Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Wednesday 28 October 2009

The Real Problem With University

A recent article in the Jewish Star making its way around the blogsphere has aroused the ire and scorn of the anti-religious crowd. The article tries to make the point that secular colleges/universities are dangerous places for frum kids and that parents should think very carefully before sending their children to one because doing so means gambling with the strong possibility that said children will leave the derech:
What about kashrut? Shabbat? Sure, it might be challenging for him to deal with religious observance over the summer. But that’s what real life is about, isn’t it? But then your rabbi confronts you with a troubling statistic: 25 percent of all Orthodox attendees to the summer program drop their Orthodoxy. Despite your skepticism, the rabbi shows you the surveys and it’s true: one-quarter of all Orthodox camp participants abandon Orthodox practice.
Would you encourage your son to go? It’s my article so I can say it: I wouldn’t. After spending so much time, effort, blood, sweat, tears and money on conveying the importance of Jewish life to my children, how could I risk it all on one summer — no matter how enriching it may be?
If you haven’t realized it by now, I’m not writing about a summer program. No, I’m writing about attending secular college.
In a fascinating symposium published in a special education issue of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah’s Meorot Journal, Rabbi Todd Berman writes about preparing students to thrive in non-Orthodox environments, specifically secular colleges. His essay focuses on important ways to mitigate the effects of the pressures to abandon religious life on campus, like sending educators from high schools to visit kids on campus; helping students form critical social bonds within the Orthodox groups on campus; and offering valuable courses both in high school and in Israel to help prepare them for college life
All of these represent good ways to help our kids retain their connection to Orthodoxy on the college campus. And yet, I wonder. Rabbi Berman himself states the numbing numbers: “one-quarter of the students who come to college as Orthodox Jews…changed their denominational identity while at college.” (Avi Chai Foundation, “Particularism in the University: Realities and Opportunities for Jewish Life on Campus,” Report, Jan. 2006)
That’s right. One quarter. If twenty students graduated this past June from your local yeshiva high school and headed off to campus, five of them won’t consider themselves Orthodox in four years — after a full twelve years of intensive Orthodox education. What causes this drop off? It’s not the intellectual pressures, by and large. No, it’s the social environment.
The campus culture, while ostensibly “celebrating pluralism,” often lacks tolerance for what is seen as xenophobic tribalism. Orthodox students are sometimes made to feel odd for maintaining religious observance at the expense of partaking fully in the smorgasbord of offered cultural delicacies.

Now for a clarification. Being up in Canada, the words "university" and "college" have different meanings than they do state side. Up here, university is what Americans call university and college. These are the liberal arts schools with the big campuses, tons of degrees and professional degree programs. What we call college is what are called trade schools or technical colleges in America. I will be using the Canadian defitions so I hope no one gets too confused.
Having attended two major Canadian universities, including one world-renowned for its parties and the physical qualities of its female students, I have had a great deal of opportunity to observe and participate in university life. After thinking long and hard, it is my conclusion that university is dangerous for frum kids. However, I think it's also dangerous for almost every other kind of kid out there.
Remember that historically universities in Europe were for the children of the rich. These were the students who could afford to spend years learning the arts, English literature, basket weaving, etc. without having to worry about every getting a job because their parents were either nobility, successful merchants or landowers. They would be inheriting the family estate without a need to do anything for themselves.
In North America the democratization of university has meant that a "higher" education is available to a large number of people. No longer do only the bluebloods of society get a chance to learn Shakespeare in the original Klingon. As a result, a liberal arts education is an achievable goal for many. There's only one real problem with this. A liberal arts education is useless.
Think about it. You send your child to university. You pay tens of thousands of dollars in tuition, residency, food and beer fees. Three years later your child comes home (hopefully) with a baccalaureate in English or some other soft subject. Very nice. Now the next day you start asking the hard questions. Have you found a job? Tens of thousands of dollars later, what exactly are you qualified to do? Other than a politically correct, leftist attitude, what do you really have to show for the last three years? The answers, in order, are: No, nothing, a piece of paper in a frame.
Am I dismissing the importance of a liberal arts education? Not at all, although again I must ask about how thirteen years in the general school system failed to provide one. What am I pointing out is that, other than those who choose "welfare recipient" as their career path, at some point the average post-high school person must consider what they are going to do for the rest of their lives. Contemplation of one's navel, an appreciation of the finer points of abstract art and knowing the difference between a trombone and a clarinet all make one far more interesting but they do not pay the bills. This former university student is statistically likely to get married/common lawed and eventually produce 1.9 children. How exactly does he expect to pay for the expenses these life events incur? For the average graduate of a liberal arts university, the degree is of no use at all.
In fact, about the only students who benefit from university are those with higher ambitions like engineering, medical or dental school. For them university is means to an end. The degree is what gets them to their next level which is what gets them into a career. These students are in the minority in two places. The first is on campus because, like I've noted, most people are there just to be there without a clue as to what they are going to do for the rest of their lives. The other place is at the parties.
See, the big difference between the average student and the goal-directed one is what each does with their free time. I clearly remember the difference from my undergrad time. The kids who had no goals other than walking up and breathing on a daily basis were endlessly partying. The goal-directed group, of which I was an active member, were in the library studying because our marks actually mattered.
(My favourite memory of this was when I compared exam mark goals with a friend. We both had "the magic minimum", the grade on the final that would get us the mark in the course we needed. His magic minimum would get him a 61% in the course. Mine was for 90%)
Thus many of the concerned mentioned in the linked article failed to materialize for me while I was on campus. I didn't participate in campus protests, mixers or parties. I didn't have the time! And, in retrospect, I missed little. Those who partied the hardest in first year generally didn't survive the fall mid-terms and most of the rest disappeared after first year. They'll always savour those graet memories as they ask you if you want fries with your order.
What this means is simple: if you're going to invest the money and time into an undergraduate education, make sure it's leading somewhere. Otherwise you're throwing your money into a sinkhole. This is the same no matter one's level of religion.
But that's all a digression from the main point of the linked article, that the social environment is inimacal to the religious Jew:
That’s right. One quarter. If twenty students graduated this past June from your local yeshiva high school and headed off to campus, five of them won’t consider themselves Orthodox in four years — after a full twelve years of intensive Orthodox education. What causes this drop off? It’s not the intellectual pressures, by and large. No, it’s the social environment.
The campus culture, while ostensibly “celebrating pluralism,” often lacks tolerance for what is seen as xenophobic tribalism. Orthodox students are sometimes made to feel odd for maintaining religious observance at the expense of partaking fully in the smorgasbord of offered cultural delicacies.
However, both of these issues, while not insignificant, pale in comparison to the social pressures and realities of campus life. As one junior put it, “it is hard to be ‘shomer negi`ah’ when a girl sits down on your lap during orientation.” From the promiscuous parties sponsored by the university to the open support of binge drinking, to the small things like the experience of living in an openly coed dormitory, students are made to feel, as one student told me, odd for not being sexually and socially active. A former student once remarked that just as the State of Israel lowered the red line on the Kinneret Sea, pretending that the water level had not yet declined to the danger zone, so do students redraw their own red lines, or even worse, forget why they were there in the first place. It is quite difficult to describe the tsunami of social-sexual pressure crashing down on the religiously oriented student. These social pressures, and not the academic or even the cultural, are the most difficult to withstand.

