Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Monday 31 December 2007

Deciding for Others is Wrong

I had never heard of Sam Golubchuk until this afternoon. Now I know too much about what has been happening to him and I worry about the state of medicine in Canada because of that.

I was tipped off to this by Rav Yonasan Rosenblum's latest piece which deals with the matter. WHile I think he's a bit harsh on doctors in general, I agree this is quite a concern.

Mr. Golubchuk is 84 years old and from various descriptions of his condition, he appears to be in a permanent coma, unable to feed or care for himself. He is also occupying an ICU bed, something which is a precious commodity in Canada these days.

The crux of the conflict is that his son and daughter (I presumed they've asked a Rav about this) which to keep him on life support so that he does not die prematurely. This would be in accordance with halachah and as Mr. Golubchuk is apparently a Torah observant Jew, what his wishes would be.

The hospital wants to turn off the respirator. Different reasons have been offered. One doctor says that he no longer "can ethically participate in the administration of this treatment any longer.” He, and some of his colleagues, feel that continued treatment is futile. Mr. Golubchuk has no chance of recovery and therefore there's no point in treating him so that he can remain vegetative.

The hospital ethicist has even weighed in with this gem:

Mr. Golubchuk was plugged into life support when they weren't sure whether he would benefit or not -- and once they discovered that he wouldn't benefit, what this family is saying is that if they disconnect him, they're committing murder," Shafer said.
"That means we have thousands of murders every year in Canada done by doctors, which I think is a completely untenable position."

(How much do you want to bet he's pro-abortion?)

The actions of the doctors and the hospital are wrong. The first, and most important principle of the doctor-patient relationship is autonomy. In Canada, the patient is an independent consumer of health care. It is the job of the physican to provide options to the patient along with an explanation of the risks and benefits of each and then the patient decide (or in this case, his designated powers of attorney). The only exceptions are in case of mental incapacity and emergency situations where there is no time for a rational discussion. Then the physician is presumed to be acting in what his professional opinion is the best interest of the patient.

However, in a way I've always found creepy, this is also a culture in which concepts like euthanasia and assisted suicide have gained some limited acceptance. While still justly reviled by the majority of people, a significant minority, many hospital ethicists amongst them, have embraced such concepts as being enlightened. We have reached a point in society where living in pain or with disability, if it enough of either, is unacceptable and death has become preferable.

Years ago I sat in a class on palliative care and listened to the presenter talking about withdrawal of care or possibly giving a little too much morphine at the right time. We went around the table and the general consensus was "Well, if he's really suffering and there's no way out, then I guess it can't be bad." When it was my turn, I answered with what I believe is the proper halachic answer based on my understanding of the sources: "Deliberately shortened a person's life by even one second is murder, no matter how humane it might sound."

Naturally the others were shocked at the absolute stand I took but I reminded them that an absolute stand is infinitely better in this case than something undefined. Exactly how intractible must the pain be before euthanasia is no longer immoral? What if a person knows they're going to be in pain? Can they ask to die before it starts to avoid suffering? If shortening life by a few seconds is all right, where's the limit: a day, a month, a year?

It is an interesting irony that while halachah is very clear on the limits of patient autonomy - a person's body is given to him as a trust from God and he is obligated to take the best care of it possible irregardless of his lack of interest in doing so - compared to flexible, open Western secular thought, it is Western secular thought that would wind up murdering Mr. Golubchuk while constricting, supposedly archaic halachah still sees him as a human being with infinite value worth preserving.

Our Sneaky Evil Inclinations

"And Egypt enslaved the children of Israel with great harshness. And they embittered their lives with hard work, with mortar and bricks and all manner of work in the field, all the work they were enslaved with was done with great harshness." (Shemos 1:13-14)

There is a well-known midrash that teachers that the word: baferech (great harshness) is a hint to how the slavery began. Although the Torah is brief and gives the impression that it started suddenly, the midrash explains that, in fact, Pharoah enslaved our ancestors a bit at a time, starting with voluntary work for the state that then became involuntary, with the burdens increasing over and over until our ancestors were completely enslaved to the Egyptians.

Rav Reuven Wabshat of Netivot notes in his book, Machaneh Reuven, that the Rambam once referred to Pharoah as the yezter hara. Why should Pharoah be considered the embodiment of our evil inclination any more than the other villians in Jewish history?

The answer he gives is that unlike those other villians, Pharoah convinced us to enslave and embitter ourselves. When the slavery began our ancestors, not realizing what they were getting themselves into, showed up willingly for work, not through force. Proof from the midrash comes from the tribe of Levi which, as the Torah implies, was not enslaved because they never showed up for work on the 1st day.

Rav Shimshon Rafael Hirsch, in his commentary on the enslavement of our ancestors notes that at the Convenant between the Pieces between God and Avraham, three characteristics of the exile in Egypt were predicted: that the Children of Israel would be strangers in a land not their own (geirus), that they would be enslaved (avdus) and they would be humbled through torment (inui). He notes that when the Torah begins to discuss the slavery, those three stages quickly come to pass. First Pharoah labels our ancestors as a strange people that the Egyptians have reason to suspect and fear. They had been in Egypt for over a century at that point and one of their ancestors had saved the country from famine while enriching it at the same time but what were they? Ivrim, not Egyptians. This was the stage of geirus. The next stage was the onset of slave labour, avdus, and finally the great harshness of the work, as described in detail by the midrash, inui.

But what does this have to do with Pharoah being the yezter hara? The metaphorical answer is that the story of our slavery in Egypt is told by the Torah not only for historical and religious purposes but also as a metaphor for our characters.

The evil inclincation is something we live with every day but as many of the giants of Mussar note, amongst them the Michtav M'Eliyahu, the evil inclination does not approach the God-fearing Jew with an open demand to sin. Such a tactic would lead to failure. Instead, it makes subtle suggestions. The Shulchan Aruch, in the very first chapter of Orach Chayim, warns against this tactic of the yetzer hara on cold, dark winter mornings when staying in bed late is so tempting. The yetzer hara doesn't tell us not to daven, but to skip the minyan and stay in our warm homes. Then comes the thought that some parts of davening can be skipped, and finally the progression to not davening at all. Each step along the way seems rational at the time, a logical next step in the turning away from a Torah lifestyle without thinking that we have abandoned it at all.

Thus was Pharoah. The midrash tells us that on the first day of the enslavement, he showed up to help out with the work, sending out the message that if Pharoah can show up and get his hands dirty, the Ivrim can too. You can be sure he didn't show up the next day but the new slaves had no such choice. So it is in our lives. Slowly, carefully, the yetzer hara convinces us a little here, cajoles us a little there, to abandon proper behaviour without thinking we have.

We thus owe it to ourselves to reflect each day on our conduct and thoughts. Are they honestly what we expect of ourselves? Can we really justify all the compromises we make that we think are so necessary? And can we improve ourselves so that we are making the most of the opportunities God gives us and the goodness he showers on us each day?

Cheeseburgers or Zionism

An interesting op-ed piece in today's Ynet.

One of the interesting things Israel has been able to produce a huge Jewish marketplace. This has dovetailed with the progressively increasing fiscal clout of the American Jewish community to result in a huge buying opportunity for today's Jewish consumer.

Think back only 25 years ago. How many major brands of potato chips were kosher? How many serious books on halacha, hashkafah and Jewish history were available? And if you didn't live in a large Jewish community, you had to either wait until you made the day trip to the big city or try to order it through your local shul or Hebrew school. Now, with a click of the mouse, everything's available as long as your credit card number goes through.

But has that resulted in a better Jewish society? Has Artscroll's Schottenstein Talmud resulted in kinder, more decent Jews? Has the ability to order kosher szechuan or buy kosher groceries on line turned us into better observers of all of God's mitzvos? Or has it had the opposite effect?

Years ago, former acquaintances of mine (BT's of course) seeking to up their observance level went and asked their Rav what they could do. He told them to start drinking only cholov Yisroel. Being kosher was too easy, he explained. If you want to be more religious, you have to make it into a challenge.

My initial reaction to that was a loud snort. If it's so easy to keep kosher why don't over 85% of the Jewish people do so? Of all the things to choose, why not something that will enhance society and make it a better place for others?

Although I still do have those objections to the suggestion, I can see some merit to it. When I was in university, there was very little kosher around. It was a routine thing for me to join friends for lunch as they were chowing down on the cafeteria food and pull out my sandwich and then go find a sink to wash in. A huge inconvenience? Absolutely, but it did have the effect of reminding me that what I was doing was something Jewish, not just snarfing lunch down.

