Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Friday, 25 September 2009

Prisoners of Their Own Ideology

The classic Star Trek episode Patterns of Force tells a fascinating story that is in some ways applicable to what is happening in the Chareidi community today. It's also a great chance to see the crew of the Enterprise dressed as Nazis but I digress.
The plot of the episode goes as follows: A historian named John Gill violates the United Federation of Planet's Prime Directive not to interfere with the development of alien cultures. Finding the planet Ekos in a state of anarchy, he decides that the only way to save the civilization there is to introduce a centralized authoritative government. The most efficient model he can think of from Earth's history is the fascist model of Nazi Germany so he develops it on Ekos, making himself the Fuhrer and copying all of the most successful elements of Nazism in order to stabilize society. At first, things go well because Gill manages to avoid the negative aspects of Nazism such as racial scapegoating but the inevitable happens and his deputy, Melakon, decides to add in those evil facets of the Nazi regime the Ekosians had avoided until then. Melakon drugs Gill and turns him in a puppet leader, using him to advance his own racist agenda which involves persecuting aliens from the nearby planet Zeon (whose inhabitants have suspiciously Jewish sounding names) and attempting to wipe them out.
Captain Kirk and the Enterprise are able to foil the evil Melakon's plans after discovering the drugged Gill and getting him to broadcast his refutation of his deputy's program. Unfortunately Melakon does not take kindly to this and shoots Gill dead but his reign of terror has ended and Kirk can warp off to different planets in search of fresh alien females to seduce.
What does this have to do with the Chareidim?
First of all, l'havdil elef havdalos and then some, I am not comparing the Chareidi to fascists or Nazis, chas v'shalom etc. Please don't make any comments on this post like that. They will be deleted.
What interests me about Patterns of Force is that John Gill, while officially the leader of the planet Ekos, isn't really in charge by the time the Enterprise is. However, Melakon's inability to openly replace him seems to have evolved from Gill's developing a cult of personality around himself, something all good dictators tend to do. As a result, the Ekosians seem unable to conceive of a society that does not have Gill at its head and thus Melakon has to keep him around as a figurehead to justify his policies. Gill cannot act indepedently; his puppet strings direct all his motions. He is effectively a prisoner of his own ideology.
After the Second World War, Chareidi society underwent a tremendous change as a result of the Holocaust. As Rav Yonasan Rosenblum noted in his excellent article on the subject:
Let us think of the destruction of the major centers of Torah learning during the Holocaust as the "disease." The body of Klal Yisrael could not go on after the Holocaust without its heart – the talmidei chachamim produced in the great yeshivos. Time was of the essence, for how long can a body survive without its heart? As a hora'as sha'a, in the wake of the Holocaust, the Torah leaders of the post-Holocaust generation advanced a societal model that had no obvious precedent in Jewish history. That new model was one of long-term, full-time Torah study for virtually all males. A necessary corollary of the model of long-term Torah learning for all men requires wives to become the primary breadwinners – at least for the period during which their husbands are sitting in learning. The only alternative would be for the parents of young couples to undertake to support them and their offspring as long as the husband is in full-time learning. While there might be some parents who can afford to hold out a number of sons and sons-in-laws in such a fashion, the number is obviously small. And so women working became the norm. (The phenomenon of women working today, of course, is not solely a function of husbands learning. Even where husbands work, many Torah families find that the expenses of large families can only be met by both parents working.) The societal model adopted in the wake of the Holocaust was a radical departure from all pre-Holocaust models. In pre-War Lithuania, for instance, usually only one or two boys from each town were sent off to one of the great famous yeshivos. That is why yeshiva bochurim were known by the name of the town from which they came; there was rarely anyone else from the same town. And the model of women bearing the principal responsibility for parnassah is not only new, it is seemingly in radical contrast to the Torah model. Adam, not Chava, received the curse that he would wrest his livelihood from the earth by the sweat of his brow. The husband gives his wife a ketubah in which he undertakes to support her. The woman, in Torah literature, is always described as the mainstay of the home and as bearing the principal responsibility for the nurturing her children. The radical therapy adopted in the wake of the Holocaust worked. The Torah world was not only saved but rebuilt to a remarkable degree. The number of those learning full-time today dwarfs the numbers of pre-War Europe. And Torah is now the possession of the masses to a degree unknown in Europe. At the same time, we would expect a radical departure from the "natural order" described by the Torah to have untoward consequences/side effects. The impact of wives serving as the principal breadwinners has implications in three areas: with respect to the shalom bayis of the couple; with respect to the effect on child-raising; and with respect to the well-being of the woman herself, who is torn between her ambition to facilitate her husband's growth in Torah and her maternal instinct to devote herself to the nurture of her children. The societal model also produces certain secondary or tertiary side-effects – e.g., the emphasis on money in shidduchim.
Along with this adjustment came an evolution in the use of the term Daas Torah. Prior to a few decades ago, it is generally agreed that Daas Torah was applied to leading Torah scholars in the same way the word "experienced" is used with veteran physicians. Sometimes there isn't a clean and easy answer in the literature on a particular topic and extrapolations have to be made. A seasoned internist with a broad knowledge of the medical literature would be qualified to make such an extrapolation based on his large fund of knowledge and experience. In the same way, a major poske, drawing on his encyclopedic knowledge of halacha could come to conclusions in novel situations using his opinion based on that knowledge. This was Daas Torah.
However, after the war this shifted and suddenly radical or novel answers were no longer attributed to experience or intellect. The Chareidi community developed a cult of personality based on its "gedolim" and a phenomenon of "Gadol worship" appeared. Now answers to halachic problems that weren't based on prior shailos were a product of ruach hakodesh. The gadol, by virtue of being a gadol, was held to have a direct connection to God in Heaven and knew what He would say were He to have been asked to question.
The problem with any cult of personality is that it creates a separate orthodoxy all its own. In the Chareidi community, for example, there are certain laws found nowhere in halacha, for example, the de facto prohibition on working, the excessive tznius requirements, the ban on secular education for the purpose of achieving gainful employment, and the like. This is certainly more evident in the Israeli community than in the American one, possibly because the government in Israel supports this non-sustainable lifestyle in ways the Americans would never even consider doing.
For extremists who value this system, it is therefore very important that all people play their roles. A Chareidi wearing a blue shirt? Feh! No Chareidi wears a blue shirt. Photoshop him out of the picture. Think denim is too modern a fabric? No good Chareidi wears denim! Are the local girls not conforming to the Chareidiban dress code? Stone 'em, those p'ruzos. I'm not even go over the parking lot protests. These extremists have created an ultra-conformist form of chareidism. According to the kana'im they must all look the same, talk the same and think the same. Even history has been altered and any who dare to question the "We were always like this, even Moshe Rabeinu wore a shtreiml" revision is ostracized.
And who stands at the head of this society? The Gedolim. Everything is attributed to them, their word is law and their decisions, being daas Torah must be followed without question.
Except did you ever stop to wonder why so few of these radical announcements, such as the banning of Rav Nosson Sliffkin's books or the concellation of the Lipa Schmelzer concert, are actually made personally by them? Or how many of the rabbonim whose names appeared on these bans later admitted they had no idea how their signatures wound up there?
It's never by personal announcements but always either through a "spokesman" or a pashkevil plastered all over Yerushalayim. Even the most recent chumrah-of-the-week, a ban on tznius women sitting next to not-so-tznius women and attributed to Rav Chaim Kanievsky, shlita, came out in the form of posters, not an official declaration in person by the man himself. Again, did you ever wonder why?
I have come to believe that this is because there is something rotten at the core of Chareidi society. The leaders, the gedolim, aren't really in charge. Rather, the ideology along with its caretakers, the kana'im, are actually running the show. They have taken over and decided what is right and wrong for "the Torah world" and they are using the gedolim as figureheads to give authority to their initiatives. They are in turn propped up by their aparatchniks who use eloquent language to validate their simplistic approach to Torah.
Does anyone really believe Rav Kanievsky cares about separating frum women based on their adherence to ultra vs normal levels of tznius? Does anyone really believe that Rav Eliashiv cares about a Lipa Schmeltzer concert or that Rav Sliffkin's books were a grave threat to the Chareidi world?
But these gedolim are, for all one might disagree with their ideology, brilliant men who know the situation that they're in. Stop and consider for a second: what would happen if Rav Shteinman, shlita, were to one day stand up and say "You know, denim skirts, they're not so bad, especially the flopped large ones. I can't see why they're not tznius." Could you imagine the reaction? Might his "gadol status" be threatened? Might he be banned for disagreeing one iota with the extremist agenda? But how could that be? Isn't he a gadol? Don't all Chareidim have to obey his views?
How about the recent parking lot riots? Despite calls by both Rav Sternbuch of the Eidah Chareidis and Rav Eliashiv, the violent protests continued for weeks before simmering down. Yet if the Chareidi public really listens to their gedolim, why wasn't the violence ended immediately?
The answer is because the Chareidi extremists who are actually in charge don't care about what their leaders really think but only about what they should think. In the mind of the leaders of the violent protests, the gedolim should have supported them because the riots were the right thing to do against the hated chilonim. That the gedolim didn't support such a tactic was irrelevant. What they should think was more important than what they actually thought. Who they were supposed to be was more important that who they were.
And don't think the gedolim don't know this, that their status and power depend on living up to the expectations of the masses as manipulated by the extremists. Consider the example of the poster banning certain types of women sitting together. It is most likely that Rav Chaim Kanievsky was never even approached about the issue. The idea was probably hatched by an extremist who works for him and assumed that he would agree with this awful idea because the kana'im really do believe that all Torah true Jews think exactly like them.
It is less likely that Rav Kanievsky was approached and told that this initiative was going out under his name... or else. Given that many Chareidim routinely resort to violence to get what they want, is this such a far-fatched scenario?
This wouldn't be the first time whispers have been heard about extremists threatening gedolim with violence if their agenda isn't endorsed.
In summary, the extremists are Melakon. The gedolim are John Gill. What's missing is a James T Kirk to pull the curtain back and allow the Chareidi leadership to speeak without fear of being attacked by their loyal underlings.

