Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Tuesday 28 July 2009

Losing the Moral Advantage

It's always hard, when you're the member of a community that's constantly in the news for things such as rioting, child abuse and financial corruption to whinge that you're being discriminated against. Certainly sympathy will be found lacking in most quarters.
However, that doesn't make it right. While the Chareidim have pulled in a lot of negative publicity since the Bein HaMetzarim began and even before, it's proper for us to remember that when they complain of being discriminated against, they do make a good case.
The latest example made the headlines a couple of days ago and, probably because it involves chilonim acting badly against Chareidim, didn't make a lot of waves in the predominantly anti-Chareidi blogsphere:
The Hebrew University in Jerusalem pulled a tender for the sale of two buildings owned by the university in the Kiryat Yovel neighborhood.
On Monday, a real estate company owned by the university decided to cancel the bidding on two buildings containing 64 housing units. Seven haredi groups and one secular group made propositions on the property.

According to some reports, the tender was cancelled after a Chareidi investment group provided the best offer. In order to avoid charges of overt discrimination by taking a less profitable non-Chareidi offer, Hebrew U decided to cancel the tenders and avoid the problem altogether. I don't doubt that somewhere along the line they will find a way to simply avoid such an open process and find a non-religious group to sell to. And that's wrong.
In a civilized country, the rule of law must apply equally to all citizens. If it is wrong for Chareidim to intimidate non-religious folks who want to live in their neighbourhoods or to try and limit the sale of such properties to families they approve of, it is wrong for Hebrew U to refuse to go through with a planned sale of a building because the process they chose led to the "wrong" party being chosen.
In response to the recent rioting and other scandals, many Chareidi writers have tried to point out their side of the story. This has been made difficult by the fact that they are defending a bunch of lunatics, but lunatics still have rights under the law. As a secular writer in The Jerusalem Post had to point out:
As horrifying as this story may be, it is no more so than many other examples of alleged abuse reported regularly in this country. What makes it distinct is its cultural-political nature. In fact, it has turned into an ideological battle, with spokesmen from the woman's community going after everyone, including Hadassah, the police, social services and the justice system - everyone, that is, except the woman herself. Peculiarly, she is presumed innocent by her clansmen, by mere virtue of her address, Mea She'arim. Still, in a twist of irony, it is the presumption of innocence, until proof of guilt, on which our legal system is based.
It is also a principle to which the press is supposed to adhere.
Well, it certainly hasn't been doing so. Every lead into every Hebrew news story this week has referred to "the starving mother" ("starving" as a verb, not an adjective), with additional features discussing Munchausen Syndrome - as though there has already been a diagnosis, a trial, a guilty verdict and a sentence.
This is only partly due to the fact that child abuse is one of those issues that everyone feels strongly about, and which makes for sensationalist copy. More to the point in this particular case is its connection to a community toward which the bulk of the public, egged on by a largely secular press, feels a sense of schadenfreude whenever something dark emerges from its midst. The logic behind this is obvious. How, we wonder, dare the very same people who throw proverbial fits and literal rocks over our driving on Shabbat, criticize us for being unholy, when their own houses are made of glass?
Still, the knee-jerk presentation of the haredim as hypocrites at best, and evil at worst, should be cause for pause. That such pause came this week from Yediot Aharonot's prime political pundit, Nahum Barnea, is as surprising as it is refreshing.
"It's easy, too easy, to slam the haredim," he writes. "They are the classic candidates for xenophobia. Even liberal Israelis, who are outraged by patronizing remarks made by a judge to a young Ethiopian woman, by the expulsion of [illegal] immigrants or by the abuse of Palestinians, hate haredim with a clear conscience. It's commensurate with the bon-ton. The 'starving mother' affair is a clear example. The first incisive questions about her should have been directed to the hospital: Why did so much time pass before suspicions emerged that the problem had to do with the mother and not with the child? What sort of needless and damaging treatments did he undergo? What did the hospital's social work department do about the case? Was there an effort to handle this grave matter in cooperation with the community?

It is normal for people to give those they like the benefit of the doubt when they make a misstep while condemning their enemies without reservations for identical misdoings. In no way does that make it acceptable. The challenge of the human being having been created in the image of God is to rise above what is considered normal and think beyond that. In Avos Hillel tells us not to judge another until we have come to his place ("walked a mile in his shoes"). This advice would be well heeded by both Chareidi and secular Jew alike.
We are taught by Chazal that the Second Temple (may it be speedily rebuilt) was destroyed by sinas chinam which is usually translated as causeless or baseless hatred. There's only one problem with the translation: ask anyone who hates another and he'll happily tell you that it isn't causeless hatred he's feeling. He's got plenty of cause!
How much more does this apply to the current religious-secular conflict in Israel! The chilonim certainly have many legitimate reasons to despise the Chareidi Jews amongst them. But - and this is the important part - from the Chareidi perspective they have just as many reasons to hate the chilonim, as this incident with Hebrew U shows. They are discriminated against, treated differently than all other minority groups and subjected to a public level of hate that would be unacceptable against any other community. The truth of this removes any perceived moral advantage the chilonim think they have over the Chareidim. One can argue that it's their own fault but so what? Does that justify hatred?
Perhaps it is better to translate sinas chinam as free hatred. Instead of thinking rationally, both groups in Israel have given free rein to their hatred. Instead of remembering that everyone in the opposing camp is a human being created by God, they have decided to let their base emotions take over. This free giving of hatred is what led to the destruction of Yerushalayim 1939 years ago or so. It is also heading us in this direction today.
Perhaps with Tisha B'Av arriving imminently it's time for us all to take a step back and remember this.

Monday 27 July 2009

Bright Idea

I'm starting to get tired of accusations that I troll the internet under multiple identities. Despite my repeated assertions, everytime a new non-skeptic blogger appears, the poor guy gets pasted with being me!
If I was a high level blogger with thousands of hits a day, I could understand this. But I'm quite low level with a minimal comment content. So where's the benefit to these guys?
So I'm bringing forward one of two suggestions:
1) Become a follower! Sign up at the little box on the right. Show the world you aren't me!
2) Or should I start a new blog called "I'm not Garnel" and let everyone sign in there?

Sunday 26 July 2009

Who's Avoiding An Argument

As I've said before, I agree with some things that Kolech stands for. There are definite issues and concerns with the status of women in the religious world that continue to evolve and evoke debate. I also agree that it's important that this debate be held under civilized circumstances (does that happen anywhere anymore?).
But there are also lines to be crossed and Kolech seems to enjoy crossing them. First there was the issue of female rabbis, the "rabba" as it were. Now, in this latest editorial at Ynet, Rivkah Lubitch does her organization great damage by revealing their agenda once and for all. Interestingly, she doesn't start that way:
Thankfully, Rabbi Yehoshua Shapira retracted his recent statement that the Kolech organization, and organizations of its kind, are "Neo-Reformers," since it is fair to assume that even in his own backyard there are women who identify with most of Kolech's principles, even if in practice they have not changed anything in their lives.
A fair enough statement. To say that all women with the frum community, especially the Chareidi part, are happy with how the recent obsession with tznius and gender separation have taken over the public square, would be ludicrous. But then Lubitch says something which destroys her entire perceied moral advantage.
Really, how can anyone not agree with Kolech? Is there anyone today who doesn’t recognize that the issue of sexual harassment, which Kolech is involved with, affects religious society as well? Is there anyone who doesn’t understand women's interest in taking a more central role in religious life, or their desire for more intensive Torah study? In all honesty, is there anyone out there who still really thinks that it is a sin to teach women Gemara?
Her positions are so clear that they're beyong argument? That's an arrogant statement that is usually to describe her opponents, the self-styled upholders of the true mesorah. As for the rest of her questions, they come fast and furious but carefully looking at them shows a disconnect between them.
Yes, there are people who don't recognize that the issue of sexual harassment affects religious society. Their heads are in the sand, when they close their eyes they pretend they're still in a shtetl in Eastern Europe and no amount of sane reasoning is going to change their minds. Fine, I can agree with her on that.
But the next question is on a totally different tangent. Is there anyone who doesn't understand women's interest in taking a more central role in religious life? Excuse me? Women are already responsible for the centrepiece of Jewish life, the home. They are in charge of a family's observance of kashrus, Shabbos and taharas mishpacha. Are all these things suddenly peripheral in Lubitch's Judaism? Then there is her linking it with intensive Torah study. Again, this is a false association. No one outside the Chareidi community questions a woman's right to engage in intensive Torah study. What does that have to do with their roles in Jewish life?
Finally, there are still people who think it's a sin to teach women Gemara. In this case they aren't a bunch of peripheral wingnuts either but a substantial portion of the Chareidi community who are still, whether we like it or not, the most intense part of the Torah observant world. One may recognize that significant Gedolim like the Chofetz Chayyim and the Rav have both noted that it is essential for women to learn like men nowadays but to casually dismiss other important figures who disagree is incredibly presumptious.
What's more, having expressed relief that a former chief rabbi doesn't really think of Kolech as a form of Reform, Lubitch then goes and proves his assertions correct:
Equality between women and men in the public sphere; single life in the Orthodox world; feminist ritual object; creating Jewish rituals for women; Kol Isha; and of course the rabbinic courts and agunot.
"Equality uber alles", the rallying cry of the non-religious Jewish feminists, has come to the Orthodox world and its name is not Kolech.
Let us be clear: Judaism does not believe in equality between men and women because men and women are not equal. That does not mean that Judaism believes men to be superior to women, chas v'shalom. In fact, despite the dismissiveness its detractors usually apply to such concepts, Judaism actually attributes multiple aspects of superiority to women. It is feminists with their constant sense of grievance and jealously, the ones who want everything the man has while disparaging that which the halacha has given them, that deny this truth. The home? Feminists degrade "women's work" more than men do. For them it's all about the public, the ritual, the "here I am, I am a Jewish woman, hear me whinge!" The modest side which Judaism truly values lacks aggrandizement, hence it lacks value to them.
The beauty of Jewish familiy life is rooted in the inequality between man and woman. If they were truly equal, why would one need the other? Each gender has an imperfection that can only be rectified by the opposite one. Denying this means denying the beauty of a well functioning marriage and family.
With this article, Ms Lubitch turns Kolech into an organization that is just as intolerant of opposing points of view as it considers its detractors to be. The other is a pseudo-Reform group more interested in secular equality than Jewish truth. Much of their good work will probably be ignored because of this. More's the pity.

