Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Wednesday 31 December 2008

New Blog

Infrequent commenter, Dr Mike, has just opened up his own blog. Although he wants to keep it low key, I've never been very good at listening so here's the link if you're interested

Working Hard for the Money

A couple of people have asked me: "Lord Ironheart, why hast thou not commented on the Bernie Madoff debacle on thine blog?" (People I know talk funny. What can you do? They're good with broadswords though)
My first answer was: that's not my blog's purpose. I blog to spread my opinion, challenge non-believers and spread the Torah of the Navonim (well, okay, still only one paid member but I'm just saying...). Financial scandals, even Jewish ones, aren't exactly my purview.
Not only that, but what could I possibly add to the countless news items and blogposts that have already come out on the subject?
I'm outraged? Take a number. I'm worried that this will lead to a surge of anti-Semitism in the U.S.? Me and countless genuine Jewish leaders.
But upon thinking about it further, I have one thought to add:
There are three ways to make a parnassah in this world. One can sit and do nothing/learn all day and live off of a rich aidem or tzedakah. One could wheel and deal in high finance and stocks, hoping for that big easy payoff. Or one could work hard every day for a living, make a decent income and invest wisely based on one's timeframe to retirement.
Too many Jews prefer the first option. And because they were largely reliant on those Jews who prefered the second option, the financial disaster that Bernie Madoff and his ilk caused has wreaked havoc far out of proportion to what it should have. Rich Jews, poor Jews, frum and non-frum, have all been affected.
But not people from the final option. Those with a stable income, who live within their means, who might secretly wish for the big stock tip and comfortable villa in Kfar Shemaryahu but who would never actually take the risk because it's not worth it, are nearly completely unaffected by the recent stock market crash and financial scandals.
Yes, stock portfolios have dropped but because they're conservative investments they haven't fallen nearly as much as the markets. Yes, the overall worth of the portfolio is diminished but given the reliable monthly paycheque and sustainable budget, it can be observed for now.
And in the end, this is what people will hopefully learn from the Crash of '08: there is no substitute for success in This World to working hard for a living, staying within one's means and ignoring the hype about keeping up with the Jonesteins.

Too Many Happy Endings

One of the problems with any stories or movies about the Holocaust is that they tend to disproportionately focus on survivors. Well, no wonder. The dead aren't in any position to tell their tales, the survivors are never anxious to discuss their lost loved ones because of the pain it brings and no one wants to pay twelve dollars and change to watch a movie in which everyone dies and no one has a happy or triumphant outcome.
As a result, we get many fine movies and TV shoes like Schindler's List, The Piano, Hogan's Heroes, and others, but we also get a very different impression than one we might desire: how bad could the Holocaust have been? Look at the all the people who survived!
What's worse, however, is when people make up stories about miracles and heartwarming events that never happened, as a way of drawing attention to themselves or perhaps simply to ease the bitterness of the memories of their suffering.
Such is the problem with An Angel At The Fence, an almost published Holocaust memoir by a survivor of the Buchenwald concentration camp, Herman Rosenblat. According to early releases about the story:
His young angel hid behind a tree with an apple underneath her warm coat.
And that's where the fairy-tale love story of Herman and Roma Rosenblat began more than half a century ago, across a barbed-wire fence of a Nazi concentration camp.
The Holocaust survivors left their North Miami Beach, Fla., home earlier this month to retell their remarkable tale to a New York television audience, not knowing the latest chapter was about to unfold.
A rabbi watching the show realized the retired 76-year-old electrician missed his bar mitzvah because he was a prisoner when he was 13. So. on Thursday, Herman Rosenblat underwent his long-overdue rite of passage into adulthood at a Long Island temple.
And while news cameras captured the moment, it was the Rosenblats' love sojourn that captured everyone's hearts, said Rabbi Anchelle Perl of the Congregation Beth Sholom Chabad in Mineola, N.Y.
"Everyone who was here was touched. You can really see the history of their lives, such unassuming people," Perl said Friday.
Herman Rosenblat, reached by phone on Friday at his daughter's home in Manhasset, N.Y., said he plans to add the bar mitzvah into the book he has been writing for years.
The tale began in Schlieben, a German concentration camp, where the two Polish children were shipped separately after their families were taken prisoner during World War II.
Herman Rosenblat spent his teen years there carrying bodies from gas chambers into a crematorium.
One cold evening in 1942, after completing his macabre work for the day, Rosenblat said he noticed a little girl hiding behind a tree across a barbed-wire fence. He called to her, but she didn't respond. He called out to her again, this time in Polish.
When she responded, he asked if she had anything to eat. From underneath her brown ragged coat, the girl tossed him an apple and a clump of bread. The scene would repeat itself every evening for the next six months, Rosenblat said.
"I never really noticed her much back then. I was only interested in the food," he recalled.
The meetings ended when Rosenblat learned he was being transferred to a different camp. He told the girl, who appeared to be 9 and whose name he never learned, not to return.
"After that, I never thought about her again," he said.
Freed by the Russians, Rosenblat immigrated to New York and joined the U.S. Army in 1951.
After his service, he began taking night classes to learn to be an electrician. A classmate later set him up on a blind date, but Rosenblat was reluctant to go.
"A blind date? Never! You never know who you are going to meet," Rosenblat recalled saying.
But his friend insisted, saying the woman was Polish like him, and Rosenblat eventually agreed. He "had a great time" and as the couple was returning home from dancing, they began to share their experiences.
"She said she used to throw apples and bread to a little boy in a concentration camp," said Rosenblat. "And as she spoke, I thought, 'That's me!' She was the little girl!"
So, he proposed in the car. She thought he was crazy.
They married six months later, almost 15 years after they exchanged goodbyes through the fence.
Rosenblat retired in 1992 after he was shot during a robbery at his television repair shop in New York.
Once settled in South Florida and with nothing much else to do, Rosenblat began writing his book, "The Fence." The couple's story caught the attention of a television news producer in New York. The two traveled to the Big Apple in early February to be interviewed for a Valentine's Day story.
"When I saw the story, I was thinking, this poor man needs a bar mitzvah," Perl said.
Rosenblat said he told the dozens gathered at the ceremony that his horrible childhood led him to lose his faith.
But he regained it years later when he remembered that his mother – who was killed in a concentration camp in 1942 – came to him in a childhood dream and told him she would one day send an angel for him.
"Roma," he said. "My angel is Roma."

A wonderful tale with a wonderful ending. There's only one problem with it: it's not true.
Even in this cursory telling, the story is capable of inducing peals of laughter in anyone half-acquainted with the details of the Holocaust. It aroused the suspicions of a Holocaust scholar, Michigan State University’s Kenneth Waltzer, who double-checked for the obvious and established that there could be no possible means of approaching the wire at Buchenwald safely from either side. (The German government’s reasons for keeping people away from the outside of the fence were, after all, at least as strong as their reasons for keeping prisoners away from the inside.) Moreover, the fabrication not only diminishes the cruelty and effectiveness of the Nazi forced-labour regime, but manages to minimize the wartime suffering of German civilians by implicitly suggesting that apples were lying around in such casual abundance (during an unforgettably brutal winter, no less) that 200 of them would not be missed. The Angel at the Fence fiasco has raised odd, futile questions about the standard of fact-checking applied to non-fiction books. Perhaps the general public doesn’t realize that, by and large, there is no fact-checking of non-fiction books. There has never been any procedural guarantee of their veracity, and counting on the existence of one would be expensive and foolish. Our best defences against fabulators are personal skepticism, the scrutiny of an informed public and the judgment of time.
The more frightening part of this affair is just how close an incredibly implausible fish story could come to being published as fact by one of the most esteemed entities in the book world. One can only be grateful that Waltzer was still able to ring up many other Buchenwald survivors and try Rosenblat’s fable out on them; soon enough, such a strong litmus test will no longer be part of any scholar’s investigative apparatus.
Rosenblat’s lies were caught before they reached bookstore shelves. This suggests that the implied standard of rigour that Holocaust stories face in the marketplace is higher than that faced by other material, not lower. Still, the Holocaust deniers and trivializers will hold this affair up as proof that today’s torrent of Holocaust literature is in the nature of a racket, and unfortunately, they have a tiny kernel of truth on their side. There is so much money to be made in using the Holocaust as a prefabricated backdrop for heart-tugging tragicomic tableaux that the temptation has proven irresistible several times, both to phony memoirists and bandwagon-riding movie makers. Some sort of moratorium, or perhaps even just a rule of taste that forbids turning the wreckage of a continent into cheap kitsch, would seem to be in order.

