Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Friday, 26 September 2008

On the Importance of Faith

"And He said: 'I will make all goodness pass before thee, and will proclaim the name of the Lord before thee; and I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy.' And He said: Thou canst not see My face, for man shall not see Me and live." (Shmos 33:19-20)

Did you even wonder about that last bit, the part where God announces that the sight of Him would be fatal to any human, even one as holy and pure as Moshe Rabeinu, a"h? Most people don't. After all, isn't it obvious that the manifestation of God, being all-powerful, described as a consuming fire and utterly beyond anything we could imagine comprehending, would be something a mere mortal could not physically withstand?

But even though one of the givens of existence is that God is so all-powerful that the sight of Him would be fatal to us, another is that He is so all-powerful that he not only maintains the rules of that existence but created them and can alter them at will. So why can't man see God and live? Why can't He simply adjust the rules of reality to allow for that?

Before Rosh HaShanah, the holiday on which we crown God as King of the Universe, this is an important matter to consider. After all, His claim to the throne, as it were, is based on His omnipotence but if He cannot adjust reality to allow a human to see Him then that implies a limit to His ability, negating the basis for the coronation in the first place.

The answer to this problem is found at the end of this week's parashah. After completing the vision of the future that will result in God's redeeming us from our exile and restoring us to our Land, Moshe Rabeinu finishes by explaining how the Torah is within our ability to observe and then goes to the heart of the matter:

"See I have before thee this day life and good, and death and evil, in that I command thee this day to love the Lord thus God, to walk in His ways and to keep His statutes and His ordinances; then thou shalt live and multiply, and the Lord thy God shall bless thee in the Land whither thou goest in to possess it... I call Heaven and earth to witness against you this day, that I have set before thee life and death, the blessing and the curse; therefore choose life that thou mayest live, thou and thy seed" (Devarim 30:15-16, 19)

Many skeptics and so-called atheists like to point out that one cannot empirically prove that God exists. Despite simplistic or dogmatic attempts to the contrary, they are essentially correct. Yes, a strong philosophical case can be made for the God being there but in the end, it's all just mind games. You cannot scientifically and definitively prove that the universe and all its contents aren't some big coincidental fluke.

And that's the point: Judaism doesn't expect you to worship and obey God because you know He's there and gave us the Torah. It expects you to worship and obey God because you believe that He's there and gave us the Torah. And there is a world of difference between the two.

The former, knowledge, removes doubt from a person's mind. If I see something before me, then I know it's real. If I have a recording of someone's speech, then I know what he said. Science is based on knowledge and the ability to empirically test it. If something is not testable, then it cannot be a real thing. (It's what makes naturopathy and homeopathy frauds but that's another post). God, however, is not testable by any known scientific method. You cannot see Him, hear Him or invoke any His direct reaction to any action of yours. Yes, there are those who would talk about "obvious" ways to see God's existence in nature but they can all be disproven in the end.
On the other hand, ontological arguments require a preceding belief in God to sustain their validity. For example, the argument of Anselm of Canterbury of the being of which no greater than can be conceived. In other words, some being in the universe has to be the most powerful, and that being in God.
Thus we return to the original problem: you cannot prove God exists without a shadow of a doubt, therefore you must believe it in the absence of that proof. Hence the difference between knowing and believing. Knowing requires a full set of corroborating facts, belief survives despite the absence of those facts.
This, then, is is why God puts the choice mentioned above before us. If one believes that God descended to Mount Sinai and gave us the Torah, both oral and written, then the rest of Judaism flows from that. If one doesn't, then the entire system becomes, chalilah, a falsehood that can be safely disregarded.
It is interesting to note that in spite of this important difference, our ancestors who physically stood at Mount Sinai were not simply left to rely on Moshe's assurances of the existence of God. After witnessed the ten plagues, the splitting of the sea, the daily supply of man and the well of Miriam, they reached a level where they observed the manifestation of God Himself during the giving of the Ten Commandments, as it says: "The Lord spoke with you face to face in the mount out of the midst of the fire." (Dev 5:5) And further: "And ye have known this day and placed it in your in thine heart that the Lord is God in Heaven above and the earth below, there is no other." For this generation, God was not a good idea or a likely concept. Each one of our forefathers was given undeniable proof of His existence and unmatched power. Why then do we have to rely on faith if knowledge was good enough for them?
The answer relies on an understanding of the nature of merit and the value of free will in Jewish thought. We are told that God not only created good but also evil. Why? To increase the merit of those who overcome their yetzer hara in order to perform the mitzvos. After all, an activity only has intrinsic moral value if performing the opposite was also an option that was consciously avoided because of a love of God and the desire to fulfill His will. Mindless obedience is without value in Judaism. Thus at the end of Devarim, when the people are preparing to enter Israel where they will be without the manifestation of the Shechinah and on their own, Moshe now reminds them that for the ages, being a Jew means consciously choosing to be one, not simply doing it by rote or because one isn't aware of other options.
And if this is true, then the verse this post opened with now makes sense from an entirely different perspective. Ever since Adam and Chavah ate from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, the essential characteristic of man has been "to know good and evil" (Bereshis 3:22). Now consider how this characteristic would fare in the presence of a visible manifestation of God. Presented with the Master of the Universe in even a fraction of His glory, who could think of evil? Who could rebel against his Holy Presence? Evil, wrongdoing, sin, would cease to be options for people and, indeed, our prophets repeatedly note that at the end of days when God gathers us in to our Land and rebuilds our Temple (speedily in our days, amen) that evil will cease to exist because the world will be filled with "the knowledge of the Lord". Not belief, but knowledge because God's presence will once again become verifiable.
So this is possibly what God meant, on some level, when he told Moshe Rabeinu that man could not see Him and live. Moshe Rabeinu achieved 49 levels of tahara and wisdom, but the 50th eluded him. In some miniscule way that we cannot understand, perfection was denied him. Thus he remained a mortal man. Had God shown him His Face, that tiny imperfection may have been denied. And what man has no evil in him? As the quote from Bereshis indicates, only one who isn't alive.
This would also help explain what Chazal meant when they say that our forefathers all died at Har Sinai when presented with the Ten Commandments, leading to God reviving them. Again, on the surface the story sounds ridiculous. God works to bring them out of Egypt and just as they reach the final purpose of the exodus, they drop dead? But with this understanding, it now becomes clearer. Faced with a vision of God Himself, evil itself could no longer be a part of them. Thus they shed their mortal coils as a result for no man can see God and continue to be a living man as a result of the experience.
In conclusion, it is not God's inability, chas v'shalom, that prevented Moshe Rabeinu, from seeing His Face but the essential nature of God and the perfection that surrounds Him. Our forefathers needed a human leader and for Moshe Rabeinu to rise above that limitation would have denied them that. Therefore God could not show Him His face so that His plans could continue on for us.
With this coming Rosh HaShanah, we begin our annual ten day journey towards repentance. We must all remember that sin is as much a part of creation as good deeds are but a part that was designed for us to overcome. No matter how we have fallen through the past year, God in His infinite mercy has given us this time to rise above our frail human limitations and restore ourselves to His image. May this coming year be one of meaning, health and happiness to all and may we merit to see the final end of our Redemption in the coming months.

