Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Sunday 31 May 2009

For the Orthodox Only

A few years ago, Rav Yonasan Rosenblum wrote a piece on how Shavuos, in contradistinction to Peach and Sukkos, is essentially an Orthodox-only holiday:
Matan Torah is the most important event in human history. Had our ancestors not accepted the Torah, all of Creation would have returned to its original formlessness. Yet most Jews Shavuos have barely heard of Shavuos, the celebration of Matan Torah. In Eretz Yisrael, the contrast between Shavuos and the other yomim tovim could not be more stark. Most Jews celebrate Pesach and Sukkot in one form or another. Almost all families sit down to a Seder. And even in non-religious neighborhoods, many families build sukkahs. On Yom Kippur, the streets fall largely silent, and a large majority of the population fast. In short, the rhythms of the Jewish calendar are felt.
While the situation is not quite as dire in North America - many non-Orthodox communities in larger centres have all-night learn-a-thons, for example - the contrast is there. For all Orthodox Jews, Shavuos is on par with Pesach and Sukkos. Perhaps it's even more appreciate as it involves the least tirchah to prepare for. For the non-Orthodox, it's only selectively known and enthusiatically observed.
There is, however, another day in the Jewish calender that is observed universally by the Orthodox and ignored by most of the non-religious: Tisha B'Av. The reasons for this are simple. Most non-religious Jews don't realize the gap in the religious lives that the absence of the Temple (may it be speedily rebuilt) brings. In addition, the timing of the holiday, in the middle of summer vacation, isn't very pragmatic. As a result, while frum shuls are filled for the reading of Eichah, outside of the Ramah camp system and larger synagogues in larger centres, most heterodox communities let Tisha B'Av pass with nary a murmer.
What is the connection between the two? The Jewish Week, in its latest editorial piece, would like to look at Shavuos as a holiday of Jewish unity:
One powerful message of Shavuot (May 29-30) is that despite our differences in observance and ideology, we share and treasure the same Torah. The concept of one God, the 613 commandments, the notion that each of us is created in the image of our Creator, the weekly observance of Shabbat, along with other key elements, however we may interpret them, are a revealed legacy of the encounter between God and the Jewish people at Sinai.It is important to remember this bond at a time when we are concerned about our shrinking numbers and when divisions among us make headlines. Rabbi Norman Lamm, the chancellor and former president of Yeshiva University, caused a stir in recent days when he asserted in an interview with the Jerusalem Post that the liberal branches of Judaism are disappearing. “With a heavy heart we will soon say Kaddish on the Conservative and Reform movements,” he said. “The Conservatives are in a mood of despondency and pessimism,” he added. “They are closing schools and in general shrinking.”As for the Reform, they “may show a rise because if you add goyim to Jews, then you will do OK,” a reference to the movement’s decision to include as Jews children of patrilineal descent.Such words are not only hurtful, but at odds with the notion of Klal Yisrael, the unity of the Jewish people, that Rabbi Lamm has championed throughout his proud career. What’s more, they fly in the face of statistics showing that nearly 80 percent of American Jewry is made up of Conservative and Reform Jews.It is true that Orthodoxy, once consigned by experts to extinction, has grown in recent years, strengthened by ideological conviction and large families. But Rabbi Lamm has been among those who consistently warned against triumphalism among the Orthodox. Part of the problem with the divisions among us is that both traditionalists and liberals seem to be convinced, at times, that the other cannot endure, so why bother to reconcile?The festival of Shavuot, underscoring the one Torah we all hold dear, and its theme of Ruth, the true convert from whom, we believe, will come the Messiah, reminds us that each Jew is precious. We can disagree among ourselves, with respect, but our motive should be compassion, not defeat.
While these are special words, they are also full of fluff. The real message of Shavuos is not about Jewish "unity" but that 50 days after yeztias Mitzrayim God Allmighty revealed Himself to us at Har Sinai and gave us His Torah, re-branding us as an am segulah.
In the many millenia since then, Matan Torah has had a repeatedly rough time of it. While the cloud of God still covered Har Sinai above them, the eirav rav coerced Aharon HaCohen into making the molten calf. Is it any wonder that today Sinai Denial is still in full swing? Indeed, within Reform and Conservatism, it is quite standard to accept the Documentary Hypothesis and deny the revelation at Sinai. You're considered either a fanatic or hopelessly naive if you insist that God spoke to Moshe Rabeinu, a"h.
As the editorial notes, each Jew is indeed precious and that despite our disagreements we must remember that we are one giant family whose love for one another must be paramount. But what unites us as Jews cannot be some airy fairy concept of tikun olam in the form of ecofascism or a common denial of the basic tenets of Chrisianity and Islam, but rather an acceptance that we are a people founded on, immersed in and sustained by Torah. Otherwise, if one denies the significance or even the occurence of the event that it is based on, what is the point of observing Shavuos?

Making A Non-Issue into A... Non-Issue

Relatively new commenter Shalmo has repeatedly try to point out that the claim that the Torah we read today is the same Torah Moshe Rabbeinu, a"h, received at Sinai, is specious. He even helpfully provided a link which I follow up on. He has repeatedly said that he is patient awaiting my reply to his challenge and until now, due to Shavous, I have been unable to respond. But it ain't Shavous no more, eh?
The first point is that he uses the Samaritan Torah as a reference. The reason for this sounds logical. While the masoretic text of the holy Writ underwent multiple editing jobs until fairly recently in history, the Samaritan Torah did not. Therefore, if the Samaritan Torah is based on ours, it potentially represents an older, unaltered version of our Torah and discrepancies can be used to prove that our manuscript was altered at some point.
To answer this challenge, I would like to note the parameters I am working with.
First, how do I define a significant change in the 'script? No one except those living in deepest, darkest Me'ah She'arim deny that the Torah we read from today has minor differences that have crept in over history. There are the famous tikunei Sofrim, there are the cases where an aleph and hey get alternated, etc. There is even a comment somewhere in Vayikra from Rashi where he complains about the superfluous presence of the word "et" while in the text the word itself does not appear. Therefore I will not take the position that our Torah is, letter for letter, the one handed to Moshe Rabeinu at Har Sinai.
So for me a significant change is one that is consequential. Consequential, in turn, means that there is a halachic significant to the change. For example, if there is a variant fragment out there that says that Noah's sons were Shem, Cham and Archie, for example, who cares? It does not change the halacha. From this perspective, it is important to note that no such important changes exist.
Further, using the Samaritan text is also problematic. There are multiple versions, including one that is considered authoritative but without huge amounts of evidence to support the claim. There are a couple of major changes that they have made to the text (switching mountains in one instance to fit their own personal history). Further, according to our Bible the Samaritans maintained a level of idol worship even after accepting our Torah. I cannot see the logic of using another nationality's version of the Torah, one which is openly corrupted from the original, as a prooftext for ours.
The second point is to note that how one reads the Torah affects whether one sees certain incongruities within the text as problematic or revealing. For the academic who is looking for textual consistency in terms of narrative, grammar, etc., the Torah contains a whole host of problems. Narratives are inconsistent (compare the story of how Eliezer meets Rivkah Imeinu to the version Eliezer relates to her familiy), or repetitive (the two stories of the Creation of Man), grammar can sometimes seem to switch eras and spelling is erratic. This strongly points to the idea of either multiple authors or excessive editing over the centuries.
However, a believing Jew who approaches the text armed with the right commentators including the Gemara quickly learns that every single possible problematic part of the Torah is actually revelatory. Supposed mistakes or inconsistencies are meant to teach lessons, or shed light on applications of the Oral Law. Two specific commentaries which resolve most of the problems academics raise are those of Rav Shimshon Rafael Hirsch, zt"l, and the Netziv, zt"l, who both toil to show that the entire Oral Law is references through the Written Law and that there are no superfluities or mistakes in the entire text.
For those on the outside, this is seen as an exercise in apologetics but again, that's because they insist on, a priori, approaching the Torah as a piece of literature. If one refuses to see it as the word of God, then all the implications revealed by religious study of the text become irrelevant.
My final argument in support of this is what I call the "Ezra wasn't an idiot" argument. Many documentary hypothesis supports suggest that the Torah we have today is actually a synthesis of multiple (four or five) previous religious documents, each of which held authority in a different part of the Jewish people. For example, the Kohanim lived according to what we call Vayikra. Ezra, in an attempt to rebuild the Jewish people, took these documents and "redacted" them into a single document to create a false but necessary common history including a shared revelation at Sinai.
Never mind that no trace of these four or five separate Torahs has ever been discovered. While lack of his restaurant receipts is enough for academics to "prove" that David HaMelech, a"h, never existed, lack of existence of proto-Torah scrolls isn't proof of absence to them.
But what really strikes me about the idiocy of the DH hypothesis is that it assumes Ezra was a lousy editor. He left in spelling mistakes, didn't make grammer consistent, left inaccuracies between adjacent verses and so on.
Now, speaking as a (secondy) character in a fantasy fiction trilogy, I know something of how books are edited. The books I feature (somewhat) prominently in underwent multiple drafts and edits to ensure that spelling mistakes and inconsistencies were removed from the plot. And while they are breathtaking works of fantasy fiction they do not have quite the historical importance of a book like the Torah. Now imagine you're Ezra and you're trying to convince people that the scroll you're handing out to them is a God-given document. Are you really going to allow spelling mistakes for people to point out? Please.
In conclusion, when one reads the Torah as a religious work instead of an academic one, there are no problems with finding oddities in the text.