I would not, chas v'shalom, ever want to minimize Rosenblat's suffering during the War. That he even continued to identify as a Jew, albeit a non-practising one, is a testament to inner strength and courage. But the damage he has done, as Colby Cosh noted above, is incalculable. If he made up stories about his "angel", how can we believe the rest? And even if we can pove the worst crimes, what about all the individual stories of personal salvation? How many of them are now cast into doubt?
This has been a pet peeve of mine for some time now, as those who know me well can vouch. I have always been especially disturbed by Holocaust revisionism when it comes from the frum velt. The Holocaust was a trying time and people who were undoubtedly scrupulous in their observance of mitzvos before and after the war did have to spend several years scraping for survival by whatever means possible. If that meant eating on Yom Kippur, working on Shabbos and having stale bread with their ration of soup during Pesach, what alternative did they have? Survival was the priority. Keeping kosher and Shabbos got you killed.
For some, however, this is too troubling. A tzadik must be a tzadik always, even under the worst conditions. This is typified by the hagiographical treatment of the Klausenberger Rebbe, zt"l, for example:
On March 19, 1944 the Germans invaded Hungary and Gestapo chief Adolf Eichmann immediately organized the round-up, ghettoization, and deportation of Hungarian Jews to Auschwitz. The Klausenberg ghetto was established on May 1, 1944, and was liquidated via six transports to Auschwitz between late May and early June. Knowing that the Gestapo targeted community leaders first, the Rebbe hid in an open grave in a cemetery for several weeks. He then fled to the town of Banya, where he was conscripted into a forced-labor camp along with 5000 other Hungarian Jews. Though hunger was not a problem here—the barbed-wire enclosure had a back exit through which Jews could buy bread and milk from non-Jews—the Hungarian soldiers constantly badgered and searched inmates for their valuables. The Rebbe was forced to shave his beard, but he did not lose his composure or faith in God. He continued to conduct prayer services and even a Shabbat tisch.
In Auschwitz, Halberstam seemed to live in another world. The bits of food that other prisoners hungered for and fought over were, in the Rebbe's eyes, less important than their use for mitzvot. He decided early on to try to keep every Torah commandment he could, and even the minhagim that he had learned from his forefathers. Thus, he would often choose to use the bit of water he had to wash his hands for prayer, rather than to wash his hands to eat. He never touched non-kosher food and refused to eat food cooked in a non-kosher pot. Often he went hungry. His staunch faith gave spiritual strength to many. He assured his fellow inmates that God was with them in the valley of death, and would not abandon them.
In 1944, a year after the
Warsaw Ghetto uprising, Halberstam was assigned to a special labor detail to clear out the ruined ghetto. He and 6000 other prisoners searched for valuables and demolished the ruins by hand and with rudimentary tools so that the Nazis could sell the bricks and steel to Polish contractors. As they beheld skeletons piled in the street, and uncovered bunkers in which Jews had died by gas or shooting, the Hungarian prisoners realized for the first time the extent of the annihilation of European Jewry.
This time the Rebbe did not shave his beard, which is considered a mark of holiness for Hasidim. He wrapped his beard and face in a handkerchief, pretending he had a toothache. This charade was accompanied by the fact that he cried all day as he worked, praying and communing with God.

What was that about peals of laughter? I ran many of these details by my father, may he live to 120. My father suffered under Hitler's wrath from the time the Nazis, y"sh, invaded Poland until their defeat at the end of the war. He was in several concentration camps, including Auschwitz. He rolled his eyes in disbelief when I told him the following details.
Never ate non-kosher food? My father remembers people like that. They died within a week of arriving in their first camp from starvation. Perhaps the Rebbe had mehadrin or did he have to make do with just plain glatt? Prayer services? The Germans supervised almost every waking moment. It was impossible. And besides, did the Rebbe have both Rashi and Rabbeinu Tam tefillin? He held tischen? Ah, but the German guards probably attended and sang merrily along with the zemiros.
For me, stories like this are even more damaging that An Angel at the Fence. They create a preternatural holiness that creates disdain for the ordinary Jew who survived so much horror during the Shoah. Your father didn't keep kosher? Well, the Klausenberger Rebbe did. Your father worked on Shabbos? Tsk, not the Rebbe!
The mark of a surviving observant Jew is that, after living through the worst period of hester panim since the destruction of our Temple (may it be speedily rebuilt), he returned to his faith. The real greatness of the Klausenberger Rebbe is that he survived the Holocaust with faith, knowlege and ambition intact and went about rebuilding what was lost with the same fervour that he had been raised with. Stories that simply could not have happened, however, cheapen this triumph.
In the end, maybe we should start reminding people not of the survivors but of the dead. True, theirs are not happy stories and their final days and months are not uplifting and inspiring. But when the Holocaust become a source of chizuk like that?

Stating the Obvious and Getting in Trouble for It

When I first saw the headline: Rabbis probed for alleged incitement, I thought: great, someone called for Olmert to be killed again.
But no, it had nothing to do with that (thank God):
Deputy Attorney General Shai Nitzan instructed the police to launch an investigation against several prominent rabbis in the Orthodox community on suspicion of incitement.
Tuesday's decision followed petition filed by the Israel Religious Action Center (IRAC) back in March. The IRAC filed its petition following several media reports suggesting Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky decreed that Jews were no longer allowed to hire Arab laborers.
Rabbi Lior rules Jews must not employ or rent houses to Arabs, following murderous terror attack at Mercaz Harav yeshiva
The rabbi issued the alleged ordinance following the
deadly attack on Mercaz Harav rabbinical seminary in Jerusalem
Uh huh. And what is so terrible about that? I'm not suggesting that the Arab population in Israel be disenfranchised or excluded from full participation in democratic society. But consider:
1) Their leaders no longer call their community Israeli Arabs. They are now all so-called Palestinians.
2) When Israel is attacked by the Arab enemy, they scream for joy and dance on their rooftops. (Doesn't stop them from demanding UJA money when their houses are damaged by their Arab brethren though)
3) When Israel deigns to defend itself from Arab attacks, they protest and riot in the streets.
At what point does the Jewish leadership say to the Arab Israeli leadership: either you're loyal to this country or get out?

Reluctant Warriors

There was a time when life seemed much clearer and simpler. The Arabs openly rejected any thought of peace with Israel or even negotiations on recognition of the State. The world was openly hostile to Israel defending itself, condemning it whenever it refused to accept a terrorist or military attack from the Arab enemy. The leaders of Israel, as divided reigiously, philosophically and politically as they were, recognized that the country, as a Jewish state, had no real friends and had to put its interests and those of its citizens first.
Since the Oslo Discord, however, things have become much murkier. Following the advice of Nicolae Ceausescus, the former communist dictator of Romania, Yassir Arafat changed his approach to attacking Israel. While continuing to call for our State's destruction in Arabic, when he spoke in English he talked of peace, negotiations, a two-state solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict. The world media predictably lapped it up. For decades, the Israeli government had been begging the Arabs for peace. What they never expected was an insincere response from the Arab side that would be taken seriously by the world despite how obvious it was that they were lying.
The world community then jumped on the bandwagon, seeing this as a new opportunity to cripple Israel and perhaps help to destroy the State, chas v'shalom, without being implicated in the resultant deaths and destruction of the lives of millions of Jews. Thus the one-sided calls for peace began: give the Arabs what they want. Don't expect them to hold up their side of the deal but Heaven forbid you don't give up everything they demand of you. And if you do comply with these accords despite any reciprocity from the other side, despite the other side continually violating the terms of the deal, well, we'll like you, that's what!
All this, however, did not have to lead to the disasterous situation Israel finds itself in today. In my opinion, the last real leader Israel had was Yitzchak Shamir. After the Madrid Conference in the wake of Gulf War I, Shamir developed an extremely pragmatic response to Arafat's new "talk peace in English, talk war in Arabic" strategy. He would give positive responses when asked about his enthusiasm for a comprehensive peace plan. Of course Israel was in favour of this and looked forward to negotiations. But any actual call to begin them was met with a busy signal on the phone (no e-mail back then, remember). He knew the true intentions of the Arab world, he knew that they were not offering anything other than the peace of the grave for the Jews of Israel, he knew Israel held the cards when it came to making demands, and he was prepared to wait.
So successful was his strategy that Yitzchak Rabin campaigned against him in the 1992 elections with an equally hawkish platform! It was only after he was elected that he and Shimon Peres began their betrayal of the State by deliberately working to empower the greatest Jewish enemy in the history of the 20th century after Hitler, y"sh, and Stalin, y"sh.
With the ascent of Rabin and Peres, a new philosophy took hold of the Israeli government, one which infects it until today. Having been raised with the idea that Israel wants peace, Israeli leaders, especially on the left, have decided that they must accomplish a peace treaty with the Arabs no matter what the cost to Israel. In their eyes, the State is illegitimate without the recognition of its neighbours and that recognition will only come with a peace treaty.
They have also become enamoured of the respect and recognition the world community has offered to Israel since the signing of the Oslo Discord in 1993. Previously, Israeli leaders were received around the world, with the exception of the U.S., with all the enthusiasm one greets a rotten piece of meat one finds in the back on one's fridge. Suddenly, Israeli leaders were invited to all the best cocktail parties. Menachem Begin, a"h, insisted on kosher food and avoided Saturday functions when travelling? What a fool! Pass the caviar and what time did you want to meet on Saturday afternoon? They love us! was the new Israeli attitude. They really love us!
Only those of us who were paying attention noticed that, really, they didn't. Before the ink was even dry on the Oslo Discord, Arafat was giving interviews in Arabic about how he had no intention of keepnig his side of the deal and was only interested in Israeli concessions since that would help his plan of weakening Israel for its eventual destruction. Buses started to get bombed. Israeli civilian casualties in the first 7 years after the great peace deal was signed were higher than in the 45 years preceding it. But everytime Israel wants a show of reciprocity, every time the Israeli government suspended ongoing negotiations or announced a delay in the fulfilling of one of its obligations as a response to the rising wave of terror, the world community showed its true face: surrender to the Arab demands unconditionally, or we won't like you anymore. Some friendship.
It is in this spirit that the Second Lebanon War was fought and lost and in which the current operation "Cast Lead" will be lost as well. Remember Ehud Olmert's claim to fame: he helped unilaterally surrended 'Aza to the Arab enemy, destroyed the lives of 7000 of the most patriotic citizens of the State after a sustained campaign designed to villianize them, and then when the deal went sour, he proceeded to outline his plans for further surrendering of territory in Yehuda and Shomron.
This is why the Second Lebanon War went so poorly for Israel. When Hezbollah made its presence on Israel's border intolerable, Olmert found himself with a horrible choice. He wanted to continue the process of unilateral surrender to the Arabs but the ones on the northern border were making such a plan seem so absurd. So he ran a half-hearted war, as if to say: See, if things get out of hand, we'll deal with them. Only he couldn't decisively defeat Hezbollah because that would have involved a full-scale invasion of Lebanon which would lead to disapproval from the world community.
And now, for the last 5 days we have been reading on the brave efforts of the Israeli air force and been told repeatedly about reservist call ups and tanks massing on the border of 'Aza. But now, just as Hamas seems to be reeling, we are told there is to be a 48 hour ceasefire. In theory, this makes perfect sense. The Israelis would hold fire for 48 hours while the Hamas continues to fire rockets. Then an Israeli invasion would be perfectly justify. See, they could say, we tried to tone things down and they wouldn't help. The world would approve.
Or maybe not. In the eyes of the world community, any missile fired out of 'Aza that wasn't personally launched by a senior minister in the Hamas government is out of Hamas' control. Therefore, even if missles continue to bombard Israel, as they did almost every day during the recent six month "truce", the world community will decide that since Hamas did not personally fire them, they held by the truce, hence Israel cannot strike 'Aza any further.
Consider the criticisms that have already been heard. Just as they did during the Second Lebanon War, Israel's enemies have raised the concept of "disproportionate response". Never mind that a proportionate response means that Israel would lob random missles into populated areas with the intent of killing civilians.
And then there is Olmert, again. Although he is in the position of caretaker, that has not stopped him from continuing his unilateral surrender negotiations with Syria and Fatah. Unfortunately, a re-invasion of 'Aza would work against all that. How can he talk about surrendering more territory when he's gone and reoccupied the ones he already gave away? So he cannot invade 'Aza. Half a million Israelis or more who live in rocket range of 'Aza will have to pay for his delusions of grandeur because a definitive solution to the problem would not bring "peace" to Israel.
In the end, Israel will taper its bombings off, make a couple of tank runs to the edges of 'Aza and destroy a few symbolic launch pads. Then Olmert will declare Hamas properly chastened and stand the Israeli army down, all the approval of the world community.
And the rockets will continue to fall, all in the name of "peace"

