Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Sunday 30 August 2009

We All Pick and Choose

There was a recent story across the internet that dealt with the ongoing civil war within the Satmar clan.
For those who don't know, there are, or at least were, two Satmar Rebbes. Both are sons of the previous one and both claim that they were designated to be the next Rebbe. In the Jewish spirit of compromise and peace, they have set up rival courts, each claiming to be the only legitimate inheritor of Reb Yoelish, z"l while denouncing the competition as an imposter.
And then one of the brothers died recently. You'd think there would be an outpouring of grief from the surviving brother. After all, beneath all the differences are the strong bonds of family. So when the Satmar clan of the deceased brother announced its intention to bury their leader in the family plot in Brooklyn, the surviving brother who rules the clan in Brooklyn happily said... no!
Now there is a strict Jewish rule that deceased bodies must be buried as quickly as possible. Yes, there is some flexibility when it comes to honouring the dead, like waiting for family to arrive. However, these cases are limited and personal pique is not one of the acceptable reasons.
Unfortunately this is something almost all of us as frum Jews are guilty of - picking and choosing. How many times have I watched people who are medakdek on the kind of milk they'll drink and meat they'll eat wander late into shul and spend the entire time talking? The same person who freaks out if he sees a little girl running through shul without socks under her sandals has no idea about the issur of loshon horo when kiddush club starts.
No, none of us is perfect and that's built into the system. As Chazal say, the Torah was given to human beings, not angels. We will all make mistakes. The danger is when we refuse to acknowledge those mistakes. Then our strictness in other areas becomes a hypocrisy. If we refuse to hold by the local eiruv because it doesn't conform to all the stringencies we think it should but then treat others rudely, are we living up to God's expectations?
Chazal tell us further that those who overlook faults in others are more likely to have God overlook their faults. Perhaps the message for Elul from this is that each of us needs to be far more concerned with our personal behaviour and relationship with God than with our neighbours'. I have enough to worry about myself without taking on responsibility for telling others what to do. God wants the heart, we are told. Perhaps if we give it to Him more freely instead of worrying about all the minutiae, we will become better Jews for it.

The Limits of the Halachic Legal System

Near the end of the section on the eiglah arufah, the Ramban makes an interesting comment. After noting that the performance of ceremony does not mean that the murderer is no longer to be hunted or found guilty if tried, he makes a small caveat. The murderer is to be tried and punished by the Sanhedrin, or the king.
Or the king? What does that mean?
It is well known that since the closing the Gemara there has been some evolution in halacha to deal with updated circumstances but much of this evolution has been in areas that affect the daily life of the Jew. Other areas, especially ones like financial or criminal law, have not been as thoroughly updated. This is not to say that the halacha hasn't tried to deal with modern issues. I recall reading about mutual funds al pi halacha years ago. But there is only so far the system can move without poskim taking huge risks with major changes.
Thus a woman is only to be declared officially pregnant after she has been period-free for three months. A positive bHCG and ultrasound do not factor into the mix. Then there is the issue of criminal testimony. According to halacha the only valid testimony is done by witnesses in the presence of the court. This obviously eliminates the use of video testimony or evidence provided by video or audio recordings.
Now proponents of pure halacha will note that no modern technology is foolproof, and they would be right. After all, in an era of Photoshop where movies like Forrest Gump rewrite history, is it so hard to consider that such evidence presented at a trial could be faked? Even in the 23rd century, this will still be a problem and almost cause Captain James T Kirk to be court martialed. From the obstetrical side of things, pregnancy tests can be wrong. I had an experience with one patient who bled during her first trimester and had an ultrasound that confirmed that she had miscarried. Two months later she came to see me to ask why, if she had lost the foetus, was she still gaining weight? A repeat ultrasound confirmed the presence of a health pregnancy! How many times has DNA analysis identified the wrong person in an important trial?
However, the limitations of technology do not prevent its use in the modern criminal justice system. There are checks and controls to decrease the risk of damage to the proceedings that forgeries can create. No system is perfect but the attempt is made. Unfortunately in the absence of a binding central authority today as well as the concern with absolute perfection in testimony, the halacha cannot accomodate to these changes yet.
But if one considers how strict the rules of testimony are as detailed in Mas. Sanhedrin, one quickly gets the idea that while the Sanhedrin may have done a boffo job of administering the legal aspect of Jewish culture during Temple times, it probably never managed to convict anyone. Yet it is patently obvious that a society in which the courts never manage to punish criminals is one that will quickly devolve into anarchy and we know that our ancestors had a functioning society. How did they manage?
The answer is in the brief comment of the Ramban. Yes, there was a Sanhedrin in Israel but, as detailed in a shiur by Rav Benjy Hecht from Nishma, there was also a parellel justice system run by the civil authorities.
This makes intrinsic sense as well. Halacha may have lots to say about lots of things but where traffic lights go and the standards for manhole covers don't seem to get much coverage. A parallel civil system would probably handle the great majority of issues like this, including keeping a functional justice system with more practical rules running. If the Sanhedrin couldn't convict the murderer - and based on what we know, they'd do everything they could to not convict him - it would be up to the king and his system to enforce the law.
This therefore is the answer to how a halachic state would have to work in this day and age. While rabbinic law would be enough for many areas of life, in others practicality and modern realities would have to take control. Yet this is not an admission of the inability of halacha to deal with issues since we see that even in ancient times, this method was part of the functioning of a Torah state.

There Was a Matan Torah, Remember?

Years ago, Harold Kushner, author of Why Bad Things Happen to Good People, told his fellow Conservative clergy that their religion is not halachic. Although he seemed to be stating the obvious, there are still those in the Jewish Theological Seminary's sphere of influence that haven't gotten the message:

Critics are slamming Israel's religious affairs minister for comments asserting the primacy of Orthodoxy.
Letters of protest were sent to Yakov Margi this week by the Rabbinical Assembly of the Conservative movement and the newly installed chief of the Jewish Agency for Israel, Natan Sharansky.
“I wish to remind you that the Ministry of Religious Services is not governed by halachic law but rather charged with providing religious services to all Israeli citizens of all faiths, ethnicities and denominations in need,” Sharanksy wrote. “The Ministry of Religious Services is required to ensure freedom of worship and prevent infringement of the rights of citizens in this area.”
The Conservative rabbis protested against Margi's assertion that they were not “halachic.”
“Throughout our history, Jews have had many disagreements as to the nature of Jewish Law,” said the letter signed by three leading assembly officials. “While our interpretations may differ, contrary to your comments, we assert the primacy of halachah.”

Okay, so on one hand they want to change halacha based on voting. Their leadership denies canonical Jewish principles such as matan Torah and the Divine Authorship of our Law. Certainly they are free to believe whatever they want. But it is plain chutzpah to deny the underlying foundation of halacha and then insist "But we're halachic!"

Perhaps this is the reason that even most non-religious Israelis don't take them seriously.

