Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Tuesday, 27 September 2011

Ultra-Orthodoxy At The Crossroads

(Parodied shamelessly from here)

What will the rabbinic leadership of the Ultraorthodox (UO) world do? A wave of provocations from the Far Right challenges the very definition of Orthodoxy. Should Yidden in other parts of the community who are far from the battle lines care? It would take a navi to answer the first question. Responsibility for Klal Yisrael and caring for other Jews demands a resounding “yes” to the second.
Lots of things are happening in the Ultraorthodox world – some good, some not so good, and some astonishingly terrible. The far right of Ultraorthodoxy seems to be intent on continuing an unrelenting drive to push the envelope and driving people away from leading an Orthodox life. Rabbi Dovid Kohn of the Toldos Aharon community of Meah Shearim who in many other ways is a model of selfless commitment to ahavas Yisrael, has unfortunately become the charismatic leader of what is now a movement. His followers routinely hold violent demonstrations and organize outright riots, attacking passersby and police.  Then there are the Sikrikin, another Ultraorthodox group that uses mafiesque tactics to destroy the lives of those it sees as intruding on its pure Torah environment.  Ultraorthodox Jews like these see themselves fully committed to love of all Jews but limit the definition of Jew to those who look and think exactly like them while excluding everyone else as
Toldos Aharon and the Sikrikin are not the only groups flexing Far Right power. When the Agudat Israel, the rabbinic umbrella group of Ultraorthodoxy was confronted with the widespread problem of pedophile yeshiva teachers some rabbis on the right were upset by what they saw as `mesirah`if state criminal law demanding mandatory reporting was followed.  They came up with a ridiculous position that one is allowed to report but only with the permission of a rabbi, something they gleaned from certain teshuvos, ignoring the vast majority of poskim who disagree, and who have disagreed for a very long time.  The children being abused are being sentenced to lives of difficulty and self-torment and of the silence the Agudah demands– whether valid or not – is already being questioned since it rejects the standards of the majority of poskim.
The Far Right does not rely on notoriety alone to capture attention. It makes steady and good use of the media, as well as direct mail, pashkevils and advertising, all aimed at the rest of the Orthodox community, and well beyond. One of its more effective tools is a blog called Matzav which, in their words, is the "online voice of Torah Jewry" already looking at the sight it is only a segment of Torah Jewry that seems to be represented.   (The Matzav blog has a mirror site called Yeshivah World News which is read almost exclusively by the part of the Orthodox community it caters to.)
Maintaining public visibility as guardians of the faith and protectors of the purity of Torah observance produces much thunder and attracts significant media attention outside the Orthodox world. This is designed to increase pressure on non-ultraorthodox rabbis, and move the majority of the community to view its changes as the only legitimate Torah position.  People who lack the background in learning to analyze the arguments on both sides see a group of “conservative” rabbis willing to define Judaism definitively which seems like a good thing to them. Then they note a different group of “progressive" rabbis who insist on changing everything to assuage their liberal consciences.  This generates enormous pressure on the progressives to make concessions so as not to alienate growing numbers of their congregants. Years ago, the Far Right sought innovations like insisting all women wear socks in public or complete bans on kol ishah even where permitted.  (Women were advised that they could get around the “problem” of the being silenced in public by attending shiurim and publicly asking questions of the speakers). Those changes are so commonplace that they have lost their cachet. Today the push is for burkas, bans on driving and the complete separation of men and women even in the home.
The latest skirmish in the battle between extreme innovation and tradition came a few weeks ago, when a group of ultraorthodox fanatics decided that they would not tolerate a religious but non-ultraorthodox school near their neighbourhood in Beit Shemesh.  Using "civilized" tactics like threats of physical violence, shouting "prutza" and "shiksa at 8 year old girls and bombarding opponents with rotten food.  All this in the name of protecting the dome of "purity" they believe they have established around themselves.
Reacting to a firestorm of criticism within the UO world- oh wait, there wasn't any - the barbarians continued their daily intimidation tactics.  They also organized a demonstration at which prominent local rabbonim were present to give words of support as if there was any justification for their vile actions. Rabbi Chaim Malinowitz was asked to condemn the protesters and openly refused.
More provocations followed on the heels of the abandoned beracha. Riots continue at a Jerusalem parking lot open on Shabbos despite attempts by the municipality to avoid any chilul Shabbosi in its operation.  Women clad in burkas multiple daily setting a new perverted standard for tznius that will likely become the new Chareidi standard within 1-2 generations.  And always the reminders from the Ultraorthodox leadership that they are the real representatives of Torah Judaism and that only their leaders are authentic Jewish leaders.  For them there is one way to practice Orthodoxy - their way and no eother.
The ongoing conflicts between Ultraorthodoxy and the rest of the Orthodox world continues to degenerate.  It is clear that the Agudah and its allies look at halacha in a manner fundamentally different than the authentic method used for centuries by genuine Torah giants.  They choose something to forbid, selectively research those poskim who agree with that position and then present their negative answer as a universal answer agreed to by all halachic decisors - but without discussing why ignored permitting opinions were not considered or refuted.  Only those approved authorities can be quoted.  A teshuvah from the Rav, ztÈl or Rav Kook, ztÈl, might as well never have been written as far as they are concerned.  It is the embodiment of the Dubno Maggid’s famous response as to how he always has the perfect mashal (“you shoot the arrow, and then paint the target around it”) applied to halacha. Absent is the sense of looking for an objective truth. That quest permeates hundreds of years of halachic literature: weighing all the views available, and only relying on those best supported by the evidence of the words of the gemara and rishonim.
Critics of Far Right halacha point to two other elements that differentiate it from traditional halacha:
• Very few on the right know anything about halacha outside a relatively narrow range of authorities. It just doesn’t have such knowledge because of the closed-minded attitudes in their institutions.
• In traditional halacha, there is a strong emphasis on keeping issues local, on the authority of the town Rav or another local counterpart.  The idea that every question, however mediocre, has to be run by a Gadol for his approval because he has a mystical superpower called ÈDaas TorahÈ is a new concept invented by the Ultraorthodox in order to justify why their Gedolim should be listened to by all Torah Jews while they can safely ignore the leading scholars of non-Ultraorthodoxy.   The right balks at consulting non-Ultraorthodox sources seeing this as an affront to the Daas Torah of their Gedolim.  Then there is the role of the Askanim, community leaders who openly manipulate the insulated Gedolim into issuing psak and bans whenever they feel like it.  Such a model, where the leader is led by ideologically-driven underlings, is patently ridiculous to those on the outside.
Where does this leave the rest of the Ultraorthodox community? People who reside entirely in the more modern Orthodox world are often clueless about the nature of Ultraorthodoxy. They are sometimes aware – correctly – of hashkafic differences between the Chasidim, Litvaks and Chabad, especially in regard to the State of Israel and how much there is an emphasis on "chumrah of the week".  Other images of Ultraorthodoxy could benefit from a bit of updating. The last decades produced, in many ways, a good deal of achshara dara – a more ignorant and violent generation in the UO community. To be sure, it is beset by major problems, just as the modern community is. Some of these problems are the same; some are different. For the most part, though, the stereotype of Yiddish-speaking peddlers checking their tzitzis for the 30th time that day and rebbetzins who look like they come right out of a Sholom Aleichem story is no longer valid.  There is less Torah learning going on in many UO shuls, probably because its members are too busy attacking others on the street to open a page of Gemara. Children often have received an education completely devoid of any secular material, even basic math and language and have spent more time in Israel where many have increased their fanaticism through immersion in high-octane learning.  Ultraorthodoxy has produced large numbers of men and women who have become public apologists for all that is wrong with their community, working on the concept that "a good offense is the best defense" and trying to create the impression that any problems that must inevitably be admitted to are the fault of the outside world anyway. 