Saturday 27 December 2008

Kiruv and the Lowest Common Denominator

It seems that for some of the less intelligent minds in the blogsphere, any attempt to stand up for Jewish beliefs and Torah ideals is equivalent to trying to mekarev a non-observer. I like to contest that thought because I am definitely not into kiruv.
Well, I should make such a blanket statement. It is my personal position that anyone actually seeking the truth of Torah, who wants to enter the world of valid Torah observance, should be welcomed in, treated with respect and taught the truth of the Creator of the world in all its glory.
It's the person who shows up at kiruv functions but isn't really interested in much more that I don't really have time for.
For me, kiruv should be reserved for the sincerely motivated. I happen to believe very strongly in Torah and that it's the best lifestyle out there. As a result, I don't think it should be marketed, made attractive, or dumbed down just to bring out a larger number of people whose involvement will remain, at best, peripheral.
Too often I have seen the result of this Lowest Common Denominator type of outreach. It results in people coming out who claim to be interested in Judaism but who have no interest in any of the obligations that come with a Jewish lifestyle. They want the humantaschen but chas v'shalom you should expect them to sit quietly through the megillah reading, if they come out for it at all. They'll come out to the exciting and friendly Friday night service and then get in their cars and drive home, even if they live only a few blocks away and you won't see them again until next Friday night. Come out on Monday morning at 7 am to put on t'fillin and daven? Not for them, nossir.
Yet too often programs are developed around attracting just this type of crowd and it results in a dumbed-down form of Judaism that has two main negative outcomes:
a) it turns off many of the genuinely frum people in the community. Who wants to come out to a program where being religious means being ignored while being intermarried or obviously uninterested in anything other than the fun aspects of the religion makes you a VIP?
b) it creates the impression that to be a fully functioning member of a religious Jewish community isn't so hard - you just have to show up and you're on the same level as the guys who come out to shul twice a day, no matter what the weather, who revolve their lives around Torah and mitvzos. And if you're promoted to the "top" just by showing up, why go further? What point is there?
For these reasons I personally believe in a simpler version of kiruv - live a proper, ethical, Jewish lifestyle, be the example Torah demands of one, and hope that those who are searching for God's truth notice it and are attracted to it.

The Consequences of Atheism

Here's what you stand for if you're an atheist:
You think you're smarter than some of the greatest minds in history like Rav Joseph B Soloveitchik, the Chafetz Chayim, the Vilna Gaon and countless other great rabbonim whose knowledge, logical abilities and intellect are without peer. Because they believed in God and you thinks that's stupid. That makes you arrogant.
You think you don't have to be grateful for anything you have because no God handed it to you. You don't have to wake up and start your day with Modeh Ani because everything is yours by right. There is no Benefactor in your lives. That makes you selfish.
For those of you who used to be frum and then think you "smartened up", you believe your families and friends are stupid idiots. Well, you'd never come out and say it. You might even want to remain on good terms with them but face it: you think being frum is stupid and that people who believe in God are, chas v'shalom, idiots. Your mothers, your fathers, your siblings, all morons. These people raised you, gave up the best years of their lives to change your diapers, feed you when you couldn't feed yourself, impart eternal and holy values and you essentially spit on it all. What does that say about you?
You think that every Jew who has ever died as a kiddush HaShem, died for nothing because since there's no God they died for nothing. Their beliefs, their passions, their hopes, all wrong according to you. Every Jew, every one of Hitler's victims, every one who disappeared into the Gulag, who burned at the Crusader's stakes, who were tortured and murdered by all the oppressors of our people over the last centuries, you think they died for nothing. Meaningless. They were stupid to have insisted on dying as Jews. What idiots they were, according to you. That, well that makes you something I can't even begin to describe.
Happy Chanukah.