I would agree that these are definite concerns. After hours life in most campuses is a cesspool of casual sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll. Only the most idiotic would see such a lifestyle as having any redeeming qualities but the author of the article is correct that there is tremendous social pressure to participate. No one wants to be a wet blanket, the guy who stayed in his room to study while everyone else was getting lathered up. Yes, a frum student would be under tremendous pressure to conform.
But this is where another factor comes into play. What kind of home did the student come from? Generally frum kids are raised in one of two fashions. The first kind lives in a home where everyone is "doing Jewish". The second comes from a background where "being Jewish" matters.
What's the difference? In homes where people "do" Jewish, there is a greater fear that the children would lose connection to Torah and mitzvos when off at university. After all, one tends to do whatever is normal in one's domicile. At home therefore the children did Jewish things because that's what you do at home. In residence the children might instead easily be swayed into doing hedonistic things because that's what one does in residence.
however, the homes where people "are" Jewish are in a far different position. If a child has a positive sense of his Torah observance, if he is doing what he does not simply because that's what he's always done but because his actions are a positive choice based on a proper acceptance of Ol Malchus Shamayim then the danger of university is much less.
If one has a sense of dignity, a place in the unbroken tradition from Har Sinai on down, why would such a person agree to debase themselves for a momentary thrill? If one was raised to make valid moral choices, how could the drunken screaming of literary white trash affect that? These children are far less of a dangerous position because they have a preceding commitment to any lifestyle university might want to offer them.
Perhaps this is one reason the Chareidi community is generally so afraid of university settings. Having raised their children in a spiritual ghetto, having avoided confrontation with the outside world for fear of not being able to master its challenges, their children are in no position to do so when placed in a secular environment. But where has this lead to? Poverty, dependency and a sense of futility for hundreds of thousands of their members.
Despite the futile gesticulations of the skeptics, Judaism has answers to all challenges the modern world throws at it. A proper Jewish child is one who is educated to be prepared for those challenges and how feels self-confident in their Judaism as a positive choice, not something they simply grew up with. It is in this way we should be educating our children so they can achieve their dreams without compromising on their observance.