Many in the modern community would be surprised by the makeup of the “heimish” rabbinate in particular. The conformity is enormous. Many of the younger rabbis in particular have learned in a manner devoid of critical thinking and know only how to be "machmir" for the sake of playing it safe.  Any intellectual challenge is dealt with either by covering the ears or going to the local "Gadol" for advice.  In their ranks you will find bnei Torah with good learning skills, a real love for limud Torah, and an enviable grasp of serious, nuanced halacha – besides excellent training in speaking, writing, and counseling. Unfortunately, you will find others who display woeful ignorance of gemara and halacha which is ignored by the highers-up in the name of expediency.
What should the Ultraorthodox rabbinate do about Toldos AharonéSikrikinÉ  The question is studiously avoided by the Agudah and its allies.  One can scan the Chareidi newsservices with utter futility in the search of condemnation of the rioters in Beit Shemesh.  Yet if the leadership ignores this trend towards primitive and barbaric behaviour in the name of `Torah Purity` where will this all lead? Given enough time (and enough headlines), will there be anyone cilivized left in their community to talk to? Even if no further changes are contemplated, doesn’t the approach suggest a complete misunderstanding of how a Torah Jew is supposed to aporach difficulties and handle the need to compromise with othersÉ
The Agudan has not changed much in recent years. As always it is almost exclusively the province of UO Gedolim and Roshei Yeshivah from the Chareidi sector. Any authority that diverges from its established groupthink is automatically excluded so as to present the front that there is a uniform Torah Judaism and these are its only legitimate leaders. The incessant Talibanization of our mesorah by the Far Right has rattled the more mainstream.  They believe that if these fanatics are not accomodated then the Augdah and its allies will come to be seen as too left and lose its leadership position amongst the rank and file.  This includes many Gedolim who keep coming up with new ways to say `no`in order not to be considered ``progressive`.
The Agudah``s leadership, for the most part, has taken a principled position that it has always tried to keep out as many Orthodox rabbis as possible, where the minority can at least demand of the majority to accept their standards unilaterally.
Many of the Agudah rank and file might consider posing a counterargument. Maverick stingent positions in the past were just that arguments put forth by individuals. They could not go any further.  The Toldos AharonéSikrikin, on the other hand, are on a crusade – with values and protocols that the majority cannot in good conscience share or be party to but who will eventually adopt them anyway.
The essential question might be how the Agudah and its allies should see itself. Some regard it as more or less a fraternal organization for rabbis who need a place where they can share some cholent with colleagues. For many years, the Agudah was just that. In such an organization, there is no for people who disagree completely with each other since that precludes engaging one other with admirable collegiality and personal respect.
Others, however, look to the Agudah as the face of a good part of the Orthodox community to the external world. Orthodoxy has finally arrived in the American mainstream; so many Jews and non-Jews are curious about what we have to say about questions and issues that arise in a world changing at a dizzying pace. The Ultraorthodox world, which believes in a very limited engagement in general society and wants to have a large role in articulating Torah positions in a wide variety of areas. It is an organization that can speak forcefully because its members agree to a set of common principles. An organization that stands for too many things ultimately stands for nothing. Many UO members feel that the divide between Toldos AharonéSikrikin and the rest of the UO world is not that large and that keeping all members under one roof is not so hard if the Agudah and its allies just become a little more ÈfrumÈ.  If the Toldos Aharon/Sikrikin stay then the Agudah is a figleaf apologist for their violent and primitive behaviour.  If they leaves, the Agudah can show it cares about keeping Ultraorthodoxy from degeneratin into a violent cult.  It is as simple as that.
It is difficult not to think of the dispute between Rav Avraham Yitzchak Kook, zt`l, and Rav Yosef Chaim Sonenfeld, z`l.  When Jews both religious and not began to return in significant numbers to our ancentral homeland, Rav Sonenfelt immediately developed a position opposing the Zionist movement.  Better a small, impoverish but Torah pure community than a large one full of pritzus and chilul HaShem  Rav Kook saw that God was changing history and beginning the unfolding of the Final Redemption and that the secular Zionists were, despite their irreligiosity, the implementers of His Divine plan.  No one can say who was objectively “correct” in that dispute (Rav Kook was, by the way), although the last generations have looked favorably upon Rav Kookès bold position.  Some argue that today’s agonizing choice is different. In British-occupied Israel the lines of demarcation between Zionist and Ultraorthodox Judaism were clear. Today, many fear, those lines are no longer clear enough.  To avoid erosion of Torah values and practice, the rest of the community must define the approach of the Far Right as so different, that it can no longer be called Orthodox as the rest of us know it.
Who will decide which of these opinions should be applied to contemporary times? Who has the qualifications to address such a weighty issue – dealing not with heretics, chas v’shalom, but nonetheless about defining other Jews as outliers?
At least insofar as UO membership, there have been few who have spoken out against the Far Right.  Fearful of a violent backlash from people who know nothing of decent behaviour the Ultraorthodox response so far has either been ÈHey, theyère just a bunch of fringe lunaticsÈ or ÈWell you canèt expect other Chareidim to have to apologize for them!È  With the stakes so high, only one recourse suggests itself. The question of keeping Toldos AharonéSikrikin or defining it out of contemporary Orthodoxy should be put to the three talmidei chachamim within the ultraOrthodox world that are most respected for their halachic ability: Rabbis Sholom Eliashiv, Shmuel Wosner and Aharon Shteinman. The Agudah should be prepared to abide by whatever decision these three come up with. We should watch to see if this solution gains in popularity.
Why should the more sane part of the community care about issues completely off its radar? The problems with which the Ultraorthodox world is grappling are just not relevant to communities much further to the left. In fact, we should be able to identify several reasons.
Firstly, the impact upon areas of Orthodox cooperation will be enormous. If the Far Right grows stronger in untethering itself from both traditional hashkafos and accepted protocols of determining halacha, there will almost certainly be a reaction in the rest of the Orthodox world. Lemegdar milsa, to draw clear lines of differentiation, the sane community split.  Some will move in the opposite direction to oppose changes it sees as dangerous and illegitimate while others will, through their insecurity, be absorbed into the lunatic fringe. We will drift even further apart. Cooperation in many areas – education, kashrus, kiruv, gerus, political advocacy – will be jeopardized or eliminated. Much of the right will argue that if Ultraorthodoxy can tolerate such aberrations in its midst rather than expelling it, than they cannot trust or continue to deal with the Ultraorthodox – especially if a Toldos Aharon/Sikrikin presence becomes mingled with the Ultraorthodox mainstream in common enterprises. Cooperation that took decades to accomplish may quickly unravel.
Other frum Jews simply cannot be unconcerned about the future of hundreds of thousands of Ultraorthodox brethren, many of whom are in danger of embracing a treif ideology. We must be concerned for their well being; all members of our spiritual family deserve our love. (Those on the Far Right also deserve our love, but at the moment it may have to be tough love! Sometimes, as a last resort, an errant child needs to be rebuffed before he or she can fully participate with the rest of the family. The gemara speaks of rebuking by distancing with the left hand, while drawing closer with the (stronger) right hand – and allows for reversing the hands at times!)
Minimally, HaKadosh Baruch Hu expects our deep concern about wide-scale counterfeiting of Torah, even if it does not impact upon us directly. We should be prepared to show it. Are there any UO rabbis showing extraordinary mesiras nefesh in refusing to compromise on what they received from their rabbeim? If you learn of an UO mara de-asra in your community who is valiantly holding a line against incursions from the Far Righft, consider offering some chizuk. Heaven knows he'll need it!  Let the rov know that you will give him the money that you normally give to the shnorrers who come to your door.  Let him know that while some people think that people’s Yiddishkeit is defined by what they wear on their heads, you believe that what they carry in their heads is far more important. And in that regard, we are much closer to each other than they can ever be to the Far Right.