The Most Overused Term

The only thing worse than no education is a little education. Folks who couldn't name a single volume of Talmud to save their lives but who know the term tikun olam often think they're qualified to discuss what it means. As Gary Rosenblatt notes in The Jewish Week:
Did you hear the one about the fellow on his first UJA mission to Israel who asked his guide, “How do you say tikkun olam in Hebrew?”Truth is, my vote for the most overused, least understood — even hijacked — phrase in Jewish life these days is tikkun olam, or, repair of the world.Now don’t get me wrong. I don’t want to sound like the Scrooge of American Jewry, throwing cold water on the concept of every Jew’s obligation to do his or her part, however small, to improve society through acts of kindness, ranging from personal charity to political activism.But the fact remains that while tikkun olam has come to symbolize the universal nature of mitzvot and been adopted as the mantra of advocates of social justice, it is really about the particular nature of fulfilling a Jewish ideal, namely, recognizing the centrality of God in our lives.This dissonance surrounding the two Hebrew words is not due to an oversight or misunderstanding, I’ve come to believe, but a telling example of how some liberal American Jews have expropriated the Judaic phrases and teachings they choose to base their values on, ignoring the inherent religious message in favor of a more universal one.Many of us would like to believe that our Western ideals are consistent with Jewish tradition, when that is not always the case. After all, modernity is about individual rights and freedoms while Judaism is about obligations — collective and personal. So in convincing ourselves that our Jewish morals reinforce rather than challenge our views on issues from abortion to gay rights, we tend to sometimes disregard or distort the texts.
This is something I have been saying for a long time. No Reformer or Conservative wakes up in the morning and thinks to himself: "I want to be a bad Jew today". Instead, he honestly believes that secular liberal values are Jewish values and therefore by being a good secular liberal he fulfills his Jewish imperative.
Tikun olam appears in two contexts in authentic Jewish texts. One is in the context of the Oleinu prayer where we talk about recifying the world in the image of the Kingdom of the Allmighty. The other is in the gemara where it far more simply refers to public works that keep society running like filling potholes and making sure cisterns are full at certain times of year for travellers making the pilgrimage to Yerushalayim. It never appears in an environmental or social context, despite having been co-opted by the Reformers and Conservatives in recent decades for that exact purpose.
But Rosenblatt notes that this is exactly the point. Although in the context of the Oleinu it appears there is a religious value to tikun olam, the non-religious have actually divorced it from that. We are to repair the world... because it's a great idea, not because it's a Divine imperative or for some greater religious truth:
Then there is the central message and most memorable phrase of the Passover story: “Let my people go.”We all know that Moses says this to Pharaoh. But what about the rest of the sentence? In Exodus 7:16, God instructs Moses: “And say to him [Pharaoh], ‘The Lord, the God of the Hebrews, sent to me you to say, ‘Let my people go that they may worship Me in the wilderness.’”The concept of freedom, then, in the Exodus story and subsequently in the Passover seder ritual, is not about man being freed from slavery so that he can pursue his own interests. Rather, it is so he can devote himself to God.Throughout history we have seen Jews drawn to universalist groups and causes, like Bundism and Communism, searching for ways to perfect the world without God. On the other hand, we see Jews who seem to focus only on religious observance and care little about the community outside of their synagogue or neighborhood, sometimes expressing contempt for non-Jews and little affection for non-observant fellow Jews.In truth, Judaism requires the observance of the universal and the particular, the mitzvot between man and his fellow man as well as between man and Heaven. Social justice is wonderful, and political activism is admirable, but they must be grounded in tradition to be authentically Jewish. As Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, the author and ethicist, has noted, “liberals and conservatives should ask themselves if there is anything in Judaism that challenges their political beliefs. If the answer is no,” he says, “then their real religion is liberalism or conservatism, not Judaism.”The beauty of our faith is in the recognition that to fulfill the mitzvah of repairing the world, both parts of the text are required. We must look outward and inward, as Hillel instructed, “If I am not for myself who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I?”
This is an important message for those who think they know what certain Jewish phrases mean. All mitzvos, even those between man and his fellow man, involve God in the process. Performance of those commandments without being aware of His presence or acknowledging that it is really to fulfill His will that we are doing this, irregardless of our own personal desires, removes any true spiritual significance from the mitzvah.

The Effort of Sin

One of the most interesting mitzvos in the Torah is the one that leads off last week's parashah, the law of the beautiful captive woman, the yihas to'ar. In brief, if a Jewish soldier comes across an enemy female and he find her attractive, he's allowed to bring her home to become his wife. However, the procedure isn't as simple as slinging her over his shoulder and carrying her off, kicking and screaming. Nor is battlefield rape countenanced.
Instead he must bring her home, shave her bald, give her mourning clothes to wear and then listen as she spends the next thirty days wailing and crying over her parents and her people. Only then is he allowed to marry her.
And if during those thirty days he changes his mind? He must set her free. He can't share her with a friend or sell her to a different master. She goes free without limitation. And if he keeps her? As Rashi notes, the Torah hints that she will become an unloved wife who will give birth to an unruly son. Not exactly the greatest endorsement, eh?
I've always like the drash that says that this halacha can be allegorically interpreted as a man battling his yetzer hara. If you go out to war against your yetzer hara and a sin is presented to you in a desirable way, etc.
What I think we can learn from this is that the Torah is telling us that it is actually quite hard to sin. God, in His infinite wisdom, has created an imperfect world for us to live in with all sorts of temptations to overcome. But in His infinite mercy, He has really made it much easier to be good than we realize. Having been created in the image of God who is good, we are by default all good. It doesn't take effort to overcome sin and reach for purity. Rather, it takes effort to sin and damage that purity.
Similarly, just as we know that it takes proper kavannah to perform a mitzvah in the most optimal fashion, the rule of the yifas to'ar suggest the same for a sin. One does not really commit the sin in the most optimal fashion without making an effort for it. Consider all the effort one has to go through to This is all a sign of God's mercy to us and how He ensures we can always return to Him without feeling despondent that our sins have created an immovable divide between us and Him.
Thus even if one has made the effort to sin and persisted in it, one can still free oneself by simply letting go of it. One can always do a chesbon hanefesh and reach the proper conclusions, thereby endeavouring to return to God which is an especially important thing to do at this time of year.

Thursday 27 August 2009

Guest Post from Baruch Pelta

I don't know if this has ever happened before or if it ever will happen again. Those of you who know me know I'm pretty skeptical for a frum yid, but a cataclysmic event of cosmic proportions has taken place on August 26, 2009: I agree with Jacob Stein on something.

Jacob Stein today posted an excerpt from a Maureen Dowd column attacking anonymous bloggers. I couldn't agree more. Attacking others on a blog while fearing to sign your name to the attack usually indicates cowardice and a lack of courage in your convictions. Of course, there may be exceptions, but the rule for pseudonymous and anonymous idiots is cowardice and stupidity.

Baruch Pelta

Tuesday 25 August 2009

Taking Credit for the Good and the Bad

Rav Yonasan Rosenblum is one of the few mainstream Chareidi writers who is willing to question the sacred cows in his Chareidi community. While he doesn't go as far as some might, he does criticize far more than the other well-known writers who generally tend to be apologetic syncophants.
The problem is that Rav Rosenblum, after writing such a potentially heretical column, needs to backtrack in order to maintain his "street cred" within his community. Sometimes he manages to point out why his original criticism was valid while maintaining his obvious respect for the Chareidi community and its leadership. On occasion, especially if he's ruffled feathers, he falls back on the official party lines. In what is others a fine article on how Chareidim and the secular public should improve their interaction, he starts off with a classic:
No Torah Jew finds it difficult to justify Israeli government expenditures on Torah education. For us, it is clear that without the citadels of Torah that all the efforts of the IDF to protect us from the dangers all around will be for naught.
I've never liked this line. For one thing, it should not escape anyone's notice that the Chareidi yeshivos that are working so hard at defending the State of Israel are also very makpid on not saying the Tefilah l'Shlom HaMedinah or the MiSheberach for Tzahal. I doubt there's a Chareidi masgiach ruchani in Israel who has started the morning seder with a rousing "Let's go and defend the State!" Nor is there probably a single bochur who, while having difficulty with his shteiging, has said to himself "Come on Fishel! The State is counting on you!"
We all know the principle: Miztvos tzrichos kavannah. That kavannah is certainly lacking from the Chareidi community.
But let's just say that Rav Rosenblum is right. It isn't the bravery of the soldiers of Tzahal, or the religious soldiers amongst them, that is the real source of strength for the State, but rather everything rests on the shoulders of the Chareidi community. Fine.
Now keep in mind that the last two wars/military operations that Israel engaged in were not exactly stunning wins for the Kochav v'Lavan side.
Some might blame the army for poor planning. Others will remember that Ehud Olmert, the prime minister during both escapades, strongly looked like he wants to the fight the war to lose. Perhaps the Arabs were simply better prepared than Israel was prepared to admit.
Fortunately we don't have to think that anymore. If the Chareidim are going to credit themselves with being the real protectors of Israel then they need to hear this open message: You're doing a lousy job! Your learning sucks! Clearly this is the case because if you were up to snuff, would Tzahal have had such trouble in the last few years? Would Hamas and Hizbollah still be a threat to the State?
If the community is prepared to justify its refusal to engage in army service because of the great value of its Torah learning, then it must also explain why the State isn't doing so well militarily.

