Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Monday 28 April 2008

On Approaching the Modern World

Over Pesach I spent some time considering how to crystallize the vision I wish to present of what I believe Modern Orthodoxy should be. With the help of God and lots of free time, I believe I was able to put something together to share with readers of this blog.

In order to appreciate what Modern Orthodox should have become, one must look both at the history that led to the creation of the concept and at the leaders most frequently identified with the movement. Through an understanding of what made their approach unique and different from the predominant Litvish/Chasidic model of the time, one can get a clearer sense of where those who call themselves Modern Orthodox should be holding in terms of personal beliefs and practice.

The first thing is to quickly review history. Over the last two hundred years, Judaism has undergone changes not seen since the times of the Second Temple (may it be speedily rebuilt). Specifically, the creation of movements that claim to be authentic expressions of Jewish religious belief which reject much of what Judaism has stood for since matan Torah. Until the Reformers and Conservatives came onto the scene, one generally knew what "real" Jewish practice consisted of. Either one fulfilled the requirements or one did not. The Reformers and Conservatives completely changed this paradagm by insisting that one could be an observant Jew without observing Torah and mitzvos.

In addition, the 1800's also saw the creation of the concept of Biblical Criticism, the idea that the Torah was the work of several human authors which was sloppily edited into one book by Ezra HaSofer. In addition, the advancement of science and archeology also challenged many Torah truths that until then had remained essentially unchallenged.

Now, there were and are two ways to confront these challenges to the Torah's authority and authenticity. The Eastern European approach was relatively simple: Given that the Torah is true, science, archeology and the Reformers must be false. And that's it. It is not much different from a person sticking his fingers in his ears, closing his eyes and shouting "Na, na, na, I can't hear you!" For the right person, this approach can be quite effective but it has the obvious limitation in that anyone with an inquisitive mind and a desire to reconcile obvious fact with the Torah's version of things will be unable to answer the difficulty questions the Reforms, critics and scientists ask.

The second approach, therefore, is to refute the opponents of Torah on their own grounds, using their own tools against them. This is much in the spirit of the mishnah in Avos that tells us that we must know how to respond to heretics. This approach characterized the early models of Modern Orthodoxy.

The first leader to look at would be Rav Shimshon Rafael Hirsch. Interestingly, although Modern Orthodoxy claims him as one of their "founding fathers" he himself did not identify himself as such. Indeed, to this day those who faithfully follow in his Torah Im Derech Eretz approach do not associate themselves with the Modern Orthodox community but are faithful members of the Agudah instead.

Rav Hirsch's historical position was a difficult one. Faced with a strong, growing Reform movement that was making tremendous inroads amongst Germany's well-educated Jewish population, he created a system of intellectual Torah Judaism that could stand up to and force back the efforts of the Reformers. Reading his written works, and especially his commentary on the Torah, one can see that his aim was to authenticate all of the Torah's words as well as the Oral Law which itself is based in the Written Torah.

A different approach was taken by Rav Azriel Hildesheimer and the Berlin Rabbinical Seminary. Rabbonim trained at this institution were expected to have received a higher secular education before enrolling in studies at the school. The idea was to train Jewish leaders who would be able to show that the Torah is true without flinching from the challenges of science and philosophy. In addition to Rav Hilderheimer, Rav Dovid Tzi Hoffmann and the Seridei Aish also continued in this philosophy. One could be a devout Jew and yet be aware of the real world and its challenges.

The final leader of distinction to mention is the Rav Joseph Ber Soloveitchik. What makes his contribution to Modern Orthodoxy so distinct and important are his lineage and his intelligence. In terms of the former, here was a scion of the Brisker dynasty, one of the pre-eminent Jewish families in the leadership of the Torah world. When he chose to become a leader of Modern Orthodoxy he was saying, in effect, that Modern Orthodoxy and the Brisk philosophy were not contradictory and that Brisk could evolve into Modern Orthodoxy. In terms of his intelligence, it was his towering mental ability that allowed him to see beyond simplistic models of Torah behaviour and develop the idea of a synthesis that could incorporate the modern world into the Torah notion of things.

What all these giants had in common was a desire to use the real world to enhance the learning of Torah. If science had something to add to our understanding of a subject, then it was necessary to learn it. If studying history increased our ability to discern how a particular halachah developed, then that was also a good thing. The idea that the outside world was separate from the Torah and that the two should never meet or mix was rejected in favour of a belief that the entire world, being a creation of God, plays a role in our understanding of His Divine plan for us.

What is apparent from this is that real Modern Orthodoxy is not about lenient personal behaviours or emotionless intellectual inquiries. Rather it should be about vigorous and rigorous Jewish belief and practice rooted in a Judaism that is supported, rather than threatened, by the outside world and its knowledge.

Thursday 17 April 2008

Holiday Greetings

I would like to wish everyone who is a regular or irregular visit to this blog a happy, healthy, fulfilling and kosher Pesach. May the festival of our redemption lead us to an even greater redemption and the return of our God to His Temple in Zion.

All the best

Wednesday 16 April 2008

Just When You Thought They Couldn't Be More Clueless

Years ago when I was still in medical school I was shown a copy of the infamous Feminist Hagadah. Written by women dissatisfied with the traditional Hagaadah's male emphasis, it was created to emphasize the role of our female ancestors in the Exodus from Egypt. Full of politically correct jargon and narratives, it was designed to bring in women who had hitherto felt excluded from the men-only seder.
The only problem is that the Haggadah is not male-centred. It tells the story of how God redeemed us from Egypt, not through an angel, messenger or rocket fire but with His strong arm and keeping of the promise He made to our Fathers. Yes, the authorities quoted in the Hagaddah are men but they're there as authorities on the holiday, not to speak about how the men performed during the Exodus. Even Moshe Rabeinu, a"h, the main messenger of God in the event is only mentioned once and even then, only incidentally.
So I had a good laugh when I read this article on the Men's Haggadah put out by the Reform Movement:
Forget frogs and boils and darkness over the land. The 10 Plagues in this Haggadah include prostate cancer, weight gain, hair loss and impotence.This Haggadah still has the Four Questions, but each has a gender-bender twist. For instance, “Why is it that no matter how old I get, I don’t understand women?”And this Haggadah is shot through with the buzz phrases of the so-called men’s movement: male bonding, searching for our brothers (the biblical Joseph gets a lot of ink), getting in touch with our feminine side.
No, I think they're serious! The article goes on to explain that egalitarianism and the never-ending watering down of the little Judaism they acknowledge has led to an exodus of men from Reform events. It seems that if you emphasize the role of women, push the role of women, push ahead the role of women and make your emphasis all about women, well then men eventually start to lose interest and stop participating.
Yet the usual complete misunderstandings about Judaism abound:
Barden said 25 brotherhoods around the country have bought the Haggadahs and are conducting men’s-only seders this week and next.
I would love to know what seders can be conducted this week considering that Pesach only starts after Shabbos which is already next week. At any rate, the idea goes downhill from there:
“We want to create a feminism for Jewish men,” he said. “We want to take the gift that feminism has given to the Jewish world and help men understand what a Jewish ‘his’ story would be. ... Much of the new spirituality in Judaism feels effeminate to men. They are not touchy-feely. And while we don’t have statistics to prove it, probably a good percentage of them are not into healing either.
So after decades of de-emphasizing the role of men in religion, of villifying them as closet misogynists who don't understand women's needs or true spirituality, the Reformers have suddenly discovered that their men have become the very victimized minority that they had always thought their women to be. This must be an example of the pendulum swinging back.
“So we are now trying to figure out how we can create the appropriate environment for men without in any way being perceived as reversing the gains women have had,” Barden added. “We don’t want to go back to the old Orthodox model with the curtain [separating men and women at services]. We have no desire to set the egalitarian clock back. We are trying to create a new paradigm. We have to find a way for men and women to meet their religious and spiritual and social needs. ... We have to appreciate their differences.”
That's like saying the patient has an infection but you don't want to use antibiotics because they're so harmful to the "good" bacteria in your body. So instead the doctor flails around trying anything else but the actual proven and effective therapy. What's next? Men's only minyans? How absurd!
The seder is about the Jewish family joining together to recall the kindness of God when he rescued us from Egyptian slavery. Despite being a time-bound positive mitzvah women are also obliged to participate, hence emphasizing their equality in the Pesach story. Having disturbed that balance, the Reformers now seek to mess further with a wonderful institution they don't really understand or appreciate.
What's next year? Live frogs cooked in blood as appetizers?