Monday, 26 September 2011

More On Uman

The last post I did on Uman generated some lively discussion (at least for this blog) on the subject of leaving eretz Yisrael for the most important days of the year.  I was pleased to see a few days ago a similar post from HaRav Shlomo Aviner, shlit"a, that pointed out the following important points:
 Question: Is it permissible to travel from the Land of Israel to Uman (Ukraine) to visit the grave of Rebbe Nachman on Rosh Hashanah?

Answer: This is a new "custom" based on the statement of Rebbe Nachman of Breslov: "Anyone who visits my grave and gives eighteen coins to tzedakah will merit life in the World to Come." One may only leave Israel for a mitzvah (see Rambam, Hilchot Melachim 5:9 and Tosafot to Avodah Zarah 13a). Anyone who violates this, will, we hope, repent. Worse than this is one who travels under the impression that he is performing a mitzvah, because how then will he then repent?! Visiting the grave of tzadikim (righteous people) is not defined as a mitzvah – not a rabbinic mitzvah and not a Torah mitzvah; it is a positive act. Based on this, Maran Ha-Rav Kook ruled that we do not leave Israel to visit the graves of tzadikim, and he wrote "are we without graves in the Land of Israel that you travel to the Exile?!" (Shut Mishpat Cohain #147).
It is true that Rebbe Nachman said: "Anyone who visits my grave and gives eighteen coins to tzedakah will merit life in the World to Come," but Avraham Avinu is greater than Rebbe Nachman. Rebbe Nachman himself said this. Anyone who goes to Ma'arat Ha-Machpelah in Hevron and gives eighteen gold coins can be certain that Avraham Avinu will aid him. Furthermore, know that the Land of Israel is holier than Uman. Rebbe Nachman himself said this.
Therefore, go to Ma'arat Ha-Machpelah.
Also know that it is not enough to visit a grave and give eighteen coins to tzedakah to be worthy of life in the World to Come, but one needs to perform acts of loving-kindness, learn Torah and perform the mitzvot. And it is not proper to spend thousands of shekels to travel there. You should give the money to tzedakah. The value of traveling there is unclear, but giving tzedakah is clear. It is an explicit verse in the Torah.
Also, if you leave your wife alone and sad on Rosh Hashanah, know that you will not stand guilt-free before the Heavenly Court.
The custom of Ha-Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach was to stand across from the national cemetery on Mt. Herzl and say: "These are the graves of the righteous who died sanctifying Hashem's Name. Why should I travel far distances? (Oro Shel Olam, p. 380)."
[A collection of other leading Rabbi's statements on this issue -
Ha-Rav Mordechai Eliyahu: "It is not proper to leave Israel on Rosh Hashanah or during the rest of the year, and it is preferable for one who wants to pray at the graves of tzadikkim to visit the graves of tzadikim in the Land of Israel – Hevron, Kever Rachel, Kever Rashbi – who was the teacher of Rebbe Nachman, etc. Do not leave Israel for the impurity of the lands of the other nations."
Ha-Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv: "Go daven at the Kotel."
Ha-Rav Ovadiah Yosef: "How did the grave of Rebbe Nachman become more important than the graves of the Rambam and Ha-Gaon Rav Yosef Karo?"
Ha-Rav Dov Lior explained how absurd is the thought-process of those who travel to Uman: "People travel to the grave of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai in order to ask him to help them to travel to the grave of Rebbe Nachman so they can make a request of him."]

The constant emphasis on finding spirituality in all the wrong places and for all the wrong reasons is something that Orthodoxy has to address even as more people are led astray by these concepts.
There is no question that Rebbe Nachman was a great and influential tzadik.  One need only look at the livliness and intensity of modern Bratzlovers who, in the absenc of a living leader still maintain a vibrant movement.  But as Rav Aviner points out, he was not Avraham Avinu.  He was no Rav Yosef Karo.

Friday, 23 September 2011

Rights, Responsibilities, and Rosh HaShanah

When I was in residency one of my supervisors asked me what I thought the biggest distinction between Jewish ethics and secular ethics was.  I responded that secular ethics emphasize rights while Jewish ethics emphasize responsibilities.  Canada has a Bill of righs.  Judaism has a Torah of obligations.  For many years I believed it was that simple.
However, upon further consideration I don't think it is.  I mean, I haven't changed my mind about the emphasis secular society around us places on rights.  Everything seems to be about that.  The right to eat what we want without consequence, the right to drink heavily and then be treated in hospital when complications ensure, the right to not be assaulted when entering a person's home with the intent to rob him, and the list goes on.  In fact I would suggest that most of what is wrong with secular society today is a result of this unbalanced emphasis on rights to the near-absolute exclusion of responsibility.
But on the Jewish side it doesn't seem to be that simple.  Yes the responsibility angle of Judaism gets a lot of press what with the high profile the chumrah-of-the-week crowd gets in the news these days.  What's more, when one interacts with Torah Judiasm the concept of responsibility seems to crop up in everything.  What we eat, who we touch, what we say in prayer, what we look at, we are told we have responsibilities in all those areas.  If one reads more intense books like Nefesh HaChayim and absorbs the implications that the concept of mystical connection to the higher spheres through our actions it almost seems like we have no rights at all, just a constant sense of duty to ensure Creation doesn't get messed up by our actions.
But is it that simple?  In this week's parsha there is a hint that we do have some rights.  Back in Re'eh Moshe Rabeinu, a"h, started one of his sermons by pointing out that he had placed good and evil, life and death before us and this week in VaYelech he concludes by returning to that theme, first repeating the choice and then adding a request to choose life by performing the good, ie the mitzvos
But why is the language one of choice?  "And thou shalt choose life!"  Not "And thou art commanded to choose life!"  The final choice is autonomous and informed.  We are told of the reward for doing what God wants, the penalty for disobedience and told to decide for ourselves what it'll be.
Now one could say that this is a rigged choice.  A child who is told "Eat your broccoli and you'll get ice cream, throw it on the floor and you'll get sent to your room" will often eat the broccoli not out of a sense of appreciation for its nutritional value but instead out of a desire for the ice cream.  However, anyone who has raised children knows this is not always the case.  Some kids will throw the broccoli on the floor and defiantly refuse to submit to the punishment.  Others will scream about the unfairness of it all.  The child's lack of acceptance of consequences, however, does not change the parent's authority and the idea of reward and punishment.  The resistance due to the resistance of the child to the simplicity of the yes or no choice.
Ar we as adults any different?  Are we as a Jewish nation any different?  We remind God of His promise to protect us, to help us establish a Jewish state in our Land and all the good things mentioned in the Torah but when it comes to the obligations side of things we get a little fuzzy.  We want a diety that will give us health, prosperity and happiness without having the keep any of the mitzvos.  The same God we want to prevent a child from being hit by a car is the same God we tell to butt out when we decide to drive that car on Shabbos.
As we approach Rosh HaShanah we must therefore learn the balance between our rights and responsibilities.  We have a right to make our own choice in terms of how to live our lives.  God will not force the issue.  There might be subtle suggestions from on high from time to time (for people who are tuned in to such things) but there is no voice from Heaven telling us what to do when we don't want to.  But we also have a right to demand His compassion when we make our best efforts to serve Him. 
On the other side though we have a responsibility to make that best effort.  As Chazal say, God wants the heart and only we and He know if our attempts are our honest best.  We can stand before Him knowing that we cannot fool Him through a sudden display of piety and remorse.  We have a responsibility to examine our deeds and repent them but having done so honestly we have a right to demand forgiveness.
May each of us merit an accurate cheshbon hanefesh that allows us to responsibly demand our right to life and mechilah on Rosh HaShanah.

Wednesday, 21 September 2011

The Coming Storm

Liberal Jews in the west (and a good number of conservative ones too) like to believe that anti-Israel sentiment and Jew-hatred are separate things, that the anti-Israel protester who rabidly calls for the desetruction of our State with saliva spraying from his mouth would not hate them personally as Jews as long as they didn't say something malicious like "I believe Israel has a right to exist" or some other hate-filled line.
There is, of course, good reason for this.  The same psychological backlash from World War 2 that killed nationalism in Europe also made public Jew-hating statements unfashionable.  No one with their head screwed on straight ever believed that the world hated the Jewish nation any less after the details of the Holocaust came out but for several decades it was decidedly impolite to state it openly. 
This situation was a change from what had been common practice in the Western world up until the war.  For people raised in the last two generations who think that the world the way it is now is how it always was, this is the norm.  For those of us who know history, this is a vacation from business as usual. 
And the vacation is coming to an end.
One might point to the UN vote supporting the partitioning of Israel into Jewish and Arabs states in 1947 as evidence of the world's new-found love for Jews.  For those who have watched the UN in action ever since that vote seems less like a gift and more like an attempt to allow the Arabs their own chance to perpetrate a Holocaust, seeing as how they mostly missed out on the European one.  Indeed, the State of Israel's greatest crime in the eyes of the world is its victory in 1949 over the enemy when it was supposed to be wiped out, simultaneously assauging the guilt of the Western world (well we tried to give them a country) and satisfying their darkest dreams (we're finally rid of them!).
Since that time the world has not stopped working towards the end of Israel.  Whether it was openly supporting our enemies (the Russians and their allies) or quietly helping to build the anti-Israel narrative (Western Europe by accepting the Arab lies about Israel) there has been an ongoing attempt by the international community to delegitimize Israel.
In 1993 this effort, along with Shimon Peres' incredible naivete and lust for a Nobel peace prize, resulted in the Oslo Accords.  Israelis saw it as a chance for true and lasting peace but the rest of the world saw it for what it really was: Israel's first admission that it was the criminal in the ongoing conflict and that it was have to make all the sacrifices from then on.
Look at Israel's opening positions back then versus those of the Arabs.  Now look at the positions today.  Israel has moved miles in order to accomodate the Arab demands alongside the request for appeasement by the West.  The Arab demand, however, have not changed one iota - one iota! - since opening day and can be simply summarized as "Please commit national suicide and we'll sign the deal."
Now it would seem we are rapidly approaching the endgame.  This week terrorist Mahmood Abbas, a man with a PhD in Holocaust denial, will stand before the world community and demand that his so-called people be given a state.  Is there any doubt that the General Assembly that once voted that Zionism was racism will easily approve this move?  Is there any doubt that they will clap loudly for him once he is done his speech?  Even if the Security Council rejects the GA's recommendation, either through a vote or veto the damage will be irreversable.  The international community will recognize the existence of a new state of Palestine regardless of whether the UN rules say it should or shouldn't.  What are rules when there is history to be made and Jews to be killed?
And for the record here is the state they will be endorsing:
1) Its first president is a Holocaust denier.
2) Jews will be forbidden by law from living in Palestine.  Not Israelis.  Jews.
3) So will homosexuals, by the way.
4) It will also deny citizenship to those Arabs currently living in UN refugee camps.  Yes, they will deny citizenship to their own people and continue to demand their return to pre-1967 Israel.
Imagine that.  The governments of the so-called civilized world, governments that view Jew-hatred and homophobia with disgust and disapproval, that opine about justice and rights, will gather together to help create a state where the antitheses of these values are official policy.  They will smile, speak about how they have done and great thing and then avert their eyes when things get nasty.
They are not interested in the life of the average Arab in Israel, including Yehuda and Shomron, just as the government of the so-called Palestinian authority is not interested.  They couldn't care less about the well-being of the average Arab, his right to live a life of dignity or his freedom of expression.
This is the message that we must get across: A vote for Palestine is a vote in favour of Jew hatred.  Pure and simple.  If Bolivia or Germany vote in favour of Palestine they are saying "We so hate Israel we are prepared to facilitate the creation of a terrorist state whose values we abhor just to push the end of that State closer to reality".  We must say it clearly and without shame so that those people who still live in the illusion that being anti-Israel and being a Jew-hater are separate things are permanently disillusioned.

