Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Monday, 30 June 2008

The Way It Is vs. The Way It Should Be

Reading articles by Rav Yonasan Rosenblum and Rav Yitzchok Adlerstein on the bicentennial of Rav Shimshon Rafael Hirsch, zt"l, I could not help but be struck with all the missing potential of Modern Orthodoxy.
As I've written before, many in the Modern Orthodoxy consider Rav Hirsch to be the founder of the movement. In truth, he had very little to do with it, as Rav Rosenblum notes:
Because of his openness to secular studies, Rabbi Hirsch is sometimes described as the founder of modern Orthodoxy. That is a mistake. In the context of German Orthodoxy of his day, Rabbi Hirsch was considered a zealot. His insistence on a complete separation from the government-recognized communal bodies, on the grounds that they bore the taint of institutionalized heresy, divided the Orthodox community of Frankfurt that he had almost single-handedly built.
Thus even today the Hirschian community in New York has little officially to do with the Yeshiva University crowd and far stronger connections with the Agudah. Rav Hirsch was not seeking to create Modern Orthodoxy but rather a Chareidi Judaism that could survive the open environment of emancipated German Jewish society. As Rav Rosenblum notes:
Rabbi Hirsch is more accurately described as the architect of Torah Judaism for the modern world. He wrote for a modern world lacking the protective insularity of the ghetto, one in which every Jew simultaneously lives in a broader non-Jewish society. Though he recognized the dangers of Emancipation and repeatedly stressed that participation in the larger society could never justify the slightest deviation from one's duties as a Jew, Rabbi Hirsch saw Emancipation as allowing for a fuller Jewish life.
Yet, as Rosenblum's article goes on to say, his founding principles could read like traditional Modern Orthodox doctrine:
The narrow constraint of Jewish life in the ghetto had, in Rabbi Hirsch's opinion, robbed Jewish learning of its intended vitality, through actual application to life situations. "The goal of study," he lamented, "has not been practical life, to understand the world and our duty in it."
Is this not what Modern Orthodoxy preaches? A confrontation with the modern world leading to a more complete Jewish life.
Yet there is a fundamental difference between today's Modern Orthodoxy and Hirsch's Torah Im Derech Eretz. Hirsch sought to take what was best of the modern world and use it to supplement one's Torah Judaism. Modern Orthodoxy, on the other hand, seeks to take what is best of Torah Judaism and use it to supplement one's modernity. It's a world of difference between the two.
Rav Hirsch, for example, did not restrict himself to discussing modernity and its accompanying concepts like free will and independent thinking. His commentary on Chumash tackles the most arcane parts of the narrative, such as the symbolism of the Mishkan and its appurtenances with such detail and comprehensiveness that the understanding reading gains a deeper appreciation of what they meant than from any other source.
For Hirsch, it was about Torah and what the modern world could add to it. Nowadays, in the absence of the environment that produced Torah Im Derech Eretz and a comparable leader to push its agenda, its influence has diminished and this is a tragic shame. Many amongst the current Chareidi leadership would like you to believe that there is one, and only one, lifestyle for a Jew. As Rav Adlerstein notes:
Lastly, in a Torah world that increasingly opts for limitation, restriction and a narrowing of creativity, individuality and world view as the best way to avoid problems, many of us sense that outside of Israel, this is not the best way to go. We are buoyed by the great vision of RSRH, and reminded of the way Rav Shimon Schwab zt”l once said that Torah Im Derech Eretz: “means the Torah’s conquest of life and not the Torah’s flight from life. It means the Torah’s casting a light into the darkness rather than hiding from the darkness. It means applying Torah to the earth and not divorcing it from the earth.”
In the end, Torah Im Derech Eretz is a side group in the Chareidi world, having failed to make much of a foothold in Israel or the greater United States Jewish community. Yet its principles do reflect what Modern Orthodoxy should espouse on a more consistent basis. Perhaps the movement could learn from Rav Hirsch's principles and allow them to influence its thinking in order to strengthen its identity and beliefs. One can certainly see that those in the Modern Orthodox community could already identify with these principles. It is time to make them more than just fanciful words.

Sunday, 29 June 2008

The Slippery Middle

It's not a suprise to realize that trending towards an extreme is far simpler than maintaining a compromise position. After all, which requires less effort? Accepting a complete package or creatinga customized one based on personal choice and intellectual investigation? Most people would say that the latter is preferable for a thinking person but the former answers a person's needs and questions in a quicker and easier fashion.

If one looks at general society, this trend towards extremes is easy to spot and has been gathering steam for the past few decades. Consider George W. Bush. Now, I don't think he's been a particularily good president but there are some things he's done as the leader of the Free World that should be remembered positively. However, if one is a registered Democrat in the States, it seems almost obligatory that one should hate Bush with every fibre of one's being and strive to see nothing even remotely positive about him. Part of being a Democrat, along with being pro-abortion and pro-union is being anti-Bush. You cannot have two without the third and call yourself a good Democrat, which is probably why Joe Lieberman is campaigning for John McCain instead of Barack Obama.

Consider the homosexual community. From my knowledge of and interaction with many members of that group, I can easily assert that their attitudes and outlooks are as varied as that of general society. There are those that are right wing and those that are left, those that believe in moral principles that reflect a traditional outlook and those that don't. But to read the newspaper and watch the news, one would quickly conclude that to be a "good" homosexual means to be a rabid leftist with a penchant for public erotic exhibitionism.

Even within the Jewish world, the two extremes are coalescing at the expense of the middle. Eric Yoffie, in a recent interview, defined a Reform Jew in strikingly negative terms. In his view, the minute a Jew accepts a single mitzvah as an obligation instead of a suggestion, he ceases to be a Reform Jew. In other words, Reform is about the absolute, complete, 100% rejection of any authority on the person by an outside source such as God.

On the other side, the Chareidi community has accelerated its efforts to monopolize control of what constitutes the Torah observant community through its intimidation of the Rabbinical Council of America, deligitimization of Mizrachi and dismissal of Torah im Derech Eretz. The Chareidi view, that the only good Jew is a Chareidi Jew, is one that is being pronounced more forcefully in the public forum, to the detriment of those Jews who would like to be observant but not kissing cousins of the Neturei Karta.

One of the first casaulties has been Conservatism. Back in the 1950's and 60's, with the post-World War 2 trending away from extremism in Western culture, Conservatism was a religion ascendant. True Torah observance was seen as anachronistic and out of sync with the evolution of Western civilization while even then Reform was seen as shallow and unreflective of Jewish values. Today they are in steep decline as their members have come to wonder about the point of being neither here nor there. After all, a Conservative is (supposedly) not a Reformer in that he accepts some direction from Torah in his life but is not Orthodox since he accepts only that authority he wants to. Much of the membership has discovered that if one is not Orthodox, then one really is picking and choosing, developing a customized personal religion which is, in essence, Reform.

