Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Tuesday, 29 January 2008

Cutting Away the Crap

I'm always suprised how some posts manage to fall completely flat and others somehow elicit very angry feedback. A recent post on strengthening ties between the Jewish communities in Israel and the Golus somehow managed to upset a couple of people, one a regular to this site and another hiding under the name "Anonymous".

It seems that the idea of Torah-observant Jews stating that our version of Judaism is the correct one is offensive to some people. Okay, I can see why. After all, no one likes being told that they're bad or incorrect in what they're doing, especially when they're sincere about it and really believe they're doing the right thing.

And certainly we're not alone in that approach. Chris Hitchens and Richard Dawkins are quick to pour scorn on any foolish soul who might believe there really is a God, perish the thought. Even within the fold of the Jewish people, one must remember that the slogan of Conservatism was at one point "the authentic form of traditional Judaism". If that isn't exclusive and judgemental, I don't know what is.

Having said that, I would suggest the following:

One major difference between secular values and Jewish ones is the impact of good intentions. In the former, good intentions are everything. Even if a person is completely wrong about something, as long as he meant well everything is considered to be okay. In the latter, good intentions are only part of the package. Intention to perform the proper tasks at hand is the other part.

For example, I am sure that Eric Yoffe, the head of Reformism, does not wake up in the morning, look in the mirror and ask himself: "How can I be a bad Jew today?" Indeed, I could easily believe he asks himself the exact opposite question. When he doesn't put on tefillin and daven Shacharis, it's not because he is trying to anger God or deliberately go against the rulings of Jewish law. Instead, he probably spends his morning engaging in activities that he feels makes him a good Jew. He is as sincere, if not more so, than most.

The problem with this approach is twofold:
a) It leads to a complete lack of unity within the Jewish people. For Eric Yoffe, it is a positive expression of Judaism to address an organization known for its virulent anti-Israel stance. For me, supporting Israel unreservedly and standing against those who deny its right to exist is a positive expression of my Judaism. For some, environmentalism (under the incorrectly used heading of tikun olam) is a positive expression of their Judaism. For others, environmentalism doesn't rank as a priority. Where is the unity? What binds us together?
b) There is a complete lack of consistency in this approach. What passes for Jewish values in the non-observant world is essentially liberal values with a token godhead. Whenever prevailing secular sentiments change, so do the "Jewish" values that tag along with them. Fifty years ago no one at the Jewish Theological Seminary would have suggested that homosexual marriage receive religious approval. Today you're a reactionary facist if you don't approve. The only consistency is a lack of consistency.

Now, let me outline some basic principles. The first is that we live in a free society and that this is a good thing. Service of God, observance of His Torah, is meaningless when forced upon a person. The reason God gave us free will is to give us the opportunity to accept His ways upon us ourselves, of our own choosing. Therefore, people should not, and indeed cannot, be coerced into proper observance of halachah.

The second is to state the absolute position of the Torah-observant world: God presented us with his Torah, both the Oral and Written sides, at Har Sinai a little over three thousand years ago. The Torah we have today, in all its multitudinous volumes, is a direct development of that original presentation.

The third is to state that just as God is truth incarnate, the Torah is true as well as it is His Will revealed to us. Therefore, if the Torah says something is good, then it is good. If it says something is bad, then it is bad and this does not change because of fluctuating cultural standards.

The Torah defines "good" as observance of God's law, both the original and that derived by our sages since the original presentation. To intentionally not observe the law is therefore "bad". One can good the good or the bad (indeed the Torah encourages us to do so because of the need to use our free will in the service of God). However, it is intellectually and spiritually dishonest to choose the bad and then announce a process of redefinition in which the bad is suudenly retermed "good"!

Proper observance of halachah demands scrupulous observances of all the mitzvos a person is capable of following. This means both the ones between man and man and the ones between man and God. Giving charity and being decent to your fellow are as important as putting on tefillin and learning each day. It is true that many Torah-observant Jews stumble in this, emphasizing the external, showier mitzvos while neglecting the equally important internal ones but that does not change the nature of Torah. A bad messenger doesn't affect the underlying quality of the message.

