Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Tuesday, 19 June 2012

The Paradigm Shift

If news services like the Yated and Matzav had been around at the time the events of parshas Shelach were happening, one wonders what their headlines would have been like.
Consider the scenario from this perspective.  The twelve spies sent by Moshe Rabeinu, a"h, have just returned from their whirlwing tour of Eretz Yisrael, the very first Birthright trip if you think about it.  All of them are pillars of the community.  Remember that the Torah describes them each as a nasi and an ish, terms of renown and distinction.
Yet when it comes time for reporting, ten of the them - a clear majority - make the plain case that aliyah to Israel is simply not an option for the people.  Through a combination of selective reporting and outright scare tactics they convince the nation en masse that crossing the border is a bad idea.  God's promises?  Feh!  Moshe Rabeinu's assurances?  Feh!  Within almost no time at all everyone was complaining about the idea and rallying against Moshe Rabeinu's leadership.  We hear of only two prominent people who oppose this sudden shift in opinion:
So imagine the Yated and Matzav headlines.  "Virtually all 'Gedolim' agree: Zionism a bad idea!" "'Gedolim': Don't move to Eretz Yisrael!"  "'Embrace a return to Egypt' say the leaders of the generation!"  Imagine being there and saying that you think that trusting Moshe Rabeinu is a good idea.  How many folks would angrily snap back at you "But all the 'Gedolim' are against him!"  And if you pointed out that, in fact, two very important leaders, Yehoshua and Caleiv, supported Moshe Rabeinu, you'd be told that they could be safely ignored.  After all, one of his student so how could you expect anything else and the other was his brother-in-law.
No, it would be the general consensus that going to Israel was bad, certainly not what God truly wanted.  Rav Avi Shafran himself would probably post something on Cross Currents noting Moshe Rabeinu's "true" track record and scoffing at the idea that he knew what God really wanted.
Orthodox Jews are, by nature, a very conservative people when it comes to change.  A lot of that is tied into the importance of what we practice.  The observance of Torah is the fulfillment of God's will in this world.  It is a task designed to bring the Divine light into creation.  It also charts the path for our immortal souls in the Next World after we die.  With stakes like that care and precision are quite important.  As a result, when a situation arises that demands a change in how we view things we are likely to be quite skeptical or hesitant to change anything we're doing as a result.
One of the explanations I've heard regarding the reason for the Spies' treason and Bnei Yisrael's immediate acceptance of it was because of this factor.  Life in the desert was quite good for our ancestors.  Man and quail every day, fresh water right outside the tent door, handy clouds of glory shielding one from the son, clothes and shoes that never wore out and all day to appreciate the ziv haShechina and learn Torah.  Although it's rarely presented in this way, that time in our history was as close as living people could get to the ideal existence.
The logic is also simple.  If it is our goal to be a Torah-learning people first and only then the situation in the desert was vastly preferable to that of living in Israel.  In Israel things would change.  Fields had to be ploughed and irrigated.  Water had to be drawn.  Homes had to be built.  Wars had to be fought.  How could one sit and learn all day in that kind of environment?  It could be every easy to argue that entering Israel would be a step back for the Am HaNivchar if immersion in Torah learning was the true goal of the nation.
There is another factor to consider, one which is also rarely mentioned.  Leaders in any given social situation almost always prefer things not to change.  After all, change might present a threat to their leadership or vision for society.  Didn't you ever wonder why, 33 years after taking over Iran the government there still talks about "the revolution" as if it's still happening?  Few leaders to change things around him in such a way that he loses his power, even if it's for the good of society.  Call it the Mikhail Gorbachev fumble.
Then remember that the Spies were leaders.  Would they be once the people entered Israel, decentralized and settled down?  Would they face challenges to their positions?  Would circumstance change how they did things?  And would they reject change because of these possibilities?
All this is quite relevant because, as many people either happily or unhappily acknowledge, the world has changed around us in huge ways in the last 125 years.  For those who still haven't noticed, Israel is once again ruled by a Jewish government.  It is the largest community of our people on the planet.  Every corner of the Land is flourishing with batei medrash and yeshivos.  We live in unprecedented times that present us with opportunities unheard of by us for 1900 years.
And yet for many of us in the Torah observant community, all this is ignored or viewed with disdain.  No one would propose that the current State of Israel is living a Jewish ideal or that many of its citizens are living properly observant lives.  With the opportunity for kiddush HaShem has come opportunity for chilul HaShem of equal and opposite magnitude.  But for these folks the latter is all they see.
With that selective vision they also invoke canards that are accepted as truths due to frequency of repetition. Lines like "it's against the Three Oaths" or "all the 'Gedolim' were and are against Zionism!" get tossed around as justification for ignoring our God-given (literally) opportunity to advance history towards the Final Redemption.  Nothing special is happening here according to them and we need see no special significance in  the events of the last century.  New York and Lakewood are just as holy, maybe even more so.
When one reviews last week's parasha it's sad to think that this refusal to see the hand of God in history, or to even willfully line up against it while claiming to be His greatest servants and defenders, is actually nothing new for us.
The Spies aren't even the only example. It seems that every time we are called to return home and claim our Land there is resistance.  Those with an education in the books of Ezra and Nechemiah will recall how poorly the great aliyah in those days went.  Although we have no alternative Jewish records from that time one can only imagine the reason a tiny minority of the Jews living in Babylon returned to Israel despite the direct encouragement of the Persian emperor.  Were they similar to those of today?  Was life in golus so comfortably by that point that they couldn't or wouldn't countenance a change in the situation?
If I was a mussar kind of guy I would point out that it one of our axioms that whenever a great chance for us to fulfill God's will is presented to us the yezter hara receives a corresponding boost in strength in order to create a real challenge in realizing the opportunity.  As the person is, so is his yetzer.  If you combine that then imagine the force of deception that would have arisen to combat the first stirrings of the Final Redemption 125-150 years ago.  Is it then any wonder that this deception could ensnare so many leaders and convince them that anti-Zionism was the most pleasing philosophy to serve God with?
"It's against the Three Oaths!"  Really, which Oath was violated?
"All the 'Gedolim' were and are against Zionism!"  Really?  There weren't any great authorities with trans-community importance who didn't support the idea of Jews returning to Israel to rebuild the Land?
"Well they were a minority.  Almost all the Gedolim were against Zionism!"  And almost all the Spies were against Zionism too.  And who was right?
When confronted with the superior numbers of the Reformatives and our refusal to recognize the legitimacy of their religious practices, we remind people that Judaism is not a democracy.  The logical extension of this goes further.  Lines like "All the 'Gedolim' say..." have no intrinsic weight of their own.  It is possible for the greatest, most pious men to line up on the wrong side of Jewish history.
And the results are never encouraging.  In the time of the Spies it meant an entire generation wandering through the desert looking for that dropped penny until they died.  In Ezra's time the lack of interest in returning cost us a chance to have the Final Redemption at that point.  Even the Shechinah had no presence in the Second Temple as a result.
The paradigm has changed.  The tafkid of the Religious Zionist community must be to push this concept forcefully.  Forget Aish and Chabad.  We should be promoting outreach, connecting to our disconnected brethren and forcefully promoting the truth that our return to Zion is not an aberration or error of history but part of fulfilling the Divine Will.  And we should remind people of the consequences should we fail.

