Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Monday, 30 August 2010

A Little Competition Goes a Long Way

Competition is the important factor that makes an idea or society great.  Insulated from competition, societies become stale and unimaginative, unable to cope with change and prone ultimately to failure.  The greatest example one can bring to prove the truth of this is the United States of America, a country born of competition and which thrives on encouraging it.  I am personally a big fan of the idea, except in sports because I suck at that.
What has gotten my attention recently was a new book from the folks at Artscroll that doesn't seem to have yet generated the publicity it should.  Now, I have been critical of some of Artscroll's work in the past.  Yes, they have published important works like the Schottenstein gemaras (Bavli and Yerushalmi) along withg other great works but other features like their hagiographies and digests of classic works (as opposed to translations with commentary) leave much to be desired.
Then there is their original siddur.  Although I am a fan of the old time Birnbaum siddur it is easy to see why Artscroll reduced it from its longtime position as the standard English-Hebrew siddur in the Orthodox world to that of dusty has-been.  The clear print, detailed commentary, the weekday Torah readings and tehillim in the back, and the layout all made the Artscroll siddur a natural for any shul looking to upgrade its siddur supply.  The only real limitations to the siddur were its lacking certain sections, like the Yom Kippur Katan services and other more obscure prayers that people who required an English side to their prayer book were unlikely to ever say.  In addition a perusal of the commentary would turn up the fact that only certain Chareidi authorities were quoted, never any from the Modern Orthodox or Zionist communities but again, not something most people were likely to notice.
It also helped Artscroll that for more than two decades they were essentially the only other choice for an English-Hebrew siddur with commentary.  All that changed last year when Israeli publisher Koren burst forth with its English-Hebrew siddur.  With its beautiful binding and typeface along with the revolutionary idea of putting the English page on the right and a commentary by Rav Jonathan Sacks, shlit"a, it became the first legitimate competitor for Artscroll's flagship publication.
More importantly, it didn't come out as a general competitor against Artscroll.  Anyone who looks over the Koren quickly realizes that this siddur was created to give the Modern Orthodox community a siddur of its own.  The significance of this cannot be understated.
The siddur, like Artscroll's, has certain limitations, most significantly that it lacks certain prayers many frum people are not familiar with.  Again, this might just be a quibble since anyone dedicated to saying Yom Kippur Katan is likely to have an all-Hebrew siddur.
Most importantly, it has created competition within the frum publishing industry.  For the first time in over 20 years, Artscroll has revised its siddur and come to include those extra prayers along with certain other practical liturgies.  In short, it has taken a step further towards becoming a complete siddur, not just a really nice sidder for folks who want an English translation.  The typeface has also improved and, significantly, the price has dropped.
Personally I am unlikely to rush out and buy the new Artscroll siddur when it comes out.  Like Koren's, there will only be an Ashkenaz version initially and I daven Sefard.  I also have a nice all-Hebrew siddur with all the amenities inside.  However, the idea that Koren has created a concept of competition, that the Modern Orthodox market is important to Artscroll and that its needs are now being noticed is an tremendous thing, in my opinion.  Along with Ktav, I have a hope that Modern Orthodox can start creating its own line of seforim, digests and commentaries all from the MO perspective.  Perhaps this will be the start of a great change for Modern Orthodoxy.

Monday, 23 August 2010

Slouching Towards Irrelevance

A long time ago I wrote about how the hardest part of a roof to sit on was the peak because it is so easy to slide off to either side.  At the time I was discussing how Modern Orthodoxy has to maintain a hard balancing act between the Chareidi community on the right and the non-observant on the left.  However, within the bigger picture of the so-called different streams of Judaism, it is the Conservatives who have, for many decades, struggled to maintain their position at the top of the roof.  In recent years it has become obvious that they lost this struggle and are now slipping down towards the left where the Reform wait.
In truth, there has been little to differentiate Conservatism from Reform for a while now.  Other than a slightly greater commitment to ritual, a token effort to appear like they use some kind of halachic process to make decisions and a refusal to use patrilineal descent to swell their numbers, they have philosophically and practically become Reform in all but name.
But what's in name?  Lots, apparently which is why some in the movement seek to now change the label they've gone by for over a century:

As the would-be rebranders are the first to admit, it’s not just a matter of wanting a new name — it’s also the embarrassment of the old one, which was bestowed by the movement’s founder, Solomon Schechter, in the early 20th century. “Conservative” has become a dirty word for politically liberal American Jews, who are, to say, 90% of non-Orthodox American Jews. It stands for everything to which they’re opposed. As comedian Judy Gold, a member of a Conservative congregation, told the Forward, whenever she says she’s a Conservative Jew, “you can see people’s heads exploding.” Who wants to be a metaphorical suicide bomber?Of course, the word “conservative,” with or without a capital “C,” wasn’t always such a red flag for liberals. Abraham Lincoln, who draped himself in it to defend himself against charges of radicalism, defined it as being for “the old and tried against the new and untried,” and while liberalism and conservatism have always been perceived by Americans as two different worldviews, they were not necessarily thought of as irreconcilable.
The problem, of course, is that it's easy to discard something, quite a bit harder to choose a replacement that everyone within this increasingly amorphous community will agree on.  After making a few suggestions, the article seems to think that "traditional" will be the name label when the dust clears.
My prediction is that the name will not change for a few reasons.  The first is because of inertia.  The name "Conservative" is attached to how many buildings and pieces of stationary?  This is not exactly a community flush with money.  Can you imagine the cost to take out the word "conservative" and replace it with "traditional"?
The second is one of realism.  The Conservatives are not traditional and have not been for a very long time.  Despite their slogans about being the authentic voice of traditional Judaism even they know they are stretching the truth when they claim they are being loyal to halacha and Torah as understood and interpreted by the sages down through the millenia.  One can blather all one wants about a "tradition of change" but doublespeak is a lousy way to label a movement.
In the end I continue to predict an eventual merger between Conservatism and Reform which I think will be called Reformative.  It will reduce the confusion because then, at least, there will be clear lines drawn between those who are Torah-observant and those who aren't without anyone in the middle trying to pretend they are both.