Thursday 28 May 2009

Look for the Rational in All The Wrong Places

Gary Rosenblatt, editor of The Jewish Week can't seem to understand anti-Semitism. In his latest piece:
Have we reached the point where we not only take anti-Semitism for granted but don’t even question the illogical attitudes of those who hate us?I learned with shock, as we all did, of the attempt of four former convicts from New York, Muslim converts, who reportedly out of opposition to the U.S. war in Afghanistan, decided to blow up synagogues, and presumably Jews, in the Bronx. Does that make any sense?Surely we will come to learn more details in the days and weeks ahead, but the strange conflation of American foreign policy, Israel, militant Islam and anti-Semitism is as dangerous as it is puzzling. Yet we have been conditioned to accept the notion that virtually any controversial event in the world
somehow becomes linked to Israel, Zionists and Jews, in a negative way.

There are two general approaches to understand Jew hatred: the religious and the non-religious.
The religious approach is relatively simple. Our sages tell us that "it is a halacha that Eisav hates Yaakov." Not a general thing, not a custom, not something common, but a law, using the same word that one might use to discuss rules about kashrus or Shabbos. In other words, it's a given for us.
What's more, we recognize this hatred is irrational. The Midrash tells the story of Hadrian, y"sh, the Emperor of Rome who was walking down the street when a Jew greeted him. Hadrian, insulted by the idea of a Jew speaking to him, had the poor guy executed. The Jew's friend who witnessed this then tried to sneak by but when Hadrian caught him and discovered that he too was a Jew, he had him executed as well. Hadrian's advisors then asked about the obvious contradiction: you killed the first Jew for greeting you and the second Jew for not greeting you. Where's the logic in all that? Hadrian's answer was: Don't tell me how to deal with my enemies.
For the non-religious, understanding anti-Semitism has always been much more difficult. After all, it's easy for them to understand Jew hatred from a xenophobic perspective. Religious Jews in their strange garb, speaking a strange language, refusing to integrate into the surrounding culture, well that would make sense. Initially suspicious turns into eventual hatred.
But let us remember that the tragedy of the Holocaust did not start with religious Jews. Hitler, y"h, began with the non-religious and the charges against them were that they wore German garb, spoke German perfectly and were desperate to integrate into German society, thereby diluting the Aryan race's purity. What's more, looking at the Nazi literature of the time, like Der Streumer, it's easy to discover what the German mind thought of their Jews: underneath the assimilated Teutonic exterior was the same bearded and caftaned Jew that infested Poland.
Movies like The Pianist make this point perfectly. Adrien Brody and his family are assimilated Jews in Poland during the war. There are, in fact, only assimilated Jews in Poland if this film is to be believed. They are so assimilated that they have Polish names, participate in Polish culture and, other than a bris milah (hopefully) they betray no trace of Jewishness. Yet when the Nazis come it's off to the ghetto for them and the viewer is forced to ask: why? They're no different from the non-Jewish Poles. What was so special about them that warranted such harsh treatment?
As the holiday of Shavous draws close, we are given our answer. About 3329 years ago we stood at the foot of Har Sinai as God Allmight, in all his glory, revealed Himself to us and gave us His Torah. The Torah is the source of morality, God's foothold in a world that would rather not have Him in it so that true goodness can be expunged. We are the guardians of that foothold and the nations of world, consciously or not, know this. Jews observant of the Torah's law know this. By virute of the covenant, we cannot be separate from Him. Just as they hate Him, they hate us. A Jew cannot assimilate away from this hatred and attempts to try just worsen things. No one loves a God fearing Jew but a perceived turncoat is always worse.
There will always be Jew hatred until the final redemption (may it come speedily) and it will never appear rational to the initiated because a rational approach exclude God's importance in all that befalls us as a nation. May we merit that this is the last Shavuos in golus and that our Father in Heaven speedily return us to our land in front of the eyes of the nations of the world so that His Torah can once again become the guiding light for humanity.

Needless Antagonism

Since we're on the topic of mehadrin buses, my own personal opinion has been that Egged, being a company that serves the public, should run only unsegregated buses on any line that does not exclusively serve a religious neighbourhood where the service has been requested. The idea that some public bus lines will be altered to respect the sensitivites of a minority of the population (and possibly only a fraction of the folks withint that minority) is not sensible in a generally secular society. It's one thing to expect folks on the bus in deepest and dark Bene Beraq to sit separately even if they're not ultra-Chareidi, quite another on the cross-town express.
But I don't believe the solution is to antagonize the religious population demanding this special treatment:
Retired Supreme Court Justice Dalia Dorner suggested on Monday that secular passengers start riding haredi bus lines en masse to counter the gender segregation advocated by the ultra-Orthodox...
The public Egged bus company operates special "mehadrin" lines on which men and women are required to sit separately. Dorner insisted that Egged must provide an alternative for secular passengers who wish to ride these lines but are opposed to segregation.
In a conversation with Ynet, Dorner stressed that the proposed move was not meant as an act of defiance against the religious administration, but rather as means to exert pressure on the transportation minister and the Egged bus company to operate complimentary lines for the non-religious public.
"These arrangements should not be forced on the general population," she explained.
Dorner told students that young Jerusalemites should actively protest the segregated lines by using these buses more and disregarding the modesty codes practiced on them.

On one hand, comments like this from someone like Dorner aren't surprising. Israel's high court is an in-club in which the supreme justices choose their replacements without any input from the government or the public, both of which are considered too stupid and unenlightened to offer any meaningful input. Ever since Aharon Barak's tenure, the court has been a lodge of anti-Jewish intellectuals who think Israel's future is best secured by removing every trace of Jewishness from the country while encourages the Arabs in their cultural nationalistic ambitions. A Supreme Court justice making an anti-Chareidi remark is about as exceptional as Paris Hilton discussing her latest sexual conquest.
If Dorner wanted to be responsible, she could have made a simple suggestion: No segregated bus lines on Egged. If the Chareidim want them, they can create their own bus company and pay for it themselves. Anyone protesting such an idea could safely be dismissed as a fanatic.
But actively protesting and disregarding the modesty codes? Look, I have no interest in telling non-religious folks how to dress and act but I would reserve the right to be offended if someone I considered to be immodestly dressed walked up to me and yelled out "Hey! I'm purposefully doing this to offend you!"
Now, me being me I would probably just roll my eyes and turn away. However, it has been well established over the last several decades that this is not how the average Chareidi responds to confrontation. Dorner's irresonsible ideas are recommendations to create a riot.
Mind you, that's probably what she wants. Then she'll give an interview where she points out how primitive Chareidim are, rioting all over innocent seculars who went out of their way to bother them. And, oblivious to the commotion she helped create, she'll create another wave of bad feeling that does nothing to improve secular-religious tensions in Israeli society.

Monday 25 May 2009

Get On the Bus

The Yeshiva World has an interesting piece on the latest push for mehadrin buses in Israel. Much to my shock, the piece was describing opponents of Taliban-styled buses in a positive light:
Tzipi Hotovely, who chairs the Knesset Committee on the Status of Women, is working against the mehadrin lines in Jerusalem. Ms. Avital Feldman, who is a leader in the battle against mehadrin lines, states the response supporting their opposition is encouraging. She explains there are a growing number of complaints from women who have fallen victim to abuse on buses on which passengers demand they sit in the rear.
Hundreds of supporters, opponents of the mehadrin lines, are expected to take part in a kenos in Hebrew University in Yerushalayim on Monday. Feldman other anti-mehadrin activists organized the event. A panel will address attendees. Panel members include former High Court Justice Dalia Dorner, Jerusalem Councilwoman Rachel Azariya, feminist Dr. Orit Kamir and Prof. Alon Harel, a member of the law faculty.
Organizers are however disappointed that Transportation Minister (Likud) Yisrael Katz has declined an invitation. They explain his office released a laconic explanation, that he receives too many invitations to attend all the functions.

Like much else that has come out of the Chareidi community lately, mehadrin buses are a useless distraction from the bigger social/religious problems they have to deal with. Even the term mehadrin bus is a misnomer. In an area such as kashrus where competing stringencies and leniencies abound, one can use the term mehadrin but in an area like seating on bus where there are no rules in the first place, it's irrelevant. A married couple sitting together on a public bus is not somehow less stringent about the laws of gender interaction than a couple that chooses to sit separately. A bus is not a shul, after all.
Last year, the purifiers in our community chose to take aim at those of us that use Pesach hotels to escape for the holidays. We were told that they were the biggest threat to Judaism today! (A guest to our community a couple of weeks later told me that the biggest threat to Judaism today are the rabbonim who think that Pesach hotels are the biggest threat to Judaism today) Now we are told that not only is separate seating on buses an indicator of higher religious commitment but that women who refuse to see things this way are legitimate targets of abuse.
I would like to see the Chareidi leadership deal with rampant pedophilia in their yeshivos, their poor educational standards and their rampant poverty-by-choice problem before deciding that Am Yisrael is ready to stand on the sacred heights that separate seated buses afford us.

Dairy Limitations

All right, I know that my female readers (all one of you, it seems) will be upset with what I'm going to say but being a thick-headed male (the best mea culpa you're going to get) I'm going to say it anyways:
Shavuos is not a dairy holiday.
Now let me explain.
Yes, one eats dairy on Shavuos. The well-known custom is based on the idea that after the Jews received the Torah which contained, amongst other things, the requirement to eat meat slaughted by shechitah they returned to their tents and realized all the meat they had was now trief. So dairy was the only option for their first post-matan Torah meal, hence the custom to eat dairy on Shavuos.sons
And yes I know it's not such an old custom and that other reasons are given by the poskim. However, I would like to point out that I now know many people who think that eating dairy on Shavuos means making all the Yom Tov meals milchig and, in my capacity as the Chief Rabbi of Stoney Creek, I would like to rail against this misunderstanding.
If one really wants to observe the custom of eating dairy on Shavuos as it is properly understood, here's what one does. After shul on the morning of the first day one returns home, makes kiddush and then makes a motzi and serves milchig appetizers. One must be very careful to use only one of the two breads at this point. Then one clears the dairy equipment, sets the table for meat and puts out all the meat stuff and after a 1/2 hour break or so the meal is continued with fleishigs using the second loaf of bread.
If this is hard for some folks, then making the first day's lunch milchig is fine but folks, the rest really should be meat. It's still Yom Tov after all.

