Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Tuesday 27 May 2008

Whither the Dati Leumi?

One of the little known historical facts surrounding the rebirth of the Jewish community in Israel over the last 150 years is that the original Zionists (assuming Zionist means a Jew committed to living in and building up the land of Israel) were religious. Intellectual leaders like Rav Tzvi Hirsch Kalischer, the Netziv, and Rav Yehudah Alkalay dreamt of the Jews of the world reassembling in Israel decades before Theodore Herzl held his first press conference. Unfortunately, most of the other Jewish leaders of the day were not as visionary and their ideas went nowhere until secular Zionism took up the cause.
Religious Zionism later arose as a result of the progress secular Zionism made towards beginning the process of returning to Israel. Under the early leadership of Rav Yitzchak Yaakov Reines, religious Jews began to embrace the idea that God's arranging of history and events then current in the world indicated that the time to return to Zion had arrived. Unfortunately, as is the case with many movements that seek to challenge the comfortable status quo, Mizrachi did not have a huge impact on the religious population of Europe. However, it was the religious movement that did see the waves of the future and the need to rebuild our Holy Land despite considerable opposition.
With the founding of the State of Israel, the first flowering of our redemption, Mizrachi should have become the dominant movement within Torah Judaism. The Ultra-Orthodox and Modern Orthodox communites in Europe had been devastated by the Shoah. Their counterparts in North America, while vital in their own communities, were small and of little influence yet on the world stage. The ideas that Mizrachi stood for - the people of God in the land of God according to the Torah of God should have been enough to inspire people to join the philosophy and work towards building a state al pi halachah to help speed the arrival of Moshiach Tzidkeinu.
And then something happened. The Chareidi community recovered from the terrible blow it suffered far faster than anyone could have ever forseen. What's more, the Shoah had not dampened its passion for Torah and its own unique viewpoint of how the world works. The chiloni population of Israel also failed to be religiously inspired by the daily miracles that allowed the nascent State to survive. Thus any expected influx from the right and the left into the Mizrachi centre failed to materialize.
After the Six Day War, another factor was added to the mix - the return of Yehudah, Shomron and 'Aza to Jewish control. Never content to be happy and always worried about what the nations of the world thought, many in the Jewish community helped contribute to the Arab fiction that these lands, these heartlands of the Jewish nation, were not really ours, that we were hostile occupiers. Yet it was the Mizrachi who went out in great numbers and repopulated the barren hills, bringing the sounds of Jewish life back to those central parts of Zion.
However, over the years Israeli society has, to put it mildly, polarized in its opinion of the status of these lands. Instead of seeing the "settlers" as the descendants of the original chalutzim who came decades early to an empty, forbidding land, they became demonized in certain circles as "obstacles to peace." Unfortunately, Mizrachi's response to this was to push the "settlement agenda" with even greater force, to the point where it became the defining feature of the movement. Forget all the Dati Leumi who are in the army, banks, offices, factories, and other places across Israel. Today the large knitted kippah is associated with fanaticism, hatred of Arabs and an unwillingness to allow Israel to make peace with its enemies.
During this time, the other segment of the religious world, the Chareidi community, has not sat still. Their numbers have grown, both through their exponential birthrate and their aggressive kiruv efforts. Whereas David Ben-Gurion envisioned them as a sleepy minority that would disappear into deepest, darkest Bene Beraq and disappear from history, they are now the majority of the Torah world and have announced through their actions that they consider themselves to be the only legitimate representatives of that world. While the Dati Leumi were fighting against the 'Aza retreat, the Chareidim were busy taking over the Rabbanut and any other national religious institutions they could grab. This lack of vigilance on the part of Mizrachi has led to the situation today - Jews who don't recognized the Jewish nature of the State but see it only as a source of funding control the religious lives of all the rest of the citizens.
Thus my interest in this article from Ynet discussing the recent Mizrachi conference in Israel. Prof. Moshe Kaveh, president of Bar Ilan University has finally publicly stated what many have been thinking for a long time:
In his address, Prof. Kaveh said that Religious Zionism has made some significant accomplishments in its 60 years of existence, but has also suffered some failures and disappointments in a few major areas. In his opinion, it is still “local, too reclusive and not influential enough,” which is contrary to the ever-growing thirst for Jewish studies on behalf of the non-religious crowd.
Both in Israel or the Golus, a Jew seeking to become religious has ever-expanding options for kiruv. Unfortunately, none of them are Mizrachi-based. Other than teenagers spending their post-high school year in a Mizrachi yeshivah, people who don't know to actively seek the community out will not find it. And this is a great tragedy. Instead of hordes of black-hatted boys busily running down the back alleys of Bene Beraq, imagine those smae boys learning, working and serving their country. Imagine the influence Mizrachi would have as a larger movement that once again dedicates itself to the remaking of Israel into a moral, Jewish state.
Why did the retreat from 'Aza happen so quietly? Because Mizrachi was so busy defending the settlements it forgot that its main job was to teach non-religious Israelis to love the land and their Jewishness. Had it been successful in that, Arik Sharon would never have been able to accomplish what he had.
Imagine Mizrachi competing for the newly-frum not by offering them cheap homes in Yehudah and Shomron but by showing them the spiritual and intellectually superiority of the movement. All this potential lies dormant but we cannot be silent. We must demand that our leaders return to the movement's roots for the sake of Klal Yisrael.

Sunday 25 May 2008

What's the Point of It All?

In order to understand the great tumult that is occuring within the Torah world today, it is important to review the general philosophies of the major players and see how their approaches clash with one another.
Currently, the dominant approach is that of the Chareidi community. Based on the famous teaching of the Chasam Sofer, zt"l, that "everything new is forbidden by the Torah", this community bases its religious philosophy on opposition to any innovation by Jewish law to accomodate social, political and cultural change. Why? The name of the community itself gives us a vital clue. Chared means to tremble and the Chareidim believe that they tremble before God. Their overriding desire is to spend life avoiding doing anything which is contrary to the will of the All-Mighty and to perform those duties they believe they were created to do in order to justify God's reason for creating them in the first place.
With this explanation, one can understand better the reason for strictness that is so prevalent in the Chareidi mindset, especially nowadays. To foribd something that might be questionable is meritorious because it fulfills the goal of avoiding offending God or not fulfilling all His expectations of us. Spending time learning Torah, which we know from our holy sources is the Jew's highest duty is the best way to live a life that has meaning, that is the Jewish ideal.
The negative side to this is that the Chareidi mind does not think laterally. A Chareidi scholar may have thousands, or tens of thousands of pages of material memorized, may show analytical skills that outshine the greatest secular thinkers in the world, but he will generally confine his knowledge base to a small corner of the world, to those sources which best represent his hashkafah and worldview. Outside knowledge, the opinions of educated religious scholars who don't share the Chareidi opinion on things, are generally ignored or scorned. In other words, however complex and deep the Chareidi viewpoint on something, it is at the same time shallow for it will not confront that which contradicts it.
In contrast, the Modern Orthodox philosophy is far more open. Based on the examples of Rav Shimshon Rafael Hirsch, Rav Azriel Hildesheimer and the Rav J.B. Soloveitchik, Modern Orthodox belief holds that the entire universe, all knowledge in existence, is part of God's creation and therefore an adjunct to learning Torah. If science, archeology or history contradict that which the Torah tells us, then the challenge for the Modern Orthodox scholar is to reconcile the two views so there is harmony between them and the truth of Torah remains intact, as it must.
The downside of this approach is the exact opposite of its Chareidi counterpart. Instead of ignoring and avoiding secular knowledge, the Modern Orthodox mind embraces it but at the same time can be seduced away from Torah learning by it. One can easily slip from the position where secular knowledge is an adjunct to Torah to a more precarious and questionable point where it develops a value of its own, independent from Torah. In many parts of the Modern Orthodox world, this has already happened, especially on the "left" side of the community where many have raised secular values that are in and of themselves antithetical to Torah to have an overriding importance of their own. If the Chareidi scholar develops a philosophy that can only survive in a ghetto, the Modern Orthodox scholar can creat a worldview in which Torah is only one option amongst many to be chosen, an even worse position for a believing Jew to be in.
Ultimately, there must be a compromise between these two positions for the Jew who wishes to be fervent in his belief in the truth of God's Torah but who wishes to know that the Torah is in consonance with the rest of the universe, especially as Chazal tell us it is the blueprint of that universe.
Thus a middle position would be one in which the primacy of Torah is always upheld. The Rav, in Ish Halachah, notes a profound observation about the dual nature of man. One part he calls "cognitive man". Cognitive man wishes to understand how reality works. He develops laws, rules and regulations. The universe must perform in an orderly, unalterable fashion for him. The contrasting facet is homo religiosis, the man of faith for whom the mysteries of the universe are paramount. There are some things that a human being, with all his limitations and frailties, cannot understand and the more a person has an awareness of this, the more he is in awe of the majesty and power of his Creator.
For the Rav, it is the reconciliation between these two characteristics that leads to the ideal Jew. An simple example will suffice. When a person first studies cells in biology, the concept seems relatively simple. There are two types of cells: animal and plant. Cells make up all living creatures. They eat and excrete.
But then comes further data on the components of cells and then the components of the components. After that, organic chemistry and an understanding of the various metabolic cycles that maintain the cell's functions. And let us not forget DNA, RNA, protein transcription, chemical bones, atomic structure, and so on. The more one learns about the biology of the cell, the more one realizes how huge and complex this microscopic unit is and how much there still is about it that we do not yet understand. The more we learn, the less we know.
This is, according to the Rav, the proper synthesis of cognitive man and homo religiosis. The former struggles to learn everything about everything. The latter realizes that the more he learns, the less he understands until he finally stands in true awe and appreciation of the complexity of life and God above it.
Therefore, the purpose of a person in this world is not to simply sit and study Torah. If one does, one learns much about the mysteries of Judaism and God but misses out on the wonders of God's creation. One never strives to place everything in order and as a result, never develops a depth of awe that would be expected of him. And the mishnah in Avos confirms this: "Study is not the main thing, doing is."
Yet the opposite, spending one's life learning about the external world and not learning Torah also leads in the wrong direction. Of what use is a degree in Physics if it does not lead the holder to a greater appreciation of God's desires and demands of us? Such development of understand is the point of all learning for the only meaningful paths of knowledge lead to a greater understanding of Torah and God's will. Thus again the mishnah in Avos tells us that "everything is in Torah" because even those sources of knowledge outside the religious sphere must be learned and understood within Torah's holy framework.
The final synthesis then must be the idea that learning of Torah adjuncted by understanding of the outside world will lead to a more complete appreciation of God and a better life led by us. May we all merit to walk in the Torah's ways of pleasantness.

