Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Tuesday, 31 July 2012

Even Thought I Want To Cheer For Them

Organized Jewish athleticism has always been a bit controversial for me.  From a nationalist perspective I can appreciate and take pride in the sporting accomplishments of my fellow Jews.  There's an instinctive feeling of joy in seeing one of "ours" standing on the podium and knowing that "we" can compete with "them" and win.
From a religious perspective, however, there is a rejection of that feeling of one of insecurity.  If the purpose of the Jewish nation is to be a moral light unto the world then why does winning a gold at the Olympics or an international basketball tournament matter?  In fact, isn't the desire to fit in, to compete with the gentile world and beat them at their own games a negative turn away from that divinely appointed mission?
That why, when Israeli basketball teams come to North America to play NBA teams I don't necessarily jump for joy or seek out tickets.  Jews running around in tank tops and shorts isn't my idea of a Jewish social activity.  I don't identify with young girls dressed in little more than beach apparel skating or jumping around to the beat of some horrid new-wave music or classical piece I've never heard before.  And a soccer team playing in a European tournament and insisting on playing its game on Rosh HaShanah even after the Gentile organizers offered to change the date out of religious sensitivity is a surefire way to make me feel a disconnect.
Now I accept that I am imposing my standards on these athletes.  For many Jewish athletes the idea that they're in the game as identifiable Jews is a testament to their religion and nationality.  I just don't see it that way, especially at this year's Olympics.
As we all well know this year is the 40th anniversary of the Munich massacre during which a dozen Israeli athletes were killed by Arab terrorists for the crime of being Jewish.  Since that time the International Olympic Committee has done everything it can to minimize the event in history.  And I mean literally from the moment it happened consider the Games didn't miss a bit but kept on going.  Since then every attempt to make the IOC recognize the event in some way other than a cursory acknowledgement that it happened has been rebuffed.  Because it's the fortieth anniversary efforts to encourage a moment of silence at the opening ceremonies in London (the one in England) were especially strong but to no avail.  Other than a meaningless moment of silence held in the athletes' village well before the Games began and attended by almost no one, the IOC has been unwilling to budge on its insistence that it will not "politicize" the games despite ample precedents to show that they have done similar things for far lesser tragedies before.
In a way I can understand the IOC's decision.  Murphy's Law teaches us that he who shouts louder has the floor.  The Arab world has a lot louder voice than the Jewish one in the international forum.  If we are denied a moment of silence there will be some awkward squawking about it.  If the moment was granted, one could only imagine the screaming that would have ensued about validating the "racist Zionist regime".  Perhaps the IOC had the nightmare vision that during the moment of silence many of the Arab teams would start shouting "Free Palestine!" or "God is a mouse!" (Hamevin yavin) much to the embarrassment of the international community.
It is also fitting that London should be the site of this reject.  Britain has a long and deep history of Jew-hatred.  After all, this is the Allied country that did the most to help ensure no Jews would escape from the Holocaust and still has accepted no responsibility for its vile behaviour until this day.  No, the combination of England and the IOC assured that no moment of silence would happen.
But this is where my discomfort with the current Israeli Olympic team comes in.  That they participated in the Opening Ceremonies on Shabbos, well I'm pretty sure none of them is shomer mitzvos and to expect them to decline the opportunity to march because of religious requirements would be unreasonable.  That they participated in sports on Tisha B'Av is also understandable.  Most of them probably have no idea about the special nature of the day.  It's not like it's Yom HaZikaron or anything like that.
No, my discomfort comes from the Israeli team marching on Friday night for a different reason.  By refusing to acknowledge the tragedy that occured in 1972, by refusing to admit that they were completely dismissive and insensitive by not cancelling the Games at the time or at least delaying them for a few days and by their continued refusal to grant a moment of silence for the victims when they have done so for others, the IOC is sending a clear message to the Jewish world: we don't care about you.  We can't outright ban you for participating but we can tell you straight out we don't think your lives or your honour matter.
That's why I think the Israeli team should have announced that they would not participate in the Opening Ceremonies.  By marching in on schedule, by smiling and waving to the crowds and the IOC executive that think their blood is not as red as Gentile blood, by acting like they are a member of the family of nations that is convinced that we are the adopted bastard child, they implied that their desire to be accepted by "the Goyim" is stronger than their desire to stand by the memory of the slaughtered Munich athletes, is stronger than their sense of honour at being repeated insulted by the assembled crowd.  
By participating, the Israeli team sent out a message about its opinion of its Jewishness while groveling for acceptance before its enemies.  There is nothing to take pride in that.

Tuesday, 24 July 2012

There's The Forest And Then There's The Leaves

One of the valid complaints some OTD's have about Torah Judaism is our tendency to obsess over the little things and forget the big picture.  We are so worried about being on time for davening that we'll push people out of our way and into the mud in order to get to shul on time.  We're so worried about developing the right kavannah during prayers that we'll sway and mumble loudly, distracting the guy next to us so he won't have a change to concentrate on his prayers.  We step over the beggar in the street while thinking about a sugya in the Gemara and it never occurs to us to see if the guy needs any help.  Forget the trees.  We can't see the forest for the leaves.
And the latest winner of an award in this area would seem to go to the Vishnitzer Rebbe, if this report is accurate.