Sunday 25 October 2009

Nationality vs Identity

One of the interesting developments of secular society in Israel is to create a new identity for the non-religious Jews in the country. Whereas since time immemorial what being Jewish meant and what a Jewish identity was were well defined, since the creation of an official secular Jewish society, all sorts of new ideas have come into existence.
For years, the chilonim would even try to identify themselves as Israelis, not Jews. When I was a student at the University of Toronto, they even insisted on having a group separate from the Jewish Students' Association because the idea of hanging around with us, even the non-religious ones, didn't hold any appeal for them. There were Israelis and we were Canadians. There was no sense of connect.
After Intifada II, a lot of that seemed to change. For one thing, the idea of the Arabs in Israel feeling strongly about the country and putting their loyalty to it above their feelings of belonging to the enemies across the Green Line died with the conflict. They became "Palestinians" first and always (although they insisted they had no interest in actually moving to a future Palestine. Odd that...) Secular Israelis were left noticing an uncomfortable fact: the only people in the country left identifying as Israelis were the Jews so, like before 1948, the notion of the Israeli started to fade and they became Jews again.
Unfortunately decades of living under the assumption of an artificial identity has left them with no idea about what a Jew is. Thus they have come forward and simply taken those values and definitions from their secular Israeli identity and tried to create, like their secular Zionist forbears, the concept of the "new Jew", one who is proudly Jewish but without endorsing anything that remotely resembles Judaism.
Naturally this has been a problem since 15% of the country continues to display their Jewish behaviour and insist that the classic definition is the only definition. And, in opposition to the secular majority, they are correct.
The definition of a Jew is not something that has been vague over the centuries, thus malleable and available to any and all for manipulation. Despite the impression many have that Judaism is a religion, it is actually a nationality and like any other nationality in the world, there are criteria for membership. In the case of Judaism one is a Jew either through birth to a Jewish mother or conversion al pi halacha. This is a rather simple thing to understand.
Unfortunately it has a bothersome implication. As God has no police (despite what some idiots might think) there is no enforcement in This World of halacha. A Jew can freely eat bacon and desecrate the Shabbos without obvious consequences. Further, actions such as this do not threaten a Jew's citizenship in the Jewish nation (converts excepted in certain cases). Just as an American can endorce communism or commit murder (I'm not sure which is worse) but remain an American, so a Jew can violate all the tenets of the Torah yet he remains a Jew.
However, one of the trends of Western society over the last century has been a trend to avoid consequences of one's actions. Over the last few decades this desire for a lack of responsibility has led to a "I'm the real victim" culture. No one commits a misdemeanour and admits "Yeah, I done bad". Instead there are all sorts of justifications or and insistence that society is really at fault.
Jews have not been exempt from this faulty thinking process. As a result, we don't hear about non-religious Jews violating halacha. Instead they call themselves Reformative or secular and announce that the Shulchan Aruch simply doesn't apply to them! They're not bad. They're non-Orthodox.
And so their struggle goes on to discover some identity they can call their own:
On Tuesday the second Israeli Presidential Conference organized by President Peres will begin, one of the topics on the agenda being Jewish identity. I spoke to Prof. Gavison, who was asked to write a position paper ahead of the conference, on the subject. In the paper, Gavison discusses the question of Jewish identity, the nature of Judaism in the present day and the extent of its importance for the existence of the Jewish people, while debating fundamental dilemmas which define the Jewish identity, including the role of religion in shaping Jewish identity, the State's role and even the role of the Holocaust.
Aside from being a legalist of the highest order and one of the leading Israeli public figures on matters of law ethics, the court's role and more (and also my teacher in the Hebrew University's Faculty of Law over a decade ago..), in recent years Gavison has been addressing the issue of the line between state and religion, among others, in the framework of the Gavison-Medan covenant, the editing of Haim Cohen's book on who is a Jew, and more.
I asked her whether she thinks there is such a thing as a Jewish secular identity. She replied an unequivocal yes, but added that it is not a coherent or stable identity and more importantly isn't passed on to future generations in an orderly way.
She believes that the secular society needs to put in great effort into dealing with these questions – how does one form this identity? How does one impart it to future generations? How does one make it dynamic, evolving and relevant?
There is no solution, she says, but to acknowledge the fact that Judaism is a religion + culture + civilization and that, for the sake of the argument, we need to neutralize the element of God from it and in fact develop the cultural aspect - yes, it is possible to disregard the Godly aspect in the bible on the sublime-religious context and remain with the literary, moral, principled, legal, level. This also applies to the Talmud, the answers and questions literature and the entire Jewish religious world.
Obviously the term "to neutralize the God element" bothers me as a religious person, but neither I nor the likes of me are at the center of the issue, and in this context it is also obvious to me that she is right. Didn't the founding fathers of Zionism and the new "Israeliness" do just that – Jabotinsky, Ben Gurion, Brenner and others? Where have they failed? In imparting it onwards.
Today, those figures' third generation has no knowledge and awareness but it does know, as Prof. Gavison said, that "they threw the baby out with the bathwater." When they wanted to eliminate God, pardon me, they eliminated everything and were left without an alternative in the Jewish context.
Therefore, in order to sustain the Jewish-particular identity, alongside a cosmopolitan, democratic and humanist identity, it takes thorough and profound work common to seculars and religious alike who need to understand that our togetherness here cannot be dictated by one side or one opinion.
The conversation with Prof. Gavison dealt with much more that what has been described, it was rich and fascinating and left me with many open questions. I am glad to be part of a community which deals with these questions so intensely and holds deep, piercing and times painful and extremely controversial discussions on it. But as we in our community - on the "micro" level, like Prof. Gavison and the organizers of the Presidential conference - on the "macro" level, believe: We don't have, nor does the Israeli society as a whole has, the privilege of not discussing it, because it concerns us directly.

Professor Gaviscon may be a fine legal mind but her understanding of Judaism is critically faulty. Judaism is the nationality of the av nivchar, the people chosen by God to spread the message of His Torah to this world. One can certainly try to create a secular culture based on felafel and matzoh balls but this is not Judaism and it is dishonest to call it that, no matter how many adjectives you put in front of it.
People need to take an honest stock of themselves. No one is forcing them to observe God's law and if they wish to they are free in This World to avoid their obligations. Inventing ways of denying that this behaviour does not affect their quality of Judaism is a lie.

Friday 23 October 2009

Baruch's Big Interview

Baruch Pelta, who guest-posts here every so often, has an excellent interview with Professor Lawrence Kaplan on the concept of Daas Torah. I highly recommend it.

A Tool in the Hands of the User

Warning: Any idiotic comments about the alleged historical problems with the story of Noach and the flood and/or with repetitive and false claims about how the Torah was copied from other cultures will be deleted. Thank you.

"And Noah the husbandman began, and planted a vineyard. And he drank of the wine and was drunker and he was uncovered within his tent." (Bereshis 9:20-21)