Friday 24 July 2009

Please Pass the Barf Bag

It's a good thing the Chareidi community continues to fail to live up to its self-proclaimed status as the true expression of Torah observance today. If they ever started succeeding, Rav Avi Shafran might actually not having something to write about for a change.
From the man who denied that spousal and child abuse of any significance exists in the frum community, who holds that the Rubashkins are really decent guys who have been unfairly smeared, who thinks a former African dictator makes a splendid candidate for conversion to Judaism while tens of thousands of well-meaning Israelis don't, and who thinks that Bernie Madoff is a better man than an airline pilot who saved hundreds of lives, we now have the following statement of moral relativism:
And so, when thousands of Iranians poured into Tehran’s streets in protest of what they saw as a fraudulent presidential election, the press emphasis was not on the protesters who threw rocks, set trash bins aflame and vandalized public property. The focus, rightly, was on the bulk of the crowd, peaceful protesters of what they believed to be a fraudulent election.
When tens of thousands of haredim, though, demonstrated in reaction to a decision by the Jerusalem municipality to open a public parking lot on the Jewish Sabbath, increasing traffic in the heart of the Holy City and disturbing the peacefulness of the day of rest, the main coverage was not of the overwhelming mass of the crowd, peacefully standing up for the sanctity of the Sabbath – but rather of the tiny fraction of the crowd that… threw rocks, set trash bins aflame and vandalized public property.

Get it? To Rav Shafran there is no difference between the Chareidi public in Yerushalayim under a democratically elected government and the long-suffering victims of the Iranian revolution under a bunch of murderous thugs. It's really all the same thing!
Never mind that the hospital they were protesting against was trying to protect a child from an abusive mothe whose acts were caught on film. For Rav Shafran, she's really the innocent victim in a horrible power play by nasssssty secular authorities:
The hospital video footage, moreover, that authorities said showed the mother removing the child’s feeding tube 20 times has yet, at least at this writing, to be released. And why did the hospital not act after the first tube removal? Or the tenth?
Why, further, if the woman is in fact mentally ill, was a simple restraining order not obtained, barring her from contact with the child? Why did the police choose instead to slap handcuffs on the five-months pregnant woman in public (and in front of a summoned press) and place her in a jail cell (with an accused spouse-killer, an Arab woman, as a cellmate)?
None of us can know with certainty at this point the answers to those questions – or whether the woman at issue is a would-be murderess, a sufferer of mental illness or a caring mother wrongly accused.

Right. So the hospital acted cautiously to avoid a legal problem later on and for Rav Shafran it's proof of... what? Who cares if it was the tenth or the first time she had removed the tube? Isn't once enough? Wouldn't a decent person ask: Why didn't they do it after the first time? What were they waiting for?
And while he remains clueless as to the behaviour of the police, perhaps I can enlighten him. There is a Jewish value that transcends divisions within our people. Religious or non-religious, traditional or modern, there is something that almost every real Jew feels and that is the supreme value of the life of our children. No other people worries so much about their children. No other people are willing to protect them from any danger possible. No other people places so much values in their happiness. This isn't written anywhere in the Gemara or Shulchan Aruch but it doesn't have to be. It just is.
So imagine Israeli authorities, who have a little more Jewish feeling than their Chareidi antogonists generally give them credit for, seeing a child suffering? Imagine how they must have reacted to discover that the child's community was not only denying the suffering but demanding that the child be returned to the same dangerous environment? Imagine what must have gone through their minds when this same community which preaches its purity in Torah threatened violence against the hospital for trying to protect the child?
Do you think only Chareidim get upset about things?
Rav Shafran has scraped the bottom of the barrel before. With this column he is licking its underside. Pass the barf bag.

אף על פי כן

There seems to be no end to the scandals enveloping the frum community these days. If someone isn't rioting over a parking, he's rioting over an abused child being taken away from his mentally ill mother. If it isn't about scamming people of millions of dollars, then it's about corruption, bribes, and organ trafficking.
The chilul Hashem that results from these debacles is beyond measuring. "Official" Jewish culture has gone 180 degrees in the opposite direction from where it should be. Instead of being a light unto the nations, an example of moral and ethical direction, we are the picture on the front page of the paper being led away in handcuffs. And like the United States in the first few hours after 9/11 was committed, the Orthodox Jewish leadership seems to be in shock, uncertain what to do next.
The difference, of course, is that George Bush II and his team quickly overcame the shock and began planning the defence of the United States. Unlike them, we are unlikely to see such definitive leadership from any quarter of the frum world. A real leader knows that when the system isn't working, change must come and it must come from the top. We lack such leaders so what we'll get is prevarication, procrastination and denial. Already we have seen it in various quarters. Rav Tuvia Weiss, head of the Eidah Chareidit, was reportedly offered a viewing of the video in which the mother accused of starving her child was caught pulling a feeding tube out of his abdomen. He refused to view it. What he doesn't know can't change his mind? In the U.S. extra scrutiny and possible discriminatory treatment of Jews may become standard and, rachmana litzlan, for good reason. Rav Avi Shafran has his work cut out, that's for sure.
What seems worse is the glee that comes from the enemies of Torah observance. These shameful events are like man from Heaven for them. For what seems like forever they have been pounding their little soapboxes and shouting about how evil religion is, how evil religious people are, how being religious is evil, and one after another, we find frum Yidden more than happy to prove them right!
אף על פי כן , they are wrong. There is the messenger and then there is the message. The messengers are flawed, that's not a chidush for anyone who has read Navi. Getting God's message wrong, following the convenient mitzvos and screaming at anyone who notices is old business for us. Even so, that does not change the perfection and purity of the message itself. It remains untarnished even as its self-styled representatives throw mud at it in an attempt to alter its form to their liking.
What is their motivation? Chazal tell us in Sanhedrin that after the return from Bavel, the Anshei Knesses HaGedolah destroyed the yetzer for idol worship. What is less well know is that the yetzer didn't actually go away. It morphed, turning from a lust for worship for external objects into self-worship, a far more perfidious evil. People who say they worship the Ribono shel Olam but in truth are following their personal desires and needs while labelling them "god" are really engaging in modern idol worship. You can have the blackets hat, the longer bekisher, but still worship yourself. And when you are God, to mangle Dostoyevsky, then everything is permitted.
So why not just give up? Did God give us the Torah? Clearly its demands are too much for us. It's simply not possible to have an entire people live like the Talmud suggests. For them this is proof that the Torah was invented by "the rabbis" because a real God would have given us something far less demanding. In a world where university students think they should get an "A" just for showing up to class, this isn't too hard to fall for.
The answer comes from this week's parasah, Devarim. In it, Moshe Rabeinu begins his capsule summary of the history of the Jewish people in the desert, from the departure from Har Sinai to the edge of Israel. He goes over the incident with the spies and notes two important features of the story. One is that the punishment was to wander for 38 years in the desert until getting another chance to go to Israel. The second was the rejection of the teshuvah of the Jews who, on the morning after their doom was pronounced, announced that they were really sorry and would now stage an invasion of Israel, just as God had originally commanded.
Have you ever seen a child get in trouble? Usually their first response is to deny he's done anything wrong. Then comes the attempt to put things right but with a completely insincere attitude. Only with time and maturing does the child come to appreciate why he was wrong and why the punishment was appropriate. The Jews who wanted to go into Israel were in the second step. They knew they had committed a terrible sin but still didn't understand how terrible and thought they could put things right post facto. It was only 38 years later, after a total of 40 years in the desert (remember that Avos tells us that at age 40 comes true understanding) that they could stand at the edge of Israel and understand what had gone wrong.
We are standing here on the day after the curse of wandering. The first urge will be to do something to put things right. We will see a focus on new chumros as if not enough of them was the reason for this problem. We will see attempts to downplay the enormity of the chilul Hashem that has happened or valiant revisionist tales that transfer the blame to others. (Goyim blame the Jews, non-religious Jews blame religious Jew, who do we blame? Everyone else!)
We must remember that the reason for practising Torah and mitzvos isn't for any personal benefit. This isn't about who's sheitl is most expensive, or who has the most kollelleit sons-in-law. Those of us who still care for honesty, ethics and Torah must do two things. One is to redouble our efforts at leading decent lives so that we can stand apart from those who are disparaging the name of God in This World. The other is to know, in our hearts, that this is one more proof that it isn't the sthreiml that makes the Jew but the daily effort to be honest in one's dealing, to treat all others with kindness, that makes the Jew. No, it's not at flashy. No, you can't show anything off in shul and have people say "pssshhhh" but here's the forgotten bottom line: Judaism isn't about impressing the next guy. It's about impressing God and He is not fooled by superficialities.