Thursday 20 August 2009

Intolerant of Intolerism

Years ago when I still went to the Conservative synagogue in my town I got caught up in talking with one of the more "progressive" guys there, an older man who always seemed to confuse income (he was a dentist) with intelligence. Upon discovering that I was not an egalitarian like all properly "enlightened" folks should be, he began to rant and rave. You see, I was a danger to the synagogue because I was running the junior services on Shabbos morning and someone like me might teach them things that were against Judaism as he understood them (did I mention that he was completely illiterate in Hebrew and openly stated that not having read the Chumash was no reason not to spout opinions about its contents?)
After a little back and forth, he came up with what he thought was his trump line: "I have no tolerance for intolerant fanatics like you!" he shouted in front of the morning crowd.
I didn't know what to say other than "You're intolerant of intolerance?" And, not getting the point he crowd "Yes!" as if a statement like his was actually meaningful.
The most recent post at Dr. J's blog got me thinking back to this anecdote. For those of you who not only like Jacob Stein but people who give him far more attention than he deserves, Dr J started a blog "devoted to the rebuttal and repudiation of the false religion propogated by Jacob Stein in his Jewish Philosopher blog". However, it seems that this isn't enough and now he's started branching out into frummie bashing. Well why not? Many other atheist/skeptic blogs sustain themselves on that poison (while simultaneously claiming that they're the victims of frummie persection) so why get left out?
The whole post is dedicated to his disagreement with the concept of separate seating at weddings. It seems he was invited to what he thought was a Modern Orthodox wedding only to be stunned to discover that there would be separate setting there.
He could have said "Well, I don't go for that so I wished them 'mazel tov' and skipped the event." However, that didn't appear to be the appropriate way to deal with the issue:
I think that this is really obnoxious, dumb, and inconsiderate. There is no halachic requirement for it, either. It is just the latest example of pseudo-frum heredi practices polluting the modern orthodox world. I find it offensive and primitive. It is saying that the men can't control themselves around women, and therefore keep the women out of sight.
Understand? Frum people who hold that separate seating are important are obnoxious, dumb and inconsiderate. Yes, it's their wedding. Yes, they're paying all the bills. Yes, no one is forcing him to attend and they thought they were doing a nice thing by inviting him. But no, that's totally wrong. Actually they're horrible people. How dare they think they can do something at their wedding that he disagrees with? Don't they have any sensibilities?
In other words, he's totally intolerant of their intolerance!
I wonder how Stein would analyze that.

Wednesday 19 August 2009

Another Look at the Memories

The thirtieth anniversary of the last uncontested Satmar Rebbe occured recently. Naturally the Chareidi part of the web has been filled with glowing tributes to a great, religious leader.
Certainly it is considered ill-mannered to speak poorly of the dead but on the other hand, I don't see things the way they do.
I will not comment on the Satmar's learning. He was clearly a genius with great knowledge, strong personal conviction and emunas Hashem.
What I will comment on is the legacy he left behind.
Years ago I read about the conflict he had with Rav Moshe Feinstein, zt"l, over in vitro fertilization. Rav Feinstein permitted it while he forbid it. At one point he dispatched three of his best chasidim to visit Rav Feinstein and order him to change his psak. However his chasidim were given specific instructions to not discuss the subject with the Rav.
The students were more intellectually honest than the teacher though. Upon meeting with Rav Feinstein, they did engage in discussion around the issue and Rav Feinstein was able to rebut all the Satmar's concerns. Convinced that his position had validity they returned to their rebbe and told him so. Apparently the rebbe's response was "See! I told you not to engage in discussions with him!"
Part of the halachic process is the exchange of ideas. If one looks through the corpus of our legal literature, the phrase "It's this way 'cuz I says it is!" does not appear. A posek must bring adequate sources for his position as well as reasoned arguments as to why the opposing position has no validity. Ours is not a dictatorial system but one of undending dialogue and contextual understanding. The Satmar, by attempting to dictate to Rav Feinstein what his position should be despite the latter's superior reasoning, demonstrated the exact opposite.
This is not something that was lost on his followers. Several months ago a Satmar meshulach came to my door for money. While we were talking I asked if he'd ever visited Israel and that I was hoping to live there one day. He replied that the Satmar had said that it is forbidden to do that.
So I went over to my bookshelf and pulled down half a dozen seforim which show that, adraba, it is okay to live there and build up the land. He pushed them aside (gently) and said that all that was in those books is meaningless because the Satmar has paskened and you can't disagree with him.
I'm sorry but I fail to see the deep intelligence or holiness in such a system. Eilu v'eilu is a fundamental part of the halachic process. How can someone who refuses to consider the second eilu as valid because it disagrees with him pasken within that process?
The other legacy the Satmar left behind is one of ingratitude. His hostility to Zionism is well know but what is less known (and probably forbidden knowledge in Williamsburg and Kiras Joel) is that the Satmar himself only survived the Shoah because of the Zionists. Having forbidden his followers to flee Hungary as the Nazis were preparing to exterminate its entire Jewish population, he then did just that with the help of the Zionists who got him to - wait for it - Israel where he lived for a couple of years before decamping to the United States. Having been saved by them, he then spent his life defaming, criticizing and indoctrinating against those same. Zionists. This lack of hakaras hatov is shocking, no less in that it comes from a man who spent his days steeped in Torah. Even more shocking is how his students, the Neturei Karta have chosen to show love and allegiance to those who would attempt to perpetrate a second Holocaust. (Yes, I know Satmar officially disowned them but they still call him their spiritual inspiration)
In all the propaganda regarding the godlus of the Satmar Rebbe, we must all be reminded that there was a dark side that continues to create friction and factionalism within the Jewish community to this day.

Walking the Walk

I've often wondered if people who are identifiably religious Jews in public are held to a double standard.
No, I don't mean when it comes to embezzlement and organ trafficking. I mean with the little things. Technically speaking, going 120 kmh in a 100 kmh zone is against the law. You're not allowed to bring anything across the Canada-US border if you've been out of country for last than 48 hours without paying duty on it. You have to report all income to the tax folks, including cash sales.
The reason I bring those examples is because of their pettiness in today's society. Yes, they're all illegal but everyone does them at one time or another. Is it therefore wrong for a frum Jew to do them as well?
One could argue that if everyone's doing it, then it is de facto okay. I was once told by a police officer that they don't care about speeders who are holding their lane and going less than 20 km above the limit. Another conversation with a border guard yielded important information on how to keep them on one's good side so they wouldn't direct one to the custom's office to stand in line for an hour. I could postulate that in our secular society, a law is only as good as the will to enforce it. If there's no will, is it still really a crime?
On the other hand, should that matter to us? After all, within the Jewish sphere of halacha, there is no real enforcement. The Neturei Karta and their misguided beliefs aside, God employs no formal policemen nowadays. A person who desecrates the Shabbos has about as much risk of something going wrong in the coming week as the most meticulous frum Jew. That's how it has to work, else what happens to free choice? Yet frum Jews keep God's halacha to the best of their ability with only the thought that God is watching to keep them in line. Perhaps we should apply the same standard to our observance of secular law.
What's more, I could note that we are not that infamous a group in many parts of North America (naturally this is not true about Israel). I've worked in many small towns where people have no clue why I am wearing a knitted beanie. All they know about Jews is that we're constantly fighting with Arabs over in Israel. Of our laws, customs, traditions and strictures they know nothing. So when I'm out there, is the standard for my public behaviour different than, say, downtown Manhattan?
I muse about this because of Rav Yonasan Rosenblum's latest contribution to Cross Currents which I believe is excellent in its analysis:
What gentile looks at us and thinks, “Perhaps they really are the Chosen People?” What non-religious Jew looks to the Torah world and finds his curiosity aroused about the source of such refinement and simple mentschlikeit? The janitor in an Orthodox-owned factory recently asked his boss, “If you really are the Chosen People, why are you all so corrupt?”
We each carry around a set of adult pacifiers to grab onto at such moments. Who has not repeated many times Rabbi Berel Wein’s famous line, “Don’t judge Judaism by the Jews.” But the Torah is judged, for better or worse, by the behavior of Torah Jews. Meeting a Torah Jew who exemplified something he or she has never before encountered serves as a major impetus for virtually every ba’al teshuva.
Rabbi Zev Leff likes telling a story of the Telshe Rosh Yeshiva, Rabbi Chaim Mordechai (Mottel) Katz. A non-religious Jew once asked him, “Rabbi, how do you explain all these religious Jews who lie, steal, and cheat on their income taxes.”
Reb Mottel replied, “I have the same question about all those religious Jews who eat on Yom Kippur, drive on Shabbos, and don’t keep kosher.” The man looked perplexed. “Those aren’t religious,” he said. “Well, neither are those you mentioned,” Reb Mottel replied.
Unfortunately, writing all those who lie, steal and cheat out of the ranks of Orthodoxy only takes us so far. For one thing, the former view themselves and are viewed as others as frum Jews.
Nor can their self-image be dismissed as simply a bluff. An Orthodox prison chaplain relates how he once brought a prisoner a set of the Four Species for Sukkos. The prisoner, however, rejected the esrog, telling the chaplain, “I’m makpid (strict) on a pitom.” The chaplain could not resist asking, “About a pitom you are strict, and about defrauding widows you are lenient?” But obviously the prisoner did feel some connection to Hashem. Otherwise, why would he have cared about the pitom either?
If we carried Rabbi Katz’s answer to its logical conclusion, where would we draw the line? Most of us are not candidates for federal penitentiary. But how many would feel comfortable having Rabbi Shimon Schwab, zt”l, examine our books, if he were still alive? A rabbi once called Rabbi Schwab and began his question, “A frum Jew who runs a cash business . . .” He had gotten no further when Rabbi Schwab shouted, “WHAT!”
Thinking that Rabbi Schwab was hard of hearing, the rabbi began again, “A frum Jew who runs a cash business . . .” Again, Rabbi Schwab shouted, “WHAT!” After the third try, Rabbi Schwab explained that running a cash business – i.e.., evading taxes – cannot be reconciled with being a frum Jew.
Even if we could pass the Rabbi Schwab bookkeeping test, how many of us can say that we have never lowered the respect for Torah Jews by our public behavior – e.g., the way we drive, reacting angrily when irritated by a sales clerk? I know I couldn’t pass that test.