Sunday, 22 August 2010

Who's Really Off The Derech

In general, the term "off the derech" is used to refer to someone who has left the proper path of Torah observance and taken on a lifestyle free of mitzvos.  However, this is an arbitrary definition which I think is far too limited.  Specifically, I think it's about time that the term be applied not only to those of our brethren who have mistakenly concluded that Judaism has nothing to offer them but also to those whose piety leads them to engage in unJewish activities that betray the main principles of Judaism.
And in this regard, I'm thinking specifically of the Satmar chasidim.  No, not just the Neturei Karta whackjobs but their "mainstream" cousins.  Recall that Chazal gave us three defining characteristics of Jewish people - we are supposed to be rachmanim (merciful), bayshanim (easily embarrassed) and gomei chasadim (doers of kind deeds).  In addition, we are repeatedly told by Chazal that one must respect the Torah sages of the Jewish people without regard to their political views.  However, a recent article in Ynet shows that Satmar, in its ongoing quest to achieve some kind of twisted purity, has abandoned those characteristics:
According to the Satmar rebbe, Zionism is a total violation of the Torah. "If we were to take all the violations of the generation and the many transgressions committed around the world and placed them on one side of a scale and the Zionist state on the other side, it would be overwhelmingly decided that it is root of all impurity and damage in the entire world and contaminates the entire world," the rebbe wrote in the pamphlet.

In response to the question "Who is the minister of the Zionists in Heaven?", the rabbi answered in a response from the previous century, "Obviously the Angel of Death is their minister. Behold, every country has its governor… this country, which is rooted and based in the forces of impurity and the Other Side, this certainly is its minister."
 The pamphlet also outlines: Even those who believe that a Jewish state must exist in the Land of Israel having no other choice because of pikuach nefesh (saving a life) "violate the holy Torah." The pamphlet directs readers to the Tractate of Avot, saying that the sentence "every man is judged favorably" is said about everyone except Zionists. In addition, it asserts that it is a mitzvah to speak lashon hara (slander) about Zionists.

 "Whoever has a part in this is delaying redemption at every moment and is delaying the inspiration of the Divine Presence and is delaying the coming of the Messiah. Even someone who takes the smallest part, even as slight as the edge of a yod (the tenth and smallest letter of the Hebrew alphabet)… even someone who bends towards them, even by one hair, must be avoided like a bowshot. Whoever thinks yes (that Zionism is the correct path) and not just whoever says yes or even has a thought to this effect, is certainly a heretic."

The rabbi added, "I do not want to have any association with a Jew who thinks like this, and I do not want to find anyone who thinks like this even for a moment in my beit midrash (house of study)… In previous generations, if people only suspected of someone that he has tendencies to think this way in his heart, he was sent away, not included in prayer, and in this manner was they ride themselves of such plight."

Let's review some salient history.  The Satmar Rav, one Yoel Teitelbaum, escaped from Hungary during the Second World War through help from the Zionist movement in Israel, leaving behind most of his disciples with a vague promise that if they daven hard enough God will save them.  Clearly they didn't because He didn't.  After reaching Israel, the Rav decamped to the United States as quickly as he could and spent the rest of his life condemning the people who had saved his skin from the Nazi gas chambers.
In addition, let's discuss methodology.  One of the most important principles of halachic discourse is the concept of eilu v'eilu.  It is fundamental towards analyzing halacha and determining which practices are to be considered normative and which are beyond the pale of acceptable Orthodox behaviour.  It allows for the great complexity, depth and subtlety of halacha.  It is also absent from Satmar philosophy.
A couple of examples will suffice.  A few posts ago I discussed a difference in approach between HaRav Moshe Feinstein, zt"l, and HaRav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, zt"l on a particular medical issue.  If one looks at Rav Auerbach's teshuva, one finds in the opening paragraphs an amazing statement.  Having been asked to write on the subject and being aware that Rav Moshe had already paskened an answer, Rav Auerbach contacted him to ask for his permission to publish a dissenting answer.  In contrast, when Rav Moshe published a teshuva on the subject of in vitro fertilization that the Satmar Rav didn't agree with, he instructed three of his chasidim to go to Rav Moshe and demand that he retract it.  No discussion, no debate, no eilu v'eilu.  Just "how dare you have a different approach, I don't care what you think, I demand you agree with me now!"  I have never read the Satmar's books and have no interest.  I also don't care that some consider him a Gadol HaDor or even the Gadol HaDor.  Such an attitude precludes me from taking an interest in his point of view.
But to get back to the original point, let us now examine how the Satmar's words disqualify his beliefs from being considered normative Judaism:
RachmanimThe pamphlet directs readers to the Tractate of Avot, saying that the sentence "every man is judged favorably" is said about everyone except Zionists. In addition, it asserts that it is a mitzvah to speak lashon hara (slander) about Zionists.
Bayshanim: "Truly, if it were possible, and even with true devotion, to announce to the nations of the world that these evil people are not the representatives of Israel and Torah- and mitzvoth-keeping Jews, who have no connection to them, this would be one of the biggest mitzvoth that would need to be carried out with devotion,"
Gomlei ChasadimEven those who believe that a Jewish state must exist in the Land of Israel having no other choice because of pikuach nefesh (saving a life) "violate the holy Torah." The pamphlet directs readers to the Tractate of Avot, saying that the sentence "every man is judged favorably" is said about everyone except Zionists. In addition, it asserts that it is a mitzvah to speak lashon hara (slander) about Zionists.
In terms of the matter of reverence for Torah sages, one can only imagine what these self-appointed guardians of the holiness of Israel would say about the great leaders of the last two centuries like both Rav Kooks, Rav Alkalai, Rav Reines, Rav Kalischer, the Netziv of Volozhin and others who saw religious value in Zionism and the aschalta d'guela beginning to unfold in our days.
We must stop giving deference to this group of aliens who garb themselves in false purity and holiness.  It matters not that they read from a sefer Torah identical to one that authentic Jews use or that they wear tzitzis and tefillin just like ours.  We must stand up and announce that by abandoned the three defining characteristics of the Jewish people through their creation of a religion based on hatred of the av nivchar, as well as their lack of respect for Torah giants who make their Rav look like an intellectual and spiritual midget.

