Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Thursday 31 December 2009

Explain This One To Me

This is not a post on homosexuality.  It's just something I don't understand and here it is:
I think it's fair to say that most atheists also feel that evolution is a given scientific fact.  Now, one of the laws of evolution is not only adaptation of the species but survival of the individual and its contribution to the continuance of the species.  The most successful male is the one who has done the most to pass his DNA on to the next generation.  The most successful female is the one who has done the same.  Simply put, the male and female with the most babies are the most evolutionarily successful.  This is basic natural science.
Homosexuality is a dead end, according to this thinking.  After all, male-male and female-female intercourse produces nothing.  It's entirely for self-gratification without any contribution towards the continuance of the species.  It's a profoundly negative behaviour from a genetic point of view.  If the guy with 100 kids is the big winner, the guy who chooses to produce 0 kids is the exact opposite.
What's more, according to strict evolutionists, a human being is just another animal, a well-dressed ape.  So the laws of nature and natural success should apply to us just as much as other animals.
So how does a homosexual atheist who swears by evolution resolve the conflict?

Pick A New Name For Your Religion

Stealing things from Judaism is not exactly a new thing in history.  The Chrisians stole our Bible, the Muslims the pork thing and where do you think the Scots got haggis from? 
Unfortunately outright theft no longer seems to be in vogue.  Nowadays, instead of stealing ideas and setting up a new religion or identity, groups interested in bits and pieces of Judaism but not enthralled with the idea of accepting the entire package grab those bits and pieces but refuse to change the label.
Let us be clear: while lacking a formally recognized patent, Judaism has been defined for over three millenia by certain ideas - God as Creator of the Universe and Giver of the Torah, Torah MiSinai, the indivisibility and authority of the Written and Oral Laws.  Rejecting any of these and a dozen other fundemental principles is a person's choice but can no longer be called Judaism.
Yet secular Jewish groups don't seem to get this.  They want the label "Jew" all right, but without the responsibilities that go with it.
Hence the absurdity of the concept of a secular bar mitzvah.  What is a bar mitzvah?  Why, an acknowledgement that the boy in question has come of legal age in terms of responsibility to perform mitzvos and act as an adult Jew.  Yes, in North America most people really do think its the Jewish boy's equivalent of a sweet sixteen but it isn't.  Since the bar mitzvah therefore deals with a boy's acceptance of the historical religious principles of Judaism, why would a secular Jew who rejects those principles want one?  The kishke at the reception?
When Mark Neuman celebrated his bar mitzvah seven years ago at the Peretz Centre for Secular Jewish Culture in Vancouver, B.C., he didn’t read from Torah, wear a yarmulke or pronounce Hebrew blessings. He gave a talk on the psychology of Jewish humor.

His brother Ben’s bar mitzvah “portion” was a report on their grandfather’s escape from Nazi-occupied Poland.
That’s typical in the Congress of Secular Jewish Organizations, a loose-knit group of some two dozen North American communities that emphasize Jewish history and culture while eschewing Jewish ritual, faith and anything that smacks of a deity. In contrast to the better known Society for Humanistic Judaism, founded in 1963 by the late Rabbi Sherwin Wine, Secular Jewish communities are lay led and emphasize Yiddish rather than Hebrew. But the philosophy and beliefs of both groups are quite similar.

“I feel Jewish,” says Mark, now 20 and a teacher at the Peretz school. “To me that means upholding the culture. It’s about the history, the Holocaust, the holidays, the language -- all these are very important to me. But I don’t believe in the religious aspects.”
Over a thousand years ago a large group of Jews felt they no longer wanted to observe the Oral Law, they took themselves formally out of our People, called themselves Karaites and promptly faded into the selvages of history.  Samaritans claim parts of the Torah for themselves but they don't call themselves Jews, at least they didn't try to until Israel offered welfare benefits to them if they did.  But secular Jews don't seem to want to make that honest break.
Look at what the interviewee said was important to him and see the disconnect.  The history: of three thousand years of religious identity.  The language: of the Bible.  The holidays: which all commemorate religious occasions.  All those are important to him, but only in a neutered, self-centred meaningless way.
If these folks want to do bits of Judaism without God, that is certainly their right.  Could you all just pick a different name for yourselves?

Wednesday 30 December 2009

Book Review - On the Reliability of the Old Testament

Scholarly books should be a boring read.  After all, they're not written for a large audience, deal with tremendous amounts of facts and are composed to prove a point, not thrill a reader.  Yet every so often one finds such a book that combines rigorous academic information with an engaging style that allows one to read through a complex subject and actually enjoy it.  Such a book is On the Reliability of the Old Testament by Professor K.A. Kitchen.
One of the major advantages of the book is the recent date of publication.  In archeology, like any field of science or history, changes occur on a regular basis.  Yesterday's accepted truths are today's disproved theories.  Thus the more recent the book, the more accurate the analysis, at least until the next one comes out.  Because of the recent date, Prof. Kitchen is able to analyze the current state of archeological knowledge of the Middle and Near East and provide a compelling analysis as to the truth of the historical accounts in the Old Testament.
Another thing that makes this book valuable is that it reminds the believing Jew to go back and look at the straight pshat of the Biblical text.  So familiar are we with the aggadot and various mephorshim we sometimes forget what the text says and what it actually does not say.  While studying the Tanach from a religious perspective requires such ancillary sources, analyzing it from an academic and historial perspective is actually hampered by it.  One of the strength's of the book is its insistence on examining the unvarnishing, uninterpreted text to show how it testifies to its own validity.
The book is organized in a reverse historical fashion, starting with the era of the Babylonian exile and, chapter by chapter, working its way back in history towards the beginning of civilization.  Each chapter deals with its chosen historical era in a systematic fashion:
1) Looking at what the Biblical text says and what it does not say
2) Looking at what external sources say about the same events and the degree to which they corroborate the Tanach
3) Looking at the current archeological record to see what lights they shed on the Biblical text
In each and every chapter, Prof. Kitchen unforgivingly and thoroughly sets down the following facts which he shows cannot be disputed.  Firstly, there is no archeological or historical evidence that disputes any accounts in the Bible.  The best a Sinai-denier can do is say that there is no positive evidence on the record for those accounts but there is no evidence that events described in the Tanach did not happen.  This is the foundation for his analysis since it is self-evident that if there were such evidence, the Tanach could easily be discredited by it before any deeper study was conducted.
Secondly, Prof. Kitchen shows how both external sources and the archeological record confirm many details of the Tanach's narratives throughout every era of Jewish history.  Although a full recounting of all his examples would make this post unbearably long, a few examples will suffice.
In his analysis of the era of Yehoshua and the invasion of land o' Canaan, he focuses on a literal reading of the text.  Too many people, he remarks, have read the book superficially and come away with the impression that Yehoshua invaded the land, conquered all the Canaanites and burned the whole place to the ground.  But the text itself denies that account!  Careful reading shows that less than half a dozen cities were actually burned.  What's more, most attacks on Canaanite strongholds were followed by a return of the Israelite army to the home base in Gilgal.  In other words, Yehoshua conducted non-occupying raids more than anything else.  Interestingly, this fits with Chazal's statement that Yehoshua was punished for dragging out the conquest in order to extend his life.  At the end of the book, Prof Kitchen notes, is an admission that the only real zone of occupation for our ancestors was a narrow strip of land from Gilgal north to Shechem.
And what does the archeological record show?  That right around that time four major Canaanite cities were burned to the ground or otherwise collapsed, exactly at the text describes.  What's more, our ancestors used pottery and had dietary habits that were distinct from the pre-existing Canaanites and evidence of such appears in those strata that correspond to the time period the Tanach says we entered Canaan.  In conclusion, no negative evidence against Yehoshua, plenty of evidence in favour of the text.
A second example is the story of Creation.  A rational person will admit there is a great difficulty with a literal reading of the first eleven chapters of Bereshis.  Recorded human civilization is over 10000 years old so a time line ending 5770 years ago is untenable.  Kitchen examines this and brings some amazing ideas, based on external source comparison.
The first is that the account of Creation down through the Flood matches in style and some content most other contemporary accounts of the Creation of the World.  The Sumerians and others all worked along a standard temple - Creation of the world, creation of man, society builds up, Flood, then rebirth of humanity.  However, one significant difference is that the non-Tanach sources put the Flood further back in history than the geneologies in Bereshis.  Kitchen solves this problem by noting that in the ancient world geneological records were never complete.  "A" begetting "B" didn't always mean that A was B's actual father but that after A, B was the next significant person in the family tree.  Thus A's anonymous descendants were part of his begetting B.  This means that A begetting B at, say, 100 years of age, might mean A begetting the son who was the next generation on the way to B being born.  Further, the extended lifespans may hint that the next significant generation was born that many years after A started his begetting (BTW, I love that word!).  So if A lived 840 years after begetting, that could mean B was born 840 years later.  In this light, a significant amount of time can be added to both sets of geneologist, bringing them in line with contemporary non-Tanach accounts.
One theme that also repeatedly appears through the book is the reminder that the ancients did not have the same approach to history that we do.  With our broad knowledge of the development of civilization, we can see and understand how life has changed over the millenia.  The ancients, on the other hand, did not have this approach.  What was current for them was what always was and it was difficult for them to understand that things might have been very different long before.  Further, archeologist was not a known field of knowlege in the ancient world.  If city X was destroyed in 1400 BCE, people in 1200 BCE might never have heard of its existence!  Thus mentions in Tanach of cities that were known to have been destroyed long before the Babylonian exile or the Greek-Roman period are proof of the antiquity of the text.  As Kitchen repeatedly shows, there is no other explanation for how the city of Ramses, which was an obscure memory to only the most educated Egyptians by the time of the Babylonian exile, could have been conjured up by supposed the post-exilic redactor.  Again, we see evidence of this in the writings of Chazal where time and time again Biblical settings are described in then-contemporary terms.  Standard to the time, Chazal simply imagined that the Avos and others in the Bible lived exactly like they did, had the same daily routine, etc.
It is the final chapter, however, that I found most entertaining.  Having proven his case for the validity of the Tanach over and over and over again the preceding chapters, Prof Kitchen turns his attention to the various Sinai-deniers who have made careers out of trying to make the Bible into a fraudulent document.  One after another, he shows how their best arguments are based on conjectuve, willful misinterpretation of existing data or simple ignorant bias.  It was quite entertaining to see Prof Kitchen take all the best arguments of the so-called Biblical criticism school as well as the work of other, less-accomplished archeological scholars and demolish their so-called proofs.  The impression I was left with was: If those are the strongest arguments against the validity of the Tanach, why on Earth does anyone believe them?
The answer is wilfull revisionism, something Prof Kitchen helpfully fights against.  I strongly recommend this book for those who wish to see the Tanach from an unusual and very deep perspective.