Tuesday 21 July 2009

The Wrong Methodology

Rav Yitzchok Aderlstein's latest essay on Cross Currents is, for me, groundbreaking. Mostly because I agree with most of it!
In his last few pieces, Rav Adlerstein notes that halachic methodology and academic methodology are not the same thing. Too often Modern Orthodox authorities with a strong academic background forget this and apply the skills they learned at their Ivy League alma mater to the field of decision-making in Jewish law.
Rav Adlerstein notes, in 5 easy steps, how a real posek makes a halachic decision:
With much simplification, you can take hundreds of years of responsa literature and detect a modal methodology for dealing with halachically weighty issues. Roughly, an author will inventory earlier halachic literature for principles and sources that are relevant to a question. He will offer a tentative solution, based on some of them. Let’s assume that he came up with what he felt was a strong case based on Tosafos. He may push and prod a bit, finding objections internally, or in other places that Tosafos comment. He will consider other, possibly conflicting readings of Tosafos, and show why he believes that his is best. From there, the argument goes somewhat like this:
1) The Rif and the Rashba seem to disagree with that of Tosafos.
2) It can be demonstrated that the Rif’s opinion is not substantively different, even if it appears to be. Alternatively, while there usually is a disagreement, both opinions would coincide in the case at hand.
3) The Rashba is linked to another position of his elsewhere. That second position is rejected by Shulchan Aruch/ rov Rishonim, etc. Therefore, we needn’t take it into account.
4) One could counter the main argument with the Meiri, the Teshuvos HaRosh, and a Mordechai. Examination shows that they are all address related, but slightly different issues. They therefore have little or no impact upon the main argument.
5) The argument based on Tosafos, therefore, is the strongest and should be accepted as dispositive.
In other words, a proper halachic argument is a search for halachic “truth:” the best fit with the majority of evidence. “Evidence” means Talmudic texts, consequences that flow from them, and the positions of Rishonim (and important Acharonim, weighted according to stature and prominence). An argument is not complete unless all important counterarguments are considered and dealt with.It could not be otherwise. How could one arrive at the truth without careful consideration of all evidence, and all important voices that have considered it?
He follows up with a striking contrast, that of those Conservatives who still mistakenly believe that they are a halachic form of Judaism:
The sharpest contrast to this methodology comes not from academic circles, but from the responsa of other denominations. I have seen quite a few (they used to be far more popular decades ago, when they made more of a pretense of being halachic) that follow a predictable sequence:
1) Decide what conclusion you want to arrive at. This will often be based on predicting what the Jewish ethical response must be in a world that has changed so significantly from the early legal texts of Judaism, that the modern author is given much leeway.
2) Find a few gemaros that seem to deal with the issue. If they don’t agree with your conclusion, either ignore them altogether, or find some understanding of each counterexample which will make it irrelevant to our times. This can be done by finding a single Rishon whose explanation of the gemara makes it possible to argue that the rabbis of the Talmud simply would not have said the same thing today. It doesn’t matter if that Rishon’s thinking is outweighed by a huge number of contradictory opinions.
3) Alternatively, show why such thinking is simply at odds with contemporary insight and reasonableness, and therefore must be discarded as foreign to the “spirit” of Jewish law and its inherent resiliency and flexibility.
4) Find a medrash as a springboard to show how quintessentially Jewish, how much in the spirit of Jewish law your own conclusion is.
5) Accept your original argument.
He then proceeds to analyze the left wing Modern Orthodox method of paskening and the differences, while bluntly stated, seem quite accurate:
1) According to the Rambam, the Rosh, and the Kol Bo, activity X is proscribed. The Mordechai takes an even stricter view than the others, seeing multiple issurim involved.
2) No one explicitly permits it. However, a responsum by the Nodah Be-Yehudah includes an argument by his interlocutor which presents a lenient line of reasoning. The Nodah Be-Yehudah himself rejects it, with cause.
3) Poskim for the last few hundred years have all accepted the Nodah Be-Yehudah. However, Responsa Minchas Pinchas argues that in a sha’as ha-dechak situation, we can rely on the rejected line of reasoning – although he only uses it together with other extenuating circumstances. (The Minchas Pinchas, who wrote in Cincinnati at the turn of the twentieth century, is not well established as a halachic powerhouse, which is lamentable since he demonstrates a proclivity towards leniency. Living in America, having no Shomer Shabbos congregants, provided him with an enlightened and practical view of modernity and its demands. In any event, his is as legitimate a halachic voice as any other, so it may be relied upon.)
4) We find ourselves equally in a sha’as ha-dechak situation today. For the large part of the Orthodox world that is unhappy with the constraints of Jewish law, we likewise have halachic sanction to be lenient.
5) Therefore accept the lenient opinion.
Unfortunatley, anyone who has spent time following the Torah thinking of the YCT crowd can easily see that this is quite an accurate representation.
However, Rav Adlerstein does miss out on a few points. He could have made a stronger point by noting that the real (1) for left wing Modern Orthodoxy is to predetermine what conclusion you want to come out with, just like the Conservatives. The only difference then between the two groups is how to get to that conclusion in the face of unlrelenting halachic opposition. While the Conservatives will deal with such a road block by simply holding a vote, of their rabbis if likely to pass, of the entire JTS faculty if not, LWMO folks will avoid such an obvious end-run around halacha. Instead there will be a leap of logic - well, we looked at the Mordechai and he didn't actually forbid it (probably because he never actually addressed the subject0 so based on his lack of forbidding, we'll rule it's permitted.
There is one final point that Rav Adlerstein omitted, probably for ideological reasons. There is a (6) to the proper halachic methodology, something I like to call the Chareidi option:
6) If you can’t find what you’re looking for in Toasfos, declare “Daas Torah” and implement the chumrah anyway!

