Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Sunday 31 October 2010

On Esther Petrack and Orthodoxy

Much has been made recently of a young Jewish woman's attempt to make the big time by competing in the TV show America's Next Top Model.  Although a Jewish woman competing on that program might be expected to garner some attention from the greater Jewish community, the "one of ours in on TV!" group, what really got Ms. Petrack a lot of attention was Tyra Banks asking her to confirm her self-identity as Modern Orthodox.
Initially there were two problems with this identification.  One was the conflict between being a tznius woman and showing up on a television show where women were expected to act in a skanky fashion in order to win.  The second was what was an apparently heavily edited segment in which Ms. Petrack was confronted with the incompatibility of being shomer Shabbos and competing on the show.  The clip presented Ms. Petrack as being fully willing to dump Shabbos in order to be part of the ANTM experience, something that was later shown to be false.  However, the other concern of public exhibitionism in a decidely unJewish fashion remained.
Now, at the start let us be clear.  What Ms. Petrack chooses to do with her time is her own business and she answers for her activities directly to God, not a committee of folks who want to decide how others should live their lives.  To criticize her in a "That's not how a Jew behaves!" fashion is not for any of us to do.
However, the challenge of Esther Petrack isn't over her personal behaviour but rather that she was under the impression that she could behave in a non-Orthodox fashion and still call herself Orthodox.
As one blog seems to have noted, Modern Orthodoxy is differentiated from Chareidism by a more inclusive attitude as well as more lenient standards of behaviour:
Modern Orthodox Jews are more inclusive. There is a broader range of activity and thought that is acceptable. But when someone so much as tiptoes over the line they are out. Rabbi Avi Weiss dared tread just across the line and everyone and their grandmother has “excluded” him or proclaimed him to be “beyond the pale”. The truth is that Modern Orthodoxy is more inclusive but only because they have a broader definition of what is acceptable thought and action. However, going outside that self-defined perimeter means you are outside Modern Orthodoxy. There is not more tolerance, just more tolerated activity.
The same thing drove the comments that ousted Esther Petrack from Modern Orthodoxy. Esther’s mother wrote that her family goes “mixed swimming” (and wear bathing suits in public). This is an accepted action within Modern Orthodoxy. (Forget halacha for a minute, this is a social issue, not a halachic issue.) Yet, Esther’s modeling was outside what some people want to define as Modern Orthodoxy so she is out. Esther self defines as Modern Orthodox. Somehow people think they have a right to tell others how they are to be defined.
What seems to be missing from this analysis is an understanding of the difference between official positions and common action.  To use the recent Rubashkin debacle as an example, no self-respecting Chareidi will openly state that theft and lying are permitted.  Sholom Rubashkin himself would probably insist on that as well.  But there is a difference between what one says in public and the standards fallible Chareidim can find themselves living by.
The same is true for the Modern Orthodox community.  Find me one reputable Modern Orthodox posek who says that mixed swimming or walking around in public clad only in bathing apparel is permitted Jewish behaviour.  That many in the MO community have no problem doing this does not mean that the activity is permitted, only that many in the MO community have no problem doing forbidden activities without tying it into their Jewish practice.  Rav Fink has created a false separation by talking about social issues vs halachic ones.  For an observant Jew, everything has a relevant halacha.  Some MO Jews may go mixed swimming but even if it is socially acceptable, it is not Jewishly acceptable.
And this, in the end, is the line that Esther Petrack crossed that got folks so upset.  If she wanted to display her body for the American viewing public, that is her choice.  It was her continuing insistence (and her mother's) that she is Orthodox that has upset people.  Judaism is a package deal and while we are all guilty of picking and choosing our behaviours and mitzvos we can none of us ever justify that behaviour as being appropriate.  Rather we must accept that we are, through our human fallibility, falling short of the ideal instead of dismissing it as being socially acceptable.