The Inconvenient Truth

As the Nazis, y"sh, discovered decades ago, a lie repeated often enough takes on the aspect of truth.  Nowhere has this found greater expression than in lies repeated over and over against Israel.  As David M Phillips notes in a recent article, this certainly extends towards the lie that Israeli is "illegally" occupying the so-called Palestinian West Bank.
The conviction that Jewish settlements in the West Bank are illegal is now so commonly accepted, it hardly seems as though the matter is even open for discussion. But it is. Decades of argument about the issue have obscured the complex legal question about which a supposedly overwhelming verdict of guilty has been rendered against settlement policy. There can be no doubt that this avalanche of negative opinion has been deeply influenced by the settlements’ unpopularity around the world and even within Israel itself. Yet, while one may debate the wisdom of Israeli settlements, the idea that they are imprudent is quite different from branding them as illegal. Indeed, the analysis underlying the conclusion that the settlements violate international law depends entirely on an acceptance of the Palestinian narrative that the West Bank is “Arab” land. Followed to its logical conclusion — as some have done — this narrative precludes the legitimacy of Israel itself
Here are in the inconvenient facts: In 1920 the United Kingdom was given a mandate by the League of Nations to develop the territory of Palestine, which at that time consisted of what today is both Israel and Jordan, as a national home for the Jewish people.
In 1922, the British unilaterally violated this mandate by giving Jordan to their Arab wartime allies from Saudi Arabia.  Yes, that's correct.  Noble king Abdullah II's familiy is not from Jordan.  They were kicked out from Arabia by Ibn Saud's tribe and given a new home by the British.
From 1922-1947 the British repeatedly changed the terms of the Mandate, restricting Jewish immigration while doing their best to flood the land with Arabs and North Africans in order to create a massive Arab majority they could then use to say "See, the Jewish population is such a minority we can't create a state for them!"
In 1947, with the mandate crumbling, the British handed the question of what to do with Israel to the United Nations.  The UN, in the only pro-Jewish move it has ever taken, voted to partition the land between the Jewish and Arab populations, creating two states.  The Jewish leadership accepted.  The Arab leadership did not.
In 1948 the British army withdrew from Israel and the War of Independence was fought.  Since the Arab leadership had rejected the UN partition deal, no two defined states were created.  The ceasefire in 1949 created a new reality on the ground - a predominantly Jewish Israel inside what is now called the Green Line and unowned territories outside it with Yehudah and Shomron occupied by Jordan and 'Aza occupied by Egypt.
Between 1949-67 only Britain and Pakistan recognized Jordan's illegal occupation of Yehudah and Shomron.  No one recognized Egypt's rulership over 'Aza.  Any talk of a "stolen" Arab state involved Israel, not the so-called occupied territories where the local populations were kept under an iron fist by their occupying brothers.
In the wake of the Six Day War, this situation arbitrarily changed.  The same countries that previously did not recognize Egyptian and Jordanian rule of Yesha suddenly did, once Israel took the lands over.  The same groups that previously claimed that pre-1967 Israel was "occupied Palestine" suddenly started applying that name to Yesha.
There was never an independent state called Palestine in all of history.  There was never a Palestinian currency, parliament or president until the murderer Yassir Arafat, y"sh, was granted the title.  Palestinian culture appears spontaneously in the 1920's after the British and French divided Syria away from Israel.  Under the Ottomans they had been part of one satrapie and the locals in Israel considered themselves Syrian, not Palestinian.  Only once they were separated did this new group suddenly appear.
These are the inconvenient facts.  More follow:
Thus, if the charge that Israel’s hold on the territories is illegal is based on the charge of theft from its previous owners, Jordan’s own illegitimacy on matters of legal title and its subsequent withdrawal from the fray makes that legal case a losing one. Well before Jordan’s renunciation, Eugene Rostow, former dean of Yale Law School and undersecretary of state for political affairs in 1967 during the Six-Day War, argued that the West Bank should be considered “unallocated territory,” once part of the Ottoman Empire. From this perspective, Israel, rather than simply “a belligerent occupant,” had the status of a “claimant to the territory.”
To Rostow, “Jews have a right to settle in it under the Mandate,” a right he declared to be “unchallengeable as a matter of law.” In accord with these views, Israel has historically characterized the West Bank as “disputed territory” (although some senior government officials have more recently begun to use the term “occupied territory”).
Are the "settlements" in Yehuda and Shomron illegal?
Nonetheless, Israel established and maintains a military administration overseeing the West Bank in accordance with the Hague Regulations, probably the only military power since World War II other than the United States (in Iraq) that has done so. For example, consistent with Article 43 of the Regulations, which calls on the occupant to “respect … unless absolutely prevented, the laws in force in the country,” Israel has for the most part continued to follow Jordanian law in the West Bank, despite its position that Jordan itself had illegally occupied it.

Article 46 of the Hague Regulations bars an occupying power from confiscating private property. And it is on this point that the loudest cries against the settlements have been based. Israel did requisition land from private Arab owners to establish some early settlements, but requisitioning differs from confiscation (compensation is paid for use of the land), and the establishment of these settlements was based on military necessity. In a 1979 case, Ayyub v. Minister of Defence, the Israeli Supreme Court considered whether military authorities could requisition private property for a civilian settlement, Beth El, on proof of military necessity. The theoretical and, in that specific case, actual answers were affirmative. But in another seminal decision the same year, Dwaikat v. Israel, known as the Elon Moreh case, the court more deeply explored the definition of military necessity and rejected the tendered evidence in that case because the military had only later acquiesced in the establishment of the Elon Moreh settlement by its inhabitants. The court’s decision effectively precluded further requisitioning of Palestinian privately held land for civilian settlements.
After the Elon Moreh case, all Israeli settlements legally authorized by the Israeli Military Administration (a category that, by definition, excludes “illegal outposts” constructed without prior authorization or subsequent acceptance) have been constructed either on lands that Israel characterizes as state-owned or “public” or, in a small minority of cases, on land purchased by Jews from Arabs after 1967.
I encourage you to read the article in full.  A thorough analysis of the subject, objections can only be raised against it through skewed, incomplete or biased sources of information or through outright lying, the kind of lying that has created the myth of the so-called Palestinian people in the first place.

An Important Message

I'm not in the habit of putting up posts that simply link to other blogs, especially ones that get 100 times the traffic that I do.  However like others, I do think that this post over at Rav Harry Maryles' blog does need to get all the attention it can.
In any well organized group there are leaders and there are followers.  The danger for an esconced leadership in any community is the development of a sense of entitlement - they lead because they are better, smarter, more capable than their followers.  We see this widely throughout the democratic world when a dominant party has won several elections in a row.  The politicians cease to become servants of the people but rather come to see the people as their servants.
For many, this is what "Daas Torah" has become in the Chareidi, and to a lesser extent the rest of the frum, world.  While it is obvious that those rabbonim who lead the Chareidim are highly intelligent and pious, it seems nowadays that Chareidi followers are expected to relate to their leaders much the way small children relate to their parents.  Every move must seek their approval, every initiative must come from them and chas v'shalom you should ever question them or their decisions.  While only God Himself is truly perfect, we are so far below these "gedolim" that relative to us they too are infallible.  Every doubt is met not with reasoned debate but with the shrill "And who are you to question them!?"
As the guest post at Emes Ve-Emunah notes, the emperical evidence for this model has long ago shattered and it is a smaller and smaller group of people who continue to insist it is viable in its current form.  Wisdom and common sense are part of halachic analysis and not limited to a small, cloistered group of men who may or may not believe the rest of their community are too incompetent to participate in decision making.  There is also the matter of the recent track record which has shown, as Rav Ginsburg notes in the post, that Daas Baalei Batim has prover superior to Dass Torah on repeated occasions.
Comments on the post are welcome.