According to a Kikar Shabbat report, the Vishnitzer Rebbe from Monsey Shlita may boycott the main Siyum HaShas because “Zionist rabbis” are expected to address the tzibur. This apparently may also lead to other prominent rabbonim and admorim shlita to boycott the event.
Until this announcement, residents of Eretz Yisroel were envious of Jews in North America which was holding one major siyum for all as opposed to in Eretz Yisrael there are siyumim for Ashkenazim, Sephardim, litvish and dati leumi. The rebbe’s announcement however changes all of this.
Invited to address that forum is Tel Aviv Chief Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau Shlita as well as Rosh Yeshivas HaMekubalim Ahavas Shalom HaRav HaGaon Yaakov Hillel Shlita.

Now let's look at the context.  We are here in the middle of the Three Weeks, the bein hametzarim.  We hear over and over again about the causes of the destruction of our holy Temple (may it be speedily rebuilt) and list loshon horo, sinas chinam and bizui talmidei chachamim prominently as reasons as to why the Har HaBayis is still in the hands of our enemies.
Now I am certain that in matters of personal practice the Vishnitzer Rebbe is an extremely scrupulous inidividual.  I am sure he eats no food that is not mehadrin min mehadrin min mehadrin and that his Shabbos behaviour is 180 degrees different from the rest of the week.  He probably has the finest tefillin around (both Rashi and Rabbeinu Tam) and immerses himself in Torah study from the crack of dawn until late into the night if not longer.
And while he can identify every leaf, he seems to have no clue about the forest that is the totality of Judaism.
Let me focus on Rav Yisrael Meir Lau, shlit"a.  Here is a true Gadol, a man who lived through the lowest and highest points of Jewish history since the destruction of our Temple.  He served as a distinguished Rav and Chief Rav in Israel without compromising his Torah practice or standards despite the criticism it brought him from some in the secular world.  He worked tireless to close  the gaps between different parts of the Orthodox world and unite Torah Jews.  To this day he continues to build bridges and encourage cooperation in our community.  He is a true example of what a Rav should be and can accomplish.
And the Vishnitzer?  How does he dare to criticize such a man?  Exactly what has he accomplished that he can raise his voice in criticism of Rav Lau?  Has he suffered like him?  Has he helped build Eretz Yisrael like him?  Has he opened his heart to all Jews regardless of their backgrounds as long as they approach Torah sincerely?
I have no doubt that the Vishnitzer Rebbe, if he really did release this statement, thinks that he is increasing holiness in the world by refusing to contaminate his heiliger presence with "Zionist rabbis".  But for those of us on the outside, he has done a different valuable service.  He has reminded us that we have to spend less time examine the fine patterns on the edge of the leaves and instead step back and look at the whole forest.  Only in this way can we restore any sense of purpose to Torah Judaism and move our redemption forward.
Of course, he probably doesn't see it that way because there's a really interesting piece of moss on that bark over there...

