average Modern Orthodox guy who may otherwise believe he is being perfectly faithful to Toras Moshe will see his Chareidi counterpart as "more religious" for no other real reason than that this impression has been pummelled into everyone's heads for the last century.

My point is that this belief is just that - a belief not substantiated by the facts on the ground. A uniform and speaking Yeshivish doesn't make you a better Jew. And it's time that the reest of the Torah world united and started pushing back with their own belief - faith in God, love of his Torah, and honest practice of his Law are what makes a Jew a good one and no other standard need be accepted. If enough people can start to believe this, then many people who feel disenfranchised right now because they see the Chareidi world as their only "genuine" Jewish option might find their way back into the fold.

Yes, Torah is complex and yes, God wants us to think but success in this world is sometimes accomplished more by determination than intellectual activity.