Sunday, 17 June 2012

You Can't Maintain The Darkness Forever

One of the canards of Chareidi society is that it never changes, that what is practiced today is how Judaism has always been.  This is untrue but a great deal of effort is put into maintaining the illusion.
Another canard is that Chareidim have always valued a "learn, don't earn" culture.  Again, anyone from pre-War Europe will tell you this is not how things were until after the war when the famously anti-innovation Chazon Ish, zt"l, innovated a major change in Chareidi society by declaring that learning full-time was really the only acceptable occupation for one who is chared l'davar HaShem.  And even since then the increasingly large Chareidi community has committed itself, especially in Israel, to a life of dependency while it toils away in its kollelim and yeshivos.  The result is a huge number of people living in poverty with a limited education outside of Talmud and poskim.  Despite all the Artscroll-style books extolling the spiritual greatness of such a life, many of the people actually living it have been quietly seething at the limitations it forces on its practitioners.  It's one thing to immerse oneself freely into a Torah-only lifestyle, quite another to be raised by a system that prepares a person for nothing else.
Add to that the little-known fact that the average Chareidi is intelligent, motivated and desires a better life for himself and his children and you have the fertile ground for the growing disconnect between the Chareidi leadership and its followers.
As I've noted before, Chareidim do change slowly over time but on one condition: no one is allowed to acknowledge it.  Like the Minitrue in George Orwell's 1984, history and religious principles are revised to reflect the new reality and present an altered history consistent with it.
Thus while the Chareidi leadership officially disdains any involvement with general society and non-Torah education, more and more Chareidim are doing the exact opposite and engaging both.  Chareidi units in the army are slowly increasing in number while more and more Chareidim are attending modified post-secondary institutions that cater to their special cultural requirements in order to become employable.  Again, none of this can be acknowledged by the leadership but as Israel Hayom notes, this will soon start to change:

You will be seeing them near you. You will not find them in movie theaters or nightclubs, but you will see them driving the Mazda on your right at the traffic light. They will be standing on line in front of you and behind you at the duty-free shops in Ben-Gurion Airport and will be sitting at the next table in restaurants all over the country. They work for a living just like you do, and in complete opposition to the description of haredim as parasites, they earn salaries similar to those of the Israeli middle class.
This description comes from a haredi man wearing a black suit and a black skullcap on his head. He represents the "new haredi" movement that has had Israel’s religious world in an uproar in the recent past. If this phenomenon had been hidden away like skeletons in the closets of haredi society until fairly recently, now no one dares to ignore it.
This topic — one of the most sensitive and urgent in the haredi sector — threatens to change the face of haredi society. Some people claim that this new movement is going to cause a revolution.
The number of the "new haredim" is estimated in the tens of thousands.
They are scattered throughout the haredi population centers in Israel, from Jerusalem to Bnei Brak, from Beitar Illit to Elad, from Beit Shemesh to Upper Modi’in. Most of them come from the major Lithuanian segment identified with the United Torah Judaism party. Their parents no longer shun them as was done in the past, even if they do not necessarily condone their children’s choices. “The parents are in no hurry to let people know that they have "new haredim" at home, but they are not ashamed of it either,” one of them says. “Ostracism by the family has become something that is done only by the more extreme types, if at all.”

The bias against admitting that this change is happening, spreading in size and desirable will remain for quite some time.  A few posts ago, in an attempt to sound modern and accomodating, Rav Yonasan Rosenblum tried to point out that one of his sons, although he works full-time, has maintained a full Chareidi lifestyle.  the attempt backfired when one of the comments at Cross Currents noted that the wording he used made it sound like he was labelling his son as one might a mentally retarded child: Yes, he's quite a good boy even though he's not as intelligent as the others.
But as more and more Chareidim penetrate the army and the workplace and yet remain staunchly devoted to their community, all the excuses about how the secular world corrupts etc. etc. will become challenged.  And as more and more join the workforce the old threats of ostracism and losing a shidduch will lose their effect. How many of the fathers who insist they only want a ben Torah for a son-in-law are truly thrilled about committing their grandchildren to a life of poverty?  Like everyone else, many Chareidim don't see an empty fridge as a desirable thing.
Slowly change will come but remember: you can't actually talk about it.

