Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Sunday, 29 March 2015

The Rational Response to the Tragedy

The recent tragedy of the Sassoon family in a terrible fire over Shabbos has brought tears to many corners of the Jewish world.  There are no words to describe the sorrow that the surviving father must be feeling along with the angst over the ongoing life and death struggles his wife and sole surviving daughter are fighting.
Despite that it seems that lots of folks do have words and not all of them make sense.  Having listened to a few lectures on the subject of how to respond to this tragedy it seems a common theme is present.  Despite it being seemingly obvious that the lessons we should learn from this are to own reliable hot plates, not keep them near flammable objects and have copious smoke detectors in one's home we seem to be getting repeated reassurances that, in fact, this is exactly not the lesson we need to be learning.
Instead we are told that we should link this disaster to women dressing immodestly or our not keeping Shabbos well enough .
Perhaps it's the ongoing trend within the Chareidi community towards irrationalism (as in the opposite of the rational approach) but it seems to me that as deep and erudite as these lectures are they completely miss the point, despite each of them assuring me that by not thinking their way it's me that's missing the point.
The Torah, in one of its less glitzy mitzvos, tells us that if we have a roof on our homes that people can use we should built a parapet or railing to ensure no one accidentally falls off.  This rule is easily extended into the principle that one should ensure one's dwelling contains no safety hazards.  It's common sense and a decent thing, exactly what the Torah would be expected to demand of us.
Oddly this mitzvah, which to my simple mind seems incredibly relevant in this matter, never seems to matter.  Rather we are subjected to endless discussions about increasing our emunah, how the righteous suffer to atone for the sins of the generation and whatever the pet aveirah of the speaker is being the real cause for the Sassoon family's destruction.  But this shouldn't be the case.
Now I know that a lot of this irrational trend can be traced back to the Michtav MiEliyahu who took the Ramban's mystical approach and created a worldview in which nothing in this physical world actually matters.  According to Rav Dessler, zt"l, all we see is an illusion and God is the only true reality.  Therefore all our activities and hishtadlus are meaningless.  All we have is tefilah and emunah on our side in our interaction with the Creator.  Despite this we are expected to go through the charade of trying to interact with this "fictional" world because that's what God wants, a variation on Rachamana liba ba'ei, I guess.
This seems to end up in sermons on emunah when the topic should be about where the best price on smoke detectors and home fire extinguishers can be bought.  After all, if God is pulling all the strings and we are not doing anything then it's not about the practical menas for preventing another occurence like the one the Sassoons went through.  Only people on a low level who don't see God's presence in this world would do that.  People on a high level like these lecturers know that it's really all about prayer and faith.
And perhaps I'm just someone on that low level but it seems to me that if the Torah really didn't put any value in practical self-protective behaviour it wouldn't have made the building of safety devices on one's roof into one of the "big 613".  Indeed, would it not have rather told us that if we have a roof on our home we should pray that no ill should befall those standing on it?  Why bother with the exhortation to look after ourselves exceedinly well when all we should be doing is praying that everything works out?
But then, these are the folks that tell us that God put dinosaur bones into the Earth to trick us into thinking the planet is older than 5775 years.  Such a tricky deity!
In this end the lesson from the Sassoon family is: Go buy smoke detectors and don't skimp on kitchen appliances.  Make sure your home is safe.  You have a Torah obligation to do that and by buying those items and installing them you are performing a mitzvah!  Isn't that what we're supposed to do?


Anonymous said...

i put this on emes ve-emunah, but i was late to the party and got no response. could you respond?

I am secular, but I can say at Aish and I imagine other kiruv yeshivas they ABSOLUTELY see the "meaning" in these events. Students are encouraged to see hashgacha pratis in their daily lives. To relay their hp moments at shabbos tables.

When 9/11 happened I was at Aish Jerusalem. The biggest rav they had got up at the beis midrash and made it very plain, in very strong language, that this was hashem telling us to do teshuva. It was like a scene out of a movie, and it works. Because it is hammered into every kid there that their whole view of the world is completely WRONG, and that the Jews know that the world is this big joke, and what is going on really are spiritual realities.

the kids love this stuff.

