Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Tuesday, 9 June 2009

Adding That Will Lead to Subtracting

There is a famous midrash about how Chavah wound up succumbing to the temptation of the nachash in Gan Eden. While God initially commanded Adam not to eat from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, Chavah, in her presentation of the command to the nachash, added an extra feature to the law: touching it was also forbidden. As a result, Chazal tell us that the snake pushed her into the tree and said "See? Just as you didn't die when you touched it, so you won't die when you eat its fruit!" The rest is the history of mankind.
Perhaps this is why, despite the plethora of rabbinic enactments and gezeiros that have formed around the basic Torah since it was given to Moshe Rabeinu, a"h, we are still very careful when studying the mitzvos to define which is d'oraisa and which is d'rabannon. While the latter are binding on us, we must clearly remember their position in the legal order of things. For example, the famous rule of avoiding a shvus d'shvus (yes, I know there are exceptions!). Otherwise one can come to create laws that eventually conceal any intent the Torah itself might originally have had. (Chumrah-of-the-week anyone?)
Sometimes, though, people don't create chumros out of a sense of need to protect the original Torah laws or strengthen the relevant rabbinic enactments. Instead they feel an urge to reconcile their secular egalitarian values with their purported commitment to halachic Judaism. Inevitably, these conflicts all resolve the same way: their Jewish practice is adjusted, not their secular values. These adjustments are triumphed as a show of how the Torah's way of life can be made relevant to modern living. Inevitably when you look at the motivation, that isn't what's happened at all.
Such a place is Shirah Chadash, the so-called Orthodox egalitarian minyan in Yerushalayim. Their big innovation has been to require a minyan on both sides of the mechitzah before beginning to daven:
On any given Shabbat in Jerusalem, minyans around the city wait for ten men to begin praying. Only Shira Hadasha has to wait longer. Not because no one shows up, but because they require both ten men and ten women. "We take upon ourselves an extra requirement," said Elie Holzer, a founder of the minyan, noting that it's not a halachic statement but a social one. Halacha does guide the minyan's decision to let women lead certain parts of services while still using a mechitza.
It seems so nice and reasonable, yet it betrays a strong misunderstanding of halachic requirements when it comes to davening. For one thing, a minyan is a great thing to have while davening but speaking as a person who grew up in a small town shul that had a poorly motivated membership, it isn't essential. Furthermore, the purpose of gathering a minyan of ten adult males is because the halacha then allows the tzibur to recite those parts of the service that are d'var sheb'kedushah. The present of no, ten or a hundred women on the other side of the mechitzah is irrelevant as to whether this tzibur is formed. For another, the admission that the rule is a "social one" is also of concern. The sole arbiter of what is proper in a shul setting is halacha. Of course this doesn't apply to simple things like the colour of the carpet but when it comes to setting up the davening, adding or subtrating necessary requirements based on "social" reasons is a violation of this principle.
In the end, a Jew must ask himself what the halacha requires from him in any given situation. This is not always an easy question to ask. We approach it with predetermined biases and beliefs, wants and desires. Too often we blind ourselves to this basic fact and manipulate the Torah to give us the answer we want but in that case we aren't doing what the Torah wants but what we want while using it as a fig leaf to create a kosher facade for our actions. Shirah Chadashah seems to be a great example of this.
The true litmus test of being observant is how one responds to the halacha saying "no" to something one really wants. Not like "no cheeseburger for you!" but something that one deeply feels is right or that he is entitled to. Accepting the "no" denotes the intellectual and emotional maturity the halacha requires. Those seem to be lacking here.


David said...

"The present (sic) of no, ten or a hundred women on the other side of the mechitzah is irrelevant as to whether this tzibur is formed."

It's not hard to understand why some people might be disposed to view a halakha which deems their "present" (to say nothing of their past and future) "irrelevant" to be a bit behind the times.

Moreover, while you can quibble with them, I genuinely wish you would throttle your inner Jacob Stein, and stop attributing the opinions of others to some sort of defect. One need not be intellectually or emotionally immature to object to a halakhic ruling (indeed, didn't you object to the ruling in what some of the Gedolei Yisroel called the "bitches on buses problem?").

Please recite this mantra at least twice before posting on these topics in the future:

"The mere holding of a theological opinion which differs from my own is not prima facie evidence of pathology or character flaws."

Thank you.

Garnel Ironheart said...

The old line from Indiana Jones and the Holy Grail is relevant here: Do you do this for God's glory, or for your own?
I have no problem with differeing theological opinions that are based on an honest desire to be the best Jew possible. I have a problem with the people who don't want to change the way they are but expect Judaism to change to accomodate their whims. I do find that selfish.

David said...

I don't mean to be obstinate, but you're just saying that you have a problem with everyone who doesn't agree that Orthodox Judaism is perfect the way it is.

