Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Tuesday, 19 July 2011

The Spiritual Disconnect

As the Torah tells us repeatedly, living a life full of the performance of God's mitzvos, both ben adam l'Makom and ben adam l'chaveiro should be synonymous with living a life full of morality and decency.
As reality tells us repeatedly, this isn't true.
Forget Pesach hotels, $3000 sheitls and women leading kabbalas Shabbos services.  The biggest threat to Torah Judaism is the disconnect between a Torah lifestyle and common decency.
I'm not talking about terrible tragedies like the recent murder of a beautiful child in New York by a fellow frum Jew.  Such events, awful as they are, do not represent the norm of frum behaviour.
Rather it seems that nowadays theft, inappropriate fondling of students in yeshiva, rioting and attacking Israeli police officers and never-ending chumros are the norm of frum behaviour.  A man like Shlomo Rubashkin is convicted of dozens of criminal offences and the response from the frum world is that it doesn't count because it wasn't before a beis din and now he's entitled to pidyon shevuyim.  A prominent rav goes around and tells people that cheating on income tax is okay.  This is clearly not what God had in mind when He gave us the Torah and promised us that our sterling character and righteous actions would make us the envy of the nations of the world.  How is it that modern Torah Judaism has veered so far off the derech that it claims to be the sole proprietor of?
Rav Micha Berger, on his excellent blog, dealt with this from one angle a few weeks ago. He brings excerpts from an essay by Rav Shlomo Wolbe and suggests something quite powerful:
 “This approach is entirely alien to frumkeit.” The frum person is the one who makes sure to have Shabbos guests each week, but whose guests end up feeling much like his tefillin — an object with which he did a mitzvah. A person acting out of frumkeit doesn’t love to love, he loves in order to be a holier person. And ironically, he thereby fails — because he never develops that Image of the Holy One he was created to become. The person who acts from self-interest, even from the interest of ascending closer to G-d, will not reach Him.
I would like to suggest that the entire structure of learning today, those priorities that characterize learning in yeshivos, those priorities that a frum Jew is expected to make when choosing which sefer to pick up and which to ignore, are wrong.  Simply wrong.
Years ago when my learning was at a much simpler level I was invited by the local Lubavitch shaliach to learn Talmud.  He had noticed my interest in Torah subjects and thought it would be of benefit for me to crack open the big books on the shelf and see what was in them.  I asked my father what he thought and he replied "You're not ready.  You haven't read past the end of Devarim in the Bible.  You haven't finished building the first floor of the building and you want to pick furniture for the upstairs?"
For my father, while Talmud is an indispensable book, Navi is even more important.  Like most folks he divides the Navi up into the narrative vs. the fire-and-brimstone sections.  The narrative section he holds to be important for historical purposes.  Jewish history did not end with the death of Moshe Rabeinu, a"h.  It went  on.  God's plan for creating a nation on Earth to represent His will continued through until today and the early parts of Navi are critical for seeing how this plan played out during First Temple times.
But even more important for him was the second section, principally the three major prophets: Yishiyahu (Isaiah), Yirmiyahu (Jeremiah) and Yechezkel (Ezekiel).  For him their books were the essence of Judaism.  You could learn what to do as a Jew from Talmud but if you wanted to learn what Judaism was, what God really wanted from us and how to behave in a pleasing way in His eyes you had to learn Navi.
Now it's no secret that the study of Navi is not exactly encouraged into many modern yeshivos today.  There are reasons for that, none of them good.  One of them is because of the emphasis placed on Biblical study by the early Chrisians.  Another is the emphasis on the study of the narrative parts of the Bible by secular Zionism as it sought to develop a political connection to our ancient history but without any of the necessary religious elements.  As a result, in much of the religious community outside Modern Orthodoxy and Religious Zionism there is little to no direct study of Navi.  Yes there's the haftaros and the referencing from the Gemara to verses within the book but in general the average Orthodox student gets a limited view of Navi, both the narrative and prophetic sections and no real understanding of them.
This is where I think things have gone so terribly wrong.
As I heard from a Rav at a conference a couple of weeks ago, there is one big problem with Talmud study - God is not an indispensable part of learning.  Have you ever stopped to consider how infrequently He actually shows up in the text?  And if you remove the aggada portions, how rare His name comes up?  One could learn pages and pages of the 3 Bava's and never encounter Him.  If our entire existence is to build up to a constant awareness of His presence, to feel Him in our hearts and souls all the time, how is this possible?  One  might conclude that a lack of passion is the problem, that Talmud and halacha are studied for intellectual purposes without the requisite emotion necessary for dveikus but that would be wrong.  A person can be passionate about intellectual pursuits.  He can love learning without ever bringing God to mind once.