Bloody Brit's

If there's one consistent feature to British history, it's anti-Semitism. The English have kicked us out of their foggy island, occupied our Land and tried to give it to our enemies, and generally functioned as a thorn in our side throughout European history. It comes as no surprise when jerks like Jack Straw or other British functionaries pick up in the best tradition of Bevin and Eden with their anti-Semitic approach to Jewish affairs. Thus this article in The Jerusalem Post exemplifies what most people with their eyes open have come to expect from Brittania:
It has been a terrible month for Israel's reputation in Great Britain. The government has announced a partial arms embargo in protest of Operation Cast Lead. The Charity War on Want has held a launch event for a new book entitled Israeli Apartheid: A Beginners Guide. The Guardian has featured commentaries promoting the apartheid analogy as well as accusing Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu of using Nazi language to defend settlement policy. The BBC and other media outlets have given massive coverage to the recent Breaking the Silence report slamming the IDF for committing "war crimes." Barely a day goes by without a new front being opened against the Jewish state. Those of us who follow such matters are always in danger of getting too close to our subject. But, given that the IDF is not involved in combat operations, I for one have never seen a period like it. On Friday, the Guardian ran two anti-Israel opinion pieces on one and the same day.
There's something in the air. The Israel-haters smell blood, and they're going in for the kill. It could be that we are on the threshold of a new era. But why now? The simplest explanation is that the relentless, unremitting stream of anti-Israeli invective that has been pumped into the public mind in Britain over the last decade or so was always going to reach critical mass at some point. There is nothing particularly significant about the timing. The clock has been ticking for years. Israel's time has simply come.
ULTIMATELY, THE simple explanation may be the best explanation. But there are a number of other factors now at play which may have helped bring the situation to a head.
First, the election of Barack Obama is perceived by many British opinion formers as heralding a refreshing new approach to Israel from the United States. For linguistic and historical reasons, political change in America is keenly felt in Britain. Obama's comments calling for a freeze on the settlements have provided the pretext for a renewed assault on Israel in general using the American president's huge popularity as cover. Second, the election of Netanyahu combined with the appointment of Avigdor Lieberman as foreign minister have offered new opportunities to make the attack personal. Even for Israel's most virulent detractors, it was not easy to mount a hate campaign against Ehud Olmert and Tzipi Livni. Netanyahu has been demonized in Britain for years. Lieberman is portrayed as little better than a skinhead. The wolves have been thrown fresh meat. Third, Foreign Secretary David Miliband has recently recast the tone of British pronouncements on the Middle East and relations with the Islamic world in a way that serves the broader agenda of Israel's opponents. For example, in a speech in Oxford in May and reported in the Guardian, he spoke of abjuring distinctions between "moderates and extremists" - a line that, despite Foreign Office denials, was widely interpreted as potentially paving the way for talks with Hamas and other militant groups. He also referred to "ruined crusader castles," "lines drawn on maps by colonial powers" and to the failure "to establish two states in Palestine."
Miliband cannot be held entirely responsible for the way his words are interpreted. But it is precisely in such guilty, post-colonial terms that Israel's opponents in Britain have always talked. To hear their own kind of language echoing back at them from the leading figure in the UK foreign policy establishment is likely to embolden them further.
Fourth, in a country whose opinion formers still fulminate about the invasion of Iraq - sometimes portrayed as a venture inspired by Israel and Zionist neoconservatives in America - the Netanyahu government's hard line stance on Iran has got the alarm bells ringing again. Are we going to get sucked in to yet another war in the Middle East for the benefit of Israel, they ask.
Fifth, Netanyahu's new emphasis on insisting that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a specifically Jewish state is pushing Israel's opponents against the wall and forcing them to declare themselves with greater clarity. Of course, this does not just apply to Britain. But as a country whose opinion forming classes rank among the most hostile to Israel in the Western world, the move has provoked a particularly hysterical reaction. Since the Palestinians have made it clear that they have no intention of recognizing Israel as a Jewish state, British opponents of Israel have been forced to choose between accepting that Palestinian rejectionism forms the real root cause of the conflict or themselves rejecting the Jewish character of Israel and the whole Zionist enterprise to boot.
PUT ALL of these factors together and it becomes easier to understand why a situation which was awful to begin with has deteriorated so rapidly.
The obvious question now is where next. With the partial arms embargo in mind, we should obviously be watching for an extension of formal sanctions. Outside the governmental sphere, it is a racing certainty that unions will renew efforts for trade and academic boycotts. Media hysteria will grow as each new assault on Israel's integrity helps legitimize and validate the next. For the Jews of Britain, the prospect of increasing anti-Semitism against this backdrop is all too real.
It is fortunate for us that a decade of self-hating misrule by the Labour party has reduced Britian from its importance during the Thatcher years to that of a corrupt second world country. As a result, Israel doesn't have to worry quite as much as one might think about British pique. But while the English lion may be old and arthritic, it still has quite a bite to it. The bastardly British can still do a lot of damage to Israel and the Jewish people in general.
Perhaps all this rising anti-Semitism, in combination with the transformation of London into Londonistan, is writing on the wall for the Jewish community there. Times will shortly be getting much worse for them. Perhaps it's time to pack up and move east so that Israel can be anglicized a little more.

Spinning Out of Orthodoxy

There's pushing the line and then there's jumping over it and denying you have. YCT generally does the former. An Israeli organization, Kolech, has just done the latter.
The Religious Women's Forum Kolech decided at their conference last week to choose a Hebrew title for a woman ordained as a rabbi by an Orthodox institution, although no woman in Israel yet holds this position.
The title chosen by a majority of conference participants is "rabba."
"Rabba"? That's the name of a convenience store near where I lived while I was in med school. It's also the name of a prominent amora who would likely not approve of this development, but no matter. Clearly they're going for the feminine of rav in an attempt to create a gender equal female version of what they think a rav is. Unfortunately for them, this intiative isn't likely to go anywhere.
First, for the title. Now it's no secret that the moniker "rabbi" doesn't mean as much as it once did. Heck, they're pretty much giving it to anyone nowadays - that explains how I got it. There aren't any limitations on who can call him/her/itself that either. I'm willing to bet that Hebrew Union College has graduated more than a few "Reform converts" or "patrilineal descent" folks over the years. The JTS, just to remain trendy, will likely do so in the next short while. In the end, as I've expressed elsewhere, "rabbi" is a title conferred by registered schools. You finish the HUC and JTS program, you get the title. If you can call a chiropractor a doctor, can you be fussier for who gets to be a rabbi?
If that's the case, then why bother with a new title? Why call someone a maharat or a rabba? Wouldn't it be much easier to simply create a degree program at a recognized school and confer the title on successful graduates?
In addition, the underlying reasons for creating this new title are flawed:
The decision to create a name for the controversy-loaded position in Israel grew out of a desire to encourage women to strive to reach such a level in their Torah learning.
"The women's learning revolution has existed for quite some time," said Rachel Keren, chairwoman of Kolech's Board of Directors, to Ynet. "Women are advancing in Torah study, but there is a glass ceiling hindering their advancement. The glass ceiling was already shattered in the course for female halachic advisors and on the issue of female legal counselors, but still hasn't been shattered in the field of rabbis and religious judges. This issue is of prime importance.
"There is a threefold interest that this ceiling is shattered – the interest of the woman who wants to advance and gain recognition, a societal interest, and the interest of the Torah world that there be as many Torah studiers as possible. By choosing a title, we wanted to raise public awareness to this need. We believed that the public discourse (on the subject) would encourage women to continue learning."

The biggest argument against the whole "wanting to encourage women to learn" argument are, in fact, the Vilna Gaon and the current kollel system. The Gaon, ztk"l, never got semicha from anyone. Most guys in the kollel system nowadays don't bother going for it either, possibly for fear that it will force them to get jobs as teachers or something. One does not need a title to learn and if the title is the reason for increasing one's learning, then one is acting contrary to how Chazal say one should approach a Torah education. Thus the threefold interest is a hollow one. Women who want to advantage in Torah have many opportunities today. If they're doing it for recognition, that's egotistical and should be discouraged. There is no societal interest to be served either. And if the idea is to create female religious judges, well you can guess how well that'll fly with mainstream authorities.
I have tremendous respect for much of what Kolech is trying to accomplish. As some in the Chareidi community try to run roughshod over the norms and sensibilities of the rest of the frum community, it is imperative for non-Chareidi organizations to firmly defend their constituents. But going past the line of what is acceptable to the vast majority of non-Chareidi Torah observant opinions isn't going to create a revolution, just a small sect that will spend its days vainly trying to convince everyone else they're really Orthodox.

Monday 20 July 2009

Souls for Sale

A guest post from Baruch Pelta

There's a new kiruv website out there called . Authored by a talmid of Rabbi Yossi Mizrachi (remember these classics?) by the name of Eliyakum Cohen, the concept is rather unique. Eliyakum posts some videos about how Judaism must be true and he is so sure that you'll be convinced that your previous positions are false that -- and I quote, in his words -- "if you get nothing out of these video lectures and are 100% convinced that there is no G-d, no Torah, no afterworld, then [he'll] buy your pathetic soul and all the good deeds that you have done in your life." He doesn't give an estimate of how much he's willing to pay. The site itself is fascinating and full of interesting tidbits about our beautiful religion, like "If you're not Torah Observant then, YOU'RE LIVING LIFE WRONG, YOURE GOING TO GEHINNOM (Jewish Hell)."

In any event, here's what I find interesting about this website: there's a Facebook group surrounding it. Not only does the Facebook group have nearly 600 members, but it has administrators, officers, and hosts an active discussion (largely by frum people) surrounding Eliyakum's website and its content. I think most frum Jews who've heard about this probably don't think this is a good idea, but the fact that the Facebook group is as active as it is this early on is interesting, at least.

I met Eliyakum at a Shabbos table once where we were both mutual guests of a rabbi. Before the meal, he talked about the special powers of the autistics and a story from Rabbi Mizrachi where an autistic "said" something to Rabbi Mizrachi that nobody could've known. What disturbed me as we sat down to eat was that ideas that I've espoused in the past (and al achas kama vikama the ideas people like, say, Rabbi Slifkin have publicized!) are seen as more controversial than what he was saying. His take on the autistics has haskamas.

It will be interesting to see if Eliyakum can get his kiruv site off the ground and perhaps even -- so crazy it might just happen -- get haskamas and be considered somewhat mainstream. Probably not, but it's something to keep an eye out for; I wouldn't be shocked if it happened.