Once again channeling Jacob Stein, you say that people who would like to see changes in the way we do some things are "selfish." Well, since you're so stuck on the way things are, isn't it possible that, in denying others the opportunity to develop a more vibrant and meaningful Judaism, you're being selfish? All of Judaism, as currently practiced, represents changes from Judaism as formerly practiced. The Orthodox tendency to insist that we always did it exactly this way (see, e.g., Hasidic coloring books depicting Moshe Rabbeinu in a shtreimel) is, to my mind, rather unfortunate and certainly counterproductive.

How about limiting your comments to an explanation of why your opponents' views are wrong, or their theology is in error? Wouldn't that cover it? Why do you find it so difficult to refrain from an attempt to diminish them as people? My personal guess: it's the Jake Stein business again-- you can't show that they're wrong, so you just dismiss them as defective.

Garnel Ironheart said...

Let me give you a relevant example, David. I don't have a problem with your views, despite my vigorous disagreement with them. You came by them honestly, you don't pretend to be something you're not and you don't try to modify what you see as the truth to fit your own biases. When you're uncomfortable with something, you face up to it. Fine.

In this case, it isn't so much the religious beliefs in question as the way people are being essentially dishonest. There is a halachic process that is used in determining various issues and part of being Orthodox is a commitment to abide by the system even when the answer you want isn't forthcoming. For these folks it's the opposite. They want to call themselves Orthodox, they want to say they're living according to halacha but they're being selective and when halacha crosses them they avoid it.
In that way, Reform is far more honest than they are.

Rabbi Ben Hecht said...

In a broader sense, I think the problem is that there would seem to be two constructs within the overall system of Orthodox Judaism that are often at loggerhead with each other. One is the idea that the precision of Jewish Ethics is defined by the precision of the Halachich system and that deviations from this system -- whether to the right or the left -- are problematic. The other is the concept of lifnim meshurat hadin or kadesh atzmecha b'mutar lach which not only gives but instructs the Jew to go beyond the law and exend oneself beyond the demands of the Halacha. In response to Garnel, the people of Shira Chadasha may respond that while there is no precise halachic requirement to wait for 10 women before beginning a service, it is an act lifnim meshurat hadin that extends a respect to other human beings, i.e. women, beyond the requirements of the strict Halacha. They may further quote the rule of Cherem Rabbeinu Gershom that a man may not divorce a wife without her consent as an indication of how Jewish practice extends beyond the strict definition of the Halacha as we have further inculcated the values of Torah and wish to extend these values. The issue of whether Shira Chadasha's behaviour is acceptable within the parameters of Jewish Thought or not cannot be answered by a simple presentation of the Halacha regarding its necessity or permissibility. It gets down to a discussion of the motivations that we may apply in extending a law.

Having said all this, I do, though, feel the following -- and in a certain way I am in agreement with Garnel. While I would not say that we are never to be influenced by developments in the secular world around us -- I think Torah throughout the ages has integrated concepts from the outside world and, as we say, be mekadesh them -- but we must be careful of not seeing the constructs of Torah because of these influences. There is a strong movement in our world to neutralize gender -- make men and women equal. While to some extent this has merit, it is fundamental to Torah that there is a distinction between the two genders. Standards of waiting for a minyon of men and a similar count of 10 of women challenges this very principle. Shira Chadasha no doubt has its arguments why this is an action lifnim meshurat hadin. What they have to address, though, is the negation of the reality of gender distinction within Torah which can never meet the secular standards of gender equality in our general world.

Rabbi Ben Hecht

David said...

"There is a strong movement in our world to neutralize gender -- make men and women equal. While to some extent this has merit, it is fundamental to Torah that there is a distinction between the two genders."

Women still don't have penises, and men can't have babies. So, the primary and obvious distinctions aren't going anywhere.

That said, I've heard more than one rabbi explain to me why women "can't" learn Gemara (apparently, their brains just aren't made that way). This kind of idiocy needs to be dropped from OJ, and the sooner, the better. If women "can't" learn Gemara, there would be no point in fobidding it (no law against women flapping their arms and flying, is there?). Likewise, if a woman learns Shulchan Aruch well enough, is there any rational reason to deny her the distinction that would cheerfully be accorded to a man who had learned the same thing? More importantly, if two people want to get a divorce, is there some good reason for the Torah and the rabbis to rig a system to ensure that the woman is placed at a terrible disadvantage? Do we really need to cling to ideas that may have had some practical application in the bronze age, but currently do nothing but work injustice?

The fact is, there are a number of real differences between men and women, and I have no particular inclination to argue for the erasing of these. That said, the cause of the Torah is not advanced by exaggerating these differences to the point of calling ridicule upon ourselves.