The next casualty might very well be Modern Orthodoxy. Here is a movement with a real identity issue, starting with it's name. As I've noted before, "modern" is a loaded term since it changes with the passage of time. What was modern, be it values, ethics or even toasters, in the 1960's is hopelessly out of date today. Modern implies constant shifting and constant shifting implies a lack of definite values.

Within Modern Orthodoxy, this lack of definite values is taking its toll. On the left side of the movement is the YCT crowd, essentially traditional Conservatism with a mechitzah. On the right side is the YU intellectual crowd for whom Modern Orthodoxy isn't so much a passionate religion but a field of study on par with physics and chemistry and about as exciting.

Is it any wonder, then, that the movement's youth are leaving in one direction or another? For those who like the glitz and rituals of Judaism, Conservatism or even active Reform are just as legitimate an expression of one's connection to the faith, and even better, without all the annoying "thou shalt nots". And if one wants to be seen as taking his Judaism seriously, there is the pull of the Chareidi world with its supreme self-confidence that it is the golden standard.

There's a joke that's been circulating for years about which type of Judaism is the hardest. The Conservatives say theirs is before Orthodoxy is about doing what the book says without thinking about it and Reform is about doing nothing but Conservatism is about doing something voluntarily and creating a meaningful Judaism out of such activities.

As noted, Conservatism has essentially morphed into a traditional version of Reform so the joke can be adjusted now to say that Modern Orthodoxy is the hardest form of Judaism to practice. The Chareidim, with their Daas Torah, have it easy. The answer to any innovative question is "no". The Reform also have it easy. The answer to anything for them is "yes".

But Modern Orthodoxy? It is supposed to be about analyzing the sources, plumbing the depths of halachah to understand the spectrum of opinions on an issue and striving to arrive at a correct, not pre-determined answer as to what the best way to behave for a believing Jew is. Yes, in practice, a Modern Orthodox and Chareidi posek might come to the same answer for a question but in theory, the Modern Orthodox answer should be the deeper one because of the MO need for wider inclusion of sources and greater understanding of the question.

The middle ground is always the hardest to hold because the slope is so easy. Whichever side you're on, your course is picked for you and all you have to do is enjoy the ride but to maintain oneself's on the slippery middle is the real challenge. Did God create us to seek out the easy answers and avoid such a challenge or is the purpose of Torah to encourage us to strive for greater tasks and efforts?

In practice, however, that doesn't happen. In practice, the joke about Conservatism has turned into the joke being on Modern Orthodoxy.

Thursday, 26 June 2008

Who Inherited Hirsch

One of the common misbeliefs in Modern Orthodoxy is that Rav Shimshon Rafael Hirsch was a founder of the movement. However, historical analysis and a look at where his followers are today quickly disabuses one of that notion. Rav Hirsch was a strong proponent of a meticulous Torah lifestyle complemented by secular knowledge but he never moved from the Torah-first position that he espoused. For him, the secular world was full of God's handiworks and needed to be appreciated but only as a stepping stone towards a better worship of the Creator. This, in essence, was Torah im Derech Eretz.
As opposed to actual Modern Orthodoxy, the Hirsch model of combining Torah with a wordly approach received a relatively sympathetic attitude from the Eastern European Jewish leadership of the day. These great rabbonim generally understood that German Jews were not isolated from their surrounding society like a large number of Eastern European Jews were. As a result, the Torah-first-and-only approach used with such success in Poland and Lithuania was unlikely to be viable in Germany. With Rav Hirsch's approach, however, Jews who might otherwise be at risk from contact with secular culture could now interact without compromising their Jewishness. Not ideal, to be sure, but better than the alternative.
This closeness in relations has not waned over time. Rav Hirsch's followers generally belong to the Agudas Yisroel and practice with a Chareidi level of devotion. But in other things, they have managed to remember that Rav Hirsch believed an observant Jew could excel in both Judaism and the study of secular subjects and that this was a great option for many.
Unfortunately, Rav Hirsch left no official successors and, as a result, although there are many Hirschian rabbonim there is no one to unify and champion the Torah Im Derech Eretz movement. Now, even during Hirsch's time there were those in the Eastern European leadership who insisted that Hirsch's approach was specifically for his community and his time period as an emergency compromise but that it should never have been considered as an actual perpetual philosophy within Judaism.
It appears that the inheritors of that belief are now moving to rewrite history to ensure that it become the official Hirschian position. During a recent social function in New York, one Rav Yisroel Mantel, leader of Khal Adath Jeshurun which is the central synagogue in the Hirschian world, said:
that the philosophical credo of Rav Hirsch, Torah Im Derech Eretz, is not viable in the absence of its chief advocate. According to the report, Rav Mantel said that only Rav Hirsch, a great man who knew the fine boundaries between what is religiously permissible and what is prohibited, could make Torah Im Derech Eretz workable. Our generation, he said, must follow today’s gedolei HaTorah.
According to the article, this statement was not well received by many in attendance including the shul president who subsequently resigned. Well, can you blame him? He took the job as president of a Hirschian shul only to discover that his Rav intended to turn it Chareidi.
The significance of this latest move is clear. Having delegitimized the religious authority of both Modern Orthodoxy and Mizrachi, the Chareidi world is clearly committed to eliminating contemporary Hirschians as historical abnormalities who did not understand the intent of their founder.
Would that there was a leader, any leader, in the non-Chareidi crowd who could stand up to this bullying before it's too late.

Sunday, 22 June 2008

Avoid the Easy Answers

What with all the recent aggression by the Chareidi leadership against the Dati Leumi and Modern Orthodox communities, it is tempting to rech for easy ways to fight back. After all, what is being waged is no less than a continuous campaign to delegitimize any Torah movement that does not accept the Chareidi model as the authoritative, genuine and only form of observant Judaism.

The problem with fighting back is that it often doesn't accomplish what you want, assuming you know what your goals are the first place. That's why I read this article by Rav Levi Brackman with concern.

Yes, there is a deep felt feeling that the Dati Leumi and Modern Orthodox need to do something to fight back against efforts to destroy their legitimacy and authority. Yes, the attacks on both communities are shameful power grabs by a stronger, more organized opposition. But what exactly would the form of fighting back be? What would be the goals?

The suggestions in the article are certainly quite simple:

In a an article written by former Tzohar Rabbinical Organization’s Director-General Rabbi Hagai Gross, he proposes to close the door on Orthodox fundraisers, explaining that “this is mandatory in order to make the Orthodox community understand that the spiritual war they have waged on the religious Zionist world bears a financial price as well.”

It's quite tempting to tell any black-hat wearing meshullach who rings one's doorbell to take a hike. I'm Dati Leumi and I don't want to support Chareidim. But what if the institution the meshullach is a hospital, food bank or rehab institution? What if the person has a real personal need and doesn't really care about the bigger political picture? Is it fair to deny this person's request in favour of a greater political ideal?

One is to prevent the national-religious crowd from participating in Orthodox events, unless they are provided catering koshered by the Rabbinate, with vegetables permitted for sale or belonging to the court.