Why No Se'udah on Chanukah

There are two completely rabbinic holidays in the Jewish calender (I'm excluding the fast days for purposes of this post): Purim and Chanukah.
The mitzvos of Purim are multiple: Read the megillah, given gifts to the poor and have a festive holiday se'udah. The mitzvah of Chanukah is a single one: light the candles.
Yet if one compares the two holidays, Chanukah would seem to be the one that requires more celebration and ritual. Purim, while significant, was simply an escape from national destruction. The political situation of the Jews before and after the holiday remained essentially the same. But Chanukah resulted in a national liberation, a change in the status of the Jew in Israel from that of a citizen of the Seleucid Empire to that of the indepedent state of Judea. Instead of having to live under the persecution of the Greek culture, the Jews could reestablish a state run al pi halacha for the first time in many years. Surely this would be the cause for a greater celebration than that found on Purim. Yet Purim is one long obligatory party while Chanukah, outside of optional family parties and shul functions, is quite limited in observance.
This requires us to look at the essential nature of the two holidays. Both have one signicant facet in common: the hand of God delivered our ancestors on both occasions in a hidden manner. God does not show up in either story in a visible fashion, throwing frogs upon the attacking Greeks or making Haman's nose change shape. Yet a student of both stories clearly sees the Divine Hand moving events to bring a favourable outcome to our people. But here the similarity ends.
Purim, as noted above, was a deliverance from physical destruction. Haman harasha was not terribly interested in Judaism or in making Jews suffer. He simply wanted them dead. The megilla records no acts of Persian persecution against the Jewish population. Even the timing of the decree seems somewhat favourable. If the Jews wished to run from away from Persia, Haman was giving them almost a year's notice to do so. And even after the events of the holiday, we see that the Jews are eseentially unchanged by the experience. One of the final verses of the megillah tells us that Mordechai was seen in good favour by "most of his peers". Not all, Chazal note, because even after all he had accomplished there were those Jewish sages and leaders who thought that they could have handled things better. (Some things never change!) Thus Purim celebrates the physical, the revealed. As a result, its celebrations are physical: party, party, party.
Chanukah, on the other hand, celebrates the spiritual. One must remember that the Greeks were not interested in slaughtering their Jewish subjects. Indeed, Chazal tell us that Alexander held the religious leadership of the Jewish nation in high esteem and Jewish philosophy and respect for wisdom was held in high regard. It was the purpose of Jewish living that was anathema to the Greek mind.
Greece, after all, is a descendant of Noah's oldest son, Yefes. From word similarity, we come to learn that Yefes is interested the yafeh, the beautiful, that which gives a positive reaction from the physical senses. For Greek culture of that time, the purpose of life was the achievement of happiness, personal pleasure. (See Rav Joseph B Soloveitchik's Worship of the Heart, chapter on Yotzer Or for a more detailed discussion on this imporant idea). For Jews, however, the purpose of life and interaction with the world has always been to perform mitzvos for the purpose of coming closer to an understanding and appreciation of God. Jews are descendants of Shem, which is similar to the word shumah, estimation of value. Personal pleasure is not a priority in such a lifestyle. An idea or action's value is measured in terms of its ability to bring the doer closer to God and thus the Jewish approach is a complete negation of the Greek.
Thus during the events of Chanukah, the Jews were faced not with physical annihilation, or even intellectual oppression but rather with spiritual destruction. In the Amidah service during Chanukah in the al hanisim, we say that the Greeks wanted to separate us from God's torah and his chukim. There is, however, a third category of Jewish laws, mishpatim. This is not metnioned in the prayer for good reason. The Greeks had no trouble with Jewish ideas about laws regarding murder, crime, and commerce. It was the ethical law, the toros, and the transcendental laws which served to show compelte obedience to God, the chukim, which were a threat to their hegemony and thus those two categories came under attack.
Thus Chazal saw Chanukah as a liberation not from physical danger but from spiritual death. Yes, the Jews could have avoided bloodshed and war by simply allowing the assimilationists and the deniers to have power over them. By refusing, by insisting that God and His Torah would be their masters, not freethinking and useless materialistic philosophies, they showed their faith in God and His rule over the world. Thus we were given one simple mitzvah during the holiday: light the candles. "The mitzvos are candles and the Torah is light." By removing the Greek influence, the mitzvos we perform enhance the light of Torah in the world.
But although Chanukah was the story of Jewish resistance to the mizyavnim, the assimilation pressure of the day, there was also the matter of the military victory. There is a physical aspect to Chanukah in the way the few defeated the many so why is there no commensurate se'udah? I believe the answer to this is simple: the reason for the military victory was simply to allow the spiritual to take place. A Maccabee victory that resulted in a secular Jewish state arising would not have been a miracle worth celebrating. Only by taking the potential for spiritual purity occasioned by such a victory, only by making the spiritual victory the point of the military efforts, could Chanukah emerge as a result.
In many ways, this week's parashah, Miketz, mirrors the difference between the two holidays. In Miketz, Yaakov Avinu is distraught with the thought of Binyamin going down to Egypt with his brothers. Yosef HaTzadik is, as far as he knows, dead and if something happens to Binyamin then he will have lost all his children from Rachel Imeinu. Now, tragic as that is, one gets the impression that this would have a greater impact on him than if several of the children from the other wives would have disappeared. Why is this?
Yaakov Avinu took two principle wives - Leah and Rachel. Rachel, from the Torah's narrative, is the wife to his physical, this-worldly side while Leah is his more spiritual pairing, the wife of Israel as it were. This we see in his children, with Yosef the physical leader of the family in the here and now during the famine while Yehudah is meant for future spiritual greatness as the ultimate leader of the nation while Levi is destined to function as the priest of the family. This is further reflected in two more ways. One is in the future where a Moshiach ben Yosef will arise and begin the physical redemption of our people which will then be completed by Mosiach ben David (may he swiftly come) who will complete the spiritual liberation of our people. But it is also germaine to our discussion of Purim and Chanukah. The physical salvation at Purim was orchestrated by a descendant of Binyamin while the spiritual salavation of Chanukah was completed by the Maccabee kohanim and the foot solders of Yehudah, the final dominant tribe left in the Jewish people.
Thus Yaakov Avinu's anguish at the thought of losing Binyamin. Yes, he would have descendants from Leah who would be steadfast in their defence of the Jewish spiritual character. But he also recognized that physical threats would arise that would threaten our people and at that time, a descendant of Rachel's would need to step to the fore. With Yosef seemingly gone, Binyamin had to be safeguarded to ensure this future potential would exist.
In addition, the Chanukah narrative point towards another important connection between Rachel and Leah and the two aspects they brought to Yaakov Avinu.
It is clear from the Torah's narrative that Rachel was Yaakov's preferred wife. Ramban, near the end of Miketz, notes that of his four wives, she is the only one that Yaakov actually wanted to marry. He was tricked into taking Leah while Bilhah and Zilpah were handed to him in order to speed up the number of future tribes. Yet despite being the seeming akeres habayis, it should be noted that Leah was Yaakov's first wife. Thus although one week after the first festivities Yaakov brought in Rachel as his principal wife, Leah had to be there first so that the spiritual could serve as the base for the physical, just like the Maccabees during Chanukah. The catalyst for the revolt was, as told in the book of Maccabees, the ongoing spiritual persecution of our ancestors. This led to the physical war but culminated in the spiritual triumph that is the miracle of Chanukah.
It is my hope that you have all had a meaningful holiday and that we will merit many more chances to celebrate our triumph over the forces of hate, stupidity and denial in this world.

Thursday 25 December 2008

A Word on Comment Moderation

Actually, six words: I don't want to do it.
Unfortunately, personalities beyond my control have forced me into it.
I don't mind people posting to disagree with me. In fact, I welcome the chance at conversation. However, I have no interest in abusive posters who, after repeated requested to stay away, continue to comment using foul language, attacking not only me but other posters they disagree with.
In summary: I'm not banning anyone from posting. I am banning comments with foul language, insults or those which serve no meaningful purpose to the relevant post. (I might make an exception for SJ, I have a soft spot for the guy)

Tuesday 23 December 2008

Realizing There's No Real Difference

Once upon a time, there was a real difference between Reform and Conservatism. Reform was based on a rejection of all the rules of the Torah, a rejection of mitzvos and age-old Jewish behaviour. Conservatism, on the other hand, was an attempt to balance Torah-true observance with modern world pragmatism, an attempt to meld traditional ritual with whatever passed for modern values at any given time. And what many people seem to forget is that Conservatism was quite successful for a long time, especially in the post-World War II years when true Torah observance was in retreat and Reform's attempts to be distinctly Jewish by avoiding any real connection to Jewish values had started to sputter.
Over the last couple of decades, however, it seems that Conservatism has lost its defining momentum and become a traditional version of Reform. From egalitarian services to increasing rejection of the masorah to endorsing sexual and marital practices forbidden by the Written Torah, Conservatism has become a ritual-heavy version of Reform, not much more. In fact, the final real difference between the two groups is that Reform, while claiming to represent nebulous Jewish values (really, politically correct secular liberal ones) makes no pretenses towards being traditional, the Conservatives still think they're operating within the bounds of halacha, a system they left behind decades ago.
In fact, I've seen it written more than one place that many amongst the Conservative movement, dismayed by declining levels of Jewish education, practice and membership numbers, think a merger with Reform is inevitable. And sometimes, real world examples come and demonstrate that this isn't simply cynical thinking:
On a recent Friday night I, a Conservative Jew and rabbi, had occasion to daven at Central Synagogue in Manhattan, a large Reform congregation housed in a stunning Moorish building. Arriving a few minutes after 6 p.m., I had trouble finding an empty place to sit. To my surprise, 500 people of all ages were already seated, with prayer books open, singing and keeping time with their feet. Three rabbis and two cantors were leading the service, with instrumental accompaniment. The cantors alternated between Friday-night traditional chanting (nusach) and contemporary melodies. Also surprising to me, we recited almost all the prayers in Hebrew, with only a few interspersed English readings. Following Kabbalat Shabbat and Ma’ariv (the two main parts of the service), there was
an abbreviated Torah service — even though it was not Saturday morning. The way it began startled me. Two of the rabbis each took a Torah scroll from the ark and headed separately down the long aisles. (The third rabbi was off leading a “mishpahah” service for the kids.) As they passed, they chatted with congregants. This happens in most synagogues but never have I seen the procession take so long, perhaps 10 minutes...

Was I jealous of this Reform congregation? Very much so. As I look to Orthodoxy on the right and Reform on the left, I see vitality. People are streaming into synagogues — either because they feel obligated or motivated to do so. Adherence to halacha works for Orthodoxy, and freedom to rethink liturgy works for Reform. Both approaches are keeping Jews Jewish and that is what matters. So what is the message for Jews in the middle? What can Conservative Judaism, which lies between the two poles, offer to people? Unlike Reform, we won’t shorten prayers or introduce musical instruments. It is against halacha to do so and we, as a movement, accept halacha as binding. But the majority of our members don’t, and our shuls, it is painful to point out, are growing more and more empty. It is also troubling that many of our young people who are serious about prayer find the typical Conservative service boring. They opt out and form their own minyanim to meet their Jewish needs.I don’t have an easy response to these challenges. But here is one suggestion: In the coming year, Conservative rabbis and laypeople should visit at least 10 synagogues other than their own, some Orthodox, some Reform, and some independent minyanim. We should see what works .elsewhere and then try to adapt successful strategies to our own communities. This may be only a small step but, as the rabbis teach, even if we are not obligated to finish the job, we are duty-bound to begin
This, of course, has been a problem with Modern Orthodoxy for some time. Looking left (the YCT crowd) or right (the YU crowd) for ideas without anyone really trying to be original in the centre. Yet this outward looking is exactly what has been killing the Conservatives over the last few decades. Simply put, if you don't care about real mitzvah observance, you become Reform. If you really do care, you become frum. Other than an idealistic few in the centre, there's really nothing there to retain people. Perhaps as Conservatives rabbis go around and see that Reform and Torah observant institutions, as different as they are, can define themselves instead of looking to the sides for the boundaries of their views, they'll see that their movement has ceased to play a meaningful role in North America's Jewish community.