Simplifying the Point

I noticed this nice column in Ynet today which points out, quite realistically, that none of the negotiations occuring publicly or secretly between Olmert and Abbas have any chance of being resulting in a final status agreement. However, while the column provides four coherent reasons for this, I would suggest there is only one.

It is no accident that, as Abba Eban once famously said, the Arabs "never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity." Far from being incompetent at bungling repeated historical chances at establishing a state, the Arab leadership has proved to be an example of consistency and firmness.

Consider that until Jews started making aliyah en masse in the early 20th century that the Arab population of Israel was small and considered as part of the Syrian Arab population. It was only when the Jewish pioneers turned the empty, desolate land into something productive and growing that Arab interest in Israel became significant.

Similarly, the Arabs ruled Yerushalayim for 19 years after the War of Indepedence. In all that time, the only Arab leader who visited the Al Aksa Mosque was King Abdullah I of Jordan and he was killed for his efforts. Given the constant importance we see attached to Yerushalayim in Moslem thought, this inconsistency must make one pause. In fact, the entire time they controlled Yerushalayim the Arabs couldn't have cared less about it. It was only when the hated infidel Jews took it over that it suddenly became the "ancient capital of the Palestinian people".


Remember that the PLO (may they and their names be erased) was created by the Arab League not as an organization dedicated to creating a 23rd Arab state but as an irregular fighting force and terrorist group in the ongoing war against Israel. Understand this and suddenly Yassir Arafat's refusal to agree to Ehud Barak's unilateral surrender in 2000 at Camp David suddenly becomes logical. Arafat (may his name also be erased and may lice infest all his descendants, other family and friends) was hired, as it were, to destroy Israel, not create Palestine. Agreeing to the Camp David Accords would have ended the Oslo Process without accomplishing that goal because he would have had to give up on any further claims against Israel. Unlike the Oslo Discord which was left open at the end, there was no wiggle room this time. Never mind that his word was worth nothing. Trying to reopen negotiations would have given a moral advantage to Israel. Therefore, he could not accept it.

And that is why all successive "moderate" Arab leaders have continued to insist they're ready to make peace with Israel only if Israel agrees to their impossible conditions, including a unilateral retreat to the "suicide borders" of 1967 with no accomodation for thriving Jewish cities and communities in Yehudah and Shomron, and a demand that Israel accept two million supposed refugees, most of whom have no genuine attachment to the land of Israel. How else to understand the constant position of the Saudis that Israel accept a peace deal that will lead to its destruction as the minimum price for a peace agreement that the Arabs won't honour anyway?

In a few days we will recite these words at the Seder: In every generation they rise up against us but the Holy One Blessed Be He rescues us from their hands." This year, like all the ones before, is no different. The peace process is a joke because the other side does not want peace!

Instead of worrying about the feelings and aspirations of those who would kill us all given the chance, let us learn to love one another and feel strong in our loyalty to God and His Torah. This will be of far greater benefit and earn us much more respect from the world than syncophantic grovelling for the approval of our enemies which they have no intent of giving us.

The Medical Model of Orthodoxy Part 3: Understanding the Literature

The problem with Torah is that it is quite complex. As opposed to the simplified version provided by many kiruv organizations and other outreach groups, halachic decision making is not an easy process. Fluency in many authoritative sources and a firm knowledge of Chumash and Gemara are required to reach important decisions or, even more critically, innovate in response to new and novel situations.

Unfortunately, most people seem to have an aversion to such demands. For them, it boils down to a simple question: Is "X" permitted or forbidden? Some of this is because of the ba'al teshuvah phenomenon. People returning to Torah from a secular lifestyle can be intimidated when they discover the sheer volume of knowledge required for competent practice of Judaism. It is not wrong to want short cuts, at least in the beginning, to help a person develop an observant lifestyle relatively quickly.

The problem is what comes after. Most of the short cuts are generally chumros and they're adopted for the obvious reason - to avoid accidental sinning. This is certainly laudable but this runs the risk of then becomming a pattern. If the initial trend is to answer every doubt with a stringent ruling, this often persists even once the ba'al teshuvah (BT) has acquired a decent Torah education and some comfort with daily Jewish practice. What's more, there is a ripple effect on the dati mimolad (frum from birth, FFB). These chumros quickly spread until they become the new standard behaviour, adding a level of stringency to practice that, al pi hadin, is not necessary.

To use a medical analogy, one need not look any further than the state of medical training today. Years ago, before the advent of sophisiticated testing, medical school training emphasized the history and physical exam of a patient to a far greater degree than it does today. Without a CT scanner, one is more likely to ask a more thorough history and perform a more complete physical exam. Without ultarsound backup, minor clues that might otherwise be ignored take on definite prominence.

However, with the widespread availability of diagnostic imaging, much of the stress on thorough history and physical exam skill has fallen by the wayside. This is for two reasons. The first is because the sheer volume of information that the training physician must absorb has expanded to the degree that nothing is covered as thoroughly as it used to be. And since the tests are available, they become a short cut of their own. Why do a thorough neurological exam on this stroke patient when I can get a CT scan and just look a the brain's structure directly?

The second is the expectation of the patient. A few years ago a study was published looking at several current guidelines in the USA for the use of diagnostic imaging. What was determined was that much of the testing that is considered standard actually isn't. Why are relatively minor head injuries all getting CT's? In a word: medicolegal. Physicians know that the diagnostic process is not 100% (except in decaptitation but that's another story) but also realize that some patients may have unrealistic expectations as to the certainty of their diagnosis. If I see a patient in the ER with a minor head injury and find no neurological problems, there is a 99% chance the patient can go home and will do fine. In 1% of cases, something make have been missed, with catastrophic results for the patient. In such cases, a CT scan at the initial assessment will add nothing to my decision. However, if the patient goes home and then suffers an intracranial bleed, then if I don't have a normal CT I might be sued because the patient's family will contend that the test might have picked something up. So, not wanting the trouble, I order the CT. And when everyone does it, it becomes the new standard.

