Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Wednesday, 29 April 2009

Converting Conversions

The never-ending fight amongst different authorities on conversions continues, as per this article from The Jewish Week. Unfortunately, it also highlights the reason why Israeli authorities continue to make conversion standards stricter and the inability of the non-Orthodox so-called "streams" to see their role as part of the problem.
Here's the bottom line for many Chareidim rabbonim in Israel. A person presents and says "I'm a Jewish convert." When asked about the process, imagine the array of bewildering answers. "Well I spoke to the Reform rabbi in my town and she said if I believed in God, well that's super." Or "Yeah, but I did it Conservative so they told me it was okay if I didn't actually keep kosher afterwards as long as I tried to be a good person."
But those are the easy ones. The hard ones are the ones who went to an ostensibly Orthodox rabbi but who failed to clue in that if you're going to go through the whole rigamarole, all the studying and effort, you're supposed to continue in the lifestyle after you're in.
Indeed, if I were a Chareidi rabbi I'd conclude, as many of them doubtlessly have, that unless the convert sitting in front of me looks and sounds exactly like me, he's probably not a truly successful candidate. It's not fair, it's probably not halachic and it causes a great deal of pain to many, many sincere Jews, but it has one major advantage: it requires no thinking. Never underestimate the power of that.
But when the non-observant protest this trend, they only undermine their own case. Consider:
Rabbi Robert Levine of the Reform Congregation Rodeph Sholom in Manhattan warned the full house of 250 people at the JCC: “We’re coming very close to the level of sinat chinam”
[hatred among Jews] that brought about the destruction of the Temple. “Many Orthodox rabbis won’t walk into my shul, and that pains me,” he said, noting that the level of trust among rabbis of different denominations has deteriorated in recent years.

Really, this is one of the most tired and weak arguments, but the Reformers never cease to pull it out. Having unilaterally rejected all traditional Torah values, having built institutions that violate halacha in their operation, they are then shocked, shocked!, that Orthodox rabbonim won't walk in. What have they missed? Judaism has, amongst other things, standards. If they refuse, in the name of secular liberalism, to hold by them, then who has declared who is unwelcome in their synagogues? Not the Orthodox.
Staking a claim that Conservative Judaism meets traditional standards on conversion, Rabbi Judith Hauptman, professor of Talmud and rabbinic culture at the Jewish Theological Seminary, cited Talmudic passages regarding how one should treat a potential convert. She said each requirement is met by Conservative religious courts.
A female rabbi insisiting the JTS meets traditional standards. Yeah, uh huh. See what I mean about a lack of self-awareness?
After hearing Rabbi Levine speak of how Reform conversions are carried out with an emphasis on Torah learning and a commitment to ethical behavior, within a framework of choice, Rabbi Herring said he was “astounded” to hear that the Reform movement “requires acceptance of the commandments.”
He said he had been led to believe that Reform requirements did not include a commitment to keep the mitzvot.
“We have to be truthful and frank,” he said.
The gray area of the discussion was on the definition of what it means to “accept the yoke of the commandments,” as cited in the Talmud; some Orthodox rabbis insist on a convert’s commitment to keep all of the mitzvot, and the more liberal branches require an assurance to lead an ethical life based on Torah values, but not necessarily each commandment.
Rabbi Levine noted that his Reform movement was responsible for most American conversions, and he offered an impassioned explanation of why basing a child’s Jewishness on patrilineal descent, the Reform standard, is consistent with Jewish history. He said that if Rabbi Herring’s standards were required, “we would be a vestigial people,” adding that when “you tell the vast majority [of potential converts] ‘you’re not up to our standards,’ the next generation won’t give a damn.”

This is an example of how Reforms twist time-honoured Torah principles beyond recognition and then insist: see? see? We're the ones who are really traditional by doing this! What Rav Herring (I think the RCA needs a leader named after a more aggressive fish) does not understand is how Reform defines Torah and mitzvos. Bluntly speaking, it means "Anything I do that I think makes me a good person is a mitzvah. Anything I learn which I think has religious meaning is Torah."
Rabbi Hauptman posed the notion of all girls going to the mikveh before bat mitzvah and all couples doing the same before marriage so as to level the standards of Jewish practice in a non-judgmental way.
Perhaps Ms. Hauptman should encourage her girls to not engage in pre-marital sex before sending them to a pre-bat mitzvah mikveh dip? Perhaps she could convince the 95% of her adherents who don't keep kosher to try avoiding the bacon dip at their next company lunch? Perhaps she could speak to those in her religion who drive on Shabbos and think they're doing a mitzvah and disabuse them of this notion?
In the end, the non-religious movements are hypocrites. On one hand they scream of Jewish unity. On the other hand, they create thousands of definitions of what kashrus, Shabbos and other Jewish insitutions mean. They are, in fact, the source of the disunity. If a Jew wishes to abandon Torah and mitzvos, he has that option. But to abandon them but continue to insist he's a good practising Jew? Sorry, that's just dishonest.

An Unfair Comparison

Every year this happens. Someone looks around during the Yom HaZikron siren and sees that, unlike everyone else, the Chareidim on the street don't stop and stand with respect. Yom HaAtzmaut arrives and they go about their business, refusing to join in the joy of the day. And people wonder why?
This article from Ynet tries to explain the difference but to my mind, it doesn't make the case:
The folklore that accompanies Israel's national Memorial and Independence Days, includes the perpetual question: What's the ultra-Orthodox's opinion? Will they stand for the moment of silence? Do they respect the memory of the fallen? Do they celebrate Independence Day? Do they rejoice in it?
The ritual question, which finds its expression through the images of those haredim who walk during the memorial siren, or through the heated statements of young haredim in Bnei Brak and Jerusalem, sparks a seemingly unexpected outrage among the state's secular residents: "Why don't they care?" "Why don't they stand up during the siren?" "Why are they indifferent towards Independence Day?" And so on.
And the truth is, dear seculars, that you're totally right. The haredim don't care. Memorial Day and Independence Day are not part of their historical chronology. The ultra-Orthodox don't stand up in silence during the siren, not because this is a "gentile custom"; they don't stand up in silence because this day symbolizes nothing to them, because on this day young haredim also don't recite Mishnayot or hold other religious ceremonies in memory of the fallen.
The haredi street does not celebrate Independence Day not because haredim think – like the eccentric minority that calls itself Neturei Karta – that this is a sad day, but because Independence Day, which for many is a national day and a highly important historical date, is for them a day like any other.
Many of the sector's members barbecue on Independence Day not because they wish to take part in the joyful holiday spirit, but mainly because it's an opportunity to light fire on a day off that's not a Shabbat.
Do the haredim do so out of alienation, disgust, or even wickedness? It appears not. The haredim do not celebrate or mark these holidays because they feel no connection to them. Most of them have never served in the army, and their parents did not take part in Israel's wars. Very few are the fallen, the injured or the combatants among the haredi family or neighborhood. So who have they got to remember and commemorate?
The ultra-Orthodox have never been involved in the crucial decisions of Israel's history, whether because they didn't want to be or because nobody asked them. Israeli democratic processes, which for the secular teenager seem trivial – such as party institutions, courts, primary elections, or even a student union, are alien to the haredi adolescent. What have they got to celebrate?
The two poles, which are so far apart during the rest of the year, aspire for unnatural synthesis on holidays and festivals. The haredim ask the seculars to be sad on Tisha B'Av, abstain from bread on Pesach, and study Torah on Shavuot. The seculars, who are, justifiably, unable to produce sorrow on the merry days of July-August and wail the destruction of an ancient house of ritual that means nothing to them, practically demand of the haredim to produce joy or sorrow on days that the haredim have no relation to.
So, dear seculars, get off our backs on memorial and Independence Day. We truly have nothing against them. We have no reaction to your grief, and we do not despise your joy, but however – they mean nothing to us.

There are a few serious flaws with this thesis. Let me point them out.
First, it's one thing for a person living in Canada to say "Hey, it's the 4th of July. Who cares?" In fact, life in Canada goes on as normal on July 4 each year because we don't live in the United States and therefore the day they declared independence really doesn't matter to us like it does to them.
However, for Chareidim living in Israel, this is absolutely false. The day Israel declared independence, everything changed for every Jew in the world, and especially the community in Israel. As a result of this declaration of independence, Chareidim can build yeshivos on the state's dime, sit and study without worrying about working for a living, once again on the state's dime. They can do so in safety because of the sacrifices of the brave and holy soldiers of Tzahal who do their utmost to keep all citizens of the State safe and secure. The Chareidim in Israel are direct, daily beneficiaries of the State and its defenders. To therefore say that holidays which recalls those who sacrified themselves for the State and the State which is the source of so much largesse to them is irrelevant stinks of lack of gratitude, a sin in itself.
Indeed, one might further note that it is precisely because so few Chareidim have fallen in combat as soldiers in the army that this community, more than any other, should be showing extreme gratitude to the brave kedoshim whose blood was split for them.
The second argument that falls flat is one of reciprocity. Now, I personally don't celebrate Yom HaShoah. I do my best to recall the lost souls of our people who were slaughtered during my recitation of kinnos on Tisha B'Av. That does not mean, however, that I do not care that my secular brethren find great meaning in Yom HaShoah. Indeed, in a secular culture that doesn't know about Tisha B'Av, there is no other way to commemorate the Holocaust other than on Yom HaShoah. To therefore say it is irrelevant to me, than I am exempt from respecting others' feelings regarding the day and acting as if this outpouring of pain and emotion from my brethren does not exist, is incredibly selfish. So the chilonim don't avoid bread on Pesach, but I don't walk into their homes and shove matzah in their face.
In the end, it strikes me that the attitude of this article is one of abrasive selfishness. Chareidim generally tend to ignore any recent Jewish life events or holidays they didn't create, but they do expect others to show extreme respect for theirs. They can set the standards for others, others cannot tell them what to do.
I recall being told my a Chabadnik a few years ago that one does not say tachanun on Kislev 19 because it's a day of celebration for all the Jewish people because of something that happened to one of their Rebbes (he might have had a particularly satisfying bowel movement, maybe?). When I pointed out that if I skipped tachanun, I fully expected him to say hallel with a brachah come Iyyar 5, he looked blankly at me. Accept my ways, he seemed to be saying, but don't expect me to do the same for you.
Yom HaZikaron is a day for all Jewish people to remember the sacrifices others have made so that we can have what to celebrate. Yom HaAtzmaut is the day to celebrate God's finally having remembered us to give us a place under the sun. Let those who don't see any relevance in these days remember that there is a grevious price to be paid for separating from the tzibur.