A New Way to Differentiate

I was speaking with my best friend this morning, a Chareidi fellow who lives in Netivot. Apparently there are posters all around the town, I think they call them kol korehs, that advise good God-fearing chareidim not to speak to those of the Dati Leumi persuasion. Apparently we're worse than chilonim for them. The secular Israels are at least honest in their lack of religious practice. We, on the other hand, conceal our kefirah in a false guise of religiosity.
It's not suprising to read that there are continuing conflicts between the two communities, as usual stirred up by the Chareidim:
Growing tensions between ultra-Orthodox and religious residents in the town of Beit Shemesh, near Jerusalem, have recently escalated into violence as three teen girls were beaten up by haredim who claimed they were "immodestly" dressed.
The incident was the last in a series of reported attacks by members of the Haredi Community faction on their religious neighbors, prompted by the latter's' alleged "promiscuity" and negative influence on haredi children.

First of all, note the language. The Chareidim are "ultra-Orthodox", a term which some members of that community don't like. The Dati Leumi, on the other hand, are merely religious. What the dividing line between the two is remains unstated by the writer. Is it the uniform? Or the type of hat/kippah? Or is it whether you call your father Abba or Tatty?
And how immodest these girls were also remains unofficially documented. According to the parents, they were wearing modest, frum attire which makes one wonder about the motives of the attackers. Were they drunk, disorderly or just looking for easy victims to beat up on?
Or are they followers of the Burka Babes of Ramat Beit Shemesh who feel that a woman showing her face in public is just plain not tznius?

Where's the Source for This One?

We're all aware of the various stringencies in the Chareidi world. And yes, some of them are pretty extreme or odd. Sometimes they're also annoying for those of us who are trying to present a rational frum face to the world:
It appears the Eida Chareidis Modesty Committee is seeking to set new rules for shopping in Ramot Daled, whose rav, HaGaon HaRav Fuchs Shlita also serves on the Eida and is tied to Vishnitz.
Rav Fuchs is calling for two checkout lines at the neighborhood grocery store, one for men and women. The Rav is also calling on residents to do their “big shopping” towards the beginning of the week and not towards Shabbos as is the case today in the hope of limiting the crowd at in the isles at any one time.

But at least this time they're at least vaguely based on some real prohibition, such as modesty or limitations on public inter-gender contact.
This one, though, struck me as just plain weird:
Four students were expelled from the Tiferet Israel yeshiva in Jerusalem last week after it became known that they had obtained driver's licenses in violation of the yeshiva's rules.
The decision triggered a heated debate among the ultra-Orthodox public surrounding the question of the legitimacy of owning a license.
I mean, could someone point me to the makor in the Shulchan Aruch for this one please? I mean, the questions around this are obvious. First of all, there's no shortage of Chareidi drivers in Israel. Are they all breaking halachah? And if not, what makes it okay for them? Is it a yeshivah-specific rule to avoid the bochrim all driving to school? Or it is an extension of "anything new is forbidden by the Torah" since there were no cars in 18th century Hungary?

Monday 22 December 2008

On Faith and Reason

1. confidence or trust in a person or thing: faith in another's ability.
2.belief that is not based on proof: He had faith that the hypothesis would be substantiated by fact.

6.Logic. a premise of an argument.
a.the faculty or power of acquiring intellectual knowledge, either by direct understanding of first principles or by argument.
b.the power of intelligent and dispassionate thought, or of conduct influenced by such thought.

XGH, in his ongoing crusade to justify his feelings of insecurity at his lack of faith has devoted his latest blog (his third, and so far more successful than the 2nd), has decided that all Torah-observant Jews are living a lie, and as a result, all liars. His underlying assumptions are quite clear: Nothing the Torah says regarding the origins of the world, the Revelation at Sinai, or the Divine authorship of the book is true. Why? Well, because modern scholarship and archeology have decided that this is so. As a result, since the Torah cannot be true any Jew who has faith in it realy believes in a lie and is therefore a liar, yet the contradiction only deepens because Judaism abhors lying so how can a Torah observant Jew truly exist?
Aesop's fable about the fox and the sour grapes seems particularly apt here. In truth, faith is clearly an elusive thing. What makes one person have faith in something or someone, while another person lacks faith in that same object or person? Why does someone "just know" that the Revelation at Sinai happened despite the secular evidence against it while another equally educated person will decide that since reason demands that there was no revelation, then therefore there was no revelation?
I don't know.
In my practice, I deal with smokers all the time. Some smokers, after being educated in all the risks of the practice, make a motivated decision to quit. Others says they're interested but on further questioning, they're really not. Needing vs wanting is what it boils down to. A person can know they need to quit smoking but not want to. How does one convert a needer into a wanter?
I don't know. I've witnessed people have spontaneous epiphanies and come in desperate for a prescription of Champix while others do so only after the onset of angina or the diagnosis of cancer, and still others never become wanters, even after getting fitted for their oxygen tank. I can only conclude that such desires are internal, based on the inner psychological nature of the person and the graceful intervention of God Himself.
But it also seems to me that this is the case with faith. Only a complete idiot believes that the physical world, all that we can see and touch, is all there is to existence. But that idiot may, when faced with the need to confront the vastness of the unknown and all its frightening possibilities, may conclude that he does not want to engage in such a confrontation. It may change his essential beliefs, it may challenge his foregone conclusions and it may impinge on the self-centred life he has created for himself in which he is the centre of the universe and the pinnacle result of history. The thought that he is part of a greater plan, that he has a role to play in which he might not personally, physically benefit, is frightening to him. So he shuts it out. He denies it. He invents empirical testing that, by its very nature, cannot detect that which he wishes to ignore and then, after the tests comes back negative, shouts out: Hooray! I was right all along!
Such is the person of reason. The spiritual, by its nature, cannot be apprehended or examined by the physical. So the person of reason, beholden to the physical and having rejected all else, tests for the spiritual, fails to find it and concludes, incorrectly, that it's not there.
The person of faith, on the other hand, accepts that the human mind cannot know or detect all things. Even in the physical world, our senses are woefully inadequate. We cannot see vast parts of the spectrum of light. We cannot hear sounds within a large range of frequences. We cannot feel bacteria on our skin. Are they therefore not there?
The person of reason laughs at these examples. Yes, the human eye or ear cannot detect them but we can develop tools that can. And the reply to that is: Is it possible there are physical manifestations in this universe for which no detecting tools have been invented? Again, only a complete idiot would say no. There is always more to discover, more to be learned.
But push the person of reason a little bit further and this "more" has its limits. It is limited strictly to the physical. The spiritual, being non-physical, does not exist for them. And without spirituality, you cannot have faith in God and Torah. You cannot truly believe.
Yet as Rav Soloveitchik points us, the soul of the Jew is designed to want to believe. A state of lack of faith is antagonistic to the Jewish neshamah, it creates a state of discordance that leaves the bearer of the such a soul in a state of discomfort.
There are two ways to deal with such discomfort. One can do a real chesbon hanefesh and come to the proper conclusion - faith is not precluded by reason and it is possible to believe even if reason suggests otherwise. Or one can be stubborn (something Jews are too good at) and continue to insist: No, there is only reason. The spiritual does not exist. I'm right because I says I am and you're wrong because I says you are. They are miserable inside, even as they shout about how happy they are to be free of the "shackles of religion". And because misery loves company they shout out on their blogs and elsewhere over and over again about how right they are, never realizing that their whole argument is a non-starter.
Well I don't believe in people of reason. I believe in God.

Sunday 21 December 2008

Diversity and Leadership

The first part of parshas Vayeshev deals with a very troubling story well known to all, the selling of Yosef haTzadik by his brothers into slavery. Reams and reams of interpretations have been written on this but i would like to add my little bit.
The parasha starts off by telling us Yosef was a na'ar, a youth. However, it also tells us he was seventeen years old. Now, this is in itself curious for a couple of reasons. First of all, according to the Torah's chronology of events, the first eleven brothers, from Reuven to Yosef, were all born within six years of each other. So although the Torah may have considered Yosef a youth, the majority of the brothers were not much older than him. Why is he specified as being so young?
Then there is the obvious contradiction - Yosef is 17 years old. Now, in today's society that's young but back then people were getting married and having kids by that age, as the Gemara proves in Sanhedrin from several places througout Nach. So he wasn't necessarily so young either. What is the verse trying to tell us?
Additionally, we have to look at the reason for why the brothers sold Yosef in the first place. the text seems pretty clear that they felt threatened by Yosef's dreams of rulership over them. Yet why should this be so? After all, did they expect the future B'nai Yisrael not have any ruling structure?
Rav Yehudah Zvi Kook notes that the 12 brothers represent all possible facets of the future nation. That is, each brother had unique characteristics allowing him to endow a future role to the nation of Israel in general. Yes, there was variety but in the same way a diamond might have several facets yet it remains one stone, so each tribe through its unique characteristics would form an essential part of the nation.
Amongst the others, it was the role of Yehudah to be the king of the nation, as is clear from both Moshe Rabeinu's and Yaakov Avinu's brachos to the brothers/tribes. Yet in the context of the facets concept noted, this puts the Jewish idea of leadership into a new focus. Yes Yehudah was to be the leader was leadership, just like artisanship, learning, or business acumen, is a facet of the nation, not a quality putting the tribe above the rest. Leadership is a burden, a task and public service, not a position of lordship in Jewish thought.
(Even though one might object by pointing out all the special things a king gets that seem to be above the law, the response to that is to remember that the royal office requires dignity and respect. These laws are designed to remind people of the importance of the king. Yet at all times he remains within the law, unable to change halachah and just as responsible to it as the lower person on the social ladder)
It is possibly for this reason that the brothers were angered by Yosef's dreams. As opposed to the role of leadership envisioned for Yehudah, Yosef's dreams implied that he viewed himself as leader, which contradicted the accepted roles in the family, and that his idea of ruling was to be above the brothers, with them all bowing at his feet and accepting his superiority over them. This was incompatible with what they saw as the future structure of the nation. Thus the harsh opposition it raised.
This can also explain the reason for the redundancy in the verse mentioned at the beginning of the post. Na'ar does not only mean "youth" but also to stir up. I wonder if there is a relationship between the two, youth being the time when new emotions stir up within a person. Regardless, one can look at the verse as an implied criticism of Yosef. Working together, the nation advances and grows with each tribe playing its assigned role and recognizing its subsidiary part to the whole. And along comes Yosef, with the idea of changing the paradagm, hencing stirring up that which should have been settled. But at the age of 17, he should have known better. This would be how i would understand the opening verses of the parashah.