I am certain that MO types who "flip out" during their year in yeshiva are getting exactly the same message.

This IS orthodox Judaism. If this is NOT OJ, what is?


Anonymous said...

This is a Ying to thisv generation's yang. You won't see tikkun olmam'ers attributing animal welfare to tzar baalei chayim or workers compensation to pirkei avot.

Mr. Cohen said...

Sefer Pele Yoetz, Perek Ahavat Atzmo,
(2nd chapter of book), paragraph 3 of 4:

“He who is not careful to avoid everything that [might] damage his body, he is in fact his own enemy and he seeks his own harm and in the future he will be judged for it.

Since a person who damages others commits a sin, how much more so the person who damages himself, since he who afflicts his relative is [especially] cruel [and every person is a relative to himself].

And how much more so must a Jew guard himself in a place where there is [even] a doubt of a doubt of danger to human life.

And if he [a Jew] enters a place of danger to gain money, the fact is that his money is more precious to him than his life, and if he is saved by a miracle, it is subtracted from his merits and in fact he has traded the great good which is hidden away for him in the afterlife, the reward for his good deeds, in exchange for money which will be depleted and lost, and he will surely be punished.”

CHRONOLOGY: Sefer Pele Yoetz was completed by Rabbi Eliezer Papo [Sephardi Tahor] in Bulgaria on April 28, 1824 CE.

Garnel Ironheart said...

Tuvia, Orthodox Judaism is not monolithic despite being advertised as such by the Agudah and most large kiruv groups like Chabad.
The problem is that many Orthodox Jews and prospetive BT's are looking for something exotic and ethnic. A lecture on hashgachas pratis is sexy. One on why buying smoke detectors is a mitzvah isn't.
There's also a disdain for the secular world to the point that even if the outside comes up with a good and noble idea Orthodoxy must oppose it just because.

Micha Berger said...

I think the clearest religious lesson the realization that buying a fire alarm for the home where one and others sleep is no less a mitzvah than dressing appropriately or keeping Shabbos.

Not "merely" that we ought to own working smoke detectors and pay attention to the safety of appliances we buy, but to realize that Judaism is MORE about keeping others safe than what we wear or other rituals.

A sad side effect of the rise of liberal "Judaisms" that differ more in the realm of ritual than in other areas is that we ended up self-defining in terms of those rituals that we uniquely continue to cherish. Rather than what Yahadus actually considers most central.

When Orthodoxy became more about being frum than being ehrlich, we as a community (the special few aside) went off the derekh.

Anonymous said...

Well, Rav Wallerstein - in terms of his message - was utterly on point with kiruv yeshiva type messages. It does not mean of course that smoke detectors are not needed. I think it assumes that everyone is rightly updating their smoke detectors and fire prevention strategies.

But, honestly, if you spent time at Aish -- this is literally the biggest thing going. And it is not presented as particularly exotic.

The idea of course is that there is our reality, and there are spiritual realities. Mitzvot are what moves things in the spiritual world. So do averas.

These spiritual realities are as real as our physical reality.

Is this NOT the essence of OJ? If not, what is?

If it is smoke detectors that are the mitzvah -- doesn't Wallerstein at least score some points by saying that between the shooting in har nof and this, hashem is sending some kind of deeper message?

I mean -- this IS what we learn in kiruv yeshivas. It is what gets people to start following mitzvot. Period. Full stop.

Is it wrong? You would know better than me.

I understand the mitzvot of fire prevention and safety - like the parapet on the roof.

But it seems the point of R Wallerstein and others is - what else is there to learn? Why such a huge tragedy? What must it mean?

I am not religious. I am afraid of Judaism. I am scared by this stuff.

But this must be actual Judaism, no? I see that there are other mitzvot involved here - smoke detectors. But that does not negate the observations of these guys, does it? Or am I totally, totally off in my understanding of what Judaism is about? Are there spiritual realities, or not? Is there hashgacha pratis, or not??