Monday, 19 September 2011

The Right Side of Orthodoxy

As I've noted before, it's relatively easy to identify the left side of Orthodoxy, the line at which one ceases to be considered genuinely Torah-observant and can better be classified as heterodox.  Advocating for mixed seating, insisting women can be rabbis or promoting the idea that homosexual marriage is something that traditional Judaism should accept tend to be pretty big red flags. 
The problem is not with the left flank but rather with the right.  It is very hard to define when a person becomes too religious to be considered properly Torah observant.  Some of this is the fault of the superficiality with which we practice our religion.  Let's face it: a person with a black hat and suit who throws the occasional Yiddish word into his vocabulary pretty much gets a pass as "religious" irregardless of personal practice, especially in the bein adam l'chaveiro realm.  The weirder the hat, the longer the coat, the more ultra-Orthodox the person becomes.  Is there ever a point beyond ultra-Orthodoxy when the person can no longer be considered to be a normative Torah-observant Jew?
In some cases there are calls for certain groups to be classed as "too right" for Torah Judaism.  The Neturei Karta, a group of mentally ill primitives if there ever was one, is the classic example of this.  However, they're also an easy example since part of their philosophy is that they're the only real observant Jews anyway.  They're unlikely to walk into a standard community shul and participate in friendly ways so questions like "Can we count them to a minyan" or "can we give them an aliyah" are pretty much academic.
However, a recent article by Rav Yonasan Rosenblum got me thinking that there is, in fact, a working definition for "too Orthodox to be called Orthodox".  Here's the line:

I don't expect to convince the small group of extremists in Ramat Beit Shemesh that their actions endanger the chareidi community. They don't listen to Rav Elyashiv, why would they listen to me?
Here's what I'm thinking.  If one wants to look at defining differences between Modern Orthodoxy and Chareidism one must consider the role of the Rav.  As opposed to MO circles where the Rav is a guide, a teacher or a pesky shul employee good for sermons on Shabbos and Yom Tov, in the Chareidi community the Rav is an authority.  Typical of any authoritarian system there is a pecking order up to the coveted "Godol HaDor" title which, depending on which sect you belong to, is Rav Eliashiv, Rav Sternbuch or Rav {insert name of Chasidic rebbe here}. 
In this system, the word of the Godol HaDor is law.  Similarly the other Gedolim from the various sects also carry a high level of authority.  Ravs Wosner and Shteinman may only be near the top of the heap but if any of them issues a psak it carries tremendous weight for the Yeshivish community.  If they say that doing the hokey-pokey four times before lunch every day is halacha then woe to any Yeshivish kolleleit who doesn't put his right foot in and put his right foot out on schedule. 
Now to the best of my knowledge, no authoritative Godol has authorized or approved the protests that are currently occuring in Beit Shemesh outside a religious girls school.  You know, the one where supposedly pious Jews line up daily to harrass little girls with such educated words as
prutza and shiksa.  In fact, some pretty prominent rabbonim have voiced their opposition to these protests, yet they go on regardless.
Similarly a few years ago there were massive riots in Meah Shearim when children's aid services abducted a child being half-starved to the death by her mentally unstable mother.  At the time there were reports that Rav Sternbuch himself has voiced disapproval of these protests.  Guess what kind of impact those statements didn't have.
Here's a final timely example.  We all recall the story about the Burka Babes of Beit Shemesh (what is it about that town that attracts all these nutbars?) and how their leader was jailed for, amongst other things, beating her children visciously and forcing them to commit incest with each other.  Unfortunately that revelation did not end the existence of this "holier than somebody" group.  No major Rav has spoken approvingly of their Talibanistic customs and several have come out against it.  Again, guess how many women have responded to rabbinic authority and removed their veils.
It's one thing for a MO to ignore a Rav who has told him to do "X".  Heck, they often avoid it because they know how little authority they have.  But here are Chareidi groups, groups defined by obedience to its religious leadership, that is ignoring its that leadership.  Inconceivable.
Unlike the left side where the worst crime is letting a woman lead Kabbalos Shabbos services, the right side seems to delight in violence and public chilul HaShem.  Certainly it is a higher priority to recognize this group's unacceptability
Therefore it seems to me that this is how to define someone who has moved beyond the rightward boundary of Orthodoxy.  If someone takes upon himself a certain practice as a religious duty and is then told by the highest religious authorities that this is wrong but continues the practice then that person has to be seen as having moved outside of Orthodoxy.  He may look ultraOrthodox, he may speak impeccable Yeshivish, he may only buy meat with four different
hechsherim on it but by rejecting rabbinic guidance that his practice is not acceptable he is rejected Orthodoxy.
Naturally I don't expect the ultraOrthodox community to adopt this definition any time soon.  We in the Torah observant world are too ingrained to believe that there is no "too Orthodox for Orthodoxy" position as opposed to "not Orthodox enough to be Orthodox".  However, the Modern Orthodox community may well wish to examine this.  For a long time they have been hammered by the ultraOrthodox over groups like the YCT gang.  It is time to return the favour and point out that on the other side there are those who also masquerade as Orthodox Jews.  

Friday, 16 September 2011

The Trouble With Uman

A couple of weeks ago I was having Shabbos lunch with a friend who has strong ties to the Chasidic world.  As he does every year at this time, he mentioned wistfully that he wished he could be in Uman for Rosh HaShanah to pray at the grave of Rebbe Nachman.  Having done it before he craved the spiritual uplift such an experience provided him.
Now maybe I'm too much of a rationalist but I felt I had to challenge him on that.  I noted that Yerushalayim, not Uman, is the centre of the world.  Unlike much of the last 2000 years, including the years in which Rebbe Nachman, z"l, lived we have access to our spiritual centre up to the Kotel itself.  If we are looking for the one place on Earth where a connection to the Ribono shel Olam is strongest it's right there in Israel.  If Rebbe Nachman was alive today would he insist his followers stay in Uman instead of making aliyah to be closer to God?  Why go to Uman when you could go to Israel?
My friend (I think he still is) smiled and said that I was indeed being rational and logical which is fine except that in matters of spiritualism rationalism and logic simply don't lead to the right conclusions.
Me, I think crap is crap no matter how much incence you blow around it.
Look at all our holy writings.  Has there been any land imbued with holiness other than Eretz Yisrael?  Are we advised to seek out God anywhere other than Yerushalayim?  If we choose to elevate ourselves are we told of any other place in the world where we can maximize that elevation other than Israel?
What's more, the choice is between a grave and the site of our holy Temple (may it be speedily rebuilt).  Yes, Rebbe Nachman was a great and influential man with an amazing legacy but he was just a man and we are talking about a piece of land upon which the Shechinah once manifested itself.  How can one compare the two?
Fortunately it doesn't seem that I'm alone in thinking that this pilgrimage represents a certain abandonment of specific Jewish principles in the name of a spiritual high:
An Israeli rabbi has come out against the increasingly popular custom of married men traveling to the tomb of Rabbi Nachman of Breslav in Uman, Ukraine for the Rosh Hashanah holiday without their families. There is no justification for leaving one's family to take the trip, Rabbi Ratzon Aroussi told Arutz Sheva.
“We must extend blessings to every movement that brings Jews back to Torah, each in his own path, particularly in these days of repentance,” he said. “However, we must speak the truth: the unity of the family is above everything else. It is a very precious thing in halakhah [Jewish law].” He quoted a passage from the Talmud in which a rabbi told his student, “If you have a family, stay with your family.”
The same spiritual benefits can be had in Israel, he continued. “Do we not have tombs here? The forefathers of our nation are buried here, why go abroad? What about the Tomb of the Patriarchs, Rachel's Tomb, the tombs of the great and mighty of our nation... ?”
Rabbi Aroussi, the rabbi of Kiryat Ono and a member of the Rabbinic Council of the Chief Rabbinicate, explained that visits to a chassidic leader on holidays can be problematic for the same reason. “The spiritual connection to the Admor [Torah leader – ed.] is important – but not at the expense of your home,” he declared.
“Whoever leaves his family and goes to his rabbi or 'admor' (Chassidic leader, ed.) for the holidays, whether in the Holy Land or even more so, outside the land, is violating halakhah,” he stated. Those who wish to connect to their spiritual leaders on the holiday “should take care to bring their families with them, but G-d forbid that they should leave their families,” he added.
Rabbi Aroussi stated that a one-time trip to visit the tombs of rabbis buried outside Israel would be permissible, “because it is a trip undertaken for a holy purpose, in order to kindle the flame of faith.” However, such trips should not be taken on an annual basis, he added, and not on the holidays.