This proposal smacks of sour grapes. To use the example of Heter Mechirah to which this paragraph seems to allude, one must remember that even those who hold by the Heter recognize it to be less than ideal and only a stop gap solution to prevent farmers from bankruptcy and the Israeli agricultural industy from disaster. They would agree that if a way could be found to avoid economic disruption and observe Semittah k'hilchasah, that this would be preferable to holding by the Heter. In that case, to turn around and say that unless Heter mechirah product is served, one will not eat is absurd and proves no halachic point.

The question then becomes: Well, what can the Dati Leumi do to avoid being the punching bag of religious society? The answer is simple. The community must develop, en masse, all the elements of a functioning Jewish community. Large numbers of shochtim, mohelim, and teachers need to emerge from the Dat Leumi education system to decrease the reliance on Chareidi sources. A power structure needs to emerge, possibly culminating in a Chief Rabbi figure to counter the official Rabbanut and offer everything it does but in Dati Leumi style.

But most importantly, there are ways that people can stand up from themselves in a positive fashion and that is to know what they stand for and why they stand for it. Imagine a shul where no one generally wears suit jackets. If one goes to a Chareidi shul, out of respect one should wear a jack, shoes and socks. Why can a similar show of respect not be demanded of visitors to a Mizrachi shul where a different dress code is the dominant tradition? Why can't standing up for that tradition be the positive expression of religious values without slighting the other side?

This is a question that needs urgent answering by the Dati Leumi leadership. I don't believe that petty "Well, we're not going to play with you either!" moves will solve anything.

The Meraglim - Who Do They Remind You Of?

Lots of people ask what kind of problem the Meraglim had? After all, we are told they were upright leaders and they were tasked for their job by Moshe Reinu himself, yet they wound up creating a disaster for our ancestors and indirectly inaugurating the first Tisha B'av.
An answer to the reason for their behavious can be found if one recalls certain things about the condition of Bnei Yisrael at the time. Remember how our ancestors lived in the desert. Shielded from the sun and the environment by the ananei hakavod, God's clouds of glory, they recieved man to eat and had a limitless supply of water to drink. They lived within proximity of the Mishkan above which glowed the Shechinah, the physical manifestation of God's glory. They had Moshe Rabeinu and Aharon HaKohen to guide and teach them. And because all their physical needs were taken care of by God Himself, they were free to spend the day immersed in the study of Torah.
Now, keeping that in mind, imagine the change the entering Eretz Yisrael would create for them. No longer sheltered from the outside world, no longer provided with free and ready food and water, they would have to engage in a life full of material needs. They would have to build homes for shelter, develop farms for food, and build a system of transportation and commerce.
Our ancestors were surely aware that the highest mitzvah of all is the learning of Torah. Certainly the Meraglim were aware of this when they set out on their mission. A clue to their behaviour can be found in contradictory comments by Rashi describing them. On one verse, Rashi notes they are called anashim because before leaving for Israel they were still upright, "real men" as it were. Yet when they return Rashi uses a seemingly superfluous phrase to comment that just as their return was for an evil purpose, so was their going. Well which was it? Were they upright or evil?
Or might they have been both?
Imagine you are one of the Meraglim. You live a life soaked through and through with Torah. From the moment the Tamid is offered in the morning to the minute you close your eyes at night, it's all about learning and feeling a palpable closeness to God.
Then you take a tour of Eretz Yisrael and quickly realize a few things. Instead of a well-organized and completely centralized community, the Bnei Yisrael will now scatter from one end of the Land to the other. The Shechinah will be seen only on Yom Tovim or other visits to the Mishkan but otherwise will cease to be a daily feature of life. What's more, work for daily survival will become a standard. Not only will planting and building now take time but for the next while war will dominate life because of the need to drive out the inhabitants of the Land as per God's orders. With so much to do, how will you have time to study as much Torah as you do now?
Now think in a linear fashion for a moment. Given a choice between two mitzvos, one of which is considered more significant than the other, which one would you choose to perform each time? Certainly the more significant.
Thus you have two choices. You can lead the people into Eretz Yisrael where they will have the opportunity to perform many mitzvos or you can stay right where you are in Kadesh Barnea and learn Torah all day. Is any mitzvah you perform in Eretz Yisrael as important as the Limud Torah you're engaged in now? Well, of course not. By definition, nothing is more important than learning so going into Israel is to actually take a spiritual step back!
With that in mind, it could be suggested that the reason the Meraglim worked to sabotage the forward march into Eretz Yisrael was because they wanted to remain on the high spiritual level they were at in the desert without letting the necessities of life in the real world bog them down.
But what was the response of the people? "Let us appoint a leader and return to Egypt." The Meraglim, with their desire for spiritual greatness, may have been anashim, but the average member of the unwashed masses wanted to live a normal, physical life. Permanent abode in the preternatural environment provided by God's visible presence wasn't something they could endure forever. And, given the choice between moving forward into a hopeless lost cause and going backwards to the physical slavery of Egypt, they chose to move back. A huge miscalculation on the part of the Meraglim.
What the Meraglim failed to understand is what the misnha in Avos tells us: the purpose of learning is to perform the mitzvos, not just to theorize about them. God gave us rules about planting, lending and building because He wants us to engage the physical world in all its complexities through the guidance of Torah. The ultimate Jew is the one who lives a complete life in line with the dictates of Torah thus showing that God's Law can guide civilization in this world. it's not one who cloisters himself away to enjoy the proximity of God's Shechinah while ignoring the opportunities to actually fulfill the commandments.

Hmmmm.... a group of leaders who thought that all Jews should spend their day learning and not working, expected to receive food and drink for free forever, and who, through their high spiritual ideals, wound up alienating the vast majority of Bnei Yisrael away from God and Torah because they didn't realize that a pure Torah-learning lifestyle may be for a select few but not for the vast majority of us. Remind you of any group you know?