Sunday 18 May 2008

Why Do People Not Like Chareidim

Rav Levi Brackman has a piece in Ynet asking the question: why is mocking Chareidim acceptable while the reverse, mocking the non-religious, is not?

I'm going to avoid the easy, insulting answers here and try to look at this problem from a serious perspective.

The first reason for the hatred and mocking is the insecurity many non-religious Jews feel when confronted with their observant brethren. Remember that we live in a society that tells us that a religion provides its followers with an anachronistic, restrictive lifestyle that is totally out of sync with the norms of the modern world. Therefore, the sight of a religious Jew who also holds down a normal job, has a variety of hobbies, and is as educated if not more so than his average secular counterpart is a big cause for insecurity. The unstated worry is: if I refuse to be religious because I want to be integrated into the modern world, and this religious Jew opposite me is living proof that one can be frum and part of that world, then where is my justification for my lifestyle?

The second reason comes from the formerly frum, or as I saw them called years ago in an Israeli publication: Baal Sheilahs. Like Baal Teshuvahs, Baal Sheilahs general harbour a certain amount of animosity towards their previous lifestyle. In an unconscious need to justify their current choices, both groups devote a certain amount of disdan and hatred for what they used to be. For BT's, this manifests as condescension for the non-religious and dismissal of their views as much as possible. For BS's (no implication implied) it comes out as a constant mocking of those "stupid, nit picking rules" that seem to dominate Orthodox life. Imagine how easy it is for a formerly frum person to reach out to those who have negative feelings about their observant brethren and to justify those feelings with a selective, negative interpretation of Jewish law and habit.

The third reason is a result of Chareidi Jewry itself. This is not a group with the greatest public relations effort, as is well known. Even their finest journalists cannot avoid supporting what has become the most well-known negative slogan of the community: We're the only genuinely religious Jews out there. Accept no substitutes. It also doesn't help that when this ideal is challenged, the response usual is: Tsk, you just don't understand because you're not frum like us.

Having said all this, Rav Brackman raises an important point in his article:

Let’s put the shoe on the other foot for a moment. What if the same type of story would have been told by a recent Baal Teshuva (returnee to observant Judaism) mocking non-observant Jews? I can just hear the outrage. “How could you be so judgmental?” people would ask. Or worse still, people would rightly accuse the storyteller of religious snobbery and of a reprehensible and insensitive type of condescension and arrogance.

He is quite correct in his assertion. Accuse an Orthodox Jew of being racist, sexist or primitive and you get applause all around. Accuse a non-religious Jew of being immoral or uneducated and you get cries of "intolerant". To a large extent, Chareidi Jews are the Jews of the Jewish world in how they get treated by the rest of us.

And that's something worth thinking about.

Thursday 15 May 2008

Why Israel Will Survive

Off the top, I should note that it seems absurd that over 60 years after declaring its independence, the world seems to remain obsessed with Israel's long-term chances for survival. True, in the first few years of the state there was serious reason for concern, given the poor economic situation and plethora of hostile enemies. Sixty years later however, Israel is a given fact in the world, even if millions of Muslims and assorted others can't seem to get their heads around that. No one asks - will India survive? Or what about Communist China? After all, they're about the same age, aren't they?
But there's something different about Israel, isn't there. It's a three-way divide between what people see as the purpose of the State, what Jews themselves see the State being and what it actually is.
Thus MacLean's lead article which had the optimistic title: Why Israel Can't Survive. Well, at least they're being honest about where they stand on the issue.
In short, the article noted that Israel has a choice to make in the next few years. It can remain a democratic state and, as demography shifts the majority from the Jewish to the Arab population, lose its existence and become at least a bi-national state wihtout anything distinctly Jewish about it. Or it can become an apartheid state, reducing its Arab population to second class status in order to preserve the Jewish nature of the country. But remain democratic and Jewish? Well, it can't have both.
Now, there are obvious holes in this thesis, enough to drive a truck through. One is that the so-called Palestinian population of Yehudah and Shomron are not citizens of the state. They do not vote, they have no say in the future direction of the country. And at last check, most of them were not lining up to take out citizenship either, if only because they'd get lynched by the criminals who run the Palestinian Authority. The Arabs to be concerned about are the ones who are Israeli citizens and, at this time, they are still very much a minority.
The second consideration is that almost all the numbers supplied by the Arabs in terms of population are at best suspect, and more likely horribly inflated lies. Given their track record on everything else they lie about, it isn't hard to be convinced that when they talk about over one million Arabs living in Aza and three million in the West Bank that one can safely reduce that number by at least 50% and still be overestimating the true total.
The third is that, were Israel subject to the normal course of events that occur to nations, it would long ago have been demographically swamped by the Arabs. Yet every time that the "time bomb" has come close to exploding, something has happened to adjust the Jewish population upwards, enabling it to keep its lead in the population race. When I lived in Israel back in the mid 80's, people were talking about the imminent loss of the Jewish majority. At that time the Arabs were 20% of the citizenship. Today, with all the same talk, they're still 20%.
So what is it that infuriates people about Israel? Why all the need to celebrate its 60th birthday with prognistications of doom and gloom?
Chris Hitchens gives one clue. He is profoundly disappointed that Israel has not fulfilled the arbitrary destinies that he has decided it was founded for:
Has Zionism made Jews more safe or less safe? Has it cured the age-old problem of anti-Semitism or not? Is it part of the tikkun olam—the mandate for the healing and repair of the human world—or is it another rent and tear in the fabric?
On the first two questions, the answer is "no" and "no". In truth, this is a tremendous disappointment for the original Zionist dream. One must remember that Theodore Herzl never had any intention of creating a Jewish State. His reaction to the l'affaire Dreyfuss was not to seek out God, Torah or his Jewish roots. Seeing that even the most assimilated Jews were still seen as "the other" by main-society Europe, he concluded that in order to show the world we were really just the same as them, we would need a state of our own in which we could be perfectly assimilated Europeans and produce a society just as great as the ones in Europe. I don't know if the contrary thought: that we are different, and that we need to return to our origins, our Torah and our God in order to fuifill our Jewish destiny ever occured to him.
That's why he had no difficulty with accepting the British offer to create a state in Uganda. He wasn't interested in the prayer believing Jews say thrice a day: Gather us from the four corners of the Earth to our Land.
And as the fulfillment of his dream, to create a country where Jews could live in safety and also prove to the world that we could be just as "goyish" as them, thereby curing anti-Semitism by crushing it with respect, Israel has been a tremendous disappointment.
And thank God for that!
Because, in truth, if Israel had been founded on those ideals and lived up to them, then every single Arab claim that we are simply colonial occupiers in a land not our own would be perfectly true. Isn't that what they claim now? Why us? they whinge. If you want to have a secular state, why on holy Muslim land? Why couldn't you have just bought the southern half of Florida? After all, you control all the banks so getting the money to do it wouldn't have been a problem. Why here, davka?
As for Hitchens' third objection, it's a crock to being with. Tikun olam is a term which has suffered much abuse at the hands of the non-observant Jewish community. It really means "making society work", such as filling in pot holes and making sure there's enough rest stops on the freeways. It does not mean ecological awareness, not littering or opposing global warming, despite Reform claims to the contrary. So Israel's founding really has nothing to do with the true meaning of tikun olam.
On the other hand, there is another use for the phrase in rabbinic literature. As most people who daven every day know, we end all our prayers with the Aleinu in which the phrase l'taken olam b'malchus sha-ai is written. "To rectify the world into the Kingdom of God". Ah, is the State of Israel part of that kind of tikun olam?
As believing Jews, we know that God has a plan for history. Our Sages of blessed memory make it clear in the Talmud that we can, through positive actions, speed up the final redemption but that this event will happen eventually nonetheless even if we fail. Could it be that the establishment of the State of Israel is part of that plan? Could it be that we are witnessing the first signs of the end of days as predicted by our holy sources?
I wouldn't expect MaClean's or Hitchens to know that or even care. But their ignorance is irrelevant to that in any case. In his masterpiece, Derishat Tzion, Rav Tzvi Hirsch Kalischer clearly shows, using the words of our Prophets, that there will be two ingatherings of the exiles, the first to help prepare the land which will be desolate at the start, and the second the final ingathering when God Himself reveals His presence to the world.
If our Torah and our Bible are true, and we wholeheartedly believe they are, then it is not inconceivable that we are witnessing the first fulfillments of those ancient prophecies. The State of Israel is not an accident of history. It is not a punishment to the Arabs foisted upon them by Western states filled with guilt for their lack of action during the Shoah. It is not the result of a vote at the UN filled with political plotting. It is part and parcel of God's desire to bring our final redemption. It is the first flowering of that redemption and the fulfillment of promises made so long ago. And that, despite all the ill wishes to the contrary, is why Israel will survive.