Or am I just missing something here?
Israel is the centre of our universe.  There is no comparison between the holiness in our Land and the tumah which envelopes the rest of the world.  To volutarily bypass an opportunity to be in Israel in order to go somewhere else for inspiration would seem to me to miss the whole point of how one should become Jewishly inspired.

Thursday, 15 September 2011

The Inherent Contradiction of Being In Kollel

Over at RationalistJudaism, Rav Natan Slifkin has pointed out in his usual inimitable fashion the problem with Chareidi claims that their right to army exemptions derives from their Torah learning being the real source of protection for the State of Israel.  He starts by brings an excerpt from a column by the venerable Rav Yonasan Rosenblum in Mishpachah Magazine in which he notes that it is in the Chareidi community's interest to support certain financial benefits for those who serve in the army:

To insist on the equivalence of kolleleit to any other societal group is a double-edged sword. A few years back, income supplements for kolleleit meeting certain criteria were challenged in the Israeli Supreme Court on the grounds that such supplements were not available to university students. The Israeli Supreme Court agreed, and rather than extend the supplements to university students, it got rid of them altogether.
I argued at the time that the Supreme Court had erred because university studies and kollel studies are manifestly not the same thing and provide different benefits to society. A democratic legislature can favor one over the other and in different ways precisely because they are manifestly not identical.
No issue so enrages secular Israelis about the chareidi community as the draft deferment for yeshivah students. Chareidi support for generous benefits for those who serve in the IDF is one means of mitigating that animosity. As Rabbi Grylak frequently reminds us, we are a minority in Israeli society, and, as such, should go out of our way not to irritate our secular brethren, especially at a time when Prime Minister Netanyahu has already vowed to review internal social priorities in light of the “social justice” protests.
We will not convince secular Israelis that kollel students protect Israeli society no less than IDF soldiers, and demanding that social policy conform to that assumption only infuriates them.
It is the last paragraph that we are to pay extra attention to. In truth, it's actually less radical than the usual set of claims one hears because it assumes equivalence between the Tzahal's efforts and those of the KDF (Kollel Defence Force) instead of the more common "The KDF is the real army of Israel".  But as Rav Slifkin notes:
Never mind secular Israelis - you won't convince anyone of that. On a theoretical level, it has a very shaky foundation. On a practical level, nobody really believes it - not even charedim.
Further on, Rav Slifkin states:
Second, and most significantly: Regardless of the sources that someone might dig up/ reinterpret to claim that yeshivah and kollel students are protecting Israel, the bottom line is that (a) the facts on the ground demonstrate otherwise, and (b) when push comes to shove, the charedim don't even believe it themselves.
The facts on the ground - as the Gemara would say, הא קא חזינן דלאו הכי הוא! From the tragedy of the Holocaust, to the 1929 massacres in Chevron, to the murders several years ago at Mercaz HaRav Kook, it is evident that Torah students are not even automatically protected from harm themselves, let alone protecting others. And this is only military harm - there are plenty of other kinds of harm that affect Torah students, from illness to fires to road accidents. And Israel does not seem to be any safer now than in 1948, despite the fact that there are 40,000 extra people learning in yeshivah/ kollel.
The charedim don't even believe it themselves. In Kiryat Sefer and Betar, bastions of the charedi community which are full of kollelim, they have the same security fences and armed guards as every other town in Israel that is over the Green Line. They have the same protections against different types of harm; in fact, charedim often seek to get the best doctor, not just a regular doctor! Any charedi person, given the choice of living in a settlement with a kollel but no guards, or a settlement with guards but no kollel, would choose the latter.
Certainly one can think back only a few ago to Operation Cast Lead.  The souther Chareidi community's reaction to the barrage of rockets shot out of 'Aza was not to run to the beis medrash but to Bene Beraq.  If Torah study protects, why the need to flee?
It is Rav Slifkin's final line, however, that leads one to see the innate contradiction that the idea of the KDF presents:

So, if you want to claim that we need lots of people in kollel in order to rebuild Torah after the losses of the Holocaust (although there is vastly more Torah learned today than before the Holocaust), fine. But don't claim that you believe that kollel students are remotely equivalent to the IDF in terms of protecting the country. They're not, and you know it.
Now here's where the inherent contradiction comes in.  The reason the "Gedolim" decreed after the Holocaust that the only good Jew is a full-time learning Jew is because of the need to rebuild the devastated Torah community.  However, if Torah study protects as the KDF claims it does, how did the Holocaust affect the Torah community of Europe?  Should they not have been immune to the devastation?  And if Torah study doesn't protect, if the IDF is superior to the KDF, then what excuse does the community really have for evading their share in the protection of Israel?

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

But Can They Do Their Job

As a physician I receive the monthly magazine from the regulatory authority that gives me my licence to practise medicine.  The magazine is broken down into three sections.  The first is the latest news from the authority, the second is full of new policies and regulations and the third contains summaries from disciplinary proceedings against doctors who have broken the authority's rules.
Guess which section everyone flips to when the magazine arrives in the mail?
Now many times it's quite easy to follow how the doctors in the summaries wound up in trouble and why they were being punished.  However, sometimes the charges lead me to scratch my head in wonder.  For example, a doctor who is convicted of a crime completely unrelated to his practice of medicine might wind up before the authority's disciplinary commitee to receive a second punishment after already having been convicted by the justice system.  Other times things that have nothing to do with the doctor's ability to practice medicine lead to a hearing even though no patients were harmed by the physician's indiscretion.
The purpose of the authority is the ensure the safe and effective practice of medicine so that patient safety and health outcomes are maxmized.  This is a goal any physician could agree with but when the authority goes after doctors for peripheral matters I sometimes wonder if it's running out of things to do and just looking for business.
The Israeli army seems to have adopted the same kind of reasoning as the medical authority as this article details:
Four of the nine religious cadets who walked out of a military event as a female soldier began singing solo will be dismissed from their officers' course, an IDF committee has decided.
The remaining five soldiers will continue the course after managing to convince the committee that the move had not been preplanned.
The incident took place on Monday evening during an event focusing on Operation Cast Lead. When female soldiers began singing solo as part of a military band, the religious troops chose to leave the auditorium.
They were followed by Regiment Commander Uzi Kileger, who informed them angrily: "If you don't come back inside immediately, you will be refusing orders. Anyone refusing an order will be dismissed from the course."
According to the General Staff orders, a religious soldier is entitled not to take part in recreational activity which contradicts his lifestyle and faith, but the orders do not apply to non-recreational military events.
On one hand I can understand the secular position that all soldiers need to participate equally in military events.  On the other hand, however, one has to ask: exactly how did walking out of the ceremony affect these cadets' military abilities? They could have stood up and protested.  They could have demanded that the event be changed or cancelled.  Instead they absented themselves and allowed the performers to continue without interruption.  Exactly how is that inconsiderate or subordinate?  How does it affect their performance as soldiers?
From what I can tell, this incident is more an overreaction by the commanding officer than an important blow for pan-army discipline regardless of background.  Especially in Israel, it is important to remember that there is always a secular-religious tension present and that doing certain things to lower than tension in non-military settings like memorial ceremonies is something that has to be considered.
In recent years the army has made tremendous strides in terms of assimilating religious recruits into its ranks.  The Dati Leumi presence has become stronger and now Chareidim are joining in even greater numbers.  This will require a certain level of accomodation from the high command that will have no impact on what the army's actual job - defending the country - is. Hopefully it will come.