Sunday, 22 July 2012

Hysterical Fear or Accurate Foreshadowing

For as long as I can remember, the demographics of the Israeli population has been a concern to folks who follow trends and want to determine which direction Israeli society is heading in.
Once upon a time it was the Arabs that were going to take over society.  This fear has eased somewhat since the Oslo Discords, in about the only way they helped Israel, created a sort of Palestinian citizenship which means the vast majority of Arabs living in Yesha are unlikely to show up in Israel tomorrow demanding citizenship there.  As for the Arab minority in Israel, despite prodigious fecundity it seems to remain at 20% of the total population over time.
So the real threat nowadays, according to the pundits, is the Chareidi community.  Chareidim, with a proclivity for children that makes Arab women look barren, are exploding in terms of population size.  Given that the average secular Israeli has about 2 kids or less, this means that some time in the next few decades the Chareidi population will reach a percentage of the population that gives them enough votes to control the Knesset and install a Chareidi government.
Personally, I don't think this will happen for a long time for a couple of reasons.  One, the fear of growth of the Chareidi population is probably overstated.  As too many blogs out there are happy to point out the tide of baalei teshuvah is more than amply matched by the opposite current creating chozrei b'she'elah.  What's more, keep in mind that Chareidim are just as Jewish as the rest of us.  The Chareidi community is not some monolithic entity with a tight oligarchal committee of elders controlled their every move.  It is just as fractious as general Jewish society and with size will come more division.  There are already three Chareidi parties in the Knesset and over time it's not hard to believe that the United Torah Judaism merge of the former Chasidic and Misnagdic parties will once again split.  Yes, one might imagine a Chareidi coalition one day but more likely there will be enough infighting to prevent a workable one from arising.
Nevertheless we must consider that one day there will be a Chareidi government.  The next question, then, is: what would such a government look like?  Over on his blog, Professor Marc Shapiro, normally a calm writer, waves very eloquently in an alarmist fashion over the possibility.
Now I would certainly not presume to debate with some of Prof. Shapiro's points.  A future Chareidi government would take its orders from "the Gedolim" and those "Gedolim" are carefully isolated from their own societies and routinely fed misinformation by their handlers who then take their pronouncements (assuming the handlers didn't make those us on their own anyway) and declare them to be "Daas Torah" for the masses.
To begin with, if haredim were ever the majority, funding for non-Orthodox (and perhaps even Religious Zionist/Modern Orthodox) schools would be halted. There would be massive decreases of funding for universities, with the humanities taking the biggest cuts, and money for the arts, culture, and institutions connected to Zionism would dry up. Freedom of the press would be abolished, artistic freedoms would be curbed, and organ transplants would almost entirely vanish. Public Shabbat observance and separate-sex public transportation would likely be required. There would also be restrictions on what forms of public entertainment and media are permissible and on public roles for women. Of course, women’s sporting events would no longer be televised and men would not be permitted to attend them. 
But despite their massive dislike for democracy and their refusal to grant legitimacy in any area other than the Chareidi one they would be unlikely to be successful in many of these endeavors.  For one thing, Israel has a very strong and independent Supreme Court that makes it its business to ensure the State is as secular as possible.  The morning after a Chareidi government came into being, that Supreme Court would still be there.  Any attempts to alter laws that involved infringing on the secular rights already taken as givens in Israel today would be shot down.  Unlike Iran and Saudi Arabia, the ruling "Gedolim" do not also control the justices and they would certainly fight back against attempts to turn Israel into a theologically fascist state.
What's more, Chareidi might be fanatic but they are not stupid.  They would well realize that an attempt to kill the "golden goose" that Israel has become for them would result in the destruction, chas v'shalom, not only of Israel but of the majority of their community.  After all, what kind of shape will Israel be in as hundreds of thousands of chilonim and their money flee the country to avoid living in a kosher Iran?
All in all it's okay to wonder "Hey what would things be like if those guys too over" and the shudder at the thought but I don't think it's going to happen in our lifetimes or the next.

Friday, 20 July 2012

On Conditional Conditions

An important halachic paradigm appears at the end of parshas Mattos this week.  As our ancestors sit on the edge of Eretz Yisrael, ready to make their way across the Yarden river, the leaders of the tribes of Reuven and Gad approach Moshe Rabeinu, a"h, with what initially seems an outrageous request.  Given their large number of livestock and the suitability of the local land for it, they want to stay put.  Everyone else can go across the Israel, they'll stay on the East Bank and do just fine.
What follows is an extended dialogue with Moshe Rabeinu demanding that they abandon their plans for fear of demoralizing the rest of the people and the two tribes replying that they would function as the vanguard of the invasion force, staying to help their brethren conquer the land before returning to settle in their current location.
Quite an extended dialogue and in fact, the Gemara learn from this conversation in which the same thing seems to get repeated over and over about the important rules of giving something to someone else al tanai, on condition.  As Chazal state and as is brought down in Shulchan Aruch Even HaEzer 38:2, if you are giving a conditional gift to someone you must do it in the form that this deal was worked out in.
In short, there are four conditions that must be fulfilled, as derived from the narrative:
1) It must be a double statement: "if, then" and "if not, then" detailing what happens if the condition is or is not fulfilled
2) The positive condition must precede the negative
3) The condition must precede the consequential action in the wording, not the other way around
4) It must be a condition that is possible to accomplish
In the absence of any one of these stipulation the tanai is null and void.
So the question might be asked: if one gives a gift to his fellow he said the following: "I'm giving you this if you do such-and-such" and the recipient agrees to perform the action and promises to but then doesn't, can the giver demand his gift back even though he didn't fulfill all four stipulations?
At first glance the answer, following Even HaEzer above, would be no.  However, there is another relevant spot in Choshen Mishpat 241:9 that brings a different impression:
"Anyone gift given on condition, whether its the donor's condition or the recipients, and the recipient acquired the object, if the condition is fulfilled the gift remains with the recipient and if not, the gift goes back."
In this case there is no detail as to how the condition should be made.  One possible explanation is that Choshen Mishpat is relying on the details given in Even HaEzer.  Another is that the two parties didn't know about the law in Even HaEzer and were making arrangements as they understood it.  In such a case the rule of returning the item in the event of lack of fulfillment of the condition applies even in the absence of the criteria from Even HaEzer being satisfied.  This is because both parties agreed, as it were, to forgo them.
The Rambam and the Rosh hold that these four criteria apply both to cases of issur v'heter like kiddushin and to financial transactions but the Tur disagrees with them and differentiates between land and movables.  In a similar vein, the Netivot HaMishpat brings a similar answer from the Ateres Zvi that the four conditions apply only to gifts of land, not movables.
But if Chazal said that these four conditions are required to enact a truly conditional transaction, why are there so many disagreements on how and whether or not to enforce them?  Some authorities note that demanding all four criteria from everybody all the time is quite burdensome.  The frustration that such enforcement would cause, especially because most people aren't aware of these rules, would lead to widespread abandonment of any conditional rules.  The Tashbetz therefore bring that we don't demand fulfillment of all four rules in financial transactions but we still do when it comes to issur v'heter.