How To Make a JCC Irrelevant

As usual, I'll state my bias up front. The small town I grew up in had a nearly useless JCC. They had a poorly stocked gym complete with pictures of Jewish sports teams that had competed in city tournaments (and won a couple) in the 1950's. The meeting room had 1960's shag carpet and a smell from the fake wood walls. We knew there was a staff working there but we never actually saw them. In my teens, they built a new JCC. At first the plans they posted called for a health club with a pool (!), along lots of meeting and activity rooms. Unfortunately cost containment changed all that. We got the meeting rooms and a social hall but the rest of the building turned into old age apartments that were almost all rented to non-Jews so we had the pleasure of the tenants having X-mas parties in the JCC every December.
The JCC where I live now isn't much better. For some odd reason, it's tucked off on a side road nowhere near anywhere that Jewish, religious or non-religious live. It's essentially a giant fitness club with meeting rooms that host the occasional "cultural" event but not much else.
So if you ask me if I ascribe any importance to the concept of a JCC, I don't because I've never been around one that actually plays any meaningful role for its community.
Apparently in some bigger Jewish centres, this is the case. The JCC serves a role for both the religious and non-religious population which, as one might expect, gives rise to complications that don't often happen on a shul level. After all, all the frum people go to the Orthodox shul. The non-frum folks go elsewhere. No conflict there, but not so at the JCC.
And conflict is what appears to be happening in Baltimore, a larger Jewish centre in the United States (or so I'm told). Non-religious forces in the community there wish to have the place open on Shabbos. The observant community opposes this for obvious reasons and recently held a rally not so much to protest the JCC's decision but rather to positively promote the idea of Shabbos.
For the non-religious, it seems the protests of their observant brethren is a mystery. Years of living radically different lifestyles in different parts of town have taken a toll on the community's sense of unity:
“We’re two separate communities,” Rabbi Steven M. Fink, spiritual leader of Temple Oheb Shalom, said on Monday. “We talk about Jewish unity, but the only thing that unites us is anti-Semitism.
“We both read from the Torah, we both love Shabbat, we just do so in radically different ways,” Rabbi Fink added. “They would never invite us to a rally like this one because it would validate us as rabbis.”

So let me ask some questions. First, why would the JCC want to open on Saturday afternoons? Clearly not for Jewish reasons. After all, the main Jewish worship, especially amongst the heterdox, is in the morning. Furthermore, JCC's generally don't serve as centres of worship to avoid conflicting with the community's synagogues. Although I don't live in Baltimore, I'll willing to bet that the JCC is opening to allow members to access its - wait for it - health club.
But if that's the case, doesn't that make the JCC even more irrelevant, and not just to the Orthodox population of Baltimore?
Again, despite not knowing Baltimore I'm willing to bet there are lots of health and fitness clubs there. I'm also willing to be that a good number are probably as nice as the one at the JCC and might even offer reasonable prices. Many might be closer to the homes of JCC members and therefore more convenient to attend. If that's the case, why would someone choose the JCC to work out in? Because it makes him feel more Jewish? But what does it say about someone's Jewish identity that he chooses to be mechalel Shabbos of all places at the JCC?!
In the end, a Jewish institution that chooses to minimize its Jewishness, whether by being open on Shabbos or choosing to not be kosher decreases its relevance to the community it serves. The Orthodox Jews will choose to minimize their support and the non-religious will eventually drift away to similar non-Jewish venues after seeing that there is no difference between "them" and "us".
In the end, any Jew who feels so strongly about working out on Shabbos probably doesn't have a problem with driving to a private club he's paid membership at. Leave the JCC out of this.

Sunday 24 May 2009

Indignation at the Truth

My recent post on honesty and Orthodoxy generated quite a vigorous response. The number of comments was a record for this blog and, for once, most of them were not me commenting on myself.
What I found most interesting was the outrage from the non-observant commenters. My point in posting the excerpt from the Tana D'vei Eliyahu was not to try and claim that all frum Jews are honest. Rather, my point was to show that within halacha there is excellent support for those who contend that Torah law forbids the cheating of and stealing from non-Jews. In other words, those Orthodox Jews who contend that it's okay nowadays to do such sins are wrong when they say that the halacha permits them to.
But the response to that was fascinating. Instead of what I expected: "Yeah? Well then all Orthodox Jews are hypocrites because they break that law!", I got this: "No, you're wrong. Orthodox not only allows but tacitly encourages theft from and cheating of non-Jews". In other words, people don't want to hear about how we sin. They want to hear that we are just following our religion when we cheat and steal.
That led me to think about what people on the outside want to believe about Judaism, and it isn't pretty. For them Torah Judaism is a religion that is bigoted, hateful and deceitful. Never mind all the examples that I can bring to the opposite, they're prepared to dismiss all those proofs because it doesn't fit with their view of how the Torah should be (as opposed to how it is).
Why is that? I believe that it's to help with the justification of their own personal beliefs. After all, if the Torah is a moral system, then one must work hard to justify why, as a Jew, one does not hold by its rules. Not that there is not justification. Philosophy is a flexible enough field of inquiry to allow that to happen. But it's much easier to justify why one hates and avoids Torah Judaism if one can villify it in the first place. For those who have left "the derech" it seems essential to remember that derech as a path filled with hate and deceit. That the Torah itself is not that way cannot be acceptable.
To summarize: if there is a problem with Torah Judaism today, it is the fault of the people who are not carrying it out correctly or twisting it to fit their own personal agendae, not the fault of God's Torah itself. I am quite fine with people saying they stopped being religious because of a lousy high school rebbe or a bad experience within the community, but we must never allow people to misrepresent the Torah as the reason for their loss of faith. That's just not honest.

Avoiding Invisible Bugs

I'm always amazed by the ongoing crusade by some in the Torah observant community to assur any healthy foods that normally don't require any supervision. When it comes to fruits and vegetables which don't seem to be a money maker for kashrut organizations, it seems the problems multiply like insects.
The recent example of this has been a supposed epidemic of bugs in strawberries around the world. According to the people who detected them, these buys are nearly microscopy and the exact same colour as the strawberry. In other words, you can't seem them but they're there. As a result, according to some authorities, all strawberries are now trief. (Rubashkin's meats, however, are still fine).
Recently, however, what I thought was a voice of sanity, poked through the clouds of confusion when Rav Shlomo Amar, chief Sephardi rabbi of Israel, noted the obvious: the halachah forbids that which the eye can see under normal lighting conditions. Ultra-powerful or special lights, jeweller's glasses and microscopes are not necessary. Otherwise all food, which is covered in non-kosher bacteria, would be forbidden.
Unfortunately, Rav Amar has already been forced into a clarification:
Just a few weeks before, many chareidi rabbonim forbad eating strawberries because they are heavily infested with tiny insects which are impossible to completely remove. The announcement removed the popular delicacy from the table of many frum homes.
Then the sensational news was published throughout Israel: Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar announced in a shiur that one may eat strawberries after rinsing them in water and removing their leafy tops! The news appeared in Israel's leading newspaper and even in the chareidi world's leading VosIzNeias web blog.
Many reported relief upon hearing the lenient psak. Others sideswiped at the poskim who always seem to find a new prohibition to saddle the public with.
But now the Shas party organ reports that Rav Amar's psak was quoted incorrectly. They asked Rabbi Shlomo Amar for his clarification, and he explained that his shiur had been about worms which are not visible to the eye and had nothing to do with strawberries.
"It never occurred to me, chalila, to dispute the prohibition against eating visible worms!" he says firmly. "To say otherwise is misleading."
Rav Amar explained, "I was speaking about a recent tshuva I had just written which dealt with worms that are not visible to the eye. I wrote that according to many great poskim of our generation, led by Rav Ovadya Yosef (SHU"T Yecheve Daas 6:47), they are not forbidden. I further was mechadesh that they are not even considered 'worms' according to halacha."
Rav Amar said in the shiur that if, for example, strawberries had such invisible 'worms' on them, the strawberries would not be prohibited to eat. Obviously, the strawberries were only mentioned by way of illustration and not as the basis for a chiddush or a psak.
The Chief Rabbi reiterates that as experts have shown, strawberries are infested with worms which are visible to the eye and can be seen without the help of a device. These worms must be avoided, and if it is not possible to clean strawberries of them, then strawberries may not be eaten.

So which is it, then? Is it enough to look at the strawberry carefully after washing it thoroughly?: It should be and people should know this when confronted with those who would change the rules and retroactively accuse 3500 years of Jews who age vegetables not checked by microscopy of eating bugs.