Monday, 21 September 2009

Where Does The Time Go?

When I was growing up, the little shul I belong to used to set records for length of services on the High Holidays. Davening was called for 8 am and it would always be the same four or five of us there on time. When services ended at 3 pm (I am not exxagerating) the same four or five of us were there to close up. In between the crowd had swelling to a couple of hundred but as the day passed they generally lost interest and drifted away.
Perhaps it was because the chazan, a genuinely decent talmid chacham with a beautiful voice, really got into the prayers he was chanting. Maybe that's why mussaf always took 3 hours. Or it could have been the rav's excitement at having a full house to speak to which meant a sermon of at least one hour's length.
Fortunately nowadays I daven at the local Jewish seniors' home. The crowd is small, we start late (9:30 am) but we're done by 1 pm and home by 1:30. Yet most piyutim are still said and tunes are still sung. What's the secret?
First, our chazzan is a decent chap who gets very hungry by 11 am. This means that the longer services go, the faster he sings. Secondly, the rav running the services doesn't flatter himself. He knows no one is really listening when he speaks, so he limits his sermon to five minutes or less.
Put that all together and it's quite possible to be home for lunch at a decent hour.
How did yours go?

More Photo Ops

It was recently announced that President Hussein Obama will be meeting with Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu and Chief Terrorist (and certified Holocaust deniers) Mahmood Abbas in Washington to rev up the stalled peace talks.
Of course, expectations for any kind of success are low, if only because of the set up of the conference. President Obama will be meeting separately with the leaders and only then having a joint session. Unfortunately Abbas has already cynically decided the outcome of the conference by announcing that he will not talk about anything meaningful with Netanyahu until the Israelis completely capitulate unconditionally to all his demands. How progressive.
One can therefore see the conference proceeding along these lines:
Obama: Hey guys, let's see if we can restart peace talks.
Netanyahu: I'm open to full negotiations on every aspect.
Abbas: I demand competely acceptance of my demands.
Obama: Well then, Bibi, why are you being so intransigent? Can't you see Mahmood is sincere about peace?
I recall as a child watching the morning news with my parents and hearing about "peace talks" between Israel and the Arabs. Of course back then it was Menachem Begin, a"h, and Yassir Arafat, y"sh.
Perhaps politics really does delude people but maybe one day America will have a president who will finally say "You know, 50 years later I don't think there's gonna be peace, and since Israel is on our side, let's back 'em up!"

A Wasted Effort

Years ago the hometown Jewish newpaper I used to get carried an article from another paper in the States about a Reform woman's ideas about kashrus. Decades before the Rubashkin debacle, she raised an interesting point. While the veal at her local supermarket might have been kosher, didn't the fact that calves raised for the delicasy are kept in cruel conditions count for anything? As Jews, should we say something is kosher just because it was slaughtered the right way when other ethical lapses were involved in its preparation? She concluded her article by suggesting that the Reformers pioneer a new form of kashrut, one in which the ethical background of the food was what was checked to ensure that consumers were eating in a morally responsible fashion.
At the time, I had only one criticism of the article. The ethics of veal has nothing to do with its kashrus. If a calf is slaughtered al pi halacha and the meat is washed and salted in the proper fashion, then the meat is kosher. It could be Jeffrey Dahmer selling it to you or Ted Bundy owning the slaughterhouse. It doesn't affect the kashrus of the product. Indeed, this is the mistake most well meaning critics of Rubashkin's have often been frustrated by. While they seemed to be quite correct in labelling all the failings of the meat packing company as ethical disasters, none of these failings actually affected the kashrus of the product. Thus for someone who doesn't care about the environment food is prepared in as long as it meets the desired ritual specifications, this was an easy argument to have. Rubashkins' meat seems to have been kosher. It was the plant that was treif but that has no bearing on the stuff sitting on the supermarket shelf.
Yet as Jews we should care about how our food is prepared. Sometimes there's no way to know, such as with the vegetables and fruits that fill the produce department. Other times it can be quite easy, such as with veal. We do have an obligation to go beyond being "strictly kosher" in our behaviours, as long as we recognize we are doing this not for the purpose of kashrus but because of a greater ethical responsibility.
In response to the outrages in kashrus over the last couple of years, Rabbi Morris Allen came up with what, at first blush, sounds like a great idea, the Magen Tzedek. Initially called the hechsher tzedek, products carrying its certification would have to fulfill a variety of requirements, to wit:
Founded on the principle that we are what we eat, Magen Tzedek is an ethical seal signifying that kosher food has been prepared with the highest degree of integrity. Products carrying the Magen Tzedek seal reflect the highest standard on a variety of important issues: employee wages and benefits, health and safety, animal welfare, corporate transparency and environmental impact.
It all sounds quite decent. Despite criticisms from the thugs who are still shouting "But Rubashkin's is kosher!" even as the indictments pile up, it seems to have gained some momentum.
Unfortunately, despite the flashy nature of its website, it's probably not going to go very far. There are two reasons for my opinion.
1) Look at the list of requirements for the Magen Tzedek. Exactly who decides what wages and benefits are suitable? Animal welfare is also a tricky one. Let's say the plant keeps the chickens in clean cages under decent climate conditions and feeds them healthy foods. Is that good enough or is the standard free range? Environmental impact? Don't even go there. Will the Magen Tzedek folks be measuring the "carbon footprint" each plant produces? And who decides which footprint is big enough? One of the justified criticisms of Magen Tzedek is that it can easily be hijacked by anti-capitalist ecofascists who would then impose their politically charged standards on companies wishing to participate.
2) On a more practical basis, the market for the Magen Tzedek is quite small. Something like 95% of Conservatives don't keep kosher, ranging from no observance at all to avoidance of pork at social functions. This is not a population that checks for hechshers in the first place. Are they now suddenly going to start checking for not one but two? If anything, the real target market is left wing Modern Orthodoxy and I don't doubt that at some point someone from the YCT crowd will write a good piece on why Magen Tzedek should be supported. But both the 5% of Conservatives who care and the LWMO community are small potatoes when it comes to the kashrus market.
The Magen Tzedek raises an interesting challenge but over time it will probably fade into irrelevance. Perhaps that's a shame because the issues it raises are worth taking cognizance over.