There are two thoughts I'd like to share on this parasha.
The first is to mention the parallels with the story of Creation. According to many commentators, the purpose of the flood was to return the world to its primeval state in which everything was covered by water and only the spirit of God floated above it (cf. Bereshis 1:2). The main difference between the original Creation and this do-over was the presence of Noach in his ark, floating on top of the deluge. Then, just as God gathered the oceans the first time to make land disappear, the flood gradually receded to reveal the Earth.
Yet it is here the parallels significantly end. In the first Creation, the land immediately brings forth plants, fish, animals and all the rest of life. In the post-flood world however, it does nothing. Noach and his family disembark from the ark to discover a barren, empty world, save for one olive tree somewhere that only the dove knows about.
As opposed to the first time when Man is plunked down into the Garden of Eden in a fully formed and stocked world, Noach is presented with something far different. If he wants to see a fruitful, growing world, he has to be the one to make it so. The world that will come into being will be a result of his efforts.
Perhaps the reason for this is because of the way the original bounty provided by God was used. Despite being given a powerfully fertile world in which scarcity was rare, the antediluvian civilization became rotten to the core. Like spoiled children who never appreciate any gift, no matter how generous, they used the goodness God had showered with them to reject His rule and descend into anarchy.
This time the message from Heaven would be different. Perhaps if people actively worked to build up the world, they would appreciate the effort that went into creating it a little more. Perhaps there would be more responsibility.
Certainly we see that difference at the end of the parasha in the story of the Tower of Bavel. The midrash explaining why this generation survived its insurrection against HaShem while the antediluvians were wiped out is well known. While before the flood society was rife with theft and violence, the generation of the Tower was known for its high level of cooperation. The only thing preventing it from being an ideal society was its opposition to God's rule.
Why didn't the post-flood generation society the way the preceding one had? Perhaps it is because of this fundamental change in how the world was built up.

The second thought relates to the same verse. According to one opinion, the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil was a grape vine. According to this view, Adam and Chavah drank a nice cup of pinot noir before realizing their attire was... lacking. Once again in this do-over of creation, we find man stumbling with grapes and wine. It's enough to make one ask: why are grapes kosher? Having caused man's downfall twice it might have been prudent to make them a forbidden fruit. Yet we see that the Torah has done the opposite. Of all the fluids in the world, it is the only one (other than water at Sukkos) that gets status as a sacrifical offering on the altar.
According to Rav Shimshon Rafael Hirsch, zt"l, wine represents comfort and physical pleasure. By offering it as a sacrifice, we show that we dedicate all our efforts in those areas towards our service of God. Pleasure for its own sake is to be frowned on but as an element of Divine avodah it has a role.
This leads me to this of the concept of tools. There is an old saying: "Guns don't kill people, people do" which is relevant to this thought. A tool is, at its root, neither good nor evil. It is simply an object. What makes one perceive it as good or evil is how it is used but that is not a reflection of the nature of the tool but rather the user. This can apply to a gun, or a sledgehammer, or even electronic media and the Internet. As tools they simply exist to be used. It is up to the person using it to decide whether he will choose a good or bad purpose.
In the hands of Noach, the grape became a tool for the degradation of humanity. In the hands of his descendents, the kohanim in Yerushalayim in our Holy Temple (may it be speedily rebuilt), it was a tool for drawing closer to the Ribono shel Olam.
This is why the grape was not banned from use by our people. God relies on us to use our free will to make the right decision but does not prevent our making mistakes so that right decision has value.

Wednesday 21 October 2009

The Reflection of Torah

"And God said 'Let there be light' and there was light." (Bereshis 1:3)

Rav Levi Yitzchak Berditchiver asks why this verse's format is different from all other "Let there be..." verses in the story of Creation. Everywhere else it says "Let there be X and it was so." Here it says "Let there be light and there was light." Why the change?
He answers that, in fact, light was already in existence but when God uttered this command He gave the light a substance and reality it had previously been lacking. This is easy to understand from a physical context. Light in and of itself is invisible. What we perceive as light is actually its reflection off of and absorbtion into the physical world around us. Light could therefore have predated the initial creation but without anything to reflect off of, it couldn't really be called Light.
In Yisrael u'Tichiyaso, section 24, Rav Avraham Kook, zt"l, describes the Oral Law in very similar terms. He describes the Torah Sheba'al Peh as a force that floats through reality but only finds concrete existence when reflected by the Jewish nation. This means that while the Torah exists as an actual force in reality, it can only gain expression and proper existence through our observance of its commandments.
This is something I find quite fascinating. Most major Jewish philosophers understand God's desire to create the universe (keeping in mind that we have no clue what something like desire means to God or if He actually desires anything, just that we have to express it somehow) as a means of showing His goodness. Without any creation, who could He be kind to? As a result, here we are.
This combination of insights therefore may point to a new understanding of the third verse of the Torah. For many, the concept of disembodied Light is difficult. After all, the light we know and understand has to have a source. It is composed of photons. It is measurable. Yet from the Midrash, Chazal have hinted that this primeval Light was nothing like this. For one thing, it illumated all of creation at the same time. For another, we are told that God hid it away for the righteous. What kind of Light is that?
Therefore this new understanding, along the lines of "For the commandment (mitzvah) is a candle, and Torah is light" (Proverbs 6:23)" can give us a new appreciation of the early stages of Creation. Chazal tell us that the Torah was created before our universe was. Like physical light which lacks anything to shine on, it existed but without any actual purpose. It was only when our universe was created that it finally had found something to interact with. Thus God called for the Light and behold, it was actually just that: pure Light.

Friday 16 October 2009

The Good Jew

Richard Goldstone probably thinks he's a decent man. The judge whose work will be used as the basis of the new blood libel against Israel probably thought he was even expressing Jewish values by courageously condemning Israel in his recent report on the recent 'Aza war. Good liberals often like to think that way, patting themselves on the back for their honesty, as if the amount they condemn their own people is some measure of a personal sense of morality.
Those of us out in the real world who were critical of his biased report (he is alleged to have fallen asleep while the Israelis were presenting him with evidence of the endless rocket attacks from 'Aza) were in turn criticized for labelling him as a self-hating Jew. Yes events have once again borne out the correctness of this assessment.
As The Jerusalem Post reports, the UN Human Rights Council has unsurprisingly accepted his report as fact. Well, maybe not the entire report. The parts about Hamas using its people as human shields and firing rockets into Israel seem to have been removed from the report as being irrelevant but the juicy bits on how bad the Jews were are still in their intact. And therefore:
Despite Israeli lobbying efforts against the Goldstone report, the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva endorsed the document on Friday, a move that will send it on to more powerful UN bodies in New York for action.
Jurist Richard Goldstone sits next to UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay while delivering the report at the session of the Human Rights Council at the United Nations European headquarters in Geneva on Sept. 29.
The resolution passed 25-6, with eleven countries abstaining. Five states, including France and the UK, declined to vote.