One of the dangers of being in Israel is that it feels "normal" to be Jewish. Kosher restaurants are plentiful (depending on which hechshers you hold by), Judaica is for sale everywhere and everyone else is Jewish too. What seems amazing to someone from a small community in Golus eventually turns into a feeling of being part of the greater society, something that doesn't happen over here. But as a result, one can become complacent.

One great example I can think of is something I was told about 4 years ago. Apparently there is a "minhag" in Conservatism that one need only fast until midday on Tisha B'Av. That's because now that Yerushalayim is back in Jewish hands and rebuilt, the fast can be lightened. Of course, even a cursory knowledge of the Bible and halachah makes one laugh at the notion. Tisha B'Av is not a commemoration of the destruction of Yerushalayim but rather of the two Temples and, to my knowledge, they have not yet been rebuilt. What's more, the prophets of the early Second Temple period were specifically asked if they could abolish Tisha B'av, Tevet 10 and Tammuz 17 because they had rebuilt the Temple. The answer was a resounding "no". How much more in our days when our enemies worship and walk freely on our holy Temple Mount.

God did not give us His holy Torah and the 613 mitzvos simply to generate business for kosher butchers and supermarkets. He gave it to us to give us a guide to creating His vision of society here on Earth. That requires more than just feeling "normal" or being just like everyone else. We are, as a people, as a nation, terribly incomplete. How does a kosher cheeseburger compensate for the lack of a Temple? How does being able to buy Jewish books on-line make up for not having a Sanhedrin administrating a nation that lives by halachah?

As the article concludes:

We must follow the advice of Rav Zera and Rav Yirmiyah and look beyond the darkness of Exile. We must abandon our preoccupation with non-issues—the kitniyot and the kosher cheeseburgers—and open our minds and hearts to a truer appreciation of the wordings and intent of the Torah as we focus on the big
questions that form the foundation of a Jewish society in the Land of Israel:

*Whether religious Jews should actively seek the reinstitution of the pre-Exilic customs of the Land of Israel
*Whether the lack of desire for the Temple indicates a character or spiritual flaw
*Whether synagogues should still be saying the prayer for the spiritual centers and Torah academies of Babylon
*How we can re-establish institutions such as the Sanhedrin and the Temple in order to “renew our days as of yore”.

No one can seriously believe that when Moshiach comes, may it be speedily in our days, that society will revert back to the way it was 2000 years ago. Heaven forbid that all the technological and societal advancements of the last two millenia (many of them done by Jews) will be simply washed away. (Me, I'm hoping they use metric in the Third Temple).

The first question therefore is not whether we should actively seek the reinstitutions of the pre-Exilic customs of the land of Israel. Israel is a secular state not ruled according to halachah and the majority of Jews are still outside its borders. What's more, life and conditions have changed immensely during our long, dark dispersion. What was functional 2000 years ago might have to be adapted, through the guidance of our rabbinical leaders, to be relevant nowadays.

What we can do, however, is decide what kind of Jewish society we would like to have. How would a halachic society look in this day and age? How would new techonologies like video, Internet, etc. be incorporated into the existing legal structures that we have in our authoritative codes of law (eg. could payment of fines be done by credit card, for example?)?

It is therefore the job of believing Jews to realize that the opportunity to create something very grat is upon us. It's not enough to revel in being able to do what everyone else takes for granted in the rest of the world. We must take the opportunities Hashem has given us and build the ideal society that He wants from us.

Saturday 29 December 2007

Knowing the Real Thing When They See It

Despite many rosy claims to the contrary, Reform and Conservatism have never had much success in Israel. Other than pockets of like-minded olim from North America in large centres like Yerushalayim, they have made almost no inroads into Israeli society despite strong efforts to do so.

A recent conference in Israel looked into this failure and tried to explain why. One of the best reasons, and unfortunately an accurate one despite the ethnic overtones was:

Although he did not say so, Maimaran implied that Reform Judaism in Israel was a decidedly Ashkenazi phenomenon. Anat Hoffman, executive director of the Israel Religious Action Center, the legal arm of the Reform Movement here, said so explicitly. She said that Sephardim who belonged to the Reform Movement tended to come from "certain socioeconomic strata" and from "certain neighborhoods in Israel like Ramat Aviv."

An interesting observation, especially for one like myself who grew up in a Conservative synagogue where 99% of the members were pure white-bread Ashkenazim. On the other hand, I think there is another reason why Reform and Conservatism have not generated any appeal to the non-religious Israeli crowd.

Firstly, even in North America, most Reformers and Conservativists aren't active, ideological members of the movement. In order to be counted in either group, all one really has to do is take out a synagogue membership. One can refuse to keep kosher, purposefully drive on Shabbos and sleep with one's wife and her sister while they're both having their periods and still be a member in good standing of either group. Orthodoxy, on the other hand, isn't quite so open. Membership in the local shul is, in fact, only a small part of the package which demands huge things of personal behaviour in terms of obedience to normative halachah. One cannot behave in certain ways and call oneself's Orthodox and as a result, all Orthodox Jews are ideological members of the faith.

The non-religious Israelis, for the most part, understand this better than the Reformers and Conservativists give them credit for. They know that Torah Judaism, with its demands on the individual, is the "real" deal as opposed to Reform and Conservativism which seem to cater to the lowest common denominator and shirk from making any requests of its members. A non-religious Israeli who doesn't believe in keeping Shabbos and has no trouble with "alternative" lifestyles doesn't need Reform and Conservatism to justify his faith and if he needs to go to shul, he knows the Orthodox shul down the street offers a time-tested minyan instead of a social gathering.

In this light, it's a shame all that money was spent to simply figure out the obvious. Maybe next time they'll live up to their principles and donate it to the poor instead.

Guilt Money to the Enemy

Diana West's latest piece is worth taking a look at for two reasons. One is to remind us that the West, along with much of Israel, is still in denial over the true nature of the Islamist enemy at the gates. Only a few days ago we heard about how nicely attended X-mas celebrations in Beit Lechem were, ignoring the fact that the Chrisian population of the Palestinian Authority is shrinking at a rapid rate due to persecution from the Muslim majority. America and Europe are practically tripping over themselves to hand money to the Arabs despite their track record of corruption and redirection of that money to Swiss bank accounts.

But the second reason is more fascinating. West notes recent, troubling quotes by Bernard Lewis, the elder statesment of MiddleEast history:

What was startling about the message, however, was one of the messenger's: none other than the eminent historian Bernard Lewis. He declared that anti-Semitism didn't even exist in the Middle East until European Christian colonizers brought it. You don't need to be a scholar of Lewis' stature to know that European colonization of the Middle East didn't begin until some 1,100 years after Islamic anti-Semitism got going in the Koran, the canonical commentaries on the Koran, and in a long and painful (for Christians also) historical record.

What is it with senior politicians and intellectual figures that causes them to go senile despite a lifetime of decent public service? Few have achieved what Lewis has in his career, yet if he is really speaking like this, he is making a mockery of not only the truth but his own life's work.

The canard that the Arabs loved the Jews until those darned nasty Zionists showed up on the scene in one that must be constantly fought. As Joan Peters' proved long ago, Arab hatred of Jews is as old as the Koran. Within Arab societies, Jews could only hope to be well-tolerated second class dhimmi, subservient to their Muslim overlords. Far from learning from the Europeans, such things like distinctive badges, ghettos and mass killings originated in the Arab world and made their way north and west. The State of Israel's appearance aggravated the situation much in the same way a rape victim might enrage her attacker were she to suddenly pull out a taser and fire it at him. Aggressors always hate it when their targets fight back.

The whole situation remains one of insanity, one in which a corrupt, ethnic-based dictatorship remains favoured over a multi-party and culturally diverse democracy. We can only see such behaviour as a sign that God is hardening the heart of the nations as a prelude to our final redemption. May we see it speedily in our days.

Thursday 27 December 2007

With Friends Like These

One of the ongoing problems with Modern Orthodoxy is the split between the ideological and behavioural groups.

The ideological groups generally look at Judaism the way a physicist looks at physics. They immerse themselves in it, strive to understand it as totally as they can but this does not always (okay, only uncommonly) translates into passionate observance of God's commandments.

The behavioural group, on the other hand, lives with a contradiction. Being Orthodox is not generally important to them but they don't want to become non-religious either, for a variety of reasons. As a result they continue to observe basic levesl of most mitzvos while judiciously ignoring those that clash with their Western liberal sentiments. They will keep strictly kosher but learning, tznius clothing and enthusiastic davening isn't high on their list.