Thursday, 19 August 2010

On Being Part of K'hal HaShem

"An Ammontie or a Moabite shall not enter into the assembly of the Lord; even to the tenth generation shall none of them enter into the assembly of the Lord forever; because they met you not with bread and with water in the way when ye came forth out of Egypt; and because they hired against thee Balaam the son of Beor from Pesor of Aram-naharaim to curse thee." (Devarim 23:4-6)
"Thou shalt not abhor an Edomite for he is thy brother; thou shalt not abhor an Egyptian because thou was a stranger in his land. The children of the third generation that are born unto them may enter into the assembly of the Lord." (Devarim 23:8)

There are a number of inconsistencies with these verses that demand explanation.  The first is the ban on Ammonites based on lack of hospitality as well as a connection to the incident with Bilaam.  As all those who have been paying attention can tell, this makes no sense.  For one thing, nowhere in the Torah do we hear that our ancestors came near to the border of Ammon and made a request for sustenance.  In addition, it was Midyan that was Moav's partner in the hiring of Bilaam, not Ammon so why are they condemned for it?
Then there's the more obvious problem - we are told to be much nice to the Egyptians - our slavemasters for many decades and who murdered and tortured many of our ancestors - and the Edomites - who not only showed no hospitality but came out in force to prevent a breach of the border - than to the Moabites and Ammonites.  Surely their behaviour would have earned them a similar ban?
The Malbim, in his commentary on the parshah, analyzes these questions and presents the following answers:
First of all, he reads the two criticisms of Ammon and Moav separately.  Ammon is criticized for not showing hospitality while Moav is criticized for hiring Bilaam.  The latter now makes sense but the former still doesn't until he ties in something fascinating.  
The ancestor of both nations, Lot, spent much time in Avraham's house and was exposed to much holiness simply by being in his presence but still separated from him and moved to S'dom when relations between the two became strained.  However, despite abandoning Avraham and his holy way of life, we know that Lot continued to keep two important behaviours, that of hachnasas orchim and sexual modesty.  Proof for both comes from the episode involving destruction of S'dom.  Lot testifies at one point that his unmarried daughters are still virgins despite living in such a degenerate society and it is he who takes in the angels as guests when they arrive in the city despite it being against the local law.
This, then, is the base of the reason for the ban on these two nations.  Whereas Lot not only allowed guests into his home but imitated Avraham Avinu and actively sought them out (remember he was sitting in the main square looking for some when the angels arrived), his Ammonite descendants failed to live up to that value when our ancestors became their neighbours after destroying Sichon and Og.  Similarly, while Lots daughters guarded their chastity and, even though they ultimately wound up sleeping with their father they did it for the highest of reasons - the preservation of the human race - his descendants in Moav sent their daughters to sexually entice our ancestors while they camping in Shittim.  This showed that both nations had not only failed to live up to the standards of their progenitor but actively demonstrated opposition to his two good middos.
The Egyptians, on the other hand, did show hospitality to our ancestors.  First, they received Yaakov Avinu and co. during the famine.  Secondly, even during the worst parts of the slavery they still provided our ancestors with dwellings and food, as we read in Bemidbar.  The Edomites, on the other hand, despite acting in a non-brotherly fashion actually demonstrated kinship when they refused to allow our ancestors to pass their borders under threat of war.  After all, as Rashi notes, is Edom's blessing not the sword?  By demonstrating their willingness to live by Eisav's blessing from Yitzchak Avinu they thereby acknowledged Yisrael's blessing and their connection to Avraham Avinu's family as well.  For this they too were rewarded.
Therefore it seems that the reason Egyptians and Edomites can enter the community of Israel is due to their hospitality and acknowledgement of the special blessing of Israel which Moab and Ammon, two nations that actively went against their patrimonial heritage were to be excluded.