Friday 9 May 2008

An Egregious Lack of Gratitude

It's one thing that the Arabs in and around Israel have no sense of thankfulness for the endurance of the State. Both ideologically and culturally, they have been raised to hate Israel and Jews. They simply don't know any other way so for them that's reality.
It's quite another that there seems to be a definite current within the UltraOrthodox world that wants to show how ungrateful they are for Israel's existence. Unlike the Arabs who can shout that they were and are being harmed by Israel, the UltraOrthodox cannot legitimately claim anything remotely similar to that. Israel's creation has been one long boon for them. What other country anywhere in the world would treat them like Israel has? Where else would they find a government willing to fund their schools, even partially, while they refuse to implement any elements of the national curriculum? What other government would exempt them from mandatory army duty and instead pay them to sit and learn? In what other environment could Torah thrive like it does in the holy land of Israel under the auspices of the current government?
Unfortunately, the UltraOrthodox community doesn't quite see it that way. Like the classic enfant terrible, they see all the negative aspects of the State and discount the positives, seeing any benefits as their natural right and not an act of generosity.
This came to mind when I recently read an article on a website I stumbled across recently. The author, Rav Pinchos Lipschutz, builds a very good case for all the failure of the State but in doing so succeeds in showing his own blinkered thinking and ignorance of history. To wit:
Zionism emerged in the late nineteenth century in response to decades of anti-Semitic persecution in Europe. It was the appalling outburst of French anti-Semitism in the Dreyfus affair that first catalyzed the movement, convincing Herzl and his followers that the key to the Jewish problem was to rid the Jewish people of their statelessness.
This is incorrect. In fact, the first "Zionists" were religious Jews, amongst them such luminaries as Rav Zvi Hirsch Kalischer and the Netziv, as well as the other Chovevei Tzion. Their problem was one of poor timing. When they began to urge a return to Israel, the situation was better in Europe due to the emancipation than it had been in centuries so there was little interest amongst non-religious Jews. As for the religious ones, they were mired in poverty and isolation in Eastern Europe and weren't in a position to migrate. As a result, their efforts disappeared into the ether. It then took the Dreyfuss trial to awaken the non-religious majority into realizing that their position amongst the "enlightened" Europeans wasn't as secuar as they believed.
The Haskalah ended up leading a large percentage of Jews astray from their religious moorings. It promised that by secularizing themselves and turning their backs on religious faith, the Jews of Europe would at last gain equal rights in their host countries.
The Haskalah was certainly a terrible influence on the masses of Eastern Europe and the damage it wreaks on the religious world was incalculable. However, it did expose one significant weakness in Torah Judaism - having adjusted to insular, ghetto-like environments, it was completely incapable of confronting or adapting to the outside world. This worked well as long as the outside world wanted nothing to do with the Jews and kept them at the periphery of society. When the outside world decided to end its Jews' isolation, this system began to collapse. This was not the fault of the haskalah but of the designers of the system.
The historic Jewish mode of surviving by playing up to host countries and corrupt ministers would no longer be necessary, Zionism preached. For in the land of the Jews, a utopian existence ushered in by a socialist state would be established. Jews would cast off the shackles of the exile, finally free of the tyranny of governments, priests and rabbis.
In truth, I have always had a problem with Theodore Herzl's vision for Israel - a state like all other states, just that it would be inhabited and run by Jews. As a community, we have not prayed over the last 1900 to simply have a chance to be like everyone else. We have prayed to witness God's return to Zion and the rebuilding of our Temple. In this regard, Herzl was quite misguided. However, one cannot have expected more from him. Given that he was completely assimilated, the fact that he adopted the Zionist cause with such passion is a miracle from Heaven.
And in any case, if the choice was between Zionism and the misery that was the shtetl in Eastern Europe, can it be any wonder that people embraced the former?
They thought that this was, at long last, the answer to Jewish poverty and starvation, the end to the centuries of torment. Especially following the Holocaust, many Jews felt that a state of their own would solve so many problems and lead to the ultimate redemption.
Of course, in hindsight, we all know that it was a false hope, never to be fully realized. There were many rabbonim who foresaw that a secular Zionist state would solve few, if any, of our problems, and would create many more.
In truth, Zionism did deliver on its major promises. It did result in the creation of Israel, it did give countless Jews the opportunity to perform the mitzvah of building the land of Israel up. It provided hope for a future generation of non-religious Jews who, had they stayed in Europe, might have disappeared into the atheistic and socialist cultures that were then arriving. No, the majority of the early chalutzim were not religious but they believed in being Jewish, if nothing else.
As for the many rabbonim, what people like Rav Lipschutz either don't know or don't want to talk about is that there were also many great rabbonim who were enthusiastically in support of Zionism. The UltraOrthodox approach to history either erases or ignores them in order to create a false appearance of unity amongst the "gedolim" that they were all anti-Zionists.
In the end, when the fires of the Shoah came, those rabbonim who had gotten themselves and their followers out, as well as the non-religious Zionists, survived to build Israel and all its benefits. Those rabbonim who refused to support Zionism and maintained, until shortly before being put on the deportation trains, that submission to the Nazis and faith in God would prevent a holocaust from happening, perished with their followers.
Not that the UltraOrthodox community ever learned a lesson from that. Following the words of the Michtav M'Eliyahu, they now assert that if you question the rabbonim who failed to predict the greatest Jewish tragedy of that last 1900 years, you are of little faith. What a way to end an argument.
Looking back over the past 60 years, one is struck by the many dismal failures of the enterprise. Yes, they made the desert bloom. Tel Aviv is a cosmopolitan city. Israel has more companies traded on the NASDAQ than any other country besides the U.S. Israel provided a home for some Holocaust refugees, as well as hundreds of thousands more Jewish refugees chased from North Africa, a true ingathering of the exiles.
You'd think that this would be enough to earn the author's praise. Think again. What didn't he mention? The countless yeshivos, schools, synagogues, publishers of Torah material, all of whom exist because the Zionists rebuilt the land. Why isn't this mentioned? Because he'd rather complain:
They created a state which was Jewish in name only, using the Jewish heritage as a convenient backdrop. They seized political control over the new country and purported to act and speak on behalf of the entire Jewish people.
The founders of the new state expected its religious community to quickly shrivel up and disappear in their new socialist Zionist utopia, but they were wrong.