Wednesday, 18 July 2012

"And Moshe spoke unto the heads of the tribes of the Children of Israel saying: This is the thing which the Lord hath commanded.  When a man voweth a vow unto the Lord or sweareth an oath to bind his soul with a bong, he shall not break his word; he shall do according to all that proceedeth out of his mouth." (Bemidbar 30:1-3)

Rashi on this section states that the unusual formulation of speaking to the heads of the tribes was meant to teach us that he was giving a special honour to them by teaching them halachos first and then the rest of our ancestors after.  As well it came to tell us that a single expert in vows can annul a neder just like a plain three-man beis din.  He then specifically excludes the possibility that Moshe Rabeinu, a"h, was only transmitting this section to the princes.
However, I saw written (by a roshei teivos I didn't recognize) that in fact this is exactly what we're supposed to get out of this special formulation.  Not that we should think that the rest of our ancestors weren't told all these rules but that the reason for the emphasis on the heads of the tribes was for a specific purpose.
This is especially relevant considering we are once again into a presidential election campaign south of the border.  As this source notes, when people are running for office they are quite quick to make any and all promises as to what they'll do if you'll vote for them.  Once they actually get into office, however, the promises are quickly tossed aside for various reasons.  Maybe the state's finances aren't what the politician thought they would be, or perhaps circumstances prevent some of the plans, or perhaps the politician is - gasp! - an old fashioned liar.  Perhaps what the Torah is hinting at is that leaders have to be accountable to their flock.  Promises, promises, promises, is simply not an acceptable strategy for achieving and maintaining a leadership position.
One must wonder what kind of shape the Western world would be if politicians running for office were to heed the Torah's advice and only promise those things that are in their power to fulfill.

Monday, 16 July 2012

Close The Window! I'm Feeling The Draft!

As the July 31 deadline for the expiration of the Tal Law granting Chareidim exemptions from being drafted into the Israeli army looms larger, life in Israel seems to be growing tenser.  Multiple news sources have documented the ongoing Chareidi protests as well as the threats of violence being issued by more radical elements in that community.  Even more worrisome are the rumours that the Chareidi leadership will respond to the implementation of a universal draft by going to the UN and the international courts to declare that they are being forced to oppress Israel's Arab enemies against their will.  The irony of the same community which shelters pedophiles for fear of committing mesirah threatening to do mesirah on an international scale is frightening.
It first bears noting, of course, that the entire Chareidi argument against being drafted is based on, well simply nothing.  The idea that they are somehow exempt from having to share in the burden of defending the country because of their chosen lifestyle of "full time learning" has no real basis in halacha.  What's more, if anyone tries to tell you that it's their learning that is the real source of defense for the country, not the physical army, one could point out the following in response:
1) We hold, at least l'hatchilah, that mitzvos tzrichos kavannah.  I doubt there is a single Chareidi lad anywhere in all the yeshivos in Israel that is right now sitting at his shtender, shteiging away and saying to himself, "Come on Yankl, learn harder!  The State is depending on you!"  In fact, one might say that the bare minimum is a recitation of the Prayer for the Welfare of the State and the Chareidim refuse to say that at all!
2) If Torah study protects, why were the first people to run when rockets started bombarding Israel from 'Aza and Lebanon in 2006 those selfsame Chareidim who are the real source of protection for the country?  Shouldn't they have deployed themselves to front line army bases?
The difficulty with this situation is the absolute intransigence on the side of the Chareidim.  On one hand, one cannot blame them for taking this position.  After all, the Arabs in Yesha have used the exact same tactic and wrested one concession after another from Israel ever since the signing of the Oslo Discord without compromising one bit on their original positions and red lines.  Anyone who has watched this develop since 1993 would have to conclude that simply refusing to bend one bit in negotiating with Israel while demanding more and more is exactly how business should be conducted.
But I think it goes beyond that.  Chareidi philosophy, such as it is today, seems to view compromise as an aveirah.  Any change decreed not by the "Gedolim" but by negotiators as a method of reaching an agreement with non-Chareidim seems to be a violation of a principle of faith to them.
In fact, it's entire about principles of faith that this argument seems to be about.  As I've noted before, the contradiction at the heart of Chareidism is that their entire "All innovation is forbidden" core belief is an innovation in itself.  (Maybe that's why they always seem to be annoyed and angry)  The advantage of this contradiction is twofold.  On one hand, it allows them to style themselves as the true defenders of the mesorah which has supposedly not changed since the morning Moshe Rabeinu, a"h, put on his finest shtreiml and walked up Mt Sinai to get the Aseres HaDibros.  On the other hand, since the existence of this philosophy is an invention, it changes itself by introducing new ideas all the time, each of which is branded as having been there all along ever since Matan Torah.  Thus the Chazon Ish, zt"l, could invent the "learn, don't earn" philosophy and declare that army service is a yehareg v'al ya'avor concept and the subsequent Chareidi response is to act like this has always been the case.
As a result, the Chareidi intransigence isn't a result of some kind of personality defect on the part of its leaders.  It's just that their black and white approach to every single issue lacks any sense of proportionality. For them, asking them to help support the burden of defending the country is no different than asking them to stop circumcising their sons or to bow down in front of idols of Justin Bieber.  Any change, any little change at all, is responded to with angry, outrage and vitriol.
Sadly, if one had to describe the current behaviour of the Chareidi leadership, the best description would be "spoiled brat".  What the Chareidi community is doing is quite similar to what such a child would do when denied a toy or treat.  He would throw himself on the floor, scream "I hate you" at any parent in proximity and proceed to make a scene designed to terrorize the person denying him his "happiness" into giving it to him unconditionally.  And if the parent gave him (I mean, come on, look at how everyone is staring!) there wouldn't be an iota of gratitude from the brat.  After all, it's coming to him so why should he say "thank you"?
Take a step back and look at the news. That description above is what the Chareidi community is publicly doing, writ large.  It is the spasmodic behaviour of a community that is used to demanding and getting whatever it wants and then spitting in the hand that helps it suddenly being told "No, you have to clean your room or you won't get your allowance this week and I don't care how much you scream".  Like the brat who just screams and kicks louder, that is what the country is being threatened with.
In fact, this very reaction might be the Israeli government only clue as to how to deal with the upcoming changes.  Like the responsible parent who swallows hard, says "I don't care how much you scream, you're not getting your way" and then steps over the thrashing child to walk away, the Israeli response should be "Here are our proposals, here's our best compromise.  We're offering you a sherut leumi option, we're offering a yeshivat hesder option.  Take or leave it".  And if there is no reasonable response, the next step to be taken should be to announce that those citizens who refuse to be drafted will be denied any benefits of citizenship such as national health insurance, welfare and social support as well as the right to vote.  This position should be made unconditionally to all Jewish citizens of the country, secular or religious (because let's face it, secular draft evasion is also a huge problem but just doesn't get the same press).
If that's the case, then the Chareidim can still avoid army service and stay in their yeshivos all day long.  It'll just be interesting to see how many do once the welfare payments stop and they can't get their kids into to see the local Kupat Cholim nurse because they have to pay at the door.

