Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Tuesday, 10 February 2009

The Unachievable Paradigm

You know the one I'm talking about, the one baalei teshuvah all come to believe. The frum world is full of warm, honest people who want nothing more than to be nice to everyone, especially their fellow Jews. Leaerning Torah brings inner contentment and living a life al pi halacha leads to unending personal happiness in work, family and everywhere else. Frum people never swear, cheat or hit anyone and the worst kind of argument their children will ever get into is whether or not Tosafos should have disagreed with Rashi on some particular sugya in Yevamos.
The myth of the paradigm is only exacerbated by the dream-peddlers of this non-existent society, the ones who insist that being frum equals being good, that the Torah leads to moral behaviour, the ones who spin stories about the "old country", the alte heim where everyone was frum and only thought about how to make sure their t'fillin were in perfect shape.
The only problem with this paradigm is that it isn't real. Torah study isn't the ticket to personal contentment. Living a life al pi halacha doesn't provide you with a secuar income earned with satisfaction or a happy marriage. Frum kids are just as likely as any other to get into fights over who gets that last piece of chocolate and they spend more time in shul staring at the pages of the siddur than actually davening from it.
As for the alte heim, please. Talk with anyone who actually lived there and after the nostalgia for a lost childhood is dealth with, the truth will come out. Poverty was everywhere. You couldn't walk down the street without a worry of a pogrom. Disease and misery were constant companions. Many Jews were secular or socialist, more concerned with gentile politics than Jewish cultural life. Life in the alte heim was lousy, tempered only by the lack of any other options.
So how does one deal with this contradiction?
For some, denial is the first resort. The paradigm is true and achievable and if they're not getting what it promises then they must be doing something wrong. If another frum Jew cheats them, well they must have gotten something wrong along the way because frum Jews just don't do that. If their kids show less than perfect interest in learning and praying they see it as a failing. Whether or not these people realize it, they're quite mierable and unfulfilled. They will spend their lives chasing an impossible dream and dying full of regret when they haven't achieved it.
For others, rejection of the paradigm and disparaging it is the order of the day. Having grown up in the frum community and suffered from the hypocrisy of the dream-peddlers who insist that being frum is the answer to all one's problems while cheating on their taxes and beating their wives, they reject everything and set out into the amoral vacuum of secular society accompanied by nothing but the bitterness that the smashing of their childhood dreams has given them. Life pretty much sucks for them too although they'll never admit it.
Yet the words of Chazal give an answer to the dilemma. Rachamana liba ba'ei. God wants the heart.
In truth, the paradigm of Judaism is not achievable and perhaps the first step should be acknowledging this. Keeping kosher doesn't mean you're eating healthier food. It means you're eating food prepared according to halacha. Keeping Shabbos doesn't mean you're going to enjoy work more during the week after taking a break from it. You're doing it because it's the command of God. Keeping the laws of taharas mishpacha isn't going to make your spouse seem that much hotter after mikveh night or cut down on the chance of future marital breakdown. Hell, in some families the break might be welcome and not a source of stress.
So then why do it? If the payoff of spiritual bliss and personal happiness isn't achievable, except for a select few, why make the effort?
"According to the struggle is the reward." (Avos, end of chapter 5) As Jews we know there are two worlds, this one and Olam Haba. Our existence is not simply confined to the brief time we spend in the physical world with our neshamos trapped in our materialistic bodies. We are citizens of both this and the next world and while we must struggle through our time here, we are destined for reward for our efforts in the next. God wants the heart! He wants our effort and it is the effort that determines our reward, not our achievement.
Did you coast through life, doing everything as a routine? When it came time to daven did you see it as an obligation to be gotten through, like wiping after going to the bathroom? Did you put ourself first at home, with your family, at work, because no one looks out for you like you do? Did you cynically decide that the whole thing is a joke but that persona inertia would keep you "in the game?"
Did you spend your life being as honest as possible? Did you try to be a good parent and spouse? Did you honour your parents to the best of your ability? Did you give to charity as much as you should have? Did you strive to learn the words of your Creator through His Torah? Did you stand before God to daven and see it as a chance to have a private appointment with Him to pour out your soul's desire and pain?
In short: did you try?
Yes, there are those frum Jews who make it abundantly clear that the paradigm is a joke to them. They cheat, steal, selectively choose their chumros while violating obvious issurim and acting like the black hat on their head means it's all okay. They focus on the externals, judge people by selective criteria and disqualify decent and honest people on the stupidest of grounds. But so what?
They are the imperfect messengers of a perfect message. Look past them. See the beauty of Torah for what it is despite the dreck that has attached itself to its purity. No, you will never have the perfect paradigm but it isn't about the achievement, it's about the effort.


Baruch said...