Baruch Pelta

Articles of Faith

The latest post from Rav Shlomo Aviner's website is yet another reminded about how hashkafah and halacha are not the same thing although they are easily confused.
In brief, one must remember that while articles of faith are halacha, it is those articles specifically and not any later corrolaries that are of legal import. For example, it is an article of faith that God is the First Cause and that he created the universe ex nihilo. It is not an article of faith that the first chapter of Bereishis must be read literally without any room for interpretation.
As has been pointed out too many times before, this is a point that is usually lost. Nowadays a certain group has decided that if you believe that God create the universe out of nothing and gave us the entire Torah, oral and written, at Har Sinai and that the Torah we have today is essentially the same one Moshe Rabeinu was handed back then, but you also say that the first chapter of Bereshis can be interpreted in light of modern scientific and archeological knowledge, you are a kofer b'ikkar.
This is utter nonsense. There is a world of difference between hashkafah and halacha. The latter can be determined through established principles. The former, like anything ethical, lacks formal guidelines. If articles of the faith are halachic, then one cannot disagree on them. Saying that Matan Torah was allegorical or that Moshe Rabeine didn't receive the entire Torah from God is against halacha. Saying that God created the universe in six stages which He called "days" is not against halacha. It denies no article of faith to say this so how can it be kefirah?
In the words of Rav Aviner:
The Torah does not mention dinosaurs. This question is interesting from a scientific perspective but not a Torah perspective. In the book "Netivot Olam" (Netiv Ha-Toraah, netiv 14), the Maharal says that the purpose of science is to describe reality, while the Torah describes what reality should be, i.e. what is good and what is bad. What exists is interesting, but it is not Torah, which discusses halachic questions.When people ask how old is the world, if we came from apes, what happened in the distance past, I generally answer: I don't know. I wasn't born and I didn't see. But in the case of dinosaurs, I saw the skeleton of the largest dinosaur in Europe – 20 meters, so you can't tell me stories. Some say that the Atheists made dinosaurs from plastic in order to challenge us and claim that they were from long ago. This is nonsense. I saw it. There were dinosaurs. If so, why doesn't the Torah write about it? The Torah does not say that there were dinosaurs and it does not say that there were not. Some say that the large creatures mentioned during Creation (Bereshit 1:21) are the dinosaurs. How old are the dinosaurs? A few million years old. Why then according to the Torah is the world 5769 years old? This has already been asked and answered: Hashem created worlds and destroyed them before creating our current world (Bereshit Rabbah 3:7, 9:2 and Kohelet Rabbah 3:11). The worlds were destroyed but certain remnants remained. This is explained by Maran Rav Kook in one of his letters (vol. 1 #91). The author of "Tiferet Yisrael" (a commentary on the Mishnah by Rabbi Yisrael Lipschitz) also explained this at length in "Derush Or Ha-Chaim," found in Mishnayot Nezikin after Massechet Sanhedrin). He said that the mystics claim that Hashem created four worlds before creating our world. Where are these worlds? Scientists say that this idea is made up. The Tiferet Yisrael says: "This is not correct. Our Sages know what they are talking about. And after they started excavations and found bones, we see that our Sages spoke the truth!" Although we do not need proofs that our Sages spoke the truth, it is still nice to hear it. He wrote: "The pondering spirit of man, who desires to discover all of the worlds, probing, excavating and delving like a weasel into the recesses of the earth, and the highest mountains in the world, in the Pyrenees, the Carpathians, the Cardillan Mountains in America, and the Himalayas, has found them to be formed of mighty layers of rock lying on one another as if thrown chaotically… Probing still further, within the depths of the earth, they found four distinct layers of rock, and between the layers fossilized remains of creatures. Those in the lower layers are much larger in size and structure, while those in the higher layers are progressively smaller in size but more refined in structure and form… And they also found in Siberia in 1807, in the northern most part of the world, under the constant incredible ice which is there, a monstrous type of elephant, some three or four times larger than those found today…the bones of which are now housed in a museum in St. Petersburg… We also know of the remains of an enormous creature found deep in the earth near Baltimore, seventeen feet long and eleven feet high… From all this it is clear that everything that the Kabbalists have told us for hundreds of years, that the world had already once existed and was then destroyed, and then it was reestablished four more times, and that each time the world appeared in a more perfect state than before – now in our time it has all become clear in truth and righteousness."Nonetheless, there is no difference whether there were dinosaurs or not. Maran Ha-Rav Kook said that our subject is not if man came from an animal, our subject is how not to be an animal. The Torah’s purpose is to teach us how to have a gentle soul, and to be a holy and righteous person.
The argument isn't over wether there were dinosaurs or not. That's hashkafah. Where they kosher or not? That's halacha and that's what actually matters because the Torah was given to us to reveal God's Will to us as codified in the halacha. (See Rashi on the very first verse in Chumash)
It behooves us to keep the argument focused where it belongs, not on peripheral issues

Sunday 19 July 2009

No End to Apologists

On September 11, 2001, Muslim terrorists commited an atrocious act of mass murder in the United States. On September 12, the usual apologists began working away at the horror the civilized world felt. Their agenda was simple: convince everyone as quickly as possible that the U.S.A was really to blame for what happened because everyone realized that Islamofascism had declared a global war against Western civilization. Heck, by the first weekend after the tragedy, Canada's CBC network had a panel show in which speaker after speaker declared that America was solely to blame and had no right to complain about what happened since they had brought in upon themselves.
Apologists, you see, are seldom swayed by truth, the objective facts or the bigger picture. Having made up their minds as to what "reality" is, they need simply to justify to others what they already believe. And the really good apologists work by making you forget what those they are covering for have done.
Thus it has been with the recent Chareidi rioting in Israel. Never mind that for the better part of a week a mob of savage primitives brought parts of Yerushalayim to a standstill, filled its citizens with fear and its air with toxic fumes from burning garbage cans. Don't you all realize that it was justified? After all, should they just have sat back as a parking lot opened on Shabbos?
The theme of the apologists is all the same. The focus is always on the same thing: the Chareidim were provoked. No, don't mention what they went and did. They were provoked, I tell you. It's all the fault of those nassssty chilonim. If they hadn't done any provoking, there wouldn't have been any problems. What, it was guys in black suits and hats actually setting the garbage bins on fire? We were provoked!
Thus this article from Ynet:
Anyone looking for reinforcements to the claim that Israel is home to an anti-haredi campaign of persecution got what they were looking for, big time, with the story of the mother who allegedly starved her son.Anyone looking for reinforcements to the claim that Israel is home to an anti-haredi campaign of persecution got what they were looking for, big time, with the story of the mother who allegedly starved her son.
Once the story broke out, I was approached by many media outlets requesting a response, yet in the first few hours I found it difficult to elicit accurate information about the affair, even though I knew about the mother’s arrest since the beginning of the week. When the pressure grew from more and more media outlets, I found it difficult to defend the riots, but I was careful not to condemn them either. I felt that the shattered mother and her pained home are an interest that is no less important than the public relations of the entire Orthodox community.
Slowly I discovered a picture taken from dark worlds that raised incisive questions vis-à-vis most government authorities involved in the affair. In this framework I will not deal with the innocence of the miserable mother, but even if it is proven that she suffers from the Munchausen Syndrome, the question that emerges is why did media outlets choose to present a sick person as a criminal?
Those familiar with the syndrome stress that it is an obsessive desire to help someone under one’s care to the point of jeopardizing him, so that both the caretaker and person under care receive attention. Notably, in most cases we see the caretaker focus on one person, so that there is no risk to the other children, and the detained woman is indeed known as a model mother to her four other children. That is, we are not dealing with a ticking bomb or with a violent woman holding a submachine gun and firing in all directions.
In fact, we are dealing with someone who may be “dangerous” to a specific person, and therefore logic dictates that we remove the danger. It is therefore natural to limit the mother’s access to her son’s hospital bed. Here too we see a difficult question emerging – how did the Hadassah hospital allow such “danger

Note the subtle way the focus of blame is placed not on the criminals but on the victims. Whenever the poor child who was taken into custody is mentioned as being starved, the word "allegedly" precedes the word. Never mind the front page pictures of the child, skin and bones, 15 lb's at 3 years of ago for all the world to see. It's only "alleged". Uh huh.
Then there's the first line in the article which mentions that Israel is home to an anti-Chareidi campaign of persecution. The fact that this isn't true doesn't rate a mention. Rather the article takes it as given and takes the reader along for the ride with it.
Then there's the description of Munchausen's syndrome which is incorrect. To quote from The Merck Manual, 17th edition:
Repeated fabrication of physical illness - usually acute, dramatic, and convincing - by a person who wants from hospital to hospital for treatment.
This is all beside the point, mind you, because the woman in question isn't being diagnosed with Munchausen's syndrome but rather something different, Munchausen's syndrome by proxy:
A bizarre varient in which a child is used as a surrogate patient. The parent falsified history and may injury the child with drugs or add blood or bacterial contaminants to urine speciments to simulate disease. The parent seeks medical care for the child and always appears to be deeply concerned and protective. The child is often seriously ill, required frequent hospitalization and may die.
How different from the article's: an obsessive desire to help someone under one’s care to the point of jeopardizing him. It is, in fact, completely the opposite!
Then there's the attempts of the Yated Neeman crowd to get in on the cover act.
Let’s take a look at the demonstrations going on against the increased chillul Shabbos in Yerushalayim. Based on media reports, many of you are probably under the impression that mobs of fanatically religious Jews converged near City Hall to burn garbage pails and stone policemen. You’ve either read this fallacious reporting yourself in the media, or got it second or third hand from others who did.
This is not to deny or condone the actions of a handful of miscreants who carried out these reprehensible actions. But the fact is, they are lone exceptions, certainly not the rule. Their actions are being exploited by irresponsible editors who seek to tar the entire Chareidi community with one brush.
Students of history can cite dozens of hafganos which were called to stop autopsies, disturbing of ancient cemeteries, chillul Shabbos, giyus banos, yaldei teheran and the like. They can show you pictures of police beating religious Jews; of police shooting water cannons at women. They can give you the facts about the times choshuveh people such as Rav Yisroel Grossman were locked up in jail for participating in protests.