Friday, 18 September 2009

Holiday Greetings from the Leader

(You know the tune)

We wish you a happy Rosh HaShanah
We wish you a happy Rosh HaShanah
We wish you a happy Rosh HaShanah
And an easy Tzom Gedaliah

Enjoy the brisket and apples
And pass the tequila
We wish you a happy Rosh HaShanah
And an easy Tzom Gedaliah

A k'sivah and chasimah tovah to all readers and their families.

Wednesday, 16 September 2009

Unsurprising Conclusions

Although Sri Lanka recently ended a bloody civil war between the Sinhalese majority and the Tamil minority, one in which reporters were excluded from the battlefield and rumoured civilian death tollls were astronomical, the United Nations has not seen fit to send a self-hating Sinhalese adjudicator to that nation to write a report on how the war was conducted.
Sudan allows the rape and destruction of Darfur to continue unimpeded. Yes, there has been some token handwringing but no UN commission.
Last time I heard, the Czechens and Georgians were being violently bullied by the Russians and the Tibetans were still being denied their right to self-determination by the Red Chinese. No UN commissions there either.
And Aung San Suu Kyi, once again under house arrest in Burma/Myanmar might be wondering why the UN seems uninterested in her efforts to free her people from an autocratic junta that completely mismanaged last year's flood relief efforts in a bumbled attempt to claim credit for all the food and equipment the world community donated.
But when it comes to 'Aza, liberals and anti-Semites around the world can rest easy. The UN has been to 'Aza, investigated the events of the recent "war" there and come to its conclusion: Israel is guilty of war crimes.
Excuse me while I pick my jaw up off the floor.
Remember that at the UN, finding Israel guilty of something nasty isn't exactly a rare event. Most resolutions forwarded by the Human Rights Council, even the rare one that deals with another part of the world, seem to start with the words "Given that Israel is an apartheid state guilty of henious war crimes..." so the findings of this commission should be no suprise.
Nor is it a particular surprise to find that the chairman of the commission, Richard Goldstein, is a Jew. Self-hating Jews from both the left and right aren't that hard to find nowadays as Israel becomes more and more beleagured.
Remember how during the war most criticism of Israel began with the statement "Well, while Israel has the right to defend itself"? Turns out that Israel does have the right to defend itself, it just can't actually use any military force to do so.
It is quite easy to condemn the findings of this commission. No doubt most of the conclusions were agreed upon before any of the UN flunkies set foot in 'Aza, a hell hole of the Arabs' own making. I can only imagine the small talk on the fligh over. "Well Richard, we can't actually call the Israelis Nazis but lets assume they set up concentation camps and conducted efficient killing raids on civilians. Hey, that sounds great, I'll put it into the report!"
In truth, the report is a pack of lies with one apologetic part to it: Yeah, well okay maybe it was wrong of Hamas to shoot rockets into Israel. The Jew haters seem to want it both ways. On one hand the Arabs are intimidated by Israel's powerful military, the dominant one in the region, etc. On the other hand, they can't seem to explain why this mighty military, acting full out for a month, managed to only kill 1000 "civilians"? (Remember that even an armed Arab fighter is immediately demoted to civilian status on being killed) If Israel was as bloodthirsty and powerful as the Jew haters claim, why wasn't the death toll more like half a million? Why are any buildings still standing in 'Aza? Why was the death toll from Arab interfighting in the months following the 'Aza incursion higher than that from the incursion itself? These are all questions that won't be asked because the answers are too inconvenient.
In the end, this line from JTA summarizes the response Israel should concentrate on:
"The same U.N. that allows the president of a country to announce on a podium its aspiration to destroy the State of Israel has no right to teach us about morality," Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin said, referring to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
"This is a report born of bias," Abraham Foxman, the national director of the Anti-Defamation League, said in describing the report released Tuesday by the U.N. Human Rights Council. "What do you do with an initiative born of bigotry?"

Israel has to justify itself and its right to defend its citizens from barbarous attacks to the UN like a fish needs a bicycle. Perhaps it's time to remember that one part of the Zionist dream was to end the helplessness of Jews in the face of vile anti-Semitic lies by giving us the voice to shout back. Start shouting.

Tuesday, 15 September 2009

The Root of the Problem

A guest column over at Cross Currents is unusually perspicacious in its analysis of some of the problems in the Chareidi community. As Rav N. Daniel Korobkin notes:
Growing up in the yeshiva day school system of the 70’s, I remember starting our day every morning with davening, and later when we got to English class, we faced the American flag and recited the Pledge of Allegiance. We also sang songs like “My Country ‘Tis of Thee,” “Grand Old Flag,” and “America the Beautiful.”
But then I grew up and went off to yeshiva. Something changed within me. The change was so gradual and subtle that I can’t even tell you how it happened. I don’t remember any rebbe or rosh yeshiva giving a whole mussar shmuz about the evils of America, but still, there was something in the air. There may have been a comment like the famous vort, “America stands for ‘Am Reika’ – an Empty Nation.” Or, perhaps it was just the emphasis on the tum’a (spiritual impurity) of the secular world that left me with a negative attitude toward my gentile countrymen and America in general.
Whatever it was, it had a profound effect. When returning home from yeshiva, I recall that I and others like me would mock the provincial and “modernishe” practices of our parents’ synagogue. Things like the Prayer for the Welfare of the Government, recited in many shuls before Mussaf on Shabbos, evoked smirks and winks from the more “sophisticated” yeshiva boys.
And so, we decided to daven in the “frummer” shuls, the ones that omitted those newfangled prayers that had nothing to do with Yiddishkeit, and that were therefore not printed in the “authentic” siddurim. Pledge of Allegiance? Ha! That’s for the goyim. No child of mine will start his day pledging fealty to a country whose values are morally corrupt!
This is where we got it wrong, and this is where our rabbis strayed, whether through acts of commission or omission.