Tuesday 29 December 2009

The More Things Change

A guest post by Baruch Pelta:

It is, if I understand correctly, about two weeks since the information we have now regarding one Leib Tropper was released. By now, much of the J-blogosphere has commented on Troppergate. Let's forget about EJF for a moment (R' Adlerstein, as usual, has a very good post, and kol hakavod to him and R' Eidensohn for speaking up on this issue directly with the braveness of attaching their real names to their critiques) and focus on Tropper's status in the haredi world. I would like to add my two cents, as speculative as they may be:
He’s gonna get off scot-free and perhaps be even better off than he was before.
Leib Tropper is still credited as the Rosh Yeshiva of Kol Yaakov (where R’ Nisson Wolpin’s brother is Mashgiach Ruchani) and apparently is still the head of the kiruv organization, "Horizons." Rabbis continue to teach at Kol Yaakov and give the impression that their rosh yeshiva a great man who along with his enablers is qualified to disseminate authentic Judaism. Since Tropper has stepped down from his role at Eternal Jewish Family, R’ Reuven Feinstein has now said he is going to take a more active role in said organization. Tropper’s organization thus is given more legitimacy than it did before.
I recently had a discussion with a friend about this scandal. He told me he’d wait to see what gedolim say, and I assume that this is what the community is going to do as well. R’ Reuven Feinstein seems to have made his position clear and I think, based on what we have seen in the past secular calendar year, others will follow: through their silence, it will be intimated that Tropper can remain in his position as a great teacher of Torah; people will then speculate and twist their thumbs as to why this is so, but the end result will be a keeping of the status quo.
This event, like the Isaac Hersh saga (I won't get into that right now), may fade from the blogs as new controversies wax and wane and Tropper interprets verses. The legitimization of Leib Tropper as a Rosh Yeshiva while R’ Natan Slifkin was banned from teaching Torah for saying things like Chazal can be wrong about science (I’m paraphrasing R’ Wachtfogel)…is disgusting and shows that at the end of the day, moral standards are not as high in some circles as their apologists claim them to be. As a mentor recently noted to me, the phrase kol hapasul bemumo pasul truly applies here.

Monday 28 December 2009

The Right Source of Inspiration

I have a friend who's a teacher in the public system.  It's no secret that schools today don't get much done compared to only a couple of decades ago.  When asked why, he sighs.  "The parents," he says, "want us to teach them everything, how to behave, manners and morals.  They don't want to take any responsibility for that at all.  'We're paying taxes so you do all the work' is essentially what they tell us."
It's frightening to think that this attitude is common.  When I was just a little Lord Ironheart my parents were very involved with my education.  They were in constant contact with the teacher to see how they could help my education along and made sure that they were a constant influence in my life.  They knew that the school was there to impart knowledge but that it was their job to make me a mensch.
Somehow it seems to me that this has happened to a very large extent in the Yeshivah World community.  With the raising of roshei Yeshiva and Gedolim to a near-deified state, similar to what some Chasidic clans have done with their rebbes, the idea of a father influencing his children seems to be on the wane.  Consider this latest article from Rav Yonasan Rosenblum which seems to take for granted that a growing boy's biggest influence should be his teacher, with nary a word about the influence the father and mother should have:
Unfortunately, many yeshiva students today have never experienced a close relationship with an adam gadol (great man), and have no image constantly before them that elevates them and provide strength in moments of weakness. Many do not even know what they are missing. In their immaturity, they have come to view consulting with someone wiser and more experienced, as a sign of weakness and lack of independence. When asked for the name of a rav to whom they are close, they cannot name one.
I am not disparaging the importance of role models in the life of a growing child, especially in an academic setting.  Certainly I found them very important during my training and to this day there are a few I still call for advice on difficult cases and whose words of wisdom influenced my career in lasting ways.  A good teacher can inspire a student to heights of achievement the student himself never thought possible.
However, when we talk about a Torah lifestyle, we are not just talking about a fund of knowledge or the acquisition of critical thinking skills.  We are talking about a set of values that permeate every aspect of one's life.  We call our law halacha because it guides us wherever we go in the world.  Who should be the biggest influence in a person's life in this regard, a teacher at school or a parent at home?
The perception that there are no figures to serve as advisors today is well wide of the mark. But it could become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Those who have never submitted to another's judgment or sought the opinion of someone more experienced when confronted with challenges or important life decisions will never be able to positively influence others.
I have a number of friends who developed close relationships with Rabbi Matttisiyahu Solomon when the latter was a young mashgiach in Gateshead Yeshiva. Three of them run major institutions today, and their advice is sought daily. Even the baalebos in the group is the type of person with whom one would be well-advised to discuss any difficult decision. Each of them still consults with Rav Mattisiyahu when they find themselves in tough life situations.
While I would never seek to say something negative about Rav Mattisiyahu Solomon, my question would be: when these bochurim were younger, who were they more likely to go to for life advice, their father or their rebbe?  And if it was the latter, why?
My father never liked the Mishnah in Bava Metziah, the one that ruled that if you could only save your father or your rebbe from a dangerous predicament, that you were to give preference to your rebbe.  Leaving aside the obvious conflict-of-interent inherent in such a ruling (preference being given to the guys who decide on who to prefer) he was always frustated with the idea that there would be someone more important and influential in a person's life than his parents.  He had learned this from his parents, aleihem hashalom, who had been the dominant influence in his childhood in terms of hashkafah and basic moral values.  A rebbe might be there to teach you but woe to the father who abdicated his responsibility to guide the child to adulthood to one.
Perhaps this is one reason so many in the Chareidi community find themselves behaving in ways that no good parent would tolerate.  Consider this excerpt from Benzion Chinn's fine blog:
For me, respect for the law and property are basic parts of my being. To hear someone talk about stealing from the government as something at least theoretically justifiable struck me as morally offensive. Whatever differences and disagreements I may have with my father this is one thing that he deserves credit for. I know this person's parents; they are decent people. Where did he get such a concept in his head? I believe that this is important and not just a theoretical issue of maybe opposing something versus being completely disgusted by it. What will happen when this person is faced with the temptation, when the money is on the table and he has to decide whether to take it or walk away? I would never wish to be put in the path of temptation and do not know ultimately if I would succeed. I am enough of a legalist to concoct all sorts of excuses if pushed to it. I believe, though, that I would pass. There is no way that this person would pass. If, when the issue is theoretical, you are already playing games of maybe than you will take the money when it becomes real. If I were to wave a cheeseburger at this person he would turn in horror. What if I stuck non-kosher money into his face and rustled the bills?
I fully expect to see this person, from a respectable Haredi family and educated in elite Haredi institutions, on the wrong end of some scandal within the next few decades, either beating up a woman for what she is wearing or "cutting some corners" in order to fund the Jewish institution of his choice. At the very least he will be one of the people turning a blind eye and winking and nodding at the whole affair. I was raised to not particularly concern myself with whether other people were dressed appropriately, but with an absolute horror at the prospect of taking money that did not belong to me. That is part of my meta-legal theology, philosophy and moral values. What sort of moral values did the Haredi institutions that produced this person raise him with?
People cannot farm out their responsibility as parents to others who don't have as much connection or knowledge of the child as they do, or should.  I wonder how much of the "flipping out" phenomenon is based on this attitude that allows outsiders to influence one's child more than one has done oneself?
Is it an attitude that "the rebbe" is better at teaching the child because he's a talmid chacham?  Is it the idea that learning is so important that the father would rather do that than raise in son?  Is it now at the point that a second generation, having never experienced guidance from their fathers because they were foisted on the rebbes, is now simply doing the same thing?
It is the responsibility of parents to raise their children, not their rebbeim. Perhaps this is a value we should start to more strongly assert.

Thursday 24 December 2009

Kadima Achorah!

A few years ago Ariel Sharon (is he still alive?) found himself in a pile of legal trouble.  There were imminent charges of corruption about to presented against him and his son Omri.  So what did he do?  According to those in the know, he decided to shift the focus of attention away from himself.  As a favourite target of the left wing press in Israel, there was one tactic he knew would work: he would attack the Israeli right wing and he would do it in as savage a fashion as he could by deciding to dispossess 7000 chalutzim from their homes.
Naturally the press and the intellectual left loved it.  In exchange for destroying the lives of 7000 of Israel's most patriotic citizens, the charges against him mysteriously disappeared.  Of course, there was the messy matter of the rest of the Likud party not supporting this Michiavellan scheme but Sharon had an answer for that too.  He knew there were enough opportunists in both Likud and Avodah to form a new "centrist" party so he bolted to "the center".  Hence Kadima was born.
Unfortunately, the party doesn't seem to be doing so well.  After Sharon was struck down, Ehud Olmert did manage to successfully make it into the governing party in the next election but let's face it: most people who voted for it did so out of sympathy for Sharon and because they really believed he had fashioned a true centrist party that would not become hostage to either the right or left in Israel.  After only a few years, it became very clear that this was the one thing Kadima wasn't.  Instead it had become a leftist party indistinguishable in policy from Meretz or Avodah while using former right-wing Likudniks as a fig leaf to maintain the centrist image.  It also didn't help that minister after minister kept getting fired for corruption and that Ehud Olmert managed to lose two wars for Israel while tallying up a schmutz count that would make a Mexican politician envious.
Kadima is now hopefully in its final death throes as the house that Arik built slowly starts to tumble down.  This might seem as a surprise for some since in the last election Kadima got the largest seat total despite the ongoing crimes of its leaders.  However, as time goes on Tzipi Livni, the current leader, has lost her appeal and seems more like a whiny loser than a future prime minister.  Given that everyone else in Kadima is there because of ego, not a common vision, this can't be good for their power structure.
"[Prime Minister Binyamin] Netanyahu is trying to break up Kadima and it's a fact," party chairwoman Tzipi Livni told her Number 2, MK Shaul Mofaz, in a charged meeting early Thursday afternoon amid the storm in the party's ranks.
"You, me and all the party's leaders must stand up to this effort and not, even if it's not intentional, help him weaken Kadima."
"I can talk to you about everything," Livni said to Mofaz, "but now there is one mission: keeping Kadima unified and it's incumbent upon everyone to whom Kadima is important."
Mofaz, however, did not seem to be convinced by Livni's appeal and urged the Kadima leader to call primaries.
"Kadima is falling apart," he told reporters after the meeting. "I recommended to [Livni] how to maintain unity in Kadima. I very much hope that for the first time she listens to others. I hope this way we can get to have leadership that knows how to make the right decisions and lead Kadima to where it has to be."
Well of course Kadima is falling apart.  Tzipi Livni's desire to be prime minister isn't based on some grand vision of a strong Israel or any grandiose plans for the future but rather simply to do her ego and belief that she is the best qualified person in the country to be prime minister and that there is some kind of cosmic injustice occuring because she isn't.  People like that aren't leaders.  They're demagogues in waiting and perhaps some in her ranks have already clued into this.