Thus a spectrum emerges. On the extreme right are people who, like the Mizrachi in Israel, are stringent in their observance but do not share the specific worldview of the Chareidi community. On the extreme left are the crowd that are essentially Conservative in their outlook but still insist on separate seating in shul.

Certainly this makes them a tempting target for the Conservative crowd, as this article in The Jerusalem Post points out. After all, if the only difference is a small partition that everyone looks over anyway, where's the big difference?

This is a grave danger facing Modern Orthodoxy. Certainly even the strictest Conservative would never dream of thinking that his congregation is "traditional enough that Orthodox Jews feel comfortable with the prayers and rituals, and at the same time secular Jews can participate without feeling intimidated."

Let us be clear about what Conservativism is and what it is not. The article discusses the approach to changes in law, for example:

"The difference between us and Orthodox Judaism is that we look more critically at the Shulchan Aruch [code of Jewish law]," says Schlesinger. "We are willing to go back to the sources, to the Talmud, to the early rabbinic authorities to reinterpret the Halacha. The most obvious example is the role of women. They are full participants, not just in prayer and Torah reading, but also as rabbis who make halachic decisions.

This is a complete misunderstanding of halachah and the way it has evolved. Real poskim, the ones who are in a position to make decisions, build on the work of the previous generations. If they are asked a question, they do not leapfrog over those decisors they don't want to hear from to go looking for an opinion in the Gemara that will allow them to find the answer they want.

But even if that was a viable option, Conservatism has already proven that the statement above is a sham. The real difference between true Torah Judaism and Conservatism is that when a real posek is asked a question, he researches and comes up with the answer. When a Conservative is asked a question, he gives the answer the questioner wants (which is almost always "yes") and then goes looking for any reference he or she can to support that decision. And if there's no source? The decision is upheld as "the right thing to do".

Go back to the Talmud? How did that result in a legalization of homosexual marriage? Permitting unmarried couples to live together before marriage? Driving on Shabbos? When the Conservative interviewed in the article states: "We have to be clear about our demands and let our congregants know that we are totally committed to Halacha and mitzvot" he is either in denial or lying.

At some point in the next generation or two, the left wing of Modern Orthodoxy will probably formally fall away and join one of the Conservative organizations, either the JTS or the UTJ. They are free to make that decision, as damaging as it will be religiously for them but the least they can do is be honest about it and stop pretending to be observant Jews when they do.

Wednesday 26 December 2007

Reading Into The Words

I like Will Smith. I have ever since his music video Parents Just Don't Understand was on MuchMusic back in the 1980's. I've seen several of his films and enjoyed them all. Therefore I was disturbed to read headlines in Jewish on-line newsites that claimed he thought Hitler was good.

Now remember that there's a special opporbium surrounding anything to do with Adolph Hitler, y"sh. A few yars ago one of the candidate in a federal election here in Canada used a quote from Hitler in his campaign literature: "What luck it is for rulers than men do not think." For this he was villified in the national media. Quoting Hitler? Why, that makes you a Nazi and glad that six million Jews were killed! How dare you?

What went unsaid is that the quote was spot on. Hitler himself took advantage of the German's desperation to unleash the evil and terror that he did on the world. How else to explain the widepread support for communism through much of the 20th century? How else to explain why the Toronto Maple Leafs play to a sell-out crowd game after game despite their incompetence?

This is Will Smith's quote from IsraelInsider:

"Even Hitler didn't wake up going, 'Let me do the most evil thing I can do today,' " Mr. Smith said. "I think he woke up in the morning and using a twisted, backwards logic, he set out to do what he thought was 'good.'"

Naturally he was roundly condemned and forces to issue an apology and clarification (hey, how come no sensitivity training?). But once again this is what went unsaid: He's right. Hitler did not wake up every morning thinking: Hah, hah, it's time to be evil! He woke up thinking: The Jews are the cause of all the problems in the world. I must eliminate them to make the world a better place.

This is hard for people to fathom but is essentially true - most of history's worst villians were not motivated by a mindless desire for murder, blood and destruction but to rebuild the world in the image of what they felt was ideal. Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, and all the others were trying to create an ideal society and felt that murdering those who didn't belong in it was the right thing to do. They were psychopaths and they were evil but in their own minds they were right.

And this is what's important about this whole episode. A subjective, personal sense of morality is no guide to objective rightness. We often forget this, giving ourselves credit for being moral and decent but as Rav Benjy Hecht of Nishma once pointed out, you wake up in the morning and try to make the world a better place. So did Hitler. What's the difference between you and him?

The only answer I can accept is that I wake up and try to make the world a better place following the dicates of Torah which I accept as objectively true. I don't let my personal biases and foibles decide my actions but rather trust that God, in His perfection, has told me how to really make the world a better place. Anything less than that is a meaningless, directionless guide.

Lies, Damn Lies and Statistics

Intermarriage is a big problem in the Jewish community, especially the non-Torah observant part. No one can deny this as statistics show more than 50% of Jews marry out nowadays (it's much higher when you remove the Orthodox component). For years, non-religious Jewish organizations have been scrambling to deal with this crisis but with one caveat: they will reject any solution that makes Judaism more authoritative in one's life. In other words, let's build up Jewish identity but without anything that can be seen as traditional Jewish behaviour, eg. kashrus, Shabbos, etc.

Having failed at that, these organizations now seem intent on reiinterpreting the numbers in such a way as to minimize the problem. For example, instead of seeing a greater than 50% intermarriage rate as a problem, we are now told, in an article from JTA, that the number has leveled off since the early 1990's. Yes, it's not that big a problem because it's not getting worse. Okay, that's one way of looking at it.

But the article goes further, looking at the percentage of children in intermarried homes who are raised Jewish. They note that the number of children raised with Jewish identity is far higher than might otherwise have been supposed. Yes, far from dropping all sense of Jewish identity, intermarried Jewish parents are maintaining their children's Jewish identity in increasing number.

Huh? You're marriage to a non-Jew, an arrangement that Torah law does not recognize as valid. You don't keep kosher, or Shabbos. You don't wear tefillin or attend shul except for Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur. And you're providing a Jewish environment for your kids, a sense of Jewish identity? Having taken all the specifically Jewish things out of one's life, how exactly does that happen? Let's see:

It comes down to what individuals believe will help them lead better, richer lives.
“When you’re a parent," Olitzky said, "you make decision on the basis of what’s good for you and your family, not what’s good for the Jewish community.”

Could there be a more un-Jewish statement? In Judaism, the community is the centre of one's life and all Jews relate to one another through that community. To state that everything is individual only proves the contention that these people, despite their proclivities for hamataschen and latkes, have no real sense of a valid Jewish identity.

Jewish organizations that wish to stem the tide of intermarriage must ultimately accept that only traditional Jewish observance will do that. Otherwise, they are wasting time and money justifying behaviour that has never been Jewishly acceptable. No poorly done surveys will ever change that.

Tuesday 25 December 2007

That's Not an Apology

You know what's more annoying that someone being self-righteously insulting? It's when you call him on it and he responds by says "Tsk. I didn't mean to be insulting. You obviously didn't understand me so I'll rephrase what I said before." Such a person winds up being insulting for a second time and still doesn't get it when he faces a hostile response.

Such, it seems, has occured to Rav Yitzchok Adlerstein. He recently published a post on Cross-Currents that seemed to imply that there's one way to be properly frum: his way. The responses to his opinion were vociferous, so vociferous that he saw fit to publish a follow-up piece. The follow up piece should have been short and simple: What I said was intolerant. Sorry, I didn't realize how I sounded.

Of course, that's the last thing that would have been posted. In an era where saying sorry is anathema (not just to frum Jews but to pretty much every single group in society), it wouldn't do to admit he had made a mistake. Instead, we got another long piece, explaining why we didn't understand how right he had been the first time.

His first argument, for example, is weak and easily thrown back:

Let’s say a person lives in Williamsburg, sports a shtreimel and long, curled peyos, and his father was the gabbai for many years in Rav Yoelish’s beis medrash. All his forebears in recent memory hail from Satu Mare, Hungary. On the other hand, he drapes an Israeli flag outside his apartment (and lives to tell about it), and swears allegiance to the Lubavitcher Rebbe. Is he a Satmar chusid?