Korach - the first Heterdox Jew

At first blush, and seen through the modern lenses of democracy and affirmative action, Korach's demands against Moshe Rabeinu do not seem so outrageous.
Keep in mind what's just happened. After having left Mt. Sinai for Eretz Yisrael, our ancestors stumble over and over again. From Kivrot haTa'avah to Kadesh Barnea, they commit one error after another, anger God on a repeated basis and get punished for it. The final one is the most drastic - they are told they will not be entering Eretz Yisrael but will wander back into the desert until they die.
Yet who gets exempted from that decree? Well, Moshe Rabeinu for one. And, curiously enough, his brother Aharon, the other Kohanim, Caleiv ben Yefuneh and Moshe's prize student, Yehoshua. From the point of view of the suddenly excluded, and with a cynical twist, that is enough to make one suspicious of the ruling power. Why is it that Moshe Rabeinu, his immediate family and friends all get to go to Eretz Yisrael while we have to die out here? And how come it's all those previously mentioned close family and friends that have all the biggest positions of power?
This was the point from where Korach began his agitations. Being a masterful demagogue, he tapped into the discontent that was now seething beneath the surface of the community and brought it to a boil. "Follow me," he promised the Bnei Yisarel, "and I will end this nepotism. This leadership is closed off to all but the well-connected and look what a lousy job they've done for us. I demand free elections! I demand transparency in the job selection process. I demand equal access to the Holy Sanctuary!"
As noted before, all tempting stuff for a people suddenly sentence to a very slow death in the desert.
A modern eye might look at Korach and his demands and conclude that he was onto something but that his approach was wrong. To do so would be a mistake because it would completely miss the point of Torah observance.
Rav Shimshon Rafael Hirsch, in his commentary on Chumash, notes that Korach's complaints revolved around the line "kedoshim tihiyu", "y'all shalt be holy" which starts Parshas Kedoshim. According to his interpretation, from that moment on all Bnei Yisrael were intrisically and equally holy. From Moshe Rabeinu down to the lowliest member of the community all were equal in the eyes of God. Thus what right did Aharon have to arrogate to himself the right to enter the Kodesh Kodeshim on Yom Kippur or designate the sacrificial service to his descendants? By what right was Moshe the permanent leader of the nation?
For Moshe (and God) however, holiness was not intrinsic. "Torah tzivah lanu Moshe", yes Moshe commanded us the Torah, but it remains "morashah k'hillas Ya'akov", an inheritance of the congregation of the Jewish people. Each individual Jew must, within that community, strive to obtain his part of the inheritance through the learning of Torah and the performance of mitzvos. Holiness is earned, not granted, in this approach which means there was a world of difference between the most holy and the least in the nation.
For Korach, it was about socialist equality of result, irregardless of effort. Simply showing up meant getting the prize. For Moshe, everyone was eligible to achieve holiness but they first had to make the effort. And which approach appeals more to the masses? Korach knew that the same lack of holiness that had spread itself through the Bnei Yisrael through their repeated stumblings made them ripe for his approach and ran with it.
In our day, this is exactly the approach used by the heterodox Jewish movements as well. One can be a "good Jew" simply by declaring that one's values are in consonance with one's personal view of what Judaism is. And since it's a sign of mental imbalance to declare a dissonance between the two, pretty much everyone who cares to be a observant Jew without going through the effort required to live a Torah lifestyle manages to achieve their own personal nirvana through the observance of a personal set of beliefs they call "Judaism".
Against this stands Toras Moshe. The Torah, as an expression of God's will, is an objective standard that we either measure up to or not. To be a good Jew is to make the effort to fulfill God's desires for us. Anything less is falling short of the mark and accepting such failure is catering to the lowest common denominator. This is why Korach was wrong and his followers punsihed so harshly. God demands personal excellence of us and gives each of us the ability to reach that level but we must step forward and make that effort ourselves. Anything less is not something we can accept.

Thursday, 12 June 2008

More People Are Noticing

In rapid succession to Caroline Glick's recent article on the pressures affecting the National Religious Community comes this gem from the Jerusalem Post's Isi Leibler. Like Ms. Glick, Ms. Liebler notes that both the secular community as exemplified by the Kadima party and the Chareidi collective both share one goal in common: the destruction of the Mizrachi community that, while it exists, refutes the core philosophy of both.
For the secular Zionists, the Mizrachi are proof that one can be both a good Zionist and a good Jew, refuting their founding principle that Zionism must replace Judaism as the guiding force in Jewish life. No, more than that, the National Religious community continues to insist that to be a good Zionist one must also be a good Jew.
For the Chareidim, it's the opposite. Chareidi political and religious dogma also states that one cannot be a good Zionist and a good Jew and that Judaism has no truck with Zionism either. The National Religious community has proven that, in fact, Judaism and Zionism can coexist as a perfect synthesis and create a Torah-observant Jew who is also a builder of Israel, something the Chareidim believe is impossible and forbidden.
Never mind that the result of their efforts would be, God forbid, a tremendous weakening of Israeli society as the last truly patriotic sector falls apart. For the secular community, no price is too high to pay to remove an ideological opponent. The Chareidim, meanwhile, will stop at nothing to destroy any religious opponents to perpetuate the myth that their version of Judaism is the only true one.
May both their efforts fail. If it doesn't, who will be left to pick up the pieces?

Kinder, Gentler, Stupider

(Hat tip to Nishma, the Jewish organization for really smart people and those with odd haircuts)