Of course this was no surprise. From the moment Goldstone first lifted pen to paper, it was a foregone conclusion that a liberal Jew appointed by the central source of anti-Semitism in the world would come up with a new weapon to attack Israel with. What is suprising is the author's response:
Goldstone, who agreed to lead the fact-finding mission only if he could investigate Hamas as well, said he was "saddened" by the resolution. "There is not a single phrase condemning Hamas as we have done in the report," Goldstone was quoted as saying by AFP, the French press agency
It is said that a conservative is a liberal who has been mugged by reality. Winston Churchill said ""If a man is not a socialist in his youth, he has no heart. If he is not a conservative by the time he is 30 he has no head". Judge Goldstone either has no head or he is still awaiting his mugging. How can he possibly be surprised that a panel stuffed with representatives from most of the anti-Jewish states in the world wouldn't tamper with his already screwed-up report to make it even more damning to Israel?
There is a price to be paid for being a good Judenrat Jew. It comes when the person realizes that despite all his efforts to make nice with the anti-Semite, he's going to wind up getting shot just like all the Jews whom he sold out to save himself. Perhaps Goldstone is starting to get an inkling of that now.

Obsession With the Past

It's an interesting feature of human psychology that when a person makes a significant lifestyle change, he often develops a strong dislike for the culture he left behind. The depth of this emotion often correlates with the feeling of security the person has about himself and his new choice. Those who are comfortable with their sense of self and their choice often have far less resentment towards where they came from while those whose switch was motivated in part by a lack of self identity can develop a viscious hate of their former lives.
Tali Farkash's latest piece for Yediot Acaharonot points out something interesting I've noticed about the off-the-derech phenomenon which is one major are where this phenomen manifests. Yes, it also occurs when people make the right choice and become frum but in a far stronger way. As Farkash notes, based on a recent 2 page spread in the Israeli newspaper by a woman who had left the Gerrer way of life:
Sarah, previously a pious Gerrer hassid and currently a pained secular divorcee mother of two, spread her story across the pages of Yedioth Ahronoth to show anyone who still had any shadow of a doubt in their mind just how hard it is to be a woman, and haredi on top of that, and a Gerrer hassid on top of that. With the precision of a plastic surgeon, she deconstructs the enigma called a "modern newly secular person." But even here, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
Perhaps it is just a feeling, but those who leave religion never really leave, they escape. To Tel Aviv, to a commune in the Galilee, to a kibbutz in the Negev, to the media. Or, like a beloved childhood friend of mine, they choose to put into action the over-played expression and escape to Honolulu, leaving me sending her signs of life via email.
Out of all of those I have met who have left the religious way of life – and I have met quite a few – not one of them became a "conventional secular person" with a Mazda 3, two kids, and a monstrous LCD in the living room across from the sofa. They are always something a little different with a lot of pain.

Yes, yes, I've heard all the lines. Of course there's a lot of pain. Imagine the lie that religious Judaism is, according to these people. Imagine all the years the person suffered by being denied their free choice in food, entertainment options and sexual partners, all the time they spent actually believing that God created the universe and that the Torah is true.
Of course, baalei teshuvah go through this as well. Imagine all the years the person lost by living a secular lifestyle when he could have been raising the purity of his neshamah, all the lies he was told by his teachers and friends about how real freedom means treating all values as relative and putting one's sense of material satisfaction first.
But somehow, the bitterness that one sees with lapsed Jews doesn't exist in the same way with the newly religious. Yes, most baalei teshuvah are dismissing of Reform and Conservativism and view secular Judaism, especially the chiloni culture with disdain. But one doesn't see the constant vitriol that the lapsed crowd seems to possess abundant amounts of.
For some, it seems that their entire new life is defined by hating where they came from. They talk of nothing else. If they want to say something positive, they praise the false prophets of their new culture who in turn never actually say anything confirmatory about atheism but rather spend their time attacking religion. Most of the time, however, it's attack after attack on their old way of life, accusations of coercion and a demand to be left alone even though no one's attacking them.
I wonder why it is that baalei teshuvah develop far great intellectual variability than that, spend more time leaerning about their new lifestyle instead of worrying about and assaulting the lives they came from. Certainly people would all agree it's healthier to move on, so why don't some?

That Time of Year Again

There are cycles in life that I like and others I don't.
I like it when the Chanukah season rolls around because that means X-mas is right around the corner and that means extra ER shifts at time and a half. It helps pay the kids' tuition.
I don't like it when shemittah comes up and once again the Jewish world engages in their ritual arguments for and against the heter mechirah.
And I especially don't like when Bereshis and Noach come around and all the kofrim out there engage the subject with their usually simple logic:
1) The only Jewishly acceptable way to understand the first part of the book o' Genesis is literally. Anything else is apologetics and illegitimate from an authentically Jewish perspective.
2) Science has clearly shown that the creation of the universe according the Genesis is bunk.
3) Therefore Judaism is bunk.
Any attempt to point out that (1) is fallacious and that there is plenty of evidence in Jewish tradition that one can understand the Torah's account of the creation of the world from a less than literal perspective is attacked from both sides. The self-styled defenders of the faith insist that their literal approach is the only one because today's "gedolim" endorse it. The kofrim enthuasistically shout "See! Just like we told you!"
So I think this year I'm just going to keep my head down and ignore the idiocy from both sides.
I'm sorely tempted to just