Shtiller Nacht, Heiliger Nacht

I've always made it a point to treat December 25 as an ordinary day.  After all, in the Jewish calender it has no special significant unless Channukah happens to fall out during that time.  Yet others in our community seem to want to single it out for special treatment.
Some don't meant to do it in a positive, X-mas affirming sense but rather to take advantage of the civic holiday rules that society has placed on that day.  Thus the shul in my town will be davening Shacharis at 8:30 am like on Sundays instead of the usual weekday 7:25 am.  As for school, well it's closed for two weeks for winter break.  I recall hearing stories about some places in Poland where they would davka make the kids go to cheder in the middle of the break on December 25 but again, that's giving special treatment to the day.
The most incomprehensible to me though is the custom of some Chasidim not to learn Torah on December 25.  For them, Nittle Nacht is an opportunity to close their gemaras even though the reasons for this vary.  For me, however, this is the worst thing one can do on December 25.  Consider:
It is widely accepted that December 25, 0000 was not Yeshu's birthday.  When it actually was is far more controversial but it could not have been the 25th because Miriam and Yosef would have been working on the Jewish lunar calendar, thus the Roman date would not have had relevance to remember the day.  Further, it is widely know that December 25 is actually a major Roman holiday and that the early Church appropriated it as their annual holiday remember the birth of Yeshu. 
Thus for Jews who don't accept that there was anything special about Yeshu, assuming he existed at all (Josephus, for example, never mentions him in his histories of the time), December 25 really is just another day of the week.
I cannot (and only rarely try to do otherwise) speak for others but on December 25 I will get up at my usual weekday time, I will wear my regular work clothes and go and spend the same amount of time in my office I do every other Friday (Heaven knows I'll need the time to clear the paperwork).  I will do so to show that tomorrow is not a special day.

In The Ivory Tower

A couple of years ago I called a former teacher of mine to ellicit her advice on a particular diabetes drug that I had always used with good success but which was now getting some bad press.  Her first question back to me was "Lord Ironheart, why are you even using that?  Why don't you just put your patients directly on insulin?"
My answer was "Well, when you have a patient in hospital, you can do that.  You have a team of nurses, insulin educators and assistants to ensure the patient is taught, monitoring and ensured success with the insulin regiment.  I generally have 1.4 minutes to explain to the patient that they have diabetes, what diabetes is, and how they now need pills because if there's one thing they know it's 'I don't want the needle!'"
My former teacher is an excellent clinician and educator whose opinion is still important to my practice.  However, there is one essential difference between her and me (other than all those based on chromosomes).  She works in a large, well-resourced teaching centre.  I work in a small, private clinic.  Thus when guidelines for a particular condition come out she is in a position to ensure that all the minutiae are attended to.  I have to scramble to do the best I can with the limited resoures I have.  I understand the guidelines represent the best care but I have to provde the patient with the best care available in the real world.  As a result, she has no clue about how
I sometimes wonder if that hasn't happened to some parts of the frum community.  The more one isolates oneself from "the trenches", the greater the chance of losing touch with those trenches and forgetting that in the real world not all can be done in an ideal fashion, that sometimes doing the best one can has to be enough.
Yes, it would be nice to hold by every chumrah in the Shulchan Aruch.  In theory.  But as Homer Simpson, shlit"a, has noted: Yes, but in theory, communism works!  In the real world, there must be accomodations to changing circumstances, leniencies to handle difficult issues when necessary.  That's why the Shulchan Aruch brings more than one opinion on many issues and why the Mishnah Berurah doesn't simply give point form comments in his book.
Another danger of losing contact with the real world is that the subject of study becomes more and more theoretical.  Academic medical clinicians might know all the latest papers and guideline releases but, having not actually seen a patient in years, wouldn't realize how to adjust the approach to real circumstances.
And the danger of that happening in a moral system like Judaism is quite common, at least that's what it seems from the news recently.  What could possibly have happened, for example, to cause a prominent Rav who is undoubtedly a talmid Chacham to conduct himself as he did?  It's not like he was just another black hat in the 'burbs, after all.  His self-appointed job was, in fact, to ensure Jewish purity by making converts go through the strictest process before being able to join "the tribe".  Yet he stumbled in precisely this matter, willingly as it seems.
But this exposes two weakness of the human being that Judaism relies on.  One is the idea that a person will, upon studying the specifics of halacha, come to realize that the point of performance isn't simply to go through rote actions without feeling a sense of meaning but to raise one's neshamah closer to God who created it.  It's not the action itself that has the real value but rather the effect on the soul which is why the chachamim could say that we have no idea about the reward for each mitzvah
The other weakness is the conscience.  Quite simply, a proper observance of Judaism assumes a person has one.  A few months ago the topic du jour in the blogosphere was how classic halacha could never be used to run a modern society.  To a large extent, this is true what with the lack of rules around new forms of evidence not available in the times of the Gemara (please don't tell me Chazal knew about electronic surveillance!) as well as the increased complexities in the worlds of finance and property, just to cite a couple of examples.  But the real main reason why halacha would not work nowadays to run a country, to be blunt, is because it relies on the person's conscience to keep the system going.  The idea that punishment at the hands of Heaven is just as damaging as punishment from a human court is essential for the system to work optimally but even 1900 years ago, Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai said on his deathbed: "People look around before they sin to see if anyone is watching but they never realize God sees all".  How much more so in our day when the foundational principle of the Western legal system is "It's only illegal if you get caught"!
Did this prominent Rav not have a conscience?  Had he studied Torah so much that it became a system of procedures instead of moral rules?  Each of us must constantly make a cheshbon hanefesh to ensure that we ourselves remember that God sees all our acts, writes all of our deeds in His book and that we are here not just to go through motions but to return the precious soul within us as purely as possible to our Maker.