Monday, 27 April 2009

An End to Global Warming

King Abdullah II, who is far more dependent on Israel than his own army to ensure the security of his borders, nevertheless sees fit to interfere in the Jewish state's politics once in a while.
Well, you can't really blame him. After all, 75% of his population isn't Jordanian, or to more correct, Hashemite. They are so-called Palestinians and even though one of their own is now his queeen, they are still a suspect population in the eyes of minority. One cannot be too offended if, once in a while, he follows in his father's footsteps and makes token calls for the creation of a terrorist state in Yehuda and Shomron (there's already one in 'Aza).
But his more recent statement on the issue beggars belief:
Solving the core issue of the Israeli-Palestinian "problem" and that of Jerusalem will solve all the problems in the region, Jordan's King Abdullah said.
Abdullah, on Sunday's "Meet The Press," also said the United States must take a strong role in peace talks.
"The only way that we're going to be able to solve this problem -- if it's left to the players, the Israelis and Palestinians by themselves, we're not going to get anywhere," the king said. "It can only happen if there is an American umbrella with a determined American president that is going to get the Israelis and Palestinians to sit on the table because both sides historically have always come up with an excuse why not to go the last mile. And I believe that Obama understands how much this resonates."
Abdullah also said that solving the Israeli-Palestinian problem would be the best way for the United States to persuade Iran to back off its nuclear program.
He added that Israel's neighbors in the region are concerned that Israel could attack Iran, though they do not fear an attack by the United States.
"The rogue question would be what Israel would do," Abdullah said. "And therefore, I think it is an imperative over the next month or two to start negotiations because I think any military strike against Iran would be extremely counterproductive and I, I don't see the outcome of that.
"OK, you hit Iran. What happens then? And it's the not knowing, I think, creates a lot of fears with all of us around the world."

Hmmm. All the problems in the region, eh? Does he not realize that other than Iran there are lots of other problems in the region? For example, how will emasculating Israel solve the following:
1) 99% of Egypt's wealth is controlled by 1% of the population while the remainder lives in dire poverty. Fanatic Islamofascist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood are growing in power because of this. Only the secular military is preventing total social upheaval. How will giving Abbas a toy kingdom change this?
2) Hezbollah was created to get Israel out of Lebanon. Okay, they're out but Hezbollah is still there and now trying to take over the country to bring it under Iran's control. How will a peace agreement change this?
3) Forget the rest of the politics. What about environmental degradation, air pollution and the scarcity of fresh water?
Given the Arabs a 23rd state to use as a launchpad for attacks against Israel won't solve any real problems. Abdullah will be even more shocked when it exacerbates his own.

Sunday, 26 April 2009

Guest Post from Baruch Pelta

Not that long ago, Garnel offered me to write the occasional guest post for his blog. I have been extraordinarily busy, so time has gracefully not allowed me to brainstorm about the issues as much as I used to.

So I know what you're all obviously wondering; what does Pelta do when he's been working really hard and just needs to sit and relax for awhile? Sometimes good music just doesn't cut it.

What I've found is tremendously effective is watching skeptics and debunkers destroy (and make fun of) pseudoscientific claims, dubious conspiracy theories, and simple nuttery in online videos. I'm sure that sounds like an odd way to relax, especially for a religious fellow. So why have I developed this hobby? Well, they're usually just as entertaining as movies and they are free. And they remind those of us who care for emes not to take every iffy magic(k)al story we hear so seriously. Yes, I am aware that most (all?) of these outspoken skeptics I watch are atheists. Oh well.

Here's a list of videos that I made for the weekly viewing my friends and I have going. All of them save one are from ex-magician and skeptic extraordinaire James Randi, and that is simply due to my preference for his material (his organization is still offering over $1,000,000 to those who demonstrate paranormal abilities in scientific conditions; see their website for details). If you have a paranormal claim or conspiracy theory you wish to examine, remember that Google, Google Videos, and Youtube are your friends.

This post goes out to Rabbi Josh Waxman and Brooklyn Wolf; your posts for our community specifically is appreciated. -- James Randi debunks Israeli psychic Uri Geller. -- Randi debunks faith healer Peter Popoff in the 70's. -- Randi on Popoff in 2007 (scary, isn't it?) -- Are mediums legit? -- Can your personality be deduced by an expert who touches your personal possessions? -- Do modern astrological insights have bearing on the stock market? -- Can details about crimes be deduced from psychic information embedded in objects used? -- Can your personality be deduced from the way you write? -- Are mediums legit? (2) -- Does dowsing for metal work? -- Is facilitated communication legit? The video's at the bottom.