Returning to our examination of Torah behaviour, one can quickly see how this anaology holds up. I recall years ago having a conversation with someone on a particular activity on Shabbos. She wanted to know if it was permitted or not. I told her I had actually just read the relevant section in Shemirath Shabbath Kehilchathah and that it was allowed. She thought about it for a moment and then shrugged. "Well, I won't do it anyway, just in case." Just in case of what? That a very stringent and thorough book that almost everyone holds by is wrong? Had she a deep understanding of halacha and understood how and why the decision was reached, she might have thought differently but she had been taught in a different way: "everything is forbidden until you can prove it's permitted and even then it might not be"

However, this is not how halacha works. Preconceived notions, answering the question before you've even looked up the sources, are all easier ways to practice but they deny the depth and complexity of Torah. They lead to a simplistic practice that some might feel leads to a greater level of holiness simply because holiness is determined by counting the chumros taken on.

It cannot be stressed enough: the person who treats a particular activity as permitted after having researched the Gemara, Poskim and contemporary sources is practising on a far higher level than the person who, not knowing the sources but wishing to avoid even accidental wrong doing, simply forbids the same activity. Unfortunately in this day and age, the opposite is often perceived. The simplistic behaviour often looks down condescendingly on the more complex. This is especially relevant come Pesach.

In medicine, there are two basic levels to the literature. There are the primary sources which include studies and other experiments. Then there are guildelines which look at the primary sources and attempt to synthesize coherent conclusions for the practising physician. The primary sources are called "the evidence" in this context.

Not unlike rabbonim, doctors can have a multitude of opinions and constantly disagree with one another. Given the complex nature of statistics and their interpretations, two people can read the same story and reach diametrically opposed conclusions. Thus what evidence is considered to be good quality and worthy of being considered in the formulation of guidelines is often a source of lively debate.

The practising physician can therefore confront the evidence in one of four ways. He can develop a limited connection with the evidence, reading and analyzing studies of importance to him, and he can study the guidelines to see why they recommend what they do and what their limitations are. Or he can assume that he trusts that the people who made the guidelines knew what they were doing and just learn them. He might decide to call a specialist every time a complex or new case faces him. Finally, he can snort and say he has no interest in the latest findings. He's going to give everyone with a cold antibiotics even though current evidence suggests that's a bad thing.

The vast majority of physicians practise in a clinical setting. Given time restrictions and other responsibilites, it is not possible to survery the primary literature to the depth needed to fully understand all the evidence. Thus a high level of reliance on guidelines, amplified by the occasional reading of primary sources, is necessary. A small group of physicians do spend their days involved in clinical research and analysis of the literature. They see far less patients (if at all) but their work contributes to the body of medical information available for use.

Once more returning to the Torah model, the analogy can be applied as followed. In the Torah world, the primary sources, the evidence, are the Gemara and the various Poskim who have arisen since that time. Treating these authorities as primary sources, one can see why, despite their obvious overarching brilliance no one authority's rulings, not even the Rambam or the Rav Yosef Karo are completely accepted without provision. After all, any of their rulings must be interpreted in light of other primary sources that might amplify or contradict them.
Thus the observant Jew also has four choices in terms of practice. The first is to take on the life of full time learning. One like this would spend his time delving into our rich and deep legal history, developing an appreciation for how seemingly simple situations can have a level of complexity completely hidden from superficial understanding. Or he can learn the basic sources with a heavy emphasis on some of the many modern halachic books where the final decisions (at least, in the opinion of the authors of those books) are simply presented. He could become dependent on a Rav, constantly calling with shailos. Finally, he too could snort and decide that whenever faced with indecision he can simply forbid the questionable activity, just "to be safe".

Using the medical analogy, one can see how simplistic and limited the final approach to Torah is. As it says in Devarim, the Torah is our wisdom and the length of our days, not a "how to and how not to" handbook. The final approach is one that might at first be thought to be fine given its cautious attitude but as Rav Shimon Eider points out concerning, in particular, the laws of Niddah, stringency in some areas might lead to unintended leniencies in other areas or outright violations. Thus is cannot be recommended as an appropriate outlook.
Simiarly, the first options, that of full time study is certainly laudable but canot be recommended as a universal option. It's one thing to sit all day reviewing the literature. It's quite another to understand it on such a level that the reviewing actually matters. For the ilui such a lifestyle is to be commended and recommended. For the average person it is, to be put bluntly, a waste of time and resources. One must view the idea that it should be the default lifestyle choice of the observant Jew with a very jaundiced eye. Perhaps in the years after the Holocaust when there was a need to rebuild the Torah world it would have had priority but today that situation has clearly changed. For every future Posek there are dozens if not hundred of "bench warmers", boys and men who are hiding out from their real responsibilites by adopting a lifestyle which they cannot fulfill realize the potential of.
Finally, the third category, that of calling one's Rav all the time, is also not a great idea. Imagine the poor Rav whose phone never stops ringing because of all the inane questions that are asked simply because the questioner is too lazy to try and find out the answer for himself. I'm not referring to complex or novel situations but ones which, in today's information age, can easily be determined. A Rav is an expert in halachah. Asking him how to toivel dishes is like asking a family doctor how to treat the common cold.
So this leave one category, the one requiring the person to develop a decent knowledge of the basic halachic literature and some fluency in the primary evidence while recognizing that the complexity of Torah means that sometimes there are no definite answers, that contradicting positions can often both be right for different people, that always taking the stricter approach does not make one more observant, and that tolerance of this variety enhances a person's practice of Judaism.

Sunday 13 April 2008

Things I'd Like To Say

Working in a small country ER can be fun and challenging.
It can be fun since, without the extra staff around any given crisis requires one to do thngs which would be referred to specialists in a bigger centre. Casting, stitching, clot-busting, we do it all out here.
It can be challenging because some patients, despite our best efforts, seem incapable of following instructions or answering the simplest questions in a straight-forward manner.
So, in order to relieve some of my stress, here are some lines I'd like to use but can't:
1) What made you think this was an emergency?
2) You've had this for two years, haven't called your family doctor and it's now 2 am on a Saturday night. Why aren't you asleep in bed like you should be?
3) So you've tried absolutely nothing and it hasn't worked?
4) "A while" is not an answer to "how long have you had this".
5) It's a "yes or no" question. Do you have chest pain.
6) No, I don't care about what you told your friend yesterday. I asked you if you have shortness of breath.
7) So you drank 12 beers and then jumped into a firepit. And you now want me to be empathetic?
8) You should wear loafers. Tying your shoes is clearly a challenge.
9) If you don't know why you're here today, how do expect me to know?

The Medical Model of Orthodoxy Part 2: The Patient's Responsibility

In part 1, I explored the concept of division of responsibility amongst those in positions of authority and instruction within a Torah observant community. In this post, I will focus of the responsibilities of the "patient" in the Medical Model, that is: how is a person supposed to conduct themselves vis a vis Torah observance and rabbinic guidance.

In the medical system, the ideal patient is one that takes proper care of himself. Specifically, this means he eats a balanced diet low in fat and salt but high in fibre and anti-oxidants. He drinks limited amounts of alcohol and never to excess. He avoids smoking and use of harmfull illicit substances. He exercises on a regular basis, again within reasonable limits. In short, he does whatever has been medically shown to improve the body's function and longevity and avoids those activities and substances that do the opposite.