Yes, there is a double standard but it is one we must impose on ourselves. By wearing garb that publicly identifies us as Jewish, we are creating an impression. For folks who know what Judaism is, that means we are responsible for exuding an image of Judaism as a religion that brings civility and decency to a person. For folks who don't know any Orthodox Jews, then it is out responsibility to create a positive impression so that they think that there is something special about why we wear those beanies.
It's not fair. Any other ethnic group can do what they want in public without any real reprecussions. A Pakistani man can spit on the street, a German can shout at his wife, a Costa Rica can get caught robbing a bank and nobody says "Well, all of them are like that. What a terrible lifestyle. What a terrible culture". But when any of us do that, those are exactly the statements that get made. And as the Gemara notes (Yoma 86a), when we behave badly, then a chilul Hashem happens and that is something any sincere believing Jew must avoid at all costs.
Why is this so? Well for one thing no other ethnic group makes an intrinsic claim to moral superiority like we do. As a result, the higher the podium, the harder the fall as the old saying goes.
But more than that, the Navi notes that we are the only nation that God has directly known and as a result, we have a connection with Him that no other group on Earth has. Because of this, we have a responsiblity no other group on Earth has to live up to our ideal moral standards. Any stumbles we make are more horrendous, any impression we are not keeping the faith is more disasterous, specifically because of this. Having accepted the Torah and the sublime reward that goes with it, we must accept the other side of the coin: the tremendous responsibility to be positive role models for the world. It's not enough to be like everyone else. That misses the point.

Monday 17 August 2009

The Role of the Rav

Western secular liberalism is, at heart, a selfish consumer culture. The individual is raised from early childhood to ask "What's in it for me?" Either overtly or subliminally, John F. Kennedy's famous challenge: "Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country" is being answered: "Screw my country. What's in it for me?"
As a result, the traditional role of authority figures in society has change from a paternalistic one into a consumer-related one. The professor teaching the class in university is no different in the eyes of his students than the guy in the blue smock at Wal-mart who knows what aisle the salted peanuts are in.
In concert with this, the role of the rav in the Jewish community has also changed, and not for the better. As this article by Rav Levi Brackman notes, the impact of the evolution of the rav from spiritual leader to synagogue employee is profoundly negative:
In by gone times rabbis used to lead their congregations—they would be involved in every level of communal affairs. Nowadays rabbis act as agents of the communities rather than as leaders of them. Having been a congregational rabbi and also having met with synagogue rabbis to discuss issues affecting the wider Jewish community I can attest to this.
It is rare that a rabbi can make a decision on his own. There is always the caveat that he must first discuss it with the board of management or more accurately with his boss. Often the rabbi’s ideas will then be overruled by the management and nothing will get done. Most seasoned rabbis know not to act on anything of consequence without prior approval of their employers.
On occasion one finds a congregational rabbi who actually takes his own initiative and leads. Unfortunately the fallout can be devastating for the rabbi...

With shackles like these it is impossible for rabbis to actually lead. So indeed there is a crisis of leadership within our Diaspora Jewish communities. This may just explain why Anglo Jewry and congregations in the USA can’t seem to revive their stagnating and dwindling synagogue memberships. Simply put: without real leaders there won’t be any followers.
Now I'm not suggesting that rabbonim attempt to return to the role of benign dictators guiding their flocks without input from the unwashed masses beneath them. However, the current situation prevalent in many shuls, especially Modern Orthodox ones, is not conducive to long-term congregational stability.
Let me illustrate with two personal examples. In the community I grew up in, the shul hired rabbonim to six year contracts, usually a recent musmach from YU. Each rav went through a predictable pattern. In the first two years, we were all told how lucky we were to get this one. In the third and fourth year the shine came off and political lines started to be drawn. In the fifth and sixth year, the rav forgot he was a shul employee and started playing politics in an attempt to increase his influence in the congregation. Unfortunately each would always pick the wrong allies and wind up without a contract extension.
As a result, the shul drifted slowly downwards over time. No long-term planning was done because each rav would come in and try to start things over instead of commiting to anything the last one had attempted to get going. What's more, the rav inevitably figured out that he wasn't going to be spending his life in the community. Why care about the big picture when you're leaving in a few years? As a result, today the shul is stumbling forward with a minyan on Shabbos morning but not much else.
Then there's the community I live in now. The previous rav came to town in 1952 or so. At the time the congregation was envious of the success of the nearby Conservative synagogue and was planning to switch denominations. The idea was for this rav to hang around for a couple of years and then be given a choice: either go Conservative with them or leave. However, the rav had other plans and along with a gift for all matters financial, headed off the defection and effectively took over the shul. Far from going Conservative, the shul stayed properly Orthodox. In addition, since the rav was committed to staying in the community for the long term, he was able to plan and execute the building of the city's first day school. For ten years we even had a yeshivah high school until monetary reality and politics conspired to kill it.
What was the difference in this case? The rav was a leader, not an employee. He was also in the enviable position of being financially independent so that threats of a pay cut or sudden loss of employment from the layfolk meant nothing to him. Finally, as the board faded into irrelevance he established his long term plans and carried them out with a consistent sense of direction.
Today his son is the rav of the shul. How many community shuls can boast a dynasty like that?
Under the influence of secular Western culture, people don't like to follow. They like their autonomy and independence. These are all great things to have but if a community is to thrive, each person must put a certain amount of desire for them aside for the greater good. Otherwise, like herding cats, no one gets nowhere real fast.