Micha Berger said...

The first and most important distinction I would make is between attributing a cause to a tragedy, as though we can know the Mind of G-d and serve as His accountants, and taking a lesson from a tragedy. There is an entire book of Tankah, Iyov, dedicated to telling you the folly of trying to find a reason. There are 34 (!) chapters, 3 - 37, of dialog between Iyov and his friends about trying to find an explanation for what befell him. But the book concludes with G-d revealing that the whole thing is beyond man's understanding. Chapter 38 is a peon to man's limitations, 39 to our ignorance.

The book ends with Iyov taking a lesson from his woes, when he prays on behalf of his friends, rather than remaining self-focused.

The Talmud hightens this moment by telling us that Iyov was once one of Pharoah's three advisors. When asked what to do with the Jewish Problem, Bil'am gave the advice Pharoah ultimately folllows, Jethro advised nurturing them and was forced to flee, and Job remained silent. An implicit contrast to the end of his book, where he learns to speak up for others.

But are the sages saying that the cause of his suffering? To do so would be to deny the whole them of the book!

An interesting thing about talmudic discussions of tragedy, they have one thing in common: they are all broad disputes. From the 7 positions about which sin tzora'as is caused by, to the plethora of explanations of the death of two of Aharon's sons, to the numerous explanations of the sins that led to the falls of each of the Temples, etc... they all end inconclusively. We see that while we grapple, and should grapple, with the tragedy we witness, we should also realize we're never going to get an answer.

Religion often inheres in giving us more productive questions, than than providing clean and neat answers.

I would think that the religious meaning of a tragedy is whatever the tragedy shakes you personally up about and motivates you to improve. It's the motive power that allows us to take a lesson, regardless of actual and unknowable cause.

Micha Berger said...

The problem of judging Judaism from Aish (et al) is that:

1- The study of non-halachic portions of Torah is at an all time low. The typical Aish worker never learned Emunos veDei'os, the Kuari, the Guide to the Perplexed, Or Hashem, or the thought of near-contemporary Orthodox Jewish philosophers like R Hutner or R' JB Soloveitchik. At most the typical yeshiva product (certainly most the sort interested in going into kiruv would be near this end of the spectrum) learned Dekeh Hashem and looked at individual essays from the first volume or two of R' Dessler's Michtav meiEliyahu. And lacking a real standing in the field of aggadita, most contemporary yeshiva products never get beyond a superficial understanding of these books.

2- Kiruv is in the job of marketing Judaism. People are attracted to solutions to life questions all nicely tied up with a bow. Telling people you'll provide them with a better set of questions really won't attract as many students.

Interestingly, though, when it comes to halakhah, the same people realize the value of the questions. Yeshiva study doesn't focus on halachic conclusions. We study the talmud's dialectic of how its reached. (Literally "dialectic" -- the book is mostly dialog.) And from there, there is "lomdus" and "pilpul", ways of explaining the dialectics between various post-talmudic positions. We study talmud, not the Rif's summary of its conclusions, because we realize that grappling with the how and why more important as knowing the what.

But when it comes to philosophic questions, that whole dialectic mindset goes out the window. Due to the lack of serious study and the very human desire to have answers. Both blind the kiruv teacher, and for that matter the stereotypical contemporary Orthodox Jew (and I fear it's not just stereotype) from noticing that their answers don't stand up to scrutiny.

Anyone who at the end of Birkhas haMazon can repeat David's words "I was a youth and also grew old, and I never saw a righteous person abandoned and his children begging for bread" (Tehillim 37:25) without struggling with counterexamples from reality is not really qualified to give a thought-through answer. Either they didn't think about tragedy, or -- if they hadn't even noticed the issue in all the times they said those words -- don't really think about their religion.

Anonymous said...

If your point is correct, it seems to me much of the philosophy undergirding Jewish life today is, what? A joke? It still doesn't quite make sense to me.