Frum For Fun

As I've noted in previous posts, one of the advantages of living in a small Jewish community is that you don't have any of the judgemental frummer-than-thou nutjobs that make being not-Chareidi orthodox so umcomfortable.  In addition, our shul is more a community synagogue than an Orthodox one in nature (although we have the whole mechitza setup) and our day school is also community based which means our children learn how to interact with and respect non-observant children without being taught that they're this strange species of life.
However, there are limitations to living in such a small community.  The reverse side of the lack of nutbars is that there are very few dedicated "professional Jews" to serve as an example to folks looking to become more attached to their Judaism.  It also doesn't help that the local rav does whatever he can to downplay any sense of depth or commitment to the religion when attempting his special brand of kiruv.  As a result, some folks get presented with a version of "Orthodoxy" that would not be considered Orthodox in a larger community.  We are all aware of FFB's and BT's but this group is one I like to call "Frum for Fun" (FFF).
The basic dynamic of this group seems to be as follows.  When it's fun to "do Judaism" they are very involved.  This is the crowd that shows up for davening on Shabbos and belts out the tunes at the top of their lungs.  They're involved with shul projects, do lots to help out during the holidays and kiddush luncheons and are always enthusiastic participants when it comes to special events.  Their sincerity cannot be questioned and they bring an amazing energy to everything they do.
And then Monday morning minyan rolls around and... they're not there. 
See, the real challenge of kiruv isn't getting people out to some Shabbaton or Pesach seder.  Getting people to show up for programming is easy.  Ask any Chabadnik.  The real challenge of kiruv is getting these same people to see the importance of being at shul during the week when it's just the routine praying that's going on.  It's about getting guys to wear a kippah outside of shul and women to change how they dress when it's not Shabbos.  This happens in large communities because as people progress they see other folks still further ahead and realize there's a deeper commitment than what they're currently engaged in.  As a result, they continue to progress so that they can become part of that group.  In a small community there is such a need to be inclusive of anyone who shows some interest in helping out that no one wants to say the dreaded phrase: "If you want to be frum then you have to change the following:"  The fear is that a person will respond by heading out the door and that kind of negative outcome is to be avoided at all costs.  However, in order to avoid alienating we dilute the actual commitment.  The FFF's never progress beyond the beginning stages.
This works, of course, as long as these folks stay within the small community.  At some point, though, there is a danger in that a FFF might move to the larger community nearby and suddenly discover that what he/she thought was Orthodox "enough" isn't.  That disillusionment might be heartbreaking.
So what's better?  Making people feel welcome no matter how partial their observance for fear of harming their connection with Judaism, or showing them the line in the sand where real Orthodoxy begins and presenting them with the honest limits of what's "inside the pale" and what's not?

Friday 22 October 2010

Lot and the Angels

The story of the destruction of Sodom is always thrilling to read but close perusal of the narrative reveals some plot holes that must be filled if the true importance of the events is to be properly appreciated.
For example, we are told by Chazal in great detail about the selfishness of the culture of Sodom.  In one of its lighter veins, Chazal tell us a number of stories of Eliezer, Avraham's servant, visiting Sodom and outwitting the residents who wanted to torture and kill him.  We are told of laws designed to prevent any of the residents from providing even the slightest amount of charity and the final doom of the metropolitan area is said to have been sealed by the torment and death of a girl who had violated that rule.
Yet when the angels arrive in Sodom at the beginning of the story, there is no immediate problem that they encounter.  Look at the story again.  They arrive in the evening which means the city gates were still open.  this implies there were still people in the streets.  Lot, sitting out in the open by the city gate and therefore presumably in full view, walks over and invites them to his home.  No one protests his actions, no one seems to follow him as he takes a tortuous route back supposedly to throw off any pursuit, nothing at all happens until Lot and his guests are well into their meal.  If the Sodomites were so vigilant on keeping others out of their rich city state, why did a response to the angels' arrival take so long to materialize?  And why did they ask where Lot's guests were?  Wasn't it obvious they were in his house?
Finally, there is a midrash that tells us the reason the angels' presence was detected was because Lot's wife, a native Sodomite who hated the idea of hachnasas orchim, claimed to have no salt to serve the visitors and then went around from house to house asking all her neighbours for salt because she had guests for dinner.  Did she not realize there would be a violent response when the matter became known?  Surely she would have feared for her family's safety no matter how much she despised the idea of guests. 
The Alshich haKodesh brings a simple, yet fascinating answer to the question.  He begins by noting that angels interact with material creatures in ways that do not correspond to the laws of nature.  An angel appears only to those by whom he wishes to be seen.  In the case of the angels, they only wished to be seen by Lot.
Think about this and a lot of the plot holes in the story disappear.  According to the Alshich HaKodesh, no one saw the angels arrive in Sodom.  Lot was not seen walking away from the public area in front of the gate with two strangers and no one would have thought twice to see him wandering through the alleyways, although they might have wondered why he was talking to himself.  Further, on arrival home he would announced the presence of two guests to his bewildered wife.  Imagine her confusion as he began setting three places at the table and baked some matzos for the "guests".  Now we can see her statement to her neighbour in a sarcastic tone instead of the presumed hostile one before: My husband has gone insane.  He is so desperate for guests he's pretending we have some and demands salt for them to!
Finally, the Alshich HaKodesh notes that the rage of the mob could also be explained by his idea. Imagine the situation now: they've just arrived at Lot's house because he has forbidden guests, Lot comes out and through the open door they see... no one.  Was this a joke?  Was Lot playing with them?
Therefore the Alshich HaKodesh's idea explains many of the otherwise strange irregularities of the story of Sodom and its destruction and suggests an interesting idea: God and His actions in this world are generally invisible, unless we know where to look.  Perhaps if we spent more time looking for Him through good deeds, we would see more of His benificence, unlike the Sodomites who were mired in their selfishness and couldn't see His presence at all.