What impressed me most about this essay was its lack of dancing around the main issue. We have been lead in the wrong direction by people who are prepared to live off the largesse of the Western world without any desire to say "thank you" for what they receive.
For too many frum Yidden, anything assocaited with the dreaded goyim is bad. Anything, except the money they print. There are those in a position of authority who really believe that cheating, stealing, lying is all permitted vis a vis the gentile world based on faulty readings of halachic codices and a simplistic understanding of parts of the Talmud that deserve better. As a result, we find ourselves in a situation where some consider it a mitzvah to not give hakaras hatov for all we get from the world around us.
We have seen it in the riots in Meah Shearim where people whose food, electricity, running water and basic security is all provided by the State they so loathe. We have seen it in the recurrent tax frauds that have been uncovered in the Jewish community in North America. People are all too ready to say "Well, it was just a goy I stole from", as it that suddenly makes it mutar and ethical.
Perhaps Rav Korobkin is right. Maybe it did all start when someone said "I don't care that Jews have prospered in North America like they did nowhere else since the destruction of our Temple (may it be speedily rebuilt)." If that's so, then our response as mature adults shouldn't be to ignore it or dismiss it as a crank opinion. Rather it should be to announce that although our first fealty is to God and Torah, we have a duty as frum Yidden to be good citizens of the country we live in and show graititude to it for all the kindness that it has extended to us. This selfish abosence of hakaras hatov must be countered lest folks who don't know better begin to believe that it is the definitive opinion of our community.
In the meantime, I would like to echo Rav Korobkin's challenge: does your shul show proper gratitude?

Inauthentic Judaism

For some reason there are those out there in the ether of the internet who are wonder why I haven't made any forceful statements about the new enfant terrible in the blogsphere. My question is: why should I?
To answer that, let's review a few things:
1) I strongly doubt Raphael Bearmant (or whatever his real name is) gives a flying fart about what I think of him. I didn't even make it onto his spamming letter flurry that he used to draw attention to himself in the first place.
2) Navonim philosophy is quite different than the spew that this guy puts out. It's completely incompatible with it, in fact. As Reb Bearmant has made it clear that he views his twisted version of Yehadut is the only "real" version out there, there isn't much to talk about.
3) I have a life.
Therefore I have no time for someone whose writing skills seem stuck in 4th grade and whose entire knowledge of Jewish literature revolves around statements that were either taken out of context or invented for the purpose of pushing his views. As the old saying goes, don't waste your time trying to teach a pig to sing. It wastes your time and annoys the pig.
It is very clear from those of us who actually know something about the rich corpus of Jewish literature out there that authentic Judaism embraces many different traditions and interpretations al pi halacha of our holy Torah. Those who would insist that their understanding, and their understanding only, is the true path to daas HaShem are far from that position and I needn't waste my time with them.

Thursday, 10 September 2009

All Hail Sameness

For some people, the word inequality means just that - a lack of equality between two or more items without judgement on whether some of those items are superior or inferior. Certainly that is one possibility but it is also possible for two items to be unequal without one being objectively superior to the other. For others, those generally obsessed with class conflict, inequality is exactly that - a way to describe a relationship between the positive and the inferior. In this case, there must be a judgement made as to which is objectively superior and, in the best tradition of socialist dogma, this inequality is automatically bad and must be removed.
Thus it is that some people acknowledge that men and women are different - duh! - but that these differences and the way they interact add excitement and challenge to the relationship between a male and female. The fact that the two partners in a relationship are different sexes is not suggesting absolute superiority of one over the other.
For others, though, such differences are an anathema. If there is inequality, then there must be superiority and inferiority and once again, that is wrong and must be eliminated.
In the non-observant Jewish world, this limited thinking took hold long ago. The Reformers started ordaining women in the name of egalitarianism 1935 and the Conservatives joined them 50 years later. Since that time, both movements have fallen over themselves to prove how progressive they are by jettisoning any remnant of traditional Judaism they still adhered to. As a result, both groups have suffered. The Reform movement has maintained their position as the dominant Jewish so-called stream in North America by expanding their definition of "who is a Jew" to extremes where it seems having sat next to a Jewish kid in grade 2 or a particular enjoyment of matzoh ball soup constitutes adequate grounds for inclusion. The Conservatives, due to their reticence to admit they have no connection with halacha, have moved slower and as a result their numbers are openly dropping. In fact, the further they go towards changing from a Jewish movement to one based entired on secular liberal values with a sprinkling of hamantaschen, the faster their membership declines.
One would think that the Orthodox world would look at these results and nod with a certain satisfaction. Instead, there are those within this group who are actually jealous of the achievements of their non-religious "sisters" and, well I guess women can't have penis-envy for obvious reasons, wish to emulate them without dropping their Orthodox label.
Thus in recent months Rabbi Avi Weiss went ahead and, in violation of Koheles' "there is nothing new under the sun", created a new title for the Jewish world: the Maharat. Interestingly, this shows a certain indecisiveness about Rabbi Weiss. After all, if the Maharat is a female rabbi, why not just call her that? After all, a doctor is a doctor whether male or female and if it's all about the title, then why have two different ones? Was it so long ago that we were told it isn't politically correct to call women actresses anymore because the term was sexist? (Of course, although women couldn't be actors, men couldn't be actresses so I'm not sure where the sexism is)
And now comes the grand announcement that a new yeshivah is going to be opened to produce an entire generation of maharats. Isn't that just grand! Except for the obvious problems with such a thing.
First off, there's the issue of why a woman would need a title in the first place. Is it to exert authority? Is it for issues of legitimacy? If so, then that betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of what the title "rav" really stands for. A rav is a teacher. End. Stop. Dat's all folks. Yes, he generally has some authority within a community but more often than not, it's because the community has hired him for such a position. If a strange rav walks into a shul and starts ordering people around because "I'm a rabbi!" he's most likely to find himself ignored or ridiculed. There is no automatic benefit to the title. Ask the Vilna Gaon.
Secondly, why the desire for a title and position of authority? Well, Maharat Sara Hurwitz brings a disturbing proof to support the new yeshivah:
The Alshich, a Biblical commentator living in the 16th century in Safed, notes that everyone—kulchem, were standing “equally in the presence of the Lord, simultaneously.” What an idyllic image, where one’s gender or status was irrelevant; for men, women and children, old and young, rich and poor, alike were standing together, in partnership before God.
Shades of... well, Korach! What was it he said? Oh yes: "Ye take too much upon you, seeing all the congregation are holy, every one of them, and the Lord is among them; wherefore then lift ye up yourselves above the assembly of the Lord?" (Bemidar 16:3)
Further, one could ask: why is it that the posuk bothers to list all the classes of people standing before God? Why not just say "You are all standing before the Lord"? Could it be that there is relevance to these differentiations, that all these classes are in fact different?
Let's take it one step further. Start with the totally wild assumption that God knew what He was doing when He created two different sexes. In fact, the Midrash tells us that the original Adam was a double sided creation, male on one side and female on the other and that God split them in two. Did He do so because He had some spare time one day or is it possible that He felt that two separate humans, one of each kind, was the better way to go?
And if this is true, that the reason two different sexes were created was because through their unequal nature they could create a truly unique relationship? If this is not so, then why bother with two sexes? Why not a race of self-replicating hermaphrodites? It must be because two sexes is better than one.
In that case, what can one say about those whose self-declared raison d'etre is to blur those distinctions? They are working contrary to the purpose for which God created two sexes in the first place.
We see such a thing throughout halacha. We are told not to graft one species of plant onto another, not to mix seeds in a field or vineyard, even not to plough a field with two different animals at the same time. Everything must remain separate and distinct because it is through that separation and distinction that each item in creation fulfills its special role. Now we are told that an entire half of the human race, dissatisfied with its own nature, wishes to coopt the nature of the other half, to be "equal"?
As Princess Leia told Grand Moff Tarkin in Star Wars, "the more you tighten your grip, the more systems slip through your fingers." The more these left wing Morthodox types push into non-religious territory, the more they weaken their connection with the rest of the Torah community. When secular liberal values become more important than time honoured traditions, then one has a serious misunderstanding of one's "orthodox" identity. This yeshivah will simply exacerbate this problem that much more.