In the article on Modern Orthodoxy featured on this blog, numerous problems with the movement are identified. One of them is the constant influence the prevailing secular culture has on members of the Modern Orthodox community. Much of this is made clear by the priorities many of the Modern Orthodox leaders set, such as introducing limited egalitarianism, pushing the halachic boundaries when they conflict with secular mores, and trying to minimize the difference between Modern Orthodoxy and secular Judaism in an effort not to stick out.
This article seems to exemplify this problem and the entire model of thinking that is causing so much of the Modern Orthodox community its problems.
To start with, the title: "Toward a Kinder, Gentler, More Tolerant and Flexible Orthodoxy" is itself a warning of where the article is heading. The author's own personal description as a "post-denominational" Jew is also a big hint as to what he thinks Modern Orthodoxy should evolve into.
Let us be clear off the top. Being a committed Jew is not about being kinder, gentler, more tolerant or flexible. It is about belief in God, the truth of His Torah and the desire to fulfill His Will through the observance of halachah. The same God who demands that we clothe the naked and support widows and orphans also commanded us to wipe out Amalek and idolatry without showing mercy. What we call tolerance is a subjective value that we, as limited humans make. Only God can give us the objective standard of right and wrong. When this conflicts with what secular society would tell us is virtuous or not, it is secular society that must conform to the Torah, not the other way around. It is this error that creeps into the thinking of much of the Modern Orthodox world. It certainly crept into this article.
However, I believe that in order for this essential healing and unity to occur, the modern Orthodox may need to distance themselves from the ultra-Orthodox. Orthodoxy must shift back to the center, a center that addresses the pluralistic needs of, and provides the leadership for, all of Jewry. To accomplish this, we have to reconsider our historic allegiances to the halakhic hegemony of the Lithuanian roshei yeshiva, (revered terms for heads of yeshivot) and the Hassidic leaders. In most instances, they view the modern Orthodox as Hellenizers. We are really not part of their world, yet they seek to dictate our philosophy and political thought. Hence there is a need to create a distance between us, to enable us to act independently of their authority, yet be able to work together when called for.
The next thing to understand is that Orthodoxy in general, and Modern Orthodoxy in particular, are not "denominations" of Judaism. Judaism is a nationality with a set of laws that covers behaviour in civil, criminal and personal spheres of life. These laws, as codified by our Sages through the ages, are binding on Jews just as Canadian law is binding on those who wish to live in Canada. As God lacks a visible police force, observance of Jewish law is, to a large part, voluntary but the underlying fact that it is the law does not change. A "denomination" that bases itself on the aborgation of any part of halachah is not a Jewish denomination. It is a group of Jews who wish to live the way they want and call that Jewish observance. In a free country they have that right but it is also false advertising. In his position as a non-denominational Jew, Aryeh Rubin sees all groups as having equal merit and legitimacy. If Modern Orthodoxy accepts this position, then it becomes Conservatism with a partition in the middle of shul and legitimizes all the Chareidi criticisms it has encountered.
As for reconsidering historical allegiances to authorities Rubin would like to dismiss as parochially Chareidi and therefore irrelevant to Modern Orthodoxy, it goes without saying that this comment betrays a complete lack of understanding of what Torah observance is.
The influence of the haredi world has penetrated and continues to affect an ever larger swath of traditional Jewry, primarily through teaching in modern Jewish day schools.
As identified in Schweitzer's article, that's because Modern Orthodoxy does not produce teachers for its own school system. If it were to start putting the same emphasis on becoming teachers, sofrim and shochets as it does on law, medicine and accounting, much of the community's reliance on the Chareidi world would be lessened.
I suggest that a new leadership of enlightened rabbinical and lay leaders be formed and assert their leadership. If the modern Orthodox are to provide guidance and direction to the entire House of Israel, we must find common ground and work with the Conservative, Reform, and the unaffiliated. While Orthodoxy has veered to the right over the last half century under the spell of the haredim, the Conservative shifted even further on the scale to the left (widening a gap that was extremely narrow from the 1930s to the early 1960s) and the Reform movement has dropped off the halakhic charts. We need to formulate a weltanschauung to Jewry that acknowledges that the majority of the Jews in the United States, or the world for that matter, are not, and for the foreseeable future, will not be traditionally observant. Once that fact is accepted by the Orthodox, policies can be implemented that will allow the modern Orthodox to influence, provide leadership for, and participate in the governing of all of Jewry.
This statement once again shows how far from proper Jewish thinking the author is. Imagine his principle statement rephrased: "We need to forumlate a weltanschauung to Canadians that acknowledges that the majority of Canadians are not, or for the forseeable future, be faithful to their spouses." While admitting that spousal infidelity is a rampant problem in Western society, one's sense of moral right and wrong is already pretty far gone if one does not see a problem with that, or considers such infidelity to be ethically acceptable!
Judaism is not about catering to the lowest common denominator. If the Reformers are uninterested in accepting the authority of God and halachah into their lives, how will a kindler, gentler Modern Orthodoxy change this?
His suggested solutions take him further down the wrong road:
A possible strategy, in part, is to follow the example of Habad. Some of their emissaries sit on councils, Federation Continuity Commissions, and the like under the guise of recognizing non-Orthodox clergy not as clergy, but as leaders of the Jewish Community -- a thin veil, that gives them some sort of halakhic cover.
Chabad is possibly the worst example to use. Lubavitchers are completely uninterested in cooperating in any venture that they do not control. They may sit on community boards but will not participate in any activities that they have not organized. They might support the local butcher but only if he has Chabad shechitah meat. Even Chareidim are considered outside their pale. Not an inspiring choice.
the Ibn Ezra admired a commentator on the Humash (Pentateuch), R. Jeshua b. Judah – a prolific 11th century writer, religious teacher and philosopher who also happened to be a Karaite – a sect that recognized only the Scriptures as the sole and direct source of the law, and that excluded the Oral tradition of the Rabbis. Despite the fundamental theological differences, Maimonides was of the “belief that the Karaites should be treated with respect, honor and kindness… as long as they do not slander the Talmud (that they did not believe in). They may be associated with and one may enter their homes, teach their children, bury their dead and comfort their mourners.”
But one cannot marry them, nor eat in their homes, nor participate in their religious festivals. In many ways, this is the ideal relationship between the Orthodox and the non-Orthodox today so how does this change anything?
A more recent example is Marc Shapiro’s book “Saul Lieberman and the Orthodox”. He cites numerous examples of prominent halakhic authorities quoting, corresponding and socializing with Rabbis Saul Lieberman and Louis Ginsburg, the stalwarts of the Conservative movement and exalted professors and directors at the Jewish Theological Seminary. It is of interest to note that in instances where the scholarship of Lieberman and Ginsburg was indispensable, some haredi authorities quoted only their initials, others cited their work anonymously, or plagiarized it in their own name.
One should recall that Lieberman was a valid Rav. In addition, one should recall that it is only over the last two generations that the Jewish Theological Seminary's brain trust has become an intellectual joke and a shadow of what it once was. Once upon a time their scholars had learned and respected the authentic legal codes which is what allowed them to interact with the Orthodox world. This certainly no longer applies today.
In the end, Rubin recommends what everyone else who is not so much interested in Jewish observance but only in some form of nebulous "unity" does: drop the insistence that you're right and join the pack. If Modern Orthodoxy puts more focus on the first part of the term, this will be considered. If the second part of name matters, this article should be ignored.

Cult and Religion

One of my criticisms of the National Religious is that the preoccupation with the pioneers living in Yehudah, Shomron (and 'Aza) has distrated the community from its original purpose and turned it into a fringe movement in both the Torah and secular Israeli societies.
Two articles in the recent press therefore caught my attention. The first, in Ynet, notes:
Speaking at one of the conference's panels, Schneller, a religions Jew, slammed the religious and political leadership of the national-religious public, saying "I grow up in an environment which perceived the rabbi as the 'whole'. The leaders of Religious Zionism have taken this whole and pulled it apart, supporting only one of its parts.
"The fight for the Land of Israel is important, but hailing it as the sole theme makes Religious Zionism a cult. I know many of you will resent this definition, but this wasn't the way taught by the Religious Zionism I grew up on."
Schneller went on to criticize the Religious Zionism rabbis' involvement in politics, saying that every decision religious politicians want to make must be clear by the rabbis first. "We've become nothing but a small group of kippah wearers," he said.

