Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Thursday, 27 March 2008

Bye Bye Burka!

"And Nadav and Abihu, the sons of Aharon, too each of them his censer and put fire therein, and laid incense thereon, and offered a strange fire before the Lord, which he had not commanded them. And there came forth a fire from before the Lord that devoured them, and they died before the Lord." (Vayikra 10:1-2)

Different reasons have been given for why Nadav and Avihu died in this week's parashah, as well as the meaning of the "strange fire" that they offered. Rav Hirsch, in his commentary, discussed the concept of revising the Holy Service and the affront to God and His Torah that it creates:

The pagan brings his offering in an attempt to make the god subservient to his wishes. The Jew, with his offering, wishes to place himself in the service of God; by his offering he wishes to make himself subservient to the wishes of his God. So that all offerings are formulae of the demands of God, which the bringer, by his offering, undertakes to make the normal routine for his future life. So that self-devised offerings would be a killing of just those very truths which our offerings are meant to impress and dominate the bringers, would be placing a pedestal on which to glorify one's own ideas, where a throne was meant to be built for obedience and obediences only. We can understand that the death of the preistly youths and their death in the first moment of the consecration of the sanctuary of God is the most solemn warning for all future priests of this Sanctuary; it excludes from the precints of the Sanctuary of God - which was to be nothing else but the Sanctuary of his Torah - every expression of caprice, and every subjective idea of what is right and becoming! Not by fresh inventions even of God-serving novices but by carrying out that which is ordained by God has the Jewish priest to establish the authenticity of his activities.

Now, most explanations of what the Torah meant to tell us in this story flow along one particular path. Nadav and Avihu certainly did not have a bad intention when they brought their offerings. Indeed, it seems quite likely that the reason they did was to exceed the spiritual revelation they had received thus far. Thus did their love of God and desire for His radiant presence push them along. So they either "went too far" and were thus punished.

This is instructive in the recent brouhaha concerning the Ramat Beit Shemesh Burka Gang. The initial reports all carried the same basic tone. Here were a bunch of women not satisfied with even the strictest Chareidi views on public modesty and female dress. They were prepared to declare their entire bodies an agent of sin and therefore cover them. But they went further than that. Not content to be "exceedingly pious", they also taught that theirs was the true way and that any woman who did not reach up to their standard was somehow deficient in her observance.

And yet now the news reports tell a different story. The leader of this group, far from being supremely righteous, stands accused of not only beating her children in ways that would make any normal person cringe, but also of encouraging unspeakable acts between them. In an uncommon example of the system working, she has been arrested for these things. There was never any question that these women were mentally ill. Now we have learned just how far gone their minds were.

The problem is the response from the outside. In a celebrated set of posts on Cross Currents, Rav Yitzchak Adlerstein recently decided that any view to the left of what is currently de rigeur in the Chareidi world is "beyond the pale". As documented on this blog, when confronted with angry rebuttals, he replied with a patronizing "Oh I can see why you're upset but that's just because you don't understand why I'm right".

Since that time, however, his words have come back in a haunting way. First, there was the massacre at Yeshivat Mercaz HaRav and the response of (one of) the Satmar Rebbe:

This attack happened not in a place of danger, but in the middle of the city (Yerushalayim). It could have happened anywhere, in any yeshiva, but it happened specifically in a Yeshiva associated with the "Mizrachi" stream.We cry for the murdered and for the pain of the families, but we also have to relate to the pain of the Divine Presence. Causing someone to sin is worse than killing him - the people of Mizrachi are the greatest "Causers of sinning" in this generation. They were a bridge between Haredi and secular, and killed tens of thousands of souls. We need to ask Hashem to stop the murders of the body, but also the murders of the soul."

I checked Cross Currents for a few weeks after that comment came to light and even left some (unpublished - what a surprise!) comments on Rav Adlerstein's posts but the words never did seem to get written. Yes, believe that the first chapter of Bereishis can't be taken literally and you are beyond the pale. Justify the murder of Jewish boys (may God average their blood) and you're not.

And now this. Until now, most ultra-Orthodox websites have been silent about the Burka Gang. I definitely do not expect any to address it given this latest turn of events, no more than they have the Chareidi school in Australia which recently hit the news. But the silence brings an incredible confirmation of what is considered "religious" and "non-religious" in the eyes of certain Chareidim.

(As an aside, I've always wondered at the phenomenon that says that if you eat non-kosher food you can't call yourself religious but if you beat your wife and kids or steal from others, you still can)

Never mind that the Burka Gang were trying to be "super-religious". Yes, the comments of Rav Hirsch above were not aimed at the Chareidim of his day but rather at the Reformers but they can easily be pointed in the other direction. As Chazal tell us, the Torah was given to human beings, not angels, which means that God only expects so much from us and a constant superhuman effort in all things is not one of them. One can easily be too far away from a Torah lifestyle through lack of observance, as we see in unfortunately too common, but one can be too far from a Torah lifestyle in the opposite direction, by inventing new standards no one ever heard of before and pronouncing them to be the new norm of observance. With apologies to Rav Adlerstein, such things are just as beyond the pale of proper observance; the stated intentions of the so-called "pious" are not relevant to that.

In the end, Nadav and Avihu tried to exceed the norm that God had decreed. The Burka Gang also did this and it seems that the sincerety of their "holiness" has been exposed for all to see. For all the superficial observances they forced upon themselves, they were far less observant when no one was looking than many people they would decry as "non-religious". And hopefully the golden mean will be restored.

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