(By the way, if any of you know this person, I'll be happy to take him on a patient)

The Torah model of life posits that a person is composed of three basic parts: the body, the mind and the soul. We are tasked with the responsibility of taking care of our souls so that we can return them in as good a shape at the end of our lives as we received them at the beginning. In order to do that, Jews are therefore obligated to maximize these three facets:

1) For the body, a healthy lifestyle as described at the beginning of the post. While it's tempting to believe the old saying that there are no calories on Shabbos or at the seder, recent scientific evidence has conclusively shown this to not be the case. Nor is the attitude that God protects the simple acceptable either. One cannot physically do what one wants with a sense of confidence that the Holy One Blessed Be He will protect him from disaster. God protects the simple, not the stupid. If taking care of our physical bodies is a mitzvah, then the failure to do so means one is violating the precept and can hardly expect Divine protection.
2) For the mind, intellectual stimulation. Medical research strongly suggests that the brain, in its own way, is a muscle. The more you use it, the stronger it gets. There are now specialists who hold that reading is protective against the development of Alzheimer's dementia and recommend crosswords, Sudoku and the reading of intelligent material to stimulate and maintain the cerebral cortex. How convenient is it for us that such activities are required essentials of daily Jewish practice! A lifelong plan of Torah study, accompanied by multifacted interests in other disciplines that help enhance that study, is not only spiritually helpful but of mental benefit as well.
3) For the soul, a conscious effect to remember that God is all-knowing and all-present, that His infinte grace grants us life and energy but that in return we have an an obligation to do the best with the opportunities he has given us. Not for nothing do our sages say "whether one does a little or a lot, one should do it for the sake of Heaven". We are all individuals with different capabilities, ideals and goals, each of us an indispensible part of the tapestry that is Am Yisrael. Not everyone can sit and learn all day. Not everyone can work for a living. Not everyone can be a doctor, or a brick layer. Each of us must do our best through the observance of Torah and mitzvos to maximize our contribution to the klal. For everyone, regardless of their innate capabilities, that means learning as much as possible of what God expects from us through his Torah and performing that which we learn.

It is this final part that brings in the subject of the relationship between the Rav and the individual. In Pirkei Avos, we are told "Make yourself a Rav" which many interpret to mean finding one and developing an ongoing relationship with him. There are those, however, who interpret the statement as "Make yourself into a Rav" and Rav Shimshon Rafael Hirsch notes in his commentary on Avos that Judaism is the only religion/nationality where the goal of the teachers is to make themselves superfluous.

But for the student to learn, three elements must be in place. First, the student must be willing to learn. Second, the teacher must be willing to teach, and third, the teacher must be capable of teaching that particular student according to his or her needs.

Thus in the medical setting, the patient ideally presents to the doctor for either primary (before he gets ill) care or secondary (after he gets ill to prevent further problems) care. In both cases, the roles are clear. The patient is seeking out instruction on how to live the healthiest lifestyle possible. The doctor's job is to educate and instruct the patient. The patient, in addition to learning from the doctor and following out his instructions, must also take enough of an interest to further his knowledge of health.

So similarly the Jewish relationship. The Rav's job is to teach God's Torah to his students so they can glimpse a sense of His will for Creation. The student must not only absorb what he can from the Rav but also seek out Torah knowledge of his own to augment his learning. "The work is not for you to complete but you are not free to desist from it." Torah, being our life and the length of our days must remain a lifelong pursuit, both as an individual and from community perspective.

Thus the parts played by the teacher and the student are clear. Both must seek to maximize their own ability to observe Torah in a proper fashion which increases their spiritual health.

Thursday 10 April 2008

The Medical Model of Orthodoxy Part 1: The Arrangement of Rabbinic Authority

With all due respect to Rav Dr. Norman Lamm, there is a fundamental flaw to his important book, Torah Umadda. For those who haven't read it, the book is a thorough review of many of the major Jewish philosophies of our time. Rav Lamm, searching for a model that Modern Orthodoxy can rally around, examines them, notes their strengths and weaknesses and then suggests how various feature of the models can be incorporated into a new form of Modern Orthodoxy.
There's only one problem, really. None of the systems studied in the book are simplistic. They are all fully encompassing, complete philosophies. Why would someone want to take pieces of various functioning systems and assemble a new entity out of them when simply adopting oneself into an existing system would be far easier? Rav Lamm does not answer this.
But further, the book's presentation itself is a major strike against the theological important of Modern Orthodoxy. For example, Rav Lamm is presented as the author. He is noted to be a former president of Yeshiva University. He is a PhD. What's missing? Well, is he a rav or not? I actually had to ask someone this because nowhere in the book is there mention of this particular title. I doubt any Mizrachi or Chareidi book would have missed sticking "Harav" in front of the author's name. That Torah Umadda doesn't speaks to one of the systemic failing in Modern Orthodoxy - the failure to realize the supreme importance the rav, the teacher, plays in the Jewish community.
There is also the style of the book. Now I accept that Rav Lamm was writing to a specific audience, one that doesn't necessarily spend much time learning and might not be engaged by a more "yeshivish" style of writing. However, that does not change the fact that this book's important is downgraded by the style chosen. To use a medical analogy, there are scientific papers and then there are patient handouts. Each is written in a different style for its own target audience but if I want to present a definitive paper, I'm not going to write it like a patient handout.

So with due humility and deference to Rav Lamm, I would like to suggest that Modern Orthodoxy, to develop its own format, must develop a style of its own instead of cribbing from existing comprehensive schools of thought. With that in mind, I would like to introduce my proposed model, The Medical Model of Orthodoxy.
Now, much of it is based on my day job. I work as a physician in Ontario, Canada within the Ontario Health Insurance Plan (OHIP). Year ago I came to realize that if I were to analogize medicine to Torah (not as far-fatched as some might thing) I would come to see my relationship to my patients in the same way a community rav is connected to his congregants. From this understanding, I developed this model that I am now presenting.
First, the medical background. In Ontario, there are two types of physicians - primary care and specialists. The former include family doctors, walk-in clinic doctors and emergency physicians. Access to the system is generally through primary care physicians. If a person has a problem, then he presents to his family doctor or the local emergency room. If the problem is within the ability of of the primary care physician in question, then he handles it. If not, he refers the patient on to a consultant with expertise in this particular area. Once the consultant has dealt with the problem, the patient is discharge from that doctor's care and back to his family doctor. But even while the patient is under the consultant's care, any othe problems must first go through the family or emergency doctor before reaching another specialist.
Not all doctors work within this system. There are many academic doctors who spend time engaged in research and teaching. They may see the occasional patient but their strength is not in direct patient care but in expanding the knowledge base of medicine.
Finally, there is a trend in medicine towards emphasizing practice based on scientific evidence. Trials and studies, not gut feelings and anecdotes, guide our practice for our patients.