The Danger of Accomodation

HaRav Ben Hecht, shlit"a, has a post over at his blog regarding the fallout he's gone through after signing the recent declaration of principles regarding how Orthodox Jews should treat homosexual individuals.  He notes that he's concerned with how the media has distorted the content and meaning of the document, but I'm not so surprised:
Recently, I was one of a group of Orthodox Rabbis and professionals who signed a statement of principles on the Place of Jews with a Homosexual Orientation in our Community. The statement was clear about its adherence to Jewish law, which forbids any sexual contact of any nature between two individuals of the same sex. It did not even suggest that Orthodoxy should, or even can, condone a gay lifestyle. It, rather, advocated that empathy and understanding should guide us in relating to someone who has an attraction to the same sex. It also maintained that when encountering one who acts upon this drive, our response should be based upon the same principles we apply in regard to others who violate Jewish law. The sad truth is, though, that this statement has been misrepresented by local and world media as advocating for something entirely different; a tenet which I oppose. The statement did not in anyway advocate for the acceptance of the gay lifestyle. That was clearly apparent in its words. It seemed, though, that these various media outlets and proponents of gay rights wanted to read into this document some movement within the Orthodox world towards “the light,” an eventual full acceptance of the gay lifestyle. The fact is, though, that Orthodoxy does not turn to society for direction as towards “the light,” the higher standards of morality. For that we turn to the system of Torah thought and, from my reading, these principles simply reflected the highest Torah values within this system. As such, it clearly and unequivocally did not waver on the Torah’s opposition to homosexual acts and the gay lifestyle. What it did call for was for us, as in all our encounters with fellow Jews, to be sensitive to the challenges that our compatriots may continuously face, including those with a homosexual orientation. Rather than being a first step towards the acceptance of ‘enlightened’ values by the Orthodox, as these media entities would have us believe, the statement actually unequivocally declared the depth of the Torah world vision and its sanctity.
Perhaps I should still have seen this coming – that our words would be hijacked to serve another agenda. There are those who, while basically agreeing with the statement, saw this possibility and as such did not sign it. In retrospect, perhaps they were wiser than I. I signed the statement, though, because I believe that there is a need within our community, within the world of Orthodoxy, for sensitivity towards individuals who face such challenges.

In retrospect, this outcome should have been obvious. What the drafters of this document failed to realize in their good intentions was that they are not dealing with a amorphous group of people who are suffering from a need that contradicts their commitment to Judaism. They are actually dealing with a segment within that group, that has a specific agenda and which has taken upon itself to speak for the rest of the group: 
a) to attack Orthodox Judaism until either it changes halacha and permits homosexuality without restriction or
b) Orthodox Judaism is rendered completely politically incorrect such that someone who says that he holds by halacha is a legitimate target for the local human rights commission.
In fact, the negative response to this document is already starting to appear on some blogs where people are claiming that since the document still forbids homosexual intercourse this statement of tolerance is meaningless.
My expectation is that there will soon be a push to produce another document, one that demands acceptance, if not outright, promotion of homosexuality as a valid Jewish lifestyle and the same rabbonim and lawfolk who signed the first will be pushed into the same corner - either sign or be denounced as a homophobe and expect a summons from the human rights commission.
This is the result of a well-meaning attempt to accommodate a group which does not have reciprocal interests in mind.  Sometimes it's better to simply avoid trying to do what seems to be the "right" thing, especially when the target of one's help isn't so much interested in accommodation as domination.

Tuesday, 10 August 2010

Forseeing the Consequences

The biggest story in New York these days has to be the announcement that a large Islamic Cultural Centre is going to be built two blocks from Ground Zero, the site of the World Trade Centre which was destroyed by Islamic terrorists in 2001.
Naturally there is tremendous outrage.  Some of it is fed by misinformation.  For weeks it was widely reported that the Centre would actually be part of the new buildings at Ground Zero.  This is, however, not true.  It was also reported that this building would be a mosque.  Again, this is not true.  There will be a mosque in the building but its primary function will be to serve as a centre for Muslims in the downtown area.
One must also note that the true test of a mature person is the ability to accord the same rights to one's enemies as one would like to have oneself.  If I want to exercise freedom of speech, I cannot muzzle my opponents.  I must grant them the same opportunity and courtesy I would expect from them.  As a result, it is difficult to oppose the building of the Centre at its current location.  After all, if local sensitivity would lead to a veto over building houses of worship, who's to say that a shul wouldn't be targetted next by the aggreived group?
However, despite this one does not have to be happy and smile that all is right with the world.  As George Jonas notes in his recent column in The National Post:
Described in news reports as a non-profit organization whose stated goal is to promote cross-cultural understanding between Islam and the West, Cordoba Initiative spent US$4-million to purchase property two blocks from the one-time World Trade Centre in order to pull down an old building at the site and erect an US$100 million 13-storey Islamic cultural centre, including a mosque, in its place.