To accuse the Labour Zionists of seizing political control from the religious is a fabrication. As Rav Issachar Teichtal noted in Eim Habanim Semeichah, the religious communities of both Europe and Israel, to a large extent, had little to do with Zionism and, especially in the old Yishuv, refused to cooperate with it at all. Thehn, when the Zionist enterprise bore fruit and a state was born, they complained that they had no influence in running it! Rav Teichtal openly wonders what about would have happened had the Chareidi leadership of the day embraced and joined the Zionist movement? How much more Judaism would be part of the State?
Instead of withering, those devoted to Torah and Yiddishkeit were inspired by the Holy Land and breathed a religious flavor into the state. Torah has taken root, grown and flourished in the nascent country. The number of frum Yidden, as well as their intensity in learning and devotion to the observance of Torah, has multiplied many times over.
All true, and many of the bills for these achievements were paid by the despised Zionists. To divorce the success of the Torah world from the silent support of the non-religious majority is sheer ignorance.
We travel to Yerushalayim and are overwhelmed by the sights, sounds and flavors the land has to offer. We pass by chadorim, yeshivos and yishuvim, and our hearts skip a beat as we think of all the blood, sweat and tears that went in to reestablishing everything in the Holy Land. We go the Kosel, the Meoras Hamachpeilah and Kever Rochel and are overcome by the holiness and the communal memories of thousands of years of Jewish history connected with these sacred places.
We walk down the streets of Yerushalayim and marvel at the great miracle of the rebirth of our people. On Rechov Chazon Ish in Bnei Brak, we can’t help but visualize the holy Chazon Ish zt”l walking these same streets, dreaming of a city of Torah arising from the ashes of the Holocaust.
Wherever we go in the country, there are stirring reminders of the history of our people. In Beer Sheva, we are shown wells and walls which are dated to the times of Avrohom Avinu. If we travel around the country, we encounter Har Gerizim and Har Eivol, and the pesukim of the Torah reverberate in our minds. At Har Hacarmel, the pesukim in Nach come alive. The pools of Shlomo Hamelech can actually be touched. The palaces of Hordus, Ihr Dovid, the Beis Haknesses of the Ramban in Yerushalayim and the shul of the Arizal in Tzefas are all testaments to our glorious history in this land.
The graves of the ancients evoke shivers of awe, from Adam and Chava, to Avrohom and Sarah and all the Avos and Imahos, to the kever of Shmuel Hanovi overlooking Yerushalayim, the kever of Dovid Hamelech, and all the historical figures whose Torah we study day and night.
It is so easy to be overwhelmed when visiting the Land of Israel.

And all this is made possible only because of the sacrifices of the Zionists and Israelis. Would there be a Bene Beraq to walk in without the original aliyos? (RememberL the Mizrachi built Bene Beraq, the Chareidim only came later) Would we be able to pray at Kever Rachel or Me'arat HaMachpelah if not for the brave Israeli soldiers standing guard? Is this so difficulty to admit? Is a word of gratitude so hard to utter?
It is with a great deal of ambivalence that the anniversary is celebrated. Obviously, Zionism didn’t cure the Jewish problem. Anti-Semitism is as ugly as ever, and much of it seems to be caused by the very state which was founded to get rid of it.
Whenever he hears about an anti-Israel act or statement, my father utters a silent blessing. "If it weren't for Israel, they focus on us." To say that Israel is a cause of anti-Semitism is stupidity. Israel has acted like a lightning rod and allowed Jewish communities around the world to delude themselves into believing one of the biggest lies ever told: We're not anti-Semites, we're just anti-Israel.
Did Zionism solve the Jewish problem? No it didn't. But it did change the face of world Jewry in incredible ways that no other movement has in the last 1900 years.
Miraculously, the army succeeded in fighting back the country’s attackers several times throughout the decades. Lately, the vaunted army has not merited miracles of that nature, and has been dishonorably defeated several times.
Yes, an army which people like Rav Lipschutz will do anything to avoid serving in or supporting.
The country is led by one of the most corrupt elected governments on earth. The prime minister faces no less than five investigations and can be indicted at any given moment. The president was thrown out of office in disgrace. Ministers have been accused and found guilty of crimes of moral turpitude.
So in other words, they're finally catching up to what the Chareidi parties have been like for years. Should you doubt this, ask yourself which party is currently propping up this corrupt government? Oh yes, the Shas. Wait, aren't they religious?
When we travel to Israel, we generally stay in Yerushalayim where we meet and spend time with other like-minded English speakers. Most of us can’t speak Hebrew coherently and thus have no real interaction with Israelis other than superficial chit-chat. The Israelis we do converse with are Chareidim like ourselves. The only secular people we engage in conversation with are Arab waiters or rabidly right-wing Sephardic taxi drivers. It is unfair to judge an entire country based upon our interactions with those small segments of the population
I don't know if this was meant to be an admission of ignorance or a statement of pride. Having written an entire article judging Israel and finding it guilt, he then states that what he has done is unfair. Did anyone proofread this other than the spellchecker?
And I like the right-wing Sephardic taxi drivers (who are usually religious, but not being Chareidi I guess it doesn't count for this article). They're fun.
In the end, Rav Lipschutz shows what is wrong with the Chareidi world's external attitude today. It is arrogant and self-righteous, dismissive of any position that disagrees with it and so convinced of the rectitude of its beliefs that it doesn't feel it even has to interact with "the other".
One does not have to be enthusiastic with the situation in Israel today. Certainly there is much that can be improved. This does not change the fact that Israel is our best option for the bringing the eventual geulah and that the alternative would have been much, much worse. A kind "thank you" and a smile isn't too much to ask.

Or maybe it is from some people.

A Selective History

The only way to downplay or criticize the miraculous significance of the creation of the State of Israel in 1948 is the revise history. Such is the domain of the anti-Semite who cannot accept Jewish success and therefore does what he can to play it down or pervert it. A good example that should be responded to was published in The National Post in the days leading up to Yom Ha'atzmaut. I would like to debunk the lies that this article propagated, not because they're new or groundbreaking but because an old lie is the most dangerous one around. People ignore them, figuring that everyone knows they're false. Such complacency can allow tremendous damage to happen.

The first problem is the title:

Jeet Heer on Israel's creation: Ethnic cleansing by any other name

This is the biggest lie told nowadays about the establishment of Israel - that it was done by European Jews who came in and drove out the poor native Arabs and stole their land. Yet it is almost the easiest to refute. Simply remember the population compositions of Israel and Yehudah/Shomron/'Aza (Yesha) after the final ceasefire in 1949. There were still over 100 000 Arabs in Israel. There were ZERO Jews in Yesha. When Jews are driven from their land, it was not a crime or even worthy of criticism. When the Arabs fled rather than defend themselves, it was a crime. Israel has a thriving Arab sector today. Jews are legally forbidden by Hamas and Fatah to buy land or take up residence in the Palestinian Authority. Who ethnically cleansed who?
Sixty years ago, a 12-year-old boy witnessed the slaughter of his family. His name was Fahim Zaydan, and he lived in the Arab village of Deir Yassin in Mandate Palestine, which was attacked on April 9, 1948, by Irgun and Stern Gang troops, paramilitary forces allied with the right-wing of the Zionist movement.
Relying on Arabs for testimony is like asking hardened criminals to be bank guards. You just don't rely on some things. There are two versions of what happened at Deir Yassin and unfortunately, like in so many other parts of history, the Israelis long ago abandoned their version to the dustbin of history while the Arab side propagated its version until it became the official tale of what happened. The facts that the Irgun had warned the village to evacuate before the attack, that they had been ambushed when they then entered the village because the locals had promised to surrender, that the Arab fighters used their women and children as shields because they believed the Irgun would never fire upon them, all these facts are lost to the narrative. Jeet Heer probably believes in the Jenin Massacre and Santa Claus too.
: Zionist troops, including those under Ben-Gurion’s command, used terror tactics to force the indigenous population to flee.
Notice: not a word about how Arab governments encouraged the local villagers to run so that they wouldn't get in the way of the "victorious" conquering armies. We know the real tale of the tape. The Arab leaders of the day were not invading Israel to help their so-called Palestinian breathren establish their own state. They were invading to grab whatever land they could and slaughter as many Jews as possible. But with time and repeated lying, this truth has also been twisted out of recognition.
The external war against Arab armies was mirrored by an internal war against Arabs living inside Palestine. Because of this tragic legacy, uncritically celebrating 1948 does a disservice to Jews and Arabs alike.
That's right. Arabs in Israel have full citizenship, serve in all parts of society and even have representatives in the Knesseet. They have the lowest infant mortality rates in the Arab world, the highest level of education, best indicators of health and longest lifespans. If you exclude the oil sheikhs, they also have some of the highest incomes. In return their leaders have openly campaigned in support of Israel's deadliest enemies and their schools teach their children that they are not Israeli but rather Palestinians living in Israel. Is anyone still surprised that Jewish Israelis look at them with suspicion? The significant fact here is not that there is an unofficial double standard in Israeli society. It's that the Arabs are treated so well despite their selfish and short-sighted behaviours.
But the fact is that the best recent historians of Israel’s founding, some of whom are ardent Zionists, have made it clear that the events of 1948 were an ethnic cleansing.
No, the fact is that the best recent historians of Israel's founding are not ardent Zionist but rather post-Zionist self-hating Israelis who have decided that to be enlightened they must feel guilty of the success of Israel in establishing itself and enduring. The idea that the Arabs are responsible for their own misery is incomprehensible to them.
They had too few Jews (less than half the population of Mandate Palestine), too little land (Jews owned less than 6% of the land) and too many Arabs.
Well of course this was the case. The British, who seems to want to compete with the Germans for the title of "Worst enemy of the Jews in the first half of the 20th century" made sure that Jewish immigrations was curtailed, that Jewish land purchases were restricted and that Arab migration into Israel was unfettered. The success of Israel came despite these efforts.
But if you look at Zionism from a global perspective, one that acknowledges that Arabs are human beings, then the morality becomes much murkier. Unlike the peoples of Europe, the Palestinians weren’t direct participants in the Holocaust. Why should Palestinians lose their land because of crimes committed by Germans, Poles, Ukrainians and other Europeans?
The so-called Palestinians were, in fact, direct participants in the Holocaust. The Mufti of Jerusalem was an avid supporter of the Nazis and an entire brigade of Arabs served in the Wehrmacht. There can be no doubt that if Rommel, y"sh, had managed to defeat the British in North Africa and successfully invaded Israel, that the local Arabs would have participated in the subsequent liquidation of the Jewish community with a zest that would have made the Polish, Ukrainian, Croatian et al efforts look like nothing.
Like ancient Sparta, the citizen-soldiers of Israel have to constantly be on guard lest the helots revolt. The Arab population, both those who live in Israel as citizens and those under military occupation, are a constant source of worry.
The citizen-soldiers of Israel have to be constantly on guard because the helots are revolting, and because every state on the border with the exception possibly of Jordan are openly hostile to Israel's very existence.
Israel’s greatest point of pride, its claim to be a democracy, is undermined by the decades old occupation of Palestinian lands, a situation that resembles apartheid-era South Africa.
Ah yes, the "apartheid" canard. Never mind that apartheid was about one segment of South Africa oppression another segment of its own population while the so-called occupation of Yesha is about Israel reclaiming lands it was legally granted by the League of Nations in 1922 which happen to contain a population that has been raised to dream of its destruction. Never mind that until Arafat, y"sh, started his second intifada there was actual economic growth, good educational opportunities and hope for the future found nowhere else in the Arab world. Never mind that if the Arabs were to droptheir hostility tomorrow they would be embraced by the Israelis who are desperate to live in peace. Why let facts get in the way of a good slur?
The bottom line that the Israel and Jew haters of the world don't want to admit is that it was the Arabs who refused to allow the Jews to return to Israel and settle there, even before there was any thought of a state. It was the Arabs who refused every compromise plan offered to them by the British and the United Nations, no matter how biased it was against the future Israel. It was the Arabs who denied the legitimacy of the 1947 vote which granted them an opportunity to build a state. It is the Arabs who started the War of Independence, the Six Day War and the Yom Kippur War. If the Arabs are looking for someone to blame for their so-called naqba, they have only to look into the mirror.
As Rabbi Hillel goldberg has recently noted, Arab hatred of Israel isn't so much about the loss of Arab land or the denial of a state for them but about the destruction of Israel. That's why, despite the trillions of petrol dollars and countless opportunities, no serious efforts to build an Arab state have ever, ever been made. And we who love Israel must remember this and always work to counter those whose lies would make a mockery of the sacrifice, effort and triumph that God has brought us to today.