Now consider how this would apply within the Torah world. One of the more recent features of halachic decision making, especially within the Chareid world, is the tendency to defer to great authorities. Why ask the local rab when you can call up some rosh yeshivah or crack open the latest tome from Feldheim or Artscroll? This, however, is a problem because it reduces the usefulness and relevance of the local rav to one of being the guy who does funerals and bar mitzvahs. In the Chareidi world, he still might have a role giving a shiur or learning with congregants but within Modern Orthodoxy and its relative de-emphasis on Torah study, this really turns him reduces his role as spiritual leader.
So consider how the Medical Model would apply. A congregant has a question. He has his Rav's phone number and the number of the Rosh Yeshivah his son learns under. Who gets called? Imagine, if you will, that he calls the Rosh Yeshivah and, before he can ask the question, he instead has to answer this: Did you call your Rav first? I'm sorry, I only take questions through referral.
Rabbonim who wish to serve as pulpit rabbis could be required to demonstrate competency in certain areas: Shabbos, Taharas Mishpachah, Kashrus and Orach Chayim while others who wish to learn in a more intensive environment like a kollel could develop areas of special expertise in halachah.
At first blush, it sounds absurd, but consider: which Rav is usually more likely to be specialized and have a greater depth of knowledge? The local guy or the one learning amidst dozens of other scholars? That's not to denigrate the ability and skills of the local Rav. Indeed, this system would allow him to attain a whole new importance. And if the question is beyond his ability to answer, then he could easily call up his Rosh Yeshivah and get an answer. And so on.
But what's more, it also allows for prioritizing within the halachic world. One of the complaints I read out in the Chareidi world is that everyone calls their Gedolim these days with their questions, no matter how mundane. The pot might be kosher but they'd rather hear it from Rav Eliashiv, shlita than Rav Fishel Lipshitz from Yenesville. Is this the best use of time for these outstanding scholars? Do they have nothing better to do than the work that the local Rav is paid to do?

In future posts, I will expand on this model to examine how the relationship between the Rav and the congregants develops as well as that within the facets of the educational system.

Making Pesach Even Harder

Gentiles in North America often don't understand why observant Jews sometimes dread the coming of the next big holiday. After all, in the dominant culture there are very few big holidays that require oodles and oodles of preparation. Maybe X-mas, and for some Thanksgiving and Easter, but the preparations are comparatively brief. There's a big dinner involved, maybe a social event after, and that's it. What's the worst part? Gift shopping?
Now compare that with the Jewish version. Not for nothing did Chazal tell us to start studying the laws of each holiday 30 days before. That was probably their way of trying to limit the insanity of preparing for the High Holidays and, especially, Pesach. After all, if the local supermarket brought in the Pesach stuff the week before Purim, we'd probably all been having matzah-meal humantaschen. Wouldn't that put a damper on the festivities.
Pesach, though, is a very trying time. Just to fulfill the basic requirements of the holiday can take weeks and thousands of dollars in cleaning supplies and help. Given the modern tendency towards accumulation of pretty much anything that is on sale and the ever-increasing size of the homes some of us live in, the cleaning job grows year to year. Every year we hear the stories of people who stop taking their Prozac so their obsessive-compulsive traits can get them through the prepatory cleaning. Who hasn't heard the question asked: Are we supposed to clean between the tiles or just fireblast them?
Add to this the recent additions from the chumros-of-the-week club, such as limitations on paper plates, styrofoam cups (!) and the ever increasing number of foods that get labelled as kitniyos (don't even get me started on that one) and it's a wonder that, just before Pesach, the local psychiatry wards aren't filled with neurotic Jews all running up and down the hallways with their brooms and mops chasing that one last dustball the cleaning staff missed. Whoever can bleach the floor tiles until there are holes in it, harei zeh meshubach!
Three years ago I decided that I'd had enough of this. The purpose of cleaning for Pesach is to remove all chometz from our homes, or at least the sections we don't sell through the rav. If it turned into a manic 30 day cleaning marathon, I didn't have to like it. So I took out some money and paid for the family to take a trip to a nearby hotel having a Pesach program. It was a gamble. We weren't sure how it would work or if we'd fit in but after the holiday ended, we decided we had quite liked the experience, so much so that we went to a different one last year just to see how other places ran their programs. This year we're going back to that second program with friends we spent last year with.
And the experience was very nice. The idea that the days leading up to Pesach could be spent engaging not just in cleaning but in spiritual preparation for the holiday of our constipa... freedom is in itself liberating. The seders were relaxed affairs for all involved. No one had to jump up and run into the kitchen to check on the food. No one had to worry about cleaning off the table or putting the dishes in to soak. On Pesach one is supposed to relax and be treated like a free person. By going to this program in a lovely hotel we were able to fulfill that requirement. What's more, we were more able to engage in the mitzvah of simchas Yom Tov than the families which stumble across the finish line on seder night barely talking to one another and too stressed to enjoy a moment of the seder.
I was once told by Rav Benjy Hecht that the guiding philosophy of the Chazon Ish was that Torah observance is supposed to be dystonic with human nature. In other words, the phrase "it's hard to be a Jew" is supposed to be an essential part of observance. You're not a real Orthodox Jew if you're happy and well-adjusted, but rather you should feel the struggle all your life with your inner urges to not obey God's laws. having heard this, I came to finally understand why Pesach has turned into such a miserable experience for so many people. Now all the crazy chumros made sense. We were supposed to be miserable as we prepared for Pesach. It was a sign of our true Jewish dedication!
Unfortunately, it also meant that sooner or later someone was going to have something to say about going away for the holidays and now Rav Yonasan Rosenblum has gone and said it:

I was reminded of those words recently on a recent trip to Los Angeles, where I had a rare opportunity to speak with a rav whose wisdom has always impressed me. In the course of our conversation, he asked to me, "What would you say is the greatest threat to Yiddishkeit today?" I leaned forward eagerly, confident that he would mention one of my favorite subjects. But I must admit that his answer would not have been on my top ten-list."Pesach in hotels," turned out to be the winning answer. And my friend's central criticism was similar to that of Rabbi Wachsman: the Pesach hotel industry takes what should be one of the ultimate spiritual experiences of every Jew's life and encases it in a thick wrapper of materialism. Read the adverstisements, he told me: "No gebrochts" right next to "24 hour tea bar;" "Daily daf hayomi" next to "Karate, go-carts, and jeeping for the kids."

Rav Rosenblum goes further, trying to emphasize the spiritual loss he perceived those who go to hotels suffer:

He related to me the story of one local frum boy who had accompanied his father to sell their chametz . They found the rav's house turned completely upside down for Pesach cleaning. On the way out, the boy asked his father why the rav's house was in such turmoil. He had never in his life seen, much less participated, in cleaning for Pesach. That boy, my friend lamented, cannot possibly connect to the idea that Pesach cleaning parallels an inner process of removing the se'or she'b'isa – the physicality and inner materialism that holds us back in our performance of Hashem's commandments. His experience of Pesach has nothing to do with destroying the chametz either within or without.

Finally, he brings in the ultimate argument - the disconnect from tradition:

When we gather in our homes around the festively decorated Pesach table, with the special dishes taken down just one week a year, and contemplate the freshly scrubbed homes over which we have labored so diligently, we link ourselves to all the generations of our ancestors. We may no longer exchange our old dirt floor for a new one every year at Pesach time, as they did in Europe. But if those ancestors could return to observe our preparations for Pesach, they would recognize their descendants and feel comfortable joining us for Seder. It more doubtful they would recognize us gathered around a hotel buffet table – even if we were wearing a shtreimel and bekeshe .