Tuesday 16 December 2008

Aiding a Plan for National Suicide

I found this gem from M.J. Rosenberg on today and thought: once again, those who refuse to hear what their enemies are saying continue to endorse those same enemies.
The so-called Arab Peace Initiative first surfaced out of the cesspool of Jew hatred that is Saudi Arabia in 2002. At first, it was hailed by Arabs and idiots alike as a bold new initiative that would bring peace to the war-torn MiddleEast by presenting an agreement that both Arab and Israeli could agree on. In short:
The plan consists of a proposal to end the Arab-Israeli conflict. It offers Israel normalization of relations and comprehensive peace agreements with Arab countries in exchange for the withdrawal of Israeli forces from all the Occupied Territories including the Golan Heights, and the recognition of "an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip with East Jerusalem as its capital," as well as a "just solution" for the Palestinian refugees.[1]
The initiative is based upon:
The principle of
Land for peace.
The conviction of the Arab countries that a military solution to the conflict will not achieve peace or provide security for the parties.
The goals of the initiative are:
Full Israeli withdrawal from all the Arab territories occupied since June 1967
Implementation of
United Nations Security Council resolutions 242 and 338.
The establishment of an independent Palestinian state, with
East Jerusalem as its capital
A just solution to the
Palestinian Refugee problem, to be agreed upon in accordance with section 11 of UN General Assembly Resolution 194.
The normalization of relations in the context of a comprehensive peace
At the request of
Lebanon, the fourth section stipulated that Palestinians would not be patriated at the expense of "the special circumstances of the Arab host countries" - understood[citation needed] to refer to Lebanon's demographic balance.
For the last six years, not unlike a bad case of herpes, the Initiative has been pushed by one anti-Israel party or another as a comprehensive solution to the problem of Israel in the MiddleEast. However, it has never really taken off in any practical way, mostly because despite what voting for Ehud Olmert might imply, Israelis really aren't so stupid as to trust the countries which are the leading producers, supporters and suppliers of anti-Israel terrorism today. Everyone with functioning brain cells (this excludes the Israeli left) knows that agreements with the Arab states aren't worth the paper they're printed on, and they're printed on pretty cheap paper at that. After all, in the entire time since the Oslo Discords in 1993, the so-called Palestinians have failed to keep a single provision of any agreement they've signed, in any context. Excuses they have but compliance? No, no, that's only for the dirty Jews.
This is why the article by Rosenberg annoyed me. Consider some of the less brilliant statements:
The campaign is over and governing time approaches. The new administration will soon have to decide how to proceed. One thing is certain: It has a stronger hand than any new administration in recent history. It won in a landslide; Obama is the first Democrat to win a majority of the popular vote since Lyndon Johnson. His party controls both the House of Representatives and the Senate. And Jewish voters are in his corner.
So where should he start?
He should start by endorsing the Arab Peace Initiative—the best offer the Arabs have ever made to Israel.

Really? His economy is collapsing, his financial markets are in turmoil, and he still has messy wars going on in Iraq and Afghanistan. How is the Israel-Arab conflict a priority?
As for the idea that the initiative is the "best offer the Arabs have ever made to Israel", this is utter nonsense. After all, with this logic the Khartoum pronouncement: No peace, no recognition, no negotiations was also the best offer the Arabs had ever made to Israel at that time! Crap is crap and just because it smells a little less than the older crap and has a pretty bow on it doesn't change the fact that it's crap.
Forget what some Israeli officials and Jewish organizational types say about the Arab League plan. There is absolutely nothing wrong with it. I say that because every provision requires the agreement of both Arabs and Israelis. So what if its language on borders presupposes full Israeli withdrawal to the pre-’67 lines? So what if it contemplates the return of more refugees than Israel can handle? Or that it envisions the full return of East Jerusalem to the Palestinians?
None of that matters because the language of the initiative represents the maximum Arab position, an opening position. The Saudis (and the other Arabs) are not saying "take it or leave it." They are saying "let’s negotiate."

Yes, forget about the concerns the people who actually live in the neighbourhood have. The agreement has nothing wrong with it? Peruse the specifications again if you dare. Every Israeli commitment is very clearly spelled out. The Arab ones? They're just a wee bit vague. Does it set a timeline whereby the Arab states must all normalize ties with Israel if Israel complies with its part of the Initiative? Does it spell out penalities to Arab states which continue to boycott and refuse to recognize Israel? As well, don't forget that the Arab states generally see agreements as one-sided and it's Israel's side that will be expected to hold by the Initiative without anything binding on the Arab side. Add that to the current Arab record of keeping promises they've signed to (currently running at 0%) and can you still say there's nothing wrong with the agreement?
As for: "the language of the initiative represents the maximum Arab position, an opening position. The Saudis (and the other Arabs) are not saying 'take it or leave it.' They are saying "let’s negotiate."", that's a lie. The Arabs have said, on numerous occasions, that this Initiative is non-negotiable and that they have no intention of altering it at all. They also have no intention of keeping up their side of the deal but I've already dealt with that.
It calls for the "achievement of a just solution to the Palestinian refugee problem agreed upon (my emphasis) in accordance with U.N. General Assembly Resolution 194." Could anything be more clear? A solution to the refugee problem would not be imposed on Israel; it would have to be accepted by Israel.
Yes, well the Nazis also called for solutions to the Jewish problem and we recall what happened there. As for Resolution 194, 242 and 338, it has been well-established that the Arab states have their own unique interpretations of those resolutions and that these interpretations are also not subject to negotiation. Yes, technically speaking Israel will not be imposed on but could you imagine the pressure it will be subjected to the minute it hints that it is willing to accept the Initiative? The Arab world will unleash a tsunami of propaganda complete with their interpretations of the UN resolutions and stating that Israel, by accepting the Initiative, has committed itself to absorbing 5 million or more Arabs who all claim nationality in a fictional country. How dare Israel not hold by its side of the deal?!
The initiative states that following successful negotiations, every single Arab state will: "(I) consider the Arab-Israeli conflict ended, and enter into a peace agreement with Israel, and provide security for all the states of the region, and (II) establish normal relations with Israel in the context of this comprehensive peace."
So why is Israel dragging its feet rather than accepting the plan and starting to negotiate? The reason is, almost surely, the settlers. It’s always the settlers.

Now Rosenberg's true animus comes out. Never mind that Egypt is the world centre for anti-Semitic literature and media. Never mind that the Saudis fund every anti-Israel terrorist group the Iranians don't. Never mind that Lebanon functions as a lauching pad for Hezbollah. Who are the real enemies of peace in the region? The Jews who have left their comfortable homes to live on land that was given to Israel by the League of Nations and the British Mandate and which was illegally stolen from them by the Arabs in 1949. Consider how Rosenberg distorts the facts:
No peace plan is going to permit a few hundred thousand Israeli settlers to remain in the West Bank—settlers who have no intention of leaving. For instance, this weekend some 20,000 settlers and their supporters are descending on Hebron to defend their right to remain in a Palestinian home they seized.
No, the home was legally bought, thank you. As for the first part of the paragraph, look how easily he dismissed several hundred thousand Jewish lives. Sorry, the Arabs who want to kill you are more important. We don't want to offend them. You, well look at the great job Israel did moving 7000 Jews out of 'Aza. How much worse could the State get it this time? But who cares if you become homeless, if you lives are ruined? A small price to pay to get a worthless agreement and a smile on the face of the King of Saudi Arabia.
That is not America’s problem. Our problem is to resolve a conflict that harms American interests throughout the Muslim world, and has done so since 1967. Perhaps the American interest hurt most of all is Israel’s long-term prospects for survival.
As a final piece of stupidity, Rosenberg contradicts himself in consecutive sentences. If it's not America's problem, why the obsession with destroying Israel? As for the argument about American interest, consider the record. The Americans helped save Bosnia and Kosovo from the Serbians, the latter time violating international law and the NATO constitution to do so. It has liberated Iraq from a crazy dictator and supplies Egypt with enough money to prevent its collapsing economically. If all that does not win love and approval from the Arab world, will the dismantling of Israel, chas v'shalom, do so?
Rosenberg's opinion should be ignored and his ideas laughed at.