Sunday 16 August 2009

Jewish vs Torah Studies

Can one study Jewish literature - specifically the Torah, Bible, Talmud and other directly related works - from a secular perspective?
The answer would seem to be yes. Certainly over the last 150 years there have been numerous schools of biblical criticsm, with input from historians and archeologists who have looked at our holy texts from a dispassionate, academic perspective.
Given their backgrounds and stated goals, it's no wonder that they have "discovered" all sorts of things about the Torah and the rest of the Bible. From a non-religious perspective, they are odd books written in an inconsistent and often confusing fashion, full of redundant, repetitive and contradicting statements. Thus the conclusions of the academics have been based on denying the divinity of the Torah, the historical accuracy of the Bible and the connection between the Written and Oral components of the halacha.
Of course, there is one major problem with the entire idea of critical Bible studies - sacred Jewish literature was never meant to be studied in that fashion. Indeed, the only way to properly and truly understand the Torah and the rest of the Bible is to accept that it is a Divine document dictated to Moshe Rabeinu, a"h, by the omniscient Ribono shel Olam with the intent of teaching the B'nai Yisrael important moral lessions and hinting at the underlying Oral Law which binds it all together. When one accepts these truths, what seem to be "proofs" of human origins of the Bible, such as the two stories of how Man was created or different versions of the stories of the meraglim, all cease to be problematic.
Indeed, many of the Torah giants of the last two centuries have contributed in this regard to helping us understand how the Torah is meant to be read as an moral text or as crib notes to the Oral Law. The commentaries of the Netziv, Ha'ameq Davar and the Rav Shimshon Rafael Hirsch, zt"l, are especially important in this regard. Under their literary microscope, every supposed inconsistency, superfluous or misspelled word or repetitive piece of narrative yields important correlations with what we know of the Oral Law. One cannot honestly read their works and come away still thinking that the Talmud was something invented by "the rabbis" in order to enslave the Jews to a meaningless, ritualized religion.
Of course there are still those who don't accept the underlying principles necessary to realize these things. These folks generally don't get involved in Torah studies so much as "Jewish" studies. Fortunately, there is some good news on that front:
The festive atmosphere at the 15th World Congress on Jewish Studies held last week at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem was accompanied by an air of sadness. This was due to the sense that Israel perhaps is not the focal point of Diaspora Jewry, despite being home to the largest database in the world on Judaism and Jews.
Discussions were dedicated to the crisis plaguing Jewish studies departments – namely, that every year the number of students choosing to study Bible, Jewish history, or Hebrew language gets smaller and smaller. It is possible that this phenomenon is linked to the shrinking endowments of humanities departments in general, to the materialism of the younger generation that prefers to study fields that will bear speedy economic returns on investment.
In addition, throughout the world, universities are losing their status as knowledge and information providers as the Internet becomes an increasingly dominant player, even in researching the past.
Take, for instance, the thousands of rare and first editions of books that have been scanned and made available on the Internet. In years to come, the Internet will also contain scanned versions of periodicals. The virtual library will beat out the bricks-and-mortar library, the very symbol of the old university. In a similar manner, the importance of group learning, in classrooms, in front of flesh-and-blood lecturers is decreasing.
Yet, these are only external changes and provide only a partial explanation on the brain drain from theoretical learning. The devaluation of humanities in the West stems from a failure of our value system, which has its source in the thinning of content and turning our backs on the search for truth that was once at the very aim of learning to begin with.
Alan Blum, a Jewish American philosopher, claimed in his book The Closing of the American Mind that truth was replaced on campuses by political correctness, whose tyranny threatens democratic society.
Israel, a nationalist element is added to the failure of the value system, seeing as the first universities were established in the spirit of Zionism. Already in the first Zionist congresses, the Hebrew University and the Technion were planned and slated to be built with the help of Zionist benefactors. These institutions were expected to build an educated and enlightened society and to create a cultural renaissance, including a renewal of the Hebrew language and a shaking off of religious oppressiveness characteristic of traditional learning in the yeshivot and houses of study of Europe.
The Israeli university reflected Zionist ideals. It maintained the continuity between the traditions of the past and the country taking form in the present without foregoing the secular-pioneer mission of building a sovereign independent state without waiting for divine intervention.
Plagued by self-hatred However, as enlightened freedom of thought is replaced by a politically correct agenda, over-emphasis of secular anti-religion remains and paves the way for self-hating revisionism.

Years ago the Conservative synagogue I used to go to hired a new rabbi who, for his inaugral speech, chose to discuss how choice is so important in Conservatism. According to him, it was okay to keep kosher or not to, as long as what you were doing was what you thought God wanted. Same with keeping Shabbos. His triumphant climactic line was: "It's okay if you come to synagogue but it's also okay if you don't."
Shortly after, attendance at this synagogue dropped precipitously and they were in danger of cancelling their daily minyan (despite counting men and women). After all, the rabbi had said they don't have to go to synagogue to be good Jews so why waste time there?
It seems that Jewish studies at the university level have reached the same stage. Having removed God from the Torah, these academics are left with a messy piece of literature. Without acceptance of a supreme, external moral authority, they have to wonder why they're learning about genocidal commands (Amalek). Without the context of the Oral Law to explain limintations and parameters, they are disgusted by rules about marrying off one's young daughter into slavery. Is it any wonder they have become self-haters who are using the incorrectly understood words of our Holy Writ to wage a campaign against the God they don't believe in?
There is only one true type of Jewish studies - the kind that accept God's centrality and the validity of the Oral Law. Seen through those parameters in a properly educated fashion, there is little problem with the texts and truths they contain.

Thursday 13 August 2009

Wny OTD's Hate Modern Orthodoxy

One of the interesting thing about people that go "off the derech" is that they go all the way off, slamming the door behind them as they leave. The living room sucked so they walk through it, the kitchen and the entrance hallway, muttering in the rage as they walk out the front door.
An obvious question is: why don't they consider Modern Orthodoxy? Why is it all-or-nothing for them?
Well, the answers you get are pretty repetitive but they're also interesting for the contradictory attitudes OTD's seem to have towards Torah observance.
The first is that the religion is all bovine excrement. Dig a little deeper though and specific complaints come out. The world isn't 5769 years old. The history of the universe contradicts a literal reading of Bereshis. There's no archeological evidence for almost anything in the Bible, especially Torah miSinai. There's no proof for the existence of God. The laws don't make sense. The texts are corrupted and changed over time. They're outdated. It's all about the chumros. There's a disdain for secular education. They hate women.
Then, having made their choice they mentally go one step further - from "I've got a problem with these things" they quickly move to "I've got a problem with these things and there's no solution".
This is perhaps why Modern Orthodoxy has never been appealing to the OTD crowd. For one thing, there's this strange dichotomy that gets set up in their minds. To wit: the only legitimate form of Judaism is Chareidi Judaism with all the problems they have with it. Anything else that differs is a fake form of Orthodox Judaism and therefore beneath their notice. Quote from Rav Eliashiv and you'll get a vitriolic emotional response. Quote from Rav Willig and you'll get "Oh, that's just Modern Orthodox crap".
It's like saying: I hate Coke, therefore I hate all colas and I'm not going to try Pepsi or Royal Crown because only Coke is the real thing.
Imagine the threat that Modern Orthodoxy poses. A legitimate attempt to reconcile Bereshis with natural history is permitted and encouraged. There is actually archeological evidence for the Bible. There are firm philosophical proofs for the existence of God. The laws do make sense when interpreted properly. There's no need to believe the Torah has not changed one single letter since Moshe Rabeinu, a"h, received it. The halacha is dynamic and addresses modern issues. You can go to university, in fact that's a plus. Women play an important role in the family and community life.
It's no wonder that the OTD/skeptic crowd puts as much effort into delegitimizing Modern Orthodoxy as the Chareidim do. The middle ground is always a threat to the two extremes.

Still Religious After All Those Crimes

This is how screwed up the Torah community's priorities are.
Rav Nosson Sliffkin writes a well-researched book showing that a non-literal interpretation of the first chapter of Bereishis is well within Jewish tradition without denying any of the major ikkarim of our faith. For his efferts, he is put in cherem, humiliated as publicly as possible and even had his Wikipedia page sabotaged.
But if you're a convicted pedophile it's only a short walk to the nearest shul that will give you an aliyah. (Hat tip: Failed Messiah)
Let's say someone from the recent Deal, NJ, raid gets convicted. Or let's say the Rubashkins finally run out of options and have to accept their punishments. What are the odds that, in return for having created such a public chilul Hashem they are put in cherem by anyone?
Write a book bringing to light legitimate halachic opinions that fall afoul of the "mainstream consensus"? You're committed an unforgiveable crime. Desecrate God's name in public? All in a day's work.
Ribono shel Olam, save us now.