I can only say that I strongly disagree with Rav Rosenblum's points, one and all.
First, the idea that spending time in a hotel instead of one's home is somehow more materialistic is foolish. There are, broadly speaking, two groups of people when preparing for Pesach is an issue: those who can afford to spend lots of money and those who can't. For the latter group, going away isn't an option. However for the former group, the choice comes down to either spending lots of money to clean one's home, buy one's food and prepare one's holiday meals, or plunk a lump sump down and just go to the hotel where it's all done in advance without the stress. And if you put the tallies from the two options together, you might just discover there isn't much of a difference between them. More materialistic in the hotel? How about the brand new matzah cover Fishel just brought back from his recent trip to Israel, the one gilted with actual gold? Or the uber-expensive kiddush cups? Or the hoity-toidy silverware and china plates? Or the new suits and dresses? A seder at home can be just as gashmius-driven as at a hotel but with one important exception. After the hotel seder, my wife and I can go to sleep. At home we're up for a couple of hours putting everything away.
The story about the boy who had never seen real Pesach cleaning is also, to be polite, crap. One must still clean one's house before Pesach even if one is going off to a hotel. You just don't have to blowtorch the stove. The Rav's house was turned upside down? And what was the point of that? In case a tiny crumb of chometz found its way into a dark corner no one goes near in the first place? Most of what we call Pesach cleaning has nothing to do with Pesach and everything to do with a fear of not doing as much as our neighbours and having them think we really didn't get ready for the holiday properly.
Finally, his assertion that our ancestors from a few generation ago would recognize a seder at home more than at a hotel is bupkiss. There is a common Chareidi revisionist belief that our ancestors were happy living in homes with dirt floors and scrubbing the lice-infected scabs off their bodies every Friday afternoon in preparation for Shabbos. They might not have had the material wealth we do but, gosh darn it, they had a spirituality we couldn't imagine.
Right. I am willing to bet that if anyone went back in time and found one of our ancestors out there pulling a heavy cart along a muddy road as the local Cossacks ransack his village and ask him straight out: Pesach at home or in a fancy schmancy hotel, that he'd grab the second option with both hands and no second thoughts. If they didn't engage in materialism, it's because they didn't have materials in the first place. To ascribe anything else to them is to be patronizing.
In the end, I will take my family away for Pesach. We will be in a calm frame of mind, we will sit and enjoy our seder with our friends, and we will spend Pesach in a state of simchah, secure in the knowledge that our arrangements are allowing us to maximize our time with God and not the vacuum cleaner. That's something any ancestor our mine could understand.

Sunday 6 April 2008

Of Acceptance and Tolerance

Two concepts of which Torah observant Jews should be aware are acceptance and tolerance. Although they seem to be similar, there is actually a tremendous difference that needs to be appreciated.

Why is this important? As the Gemara in Yoma 86a tells us, Torah observant Jews are God's ambassadors in this world with all the responsibilities that implies. Whatever we do in public, for good or bad, reflects back on our Torah and God Himself. As a result, the need to be upstanding is a constant one, not an easy duty for many. Yet with the potential kiddush HaShem at stake, it is worth the effort.

So what is the difference between acceptance and tolerance?

Tolerance is, put simply, live and let live. It is certainly a meritorious philosophy and one that leads to peace where practised. I may not like what my neighbour is doing, or how he takes care of his garden or celebrates his holidays but I ignore my dislikes and rise above them. I tolerate his differences. And, in a successful neighbourly relationship, he does the same. He knows I don't like his music so he keeps the volume down so as not to bother me. And there is peace between us.

Acceptance goes much deeper. Acceptance, by the very meaning of the word, implies a degree of agreement. Going beyond tolerance, it states that the views and beliefs of my neighbour are correct in my eyes. While in many cases this might not pose a problem - he believes quinoa to be a superior grain, I never eat it so I can accept this in the absence of a competing belief - it just as easily can create conflict.

An interfaith example is the easiest way to illustrate the difference. I cannot accept that Muhammed was a prophet and received messages from God. But as long as he doesn't go all jihad on me, I can tolerate my Muslim neighbour.

Within the complex Jewish community, the difference between tolerance and acceptance is often blurred. Specifically on the left and right sides of our people, the words are quite often used as logical consequences one of the other.

For example, the current politically correct beliefs of secular liberalism go beyond tolerance in seeing acceptance as a superior qualty. It is not enough to tolerate different cultures, for example, but one must accept them as legitimate, as different or odd as they may be.

On the other side of the spectrum, the very religious amongst us often try to show their "frumness" through their intolerance. Why such strong intolerance? Because they also believe tolerance leads to acceptance. If one tolerates behaviour that is against their interpretation of the Torah, one may come to accept it as normative in time. So they bar the gate with intolerance.

Neither philosophy seems to lead to positive Jewish success. Of the futility of the secular liberal open acceptance little needs to be written. As the old saying goes, if you'll believe anything, you'll fall for everything. Today's non-observant Judaism is a mishmash of politcal correctness and humanism devoid of any authentically Jewish values.

But on the other side, the Chareidi community continues to define itself outside of what has been traditionally Jewish thought over the ages. Consider the Talmud which consists of one debate over another, sometimes not leading to a right answer, someones leading to several right answers depending on your perspective. Consider the give and take of halachic discourse over the centuries, the arguments, the idea of separate rules for separate communities,each being correct for that community. Is there anything left of this in today's "You have to do what Daas Torah says because it's Daas Torah" philosophy?

If we wish to appreciate and participate in the deep complexity that is Torah Judaism, we must remember at all times to keep the differences between acceptance and tolerance in mind. On one hand, we must be tolerant of those who differ from us. Not through force, intimidation or sacred self-righteousness shall we convince people to tread on the road of Torah. As Koheles says, the world of the Sages are heard when said quietly. What's more, by tolerating we create peace in the world without compromising our values and present a positive impression in the eys of others as to the nature of Torah Judaism.

At the same time, we must remember that we cannot step beyond tolerance. We can tolerate Jewish driving on Shabbos in this day and age; after all we are not God's policemen. But we cannot accept that driving on Shabbos is ever appropriate behaviour for a Jew.

By combining this lack of acceptance with a demand for tolerance, perhaps we can reach out to our brethren in a more successful way and creat a better Jewish community.

Things I Hate to Read About

When God revealed Himself to us at Har Sinai and gave us His Torah, it was supposed to lead to a better, more rational world. We were to be released from all the crazy nonsense that dominated religious thinking at that time. Demons? Ghosts? Spirits? An anti-god? All nonsense. Shema Yisrael, there is only one God. Accept no substitutes.

And yet it seems every so often there's someone who's missed that part of the program:

According to the indictment, "During the months of February and March, the accused and her children moved to her mother's apartment in Jerusalem. During this period, the mother found it difficult to cope with the burden of raising her small children, and particularly with their education.

"The defendant turned to a rabbi and asked for his advice in terms of his children's education. The rabbi concluded that the children were 'possessed' with evil spirits and advised the defendant and other suspects to carry out 'tikkunim' on the children in order to help them get rid of those demons."

The indictment went on to say that the rabbi instructed the mother to conduct "tikkunim" on the children – "meaning, jolting, beating, tying, burning organs, feeding them with faeces, and more.

Exactly where in Shulchan Aruch are these instructions, pray tell? I shook with disgust when I read about the damage a supposedly religious mother inflicted on her children at the advice of a supposed rabbi. When this stuff happens, is it any wonder non-religious Jews turn away and announce tht they want no part of our Torah or heritage?

The scariest part is that if this rabbi were to show up in any Chareidi shul he'd probably get an aliyah if he asked for one. And the guy next to him with the knitted kippah? He'd get the cold shoulder because he's "not religious enough".