The question to ask is: Can any group genuinely believe that building a mosque two blocks from where jihadists pulverized 3,000 New Yorkers nine years ago will promote cross-cultural understanding between Islam and the West?
If the answer is yes (God knows, some people believe anything) the next question is: Having observed their New York neighbours’ actual reaction to their plan, do they believe it still?
The answer to this question can no longer be yes for anyone non-delusional with a measurable IQ. This leaves Cordoba Initiative with two choices. It can withdraw voluntarily, thereby demonstrating good faith, or continue building, thereby demonstrating that whatever it’s doing it for, it isn’t to promote understanding.
What is it for? Search me. Mischief? Subversion? Pushing the envelope? To rub salt into wounds, assert dominance, boost militant spirits?
Although human naïveté is boundless, the likelihood of an organization hoping to promote understanding through what others view as desecration is remote. Cordoba Initiative’s organizers may not themselves think of building an Islamic centre and mosque near Ground Zero as desecration, but it can’t escape their notice that many Americans do. This being so, the builders cannot be motivated by what they claim to be. On the contrary, their Cordoba Initiative must be a $100-million exercise in exacerbating tensions.Who would want to spend $100-million to increase tensions between the Islamic world and the West? Those who intend to do so, presumably. It’s logical to assume that people intend the natural consequences of their acts. The law certainly makes this assumption.
So the question isn’t whether Ground Zero’s mosque-builders have a right to what they do, but is what they do right? The first is an obvious yes. The second, if you ask me, is a no.
Some of this is due to a wilfull language barrier.  We are repeatedly told that the Muslim leaders involved with the centre are "moderates".  The adjective suggests people who are open-minded, willing to respect the views of others, and so on.  However, real world experience suggests otherwise.  In Canada, radical sovereigntists in Quebec demand that the province completely separate from Canada and become an independent country.  Moderate ones demand that Quebec completely separate from Canada but that Canada continues to pay all its bills.  In Israel, radical Arabs demand the immediate destruction of Israel and the slaughter of all its Jewish inhabitants.  The moderates demand its destruction over a few stages with the opportunity for the population to move away first.
We have to break it down simply: only an idiot would not have forseen the firestorm of criticism that the decision to build a mosque near Ground Zero would have caused. The people who planned the centre and chose its location aren't idiots. At some point they held a meeting and choose the site and someone probably said "But wouldn't that upset people considered that our co-religionists creataed Ground Zero in the first place?" And the reply likely was: "We don't care! We are going to do what we want where we want to and we don't care if the infidels will get offended!"
The litmus test, by the way, will come in the response the ICC organizers give to New York governor David Patterson and his proposal to move the Centre to a different location, further away from Ground Zero.  Having seen the storm of criticism the location has created, will the organizers compromise?  Or will they insist that the site has already become part of dar al-Islami and that it must be the only possible site they can build on?
Who's worse?  Conservatives who are concerned that this ICC was intended, amongst other things, to offend the local infidels?  Or liberals who don't think the builders were that bright?
They were that bright.  And it's that attitude that should offend you every time one of their spokesmen talks about cooperation and mutual understanding.

Leaving Orthodoxy Behind

From what I know of him, Rabbi Asher Lopatin is a profoundly decent man.  He's kind, well-educated and always willing to help folks in need.  However, while he might also call himself Orthodox his writings and actions over the last few years suggest that his understanding of the term is somewhat different from the standard version.  In one of his recent pieces on the Morethodoxy blog he made a bizarre observation - that the recent wedding of Chelsea Clinton to one descendant of Avraham Avinu named Marc Mezvinsky was not, as most people might have thought, a chilul haShem considering the use of Jewish symbols such as the chuppah and talis.  In fact, for Rabbi Lopatin it was quite the opposite.  It was a great thing, a kiddush HaShem!
And yet, how can you look at the pictures of Marc with his tallis - a wool tallis! - and his kipa with American royalty, Chelsea Clinton, and not say, quietly, hmm… There is something important here for Americans to see. Here was not a Jew who was hiding his identity, who was minimizing his Jewishness. No, what the world saw is that a fully attired - proud? - Jew could get right to the top of American society.
Bizarre!  Here was a man whose attachment to Judaism is clearly limited to a minimal sense of observance, whose knowledge of Jewish symbols is so lacking that he thought that a groom should wear a tallis at the wedding ceremonty and Rabbi Lopatin characterizes him as a proud, fully-attired Jew.
(Now, in order to qualify as fully attired, Mr. Mezvinsky would have to also be wearing a tallis katan.  What are the odds he was?)
In fact, there is really nothing positive to be gained from this wedding.  The idea that a so-called rabbi would co-officiate and use real Jewish rituals to supposedly bind a non-Jewish woman to a Jewish man is farcical.  Would Rabbi Lopatin like us to also believe that the blessings said were not berachos l'vatalah as well?  Had he been invited, would he have stood up and cheered mazel tov to the new couple?
As Winston Churchill once noted, when a man in his 20's isn't a socialist, you question his heart.  If he's still a socialist in his 30's you question his head.  It appeaers that Rabbi Lopatin's liberalism operates along the same line.  It's wonderful, when you're young, to dream idealistic but part of maturing is recognizing that there are standards and responsibilities in the world.  Certainly his follow-up piece demonstrates a lack of understanding of Jewish standards and what truly sets Orthodoxy apart from the other so-called streams of Judaism:
As a follow-up to some observations I made last week about the Mezvinsky-Clinton wedding, I want to offer so positive, real ways for all of us to help encourage Jews to marry Jews. Across the board, from Reform to Orthodox to Ultra-Orthodox, I think we can all agree that Jews marrying Jews is what we want. However, instead of a negative approach, which many people expressed, I think a positive, affirmative approach is much more productive. However, the positive approach might take a lot more effort - but worthwhile things usually do take more effort.
Unfortunately most of Rabbi Lopatin's suggestions are bland pap.  Find singles, then put them together.  Yawn.
The best and only way to guarantee that one Jew will marry another is by raising Jewish children to be observent of the mitzvos and to make Torah the centre of their lives.  By doing this, it will be quite difficult for the young adult to form a relationship with another person who isn't an observant Jew because the value systems will be too different.  The goal isn't simply to say "Whew!  At least sonny boy found a Jewish girl" but to build Jewish homes in which the learning of Torah and the observance of mitzvos are the key.  Rabbi Lopatin would seem to suggest that we shoot for the lowest common denominator.  I think we can do better.