The Linear God

The Book of Iyov has always been somewhat troubling to me. For those of you who haven't gone through it, here's a capsule summary:
Iyov is this great guy living in the land of Utz. He's got everything: a wife, kids, property, cattle and the good sense not to have invested with Bernie Madoff. He's righteous too, constantly giving to the poor, celebrating his good fortune with his family and going overboard in acts of repentance just in case he or someone in his family has done wrong.
Up in Heaven, the Satan (in a great speaking role) comes before God who says, in effect, "Iyov is this great guy, you know?" The Satan responds by noting that, in his opinion, the only reason Iyov is so righteous is because God is so good to him. Take it all away, he offers, and Iyov won't be so swell.
So God says "Fine, take everything away and let's see what happens."
The next thing you know, Iyov's lost it all. His family is wiped out except for his wife, his cattle is stolen and his mutual funds tank (something about ABCP's I think). He's left with nothing except some boils on his body and a wife eager to nag at him about how lousy things suddenly are. But he refuses to curse God, instead uttering the famous line: The Lord hath given, the Lord hath taken, blessed be the name of the Lord.
Thus endeth the first part.
In the second part, three friends who are eventually joined by a fourth, come to comfort Iyov. Unfortunately, things don't go so well here either. Iyov, frustrated by being unable to comprehend why everything has gone south for him, cries out against God's handling of the universe. The friends, don't fare much better, each of them trying an approach based on the premise: God punishes the sinner, you got punished, therefore you're a sinner so admit it already and stop saying God is unjust. And the response from Iyov continues to be: I didn't sin! This isn't how justice works, therefore God must not be just.
Thus endeth the second part.
At the end of the book, in response to Iyov's challenge to answer for His perceived lack of justice, God Himself appears but His appearance is most troublesome. His justification for the misfortune that He has allowed to befall Job is, essentially: Hey, I'm God and you just don't understand things the way I do. To make matters even more confusing, God finishes off by giving Iyov back everything he lost and promising not to smite the loins of the friends who had spent the whole book justifying God's conduct in the first place, if Iyov requested that He not do so.
And here endeth the book.
Naturally, like all other books in the Bible, one cannot simply read this story at a surface level and expect to understand it. One is obliged to look deeper into the text to see what the meaning of the text is.
The first thing to understand, as Rav Soloveitchik notes, is that Iyov really isn't the great guy a superficial reading of the text implies. In fact, his major imperfection seems directly tied into how he responds to the Satan destroying his life.
Iyov, for starters, may be a nice guy but reading the text clearly shows that he is doing it on condition. He believes in God and he knows that he's doing wall thanks to His beneficence, and he's eager to do what he needs to do to keep that beneficence coming. Worship Him? Fine. Give to charity? Sure. Fast in case of unknown sins? Great. He thinks in a linear pattern. Justice means God does good to one who does good in His eyes. I do good, I get good. I want good, therefoere I will do good. And as long as I do good, I get God's goodness. Done.
The Satan's challenge isn't a giant cosmic bet. God does have better things to do (I sure hope) than sit up in Heaven rolling the dice. Hey, let's give this guy weevils in the groin and see if he complains. Let's give this other guy ten million dollars and see what he does with it. We might think like that but it is a grave mistake to attribute such simplicity to God.
No, the Satan's challenge is very simple. Unlike in non-Jewish mythology, he's not into lies. Rather, he simply states the truth the way he sees it. In response to God's statement "See how great Iyov is?" he notes the linearity of the relationship. "He's only good because You've been good to him. Take that good away and let's see if, in the absence of a linear relationship, he still think's You're so hot."
And as the story goes on to tell us, Iyov is confounded by the loss of cause and effect. Until now, the universe was easy to understand. Believing in God and worshiping Him was easy to do. Suddenly the world is a complex place where doing good does not lead to getting good and he doesn't know how to handle it. For Iyov, the loss of simplicity is not replaced with the thought: Perhaps there's something going on I don't understand. Rather he continues to insist that he does understand everything and therefore if something doesn't make sense, it's because nothing makes sense. There is no justice, just randomness. He was doing well before, He isn't now, but there's no higher purpose, just the tossing of the dice and he got snake eyes.
For the friends, there is a similar lack of ability to understand the situation. The seeming randomness that has stuck Iyov hasn't hit them... yet. Therefore they continue to indulge in the original paradigm: You do good, you get good. Therefore since Iyov is getting badness, he must have done bad.
But then what to make of God's entrance at the end of the story? Again, a closer reading of the text reveals a depth not easily noted. Yes, God clearly points out that the universe is so complicated that only He is qualified to run it and say what's right and wrong. Things happen in our world that we, as short lived beings trapped in time, cannot completely appreciate. Something bad happens to us, we cry out but it is hard to have faith that perhaps this is all for the best. A child gets cancer, chalilah. A person is struck and crippled after being struck by a drink driver who walks away unharmed (it seems the bastards always walk away unharmed), a person works hard to build a business only to have it stolen away by someone unscrupulous. To our eyes this is injustice. These people committed no sin, yet they are seemingly punished. Where is justice?
The Book of Judges tells us about a wicked man named Micah. Micah steals money from his mother and when he admits it she takes the money and helps him set up an idolatrous shrine. Things end badly for him when a group of people from Dan, looking for a place to live and a priest to lead them in worship, take off with his house Levy and his idol.
But the Midrash gives us an interesting background on Micah. According to our Sages, Moshe had an Iyov-like moment in Egypt at the start of his career. The Egyptians apparently had developed a method of Jewish population control that involved take our children and putting them into walls as bricks. Moshe complained to God about the seeming injustice of this. Adults who might have sinned, he could understand, but children who were blameless? How could God allow this to happen? God's response was: Fine, rescue one of those kids and see what happens. Chazal tell us that he did so and the baby turned out to be Micah.
If one accepts this Midrash as a literal historical happening, one must accept that the events of the Midrash and those recounted in the Book of Judges occured decades apart and that Micah revealed the depth of his corruption (he had seen God at Har Sinai and then raised a shrine to an idol) only after Moshe Rabeinu, a"h, died.
Imagine meeting Moshe Rabeinu on the day before his death. What would have his impression of Micah been? Nice kid, nothing really stands out about him. Zeh hu. In his eyes, he might have even thought: See? What was God talking about? Nothing bad happened because I saved him from becoming a brick. Yet long after his death the child's true nature came forth and corrupts hundreds of Jewish souls.
We forget, as creatures trapped in time, that God exists outside of time, seeing as he exists outside of everything He created and time is one of those things. We see things in a linear fashion. Today is the tomorrow I worried about yesterday (Sher O Shayari). We also have a strong psychological tenderness to anthropomorphize our conception of the universe because we have difficulty with the idea that everything in the universe does think like we do. We do it with animals, we do it with history, and worst of all, we do it with God. We think about how events happen, apply our limited ability to judge to the event, and then assume God must think like us. And if something unjust happens, we blame God. We think this is wrong. In our estimation it's bad, therefore it must be and therefore God has, chalilah, done wrong.
Only God doesn't think like us. It is axiomatic that we cannot comprehend His thoughts or how He runs the universe and it out arrogant human nature to believe we can understand both. This is what the book of Iyov comes to show us. Iyov, for all his great love of God, was a slave to a simplistic philosophy. I've figured out how the universe works, he said when things were going well. No you haven't, says God at the end of the book. You see cause and effect from a limited mortal perspective. You cannot possibly see the entire picture. That is why I allowed you, Iyov, to be seemingly be punished for nothing, to show you through bitter example that service and love of God is unconditional. What might seem bad to you is, in the greater scheme of things that only God can understand, really good and the point of faith is to be able to take a step back and see that.
Now, I'm not saying this is easy. If it was, countless trees that were sacrified to create paper to fill countless philosophy books that have cured insomnia for countless university students would still be standing and combatting global warming. Faith in the face of apparent injustice or random destruction is the hardest faith to maintain but that is the challenge of the Jew.
Indeed, I am convinced that most people who claim to reject God and Torah fall into this trap. They create a godhead that is simple and linear: Do good and this god does good for you because he said that he believes in justice and rewarding the righteous. Then when injustice happens, they clap their hands together and say: See? There's injustice. If there was really a god out there enforcing justice (as we understand it) then injustice wouldn't happen. Therefore there's no god.
How limited. How frustrating. A non-existent diety that doesn't come close to matching what we know of the Living God from our holy source, coupled with the unrealistic expectation that this omnipotent diety do what is right in our eyes because we can't possibly conceive of what is right being any other way.
And lest you think: Oh great, 50 paragraphs just to find him taking another swipe at the non-religious, let me inform you of a messy truth: too many Torah observant Jews think this way. I wouldn't have been able to say this two generations ago but nowadays it's quite easy to see this fault in the Jewish community. Really, of all those boys sitting in Lakewood or New York and learning, what proportion are there because a fire of determination to learn burns in their neshamah, and who would stay at learn come what may, and how many are there because there's money in it for them and who would leave if things got too tough? How many of us engage in the latest chumros not out of a hearfelt desire to please God and improve our neshamos but because we're afraid that if we don't keep up with the Jonesteins, that somewhat a vengeful diety will vent his rath upon our loins (and probably the other parts as well)? For how many of us is faith tied into a sense of doing well? This is the mistake of Iyov.
Indeed, is our history not essentially one great book of Iyov? Promised to be the Chosen People, picked for the greatest of futures, we have suffered more than any other people in history (if only because the nations who suffered more have disappeared and we're still around to receive more troubles). How is this consistent with what the Torah promised us? But we have faith that the big picture will be revealed when Moshiach Tzidkeinu appears (he's got a lot of 'splainin' to do Lucy) and it is that faith tha thas allowed us to endure as a people no matter what has happened to us.
This, then, is the point of the book of Iyov: to remind us that God is not a linear diety, trapped in time and cause-and-effect like us. He exists beyond and outside of such petty limitations. Perhaps this is what Chazal meant when they noted that it is a constant mitzvah to be aware of His presence. Being aware is easy. Being aware and remembering that we cannot understand His nature despite His closeness to us is another.

Saturday, 25 April 2009

On Being Chosen

Well, there's alway the old line from Fiddler on the Roof:
I know, I know. We are Your chosen people. But, once in a while, can't You choose someone else?
Rav Yonasan Rosenblum, in his latest column for The Jerusalem Post, notes something that is an obvious source of discomfort for many non-observant Jews:
Few concepts are so closely identified with the Jewish people as that of the "chosen people." That singularity is reiterated constantly in the Torah. We are referred to variously as "a kingdom of priests, a holy nation," "My special treasure among the nations," "My son, my firstborn son, Israel." Though our travails will be many, we are promised that God will never abandon us completely.
A strong sense of distinction has characterized the Jews from our earliest days as a nation. The ancient Greek and Roman historians noted the Jews' refusal to intermingle freely with other peoples, their strict endogamy - and despised them for it.
Until our own day, the clannishness of the Jews is a frequent theme of anti-Semites (even as others attack us for our attempts to penetrate every area of gentile society. Anti-Semites of a Hegelian bent synthesize the two claims: Jews attempt to enter everywhere to advance their group interests). Those who accuse Israel of war crimes often attribute those "crimes" to the Jews' belief that only their lives are of value and gentile blood may be freely shed. (In reality, no army in history has shed so much of its own blood to preserve that of enemy civilians as the IDF.)
Once, the idea that Jews constitute a people specially chosen by God caused us to separate ourselves from others and others to hate us for doing so. Today it is more likely to divide Jews from one another. Few claims make nonreligious Jews more uncomfortable than that Jews are God's chosen. About 15 years ago, Commentary magazine ran a symposium of Jewish theologians from the so-called three "streams" of Judaism. Of the non-Orthodox respondents, hardly one was prepared to offer a full-throated affirmation of Jewish chosenness, no matter how the concept was defined.
My colleague Amotz Asa-El spoke for many when he wrote a few years back, "The costs of being chosen have been far higher than the benefits." Amotz's problem was not so much the quality of our deal with God, as the very belief that we are His chosen people, as implied by his title, "Are we chosen?"