This is why we have created a society that seems to obsess over all the externals of Jewish behaviour while ignoring the internals.  We judge a person by the kippah on his head or the colour of his shirt, not the passion he feels for God or how much he values his fellow human being because he too is a product of the Divine.  We worry about whether we waited 6 hours after meat but not if we didn't treat the guy next to us on the bus, Jew or non-Jew, with enough courtesy.  We are sure to hold our little fingers up during hagbah but it never occurs to us to check if by doing so we're obscuring the view of the guy sitting behind us.
One of the repeated themes of Rav Dessler in his Michtav miEliayhua is the concept of giving and taking.  Put simply (maybe way too simply) God is the ultimate giver.  After all He has everything and therefore there is nothing we can offer Him in terms of possessions or wealth.  If we say "Blessed art Thou" we do not change His essence.  He was perfect before we said the berachah and He is unchanged and perfect after it.  The only thing I can give Him is my obedience to His laws and will.
If God is the embodiment of perfection then it means that the more one gives the more one approaches perfection.  As I just noted, there is only one thing I can offer God and thus by doing my best to observe bein Adam l'Makom I have given as much as I can in that direction.  How then do I continually strive to further my quest for spiritual growth?  It must be through bein Adam l'chaveiro which means that giving to my fellow man is the path towards those spiritual heights.
This requires a complete rethinking of what he consider to be frum behaviour.  Frum behaviour today really means being medakdek in bein Adam l'Makom.  A man who drives to shul on Shabbos but who is meticulous in his business dealings and gives tzedakah any chance he gets is not defined as frum.  In contrast, the guy who walks to shul in the blazing sun wearing a black hat and black woolen suit but who is embezzling from his business and shortchanging his customers is frum.
How many shuls out there restrict aliyos on Shabbos to those folks who are shomer Shabbos?  How many require honest in business?
(And why do I keep harping on business?  Because there are two main sins the Torah describes as a toevah: homosexual intercourse and cheating in business.  We see fire and brimstone protests against homosexuality in the frum world.  When was the last time you saw such passionate outrage against cheating in business?)
So how to describe the other person, the guy who drove to shul and wasn't given an aliyah?  Perhaps he's not frum but he certainly sounds ehrlich.
But here's the problem: the word frum should not be separate from ehrlich.  Frumkeit and ehrlichkeit should be the same thing.  Yet today we see that they're not.  Heck, some days it feels like they're mutually exclusive!
And this bring us back to the problem I have with today's learning.  Learning Talmud will make you frum.  It will inspire you, it will guide you, it will show you the foundation of our laws and traditions.  On the other hand, learning Navi will make you ehrlich.
"Hear the word of HaShem, O chiefs of S'dom; give ear to the teaching of our God, O people of 'Amorrah: Why do I need your numerous sacrifices? saith God.  I am sated with elevation offerings or rams and th fat of fatlings, the blood of bulls, sheep and goats I do not desire.  When you come to appear before Me, who sought this from your hand to trample my courtyards?" (Yishiyahu 1:11-12)
From the great prophets we learn that our ancestors were very precise about certain things.  They were sure to bring their sin offerings... after they sinned.  They worshiped their idols in private and then publicly showed up in the Temple... to cover their bets.  They lead lives of immorality all the while convinced that God would never allow His Temple to be destroyed which meant that they were safe no matter what they did.  Why does Yishiyahu call them after S'dom and 'Amorrah?  Those two cities were famous for their wealth and their incredible selfishness.  An outside looking in would see a well-functioning society where people prospered as long as they didn't get into trouble and need help getting out of it.  The Jew who was generous in bringing his sacrifices to the Temple and then went home and mistreated his servants was no different even though on the outside he sure looked frum.
The Talmud itself tells us that one of the reasons for the destruction of the Second Temple was that people did not make the blessings over Torah study.  We know there was a tremendous amount of learning.  The people stood beside the sages of the Mishnah, some of the greatest Jewish minds that ever lived, but they disconnected God from daily life.  They would learn but it wouldn't change them.  They would practice in as frum a manner as possible but there was nothing ehrlich about it.
It is my opinion that learning Torah means not just knowing whose ox goared whose or what percentage of the crop goes into terumah.  It's about learning to become a giver, not just to God but also to our fellows, Jewish and gentile.  Its about using the learning we do to make us better people, not simply to go through the motions and then sit back and check off the items on the list.
Yes, Talmud is crucial for the Jew to know but Navi is as well.  A person should not see his learning as complete until he has not only learned the words of Chazal but also Nazal.
When you put tefillin on you should feel closer to Him. When you smile at a stranger on the street and it leaves a positive impression you should also feel closer to Him.  More than anything though, we should all of us strive to be the best people we can because that's what He wants of us.