Friday, 15 June 2012

How Would It Have Evolved

One of the interesting phenomena surrounding the Jewish population of Eastern Europe is how it has taken on an almost mythical status in the minds of so many.  Perhaps it's because of how tragically and quickly the community went from being the centre of the Jewish world into oblivion but our cultural impression of what life was like in the alte heim before the War remains biased towards excerpts from Isaac Bashevis Singer stories of his youth and Fiddler On The Roof.
The true situation, as anyone who is there will tell you, was far more complex.  Jewish life in Eastern Europe ranged from the extreme left to the extreme right.  As Elliot Jager writes:

The striking thesis of On the Eve is that even before Hitler came to power in 1933, the prognosis for European Jewry was bleak: "The demographic trajectory was grim and, with declining fertility, large-scale emigration, increasing outmarriage, and widespread apostasy, foreshadowed extinction. Jewish cultural links were loosening . . . many Jews wanted to escape from what they saw as the prison of their Jewishness."  Millions of Jews abandoned Europe in the interwar period—perhaps 10 percent of the Jewish population; many headed to America. Wasserstein's well-chosen epigraph is from historian Simon Dubnow (whose quixotic championing of an autonomous Diaspora-based Jewish nationalism is itself a historical footnote): "The historian's essential creative act is the resurrection of the dead." 
Wasserstein proves himself to be most adept at the task.  He breathes life into old quarrels, both political and theological: Agudas Yisroel against the Reform; both against the Zionists; the anti-Zionist extremist Hasidim of Satmar against the anti-Zionist fanatics of Munkacz; the General Zionists versus Revisionists, and so on.  Economically, most Jews made their living in commerce or in the professions since anti-Semitic strictures essentially closed academia, government, and agriculture to them. Demographically, by the early 1930s most Jews in Germany were marrying out.
Against all this, Wasserstein's portraits of life in heder, niggun-composing Hasidic rebbes, the workings of yeshivot in Mir, Lublin, and Ponevezh, and a sketch of the Mussar movement show an Orthodoxy in decline but no means defeated.  It faced minor competition from the non-Orthodox whose Budapest rabbinical school, for example, allowed its seminarians to attend (gasp) the cinema. In much of Europe, the real challenge to tradition came from newfound access to the outside world—while in the Soviet Union it was the jealous god Stalin.

It is interesting to wonder what would have happened over time if the Nazis, y"sh, would not have come to power or started World War II.  Alternate histories are generally the realm of fantasy/science fiction writers and are always difficult to discuss with any precision but, as an important secondary character in an excellent fantasy trilogy, I thought I might consider possibilities.
First of all, as the article notes, we have to dispense with the myths.  Not all Jews were religious, some didn't even get a basic cheder education and amongst the religious not all were what we now call Chareidim.  Furthermore, many Jews were not happy about where they lived but remained there simply because they had no place else to go.  By the late 1930's the British, y"sh, had closed the borders to Israel while the Americans, Canadians and western European nations had strongly limited immigration opportunities.  What's more, despite the rising trend to assimilation, cultural exclusion by the main national groups in eastern Europe limited Jewish opportunities in professions and education.  One could be a completely non-identifying Jew with a totally Polish name but that wouldn't help when one came to apply to university or went looking for a job in general society.  How many Jews were Jewish simply because there was nowhere else to go?
Yet things were slowly changing.  Eastern Europe had always lagged the West when it came to societal development, remaining Second World to the West's First World status but over time the nations of the East were progressing.  Emancipation hadn't happened like it did in France and Germany but there was a trend towards liberalization that would eventually have created a more open society if the war hadn't intervened.
As a result one could surmise that other than the Soviet Union, the countries of Eastern Europe would eventually have assimilated their Jews into general culture the way the West did.  Combined with the growing strength of the Haskalah this would have devastated the religious population of Eastern Europe which relied on a great deal of gentile exclusionism and Jew-hatred to maintain the loyalty of the faithful.
All this is idle thinking, of course, but it is fascinating to note one specific quote:"The demographic trajectory was grim and, with declining fertility, large-scale emigration, increasing outmarriage, and widespread apostasy, foreshadowed extinction. Jewish cultural links were loosening . . . many Jews wanted to escape from what they saw as the prison of their Jewishness".
Sounds a lot like North America, doesn't it?

Wednesday, 13 June 2012

But Where Does The Trend End

Around twenty years ago a large Jewish population study caused a major panic in the secular Jewish community.  The study showed that assimilation was rampant and that intermarriage was eating faster into the Jewish community's declining numbers than any other factor. There was apathy and lack of education along with the idea that Jewish identity was built around the Holocaust and secular Zionist patriotism.
As a result we got a campaign called "Jewish continuity".  Desperate to stem the tide, non-religious Jewish groups brainstormed for ideas that would increase young Jews' sense of belonging to their religion.  Birthright was developed to give secular kids a chance to tour Israel and enjoy its varieties of alcohol and much money was invested in increasing Jewish educational opportunities like, oh say, the Holocaust.
Now the new survey of the New York population is out and the results are fascinating to behold.  As Jonathan Tobin writes:

The survey's estimate of New York City's Jewish community pegs it at about 1.1 million, with 1.54 million being counted when you include the surrounding suburban counties on Long Island and Westchester (Jews in Northern New Jersey who would also be considered part of Greater New York were not counted). Of even greater import is that the rapid expansion of fervently-Orthodox and Hasidic Jewry are the sole reason for this population growth.
By contrast, the numbers of Jews who identity with the heretofore much larger non-Orthodox movements have declined precipitately. The only other sector that is growing is made up of those Jews who reject all the denominations or eschew religion entirely. If, as the survey tells us, 40 percent of Jews in New York City and 74 percent of all Jewish children are Orthodox, then this must inform our conclusions not only about what American Jews believe but also about its future. When combined with the nearly one-third of Jews who are abandoning Jewish identity altogether, this paints a picture of an American Jewish population that is comprised of two ships passing each other in the night — one becoming increasingly Orthodox and the other on the brink of not being Jewish at all.