Thursday, 12 July 2012

People Who Just Don't Get It

Hat tip: Rav Bechofer
One of the interesting psychological tendencies people have is to focus on little problems because the big problems are too complex or hard for them to handle.  Yes, the U.S. economy is going into the crapper but let's focus on how to make people recycle better.  Why worry about Western culture collapsing in the next few decades when we can worry instead about whether you should have thrown that Coke bottle into the regular garbage or the blue bin?
Judaism is, of course, no different.  We have problems, big problems in the frum world.  We have created a divisive culture in which the clothes we wear are more important than the actions we perform.  We have an underclass of poorly educated benchwarmers who think they are the aristocracy of our nation even as they pride themselves on being incapable of stringing together a simple sentence in any language other than Yeshivish.  We have leaders who are out of touch with the masses and are presented by their handlers as Jewish ayatollahs with another prohibition and ban appearing every week.  And those same masses are disillusioned, going through the motions without feeling anything much inside.  They celebrate when they are told to, mourn when they are told to, but it's all just rote and fear of what the neighbours will say that motivate them.
So what should we tackle first?  Nail polish colours.
Now, off the top I will state that I don't have a problem with private schools enforcing a uniform or code of conduct on their students.  After all, it's a private school.  You don't have to send your children there if you don't want to and if their expectations are offensive to you then you have the right to send your children elsewhere.
But there are two things to note as exceptions in this case.  The first is that within any UltraOrthodox community the private school you send your child to isn't an option but a demand.  Can you image a couple living in Crown Heights saying "Well we don't want to send our daughter to Beis Rivkah because we disagree with some of their positions and the uniform standards"?  No, I can't either.
The second exception is when the uniform requirements go beyond the school and into the family.  Read through the article and the combination of self-righteousness and an urge to control others becomes palpable quite quickly.  It starts off with the usual assumption: that what this woman's opinions of what tznius are, the ones she was doubtlessly taught as a young girl, are the only valid opinions.  And so she starts off with a blanket statement designed to justify the torment she is going to inflict on others who cross what she has established to be the red line in modest dress:
This may surprise you, but I asked for the job of tznius lady. I told Bais Rivkah that someone needed to stand in front of their doors and tell mothers that they couldn’t enter if they were not dressed according to Jewish law, and I offered to do the job. 
Get it?  "Jewish law".  There is only one.  There is no variation.  There are no disputes amongst the poskim.  Like global warming, the issue has been settled.  Did you learn something different from her?  Do you have a family tradition going way back that differs from hers?  Too bad.  If she says it ain't tznius, don't bother bringing out your seforim.  They're wrong because she's going by "Jewish law".
It's one thing to say "I hold by this standard" but that's often not what we do.  We go beyond and add, "And if you don't hold by that same standard, why you're a sinner!"  And that's exactly what Ms. Lerman does next:
Also,” I said, looking her straight in the eye, “if your parent was being disgraced in the streets, would you sit at home and do nothing, or would you be out in the streets to bring back honor to your mother or father? Well, it is my Rebbe, my Rebbe’s community, my Eibershter and my Torah that is being disgraced.
It's a disgrace!  God's self-appointed policement, Ms. Lerman, has you pegged.  You're a perutzah for not meeting her standards.  There is no grey.  There is only her way, well the Rebbe's if she were to say it, and the wrong way.
I spoke to a woman who teaches in one of our schools. I asked her not to wear dark- colored nail polish. She was not happy that I had called her. She said to me, “If you would just stick to the black-and-white areas we wouldn’t have such problems with tznius. It is because you pick on things that are in the grey areas, that’s why we are losing the girls.” I was almost crying.
And why shouldn't she cry?  Isn't the tzidkus of her position obvious?  How could anyone question her?  Do they want to throw these innocent girls into the gates of Gehinnom?  The histrionic approach to Jewish law does no one any favours.  Consider this vignette that she brings to prove her point:

Last year, on the final day of school, a Friday, I was proctoring the 12th graders who were taking their last test. I saw one of my students with the buttons of her shirt open quite low. I knew I had to say something. She is a good student, the daughter of Shluchim, a really nice girl. I started to give myself excuses. “I don’t want to embarrass her. I will speak to her when she comes up to the desk to hand in her test paper.”

Well, when she put her test in the envelope I didn’t say a word. After all, there were other girls at the desk and I didn’t want to make her feel uncomfortable.
That Friday night, I dreamt that I saw this student walking in the street with pants on. On Shabbos day, after a Pirkei Avos shiur, I told my friends what had happened and what I learned from it all.

It reminds me of an Ephraim Kishon story in which he dreams that he is an Israeli soldier performing all sorts of atrocities in Yesha.  When he wakes up he writes an angry note to the editor of his local paper condemning Israel for allowing their soldiers to do such things!  From a dream!  And here is Ms. Lerman, the Big Sister of Crown Heights who has decided that since this girl had her shirt open low (which, in Chabad-speak means you could see her Adam's apple) that she would next cast off the yoke of Torah and mitzvos and walk around in public wearing pants.  Because, you see, for Ms. Lerman there is little different between a top button being undone and a halter top and mini-skirt.  A slut is a slut!
Never mind theft, corruption, pedophilia, violence and the imposition of poverty on the masses.  What really matters is that some of our women are wearing the wrong colour of nail polish.
Attitudes like this have only one benefit.  After reading this article on 17 Tammuz I was inspired to take a Gravol (Dramamine in the U.S.) which put me to sleep for four hours on the longest fast day of the year.  Other than than, the "I'm so holy attitude" serves no one well and will only drive more Jewish children away from a Torah lifestyle that is presented to them as a Jewish version of what goes on in Saudi Arabia.