Wednesday 20 October 2010

The Burden of Proof

One thing most atheoskeptics seem to believe is that the burden on proof when it comes to claims of God's existence and the truth of Torah is on the believing Jew, not them.  They seem to base this on the idea that since it takes no effort to claim nothing's out there since, according to the simple report of our physical senses that would seem to be the case, the concept of the existence of a supernatural being is therefore what needs to be proved.
It would seem to me that the opposite is true.  Recall that Chazal tell us the opposite from this position in the gemara when they note in many places that being stingent is easy, but being lenient requires a stronger position.  Yeet we know that many times the lenient position is the correct one and by taking the easy way out and acting stringently one misses out on the optimal performance of the mitzvah in question.
With this in mind, let us reexamine the question: on whom is the burden of proof?  I would suggest that it's on the skeptoatheists.  Consider, for example the question of the integrity of the Torah.  The opinion that the Torah is a unified whole completed at the time of Moshe Rabeinu's death (excluding the last 8-12 verses according to those who hold that Yehoshua wrote them) and that the Torah text we have today is 99% accurate to the original is certainly older than that of the Biblical Critics who only started their research around 200 years ago.  (Yes I am aware there are older critics than those who descended from Wellhausen but the modern school of Biblical criticism starts with that renowned anti-Semite)  Consider further that all the so-called proofs brought by Wellhausen and his ilk were already known and commented on in the preceding 17 centuries by Chazal down through the Acharonim.  Ideas such as God having multiple names with different ones being used in the different narratives, discrepancies between two versions of the same story, seemingly repetitive narratives or laws, irregular language usages and foreign words, all these were encountered by and explained by various commentaries throughout the millenia.  On whom in the burden of proof?  On Chazal and their successors who have a rich and consistent tradition, or on the Biblical Critics whose theories rely on several "scrolls" with one-letter names whose existence has never been proven?  Tradition vs invented solutions to already explained problems?  Only a determined atheoskeptic whose mind is made up before even examining the facts could endorse the latter upon serious consideration.
Then there is the existence of God.  On a basic philosophic basis, the question can be answered both in the affirmative and negative quite satisfactorily.  Anyone who tells you that God can be philosophically proven to either exist (of course!) or not (chas v'shalom) is misleading you or ignorant of his own limitations.  Similarly in the physical domain, with apologies with Stephen Hawking, there is no conclusive proof either way of God's existence or control over this universe.  Belief in God comes down to just that: belief, faith, an emotional feeling in the absence of definitive proof.  Why is it the Navi says that a tzaddik lives by his faith?  Because the only real life in the life in theWorld to Come and only faith will get your neshama there intact.
But that brings us to the burden of proof issue again.  The universe clearly exists around us and both science and modern philosophy agree that it had a beginning.  From the physical aspect, the important question is: where did the Big Bang come from?  Stephen Hawking and his group would have us believe that one possibility is that matter appeared out of nowhere despite the possibility existing only in theoretical physics and without any actual precedent in the real universe.  Others suggest that the Big Bang was the remnant of a previous universe that contracted at the end of its existence, only to re-expand to form ours.  Again, a great premise for a sci-fi story but without any actual real proof.  Where did the Big Bang come from?  We have an established tradition that the First Cause, God, created the Big Bang and can hold by this since the definition of God is that He has no beginning and therefore could precede all of reality as we know it.  The physicists, on the other hand, have theories without substance.  On whom is the burden of proof?
Mind you, all of these arguments rest on the assumption that there must be a conflict between Torah and science, a position held by extremes on both sides of the debate.  The more moderate middle ground, however, understands that since God created the universe there can be no real conflict between the two since science is merely the physical expression of God's creation.  We must not give in to the arguments of those who insist that there must be a problem and then suggest simplistic and incorrect answers for it.