Is this at all a shock?  Years ago, Cross Currents ran a piece on a large Jewish conference on continuity and education.  The piece focused on an Orthodox Jewish social worker who tried to attend and bring suggestions as to how to increase Jewish identity and was told not to bother because the secular folks there were not interested in "Orthodox methods".  At the time I made a comment that subsequently showed up (without proper attribution!) in The Jerusalem Post itself: They have conferences, we have babies.  Let's see who endures.
Twenty years later, the answer is clear.  Those of us who hold tight to the traditions of our ancestors, for whom our Jewishness comes first and modifies everything else, the outlook is quite bright.  Much to the dismay of the intellectuals and atheoskeptics, Orthodoxy is not falling apart but growing stronger.  Meanwhile the secular community still hasn't found the major bullet that will make Jews simultaneously avoid any commitment to Torah and mitzvos but still feel proudly Jewish to the point that they will want to marry only other Jews and maintain some kind of Jewish lifestyle.
Perhaps it's because the bullet doesn't exist.
There is, however, a real danger that should prevent anyone frum from gloating at the results of the survey.  Following the general cultural trend worldwide, the Jewish community is splitting into extreme left and right with the centre slowly withering away.  But where does the trend to extremism end, especially on the right?
Once upon a time simply insisting on wearing a kippah in public was seen as being fanatic.  Once upon a time insisting women wear hats when married at least in shul was seen as dedication.  Now the bar has moved.  Today the Burka Babes are seen as nuts but as Prof. Marc Shapiro sadly points out, it won't be more than a generation or two before their current idiocy is seen as normative and we are told by all the right spokesmen that, in fact, this is how all Jewish women dressed before the rise of Reform and was always approved by all the right "Gedolim".  And if the Burka Babes aren't extreme anymore, one must shudder to think what will occupy the far right side.
A strong centre is so important because it helps define both extreme right and left.  With such a position what today is the extreme right becomes the centre but in nature it still remains a radical, exclusionist position.
Once upon a time Conservatism occupied this middle group. Although never halachically acceptable they still provided a bridge for many folks interested in being assimilated but also maintaining a minimal tie to Jewish tradition and ritual.  Today the movement is little more than Reform-lite and a merger between the two groups seems inevitable.  What will take its place?

Sunday, 10 June 2012

Because We Care And They Don't

Despite the divide between frum and non-observant Jews there are plenty of places the two groups interact.  In university settings, at public functions and in the community there are lots of opportunities for the two to meet with one another.
What seems to be frustrating for the non-religious is that after these meetings there is a tremendous sense of disbelief.  According to Reformative philosophy, Orthodoxy is a doomed, archaic practice destined to shrivel under the harsh light of enlightenment and modernity.  Our continued persistence, growth in numbers and strength and rising influence in Israel and golus confound the "great thinkers" and atheoskeptics who, in their closed-minded way, cannot conceive of a reality different from what they think it it.
Hence this mild rant from The Times of Israel:
The New York Celebrate Israel Parade was easy to spot. With Israeli flags blowing in the wind and an excess of Jewfros, I couldn’t have missed it. As I got closer to the meeting spot, I found myself surrounded by kippa-wearing guys and girls with knee-length denim skirts. The crowd appeared to be very Modern Orthodox. And I was in the section for university groups — not Jewish day schools.

The Forward reported that about half of the marchers came from Jewish day schools, and the overwhelming majority of these from Orthodox day schools. I would dare to venture that many of the synagogues and youth groups that were marching were also Orthodox-affiliated. The younger generation is the future, and between 5th Avenue and Madison, the future looked very Orthodox. There were a couple gay pride flags, but other than that, the crowd seemed less diverse than usual.
To be fair, the author is more annoyed with her own community than with us.  Ms. Dolsten even admits that - gasp! - Orthodoxy should be examined for the reasons for its success.  The thing is, those reasons aren't a secret but rather quite out in the open.  However, like the old saying about none being so blind as those who will not see, those reasons are so unpalatable for the Reformatives that they cannot acknowledge them.
Years ago the secular Jewish community in North America sponsored a major demographic survey and determined that amongst the non-religious assimilation was rapidly taking a dreadful toll.  "Jewish continuity" became the watchword of the day and these organizations held meetings and conferences to determine how to encourage that continuity.  Orthodox community leaders and major rabbonim were, of course, not invited.  In the end lots of ideas including the Birthright boondoggle emerged from those meetings.  And in the end none of them made much of a difference when it came to overall intermarriage rates and sense of identification with the Jewish people.
What's the difference for Orthodoxy?  Well firstly we accept that we are a people different from all the other peoples on the face of the Earth.  We have special rules about pretty much everything and it is those special rules, the mitzvos, that ensure our continuity.  It is the learning of Torah, the observance of Shabbos, the avoidance of those tasty snacks at the food truck near work that define us as Jewish.  For us tikun olam is about fixing potholes, not ecology.  A bar mitzvah is about the assumption of an adult legal status, not a sweet-13 party.  Survival relies on difference, not assimilation and while the Reformatives have done everything they can to turn their version of Judaism into bland secular liberalism with an impotent all-approving godhead, we embrace our distinctiveness and feel no need to dumb it down.
Secondly, we note our connection to history, specifically our national history.  We are not just another ethnic group like the Italians, Irish and Somalis.  We are a nation with a proud 3500 year old history.  We stood at Mt Sinai and received the Torah from God, the first and only time such a Divine revelation ever occured.  It is that connection with the Divine that stands at the centre of our identity, not a love of bagels and lox.  And because we see ourselves as a nation we see a connection between one Jew and another that is stronger than a connection to the Gentile standing beside us.  When there is a pogrom in France it concerns us.  When a Jewish soldier is killed in Israel it concerns us.  We worry about the future of the Jewish people and fighting assimilation.  They worry about gay marriage.
Ms. Dolsten is a good writer with a lot of passion for Reformative Judaism but on her side of the fence she is the exception. For us commitment is the rule.  Commitment to a religion that runs its guidelines like Baskin Robbins runs its flavour of the month is difficult to achieve.
Why is Reformativism falling behind Orthodoxy?  Why do we survive when all the enlightened folks think we shouldn't?
Bottom line: we care, they don't.  And that's the difference they're missing.