The Problem With Sincerity

The problem Orthodoxy has always had when interacting with heterodoxy is trying to make the following point understood: sincerity, no matter how... sincere, is not enough to qualify one for a job or a position within the Jewish people. Being a nice person, really meaning well, all that, while extremely laudable (and all too often missing in the Torah observant community) is not eo ipso all that is needed. One would not trust someone who calls himself a doctor or accountant who hasn't actually gone to a real professional school to learn the knowledge needed to perform competently. Why does the title of "rabbi" somehow get treated differently?
The difficulty, in my opinion, arises from the lack of appreciation that spiritual health gets as opposed to physical or financial health, to use my examples above. One expects a doctor to know what he is talking about because otherwise his poor advice might lead to disasterous health consequences. Given the choice, would you rather have a surgeon with lousy bedside manner or a really nice guy whose watched the appendectomy video on Youtube a few times?
One wants one's accountant to know tax law pretty well so that one never receives a dreaded phone call from Revenue Canada or the IRS. But when it comes to the spiritual Western culture encourages far more autonomy. What we feel is spiritually correct for us is what tends to guide us and the idea that there is an objective form of spiritual health, analagous to rules for physical health, is offensive.
To put it simply, imagine that I decided that three Big Macs and no exercise is the best way for me to live a physically healthy life, simply because that's what makes me feel good. My opinion in this matter would be considered ridiculous. But if, as a Jew, I announced that the rules of the Torah were irrelevant to my spiritual health and that I would decide by myself what will get me into Gan Eden, well that would make me... heterdox, I guess.
Which brings me to the following problem:
As a student rabbi, Alysa Stanton — who next month becomes the first ever African-American woman rabbi — was assigned to intern in a congregation in Dothan, Ala. But no sooner did she arrive than the president of the congregation called the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati to complain.“He said, ‘Are you kidding,?’” recalled Rabbi Ken Kanter, director of HUC’s rabbinical program. Stanton said she was told that a “black person ministering to a white congregation in the Deep South was unheard of.”However, Rabbi Kanter said, the congregation “very quickly recognized they had a rabbi who happened to be a woman and who happened to be African-American. She quickly became their rabbi ... and at
the end of the year they wanted her to stay because she was so well loved.”
Off the top, I'm going to say that I do not question Ms. Stanton's sincerity. Having davened in a number of shuls, I can say that if her congregation loves her so much that she is a special person. I am also not questioning her because of her colour, chas v'chalilah. Otherwise my good friend in Israel who is also Ethiopian would probably turn his schochet knife on me the next time I show up. I am, however, questioning her qualifications because:
“The fact that she is a convert was not a factor [in her selection],” Barondes said. “She was not the only Jew-by-choice who applied for the position. ... And the fact she is African-American played no part. During her three-day visit, she was able to impress so many people that the congregation overwhelmingly supported her candidacy.”Stanton, 45, grew up in a Pentecostal Christian home in Cleveland, Ohio. At the age of 6, her family moved to a Jewish neighborhood in Cleveland Heights, Ohio.It was there that her Uncle Ed, a devout Catholic who also occasionally attended the local synagogue, explained to her what the mezuzahs meant on the neighbors’ doorposts. When she was 10 and already on her own spiritual quest, he gave her a Hebrew grammar book.“My mother is a woman of faith,” Stanton said. “She taught us that we need to have a spiritual base and she gave us the freedom to chose what that is. For me, Judaism was where I found a home.”At the age of 11, Stanton moved with her family to Lakewood, Colo., and by the time she was in her early 20s, she said she had decided to convert to Judaism. “I sought out a rabbi and each week I traveled 144 miles to meet with him in Denver for intensive, one-to-one study,” she said, adding that after a year she converted, appearing before a bet din [Jewish court] and going to the mikveh.“Initially when I converted my family was shocked,” Stanton said, adding that her mother (her father is deceased) and sister and two brothers have been “very supportive — my rock during this long journey.”For about the last 15 years, her rabbi in Denver has been Steven Foster of Temple Emanuel, a Reform congregation. He said he found Stanton to be “a very spiritual person who brings the best of two different cultures together. She is a terrific person and we will be lucky in the Jewish community to have her as a rabbi.”Rabbi Foster said that although Stanton was converted by a “right-wing Conservative rabbi,” she later “connected with us because of our history with social justice issues. ... She used to teach for us and sing for us and when she decided to become a rabbi we all supported her.”
In other words, to the Torah observant community she isn't even Jewish to begin with. And this is a huge problem because, as I noted at the start of the post, while sincerity is nice, proper qualifications are even better. What's more, the article inadvertantly describes the whole reason why the Torah observant community dismisses non-Orthodox conversions in the first place. Having been done by a "right wing Conservative rabbi", she then switched to Reform because of social justice issues. For Orthodox Jews, there is no such thing as social justice, there is only the will of God. We are decent to our fellows not because it feels "right" or because of trendy terms but because the Torah tells us to. The nafka mina comes when the Torah conflicts with Western secular principles. Orthodoxy then follows the Torah's rules while the heterodox announce that God would want them to follow secular values.
Ms. Stanton is probably a wonderful person. But al pi halacha she is not a Jew, certainly not a rabbi. And when people start to realize this, it will only lead to further hostility between us and them.

Secularlism's Worst Nightmare

Israel's deputy Health Minister MK Ya'acov Litzman is well known in the Jewish world for saying that Jews should call the current H1N1 influenza outbreak Mexican flu instead of swine flu because pigs are not kosher. I don't think anyone can argue that this was a dumb comment (although a week later the WHO also said it should be called Mexican flu to prevent the collapse of the international pork trade).
What's less well known is that Litzman is a competent beaurocrat who organized the Israeli public health department after news of the outbreak and efficiently prepared for the arrival of swine flu in Israel via returning travelers. Naturally, doing his job well did not make the news as if often the case.
But Litzman has gone further and credit must be given where it is owed:
Deputy Health Minister MK Ya'acov Litzman ignored the advice of Ambassador to the UN in Geneva Aharon Leshno-Yaar, when he walked out during the Iranian health minister's speech at the World Health Organization meeting last week.
But Litzman, a United Torah Judaism lawmaker with a mind of his own, thought it was the proper thing to do in view of Iranian leaders' frequent calls for the destruction of the State of Israel, he told The Jerusalem Post Thursday, after his return.

It has become a regular occurence for Iran to use any ascent to an international speaking podium to execrate Israel for sins the fevered Perisan mind has deluded itself into believing. m The walk out was also significant if one recalls that since 1948 Muslim countries have made it their policy to walk out of any meetings in which a (non-Satmar) Israeli speaks. Sitting through anti-Semitic tirades should be no less tolerated by Jews. By walking out, Litzman chose to display both Jewish and Israeli pride. But what's more, unlike many who think that Orthodox Jews should abandon what makes us different (even as they praise multiculturalism in every other ethnic group they can find), Litzman had no trouble showing up at the event as a very identifiable Jew and without any discomfort:
Litzman said he had felt completely comfortable despite his hassidic garb.
"They have seen hassidim before, and I was personally introduced to many health ministers before my speech," said Litzman, who was raised in New York and speaks fluent English. Among them was Brazilian Health Minister José Gomes Temporão, who said he was planning to visit Israel soon.
After some Arab ministers walked out, Litzman noted that Israel provided medical care to its Arab citizens as well as to patients from the Palestinian Authority who need treatment unavailable there, and that terrorists who try to murder Israelis and survive often lie in the same hospital wards with their wounded victims.
In Geneva, where the H1N1 swine flu strain was a major topic of discussion, Litzman said he was concerned the virus could combine by next winter with the newest human strains, making dealing with it more complicated.
He will suggest to ministry officials that Israelis of all ages be urged to get vaccinated in the fall, and not only young children, the middle-aged and the elderly.
Litzman said he was well received at the WHO event and that Israel had a very good reputation in healthcare and research, even though an anti-Israel resolution had been raised by Palestinians at the assembly on health of Palestinians in Gaza, the West Bank and the Golan Heights.
Yaakov Litzman is an example of what drives secularists crazy. Despite his loyalty to an "archaic" religious system, despite dressing like an "18th century Polish landlord" he has proved to be a competent deputy health minister and has managed to interact positively with all those dreaded goyim that we routinely diminish out Jewishness in front of so that they'll like us more. In order words, he's a refutation of those that oppose our insistence on remaining true to the faith of our fathers. Kol hakovad to him.

Friday 22 May 2009

Knowing Who Your Friends Are

Much is made of how Israel's standing in the world improved after Yitzchak Rabin signed the Oslo Discords in 1993. Whereas before Israelis only interacted with the rest of the international scene, now they were welcome in places they had only dreamed of. International music and movie stars started visiting the country. Their diplomats were invited to functions across the world, especially in Europe. It was a heavy time and all they had to do was give the biggest murderer of Jews since the Second World War access to land to build new terror bases on and all the weapons he could ask for so he could accelerate his murdering of our people. Surely it was a small price to pay.
The problem, Israelis have been slow to understand even these many years later, is that this new love was very, very conditional. As long as Israel played the peace game by three simple rules:
1) give the Arabs whatever they want
2) don't expect anything back
3) stop defending yourself
they could look forward to hugs and kisses around the globe. Violation of any of those three rules, however, brought back the old frostiness as if - gasp! - it had never really been gone.
Recall how shortly after the Discords were signed, the Arabs began blowing up buses across Israel. But whenever the Israelis thought about putting the Discords on hold, they were sternly told by their new friends: No, you must keep surrending land and control, no matter how much they attack you. It's part of the peace agreement.
Recall how Benjamin Netanyahu, in his first go around as prime minister, enacted a policy: Until the Arabs hold by their side of the agreement, we go no further. Does anyone remember the pale look on his face when he emerged from the Wye Plantation, his arm firmly twisted behind his back by Bill Clinton, that great "friend" of Israel, and announced further unilateral surrenders?
Even when Arafat, y"sh, unleashed Intifada II, our friends remains unphased. Don't hit back, don't defend yourself. If they're attempting to slaughter you, there must be a logical reason. Find out what it is and defuse the confrontation.
The latest example, from The Jerusalem Post, shows that nothing has changed. France, under Nicky Sarkozy, has been called a great friend of Israel. So naturally, when Binyamin Netanyahu pointed out on Yom Yerushalayim that Yerushalayim is and will remain the undivided capital of the Jewish people, the French were quick to express their conditional support:
One day after Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu vowed never to divide Jerusalem, and pledged to keep the capital united under Israeli sovereignty, the French harshly condemned the comments, insisting instead that Jerusalem be a capital shared by the Palestinians and Israel.
"The declaration which the Israeli prime minister issued yesterday derives from prejudice regarding the final status agreement," Foreign Ministry spokesman Frederic Desagneaux said on Friday.
"In the eyes of France, Jerusalem needs to turns into a capital for two states," he continued, emphasizing that French President Nicholas Sarkozy made the same point last year.