Monday, 9 August 2010

Guest Post

A big thank you to Rav Ben Hecht, shlit"a, for this contribution.  Please check out Rav Hecht's home site, Nishma, for great articles, divrei Torah and thoughts.

Balancing the Universals of Halachic Theory and the Specifics of the Facts

A few weeks ago, Garnel wrote a post entitled All Halacha Is Local which effectively maintained that psak is local, i.e. directed and tied to specific circumstances. I commented that while there was much truth to Garnel’s contentions, there were also some difficulties with it. Psak is actually a balance between what we may term the universal and the specific or, I think, more succinctly, the universal-general nature of halachic theory and the specifics of a particular fact situation. Indeed, as Garnel and others who commented on the original post argued, the over-extension of the universal nature of psak is often overlooked with the result being a concretization of psak in what is effectively a most unhealthy and essentially deviant manner. On the other hand, though, much of this over-generalization is a result of a fear of an over-extension of the role of the specific facts. In further conversations I had with Garnel regarding this issue, I further explained my position and expanded on the challenge that exists in maintaining a correct balance between the universal and the specific. He subsequently asked me if I would be willing to write a further post on this subject for his blog. This is that result.

Of course, it must first be understood that psak is by definition the application of specific halachic legal principles to a specific fact situation. It, as such, demands an evaluation of the exact nature of these legal principles and an exact determination of the facts. A disagreement in psak, as such, may, thus, emerge because of a disagreement in the nature of the applicable legal principle or a distinction in the facts. One posek simply could express a different conclusion from another because he has reached a different conclusion regarding the nature of the applicable halachic maxim or because he/she is actually responding to a different set of facts. It is the difference between these two scenarios that is at the essence of Garnel’s point. He argued that it was important to recognize the distinction in facts between the variant circumstances upon which a posek is adjudicating as this will affect the application of this psak in different circumstances. He is correct – but it is also important to recognize that there still is a side to psak that has a universal dimension and thus will not change due to differences in facts including the local circumstances.

His example regarding a distinction in psak between Rav Moshe Feinstein (RMF) and Rav Shlomo Zalman Aeurbach (RSZA) regarding the permissibility of violating Shabbat when one is returning from responding to a life-threatening situation illustrates this issue. Garnel maintained that given that RMF was responding to the situation in America and RSZA was responding to the situation in Israel, it is understandable that the former would be more lenient and the latter would be more stringent; in America there would be a greater need for such a person to return home. He presented this as an example of what he termed the local nature of Halacha. The problem is, though, that neither posek limited their decision to the facts of their local situation. Both contended that their position was of a universal nature. They presented differing opinions on the universal applicable halachic maxim. As such, RMF would state that his psak is applicable even in Israel and RSZA would similarly contend that his psak is even applicable in America. His would not be a classic case of a psak changing due to a change in circumstances. The psak of each of these poskim was actually not local but of a universal nature.

The second example that Garnel gave regarding medical students switching their on-call Shabbat assignments with other Jews, though, may reflect a case where psak does have a significant local nature – because the specific facts are integrated into the psak. As such, if the facts change, the psak indeed does change. This is not to say that there was no inherent disagreement between RMF and RSZA in the applicable halachic maxim regarding switching (there was) but, in responding to this shaila, there was also a need to clarify the specific facts including the nature of the Jew with whom one would be switching. For example, was this individual a tinnok she’nishba? Was this person one who was born frum? How would we answer such questions and others in the general sense? It may be that RMF and RSZA needed to consider the nature of the general population with whom one would be asked to switch and this affected their psak. But in such a case, both RMF and RSZA would also agree that their psak would be different due to the change in facts and, unlike the above example, would possible admit that their psak was intended for America or Israel respectively. A posek though may not clearly articulate such a distinction – i.e. clearly stating that their psak is tied to a specific set of facts – and it is in such cases that it is important not to universalize a law that clearly was intended for specific local circumstances (just as it is similarly important not to localize a certain law, tying it to specific facts, when it actually of a universal nature reflecting a consistent halachic maxim).

Having said all this, though, one other affect of local circumstances should also, perhaps, be mentioned. This affect, though, must be approached with extreme caution and, actually, may have very limited practical application. It is indeed possible that local circumstances may affect the conclusion reached by a posek regarding a universal halachic maxim yet this may be most difficult to determine and even if it is true may have no practical significance. Allow me to explain.

The nature of Halacha is that we are called upon to analyze the halachic system to attempt to determine the underlying halachic principles and maxims that are to be applied in further life situations. Most significant parameters in this regard are the rules of logic. A proposed maxim that can be challenged in such a regard is simply to be discarded. Nonetheless, the nature of Halacha is such that it is very much possible that different halachic theories cam emerge, meeting the challenge of logic, to explain the cases as we have them. The challenge then is to choose between these logical possibilities as to what is believed to be the correct one. This is one of the tasks of a posek – to determine which of the variant maxims or principles he believes to be the correct one and thus to be applied in the case before him and in future cases.

This determination is referred to as shikul hada’at, the weighing of the mind and is a most difficult process to clearly define. It is not an evaluation through logic as, by definition, all the possibilities being considered have already met this test. It simply reflects a determination of which possibility the posek believes to be the truth. It is not a determination of what the posek wants to be the conclusion or which view the posek happens to like. It is a determination by the posek of what he honestly believes to be the emet haTorah. The question exists, though, by what factor does a posek make such a conclusion?