Monday 21 December 2009

To Cover Or Not To Cover

As first noted on Rav Gil Student's Hirhurim blog, Rav Michael Broyde recent published a long treatise on the permissibility for married Jewish women to not cover their hair in public.  As anticipated, Rav Broyde's piece has generated tremendous discussion in the blogosphere.  This post is my attempt to add to that discussion.
Before I begin I will note the obvious.  Rav Michael Broyde is a tremendous talmid chacham, an important dayan in American circles and a very infuential figure within the modern Orthodox community while I am only a mythical secondary character in an excellent fantasy fiction trilogy.  I wish no offence to Rav Broyde in my comments on his article, nor do I expect him to even take note of them but if part of limud Torah is the element of discussion around such things, then I am within acceptable limits to state my concerns.
It is interesting to note that many otherwiswe impeccably tznius frum marriedwomen in the Modern Orthodoxy community routinely avoid the requirement to cover their hair properly when in public.  I'm not talking about the ladies who wear pants or short sleeved shirts but those garbed completely appropriately but with the locks flowing in the wind.  Given that this habit has not been limited to the layfolk but that several prominent rebbitzens over the years have also gone bareheaded in public, it stands to reason that there must be halachic justification for the practice.  It is this justification Rav Broyde seeks in his article.
Certainly the issue of hair covering is not as cut and dried as some in the Chareidi community might like others to believe.  There is tremendous discussion on both the stringent and lenient sides of the issue from the gemara down to the Acharonim with strong arguments brought for each.
Basically the root of the arguments comes from a verse in the laws of the Sotah in Bamidbar.  As part of the ritual in the Temple, we are told that the Kohen officiating uncovers the woman's hair.  This leads Rashi and others to conclude that until that point it had been covered and that therefore Jewish women cover their hair.
The problem with such a vague reference is that it provides no parameters.  At one extreme we could conclude, as the Rambam does, that public hair covering is an obligation for all Jewish woman, married or not.  One could counter with the opposite extreme - hair covering is only required when the woman enters the Temple precinct (or shul nowadays), not otherwise.  Or it could be somewhere in between.
Further, Rav Broyde notes that what uncovering the hair means is also vague.  Does it actually mean removing a physical hair covering or could it be understood to mean that the woman's hair was neatly braided and that uncovering means undoing the braid and giving it a rough toussle?  If the latter is the case, then we can learn nothing about physical hair covering from the verse.  We might only conclude that a woman must go publicly with her hair nicely braided, not necessarily physically covered.
From there we move to the famous gemara in Kesubos that discussed das Moshe and das Yehudis.  In brief, das Moshe are those Torah-level obligations that are required of married women in their marriages.  Das Yehudis are those obligations that are incumbent on married women by force of custom and predominant culture.  The difference between the two is vital.  The former don't change from time to time or place to place.  The latter do and therefore if physical hair covering is das Yehudis then if it can be shown that not covering the hair is acceptable in society today then there is no obligation for married women to cover their hair.
Thus Rav Broyde, in a thorough analysis of the issue proceeds to propose that physical hair covering is das Yehudis and therefore since nowadays we are used to seeing married women with uncovered hair and therefore the sight of such elicits no sexual excitement (the presumed reason for the prohibition) then married women today no longer have to cover their hair.
To his credit, Rav Broyde notes at the end of his article that he is not coming to moreh heter on the subject but merely to melamed zechus on those frum women who do not cover their hair in public.  However, his treamtent of the subject left me unconvinced for the following reasons.
1) A basic reading of the gemara implies there are two levels of head covering, one a das Moshe and the other a das YehudisDas Moshe would seem to require some kind of head covering referred to as a work basket.  Thus a baseball cap nowadays might be sufficient to fulfill the requirement.  Das Yehudis, on the other hand, seems to require a complete covering the hair in public, at least during the times of the gemara.  Rav Broyde goes on to show that over different eras, many Rishonim in fact drew this conclusion but he uses (deliberately?) vague language in doing so.  Although he lists eight prominent authorities who clearly conclude that "hair covering" is das Yehudis, one could easily conlude from reading their excerpts that they mean the second type of hair covering, the "total" version instead of the "minimalist" version.  Thus while showing support for the baseball cap option, he strongly gives the impression that being competely bareheaded is not a violation of das Moshe, something not supported by the gemara or a simple reading of his supporting Rishonim.
2) From reading his various sources, there is a meta-thought that comes to mind.  Yes, many authorities note something along the lines of  "Nowadays since no one covers their hair, there is no sexual excitement associated with a married woman's hair so they don't have to cover it" but in many cases there is an caveat along the lines of "In our many sins..." or "Woe that we have fallen this far but..."  In other words, many of ther permissive authorities admit that total hair coveing is only das Yehudis and therefore not required like in the times of the gemara but they clearly don't accept this as the ideal situation.  Does this not imply something beyond the basic "Is it allowed or isn't it"?  To use a harsh analogy, someone living in a swamp eventually won't notice the stench but that doesn't mean the place no longer objectively stinks.
3) There are those who can take Rav Broyde's conclusions to an unacceptable extreme.  If das Yehudis is subjective and dependent on societal norms, then why can't this be extended to other areas of tznius?  If all woman walk around in tank tops and mini skirts which makes that the societal norm, then why couldn't some avante garde YCT Rav come along and advise his female congregants that its okay to dress like that?
4) Finally, many people who drink cholov stam know that Rav Moshe Feinstein, zt"l, wrote a teshuvah permitting the drinking of regular milk.  They might not know the details or limitations of the responsa but they know to say "Rav Moshe said it's okay".  My fear is that this article, although presented in a very specific fashion, will one day become the equivalent of that teshuva with Modern Orthodox women who have never read the article saying "It's okay not to cover your hair.  Rabbi Broyde said so."  Yes, a posek doesn't have to take into account ignorance and people who will deliberately misrepresent them but with Modern Orthodoxy needing chizuk, not heterim, in order to strengthen itself, this article might work in the opposite fashion and give legitimacy to the "See, another thing we don't really have to do!" crowd.
These then are my concerns and why I am not as impressed with the article as I was hoping I would be.

Are You In Golus Or Aren't You?

One of the core beliefs of Satmar philosophy that leads them to oppose Israel's existence is the idea that while we are in golus, ie until Moshiach Tzidkeinu arrives, we are to remain completely subservient to the gentile nations.  This is based on the "Three Oaths" in Kesubos 111a where our ancestors, on their way out of Israel after the destruction of the Second Temple (may it be speedily rebuilt) swore that they would not be rebellious against the nations.
That the Satmars and their ilk take this oath seriously is important to remember historically.  What many don't like to remember, for instance, is how many rabbonim invoked this line of reasoning to dissuade Jews from fighting back against the Nazis, y"sh, during the Holocaust.  Lay down like sheep and accept the will of God, they announced.  We must never rebel even when they try to kill us.  In some extreme circles, the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising is still seen as a sin and not a heroic moment of Jewish bravery because it violated the core belief of subservience.
Yet it seems there is something worse than Nazis coming to slaughter you.  What would that horrifying thing being?  "Scantily clad" bikers travelling through the Satmar-controlled parts of Williamsburg. 
Now for my part, I've never understood the need for bikers to dress like superheroes.  I can understand competitive bikers because of the wind dynamics, etc. but these days it seems even casual Sunday riders feel a need to paint on the neon-colour Lycra before heading out on the road.  Probably a cultural thing I just don't get.
But that's not the point.  The point is that Satmar opposition to bike lines going through Williamburg is curious considering the core belief I mentioned above.  In short, if Nazis coming to kill you isn't a reason to stand up and fight, why are bikers passing through the neighbourhood with no interest in interacting with the locals?
Are they in golus or aren't they?

Needed Notoriety

The United Kingdom's recent attempt to issue an arrest warrant for Tzipi Livni because of her supposed war crimes from last year's 'Aza incursion is bizarre.  Not because it's strange that a different country would brazenly issue such a warrant but because of who they chose.
Consider that Tzipi Livni, since becoming the number 2 in Kadima under Ehud Olmert has been more leftist and anti-Israel than many Arab politicians, constantly preaching about unilateral withdrawals and doing all but offering sexual favours to Mahmood Abbas in return for unenforceable agreements.  If Livni had won the last elections one could only imagine the disasterous course she would have set Israel on.  She is, in no uncertain terms, the best leader for Israel the State's enemies could ever have hoped for. 
And yet it's Livni that the Arabs tried to arrange to have arrested!  What on Earth could they have been thing?
Before this week's scandal, all the polls were showing that Livni was losing her luster. She was suffering from overexposure, and her speeches had become stale. Her No. 2, Shaul Mofaz, had started overshadowing her, and even the most sympathetic columnists mocked her inability to unite her party against the Golan referendum bill.
Then came the reports that an arrest warrant had been issued against Livni by a judge in Westminster, and the centrist leader suddenly became the center of attention. Lead headlines were devoted to her, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu defended her, Vice Premier Silvan Shalom said "we are all Livni" and even Mofaz praised her.
All this for a visit to London that had been canceled two weeks ago because British Prime Minister Gordon Brown wasn't available to see her. On Wednesday, Brown called Livni to tell her she was welcome in Britain at any time.
Yeah, like she's going to trust him on that.
Let's face it: Tzippi Livni's biggest asset was her unflinchingm Hillary Clintonesque belief that she was the best person in the world to run Israel.  In spite of constantly failing to defend her country in times of war, in spite of opposing every measure the Likud proposes to strengthen the country's position, she continued to believe that people would eventually vote for her simply because she was Tzippi Livni.  And the act has worn thin.
Yet, as noted above, she is the dream candidate for Israel's enemies.  More concerned with what the Europeans and BH Obama think than her own people's safety, she would make the ideal prime minister for our enemies who wish to weaken and ultimately destroy the State.  And this morning the news reported that Hamas itself has been involved with the recent attempt to arrest Livni.  If that doesn't give her notoriety, nothing will.
Hopefully Israels will get over the feeling of "Hey, they threatened one of us..." the minute Livni resumes her "We must unilaterally surrender everything so they'll give us discount felafel..." speeches.

Friday 18 December 2009

Eye to the Future

A quick thought on the parasha:
When Yosef HaTzadik's brothers return to Egypt in the second half, they bring the money they believe was mistakenly (or not) placed in their sacks after their first trip and all the trouble that ensued.  On the way into Yosef's palace, they corner the emmissary guiding them and assure him:
"And said: My lord, we came indeed down at the first time to buy food, and it came to pass, when we came to the lodging place, that we opened our sacks and behold, every man's money was in the mouth of his sack and we have brought it back in our hand." (Bereshis 43:20-21)
To which the servant replies:
"And he said: 'Peace be to you, fear not; your God and the God of your fathers has given you a treasure in your sacks.  Your money came to me." (43:23)
On a superficial reading, this makes sense.  The servant is clearly in on the ruse Yosef is playing on his brothers and knows what to answer them to assuage their concerns.  However, looking a little deeper, this isn't just a glib answer but an outright lie.  No, their money never came to him.  They did take it come to Israel.
The Malbim, however, notes a different facet that brings truthfulness back to this answer.  Chazal tell us that the reason for the famine was not only to get Yaakov Avinu and his family down into Egypt but also to gather all the regional finances so that when our ancestors walked out 210 later it would be with all this wealth. 
As a result, there is a fundamental difference between the money brought by an average person to pay for grain and the money brought by the brothers.  The latter, quite simply, did not need to enter Egypt's coffers since the only purpose of those coffers was store up money for them in the first place!  Hence the servant could honestly say "Don't worry my homeys, your money (from the other people who are buying grain and which will eventually become yours) did come to me.
I could add that there is a play on words that can also bring another aspect to the answer.  The root for money, KSF, is also the root for yearning.  While the brothers thought they heard "Your money" the servant may really have meant "Your yearning" referring to their desire to find Yosef and reunite with him.

The Best Possible Option?