Wednesday, 24 September 2008

On Rights and Responsiblities

Here in the Great White North we have an appendage to our constitution called the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Added on in 1981 when when the constitution was patriated from Great Britain, it was ostensibly designed to ensure that certain things, like those guaranteed in the First Amendment of the United States constitution. Amongst others, things like freedom of thought, religion, conscience and belief are written into the Charter which would make one think that they are an essential part of it.
Naturally, in typical Canadian fashion none of these freedoms are absolute. The Charter leads off by noting that it "guarantees the rights and freedoms set out in it subject only to such reasonable limits prescribed by law as can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society". What are reasonable limits? We are entitled to life, liberty and the security of person (let those Americans pursue happiness, we'll just sit around the TV feeling secure, eh?) but not security of property. Section 15 says we are all equal but that some, like Orwell warned, are more equal than others if necessary.
The net effect of the Charter has been to turn Canada into a society run by its Supreme Court. This was intentional, of course. Since the introduction of the Charter, any person who feels that he has been disadvantaged by another can turn and mount a "charter challenge" all the way to the top of the legal system. Amongst other things, concepts such as "sexual orientation" which are not mentioned in the Charter have been "read in". Don't like a law? Mount a charter challenge. Fired from work because you showed up late because you were out drinking the night before? Mount a charter challenge. And, having stacked the court with liberal justices, the prime minister who brought the Charter in, Pierre Trudeau, ensured that even if he was defeated in an election, his Liberal policies would continue to control the government since any conservative initiative could be shot down by the Supreme Court as in opposition to the Charter.
The result in Canada has been to create a society obessed with rights. Human rights, minority rights, equity rights, women's rights, some days it seems every identifiable group out there is screaming about its rights, usually for speical treatment, preferred opportunities or federal/provincial cash.
Back during my residency, one of my supervisors asked me what made Judaism different from Western society. Mulling this over, and considering what I have just written about the Charter, I responded simply: Western secular liberalism is about rights. Judaism is about responsibility.
Indeed, from my surveying of various blogs I think that the great divide between Torah observance and heterodoxy/atheism is the difference between responsibility and rights. The observant Jew generally looks at what his obligations are. Is this food kosher? Can I do this on Shabbos? Am I allowed to engage in a certain activity? The other side, however, shouts about rights. The right to disbelieve, the right to eat whatever one wants, the right to hang out with anyone one wants to.
Yet which is truly the better way? Naturally I'm biased in my answer but I would firmly posit that the path of responsibilty is the choice the intelligent and mature person should make. The path of rights, after all, is easy. Anyone who knows a demanding toddler can see that. After all, other than sophistication of language and complexity of excuses, what's the difference between a small child screaming about his right to be let out his room and an adult shouting that he has a right not to believe in God (chalilah)?
The responsible person puts God and others first. The rights person puts himself first. He hides that selfishness by stating the doctrine that everything is okay as long as you don't harm anyone else but fails to note two important points. The first is that this doctrine, as sensible as it sounds, remains a subjective doctrine in the absence of an objective, external authority, ie. God. Might make right, in a truly amoral atheist philosophy, is no worse or better than "Just leave me alone and I'll leave you alone". The second is that this pomposity generally takes place in affluent society where there is more than enough of the basic necessities of life to go around. It is easy to feign selflessness when one has enough for oneself. Far harder to do it when life throws one a curveball. Dick Dawkins might be a swell guy to hang out with because things are going well for him. If, chas v'shalom, bombs started falling, I'm reasonably sure that he, along with Chris Hitchens, would have no problem pushing little old ladies out of the way to make sure they got their seats in the nearest shelter.
Heterodox Judaism is little different. Whereas in Torah observance people accept that they have roles to play and defined responsibilities within the system, in Reform and Conservativism it's all about having what the other guy has. The woman who doesn't keep kosher or Shabbos will shout about her right to be counted to minyan, not that she intends to show up every morning, or even most mornings, to make sure a quorum is present.
Ultimately, it comes down to this: responsibility and selflessness vs. rights and selfishness. How can I help you vs. how can I help me. We live in a free society and furthermore, God has given us freedom of choice so either can be decided on. But I think, having accepted an objective external source of morality upon myself, there is a superior way and an inferior way. May God grant all of us the wisdom to choose the right one.