Thursday 8 May 2008

The Consequences of the Coming Split

Not too long ago I posted two articles on my thoughts about the diverging paths of Chareidi and non-Chareidi Torah Jewry. In the first, I noted that part of the problem was the increasing variation in the forms of non-Chareidi Orthodox Jewish practice as well as non-religious groups all claiming to be the genuine article. This diversity is leading the Chareidim to develop a simplistic "You're either like us or you're not part of the club" attitude to avoid having to make complex judgement calls and decision. In the second article, I noted the entrenching that the various attitudes within Orthodoxy have taken, leading to difficulties with the achieving the concept of reconciliation between the two groups.
But then the Mercaz HaRav massacre happened (may God avenge their blood) and a spark of hope was kindled. The Belzer Rebbe himself came out as a sign of achdus to show he cared for his fellow Jews. The Yated Neeman wrote a sympathetic piece that showed far more understanding of the precarious nature of Jewish survival than anyone might have ever given them credit for.
Unfortunately, the spark was soon extinguished. If there's one thing that Jews have proven throughout history it's that factionalism and sinas chinam are more important that achdus and survival. Does anyone recall the great enmity between the Chasidim and Litvish in Europe that existed until the Shoah decimated their numbers to the point that they had to abandon it? How many people know that there were two or three different Jewish resistance groups participating in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising and that even as the Nazis, y"sh, closed the noose around their necks, they refused to cooperate with each other on principle? The sympathy and outpouring of brotherhood after the Mercaz HaRav massacre wasn't incredible because of its widespread nature. It was incredible that it happened at all!
As noted in a previous post, the Chareidi leadership seems to have decided on an end game to deal once and for all with the two large non-Chareidi Orthodox movements, the Modern Orthodox and the Dati Leumi. Having taken over the Israeli Rabbanut, an organization they do not recognize or respect, their leaders are now in a superior position to make demands of the rest of the Torah world and the first demand is: Do everything our way or you don't count.
Again, as I mentioned before, this attitude is understandable. In the Chareidi scheme of things, there was only one way of practising Torah Judaism before the rise of Reform in the 1800's. Never mind that they're are wrong in this assessment, that historically Torah Judaism has had a wide variety of expressions. In their view, it used to be that all religious Jews were Chareidi. the first challenge came with the rise of Reform and Conservatism, the two movements which claimed one could be a good Jew without observing mitzvos properly, or even at all. However, that battle ended a long time ago.
The second challenge came with the existence of Modern Orthodoxy and Mizrachi, two movements claiming to be Torah observant but not Chareidi. With the rising strength of the Chareidi world, their religious muscle has now been turned on these two groups. The first real salvos, as seen in recent days and over the last few months, has been to take away their independence in matters of conversion, something in which they have been successful to a degree, as the RCA's capitulation in the matter showed.
But this doesn't seem to have been enough. The recent humiliation of Rav Druckman and all the people he converted shows that their agenda continues to roll along and that the sensitivities and positions of those who oppose them don't concern them a bit.
In a way, this is not suprising. One needs only look at throwaway comments by even moderate writers in the Charedi community, such as Rav Yonasan Rosenblum. In an otherwise beautiful piece on his reaction to the Mercaz HaRav massacre, he notes, amongst other things:

My son-in-law gives a weekly shiur in the Mercaz Harav high school in the framework of Ve’Dibartem Bam, an organization that arranges for weekly shiurim by avreichim in national religious yeshiva high schools in order to expose the students to the geshmak of yeshivishe lomdus.

First thought: Oh, how nice and look, it's cross-cultural, Chareidim interacting with Mizrachi.

Second thought: Oh, those poor Mizrachi. Thank God this young man can go and lift them out of their ignorance and show them yeshivishe lomdus, because Mizrachi rabbonim have no idea what that is.

In the aftermath of this debacle, Marc Shapiro, noted author and professor, wrote an editorial piece for The Jewish Week News:

It should also show the shortsightedness of the Rabbinical Council of America’s recent decision to play ball with the Chief Rabbinate and accept the body’s authority in matters of conversion. The reason this is shortsighted is because this isn’t simply a conflict between the haredi (or ultra-Orthodox) rabbinic leadership and some liberal Orthodox rabbis with regard to this issue. Rather, the haredi leadership rejects the entire notion that there can be Modern Orthodox and Religious Zionist halachic authorities and dayanim, and indeed has attempted to keep non-haredim off the religious courts. Accepting the legitimacy of a Modern Orthodox or Religious Zionist posek (decisor) is in their eyes an oxymoron

Right off the top, Shapiro notes the root of the problem that I mentioned above: forget reconciliation, a search for mutual respect. The Chareidi position is sealed: It's their way and that's it, and anyone who thinks that eilu v'eilu applies to non-Chareidi schools of thought is kidding himself. He then continues on:

It should be obvious that there are two very different types of Orthodoxy being practiced in Israel, and to a lesser extent here. The haredim realized this long ago and have done everything in their power to make sure that only their form of Orthodoxy survives, and that any other approach is moved to the dustbin of history. Any successes in this effort (and there have been many) were only possible due to the massive financial support of both the Israeli government and the American non-haredi Orthodox community. The Modern Orthodox/Religious Zionist world should not seek to delegitimize the haredi form of Orthodoxy. But basic pride in one’s ideology would suggest that the Modern Orthodox/Religious Zionist world should not feel the need to follow the haredim and adapt its own practices in order that there be “one standard.”

The first part identifies both the problem and the solution. While the Chareidim have been busy over the last 25 years or so redefining the public face of Judaism so that the stereotypical religious Jew becomes synonymous with the Chareidi approach, the Modern Orthodox world has been busy trying to prove its secular credentials and the Mizrachi have focused on the rebuilding of Yehudah, Shomron and 'Aza. As a result, the battle may have already been lost. How can one catch up to the Agudah's PR machine at this point? Where are the non-Chareidi Artscroll and Feldheim? how does one change the focus of not one but two movements?

Having demonstrated the danger that Modern Orthodoxy and Mizrachi find themselves in, Shapiro then draws his radical conclusion:

The haredi world follows its own authorities without regard for the non-haredi rabbinate. Isn’t it time for the Modern Orthodox/Religious Zionist world to do the same? This would mean a complete break with the haredi halachic authorities and the establishment of religious courts that share at least some of the values and worldview of the community in which they serve. I am sure some readers will protest that it goes against Orthodox unity to advocate this approach. Yet with such a step the Modern Orthodox/Religious Zionist world would only be acknowledging the situation that the haredim have created, and are now pursuing with a vengeance.