Tuesday, 13 September 2011

A Slice of Turkey

There are two ways to become famous.  The first is to achieve fame through acts of greatness.  The other is to attack someone famous repeatedly in the hopes that proximity brings notoriety.  This approach relies on the "any advertising is good advertising" philosophy and while it might turn the attacker into a villainous figure in the eyes of many it does accomplish its goal of achieving fame.
The temptation to achieve fame seems strongest in those who once possessed it and seek to regain it.  Look at all the efforts that former movie and music stars make to attract the press and regain their former celebrity status in the absence of any new significant positive accomplishments.  If that doesn't convince you, look at Turkey.
Once upon a time, Turkey was the Ottoman Empire, the centre and jewel of the the Muslim world.  It held that status for centuries until finally corruption, institutional decay and World War I brought it crashing down leaving it a second world power named after a noisy bird.
In recent years memories of that glory seem to have become prevalent in the upper echelons of Turkish society.  As a result what was once a staunchly secular country is now sliding back into Islamist territory and reverting from its attempt to be an advanced Western democracy into a pseudo-theocratic state.
Along with this change the memories of glory have led the leadership to attempt to assert Turkey's perceived role as the leading country in the Muslim world.  Unfortunately for the Turkey, there are other contestants for that role.  Egypt has, for decades, seen itself as the leading Muslim/Arab power and in the last several years Iran has made no secret of its desire to wear that mantle.  How is a country named after a tasty sandwich supposed to complete?
Well by taking advantage of the region's scapegoat for all their problems: Israel.
Has anyone missed Turkey's ongoing obsession with Israel over the last few years?  Has anyone really understood why Turkey, a country which has benefited tremendously over the last two decades from its economic and military ties with Israel, has decided to shred all those connections as angrily and noticeably as possible?  
No matter what happens in the region one can be sure of one thing: every day the newspaper will contain reports of yet another attack by the Turkish government against Israel.  Recently there was the kerfuffle over the Palmer report, the results of a UN investigation into the Freedom Flotilla incident last year which outrageously determined that Israel has a legal right to blockade 'Aza and that Turkey should have done more to stop the flotilla from leaving.  Turkey's response was to do everything short of cutting off all ties with Israel, something completely illogical consider they were the guilty party in the report!  Now Racep Erdogan, prime minister of the country named after the common term for a fool, is in Egypt looking for support in his anti-Israel efforts and inventing charged of war crimes Israel never actually committed in order to bolster his claims.  What can he possibly be thinking?
Here's what I think is going on.  As I noted, there are two ways to achieve fame.  Acts of greatness are fine but they take time and effort.  As folks like Perez Hilton can tell you, achieving fame on the backs of others by relentlessly attacking the already famous is a lot easier.
Turkey could achieve greatness in the Muslim world by building a first class economy, sending aid to its impoverished Muslim brethren, and acting as a source of success and inspiration.  It's far easier to attack Israel considering its part of a society where piety is measured by the level of one's Jew-hatred.  And that's the road Erdogan has chosen to take.
How should Israel respond?  There are a few ways.  As I've mentioned before, they could play up an alliance with the Armenians and offer them assistance in making the genocidal slaughter they endured more known to the world. They could develop ties with the Greek half of Cyprus and talk about the island's Hellenist heritage.    More could be done to point out that the bird people have no problem slaughtering their Kurds even as they condemn Israel for blockading terrorists.  They could even sponsor organizations to explore Constantinople's Chrisian heritage.
But there's one surefire way to properly respond to Turkish hostility.  Turkey is constantly goading Israel, much like Gamal Nasser, y"sh, used to do in the 1960's in order to provoke a response and then claim "victim" status.  For Nasser this tactic resulted in the Six Day War.  Israel is unlikely to repeat that miracle with Turkey so this is not a viable option.
The only way to deal with a bully you can't beat the daylights out of is to deny him the attention he wants.  Turkey craves the status within the Islamic world that open enmity with Israel will provide.  So far Israel's response has been picture perfect: unremitting expressions of friendship which is exactly what it should be doing.  All we should be hearing from the Israeli government is reminders of the strong military, economic and cultural ties that bind the two countries together along with the hope that this friendship and alliance will remain strong and untainted for decades to come.
That should be enough to drive Erdogan into a nervous breakdown!

Monday, 12 September 2011

At Least They're Trying

I was visiting a friend the other day (not him, the other one) who, amongst other things, gets the bulletin from his local Conservative synagogue.  Possessed of some down time and with nothing better in reach to read I picked it up and began to leaf through it.
Most of it was the kind of stuff you'll find in any synagogue bulletin.  Obituaries, births, upcoming community events and the like.  But what caught my attention was their schedule for the upcoming High Holyday season.
It always fascinates me to see how people who don't have much in the way of a Jewish education beyond the very basic handle holidays and where they put the emphasis.
The first thing I noticed was their schedule for the first night of Selichos.  To start they had a social hour from 8:30 pm to 9 pm.  Yes, having redefined bas mitzvah from 12 to 13 years of age they have gone one step further and redefined hour down to thirty minutes in length.  (Perhaps I'm just being cynical and the term "social hour" need not refer to a specific 60 minutes period of time?)
Following this, from 9-10 was the "ceremonial" changng of the the accoutrements.  It was time, the blurb noted, to put away the usual clothes and curtains used in the sanctuary year round and bring out the white ones used on Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur.  Unlike other shuls where this is done on motzai Shabbos by the shammes and some volunteers this synagogue was going to do it in an offical ceremony.  Details were conspicuously missing but I don't think they were going to be chanting tehillim or reciting portions of the Gemara while doing it.
Finally at 10 pm they would have their Selichos service.  Yes, I'm aware there are probably leninent opinions allowing the service to be done that early when normally it should be done after chatzos but somehow I doubt the decision to make the service at 10 pm had anything to do with that rather than "What, you expect me to come back here at 1 am?  Are you crazy?"
Two things struck me from reading this little bit.
The first was the ridiculousness of what they were calling Jewish tradition.  A curtain-changing ceremony?  Really?  Where did that come from?  Keep in mind that the 10 pm Selichos service would be the only Selichos service this synagogue has all year around and the bizarreness of a curtain changing ceremony becomes even clearer.  Having ditched actual Jewish traditional ceremonies they then invent a new one to add meaning to the upcoming holiday?
The second was more hopeful.  I grew up with many of the people involved in this farce.  I am well aware that for most of them their Jewish education ended with learning the letters of the aleph beis (a few didn't even get that far and dismiss the importance of knowing Hebrew in order to be an educated Jew as archaic) and perhaps the names of the Avos.  The leader of this motley group has what would pass for a grade 8 education in an Orthodox community but, as the saying goes, in the city of the blind the man with one eye is king.  His knowledge base is strong enough to make him look positively rabbinical in the eyes of the followers and they consider his psak as if it was handed to Moshe at Sinai, not that such a thing as matan Torah ever happened mind you.
Yet despite the man with one eye leading the blind, I was optimistic to note that at least they were trying.  Yes, they seem to have done away with most aveiros that Jews have traditionally held by, having replaced them with modern sins such as not recycling enough, being less than totally egalitarian and being morally relavistic.  And yes, it was at such a Selichos service years ago I heard the line "I like how God forgives us no matter what".  However, they still do believe in the concept of sin and the need to approach God in some fashion before Rosh HaShanah hits.
In other words, despite all their misguided attempts the pintele Yid within them is still seeking out a connection to the Ribono shel Olam.  It might be barely recognizable as properly Jewish but it is still an attempt.  Perhaps the kiruv industry should be coming up with methods of fanning this Jewish spark back into a proper flame while it is still there.

Thursday, 8 September 2011

Holo vs Holo

The Canadian Human Rights Museum, while built to fulfill a noble purpose, has found itself embroiled in controversy over its allocation of space.  As noted in this article from The National Post:
A debate over how the Canadian Museum for Human Rights balances the Holocaust and other genocides has a new flashpoint: a poll that purports to oppose giving the Holocaust primacy of place, though even the pollster himself says the poll has been misinterpreted.