By picking an extreme example, Rav Adlerstein misses the point. Of course he would not be a Satmar chasid. Satmar chasidus is a small group with very, very defined beliefs and criteria for membership. Orthodox, or Torah Judaism, is not. It's a very large group with a great deal of heterogeneity. The about person couldn not call himself a Satmar but he could still be an Orthodox Jews.

He continues with his closed opinion thusly:

argued that the contradiction vanishes if one assumes a difference between what is “heretical” and what is “unacceptable.” Rabbi Leff was saying, I believe, that some beliefs may not be heretical, but the voices that have rejected them have been close to unanimous. In those cases, maintaining such beliefs is “outside the pale” of Jewish experience. The community has the right to regard them as foreign, rather than merely different.

I would agree there is a difference between heretical and unacceptable but once again, what';s unacceptable? Who defines that? Where is this 100% pure community that defines for all Torah Jews what is okay and what is not? What's more, anyone following the news from Israel lately knows that in the chareidi world, there is no longer a difference between hetertical and unacceptable. Anything that drifts from the rigid line of pure Chareidi practice is a "to'eivah" tha tmust be abolished.

Then there's this little line that hides in the middle of a bigger paragraph:

Except for principles of faith, we don’t legislate beliefs.

Huh? We don't legislate beliefs? So much of modern Ultra-orthodoxy is legislated beliefs, even if not formally codified. If you want to be a Lubavitcher, you must believe the Rebbe was/is Moshiach. If you want to be a Satmar, you must believe the state of Israel is the source of all evil in the world today. But that brings us back to the original point - that the entire Orthodox world has so many different groups in it that it is impossible to legislate more than the broadest beliefs such as faith in God and acceptance of the truth of Torah. Indeed, Rav Adlerstein accidentally admits to the problem with his position:

Yes, the construct lends itself to abuse. There will be groups that argue that anything but their hashkafa, their halachic practice, is beyond the pale, and foreign to all of Jewish thought and experience. But they will do this regardless of what I write in my article! And they will be patently, demonstrably wrong. So I am not as worried about them as others are.

What's the difference between saying Breslov chasidus is the only real Torah Judaism and saying that you have to be a follower of the Agudah? Rav Adlerstein also admits that, despite having created a concept of being "beyond the pale" or "unacceptable", he can't actually define what that means:

Do I have a satisfactory litmus test of what is in, and what is out? No I don’t. Not having an airtight definition does not mean that the construct is not valid. Get used to it. We don’t have the answer for everything. I still can’t really describe an electron, but I have a pretty good sense that they exist

The argument here seems rather self-centered. He can't define an electron? Maybe, but lots of physicists out there can with great detail. It is they who write the definitions of electrons. Besides, how can he believe in electrons? Chazal never mentioned them. Isn't it beyond the pale to think we know something about the universe that they didn't?

The implications are also concerning. Consider:

Rav Ahron Feldman, shlit”a, said something similar about meshichistim. They are not heretics, and should not be treated that way. Yes, you can count them towards a minyan. But they believe in something very foolish, and we do not rely on the judgment of foolish people for matters that affect the community. They should not serve as mashgichim. (I assume that he leaves room to trust them if we determine that they do their job particularly well.

Now think about this: In the alternative universe of Chabad, it is so obvious that the Rebbe is Moshiach that not believing it is a sign of foolishness. So who's the real fool here? Who's beyond the pale?

One of the comments to the original post noted that Rav Adlerstein seemed to think that all invalidating, beyond-the-pale ideas came from the left while all those ideas that came from the right were considered acceptable. Naturally he took umbrage at this:

Is the right capable of coming up with some strange ideas? Sure. Does it seem to be happening with increased frequency? Yes. Is it as likely to come up with ideas that are so extreme that they lie completely outside the collective experience of Klal Yisrael, that they should be labled not just “not for me” or “not for us” but “outside the pale?” Not anywhere as likely as from the far left.
There are very, very few serious talmidei chachamim on the left; there are very many on the right. Talmidei chachamim can get things wrong. Great talmidei chachamim can get things wrong. But the “mistakes” they make seldom put them beyond the perimeter. It is not impossible, but less likely.

Get that? "Our" side has all the smart people so we don't come up with dumb ideas, like burning Israeli flags on Yom Ha'atzmaut, or banning strawberries because of invisible bugs, or creating a poverty-stricken society where men refuse to work and support their families, very often. But those on the left? Pfah! Wackos.

(Having said that, I will grant that Rav Adlerstein does make a very valid point in that he defines a Talmid Chacham:

I propose, as a rough guide, that minimally, a talmid chacham can explicate a Rashba well; has learned at least quarter of the Ketzos; could open a Pri Megadim and figure out what he is saying without getting sea-sick; can read from the Shev Shema’atsa intelligently in any perek. A talmid chacham should be able to do far more than that, but if he can’t, he is not a player. If you are not acquainted with these works, then frankly, you are not in a position to judge.

I can dispute some of the specifics of the above but his point is quite valid: an encyclopedic knowledge of the authoritative Jewish legal codexes is mandatory before going and mucking about with halachah. Certainly the chareidi world is better at producing such people.)

I would guess, without knowing him better, that Rav Adlerstein and I share many important Jewish values and conceptions. However, I do feel there is one different. With Rav Adlerstein, Rav Leff's rebuttal to Marc Shapiro was to be considered the final word. The Talmid Chacham has spoken and that's it. The thought that Shapiro not only didn't accept this but had a response to Rav Leff that contradicted all his important points, in effect showing as much if not more lomdus albeit from a position of scholarship, is not something Rav Alderstein can tolerate. There may not be many outside the black-hat or Mizrachi world who are baki in Rashba but some know their sources and know when they're been fed a bill of goods. The only way to refute Marc Shapiro is through intellectual scholarship, not self-righteous definitions of who gets to have the discussion in the first place.

Ritualistic Rituals

I've often wondered about the contradiction that is Reformism. On one hand, the movement has always functioned on a rejection of the authority of Jewish law as transmitted by our Sages throughout the millenia. On the other hand, a complete rejection means no sense of identity. If a Reformer doesn't want anything to do with Judaism, exactly how does he define himself as a Jew?

The head of the Reformers, one Eric Yoffe, seems to have noticed that recently. As carried in The Jerusalem Post:

"Judaism has expectations and demands, and in return it enriches your life. If it is just convenience, then it is not worth anything."

This sounds very nice, of course, and very un-Reform. Remember this is the movement that until recently referred to the Ten Commandments as the Ten Suggestions, a movement that tried to renew itself a few years ago but couldn't come up with anything actually authoritative because the whole basis of the movement is a rejection of external authority. Unfortunately, Yoffe's epiphany does not last much longer than the above quote thoughts. To wit:

"I am not asking that synagogue goers refrain from driving on Shabbat," said Yoffie. "Our congregants drive to get to synagogue so they are not going to give up driving. But I will ask them to pray Shabbat evening and Shabbat morning and to refrain from everyday work activities. "

"But we are not saying return to Jewish practice as Orthodox Jewry understands it. We are more selective of which of the 613 commandments we choose to keep. Many of those commandments reflected the values of the times in which they were made but do not reflect our times. We accept some and reject others. "

Right. So accept there are responsibilities to being Jewish but pick and choose what you want those responsiblities to be. Please explain then: If I'm choosing what mitzvos I want to practice and the final decision is up to me and no one else, how is this a real responsbility to Judaism? The only authority I'm accepting is myself and if I choose a different set of priorities tomorrow, I am just as free to jettison those mitzvos that I found so important today.

In the end, I still don't understand Reform except as a giant movement of convenient hypocrisy. May they see the error of their ways and return to the Torah fold speedily and in our days.

Remembering the Dream

When I was 13, I went for a post-bar mitzvah trip to Israel with my parents. One morning my father shared with me what he thought was the most important thing Israel was meant to do. "We've been so far apart as a people," he mused. "Israel will bring in Ashkenazim, Sephardim, white, black, big small. They'll meet, their children will marry and within one or two generations there will once again be a single Jewish people."

I won't state how disappointed I am at how Israeli society has failed to reach that goal. Indeed, I'm not the only one to notice. There's a nice piece by Rav Emmanuel Feldman in The Jerusalem Post today that carries his thoughts on the subject. He manages to bring up a few very important observations, starting with his opening paragraph:

Fresh out of the yeshiva, I spent my first year in the rabbinate in a lovely American small town. My congregants were warm, fine people, but I was the only fully observant Jew. At the time, a veteran rabbi asked me if the experience had strengthened my Jewishness or weakened it. Without hesitation, I replied that it had been strengthened. The very need to explain and to respond to challenges had forced me to become a more alert and more knowledgeable Jew.