In recent days a story has been brewing in Israel about the conflict between defence minister Ehud Barak and rosh yeshivah Rav Eliezer Melamed.  The background:
Defense Minister Ehud Barak has decided to remove the Har Bracha yeshiva from an arrangement with the Israel Defense Forces over its support for insubordination among soldiers. The decision was made after the yeshiva head, Rabbi Eliezer Melamed, refused to attend a hearing scheduled for Sunday evening at the Defense Ministry.

The defense minister's office said in a statement that Barak has instructed the army to work to remove the yeshiva from the arrangement within a reasonable period of time, which will allow Har Bracha students to choose whether to integrate in another hesder yeshiva.
The decision was made following the IDF chief's recommendation, the defense minister's meeting with rabbis of the Hesder Yeshivot Union and after Barak examined all the considerations and aspects of the matter.
"Minister Barak views any phenomenon of disobedience and will not accept any deviation from what he defines as a red line," the statement said. "The defense minister rules that Rabbi Melamed's actions and remarks undermine the foundations of Israeli democracy and have encouraged and incited some of his students to insubordination, protests and harming the IDF's spirit, and there is no room for this in a normal country."
This is quite troubling, of course.  Despite being something like 5% of the population, the Dati Leumi make up 25% of the army and over 50% of the junior officers.  Threats of insubordination from that group could cripple the army at a time when Israel is in greater danger than any time in recent history.  Further, as a democratic society, the principle of supremacy of the civilian government must remain a paramount value.  History is littered with the corpses of people who were caught in conflicts where the military decided it could do a better job than its elected leaders.
However, I would like to raise some objections for the sake of argument.  Firstly, it would be widely agreed that the civilian leaders of the army should be democratically elected.  Hence the President of the United States is the Commander-in-Chief of his army. But in Israel, this isn't true on a practical basis.  Due to the powers the Israelis Supreme Court has arrogated to itself over the last few decades, the nasty truth about Israeli government is that the president of the Court is the real leader of the State because he controls the other justices and they can annul or ammend any laws or positions that the democratically elected Knesset votes on.  These justices are completely insulated against any kind of accountability and there is no appeal against their decisions.
What's more, the government that does exist in Israel is, as everyone is too painfully aware, hopelessly corrupt.  When Mexico is seen as an example of relative clean governance, you know the country has a problem.
Given these two thoughts, one must now ask the question Yael Mishali recently asked:
It was a truly modern-day miracle to see the debate regarding democracy vis-à-vis Torah law picking up steam and reaching the verge of explosion precisely in Hanukkah. So what is really more important for us? Which of these two values will prevail at the last moment? At the end of the day, I don’t think that the Greek invention will be chosen.
am not a devout follower of Jewish law, and I never followed a rabbi formally; however, in my view any group of Zionist rabbis is preferable to any group of politicians that includes Ehud Barak. Who do I appreciate more? Who do I believe in and believe to? Who do I trust? Which side asks itself less often what can it personally gain from its decisions?

Rabbis also ask themselves this question, of course. I have no doubt that Rabbi Melamed also asked himself, and provided an answer. However, they ask it less often, and their answers are much much better than any answer Barak came up with in the past, and apparently this time as well.

When it comes to all the parameters for selecting proper leadership, I prefer the Zionist rabbis, with all their diverse views and opinions, over the deceptive leaderships of modern-day politicians.
It’s truly been a unique Chanukah experience to see the media storm over the question of hesder yeshivas. The Barak-Melamed conundrum in and of itself is not the most interesting issue here, the fascinating secular panic over these questions is less intriguing than a look into the religious sector, where we are also seeing certain panic.
Now I know the response that this kind of thinking will generate.  "Theocracy!  What a supid idea!  Those rabbis are just as corrupt, if not more so than the secular politicians!  And the religion is so oppressive!"
Well I don't know about that.  Is secular society more open and tolerant than religious society?  Try answering that after you've run afoul of a Canadian Human Rights Commission.  Does secular society encourage open debate on issues of meaning?  Try being a Climate Change Skeptic and see what happens to your right to an opinion.  Are the religious oppressive towards women?  Could be, but secular society is busy teaching girls from the age they can fit into underwear than their value in society is based completely on their looks and how much of their anorexic bodies they're willing to show in public.  What's worse, being expected to cover one's body and keep quiet, or parade around in one's underwear like a prostitute?
Finally, there's the issue of corruption.  Yes, we are all too aware of the failings of the religious leadership over the last year.  If you were to ask me about how trustworthy someone is based on their black hat, I'd laugh bitterly.  But then, remember that "I'm from the government and I'm here to help you" is one of the modern world's great lies.  Would I prefer a potentially corrupt rabbi who at least stands for something greater than himself or a potential corrupt politicians who is only interested in his own self-promotion?
I'm not suggesting, chalilah, that the religious overthrow the government in Israel but just asking people to think for a moment about the idea that maybe the secular system isn't so high and mighty that it can simply dismiss the concerns of its religious citizens.

Sunday 13 December 2009

Controlling the Monster

Rav Yonasan Rosenblum's latest piece, a statement of the obvious, is an excellent reminder that some in the Chareidi community have not been subsumed by the mindless groupthink that many askanim wish was a requirement for membership.  In it, he notes all the problems a community dedicated to not supporting itself will run afoul of.
(1) Do you think there are any differences of kind, not just magnitude, between the homogeneous group of idealists who rallied to the Chazon Ish’s banner and today’s chareidi community of three-quarters of a million nefashos?

(2) Do you have any idea of the degree of poverty in the chareidi world, including among avreichim? Do you see the chareidi world today as vulnerable? What, for instance, would happen if the Israeli Supreme Court ruled definitively that the state cannot fund schools that do not teach a common curriculum? Israeli welfare payments have grown twice as fast as gross family income over the last two decades. What do you think the impact would be if the Israeli government decided that disparity is unsustainable and imposed another dramatic cut in welfare payments, like the cut in child care allowances under Prime Minister Sharon (with Netanyahu as Finance Minister)?

(3) Do you see any cost to traditional Torah family structure from the assumption that the wife will be both the primary breadwinner and primary caregiver to very large families? Do you think most women are capable of sustaining both roles?

(4) Do you think the Gemara knew what it was talking about when it said that the primary source of marital strife is the lack of money? Do you see poverty having an impact on shalom bayis in the Torah community?

(5) What do you think happens to a eleven-year-old who is already struggling and falling behind in cheder when he asks his father what he is going to be when he grows up and his father tells him his only option is to be an avreich?

(6) Is there any point at which the communal cost in terms of drop-outs and broken families is too great to be sustained without being addressed at its core?
All excellent questions.  The problem is as followed.  As Mary Shelley wrote years ago, Victor Frankstein could create his monster.  Controlling it once it had come to light was the more difficult problem.  The Chazon Ish, zt"l, and his contemporaries were successful in creating a full-time learning society which relied on the outside world for support to continue on.  Rav Rosenblum is obviously correct: the time has come to rein it in and restore a sense of balance to the Chareidi community.
But here's the problem.  Who exactly will go into the batei medrash of Israel and America and shout out: "Hey guys, the Chazon Ish said this would only go on for two generations!  Time's up!  Those of you who are not going to be the next posek hador, get out of here and find jobs!"?  And how many of these pious learners who supposedly live and die by the orders of their "gedolim" will suddenly discover a rebellious streak?

Climategate and Orthodoxy

By now, only those living under rocks and those who have ideologically blinded themselves have missed the Climategate scandal.  Even as world leaders gather in Coperhagen and pledge large amounts of taxpayers' money for plans they will never actually execute in the name of saving the world, more and more people are becoming aware of the leaked British e-mails that have finally shown what a hoax climate-change science has been.
In short, there is an endless stream of e-mails that say the following:
1) There is no real data that shows that climate change is occuring or has occured over the past decade.
2) Therefore data will be invented that shows climate change is occuring since, because we know it is, since the real data doesn't reflect this, we will have to create data that does.
3) Anyone who disagrees with us must be silenced.  It doesn't matter if they raise legitimate questions or have papers that prove we're wrong.  We must surpress them so we can continue to claim all "real" scientists agree that climate change is occuring and that there is no credible evidence to the contrary.
The damage this has done to the Climate Change religion - because really, that's what it has become - is incalculable.  Anyone who continues to insist that the science supports their point of view is making a fool out of himself, even if he refuses to admit it.  As the inimitable Mark Steyn notes:
Hence, the famous "hockey stick" graph purporting to show climate over the past 1000 years, as a continuous, flat, millennium-long bungalow with a skyscraper tacked on for the 20th century. This graph was almost laughably fraudulent, not least because it used a formula that would generate a hockey stick shape no matter what data you input, even completely random, trendless, arbitrary computer-generated data. Yet such is the power of the eco-lobby that this fraud became the centrepiece of UN reports on global warming. If it's happening, why is it necessary to lie about it?