Monday, 22 September 2008

Offering Voters A Real Choice

Up here in the Great White North we are heading into another general election, something like the tenth in the last eleven years or at least that's what it feels like.
One of the problems with elections in Canada, like many other places in the Western world, is the low voter turnout. Part of it is ignorance - people don't know what the issues are or don't realize how important it is to participate. But for many, the reason is voter apathy. Unlike the United States and United Kingdom, for example, both major parties in this country are essentially identical to one another on the big ticket issues like foreign relations, economics and health care. The only real difference is that the Liberals want to raise government spending to decrease the amount of control we have over our lives by an obscene amount while the Conservatives only want to raise them by a very large amount.
In light of this, I have always thought that there should be an option on our ballots to reflect this foolishness. Many people spoil their ballots as a protest against our lack of real choice in government but that doesn't solve any of the problems. After all, a spoiled ballet doesn't say "I don't think any of you jerks are worth voting for". It merely implies you couldn't figure out that it's an "X" you have to put in the box, not a happy face.
Therefore, I suggest that all ballots should have a new line placed at the bottom under the list of candidates for the riding. This line should be labelled "None of the above".
What's more, "None of the above" should have legal meaning other than just being there to express protest.
Thus, if "None of the above" gets 40% or more of the vote in a riding, then the results would be thrown out and a byelection featuring an entirely different slate of candidates would have to be held, with "None of the above" remaining an option on this new ballot.
And if "None of the above" gets 40% of more of the national vote overall, then an entirely new election would have to be called with entirely new candidates, meaning the former prime minister, his cabinet and all the contenders would have to retire permanently from politics, at least at the federal level.
(And if "None of the above" gets over 50% we get to throw the bums into Hudson's Bay in January!)
Yes, there is a potential for the "None of the above" to bring about a great deal of chaos. The government might be paralyzed for weeks to months. Of course, that runs othe risk of people figuring out that this country would probably run better without them but still... Consider the alternative - political parties would suddenly realize that they now actually have to put forth quality platforms instead of the usual "Here's how I intend to bribe you to vote for me using your money". It would bring about a revolution (probably literally) in the way Canada is governed, and probably for the better.
Anyone in Ottawa listening? Probably not. And that's why we need "None of the above".

Running Away From Holiness

In a few weeks (has the summer whipped by already) we will read of the death of our greatest prophet and saint, Moshe Rabeinu, a"h. Considering his accomplishments, it's incredible to think that until this day we have no idea where his grave is. Some have suggested the reason for this is because God did not wish to make a holy site out of it where people would come to worship. As Rav Frand puts it: Rav Samson Rafael Hirsch explains that the Torah saw the potential that Moshe Rabbeinu's grave could become a deity. It is important for all of us to remember that when we visit the graves of the righteous, we do not pray TO the righteous people that they should bless us. We are forbidden to pray TO a human being – dead or alive! We visit the graves of Tzadikim to ask that they petition on our behalf to the Ribono shel Olam. We are not allowed to daven TO the Tzadik. The Torah saw the potential of such a thing happening with Moshe Rabbeinu. Moshe was a person of such monumental stature that the Torah feared lest his burial place would become a shrine. The Torah is also informing us that as monumental a person as Moshe Rabbeinu was, there needed to be a new leader once he died. No one could fill his shoes, but that was irrelevant. Life must go on. The Torah stresses this idea by emphasizing, "You will come to the Judge who will be present IN THOSE DAYS" [Devorim 17:9] and "You will come to the Priest who will be present IN THOSE DAYS." [Devorim 26:3] But at first glance, this reason seems insufficient. After all, we know the location of the graves of our three forefathers and scattered throughout Israel are the tombs of many other Biblical figures. What's more, it's quite customary for people to go to Kever Rachel to do just what Rav Frand says we should not do: pray to a dead tzadik for Heavenly intercession. So why can we know where Moshe Rabeinu's grave is? I would suggest there is one essential difference between Moshe Rabeinu's tomb and those of the forefathers and mothers is the location. Moshe Rabeinu's tomb is outside the land of Israel while the others are all inside. How does this make a difference? When we pray to dead tzadikim, we are not, chas v'shalom, investing them with any power to help us. We invoke their memory, and the recollection of their deeds, to try and increase our power of prayer and invoke mercy in our Heavenly Father to help us in times of trouble. God promised our forefathers that He would make their descendents into a great people and give them the holy land of Israel as an inheritance. The complete Jew is the one who lives a live of Torah observance in the Land of Israel and is then buried there. For Moshe Rabeinu, as great as his accomplishment and holiness were, this privilege was denied. He died incomplete, having never crossed the Yarden river. Our forefathers and mothers however, did live lives of Godly observance in the Land. There were, in that sense, complete. As a result, it seems to make sense that praying at the graves of our forefathers and mothers in Israel would be more effective. We approach people who were not only unrivalled in their personal holiness and appreciation of the Divine, but who also lived out what God had intended for them and promised to their descendents. In them we seen the potential we must live up to in order to fully appreciate what God offers us every moment. They are the perfect examples of what we must become while Moshe Rabeinu, by missing out on entering the Land, is not. Which makes it that much more bizarre to me when I read about Breslov chasidim who live in our Land rushing to leave it just at the most important time of the year to congregate in a God forsaken corner of the cursed Ukraine. Reading through the article, I realized the each one of the principles to be avoided when visiting the grave of a tzadik is being violated by these so-called pious ones. What kind of Judaism is this? Is the grave of Rebbe Nachman now more holy than God's chosen Land? Is spending the most important time of the year in a country that our fathers were slaughtered in only 60 years ago more important than listening to the sound of the shofar and feeling the intrinsic kedushah of Israel?

Sunday, 21 September 2008

Where Do the Children Pray?