Now, I'll avoid the easy hits, such as noting that Schneller is a member of Kadima, a party opposed to pretty much all Jewish and Zionist values, as exemplified by its leadership. I'll do that because, to be honest, his point is sound and correct.
Look at what's happened to the political part of the National Religious Movement, the Mafdal (National Religious Party)? For decades it was able to capture well over a dozen seats in each election and participated in almost every single government in the history of the State. Now it has become a minor party, and then only with the help of the seats from the National Union that it made an alliance with before the last election! If the number of seats a party gets is reflective of the numbers and power of a particular community in Israel, then times are very tough for the National Religious. Very tough indeed.
What's the difference between a main party and a fringe party in Israel? The answer is quite simple. Main parties have complete platforms with opinions on everything from defence to finance to foreign relations to agriculture. Fringe parties exist for the sake of one, or at the most two, issues. Think of Shinui, Gil and the old Democratic Movement for Change. The Mafdal has become a one-issue party in the purest sense of the term, and that issue is Yehudah and Shomron.
The problem with fringe parties, however, is that one requires supporters who are fanatical about that issue. Those elderly who are mad as hell at how low their pensions are will vote for Gil. But those elderly who are also concerned with the so-called peace process, economic growth and the environment won't because Gil can't answer their concerns.
So it seems to be with the National Religious movement and the Mafdal. If one has concerns about the Jewish approach to the environment, agriculture or economic growth, does this group have any answers?
Now, at the end of the article Shneller does accidentally make an interesting point:
Religious Zionism cannot stay closed up within itself. If it does it will suffocate," he concluded.
I'm sure he meant this as a criticism but in one sentence he accidentally suggested one key way to save the movement, albeit one no faithful Mizrachi would ever endorse. Staying closed up in a suffocating environment concisely describes the Chareidi approach to religion and interaction with broader society. Like them or not, it's been wildly successful for their community. Can one so casually dismiss it as an option?
But for Mizrachi, this is not an choice because it would remove the raison d'etre of the movement. Remember that Mizrachi was founded to create a religious alternative to Secular Zionism. Just as the Secular Zionists dreamt of creating a socialist state where Jews could live in freedom in a completely non-Jewish manner, Religious Zionists dreamt of a state where Jews would live as Jews but also in a full, national sense. Just as Secular Zionists had plans for every facet of society they would create, so should the Religious Zionists have had. But with the obession over Yehudah and Shomron, this has been lost.
It's also worth remembering, as Caroline Glick does, that Religious Zionism's implosion is not happening in a vacuum. As the movement stumbles towards the cliff, as it were, there are those who are happy to push it over the edge. Regarding the retreat from 'Aza, she notes:
This was the pretext of Israel’s withdrawal. But it wasn’t the subtext. The subtext of the withdrawal – telegraphed to both Israelis and the international community – was that the withdrawal would cause the demise of Religious Zionism at the hands of the leftist progeny of Labor Zionists. That is, the operation wasn’t about peace with the Arabs. It was about cultural supremacy within Israel.
Now, I don't completely agree with her on the subtext part. From my reading, I still firmly believe the entire retrate was based on Ariel Sharon's desire to distract the country and the media from his and his son's corruption accusations. To do this he was prepared to destroy the lives of 8000 loyal Israelis who had done so much to build up the land he had once fought for. Another thing to recall is that Sharon was no Labour Zionist. He was a Herutnik and Revisionist who, until the retreat, was a favourite whipping boy of the Labour Zionists because of his opposing beliefs.
But with the retreat came an extra bonus:
Religious Zionist leaders were in a horrible bind. If they responded to the demands of their own people and fought fire with fire, they knew – given the Left’s control of the media – they would be demonized for years to come. And they knew that if the Left succeeded in destroying their reputation among rank and file Israelis, they would be powerless to defend Judea and Samaria.
So in the end, Religious Zionist leaders disappointed their followers, making do with mass protests in the countdown to the expulsions and then allowed the IDF to carry out the expulsions largely unchallenged. While they failed to save Gaza’s Jews from internal exile, they at least succeeded in preventing the demise of Religious Zionism as a political and social force in Israel.

All this happened because of the distraction which has gripped the movement since Yehudah, Shomron and 'Aza were liberated in 1967. The entire movement pinned its beliefs and hopes to an indivisible state in the belief that it was never again be partitioned. And when this core belief was shattered, much of the power of the movement was along with it. For the Secular Zionists, this was a great prize as they have always seen the Religious Zionists in much the same way Christians and Muslims see Judaism in general - an annoyance that won't go away and constantly reminds them that their own philosophies are baseless and incorrect. After all, Secular Zionism firmly believes that only secular beliefs can build and run a state. A philosophy that says that religious Jews could do it just as well is anathema to them.
Religious Zionists are a finger in the eye of the Labor Zionists for their stubborn devotion to Judaism and their relative indifference to whether Israel is accepted by the anti-Semites of the world. And Labor Zionists are not alone in their angry rejection of Religious Zionism’s message. They are joined by the non-Zionist religious establishment.
The non-Zionist religious establishment feels threatened by Religious Zionism’s attempts to reinvest Judaism with its nationalist mission for the Jewish nation. And, unfortunately, the non-Zionist religious establishment is joining forces with the Labor Zionist establishment to attack Religious Zionism
This all now goes over to the recent scandal regarding Rav Chayim Druckman and the conversion courts. Remember that just as the Secular Zionists see any Religious Zionists success as a refutation of their core beliefs, so too do the Chareidim see them as a threat to their ongoing efforts to monopolize control over what constitutes authentic Jewish observance.
The Chareidim would, for instance, have you believe that the only fulfilling life for a Jew is one spent in kollel. The National Religious, on the other hand, show up that fiction by participating in every part of society wihout compromising their observance. The Chareidim would like everyone to think they, and only they, can pasken halachah but the National Religious have the ongoing temerity to think that their rabbonim can as well.
So an unholy alliance has been forged, between those who would strip the State of any trace of Judaism and those who would strip it of any trace of Secularism, with the goal of removing the one element that could successfully merge both the secular and the religious and thereby create a truly Jewish state.
The only way for the National Religious to survive this assault is to realize that and fight both groups on their own terms. On the secular side, Mizrachi must begin a public relations campaign to show the public that it has policies, Torah-base policies, on something other that Yehudah and Shomron. What is its position on the economy? On the environment? On child support? On the peace process?
And on the religious side, it must rally around its leadership, retake the Rabbanut or create a credible alternative and reassert its religious strength.
If it does this, the movement has a future. If it fails to, then it will inevitably split and disappear into the two opposing camps.