How often have we heard the exact opposite? People want their kids to attend schools and yeshivos where the population is homogenous and identical in looks and beliefs. They want to socialize with groups who are compatible with what they think is important. As a result, they forget how to interact with "the other". And after forgetfulness comes hostility. "I'd rather have my child in a class with other Ashkenazi chareidim" turns into "Don't let those Sephardim/Ethiopians into the neughbourhood."

And yes, as Rav Feldman points out, interaction with "the other" often has a beneficial result. In the free market of competing ideas or haskafos, for one to continue to hold their beliefs they must understand why they have those beliefs in the first place. This forces one to confront automatic behaviours or things one does "because my parents did it" and ask: how is this Jewish/ What is the root of it? How does it compare to the other values I am noticing?

No one is talking to anyone but like-minded people. Does a kippa seruga talk to a shtreimel? Does a black hat talk to one who wears no head covering - or to a kippa seruga? Does the lady with the sheitel and the woman with the uncovered hair ever communicate with one another? Do Belzer Hassidim talk with Breslov Hassidim? Do Ashkenazim talk with Sephardim? The insularity - even within groups who have identical beliefs - is palpable.

Insularity is the easiest way to protect onself from having to justify one's views. One can live in a virtual ghetto, never having to confront contradictions or competing ideas. Over time, one's views become entrenched, even twisted from the original because of the lack of confrontation needed to keep them understood. From this come the subcultures in Judaism that believe the strangest thigns, dress the strangest ways and turn around and look at the rest with disdain.

The biggest shame is:

And they might even learn from one another. The secular Jew might learn that the observant Jew is not a monster, that he is not engaged in religious coercion, and that although he observes Shabbat and attends synagogue daily, he is not a wild-eyed fanatic, but a very decent human being. And the observant Jew might discover that his secular neighbor, though he wears no head covering, is always ready to be a good neighbor, to help him in a thousand ways, and is a real mensch.

The alternative, avoiding "the other" means stating "I don't want to learn, to grow, to engage in new facets of Torah. I want to stay right where I am because where I am is perfect." What hubris! How much is this against what we call Torah which demands of us constant intellectual effort and spiritual growth.

I often shake my head when I read on other blogs about people who were coerced into being frum or who have been told that certain, strange chumros are part and parcel of being an Orthodox Jew. In the end, this is why I have chosen to live in a small Jewish community. Yes, where I live isn't a large area. Our frum community is so small we can't afford to be factional. We can't afford not to interact in every way with the rest of our brethren around. We have one shul, one mikveh, one kosher butcher and one community school. Yes, I wrote community. My children attend classes with the other Jewish children from our area who aren't necessarily that religious (or at all sometimes). As Rav Feldman notes:

They might even be strengthened in their Jewishness, like the young rabbi in our first paragraph. Jewish children who are secure in their own beliefs and practices can only be invigorated and fortified by meeting other Jewish children of different beliefs. If they ask their parents why this and why that, the theology of the parents could only be strengthened by the need to explain and to help their children - and themselves - understand who they are. In this way, children and adults would also learn how to live in the real world where not everyone is alike. They can be helped to grow by learning that there are differences, and to learn to tolerate and understand those differences.

One of the biggest reasons for Orthodox dropout amongst those who attend university is the inability of the Orthodox young adult to reconcile their lifestyles with the open lifestyles of their new compatriots, especially their Jewish ones. For some, it's the first time they meet other Jews, non-religious but still proud of their identity, and come to ask why they need to be frum to be good Jews when all around them are people who don't observe our holy laws but feel they're doing just fine.

Children raised in a setting where they can meet other kids learn to justify themselves, gain strenghtin their identity and this strength accompanies them later through life. They will be frum not because it's the only thing they know how to do or because they've been forced into it but because they've accepted the obligation of God's Torah willingly and happily. Their will be a secuar sense of Judaism which has no need to shut out "the other" to prevent contaminating ideas. They will be able to engage in the dialogue that is sorely lacking amongst our people and preventing our Moshiach from engaging in his final task.

A Prfound Ignorance of What Judaism Is

Ynet has an article on a survery done by the Conservatives in Israel on the perception of gender equality in Judaism amongst Israelis. Naturally their conclusions are that most people feel that there is discrimination against women in Torah Judaism but not suprisingly, the vast majority of Israelis wouldn't go to shul just because the mechitzah:

Although 54% believe that Jewish tradition discriminates against women, 39% are of the opinion that discrimination doesn't exist, and another 4% claim that Judaism holds women above men.
Meanwhile, 24% of seculars and 18% of 'traditional' Israelis said that eliminating the gender barrier in places of worship would in fact make them more likely to attend prayer services.

One of favourite quotes is Mark Twain: "There are lies, damn lies, and then there are statistics." Almost all surveys like this are meaningless since the people doing the survey pick and choose, sometimes consciously, sometimes not, their target population to maximize the results they want to get. If I wanted to do a survey that shows that kashrus and Shabbos are important priorities for Jews, I would go and do it in Meah Shearim, not Ramat Aviv. Without seeing the breakdown on who was surveyed, one can immediately tell this was not an actual random cross-section of the Israeli population. After all, at least 15% of Israelis are Torah observant and a good percentage more are traditional. How is the 87% of people who think Judaism is discriminatory number reached?

I would go even further. Of those 87%, how many keep a kosher home? How many are scrupulous in their observance of Shabbos and taharas mishpacha? In other words, how many are full observant of those mitzvos in which women are accorded an important role?

The problem with Conservatism is its unconscious imitation of Chrsitianity. Most Christians limit active religious practice to Sunday mornings in church. So too the Conservatives on Saturday morning. If one's entire conception of Judaism is what goes on in shul, then yes, Judaism is a very discriminatory religion. However, such an incomplete picture is not fair for drawing conclusions. Shul is actually a very small part of Judaism. The major pillars of the faith: kashrus, taharas mishpachah and Shabbos are all home-based and the responsibility of the woman for upholding. Let the Conservatives work on getting their membership to do any of those on a regular basis and then they can look for discrimination within the faith.

Tuesday 18 December 2007

All Together Now: We're All Individuals!

Rav Yitzchok Adlerstein's latest offering on Cross-Currents unintentionally goes a long way towards revealing the restricted outlook that the Agudah has for who is generally to be considered a Torah-observant Jew. He ostensibly tries to define what makes a Jew Orthodox and uses as his negative example Marc Shapiro, one of the favourite boogey men of the Agudah world.

The article starts out innocently enough and even seems complimentary:

I am jealous of the scholarship of Dr Marc Shapiro – even when I often disagree with his conclusions. He never lets the reader down in amassing a huge amount of relevant material regarding the many topics he has written about.

It is immediately after that the article makes a sharp right turn:

I do believe that he made a simple and perhaps understandable error in his response to Rabbi Zev Leff in the current issue of Jewish Action [not yet online].

For those not in the know, Shapiro has written a series of books that push the boundaries of Orthodox thinking. Using a multitude of sources and not restricting himself to "approved" Jewish texts and ignoring those that are inconvenient, Shapiro asks questions many in the Agudah world would rather not like to be brought up, and he suggests answers as well. He challenges assumptions that have become hallmarks of our faith in this benighted age and exploded myths that some treat as sacred. Recently, Rav Leff reviewed one of his books, The Limits of Orthodox Theology, and was quite critical of it, citing numerous examples of wher he thought Shapiro was wrong or misinterpreting historical events and halachic writing. True to form, Shapiro responded to each of these concerns with ample evidence to support his point of view. This was essentially an end-game for Rav Leff. After all, to continue to argue would require him to engage in critical scholarship and this is not something he was prepared to do. No worry though. If you can't refute the message, you can always discredit it by changing the parameters of the debate. Hence:

He ignored a construct that is enormously important for the future of the community, but that he may find unattractive.

What is this construct?

It seems to me that the essence of Rabbi Leff’s argument is that one need not be adjudged to be a heretic to nonetheless stand firmly outside the boundaries of the Torah community. The answer to Dr. Shapiro’s question is that those who maintain beliefs at the margins are not to be seen as heretics, but can be seen as beyond the pale.

Translation: Yes, Rav Leff's criticisms have all been successfully refuted by the author so instead of trying to counter his assertion we'll simply decide that his point of view is wrong ab initio, thereby disqualifying him from the debate in the first place.