It's Suprising They Say It At All

The Prayer for the State of Israel has always been somewhat controversial. Written by the Israeli Rabbanut shortly after the miraculously creation of the State, it has never been embraced by the Chareidi population and has been taken on somewhat perfunctorily by the non-religious population as well.

Indeed, with its spiritual overtones and fervent prayer to God, it was only a matter of time before people began fiddling with it so as not to have to say something offensive to their secular sensibilities. Growing up in a Conservative synagogue, I remember the surprise I felt the first time I saw the actual text of the prayer which was twice as long and a lot more specific about what we were requesting from God by saying it.

Which is why this article caught my eye but did not surprise me:

The minyan, which is egalitarian but otherwise hews to a traditional liturgy, had recited the prayer since its founding in 2005. But some members had begun to express misgivings about the prayer, which describes Israel as the "first flowering of the redemption" and asks God to deliver to Israel's military forces victory over their enemies.
Congregants at the meeting also challenged the prayer's conflation of religion and politics, its tone of Jewish triumphalism and exclusivity, and its seeming denigration of Diaspora Jewry.
"Expecting everyone to stand and recite, in unison, something so political clearly sends a message: If you don't identify with the vision of Israel that is expressed in this prayer, then you are wrong," Alana Alpert, the Altshul member who initiated the meeting, told JTA. "The prayer is just one more way that American Jews are given a litmus test on their Israel politics, determining who is inside and who is outside the Jewish community."

How many complete misconceptions are contained in this brief piece? Well, let's go through them, shall we?

1) An egalitarian minyan that is otherwise traditional. That's like saying I'm a vegetarian except for the hamburgers I eat every day.

2) The conflation of religion and politics - alone amongst the major religions of the world, Torah Judaism does not recognize a division between Shul and State. God, being perfect and omnipotent, plays a role in our lives on a constant basis. He can be felt in every facet of our being if we would only pay attention the right away. As a result, all our actions fall under His aegis. How can one have a truly private life where God has no role? But in North America, secular liberalism does indeed envisage such a model. It's okay for God to come to synagogue as long as he doesn't make any demands and fulfills everyone's wishes unconditionally.

3) its tone of Jewish triumphalism and exclusivity - A quick review of the prayer shows this is completely inaccurate. Instead, it is a prayer for Jewish survival and prosperity within the State through the help of God. Does it smack of exclusivity? It's a prayer for the establishment of a Jewish state for Jews to live in. Again, this runs counter to America liberal post-nationlist sensibilities.

4) "Expecting everyone to stand and recite, in unison, something so political clearly sends a message: If you don't identify with the vision of Israel that is expressed in this prayer, then you are wrong" - this prayer has been the official one for the State for almost 60 years. In that time Israel has had hard left, soft left, and soft right governments. It has gone in socialist and capitalist directions. It has been less traditional and more traditional. Yet the prayer has remained exactly the same throughout all this time. Exactly how is this political?

And, in answer to the concern above, if you don't identify with the vision of Israel in the prayer, a strong, prosperous state run by a competent government loyal to God and His Torah and functioning as a home and support for all the world's Jews, exactly what is your vision and how is it Jewish?

5) Its seeming denigration of the Golus - for non-religious American Jews, this is not a concern that one can be surprised with. The majority of them have probably never looked inside a proper siddur or if they have, understood the Hebrew prayers that frequently and repeatedly plead to God for a return to our Land. How many times in the morning, afternoon and evening do we beg Him to end our dispersion and return us to our Land in happiness and health? For us, Golus, no matter how long we've been here, is a way station, a sign that we have not return home to Israel. To be in Golus is to be second class whether one is comfortable admitting it or not. Certainly a Jew who is observant should feel that way when confronted with the knowledge of how many mitzvos he is not fulfilling by not living in Israel.

6) "At the February meeting, she cited a Jewish legend that describes how God reprimanded the angels for celebrating along with the Israelites as the Egyptians were drowning in the Red Sea." How foolish this statement is. Yes, the angels were reprimanded but the song our ancestors sang at that time has become part of our daily prayers! Perhaps when the Iraqis and Egyptians were fleeing in 1949 God didn't want the angels cheering but would He be offended if we did? As for the next statement, about being more like angels, this once again shows ignorance of what Man is in the eyes of God and His purpose in creating us. We are meant to rise above the angels because of our natures, not to simply imitate them. In our most glorious, we exceed them. Who would want to limit themselves like that?

7) "I think the essential problem with it from a haredi viewpoint is it seems to project the establishment of the State of Israel as a monumental movement forward towards the ultimate redemption of the Jewish people," said Rabbi Avi Shafran, the public affairs director for the fervently Orthodox Agudath Israel of America. "While we may hope that it might play that role, by no means is that self evident." - As opposed to the mistakes made by the non-religious which are mostly due to ignorance and a mistaken belief that Judaism = secular liberalism, Rav Shafran's attitude is one which has long angered me. The Agudah and its allies love to trumpet how many Jews are learning full-time, how many yeshivos exist in the world today, how powerful their portion of the Torah observant world has grown since the Second World War but at the same time they wish to ignore the underlying reason for almost all their success - the existence of the State of Israel. How many billions of dollars has Israel invested in the Chareidi population? How much has Israel's stability contributed to the physical development of Torah institutions? How much has the "year in Israel" strengthened the Chareidi population through its efforts at indoctrination? And what is the response? Well, Israel's a nice thing but that's about it. It is completely ignored that the creation of the State, rising as it did from the ashes of the Holocaust, rising as it did despite the near incompetence, cronyism and parochialism of the Zionsit leadership, is a complete miracle, a clear and undeniable sign from God that He is finally moving history forward towards its inevitable conclusion. To deny this is to deny gratitude to the greatest thing that has ever happened to that community. And for that, there is no excuse.

God has granted us such a special gift and such a great opportunity to reveal His role in history, it is incumbent on all of us to show the proper gratitude to Him and pray that our State, our first flowering of the final redemption, survive and thrive until our Moshiach comes, may he do so speedily.

Friday 4 April 2008

Fighting Intolerance One Matzah At A Time

During my year living in Israel, I spent the first part of the Pesach break in Tel Aviv. I was amazed at how the entire city, as secular as it was, managed to switch over for the holiday. Now I wasn't kidding myself. I doubt any of these places kashered their dishes or sold their chometz in any thing more than a token fashion but the changes were there nonetheless. At Miss Lucy's, a hot dog place off of Kikar Dizengoff the hot dogs were served on thin pieces of matzah. Pizza was served at Rimini's on matzah as well and anyone asking for a beer at most of the cafes was laughed at. It was Pesach, didn't they know?

True, the chometz was still there, hiding in the shadows. I recall a classmate of mine sauntering up as we enjoyed our hot dogs. He was smirking and then proudly displayed the ham and cheese sandwich he'd managed to procure. Yes, no King of the Universe was going to interfere with his personal freedom, that was for sure.

(For the record, the last time I was in contact with him, he had intermarried and was vociferously anti-Israel, openly advocating the replacement of our State by an Arab one. Amazing what ham and cheese can do to the neshama).

During the latter part of Pesach, I returned to the kibbutz where I lived and was shocked when I entered the dining hall and saw a bin full of bread next to the bin where the matzah was being served. When I asked why bread was being put out, I was clearly told that no religious coercion was allowed on the kibbutz. Those who chose not to eat matzah would not be forced to.