Thursday 15 October 2009

Mirror Mirror

Years ago The National Post ran a piece on the concept of the "Madrich/a", a type of leader in the secular humanist part of the Jewish community. The madricha interviewed made it very clear that while she was proud to be Jewish, she utterly rejected anything that a believing Jew would recognize as Judaism. She was an atheist, thought the Torah was full of hate and lies and that Judaism was an oppressive patriarchal religion designed by evil men to oppress its followers. It was one of those articles that makes me roll my eyes. This person hates everything that defines Judaism but still wants to be considered a proud Jew. Right.
A week of so later there was a response from a Rav in Toronto who made an interesting point, one that has stayed with me since. The Torah, he opined, is like a mirror. What you see in it is merely a reflection of what is inside of you. If you see love in the Torah, it's because you're a loving person. If you see hatred, it's because of the hatred in your soul. As Chazal often state, kol haposel, b'mumo posel.
As a result, the Rav concluded, he could tell a lot about this madricha and what kind of person she really was inside. It wasn't the Torah that was at fault, rather it was her.
Perhaps this is why different people have such radically different opinions and understandings of the Torah. But if that's the case, what does that say about the folks who have such a negative opinion of it?

Thursday 8 October 2009

The Answer They Won't Accept

It must be twenty years ago a Jewish Canadian committee on "Jewish continuity" released its findings on the state of assimilation amongst Jews of the Great White North and recommendations on how to stem the erosion in attachment and numbers. Being a community committee, it was large, long-winded and full of interesting recommendations.
Fortunately our local Rav actually took the time to read the report instead of the newspaper summaries (apparently he suffered from insomnia) and present his disappointment with it. Going through all the advice, he noted one thing was missing: practical Jewish observance. Sure there was stuff about social groups, day schools and trips to Israel but when it came to suggesting the obvious - get Jews to start altering their behaviour and act like Jews - there was only silence. His conclusion was that the committee might very much like assimilation to go away but they weren't prepared to demand anything from their consituency to make that happen. Apparently they were quite sensitive to personal freedoms.
Not much has changed since then as this editorial by Jack Wertheimer demonstrates:
This is, of course, true -- but only up to a point. Unfortunately, this optimistic reading describes only a minority of intermarried families. The majority of intermarried families raise their children in a faith other than Judaism or in two faiths or no faith at all. Not surprisingly, when they reach adulthood, most of those offspring do not identify as Jews.
Few would dispute that the Jewish community has a far better chance of retaining the allegiance of individuals raised in homes in which both parents are Jewish than in those where one parent identifies with a different religion. Indeed, wherever Jews are a minority community, intermarriage is a major factor in the contraction of the Jewish population. How, then, does it serve Jewish group interests to silence all discussion about the relationship between intermarriage and assimilation?
This hesitance to grapple seriously with the issue of intermarriage is part of a broader phenomenon: Speaking of threats to Jewish survival has become passe. Many argue that such discussions no longer serve to rally Jews; if anything, they turn off people. Moreover, advocates of this point of view tend to argue that if Jews are disengaged, it is because of failings in our institutions. If only we had more compelling programs and wiser leaders, if only we would cater more to the desires and preferences of younger generations, we would retain larger numbers of Jews, they say.
These are serious arguments, but the reality is that while creative leaders and innovative programs aimed at young Jews have brought in some people from the periphery, large numbers of American Jews -- in some age groups, the majority -- still do not participate in any form of Jewish public life. Those who reject the language of crisis when describing this state of affairs in favor of an appeal to individual preferences must explain how they propose to re-create a culture of Jewish responsibility on that basis. If we want to strengthen our community amid the prevailing individualistic culture, we had better start with straight talk about our current condition.
The reactions to the Masa ad have exposed a series of complex issues worthy of extended conversation within our community. Rather than view the ad solely as a dragon successfully slain, we would do well to see it as an opportunity to ask ourselves some tough questions about the best ways to build Jewish social capital and draw in disengaged Jews -- as a chance to converse about what we expect ourselves and our fellow Jews to contribute to Jewish life.

This article certainly mentions all the right things. What it fails to note is that modern society, especially in North America, has become extremely selfish. People are interested first, second and last in "what's in it for me?" Why should a person go to shul? What does he get out of it? Why contribute to the community? What's in it for him? For the Orthodox Jew with a sense of knesses Yisrael the answers are easy. For the non-religious one whose Jewish values are actually those of society's around him, they're not.
Yet throughout history there is only one measure and one measure alone that has guaranteed Jewish continuity: observance of Judaism. Amongst the observant portion of the community, the success of this strategy is obvious but even in the non-religious part, those Jews who attended day schools or camps are more likely to marry other Jews and have a semblance of Judaism in their lives than those who didn't.
In a modern multi-cultural society the reason is obvious. One can be a Jewish Canadian or a Canadian Jew. A Jewish Canadian has no reason to feel separate or different from a French Canadian or an Indian Canadian. If anything, the idea of a multi-cultural relationship accentuates the Canadian part of their identity, the major thing they have in common. For a Canadian Jew, however, it's the opposite. The French or Indian opposite me may have some common factors but when it comes to how I primarily identify myself, my Judaism sets me apart, eh?
Years ago a nurse in an ER I worked in asked me why Jews generally don't inter-marry. (I didn't tell her that unfortunately she's wrong) So I explained it to her like this: Let's say we were to date. Okay, it might start out well but problems would develop. As an observant Jew, forget pre-marital sex. Holding hands or even going back to her place alone for a movie would be out of the question. I couldn't eat in her home. I couldn't worship with her on her holidays. I could meet her parents but other than water or juice I couldn't accept hospitality from them. On my holidays she'd find herself left out of most things because the prayers are in Hebrew and the rituals are generally limited to Jews only. So how long could such a relationship last before the mutual incompatibility ended it? Not because one of us was "good" and the other "bad" I emphsized, just that the differences between us would be too insurmountable to developing a deep romantic relationship.
One might oppose this position by pointing out a few salient things. One is the level of drop-out from the Orthodox community and this is indeed a relevant concern. However, when one considers that, despite Reformative revisionism, most non-religious Jews do not have Jewish great-grandchildren, this means that Orthodoxy has been suffering from drop-out for centuries. Somehow we have managed to survive and even maintain our numbers even while supplying the rest of the Jewish community.
One might also bristle at the suggestion that only Orthodox standards guarantee continuity. Well the truth can be annoying, I'll admit. Note that I've already said that even in the non-religious part of the community there are measures that can increase the liklihood of avoiding assimilation. There are lots of Reformative Jews who feel a positive sense of their Judaism and marry other Jews for that reason. However, amonst the non-religious these are nowhere near as effective as within the Orthodox community. A Reformative kid from a good day school is more likely to marry and remain Jewish. An Orthodox kid is almost guaranteed to do that. If you're looking to effectively reduce assimilation, do you want "more likely" or "guaranteed"?
If a Jew's Yiddishkeit begins and ends at blintzes on Sunday morning, then that divide doesn't exist and there is no barrier to intermarriage. Why have continuity when there is nothing to continue? The answer the non-religious community does not want to hear is that traditional Jewish practice is the only guarantee against assimilation and disappearance.
No matter. We'll keep doing our thing for centuries to come and see what happens.