Thursday, 7 June 2012

The Easy Targets

When you're a liberal it's really hard to find a target to bully.  After all, one of the sine qua non's of liberalism is avoiding offending others almost at all cost.  The idea of being considered a racist, sexist, culturally insensitive or homophobic lout by others is the ultimate indignity.
Yet the urge is still there.  Bullies by nature, the desire to find a group that can be safely pushed around must be overwhelming.  And in our society there are two such groups: Orthodox Jews and the Catholic Church.
Part of what makes these groups acceptable for persecution is their nature.  Both have value systems that reject the rigid egalitarian, homophilic and culturally relativistic principles upon which secular liberalism is based.  Both groups are composed of white folks of European origin.  Both are patriarchal in nature.
Thus when liberals need an easy target, one they know cannot generate much sympathy amongst the "enlightened" of society, they know where to go.
Right now such a conflict is occurring both in the United States and Canada.  In the US it's the Obama administrations insistence on Catholic institutions providing coverage for birth control for people its drug plans cover despite such coverage running against the Church's principles.  In Canada it's the fight the Ontario government has decided to pick with the Catholic school system in forcing them to arrange "gay-straight alliance" clubs in their schools to prevent bullying of gay students.
In both cases the reason for the fight is political.  In the US, President Obama is heading into an election campaign with nothing to show for his last three years.  He has not turned the economy around but spent the entire time blaming his failures on the Bush II era.  He has ruined America's foreign policy and influence abroad, strengthening its enemies while undermining its friends.  Even his crown jewel, Obamacare, has remained unpopular and unaccepted by most of the country.
As a result he has turned to alternative tactics.  First he played the class warfare card with an "eat the rich" strategy.  When that flamed out he decided to play the gay card by endorsing same-sex marriage in the hope that the Republicans would promptly reply with some redneck homophobic remarks that could be used as albatrosses around their neck for the rest of the campaign.
Up in Ontario, we have a different situation.  We too have a leftist government led by a man, Dalton McWimpy, who looks like the kind of kid everyone beat up on the playground.  After nine years in power, his inability to control his urge to spend billions of dollars on social engineering have brought the province perilously close to bankruptcy.  He commissioned a report that suggested 150 ways to save money and promptly ignored it.  Whenever he runs up against evidence of his incompetence he blames the previous Conservative premier.  He has appeased the public unions to no end and wasted literally billions of dollars with nothing to show for it.  People are getting tired of it.
So how to get around this?  Well, like the wussy kids on the playground who is sick of being pushed around by the bigger bullies he has spent time searching for a kid even more helpless than him.
Now in Ontario we have two main school systems funded by the government.  When the province became part of Canada both Protestant and Catholic systems were established to serve the vast majority of folks around at the time.  Over the centuries the Protestant system dumped religion and became the plain ol' public system while the Catholics remained Catholic.  This has been a thorn in the government's side repeatedly over the last few decades as Jewish, Muslim and other ethnic groups demand to know why Catholics get the government to pay for their schools but not ours.  Certainly there has been a sizable part of the population who would like to see the government fund only the public system although that would require a change in the Canadian constitution. (!)
Unfortunately for these folks the Church likes the current funding arrangement but the Liberals just might have found the Achilles' heel that lets them bring the issue forward.  Unable to run the economy properly they have decided to make Ontario a bully-free obligation and that the worst kind of bullying is the anti-homosexual sort.  As a result they have announced a mandatory policy demanding that all schools create a club that encourages homosexual-heterosexual interaction and openness.
While this sounds great for the public system it certainly goes against standard Catholic values.  The response of the Church has been to reiterate that they oppose all bullying, including against gay children, but they also do not want a club that accepts homosexuality as normal operating in their schools.
And McWimpy's response?  The government pays the bills, the government gets to tell you what to do.  And if you hold values that we secular folks don't like, well you'll just have to change them.
Now it's hard to have any sympathy for the Catholic Church, an organization which until relatively recently in history was a major force for oppression and intolerance. There's a certain sense of schadenfreude in watching them get pushed around.
But what's next?  Imagine an Orthodox rav getting a call one day from the government and being told "You know those tax benefits houses of worship enjoy?  Well we're only going to be extending them to those places that reflect Ontario's values of inclusiveness and equality so dump the mechitzah or watch your tax bill sore!"  What could the response be to that?
Remember that for secular liberals religion is all fine and dandy as long as it doesn't have any values they disapprove of.  Then we get lines like "People really believe in all that? Seriously?" and "They'll have to change if they want to be accepted".
The assault on Catholics is one that has to be watched closely.  Being a bully is addictive and if the Liberals win this fight they're going to want another target to keep attention off how they're driving the province into the ditch.  They won't go after certified ethnic groups no matter how egregiously those groups practice religious acts that violate Ontario's "values of inclusiveness and equality" but regular-looking folks with funny little skull caps?  Well we just might be fair game.