Yet to this day I still don't understand why withholding bread and substituting matzah for one week of the year is considered such unbearable coercion. Especially after reading this article in which the High Court, that great force for secularism, has gone and made official what was sadly present for all these years anyway. As I found out, bread isn't hard to find in Israel during Pesach but the official lack of acceptance seemed to offer some minor consolation. For the State to be officially forbidden to ban chometz is unacceptable, yet it has happened.

After all, what's the big deal? One week, that's all it is. Serve matzah instead of bread, wine instead of beer and whisky. How many billions of people in the world live in daily fear of being killed, imprisoned, or starved to death? How many lack access to clean water, healthy food and medications? How many are denied a say in how their lives are run and afraid to share their opinions in public for fear of terrifying reprecussions? And in Israel we are told that one whole week without bread is intolerable religion coercion. Please, get a grip!

But even beyond that, the rejection of matzah speaks to something far deeper. The matzah represents the simplest of foods, a synthesis of bread and water. Lacking any leavening, it represents the simplest way a person can be, lacking any materialistic pretensions or arrogance. More than that, Torah is compared to both bread and water. Thus matzah is the person who is emblematic of complete acceptance of God's will and His Torah. For this reason we remember it as the food with which we left Egypt. Despite being forced out and with clearly minimal provisions, we left with a high hand because of God's love and presence. By insisting on continuing to eat chometz throughout Pesach, a Jew rejects what the Allmight did for us. He shows that he does not understand that Pesach was not a transfer from slavery to freedom but one from slavery under human and materialistic authorities to servitude to the King of Kings. He chooses to spiritually remain in Egypt and deny himself the great elevation that accepting the yoke of Heaven brings one. No wonder the punishment prescribed for eating chometz is spiritual excision. Someone selfish enough to reject the lessons of Pesach and the Kingship of God in favour of shallow self-worship cannot count himself as part of the Jewish people's heritage.

And in the end, their behaviour proves their limitations. After all, if someone who otherwise lacks little cannot change their diet for just seven days in the year, what does that say of their ability to sacrifice their needs when some other duty comes along?

Let us pray that this new law is universally ignored and that, during this upcoming Pesach, the people of Israel remind themselves of their tie to our God and the glorious heritage He has granted us.

Thursday 3 April 2008

Sometimes Extremists Are Just People With Beliefs

Eric Yoffie's been at it again. Apparently it's not enough to be a pro-Israeli Christian. Yes, believing in Israel's right to all the land that it was legally promised decades ago and opposing the creating of a Islamofascist terror state is apparently not enlightened, not progressive, and not Reform.

John Hagee and the Chrisians United For Israel are one of the strongest non-Jewish pro-Israel groups in the United States. Certainly one cannot embrace them wholeheartedly. After all, their desire for Jewish control of Israel is so that their End-o-days scenario can play out, one in which we don't fare favourably. But when you're hard up for allies you make do with what you can.

Unfortunately, Hagee holds some beliefs that Yoffie finds offensive:

Eric Yoffie, president of the liberal Union for Reform Judaism, said Hagee and his group, Christians United For Israel, reject any Israeli land concessions to achieve peace with the Palestinians.

As a result, Yoffie feels Reform synagogues should not cooperate with this group. After all, their belief in a strong, safe Israel runs against established Reform policy:

Reform Judaism supports creating a Palestinian state;

Yes, what goes around, comes around. In 1947 the Reforms lobbied against the creation of the State of Israel. In 2007 they're lobbying for the creation of a state who's reason for existing is to cause harm to our State. And they call the Orthodox stubborn and unwilling to change?

In the end, I don't think Yoffie's boycott will matter much. After all, considering Hagee's followers all hold strong religious beliefs in one God (although they accept substitutes) and don't change them when it is politically correct to. They probably put their beliefs and sense of community over their personal feelings in many areas and allow their religion to give them a sense of direction and moral compass.

In other words, they have nothing in common with Reform.

Tuesday 1 April 2008

The Reason for the Celebration

I don't blame many Israelis for being pessimistic these days. Since the Oslo Discords were signed in 1993, Israel's fate has taken mostly negative turns. Today it is run by the most incompetent, self-serving government in the country's history. The army has been almost irreversibly politicized. The level of interaction between the religious, ultra-religious and non-religious parts of the country are at their most fractious ever. On the northern border, the UN acts to protect a terrorist army building its arsenal for an eventual attack. In the southwest, entire cities have had their security effectively ceded to another terrorist group. Yes, the economy is humming along but the gap between rich and poor has never been greater.

So what exactly is the country preparing to celebrate come Iyyar 5?

Some people have pointed this out and wonder if there's a point to the celebration. The Arabs won't be celebrating. The Chareidim won't be celebrating. And if things are as bad as implied by the opening paragraph of this post, what's the point of the non-religious population celebrating?

So here's the point of celebrating:

Sixty years ago the world made a mistake. They allowed the temporary guilt they felt for having allowed the Holocaust to happen to overcome their good sense and they voted for the partition of Israel into two states, one Jewish, one Arab. To be be, this guilt didn't last. Not long after the vote there were open expressions of regret from around the world. The American State Department, it should be recalled, rescinded its support for partition and suggested that if it was going to happen that the Arabs should be given the Negev in addition to the territories they had already been alloted.

In the lead up to Iyyar 5, 5708, everything was done to ensure that the partition would be a failure. The British, may their empire rot forever, did all they could to ensure that the Arabs would be in the dominant military position when the war started. About all they didn't do was promise to bombard Tel Aviv and Haifa once hostilities officially began. The Americans declared an arms embargo, ignoring the fact that the Arabs were supplied not directly but from other Arab countries who weren't subject to embargo.

And within the Yishuv, things weren't doing so well either. Remember that the Labour Zionists were, at times, more interested in dismantling their non-socialist opponents than fighting the common enemy (all together now: Altalena!). The community was ill-prepared, underarmed and undecided on what kind of state it wanted in the first place.

And despite all this, despite all the factors stacked against them, our fathers won. They defeated the armies of six Arab states, confounded world opinion which was quite prepared to happily line up and feel guilty about another Holocaust, suprised even themselves and established a functioning, viable state in the process. Despite having no real friends in the international community, no economic base worth speaking of and huge military expenditures from day one, Israel survived, grew and thrived. And the more our enemies pressed it, the more powerful it became.

But that's not the reason to celebrate.

The reason to celebrate is because long ago, through the mouths of His prophets from Moshe Rabeinu on down, we were promised that at the end of days we would return to our Land. We were told that there would be three oaths and these have all been fulfilled. We were told it would happen slowly at first and then with great miracles and that is exactly how it happened. We were told there would be triumphs and setbacks for the final redemption is in the hands of God, not Man. And the pessimism of the opening paragraph shows that despite all the efforts of Man, God must still step in to effect the completion of our redemption.

We say that the State of Israel is the first flowering of the Redemption. Not the complete redemption, not the hope of our people for the last 1800 years but the first step. And this first step has and continues to be taken. And it is for this reason we celebrate. God has not forgotten us. He will yet reveal Himself (may it be speedily in our days) to complete the process He has given us the strength to start. For that opportunity, for the unfolding of His prophecies, for the chance He has given us to be part of His final plans, for all that we should celebrate.