The first question one must ask is: what does being chosen mean? For many, it seems to be a source of pride, a sense of superiority. God likes us better than the rest of mankind, get it?
Only that's not entirely true. As Tevye Milchiger noted, being chosen isn't a one way gift. It's not like it means that we always get the winning lottery ticket. In fact, too many times in history it has proved to be the opposite. On account of being chosen, we have suffered more than any other people in history although the fact that we were chosen allowed us to endure and survive.
The truth seems to be that being chosen may confer rights but it also confers hefty responsibility on us as a people. Being a light unto them nations means living as a moral example of how well a world run by God's rules would be. It's no surprise that we fail at this task quite often. But it also demands fealty to God and His Torah, something too many of us either openly or covertly are unwilling to give.
Perhaps we can all take something positive from this concept of being chosen. If we fall, we fall further than anyone else but if we struggle to rise towards God and the perfection He has promised us that we can attain, we can rise higher and inspire humankind towards greater perfection. That is a chosen that we can then be proud of.
The second point to make though is relevant to the recent discussion in a previous post on whether or not one can define oneself as being a proud, belonging Jew while denying the absolute truth of Torah. In other words, can one be a cultural Jew but still feel a strong sense of belonging to the Jewish nation and its destiny?
What the remainder of Rav Rosenblum's article goes on to point out is that one can but this sense is very different from the sense of a believing Jew. The Jew who denies the truth of Sinai may maintain a personal connection to the Jewish nation but cannot believe in the concept of being chosen for a special mission by God. What that means, then, is that he must conclude that the Jews are one people amongst many in the world, and that while he is proud to have membership with him, this pride is no different for him than for a proud Muislim, or proud Frenchman. I think that's a pity because it does diminish one's sense of depth, and a willingness to tie into a shared history through the good times and the bad. Yes, one can technically be a cultural Jew but without even realizing it, he's giving up the main specialness that makes the Jew what he is.

To March or Not To March

March of the Living is a well known program that takes Jewish children from North America and Israel to visit Holocaust sites in Israel like Auschwitz. The premise is simple:
THE MARCH OF THE LIVING is an international, educational program that brings Jewish teens from all over the world to Poland on Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Memorial Day, to march from Auschwitz to Birkenau, the largest concentration camp complex built during World War II, and then to Israel to observe Yom HaZikaron, Israel Memorial Day, and Yom Ha'Atzmaut, Israel Independence Day.
The goal of the March of the Living is for these young people to learn the lessons of the Holocaust and to lead the Jewish people into the future vowing Never Again.

While it sounds very nice, I've always had a problem with the program. Without going into how unspeakable a tragedy the Holocaust it, I've never been comfortable with how central it has become to so many people's Judaism and sense of Jewish identity. For many, it seems, the Holocaust is the basis and rock upon which their sense of Jewish belonging rests. And to me that's wrong.
The many reason I feel that way is because it provides a mainly negative definition to one's Jewish raison d'etre. Why be proud to be Jewish? So as not to give Hitler, y"sh, a posthumour victory. Why marry Jewish? Same reason. Why support Israel? Because the State will protect us from another Holocaust.
Only it seems obvious to anyone who is watching North American Jewry decline that this is not the case. In fact, it seems to be the opposite. The constant focus on the Holocaust provides short term affirmation of Jewish identity but in the long term it turns them off. Judaism becomes about suffering and dying. Identifying with Jews becomes about memorial ceremonies and a sense of loss. All the beauty that is Judaism, all the livliness and happiness that it contains, is lost.
Perhaps this is why more and more rabbinic authorities are starting to openly oppose the program, something that was once taboo because it was considered akin to not respecting the tragedy of the Holocaust enough. For example:
Prominent Zionist-religious figure Rabbi Zalman Melamed this week stated that Poland is an "impure country riddled with anti-Semitism" that Jews should refrain from visiting.
Prominent Zionist rabbi says leaving Land of Israel not for sake of mitzvah banned, as is helping Poles – who collaborated with Nazis – make living out of death camps
Less than two months ago another leading rabbi, Shlomo Aviner,
almost sparked a diplomatic incident with the Polish government after saying that Israeli students must not take part in educational trips to the Nazi death camps in the country, so as not to provide livelihood to "murderers" who assisted the Nazi regime.
Now, one must note that the official Polish government position regarding Jews and Israel has improved tremendously since the end of communism. Poland even boycotted the farce of Durban II. I would not recommend not participating in March of the Living because of prior Polish crimes.
Rather, I would say there's a much different reason for not visiting Poland. One can learn about the Holocaust at Yad VaShem in Israel. Certainly many of the exhibits there have been designed to maximize the emotional experience of learning about Churban Europa. However, there is one additional experience that Yad VaShem provides that a walk from Aushwitz to Birkenau cannot: one leaves the darkness of Yad VaShem and enters the bright sunlight of Israel. One leaves the destruction of our parents and grandparents behind and sees what the survivors built. Jews are a people who, through the help of God, have survived attempt after attempt to destroy them and after this last, most horrible encounter with fire and death, built a new country out of sand and rocks, a country that has defied all odds to became one of the most amazing places in the world, all through Jewish perservance, intelligence and determination. The State of Israel is a positive expression of Jewish existence and, in my opinion, a far better place to create a sense of Jewish connection than in a glorified graveyard that is best remembered for posterity from a distance.

Sunday, 19 April 2009

They Have Three Campuses?

Obviously I don't follow the inner workings of the Reforms with much regularity but when I saw this piece, I was surprised. I had always assumed Hebrew Union College was just one institution. There's three of them?
The board of governors of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion will meet next month to discuss various ways of dealing with the school's financial problems, including whether to keep open just one of its three campuses in Los Angeles, New York and Cinncinati, according to the Los Angeles Times. Other alternatives include merging some academic programs while keeping more than one campus open.
In a letter to members of the college community this week, president Rabbi David Ellenson said HUC-IJR faced a deficit this year of $3 million and was "in the most challenging financial position it has faced in its history -- even more so than during the Depression," because of declines in its endowment and in dues paid by Reform congregations around the country, among other funding problems.

I can't express much sympathy on this one. Reform is about lack of commitment. When I was a kid, the Reform group in my home town lacked a building so they met twice a month at the local JCC which gave them the social hall free of charge. For many years they tried to strike a building committee but everytime they mentioned to the members that their dues, which were dirt cheap since the only thing they had to pay for was a rabbi, might go up people threated to jump back to the Orthodox shul or the Conservatives. They weren't necessarily there because they believed in Reform principles, but so they could say they belonged to a synagogue and get rock bottom dues.
You can't create a religion based on lack of dedication to anything other than amorphous secular values and then complain when the financial base can't keep up with increasing demands in a time of crisis. This was inevitable.

Predetermined Conclusions

The main difference between the media in democracies and in autocracies is that in the latter the fourth estate is controlled by the government and acts as its cheerleader while in the former, journalists believe themselves to be the most enlightened members of society and its directors through their position of influence.
Since the majority of major Western new outlets are biased to the left, this generally means acting as cheerleaders when left-wing, so-called progressive governments are in power and as holier-than-thou critics when the right wing manages to win elections.
Nowhere is this more evident than when Israel puts the Likud into a position of power. Being right wing, it is seen as the enemy by both the Israeli and international press. Never mind evaluating the ideas Bibi and co. might have for any possible merit. If the Likud wants it, it is bad. Unless it's what the press wants, of course, and then it's good because Bibi's finally seen the light.
This article from Ynet notes the following:
One day during the recent Passover vacation, I read in the newspaper about Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his family’s brief trip to the north of the country.
The news item was friendly and supportive; it provided details about the meal enjoyed by the Netanyahu family at a northern restaurant, made note of the fact that the family did everything in order to prevent traffic jams in the area, and also shared a little information about the deep knowledge displayed by Avner, the prime minister’s son, who possesses a rare familiarity with history.
Yet on the other hand, the story’s headline was disgusting and outrageous. “After 12 days on the job,” it said there, “prime minister takes his first vacation.”
In my mind I could see the editor of the news page reading the description of the vacation at night and feeling not too comfortable with it. The story must have appeared too nice to him; too sympathetic. He must have subsequently asked himself: Why not come up with a mean headline that would ruin the lovely atmosphere?
After all, this editor must have voted for
Tzipi Livni, or perhaps for Meretz, so it is difficult for him to be happy for Netanyahu. This editor must have found it difficult to accept the change of government in Israel (after all, nobody would be able to convince me that such headline was drafted based on purely professional motives.)
During Netanyahu’s previous term as prime minister, this was the atmosphere all the time. The feeling one got was that the media cannot forgive him for daring to defeat
Shimon Peres, and on top of that, for doing that right after late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination.
I think that the media, as well as Netanyahu, have reached this round softer, yet this apparently does not pertain to the above-mentioned editor, who views a trip that took half a day as a “vacation,” and a prime minister (who also happens to be a father to young children) who takes half a day to himself during the holiday as a free-rider.

No doubt had Tzipi Livni won the election, the vacation would have been portrayed in an exclusively positive light. Look, the same editor would have printed, she's a busy prime minister but still has time to take off for her family.
With the continuing growth of the internet, traditional media is becoming ever-more irrelevant. And as opposed to before where large segments of the population of a country might be hostage to the opinions of their national news editors, today's information consumer is able to seek out friendly ideas and news outlets to counter the biased vitriol that the left calls "news and opinions". Hopefully this will only accelerate as the Israeli left's media falls over itself to prove its lack of objectivity in the next 4 years.
If Netanyahu is smart, he'll read my blog and realize that the best way to deal with his political and media enemies is to concentrate on domestic issues for the next couple of years. If he's talking about economic recovery, a more sane medical system and a revamp of the educational system while his opponents insist on making it all about giving everything away to the country;s enemies, he will push them into irrelevancy even quicker.