Knowing the Mind of the Master of the Universe

When I was in grade school, I was always the kid who had to make a comment whenever the opportunity arose. Appropriate or not, the words were usually flying out of my mouth even as my brain slowly processed the phrase "Better not say that". So, it's with great and bitter experience that I comment on the latest pearl of joy from the camp of possibly the greatest anti-Semites on the planet, the Neturei Karta.
According to ynet, they have issued their opinion on why the two Chabad emissaries in Mumbai were killed:
According to the article, Chabad was rightfully punished for its relations with "the filthy, deplorable traitors – the cursed Zionists that are your friends."
The writer went on to slam the Hasidic group for inviting to
the emissaries' funeral "villainous heads of state who uttered words of heresy and blasphemy."
Chabad itself was imbued with "false national sentiment," the article said, and the organization's centers around the globe hosted religious Jews alongside secular ones without making any distinction "between good and evil, right and wrong, pure and impure, a Jew and a former Jew, a believer and a heretic."
The conclusion, according to the writer, was that "the road you (Chabad) have taken is the road of death and it leads to doom, assimilation and the uprooting of the Torah."

How pleasant, how delightful. It must be so nice to have the certainty they do. They know the mind of God. They know what He's thinking and how He runs the universe. Chabad, because of its outreach to all Jews regardless of background, is committing a great sin agaist the Master of the Universe. Why, just look through the Torah and you'll see precedents for this. After all, did not Moshe Rabeinu, a"h, himself refuse to associate with any Jews who sinned, calling angrily to God for them to be horribly punished? Did not David haMelech, a"h, call out to God to hate the sinner, not the sin?
Oh hang on, it doesn't quite say that in my Tanach. Maybe they have a different edition.

Sunday 14 December 2008

Who Was Worse

In an attempt to draw out the freeloading crowd, the Rav of my shul has started a monthly Shabbos program complete with free luncheon. The first two were tremendous successes, one featuring South African food, the other a Sephardi affair.
Then came the ad for the third program - "Come celebrate the cuisine of the former Soviet Empire!" And I started to feel nauseous.
Not because of the obvious jokes that such a program would bring out. I mean, let's face it. A real Soviet-styled lunch would mean a long, empty table with a single loaf of stale bread and some boiled potatoes at one end but with everyone given their own case of vodka to finish while the Rav and his family secretly eat duck and caviar in a different room.
I have no problem with Russian Jews or their cuisine. But I do have a problem with the word "Soviet". For most Jews, the words "Nazi" or "Third Reich" cause a reflex sense of anger or dread. The reasons for this are obvious. What I've never understood is why the word "Soviet" doesn't bring out the same response.
Yes, the Nazi regime was responsible for the worst atrocities committed agaisnt us since the Roman Empire destroyed our Temple and exiled us from our Land. But consider the record of the Soviet Union, or even the Russian Empire before it.
Unlike most everywhere else in the lands of our exile, Russia was never, ever a hospitable place for Jews to live. Most every major country in Europe, even Germany and Poland, had periods in history when their Jewish communities did well and prospered. But Russia never did.
Yet under the Soviet Union what had been a historically bad situation turned worse. Not content with physical persecution, the Soviets worked on destroyed the very souls of their Jews. For 72 years the Jewish community of the Soviet Union was tormented and indoctrinated to reject the basic tenets of our faith. Other than a brief moment of support in November 1947, the Soviet Union worked almost unceasingly to support the Arab enemies of Israel and help them reach their goal of Israel's destruction, chas v'chalilah. This was on top of sponsoring international terrorism and creating a propaganda industry that helped portray itself as noble and us along with the Americans as the villians of the world.
Yet if you accuse a Jew of being a Nazi or calling him Hitler, y"sh, you get looked at with the attitude: How dare you say such a thing. Calling someone a Soviet, communist or Stalin and people look vaguely annoyed but do not retort with any major vehemence.
I suppose a part of it is due to the influence leftist Hollywood producers have had on popular culture in the West over the last 50 years. The Nazis are routinely portrayed as base villians in any movie they appear in but the full evil that was the Soviet Empire still isn't recognized by those who sympathize with their goals if not their methods. But as Jews we should know better.
Which is why I complained and suggested that if we're going to have a lunch honouring the Soviet Empire, we should follow up with a brunch celebrating the cooking of the Third Reich. After all, something made Hermann Goering, y"sh, that fat, and it probably wasn't the sauerbraten.
Fortunately, I seem to have effected a positive change (for once!). The latest version of the ad came into my mailbox on erev Shabbos. Now we're going to celebrate the cuisine of Russian Jewry. A little better but I'm still hoping to avoid boiled potatoes.

Thursday 11 December 2008

Primal Selfishness

Chazal say that the yetzer hara enters the human being at birth while the yetzer hatov only begins developing after bar mitzvah. Perhaps one of the meanings of this statement was to remark on the obvious selfishness of the human child. Is there another child in creation that is so self-centred, so incredibly unaware of the needs of others? As our Sages tell us, a child enters this world with its fists clenched as if to say "the entire world is mine!" The challenge to growing up is to nurture one's yezter hatov, one's selflessness, in order to become a productive, caring member of society.
Unfortunately, this journey is not simple and looking around, it's easy to spot those who have failed to pass the test. If the real definition of maturity is the realization that one's parents were right in forcing one to eat one's vegetables, do one's homework and go to sleep on time, then I would presume that most of modern society has failed the test. A recent column by Barbara Kay of the National Post looked at the idiotic phenomenon sweeping North American university campuses, a sense of entitlement that causes the students to believe that they deserve an "A" in any course they showed up for and tried really hard to succeed in, even if they didn't get an "A" on the course material! This is the legacy of the hippie era; children who still believe as grown-ups that their parents were wrong and have failed to develop a true sense of adult responsibility.
In my recent interactions with the so-called atheist and off-the-derech crowd in the blogsphere, I have come to believe that this immaturity is also at the root of the departure many of them have taken from Judaism and observance. I'm not as simplistic as JP to say it's all about sex like he does. For me, the underlying reason people leave and stay away from belief and observance is because of innate selfishness.
Why do I say this? Skim the various blogs and the themes become clear. "I didn't get anything out of being an Orthodox Jew." "I didn't like how the Orthodox Jews were hypocrites." "I didn't believe and wasn't given a reason to." Some of these reasons point towards a failing in the Orthodox educational system, to be sure. A good friend of mine in Israel, a devout atheist who left the "derech" when he was 16 because his questions about the existence of God were ignored by his Rebbeim, once eagerly admitted that there was a time in his life where, had he been given an intelligent answer to such questions, he would have happily returned to the faith. With time and disillusionment, as well as a personal enjoyment of his new life, he had no plans to fall back in line.
Ah, his own personal enjoyment. But that's what it comes down to. From left to, um, further left, the harangues against Torah observance all come down to the same litany of lies: we're too restrictive. We don't allow any pleasure. We censor everything. We care more about the rules than about people. And besides, there's no God (chas v'shalom) so everything we're doing is without real reason.
Rav Soloveitchik, in "On Repentance", writes about the spiritual discomfort a Jew feels when he sins against God. His soul, built to exist in harmony with the Master of the Universe, roils within him, leaving him no personal peace or rest. How can it when it is forced by the body and mind it coexists with to go against the will of its Creator? The yetzer hara that takes the soul away from the Creator is the trait of selfishness nurtured by the materialistic base thoughts of the body and the mind. "The world is mine!" Who is this God person anyway to tell me what I can and can't have of it?
This discomfort easily shows itself on the blogsphere. The number of "formerly frum" blogs to frum ones easily numbers 10 to 1 or more, yet they claim they are the ones who are being harassed and outshouted in their arguments with the religious. They post all manner of antagonistic material, then act shocked, shocked! that religious Jews take offence and feel a need to verbally oppose them. Opposition? But isn't it obvious they're right?
Stripping away all the meaningless bafflegab they surround their argument with, the atheistic tenet is quite simple: I want to do anything I want. I respect no authority save my own. Therefore any religious/philosophical system that diminished my absolute right to free choice without a thought of consequence for those choices is immoral and wrong. Therefore I dismiss them.
In psychiatry, there are two ideas called gains. A primary gain is something a person gets from being ill. A secondary gain is one that the person gets as a consequence of the primary gain but reached only indirectly. In diganosing many of the more odd psychiatric illnesses, clues to the underlying reason for the malady's presence can be determined by looking at the primary and secondary gains and trying to determine if those gains can be met in a healthy, well-adjusted way.
Consider the atheistic arguments. Well, you can't really because they're circular and have no entrance to them. There is no God, they claim, and there is concrete evidence for this, therefore any debate they would presume to have with a religious person must be based on this assumption. But in accepting this assumption, the religious person has lost the argument before it's formally begun. And so they sit back smugly. You won't accept our terms because you know you're wrong. How does one penetrate such thickness?
Now consider their gains. Dostoyevsky noted that "When God is dead, all is permitted". Unlike the Reformers and their ilk who have created an impotent, all-approving godhead while crowning themselves the kings of their own lives, the atheists are at least more honest. Instead of worshipping oneself while pretending to pray to God, they dispense with worship all together and concentrate on serving themselves. An Orthodox Jew serves God by subliminating his will to the Master of the Universe's. An atheist serves himself by indulging in any passion he does not find personally repugnant. Like a baal teshuvah who has "seen the light" and can no longer understand how he could even have been non-religious, the atheist looks at his former life and actively rejects its truth so as to better justify the new feelings he has. Only unlike the baal teshuvah who is giving up a selfish life of personal desire in order to seek out God's will, the baal sheilah is doing the opposite.
And the gain? A lack of feeling of guilt. Who amongst us, as a child, wished for the chance to stay up as late as we wanted without having to worry about getting up for school the next day? Whom amongst us did not resent homework or piano lessons because they took away time from the television shows and games we really wanted to spend time with? For the atheist, there is no wishing, no resentment. He takes what he wants, does what he wants. And when he has a moral quandary he invents such terms as secular moralism, natural law, anything to avoid the terrifying truth that his "morals" are made up, personal choices that were created on a whim and could change on another. To admit that would be to admit that he is shallow, a child in the body of an adult ignoring his Father in Heaven because he is too spoiled to show allegiance to Him.
Seen in this light, the true approach to such people is simple. One cannot hate them for two reasons. One is that, as fellow Jews, we were commanded to love them and just as siblings do not reject a brother or sister who is going in the wrong direction, we must remind them that they are still our brethren and that we will not easily let them spin off into spiritual oblivion. The other is that they are being ruled by their yezter hara. Far from being free like they claim, they are enslaved to their materialistic lives. For them it's all about avoiding God, avoiding Torah, and constantly grumlbing about how "horrible" things were. They are slaves and as such, we must feel sorry for them above all else. Living such a life, what kind of a life do they really have?