The first factor is his understanding of the corpus of Halacha. Through his extensive knowledge and learning, he has some feel for the halachic system and this inherent perception clearly plays a role in his application of his shikul hada’at. One’s perception of this nature may be affected by one’s education, the overall halachic system to which he was introduced. This could indeed be potentially described as an example of local circumstances affecting a determination of universal principles yet, as mentioned, must be approached with great caution. It is not a simple case of the subjective affecting the objective. It is a fact that may have some validity – but with limited practical affect. The conclusion of the posek in regard to a halachic principle, still stands as of universal significance and cannot be dismissed because of the promotion of such application of local circumstances in the development of this person’s shikul hada’at. The idea itself still must be the focus.

This enters into the whole realm of the role of subjectivity in Halacha. It is a basic principle of the halachic system that subjectivity should have no role. The reality, though, is that this principle really calls upon us to limit subjectivity as much as humanly possible. We must make decisions with a view of the objective – what we believe to be the truth. The reality is, though, that there is an inherent subjective nature to us as human beings. Our personalities are different. Our upbringings are different. We cannot totally dismiss our subjectivity. There are numerous statements in Torah thought that recognize that distinctions in determinations of shikul hada’at may reflect distinctions in the personalities of souls (Beit Hillel, for example, being tied to chesed; Beit Shammai being tied to gevurah). Similarly upbringing and locale can affect shikul hada’at. The point is, though, that one’s objective in psak must be to limit such effects. In the end, the posek must determine what is the correct halachic practice based upon a determination that this is the truth, the universal truth given certain facts. That this determination may be affected by an unperceived or undefined subjective factor is a reality of the human condition which HaKodesh Baruch Hu considered in formulating the halachic system and directing us to apply and follow it. Piercing the veil to determine that there is a subjective or local nature to a posek or a psak must not only be done with great caution but may also have limited practical application for the Halacha itself calls upon us, when analyzing and applying such maxims, to discount their effect on the determination of universal principles.

Another effect of local factors or subjectivity in psak may be in the various motivations in rendering a psak. For example, Rabbi Herschel Schacter describes the Rav going to great lengths to try and find a heter to allow a kohein to marry a certain woman who it would seem he could not marry. Rabbi Schacter describes the Rav as being very distraught in not being able to find such a heter. The Rav gave great value to romantic love and, we can say subjectively, it motivated him to work hard and review the various halachic sources to try and find a heter. To fully illustrate this, allow me to refer to another similar situation where I asked a colleague to raise a similar issue with another gadol with whom he was close. My colleague responded that there would be no point for this gadol would simply say ‘there is always another girl, let the boy simply continuing looking.’ This gadol did not have the same value for romantic love and thus was not motivated to further investigate this issue. But the subjectivity of the Rav still did not lead him to actually pasken that it was permitted – that demanded his conclusion objectively, at least to the extent objectivity is humanely possible. Subjectivity and locality can affect the motivation in a major way but not the conclusion.

Indeed Halacha may have a local nature – but it must be understood what that means within the very parameters of Halacha. Not all Halacha is local but neither is all Halacha, every halachic statement, universal.

Rabbi Ben Hecht

Tuesday, 3 August 2010

Doing It For the Attention

There is an essential rule in the entertainment business: those who have lots of talent succeed on that talent.  Those who have a middling amount succeed on being controversial.
The prime examples of those are Metallica and Madonna.  The former, a great hard rock group, have talent and if one follows their career ones sees a band that works hard and plays hard with great success.  One does not hear stories about over-the-top shenanigans or stunts, just one album after another, one arena after another.
Madonna, on the other hand, is an example of success with middling talent.  Her success has come from constant reinvention, outrageous public displays and a willingness to be controversial because the attention it brings sells records. 
I am reminded of this rule every time Rabbi Avi Weiss and friends pop into the Jewish news.  Rabbi Weiss, by all accounts a decent fellow, is not a talmid chachami that will be remembers in centuries hence for his scholarship, incisive teshuvos or copious literature spanning the breadth of Torah.  He is, in other words, average.
Now there's nothing wrong with that.  Many people are average.  These people are what run the society we live in.  They live full lives, they accomplish many if not all of their goals.  They are good children, spouses, and parents.  It's just that when the history texts are written in a century or two, they won't be mentioned because nothing they did stood out in a spectacular manner.
However, Rabbi Weiss seems to be determined to break this average label.  Again, one can hardly blame him for trying.  If you were to take a newly minted rabbi, or doctor or accountant for that matter, and announce "You'll do a great job, your kids will turn out fine but in 100 years no one will remember you existed and everything you did will be forgotten" you'd hardly inspire them to want to get out of bed the next morning.
Once again there are two ways to succeed.  One can do it through talent.  Great rabbonim like the Rambam, Rav Yosef Karo, and many, many more are virtual members of Jewish society today because of their huge talent and their willingness to work that talent to its maximum potential.
And one can do it through being flashy.  Everyone knows who Mordechai Kaplan is because of his willingness to break away from everything that Judaism stands for, not because of any Torah scholarship.  Similarily, Solomon Schechter has established a legacy for himself but when one things of him it isn't because of any commentary on the Talmud.
And now Rabbi Weiss seeks to enter history and be remembered for decades, if not centuries down the road.  Like those in the middling talent category he too seeks to break out from the ranks of the average by being controversial.
Which, when you strip away the supposed egalitarianism crisis in Orthodoxy and all the politicial correctness it is cloaked in, is why he is doing all this.
After all, one needs only to look at the pattern and the premise becomes clear.  First, there was his invention of the Maharat.  Groundbreaking!  Astonishing!  And eventually the furor faded away.  There was Sara Hurwitz and no one else.  Within the halls of HIR she was a de facto rabbi but outside she was just another woman with some learning behind her.
So then came Yeshivat Maharat which has been such a resounding success that it has about 5 or 6 women enrolled.  It's facilities are a rented room in a building somewhere.  Doesn't sound terribly inspiring.
Then came the Rabbah controversy which did succeed in pushing Rabbi Weiss and HIR into the spotlight for a while and had the singular effect of causing the RCA to actually set limits on what Modern Orthodoxy will accept.  That was a momentous event, and then it too faded when Rabbi Weiss backed down at the thought of no longer being able to call himself Orthodox.
And this here we are, after another period of quiet and Rabbi Weiss has once again found a way to get his name into the newspapers.  He'll have a woman lead Kabbahlos Shabbos.  That'll get him attention!
The resultant attention has been what he seems to crave.  From Cross Currents to Failed Messiah, the story has been in the news.
In the end, Rabbi Weiss will achieve his dream.  He will be remembered by Jewish historians albeit not for those reasons which have been traditionally considered the best ones, but like Kaplan and Schechter, for creating another Jewish movement which pretends to be Torah observant but which improvises whenever the Torah says no.