Acknowledging Human Effort

"Lest when thou hast eaten and are satisfied, and hast built goodly houses and dwelt therein, and when thy herds and thy flocks multiply, and thy silder and thy gold is multiplied, then thy heart be lifted up and thou forget the Lord thy God who brought thee forth from the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage, who led thee through the great and dreadful wilderness wherein were serpents, fiery serpents, and scorpions, and thirty ground where was no water, who fed thee in the wilderness with man which thy fathers knew not; that He might afflict there, and that He might prove thee to do thee good at thy latter end; and thou say in thy heart 'My power and the might of my hand hath gotten me this wealth.' But thou shalt remember the Lord thy God for it is he that giveth three the power to get wealth that He may establish His covenant which He swore until thy fathers as it is this day." (Devarim 8:12-20)
Given that it is God who gives us our lives and the power to accomplish our deeds and that if He were to withdraw His support from us for an intant, we would cease to exist, one can draw a very simplistic conclusion. Since anything I do I really didn't do myself, rather God did working through me, why not cut out the middle man? Why put any effort into anything at all, other than basic mitzvah performance? The outcome should be the exact same whether God does it Himself or through ol' Garnel (that's me).
Of course this is immediately dismissed by reasonable people as being a ridiculous thought. Even the most devout person makes efforts to provide himself with shelter and food, not simply relying on God to do it all for him. But has anyone ever noticed that when secular folks start boasting about their accomplishment, whether in building something or making important scientific discoveries and the like, many in the religious community are quick to answer those boats with: "You didn't do anything. God did it all and you were just the tool"?
In fact, in its extreme the conclusion noted about seems to be the exact basis for the understanding the Neturei Karta and their Satmar buddies have about how the Messianic era will unfold. We will remain passive. God, through his Moshiach (probably not the Rebbe, he's dead, eh?) will do everything including providing a Third Temple direct from Heaven. The main theological opposition to Zionism, both religious and secular, was that it was a sin for Jews to take their future into their hands and participate in the upcoming final redemption.
However, the Ran, in his Drashos, understandings the above verses differently. Far from seeing the statement "'My power and the might of my hand hath gotten me this wealth" as an isolated, arrogant statement, he connects it with the following verse to derive an entirely different conclusion. Instead of it being a critical comment, it is now seen as part of a process. The hard working and successful Jew has a right to look at his fields, his homes, his factories, and other such things which he has toiled to build and feel a sense of accomplishment. Through the sweat of his brow he has developed something worthwhile and meaningful. But after kvelling for a moment, he is immediately remember that the only reason he was able to do what he did was because of the power God gave him. In other words, he isn't simply the middle man for a predetermined goal but rather the instrument of that goal with the help of God. The person and his deeds matter as long as they are appreciated in the right perspective.
Rav Zvi Yehuda Kook, zt"l, in his comments on Eikev notes this interpretation of the Ran and applies it to Israel today. There is no denying that the return of our people to our Land is a miracle that has only succeeded because of God's help and desire that we rebuild our patrimony as a prelude to the unfolding of the final redemption. But there is also no denying that the Israel of today was founded and build up through the sacrifices of millions of Jews who gave their lives so that the State might exist and prosper. To dismiss their efforts as "Well, it's what God wanted" is not appropriate in the least.
Rather, Rav Kook wants us to note that the Zionist enterprise has been a tremendous success. The power and the might of their hands hath gotten them this wealth that we see before us today, but we must immediately remember that the power and might came from God and were given to us to use in the effort to increase His presence in this world. Through that understanding Israel can gain a true sense of purpose and a holy meaning.

Rabbi vs Rav

It's been a long standing problem. How does someone who is Torah observant address someone who is a rabbi but is also not shomer mitzvos k'hilchaso? On one hand, it seems wrong to call them "rabbi" since they openly reject many basic tenets of Judaism. On the other hand, they went to an accredited educational institution and completed a degree program that grants them the title. A naturopath would be offended if told "Well, I'm not going to call you a doctor because you're not one" and rightly so since he earned the title in his program. A Reformer or Conservative would have an equal right to be offended.

So what to do? The best response I've heard was told to me by an old friend who simply suggesting calling the non-observant ones "Rabbi" and the observant ones "Rav". That way a subtle differentiation is made and no one has to be insulted.

However, a recent article I read seems to have brought this distinction into the Orthodox community.

When Rav Avi Weiss decided to ordain a modern Orthodox female rabbi, he assuaged critics' fears (those critics he cares about assuaging anyway) by creating a new title for her: Maharat. This way he could have the best of both worlds. He would be achieving the wet dream of gender equality within the left wing Modern Orthodox world but would avoid alienating the rest of the community by provocatively calling his new creation a rabbi.

Unfortunately the first Maharat, Ms. Sara Hurwitz, seems to have missed this fine distinction. It seems clear from the article referenced that she considers herself to be a rabbi in form and function:

I recently got a taste of what it would be like to have my own pulpit, to be the rabbi of my own shul. My esteemed colleagues Rabbis Avi Weiss and Steven Exler were on vacation, which left me in charge. Alone. In a 850-family shul. Of course, as soon as everyone left, there was suddenly a funeral to officiate, a shiva to run, a bris to lead, and Shabbat services to orchestrate. I did it all, and the craziest thing is that no one batted an eyelid. It just seemed natural. From this whirlwind experience I gained an even fuller appreciation of the deep and far-reaching modes of activity that constitute the rabbinate. And if I could distill the one common ingredient in these tasks it would be presence. Showing up. Reaching out and making personal connections with individuals. This point was driven home to me in two distinct ways. When an adult son of one of our members died, they called the shul asking to speak to one of the rabbis. So I dropped everything and went to sit with them, navigating the family through the complicated hospital bureaucracy and funeral arrangements. Towards the end of the day, as I broached the topic of who would be officiating at the funeral, explaining that I could find a male, more traditional looking rabbi, she looked at me as if I was crazy. Of course you should do it, she said. By the end of the week, she was telling anyone who would listen (between her moments of grief) that I was a rabbi.And on the other end of the life cycle, I was asked to advise on and coordinate a bris. I showed up at the couples’ home, explained the bris ceremony, and envisioned with them how the service would be run. By the end of the conversation, it was hard to imagine the day without my participation. You see, until recently, I assumed that lifecycle events were closed off to me as a woman in a rabbinic position. People associate these events with male rabbis. But as I officiate at more and more of these ceremonies—in sadness and gladness—I realize that gender is less important to members of my community than simply being present, engaged and building a relationship.That is what being a rabbis is about. That is the rabbinate 101.

However, what struck me most about this article is what Maharet Hurwitz thinks a rabbi is. Within the Chareidi and Dati Leumi world, the function of the Rav is that of teacher and decisor in halacha. One goes to a Rav to learn God's Torah and His laws for us. The image of the rabbi as a counsellor and pastor-type figure was borrowed by the Conservatives and Reformers from Chrisianity in order to give their rabbis something to do with their time. After all, what does a Presbyterian reverend do other than conduct Sunday services and counsel his flock?

Yet this is clearly the model that Maharet Hurwitz is referring to with her "this is the rabbinate 101". No, it's not. Despite her possible opinion to the contrary, not one thing in her article actually needed someone like her, or even a male rabbi. Any well-meaning person slightly versed in the rules of the given event could have done what she did. You don't need a rabbi in most situations that people think you do. It's just because the local non-Jews use their priest/reverend in official capacities that many Jews who think that Judaism is a religion just like theirs believe you do. Heck, for years the Conservative synagogue in my home town was too cheap to hire a rabbi so they made do with a dentist who thinks that knowing the names of the some of the books of the Talmud and the Shulchan Aruch and being able to lead services on Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur makes one qualified to be a spiritual leader. And truth be told, the congregation was very happy with him.

Thus it seems clear to me that Maharet Hurwitz is inadvertantly bringing up an important distinction between real Orthodox and the so-called centrist option (again, if they're centrist, who is to the left of them?). Maybe it's time to distinguish between Rav Hershel Schechter and Rabbi Avi Weiss.

Wednesday 12 August 2009

They're The Noisy Exception

As I've noted many, many times before, it's always a noisy minority of any community that makes it into the news and provides a negative impression of their entire group. The Chareidi community, in recent weeks, has proved to be no exception to the rule. Nasty anti-religious media bias doesn't help either. A chiloni serial rapist might rate a minor mention. A sexist public comment by a Chareidi gets front page.
That makes it so much more important to remember that just because there are idiots willing to give their friends and neighbours a bad name does not mean that all those friends and neighbours are equally nuts. For example:
Jerusalem: Haredim bring segregation to the street
Group of Neturei Karta activists tour capital's ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods on Friday, call on men and women to use separate sidewalks

A group of ultra-Orthodox men took to the streets of the haredi neighborhoods in Jerusalem last Friday and called on the public to adhere to a complete separation between men and women in certain areas of the city.
The activists toured the streets near Geula neighborhood in taxicabs and announced, using megaphones that on some streets men and women should walk on opposite sides of the road during the weekend.
According to a resident of the neighborhood, Avraham Cohen, those responsible for the initiative belong to the extremist Neturei Karta stream. "The leading rabbis of the ultra-Orthodox public do not support this initiative," he said. "This group decided to on their won accord go into the neighborhoods and set new modesty codes."
However, eyewitnesses said that although the segregation had not been sanctioned by prominent spiritual authorities, most passersby heeded the call last Saturday. "During the noon hours when women go out for a stroll and the men go to the synagogue, men and women walked on different sidewalks," one resident said.
But the same level of separation was reportedly not observed on the busy Friday, when the streets are regularly packed with crowds.