The federally-funded museum, originally the dream of the late Israel Asper and set to open in about two years in Winnipeg, will have an area dedicated to the murder of six million Jews during the Second World War.
Other mass atrocities — including the Rwandan massacres, the Cambodian Killing Fields and the planned starvation and execution of at least 3.2 million Ukrainians in the 1930s under Stalin — will be housed together in an adjacent area.
It is a point that has angered many ethnic groups in Canada, particularly those from Eastern Europe, who feel their misfortunes will be placed on a lower rung on a hierarchy of suffering.
The one community that has been especially angered by this decision is the Ukrainian one.  The argue that their Holodomor, the Stalinist persecution in which millions of them died, is as significant as the Holocaust and that if the Jews get their own wing then so do they. 
One could easily argue successfully with them on this point.  First one should note that as far as mass atrocities go the Holocaust is unique.  Name any other major massacre in 20th century history and you will see the obvious differences.  The Rwandan and Cambodian slaughters were the result of a government turning on its own citizens in order to secure political control.  The Ukrainians were similarly killed by Stalin, y"sh, to prove a point: don't mess with Moscow or else.
The Holocaust was unique in that one national group, the Germans, made it their overriding policy to wipe out another national group, that would be us Jews, no matter where we were.  It wasn't about ridding Germany of its Jews.  It was about ridding the world.  The Holocaust was also unique in that the persecuted group was not a threat to the attackers.  Unlike the other massacres mentioned where civil war, tribal loyalites or the need to show political power were concerns the Holocaust was about killing Jews simply because they were Jews.  Finally, the Holocaust was unique in how not just the Germans but many other nations, including many allied with or occupied by the Nazis, y"sh, along with many actively fighting them otherwise cooperated to ensure that only a bare minimum of Jews could escape the horror being perpetrated against them.
Although in the decades since the war most of the countries directly involved in the Holocaust have expressed at least some statements of regret (even as many of them ironically make strong efforts to repeat the Holocaust in Israel through their open support of our enemies) one such nation that seems not to care about what happened on its soil is the Ukraine:

It seems parts of Europe are less tolerant now than they were in the 16th century. Last week, I watched as bulldozers began to demolish the adjacent remnants of what was once one of Europe's most beautiful synagogue complexes, the 16th-century Golden Rose in Lviv. Most of the rest of the synagogue was burned down, with Jews inside, by the Nazis in 1941.
During the war, 42 other synagogues were destroyed in Lviv, which from the middle ages to the 20th century was known by its Austrian (and Yiddish) name, Lemberg, and then called Lvov after the Soviets annexed it in 1945. The remnants of the Golden Rose are one of the few remaining vestiges of Jewish existence in Lviv, the majority of whose residents, in 1940, were Jewish.
It is not only morally wrong for bulldozers to drill through the last traces of this vibrant past without first giving the handful of remaining Jews here a chance to restore this site, or turn it into a place of memorial. It is legally wrong too. Ukraine's own laws are designed to preserve such historic sites.
The Ukrainian authorities are not the only ones at fault. Where is the UN cultural organization UNESCO? The synagogue ruins were designated part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1998.
And where is European soccer body UEFA? The Ukrainians are planning to build a hotel on the site to host fans and players at next year's European soccer championships, the world's third most-watched sporting event, which they are co-hosting with Poland. So much for UEFA's much-hyped campaign to "Kick racism out of football." (In addition to there being residual anti-Semitism in Ukraine, the authorities seem to be motivated by cultural and historical crassness and illiteracy, and denial of the past, as well as real-estate greed.)
During the Holocaust, 420,000 Jews, including over 100,000 children, were murdered in Lviv and its environs, more than in almost any other city in Europe. The killing was so efficient that the Nazis organized transports of Romanian and Hungarian Jews to be brought here to be killed once they were done killing the Polish and Ukrainian Jews. There were almost no survivors.
Yet you will hardly find any reference to this in the official guide books or in the museums of Lviv. There is no monument to the murdered Jews in Lviv's old town.
A few elderly people still remember. One Ukrainian woman who approached me last week as I stood at what used to be the ghetto entrance told me she remembered, as a child, seeing Jews whipped as they were forced to walk on their knees back and forth for hours until they collapsed, and were then shot while Nazis laughed.

In the end, this is why the Holodomor might deserve its own wing in the museum.  Like the Holocaust it too has a unique feature: its victims, when given the chance, did to the Jews what the Soviets, y"sh, did to them.  The idea that a people could suffer in such a way and then learn absolutely nothing moral about it, could remain as cruel as their oppressors, is certainly unique.
It should be remembered that the Ukraine has an extensive history of Jew hatred including the worst massacres of Jews between the destruction of the Second Temple (may it speedily be rebuilt) and the Holocaust, the Cheilmnitsky pogroms.  It should come as no surprise that Ukraine today has no interest in remember its enthusiastic participation in the Holocaust.  They can't come right out and wear it as a badge of pride but perhaps intentional neglect of history is a suitable substitute for them.

Tuesday, 6 September 2011

Slow Change

In the wake of the devastation after the Holocaust, the leaders of the Chareidi community chose to change the lives of their followers in a radical way.  To respond to the loss of so many great rabbonim and scholars the decision was made to impose a "Learn, don't earn" lifestyle on the masses.  The hope was that with a huge increase in the numbers of full-time kolleleit over the next couple of generations the loss in Torah knowledge that the Holocaust produced would be replaced.
Looking around one can see that this decision bore a great amount of fruit.  More people are learning Torah full time now than at any time in our nation's history.  There are more books being published on Torah subjects than ever before.  Someone wanting to learn in yeshiva has an incredible number of options to choose from, especially in Israel.
Unfortunately there is a dark side to ideological shift.  The change from "earn" to "learn" was made possible by the creation of the State of Israel.  With a government's resources to fund it, the Chareidi community was able to build the educational network it needed and provide support to the full-time learners who, despite a tremendous bekius in Torah, would never learn how to provide for their families.  As a result, a community of poverty-stricken men was created, one in which the average person might know much of Shas baal peh but have only a rudimentary knowledge of basic math, grammer and science. 
As time has gone on and life has become more expensive it has become obvious that the limited stipends that kolleleit live off of are not enough to maintain even a basic standard of living.  This has led to the wives of the community being forced into the workplace, again in a limited fashion due to their narrow education and the dictates of "modesty" which restrict them from many places that they might choose to seek a living.  Add to that the continued responsibility for looking after the children while the tzadiki they married shteigs his Gemara all day long.  Is this an enduring lifestyle?
For a few years now there has been a quiet muttering within the Chareidi community that the current situation cannot continue.  For those who are struggling and forseeing even greater struggles for their children the idea that working in a career and balancing that with Torah is somehow a sin has become bizarre and beyond understanding.  However, the leaders of the community, those with wealth that insulates them from the struggles of the underclass, don't seem to have come to this realization.  As Rav Shteinman, shlit"a, said to a Chareidi publication a few years ago on the subject of creating a Chareidi college to teach trades and professions: better they live in poverty and purity of Torah.
One can gauge how great the crisis is by how much of a fuss the official Chareidi press makes of it.  One such mention occured in 2008 when the venerable Rav Yonasan Rosenblum all but called for a community-wide re-evaluation of the "Learn, don't earn" philosophy.
His voice has now been joined by another, Rav Chaim Ansalem, in a recent article in The Jerusalem Post, noted the obvious:
Hundreds of thousands of students begin a new school year today. Some will learn basic Judaism and Torah along with general studies. Some will study Torah in the mornings and general studies in the afternoons, and some will learn Torah exclusively. While the minimal degree of Jewish content in the more secular schools saddens me, I am even more troubled by the third category described above. The haredi world in which I live does not educate children in accordance with Jewish tradition.