R Dressler is used for this stuff. So are the rebbe's letters.

People swear by hp, spiritual realities, the Matrix, bashert stories that show the hand of G-d. Why did Rav Dressler bother to write his ideas if they are not Jewish? And if they are Jewish, why do critics feel he is being misused in the wake of this tragic fire?

No one (including Rav Wallerstein) is saying don't prepare your house better. His question is: why such a massive tragedy? G-d could have given them smoke inhalation, and had them recover. Everyone would have gotten the point about the smoke alarms. What else is G-d teaching us?

He's saying the answer is we are not serious enough about Torah. Isn't this typical rabbi thinking? Does he know whether it is true? No, of course not. But rabbis give people ideas all the time without proof. This is what rabbis do. Rabbis tell us things all the time without certainty. It's what they do.


Anonymous said...

i guess one thing I'm having trouble with: aren't even extreme Talmudic positions true? There are moderate ideas and there are extreme positions. They are both Judaism.

For instance, does a man "own" his wife? Well, recently this was debated on Basically, even with Talmudic backup, people rejected the basic idea that men had to want to give a gett. It's not that they didn't have a point, it's that the more extreme view -- that a man has to want to give the gett -- is ALSO Judaism. Ravs today say it.

The folks on there rejected it because, well, they didn't like it. You can reject it as your Judaism, but you can't really reject it entirely as Judaism.

There are a lot of extreme positions in the Talmud that may be disgusting to you, but are STILL Judaism.

What Rav Wallerstein did may have been disgusting, but it is still Judaism. No? It may have been insensitive, ill advised, not the most important thing (to you.) But it is STILL Judaism. Don't you think?

Micha Berger said...

I am reminded of Rav Levi Yitzchaq miBarditchev's snappy comeback to an atheist: "The god you don't believe in, I don't believe in either."

So reject that version of Judaism. "There are 70 facets to the Torah" and even more so "there are 600,00 letters in the Torah" (which isn't even an approximation; there are 305,810 -- 600k is an obvious reference to the counts in Bamidbar). We are told that accepting the Torah doesn't require coming to terms with others' perceptions of it. (Although it's laudable to do so, if you could. That's part of what made Beis Hillel the halachically dominant group; they gave credit to Beis Shamai's view.)

And that presumes the other positions are valid interpretations. Something I wouldn't assume here. Notice I attributed them to ignorance and ulterior motive.

But to actually accept the Torah only requires finding your "letter". Worrying about other people's positions is how we have battles over eiruvin; nothing good ever comes of it.

Your insistence in needing to understand Aish or R' Wallerstein's proclamations in the name of Torah rather than just accepting an approach which doesn't hold your objection might speak to your own ulterior motives. There is only one person who could know; but if you're not happily married, checking yourself is a decent approximation.

Anonymous said...

it's too easy to tell someone to just accept that of the Torah they find agreeable. Too self serving.

If you reject parts of any movement, even the worst in history become attractive!

Movements and belief systems aren't built that way I think. We try to make them more flexible because of another ulterior motive: we want people to join them.

When does "choose your letter" turn into misrepresenting Judaism?

Honestly, if there was a class action suit against kiruv rabbis for false or misleading claims, I would join. We don't have much protection from religion within the legal system, unfortunately. Which is why I know guys who are total clowns intellectually who love to do kiruv. It's a license to lie, and that's a very natural thing to the (lovely as people) kiruv rabbis I know.

Micha Berger said...

I am not telling you to reject the worst of any movement. I am not discussing movements altogether.

I am saying that whether or not you accept the Torah should only rest on whether or not it makes sense to you. Not whether or not someone else's understanding of it does.

Be a movement of one, if need be.

RAM said...

If we take it upon ourselves to use appliances safely and replace defective ones, to install and maintain smoke and carbon monoxide detectors as applicable, and to improve ourselves wherever we are lacking, we are getting the right message, even if we have no clue as to what caused this tragedy.