With apologies to Cat Stevens, this is a question that the National Religious movement now seems to be asking itself. The linked article in Ynet just reinforces what has been developing over the last 3-4 years. Of course, it's not a new question and since the retreat from 'Aza, one that has to have been foreseen.
One must remember that the original purpose of the Mizrachi movement was to create a synthesis between Torah observance and Zionism, to create a philosophy that saw the return to Israel to create an authentic Jewish state as an expression of one's Judaism just like kashrus and Shabbos.
Yet for some reason this synthesis has never been particularly successful. Perhaps it's because the two groups that it draws from, the secular Zionists on one side and the Chareidim on the other, both believe there is no room for compromise in their particular beliefs. This lack of support, and the not infrequent campaigns to delegitimize the National Religious community, have been all too successful over the years.
Despite this the community muddled on, providing an example of what Judaism could be at its best, even if no one outside the movement seemed interested in learning from it.
But something happened after 1967 that led the movement astray. While I will agree that the retaking of Jewish land from our enemies was a historic miracle and gift from God, and that the resettling of that land which had been stolen from us in the 1948-49 war was and is still a major Jewish priority, the National Religious movement went further, making it the priority. And this has ultimately led to a decline in the movement which I hope and pray is not irreversible.
The major catalyst for the acceleration of the decline in recent years was Ariel Sharon's decision to cover up his impending corruption charges by expelling loyal and hard-working Israeli chalutzim from their rightfully owned lands in 'Aza and northern Shomron. Until that time the National Religious movement had seen the state of Israel as reshis tzimchas ge'ulaseinu, the first flowering of our redemption, and invested a religious importance to it. For that same state to then turn around and attack the National Religious movement was a tremendous blow. After all, the Chareidim had been warning for years that the state of Israel was iredeemably not reflective of any Jewish values (not that this stopped them from demanding as much money as they could from them) and that, given the chance, it would have no ethical difficulties betraying the National Religious community if it needed to. But when it actually happened, the shock throughout Mizrachi was unprecedented.
As a result, disengagement amongst the youth of the movement became an unavoidable consequence. One cannot raise children to pray for a state, believe in its holiness, and then not expect massive disillusionment when the state then spits in their collective faces. This happened as a result of a misunderstanding of the role the state of Israel plays in the unfolding of our final redemption.
We must remember the state of Israel, as miraculous as it is, is but one step towards God returning us to our loand with true sovereignty and a rebuilt Temple, may it happen speedily in our days. The state, however, is not the end-all and be-all of this process and to see it as such, to invest it with that importance, leads to delusions that can only be cruelly shattered.
Are the Chareidim right? I must emphatically answer: No!
The job of Mizrachi has never been to support a secular state of Israel, especially not the corrupt and barely competent one in existence today. Its mission was and is to work towards reaching out to our secular brothers and showing them that the true destiny of the Jewish people is to rebuild a Torah state in the land of Israel run on God's values of truth and justice. It is to influence and educate so that all our people will come to see God's hand in history is with us visibly today. If the National Religious movement wishes to regain any of its strength instead of withering into a fringe movement, then it must quickly change course - it must educate its children that they are not meant to be just chalutzim on hostile hilltops surrounded by our enemies but inspiring examples. Our Judaism is the real Judaism. Our Torah is the real Torah and the sooner we imbue our children with a sense of pride and an understanding of those two principles, the sooner we can move forward and allow the final redemption to continue to unfold.

Friday, 19 September 2008


As the last post noted, a noted talmid chacham who was asked by a Jewish congressman to head up a taskforce on child sexual abuse in the New York chareidi community was threatened and intimidated into abandoning this posting as well as all public life, for the safety of his family and himself.

Recently, some bloggers have taken upon themselves to write to The Jewish Press to express their outrage at this turn of events. This was precipitated by a strong anti-violence editorial in the paper. As noted on one prominent blog:

A group of Jewish bloggers with a wide array and readership have gotten together and composed a letter of support. I don’t know what our combined numbers are with respect to readership. But it wouldn’t surprise me if the majority of all Jews who read any blog at all, read at least one of our blogs regularly. The numbers must be huge!

This is just one area where blogs like this have the ability to accomplish something big – something that will benefit everyone. Something that will help protect the innocent and punish the guilty.

The following letter should be copied and pasted into an e-mail - and then mailed to the Jewish Press.Here is their e-mail address:letters@jewishpress.comThe goal is to flood them with this kind of e-mail. You can use your own wording but the essence of the letter should be that of the one below.We can really make a difference here. Maybe we can once and for all turn the intimidaters into the intimidated and rid the Torah world of people like this forever!

Here is the text of the letter:

To the Editorial Board of the Jewish Press:

We would like to express our horror at the intimidation and harassment of Dr. Benzion Twerski for his efforts to protect our children from molestation, and we salute you for your courage in publishing the Op-Ed column condemning the harassment of Dr. Twerski. We feel that exposing the actions of the kannoim is the first step in reversing their campaign of terror against members of our community.

We are fed up with the fact that the extremists in our community are allowed to threaten peaceful citizens with threats and we would like to see our police officers arrest and prosecute those who do so to the fullest extent of the law.

If there are any acts of intimidation or threats of violence to Dov Hikind's next appointee to the Child Safety committee; we will join and support a massive email drive to our elected officials – on the local, state and federal levels – to step in and protect those who are helping protect our children.

We respectfully ask you to run an editorial next week condemning this disgraceful act, acknowledging the number of these emails that were sent to you and calling on our leaders and rabbonim to publicly distance themselves from acts of intimidation and violence each and every time they occur with the same fervor reserved for other actions that contradict our holy Torah – and to declare the acts of violence as the sins they are.

Respectfully submitted,

Naturally, this letter has quickly started to make the rounds through the blogsphere. People like a good cause and this one is one of the best. But allow me to play the cynic. I don't think this is going to make a bit of difference. Here's what I posted at another blog:

This is a lost cause.Sorry, but it is.First of all, l'hatchilah, anyone who has a blog must use the internet so they're possul already.Secondly, if they disagree with these thugs who define right as anything they say it is, then they're wrong and don't have to be listened to.Thirdly, if any public pressure really does build, they'll just swipe some "gedolim" signature stamps and issue a kol koreh in support of themselves.Is anyone really going to risk being ostracized over this? When they knock on your door, are you really going to call the police and have them arrested? The only solution is to leave communities like this and go elsewhere to build normal, sane ones.

Maybe it's because I live in a small community but I am perplexed as to how this works so well. After all, if they were to threaten that my daughters couldn't get shidduchim in their community, I would think: who wants to marry creeps like you anyway? Why would I want to send my boy to a yeshiva that tolerates pedophiles? But people do. Is it because they don't know there are alternatives?I say again: those of you who are not yet absorbed into the weird culture need to get out and start again elsewhere. There's a huge Jewish world out there and options for people who are sick of the situation but want to continue to be observant.

Perhaps time has come for change. I know people are generally comfortable where they are. Intertia is a hard thing to overcome. Yes, there are downsides, but knowing where the kosher section is in the local supermarket and being integrated into the local social scene is a powerful magnetic force.

At some point, people need to open their eyes. The downsides outweigh the upsides when the only way to maintain one's status as a "good" Jew is to ignore the abominations in one's midst and knuckle under to the thugs who want to keep it that way.

I am sure God wants more from us than that.