Something my father always said: the world loves Jewish funerals and hates the State of Israel because it works to prevent those. The French are simply showing the conditionality of the love we inexplicably desire from them.

Nationality vs Religion

One thing the heterodox (as Rav Yonasan Rosenblum called them) don't seem to understand is why Torah observant Jews don't recognize their conversions. After all, as independent "streams" of the Jewish religion, shouldn't they have an equal right to decide who gets into "the club"?
This lack of understanding is compounded by the actions of (not so) well meaning secular judges in Israel who also see Judaism from a religious point of view and don't comprehend a difference between the concepts of Orthodoxy and heterodoxy. It's all the same to them, just with a varying degree of observance of the rules.
Thus this article from YNet which shows that Israel's high court remains intent on turning Israel into an "enlightened" non-Jewish state as soon as possible:
The High Court ruled on Tuesday that the State must fund private conversion classes operated by the Reform and Conservative movements, in addition to the regular funding of private Orthodox institutions.
The Movement for Progressive Judaism in Israel petitioned the High Court demanding funding for private conversion schools that are operated by the movement, and that refer their students to independent Reform and Conservative rabbinical courts at the end of the process.

There are three fundamental flaws to the thinking that non-halachic conversions can ever be accepted by the Torah observant community.
The first is the idea of a non-observant rabbinical court. The idea is, to be frank, absurd. Could one imagine a legal tribunal anywhere composed of lawyers and judges who are outspoken opponents and non-observers of the law they supposedly represent? Imagine a traffic court judge who holds that speeding laws are unconstitutional and therefore refuses to find guilty any speeder no matter what the evidence. Would such a judge maintain his position for long?
The basis for Reform and Conservatism is rejection of the traditional halacha and its absolute authority in a Jew's life. What you feel, what you like, what gives you a good personal moral sense is the ultimate rule in heterodoxy. Am I expected to acknowledge the authority of a judge on such a court when he himself refuses the acknowledge the authority of the Ribono shel Olam over him? What does he base his authority on? What binding legal sources? And if everything is an option, how can he rending an enforceable judgement?
The second is the idea that Israel must, in its unavoidable role of being at the centre of the Jewish world, maintain a standard that is acceptable for the vast majority of Jews. To put it simply, heterodoxy recognizes Orthodox conversions. Orthodoxy does not. Therefore, if the State is going to authorize and play a role in the conversion process, it must restrict itself to only those nearly universally held.
The third and final problem goes to the heart of the difference between Torah observance and heterodoxy. Reform and Conservatism see Judaism as a religion. As a result, they do not see conversion in terms of anything more than a lifestyle choice. Yesteday one may have chosen to bow in church. Today he'll have a bagel with lox.
For Torah observant Jews, Yiddishkeit is much deeper than this. It is first and foremost not a religion but rather a nationality. For the Reformer, a Jew is a Canadian who happens to be Jewish. For the Orthodox, a Jew is a Jew who happens to be living in Canada. This is more than just semantics! Secondly, one who identifies as a Jew has a responsiblity to feel a sense of brotherhood with not only the Jewish people alive today but with the nation as it has existed since we stood at Har Sinai. The reason Orthodoxy cannot recognize the Reform and Conservative conversion process is because it does not create in its contestants the sense that they are leaving behind a "citizenship of the world" and exclusively joining the Jewish people. As another article in Ynet notes:
In their flashy website it says that aside from going to the mikvah and undergoing circumcision, one may adhere to mitzvot in line with his personal ability to adhere to them in light of circumstances of time or place. That is, if a convert finds it difficult to keep the Shabbat or fast on Yom Kippur, he need not do it. Such person would also be exempt in cases where a mitzvah contradicts his conscience.
This is in complete contradiction to the Orthodox expectation that a person joining the Jewish people joins them completely, for good and bad, for convenient and annoying, because he has chosen to leave behind his gentile life and pledge his complete loyalty to God and Torah.
For all these reasons, we cannot accept or acknowledge any legitimacy to those who would change our nation into just another culture with interesting cuisine. Fortunatley, with the continued poor growth rates of heterodoxy in Israel, this is not likely to become a major issue in any case.

Star Trek: The Review

First of all, the background story you need to know to fully appreciate the movie (no spoilers):
10 years or so after Star Trek: Nemesis, the Hobus star deep within Romulan territory explodes. For reasons known only the physics of Star Trek, instead of weakening as it expands, Hobus strengthens as it absorbs matter like its planets. As a result, it threatens to destroy nearby Romulus as well as ultimately the entire galaxy.
Both Spock, now openly the Federation ambassador to Romulus, and a non-descript but patriotic space miner named Nero, realize the danger but their attempts to warn the Romulun high council fail. Spock notes that the Vulcans have developed a technology that allows them to convert decalithium, a rare mineral that Nero just happens to have lots of in the hold of his ship, the Narada, into red matter, something that can shut down an exploding star. So with the assistance of the U.S.S. Enterprise-E under the command of Data (his engrams having been uploaded into B-4's frame), Nero and Spock go to Vulcan. Despite the help of Federation Ambassador Jean Luc Picard, they cannot convince the Vulcans to help the Romulans either.
Nero gives the decalithium to Spock who secretly whips up some red matter and promises to do his best to help save Romulus. While working on this with Geordi Laforge who has created a small ship called the Jellyfish to approach Hobus without getting all burnt to a crip, Nero returns to Romulus in time to see it destroyd by the expanding Hobus.
The trauma of seeing his world, along with his pregnant wife, incinerated, drives him mad. He and his crew promptly shave their heads, cover themselves in tatoos and swear vengeance against:
a) Spock, for not helping promptly enough
b) Vulcan, for not helping promptly enough
c) the Federation, because they didn't push the Vulcans enough
Meanwhile Spock finishes his preparations and takes the Jellyfish to Hobus where he pops the red matter into its core. The plan works, a black hole is created which sucks Hobus into it, ending the threat. But Spock cannot escape as he is caught in the gravity well of the singularity. Just as his ship is about to get sucked into the black hole, the Narada shows up to destroy him but before Nero can fire, his ship is also sucked in. The Enterprise arrives to see both ships disappear, sad at the loss of Spock but happy that Nero is also gone.
Until the movie starts, that is...

Review (warning: spoilers)
Overall I thought it was excellent. The plot is a bit weak but the point of this movie isn't to leave you scratching your head and wondering at the profound dialogue, but to walk out of the theatre with your ears ringing and your mind wondering at the amazing special effects and how, with a simple little trick, JJ Abrams has managed to wipe out 40 years of Star Trek history and give himself a blank slate to recreate the franchise, without affecting the original canon!
See, here's the trick: By emerging from the black hole at the moment of James T Kirk's birth, Nero changes history. Kirk is raised completely differently, most other major characters have altered time lines and the circumstances that bring them together are completely different from the first time around. And that means the possibilities are now endless without having to create a different crew.
The casting was inspired. Chris Pine does an excellent version of what a young and undisciplined Kirk would have been like. This is cast in even sharper relief when one remembers descriptions of Kirk at the Academy ("Where No Man Has Gone Before", "Shore Leave") as being humourless and a compulsive bookworm who was constantly the target of practical jokes and couldn't get a date to save his life.
Zachary Quinto, who I hate as Sylar for being so petty and one-dimensional, shows an alternate Spock in which his emotions aren't entirely so surpressed. For those who wonder why it's Uhura of all women that he's getting it on with (poor Nurse Chapel!) watch "The Man Trap" again. Clearly this relationship is a reference to an awkward and (thankfully) nearly forgotten scene from early in TOS history where Uhura shameless flirts with Spock on the bridge, while on duty.
(Fans will recall that Uhura was dating Scotty during the events of "The Final Fronteir". Slut)
Scotty, Sulu and Chekov are also fun to watch in their slightly altered versions. It's a bit disconcerting to see Sulu played by a Korean but I guess his daughter, Demora, who was also mysteriously Korean, had a retroactive effect on his genetic struture. Or something like that. (or could it be that all these decades later, Orientals still all look the same to Hollywood brass?)
Karl Urban, in my mind, is the standout though for not trying to reinterpret or update his character but doing an amazing job simply channeling DeForest Kelly back to life. My God, Jim, I haven't seen anyone recreate a dead actor like that since Man on the Moon. When he shouted "Dammit Spock! I'm a doctor, not a physicist!" the doubts are dispelled.
There are also enough "in jokes" to keep die hard fans happy. We learn where McCoy's "Bones" nickname came from. We get to see the Kobiyashu Maru simulation although Kirk's obnoxious behaviour during the test was a little too much for me. Remember that in the original time line his effort to successfully rescue the ship was not detected as cheating and that he received a commendation. This time he comes off as a spoiled brat and not sympathetic at all.
However when Spock quotes from Sherlock Holmes ("Once you have ruled out the possible...") just as he did in "The Undiscovered Country", and after the scene in which Quinto meets Nimoy and again exchanges a classic quote, this one from "The Wrath of Khan": You lied! I implied! the torch is passed. We can await the new adventures of Pine and crew with great excitement.
(You think he'll get that green Orion girl as his new yeoman?)