Friday, 17 April 2009

Learning Without Thinking

In his latest piece, Rav Yonasan Rosenblum unwittingly reveals much about what is wrong with the Chareidi community today. In an otherwise harmless piece called Living in Learning, he notes the following vignette:
Whenever I ask myself precisely what makes me chareidi, I come back to a story I read recently about Rabbi Aharon Leib Shteiman. A couple in Bnei Brak were having a small family dispute. One of them wanted to buy a fancy new car, and the other felt that such a car might bring on the evil eye.
The husband was duly dispatched to Reb Aharon Leib for his opinion. Reb Aharon Leib asked the husband what perek (chapter) he was learning in Gemara. The man stumbled briefly, trying to remember the name of the perek. Then Reb Aharon Leib asked him whether he had a chiddush of any kind in the Gemara. He did not. Next Reb Aharon Leib asked him whether he had some insight on the parashah (weekly Torah reading) or some problem with which he was wrestling. Again, there was only an embarrassed silence.
Finally, Reb Aharon Leib told the husband in all temimus (innocence), "You don't have anything to say about the Gemara. You don't have anything to say about the parashah. Why should anyone envy you? You can buy whatever car you want."
Now, few of us live at the level of Reb Aharon Leib, who could not comprehend how anyone could be envious of his neighbor's fancy car. Yet the story encapsulates a communal ideal: the essence of life is intense involvement with Torah. I want to live and raise my children in a community where that ideal burns bright. And the chareidi community of Eretz Yisrael most nearly approximates that ideal

How many absurdities can you spot in this short excerpt? Let's start at the top. Skipping over the whole "evil eye" thing, one must first ask what Rav Shteinman was doing in this story at all. Imagine the corresponding medical scenario - a person has a big of indigestion. Rather than talking to his friends or seeing his family doctor, he marches right into the office of the biggest specialist in town. No, no, in the country! Because it's indigestion and he wants to make sure the biggest specialist gave him his opinion.
Never mind that he himself knows that those five beers, 10 coffees and 2 large pizzas he consumes every day are probably the reason for it and if he were to just cut out his unhealthy lifestyle habits it would probably go away. That would represent independence of thinking and introspection and who wants that when they can just march into a specialist's office and have him do that for him?
Yet as crazy as that sounds, this seems to be exactly the same thing. Instead of saying "Hey, who cares what the neighbours think?" or asking the local rav or a trusted friend, the no. 2 man in the Chareidi hierarchy is accessed. Not for a world-altering shailoh, not for something really, really important, but for the opinion on a car purchase. And this is presented as a meritorious act.
Clearly, Rav Shteinman knew what kind of fool he was dealing with. Imagine you're the biggest medical specialist in the world and a guy demands to see you for his mild indigestion because, well he wants to see the best. At some point, the thought "This guy is a moron for wasting my time" has got to cross your mind. Did that happen with Rav Shteinman? Given that his response was to reduce the guy's ego to a pile of dog excrement by pointing out what an ignoramus he is, the unspoken answer would seem to be: yes.
The next is idea that we simpletons could not be at the level of not comprehending why someone would be envious of his neighbour's car. Maybe I am overestimating my limited capacity, but if my neighbour got a new car, I would probably be happy for him. I know he works hard for a living, puts most of his efforts into making sure his kids will do well in school and life and lives a modest life. If he gets a new car, things are going well for him and I would think that's great. What does it say about Chareidi society that you have to be a gadol to think like that? Is the average chareidi such a mean spirited fool racked with jealuousy that you have to go to a gadol to learn otherwise?
Finally, there is the usual Chareidim-are-best parochial nonsense that Rav Ronseblum occasionally succumbs to, especially after he's written an article or two that is critical of his community. It's a technique he uses to restore his street-cred amongst a group that sees any criticism, no matter how well said or valid, as no different than pogrom-crazy Ukrainians off to rape the local besulos. "The essence of life is intense involvement with Torah." The Chareidim are a community where "that ideal burns bright".
Really? Then why is this family so worried about the neighbours being jealous, especially since the Torah is so against jealousy in the first place?
Perhaps this is why Rav Ronseblum no longer posts on Cross Currents. While his work is still good, there are now more and more logical flaws appearing it and criticism of those flaws, no matter how right or well intentioned, seems to be beyond the pale.

Tuesday, 14 April 2009

The Slippery Slope of Death

One of the things that Western secular culture finds really troubling about religion is its sense of absolutism. The strong sense of right and wrong, coupled with an attitude that this sense is not negotiable, is very strange when seen from a liberal perspective where everything is a shade of gray, black and white having been excluded because absolutism cannot exist.
It's this way with many things which act as foci of confrontation between religion and secularism but in few places does it play out with as much as passion as it does when death is involved. For most major religions, murdering unborn babies is a crime. For secular culture, it's a form of birth control not really any different from the birth control pill.
And thus it is with euthanasia. No, not kids in China, but rather killing oneself. From a Jewish perspective, euthananasia is forbidden. God has given us our bodies and lives and it is only when He chooses that those lives are ended and those bodies return to the earth. The idea that a human being could one-up God and choose when to end life is unacceptable, about as permitted as murder. This is an absolute.
Unfortunately in secular culture this same sense of the dignity of life does not exist. That's not too surprising. A culture that sanctions death to their unborn is hardly likely to see much value in the life of a person who is crippled, elderly and declining. Further, throughout history, people who have lost a sense of where their life is going, or feel their personal honour has been irrevocably destroyed, have chosen to end their lives rather than confront the challenge of going on. Therefore, the personal decision to end life isn't a new concept.
What is new is how accepted it has been. Until recently, the acceptability of euthanasia has been limited to very specific situations, such as people with extremely painful illnesses or terminal conditions causing great suffering without a hope for a cure. The common thread in all the high profile cases in this area has been sympathy. No one wants to see someone writhing in pain or struggling for each breath. The most effective argument against euthanasia opponents has been: "How can you condemn them to suffer so?!"
But the problem is that a lack of absolutism means that secular culture has no firm red lines, only slowly mobile ones. Decades ago abortion was reserved for health-threatening pregnancies and "accidents". Nowadays it's acceptable for girls to get repeated abortions because they just couldn't care less about using effective birth control. The line on euthanasia has continued to move as well, as this article from The National Post shows:
The head of a controversial assisted-suicide group in Switzerland says he will seek legal permission to help a Canadian woman and other healthy people like her kill themselves, raising startling new issues in the emotional debate over euthanasia.
Betty Coumbias, an elderly Vancouver resident, has indicated she wants to die alongside her husband, George, who suffers from severe heart disease.
Involving healthy individuals would dramatically extend the boundaries of assisted suicide, usually thought of as a way for the terminally ill to avoid an otherwise painful, uncomfortable death.
If successful, the Swiss group, Dignitas, would essentially be aiding in a suicide pact, charged one Canadian critic, while a Toronto-based euthanasia advocate says people have the right to choose the time of their death, whether sick or not.

Pay attention to the major salient detail: Betty Coumbias is healthy. She is completely not the typical euthanasia poster patient. Yet this group, Dignitas, is fighting for her to die when her husband succumbs to his heart disease. Why? Because she can't imagine going on without him.
Leaving aside the obvious patheticity of this case, consider further the following which goes unsaid in the article: commiting suicide isn't that hard, especially for someone like Ms. Coumbias. After all, there are probably several people in her social circle who are diabetics on insulin. With access to that medication, ending one's life relatively quickly is quite easy. You skip lunch, take a large dose of rapid acting insulin, and wait. Why has Ms Coumbias turned to an outside group to assist her? After all, she could simply carry an insulin pen with her and when her husband passes away, inject herself. No one need know. No lawyer need be enriched with endless courtroom dramas. But she hasn't chosen to do it this way and one has to ask why.
And here's my suggested answer: she wants to die with her husband because she can't imagine going on without him. But she hasn't the guts to kill herself. Just as she can't stand the idea of widowhood, she can't stand the idea of raising her hand against herself. Someone else will have to do the dirty work.
Is this what Western liberal culture has become reduced to? A soft social group incapable of handling the least suffering, who expect a life of undisturbed tranquility and happiness? And someone else to step in an painlessly end a life that fails to live up to that unrealistic expectation?
Ms. Coumbias deserves no sympathy. And Dignitas deserved to be abhorred by all thinking, moral people.

Monday, 13 April 2009

Guest Post by Rav Benjy Hecht

Thank you to Rav Benjy Hecht of Nishma (he also has his own blog) for this post:

The Two Loci of Orthodoxy

Subsequent to Garnel’s posts about YCT, I was speaking with him and asked him how his critiques of YCT are different than the Charedi world’s critiques of Modern Orthodoxy. Of course, the substance of the critiques are different, as what bothers Garnel about the views of YCT are different than what bothers the Charedi world about the views of Modern Orthodoxy, yet my question focused on form and theory. It just seems that the yardsticks that he applied in challenging the Orthodoxy of YCT were very similar to the yardsticks used by the Charedi world in attacking the view of Modern Orthodoxy. Garnel saw my point. The result, though, was my agreement to write a guest post on the subject.
Of course, since our discussion and prior to my presentation of this post, Garnel already attempted to address this issue in his post Defining Orthodoxy. His conclusion -- although he himself admitted to the difficulty of the question and the challenges within his presented solution -- was that while even as segments of the non-Orthodox may develop technically acceptable halachic arguments for their positions, the answer basically still precedes the analysis. In other words, they know the conclusion they want and with which they will conclude before doing the analysis, in fact framing the arguments to defend the already desired conclusion. Yet, Garnel still admits that, from his perspective, the Charedi world often does the same although their desired conclusion is to be stringent and limiting. What is really strange, though, is that in the presentation from Rabbi Student with which Garnel began his post. Rabbi Student seems to argue that Orthodoxy is defined by this very process of maintaining the desired conclusion even in the face of appropriate, technical, opposing arguments – the desired conclusion being to maintain the tradition. So what is the force of the halachic process?
The fact is, though, that investigating a halachic question with a desired purpose in mind is actually also part of the halachic process. Responsa literature is filled with such cases, both with the objective to find a heter and with the objective to maintain a customary stringency. Approaching a case with a desired, wished outcome is not, in itself, outside the pale of Orthodoxy Of course, Garnel is correct that if one, if unable to find a halachic argument for a desired position, then chooses to disregard the halacha, that is clearly outside the pale. Yet Rabbi Student’s argument is that the advocates of YCT are still open to critique even when they have technical halachic arguments to support their position. So what is the problem? It can’t be just their application of their desired outcome.
The answer is found in the actual dialectic that, I believe, is at the very root of Orthodoxy. I cannot in this post even fully present this perspective let alone defend it, yet just from a brief introduction I hope I can shed light on the answer to this challenge of defining Orthodoxy. Most people perceive Orthodoxy as having only one point at its centre – the directives of God commanded at Sinai. What is lost, though, is that there are really two loci at the centre of Orthodoxy. In addition to the directives at Sinai, there is also the nature of the recipients of these directives – which has additional significance because the very directives of God are in themselves not totally clear. (On this point, see the Introduction to Iggrot Moshe by Rabbi Moshe Feinstein.) The result is that Halacha is not the result of the simple presentation of directives from God but rather the understanding of these directives – which are also presented in a complex and cloudy manner -- through the analysis undertaken by the recipients of these directives. Practical Torah is a mixture of the human and Divine – and this was the intentional objective and purpose of God. The challenge of Orthodoxy is thus to maintain and honestly apply these two loci.
The real challenge of Orthodoxy is to find the truth – what one, through the intense study of Torah, truly believes is what God wants – but that is not so easy to determine. Some would like to define this in an almost fundamental way – just read the statement simplistically, but that is problematic for that was not God’s intent when He presented these statements. He intended them to be read critically, with the human intellect. We do not read “an eye for an eye” literally but, perhaps more importantly, if one studies the gemara’s argument for why this is so, one finds that it is the intellect that demands a further explanation beyond its problematic fundamentalist meaning. The way that Torah is structured is that to correctly define the Will of God, God demanded the use of the human will.
The result is that, if Torah is read literally without human involvement, the reality is that one will often get it wrong. Yet if read with the human will, there is also the possibility of an incorrect conclusion for one may over apply one’s human perspective and then, subsequently, also get it wrong albeit in a different way. The dilemma of Torah is thus to correctly apply one’s human will in concert with the correct approach to the Divine Will. This is ultimately the challenge that is at the basis of Orthodoxy. To be Orthodox means to apply this dialectic in a most serious manner. This means to be concerned that one may be reading into the Divine command that which one wants the law to be yet to also be concerned that one is reading the presumed statement of the Divine law too fundamentally and rejecting the need for human analysis to open up its true meaning. It means to wear both hats. This is, perhaps, another reason for why it is so important within Orthodoxy to know opposing opinions and value them. (Remember that Beit Hillel is praised not simply for quoting Beit Shammai but for quoting them first.) It is a way of making us face the dialectic.
Within this framework, we can now better understand a framework for critiquing variant views aside from a simple dislike of their conclusions – which really is not an acceptable method within the Torah parameter of eilu v’eilu. The Charedi world is ultimately concerned about the over representation of the human will in determination of the final understanding of the Will of God. As such, its solution is to solely entrust this process of applying human intellect and perspective to the gadol or gedolim for only they can be presumed to balance to two loci correctly. Everyone else is then called upon to treat the decisions of these gedolim as the one centre of true Torah reflecting the Will of God. This perspective is then reinforced by trying to hide the reality of the actual Torah decision making process, even to simply declaring that the gadol simply has ru’ach hakodesh and thus is directly simply presenting the correct and only Will of God. The critique against this approach is that while, no doubt, gedolim have to be respected as having greater knowledge and wisdom in the process of analysis and individuals should recognize their limitations in attempting to balance the two loci, this reality that calls upon the development of the human intellect and perspective in the Torah process also cannot be ignored and, not only not embraced but rejected.
This would be the basis of what I believe to be Garnel’s critique of the Charedi world. Of course, this may also be the critiqued leveled by those to the left against the positions that Garnel maintains. Garnel, in turn, would declare that these individuals are allowing the human perspective to have too much sway – evidenced by the fact that the non-Orthodox would override the Halacha, in any event, if they cannot find a justification for the position they desire. Yet, even within those who maintain that they are within the parameters of Halacha – or, as Rabbi Student would maintain, can find technical halachic arguments although missing perhaps a greater imperative – the problem still lies in the motivation and the decision making process as the two loci collide. Torah truth demands that one set as the goal what one believes to be the true directive of God not what one wants or even what one feels is morally correct. It was in regard to this point that I described my difficulty with what occurred at the YCT dinner when someone was asked about the ordination of women. The person answered ‘nothing’ and received a loud applause. Were they applauding the person’s analysis of Torah and the determination of the correct understanding of the material or were they applauding the conclusion that they desired, even as they believe that conclusion to be morally correct? When the person answered ‘nothing’, he was also presenting the answer to that question. Where are the other sources? Where are the intellectual Torah argument and the appreciation for the sevarah and not the conclusion? Garnel’s cry is to accept Torah study and analysis, the Torah process. This is done by quoting the other side. This is something the right and the left both don’t do, at least, with respect. The result is the loss of the two loci that Torah demands. This is really, I believe, Garnel’s problem.

Sunday, 12 April 2009

Two Types of Matzah

At the beginning of the seder, we lift up the matzos and say "Ha lachma aniah", "this be the bread of affliction." This seems to set the stage for our understanding of what matzah is meant to symbolize: the slavery, the poverty, the misery of living in Egypt. Forget croissants and doughnuts, we didn't even have Wonder Bread.
Yet later on in the seder we reach Rabban Gamliel's list of essential seder discussion topics and one of the big three is matzah. This time we point at the bread of our constipation and say that it reminds us about how the Egyptians hurriedly kicked us out of their country, so quickly in fact that we had no time to let our breads rise. Matzah was the bake-n-go food alternative and we have it at the seder to remember this.
So which is it? Afflication or freedom?
One might ask a further question: how can matzah be the bread of affliction in the first place, as I suggested at the start of the post. After all, when our ancestors later wax nostalgically about the things they missed from Egypt, like the flesh pots, fish and vegetables, it makes it extremely unlikely that our ancestors ate much matzah during the servitude. Pita, sure, but not matzah. If we only made matzah because of the haste of the departure, then it can't be the bread of our affliction.
There is, however, a way to reconcile the two aspects of the matzah. Remember that matzah isn't simply a representation of what we ate so many years ago now. It is also a powerful symbol of all that is true in the world because, as matzah it also stands for not being chametz.
What is, after all, the difference between chametz and matzah? Air, that's all. The flour and water in both are exactly the same but chamatz is full of air and matzah is devoid of it. We choose a bread to eat on Pesach that is missing emptiness, that lacks a fluffiness that looks impressive and but really contains nothing.
Why did our ancestors get exiled to Egypt? There were, in that time, two choices. There was Egypt but there was also Aram and remember that our Avos spent time in both places. What is the difference between them? What made Egypt the preferred land of the exile?
The answer would be the gross level of civilization in Egypt, as opposed to Aram. Egypt was, at the time, the cultural and political power of the world. It was technically advanced and culturally sophisticated with a powerful religion and social structure. Aram, on the other hand, was a rural culture. From what the Torah tells us of it, life was far simpler there. It's one thing to remain distinct as a nation when the alternative is that much better. It's much harder for an ethnic group to remain cohesive when the surrounding society offers a seeming superiority in everything. One doesn't have to look far back into history to see how Jews rebuffed assimilation when confronted by the emancipation of Western Europe as compared to the relatively barbarity of Poland and Russia. In the East, it was a mark of pride to be a literate Jew surrounded by illiterate Slavs. In the West, it was a mark of pride to be part of the "enlightened" culture.
But it goes beyond that as well. Egypt, as per our Torah, represents materialism at it most completely. Everything was about the physical. Even death was glorified with huge tombs and stored possessions for the dead on their supposed next journey. Egypt couldn't get past the physical while our ancestors knew of the truth of the spiritual. It was a complete contrast with the opposite side proving to be a formidable opponent. Chazal tell us a slave never escaped Egypt. What, no tricky Nubian boy never crossed the fronteir in the dark of night? This statement really is a play on a more recent phrase: You can take the boy outta Egypt, but you can't take the Egypt outta the boy.
"In every generation, each person must see it as if he himself left Egypt." The seder corresponds to this idea. When we start, we are still slaves. As the story in the hagaddah progresses, we become free and finally leave the land o' bondage. Therefore the matzah of the early part of the seder, the lachma aniah is representative of what we represent versus what the world, as exemplified by Egypt, stands for. It is the truth of reality with all the materialistic fluff removed and when was this reality challenged more than when we were oppressed?
But in the second half of the pre-meal seder, we are now free. The matzah is no longer struggling against the power of the outside world. It has triumphed and shown that truth will overcome all attempts by glitzy falsehood to destroy it. It is our pride and principle possession as we leave Egypt.
Why then do we continue eating matzah for seven further days?
The annoying truth that the secular world would prefer to forget is that we are all, in one way or another, slaves. Whether it is to our jobs, our spouses, our lifestyles or even the cell phone on our hips, no one is truly free. Despite promises in the American constitution to the contrary, liberty is elusive and if you don't believe me, try sleeping in tomorrow, showing up late at work and telling our boss: Dude, I'm a free man.
But ultimately, since we are all servants, we have to define who the big boss it. It might be the cell phone, the guy in the corner office, the women with the rolling pin, or it might be God. What's the difference? Ultimately the pride of service. I may have daily obligations but in the final analysis, I work for God. I am His servant and I say this with pride, not shame. Everything I do is rationalized slavery, yes, but I willingly choose it because the matzah tells me I can't hide behind the fluff that would obscure this truth. Chamatz is appealing and beckoning. It promises luxury, a soft taste but what makes it different from matzah is mere air. Matzah reminds me of reality - there is only service of God that is worthwhile in this world.
So it is then that even after we leave Egypt on day 1 of the holiday we continue, as liberated slaves from Egypt, to remember that we are still slaves, only instead of to our passions or some demagogic human rules, to the King of Kings Blessed be He.