With emotions running high, this seems to be the right solution, at least on first glance. They don't care about us. Why should we care about them?

There are, however, severe consequences that must be considered before anyone can seriously endorse this option.

1) The current leadership of Modern Orthodoxy is split into two basic groups - the YU and YCT crowds. The YCT crowd has already moved to and possibly past the leftmost boundaries of Modern Orthodoxy with their recent, controversial decisions regarding the participation of women in services and their acceptance of interfaith participation in worship. However, the YU leadership's drawback is that, depending on one's point of view, they are other Chareidim working in the Modern Orthodox world, or Modern Orthodox who want to be taken seriously by the Chareidim. In either case, this would make it difficult for the prominent religious scholars and leaders at YU to stand up to the Chareidi leadership and announce that they are going their own way.

2) The Chareidi response to a split would be disasterous for the Modern Orthodox community. Perhaps not immediately but over time the fallout would become obvious. Consider that no Orthodox authorities would recognize a non-Orthodox get. The only reason Reformers and Conservatives don't have a huge mamzerus problem is because the Orthodox leadership also doesn't recognize their weddings, hence there's no problem with children being born to the wrong father. Imagine what happens the day after the RCA announces they're going it alone. They'll have their own beis dins, their own standard for conversion, etc. And slowly, slowly people will start to discover that the Chareidi world will ascribe as much legitimacy to their conversions, marriages and divorces as they do to the non-religious movements. Imagine a person raised in a Modern Orthodox home, who has gone to shul and yeshiva, who has always kept kosher and now goes to Israel for a year of study. The only wrinkle is that his mother converted through the RCA after the split. In Israel he meets a girl but when he goes to get married he suddenly discovers that he's not Jewish according to the Rabbanut! This is not fear mongering or idle theorizing. This is what will happen if the RCA unilaterally splits and goes its own way as a response to this challenge. Torah observant Jews will be rejected by their Chareidi brothers. Can you imagine the hatred that will arise from such circumstances? Isn't there enough anti-Jewishness around us? Do we have to consider adding more?
Before one says "Yeah, let's flip the Chareidim the bird and get outta here" consider what will happen. Is there a happy alternative? Not that I can see but that doesn't mean a lousy choice is better than none at all.

Tuesday 6 May 2008

Who Is Not A Jew

I've held back from commenting on the recent scandal involved Rav Chaim Druckman and his conversions because (a) lots of other blogs have picked up on it and (b) I still want to see how it finally plays out.
In short, Rav Chaim Druckman, a Mizrachi rav has been working hard at converting many people who wish to join Am Yisrael. For years, the Chareidi press has been busy slandering Rav Druckman with some pretty awful loshon horo. Things really came to a head a year and a half ago when an Ashdod rabbinical court, supervising a routine divorce case in which, oddly enough, there was little conflict between the separating partners, suddenly discovered that the soon-to-be ex-wife, a convert who had been accepted into the Jewish people by Rav Druckman, was not keeping a Torah-observant lifestyle. The judge immediatley ruled that she, and by extension, her children were not Jewish, nor could they ever convert or marry Jews in the future! The cruelty of these ruling, both unexpected and unrequested, sent the Chareidi press apologists into a mad frenzy to prevent the negative spin from causing too much damage.
Things might have eventually settled down but shortly after, the news came out that the Rabbanut in Israel was strong-arming the Rabbinical Council of America into accepting its demands for conversion standards and procedures with the threat that if it didn't, Israel would cease recognizing their conversions as valid. The conflict only ended when the RCA capitulated to the Rabbanut's demands, giving up a large amount of its autonomy, authority and legitimacy in the process.
And then the Rav Druckman case broke. In short, the Supreme Rabbinical Court of Yerushalayim ruled that all conversions ever performed by Rav Druckman are retroactively invalid. Countless people who have spent years living as Jews, thinking that they were Jews, and sharing in the fate of Am Yisrael, were suddenly told: Yo, goy boy! Guess what? Drop the knishes and go for a BLT!
Am I the only one seeing a pattern here? First of all, why are there Chareidi rabbonim in the Rabbanut in the first place? The Chareidi community has its own leadership and does not recognize the authority of the Chief Rabbi to pasken for them. Indeed, the only real stakeholders in the authority of the Rabbanut and its officials are the Mizrachi and their representation in the various courts and offices is minimal compared to the influence they place in the organization. Yet over the years the Chareidi leadership has taken over an organization it does not really respect, the better with which to assert its power of the religious life of the State.
Secondly, having taken over the largest and most influential rabbinic body in the Jewish world outside their own community, they then set their eyes on the Rabbinical Council of America, the second largest and a non-Chareidi organization. Consider: the authority of any rabbi is linked to his ability to perform three things and have them recognized by all major Jewish bodies - conversion, marriage and divorce. Is it any surprise, then, that the Rabbanut would choose conversion to begin its process of delegitimizing the RCA as an Orthodox authority? Having successfully done so, one can be sure that in the near future similar demands regarding marriage and divorce standards will crop up.
So who's left? The only other major non-Chareidi Torah observant group of Jews outside of the Modern Orthodox of North America are the Mizrachi/Dati Leumi in Israel. And just as with the RCA, the Mizrachi legitimacy to perform rabbinical functions has now been challenged in the most severe fashion possible - with a blanket condemnation of one of its major authorities along with an effort to completely discredit him.
Now, I will not go so far as to say that these moves have been undertaken with malicious intent. I highly doubt there was a secret "Gedolim conference" or some such where the leading Chareidi authorities sat around a table in a smoke-filled room and drew up a plot to destroy the rabbinical power of the non-Chareidim.
However, one must understand something about Chareidi philosophy. Within that community, the belief that their form of Torah Judaism is the only real and legitimate one is quite strong. it is almost universally felt that there is something deficient and inadequate about Modern Orthodoxy and Mizrachi. Thus Chareidi authorities who challenge the standing of their Modern Orthodox and Dati Leumi counterparts aren't doing it out of spite but because of a sincere desire to end what they see as improper and misguided forms of Torah Judaism. Certainly it is considered agreeable that there be universal standards for such things as conversion, marriage and divorce in order to minimize confusion and problems in quesitonable circumstances. The problem is that the Chareidi attitude is not conciliatory in the least. It's their way and that's it.
With all this in mind, one might counter with the obvious fact that, from the Modern Orthodox and Mizrachi side, there isn't that much to fight back with. The Chareidi community can boast of hundreds, if not thousands, of top-notch halachic scholars. It has produced countless volumes of responsa and novellae in the last several decades. Quick, other than Bnei Banim by Rav Yehudah Henkin, can anyone name another set of responsa by a Modern Orthodox authority? Other than YU, are their any world-class, legendary Modern Orthodox yeshivos anywhere?
Even the Modern Orthodox leadership leaves something to be desired. The leading lights of Yeshivah University are certainly not slouches when it comes to their halachic expertise and religious piety but unlike Rav Soloveitchik, zt"l they are certainly not prepared to challenge and stand apart from the Chareidi world. The idea of taking a stand against the Eidah Chareidit and becoming persona non grata in Israel in that community would not be considered feasible.
On the Mizrachi side, things are little better. Obsessed with the development of Yehudah and Shomron as it has been, the movement has not produced enough superior scholars to present a successful challenge to the halachic hegemony of the Chareidi community. Yes, there are genius and saints within the movement. Where are their works? Where is their influence?
Thus the non-Chareidi Jewish components of the Torah world have a stark choice being forced upon them.
One is to admit that the natural evolution of real Torah Judaism has resulted in the Chareidi form today and that Modern Orthodoxy and Mizrachi are illegitimate deviations from that standard.
The other is to admit that until now the models of Modern Orthodoxy and Mizrachi are not meeting the needs of their constituents. Being Chareidi is not for everybody and it can't be. Judaism is far too complex to force all its adherents into one restrictive model. But those who are on the outside of that model must be given something to rally around, to identify with other than vague statements of autonomy and modernity. Only with that change will this encroachment cease.