Plot Holes:
1) A gigantic ship emerges from nowhere and, within a few minutes, destroys a Federation starship. And Starfleet's response? You'd think they'd mobilize the entire fleet and hunt this thing down. Nope.
2) Survivors of the Kelvin would surely note that the Narada was severely damaged when the Kelvin rammed intself down the ship's throat. Why no computer directive like: If you encounter this ship, here's what you do to destroy it? Why is its appearance to the Enterprise at Vulcan a complete shock?
3) Spock announces he must go to the Narada because he has the best chance of figuring out their computers since Vulcans and Romulans share a common heritage. Remember from "Balance of Terror" that Vulcans did not know anything about Romulans until that first feed from the cloaked Bird of Prey's bridge. Spock was completely surprised by Romulans' appearance. So how could he know about this shared heritage?

The Jewish angle:
I only wish I knew gemara like I know Star Trek (he said, hanging his head in shame... briefly)

Wednesday 20 May 2009

Looking For A Heter in the Wrong Place

So I'm sitting in shul this moring and one of the local rabbonim comes up to me with a question.
"I have to go for bloodwork," he says, "but do I really have to fast for twelve hours?"
(Never mind that Yom Kippur is 25 hours long...)
So I ask: "Is that what they told you?"
"Yes," he answers, "but I heard that in the States it's only 8 hours."
And then it dawns on me. He's looking for a heter. Like I'm supposed to say "Well The New England Journal of Medicine says it's 12 hours but JAMA and American Family Physician both proved that 8 hours is fine." Medicine doesn't work like that.
So I gave him the next best answer. "It's the same thing."
"Twelve and eight hours are the same thing?" he asks.
"Yeah, in America they work in Imperial but in Canada we're metric so it comes out to the same amount of time."
To his credit, it took only 3 seconds (I counted) for him to figure it out.

Tuesday 19 May 2009

Be Careful How You Answer

So I'm in the ER and finish up with the patient and, as I always try to do, I ask: "Any questions?" Because it's important to conclude any physician-patient encounter that way. If the patient has questions and they don't get answered, then if something goes wrong or if the patient just doesn't understand the instructions he was given, he'll be back and he'll harbour some animus towards the doctor who was too busy to answer his queries.
So I wait and the patient answers: "No." Pause. "But doctor, I want to ask you..."
Now I get this all the time. No, you have no questions and here's one now. And maybe I was feeling fiestier than usual that day but I raised my hand and said "Hang on, I asked if you had any questions and you said 'no'. So that was it."
And the patient's shoulders sagged and he muttered "Darn" as if I'd just yanked the winning lottery ticket away after he'd accidentally refused to take it.
Fortuinately I was not only fiesty but in a good mood as well so I said "Oh okay, I'll make an exception this time. What's the question?"
You should have seen the smile on his face...

I'm Number One!

One criticism I've heard time and again is that "you're almost as bad as Jacob Stein". Well, as I strive for excellence, I've never been quite so happy with that. "Almost"? That's like, second best. I hate second best.
Fortunately while trolling the internet I found evidence to the contrary. Apparently this guy (name sounds really Jewish, eh?) has a very high opinion of me:
Garnel Ironheart, you are an ------! I say that without an iota of regret. As far as deceitful ------------s are concerned, in the skeptic Jewish blogosphere there none worse than you. Do you honestly think you are going to bring any of those countless apikores back to the frum world, by pulling all the --- you do?
You hear that? "None worse" than me! Hah, take that Stein! I'm number one! I'm number one!

Sunday 17 May 2009

What The Rules Actually Are

One of my commenters, Honestly Frum, has noted on his blog that he once attended a lecture by a noted Rav in which the following content was raised:
it is well known that a number of years ago R. XX YY from Brooklyn was brought to Bergenfield for shabbos and during a question and answer session he said publicly that if there is no material chance of getting caught then there is no issur in cheating on ones taxes. Further when questioned on this privately, he said that theft from gentiles is also permissible and that one can ignore the halachos in shulchan aruch regarding tax evasion and gezel akum because these halachos were probably only codified because of fear of the goyim.
Now, if this attitude strikes you instinctively as incorrect, you'd be on the right track. While there is certainly definitive evidence that many of our important legal texts have been censored in the past (the Mishneh Torah, Shulchan Aruch, Chayei Adam and even parts of the Gemara) by non-Jewish authorities who were looking to remove what they felt were offensive references to their religion, it is also clear that most relevant material in this regard escaped the censors' notice.
What is also poorly understood is that in halacha there are goyim and then there are goyim. There are genuine idol worshippers whose religion encourages them to lead immoral lifestyles and there are non-Jewish societies in which the rule of law is encouraged. Thus when the Gemara refers to all non-Jews being suspected of being murderers or having stolen the land they claim to own, it can be understood that these references were to the more anarchic, immoral non-Jews that lived around our ancestors some 2000 years ago.
No less an authority than the Meiri has written that one can safely conclude that non-Jews today are not to be considered the same as the idol worshippers the halacha warns us about.
Having said that, there are those for whom old traditions die hard. It is an unfortunate fact of history that our ancestors were oppressed in both Europe and Muslim lands for many centuries. The only way to survive was by outfoxing the non-Jewish authorities in their attempts to impoverish and/or wipe out their local Jewish communities. For too many, this survival mechanism has become mesorah. Hence the cries of mesirah when genuine Jewish criminals are outed by their communities even though a cursory knowledge of halacha shows that this charge simply does not apply. And one can assume the above-referenced dismissmal of the need for honesty while paying taxes comes from the same source.
Fortunately, this past Shabbos I came across as clear a refutation of this attitude as one could hope for and I would like to share it here. This is from the Tanna D'Vei Raba Eliyahu 28 (translation mine):
2: From where do we learn the mitzvah for man to love God? The love of man for God is an important mitzvah from the Torah, for the yoke of the kingdom of Heaven is written from the aspect of love, as it says: "Hear o' Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one." (Dev 6:4)
5: From here they said, a person should distance himself from theft, whether from a Jew or a non-Jew. And not only that, but one who steals from a non-Jew will ultimately come to steal from a Jew. And if he swears (falsely) to a non-Jew, he will ultimately swear (falsely) to a Jew. And if he deceives a non-Jew, he will ultimately deceive a Jew. And if he murders a non-Jew, he will ultimately murder a Jew. The Torah was only given to sanctify His great name and it says "I shall place within them a sign and send some of them as survivors" (Yishiyah 66:19). What does it say at the end of the verse? "And they shall tell of my glory to the nations."
Somehow I doubt Eliyahu HaNavi was afraid of non-Jewish censors. This statement of his is a clear rebuttal to those who would tell us that Torah observance permits theft and lying, as long as the victims are just "goyim".

Friday 15 May 2009

Reverse Racism is Still Racism

Right on schedule, Rav Avi Shafran has put out yet another piece whose logic is, at best, suspect. The object of his ire this week is an unmentioned columnist he came across who committed the sin of disparaging the Chofetz Chayyim, ztk"l:
Even with the surfeit of silliness passing these days for “Torah commentary”– the manufactured “midrashim,” “original interpretations” and Biblical passages turned on their heads – I was flabbergasted to read a homily disparaging the Chafetz Chaim.
The Chafetz Chaim, of course – Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan – was renowned for his saintliness and sagacity, and for his monumental works on Jewish law, including two on the laws against slander. When the Polish sage died, in 1933, The New York Times’ obituary noted that he had shut down his store when he realized that its success born of his renown was imperiling other local storekeepers’ income.
What exercised the contemporary sermonizer, whose words appeared in an Israel-oriented magazine, was the Chafetz Chaim’s comment on an undisputed halachic ruling, that even a sinner, if Jewish, can be counted as part of a prayer-quorum. The Chafetz Chaim had elucidated the reason behind the ruling: “Even though he is a sinning Jew,” the great rabbi explained, “his holiness endures.”

Now the idea that this unnamed person had a problem with what the Chofetz Chayim wrote is difficult to understand. Too often we hear complaints from our non-religious brethren about how we in the observant community treat them differently, exclude them from feeling like they belong with us and act disparagingly towards them. The idea that the Chofetz Chayim wrote the opposite should be a source of encouragement for them. A Torah observant person who dismisses the importance of a non-observant one can now be reproved in no uncertain circumstances. But this reader did manage to find a dark lining to the silver cloud:
The magazine-homilist, a Jewish educator, found that statement “not so enlightened,” indeed “particularly problematic in an era when racism has fallen out of favor.”
Now, I could comment that this is not entirely unaccepted. Some squeaky wheels can be greased all you want and they'll still find a way to squeak. Tell this non-observant Jew that his place in the minyan is just as important as anyone else's and he moved one step to the left: Yeah? Well that means you're racist against Gentiles!
But Rav Shafran's answer makes no sense at all:
But affirmation of “Jewish election” – the concept that the Jewish people was chosen by G-d to be a holy nation with a holy mission – has about the same relationship to racism as a sizzling steak has to a slab of cold tofu...
The bottom line: Jewish chosenness, from the Jewish perspective, entails no disparagement of others. It is not a license but a responsibility, to live by the laws of the Torah and to set a holy example for others – to shine forth in belief and behavior as the prophet Isaiah’s “light unto the nations” (42:6).
Understand? Negative beliefs - you're inferior to us - are racism. Positive beliefs - we're better than the rest of you - is not.
Maybe I'm just dull about this but I can't really see the difference. While Rav Shafran notes that we have "a responsibility to live by the laws of the Torah and to set a holy example for others", too often this responsibility reverts into a licence to abuse and denigrate those who are different because they're not on the same "high level" as the rest of us.
We are different from the nations around us, but that's not racism, just an noting that the English and French are different from each other is. Drawing conclusions on superiority/inferiority based on that difference is something else and should be avoided.