Now this is a scary point if taken to its logical conclusion. Rav Adlerstein notes, correctly, that the word "heretic" is used far too often this days, mostly be the same crowd that cries Assur! at everything but he then draws a different conclusion. He seems to be saying: "True, we won't call you a heretic if you disagree with us but we can still say you're not part of our community."

Now, who defines the boundaries of the Torah community? Who chooses its membership and sets its qualifications? In other words, why might I think that Shapiro's views are outside the pale when I don't know where the pale ends and the outside world begins?

Rabbi Leff’s point, however, is that there are ideas and values so important and so widespread that they define the experience of a Torah Jew. It might not be forbidden for people to think differently, but if they should do so, it would not be inaccurate to say that they would be living something significantly different from the rest of the community. We would not be able to point an accusatory finger and brand them as violators of some prohibition; we could accurately say, however, that they were not Torah Jews in the colloquial sense.

I would agree with this statement but on the other hand who defines what "different thinking" is? Nowadays there's a push by some elements within the Chareidi world to demand a literal understanding of the first chapter of the Torah. If I insist that the story of Creation can't be understood literally because of the scientific evidence against it, am I outside the pale according to these people? Despite my observance of halachah am I now no longer a Torah Jew? The answer is not reassurance:

Many will expect the teachers of their children and the rabbanim of their shuls to share a common belief system, within limits. They will want those limits set not at the divide between the permissible and heretical, but within the experience of the vast majority of Torah Jews and Torah luminaries for hundreds of years. Situating oneself within these more narrow limits does not guarantee that one is “right,” but it does allow for a commonality of experience with more people in the same generation, and a sense of deep connection with generations that preceeded.

It must be made clear at this point: Although there are some beliefs and behaviours that have consistently been identified with the Jewish people over the millenia, there are also been radical differences between sections of the community. Much of the Chareidi community of Eastern Europe was fervently anti-Zionist, to the point where holding such a philosophy was an article of the faith. At that same time, the Mizrachi community of Rav Yitchak Reines and much of the Sephardi Torah world held that there was no difficulty associated with rebuilding the land of Israel and that it might even be seen as a religious and historical imperative. According to Rav Adlerstein's statement, who is right? Are the Satmar chasidim and their ilk on the inside while any religious Jew who is pro-Zionist can no longer be classed as a Torah Jew? If a particular group insists on Cholov Yisroel even under those circumstances that Rav Moshe Feinstein, z"tl permitted it, are they allowed to see those who drink regular milk as non-Torah Jews? There are, according to Chazal, seventy facets of Torah. Does Rav Adlerstein mean to suggest that nowadays there's only one, the one he and his particualr community approve of? Apparently so:

What can be permissible can still be so out of synch with Jewish experience that it can be rejected as outside the pale, even if not assur. This may be true of new approaches to teaching Tanach, Gemara, and to entire institutions of learning.

What about teaching men that working is forbidden because it takes away time from learning? What about forcing women to become the family breadwinners and primary child caregivers? What about giving certain rabbonim the power to dictate halachah by decree instead of discussion and interaction? Why are the examples of being outside the pale only those that Rav Adlerstein finds objectionable?

The message is simple: There can be no changes, no innovation, no honest reading of halachic sources lest one come to a different conclusion than the one assumed as normative until now. Even if Rav Yosef Karo himself says something is fine and dandy, it can now be forbidden simply because some people who have taken it upon themselves to define what Torah Judaism is don't think you should do it.

Let me be clear: I'm not talking about "ground-breaking" or "cutting edge" halachic innovations that are done not because something should be permissible but because vocal, barely attached members of the Modern Orthodox community want to impose their personal values onto the religious structure. I have no interest in legitimizing that and I'm as guilty as anyone in sometimes saying "Well yes, technically it's okay but Jews just don't do that sort of thing." In spite of this, I share Shapiro's bottom line concern: Is something allowed or not? And if it is, is there a compelling reason not to make that public?

The next time I watch a television show, I'm no longer a Torah Jew. The next time my wife wears a denim skirt, she's no longer a Torah Jew. Is this the Orthodoxy of the Agudah? If so, no wonder we're all labelled by the outside Jewish community as intolerant and closed minded.

Sunday 16 December 2007

Keeping One's Focus

What's does the Torah-observant, but non-Chareidi, Jew stand for?

It's a good question, one that had consumed much trees and ink, including the landmark article available through this blog. Unfortunately, it's also one that results in unsatisfactory answers. This post will try to provide an answer, one that may help to focus the beliefs of a large, heterogenous group of people who, until now, have been defined by their lack of unity.

The first thing a Jew like this believes is that there is one God who is eternal. He created the universe and everything in it, and remains actively involved in its day-to-day existence. All of Creation exists because of His input and even things we take for granted as being normal or part of the laws of nature only continue because of His will (cf. Rav Shimshon Rafael Hirsch and Rav E.E. Dessler on the subject).

This one, eternal God presented us with His Torah at Mount Sinai as detailed in that selfsame Torah. Our Law is not a man-made invention, a composite of different books or philosophies, or a divinely inspired writ. It is God's blueprint for the universe. Torah is not just what's in the scroll in the shul, no more than Medicine is defined by the Merck Manual. Torah is what God has planned for us and all parts of His Creation and it is our duty as his servants to learn what that Will is and carry it out to the best of our ability.

The Torah is not a simple or superficial book that can be read and understood easily. It is a deep text with many layers of interpretation that can only be fully appreciated by understanding the original text and all its subtleties. To say that Creation lasted 144 hours because the Torah uses the word "day" six times is to deny this depth. This is a graet injustice to God who expects much more sophistication from us. The reason the Torah was given with a huge oral component was to emphasize this. The text is just the beginning. Our Sages and their inheritors through the ages are our guides to understanding the text. There is no one correct way to understand a verse or concept although there are many wrong ways. How can we know which is which? Emunas chachamim, a critical eye and an open mind.

We must remember that halachah is more complex than any comparable field of knowledge. There are few absolutes and many options that have developed through the centuries of rabbis who have endeavoured to elucidate God's Will for our daily lives. The answer "it's not allowed" is only valid when it can survive a challenge. An argument like "it's just that way" is meaningless, as is "you have to do this because my Rabbi said so". Daas Torah is knowing the vastness of halachic literature and reaching conclusions based on that knowledge. It is not a trump card to end a dicussion when you don't really have good support for your position and your opponent knows it.

All we believe must be based on Torah and halachah. If we support Zionism, it must be because, having learned the relevant sources, we see that the conditions for supporting our people's return to Israel is legitimate and supported by the evidence. It's not enough to say that "the Satmar rebbe doesn't know what he's talking about". He very much does know what he's talking about which means that countering his rejection of Zionism must involve understanding why he feels that way and why we can disagree, using the same sources. Having said that, there is ample support in Torah literature for the return of our people to Israel and this juncture in history. May we witness the final redemption speedily.

One must never define oneself as being against something. We must be for something. We are for God and his Torah; for the intelligent practice of His Law; for the belief that He revealed His Will to us at Sinai to give us the opportunity to create a society that would fulfill His vision for humanity. By being the best Jews we can be, in the most intelligent way we can be, we serve God in a positive fashion whether it be through sitting and learning or working and earning.

Above all, we must remember we are all children of the Lord our God whose ways are perfect and who brooks no error. If a person exists in this world, he has a purpose that was ordained from on high. We cannot second guess our Creator's judgement, nor despise it by showing disrespect to his Creation. Only through respect for our fellows can we advance Torah properly in this world.

Respect, however, does not equal tolerance. One can disagree without being dismissive and we must remember, therefore, that our beliefs cannot be compromised. We must be firm and resolute in our practice and form without being patronizing and dismissive of those who are different, either to the left or the right. This is rarely easy for the reaction from either extreme is often vicious but just as Avraham withstood the Ten Trials, so we must see these challenges as tests of our faith and belief. The more we withstand, the closer we come to understanding what God wants of us.

Which is the reason we merit having been created.

And the girl dancing by the pole is there to help you concentrate

Somewhere along the line, lots of Jews forgot the purpose of davening. The purpose of davening is not to have fun, feel alive or get a spiritual kick. The purpose of davening is to personally connect to God, share your innermost feelings with Him, address Him with fitting praises, and request your needs of the King of the Universe. With the proliferation of learning minyans, new age minyans, and outreach minyans, the idea that davening is a social activity that needs to interest participants seems to have replaced this simple idea. Hence, this article about the new "minyan" at the JTS which incorporates muscial instruments and contemporary tunes.