Look at the headline. Without reading the story, you'd easily conclude this was yet another wide scale Chareidi attempt to bring Taliban-style Judaism to the streets of Yerushalayim. After actually reading the article you get a different story - a bunch of misfits with megaphones trying to intimidate everyone, including their co-religionists, into following their xenophobic agenda, and failing.
Obviously the Chareidi community has to accept a share of the blame in how they are perceived by the outside world. As Rav Yonasan Rosenblum sadly notes:
That insight strikes with particular force today. What gentile looks at us and thinks, "Perhaps they really are the Chosen People?" What non-religious Jew looks to the Torah world and finds his curiosity aroused about the source of such refinement and simple mentschlikeit? The janitor in an Orthodox-owned factory recently asked his boss, "If you really are the Chosen People, why are you all so corrupt?"
We each carry around a set of adult pacifiers to grab onto at such moments. Who has not repeated many times Rabbi Berel Wein's famous line, "Don't judge Judaism by the Jews." But the Torah is judged, for better or worse, by the behavior of Torah Jews. Meeting a Torah Jew who exemplified something he or she has never before encountered serves as a major impetus for virtually every ba'al teshuva.
Rabbi Zev Leff likes telling a story of the Telshe Rosh Yeshiva, Rabbi Chaim Mordechai (Mottel) Katz. A non-religious Jew once asked him, "Rabbi, how do you explain all these religious Jews who lie, steal, and cheat on their income taxes."
Reb Mottel replied, "I have the same question about all those religious Jews who eat on Yom Kippur, drive on Shabbos, and don't keep kosher." The man looked perplexed. "Those aren't religious," he said. "Well, neither are those you mentioned," Reb Mottel replied.
Unfortunately, writing all those who lie, steal and cheat out of the ranks of Orthodoxy only takes us so far. For one thing, the former view themselves and are viewed as others as frum Jews.
Nor can their self-image be dismissed as simply a bluff. An Orthodox prison chaplain relates how he once brought a prisoner a set of the Four Species for Sukkos. The prisoner, however, rejected the esrog, telling the chaplain, "I'm makpid (strict) on a pitom." The chaplain could not resist asking, "About a pitom you are strict, and about defrauding widows you are lenient?" But obviously the prisoner did feel some connection to Hashem. Otherwise, why would he have cared about the pitom either?

Certainly the Chareidi community has, in generally, developed its theology to the point that a person's piety is judged entirely by externals. Maybe Joe Blowstein stole a million dollars from widows and orphans but look at his shtreiml. He's frum!
But we must not forget that these people are the exceptions. As Rav Rosenblum goes on to note:
NO DOUBT many Torah Jews could pass the Rabbi Schwab bookkeeping test. They just don't happen to be the ones who receive any media attention. Someone raised in the Breuer's kehillah of Washington Heights once told me that he had never ever experienced the slightest temptation to cheat on his income taxes. Just as the prisoner mentioned above could not imagine taking an esrog without a pitom, he could not imagine trying to short change the government.
And you will never hear about these people because there's no news in "Today Yankel did a hard day's work, didn't cheat anyone and bought flowers for his wife on the way home." Before we judge any community, we must remind ourselves of that simple fact.

Today's Pioneers

A century ago the chalutzim were brave young men and women from Europe who lived the 1800 year old dream (at that point) of returning to rebuild Jewish life in Israel. They lived under terrible conditions and faced constant attacks from local Arabs but through the stiff-necked stubborness that has been the Jewish people's greatest asset when channeled in the right direction, they built up our Land and laid the groundwork for the rebirth of Jewish sovereignty in Israel.
Today, they would be perceived as wild-eyed fanatics, maniacs roaming the hills with weapons and nothing better to do than terrorize the poor, local Arabs who only want to live in peace.
It's easy to say that too, because that's how the media loves to portray those Jews whose ongoing sin is to live in areas of the British mandate that Israel was preventing from taking control of in 1949 by a United Nations that was already regretting creating the opportunity for the State to be created in the first place.
As Gary Rosenblatt notes, the settlers are not what you'd think they are from CNN's terrible coverage:
They are not wild-eyed zealots or prone to violent attacks on Arab neighbors. They are American-born professionals who made aliyah for religious, idealistic and Zionist reasons, believing that Israel is the homeland of the Jewish people, and that it is a mitzvah and extraordinary blessing, after centuries of exile and persecution, to be a citizen of the Jewish state.Most of these friends have become increasingly critical of Mideast peace talks over the years, asserting that while the majority of Israelis accept the premise of a two-state solution and have shown their willingness, repeatedly, to make compromises, the Palestinian response is always “no” and “we want more.” As a result, these friends are highly critical of
American efforts as naïve at best, and they are cynical about the international community’s condemnations of Israel, out of all logic and proportion.

Here's the bottom line: between 1949 and 1967, only Pakistin and Britain recognized Jordan's annexation of Yehuda and Shomron. No one recognized Egypt's control of 'Aza. Nor did anyone talk about how these territories were "occupied Palestine". Indeed, back then pre-1967 Israel was "occupied Palestine". The 6 Day War simply completed the job the Israelis were prevented from finishing 18 years earlier. Thus those Jews living in Yehuda, Shomron and, until recently, 'Aza were not illegally occupying a foreign state. They were living on land promised to them in two separate internationally binding agreements that the world community forgets about when inconvenient.
They are not (mostly) wide-eyed fanatics. They are not, as Rosenblatt notes, the evil obstacle to peace that the left-wing Jewish community thinks they are, courtesy of Arab propaganda:
One of the sharpest divides between the Orthodox and non-Orthodox segments of American Jewry is in their attitudes toward the settlements. For the Orthodox, who often visit friends, former neighbors and family members living in places like Efrat, Ma’aleh Adumim and the Old City of Jerusalem, all over the Green Line, these are lovely Jewish communities inhabited by responsible citizens devoted to their families, their work, and society.But as a Reform leader told me the other day, “our people have little sympathy for those living in the settlements,” acknowledging that their perception is more of young fanatics in isolated outposts clashing with Arabs and the IDF than of families — many of them secular — going about their daily lives, as in most suburbs.
They are today's chalutzim, the Jews who are reclaiming our land through their stubborness and desire to build it up. As a reward for their efforts, we should be supporting them in any way we can.

Truth In Advertising

For Torah observant Jews, there are generally two standards of kashrus: good and not good. The major difference between the two is that in the "good" category, there are many levels, like mehadrin, mehadrin min mehadrin, etc. Someone who holds to a stricter level might not eat food prepared at a lower one but would not call the food non-kosher. When something doesn't meet the basic minimum standards as defined by halacha, then all agree it's not kosher.
What's interesting then is the kerfuffle the Conservatives are putting up in various U.S. states over the definition of kashrus. Having unilaterally changed basic requirements and conditions, like declaring all cheese and wine kosher, they still wonder why Orthodox Jews don't consider their standards to be up to snuff. Never mind that something like 95% of their membership don't keep even the basics of kashrus other than a possible avoidance of bacon on Saturdays. They have standards, darn it, and they want to be taken seriously.
A Conservative rabbi in Georgia is challenging the constitutionality of his state’s kosher law, saying it favors Orthodox religious standards and constitutes state entanglement in religion.
The case follows the overturning of similar kosher laws in two other states and the city of Baltimore. It also comes at a time of growing public interest in kashrut, following last year’s immigration raid at the Agriprocessors meatpacking plant in Postville, Iowa, and the ongoing trials of the plant’s owners and managers.
On Aug. 7, Rabbi Shalom Lewis of Congregation Etz Chaim in Marietta filed a lawsuit in Fulton County Superior Court claiming that Georgia’s Kosher Food Labeling Act, passed in 1980, prevents him from fulfilling his duties as a rabbi.
In a complaint filed on Lewis’ behalf, the American Civil Liberties Union charges that Georgia’s kosher law, which defines “kosher food” as “food prepared under and of products sanctioned by the orthodox Hebrew religious rules and requirements,” ignores different kosher standards of other streams of Judaism.

Well of course the law ignores the kosher standards of other so-called streams of Judaism. For one thing, two of those streams, Reform and Reconstructionism, don't have any kosher standards. As for the Conservatives, while in theory they have standards these are observed more in the breach than anything else.
Consider: a frum Jew is walking down the street looking for a restaurant to eat in. He spies one with a teudah but then discovers that it is a Conservative one. Will he eat in that restaurant? No.
Now, a Conservative Jew is walking down the street looking for a restaurant to eat in. There's a 95% chance he'll pick the nearest one that meets his current craving. The kosher/non-kosher nature of it won't even come into play. For the final 5%, yes they would recognize a Conservative certificate but how many people are we really talking about here? A few thousand, concentrated mostly in the New York area? A handful here and there elsewhere?
It is always interesting to me that Conservatives talk about Jewish unity and how the Orthodox are holding aloof from the general Jewish community. At the same time they are constantly changing the standards that have been accepted by the Jewish world for millenia in the name of pluralism and freedom. Achdus through diversity? That's double speak. No wonder they have to turn to non-Jewish courts that don't understand the real dynamics here to help them out.