Thursday 14 May 2009

Two Kinds of Gedolim

“Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai had five dsciples and they were: Rabbi Eliezer ben Horkinos, Rabbi Yehoshua ben Chananya, Rabbi Yose HaKohen, Rabbi Shimon ben Nesanel and Rabbi Elazar ben Arach. He used to enumerate their merits: Rabbi Eliezer ben Horkinos is a cemented cistern that does not lose a drop… Rabbi Elazar ben Arach iis like a spring which steadily increases its flow.
“He used to say: If all the sages of Israel were on one scale of the balance and Eliezer ben Horkinos was on the other, he would outweigh them all. Abba Shaul said in his name: If all the Sages of Israel were on one scale of the balance and Elazar ben Arach was on the other, he would outweigh them all.” (Avos 2:8)

The dispute in this mishnah is difficult to ignore. If encyclopedic knowledge is the most important quality for a Jewish sage to have, then how can Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai change his mind and praise innovative thinking (according to Rambam)?
Two different approaches are used to reconcile the disagreement. According to Rabbeinu Yonah and the Bertinoro Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai was noting two different things. When it came to encyclopedic knowledge, Rabbi Eliezer outweighed everyone. When it came to innovative creatitivity, Rabbi Elazar won out.
An alternative approach is suggested by the Tiferes Yisrael. According to the version of the tradition of the tanna kamma, Rabbi Yochanan believed Rabbi Eliezer’s strength to be the superior while Abba Shaul, who was also a tanna, had learned that he had favoured Rabbi Elazar.
But I believe there is a third approach to this dilemma that also resolves the conflict.
One must remember that Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai lived at a tumultuous time in Jewish history. In the first part of his career, our Temple (may it be speedily rebuilt) stood in all its glory in the midst of the bustling metropolis of Yerushalayim. As recounted in Gittin, in the second half of his career he was in Yavneh busily rebuilding Torah Judaism from the ashes of the destruction of the Temple and Yerushalayim. A contrast greater than that is difficult to imagine.
What happened to Judaism after the fall of Yerushalayim? Until that point, our worship had been mostly Temple-centered. Yes there were prayers and rituals that were performed in local areas but the bottom line was that Jewish worship centered around the sacrificial cult. If you had committed a sin, saying sorry wasn’t good enough in many cases. You had to bring a sacrifice. Three times a year you were expected to go up to the Temple to celebrate the holidays (those of us who go away on Pesach to nice hotels are attempting to keep that custom alive). If you had an opportunity to thank God, it wasn’t enough to make Kiddush in the local shul. You could go up to the Temple with a thanksgiving offering. And so on.
After the fall of the Temple, Judaism had to fundamentally change. Now the religion had to be made more portable. The danger was that without a dynamic centre, those on the periphery would drift away unless they were provided with a way to be Jewish that did not involve the constant presence of the Temple. It was this transition that Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai managed. The Judaism he ended his life with was much different than the one he started it with but had he not done what he did, who knows where we would be today?
And perhaps this is the clue to understanding the mishnah. The tanna kamma is reported what Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai felt before the destruction of the Temple while Abba Shaul, a later tanna who lived after the destruction, is reporting Rabb Yochanan’s later attitude change.
To wit: before the destruction of the Temple, faithful transmission of the mesorah was key to running the religious life of the nation. We were in our land, we had a Temple, almost every single mitzvah was available for performance. It was therefore a great skill to be able to retain and recall all the rules for all the situations. In this kind of environment, Rabbi Eliezer excelled.
But with the destruction of the Temple, perfect knowledge suddenly wasn’t the priority. Let’s face it, without a Temple one third of the Talmud is theoretical. Without national sovereignty and a functioning court system, another third becomes limited in application. But what’s left now becomes very important as those observances that were still available to us needed to be adjusted to the new paradigm of Jewish life.
An imagination is a terrible thing for someone with encyclopedic knowledge. After all, if one is tasked with remember things with perfect precision, musing on the information, imagining the possibilities such information contains, can lead to unwanted distortion. Is what the person remembers what he was actually supposed to remember or rather his interpretation of the matter?
But when it comes to adjusting to new situations, innovation is crucial. Until the destruction of the Temple certain scenarios needed never to be considered. Now with the Jewish people scattered to the four winds of the Earth, new situations would arise all the time. Answers to questions that address novel concepts but that stayed firmly within the bounds of halacha needed to be written. And it was here that Rabbi Elazar shone.
Looking around at the Torah world of the last 150 years of so, it is quite clear that most major, influential gedolim come in one of the two flavours: the Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Elazar ones. Some have worked to retain the achievements of their forebears without trying to add to them. For them, the faithful transmission of the mesorah was challenge enough. Others living in these changing times knew that innovation was important to help our people struggle through and make the most of the opportunities God provided us with.
The difference between the two is subtle – even the names of the two rabbonim are similar in sound and meaning. But both their contributions are vital for the survival of Torah observance and the spiritual vitality of klal Yisrael.
Sometimes we need a Rabbi Eliezer, sometimes Rabbi Elazar, but let no one say that only one or the other truly can be a gadol b’Yisrael.

Orthodox Selflessness

"It never rains but it pours." (Dr. Leonard McCoy, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan)

For Conservatism, it's been a lousy few years. First there was the appointing of a non-rabbi as the head of the movement. Then came the split over gay marriage, then the financial crisis hit home. Now apparently many congregation within the movement are upset with how the Jewish Theological Seminary is running things:
In yet another indication of the problems plaguing the Conservative movement, as many as 40 synagogues are considering withdrawing from the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism because the movement’s congregational arm doesn’t serve their needs, according to a leader of a new group pressing for change.
“I say stay and change from within, but 30 to 40 other synagogues may leave,” said Arthur Glauberman, a founder of Bonim (“Builders”). He was referring to multiple comments on a United Synagogue listserv.
Bonim, which claims to represent about 50 synagogues along the East Coast, is now speaking openly of ousting the current United Synagogue leadership, slashing the group’s $14 million budget and restructuring the organization. It is also calling for the closing of all 15 of the
movement’s regional offices in order to save money on rent and staff.
“The United Synagogue has become so absorbed with its own power and is out of touch with providing services to member organizations,” said Glauberman, president of Shaarei Tikvah in Scarsdale.

Perhaps Rav Lamm was aware of this when he made his controversial statements regarding the future of Jewry at a recent function:
Rabbi Norman Lamm, former president and now chancellor of the Orthodox Yeshiva University, was even more blunt about the future of the Conservative movement. He told The Jerusalem Post last weekend: “The Conservatives are in a mood of despondency and pessimism. They are closing schools and in general shrinking.”
Rabbi Lamm, who was in Israel to receive an honorary doctorate from Bar-Ilan University, was referring to statistics from the National Jewish Population Survey. It found in a 2001 survey that of the 46 Jewish households that belong to a synagogue, one-third were affiliated with Conservative synagogues — a 10 percent drop since 1990.
Although the Reform movement grew from 35 percent to 38 percent during those 10 years, Rabbi Lamm said it was “because if you add goyim to Jews, then you will do OK.”
The Reform movement in 1983 adopted a policy of patrilineal descent, which recognizes as a Jew the child of a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother provided the child is raised as a Jew.
“Reform is out of the picture, because they never got into the picture, and the Conservatives are getting out of the picture,” Rabbi Lamm told the newspaper. “With a heavy heart, we will soon say Kaddish on the Reform and Conservative movements.”

Naturally the response to this from the non-frum portions of the blogsphere has been understandibly harsh. However, while Rav Lamm made one good point in the excerpt quoted above, I believe he was incorrect in his conclusion.
His point regarding Reform's Jewish dilution is, unfortunately for us as a people, spot on. The bottom line is that Reform has, for the last 25-30 years, bolstered its numbers by creating what any country would call a very lax immigration policy. Are you the child of a Jewish parent? Do you want to convert by having some chicken soup sprinkled on your forehead? Well then you're a member. It is only by counting non-Jews who have been falsely told that they are Jewish that they have managed to maintain their dominant position in the Jewish demographic situation in North America. Eventually the dilution will go to far and Reform will pay the price through lack of identity.
Conservatism, on the other hand, has had the opposite problem. In a society where the mushy middle is considered out of fashion as opposed to a firm position at one end of the spectrum or another, they have suffered as they have tried to be all things to no people. They have attempted to maintain a facade of halachic legitimacy to satisfy their traditional side, but have acquiesed to every politically correct initiative to satisfy their avante garde members. As a result, it has become blindingly obvious that anyone who is serious either about Torah observance or about being on the cutting edge of lack of observance has no place in the movement. That's why they're hemorrgaing and their stubborn insistence that they must occupy the middle ground (the only thing they seem to be stubborn on) is costing them.
However, as I mentioned, I don't think we will soon be saying Kaddish on the Reformers or Conservatives. What Rav Lamm did not wish to address is the issue of Orthodox dropout, a phenomenon that is too real to be ignored. Even without statistical information, it is quite obvious that it's happening. After all, if the old statement that no Reformer has a Jewish grandson, then who's filling all those grand ol' temples two days a year? It's our folks who have not felt an adequate sense of connection to Torah and mitzvos to remain in the fold and who have gone looking for faith and spiritual satisfaction elsewhere. That Reform and Conservatism still exist is a sign of failure on the part of Orthodoxy to retain our own.
We can stand back and enjoy a feeling of smug satisfaction at the ongoing downfall of Conservatism (thus ignoring Shmuel HaKatan's advice not to gloat over the downfall of someone you don't like) or we can reflect on the tragedy of the loss of so much Jewishness on both their side and ours.