Rav Pinchas Lipschutz is still living in the Dark Ages himself. Once upon a time news wasn't easily accessed. Yes, if we wanted to know what was going on in Israel or elsewhere we had to rely on the newspapers and secular media. With the advent of the internet, this has all changed. No more can he dismiss the reports of Chareidim behaving badly as being blown out of proportion or excessive. We can all see, in live time, videos of these primitives running amok in the streets like vilde chayes. In fact, you know the situation is bad when other apologists being to turn:
Pinny Lipschutz’s job as apologist in Yated continues to get harder. He succeeds, as he usually does, in making a good case and offering valuable ideas to think about – even if you reject, as I do, much of the thrust of the piece and most of the conclusions. I am biased, of course, since he takes aim at those of us who called upon people to mitigate the chilul Hashem by writing into the Jerusalem Post. (The letters that I saw on the JP website were quite good, came from varied places, and I believe did create a counter-image of Torah Jews to what people were seeing on television and the internet.) Before you get angry at him, he does unequivocally condemn the violence. (Not quite enough for me. How many protests in which you cannot control the small number of crazies do you need before you do a cost-benefit analysis and realize that every peaceful protest you call inevitably leads to violence, stoned and destroyed cars, etc.? Also, comparing protest today to those he remembers of decades ago seems hopelessly wrong. Times – and the way people behave– change.
We have to face up to a simple fact: a not-so-tiny part of the Torah community, one that thinks that it is the holiest part of that community, has degenerated into a congregation of street thugs who differ from their non-religious counterparts only in how much Gemara they know. The sooner the rest of the Chareidi community realizes this and decides that it's more important to separate from them than to worry about how to look down at the rest of the Torah world, the better.

Who Should Win?

Despite popular belief to the contrary, the National Religious community in Israel is not the Israeli version of Modern Orthodoxy. Modern Orthodox folks in Israel form quite a separate crowd from the bonafide Dati Leumi. Unfortunately for folks on the outside, which in this case means both the secular and Chareidi crowds, this difference is not often appreciated.
While Modern Orthodoxy is defined by... well not really defined by anything other than a vague commitment to Judaism and modernity, the National Religious community is, in its origins, a religious movement that emphasizes the firm application of halacha with an emphasis on those rules that call for our national return to Israel. As a result, while Modern Orthodoxy's difference from the Chareidim might be summarized as "they're less religious", the real difference between the Dati Leumi and the Chareidim is "we're more Zionist".
To be sure, over time that message has been lost. Being commited to the building of the State has meant developing a high level of interaction with the secular population. Just as Modern Orthodoxy has, to a large extent, become diluted by non-Jewish values, so to the chiloni culture has affected the intensity of observance in parts of the Dati Leumi community. As a result, there is a real split within the movement, both along political and religious lines.
As this article from The Jerusalem Post notes, the coexistence between the different groups is starting to come to an end:
In the latest salvo in the ongoing war between two vying camps over the future of religious Zionism, haredi-leaning rabbis this week torpedoed the appointment of a liberal-minded professor as president of a popular teachers college. To protest the move, hundreds of more liberal-minded rabbis - many affiliated with the religious kibbutz movement - as well as religious Zionist youths and educators held a collective learning session/demonstration across the street from the Ramat Gan Hesder Yeshiva Wednesday night.
The venue was chosen as protest against the head of the yeshiva, Rabbi Yehoshua Shapira, who recently labeled some more liberal-minded religious Zionist leaders as "neo-reformers." The liberals earned the name, said Shapira, because they favored coed education in the Bnei Akiva youth movement and supported a greater role for women in religious leadership, including as rabbis. Shapira also lamented the willingness of some religious Zionist rabbis to allow older single women, whose biological clock for baby bearing was running down, to use artificial insemination.
Prof. Shmuel Glick, who might fall under the category of a neo-reformer from the point of view of the haredi-leaning religious Zionist rabbis, heads the Schocken Institute for Jewish Research of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America (JTS). He was labeled as unfit to serve as head of the Lifshitz College, which trains dozens of hesder yeshiva graduates to teach in elementary and high schools, due to his ties with the Conservative Movement.
The battle over Glick's appointment is just one of several push-button issues that have divided religious Zionism's left and right in recent months. Perhaps the most salient example of the rift within religious Zionism was the failed unification of two political parties that represent the rival camps - Habayit Hayehudi (HH) on the left and the National Union (NU) on the rightThe two parties - and the two camps - are split on many central issues from rabbinic intervention in politics (NU, like haredi parties, is subject to the authority of a council of rabbinic sages; HH is not), to the centrality of Greater Israel as a religious priority that overrides other considerations such as obeying IDF orders (NU-affiliated rabbis support insubordination if a soldier is ordered to evacuate Jewish settlements; HH affiliated rabbis do not).
Haredi-leaning religious Zionist rabbis tend to be more suspicious of academic freedom in the fields of humanities and social sciences, while more liberal rabbis are more open-minded, even to ideas such as Bible criticism which seem to undermine faith in a God-given Torah.

Should this be happening? Is there enough room within the Dati Leumi label for difference approaches as long as the underlying assumption- that halacha supports the building of a modern State as a prelude to bi'as go'el tzidkeinu - is honoured?
I would suggest that the answer is: no. The Dati Leumi movement, once an important part of Jewish religious society in Israel, has been on the wane over the last three decades because of an obsession over the pioneers of Yesha. Everything in the movement seemed to focus on that. While it certainly was an important thing to support, the new result was that the Dati Leumi ceded religious control in the rest of the State to the Chareidim with the current bothersome results. In short, Religious Zionism forgot what it was about.
It is therefore time to remember its core values. Religious Zionism is not, as noted above, the Israeli version of American Modern Orthodoxy. Rav Shlomo Riskin is not a Dati Leumi rav just because he lives in Israel and wears a large knitted kippah. It isn't just about the uniform, it's also about the attitude.
And the attitude that will allow the Dati Leumi community to reinvigorate itself and endure is to separate itself from the imitators while taking a firm standing in Torah in both thought and practice. As distasteful as this may sound to those on the left of the movement, it is necessary lest what is left of the community continue to stumble into oblivion.

Thursday 16 July 2009

They're Really Zionists

Not to belabour the point but I have to note the following about the ongoing riots in Yerushalayim.
Let's get the background facts together first: The Eidah Chareidit does not recognize the State of Israel. It refuses to cooperate and insists that its members live as separately as possible from it. The reason is because according to their understanding of Torah, Jews are foribddden to have sovereignty in the Land of Israel until God personally says it's okay, and even then they might disagree if He's not wearing the right colour of shtreiml.
Now, one would presume that they would feel this way regardless of who the governmental authorities are, Jewish or non-Jewish. One would assume that their conviction that they have the only true understanding of Torah would not change depending on the nationality or religion of the man running the government in the area.
So why do I have the funny feeling that if history had been different and, chalilah, it was the Arabs running the country and the city that there would never, ever be a Chareidi riot, no matter what the provocation from the authorities?
If it was an Arab social worker and policeman that had taken the starving child into custody, do you think there would be a peep from the Neturei Karta? Would the Eida be burning garbage cans and shouting in the face of Arab policemen?
Somehow I doubt it.
And this is, in truth, a good thing. The reason the Chareidim would not protest Arab provocations is because part of the Eida Charedit philosophy is to knuckle under. We are to accept our lowly spot in exile and never resist the gentiles' attacks on us. (That, and they know the Arabs would mow them down at the first shout of "Gevalt!")
If they truly saw the State of Israel as a secular abomination, and the Jews running it as false members of the tribe who have no connection to them, would they not be compelled to act the same? It seems that since they know they are facing their fellow Jews, and that they feel some kind of connection to them in that these fellow Jews have an obligation to observe halacha as they understand it, they are really conferring a kind of legitimacy on the State of Israel, the only State in the world in which they would dare behave like this and in which this kind of behaviour would be tolerated.
(Plus they know the Israeli police won't mow them down)
Perhaps we should start pointing out to them that despite their best attempts, they have become Zionists. Talk about the hand of God, eh?