I'm not a fan of the idea of framing olam haba as a main motivating factor (so then why do it?...we are destined for reward for our efforts in the next.) and IIRC the Alter of Kelm agrees with me that you can't motivate people with olam haba.

Beautiful framing of the dilemma. I like the answer of the heart; it's all about the effort you put into being a good person according to the Torah. That perfects the world and makes it into a more G-dly place.

The Leader, Garnel Ironheart said...

I didn't mean the portray Olam Haba as the motivating factor. However, we must remember it's half of the total sum of our existence and our efforts here impact on our futures there. Too often people see death as an end instead of a progression. It's that which I wished to get across.

Freelance Kiruv Maniac said...

This this post and comment #4 by guess who...

David said...

In light of the first part of your post here, I'm not sure how you get to the idea that the message is "perfect." Plenty of people seem to accept that as an article of faith, and yet, as you suggest, it doesn't necessarily do much for them.

As far as I can see, the "message" seems to be about as flawed as any of the messengers. Indeed, since, even for a believing Jew, half the halakhas we follow come from intermediate messengers rather than the Sender, what basis could there possibly be for concluding that we've got a perfect message?

The Leader, Garnel Ironheart said...

FKM at BeyondBT:
Holding out false promises of an happier life with less tension and dissapointment and more gratification and pleasure was one of the sharpest criticism’s of Rav Noach Wienberg’s ‘popular approach’ to kiruv.

Yep, I'd have to agree with that.

Hi David, welcome back.
I like to use medicine as an analogy so here goes.
Medicine has the answer to all one's problems. Hah! is the response. No, it really does have the answers but doctors don't know EVERYTHING about medicine so they're application of it is imperfect.
It's the same for Torah. You'll never meet a rabbi who knows every single teshuvah/chidush on every single gemara so that the answer he gives you to a question really came from the entire board store of Torah knowledge in the universe. Men like that haven't lived in 1600 years. But that doesn't mean the perfection doesn't exist out there.
Never forget that we are flawed humans with limited capacities for absorbing knowledge but also a dangerous habit of assuming that if we don't know it, it doesn't matter.
That's the basis for concluding we have a perfect message - being intellectually flawed, I cannot render intellectual judgement on the quality so therefore I use faith and I believe in perfect faith in God's perfect Torah.

David said...

Hi, Garnel:

"That's the basis for concluding we have a perfect message - being intellectually flawed, I cannot render intellectual judgement on the quality so therefore I use faith and I believe in perfect faith in God's perfect Torah."

Then you aren't 'concluding' you have a perfect message; you're just assuming it. Moreover, when you find things taught as 'Torah' wtih which you disagree or which you cannot accept as true (I'm pretty sure you could think of things, like the agunah issue, etc.), wouldn't those things call into question the notion of perfection?

Garnel Ironheart said...

> Then you aren't 'concluding' you have a perfect message; you're just assuming it

Yes I am concluding it, based on the perfect faith I have in the matter. Like I've posted before, there's a big divide between faith proof and science proof. I am not using science/rational proof to conclude that the Torah is perfect. I have faith it is so which is not something we can argue over. Either you have it or you don't.

> I'm pretty sure you could think of things, like the agunah issue, etc.),

Are there parts of the Torah I find difficult? Of course. But since the Torah is perfect and I'm not, is it possible my difficulties are because of my limitations? Most certainly.

Look, there's an old cliche Chazal that fits really well here, you know the one about the guy who admires the unplowed field and freaks out as the farmer plows it. Why is he ruining such a beautiful piece of land? And as each step of the process goes on he first freaks out (why are you throwing that seed in the earth? why are you desetroying such beautiful wheat?) until he sees the loaf of bread and understands the whole picture.

One would have to be extremely arrogant to think one can ever know the whole picture. God, being perfect and unlimited, controls a far bigger picture than I could ever understand. I could rail against that which I don't understand from the arrogant position that if it doesn't make sense to me, it doesn't make sense period. Or I could have faith: there's something bigger at work and I have to believe that it's all for the best.

Rye said...

When I succeed, I thank Hashem.
When I fail, I blame myself.

What you have written is so personal, so touching, and it challenges the path I have started to walk. I have made these assumptions you speak of. I have given the frummies of my community the benefit of the doubt. I am not sure that it was entirely because of their religious affiliation. Nobody at shul has asked to borrow money from me, or tried to get me into a Ponzi scheme. I have not had the same ethical issues presented to me as of which you write. For me, it's a non-issue so far. Maybe I am just lucky to live where I live and not have to confront such licentiousness.

Then again, I've never dialed into the mainstream, as I find the outskirts more reflective. The horn resounding always sounds greater at the edge, n'est-ce pas?

Garnel Ironheart said...

The best thing about a small Jewish community is that the critical mass that the weirdos need to join doesn't exist so they gravitate to the larger centres nearby leaving the more normal people in the 'burbs.