Anonymous said...

For the Torah (or the entire world of legitimate Torah thought, as brought down in the Talmud and other works) to "make sense to me" it -- the Torah -- has to have some definable content.

And, the way I see it, the ffb who taught me that Torah Judaism -- in its texts -- thinks of women as second class citizens at best -- is talking real, definable Torah.

So is the rabbi who points out the many ways that Torah Judaism respects women.

Both are actual Torah.

When a Jewish man beats his wife with a stick for not washing his feet or pouring his drink, he is following our sages.

When a man treats his wife well, he is following our rabbis.

Both are Torah.

Like I said to a kid who believed Torah was just beautiful:

"You go smash the brains out of an Amalek baby. I'll watch with the other yeshiva buchurs. We'll drink a l'chaim to you, such a shtark Jew you are. So firm in your Torah. Then I'll testify against you in a court of law and send you to jail for the rest of your life. Agreed?"

There is a Torah world - it says the sages are better. Better at Torah. The sages talk about beating your kids senseless, regardless of what wrong they have done or not done.

I love sharing ideas like this with "stars in their eyes" Jews who are getting into the "all its ways are peaceful ways..."

I love telling them that mesira is some serious Torah, and how gays live in the "beautiful" Torah world.

I love it only because kiruv rabbis, and rabbis in general, are afraid of the Torah. They are prone to omission. To the Doctrine of Mental Reservations. They are cowards, needy, controlling, sometimes deluded.

They know it cannot hold a candle to the wisdom of the West. So they deceive. I know kiruv rabbis. They have deceptive natures generally. Lovely folks, who are often split in their minds. They enjoy deceiving. Like some kids really enjoy pranking. They have a need - from the ego - to defend their way of life as better.

And so it goes. We listen, and thirsty for wisdom, listen to kiruv clowns fill our heads with Seligman's Positive Psychology, and call it Torah. And for modern parenting guides, and call it Torah. (Never mind what the Torah really says on parenting. Some of it would send chills down your spine.)

Some of us are proud used car salesman. Only used car sales has carfax - you can check the history of your car. Not kiruv rabbis. They are out on a limb, fighting for our holy souls, lying and lionizing themselves along the way. The heroes of their own Torah worlds....we are so blessed to have them..!

Anyway, that's the view from here! I won't press on with this. I know you keep rearranging the pieces - because you indeed love the Torah life.

But I imagine there are some really cool and nice southern Baptists. Smiling and aw-shucksing the world with their humility. But we both know: if I don't accept Jesus I will burn in a lake of fire for eternity.

aw-shucks, Tuvia. It ain't like that! We're all about love...!

We will ever hear the truth from the class of turds who sell religion?

kol tuv,

Micha Berger said...

Of course the Torah has definable content. It contains a spectrum of interpretations.

You insist in discussing a different set of worldviews. Rather than talking about what the Torah says, you seem stuck on dismissing the Torah because of what a bunch of marketers who never studied this area of Torah in any depth claim it says.

And this is not the only way you appear determined to hold on to specious objections. I allow you to do so, giving up on banging my head against your wall.

Anonymous said...

I keep thinking of those imams who tell us Islamism is NOT Islam. All a hundred and sixty of them.

That leaves maybe five hundred thousand imams who seem to hold a different, less Western friendly, view.

They are both right? Only the first (negligible minority) view is right?

We delude ourselves about religion in order to hang on to it.

May it all end soon. May everyone's eyes open. Halevai we should one day let frum yidden use their minds to learn and evaluate. (I know, G-d forbid they should go to college!!!)

Keep the walls up, the truth out, I know: it feels too darn good this way to stop. Don't let the slaves learn to read. They are happy this way....

ok, it's all very beautiful, and who doesn't like beauty? men will do anything for beauty...tell themselves lies. capture and control. are there no limits to what men will do to get the feeling they want?

maybe i'm the only one who sees it differently. Believes a ruse is a ruse, even if it is a Jewish ruse that gives us meaning.