Tuesday, 5 June 2012

Defining Secular Judaism

Are we even one people anymore?  With all the differences between religious and non-religious Jews one wonders where the common ground is some days.  Belief in matan Torah?  Nope. Heck, belief in God is, chas v'shalom, optional for some "humanist" Jews.  Support for Israel?  Nope.  Love of bagels?  Gosh, have you seen the calorie count on those things?
It's a matter of historical fact that there have always been both Torah-observant and non-observant Jews.  However, other than brief periods of history there have been few movements that avidly sought to redefine Judaism along the lines of another religion or school of thought and rebrand it as actual Jewishness.  Most Jews who did not observe the mitzvos simply acknowledged that they were "lapsed" and went on with their lives.  It is really only over the last couple of centuries that the opposite has happened - Jews have lapsed from observance, still wanted to call themselves good faithful Jews and then invented a new religion to justify their claim.
In this piece from Commentary, Jack Wertheimer brilliantly summarizes the definition of this new Judiams.  Here's how the definition works:
I. I am the Lord your God, Who took you out of Egypt to ‘repair the world.’
II. You shall not be judgmental.
III. You shall be pluralistic.
IV. You shall personalize your Judaism.
V. Meaning, meaning you shall pursue.
VI. You shall create caring communities.
VII. You shall encourage the airing of all views.
VIII. You shall not be tribal.
IX. You shall celebrate your Jewishness.
X. You shall hold the Jewish conversation in public.
Fascinating in it simplicity and damning in its accuracy these principles seem to underlie the ongoing activities of most non-Orthodox Jewish organizations.
I can share one story to buttress the point.  In the city I live in a Hindu temple burned down a few years ago.  After raising money to rebuild the structure the call went out for more funds in order to buy a new idol of their "god" and bring it over from India.  A frum friend of mine attended a UJA Federation meeting shortly after and was stunned to hear calls from some members to assist in fund raising efforts and participate in the welcoming ceremonies for the idol when it arrived!
From hippie gatherings to proudly defining oneself as a Jewish atheist, a complete contradiction in terms, there is no limit to how strange this new religion's followers are.
Excuse me?  Is there something more defining of Judaism than its absolute rejection of all idols and fake gods?  Yet these folks saw it as their Jewish duty to assist in bringing an idol to town to show that Jews are caring, involved members of the greater community.
Consider the issue of gay marriage.  While Judaism certainly does not encourage discrimination against homosexuals it does categorically forbid same-sex marriage, the wistful yearnings of some Morethodox folk notwithstanding.  Yet time and time again we see Jewish groups eagerly participating in activities to promote such legal unions.
Now again there is a great reason for this from their perspective.  Seeing themselves not as a religion but as an ethnic group with optional observances, such advocacy makes sense.  Consider the fight against segregation of Blacks in the United States only two generations ago.  At that time the popular opinion of the majority was all for such a system.  Had referendums been held in U.S. states over whether or not to reject integration, the rejectionist side would have carried the day repeatedly.  However, we know that segregation was racist and wrong.  The secular Jews in the gay marriage fight are simply bringing this forward into today.  The majority may reject it, their own backgrounds might reject it but it is wrong in their eyes and they are fighting for equality against a discriminatory majority, the very essence of their Judaism.
As Wertheimer notes:

It is no coincidence that the ideas and attitudes embodied in the new American Judaism are largely indistinguishable from the cluster of ideas and attitudes that inform liberal American culture at large. The abhorrence of chauvinism, the refusal to privilege any culture’s values over any other’s, the emphasis on doing good: What are these if not the hallmarks of today’s regnant multiculturalist dispensation? As noted 15 years ago by the late Charles S. Liebman, Jews, like their neighbors, increasingly embrace an ethos “marked by voluntarism (radical choice), autonomy (the license for invention),personalism (the quest for personal meaning), universalism (the abnegation of parochial collective identity), and moralism (the emphasis on the moral and ethical value of rites and customs).” If, at mid-20th century, Jews in record numbers joined synagogues in silent agreement with the slogan “the family that prays together stays together” and in a later period embraced a more inward-looking pride as ethnic assertion was sweeping the land, today’s Jewish vanguard faithfully reflects the culture of the moment.
Upon closer inspection, however, the new Jewish consensus (like, it must be said, its American prototype) is hardly without ironies, contradictions, problems, and costs. Take, for example, the goal of fostering diversity and inclusion. Lofty aspirations, they can also yield the reverse effect on what can actually be said and done. In order to bring everyone under one big tent, potentially divisive issues must be shelved—leading right back to the narrow rigidity that the new inclusiveness was ostensibly designed to replace.

Thus the circle is complete.  The new "tolerance" becomes intolerant of the old system.  I recall reading a story about a Conservative convention 10 years ago or so at which a big fuss broke out because, while the main daily services were strictly egalitarian there was a small group of folks who wanted to run a traditional style service.  Even after being relegated to a small side hall there was still opposition from folks who felt that traditional services had no place in Conservatism.  They were intolerant of intolerance!
Ultimately these systems cannot succeed.  They rely on narcissism, a willful ignorance of traditional Judaism and a self-defeating insistence on assimilationist tendencies.  In place of a God who command us to be distinct and moral, we have a people that presumes to command God to be liberal and amoral.  Is it any wonder that there seems to be less and less to talk about between us and them these days?