JRKmommy said...

Well said.

I had no idea that some yeshivas don't teach Navi. How can that be?

ksil said...

i would just point out that the rubashkin support is more a product of the punishment he received. It seems to not fit the crime he was convicted of.

Devorah said...

First of all, my husband and his friends went to some of the frummest yeshivos there are in the United States. They all learned Navi. Particularly, the lessons that you're so concerned with, primarily because they're reiterated about three times a minute in Eichah. Also, since most of the important passages in Navi are in the Haftorah, many frum men read them in shul as well.

I actually have to disagree with you on the utter importance of learning Navi. There are many, many chapters of Navi in which God is barely mentioned. Furthermore, the actions of many key characters in the Navi are so perplexing, that even with the commentary practically pleading apologetics on their behavior, there's just no accounting for some of their actions. To wit:

1) Prostitution that never goes punished.
2) Random killings that never go punished.
3) Homosexual rape
4) Gang rape - this one DOES go punished, but the Navi actually critiques this behavior, as if gang rape that resulted in death wasn't such a bad thing.
5) Extramarital sex, accepted and condoned
6) Witchcraft
7) Killing your children as a sacrifice to God, unpunished
9) Rape via Incest - that goes unpunished
10) Constant fighting between the tribes
11) Brutal wars and killing, told in detail

The list goes on. Only idoltary seems to be taken seriously.

Also, we're in the three weeks now. Don't you think it's a bad time to label and entire group of people - one you feel you don't belong to and feel superior to - as behaving in one way and ultimately amoral?

I don't believe in the ability to mussar today. Because when a mussar drasha is all about feelings of superiority over another group, you don't have any actual influence over that other group. You've just managed to placate your own sense of morality and superiority, and that's not what this time is about. I think that all the fighting groups in Judaism should stop and think about reasons why we LIKE each other. That might have a bigger impression. I'd love a post on reasons to love all groups of Judaism.

Garnel Ironheart said...

First of all Devorah, I'm differentiating between the narrative and the prophetic parts of Navi. Yes, there are problematic parts to the narrative sections which is why one cannot simply pick up a Bible and read it straight without the assistance of a Torah-true commentary. My emphasis was on the prophetic sections.

Secondly, I did not wish to give the impression I'm slagging groups. I'm upset with a system in general that has created a system of practice where morality is divorced from routine and I think the two need to be melded back. All the major Orthodox groups are guilty of this. i'm calling for a community-wide change, not trying to pick on anyone in particular.

Third, your idea about a positive post is great. I'd like to put one together, especially as it's the 3 weeks like you noted, but hey, if you're up for the challenge then if you write it and send it to I'll post it for you.

Boruch Clinton said...

If you're interested in a guest "post" on the power of neviim acharonim,
you could steal one of my
essays on Yeshaya
Perhaps this is a good choice...

Devorah said...

Hmmm. Garnel, I'm intrigued!

Dov said...

It is Rav Micha Berger, not Berg.

OTD said...

JRK Mommy: >I had no idea that some yeshivas don't teach Navi. How can that be?

Mainly, navi is not frum enough for the yeshivas. As Garnel poninted out, yeshivas are not looking to produce ehrlich people, merely frum ones. The less navi they're taught, the less they'll question and try to be anything but the mindless automatons the yeshiva system worships. I was personally kicked out of yeshiva for learning navi.

MIghty Garnel Ironheart said...

Devorah, send it when you're ready.

Boruch, amazing site you've got. I'll take you up on your offer.

Boruch Clinton said...

I think you'd also appreciate what we did here

MIghty Garnel Ironheart said...

Next time I'm in Ottawa (spring next year probably) I should look you up.

Boruch Clinton said...

Next time I'm in Ottawa (spring next year probably) I should look you up.

You're most welcome to!