Sunday 4 May 2008

Responding to Outside Pressure

When looking at the progression of the halachic world of the last 1400 years since the closing of the Talmud, one can see roughly fourth eras. The first is the post-Talmud period where the Geonim and the Rishonim developed, expanded and organized the law in resopnse to changing and developing circumstances as well as the need to clarify rulings from the Talmud that might not have fully accounted for new situations. The second era is the rise of the formal Codes, start with the Rambam and the Rosh and culminating in the publication of the Shulchan Aruch. The third is the early Acharonim period where commentators fleshed out the Shulchan Aruch, again in response to new and changing circumstances.
The fourth, however, is a period of near-ossification of the halachic process. As opposed to previous eras, this one developed in response to a threat to the authority of the Torah from within the Jewish community, specifically the rise of Reform and other Jewish movements that claimed that one could be a good Jew without abiding by the observance of Jewish law. The defining statement of this era was, and remains, the Chasam Sofer's strident declaration: anything new is forbidden by the Torah.
Reviewing the previous eras of halachic development shows just how concerning this attitude has become. Before the Chasam Sofer's declaration, halacha was a living entity, growing and adapting over time, doing its best to fit the needs of the Jewish people while keep that people faithful to the Torah and service of God. After the declaration, change becomes suspect and, in most cases, forbidden. Any new situation becomes an issur, with the reason why the only thing to be determined.
now, this is a blanket stataement and not completely applicable nowadays. After all, in contrast to the far more consistent Amish and Mennonites, Satmar chasidim drive in cars, have electricity and running water in their homes and use toilet paper just like the rest of us despite their opposition to "innovation". Even in deepest, darket Mesach Shearim, time has not been frozen. There's just a refusal to admit they can't freeze it.
But the root cause seems to always come back to the same thing - the rise of Reform. The reaction to a movement which championed innovation pretty much for the sake of innovation lead to a strident reaction that all change was forbidden. This results in a hobbling of the halachic process that continues to this day.
And that's a teerrible shame. For one thing, it turns a complex subject that God meant for us to study, understand and develop into a simplified tool for forbidding everything it can. And for another, it hampers Torah Judaism's ability to encounter and thrive within the modern world. Consider a fascinating historical note from this article:

The second and more recent cause of extremism, says Sperber, is the central role that the large yeshivas and their heads began to assume in the Ashkenazi (European) halakhic world: "In the past it was common for the pesika to be issued in each community by the local rabbi. The rabbi was familiar with the nature of the community, its ability to observe various stringencies and the needs of the people, and therefore the decisions suited the community. The moment that the yeshiva heads became the main poskim the rulings became 'academic,' issued from an ivory tower, unconnected to the actual situation of the public, and in any case also tending to be stringent." Incidentally, he points out, because the two phenomena - Reform Judaism and the large yeshivas - were not found in Sephardic Judaism (in southern Europe, North Africa and the Middle East), the phenomenon of halakhic extremism was avoided there.

The Sephardic approach to Torah and halachic development has remained far more normative because of the lack of reaction to outside, heretical approaches. Yet because of the deeply-ingraned reactionism within the Ashkenazic world, this far more genuine and practical approach reamins disdained by those outside it.

Consider further the idea of accessing halachic works which might not have been known to the authorities of the major Codes:

As a basic example of that he mentions that Rabbi Yosef Caro, the compiler of the Shulkhan Arukh, which from the time it was written in the 16th century up to the present, has been considered the central book of halakha in the Jewish world, made his halakhic decisions by following the majority opinion in three previous books of halakha with which he was familiar: those of Maimonides, the Rif (Rabbi Yitzhak Alfasi) and the Rosh (Rabbi Asher ben Yehiel). "But in recent generations," says Sperber, "many halakhic sources that were totally unfamiliar to the author of the Shulkhan Arukh have been discovered, for example extensive halakhic literature from Provence. This literature could change the entire balance of majority and minority opinion in halakha, but the poskim will not allow any expression of that. The Hazon Ish [a central posek who lived in Israel in the 20th century -Y.S.] even said there is no need to take this literature into consideration, because apparently it was determined from above that this literature would not be discovered before the halakhic tradition was consolidated. Incidentally, Shas spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef is actually willing to rely on the new literature, and in several places he rules contrary to the Shulkhan Arukh, in accordance with new sources that have been discovered."

If the study of Torah is a study for truth, and the practice of Jewish law the quest for a true spiritual connection with the Ribono Shel Olam, why would it make sense to ignore any geniune Torah knowledge simply because it didn't make it into the "official books"? Does one believe that if the Rav Yosef Karo had discovered these texts while writing the Shulchan Aruch that he would not have taken those opinions into account?

May God show us a true way towards His service and may we learn within and develop the halacha without insecurity and worry that our desire to treasure and build on His Torah will be seen by others as an admission of the rightness of their wrongess. We owe God our best effort to determine His Truth. Nothing should dissuade us from that.

Yonasan Rosenblum Thinks Again

It's easy to criticize. The Ribono Shel Olam knows I do it enough. It's far harder to compliment. Perhaps we're all so used to being negative and protesting when someone says something we don't like that when something non-objectionable comes along, we just pass it by in search of a new target.
One of those targets just before Pesach was a column by Rav Rosenblum criticizing people who go away for hotels to Pesach. In truth, a careful reading of the column would reveal that Rav Rosenblum himself was only expressing some discomfort with the idea while quoting from a rav who was downright opposed to it. Most of the comments on the forum at Cross Currents where it was also posted missed that subtle point.
What distinguishes Rav Rosenblum from other writers at that site, however, is his ability to absorb criticism and take a second look at his previously stated positions. He doesn't necessarily change his beliefs or positions but is able to respectfully understand the different viewpoints of his detractors, something which sets him above other authors.
The best example of this is the follow-up column to that piece. in it, he notes the simple fact that not all Jews can approach the same concept, in this case Pesach, in an identical fashion. For some staying at home for the holiday is essential to their observance. For others, the benefits afforded by a hotel stay help enhance the holiday.
One must remember that when God took us out of Egypt, He very quickly organized us into thirteen separate tribes. Certainly if He wishes for us to all approach Him in the same way, He would not have encouraged such separateness. But as various commentators over the centuries have noted, there is a variety of ways the sincere, observant Jew can approach his Creator, all within the boundaries of Torah and its proper observance. No one approach fits all, nor is it meant to. Perhaps the best example of this is the portion of the Torah where the princes of each tribe bring a gift at the dedication of the Mishkan. Each of the twelve gifts was identical, yet the Torah lists each separately. Why spend a couple of columns on this when it could simply have said: And each of the princes brought the same gift:...?
The Midrash Rabbah answers this question by explaining that although the superficial gifts looked identical, the intention behind each was different for each tribe, based on their understanding of history and their connection to God.
Thus it must be for all Jewish observance. Using Pesach as an example, one can see that for some the holiday simply isn't right if the family isn't gathered together at home for the Seder. For others, the hotel is the answer but for both groups, the ultimate goal is identical: a meaningful Pesach in which the participants feel as if their themsleves came out of Egypt and developed a personal connection to God.
Kol HaKavod to Rav Rosenblum for his attention in this area.

A Movement of Their Own

It's no secret that the so-called left wing of Modern Orthodoxy has been moving further to the left, supposedly in response to the rightward shift of the right wing of the movement. This has been accompanied by complaints from the left wing groups like Yeshivat Chovevei Torah and places like the Hartman Institute that they feel Modern Orthodoxy is getting more stringent in general and sliding towards Chareidism in particular.
The difference between the two sides, howver, is very important. If a Modern Orthodox rav moves to the right in his thinking, that generally means adopting more stringent positions in terms of thought and practice. On the other hand, a leftward shift means justifying increasing radical positions that are at odds with traditional and authoritative Torah thoughts.
Thus the dilemma of groups like YCT and leaders like Rav Avi Weiss. Despite calling themselves Modern Orthodox, even a cursory examination of their beliefs and practices reveal that the Modern part of the label is their emphasis and driving force, not the Orthodox. Even though he has a claim to fame from being a former student of the Rav J.B. Soloveitchik, Rav Weiss seems to enjoy going too far in his innovations and the application of his "Open Orthodoxy". Certainly his understanding of a famous statement the Rav said to him must be questioned:
“We have created an open space where rabbis don’t have to look over their shoulders and feel intimidated” by rabbinic authorities who would marginalize them, said Rabbi Weiss. “We want to empower them to think for themselves.”
He noted that when as a young rabbi, he would ask a halachic question of his rebbe, the late Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveichik, the revered dean of Modern Orthodoxy, the response would be: “What do you think, Avraham?”
One must wonder: Was the Rav encouraging complete autonomy to the point that Rav Weiss' radiacal ideas and changes are what he believes the true legacy of this Gadol b'Torah is? Or is it possible that the Rav had a different intent, that of encouraging critical thinking in conjunction with a respect for the authority of our traditional sources?
(To be cynical, might the Rav have seen what Rav Weiss' future ideology would be and just thought: well, he won't listen if I'm stringent so I'll just bounce the ball back to his court?)
This is why I think it's a good thing that this group is forming its own organization to compete with the Rabbinical Council of America. This group, the International Rabbinic Fellowship, should help deal with the dual personality problem that Modern Orthodoxy suffers from by removing those rabbonim on the left and giving them a movement of their own to innovate with. Yes, the labelling will remain an issue. The RCA will certainly continue to insist that it is Modern Orthodox and this new IRF will likely do the same but leaders and scholars within both movements will benefit from the narrower purview the split will afford. No longer does Rav Hershel Schachter, one of the true scholars of Modern Orthodoxy who understand what that term truly means, have to lumped in together with men whose religious principles may be noble but certainly cannot be called Orthodoxy.

