Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Sunday, 6 January 2008

Still Not Getting the Point

Note: This is a corrected version of the post. In the original, Rav Gelman was referred to as a Conservative. This was an error and has been changed.

In the post at this site on Modern Orthodoxy, various solutions are suggested for the crisis facing the movement today. What they all have in common is a demand that first Modern Orthodoxy define itself in Torah terms, not merely as a negative "We're not Chareidi" but as a positive fulfillment of Torah and halachah. Unfortunately, many within and just to the left of the Modern Orthodox movement still don't understand that a genuine Torah-based movement must base its philosophy and goals on, well, Torah.

I thought of this as I was looking through Rav Gil Student's famous Hirhurim blog. He brings a link to The Jewish Week and an article by Barry Gelman. A very left-oriented member of the Rabbinical Council of America, he repeats much of the same stuff that the YCT crowd and those near it in the philosophical spectrum love to say when they explain how Modern Orthodoxy can be improved. For example, his salient points are:

In many ways the envy of other denominations, the Orthodox community could reshape the way it is perceived if it becomes more engaged and relevant by broadening its conversation.

Okay, first of all, if we're the envy of others, why is the solution to become more like those others? Should those others become more like us? Secondly, the difficulty with the way Orthodoxy is perceived is based on the fact that we hold to a system of ethics and laws that are not up for debate or influence from the secular world around us. The "heterodox" movements on the other hand are guided by the secular world in setting their priorities, no matter how many Hebrew words they attach to them.

Related to this is the need for Modern Orthodoxy to become a movement that speaks to all Jews by relating to the full gamut of human conditions. This includes Jews whose lifestyle deviates from halachic norms. Modern Orthodox communities have managed to integrate those who do not observe Shabbat and Kashrut in the traditional sense without creating the perception of condoning that behavior; it can and must do the same for all Jews.

This is also something that differentiates true Torah observance from the pretenders. Rav Shimshon Rafael Hirsch, in his commentary on the building of the Mishkan, notes that when the Torah talks about where things are placed in it, it always says that these items are "in front of the Testimony" (the Aron Kodesh). For him, the meaning is that while people can approach Torah, learn from it and practice its laws, Torah remains outside of us. It is not something internal, personal and individual that we can alter at will to suit ourselves but remains an external, objective truth. Torah can indeed related to "the full gamut of human conditions" but with one important caveat - a person who wishes to sincerely approach Torah must put God's wishes first, not his own. Again, this is the downfall of the philosophy of Reformism and Conservatism. Only those sections of Torah which fit with a person's secular liberal values are relevant. The rest are ignored as archaic, sexist or obsolete.

Second, Modern Orthodoxy needs to speak out on the major cultural and ethical issues of the day. Darfur, materialism, poverty, global warming and immigration are just some of the issues facing the American and world public. The imperative to imitate God establishes a moral responsibility to speak out and to act on issues facing humanity.

I always wonder: Where did the idea that speaking out "on the issues of the day" is a positive expression of Torah behaviour? It is one thing to be appaled by the evil that permeates so many parts of our globe. If one has an ability to help alleviate some of that evil, one certainly must make an attempt to do so. However, even if Modern Orthodoxy were to speak out, what would it say? Killing and enslaving the black tribes of Darfur is wrong? Well, duh. Of course it is. But what is the Torah approach to the problem? That would be a question for leading halachic authorities, not an opportunity for feel-good demonstrations or dynamic speakers at shul.

The point of embracing leniency is to bring more people to observance of halacha as the more people recognize that they can live according to halacha in specific areas, the more they will be willing to try it in other areas.

Uh huh. So why do over 90% of Conservativists not keep even the most basic mitzvos that the JTS purports to encourage? Why is that number closer to 100% in Reform? If making things easier increased observance, Conservativists and Reformers would be the frummest Jews out there. That they're not speaks to the reality of human nature. People respond to demands, they slack off when they're given leniencies. What Modern Orthodoxy needs to do is "tighten things up" and introduce certain standards so that people will have something to rally around other than the kugel at kiddush.

Finally, Modern Orthodoxy must begin to tackle issues of the spirit, meaning and relevance of Judaism, and answer questions like: What do the myriad of steps that need to be taken before meat is rendered kosher teach us about the Jewish view of eating meat? What do the laws of the Sabbatical year teach us about labor relations and property ownership? How can a full understanding of the laws of Shabbat impact social and family life? Should the Biblical laws prohibiting waste and destruction impact on our choice of the cars that we drive, as well as the food we waste at our lavish weddings and bar mitzvahs?