Thursday, 5 June 2008

The Clothes Make the Man

I've always been bothered by the role simple external qualities play in the way Jews judge each other. If you see someone walking down the street with peyos, a shtreiml and a bekisher, you autmotically assume he lives an ultra-Orthodox lifestyle. If you see someone with a large knitted kippah and a trendy shirt, well he must be national religious with all the implications attached.
If various religious groups in the Jewish world actually respected one another and didn't feel that the difference between them are the justification for being condescending and dismissive, this wouldn't be so bad. Unfortunately this is not the case. How you dress tells the outside world how religious you are. Or, at least, how religious you want people to think you are.
In Rav Yonasan Rosenblum's latest piece, on a recent chilul HaShem where ultra-Orthodox boys were caught trying to smuggle drugs into Japan, the problem with this approach becomes very clear. However, one of the potential answers to it that he brings (to his credit, not his answer) shows that there are still those in the Chareidi world who can't bring themselves to accept that members of their community can have any bad characteristics at all:
In his column last week on the chareidi teenagers recently charged with smuggling drugs into Japan and the criminal who sent them, my esteemed colleague Rabbi Moshe Grylak referred to them as "Jews of chareidi appearance." His reasons for doing so are easily enough discerned. First, he wanted to remind us, just in case any such reminder is needed, that smuggling is not proper profession for Jews who tremble before G-d.
This is too easy an answer. There are Chareidi Jews, and then there are sinners who dress like them. Why, it's almost the same as when Arabs in Israel dress like army soldiers or Chasidim in order to sneak around and kill Jews without arousing suspicion until it's too late.
Except that it's not. When Arabs dress up, it's not because they want identify with that group, either soldiers or Chasidim, and want to share their values. It's because they want to kill them. When "Jews of Chareidi appearance" dress up, it's because they are trying to identify with that group and take on their values. As Rav Rosenblum himself notes:
They would never have knowingly put anything treife into their mouths. (Not eating non-kosher food, unfortunately, may no longer be possible for them. Unlike American prisons, Japanese prisons do not routinely make provision for kosher food.) Even the cruel person who dispatched them to their fate probably does not eat treife.
These are people who will wear only the finest tefillin, daven in only the strictest shuls, will only associate with people who look and think exactly like them and marry only those girls from families exactly like theirs. If you ask them why they will tell you they are trying to adhere to the highest Torah standards in their behaviour and that to do less would be to let God Himself down.
But if that's the case, why commit crimes? There is no allowance in Torah law for this. Rav Rosenblum's suggested answer is actually emblematic of the problem:
Yet the potential chilul Hashem if they were caught smuggling, no matter what they were smuggling, did not enter their calculations. Yet chilul Hashem is much more severe than eating treife.
I would disagree with that. Chilul HaShem is something boys like this would be scared to death of committing. It's something they calculate their every act around, from dress to speech to daily activity to life choices. If they did what they did knowingly (and it seems possible from the account that they were simply "drug mules", unwitting dupes) then it was because they don't consider what smuggling drugs into Japan chilul HaShem.
Consider all the negative news out of the Chareidi world over the last few years. The rioting, the violence on buses, the story out today of the secular girl who had acid thrown on her face by the so-called Modesty Patrol of Beitar Illit. Are we to believe that all these people are "Jews of Chareidi appearance?" Are we to believe that when they are acting as they do, it's not with the thought that this is what a good Chareidi does?
I doubt one will find a single Chareidi leader who would hold that actions like this are acceptable or even tolerable. The leadership of that community holds itself to the highest moral standards and although many of their underlings fail to reach that level, the rabbonim at the top have always been examples what they have expected of their followers. Yet the message isn't getting through. Even Rav Rosenblum, in what I consider a brave statement, dismisses this flimsy excuse:
THERE IS ANOTHER REASON why any attempt to downplay our connection to those involved in smuggling by describing the latter as "Jews of chareidi appearance" won't wash. Sadly, the willingness of some youth to engage in criminal behavior and of adults to use them as couriers derives, in part, from attitudes that are too widespread. For some, our designation as the "chosen people" does not primarily refer to our higher level of obligation and our role in showing the world what individuals and a society shaped in accord with Hashem's will would look like. Rather the Kuzari's description of the Jewish people as the highest level of creation is somehow twisted to mean that we are completely removed from the rest of humanity: We need not feel any obligation to obey their laws or concern ourselves with their well-being. Only such an attitude can explain the willingness of those who dispatched these youths to traffic in drugs whose destructive impact is well known.
The trap of power and knowledge has always been that a sense of loosening of moral responsibility comes with it. Bill Clinton, in a famous example, got away with what he did with other women and his various acts of corruption because of the power he wielded. Instead of being a moral example to his electorate, he felt his power put him above the laws the unwashed masses had to obey.
The Chareidi leadership knows that with greater spiritual levels come greater moral responsibility. It is high time the unwashed masses of the Chareidi community learned this as well.

Small Town Living

A couple of years ago, while visiting the wife's parents over Rosh HaShanah, I overheard a conversation between two men sitting at the next table in shul. The one asked the other what his retirement plans were seeing as he would be calling it a career in the next few years. His friend smiled and told him that he planned to move down to Baltimore. It's got such a nice Jewish community, and some of his kids already lived there. What about Eretz Yisrael, the first asked him. The man shook his head. No, Baltimore would be fine.
For me, this conversation shows how far off the derech mainstream Orthodoxy is nowadays, how much it misses the point of what it means to be Jewish.
Sound harsh? Well, it's meant to.
From our holy sources, there is no question that the ideal Jewish state of being is living in Israel under the reign of a king from the House of David who maintains the Torah as the law of land, with a functioning Temple in Yerushalayim and proper Jewish courts dispending God's justice and guiding the people on the proper path.
Many of these same sources also extol the value of living in Eretz Yisrael, more than can be counted (although I'm sure someone has). Three times a day we pray for God to return us to that land. We announce that next year our seder will be in Yerushalayim but most of the time, even if it is, it's part of a tourist package and we return home to the cozy golus right after. How many great Jewish leaders over the last several centuries were there that risked their lives and everything they had just to reach Eretz Yisrael? How great was the joy for them when they reached the Land? Such things we can only guess at.
But we cannot know because for the last 85 years, our situation has been radically different than those of the generations before. For the last 85 years, Israel has been accessible to us. It has been possible to return to the Land and build a life there like at no time in history since the destruction of the Second Temple (may it be speedily rebuilt).
And what has been the response of the Jewish people? Perhaps Herbert Samuel, the first British governor of Israel in the 1920's summed it up best. At the time the local Arabs were disorganized and many didn't realize what was happening with Jewish immigration. The borders were open and any Jew who wanted to could come to Israel. But life in the 1920's was quiet and prosperous for Jews and in Eastern Europe most were either too poor to leave or trapped by the religious philosophy that staying put until Moshaich came and personally dropped off the train ticket was assur. And Samuels wound up having to explain to the British government why their initiative, to build a Jewish homeland in Israel, was not attracting any significant interesting from world Jewry. "Jews where are you?" he called out and no one answered.
Now the situation is not so different. In the West, the golus remains a relatively benign regime, despite what the Bnai Brith and ADL would have you believe. We do well here, are mostly accepted and see no obvious dangers to our success and prosperity on the horizon. What's more, there is much money in the frum community. Shuls, schools, yeshivos, bookstores, sheitl machers, and all the accoutrements of a "mature" frum community can be found in places like Toronto, New York and L.A. The large religious communities have become comfortable. Yes, Israel is there. Yes, we pray three times a day to go there, but to actually make the move? No thank you, I'm fine right here. Did Moshiach call or leave a message, perhaps?
I've been asked before why I live in a small Jewish community, one with limited facilities, a very small frum population and a school which, while providing the secular population with a good Jewish education, tends to let down the frum kids year after year. After all, I could afford to live in nearby Toronto where I would have a choice of schools, butchers, shuls, yeshivos, mikvehs and supermarkets with kosher sections. Why wouldn't I want all that comfort? Why struggle and go without?
For me, the answer is simple: Like the alcoholic who doesn't see the damage his next shot will do to him or what the last 5000 have done, Jews in large frum golus communities don't realize how far they've sunk away from the ideal, how much the desire to return to Tzion has become mere lip service.
But when you're in a small community, believe me you realize each and every day that you are not in the ideal place a Jew should be in. Every time you realize how limited one's Jewish options are, or how one must make do with what one has instead of a luxury standard, when one realizes that if the children are going to get a good Jewish education, you as the parents have to step up to the plate and do it yourself which forces you to learn and do more, then you remember you're in golus.
And that means when we, out here in the Boonies, say our Amidahs three times daily, we really do have more sincerity when we beg God to return us to our Land. And when the opportunity comes, we are more likely to take it. May God return us all speedily and before too long.