PR We Don't Need

As revealed by The Bray of Fundie, everyone's favourite new focus of attention, one Rabbi Raphael Bearmant, has turned out to be a fraud. Yes, the newest "Chareidi blog", one too busy spitting vitriol to make much sense, is apparently the work of a lonely but talented teenager somewhere with a wee bit too much time on his hands.
In retrospect (and I stress that hindsight is 20/20), there are some obvious clues that "Rabbi Bearmant" isn't who he claims to be.
For one, anyone as "frum" as he says he is wouldn't have a blog in the first place. Folks like that tend to avoid the internet like the plague.
Secondly, the display on his blog of "real rabbis" is a bit more sophisticated that some knuckle dragging reactionary would be likely to have up.
Third, his absolute dismissal in the most derogatory terms of two of the greatest rabbonim of the twentieth centuries, Rav Kook, zt"l, and the Rav, zt"l, are just a bit over the top. So the Satmar called Rav Kook a rasha? Funny to hear that since the Imre Emes, zt"l, and Rav Yosef Chayim Sonnenfeld, zt"l, were quite close with him, much to the consternation of the kannoim of the day. As for the Rav, wel it goes beyond bizarre to think negatively of a man who walked in circles that most gedolim today only dream of being part of.
In the end, it was a spoof although I'm not clear if it was meant to be a spoof or if this kid was actually trying to make Chareidim look bad all along.
We can all once more move along with our lives. Nothing to see here.

Guest Post - Authentic Idiocy

I put up a post a couple of days ago about this Rabbi Bearmant which quickly received a bunch of negative comments (so I'm told) and was then taken down. Izgad has since put up a post expressing views very similar to mine.

It is possible, as some commenters have claimed, that Rabbi Bearmant isn't real but is a spoof. The question to me is how many of Rabbi Bearmant's ideas are countenanced in the haredi world and indeed are not considered socially unacceptable. Are there rabbanim in yeshivas that have rabbis who accept or promulgate these ideas? Are these ideas considered off-color in said world? That's the question to me.


Monday, 7 September 2009

Do Atheists Have Morals

One of the incorrect characterizations about atheists is that they have no morals. This can easily be disproven by actually speaking to one and asking him if he does. He will quickly list a bunch of things he considers moral or the opposite and if you push him on it, he will often be quite passionate about those things and his willingness to stick by them in times of difficulty.
Why is it then that religion has always seemed to be a more verifiable source of morality than atheism? I would submit that it is because of the difference between subjective and objective value systems.
Put simply, atheists have subjective value systems. Lacking a universal standard, values they consider right and wrong are based on personal decision making. For example, murder is wrong because of the subjective view that harming another person without his consent is immoral. Same goes for theft, rape, etc. The underlying principle represents the moral position of the atheist and he darshens from that position to make decisions on whether certain actions are proper or not.
This happens on the positive side as well. Homosexual marriage, for example, is fine because it represents the opposite of the principle in the previous paragraph - it does not result in harm to another person without his consent so it's okay.
There are two problems with this moral system. First because it's subjective it is essentially random. A person who is worried about being killed will decide that murder is wrong. Instead of presenting it in that fashion, it is discussed as a value as above. However, once that some person reaches a position of power where being killed is unlikely to happen to him, his views on this might change. Murder might become okay, for example in the case of political opponents. After all, the real underlying reason no longer exists so as a result the moral reason also fades.
The second problem is that of moral relativity. If one subscribes to a subjective moral system, one cannot judge another's without being accused of something akin to valuistic imperialism. How dare I say my moral system is superior to a different one when it was also arrived at using the same basic standards of mine? Perhaps I hold with value "A" and the other person denigrates it. Since value A is moral only from my point of view, how can I criticize the other person for not agreeing with me?
It's like an atheist who says "Well I personally don't believe in God but you can if you want." Really? Think about it for a second. God isn't a colour or a type of music where multiple people have different perceptions and appreciations of the same thing. He is an objective reality. He either exists (go with this one, it's the right answer) or He doesn't. What you personally believe is irrelevant. It's like saying "Well I personally believe that there's a traffic light at the upcoming intersection." To reduce His existence to one of personal belief shows tremendous insecurity in the strength of the subjective value system.
Too many times in the history of the 20th century, humanity demonstrated the fallacy of subjective morality. Under the greatest atheistic movements ever, Nazism and Communism, morality was completely redefined. A Jew under the Nazis, y"sh, or a bourgeous under the Communists, y"sh, were devalued to the point that imprisonment and death for such people simply because of who they were and not due to any actions they may have committed was seen as moral in those systems. Yes, from the position of the secular Western moral system this was considered villiany but really, who's to say which is better?
As a professor of mine once told me when I was criticizing an aspect of culture in south Asia many years ago because it went against North American values, "there's a couple billion of them and a couple hundred million of you. Why do you think you're right?"
Abortion is another pertinent example. In Western secular morality, the woman commands complete control over her body including any fetuses that find themselves within it. Without anyone's permission, including that of the fetus (never mind the actual father who provided half the genetic material), she can choose to end her pregnancy at almost any time. Western morality has decided that the fetus is not a life, based not on any deep understanding of what life is or when it begins but on the selfish value of convenience. Thus the murder of the fetus isn't murder because Western morals say it isn't really alive.
Religion, on the other hand, provides its followers with a far different understanding of morality. As opposed to the self-generated morality of the atheist, the religious believer accepts an external code of morality as revealed by the originator of that religion. In Judaism, this is the true God and His Torah, both oral and written, which provide us with directions on how to live a life in consonance with His desires.
The main feature of this moral system is its externality. As a result of that, it demands obedience of its followers whether or not those followers are comfortable with its demands. I could really want that Big Mac but I can't have it. I could really want to watch that TV movie on Saturday afternoon. I can't watch it. I could really want to throw rocks at the cars that go by my place on Friday night and then set garbage cans alight. Sorry, not allowed.
As a result, there is in religion a definite set of "rights" and "wrongs" which are universal. Murder is wrong and it is irrelevant if I am at risk of being killed. It never changes. Theft is wrong even if the victim is filthy rich and will never realize it happened. Speaking loshon horo is wrong even if the victim never finds out about it.
Yes, horrible crimes have been committed in the name of religion but - as this is the important part - these were all examples of evil people twisting their religion in the name of their own personal agendae. Nazism and Communism were, at least in their own opinions, the ultimate expression of the atheist moral society. In other words, people who commit evil in the name of a religion are generally betraying that religion's principles. People who commit evil in the name of atheism are simply living up to that system's highest potential.
Thus atheists do have a moral system. It's just not based on anything more solid than quicksand.

Please restrict comments to those that are relevant to the post. Irrelevant or repetitive comments are not requested at this time.