Monday, 9 July 2012

The Needed Merger

In his book on the history of Religious Zionism, aptly titled Religious Zionism, Rav Dov Schwartz notes that nowadays there are essentially two main streams of Religious Zionist philosophy.
The first is the mystical/messianic as exemplified by the writings of Rav Kook, zt"kl.  Rav Kook's followers see the return to Israel as the aschalta d'geula and the resettling of the Land as the fulfillment of the Divine promise of a return of our nation to Israel at the end of days.
The second is the halachic approach as detailed in the writings of Rav Joseph B Soloveitchik, zt"l.  Consistent with his style elsewhere, the Rav saw a return to Israel as necessary to create a fully functional halacha.  After all, there are many mitzvos that can only be observed in the Land of Israel.  There are many more than only become relevant when the Temple (may it be speedily rebuilt) is standing.  Therefore a return to Israel and a building of a Torah state is necessary to bring about the full flowing of Judaism.
According to Rav Schwartz, the Kook camp is currently ascendant within Religious Zionism.  Much of this occurred as a result of the Six Day War and the messianic fervour it unleashed amongst Rav Kook's followers, then led by his son Rav Tzvi Yehudah Kook, zt"l.  As anyone following the political history of Israel knows, however, this fervour for the settling of a Greater Israel has consumed much of the movement. Whereas once upon a time Religious Zionism was literally about that - Zionism done al pi halacha - it is now a movement based on, centred around and obsessed with the chalutzim of Yesha.
Why does this matter?  It is important to remember that for 1800 years Jews didn't not pray three times daily for the creation of a secular state in Israel that had a Jewish majority and some tokens of Jewish ritual in its public life.  We did not pray for the creation of a society in which religious Jews either be parasites living off the teat of the State while condemning its very existence.  And we did not pray for a country in which those who wish to see the rise of a Torah state would be confined to the edges of the political discourse and seen by the public majority as a fringe interest group.
Therefore, while the philosophy and influence of Rav Kook remains extremely important to the existence of Religious Zionism, it cannot by itself guide the movement into a thriving position.  Religious Zionism, remember, was supposed to be the national alternative to Secular Zionism.  While the latter posited creating a socialist state in Israel with a Jewish majority, the former was based on the idea of Jews returning to Israel to create a Torah state.
Is Religious Zionism in such a position today?  Is there a Religious Zionist party that is relevant to national discourse even in its own community?  Yes there is a party in the Knesset but tell me, what is its economic policy?  What is its foreign policy?  What is its environmental policy?  If it were to accidentally win the election tomorrow, how would it govern?
Is it any wonder that Religious Zionists vote for the Likud more than they do for their own party?  After all, the Likud is able to govern and Religious Zionists, worried about the State and life there, are more interested in supporting a party that can address many of their concerns than the poor Mafdal which only seems interested in Yesha.
And what exactly is the halachic approach of the Religious Zionist movement today?  As opposed to the practical definition of Modern Orthodox - not Reformative, not Chareidi but somewhere in the middle - Religious Zionism is all too inclusive.  From the chardalim on the right to the Shirah Chadashah crowd on the left, Religious Zionism seems to mean anyone who sees a value to the State other than just as an emergency lifeboat for the Jewish people.
But this is where my previous two posts come into the mix.  Both Modern Orthodoxy and Religious Zionism, while important movements each on their own, are missing something important.  For Modern Orthodoxy it's a connect to the deeper aspects of Judaism, the Chasidus of the matter as its were.  For Religious Zionism there is a global unifying worldview that is missing.
In other words, Modern Orthodoxy needs the depth and richness of Rav Kook's approach to Jewish thought and Shivas Tzion.  Religious Zionism needs a consistent halachic approach so that it can present a vision of a Torah society that is palatable and plausible for the population.  Each movement has what the other is lacking.
This is my vision, a counterweight to the strong Chareidi influence that is constantly working to overwhelming all other Orthodox groups and create a monolithic Torah-based society from their views and opinions alone. I even have a name for such a community: Navonim, as in the verse "Surely a wise and discerning people is this great nation!" (Deuteronomy 4:6)
Navonim because I believe that God, while He demands our respect and awe, does not so much want us to tremble at His world as to grasp at it, study it, understand it and apply it in the world He has put us in.  He wants an intelligent practice of Judaism that leads to a confident Jew who doesn't have to hide from the temptations of the world because he knows that the Torah puts us above all that.
A merger between the philosophies of Modern Orthodoxy and Religious Zionism would create such a Judaism.

Friday, 6 July 2012

Putting the Mystical Back In

I've never been a big fan of kabbalah or other parts of the mystical side of Judaism.  For one thing, I'm very much a rationalist and stuff that intrinsically doesn't make physical sense isn't something I latch on to easily.  For another, I've always been bothered by the Zohar.  Never mind the controversy surrounding its origins.  It's just that having struggled with the complexities of learning Talmud for so long, it bugs me that there's another "Talmud" out there, one infinitely more complex and that for many people it's the real thing while the Talmud I'm learning is just for us simpletons who haven't reached that exalted level yet.  These assertions make me wonder why the Chazal would go to the effort of making an incredible book like the Talmud when they knew that "real" halachic practice wasn't in accordance with it but with the Zohar.
Having said that, I do recognize the incredible importance and legitimacy of the mystical part of Judaism.  When explaining it to people, I analogize it to neurosurgery.  Kabbalah, I tell them, is the neurosurgery of medicine.  Most doctors aren't neurosurgeons, nor do they have the skills or aptitude to be, but that doesn't mean neurosurgery isn't really important and that neurosurgeons aren't top-flight doctors.  It's the same with Kabbalah.  Real kabbalah isn't for everyone although everyone is aware that it exists and to become a real practitioner of it requires training and respect for the material that not everyone has an aptitude for.
I think what's also hurt my impression of Kabbalah is the contradiction between the description I've just given and the way "popular Kabbalah" has spread throughout Jewish society.  It's annoying to be told something is forbidden, to reply "But the Shulchan Aruch says it's okay" and be told "Yes, but the Zohar says it isn't" or "The Arizal said it's not allowed".  Real kabbalists are not like this, of course, but kabbalah isn't restricted to them anymore.  It seems, for example, that it's a standard grade 9 course in every Chabad yeshivah.  That allows them to say stuff like "Well maybe that's what 'X' says but the Rebbe said only the sod matters".  And let's not bring up Madonna/Esther.  Please, let's not.
Having said all that, it occurs to me that one of the biggest difference between Chareidism and Modern Orthodoxy is the learning and utilizing of kabbalah in the Jewish life.  Both Misnagdim and Chasidim incorporate it into their studies and behaviours while MO's, perhaps because of the more rationalist bent of the movement, are aware and maybe have learned some kabbalah but in general it isn't as prevalent or influential.  And I think that should change.
No, I'm not implying that MO should develop chaburot where people sit in a circle in the lotus position and scan the universe for the mystical energy sent out from Shamayim by the holy neshama of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai. (Yes, I once met someone who claimed it was an important ritual, more important than davening but he also seemed unaware of the existence of nail clippers)  However, understanding the role of Kabbalah in Jewish practice and promoting a greater awareness of its proper role in halachic decision making, appreciating the concepts of pshat, drash, remez and sod in Scriptural interpretation and encouring its study at the highest levels of MO institutions is a change the movement should make.
The reason for that I will bring in my next post.