Gedolim Who Matter Part 4 - Rav Moshe Feinstein

From his Wikipedia page:

Rav Moshe was born, according to the Hebrew calendar, on the 7th day of Adar, 5655 (traditionally the date of birth of the Biblical Moshe) in Uzda, near Minsk, Belarus, then part of the Russian empire to his father Rabbi David Feinstein, rabbi of Uzdan. His father was a descendant of Rabbi Yom Tov Lipman, Rabbi of Kapolye, whose glosses on the Talmud have been published in the back of the Gemarah; and also the author of other Talmudic works.
He studied with his father and also in yeshivas located in Slutsk, Shklov and Amstislav, before being appointed rabbi of Lubań where he served for sixteen years. Under increasing pressure from the Soviet regime, he moved with his family to New York City in 1936 where he lived for the rest of his life.
Settling on the Lower East Side, he became the rosh yeshiva of Mesivtha Tifereth Jerusalem. He later established a branch of the yeshiva in Staten Island, New York, now headed by his son Rabbi Reuven Feinstein. His son Rabbi Dovid Feinstein heads the Manhattan branch.
He was president of the Union of Orthodox Rabbis of the United States and Canada and chaired the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah of Agudath Israel of America from the 1960s until his death. Rabbi Feinstein also took an active leadership role in Israel’s Chinuch Atzmai.
Rabbi Feinstein was revered by many as the Gadol Hador (greatest Torah sage of the generation), including by Rabbi Yaakov Yisrael Kanievsky, Rabbi Yonasan Steif, Rabbi Elyah Lopian, Rabbi Aharon Kotler, Rabbi Yaakov Kamenetsky and Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, even though several of them were far older than he. He was universally recognized as the preeminent Torah sage and Posek of his generation, and people from around the world called upon him to answer their most complicated Halachic questions.
Rabbi Feinstein participated in the Rabbis' march on Washington on October 6, 1943.[citation needed]

Notable decisions
Owing to his prominence as an adjudicator of Jewish law, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein was asked the most difficult questions, in which he issued a number of innovative or controversial decisions. Soon after arriving in the United States, he established a reputation for handling business and labor disputes. For instance, he wrote about strikes, seniority, and fair competition. Later, he served as the chief Halakhic authority for the Association of Orthodox Jewish Scientists, which suited his growing involvement with Jewish medical ethics cases. In the medical arena, he fiercely opposed the early, unsuccessful heart transplants and, over time, it is unclear if he shifted toward acceptance of brain death criteria. The last 'responsa', printed after he had died, suggested it. On such matters, he consulted with various scientific experts, including his son-in-law Rabbi Dr. Moshe Dovid Tendler who is a professor of biology and serves as a rosh yeshiva at Yeshiva University.
As a leader of American Orthodoxy, moreover, Feinstein issued opinions that clearly distanced his community from Conservative and Reform Judaism.[1] Nevertheless, he faced intense opposition within Orthodoxy on several controversial decisions, such as rulings on artificial insemination and eruv. Indeed, on the former, Rabbi Feinstein may be read as having reversed or seriously qualified his position. In the case of his position not to prohibit cigarette smoking, Orthodox rabbinic authorities overruled, in effect, his decision after his death. He made noteworthy decisions on the following topics:
Artificial insemination from a non-Jewish donor (EH I:10,71, II:11, IV:32.5) [2]
Cosmetic surgery (HM II:66)[3]
Bat Mitzvah for girls (OH I:104 (1956), OH II:97 (1959), OH IV:36)[4]
Brain death as an indication of death under Jewish law (YD IV:54)[5]
Cheating for the N.Y. Regents exams (HM II:30)
Classical music in religious settings (YD II:111)
Commemorating the Holocaust, Yom ha-Shoah (YD IV:57.11)
Conservative Judaism, including its clergy and schools (e.g., YD II:106-107)[6]
Donating blood for pay (HM I:103)
Education of girls (e.g., YD II:109, YD II:113 YD III:87.2)[7]
End-of-life medical care[5]
Eruv projects in New York City
Financial ethics (HM II:29)) [8]
Hazardous medical operations[5]
Heart transplantation (YD 2:174.3)[5]
Labor union and related employment privileges (e.g., HM I:59)
Mehitza (esp. OH I:39) [9]
Psychiatric care (YD II:57)
Separation of Siamese twins [10]
Shaking hands between men and women (OH I:113; EH I:56; EH IV:32)[11]
Smoking marijuana (YD III:35)
Tay-Sachs fetus abortion, esp. in debate with Rabbi Eliezer Waldenberg [12]
Smoking cigarettes [13]
Veal raised in factory conditions (HM I:103)
Note: Responsa in Igrot Moshe are cited in parentheses

Moshe Feinstein's grave

Rabbi Moshe Feinstein died on the 23 March 1986 (13th of Adar II, 5746 on the Hebrew calendar). It has been pointed out that the 5746th verse in the Torah reads, "And it came to pass after Moshe had finished writing down the words of this Torah in a book to the very end." (Deuteronomy 31:24). This is taken by some as a fitting epitaph for him.
At the time he was regarded as Orthodoxy's foremost rabbinic scholar and Posek. His funeral in Israel was delayed by a day due to mechanical problems to the plane carrying his coffin, which had to return to New York. His funeral in Israel was said to be the largest among Jews since the Mishnaic era, with an estimated attendance of 300,000 people. Among the eulogizers in America were Rabbis Yaakov Yitzchak Ruderman, David Lipschutz, Shraga Moshe Kalmanowitz, Nissan Alpert, Moshe David Tendler, Michel Barenbaum and Mordechai Tendler. The Satmar Rebbe and the son of the deceased, Rabbi Reuven also spoke.
In Israel, Rabbis Elazar Menachem Shach, Dovid Povarsky, Yitzchak Yaakov Weiss, Yehuda Tzadkah, Rabbi Feinstein's son Reuven and Rabbi Feinsteins's nephew Rabbi Michel Feinstein, all tearfully expressed grief over what they termed a massive loss to the generation.
Rabbi Feinstein was held in such great esteem that Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, who was himself regarded as a Torah giant, Talmid Chacham and posek, refused to eulogize him, saying "Who am I to eulogize him? I studied his sefarim; I was his talmid (student)."
Rabbi Feinstein was buried on Har HaMenuchot in proximity to his teacher, Rabbi Isser Zalman Meltzer; his friend, Rabbi Aharon Kotler; his son-in-law Rabbi Moshe Shisgal and next to the Belzer Rebbe.

Prominent students
Rabbi Moshe invested much time molding some of his select students to become leaders in Rabbinics and Halacha. Those students, over the years, spent countless hours a day serving as apprentices to their great Rabbi. Most are considered authorities in many areas of practical Halacha and Rabbinic and Talmudic academics. Some of those students are:
Rabbi Dovid Feinstein, (New York), his son
Rabbi Reuven Feinstein, (New York), his son
Rabbi Nissan Alpert, (New York, NY)
Rabbi Moshe David Tendler, (New York, NY), his son-in-law
Rabbi J. David Bleich, (New York, NY)
Rabbi Ephraim Greenblatt (Memphis,TN)
Rabbi Avrohom Blumenkrantz, (Far Rockaway, NY)
Rabbi Elimelech Bluth, (Brooklyn, NY)
HaRav Chaim Ozer Chait, (Far Rockaway, NY)

Rabbi Feinstein's greatest renown stemmed from a lifetime of responding to halachic queries posed by Jews in America and worldwide. He wrote about two thousand responsa on a huge range of issues that affect Jewish practice in the modern era. Some responsa may be found in his Talmudic commentary (Dibros Moshe), some circulate informally, and 1,883 responsa were published in Igrot Moshe. Among Rabbi Feinstein's works:
Igros Moshe; (Epistles of Moshe), a classic eight-volume work of Halachic responsa.
Dibros Moshe (Moshe's Words), an eleven-volume work of Talmudic novellae.
Darash Moshe (Moshe Expounds, a reference to Leviticus 10:16), novellae on the Torah (published posthumously).
Some of Rabbi Feinstein's early works, including a commentary on the Talmud Yerushalmi, were destroyed by the Soviet authorities.
Why he matters:
What made Rav Feinstein, zt"l, different was that he was not beholden to a political ideology. Too often nowadays what makes one a Gadol isn't so much immense Torah knowledge but belonding to a particular party or group. Rav X, being Chareidi, is a Gadol. Rav Y, being Modern Orthodox, may be just as knowledgeable but doesn't qualify for Gadol status because he's not Charedi. As a result, many halachic decisions by certain rabbinic figures get ignored by either the Chareidi or the Modern Orthodox communites because the ruling came from someone who "wasn't one of ours".
However, Rav Feinstein was beyond all such nonsense. He clearly paskened for the sake of finding halachic truth, not because he was beholden to a pre-packaged ideology. In addition, unlike today's Gedolim, he was not surrounded by askanim who definitely come to their leaders with their biases unfurled for all to see. One can therefore understand why quoting from the Igros Moshe carries more currency across the Orthodox spectrum than from the latest volume of Rav Eliashiv or Shteiman's teshuvos.
As Rav Feinstein noted in the introduction to his Igros Moshe, God did a wonderful thing leaving the Torah in our hands. Because the Torah is truth, and because it is not in Heaven, poskim have the opportunity (along with the heavy responsiblity it involves) to create truth. It is this purity of attitude that distinguishes him from many who came after and why he continues to hold so much influence in the Torah world today.