Decline of the Obamanation

For some, orators who seek to create a cult of personality around themselves are a godsend. Many people out there are looking for the next secular messiah and latch on to whoever they can. Hence the enduring popularity of the foibles of the rich and stupid, even off the movie and television sets.
Hussein Obama has been no different. Emerging from nowhere, not even having completely a full term as senator he appeared on the national and international state with an incredible self-assuredness. Forget Hillary Clintons famous "Well I can't think of anyone who'd make a better president than me" declaration. Obama knew he was meant to be president and that confidence was infectious to his supporters. How else to explain how a man who may not have been born in the United States, who never worked in a real job in his life, who hung around with discontented radicals and was the congregant of a racist preacher could vault from nowhere to the Oval Office in almost no time at all? "We are the change we seek!" How many people ever stopped to ask "What the hell does that really mean?"
Unfortunately, Spock already noted what will be the ultimate cause of Obama's downfall: Having is not as pleasurable as wanting. Obama was energized when he wanted to be president and now he has to deal with the lack of excitement actually running the country entails. His supporters were excited when he was on the campaign trail but now that they're getting a chance to see what a dud he's turned out to be, other than pitiful syncophants who will defend him even if he orders the army to nuke Israel, they're starting to lose the faith.
Much to the glee/dismay of those still paying attention, his poll numbers have fallen faster than any president except Gerald Ford, and Ford could pin the blame on his pardening of Richard Nixon. Obama, on the other hand, has stumbled back and forth once he realized that just because he's the president doesn't mean he can wave his hand and make people do what he wants. Health care, the stimulus plan that worked like 5 year old Viagra, and his grovelling to the Muslim world while attacking Israel, all these idiocies have combined to bring his popularity ratings to within striking range of {gasp} Bush II's.
Now, the mark of any good demagogue is to notice that one isn't doing so well in the polls and that one's plans aren't foundering and to immediately blame someone, anyone else. Thus repeated statements about how the mess Bush II left him, the repeated accusations that Israel alone is responsible for all that is wrong in the Middle East and the smear tactics against his political opponents despite having campaigned on a platform of changing how politics would work. It's not his fault he's unpopular. If his enemies weren't in the way, he'd have 95% approval (and those 5% are all disgruntled old white folk so they don't count).
Thus his latest idea, beaming his face into every classroom in the U.S. on opening day. Of course it makes sense to him. Convinced beyond argument that he's the most amazing guy in the world, he cannot understand why eveyr school child wouldn't be inspired to see and hear him all at once. For others, it's a little more concerning, a possible prelude to the creation of a low-level cult of personality. As Mark Steyn notes:
The Omnipresent Leader has traditionally been a characteristic feature of Third World basket-case dumps: the conflation of the man and the state is explicit, and ubiquitous. In 2003, motoring around western Iraq a few weeks after the regime's fall, when the schoolhouses were hastily taking down the huge portraits of Saddam that had hung on every classroom wall, I visited an elementary-school principal with a huge stack of suddenly empty picture frames piled up on his desk, and nothing to put in them. The education system's standard first-grade reader featured a couple of kids called Hassan and Amal — a kind of Iraqi Dick and Jane — proudly holding up their portraits of the great man and explaining the benefits of an Iraqi education:
"O come, Hassan," says Amal. "Let us chant for the homeland and use our pens to write, 'Our beloved Saddam.'"
"I come, Amal," says Hassan. "I come in a hurry to chant, 'O, Saddam, our courageous president, we are all soldiers defending the borders for you, carrying weapons and marching to success.'"
Pathetic, right?
On Friday, Aug. 28, the principal of Eagle Bay Elementary School in Farmington, Utah — in the name of "education" — showed her young charges the "Obama Pledge" video released at the time of the inauguration, in which Ashton Kutcher and various other big-time celebrities, two or three of whom you might even recognize, "pledge to be a servant to our president and to all mankind because together we can, together we are, and together we will be the change that we seek."
Altogether now! Let us chant for mankind and use our pens to write, "O beloved Obama, our courageous president, we are all servants defending the hope for you and marching to change."
And, unlike Saddam's Iraq, we don't have the mitigating condition of being a one-man psycho state invented by the British Colonial Office after lunch on a wet afternoon in 1922.
Any self-respecting schoolkid, enjoined by his principal to be a "servant" to the head of state, would reply, "Get lost, creep." And, if they still taught history in American schools, he'd add, "Oh, and by the way, that question was settled in 1776."
To accompany President Obama's classroom speech this week, the White House and America's "educators" drafted some accompanying study materials. Children would be invited to write letters to themselves saying what they could do to "help the president."
My suggestion: "Not tell people what I really think about his lousy health care plan."
Well, after the unwelcome media attention, that exercise was hastily dropped.
For the rest of us, the president does not yet require a written test from grown-ups after his speeches, but it's surely only a matter of time. The New York Times managed to miss my point: Far from "accusing" the president of "trying to create a cult of personality," I spent much of my airtime on Rush's show last week "accusing" the president of doing an amazing job of finishing off his own cult of personality in record time. Obama's given 111 speeches, interviews and press conferences in which he's talked about health care, and the more he opens his mouth the more the American people recoil from his "reforms." Now he's giving a 112th — to a joint session of Congress — and this one, we're assured, will finally do the trick. That brand new Chevy may be rusting and up on bricks by the time he seals the deal but America's Auto Salesman-in-Chief will get you to sign in the end.
The president has made the mistake of believing his own publicity — or, at any rate, his own mainstream media coverage, which is pretty much the same thing. They told him he was the greatest orator since Socrates, but, alas, even Socrates would have difficulty playing six sets a night every Open Mike Night at the Soaring Rhetoric Lounge out on Route 127. Even Ashton Kutcher's charms would wane by the 112th speech.

The disconnect has grown. The more Obama feels the love for himself, the more he turns others off. And the more his poll numbers (inexplicably, as least to him) drop, the more he'll try to win others over, not always with the most upright of strategies.
The one benefit of this is for Israel. Amongst other things, Obama has decided he will be the president who ends the unending conflict in the MiddleEast, even if he has to place all the blame and pressure on the less-guilty side of the conflict. But as things fall apart for him at home he'll have less time and moral authority to meddle abroad. As Bush II discovered after Iraq went sour, if your own people no longer follow you, why should anyone else listen?

The Israel Diaspora Divide

Once upon a time there were close ties between world Jewry, especially in America, and the community in Israel. Back in those days there was still a strong feeling of brotherhood between the two poles of our people. You watched on the television news and saw fellow Jews.

It's no secret that those days are long gone. As Rav Yonasan Rosenblum has noted on various occasions, for the non-religious American Jew Israel is not the main priority in their life when it comes to voting or giving tzedakah. However, not everyone understands the underlying reason for this divide.

Some, like Yizhar Hess, would like to blame it on religious discrimination. Yes, as usual it's all the fault of those nasssssty Orthodox types and their famed intolerance. As he claims in this editorial:

Minister Yakov Margi (Shas) recently made the following declaration: “If the Reform and Conservative Jews in Israel want synagogues or mikvehs, they should build them with their own money. They won’t get a penny from the State.”
Let’s not get into ideology and talk numbers instead. Most Jews in the world are Reform and Conservative. The Orthodox are a minority, even in Israel (Only 20% of the Israeli public defines itself as Orthodox.) North American Jewry, whose relationship with us is a strategic asset, comprises these denominations almost entirely.
At this time already, among other reasons because of this systematic discrimination, American Jews are slowly losing interest in the State of Israel. Because if Israel rejects their Jewishness, why should they feel any sympathy for or attachment to it?
In this respect, Shas’ Minister of religious affairs is a strategic threat to the State of Israel; no less.
In democratic terms, Margi’s chutzpah is simply outrageous. The Religious Affairs Ministry is being managed like the last remnant of the 1950s, with the minister enjoying budgetary freedom that no other minister enjoys. Under such circumstances, it is difficult to blame Shas for doing almost anything to secure this perk-rich ministry.