Tuesday 11 August 2009

How to Waste Time

Last week I was away on vacation and while I was elsewhere I had a chance to think about things.

Is there a point to arguing through blogs over important issues, for example.

The answer I came to is: no.

It's a complete waste of time. A normal, intelligent debate presupposes that each party is prepared to change his mind when presented with evidence of the other side's position. Unfortunately, I'm not really surrounded by normal intelligent people. Rather it's been quite the opposite: closed minded misanthropes who are fanatically devoted to their illogical positions and who don't so much want to discuss issues as to ridicule and demean those views they don't agree with.

The irony, of course, is that they exemplify all those values that they claim their left Judaism over. They're exactly like the frummies they hate. Different values but the exact same methodology.

Here's an example - the famous Letter to My Rabbi at TalkReason. The entire letter can be rejected by a simple rebuttal: never assume that the simplistic answers a kiruv rabbi gives you are the real, final and only answers to your important questions. I mean, really, would you go into a Chryster dealership and expect to learn everything about cars in general? If you deal with kiruv folks, you get quick sound-byte answers that are easy to rebut because they're not that deep. So what?

Should I waste time proving there's a God, that Torah miSinai happened and that the Torah we have today is 99% what was handed to Moshe Rabeinu? Why bother? Short of God Himself opening up the Heavens on CNN and taking an interview with Larry King to confirm all these items, nothing will change their minds.

So why bother trying?

If I come up with a good answer, then I'll start arguing again. Until then, unlike many in the blogosphere, I have better things to concentrate on.

Avoiding the External Allure

"When the Lord thy God shall cut off the nations from before thee, whither thou goest in to dispossess them, and thou dispossessest them, and dwellest in their land, take heed to thyself that thou be not ensnared to follow them after that they are desroyed from before thee, and that thou inquire not after their gods saying: 'How used these nations to serve their gods? Even so will I do likewise.' Thou shalt not do so to the Lord thy God for every abomination to the Lord which He hated have they done unto their gods, for even their sons and their daughters do they burn in the fire to their god." (Devarim 12:29-31)
Rashi and Ramban have very different approaches to this verse. Rashi's is generally straightforeward based on the pshat of the verse. Having conquered Eretz Yisrael, don't show up in the local towns and start worshipping the idols that the previous occupants used to.
Ramban has a difficulty with this. First of all, there are already plenty of references to the prohibition of avodah zarah in the Torah. Why does it need to be added in here? Secondly, the context makes no sense. Having just conquered the Land and vanquished its people along with their powerless idols, what sense would it make for our ancestors to want to start worshipping them? They'd just been shown to be unable to help their worshippers. What kind of useless religion is that?
Ramban then goes and looks at the juxtaposition of "How used these nations..." and "Thou shalt not do so" to derive a very different conclusion from Rashi. In his opinion, these verses are not speaking at all about our ancestors adopting the local idol worship customs of the Canaanites. Instead, they are cautioning against coming to an erroneous conclusion in a desire to worship God.
The concern was that our ancestors, after learning of how the locals used to worship their idols, might come to the conclusion that while worshipping the idol was wrong, the method used was not necessarily so. In other words, worshipping Merkulis (by throwing rocks at him) was wrong but throwing rocks in the worship of God might be acceptable! Thus they might start to use heathen methods in the Divine worship in addition to or instead of the already prescribed sacrificial ritual.
The implications from this understanding are important for Modern Orthodoxy. In contact with liberal secular society as it is, Modern Orthodoxy cannot help but be either overtly or subtly influenced by non-religious values. A result of this influence is a manifestation of the eternal Jewish curse: "let us be like all the other nations!" Whether in ritual, dress and thought, Modern Orthodoxy ascribes great value to secular culture and often tries to co-opt it into Judaism under the assumption that if frum Jews do it, they have taken something plain and added an element of holiness to it.
This has already removed what "authentic" Jewishness was left in Conservatism. Now Modern Orthodoxy seems hell-bent on following in its path. They have women priests, reverends and "rabbis", let's have maharats! They blur the religious distinction between men and women. Let's do the same! They place a higher premium on being politically correct and trendy than on observing tradition. Are we doing something like that? Never mind that there are deep reasons for the distinction between genders in Torah Judaism. What are the local nations doing? Let's be like them.
But according to the Ramban's understanding of the passage above, this is a huge mistake. What we know as Jewish traditional worship has not evolved as a matter of happenstance. The prayers in our siddurim weren't just whipped off by a bored sage a couple of thousand years ago. The piyutim aren't simply inspired poetry. Our routines and procedures aren't just rote performances devoid of inner meaning. To decide that whatever is liberally popular is acceptable for the shul betrays a complete lack of knowledge of this depth or its importance.
There are definitely areas of the outside world that Judaism can contribute to and benefit from. However, as the Ramban shows, how we worship is an area where we must remain distinct and loyal to our traditions, not our vapid neighbours.

Getting the Job Done

The recent Tu B'Av mini-holiday led me to thinking: the Gemara in Taanis says that the two happiest days of the year for the Jewish people in Temple times were Yom Kippur and Tu B'Av. For the former, it's obvious that a day that culminated in national cleaening of sins committed would be an occasion of joy. But Tu B'Av? Yes, the gemara lists a bunch of good things that happened on that day but it has never really achieved the prominence that Yom Kippur has.
But if the gemara describes the two in similar fashions, there must be an underlying connection. Here is my suggestion.
First, one must remember the primary reasons for a day being considered special in Jewish tradition. For example, Tisha B'Av has become a national day of mourning for pretty much every tragedy that has befallen us since the destruction of the First Temple (may it speedily be rebuilt). But according to rabbinic tradition, the original appearance of Tisha B'Av is in the Torah. In a famous aggadah, Chazal notes that the day that the meraglim reported their slander about Eretz Yisrael and caused the nation to cry in despair was Av 9. As is famously known, they reported that God looked down and say "Tonight you are crying for no reason. I'll give you a reason to cry on this night for generations."
In this vein, let's look at the first appearance of Yom Kippur in the Torah. Contrary to popular belief, it isn't in the various lists of holidays in the latter part of Shmos or in the description of the Kohen Gadol's ritual in Acharei Mos. Rather, it's actually the real day of matan Torah.
Remember that according to tradition, Moshe Rabeinu, a"h, received the first set of luchos from God on Sivan 6 or 7 (depending on who you hold by). However, these tablets didn't last long. They didn't even make it to the camp of our ancestors before being smashed because of the sin of the golden calf. This is perhaps one reason we call Shavous z'man matan Toraseinu and not z'man kabalas Toraseinu. God gave over the Torah on that day but we didn't actually receive it.
When did we actually receive it? Well following the chronology, it was when Moshe Rabeinu returned to the camp after his third 40 day stay in Heaven. Given that his descent the first time was on Tammuz 17, Chazal calculate that this final descent when the Torah made it to our ancestors was on Tishrei 10, Yom Kippur. This Yom Kippur is, in a quiet way, z'man kabalas Toraseinu.
Tu B'Av, on the other hand is noted by Chazal to be the day the dor hamidbar who were condemned to wander for 40 years finished dying off. Recall that after the meraglim were punished, God announced that anybody over 20 years old would finish their lives in the midbar and only when they were all gone would our ancestors be allowed to enter Eretz Yisrael. Thus after Tu B'Av the final march towards our Land could begin.
What's the connection then between Yom Kippur and Tu B'Av? When God first reveals Himself to Moshe Rabeinu, He tells him that the upcoming Yetzias Mitzrayim will have two objectives. The first is to go to Har Sinai and receive the Torah. The second is to take our ancestors to the Land promised to our Forefathers, the land of Israel.
In both cases, there were complications. The receiving of the Torah was delayed by over 80 days due to the sin of the Golden Calf. The final march to Eretz Yisrael was held up by 38 years.
Thus both holidays share an important feature in common - the achieving of one of the goals of Yetzias Mitzrayim. Together then they testify to God's redeeming us from slavery and bringing us as the people of Torah to the land of Torah.

Monday 10 August 2009

Mini-post from Baruch Pelta

I just was doing some historical research for school and I found this cool link:

I didn't know Life still had a website, and I'm not a big picture guy, but there are some really cool pictures there. I thought Garnel's readers might find them excellent.