Now I will admit that I am guilty at times of using contemporary tunes when leading services. Shalom Chanoch's songs have been a big inspiration for me during Shabbos davening and I can make "A Horse with No Name" by America fit the Shabbos Shacharis Kedushah. However, I would maintain there is a great difference between the occasional use of a contemporary tune and making those tunes, along with inappropriate muscial accompaniment, the focus of the prayer service. What's more, one must be very careful before tampering with the format of the prayers which help Jews from all over the world find common ground together. Thus this mystifiying piece from the article:

There are some staples, such as the recitation of Shema during the morning prayer session. But Shema might involve the prelude of a song called "Waves" that Yoni learned at a Rainbow Gathering in Israel or a rendition of Bob Marley's "One Love." From Marley the music may range from Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, to the Grateful Dead, to gospel.

I never felt guilty about doing Adon Olam to the theme from Star Wars but I wonder if the JTS will now bring in the Boston Pops to get it right for their "service".

A Woman's Touch

Years ago I remember learning about the existence of a "feminist Hagadah" for Pesach. Yes, apparently the real Hagadah is male-oriented and focuses on men and features men so some women felt excluded. Thus the effort to bring a women-centred commentary to the Pesach seder, one that would, if I remember the quote corectly, "focus on the women of the Passover story instead of the men."

Mind you, there's one big problem with that concept. The Hagadah does not focus on the men of the Pesach story. In fact, only two get mentioned and both very briefly. We are told Yaakov our father went down to Egypt. We are also given a quote from BeShalach that "they believe in Hashem and Moshe his servant."

Yes, that's it for the men of the story. Otherwise the focus is almost entirely on our ancestors, the Children of Israel, and how they experienced the redemption and what it should mean to us. One is left wondering: where is the source of the complaint of the feminists?

Now, in a further development, these is apparently a new women-centered commentary on the Chumash that has just been published by the Reformers. The goals are laudable on a superficial basis. All major (and pretty much all minior) commentators on the Chumash are men. Women want to read a commentary by women so here's the new Chumash.

Only when one sits back and thinks about it, that makes no sense. Let's look at any other major branch of knowledge. Has anyone ever suggested that women write their own textbook of medicine because, well, all the big ones to date were written by men? Didn't think so. Physics? Philosophy? Math?

What's more, the few brief excerpts the article bring show a complete lack of originality. Consider this tube:

Take one brief example from Naomi Steinberg’s Central Commentary in the parsha Vayigash. Steinberg observes that the story of the reconciliation of Joseph and his brothers “presents a study in the human capacity for lasting change” and the importance of forgiveness.
How can we explain the transformation we witness in Judah? Steinberg answers this question by speculating on the effect of Judah’s earlier encounter with his daughter-in-law Tamar, who deceived Judah in order to become pregnant.
She writes: “While not mentioned in this parashah, Tamar has been a pivotal figure in Judah’s own growth. Their encounter in Genesis 38 best accounts for Judah’s new capacity to sympathize with his father.”

Well, yes that's true and it's already been noted by Rashi in his commentary ad loc. Steinberg's observation is simply a more verbose version of Rashi's terse statement.

For those who care, there is already a scholarly commentary on the Chumash by a woman . Nechama Leibowitz's Studies series (7 volumes in the English version) are a masterpiece and essential for understanding some of the more difficult matters in each weekly portion. Unfortunately, Leibowitz' work is unlikely to fit the feminist's needs. She addresses the Chumash from a perspective of trying to understand all the characters without focusing on some and diminishing attention on others simply based on gender. For those who want a woman's view of Chumash and aren't interested in petty gender politics, I would recommend this series instead.

Obsessing over the impossible

Back in the spring of 1986 I took a trip as part of a program I was in to the shores of the Dead Sea. As we stood overlooking the waters, the sun sinking into the west behind us, our director, Amichai, pointed over to one of the many places where dry land had replaced the evaporating body of water.

"You will notice," he said, "that the land there is dry all the way over to the other side." He paused and then continued, "You will also notice that there is no fence."

Now, remember the geography of the area. The western shore of the Dead Sea is Israel, the eastern shore the kingdom of Jordan. The border goes straight down the middle which means that if an area drying up completely would leave open land between the two countries. And this was 1985, a time when Jordan was still officially at war with Israel and did not recognize it as a member of the international community. When we protested the impossibility of an open border to Amichai (after all, even the Canadian-American border has some kind of markings all along its length) he smiled.

"It's not in Jordan's interests for this space to be used by terrorists so they simply don't allow them to operate down here."

The recent re-kindled obsession with finalizing peace deals with Syria and the so-called Palestinians, along with the attendant land withdrawals, that occured at the Annapolis conference reminded me of this event. The standard line for so long - we want peace - seems to have obscured the reality of the last few decades.

Here, for those who haven't been paying attention since 1974, is what has happened: In the absence of a peace deal, the border between the Golan Heights and Syria has been essentially quiet. The time period between 1967 and 2000 when Ehud Barak attempted to win a peace deal with Yassir Arafat, y"sh, was the most prosperous in the history of the Arab community in Israel. In other words, it is when Israel wasn't actively engaged in peace negotiations that the country was the most peaceful.

Speaking recently in Toronto, Ami Ayalon continued to show this same idiotic obsession with peace deals. Consider the description of his current job which follows the pattern of previously sensible Israeli leaders become complete fools once they retire:

Ayalon, a former naval commander and chief of Israel's feared security service from 1995 to 2000, surprised many in his country by heading a peace initiative called People's Voice, teaming up with Palestinian university president Sari Nusseibeh.
The two have promoted a two-state solution, drawing up borders along lines set in 1967, removing illegal Israeli settlements from Palestinian land, and disarming Palestinian militant groups.

Yes, once again the familiar refrain from the Arab side: You give us everything we want unconditionally and we promise (heh, heh) to disarm. His most ingenious statement in the article was:

After the January 2006 election in which Hamas swept the polls "we did not do enough to empower the pragmatists," Ayalon said. "Israel's policy should be very clear: we should empower those who accept a two-state idea. And we have to fight to stop terror and extremism."

Pragmatists? What pragmatists? Mahmood Abbas, whose PhD thesis was on how the Holocaust was a hoax, and who continues to call for Israel's destruction in the Arab press which the Western media does not pay attention to?

Understand what has happened since 1993. Israel has ceded land, armed its enemies, lost 1000's of its citizens and surrended effective security control for a large part of its southern territory. The concept of our Yerushalayim being handed over to our enemies has been raised as ana acceptable option for negotiations. And has the Arab set of demands - full retreat in 1967 borders, right of return for millions of "refugees" to pre-1967 Israel - changed one bit in the interim as a show of flexibility? Not a chance.

Perhaps it's time for the Israeli leadership to recognize the obvious - the other side is interested in dismemberment, not peace, but it is still Israel that holds most of the cards. Sit back, relax and continue the job of protecting the Jewish homeland. Let the Arabs come knocking on our door and let them not be the ones to choose when it opens.

Stating the Obvious

The recent intelligence report out of the United States regarding Iran's nuclear program has causes shockwaves around the world. Until it came out, it was widely assumed that Iran was racing as fast as it could towards acquiring a nuclear bomb with which to threaten Israel and the rest of the civilized world. The report states that as early as 2003 Iran stopped developing its nuclear program and isn't to be considered a threat in that area.

Oh, and apparently the Pope's an Episcopalian, as well.

To say that politics in the US is immersed in venom is an understatement. George W. Bush isn't disliked by his opponents. He is loathed with a passion that defies logic. Thus some people explain that this report is an attempt to discredit Bush and his efforts to beat the war drums against Iran although it is difficult to believe that all 16 intelligence agencies would cooperate on such a goal without anyone knowing about it.

Another thought is that this report is, in fact, part of Bush's strategy against Iran. It's apparently well known that Iran's economy is not doing well. Despite billions of of petro-dollars, there are multiple domestic shortages including gasoline for cars! Like other petro-countries Iran survives economically by virtue of a $95 barrel of oil. The price of oil, in turn, is partially kept that inflated by the rumours of war in the Persian Gulf and the havoc it would cause the oil market. By releasing a report that shows Iran is not a threat and therefore forcing the US to publicly abandon its pressure against Iran, the result might be a dramatic drop in the price of oil, causing Iran's economy to collapse. Perhaps the domestic unrest that would result might sweep the mullahs from power and help establish a more rational government in Iran.