Thursday, 18 September 2008

All the Wrong Priorities

Let's say you're a community leader with power, prestige and importance. You are presented with two problems afflicting your followers:
a) The whispers are getting louder and can't be ignored. Sexual abuse of young students in your school system by their trusted teachers is rampant. People on the outside know about it. Your denials are falling on deaf ears. But a Jew in the local secular government has enlisted the help of a respected talmid chacham to deal with this in as proactive a way as possible.
b) Some of your older activists don't like the "modern" music being played at simchas and listened to by the youth of the community. They don't like the drums, the saxophone or the electric guitar. Old fashioned stuff, like the kind they used to make 200 years ago is fine but this new techno-stuff? It's a toeivah!
You get to choose one issue to deal with. Which is it? Sexual abuse of minors or that old time rock 'n' roll?
If you're a sensible person, you choose (a) in a heartbeat. A community thrives on the health of its members, especially its young ones who represent the future. Sexual abuse is, in every way, the worst form of abuse, leaving incurable scars in the psyche of its victims for life. How many mitzvos in the Torah are there about protecting one's weaker brethren, punishing the wicked and keeping a safe society for all it's members?
If you're a Chareidi leader, on the other hand, you go for (b). You hire Rav Avi Shafran to condescendingly dismiss those who are making the effort you're not to bring the abuse situation to light. You hire other writers to publicize all the great things that the Chareidi community is doing to avoid discussion of the subject. You allow street thugs in black hats and yarmulkes to accost and harass the previously mentioned talmid chacham into pulling out of the government venture by making it clear to him that he is not only physically in danger if he cooperates with the authorities but that his family's life will be hell too. And then you go back to discussing the ban on post-1750's music, the parameters, how much trumpet is too much trumpet, are Spanish guitars too modern, etc.
Why? Why the obvious lack of contact with reality?
Probably because the Chareidi leadership, more than most other forms of leadership in the Jewish community, seems to be completely cut off from the rank and file that they effectively rule over. Accessed by a handful of self-righteous zealots, they hear about how modern music is contaminating the pure Torah atmosphere of their community. So they respond accordingly to protect their constituency, or so they think. And they know next to nothing of the sexual abuse in their yeshivos due to the efforts of those same zealots to discredit and destroy any who would try to make them public.
This is a recipe for a social disaster. May Heaven give them true understand so that such a thing does not happen.

Golda She's Not

Years ago, the premier of Ontario, one Mike Harris, decided that the city of Metropolitan Toronto, which consisted of six boroughs/sub-cities, could be run more efficiently if all the city departments were merged to create one new city of just-plain Toronto.
Naturally, every minicipal politician was against this. Nothing like the thought of losing one's place at the trough to bring out the noble knight in our elected representatives. So the fight began between the provincial and municipal goverments on whether or not Toronto would be amalgamated into one megacity.
One of the tactics used by the mayors was to demand a referendum on the issue. The provincial government showed no interest in this so they went ahead themselves. In a stunning display of unity, they choose six different ways to have elections in their personal fiefdoms. The borough of Scarborough choose the most hilarious way - ballots were printed in the free town paper distributed at corner stores and malls. Citizens were encouraged to cut the ballot out, fill in their vote and mail it to the city hall. Naturally, there was a request for each person not to do this more than once!
In the end, approximately 10% of the population of the future megacity voted, and not suprisingly the vote was 90% against amalgamation. So Mike Harris looked at this and said: We will obey the will of the people and call the process off. Right?
Wrong. He looked at it and said: 90% of the people didn't vote which means they don't care if I amalgamate Toronto or not, so this is an overwhelming majority supporting my plans. And he went ahead.
I was thinking of this when I read the article today about Tzipi Livni, the new leader of Kadima, and the two possible options she has now that she's won her party's primaries. The first, as detailed in the article, is to call an election. The second is to cobble together a new government that will either rest on the Arab parties for support or require that Shas and UTJ be bribed some more.
What's a girl to do?
Ah, but for the old days. Time was politicians put something above their own personal ambitions and desires. That something was the welfare of the country and all its citizens, not just the ones they agreed with. In 1967, with the country possibly facing its final days, Levi Eshkol brought the hated Menachem Begin and his Heirut party into the government. What Israel was going through required input from representatives of all parts of the Jewish population, not just the ideologically friendly ones.
In 1974, after the distasterous Yom Kippur war ended, Golda Meir resigned as prime minister even though her role in the was had been exonerated. She was the prime minister and the debable had happened on her watch. Therefore she was responsible and would pay the political price.
One is hard pressed to find such examples in today's government. The current leader, having resigned over a month ago, continues to meet with the enemies of the state and conduct surrender negotiations with them despite his current acknowledged status as a caretaker prime minister until the new one shows up for work. In mature governments, such behaviour would never be countenanced. Olmert's job is to keep the seat warm for his successor. It is certainly not to arrange deals that will cause irreperable damage to Israel, especially as he won't be around to take responsibility for them.
In this environment of arrogance, Tzipi Livni therefore has two choices. The honourable choise is to announce that she believes that a prime minister needs to be elected, not chosen by a miniscule portion of the populace. The Knesset could then dissolve and proper elections (or whatever passes for them in Israel) could be help.
Or she chould ignored that 0.5% of the population voted for her and announce that her majority win in the Kadima primaries gives her a right to become prime minister. However, it would show incredible contempt of democracy and Israeli society to do so.
So why do I have the bad feeling that this is exactly what she'll do?

Tuesday, 16 September 2008

Richard Wright, 1943-2008

Thus squashing any hopes for another Pink Floyd album in anyone's lifestyle.

From The New York Times:

Pink Floyd member Richard Wright dies at age 65

LONDON (AP) -- Richard Wright, a founding member of Pink Floyd, died Monday. He was 65.
The rock group's spokesman, Doug Wright, who's unrelated, said Wright died after a battle with cancer at his home in Britain. He said the band member's family did not want to give more details about his death.
Wright met Pink Floyd members Roger Waters and Nick Mason in college and joined their early band, Sigma 6. Along with the late Syd Barrett, the four formed Pink Floyd in 1965.
The group's jazz-infused rock and drug-laced multimedia ''happenings'' made them darlings of the London psychedelic scene, and their 1967 album, ''The Piper at the Gates of Dawn,'' was a hit.
In the early days of Pink Floyd, Wright, along with Barrett, was seen as the group's dominant musical force. The London-born musician and son of a biochemist wrote songs and played the keyboard.
''Rick's keyboards were an integral part of the Pink Floyd sound,'' said Joe Boyd, a prominent record producer who worked with Pink Floyd early in its career.
The band released a series of commercially and critically successful albums including 1973's ''The Dark Side of the Moon,'' which has sold more than 40 million copies. Wright wrote ''The Great Gig in the Sky'' and ''Us and Them'' for that album, and worked on the group's epic compositions such as ''Atom Heart Mother,'' ''Echoes'' and ''Shine on You Crazy Diamond.''
But tensions grew among Waters, Wright and fellow band member David Gilmour. The tensions came to a head during the making of ''The Wall'' when Waters insisted Wright be fired. As a result, Wright was relegated to the status of session musician on the tour of ''The Wall,'' and did not perform on Pink Floyd's 1983 album, ''The Final Cut.''
Wright formed a new band Zee with Dave Harris from the band Fashion, and released one album, ''Identity,'' with Atlantic Records.
Waters left Pink Floyd in 1985 and Wright began recording with Mason and Gilmour again, releasing the albums ''The Division Bell'' and ''A Momentary Lapse of Reason'' as Pink Floyd. Wright also released the solo albums ''Wet Dream'' (1978) and ''Broken China'' (1996).
In July 2005, Wright, Waters, Mason and Gilmour reunited to perform at the ''Live 8'' charity concert in London -- the first time in 25 years they had been onstage together.
Wright also worked on Gilmour's solo projects, most recently playing on the 2006 album ''On an Island'' and the accompanying world tour.
Gilmour paid tribute to Wright on Monday, saying his input was often forgotten.
''He was gentle, unassuming and private but his soulful voice and playing were vital, magical components of our most recognized Pink Floyd sound,'' he said. ''I have never played with anyone quite like him.''

Sunday, 14 September 2008

Putting the Modern into Modern Orthodoxy

Whenever someone suggests that Modern Orthodoxy needs to do a better job defining itself and setting standards for what is considers acceptable what it does not, there's always a chorus in the background of MO's who sit on the movement's left wing somewhere just to the right of Conservatism. The line is always the same: You want to move Modern Orthodoxy to the right and make them just like the Chareidim.
However, as I've written before, remaining in the middle of the religious spectrum between the Chareidim on the religious right and the Reform/Conservatives on the secular left is a very trick job that Modern Orthodoxy hasn't done well at all. In any religious movement, the only way to maintain moderation is to prevent growth and development of that movement's philosophy. Modern Orthodoxy has indeed chosen this path over the last few decades, which explains why it is atrophying and hemorrhaging members both to the right and left.
Until now, Yeshiva University has represented the best and brightest of the Modern Orthodox community. Certainly it has had much scorn heaped upon it by the Chareidim but one would like to think that this is because it is able to produce competent, learned Jewish scholar who live the Torah u'Madda lifestyle without compromising their Jewish souls, something which Chareidi philosophy denies is possible. Yes, there are other institutions such as Yeshiva Chovevei Torah and Shira Chadasha in Israel which push the Modern at the expense of Orthodox in their philosophies but they have generally been seen as on the fringe of Modern Orthodoxy, not representative of its mainstream.
But on the other hand, I've always been troubled by that mainstream. One of the greatest scholars at YU is Rav Normann Lamm. His book, Torah Umadda is one of the definitive books on the subject. However, I always had one problem with it. Nowhere on the title page of the book will one find Lamm's most significant title: Rav, or Rabbi. Dr? Yes, it's there. But for some reason, "Rav" didn't get onto the cover. Now I may be quibbling with a small detail, but if a person is trying to define a philsophy for the Jewish people, and he's doing it from a religious perspective and as a religious authority, shouldn't that title be displayed prominently? Or is there a subliminal suggestion in play here: You should read this book because it's good. The fact that a rabbi wrote it is irrelevant. A layperson could just as easily have done this.
Now, however, YU has taken a definitive step towards the YCT end of the spectrum. As detailed in The Jerusalem Post, as well as countless other media sources and blogs, YU employs a "transgendered" professor, one Jay/Joy Ladin.
The liberal response to this is "so what?" After all, Ladin isn't teaching Torah subject but rather English poetry (no snickering please). Certainly anyone who has gone to a yeshiva high school with a secular curriculum has been taught by non-Jewish teachers or even Jewish teachers who are non-0bservant. As long as Ladin is teaching on the secular side of YU, what's the big deal?
Perhaps it's Ladin's complete lack of comprehension of basic Jewish values, as detailed in the article:
In a blog posting last year on the Web site of Jewish Mosaic, a center for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Jews, Ladin responded to a rabbi's essay about the theme of liberation in the Pessah Haggada, "As a currently transitioning practicing Jew who has inwardly ached each Pessah knowing that I am celebrating freedom while embracing the slavery of my skin, I am so grateful for this dvar Torah."
This is, for lack of a better word, abominable. Pesach is about the liberation of Jews from an immoral culture so they could become a Godly one. God then gave us, as a direct continuation of that Pesach experience, His Holy and perfect Torah which details, amongst other things, laws against what Ladin does on a daily basis. For example, cross-dressing:
The New York Post reported that Ladin wrote in the prologue of her unfinished memoir, Inside Out: Confessions of a Woman Caught in the Act of Becoming, that she had taken hormones to develop breasts and feminize her appearance but had not undergone surgical sex-reassignment procedures
In other words, under that dress is a male organ. In a way, this is no different than if Ladin were to walk into the YU cafeteria every day messily eating a bacon double cheese burger. It shows complete contempt for the Jewish values that YU is supposed to be inculcating its students with.
And in a way, it's even worse because sexual morality is one of the underpinnings of our faith. For a professor in a religious Jewish institution to openly and proudly embrace homosexuality and cross-dressing makes a mockery of that institution's values.
As Rav Moshe Tendler mentions in the article:
Rabbi Moshe Tendler, an Orthodox rabbi who is a senior dean at Yeshiva's rabbinical school, said Jewish law does not tolerate an individual's physical alteration for any reason.
"This individual wants the rest of the world to accept his decision that he is now her and should be recognized as female, and I think that is a relatively unfair request," Tendler said.
"I think a teacher that behaves in so aberrant a way must also impinge on the moral conscience of the student body," said Tendler, who is also a professor of biology and medical ethics at the
university. "They become less judgmental in judging him, but I believe we should reserve that right to be judgmental when someone violates the basic tenets of society."
Jay Ladin has a right to live his life however he wants. But common decency would suggest that he find a different place of employment instead of insisting that the Modern in Modern Orthodoxy at YU must accomodate him and his desires. If not, those supporters of YU who pu the Orthodox before the Modern in their indentities should make their views known to the university's administration the next time calls for donations are made.
As for YU, the institution has to make a choice - is it Modern with a small helping of Orthodoxy or is it Orthodox with some input from Modernity? And the wrong choice might wind up retroactively justifying all the scorn the Chareidi community has had for the school from the beginning.