I would conclude, therefore, with the following statements:

1) I am not trying to tell you how to practice your religious activities or how to live your life. My posts are expressions of my opinions, nothing more. I am, however, allowed to have those opinions and state them freely. For me, although there is much grey in the world, there is also black and white. There is a God, He gave us His Torah, we are obliged to follow it to the best of out ability. If you disagree, that is your right but to attack one who believes this is as unfair and closeminded as you accuse me of being.

2) If you don't like what I have to say, if being confronted with something opposing the secular wishy-washy I'm-okay-you're-okay ethic, why are you visiting my blog?


Anonymous said...

Great post!

Thank you.

Anonymous said...

I am the Anonymous you don’t like. My objection is not to your assertion that your stripe of Judaism is the correct one, but the lack of irony and a sense of contingency in making the claim. I believe there is much to be said for thinking MO is preferable to Reform, but I recognize that I might be making a mistake, and I’m never certain that what I believe today is what I am going to believe twenty years from now. It is this sense of possibility that one could be mistaken that creates an atmosphere of civility and tolerance, whether in Judaism or in politics or diplomacy. Again, I am not and I don’t expect you to be a relativist, what you call in your gentle way "wishy-washy I'm-okay-you're-okay ethic." I expect you to understand that languages change and the way you reconstruct Orthodoxy today might not be the way Orthodoxy is thought of in the future.

A fundamentalist, i.e. someone who lacks a sense of irony and contingency, can be defined as someone who is both very aggressive and defensive at the same time. Your remarks illustrate both traits. Most circles that have a sense of irony don’t conclude a summary of their disagreements with a gracious remark like "If you don’t like what I have to say, why are you visiting my blog?"

Your hospitality has been most appreciated, and I thank you for responding to my comments.

Garnel Ironheart said...

Okay, this is much better. I would like to respond if I may:

1) How can you say I don't like you? I don't know you or anything about you except that you disagreed with some of my posts. That's hardly enough to dislike someone over.

2) I would like to differ between tolerance and acceptance which I think is the dividing point here. These sound similar but are quite different in nature. For example, I have no problem tolerating Reformism and Conservatism. Live and let live, yes? But acceptance is a different matter. Do I accept those as legitimate forms of Jewish expression? No, I don't although I bear no ill will towards its practitioners. I would go so far as to say that it is forbiddin al pi hadin to harbour ill will towards non-Orthodox Jews. Might I suggest then that the different between Orthodox and non-Orthodox is that the former prioritize tolerance (although I'll admit we're not good at it sometimes) while the latter prize acceptance. From a Torah observant perspective, I would still argue that we are expected to be tolerant but not accepting, using the definitions above.

Your note about the possibility of being mistaken is quite important and I agree with that completely. However, someone convinced he's right about something to the exclusion of any contradictory argument isn't necessarily a fanatic. Especially if he's tolerant about it. A fanatic might be defined in this case as someone who's so convinced he's right he's prepared to shoot you if you don't go along with him. I am certainly not a fanatic (unless it's the Kirk vs. Picard argument because everyone knows Kirk is the better captain). One of the problems in some parts of the Torah observant world is that the fanatics are in charge and see it as their duty to foist an increasingly stringent version of observance on everyone. I don't agree with that either (see the part above about free will).

Finally, I do appreciate irony. Ready the books I appear in (at the side bar of this blog) and you'll find plenty o' irony. However, I enjoy a good debate as much as the next guy (and do my best to remain civil) and can be very aggressive because I see real debating as a sport. If that comes across badly, I apologize. I'm not trying to offend but to get into an exciting discussion.

BTW, since there are so many Anonymous's, pick a nickname and use it when pposting replies. Makes it easier for me to keep track of folks.

Kol tuv