Sunday, 1 August 2010

But Is It The Whole Story

(Hat tip: Failed Messiah)
There is a story going around the blogosphere about a young Jewish American woman who recently moved to Israel, attempted to get married and was apparently told by the Rabbanut official assigned to her to either produce four generations worth of kesubos or forget about getting married in Israel.  As the original story in Haaretz notes:
But after filing for a wedding license and being told she needed to prove the Jewishness of her maternal lineage for four generations, she is wondering whether she made the right decision in immigrating to a Jewish state that doubts her Jewishness.
"I'm furious with this country right now," the 29-year-old international relations student told Anglo File this week. "I'm the great-great-niece of a prominent Zionist and I am always a supporter of this country, but this really frustrated me and I can totally understand why a lot of my Anglo friends left this country."
Rubin, who was raised in a Conservative household, produced letters from four Conservative rabbis and one Chabad rabbi attesting to her Jewishness. But the Herzliya Rabbinate said the letters were not enough and asked her to bring ketubot, or religious wedding contracts, as well as birth or death certificates of her mother, grandmother, great-grandmother and great-great-grandmother.
"It was made very clear that without ketubot and without birth certificates from four generations, I would need to go to the Beit Din [local rabbinical court]," Rubin told Anglo File this week. "I told him, time and time again, that my grandparents are Shoah survivors [and thus their ketubot no longer exist] and I was told that wasn't his problem."
Naturally there is outrage everywhere.  The venerable Brooklyn Wolf has dedicated two posts filled with much bitterness towards this issue.  And it's no wonder why.  Hillary Rubin, the young lady in question, isn't just another unknown person showing up on Israel's shores and demanding to be recognized as a Jew.  She has yichus.  First, there's her great-grandfather, Nachum Sokolov, an important early Zionist who did much important work to help establish the State.  But not only that, her grandparents are Holocaust survivors.  Who could ask for more?
Now, I do not wish to give the impression that I am mocking Ms. Rubin.  I am certainly not questioning her Jewishness, chas v'shalom.. If what she says is correct then she has been treated poorly and illegally according to halacha.  More on that later.  However, I have little patience for those who bandy about things like the Holocaust to confirm their Jewishness.  How many Jews converted out after the war because of despair?  How many intermarried in the hopes of disappearing from history?  More than that, how many non-Jews suffered in Hitler's camps?  How is surviving the Holocaust proof of one's Jewishness?
Furthermore, the descent from Nachum Sokolow, while impressive, is again no proof.  Thoedore Herzl's son Hans also converted out.   Even Gwyneth Paltrow can claim descent from great rabbonim.  There's no exclusivity in this club.
There is, however, a greater issue at play here.  None of us out here in the cyberether were in the room with Ms Rubin and the unnamed rabbi who questioned her Jewishness.  We do not know what transpired, what words were exchanged or what led this official to make his outrageous-sounding demand.  All we known is what Haaretz told us about it.
Why is that siginificant?  Remember that Haaretz is, to put it mildly, not a paper that sees religious Jews in a positive light.  It's also a paper whose editorial staff have made it clear that they put politics before truth in reporting.  We don't trust the media where it comes to reporting on Israel in general but suddenly Haaretz is a beacon of truth regarding the religious community?  Please.
There is too much about this story that does not make sense.  Although I am not an expert on the laws of marriage (the only one I really know is that I must say "Yes dear, you're right" on a frequent basis) I am reasonably sure that there is no requirement to present multiple generations of kesubos to a rabbi before getting married.  I can't even imagine what the kesubos have to do with anything.  Regardless of whom she married, the person's mother's Jewishness is all that matters to determine whether or not the person is a member of the tribe.  I can understand being asked to prove that one's mother is Jewish and not a Reformative convert but not more than that.
Clearly there are either details that are missing or that have been distorted.  Until we know them all it behooves us not to fall into Haaretz's manipulations and jump to rash conclusions.