Unfortunatley Hess' argument is weak and his piece is inconsistent. First, the inconsistency. Despite opening with a plea "Let's not get into ideology" he does just that near the end:

Margi outdid himself by referring to Mikvehs of all things. We, members of the Conservative Movement, have no need for our own Mikvehs. We’ll be happy to use the public ones – some of them truly luxurious – built and renovated by the State. However, Jews who are not Orthodox are banned from entering them. Yes, it’s as terrible as it sounds.
When a bride is interested in going to the mikveh ahead of her wedding, and it turns out that the rabbi at the ceremony is Conservative, she is thrown out in a humiliating fashion. And you don’t want to hear how many times Conservative converts were humiliated to the point of tears or blows.

First, he puts out a lie: non-Orthodox Jews are not banned from entering mikvaos. Non-Orthodox rabbis with their invented ceremonies that are pale imitations of the proper halachic ones find they will have problems, true, but one can hardly be surprised by that. Imagine you're the local Orthodox rav running the mikveh and a female conversion candidate, escorted by her female rabbi, show up and announce they need the mikveh for conversion so that she can marry the Jewish boyfriend she's been living common-law with. Exactly how should the rav respond? With a smile and a wave?

And no, I don't want to hear how many times Conservative converts were humiliated. Suffice it to say that any rav who treats someone in that fashion, Jew or non-Jew, is commiting an unforgiveable chilul HaShem. As Chazal note in numerous places, one who shames his fellow in public is likened to a murderer, to the point that many poskim hold that publicly humiliating someone is the unofficial fourth yehared v'al ya'avor after murder, incest and listening to Barry Mani... I mean avodah zarah.

However, the unacceptable behaviour of a few bad rabbonim does not change the rules and in Israel the rules are that state instutions like mikva'os are run al pi halacha. Halacha does not take time off when non-halachic Jews show up and decide they want to use the facility.

In addition, the idea that Conservative Jews are losing interest in Israel because they supposedly can't use mikva'os there is a weak argument. How many Conservatives use a mikveh at all? I'm certain that one can count on two hands the number of men who use it on a regular basis. I'm certain there are many women that do but the overwhelming majority of them don't. Access to a mikveh is not a defining issue for Conservatives.

The real reason Conservative, Reform and other non-religious Jews are losing interest in Israel is because interest in Israel is, for the Jewish neshama not a political emotion but a religious one. A Jew who has a connection with Torah feels a connection with Israel. One who has lost a connection with Torah may feel some sense of connection with our Holy Land but it is in many ways a different one. It may be due to nationalistic pride or some sense of brotherhood but it lacks the deep spiritual content that the Torah-based viewpoint provides it. As Rav Kook notes in Oros, God, Israel and Torah are one. You cannot have two of the three and feel the same way.

For the average non-religious American Jew, abortion rights, unions, the economy and global warming are far more important issues to deal with because, since they are generally American first, they embrace American values and concerns. This is the real reason for the divide. No longer do most American Jews watch the evening news and say "those are my brothers". Now they say "those are Israelis" and they are Americans. That's the divide.

Friday, 4 September 2009

An Anti-Semite By Any Other Name

For Canadian Jews, Canada has been a malchus shel chesed for the last fifty years or so. Jews have been treated as full and equal citizens since the early 1960's and have served in prominent private and public positions throughout the country and otherwise fully participated in Canadian life. Unlike our European and South American brethren, our synagogues and community centres are not fortified buildings with high tech security. We are able to educate our children as we see fit and worship as we want. Holocaust denial is a de facto crime. Best of all, the current prime minister is vocally pro-Israel, a welcome change from generations of leaders who were concerned about moral equivalence when it came to matters in the Middle East.

But beneath the glossy veneer, there is still the ugly phenomenon of anti-Semitism. Many times it lurks quietly and out of sight. Other times it forces itself into full public view. This has happened once again with the imminent Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF).

Despite being a cultural backwater (beer, hockey, moose 'n' beavers, eh?) there are some amazing cultural events in Canada, prime amongst them the TIFF. Rivalled the Cannes festival for size and importance, it's a great chance each year to wander through downtown Toronto in the hopes of catching a glimpse of someone famous or seeing an artsy film that probably will never be released commercially.

This year the TIFF went further and decided to try a new concept, that of featuring a particular international city. Their choice was Tel Aviv due to that city celebrating its 100th anniversary. Tel Aviv and Toronto have a lot in common. Both are home to people from all over the world, both are cosmopolitan and liberal cities that act as the commercial and financial centres of their countries. It would seem a natural fit.

Unfortunately in the eyes of the so-called progressive and enlightened glitterati, this honour is the equivalent of a war crime:

The signatories of a new letter accusing the Toronto International Film Festival of becoming "complicit in the Israeli propaganda machine" run the gamut from an Oscar-winning actress to a rabble-rousing author to a Talking Head.
More than 50 people have added their name to what's being called The Toronto Declaration, including musician David Byrne, actors Danny Glover and Jane Fonda, and author Alice Walker.
The letter, drafted by a committee that includes Canadian writer Naomi Klein and Israeli filmmaker Udi Aloni, is the latest move in a controversy that began when Canadian director John Greyson withdrew his short documentary, Covered, from the festival last week. The veteran filmmaker is protesting the festival's inaugural City to City Spotlight on Tel Aviv, a 10-movie program that TIFF's website promises will "explore the evolving urban experience while presenting the best documentary and fiction films from and about a selected city." This year is Tel Aviv's 100th anniversary.
Greyson penned an open letter to festival co-directors Piers Handling and Cameron Bailey, as well as to Noah Cowan, artistic director of the under-construction Bell Lightbox, blasting the initiative.
The declaration states that while the signatories are not protesting the individual filmmakers participating in the program and do not seek to exclude Israeli films from the festival, "in the wake of this year's brutal assault on Gaza, we object to the use of such an important international festival in staging a propaganda campaign on behalf of what South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu, former U.S. president Jimmy Carter and UN General Assembly President Miguel d'Escoto Brockmann have all characterized as an apartheid regime."

One of the blessings I, along with my contemporaries, have received from God is to live without fear of being a Jew. Being made to feel like "the other", being in fear of getting attacked on the street without recourse to protection from the law, being discriminated and told I cannot do something because I am a Jew, all these are things I have no experience with. Unlike my parents who grew up in such an environment, I have a sense of security when I walk down the street with my kippah in full view.

Yet around me are people whose attitudes hearken back to those of the bad ol' days of yore. Yees, yes, they say they have no problem with Jews, only with Israel. In fact, they have lots of Jewish friends who are also (strictly coincidental) anti-Israel. Therefore they are not anti-Semites.

I wonder though. If the TIFF had chosen to honour Beijing (China occupies Tibet) or Moscow (Russia occupies Ossetia and Chechnya), would Danny Glover, Hanoi Jane and John Greyson have had such a problem? Would filmmakers be withdrawing their films in protest? Would a single Hollywood celebrity have signed a petition if an actual tyranny had been honoured instead of the only democracy in the Middle East and the only one in which the preferred company of this crowd - socialist fanatics and radical homosexuals - are able to openly express their views without fear of being lynched?

Somehow I doubt it. Their concern is with Israel and Israel alone. For Darfur they'll give lip service. For the Congo, they'll say they're concerns. But for a terrorist nation that is trying to destroy Israel? For that they'll sign petitions and make sure everyone knows!

As producer Simcha Jacobovici notes:

"Frankly, I think there's no other word but anti-Semitism. I don't know if they're doing it consciously or unconsciously, I want to make that clear, but the idea that anything that Israel does is by definition illegitimate, and anything that the other side does is by definition legitimate, what do you call that?"

This is Jew-hatred, plain and simple. The only way to deal with it is to aggresively refute the lies they continue to cloak themselves with. These people are anti-Semites and do not deserve the civilized appearance that society continues to give them.