Something They Can Agree On

I'm always amused at how people notice the idiocy and hatred of the Neturei Karta and extrapolate from there to other observant Jews, as if wearing a kippah makes you something connected to and responsible for the actions of these... well I won't put a fitting word to describe them on this public blog.

My amusement isn't from the comparing, however, but from the general ignoring non-religious Jews do of those groups from their side of the spectrum who are just as moronic. The upcoming 60th anniversary celebrations of the State of Israel have become an opportunity for those secular jews who desire to be "better gentiles than the gentiles themselves" to stand up, beat their chests proudly and announce how ashamed they are of their Jewishness and Israel because it has had the audacity to survive until now.

All this goes to show that the two extremes, left and right, eventually meld into one another. Fools from both sides are best ignored and avoided.

Modesty in Moderation

One of the big differences between being Mizrachi and being Modern Orthodox that has become blurred over time is the difference in the level of religious observance and the philosophy underpinning the two groups. For many, the Mizrachi are just MO's living in Israel but in truth, this is not correct.
However, this misunderstanding leads many to criticze when leading Mizrachi rabbonim make statements that sound Chareidi in nature. Such was the case recently when Rav Shlomo Aviner was asked a question about modest clothing in women and gave an answer which, to the outside world, sounded uncharacteristically strict.
However, in truth, his answer was completely within the pale of what is considered true Mizrachi. The movement, it must be remembered, was started because of the conviction certain leading rabbonim had that it is a religious imperative for Jews to return to and rebuild Eretz Yisrael, not as a reactionary movement seeking to modernize Jewish observance in response to outside pressure. The initial luminaries of the movement such as Rav Zvi Hirsch Kalischer, zt"l, Rav Avraham Yitzchak Kook, zt"l, and av Yitzchak Yaacov Reines, zt"l, were no less pious, observant or steeped in Torah scholarship than their anti-Zionist contemporaries. Thus to expect a standard of observance other than that of strict traditionalism based on halalchah from Mizrachi Jews is to completely misunderstand the movement and its beliefs.
Thus Rav Aviner's comments were not extreme when viewed from that perspective. The Mizrachi Jew is not less observant than his Chareidi colleague but channels his passion and energies into not just Torah study but those activities which build and protect the land of Israel.

Boycotting Bamba

I find there's something nostalgic about Israeli snacks. Whether it's PesekZman, Bamba or Bislis, I like the idea that when I travel in Israel and need a quick sugar/salt fix I can try something different from that which I find back home, something distinctively Israel.

Which is probably why a certain group of Chareidim have a problem with them. This has to be a first - the food inside the package is kosher enough but the package itself is trief because, horror of horrors, it has Israeli symbols on them.

Let's keep the following in mind: This group, the Chareidi Community, has the luxury of being abusive and insulting specifically because the men and women who believe in these "idolatrous" symbols stand on the border against our enemies, police Israel's streets and run the day to day affairs of the country that allow its inhabitants to lead normal lives. One might disagree with the political philosophy of Zionism or the way Israel works but to protest in this fashion shows a version un-Jewish lack of graititude.

Me, I'm going to get some Bisli just to protest.

Thursday 1 May 2008

The Problem with Yom HaShoah

As a child of Holocaust survivors, I grew up with the idea that Yom HaShoah is a fixed holiday on the Jewish calender (athough it always seemed to come out on Sundays where I lived!). Every year we followed the same routine. For a few weeks before, our Hebrew school teachers would show us films of the Holocaust, teach us a few simple songs like "Ani Ma'amin" and tell us how important remembering was. Then the day would arrive and we would troop up in front of the assembled throng and sing our songs and say our little speeches and everyone would clap politely and nod seriously. Yes, we must remember, they all kept saying. Never again, don't grant the Nazis a posthumous victory, you've heard all the lines. There was a special sense of solemnity when we would light the six light bulbs on the ceremonial candelabra, one light bulb for each of the six million martyrs. We were remembering them and ensuring they would not be forgotten.
But all that was a long time ago. Since that time, I've had many opportunities to think about Yom HaShoah and the more I've learned about Judaism and our blood-soaked history, the less importance it has held for me.
That's not to say I'm diminishing the unspeakable tragedy that was the Shoah. God forbid I ever suggest that. What happened in Churban Europa was and is still undescribable in its magnitude and horror. Each of the Six Million is a holy martyr whose soul was sanctified in the name of Heaven, the highest honour a Jew could ever achieve and to doubt that, or to minimize in any way what happened is unacceptable. All this I strongly believe.
But the idea of a special day just for the victims of the Shoah? With that I've developed a problem with over the last few years.
The first issue is that of context. Yom HaShoah recalls the fate of our people under the Nazis from 1933-1945. It rarely deals with what came before in more than an oblique way. It rarely deals with what came after except to mention the establishment of the State of Israel. We are told over and over again about what the Germans, y"sh, did to our people but almost never about what the rest of the world did and how they either helped or were complicit in the process.
The problem with this is that the Jewish approach to history has always been one of comprehensiveness. We are all God's children carrying out His plans for history. Events of significance are not random occurences. They are almost always the culmination of other events and carry with them moral lessons for us. The Torah observant Jew approaches the Shoah from a position of fear and dread. Why did this happen? How was it part of God's plan for history? What role did we play in bringing it about? What are we to learn from it? How do we properly santify the souls which were lost and make their sacrifices meaningful? For the non-observant Jew Yom HaShoah can answer none of these questions.
And I wonder if that's the point. After all, one must always be wary of anyone, no matter how educated or observant they may be, when they start a sentence with "The Holocaust happened because..." Perhaps in a few centuries we will be able to more dispassionately analyze it like we do now with other great tragedies of our history but the Shoah is still far too close, too personal, to allow such introspection. And the secular answer to this dilemma seems to be not that we cannot yet answer these questions but rather that there are no answers.
This makes sense from a non-observant point of view. The idea that our people were picked for destruction for more than simple reasons, that some part of history was played out through their deaths, that a higher purpose may have been served and something accomplished through all the suffering is not something that has much currency outside the religious world. Just as in daily life, God plays a peripheral role, if any at all, in life, so too in the realm of history He is seen to be just as absent. The Shoah happened, it just happened, and that's about as deep as one can go looking for a meaningful answer. And that kind of thinking feels quite unfufilling.
There is the matter of the commemoration as well. In Jewish law and tradition, mourning for the dead has always been shown in specific ways, through fasting, prayer, supplications and certain public displays. Choirs singing short ditties and speeches by local public officials have never been on that list.
I'm also not a fan of slogans, especially unfulfilled ones. Never again? Tell the Cambodians, Chinese and Rwandans about that one. The need for Jews to be vigilant against resurgent anti-Semitism? Then why is the government of Israel negotiating with a terrorist leader whose PhD is in Holocaust Denial? Not to give the Nazis a posthumous victory? The Jewish population of the United States has declined by 2 million in the last two generations. The worldwide population is stagnant if not slowly dropping. The only thing concealing the real magnitude of the decrease is the increasingly liberal definitions of "Jew" being used. Were one to use the strictly halachic position, people would be even more shocked.
Then there's the next issue I have which is the timing of the day. Yes, I know it's to commemorate the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, but it also happens during Sefriah, a time in the Jewish year when we are supposed to limit public gatherings and avoid live music. I sometimes wonder if the people who chose the date did so saying that the need to remember on this particular day overrode the Sefirah obligations, or if they had simply never heard of it at all! but for the observant Jew trying his best to both remember our fallen kedoshim and observe halachah properly, this creates an emotional conflict.
It also leads into my greatest problem with Yom HaShoah, and this is obvious for anyone who knows the Jewish calender. There already is a day set aside for the Holocaust and it's called Tisha B'Av. That day, set in the long humid days of mid-summer when many don't think about their Jewishness (after all, God went on vacation with us when Hebrew school ended in June, didn't He?) has been in our calender for over two thousand years as a day of mourning for not only the destruction of our Temples (may the Third One be speedily built) but for all the other great destructions that have overwhelmed us in the past. The Roman persecutions, the Crusades, the slaughter of the Jews of Arabia by Muhammed, y"sh, the Inquisition, the Chielmniski uprisings, the pogroms, and all the other untold sufferings are all recalled on Tisha B'Av. For non-observant Jews, most of these are events from history without a feeling of personal connection. The though of fasting for 25 hours for a Temple one has never seen or felt a connection to must sound absurd. However, for the observant Jew mindful of God's place in our world, aware of the need to keep all our history in context and yearning for a connection in the midst of mourning with our Creator and generations gone by, including a fitting recollection of the Holocaust is a natural part of Tisha B'Av. Now the Holocaust means something other than a random event in recent history. It is part of our journey, part of our suffering since the destruction of the Second Temple. Its magnitude can be appreciated with a bit more depth.
So in the end, that makes Yom HoShoah a less sensible idea for me. Separated from the continuum of Jewish history and ingnorant of Jewish law and tradition, it ironically shows how cut off many modern Jews are from their history and the generations that came before. Not the way to best show defiance to our enemies, is it?