Not So Quiet Riot

There are now two reasons that certain segments of the Chareidi community are rioting in Israel. First, there's the parking lot issue in which non-Jews are being employed by the Yerushalayim municipality to keep a tourist-heavy parking lot open on Shabbos. The second is the recent case involving a mother with purported Munchausen's syndrome whose child was taken into care by social services after it was discovered and confirmed that she was starving and abusing him. As a result, while the hills of Austria may be alive with the sounds of music, the streets of our holy city are filled with smoke from burning trashcans and calls of "Nazis!"
It's so easy to condemn the Chareidi population as a whole, which is happening on many blogs. After all, to us outsiders they all look alike and, let's be honest, we often don't care about making proper differentiations. Does the guy down the street have a black hat on? Well, he's just as guilty as the freak on the news we just saw attacking a police officer, isn't it.
The blog Lulei Demistafina notes some problems with this thinking:
One, there is absolutely no statistical evidence that the behavior of religious Jews as a group is worse than that of the general society, or, in fact, not significantly better. Empirical evidence, as demonstrated by newspaper headlines, says less about Orthodox Jewish behavior and more about how newspapers operate. Newspapers aren't interested in fair play. They are only interested in selling papers. To that end, "Man Cheats and Steals" isn't a headline. "Rabbi [or Priest, for that matter] Cheats and Steals" is.To believe that media scrutiny is an accurate barometer of behavior patterns, is to believe that athletes, politicians and celebrities are more likely than the rest of society to beat their wives, cheat on their taxes, use illegal drugs, engage in illicit sexual behavior, and shoot people. It is also to believe that plane crashes, which are always reported in the paper, are far more common than automobile accidents, which are not—unless there is an athlete, politician or celebrity involved.Second, the Jewish blogosphere is not consistent. Its righteous repulsion is reserved for a certain segment of Orthodox Jews, i.e., those who happen to be of the beard-and-black-hat variety. This only betrays the blinders of their bias.The recent Bernard Madoff scandal involved a very prominent Modern Orthodox man, who was president of his Modern Orthodox shul, and head of the investment committee at the Modern Orthodox Yeshiva Universtiy. He has been charged with civil fraud by New York State, named in countless lawsuits, and has had his picture in the paper for months.What sayeth the bloggers to this scandal? Barely a peep.Third, there is a startling inconsistency in this group's trust of the media, which is vexing to the point that it can only be described as bipolar. The very same Jews who go apoplectic over the media's slanted coverage of Israel, trust completely that very same media when they are covering stories about Orthodox Jews. If certain people want to base their opinion of the frum world according to what's reported in the media, then, in fairness, they should base their opinion of Israel according to what's reported in the media as well.Only they don't. Bloggers who throw fits, charging the media with bias and distortion, when news organizations refer to Israelis as a callous cabal of colonizers, stealing Arab land, violating Arab civil rights, and shooting Arab children—these same bloggers embrace whatever negativity the media reports when the subject is ultra-Orthodox Jews.I'll say it again: Every time a frum-looking Jew creates a chillul Hashem it is a tragedy of great depth and proportion. But to think that such behavior is disproportionately occurring within the frum world because of the disproportionate number of media reports simply reflects a naive view of how the media work. The publication of stories, even a lot of stories, is not a condemnation of the whole community or an indictment of its values.
Other than making one significant mistake - Bernie Madoff is not Modern Orthodox, he's not even shomer mitzvos - this post makes an excellent set of points. We would never condemn the entire black community for the poor behaviour of some of their most criminal-minded members. We would never say "All Chinese are frauds" after the lipsyncing incident at the Olympics? But if a few hundred Chareidim riot like animals, well we sit back with a smug look on our face and say "See? They're all like that."
It's at times like this that we have to remind ourselves that while some of our people want nothing to do with us, the vast majority emotionally our brethren. It is also a mitzvah to judge our people favourably. Even as these primitives do their best to convince us otherwise, it behooves us to remember that.

The Vanishing Middle Class

History is fickle. What actually happened depends on who's doing the remembering. One example where this is true is in the Jewish history of pre-war Eastern Europe. Was it most frum? Mostly frei? A bit of both?
Depends who you ask. The folks at Artscroll would have you believe that everyone was, at the least, moderately Chareidi while the Gedolim of that time were angels compared to the ones we have today. Meanwhile, Hollywood would have you believe that there were no frum Jews, or just a very few, while the nearly total majority of Jews were regular, secular citizens. The truth, as always, is somewhere in-between.
One thing is certain. In Eastern Europe, Jewish cultural life was much stronger than in North America due to a few factors. One was the always pervasive anti-Semitism of the surrounding populations. There were also residency restrictions leading to the creation of large Jewish neighbourhoods and shtetlach. As a result, Jewish populations were much larger and culturally vibrant than the fragmented communities we have today in many places outside Israel and the Greater New York area.
What does that mean? Well, one of the common myths spread by the activitist non-frum nowadays is that the reason Torah observance didn't take off in America until after the war was because before then it was all the non-religious Jews who were fleeing rabbinical oppression that were making their way to America and that they would drop their Judaism like a bad habit once they reached Ellis Island. Now while a minority of Jews might have felt this way, it is clear from history that the majority of Jews seeking a new life in North America didn't.
Rather, what conspired against them was a lack of education and support structures in their new homes. See, what made Eastern Europe special was that Judaism was everywhere. It was part of the landscape which made it stick out as an oddity far less. Even uneducated Jews knew where to buy their meat, where to go to shul on Shabbos and pretty much everyone got at least a basic cheder education even if they didn't personally observe much later in life. In North America, this was absent, so the same Jews who had been Jewish by osmosis in Europe absorbed the secular culture of the surrounding society instead.
It is this Jewish middle class, the Jews who aren't particularly observant but who respect tradition, know how many sides a humantaschen had, and can hum the first few bars of Kol Nidre, that has dwindled in the last few decades. As society around us continues to radicalize and assimilation continues to devastate our numbers, it's getting harder and harder to find non-observant Jews who have a proper respect for Jewish tradition combined with a decent basic Jewish education.
Perhaps this is something that Orthodox outreach programs should concentrate on, instead of their current flawed kiruv approach in which Torah observance is sold as a simplistic, glitzy path to true spirituality. Perhaps it's more important to ensure the vast majority of non-observant Jews know the basics of their heritage instead of trying to sucker well-intentioned customers into a pre-formed black hat model.

Sunday 12 July 2009

News You Don't Hear

Having had some spare time and an opportunity recently, I picked up a copy of HaModia and perused its contents. One story that caught my attention was on the increase in religious Judaism in Tel Aviv. Although the city has a great reputation for being the secular capital of Israel, Torah observance has been steadily increasing over the last few decades and is starting to play an active role in life there.
but this is what really caught my attention. The article described how Chasidic institutions are cropping up in the Sheinkin neighbourhood which is possibly the most secular/avante garde part of the city. Yet one hasn't heard about rioting there. In fact it's been the opposite.
The article gave two examples. In one case, the local Superpharm put up a window advertisement featuring an immodestly clad woman. The local Chareidim contacted the management and complained. The manager took the sign down promptly. In the second case, a local beis medrash took to blasting a loud horn just before Shabbos to annouce its arrival. The local chilonim contacted the rabbi running the place and he put away the horn.
In the blogsphere, like in popular media, there's no currency for good news. You're not going to see FailedMessiah or any of the other anti-Orthodox blogs running a story headlined: Chareidim and seculars get along! How could they rack up dozens of anti-Chareidi comments that way?
But hopefully this is a sign that the rioters in Yerushalayim are indeed the exception to the rule and that there is a hope that both communities in Israel can gradually learn to grow and prosper together.

Judaic Madness

Rav Dovid Landesman, in his latest piece for Cross Currents, adds his voice to those in the Chareidi community who have started to admit that maybe, just maybe, there may be some problems with the behaviour some of their members are exhibiting.

The Netziv, in his commentary to Shir ha-Shirim, offers a fascinating insight which I think will be helpful. He raises an interesting question. In parashas Vaeschanan, the Torah delineates a dual prohibition; bal tosif – adding laws to the Torah – and bal tigra – subtracting laws from the Torah. One can readily understand the natural drive to omit obligations and make life that much easier which is the basis for the Torah’s prohibition of bal tigra. But why would we suspect that man would seek to create more complex obligations – bal tosif? Why would the Torah need to legislate against a psychological phenomenon that would seem to be exceedingly rare; i.e., those who are not content with the Torah’s expectations but add their own in the name of the Torah. Remember, self-imposed stringencies – chumros – are not necessarily considered bal tosif!

Netziv answers that man can become so enamored of engaging in the service of God that he becomes swept away and convinces himself that his God service is so important that it supersedes his obligation to perform other, more mundane mitzvot. In adding to a mitzvah that is theocentric, man stands a good chance of violating laws that are homeocentric. In other words, bal tosif in a bein adam lamakom can easily cause ba’al tigra in a bein adam lechaveiro. Netziv adds that it was for this reason that the tzitzit were not completely fashioned from techeles which served to remind man of the heavens and thereby make him God cognizant. By adding white threads, indeed by making those threads predominant, man is reminded that Judaism is also concerned about man’s relationship to his fellow man and to the world itself. [I’ve always thought that if television ever comes to Bnei Brak, I could make a fortune producing a show called "Extreme Chumrah"]

Perhaps the most obvious of the UO deviates are the famed Burkha ladies of Ramat Beit Shemesh. In the name of tznist, they have adapted a lifestyle that is the embodiment of what the Netziv meant when he said that over obsession with one mitzvah inevitably leads to under performance in other areas. Do we need any further proof than the repeated reports of abuse and neglect emanating from this community?