Who or What is Amalek

Although it sometimes appears, at least on a cursory reading, that the arrangement of the various laws in Sefer Devarim is completely random, with in-depth study and an understanding of the text, various connections appear, tying together otherwise disparate subjects to teach a greater moral or spiritual lesson.
Such is the case with the final three mitzvos in this parashah. They are, in order:
"When men strive together one with another, and the wife of the one draweth near to deliver her husband out of the hand of him that smiteth him, and putteth forth her hand, and taketh him by the secrets; then thou shalt cut off her hand, thine eye shall have no pity." (25:11-12)
"Thou shalt not have in thy bag diverse weights, a great and a small. Thou shalt not have in the house diverse measures, a great and a small. A perfect and just weight shalt thou have; that thy days may be long upon the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee. For all that do such things, even all that do unrighteously, are an abomination to the Lord thy God." (25:13-16)
"Remember what Amalek did until thee by the way as ye came forth out of Egypt; how he met thee by the way, and smote the hindmost of thee, all that were enfeebled in thy rear, when thou wast faint and weary; and he feared not God. Therefore it shall be, when the Lord thy God hath given thee rest from all thine enemies round about, in the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee for an inheritance to possess it, that thou shalt blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under Heaven; thou shalt not forget." (15:17-19)
Now what do these three mitzvos have in common with each other? At first glance, nothing. One is about physical assault, the second about business ethics and the third a call to genocide. However, if one examines the details of each mitzvah closely, a pattern does emerge.
In the first case, the Torah tells us that a woman seeking to save her husband from being beaten up is not allowed to simply grab the assailants scrotum and give it a good yank. Now Chazal, on analyzing this law, note that there is one specific limitation to it: she must have had another way to save her husband but chose instead to assault the man's groin. If the only option she had was to kick him in the crotch, then the law does not apply. Rav Shimshon Rafael Hirsch, in his commentary on the verse, notes that the reason for this is that the underlying reason for the stiff penalty, which incidentally means monetary compensation and not real amputation, is because the woman elected to save her husband in a way that completely humiliated his assailant. And lest one think that this is acceptable, the Torah precedes this law with the one about yibum where the yevamah is indeed enjoined to humiliate her brother-in-law when he declines to marry her. There she is allowed to, but only because the Torah makes an exception. In this case, although she needs to save her husband, she cannot ignore the concept of human dignity in doing do.
The second mitzvah, that of just measures, also carries a ssecond meaning with it. On the surface the law makes obvious sense. Don't cheat your fellow. Simple, yes? Many commentaries take it further that in all aspect of business a Jew must keep to the highest ethical standard. After all, the Torah doesn't say "have fair weights" but calls them just and perfect. But consider that despite this seeming simplicity, this law is quite often ignored in practice. After all, who other that you knows if you're using loaded weights? Many otherwise frum people, some of them prominent religious figures, have no trouble taking shortcuts with the system. The same person who will not touch a piece of food that isn't double-glatt mehadrin min mehadrin might have no problem getting yeshivah students to try and smuggle drugs into a foreign country.
The psychology behind this is fascinating but not new. The gemara relates a story about Rabban Yochanan ben Zakai who, on his deathbed, was asked for a blessing by his students. "May your fear of God be as great as your fear of man," he offered. "Not more?" they asked. "People always think about sinning and look around to make sure no one can see them," he explained, "and they seem to forget that God is always watching."
Thus the first mitzvah, not humiliating one's fellow deals with the Torah's expectations for us in the category of ben adam l'chavero. The second mitzvah, honesty in business, deals with the category of ben adam l'Makom. Your fellow may never discover you cheated him but God knows.
And together, these two interpretations tie into Amalek. Now, for those who believe the Torah is calling for genocide, one must understand that this particular interpretation of the mitzvah is impossible to fulfill nowadays. Chazal tell us that when Sancheriv conquered the Middle East, he displaced all the nations and nowadays no one can be sure what nation he originally came from. Even someone claiming to be from the land of Amalek would not be considered an Amaleki for the purposes of this mitzvah.
Yet this mitzvah, which we still read on Shabbos Zachor every year, must still have some relevant use for us today. Why would we continue to discuss our desire to destroy a nation which no longer exists?
One must therefore understand that Amalek is no longer a nation in particular but rather the values that this nation represented. And what are those values? In this short paragraph, the Torah gives us two: (1) how he met thee by the way, and smote the hindmost of thee, all that were enfeebled in thy rear, when thou wast faint and weary; (2) and he feared not God.
Now the connection to the preceding two mitzvos is clear. The first quality of Amalek parallels the mitzvah of not humiliating one's fellow. The second concerns fear of God. Amalek represents the person, nation or culture that denies the holiness intrinsic in every human being as well as the presence and benificence of God in our lives. It is our duty as Jews to remove these characteristics from the world. Not through slaughtering those who embrace them but by working to create a society in which those values have no place. As the Gemara tells us, we should always pray that sin disappears from the world, not the sinners themselves for through their teshuvah we bring the world one step closer to its final redemption.