Well, the problem for the Kyoto cultists is that the end of the world's nighness is never quite as nigh as you'd like. Thirty years ago, Lowell Ponte had a huge bestseller called The Cooling: Has the new ice age already begun? Can we survive?
Answer: No, it hasn't. Yes, we can. So, when the new ice age predicted in the '70s failed to emerge, the eco-crowd moved on in the '80s to global warming, and then more recently to claiming as evidence of global warming every conceivable meteorological phenomenon: lack of global warmth is evidence of global warming; frost, ice, snow, glaciers, they're all signs of global warming, too. If you live in England, where it's 12C and partly cloudy all summer and 11.5C and overcast all winter, that dramatic climate change is also evidence of global warming.
There are no lines left.  "Well the e-mails are certainly a concern but we know climate change is occuring because the science..."  No, that won't work.  We know the science was faked and altered to reach a predetermined conclusion.  "Well, peer-reviewed evidence..."  No, that won't help either.  We now know that the reason no major studies contradicting climate change were published is because they were ignored or destroyed.  This emperor truly has no clothes.
So what does this have to do with Torah observant Judaism?  Quite a bit, if one thinks about it.  First, Judaism shares one important characteristic with Climate Changism - both are religions (Judaism is also a nationality but let's leave that aside for now).  Anything that torpedoes one religion must act as a warning for others. 
And what is the message?  Put simply, it's a warning against arrogance, against smug self-righteousness that announces: "I'm right and because I'm right, the end justifies the means."
Too often in the news recently we have seen that philosophy applied by many of the most devout members of our community.  Whether it's mistreating illegal workers, stealing money in Ponzi schemes, or trading in human body parts, the common factor has been people who believe they are doing the will of Heaven, so much so that their flagrant violation of norms and laws, both Jewish and secular, is merely incidental.  The ends justify the means.
No, they don't and real Torah Judaism does not countenance such an attitude, no matter how "frum" the current proponents might style themselves as.
Whenever one of our number gets caught committing and crime and appears in the national news, hat and all, that is our Climategate e-mail.
Whenever news breaks about another financial scheme gone wrong, or public disturbances by portions of our community that resemble the tantrums of spoiled children, that is our Climategate e-mail.
Whenever another person leaves the fold because some idiot rabbi turns him off with simplistic answers or a racist attitude, that is our Climategate e-mail.
We, as yirei shomayim, have an obligation to be a moral beacon to the rest of the world.  The Torah is not about circling the wagons or protecting our own no matter what but about justice and truth, God's seal.  If we turn Judaism into a self-centred parochial religion, we have failed God and Torah as much as if we were to go out on a Saturday afternoon drive to the local McDonald's.
Climate Change will stumble on.  Too much money, too many careers have been invested to allow the truth about the weather to bring it down.  But those with intelligence will see its proponents for the fraudsters they are.
And if we are not careful, if we continue to forget what our real priorities are, we will follow that same path.

The New Face of the LWMO

Rav Pruzansky's blog recent carried a long piece on the new LWMO organization, the International Rabbinical FellowshipHonestlyFrum has already carried an excellent and in-depth review of the piece so I will not attempt to rehash it here.  However, I think a lot of what's concerning to those in the MO community who are worried about the IRF's agenda can be summarized quite succintly. 
There is a split coming to the Modern Orthodox community.  On one side will be the YU community and those in its sphere of influence.  On the other will be the YCT community and its followers.  There will be a simple difference between the two that may finally lead to some form of crystalization, at least for the YU form of Modern Orthodoxy.  Put simply:
1) The YU community's approach to Torah U'Maddah will be: I am frum first, my values are determined by the Torah and what secular society thinks is irrelevant to that.  I will incorporate those parts of secular life which are not in conflict with those values.
2) The YCT's community's approach to Torah U'Maddah will be: I am frum but secular values are as important as Torah values and when there is a conflict I will try to minimize such difficulties by altering my Torah values to be in sync with secular values. 
One can already see this coming in the writings of the YCT community about what their "Orthodox" views are.  Whether its supporting provacteurs seeking to cause public turmoil while imagining themselves to be defending "religious freedom", or encouraging those leading a lifestyle inimical to Torah Judaism to pretend that despite engaging in activites the Torah describes as "to'evah" they are doing nothing wrong because that's what secular society says, it is quite clear that this group has already decided that Morethodox values will trump Torah values if the alternative is standing up to secular society and saying that what they believe is wrong.
It is quite likely that the IRF will ultimately formally spin its way out of Orthodoxy and into the waiting arms of the right wing of Conservatism .  Certainly the further they go trying to change their Jewish values into secular ones the more anarchonistic such remnants of proper observance like that archaic mechitzah will be seen as unnecessary.  No doubt they will try to show that Orthodoxy supports mixed seating.  But over time, this will lead to clarification for the YU side of MO and allow the movement to gain a greater focus on its raison d'etre.

The Wrong Approach

There are ways of dealing with problems in one's community, and then there are ways.
For the Chareid community, there is always a way but not one that makes sense to anyone outside their collective:
In a harsh document obtained by Ynet Thursday, the rabbis denounce the websites – the majority of which are daily news publications unsanctioned by the ultra-Orthodox establishment – on grounds that they "pursue all manners of news and gossip that defame our public" and "spread slander, lies and impurities to thousands."...
The rabbis further stated that it is the ultra-Orthodox websites "which impeach a public tempted to (surf) the vilest of places, which have already caused so many in Israel to breach Torah laws about things best kept private."
I'm not terribly surprised at this recent announcement.  For too many self-styled representatives of the Chareidi community, any criticism of their views, beliefs or lifestyle is automatically treated as the gravest sin that one can commit.  Having announced their religious and spritual perfection to the world, they have no choice but to react this way.  After all, any admission would be a dent in that perfection which is a sina qua non they have established for themselves.
Fortunately the genie is out of the bottle.  There are too many in the Chareidi community who seem to be sick and tired of the crap these askanim keep dredging up.  No number of harsh kol korehs will change the situation which is a good thing.  No community can afford to think that it is immune to the need for change over time.  Complacency and rigidness breed corruption that ultimately lead to self-destruction.  Hopefully the very websites being touted as such a terrible danger will be the effective implements of change to help the Chareidi community through its issues.

Expecting the UnExpected

"And it came to pass after these things, that the butler of the king of Egypt and his baker had offended their lord the king of Egypt. And Pharaoh was wroth against two of his officers, against the chief of the butlers, and against the chief of the bakers. And he put them in ward in the house of the captain of the guard, into the prison, the place where Yosef was bound. And the captain of the guard charged Yosef with them, and he served them: and they continued a season in ward." (Bereshis 40:1-4)

A superficial reading of the story of Yosef HaTzadik often leads to many misconceptions about the story.  A good example is the excerpt above.  Generally people believe that Pharoah imprisoned two people, that they had dreams and that Yosef correctly predicted the outcome for both.
The Malbim, on the other hand, brings a different conclusion from a very precise reading of the text.  Look carefully at the first two verses and we find four different titles:
1) butler
2) baker
3) chief of the butlers
4) chief of the bakers
The Malbim concludes that there were four people imprisoned in the story, for four different reasons. 
The midrash as to what happened to lead to this is well known.  Gravel was found in Pharoah's bread and a fly was found in his wine.  The Malbim notes something which no one really considers but is obvious once mentioned.  The chief baker probably didn't do much baking.  The chief butler probably didn't pour the wine himself.  Both were tasked merely to present the final product to Pharoah and each had a staff to do the preparations for him.
So who's since was greater?  Well, from the perspective of the chiefs, the chief butler's sin was.  After all, if the chief baker's job was simply to present the bread to Pharoah, how was he supposed to know there were stones in it?  Yes, he should have done a better job supervising his underlings but his failing wasn't like the chief butler's who should have noticed the obvious, that a fly was swimming in the goblet he was about to hand to his ruler.
From the perspective of the underlings, on the other hand, the seriousness of the sin is reversed.  The baker is now in the worse position since he should have checked his flour before baking it and noticed the gravel.  The butler, on the other hand, could have missed the fly dropping into the wine, something not as serious.
As a result, it matters very much whose dreams Yosef interprets.  If we are looking at it from the position of the chiefs, then the chief baker should be the one expecting a good interpretation whilst the chief butler should be dreading what will happen to him.  Yet we see that when Yosef reads their dreams, he comes to the opposite conclusion.  Against reason, he predicts the chief butler will be exonerated and the chief baker will be executed.  This would have been logical had he been speaking to the underlings but not to the chiefs.
The Malbim concludes that this was necessary to prove that Yosef's interpretations were not simply a result of strategic thinking or good luck.   By predicting the opposite, he showed that his power to interpret dreams really did come from a higher source.
It seems to me that this reasoning might explain why Yosef was then punished to spend another two years in jail after he asked for help in getting out from the chief butler.  This is curious since asking for help is exactly what Yosef should have done!  After all, Jewish tradition and law don't require us to sit back and say "I'll do nothing to help myself, God will provide" (the doninant kollel culture's attitude notwithstanding).  We are expected to help ourselves when we need to and trust that God will arrange the best possible outcome.  Yet here the opposite happened with Yosef being punished for not waiting.
But the hint as to why comes from the Malbim's understanding of the episode with the chiefs.  Yes, the logical thing to do was to ask the chief butler for help.  However, having just shown that the logic of Man is nothing compared to the plans of God, Yosef should have sat back and realized that just as logic would not result in the right interpretation of dreams, logic would also not get him out of jail.  God was clearly arranging events to bring them to their proper conclusion and he was to sit put and wait for things to happen.  Having missed this, he was left to sit in jail for two years further.

Thursday 3 December 2009

A Difficult Statement

"And he commanded them saying 'Thus shalt thou say to my lord Eisav: So saith your servant Yaakov.  I am sojourned with Lavan from before until now.'" (Bereshis 32:5)

Rashi: Sojourned - I have not become a prince or an important person, rather just a sojourner.  Thus it is not worth hating me over the blessing your father gave me: 'Be thou a lord over your brethren' because it wasn't fulfilled in me.  Another interpretation: garti (sojourned) in gematria is 613, that is to say: With the wicked Lavan I sojourned (garti) but I kept all 613 (taryag) commandments and I didn't learn from his wicked deeds.