Religion and Politics

One of the most consistent things about elections and the Jewish community is that the vast majority of observant Jews vote for the right-wing party and the vast majority of non-observant Jews vote for the left-wing party.
For many, there seems to be an invisible connection between religious observance and politics. Strict Orthodox observance pushes one to the right while heterodox or non-observance push one to the left. Some might explain the non-religious leftist trend as being due to the form of religion they do accept, one in which social justice and other politically correct values are treated as authentically Jewish. This means that leftist parties reflect what they believe are ideals consonant with Judaism.
However, that doesn't seem to explain why Orthodox Jews generally vote to the right. Now, not all observant Jews do. There's a piece in Yediot Acharanot today from a self-styled left-wing Orthodox Jew on why there should be no connection between one's religion and one's politics.
I think an analysis of what consitutes left wing and right wing nowadays is in order to understand this phenomenon.
The classical definition of liberalism goes as follows:
Central to the classical liberalism of the nineteenth century is a commitment to the liberty of individual citizens. Freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and freedom of assembly were core commitments of classical liberalism, as was the underlying conception of the proper role of just government as the protection of the liberties of individual citizens. Also central to classical liberalism was a commitment to a system of free markets as the best way to organize economic life.
Curiously, trying to track down a definition of classic conservatism is far harder. At any rate, perusing the definition above leads to a clear but potentially confusing conclusion - the values mentioned are not associated with liberals today but with conservatives! After all, when one looks at the greatest assaults on freedom of thought, religiou, press and association, the sources all string from what are now defined as left-wing politically correct groups. Somewhere in the last 100 years, liberals and conservatives swapped definitions.
Unfortunately most people didn't get the memo on this. If you assert to someone who today identifies as a "liberal" that he must therefore be in favour of censorship, social engineering and thought control, he would vigorously disagree. If you defined a conservative as someone who advocated a laissez-faire approach to society, you'd be told you were wrong. However, this is precisely where liberals and conservatives find themselves in today's society.
Seen this way, the voting breakdown in the Jewish community now seems to make sense. Consider that most dominant secular views are diametrically opposed to traditional Jewish ones. Pick a topic - abortion, euthanasia, birth control - and one quickly sees a great divide between "them" and "us". For non-religious Jews, the divide isn't there. Having defined being Jewish as being a good "liberal" there is no contradiction in voting for left-wing parties. On the other hand, right wing parties that oppose the leftist positions resonate more with traditional Jews.
So can an Orthodox Jew vote for a left-wing party? For me, that's an entirely separate issue. It is my personal opinion that most left-wing groups, especially when it comes to Israel, represent nearly or openly anti-Semitic positions vis a vis Israel's right to exist within secure and defined borders. If one can find a left wing party that preaches Jewish values regarding social justice like helping the poor but that opposes abortion on demand and supports Israel against its enemies, then one might have a case. But since most left wing parties accept "the total package" it makes no sense for a traditional Jew to support such a group.