Sunday 7 December 2008

How Many of Us Are There Anyway?

I've never liked surveys like the National Jewish Population Survey. American Jews are, in their Holocaust-influenced way, obsessed with counting themselves over and over again. The results are never encouraging. The number of Jews keeps dropping despite the efforts of the Reformers to count everyone and their devoutly Catholic mothers-in-law as members of "the tribe". New York City alone used to have more Jews than Israel. Now the entire U.S. population is smaller than the State's.
As a result, the definition of Jewish continues to morph, in a desperate attempt to prove that we are, as an assimilated and barely educated population, not shrinking into a demographic disaster.
Time was, the definition of being Jewish was simple: either your mother was when she popped you out, or you converted al pi halachah. New surveys, however, expand this. Any conversion, no matter how hokey, seems to get you included, as does patrilineal descent. Years ago I saw one survey that included a group of people with no legal connection to the Jewish nation but who feel they were "Jewish in spirit". They also added to the count.
I have a simple question: how many Jews are left in America al pi halacha? Officially there are 5.2 million of us but I wonder: what shrinking fraction of that is actually legitimate? And how do we find out?

Selective Firmness

So understand this clearly:

The Arabs in 'Aza can shoot rockets daily into Israel, creating a life of uncertainty and gloom for hundreds of thousands of Jews. In response, the Israeli government can huff and puff but do nothing more for fear of offending the terrorists who are attacking them.

But a handful of Jews who legally occupy a home in a city that has more Jewish history than any other place in Israel? Well they're a threat to peace and have to be removed.

As for the rioting, while I cannot condone such behaviour from my people, I can't ignore the obvious either: they're just imitating the Arabs who always seem to get what they want when they become unruly.

The Idiocy of Orthopraxy

Although I personally sit somehwere in the grey part of the religious spectrum (dark grey, to be sure, but not black) I do tend to think a lot in terms of black and white when it comes to philosophical beliefs. For me, complexity is either a mostly good thing (medicine) or a mostly bad thing (secular morality). Choosing the right treatment for a suffering patient is not a simple yes-or-no process but that's what makes morality so challenging. Deciding on what's right or wrong in secular moralism is, in my view, the opposite. Often easy decisions motivated by base emotions such as lust, envy and ego are cloaked in high faluting complexities that do nothing to change the underlying urges of the person making the decision. For example, a teenage girl who wants an abortion beause she didn't take the birth control pills her physician gave her can often wax quite eloquently about how responsible she's being since she's not going to bring a baby she can't take care of into the world. Unfortunately, underneath the veneer of nobility there's the underlying facts: if she was truly responsible, she wouldn't be pregnant and in this position in the first place. The abortion isn't about her rising to a challenge. It's about cleaning up her "oopsy". I don't have much time for speeches like that. I much prefer the teenage girl who announces "I screwed up, I can't handle the consequences." For me, that's true honesty even if I disagree with her position.
One of the time-honoured boasts of Orthodox Judaism is that we are the only major religion which has never spread itself by force. The Chrisians and Muslims may have crusades across their respective domains forcing locals to accept "the true faith" or die but we never did that. Historically, this is not true. The conquest by the Hashmonaim of Idumea a century before the Common Era was accompanied by the mass conversion of that population to Judaism. Of course, we got Herod and Aggripas out of that which might explain why such mass conversions were never tried again. Another contributor could be that fact that Judaism was never really in a position to mass-convert anyone. Yes there were the Khazars but that was voluntary. And again, look what it did for them. They went from being a world empire to has-been's shortly after.
However, there are different ways to coerce people into certain behaviours. Yes, clubs, guns and the threat of painful death are time-honoured with an excellent track record, but people often forget that social pressure can be just as effective in closed communities and societies.
One thing the proliferation of blogs on the Internet makes clear is that this kind of social pressure is rampant in the Orthodox Jewish community. Now, amongst the Chareidim with their strong emphasis on social conformance and their ability to limit their members' education in many cases, this kind of pressure is inevitable. For Chareidim there is a stark life choice: you're either 110% like us, or you're out, off the derech, etc.
What I've found more surprising is that this phenomenon of social conformance exists in the Modern Orthodoxy community as well. Why am I surprised? One of the features of Modern Orthodoxy that differentiates it from the Chareidi brand is its emphasis on personal autonomy. As opposed to Chareidim who all defer to the "Gedolim" in everything from politics to which brand of toilet paper to buy (I prefer Cashmere myself) Modern Orthodoxy prides itself on allowing its members the freedom to custom-design their religious practice. For some, it results in their being nearly Chareidi. For others, it ends in a personal religious practice level slightly to the right of Conservatism.
Yet it is now impossible to ignore that many within the community are practising without believing. From what I've seen, they divide into two groups: those who are afraid to reveal what they're truly feeling for fear of the repercussions such a revelation would have on them and their families, and those who simply haven't moved on because of inertia.
For the former group I have the greatest sympathy. Although they are living a lie, they are doing so for noble reasons. It seems much of their doubts revolve around two causes. The first is an educational gap. They were taught about Judaism but not about how to prove its truth. As a result, when they meet conflicting philosophies that seek to prove Judiams's falseness, they are ill-prepared to defend their faith. They basically seek truth and their education never provided them with the reassurance that what we believe is true. The second is the corruption within Orthodox Judaism today. The gap between the messengers and the message to too much for many. The view that an Orthodox Jew must be somehow criminal as part of his beliefs is ingrained for many. It is a horrible failing on our part but the message remains unblemished even if the messengers are dirt covered.
For the latter group, however, I have no positive feelings. They are living a lie and they are exerting a negative affect on their compatriots who wouldn't even realize the pernicious effects of this influence. They have accepted everything negative about their heritage from outsiders who have no interest in truth but rather hate religion and God and are happy to use them to bring down the whole structure of their lives. They are active participants in their own self-hatred.
Consider some of the blogs that proudly declare their allegiance to this philosophy. For example, Modern Orthoprax, the latest incarnation of XGH. There is also Orthoprax who has been around a lot longer and been more consistent. Basically, here's what it boils down to for them: Look, act Jewish but don't believe a word of it.
There are certain beliefs, for example, that are central to Judaism and cannot be altered: the revelation of Har Sinai, for example, the Divine authorship of the Torah for another. Orthoprax denies both of these. There may be a God (for some it seems negotiable) but the Torah is a man-written book and the Oral Law is inevitably dismissed as an invention of "the Rabbis".
Again, it's one thing to have doubts as to the truth of Judaism. Usually that's due either to an inadequate education or listening too much to secular liberals who selectively quote sources that are convenient for them. You could go one step further - those secular liberals are often the products of a limited education and are simply quoting the dogma they've learned. And on it goes. For every book "proving" there is no God, there is another equally well written one that proves He is out there. Books proving both that the Bible is false and that it is in fact 100% verifiable abound. Secular liberals deal with this by simply disqualifying anything they disagree with from consideration. It makes coming to their predetermined conclusions that much simpler. They then hypocritically condemn the religion for doing the same thing. To be closed minded and deny God is enlightened. To be closed minded and accept Him and His Torah is primitive.
The truth, whatever it is, is incredible complex but accepting it is a yes-or-no final option. (See first paragraph again)
But at some point, we have to ask this group to either fish or cut bait: You cannot declare yourself to be an observant Jew but deny the fundamental principles of the faith. You cannot say you are Orthodox but refuse the accept rabbinical authority, either Chareidi or MO.
For the group living the lie and hating it, efforts must be made to show them the truth of Judaism that the self-righteous high priests of secular liberalism tell them doesn't exist. They must be shown love and understanding so that all their doubts can be happily resolved and they can regain their inner equlibrium.
For the latter group, confrontation (obviously non-violent) is my suggested approach. Prove how you can honestly call yourself frum or stop pretending to be. A Judaism by coercion loses it value and you, by claiming to be coerced, sully the experience for the rest of us.