The Sifsei Chachamim on this Rashi note that Yaakov Avinu had an interesting problem in deciding what to tell Eisav upon returning to the Land of Israel.  On one hand, he wanted to present himself humbly and the best way to do that was to note that he hadn't really achieved the blessing of greatness Yitzchak Avinu had granted him.  That would have the effect of mollifying Eisav's anger.  On the other hand, by telling him that he hadn't achieved greatness, Eisav could turn around and say "Well hang on, it said that if you keep the Torah you'll achieve greatness.  If you are still not great, that means you didn't keep the Torah and when you don't, my blessing from father is that I get to rule over you!" (Bereshis 27:40)  Thus Yaakov was forced to tell two contradictory statements - yes, I kept the entire Torah which means you cannot harm me, but don't be angry with me because in the end I didn't achieve greatness anyway.
The Kli Yakar, on the other hand, doesn't feel that Rashi's two suggestions are contradictory.  He interprets that what Yaakov was telling Eisav was that the reason he hadn't become great was not because Yitzchak's blessing had failed to manifest itself for him but because he was never meant to get that blessing in the first place.  His deception, as it were, had not availed him anything.  Despite keeping the 613 mitzvos, he had not achieved glory in This World because that beracha had been meant for Eisav and it didn't matter that Yitzchak had said it to him.  A person can't touch that which is meant for his fellow.  Thus he was assuring Eisav: don't worry, you clearly got the blessing.  It turns out I didn't take anything from you because despite keeping all 613 commandments, the blessing wound up in your portion anyway and so you have no reason to be mad at me.  Thus there is no contradiction and Rashi's two suggestions go together perfectly.
The Sifsei Chachamim then notes an interesting problem - never mind that he married two sisters, something forbidden by the Torah. Even ignoring that, Yaakov Avinu had been in chutz l'aretz for 20 years. There are many mitzvos that can only be performed in the Land of Israel. Furthermore, there are mitzvos that can only be performed by the entire community, like building the Temple and setting up a king. How could Yaakov say that he had kept all 613 mitzvos?

He thus brings from the Divre David the well-known principle in halacha that when one studies the laws of sacrifices, it is considered like he has offered them. So too with Yaakov - since he had studied the entire Torah assiduously, it was like he had kept all 613 mitzvos.
The Chasam Sofer looks at it from a different, more grammatical angle.  According to Rashi, Yaakov suggested "Taryag mitzvos shamarti" - I have guarded 613 commandments- instead of the more logical "Taryag mitzvos kiyamti" - I have fulfilled 613 commandments.  He notes one use of the root shamar means to put something aside and keep watch over it, as in next week's parasha: "And his father shamar the matter." (37:11)  In other words, by keeping the Torah and all its 613 commandments in mind, even though he couldn't actually fulfill them, he had kept them - shamarti - in a positive manner.
However, it seems to me there is a different way to connect Rashi's two suggestions.  The truth is that a Torah lifestyle does set one apart from surrounding society.  Its values, rituals and principles are different from other religions and especially from secular society.  The underlying reason for this is that the committed Jew understands that the ikkar in the life of his soul is not here in This World which is just a temporary stay but rather in the Olam Haba.  We are all sojourners in this world, it's just that some of us realize it more than others. 
This would explain something which is difficult to understand about Lavan's relationship with Yaakov.  Yes, Lavan was a deceiver interested in material gain.  However, his behaviour towards his nephew is still not understandable.  After openly admitting that Yaakov has become his meal ticket to prsoperity (30:27) it would make sense that he would everything he could to make him happy and want to stay with him.  He should have treated him with honour, elevated him to the top of his household but instead spent the next six years driving a wedge between them, cheating and harrassing him repeatedly.  Who tries to drive away the golden goose?
Yaakov's fixation on the mitzvos however would have caused him to be seen in a different light.  When Yaakov announced his intention to eventually leave and return home, Lavan knew that nothing he could offer him would change his mind.  Yaakov wasn't looking for independence or greater prosperity.  Succeeding in this world was of minimum meaning to him.  He would return home no matter what because this was his holy destiny.  Thus there was no point in trying to absorb him into "the family" and the only thing left was to fleece him for all he could.
And how could Lavan be sure that no matter what he did, Yaakov wouldhold by the terms of any deal they made?  Rav Joseph Hertz, in his Chumash, notes that when Yaakov is listing all his grievances before his uncle at the end of their relationship (31:36-42) he isn't merely spouting off about what he feels he has been cheated of over the last six years.  Rather he is quoting his rights under the Code of Hammurabi in terms of how he had fuflilled all his obligations as a worker while Lavan had shirked all of his as an employer.  One of the things b'nei Noach are commanded to do is a establish a system of laws to run society.  Having found himself in a society governed by Hammurabi's code, Yaakov had kept its rules perfectly even thought Lavan hadn't.
Why?  Because Yaakov's desire to be close to God elevated his behaviour to one of perfection even in the face of duplicitous opposition.  There was a principle at stake - one of remaining true to God's expectations of him.
Yaakov Avinu, because of his study and depth of understanding of Torah, realized this completely.  He had remained separate from Lavan because of insistence on following the path of God, not of base materialism his uncle had chosen.  It was specifically because he had kept the 613 mitzvos that he had failed to become a prince and important man in Aram.  What would have been the benefit of that to someone whose eyes are on his soul returning to God, not on prospering in this material reality? 
Therefore he was telling Eisav that there was nothing to fear and no reason to be angry.  Despite having been immersed in the superficial civlization of Lavan, he had rejected that which Yitzchak's blessing might have brought him in a material sense.  Only keeping the 613 mitzvos and maintaining his connection to God had been important to him. 

Monday 30 November 2009

Let's Try An Analogy

Further to my recent post on the differences in approaches to debate between Chareidism and Modern Orthodoxy, I came across an analogy that might explain the way each group approaches its rabbinic leadership.  As some of the commenters noted, the concept of yirah is very much overplayed in the Chareidi community.  On the other hand, a lack of yirah for rabbinic authority seems to almost be a chiyuv amonst the Modern Orthodox.  Is there a happy medium?
The analogy is one of golf.  I'll assume that most of my readers (all twelve of you) have heard of Tiger Woods.  Now, stay with me on this one.  Tiger Woods is the "gadol" in question.  Beneath him are many kinds of golfers.  There are other top level professional, mid-level professionals and amateurs at various levels of skill and experience.  But there is only one Tiger Woods.
How does the Modern Orthodox golfer approach Tiger Woods?  If I understand that group and its aversion to unconditional yirah correctly, then the MO golfer sees Tiger Woods as just another golfer.  Yeah, he's got a great set of skills but the MO golfer believes that if he just practises enough, he too can become just as good as Woods.  That's why Woods is so great, after all.  All he does all day is play golf while the MO golfer has an actual day job and can only golf in his free time.  What's more, the MO golfer has played some of the courses that Woods has played in the past and, on very rare occasions, done better on a particular hole than Woods did in his last PGA event there.  So not only is he a golfer like Woods, but on very rare occasions he's just as good if not better than Woods.  So while he can admire Woods' accomplishments, he does have any actual awe for him. 
The Chareidi golfer approaches Woods in a totally different manner.  For him, there is something special about Woods.  It's not because he has been practising and playing golf since he was two years old that makes him so good.  There's something special, something chosen about him.  Yes, he swings the same type of club as Woods but his poor results clearly show there is something different about Woods.  He's simply not in Tiger's league.  Tiger is perfect.  Even if he has a seeminly bad tournament, the Chareidi golfer knows that it really wasn't a bad tourney, it just appears that way to him because he's so far below Woods' level.  Even when Woods shot that ball into the sand trap, it wasn't a bad shot.  Woods meant to do it for some purpose far beyond the Chareidi's intellectual and spiritual grasp.  After all, the Chareidi golfer knows that his ball moves because he hits it with the club but that's not how Tiger plays.  Tiger moves his ball with the shem hameforash or ruach hakodesh and it only appears that the ball moves swings his club.  But he doesn't actually have to physically hit the ball, that's how far above the rest of us he is.
Somewhere in the middle, there is the middle ground.  The Navon golfer knows that Tiger's success is a combination of both gift and skill.  Yes, Tiger has been playing golf since he was weaned but lots of other men and women have been too and they haven't achieved what he has.  He has that little extra bit, that innate talent that combines with his drive and practice to create the Tiger Woods experience.  So I cannot simply say "Yeah, all I needed to do was practice like him and I'd been winning tournaments just like him".  I don't have the gift!  Others might have the gift but not the interest.  They cannot simply sit around and assume that one day they'll just walk onto the green and let fly with the ball.  They haven't practised.  But this combination of gift and skill make him a special person who stands heads and shoulders above the other competitors in his field.
Now take a look at the real rabbinic leaders of our day.  I don't care if it's Rav Eliashiv, shlita, or Rav Aviner, shlita, or Rav Schechter, shilta.  These men are not the talmidei chachamim they are merely because of the time they've spent in the beis medrash.  They are also gifted individuals who have used their intellectual and spiritual strengths to bring their intellectual gains to that next level.  They are worthy of yirah in a sense of admiration, the one reserved for a person who was capable of great things and actually achieved them.  Perhaps it is this for of yirah that MO should try to strive for in its relationship with its leaders, one based on an appreciation of the subject material (Torah) and the dedication of the Rav who has sought to excel in it for the sake of his Maker.