This paragraph finally reveals Gelman's vision for Modern Orthodoxy. Clearly he's been spending too much time with Rav Avi Weiss. All the above questions are the standard feel-good bafflegab that has made concrete Jewish practice so irrelevant for its members. Given the choice between standard kosher chicken and free-range organic chicken, a non-observant Jew interested in kindness to animals will choose the latter. Using the Sabbatical year laws to learn about labour relations (I'm not entirely sure what we means but hey, he probably does) leads people to think about unions, not Shemittah.

All in all, this article summarizes what's wrong with many of the visionary ideas for improving Modern Orthodoxy. One of the criticism of Schweitzer's article is that his suggestions basically amount to "let's become Chareidi too". I can see that but I think that from a different perspective it's exactly the right idea.

Being Chareidi is not about practice but rather attitude. A person can be meticulous in their level of observance, learn at a high level and still not be Chareidi. What distinguishes the Chareidim is their passion, their enthusiasm for what they are and do. What Modern Orthodoxy needs to do is decide what it is that makes them a Torah movement and then generate the same enthusiasm and passion for those standards. They need to become Chareidi in how they feel about their practices and beliefs and be as passionate and meticulous about observing them as the Agudah crowd.

If one looks at the few Torah giants associated with Modern Orthodoxy, one can see that they were able to do this. Both Rav Y.Y. Weinberg (the Seridei Eish) and the Rav took a back seat to no one in their observance and commitment to Torah learning. What made them Modern Orthodox was their willingness to seeing the rest of the world as being part of God's creation and therefore knowledge of it was a worthy adjunct to Torah. We should all look to their example to see how to create real Modern Orthodoxy


Gil Student said...

R. Barry Gelman is Orthdox. See this bio of him: link

Nishma said...

The relationship between Torah and the human realm of philsophical ethics is a very complicated area of Torah study with many divergent opinions. On one side there are those that totally reject any connection. On the other side, though, is not a position thta makes the ethical standards of the world the ikkur and Torah the tefel. That would seem, though, to be the position of Rabbi Gelman. The view of Modern Orthodoxy -- as standard bearers of the position that we can learn from the world around us -- must still declare that Torah is the ikkur but our understanding of Torah can be effected from the greater wisdom that we acquire from the world's chachma (a positon the Vilna Gaon held, although I am sure that the Gaon's words will find many different interpretations including those those that would defend the charedi perception).

As such, we cannot define any form of Orthodoxy by how it accomodates and incorporates the values that are found in the world. We can though consider how Orthodoxy relates to these ideas and should be articulating new Torah perceptions that reflect the uniqueness of Torah in relationship and response to the moral perceptions of the world. Modern Orthodoxy is not about adopting the position of the world, including the Reform and Conservative movements, in response to such matters as Darfur. It is not about saying that we Jews can be just as moral as you and you define a morality. It is about finding the unique Torah perspective on the issue that no one else, without Torah, can articulate and bringing Torah to the world through this relationship.

Rabbi Ben Hecht

SJ said...

Conservative and Reform Judaism does serve a purpose -> it connects people to Judaism who don't want to deal with the harsh stringencies that Orthodox Judaism has to offer.

It works for the vast majority of American Jews.

Garnel Ironheart said...

No it doesn't.

The major difference between Orthodox and non-Orthodox is that to be the former you must actually take upon yourself certain practices and restrictions. To become Consersative or Reform you simply have to join one of their "temples". The vast majority of non-Orthodox American Jews are essentially non-practising but their membership dues put them into either the Reform or Conservative basket.

SJ said...

The restrictions that conservative and reform jews take upon themselves are ones of basic morality, which are also rules of the Torah. And its a good thing that there are synagogues that cater to people who don't want to deal with the halachic strictness of the orthodox or the Jewish people would be much much much smaller ... but then again that is exactly what some orthodox would prefer.

Nishma said...

The question for sj really is: what is Jewishness? What is the point of the Jewish People? You can have many more doctors, for example, by lowering med school or Board licensing standards -- but do you want doctors with lower standards? Of course not -- but sj will respond what does that have to do with Jewishness? Being Jewish is not like being a doctor. At this point, what really is being discussed is the nature of the group. The requirements of Halacha reflect a certain definition of Jewishness. Conservative and Reform Judaism reflect a different definition -- which sj may be correct in stating may be more popular and thus gain more adherents. But the point is that it is not the definition of Jewishness within the Halachic percpetion -- and that is what is at issue. A Jew indeed may be one born to a Jewish mother but do we define Jewishness as any behaviou undertaken by someone born to a Jewish mother? If not, then we better start not only defining it but recognizing that we have a myraid of definitions within the Jewish world -- and it is time to start recognizing this.

Rabbi Ben Hecht

SJ said...