No Work Allowed

A recent column by Rav Yonasan Rosenblum sent many people around the blogsphere into a frenzy. The article focused on the issue of poverty which is endemic in the Chareidi community, especially in Israel. As usual, Rav Rosenblum approached the issue in a reasonable and organized fashion. But then came the part of the article where he suggested potential solutions:
THREE SOLUTIONS ARE commonly offered to the destructive poverty in the Israeli chareidi community (though the problem is hardly limited to Israel): greater government support; increased contributions from rich Jews abroad; and adopting a simpler lifestyle. Each is a thin reed upon which to pin hopes for a solution.
Now, apparently within minutes of this article appearing at Cross Currents, dozens of people had mailed in a reply that sounded like this one from "Seriously":
How can you possibly say you want to talk seriously about poverty and not even mention the only real solution: WORKING FOR A LIVING. There is no other solution.
Other blogs also picked up on this and mentioned the obvious. In each case, the assumption was that Rav Rosenblum didn't think of this solution or for some bizarre reason neglected to mention it.
However, given his track record, I don't think Rav Rosenblum missed the idea that working for a living would cure many of the ills facing the Chareidim right now. In contrast, I don't think that he could mention it because for the Israeli Chareidi community, working is not an option.
Consider the efforts of the last two generations of Chareidim in Israel to create a community composed of Torah learning to the exclusion of all else, ostensibly as an attempt to rebuild the destroyed Torah communities of pre-war Europe. Much of this enterprise has been based on the trust that Chareidim have for their "gedolim". This trust and faith, in turn, is based on a concept called "Daas Torah" which assumes that said gedolim, because of their knowledge and piety, just happen to know exactly what God wants us to do whenever a new situation arises. Forget halachic interaction, using the sources and codes in an innovative fashion. Nowadays, like the Urim v'Tumim of old, the Chareidi leadership can, using Daas Torah, tell you exactly what should be done. And for 60 years they have been saying the same thing: learn, don't earn.
Now imagine the bind that the community is in. A huge number of Chareidim are desperately poor. As Rav Rosenblum notes in his article, the deleterious effects of poverty are causing many othewise fine Jewish souls to undergo terrible crises of conscience. Yet the response from their leadership can only be: better to remain poor and pure in Torah than to have some material relief in This World which can only cost you in the World to Come.
And why? Because to suddenly announce: Okay guys, guess what? All that stuff we've been saying for decades about how evil working is? Turns out it's all okay. Go get jobs, support your families. God will still love you - would mean that their previous attitude was wrong.
And that can never happen. Thus, it isn't that Rav Rosenblum failed to think of working as a solution to the problem of Chareidi poverty. It's that he can't mention it because allowing that as an option would threaten the very identity of that Chareidi community.

Still Ignoring Reality

The horror that is the Rubashkin meat empire has been well documented on other blogs and it is not my intention to add to the detailed work others have already done and continue to do.
My interest is in the response of the Orthodox Jewish community to the ongoing revelations coming out of Postville, Iowa.
Now, it comes as no surprise that the leading official Orthodox organzations, the OU and the Agudah have chosen a "circle the wagons" strategy to deal with the problem. Their approach is simple. First, deny there's a problem. When confronted with irrefutable evidence that there is a problem, downplay the facts and emphasize that there are all allegations, not convictions. Supervision is given to ensure the meat is kosher, not that working conditions meet a certain standard. When confronted with the sheer scale of the number of allegations, then dismiss critics as loshon haro mongers interested in bad mouthing the Rubashkins.
Chief amongst the culprits is the head of public relations at the Agudah, Rav Avi Shafran. Usually a competent writer, Rav Shafran seems to be using this issue to demonstrate his complete inability to understand the power of the Internet to obtain news and information from various sources. In the old days, it was quite easy for spin doctors to reassure people who had heard bad news, usually third hand from distant sources with no way to verify the truth. And yes, there is as much unreliable information circulating through the Web as there is veriable facts. But one thing is clear: something is very wrong in the Rubashkin's plant. Yet Rav Shafran continues to deny that the problems are real.
In many ways, his continued protests remind me of Mikhail Gorbachev's denial that anything had gone wrong at the Chernobyl plant. Back in the mid 1980's, he was able to keep that farce going for a few days until the U.S. was able to confirm the extent of the tragedy. Rav Shafran clearly appears to be using Gorby's playbook for handling the Rubashkin affair. Unfortunately, the world has changed around him.
His latest missive is especially odious. The Conservatives, in an attempt to find someething, anything, to rally their members around, have developed something called the Hechsher Tzedek(HT). It is a unique form of supervision that will ensure that any kosher products under its approval are produced in a "socially responsible" fashion. This presumable means that working conditions, animal conditions and other social issues will be considered before a product can be awarded the HT.
Now, although this sounds like a great idea, it really isn't. After all, something like 95% of Conservatives don't keep kosher. Remember that the HT will only be offered to products that are already under genuine kosher supervision. If 95% of their membership isn't even looking for real hechshers, how will adding the HT symbol next to the OU or COR make a difference?
What's more, it wouldn't make sense economically. Most companies that pay for kosher supervision do it because they recognize that having their product be kosher increases their potential market. Who would pay for the HT considering that it would increase sales in a given product in only a minimal fashion?
Finally, as Rav Shafran points out, the Conservative movement is extremely susceptible to the idiocies of political correctness. While the HT is, in theory, a noble idea, in practice it will quickly be subverted and only offered to those products that meet secular liberal standards, eg. unions, specific types of drug plans, etc. For all these reasons, the HT will probably not succeed.
But that's not good enough for Rav Shafran. One can almost hear the condescension in his voice in the article:
Needless to say, a kashrus certifier certainly has a right, and in many cases a responsibility, to ensure that a food-producing company or food-service establishment seeking its certification hew not only to the laws of kashrus but to other requirements of halacha. Thus, a bakery that is open on Shabbos, a slaughterhouse that violates the dictates of tza’ar ba’alei chayim, or a restaurant where tzenius is lacking would all be rightfully subject to a machshir’s insistence that the business bring itself within the bounds of halacha.
Really? But whenever Rav Shafran and his cohorts have been confronted with evidence of animal and worker abuse in Postville, the response has always been the same: a hechsher is only about kashrut, not about other thigns like working conditions.
The proposed “ethical” certification, in fact, would require or favor (and, puzzlingly, only for producers of kosher food, not any other businesses) things that the law does not require
What could be so puzzling to Rav Shafran about the HT only be applied to kosher food? One can only imagine what he would write if they were prepared to offer it to non-kosher foods as well. The HT, again, is about offering the kosher consumer an "ethical" choice, not about changing the American food industry. (Imagine the ad: Bob's Pork and Beans! Now ethically approved by the Rabbinical Assembly!)
As he did on several occasions, Rav Shafran would like us to return to the days when the friendly voice on the radio reassured us that we could trust the leadership of the community and abandon any need to think for ourselves. But the genie is out of the bottle. One can only hope Rav Shafran will realize this before he shreds the rest of his credibility on the harsh edges of the blogsphere.