Haredi schools not following Jewish tradition!? Aren’t they the ones who do uphold tradition? Haven’t the more modern movements veered from the path?
The answer is simply that any movement which teaches its children only Torah is a modern aberration.
Traditional Torah sources teach in the clearest of terms that learning a trade to support one’s family with dignity – alongside Torah study and living a Torah-observant lifestyle – is the highest of ideals. For example, in the Jerusalem Talmud, Peiah, Chapter 1 interprets the Torah’s instruction to “choose life” as a command to have a trade. The Babylonian Talmud, Kiddushin, 29a teaches that “a father must teach his son a trade. Anyone who does not teach his son a trade is as if he taught his son robbery.” The Midrash on Ecclesiastes Chapter 9 instructs: “Acquire for yourself a trade together with Torah.” The Babylonian Talmud, Brachot 8a goes as far as saying that “a person who earns a living from his own handiwork is greater than one who fears heaven.” Finally, Wisdom of our Fathers Chapter 2 states emphatically that “any Torah not accompanied by work will end up being nullified, and will lead to sin.”
A glance through the Mishna and Talmud reveals that along with being great Torah sages, the leaders of their generations earned a living as doctors, tailors, launderers, plowers, carpenters, land measurers, shoe makers and repairmen, wood choppers, beer makers, bakers, smiths, trap makers, engravers, skin tanners, mill workers, scribes, pit diggers, bundle and beam transporters, wool merchants and weavers.
All the above sources no doubt served as the basis for the teaching from Maimonides, himself a world-class Torah scholar and physician (Laws of Torah Study 3:10-11): “Any person who makes the decision to study Torah without a livelihood and to sustain himself from charity – such a person desecrates God, disgraces Torah, extinguishes the light of religion, causes bad for himself, and removes himself from the World to Come… and our sages also commanded that a person should not earn a living from Torah… It is a high level for a person to earn a living from his own toil and a trait of the saintly. Through this, a person earns all the honor and good in this world and the next.”
This approach continued until the past few hundred years. For example, the 15th century Orchot Tzadikim (309), teaches that “A person must find middle ground with two responsibilities and set aside hours for Torah study and for work in this world, and must strengthen himself to do both… neither should take away from the other.” The famed Maharal of 16th century Prague relates in Netivot Olam that “when a person is busy with two pursuits – work to provide for what his body needs and Torah for completion of his soul – he will not find any sin.”
So it is clear that Jewish tradition advocates intensive Torah study together with learning a trade. In our times, this means teaching students whatever they need to earn a university degree – the primary path for earning a livelihood in today’s world. (I also advocate joint yeshiva and university programs – a topic for a future column).
Lest one think it is impossible to provide an intensive yeshiva education while studying language, mathematics, science or history, a glance at the yeshiva world in the US proves that highschool students attending the most haredi institutions – Lakewood, Torah Va’daas, Philadelpia, Chaim Berlin, Telshe, and more study all these subjects as mandated by US law. This provides students with the option of university study, which many pursue, and produces well-balanced and worldly Torah scholars who bring sanctity to God’s name in the workplace and earn great respect for their communities.
I must make two important clarifications. Maimonides, at the end of the Laws of the Sabbatical and Jubilee years, elaborates on the benefits of doing nothing but studying Torah. The Ohr HaChayim, one of the greatest biblical commentators of the early 18th century, explains that this teaching refers to a person or group who wants to support a full-time Torah scholar in a partnership. Maimonides, in the Laws of Torah Study quoted above, is referring to a person who places a burden on the nation through his learning, and essentially forces others to support him. If someone has a private arrangement by which he does nothing but study Torah while receiving the support of a private individual, this is a blessing.
I personally love nothing more than quiet moments alone with the Talmud, or studying the Parsha with my children, and cannot imagine a more beautiful lifestyle. However, as Maimonides states, no person can choose to place the burden of supporting him on the community. This is exactly what the haredi school system does.
Now, without doubt, Rav Ansalem's call will fall on many deaf ears.  One problem is the current structure of the Chareidi community.  At the top sit the so-called "Gedolim".  In reality they are figureheads while the real power lies in the stratum just underneath, the "Askanim".  Through manipulation, selective presentation of news from the outside world and simple threats, the Askanim create a system of rule in which the Gedolim decree ban after chumra after outraged call for action based on the "ideal" Charedi system of thought that the same Askanim think should exist.  Through their filter the Gedolim will no doubt be told that Rav Chaim Ansalem is calling for the destruction of the kollel system and the wholesale integration of all Chareidim into secular society.  Naturally there will be official condemnation of his position.
But perhaps the rank and file, tired of the Daas Torah that leaves their bellies empty and their teeth slowly rotting, will hear the message.  At that point the leadership will have a choice.  They can either realize that change to the previous system is inevitable or wave their hands as if to say "Any Chareidi who wants to work is already OTD so let them go already".  Hopefully the former will be their enlightened choice.

Monday, 5 September 2011

Go Back To Your Ghetto

Although many in the Chareidi community claim that their ideology is the most faithful to the authentic Jewish mesorah, there are many holes in this belief.
For one thing, Jewish life was not always and everywhere like it was in the impoverished shtetls of eastern Europe.  Jews did not always wear bekishers and shtreimls.  They did not always speak Yiddish and they did not always speak Hebrew with a specific accent.  The Talmud did not always look the way it does now and a black hat was not in common usage until a few decades ago.
But the real hole in the belief that everything new is forbidden and that they are practising just like their ancestors did centuries ago is the selectivity of their practice.  I know of no Chareidim who, like the Mennonites, eschew electricity.  They use soap and toilet paper (to the best of my knowledge) and they have no philosophical problems with driving in cars, at least on those days when they're not stoning them.  Like all of us in the Torah observant community, they pick and choose.  The difference is just what innovations they've chosen to accept and the indignation with which they view those who choose others.
Koheles warns us not to wish for "the good old days" because such idle dreaming is for fools.  This has not stopped many around the world from doing just that.  In medicine we often have to contend with "home birthers" who believe that since hospitals are full of sick people they are best avoided when giving birth.  Besides, for millenia women birthed at home so it's more "natural".  What they like to forget is that the rate of infant and maternal morbidity and mortality is far, far lower in the sterile delivery room than it is in their bedrooms.  They remember the good and purposefully forget the bad. 
Well so do these particular Chareidim.  They remember with nostalgia the wonderful aspects of Jewish life in eastern Europe -the culture, the spirtuality, the close-knit sense of community - and forget the bad - the pogroms, the epidemics, the grinding poverty, the uncertainty that tomorrow the government would issue a decree that would ruin their lives.  Do they really want to go back to that?
Well fortunately within the State of Israel they don't have to.  In Israel they can sit around, invent a beautiful past history that, for the most part, never actually happened and then pretend that they are living in that history.  They can have the culture, the spirituality and the close-knit sense of community while the State provides a vaguely menacing government reminiscent of the Czars and Kaisers of Europe while not actually having to worry that the Knesset will issue any decrees remotely similar to those that the Jew hating rules of Europe used to.  They can scream "Nazi" and "Cossack" at their fellow Jews safe in the knowledge that, unlike real Nazis and Cossacks, they will not suddenly be surrounded by armed hostiles and beaten to a pulp.  In short, they can be deluded bullies.
And deluded bullies they are, as the latest kerfuffle between radical Chareidim and the rest of reality plays out in Beit Shemesh. In short, a new Dati Leumi school for girls - not a secular school, not a mixed school - opened up in "proximity" to a Chareidi neighbourhood.
Now before going on, some things have to be clarified.  First, to paraphrase Worf from Star Trek: TNG, there are those in the Chareidi community who define proximity as anything within their field of view.  Second, the Dati Leumi community is a special threat to some Chareidim as the presense of devout, observant Jews who are also Zionist contradicts their assertion that, in order to be a devout and observant Jew, you must not be Zionist.
As a result these particular Chareidim have behaved in a fashion that can only be described as a barbaric chilul HaShem.  Dressed in what they define as Jewish garb they have occupied the school, threatened parents and children with violence and continue to harrass all those who would oppose their hatred with insults and vehemence.  All while announcing that they are doing this for God's honour and the purity of the Torah community, of course.
When it comes to the left end of Orthodoxy it is well known that we are vigilant for those who would blur the line between proper Torah observance and heterodoxy.  It is time to start looking at the right end of Orthodoxy in the same fashion.  Just as a rabbi who announces that he is not going to say a particular beracha because it offends his liberal egalitarian sensibility has to have his Orthodox credentials questioned, so even more do these animals in the guise of men have to be told "You are not Torah observant!  You are not Orthodox!"  No, the vast majority of Chareidim are not like this but the actions of these primitives cast a dark pall on their entire group and they need to be rejected from it.
And if their opponents say that while brandishing crowbars in a menacing fashion, so much the better.

Sunday, 4 September 2011

The Right Way To Apologize

Despite serving as the launching pad for a group of terrorists disguised as do-gooders during last year's attempt to break the legal Israeli blockade of 'Aza, Turkey continues to preen its Islamic pride and demand an apology from Israel for daring to defend itself from folks determined to cause it harm.  The most recent provocation from the country named after a tasty bird is the recall of its ambassador and the official downgrading of relations with Israel in both the military and political spheres.  The idea that Israel must apologize for protecting itself has become an obsession with the Turkish government.  Even the boycott-breakers have moved on after the failure of a second flotilla to even leave port in an organized fashion but the Turks continue to pound away at Israel, especially after the Palmer report which allocated blame in the incident, was published.
And one wonders why the Turks care so much.  After all, the Palmer report should have been a clue to the them to back off.  After all, if a UN report actually manages to not blame Israel 100% for some international incident that should be a clear signal that Israel was actually in the right.  Yet the insistent demand for an apology keeps coming.
Therefore it would seem to me that Israel does indeed need to provide an apology to Turkey.  The most appropriate site for such a ceremony would be somewhere in the part of Cyprus illegally occupied by those same Turks.  In addition to a senior Israeli minister, like the one for sport or the environment, showing up, there should be a representative of the Israeli Armenian community.  You remember the Armenians, right?  The people that the Turks took to massacring a little over one hundred years ago and still have not shown any regret?
The Israeli representative should, with a great smile, indicate his intention to fully apologize for his country's insistence on defending itself from attack but say this in the interest of historical continuity the Turks should first apologize to the Armenians for trying to wipe them out.  After all, that did happen before the Marmalade debacle last year.
After all, if the Turks are big on apologizing, should they start by cleaning their own house instead?