>> But the point is that it is not the definition of Jewishness within the Halachic percpetion

we have our genes which tell us that we are Jewish ... that is all the definition that we need. and we don't need the orthodox to say "my way or the highway."

Garnel Ironheart said...

And exactly what is the relevance of genes since we take in converts from people of myriad ethnic backgrounds?

Nishma's point is that there is a halachic definition of being Jewish. Certainly nowadays there are other definitions but none of them are halachic. Therefore, honesty would suggest that a person can define themselves as Jewish in any way they want but Orthodoxy retains the prerogative to say that these approaches are non-halachic.

SJ said...

We have the right to approach Judaism in our own way if we want to and we do want to.

And the it is in the perogative of us, the vast majority of American jews- who are conservative, reform, and secular, to ignore what the orthodox say.

Ahavah said...

"Given the choice between standard kosher chicken and free-range organic chicken, a non-observant Jew interested in kindness to animals will choose the latter."

This shows exactly why intelligent educated people aren't interesting in being ruled by Rabbis who can't seem to get out of the middle ages:

People are sadly mistaken when they think that Kosher products are, overall, more healthy. The only thing that "kosher" guarantees is that no pork or shellfish products or derivatives were used in the product, that all blood is drained from meats, and that no dairy ingredients are in meat products, and vice versa. Health is absolutely not a consideration of kosher certification at all, nor is humane treatment of animals.

Products that receive kosher certification, such as bleached white flour, bleached white rice, and refined white sugar have had every bit of healthy nutrition stripped out of them - and only a handful of vitamins are put back by the manufacturers (because they are required to by Federal Law - it has nothing to do with kashrut). All of the fibre, bran, micronutrients, probiotics, and enzymes needful for your health have been stripped away, yet these items, no more than glorified cardboard instead of food, are considered "kosher."

Also considered "kosher" are products that not only aren't healthful, but are in fact downright dangerous and cause metabolic dysfunctions in your body, such as hydrogenated vegetable oils, and high fructose corn syrup. There is "no safe level" of hydrogenated oils, according to the medical community, and yet they are "kosher." Ditto for corn syrup - one of the most unnatural "natural" products your body will ever choke to try and process.

Genetically modified foods - including foods that have had genes from swine and shellfish inserted into them - are considered "kosher." In fact, these are most certainly "mixed seeds" that we are prohibited from eating according to the Torah - they have been contaminated by genes from other species. They are no longer "natural" by any stretch of the imagination. In fact, since their DNA has been tampered with, they aren't even what you think they are. They're a fake substitute in the shape of whatever fruit, vegetable, or grain you intended to buy. And in the US, manufacturers don't even have to let you know that you're buying GMO products - the giant agribusiness Robber Barons have made sure of that.

Fruits, vegetables, and grains that have been sprayed with every sort of poisonous toxin are "kosher," and are fed not just to us, but to the cows and chickens and turkeys and goats and lambs that we eat - making sure every bite of the average person's diet is filled with chemicals that disrupt their endocrine system, filled with chemicals that act as artificial estrogens, and filled with chemicals that cause disease over the long term because they build up in our bodies, because our bodies have no idea how to process and get rid of these petrochemical horrors. But hey, it's "kosher" so it must be ok.

Milk that has been produced using rBGH and has dangerously elevated levels of Insulin factor, which has been linked to numerous modern health problems, is "kosher."

Animals that have been mistreated, never seen a ray of sunlight, and fed unnatural ground up parts of other animals are considered "kosher," even though the Torah tells us that we are never to eat a carnivore - yet even cows have been made into carnivores by modern factory farming methods. But the Rabbis don't care.

We need to educate ourselves about the food that we are eating. Just because the label says "kosher" is not a reason to buy a product. "Kosher" is meaningless in the face of modern corporate malfeasance and worse, Rabbinic inability or unwillingness to exercise due diligence about the products they "certify kosher."

Check out the recent scandals regarding Rubashkin and Agriprocessors at Failed Messiah's blog, for just a sample.

Garnel Ironheart said...

I spoke about this with Rav Sliffkin during his visit to our community recently and Ahavah makes an important point.

I guess an analogy in medicine is people wanting to take antibiotics for a cold because they don't understand the difference between viral and bacterial infection. All they know is that antibiotics fight "infections" and they have an "infection" so therefore they need it.

Similarly, as Ahavah succintly noted, kashrus has to do with where the food came from and how it was prepared. It has nothing to do with health value. That is the subject of a completely different mitzvah ("and thou shalt diligently take care of thine souls"). Unfortunately, the "health value" of kashrut is a well-entrenched urban-myth in our society that ranks up there with kashrut being about food that the rabbi blesses to make it kosher.