Wednesday, 4 June 2008

Help Wanted

In a way, it's flattering. Every good blog seems to have their own personal idi... nudnik. FailedMessiah has Ariel Sokolovsky. Rav Harry Maryles has some guy named Chareidi. I even play the role myself sometimes over on Cross Currents.
Unfortunately, it seems I've attracted my own nudnik. Now, on one hand, it's nice to have someone who will reliably comment on my postings. Certainly the rest of the folks who browse through this blog seem very shy about it. On the other hand, the comments are generally irrelevant to the particular post. If I post about religious Jews, I get a comment on how lousy religious Jews are. If I post on Israel, I get a comment on how lousy religious Jews are. If I post on the price of melons in east Wackostan, I get a comment on how lousy religious Jews are. And so on.
So I would like to announce that The Blog of Garnel Ironheart is opening auditions for a new nudnik. Anyone can enter. The position comes with an obligation to comment regularly but also with some relevance and variety, not just the same whinging over and over again.
Please feel free to leave your samples in the comments section of this post. Thank you.

Tuesday, 3 June 2008

What's the Rush?

Sometimes I feel back for Condaleeza Rice. It's not easy when you think about how successful her career was before she became the secretary of state for the most hated president in U.S. history. When she looks back at her time in office and sees all the things she didn't accomplish, all the idiotic moves she was forced to endorse and promote, she must wonder why she ever left the ivory tower of academia.

But, like every good politician coming to the end of their public career, she's become obsessed with creating a legacy. Not content with being remembered as the first black woman secretary of state, she has made it her priority to be remembered as the secretary who created the state of Palestine.

Really, even a casual understanding of modern Middle Eastern history is all you need to quickly realize that there will never be a real state of Palestine. The so-called Palestinians are incapable of running a mail service, let alone a government. Their leadership is not interested in having a state except if it can serve as a platform to militarily attack Israel. The other 22 Arab states don't have an interest in creating Palestine unless, again, it's part of the attack against Israel and if, God forbid, that succeeds, they'll have no interest in keeping it around.

But Condi, well she just doesn't see that. In her irrational world, the creation of a terrorist state run by petty and well-armed thugs in Yehudah, Shomron and Aza will bring Iran into the family of nations, end the insurgency in Iraq, raise literacy rates amongst the Arabs above the single digit percentage range and take care of global warming.

In any other field, she's be dismissed as an intellectual gone stupid. Bu so great is the Israeli desire for peace, and the Bush administration's desire to be remembered as more than a Saturday Night Live punchline, that her views are actually getting real air time.

Fortunately, it is unlikely that she will get to carry out her views, if only because Hamas won't stop shooting rockets long enough for her to be able to say "See? They're ready for peace!" to the Israelis.

Monday, 2 June 2008

Is There a Point to Orthodox Unity

At this time in history, the Orthodox world can be divided into four basic groups:
1) The Chareidim, or Ultra-Orthodox
2) The Dati Leumi or Mizrachi or National Religious
3) The Modern Orthodox
4) Chabad-Lubavitch
In theory, all would agree that unity amongst the various Torah-observant groups is a critical thing. However, as Homer Simpson once poignantly opined: "In theory, communism works."
As the old saying goes, it takes two to tango. Unfortunately, when one gets past the wistful "Wouldn't it be nice if we could all get along" stage, there are very few partners at this dance. In fact, I would go so far as to say that while groups 2 and 3 are interested in taking practical steps towards Jewish unity, groups 1 and 4 are not and to think otherwise is sheer naivety. Given all that, I wonder if there's a point to even pretending that it's a possible goal.
How can I be so cynical? It's easy when one looks at the underlying assumptions of each group. It then becomes quickly obvious that dialogue and attempts at rapprochement are a waste of time.
Consider, as a first example, Chabad-Lubavitch. Although many of them will publicly deny it, and certainly others who are afraid of the implications of it, the movement has elevated their departed Rebbe to the level of a demigod, if not higher. This belief permeates everything they do and serves as their basic motivation. It also sets them apart from the rest of Torah Jewry, even other Chasidim, which rejects this philosophy as either tantamount to or an actual form of avodah zarah. Having set themselves apart, Chabad also believes that its belief in a supernatural Rebbe is a core Jewish belief and that not holding this view is like questioning the Jewishness of Shabbos or kashrus. Thus, in terms of groups 1-3, there can be no meaningful dialogue towards Orthodox unity. After all, the only way to get Chabad to cooperate would be to accept their Meshichist beliefs which is not something an observant Jew who is not a Lubavitcher is likely to do.
Then there's the Chareidim. Like Chabad, they have certain core principles that are non-negotiable. Unlike Chabad, they're not potentially heretical. In fact, the core underlying principle of Ultra-orthodoxy today is quite simple: Proper Jewish observance and being Chareidi are synonymous. Any other form of observance falls short of the ideal and the authentic and cannot be portrayed or treated as genuine Orthodoxy. This attitude precludes unity with the other three groups. For Modern Orthodoxy and Mizrachi, it would mean denying the legitimacy of their entire philosophy and practice. For the Chabad, it would mean having to abandon their Rebbe-worship.
It is also interesting to note that neither the Chareidim or Chabad express any real interest in furthering Orthodox unity. Indeed, the message from each community is: When you're ready for unity, we'll be waiting here for you to join us. This is hardly encouraging.
This leaves the two groups in the middle, Modern Orthodoxy and Mizrachi. The problem is that both groups are currently struggling with existential defects that betray any efforts they might make to portray themselves as viable Orthodox alternatives for people looking to be Torah observant.
In the case of Mizrachi, the obsession with the plight of our brethren in Yehudah, Shomron and Aza is the major factor. When one sees a black hat, one thinks of Torah observance. When one sees a large knitted kippah one thinks of "settlers". The idea that the latter are just as fervent in their observance and learning as the former does not occur to many, a direct result of the failure of the Mizrachi movement to remain true to its principles in terms of promoting Jewish observance in Israel.
As for the Modern Orthodox, as mentioned on this blog many times before, what exactly do they stand for? Who represents them? Rav Hershel Schechter or Rav Avi Weiss? Is it intellectual orthodoxy that defines the movement or "open orthodoxy"? Without knowing where they stand, how can the movement go forward?
In the end, assuming Chabad continues its slow tailspin into heresy and a schism with the rest of us, it will be the Chareidim who wind up as the dominant, defining force in Torah Judaism and eventually the rest of us will be provided with a choice. Join them or being considered non-observant. Unless a viable alternative can be created. Unless.