Wednesday, 8 April 2009

The Chumrah For the Guy Who Already Has Too Many

Yeah, yeah, but it isn't too late to take this one on as it only comes into effect after chatzos today. I also don't recommend mentioning this one at the Seder, especially while you're digging into the matzoh ball soup. (What, you keep gebrokhts?!)

Okay, the background: Chometz must be burned before Pesach. However, if one finds chometz during Pesach, even if it was nullified, then as long as it isn't nifsal meachilas kelev one must burn it on Chol HaMoed.
Thus one must conclude that one must burn one's first bowel movement that one has after chatzos today since it will contain chometz and since we know that dogs do eat the stuff when they're really hungry, it isn't nifsal so it must be burned or otherwise disposed of this.
Based on the gemara in Bubbe Mayseh 1C, the minimal way to dispose of this form of chometz is by flushing it, along with any leaves used, down the toilet. However, the Minchas Pinchas notes that since nowadays we used toilet paper instead of leaves (funny how that modern innovation was okay with everyone) we must either flush the paper or burn it.
In addition, one should be careful not to eat any corn for 24 hours prior to that first bowel movement to avoid the chashash of kitniyos.
Based on the teaching of the Shoteh MiChelm, the custom arose in the 18th century to actually have that bowel movement over an open fire instead of relying on flushing it away. His reasoning was that since we burn all other chometz and this material is also, technically chometz, we should treat it the same way. He was also machmir to have that first bowel movement directly into the fire in case any small pieces got lost between the toilet and the burning site (see refernce to corn above) but in a later teshuvah admits he was only zocheh to fulfill the mitzvah once like this as the following year his psychiatrist and plastic surgeon both insisted he be hospitalizaed just before the holiday when he announced he would try the direct approach again.
Instead we nowadays rely on the V'tipol me'al HaChamor to either allow flushing l'hatchilah or carrying the material and throwing it into the fire.
Once again, happy Pesach to everyone out there.

Monday, 6 April 2009

Guest Post by Dr Michael Schweitzer

Hat tip: Failed Messiah
One of the points I made in my article about Modern Orthodoxy which is posted at this blog is that the movement relies heavily on Chareidi/Agudah associated publishers for much of its material, including such basic things as siddurim and chumashim. As I noted:
Also, just as the Agudas Yisroel distributes books and materials emphasizing their points of views and insights through major publishers such as Artscroll and Feldheim, Modern Orthodoxy must retain a publisher and begin spreading books and materials relevant to its philosophy. Why is it that the current Orthodox Union siddur is published by Artscroll and not by a Modern Orthodox publisher? When searching the shelves of the local Jewish book stores, one can justifiably ask: where are the biographies of the Rav and other luminaries from the Modern Orthodox world? The importance of this aspect of the movement cannot be over-emphasized.
Although one of the feedbacks I received criticized the article, I nevertheless felt this point to be correct. The Agudah publishers are in an excellent position to define what Torah observance is and they do this from within their narrow perspective. While there are several excellent Modern Orthodox authorities who have commented on our holy works, only one ever seems to make the cut in the Agudah world, the Rav. But otherwise pious and well-learned authorities from outside the Agudah's circle seem not to exist when Artscroll and Feldheim come to present their sources.
Now this article from the JTA seems to be vindicating my position:
NEW YORK (JTA) -- For decades, Mesorah Publications has towered over the English-language Jewish publishing world like a Goliath.
The Orthodox publishing firm's siddur, produced under the ArtScroll imprint, is the most common prayer text in American Orthodox synagogues, and its myriad translations of religious books -- most notably its groundbreaking English version of the Babylonian Talmud -- have made a vast trove of Judaic literature available to English speakers.
But two new initiatives are posing a fresh challenge to the ArtScroll dominance.
In May, Koren Publishers Jerusalem will release the first English edition of its popular Hebrew siddur featuring a commentary and translation by the chief rabbi of England, Sir Jonathan Sacks. And the Orthodox Union has launched a new publishing arm, which its backers describe as filling a “niche” in the Orthodox world, principally through the publication of the writings of the late Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, the leading thinker of Modern Orthodoxy.

Why is this so important? Aren't all siddurim the same? The answer, I would suggest, is no. A legitimate movement has both literature and leaders. Those leaders are known to their followers who, in turn, learn from them and their philosophies. Reading an Artscroll or Feldheim novel, one quickly gets the sense that the typical proper Orthodox Jew is the one who fills the streets of Boro Park. Knitted kippot, modern clothing, not wearing a black hat during davening (or ever) just don't figure into their view of how you should be if you're religious. Thus it is imperative for Modern Orthodoxy to show that they too have a direction and philosophy.
Hopefully this will be the start of a good initiative for the movement, perhaps with a commentary on the Chumash empahsizing the thinking of MO scholars to follow.
But I'm not sure I'll be buying the new siddur. I'm still a fan of the Birnbaum siddur and I don't see why I have to change.

On Birkat HaChamah

As some of you may know, this Wednesday morning marks a special opportunity to make a bracha that comes only one in 28 years. The Talmud tells us that someone who sees the sun in its equinox says the blessing "Oseh maaseh bereshis". Through various stages of analysis, it is now generally explained that on this morning of April 8 the Sun is in exactly the same position vis a vis the Earth as it was when God first placed it in the sky on Day 4 of Creation.
Now, given that this opportunity only comes every 28 years there seems to be a lot of hoopla assocaited with it. Just like Daf Yomi was once upon a time an exclusive club limtied to a very few scholars and now increases its adherents with every new cycle, so too the phenomenon that is Birkat HaChamah is growing each time. This time through even the ignorant secular groups, the ones that think tikun olam is about environmentalism and fair employment standards, are getting in on the act.
But like an Jewish ritual which, over time, has grown far from its founders' original intents, it's important to clear up a few things:
1) There's this urban myth that this year is the third time that Birkat HaChamah has occured on Erev Pesach. The first time was the yeaer of yetzias Mitzraim, the second was the year Purim happened. However, this is not true. It's the fourth time since the calender was fixed by Hillel the Younger 1600 years ago. As well, neither of those two events happened in a Birkat HaChamah year.
2) You do not have to be outside to say the blessing. Seeing the Sun through a window is completely acceptable. The reason for going out during Birkat Halevanah is for the specific reason that we are greeting the Shechinah as it were. This is not the case on Wednesday where we are acknowledging an astronomical event.
3) The mitzvah is fulfilled by saying the blessing. Period. The other stuff, the various tehillim and prayers that have been added on over the centuries are nice, inspirational and great if you have the time to do that. If you don't, because you have to get to that last chometz breakfast to gorge yourself because, Heaven knows, you aren't going to have enough to eat over the next eight days (seven, for my Israeli reader(s)), then don't lose sweat. You got the mitzvah. But the bottom line is: You see the sun, you say the blessing.
May we all merit that this be the last time we say this blessing in exile and that the words LeShanah HaBa'ah Biyerushalayim that we will say at the seder in a couple of days be fulfilled in this coming year.
A Chag Kasher v'Sameach to all of you.

A Warped Reality

I'm late to the game on this one but I do want to add my two cents (Canadian) to the ongoing lashing that Rav Avi Shafran is being given over his most recent column. The gist of the column is quite simple:
Something tells me I won’t make any new friends (and might even lose some old ones) if I confess to harboring some admiration for Bernard Madoff.
And to make things worse, I can’t muster much for Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, the pilot who safely landed a full commercial airliner in the Hudson River back in January.

Well, not making any new friends is an understatement on this one. While Rav Shafran has come under criticism in the past for denying that any abuse of significance exists in the Agudah Jewish community, or that Agriprocessors is a model business run to the strictest levels of business ethics, this time he seems to have completely lost it.
It is, after all, one thing to try and keep the blanket pulled over a dirty family secret. It's quite another to write a column justifying positive feelings for one of the worst criminals in America today while simultaneously discounting the deeds of a true hero. Here's how he does it:
Think about it. The man knew for years that his scheme would eventually come apart and that prosecution loomed, yet he took no steps to flee, huge bribe in hand, to some country lacking extradition treaties. Idi Amin, we might recall, died of old age in luxury. Madoff’s millions, moreover, could have easily bought him a new face and identity papers; he could spent his senior years tanned and well-fed among the sunbirds of Miami Beach.
Instead, though, he chose to essentially turn himself in and admit guilt. He apologized to his victims, acknowledging that he had “deeply hurt many, many people,” and adding, “I cannot adequately express how sorry I am for what I have done.”