Another Elul Thought

One of the hardest, if not the hardest, words to say is "sorry". Oh yeah, I know we all say it but have you ever noticed how it always comes with a caveat? "Sorry, but..." or "Well I'm sorry but..." and so on. Just plain "sorry" is very rare to hear.
Years ago I performed an urgent procedure on a patient in an emergency room with a temporary sedative that I had used many times before without incident. This sedative has a 1 in 10000 risk of a bad side effect that is completely unpredictable. That night, out of the blue the side effect happened. Despite my best efforts the patient wound up in the ICU. Fortunately she made a good recovery.
Now, after the initial crisis was over, I had to meet with the family, the same one which had been told "Don't worry, she'll be out for 5 minutes, it's a safe procedure"! I sat down with them, explained to them every step of what had happened and concluded with "I'm sorry". No caveat, no "Well, how was I supposed to know it was going to happen!" or anything like that.
The family then went home and did an internet search on the drug I used. They discovered a webpage where it was written that the sedative I chose was not to used in patients of the age their relative was. When they discovered this, they lodged a complaint with the hospital. Naturally the ER administrator held a brief investigation and inquired as to why I had chosen that drug. I did a literature search and presented him with three recent papers that conclusively proved that the contraindication was based on theoretical concern and that, in fact, there is plenty of evidence that the drug is completely safe for the type of patient I used it on. The administrator accepted this and closed the case but asked me to write a letter of explanation to the family to seal matters.
Naturally I did, but at no point did I mention my literature search or its conclusions. What would have been the point? Imagine you're the angry family member. You're still grieving over the near-loss of a relative and suddenly you get a letter from the doctor you hold responsible saying "Hey, sorry about what happened but here's proof it ain't my fault!" Exactly what kind of reaction would that elicit?
Instead I simply wrote that I was sorry, that my thoughts were with the patient for a good recovery and that had I known the complication would have happened, I would have chosen an alternative therapy.
Fortunately the family was happy with that and most importantly, the patient made a good recovery.
This is very relevant to Elul and the upcoming holidays. Too often in life we are confronted with mistakes we have made and develop an irresistable urge to defend ourselves from criticism, the "Sorry but..." reflex. Sometimes this works but what does that say about us? We don't like being criticized. We don't like thinking of our personal imperfections and the consequences they cause others. We are prepared to shield ourselves as much as possible from the fallout, no matter how much twisting it takes.
But this doesn't work when confronting God. With other people, our excuses might be accepted. God knows what is in the depth of our hearts and our true intentions. There are no excuses before Him. "Sorry but..." carries no currency with the Heavenly court. How could it?
How many times does a person do something he knows is questionable but justifies it to his neshamah with some vague excuse or "I heard there was a heter". How many times do we know we've done something wrong, perhaps loshon horo or a lefnei iver. Yet we don't own up to it. We justify it to avoid the feeling that we've sinned. But the Heavenly Court knows the truth.
In Mas. Berachos we are told that when Rabban Yochana ben Zakkai was dying his students asked him for a blessing. His response was: "May you fear God as much as you fear man." "Not more?" the students asked. "When a person commits a sin he always looks around to make sure no one saw him but God sees everything yet people do not hesitate to sin in front of him" was the reply.
If this is true, that we fear man more than God, then this can be the valuable lesson for Elul. First, accept that there is no bargaining before God. If we have sinner, we must say "sorry" with an stipulations, excuses or conditions. This requires an honest chesbon hanefesh which is very hard to do. Having done that, we must now follow through to the logical conclusion. If before God I am able to say "sorry" then I must also muster the strength to say "sorry" without hesitation before any people I have also offended.

Therefore I hereby apologize to any whom I have hurt through word or deed in this past year and in turn I grant forgiveness without qualification to those who have offended me. Let us all endeavour to put our negative feelings behind us during this final stretch to Rosh HaShanah and enter the new year a little closer to the ideal God has set for us.

Heard in the Office Yesterday

Me: Hi Ms. Jones. So did you try that new medications I prescribed for you last month?

Her: To tell you the truth, Lord Ironheart, no I didn't.

Me: Okay, well I appreciate you telling me but may I ask why?

Her: You gave me the wrong pill.

Me: Excuse me?

Her: The wrong pill, Lord Ironheart.

Me: Um, okay... how did you come to that conclusion?

Her: My friend Gladys, she has the same problem I do and her doctor gave her a blue pill.

Me: Oh, and the one I gave you was...

Her: Green.

Me: Ah.

Tuesday, 1 September 2009

A Supporting Word

(Thanks to CJ Srullowitz for the hat tip)

One of the recurring forms of criticism of the Chareidi world is that they do not sufficiently condemn the savages in frum clothing that are currently running riot in our holy Yerushalayim. However, as opposed to the craven apologetics of some folks, it is possible to find Orthodox voices community that are sick and tired of what's going on there. One of these voices is Rav Steven Pruzansky who, in his latest blog piece, not only unequivocally notes his disgust with the protestors but also explains how this sad situation has come about.
What I like best about the piece, however, is how is parallels my recent post on picking and choosing. It's always nice to know that someone else is thinking along the same lines as me (although Rav Pruzanky might not be so happy to discover that!):
Where a simple outsider sees “piety,” a more astute observer sees scrupulous observance of some Mitzvot and a wholesale disregard of others. The standard accusation against more modern Jews – that they “pick and choose” the mitzvot that suit them –applies with equal cogency to them: they may dress modestly, but many are public charges – violating the Talmudic mandate that one should “rather treat his Shabbat like a weekday than become dependent on public support.” They dutifully rest on Shabbat but treat its corollary – to “work for six days” – with disdain. They are close-knit but only within a narrowly-drawn circle; the concerns of other Jews, and love of other Jews, are not always readily apparent. If it were otherwise, they would not attempt to propagate their views by inconveniencing others, who are unsure of and uninterested in whatever point they are really making. Their study of Torah and observance of mitzvot are often punctuated by superstitions and irrational behavior that have no place among Torah Jews, including but not limited to fetishizing certain forms of dress. They can adopt every minority opinion – every stringency – except in the areas of Kavod habriyot, Ahavat Yisrael (respect for the dignity of others and the love of Jews), and several others as well.
Their attempt in that small enclave to re-create the European shtetl has succeeded, at least to the extent that they have duplicated the grinding poverty that typified European Jews when we ignore the mythology and the nostalgia. And it is poverty that – just like in Europe – has no escape, as the educational constraints they place on themselves deprive them of any realistic opportunity to better themselves economically. And, as I see it, that is the primary source of their discontent – not the secularism, the immodesty, the Zionism that surrounds them – but the happiness, the satisfaction, and the contentment that so many others derive out of life – especially the Torah life – that they are denied. Unable to contribute or even to discourse with others, their sole recourse is to stones, imprecations, and blockades. How sad… To be given an opportunity to re-create a fully-Jewish life in a land of Israel under Jewish sovereignty, and instead to squander it – in the process, antagonizing even other Torah Jews. Many are misguided, and to a great extent, misled by their leaders. And I am unaware of even one Jew who performed even one mitzva or avoided one sin as a consequences of a stone being hurled his way.

As I noted before, it's Elul. Yes, we all pick and choose but perhaps the first step towards genuine teshuvah is recognizing that and admitting our short comings with a resolution to try and do less of that in the coming year. Perhaps we cannot stop the chilul HaShem these primitives are committing for the world to see but in our personal lives we can still endeavour to commit as many acts of kiddush Hashem as we can to counteract them.