Halachic Implications

On erev Yom Kippur Rav Eliashiv, shlit"a, announced that Crocs are not suitable footwear for the Day o' Atonement, shocking and annoying many people who until then had used them as their preferred Tisha B'av/Yom Kippur footwear. Being Dati Leumi I decided to research what the leading posek for the community, Rav Shlomo Aviner, shlit"a, had to say on the subject. Unfortunately his decision was not that much different than Rav Eliashiv's. Although his answer was based on a shailoh about Tisha B'Av, it could very easily be extended to Yom Kippur since the ban on leather shoes applies to both days, albeit for different reasons (mourning vs inui)
However, while discussing this with a Rav that I learn with, a different thought occured to me.
According to halacha, most medication is forbidden for use on Shabbos. The gemara derives this from how medications were prepared in those times, usually through the grinding of herbs to prepare the desired therapeutics. Schikas samemanim is a derivative of tochen, hence medications were forbidden on Shabbos for the non-seriously ill because of the fear that one would come to grind the ingredients to ensure an ample supply. Even though we no longer prepare medications in this fashion, the original rule has remained in place.
The Nishmat Avraham contrasts this with another rule which is no longer in force. In the times of the gemara, there was a law that any water left uncovered overnight must be disposed of. The fear was that a snake would have drunk from it and left some of its venom in the water leading to a danger to the person drinking the water. By the time of the Shulchan Aruch, however, this rule was observe mostly in the breach because, as the poskim explained, we don't really find snakes around like in the times of Chazal.
On the surface, these two rules would appear to contradict each other. In one case the original rule remains in force even though the circumstances that led to it no longer apply. In the second case, the change in circumstances is the reason the rule is obsolete.
However, on further analysis, the Nishmat Avraham notes a major difference between the two rules. In the case of snakes and water, there is no real rule that water left overnight cannot be ingested. Nor is it usual from snakes to slither by and drink from cups sitting out. Therefore once the circumstances changed, the law no longer had to be observed.
However, medications are still produced from a grinding process. Yes, they're produced en masse without regard to how much acetaminophen I might pop this Shabbos after the rabbi's sermon but the original decree still has some relevance. Further, the Nishmat Avraham notes that many naturopaths and homeopaths still do produce medicine by grinding ingredients. Therefore even though the majority of medications are not made on demand, the rule still applies.
What does this have to do with Crocs?
One must remember that when Chazal made a g'zeirah, it was made under specific circumstances and for specific reasons. As a result, it is usually not correct to extend the decree to areas not covered by Chazal. We see this in the gemara which usually rejects such attempts as a g'zeirah to a g'zeirah which, except in certain circumstances, does not go through. For example, in some circumstances one can engage in amirah l'akum when the issur to be performed is only d'rabannon.
So let's look at Crocs. The reason for the prohibition on leather shoes on Rosh HaShanah is because the Torah asks us to engage in inui, afflication, on Yom Kippur. Chazal decreed five types of inui, the wearing of leather shoes being amongst them. They did not decree that comfy shoes are forbidden and therefore leather footwear, being comfortable, is assur. They specifically decreed on leather shoes.
(Frankly, the most uncomfortable shoes I own are my wedding shoes which are fancy leather with leather soles and all, but I digress)
So here's what occured to me. If Ravs Eliashiv and Aviner are going to darshan out the reason for Chazal's g'zeirah and use that reasoning to extend it - leather shoes are comfortable, leather shoes are forbidden, therefore comfortable shoes are forbidden - into a stricture position, then what's to stop others from using the exact same process and extending things into a lenient position. To wit: medications were forbidden because of grinding individual doses, commercial medications are not ground in individual doses, therefore there should be no prohibition on commercial medications!
I am certainly not paskening that one can now use medications freely on Shabbos in opposition to the opinion of all major halachic decisors but I would want to know: if Crocs really are forbidden on Tisha B'Av and Yom Kippur, what's the reason we can't go the other way?

Wednesday 7 October 2009

In His Image

One of the more mysterious terms in a chapter full of enigmas is the concept of "the image of God" mentioned in the first chapter of Bereshis. As the Malbim notes in his commentary, this two word term (in Hebrew) has puzzled Chazal and the meforshim through the ages.
The Malbim himself offers an incredible explanation of what tzelem Elokim means which has tremendous ramifications for the sensitive of mind. He starts off by excluding what it doesn't mean, showing how the word tzelem can indeed mean either a spiritual or physical image so that one should not think that the concept of a four limbed biped in any way reflects what God really looks like. He also notes the interesting fact that in many ways we are not "just like God" which is a conclusion you might erroneously make based on the exclusion of the physical aspect of tzelem. Perhaps one might think that if we are spiritually modeled on His image, that we are just like him in that regard. While this is true to some extent, specifically in the areas of free well and self-awareness, it is certainly not true when one considers that God, unlike us, has no yetzer hara to deal with.
But then what is this elusive tzelem? For this, the Malbim notes that man is called by Chazal an olam katan, a small world or universe (depending on the context). He then notes something seemingly obvious but which I've seen nowhere else: if something is called small, there must be something else out there just like it that is much bigger. For example, an insect is only small when compared to a human or a pachyderm. When compared to a microbe, on the other hand, it's gigantic. What is this olam gadol that makes man a katan?
His answer is God Himself. There are two entitites in the universe with free well and self-awareness, as mentioned before: God and Man. Then the Malbim draws a parallel to extend the idea even further.
We know that in addition to free well and self-awareness, Man is further a unique being in the universe in that he is a combination of the physical and spiritual. His body is taken from the Earth while his soul is placed directly into him by God. Further, various mystical works note that the soul itself shares many properties with God - just like the Ribono shel Olam, the soul sees but is unseen, is a single entity without any division, etc. But Malbim goes one step further. Just as the soul is clothed by the physical body, so God is physically clothed by the universe.
In other words, when you look at a fellow human being you see his physical body but you interact with his soul. When one looks at the universe, one is now, in a sense, seeing God's body, the physical manifestation of His existence. Beyond that, staring back at us is the Ribono shel Olam himself!
This would explain so many concepts in halacha. Consider the Mishkan. Some meforshim considered it to be analogous to the human body. Others consider it a microcosm of the universe itself. But according to the Malbim's explanation, there is no contradiction. The human body is a microcosm of God's "body", the universe so the Mishkan represents both.
Further, recall the statement by Chazal that all God has in this world since the destruction of the Temple (may it be speedily rebuilt) is a person's four amos of halacha. Now what is the significance of four amos? It is, according to law, a man's personal space. In other words, it is the boundary of the miniature universe of each individual and the border between when the person ends and the surrounding Godly environment begins.
For the sensitive of mind, this is an amazing interpretation. God is not truly invisible, unseen and unreachable. His presence, on a physical level, is around us in everything we react with in the world. We see Him in the rain, a beautiful sunset or the wind blowing our schach away. And isn't this a great message for Sukkos, when we leave our insulating homes behind and place a minimal barrier between ourselves and the universe around us.