Certainly there are many influences in this arena that we, the common people, are simply not aware of. Since that is the case, prudence is always the best course of action which is why I liked Avi Dichter's comments recently. No matter what the report says, Israel must continue to put its long-term safety as its priority. Dichter's comments are blunt:

The American misconception concerning Iran's nuclear weapons may lead to a regional Yom Kippur, in which Israel will be among the countries that are threatened," said Dichter, speaking at a "Cultural Shabbat" talk in Bat Yam. Dichter blamed the Israeli government for failing to provide the United States with insufficient information. "The softened intelligence report proves that Israel failed to provide the Americans with the whole picture concerning the Iranian nuclear threat," he said.

Keep in mind this is the same American intelligence community that knew nothing of the Syrian nuclear site that Israel recently bombed. If the same people worked on this report, then Israel must continue to assume that Iran's nuclear program is proceeding full-stream ahead.

Tuesday 11 December 2007

The commerical you can't see in Israel any more

This started off as a funny commercial for HDTV in Israel. The charedim were understandably upset with it and for those who think that they're being too sensitive, ask yourself if you'd say the same thing if the commercial was mocking another ethnic or gender group.
As a result (how did the Chareidim find out about it anyway? They don't watch TV!) the commerical has been yanked.
Fortunately, YouTube is there for us. Check out the link at right and prepare to laugh.

Sunday 9 December 2007

Things That Make You Say "Huh?"

This article in Ynet caught my eye today. The headline seems to be painfully obvious while the contents are sensible, so sensible they go without saying.

I would go further than Rav Brackman's conclusion:

So in a word: for the sake of our own and the next generation’s Jewish identity we must not mark Christmas in any way. This year let us celebrate Hanukkah instead

If Chanuukah feel in the midst of November or February, we would ascribe to it all the importance and noteriety that we give to Tu B'Shvat. Nice holiday, some interesting customs like playing dreidle, but not much else. The idea of festive meals, family parties, gifts galore, all that is borrowed from the companion non-Jewish holidays that has greatly influenced it.

Remember that the day after Chanukah, the same heroic Maccabees turned into the most corrupt administration Israel had, until the rise of the Kadimah party at least.

Want to celebrate Chanukah appropriately? Give it the importance that Jewish tradition accords it, not the significance our wanna-be-just-like-them culture has.

Christopher Hitchens is Not Great

As usual, I'll share my bias up front. I think Chris Hitchens is a lousy writer. He's insulting, patronizing and rude. He is incapable of speaking respectfully about something he disagrees with and his arguments are based on little more that "this is what I think and therefore it's right". Despite this infantile approach, his book is a best seller and he is a well known personality whie the three books in which I appear, The Curse of Garnel Ironheart, The Ashes of Alladag and We, the Living, books with a stirring plot and compelling characters languish in obscurity.

With that introduction, I would like to dissect the latest piece of annoyance he has produced, an attack on Chanukah published in Slate. He starts off with a paragraph that would not be out of place in an elementary school yard:

But at this time of year, any holy foolishness is permitted. And so we have a semiofficial celebration of Hanukkah, complete with menorah, to celebrate not the ignition of a light but the imposition of theocratic darkness.

The article, naturally, goes downhill from there. From such beautiful pieces of English as:

I quote Rabbi Michael Lerner, an allegedly liberal spokesman for Judaism

I doubt anyone would question Lerner's liberal credentials although I understand the Rabbi part is in doubt according to some. Yet this is typical of Hitchens. If you disagree with him at all, even if you're a liberal, you're worthy of nothing but scorn.

Now remember that, above all else, Hitchens is inconsistent and selective in his viewpoints. One can easily make the case that atheism, in the form of Fascism and Communism, is the single most murderous social movement in history. No religion over the last 3000 years has come close to producing the body count those two groups caused in only one part of the 20th century. Yet Hitchens continues on his anti-religious crusade undeterred. If Fascism and Communism were evil, he holds, it's because they began to act like religions. Understand that? If atheists are bad it's because they're being religious about it. What idiot does not see through such simplistic fooolishness?

His next point fails to convince either:

His excuse for preferring fundamentalist thuggery to secularism and philosophy is that Hellenism was "imperialistic," but the Hasmonean regime that resulted from the Maccabean revolt soon became exorbitantly corrupt, vicious, and divided, and encouraged the Roman annexation of Judea.

Well yes, that is essentially true but desciptions are all in the eye of the narrator. His fundamentalist thuggery is my reiomposition of national religious law which had been the rule of the land before being displaced by foreign cultural imperialists. His secularism and philosophy is my hedonistic, immoral and purposeless lifestyle. Who says his view is right and mine is wrong? Well, Hitchens does, of course. And the unassailable proof that he's right and I'm wrong? He says that's the way it is. Nothing deeper than that.

From there, of course, he runs to the conclusion as to why Chanukah must fall around X-mas time:

Thus, to celebrate Hanukkah is to celebrate not just the triumph of tribal Jewish backwardness but also the accidental birth of Judaism's bastard child in the shape of Christianity. You might think that masochism could do no more.

Yes, it's our fault, of course that another world religion he really hates (actually, let's be fair, he hates them all) got its spiritual start from our military victory and therefore Christianity is our fault. Like we ever wanted them to get a start up and hog the shopping at this time of year! Not only that, but Islam is also apparently our fault, simply because we survived the Seluecid attempt at cultural genocide (which, in Hitchen's eyes is quite okay).

When the fanatics of Palestine won that victory, and when Judaism repudiated Athens for Jerusalem, the development of the whole of humanity was terribly retarded.

In the end, Hitchens is simply a chronic, miserable whiner. He is not someone I would like to encounter at a party as he would probably spend the entire time complaining about every facet of the party and the hosts throwing it, just in case I were inclined to relax and enjoy myself. My advice to those who see his name in a byline is quite simple: turn the page and enjoy some other columnist. Self-absorbed egotists like him crave attention and the simplest way to annoy them is to deny what they so desperately desire.

A Shabbos to Remember

This Shabbos our community had the pleasure of hosting Rav Nosson Sliffkin who spoke to our congregation about a variety of topics such as animals in Judaism, mythical monsters mentioned in our rabbinic literature and the nature of dinosaurs and the true age of the Earth. Other than one close-minded individual who walked out, all were well entertained by his dynamic approach and depth of knowledge. It's sometimes hard to remember that before the difficulties with his book, The Challenge of Creation, he was on a fast strack to being a very big personality in the Torah world due to his genius.

Having said that, there were some things that he spoke about that troubled me. On one hand, I have no problem accepting that the world we live in is far older than 5768 years old. I've stated as much in previous posts. My position has been that the Torah is true and that if science seems to contradict a literal understanding of Torah, then we don't understand the text properly and have to look at it with an open mind and new light in order to realize what God is trying to tell us.

Having said that, there are limits to this concept. It's one thing to say that the six days of Creation were actually six eras that lasted billions of years. It's another to say that the whole thing is an allegory whose only purpose is to teach us a lesson. If that were so, then why six days? Why such detail spread out like it was? Yes, the Torah is not a history or science textbook and reading it with such intent is a fast track to disappointment but on the other hand, its details are there to mean something in addition to the lessons it provides.

The difficulty with establishing a specific train of thought is that finding the train station to get off at can often be difficult. Having decided that the entire story of Creation is nought but an allegory, it's not a stretch of logic to declare that pretty much the rest of the book of Bereshis is similarly only a story meant to give us lessons but not reflective of any real history. Again, declaring that our forefathers never existed is a bit of a stretch and a huge kick at the fundamental basis of our faith. Finally, if Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov are not real personalities, what's to stop one from deciding the same thing about Moshe Rabeinu? Why must one believe that Matan Torah at Har Sinai ever happened? And now one reaches the stage where the most important basis of our faith is challenged.

It is this regard that I humbly think Rav Sliffkin has possibly gone too far in his reasoning. I can understand why. Geniuses often become enamored with their logic and carry it past reasonable points. Given his bitter experience over the last few years, is it possible his lack of anchor within the traditional community has contributed to this?

It is important to understand that, in all things, there is a balance. One cannot interpret the story of Creation literally without ignoring science and much of the real world. To dismiss the whole thing as an allegorical lesson is similarly extreme. Somewhere in the middle the Torah is telling us how the world was born and not just why, although both reasons are imporant.

May we merit to keep to the golden mean and see both sides with equal validity so that we may reach the truth of Torah and God's will.