Sunday, 3 June 2012

The Real Reason for the Health Care Crisis

A word of warning: this is a rant.
Now let's begin.
For my non-Canadian reader(s), it is important to begin by explaining how the Canadian Health Care system works.
Under the terms of the Canada Health Care act, all citizens and permanent residents of Canada are entitled to free, basic health care.  This includes visits to doctors and hospitals, operations and procedures and other medically necessary services.  Health care is technically a provincial responsibility under our constitution but the federal government works to ensure that the provisions of the Health Care act including unlimited access to physicians and hospitals is upheld by each province except Quebec.
As a result we are rapidly reaching a crisis point in Canada where health care is becoming the second biggest item in most provincial budgets, the largest item being payments on accumulated debt.  As the population grows and ages, along with increasingly expensive technology becoming the standard of care in hospitals and clinics, the cost of delivering free and unlimited health care is accelerated year after year.  It was not so long ago that the province of Ontario's entire annual budget was smaller than just the health care component today.
Here's the other thing you have to know about Canada's health care system.  Other countries pride themselves on their geography, history, architecture and other grand concepts.  We're boring.  Our pride is centred on our health care.  Never mind that most European countries have better outcomes at less cost than us.  Never mind that our "public payer only" system is shared by just two other countries: North Korea and Cuba.  Our health care system is what makes us Canadian or, more specifically, not America.  Any attempt to tamper with the system, except to make it even more generous, is seen as trying to Americanize it which is kind like trying to force a cheder boy to eat pork.  It elicits a whole lot of struggling, screaming and cries of "Sheigitz!"
Because the system is rapidly becoming unaffordable the various provincial governments are struggling with attempts to contain costs.  Nursing positions are cut.  Doctor fees are cut.  Hospital positions and OR times are cut.  And still the system costs more and governments desperately cast around looking for someone to blame so they can either then absolve themselves of responsibility or acquire a new target to cut.
But in all the kerfuffle, one factor is never, ever mentioned: the patient.
Intuitively this should be obvious.  After all, doctors rarely generate their own business.  Unlike lawyers who invent laws and then make is necessary for us to hire them to get around those law, we don't seek out business.  It comes to us.  When I'm working in the emergency room, I have no need to call up folks and ask if they'd like to see a doctor today or if they want to take advantage of our "have one enema, get the second free" deal.  They just walk in day and night demanding to be seen.  That leads to hospital charges to the government and doctor charges to the government.  We didn't initiate those charges, we just pass them along.
But what's frustrating about this lack of willingness to mention the patient is that the reasons patients incur these charges to the system are often quite stupid.  See, one of the drawbacks of a free "use it as much as you want" system is that people will use it as much as they want and more.
What has happened after over a generation of free health care is a combined sense of dependency and entitlement that has hobbled the populace and rendered it incapable of even the most minor common sense judgements.  Why try to figure out how to handle that minor injury when the ER will check it out for you and give you a free bandage to boot?  Why stop smoking, eat a nutritious diet and exercise when your heart attack and/or stroke will be paid for by the taxpayer?  Imagine a non-stop onslaught of people who refuse to take care of themselves and demand someone else fix up their messes because that's what defines them as Canadian.  That's the system I work in.
And that's the real reason costs are spiralling out of control, not the desire by every hospital to have that brand new second generation PET scanner.  It's the guy who comes it at 3 am with a plugged feeling in his ears and wants them syringed out on the spot.  It's the lady who brings her kid to the ER because his fibre-free diet has rendered him constipated and who brings him back six hours later because the laxative the first ER doctor gave her hasn't produced anything yet and she's worried.  It's the endless "I know this is just a cold but..." and "I know I shouldn't have had 7 beers and 2 shots o' tequila before trying to drive him..." that are driving the system to the point of no-return.
The sad part is how dependency and entitlement entrench themselves into a society like a tick feasting on a horse's buttock.  Once in place there is no arguing with the entitled and certainly no political points to be made from telling them to start taking responsibility for themselves. 
But eventually the system will crash from this overburdening and none of us, even the ones who take care of ourselves, will have where to turn to and once again government will deflect the blame.