Sunday 3 October 2010

The Principle of the Faith

Every year about this time it happens.  No, not an attack of killer bees during an otherwise pleasant Sukkos meal, or the Toronto Maple Leafs stumbling out the gate on the way to a losing season yet again.  No, I'm taking about the two most controversial stories in the Torah - Bereshis and Noach.
Most of the controversy occurs for 3 simple reasons:
1) A group of people who label their understanding of the first two parshioyos of the Torah as the only authentic understanding insist we must understand the narratives literally.  The world is 5771 years old.  Period.  The universe was created over 144 hours.  Period.
2) A group of people who insist that the universe consists of only those things we can sense and measure.  These people point out that it is scientifically proven that the universe is some 13.5 billion years old and that a literal reading of Bereshis and Noach is untenable.
3) Both groups refuse to consider a middle ground in which an interpretive understanding of the beginning of the Torah is acceptable.  (1) dismiss that approach as apikorsus.  (2) dismiss it as apologetics.  This leaves both groups happy on their side of the fence.  For (1) the idea that God planted fake dinosaur bones in the ground as a test of faith is perfectly logical.  For (2) that same idea is proof that genuine religious belief is illogical and therefore best avoided.
And those of us in the middle sigh... again.
Here's what is most frustrating about this annual debate: it's not about anything fundamentally important to Judaism overall.  Out of the entire first section of Bereshis, there are a few limited dogmas that matter to the believing Jew - God created the universe and everything in it by Himself.  He continues to be active in the development of that universe and cares about how humanity turns out.  Done.  A literal vs non-literal understanding of Creation or the Mabul is not fundamentally defining to Judaism.  For those who insist it is, a situation is created in which one is asked to either shut one's brain off in order to be observant or to leave the faith which is not something geniune Torah Judaism demands.  This turns out to the be the lynchpin in the argument.  Without a mandatory literal interpretation of Creation and the Mabul, (2) lose the basis of their objection to religion as well which leaves (3) as the only logical choice.
I was happy to find out over Simchas Torah that Rav Avraham Yitchak Kook, ztk"l, in Igros HaRe'iyah also notes something quite similar.  He first states the obvious (something noted by Ramban and other Rishonim): the account of Creation contains great mystical secrets.  This is why it's listed alongside the maaseh merkavah in the gemara in Chagigah as one of those parts of Scripture that is best left to deep experts to understand.  Come on, read the first chapter of Yechezkel and tell me you can visualize precisely what he's describing.  You can't, and Rav Kook reminds that to use that same caution when reading the first chapters of Bereshis.
He also makes a devastating point against the literalists as well based on that same understanding.  If the gemara in Chagigah is correct, then a literalist approach is completely wrong because it eliminated the possibility of the deeply mystical.  (1) cannot have it both ways.
It is therefore incumbent for Torah Jews to remember that the point of the Torah is to establish God's ownership of the universe, His choice of the Jewish people as His standard bearers and to give us a physical way to fufill His will in this world, the halacha.  As the Rav once noted, discussions on the historical veracity of the literal understanding of Bereshis were meaningless to him.  God created the world, gave us the Torah and here we are.  How do we go from here in a way that keeps us in sync with Him is the question we should be asking ourselves at all times, not whether or not dinosaur bones are genuine.