Wednesday, 4 July 2012

What Does "Modern" Mean Anyway?

One of the things about Modern Orthodoxy that often gets overlooked is the meaning of the word "modern".
It seems to usually mean that MO's dress in modern clothes, have modern interests, appreciate modern secular knowledge, and so on.  Unfortunately it also gets implied that the "modern" doesn't so much influence the "orthodox" as the other way around.
But the problem with the word "modern" is the same problem with the word "now".  Neither really indicates much.  If "now" is this instant in time, well by the time I've finished typing that the "now" that was is in my past, much further back by the time you read this.
It's the same with "modern".  Folks back in First and Second Temple times didn't call themselves "ancient".  That term was reserved for the original Egyptians and Hittites, possibly also our ancestors who came out of Egypt.  And as much as we like to call ourselves a modern society nowadays, folks in the 23rd century will be talkin about us as living on "old Earth".  Watch Star Trek if you don't believe me.
If this is the case, then the "modern" in "Modern Orthodox" cannot refer to simply being trendy with whatever is hip in secular society while maintaining an Orthodox approach to life.  Rather, it should refer to the way Judaism interacts with the surrounding culture and how it takes from it elements of use to one's practice.
It seems that there's an intrinsic tension in the word "modern" since what it defines is always changing but in another respect it's always the same since it's the latest and greatest.  How does one bring that concept into our practice of Judaism?
Years ago a Conservative rabbi (I think it might have been Elliot Dorf but don't quote me) compared the halachic decision making process to a game of chess.  After the Torah was given and the Oral law develop the pieces moved into different positions as new situations came up.  The Orthodox approach nowadays, he contended, was to place a glass dome over the board so the pieces could no longer move.  The Conservatives, on the other hand, were still moving the pieces and allowing halacha to evolve.
He never mentioned the Reform but I could suggest that their approach was to clean all the pieces off and use the board as a coaster for their drinks.
I don't think this analogy is very accurate, though.  For one thing, there is clearly continued motion of the pieces on the Orthodox chessboard. It's just that the Chareidi approach to moving the pieces is to create new rules that limit options, like allowing the queen to either go straight or diagonal but not both, or restricting the rooks to a maximum move of 4 spaces at a time.  For them, the mesorah is defined as unchanging but this is clearly not correct if one looks at how normative Orthodox practice has evolved over the centuries.
For another, it could quite easily be proven that while the Conservatives are still moving the pieces but that they've tossed the rule book into the garbage.  For them, queens (and this is not a backhanded reference to their recent legitimization of homosexual marriage) can move in any direction and jump like horses while pawns can move backwards and rooks can jump over bishops.  The pieces and board are the same but the game being played is unrecognizable to someone familiar with the rules.  For them, change is the whole point and the guiding light is secular society.
Where does that leave Modern Orthodoxy?  Well, to persist with the chess analogy, both the Chareidi and the non-Orthodox approach leave an excellent option to be used: playing with the actual rules.  The rules of chess which guide the motion of the pieces are unchanging.  They are the "Modern" in Modern Orthodoxy.
What this means is developing a model of Orthodoxy based both on traditional halachic principles and academic scholarship to obtain a deeper and more accurate understanding of the mesorah.  It means saying to the non-Orthodox that what they are playing is not chess, no matter how much they want to think it is and that they therefore cannot legitimately claim to be halachic and taken seriously.  And it means saying to the Chareidim that their limitations on the rules, their adjusting of how the halacha is developed is also in violation of the rules.
Full halachic practice requires knowledge and confidence.  It requires knowledge is that a person needs to know the sources he is dealing with, from the Torah through the Talmud down past all the Poskim.  It requires confidence in that difficult situations or a lack of ready facts cause people to say "assur " just to be careful.  This is not halachic practice.  It is a cop-out.
Therefore it must be proposed that Modern Orthodoxy develop this model: a traditional model of halacha including the traditional rules for adjusting it to changing circumstances while maintaining absolute fealty to the mesorah.