No such sublimity of spirit, though, was in evidence in any of the public acts or words of Mr. Sullenberger. He saved 155 lives, no doubt about it, and is certainly owed the gratitude of those he saved, and of their families and friends. And he executed tremendous skill.
But no moral choice was involved in his act. He was on the plane too, after all; his own life depended on undertaking his feat no less than the lives of others. He did what anyone in terrible circumstances would do: try to stay alive. He was fortunate (as were his passengers) that he possessed the talents requisite to the task, but that’s a tribute to his training, and to the One Who instilled such astounding abilities in His creations (and Whose help the captain was not quoted as acknowledging).

In other words, Madoff is a great guy for saying sorry. But what's the big deal about Sullenberger? (Note he even discounts his title: Captain, calling him Mr. instead) He was just doing his job.
To melamed some z'chus to him, I tried to think this through. Yes, the essential point is correct. Madoff could simply have disappeared with his millions. The financial outcome for his victims would have been essentially the same. Could we not see it as a positive thing that he apologized and accepted his fate?
And the answer I came to was: No. Yes, I know teshuvah accomplishes amazing things but Madoff's sins were ben adam l'chavero and until he actually goes and makes up the terrible damage he has done to each of his victims, he really hasn't done teshuvah. Feeling bad you ate chometz on Pesach or didn't wait the full six hours after that last burger before you have that piece of pizza, might carry some currency in Heaven but no one thinks that saying "I'm sorry" after you've destroyed someone's life means the matter is concluded.
What's more, even though Madoff faced the music, as it were, one must remember an annoying little fact: The only reason he needed to apologize is because he was such a huge criminal in the first place. It's like saying "Well, you're an arsonist but thanks for pointing out that fire hydrant. I guess you're not such a bad guy after all".
As for Sullenberger, as a physican I am also trained to handle disasters. As anyone who works in the ER knows, 99% of the training we get is to handle 1% of the patients, the ones who are really, really sick. But all that training doesn't guarantee success when the patient actually finally arrives. Perhaps the drug won't work, perhaps an important piece of information isn't available. One can do everything right and still lose the patient. Similarly, Captain Sullenberger, with his extensive training, could have panicked, or still not managed to succeed. That he did points out his ability to keep his head together under pressure. That isn't something one can be taught in school and does make him a hero.
There is no question Rav Shafran lives in a different reality than the rest of us but he does his organization and masters a great discredit by allowing this kind of junk to be published.

Friday, 3 April 2009

No Respect for Democracy

Israel recently held a general election, for those of you who hadn't heard. The Israeli right wing won and has just formed the government under the leadership of Binyamin Netanyahu. Netanyahu ran on a platform rejecting an immediate two-state solution to the Israeli-Arab problem while his opponent, Tzipi Livni, ran on a platform promising it.
Despite the Israeli electorate's demonstration of its democratic choice, it doesn't look like their wishes will be respected by their so-called friends in the international community:
As world leaders wrapped up on Friday an economic summit in London aimed at tackling the global financial crisis, a number of them took the opportunity to touch on another contentious issue by calling Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and urging him to work towards a two-state solution.
Chancellor Angel Merkel phoned the new premier and underlined Germany's commitment to strong relations with Israel, but called on Netanyahu to support the peace process with the Palestinians.
According to the chancellor's spokesman Thomas Steg, Merkel stressed German hope that the new Israeli government will continue to support international efforts and agreements aimed at arriving at a two-state solution.
Her comments were echoed by British Prime Minister Gordan Brown, who also phoned Netanyahu a short time later, AFP reported.
On Thursday night, US President Barack Obama reiterated his support for the Saudi Mideast peace initiative in a meeting with King Abdullah, the White House said in a statement.
The February 2002 initiative calls for a full Israeli withdrawal from all territories taken in the Six Day War, including east Jerusalem, and a "just settlement" to the Palestinian refugee crisis in exchange for normalizing ties with the Arab world.

For those of you who don't remember the 2002 Saudi plan, here's the capsule summary:
1)Israel is to surrender all territory captured in a defensive war started by its enemies, without any preconditions.
2)Israel is to accept millions of refugees whose claim to land in Israel is based on lies.
Israel is then to become yet another Arab state, albeit one with a (temporarily, until they can be killed or driven out) sizeable Jewish minority.
The cynic in me would like to simply note the following: All these world leaders are displaying an incredible contempt for the democratic process. Israel chose a government that rejected the Saudi suicide plan and their response? Accept it anyway. We don't care what you people actually want.
Also: the only difference between the European/US objective and the Arab objective is one of method. While the Arabs would love to openly destroy Israel and see it go down in a terrible bloodbath, chas v'shalom, the rest of the international community would prefer to avoid such messiness and simply have Israel agree to cut its own throat.
With such friends, it's no wonder Israel thinks the Arabs like them too.

Violence Starts At The Top

Rav Yitzchok Adlerstein's latest piece at Cross-Currents is an interesting take on the epidemic of violence in Chareidi society. Basing himself on Rav Yakov Horowitz' earlier piece, he tries to tear a strip out of the thugs that are currently giving his community such a bad name. The straw that broke the camel's back was a recent attack by a self-appointed "modesty patrol":
On Sunday, Elhanan Buzaglo was sentenced to four years imprisonment for the vicious beating of a woman, nine months ago in Jerusalem's Ma'alot Dafna neighborhood. Buzaglo, a member of a charedi mishmar hazniyut, a self-appointed chastity squad, pled guilty as part of a plea bargain struck with the State Prosecutor's Office.
Buzaglo, who broke into the 31-year-old divorcé’s apartment along with four other men, was convicted of receiving $2,000 from the mishmar hazniyut for his role in the attack, which was intended to intimidate her into leaving the predominantly charedi neighborhood. Judge Noam Solberg wrote in his decision that "the punishment must reflect the abhorrence of his acts … and deter him and others like him." Even though the Jerusalem District Court described the assailants as an "armed militia," Buzaglo, 29, was the only defendant to be convicted in this barbaric attack. According to newspaper reports last October, a series of flaws in the investigation, including a problem with the recording device, enabled Buzaglo's dispatchers – the modesty patrol members – to evade indictments.

Despite attempts to ignore or evade the issue, incidents like this as well as prior assaults on defenceless women as well as the willingness of crusaders in the blogsphere to push the matter have brought it to the front and centre. Rav Adlerstein starts off well enough in his piece but his condemnations quickly become selective:
Rabbi Horowitz did the right thing in publicly distancing the Torah community from violence in pursuit of purported Torah values. He called upon haredi MKs to see to it that the authorities fully prosecute such abominable behavior. I’m not sure why he stopped at MKs, rather than demand that all leaders, whether in the government or not, unequivocally condemn such actions, and to marginalize both those who participate in religious terrorism and those who support the terrorists. We should be equally demanding, refusing to contribute to institutions whose leaders are respected in the communities affected, but whose proclamations critical of zealotry have been lukewarm.
All laudable steps but why no mention of the heiliger G word? After all, all these modesty patrols are doing is enforcing the latest chumros of the week as promulgated by the "Gedolei Yisrael" and those who are concerned with "the purity of the camp". They're not inventing the standards they're enforcing so why no request for the Chareidi leadership, the one that is supposedly so infallible and whose words are supposedly to be followed to the letter, to stand up and say that anybody who participates in such a group as a modesty patrol is to be considered a thug, non-Chareidi and out of the community?
In truth, Rav Adlerstein does try to hint in that direction with an less than completely vague statement:
It is not enough for the rest of us to tell ourselves and our children that we would never act that way or speak that way. We have to find ways to proclaim that having a beard, a Shas, and a following does not preclude being a fool.
However, it's one thing to make the statement. Would he actually have the courage to name prominent rabbonim who call for violence, or who refuse to condemn it? Or would his anonymous fool wind up being a low level rebbe somewhere who is otherwise languishing in obscurity?
The vast majority of our community fully supports vigorous, effective and halachically responsible methods of dealing with abuse. There are those in our midst who still impede progress, obfuscate the truth, and cover up for those who deserve no sanction. Those who misunderstand and misapply laws of mesirah ( which actually state that those who “vex and pain the public” - which is clearly the case in regard to abusers – may be handed over to secular authorities. Shulchan Aruch, Choshen Mishpat 388:12), or who sanction violence, do not deserve a place or a voice among us. It is time we stop coddling them, or simply shaking our heads in disbelief. It is not enough.
Similarly here. There are enough prominent rabbonim who either continue to deliberately misinterpret the rules on mesirah or acknowledge their limitations but then push up those limitations so as to turn everything back into mesirah to make Rav Adlerstein's statement about the majority of his community utter nonsense. If there is one things the poor hurt souls who have been victims of Chareidi abuse can tell us it's that the majority of the community fully supports sweeping all its problems under the rug, denying they exist and attacking those outsiders who challenge that statement.
In the end, Rav Adlerstein fails to make his case. He appeals to the common people in his community to show intolerance towards this unacceptable behaviour, but fails to mention that in his community the common people are not permitted to think for themselves on any important issues but must rather defer to their "gedolim". And those gedolim have yet to do anything other than issue vague, non-binding statements.
I'm betting there will be at least two attempts to burn down restaurants in Eretz Yisrael that serve chometz over Pesach. Any takers?