Friday, 1 June 2012

Modern Orthodoxy - The Solution

For a long time I have been noting that there are several problems facing the Modern Orthodox community but that the underlying root problem is a lack of clarifying identity.  As noted elsewhere, about the only real definition that carries any validity in the real world is "not Reformative, not Chareidi".  There is little positive to define Modern Orthodoxy that does not contain meaningless bromides like "a willingness to incorporate secular society into Jewish practice" or "a willingness to accept modernity" and so on.
But over Shavuous I was considering matters and two specific things kept coming back to me.  The first was the recent Asifa against the internet.  For those who didn't hear a large gathering of Chareidi rabbonim and layfolk met before Shavuos, ostensibly to discuss how the internet can be used responsibility by God-fearing Jews.  Despite all the pre-show propaganda, the results were predictable.  As I warned before the event, the entire day could have been summarized as "The internet is evil.  Don't use it unless your local Gadol allows you to (and fat chance he will!)."  How many millions of dollars were spent to get that message across?
What the Asifa further clarified was that it is the opinion of some of the Chareidi leadership that one is only Torah-observant if one is Chareidi and that being Chareidi is defined as "wears a particular outfit, follows 'the Gedolim' unconditionally".  The Religious Zionist and Modern Orthodox community are simply not on their radar or part of their definition of Orthodoxy.  Thus their definition of Achdus is simply "everyone accepts our way as the only way".
The second thing was quite different.  Rav Michael Broyde, following on the footsteps of the International Rabbinical Fellowship, began aggressively promoting a halachic pre-nup in order to prevent get-refusal and subsequent cases of agunos.  This is quite an interesting development seeing as the idea of a halachic pre-nup has been floating around for some time without really gathering steam.  Yet now there are calls to make it mandatory within the Yeshiva University system.
And then it occurred to me.
The one thing all human society has in common is a desire for progress.  It's something we have been steadily doing since Adam HaRishon stepped out of Gan Eden and realized that farming with fingernails isn't very productive.  We build.  We develop.  We increase our level of complexity.  That which was fine yesterday is replaced by that which we will think of tomorrow.  There is no avoiding progress.
The one thing many leaders do when confronted with progress is to try and limit it.  For these leaders progress is a threat.  They are familiar with a particular system and can't handle the change progress brings.  Perhaps they won't be competent in the new system.  Perhaps they have introduced a system of values that the new system contradicts.  For whatever the reason they proceed to fight against progress.
And they always lose.
It is interesting to note that Torah Judaism itself accommodates progress.  Despite the impression so many give to the contrary, the system is set up to handle changes and development in society.  Once upon a time we wrote on parchment.  Now we use paper.  We once used a different script to write our sacred Torahs in.  We used to handwrite books, now we print them off pdf's.  The original laws of Shabbos had no mention of electricity in them but now handling that nowadays is routine.  Jewish law grows and adapts to changing realities.  Of this there is no question.
Again, we have had leaders who kicked and screamed against every step of progress we've made in the last year.  And again, they lost.
Consider one of the most infamous warriors against change, the Chasam Sofer, z"l, who issued the famous decree that created Chareidism: "Everything new is forbidden by the Torah!"  Yet today his spiritual inheritors use electricity, drive around in cars, own cellphones and even use toilet paper.  The Chareidim are not the Amish.  They adapt, they progress, they incorporate the new technologies into their lives even as they insists they are living just like their ancestors did a few centuries ago.
But if this is the case then what can Modern Orthodoxy claim when it stakes out its legitimacy?  If Chareidim are just as adaptive then what is the Modern Orthodox advantage?  A comprehensive knowledge of Star Trek quotes?
I would suggest that this area is exactly where Modern Orthodoxy can claim the superior ground.  If progress occurs then the idea that we are a religion where it is forbidden is false, simply false.  Rabbis who stand up and claim that our Judaism is exactly like our ancestors are making false claims.  Moshe Rabeinu didn't wear a shtreiml at matan Torah, our laws of how we dress have adjusted over time and we didn't all sit in kollel for ever and ever.  And what's more, the idea that we are in many ways different than our ancestors is a testament to the authenticity of our system.
Consider the Torah shel Ba'al Peh.  The Oral Law has grown over the millenia as new situations have confronted it.  The possibilities generated by confrontation with surrounding cultures and progress in general are many but the Oral Law was given to Moshe Rabeinu, a"h, with the tools to handle such confrontations and teach us how to handle them within the bounds of halacha.  
The halachic pre-nup is a great example of the.  There is no proper solution to the agunah problem within the halachos of marriage.  As much as some people might like it to be otherwise, a woman cannot initiate divorce proceedings.  The pre-nup is a creative solution that allows one to make an end-run around this requirement without violating it.  It acknowledges the idea of free-will in that the husband-to-be signs it willingly (well, we hope!) and binds himself according to the relevant rules.  It is an elegant solution to a complex and vexing problem.
So when Chareidi rabbonim reflexively condemn it as an illegitimate innovation they are not so much stating a halachic opinion as they are engaging in the fight against progress and therefore, if Modern Orthodoxy is prepared to push this understanding, a fight against the natural halachic process.  They are fighting against Torah under the guise of protecting it.
Look at the internet.  For all the pontificating at the Asifa, Chareidim are using the internet.  Rav Wosner, shlit"a, had strong words for those who engage its services.  It's a good bet he doesn't know his own works are freely available there!  Do we want a Judaism that denies what it does or one that points out that it can take the worst of what the secular world produces and turn it into an instrument for spreading holiness?
Now I'd like to take a step back and anticipate one objection: isn't this what Open Orthodoxy/Morethodoxy is doing?
I would say that this is a valid concern.  One of the easiest things about Chareidism is its reflex approach (at least officially) to all change.  It is a lot harder to say "yes" appropriately than to say "no" indiscriminately.  Yet with Open Orthodoxy/Morethodoxy the approach seems to be from the opposite direction: say "yes" indiscriminately while looking for a heter to justify the decision.
The difference I'm proposing is saying "yes" with a jaundiced eye.  Modern Orthodoxy should not be competing to see how progressive it can be.  It should be demanding from the factors that would change it justification for even being considered.
Let me give you an example: the role of women in public service in Judaism. The Chareidi approach has been to emulate the Taliban.  The Open Orthodox/Morethodox approach has been to imitate the Conservatives, pulling back only at those points where they can't find even a single posek to justify themselves.  Therefore the role of the Modern Orthodox community must be to be firmly traditional.  Change is possible but it must justify itself.  How does the change increase their avodas HaShem within the parameters of the standard halachic decision making process?  Are they absolutely sure they're doing it for Jewish reasons as opposed to assuaging secular liberal pinings?
I am well aware that there are a few MO's who read this blog.  Take this idea to your friends, your rabbonim and your teachers.  Raise the idea that Torah Judaism is about a growing, dynamic system and that championing such a system openly should be the defining feature of your community.  Start the discussion.  Perhaps it will lead somewhere.