Or take the stone throwers and garbage burners of Jerusalem. You can dismiss them as a fringe element, but I fear that they are a growing gang of young men who have discovered that force is an effective means of acquiring one’s ends. Can any of us be sure that the violence that they employ against the police will not translate itself into violence within their families and communities? Is it possible that the apparent increase in reports of abuse within the UO community are the result of the increased levels of violence that this community uses to accomplish their goals? Is there not a co-relation between the Va’adei ha-Tznist and the tactics that they use and the ever increasing numbers of kids who are off the derech inside these communities?

In my opinion, there are two reasons for the rise of this phenomenon.

1) Pretty much everyone who goes into medical school does so because of a desire to help people. However, by the time we hit the wards, things have changed. Long nights, endless studying, constant pressure change our focus from the original altruistic one to a simpler objective: survival. Our exams have everything to do with medical minutiae and little to do with interacting with the human beings that are our patients. As a result, it seems almost inevitable that people lose their humanity and become their diagnosis. Mrs. Jones isn't a frail old lady who fell last week. She's the broken hip in room 314. Mr. Smith isn't the grandfather of six who used to be a successful accountant. He's the lung cancer in 612. It doesn't stop with patients either. The senior resident isn't an overworked mom of 2 trying to balance her family and career. She's the b--ch who won't stop grilling you on that congestive heart failure you saw at 3 am between coffees. Part of becoming a good doctor, rather than a competent one, is the ability to catch youself doing this and overcoming it.

Both Chareidism and Intellectual Modern Orthodoxy have gone down this road, to a large extent. For the former, halachic minutiae, not accepting the presence of God into one's life, is the point of observance. Yes, we all know the story of the shepherd boy who whistled loudly and had his prayer accepted into Heaven because he was the most sincere guy in shul, but no one actually believes in that. It's considered better to mumble away for 4 hours non-stop, barely understanding or paying attention to the words, and making sure you sway for the entire time a bit more than the guy next to you, than to spend ten minutes in honeset self-reflection and present one's petition in a heartfelt manner before God. (I'm not saying we shouldn't pray as our Chazal have instructed us, but the prayer should be a conversation with God, not the last obstacle before breakfast).

As a result, these Chareidim see nothing wrong with rioting on the street or committing physical violence against others. In their Shulchan Aruch, there's nothing about God, just about who can be the most self-righteous. Like the medical example above, they have removed the original reason for being Jewish - serving God with love and pleasantness - and replaced it with "who can be the most self-righteous?"

The latter group, Intellectual Modern Orthodoxy, has taken a completely opposite approach to Judaism and also lost direction. Whereas some Chareidim are swept up by their passion into their extremism (and we should remember that this is a small part of the community, not the vast majority), the IMO's do the exact opposite. Judaism ceases to become the word of the Living God, full of energy and holiness, and becomes an intellectual discipline. Yes, some of them have tremendous learning but for them Judaism is like physics for those geeks who proctored my exams in undergrad. It may be their life but it's only a science to them.

2) The current concept of Daas Torah is the other reason. The article hints at this although Rav Landesman cannot come out and say it:

The Chazon Ish was once asked to point out the section of Shulchan Aruch that listed forced conscription of girls into the IDF as constituting a yahoreg v’al ya’avor – a mitzvah that one is required to give up one’s life rather than violate. In response, he pointed to his heart. I accept this but would only add that one must be of the status of the Chazon Ish to make this kind of pronouncement.

I've often criticized Modern Orthodoxy, along with Conservatism, for wanting to choose their answers to important questions and then come up with support for those answers, instead of engaging in honest searches for the truth. However, I would also notice that today's Daas Torah is the exact same thing in the Chareidi community. Want to forbid something? Look for a strict opinion in Shulchan Aruch. Can't find it? Daas Torah! Although it takes Jewish practice to the right instead of left, it is conceptually the same thing because it makes the actual halachic literature irrelevant.

These two reasons would explain why some parts of the Chareidi community have veered away from anything resembling functional Judaism and continue to give a black eye to the rest of the observant community.

Wednesday 8 July 2009

Empahsizing the Positive

There seem to be a few reasons why Torah observance folks leave the fold. Some go because they can't handle the demands of a religious lifestyle. Others ask questions of paramount importance such as the true age of universe or proof of God's existence and receive unsatisfactory answers. For many, Judaism is a religion of "thou shalt not's" with little positive to reecommend it. For the rest, it is the influence of secular culture and its false prophets who insist there is no God, chalilah, through weak but seductive logic. In all cases, it is a tragedy when someone abandons the faith of our fathers.
This article from Yediot Acharonot notes that one of the major factors is the rebelling against the "thou shalt not" culture that has taken over much of obsevant Judaism today:
Religious society contemplates the question of "why" - why do they become secular? The automatic answer is education. The education isn’t good enough, not strict enough. Most people believe that strictness will save their children from looking for answers elsewhere.
I think there's another way of looking at this. It is a well-established fact that from an early age, we need positive reinforcement, warmth and love. We need to be told we're doing great. At a young age this goes without saying. The parents, and at kindergarten and school everyone makes an effort to encourage us and give us a feeling of success and self-worth.
For those of us born to an observant family, another wonderful aspect is added. As young children Judaism induces warmth, and observing many mitzvoth gives a great feeling.
The religious child feels at home with Judaism. Religion is imbued with songs, dances and family rituals. Observing the mitzvoth provides another aspect of life through which our kids win compliment and prizes. It's rare to find a four-year-old who doesn't like being religious. And still we cannot argue with statistics that say 20% of these kids grow up to become former-religious.

When one looks at this process it's easy to see that the change in the approach to religion goes hand in hand with the youth's rebellion. When the children grow up, the educational tendency is to add more and more prohibitions and restrictions. The amount of positive feedback drops, while bans and limitations abound.
For some, this style works and they grow stronger and thrive in their worship of God.
But what about those who don't fit in? Those for whom spirit is as important as content, if not more so? Yes, there are religious pacifists who want to be religious without having to join God's army and serve 24 hours a day, seven days a week. They love God dearly, but interpret this love differently. They wander the system in search of someone to tell them that that's okay: different, but beautiful.
In most cases they will find out that the system isn't tolerant. There's only one truth, and their truth isn't it. Attempting to fall in line with the system creates distance between actions and what's in their heart. And the hearts don't always follow the actions. In some cases the distance becomes social alienation and ends up in complete abandonment.

This is an important point. While I don't personally agree with the politico-religious philosophy of the article's author, I can agree that there is more than one "truth" within the Torah community. One of the most terrible things a school rebbe can do is respond to an important quiestion by saying "shut up and learn some more Gemara". How productive is it to respond to a person's yearning for some form on individualism by imposing more strictures to render them a yet another bland clone?
There is also a mischevious aspect to leaving the fold. While a child who does so often does it to leave the "thou shalt not" aspect behind, the "thou shalt" remains a part-time piece of their life. They may not avoid melacha on Yom Tov but they will come home and enjoy a meal in the sukkah. They may eat chometz on Pesach but they'll attend the seder, even if only briefly and enjoy the food and win.
However, I see this as an opportunity, not a hypocrisy. While the lapsed Jew may only wish to interact with those portions of Judaism that bring personal benefit while avoiding any form of commitment, it is precisely these mitzvos that maintain some form of a connection that can be built upon. As the article notes, four year old kids love Judaism because it's all about the "thou shalt" things. As they age, they are expected to add "thou shalt not" because it's part of the process of maturing. Taking the opportunity to intelligently answer a lapsed Jew's questions in a non-threatening way could go a lot further towards returning them to the proper path than threats of excommunication and "don't you know you're humiliating the family!"
Finally, and I think this is the most important point, the Jewish educational system does a lousy job explaining Judaism to our children. A great yeshiva is defined by how many blatts of Gemara the children memorize per year or how many masmidim you can find in their beis medrash at 3 am. Yet take one of these scholars, present him with proof that the universe is 15 billion years ago and ask him to reconcile this with the literal reading of the first chapter of Bereshis and you won't get a good answer. You'll either get dismissmal or create a new kofer. What kind of system is this? It's not like the answers aren't out there. It's not like excellent literature reconciling science and Torah doesn't exist. It's not like the false prophets of atheism haven't been refuted. But no one in a position of guidance over our children learns these books. Instead, the answer is "learn more gemara" and "take on more chumros". The fact that these answers don't work hasn't dissuaded people from repeatedly using them. Which is a pity.
Children in our schools shouldn't just be taught the content of the Torah but also why it is true. They should know the anwers to the difficult questions before others ask them and provide them with lies to justify their atheistic lifestyle. This would require a sea change in educational thinking within the Jewish community but if keeping people from entering an olam shel sheker is the reward, it is well worth the effort.